As if it began with the rain | Jadet Kamjorndet
…if someone happens to walk past the room and looks inside
they’ll think a pupil hasjust got up to go to the toilet…
As his elder brother pedalled, Thong rode pillion. Destination:the car park in town. Let’s say this is where the story begins.
April, the month of separation, had come. Years later, Thong still remembersclearly the sight of Mother, suitcase in hand, walking away. Leavestems were forsakingthe trees. The rubber trees on both sides of the track were left with balding branches while the ground was strewn withdead leaves. Parting, that time, had no tears. Thong was too young then to know the cruelty of separation.
Until in later years the yearning for his mother’s embrace taught him.
Fallen leaves, dry wind, dry grass smell, sultry air, forest fires, and tears: they all came together.
‘I won’t be gone for long.’
‘Your tears: they’re wetting my back.’
‘Who’s crying? It’s the stinging of the wind.’
Thong wasn’t bluffing. What came out of his eyes was just water of some kind from who knows what.
In a few months there was to be a soccer game for the youth league world title. His brother,asthesoccer player representing the province, had to go for training to make it in to the national team. Even though he still had to be selected, everybody already called him a champ, a young man carrying on his shoulders the hopes of everyone in the village. Now the car caravan was waiting at the square in front of the town hall.
On this morning of the fifth lunar month* the air was nippy before turning torrid by midday. The earth track wending its way around rubber tree plantations disappeared beneath dull brown leaves. Thong brushed his feet against those leaves, enjoying the strange feeling of parting them, like someone would part water with his hand while sitting on a boat.
[* The lunar month is roughly one month early on the solar calendar. Hence, the fifth lunar month is June.]
His brother gasped for breath as he pedalled up a slope. He used his elbow to nudge Thong lightly as he pointed ahead with a jerk of his head. Thong looked ahead too. A few steps away a thin body in asoiled school uniform was limping along the earth track. His ungainly walk was due to his artificial right leg.
His brother smiled at Thong.
‘Get ready, soldier.’
‘Engage in combat…’
Now that so much time has passed, Thong can hardly bear to remember that scene. The boy with the artificial leg tried to hobble out of the way of the bicycle that was charging at him for fun. Thong’s brother made as if to run him over only to turn the front wheel away at the last second, but the narrowness of the path left the boy with no choice but to walk faster, the bicycle still proddinghim. Thong and his brother laughed merrily.
Thong knew that boy. He was Burmese, on the same side as those who had burnta temple and then taken Naresuan*hostage, on the same side as that armed group thathad invadeda hospital and takenthe patients hostage. That’s what Thong’s brother had told him. The two of them had talked about these two cases to their hearts’ content for a whole week fromthe day the hospital was overrun.
[* King of Ayutthaya (1590–1605), who may or may not have been captured by the Burmese before his death]
The two gave up when they saw that the foe was thoroughly defeated.
‘Take good care of it.’
‘Care of what?’
‘Our country.’ His brother smiled. He meant the two hillocks just passed. It was their rubber plantation.
‘Bring back a championship title for us, okay?’
Let’s skip over the time at the car park. It’s not as interesting as the story of the Burmese boy whose right leg was made of wood. He was in the same class as Thong.
It should have been a morning without rain, but who could bank on it?
Thong and his father sat having their morning meal together. His father complained about the rain. Thong was left to understand that it would mean a loss of income. The rain brought moisture to the soil, to every plant, to every rubber tree, but rain was a friend that always came at the wrong time.
His father began to complain louder as he widened the scope of his discontent. He complained about political events as if he didn’t know that the boy who sat listening was only a sixth-former. He took the case of the armed group that had invaded a hospital several days ago. He called them Burmese, and was still incensed, even though the soldiers had shot them all dead and helped release the hostages.
‘Before long Burma will invade our country, and we’ll become their slaves.’
Thong knew that now the district was full of aliens – nothing strange, given that it spread mostly over mountains. Rubber plantations covered many hills, withlayers of mountains above themthat stretched in long jungle-clad ranges. If you were able to get across those ranges you’d set foot in a foreign land, or perhaps even before you fully crossed them, because in the eyes of the villagers nobody knew exactly where the borderline was.
It wasn’t strange either that rubber plantation owners on this side used the services of coolies from the other side because foreign labour was cheap.
Those labourers were usually called Burmese, which derived from Thaielementary schoolbooks whose narration of protracted wars, temple burningsand Naresuan fighting on elephant back along with pictures of such atrocitieshad sunk deep into Thai psyches, so most local folk didn’t like them. The more bad news came out, the more the villagers viewed those people as demons.
Father’s rubber plantation covered several acres, which he tapped mostly himself leaving some parts for others to tap, but he didn’t use the services of aliens. When he saw on TV what those people did to the patients, he cursed all the more, calling on soldiers to come and deal with those bastardsthere and then.
‘They’ve got their camp right there on the mountain. One of these days they’ll come and take over our school.’
Thong was startled. Besides being prone to complaining, father’s mouth was inauspicious … He’d better find some pretext for not going to school.
Thong took his plate to wash it before he left his father to go to school, but it can’t have been a good morning after all. No, it wasn’t. It was a bad morning indeed. Thong hadn’t ridden his bicycle very far when he found a corpse.
That corpse lay across Thong’s narrow path. That small earthen track went by his father’s rubber plantation over the two hillocks. Thong actually wanted to call it his country, but that was shorthand only between his brother and him.
