HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DR. SIRI
I celebrate the dawn of my seventy-fourth birthday handcuffed
to a lead pipe. I’d had something more traditional
in mind: a few drinks with my new wife, some gay molum
music on the record player, shellfish plucked fresh from
the Mekhong. But here
I am in Hades and not a balloon in
sight. My ex-roommate, a gray-faced youth in his early twenties,
is chained by the ankle to the far end of the same pipe.
They dragged the boy in during the night and we struggled
to communicate. We scratched for words to share. But as
soon as he understood that we were different animals in
the same abattoir, tears of despair carved uneven grooves
down his bloody cheeks. I could do nothing but sit back
against the flaking plaster and watch the life drain from
him. He didn’t live to greet the new day. When the sun
finally sneered through the wire mesh of the window, it
cast a shadow like a fisherman’s net across the body. The
corpse lay trapped, expired from the effort of untangling
itself from all this unnecessary misery. But his soul was free.
I envied him that.
I am Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national and only coroner of
the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, a medical man, a
humanitarian, but I’m still unable to summon an appropriate
emotion. I listened through the night to the sobs and screams
of my unseen neighbors. I didn’t understand the words they
cried but I knew people were being killed all around me. I
scented their essence and saw their fleeing spirits. I am well
aware that I will soon be joining them. Yet the overriding
thought in my mind is that I didn’t have the foresight to
say goodbye or thank you to the people I love. That sounds
corny, I know, but what’s wrong with corny? It has its place.
I wonder whether they might know instinctively. Really. I
wonder whether they’ve been able to see through this crusty,
annoyingly stubborn exterior to the warm and fluffy Siri that
nestles barely visible inside me. If only I could squeeze the hand
of Madame Daeng one final time, ruffle the newly permed hair
of Mr. Geung, sniff the cheeks of Nurse Dtui and her milkscented
baby, and slap Inspector Phosy on the back. If only I
could raise one last glass with my best friend, Civilai. But those
opportunities will never come. The amulet that protected
me from the malevolent spirits was ripped from my neck,
stolen by one of the teenaged guards. I am exposed. Once
the ghosts are aware their enemy is unprotected, they will
circle me like hungry jungle dogs and close in for the kill.
All things considered, at this almost final analysis, I am
The woman read from the carbon copy in front of her. The
sheet was of such proportions as to defy filing and of such
poor quality that it was almost inevitable the words would
be sucked back into the fibers like invisible ink returning
whence it had emerged. The clerk had a pleasant voice,
soothing like honey balm, and the two old men opposite
stared at her luscious lips as she spoke.
“Of course, it isn’t finalized,” she smiled. “But it will certainly
read something like this.” She coughed. “The People’s
Democratic Republic of Laos would have it known
that Dr. Siri Paiboun, national coroner, hero of the Revolution
and lifetime member of the Communist Party, passed
away on the second of May 1978. Dr. Siri had fought tirelessly
and fearlessly for the Revolution and was—”
“Fearlessly first,” one of the men interrupted.
“It would be better to have ‘fearlessly’ before ‘tirelessly,’
then nobody would be in doubt as to whether he’d been
tired out by the lack of fearing.”
“Absolutely,” the second man agreed.
“What? Hmm. I’m not sure I understand that.” But the
girl conceded the point and made a note on the pad beside
her. “I’ll mention it to Comrade Sisavee. It is only the first
draft but, to tell the truth, we called you in to check on the
factual, rather than the syntactical elements of the eulogy.
We have people to deal with all the technicalities in later
versions. I’ll read on if I m—”
“And ‘was struck down dead’ has a more heroic ring to
it,” the second old man said. “That’s factual.”
“Rather than ‘passed away,’” he added. “‘Passed away’
makes it sound like bodily wind, a collection of stomach
gases on their way out. Do you know what I mean? We’re
talking about heroism here. Heroes don’t just ‘pass’ like
flatulence in a strong breeze.”
“With or without scent,” added the first man most
The clerk glared from one old gentleman to the next,
then back to the first.
“Are you playing with me?” she asked sternly.
“Certainly not, sweet young lady,” said the skinnier of the
two men. He was bald as a bowling ball with a long camellike
throat sporting an Adam’s apple so large it might well
have been Adam’s original. “This is a most serious affair.”
“No laughing matter,” agreed the first.
Still uncertain of her ground, the young lady pressed
on. “The nation will never forget the contribution Dr. Siri
made to the development of this great nation, nor
“That’s two nations,” said the bald man.
“Oh, do let her finish,” said the other. “Didn’t she tell
you they have a department that handles syntax? Probably
an entire ministry.”
“The Ministry of Getting Words Right?”
“Or it could be a branch of the Ministry of Making
Things Up and Bamboozling People.”
