Bamboo Grows Straight to the Sky

Novel Excerpts by Janet Wells

Time Breaks Sometimes
Synopsis

On the Thailand-Burma border the world’s longest running civil war pits ethnic minorities against a repressive military regime. Catherine Harp, a fact-checker for the Los Angeles Times, is in search of a story that will launch her career as a reporter. Ian Sands, a charismatic Australian doctor, has a shadowy approach to humanitarian aid and a hidden agenda: arming the outmatched rebel Karen army. Mu Say, a Buddhist farmer, has been uprooted from his home like tens of thousands of others, and desperately seeks safe haven for himself and his family in eastern Burma’s war-ravaged “black zone.”

1

Hwee

{Bone}

This is not the beginning. Hpu always said to start a tale in the middle, when things begin to happen. But what does it matter? I am speaking only to the air, to myself in this unfamiliar place. Paw Ray weaves cloth. I weave memories.

***

Beyond the thatched eaves of the school building, the Moie River shimmered in the hazy midday sun, its green oxbows carving through steep lush mountains. From afar the refugee camp’s rows of bamboo huts, nestled among palm and banana trees, looked like a tropical paradise. Up close, the terraces were barren hard-pack dirt, the weathered shelters so close together neighbors could climb onto one another’s porches. The air was heavy and hot. Sun-bleached trash littered the narrow paths.

Cate inhaled, parsing the camp’s smoke and dust, the faint layers of manure and flowers, garbage and gasoline. The human nose can detect more than 10,000 scents.

She lifted the camera from around her neck, and snapped pictures: a camp medic learning to administer vitamin A drops; the overlapping chevron pattern of the school’s roof thatch; Dan and Chris setting up supplies and logbooks; faces dusted with a yellowish paste, circles on the cheekbones, stripes on the forehead, or bridge of the nose.

“Is it decoration?” Cate asked, pulling her notebook from the cargo pocket of her pants.

“Partly,” Marim said, unzipping one of their dusty black duffels. “Thanaka. Natural sunscreen. Made from sandalwood bark.”

A motorcycle strained up the hill towards them, engine revving. Over the school’s half walls, Cate watched the driver angle into a rectangle of shade next to the building’s high stilts. In jeans and a plain tan T-shirt, he killed the motor and flipped the bike’s kickstand down with the heel of his—Cate squinted into the shadowed light under the eaves—cowboy boot? He swung his leg over the seat, and swapped his helmet for a baseball cap pulled out of a saddlebag. Leaning against one of the wood stilts, still facing away from her, he balanced on one foot, then the other, agile and efficient, removing his boots and socks, leaving them upright among the spread of worn, dusty sandals.

The wood stairs creaked as he came up. He stood in the doorway on the landing. A Westerner, tall, barefoot, looked to be in his thirties, his expression impassive as he quickly scanned the room before stepping inside. Cate felt his eyes pause for the briefest moment on her face.

“Oh great,” she heard Marim say quietly behind her, “the VIP narcissist.” Turning, she caught Marim roll her eyes at Dan.

“Who?” Cate asked, but neither responded, turning their attention to the boxes of vitamin capsules unloaded from the duffels.

The head teacher, a wiry bespectacled man with greying hair, smiled broadly and clasped the visitor’s hand with a slight bow of his shoulders before they disappeared down the stairs again together.

A few minutes later, as the teacher stepped back inside, the motorcycle started up and turned around on the school’s plateau. Leaving the faint scent of fuel in its wake, its engine backfired, three sharp pops. More than one person in the schoolroom flinched. A startled toddler burst into tears, burying her face in her mother’s lap, and one boy ducked under a desk. Gunshots, Cate realized, probably didn’t sound much different.

Women and children stepped forward one at a time, tipping their heads back, opening their mouths like nestlings. A few made faces at the bitter drops, but most simply shut their mouths and moved to the side after they were done. Two teachers, both women, entered data in the logbooks.

Marim held a small headlamp in her hand, and peered into the eyes of a young woman with an infant in her arms, a toddler clasping the folds of her sarong—longyi in Myanmar, Cate corrected herself, sounding out the word in her head: lawnjee. She wrote a description of the woman in her notebook: pink T-shirt with faded Hello Kitty face, too big for her thin frame, a slash of thanaka on each cheek, black hair pulled into a rough bun at the base of her neck.

