The Birth of Ar Lain Ta, Part Two

I’m a gatekeeper. My kingdom is a subterranean basement where junkies come to dream about what might have been; what should have been; what could happen if only, if only, if only. Sometimes, I tell the stories and he writes them down. I’m not the only one here who tells the stories. Everyone who comes here has a story, maybe more than one. The guy in the corner (the Troll points to a bearded junkie sitting at a typewriter), he writes them down. He never tells the stories but he’s always listening and writing or typing. All it takes to shake him out of a deep nod is for someone to say, “Oh yeah, let me tell you a story about what happened to me.”

There are times, in the middle of a story, that he will stop to fix; maybe his hand has started to shake, maybe he just wants to hold off the cold and the cramps until the tale is over. His memory takes over and he’ll play catch-up while he’s listening. He may get to hear the same story a few times but each time it is a little different, depending on who’s doing the telling. It could be different even with the same teller.

He writes the stories but he always laughs and says, “I don’t really guarantee their accuracy, you know. But I don’t have to, see. No one believes a junkie.”

Call him Seth. Last name Morgan. The writer. I’m the teller but he’ll record it. He promised not to lie or change the facts and to write it just like I tell it. Junkies always make promises.

Let me tell you about another gatekeeper. The one who watches me. The one who might very well have his eyes on you. Some people call him the Dustman. Others say he is the king of the dreams that live between waking and sleep. Still others say that he is just a man who has chosen a path of crime and that he is nothing more than a druglord. I choose not to argue with anyone’s story when it is about him. The confusion clarifies my beliefs. My beliefs? I’ll tell you this story and let you form your own.

I’ll tell you this story about his beginnings. It was told to me by a Harvard professor who comes here now and then for a bit of a rest. Forget about it. I’m not going to reveal my source. You would probably recognize the name.

In the beginning the Dustman’s only name was Ar Lain Ta.

Ar Lain Ta was a man of humble origins. His parents were farmers from the west bank of the Salween river. The terrorist, but legally sanctioned, army of Burma, known as the Tatmadaw, had driven his parents from their farm. The Tatmadaw used what they called a “Four Cuts Strategy,” which meant isolating and controlling sources of food, funds, intelligence, and recruits. His father, a farmer named U Hla Pe, had been meditating, and his mother had been in the fields slicing the pods of the poppies, when the Tatmadaw arrived. They began looting homes, gang-banging the wives and daughters of friends, and plundering animals and the croplands. If the farmer and his wife had surrendered, they would have become unwilling participants in the construction of a one-hundred-mile-long railroad line from Aung Ban south to Loi Kaw in a slave labor camp. Cholera, dengue fever, yaws, blackwater fever, yellow fever, amoebic dysentery, and other antagonistic life-forms constantly raided the camps. Instead, U Hla Pe chose to slip through the fields and take his pregnant wife to flee across the Salween into Mae Ark, a small Pa-O village that was controlled and protected by a benevolent lord of the opium trade named Chang Te Tzu.

Very little is known about Ar Lain Ta’s mother’s origins. She was named Nang Saeng Zoom, yet it is not known whether this was her given name or one that she acquired later. It is said that she loved the fields and, as she worked, she was known to talk to the plants. There were some that said she was haunted by the ghosts of her ancestors.

This story about Ar Lain Ta’s mother was passed on by an old farmer in the opium den that he had retired to after his work was done. One day, when Chang Te Tzu was visiting the village, he became very ill with all the symptoms of cholera. The diarrhea came on suddenly and violently and his stools were filled with rice-like particles. He vomited and shat simultaneously and the muscles in his arms and legs knotted and contracted spasmodically, literally appearing to be boiling beneath his skin to all those who watched with horror. The man collapsed and virtually seemed to shrink in size within moments. Other observers said his skin turned to light parchment paper and began to rip in places.

Marc D. Goldfinger is a member of the board of directors of the Homeless Empowerment Project, which publishes Spare Change news. Formerly homeless, he serves as the paper's poetry editor.

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