We’ve gathered at the railway.
Our nerve endings have faded, the gamut of our sensations become just two poles, yes or no: Can you feel that?
No. Not much anymore, said while testing a point against the pillow of thumb, of palm, against corded wrists. Glass to skin. Needle to skin. The way flesh puckers before it’s punctured. But nothing coursing beneath it: a riverbed of fissured earth.
We’re waiting on the tracks that skirt Bangkok. The rhythm on the rails is a heartbeat and it pummels through us. We lay on the ground to better catch the pounding, the low moan of a horn. We stand with backs stretched, shudder pleasantly like a man urinating. We hum train songs, skip on the crossties, stack gravel into mausoleums for diminutive kings. We are listless, parched, and waiting for the arrival, finally, of a man who comes tripping across the dawn expanse. Distant roosters rouse the moment. A nursery rhyme ripples through us:
Make way! Give way! How many birds can we feed today?
Morning like a camera flash strikes him, captures him washed-out in the foreground, his rubber slippers catching and folding on the uneven gravel, throwing his gait. Is he drunk? We can’t smell it. Around him the host of us, child-sized, scratching scabbed arms and squinting.
He looks over the heaped garbage, the track carrion and industrial waste, the streaming pennants of toilet paper. If there is a hell… he thinks, and again a voice moves through us: no. Shaking heads. No, there isn’t. Only this.
We jostle closer and inhale. There is the alcohol. Also a clinical odor, something of a sterilized wound.
And his name?
A tide of whispers: Pea.
Pea sits on the rails and from a pocket takes a straight razor. He unfolds the razor, holds it to his temple hairline and tugs backward the way he had, as a child, watched his father comb his hair, in long pulls, angling his chin, moving his head against the motion of his hand. The sound is of a cat clawing fabric. Skin comes away with the hair. Blood peppers through.
The razor snags and Pea drops it with a choked laugh. He recalls black hair against blue bathroom tile the last time his lover had cut his hair for him. He hugs his knees, rocking like a toy, and remembers tracing the small bow of her ribs.
When the train comes it scatters Pea across a mile of tracks. And like hard rice thrown to the wind, he brings down the birds.
Three teenage boys, playing on the tracks, find him. The chubby boy pokes a splintered rib with his gnawed mango pit.
“Dog?” he says.
“Dinner.” They laugh, watching the birds. Then they see the jaw. The brushed white teeth. “Oh.” They follow the trail long enough to be certain. The chubby boy’s mango pit is stained red at its tip. We draw close to the third boy, catch the scent of his thoughts.
He thinks it was murder. He’s imagining what the body looked like when it was struck.
“Like a bug on a windshield,” the leader says.
The chubby boy stops in the middle of us and drops his mango seed. He stomps it into the gravel. His belly jumps with his leg, up and down, a slosh of blood and bowels.
We go with them to the corner store, our hobbling and skipping parade, sharing talk down our ranks.
Why do we always follow boys?
You can smell him on them.
Watch the fat one walk.
At the store the boys tell the old vendor, “Apah, there was blood and shit everywhere. And a bird just plucked his eyeball”—with thumb in mouth the leader imitates a cork popping—“right out!”
“He was tied to the tracks, probably,” says the chubby boy. “Apah, do you think it was that Soi Twelve bike gang? You know, the ones with stripped mufflers—did they do this?”
“I’ll bet it was,” the leader says. “But bullets are too easy.” He levels his finger and shoots the chubby boy in the gut. The boy keels backward like a felled tree, arms roped to his sides. We imagine a red flower blooming on the concrete, but in the three boys’ heads a film reel whirs: the whistle of the train grows louder, the tied man’s eyes telescope, the engine chugs around a bend and the train operator, leaning out of the side window, yelps and tugs on the brake lever. When the tied man dies the world collapses into a single bright point on a black T.V. screen.
“Hey, Apah. Let’s have a sweet.” The leader slaps a twenty-baht bill on the counter. They snigger.
“He was tied?” the old vendor asks. And we, in chorus: no.
