Normally, he would have woken up five hours ago, when most fall asleep, to drive his once-white pickup truck into the city, with the windows rolled down, a thin cigarette hanging between his weathered, sun-spotted fingers in the wind. If the wind killed the fire, he wouldn’t have noticed when he drew it to his mouth.
He’s home today, and his cigarette is lit, but he’s just as unaware of it. He leans against the front door frame, watching the sky, an ambivalent gray, as his cigarette drops to ashes on the ground.
He doesn’t react, but he takes one last drag of his cigarette, lets it fall to the ground, and turns back into the house. His wife sits cross-legged on the floor at a table. On it, a bowl of white rice, to share. Fried fish, water, two plates.
“Did you hear? It’s today! He’s coming, he’s coming today!”
When he brings himself back to that day—has it been two years already?—he feels the mugginess in the air, the rapid pulse of the village, sluggish and frenzied at once. His hand swims through the soupy air as he brings it over his eyes to see the approaching cars. Maybe they are still far away, because he remembers them crawling languidly along the road. He blinks.
The cars have already parked; people in suits climb out. Is it the air or the crowd? He feels suffocated. The crowd cheers, hands rustling flags. He fixes his eyes back onto the cars. The same image replays. The same leather shoes hesitate for a moment over the dirt road before yielding to it. He can see the cars and the people in suits, only an arm’s length away, but as he lifts his hand from his side, he realizes he cannot reach them.
The table has long since been cleared, and he is once again at the door. The sun has risen. The sky is pale blue—almost white, without a cloud. The breeze whispers through the open doors, windows, and the cracks in the wooden walls. He sits, leaning back, supported by his hands. The village is hushed as though he, and everyone else, were elsewhere.
“Tanawat, what do we do today?”
He feels his wife’s presence behind him, and yet he doesn’t turn. He feels his wife’s embarrassment at having interrupted the silence as her presence sputters away. He considers the sky for a moment and then shifts onto his feet; they shuffle toward the rusted shed that houses his truck. He falters. The roads leading out of the village to the city are blocked off today, for safety.
Not that this makes a difference. He realizes that, regardless, there would still be nowhere to go.
“Tanawat, see what arrived for you today.”
There had once been a framed photograph in the house. There are many other photographs, perhaps in the drawers or in the shed, but none other that was framed.
It was early evening that day, when he returned from work. The package he recalls his wife holding has noticeably been opened and then sloppily pulled back together, the wrapping stretched over its contents. He sees a corner of the frame that has been missed. It seems obvious now. He shakes his head when he remembers it, but back then he could not see it for what it was until the photograph was fully revealed.
It was still early as he would return home after only a half-day of work on Mondays, so he puts the photograph up that night. He finds a hammer and nails. It’s the second nail that he’s driven into the wall; the first time for a clock, now empty of batteries.
The photograph is of that day, and, whenever he sees it, a sticky heat blankets him. The beckoning of a hand, the jostling of the crowd, and he’s suddenly standing next to the politician. “For the newspapers,” they say. He feels vulnerable, naked, in his sweat-stained shirt next to the fully-suited man. A pale, meaty hand swallowing his, flashes brighter than the sun, the politician turns to him—“Thank you. We’ll send you a copy.” The cars drive away, the crowd lurches forward, and he falls back into the elbowing and the heat.
“Why don’t you put up any photos of us?” his son asks.
He decides to walk instead. The village does not stretch much beyond its rice fields, so everywhere can be reached by foot. It’s midday; the sun stings his exposed neck and shoulders. Clouds of dust trail behind his feet.
“Tanawat.” A neighbor calls from a field. “Where are you going?”
He stares at the neighbor. The neighbor laughs.
“I know, I know. There’s no need for me to be in the fields today. But what else am I supposed to do? Gotta pass the time somehow.”
He cannot see what else could be done in the fields. What makes up the fields emit a soft golden glow, and the stalks bow gently in a passing breeze. The fields have been drained, and it is only a matter of time now until the fields can dry no more and are ready for harvest. But he nods to the neighbor.
“Some of our friends have already started on SangSom, tall ones, too. I’m going to join them later, when the sun’s down. Much more sensible, eh?”
He nods again.
“You should stop by, too, Tanawat.”
