About the Author

Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly is the author of nine books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Her first book, a collection of poems called The Small Words in my Body was published 22 years ago. It won the Pat Lowther Award. Her poetry has been translated into French, Spanish, Russian, and Burmese. She is also the author of several acclaimed books of prose, including The Lizard Cage, winner of the Orange Broadband New Writers Prize, Touch the Dragon, winner of the Governor General’s Award, and Burmese Lessons, a love story, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the BC National Award for Nonfiction. Her journalism, essays and poetry have been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, Toronto Star, The Walrus, The New Humanist (Britain), National Geographic Traveller, Shambhala Sun, and dozens of literary magazines and periodicals in Canada, the U.S., Britain, and Asia.Her books are explorations of the countries where she has lived and travelled: Burma, Thailand, Spain, France, Greece, and, of course, Canada. In all three genres, she has increasingly assumed the role of writer as political witness. She has long been a supporter and an occasional board member of PEN Canada and has been active in various campaigns on behalf of writers in prison or living under persecution. She makes her home in Toronto with her family.

Books by this Author
Burmese Lessons
Excerpt

CHAPTER 1
The Dinner Party

I said that I would find the place myself. I wanted to walk through the city, into Chinatown. “No, thank you. I do not want a ride, it’s all right.”

The pause at the other end of the phone was so long that I thought the line had gone dead.

“Are you still there?”

He asked again, “You . . . want . . . to walk?” Judging from the hesitating formality of the telephone exchanges we’d had earlier, I’d decided my volunteer guide, San Aung, was over fifty, and a dedicated worrywart.

“I do want to walk. Please tell me again the name of the restaurant. And how to get there.”

He did. He described it all carefully. He said, “But it can get dark in the evenings. You will be all right alone? I do not want you to get lost.”

How dark could it possibly get, in a city? I said, “There is no possibility that I will get lost.”

I set off gamely enough. The light coaxes me out of weariness and into intoxicating newness: the tea shop stools, the bottle caps pressed like ancient coins into the hardened mud of the streets, the scowling face of a boy as he pours steaming water into a large pot, then tosses in a load of dirty dishes. As I cross the street, a woman reaches up to a yellow-waterfall tree–laburnum?–snaps off a lemony sprig, and tucks it like a bird into her braided hair.

Even the dirt draws me in, the realness of dirt that lines the edges of millions of flip-flopped feet, including my own, which I wash every evening before I sleep, as I am unable to get into bed with dirty feet, a habit ingrained a decade ago, when I lived with Pee-Moi and Paw Prasert in northern Thailand. It comes flooding back to me in the flood of Rangoon, that early time cascading into this one.

I experienced a surge of those memories when I first moved back to Thailand six months ago, a vivid unrolling of the past in a small Thai town, my long-ago life with a Thai family. Now I live in the welter and roar of Bangkok, a city I both love and hate for its chaos. At the height of the after-work rush, Rangoon seems much quieter than Bangkok, more manageable, less noisy. Though noisy enough. The glorious disorder slowly organizes itself into the busy face of evening. Where at first I moved, dazed and jostled, in a thick crowd of bodies, now I float from one stream of rushing humans to another. Young office men with soft faces, housewives confounded by the price of chicken, students who glimmer with intelligence. On Anawrahta Street, small-time salesmen with slicked-back hair have spread their wares–nail clippers, small electronic gizmos, hand mirrors, ballpoint pens, sunglasses, bottles of cologne and loads of used clothes, much of it smuggled in from Thailand or Bangladesh, since Burma produces very little–on swaths of the wide sidewalk.

One of these salesmen, white-suited and handsome, like a Burmese version of an Italian gangster, is picking his nose when he meets my inquisitive eyes. He smiles at me unabashedly. Women walk home with their baskets of greens and onions, and other women stride in the opposite direction, toward the river and the boats that will ferry them across it. Four young Indian children in their pyjamas, their eyes kohled and their cheeks swirled with thanaka, play a checkers-like game on a set of broad steps. Normally I would stop to watch, but I must not be late for dinner.

