BREATHING WATER, CH 2 — The Contest Continues

August 13th, 2009

Here’s the second chapter of BREATHING WATER. If you haven’t read Chapter One and want a chance to win one of five signed copies of the book, go down to the post below this one, read Chapter One and answer the question at the bottom of the page.  Then come back and read this one.  If you’ve already read Chapter One and answered the question, then read Chapter Two, which is much shorter, and answer Question Number Two.


Mud Between Her Toes

The boy sees her go, assessing her without even thinking about it: Just got here.  Still got mud between her toes. Doesn’t know anything.  Looks stunned, like someone hit her in the face with a pole.

The baby’s not hers.  Too pale.

He thinks, Another one.

The nervous man behind him slows again.  The boy hesitates grudgingly, feeling like he’s trying to lead a cat.  For a moment weariness washes over him like warm water.  He longs to disappear into the crowd and leave the foreigner to fend for himself, but the others are waiting, and they’re hungry.

“Come on,” he says in English.  “Nothing to worry.”

“I don’t know,” the man says.

The boy stops.  He draws a deep breath before he speaks; it will not do to show frustration.  “What problem now?”

“It’s not dark enough.”

“When it dark,” the boy says, “they all gone.”

“Just ten minutes,” the man says.  He is in his forties, with hair brushed forward over a plump baby’s face that seems to be mostly lower lip.  Despite his eagerness not to be noticed, he wears a bright yellow shirt and green knee-length shorts across wide hips.  A fanny pack dangling below his belly thoughtfully announces the location of his valuables.  To the boy, he looks as conspicuous as a neon sign.

“Ten minutes too long.”  The boy’s eyes, tight-cornered and furious, skitter across the man’s face as though committing the features to some permanent archive, and then he turns away with a shrug.

The man says, “Please.  Wait.”

The boy stops.  Plays the final card.  “Come now.  Come now or go away.”

“Okay, okay.  But don’t walk so fast.”

The sun is gone now, leaving the sky between the buildings a pale violet through which the evening star has punched a silver hole.  The boy sometimes thinks the sky is a hard dome lit inside by the sun and the moon, and peppered with tiny openings.  From the outside the dome is bathed in unimaginable brilliance, and that light forces its way through the pinpricks in the sky to create the stars.  If the sky dissolved, he thinks, the light from outside would turn the earth all white and pure, and then it would catch fire like paper.  But in the dazzling moment before the flames, it would be clean.

“We go slow,” he says.  There may not be another man tonight.  The crowds on the sidewalk are thinning.  The kids are hungry.  He drags his feet to prevent the man from falling behind.

The man says, “You’re handsome.”

“No,” the boy says without even turning his head.  “Have better than me.”

They turn a corner, into an east-west street.  They are walking west, so the sky pales in the sun’s wake until it slams up against a jagged black line of buildings.  Before he returned to Bangkok, this city he hates, the boy had grown used to the soft, leaf-dappled skyline of the countryside.  The horizon here is as sharp as a razor cut.

“There,” the boy says, indicating with his chin.  “The window.”

Across the street, nine impassive children loiter against the plate glass of a store window.  They wear the filthy clothing of the street, mismatched and off-size. Three of the five boys are eye-catchingly dirty.  The four girls, who look cleaner, range in age from roughly eleven to fourteen.  The boys look younger, but it might just be that girls in their early teens grow faster than boys.

They pay no attention to the man and the boy across the street.

“Keep walking,” the boy says.  “Don’t slow down too much, but look at the window, like you’re shopping.  When we get around the corner, tell me the sex and the color of the shirt of the one you want.  Or take two or three.  They don’t cost much.

The man looks toward the shop window.  “Then what?” he asks.

“Then they come to the hotel,” the boy says.

QUESTION:  What does “mud between her toes” mean?  (a) Da’s barefoot.  (b) Her feet are dirty. (c) She’s just come from the countryside.

16 Responses to “BREATHING WATER, CH 2 — The Contest Continues”

  1. Walt Pascoe Says:

    I’m going to take a risk and speak up w/o waiting to crib from one of the smart people 🙂
    It’s (c) She’s just come from the countryside.
    (And is on the street w/ her new prop.)

    ” A fanny pack dangling below his belly thoughtfully announces the location of his valuables.” Painful !

    BTW, I thought of you yesterday when I came across this :

  2. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    I’d say option C, but I have to take a shower. I hope this icky guy gets what’s coming to him. Maybe someone should hit him in the face with a pole?

    captcha: Dwayne content

  3. Raymond Says:

    (c) She’s just come from the countryside. The sentence after it – “Doesn’t know anything.” gave me the clue.

    BTW, I like how animated your style of narrative is. It’s as if I’m watching dark noir!

  4. Sammy Says:

    C! Fresh from the countryside!

    I can see what is coming but can’t turn away. Anyway, it would be a much more grievous sin to turn away, I know.

