The short story Night Flow was published in Perfect magazine in 2008 in Burma and some of the sections were censored. Written during the notorious Saffron Revolution of 2007 in which many of the author's friends and students participated, Khet Mar was adamant about publishing this story in Burma and hoped her readers would discover and engage with the metaphors she created. She explains, “We, the Burmese people including myself are like "Night Flow” - the surface of us seems supple and calm, but underneath that surface runs restless water struggling to find its freedom.” Warscapes has published an uncensored version of the story below. The previously cut paragraphs have been highlighted in bold.
I sat on the bank of the slow-swirling river, shoulders hunched, fists and teeth clenched against the bone-chilling night breeze. The stone bench I was sitting on was cold as a block of ice or so I thought. The cold breeze that came across the river touched my bare neck giving me goose bumps.
A river is always bigger than a creek or stream, I was taught. The Iowa River reminds me of Maletto, the stream that flows behind the long-legged house where I lived until my teens. My village is called Maletto too. Maletto’s water was not clear but muddied by the rainy season but it was almost clear in the summer. On both the banks, the unending patchwork of rice-paddy, sunflowers, chillies and peanuts abound. My village friends who couldn’t afford school tended these fields all year round. But my sister and I were lucky because our mother was a teacher at the village school. During the summer holidays, we joined my friends in picking chillies. The sun baked our supple bodies, and the hot chillies our tender hands. When we had filled a sack, we were paid a small basketful of chillies in return. We could take our share to use or sell it at the market nearby, or we could also sell it back to the owner. Most of us kept what we needed and sold the rest back to the farmer.
At noon, we stopped for lunch. Rice, fish paste, vegetables and meagre portions of fish caught from the Maletto creek were brought out by our group of friends, some in aluminium containers but mostly wrapped in inn leaves, the traditional wrapping. We sat under the shade of a huge tree, sharing our food, laughing and teasing each other. It was the most fulfilling time of the day. After lunch we returned to the fields without clearing the soiled inn leaves.
In 2001, after being gone for five years, I revisited my village on stilts. Now people used plastic bags instead of leaves. The hot air blew the bags over the fields where we had once laughed together.
“Why?” I asked my friend Ma Khin Maw.
She gave me the strangest look. “Where else would we throw them?”
I stared back. She was the crazy one with her nonchalant acceptance that plastic could replace the leaves.
The people of my village are just as apathetic about the mangrove that grows along Maletto’s swamps. The villagers themselves chopped down the mangrove to make charcoal that lined up the pockets of businessmen. Now, its marine life is slowly disappearing and the villagers are being deprived of eating fish and shrimp as a staple they used to enjoy. Mangrove swamps also act as barricades for the villages against storms or tsunami that come in from the Indian Ocean.
Don’t my people realise what they’re doing?
Working for a handful of rice in order to survive becomes an isolated act in the darkness.
The day after I arrived at Iowa University, there was a field trip with other invitees of the International Writing Program to the Red Bird Farm. Yes! I was walking on American soil, in the American wilds. I was in the fields of Maletto without plastic bags.
As we walked, a fellow writer in front of me threw an empty plastic water bottle into the thick grass.
Seconds later: “Who threw this?”
“I am sorry,” was the honourable admission.
“Please don’t do this.” The dark-haired young woman with a nose-ring said sternly. She looked young enough to be in her late teens. She picked up the bottle as if she were lifting an ugly thing from a bed of exotic flowers.
* * *
As teenagers, whenever we had free time, my friends and I fished in the Maletto creek. I used a light pole but they would go right in, searching for fish with their hands and feet, snatching them on contact. They could name them without even looking at them. They would yell, “It’s a catfish!” or, “A ngazinyaing,” and they were usually right. I had no such skill. They would throw a mud-coated fish to me on the bank and I would put it in the bamboo basket. My grandmother scolded me for aiding in the taking of life, something we Buddhists were not supposed to do. But picking up the fish was so exciting, I paid her no heed.
I imagined the thrill of grabbing those fish in the water, as the others did. Then it happened that May Tin Aye threw a ngazinyaing, a dwarf catfish, and its dorsal fin caught my big toe. The toe swelled up. The pain and extreme heat made me cry the whole night.
My grandmother crushed some medicinal herbs to fight the poison.
“This is retribution, you know. You have pain in your little toe; think of the fish suffering in the basket.”
Still crying from pain and the scolding, I did as she said. But since I was not a fish, I could not fathom the suffering of fish. I thought instead of how the fish that my friends had caught would be sold and turned into money. The cash would buy rice and with the hollow-stemmed vegetables that grew abundantly in their backyards, they would make a meal to support their lives. I confess my lack of feeling for fish. I was sad and angry that my friends couldn’t even afford to eat what they caught. Many of my friends are still in this kind of a sad situation. And many others whom I don’t know as well.
My thoughts returned to my toe and, strangely, the heat and pain had died away. My foot was cooler again. I felt better.
One night on the bank of the Iowa River, the tip of my toe felt this same soothing, comforting sensation. By the light from the lamppost about twenty feet away, I looked down to see a rabbit examining my foot with its nose. Dark grey with quick eyes and ears up, the rabbit looked back at me. How tame it was. I sat without moving. But my toe was no kind of food, so he hopped into the misty grasses nearby. That very evening I had seen fur-tailed squirrels running and playing along the bank, and ducks on the river. Some fought for food; some for love, and some were just playing. Was this really America where I found myself? It felt like the jungle grove where I cut taryor branches to prepare local shampoo for my grandmother.
But I am in America, actual America, and so I recomposed my thoughts.
Around midnight, I connected with my friend in Burma through Google Talk.
“How is Iowa”?
“Very pleasant! Plenty of ducks in the river … also squirrels … and rabbits, too”
“Really! It would be so nice if it was like that in Burma.”
I imagined he envied the peaceful scene, but I wasn’t quite sure.
“Why, may I ask?”
“Well, you can cook and eat them. Rabbit is very delicious, and duck so tasty.”
There was nothing I could say. But I wondered, what happened to those noted Burmese traits of kindness and blamelessness? Had they been vanquished?
On the other hand, I reasoned, if they had enough to eat, he wouldn’t have such awful designs on my gentle scene. I giggled at his comment … and I wanted to cry.
I don’t know why I want to cry so much in Iowa.
* * *
Last night I cried. That was the night of September 26th.
Earlier I’d had two glasses of white wine at a gathering. The wine warmed me to the sudden change of weather. As sun melts ice, the wine melted my sadness into tears. That night was good to hold many warm hands —hands from Argentina … the Czech Republic … Russia … Malta … Montenegro … Malaysia … Hong Kong… Oh, those loving hands of the world. Their warmth and kindness went straight inside me. They understood. They could feel what I felt. It was palpable.
This love is also like a gift to my Burmese people. I will take that gift back with me to Burma.
Those warm hands grasp the story of my Burmese friend Kaythi, now living in Oslo. She heard I was here in Iowa so she called me. She was granted political asylum in Norway. She doesn’t know when she will step on our own soil again. Perhaps one day, when Burma attains democracy. She told me about her life in Oslo, starting with the severe cold and her struggle to survive and stay happy.