BAN VINAI REFUGEE CAMP, THAILAND - 1990
No one knew the name or age of the person they called the Mud Woman.
She seemed to have been a part of the Hmong exodus from Northern Laos since the first day of their journey. None could be certain. With her dun-colored bundle she was one of many solitary, nameless people on the trek. All were fleeing the Laotian army.
Sometimes the bundle was balanced on her head or slung over her shoulder. If anyone paid her any attention that was the only change they saw from the start of their hurried flight to their final settlement in Ban Vinai located some three hundred and fifty miles north of Bangkok. She was just another piece in a coagulated mass of humanity.
The woman did not speak and no one could engage her down-cast eyes long enough to pose an inquiry. However, the depth of her soul-weary sadness did not require explanation.
There were cots and wash rooms to provide shelter and warmth in a long house awaiting the new residents at Ban Vinai. The woman preferred a patch of dirt near the outer perimeter of the camp and settled in under the tarp rolled up in her bundle. Not until the others saw her remove some branches that had been whittled into tent pegs did she appear to be a very enterprising woman; prepared for hard times.
She trundled her way to the chow line twice a day; in the morning for a breakfast bowl of porridge and later for a dinner of noodles and vegetables courtesy of some United Nations-sponsored refugee relief committee.
Relieved of the burden she’d carried for hundreds of miles, the woman exposed her time-worn visage allowing all to see the impact of the pain she bore on her small frame. Still there was a vestige of energy in her eyes that belied her physical being.
In good weather, her days were spent outside her lean-to refuge drawing in the dirt with a wooden stick. A joyous spirit emerged as she etched in the soil even if her life contained more misery than pleasure. She was happy with her work as though achieving a long suppressed mission. When the runoff after a rain erased her drawing she would re-create the sketch in the mud. The pleasure was less apparent in those times. Worry creased her broad forehead each time she feared the image would be lost. Then she hurriedly worked the stick in the ground to hold fast the picture in her mind.
No one realized she drew to remember; trying to keep the images alive so that one day others would know.
Occasionally other camp dwellers would pass to observe her concentrated efforts at replicating the original dirt drawing. From that vantage she was referenced as the Mud Woman.
One day standing in the chow line the word NAM, NAM, NAM exploded rapidly over the heads of the expectant diners. Nam, Hmong for mother, did not surprise the camp residents who were used to children calling for their mothers. No one reacted at first being more concerned with moving forward toward the food.
After the sound continued the word contained more urgency and those in line noticed the voice was not of a child, but of an older girl. This got their attention and they swivelled their heads while keeping their place in line.
At last a girl of fifteen was spotted running down a barren hillside above the feeding area. Every step she took blew up a puff of dust.
With her arms flailing and legs splayed, the crowd of onlookers expected her to fall face down and slide to the bottom at any moment. The young woman stayed upright and reached the food line. Her journey was not finished as she pushed her way through those in line with the same energy that propelled her down hill. Some thought she was deranged and others knew she was scheming to get ahead of the line. The latter pushed back, resisting her advancement.
Though impeded she continued forward at a slower pace yelling NAM, NAM, NAM. The
Mud Woman until now was absorbed in her own world. Something in the tone of those last words, whether their familiarity or anguish caused her to turn and locate the sound.
She dropped her plate of food. MOS, MOS, MOS she yelled in reply. For several moments the others heard the counterpoint of NAM, MOS; NAM, MOS; NAM, MOS. This continued until the young woman broke through the line and raced toward the older woman who was running faster than anyone thought she could.
They embraced and fell to the ground - laughing, crying, smiling; existing only for each other. The crowd was silent except for the rhythmic shuffling of feet toward the food. They
realized the young woman called Mos was the Mud Woman’s daughter. Reminded that her name meant “tender” they suppressed nervous laughter remembering the girl was anything but tender careering down the hill and plowing through the hundreds of bodies between them and the Mud Woman. One woman exposed the bruises Mos’ elbows caused as she pushed forward through the crowd.
