Pliny Redux

In rural Laos, a village had relocated only meters away from its original site after a recent dam construction submerged it. The historical village lay under an artificial lake, where tree branches poked from underwater. In the afternoon, our modest boat hit one of the branches and the five of us, one monk, two novices, a child from the village, and myself fell off the raft. It was getting dark. None of us saw the lurking obstacle, until we were forced to make an improvised dip. The monks struggled to hop back on the boat with the weight of their wet saffron robes, and our feet got stuck in the mud when we eventually disembarked. We had laughed for hours on the lake, before we capsized, during, and after. 

Back in the village, we were to stay overnight with the family of one of the novices in housing provided as compensation to the villagers for their forced relocation. It was a government-paid, one-room concrete house, left unpainted. The open-air kitchen was set around a corner, just outside on an open dirt floor. There was no fence. A diaphanous curtain divided the room into its male and female quarters. Children abounded and sat quietly, captivated by my long nose and hairy arms. The men congregated in their quarters, disappearing behind a thick haze of cigarette smoke, their voices animated under cheap palm wine, generously shared in plastic bag servings. They sucked on it like mammals on breasts.


I followed the eldest sister to a corner of the large room, female side. She gave me a towel, a plastic bucket with liquid soap, and a cloak. The ordained monk, my friend Somphone, led me out of the house along a barely perceptible trail. The government had granted houses for the residents, but no electricity. In what looked like someone’s backyard, he left me in the company of a manual water pump fixed on a concrete slab. 

I turned around to realize I was in the middle of the village, with children going about, and adults passing by. I put my glasses aside, adjusted the cloak under my armpits, tied its rope, and modestly undressed underneath the cloth. I poured water over it and became nervous when I felt it had almost slipped. For a moment, an unknown stroke brushed against my skin, bringing about a gentle shiver. 

I looked up and I saw. 

A white flash, bright. I reached for my glasses with my wet hands and observed in awe. I called to Somphone, who had stayed nearby and had turned his back to me for privacy, waiting to escort me back to the house when I would finish bathing. I sensed his cheeks blushing under the cooler evening breeze as he faced me. We both stood, immobile, wrapped in our respective robes, mine wet and his dry, head in stars. Countless opalescent diamonds, dots, strokes we couldn’t steal, enigmas we couldn’t betray. It was the brightest and most visible Milky Way I had ever seen. 


*  *  *


Where were we?

I heard a voice, deep and assured, in a language at first undecipherable with the markings of someone who was primarily concerned with speaking to himself before noticing the presence of others. Next I saw the outline of a boat and a passenger above, who turned to me. Pliny the Elder, the author of the Natural Histories, an endless curious mind whose ingenuity I devoured, and of course he would be there, as I always sought his presence whenever I had a question about the appearance of the world I didn’t quite know how to formulate. What if he ’d been right all along, including in his regular approximations, I thought in a modest attempt at ratiocinating.

The world is sacred, eternal, boundless, self-contained, or, one should say, complete in itself, finite yet resembling the infinite, of all things certain yet resembling the uncertain, embracing in its grasp all things without and within. The world is the work of Nature and, at the same time, the embodiment of Nature herself. 

I looked around trying to perceive the elusive certain in an ocean of exposed uncertain. 

The immensity of the cosmos and ridicule of its manifestation as our humble-yet-grandiose shower roof confounded. 

From Pliny, more. We must believe that the sun is the soul, or, more intelligibly, the mind of the universe, the ruling principle and divinity of Nature. The sun provides the world with light and takes away darkness. 

How to reunite with the sun in the middle of a deep, fragmented night? Do we need to miss it to long for it more? Don’t leave me.

Who were we?

Less than an astral dot, left in a sidereal shadow. An imperfect perfection. The sky’s mysteries and gems contrasted with the day’s high sun, which earlier had glazed the artificial lake like a mirror. The novices had skipped stones.

In this daily spin, the night offered a populated spectrum of distant friends. I became aware of movement and the desire to press my feet harder into the concrete shower slab with my plastic flip-flops. I felt unstable, as if I had misidentified what I considered my axis. The dissonance made me unsure. For an instant, I couldn’t tell if a pulling force came from above, under me, or was me. I saw a small stream of water dripping gently from my wet hair to the ground; it merged with the soil like a reuniting lover. Water disappeared, without a definite goodbye.