Thong frenetically rushed back home to his father. After that everybody flocked over, everybody except the police.
‘A Burmese corpse’ was what father said, foreign labour ninety per cent of them illegal. But who cared, when the officials had always acknowledged that here there was no illegal labour. So how could there be the corpse of one ofthose people?
Whatever happened with those people was never good, so there was nothing strange if stories about them were embroidered to surfeit. At first he was only a petty thief of rubber sheets, but within only a few minutes as the number of gawkers grew, that body became a terrorist from abroad.
Anyway, the body was buried in the vicinity to the satisfaction of all sides, including father, the owner of the land.
Thong still didn’t think anything and went to school as usual. When the school was over he returned home the same way, but when he entered the spread of his own country, he felt he was taking too many risks and was being too bold.
By then it was only four in the afternoon, but the track was darker than it usually was at that hour. The wind made the leaves rustle far and near. The bicycle took Thong close to the burial spot but he was no longer sure where it was. He began to look left and right before the bicycle came to a sudden stop as if someone was holding it back. Thong stood shaking, thinking he wanted to get past in a hurry but wasn’t bold enough.
All by himself how could he cycle past the place where a body was buried?
It was then that Ha Too showed up.
Ha Too had just been safe from Thong’s pursuit. Thong hadn’t seen him for a few days. Today again he had been out of sight. Maybe he was hiding alongside the track. When he saw Thong stop his bicycle and stand still in front of him, Ha Too turned pale. He didn’t expect to meet Thong here.
Ha Too was in the same class as Thong, but they were not friends. Ha Too had no friends. His father was employed by the headmaster in a plantation deep at the foot of a mountain, but Thong had never gone there. His brother had forbidden him to go there.
Ha Too wore an artificial leg, made of wood probably self-crafted. If Thong wasn’t mistaken, Ha Too’s father too had an artificial leg. Ha Too was a quiet boy and wasn’t good at school. He had no friends with whom to play. He was several years older than Thong but had repeated a year so often Thong had caught up with him. And if it came to that, he had no right to study given that he was an alien, but his father worked for the headmaster, so Ha Too could study. No teacher urged him on very much; at most they used his services,within the limits of what he could do. For all that, no teacher was fond of him. Worse than that, he was the pupil who was the most badgeredin the school.
Ha Too hesitated, turned and looked back, ready toretreat and run.
‘You want to ride with me?’ Thong offered at once without taking time to think.
Ha Too made a puzzled face. So Thong had to explain: he’d let Ha Too ride pillion on his bike up to his own house and then Ha Too would walk on. In the morning Thong would wait for him at home and when he arrived, they’d ride to school together.
The two of them would go by the area where the buried man was, both morning and late afternoon.
Ha Too shook his head. He had been so often taken for a ride he had no heart to believe anything anymore, but when Thong insisted, and promised not to pull his legand even protect him from being bullied, Ha Too seemed to be mollified.
‘You won’t bully me for sure?’
‘I won’t and nobody else will. But remember: we’re not friends, okay?’
Ha Too nodded. That’s when the story began.
Friends began to look askance. Friends at school were no different from his father or the other villagers. The sight of Thong on his bicycle with a Burmese boy riding pillion could only mean that Thong was being disloyal, for which the punishment was teasing.
Thong tried to ignore them. The term was coming to an end; he wouldn’t have to feel ashamed in front of his friends any longer.
‘Making friends with that lame fellow, you’re inviting your foe into your home,’ Eik turned to face him and said on the last day of the exam.
‘What foe? Ha Too, he’s – uh, he…’ Thong was going to say ‘he’s to be pitied’ but felt ashamed when he thought of the real reason. ‘I’m afraid of ghosts. He’s just riding back home with me. His house’s farther off than mine, as you know.’
‘You sure he’s not your friend?’ Eik stared him in the eye.
‘Of course not!’
‘Then at midday when the exam’s over invite him to play soccer.’
‘Are you mad? He can’t even walk properly.’ Thong was well aware of Eik’s intent.
‘That’s why. It’ll be fun.’
Eik smiled and then turned round to face the blackboard. A few other friends stared at one another with round eyes.
At the back of the room, there was a desk apart from the others. Ha Too sat at that desk alone. No one sat with Ha Too. And no one had ever invited him to play soccer, and never would,even if he had had his two legs.
Thong knew well enough what Ha Too felt. During the lunch breaks, while the others played soccer, Ha Too would always come and watch. He probably wanted to play as well, but it wasn’t anything to do with his leg: it was that no one invited him to play.
Thong felt ashamed that, before, he had fun with his friends when one of them would knock him down with a ball shotacross the pitchor call to him to catch the ball. Ha Too did so most readily. The way he walked always made them laugh, but whenever he was too slow he was cursed viciously.
Thong went to see him at the back of the room.
‘You want to play soccer with us?’
Ha Too looked surprised. He almost smiled but his face immediatelyturned blank.
‘No, thanks, I can’t play.’
‘Eik wants you to.’ Thong turned round. ‘We all want you to play with us.’
‘You all do, really?’
‘Then I’ll play.’
The fault was Thong’s alone. Thong knew what would happen but he dismissed the thought.
Ha Too’s artificial leg was made out of wood and held by a bolt. Thong would learn later it was Ha Too’s father who had made it. It wasn’t easy to make, and besides there were none for sale. Ha Too was thus warned to be careful in its use.
