Aranyaprathet smells of overripe pineapples and mangy dogs. Beside Hiroji's guesthouse, a woman tries to sell him Buddha heads. She tugs at his clothes, whispers at him until, finally, he chooses one, a sleepy boddhisattva with its eyes half-open, cold against his fingertips, too light for this world. The old woman clucks reassuringly, scratching the bills together, she drums them on the surrounding objects, holds the money up against her forehead, smiles generously.
Upstairs, inside his room, he sets the boddhisattva on the desk, inside the square of sunshine floating through the window. He removes, from his shirt pocket, two colour photographs of James, damp from his sweat, and lays them on the desk to dry. Hiroji sits on the edge of the bed, thinks of making tea, thinks of calling his mother, thinks of an empty stairwell in the School of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, the carpet of grass out front, where he used to read and watch the girls go by. Objects in the hotel room begin to disconnect from one another, first the mirror turns away, then the table stutters toward the door, then the walls come apart. The boddhisattva falls face down as if to kiss the earth, he's so tired and he hasn't slept in days. Hiroji blinks his eyes. It's his birthday, today or tomorrow depending on the time zone, and he wonders if the party (the non-existent party) will bring him gifts or money, plans for the future, or just fond memories.
A rattling at the door bothers him. He watches the knob turn of its own accord, the door jumps open and a face appears at the level of the table: furtive eyes, a heavy frown. The Cambodian boy, Nuong, comes into the room, exhales a jumble of Khmer words. His flickering hands clutch his stomach.
“I'm sorry,” Hiroji says, ashamed. “I lost track of time.”
At their regular place, they step through a windowless wall, drop down onto red plastic chairs. A long-faced man brings them two bowls of noodles, they arrive in a bouquet of steam. Hiroji removes his glasses and lays them, arms open, on the table. It's crowded in the restaurant this morning. Men in undershirts snap their newspapers back, hold them high like flags. The regulars nod at him: Thai Red Cross and USAID workers, gamblers, black market profiteers, foreign service officers, stringers for AP, AFP, Reuters, stringers as the conscience of the world, here for a few days before pulling out. The owner has a bird in a bamboo cage, the cage covered by a thin sarong. The bird chortles in its private darkness.
Hiroji closes his eyes, rubs the dust and wetness from them. He isn't upset, just tired, but Nuong, his mouth bursting with noodles, stares at Hiroji in shocked sadness.
“Allergies. I have allergies,” Hiroji says, even though the boy doesn't understand much English.
To trick the sadness from Nuong's eyes, he pushes his food toward the boy. Nuong accepts. In minutes, the noodles are gone.
“They won't confiscate your food,” Hiroji says, but the boy just looks up at Hiroji expectantly.
After lunch, Hiroji stops in at the makeshift Red Cross office, where a terse woman his mother's age operates the Xerox machine, telling him, as it spits out posters, that his bill is running high and he should clear his account, then she disappears behind a stubble of folders. He takes the posters out of the machine. By the time he carries them outside, the sheets are already moist from the sweat on his hands.
James's face smiles out from Aranyaprathet's bulletin board where the locals come to read the daily newspapers, James smiles from all the downtrodden shacks along the road toward the border, Hiroji keeps postering until he runs out of sheets, and then he turns back to see the posters scattered along the road, Nuong running back and forth to gather them up. Cheap glue. The ink fades fast in this climate and he'll do it all over again next week, this is what he tells himself and it works, it makes his heart slow down, it calms his hands.
Back at the Red Cross, Hiroji stations himself at the telephone. He calls the Cambodian Ministry of the Interior, he lets the line ring fifty, sixty times, before giving up. He telephones the Cambodian Foreign Ministry in Paris, a man with a delicate voice answers, puts him on hold, and then the line goes dead.
The Xerox woman tells him there are a dozen refugees newly arrived in the south, near Mairut. “Take a moto-taxi,” she says. “Better yet, ask our driver to take you.”
Hiroji stares at the map and absent-mindedly fingers the cash in his pocket.
“Okay,” he says. “Tomorrow.”