“Blind in the left eye, classic scarring,” Dan said quietly to Cate, handing her a laminated sheet of photographs—of corneas, cloudy or lashed with faint lines—used to train medics.

She edged around Marim, camera in hand, trying to get a clear shot. The woman turned her head away, and Marim flicked the headlamp beam at Cate. “She’s shy,” she said. “Don’t.”

Cate let the camera drop, the strap pulling against her neck. She covered her embarrassment by busying herself with her notepad, flipping to a blank page, and quickly surveying the crowd. Other than the head teacher and medic, no men. “Does vitamin A deficiency only affect women and children?”

“No,” Dan said. “But resources are scarce and a lot of the men are working illegally in Thailand, or they’re still in Burma, toughing it out.”

“Or they’re drunk. Or they’ve abandoned their families,” Marim added. “Not to make excuses, but a refugee camp is emasculating.”

The medic walked over with a bucket of empty capsules, his hands still gloved. He looked barely out of his teens, with his wide dark eyes, cherub face and western clothes—dark cargo pants and T-shirt under a zip-up GAP hoody. He wasn’t the only one bundled in a sweater or jacket. To the locals this was the cool season. Cate felt the sweat blooming under her arms, prickling her scalp.

“Doctor Dan,” the medic said to Cate, “he is like Karen people.”

Dan smiled. “Asian American everyman.”

The medic tilted his head towards Chris and Marim, “Can pass too,” he said. Both were short—Chris stocky, Marim petite—with dark hair and eyes.

“You,” he said, turning back to Cate with a smile, his teeth tiny and crooked under a sprinkling of mustache. “Not.”

Cate laughed along with everyone else and felt something brush against her elbow. There, around and behind her, kids watching her write, adults staring. A giant stork. That’s how she must look, she thought. Tall and pale and beaky.

At a nod from the head teacher, his white button-down shirt and navy pants somehow wrinkle-free in the afternoon heat, school was dismissed for the day. Students in orderly rows, quiet moments before, were now a kinetic mass, chattering, draping themselves over each other, running down the stairs and outside.

Marim and Dan were soon out ahead as they walked down the hill, talking intently, Chris just behind, carrying two empty duffels. Cate lagged, finishing last minute notes. A pack of kids crowded around her, jousting, jostling, making faces, their feet kicking up whorls of red dust.

She glanced up from her notebook, taking in the single dirt road bisecting the camp, acres of huts spreading out on every side. This was home for thousands. A school, a clinic, two dozen porches-turned-storefronts selling hot tea, instant noodles and snacks, sodas and cheap toys. A community surrounded by a fence and guards. A prison.

It had been a snap decision that landed her here. That and another round with her boss at the Los Angeles Times. “You’re the best fact checker I can remember,” Lila had told her, handing her another printout emblazoned with "STET" in red pen. “But you can’t keep doing this. Editors edit. Reporters report and revise. Fact checkers check facts. Back to me by noon, without the editorializing?”

“I should probably just quit,” she’d told Lila, staring at the printout, at the first of several phrases she’d excised with a thin black line: "Food trucks lumber like lemmings to the lunchtime sea." She was exasperated, vetting stories she could do a better job writing herself, covering for ungrateful freelancers (“No, Wikipedia is not an acceptable source”), dealing with egotistical staff writers. The writers were the talent. She fixed their mistakes, they got the byline and the respect. Worse, she was an endangered species. Newspapers couldn’t afford to pay for accuracy the old-fashioned way, and she could easily be caught in the next round of layoffs.

“Remember the friend I told you about?” she’d asked Lila. “The one who flew to Indonesia after the tsunami, and got picked up by the Associated Press? She just got a job at the Tampa Bay Times. I should do that, get out where something’s happening and land a big story.

Cate hadn’t thought any such thing until that minute. But she quickly warmed to the idea. Matt would never believe it. “Passive” is what he’d called her just before he’d broken up with her and moved out. “When are you going to get in the driver’s seat of your life?” She’d been too stunned to point out his trite metaphor.

