Veins on Broken Wings
People said that the girl’s father had been killed in the jungle, though no one who claimed this had actually seen it happen. Her mother did not entirely believe that he had been killed. Who knows for sure? Those messengers are not reliable, she said. The girl had barely known her father. Mother said he was an artist and a human rights activist. When politicians and activists were being hunted down and imprisoned after the Saffron Revolution, her father had escaped to the jungle, crossed the Thai border and, a few years later, was rumored to have been shot while in exile. What does this stupid country ever give back to you? Mother would mutter. Nothing but suffering. And yet here I am with four burdensome children.
From among the four of them, Mother chose her, the girl. And so, in 2009, when she was seven, two years after the disappearance of her father, the girl arrived at the orphanage in Kyauk Tan, about one hour by bus from downtown Yangon.
It had been a rainy day. The girl sat in the office on a wooden bench, her three-year-old brother, who had been conceived right before their father left, on her lap. Both of them were slightly damp, as they had walked there in the rain sharing an umbrella with Mother, who had been speaking to the orphanage guardians and was now rising from the table. “It’s finished; I’m leaving,” Mother said to the girl, and then she took the baby from her lap, wedged the umbrella under her arm and promptly departed. She was already gone by the time the girl realized that this was a final goodbye. One of the guardians took her to the place where she was to live from that moment on.
It was a big hall, roughly furnished with twenty wooden bed frames lining the walls, ten to a side, in two rows facing each other. The girl was assigned the third bed from the entrance. The guardian brought her a bedroll and two pairs of the uniform. When the guardian left her by herself inside the hall, her roommates-to-be had not yet come back from lessons; she sat on her new bed, listening to the steady metallic reverberation each time a droplet of rainwater from the leaking roof hit one of the enamel bowls catching them, and she breathed in the stale smell of the damp laundry hung messily on ropes nailed erratically to the walls. The girl felt a pang at the thought that she would never see her family again. Her always-grumbling mother, her bullying older brother who always stole her share of food, and her two younger pesterers…how Mother would shuffle down the road with the baby on her hip and the toddler dragged along by her hand, while the girl and her eldest brother tottered in front, squabbling…how they would sleep in any shelter they could find. Tears welled in her eyes as she remembered how much she had hated them.
During supper, she felt awkward at first, but was comforted by the fact that she would now have regular, though humble, meals, and would no longer have to worry about finding a place to sleep at night. Some of the older chidren tried bullying her behind the backs of the guardians and teachers. But the girl was well-built and toughened by her vagabond upbringing, and with a few hard slaps she put a stop to the harrassment. She began to feel lucky that she had been brought here.
The orphanage had its own school, offering primary education up to the fourth grade. The orphans who passed fourth grade were sent to a government school that taught higher grades. Some orphans had gone on to graduate from high-school and even obtained university degrees. There were more than sixty orphans. The girl wondered if they were all here because they had lost both of their parents or if any of them were like her—sent here because their parents could not afford to feed them.
The girl had never been to school, and so she was placed in basic level studies. All of her classmates were younger than her. Studying did not come naturally to the girl, and she was uninterested in the subject matter. She preferred wiping the blackboard or fetching chalk for the teachers or helping them carry their supplies, so although she was a poor student, she was still appreciated.
After the nightly prayer, during independent study period, the girl would doodle with a stick of soapstone on her slate. The pictures were of animals and other ordinary subjects but the style of her drawings was unusual. When she showed them to other children they did not understand the figures and said that they were odd and indecipherable. Yet the girl kept drawing the whole study period, wiping the slate clean every time she finished one picture to immediately start another. Because of this, she never finished her homework. Still, after two years of learning she was able to read and write rudimentary Burmese. The teachers decided to allow her to study through the fourth grade. They let her pass the first and second grades even though she failed in English.
Meanwhile, the political situation had changed in the country after the 2010 election. The new government no longer imprisoned politicians or activists; many exiles returned. Having very little contact with the outside world, the girl did not know about any of this.
