Death is a Scarlet
Dwapara Press Eugene, Oregon
Death is a Scarlet Poppy
Copyright © 2014, by Colin Mason. All rights reserved.
No portion of this book may be reproduced or used in any form, or by any means, without prior written permission from the publisher.
30160 Fox Hollow Road,
Eugene, Oregon 97405
Editor: Mark Mason
About the author:
Colin Mason, a former foreign correspondent, broadcaster and Australian senator, has published 14 books, two of which, A Short History of Asia (Palgrave Macmillan) and A Short History of the Future (Earthscan) are currently best sellers in their area around the world. A Short History of the Future, which is currently being translated into Korean and has been taken on board as a course book by the British Open University, is a factual look at the perils and opportunities of the future.
Of Mason’s three published novels Hostage has been the most successful. Its seven editions in the US, Britain and Australia have sold some 80,000 copies.
Mason has worked in Asia as a foreign correspondent and as a broadcasting advisor, and has visited Hmong villages in Laos and Thailand, where he saw firsthand much of what is described in this book, Death is a Scarlet Poppy. This book is, as a result, an historical novel that tells of great, largely overlooked wrongs done to a small country and its people.
The author may be contacted by email
The cover was designed by Mark Mason
using a photo by Lynn Greyling.
This story is set in Laos, a small, landlocked and remote country on a big river in the eastern foothills of the Himalayas. A long time ago it was called Lane Xang—the Land of the Million Elephants and One White Parasol—an empire of considerable power and fame, sprawling out into neighbouring Thailand and Cambodia. When in due course its founding king died, with nobody of his power and magic to replace him, the empire dwindled until there were only half a dozen largish sleepy towns, where life moved on generation after generation without anything much changing. Then the empire-hungry French came, took over those towns and assembled them into a colony they called Laos.
Even then life changed very little until this other-worldly place was caught up in the Cold War, the global struggle between Communism and the West. Among those most involved were some hill tribes called the Hmong, whose society was destroyed by this war. At first sight the Hmong may seem not very important in the overall scheme of things, but they have a claim on our attention and even our sympathy because of the evil visited on them by the giants of the world. No matter where and how they live, people deserve to be treated as part of humanity, even if they are among the weak, the poor and the displaced, of whom there are getting to be far too many. The tragedy of the Hmong is, then, by no means unique. Their story throws shadows into the future, so hopefully you might draw some conclusions from what follows for the present time and on a larger canvas.
Ban Si Kimh is—or was—a village of the Hmong hill-tribes, that grows opium on the high mountains of the Golden Triangle. It was never more than one street of straggling brown houses astride a mountain ridge, a high point from which you see more and more mountains in all directions—a dizzying prospect. But off to the west the ridge flattens into a few acres of poppies, a smudge of pale grey-green foliage in which the bright scarlet flowers stand out vividly. Soon, after the petals have fallen, the Hmong will harvest the big seed pods, tedious work that requires considerable skill and patience. The pods, hundreds of them a day, must be scored multiple times lengthwise with a three-bladed knife to allow a few whitish drops of the opium-bearing sap to ooze out. From this the most addictive drug of the West, heroin, and vast sums of money, are made.
Behind the village to the east, where the land drops off sharply, a small stream cascades down into the valley a hundred feet below. Within a horseshoe bend in this little river is a small area of flat, fertile land, cultivated as a vegetable and fruit garden. On the other side of the stream a dense thicket of bamboo reaches to the water’s edge. It was here that Nga An, a Pathet Lao commander, waited to kill Phong, the owner of the garden. The Communist Pathet Lao, one of the major players in the war, had commandeered the land, and everyone in the village, including Phong and his family, had been warned off it on pain of death. However, because ownership of this fertile patch had once made Phong prosperous, he had said he would defy the ban and reclaim his land.
