(Originally aired 2021/10/31 - listen here)
The pandemic has brought a lot of odd mental blocks. One of mine is that, after contracting this year’s stories for the fiction series, and after contacting narrators for most of them back in February, I failed in my original goal of getting all the fiction recorded way ahead of time and being able relax for the rest of the year. I missed releasing a story at the end of July, as originally scheduled, and was starting to panic that I’d blow past another target this month. But this past week I put my sense of failure behind me, contacted my authors and narrators, and got everything set up. I’ll be airing an extra make-up fiction episode in December, and then completing the currently contracted stories in January, as planned. I’m now feeling better about going ahead with another fiction series in 2022. I’ll talk about that more in next week’s “On the Shelf” episode.
One of the changes I most long to see in fiction is the normalization of queer content and queer characters to the point where I can read almost any story and entertain the possibility that it will include sapphic characters. We’re still a long way from that point, and it means that often we still find ourselves looking primarily to romance stories for a promise of representation. But one of the things I specifically wanted to do in the podcast fiction series was to have space for stories that allow for--but don’t require—romance in order to provide you with fiction centering women who love women. Stories where the characters can carry that possibility while still telling other types of stories.
Mandy Mongkolyuth’s story “Moon River” is one of these. Set in the late 19th century, during the violence of British colonial expansion in Burma, this is a story of young women caught between futures, between cultures, between expectations, between hope and fear.
Mandy Mongkolyuth was born in Thailand. She has lived in both the UK and the US, and is constantly finding a new place to be from. She is a policy analyst by day and spends the rest of her free time penning hopeful stories about people who don't exactly know where they belong. She can be found on tumblr at @mandiliorian. (Check the show notes for a link with the correct spelling.)
I will be the narrator for this story.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
The fight was over. The final gunshot rang out and the last king bowed, his crown left to ruin on the floor.
It came down to rumors and hearsay. The British razed a teak forest. The Burmese violated some proceeding or another. Perhaps it was the other way around? In the end, it didn’t matter. The British were looking for any excuse to take Burma, and they would have done it over a sliver of wood.
Besides, gunpowder cared not for whom it was lit. Here, in 1885, the British had more of it, so victory was theirs.
And history cared not for a girl. A young woman suffocating under the unbearable sense of wrongness all over the place was an insignificant sight. Tara’s family was not of this land, but they reaped the fruits of it anyway. Her father was a member of the British Embassy, as of now, the government. She was told her mother died giving birth to her in India, but who knew if that was true? Her father did not tell her things.
A daughter simply didn’t inspire the same modicum of grace extended toward a son.
Tara was not told a lot of things, but she made up for it by taking in messages that weren’t meant for her anyway, the last of which compelled her to shear her hair and tie it with a ribbon, bind her chest with a long piece of cloth, and put on the guard's uniform she had been pilfering piece by piece over the last few weeks. Thanks to her father’s careful aristocratic breeding, Tara was much taller than most women around her. She’d supposed she had her mother’s side to thank for her complexion. With her cropped hair and olive skin, she could easily pass for a guard or a servant within the British compound.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the best way to carry out a cloak and dagger operation was to not use any illusion at all. People would notice a man skulking around in the shadow, but none would look twice at a resident’s guard striding to a post, so Tara took a calming breath, held her head high, straightened her spine, and began walking.
It wasn’t a difficult choice when all was said and done. She turned twenty this year and according to her father, had become far too old to be leeching off his estate. Some respectable naval officer or lord was going to marry her for her dowry and whisk her off to the civilized land of London society that sneered at her every time she set foot on its soil. In this magical scenario, she would be the new crown jewel of the city and get out of her father’s hair in the process.
The problem was, Tara was wholly uninterested in men, British men in particular.
They were invaders. Vermin. They were what remained when kingdoms rose and fell, ravishing the lands without regard for any blood sacrifice and Tara might have been a coward, as her former maid once said, but she wasn’t a monster. She would not stand tall as a conqueror while the people of this land suffered beneath her feet.
