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Watch Ken Burn’s Vietnam Documentary. Then read about refugees in post-war Laos. Chapter 1: Escaping The Tiger

September 15, 2017

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$3.99 on Amazon ~Vientiane, Laos April 1982

Vonlai’s father roused him in the middle of a moonless night.

“What? Stop it,” Vonlai mumbled.

“Shhh. Wake up,” Pah said, pulling Vonlai’s elbow. “We’re crossing tonight.”

Vonlai wobbled on weary legs. Pah strapped a bag of beef jerky and sticky rice around Vonlai’s shoulders. A shudder shot down his neck and his mind snapped awake.

Vonlai’s older sister, Dalah, was awake too, teetering as she sat upright on the mattress, grumbling at their mother. Meh pulled Dalah’s hair back, twisted two strands, and tied them into a knot.

“Ouch, Meh!” Dalah pulled her hair to readjust it. “It’s crooked.”

“Who will see you?” Vonlai asked.

Meh snapped her fingers to quiet them and grunted her disapproval. “Surely you don’t expect to be admired, girl? Now clear your mind and dress.” Meh’s voice cracked. “Without another word.”

Vonlai steadied his tired body against the wall. He wouldn’t add to Meh’s worry by complaining.

Pah looked out the window, his hand on the doorknob. “Walk like a tiger hunting a meal. Understand?”

Vonlai’s breath wavered as he nodded. He wanted to dive under his bed-covering, even though the night air was sticky and plenty warm. He held nothing but a pair of worn flip flops hooked through his fingers and a day’s worth of food—he needed to hold on to his nerve. Maybe his parents would see he was more grown up than other twelve-year-olds.

Pah turned the handle and walked out as confidently as if he were headed to the market. Meh stood in the doorway, knees locked. Vonlai pulled her hand. They all followed Pah out and slipped into the night. Most border patrol guards were teenagers accustomed to farming during daylight hours. They were likely to doze off under a black sky.

Vonlai knew the way to the Mekong River well, but last season’s monsoon rains had turned the path into a maze of ankle-deep ruts. They’d dried cement hard, and with exposed tree roots, night travel was treacherous. Even with bare feet, Vonlai was uncertain of his footing. A knot in his throat swelled. His heart beat so hard, Vonlai was sure the guards could hear it.

Hardly able to see, Vonlai concentrated to hear Pah’s footsteps. It was the only way to keep track of him, but even that slight rustle over leaves and gravel unnerved him. Vonlai rounded his shoulders, humpback like an old man, as if stooped posture could make their escape impossible to detect.

The descent to the Mekong steepened. His feet shuffled to keep his body upright on the embankment. Vonlai tensed at the noise. A branch snagged his ankle. He stumbled and caught himself on a fallen tree, but not before his shin scraped the bark.

The bulk of gray that was his father did not pause. Vonlai waited for the soothing sound of Meh’s voice, asking if he was all right. It didn’t come.

A warm trickle oozed down his leg. Vonlai bent to wipe the blood. Dalah smacked his shoulder with her flip-flop. The sound shot through the night, the river echoing her impatience. How could she be so mindless to create such ruckus? Guards shoot at anything and don’t think twice.

Vonlai breathed in fear, his lungs like clay. He forced his mind onto happier times.

He’d raced down this river trail with friends nearly every day, the songs of fishermen

floating up to greet them long before they could see the old men cast their nets. The last friend down got pelted with mud balls, and they dunked one another to save themselves from the heat. Sitting on the bank, biting into fleshy mangos, they’d wondered about the tiny figures on the other side of the Mekong going so freely about their business. Thai citizens could do as they pleased. Vonlai and his friends had to hide secret pleasures, stifling giggles in back bedrooms as airwaves delivered forbidden TV programs. Silly game shows on Thai TV. Monstrous, white wrestlers in America, oiled and screaming, veins popping as crowds went wild.

Vonlai ducked fast, narrowly missing a tree limb. Dread flooded his heart. The war had ended seven years before, in 1975. Vonlai was not quite six then, so life under Communist control—the Pathet Lao—was all he remembered, but there were terrifying reminders to heed the rules. He and his friends once saw what they thought was the carcass of a buffalo calf coming down river. They’d stood waist deep in the water as it drifted toward them, splashing to shoo it away.

“It’s a body!” Vonlai had yelled. They scurried to land.

“Ooh, look at it!”

A man floating face up. Shirt buttons strained against the bloated torso—exposed skin chalky, even translucent, like a frog’s belly.

