written by Tee Indawongse | illustrated by Renata Srpcanska
Nahm wipes the sweat from her brow with the hem of her shirt, sees the black city smog stain the cloth. It is hot here in the city, where the days are long and the nights are short and the city is never dark. Lights are strung up from post to post, leaving behind thick black trails of exposed wires like modern vines. Her reed-woven shoes slap against the uneven cobblestones as she walks. Mosquitoes hover, lazy, as if the summer air is too humid even for them.
There are the war machines rolling down the street in all their military glory, wreathed in jasmine and marigold garlands. They are affectionately known as war elephants, because underneath all the glamour the bulky tanks are gunmetal grey. They belch out plumes of black smoke into the already polluted air. Despite their decorations, they are colossal beasts made of pistons and steel, lumbering about the narrow streets, and yet there are still vendors who walk fearlessly beside them, calling out their wares. The closest woman to Nahm is selling fried banana chips by the bagful; it smells delicious, and reminds her of her hunger.
She cannot stop to eat yet. She has one more house to go. It’s quite possibly her least favourite. The house is a distance away from her usual route, but consistently pays well enough to compensate. The high brick fence is topped with glued down shards of broken glass in shades of bottle-blue-green. The poor man’s barbed wire. Feral dogs patrol the area, and it stinks of piss and dirt. There is a spirit house outside, but it is unkempt, uncared for, and it makes Nahm wince to see it. Perhaps it is not quite so fashionable to follow the old ways, but you don’t need to believe to respect.
Nahm is let in by one of the servants — Fah, who Nahm likes most of the household. When you see Fah, you understand why she’s called that. She’s all sharp angles and bone, birdlike with a hooked nose and dark eyes. She looks a second away from taking off into the sky, always braced on the tips of her toes, like gravity isn’t strong enough to hold her.
“Thank you for coming,” Fah says, with a bit of a Southerner’s accent. Her manners are impeccable as always, and as usual, Nahm tries to think of a way of extending the hand of friendship past the barrier of civility. “Sir is in his room.”
Like most of the houses in the city, it’s several storeys high. After removing her shoes, Nahm makes the familiar trek up the narrow flights of stairs, the tiled floors a cold contrast against her feet. She notes the familiar dark shadows of unlit rooms; its perfect neatness, its empty spaces. It’s quiet here, almost unbearably so, and she wishes for the cacophony of outside to invade this still, unwelcoming place.
The door is open, and she knows she does not need to knock. She steps inside to see the silhouette of a man sitting by the window. He is a gnarled figure, bent with age and bitterness. Despite the painful-looking hunch of his shoulders, he is kinetic in tiny bursts; the erratic twitch of his fingers and the impatient tap-tap-tap of his feet.
“Little kratāy,” he says, and Nahm reluctantly moves forward. He is the only one who can call her that. Little rabbit, he says, for the rabbit you can see on the moon when it’s full and the night is clear. He always says it as if affectionate, as if he isn’t poking fun at her round face and overlarge front teeth. He’s always been cruel, and all the crueller for smiling as he bites down into you.
“Hello, uncle,” she says, polite and soft. They share no blood, but he has insisted on her calling him that since the beginning. “How are you today?”
A noise of disgust escapes him. “If I were well, would I be seeing you?”
Nahm thinks of monsoons, thinks of its wrath, and thinks of the crash of waves against a pebble beach. She takes a deep breath, trying to sweep away the violent energy within her. “Of course, uncle. Would you like me to begin?”
After a jerky nod of consent, Nahm pulls out her little kit filled with tools and other miscellany. Uncle snorts, disgruntled, before shifting to lift the hem of his shirt to reveal a metal chest plate, which is dented and ill-kept, littered with scratch-marks and spots of rust.
This, in its own way, is just another conquered land in the name of war.
Nahm settles down and begins her duties. She does surgeon’s work even as her hands dirty with grease. She knows that a heart must sit several inches from her fingers, but even with proximity, Nahm can’t think of how cold, shrivelled uncle could have one inside him.
“What are you doing, little kratāy?” he asks.
