I wrote this story
originally as a screenplay about Thailand's most notorious serial
killer. The idea was to do a story about
Oui, the boogie man of Thailand, that could appeal to the western mind,
solved the problem by seeing the murderous Chinaman through the eyes of
American boy stranded in Thailand in the 1950s for completely different
É The studio loved the
treatment, commissioned the script, then HATED the script for all the
they had loved the treatment. So,
I took back the story, wrote it as a novella, and the story won the
Award, which suggest that it did in
fact appeal to western sensibilitiesÉ The story can be found
in THE MUSEUM OF HORROR, edited by Dennis Etchison.
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The World Fantasy
Award for The
The Bird Catcher
by S.P. Somtow
There was this other boy in the internment camp.
His name was Jim. After the war, he made something of a name for
himself. He wrote books, even a memoir of the camp that got
turned into a Spielberg movie. It didn’t turn out that gloriously
My grandson will never know what it’s like to be consumed with hunger,
hunger that is heartache. Hunger that can propel you past
insanity. But I know. I’ve been there. So has that
boy Jim; that’s why I really don’t envy him his Spielberg movie.
After the war, my mother and I were stranded in China for a few more
years. She was penniless, a lady journalist in a time when lady
journalists only covered church bazaars, a single mother at a time when
“bastard” was more than a bad word.
You might think that at least we had each other, but my mother
and I never intersected. Not as mother and son, not even as
Americans awash in great events and oceans of Asian faces. We
were both loners. We were both vulnerable.
That’s how I became the boogieman’s friend.
He’s long dead now, but they keep him, you know, in the Museum of
Horrors. Once in a generation, I visit him. Yesterday, I
took my grandson Corey. Just as I took his father before him.
The destination stays the same, but the road changes every
generation. The first time I had gone by boat, along the quiet
back canals of the old city. Now there was an expressway. The
toll was forty baht — a dollar — a month’s salary that would have been,
back in the 50s, in old Siam.
My son’s in love with Bangkok, the insane skyline, the high tech
blending with the low tech, the skyscraper shaped like a giant robot,
the palatial shopping malls, the kinky sex bars, the bootleg software
arcades, the whole tossed salad. And he doesn’t mind the
heat. He’s a big-time entrepreneur here, owns a taco chain.
I live in Manhattan. It’s quieter.
I can be anonymous. I can be alone. I can nurse my hunger
Christmases, though, I go to Bangkok; this Christmas, my grandson’s
eleventh birthday, I told my son it was time. He nodded and told
me to take the chauffeur for the day.
So, to get to the place, you zigzag through the world’s raunchiest
traffic, then you fly along this madcap figure-eight expressway, cross
the river where stone demons stand guard on the parapets of the Temple
of Dawn, and then you’re suddenly in this sleazy alley. Vendors
hawk bowls of soup and pickled guavas. The directions are on a
handwritten placard attached to a street sign with duct tape.
It’s the Police Museum, upstairs from the local morgue. One wall
is covered with photographs of corpses. That’s not part of the
museum; it’s a public service display for people with missing family
members to check if any of them have turned up dead. Corey didn’t
pay attention to the photographs; he was busy with Pokémon.
Upstairs, the feeling changed. The stairs creaked. The
upstairs room was garishly lit. Glass cases along the walls were
filled with medical oddities, two-headed babies and the like, each one
in a jar of formaldehyde, each one meticulously labeled in Thai and
English. The labels weren’t printed, mind you.
Handwritten. There was definitely a middle school show-and-tell
feel about the exhibits. No air conditioning. And no more
breeze from the river like in the old days; skyscrapers had
stifled the city’s breath.
There was a uniform, sick-yellow tinge to all the displays ... the
neutral cream paint was edged with yellow ... the deformed livers,
misshappen brains, tumorous embryos all floating in a dull yellow fluid
... the heaps of dry bones an orange-yellow, the rows of skulls
yellowing in the cracks ... and then there were the young novices,
shaven-headed little boys in yellow robes, staring in a heat-induced
stupor as their mentor droned on about the transience of all existence,
the quintessence of Buddhist philosophy.
And then there was Si Ui.
He had his own glass cabinet, like a phone booth, in the middle of the
room. Naked. Desiccated. A mummy. Skinny.
Mud-colored, from the embalming process, I think. A sign
(handwritten, of course) explained who he was. See Ui.
Devourer of children’s livers in the 1950s. My grandson reads
Thai more fluently than I do. He sounded out the name right away.
Si Sui Sae Ung.
“It’s the boogieman, isn’t it?” Corey said. But he showed little
more than a passing interest. It was the year Pokémon Gold
and Silver came out. So many new monsters to catch, so many names
“He hated cages,” I said.
“Got him!” Corey squealed. Then, not looking up at the dead man,
“I know who he was. They did a documentary on him. Can we
“Didn’t your maid tell you stories at night? To frighten
you? ‘Be a good boy, or Si Ui will eat your liver?’”
“Gimme a break, grandpa. I’m too old for that shit.” He
paused. Still wouldn’t look up at him. There were other
glass booths in the room, other mummified criminals: a serial rapist
down the way. But Si Ui was the star of the show. “Okay,”
Corey said, “she did try to scare me once. Well, I was like five,
okay? Si Ui. You watch out, he’ll eat your liver, be a good
boy now. Sure, I heard that before. Well, he’s not gonna
eat my liver now, is he? I mean, that’s probably not even him;
it’s probably like wax or something.”
He smiled at me. The dead man did not.
“I knew him,” I said. “He was my friend.”
“I get it!” Corey said, back to his Gameboy. “You’re like me in
this Pokémon game. You caught a monster once. And
tamed him. You caught the most famous monster in Thailand.”
“And tamed him?” I shook my head. “No, not tamed.”
“Can we go to McDonald’s now?”
“I could eat the world!”
“After I tell you the whole story.”
“You’re gonna talk about the Chinese camp again, grandpa? And
that kid Jim, and the Spielberg movie?”
“No, Corey, this is something I’ve never told you about before.
But I’m telling you so when I’m gone, you’ll know to tell your
son. And your grandson.”
And finally, tearing himself away from the video game, he willed
himself to look.
The dead man had no eyes; he could not stare back.
He hated cages. But his whole life was a long imprisonment
… without a cage, he did not even exist.
Listen, Corey. I’ll tell you how I met the boogieman.
Imagine I’m eleven years old, same as you are now, running wild on a
leaky ship crammed with coolies. They’re packed into the lower
deck. We can’t afford the upper deck, but when they saw we were
white, they waved us on up without checking our tickets. It looks
more interesting down there. And the food’s got to be
better. I can smell a Chinese breakfast. That oily fried
bread, so crunchy on the outside, drpping with pig fat ... yeah.
It’s hot. It’s boring. Mom’s on the prowl. A job or a
husband, whichever comes first. Everyone’s fleeing the
communists. We’re some of the last white people to get out of
Someone’s got a portable charcoal stove on the lower deck, and there’s
a toothless old woman cooking congee, fanning the stove. A whiff
of opium in the air blends with the rich gingery broth. Everyone
down there’s clustered around the food. Except this one
man. Harmless-looking. Before the Japs came, we had a
gardener who looked like that. Shirtless, thin, by the
railing. Stiller than a statue. And a bird on the
railing. Also unmoving. The other coolies are ridiculing
him, making fun of his Hakka accent, calling him simpleton.