Nga An knew that when Phong came down this morning he would have his two oldest sons Aka and Ton with him, and he would be armed with the ancient Bond Street shotgun that had hung on the walls of his house for years. Because of this Nga An had brought a young Pathet Lao recruit called Vonat with him, as a precaution and also to give the young man some direct operational experience. However Vonat, who knew what was expected of him, was restive. It was easy enough to kill in hot blood, in the frenzy of combat, but to lie in wait, pick a man off like a bird—that was another matter. Nga An studied the young man’s face for a few moments, then said, ‘Stop fidgeting.’
‘I wish they’d get here, so we can have it over and done with. I don’t like this killing a man because he wants his own land.’
Nga An took a deep breath.
‘You young don’t like discipline much, do you? I’ll tell you a story. You are in another time, another place, where a white man—a Frenchman—is making you work hard, very hard. You complain, so you’re punished—they hold you down on the ground and lift your legs so they can whip you with metal rods on the soles of your feet until they are torn and bleed. Then they make you get up and run.’
Vonat knew well enough that the Pathet Lao were implacable in matters of discipline. One of his close friends had been shot for failing to carry out an order. But torture—
‘Such things don’t happen,’ he said curtly.
‘But they did, you know, when this part of the world was French Indo-China. The French! I can tell you they were cruel, as cruel as men can get. To them we were just les jaunes—the yellows—something less than human. My father was one of the first in the revolution, long ago, when Comrade Ho Chi Minh was living in Paris, a young student. I was still a baby when my father was caught. They tortured him, then cut off his head with the guillotine.
‘Those were bad days, hundreds of thousands of people herded into big sheds on the rubber plantations—ten, twelve hours a day they bent over those trees, tapping, tapping. At that time the whole world was poor—the depression they called it. The company heads in Paris wanted more and more work—one man or one woman must tap hundreds of trees a day. The overseers had to enforce this—that’s when the beatings on the feet started… And, you know, Vonat, they were afraid of us, those whites—there were so few of them, so many of us. They knew one day we’d rise up, and of course that has now happened.
‘But first our people thought they would protest peacefully against our terrible lives and conditions of work. Eight thousand men, women and children marched on the provincial capital, Vinh. Not even a single bamboo spear was carried, much less knives and guns. And as a sign to the French that we would be peaceful, the first two hundred in the march were all women and children.’
Nga An paused, shaking with horror and anger as he had done when his uncle had first told him this story. Vonat stared at him, fascinated. Then Nga An cleared his throat and went on.
‘I was there, a child of only two, in those front ranks. You know, my young friend, I have some education. I understand English, I read and write. I read some lies where it said the first time aircraft had been used against civilians was in the Spanish civil war. But six years before Guernica it happened here, when those Potez biplanes, from the Armee de l’Air, massacred our people marching on a narrow road between paddy-fields, so there could be no escape. The first twenty-two pound bombs fell on the front ranks, among the women and children. They had Lewis guns on the side of their cockpits. After the bombing they machine-gunned the column. Hundreds of people died that day. One of them was my mother, she’d been carrying me in her arms.
‘Screaming, dying people staggered into the water of the rice-fields. My uncle found me there, in a pool of water stained red. So now you know why we’re here. We beat the French, yes, then the Americans came. But we will never again be humiliated, dominated. We will beat them, too.’
‘You were at Dien Bien Phu?’ Vonat asked respectfully.
Nga An smiled at this mention of the final French defeat, but there was no warmth in his eyes.
‘Yes. There at those mountain forts we got our revenge for Vinh. In the end, when the last of the French garrison surrendered, the Paris papers said they were like Christ off the Cross. But before that we sweated our guts out in ways you wouldn’t even understand. Those mountain guns, so heavy it took an hour sometimes to shift them a few metres, we got them up to the top of a cliff looking down on the forts. Impossible, the French said, for guns to be got up there, but if you hate enough you can do anything. We destroyed the metal matting of their air strip so no reinforcements could be flown in, when they dropped paratroopers we killed all but a few before they reached the ground.
‘And then I was with Comrade Giap when our flag was placed over the ruins of the command post in Dien Bien Phu. I watched the French commander de Castries, plead with our men not to shoot him. Then he surrendered. All of the French were taken to prison camps. The war with France was over.’
