At the farmhouse, the three friends asked each other where they went to at nights.
They had finished most of their duties for the day and were sitting down on the floor together in the corner of the long room that had, two decades ago, held dances and lavish parties but had now been converted into a ward.
“A ship,” Prany said. “I go to a very large ship.”
“Someplace where there is a working fireplace,” Prany’s younger sister, Noi, said, leaning back against the wall. “A very large fireplace.” Noi had been disappointed to learn that all the fireplaces in this house had been found sealed up when the doctors first arrived.
Above them there was a gap in the ceiling where they could see two stars and the passing clouds. In front of them, at the end of the rows of cots, a woman tried to turn in her sleep, forgetting that her legs and her torso had been eaten alive when she stepped on an unexploded cluster bomb three days ago. Then the woman remembered what happened but she avoided looking down, watching instead the moonlight coming in through the tall windows that lined the far wall.
They kept the curtains open because those who couldn’t sleep wanted to look outside at what was left of the distant valley. It was called the Plain of Jars because of the strange stones scattered across this part of the country as though a mountain had fallen from the sky and shattered.
As far back as they could recall, Alisak, Prany, and Noi had heard so many stories of the megalithic stone jars they weren’t sure which one was true: whether they were intended to collect rainwater for travelers, whether they were used to make wine for warriors who would return from great battles. It was also said that the jars once belonged to giants who roamed these hills. And others thought the jars had nothing to do with this earth at all and that in some future time someone or something would come back for them.
When the first bombs dropped, Alisak, who had been working on a farm that morning, was so stunned by the sound he was unable to move even as the horizon dispersed into a wall of smoke. His first thought: They’ve come for the jars.
These days he laughed at that. That old life. From the gap in the ceiling came the faraway engines of airplanes, and he waited for the detonations of the cluster bombs somewhere west or north of them. There had been so many bombings—it was getting more frequent, he lost count of how many a day—he almost didn’t notice the sound anymore.
A birdcall, which he never heard anymore, would be stranger.
The sky flashed and flashed. Eventually, Alisak knew, maybe next week or in a month, the bombers would come back around toward the house. Not for them, but again for the roads and the valleys.
Yesterday, Prany packed bags for them, hidden now under a loose floorboard in a bedroom upstairs. He managed to stash one of the house pistols, too.
“Alisak,” Prany said, leaning across, clutching a pillow, and poking him. “You didn’t answer.”
Alisak forgot they were playing the game. He was worrying a blister on his palm from the handlebars of the motorcycle he had been riding all day. The blister had burst and the flap of skin had turned almost as pale as the moonlight catching their boots.
“The desert,” Alisak said. “I go to the desert.”
Noi tipped her head back. She thought this was hilarious. She stayed that way, laughing quietly, her mouth open like a fledgling bird that was about to catch something from above.
“In the next life,” she said, “our friend will be a Bedouin.”
“What’s a Bedouin?” Prany said.
Noi hit her brother on the head and then the two curled themselves around the frayed, embroidered pillows they had found upstairs on a bench beside an out-of-tune piano. A sheet of Bach was still on the piano’s stand, the pages yellowed, but the bars and the notes were clear and dark.
The siblings tried to sleep, their limbs making scratching noises on the marble floor as they settled. If it rained they would have to move, but through the course of the year they had become better at predicting the weather, and tonight they bet it wouldn’t. The gap was perhaps the circumference of a jar in the valley. They liked looking up at it. If the sky was small enough, there was less of a chance of an airplane crossing over it. If the sky was small enough, it was just the sky.
Alisak stayed up, watching Noi, then watching the beds, first shift. If something happened, if someone tried to rip the IV from their arms and leave, or if someone screamed because the morphine was exiting out of their bodies, he would have to run down the hall past the six mirrors on each wall that caught his movements until he found a doctor or a nurse.
Most of them were in the kitchen, sleeping in whatever privacy they could imagine as they lay on a counter or on the floor, in a closet or against the angle of cupboards, having drunk enough whiskey to knock themselves out. Some of the staff had even begun to take the morphine themselves, the ends of a suturing thread from an operation still wrapped around their fingertips like a good-luck charm. And sometimes, resting on their open palm, as though they were perpetually ready for surgery, there would be a scalpel.
For this, for keeping watch and for keeping the ward clean, for assisting these people who were trying to save as many civilians as possible in a war that had been going on in various forms for almost all their lives (and for riding the motorcycles), they were paid more American dollars in a day than they could earn in six months on the streets of Phonsavan.
They had even learned some English and French this year from the Vientiane doctor they called Vang. He was perhaps in his thirties, if that, wore glasses he kept misplacing, and, as it turned out, was not only proficient in several languages but played the piano.
In the ward, when his two friends were asleep, Alisak practiced saying some French phrases to himself as the sky flashed with another detonation and the woman on the bed placed an arm across her eyes, her mouth slowly moving as though she were practicing the language with him.
He wondered, as he often did, about the Frenchman who once lived here. He—the Frenchman—was a captain from the Second World War, had retired here and gotten rich off the tobacco fields around the property that no longer existed. For Alisak, he was all rumor: a drunk and a womanizer who spent his days in a long silk bathrobe waiting for his next party to begin; a man who had stayed in this country for much longer than most of the French and whose allegiances could be bought; who, early in the war, let North Vietnamese soldiers use his fields as a route on their way to the southern parts of Vietnam.
