Seven female Hmong villagers kidnap Dr. Siri on orders from the village elder who hopes that Yeh Ming, the thousand-year-old shaman who shares the doctor’s body, will consent to exorcise the headman’s daughter. He fears that her soul has been possessed by a demon due to the curse of a mysterious Western artifact. Siri agrees to help and, in so doing, brings to pass a prediction of Auntie Bpoo, a transvestite fortune-teller.
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As there were no longer any records, the Hmong could not even tell when they actually misplaced their history. The event had deleted itself. But the oral legend that was passed on unreliably like a whisper from China would have them believe the following:
The elders of the Hmong tribes had gathered to lead the great exodus. For countless centuries, their people had been victimized by the mandarins. With no more will to fight, the time had come to flee. Traditional nomads, the Hmong had few valuable possessions to carry. They would lead their animals and build new homes when they reached the promised lands to the south. But there was one artifact that belonged to all the Hmong. It was the sacred scroll that contained their written language, legends, and myths of ancestors in a sunless, ice-covered land, and, most importantly, the map of how to reach their nirvana: the Land of the Dead in the Otherworld.
With great ceremony, the scroll was removed from its hiding place, wrapped in goat hide, and given the position of honor at the head of the caravan. The Hmong walked for a hundred days and a hundred nights and on the hundred and first night they were lashed by a monsoon that drenched them all before they could find shelter. Cold and wet, they sat shivering in a cave until the sun rose. The keeper of the scroll was distraught to discover that the rain had soaked through the goat hide and dampened the sacred document. Chanting the appropriate mantras, they unrolled the text and laid it on the grass to dry beneath the hot morning sun. And the followers, exhausted from their sleepless night, found shade under the trees and fell into a deep sleep.
While they slumbered, a herd of cattle found its way up to the mountain pass and discovered both the sleeping Hmong and the hemp scroll inscribed with vegetable dyes. And, starved of new culinary experiences, they set about eating this delicious breakfast with vigor. The Hmong awoke to find their sacred scroll chewed to pieces. They chased off the cattle and collected the surviving segments. These they entrusted to a shaman who stayed awake with them and kept them safe and dry for the next hundred days and hundred nights. But on the hundred and first day, the clouds finally parted and the sun shone and the Hmong found themselves in a deserted village. Not one to ignore the lessons of experience, the shaman laid out the segments in the loft of the longhouse. Certain the remnants of the scroll wouldn’t be attacked by cattle or goats or birds there, he finally joined his brothers and sisters in a well-earned sleep. But he hadn’t taken the rats into account. Half-starved and desperate, the rats set about the hemp and devoured it in a frenzy. Unsated, but with the memory of food now implanted in their minds, they then turned upon one another. When the Hmong finally climbed into the loft, all they found were several ratty corpses and a few unreadable shreds of their culture. This, according to the legend, was how the Hmong lost their history and their written language.
The spirit of the first-ever Hmong shaman, See Yee, looked up from the Otherworld and was mightily pissed that his people could be so careless. He stewed over this for a lifetime or two before he could find it in his heart to forgive them. But he didn’t send them a new scroll or a new script, for that really would have been tempting fate. Instead, he taught six earthly brothers how to play six music pipes of different lengths. By playing together, this sextet found they were able to guide the dead to the Otherworld without the map. But, as they got older and found themselves with more personal commitments, it wasn’t always easy to get them together to perform. So See Yee taught mankind how to put the six pipes together and play them with six fingers as one instrument. Thus, the geng was born.
When the geng was played, people swore they could hear the voices of the ancestors. It was as if their spirits were retelling the history and describing the path to the afterlife through the sounds of the instrument. Music became the medium through which the Hmong recorded their legends. The notes had replaced the written text. The music of the geng could be used to teach new generations about their past and their future lives. They had no need for books.