I watch him.
“Look at the idiot,” the toothless woman says. “Hasn’t said
a word since we left Swatow.”
The man has his arms stretched out, his hands cupped.
Frozen. Concentrated. I suddenly realize I’ve snuck down
the steps myself, pushed my through all the Chinese around the cooking
pot, and I’m halfway there. Mesmerized. The man is
stalking the bird, the boy stalking the man. I try not to breathe
as I creep up.
He pounces. Wrings the bird’s neck … in one swift liquid
movement, a twist of the wrist, and he’s already plucking the feathers
with the other hand, ignoring the death-spasms. And I’m real
close now. I can smell him. Mud and sweat.
Behind him, the open sea. On the deck, the feathers, a bloody
He bites off the head and I hear the skull crunch.
I scream. He whirls. I try to cover it up with a childish
He speaks in a monotone. Slowly. Sounding out each
syllable, but he seems to have picked up a little pidgin. “Little
white boy. You go upstairs. No belong here.”
“I go where I want. They don’t care.”
He offers me a raw wing.
I fish in my pocket, find half a liverwurst sandwich. I hold it
out to him. He shakes his head. We both laugh a
little. We’ve both known this hunger that consumes you; the agony
of China is in our bones.
I say, “Me and Mom are going to Siam. On accout of my dad getting
killed by the Japs and we can’t live in Shanghai anymore. We were
in a camp and everything.” He stares blankly and so I bark in
Japanese, like the guards used to. And he goes crazy.
He mutters to himself in Hakka which I don’t understand that well, but
it’s something like, “Don’t look ‘em in the eye. They chop off
your head. You stare at the ground, they leave you alone.”
He is chewing away at raw bird flesh the whole time. He adds in
English, “Si Ui no like Japan man.”
“Makes two of us,” I say.
I’ve seen too much. Before the internment camp, there was
Nanking. Mom was gonna do an article about the atrocities.
I saw them. You think a two-year-old doesn’t see anything?
She carried me on her back the whole time, papoose-style.
When you’ve seen a river clogged with corpses, when you’ve looked at
piles of human heads, and human livers roasting on spits, and women
raped and set on fire, well, Santa and the Tooth Fairy just don’t cut
it. I pretended about the Tooth Fairy, though, for a long
time. Because, in the camp, the ladies would pool their
resources to bribe Mr. Tooth Fairy Sakamoto for a little piece of
“I’m Nicholas,” I say.
“Si Ui.” I don’t know if it’s his name or something in Hakka.
I hear my mother calling from the upper deck. I turn from the
strange man, the raw bird’s blood trailing from his lips. “Gotta
go.” I turn to him, pointing at my chest, and I say, “Nicholas.”
Even the upper deck is cramped. It’s hotter than Shanghai, hotter
even than the internment camp. We share a cabin with two Catholic
priests who let us hide out there after suspecting we didn’t have
Night doesn’t get any cooler, and the priests snore. I’m
down to a pair of shorts and I still can’t sleep. So I slip
away. It’s easy. Nobody cares. Millions of people
have been dying and I’m just some skinny kid on the wrong side of the
ocean. Me and my mom have been adrift for as long as I can
The ship groans and clanks. I take the steep metal stairwell down
to the coolies’ level. I’m wondering about the birdcatcher.
Down below, the smells are a lot more comforting. The smell of
sweat and soy-stained clothing masks the odor of the sea. The
charcoal stove is still burning. The old woman is simmering some
stew. Maybe something magical … a bit of snake’s blood to revive
someone’s limp dick … crushed tiger bones, powdered rhinoceros horn, to
heal pretty much anything. People are starving, but you can still
get those kind of ingredients. I’m eleven, and I already know too
They are sleeping every which way, but it’s easy for me to step over
them even in the dark. The camp was even more crowded than this,
and a misstep could get you hurt. There’s a little bit of light
from the little clay stove.
I don’t know what I’m looking for. Just to be alone, I
guess. I can be more alone in a crowd of Chinese than up
there. Mom says things will be better in Siam. I don’t know.
I’ve threaded my way past all of them. And I’m leaning against
the railing. There isn’t much moonlight. It’s probably past
midnight but the metal is still hot. There’s a warm wind,
though, and it dries away my sweat. China’s too far away to see,
and I can’t even imagine Boston anymore.
Leather hands rasp my shoulders. Strong hands. Not big, but
I can’t squirm out of their grip. The hands twirl me around and
I’m looking inti Si Ui’s eyes. The moonlight is in them.
I’m scared. I don’t know why, really, all I’d have to do is
scream and they’ll pull him off me. But I can’t get the scream
I look into his eyes and I see fire. A burning village.
Maybe it’s just the opium haze that clings to this deck, making me feel
all weird inside, seeing things. And the sounds. I think it
must be the whispering of the sea, but it’s not, it’s voices.
Hungry, you little chink? And those leering, bucktoothed
faces. Like comic book Japs. Barking. The fire
blazes. And then, abruptly, it dissolves. And there’s a kid
standing in the smoky ruins. Me. And I’m holding out a
liverwurst sandwich. Am I really than skinny, that
pathetic? But the vision fades. And Si Ui’s eyes become
“Si Ui catch anything,” he says. “See, catch bird, catch
boy. All same.” And smiles, a curiously captivating
“As long as you don’t eat me,” I say.
“Si Ui never eat Nicholas,” he says. “Nicholas friend.”
Friend? In the burning wasteland of China, an angel holding out a
liverwurst sandwich? It makes me smile. And suddenly
angry. The anger hits me so suddenly I don’t even have time to
figure out what it is. It’s the war, the maggots in the millet,
the commandant kicking me across the yard, but more than that it’s my
mom, clinging to her journalist fantasies while I dug for earthworms,
letting my dad walk out to his death. I’m crying and the
birdcatcher is stroking my cheek, saying, “You no cry now. Soon
go back America. No one cry there.” And it’s the first time
some has touched me with some kind of tenderness in, in, in, I dunno,
since before the invasion. Because mom doesn’t hug, she kind of
encircles, and her arms are like the bars of a cage.
So, I’m thinking this will be my last glimpse of Si Ui. It’s in
the harbor at Klong Toei. You know, where Anna landed in The King
and I. And where Joseph Conrad landed in Youth.
So all these coolies, and all these trapped Americans and Europeans,
they’re all stampeding down the gangplank, with cargo being hoisted,
workmen trundling, fleets of those bicycle pedicabs called samlors,
itinerant merchants with bales of silk and fruits that seem to have
hair or claws, and then there’s the smell that socks you in the face,
gasoline and jasmine and decay and incense. Pungent salt
squid drying on racks. The ever-present fish sauce, blending with
the odor of fresh papaya and pineapple and coconut and human sweat.
And my mother’s off and running, with me barely keeping up, chasing
after some waxed-mustache British doctor guy with one of those accents
you think’s a joke until you realize that’s really how they talk.
So I’m just carried along by the mob.
“You buy bird, little boy?” I look up. It’s a wall of
sparrows, each one in a cramped wooden cage. Rows and rows of
cages, stacked up from the concrete high as a man, more cages hanging
from wires, stuffed into the branch-crooks of a mango tree. I see
others buying the birds for a few coins, releasing them into the air.
