The Bukowski Agency - Once We Had a Country - Excerpt
Once We had a Country

a novel by Robert McGill


IN THE MIDDLE of the jungle Gordon stands alongside Yia Pao, the young potter whose soul he hopes to save. Together they watch over a stack of wood that has been set alight. Within the flames are four upright figures, each smiling as if to welcome the fire, each less than a foot high and made of clay. Gordon tells Yia Pao about the saints the little statues are meant to resemble, how this one was pierced by arrows, that one blinded with a poker. Through the heat and smoke the little bodies glow red, seeming to be possessed of an inner light.

It’s some time before the fire dies and Yia Pao prods the figures with a branch, shifting them in place to let them cool. He says he hopes Gordon will be satisfied. Yia Pao did his best to make the statues like the holy men and women his new friend has described, but he has never seen a saint himself, and this method of firing them is more primitive than he would like. In Yia Pao’s village he had a proper kiln before the bombing. It is another of the things he mourns.

When he finishes speaking there’s a loud crack from the fire-pit. One of the little statues hops in place, then shudders. Cursing in his own language, Yia Pao kicks the saint with his boot, spraying ash and exposing a long fracture along the figure’s side. Yia Pao says this often happens when there’s no way to control the temperature. Gordon murmurs his understanding, then joins Yia Pao in a silent vigil over the statues that remain, as if watching alone might keep them intact. Finally, once the fire begins to die, Yia Pao says it’s all right to let them cool by themselves, and the two men turn back for the camp.

A few minutes later, following Yia Pao down the muddy trail, Gordon confesses that for twenty-four years he’s been a widower, too. He wasn’t much older than Yia Pao is now when his own wife died in childbirth, so although Laos is new to him, perhaps he knows something of how it has been for Yia Pao these last eight months, beginning a life of solitary fatherhood. Perhaps, Gordon says, it isn’t a coincidence that the two of them have met. Their friendship could be the work of God.

At this the younger man lets out a soft laugh.

“Don’t look for God in Laos,” he replies, “or soon you’ll lose your faith.”

Thick, grey clouds swirl lowly overhead, churning through the mountains like a spring flood. A dense canopy of leaves and branches absorbs most of the light, so that it’s hard to make out the tattered grubbiness of Yia Pao’s shirt and pants. A red bandana around Gordon’s neck is the only vivid color to be seen. He has a salt-and-pepper beard that contrasts with Yia Pao’s smooth cheeks, and he stands half a foot higher than his companion, outweighing him by perhaps a hundred pounds, laboring as they cross the uneven terrain.

From somewhere in the distance comes a murmur that could be thunder or the sound of falling bombs. It’s far enough away that Yia Pao doesn’t pause, though Gordon freezes for a moment, eyes wide, before shaking his head in disbelief.

“A neutral country,” he says to himself. “I can’t believe they told us that.”

By the time the two of them reach the landing strip, a beam of sunlight has punched through the clouds, shining on the encampment at the far side, making the white tents shimmer. There are over fifty of them, and from half a mile away they seem immaculate. The airstrip is sodden, streaked with long ruts that vanish fifty yards before the trees, as if the plane that left them was swallowed by a great beast. Enough time has passed since the last landing that the ruts are already scabbing over with grass.

The men have made it halfway across the field when they hear a gunshot from the camp. A water buffalo nearby stops its grazing to look up, while Yia Pao squints at the tents ahead, then raises a finger to his lips and points toward the jungle. The two men run for the tree-line, Yia Pao crouched with his eyes down, Gordon still focused on the tents. He’s sweating and panting by the time they reach the forest.

A moment later, three men in combat fatigues emerge from the camp and walk across the landing strip in the direction from which Yia Pao and Gordon have come. There are rifles slung across their backs. The men look casual, unhurried. Yia Pao and Gordon wait until the group is out of sight, then make their way toward the camp without leaving the cover of the trees.

When they reach the tents, there’s nobody in sight, only the sound of a woman screaming. They run toward her voice, scattering chickens underfoot. The screaming grows in volume and intensity until suddenly they’re upon her, an old Hmong woman lying in the mud. The French priest is kneeling by her side in his stained shirt and pristine collar, his hand cradling her head and his surplice wrapped around her arm, the blood already soaking through.

“They were looking for you, Yia Pao,” says the priest. His tone is flat, his eyes accusing. “She wouldn’t tell them where you’d gone, so they shot her.”

“And then she told,” says Yia Pao grimly. He speaks to her in the Hmong language, uttering words that could be a consolation or reproach, and she replies in a croaking voice.

“If she didn’t tell, they would have killed us all,” says the priest. “Yia Pao, I recognized their leader. Everyone knows that devil. What have you done to bring such a man upon us?”

Yia Pao doesn’t reply. Instead he thinks for a minute, even while the old woman moans.

“I will leave before they return,” he says, pivoting in place, surveying the empty camp. “Where is the girl who looks after my son?”

“She took him to the river an hour ago,” says the priest. “There’s a group there washing clothes.” Yia Pao has already started away when the priest’s voice pulls him up short. “Those men arrived by boat. There could be more of them near the water.” Yia Pao considers this information. “Do they know you have a son?” asks the priest, and Yia Pao says no. “Then leave him with us. He’ll be cared for.” Yia Pao looks hesitant.

“I have no other child.”

“Don’t be a fool,” says the priest. “I’ll tell them you’ve fled to Ban Den Muong. You must run, Yia Pao. You cannot take a baby with you.”

Yia Pao doesn’t move. After a few seconds it’s Gordon who speaks, his voice firm, as if something has been decided.
“Go to the waterfall,” he tells Yia Pao. “You know the one. Wait for me there, and I’ll bring your son to you.” When the priest interjects, Gordon says, “They aren’t looking for me. If they’re at the river, I’ll be all right.”

“You think they won’t notice an American carrying off a baby?” says the priest. “They will kill you—” He snaps his fingers. “—comme ça.” Gordon’s eyes are wild and shining. “I know you wish to give yourself to God,” the priest says. “But you have a child of your own. Think of her, Gordon. You came to be a missionary, not a sacrifice.”

“My daughter’s all grown up,” Gordon replies. “She doesn’t need me anymore.”

From his shirt pocket he pulls out a photograph. It shows a little girl in pigtails being swung through the air by unseen adults on either side. She looks into the camera with a gap-toothed grin and a glint of doubt. Then he tucks the photo back in place and claps Yia Pao on the shoulder. By the time Gordon has passed through the tents to the far side of the camp and reached the river trail, it has begun to rain.



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