One day, a group of artists from Yangon volunteered to come and teach drawing and painting at the orphanage. The girl was sure she recognized one of the artists, an older man. He had bought her father’s paintings when their house was about to be repossessed by the loaners. Their money was all gone, mismanaged by her devastated, jobless mother. The man had said that nobody wanted to put themselves in danger of being detained by the police for buying the paintings of a political dissenter, but that he would risk it because he wanted to help them. He had given Mother a very small amount, much lower—maybe ten or twenty times less—than the original value of the paintings. However, Mother had no other choice but to take the money, which she used to rent a flat for a year before the family finally ended up on the street.
The man did not remember the girl, and he probably wouldn’t have expected to see her in an orphanage here anyway. After two days of instruction at the school, the visiting artists held a contest, and the girl won the first prize. All the artists, including the man, said that her drawings showed outstanding creativity. Her prize was a set of crayons and drawing books which she kept hidden under her bed, too frugal to use them. She continued to doodle on her slate all through independent study period.
But the girl changed in the next year, when she reached the third grade—for the first time she began to show an interest in her studies. This was prompted by the arrival in her class of a new, academically-gifted orphan. The teachers favored the new girl, showing her more preferential treatment than they ever had to the girl for doing their chores. She grew jealous.
The new orphan was much younger than the girl. She was always studying, late into the night, and in class was the first one with an answer to the teachers’ questions. She was said to have been first in her class before both her parents were killed in an unfortunate accident which is why she had been sent to the orphanage. Despite being the teachers’ pet, the new girl always looked miserable. The girl didn’t think this was fair. “Your parents are dead and gone, and you are alive and well here, yet you are ungrateful. You should die of hunger out in the streets,” she would say to her behind the teachers’ backs, but the new girl would only whimper in response. When they discovered this, the teachers scolded the girl, which made her dislike the new girl even more. She became determined to become a better pupil than her nemesis.
And so the girl started working hard at her studies at night and put aside her drawing. It was not easy for her. But her desire to be better than the new girl trumped all else and she forced herself to do it. Even when the new girl stayed awake to work long after all the other orphans had gone to bed, the girl would not stop studying until her rival, too, finally went to sleep. The rival did not seem aware of the fact that they were in competition and carried on with her studying and other duties as usual. Yet she was unhappy whenever she had to do her orphanage-assigned chores. At times, there were tears in her eyes. The girl watched carefully for these tears and found them distasteful. “Drama queen,” she would call her. However, her contempt for the new girl disappeared within a few months as she too started to become more like the other orphans—no longer devoting herself to her studies, getting into fights, and nicking extra food from the kitchen. The girl lost her special curiosity in her.
The girl reverted to the way she had been before, uninterested in anything, and now she no longer even drew. Nothing could excite her except a decent meal. Unlike other orphans, she did not have any dream for the future. In their casual conversations, other children talked about getting out of the orphanage, having a decent life and living like those in the outside world. But the girl never once thought of leaving her current home. She was even worried that her mother might try and take her back to put her to work. She hated knowing that her mother was still alive; she wanted to be a real orphan like the others.
On a fine day, her mother did return, bringing her two younger siblings to visit her. The girl learned that their older brother had run away. The younger two were now bigger and better-behaved, and a bit neater and tidier. They stared timidly at their sister in her uniform; they did not seem to remember her very well. The girl was reluctant to talk to her mother, and gave only terse answers to her questions. She hated that she couldn’t refuse to see this woman simply because she was the one who had given birth to her. But she accepted the small amount of money that Mother offered her before she left. She did not comment on her announcement that she was going to get married, to a lottery ticket vendor. Her mother said she would try to take the girl back once she was married.
The girl had now lived in the orphanage for about six years. Her mother never returned for her. The girl had stopped her schooling after failing to pass the fourth grade; but she still ran errands and assisted the teachers, guardians, and kitchen staff. She was savvy after many years of living there. As a result, she was given an apprenticeship in the kitchen, where she learned more about how to get extra shares of clothing and how the senior kitchen staff hoarded the donation monies. The girl now started to dream of becoming an official kitchen staff member one day so she could earn as much money as they did and get a separate room all to herself.
