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Sunday, December 16, 2012

One Kind of Hell

When we visited Burma under martial law, there were soldiers with guns, rifles, everywhere we looked, stationed on corners and in doorways, waiting and watching. We were not allowed to go anywhere without our state-provided guide.

My husband wanted to visit a temple, an ordinary temple, not a well-marked historic landmark (several of which we had already visited), but just an ordinary temple. Any one would do. The guide looked worried, and said he would let us know the next day. Which he did. Yes, he would take us to a temple, but we had to move quickly and we were not to talk to anyone or touch anything.

The temple was made of stone. It was multiple stories, with twisting narrow stone staircases. There were no doors in the stone doorways or glass panes in the stone windows. Our guide moved very quickly from room to room; there was no chance to look at anything. He led us at nearly a run through the building, up and down stone staircases, with my husband following him and me bringing up the rear as he urged us to move ever faster. We could hear footsteps as people vacated rooms just prior to our entering them, scurrying footsteps as they hastened to stay out of our sight.

In one room, I looked back over my shoulder and saw a teenaged monk looking through a window at me, his head shaven and one shoulder bare while the other had a saffron robe tied over it. He ducked out of view. He was young as many of the monks there are--poor and homeless children can get spare meals and a roof over their heads by becoming monks.

In another room, entering just as my guide was exiting out the other doorway, I turned again and saw the same young monk peering around a doorway. I knew I was supposed to keep moving, so I backed towards the door our guide had exited from, keeping my eyes on the boy monk. I knew he was following me; he had to be. There was no other way I could have seen only one person in this place, and that person twice. When he saw me staring, he entered the room and held up a hand. He put it over his mouth, indicating I should keep quiet. I nodded, and he came to where I was standing. "Please," he said quietly.


He was silent. Clearly he wanted something from me but didn't have the words to tell me what. Then he gestured with his hand as if he was writing. Clever kid, I thought. He'll draw a picture of what he wants. So I took a notebook and pen out of my bag and handed it to him. He took the pen and handed back the notebook. I was confused, and looked at him questioningly. How was he going to draw a picture now?

He held the pen to he chest and said, "Please?" And I understood he wanted the pen. "You want the pen?" I asked. He nodded. "You don't have a pen?" I asked. He shook his head. "No pen," he said. I began to dig through my purse; I often had up to six pens in my bag, since I was paranoid about being caught without one and would often toss an extra in. I handed him three or four and kept digging for more. I heard my husband and the guide calling, coming back up the stairs for me. I turned toward the door, in a slight panic, and then back toward the monk, but he was gone.

I went to the staircase and met the guide and my husband coming back up. The guide scolded me and asked if I had seen anyone, touched anything, and I said I had not. Under his breath, my husband warned that I could have gotten us into real trouble.

When the guide dropped us off at our hotel, I went to our room and started ransacking it for pens, the ones provided by the hotel. I asked my husband to hand over his pens, and told him about the boy monk. "You gave him your pen?" my husband asked incredulously, knowing how I always try to have one on me. "All my pens," I told him. "Even the one I got special for you?" he asked.

My husband had given me a bunch of pens that he had gotten from various drug manufacturers complete with their logos, and one had been the perfect weight and shape for me. I had loved it so much I used it only for writing poetry because I despaired of it ever running out, which eventually it had. My husband had called the pharmaceutical rep and asked him to get me another such one, only to be told the pen company had stopped making that model. My husband had asked if there were any leftovers anywhere, so the pharmaceutical rep had called all the branch offices in Japan and come up with the one remaining pen, which had been given to me. And yes, I had handed that pen over to the teenage monk.

My husband was aghast. How could I have so easily given away a pen that so many people had gone to so much trouble to get for me?
I tried to explain. "He wanted to write something down and he didn't have a pen." "You didn't have to give him THAT pen." "But he needed to write something and he couldn't. That is my idea of hell," I told my husband. Who still didn't understand.


Tara Mae Mulroy said...

What a post. Wow.

Jessica said...

This is such a good story. Thank you for sharing it.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Tara and Jessica,
Thanks for taking time to comment. It's helpful to know what kind of posts are interesting.