Read an Excerpt
The First Deadly Sin
On December 25, 1978, the concrete public-address system pole in South That Luang’s Area Six unexpectedly blew itself up, a Lao skirt with a severed finger sewn into the hem passed through the national postal system unchallenged and Vietnam invaded Cambodia. A few weeks had passed since then, but the two old men sitting on a log beside the milk chocolate–colored Mekhong River hadn’t yet exhausted their opinions on the three events. Dr. Siri Paiboun—ex-national coroner for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic—had been responsible for the first of them. Comrade Civilai Songsawat—ex-politburo member—had predicted the latter, and nobody had listened to him. But the finger? Well, neither man could make heads or tails of that.
“Do you suppose it might have belonged to the weaver?” asked Civilai. “Some loom accident?”
“What?” said Siri. “You mean she was so engrossed in her skirt-making that she didn’t notice she’d sewn her own finger into the hem? Got home that evening, and her husband says, ‘Hey, where’s your finger?’ And she looks down to find it gone and says, ‘Hm. I must have inadvertently sewn it into one of the skirts’?”
There followed a brief silence while the old boys worked on their baguette lunches. They’d noticed how much more difficult it had become to chew the crusty beasts since reaching their mid-seventies. Siri surmised that just as the rice whiskey distiller had added ingredients that increased the odds of a raging hangover, and the bicycle manufacturers had removed the gears that allowed one to climb hills without becoming winded, so the baker had changed to a more leathery dough recipe. All were signs of the declining standards of modernization.
Civilai took a mouthful of tamarind juice and swirled it around his mouth before swallowing. “Sarcasm,” he said, “is like throwing a stick at your enemy when you’ve run out of bullets.”
Siri nodded and smiled at his oldest friend. “Lenin?”
“You don’t say? Well, in that case, it was very good.”
“Thank you. And I stand by my hunch. An illiterate young woman enslaved in a sweatshop sends a last-gasp plea for help by snipping off her finger and sending it out with the day’s batch of pha sin skirts.”
Siri nodded again. His nods were rarely those of agreement. “That’s even sillier, Old Brother,” he said. “I mean, how would we trace her on the strength of a lopped finger?”
“Fingerprints? Right. Well, that pretty much sums up the difference between a medical man and a politician.”
“A medical man—a man of science—would look at the relative values of a fingerprint. He would consider the options available. Should he go to a central databank of fingerprints like the one we don’t have in Laos? Should he compare it with similar fingerprints found at the absent scene of the crime? Or should he travel door to door like Prince Charming until he found a Cinderella whose stump matched the discarded finger?”
Civilai smiled. “And the politician?”
“He would make a statement promising great things to come, get elected, then blame the scientists when they failed to come up with the goods.”
They returned to their baguettes.
Nearby, a frail woman in yellow wellington boots tossed a huge mushroom net into the river. The weights sank below the grimy surface, and the fisherlady yanked at the ropes. It was her seventh or eighth cast, and like its predecessors, it yielded nothing.
“Like attempting to lasso a fly,” said Siri. “If only she—”
“Then what do you make of the finger?” asked Civilai, not at all interested in fish unless they were steamed in lemon juice.
“I think perhaps it’s a clue.”
“And it was pointing toward the next clue?”
“I’m assuming that the finger was merely a part of the puzzle. There was no letter enclosed and no return address on the wrapping paper. I admit it’s not inconceivable that the letter censors at the Ministry of Disbelief and Paranoia confiscated a note. But I believe the skirt itself has something to tell us.”
“A talking skirt?”
“Very much so. The pha sin weave is very distinctive, quite colorful. Madame Daeng informs me it’s likely to have originated in the north. She’s taken it to the ladies at the morning market who specialize in such things. A Lao sin is every bit as useful as a fingerprint for tracing its origin.”
“The frank stamp on the parcel didn’t help in that regard?”
“It was so faint it was illegible.”
“I’m surprised the people at the post office didn’t notice the finger.”
“It was rather spindly. I didn’t notice it myself at first. It was only the other day when Ugly the dog started staring at it and salivating that I took another look. He’s rather good with body parts.”
“And how are his climbing skills?”
“Quite average as dogs go. But how is that relevant?”
“Just wondered whether you’d taught him to shimmy up a public-address pole.”
“Oh, Civilai. Not you too? Why is it that whenever a lump of shoddy Soviet technology blows itself up, the blame lands on my shoulders?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps the two previous arrests for chopping down wooden loudspeaker poles.”
“I was acquitted both times.”
They watched an aerial skirmish as a hundred or so swallows darted back and forth above the river, picking crunchy dung beetles out of the warm air.
“I’m reasonably certain it’s because of you they switched to concrete,” said Civilai.