Over the next two years, the orphanage had become quite well known due to the social media culture thriving in the country. SIM cards, which were too expensive before, were more readily available. All the guardians and kitchen staff now had their own mobile phones. Many people came to donate food and money. However, the guardians always said there wasn’t enough for clothing or to repair the buildings due to the increasing number of orphans.
That was true. The orphanage had become much more crowded, with nearly two hundred children, most of whom were not really orphans but had come from situations similar to that of the girl, and some even direr. The girl now had to share the sleeping hall with twenty-four other children. The conditions were worse than ever, and every rainy season there were many new holes in the roof. Newcomers were now given only one uniform per year instead of two.
The girl’s ex-rival had left the orphanage the year before when her uncle came and took custody of her. Some other hallmates of the girl had either been adopted or had run away. Eventually, from the old lot, only the girl and two others, Nyo-Twe and Pauk-Sa, remained. Nyo-Twe was two years older than the girl but physically smaller. She had passed the fourth grade and was attending school outside the orphanage. Pauk-Sa was a charming little girl four years younger than the girl. The girls like both of them but was closer to Nyo-Twe.
Nyo-Twe helped her when the girl got her first period. It was in the rainy season and so it was difficult for the girl to find a place in the cramped hall to dry the old clothing rags she used for her menses without letting others see them, especially the visitors who were curious about the orphanage and enjoyed taking photographs. Nyo-Twe taught her to drain the rags in the bathroom and then put them under the mat so that they could finish drying from her body heat and pressure while she slept. It was very annoying, yet it made the girl thankful to have a bed of her own. She could not imagine what she would have done during her period if she were with Mother on the street, like in the old days.
Nyo-Twe never wanted to be adopted, claiming it was an indignity. She explained, when the girl asked, that she did not believe boys and girls from the orphanage were really adopted but were enslaved when somebody took them. Nyo-Twe liked to read romance novels and political journals. “Do you really think all of them go on to a good life after being adopted? I’m sure they’re doing housework in their new homes.” The girl doubted that this was true but did not argue with her because she was her only close friend and her source for stories and country news.
When general elections were held in 2015, the girl knew from Nyo-Twe that the NLD party won. She remembered it was the party that her father had been involved with. That night, in her dreams, the girl saw her father, blurry and faint. She loathed the feeling of waking up with tears in her eyes. She could not recall exactly what her father looked like, how his voice had sounded, whether he had even loved her. He must have really died, or he would have come back, she thought. He should have never left his family, regardless of whether he was doing it for the good of the country. What does this stupid country ever give back to you? She would end up asking the same question as her mother had.
Nobody in the orphanage except Nyo-Twe knew about the girl’s father. “Don’t be too sad,” she said to the girl. “You should be proud instead. People like your father gave their lives to bring us democracy today, didn’t they?” The girl didn’t quite understand what there was to be proud of. “Fathers shouldn’t be involved in politics,” she said, still sad. To change her mood, Nyo-Twe showed her the hand phone of her own she had been hiding from the guardians. She told the girl, when asked, that her boyfriend had given it to her and that she would marry him once she graduated and had a life of her own. “Get yourself a boyfriend too.” She urged the girl. “This is the best way out of the orphanage.”
The girl had never thought about leaving the orphanage, but regardless of whether or not a boyfriend was a way out, she wanted one now. In her prayers at night she always asked for one. She would look over the guys she met whenever she got the chance to go to the market for the orphanage or to deliver its products to the handicraft shop in downtown Yangon. She had one eye on the helper at the grocery store and the other one on the boy at the handicraft shop. She started to doll herself up whenever she went out.
