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People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, October 1976
Tran, Tran, and Hok broke through the heavy end-of-wet-season clouds. The warm night air rushed against their reluctant smiles and yanked their hair vertical. They fell in a neat formation, like sleet. There was no time for elegant floating or fancy aerobatics; they just followed the rusty bombshells that were tied to their feet with pink nylon string.
Tran the elder led the charge. He was the heaviest of the three. By the time he reached the surface of Nam Ngum reservoir, he was already ahead by two seconds. If this had been the Olympics, he would have scored a 9.98 or thereabouts. There was barely a splash. Tran the younger and Hok-the-twice-dead pierced the water without so much as a pulse-beat between them.
A quarter of a ton of unarmed ordnance dragged all three men quickly to the smooth muddy bottom of the lake and anchored them there. For two weeks, Tran, Tran, and Hok swayed gently back and forth in the current and entertained the fish and algae that fed on them like diners at a slow-moving noodle stall.
Vientiane, Two Weeks Later
It was a depressing audience, and there were going to be a lot more like it. Now that Haeng, the spotty-faced magistrate, was back, Siri would have to explain himself every damn Friday, and kowtow to a man young enough to be his grandson.
In the jargon of the Marxist–Leninists, the sessions were known as “burden-sharing tutorials.” But after the first hour in front of Judge Haeng’s warped plywood desk, Dr. Siri’s burden had become more weighty. The judge, fresh off the production line, had taken great delight in casting un-expert doubts on Siri’s reports and correcting his spelling.
“And what do you put the loss of blood down to?” Judge Haeng asked.
Siri wondered more than once whether he was deliberately being asked trick questions to establish the state of his mind. “Well.” He considered it for a moment. “The body’s inability to keep it in?” The little judge h’mmed and looked back down at the report. He wasn’t even bright enough for sarcasm. “Of course, the fact that the poor man’s legs had been cut off above the knees might have had something to do with it. It’s all there in the report.”
“You may believe it’s all here in the report, Comrade Siri, but you seem to be very selective as to what information you share with your readers. I’d like to see much more detail in the future, if you don’t mind. And to be honest, I don’t see how you can be so sure it was the loss of blood that killed him, rather than, say . . .”
“Exactly. It would have been a terrible shock when his legs were severed. How do you know he didn’t have a heart attack? He wasn’t a young man.”
With each of the previous three cases they’d debated, Haeng had somehow twisted the facts around to the possibility of a natural death, but this was his most creative suggestion. It struck Siri that the judge would be delighted if all the case reports that came through his office were headed “cardiac arrest.”
True, the fisherman’s heart had stopped beating, but it was the signal announcing his death rather than the cause of it. The newly armor-plated military launch had crashed into the concrete dock at Tar Deua. With all the extra weight, it lay low in the water. Fortunately for the crew, the collision was cushioned by the longboat man standing in his little wooden craft against the wall, with no way to escape. Like a surprising number of fishermen on the Mekhong, he’d never learned to swim.
The overlapping metal deck sliced him apart like a scythe cutting through rice stalks, and the railing pinned him upright where he had been standing. The embarrassed captain and his crew pulled him—his torso—up onto the deck, where he lay in numb confusion, chattering and laughing as if he didn’t know he was missing a couple of limbs.
The boat reversed and people on the bank watched the legs topple into the water and sink. They likely swelled up in a few hours and returned to the surface. They had worn odd flip-flops, so the chances of them being reunited in time for the funeral were poor. “If you intend to cite a heart attack for every cause of death, I don’t really see why we need a coroner at all, Comrade.” Siri had reached his limit, and it was a limit that floated in a vast distant atmosphere. After seventy-two years, he’d seen so many hardships that he’d reached the calmness of an astronaut bobbing about in space. Although he wasn’t much better at Buddhism than he was at communism, he seemed able to meditate himself away from anger. Nobody could recall him losing his temper.
Dr. Siri Paiboun was often described as a short-arsed man. He had a peculiar build, like a lightweight wrestler with a stoop. When he walked, it was as if his bottom half was doing its best to keep up with his top half. His hair, clipped short, was a dazzling white. Where a lot of Lao men had awakened late in life to find, by some miracle of the Lord above, their hair returned to its youthful blackness, Siri had more sensible uses for his allowance than Yu Dum Chinese dye. There was nothing fake or added or subtracted about him. He was all himself.
He’d never had much success with whiskers, unless you counted eyebrows as whiskers. Siri’s had become so overgrown, it took strangers a while to make out his peculiar eyes. Even those who’d traveled ten times around the world had never seen such eyes. They were the bright green of well-lighted snooker-table felt, and they never failed to amuse him when they stared back from his mirror. He didn’t know much about his real parents, but there had been no rumors of aliens in his blood. How he’d ended up with eyes like these, he couldn’t explain to anyone.
Forty minutes into the “shared burden tutorial,” Judge Haeng still hadn’t been able to look into those eyes. He’d watched his pencil wagging. He’d looked at the button dangling from the cuff of the doctor’s white shirt. He’d stared up through the broken louver window as if the red star were sparkling in the evening sky outside the walls of the Department of Justice. But he hadn’t once looked into Siri’s brilliant green eyes.
“Of course, Comrade Siri, we have to have a coroner because, as you well know, any organized socialist system must be accountable to its brothers and sisters. Revolutionary consciousness is maintained beneath the brilliance of the beam from the socialist lighthouse. But the people have a right to see the lighthouse keeper’s clean underwear drying on the rocks.”
Hell, the boy was good at that: he was a master at coming up with exactly the wrong motto for the right situation. Everyone went home and analyzed their mottoes, and realized too late that they had no bearing on . . . anything. Siri stared at the sun-starved boy and felt kind of sorry for him.
His only claim to respect was a Soviet law degree on paper so thin, you could see the wall where it hung through it. He’d been trained, rapidly, to fill one of the many gaps left by the fleeing upper classes. He’d studied in a language he didn’t really understand and been handed a degree he didn’t really deserve. The Soviets added his name to the roster of Asian communists successfully educated by the great and gloriously enlightened socialist Motherland.
Siri believed a judge should be someone who acquired wisdom layer by layer over a long life, like tree rings of knowledge, believed you couldn’t just walk into the position by guessing the right answers to multiple choice tests in Russian.
“Can I go?” Siri stood and walked toward the door without waiting for permission.
Haeng looked at him like he was lower than dirt. “I think we’ll need to discuss attitude at our next tutorial. Don’t you?”
Siri smiled and resisted making a comment.
“And, Doctor,” the coroner stood with his nose to the door, “why do you suppose the Democratic Republic issues quality black shoes to its government officials free of charge?”
Siri looked down at his ragged brown sandals. “To keep Chinese factories open?”
Judge Haeng lowered his head and moved it from side to side in slow motion. It was a gesture he’d learned from older men, and it didn’t quite suit him.
“We have left the jungle, Comrade. We have escaped from the caves. We now command respect from the masses, and our attire reflects our standing in the new society. Civilized people wear shoes. Our comrades expect it of us. Do you understand what I’m telling you?” He was speaking slowly now, like a nurse to a senile patient.
Siri turned back to him with no sign that he’d been humiliated. “I believe I do, Comrade. But I think if the proletariat are going to kiss my feet, the least I can do is give them a few toes to wrap their lips around.”
He yanked open the sticky door and left.