Here is Chinatown, with its blue and green buildings, wooden shutters and elegant roofs, looking romantic in the gold leaf of dusk. The paint on the buildings is new, thin and lime-based, making the whitewashing both literal and figurative. The State Law and Order Restoration Council recently decreed it for all the buildings of Rangoon. Not so long ago, the SLORC also forcibly moved entire communities of the city’s poorest people into primitive shantytowns on the periphery of the city so that foreign visitors like myself are not burdened with the sight of them.

Darkness falls quickly, as it does in the tropics, and falls hard, as it does in Rangoon, because none of the lights on these streets are working. I take a moment to get my bearings and consult my map, which happens to have several errors on it–that is, if I’m reading it correctly. Soon I am rushing around in the dark, flustered and big-eyed and without composure, approaching and retreating from the wrong pools of light and people, my glasses slipping down my nose.

But I do find my dinner party, finally, when San Aung sees a woman stumbling by on the broken pavement and calls out, “Miss Karen,” accent on the second syllable, Ka ren, like the ethnic group that has been at war with the Burmese military for half a century. I approach the table, smiling and sweating in equal measure as I greet everyone, a dozen or so dinner guests gathered together by San Aung, who is not in his fifties at all but is a good-looking man of perhaps thirty-five with high cheekbones in a long Indian face. With his gorgeous head of gleaming hair and his immaculate clothes, he looks like a movie star. He wears a blue pinstriped shirt and a dark blue longyi; both seem to have been lifted off an ironing board five minutes ago. He shakes my hand three times, then lets go and turns to introduce me to the others, giving me condensed biographies as we make our way around the table of mostly Burmese writers. But a lawyer is also here, and a history professor who works at the Japanese embassy (the pay is much better, the university is a shambles), a burly ship’s captain who loves Gorky–he announces this immediately, as an intellectual credential–a woman who collects Burmese folk tales, and a Swedish journalist, Anita. Even though she’s sitting down, I can tell that she is very tall.

Plates of food are already arriving, heaps of greens and noodles and two whole fishes. And a pile of twisted, glistening stuff: very possibly a platter of silver worms. The ship’s captain and a very rotund poet make a place for me between them and, once I’m seated, the introductory quiet closes up with voices again, like steady waves after a lull. Streams of Burmese rush around me, and English strides out into the air, directed to Anita, the journalist, to myself, and to a man I’d assumed was part of the local contingent but who is, in fact, Johnny, a Filipino photographer employed by Time magazine.

Everyone talks about books and writers, passing the names back and forth like gem dealers handling sapphires and rubies, marvelling at the riches. Though at the mention of Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, San Aung pushes out his bottom lip in contemptuous-Frenchman style and huffs, “But it was too much, all those characters. I couldn’t keep them straight. There were too many of them at the beginning and too many at the end.” He laughs. “I did not read the middle, but I’m sure it was the same problem.”

The ship’s captain, clearly a great admirer of the old Russian writers, is scandalized. “But that is how Tolstoy . . .” He looks at me, open-mouthed, searching for the word on my white face. Apparently, he finds it. “That is how Tolstoy re-creates the world. He fills his books with real human beings. Yes, there are many of them; Russia is a big country! And all different kinds of people live in his work, not just one class or another class.”

Is he really a ship’s captain? He talks like a professor. I tell him, “Listening to you makes me want to be a writer.”

He replies in a tone close to reverence, “You already are a writer. How fortunate!”

“But writing is hard work. And lonely. There may be a lot of characters in a story or a book, but the writer is always alone with them.” I look around the table. “And there’s never enough money.”

My fellow writers at the table nod their agreement. But I know that none of them are spoiled as I am spoiled: by early success, by government grants and, most abundantly, by freedom. Yet still I complain. In Burma! It’s disgusting.

Lately I’ve found my enthusiasm for my calling on the wane, partly because I know I’m stuck with it. Most of my life will be spent in a room in front of a computer, tapping out the visions in my head, reworking handwritten scrawls. This notion once filled me with delight. Now it just makes me want to get out of the room and meet someone for a drink–preferably someone who looks like San Aung.

However–the captain is right. Tolstoy has been dead for one hundred years, yet Anna Karenina is alive and beloved in Rangoon. It is extraordinary that something so still, so lifeless–black type on the cheap paper of Penguin’s classic pocketbook–can contain a living world. A Burmese man can step into a time machine and go to nineteenth-century Russia just by turning one page, then another, and another, until he is entangled emotionally and intellectually in fictional lives. Strangers become his familiars.