Lila had shaken her head, her gray-streaked curls flouncing side to side. “Bold, good. Impetuous, not so much. Not in this business. You’ve got vacation time, take it,” she’d advised, her blue eyes bright over violet-rimmed bifocals. “If you find your tsunami, you’ll get a serious read here.”

A dozen kids still trailed her when she reached the camp’s health clinic, another open-sided hut on tall stilts. Two skinny dogs panted in the shade, chickens darted under the porch, a hidden rooster crowed amidst the clucking din.

At the bottom of the clinic’s wide bamboo stairs, Cate pushed her notebook into her satchel, crouched down and held her camera at arm’s length for a selfie with the kids. She flicked back to display the screen—a catawampus close-up, their dark hair and smiling eyes, and her, all chin, floppy hat and sunglasses—the kids screeching in amusement. They piled on her as she scrolled back through the day’s shots. One little girl squeezed under her arm to nestle against her. They seemed entranced, by her blond hair, her skin, the camera. Their sticky prints smudged the screen.

The guttural throb of a motorcycle lured them away like a school of minnows, a tide of dust swirling around the tires as it pulled up at the clinic. Cate tucked her sunglasses in her bag and unbuckled her sandals, her sweat-soaked shirt and pants sticking to her back and thighs. She peered out under the deep thatched eave. The man who had appeared at the school was high-fiving the swarming kids.

She straightened and shielded her eyes against the backlit glare as he ducked under the eave and slid his sunglasses onto the brim of his grey baseball cap, logo-free, like his shirt. He’d replaced his cowboy boots with flip-flops.

“Sorry, I seem to have nicked your entourage,” he said.

Green eyes, Australian, judging by his accent. “Celebrity’s short-lived,” she answered, rolling one bare foot on the bottom step, the bamboo rails curved and slick.

He smiled, exposing eyeteeth that tipped towards each other—slightly feral, she thought.

“First time here?” he asked.

“Is it obvious?” Other than dark sideburns, she couldn’t see hair under his cap. Maybe he was one of those guys who wore a hat to hide a receding hairline. Like Matt.

“I haven’t seen you before. This isn’t exactly on the tourist track?”

The Aussie accent, she noted, was all pinched vowels, flattened “r’s” and inquisitive inflections. “I’m a journalist.” She hadn’t realized how much she wanted to say it out loud. It wasn’t exactly a lie. More of a truth-in-process.

He glanced at the notepad in her hand. “Who for?”

“The L.A Times.” She felt a twinge. That was stretching it.

“Patterson busy on something else?”

He knew the name of the paper’s Southeast Asia bureau reporter. “More of a freelance thing,” she said.

“What on?”

He asked more questions than she did. “Health Bridge, their work. You?”

“Aren’t we all here to see elephants and waterfalls?”

“Sorry?”

“Border humor,” he said, sticking his palm out. “I’m Ian.”

“Cate.” She clasped his hand. “So you’re a tour guide? A comedian?”

“Medical aid. But I can juggle.”

“With one of the INGOs?” She had schooled herself on the myriad humanitarian aid-speak acronyms—this one for International Non-Governmental Organization.

“I juggle for anyone.”

“You are a comedian.”

He tipped the brim of his cap and grinned. “Good to have something to fall back on,” he said. “There’s someone here you might be interested in for your story—teenage girl, amputee, stepped on a landmine four years ago on her way home from school. She’s having problems with her leg.”

“Do you want Dan to take a look? He’s a doctor.”

“So am I.” He slid his sunglasses back on. “Your lot’s more the vitamin and mozzie net brigade.”

Marim appeared at the top of the stairs. “Cate—.” She stopped, her eyes flicking at Ian, then quickly back. “We’re going to log the mosquito net distribution.”

Ian raised his eyebrows at Cate. “G’day,” he said to Marim. “We’ve met in Mae Sot?”

“Unusual to see you in camp. Slumming?” She turned to Cate without waiting for an answer. “Ready?”

Cate glanced at Ian, his face giving away nothing if he was offended or caught off guard by Marim. “You said it would take awhile to do the nets? I’ll catch up.” Cate told her. “I’d like to see this.”