There was a drought earlier this year. The rice fields did not fill up with rainwater; when they did fill, they did not stay filled long. The village used two harvests’ worth of seedlings before they finally accepted that the harvest this year would not be ample.
“I’m sure they’ll send help. Tanawat believes it, too. They sent us the photograph, remember? How can they forget us?”
He was sitting at the front door, a cigarette between his fingers. Normally, he smokes only once a day. The sky was clear that day, too; he can see wisps of exhaled smoke as the only clouds in the ignited sky. His wife is by the shed, two neighbors. Or is it three?
“There’s still time left. Of course, the harvest will be smaller, but we’ll manage.” Her voice wavers. “You believe it, too, don’t you? Your families did, the whole village did, our sons did!”
The neighbors murmur. His wife grows visibly agitated, her arms striking the air to grasp nothing.
The neighbors are gone; she’s in his arms. They’re both on the ground by the shed.
“They can’t forget us,” she sobs. “We have to believe them.”
The framed photograph is no longer on the wall, but the nail persists. His wife couldn’t look at it anymore, but he often catches her staring at the wall where the photograph used to hang.
“Do you think our son is okay?” she once asked, still facing the wall. “Do you think he was mobilized into the city?”
He tried to picture his son. Muddy green, browned skin, a grim face, but his eyes—he remembers his son’s eyes being so vivid, desperately grasping onto his father and his mother. But the eyes melt back into the brown of his skin and the green of his uniform, and his son dissolves into a whirl of identical greens and stomping feet.
Maybe he should have taken a photograph.
He approaches his neighbors, sitting around in a circle on a straw mat discolored from spilled rum. A street light buzzes over their heads, a single moth flutters around it. Nearby, the rice fields rustle in waves.
“I told you he’d come.” The neighbor from noon shifts in his position. “Come sit, sit.”
The neighbors don’t make room, but they welcome him with a half-finished bottle of SangSom. He catches it before it slips from a neighbor’s lurching hand and sits on the mat’s edge.
“It’s happening, I tell you,” one neighbor slurs. “They sent us seeds, farm equipment—for the farms. And for us? Did they send anything for us? No. They don’t care about us. They want us to die.”
He takes a sip of the rum and leans back on his hands. His gaze turns upward, and he sees the stars.
“They’re killing us! They’re killing us!” the neighbor chants, before quelling himself with a swig from a bottle.
He’s never looked at the stars so closely, he realizes. His eyes are on the road when he gets up and leaves for work; when he arrives, the sky already starts to lighten. When he leaves work, it is night, but stars can’t be seen in the city.
“Our sons have already died. I’m sure of it,” someone declares defiantly; he doesn’t see who. “And for what? Tell me — for what?”
The moth catches his eye; its wings are still batting frantically. It flies into the light bulb, to bounce back, again and again and again.
“Tanawat. Look at me.”
He stills, then brings his gaze down to meet that of the neighbor who called him.
“Can you not see this? With everything that’s happening?”
The neighbor’s eyes are bleary but meets his evenly. He has to pull his gaze away.
“Do you still believe them?”
He turns his body away before he answers.
“I don’t know.”
The neighbor erupts, but the words are muffled to his ears. He calmly pulls out a cigarette and lights it. He inhales and lets the smoke burn his lungs before releasing his breath.
“You don’t know? After years of this nonsense, you don’t know?” the neighbor cries.
He struggles to his feet, his cigarette between his lips and the bottle in his hand. His head turned up, he lets out a bark of laughter.
“I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know.”
He staggers to the fields. The group quietens. A neighbor calls out to him.
“Tanawat, what are you doing? Come back.” But no one gets up, and no one else speaks.
His arm reached out straight in front of him, he drains the bottle of rum onto the field, and throws the bottle as well, once it’s empty. He takes a drag of his cigarette. Normally, he smokes only once a day. He takes one last drag of his cigarette, lets it fall to the ground, and turns back, his hands over his eyes.
At first, the fields glowed like they did that afternoon, a soft golden light. Then they exploded into brilliant flames, more dazzling than that sky he once saw. But Tanawat couldn’t see the fields on fire. Neither could his neighbors. All they could see were his shaking shoulders, and the gleaming whites of his teeth.