“Evan, are you all right?”
“I guess I got carried away,” I said. We were back in our room, and I could barely remember leaving the table. My head was throbbing, and my whole body felt as though I’d been thoroughly and systematically worked over by a crew of bully boys from SLORC. “All caught up in the sound of my own words,” I told Katya.
“How do you feel?”
“Not so good. I’ve got a killer headache and I can’t catch my breath. I don’t know what got into me.”
“I think you should get undressed,” she said. “I think you should get under the blankets.”
“Maybe that’s not a bad idea,” I admitted, peeling off my clothes. “I’m hot and cold all at once. Just the body mirroring the emotions, I guess. Burning with rage over what those bastards did to that poor Australian kid, and chilled at the idea that it could have happened to me.”
“You were very effective, Evan. They were all moved by what you had to say.”
“Maybe it gained a little in the translation,” I said.
“You stirred their passions, Evan.”
“Well, that’s what passions are for,” I said. “To get stirred now and then. They’ll be calm by morning.”
“In the morning,” she said, “they will attack.”
“How’s that? They’ll attack what?”
“But he told you,” she said. “You do not remember?”
“I got a little vague there at the end, Katya. I was ranting away, and the next thing I knew I was back here in the room with you. I may have had a little too much of that orange stuff.”
“No, I think-”
“Tell me about this attack,” I said. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“We are all to arise at daybreak, Evan. And overrun the government checkpoint, and then attack the encampment.”
“No, Evan. You do not remember? You suggested it.”
“You said they must do it or they would not be real men, or true Shan.”
“I said that?” It had a familiar ring to it, now that she mentioned it. “And they bought it?”
“Some of them did not want to wait until morning. Ku Min sent a shipment of new weapons with the money from the heroin, and they are anxious to try them out. They would have gone tonight, but the head man insisted they wait for daylight.”
“The voice of reason,” I said. “Jesus, Katya, I must have been out of my mind. And they must have been twice as crazy to listen to me.”
“Tell me how you feel, Evan.”
“Lousy,” I said. “My headache’s worse and my muscles are sore. And I’m hot and cold all at once, and I swear my bones ache. It must be the shwe le maw. I think the damn stuff’s toxic.”
“No, Evan. In fact I brought a bottle to the room. You should have some more.”
“No,” she said. “I am not. It will help you, Vanya. And there is some quinine and aspirin that they gave me for you. I wish we had the herbal tea they gave us at the monastery, but we will get along without it. Vanya, my darling, it is not the food or drink or even the excitement that makes you hot and cold and gives you a pain in your muscles and bones. Don’t you see?”
I did, but I let her say it.
“Vanushka, you have malaria.”
We were rolling by sunup. I was in the lead car, the same beat-up Toyota that had brought us from Taunggyi. This time, though, I was dressed in fatigues, as were the driver and the two men in the backseat.
Two jeeps rolled out behind us, and a pair of canvas-topped troop carriers followed in their wake.
We rode past the Shan checkpoint and pulled up a mile or so from the government roadblock. Half a dozen men dismounted from one of the troop carriers and disappeared into the brush on either side of the road. The commander – his name, I’d finally learned, was Ne Win – passed out cheroots, and checked his watch as the men lit up and smoked.
Waiting, Ne Win asked me how I felt. I was much better, I told him. I’d been in a bad way the night before, I added, and I hadn’t even recognized the symptoms as malaria.
“Ah,” he said. “You have never had it before?”
“Well,” he said, “you will have it again.”
He checked his watch from time to time, and after twenty minutes or so he gave an order and our Toyota headed on down the road, with the other vehicles staying put for the time being. It took us only a couple of minutes to reach the government checkpoint. As before, young men in uniforms trained guns on us, and the same officious martinet strutted over and demanded to see the driver’s papers.
I had a blanket over my lap, and under it I held the machine pistol Ne Win had issued me. It was Czech-made, and I wondered what hands it had passed through before it got all the way to an outpost of Shan insurgents. What kind of tale would it tell if it could talk?
I wondered if our advance party was in position and ready. I wondered how long we’d last if they’d been delayed.
And then I lifted the Skoda a little, aiming across the body of the driver and through the open window at his side. And then, just as the little captain was making some sort of bureaucratic fuss over the driver’s papers, I triggered a burst into his chest.
And all hell broke loose.
Our sharpshooters had managed to get themselves into position, and my gunfire was their signal to open up on the troops who had their guns trained on the Toyota. We took them completely by surprise, and all the shooting was done by our side. Then our men were emerging from the brush at the side of the road, cheering, flushed with success. They piled up the bullet-ridden corpses of the government troop while Ne Win pointed his pistol in the air and fired three spaced shots, a signal to the rest of our forces. By the time they reached us, the jeeps and the troop carriers, the roadblock was dismantled and the weapons and ammunition of the dead enemy soldiers stowed in the trunk of the Toyota.
