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Killing Me Softly (a short story) by Tom Tuohy

© Tom Tuohy

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(N.B. All words inside [i]***[/i] are italics.)


Bangkok, August, 1972, mid evening. The bar at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand is busy with various reporters and news people who congregate in noisy packs of unchecked chatter. Hank Weisner and his friend, the Australian cameraman, Marvin Pendleton have spent a few hours drinking local spirits, their intoxicated conversations swirl in a cloud of smoke, the stagnant stench of cigarettes masks the mephitic odours, and the air is heavy with humidity. Ceiling fans swish around the sweet smell of alcohol and tobacco that over time has seeped through the wooden beams and parquet floor. A Thai band is on stage and a young woman sings about lost love.

“My houseboy Kittibun saw me bending down to pick up something yesterday,” says Hank. “For some unknown reason, he thought I was looking between my legs. And you know what he said?”

Hank imitates his houseboy.

[i]Please sir, don’t do that. You will see ghost![/i]

“I ask you! Honestly, they might as well believe in fairytales!” exclaims Hank.

But then Hank has never believed in ghosts. It doesn’t matter if they come with white sheets over their heads, with limbs hacked off, their entrails hanging out, or if they bang doors and howl like a wolf at night. Twenty years covering wars from Guatemala to Vietnam has boiled every ounce of gullibility out of him, and now he only believes in three things — indisputable facts, his Olympus OM1 camera, and Mama Nora’s green curry at the [i]Thermae Bar[/i].

“And anyway, it’s bad for business,” Hank adds. “I can’t do my job if I believe in all that bullshit!”

Hank has always put down his longevity in the [i]war racket[/i], as he likes to call his profession, to the fact he’s a rational man not given to flights of fancy. His Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese colleagues might believe in an afterlife where all your sins and karma are added up at the oriental equivalent of the Pearly Gates, somehow reckoned, and a price paid, but not Hank.

“Oh, I don’t know, mate,” says Marvin, in his broad twang. “Whatever gets you through the day. And besides, I’ve heard some pretty creepy stories over the years.”

“Not you as well?”

Marvin smiles. “And they say, when you see a ghost, it’s a sign your own time is almost up.” He runs his index finger across his neck.

Hank laughs. “Yeah, but they’re just stories, aren’t they, Marve? That’s all. Bullshit stories. Drunken bar room tales told by young men with shitstains in their pants. Nothing more.”

***

At midnight, as the musicians pack up their equipment, Hank bids Marvin goodnight, collects his bag containing his camera, his maps, binoculars and notebook, and goes outside. Inebriated, he stumbles and falls over in front of a tuk-tuk taxi.

“Please, I help you, sir,” the driver says, putting down his newspaper.

“Nothing to be done. Stray mortar round in Biên Hòa Air Base, Saigon. Left leg is two inches shorter than the right. See?” says Hank, in his best Thai, as he tries to stand up as straight as he can.

The driver nods. “Where you want go, sir?”

“Chinatown. Worachak Road, Soi Thewi Wiayat.”

The air is cool, and the vehicle speeds along as Hank chats to the driver, occasionally swatting a bug near his face.

***

The beguiling Ling Yee, known by the patrons as Grace greets Hank at the door of the den as usual. Ever smiling, she is small with alabaster skin and long, slender hands. The epitome of the oriental hostess, she offers little eye contact, makes slow movements, and only speaks when addressed directly.

Hank follows her inside into a long room lined on both sides with teak wood chaise lounges. The atmosphere is serene, not unlike a Buddhist temple; the air rich with various smells and the scent of jasmine wafting from nearby wood burners. Various patrons are imbibing opium, tended to by silent hostesses in long robes who glide across the roomful of vapours like specters.

Like actors in a silent movie, Grace and Hank enact a well-rehearsed routine. Hank will take his one pipe, relax for a while and head for home. He will puff up some large, scarlet covered cushions and ease himself onto an empty wooden chaise lounge. It will be covered with a large, silk cloth that smells of patchouli oil and jasmine. Any tension he feels will loosen in his body immediately.