The vendor doesn’t believe the boys, these smirking slum louts. They always pick out a single sweet and pay in big bills, emptying the change in Apah’s tiller.
Only later, when the vendor hears that it is Pea who has been killed, will he think of how the man, barely into his twenties, had come weekly and bought a rocket popsicle, turned over an empty soda crate, and sat down to watch the television. He never ate the popsicle. It pooled in a rainbow puddle by his foot and crusted the fingers he would later run through his hair, turning it brittle as spun sugar. When the old vendor left him alone, Pea raised the volume to its limit, the T.V. voices faltering under the speakers’ patter, like those of children yelling into a gale.
It could have been an accident. The vendor takes a sweet. He sucks it to its core to save his sore teeth from chewing. Suppose Pea had only gone down to the rails with the intention of leaning close, for a roar loud enough to shut out the voice in his head, a bellow bigger than that of the television. The vendor thinks of the time when, as a boy, he had been taken to Khao Yai National Park. On the mountain’s precipice was a barrier not unlike the blade of a train rail, slick in the rain, narrow as a boy’s foot. He climbed it. He raised his arms like a cliff diver. His parents would mistake this for an imitation of Christ, and afterwards insist on a severely Buddhist upbringing, so that even today the old vendor rose early to offer food to the passing monks. He hadn’t jumped, but slipped, and had fallen the right way, backward, into the world again. And if he hadn’t? Well, poor Pea—he stumbled into death.
The police investigator comes into Apah’s corner store on his way to the tracks. We break ranks for him. We watch him while rubbing our thumbs against the coarse ridges of coins, while imitating the sound of soda tops popping, the crackle of released bubbles. We try to leave impressions on the cold glass of the fridge.
The investigator buys a packet of dried mango. He needs to eat when thinking. His jaw makes a cow’s looping, rolling motion when he chews. When he looks over the mess on the railway it’s with a cow’s dead eyes.
We say, It’s dangerous when it begins in the eyes. Two stone points in a lover’s face. The investigator’s wife has noticed, and though she doesn’t realize it, she has begun to distance herself, in the way the living detach from the very old and sickly, saying, “He’s in such pain. It’s better for him to go.”
He’s living, but lifeless. One of us rubs the shadow of a noose (actually, she had used a length of twisted duct tape) from her neck.
They have found Pea’s identification. There is no family.
“Why hasn’t a train operator called this in?”
“We’re locating the engine now, but the train was en route to the Udon Thani. It’s a half-day away already.”
A half-day away, we are with the train operator as he thinks about a woman he has just left in Bangkok. The operator knows that last night’s woman is a whore, even though she didn’t ask for money. That will come. These women are patient; they operate in the long run. He knows. Next time, she will ask. Or perhaps a year from now, if he decides to marry her. He thumbs his nose, grease stained. He is not to be fooled. Though young, he is no coy fish to be left gaping mouthed on the night of his wedding, riches gone, house gone. Not that he has either. He is not a rich man, he knows, looking at his possessions in the corner. But he can be proud to run this engine.
The feeling of being alive is physical—the toil of the train’s boiler, the old axels turning, the split skin of a seat flexing—and we want that feeling. We lift our noses to the operator’s neck and inhale. Sweat and oil.
He hadn’t noticed Pea stepping onto the tracks. He doesn’t know that Pea was from his hometown, Udon Thani, where the train has carried a portion of Pea’s remains. Confronted by the authorities waiting at the tail end of his journey, the operator denies the accident until they show him the blood crusted on the engine’s nose.
We click our tongues. What have you done?
Laughing behind our hands: Fed the birds. Twenty-nine birds.
The operator leaves the station, follows the main road until he finds a lotus vendor.
Run! Run to your rituals.
He insists the vendor help him fish through the bucket of lotuses, searching for the largest to offer as alms to the rail-side shrine.
“What have you done?” the vendor accuses.
We shake our heads: He’s not entirely to blame.