So she walked on. The residence was bursting at the seam despite the late hours. Messengers and diplomats mingled to exchange news of their new conquest, a new empire, so the sun may never set on British soil. How nauseating.
“Where do you think you are going?” A voice startled her.
“The south gate. My order was to stop anyone trying to get in.” This too, was well-rehearsed. The south gate opened up to the city proper, and an attack from disgruntled locals was likely to happen there.
“We do not need more men there. Let me see your papers.” The man spoke again. Tara took him in. She had seen him once or twice in her father’s presence, only in large official functions. Likely to be a mid-range officer then.
“Do you question the governor’s order? Take it up with him if you are so inclined. He directed my unit to the south gate and that’s where you will find me after your little talk.”
It was a roll of the dice. She had a knife, and she could probably wield it if need be, but that would draw attention and she couldn’t afford a derailment so early in the night. With the confidence of a king, she raised her chin once more and marched toward the south gate. If anything, the confusion would give her a few minutes to make a run for it.
Thankfully, the pseudo commander was just baffled enough to allow her to move away. From there, she blended into a group of men in identical uniforms and let darkness shelter her features. Tara kept walking, not too fast to arouse suspicion again, but her skin prickled with the fear of being trapped inside this compound, this world, for good.
She could see the south gate in the distance. Two hundred yards from her.
A gust of wind blew some dirt into her eyes, she ducked, blinked it away. A hundred yards now.
She had to stop herself from sprinting the last few steps, and then she was out.
She was outside of her father’s residence by herself for the first time in over a year. No chaperones. No guards. The escape was almost too simple. The men were supposed to keep people out, anyhow.
Tara made her way toward the market, where she had bribed a dressmaker into finding her a passage to Siam. Burma might be falling into an invader’s hands, but the neighboring Siam was still hanging on by a thread. The country was fast becoming the only independent land in the Indochinese Peninsula, and Tara would seek her freedom there.
The street was a stone’s throw from her father’s headquarters, but it might as well be a world away. Inside the residence, people were gleefully celebrating while preparing for a counterattack. The street, however, was solemn. It was what happened when a whole city had resigned to its fate. It was fatigue and hopelessness that got to the people, not the blood on the street. And who could blame them? People have the right to choose peace without justice over being buried in an unmarked grave in the name of freedom.
No one bothered her as she advanced. The uniform combined with her height made her an imposing figure on the street. Women averted their eyes and men moved away from her path. Tara fought down her tears at the casual cruelty of it all. After all the atrocities she had seen and heard, it was the simple gestures of submission that would do her in, but she needed to focus. The market was harder to navigate at night; she had never been here alone, and she took a wrong turn twice before emerging at the correct street.
The street had become a plain, charred to the ground with no evidence of its glorious past.
The rickety dress shop had no hope against gunpowder and fire.
Tara is so, very, certainly, hopelessly fucked.
She had to find another way out, preferably soon. The market was the center of the city, but Taunggyi was a moderately important trade route. As the little sister of the Mekong River, the Salween made Taunggyi a critical halfway point between China and Siam.
Yes, the river.
The dock would be the natural port of departure for anyone wanting to leave the city anyway. Tara cursed herself for not thinking of the river sooner, but with limited windows to act, she had pinned her hopes on the dressmaker’s contact. She hoped the lady was not in the shop when the fight went down, but sent out a quiet prayer in the case that she was.
She had another go at wandering the vaguely familiar city. The smoke and shadow made for a nervous journey, but she had been to the dock with her father often and she knew a shortcut they would take to avoid beggars and overzealous tradesmen looking to curry favor with the British.
Tara strode on, certain of her destination, she turned into a small alley and broke into a run. At least she hadn’t been followed, her father was unlikely to notice her absence until the morning.
She should have stopped to knock on a piece of wood at that thought. As soon as she let her guard down, she heard footsteps and chatters. She quickened her pace and gripped the dagger in her pocket.
The first blow came entirely unexpected. A man seemingly materialized on her right, and a fist made contact with her temple. Tara swayed to the side, the breath knocked out of her.
