by Ira Sukrungruang
The Brightest Room in the World
Nitaya wonders what her life would be like without her younger brother Martin. What if she was not an orphan, not a refugee, but the natural born child of Roger and Irene Williamson of Glen Ellyn, Illinois? Nitaya imagines herself with pale white skin and freckles. She imagines herself with red hair that undulates down her back, like her mother, instead of her short stray strands that limps over her shoulders. She imagines she can speak rapid fire English and read thick books like her father, who calls her his darling queen.
If she were a darling queen, Nitaya would have a room of her own, of course. She would not have to share. She would not have to wake up with Martin’s butt in her face, hear his little giggle, smell his gas. If she had a room of her own, she would paint it the brightest white instead of the forest green that reminds her of the jungle. In the brightest room in the world, nothing can hide; nothing lurks in shadows.
The Fork and Spoon
Nitaya wonders what to do with these odd utensils. She can’t make sense of them. One looks like a cupped palm. The other, a weapon. And there were other things she did not know. The food on the table, with its alien smells. She had never seen an orange vegetable. She had never known a hunk of beef so big it needed to be tied into a roll. Then there was the bowl with white mush in it. Martin made a smiley face in the mush before drowning it in brown sauce.
“Eat, sweetie,” says her father.
Martin had both utensils in his fists and did not look up until his plate was cleared, and his face smeared with food.
“Martin,” said her father. “That’s not a good example to set for your sister.”
Martin repeated the word “sister,” and he furrowed his brow, as if the word was beyond his understanding.
“Maybe she isn’t hungry,” said her mother.
Nitaya was hungry. But how do you eat with so many eyes on you?
She knew how to eat with her hands, quickly, before her food was gobble up by a stray dog. She knew to drink the water from puddles and ponds. Here, she sat at a dinner table, her feet dangling, with forks and knives and spoons and platters of food.
She did not move.
What if she did it wrong and they gave her back? What if this—her new house, her new parents, her new brother—were to vanish like everything in her life?
She would not eat. She would watch. And her stomach would keep her up for most of the night with rumbling complaints.
Nitaya wonders why she keeps getting dolls—beady-eyed dolls with blond and brown hair. With skin as pale as the underside of her hand. Each day, her father gives her a new present, wrapped in colorful paper that reminds her of the water lilies in some distant river of some distant land. She opens each present gently, careful not to tear the paper.
Martin grows impatient. “Rip into it,” he says. He stamps his feet. “This is so slow.”
“Martin,” her father says.
“Honey,” her mother says. “Be nice.”
When Nitaya unwraps the present, she folds the paper neatly into a square and puts it in her pocket. The paper is her favorite. To posses so much color.
But then there is the doll. Looking at her.
“Do you like it, honey?” her father says.
“Precious,” says her mother.
“Another one?” says Martin. “Where’s my present?”
“Not today, sport,” says her father.
“What will you name her?” her mother says.
Nitaya does not look at it, but she knows this is a gift, and she knows she should be grateful. She smiles and her parents smile and Martin pouts.
When they leave the room, Nitaya places her paper in a secret place under the bed, in a small box with other colorful paper. She puts her new doll with the other new dolls. All of them face down on her bed, the backs of a dozen babies.
Nitaya’s New Name
Nitaya wonders about her new name. When she first arrived, she learned quickly to respond to honey, sweetheart, baby, and of course her favorite, darling queen. Now, her mother calls her Nancy.
“Nancy, come to dinner.”
“Nancy, please put your toys away.”
“Nancy, time for the TV to be turned off.”
“Nancy, it’s time to start talking.”
Martin calls her Ninny.
Nitaya wonders what the harm is in touching everything she sees. She wants to know what a CD feels like, so she touches it. She wants to know what the toaster feels like, so out goes her finger. She wants to know the feel of a stapler, so again, a quick poke.
The world is new.
Here, most things are cold and metallic.
Where she came from, she remembers how she dug her fingers into the dirt when she heard prowling footsteps. She remembers the soft plush of the hip that slept next to her. She remembers fingering the bubble of blisters on her feet.
“Honey,” her mother says, “You can’t touch that.” Her fingers were going towards an outlet.
“Honey,” her mother says, “Leave that be.” Her fingers were fascinated by the blade of a saw.
Finally, her mother grabs her hands and squeezes. “You can’t go around touching things,” she says. “It’s dangerous,” she says. “And definitely not sanitary.”
Nitaya wonders why her brother insists on tying her up with jump rope when they play. “I’ve got you,” he says. “You will not escape.” He marches back and forth in front of the door. In one pocket is a revolver. In the other pocket, a fake plastic knife. Slung over his right shoulder is the air rifle. Occasionally, Martin turns quickly and pulls the trigger of his gun. “Bang,” he says and laughs. “Bang.”
Sometimes he rushes her with the knife and screams, “I’m Captain Mustard.”
Nitaya smiles. Her mother with the long wavy red-hair tells her this is what she should do. “Smile, sweetheart,” she says. “Turn that frown upside down.” In the beginning, her mother would pull the corners of her mouth up. It hurt a little bit, but nothing Nitaya couldn’t handle. “Smile at everything.”
So now Nitaya smiles at marching Martin.
“You’re a prisoner,” he says. “Prisoners don’t smile.”
“Captain Mustard says stop smiling.”
Martin draws his revolver again. Pulls the trigger. “Bang,” he says. “You’re dead.”
If They Could Speak
Nitaya wonders what Martin’s toys would say if they could speak.
Toy soldiers: “Please don’t burn my arms.”
