By Court Merrigan
Narin's bird took a mauling at the cockfights that would require many weeks of close tending to heal. Narin didn't mind. He'd made out well, bills bunched in his front shirt pocket. This bird was a good ringer, putting up a vicious feint and attack show that was nothing but prelude to inevitable defeat, useful for goading new cockers into overconfidence on their birds. Riding back to the freehold on the motorbike, Narin handled the cock with a tenderness due a newborn baby. The nubs of his fingers throbbed but tonight it didn't bother him. He had plenty to tell his little brother Taem.
Now that his daughter Phrae was gone, Taem liked nothing more than to hear about the cockfights. He would nod along, eyelids blinking over empty sockets, jabbing the air with jerky fingers, sucking his teeth and throwing up his arms in a paroxysm of defeat or victory. Phrae used to giggle watching. But she'd left on a bus for Bangkok two months ago, Narin narrating the departure for Taem as the midday sun curled the tar in the joints of the highway.
Taem spent his days perched by a cracked transistor radio, listening to old songs through AM static, rolling palm leaf cigarettes, stroking the birds that wandered the cock house. A dozen times a day, he disassembled a tarnished .38 revolver, laying the pieces out in sequence, oiling the apertures and surfaces. Every so often he would unleash a series of gravelly grunts, keeping it up until Narin took the .38 and fired it. The cocks were used to the racket, didn't even squawk. Taem would quiet and take back the warm piece to stroke and reload.
Narin started substituting blank reloads because he worried Taem would accidentally shoot off his foot or worse. He made two vows in his daily obeisance to the household Buddha: to see to little Phrae's future, and to never see his brother's blood again, not in this or the next ten lives.
* * *
When their father and mother died in a motorbike accident, Narin took over the family barber shop in Prachinburi, two hundred kilometers from Bangkok. Taem, meanwhile, bolted for Bangkok the day after the cremation.
Narin worked the barber shop for nineteen years. Weary of the stinking mound of hair he burned each evening, in 1983 he sold up and moved to Bangkok. There he went into business building steel window frames for shophouses and tract homes. Narin was deft with his hands, long fingers graceful about a welding torch, so the money was steady. He sent for his wife after he fixed up the rooms above the shop. But she was a country girl and balked at Bangkok's smoke and noise and the indecent sitting toilet, so unlike the proper squatter back home. She quickly returned to Prachinburi but the separation was amicable. Narin sent money for a while, then stopped, and they did not see each other again.
A few months later, Taem sauntered into his shop.
"Well, big brother," said Taem, looking at the neatly stacked rows of freshly-painted steel frames. "You're doing well for yourself."
They talked a while about the old days, but soon Taem was going on about his woman, his apartment, his job. He was a deliveryman and he was making out good. One day he'd see his way clear to a detached house and a black car and gold necklaces for his woman.
"What's her name?" asked Narin.
"Samnien," Taem said. "You'll like her. I'll bring her around sometime."
Narin never did meet Samnien, never got one look at Phrae's mother. Later he would try to see her in Phrae's face. He couldn't.
Taem was soon a fixture at the shop, perched atop a steel desk watching Narin work, warbling along to old songs on the radio. He talked to customers. He was good with them. He'd laugh and joke and offer cigarettes and fetch cups of water and if there was a kid, Taem would pull coins and string from their ears and they'd shriek with laughter.
Every hour he made a call on the shop phone and once or twice a day, he'd strap on his green backpack and zip off on his motorbike.
"Not bad work, huh," he said to Narin, and Narin agreed. "Tell you what, you should have seen the last place I had to hang out in. Real shithole. I got it good here, brother."
* * *
Taem was a drug runner, employed by one of the syndicates that had Bangkok divvied up. Pay came in rubber-banded bundles of cash, more than enough to keep Samnien in the two-level apartment but not enough to get her a car. He had to pay off the cops, too, who made a great show of putting him against the wall and patting him down, even though they knew exactly how much they were coming in for. The rates were set by the syndicates. The only annoyance was the occasional necessity to pistol-whip a deadbeat with the .38, kick him to the cops for their monthly arrest quota.
Taem never fired the .38 until that day in mid-1985 when a couple of syndicate members thought he was getting uppity and snatched away his money bundle, and in the close cement room down a back alley three blocks from the Turkish embassy Taem shot both of them dead. Back at Narin's shop Taem made call after call but no one answered. He sat on the desk chain-smoking and ignoring the radio, nearly backhanding some kid who wanted a magic show.