But playing soccer whose result was known in advance, the target was Ha Too and his artificial leg was doomed.
At midday that day it was raining, an out-of-season rain that fell as in the twelfth month. The rain acted like a referee to stop the game but didn’t succeed. Eik and his friends were wriggling like fish in fresh water. Their rambunctiousness grew twofold. They all took off their shirts and divided into two teams to play soccer.
Ha Too was tackled, was punched. Worse than that, they allpiled on top ofhim as if playing rugby, but the worst was that Ha Too kept laughing merrily, not feeling in the least he was being bullied until his artificial leg broke.
The bolt slipped off first. Then the wooden part broke into pieces, but they still didn’t stop, still having fun, until Ha Too lay silent, so they stopped and then pelted away.
The way Ha Too crawled out of the field is hard to explain. Actually it was more than crawling: one hand protected the pieces of artificial leg against his chest; the hand and leg that remained he used to slide along on his bottom in order to get out of the field.
The rain was still pelting.
Thong just stood there, unable to think how he could help him.
Teacher Narmfon* was in charge of the class. She was still single, didn’t swear, didn’t curse, didn’t like to beat the pupils. She had seen the behaviour of her chargés in the soccerpitch.She reported it to the headmaster. Ha Too was the headmaster’s special child, although in reality he wasn’t special in any way; he was only the son of a rubber tapper who was less important than the other parents. Actually, nothing should have happened. But the headmaster must have been allergic to Teacher Narmfon. The indictment thus was heavy and led to a strike of lightningthat fell on the heads of the misbehaving children.
[* Narmfon:rainwater – Thong: flag; full name: Thong-rop: combat flag – Eik: Number One]
The rain had stopped but the roofs kept drip-dropping. The culprits stood in line in the middle of the field. In the windows the faces of the other pupils stared as if they were seeingcreatures from outer space.
With a soft voice Teacher Narmfonwaxed instructive about living together, loving one another, about solidarity, followed by the basics of human rights. Ha Too sat on one side of the field, head bowed, the pieces of his artificial leg placed on a table. Thong knew very well why he didn’t look anyone in the face and he knew very well which of his friends stared at Ha Too with vengeance on their minds.
Everyone stood in line toreceive three strokes of the rod from the headmaster, and then had to file out to apologise to Ha Too. Ha Too lowered his head even more. Teacher Narmfon said that all parents would be summoned and would receive notification of it by the next day.
The bell marking the end of lessonsrang just as it beganto drizzle again. This here was rain forest land, under the monsoon winds from the Andaman Sea all year round, so it was raining all the time, sometimes without warning, as befitted the saying about this ‘town of eight rains and four suns’.
Ha Too,leaningon the walking stick the headmaster had arranged for him, followed Thong to the bicycle.
Thong hurt from the lashing, but he wasn’t sorry. He truly felt like apologising to Ha Too once again or else being punished by Ha Too’s father, as he couldn’t think of what they’d do about that artificial leg.
At a safe distance from the school gate, Eik and almost ten other friends lay in ambush under a big tamarind tree.
Amid the gusts of wind, under the fifth-month rain, before a group of wayward children, Thong just found out how daring he was. A small child who stood fast to protect a fellow traveller with only one leg facing a ten-strongfoe, wasn’t that the real Thong?
‘You’d better stay out of it and send us the Burmese,’ Eik said.
‘So you’re his friend, then?’
Thong was speechless. So much rain entered his mouth he had to spit.
‘Yes, Ha Too’s my friend.’
‘Then you’re no friend of ours.’ Where upon Eik’s fist smashed into Thong’s face. The stinging pain almost had him staggering back. That wasn’t as bad as the feeling of a nest of hornets falling on him the next instant.
In a fight with a foregone conclusion, Thong was brave indeed but not fearless. Of the innumerable blows he suffered he could only return three punches. Before long he lay flat in the mud. Ha Too just stood there, looking on. In excruciating pain though he was, Thong was glad they hadn’t touched him even with the tips of their pinkies. It must be said they were fair-play enough.
Thong still had enough strength to ride his bicycle, so he took Ha Too back to the front of his house, but didn’t dare to face his father.
Ha Too’s house was a rudimentary wooden shack used both to store rubber sheets and to live in. Thong saw several pairs of shoes on the doorstep. Some were military boots. Ha Too’s father must have guests, all of them silent inside. Thong turned round.
He tried to see Ha Too’s face but his eyes were so swollen he could hardly keep them open. None the less he could see people moving inside the house.
‘Are you really my friend?’ Ha Too asked.
Thong, anxious to leave, nodded cursorily.
But Ha Too smiled.
The broken arch of an eyebrow and the bruises all over Thong couldn’t be hidden from his father. So he had to tell him everything, from what had caused the trouble to sending Ha Too home. Thong expected himto curse a little, but it was something else his father was worrying about.
‘Several of the bastards who raided the hospital escaped. They must be hiding in the mountain. Did you see anyone?’
‘Oh, come on! They’re all dead. Their shrouded corpses were shown on all TV channels. Besides, our house is very far from there.’
‘The cops blacked out the news and here isn’t as far as you think. The mountains form a single range. Those people have set up their camp in the jungle. This mountain is their department store. They might just come this way.’ His father’s eyes wereglazed. He had been feeling uneasy for days. ‘Haven’t you got any other friends?’
‘Who else? Our house is almost the last one. Beyond our plantation there’s only Ha Too…’
His father looked worried. ‘His father, the one who made his fake leg, isn’t it? They say he’s crazy, no?’
