The girl they called the General was back on the television: she wore a crisp army uniform decorated with many medals, its colour that of the jungles at dusk, a dark green that seemed to give off a fresh, sharp scent of foliage and fear. She spoke crisply: the words were carefully-measured cups of rice, precise and just. The latest news from the Party conference. Details of the latest five-year plan. Picture: rice paddies up north, workers in the fields in dark-blue overalls.
They called Noy Noy because he was small. Now he said nothing, merely stared at the television. On the screen, the General was speaking again, talking about the latest American war. Noy’s grandfather had died, early century, looking for scrap metal. There was a lot of scrap metal in the highlands of Laos. Most of it had been left there by the Americans during their Secret War, a long time before. The scrap metal was valuable. Unfortunately, it also tended to explode. The UXO clearance team later said it had been a CBU-26 — an anti-personnel cluster fragmentation bomb, a type particularly favoured by the Americans. By then Noy’s grandmother had already been pregnant with Noy’s father though.
“One day I will go to America,” another of the drivers said. He was Hmong, had family in Florida who wired him money every month. “I will open a hotel, or drive a cab. A real one, with guns on the side and an armoured windshield.”
“That’s just in the movies,” Noy couldn’t stop himself from saying. The Hmong man turned on him. “Oh? And how would you know, boy?”
“Leave him alone,” Sip Pan Joe said. “I want to watch the news.”
“He wants to watch the news,” the Hmong said. “Maybe he wants to go to the moon and make babies too.”
There was general laughter and the Hmong, made bold, said, “He can take Noy with him, and good riddance. Ten thousand for a ticket to the moon! Sip Pan! Sip Pan!”
On the screen the General disappeared and was replaced with martial music, stirring revolutionary lyrics sung by the Army Choir on a background of tanks rolling and jets taking off. The television flickered in the darkness of the drivers’ hut. No one made a reply to the Hmong. Everyone knew they fought on the American side during that long-ago war, and they were still a nuisance, not proper citizens like the lowland Lao. Noy stared at the screen. He was secretly saving up the money from his trips. Two thousand here, five thousand there. He once took a falang man in the tuk-tuk, and the man had told him he had been to space. He’d bought some dope off Noy, and that was when he told him. He made images appear in the air with a flick of his wrist and showed them to Noy: Earth blue and white and green, seen from above; people floating in strange configurations inside a vast hall, almost all of them falangs. But Noy knew space didn’t belong to the falangs. After all, the Chinese went there, and the Malays, and the Indians. It didn’t seem that impossible for a Lao boy to go, too, one day.
He gulped down his tea and decided to go on the job. He wasn’t earning any money sitting there. As he stepped from out the makeshift structure the night felt cool, and a half-full moon was shining, wrapped in yellow bandages, in the sky. He stared at the moon for a long moment. It seemed terribly far, and close, at the same time. He searched for moving lights up there, in the deep blackness, but saw none, and sighed and lowered his head.
He found his tuk-tuk, squatting comfortably besides its fellows, like a cow at pasture exchanging pleasantries to do with the flavour of grass. The herd of tuk-tuks lay, stabled together, in the great tuk-tuk yard beside the new Talat Sao, the Morning Market, which was no longer so new, and had besides never been a morning, but an all-day, market, despite its name. He patted his own tuk-tuk, sat up in the driver’s seat, straddling the engine. He loved the feel of the wind against him as he drove, loved the feel of the road against his tires, knowing every bump and broken surface without needing light — knowing when to slow and when to speed and when to take his time, where the police might be waiting with the hope of ticketing a careless driver for some cash, knew where you could stop for a late-night condensed-milk pancake from a roving stall, what perfect hideaways to stop at along the Mekong for a moment, with a cigarette. Before, in his grandfather’s time and in his father’s time, even, the tuk-tuks ran on gasoline. Now, the ancient, assembled-together with nails and wood and pipes and spit vehicles slumbered under the giant solar grid of the Talat Sao, feeding their silent engines, which no longer gave out the distinct tuk-tuk-tuk sound that had given them their name, with electricity. Now, Noy pressed the gas pedal down (because tradition, in the construction of tuk-tuks as in anything else, had to be maintained) and a bar of electric light sprang up on the board before him, suggesting his battery was full. He eased the vehicle out of the row of its near-identical companions, hit the accelerator with a woosh, and hit the road.
