by Cameron Conaway
Well over half of the white bathrobe trailed across the red hotel hallway carpet, but 9-year-old Singkto flailed on, bouncing into walls as though he were a plastic bag blown by the wind. How he waited for the man whose arms were wrapped around him in the bathtub to fall asleep before he pinched his nose and slipped under the water to gently escape their weight, how he carefully waded through the warm water and willed it not to ripple, how he used the broom handle that pained him earlier to quietly unhook the robe from the door hanger, how he stepped out into the main room, opened the creaking door to freedom and looked back at his wet footprints—none of it mattered now. The heartbeat in his throat pulsed with the adrenaline of next, that monster of uncertainty made of equal parts terror and crisp mountain air.
Now was a blur. Each door he passed was identical and seemed to bring him no closer to the light coming from the window at the end of the hallway. The feeling of running barefoot on the thick carpet brought him back to the lush mountains of northern Thailand where, as part of his muay Thai kickboxing training, his coach would force him to pull sleds of bricks barefoot to the top of a steep hill.
As the bright window grew larger Singkto felt a tug from behind.
His body leaned into slow motion and his mind projected memories into the stream of window light flickering before him: the rusted red bucket of water at the top of the hill, the one with globs of sticky rice all along its jagged rim. His sloshing around in the rice paddy as he tried to run back to his mother after she sold him.
The tug intensified. His legs were now wrapped up so tight that the bones of his knees crashed into each other. Projected image: the man’s bear-like body clawing his way up the trailing robe.
Singkto stumbled forward, reached out to the window still fifty feet beyond his fingers and then flung his arms upward in a burst of power to shuck off the robe. He fell hard to his knees and heard friction’s burn as he skidded across the carpet. Then he thrashed desperately across the floor while kicking with full force at the man’s hands. He kicked and he writhed and each kick propelled him a few more feet down the hallway. But the man wasn’t behind him and except for Singkto’s mad movements the hallway stood still as the dusty paintings on the wall. The singed skin of his elbows and knees brought him back to the tangle of the moment. He saw how the robe’s sleeves had lassoed his legs, noticed the stubbles of blood from brush burn. At that recognition he looked around, took a deep breath and worked with violent silence to free himself.
The door adjacent to him opened.
Naked but for the robe around his ankles, Singkto froze. A scrawny old bald man in tight white underwear stepped out and looked down the other end of the hallway before placing his silver room-service dishes on the floor. The door closed behind him and as he spun around towards it in total shock his thick glasses flew off his face. It was clear that without them he was nearly blind. He swiped his hands with panic along the floor, gray face burning red, and let out a string of curse words as though he’d never swore before, as though he’d been storing every bad word he knew in the basement of his mind, saving them all for some profound moment.
Flippin fuckerstein cock and the cunts and shepherds and…and bitchass and…and dick dick Charles Dickens fucking fuckers!
The words spilled like half-chewed food from his mouth and came to an immediate cease with the gasp upon finding his glasses. He put them back on, swung towards the door and tried the handle. Locked. Gray face now burned purple. He tried it again to the same click-click then took off running with his gangly body in the opposite direction of Singkto.
Singkto wriggled free, grabbed the robe and ran just as wildly but in the other direction. Their simultaneous anxiety and rustling meant they couldn’t hear each other’s sprint. The window’s light burned so bright that Singkto could barely see and when he averted his gaze he looked straight at a door different than the eight he had just ran past. There were no handles, it could be pushed open and in bold black letters it read: EMERGENCY EXIT.
He pushed the door open, closed it quietly behind him and stood facing it so if someone came up the stairs they wouldn’t see the front of him. The robe was a jumbled mess, and after a few unsuccessful seconds of trying to put it on he noticed the light shining from the two inches of space between the bottom of the door and the floor. As he knelt down and peered into it his memory projected the moment two years ago when he was peering out from under a bed.
How the squeak of the mattress springs at times muffled the whimpers of his twin sister. At times. How the bounce of the mattress was so strong that it smashed his face against the hardwood floor. How fear froze him. How rage warred with the fear. How none of it led to action. How when stillness struck he saw the two small feet of his sister take off running, the birthmark on her left foot the same as his. How the man sighed, seemed to scramble for something and then struck a match. The smell of cigarette smoke. How before the man started he made a comment about her getting what two would have got. How as the brother he was meant to be on that bed with his sister. How he hid like a coward at the last second.
The footsteps of the man and the closing of the door and the loud ring of silence.
How years of dust and candy bar wrappers and a crusted sock clung to him when he crawled out from under the bed. How he stood up facing the paint-chipped door, and the part of him that wanted to look at the bed was beat back by the part of him that couldn’t—the part willing to leave it to imagination’s exaggeration rather than see and never be able to un-see the reality. How as he reached the door handle he paused, pivoted to face the bed and how the room then went black and white but for the red streaked across the wrinkled white sheets.
The blood of his sister and the thrum of his temples and the loud ring of silence.