“And you’re suggesting a frail seventy-four-year-old with dodgy lungs, a semi-crippled hand and a missing left earlobe could climb four meters, unlock the control box, insert a hand grenade and climb rapidly down before the thing exploded? . . . If, indeed, it was a hand grenade. I confess I could sympathize with the person responsible. Nobody enjoys being woken at the crack of dawn with jaunty Party songs and advice on what percentage of urine to water in the soil produces the best papayas. Although, goodness knows, I was getting fond of those endless lists of names of this month’s Most Productive Socialist Men and Women and reports on cooperative farming yields. And so clear too with the speaker pointing directly into my . . . I mean, his bedroom window. Yes, I have to admit I admire the scoundrel.”
“They’ll get you, you know.”
“Innocent until proven otherwise, Brother Civilai. And what’s all the fuss? A little bit of melted soldering? It’s not like I invaded Cambodia, is it now?”
“The smaller the incident, the easier it is to penalize. You know that. And given your run-in with Brother Number One, I doubt you even consider the liberation of what’s left of Cambodia to be a crime at all.”
“No, you’re right. More power to the heroic Vietnamese. They created the Pol Pot dynasty and watched while he murdered two million people. Their crime isn’t that they’re invading; it’s that they’re invading four years too late.”
On her eighth cast of the net, the woman in the yellow boots brought in a fish harvest that would feed her family for a week. She could barely drag the net up the bank. The old boys went down to give her a hand. Siri missed his step at the bottom and slid down into the river. He swallowed some but laughed it off.
“You know, the Chinese aren’t going to be at all pleased about this,” said Civilai.
“Vietnam. China’s supported the Khmer Rouge all through the genocide. Even now they’re pumping in aid.”
By the time they reached the top of the bank, all three collapsed onto the grass to catch their breaths. There followed a fit of coughing and laughter. The fisherwoman handed them each a malnourished thick-lipped barb as a tip and loaded her catch onto her bicycle sidecar.
“I see major repercussions,” said Civilai, lying back on the grass.
“From the fish?”
“What can they do?” Siri asked. “Declare war on Vietnam?”
As Chinese troops began their deployment to the northern border of Vietnam, Siri was sitting at the outdoor table behind his government-allocated house near That Luang Temple. Opposite was his comparatively new wife, Madame Daeng. Beside her sat a spindly but attractive old lady in clothes some might have considered too large for her. Siri, however, could see that Madame Chanta of the Lao Women’s Union was merely in the process of shrinking. He too had trousers that had mysteriously grown too long in the leg. Madame Chanta had fine dentures that were neater than the synthetic Chinese sets on sale behind the morning market. Her hair was dyed black, all but for a small crown of white that girded her scalp. She told them she had decided to stop the battle. If her hair so desperately wished to be white, she would let it.
“And pray,” she said, “that it looks as stunning as yours, Madame Daeng.”
Siri’s wife—recently turned sixty-seven—wore her hair gray, wild and short, a style that complemented her handsome face. And on this day it was a face that sported a smile as bright as Venus. Siri often found himself gazing at his woman with great pride even on days when he knew the smile was a vestige of a buzz from her opium tea. It had been many years since Madame Daeng last walked with grace, not since the rheumatism first started to knot her ankles, then to bind the muscles and tissues of her legs into an excruciating macramé. Some days she could hardly get out of bed. Unlike morphine, opium didn’t make the pain fade into the background; it allowed you to face it in a mellow battle and conquer it, to feel less like a victim. The victories of late had become shorter and less convincing.
“It’s Thai Lu,” said Chanta. “Unmistakably.”
“How can you tell?” Siri asked, looking down at the old pha sin stretched across the table between them.
“Well, one reason is that most Lao sins have the pattern band at the bottom, a tin sin. A decoration around the hem. The Lu prefer their brocade high up and leave the hem plain. That’s the first indication. Although different Lu groups have their own styles, there are one or two regional peculiarities. You’ll notice that the weft here is vertical. The Lu often weave the front and back horizonally then cut and sew them at the sides so the design matches. It’s also longer than most. The Lu traditionally wore their skirts high below the breasts, what we call an empire waist. That . . .”
As Chanta went into more detail, Daeng looked into her husband’s eyes and saw a familiar glazing. “Sister,” she said, “this is what you explained to me earlier. I think the doctor would prefer you to just tell him where you believe this pha sin came from. He has a short attention span.”
“Doctor,” said Chanta, “this is a very heavy handspun cotton designed for cold weather the type of which we have in the north. As I’m sure you know, the Lu settled in several provinces in the north but never very far from their roots in China. The Lu are more likely to have black or indigo hems. But I’ve seen other samples with green in the north. I’m quite certain this sin comes from Luang Nam Tha.”
“Luang Nam Tha?” said Siri.
“I believe so.”
“Then that is where we shall go.”