"Chiko, come inside!" Mother calls through the screen door, her voice low and urgent.
On the road behind our house, horns toot, sirens blare, and bicycle rickshaws crowd the streets. A high cement wall and a barrier of bamboo muffle the noise, making our garden seem as private as a monastery. But it isn't. I could be spotted from the houses nearby, and spies are everywhere. They would betray even an old neighbor for extra ration cards.
I scan the rest of the announcement quickly, my heart racing.
"Chiko! Now!" Mother startles the flock of green parakeets perched on the birdbath, and they fly away.
I fold the newspaper around A Tale of Two Cities and head for the house. I want to tell Mother about the call for teachers in the paper, but it seems like she's getting more anxious by the day. So am I, even though I wish I didn't have to admit that. I'm tired of hiding, of worrying, and worst of all, of remembering again and again the day the soldiers came for Father. Remembering how I've failed him.
"You shouldn't be reading out there," Mother tells me, peering out through the screen after latching the door behind me.
I take a deep breath and push my glasses back. It's now or never. "No harm in reading the government newspaper. There's a notice—"
But she's not listening. "We'll talk about that later, Chiko. How could you take one of your father's books outside? Do you want to end up in prison, too?"
She's right—I shouldn't have brought the book out there. The government gets suspicious when a Burmese boy reads English books. But I don't answer her questions. What can I say? That it already feels like I'm in prison? I take the novel out of the newspaper. The worn cloth cover is still warm from the sunshine. "Read widely, Chiko," Father used to say. "Great doctors must understand human nature in order to heal."
"Hide it right now, Chiko," Mother says sharply. "Wait. Let me draw the blinds."
The dim room grows even darker. I reach behind the large painting of a white elephant, and we hear the familiar click. The painting swings open silently, like a well-oiled door. Hidden behind it is the cabinet Father built to conceal his battered black medical bag, books, and papers.
The books are in the same order as he left them, and I slip A Tale of Two Cities into place. There are a dozen medical and college textbooks, but we also own the complete works of Shakespeare, a book about Buddha's teachings, the Christian Holy Bible, a few slim volumes of British poetry, an illustrated Oxford dictionary, some Burmese books (like the Jakata tales and verses by Thakin Kodaw Hmaing and Tin Moe), novels by Indian and Russian writers like RabindranathTagore and Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Arabian Nights, and a set of books by Charles Dickens. These are our family treasures—faded, tattered, and well read.
I'm one of the few boys in town who can read and write in Burmese and English. It's only because of Father. Schools around here close down so often it's hard to learn, but I studied at home.
Father's favorite books explain the secrets and mysteries of the human body, from bones to blood to cells to nerves. I always loved stories the best—books about heroes and quests and adventures, books where everything turns out fine in the end. I tried to pretend to be interested in science, but Father wasn't fooled; he used the novels as prizes after we studied science.
It's no use remembering the good times we had. I think I miss the sound of him the most. His voice—reading, talking, or laughing—steadied the house like a heartbeat. These days I only hear the conversation of Mother and her friends. If this keeps up, my own voice might reverse itself and start sounding high and sweet again.
I remember the last time I heard Father speak—almost four months ago. "Take care of your mother, Chiko!" he shouted as six or seven army officers shoved him into a van.
"I will, Father!" I answered, hoping he heard.
But have I kept that promise? No! All I've done is hide, and that's not good enough with our money running out. And it's terrible to go without news of him. The same thought keeps both Mother and me awake at night, even though we never say it to each other. Is he alive?
Daw Widow is our next-door neighbor. She's offered a reward for any information about Father's arrest. It's impossible to get real news, but rumors float through the streets. Bicycle rickshaw passengers whisper to one another, forgetting that drivers with sharp ears pedal the cycles.
That's how Daw Widow discovered why Father was arrested. Someone had spotted him when he crept out from our house at night to treat a patient—an "enemy of the state," a leader of the freedom and democracy movement. They'd charged Father as a traitor to the government for providing money and information along with medical care. Even though we don't know where he's imprisoned, or even if he's still alive, we have to send money to the government every month to pay for his food.
Mother sets a covered plate before me. "Daw Widow has been scolding me about how skinny you're getting," she says. "Before I know it, she'll be checking my pantry and giving me cooking lessons again."
The familiar dimple in Mother's left cheek deepens. Father used to say that he tumbled into it when he first saw her and never climbed out. But lately a pattern of creases and wrinkles is starting to hide it. "She must like your cooking, Mother," I say. "She always eats seconds when she's here, and sometimes thirds, if there's enough."