The heat is surreal. Hiroji walks back to the border, stares across the river, wonders if the Khmer Rouge soldier will suddenly vacate his post, if some door will swing open, if people will rush out as he rushes in. Cambodia is right there, right in front of him, as accessible as a landscape painting. But chip off the paint and there's a dirty, yawning hole. His thoughts are melting. James needs you, he thinks. He tries to think of someone else he can appeal to, a diplomat, a fixer.
James is waiting, he tells himself again. But when his brother finally does come home, what will he do? Will he disappear again, like he used to after binge drinking at some forgotten dive in Chinatown. Even blind drunk, his brother could walk a straight line, tell a joke and remember the punchline, advise Hiroji to stay a kid because a kid's life is the best life, the bee's knees.
“I'm not a kid,” he had protested.
“Dream on, brother. Let's go for a drive.”
It was Hiroji who had steered them through the wet nights, while James pushed his tipsy head out the window, toward Lion's Gate Bridge, toward the sea-swept darkness of the north. Once they went all the way to Squamish, they rolled the windows down and listened to the tide, admired the teenaged girls sitting on the picnic tables. “Japs,” one said and the other girl giggled: “Sayonara!” They smiled at Hiroji enticingly.
“One for you and one for me,” his brother slurred. Then James closed his eyes as if the darkness was too bright. Hollow beer bottles clinked together, the girl's voices pitched and rolled like the tide coming in.
“James,” Hiroji said, when the beach was empty. “Can I drive us home now?”
“Sure, brother. Drive away. I might take a snooze.”
Hiroji swung the door open.
“Do you remember Dad?” James said, collapsing into the front seat.
He hesitated before answering. “Not so much.”
“That's good,” James said. “That's okay. That's what he would have wanted, that's what we all want, isn't it? Hey, world! Turn a blind eye to my mid-deeds.”
Hiroji just drove, uncomprehending.
Every week now he tracks down government officials who nod sympathetically, who shake his hand and tell him, frankly, there's nothing to be done. He goes to sleep thinking about the covered birds and wakes up, the air close, smelling of mud. Once, Hiroji saw Nuong cooking strands of meat. He had killed a cat, skinned it, and roasted it. “If you're hungry,” Hiroji had said, pointing at the carcass and shaking his head, “why don't you tell me? Those animals could be diseased. They might make you sick.” The boy had blinked in surprise.
“Try it,” Nuong said in Khmer.
He watched the boy devouring the meat, sucking the marrow noisily and succinctly from the bones. The boy only rests in the afternoons. He lies down on Hiroji's bed, hands interlaced, studying the cracked ceiling.
“What should we call you,” Hiroji had asked when they met, for the first time, in the medical tent. The boy had crouched on the bamboo mat, keeping his distance from the translator, a teenaged girl.
“Bruce Lee,” Nuong said. “I am Bruce Lee.”
“We walked through the forest,” Nuong told him, his voice humming beneath the girl's. “We came up through the forest.”
“Me and my brothers.”
It costs Hiroji thirty dollars every week to bribe the Thai guard, but at least Nuong comes and goes freely from the camp where the UNHCR rations are only twenty cents per person, per day.
Back at the Red Cross office, Hiroji telephones his mother, trying to sound upbeat. “You've heard from Ichiro?” she asks, her voice wobbling with joy. “Not yet, but soon.” Her disappointment leaves a cut in his heart. He tells her, impulsively, that he'll stay in Thailand another month, he will delay his studies. When he puts down the receiver it seems like the end of the world: the phone call cost forty-two U.S. dollars. He can live on dried noodles but what will he feed Nuong? Where will they sleep? He returns to his room but Nuong is gone. Hiroji lies down on the hard bed, watches the crooked turning of the fan. In his dreams that night, his brother offers him pastel-pink candies to make all the helpless thoughts go away, they taste like Pepto-Bismol. Pepto-abysmal, his brother says. He wakes up and knows that James is dead, there's nothing to be done, the vigil is over. He wakes up and it's his twenty-seventh birthday. Lightning stutters in the sky and the rains start again, raucous and temperamental. He can't accept it, he doesn't know whether to stay or leave, he wants to do right by James but he doesn't know how, he can't imagine how.
