The poisoned future: a Rakhine short story

A fictional story by Rakhine author Myint Win Hlaing about the trials of an “ill-fated woman” in a Rakhine State village.

The horizon grows dark in all directions. Thick rain clouds, drifting in southerly winds, cover the sky as evening falls and the farmers head home. To the north of town is a small hill, verdant with giant banyans, tamarinds and parrot trees that boast clusters of red-beaked flowers in April. Under the trees hide dirt graves and whitewashed tombs overgrown in weeds. Through the surrounding bush a young man shoulders something rolled in a frayed palm-leaf mat. Ahead of him walk three other men carrying a mattock, a hoe and bottles of water and homebrew. Together the four men scout for a bare patch of ground amidst the dirty rags, charred bamboo and plastic throwaways.

“In the end, all of mankind must rest here. Us too one day. You’re not afraid, are you?” the young man Soe Paing asks the others.

He takes the mattock and begins to dig into the hard ground. Soe Paing is the oldest of the four. He dropped out of high school after his father died to support the family by working at his uncle’s bicycle and trishaw repair shop while his friends attended university in the state capital, Sittwe. As the eldest of the young villagers, he’s also in charge of all joyous and sombre occasions from weddings to funerals.

“The only difference between the town and here is life and death,” Soe Paing continues, wielding the hoe to widen the hole. “Here it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor.”

“No, you’re wrong,” counters Maung Maung. “Look over there – the rich rest in tombs, while the poor sleep under mounds of earth,”

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It starts to rain and the digging gets messy as the water begins to rise.

“Mro Lin, go fetch that scoop over by that tomb there and bail out the water, will you?”

“Okay, Ko Soe Paing, just let me drink up,” says Mro Lin, draining his cup.

While Mro Lin and Soe Paing work, Bo Aung sits beside the mat nursing the bottle of liquor. “Like the saying goes, ‘Where walks an ill-fated woman, rain follows’. This baby was unlucky. Even her human birth didn’t guarantee her a father or a long life. The rain isn’t stopping. She really does make trouble for others.” Bo Aung takes another swig from the bottle while talking to himself.

Mro Lin throws down the scoop and shouts at Bo Aung. “If you’re going to drink, at least mind the corpse. I can hear the dogs howling in the woods. Besides, the girl wasn’t so ill-fated. In the Lord Buddha’s teachings I’ve read, it says manusatta bavo dullabo – ‘being born a human is precious’. Easier it is for a needle from the heavens to strike a needle on earth than to be born in the human realm. If you’re born human, it means you’ve already achieved a higher life than before. Long life or short, that’s different though. That’s the result of your own doings in life.”

Ill-fated or not, a woman had borne her nine months in the womb. And despite poverty, sympathetic souls took care of her for three months thereafter. Surely many babies had the good fortune to be born human like her yet did not survive.

*

After her parents died, Lon Lon Chaw moved in with her aunt, Daw Than Mra, who ran a liquor joint and had a reputation in the village for brewing alcohol so strong it could burst into flames. Daw Than Mra’s husband drinks the stuff all day, and walks around with red eyes and swollen cheeks.

Lon Lon Chaw had to feed pigs in the sty behind the house and clean the yard as well as work as a waitress in the liquor joint. Though not as attractive as her name, which means “curvy beauty”, implied, she was healthy with a round bottom, a tiny waist, pointed breasts and brown skin. Local men thought she walked like a young mare and never tired of watching her. Her looks and the fashionable – but cheap – dresses she wore made men hungry, though normally they wouldn’t eat when drinking. 

After she started working there, the liquor joint got busier than ever and everyone knew why. She served all the men equally, young or old, and was so polite and sweet that Daw Than Mra’s liquor trade grew and grew. Every teacher, clerk and trishaw driver in the village called her by her name, “Lon Lon!”

A retired civil servant called U Ba San was a regular customer, always coming at the same time of day. “I drink not because I like alcohol,” he told his drinking buddies, “but as medicine for my cardiovascular disease.”

His wife had already passed away and his adult children lived by themselves, so U Ba San was free and single. A good talker, he enjoyed living without rules and obligations. Only rarely, on unavoidable social and religious occasions, did he go to a pagoda. Behind his back the villagers called him an old ox who liked to eat tender grass.

His oldest son warned him, “Father, you really should consider your age and take solace in religion.” But U Ba San just shouted back, “I didn’t raise you to preach to me. I trust my own conscience. Get out!” After that, his children didn’t dare tell him what other people were saying.

“A woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It’s meant to be shared. Before one dies, one should savour it as much as possible. Who knows if there’ll be a next life?” U Ba San told his friends, raising his glass and laughing.

*

“Hey, have you heard?”

“Heard what? The girl from the liquor joint?”

“Yes, her. She’s pregnant.”

The gossip spread through the village to the liquor house. One by one the customers stayed away. Not even U Ba San came, despite having to drink regularly for his health problems.

Daw Than Mra couldn’t take it anymore and shouted at Lon Lon Chaw. “Look what you’ve gone and done, bitch! My business, my reputation is ruined. I want you gone, right now!”

“You’re right. It’s my fault. Curse me, beat me,” said Lon Lon Chaw.                