I look around the table at the animated faces. Tall Anita is flushed, the tip of her nose red; did she eat a chili? The folk tale collector talks across the table to the lawyer, who nods and grunts every few sentences (ah, I know it well, the Asian male grunt–so expressive, so full of feeling!) to show her that he’s listening. He also stares, as I do, at the woman’s plump mauve mouth. I wonder if she is married. Or if he is. Possibly they are married to each other.

Good travel is like good reading: you go inside a new world and cannot resist it. This will implicate me, I think, chopsticking a load of delicious oily noodles into my mouth. I love eating with strangers. Nothing but sex brings people together so quickly; dining is usually more friendly and lasts longer. People are still chatting, but the steamed fish has displaced the miracle of Tolstoy. Under a gloss of sweet sauce and dark skin is delicious white flesh, fat flakes of it without too many bones.

The poet spoons a tangle of worms onto my plate. “Excuse me,” he says, his voice reminiscent of Tom Waits’s, a rough engine idling the vocal cords. “This is the custom. You have not tasted this yet. Delicious. We make sure you eat. I still do this for my daughter.” He means placing the finest morsels of food on her plate, feeding her. When he smiles, his narrow eyes sink into folds of heavy eyelid. He has great bulldog jowls, too, a wide, lumpy nose, and a few dribbles of a previous meal staining his shirt. He smells like a tea shop during the early morning rush: earthy and smoky and surprisingly sweet, as though he has an Indian pastry in his breast pocket. He has not stopped smoking his cheroot since I arrived. Many Burmese people are beautiful. If not truly endowed with good looks, they have the straight-backed, slender grace that passes as beauty. Therefore it is refreshing, even reassuring, to meet this man.

“I’m very sorry, but can you tell me your name again?”

“I am Tin Moe,” he answers.

And now I recognize him. Sayagyi–the great teacher–Tin Moe, the famous, beloved poet laureate of Burma, imprisoned for five years because of his writings and his support for the National League for Democracy, the political party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. He was on a list of imprisoned Burmese writers that PEN published a couple of years ago. Ma Thida, a young woman writer, was on the same list. Tin Moe was released; Ma Thida is still in prison.

“It’s so good to meet you, U Tin Moe. I’m honoured to be sitting with people who love books so much. And with such a famous poet! I didn’t expect to be so lucky on my first trip to Burma.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you. It is our pleasure.” He motions toward my plate with his chin. “Your eels will be cold, Miss Karen. Please eat them.”

“Those are eels?”

The captain, who has been listening to every word, interjects, “Babies.”

“Really?” Poor things! They are salty, faintly crablike, and sublime.

My fellow diners have started talking about writers again: Havel, Kundera, Faulkner, have I read them, and do I like Gabriel García Márquez, and why, and who else have I read, who is my favourite writer? Someone makes the joke that Márquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, was competing with Tolstoy for the greatest number of characters, to which San Aung responds sharply, “That’s another novel I could not read. Life is too short.” Then he asks my opinion about several Swedish authors. I have to admit that I’ve never read them.

The hunger for books is greater than the hunger for food, though there is no doubt that the conversation is enhanced by the meal. When the waiter brings new dishes, of prawns, a broccoli-like green stir-fried with garlic and ginger, and spicy eggplant, new discussions arise with the fragrant steam. We eat and talk, turning to each other as we swallow, laughing often, over many comments and turns in the conversation, our voices growing louder and louder, until Sayagyi Tin Moe says, “It’s very good, to talk about all these books, these writers.” His eyes shine. “But this talk makes me think of all the books that Burmese people cannot read.” He heaves a sigh and picks up his cheroot again. He scrabbles in his breast pockets for a lighter. “So many of our own books are banned now. Many names cannot be printed. Her name. No one is allowed to publish her name.”

The table has fallen silent and we attend him, respectfully, knowing who the unnamed woman is. His time in prison had as much to do with his unequivocal support of Aung San Suu Kyi as it did with his writing.