“Bloody cockroach,” he spat as he lunged at her. “A British officer here, come on!” Three more people joined him, tackling her to the ground. She felt a kick to her side and the pain exploded all over her body. Blood and tears trickled down unprompted, temporarily blinding her. She could defend herself, but Tara against one man was a stretch and she had no chance against four of them. Several blows rained down on her stomach and a foot stomped down. Hard.
With the last of her strength, Tara freed her hair and begged in the local dialect. “Please, please, I ran away. I’m from here too, please let me go.”
That bought her a few precious seconds that unfortunately, wasn’t enough.
“No, you are not. You are one of them, and you will pay,” the first man snarled. He yanked her hair back, sending another blazing pain down her neck. “We’ll ransom her,” he said, dragging her up to her feet when a cry distracted all of them.
“Mama! Mama!” a boy of seven or eight wailed. He barreled into her and started sobbing into her coat. “We thought we lost you! Auntie is worried sick and Pim wouldn’t stop crying.”
Right on cue, a small girl who couldn’t be older than four came out screaming. She, too, begged Tara to come home. The girl turned her enormous eyes toward the four men and cried into their trousers.
“Did you save my mama? Thank you. Thank you, sir.”
The boy joined her, nodding vigorously. “She is all we have. Our father is dead, and we got separated at the market during the raid today.”
The men were shocked into silence and the children started dragging Tara away, telling her gibberish about a porridge and a warm bed at home.
As soon as they turned the corner, Tara regained her wits and stopped short.
“Are you lost? Are you looking for your mother? When did you last see her?”
A hiss sounded, and a slight figure rushed out from a corner, followed by two more children of various ages. She spoke in accented English, “Are you stupid? Bloody walk! Quickly before they change their damn minds and just take all of you.”
A young woman half dragged, half carried her along the path to the main street.
“Damn it, you are bleeding a lot. What in God’s name are you doing out here at this hour anyway?”
“Should you be swearing so much in front of these children?” Tara asked, genuinely struggling, either because of the physical pain or the shock or both, she wasn’t sure. They were moving into another alley off the main street; this one also bore the brunt of the attack earlier today. Half the shop fronts were destroyed, but the other half were still holding on through sheer force of will.
“Oh, Lord. We just rescued you from what would have been a fairly certain doom. The whole city was burned to the ground not five hours ago and you are worried about propriety?” her rescuer asked, incredulous.
“I know all the bad words already!” the little girl piped up.
The adult cackled involuntarily. “Yes, yes, Pim, as your teacher, I am very proud.” The gang maneuvered into a semi-intact structure, and another child was instructed to fetch clean water.
The children efficiently barred all the windows and the doors, then someone lit a candle and put it on the floor, leaving the space in semi-darkness.
“We don’t want anyone to see the flame and come to investigate, do we?” the woman said.
With some illumination, she realized that the woman was barely older than Tara herself, a girl, was a more appropriate term. She looked hardly old enough to be a childminder, let alone a governess to four children.
“What...just happened?” Tara ventured.
The other girl ruffled through a small valise and found a clean kerchief. “What happened was, we were minding our own business and we heard you shrieking from a street corner that, frankly, should not be visited by any sane person. We had to get you out, and we couldn’t exactly fight them off, could we?” She sighed and poured the presumably clean water out onto the cloth and dabbed it on Tara’s temple.
“Ouch! What is that?” It burned.
She sniffed the bottle and turned to the boy who fetched it. “What the devil, Bira? This isn’t water.”
“I couldn’t find any clean water and my da said rice wine is best for cleaning wounds. There were loads of bottles left on the street,” the child defended his choice. “Da would know, he was a boxer.”
“Oh blast it. Consider it the best we can do then. Now, hold on, princess, this is going to sting,”
“I am well aware of that,” Tara replied dryly. She gritted her teeth, but the process seemed to be finished before she had a chance to take in her surroundings. The children, while dressed in rags, were impeccably clean and polite. Pim, the youngest one, regarded her curiously but kept her distance. The semi-adult was obviously the authority here. She was nearly as small as the oldest child, but her wide stance, blazing eyes, and clear voice brooked no argument. Her raven hair was bound into a neat bun atop her head and her fingers were deft and callous, testaments to a life not comfortably lived.