Still smiling, Mother hurries to the kitchen to slice me a lime. I lift the cover off the plate and see ngapi, the dried and fermented shrimp paste we eat with every meal; rice; and a few chunks of chicken floating in a pale, weak curry. I've been trying to get Mother to eat more by having her eat first. She's even thinner than I am, but she hides it under the loose folds of her sarong. I hunt and count pieces of chicken—she hasn't taken any meat at all. I'm going to have to change my strategy and eat before she does so I can leave her most of the meat.
Mother returns with three juicy, green wedges, so I squeeze lime over my food and start eating. I want to finish before our guests arrive because I've started feeling uncomfortable eating in front of Lei. With those dark eyes watching me, I feel like a tiger, tearing and chewing away at my dinner—a big cat predator in square-rimmed glasses.
After I'm done, Mother clears the table and brings out her mending. The look on her face tells me she's hoping I won't bring up the newspaper announcement. Father's voice in my mind reminds me to study, so I sigh, open the cabinet again, and take out a calculus book.
It's impossible to concentrate today. After pretending for a while, I glance at Mother's face. Time's running out—the interview for teachers is at four o'clock. I'll have to leave soon if I want to make it. Besides, Daw Widow will be here shortly, and she'll probably put up an even bigger fight than Mother to stop me.
Now or never, Chiko, I tell myself, taking off my glasses and rubbing my eyes. "Mother."
The needle keeps going, but she's frowning.
"Mother." I try again.
She looks up. "All right, Chiko. What was in the paper?"
"The government wants to hire teachers. They're giving an exam this afternoon. I want to take it."
"And you believe them?"
"It might be true. And if I pass the test, they'll hire me. The salary's small, but—"
Mother flings aside her sewing and stands up. "You are not leaving this home, Chiko. Young men are disappearing every day. Just last week We-Min's son was at the market when soldiers dragged him away to join the army. And his father's still at home."
She's right. It could be dangerous for me out there. And the notice in the paper could be a lie. But I can't live like this any longer, cowering inside this house while Mother gets thinner and our money runs out. I made a promise; I have to try to keep it.
"Times are changing," I tell her. "Daw Widow told us about the rumors that some of the prisoners might be set free. This job—if it's real—might pay enough for us to keep taking care of Father until he's released."
Mother has already sold her jewelry and our extra clothes. The toaster, the fan, the radio, and even most of the pots and pans are gone. Last month she even sold some of Father's medical equipment, knowing that he'd want us to eat. All we have left are our family treasures, hidden in that cabinet behind the white elephant.
"We're going to have to sell the books," I say, even though I know what Mother's reaction will be.
"No! Your father brought those back from England before we were married. Selling them is like ..."
It's my turn to stand up. "Like what, Mother? Like admitting that Father might not come back? Well, what if he doesn't? Our money's gone!"
"Your father will come back, young man!" She steadies her voice. "He's alive; I can feel his heart beating inside mine."
I press my lips together to keep more disrespectful words from pouring out. Superstitions and old wives' tales won't help Father survive; we've heard stories about how they treat "enemies of the state."
"I know it's hard for you to hide like this, my son," Mother continues. "Won't you change your mind and join the temple?"
The suggestion is tempting, and she knows it. Soldiers don't harass monks, and boys my age often serve the temple for a year or two. But I can't become a monk, not with Father's last words to take care of Mother ringing in my ears, mind, and heart. Not with the memory of me doing nothing while they dragged him away.
"No, Mother. The temple won't pay me a salary."
"I can find sewing work here and there," says Mother. "And you'd be safe, Chiko."
That word triggers something inside me. "Safe!" I shoot it at her like a bullet, and she flinches. "Maybe I'm not supposed to be safe. We're behind in the rent and running out of food. And what am I doing about it?"
Mother holds up one hand, palm facing me. "Stop!" she says, and her voice is stern. "They've taken my husband. I don't intend to hand over my son."
Somebody raps on the door, and we both jump.
"Who is it?" Mother calls, her voice trembling.
The day the soldiers arrested Father, the three of us were arguing about my going away. Father wanted me to apply to colleges in England. He still has friends there, friends who could help get me into university. Mother, of course, didn't want me to go, but she hates that her last words to Father were angry ones.
I take her hand. If the army is here to take me, I don't want our final moments to bring any more crying in the night. "Speak up!" I call, even though my stomach is clenched like a fist. "Who's there?"