The operator is making his own case to the shrine’s deities. He cannot be held responsible for some crazy walking the tracks. He hadn’t seen. Surely, they will understand.
The congregation of monks he expects to find after death, their smug pewter faces burnished by knowledge.
But it will be our faces, just as it is us looming beyond his shoulder as he hails a motorbike taxi. Arm raised to wave, the operator is struck by what seems, involuntarily, a parting gesture. A silhouette of a person on the railway comes to him.
In the operator’s mind the face of the railway man becomes that of the woman from Bangkok. She holds her arms out in supplication (a recollection from the previous night: arms inviting his embrace, breasts pointed) before vanishing in a red mist. They take away his job for negligence, so he never returns to Bangkok, and continues to believe that it had been his whore on the tracks that day, come to call him back. He must have missed the scent of her perfume as it flitted through the open window.
Straddling a motorcycle, the operator passes the corner of the market where Pea’s father had once run a food stall. The operator will never discover that years ago he had noticed Pea helping his father at the market. The operator, also a boy at the time, had come away from a neighboring kanom krok stall with a double portion, the small coconut cakes towered high, and was forking them into his mouth with a wooden skewer when he saw a skinny boy watching him. He wanted to offer the boy one—but no, they were hard earned. He had spent a week collecting cigarette filters from the street, snipping off the charred parts, buying tobacco and paper to roll into new rods, and then selling the cigarettes individually on his corner. When the operator’s mother eventually caught him at this she whipped his legs with a bamboo rod. He has since associated the taste of coconut with a throbbing on his calves.
Here. On the street corner. It’s written on the ground.
We take turns running our fingers along a circle etched into the pavement. Here, a young Pea had every day lined up the food stall’s propane tank with the precision of a boy whose currency is his father’s approval.
This happened until his alcoholic father left. Then the boy was fostered at a local temple by a middle-aged monk: Luang Poh Wasubon.
Wasubon? Smells of talcum powder. Sleeps behind the hen house. Feeds the hens himself.
Feeds boys too.
Pretty boys brought to Wasubon can fetch a price.
The townspeople, those relatives burdened by some sister’s offspring, they understand: bring boys and take money. What they don’t want to understand is where they go, the pretty boys brought to Wasubon. What Wasubon understands: when he sends them south to the city he always gets his price. What he does for the boys is houses, feeds, teaches. It’s as much as can be demanded of any parent, or so he tells himself on morning walks along the ravine, on those nights he wakes tossed up beside his bedding with the floor-mat’s texture written into his cheek. Wasubon assigns value; the boys make a living. He knows he’s not saving anyone, but little else can be done with such boys, their path already laid out like the life of a chess pawn, the sphere of possibility so limited by design.
But Wasubon never got his price for Pea. The boy ran away from the temple at fifteen. It was not an escape so much as a pursuit, the monk knows, because there was a girl involved. Her father was killed in a motorbike accident and she was sent to live with an uncle in Bangkok. Where that girl can be found, Pea will be found. So Wasubon doesn’t blame himself for Pea running away. He understands puppy love. He also understands the condition of a teenaged Udon girl in Bangkok. Wasubon has made a career understanding what happens to country teenagers gone to Bangkok.
Her name is Nahm.
We walk the ravine with Wasubon and circle him once before leaving, each of us reaching out to brush the patch of stubble on his crown, a spot he’s neglected with his razor.
In the daytime the soi where Nahm once worked is lined with noodle stalls and fruit vendors. Low buildings crowd the space. On a street corner a young girl sells too sweet khanom chun. Shoppers move through, taking care to stay in the red shade of the sun umbrellas.
At night the fruit vendors give way to those of a different sort, to bars and massage parlors with names like Teen Love. It becomes an area frequented by large foreign men. When they walk through the girls in short skirts lean forward, crying their wares.
We find the bargirl that trained Nahm when she arrived in Bangkok. She smells of charcoal and, beneath the perfume, carries the musk of an animal. We stand in her bedroom, near the mirror where she does her make-up. We close ours eyes and remember the texture of charcoal on skin.