“Did you know”–he turns to me–“that each new book a writer produces here must be copied out four times and given to four different censors? For a Burmese writer, that is a great expense. Then each censor puts lines through any offending passages. After that, the manuscript has to be rewritten without those passages. This is not the way any normal writer likes to write. It’s the way the censors like to write. One of my friends, a popular novelist, not a political writer, had to write her last book five times. It almost drove her crazy. But she had to do it. She wants to write her books. She doesn’t want to go to jail and get tuberculosis.”

“Like Ma Thida,” I say in a low tone.

“Do you know her?”

“I know of her. One of the reasons I’ve come here is to find out more about her. I do some work for a group in Canada that has made Ma Thida an honorary member, and we’re lobbying the Burmese government for her release.”

“Amnesty International?”

“No. PEN Canada. It’s an international organization. I’m a member of the Canadian chapter.”

“Ah, yes,” someone says. “They support U Win Tin also.” U Win Tin was detained at the same time as Suu Kyi began her house arrest. His sentence was recently extended because he had made an attempt to inform the UN about the appalling conditions of Burmese prisons.*

“Ma Thida and I worked together,” says the old poet. “She is like a daughter to me. She’s a dear woman, and a fine writer.”

“Do you know much about her situation?”

“The tuberculosis is under control. But she also has some–I don’t know, some female problems. I’m not sure. She suffers with that, but she is doing a lot of meditation. For many hours a day, meditating. That is how she survives in the prison.”

“Vipassana meditation,” clarifies the folktale collector. “That is how Buddhism helps many political prisoners.” She lowers her voice. “While the Lady was under house arrest, she used to sit vipassana every day, for some hours. Do you ever meditate?”

“I try. But I’m not very good at it.”

She laughs. “That’s normal. We need to practise every day or it remains very difficult. Sometimes I go into retreat at a monastery near Mandalay, and by the end of two weeks I start to feel calm!”

Sayagyi Tin Moe snorts. “By the end of twenty years, you would be very, very calm.”

“No,” says the woman reflectively. “I think I would be insane.”

“Insane in Insein,” intones San Aung in a jokey voice. Insein is the name of the prison where many political prisoners are held, including Ma Thida.

Sayagyi Tin Moe says, “If you are a writer in this country, going to Insein is an occupational hazard. I am not allowed to publish anymore, not even magazine articles. My old poems are in the school books, but my books are banned.” He looks across the table and says something to the folk tale woman, who breathes a few words, a consolation or a whispered condemnation, I don’t know. It’s not the moment to ask for a translation. Everyone at our table is silent, as though in a show of respect to all the banned words and writers, which throws the noise of the street and the voices of the other diners into sharp relief, the ongoing clatter of plates and cutlery, the hum of gaslights and music playing nearby.

Suddenly the poet lifts his hands up like an orchestra conductor. “Keep talking! Talk, talk.” He raises his voice. “It is a good thing to do. We can still talk!” Then he has such an energetic coughing fit that he has to put down his cheroot. After recovering, he raises the dark green cigar and addresses it, “My good friend.” Then, to me, “It is like a companion. The tea shop, the cheroot and the writing. They go together.”

“It’s like that in Canada too. And Greece. Writers love to smoke and drink.”

“An international brotherhood,” remarks the lawyer.

“And sisterhood,” adds the folk tale collector with her mauve smile.

Sayagyi Tin Moe turns his big head to me and asks, “Will you write a book about our country?”

Memorably, I answer, “Uh . . . I’m not sure. I’m . . .” How to dodge the question with some grace? “Right now I am still reading books about your country. I have so much to learn.”

Which is absolutely true. The purpose of my visit, ostensibly, is to collect enough material to publish a few articles about political prisoners here. Ma Thida is only one of more than two thousand. I’ve become attached to her because of the similarities between us–and the gaping differences. Twenty-nine years old, she is very close to my age. While I am free to write my books and live my adventurous life, Ma Thida is in solitary confinement, ticking the days off her twenty-year sentence. Her crime? Writing short stories that are critical of the military regime.

Both of us are young women writers. Is that where the similarity ends? The single great accident of human existence is geography: where we are born in this bordered, divided, largely unjust world. My life would have been different if I had been born elsewhere. This is an obvious enough notion, but when I was a child I used to think of it as a kind of magic. At the age of eight, when the Filipino neighbours moved in next door, I had an epiphany: “I” would not exist if I had been born in another country, to other parents. “I” was contingent upon so many things that “I” had no control over. It was a dizzying concept, and I have never ceased to feel its power. If I had been born in a country like Burma, who would I be? What would I look like?

