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Vincent Fusilier goes back to Mandalay to search for the woman he loves.
I returned to Burma on a tropical morning in June 1941. My boat docked on the Irrawaddy River and I walked through scattered showers to the old Nadi Myanmar hotel.
I asked for room 706 and surprised the desk clerk by uncurling my fist to show him the key for that very room.
He jerked his head around to stare at his wall of cubbyholes--one for each room in the hotel. He reached to touch the key in the box for room 706. The skinny little man turned back to me, his eyes wide. "Milleseya," he whispered--magician. Or was it the word for wizard? No matter, I was too tired to explain why that key had stayed with me for the past eight years. Magician was fine for now, I had been called worse.
A few minutes later, the bellhop stood in the middle of my room holding my dripping suitcase with both hands. Despite his broad smile, he couldn't hide the pain veiling his eyes and creasing his brow. The swollen, deformed joints of his fingers and the way he favored his right foot when walking, suggested a sever case of rheumatoid arthritis. I doubted he was much over thirty years old. Far too young for such a debilitating disease.
He asked me a question in Burmese. I stared at him for a moment, trying to untangle the translation in my head. Something about swinging me in the closet. No, my clothes--he wanted to hang my clothing in the closet. I shook my head, set my small bag on the bed, and dug into my pocket for some money. I pulled out a handful of coins and for a moment found myself totally confused.
There was a time when I understood the rupee denominations perfectly, but now it took all my concentration to remember; sixteen annas to a rupee and four pice to one anna. The anna and pice were made of bronze and had the approximate values in American money of two cents for one anna, and 1/2 cent for a pice. The one-rupee coins were heavy, made of silver and worth about thirty-two cents.
I picked out a shiny anna and after glancing at his smiling face, added another to it. When I held the two coins out to him, he gingerly set my suitcase down and accepted his tip with great reverence. He thanked me for the money and gave me a low bow as he backed out of the room and closed the door.
I opened the suitcase on the floor and to my surprise, found the clothing inside to be dry. I took off my wet clothes, hung them in the closet, and slipped into a fresh pair of trousers. I buttoned up my shirt and walked to the windows.
Sunlight slanted through a break in the clouds to light up the balcony like a stage coming to life for the second act. I opened the French doors and stepped out to see the rain-washed city of Mandalay.
Below me, rickshaw drivers splashed along the cobblestones, jostling through crowds of pedestrians. Servant girls peddled their bicycles toward the residential districts. A peasant woman strained at the yoke of a two-wheeled cart heaped with yellow melons, squawking chickens and honking geese. A small boy with shaved head and bright orange robe jumped up from petting a stray puppy and ran to join his barefoot brothers marching with military precision toward a nearby pagoda.
Seeing the women hurrying about their business below caused me a dull pang of sadness. She would be about twenty-seven years old now and any one of them could be her, starting off on her daily routine. I wondered what she had done during all those years.
The sights and sounds of the ancient city were of great interest to me, but it wasn't the city of 1941 coming to life on that Tuesday morning that weighed on my thoughts--it was the Mandalay of 1933. Eight years had passed but her image was as sunny as the street scene below. How many times had she and I strolled together… A loud knock at my hotel door startled me. No one knew I was back in Mandalay, but I immediately thought of Kayin.
The British called her Eurasian, mixed blood, an untouchable. Her mother was Burmese and her father a Highlander-soldier from Scotland. He was an artillery bombardier in World War I, attached to the Bengal Lancers. Kayin inherited her mother's petite figure and softly hued Asian features along with her father's eyes; blue as the harbor sky at Aberdeen in the month of May.
The knock at my door came a second time, louder and with great urgency.