“We’re leaving in two hours. Don’t keep us waiting,” Marim said as she turned away.

Cate followed Ian along a narrow path to the rawest part of the camp, near the top of the steep terraces. She slowed to peer at the thick growth beyond the perimeter fence. Circular stands of bamboo, their lanky stalks shedding dry leaves, covered the ground in butter colored patches. An oak tree is mature in 120 years, bamboo in three, growing up to 18 inches a day. One perk of her job: facts stuck in her brain. She couldn’t always retrieve information on command, and she occasionally embarrassed herself by blurting out some factoid only tangentially related to the conversation. Still, she liked it when bits floated up, flotsam and jetsam texturing her view of the world.

She focused on a footpath leading from the fence’s widely spaced razor wire into a tangle of scrub brush and skinny vine-draped trees. It looked like people regularly stepped through, the wire sagging and stretched.

Where, she wondered, would anyone go? Over a spine of steep, thick jungle, not even two miles away, was their war-ravaged country. Cate saw something big moving in the distance and stopped. An elephant? She squinted and held her camera up, looking through the telephoto lens. People walking? She couldn’t tell in the mid-day glare. She turned to ask Ian, but he had gone ahead.

She hurried to join him in front of a hut’s narrow, listing porch. A toddler pushed a baby swaddled in a cloth hammock with one hand, and used a shard of blue plastic with the other to etch grooves into a bamboo rail. A woman appeared from inside, followed by the medic with the GAP hoody. The woman looked both young and old, her thick, dark hair twisted into a loose bun showing no grey, but her round face was lined with wrinkles, her lips stained red. She turned to the side and spit, cherry-colored drops of betel nut hitting the dirt.

The medic leaned across the porch to shake Ian’s hand, reaching out with his right palm and placing his left fingers on his right elbow. He did the same with Cate, his fingers lightly clasping hers.

“What’s your name?” Cate asked, opening her notebook. “I didn’t catch it earlier.”

He responded, the syllables sliding past. “Sorry?” she asked, stooping to keep from towering over him. “How do you spell it?”

“H-S-E-R-N-A-I-M-U,” he said, slowly, his accent thick, counting off each letter with his fingers.

She wrote it out, a nonsensical jumble on the page, then spelled it phonetically: Sunny Moo. She tipped her camera up from its perch around her neck. “Photos okay?”

He nodded and turned back to Ian. “Leg not fit, hurt. She cannot walk some days.”

Ian stepped out of his flip-flops and onto the porch. Cate did the same and sat, legs tucked under her, leaning against the doorway where she could see inside, and stay out of the way. The family’s one room hut had half a bamboo floor, raised a foot off the ground, the other half dirt. Light filtered through chinks in the thatch.

The girl lay still on a mat under a blanket, her arm draped over her eyes. Two mats were rolled up, leaning against the hut’s walls. In one corner, crutches and a prosthetic leg were propped against the thatch, in the other, a small firepit had been dug into the dirt, surrounded by soot crusted rocks. Above, the hut’s roof was charred a deep black. It smelled acrid. Particles of ash floated in the slices of sunlight.

Ian took off his hat—not balding, she noted, his hair cropped short, almost buzzed —and asked Sunny Moo the girl’s name. “Teresa,” he said—or what sounded like it to Cate, then spoke softly to the girl. She pushed the blanket aside, keeping her eyes on the woven leaves in the roof, her face expressionless. Wrapping her hands around her right thigh, she held her leg up. It ended mid-way above the knee.

Kneeling, Ian palpated the stump, his fingers probing where skin had knit over the uneven stub of bone. It was ugly and jagged, a mass of puckered scars.

The memory of a book surfaced, one from years ago, from her parents’ shelves. Cate could almost feel its weight in her hands, and smell the thick glossy paper. The text had been too dense to interest her, but the pictures had pulled her into a travelogue of global calamity, suffusing her dreams with smallpox, shingles, polio. There were case studies of elephantiasis, of parasites that burrowed and festered, of St. Elmo’s fire. She had been especially fascinated, and horrified, by amputation, by the specter of disappeared limbs: a soldier whose leg had been shot off; a mountaineer with frostbite, his feet black, the flesh grotesquely swollen.