“Now, I’m Chan and these are my students. You met Pim and Tien, who are siblings. Bira is the oldest at thirteen, and Nong here is eight,” the governess, Chan, gestured vaguely in the direction of her charges. “We are in a hurry, so here’s what you are going to do. You are going to tie your hair back up and march out onto the main street. Stick to the busy areas and get home. Good luck. Goodbye.”
“Wait! Can I repay you somehow? Where are you going? I can help!” Tara said, clinging on to Chan’s hand.
Chan, for that matter, gave her an unimpressed look. “We are leaving Taunggyi and we were the ones who had to liberate you earlier if you’d recall. I’ve got my hands full with these children and we can’t afford another delay. You are British, or somewhat British anyway, so just go, enjoy your privilege. Some of us have to try to survive the new dawn.”
Tara was being given a new chance and she wasn’t going to let it slip by. “I have money, matches, knives, jewelry that could be traded, and I pocketed a few silvers on my way out. A second adult in the group can’t hurt, right?”
“You don’t even know where we are going.”
“As long as it is anywhere but here.”
# # #
It was probably, definitely, a mistake to let a strange British girl tag along with them. Chan already had more problems than she cared to count. The children needed to walk faster. Their money needed to stretch enough. The men needed to not look twice at them. The list went on and on and now, voila! She had a companion.
The newcomer, Tara, was plainly wealthy and had at least one British ancestor. She was taller than most Burmese men, with bright green eyes, a straight nose and full lips. This was all a terrible omen. Average women didn’t draw anyone’s attention, striking women couldn’t escape it even if they tried.
Chan pressed the bridge of her nose. Hell, it was bad enough with four orphans, now she went and adopted a fugitive on the run. Tara couldn’t be anything but, since well-to-do British ladies didn’t just decide to pack up and face the unknown for no discernible reason. An abusive family or husband, most likely. It was a pity Chan had always been a reckless fool when it came to lost causes, so why not one more?
They slowly made their way to the dock. It was close to midnight, and the city thankfully drifted off to sleep. They kept their chatter to a minimum until they reached a long stretch of road without any structures. The group had been walking for two hours and the children begged for a short break and they found a small clearing off the side of the road, away from prying eyes.
“Tara, where did you come from?” Pim couldn’t hold her curiosity at bay any longer. The children stared at Tara, expectantly.
“You don’t have to answer.” Chan quickly sent a severe look out to quiet her students. “We don’t need to know anything about you, nor you us. We part as soon as we reach Siam safely.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” Tara said airily. She did not have many friends growing up. Being dragged along from one continent to another would do that to anyone. It didn’t help that her father was a faithful follower of the children-must-be-seen-not-heard philosophy and had never thought to provide her with a playmate. She had never called someone a friend until Mei came along.
Forcing a wave of longing down her throat at that thought, she smiled broadly at the children and started, “I was born in India, just north of here. My mother was Indian and my father was a government officer from England. I moved to London when I was ten, then I lived in Java and Shanghai too. What about you?”
Chan interrupted the children’s chorus of replies, “Alright, we must continue. We still have to get to the pier before dawn.” She swiftly ushered the children up and started herding them out of the clearing, but she lingered in the back next to Tara.
“You are speaking too freely,” Chan muttered.
Tara, to her surprise, snorted an unladylike laugh. “You are a governess ushering a ragtag band of children to illegally cross the border to see their parents, I assume? What are you going to do after saving me? Signal a British guard to beat me up and drench me in rice wine again?”
Chan regarded her new companion. The girl was so naive; it was disconcerting to think of leaving her to fend for herself. “Here is what I don’t understand. You are clearly harmless, wealthy, pretty, and absolutely, unbearably delusional. What could have possessed you to want to come along with us?”
