Excerpt of Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
(Page 5 of 6)
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She was the last one to come into the room, Josh said. I knew her from the
photobut she looked bad. I think she must have been in her middle fiftiesshe
was my moms age. But this was an old woman.
Many years in the northern Thai sun had destroyed that delicate skin which
Josh had admired in the picture. The dark hair had turned gray, and the
once-sensual lips were cracked and thin. Yet the woman who approached Josh still
had the faraway air of a handsome woman. She was not dressed in prison pajamas,
like the others, but in a hand-woven tunic in the tribal style. She had white
string tied tightly around each of her wrists; this was her only ornamentation.
Martiya carried herself straight-backed and head-high. Josh had not expected
such a small woman.
Seeing Josh, and realizing quickly that he was the anonymous stranger who had
summoned her from her cell, Martiya came over and sat down, not waiting for an
invitation. Had he doubted the womans identity, her eyes would have resolved
all doubts: How many women in a prison in northern Thailand could have had such
striking blue eyes? She glowered at Josh, and Josh for once was at a loss for
words under her intense stare.
Ms. van der Leun . . . he finally said.
The woman interrupted him straightaway. She spoke very slowly. Christ, cant
you people just leave me alone?
Josh had prepared for this interview carefully, but this was not a reaction
he had anticipated. He said, Ms. van der Leun, I think you might have made a
Again, Martiya interrupted him. Im not the one who might have made the
mistake here, buddy. You people are driving me nuts. She looked at Josh with
open contempt. She took in his large body, his damp shirt, his uncombed hair.
My God, you are disgusting, she said.
Josh looked at me. I had figured she might have gone a little, you know,
cuckoo, from her time in prison, or maybe shed beg and plead with me to take
her home. Id already decided how to handle that. I was going to be gentle but
firm, and give her the name of a friend of mine whos a lawyer. But the way this
woman was staring at me, I was pretty glad there was a table between us.
To Martiya, he said, Im sorry, but just who do you think I am?
They sent you, didnt they?
Youre not a missionary?
Josh was not without a certain sense of irony, and suddenly the tension of
the visit, the heat of the day, and now this furious but intensely proud little
woman all seemed to him absurd. He began to laugh. He couldnt help himself, he
Oh no, Josh said. You got it all wrong, sister. Im here to give you
He said this with such enthusiasm that Martiya smiled back, despite herself.
She ran a hand through her gray hair. The fight left her. In a mildly
embarrassed voice, she explained to Josh the source of her confusion. One of the
evangelical societies working in the north of Thailand had conceived the project
of converting the prisoners to Christianity. Who needed the Lords blessing
more? Twice a year, every year for the last ten years, she had been summoned to
the visiting room, only to find the same bearded, middle-aged manthe same
bozo, she saidinforming her that the Lord had forgiven her for her crimes and
sins, if only she would accept Him. She had asked the missionaries to leave her
alone, she said, but they were relentless. I thought you were one of them.
Josh shook his head. No, he said.
He had decided beforehand to be direct. He told her that her aunt, Elena van
der Leun, had hired him, and that her uncle had died. Martiya had inherited some
money, Josh said, and he was there to arrange the details of the bequest.
Excerpted from Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. Copyright © 2007 by Mischa Berlinski. Published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.