It's only Daw Widow. Mother lets go of my hand. Quickly I tuck my shirt into my trousers and push up my glasses. Lei enters the house behind her mother, looking like an orchid in her slim green sarong. Her purple silk blouse seems to carry the sunlight into our house.
Daw Widow stays in front of her, blocking my view, hands on her hips. "What's the fight about this time?"
Mother manages a smile. "The boy wants to leave, Ah-Ma." My mother is always proper, never forgetting to address Daw Widow as her older sister. "He wants to prove something, I think. That he can be as brave as Joon was—is, I mean."
We're quiet, pretending not to notice her slip of the tongue. Then Daw Widow advances, one finger jabbing the air in front of my face. "So you want to go to college, do you? Let me tell you something—you don't learn to be a doctor from books," she says. She pokes the calculus book I'm using as a shield. "Your father didn't, either. I never thought much of his fancy foreign education, anyway. The knowledge they stuffed into his head from these books didn't make him the finest doctor in Burma. He was a healer even before he went away. The heavens gave him a special gift."
I always feel like groaning when Mother or Daw Widow brings up this old village belief. Father's medical skills a gift from heaven? Hah! I've seen his detailed, neat lecture notes; reviewed his stellar examination records; watched him do research for hours. Hard work and a clever mind—those are the keys to the medical profession, not some magical healing touch. Besides, why does everyone assume I want to be a doctor, anyway? I don't want to deal with blood and broken bones. Lei might be the only one who knows my distaste for medicine, and only because I confessed it to her once when we were alone.
"No use getting that know-it-all look on your face," Daw Widow scolds, her sharp eyes studying my expression. "Your father had a gift, I tell you. There was something in his face that made people feel better before he gave them any of those Western medicines. A glow, or a light in his eyes. When he left, he took a patient's worries and fears away in that black bag of his."
"I know just what you mean," Mother chimes in. "Joon's old medical professor came for tea last week. When he smiled and told me Joon would be well, I believed him. He left such a feeling of peace behind."
I shrug, remembering how the old man's lined features seemed to brighten as he looked at Mother. It was nighttime when he visited, and the flickering kerosene lamp cast a strange pattern of light onto our faces. But I'm tired of old wives' tales and fears. It's time for some truth telling. "I don't want to become a doctor," I announce. "I want to be a teacher."
"Teach?" Daw Widow asks. "Your father wanted you to be a doctor, young man."
"I know. But he'd be glad if I chose to be a teacher."
Daw Widow snorts. "Anyway, you're too young."
"That's what I've been trying to tell him," Mother says. Shaking her head, she heads into the kitchen to get the tea.
"No snacks for us today, Wei-Lin, dear," Daw Widow calls in the direction of the kitchen. "Lei and I had a big lunch."
Unlike Mother, Daw Widow has a steady source of income. Her husband was a postal officer before he died, and a small government pension still comes every month.
I pull out two chairs. After her mother is seated, Lei gathers the folds of her sarong and sits down. I smell the faint, clean scent of soap on her skin and fight the urge to touch the shining curtain of hair that swings across her shoulders.
She looks up. "Do you have time to teach me today? It's been a while since you came over, and I'm not learning as fast on my own."
Lei and I grew up together, playing in each other's gardens. She's always been like a sister, so it was natural when Daw Widow asked me to teach her to read and write. Spending time with Lei was like being with myself— easy, relaxed, and peaceful. Then, in one instant, everything changed. She was reading a poem by Tin Moe called "Desert Years."
And the earth
like fruit too shy to emerge
in shame and sorrow
glances at me
When will the tears change
and the bells ring sweet?
She looked up, and suddenly I couldn't breathe. Had her dark brown eyes always glowed like smooth, polished stones? When did her lips get as red as the flame tree that flowered between our houses? I got to my feet quickly. "Lesson's over," I mumbled.
But too many times since then, I've reread the poem to myself, picturing Lei's smile and smooth skin. And now something deep inside starts trembling whenever she's near. I've even stopped going over there in the afternoons, afraid that Lei will notice how my feelings have changed. Or even worse—that her mother might.
Even now Daw Widow is studying me closely. "You grow more like a bamboo pole by the day," she says. "Taller and skinnier. And you need a haircut."
Mother comes out carrying a tray. Tea's still cheap, and this morning she splurged on a small packet of biscuits from the vendor who comes to the door. The biscuits are arranged in a neat fan on the one porcelain plate we haven't sold.
Excerpted from BAMBOO PEOPLE by Mitali Perkins Copyright © 2010 by Mitali Perkins. Excerpted by permission of Charlesbridge. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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