The morning of the announcement, Bo Htet Aung finished his story. He wrote The End at the bottom of the page, shut the notebook, and slipped it into the briefcase he took to work each day. Then he set about ironing a white shirt and blue longyi with more than his usual precision. He wished he could wear his old major’s uniform, with its crisp olive lines and the peaked cap that added two inches to his height. But it was not that kind of day, that kind of announcement. Instead he pulled his traditional taikpon jacket on over his shirt and left it unbuttoned. His fingers shook too much.
At 7:00 sharp, he parked his Nissan Saloon outside the usual teashop on the corner of Myay Nu Street and rolled down the window. The blue plastic stools on the footpath were slick with last night’s rain, but one of them was already occupied by an old man chewing betel leaf and swatting flies with a rolled-up newspaper. Steam curled from beneath the shop’s awning, and the air crackled with the first batch of split-pea fritters hitting oil. When the shop boy brought the cup of tea with a spoon of condensed milk on the side, Bo Htet Aung sipped it sitting in the car, as always, and sucked the spoon clean to finish. The routine settled his stomach.
“Ey!” He called to the boy. “What news?”
“You tell me, saya,” the boy said, and smiled through the gap in his teeth. Their daily joke, for Bo Htet Aung was chief of Myanmar’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. Even the teashop boy knew the news was what Bo Htet Aung allowed into print.
“Better look at tomorrow’s paper,” said Bo Htet Aung. “Should be interesting.”
The boy shrugged. “Cannot read, saya,” he said, and collected Bo Htet Aung’s empty cup.
The old man on the teashop stool cleared his throat and squirted a wad of scarlet betel juice onto the street. Six inches closer, and it would have splattered the polished white bonnet of Bo Htet Aung’s Saloon, turning a rude gesture into a jailable offense. But the drops had fallen short, and Bo Htet Aung decided to let it go.
“Cannot read?” Bo Htet Aung clucked his tongue at the teashop boy.“Too bad. Bet you don’t know any stories either, then?”
“Those I do,” said the boy, and nodded toward the woman frying up the fritters in the shop behind him. “My may-may tells me one every night. Like the mischief-maker’s head turning into a coconut. And Rain Cloud the ungrateful crocodile. And Hsa Ma, the salt mermaid lady who bled all the way to the sea! And—”
Bo Htet Aung smiled and patted the briefcase lying beside him on the passenger seat. “What about the kinnaya-kinnayi story, the magic birds—have you heard that one?”
“Oh, that,” said the boy. “It’s about love and all. That one’s for girls, saya.”
Bo Htet Aung slipped the boy a hundred-kyat note before putting his car in gear. “For girls, eh? You may be right, boy. We’ll see.”
The streets of downtown Yangon glimmered in the morning sun, washed bright from eight weeks of nonstop rain since the end of June. Grass burst from cracks in the sidewalk, and moss painted the walls of the buildings down Pyay Road a velvety green. Bo Htet Aung reflected that if nostalgia were a color, it would glow that same shade of green. The green that had tinted the front of his office building since its days as an interrogation center for the Japanese during the Occupation, and seeped now across the plaster of its interior walls, the grass in the center courtyard, the turned teak railings in the balconies, and the ink in the pens on his desk. Not all the pens were green, of course. In a separate cup sat his red markers with their dizzying fumes and fat slashes. He had gone through a new one each week for the last twenty years. How he was going to miss them.
At 8:00 a.m., he straightened the hem of his jacket and called for Ma Kyi Than. She entered the room as she always did, on feet so light she appeared to be floating, venturing closer only when asked, her eyes fixed to a point on the concrete floor. Which was fine with him, for he could take the time to let his own gaze slide from the hair that fell across her cheek like the sweep of a painter’s brush, past the glimmer of lip and line of throat to the curves she tried to hide under her loose blouses. The stiff shoulders that, when she was absorbed in a new assignment and observed from behind at a safe distance, could flex and quiver like the pans of a jeweler’s scale. And those wrists, ah, now locked in a modest clasp, but how they moved once armed with a pen, even the red marker, such grace and purpose, her fingers flashing back and forth like the wings of a bird. She was not so young, Ma Kyi Than wasn’t—he was good at guessing these things, and besides, there was her employee file. Thirty-two, only ten years younger than himself. But something about her was so reserved that he feared the slightest indiscretion on his part would cause her to flutter and fly away, and then where would he be?