“Fixing you, uncle,” Nahm replies. His chest plate is cold, and her fingers are slowly going numb.
The city glitters, metal-bright, under the sun that sits too close in the heavens. Any closer and perhaps people would burn where they stand. The air is so humid you could very nearly open your mouth to take a drink of it; so hot that if you look in the right spots, reality shimmers.
Lately there has been an influx of farang in the streets; fair-haired foreigners walking the streets with one hands on their weapons. Perhaps war had been swapped out with peace for the sake of trade agreements, but the peace is still tenuous at best. An unpeace, an unwar — a truce of hidden daggers.
Nahm is walking through tight space between stalls in a bustling marketplace. If Krung Thep is the heart of Siam, then she is running along one of its many nameless veins. She keeps an eye out for sticky fingers, protective of the money so recently earned. These alleys are a pickpocket’s dream; a crushing mess of humanity, a press of skin to skin every few steps. She prefers to give this place a wide berth, but she is on the search for replacement parts.
The rich, perhaps, could afford new mechana parts, but Nahm works with the working class. Like with clothes and shoes and handbags — this marketplace is where the best knock-offs and second-hand mechana wares are to be found.
“Kah, kah,” the seller says, placating. She’s a young girl, only a few years older than Nahm by the looks of it, but already running the front of shop by herself. The place is rusting and old, more grime on the walls than paint. “Only 1800 baht then?”
Nahm stands firm and manages to haggle down to 1650. She’s been in the business long enough to know the weight and feel of quality, and what that’s worth. Honestly, 1650 baht is already more than she would usually pay, but there’s been a slow-down in production, and fewer pieces are entering the market. Basic supply-demand. Nahm barely can read her letters, never finished school, but that she knows well enough.
She spends another thirty baht on a light lunch for herself, thin noodles in cloudy broth, with few dumplings and a handful of steamed vegetables for colour. It’s late in the day for lunch, and there are few others eating. The shop is barely that, a noodle stand based in the small space from the overhang of a building, a literal hole-in-the-wall, with rickety mismatched chairs and three tables total that wobble from the cracks in the concrete. It faces out to a small side street, so closely that if Nahm were to reach out, her fingers could brush against those who rode past on bikes.
The cook takes a break from the noodle stand, wiping his hands with his apron. He goes around cleaning bowls left behind, straightening condiment stands, and picking up a left-behind newspaper.
“I don’t like the look of them,” Nahm says, gesturing at the cover with her chopsticks.
The cook grunts in agreement, looking at the paper with a grimace.
A grainy picture of a reubiin looks up at them from yesterday’s paper. It is hard to make out the details, but the size of the things can’t be denied. It looks like one would take up the length of several rice fields. There’s been a lot of talk following how the king saying that these airships are going to be the next step for Siam’s future. All Nahm can think is, how can they fly?
She thinks of the delicate flutter of hearts as she tinkers, her clever hands and nimble fingers. She thinks of how she spends her days fixing those broken from bombs and artillery shells. Nahm thinks of swooping birds of prey, of hunters looking for blood. Unbidden, she thinks of bird-like Fah, of her falling, of whether it’s possible to fix broken wings.
After handing over her blood money to the local police station — a quarter of her earnings to ensure they look the other way to a poor girl working without a licence or the appropriate paperwork — Nahm has enough money to send some home this month. Not much, but every little bit helps.
Her mother sent her to the city years ago with dreams of getting a doctor or a teacher for a child, have Nahm do something respectable with her life. At least, that’s what she always said. Privately, of late, Nahm thinks the decision was more to do with the fact there were six other children under that roof and none of them had quite the temper Nahm had.
Born in a monsoon, under a full moon, in a village that redefined the colour green with every harvest — her mother always said to her she had all the violence of water, but needed to channel its serenity. Nahm tries to think of a gentle creek, but more often than not feels like a river overflowing, rushing and unstoppable.
