When the kwee was played, people swore they could
hear the voices of the ancestors. It was as if their spirits
were retelling the history and describing the path to the
afterlife through the sounds of the instrument. Music
became the medium through which the Hmong recorded
their legends. The notes had replaced the written text.
The music of the kwee could be used to teach new generations
about their past and their future lives. They had no
need for books.
The Western missionaries, of course, had no ear for
such foolishness. They considered a race without a written
text to be barbaric and ignorant. So, they created a
roman phonetic system as the basis for a script for the
Hmong that was impossible to read without learning a lot
of complicated rules. The clever churchmen believed
they had bonded together the diffuse Hmong tribes
through this linguistic subjugation, but the Hmong knew
better. They learned the text to keep the missionaries in
their place, but they had a system that was far more
advanced than anything devised in the West. They had a
musical language that communicated directly from one
soul to another.
"What is that god-awful row?"
"One of those Hmong beggars playing his flute by
the sounds of it."
"Well, its annoying. Doesnt he know this is a hospital?
Cant you go tell him to shut up?"
"Youve got legs. You tell him."
"Im in the middle of something."
"And Im not?"
The morgue was made of concrete, and secrets had no
cracks to hide in. From their corpse-side seats, Nurse Dtui
and Madame Daeng could hear every disparaging word
the two clerks spoke. The auditors were like an unhappily
married couple. The pale-faced men in their frayed white
shirts and polyester slacks had ghosted in the previous
morning. Theyd handed Dtui their official placement
papers from the Justice Department and commandeered
the office. Theyd taken advantage of the coroners
absence and chosen this week to go through his books for
the 1977 audit. It appeared theyd been instructed to
find errors in the records. Dtui had known straightaway
that that task was virtually impossible, given that her boss
had handwriting so horrible he could hardly read it
himself. Dipping a cockroach in ink and having it scamper
around the page would have left more legible traces
to the average reader.
But Nurse Dtui had to admire the auditors determination.
They had every flat surface in the office covered
in a layer of gray papers and were tiptoeing barefoot
between them. Theyd been through the entire first
drawer of the filing cabinet and were making copious
notes in their ledgers. Theyd been instructed not to discuss
their mission with menial staff so Dtui had no way of
helping them find whatever it was they were searching for.
"Lets go and get lunch," one of them said.
It was the first thing theyd agreed on since their
arrival. Dtui and Daeng heard one or two paper rustles,
the closing and locking of a door that hadnt been
squeezed into its misshapen frame for many years, and a
cough from just outside the room where the two ladies sat.
"Can I help you?" Dtui asked.
"Comrade Bounhee and I are taking our lunch
break," said one of the men.
"Perhaps youd like to come in here and join us for a
sandwich?" she suggested. Daeng smiled and shook her
head. The men hadnt dared enter the examination
room since the arrival of the corpse that morning.
"Er, no. Rather not. Good health, comrade." And he
There were four rooms of a sort in the only morgue
in the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos. The
paper-strewn and off-limits office was one. Then there
was a large alcove and the cramped storeroom in which
Mr. Geung, the lab technician, stood polishing specimen
jars. And finally there was the examination area
they all referred to as the cutting room. It was here
that Nurse Dtui and Madame Daeng sat on either side
of the deceased military officer, finishing their tea.
Despite appearances, there was nothing perverse in
this irreverent act. It had been necessitated by the peculiar
events of that morning.
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