“Please. Sit.” Bo Htet Aung pretended to fidget with the bottles of silver and black ink lined up on his desk, next to the cups of green and red pens, and a basket of magnifying glasses and mirrors sent by the Ministry as a humiliating rebuke three years ago after what had looked like a harmless advertisement in the Myanmar Daily by a company with a long Norwegian name had turned out instead to be a crude expletive aimed at the General and spelled backwards. But the basket did not bother him today as much as it usually did; there were other preoccupations. He retrieved the notebook from his briefcase, placed it on the desk, and fought down a brief, pointless panic that maybe he had written the story in too subtle a fashion. Maybe the device was too vague for Ma Kyi Than to see through.
But she was sharp, had been from the day she first sat down in that chair six years ago, much like today. Shy, almost painfully so, but her hands had instinctively straightened the files in his in-tray as she waited. He had handed her a raw proof of one of the upstart rags, called The Real News, folded open to the Entertainment page. A short poem, six lines long, was slated for placement at the bottom. “What do you think?” Bo Htet Aung had asked, and waited, and discovered, much to his surprise, the pleasures of looking Ma Kyi Than over.
She had taken her time and finally said, “Excuse me, sir, but this is too impolite to say out loud.” She had written it down instead, the first word of each line of the innocent-looking poem, which linked together to suggest the General go do something unmentionable to himself.
He had hired her at once. Started her in on the softer magazines, focused on fashion and real estate and health, but after she had discovered the hidden revolutionary messages in the crossword puzzle of Active Life Weekly, he had moved her up to the political journals, the Associated Press bulletins, and eventually the heavyweights—imported editions of The Guardian, the Financial Times, and The International Herald Tribune. Each week, she would sort the prepublication proofs that all newspapers were required to send, and read every inch. Any article that made reference to Myanmar she’d read with the red pen in her hand and the list of forbidden topics by her side. By Thursday evening, she would hand in the stack, along with her notes, to Bo Htet Aung for his final sign-off, and wait until he was done. Even if it grew late and the office emptied and they were left alone, just the two of them, a scatter of moths bouncing off the fluorescent lights, and Bo Htet Aung’s silent ardor swirling through the humid air.
“Today,” said Bo Htet Aung, pushing his notebook across the desk to Ma Kyi Than before he could change his mind, “I have something different for you. It’s a story I’ve written, and I’d like to know what you think.” His mouth felt dry, and he remembered reading somewhere that taking a little nip of one’s own tongue helped get the saliva flowing. But that was hard to pull off when she was looking at him now, finally, one eyebrow raised like a ruffled feather, eyes dark as inkblots in that smooth, pale face.
“It’s the kinnaya-kinnayi folktale,” said Bo Htet Aung. “An adaptation, rather.”
Ma Kyi Than tilted her head to one side, unblinking, and Bo Htet Aung felt compelled to continue. “The half-swan, half-human, celestial, uh, lovers,” he said, and felt a strange warmth creep up his neck, “who are separated, in the original story, by the Great Flood for seven hundred years, and the beautiful kinnayi, she weeps and weeps while the water rises, desolate at her beloved being torn from her. . . .” Bo Htet Aung paused, horrified at the sudden lump in his own throat.
“Ah,” said Ma Kyi Than. “That story. A sentimental one.”
“Yes, yes,” said Bo Htet Aung, and decided it wasn’t the moment to bring up the tragic discounting of sentiment as a tool in modern storytelling. “So, in my adaptation, I thought I’d give the ending a little. . . twist. Present the kinnaya-kinnayi’s separation as a fate within their control, to be settled by a question posed by the kinnaya to the kinnayi, and her answer—well, that is where I would especially like to know what you think.”
Ma Kyi Than rose from the chair, the notebook in her hands. “It will be an honor to read sir’s story,” she said. “I will begin right away.”
“Please, no hurry,” said Bo Htet Aung. “By this evening will be fine. Thereis a lot else coming up today which might, well, affect matters.” The announcement, of course, typed on a single page and folded into his shirt pocket, the decree coming direct from the General last week, and undisclosed to anyone except himself. Bo Htet Aung stood too, and felt better at once, assuming the erect posture drilled into him at the Army Combat Training School when he was only eighteen, where they had also taught him to aim well before pulling the trigger and to take his time about it.