Though the boys would flirt with her, none of them wanted to actually date her, maybe because they preferred girls who were petite, thin and slight in build. Moreover, there was never any real opportunity to get to know the boys outside of her quick excursions to the shops. For the first time ever, she regretted not paying proper attention to her studies. She came to believe that she might have had a better chance of getting a boyfriend if she had reached fifth grade and gone on to attend an outside school. Because of her pining for a boyfriend, her work suffered, and she became careless about her duties in the kitchen. Day after day, she only thought about the love scenes between Nyo-Twe and her boyfriend.
One day, frantic and at her wit’s end, Nyo-Twe divulged to the girl that she was pregnant and her boyfriend was refusing to marry her. The girl told a guardian about Nyo-Twe’s problem, and the whole orphanage found out. The guardians racked their brains for how to best handle it. If only Nyo-Twe had run away they could have just ignored it. But because this disaster had happened under their wardenship they were stuck, and it would be difficult to keep her on with a child and even harder to send her away. Nyo-Twe was barely out of childhood, and was unable to take care of a baby on her own. Some guardians thought Nyo-Twe should have an abortion. Others said it was far too dangerous.
The girl asked her friend why her boyfriend would not take responsibility. Nyo-Twe couldn’t give her a precise answer. “But it’s his own flesh and blood!” the girl persisted, copying what she had heard from a guardian. But she knew that the boyfriend didn’t want a baby while he was still so young and without means. And she doubted that her friend would ever really love this baby, in the same way the girl bore hatred for her mother and, yes, for her father as well.
Nyo-Twe was gone a few days later. Nobody, not even the girl, knew what happened to her. Her disappearance did not cause much of a stir at the orphanage because on that very same day there was another, more disturbing incident.
About two weeks ago a girl from the orphanage had been adopted by a couple from another town and taken to the hotel where they were staying. Thinzar, the adopted girl, was twelve, a cheerful girl, courteous and helpful. Everybody thought she had already gone to the town at the China border where the couple lived; but on that day, the police informed the orphanage president that they had Thinzar at the station. They said she had been found alone on the street; she had asked them to send her to the orphanage, the only place she knew. She wouldn’t stop crying after she was returned; no one could get her to say why she had run away from the couple, or if the couple was still in town. The kitchen staff assumed that she must have been tortured, and was suffering from trauma. After many months she had recovered slightly, but she was never quite the same again.
By now the girl had realized that getting married or having a normal life was not likely for her, and the best way for her to survive—and to have regular meals, which was essential for her—was to become an official kitchen staff member, perhaps a guardian later. She still wanted her very own boyfriend, however, and did not intend to give up looking.
One day, when the girl was allowed to the handicraft shop in downtown Yangon, she walked past a gallery where she saw, through a glass door, a painting that she thought looked familiar, though she could not remember from where. The price tag was 800,000 Kyats. She counted the zeroes. What a fortune, she thought, and then continued on to the handicraft shop, where she expected to meet her boyfriend any day now.
Interview with Khine Soe Lung
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Khine Soe Lung: When I was in middle school, essay writing was my favourite assignment and I wrote them like stories without knowing I was doing so. I must say my passion for writing began there. And then when I was in high school my Burmese literature teacher asked me if I wanted to write a story for a magazine, that was where I realized how I had wanted to write.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Khine Soe Lung: Humans are social animals and politics plays a big part in the world. People’s lives can differ a great deal depending on the political situations of his/her country. So short fiction should reflect those realities.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Khine Soe Lung: Great stories for children by Ruskin Bond.
His stories are charming and teach us to love nature.
Tiger My Friend made me cry.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Khine Soe Lung: Characters and themes are important to create good stories. Writing is beyond telling tales and how to present the characters in what themes is essential. Like Three Years by Chekhov, he wrote about a novel or Moscow life, but the characters he created are so intriguing and the theme he presented is breathtaking. That is what entices readers.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Khine Soe Lung: Writing has taught me to be patient and to have the courage to release things that are not useful even if they look valuable.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Khine Soe Lung: I am writing a novel about a girl who was raped by a neighbour and forced by the family and community to get married to the rapist.