How much of this was true? Alisak, entering a room, would sometimes pause, wondering what his days and routes were like within this house that was the size of a small village.
Noi had in fact met him once, Alisak only at a glance, long before they knew who he was. He pulled up to them on the side of the road one day and had asked if he could hire Noi to help in the kitchen at one of his parties. So she had gone with him, though she refused to speak much about that evening. She only shared with Alisak the bits of conversations she had overheard from the partygoers—Did you ever notice the river is changing temperature?—and that the man was very strange. That, and her regret at not eating more of the food she had been hired to carry on silver trays.
Noi had been twelve. In the rare times she mentioned him at all, she called him the Tobacco Captain. So Alisak had begun to think of him that way. Strike a match. Captain of not much, just ash. This man who had lived alone in this house he had built for himself with all its windows that revealed all the distances. A house that even now, as a skeleton, seemed to Alisak as grand and mysterious as a temple.
In her sleep, Noi slid across, thinking Alisak’s lap was a pillow. She was dreaming; he could sense the shudder of it as if she were leaping. She twisted up slightly, and he stared at the rise of her hip, that angular bone, began to reach for it but changed his mind, suddenly self-conscious of the fact that he hadn’t bathed in a week. He looked away. Her hand fluttered. And then he reached down and turned the old ring around her thumb that she had found somewhere and never took off because she often did this herself, when she was troubled or when her mind was far.
And as her body calmed and she rolled back to her pillow, he also wondered, as he often did, if anything had happened to her at the party. And if something did, what that was. He tried to remember the car and that man inside, calling them over. And that he himself had stood there doing nothing, staring at the man’s money and then, a moment later, staring at her leaving in the car.
If that man were here, Alisak would kill him. These days he could. For that matter, Noi could, too. They could use a syringe full of air or a scalpel to find a quick vein. They could lead this Tobacco Captain across one of his own fields that were now covered in unexploded bombs, stand back, and watch to see which of his limbs blew out first as though lightning had struck a tree.
They had been told of or had seen things like that. They had grown stronger, running about through the ruin of this house, lifting heavy boxes and empty shell casings. And, to their surprise, they had also become healthier, with food that wasn’t much but was much more than what they were used to.
They drove the motorbikes. Noi was a better rider than him but always let him lead, pretending she wasn’t. Some sense of courtesy or humor alive even in all this.
There was a painting upstairs that Alisak thought looked like her. A girl by a river. A basket of fish hanging from the crook of her arm. He had never seen Noi with a basket of fish and probably never would, but it looked like her: the dark hair, the posture that held a sense of both shyness and confidence. He had considered taking it down and hiding it, to keep it for himself.
Supposedly, the paintings that remained on the walls were famous and stolen. Alisak caught an aid worker one night taking one out of its frame and rolling it up. His eyes never left Alisak. Then he walked past, whistling, and tapped Alisak’s head with the canvas like he was a drum.
What painting had that aid worker taken? He tried to recall this, seeing a hill in his mind.
They were around the same age, Alisak, Prany, and Noi, and they had once lived next door to each other on a different hill, in a small settlement on the outskirts of the town, where the space between their houses was the width of a motorbike’s handlebars. Where they were aware of the sound of each other behind the perpetually damp walls—the sound of their bodies, the clatter of their makeshift kitchens in the corner, their voices calling to play, calling for help—aware of each other’s shadows outside their wooden doors long before they had a sense of a greater world beyond that slope, that river.
Then they had cared for each other when there was no one else to care for them. Alisak’s parents eventually succumbed to the opium they were lured to farm; the siblings, who had no memory of their mother, lost their father early on in the war, when he was hired by the government to fix a bombed road two days’ journey south but was caught by the Pathet Lao. He was told to walk the road as the soldiers took bets on whether he would step on a bomb, grew bored when nothing happened, and shot him. Neither Prany nor Noi was certain of anything for weeks—their father was often gone—until the peddler who passed through every season came to the hill, asking for them.
It was when the fighting intensified, after that encounter with the Tobacco Captain, that they began to wander the country, always staying together, sleeping where they could, finding work where they could, avoiding the armies where they could. They spent three years surviving the rainy seasons, the sudden approach of strangers, and a war where the boundaries shifted endlessly, where they often jolted awake from the sound of bombers or the sudden appearance of an army in a town or a village they were staying in.
When a jeep appeared that day to recruit them for the hospital, they had only recently returned to their own town. They hadn’t meant to. It was just that there didn’t seem to be anywhere else they could go anymore.
Alisak and Prany were now seventeen, Noi a year younger. It was the early fall of 1969. Their last season together here. Or at least that was what Vang told them. That they would in all likelihood be evacuating soon.
Alisak never said this out loud, but he felt as though he could stay here with them in the madness of this house forever. He thought there would be nothing better. Paintings, mirrors, pillows, and tall windows. A kitchen and a piano upstairs. The three of them always together. The great motorbikes.
Their answers to the question of where they went to in the evenings, in their dreams or when they were awake, as they tried to keep their minds off the denotation flashes coming closer and getting louder, and the steady flood of the maimed and the wounded, were always different.
Where did they go at nights?
A museum or Paris. The moon. A cave, an endless beach. They had been doing this since they were children.
No one ever said home.