“Why are they doing that?”
“Good for your karma. Buy bird, set bird free, shorten your
suffering in your next life.”
“Swell,” I say.
Further off, the vendor’s boy is catching them, coaxing them back into
cages. That’s got to be wrong, I’m thinking as the boy comes back
with ten little cages hanging on each arm. The birds haven’t
gotten far. They can barely fly. Answering my unspoken
thought, the bird seller says, “Oh, we clip wings. Must make
living too, you know.”
That’s when a hear a sound like the thunder of a thousand wings.
I think I must be dreaming. I look up. The crowd has
parted. And there’s a skinny little shirtless man standing in the
clearing, his arms spread wide like a Jesus statue, only you can barely
see a square inch of him because he’s all covered in sparrows.
They’re perched all over his arms like they’re telegraph wires or
something, and squatting on his head, and clinging to his baggy
homespun shorts with their claws. And the birds are all
chattering at once, drowning out the cacophony of the mob.
Si Ui looks at me. And in his eyes I see ... bars. Bars of
light, maybe. Prison bars. The man’s trying to tell me
something. I’m trapped.
The crowd that parted all of sudden comes together and he’s gone.
I wonder if I’m the only one who saw. I wonder if it’s just
another aftereffect of the opium that clogged the walkways on the ship.
But it’s too late to wonder; my mom has found me, she’s got me by the
arm and she’s yanking me back into the stream of people. And in
the next few weeks I don’t think about Si Ui at all. Until he
shows up, just like that, in a village called Thapsakae.
After the museum, I took Corey to Baskin-Robbins and popped into
Starbucks next door for a frappuccino. Visiting the boogieman is
a draining thing. I wanted to let him down easy. But Corey
didn’t want to let go right away.
“Can we take a boatride or something?” he said. “You know I never
get to come to this part of town.” It’s true. The traffic
in Bangkok is so bad that they sell little car toilets so you can go
while you’re stuck at a red light for an hour. This side of town,
Thonburi, the old capital, is a lot more like the past. But no
one bothers to come. The traffic, they say, always the traffic.
We left the car by a local pier, hailed a river taxi, just told him to
go, anywhere, told him we wanted to ride around. Overpaid
him. It served me right for being me, an old white guy in baggy
slacks, with a facing-backwards-Yankees-hat-toting blond kid in tow.
When you leave the river behind, there’s a network of canals, called
klongs, that used to be the arteries and capillaries of the old
city. In Bangkok proper, they’ve all been filled in. But
not here. The further from the main waterway we floated, the
further back in time. Now the klongs were fragrant with
jasmine, with stilted houses rearing up behind thickets of banana and
bamboo. And I was remembering more.
Rain jars by the landing docks … lizards basking in the sun … young
boys leaping into the water.
“The water was a lot clearer,” I told my grandson. “And the
swimmers weren’t wearing those little trunks ... they were
naked.” Recently, fearing to offend the sensibilities of
tourists, the Thai government made a fuss about little boys
skinnydipping along the tourist riverboat routes. But the river
is so polluted now, one wonders what difference it makes.
They were bobbing up and down around the boat. Shouting in
fractured English. Wanting a lick of Corey’s
Baskin-Robbins. When Corey spoke to them in Thai, they swam
away. Tourists who speak the language aren’t tourists anymore.
“You used to do that, huh, grandpa.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I like the Sports Club better. The water’s clean. And they
make a mean chicken sandwich at the poolside bar.”
I only went to the sports club once in my life. A week after we
landed in Bangkok, a week of sleeping in a pew at a missionary church,
a week wringing out the same clothes and ironing them over and
“I never thought much of the Sports Club,” I said.
“Oh, grandpa, you’re such a prole.” One of his father’s words, I
“Well, I did grow up in Red China,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “So what was it like, the Sports Club?”
… a little piece of England in the midst of all this tropical
stuff. The horse races. Cricket. My mother has a
rendezvous with the doctor, the one she’s been flirting with on the
ship. They have tea and crumpets. They talk about the
Bangkok Chinatown riots, and about money. I am reading a battered
EC comic that I found in the reading room.
“Well, if you don’t mind going native,” the doctor says, “there’s a
clinic, down south a bit; pay wouldn’t be much, and you’ll have to live
with the benighted buggers, but I daresay you’ll cope.”
“Oh, I’ll go native,” Mom says, “as long as I can keep writing.
I’ll do anything for that. I’d give you a blowjob if that’s what
“Heavens,” says the doctor. “More tea?”
And so, a month later, we come to a fishing village nestled in the
western crook of the Gulf of Siam, and I swear it’s paradise.
There’s a village school taught by monks, and a little clinic where Mom
works, dressing wounds, jabbing penicillin into people’s buttocks; I
think she’s working on a novel. That doctor she was flirting with
got her this job because she speaks Chinese, and the village is full of
Chinese immigrants, smuggled across the sea, looking for some measure
Thapsakae … it rhymes with Tupperware ... it’s always warm, but never
stifling like in Bangkok ... always a breeze from the unseen sea,
shaking the ripe coconuts from the trees ... a town of stilted
dwellings, a tiny main street with storefront rowhouses, fields of neon
green rice as far as the eye can see, lazy waterbuffalo wallowing, and
always the canals running alongside the half-paved road, women beating
their wet laundry with rocks in the dawn, boys diving in the noonday
heat ... the second day I’m there, I meet these kids, Lek and
Sombun. They’re my age. I can’t understand a word they’re
saying at first. I’m watching them, leaning against a
dragon-glazed rain jar, as they shuck their school uniforms and leap
in. They’re laughing a lot, splashing, one time they’re throwing
a catfish back and forth like it’s some kind of volleyball, but they’re
like fishes themselves, silvery brown sleek things chattering in a
singsong language. And I’m alone, like I was at the camp,
flinging stones into the water. Except I’m not scared like I was
there. There’s no time I have to be home. I can reach into
just about any thicket and pluck out something good to eat: bananas,
mangoes, little pink sour-apples. My shorts are all torn (I still
only have one pair) and my shirt is stained with the juices of exotic
fruits, and I let my hair grow as long as I want.
Today I’m thinking of the birds.
You buy a bird to free yourself from the cage of karma. You free
the bird, but its wings are clipped and he’s inside another cage, a
cage circumscribed by the fact that he can’t fly far. And the boy
that catches him is in another cage, apprenticed to that vendor, unable
to fly free. Cages within cages within cages. I’ve
been in a cage before; one time in the camp they hung me up in one in
the commandant’s office and told me to sing.
Here, I don’t feel caged at all.
The Thai kids have noticed me and they pop up from the depths right
next to me, staring curiously. They’re not hostile. I
don’t know what they’re saying, but I know I’m soon going to absorb
this musical language. Meanwhile, they’re splashing me, daring me
to dive in, and in the end I throw off these filthy clothes and I’m in
the water and it’s clear and warm and full of fish. And we’re
laughing and chasing each other. And they do know a few
words of English; they’ve picked it up in that village school, where
the monks have been ramming a weird antiquated English phrasebook down
But later, after we dry off in the sun and they try to show me how to
ride a waterbuffalo, later we sneak across the gailan field and I see
him again. The Birdcatcher, I mean. Gailan is a Chinese
vegetable like broccoli only without the bushy part. The Chinese
immigrants grow it here, They all work for this one rich Chinese
man named Tae Pak, the one who had the refugees shipped to this town as
“You want to watch TV?” Sombun asks me.
