6 | Psychopomp
adapted from a Burmese folktale
by James Penha
As a child, I watched father chop trees to sell for firewood. Our enterprise was small but blanketed the town in waves of smoky sweetness. Once, when father napped beside a just-hacked log, I aped him––swung his axe with the force of a man who loves to labor for his loved ones. My delicate hands saw the tool fly free in one upswing, tumble far down the hill behind me and sink into a lagoon. How was I to tell Father I had felled the family business?
I scrambled to the water, the murky pond churning around my legs, and from the eddy rose a statuesque nymph, a gleaming hatchet held high enough in her hand to strike me down. I didn’t dare move. "Here, boy, is a tool forged anew of the finest metal. Take it." She hurled it so close it nicked the knot of my sarong, sending the garment to the jungle floor. I turned to hide my shame, reassembling myself before I realized the nymph was gone.
My father was relieved I hadn't been eaten by tigers when I woke him screaming my story.
He examined the axe, dripping from the lagoon. "Beautiful," he said. He dropped a hair plucked from his head over the blade and split it in half. "Perfect." He kneeled before me and looked me dead in the eyes. "Return it. I want my axe.”
"Father, this one is better."
"And there are better sons. I'll wait here."
At the pond, I conjured verses and danced shaman-like in circles until I saw her hovering like a cloud collected from the mist. "I'm no genie to be rubbed into view by a boy," she said as she raised a golden handle holding a coal-black blade. "But here: old axes for new." She spun the hatchet at the speed of light into the turf at my feet. The axe I had held floated in the air and would have carried me too had I not let go before it submerged softly with the faery.
I knew my father wouldn't like this one either.
"Son, this is gold and this," he pointed, "a diamond raw, but you are right: this is not better than my old axe for the work we do. Tell your nymph there is no better axe than one worn and sharpened by warm hands and hard work."
The faery reclined along the shore, her left foot rippling the pond, her naked breasts
excited, and my father's axe held between her thighs. "Shall we trade, young man?" I heard my heart pump recklessly, and I stumbled, dropped the diamond-bladed axe, and had to reach for her shoulders to steady myself. She raised my sarong and swallowed me until I screamed loud enough to silence the jungle.
When I recovered, I saw at my feet the axe of my father. When I returned home, he was pleased to have it in his hands again, and he told me it was mine now.