In the years before World War II, Harvard-trained anthropologist Greenwood journeyed to the Shan States in eastern Burma to study the people of Pawlu, an isolated mountain village. He fell in love with Loi-mae, a local woman, and fathered a daughter, but when war erupted across the globe, Greenwood left his family behind to fight for the Allied cause.
In 1949, he returns to Pawlu to help an old friend on the run from China’s Red Army—a friend who claims to be in possession of the missing bones of the Peking Man. But Greenwood isn’t welcomed back to Burma with open arms. Loi-mae has a new husband who doesn’t take kindly to the return of her former lover, and the village is preoccupied by attacks from the wild Wa, a fearsome, headhunting tribe. When a band of refugee Chinese soldiers arrives, the stage is set for a dramatic showdown in which Greenwood risks everything to save the people he loves.
The Blue-Eyed Shan is the 3rd book in the Far East Trilogy, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Blue-Eyed Shan
By Stephen Becker
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Stephen Becker
All rights reserved.
The tame Wa are like pye-dogs, they will slink and snarl and grin for a bone. But the Wild Wa dwell high upon the mountain and smile for no man. Their villages are set in swales and dingles, tiny valleys off the ridges, and the entrances at either end are planted with dense thorny hedge, and the way in or out is crooked and winding. It was not always so. When the rifle came to these hills, men with swords, knives and even crossbows had to change their ways. No rifle can see through a Wild Wa hedge, and no bullet can wend the mazy way.
The Wild Wa are a small people and dark, and so feared by their neighbors. Their villages are scattered for two hundred miles along the China-Burma border, and they have no name for either country. Ancient legend call them sons and daughters of the southern islands. They are a religious people, and observe both rites of passage and planting ritual. A young man becomes a warrior by lopping an enemy head from an enemy body. An enemy is anyone who is not a Wild Wa, and it is customary to do this lopping after the monsoon, at the sowing of new seed. The heads do not immediately become skulls. The flesh is treated with preservatives known only to the elders of the tribe, the secret of which is passed along only when an elder dies and only to a mature male who has distinguished himself in headhunting. Upon treatment with these preservatives, a head will last many years.
After the entrance has been negotiated, the visitor or captive will notice the axis of the village, a long line or double line of trees. These trees are usually oak, which grows profusely above the line of occasional frost, and drinks less rain than the teak and pyinkado of the lower slopes and valleys. Into these trees niches have been cut; if the avenue is a double line of trees, the niches will face inward, and in these niches the heads are placed, so that a stroller along the avenue will walk between two rows of impassive faces, the flesh contracted, the eyes dulled. At the village of Ramoang, and also at Hsan Htung, there are avenues of two hundred heads.
At Ranga, which is not far from Pawlu, there are only fifty heads in a single row. Some are precious, and inspire greater awe than the others. The hair of one is yellow, its eyes blue. It has been embalmed and lacquered, and will last a while. At dusk the children of the village gather to contemplate it, and the headman explains that this was a wise man, who came from a far place, and whose virtues have passed to the village. It was Thuan-yi the warrior who took this head, in the War of the Bones, and many evenings he comes to stand idly by as the headman preaches, and the headman feigns not to see him, but finally does see him, and starts, and says, Ah yes, and here is Thuan-yi, who in single combat vanquished this blue-eyed Shan.
And then the headman turns to another precious relic.CHAPTER 2
The Lashio Road In
Four and a half years after World War II, Greenwood remarked that he might never have entered China, there was no way to be sure, but that he had spent much of his life banging at the back door, along the Burma border.
"I could set you down on the spot," Gordon-Cumming said. "All I need is that half-mile of straight road."
"No, I won't go in blind," Greenwood said. He had encountered a few like this one, former proprietors of the world, lanky, sandy-haired, eyes like a loch in winter, and half the globe blushing pink with their conquests.
"Just as well, I suppose. The whole country's one great skirmish. The Union of Burma! Like the bloody Irish Free State. Irishmen of Asia, they say the Burmese are."
"The Kachin want their own nation. Shan sawbwas bow to no man."
"At least the Kachin were loyal. These Shan —" The Englishman shook his head. "We need more gin. Boy!"
The houseboy materialized.