I haven’t had much of a chance to see TV. He takes me by the lead
and pulls me along, with Lek behind him, giggling. Night
has fallen. It happens really suddenly in the tropics, boom and
it’s dark. In the distance, past a wall of bamboo trees, we see
glimmering lights. Tae Pak has electricity. Not that many
private homes have. Mom and I use kerosene lamps at night.
I’ve never been to his house, but I know we’re going there.
Villagers are zeroing in on the house now, walking surefootedly in the
moonlight. The stench of night-blooming jasmine is almost choking
in the compound. A little shrine to the Mother of Mercy stands by
the entrance, and ahead we see what passes for a mansion here; the
wooden stilts and the thatched roof with the pointed eaves, like
everyone else’s house, but spread out over three sides of a quadrangle,
and in the center a ruined pagoda whose origin no one remembers.
The usual pigs and chickens are running around in the space under the
house, but the stairway up to the veranda is packed with people, kids
mostly, and they’re all gazing upward. The object of their
devotion is a television set, the images on it ghostly, the sound
staticky and in Thai in any case … but I recognize the show … it’s I
Love Lucy. And I’m just staring and staring. Sombun pushes
me up the steps. I barely remember to remove my sandals and step
in the trough at the bottom of the steps to wash the river-mud off my
feet. It’s really true. I can’t understand a
word of it but it’s still funny. The kids are laughing along with
the laugh track.
Well … that’s when I see Si Ui. I point at him. I try to
attract his attention, but he too, sitting cross-legged on the veranda,
is riveted to the screen. And when I try to whisper to Sombun
that hey, I know this guy, what a weird coincidence, Sombun just
whispers back, “Jek, jek,” which I know is a putdown word for a
“I know him,” I whisper. “He catches birds. And eats
them. Alive.” I try to attract Si Ui’s attention. But
he won’t look at me. He’s too busy staring at Lucille Ball.
I’m a little bit afraid to look at him directly, scared of what his
eyes might disclose, our shared and brutal past.
Lek, whose nickname just means “Tiny”, shudders.
“Jek, jek,” Sombun says. The laugh track kicks in.
Everything has changed now that I know he’s here. On my reed mat,
under the mosquito nets every night, I toss and turn, and I see
things. I don’t think they’re dreams. I think it’s like the
time I looked into Si Ui’s eyes and saw the fire. I see a Chinese
boy running through a field of dead people. It’s sort of all in
black and white and he’s screaming and behind him a village is
At first it’s the Chinese boy but somehow it’s me too, and I’m running,
with my bare feet squishing into dead men’s bowels, running over a sea
of blood and shit. And I run right into someone’s arms.
Hard. The comic-book Japanese villain face. A human heart,
still beating, in his hand.
“Hungry, you little chink?” he says.
Little chink. Little jek.
Intestines are writhing up out of disemboweled bodies like
snakes. I saw a lot of disemboweled Japs. Their officers
did it in groups, quietly, stony-faced. The honorable thing to
I’m screaming myself awake. And then, from the veranda, maybe, I
hear the tap of my mom’s battered typewriter, an old Hermes she bought
in the Sunday market in Bangkok for a hundred baht.
I crawl out of bed. It’s already dawn.
“Hi, Mom,” I say, as I breeze past her, an old phakomah wrapped around
“Wow. It talks.”
“Mom, I’m going over to Sombun’s house to play.”
“You’re getting the hang of the place, I take it.”
“Pick up some food, Nicholas.”
“Okay.” Around here, a dollar will feed me and her three square
meals. But it won’t take away the other hunger.
Another lazy day of running myself ragged, gorging on papaya and
coconut milk, another day in paradise.
It’s time to meet the serpent, I decide.
Sombun tells me someone’s been killed, and we sneak over to the police
station. Si Ui is there, sitting at a desk, staring at a
wall. I think he’s just doing some kind of alien
registration thing. He has a Thai interpreter, the same toothless
woman I saw on the boat. And a policeman is writing stuff down in
There’s a woman sitting on a bench, rocking back and forth. She’s
talking to everyone in sight. Even me and Sombun.
Sombun whispers, “That woman Daeng. Daughter die.”
Daeng mumbles, “My daughter. By the railway tracks. All she
was doing was running down the street for an ice coffee. Oh, my
terrible karma.” She collars a passing inspector. “Help
me. My daughter. Strangled, raped.”
“That inspector Jed,” Sombun whispered to me. “Head of the whole
Inspector Jed is being polite, compassionate and efficient at the same
time. I like him. My mom should hang out with people like
that instead of the losers who are just looking for a quick lay.
The woman continues muttering to herself. “Nit, nit, nit, nit,
nit,” she says. That must be the girl’s name. They all have
nicknames like that. Nit means “tiny”, too, like Lek.
“Dead, strangled,” she says. “And this town is supposed to be
heaven on earth. The sea, the palm trees, the sun always
bright. This town has a dark heart.”
Suddenly, Si Ui looks up. Stares at her. As though
remembering something. Daeng is sobbing. And the policeman
who’s been interviewing him says, “Watch yourself, chink.
Everyone smiles here. Food falls from the trees. If a
little girl’s murdered, they’ll file it away; they won’t try to find
out who did it. Because this is a perfect place, and no one gets
murdered. We all love each other here … you little jek.”
Si UI has this weird look in his eye. Mesmerized. My mother
looks that way sometimes … when a man catches her eye and she’s zeroing
in for the kill. The woman’s mumbling that she’s going to go be a
nun now, she has nothing left to live for.
“Watch your back, jek,” says the policeman. He’s trying, I
realize, to help this man, who he probably thinks is some kind of
village idiot type. “Someone’ll murder you just for being a
stupid little chink. And no one will bother to find out who did
“Si Ui hungry,” says Si Ui.
I realize that I speak his language, and my friends do not.
“Si Ui!” I call out to him.
He freezes in his tracks, and slowly turns, and I look into his eyes
for the second time, and I know that it was no illusion before.
Somehow we’ve seen through each other’s eyes.
I am misfit kid in a picture-perfect town with a dark heart, but I
understand what he’s saying, because though I look all different I come
from where he comes from. I’ve experienced what it’s like to be
Chinese. You can torture them and kill them by millions, like the
Japs did, and still they endure. They just shake it off.
They’ve outlasted everyone so far. And will till the end of
time. Right now in Siam they’re the coolies and the laborers, and
soon they’re going to end up owning the whole country. They
endure. I saw their severed heads piled up like battlements, and
the river choked with their corpses, and they outlasted it all.
These Thai kids will never understand.
“See Ui hungry!’ the man cries.
That afternoon, I slip away from my friends at the river, and I go to
the gailan field where I know he works. He never acknowledges my
presence, but later, he strides further and further from the house of
his rich patron, towards a more densely wooded area past the
fields. It’s all banana trees, the little bananas that have seeds
in them, you chew the whole banana and spit out the seeds, rat-tat-tat,
like a machine gun. There’s bamboo, too, and the jasmine bushes
that grow wild, and mango trees. Si Ui doesn’t talk to me,
doesn’t look back, but somehow I know I’m supposed to follow him.