  5. Helen Kiker Says:

    It means that she’s just come from the countryside.

    Helen K

  6. Greg Says:

    You can take the girl out of the country but can’t take the country out from between her toes.

    More beautiful prose, Tim. I was struck by the image of dazzling light sanitizing the earth; such a poignant glimpse into the boy’s psyche.

  7. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I’m going for (c) too and I didn’t even have to phone a friend.

    This is quite painful to read it’s so vivid.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Boy, what a smart bunch. Here’s some good news and some bad news. First, you’re not going to see what happens, so don’t worry. Second, we’ll never see the farang again, although we will see what happened to him, and you’ll be okay with it, I promise. And his interest in these kids is not philanthropic.

    And I know I asked you to lavish praise on me, but I have to admit that I enjoy it, especially when the things you pick out are the things I liked best when I wrote them.

    Walt, for example — the line about the fanny pack. I sat back and thought, I could quit for the day with a clear conscience, or I could behave as if this weren’t one-off dumb luck but rather the beginning of a streak. I did the latter, and the whole scene came in about 90 minutes. (In first-draft form, of course.) And thanks for the Barthes quote. He’s more theoretical about writing than I can afford to be (I need to be able to continue to do it) but I always find him fascinating.

    Cynthia, I hope you enjoyed your shower. He does, and although we see it happen later, it’s not to him but to another like him.

    Raymond, thanks for the noir note. I love noir and occasionally think I write it, but I’m always afraid to say so. There are people who are really, really protective about their definition of noir.

    Sammy, I turn away for you. It’s one thing (I think) to write ABOUT this, as a problem that exists, and another to actually write it. Writers who do have to be very, very careful they’re not trying to have it both ways — write for shock value while also claiming the moral high ground. Nabokov succeeded, but I can’t think of anyone else, although there certainly are more.

    Helen — Dead on. Oops, I shouldn’t give it away. By the way, this is a real Thai expression.

    Greg: (A) very funny, and (b) that’s another piece I liked when I wrote it. I almost cut it twice in later passes, but this is a kid who’s seen the world at its absolute worst.

    fairyhedgehog, the next chapter isn’t painful unless you object morally to people playing poker.

    Good guesses, all.

  9. Sean Bunzick Says:

    Well, it’s fairly easy and yeah, I HAVE been beaten by other people but I will go with C.) as well. This girl IS fresh in from the rice paddies. You can find them easy enough in a delightful-yet-hellish metropolis like Bangkok but if the girls get into the nightworld trade, the mud washes away most quickly from their toes and it has not a thing to do with the monsoon downpours. Once this event happens, you can honestly think Miss Noi/Lek/Daeng/Goong from Nakhon Nowhere has been in Bangkok for ages but I’ve chatted with a few of the bargirls and some have only been in the trade a few months; like combat, one ages fast in this environment.
    As for the fanny pack, well, that’s also a person in Bangkok who would have been called an FNG in Vietnam.
    Keep it coming, Tim–it’s getting better by the second!

  10. Philip Coggan Says:

    You have a gift for narrative – for connecting incident to incident in a continuous web. I’m surprised at the use of present tense, but it works – heightens the immediacy. I’m surprised also at how short the chapters are – these are in full?

  11. Susan Says:

    Just came from the countryside. Wow – I can’t wait to read the rest. Gripping.

  12. Zelda Says:

    Just came from the countryside……

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    The hits just keep coming.

    Sean, don’t worry about being beaten. Some people are just really fast off the mark. And while it’s true that the bar girls acclimate quickly, I think it’s always wise to remember that they started like Da, not knowing which end is up. (I’m writing about this right now — THE ROCKS, which is the next Poke, brings Rose to Bangkok) so I’ve been thinking about it. And thanks for saying it’s getting better.

    Philip, I appreciate the narrative note. I don’t plot, per se, so it’s always amazing to me when all these scenes, which arrive sort of like separate telegrams, actually mesh together. I think one thing I’ve learned in that regard is always to be really sure what time it is. Nothing knits scenes together like a tight, clear time line. How’s the rewrite coming?

    Susan — on the nose, and one more chapter is on the way before the book hits the stores and Amazon on the 18th f this month.

    Zelda, I can’t tell you whether you’re right because that would give it away, but you’re right. (Suspense is such a cheap effect.)

  14. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    It’s after 9 pm on 8/15, so I’m counting this day as OVER. Only two more and a wake up (as we say in the Army!).

    captcha: methane Biaggi

    Now there’s a name for a character! Didn’t he play third base for Houston?

  15. Rachel Brady Says:

    Fun. I took care to post before reading the comments this time. Looks like I’m in good company. 🙂 I have two Hallinans going at the same time now… Early Breathing Water and The Fourth Water. Good times.

  16. Bob Mueller Says:

    yep, Tim downtown Seoul …. Bob

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