Now Grace brings him an opium pipe made of bamboo, about fourteen inches long, with a blue and white porcelain bowl at one end. She fills it with the tar-like substance and places it over an oil lamp housed in a glass container. When lit, the vapor rises into the still air like the gentle exhalation of a small dragon. Handing the long tube to Hank, Grace then begins to massage Hank’s feet with scented oils.

As he inhales, the vapors curl up into his nostrils and are not unlike smells he’s encountered in many a war zone: a mixture of burning tyres and plastic. The arrow of time is immediately suspended, and an age passes between every breath; each one becomes longer and longer, until as he exhales, his mind is empty of everything. Only happy thoughts float through it: his first scoop, the day he first set foot in Asia or the first time he tried opium. Hank soon feels as though he’s floating on a cloud of silk carpets.

As usual Hank‘s eyes will glaze over, and only then will Grace begin the house special, [i]Jabkasai[/i] or [i]Karsai Nei Tsang[/i], a testicle or prostate massage.

***

The Dusit Thani Hotel, 3 am. Hank‘s tuk-tuk pulls up outside. In the cathedral silence, a few drivers are dozing in the back of their vehicles, the sounds of their heavy breathing only punctuated by the rhythmic chirping of the neighbourhood crickets. Unsteady, Hank climbs out and pays the driver.

In the lobby, the young, bespectacled concierge smiles when Hank collects his room key. He also passes Hank a large envelope delivered earlier that evening. Hank takes the elevator up to the eighth floor.

His room is spacious with a king size bed that’s been used many times for nighttime fun with girls from [i]The Thermae [/i] bar. It smells of jasmine and teak wood. Decorated in a mix of ancient and modern styles, there‘s a ceiling fan, some armchairs, a writing desk, a radio and a refrigerator. On the walls are Thai style teak wood carvings of Thai spirit faces such as the [i]Phi Tai Hong[/i], the ghost of a person who suffered a sudden violent or cruel death, and the [i]Chao Kam Nai Wen[/i], the spirit of a person with whom one has previously interacted.

After his shower, Hank flicks on the ceiling fan and switches from the main light to the bedside lamp. Picking up the envelope, he sits on the bed and finds sheets of A4 paper inside, some hand-written, others typed. He recognizes the handwritten note from one of his regular editors at [i]The Denver Gazette[/i].

[i]Hank,

They fished out that missing human rights dude from the Mekong in Nonthaburi this morning. Boonmee whats-his-face. Been missing for weeks. Probably fled to Cambodia. They usually do. Some info on him included. We want six hundred words asap. The usual - the who, what, why, where and when. Bread and butter stuff. Take the boat over there when you can. It’s somewhere near Nonthaburi where he was fished out. Ask around. Get some shots. See if there’s a bigger story.

Dan[/i]

Affixed with a paper clip to the top of one of the sheets is a photo of a man which Hank moves to the light. He‘s Asian, probably Thai, late thirties, dark skinned, with a strong jawline. His nose is large and bulbous, but his ears flat as if pinned back. His look is intense, like a clenched fist. He‘s dressed in a traditional blue [i]Chut Thai[/i] shirt with a straight band collar. One interesting feature catches Hank’s eye. Perched on the man’s head is a cap with a red communist star.

[i]Another dead Commie[/i], Hank mutters.

Exhausted, he takes off his glasses, kicks off his shoes and lies down on the bed.

When he wakes in the early hours, a man is on the bed, sitting like a Buddha statue in the lotus position. He’s looking at the photo.

Still in that twilight mode between half asleep and awake, Hank’s eyes open slightly and he mumbles towards the man, “Who are you? I didn’t order anything.”

“This photo very old. It not capture my best feature,” the man says.

Hank’s eyelids feel like they’re weighed down by B-52s, and no amount of effort can prevent their closing. Soon his breathing is deep and rhythmic.

“I wonder if you take photo of me now, I still same man?” the man continues. “Hmm...or maybe I am look older?”

The man picks up a sheet of A4 paper from the bed and starts reading. After a minute, he tuts to himself. “This not true. Who write these lies?”

Hank is now snoring loudly. So the man shouts.

“Wakey, wakey! Rise and shining!”

Startled, Hank sits up in the bed. “You? I thought I was...dream...”