* * *
At dawn, unable to sleep, he dresses and slogs through the mud to the border. Nuong is there, incongruously, half-blotted out by the rain. The boy is nearly unrecognizable, his eyes are bugging out, he looks rabid. “Nuong,” Hiroji says but the boy doesn't react to his name. On the other side of the bridge the Khmer Rouge guard lifts his Kalashnikov, lifts the goddamned thing so easily and swivels it so the barrel is facing forward. The rain is everywhere, obscenely loud, drumming against the frozen air. Nuong looks like he is about to run across the bridge, straight into the guard, deep into the minefields.
Nuong calls, in Khmer, “Are you going to shoot me?” His voice carries, both childlike and detached.
The guard on the other side makes no response.
“Will you shoot? Shoot, okay? Shoot.”
From where Hiroji stands, the guard looks like a piece of smudged charcoal. Nuong takes a step forward. “Why don't you shoot?”
The guard picks up something from the ground, grips it in his right hand, and then flings it nastily across the river.
Nuong flinches. The rock flies through the rain, it clears the bridge but misses him.
Nobody says anything for a moment and then, slowly, Nuong walks to the foot of the bridge. The guard yells at him to get back. The rifle shakes as he raises his voice, high-pitched, stunned and enraged, and the rain seems to part around the gun. Nuong gets down on his hands and knees. He starts pawing at the mud. The guard keeps screaming. The torrent has softened all the edges so that the land and the boys are the same brown colour, the same weak consistency. Nuong stands up, holding something in his right hand. The guard lets off a hail of bullets. Still, nothing happens, it must be the heavy rain that is blurring things or maybe the guard is intentionally firing wide, but Nuong continues to stand there, drenched, holding what Hiroji can now see is a rock. The guard taunts Nuong to come forward, to throw it, to cross the bridge, to come home, come home, if you come home I'll give you everything you want, but the boy just stands there staring like a lost dog, a sick child.
At the guesthouse, Nuong takes off his wet clothes, lies down on the bed, and there is no emotion at all, just an extraordinary, disturbing stillness that Hiroji has never seen before in anyone. He had picked up the boy after he sat down in the mud, unmoving, and carried him back to Aran, piggyback style, as if they were a father and son coming home from the park on a Sunday afternoon.
He could feed this boy and defend him but there's a limit he finally perceives now, a limit to what Nuong will say and what he, Hiroji, will ever be able to understand. The boy has survived, he's turning into someone else, but all the broken edges are rubbing together and injuring him every time he moves.
Nuong opens his eyes and says, in English, that he's hungry.
They get up and walk to the restaurant.
Hiroji wants to ask him if there are any foreigners in the new Cambodia, if there are doctors there, and why so few people have escaped across the border. Are the stories of the refugees true? They say the cities are empty, that children are executed for missing their parents, that torture and killing are commonplace. The French newspapers are reporting that eight hundred thousand people died in the first year of the revolution alone. But how could he ask a child such a question, even if the child knows the answer?
At the restaurant, Nuong says insistently, “I'm hungry.”
By the end of 1977, they are surrounded by scores of missionaries and aid workers, by reporters, spies, and swindlers. More shelters bubble up from the ground, more generators and supplies arrive, but it's never enough. He alternates between a dozen camps along the border, leaving Aranyaprathet for Lumpuk and Mairut, then threading back again. The shelters, blue tarpaulins hooked onto bamboo stakes, are overrun, polluted, and dank. Twice a month, he hitches a ride in the Red Cross truck, he returns from Bangkok with cases of tinned milk and dried noodles, with notebooks and pencils for Nuong, and he does the same things over and over again, asks the same people the same questions, Xeroxes more photographs of James, phones his mother. Over the decrepit lines, he tries to reassure her. She tells him not to give up hope.
The hills are completely green, the grass is technicolour, fruit falls everywhere and rots on the ground.
The boy draws unbelievable things.
The objects in the hotel room separate. Metallic paint chips off the boddhisattva's head.
Nuong says, in his precarious English, that he would like medicine. “What kind of medicine?” Hiroji asks, curious.
The boy just looks at him.
“What kind?” Hiroji asks again. “What kind?”
The boy cradles his head and stays in that position for a frighteningly long time.