And we rolled on to attack their camp.
That took a little more doing. The government outpost had numerical superiority – around a hundred and fifty men to our forty – and enjoyed an advantage over us in weaponry. They were in a fortified compound, and had the edge of defending while we had to attack. All things being equal, they would have swamped us.
Fortunately, all things weren’t equal. We had the great advantage of surprise, and they had every reason to be surprised, having had not the slightest intimation of unrest among us. And how could they? There hadn’t been any unrest until my fevered speech – and fevered it was – had turned a quiet group of men into impassioned killers.
So they weren’t expecting us, and indeed a good many of them were still in their beds when we hit them. They responded quickly, I have to give them that, and they fought well, but they were outclassed. Along with everything else, we were better motivated. We were fighting to avenge an Australian durian-eater, and to bring glory to the Shan people, and to hasten the day when the Shan would take their place among the free and independent nations of the world.
They, on the other hand, were just fighting for their lives. They didn’t stand a chance.
We hit them fast and we hit them hard, and it was at once awful and wonderful, as warfare generally is. It catches you up and carries you away, as it has always done since the Israelites went up against the Midianites. I ran around just like all my comrades, firing my gun, dodging bullets that whined overhead, shooting men and seeing them die.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit what a thrill it was. But if combat weren’t exciting, if men didn’t love it, how could it have lasted for all these millennia? The pleasure’s diminished, of course, if you get wounded, and it stops altogether if you get killed. But if you emerge without a scratch, and if your team wins, I swear there’s nothing like it.
When it was over we piled our vehicles with their weapons, along with the sacks of rice and cases of canned goods and cartons of medical supplies we confiscated. Then, when the last of the prisoners had been shot, we placed our explosive charges, blew up the buildings, and headed back to camp.
I had just enough time to eat a meal and drink a pot of tea and tell Katya about the morning’s action. And then the malaria hit me.
It was worse the second day. I couldn’t lie still and it was torture to move. Everything hurt, and I was freezing and burning up all at once, and the fever had me out of my mind, hearing colors and seeing odors and tasting music. I had impassioned conversations with people I’d never met – Pyotr Kropotkin and Lajos Kossuth and Emilio Zapata, to name three who paid visits to my fever-wracked side. I had occasional moments of clarity, and I was just as glad when they were over, because my mind was such that I was better off out of it. Some of the time I was afraid I was going to die, and the rest of the time I was afraid I wasn’t.
I don’t know if the aspirin helped, or the quinine, but I took them when Katya gave them to me. I don’t know if the shwe le maw helped, either, but I drank deep when Katya held a cup to my lips. Sometimes it was boiled water and sometimes it was the orange brandy. Maybe it helped. It certainly didn’t hurt.
And sometime during the night the fever broke. Foul perspiration poured out of me in a flood, soaking the mattress under me and the covers piled on top of me. My pulse slowed and the pains in my limbs receded and I not only knew I was going to live, but I was even glad of it.
I looked up at her. “I think I saw angels,” I said, “and you were one of them.”
“You saw many people, Vanya. You had many conversations.”
“I remember the one with Kropotkin,” I said. “I was asking him about some points that always bothered me in his pamphlet, On Mutual Aid. And he answered my questions, but I can’t remember what he said.”
“He was not really here, Vanya.”
“Well, I know that,” I said. “Still, if his arguments were valid, it would be useful if I could remember them. Whether he was here or not.”
“You are here,” she said. “That is what is important.”
And damned if she didn’t slip under the covers with me, with predictable (but still surprising) results.
Afterward she curled up beside me and slept, her breath warm against my shoulder. I thought about the events of the day, and the horrible joys of war. The only part I hadn’t liked was when my Shan brothers had shot the handful of men who had tried to surrender. It was fairly standard – an insurgent army can’t be expected to care for prisoners, and the troops who’d thrown up their hands had done so with no real hope of survival. Ne Win’s men, never having signed the Geneva Convention, were not bound by it. They didn’t torture their prisoners, or mock them, or make cruel sport of them. They simply gunned them down.
I understood it, but I didn’t like it much. Aside from that, I had a distressingly good time. I shot some people before they could shoot me, I stood shoulder to shoulder with other like-minded men, and I had the good fortune to be on the winning side. When it was all over, we brought home six dead and four wounded, which had to rank as remarkably light casualties in a battle that had cost upward of a hundred and fifty government lives, plus the ten troops we’d gunned down at the roadblock checkpoint.