When she squirmed and giggled from the sensation of his suckling, the woman beside her looked down and said, “He is not a doll; you see he’s hungry and soon enough he’ll mess your blouse.”
“No, Auntie, he won’t mess me! I diapered him in a banana leaf!”
My mother and I laughed.
The older girl crossed her arms and turned her body away from her sister. Then I remembered my own embarrassment.
My mother had insisted that I dress like a girl when we traveled, so that the army would not steal me as they had stolen my father.
One day he did not come back from the market with the ox cart. A woman from our village had passed my father walking in a column of the army. He looked into her eyes and then cut his eyes down near her feet so she would see that he had dropped a ball of paper. She said he was carrying a machine, half as big as he was, up the mountain path. They have made me a porter, his balled note said. They guard us with guns.
Unless you had your service papers with you, the army expected you to go with them for two years; after that, they gave different reasons to make it four years or six.
And so I had grown my hair long and I tied my long wrap at the side like a girl. The villagers didn’t laugh at me; the sons old enough to carry bamboo began to resemble girls whenever they went onto the road.
But then at the road market when I stood alone in front of the machete sharpener, he peered up at me from his grindstone. I could see in his face how a girl’s value was dangerous, too.
At night on my mat I could hear my grandmother and mother talking in their mountain dialect, so I did not understand every word. My grandfather and father were lake people, but they both married women from the surrounding mountain tribes.
Grandmother said in these times, more and more people on the road are from the army, or thieves, or opium traders, and that the houses along the road do not float as ours do. When she said “float,” I understood how important the word was to her; coming from the mountains, she knew what it was not to float.
To live on this fortunate lake, to have these floating gardens away from the winds, away from the pestilence that moves through the trees, out in the open sun, never too dry, never too wet...it was a prayer she said to us: “We have fish; we have bananas and papayas; we have the bamboo to make our houses, our canoes, our baskets and hats.”
“More and beyond that,” she would say, “we have....” She held her hands out to indicate the blue mountains with their always changing faces, the mist over the violet silk of the lake. Even now I don’t know a word in your language for the more and beyond that we had.