In the depth of a Canadian winter, Ma Thida’s photograph had haunted me. Framed by black hair, the attractive round face wore a small, impish smile. She regarded me with a calm gaze. It was hard to believe that she was in prison even as I thought of her; that she was suffering from tuberculosis as I prepared to return to Asia, packing up my old house, putting all the necessities for a year or two of travel into a small suitcase and a backpack. The least I could do was to try to find out more about her, and write a couple of articles.

That was the modest, reasonable plan of a few days ago, before the plane touched down in Rangoon. Now my mind has been tossed upside down by these people. Yesterday, my cab driver said of the ruling generals, “They have guns, but no brains.” He grimly bared his teeth. “But guns kill us.” And the merchant I chatted with at a tea shop: when I quietly asked him about the Lady–a more discreet way to refer to Aung San Suu Kyi–he was so taken aback he said, “No, I am sorry, I am afraid to talk about that.” Then he stood up and left me sitting there, ashamed that I had not anticipated his fear, that I do not have the mechanism of fear myself. At least, not the fear of speaking.

Plates of fruit arrive. The end of the evening has come, but the lawyer asks me about Noam Chomsky, which in turn leads to a discussion about the failures of democracy, and how those failures are preferable to the bloodier failures of dictatorship. As the tables around us empty, we’re talking about art. Anita describes the beauty of the Musée d’Orsay (her long hands in the air like white sculpture) and Sayagyi Tin Moe invites us to a gallery opening. San Aung says he knows a group of painters and asks if I would like to meet them. The fruit is finished and we are drowsy–the old poet has nodded off, twice, snoring so loudly that he wakes himself up again–but my companions are still hungry for more information, more news, more evidence of the ongoing life of the world, and how their own country, how they themselves, are connected to that world, the realm of freely circulating ideas and books and newspapers and technologies. Freely circulating people, in fact–Anita and Johnny and myself bring our worlds with us. In an isolated place like Burma, this kind of meeting is also communion that vivifies, renews, the way colour comes as a mind-sparking pleasure after weeks in a monochromatic hospital ward.

The boys who clean and stack the night tables are swishing rags over the wood and cracked Formica and sluicing the dirty water down the gutters. Our party cannot stretch the evening any further, we need to sleep. No, no, the folk tale collector says, shaking her head theatrically and pressing my hand, you must not walk back to your guest house, San Aung will see you home, he has a car.

Goodbye, goodbye. We turn to each other with a curious mixture of formality and friendliness, not quite bowing but almost, smiling too, laughter igniting without reason, just the punchiness of being so tired, so pleased with the company. “Nowmak dwei-may,” I say, which brings another laugh, the colloquialism comical in the mouth of someone who cannot speak the language. See you later.
The poet shakes my hand and whispers in his gravelly voice, “Very quickly you will learn Burmese. That will help you.”

“Help me what?”

“Write the book.”

*U Win Tin was Burma’s longest-serving prisoner of conscience. After being in prison for nineteen years, he was finally released in September 2008, at the age of seventy-nine.

close this panel
Come cold river

Come cold river

edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian
More Info
One Room in a Castle

One Room in a Castle

Letters from Spain, France and Greece
edition:Hardcover
tagged :
More Info
The Change Room
Excerpt

Sometimes she felt desperate for it.

After she dropped the boys off, she hurried along the icy street, afraid of slipping. A few other parents, late getting their kids to school, waved in her direction. They were also in a rush, no one could stop and chat. Thank god. I have forty-five minutes, she thought, and picked up her pace.

The intensity of her own need was unfamiliar. Not need. She didn’t need anything. That was for children. And Andrew. She wanted. It’s desire, she thought. One foot skated forward unexpectedly on the ice; her arm shot out as she caught herself. Resettling her heavy bag on her shoulder, she felt a twinge there, the old ache. Torn ligaments, years ago in Greece. One serious surgery when she returned. The sidewalks were treacherous, the roads worse. Accidents were already happening today, across the city, on the highways. She’d asked Andrew to leave the car at home, but he said, Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.

