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I leaned back in the chair, watching the girls. My mind wandered, sometimes aimlessly, but always returning to the endless nightmare of the eight years I had lost.
I don’t remember when I first noticed my symptoms. Maybe when Raj suffered through morphine withdrawal after I operated on her. I had a mild fever, shortness of breath, nothing really to worry about. Men were suffering and dying all around me from horrific wounds and Raj had gone through bloody hell. Why should I be concerned about a slight fever?
“Now we must please visit water closet.”
I was jolted from my memories by Little Miss Right Side, speaking to me in her near-perfect British English.
“And when we come out closet,” said her sister, “we might be little bit hungry, probably.”
I blinked. They blinked, but did not move from their position on the couch, waiting, I assumed, for permission to go to the bathroom.
“Yes,” I said, “yes, of course.” I pointed across the room to a closed door. “There’s the water closet. Please go if you like.”
They scooted off the couch without a word and walked quickly toward the bathroom. I noticed they took their sleeping mats along, clutching them close to their bodies.
While the girls were in the bathroom, I went back to where I was before the knock on my door—walking about and examining the features of the room as one might look over a creased and worn photograph from the distant past. There stood the familiar writing desk, a low coffee table between the couch and two chairs, a bed with night-stands and lamps left and right, pictures of mountains, birds and King Rama IV on the walls. Mosquito netting hung over the bed, neatly tied back during the day.
The curtained window with French doors looked out on the street below. The small balcony remained as it was years before—just large enough to accommodate two lovers who were so absorbed in each other that they hardly noticed if the sky was sunny or dark.
I stood at the foot of the bed, watching it as if it might come to life before my eyes. The bedspread was new, but the headboard and the inexpensive drawing of some local temple were the same. The nightstands and lamps were the same as before. The old patch on the left lampshade was still there, but now discretely turned toward the wall.
Moments ticked by, but I didn’t move—couldn’t move. I teetered on an emotional tightrope, struggling for balance. Two little girls, beautiful and innocent, but their mother not with them. Why had the old woman brought them to me and not to Kayin? Why turn them over to a stranger instead of their mother? The only thing I could think of was that she couldn’t take them to their mother because she was ill, or missing, or…no, I wouldn’t think about it any more.
It was foolish of me to ask for the same room, the small space she and I had shared for one tiny, intense week. Why wasn’t it occupied when I checked in this time? Then I could have avoided all the useless sentimental musing.
I went to the French doors and stood there, my arms folded across my chest. The little balcony appeared just as it was eight years before. On our first night together, Kayin and I had pushed the two chairs out there, squeezed ourselves in and sat knee-to-knee. We talked until the eastern sky lightened from deep blue to dove gray.
A sound came from the bathroom; something fell into the porcelain sink. It rattled around like a long metal object clattering back and forth until someone stopped it. Then a few hushed words followed by a pair of giggles. What were they up to in there?
I realized what the metal object must be—my old scalpel. But what were they doing with it? The instrument was extremely sharp. I kept the edge keen and they could easily cut a finger to the bone. What should I do? Decisions were so hard for me. And I’d never been a parent before. What would a father do? Was I their father? I took a step toward the bathroom but stopped when I heard the doorknob turn and click.
A little later, as we rode the lift down toward the ground floor, I spoke to one of the girls, “What is your name?”
I suppose this should not have come as a shock to me, but I expected a Burmese name. It took me a moment to get my thoughts back in order. “That’s my mother’s name.”
“Yes, sir. I know. When shall grandmother Marie come to visit, please?”
“Well, when I write a letter and tell her about you and your sister, I think she will want to see you soon.”
“May, if you please, write letter today?”
“Maybe I will, but you may have to help me with the letter.”
Marie knitted her brows and turned her attention to the floor, but did not reply.
I turned to her sister. “And I wonder if your name is Suu-Kyi, from your other grandmother.”
The girl nodded. “She is died, you know.”
“Yes, I do know. She died many years ago when your mother was only a little girl, like you.”
“But now we have our new grandmother, Marie.”
Little Marie raised her eyes to me. “I do not understand,” she said.
“About making letter to our grandmother Marie.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I will make the letter. You and Suu-Kyi will tell me the things you want grandmother to know.”
Marie still appeared a bit perplexed.
Suu-Kyi stood on my right and Marie on my left, however, if I closed my eyes and they switched places, I would never know it. Not only were their faces identical, but their clothing also matched. They wore faded green shirts with brown shorts that appeared to have been cut down for them. They had no shoes.