* * *
They came for Taem in the middle of the night. Kicked him in the balls and drug him out of the two-level apartment in boxers, Samnien screaming. They didn't say anything. They knew who he was. They knew just what he'd done.
* * *
When Narin sprinted downstairs into the shop, summoned by Taem's screams, he was invited by the three men standing there to have a seat. He did, and was lashed to a welding table, arms out.
Taem couldn't keep to his feet. The men let him flop to the floor, naked, every orifice bleeding, including the emptied eye sockets. They had used chopsticks and a spoon for that.
One of the men took a snipping tool from Narin's workbench and sheared off both index fingers at the first knuckle. Then the man used a blowtorch to suture the spurting wound. He was skillful with both. He had done this before.
"Now," the man said. "Let's see if you know any more than your brother here."
Narin did not, though he was not believed until the snipping and suturing was repeated on each of his fingers and both big toes.
"Well, boys," said the man. "What the fuck, huh." He steadied Narin's lolling head, whispered in his ear like a lover. "If I were you, I'd get the fuck out of Bangkok."
* * *
Narin convalesced two months at the Sisters of Mercy hospital in Prachinburi, listening to Taem moan, watching him flail and punch air as he tried to ward off invisible attackers in his dark ether. When the nuns finally released the brothers, Narin took the cash he'd plucked from the shop safe and bought the little freehold on a scrap of waste ground deep in the countryside. There he learned with excruciating slowness to utilize his finger nubs, pouring concrete, building the hut and the cock house out of bamboo and palm leaves. He bought Taem the radio and left his little brother listening in the shade of the palm trees.
One day a postcard frayed at the edges found its way to the brothers. It was from Samnien. It had been some months in transit and it said Taem had a daughter.
Narin located the charity hospital in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok. He found the baby squalling in dirty cloth diapers in a bassinet she shared with two other infants in a vast orphanage hall where hundreds of such infants mewled. The overhead fans had ceased working years before and the swarms of flies were audible from the stairwell. The infant's skeletal body was stippled in sores, her eyes yellow as a Buddha idol. Narin knew the child was Taem's when he saw how she flailed spasmodically every minute or so, as if imitating her father.
The girl was five months old, possibly six, or nine, or eleven. No one knew for sure. The records had been misplaced. Samnien had abandoned the child the day after it was born. One nurse remembered Samnien saying she feared for her life and that the child was cursed.
Narin filled out the forms, named her Phrae, and brought her home.
Both infant and father calmed when Narin handed her over. Narin left them together thereafter, the blind man rocking and singing, the silent infant staring at him. Taem fed her out of his own bowl, mashing fish and rice in his fingers, and slept with her curled into him on a bamboo platform. When nightmares bolted Narin awake in the deep night, he listened to their placid breath until he could sleep again. Between occasional cockfight winnings and day labor, plus the little garden Phrae planted and weeded, they stayed in rice and kept Phrae in school uniforms and books and oil for her study lamp. The whip smart little girl was fast becoming all the brothers could have hoped. She won the top government scholarship of 2003 and now she was in a lonely dorm bed in Bangkok, bright future unfurling before her.
* * *
Narin pulled up at the little bamboo and thatch hut on the freehold. He killed the motorbike and squatted on the slab of rough concrete by the spigot in front of the cock house. He switched on a naked light bulb and rubbed down the cock's head with an old rag, staunching the bleeding about its horny scars, squeezing open its beak with thumb and forefinger and running a feather down its throat to extract blood and mucous. He hummed an old song. The cock was mute.
Squawking came from inside the cock house. It sounded like a couple of cocks were out. Strange—Taem was religious about putting them away in the evening. Narin pushed open the bamboo gate.
"Taem?" said Narin, squinting into the darkness. "Taem?" He found the light switch and squinted into the glare. "Oh, shit, Taem," he said, and kicked aside the two escaped cocks.
Taem lay on his side, putting the .38 against his temple and dry-firing, over and over. He had emptied the chambers earlier that evening, barrel hot to his head. The reverberation of the blank reload perforated his eardrum. Blood seeped from his ears and the two escaped cocks attacked the red rivulets.
Narin gently righted his little brother. Why, he wondered, then stopped. How useless such questions, all questions. He put his brother's head to his chest and murmured one of the old songs.