Vonat stirred restlessly behind his rifle. He was deeply moved—this old man, he thought, had done these remarkable things!
‘So, that story is for me—tells me what I have to do?’
Nga An raised his voice slightly.
‘Yes. Fight is what you must do, kill when killing is necessary. Every part of the struggle counts, every great task is made up of many small actions. Often we have to kill in the interests of the people—that’s why you have to obey orders… Quiet now, do I hear something? Your ears are younger than mine.’
‘Yes, they’re on the path over there.’
Phong and his two boys were on the last bends of the zigzag track down from the village. Phong raised his gun to the ready position, peered down at the neglected vegetable gardens he had been warned off, then his gaze shifted to the thing that had caused all this trouble, the large alien-looking shed, bigger than any house in the village, with a roof and walls of shiny corrugated iron that could only have been carried in here on men’s backs. Standing in a small clearing at the northern end of the river flat, it was inscrutable, giving Phong no hint of its reason or purpose.
‘What is it?’ Ton asked in hushed tones.
His father grunted.
“I don’t know, but that thing’s why we’ve been driven off our land, so in the end we’ll starve! Men come and go, carrying packs. Anyway, it’s their business. I don’t mind it being their business. If it has to stay there, let it stay. But I want to work my land. I want to grow our food—that isn’t a crime… Come on, we’d better go down, there’s stuff there wants harvesting and our bellies need it.’
Nga An watched them come out into the open and walk down onto the river flat. At once the younger boy, Aka, began to use the mattock that had been slung over his shoulder to dig sweet potatoes. Phong watched him complacently.
Phong started at the voice that came from the thicket.
‘Yes, you, Phong. Why are you here?’
‘You know, bandit. This is my land.’
‘Not now. This is the people’s land, used for the needs of the people.’ Nga An wondered why he hadn’t shot these people out of hand. ‘You know what’ll happen if you don’t obey us, Phong.’
‘I know you’re a pack of thieves!’ And Phong fired in the direction the voice had come from. The shotgun pellets whistled through the bamboo thicket only a few feet from where Nga An stood.
‘Kill him,’ Nga An ordered Vonat.
The young man raised his rifle and took careful aim. I ask your souls to forgive me, Phong, he muttered, and fired a single shot. At such short range he could hardly miss. The bullet hit Phong squarely on the chest and killed him at once.
‘I have killed a man,’ Vonat said quietly.
‘Yes, yes, and you’ll kill more, as required,’ Nga An said testily. ‘Now let’s see what happens.’
The two boys stared at Phong lying on the ground, his clothing already reddened with blood.
‘Our father’s dead!’ Ton said. He gave a single cry of anguish, and turned to flee up the hill.
‘Shall I?’ Vonat asked.
They watched the other boy as he kneeled down by his father.
‘Ton is a coward,’ Nga An observed. ‘But this one, Aka, he’s made of better stuff, he’s not afraid of us. Come on.’
Aka watched as Nga An waded over the river, followed by Vonat.
‘You killed my father,’ he said stonily.
‘Yes, we did. But remember the law—he fired first.’
Aka considered this. Blame indeed rested on the man who struck the first blow, but he was only sixteen and confused—he didn’t know what to think.
‘Listen to me, boy,’ Nga An said gently. ‘Do you think we shot a man because we wanted to? We had to kill him because he would fight us, he went against the will of the people. Can’t you see the people are important, the People’s Army’s important? We fight for freedom, we have to get the falang long-noses out of our country. It’s a hard fight. Many times we do things we don’t like.’
‘Why are you saying this to me, when you’re going to kill me?’
‘No, I can see that young as you are, you are good stuff, you’re sturdy, you’ll make a good soldier, boy. As for being killed, you can make the choice. Whose side are you on, the side of the people, or the side of the foreigner?’
‘I want to help my people.’
‘That’s a good start. I am conscripting you into the People’s Army, and you will come back with us now.’
‘I can’t do that—they need me at home.’
‘There are other children at home.’