“No dream. Reality, my friend.”

Hank rubs his eyes and reaches for his glasses. When he sees the man, the same man in the photo, he jumps away from the bed and moves slowly in the direction of the bathroom.

“You...you’re...supposed to be...”

“...dead?” said the man. “Yes. I know. Even in death I am disappoint people.”

Hank makes no reply. He stares at the figure on the bed. “This is a dream, right?”

“It can be anything you want my friend.” He holds out his hand. “Sorry, we not be properly introduced. I’m...”

“I know who you are,” Hank interrupts. “You’re Boonmee Sripattakul. And you’re supposed to be dead. What...what are you doing here?”

“Hmm...it’s complicated.”

As he speaks, Boonmee turns his body slightly revealing a bloodied axe sticking out of the back of his skull.

Seeing it, Hank makes a run for the door, but as he does so, his leg gives way. He crawls the last few feet to the door and tries to turn the lock, but it won’t move.

“Well, I must to say. I’ve had better welcomes. Do you treat all your guests this way?” says Boonmee.

Fear etched on his face, Hank turns around and remains still with his back to the door. His eyes opened wide, his body trembling, he tries to convince himself it’s some sort of trick of the light; that maybe the opium was unusually strong or a bad batch; that someone dropped an acid tab into his whisky; that he‘s dreaming, or the dead man still sat on his bed with an axe sticking out of him is some kind of lurid projection. “You’re... you’re not real,” he declares, as if he can somehow wish the apparition away.

“All right then. As you like. [i]Mai pen rai[/i]. I think maybe you not like to see blood but...in your line of work? Hmm...never mind,” Boonmee says. “I think you have shock to system now. In my culture, we not so worry about the [i]pee[/i] you know? The ghosts? Come. Please to sit down over here, so we can talk.”

Hank remains still, as if his back is joined to the door like the bark of a tree.

“It’s ok. I not hurt you. I just want to talk. Ok?”

Time passes and Hank speaks.

“Why did you come here? Why me? I wasn’t responsible for your death. I’m just a reporter.“

“Oh, we not able to choose. Fate has made our paths cross. Our Lord Buddha would say the answer to [i]why you[/i] is already inside you. We like rivers that run into each other. And anyways, reporters be good people. They tell about the bad things of the world. Without you guys, nobody know what’s go on.”

“Well, that may be so, but I can’t help you.” replies Hank, trying to sound in control of the situation.

“Actually, you can. I have offer to make you. First, you can to write truth about me.” Boonmee picks up a side of paper. “It say here, they ask you write about the [i]who, what, where, when, how and why[/i]. Is that right?”

“I can’t answer those questions now,” Hank replies. “I have to investigate first.”

“Sure, but you can tell them who killed me to start.”

“So, who did?”

“The government.”

“Anyone in particular?”

“Well, you see, I not actually looking behind me at that time...” Boonmee points to the axe in the back of his head as he speaks. “They kinda caught me by surprise. I always think they maybe kill me softly. You know? Like the song? My mother she play this at my birthday party last year.”

Boonmee starts singing. [/i]And there he was, this young boy, a stranger to my eyes. Strumming my pain with his fingers... Telling my whole life with his words. Killing me softly with his song.[/i] “Aw! I love that song. Make me sad. Hmm...where was I? Oh yeah. I think maybe poison or kill me by strangle. Something easy. But no. They choose this way. You see what they do to me! I’m a monster now!“

“So...you...want me...to write about your murder, but you don’t even know who it was who put that axe in your head? Is that right?”

“Well, no, actually I do know.”

“So? Who?”

Boonmee shifts on the bed and then pulls out a newspaper cutout with a photo from his pocket.

“This man.”

Hank takes the paper and studies it. “Field Marshall Apirat Lipromthangpoom? One of the most powerful men in the country. Do you have any evidence?”

“I know.”

“But no evidence?”

“None that make you believe.”

“I see,” says Hank.

“But anyway, you can help by writing about my life.” Boonmee picks up a piece of paper from the bed. “It say here you to write newspaper article about me. Government say many lies about me. You tell people I am...I *was* a good man. That I try to protect my people. Can you do for me?”