Do you feel that?
The bargirl has not thought of Nahm in years. Many of the girls she has trained have married foreigners and moved away from this life. Some have gone to America, left behind their mother tongues. They may as well be dead. America is the afterlife. And what is America? Two-door garages. Mashed potatoes. The smell of pine trees. Nahm could be there now. But if that is the final resting place, the bargirl prefers to be reborn here, in Thailand, even if it means enduring the monsoons as a grub, or whatever it is that bargirls are reborn as. She thinks back to her Buddhist upbringing. What wrongs has she committed in their eyes? She counts the men she has broken, the husbands she has seduced, the skinny boys with pimpled backs and quaking thighs who came to her for their first time. She counts the years of drinking and miles of cigarettes and the single occasion when she attacked a lover with the black point of a pen. How petty, she thinks.
So she counts the girls she has trained to sell themselves.
The bargirl is not a girl anymore, not beneath the make-up, not beneath the tight dress that lifts her breasts like a man’s fawning hands. But it is her job to flavor a bland thing, to doll up a potato, as she had with the teenaged Nahm:
Eye shadow. Use your finger. The warmth evens it. Push into ball of your eye. Use a brush on the eyebrows, not a pencil, because you’re not a balding grandmother. They don’t want to see the charcoal. Make them think you woke up this way. That they’ll wake beside you and see you this beautiful. She lifted Nahm’s chin. Nobody wants to wake up with a raccoon, with your mask running in the heat, and it’s always hot, trust me—have you ever had a foreign man on you? They are big. It’s like hugging a rubber mat. Listen, girl. Two things: eyes and lips. That’s all. Maybe a little whitening cream. They like to be reminded that we’re human. These weak men, they want to know they can keep you, that you’re not better than them. A mole, the shadow of sleep, the grain of your skin: that’s all it will take to convince them that you’re theirs. And you want to be, don’t you? When I’m done, you can be whoever you want to be. Whoever they want you to be. With your schoolteacher’s English we’ll find you an American husband in a month. Say ‘oh.’ A toothbrush across the lips to pucker them. There, there. Look at yourself. Look what I’ve done.
We press ourselves against the doorframe as we slip into Nahm’s house, trying for the rasp of wood on skin, trying for splinters. When we find her clothes strewn on the floor, we rub into those too. The fabric smells of the pencils she sketches with. Hers is the fragrance of this closed house: sun shutters, wood polish marking bare soles, fingers tipped in dust after they’ve been dragged across the furniture. There is bedding on the floor of the maid’s room. A rotting banana perfumes the kitchen.
How many Americans before she married one?
How many men?
(And what the men asked her panderer: How much?)
In the bedroom her husband has left clothing heaped on one side of the bed. The sheets on the far side are thrown back to reveal a single pocket in the mattress. We don’t lie down; the bed is cold. Across the dust on the dining table: two parallel finger tracks that narrow into the horizon of the table edge. On the reverse pages of English verb tables we discover drawings of mountains, of waves in the sea. None are of places Nahm can see from the windows, and her worlds are uninhabited except for one picture. It shows a woman on a moonlit beach. The sand distorts the shape of the woman’s shadow, so that her stomach bulges, its swell imitating the full moon.
She keeps her toothbrush in the shower, its bristles shredded and gummed with red spit. The floor tiles are square and blue.
A hair. Pea’s hair.
Nahm had always insisted on cutting Pea’s hair herself, a tradition they started as children. It grew with them into adulthood.
Naked and with her legs around a tall plastic stool, knees holding Pea where he sat on the floor, she had cut his hair. It spread against the white of her skin. It looked unnatural there, and he brushed it away, combing his hand up her thigh to the hair between her legs, then up to where her belly had begun to show.
His child, Pea had said.
Nahm said nothing.
Leave him. Be with me, he said.
She told him that she was right here.
But for how long?
Pea suggested the abortion. He even threatened to leave her if she had that man’s child.
Nahm clipped the last lengths, and leaning into him, asked what he would do without her there to cut his hair.