And I do.
Through the thicket, into a private clearing, the ground overgrown with
weeds, the whole thing surrounded by vegetation, and in the middle of
it a tumbledown house, the thatch unpatched in places, the stilts
decaying and carved with old graffiti. The steps are lined with
wooden cages. There’s birdshit all over the decking, over the
wooden railings, even around the foot trough. Birds are
chattering from the cages, from the air around us. The sun has
been searing and sweat is running down my face, my chest, soaking my
We don’t go up into the house. Instead, Si Ui leads me past it,
toward a clump of rubber trees. He doesn’t talk, just keeps
beckoning me, the curious way they have of beckoning, palm pointing
toward the ground.
I feel dizzy. He’s standing there. Swaying a little.
Then he makes a little clucking, chattering sound, barely opening his
lips. The birds are gathering. He seems to know their
language. They’re answering him. The chirping around us
grows to a screeching cacophony. Above, they’re circling.
They’re blocking out the sun and it’s suddenly chilly. I’m scared
now. But I don’t dare say anything. In the camp, if you
said anything, they always hurt you. Si Ui keeps beckoning me:
nearer, come nearer. And I creep up. The birds are
shrieking. And now they’re swooping down, landing, gathering at
Si Ui’s feet, their heads moving to and fro in a regular rhythm, like
they’re listening to … a heartbeat. Si Ui’s heartbeat. My
An image flashes into my head. A little Chinese boy hiding in a
closet ... listening to footsteps ... breathing nervously.
He’s poised. Like a snake, coiled up, ready to pounce. And
then, without warning, he drops to a crouch, pulls a bird out of the
sea of birds, puts it to his lips, snaps its neck with his teeth, and
the blood just spurts, all over his bare skin, over the homespun
wrapped around his loins, an impossible crimson. And he
smiles. And throws me the bird.
I recoil. He laughs again when I let the dead bird slip through
my fingers. Pounces again and gets me another.
“Birds are easy to trap,” he says to me in Chinese, “easy as children,
sometimes; you just have to know their language.” He rips one open,
pulls out a slippery liver. “You don’t like them raw, I know,” he
says, “but come, little brother, we’ll make a fire.”
He waves his hand, dismisses the birds; all at once they’re gone and
the air is steaming again. In the heat, we make a bonfire and
grill the birds’ livers over it. He has become, I guess, my
friend. Because he’s become all talkative. “I didn’t rape
her,” he says.
Then he talks about fleeing through the rice fields. There’s a
war going on around him. I guess he’s my age in his story, but in
Chinese they don’t use past or future, everything happens in a kind of
abstract now-time. I don’t understand his dialect that well, but
what he says matches the waking dreams I’ve had tossing and turning
under that mosquito net. There was a Japanese soldier. He
seemed kinder than the others. They were roasting something over
a fire. He was handing Si Ui a morsel. A piece of liver.
Hungry, little chink?
Hungry. I understand hungry.
In Asia they believe that everything that will ever happen has already
happened. Is that what Si Ui is doing with me, forging a karmic
chain with his own childhood, the Japanese soldier?
There’s so much I want to ask him, but I can’t form the thoughts,
especially not in Chinese. I’m young, Corey. I’m not
thinking karmic cycles. What are you trying to ask me?
“I thought Si Ui ate children’s livers,” said Corey. “Not some
dumb old birds’.”
We were still on the klong, turning back now toward civilization; on
either side of us were crumbling temples, old houses with pointed
eaves, each one with its little totemic spirit house by the front gate,
pouring sweet incense into the air, the air itself dripping with
humidity. But ahead, just beyond a turn in the klong, a series of
eighty-story condos reared up over the banana trees.
“Yes, he did,” I said, “and we’ll get to that part, in time.
Don’t be impatient.”
“Grandpa, Si Ui ate children’s livers. Just like Dracula bit
women in the neck. Well like, it’s the main part of the
story. How long are you gonna make me wait?”
“So you know more than you told me before. About the maid trying
to scare you one time, when you were five.”
“Well, yeah, grandpa, I saw the miniseries. It never mentioned
“I’m part of the secret history, Corey.”
“Cool.” He contemplated his Pokémon, but decided not to go
back to monster trapping. “When we get back to the Bangkok side,
can I get another caramel frappuccino at Starbucks?”
“Decaf,” I said.
That evening I go back to the house and find Mom in bed with Jed, the
police detective. Suddenly, I don’t like Jed anymore.
She barely looks up at me; Jed is pounding away and oblivious to it
all; I don’t know if Mom really knows I’m there, or just a shadow
flitting beyond the mosquito netting. I know why she’s doing it;
she’ll say that it’s all about getting information for this great novel
she’s planning to write, or research for a major magazine article, but
the truth is that it’s about survival; it’s no different from that
I think she finally does realize I’m there; she mouths the words “I’m
sorry” and then turns back to her work. At that moment, I hear
someone tapping at the entrance, and I crawl over the squeaky
floor-planks, Siamese style (children learn to move around on their
knees so that their head isn’t accidentally higher than someone of
higher rank) to see Sombun on the step.
“Can you come out?” he says. “There’s a ngaan wat.”
I don’t know what that is, but I don’t want to stay in the house.
So I throw on a shirt and go with him. I soon find out that a
Ngaan Wat is a temple fair, sort of a cross between a carnival and a
church bazaar and a theatrical night out.
Even from a mile or two away we hear the music, the tinkling of
marimbas and the thud of drums, the wail of the Javanese
oboe. By the time we get there, the air is drenched with
the fragrance of pickled guava, peanut pork skewers, and green papaya
tossed in fish sauce. A makeshift dance floor has been spread
over the muddy ground and there are dancers with rhinestone court
costumes and pagoda hats, their hands bent back at an impossible
angle. There’s a Chinese opera troupe like I’ve seen in Shanghai,
glittering costumes, masks painted on the faces in garish colors, boys
dressed as monkeys leaping to and fro; the Thai and the Chinese
striving to outdo each other in noise and brilliance. And on a
grill, being tended by a fat woman, pigeons are barbecuing, each one on
a mini-spear of steel. And I’m reminded of the open fire
and the sizzling of half-plucked feathers.
“You got money?” Sombun says. He thinks that all farangs are
rich. I fish in my pocket and pull out a few saleungs, and we
stuff ourselves with pan-fried roti swimming in sweet condensed
The thick juice is dripping from our lips. This really is
paradise. The music, the mingled scents, the warm
wind. Then I see Si Ui. There aren’t any birds
nearby, not unless you count the pigeons charring on the grill.
Si Ui is muttering to himself, but I understand Chinese, and he’s
saying, over and over again, “Si Ui hungry, Si Ui hungry.” He
says it in a little voice and it’s almost like baby talk.
We wander over to the Chinese opera troupe. They’re doing
something about monkeys invading heaven and stealing the apples of the
gods. All these kids are somersaulting, tumbling, cartwheeling,
and climbing up onto each other’s shoulders. There’s a little
girl, nine or ten maybe, and she’s watching the show. And Si Ui
is watching her. And I’m watching him.