“What did you say? Now you see it’s your fault, do you? Why couldn’t you see that from the start? Get out of here right this minute!” Daw Than Mra grabbed Lon Lon Chaw by the arm and dragged her out of the house.

“Hey, Than Mra! That’s enough. Scold her if you must, but don’t beat her,” said her husband, trying to calm her down. “This girl’s your own niece.”

“Mind your own business. She’s not my niece, she’s a whore.” Daw Than Mra screamed and swore at Lon Lon Chaw so loudly you could hear her ten houses away.

“I’d like to crush you to a pulp. Get out! I don’t want to see your damned face ever again.”

Lon Lon Chaw left her aunt’s house with nothing but her clothes. With nowhere to go, she appealed to her dead parents. “Mum, dad, help me, I’m in trouble,” she murmured to herself.

Her steps took her to the Kissapa River, where the relentless current had worn away the trees and rocks below a small cliff. A good place to kill myself, she thought. She stood on the precipice, her eyes closed, tears streaming down her cheeks. An orphan herself, she felt only sadness for the unborn child inside her; she didn’t want it to pay for the mistakes she had made in her life. Closing her eyes even tighter, Lon Lon Chaw put her palms together and began to chant a prayer.

“Hey, girl!”

A rough hand grabbed Lon Chaw’s blouse from behind and she fell backwards.

“What are you doing, girl? It’s dangerous here, go home!” gasped an old woman, hugging her tightly.

“I don’t have a home to go to. This is my only option. Don’t hold me back, grandma.”

“Oh, it’s you. Aren’t you the girl from Than Mra’s place?”

“Yes, that’s me, grandma,” Lon Lon Chaw said.

“Oh Lord, Lord, Lord, it always happens like this,” mumbled the old woman. “Come stay with me, my granddaughter. Don’t you worry; it’s right and just to give a hand to one in trouble. Also I gain a companion.”

“Can I really stay with you, grandma? I’m with child, not just by myself.”

“Then I’ll help you when you deliver your baby. When I go hungry, you’ll go hungry too, but when I have food, so will you,” said the old woman, taking Lon Lon Chaw’s hand to lead her to her home.

The old woman, Daw Mae Kra, had lived alone in a tiny hut at the edge of the village for more than fifty of her seventy years. With neither family nor relatives, hers was a hard and frugal life. She scraped up land crabs, she netted fish, she gathered leaves for salad. She survived.

*

Lon Lon Chaw, alone in the hut while the old woman went out to forage for firewood, groaned in agony. She knew there were people all around but didn’t dare ask for help. The child was moving, struggling. Hearing the painful cries, a woman entered the hut and was shocked to see Lon Lon Chaw lapsing into unconsciousness. She called the other neighbour women, who came running to the hut. One of them took pity on Lon Lon Chaw. “We can’t just sit here, we have to take her to hospital.”

“Hospital? With no money? Impossible! We have to pay for everything at the hospital, even cotton wool.”

“We have no choice, we’ve got to take her there.”

“Just because we don’t have money, should we just let her die?”

The neighbours argued until they reached a decision. Wrapping Lon Lon Chaw in a hammock, they carried her to the hospital. The doctor on duty, U Maung Gyi, had just been posted to the village. He quickly examined the girl before registering her.

“Patient’s name?”

“Lon Lon Chaw, doctor,” answered a woman, arms folded across her chest.

“Husband’s name?”

No one spoke.

Dr Maung Gyi asked again, “Who is the husband?”

“She has no husband,” replied the same woman.

“And her parents?”

“Deceased. The old woman Daw Mae Kra adopted her.”

“Tsk, tsk. Bring her in to the operating room,” said the doctor, setting down his ballpoint pen on the registry.

After a long labour, Lon Lon Chaw gave birth to a baby girl. The doctor himself assumed the charges for her medical treatment, and even bought her food and vitamins. In the recovery room, he told Lon Lon Chaw, “Thanks to you, this baby has been given a chance to be born a human. I do admire your courage. Please let me know if you have any problems.”

“Thank you, doctor, I’m so grateful. I won’t forget your help.”

*

The four young men have dug the hole as deep as they can. As Soe Paing picks up the rolled mat and places it in the grave, Bo Aung stops him.

“Wait, Ko Soe Paing. Not just yet.”

“What is it, Bo Aung? We’re running out of time, it’s already dark.”

“We haven’t seen the baby yet. Everyone knew Lon Lon Chaw was pregnant, but we still don’t know who the father was. If we take a peek, maybe we can guess, heh, heh.”

“No, that’s not the way, Bo Aung. Everything’s already over and done with.”

Turning to Soe Paing, he says, “Already done? I don’t care what’s right or wrong, I want to know.”

Bo Aung unrolls the cursed mat anyway. The baby is wrapped in a thin blanket. He takes a long look at the tiny body, but in the darkness under the black rain clouds, not a dim sliver of light reaches the face of the baby.

This story appeared in the anthology “Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar” published by the British Council in 2017 and is reproduced with the permission of the author and Letyar Tun, who translated it from Burmese to English. Myint Win Hlaing (b.1981)is a writer and teacher who belongs to a prominent Rakhine literary circle. Under the pen name Green Maung, he has written stories in Burmese for the journals Shwe Amyutae and Yote Shin Tay Kabyar and in Rakhine for the Rakhine Journal.

By Frontier

By Frontier

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