"More gimlets. You make 'em fresh. No pitchers, mind."
Greenwood murmured in South Shan, "They're very good. They suit this sort of day."
The houseboy glanced up in surprise, and found light eyes smiling into his own.
"What was that all about?"
"Oiling the tongue," Greenwood said. "Got to warm up, you know. Even calling hogs. Had an uncle who did that. Used to warm up five, ten minutes."
"Strange folk, Americans. You're from one of those barbarous states, I suppose."
"Missouri," Greenwood said. "Pellagra, ringworm and fornication."
"Yet you speak Shan."
"We like to make friends."
"You won't make many here. The Karen are on the warpath too, you know."
"All the Burmese feeling their oats. Shoot a white man as soon as look at him. Shooting each other too. A hundred thousand bandits in those hills, and a half million weapons left over from the war, and every village a fortress. The bigger towns aren't so bad."
"You seem safe and comfortable."
"It's this little airport," Gordon-Cumming said. "Airport's like a foreign country. Pilot's like an ambassador."
From the verandah they contemplated the graveled runway, low shed, wind sock; the Fairchild Argus; and the forlorn, decrepit, cannibalized P-40, an old Flying Tiger fighter, the shark's teeth still sharp. In the shade of the shed two Burmese squatted, smoking. Beyond the airstrip the plain simmered, gently now in the cooler dry season, and mountains rose hazy green in the distance.
"Burmese who work around airports would fight to the death for them," Gordon-Cumming said. "Elite group, esprit de corps and all that. Well, I'll find you some sort of lorry, but you're wasting time. Have you there in ninety minutes by air. Damn good ship, that Argus. Seven-cylinder Jacobs. Damn good engine."
"Seven cylinders? I used to fool around with cars. Cylinders came in pairs."
"Radial," Gordon-Cumming said.
"Just so it flies, and just so you fetch me," Greenwood said. "The money's enough?"
"The money's delightful." Gordon-Cumming grinned like a horse. "What the devil are you up to, anyway?"
"Just a tourist."
"Visiting old friends."
"More than that. Bloody spy."
Greenwood was amused. "Want the truth?"
"Nothing against it in principle."
"I'm chasing some old bones."
"Old bones? Nonsense. Fossils? That sort of thing?"
"Ever hear of Peking Man?"
Gordon-Cumming frowned. "Some Chinese fellow, I suppose."
"Some Chinese fellow."
"You one of these paleo-wallahs?"
"Not quite. An anthropologist."
"Nonsense. You're a soldier. Sticks out a mile."
Greenwood said, "You're sure we're talking about the same stretch of road?"
"Must be. The only straight stretch for fifty miles. Eerie sort of place, Pawlu, if it is Pawlu. Not on the RAF chart, you know, but it's on mine. Nice valley, but those Wa in the hills ..." Gordon-Cumming shuddered elaborately. "Barbarous. Everything out here's barbarous. Do you know in parts of Pakistan if a woman's raped she's cast out by her husband? Now, what's a marriage for if not times like that? And there's others slit a nostril for adultery! Wouldn't be a nose left in London! And on the other side, the Kachin won't marry a virgin! Muslims cutting off thieves' hands! Cambodia-side they keep slaves, d'you know that? Tibet too."
Greenwood asked, "Why do you stay?"
"Oh well. Where's the boy? Where the hell are those gimlets? Ah!"
Soundlessly the houseboy set out their refreshment, bowing fractionally to Greenwood.
"Fact is," Gordon-Cumming confided, "left an awful wife in London. You?"
"Wise man. No need, out here. Besides, I'm a flyer. And the weather's so good. Even the bad weather's good. Rest up in the monsoon, that's all."
"I had a fine little woman in Pawlu." Greenwood could not repress a proud smile. "I have a daughter, too. She'll be close to ten now. Brought her a present, I have."
"Ten? Almost a woman, out here." Gordon-Cumming gargled absently. "Tell you what, soldier. I wouldn't go in there at all if I were you, bones or no bones, daughter or no daughter. Burma's not what she used to be."
"Neither am I," said Greenwood. "This is good gin."
"Going to seed in the colonies." Gordon-Cumming suddenly sounded cheerful. "Family's a bit stuffy, you know. Wouldn't want me back, really."
