Once We Had a Country: Sneak Preview

July 30, 2013

My new novel, Once We Had a Country, will be published by Knopf Canada on August 6. The opening scene is below. You can find out more about the novel here, and you can order it from Amazon or Indigo.


In the jungle, Gordon tends a fire beside Yia Pao, the young potter whose soul he hopes to save. It is 1972, the rainy season in Laos, and the two of them shouldn’t be here. Nobody should. Although they are barely a mile from the refugee camp, without knowing it they have crossed into a free-strike zone. The lines keep shifting because the Communists keep gaining ground, but the Royal Lao and American generals don’t bother making announcements when the boundaries are redrawn. Instead, they simply order their warplanes to treat anybody on the ground as the enemy. Everyone becomes a target.


Nestled in the fire are three figures, each less than a foot high and made of clay, each one smiling. 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 rod. Through the heat and smoke, the little bodies glow red, seeming to be possessed of an inner light. Eventually Yia Pao shifts them with a branch to let them cool and says he hopes Gordon will be satisfied. The potter did his best to make the statues like the holy people his new friend has described, but Yia Pao has never seen a saint himself, and this method of firing them is more primitive than he’d like. In his village, before the bombing, he had a proper kiln. It’s another of the things he mourns.


A crack comes from the firepit, and 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. He says this can happen when there’s no way to control the temperature. Gordon murmurs his understanding and joins him in a vigil over the statues that remain, as if watching alone might keep them intact. Once the fire has died, Yia Pao says it should be all right to let them cool on their own, so the two men turn back for the camp.


At first, Gordon follows Yia Pao down the muddy trail in silence, wearing a troubled look. Then he starts to speak of what it must be like for Yia Pao to be a widower and a father. Gordon says childbirth rather than a B-52 took his own wife from him, and the loss was over twenty years ago, but when it happened he wasn’t much older than Yia Pao is now, so he might understand something of how these last eight months have been. He knows about the grief and loneliness, the times when even the sight of your newborn child brings you no comfort but is only a reminder of the loss. He knows about wanting to join your loved one in that other world. Perhaps, he says, it isn’t a coincidence that he and Yia Pao met. Their friendship could be the work of God, a way to provide both of them with solace.


At this, the younger man lets out a soft laugh. “Don’t look for God in Laos 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 colour 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, labouring as they cross the uneven terrain. From somewhere in the distance comes a murmur that could be thunder or the sound of falling bombs.


By the time the two of them reach the landing strip, a beam of sunlight has punched through the clouds to shine upon the camp on the far side, making the white tents shimmer. There are over sixty 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 treeline, 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 scabbing over with grass.


The men have made it halfway across the field when they hear a gunshot. 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 treeline, Yia Pao crouching 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 emerge from the camp, two of them white, the other Lao, none in uniform but all with rifles slung over their backs. They look unhurried as they walk across the landing strip in the direction of the trail leading to the firepit. 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, but they can hear 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 in English. 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 an apology or a reproach.


“If she didn’t tell, they would have killed us all,” says the priest. “I recognized their leader. Everyone knows that devil. He fights for nobody, he steals from the opium growers and murders for pleasure. He and his men ransacked your tent. What did you take from them to bring him upon us?”


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


“I will leave before they return,” he says, surveying the 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 is about to set off when the priest’s voice pulls him up short. “Those men arrived by boat. There could be more of them near the water. Do they know you have a son?” Yia Pao shakes his head. “Then leave him with us. He’ll be cared for.”


“I have no other child.”


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


The young man doesn’t move. After a few seconds, it’s Gordon who speaks.


“Go to the waterfall,” he tells Yia Pao. “You know the one. Wait for me there, and I’ll bring Xang to you.” When the priest protests, 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 snatching a baby? They’ll kill you”—the priest snaps his fingers—“comme ça.”


Gordon’s eyes are wild and shining.


“I know you wish to give yourself to God,” says the priest, “but you have a child of your own. Think of her. You came to be a missionary, not a sacrifice.”


“Maggie’s all grown up,” Gordon says. “She doesn’t need me anymore.” Clapping Yia Pao on the shoulder, he says, “I’ll get Xang to you.”


“I’ll come too,” says Yia Pao, grabbing hold of Gordon’s sleeve, but the other man shrugs him off and starts away. By the time he has passed through the tents to the far side of the camp and reached the river trail, it has begun to rain.