The clerk was miffed. She slapped the paper onto the
wooden table top and drummed her fingers on it noisily.
She seemed to be wrestling down a darker inner person. Her
voluptuous mouth had become mysteriously unattractive.
“I don’t think either of you appreciate what a great
honor this is,” she said at last. Her eyes watered. “Anybody
else would be proud. Dr. Siri, I’m particularly disappointed
that you would take all this so lightly. Given your record, it’s
a wonder your name is on the list at all.”
Siri raised the thickets of coarse white hair he called
eyebrows and scratched at his missing left earlobe.
“To be fair, you’re not giving me much time,” he said.
“How can I take life seriously when I’m forced to squeeze
all those remaining pleasures into a mere twelve days? And
look at this. You’re passing me away on my birthday of all
occasions. The happiest day of the year.”
“That’s odd, Doctor,” she said through clenched teeth.
“I thought I had explained myself very clearly.”
“Tell him again,” said ex-politburo member Civilai. “He’s
“As I said,” she began slowly, “the actual date of your
death will be filled in later.”
“In the event of it?” Siri said.
“So you aren’t actually expecting me to . . .”
The transparent northeastern skin of her neck revealed
an atlas of purple roads heading north in the direction of
her cheeks. The men admired her composure as she took
a deep breath and continued.
“You will pass away naturally, or otherwise, as your destiny
dictates. At that stage we will delete your date of birth
and substitute it with your date of death. When that happens
we will issue the announcement. Is that clear now?”
“And I will become a hero,” Siri smiled.
“It probably won’t be instantaneous . . . in your case.”
The Department of Hero Creation, the DHC, was housed
in a small annex of the propaganda section of the Ministry
of Information. Based loosely on a Vietnamese initiative
already in place, the DHC was responsible for identifying
role models, exaggerating their revolutionary qualities, and
creating a fairy story around their lives. A week earlier, Dr.
Siri and Comrade Civilai had received their invitations to
attend this preliminary meeting. They’d heard of the DHC,
of course, and seen evidence of its devious work. Everyone
over seventy who’d done the Party the great service of
staying alive was under consideration. If selected, school
textbooks would mention their bravery. Histories would
be written detailing their supernatural ability to surmount
the insurmountable and carry the red flag to victory. Siri
and Civilai could hardly pass up a chance to scuttle such a
“What is my case?” Siri asked.
“You said, ‘In your case,’ suggesting I have some flaw.”
“Don’t hold back,” Civilai urged the clerk.
“It’s really not my place to . . .”
“Go ahead,” Civilai prodded. “We won’t tell anyone.”
She seemed pleased to do so.
“We are aware of the doctor’s . . . problems with authority,”
the clerk said. She was now ignoring Siri and talking
directly with Civilai. “But history has a short memory. It has
a way of smudging over personality flaws no matter how
serious they might be.”
“Voltaire said that history is just the portrayal of crimes
and misfortunes,” Siri said.
“And why should I care what a wealthy eighteenth century
snob aristocrat has to say about anything?” she
snapped. “Don’t you have thoughts of your own, Doctor?”
Siri smiled at Civilai, who raised his eyebrows in return.
The old friends were constantly on the lookout for fire,
intelligence, and passion within the system and, when
found, it brought out their untapped paternal instincts.
Most cadres wouldn’t have known Voltaire from a bag of
beans. Their early-evening visit to the Ministry of Information
had not been a waste of time after all.
Following a politburo decree, the words Minister
had been liberated from the dungeon of antisocialist
political rhetoric and new ministries had mushroomed.
There was infighting within each ministry as each department
and section vied for its own ministerial status. Everyone
wanted to be a minister. The secretarial pool at the
new Ministry of Justice had put in an application to become
the Ministry of Typing and head clerk Manivone had put
her name down to become the minister of Changing Ink
Ribbons. Dr. Siri had helped her with the paperwork and
it had taken several bottles of rice whisky to get it right. Of
course, they hadn’t submitted the form. The system didn’t
have a sense of humor.
There was nothing inherently funny about the People’s
Democratic Republic of Laos in the 1970s. The socialists
had taken over the country three years earlier but the fun of
having a whole country to play with had soon drained away.
Euphoria had been replaced by paranoia, and anyone who
didn’t take the Republic seriously was considered a threat.
Dissidents were still being sent to “seminars” in the northeast
to join the ranks of officials from the old regime who
were learning to grit their teeth and say, “Yes, Comrade.”
But Siri and Civilai, forty-year veterans of the struggle, were
tolerated. They posed no threat to the status quo and their
rants against the system could be dismissed—with sarcastic
laughter—as senile gibberish. But there was nothing senile
or gibberitic about these two old Comrades. Their minds
sparkled like a March night sky. Given a chance, they could
outstrategize any man or woman on the Central Committee.