‘Just nervous, suspicious. He used to be in the war.’
‘Exactly. He might just go crazy. Who knows if he won’t kill you? Just so, don’t go to his house, you hear?’ All in all, his father didn’t seem too serious, as if he was more concerned about what others might say, even if his words sounded excessively harsh.
Thong wondered why his father didn’t ask about Eik and his friends. His father didn’t know that they were the most dangerous.
In any case, that story was over once the parents had gone and met the headmaster to be informed of what had happened.
The next day was the end of term. Thong was drowsy with fever. Before he could get up another day had passed. His bruises still hurt but he wanted to know about Ha Too, so he rode his bicycle to see him, forgetting entirely about his father’s interdiction.
Ha Too wasn’t alone at home. There was another man who must have been of about the same age as Thong’s brother. He wore a green uniform almost like a soldier. He was sweeping the front courtyard. Thong stared at him transfixed. He didn’t know what to do. The man stood staring at him also. He still looked boyish but his eyes were worldly-wise and stared straight like a lion staring at a prey.
Thong had forgotten he shouldn’t have come here.
Before anyone made a move, Ha Too came over and, taking his arm, led Thong away. He still had to use the walking stick. He whispered to Thong that that was his big brother, he shouldn’t stare, it’d be best if he didn’t meet him at all.
Thong asked about Ha Too’s artificial leg.
‘It’s being repaired at the refugee centre, not far across from here, but we won’t be here for long: my brother will take us somewhere else.’
‘What does your brother do?’
Ha Too was silent. Thong had to repeat his question.
‘He’s a soldier. My brother is a koo chart* soldier.’
‘Oh, you mean phuea chart, like my brother. He’s a footballer on the national soccer team. He’ll be on TV in a few days.’[* Koo chart: liberation; phuea chart: for the nation, national.]
‘It’s not for the nation, it’s to liberate the nation,’ Ha Too interrupted.
Thong thought his friend’s Thai was not good so he left it at that, which he would later regret. Phoo lee phai* camp, koo chart**soldier: if he had listened properly he would have understood a lot more.
[*Phoo lee phai: refugee; literally, person fleeing danger.]
[** Koo chart: liberation; literally, redeeming the nation.]
Thong invited Ha Too to visit his country, the two hillocks already mentioned.
The dry wind brought in the smell of dry grass, but Thong didn’t feel lonely. He had a friend to play with throughout the school vacation. Ha Too still didn’t use his stick with ease, so the two of them refrained from facing dangers of all sorts as Thong could dream up. Ha Too was more talkative, so the two of them spent the dayssupine and talking. At the top of one hillock there was a big tree it’d take four or five men to girdle. His brother called it ‘the rotten eggs tree’ [Vitexglabrata R. Br. ], Thong didn’t know why. He only knew that it dropped its fruit from its uppermost part. The fruit [ ]were black, all shrivelled, their taste close to that of dry jujube; with salt and chilli they were delicious – well, as delicious as rotten-egg fruit could be. The two of them hung hummocks between rubber trees and lay chatting, gathered rotten-egg fruitsand ate them until their teeth turned black and then grinned goofily at each other. At times they gathered fallen rubber tree seeds which cluttered the whole plantation, chose the hardest and then squeezed them between their fingers. If they broke you lost and looked for another one to try again. When they were fed up they gathered tiang[ ]and put[Earth Ginger ] boles which they took back to make food with. Small nokkhum coconut shoots[ ] with white heads the size of match heads, the two of them helped each other pick and then ate their heads with relish. They tasted oddly sweet-and-tartish.
Up here they could see the scenery unfolding down below and they could see the stagedimbrication of mountain peaks stretching far and wide. Standing on this hillock madethemfeel as if they were the owners of the world.
‘Two months from now there’ll be the junior world title soccer game. Burma didn’t enter the competition but you can cheer my brother if you wish,’ Thong said jocularly, but Ha Too remained impassive.
‘I’m not Burmese.’
It must have been the first time Thong heard such an outlandish claim.
‘In the eyes of the world and of the Burmese government, yes, but I’m a Mon.’
Mon were people too. They were a minority which had split from the Burmese to administer themselves, the same as had the Shan, the Wah, the Karen, the Karenni. All of them were at war, all suspicious of the other ethnic groups and of the government.
‘Incredible! There’s still a war going on.’ Thong’s eyes grew big.
‘Your people too are at war, under a different name, with different methods, but it’s still a war.’
Did he mean soccer? Soccer was a sport, Thong wanted to argue, but he thought that maybe it was true.
‘Why did you have to come here? Is it you’re allergic to war?’
‘Capitalists from outside, including Thai ones, offered money to the government. The government took it to buy weapons, to buy combat aircraft. We couldn’t fightthem so we had to flee and come here.’
Ha Too was older than Thong, that was true, but when he was in the classroom he was like a mentally challenged child, answered piecemeal, sometimes didn’t answer;yet now, listening to him, you had the impression it came out of a grownup’s mouth.
‘Farang teachers taught us. Where I was before there was a school, there was a church. The farang teachers taught us languages, history, society. Over there they taught everything, even how to shoot. I was a soldier, you know.’
‘But you’re still a child!’
‘The children over there grow up in military uniform. I was trained to be a soldier just like my brother, but I didn’t go out to fight. I walked on a mine during a troop movement. But even with one leg you still must be a soldier.’