I’ve seen her before, know her from that night we squatted on the
veranda staring at American TV shows. Was Si Ui watching her even
then? I tried to remember. Couldn’t be sure. Her
Those Chinese cymbals, with their annoying “boing-boing-boing” sound,
are clashing. A man is intoning in a weird singsong. The
monkeys are leaping. Suddenly I see, in Si Ui’s face, the same
expression I saw on the ship. He’s utterly still inside, utterly
quiet, beyond feeling. The war did that to him. I
know. Just like it made my Mom into a whore, and me into … I
don’t know … a bird without a nesting place … a lost boy.
And then I get this … irrational feeling. That the little
girl is a bird, chirping to herself, hopping along the ground, not
noticing the stalker.
So many people here. So much jangling, so much laughter.
The town’s dilapidated pagodas sparkle with reflected colors, like
stone Christmas trees. Chinese opera rings in my ears, I
look away, when I look back they are gone … Sombun is preoccupied now,
playing with two-saleung top that he just bought.
Somehow feel impelled to follow. To stalk the
I duck behind a fruit stand and then I see a golden deer. It’s a
toy, on four wheels, pulled along a string. I can’t help
following it with my eyes as it darts between hampers full of rambutans
The deer darts toward the cupped hands of the little girl. I see
her disappear into the crowd, but then I see Si Ui’s face too; you
can’t mistake the cold fire in his eyes.
She follows the toy. Si Ui pulls. I follow, too, not really
knowing why it’s so fascinating. The toy deer weaves through the
ocean of feet. Bare feet of monks and novices, their saffron
robes skimming the mud. Feet in rubber flipflops, in the wooden
sandals the Jek call kiah. I hear a voice: Juk, Juk! And I
know there’s someone else looking for the girl, too. It’s a weird
quartet, each one in the sequence known only to the next one. I
can Si Ui now, his head bobbing up and down in the throng because he’s
a little taller than the average Thai even though he’s so skinny.
He’s intent. Concentrated. He seems to be on wheels
himself, he glides through the crowd like the toy deer does. The
woman’s voice, calling for Juk, is faint and distant; she hears it, I’m
sure, but she’s ignoring her mother or her big sister. I only
hear it because my senses are sharp now, it’s like the rest of the
temple fair’s all out of focus now, all blurry, and there’s just the
four of us. I see the woman now, it must be a mother or aunt, too
old for a sister, collaring a roti vendor and asking if he’s seen the
child. The vendor shakes his head, laughs. And suddenly
we’re all next to the pigeon barbecue, and if the woman was only
looking in the right place she’d see the little girl, giggling as she
clambers through the forest of legs, as the toy zigzags over the dirt
aisles. And now the deer has been yanked right up to Si
Ui’s feet. And the girl crawls all the way after it, seizes it,
laughs, looks solemnly up at the face of the Chinaman —
“It’s him! It’s the chink!” Sombun is pointing,
laughing. I’d forgotten he was even with me.
Si Ui is startled. His concentration snaps. He lashes
out. There’s a blind rage in his eyes. Dead pigeons are
“Hungry!” he screams in Chinese. “Si Ui hungry!”
He turns. There is a cloth stall nearby. Suddenly he and
the girl are gone amid a flurry of billowing sarongs. And I
Incense in the air, stinging my eyes. A shaman gets possessed in
a side aisle, his followers hushed. A flash of red. A red
sarong, embroidered with gold, a year’s wages, twisting through the
crowd. I follow. I see the girl’s terrified eyes. I
see Si Ui with the red cloth wrapped around his arms, around the
girl. I see something glistening, a knife maybe. And no one
sees. No one but me.
I’ve lost Sombun somewhere. I don’t care. I thread my way
through a bevy of ramwong dancers, through men dressed as women and
women dressed as men. Fireworks are going off. There’s an
ancient wall, the temple boundary, crumbling … and the trail of red
funnels into black night … and I’m standing on the other side of the
wall now, watching Si Ui ride away in a pedicab, into the night.
There’s moonlight on him. He’s saying something; even from far
off I can read his lips; he’s saying it over and over: Si Ui hungry, Si
So they find her by the side of the road with her internal organs
missing. And I’m there too, all the boys are at dawn, peering
down, daring each other to touch. It’s not a rape or anything,
they tell us. Nothing like the other girl. Someone has seen
a cowherd near the site, and he’s the one they arrest. He’s an
Indian, you see. If there’s anyone the locals despise more than
the Chinese, it’s the Indians. They have a saying: if you see a
snake and an Indian, kill the babu.
Later, in the market, Detective Jed is escorting the Indian to the
police station, and they start pelting him with stones, and they call
him a dirty Indian and a cowshit eater. They beat him up pretty
badly in the jail. The country’s under martial law in those days,
you know. They can beat up anyone they want. Or shoot them.
But most people don’t really notice, or care. After all, it is
paradise. To say that it is not, aloud, risks making it
true. That’s why my mom will never belong to Thailand; she
doesn’t understand that everything there resides in what is left unsaid.
That afternoon I go back to the rubber orchard. He is standing
patiently. There’s a bird on a branch. Si Ui is
poised. Waiting. I think he is about to pounce. But
I’m too excited to wait. “The girl,” I say. “The girl,
she’s dead, did you know?”
Si Ui whirls around in a murderous fury, and then, just as suddenly,
“I didn’t mean to break your concentration,” I say.
“Girl soft,” Si Ui says. “Tender.” He laughs a
little. I don’t see a vicious killer. All I see is
loneliness and hunger.
“Did you kill her?” I say.
“Kill?” he says. “I don’t know. Si Ui hungry.” He
beckons me closer. I’m not afraid of him. “Do like me,” he
says. He crouches. I crouch too. He stares at the
bird. And so do I. “Make like a tree now,” he says, and I
say, “Yes. I’m a tree.” He’s behind me. He’s
breathing down my neck. Am I the next bird? But somehow I
know he won’t hurt me.
“Now!” he shrieks. Blindly, instinctively, I grab the sparrow in
both hands. I can feel the quick heart grow cold as the bones
crunch. Blood and birdshit squirt into my fists. It feels
exciting, you know, down there, inside me. I killed it. The
shock of death is amazing, joyous. I wonder if this is what
grownups feel when they do things to each other in the night.
He laughs. “You and me,” he says, “now we same-same.”
He shows me how to lick the warm blood as it spurts. It’s hotter
than you think. It pulses, it quivers, the whole bird trembles as
it yields up its spirit to me.
And then there’s the weirdest thing. You know that hunger, the
one that’s gnawed at me, like a wound that won’t close up, since we
were dragged to that camp ... it’s suddenly gone. In it’s place
there’s a kind of nothing.
The Buddhists here say that heaven itself is a kind of nothing.
That the goal of all existence is to become as nothing.
And I feel it. For all of a second or two, I feel it. “I
know why you do it,” I say. “I won’t tell anyone, I swear.”
“Si Ui knows that already.”
Yes, he does. We have stood on common ground. We have
shared communion flesh. Once a month, a Chinese priest used to
come to the camp and celebrate mass with a hunk of maggoty man to, but
he never made me feel one with anyone, let alone God.
The blood bathes my lips. The liver is succulent and bursting
Perhaps this is the first person I’ve ever loved.
