A few dozen kilometers outside the capital stands a famously large and ornate palace commissioned by the wife of a former president. Every day, dozens of tourist buses ply the road that winds out toward the palace like a black worm through hallucinatory green rice fields. Old women in wide straw hats working the fields dot the landscape like weathered crops hunched over and bent from lack of some essential nutrient. Kids in dirty shorts and plastic sandals play in the road, chasing each other with sticks or kicking a half-inflated ball back and forth. Men stand in small groups drinking beer, talking, and smoking along the gravelly concrete shoulder, some having to step back a few feet to avoid being hit by the busses flying past. After the busses pass, the men step back onto the pavement without the slightest break in the rhythm of their conversation.
The palace covers thousands of square meters and features three domes on the roof, the largest covered in thick gold leaf. This huge, concrete, multi-arched structure was built by vast teams of workers using only the most rudimentary tools. It’s said the workmen were under such immense pressure to finish before the visit of some foreign religious leader that many of them fell from rickety bamboo ladders or slid from broken scrap-iron scaffolding, fingernails scraping wildly at the unfinished gold veneer all the way down, and, as the local stories go, landed in the wet cement. In the rush to complete the building, the bodies were left in the concrete, simply smoothed over with wooden trowels. Bodies were left in the wide cement courtyard, left in supporting walls, in boxed-up pillars of concrete drying at tremendous internal temperatures that scorched the flesh away, leaving only white desiccated bones.
The palace was finished in time, but the religious leader, appalled at the tremendous loss of life involved in its construction, refused to stay in the vast third-story apartments that had been built especially for him and his entourage. The floors of the apartments were fashioned of pounded copper and varnished steam-flattened bamboo, and the religious leader never set foot on them. He stayed at a monastery in the capital and wore a white robe and skullcap on the day he addressed almost a million citizens from a stage in the center of the city’s biggest park. People say not one crime was committed anywhere in the country that day.
Years later, the people rose up, and the president and his wife had to flee overseas to avoid being attacked and disemboweled by great surging crowds of citizens that had assembled throughout the capital city and in certain areas of the countryside. One of these places was the gold-domed palace. A group of men from the surrounding area burst in, splintering a set of huge mahogany doors mere hours after the presidential couple had been smuggled out. The men found a number of designer suitcases and a few small gold bars that had been left behind in the rush. They spent the money on beer and imported cigarettes.
The ground floor of the palace was later turned into an upscale market and named after the new president. Offices occupied the upper floor apartments.
The market has deteriorated, but still every day, it is filled with people buying and selling: fake Swiss watches and bootleg CDs, cases of beer, cartons of foreign cigarettes, and great slabs of meat. Fish still flopping around on wooden tables. One stall sells tiny sweet pineapples brought up from the southern island provinces. They cost almost nothing and the old woman who keeps the stall spends her days peeling them for customers, bent over a mahogany cutting board on the crumbling concrete floor. The fruits are the size of softballs and seem to be made entirely of light sweet juice. Upstairs, local businessmen and politicians meet in the dusty great rooms of the third-floor offices that the current government keeps repairing in an attempt to preserve the beauty of the original workmanship.
Despite the constant repairs, the concrete in which the workers were entombed years ago bubbles and cracks, flakes and peels away in layers. More of it comes loose every day. The copper and bamboo floors of the upstairs offices corrode, warp, and curl. The arches and floor of the market twist and quiver. It’s said that those who pay close attention can actually see the walls and domes move and shift during just a two-hour visit.
The whole place is unstable, the dried bones beneath the surface constantly shifting and grinding against each other in the terrible heat and pressure of the still-curing stone.
Tourists come to see the palace and the domes and the arches. Some even venture into the maze of stalls in the first-floor market and marvel at the strange smells that hang in the air and the exotic wares. They snap photos of the building disintegrating right in front of them.
But some day, years from now, the whole thing will collapse. Domes will implode, arches will fall, businessmen and politicians in suits will surf down on waves of twisted copper and splintered steam-pressed bamboo and the people in the market—beer vendors smoking foreign cigarettes and old hunched women peeling pineapples—will be pulverized from above and covered over in a tide of smashed stone, gold, and dusty, concrete-encrusted bones.
The tourists will snap photos of the disaster as well. They’ll feel shock and horror and will remind themselves to give money when they get home to help the survivors and the families. They will keep them in thoughts and prayers. Then they will wait and board buses and travel back to the capital, twisting through hideously bright green rice fields with a feeling that nothing they’re seeing is real anymore.
Craig O’Hara’s short stories have appeared in Dos Passos Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and December Magazine. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his story collection, One Thirty Five South, was named a finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award. He currently teaches at Ball State University.