Tara was quiet for a moment, clearly weighing her answer before making a careful reply. “I am to be married off to a man I am certain I could not love, then I’d either live in this land as a thief or in England as an exotic ornament. I was too different here in the far east, too dark in the west, and I could never figure out where I belong. It all changed in the past year when I had a lady’s maid, Mei. She was kind and fearless and she taught me the value of standing up for myself. She showed me that I could be happy, that we all deserve to be happy.” She shook her head in an apparent effort to keep her voice steady. “She knew the city would fall and she was running away with her family and I begged and begged her to let me come. I could clean. I had money. I could help. But she wouldn’t budge. She wouldn’t be owned by an invader any more than she would die a slave, so off she went, but not before asking me if I could live as a conqueror in a foreign land forever. So, here I am, trying to find a place I belong.”
“You must be pulling my leg,” Chan exclaimed, disbelieving.
“A place you belong? Who gives a toss about that? These children are orphans, Tara. They have no parents to speak of, and I wasn’t going to let them become indentured servants under the British rule just because I have been teaching them English at the church’s poor house. They barely had a chance here and crossing this cursed river was my last resort. Go back to your father. Pick a kind husband. You have the luxury of surviving here, so don’t risk it for some inane concept of belonging. No peasant has ever thought about belonging anywhere, I can guarantee you that. They are lucky if they have a roof over their head and a bowl of rice for a day.”
She could understand the impulse of running away when forced with the prospect of marrying a man. She had long understood that her attraction belonged firmly to the fairer sex, but plenty of people, men and women both, married not for love. If Chan’s alternative was a wealthy husband and a house she could keep her students in, she knew the choice she would make. By necessity and absolutely nothing else, she was forced to pack up and took a hammer to the church’s poor box on her way out. The chest was not exactly overflowing with actual charity, but it was enough to get them a safe passage to Siam and then some.
“But you belong with them,” Tara said quietly. Chan gave her a disbelieving glance and she spoke again, resolute, “The children formed a tight circle around you. They listened to everything you said but they do not fear you. I am on the outside looking in, and I thought, what wouldn’t I give to have someone love me so completely? I’m allowed to want that much, I think.”
Chan was not entirely convinced it was reason enough to play dice with the devil, but who was she to decide for Tara? Especially since she was also risking drowning for a chance of freedom? The rich girl was strangely resilient. She had kept the pace and hadn’t grumbled once about her bruises and cuts, which couldn’t have been comfortable and Chan begrudgingly respected her for it. She nudged Tara’s shoulder slightly with her own. “Well, keep being nice to the children and we’ll see about you belonging somewhere then.”
She felt rather than saw Tara trying to hide her smile.
They made it to the dock and Chan looked for her contact, a Siamese man named Manat. She had reasonable faith in the man’s desire to get the rest of his promised fee, but with Tara as an additional passenger, the price was certainly going to be extortionate. With an idea, she herded her little band of misfits to a small hill with a clear view of the dock.
“Bira, you come with me. Princess, you stay here with the rest.” The kids started protesting, and Pim’s lips were quivering with barely restrained terror, so Chan crouched down to level a look at them. “I just need to see if it is safe for us here. I will always come back for you, alright? Tara will tell you stories about England for a few minutes, yes?” Tara nodded tightly, understanding the gravity of the situation.
Chan made her way toward the promised tugboat. Manat was loitering with a few tradesmen, eager to make off with as much spoils as possible. Chan cleared her throat, and he jumped.
“Goodness, Chan, I asked you to stop doing that,” he said, throwing his cheroot to the ground. Chan swallowed her protest. In a fallen kingdom, no one took notice if the land was aflame.
“We are ready to go, but before that I--” she began, but Manat interrupted. “Just you two? This will make it a lot easier.” He whistled and two men emerged from the shadows. Before she could react, one enveloped her, and the other took Bira in his arms.
“Get off me! Damn you, we had an agreement!” Chan kicked and bit her assailant, gasping in vain for breath and reaching out for Bira. “Don’t hurt him! He’s just a child.”