To find a young crocodile with a good mind among
that flock of flamingos was a rare delight.
“You’re quite right, of course.” Siri bowed his head to
the clerk. “Forgive me. I’m prone, like many men my age,
to presuppose that young people have no minds. I assume
they all will be impressed with my bourgeois philosophy.
You are obviously a cut above the rest.”
“And you aren’t going to win me over with your flattery
either,” she added.
“Or with pink mimosa or sugared dates, no doubt,” Siri
added. He thought he noticed a germ of a smile on her
lips. “You really have to see the funny side of all this, you
“And why is that?” she asked.
“You really want me to tell you?”
“Well, I’m tempted to suggest you fabricate people’s
experiences here. I noticed, for example, that your DHC
has Comrade Bounmee Laoly charging into battle armed
with only a machete at the age of sixty.”
“A lot of people are still very active at sixty.”
“I know that, but I also happen to know from personal
experience he was already blind as a bat when he turned
fifty. He couldn’t find a machete, let alone brandish one.”
She blushed, “I . . .”
“All we ask,” Civilai took over, “is, should this great honor
of herohood befall us—hopefully not posthumously—that
we earn it from merit, not with the aid of major reconstructive
surgery from Information.”
“We’d like people to remember and respect us for what
we are,” Siri said.
“Warts and all,” Civilai added.
Siri and Civilai sloshed and slithered hand in hand through
the rain to the ministry car park. A cream Citroen with a
missing taillight and a sturdy Triumph motorcycle were the
only two vehicles there. They were parked in muddy water
like boats. Drowning grass poked here and there through
the brown gravy.
“Smart lady,” Siri said.
“She certainly put us in our places.”
“They did remain clenched when you asked about your
Civilai opened the unlocked door of his old car and sat
behind the steering wheel. Siri climbed into the passenger
seat. They sat for a moment staring at the unpainted side
wall of the building. As the concrete absorbed the endless
rains, Siri fancied he saw the outline of New Zealand stained
there, or it could have been the silhouette of a twisted balloon
poodle. Following a disastrous year of drought, the
farmers had smiled to see the early arrival of the 1978 rains.
It was as if the gods had awakened late and, realizing their
negligence, had hastily attempted to make up for the previous
year. The rain fell heavily and ceaselessly—three times
the national average for April. The Lao New Year water
festival celebrations—a time to call down the first rains of
the year—were rained out. The earthen embankments of
the new rice paddies were washed flat; the bougainvilleas
had been rinsed colorless. The earth seemed to cry, “All
right. Enough.” But still it rained. It was nature’s little joke.
Like the Eskimos with their four million words for snow,
the Lao vocabulary was expanding with new language to
Today the water hung in the air like torn strips of gray
“What is that?” Civilai asked.
“That noise you’re making.”
“It’s not a noise. It’s a song. I have no idea where I heard
it. I can’t get it out of my head.”
“Well try. It’s annoying.”
Siri swallowed his song.
“What do you think they’ve got on me?” he asked. “I
mean, the DHC.”
“Huh,” Civilai laughed. “I knew it. You do want to be a
“I do not. I’m just . . . curious.”
“About your warts?”
“Oh, where do I start? How about your abrasive
“Personalities change. And history has a way of smudging
my character, don’t forget.”
“So I heard. All right. . . .” Civilai beeped his horn for no
apparent reason. “There’s the spirit thing.”
“How could they possibly know about that?”
“They probably don’t know the specifics. Not that you
actually chat with ghosties. I doubt they know that. But they
must have heard the rumors. This is a small country. People
like Judge Haeng must have accumulated a good deal of circumstantial
evidence of your supernatural connections.”
“But no proof. By its very nature he can’t have accumulated
“Then they don’t have anything.”
“All right. Well, they probably don’t like your Hmong
“It’s hardly a campaign.”
“You walked up and down in front of the Khaosan Pathet
Lao News Agency office with a placard saying we need
answers on the plight of our hmong brothers. People
have been shot for less. You seem to think that the government
has a policy to intimidate minorities.”
“Well then. With that attitude I can see the Central Committee
making little pencil crosses beside your name, can’t you?”
“Things have to be sorted out before it’s too late.”
“You’re right. If I were the Minister of Pinning Things
onto Chests I’d make you a Knight of the Great Order of
Valor right away. Sadly, I’m just a retired has-been.”
They sat silently for another moment, watching the moss
“Thirsty?” Civilai asked.
Siri twisted around on his seat. The leather squeaked
under his bottom.
“Perhaps just the one.”
Excerpted from Love Songs from a Shallow Grave by Colin Cotterill. Copyright © 2011 by Colin Cotterill. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.