“Sure...but like I said, nobody would publish it. Not without evidence.”

Boonmee holds up the photo. “And this fake. I not a Communist. They force me put on that hat before take photo. Government people. They follow me...followed me everywhere.”

“So...why did they kill you?” asks Hank.

“Reporter interview me. Thai. Ask me say about Minister of Interior. General Anurak Petchboonsrikamul. I say him bad man. Too many missing people found dead who criticize government.”

“Maybe not such a smart move then?” replies Hank.

“I not stay quiet when my people be murder. We always have to be ready to pay for our mistakes.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“About what?” Boonmee asks.

“You’ve seen...the other world?”

“I can’t tell you anything about that. Those are mysteries to people in this world. Only when you cross over do you know. Then all is revealed.”

“I see,” says Hank.

Feeling less inhibited, his heart rate returning to near normal, Hank gets up slowly from in front of the door and sits in a chair in front of the bed.

“So, what happens now? he asks.

“If you agree to proposal of mine, you to start writing, and I tell you about my life. It can be...what you call it? Ah! Yes...an exclusive.”

Looking into his eyes, Hank can see Boonmee is serious.

“Doesn’t seem to be much in it for me?”

“An exclusive not enough?”

“Who’d believe it?” says Hank.

“Ok, but there is something else. I will tell you after, but anyway you will know when you see it.”

“It seems a bit...vague. Can you give me more?”

“Alright, there will be a big event. Soon. Many people die. Many young Thai people. If you do this for me, you will know. What do you reporters call it? The [i]who, what, where, when, how and why[/i].”

Hank nods. “Alright”.

“But you must to promise you will put this in your article. All of it. You promise?” asks Boonmee.

Hank nods. “I promise.” He gets up, walks over to his bag and pulls out a pack of cigarettes, some matches, a notepad and two pencils.

“Where do we start? he asks.

“At the beginning,” Boonmee replies.

Hank lights up a Marlboro and begins writing. Boonmee talks fast about his upbringing in Chiang Mai, how he got into speaking up for the downtrodden, the poor or [i]chao chao bahn yok yon[/i] as he calls them, about his meetings with government officials, about his beatings by government thugs, and his unwillingness to fight back. He explains how he’s always tried to practice the Buddhist Middle Way in his dealings with others, especially the government officials, but how he knew early on that his fate was sealed going up against such a powerful enemy. No longer aware of time passing as Boonmee talked, all Hank can think about is writing down as much of what is said as possible.

“You know we Buddhists believe we all have a fate. We cannot escape it,” says Boonmee. “And our many lives are mixed together with other people lives, you know? We connected even though we not know how. When I learn English at school, my teacher, he [i]farang[/i] like you. He tell me poem by John somebody. I not remember his name. But remember the words. He say [i]No man is island, separate from himself. When another man die, some part of me die too.[/i] Or something like that. We Buddhists believe same same; we all connected.”

Hank‘s hand aches and he‘s unable to stifle a yawn. He nods in acknowledgement.

“One time I am invite to have interview at radio station. It government controlled station and they ask me about my loyalty to the government. I tell them government come and go but my loyalty always to Thai people. They not happy. When I leave, outside soldier come up to me and put gun in my face. Tell me I not Thai, am not love Thailand. Then he pull lock back on gun and I think now I die. Then he smile and slowly squeeze trigger. But no bullet. Only...what you call this?

“A blank,” said Hank.

“Yes, only a blank. Stay away from government radio station. Full of bad people,” says Boonmee.

***

Hank wakes to pointed shards of bright sunlight piercing through the curtains. A middle-aged maid stands at the end of the bed holding clean towels and bedsheets.

“So sorry,” she says. “I knock, but no answer.”

“Mai pen rai, it’s ok,” replies Hank.

When the maid leaves, he sits up in the bed. His mind is awash with intensely vivid images from a fitful dream. He hears the words to a song too and remembers writing a strange story. He puts on his glasses and runs to the toilet where he vomits up what seems like an endless flow of putrid smelling bile.