We reached the ground floor and Ba-Tu, the lift operator, opened the door with a cheerful, “Goody morning.” I returned his courtesy with a nod and we stepped out to walk toward the hotel dining room.
The majordomo intercepted us before we reached the arched double doorway leading into the dining room.
“May I please be able to help you, sir?”
“No,” I said to the very large man who blocked our way. “We’re just going to have some lunch.”
“Ah,” he said, glancing from me to the girls and back again to me. “Can you be happy to follow me?”
We walked behind him toward a pair of swinging doors which obviously led to the kitchen.
“Where are we going?”
He stopped and turned to me, his right hand on one of the doors. “We have very nice eating tables back here for…” He hesitated, glancing around as if he were afraid someone would see him with us.
“For who?” I asked.
“For children such as those.”
“Oh, I see. You mean to say you don’t want Eurasian children like mine eating in your dining room?” I wondered if he knew how easily I could lay him out cold.
Just then, the other door swung open and a waiter came out balancing a large metal tray over his shoulder. The tray was heaped with steaming bowls, covered dishes, and a basket of fresh bread. The aroma of sizzling beefsteak and hot bread smelled delicious.
“Po-Sin!” I could see he was pleased I remembered his name, but he didn’t appear surprised to see me. He was a young bellhop back in 1933, now apparently promoted to waiter.
“Mr. Busetilear, so good for Po-Sin to see you from so many years ago.” He glanced at the girls and then at the majordomo. “But why shall you go into back kitchen?”
Before I could answer, Po-Sin’s expression changed to one of irritation, as if something unpleasant had just occurred to him. He glared at the majordomo for only a second or two before he shoved the door open with his free hand and yelled into the kitchen for someone.
Almost instantly, a boy came out looking as he had been caught dipping into a customer’s dessert. He bowed slightly to Po-Sin and glanced quickly around at the rest of us.
Po-Sin handed the boy his heavy tray and rattled off a set of instructions that I only caught a few words of; “Bearded Englander…big woman…salad…little woman…do not spill…hurry on…”
The boy, obviously relieved he wasn’t in trouble, nodded several times, and hurried to take care of the customers.
Meanwhile, Po-Sin gave the majordomo a very severe dagger-stare as he spoke, “It is for you, Mr. Busetilear,” he hesitated and his face softened into a broad smile as he turned to me. “And your small friends, that we have reserved our grand table in center dining room in finest hotel in all Mandalay.”
The majordomo’s mouth was open but he didn’t speak.
“It shall please to follow me,” Po-Sin said as he lead the way to the dining room.
I had stepped aside and motioned for the girls to precede me. They did, but soon the two of them, through some communications known only to them, maneuvered themselves to each side of my path and then walked behind me.
The boards of the wood floor creaked under our feet as we followed Po-Sin, weaving his way through the scattered tables.
We were shown to a very respectable table beside the sunny front windows. Po-Sin handed us three menus and waved another waiter to bring us chilled glasses of water. Then, with a promise to return as soon as we were ready, he hurried away to supervise his young protégée who was bustling about the nearby table where the Englishman and his two lady companions were looking a bit miffed.
It was midmorning and I wasn’t very hungry. In fact, I rarely ate more than once a day. But one of the girls, Suu-Kyi I think, mentioned earlier that they were hungry so I decided to order something for myself to put them at ease.
The menus were in Burmese and English, and the girls studied them intently, but I didn’t know if they could read. Just when I started to ask them, I was startled by a sharp sound to my right. I jerked around to see the elderly Englishman bending down to pick up a fork from the floor. His eyes were on us and as he settled back in his chair, both he and his female companions stared down their upturned noses at us.
I turned back to see the girls paid them no attention. Good, let people think what they wanted, we didn’t care.
The management had not taken care of the old hotel very well. Yellowed paint peeled from the walls and some window shutters were missing. The dining room had four punkahs—large pink fans, shaped like overgrown bougainvillea petals—hanging from the ceiling. But only one of them worked, swishing back and forth in slow motion to keep the air moving. I imagined there was a boy somewhere in the kitchen, pulling and releasing the cord to operate the fan. I knew Po-Sin had positioned us to receive the best benefit of the fan without being directly under it where the slight breeze would cool one’s food too quickly.
When I laid my menu down, Po-Sin returned and stood near me, his order pad ready. I asked for a small bowl of own-nort khaukswe—noodles with coconut chicken.
He nodded. “Coffee, Mr. Busetilear?”
“Yes. Thank you, Po-Sin.” Both he and I turned to the girls.
“Hamburger, please,” Marie said.
“Hamburger, please,” echoed Suu-Kyi.
I couldn’t keep from smiling. Po-Sin glanced at me.