The feeling lasts a few minutes. But then comes the hunger,
swooping down on me, hunger clawed and ravenous. It will never go
away, not completely.
They have called in an exorcist to pray over the railway
tracks. The mother of the girl they found there has become
a nun, and she stands on the gravel pathway lamenting her karma.
The most recent victim has few to grieve for her. I overhear
Detective Jed talking to my mother. He tells her there are two
killers. The second one had her throat cut and her internal
organs removed ... the first one, strangulation, all different ... he’s
been studying these cases, these ritual killers, in American psychiatry
books. And the cowherd has an alibi for the first victim.
I’m only half-listening to Jed, who drones on and on about famous mad
killers in Europe. Like the butcher of Hanover, Jack the
Ripper. How their victims were always chosen in a special
way. How they killed over and over, always a certain way, a
ritual. How they always got careless after a while, because part
of what they were doing came from a hunger, a desperate need to be
found out. How after a while they might leave clues ... confide
in someone ... how he thought he had one of these cases on his hands,
but the authorities in Bangkok weren’t buying the idea. The
village of Thapsakae just wasn’t grand enough to play host to a
reincarnation of Jack the Ripper.
I listen to him, but I’ve never been to Europe, and it’s all just talk
to me. I’m much more interested in the exorcist, who’s a Brahmin,
in white robes, hair down to his feet, all nappy and filthy, a dozen
flower garlands around his neck, and amulets tinkling all over him.
“The killer might confide in someone,” says Jed, “someone he thinks is
in no position to betray him, someone perhaps too simpleminded to
understand. Remember, the killer doesn’t know he’s evil. In
a sense, he really can’t help himself. He doesn’t think the way
we think. To himself, he’s an innocent.”
The exorcist enters his trance and sways and mumbles in unknown
tongues. The villagers don’t believe the killer’s an
innocent. They want to lynch him.
Women washing clothes find a young girl’s hand bobbing up and down, and
her head a few yards downstream. Women are panicking in the
marketplace. They’re lynching Indians, Chinese, anyone
alien. But not Si Ui; he’s a simpleton, after all. The
village idiot is immune from persecution because every village needs an
The exorcist gets quite a workout, capturing spirits into baskets and
Meanwhile, Si Ui has become the trusted Jek, the one who cuts the
gailan in the fields and never cheats anyone of their two-saleung
bundle of Chinese broccoli.
I keep his secret. Evenings, after I’m exhausted from swimming
all day with Sombun and Lek, or lazing on the back of a waterbuffalo, I
go to the rubber orchard and catch birds as the sun sets. I’m
almost as good as him now. Sometimes he says nothing, though
he’ll share with me a piece of meat, cooked or uncooked; sometimes he
talks up a storm. When he talks pidgin, he sounds like he’s a
half-wit. When he talks Thai, it’s the same way, I think.
But when he goes on and on in his Hakka dialect, he’s as lucid as they
come. I think. Because I’m only getting it in
One day he says to me, “The young ones taste the best because it’s the
taste of childhood. You and I, we have no childhood. Only
A bird flies onto his shoulder, head tilted, chirps a friendly
song. Perhaps he will soon be dinner.
Another day, Si Ui says, “Children’s livers are the sweetest, they’re
bursting with young life. I weep for them. They’re with me
always. They’re my friends. Like you.”
Around us, paradise is crumbling. Everyone suspects someone
else. Fights are breaking out in the marketplace. One day
it’s the Indians, another day the chinks, the Burmese. Hatred
hangs in the air like the smell of rotten mangoes.
And Si Ui is getting hungrier.
My mother is working on her book now, thinking it’ll make her fortune;
she waits for the mail, which gets here sometimes by train, sometimes
by oxcart. She’s waiting for some letter from Simon and
Schuster. It never comes, but she’s having a ball, in her
own way. She stumbles her way through the language, commits
appalling solecisms, points her feet, even touches a monk one time, a
total sacrilege … but they let her get away with everything.
Farangs, after all, are touched by a divine madness. You
can expect nothing normal from them.
She questions every villager, pores over every clue. It never
occurs to her to ask me what I know.
We glut ourselves on papaya and curried catfish.
“Nicholas,” my mother tells me one evening, after she’s offered me a
hit of opium, her latest affectation, “this really is the Garden of
I don’t tell her that I’ve already met the serpent.
Here’s how the day of reckoning happened, Corey:
It’s mid-morning and I’m wandering aimlessly. My mother has taken
the train to Bangkok with detective Jed. He’s decided that her
untouchable farang-ness might get him an audience with some major
official in the police department. I don’t see my friends at the
river or in the marketplace. But it’s not planting season, and
there’s no school. So I’m playing by myself, but you can only
flip so many pebbles into the river, and tease so many waterbuffaloes.
After a while I decide to go and look for Sombun. We’re not
close, he and I, but we’re thrown together a lot; things don’t seem
right without him.
I go to Sombun’s house; it’s a shabby place, but immaculate, a row
house in the more “citified” part of the village, if you can call it
that. Sombun’s mother is making chili paste, pounding the spices
in a stone mortar. You can smell the sweet basil and the
lemongrass in the air. And the betelnut, too; she’s chewing on
the intoxicant; her teeth are stained red-black from long use.
“Oh,” she says, “the farang boy.”
She’s doesn’t know quite what to make of my Thai, which has been
getting better for months. “He’s not home, Little Mouse,” she
says. “He went to the Jek’s house to buy broccoli. Do you
want to eat?”
“I’ve eaten, thanks, auntie,” I say, but for politeness’ sake I’m
forced to nibble on bright green sali pastry.
“He’s been gone a long time,” she said, as she pounded. “I wonder
if the chink’s going to teach him to catch birds.”
And I start to get this weird feeling. Because I’m the one who
catches birds with the Chinaman, I’m the one who’s shared his past, who
understands his hunger. Not just any kid.
“Sombun told me the chink was going to show him a special trick for
catching them. Something about putting yourself into a deep state
of samadhi, reaching out with your mind, plucking the life-force with
your mind. It sounds very spiritual, doesn’t it? I always
took the chink for a moron, but maybe I’m misjudging him; Sombun seems
to do a much better job,” she said. “I never liked it when they
came to our village, but they do work hard.”
Well, when I leave Sombun’s house, I’m starting to get a little
mad. It’s jealousy, of course, childish jealousy; I see that
now. But I don’t want to go there and disrupt their little
bird-catching session. I’m not a spoilsport. I’m just going
to pace up and down by the side of the klong, doing a slow burn.
The serpent came to me! I was the only one who could see through
his madness and his pain, the only one who truly knew the hunger that
drove him! That’s what I’m thinking. And I go back to
tossing pebbles, and I tease the gibbon chained by the temple’s gate,
and I kick a waterbuffalo around. And, before I knew it, this
twinge of jealousy has grown into a kind of rage. It’s like I was
one of those birds, only in a really big cage, and I’d been flying and
flying and thinking I was free, and now I’ve banged into the prison
bars for the first time. I’m so mad I could burst.
I’m playing by myself by the railway tracks when I see my mom and the
detective walking out of the station. And that’s the last
straw. I want to hurt someone. I want to hurt my mom
for shutting me out and letting strangers into her mosquito net at
night. I want to punish Jed for thinking he knows
everything. I want someone to notice me.