With each breath his shoulders rose and fell, his nostrils flared. He squared up to the bed in his fighter’s stance like he had done in so many bouts before. But there was nobody to fight, no way to fight. Every bit of his nine years, his three-feet eleven inches and his forty-seven pounds trembled with the mixture of hopeless sadness, rage and guilt that leads to a life whose oxygen is revenge. To smash something. To crash his elbow into all those who harmed him and his sister, including his mother for trusting too much, for selling them and telling them that everything would be okay. And the father whose work clothes always smelled of shrimp and sweat but whose face he couldn’t quite remember. Smash it all. A broken world that shows its rubble is better than a broken world that hides it.
Here was a kind little boy who couldn’t walk past the street dogs without offering them food or a belly rub. Here was a kind little boy who never once forgot to bow to his elders. Here was a kind little boy who shook with murderous thoughts, whose blank stare into the red was anything but blank. Images danced and danced and never smoldered. A smile creased at the corner of his lips.
When Singkto stood up the rush of air brought him back to his nakedness and he felt paralyzed. Goosebumps covered his body and then came a warm wave of insight. His only real option was to run down the stairs until he reached the lobby, so he threw the robe around his shoulders and made his way down the first flight. He glanced back at the door. The robe’s heavy awkwardness all around him, the gap and the light blazing through and he knew he had to. He just knew. He ran back up the stairs, took off the robe and used his small hands to wedge as much of it as possible into the gap. He gave one final look up at the door and lost himself in the enclosed curl of the red number six painted in bold. He felt the safety of being fully hidden, fully covered, protected. More than anything he wanted to be a speck of dust inside that curl. If he was going to be small and vulnerable he wanted to be so small that he couldn’t be vulnerable.
The sound of a door slamming shut brought him back. The imagination that could lead him to believe he was living inside the curl of a number could also lead him to imagined truths. The man he was with in the bathtub had exited the room and slammed the door shut and Singkto knew it. He just knew it. With that image in mind he blasted his way down the stairs, using his right hand to cover his genitals and his left to transfer weight onto the handrail so that his bare feet didn’t slap loudly against the white tile stairs.
The man was fully dressed, but in his rush upon noticing Singkto’s absence he hadn’t taken the time to dry off. Patches of water made great splotches of black on his baby blue T-shirt, especially in the area above his chest where water dripped from his beard. His jeans hung loose because he hadn’t put on his belt and his loafers kept slipping off his feet as he ran towards the elevator. Singkto was now approaching the fourth floor.
The man reached the elevator and hit the down arrow feverishly but self-consciously. He pretended to look around the hallway and even lightly whistled a tune all in an effort to mask his panic. The end result of which was that he looked like an anxious man. A sloppily dressed and soaking wet anxious man. As Singkto rounded the corner to the third floor door he saw it begin to open. He went back around the ledge and peered out through the handrail slots. A woman who looked to be in her thirties had a small ice bin and was about to use the crushed ice machine against the wall in the stairwell. Singkto was devastated. He bit his lip so hard it bled. Part of him wanted to scream for help, part of him was too embarrassed, but these were just parts. The whole of him was unwilling to trust anyone but himself.
The number 2 lit up on the elevator.
Is he sneaking down the stairs behind me or is he taking the elevator? Only if I see him behind me will I ask her for help, Singkto thought. And what if the man was in the lobby already? He made up his mind.
Once he got to the lobby he’d scream and run as hard as possible towards the glass exit doors and if he couldn’t open them then he’d throw knees to the glass until they shattered and he could get out. The nerves around his knees and shins were all but dead due to his years of practicing kicks and knee strikes against banana trees. He knew he could break the glass and not feel pain unless the glass cut him open, and that was a chance he was willing to take. His sister gave blood; he would give blood.
The number 3 lit up.
The woman smacked her bubble gum, pulled her frizzy red hair back into a ponytail and burst into dance as she sung Maroon Five’s “Move like Jagger.”
I don’t need to try to control you (Oh, yeah)
Look into my eyes and I’ll own you
With them moves like Jagger
I’ve got the moves like Jagger
I’ve got the moo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoooves like Jagger!
She rhythmically took some change from her pocket, put the ice bin in the machine and inserted the coins. The loud crushing began. The number 4 lit up.
She danced and sung and finally took her bucket and left.
The elevator door opened. The man stepped in, hit 1 and then the Door Close button.
If that door slam was the man, then he must’ve taken the elevator which means he could already be in the lobby, Singkto thought upon reaching the 2nd floor door. He stood still for a moment, and projected onto the wall he saw the touch-me-not plant from the mountains near his home in Chiang Mai. How at the slightest touch from his fingers the green leaves would fold up and withdraw into themselves. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He’d be the fearless bird on the bull. Nearly weightless. Almost unnoticeable. Free.
Singkto tore through the first floor door and ran out into the lobby completely naked and uncaring and the old man in his white underwear was talking to the receptionist and the man from the bathtub was in line behind him and fidgeting and Singkto ran passed them all and crashed through the glass and rolled onto the sidewalk and somehow back to his feet and he was gone and out into the wild snowfall of Philadelphia and he was entirely naked and running and bloody and alive and free.
