Love, my uncle said, plays a part in every story, however grand or simple, however beautiful or otherwise. You will find love in the stories that make us cry, just as in the stories meant to lift our spirits.
We were sitting on the kitchen floor. Night had fallen, and it was cooler now. My uncle shivered. I went to get a blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders, then sat back down.
The fire crackled. I gazed into the embers as I listened, even though I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what he was saying.
Be they conceived hundreds or even thousands of years ago in some strange and distant land, or just last night in a little hut across the river, all important narratives have just one theme: the human need for love.
Are you listening, Bo Bo? I nodded.
There is no greater power than love, he continued quietly. She has countless faces and complexions. No other subject has ever so occupied the poets, and no other subject ever will. Rightly so, for we are otherwise apt to forget.
Seeing my puzzled expression, he leaned forward as if to disclose some great secret, only to decide against it after all.
That was just like him. The past few weeks had been full of fireside tales, all of which had invariably trailed off at some point.
Tales of the time when he was still small and the world was still big, a time when there were neither cars nor televisions in Kalaw.
Stories of a wife too young to die.
Stories of a mother who could conquer great distances without taking a single step.
And stories of a boy who could reportedly distinguish butterflies by their wingbeats.
Quite a lot of it was baffling, frankly. Who can hear a butterfly in flight? But it was never dull, and I hung on his every word.
There I go again, I heard him mumbling. Where is it going to end? What am I talking about? What does a boy your age know of love?
How was I supposed to answer that? What does a twelve-year-old know about love?
Or at least not much.
Or maybe more than he suspects?
Our conversation ended on that note, and I was disappointed. I would gladly have gone on listening. My uncle has a wonderful voice. Once he gets rolling I find myself forgetting all the cares of the day. Just like when he used to sing me to sleep.
How could I have known that this was all just the beginning of a much longer story? And that when we got to the end I would finally understand what he had been trying to tell me in all kinds of ways for the past few weeks, sometimes with words, sometimes without?
The next morning my uncle started telling me about his little sister. Now that was unusual.
He was stretched out on the couch under a light blanket. I had propped up his head with two little pillows. I made him some tea and sat down on the floor next to him. His eyes were closed and his mouth was open. As if he had fallen asleep. The rain had stopped, and the birds were singing. I was just thinking I might as well head into the yard to feed the chickens when he whispered my name.
“Bo Bo, are you there?” he asked.
I took his hand. I do that a lot. It was so warm and soft. He smiled without opening his eyes. I held on firmly. He liked that, especially when he was tired or when he couldn’t sleep.
And he was tired a lot in those days, especially in the morning. Sometimes I worried that he was getting sick, but he told me to stop fretting; it was just a question of age. A man of nearly eighty years would feel tired from time to time, after all. I don’t know if that’s true, because I’m only twelve, and he’s the only eighty-year-old I know. Or at least the only one I know well.
Neither of us said anything for a while. In the yard the bamboo creaked in the wind. A few flies buzzed around us. The delicious smell of a neighbor’s curry drifted in. U Ba squeezed my hand and started his story.
His sister had a big heart, and she was the most beautiful woman he had ever met, aside from his wife, of course. And his mother. She had the elegant, graceful bearing of a dancer, eyes that flashed with an uncommon intensity, and laughter that would warm your heart.
I can’t say whether he was exaggerating. I hadn’t seen her in ages. I can’t even remember what she looked like, or what her laugh sounded like, never mind whether it would warm your heart.
“Do you and she look alike?” I wanted to know.
He thought about it for so long that I started to think he wasn’t going to answer.
“Yes and no,” he said at last. “It can be like that with siblings. In some ways they can be so close, while in others they may be so distant that it hurts.”
I don’t have any brothers or sisters, so I can’t really say whether he was right. I have U Ba, my uncle, and he doesn’t feel distant, at least not in a way that hurts.
“How many children does she have?” I asked carefully. U Ba cocked his head from one side to the other and wrinkled his brow without saying a word. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Grown-ups are not always so easy to understand in my experience.
There was so much I wanted to ask him about her. Whether she was healthy, for instance. How she was getting along. Whether she might be able to come visit us sometime. But I knew I’d get no answer.
To keep him from falling utterly silent, I went and sat next to him on the couch and started massaging his feet. He liked that, and it generally made him more talkative.
“Tell me more about her, U Ba,” I pleaded, hoping to learn something new. “Tell me her story.”
“Perhaps some other time,” he yawned. “No, no, tell me now. Please.”
But he was finished. He opened his eyes briefly and smiled at me. He looked exhausted.
Soon enough his head was lolling to one side on the pillow. A fly landed on his cheek and was crawling its way to the tip of his nose. I brushed it away.
“U Ba,” I whispered. “U Ba.” But he didn’t stir.
So as not to wake him, I sat there for a few minutes. At some point I got up and went into the yard, where the usual chores were waiting: chickens and a pig to feed, laundry to wash, weeds to pull. Today I also had to fix my bicycle. I must have picked up a piece of glass or a nail while riding through the mud.
Sometimes I don’t know what to make of U Ba. What had prompted him to mention his sister that morning? It was very unusual. I think he was afraid it would make me sad.
My uncle has only the one sibling, you see, and so, logically, she is my mother.
The hungry chickens scurried impatiently about my feet. The minute I tossed them a bit of food, they descended on it as if they hadn’t eaten for days. Two hens quarreled greedily over a handful of grain. I stepped in and broke it up.
Hungry animals put me on edge. Even chickens.