When he goes back into the room, he walks over to his bag and looks inside. Everything is there: his notepad, his camera and his cigarettes. Everything looks to be in its usual place. On the right side of the bed are the pieces of A4 paper the editor sent along with the photo. He picks it up and looks at it closely. Before, the man seemed to be growling with intensity, but now, he looks different.

[i]Is that a hint of..a smile?[/i]

Hank scans the room, but can’t find any remnants of the writing from his dream. His watch tells him it‘s already eleven thirty, and he remembers his assignment. Never one to dwell on uncertainty, he takes a shower and sets off to Nonthaburi Pier to investigate the disappearance and recent discovery of the human rights lawyer.

***

Outside, his stomach growls, but there‘s no time for breakfast. The sun is already high in the sky and getting hot. He jumps in a tuk-tuk taxi to take him to the Chao Phraya river and catches the express boat to Nonthaburi pier. Some pineapple vendors direct him to a stretch of water in a place called [i]Pak Naam[/i], the mouth of the river.

“Yes,” says an old Thai vendor, “the police pulled that human rights guy Boonmee out of the river here yesterday, but we didn’t seen his body. They took it away.”

When Hank hands out some cash and asks around, he finds out which police station handled the case and pays a visit.

***

The senior officer at the station checks Hank’s press credentials and notes he‘s American. He‘s ushered into a small musty office and given some Chinese herbal tea.

“Was there anything unusual about the body?” Hank asks, when the introductory pleasantries have been completed.

“No, not really. I day off yesterday,” replies the officer, “but my colleague tell me body have small bites. That normal. Fish you see. Like to eat. [i]bla maeow[/i], catfish. Have many in Mekong.”

The officer smiles revealing a missing front tooth. Using his thumb and index fingers, he makes a motion as if stroking a pair of cats whiskers.

“No...unusual marks on the body at all?” asks Hank.

“No. Bad smell, but that normal. Maybe in water few days.”

“Ok. No head wounds?”

“Nothing,” replies the officer.

“Ok, thanks. So the official cause of death is...drowning?”

A knowing smile comes across the police officer’s face as if he’s been waiting for that question. “Wait a second please,” he says, and opens a drawer to take out a file which he places on his desk. “I’m saving up to go to America. People tell me it very expensive. That true?” says the officer smiling.

Hank knows the routine. He reaches into his wallet and places a twenty dollar bill on the table which the senior officer scoops up immediately. “Excuse me, I must to check something. It take about five minutes, ok?”

Hank nods while smiling, and the officer goes outside.

Reaching over, Hank turns the file around and opens it. His mouth agape, he leafs through the papers and sees some photos of a man in a blue shirt laid on his stomach with an axe lodged in his skull. Scanning the report, he notes the name of the field marshall is mentioned too though as it’s all in Thai, he can’t be sure what his hand is in the case. In shock as images of last night come back to him, he now knows it wasn’t a dream. He gets out his camera and takes photos of the files’ contents then closes the folder quickly and returns it to its original position.

The senior officer returns a few minutes later, opens the file and confirms that, yes, the man was Boonmee, and he had [i]officially[/i] died of drowning.

Hank thanks the officer but declines an offer to have lunch. Not wanting to appear rude, he gives the officer his business card. After seeing the photo, his head is as hot as a cauldron, and to stop the feeling he might suffocate, he undoes two buttons on his shirt and loosens his collar.

Outside, he takes long puffs on his Marlboro, his mind at sea as he paces up and down the sidewalk. [i]How could I have known about the axe? If it was a dream?[/i] he asks himself over and over.

***

He takes a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. When he enters his room, it has been cleaned. As he approaches, he takes a deep breath for he sees papers on the bed. He picks up the notes Boonmee dictated from the night before.

Hank paces around the room for a few minutes panicking yet trying to come up with a rational explanation.

[i]This just doesn’t happen to someone like me. It fucking doesn’t[/i] he shouts, as he scatters the papers around the room then sits on the bed clutching his head.

He finds the maid cleaning another room. She confirms that when she had cleaned his room, she saw the papers on the floor partially hidden under the bedcover, picked them up and put them on the bed.