She had not thought of that word for a thousand years. Desire. Who had the time for it? De sideris. She’d taken two years of Latin at university, four of ancient Greek, the brilliant, useless languages. Dead, like the stars. “Desire” came from the Latin root de sideris. Meaning of the stars.

She had started to swim a year ago, when the boys were five and six, and she was in the floral studio again every day, working long hours. Her work was complicated, busy, mostly satisfying. She would never tire of flowers, though the people who bought them sometimes drove her crazy. Clients came to the studio as though to a therapist’s office, upset about their daughter’s choice of husband, worried about aging, or anxious about money, and good style. Human weirdness was part of the boutique flower gig. Her business partner, Kiki, often said that because flowers came from the natural world, they brought out the animal in people. Eliza loved the flowers first and foremost, but she also loved the crazed tap-dance of running a business that sold something as ephemeral and as unnecessary as flowers. Beauty, that’s what she sold, beauty’s ancient promises, too—this is true, this will be good—especially from May to October, when she and various wedding planners worked together to create lovely, personal, idyllic, glorious, increasingly lavish weddings. Approaching the city’s three top wedding planners had been her idea, and an excellent one. The clients who came through them were the wealthiest people she had ever met in her life. They could afford truth and beauty.

Eliza worked hard to give it to them, every day. Though she relished hard work, the pace had grown relentless since she’d had kids. The list of things to do constantly replenished itself. One after the other, she shot down the tasks, yet still they rose up and came at her (like zombies, naturally; her boys loved zombies). If it wasn’t the main sink clogging at the studio, it was the flooding basement at home, or a sick child, or a bossy client. In the past couple of months, it had been Kiki, in a romantic funk, whining about her loneliness and threatening, vaguely, to return to Montreal to find a real man. Wanting to be one of the “good” mothers, Eliza had even volunteered for school council. Now some disorganized flake of a woman called her every week, begging her to do yet another school-related task. Andrew never seemed to work himself into the same frenzied pitch. Was it because he was attached to an institution? Was it because he was a man, and didn’t know how to wash the floor?

She felt alone in her exhaustion, but she knew that she was not alone. She was one of millions of women working their brains out and their asses off. She had no right to complain, sitting as she was at the top of the pyramid: white skin, warm house, healthy kids, a loving husband. Some days, usually on the weekends when she read the newspapers, she felt her luck swell and stick in her throat. She swallowed it down with clean water, queasy, stomach churning, her eyes open, eating up the articles, the reports, the photographs in the world section. People stood at the flooded, burning heart of the world, howling kids in their arms, or dead on the ground. Bombs fell, the plague spread, the refugees fled, and fled, and fled. And always, always, there were women trapped somewhere, in rape camps, raped lives.

Eliza was free. She said it out loud sometimes, in the midst of whining about all she had to do. This is freedom! Two times a year, she got melodramatically sick; her body knew that only illness would bring real rest. Last year, sitting on the examining table, she’d said to the doctor, “It’s just my cold, finally breaking up.” The doctor had lifted her eyes from her cool stethoscope on Eliza’s hot chest, and responded, “Actually, it’s just your pneumonia, settling in.” Even while the kids were babies and toddlers, she had worked; maternity leave did not exist for the self-employed. Years passed, as they do, with at least one breast and half her mind attached to her babies. Now Marcus and Jake were big boys going to school. She still felt the elastic delight of being out of the house full-time.Thumping their hips, her friends would say, The baby weight is disappearing. My body’s coming back. A lie. It never came back, the body before children, the old life. She knew the truth: love cleaves you right through the middle. She would never be closed again. Never again, singular. She was divided in three by husband and sons. No, she was divided in four, because of the house, an old Victorian four-storey, always clamouring for attention. They had renovated it slowly, room by money-sucking room. The house belonged to both of them, but she was the one who took care of it like the housekeeper out of an old English novel, right down to the keys, the platters, the good cutlery, the power tools, pliers and paint cans. To say nothing about keeping the place clean.