So that’s when I run up to them and I say, “I’m the one! He
confided in me! You said he was going to give himself away to
someone and it was me, it was me!”
My mom just stares at me, but Jed becomes very quiet. “The
Chinaman?” he asks me.
I say, “He told me children’s livers are the sweetest. I think
he’s after Sombun.” I don’t tell him that he’s only going to
teach Sombun to catch birds, that he taught me too, that boys are safe
from him because like the detective told us, we’re not the special kind
of victim he seeks out. “In his house, in the rubber orchard,
you’ll find everything,” I say. “Bones. He makes the feet
into a stew,” I add, improvising now, because I’ve never been inside
that house. “He cuts off their faces and dries them on a jerky
rack. And Sombun’s with him.”
The truth is, I’m just making trouble. I don’t believe there’s
dried faces in the house or human bones. I know Sombun’s going to
be safe, that Si Ui’s only teaching him how to squeeze the life force
from the birds, how to blunt the ancient hunger. Him instead of
me. They’re not going to find anything but dead birds.
There’s a scream. I turn. I see Sombun’s mother with a
basket of fish, coming from the market. She’s overheard me, and
she cries, “The chink is killing my son!” Faster than thought, the
street is full of people, screaming their anti-chink epithets and
pulling out butcher knives. Jed’s calling for
reinforcements. Street vendors are tightening their phakhomas
around their waists.
“Which way?” Jed asks, and suddenly I’m at the head of an army, racing
full tilt toward the rubber orchard, along the neon green of the young
rice paddies, beside the canals teeming with catfish, through thickets
of banana trees, around the walls of the old temple, through the fields
of gailan … and this too feeds my hunger. It’s ugly.
He’s a Chinaman. He’s the village idiot. He’s
different. He’s an alien. Anything is possible.
We’re converging on the gailan field now. They’re waving
sticks. Harvesting sickles. Fishknives. They’re
shouting, “Kill the chink, kill the chink.” Sombun’s mother is
shrieking and wailing, and Detective Jed has his gun out. Tae
Pak, the village rich man, is vainly trying to stop the mob from
trampling his broccoli. The army is unstoppable. And I’m
their leader, I brought them here with my little lie. Even my
mother is finally in awe.
I push through the bamboo thicket and we’re standing in the clearing in
the rubber orchard now. They’re screaming for the Jek’s
blood. And I’m screaming with them.
Si Ui is nowhere to be found. They’re beating on the ground now,
slicing it with their scythes, smashing their clubs against the
trees. Sombun’s mother is hysterical. The other women
have caught her mood, and they’re all screaming now, because someone is
holding up a sandal … Sombun’s.
… a little Chinese boy hiding in a closet …
The images flashes again. I must go up into the house. I
steal away, sneak up the steps, respectfully removing my sandals at the
veranda, and I slip into the house.
A kerosene lamp burns. Light and shadows dance. There
is a low wooden platform for a bed, a mosquito net, a woven rush mat
for sleeping; off in a corner, there is a closet.
Birds everywhere. Dead birds pinned to the walls. Birds’
heads piled up on plates. Blood spatters on the
floorplanks. Feathers wafting. On a charcoal stove in one
corner, there’s a wok with some hot oil and garlic, and sizzling in
that oil is a heart, too big to be the heart of a bird.…
My eyes get used to the darkness. I see human bones in a
pail. I see a young girl’s head in a jar, the skull sawn open,
half the brain gone. I see a bowl of pickled eyes.
I’m not afraid. These are familiar sights. This horror is a
spectral echo of Nanking, nothing more.
“Si Ui,” I whisper. “I lied to them. I know you didn’t do
anything to Sombun. You’re one of the killers who does the same
thing over and over. You don’t eat boys. I know I’ve always
been safe with you. I’ve always trusted you.”
I hear someone crying. The whimper of a child.
“Hungry,” says the voice. “Hungry.”
A voice from behind the closet door.…
The door opens. Si Ui is there, huddled, bone-thin, his phakomah
about his loins, weeping, rocking.
Noises now. Angry voices. They’re clambering up the
steps. They’re breaking down the wall planks. Light streams
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. I see fire flicker in his eyes, then
drain away as the mob sweeps into the room.
My grandson was hungry, too. When he said he could eat the world,
he wasn’t kidding. After the second decaf frappuccino, there was
Italian ice in the Oriental’s coffee shop, and then, riding back on the
Skytrain to join the chauffeur who had conveniently parked at the Sogo
mall, there was a box of Smarties. Corey’s mother always told me
to watch the sugar, and she had plenty of Ritalin in stock — no
prescription needed here — but it was always my pleasure to defy my
daughter-in-law and leave her to deal with the consequences.
Corey ran wild in the skytrain station, whooping up the staircases,
yelling at old ladies. No one minded. Kids are indulged in
Babylon East; little blond boys are too cute to do wrong. For
some, this noisy, polluted, chaotic city is still a kind of
My day of revelations ended at my son’s townhouse in Sukhumvit, where
maids and nannies fussed over little Corey and undressed him and got
him in his Pokémon pajamas as I drained a glass of
Beaujolais. My son was rarely home; the taco chain consumed all
his time. My daughter-in-law was a social butterfly; she had
already gone out for the evening, all pearls and Thai silk. So it
fell to me to go into my grandson’s room and to kiss him goodnight and
Corey’s bedroom was little piece of America, with its Phantom Menace
drapes and its Playstation. But on a high niche, an image of the
Buddha looked down; a decaying garland still perfumed the air with
a whiff of jasmine. The air conditioning was chilly; the
Bangkok of the rich is a cold city; the more conspicuous the
consumption, the lower the thermostat setting. I shivered, even
as I missed Manhattan in January.
“Tell me a story, grandpa?” Corey said.
“I told you one already,” I said.
“Yeah, you did,” he said wistfully. “About you in the Garden of
Eden, and the serpent who was really a kid-eating monster.”
All true. But as the years passed I had come to see that perhaps
I was the serpent. I was the one who mixed lies with the truth,
and took away his innocence. He was a child, really, a hungry
child. And so was I.
“Tell me what happened to him,” Corey said. “Did the people lynch
“No. The court ruled that he was a madman, and sentenced him to a
mental home. But the military government of Field Marshall Sarit
reversed the decision, and they took him away and shot him. And
he didn’t even kill half the kids they said he killed.”
“Like the first girl, the one who was raped and strangled,” Corey said,
“but she didn’t get eaten. Maybe that other killer’s still
around.” So he had been paying attention after all. I know
he loves me, though he rarely says so; he had suffered an old man’s
ramblings for one long air conditioning-free day, without
complaint. I’m proud of him, can barely believe I’ve held on to
life long enough to get to know him.
I leaned down to kiss him. He clung to me; and, as he let go, he
asked me sleepily, “Do you ever feel that hungry, grandpa?”
I didn’t want to answer him; so, without another word, I slipped
That night, I wandered in my dreams through fields of the dead;
the hunger raged; I killed, I swallowed children whole and spat them
out; I burned down cities; I stood aflame in my self-made
inferno, howling with elemental grief; and in the morning, without
leaving a note, I took a taxi to the airport and flew back to New York.
To face the hunger.
with the Serial Killer Himself