Fiction by Inderjeet Mani
When Koi visits her parents in their village in Isaan, she has nothing
much to say. Her brother’s long legs still bear the scars of the irons he wore
in prison. He doesn’t kick a football around any longer, preferring to sit and
watch ants marching across the floor.
The house, which is one long room mounted on stilts, is surrounded by
flame-of-the-forest trees whose orange blossoms are scattered on the worn
steps. As children, they climbed into the upper branches and watched the
men casting their nets on the Mekong. Now the river has changed course
and even a distant glimpse is blocked by the massive walls of a resort.
Her mother has arranged a feast in her honor, with raw beef salad,
pickled mud fish, and sticky rice. Koi squats on the floor with her family
in front of the TV, chewing slowly on the beef.
She drinks three glasses of whisky but is still not happy.
“Joe is drinking by himself?” her father asks.
Joe is kind but she is not sure if she can ever be in love again.
Sometimes she thinks that Joe knows this as well. They are living together
like two dry coconut husks.
“Joe is busy writing a book,” she says. “It is hard work.”
She lights his cigarette for him, and her father breathes in deeply.
“Writing must be difficult,” her father says. “But company comes easily
to the rich.”
“Joe is jai dee, he has a good heart,” she murmurs.
She thinks about her son. Chan is four and likes chasing after the
chickens in the yard of her former in-laws’ house. They let her talk to him
over the phone on Sundays, as a way of making up for their son’s
Chan speaks Mandarin like his grandparents, and some of his words are
hard to follow. He asks for those fluffy sweets that come stuffed with lime
and coconut, and a little device for playing games. She promises him the toy
for his birthday if he behaves himself.
Joe is generous and pays for her parents’ upkeep as well as presents for
her son. Koi wants to go back to her stall in the bazaar but Joe is against it,
saying she deserves better. So she keeps house. After she and Joe have
coffee and he retires to his study, she spends her mornings cooking and
cleaning. The rest of the time she lazes on the floor, daydreaming.
Now, in her parents’ house, all she wants to do is to lie at her mother’s
feet and sleep for a few hours, before catching the night bus back.
Meanwhile, Joe is tired after a day of writing. He walks to Tapper’s,
glad to sip a cold beer in front of the fan while looking out at the garden with
its golden bee orchids dangling from the branch of a giant fig. The tree has a
pink sash around its trunk, and there is a makeshift spirit house at its foot,
consisting of sticks of incense, a photograph, and a glass of whisky.
Praneet, Tapper’s wife, comes over to say hello. He hasn’t seen her in
a while, and the first thing he notices is that she has shaved her head. She
tells him she was on top of the world and then suddenly everything came
crashing down. After that she spent a month in a monastery.
An enormous toukay lizard crawls down from the ceiling and crouches
on the wall.
They stare at the toukay.
“When I was a child,” Praneet says, “I saw a toukay opening its mouth
wide so a snake could get inside and eat its liver.”
Joe nods, but he knows things like that don’t happen.
Praneet waves to a friend.
Her name means jasmine, and she owns the bar across the street. Other
women appear, Ying the hairdresser who owns a baby-faced cichlid, and
even Nok the lemonade lady, who makes a living hawking drinks and fried
snacks to schoolchildren.
It’s Ying’s birthday, they say, gathering at the bar. They give each other
high fives and swig their drinks, cooing and chattering. Joe gets up and joins
After more drinks, the girls become more boisterous, their voices rising
over the clinking of ice in whisky and soda.
Mali turns her face up to his. “Why haven’t you been visiting my bar?”
“I’ve been busy, with my book.”
“It will be ready soon?”
“The writing takes time,” he says. “I’m translating a novel written long
The novel is about Kun, a nobleman who has been exiled from court.
He travels far from the capital, through forests and over snow-capped
mountains. Trudging along steep trails, desperate and at the brink of
starvation, he is overwhelmed by memories of his earlier life. The language
is archaic, and hard to translate. But Joe is drawn to Kun, as if to a kindred
“It pays well?”
“Not so,” he tells her. “People today don’t care about such old-
“Joe, your problem is that you worry too much,” Mali says, tossing her
She lifts her glass to Joe, and he sips from it. Then he circles a slow and
lazy arm around her waist.
Mali lets it stay there, though her body feels tense.
Later his thoughts will turn to Koi, but for now he does not think about
Koi stretches out and stares at her brother, as her mother strokes her
head. As she falls asleep, she is glad that she visited the wat that afternoon,
making an offering to help him.
In Koi’s dream there are patterns forming, a starfish, then the glint of a
spear, and a stream of gold that illuminates the faces of her parents before
rippling across the scratched wooden floor. Her brother has broken his
silence, telling her in the voice of a mynah bird about yaa-baa and other
drugs that drive you mad.
