At dusk, when the sun-sphere was sinking like a lava lamp into the seawater of Kep Bay, graying the air and silhouetting the seagulls and the monkeys moving along the power-lines, the whole town was gathered on the beach.
It was a slow-motion orgy of leisure, with weekenders frenzied and desperate to put to good use the last minutes of daylight before the complete and total provincial silence of a Kep night, a last burst of energy before the overwhelming calm of blackness and stars.
Families lay on the sand and shrieked at the incoming waves, sopping wet in their t-shirts and khaki shorts. A Frenchman cartwheeled for an audience sprawled on towels over white sand. A toddler waddled into his father’s outstretched arms.
Off the beach a line of red flags jutted from the surf. They were depth markers, but the fluttering flags gave the suggestion of a sunken castle. There were some people swimming there. By one of the flags emerged a brown fin. It grew, then rose and mutated into human form, a foreign woman or maybe a man, rising from the depths like some seagoing Sasquatch, with a mohawk of dripping dreadlocks. She came like a zombie sentinel, stone-faced, emerging from the Atlantean fortress to terrorize the beachgoers.
I strolled along the sandy strip to the far end where a jetty hugged the cove. At its end stood a stone goddess, ivory white and peering out toward the flat, shallow sea towards Vietnam. In keeping things proper, her unclothed figure had been wrapped in layers of blanket-sized orange and purple sheets– innocent day trippers were thus saved from her stony eroticism.
Underneath her a small family sat on the rock wall. I took a seat across from them to enjoy the sunset. The eyes of each were glued to a smartphone, their backs turned to the water. Their indifference was made all the more striking by what lay behind them, what I was frozen by. Burning there was that daily miracle, a sinking hot orb on the horizon, a last gasp, dripping like a radioactive grain of sand in a black-lit hourglass, a chameleon period of mutating life hues. It meant nothing to them.
Yet how easy it must have been for our ancestors to worship the sun. It was a God who always showed up after all, its power so obvious, observable and complete. Who could doubt the authority of such a daily show of divinity? Among the pagans, atheism must have been nonexistent, I thought.
God was there always to reassure you. You rose with Him — there was no reason to believe otherwise– and when He left you, He did so with a slow wink.
I thought about this underneath the clothed goddess. Below me the waves kissed and purred at her platform, but her gurgling whispers of praise were unintelligible to me, like the birdsongs and the monkey squawks, like the Khmer chatter.
Before the light went I made it back to my bicycle and peddled to the main town along the coast. It was dark when I reached the crab market. The open-for-business seafood spots made a glowing strip along the coast, illuminating a clan of stray cows in the street, but all else was unseeable. Kep was totally inked out then, a dark, silent peace of night under a million suns.