Cate looked at Teresa, at the smooth planes of her face, her thin brown arms and small hands holding her truncated leg. Landmines were primed, unseen, all over eastern Myanmar. One afternoon, this girl, on her way home from school—the sun beating down, or perhaps monsoon rains, maybe she had been playing with her friends, or dreamy and alone, thinking about a boy—and in a flash, her life, as much as her limb, blown to bits.

She wanted to ask Teresa what she felt, then and now, living with such constant threat, of being a random victim, of no safe ground. She weighed whether the ends justified the means of having her relive it all again. Was this girl’s story crucial to hers? Would it be the lead? Was it just morbid curiosity? Was Sunny Moo’s English good enough to translate nuance? Instead she took photo after photo into the soft gloom of the hut, the sun a glaring backdrop. The pictures, she knew, would be mostly shadow and silhouette, capturing the girl’s isolation.

Ian stood and picked up the prosthesis. It looked far too large for the girl’s tiny frame, with a clunky metal hinge for a knee. He ran his hand along the inside, where her stump would rest. “The bone might have grown since the first prosthesis was made,” he said to Sunny Moo. “I’ve seen it before, the smallest change can cause problems. She should go back to Mae Sot, to the clinic, have it looked at, maybe a new casting made, at least new padding?”

He turned to Cate. “It’s too far to take her on my motorcycle. Could she go back with you? I’ll stop by the clinic when I get back to Mae Sot tonight.”

Cate nodded, distracted, still staring at Teresa. The photographs in the book, she remembered, had a narrow black rectangle across each person’s eyes, protecting privacy. How could people like that, like this girl, ever be private again, she wondered. They were marked, indelibly.

As they walked back to the camp clinic, three boys ran alongside, rolling a metal hoop with sticks. The air was still a pungent mix of fetid and sweet, intensified by heat and damp. A man stood on a ladder nailing roof thatch made of broad dried leaves. More than a few women, mostly older, sat on narrow porches, smoking fat hand-rolled cigarettes or pipes. She could feel their eyes following her.

“Do you work a lot with amputees?” she asked Ian.

“No. Not my usual gig.”

“Which is?”

“Emergency response.”

“Where?” she asked, thinking of Marim’s "slumming" jab.

He paused, and dropped his voice to a murmur. “A bit further.”

“Further?” She turned towards him as they reached the bottom of the clinic’s steps, curious—and annoyed—at his caginess.

“Inside.”

“You cross”—she waited until a rooster stopped flapping its wings and squawking, and dropped her voice low to match his—“the border? How?” Her face, mouth moving, was reflected in his mirrored sunglasses.

He smiled, flipping his glasses onto his hat again. “Depends.”

“Isn’t it dangerous?”

The smile still played around his lips. “Can be.”

***

We slept like this for a time when I was young, in one small room, wind slicing through the thatch. There were nights just like now, when there was no fuel, little charcoal. In the rainy season, the wood was damp, smoldering under the pot, too little heat to cook the toughness out of the rice.

I worried then, too, about my family, my future. My father was strong, until he drank and became lazy and unkind. I could not concentrate in school. My teacher would chide—do you want to be an ignorant goat? I wanted so much. I still do. Jackets for my children, shoes, and books. Jars of fermented tealeaves, spices and dried shrimp; bins filled with lentils and chickpeas. A sharp knife, the best rice. Outside, a mango tree, tall sweet corn, pumpkins between each row; pecking chickens, a fat pig. A table and chairs. A radio. I can get carried away. Wanting is endless. Having is its own kind of curse. Things are hard to carry when running.

About the Author

Janet Wells

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Janet Wells is a writer and journalist in Berkeley, California. A former staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News, her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, the San Francisco Business Times, UCSF Magazine, Instant City, Margin, Nurseweek, Audubon, Climbing, and Rock and Ice. Janet is a graduate of the San Francisco State University MFA program in creative writing, and the founder of Editrix Communications. “Bamboo Grows Straight to the Sky” is her first novel; she is at work on her second, “Ghost Dogs.”