Originally published in Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos, a collection of short fiction by the late Outhine Bounyavong.
The leaves of the trees were pale green. The cicadas were singing loudly. The day was hotter than usual and the wind not very strong. It was sultry weather, approaching the middle of the hot season.
I was sitting under the shade of the tree in front of the house, listening absentmindedly to the sound of the cicadas coming from all directions, joined in an endless rhythm. A person in a good mood might think it was beautiful, while to someone in a bad mood it would sound deafening. As for me, I felt as though this music of nature carried my thoughts far away. I could have daydreamed if I hadn’t been so thirsty. I longed for something nice and cool, something sweet like ice cream, which I knew was sold by a man who passed frequently in front of our house. That day I had not yet heard the sound of the ice cream vendor’s bell. In a little while, he would probably be coming by.
At the front gate, a little boy named Khamtu, was playing by himself. Khamtu was the son of Aunt Pin, my mother’s younger sister. Aunt Pin was a widow whose husband had died three years ago. She had brought two children to town, one who was sick with malaria for treatment at the hospital, and the other, Khamtu, to stay with us. Her oldest boy who was eight, remained in the village with one of my uncles. Aunt Pin had been at the hospital attending to her daughter ever since she had arrived, Khamtu was a talkative child whose questions made everybody laugh. When he first arrived, he asked me right away, “What grade are you in, cousin?”
“I’m not in grade school anymore. I’m in high school. What grade are you in?”
“I haven’t even started school yet.”
“Then when will you start?” I asked.
“They said I have to be able to touch my ear first.”
“Touch it how? Let me see you try.”
So Khamtu stretched his right arm up and over the top of his head and tried without success to touch his left ear. He still wasn’t big enough. I had just learned from Khamtu the criterion by which children were selected for admission to school in the countryside.
Another time, Khamtu asked me, “Do you know how to catch cicadas, cousin?”
I answered that I didn’t, adding that I had never caught them but had only listened to the sound they made at the beginning of the hot season. Hearing this, Khamtu searched out a slender stick, about two meters long, and on one end he smeared some sap from the jackfruit tree behind the house. After that he went and stood beneath a tree from which emerged the loud noise of a cicada. Little by little, he inserted the stick into the branches of the tree, seeking the cicada, which was almost as high up in the tree as the stick was long. In a moment, I saw the insect, wings aflutter, stuck to the end of the stick, struggling unsuccessfully to free itself from the sap. Khamtu proudly brought the cicada for me to observe.
“Good! That’s very clever,” I complimented him. “One is enough, don’t you think? Now let him go so we can listen to him sing.”
Life in the country had taught Khamtu many things that I had never known. I told him how to walk along the street and how to cross it safely. I explained how to keep himself clean. But the thing that pleased him most was to ride on my motorcycle. He seemed happiest then, doing exactly what I had showed him. Sometimes when the motorcycle was parked, he climbed up and sat on it, stroking it here and patting it there. Once I teased him, asking, “Didn’t you ever ride a motorcycle at home?”
“No…I only rode a horse made from the stalk of a banana leaf.”
When he first arrived, before his mother took his little sister to the hospital, she told him to mind his aunt, uncle, and older cousin, and never, ever to ask anybody for money.
“Don’t cry, ‘Mom, buy me this,’ or ‘Mom buy me that,’ because your mother doesn’t have much money. If you want money to buy something sweet, I won’t have enough to buy medicine for your sister. She’ll get even sicker. You love your little sister, don’t you?” Aunt Pin spoke gently but frankly to her son.
Khamtu nodded and didn’t say anything.
Khamtu was closer to me than to any other member of our family. He would do whatever I asked him to do, maybe because he wanted to go for lots of rides on the back of my motorcycle. In general, I saw that Khamtu was very intelligent and readily understood everything I said to him.
Waiting for the ice cream vendor to announce himself in the midst of the cicadas’ song, I felt as if time were passing ever so slowly. I watched the gate in front of the house and people walking constantly to and fro in sunshine so intense that the asphalt oozed.
Finally, from far away, came the sound of the ice-cream vendor’s bell. I called Khamtu to take the money for the ice cream and then wait beside the road in front of our gate.
“Here is 100 kip…each bill is 50. Buy two popsicles at 50 kip apiece, one for you and one for me.”
He took the money and ran to the front gate. Soon he came walking back, holding only one popsicle. I was surprised. At first, I thought the price of the ice cream had gone up to 100 kip or that the vendor had cheated the child. When Khamtu returned, I asked him, “Why do you have only one?”
He didn’t answer. He just handed me the popsicle.
So I inquired again, quite directly. “There were 100 kip. Why did you buy only one?”
“I used 50 kip to buy this one for you. The other 50 kip I kept for my mother so she can buy medicine for my little sister,” he said softly. Yet I could see he was longing for a bite of ice cream.
I was just about to put the popsicle in my mouth when something caught in my throat. My thirst gave way to a feeling of tender compassion. I gave the popsicle back to Khamtu. There was no time to buy another one. The vendor was already far away.
“You eat it. I’ve eaten lots of ice cream.”
With one hand, Khamtu took the popsicle and put it into his mouth. In the other, he gripped the 50-kip note.
Reprinted with permission of the University of Washington Press.