Fiction

Pretty Citadel

Kerry Howley

The revolution is coming, Rhys says so, and it’ll be just like we always dreamed: blood, streets. First day in Yangon, time- lagged and tongue-tied from my trip across the Atlantic. “Things will be changing soon,” Rhys says. “The situation is not stable.” His accent is hard to figure. The words rise liquid from his quivering paunch. “What part of Australia is he from?” I ask an Aussie. “The drunk part,” the Aussie says.

So the boss comes to work legless every day and talks revolution, though no one ever says revolution, they say, “situation” and “the lady” and “change,” eyebrows hovering around the hairline. It’s very subtle. Subtlety is Rhys’s thing, really. When one of his prostitutes arrives at the office he stops looking at porn in his glass cubicle and retreats, sly as a fox, to a concrete-walled conference room. The middle-aged front-office secretary, taught damelike etiquette back when the Brits were in charge, has the girls write Guest in angled script.

This is before an American we’ll call The Veteran glides into town, frictionless, swimwear smooshed flat against some biblical literature in his backpack. The Veteran will want to speak to Suu Kyi, which we will know to be impossible, and he will attempt this in the direct manner of children and the insane. He will have a message for her, something about a vision, and we won’t be there to warn him that he’ll die before he gets close.

We’re not the vision-having, message-delivering kind, we being me and Chris and Kat, the white-skinned staff Rhys handpicked from our tepid e-mail inquiries. We’ve been in Myanmar a year now and we’ve seen postcard Myanmar, coffee-table-book Myanmar, memoir Myanmar. Brown boys jumping off buffalo backs into clean blue lake, monks all ribboned up in a tight little line along the shore. We got bombed with some wizened, ­cigar- smoking sages and met those long-necked ladies with rings caterpillared from collarbone to jawline. We’ve seen unblemished beaches and distended bellies, but mostly we see the inside of this office, from which we publish what passes for a newspaper. People read it because what else are they going to read? Everything else is banned. We aren’t banned because before we print a word, the government man, Wey Lin, reads the copy and faxes it back with thick black Xs across paragraphs he finds displeasing. Fluff’s all you can shove through Wey Lin’s filter. I pretend to know something about real ­estate and cook up a column called “House of the Week.” Half my Burmese colleagues have had family members disappeared. My friend Phyo had her father and brother dragged screaming from their kitchen when she was nine. “The second-floor dining room,” I write, “is perfect for entertaining.”

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