When Vanchay was born, the old village shaman declared him unusual, one to look out for. A boy who could call naga. The boy's mother looked at him, puzzled and a little frightened, but proud as well. She lay on the small birthing bed whilst below them the mighty Mekong rushed by, and for a minute she thought she could hear the water serpent move below.
"He will be the boy who called the naga?" she asked, her heart filing with a fierce, early pride.
"No," said the old shaman, shaking his head and walking away, "that's not what I said. He is a boy who can call naga."
What's the difference?, Vanchay's mother asked herself, and went back to nursing the newborn. She was sure something else continued rustling underfoot.
Vanchay was a boy of many special skills and strange habits. Animals of the forest drew close to him and often followed, if he were of a mind to have them do so; so too did the birds above.
As a little boy, it was a skill which earned him great admiration from others. Often, when their lessons were over, his classmates would sit in awed silence in the schoolyard dirt as he called forth a rat that had gone into hiding underneath the building. Or he could seemingly summon a handful of butterflies that would dance around his head, a kaleidoscope of colors in the dusty heat of summer. Once a wild monkey - rare indeed in these parts - found its way into the rafters of the local wat and only Vanchay could induce her to come down and be lead quietly into a cage, destined now for a life as a chained pet.
Sometimes he would take his friends down to the pier in the gathering twilight. Having assured themselves that there were no adults around, they would sit on the wooden boards with a delicious sense of impending terror as Vanchay concentrated deeply. The waters below would swirl. Huge bubbles would appear. The jetty pier would shake violently until it seemed the whole thing would break apart and send them all tumbling into the black below. Then, at a nod from Vanchay, it would usually stop.
Other times he would find a pile of fish, usually so fresh they were still writhing in the heat, sitting on the banks below the family hut, and trails of slimy ooze leading back to the river itself. Sometimes they were whole; other times a mess of bloodied flesh. None of this surprised Vanchay. You couldn't always control these things.
When the river flooded, as it did every year, he would sit and watch it rise, keep an eye out in case one of the villagers ever fell in. Occasionally someone did, and most times they were found, miraculously, washed up and safe, Vanchay by their side. He shrugged; it was his village and his gift and, therefore, his responsibility as well.
"I am the boy who can call the naga," he told them all, and the villagers shuffled their feet uneasily.
Only the old shaman scowled. "You are wrong, still wrong, and always have been," he reprimanded.
But the temporary novelties of childhood faded as he grew older, and what was once amusing became strange, unusual even. A boy who spent so much of his time alone, by the water's edge , and who was so different, became - in the way of all teenagers - someone to avoid and mock.
Vanchay would take himself off, out of the village and deep into the riverside forest. Here there was only the silence, the buzzing of insects and the call of birds. The heat so intense that almost matched the boiling anger in his veins. At least there was no one to taunt him.
"Life is not easy for you, is it?" the old shaman asked one day, bursting in unannounced.
Vanchay shrugged, a mixture of admission and confusion. How did the old man know where to find him?
"That's what makes me wise," the shaman said with a laugh, "because I do know things." He looked around the clearing. "And I realise you're unhappy."
Silence. They stared out over the riverbank together.
"You have a gift, but you don't know how to control it. And you don't fully understand it. Until you can do that, it will be more of a curse."
This wasn't helping. Vanchay could feel the fury getting worse inside. "What would you know?" he exploded.
"Well, actually, I know a lot of things, many more than you realise. You're not the first person in the village ever to be in this situation. And I know today that you need to master the skill that has been given to you."
"I've mastered all I need to know." And they, those ungrateful villagers, didn't appreciate it, he told himself, not even this fool.
"But have you? Think about every time you couldn't save someone's life, every time your childish jetty games almost ended in disaster. Do you really think you've control?"
"Of course I am. You said it yourself, long ago. I'm the boy who can call the naga."
The old man shook his head. "I never said that. You are wrong, still wrong, and always have been."
"Am I? Watch." Vanchay shouted angrily, looking out over the river. "See this. Am I still wrong?"
The water behind him began to roil. A wave rolled itself up along the bank and suddenly the serpent was there, meters and meters of black lustrous shiny scales, halfway up the bank, nestled up against the boy, eyes expectant, obedient.
Vanchay leant down, stroked the scaly snout fondly, tilted his head in the old man's direction and whispered in the serpent's ear.
The shaman looked at them in surprise. He hadn't expected this, thought the boy would have been willing to listen to him, to learn. He squinted, concentrating, as the great long beast started to make its way across the clearing to him.
Then, in a flash, it was over, as an even bigger beast, this one all brown and smooth, leapt out and swallowed the both of them, Vanchay and his serpent, in one quick take.
The old man shook his head. "I always said you were a boy who could call naga, Vanchay, but not the naga. I never said that there was only one naga, or that you were ever the only boy."
- Michael has published several non-fiction books and the occasional piece of flash fiction. Based in Canberra, Australia's bush capital, he spends his days hoping to find a beach nearby sometime soon...