The journalist from Radio Free Asia arrived at 9:30 a.m. He was permitted a notepad and pen and one battery-operated hand-held recorder with a whirring miniature tape deck inside. Bo Htet Aung invited the journalist to sit at the desk but decided to stay standing himself. Cupping the journalist’s recorder in his palm, Bo Htet Aung began to speak:
“On this day, the twentieth of August, 2012, I, Bo Htet Aung, in my position as director of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, and on behalf of our illustrious leaders and generals, do declare the end of censorship in Myanmar. A system of laws and regulations in place for the past forty-eight years and fourteen days is hereby lifted with immediate effect. Magazines, newspapers, and journals will no longer be required to submit their articles for approval prior to publication, including articles on the hitherto restricted subjects of politics and religion. The office of the Division will remain open for a few more months with a skeleton staff, merely to issue licenses to printers and to register publications for the national archives. Soon, I am confident, these premises will close down altogether, and our nation’s journalists will assume full responsibility for providing accurate and timely news, balanced by an acute sense of their power as the new fourth estate of this, our beloved Myanmar. Thank you.”
No questions were allowed. A still picture was taken for Radio Free Asia’s website, posing Bo Htet Aung against an open window, rays of watery sunlight lending him a halo. The journalist departed at 9:39 a.m., the grin on his face baring his yellow teeth, but Bo Htet Aung remained perched on the windowsill, calming the twitch that had erupted in his calves.
Journalists, thought Bo Htet Aung, were a breed to be pitied. Clever, some of them, cunning, to be sure, but what a strain to always have to deal in the facts and nothing but the facts. Take the time last March when the newly elected Prime Minister made his first speech. If only the journalists had read between the lines then, today’s announcement would not have come as a surprise at all. The Prime Minister hinted, through three separate turns of phrase, cleverly worded and spaced out but clear to any alert listener, that censorship was dead. “Improvements,” the Prime Minister intoned. “Another chapter.” And simply, “Change.” And Bo Htet Aung knew at once that, like it or not, a padlock was headed toward his door.
Bo Htet Aung had immediately begun preparing for retirement. He put aside some money at the end of each month, considered accepting a strategic bribe or two from the many that slid his way daily. The disappointment and despair and creeping sense of impotence that overtook him now and then were examined, one inconvenient emotion at a time, and then shredded, much as he would shred the draft of an article destined for the garbage bin. During a weak moment or two, he recalled the contempt in his father’s eyes on that winter’s morning twenty years ago, when Bo Htet Aung announced his new deputation to the Division. The old man said nothing, but wiped his fingertips, stained black with ink from his typesetting job at a tiny journal that paid barely enough to feed his family, his wife and two daughters, and his eldest, Bo Htet Aung, a boy with a perpetual burning in his stomach that had as much to do with ambition as it did with literal hunger. The old man wiped the ink from his fingertips that day with a rag soaked in petrol, over and over.
Bo Htet Aung sprang off the windowsill and strode back to his desk, took the time to position his chair just so. He had persevered, alone. He had poured his considerable intelligence and energy into parsing the words and filtering the intentions of a long line of hacks and journalists, each more committed against the General and more devious than the last. For words held power—he had learned this early, from reading the fiery patriotic tracts published in his father’s journal. Hopeless and dangerous in equal measure, the essays and poems that next to no one read had still railed on and wielded a powerful sting.What if Bo Htet Aung could learn to bend this weapon to his will and put it to more profitable use? What if he used this seductive skill to remake his own life and guarantee a better future than his foolish father had provided? So Bo Htet Aung had done exactly that. He learned to identify troublesome writers by their distinctive styles and rip bare their fanciful pseudonyms. He descended to the level of their inferior minds to better anticipate their next moves. Not least, he sacrificed the allure of love, the warmth and distraction of women, in favor of dictated rules and lists of what was permitted and what was not, for who could afford the time and effort and risk of such intimacy? Sure, there’d been ladies of a certain kind, arranged with discretion as befitted his stature, but never was one allowed close enough to tamper with his heart. Yes, it could be said he censored his own life in the service of this office.
They would be making a fuss right now, the journalists. Jumping up and down, calling their mothers and wives and a colleague or two still left in Insein Prison, shooting off triumphant ledes in time for the international editions.Would they spare a thought for the fifty souls in the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division suddenly deprived of their jobs, and none more industrious and loyal and certain to be devastated by the news than Ma Kyi Than? Of course not! These journalists lacked both empathy and imagination, qualities Bo Htet Aung believed he had honed in himself to a fine point simply by doing his job, taking a fact like a lump of clay and shaping it into an object of beauty. What these journalists called “propaganda,” such an ugly word, he preferred to view as art.