‘Here, just a finger slightly crookedand you don’t have to be a soldier.’
Ta Hoo’s story was like a fairy tale. While most people in the world had a trouble-free life and organised sport competitions called sports for all mankind, some groups of people still didn’t have even a name for their country, let alone the hope of sending athletes to join in.
‘Can you people play soccer?’
‘Our favourite sport.’ Ha Too smiled. ‘Over there, there was a soccer pitch too. My brother’s very good at it. If he was Thai he might be on the national team, or if we could compete…’ His face became gloomy.
‘We must have a name for a country to be on the world map. We have a national flag but nowhere to plant it. We have no territory to be seen…’ His voice faded away.
Thong was ill at ease. He didn’t want Ha Too to feel bad, so he tried to talkof something else. He offered him to be a citizen of his country and endowed him with a nationality. He promised he’d find a national flag for him. He was in Thailand and should be Thai, but now he was the citizen of the rotten-eggs country for the duration.
‘Now you can cheer my brother.’
The two of them cycled down the hill. Thong, sitting pillion and pedalling,let Ha Too drive.Ha Too laughed like a child happy with a new toy. His laughter made Thong even less willing to ask if his brother had taken part in the hostage-taking at the hospital. He wasn’t sure Ha Too would want to answer.
The sixth month was ending. Rain saturated every particle of air. New leaves sprouted on the rubber trees. It was time once again for a new school term.
Thong still rode his bicycle to school with Ha Too riding pillion. No one talked to Thong. They did with him as they had done with Ha Too, but Thong didn’t think of getting the better over them. He countered by not speaking and moved to sit with Ha Too at the desk at the back of the room.
At the beginning of the eighth month, the rain wind blew in good news. Thong and Ha Too had become bosom friends and Thong’s brother had made the national team. Thong cheered. His brother asked about father and about the rotten-eggs country. Thong almost let out that it had been taken over but in a change of mind said that its population had increased by one unit. When Thong told him the whole story, his brother laughed and suggested theytake Ha Too hostage first: those people couldn’t be trusted.
There wasn’t much time for goodbyes. His brother had to hurry to go and entrust himself to China. He said that the first goal he scored he’d dedicate to Thong.
And then the rain wind blew his brother away once again.
The world moved on to the end of the eighth month, a month full of events.
The canals stored enough water for the fish to fray. The water-gorged leaves of the rubber trees awaitedFather’s pleasure. On the other side of the mountains the paddy fields were being groomed, green paddy would clothe them before long, while on this side drumpractice resounded from the temple from late morning to late afternoon. Monks’ embarkations were being adorned to await their display on the day marking the end of Lent.
At the end of themonth, when the cold wind settled in, the soccer competition for the world title in junior league would begin in China, but before that day the main event for the villagers was the forest fire.
Cattle bell clangingawoke the villagers for them to gather after someone sawa vivid red glow in the night sky. Usually forest fires happen during the dry season, and start from the other side of the mountain, eat their way to the top before wolfing downeverythingon this side. This takes days, during which the sky is bright red at dusk, dark with ashes in the daytime. Before the fire comes, plantation owners join hands to watch the sky and clear small tracks ahead of time to prevent the flames from reaching the plantations. Forest fires come every year, but the out-of-season rains had upset their coming; for all that no one thought they’d come in the eighth month.
In actual fact, that fire only lasted one night, and besides it happened on a distant mountain. Some people shading their eyes with their hands saw only smoke. The villagers had prepared spades and cutlasses for nothing. Those who hoped the rain would help were disappointed: it rained only every other day.
Ha Too disappeared the day after the forest fire. Thong cycled to school alone after waiting until he was sure his friend wouldn’t come. He forgot his fear momentarily. He worried for Ha Too. He had told him he’d move somewhere else, but Thong didn’t think he’d leave without telling him. Teacher Narmfon asked about Ha Too. Thong merely shook his head.
After school was over, Thong cycled to Ha Too’s house. It was closed and silent.
He didn’t dare to call out.
Thong sat alone and lonely at the back of the room. When Teacher Narmfon took the roll call and came to the last name on the list*, Thong stood up and answered that Ha Too was sick. Teacher Narmfoo must have known he was lying but she nodded in acknowledgment.
[* In Thai, Ha is spelt with a form of ‘h’ (there are two) which is the last letter of the alphabet.]
Not yet. The story isn’t over yet.
After that night, tomorrow would be an important day – the day Thong would see his brother on TV. Thong hurried back home to tell the news to his father.
As soon as he reached the house, before he could open his mouth father asked him where Ha Too had gone. He looked worried.
‘The soldiers have taken over the refugee camp. The refugees have fled – the same as those that raided the hospital. There’s been news on TV all day. But many of them managed to escape and scattered through the mountains. You be careful too. If possible don’t go to the foot of the mountain.’
Thong thought about the fire last night. That Ha Too had disappeared might be because of that. Maybe his relatives were in that camp.
That night Thong couldn’t sleep, he wasn’t sure whether out of excitement or worry. Tomorrow his brother would be playing. The whole school was excited. His brother was someone important in this village, an alumnus the teachers were proud of. So the headmaster had arranged for everyone to watch the match in the meeting hall, had a large-screen television setbrought in, and announced lessons would only be for half a day. Thailand would be the first team to compete before the opening ceremony.