The Western missionaries, of course, had no ear for such foolishness. They considered a race without a written text to be barbaric and ignorant. So, they created a roman phonetic system as the basis for a script for the Hmong that was impossible to read without learning a lot of complicated rules. The clever churchmen believed they had bonded together the diffuse Hmong tribes through this linguistic subjugation, but the Hmong knew better. They learned the text to keep the missionaries in their place, but they had a system that was far more advanced than anything devised in the West. They had a musical language that communicated directly from one soul to another.
“What is that god-awful row?”
“One of those Hmong beggars playing his flute by the sounds of it.”
“Well, it’s annoying. Doesn’t he know this is a hospital? Can’t you go tell him to shut up?”
“You’ve got legs. You tell him.”
“I’m in the middle of something.”
“And I’m not?”
The morgue was made of concrete, and secrets had no cracks to hide in. From their corpse-side seats, Nurse Dtui and Madame Daeng could hear every disparaging word the two clerks spoke. The auditors were like an unhappily married couple. The pale-faced men in their frayed white shirts and polyester slacks had ghosted in the previous morning. They’d handed Dtui their official placement papers from the Justice Department and commandeered the office. They’d taken advantage of the coroner’s absence and chosen this week to go through his books for the 1977 audit. It appeared they’d been instructed to find errors in the records. Dtui had known straightaway that that task was virtually impossible, given that her boss had handwriting so horrible he could hardly read it himself. Dipping a cockroach in ink and having it scamper around the page would have left traces more legible to the average reader.
But Nurse Dtui had to admire the auditors’ determination. They had every flat surface in the office covered in a layer of gray papers and were tiptoeing barefoot between them. They’d been through the entire first drawer of the filing cabinet and were making copious notes in their ledgers. They’d been instructed not to discuss their mission with menial staff so Dtui had no way of helping them find whatever it was they were searching for.
“Let’s go and get lunch,” one of them said.
It was the first thing they’d agreed on since their arrival. Dtui and Daeng heard one or two paper rustles, the closing and locking of a door that hadn’t been squeezed into its misshapen frame for many years, and a cough from just outside the room where the two ladies sat.
“Can I help you?” Dtui asked.
“Comrade Bounhee and I are taking our lunch break,” said one of the men.
“Perhaps you’d like to come in here and join us for a sandwich?” she suggested. Daeng smiled and shook her head. The men hadn’t dared enter the examination room since the arrival of the corpse that morning.
“Er, no. Rather not. Good health, comrade.” And he was gone.
There were four rooms of a sort in the only morgue in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. The paper-strewn and off-limits office was one. Then there was a large alcove and the cramped storeroom in which Mr. Geung, the lab technician, stood polishing specimen jars. And finally there was the examination area they all referred to as the cutting room. It was here that Nurse Dtui and Madame Daeng sat on either side of the deceased military officer, finishing their tea. Despite appearances, there was nothing perverse in this irreverent act. It had been necessitated by the peculiar events of that morning.
Mr. Geung had a form of Down syndrome that made him very efficient at repetitive tasks and very thorough in those duties he’d been taught. Anything out of the ordinary, however, caused him to become flustered. He didn’t trust strange people or equipment that disturbed the norm in his domain. The auditors had been such an intrusion and he continued to mutter his displeasure to himself. But there had been one other annoyance that week. The morgue’s perfectly good French refrigeration unit had been replaced with a Soviet behemoth twice its size. Neither the hospital engineer who installed it nor Mr. Geung, who was responsible for turning it off and on, had any idea how it worked. Dtui could read Russian but none of the dials seemed to perform the functions they promised. So Mr. Geung had been particularly distraught to discover that after only two hours in the unit the army captain was deep frozen.
Madame Daeng, the coroner’s fiancée, had arrived just then to discover Dtui comforting a teary Geung, and a large ice pole of a corpse on the tray. It was made all the worse by the fact that an unknown surgeon would be coming to conduct the autopsy that afternoon in the company of Mr. Suk, the hospital director. The body had to be thawed out somehow before their arrival. They agreed that wrapping him in blankets would only have the effect of preserving the frozen state. It was a comparatively cool early December day and there was no heater. Madame Daeng, always calm in a crisis, suggested they wheel the soldier into the sunlight that filtered through the louvered window and sit close to the body so their own body heat might warm him up. The only other heat producer they could find was the Romanian water-boiling element. They plugged it in, placed the water pot at the end of the stainless-steel dolly, and watched it bubble.