“Do you remember,” I asked him, “how to make a hamburger?” I knew it wasn’t on the menu.
“Oh, yes sir, but Cookie will not like to.”
“Tell Cookie I’ll pay him an extra rupee for his time.”
“That will keep him much happier, Mr. Busetilear.” Po-Sin probably knew he would also earn an extra rupee in his tip as well.
I smiled at his mispronunciation of my last name, Fusilier. It reminded me of Kayin having the same difficulty.
“Also please bring two Coca-Colas,” I said. “And a half dozen golden shweji for the young ladies.” I caught a glimpse of two wide-eyed expressions as I went on, “So they will have something while we wait for our meal.” I remembered shweji as being very tasty little wheat cakes filled with coconut cream and raisins.
The girls grinned at each other as the waiter hurried away, and then they smiled at me. This was the first sign of any emotion. I doubted they had Coca-Cola very often, let alone hamburgers. I didn’t mind the extra coins it would cost, their beautiful smiles made up for that and much more.
Po-Sin brought my coffee when he came back with the Coca-Colas and snack cakes. He took a shiny bottle opener from the pocket of his white apron and levered the bottle caps off. When he set the drinks before the girls, they almost choreographed their movements, reaching for the big bottles, one using her right hand, the other her left. They each took a small sip before setting the bottles back down on the table.
Although Po-Sin didn’t pay much attention to the girls, I saw scathing glances from the other diners. They probably wondered what our story was; a twenty-eight-year-old Caucasian man sitting with two Eurasian children.
A hundred questions swirled in my head, but I didn’t want to overwhelm the girls by pumping them about their past. I would use the letter for their grandmother to learn more information, but for the moment, I found it enjoyable just to watch the two of them.
Before we came downstairs, I had gone to the bathroom to shave and comb my hair. I found my shaving mug wet inside and the brush still foamy. I smiled, imagining the girls going through my things and trying to figure out what they were. A straight razor lay in the medicine cabinet along with my scalpel. I liked to use the scalpel to trim my sideburns and mustache, finding it much easier to handle than the razor. Both instruments were extremely sharp and the girls were lucky they didn’t cut themselves when the scalpel fell into the sink. Also, they had to climb onto the sink to reach the medicine cabinet. I told myself to be more careful about where I left the razor and scalpel in the future.
Of all the situations I considered upon my return to Burma, instant fatherhood was not even a remote consideration. And my performance so far troubled me.
“What shall I write in our letter to your grandmother?” I directed my question to Suu-Kyi, but Marie answered.
“We must tell her to come see us tomorrow.”
“Oh, America is very far away. I don’t think she can come tomorrow. But she will want to know things about the two of you.”
“What things, please?”
“Well, where you go to school...”
“We have never go to school,” Marie said.
Something puzzled me about this answer, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. “What kind of house do you live in?”
“We can not live in a house.”
All these answers came from Marie and I began to think I might not want to know everything. Their circumstances were probably difficult at best and my heart ached already with the knowledge that I had had two beautiful daughters for the past seven years and never knew it. Of course, Kayin couldn’t contact me, not where I was, but still I felt unworthy of being their father.
“Your grandmother would also like to know how old you are.”
“Seven year...” Suu-Kyi began, but her sister interrupted.
“Eight years,” said Marie, “almost.”
“When is your birthday?”
I did a quick mental calculation, July minus nine months—November. November 1933. Hmm, I thought. Maybe I was off by a few weeks. No, they were definitely my children. I didn’t have any doubts. Marie had my mother’s name and both girls with their mother’s blue eyes. And the old woman knew me. I wondered who she was and who told her I was back in Mandalay.
“Your birthdays are next month. Shall we have a birthday party?”
“Oh, yes!” both girls cried together. “With cake and presents?”
“Of course. We can’t have a party without cake and presents. When is the last time you had a birthday party?”
“When we were five,” Marie said.
“Who made the party for you?”
“Mother and—” Suu-Kyi said, but her sister stopped her again.
“Just mother,” Marie said, glancing at her sister.
Suu-Kyi lowered her hands and stared down at the yellow tablecloth. Her hands always seemed to be in motion when she spoke, as if to enliven her words.
“Where is Kayin? Where did your mother go?”
“Two men did take her away,” Marie said.
“What two men?”
“Just like the same as those over there,” Marie said, pointing past me, toward the other side of the dining room.
When I turned, I saw two men in identical military uniforms having a whispered conversation over small cups of sake. All the agony and terror of the past eight years suddenly
compressed into a few beats of my pounding heart—the two men were officers of the Imperial Japanese army.