Bo Htet Aung would focus on writing more stories in the future. Fiction was where his talents lay, a natural next step from his now-defunct position. Where he could take his hard-earned skills of suggestion, of persuasion, an exquisite understanding of his fellow man, and spin them into tales. How strange to think that if it hadn’t been for the impending pressure of the announcement, he would never have come to realize his true calling. Nor developed the guts to open his heart and his home to possibilities only dreamed of until now. But the fate of at least one of those plans rested on Ma Kyi Than, and the clock had only crawled to 10:02 a.m.
She waited until everyone else had left. 6:15 p.m., and the cane chairs and chipped worktables of the main hall had begun to fall into shadow. The night watchman, whose job it was to also clean the premises at the end of each day, sprayed the files in the cabinets with insecticide; an army of silverfish had returned with the rains. Bo Htet Aung remained in his room, pacing from his desk to the windowsill and back again.
“Sir?” said Ma Kyi Than, appearing by the door. “Sorry I took so long.”
Bo Htet Aung hurried forward and took the notebook from her hands.
“I hope I have done it justice, sir,” said Ma Kyi Than. Her head was bowed even lower than usual, her hair a thick swath obscuring her face. But was that a tremble he heard in her voice? “I took the liberty of coming up with some suggestions—”
“What I expected, yes,” said Bo Htet Aung, although his stomach lurched, and he flipped open the notebook and began to follow the green-ink-underlined sentences of his story with a kind of terrified compulsion, the familiar words and turns of phrase pinning his gaze to the page and persuading him to read it one more time, rather than having to look in her face and try and decipher her expression.
Long ago, when the world was young, there lived in the faraway mountains of the north a magical creature, half-bird, half-man, calleda kinnaya. Every year, after the frost of a long, hard winter crusted the earth and slowed the streams to a trickle, the kinnaya stirred from his nest, stretched his wings to span the horizon, and swooped down to the plains. Wherever he flew, a warm breeze caused meadows to thaw and bloom in his wake. The sound of his flute melted the clouds and lured sunbeams to the ground. He brewed nectar in the bellies of flowers and painted the sky in shades of sunset, taught the wind to whistle in tune and choreographed the dance of the bees. Everywhere he went, he delighted the hearts of living things and taught them the meaning of beauty.“There is magic in the air,” they cried, even though they never caught a glimpse of him, “the magic of the kinnaya.”
He could sense Ma Kyi Than standing beside him, looking down at the notebook, close enough that her shoulder brushed against his, a waft of her sandalwood talc tightening his throat. Her voice broke in, and he heard it again, a small hesitation in her tone. The words, however, were all too clear. “The opening is all right, although a little overwrought for my taste—”
“Um-hmm,” said Bo Htet Aung, and continued reading, while he turned over, in a corner of his mind, the word “overwrought.” Certainly it described how he was feeling right now. But he would not encourage it; he would ignore it till it passed. As it must, it must.
For countless cycles of the sun and the moon, the kinnaya flew alone. He did not want for company, even though sometimes, when he puffed a sweet perfume on the breeze, or hummed a song and released it in running water, he saw how this often caused living things to fall in love and pine hopelessly for one another, and this puzzled him, for hecould feel no passion for anything but his work and his tireless flight.
“Sentimental, of course,” said Ma Kyi Than, “although maybe that cannot be helped, given the source material—”
Until one evening, flying home over a mountain lake clear as a mirror, he caught sight of another creature just like him by its shores. Like him but different, as if he had spotted his own reflection but found it grown more beautiful, graceful, gentle, and young, a half-woman, half-bird—a kinnayi. The same distraction he had scorned in other beings overwhelmed the kinnaya. He began to dream of wooing her, of dazzling her with his plumage, of showing her his nest. And though the kinnayi, when he introduced himself, was courteous and gentle and sweet to him, for that was her only nature, she showed no sign of returning the kinnaya’s feelings, and so he dared not bare his heart.
Six years, thought Bo Htet Aung. Six years of silent adoration, advances and retreats played out in his head like the maneuvers he’d learned in the Army, flakes of courage salvaged from a glance here, a smile there, elaborate sentences framed and reframed yet left unspoken.
Then came a day, a dark day for the world, no doubt, but it gave the kinnaya a chance. An honorable opening, he thought.
“I think you should get to the dialogue much sooner,” said Ma Kyi Than,“and the part about the storm. That is what I look for at once when I begin reading a story—lines of dialogue, and action.”
Bo Htet Aung took a lick at his index finger and turned the page. The green-tinged sentences continued.
