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 was gone.
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.
Excerpted from The Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill Copyright © 2008 by Colin Cotterill . Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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