The evening wind made the open windows flap and groan. There was a sprinkle of rain, turning the air pleasantly cool. No one was tapping rubber. Nightjars twitted not far. Thong thought he heard someone calling him. He listened for a moment until he was sure.
Ha Too was hiding in the ylang-ylang arbour. Thong was glad but wondered why he had to hide and why he was coming now.
‘I’ve come to say goodbye. We’re leaving.’
‘I know about the refugee camp, and I’m sorry too.’
‘That’s not important. There’s something I have to tell you: tomorrow you mustn’t go to school, you hear. Stay home. I can’t say more. But do what I say. I’m begging you, okay?’
‘Tomorrow my brother’s on TV.’
Ha Too didn’t tell him anything more than the words ‘I’m begging you’.He hurriedly got out of there. Thong lay all night wondering what Ha Too hadtried to tell him and wondering about his haste, when they should have been talking longer than that. There were many things Thong wanted to tell him, including about him, but there had been too little time. He was miserable when he thought that the time had come for them to part.
Thong joined the others in the meeting hall. It was a good day. The sun had been fierce since morning, there were no rain clouds in the sky, and it would be like that until after midday. Thong had no mind to learn all morning, anxious for the time to pass quickly.
The meeting hall was crowded. The large-screen TV showed pictures of the stadium which was packed with spectators. National flags were being flaunted all over the stadium. In the meeting hall too there were flags Eik and his friends wavered. They were always having a great time. Thong sat watching quietly. The players of the two nations entered the field. As the names were announced, everybody in the meeting hall listened for the familiar name, but no: Thong’s brother was a substitute and sat on the sideline, but cheers were in order anyway. Everybody joined in a lustful rendering of the national anthem along with what came out of the TV.
When the referee whistled the start of the game, more than twenty men in military uniform cropped up in the meeting hall. They all bore weapons.
Thong can hardly bear to think about it again. Even when he testified to the police, his account was confused; he wasn’t able to tell where the story started. Perhaps it had begun with the rain or with someone’s death.
Or maybe it was when an armed group had invaded the hospital.
Or it could be that the story had begun before that, before mankind knew the word ‘nation’ and divided the land with lines on a map.
But it wasn’t sure that the story had begun not long ago.
Teacher Narmfon callsall the names on the list until the last. She stares at Thong who’s already staring at her. This isn’t Thong’s game: Teacher Narmfon was the one to start.
After the event of that day the atmosphere has returned to normal. Teacher Narmfon still calls out Ha Too’s name. Thong stands up to answer that Ha Too is sick and can’t come to school. Teacher Narmfon has red eyes. At first his friends must have wondered but they’ve got used to it eventually that there’s still one pupil sitting at the back of the room. A schoolbag is placed on theseat. Even though no one sits there, the schoolbook to study from is still open on the desk, so if someone happens to walk past the room and looks inside they’ll think a pupil has just got up to go to the toilet. In any case there’s only Thong alone who stands up to lie with different words every day and Thong alone again who thinks that Ha Too is no longer around.
Even though it seems their classmatesrecall that Ha Too helped to some extent, there’s little sadness to be seen. They only bow their heads in silence.No one mentions Ha Too at all.
It’s a game between Thong and Teacher Narmfon. Teacher Narmfon has Thong jot down the homework for Ha Too. As for Thong he seeks reasons for Ha Too not to attend class every day.
Thong doesn’t like it, hates it actually. He hates the teacher, the police, the soldiers, everybody, hates fibbing but sometimes feelsglad that Teacher Narmfon should cry. Let her cry until her eyes are puffy, as the price for being an incorrigible liar.
From that day, has anyone understood the behaviour of the jungle fighters? Even on television they still aren’t being called correctly. Calling them an ethnic minority is like pushing them as far away from us as possible. As for those who watched the news in front of the television screen, they probably still believe what they saw. They watched television to know how the soccer match would end, but beyond that what happened beyond the screen, what the cameras couldn’t record, they had no way of knowing.
It was a very strange way of cheering a soccer game. There were no cheers, no wavering of flags even though they were hanging from the end of wooden stickskept aloft by some, the coloured stripes stuck motionless to the handle, in contrast to the flags appearing on the television screen. The spectators in the stadium encouraged their teams to score as soon as possible.
The spectators in the stadium, those in front of the TV screen, the parents and siblings of the soccer players, the coaches, the officials, everyone watching that game: Thong believed everyone was thinking of the moment of bliss when the ball would enter the net of the opposite team.
But certainly not the people in the meeting hall.
A gun barrel was pressed against Thong’s head. The many other barrels were trained on the group of pupils. All the teachers had been called to sit together in front of two more guns. As for the headmaster he was face to muzzle with one gun barrel.
Everybody sat still, not daring to speak, not daring to cry, almost forgetting to breathe, eyes fixed on the TV screen but with no happiness at all shining in them.
At the blowing of the whistle, more than twenty men had barged in. They wore military uniforms, some wore military boots, others canvas shoes and no fewer than three wore slippers. All of them shouldered guns.
They announced that they were above everyone else with their guns, closed the entrance, shut the windows, even lifted the ping pong table to obstruct a spot where they could be seen from outside.
The commotion didn’t last longer than five minutes. The soccer game still had nothing exciting. The one who was the leader revealed himself, along with his intention, which made everybody’s flesh creep.
He said he’d blow the head of a pupil for every goal the Thai team scored.