So to Krung Thep she was sent. Alone and with a heavy weight on her shoulders. She was to learn and make her family proud. Then the war broke out, and Nahm had no mind for books and no patience for teaching, but she was good with her hands. Where war went, the wounded followed in its wake, and Nahm finds steady work in the repair of people left behind.
There are worse things to bear, Nahm thinks. There may not be a great deal of honour in the work she does, nor a great deal of accolades, but her family accept her money when she sends it, and that’s enough for now.
There is another military parade today, one of many celebrations for the upcoming New Year. They seem to happen more often than not, these days. War elephants are trundling down the streets, the life of the city momentarily halted to allow for their movement through. Nahm stops on her way to uncle’s house to watch the spectacle. Her eyes slide over the decorations and the marching soldiers. She watches the crowd, and a heavy weight of discomfort settles in her gut. Something is wrong.
A siren cuts through the bustle of everything, sharp and shrill. Instinctively, everyone looks to the sky. They’re clear blue, empty, and suddenly so viciously threatening. Nahm has her eyes still on the crowd, and she realises: all the heads are black-haired. Where did all the fair-haired farang go?
Evacuate, a loudspeaker says. Evacuate. Evacuate.
She is pushed like a leaf downstream as the tides of people around her rush towards the nearest shelter. It has been years since they have been needed, but their doors open without protest, and the space inside is well kept. As if waiting, knowing.
Shelters are all based underground, with low ceilings and harsh orange lights. Some of the bulbs have been burned out, so there are patches of disquieting dark. The walls are bare brick, gritty to touch. The air smells stale at first, then transforming to the pungent tang of sweat and fear.
Nahm feels distress creeping up her throat like bile. She forces her way to the edge of the room, presses her hand against the wall and tries to hold steady against the flow. Faces pass her by in a blur, some familiar, most not.
One, very familiar.
“Fah,” she gasps, grabbing an arm without thinking.
Fah stops and turns around. She smiles politely at Nahm and moves smoothly to join her against the wall and out of the flow of increasingly panicked people.
“Hello, Nahm,” she says, calm. “It is good to see you are safe.”
“As safe as you are, I guess,” Nahm says. “Where is uncle?”
“Sir preferred to stay at home.”
“Stubborn old man.”
“I agree,” Fah says, unexpectedly wry.
A moment of silence falls. It ripples out, almost, a hush descending like a blanket over the room. Before, sirens meant falling bombs. It meant destroyed buildings, it meant people dying. To Nahm, it meant more work. More mechana to buy, to insert, to adjust. She feels dizzy though, looks around and sees people crying, stifled sobbing, people praying.
The loudspeakers have switched messages. A voice is repeating, The king will keep Siam safe. Our reubiin will keep our skies safe. There is no war we cannot win.
“Do you believe that?” Nahm asks, lips barely moving, the question riding on the shallowest of breaths. Questioning the king can be tantamount to treason around the right ears.
Fah leans back against the wall, sighing. Her reply is just as quiet. “We have the land and the sea. If we get the sky, then perhaps.”
“Who is to say the farang will not get the land and sea?”
A small smile turns the corners of Fah’s mouth. “Only faith.”
Together, they wait out the rest of the sirens. When the loudspeakers fall silent, they sleep through the night in the first true darkness Krung Thep has seen for years. If they were outside, Nahm would guess she might even be able to see the stars coming out for the New Year.
In Siam, you mark the New Year with a giant water fight. You throw water on your friends, your loved ones, strangers on the street. It means a fresh start and a clean slate. Nahm dreams of monsoons, of the city raining with not a cloud in the sky, and she dreams of flying.
Tee Indawongse is a final year medical student at the University of Queensland, Australia. She has a passion for women’s health, but in her free time, has a powerful drive to write something worth reading. She is the 2016 recipient of SLQ’s Young Writers Award for writers aged 18–25 years. She has previously been published in Voiceworks, Tincture, Litro Online and elsewhere.
Renata Srpcanska was born in Macedonia and lived there until she moved to London, where she learned photography and theater. She studied illustration at the School of Art and Design of Tarragona. Her constant is fantasy, intimacy and a gentle and delicate chromatic fan.