As there was water on the boil and margarine peanut biscuits in the tin, why not, they thought, have a cup of tea or two? For modesty’s sake, and to catch the crumbs, a white cloth was draped over the captain’s nether regions. And there they sat, discussing the latest items to have disappeared from the shops.
“How’s he doing?” Daeng asked.
Dtui poked the skin with her spoon. “Another hour and he should be ready.”
“And who’s performing the autopsy? I thought Siri was the only one in the country qualified.”
“Well”–Dtui leaned back in her chair–“technically, Dr. Siri isn’t all that qualified either. I mean, he’s good, but he doesn’t have any formal training as a coroner. Our politburo didn’t seem to think that fact was terribly important; surgeon–coroner, same difference. Luckily for them, Siri’s a bit of a genius in a number of ways.” As Dtui wasn’t sure how much Daeng knew about the doctor’s spirit connections, she kept her praise vague.
“So, today . . .?”
“Is some young hotshot surgeon who just got back from East Germany. He went over there as a medic six years ago. Amazing what they can achieve in the Eastern Bloc. Must be some type of fast track. But the new boy isn’t qualified to perform autopsies either. If our friend here hadn’t been a soldier they’d probably have kept him on ice till Siri got back. But the military are really curious to find out what killed their officer. The boys who brought him in said he hasn’t even been identified yet. They’re waiting for his unit to report him missing. The hospital director asked Hotshot if he could do an autopsy in a hurry and the fellow evidently said, ‘How hard can it be?’ Well, we’ll see.”
“It would have been a lot harder if we hadn’t thawed him out. I think it must be working. I’m starting to get a whiff.”
“It looks like we generate more body heat than we thought.”
It was true. Both women had good reason to glow. Big, beautiful Dtui could thank her first sexual experience for the baby taking shape inside her. Fortunately, Phosy the policeman had done the right thing. Auntie Bpoo the fortune-teller had said the child would be a girl. Their daughter was barely three months along and Dtui had already given her a name and started to crochet pink sun hats for her. She would be fat and jolly and intelligent like her mother . . . and she’d be a doctor . . . and she’d get married before she got pregnant and not at a registry the week after the test came back positive. In that respect she wouldn’t be like her mother at all.
Madame Daeng glowed because, at sixty-six years of age, she’d been proposed to by a man she’d secretly loved for much of her life. When she had been reunited with Siri in the south just a few months earlier, those same old girlish feelings had still gurgled around inside her. She and Siri were both widowed now–both battered by cruel circumstances in a country that had only ever known war. But the two old warriors were gloriously open to new love. She’d unashamedly followed him back to Vientiane and kept her fingers crossed. Siri had proposed to her in a most un-Lao fashion: with flowers. To her joy he’d acquired that peculiar habit during his years in France. She’d refused him, of course. What respectable woman would accept a man’s first offer? And, luckily, he’d asked again, over coffee, not a flower in sight, and this time she’d accepted. They would marry immediately upon his return from the north.
“Do you suppose we can leave our little soldier now?” she asked Dtui.
“Absolutely! Let’s go open your restaurant. If he thaws out any more he’ll insist on coming with us.”
Mr. Geung agreed to watch the body and the two glowing ladies climbed onto their respective bicycles and rode out of the Mahosot Hospital grounds. They tinkled their bells as they turned left on Mahosot Road even though there was very little chance of being hit by anything but other bicycles. Vientiane was a cyclist’s paradise. Unless they had friends in the Party, very few citizens could afford to fill up their motorcycle tanks with petrol. Cars had become front yard ornaments. The sound of a passing engine prompted little children to run to the street’s edge and wave. Siri might have been right. Laos was shrinking back into a preindustrial age.