When I opened the door, I was hit by a barrage of Burmese words coming so fast that I hardly understood a thing she said. The woman appeared to be in her mid-sixties and vaguely familiar, but much too old to be Kayin. The outburst redoubled as her hands flew in the air to animate the withering harangue. Her gaze never met mine, but darted beyond my left ear as if her anger was directed at another person somewhere behind me. The poor woman was afflicted with a severe case of hypertelorism, sometimes called euryopia; a medical condition where the eyes are situated too far apart. Adding to the woman's disfigurement, her face was compressed vertically on the left because all her teeth were missing from that side. The fury of her emotions twisted her irregular features into a mask of intense anger.
I wanted to close the door on the raving gray-haired harpy. She must have anticipated my action because she stepped toward me, almost tripping on something at her feet. Her bony hand gripped the door edge as she redirected her ire downward and the sharp tongue continued its scolding.
I glanced down to see what caused her renewed wrath.
Standing before the woman was a little girl. She carried a rolled-up split-bamboo sleeping mat hanging from a leather strap over her shoulder. With upturned face, she gazed at me with the serenity of a new angel, oblivious to the verbal storm raging above her head.
My heart reacted with voltaic flutters as I realized the vague familiarity of the old woman was duplicated, or rather magnified, in the face of the child.
She was seven or eight years old and her face was, in contrast to the woman's, as near perfect as any face could be. Her features were exactly symmetrical as if carefully laid out by a master sculptor or seasoned portraitist. The nose, eyes and mouth perfectly positioned upon the soft curve of a heart-shaped canvas. Long dark curls fell in swirls to frame the sweet and innocent tawny cheeks. And her eyes--what fascinating blue eyes.
The old woman's voice assaulted me once again. "Kayin," was one of the few words she spat out that I recognized. I tried to translate her rapid Burmese into English, but it turned into something like, "gone by and by," and "you deadbeat no good dammed go away American son of biscuit something or the other," and "God did never die and make me Savior of all lost children," and "I cannot but only feed myself by yesterday."
I tried to interrupt her and ask about Kayin but she pulled the door shut, leaving the little girl inside with me. The woman's bare feet pounded down the hallway and faded away.
We stared at each other; the girl's face without the slightest trace of emotion, and mine, I imagine, with a look of disbelief at what had just happened.
Hearing the woman say Kayin's name hit me hard, but I tried to soften my expression for the girl's benefit.
I had only just managed to rearrange my shock into a look of kindness when I heard a faint tap on the door. "Thank goodness," I said. "She's come back for you."
With one motion, I pulled the door open and took the girl by the shoulder, gently pushing her out into what I expected to be the waiting arms of a repentant old woman.
To my surprise, no one was there, at least not at my eye-level. But when I looked down, another little girl appeared! An exact copy of the first one, including the sleeping mat. The two of them gazed at each other for a moment with neither surprise nor recognition showing on their serene little faces. Then, as one, they turned to look up at me.
I leaned out over them, glancing up and down the hall. I didn't see anyone; not the old woman, not a bellhop, not even another guest. Then I checked both sides of the doorway, making sure there wasn't a third, or a fourth child waiting to give me that blue-eyed, all too-innocent look. The two girls copied my every movement, looking here and there and then back up at me, but neither they nor I saw any more children. Thank God!
The girls took each other's hands and walked past me, into the room. They went to the cushioned rattan couch, sat, and scooted back, their bare feet dangling in the air. I knew from the irregular bulges in their rolled-up mats, that they were used not only for sleeping but also carried within them all their possessions. The two girls adjusted the mats across their laps and settled themselves on the couch.
I closed the door and took the rattan chair facing the girls. The chair next to me was empty but yet filled with a ghostly presence. It was almost as if Kayin had died and left me two small copies of herself.
"What happened?" I didn't mean for the question to come out into the air, it should have gone in silence toward the vacant chair.
When I turned to the girls, I saw no indication that they understood my words.
"What happened to Kayin?"
I knew the girls must be nervous, frightened, or at least curious about the gaunt stranger before them, but even at their young ages, they had already mastered the Asian ability to present no facial clues to their emotions. However, I thought I saw the slightest twitch in one eye of the girl on the right.