I tried not to think of my mother while I was doing the chores, but my thoughts had a mind of their own.
All the kids I knew lived with their mothers. Almost. Ma Shin Moe’s parents had died in a bus accident last year. Ko Myat’s mother was working in Thailand. But she visited every year. Or at least every other year.
Thinking more carefully about it, I also came up with Ma San Yee and Maung Tin Oo, twins whose mother had died giving birth to them. Their father had a new wife, and so they at least had a stepmother. She wasn’t particularly kind to them, but she was there.
The only things I knew about my mother were that she lived in Yangon and that she wasn’t well. But I didn’t know what exactly was wrong with her.
I had no idea what kinds of things she enjoyed or worried about. Whether she preferred rice, like me, or noodles, like her brother.
I had no idea whether she was a sound sleeper, or whether she was like U Ba. Did she wake in the night and call for me, only to find I wasn’t there?
I had no idea what she smelled like. What her voice sounded like. Whether or not I took after her.
I couldn’t even remember when I had last seen her.
U Ba used to have a photo of her that served him as a bookmark. She, my uncle, and I were all standing on a snowy porch bundled up in hats and mittens. My mother was holding me in her arms. I was still just a baby wrapped up in a blanket. We all gazed intently into the camera.
One day he left his book in the yard, where the pages and the photo both got drenched in a downpour. Now my mother was just a particularly beautiful smudge of color amid the other smudges.
In order to drive thoughts like that out of my mind, I started counting out loud. That’s a habit of mine. Whenever there’s something I don’t want to think about, I just start counting. And if ever I feel especially threatened or worried, I start counting things I can see. The fruits on an avocado tree, for instance. The blossoms on a hibiscus bush. The spokes on my bicycle. Or even just stairs.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen . . .
But today I couldn’t put the troubling thoughts aside. I couldn’t get my mother out of my head.
I walked past the chickens to the remotest corner of the yard and sat down by the anthill.
Thousands of ants crawled in two black columns along the base of the bougainvillea bushes to the papaya tree, where, for no reason I could see, they made a sharp turn and disappeared under the hedge and into the neighbor’s yard. I liked to watch the ants. They were living proof that strength had nothing to do with size. They could carry leaves, needles, and pieces of bark much heavier than themselves.
If ever I put a stick or a stone in their way, they would stop for a moment, probe it with their tiny legs and feelers, and then walk right over it, or under it, or around it, no matter how tall or wide it was. They were single-minded animals, and nothing would keep them from pursuing their goal.
I found that thought reassuring.
And they never showed any sign of fear. I could approach them and stamp my feet; they would just go about their business. They were not like the beetles, worms, or pill bugs that would flee in all directions when I lifted up a stone.
I sat there looking at the ants, focusing on their hustle and bustle, until I lost track of the time.
Eventually I felt better and went back to the house.
On the steps lay a couple of my uncle’s shirts, the two green longyis for my school uniform, and a bundle of T-shirts. Next to that was the rake I was supposed to use to clear weeds. I had absolutely no interest in doing the laundry or crawling around in the muddy garden, so instead I just went to look for U Ba.
He was still lying motionless on the sofa. His blanket had slipped onto the floor. I picked it up and folded it. It was warm out now.
Instead of fixing my bike, I took the spare and rode into town.
It was market day, and the city was more crowded with people, cars, and motorbikes than usual. I needed to be on my toes; a moped nearly ran me off the road.
According to U Ba it wasn’t so long ago that there were no cars or motorbikes at all on the streets of Kalaw. People went everywhere on foot, by bike, or in one of the many horse-drawn wagons. They would turn off the electricity at nine o’clock, and a lovely quiet would settle over the place. Those who could afford it would light candles. Those who couldn’t would go to bed. There were no computers or telephones and no foreign visitors.
I can’t imagine it. These days all the grown-ups are obsessed with their cell phones. What did they used to do with all the time they had?
At the market most of the stands had tarps for shelter from the rain. Underneath the tarps it was always packed with people. You could smell the dried fish, the coriander, and the fresh-ground chili peppers. I gave the meat vendors a wide berth, though. I couldn’t stand the stench of disemboweled animals. It would cling to my nose even hours later.
Among all the people of various ages I felt as if I saw only mothers with their children. Some mothers had set their little ones on their bellies between piles of carrots and potatoes; others had strapped them to their backs or were carrying them in their arms. Women cuddling their children. Feeding them. Singing them songs or rocking them to sleep.
The sight of them made me sad again. I wandered aimlessly from stand to stand. More than anything, I just wanted to go back home to my uncle, to lie down on the couch with him, but he’d asked me yesterday to buy him some tea and a pack of cheroots. I also picked up some eggs and vegetables for our lunch, a bag of pastries, and two bunches of yellow and white chrysanthemums for our altar. I bought two pieces of milk cake for my uncle from a vendor who was selling sweets. He never asked for these, but I knew how much he liked them. I got back on my bike and rode over to Ko Aye Min’s.
His office is on a side street not far from the market. There’s a sign out front: “Adventure Tours with Aaron.” He goes by Aaron because he’s worried that his clients won’t be able to remember his Burmese name. He works as a tour guide, which is to say that he gets money for walking around with other people. I’ve asked him more than once what kind of a strange job that is, walking around with visitors, and how it is that he gets paid to do it. It seems like the kind of thing you ought to do just to be friendly, or to be helpful when someone is lost. He says it’s called “tourism” and maybe I am too young to understand it.