Manat huffed a mocking laugh. “You were paying me a pittance to smuggle you and four useless children across the border, but that one is old enough to earn his passage. Farmers are paying pretty pennies for Burmese laborers, so you two can make yourselves useful. Think of it this way, now you don’t have to watch me drown the other brats.”
Chan still kicked and fought, but they stuffed her mouth with cotton. After a while, a strange calmness took over. At least Tara could take the children somewhere safe. She would have to figure something out for her and Bira, but they would survive. They always had.
They were dragged onto a tugboat and Chan tried to plead with the men not to tie Bira down when she felt the boat unmoor.
Then the ground shifted beneath them.
Screams came in from every direction.
Bira broke free and used his right hook to knock one of their captors off.
And the boat was flooded with flames.
# # #
Tara heard Chan’s scream when she realized what happened. The deal unraveled before her eyes and she could see Bira being carried off. Pim began to wail and she clamped her hand on the child’s mouth to silence her.
Think of something. Think of something. Anything.
Her own wounds were still throbbing all over and she wasn’t sure what she could do at the moment.
“The rice wine, where is it?”
“What? Are you going to get drunk now?” Nong retorted, but she got the bottles out. Tara stuffed one bottle with her blood-stained kerchief and another with a torn piece of cloth ripped from her sleeve.
She turned to Nong and struck a match.
“How good is your aim?”
# # #
When the boat was ablaze and chaos reigned, they shouted for Chan and Bira.
Gambling with their voices in English, Tara and the children bellowed for them to swim, over and over again, hoping against hope to attract their friends’ attention and no one else's.
She spotted two figures wading the shallow water toward them and Tara looked around for another way out. The crowd was surrounding the spectacle, and some tried to put out the fire, while small paddy boats lay abandoned everywhere. She made for the nearest one, which was barely big enough to carry them all, but it was better than nothing.
They pulled Chan and Bira up and made their way downstream as soon as their hands could touch the oars.
“Quick! Quick! We have to get out of here,” Chan muttered furiously. She was completely soaked but was paddling as fast as she could.
“What in the devil’s name do you think we have been doing?” Tara shot back.
They made it to the river’s bend and the shouting behind them raged on.
Finally, they could breathe again. Chan gave her a disbelieving look and started laughing maniacally. The children looked around, then at one another, bewildered.
Once started, it was impossible to stop. Tara joined her and they all ended up holding onto their stomachs, fighting for breath. They were safe, somehow. They were on their way to Siam and they would get to start their lives anew in a few hours, battled and bruised, but free.
“Alright, alright, enough now.” Another chuckle was let out.
Chan turned to her and looked her firmly in the eyes. “Thank you, Tara. You miraculous, demented fool. You saved our lives. And thank you. All of you. I have never been more proud of my family.”
The children all tried to get up and embrace their teacher at once, nearly tipping the boat upside down. When the commotion died down, Chan turned to Tara once more, nodded, and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead.
“You are stuck with us now.”
Tara’s heart skipped a beat as she debated whether she should return the gesture or risk a more intimate one. In the end, she settled for lacing her fingers with Chan’s. They would have plenty of time to find out where this leads.
Her reverie was interrupted by Tien’s voice.
“We have to name this boat.”
“It’s barely a boat, more like a raft,” Bira said.
“She is our boat and she is a good one. It is bad luck not to name her. She is keeping us safe, and she needs a name,” Tien reiterated, sounding near hysterical.
Nong stepped in and broke the impending argument. “Moon River, obviously.”
“That is not obvious to me at all?” Tara replied, but Chan began to giggle like a student instead of their formidable governess. Being in the water was doing strange things to her.
“Our names. Tara means river in these parts of the world and Chan is just Burmese for the moon. So, here we are, Moon River.” Chan’s face softened under the starlight; all her worry lines smoothed out, and Tara’s chest tightened with unfamiliar emotions. Perhaps it was a feeling of purpose, a new hope for their endless possibilities, or a simple, assured sense of belonging.
“And I would not be anywhere else but here.”
Chan only clasped her hand tighter in reply.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “Moon River” by Mandy Mongkolyuth, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Mandy Mongkolyuth Online