We were vessels of dust staring at dying stars, gazing at the contours of mythical animals whose names we had been told. I thought to trace the velocity of a “javelin” star—a shooting star, as Pliny would have described it with his own words—but it was still Pliny, flickering in his vessel. It seemed all unintelligible.

I think it a sign of human weakness to try to find out the shape and form of God. Whoever God is—provided he does exist—and in whatever region he is, God is the complete embodiment of sense, sight, hearing, soul, mind and or himself. 

To transcend weakness, one must be one, and be one with One. Could it be that easy?

As it unfolded, my experience generated additional reflections and realizations in unexpected alleys of my mind. Unity, symbiosis, the understanding that my roof was my astronomical echo, and vice versa, that I am both a present and a resonance struck intimately. The air I inhaled made me one with every single living and dying element. Fire kept me warm, activating the irrigation of my body. I connected with the earth. Sweat left my pores to reunify with suspended particles. I tightly held onto balance to control an irrepressible urge to dissolve. 

God is man helping man: this is the way to everlasting glory.


*  *  *


A child came forward to use the water pump and bathe before I could hear more. I exchanged a glance with the monk—we hadn’t spoken until I called his name and an unforeseen cosmic meditation swallowed us. I finally uttered, “It’s beautiful,” and the words transformed the metaphysical contemplation I grudgingly emerged from as a certain object of triviality. Words, I admitted, were vulgar.

“Let’s eat before the men are too drunk. It’s cold now,” Somphone said, shifting his gaze away from my slightly revealed body.

I splashed myself with the bucket for a last time. The child giggled and his friends joined him; I was an overruled adult taking the space of their playground. On the way back to the house, with a towel covering my shoulders and the wet modesty cloak in my hand, I paid attention to my feet and refrained from a last profane glance at the sky. Something had transformed the dirty path—lit from the constellation of an immeasurable past—stars that are but no longer, with their lengthy sigh as their brightness grows and dies. One day, I will run out of fuel too.   

Inside the house, cigarette, alcohol, and greasy meat stench clung to my soapy skin. I later slept in the female quarters of the room with the mother and two sisters, under a torn mosquito net, to the loud laughter of inebriated villagers. 


Early morning, a pick-up truck waited for us a kilometer away under a drape of mist. The men had left. 

The truck broke down by the side of a sinuous road, two hours from our destination. People gathered like ants to inspect the engine and push. Others hurried to their phones to find no signal. Somphone and I had been subtly relegated to the useless category. Our driver asked us to wait. This could be a ten-minute affair or an afternoon-long one. There was no way to predict. My ordained friend used his saffron robe as a sunbrella, while the novices slept in the back. They shared a bench. The youngest slept directly on the floor against a large sack of rice the villagers brought back. He took his monastic bag and stacked it under his head. I watched his breathing slow, rising gently, in regular intervals. Like waves breaking on an empty shore, it lifted me to a state of calm. 

A wet sensation from the pool of sweat accumulating down my back startled me. Four hours had passed. I ruminated on both cosmic and human matters as the engine remained stubbornly broken. The sun’s projected shadow danced under our eyes, casting elongated lines around the dusty waiting area. I invited Somphone to follow me by the roadside fruit and snack stalls.

“Do you like looking at the sky at night?” I wasn’t sure if the question would seem banal. He smiled. “The sky was beautiful last night,” he replied. I asked him if he preferred the moon or stars, or if he had to remove either of them from the sky, which one he would pick. Admittedly, it was an uncanny inquiry. “You always have strange questions.” He paused. What I really wanted to ask was whether he saw what I had seen, and felt what I had felt. The driver spoke with him. Somphone then returned to our exchange. “Everything has its place. If you take something out, then there is no harmony anymore.” 


Farah Abdessamad is a Parisian essayist and critic who writes at the intersection of history, art, and philosophy. She is at work on a collection of essays revisiting cultural erasure and the multiplicity of fire in the ancient Mediterranean world, in addition to a literary fiction set in Cambodia.