Aka saw the force of this. There were indeed too many under the family roof and now, with his father gone, who knew what would happen? Besides, like any boy of his age, he had been restless for some time, dissatisfied with the smoky, familiar squalor of home, the aimlessness of life. Every day he had to carry water from the stream, feed the pigs. He was sick of the sight of pigs. There must be something more to life. The thought of being something else, even a Pathet Lao fighter, stirred something inside him.
Nga An, who had been watching him closely said, ‘You can be a hero, Aka, a hero to your people, isn’t that worth something? But in any case don’t even bother arguing. I’m giving you an order. We shoot those who disobey orders. Do you understand?
‘I understand I don’t want to be shot.’
Nga An grinned.
‘That’ll do for now. We’ll teach you, Aka, educate you in the wider things of the world, about your duty. You’ll learn how to read and write, you’ll learn pride, become strong, you’ll have a purpose. The time will come, and soon, when our young fighters will be the leaders of the new Communist state. You’ll go into that with pride because you fought for it.’
Things were, however, quite different for Aka’s elder brother, Ton. His flight up the hill had left him breathless, and when he paused he was still in sight of the river flat below. There was no sign of the Pathet Lao fighters or of Aka, who was his greatest worry. He hadn’t heard another shot—that was reassuring, although, of course, there were other ways of killing a man. Calling up all his courage he retraced his steps to the river bank, but he could find no clues there as to what might have happened. For some minutes he stared out over the stream into the brooding jungle beyond, but decided he daren’t venture in there. His heart was heavy, his spirit oppressed by what he saw as his own cowardice, but he nerved himself to break the news of Phong’s death to his family.
Bad news spreads quickly, and it wasn’t long before the village chief, the nai ban Phunong, arrived at the grief-stricken household, and took charge.
‘Stop your squealing,’ he shouted. ‘You sound like a lot of pigs. Phong’s dead, nothing can bring him back. Many things now have to be arranged. Get up, clean the house, fix up a place where we can put the body for the ceremonies.’
He was obeyed instantly. After watching what the family were doing for a few minutes he turned to Ton.
‘Tell me what happened.’
‘We went down to the land, our land—’
‘Ah yes, a mistake.’
‘They were there, two men. My father fired once with his shotgun. They fired back, a single shot. That killed him.’
The nai ban sighed.
‘A bad, bad business—and now you’re head of the family. What now?’
‘If I can find them, I’ll kill them, those men that killed my father.’
‘Better you put that out of your mind, unless you want to end up like your father. In fact there was an accident with the shotgun. That’s how Phong was killed.’
Ton stared at him wide-eyed.
‘But I’ve told you—that wasn’t what happened at all.’
“Yes, it was. Phong died from a shotgun accident.’ He swung round and faced the family, who were all listening intently to this conversation. ‘You hear me, all of you? That’s what you have to say… it’d be bad for the people to know the truth about this matter, and…’ he turned back to Ton. ‘…very dangerous for you. Listen…’ He paused, his eyes glazed, his body stiffened, his voice became shrill, harsh. Everyone in the house shuddered, for this man was the most powerful sorcerer in the village—that was why he was nai ban. Now, as he slipped into trance, the words he uttered must automatically be truth. ‘…Listen… It’d be easy for them… I see, I see, late at night, they come, with knives. You’re sleeping, Ton, they creep up to you, silently, and then…’
He drew a hand across his throat.
‘No,’ Ton yelled, terrified. There was a long silence, during which the nai ban shuddered, shook his head vigorously, and slowly resumed his normal self. Even his speech sounded as it had been, no longer the high clanging tones of a phi.
‘Phong died from a shotgun accident.’
‘Yes. A shotgun accident,’ Ton said dully. What else could he say?
‘That is truth.’
‘Truth… But there are eight mouths to feed here. What about our land? How do we get food? And what is that thing, that place down there that shines in the sun?’
The nai ban paused again, as if cogitating.
‘First,’ he said at last. ‘You must forget you ever had that land. If you go there, they will kill you. If anyone from here goes there they’ll kill them.’