Several women in the camp brought plates of food to the Mud Woman’s lean-to. Others passed by and smiled at the re-united mother and daughter. Soon Mos revealed to her mother how she had become separated from their village and hid for days from the Communist insurgents who were terrorizing and attacking any Hmong they thought had aided the Americans during the Vietnam war. Fifteen years after the war’s end “cleansing,” as the repressive forces called it, remained a government priority. Somehow, Mos told her mother she had managed to elude the Communist patrols and painstakingly discovered the trail to the relocation camp.
Once the procession of well wishers had receded, the Mud Woman wanted Mos to know of her secret. She began to recreate the drawing as she had practiced all these days in the camp.
Over the next few months aid workers from an NGO began an outreach program of sorts toward mother and daughter. Why did the two choose to live separate from the others? The camp was expanding with new long houses being built. Why were they content to live outside, in all kinds of weather, by themselves?
The Mud Woman insisted on their privacy, venturing out into the swelling mass of refugees only to stand in the food line or visit the latrine. One day she astonished an aid worker with her request for scraps of cloth and colorful thread. Mos, too, was surprised. What could those items generate? she thought.
Soon after receiving the material Mos’ mother began sewing. First came the green thread sewn into a series of inverted Vs. Beneath them came a blue, wavy line. Mos regarded the look of determination on her mother’s face and realized something important was being created.
Occasionally, the Mud Woman would glance at her dirt drawing for reference. By the end of the week, Mos recoiled in horror at the message her mother had created. The young woman could not shake the image from her mind. She had lived it once. She had dreamed it daily and now saw it duplicated by her own mother!
She was sewing an image of their old village; the inverted Vs represented the fir trees on the mountains set above the blue wavy line of the river. This was not a landscape.
But, why? We must not forget. But why? To make others remember.
When Mos looked at the finished cloth, she saw the story of the massacre in her village.
There were depictions of soldiers, their guns in black thread emitting streaks of red thread simulating bullets tearing into villagers - both friends and relatives. She could feel a slight shudder cross her shoulders even though the mid-day sun was hot.
She refused to be consumed by emotion and searched the cloth for one more image. Then she saw the figure in white thread of a star. Now Mos knew this was a true depiction of the events. All her mother could image was a man she created from white thread. Instead of an eagle on each of his shoulders, which could not be duplicated at such scale, her mother had sewn a white star, larger than any other figure on the cloth, to signify their oppressor.
Mos knew why her mother had been relentless drawing in the dirt. It was a type of rote learning in three dimensions. She nodded in understanding as her mother rolled up the cloth.
A few days later the older woman’s demeanor changed. While working on the cloth she seemed serene and determined; this day she was unusually agitated. Mos had never seen her mother this way during the entire time they had become reacquainted.
Once the camp had settled for the night the older woman wordlessly opened a seam that had been added to the bottom of the tarp. She explained to Mos this was a secret compartment she had created to hide the cloth. This must never be revealed to anyone. No matter the occasion or relationship.
“Should anything happen to me,” her mother explained.
“Never?” Mos said with teenage optimism as her mother sewed the cloth into the hiding place.
The next day, while Mos was in the wash house, a truck with no markings roared into the center of the camp. A white man with gold eagles on his shoulders signifying his rank was accompanied by six heavily armed men. They were not Thai soldiers, nor did they wear any identifiable insignia. Their only distinguishable feature the men possessed was the size and lethality of their weaponry. They were mercenaries. They pushed past aid workers who tried to intervene. Villagers who happened to be blocking their path were beaten by the soldiers’ bamboo truncheons. They were a whirlwind of movement, circling the camp like a funnel cloud.
And, like a tornado, they created havoc and were gone.
