The Burdens We Choose

By SAMUEL CHANG

The fire starts to crackle, churning and churning as it exerts its stronghold inside the small pit. Just in time, too, as the sun is perched precariously over the last bit of sky. It’s going to be cold again, I can tell.

“Kanya, why don’t you come and sit over here? It’s too cold to be so far from the fire,” I call.

“I’m fine.”

“Kanya, please come sit here,” I throw in a little pleading, a little tenderness into my voice.

“I like this spot.”

I peer at her small frame. So bright and energetic most days, she has lately taken to long, reflective silences, barely showing any interest in food or conversation. Not that she is alone. The rest of the refugees in our makeshift camp are just as somber, going through the motions of each day with invisible weights draped across their backs. I swear some days I can hear chains scratching across the empty dirt. They have already given up. But I cannot. I do not think I would know how to give up on Kanya if I tried.

I plop myself down by her side, trying to conjure the right words from the swirling wind. The air is taut, thick with tension, but Kanya doesn’t seem to notice. She snuggles a little bit closer and leans her head into my shoulder. My heart leaps as I close my eyes – she is here, safe in my arms. For a moment everything is under control again: she is by my side, and nobody can take her away from me. I feel invincible.

“Preeda?”

“Mmm?” My eyes are still closed, the cold momentarily forgotten.

“Why do we have to keep running all the time?” Timid. Hesitant.

My eyes snap open. She was only seven, how much was she supposed to know? Was this really her burden to bear?

“I told you before,” I reply. “There are bad men out there. They destroyed our home, so now we have to go find our new home in America.”

This was true. The smooth-sounding government man whose voice came out of the radio every Saturday had called them “enemies of the state.” But not to worry, he had promised: Even as I speak, officials are rounding them up, and the iron grip of justice awaits all who had erred on the wrong side of the law. His voice, normally even and calm, had risen to a crescendo, peaking at “justice.”

My parents had smiled at us then, their faces warm with reassurance. See, they said. Nothing to worry about.

That night, our house burned to the ground. My parents had rushed straight into the crowd, trying to help the rest of the village evacuate before more rioters arrived. But first, Father had whispered urgent instructions in my ear. A town by the ocean. An uncle he had never talked about in America. A letter that was already halfway there. As the smoke roared and bellowed between the dying homes, I grabbed Kanya’s hand and slipped into the darkness. Father had turned back into the smoke, and within seconds my entire world was shrouded by layers and layers.

“It’s not fair.” More agitated. Angry, even. I’ve only seen this side of her a few times before, usually when she felt wronged by someone.

I turn and gaze soundlessly, hating myself for being so useless with words. In the books we had read at school, the characters always knew what to say, how to act. In fact, their words were scripted pages and pages before you even got there. Why didn’t it work that way in life?

“It’s not fair,” she repeats. “We never did anything to hurt them. We didn’t say anything wrong, or do anything wrong. Why, Preeda?”

I open my mouth, but stop. Little lights are coming out of the trees just past the camp. First one, then another, and then some more. Next, the cries of men, angry men. I feel my blood freeze solid, and my hands begin to shake. They had found us, and they were here. Why had I not seen this coming? I had put Kanya’s life in danger with my carelessness.

I look down the hill again. There is someone else rapidly approaching. I recognize Suda, the village healer. When I was little, her two sons had often lifted me up on to their shoulders, racing through the village so I could be a butterfly, or a whale. The day they left to join the fighting, some part of Suda’s spirit seemed to diminish, and her eyes had grown dim. She’s moving with a new energy now, though.

“Preeda,” she says. “I’m glad I found you before you left. I want you to have this.”

She holds out a basket. Inside, I see several loaves of bread, and an electric flashlight, with new batteries. I know what this means. It means saving precious hours by being able to travel at night. The bread is probably enough to make it to the little town with the boat.

“I can’t take this,” I say automatically. “It’s yours. You need it.”

“And I’m choosing to give it to you. Why won’t you accept what I freely relinquish?”

But I can’t. In my head, I watch as Mother orders me to my knees, ready to deliver a scorching tirade for even thinking about taking something that wasn’t rightfully mine.

Are we beggars? she asks. No – we are not parasites who survive by asking others to sacrifice when they already have too little. Do you understand?

Yes, mother. Of course I understand. I miss you already.

“It’s not fair,” I say. The words, which just a few minutes ago had flowed so naturally from my sister, feel empty and meaningless. To my surprise, the woman begins to laugh.

