Excerpt of Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
(Page 4 of 6)
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You ever been in a Thai jail? Josh asked.
The one here in Bangkok, its a real shithole, Josh said knowingly. Not a
nice place. But this one in Chiang Mai, it wasnt bad. It wasnt what I
Indeed, he said, the room in which the guards installed Josh could have been
the waiting room for any provincial government ministry. Only the bars on the
windows and the guard behind the heavy wooden desk betrayed the purpose of the
place; that and a pervasive smell of urine and vomit. A large portrait of the
king in full military regalia hung next to a clock whose loud ticks echoed
through the room with impossible slowness. There were a half-dozen round metal
tables, and at each table four plastic stools. Josh settled his tremendous bulk
onto a stool much too small for a man of his size.
I was the only farang in the room, Josh said. There were just a couple of
other people. A few hill-tribers, I dont know, maybe they were Hmong, or Dyalo,
I can never remember all the costumes. They had that scared look people down
from the hills always have. I remember one of them asked me if I had a
cigarette, so I gave him one. There was some guy with tattoos up and down his
arms, Buddhist sutrasyou know, the way the gangsters have. Scary-looking dude.
And some women, Thai women, chatting with each other, but looking around like
they didnt want to be there. I guess nobody wants to be there.
Josh sat in the waiting room, which if not as horrible as he had imagined was
certainly not cheerful, and reflected on the woman he was to meet. How was he to
inform this stranger that her uncle was dead? Was this her last link to the
world of the living? Josh wondered: What had brought Martiya van der Leun to
this pass? A quick Internet search had revealed nothing about Martiya, and
again, Josh thought it strange that anyone could have disappeared so thoroughly;
even Josh, hidden as he was in Bangkok, turned up on the Internet if you Googled
him, associated with articles he had written, photos he had taken, and the
results of a couple of races he had run with the Hash House Harriers in much
In the dossier of papers which Elena van der Leun had sent Josh, there was a
photograph of Martiya as a young woman. While he sat in the waiting room, Josh
pulled the picture out of the dossier and looked it over. The photograph, the
only one that Elena could provide, was almost a quarter century old. It showed a
slender, small-breasted young woman holding a long knife and leaning over a
birthday cake. She was of indeterminate ethnic origin: her cheekbones were high
and Asian, but her long black hair was curly and fell over her shoulders and
neck. She was not looking straight at the camera, but it was nevertheless
possible to see that she had keen, mischievous eyes, light blue and enormously
round. Her lips were full and red, and her skin china-pale. It was not a
beautiful face, Josh said, but expressive, intelligent, and curious.
Do you still have the photo? I interrupted.
I sent it back to the family, he said. He refilled my drink, and his own.
With thoughts of the woman he was to meet, Josh occupied a half hour until
the prisoners were allowed to enter. Then the iron doors of the antechamber
swung open, and one by one the women who had been waiting on the other side
wandered into the room, where they paired themselves with their guests. In other
Thai prisons, Josh knew, the prisoners would have been made to enter the room on
their knees as a sign of humility, but not here. The first woman to walk into
the room was no older than a girl, a delicate-featured girl who might have been
pretty but for the bruises. Wearing light-blue cotton prison pajamas, she
spotted the man with the tattoos and raised her hands to him in the traditional
Thai bow and nodded slightly. Because he did not rise from his stool, as she
approached his table she was forced to bend over to keep her head below his, as
good manners demanded. Without a smile or a hint of tenderness, she sat beside
him and the two began to talk. Then two women came out hand in hand. They
regarded the waiting room with wary eyes. Josh heard a burst of speech in some
alien language from the tribeswomen behind him, and the two prisoners replied in
the same strange tongue. The visitors and the hosts embraced unabashedly and
settled themselves on the plastic stools, sitting cross-legged. They spoke to
one another in low, urgent voices.
Excerpted from Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. Copyright © 2007 by Mischa Berlinski. Published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.