“I see the future,” said the kinnaya to the kinnayi, when they met by the lake that morning. “There is a storm coming, more terrible than any this world has endured. The earth will flood for seven years. Many living things will perish. When the water recedes, these lands will have changed forever. No grassy fields, no flowering banks, no beauty as we know it and have worked so hard to birth. What is more, these fickle beasts we now make pretty beyond their means will treasure us no more. They will banish us, bid us a hasty and ungrateful goodbye.
“So hear me, my gentle kinnayi. Come with me to my mountaintop before the storm breaks. I will line our ledge with my feathers and worship you like a queen. Pray answer!”
“May I show you,” said Ma Kyi Than, “the part where I have the biggest. . .well, suggestion.” Her fingers quivered as they wrapped around the edge of the notebook, her nails like pink lotus buds inches from his own, and Bo Htet Aung let go. She cleared her throat and began to read aloud, and as the words he had written spilled out in her voice, Bo Htet Aung grew still and tall and somehow brave, as if he were wearing his uniform after all.
The kinnayi had listened with growing horror, her eyes, red as rubies, now open so wide the kinnaya could see his own form reflected in them, crowding out the rest of the world, handsome, resplendent.
“No beauty, you say,” the kinnayi whispered. “No order, no form, no need for our delicate wiles. Oh, kinnaya! What use surviving sucha storm only to be forsaken by all living things, these beings I consider my children? No, I could not bear it.” The kinnayi folded her golden wings and wept until sundown, and her tears, wherever they touched the ground, sprouted as padauk flowers. Finally, she raised her head and wiped her face. “Much as it wrings my soul,” she said, “I see no better way. The time for our magic is past, kinnaya, and you are wise to decipher so. Lead the way to your mountaintop, and I will follow. Climb the air and race the wind and know I fly behind you, forever.”
The green ink flecking the words through most of the story had given way in the last paragraph to a thick bracket of red, and since Bo Htet Aung had devised the editing protocols himself, he could hardly doubt what it meant.
“This entire last section,” said Ma Kyi Than, “must go.”
Bo Htet Aung realized, through a mist of dread and insecticide spray, that he had kept her standing at his office door all along. Her face looked flushed, but whether it was due to the bitter air or the words she no doubt felt compelled to utter, Bo Htet Aung couldn’t say.
“I hope I have not offended you, sir,” said Ma Kyi Than.
“Not at all, not at all,” said Bo Htet Aung, and retreated to his desk. “So you do not. . . agree with the ending?”
Ma Kyi Than perched on the edge of her usual chair, her eyes refusing to meet his, but her words clear, indisputable. “I do not,” she said. “Too old-fashioned and unlikely, even in a story such as this. Pardon me, sir.”
“No need to apologize,” said Bo Htet Aung. The dryness in his throat had hardened to an ache that took a while to register as sadness. “What do you suggest, then?”
“I thought,” said Ma Kyi Than, her slender hands slicing the air as if she were wielding a precise set of surgical tools, “if the kinnayi were not to follow the kinnaya, if she were instead to want to stay and help the creatures of the earth, her ‘children,’ as she calls them, help them fight the storm even, it might make for a better twist, give her character more color.”
Bo Htet Aung could not respond. He had taught her well, too well. How to dissect another’s words down to the root, the crux, the pleading core, and rip it out whole. At least he could take satisfaction in that. And if her answer to his overture was to be a tactful “No,” he must swallow it like a gentleman, a military man. Through the open office door, the sound of the night watchman’s mop came in quick, urgent swishes: no, no, no.
“But, of course, you are my senior,” said Ma Kyi Than, “so if you do not agree—”
“I am not your senior,” said Bo Htet Aung, regarding the even tone of his voice as he would a distant silverfish crawling up a wall, an inexplicable survivor. “Not anymore. The work of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division is done.”
“Ah, that,” said Ma Kyi Than, and straightened in her chair, meeting Bo Htet Aung’s gaze at last with a boldness that would have once enraptured him, but now only filled him with dismay, for he knew it had nothing to do with him, just as her shyness and dedication to her job had had nothing to do with him either. Lost in his own lovesick dreams, he had failed to read her with a critical eye. He had failed to read her at all. Why, even now, in this instant, when he could finally look her in the face, what was that trace of feeling that lingered in her gaze? Pity, yes, or was it contempt? The difference had always eluded him. Perhaps even a trace of compassion. But what did it matter, when the pain, the pain felt exactly the same. “The announcement,” she said. “I, we, that is, everyone in the office, we heard the radio broadcast, sir. We understand how difficult this must be for you.”