"No colony now."
"That's right. Sun sets on Gordon-Cumming. Last a few years yet. Unless — Tell me, those Chinese Communists won't cross the border, will they?"
"Won't have to," Greenwood said. "Burma has fourteen political parties and they're all Marxist."
"Let's just drink," Gordon-Cumming decided. "No religion or politics in the mess, all right?"
"That's half of life," Greenwood objected. "Religion and politics, love and money, what else is there?"
"Well, there's war."
"That's right," Greenwood said. "I was forgetting."
And now the Lashio Road again, Hsipaw, Lashio, familiar but subdued, dustier, flattened, worn, the roadside too, wood and bamboo huts, all used, trafficked, weathered, and if the road held firm and they were not blown up by guerrillas —
The jeep bucked and sprang off a large rock. Greenwood hung on. His driver said, "Huu. Damn bad road." Greenwood removed the sunglasses and glanced warily at the jerricans behind him. He was happier on foot, or aboard a pony, than jouncing along a public highway with rebels in the hills and inflammables in the back seat. He imagined a sheet of flame, the jeep incinerated. He resigned himself, and admired the morning. The January air was invigorating, and the mountains welcomed him like liveried servants, green and brown and humble, nothing like the Rockies or the Himalayas, and he had already spotted a blue-red-and-yellow parakeet and a pair of gyi, the tiny graceful barking deer that swarmed over Burma.
"Shan tattoo?" His driver blew smoke; sparks danced back over the jerricans.
Greenwood fingered his collar. The khaki shirt flapped open in the breeze, revealing intricate whorls of red and black among the curly golden hair of his chest. Greenwood was a man of agreeable and honest appearance, stocky, tall, thick in the neck, curly-haired, his eyes direct, expressive and warm, so that the Burmese, a trim and polite people whom in general he loved, often went wide-eyed themselves with pleasure, recovered, and giggled in embarrassment.
"You talk Shan talk?" The driver was lithe and carefree, in his early twenties, a great smiler, a steady smoker of beedies. His gentle brown eyes seemed to express all that Greenwood loved about Burma and the Burmese: patience, good cheer, manners, the equanimity of a people who walked hand in hand with the gods. Greenwood had also seen them murder and pillage; government by assassination had for a few years become customary.
"South Shan, North Shan?"
"South Shan mainly."
"In war." The young man, Aung, was certain.
"In war, yes. And before."
"Lashio Road, plenty good. Railway soon too. Plenty bandit meantime." Aung wore a lance corporal's shirt, British leavings.
"Quiet lately," Greenwood said.
Aung agreed. "Plenty quiet."
Greenwood plucked a beedy — a brown leaf of Burmese tobacco rolled and tucked to make a small tasty cigarette — from his own shirt pocket and set a match to it; he blew out the match and let it cool before he dropped it overboard. They were driving northeast and the sun was friendly.
"You kill plenty Japanese?"
"Nobody likes to kill," Greenwood lied drowsily.
"Guerrillas like to kill."
"Well, that's politics."
"Wa people like to kill. You know Wa people?"
"Well, that's religion."
"So," Aung said triumphantly, "plenty people like to kill."
"You're right," Greenwood said.
The victory seemed to please Aung. He subsided, savoring his own wisdom. Greenwood seized the moment and offered up a comprehensive thanksgiving, for good health, for the Burmese climate, for this glorious morning, for General Yang's mad odyssey, for the fate that had called him, Greenwood, back here to the one corner of the world he would fight forever to keep free and green and unchanged. He was thirty-five years old and sound. Not a pimple. All humors, winds, inner construction admirably in tune. God, if any, had been good.
A few miles on, Aung asked, "You go Burma side or China side?"
"Nobody's sure," Greenwood said. "You know how it is up in the hills."
Aung nodded. "Okay. Salween side or Mekong side?"
"Well, somewhere in between," Greenwood said.
"You need trail man," Aung informed him.
"I'll find a guide."
"I find you good one."
"I'll do it, thanks," Greenwood said. "You find yourself some passengers for the drive back."
After a moment Aung said, "Plenty trouble China side."
Greenwood said, "Want to know a secret?"
Aung caught his breath. "You tell me. I no tell any man."