Which reminded her of that shelf in the fridge, covered in some sticky, gelatinous substance. She shook her head and stepped over a gleaming artery of ice. This was it, this gift of an hour on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, she must not think about the fridge. The water whispered: you are not as divided as you feel. Her skin was still complete, despite the cuts, broken glassware at work, a slip of a new pruning knife, her heel punctured by that nail during the flood cleanup in the basement last spring, even the way she tore—twice—with the births. The wounds closed. She floated.Someone was out on the sidewalk breaking up the terrible ice in front of St. Anne’s Community Centre, referred to by those in the know as Annie’s. She liked the name; St. Anne was the patron saint of families. It was a solid place, built in the sixties, nothing fancy, no big glass window or state-of-the-art equipment, just a squat two-storey building at the edge of the park, operated by well-organized people who took good care of children. When the boys had been little, the daycare had saved her life.

She pushed through the first door, then the next. Tina at the front desk stamped her pass with a wink—she was busy on the phone. Eliza hardly slackened her pace down the hallway as she detoured around the mother who was down on her knees in front of her crying two-year-old. The change room door was yellow; she went through it into the warm, chlorinated air, and immediately felt better. Echoing voices drifted in from the pool, the lifeguards talking loudly across the water. And water falling: someone was taking a shower. Maybe it was Sheila, her neighbour. Just as she looked toward the shower area, her good friend Janet came out from behind the tiled wall, and said, “Hi there! I was wondering if you were going to make it today.” Janet had a towel around her voluptuous body—she claimed that her breasts simply never stopped growing—and another wrapping up her curly dark-brown hair.

Eliza hung her coat and bag on a hook. “It’s always a panic in the morning, but I will not give up my swimming! How are you?”

“Sophie is driving me bonkers, otherwise I’m fine.”

Eliza made sympathetic noises as she pulled her sweater over her head. Sophie was Janet’s increasingly argumentative teenage daughter. Another regular swimmer came from the showers into the change room, smiling nearsightedly. Annoying woman, with a perpetually sore neck. She always talked about her son in Vancouver, how much money he was making, tearing down old houses, ripping around the city in his fancy car. Who cares, Janet would say after the woman had left. Who cares about a damn Porsche?

Eliza was in her bathing suit already, keen to get in the water; it was only a half an hour before the toddler swim classes would arrive from the daycare. Sheila was in the shower room, a petite woman with what Eliza’s mother would call “a lovely figure”—and the only mother who swam in her bikini, which added to the impression that she was about twenty-five. But she was older than Eliza. The women greeted each other; Eliza glanced surreptitiously at the hourglass curve of Sheila’s waist. The deep brown skin was almost unlined. Sheila said, “Watch out, the showers are cold again today.”

Eliza stepped into the cool spray. “Brr!” She showered quickly and called out her goodbyes, then slipped through the last door.

Beyond the pool, the long eastern wall was painted in cartoon style with bright tropical fish, a diver, a red-haired mermaid peeking through seaweed. Above the mural, graffiti letters bulged: St. Anne’s Is a Good Place to Be. Only one other swimmer was in the water, finishing a length at a fast clip. Eliza was pleased that she wouldn’t have to vie for a clear lane.

She sat down and licked the insides of her goggles, embarrassed by her tongue sliding over the plastic lenses; saliva kept them from fogging up. The bored young lifeguards seemed always to catch her doing this; today was no exception. She waved at the one sitting across the pool in his raised chair and fit the goggles over her eyes. Blue lenses made the water bluer. She lifted her whole weight up with her arms and dropped herself straight off the edge of the pool.

close this panel
The Lizard Cage
Excerpt

The boy was twelve years old when he entered the Hsayadaw’s monastery school. As the newest novice, his became the smoothest bare head; he was given dark ochre robes and taught how to wear them. With his scavenger’s eye for opportunity, he saw how lucky he was. The men here gave him food, and a mat to sleep on beneath a wooden roof. He saw also that the school was a poor place, but the monks who ran it were generous with what little they ­had.

This didn’t stop him from jealously guarding his own possessions. He even refused to be parted with his filthy blanket. The monks said it should be thrown away, but he insisted on washing the thick swath of Chinese felt himself. When it was dry, he folded it with haughty care and placed it on his sleeping mat. The old Hsayadaw – abbot of the monastery school – observed this patiently, accustomed to children who clung to the relics of their old ­lives.