The headmaster tried to negotiate and asked what their demands were but their leader just had the barrel of his gun shift to the headmaster’s forehead andraised a finger to his own lips as a signal to keep quiet.
They wanted one volunteer as target for the first bullet. It was Thong’s fault that he could remember those eyes of a lion staring at a prey: it was Ha Too’s brother himself. By now Thong had figured out what it was Ha Too meant to tell him. It was Thong’s fault again that he showed he knew who the man was.
But that the man remembered Thong, whose fault was it?
‘Didn’t my brother warn you off? Well then, come here. The first goal will be yours.’
The burden of national liberation thus fell on Thong. Those people had him watch the soccer game and cheer as usual.
The weather was hot. There should be rain, even though at first today the weather was good and Thong was having a really good day.
The soccer game went on. The Thai team was the one playing better. The No 10 player broke away to face the goalkeeper alone. There was thenoise of weapons shifting. Thong didn’t feel well. To be more accurate, his heart almost stopped. He prayed the player would miss the kick.
His prayer was answered. The No 10 player was tripped from behind. The referee whistled a foul.
The cheers in the stadium were deafening but in the meeting hall there was a deadly hush. Thong’s knees gave in. He told himself to hurry and wake up.
In the field there was a change of players. No 10 had beentackled so hard he could no longer play. The camera shifted to the bench of the substitutes. Thong’s brother was worming his way on the sideline. Thong’s brother was now onthe pitch. He was the one to execute the penalty, for which the chance to score was more than half. He’d be the hero in this game. He should have known that there was a gun at his little brother’s head and it’d be fired as soon as the ball touched the net, but that would have to wait until the game was over, with Thong’s head already perforated.
‘That’s your brother,’ the leader told Thong before turning to tell everyone. Those men cheered. Ha Too must have told him.
The whistle resounded. Thong’s brother made for the ball. Thong closed his eyes tight.
Thais all over the country must have cursed and viewed Thong’s brother as a cockroach, but in the meeting hall he was more than a hero. If he played like this for the rest of the game, on his return there would be a statue of him in the centre of the village.
The first ball he kicked in the game went way above the goalposts. He raised his hand to hide his face.
Those fighters cheered wildly, raised their guns and waved them back and forth. Their leader sneered at Thong before turning to look at the headmaster, raised his first and middle fingers to his own temple and pretended to pull a trigger.
At the end of the first half, the leader took out a folded cloth: a flag. He asked for the Thai flag Eik still held, removed the Thai tricolour from the handle and stuck in the other flag instead. That flag was red, with a golden swan in flight in the middle. Then he said that this was their flag. Look carefully and you can see it isn’t the flagof Burma that people know, so they shouldn’t be called the same as any other group, be it the group that took over the hospital, the group that sold drugs at the border or the group that still fought a war on elephant backs.
Ha Too had told Thong the characteristics of their flag. If Thong didn’t believe there was one,he could search for it in the library and he’d find a book that told the history of his people and of their national flag also. His people were only a minority which had to fight for its own land. The national flag was still hoisted and the national anthem sung on the National Day they organised every year.
‘We’re not members of the United Nations,’ the leader went on. ‘We don’t join in any sport competition anywhere. We shouldn’t be in other people’s countries and don’t deserve to be in this world in the eyes of the world population, but we are still in the refugee camp that’s just been burned down. We shouldn’t be treated like this, and we don’t ever think of behaving like this with anyone.’ Then he asked about one boy who had come to learn in this school. That boy had an artificial leg and had been bullied to the point that his artificial leg had broken.
‘He’s my little brother.’ That’s when Thong wondered where Ha Too was. After parting last night, where had he gone? Where was he now?
The leader went on saying that he and his brother were leaving. He wasn’t the one to harm anyone first, but before he left he wanted everyone to remember his brother in the way everyone should remember a human being of this world. He didn’t expect anyone to take responsibility for what they’d done to his brother and he insisted this wasn’t taking revenge. Whether today’s event ended happily or sadly depended on the patriotism of ‘these people’. He pointed at the television screen.
His steely eyes stared at everyone in turn. Eik and his friends looked away, buried their faces in their folded arms.
The second half of the game was about to start. Those men were about to get on with their own game, had not a voice resounded then.
‘Enough, bro’!’ It wasn’t in Thai, but the tone translated like that.
And before long after that, the police and the military stormed in.
It could be seen clearly that Thong was confused. The police kept asking him who had fired the first shot which had prompted the police and the soldiers to storm in. Who had shot that child, the child who had told villagers to report to the police? That child had asked to go in and talk to his brother to convince him to give up before the police raided the place. Who had shot him? Even though he had insisted he’d be safe for sure: his friend and his brother were in there.
‘He shot himself,’ Thong murmured.
The story was getting increasingly confused. Thong would know from the police later that Ha Too had been ordered to hide in the mountain but had come back to tell Thong’s father, who took him to the council of villageelders before the police was alerted. During the half-time, a task force of police and soldiers had surrounded the meeting hall.
Thong wasn’t sure any longer:had Ha Too shot himself or not? Because while Ha Too argued with his brother, Thong’s eyes were glued to the television screen. His mind kept drifting. That he got out of it safe and sound of mind was to be considered as a boon.
During the second half of the game, it was still the Thai team that was more often on the offensive but it had yet to score. There were times Thong turned to have a look. Ha Too was in a military uniform, leaning on his walking stick. His brother was talking loudly, looking as if he was no longer in control of himself, although before that he looked frighteningly calm.