The Model Airplane: “I hate crashing on the driveway. I’m losing bits of me.”
Air Rifle: “I wish I were real.”
Lone Ranger action figure: “Where is my head?”
Teddy Bear: “He holds me tight at night.”
Nitaya wonders why her father takes her on long drives. She feels special. They are alone. When he comes home early from work, he asks, “Is my darling queen ready for her carriage?”
“Yes, she is,” her mother says.
“Can I come?” says Martin.
“Not this time, sport,” says her father.
Martin throws whatever he has in his hands on the ground and sulks to the TV.
“Next time,” her father says.
“How about ice cream, Marty?” says her mother, which makes Martin eager again with rapid nods.
In the car, her father says, “We are so lucky to have you.” He says, “God saved you just for us.” He says, “You are our darling queen.” He reaches over and strokes the top of her head. She feels the heavy weight of his hand. Since she’s arrived, she rarely gets to go out of the house, except for these trips with her father. Her eyes are pinned to the outside. Her father points at random things.
“That’s a grocery store.”
“That’s a dog.”
“That’s a gas station.”
“That’s a park.”
The park is the last place her father stops at. He points outside, at the swing sets, the rocking horses, the slide, the other kids scrambling around. “Do you want to go out?”
Nitaya looks up at her father, and thinks this is a man that shouldn’t exist in her world, with his brown mustache and peppered white hair. Up until now, she has not met a man like him. She is only familiar with the loud voiced ones, the ones that make her cover her head when they approach. Her father is so different she hardly wants to take her eyes off him, fearing at any moment he might change.
“You can go out and play.”
Nitaya stares and smiles.
“Do you know how much we love you?”
She stares and smiles.
“You are safe now. No one will hurt you here.”
Stares and smiles.
“Soon, you’ll forget. Soon, you’ll start talking and making friends. You won’t remember any of it.” He leans in and kisses the top of her head. “Let’s go home.” Her father pulls the car out, and on the way home, he points to random things. Nitaya never takes her eyes off her father, not once, not until he reaches over and unbuckles her seatbelt, and moves out of the car door and into the house.
Nitaya wonders why her mother never leaves the house. Often, Nitaya finds her in the kitchen humming to herself, or in the bedroom laying in the bed staring at the ceiling, or in the shower thick with steam. When she addresses Nitaya, she puts on a smile.
One day, her mother paced back and forth in the kitchen. Martin watched cartoons in a cape in the other room. Nitaya peered around the corner. Her mother kept running her hand through her hair. Then she lit a cigarette, and smoke followed her rapid steps. This was what dogs did when they protected a kill, she remembered.
Finally her mother noticed her. She stopped. Stared at Nitaya for long seconds. Smoking.
“You scared me,” her mother said.
Nitaya shrunk back.
“Nancy, it’s impolite to not announce yourself.”
Nitaya looked at the floor.
“Look at me.”
Nitaya linked her hands behind her back.
“Look at me.”
Nitaya bent her head lower.
“Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.”
Nitaya moved to run away, but found Martin beside her, cape grazing her leg.
“Why are you loud?” he said.
“Sorry,” her mother said. “Why don’t you two go watch TV?”
Martin sighed and took Nitaya by the hand and pulled her away.
Nitaya wonders why she ducks under the table after loud noises. The other day, for instance, somewhere outside, there was a bang that shook the house and made a few car alarms go off. One moment Nitaya was making her cuddle bear dance; the next moment she was under the table, shaking. One moment her father was telling her she was his darling queen; the next moment he was on his hands and knees trying to coax her out. “Only some boys,” he told her. “Playing a prank.” Nitaya shook her head. She held the bear tight to her chest. She kept her eyes focused on the floor.
The bang reminded her of the time she saw someone, a faceless woman, holding a faceless boy that lay limp in her arms. The someone was rocking the boy the way Nitaya rocked her bear. The someone was pleading for the boy to wake. This moment came often and at unexpected times, and when it does, Nitaya can’t move in fear of what may happen next.
Nitaya recalls someone telling her that when she hears a bang to crawl under a table and hide. She does not remember the someone anymore, but she can sometimes smell her. The salt of sweat, the richness of dirt. Other than that, the someone has become a blank face, like the other blank faces. The blank faces are everywhere, and when she sometimes thinks she knows one particular blank face, she reaches out, but a bang makes the ground tremble.
Her dreams are filled with bangs.
One dream keeps recurring. She is under a table tugging on someone. Sometimes she cries because the someone does not respond to her voice; the someone is flat on her back and without breath.
Nitaya wonders why her father punishes Martin but never her. When she pressed the button on the blender and food sprayed everywhere, he found the mess hysterical. When she cut a dollar bill into equally sized triangles, her father said she was a born artist. When she stole a piece of chicken from Martin’s plate, he applauded her hearty appetite. When Martin threw his candied carrots at her in retaliation, her father yanked him out of the room, and when Martin came back to the dinner table, Nitaya could tell he was crying.
Nitaya learns she can do no wrong. Here, she was becoming the darling queen. At the dinner table, she makes a gun with her fingers and aims it at her mother and says, “Bang.” Her father: “Bang.” Martin: “Bang.”
Her mother smiles. “Oh, honey, your first English word.”
“I’m so proud,” her father says, “My darling queen.”
Martin’s mouth: wide open.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the short story collection, The Melting Season; two memoirs, Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and Southside Buddhist (winner of the 2015 American Book Award); and the poetry collection, In Thailand It Is Night. He teaches at University of South Florida.