It’s evening and they have stopped the trains, rerouted them farther west while clearing is done. We watch men in yellow jumpsuits walking the rails. Their shadows are distended by the low sun. They wear dishwashing gloves and white fabric around their faces. For most of them that is enough distance from the flesh they handle. They smell of disinfectant and try not to look at what they touch. We avoid them, parting our group when they walk through us, closing up behind. Vomit hovers on their thoughts. They have no appetite. But there is one man, a newspaper photographer moving among the cleaners, who lets the fabric around his mouth fall away.
The photographer finds a tooth and tests the points of its roots against his thumb. He captures what he can on his camera, images to pair with the story. A picture of the railway rocks stained dark red, an indistinct lump in the background. He is good at gore, and the city’s papers eat it up. When he finds a piece he lifts it with gloved fingers, trying to identify the part. Fingers. A collarbone. A bit of flesh, from the lower back, perhaps? Or the leg. It fascinates him that hairs remain planted in the skin, even when that skin has been ripped from the body. He feels the hair through his gloves. His own hair stands. He shivers. We huddle close to him. His pants are caked with drool and piss from the dogs he keeps in a pit behind his mother’s house, where he lives. We can smell the hounds on him. Their manic tang. He picks up a piece of flesh. We imagine his tail thumping the dirt. He can never afford fresh meat for his pups. He thinks about the sound of two dogs tearing apart a single haunch. The pop of sinew. Then he slides the piece into his pack.
We crowd in, hoping to share in the photographer’s bloodlust. It is bloodlust. He wants to see damage done. He missed the immediate carnage of the train striking Pea, but now imagines bringing together the body parts. Shin to knee to pelvis, taking pictures from on high, outside of the pit, a man reconstructing who Pea had been. In this manner, he could manage a gross outline, as will the papers in their work with his images, with Pea’s story. The dogs will consume the meat. Will the pups turn crazy, the way humans are rumored to when they start to eat one another? No—of course not, it isn’t cannibalism to them. The photographer’s laugh lifts the heads of the clearing team.
The tracks are clear when Nahm comes to us. The sun has settled on the horizon to watch her. She’s heard. A friend of a friend, a policeman. She’s not here to look for the body, we can see that—she’s come to be witness to his death. She needs to realize it for herself.
Behind her on the road a taxi idles and the driver rolls down his window, considers calling her back. Was he wrong to pick her up at the hospital? He’s sure now that she’s run away. The hospital gown that she wears is formless—it withholds the secret of her body—but she’s betrayed by wide, painful strides, by a walk she leads with her hips. She tries to accustom herself to her weight without the baby, straddles the first rail, stumbles over the second and falls onto her back. She lifts her hips and writhes. She drives her shoulders into the gravel.
Nahm had kept the baby long enough for Pea to feel the bulge of her against his back, fitting the curve of his spine. She kept the pregnancy from her husband. She kept the pregnancy too long, went too late to the abortionist, went alone.
She had misled Pea, told him the abortion was later in the evening, didn’t need him hounding the process, seeing it through. When he arrived it had already gone wrong, and Nahm was in labor. He drove her to the hospital and she gave birth to a girl and a nurse asked Pea if he was family.
Family—what family? It’s just us two.
They had grown up together. As children, Nahm had never used his name, and he followed her unspoken code of unspeakable names, as he would follow her in all things. It was Nahm who learned to ride a bicycle first, straddling the crossbar because she wasn’t tall enough to sit on the seat. He ran behind, holding on to keep her from falling. Or when his grandmother warned them not to steal from the mahyom tree, it was Nahm who wanted to know what the fruit tasted like. She made him keep watch while she hoisted herself into the branches: “And don’t look up!” He did; her skirt flared in the wind. When she came down with the fruit, the small green berries shaped like pumpkins, she tried one first and kept a straight face long enough for him to eat one. Its sour juice ran down his chin, and he puckered his lips, happy still to have been her accomplice.