“It’s gonna get stuck.” His friend grabbed a long stick and leaned close, careful to keep his feet out of the water.

“Leave it alone,” Vonlai said, knocking away the stick. “You’ll get us in trouble.”

They all knew what had happened. The man tried to flee and was shot by Pathet Lao guards who dared not let anyone escape Laos—the same guards Vonlai and his family now tried to sneak past.

Pah and Meh dragged a tattered canoe from under a pile of brush. They eased it into the river. Vonlai and Dalah sat on the middle benches. Meh kept watch from the front, and Pah steered from the rear.

Out from under the canopy of trees, Vonlai’s eyes adjusted. The sky enveloped them as starlight speckled the water’s smooth surface.

Pah maneuvered the boat steadily until the current snatched hold of it.

Vonlai gripped the sides and the Mekong took charge. He buried his head between his knees. Why, of all nights, he wondered, could there not be a blanket of fog to screen his family from murdering eyes?

He counted silently to busy his frenzied brain. How high would he get before the boat scraped bottom on the Thai side? He tapped his feet with each new number.




Water splashed his shins. Water? Too much water.  More than the bit that dripped from their feet after Pah shoved off.

Vonlai leaned toward Meh to whisper. “There’s water in the boat.”

Meh stretched her arm back. She laid her hand at Vonlai’s feet. Water pooled over her wrist. “Oi, have mercy.”

“I’ll get the bowl,” Vonlai said, feeling along the canoe’s floor. The plastic bowl floated in the puddle. He handed it to Meh and with one smooth swoop after another, she bailed out the boat.

But the water kept coming. Pah paddled faster.

“Help me,” Meh whispered. “Quietly!”

Vonlai searched for something to hold water. Their bamboo sticky rice basket, the color of light sand, stood out among the pile of dark canvas bags. Vonlai grabbed it. The lid was nested over the container, but Vonlai pulled the sections apart, breaking the string that kept them attached. He dumped the rice into the river and gave the basket to Dalah. Vonlai used the lid, and together they bailed water as fast as they could.

Meh kept a rhythm with her bowl as she whispered, “Scoop. Scoop. Scoop.”

“That’s it,” Pah said as water swirled and gushed around his oars. “We need out of this current.”

Vonlai’s arms burned. Dalah whimpered.

The river was winning. They were only halfway across but the shores of Thailand were still black as tar.

“Faster,” Meh commanded.

Scoop. Scoop. Scoop.

Dalah threw down the basket and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “We’re not going to make it!”

Vonlai screamed at her inside his head—shut up, shut up—and froze as he waited for the bullet.

Pah’s oars smacked the Mekong, shattering the hushed river.

Crack! Crack! Crack! Bullets from AKs pierced the wall of darkness surrounding them.

Dalah screamed.

“Quiet, daughter!” Meh said. “We’re invisible if they can’t hear us.”

Pah repositioned his oars for smoother strokes.

“Bail, Dalah. Please,” Vonlai whispered.

Crack! Crack!

Dalah grabbed her container again. Water flew everywhere. Vonlai’s blood raged, same as a swollen stream thrashing its banks after monsoons. He tried to steady his breaths, a rhythm to temper their frenzied efforts.

It seemed that they were making progress, but Vonlai couldn’t be sure. And he dared not ask. He searched for signs, shadows that would outline the bank. Were those trees he saw, great gray masses that blocked the backdrop of stars? He judged their distance. Maybe a soccer field’s length to go.

Pah’s paddling slowed.

“Good. Good,” Pah said between pants. “Very good. We should be out of range now.”

Vonlai heard water lapping the banks of Thailand. Yes, his eyes had not tricked him. They were close now.

Scoop. Scoop. Scoop. Then SNAP! Meh’s plastic bowl cracked.

The river had no mercy. Water came twice as fast without Meh’s efforts. Vonlai was wet halfway to his knees. He tossed his half of the rice basket to Meh. She was stronger. Vonlai cupped his hands to scoop. Meh whacked at the water, cursing under her breath. Dalah’s arms buckled. She gave up and kicked at the rising pool. “We’re sinking, Meh!”

“Come on, daughter,” Pah said, passing an oar to Meh. “Show us your strength.” Dalah slumped over her lap, shaking her arms to divert the pain. Pah and Meh paddled in unison, leaning their weight into the oars. Vonlai plucked the basket floating in the canoe and bailed again.

Meh glanced back at Pah. “My arms won’t hold out. We have to swim.”

“Too soon,” Pah said. “The current will swallow us. Switch arms.”

The river carried them downstream. Pah and Meh angled the canoe toward shore.