“Fair? What’s fair is that I am free to give this to whom I will. Are you so simple, Preeda, to believe that the world behaves by what is fair and right? The world stays sane because people everywhere choose to take unfairness on themselves so that others can thrive. Who is fairness that he thinks he can tell me what I should or should not do with my things? This is what I choose.”

“But there must be another way,” I insist. “Something that will not leave you without hope.”

“Of course there are other ways. But this is the best way, because it gives you the best chance to make it. You think that my hope and your hope must be separate, but this is not the case. I have decided to place my hope in you.”

She proffers the basket again. It swings gently, tantalizingly close…

A few hours later, I am guiding an exhausted Kanya through a narrow pathway, the flashlight beam streaming through the blackness. As my head droops, a cry pierces through the night. I point my flashlight up. A songbird is shrieking a self-composed melody at the top of its lungs. The noise is cacophonous, earsplitting after the many hours of silence. I am slightly irritated by its arrogance.

“Why is it so brave?” my sister asks. “Why doesn’t it run away like us?”

I think I know why. I cannot help but feel a smile tugging at my lips.

“The bird has someone watching over him. He feels safe because he knows that there is someone out there who will care for him and protect him. That’s why he sings.”

“But what about us?” Kanya wants to know.

“Well, someone was watching over us tonight,” I say, holding up the basket. “And always, Kanya, I will watch over you, because you are worth much more than just a little bird. You are everything to me.”

 

Chicago, United States

Dear Mr. Aromdee

I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing on behalf of my dear friend, your elder brother. As I am sure you are aware, the revolts in this country have continued to be severe. Your brother has recently confided in me that he does not expect to outlive the revolutions. I am therefore writing to secure the safety of his two daughters, Preeda (13) and Kanya (7). 

I understand that you have not spoken with your brother in many years. Nevertheless, I hope to convey to you that he still cares for you and continues to keep you in his prayers. We are pleading with you, Mr. Aromdee, for compassion. If the need arises, your brother will instruct his two daughters to take a ship bound for Baltimore, scheduled for arrival on March 25th. If you are willing, Mr. Aromdee, under US law you are able to take them in as their legal guardian and secure their place. As you know, without your support as a blood relative, the girls’ chances under current refugee laws are slim. 

I hope you understand the urgency of our cause. I can only hope that this letter finds you in a better place now than when you left for America all those years ago. 

Yours respectfully,

Stefan Juntasa   

 

Viktor looked up from the letter and removed his glasses, sighing. He had planned to visit the hospital today, but now he wasn’t so sure. The thought of his son seeing him so defeated was draining. Instead, he allowed the painful memories – memories he had trained himself to block – to wash over him. The curses he had rained down on his brother the night he left. Grandfather’s accusations of betrayal, spit flying from his mouth. He remembered the emotions, too – anger and rebellion that had coursed through his veins every hour of every day. That was almost fifteen years ago. Not a day went by where he didn’t wish for a way to make amends, to apologize for his childishness. But the boat ticket he had bartered for was a one-way ticket, and his childhood village did not have a postal address.

The daughters intrigued him. His brother had been engaged when he left, he knew. And now his brother was asking him to open his house to them, to raise them. A sudden dread came then, gripping his heart. He had not been able to afford all of his son’s medications the last two months without borrowing heavily from a friend. To take on two more mouths was an impossible order.

Revulsion filled his throat. His blood and kin needed him, and here he was evaluating monetary cost. Had he learned nothing from his past? His brother was probably dead, Viktor realized, startled. For the first time, he allowed a tear to leak onto his face. If it was true, there was no making amends. He had failed, just as he had failed all those years ago. The thought was plain, simple in his mind. And yet he found himself shaking uncontrollably, his mind an overwhelming torrent. For a brief moment he thought the earth would explode. And then he knelt and said his first prayer in nearly fifteen years:

Dear God, I do not know if you are out there, or whether or not you care for me. But I ask that you give my brother’s soul peace and comfort. Tell him that I miss him every day, and that I am so sorry for the hurt and pain that I caused him. I regret everything. God, I cannot even afford to take care of my son, let alone two more children. But if this is the justice I deserve, if this is how I am to make amends to my brother, then I choose to accept this task. I know it is impossible for me to undo what I’ve done. Please help me find a way, to be kind the way my brother was kind. Amen. 

 Viktor got up and picked up his alarm clock, winding it to 5 a.m. The drive to Baltimore would be nearly 11 hours, and he wanted an early start.

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”1

  1. Revelation 21:4 (ESV)

Sam Chang is a 3rd year MCB major who enjoys freewheel thinking but shows up late to everything.

 

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