After Nahm’s father died, Pea had followed her to Bangkok. He left nothing behind. He boarded her train and stole into the first-class carriage her uncle had paid for. It was dusk and he could see the conductors at the far end, converting the booths into bunk beds.
He passed a fat man with a bottle of whisky. The man tapped the bottle against his table and said, “Hey boy. Hey boy, come share my troubles.”
He recognized Nahm’s sack, woven of red and white plastic. She was asleep, the curtain pulled across her lower bunk. He climbed in by her feet. In the dark countryside of the window he could see an outline of himself. His legs had outgrown his size, and there was something feral about the way he crouched, like he had been caged in his body. Nahm was in the moonlight, crescent-shaped and cold in the first-class air-conditioning. Her shirt had lifted in sleep, revealing the buttons of her spine and the slight spill of stomach. For someone so small she had large feet. Even then she smelled of pencils in a box. The boy listened to the circular rhythm of the train. He stretched out beside her and pressed himself into her back. He kissed her nape. She didn’t start. She had known he would follow her.
Nahm sits up and stares directly at us. We have encircled her, close enough to know the odor in her teeth, bitter as old tea. We stop. She can’t see us, we know that, but her eyes give us pause. She reaches out and from the crossties she worries a clump of hair that Pea had cut away. A sob shakes her as she blows the hair out of her palm, hoping it will catch the air and disperse, find a resting place away from the tracks.
There are trains approaching from the distance. We can feel the hum off the ground, the stutter of railway rocks knocking against one another.
But another has also arrived, as if called by her presence, her gesture of spreading his remains. He’s among us now. But already his perceptions are withdrawn, his sensations dwarfed, his memory shrunken. He’s fading.
It’s not too late, we tell him. The residue of raw hurt is there. You have time.
In the hospital room Nahm had beckoned Pea to her bedside.
Rick is on his way here. I asked the nurse to call him.
Pea sank down beside her. So he knows he has a daughter. Does he know about me? He doesn’t, does he? It’s not too late to come away with me. Bring the girl.
And live where? With the other men in your apartment? You’ve always been a dreamer, Pea.
A nurse appeared in the doorway holding the baby. Sorry, she held the bundle up. Should I come back?
Pea backed away from the bed. Nahm lifted her weight on her elbows, enough to receive the girl.
I need you to leave, Nahm said.
He understood. I’ll come back tonight. I’ll wait until Rick goes home again.
No. Nahm spoke deliberately, as if her mouth was a wound that pained her. I need you to leave.
Pea steps into our circle and kneels to fold himself around Nahm. His face is still, but he can feel her warmth, the blood in her ears. He’s hurt; we share his hurt.
It ripples through us: You feel that?
We know our skin again. We become distinct from one another. The pieces of our group consciousness scatter, we become:
I notice a delicate throbbing from the wound in my side and turn joyfully to:
I nod, my skin bunched at the neck as if being pulled. I remember a man from my youth, how he would run his thumb around each of my knuckles.
I try the gravel on my palms, feel the day’s heat in the metal rails.
It smells of dawn, of dew on the grass, but we are only beginning the night.
Can you feel that?
We come together. We want to thank Pea. We touch our lips to his nape. Touch one another. We put our fingers into mouths. A musty scent returns to our bodies, the fragrance of embers. Our hands hum with sensation. We shudder. We want to be close. We press brows to chins, faces to breasts. Ours limbs entwine. We push into one another. We grow smaller, tighter, coiling like thread around their pain. It seeps into us, and we are afraid to unclench. We won’t release this feeling for fear that it will fade.
This story appeared in Indiana Review 38.1, Summer 2016.
Maggie Su (Fiction Editor): Glittering and razor-sharp; Mai Nardone’s piece uses a collective voice to push and pull against these characters in tightly-wound, lyrical vignettes.
Mai Nardone was raised in Bangkok, Thailand, by an American father and a Thai mother. He has received scholarships from the Tin House Workshop and the Bread Loaf Conference, and a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Slice, and the Tin House Open Bar. He lives in Bangkok.