Excerpt of Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
(Page 3 of 6)
Printer Friendly Excerpt
Of course I said yes, Josh said.
Thats why I always call Josh when Im in Bangkok. Things like this really
happen to him.
So I give this woman in Holland a buzz before I go up to Chiang Mai, Josh
continued. She doesnt know anything. Last time she saw her niece, the niece
was a little girl. Hadnt spoken to her in years. She hadnt gotten a letter
from her in over ten years, not since she went to prison. In any case, she was
from a distant branch of the van der Leun family. The niece grew up in
California, had been there since she was little and was now an American. Before
she went to jail, she lived in a village out near the Burmese border. You know
that area? Southeast of Mae Hong Son?
Not really, I said.
Nobody lives out there but the tigers. What was she doing out there? The
aunt in Holland, she doesnt know. I figure shes one of those kids, got caught
up in drug smuggling. How long was she up there? I ask. Turns out the nieces
been in Thailand since forever. Maybe since the seventies. And shes no kid, the
womans over fifty years old. Strange, I think. Whens your niece getting out
of prison? I ask. Long pause on the phone. Fifty years, the aunt says. So
whats your niece doing in prison? Long pause on the phone. Like she doesnt
want to tell me. She is a murderer, the woman finally says, in a thick Dutch
accent. What do you say to that? I said, Whod she kill? Long pause on the
phone. She doesnt know. Thats all this Elena van der Leun can tell me. She
wants me to go and tell her niece that her uncle is dead.
Josh paused as the waiter arrived at our table with a steaming cauldron of
tam yam guum. The young waiter lit a paraffin candle under the tureen, and Josh
served me and then himself. The soup was, as Josh had promised, delicious,
delicately flavored with lime, cilantro, ginger, and lemongrass; the shrimp,
which that very morning had been frolicking in the Gulf of Thailand, were huge
and tender, with an explosive touch of sea salt. Josh ate the very hot soup with
vigorous splashing movements of his spoon, and only when he had finished his
first bowl and was reaching to refill it did he pick up the story again.
Several weeks after his talk with Elena van der Leun, Josh found himself in
the waiting room of Chiang Mai Central Prison. Josh told me that he had been in
Chiang Mai for three or four days, enjoying the luxury of his expense account,
before he finally steeled himself to the task at hand: Josh was a generous man,
but he did not like to be presented too directly with the misery of others, a
squeamishness which made him regret having accepted Wims offer. He had dreaded
the visit, and day after day had done no more than note the location of the
prison on the map, then distract himself from his unpleasant chore with a stiff
drink, then another, after which the days dissolved into a blur. The morning of
his prison visit, realizing that he could put off his errand no longer, he had
awakened early and dressed himself neatly. He wore linen slacks and a white
shirt, which when he left the hotel was crisply pressed but by the time he
arrived at the prison was damp with sweat. A low sky like wet cement hid the
hills which ring Chiang Mai.
Oh man, I did not want to be there, Josh said. I got out of that tuk-tuk,
told the driver to wait for me, and it was like they were going to lock me up
inside, thats what I felt like. Like I was never going to get out of there.
Bang! The first gate closes behind me. Bang! The second gate closes behind me.
Bang! Thats the third gate.
Josh thumped hard on the table with every bang, and the other diners turned
Excerpted from Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. Copyright © 2007 by Mischa Berlinski. Published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.