|Jul/Aug 2011 Fiction|
Photo by Sara Catterall
Our village was up in the mountains at the edge of a coffee plantation. You could sit on a bench under a wooden gateway and see the rib-like ruts of terraced farms striping the hills that coursed down to the border. Sometimes you could spot women climbing along the paths, carrying baskets of bright berries.
The gateway had "View Point" carved on the arch. If you touched the carved columns, you would have felt the shiny albino bodies of termites, swarming all over the face of a Buddha.
And if you sat there long enough in the afternoon, you would have heard a high-pitched humming that was the sound of insects at the end of the dry season.
Each year, before the rains, the traders would arrive from the far north. As they approached, you could see their bowed legs and loose, flapping trousers and the glitter of dust on their cheeks. On their backs they bore burlap sacks fragrant with sweetcake. Their arrival caused quite a stir, with the younger children running beside them, and Nooch and the other dogs barking up a storm.
Our village was one of their last stops, a chance for the men to drink and play mahjong and trade in the dialect that Omi still spoke. In the smoky interior of our huts, they would feast on strips of dried pork and discuss business. The headman would tell them all about the happenings with the police and the local dealers. They would also sell us some sweetcake, which Omi would tuck into a pouch on her waistband.
I was used to sweetcake, ever since childhood when Omi would hand me a lump to chew on, for I was always sick and prone to colic. My sister was the healthy one—lively, playful, a dancer bubbling with laughter, even though our parents were long gone and we were forced to work living in a dark hut smelling of dung and sorghum liquor.
That year, the traders arrived with a thin fellow who had spiky black hair and gold earrings. His name was Chin, and as he sat next to me, he didn't seem to mind that I had come straight from the barn where I had been tending to Awe and the other pigs.
He asked me my name and chuckled. Then my sister told him her name. Gan4, he said, touching her arm.
My sister smiled quickly, the light from the narrow doorway striping her face like a rainbow. She was dressed for the occasion in her one festive costume: blue silk pantaloons and a red waistcoat with bright sequins. Her hair, freshly washed and braided, tumbled down to her shoulders, and she had placed a wild rose behind her ear.
And where are all the other Gans? Chin asked, with a mischievous look.
I wanted to tell him that she was the last of the girls called Gan, and that the others had all gone away. But Omi lifted her finger, warning me to be quiet.
Chin had a green, oblong ring on his middle finger, and under his half-open denim shirt he wore a white bone necklace dangling with mystical charms. He gulped down our liquor, never taking his eyes off my little sister.
When he left, she went with him. I was told that he had taken her away to study in a distant city. It was a fine school, with foreign teachers.
After Gan4 departed, I sat outside the hut with Omi and the rest, put my head between my knees and howled.
Don't cry, Omi said. None of the other water buffalos have gone to school.
The others laughed, through a cloud of cigarette smoke, while counting their money. They all knew I was stupid and worthless, good just for tending to Omi's pigs. Only Abeya, our deaf-mute, stared at me, drooling quietly.
Gan4 isn't going anywhere fancy, Omi said. She flicked a stone towards me.
The stone flew towards my forehead, but I managed to dodge it.
I got up and ran, all the way up the hill towards the View Point. I wanted to scan the great valley that separated me from Gan4, to try and spot her flash of blue in the dusty human train, to catch a glimpse of her before she vanished into the landscape.
Kwai! Why are you running like a crazy rooster?
It was Aying in her garden, watering her plants. I couldn't help stopping, for Aying was petite and beautiful, with a fair, doll-like face.
My sister, I said. They've sent her away to school.
They'll take her to Bangkok, Aying said. They'll be on the bus by now.
I sat on my haunches and cried some more.
I'll never be smart, I said through my tears. Or pretty like Gan4.
Stop crying, Aying said. You're a Lisu, so be proud of yourself. Now come in, and I'll fix you something.
I shook my head.
Come on in, Aying said. I don't have all day.
Entering her house, I felt like a filthy rat. Aying had left our village while still young and had returned years later with enough saved to build a large brick home. Her sitting-room had a huge TV, and my eyes were dazed by the shower of lights dangling from the ceiling.
Here, put these on, Aying said.
Her house slippers were made of red silk with felt insoles. My toes, hard and blackened, protruded from them like claws.
Aying had been born on the eighth day of the eighth month, and so she was supposed to have luck on her side.
I followed her into her indoor kitchen, which had steel knives and gleaming pots. She put on the kettle and then ran her finger across the marble counter-top. There was a dank smell.
Bangkok is horribly hot, she said. And full of the dregs of society. Not like here.
I could hear a stream bubbling behind the kitchen. The sound made me think of things that were pure and clean, like the whispering of the wind through my sister's lips.
Aying poured me a cup of tea.
Is your sister strong? she asked. Women have to be strong inside, to withstand all the brutality.
Aying lifted a long knife, and it caught the light. Then she brought it down hard, slicing into a slab of sweetcake.
It will be difficult for her, she said quietly. But the spirits can also be merciful.
She added a little oil to the sweetcake and then put it on a glass plate and slid it over to me.
As I licked at the sweetcake, I prayed to be sent to school. I would study in my sister's class and become smart like her, learning to read and write.
Gan4, I said. She was sitting at the desk in front, and I reached out to touch her hair.
You must rest now, Aying said.
Gan4 twisted towards me. Her waistcoat was now wet and bloody, and I could see that her blue pantaloons were in shreds. Her eyes seemed glazed, their indigo orbs gazing far away.
I wanted to scream, to grab my little sister's hand, but she was slipping away, indigo dying in a blaze of vermilion.
Try to forget, little Kwai.
Aying was hovering over me as I rested on her firm mattress. She dabbed a little sweetcake on my tongue.
The dry season ended quickly that year. The rains came like a deluge, turning our lanes into runnels of mud and excrement. Soon after, the winter wind chilled us to the bone, followed by the hard, cracking heat of summer.
Since then, Gan4 has not returned, but the traders have come and gone, leaving our village steadily poorer. Meanwhile, I have learned a thing or two.
I have learned how important it is to pray, and I have prayed for my sister every day. I know now that she was sent to a school just for dancers. I think of her moving freely in space, as if she doesn't have a care in the world. I pray that she is smiling, even if she has to gyrate in a dim-lit room with bars like a cage. I hope she is still alive and able to bear all the taunts and gifts of mud.
I pray a lot, even though the wood on the gateway is almost nibbled away, and Awe and the other animals I raised have been slaughtered. The years have made me rough and parched like Omi, and I, too, carry a pouch on my belt for sweetcake.
My tongue feels good, but my bones have become dry, rustling like shriveled leaves. I lean back on the bench, looking out at the view. I can see a field of poppies on the mountain, their burst of bright purple filling the window. And as I turn back to my desk to write, I can hear the humming.