Greenwood said, "Plenty trouble Burma side too."
Aung considered this nugget, then looked reproachfully at his passenger. "That is humor."
"That is humor. You watch the road, please."
Aung was laughing. "Plenty trouble every side."
"That's the first rule," Greenwood said. "Plenty trouble every side."
They crossed the river Myitnge over a rusting iron bridge; far behind them, back by Mandalay, the Myitnge would spill into the great Irrawaddy; Greenwood had once stood on the bank and marveled at that rushing confluence. Now they rolled into Hsenwi, a metropolis sprawled over all of forty acres: a rash of huts, a rushchoked river, perhaps a couple of thousand souls, paddy and tobacco fields along the outskirts, and stands of oak and chestnut. Among the town's earthen buildings and wooden stalls, tin sheds and Quonset huts asserted war, the foreigner, intrusion, but even these outlandish structures had settled in like old residents, and the town was placid.
Greenwood warmed to the sight of blue-smocked children with shaven heads, who scampered toward the river waving bamboo fishing rods; he remembered his daughter, and a fish in a reed basket. Far off on the lake he thought he made out storks. Men, women and children of many tribes strolled the town's main street and many alleys. Some wore headbands; these were called gaungbaung, and he remembered what the Americans had made of that. He saw Shan with turbans and tattoos, and many women in mantles of silver tassels and disks. He saw men in longyi — the Burmese wraparound skirt — who were clearly Chinese. Outside the shops fish-shaped kites hung, as if hooked and dying, in the still air. For the moment he saw no Occidental. Usually in these towns there lived a deserter or two, a wandering ex-Nazi, a French adventurer, most often a leftover Briton like Gordon-Cumming, too human now and sensible to swap Maymyo for Windsor.
He did see a holy man, bearded, the eyes fixed on eternity, the beggar's bowl hung from a simple cloth sash cinching a simple cloth skirt. A temple too, and he remembered it, of stone, which was here an accomplishment, a devotion, an offering of sweat.
"You stop zayat?"
"Not yet," Greenwood said. A zayat, often merely a raised platform, was here a resthouse for weary travelers; its establishment was a good work, another offering, among these Little Wheel Buddhists. "Let's start you back first."
"Zayat, you leave luggage. Easier walking then."
"Luggage. Humor." Greenwood removed his dark glasses and examined this driver. Aung's gaze shifted. "I wondered about your English. It's better than you pretend."
Aung said, "It is when I want it to be."
"I won't leave my luggage anywhere," Greenwood said. "It wouldn't last ten minutes."
Aung made fierce teeth. "At a zayat? With a priest?"
"A priest isn't a watchman and you know it. He worries about the other world. It's only a field pack and a tommy gun, and if they turned up missing he'd look sorrowful and tell me to shed material illusion. He wouldn't even bother to tell me my driver came back for them. Now head for the market."
Aung smirked, then laughed aloud. Greenwood allowed a small smile. Aung drove on, by luck and by horn. Greenwood commenced sweating; on the open road their speed had made breeze, but now they were crawling. Pye-dogs loped and grinned, snarled and yapped. Monstrous crows picked at carrion and drew themselves up like martyr priests, indignant but resigned, before taking scornful wing.
Lowland Burman merchants in colorful longyi embellished their own stalls like stands of flowers. Conversation ceased, haggling died, and lambent brown eyes welcomed the foreigner — was he rich? a spy? an official? A former soldier, perhaps, on pilgrimage to a field of victory or defeat.
"Watch the chickens," Greenwood said. "No hurry."
Aung protested: "Chickens only one rupee."
"One rupee alive. Five rupees when a car kills them. Or a four-hour argument. And don't lean on the horn."
"No horn?" Aung was astonished.
"I dislike unnecessary noise. Exercise the priestly virtues."
"Patience, humility and silence. It's a lovely day; why foul it? Look at those brocades. Silver-work there. River fish. I'm hungry. No fruit at this season?"
"Silver from the mines at Bawdwin," Aung said. "And look there, plenty fruit, bananas. Also blinded paddy birds in bamboo cages. And there by the table — a Jew-man."
Excerpted from The Blue-Eyed Shan by Stephen Becker. Copyright © 1982 Stephen Becker. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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