“You can stay on, of course, for a few more months, until we close for good,”said Bo Htet Aung. “But have you thought about afterward?” His last, most shameful hope was that the difficulty of finding a job might yet cause her to reconsider.
“Yes,” said Ma Kyi Than, and for a moment she seemed to slip once more into her usual shy composure. Then, with a shake of her head and a smile that Bo Htet Aung wished he could catch like a firefly and place in a jar, she said, “I have thought of nothing else all day. I have decided to become a journalist, sir. Everyone in the office has been talking about how the best foreign newspapers, like The International Herald Tribune even, will want to open offices in Yangon now, after your announcement. Who better for them to hire than someone like me, when I’ve been editing their proofs for years?”
Bo Htet Aung remained at his desk for several minutes after Ma Kyi Than had left. A breeze rattled the shutters at the window. The night watchman whistled as he dusted. A mosquito whined and settled on Bo Htet Aung’s ear, and he slapped it dead, hard. Then he grabbed a red marker in his fist and held it poised over the notebook, still lying open before him. He would bathe it red from top to bottom, rake through it like he had done so often in the past to the words of so many others. But, no, that would do no good. He could admit that now. Lines of print would glow through the red like defiant eyes in a row, laughing. Dropping the marker on the desk, Bo Htet Aung ripped the pages of his story out of the notebook and began to tear them down the middle. But they twisted instead, curling into his palm, thick and stubborn, too many pages to tackle in one go. Or was it his wrists that felt stiff, had turned thick and stubborn themselves? Perhaps this was how those dratted journalists had kept turning in more copy, had kept flipping like cockroaches under his broom, refusing to die. Perhaps their rage against the General was no different from the cry of his own stillborn love, an insistence on being heard despite the agony of rejection.
The breeze outside picked up speed, slamming the shutters against the wall and swirling into the room. The files on Bo Htet Aung’s desk shivered, held down by nothing. In six months, the building would empty, the ceiling fans still, the pens run dry. In a year, the silverfish would feast unhindered.
Bo Htet Aung smoothed the crumpled pages of his story. Then he stuffed them back into the notebook and locked them in his briefcase.
The evening traffic on Pyay Road was as sticky and inconsiderate as ever. Gone were the days when Bo Htet Aung’s Saloon was the only one on the street, turning heads as it accelerated. Now the ailing motor jostled Land Rovers and shiny SUVs, while the traffic policeman at the Bagaya intersection pretended not to see Bo Htet Aung fuming behind the wheel. By the time Bo Htet Aung reached the teashop on Myay Nu Street, it was past 7:30 p.m. Diners packed the stools on the footpath, slurping bowls of noodle soup and yelling for the chicken rice special, extra spicy.
The teashop boy abandoned his bucket of dirty dishes and ran to the curb.“Saya! What will it be today?”
Bo Htet Aung parked his Saloon and, for the first time in twenty years, opened the door and dismounted. His shoes squelched into a puddle left over from yesterday’s rain, the meticulous polish he applied each morning witha wooden brush streaked with grime and mud. Without the hedge of his car door, the smells of the teashop landed like slaps to his face—the sickly sweet of condensed milk, the sour of tamarind soup, the rancid oil of a thousand fritters. Bo Htet Aung wound his way through the crowd, slowly. Let them stare. Let them whisper as he passed, their radios stuck to their ears. Or let them lift their dripping chins and calculate how far they could spit, one last time.
“Here, saya,” said the teashop boy, and offered him a stool. “Should I bring the chicken rice? Or how about the khao swé with mutton?”
“Whatever you like,” said Bo Htet Aung, and lowered himself onto his seat, which was rickety and damp and closer to the ground than he was accustomed to, but already the avid eyes around him were dipping and falling and turning away, losing interest, letting him lean against the bamboo pole propping up the teashop’s awning, letting him gaze at the sky now turning indigo, the last of the light sinking and fading, relentless, past the rooftops of Yangon. When the teashop boy returned with his bowl of mutton stew, Bo Htet Aung bent his head, took a deep breath of the rising steam, and began to eat.
Sujata Shekar‘s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Georgetown Review, Kahani, and Cricket Magazine. Her work has received honorable mention in the Center for Fiction’s Short Story Contest, was a finalist for Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Award, and was selected for Cricket’s anthology titledThe Realm of Imagination.