Mali carries her drink towards a table away from the rest, and as he
follows her, Joe can’t help admiring her hips.
She has a brilliant smile, and the perfume she wears is getting to his
He whispers something in her ear.
“You’re more beautiful than all the orchids in the garden,” he says.
Mali laughs. “Ching ching? Do you tell all women that?”
“I mean it,” he says.
He pats Mali, stroking her back. Her shoulders are tiny, reminding him
of his daughter Meg when he used to lift her.
Koi imagines Joe sleeping beside her. She stretches a hand across the
floor, feeling where his head would have rested, and then she sighs, still deep
in the coils of sleep.
Joe looks into Mali’s eyes. Her eyes are a watery dark brown, and all
he can see in them is his own face.
After his wife became old and died, Joe waited for a few years. Then
he explained to Meg that he was leaving. He had found a faraway place
where the markets were bustling with smiling faces and brightly plumaged
birds, where the air sizzled with fried spices.
She hugged him and told him to be happy, and he kissed her one last
time. And soon, he was wandering in those bazaars, where ladies in straw
hats were summoning him to their stalls. Leaning over baskets of roasted
beetles and undulating eels, he learned how to bargain for fish and fowl, to
savor the sweet-tart tastes of langsart, longan, and rambutan. Then he heard
someone addressing him as farang ki nok, birdshit foreigner. It was Koi.
She was gorgeous, with dark, playful eyes and a blackened tooth. He
began frequenting her durian stand, and in no time he was helplessly in love.
Behind them the toukay has caught something between its jaws, a dark
beetle whose pincers are waving from the lizard’s mouth.
In the garden, shadows have started to form, and the first mosquitoes
have arrived, along with a variety of winged ants. Kun’s presence is now
insistent, but Joe cannot tell Mali about him, for she would never understand.
Kun’s favorite mood is languor tinged with regret. He writes of the
princess Aisary rising at dawn with aching thighs, and gazing into the mirror
at her reddened eyes and swollen lips, slowly stroking the nail-marks on her
breasts. Kun then strays lower, to the tinkling of silver bells on her girdle,
which he compares to a bevy of bright birds bobbing in the current. He
writes short, compact lines that dwell on the petulant, the lethargic, the
splenetic, and the whimsical, sketching subtle moods that people no longer
Koi dreams of Joe’s face in the morning. He is stuffing his cheeks with
the papaya she has cut up for him, his soft grey eyes glinting with pleasure.
She can’t help smiling at the way he wrinkles his nose at the steaming mug
of French roast coffee. Later she will serve him those fat skewered sausages
that can be bought cheap from the old ladies who sit gossiping in their stands
outside the wat.
Kun teeters to the edge of a crag. He is finding it hard to breathe, but
the sun is out and the birds are singing in the pines. He wants almost to
laugh; like him, they can croon all they want, hungry and free. Clutching on
to a gnarled tree stump, he peers down into the gorge below, where the
mists part, leaving him dazzled by the light of a billion burnished jewels.
The jewels stand for wisdom. Kun’s story is now his own, with its
long and puffed-up past, the winding path of exile, and then the moment
before the hereafter. Joe will have to work even harder to complete it,
smoothing out every wrinkle.
The only precept Joe is careful about is the one against harming others.
He is aware, as Mali snuggles closer, that Koi will be back in the early hours,
expecting to fall asleep beside him, her breath whistling through the oval of
her half-open mouth. Unaware of Kun’s final illumination, she will want to
rest after her bus ride, and then rise and prepare his meal.
Inderjeet Mani studied creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania,
at Bread Loaf, and at Harvard. He has been published in Eclectica, BLIP
Magazine (now New World Writing), 3:AM Magazine, Drunken Boat
(Finalist for the Pan Literary Award, also one of storySouth’s Million
Writers Award Notable Stories of 2007), Slow Trains, Nimrod (Finalist
for Katherine Anne Porter Prize), WIND (2003 Short Fiction Award),
Word Riot, Asia Writes, Kimera, Plum Ruby Review, The Reston
Review, The Deccan Herald, and various other venues. His seven books
include The Imagined Moment, which analyzes time in fiction. Mani is also
one of the people behind the Solpix lit-film web portal.
On “Translating Kun”:
The story is one of a series set in Thailand, where I live part of the year.
It is a land of bars and Buddhism, and the nights are full of heady
tropical scents with the chatter of humans and insects riding on the
breeze. The story came to me after one such overindulgent night, with
snatches of conversation and the life stories of friends and relatives
blended together to form a fictional whole.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 8, Number 2
Copyright © 2013
by Leah Browning, Editor.
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