Back in his room, Hank pours a large glass of whisky and downs it and pours another. It seems as if the more of it he drinks, the clearer his mind becomes; the more each part of the dream comes back to him. He’d made a promise. Yes. To Boonmee. Now, he has to go through with it. He has to put his reputation on the line and risk the wrath of a powerful soldier.

[i]I have to write a story about...about...a ghost who I had a conversation with? Jesus H Christ![/i]

He looks up at the wooden relief of [i]Phi Tai Hong[/i]. It seems to be smiling down at him, as if mocking him.

He write a note for Dan, but tears it up. He writes another, but he tears that up, too. It‘s impossible to keep his promise to Boonmee, for it would be professional suicide. After more pacing around room, he gets out his notepad and sits down to write the six-hundred word story as commissioned. When it‘s done, he takes it down to the reception and sends it by courier to the editor.

***

Hank’s days now follow a similar pattern. After eating his evening meal in the hotel restaurant, he takes a tuk-tuk to Chinatown, returning to the hotel in the early hours of the morning.

The remainder of the time, he keeps a low profile and avoids the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Something has unsettled his mind more than anything ever before, and he can find very little respite from it. All he wants to do is find a safe place and forget about everything.

Hank’s hands are trembling as Grace greets him. She does what she always does and provides him with whatever he asks for, and he pays her handsomely in Thai baht plus a generous tip in dollars. Hank no longer cares about anything other than drinking industrial quantities of alcohol in unfamiliar bars and finding his way to Grace who’ll keep filling his pipe so he can keep his demons at bay.

***

The following Wednesday, as is his new routine, Hank wakes up around noon but has no recollection of being so intoxicated, the night clerk had to help him get up to his room. He sees an envelope by his door and picks it up.

[i]Hank,

Getting reports of a tank movement in Chatuchak. Sporadic gunfire. Get over there and get the scoop. We hear it may be an attempted coup. It’s in Soi Mahakram.

Dan[/i]

Not one to miss an opportunity, Hank grabs all his gear and heads out the door.

***

Outside, rain is falling in light bursts. He gives instructions to a sleepy tuk-tuk driver and twenty-five minutes later, he reaches his destination.

Marvin’s there crouched behind a parked car, a radio to his ear. He’s got a partial beard, looks like he slept in his clothes and hasn’t washed for days.

“What’s the story, Marve?”

“At the moment nothing, but Radio Thailand’s saying a coup is under way.” Marvin points across the road. “We think those two tanks and the soldiers over there are protecting the radio tower, but we’re not sure.”

Hank takes out his binoculars. “Looks pretty calm for now. Should we get a bit closer and take some snaps?”

“Probably best to wait a bit, mate. Could get ugly pretty quickly.”

“Yeah, possibly,” says Hank. “Hey, you look like you’ve had a few late night visitors. Ladies from the [i]The Thermae[/i] I imagine?”

Marve moves the radio away from his ear. “I wish. A few late night visitors, yes.”

“Care to elaborate?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Hank smiles. “Have it your way.”

***

A few minutes go by, and Hank becomes restless. “If we don’t get a few shots, someone else will. Seems ok. Nothing going on. What d’ya reckon?”

Marvin scratches his chin as he holds the radio to his ear. “Appears the rain’s over for the day. Probably gonna get pretty hot here soon. Ok, let’s try.”

Both men dodge in and out of parked cars. When they reach a spot in front of the radio station tower, their cameras emit a steady stream of clicking noises as they take pictures. Barely finished a roll, Marvin’s reloading when a loud blast is heard from a tank facing the radio tower. Then another blast, followed by several more, including small arms’ fire. Both tanks and the nearby conscripts have opened fire at the outside wall of the radio station until nothing but dust and smoke are billowing from where Hank and Marvin had been standing moments before.

Lying on the ground, Hank looks over and waits a moment for the dust to settle before he sees Marvin lying a few feet away with half of his face missing. Looking down at his own body, he sees thick, already half-congealed blood seeping from his stomach as dust is still rising around him, and he knows instantly he‘s taking his least breaths. The radio still on, and a faint hum of music in the background, the last words Hank hears are, [i]Killing me softly with his words, my whole life[/i], but they aren’t coming from the radio; they seem to be coming from somewhere far, far away.

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