Dogs at the Perimeter

an excerpt by Madeleine Thien

 

MadeleineAranyaprathet 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.”

Nuong looks at him, wide-eyed and anxious.
“Okay. Let's go.” Hiroji returns the photographs to his shirt pocket and they descend. Nuong, hunched like a shrivelled leaf, hurries quickly along the road.

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.”

“Who?”

“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.