Dalah latched onto her container with both hands but her arms were drained. Feathers would have been no easier to heave over the edge. “Curse the dogs who sold us this shabby boat!” she said, crying.

“Use that anger on the Mekong,” Meh said.

Vonlai was past pain. His pace wasn’t even half Meh’s, his arms numb, his fingers barely holding a grip. The basket bulged. The rim was shredded. He dropped it nearly as often as he scooped.

They managed a few more meters before Vonlai collapsed against the boat’s side. Dalah was barely upright, one arm cradled in her lap, the other hanging over the edge, trailing like a fish on a line.

“The current’s weaker,” Meh said. “It must be now—we’ve only got our legs left.”

Pah nodded.

Vonlai sucked in a breath as Pah laid down his oar and lowered himself into the water. Meh followed.

The sight of them in the river sent Vonlai’s stomach roiling. What if Pah and Meh lost hold of the boat? He and Dalah would be carried right into the barrel of an AK and his parents would drown—or the Mekong’s giant catfish, big as a baby elephant, would gnash into them.

“Come on,” Pah said.

Vonlai stood up fast and grabbed the edge.

“Easy,” Meh said.

Vonlai and Dalah tried to get out at the same time.  The canoe tilted under their weight. Water gushed over the edge. Instantly the boat was full. Dalah thrashed and kicked.

Pah grabbed her ponytail. “Hang onto the boat!” he commanded. “We have to flip it!”

Even a weak current could be deadly. The canoe was their lifeline.

Everyone held the boat’s edge. Meh gripped Vonlai’s shirt.

“On three,” Pah said. “One! Two! Three!” They pushed their weight on the edge. The canoe flipped fast. It smacked Meh’s chin. She moaned and lost her grip on Vonlai. He slipped away under the cool Mekong water.

His shirt billowed as the dark water pulled him. His hair trailed out behind. Vonlai searched for something to hold. Which way was up? Black surrounded him. Water rushed down his throat like a serrated knife. He pushed and thrashed and scraped against the force heavy as quicksand. Demons plunged their claws into his lungs and pierced his brain.

Muffled voices called out. “Vonlaiii! Vonlaiii!”

Ghosts, he thought, pulling me toward death. His leg brushed something solid. Another rotting corpse, his mind conjured up. It latched onto his ankle and pulled violently. Vonlai returned a kick with his free leg but it was too late. The Thing had an unbreakable grip and forced his body up with its power. Vonlai was at its mercy.

Then air! Sputtering—coughing—spitting. But air!

Vonlai gasped as he clung to Pah’s neck.

“Swim, Vonlai, now! We lost the boat!”

Vonlai refused to let go.

“Meh and Dalah couldn’t wait,” Pah said. “Now go! Buddha can’t save you!”

Vonlai had never heard Pah doubt Buddha. The shock of it jumpstarted his body, and he fought his way toward land. The current pulled him so he swam at an angle, flipping on his back to use new muscles. He’d lost track of Pah, but he pushed on.

One stroke after another.

One breath after another.

One wave of hope after another.

Underwater plants brushed his back. His feet hit mud. Vonlai dragged himself onto the banks of Thailand.

He lay panting face down in the sludge, alone, and gulped mouthfuls of air. His stomach rolled and he turned his head to throw up.

Meh and Dalah called to him from the brush. He had no voice to answer, and his body refused to move.

He heard the shriek of an unfamiliar bird and thought dawn must be near, but there was not yet a sliver of light to separate sky from earth. The shriek came again, and he felt it in his throat. The wailing was his own voice crying out.

His mother cradled his head, and Dalah threw her body down next to him, her arm draped over his back.

“Oh, Little Brother, if you’d died, I’d throw myself in the river. I should have tried harder—” Her words turned to sobs.

Pah stumbled along the shoreline to meet them, collapsing in the sand. “They can’t get us here, Vonlai. We’re on Thai soil now.”

Thailand. Not Laos, the only place he’d ever known. They’d escaped that home, abandoned their house, leaving behind the few possessions that hadn’t been taken by the Pathet Lao—or sold off in order to eat. A single coil cook plate, dented pots, a cane table with one leg missing and bowed metal chairs. And Vonlai’s bike. His bike that had a rolled towel wired and taped on for a seat.

Vonlai thought of his best friend, Khom, still sleeping on the other side of the Mekong under Communist rule. In a couple hours, the roosters would crow their alarm. Khom would rattle Vonlai’s front door with soccer ball in one hand and slingshot in the other.

Vonlai never said good-bye.

(See book trailer)

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