‘Then how do I feed everyone?’
‘You can work.’ He gestured towards the door.’ I can give you work. You can weed the poppies and when the harvest time comes, you can work at that too.’ These words made Ton realise how far reduced he was now—weeding was women’s work.
‘And forget your ravings about a building. There’s no building there.’
And this he maintained even when they went down to bring back Phong’s body from the edge of the stream, where the building was in plain sight, and a difficult and unpleasant business it was too, bringing that blood-soaked corpse back up the hill. Because it was against the custom for immediate family to clean and dress the body in ritual dress for burial, cousins, aunts, uncles, were already in the house for these duties. This was the beginning of zov hmo—the night watch—during which the detailed preparations for the funeral would be made—preparing special food, the carefully folded paper symbolising gold and silver to be taken on the journey to the spirit world, the sewing of the funeral garments. Complex and prolonged rites must now be performed for Phong—already the plaintive whine of the kan was echoing through the house. This bamboo reed pipe, maybe the oldest acoustic instrument in the world, would be played continuously for three full days and nights to accompany songs that must be sung to ensure the safe passage of Phong’s three souls.
At the moment of death, one soul will join the ancestors, a second will stay in the grave and a third will ride on a horse to heaven, where it becomes a protective ancestral spirit. The second soul is the dangerous one. Thirteen days after burial it must be coaxed back into the house and placated, otherwise it will become a malevolent ghost that can return to the household at any time. It must be told to rest quietly in the grave.
After the first three days, Phong was buried. According to custom, his grave was located on the side of a mountain, facing the sunrise. So it could be assumed he was peaceful, at rest.
Not so for Ton. The hard circumstances resulting from the death of his father had destroyed the family’s unity and morale. Ton understood then how central Phong had been to their welfare, and how much his loss had changed things. His threat made to the nai ban that he would someday kill his father’s murderers kept coming back into his mind, but now as an ill-considered, powerless labourer, how could he ever achieve that? Ton was able to keep the family away from starvation only by doing menial work for other people, for which he was paid only in food—barely enough for one person, much less any left over for the other children, the youngest of whom was only three. His two eldest sisters had been old enough to sell to traders who used them as prostitutes in Vientiane. Hmong girls, who were delicate and pretty, were popular in the brothels. Because of this many got as far as Saigon to join twelve hundred other women in the Hall of Mirrors, the production line whorehouse run by the river pirates.
But Ton was human enough to love his sisters. He was bitterly angry at this fate for them, and was only consoled that at least they said they got enough to eat. So that was how matters stood when a stranger, on his way to a village twenty miles north, passed a night in Ban Si Kimh. He offered a small bag of rice for his lodging, and Aka was glad enough to accommodate him, so badly did they need that rice. It was then he heard what was happening at Long Chen, about the Hmong army that was gathering there.
‘I’m one of their soldiers,’ the stranger said. ‘I had no money, no work, nothing. My parents are both dead. There was no land for me, no woman wanted me. So when I heard about it I went to Long Chen, and they took me. It’s a good life and easy. You have to walk about, do strange things called drill, practice shooting guns of course. The pay’s good—I’m going home now to take money to my brothers and sisters. Then they might come back with me.’
‘You could take your family there?’ Ton exclaimed, surprised.
‘Yes, you get a small house, but big enough.’
‘What’s this army for?’
‘To fight—like all armies.’
‘The Communists, stupid, the Pathet Lao, that’s why there’s plenty of money at Long Chen, plenty of food. The foreigners, the Americans, it’s all coming from them.’
Ton found this almost incredible.
‘But why? Why do they come here, do these things. What’s wrong with their own country?’
‘Why? Who knows? They have these magic words, like freedom, democracy, that they say. You just have to ignore all that shit.’
‘You think they might take me?’
The stranger stared at him.
‘Why not? You’re young, hefty enough. Yes, of course they’d take you. It’s only a matter of asking. You see, there’s so much money. Anyone who wants to go, they take. The Americans don’t care how much it costs.’
[End of Chapter 1]
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