Mrs. Pongboon, that great woman and mother, that seller of mysterious artefacts, walks down the street in her red-patterned sihn the colour of a naga’s crest, and people stare because to dress this way is to invite the wrath of the Ngeuk Laeng, the dreaded drought nagas—but it is all a nothing to Mrs. Pongboon, who had taken all her fear and her secret anxieties and put them in a talisman which hangs around her neck, a tasteful little locket of gold and quartz and state-of-the-art mass-produced Chinese technology. “Buy my lockets, my darlings!” she calls, and the women stop and stare, and the children giggle and are shushed, and the men look anxious and thoughtful. “Put away your loves and fears, and keep them for a rainy day!”
But every day is rainy in the rainy season, and the Mekong snakes, as large as a naga, between the banks of Laos and Thailand, this snake-river, divider of countries, carrier of goods, all swelled up with its own importance and the water that falls from the sky and the water of the snows in the far away Himalayas, which have travelled a long way to come here, will travel a long way yet before they see the ocean. “Buy my lockets, for a fair and good price, transfer precious memories, store tender hearts! The deal is today, a one-of-a-kind, hurry, my friends, hurry, I say! Or you’ll miss out forever, when Mrs. Pongboon has passed, and was gone on her way.”
But business is slow and besides, everyone knows about transference, and Mrs. Pongboon, as large and imposing as she no doubt is, is not alone in the trade—far from it. And yet. . . a young girl, in a black, carefully-ironed sihn, a white blouse with the sleeves buttoned around her slim wrists, in her high-heeled shoes bought second-hand, a small handbag from the Talat Sao, the Morning Market—a student, perhaps, or an office worker of minor importance and a minor salary to match—timidly approaches Mrs. Pongboon who, sniffing out a sale before, even, the girl had occasion to consciously think herself to it, says, ‘What is it, my darling? A broken heart? Did a young boy steal your happiness away? Come, tell Mrs. Pongboon, queen of the ladies, a mother to children – remember that mothers, too, were lovers once.’
“Is—” the girl says, and stops, self-conscious, and Mrs. Pongboon moves into the shadows of a music shop where a Laotian band is pumping out a cover of Thaitanium’s Tomyam Samurai, and the girl follows her and, free from the scrutiny of passers-by, her shoulder-blades seem to relax—“is it true?”
“It’s technology,” Mrs. Pongboon says, importantly, employing the English word, which is one of the few she knows. The girl looks impressed—as well she should, Mrs. Pongboon thinks. “Here,” she says. “Try,” she says. She un-loops a second locket from her ample bosom—not the one with all her misery inside it but the sampler, the holy sampler—she had once confused the two with a potential customer and the results were. . . less than beneficial, in fact there had been a complaint, and since then she is extra careful, though she cannot bear to put her own, personal locket away—“Try and see for yourself, my darling little girl.”
The locket is encoded with a Generic Spring Day, The Lovers, River Bank—it could be anywhere, it could be any two young people in any country in the world, Generic Sampler Number Two, version oh three point five six, and when Mrs. Pongboon pops the lock she can adjust the setting. Encode: Laotian-specific. Encode: Boy-Girl (she takes a hunch, you’d be surprised how often it doesn’t pay off)— ‘Here, give me your palm, little miss, little madam, close your fingers, close your eyes—can you feel it?’ (but of course she can).
“Oh,” the girl says, and then—“Oh.”
“And once you put it there,” Mrs. Pongboon says, “it’s gone. Like that.” She tries to snap her fingers but the humidity makes her sweat and her fingers merely slip off each other like careless dancers. “Until you want it again.”
It is called transference, of course it does, though of course it is not exactly that. Mrs. Pongboon has a device, yes she does, and what the device does, is copy—how clever, those Chinese across the border!—is copy-and-delete. Not strictly legal, all this messing with the human brain—recording neurons as they fire their zero-one-zero-one emissions, even worse, resetting them inside the tender gooey mass of brain, erasing the pattern inside—but what price can you put on human happiness?
“For a modest sum,” Mrs. Pongboon says, and pats the girl reassuringly on the shoulder, removing the locket from her hand at the same time, “a most modest amount, you could put away whatever you desire.”
“There was—” the girl says, and blushes—she is quite pretty, Mrs. Pongboon thinks, in a plain sort of way—“there was this boy. . .”
How often had she heard that! Always, they wish to confide in her, like in the old-days psychologists, the ones who came up with the term. But this transference is scientific, not the mumbo-jumbo of old spells and make-believe. This is real. And Mrs. Pongboon does not want to hear their stories. The day is long and the sun is hot and Mrs. Pongboon wants a cool bag of ice with a straw poking out and a bottle of Pepsi poured inside it, and besides she had heard the same story a thousand and one times before.