Mos returned to the lean-to and found it flattened to the ground. The tent pegs were broken and their meager possessions were strewn across the damp earth. She turned in a circle squinting into the sun to see where her mother might have wandered.
A woman about her mother’s age approached with the look of sorrow in her eyes.
Mos learned her mother was gone. Dragged from the latrine into the truck she was taken away by the man with eagles on his shoulders.
Immediately, Mos tore through the wreckage of their campsite. Those who watched saw her examining the tarp with care. They wondered what could be important about their simple structure and wandered away before Mos found what she wanted. She found the bulge in the seam of the tarp and felt a mixture of contentment and loss at the same time.
Tom Fitzgerald was twenty one when he first heard of the United Nations refugee aid program. Soon after graduating from a small liberal arts college in the Midwest he discovered that a degree in sociology along with a bus ticket could get him a ride to New York City. His former college roommate Lance Revell held out the promise of a place to stay.
“We can bunk together. Be like old times.” was the phrase Lance had written. It echoed in Fitzgerald’s head through the interminable bus ride; his beacon of optimism and encouragement. Visions of dorm life vanished as Fitzgerald made his way through the East Village section of Manhattan. Burnt-out buildings on Avenue A. Vacant lots filled with every sort of rubbish on Avenue B. By the time he reached Lance’s address six drug dealers stopped him with offers of narcotics he’d never heard of. In twenty minutes he’d experienced more than all his years living in his hometown of Weedley, California.
His bunk in Lance’s place was actually a pallet on the floor of a small one room apartment. There was a hot plate, and a small ice box that required a block of ice every two weeks. The shower was in the kitchen sink. Lance instructed Fitzgerald on the procedure. Stand in sink. Pull curtain up from your feet and attach to ring in the wall. Shower using the hose attached to the faucet. The idea of water containing dirt from his body parts trickling into the kitchen sink where he would go to get a glass of water convinced Fitzgerald to use the “French-whore” method. Wash face, soap under arms plus dab at his crotch and anus and he was
set for the day.
The “kitchen shower” created a type of intimacy Tom had not known before. In the dorm, showers were down the hall, not in the kitchen. One day Lance stepped out of the sink while Tom drank a cup of coffee. Tom noticed the initials LR on Lance’s left biceps.
“What’s that?” Tom asked unable t o look away.
“You mean like cattle?”
“Yeah. Part of my fraternity initiation.”
“Did it hurt?”
“What the fuck do you think?”
Lance was the first to escape from the Avenue C “apartment”. One afternoon when Tom returned from job hunting he found two men plastering the wall that burglars had sledge-hammered wide enough for their entry. Inside Lance was packing what major possessions remained after the recent break-in. The application he’d made before graduation was accepted.
He was off to Langley, Virginia and CIA boot camp.
“Why? The war’s over.”
“Godless Communism.” Hung in the air as he shut the door.
An ad in the New York Times changed the course of Tom’s life. After a cursory interview, intent on proving the applicant had a pulse beating inside a warm body, he received the requisite inoculations and was sent to Thailand.
Tom didn’t stay long enough in Bangkok to have a bowl of noodles. He was crammed inside a land cruiser with two other UN personnel and their gear. Three-hundred and fifty miles and eighteen hours later Tom found himself at Ban Vinai hungry and exhausted.
His arrival coincided within two days of the departure of the unmarked truck carrying away Mos’ mother. At first, many of the camp’s inhabitants kept their distance. He was considered a replacement for the “white-man-with-eagles” who everyone remembered had raided their camp and kidnaped an old woman.
Through a translator Tom learned that Mos was the woman’s daughter. She was young and reticent; unwilling to acknowledge her mother was gone.
What Mos admitted to herself, if to no one else, was that her mother’s work in depicting the massacre of her village represented her prize possession. She would revere it as if it was a sacred text.
Some day in an unknown future, the story cloth would be revealed to the world. Then, her mother’s hard work and, she presumed, sacrifice would not be in vain.