I wrote this story originally as a screenplay about Thailand's most notorious serial killer.  The idea was to do a story about See Oui, the boogie man of Thailand, that could appeal to the western mind, and I solved the problem by seeing the murderous Chinaman through the eyes of an American boy stranded in Thailand in the 1950s for completely different reasons É  The studio loved the treatment, commissioned the script, then HATED the script for all the reasons they had loved the treatment.  So, I took back the story, wrote it as a novella, and the story won the World Fantasy 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 Bird Catcher


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 for me.
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 in secret.
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 to learn.
“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 go now?”
“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?”
“You’re hungry.”
“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.”
“Okay, grandpa.”
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 China. 
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 snowfall.
He bites off the head and I hear the skull crunch.
I scream.  He whirls.  I try to cover it up with a childish giggle.
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.
“Boy hungry?”
“Man hungry?”
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 fish. 
“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 tickets.
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 remember.
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 much.
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.
He pounces.
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 out. 
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 empty.  Soulless.
“Si Ui catch anything,” he says.  “See, catch bird, catch boy.  All same.”  And smiles, a curiously captivating smile. 
“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 over. 
“I never thought much of the Sports Club,” I said.
“Oh, grandpa, you’re such a prole.”  One of his father’s words, I thought, smiling. 
“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 it takes.”
“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 of freedom.
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 their throats.
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 cheap labor. 
“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 Chinaman. 
“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 burning. 
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 do. 
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 my loins. 
“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.”
“Yeah.”
“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 a ledger. 
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 place.”
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 it.”
“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 phakhomah. 
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 own.
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.
Human liver.
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 you.”
“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 concentration camp.
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 milk. 
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 name’s Juk.
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 stalker. 
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 and pomelos. 
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 flying everywhere. 
“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 follow.
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.
Juk!  Juk!
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 Ui hungry.
    §
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, he’s smiling. 
“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 with juices.
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 idiot.
The exorcist gets quite a workout, capturing spirits into baskets and jars. 
 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 patches. 
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 the taste.”
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 Eden.”
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.”
“Where’s Sombun?”
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.”
“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 in. 
“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 paradise. 
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 goodbye.
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 him?”
“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 quietly away. 
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.

 

 

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Somtow with the Serial Killer Himself