Somewhere, now, a surgeon could burn a lesion into the boy's brain. It's possible to lessen Nuong's suffering if the boy accepts some degree of loss. They can turn down the volume on all his emotions, pinch the air out of his sadness, turn him dull and pure as snow. Hiroji has professors who say there is no suffering, there is only chemistry. Suffering is a description but chemistry is the structure. In any case, a pill can dampen some receptors, dim the lights a little. Surgery can make him care a little less. Pain and suffering are not, in the end, the same thing, one can be cleaved from the other like a diamond split along its planes, so that you feel pain but you are no longer bothered by it. He has seen a patient, huddling in a corner, at the mercy of a condition so devastating that even a slight breeze from the window would cause him unbearable suffering. After surgery, he told his doctors that the pain was exactly as it was, but he did not feel it as greatly. “It's as if,” he had said, a cool, blandness in his eyes, “the pain is not being done to me.” One day, maybe in a ten years, or fifty years, a surgeon will be able to do this with disturbing precision, destroy a whirlpool of memory, an entire system of feelings, but in the meantime it's like taking a hatchet to a spider's web.
By early 1979, the border area is a dead-eyed, stinking hell. He signs on as an aid worker with the Red Cross and they give him a stipend and a room. In January, the Vietnamese Communists crossed the Cambodian border, swept the Khmer Rouge aside, and took Phnom Penh in less than two weeks. The refugees wash up in their black clothes. He volunteers with the Red Cross but the supplies are so limited he works in a state of heartless efficiency. It's the only way that he can cope. Film crews record a girl, the same age as Nuong, suffering from starvation. On camera, she dies. Rows of cork boards overflow with letters, queries, and pictures of the missing. He adds James's photograph but, within a day, its covered over by other missing people. He falls asleep tasting flies in his mouth. Vancouver and the university might as well be drawn on paper, he begins to forget that other people don't live this way. Bye-bye, the children say, when they glimpse him arriving, walking, working, leaving. Bye-bye! He keeps James' photo in his pocket all the time but the shame he feels searching for his brother, this foreigner, one person out of two million, distresses him.
Nuong is sponsored, all of a sudden, by a family in the United States. The adoption, arranged by an American Christian relief agency, happens so fast Hiroji is caught off guard. He has to hide his unhappiness in a bloom of smiles. In a few weeks, Nuong will board a plane from Bangkok to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Lowell, Massachusetts. His new family sends him a greeting card with a snapshot of balloons. Nuong wants to know if he will be given food on the crossing, if Hiroji will visit him, if it is advisable to take everything with him, his books, pencils, and quietly accumulated stash of Nescafé, and not glance back over his shoulder, the way the Christian missionaries taught them, to prevent the salt from flowing back up through his mouth, out his nostrils.
Hiroji doesn't know what to say, he doesn't understand this boy.
“Why are you so sad all the time?” Nuong asks him in his now-melodic English. “Is it so very bad where you come from?”
Hiroji has to laugh.
Nuong doesn't smile. He says, “Thank you heaven I am not going to Canada.”
More refugees arrive every month.
Hiroji makes a gift to Nuong of all his remaining money, which isn't a great deal, and the shining boddhisattva. He accompanies him as far as Bangkok and he tells Nuong to be strong, not to look back, to be brave.
The boy looks so small with his suitcase and his blunt haircut, wearing a knit sweater for the first time. He does what Hiroji says and he doesn't look back, he launches himself courageously up into the sky.
These passages from Madeleine Thien’s most recent novel, Dogs at the Perimeter opens in 1975 when, as the Khmer Rouge come to power in Cambodia, a Japanese-Canadian student, Hiroji Matsui, searches for his missing brother She is the author of two previous books of fiction, Simple Recipes, a collection of stories, and Certainty, a novel. Her writing has appeared in The Walrus, Five Dials, Brick, the Asia Literary Review and Granta, and her work has been translated into more than sixteen languages. Last year, she received the Ovid Festival Prize, awarded annually to an international writer of promise. She lives in Montreal.
An excerpt from Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien copywright2011. Published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart. Reproduced courtesy of the author and the publisher. Dogs at the Perimeter will be published in the UK by Granta Books in March 2012.