Cameron Conaway is the author of five books, including Malaria, Poems, named by NPR as one of the Best Books of 2014. His work has appeared in publications such as Newsweek, The Guardian and Reuters, and has been supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the International Reporting Project, the United Nations Foundation, Rotary International and the Wellcome Trust. Follow him on Twitter @CameronConaway.
20 responses to “Bird on Bull”
Image after image after image. Striking in their vividness. The small feet of his twin sister running, the white robe and red carpet. There is much to see in this short fiction, and much to love. The author engages all of the reader’s senses. The sigh of the man on the mattress, the cigarette smoke, the ice crushing in the machine, the string of swear words – comic relief- oh, I could point out so many vivid moments, but if you’ve come this far on the page you’ve already read, experienced, felt, seen what the author has painted in carefully chosen words.
A boy wanting to be so small that “he couldn’t be vulnerable.” Yet so exposed.
As a lover of cumulative sentences, I especially relished the first and last paragraph.
Image after image after image. Striking in their vividness. The small feet of his twin sister running, the white robe and red carpet. There is much to see in this short fiction, and much to love. The author engages all of the reader’s senses. The sigh of the man on the mattress, the cigarette smoke, the ice crushing in the machine, the string of swear words–comic relief–oh, I could point out so many vivid moments, but if you’ve come this far on the page you’ve already read, experienced, felt, seen what the author has painted in carefully chosen words.
A boy wanting to be so small that “he couldn’t be vulnerable.” Yet so exposed.
As a lover of cumulative sentences, I especially relished the first and last paragraph.
Your words here mean more than you know. It was important to me to layer images, and that they were sticky enough to stay with you meant (hopefully) that a few of them worked. Thank you also for your comment about the opening and conclusion – it will help me keep top of mind how I use sentence structure to reflect the energy of the scene.
My first instinct was to pull back when I began to read this but I couldn’t. I was pulled in. It hits hard and fast.
I’m used to looking at (writing) stories from the investigators point of view so this was a very different experience and well worth the read.
Thanks for writing this story Cameron.
Thank you for sticking with it, Cat! I was concerned about that first instinct, and so tried to make the first paragraph a bit breathless (in hopes that the reader would feel compelled to finish it, and “pulled in” as they did). Grateful for your words!
Chilling and relentless. Definitely an author to watch.
Thank you, Bryony. I hope to maintain a similar pace as the story expands.
Cameron, this is not the type of subject matter that I would usually read, but with your use of vivid descriptions and momentum I felt completely compelled to finish reading this harrowing story, as chilling as I found the experience. Your flashbacks and then continuing forward movement were well done and drove me to read every last sentence. Overall, what I liked best was your ability to paint a picture so striking that I could not look away.
April – thank you for your comment!
You captured the terror of a boy’s violation well. The part about the parents selling him tore my heart open, but what really struck me (in almost flashback fashion) was the obliviousness of strangers. The gum-smacking woman, the anxious man…who to trust?
My one and only criticism would be the use of the word “whimpers” in describing the brutal rape of a nine-year-old girl. It minimizes how excruciatingly painful such an act is. At that age, surgery is often needed to repair the damage.
All in all, a very powerful short story. Thank you for sharing it.
Thank you, Jane. And deep bows to you for the brilliant feedback. That scene/image must certainly be accompanied by additional details. Thank you for pointing my attention there.
This was a very vivid and imaginative story. I was enthralled from beginning to end. I could picture every scene because the writing was filled with detail and dramatization even in the simplest sentences. The images that the writing evoked caused me to feel Sinkgto’s panic, fear, helplessness and then his ultimate freedom. I absolutely loved this story and can’t wait to read more.
Thrilled to hear you enjoyed the read, Linda! There certainly will be more. I’ll keep you posted as it comes together.
Writing with heart and unapologetic candor. Bravo!
We really can’t explain or analyze human behavior that is not our own, we can only copy by reacting and carrying on. That’s my key takeaway here, which I realize is not literary analysis but a personal reaction. But it’s the best I can do. Your work is alive with vivid details and characters I feel I know, characters I want to reach inside the computer screen and snatch up if to spare from what destroys and actually does rip away freedom, sometimes temporarily and sometimes forever. Really strong work, Cameron.
*copy = cope
Jen – thank you for your insights here. They will stick with me for a long time. Deep bows to you!
I haven’t seen the sentence fragment used this deftly in many pages (and many scrolls). The adverb ‘how’ (as in “the way in which”) becomes a flashbulb, each instance a perceptive sway.
“how he carefully waded through the warm water and willed it not to ripple…”
“how as he reached the door handle he paused, pivoted to face the bed…”
and again and again…
In between stretches of scenic action, the ‘how’ fragments snapshot their way through the prose, establishing an idiosyncratic momentum that suits this zealous protagonist.
Lawrence – I can’t say how helpful your comment here is and will be. Thank you for honing in on that particular move.
Poetic and strong writing, as always, Cameron. Well done. cheers, Leah
Thank you, Leah!