“Your poor darling,” she says, “you are like a string.”
The girl looks up at her, big round eyes confused—is that how you looked at him, Mrs. Pongboon thinks uncharitably, is that how you looked at him when he charmed you by the banks of the Mekong?—and says, “I don’t understand.”
“Science,” Mrs. Pongboon says, with quiet dignity one could possibly confuse for self-importance. “It says everything is made of string.”
“Of course,’ the girl says, and Mrs. Pongboon notices that, indeed, the girl is wearing three—or is it four?—white cotton strings tied to her wrist (now that the sleeve is pulled back a little)—tied for her by a monk or an aunt in the basi ceremony, for luck and the appeasing the family’s spirits. She nods, because she approves of tradition, and preserving the old ways, and because she has the memory of a memory (the thing itself locked away in an earring back in her drawer) of the last string her mother had tied for her, when Mrs. Pongboon was still young, before her mother . . . but she no longer remembers, and it is better that way, sometimes. “Science,” Mrs. Pongboon says again, and then falters, having lost her place. “Strings,” she tries again. “Everything is made of string. Thoughts, feelings, memories, they are strings of numbers in the brain. And science has proved that strings—even when they seem perfect (like you, you beautiful child!)—will come out all in knots. Whatever we do, life takes us (so says the great philosopher Mrs. Pongboon!) and ties us into knots. This way—” and she points to the locket, like a magician at a coin about to disappear—“is just a way science has of smoothing out the knots.” And she thinks—for a while at least. She does not tell the girls, but there will always be knots. That is called—she had memorized it in English—it is called the spontaneous knotting of an agitated string. “That’s a scientific fact,” she says, out loud.
“How . . . how much?” the girl says, and Mrs. Pongboon smiles kindly (joyful inside, a bite on the bait!) and names a price, and the girl looks taken aback, but then rallies, and she offers a different price, and Mrs. Pongboon shakes her head mournfully but agrees to lower her offer, and the girl raises hers—not so stupid after all, this one!—and they arrive at a price that was more or less what Mrs. Pongboon had hoped for—maybe add ten percent.
“Will it hurt?” the girl says.
“Not at all,” Mrs. Pongboon says. She pulls out the dangling wires from her backpack and attaches them to the girl’s temples. The girl pulls back, then relaxes. The gel adheres itself to her skin—it is almost animal-like in the way it moves, until it settles, becomes still, and—“Just think of it, bring it to the forefront of your mind—” the girl is visibly concentrating, teeth biting lower lip, it almost makes Mrs. Pongboon smile, almost but not quite—“there, I can see you have it—”
And she presses a button. It’s as easy as that. And the girl seems to sag, and there is a whirring sound from the backpack, and that’s it. “Is it gone?” the girl says, and then she smiles, and then she frowns, and she says, “There was . . . I was with . . .”
‘When you want to remember,” Mrs. Pongboon says, gently pulling the quivering gel-ends back, the tentacles of the memory-naga withdrawing into its backpack—“just hold this to your head” and she reaches back and the locket pops out, a pretty little thing (just like you, my darling girl!) and hands it to her. “Can I . . . can I try it?”
“Do you really want to?”
The girl smiles, and shakes her head, and says, “No. Not now. . .” and there is a faint trace of regret in her voice. In Mrs. Pongboon’s experience, there always is. The girl pays her, and Mrs. Pongboon waddles away, the sweat streaming down her face, and she thinks about that ice-cold Pepsi in a bag, with the straw sticking out, just what a mature lady needs in these troubled times.
She walks away down the street, and the wind picks up, and she knows it is going to rain. She takes shelter in a noodle-soup kitchen, where the last breakfast diners are noisily finishing off their bowls. Mrs. Pongboon orders her Pepsi and while she waits she thinks of all the boys and all the girls who’d had their hearts broken, a spontaneous knot forming on the agitated strings of their hearts. She touches her own private locket and, when she brings it to her head, she can hear the sound of the Mekong at sunset, the waves nibbling at the shore, the sound of distant pop music from the other bank which is Thailand. She can hear the crickets’ marching band and the frogs’ military choir and the sound of laughter and clinking beer glasses from the stilt-houses up a way, and she buries her face in the boy’s chest, and smells his sweat and his passion and for a moment, even though she is a matronly woman now and sells trinkets on the streets of Vientiane, has had two husbands and three kids, had buried parents, friends, had suffered loss and pain and disappointment—for just a moment, she feels like a smooth young thing again, a smooth young string: one that is yet to form a single agitated knot.