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 expected.
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 leaner days.
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.
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