For two and a half hours he cruised through the dark streets of Vientiane. He picked up a family returning late from their market stall, all of them reeking of bananas, and drove them to Don Pamai. He got lucky on the way back and picked up a falang wanting to go into town. The man had a golden prosthetic for a thumb, and spoke little, and there was something wrong with his voice, though his Lao was perfect. Noy had heard of the golden things before, and they made him uncomfortable. They were called Others, and were something like a spirit, that shared the body with the man and could speak through him, and do terrible things (though he wasn’t quite sure what sort of terrible things those were). He took his passenger (his passengers?) to Nampou, the fountain surrounded by soft-lighted falang restaurants, Italian and French and the venerable old misnomer that was the Scandinavian Bakery, and hang around for a while on the corner with the other drivers. Then, a falang couple, both a little unsteady on their feet, wanted to go to the National Circus. He took them there, grabbed a stick of barbequed meat from a stall in the night market, drove around some more but there luck deserted him, the late night played against him, and he could find no one in need of transportation. He looked up, glared at the moon (which had turned a soft, pale white, like a lightly fried egg) as if daring it to intervene.
There was another purpose for the little amounts of money he put aside when he could. He knew an old man who had studied in China and Russia and had been in good standing with the Party but had recently become old and eccentric enough to be put away into modest retirement in the capital. The old man had a large house on the outskirts of town, and he lived there alone, and in the large backyard he was building a . . .
Someone whistled; Noy saw the flash of a hand in the darkness, waving him down, and hit the brakes. He couldn’t see the figure’s face; as it approached he saw it was robed somewhat in the manner of a monk, yet the cloth was not saffron but a deep black, the colour of a moonless night in the mountains. The head was cowled.
There was something strangely familiar about the figure, as if it had awakened a dormant memory — ah. He remembered now. A story Sip Pan Joe was telling, only the week before — something about an order of strange monks up in Udom Xhai, falang men and women dressed all in black, who shared a mind together . . .
He had thought it was only one of Sip Pan’s stories. Now the dark figure regarded him from the shadows in what might have been amusement, might have been impatience. Noy said, in English, “Where you go?”
There were, he noticed, thin, silvery wires — almost translucent, but suddenly seen as the figure moved and the wires caught the moonlight — trailing from inside the cowl and across the robes. And now that he looked harder it seemed to him that, from time to time, images — random flashes, too quick to notice details — moved and crawled across the robes, down the chest and arms and over to the back. “Where you go?” he said again, less certain now.
The figure said, “Wat Sokpaluang.”
Noy, uncertain still: “At this hour? I think the temple is —”
“Hundred thousand kip,” Noy said. To his surprise, the figure merely nodded. It climbed on the back, into the open passenger box, and waited. Noy shrugged and pressed on the gas.
It was a strange journey for Noy. Though the figure never moved, it seemed to still, somehow, reach across to him, as if its loose wires were somehow trailing through the air to reach him; above his head the moon shone white and clear, exposing one side of its face for scrutiny. The roads were dark and quiet, the shops along Khou Vieng shut, the embers in all the barbeque pits dead and cold. Somehow, he could see the moon more clearly now than ever before, as if the silent, cowled figure in the back of the tuk-tuk was acting as a sort of magnifying glass on his mind: he watched planes rise from the ground and take to the air, watch booster rockets flare, watched the world growing smaller behind him until he was floating between air and empty space, in a thin membrane that surrounded the world below him, while ahead of him giant structures loomed, in crazy loops, donut shapes, and squares, and stranger vessels moored beside them, their square noses aimed at a giant moon . . .
Then he had turned the corner, Khou Vieng into Sokpaluang, and the temple rose ahead, and he stopped the tuk-tuk, and the robed figure climbed out.
The figure paid him. Noy stared at it, said at last, “What are you?”
The monk-like figure pulled back, as if surprised. Then the same soft, perfectly-modulated voice said, “I am nothing.”
“You are a monk?”
The figure seemed to shrug, as if the question made little sense. “I am,” it said, and Noy had the feeling, strangely, of more than one voice speaking, of an I composed of many smaller fragments of self, “nothing. I am the nothingness between the stars. The moon is only a rock, Noy. Happiness can no more be mined on the moon than it can in Vientiane. Also, your chain is loose.” Then it turned and passed softly under the arches that led to the temple.
