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 mistake.
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 told me.
Oh no, Josh said. You got it all wrong, sister. Im here to give you money.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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