Because the boy had never been to school, he received lessons from his very own tutor, but sometimes the Hsayadaw excused the tutoring monk and sat down to teach the child himself. This seemed like a favour to the tutor, but the truth was that the abbot enjoyed teaching the boy. He had run the monastery school for more than forty years and this was the first time he’d ever seen an illiterate child dedicate himself so passionately to the alphabet. Learning his letters made the boy shine, and the old man liked to sit in that clean, honest light. They were both happy during these lessons, and their happiness made them laugh at almost nothing, a bird shooting through the leaves beyond the glassless window or the voice of the ­papaya-­seller in the street, calling out the sweetness of her fruit. More than half a dozen times, in the middle of the night, the Hsayadaw caught the boy with a candle burning and a notebook open in his lap, his grubby hand drawing the ­thirty-­three consonants and fifteen vowels of the Burmese alphabet over and over, and he had to force himself to be stern when he sent the child back to ­bed.

The boy’s name as a Buddhist novice was too long and tricky for him to write, so he insisted on learning how to spell his birth name. When he wrote it from memory for the first time, such was his jubilation that the tutoring monk whispered to the Hsayadaw, “He acts like he’s discovered the formula for turning lead into gold.” To which the abbot only ­smiled.

When he was not learning to read, or trying to write, he was quiet, sometimes sullen. He was a secretive, ­ever-­hungry boy, uninterested in playing with the other children – though he often watched them as if they were animals he was afraid to approach. The abbot endeavoured not to pick favourites, but he adored this peculiar child. If only all of them were so interested in reading, and so dedicated to their Buddhist studies. Apparent to everyone, even the more recalcitrant monks, was that the boy had embraced the rituals of worship with surprising devotion. He sometimes spent hours in the temple, just sitting and watching the image of the Buddha. There hadn’t been a child like that for more than a ­decade.

The monastery was full of boys, large boys, small boys, boys with harelips and boys with flippered limbs, boys from poor families or with no families to speak of. The Hsayadaw adopted them all. The old proverb says that ten thousand birds can perch on one good tree; the Hsayadaw was such a tree. His children found refuge in him, and he taught them to seek a greater refuge in the Buddha’s Dhamma of Theravada, the teachings of the Middle Way. He did not cane his children or send them off, even if they misbehaved, because the state orphanages and reform schools were dangerous ­places.

The boy came to love the abbot with the same anxious tender­ness he’d felt for the Songbird. This love declared itself through the laughter they shared during their lessons, through the tears the boy blinked away as he struggled with all the letters and their complex combinations. One morning, watching him wrestle with frustration, the Hsayadaw said, “It’s all right to cry. It’s just a little water that needs to get out. We could put it in a cup if you’re worried about losing it.” That made the boy laugh again, and his work became easier. For just over three months, he lived this way, making his path through hard terrain as quickly and gracefully as ­water.

But one morning, ­trouser-­wearers appeared, two military intelligence agents who asked about him. They came again very late that night, and their shouts scared the ­children.

The Hsayadaw was calm with a lifetime of meditation, but inside he was afraid for his favourite son, so afraid that he broke the Fourth Precept: to abstain from telling lies. He knew it was wrong, but he lied to the military intelligence agents. Morning and evening, he told the men that the boy was very wild, and had run away. “What did you expect, with the way the child has been raised?”

“Did he take his belongings with him?” one of the men ­asked.

“Belongings? He was the poorest among poor, he had nothing but a bag of scraps and an old blanket. Of course he took them away.”

On their first visit, the morning meal was just beginning, and the military intelligence agents insisted upon walking slowly among all the children as they sat eating on the floor. But who was to know one particular novice among ­sixty-­seven ­shaven-­headed, hungry little monks? The boy they were searching for was also calm, calm with a short lifetime of surviving by his ­rat-­stick and his wits. He went on eating with the other children. All of them kept their heads angled to the floor. They called out his name, demanding that he speak up if he were in the room. The boy didn’t even blink; he would never answer to the voices of the cage again. The men came back that night and performed the same theatre, but all they succeeded in doing was making a few boys burst into ­tears.

close this panel
This Brighter Prison

This Brighter Prison

A Book of Journeys
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Touch the Dragon

Touch the Dragon

A Thai Journal
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged :
More Info
Last Call

Last Call

photographs by George Webber
foreword by Karen Connelly
edition:Hardcover
also available: Hardcover
More Info
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...