“How did you know my name?” Noy mumbled, but there was no reply. “And what do you mean, my chain?” He started the engine again and rode off. It was getting too late for passengers, and the drivers at Nampou, still waiting for the night-club traffic, wouldn’t welcome yet another hopeful to compete for the meagre traffic. He decided to go visit the old man. It seemed a good night for it.
At a late-night stall, still open, the sleepy proprietor blinking behind a half-empty glass, he bought a small bottle of rice whiskey to bring along. He cruised down the silent roads, passing the Mekong on his left, then on his right, past a giant Pepsi sign that promised, in a mixture of Lao and English, to revolutionize one’s life with a single sip, past bags of rubbish left outside on the pavements, away from the city centre, past rice paddies eerily lit by the moon, past the croaking of a frog choir (that seemed to resemble, though he would never dare say it aloud, that of the one last heard on the television), and finally down a narrow muddy path to the house of Dr. Somboong.
There was still light in one of the windows. Dr. Somboong was a reluctant sleeper. As Noy approached the house he heard an unhealthy rattle from underneath the tuk-tuk, the sound of something tearing and falling with a thud on the ground, and he braked, causing the tuk-tuk, before he hastily turned it off, to begin issuing alarms in a commanding and incomprehensible Japanese.
“I didn’t know your tuk-tuk could talk,” a voice said. Noy looked up and saw Dr. Somboong standing by the steps, smiling faintly in the moonlight.
“Neither did I . . . ”
“What’s wrong with the vehicle?”
Noy fished out a torch, shone it on the ground. “Son of a —” he said.
The chain, which linked the engine in the front to a central axis under the passenger cabin which, in turn, provided motion for the wheels, had broken at one joint and fallen on the ground.
“I better fix this,” Noy said apologetically.
“Bring it into the yard,” Dr. Somboong said. He walked down the stairs with slow, careful steps, then to the gate. He fumbled with the latch and pushed the gate open. Noy, in turn, pushed the slim-framed tuk-tuk through, and into the yard. Dr. Somboong clapped his hands, twice, and lights came on, and the old man smiled with delight. “Put it next to the spaceship.”
As always, the spaceship was in a state of undress: it looked a little like a tuk-tuk with wings, its insides exposed, engine parts and chains and nails and coils of wires and electronic components lying all about around it. The rockets lay on the unmown grass, heavy scrap metal hammered together into cylindrical shapes. To Noy, the spaceship looked like a heavenly chariot, like something the Buddha might be seen in on his way to final enlightenment, like a special effect they used on Journey to the West, a Chinese space kung-fu serial about the Buddha that he watched avidly, whenever he could, on Thai TV. To Noy, the spaceship was beautiful. Dr. Somboong said, “I’m thinking of setting the trial launch for early next year. Have to be sure, you know.”
Noy knew. Dr. Somboong had said the same thing in the past three years of their acquaintance, but Noy agreed. You had to be sure. And you couldn’t hurry something like this: it existed as a perfect thing, a fusion of hope and dream that could not be ruined, a vehicle of vision and faith whose chain could not break while it was not in motion. “She’s beautiful,” he said. He always said that.
“I’m thinking of calling her Lady Champa,” Dr. Somboong said. He always said that, too. And there was always something wistful in his voice: Noy didn’t know whether it was named purely for the flower, or perhaps, as he sometimes liked to imagine, for a mysterious, long-gone girlfriend of the doctor in whose memory the doctor’s life work was being carried out.
Fat flies buzzed around the lamps and a moth launched itself at the window, the sound of its impact against the glass repetitive and soothing. “I brought whiskey,” Noy said. The doctor nodded, as if Noy had just confirmed a great mystery he had been pondering for a while. “I’ll get us a couple of glasses,” he said. “Then we can see about your chain.”
The doctor disappeared inside the house. Noy lifted the empty passenger carriage and propped it at an angle. He would need to re-join the broken ends of the chain, then loop it back through the pipes and wooden boards of the tuk-tuk. He took hold of the chain, put it on the ground and began to hammer the two disparate parts back together again.
A gust of wind, coming in by stealth from the outside, brought with it a freshening coolness into the yard, the smell of growing rice, the smell of water, a snatch of music from someone’s radio far away, and Noy stood up, his hands black with grease. Low on the horizon the moon, like a spaceship, was slowly setting, describing its descent in a glittering arc across the dark sky.