In this searing, all-too-possible novel set in rural Thailand, a sensitive young woman quietly and heroically survives a harsh political awakening.
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Heat the color of fire, sky as heavy as mud and, under both, the soil -- hard, dry, unyielding.
It was a silent harvest. Across the valley, yellow rice fields stretched, stooped and dry. The sun glazed the afternoon with a heat so fierce that the distant mountains shimmered in it. The dust in the sky, the cracked earth, the shriveled leaves fluttering on brittle branches -- everything was scorched.
Fanning out in a jagged line across the fields were the harvesters, their sickles flashing in the sun. Nobody spoke. Nobody laughed. Nobody sang. The only noise was wave after wave of sullen hisses as the rice stalks were slashed and flung to the ground.
A single lark flew by, casting a swift shadow on the stubbled fields. From under the brim of her hat, Jinda saw the bird wing its way west. It flew to a tamarind tree at the foot of the mountain, circled it three times, and flew away.
A good sign, Jinda thought. Maybe the harvest won't be so poor after all. She straightened, feeling prickles of pain shoot up her spine, and gazed at the brown fields before her. In all her seventeen years, Jinda had never seen a crop as bad as this one. The heads of grain were so light the rice stalks hardly bent under their weight. Jinda peeled open the husk of one grain: The rice grain inside was no thicker than a fingernail.
Sighing, she went back to work. A trickle of sweat ran down between her breasts and into the well of her navel. Her shirt stuck to her in clammy patches and the sickle handle was damp in her palm. She reached for a sheaf ofrice stalks and slashed through it.
Reach and slash, reach and slash, it was a rhythm she thought she must have been born knowing, so deeply was it ingrained in her.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the hem of her sister's sarong, faded gray where once a bright flowered pattern had been. Dao was stooped even lower than the other harvesters and was panting slightly as she strained to keep up with Jinda.
From the edge of the field came the sudden sound of a thin, shrill wail.
"Your baby's crying, Dao," Jinda said.
Her sister ignored her.
"Oi's crying," Jinda repeated. "Can't you hear him?"
"I hear him."
"Maybe he's hungry."
"He's always hungry."
"Why don't you feed him, then?"
"Why don't you mind your own business?" Dao snapped.
"But couldn't you try?" Jinda insisted, as the wailing got louder. "I think you should at least try."
Dao slashed through a sheaf of stalks and flung them to the ground. "When I want your advice, sister," she said, "I will ask for it."
They did not speak again for the rest of the afternoon. The baby cried intermittently, but Jinda did her best to ignore him.
Jinda's thoughts drifted back to the harvest two years ago, before the drought. She and Dao had chatted away gaily then as they cut stalks heavy with grain. They had talked about what they might buy after the harvest -- new sarongs, some ducklings, a bottle of honey. And as they talked, dark, handsome Ghan had sung love songs across the fields to Dao, until her face burned so red she had run down to the river and splashed cold water on it.
Ghan and Dao had been considered a perfect match by the whole village, since their fathers were the two most important men in Maekung. After all, wouldn't the marriage erase the long-standing hostility between Dao's father Inthorn, the village headman, and Ghan's father Mau Chom, the village healer?
So when Dao and Ghan were married, everyone in the village attended the wedding. All that morning each of the hundred or so families of Maekung had taken a turn at tying the sacred thread around the bridal couple's wrists. Then, after the wedding feast of chicken curry and sticky rice, the dancing had begun. Countless couples, young and old, had danced the ramwong until the moon rose high above the palm trees.
There had been so much of everything then. So much food and rice wine, so much music and movement, and best of all, so much laughter.
Yet now, just two bad harvests later, there was never any laughter, nothing but the whisper of sickles against dry stalks in parched fields. Ghan had left to work in the city before his son was born, and Dao -- poor Dao, Jinda thought, as she stole a glance at her sister's grim face -- Dao had become just a shadow of herself.
When twilight finally came, the line of harvesters broke up and the men and women straggled back to the edge of the fields. Most rested against little thatched lean-tos, fanning themselves with their hats, while others ladled water from rusty buckets and drank deeply.
Jinda tucked her sickle into the waist of her sarong and approached her sister.
"Want to go down to the river?" she asked.
"Too tired," Dao said, massaging her back with one hand.
You can stretch out under the banyan tree on the riverbank."
"And the baby?"
"Bring him. He likes the cool water, you like bathing him -- and me, I like watching the two of you together."
Dao smiled then, and Jinda knew their quarrel was over. "All right," Dao said, "I'll go get the baby."
Jinda watched her sister duck into the lean-to where the baby was. As she waited for Dao to emerge, her father walked up to her.
"Tired?" Inthorn asked quietly.
"You are the one who should be tired, Father," Jinda said, smiling. "I saw you help others carry their loads of rice stalks."
"No more than usual. But I guess I'm not as strong as I used to be," Inthorn said, rubbing his shoulder ruefully.Rice without Rain. Copyright � by Minfong Ho. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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