The two of them were arguing. Ha Too wanted his brother to stop and lay down his arms. Outside it was full of police officers and soldiers. But his brother cursed him and insisted he’d proceed with the plan.
Thong should have been glad to see Ha Too. He should have been glad that Ha Too thought of helping him but hismind wouldn’t stay put. He didn’t pay attention to Ha Too as much as he should have, only watched alternately the ball and the two brothers quarrelling as if by then he sat watching clouds in the sky and didn’t think it was important. All the other fighters were no longer paying close attention to the hostages. They were interested in the quarrel between the two brothers.
Thong was certain that Ha Too had no weapon. It was his brother who produced a pistol and brandished it as he talked.
Ha Too’s brother pressed the gun against Thong’s head. Although it hurt, Thong’s eyes were still on the television screen –right then the opposite team had kicked the ball past the Thai defenders and were in front of the goal, leg raised ready to strike … Ha Too’s brother was still shouting.
And then there was a gunshot – a shrill shout – glass breaking – people running – smoke spreading everywhere. After that there were several gunshots. Thong lay flat on the floor.
A flag folded and collapsed next to him…
The rain wind changes to a cold wind. The kite wind changes to a dry wind. The green leaves of the rubber trees turn yellow before they shrivel and fall row after row, as if the skyisshedding leaves.
Dry wind, the smell of dry grass, the atmosphere of separation has come round once again.
Thong toughens up, rides his bicycle everywhere alone. Furthermore, he’sfamous. The police tried to take down his testimony. Media of all sorts wanted to interview him. He’d learn later that the event was national news. He met the prime minister as well, but he’s hardly aware of what he said.
His brother is back and getting ready to enter university on the quota for national sport teams. Thong doesn’t talk about the results of the Thai team because this is no longer important.
The hostages are safe. Those men are all dead. All the bodies were wrapped in white cloth but before that, when Thong and the others were ushered out of the meeting hall, their bodies lay sprawled in pools of blood. Thong saw Ha Too also. His body lay motionless by the door, eyes closed as of someone asleep. His walking stick had fallen by his side. There was a pistol on the floor nearby.
Thong had seen only that, as someone behind had pushed him to keep walking. He was sorry. Even now that so much time has passed Thong is still sorry, just as he’s sorry with everything he did to him. He should have had a little time to find a flag to wrap the body in, one of the flags that had fallen all over the place or else the red flag with the golden swan in the middle. It had fallen around there as well.
Teacher Narmfon’s voice is still fighting with the sound of the rain outside.
Which month is this? The fifth? The sixth? Never mind which month it is. Whatever it turns out to be.
‘Present.’ Thong stands up to answer and then sits down.
The rain is still pelting outside. Teacher Narmfon’s thin voice is loud and clear. It’ll take some time for her to reach the last name of the roll call, Thong doesn’t have to lie just yet but wait for it. Thong looks at the other side of his desk. It doesn’t have someone sitting there, but it isn’t without an occupant. The schoolbag leaning against the back of the chair says so. He must have gone to the toilet. That’s what Thong hopes.
Thong looks at the curtain of rain across the field. It almost hides the building there, the large-sized building that has been closed since that day. Some are afraid of ghosts. Several people say it should be kept as a memorial. Nonsense: what is there to remember?
Besides the bodies and the spent bullets, everything is in the same state as that day. The television is still at the same place. The partition walls are pockmarked with bullets. Even the national flags are still strewn over the floor.
Actually it didn’t happen long ago, only the time it takes to spell the alphabet from the first to the last letter, only the time it takes to count from one to twelve in terms of calendar months.
Only from the first raindrop to the latest.
It’s still raining…
Teacher Narmfon calls out Ha Too’s name at last. It’s Thong’s turn now. Thong stands up then points outside. He wants the game to change.
‘There he is, miss! Ha Too’s come. He’s walking across the field.’
Teacher Narmfon turns pale, her eyes open wide. The friends have the same faces.
Thong runs out of the room but with the first step he takes on the field he’s drenched. The unusual rain of the cold season freezes him to the marrow, so much that his chin shakes. Thong stands still,letting the rain pelt over him. By now Teacher Narmfon must be red-faced, doing everything she can to hide away her tears.
But finally Thong goes back to the room. Nobody should make Teacher Narmfon cry.
Teacher Narmfon raises both her hands to close her mouth, to prevent any sound from coming out. Water fills her eyes.
‘I was mistaken, miss. Ha Too hasn’t come, but tomorrow he should be fine.’
‘No, I saw him! I’ll go out and have a look.’ Teacher Narmfon goes out of the room but doesn’t run out under the rain. She simplygoes out, a trick so that no one sees her tears. I told you already she’s an incorrigible liar.
In a year there will be some rain and then the sun will come out, but it seems that Teacher Narmfon will only cry day after day.
Thong enters the room. His friends still sit in silence. Some of the girls are beginning to have red eyes.
Thong has had it with cry-babies, adults as well as children. He thinks confusedly of what he’ll say next, and ends up telling them that the teacher has gone out to cry.
And what’s running down his face now is raindrops.
Who said it was tears?
Written in November 2007;
adapted from the version in the handcrafted book
HanumarnHyap Mueang(Hanuman tramples the town underfoot), 2008.
Current translation from Daet Chao RornKeunKwaJa Nang Jip Ka-fae
(It’s too hot this morning to sit sipping coffee in the sun), 2011.