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The Rebel and the Thief
Author: Jan-Philipp Sendker

 


ONE

 


I don’t have much time to tell my story. It’s only a matter of hours till they find us—maybe a day if we’re lucky.

  How did this happen? How did someone as quiet and obedient as me end up being a thief on the run? How do any of us end up where we do?

  The truth is, I don’t know. I crossed a line to help my sister—a line I hadn’t thought I’d ever even get close to.

  I was helpless and decided to do something about it. Then one thing led to another. Not because I had any particular plan, but because life never stands still; it’s not a film you can pause or rewind.

  It was never a dream of mine to be a hero. A lot of people see me that way because of what I’ve done, but that was a question of circumstances, and those circumstances were out of my control.

  Did I have a choice? Looking back, maybe I did. But at the time I was making the decisions, it didn’t feel like it.

  I was in trouble, and I took the liberty of not dwelling on the consequences of my acts. I never believed I could save the world. The most I had hoped for was to save a few people from sickness, hunger, and death.

 

* * *

 

  —

  It all started with my little sister crying in her sleep.

  It wasn’t even proper crying—more like a faint whimper broken by the occasional cough. Despite the heat, she had slid close to me and flung an arm over my belly; I could feel her warm breath on my skin. A sob wracked her body. I didn’t know what to do.

  But maybe that wasn’t the beginning. Maybe it all started much earlier, when someone bought a bat or a pangolin at an animal market in China and was infected with a virus—or when negligence in a laboratory led to the escape of a deadly disease that traveled around the world, killing millions in its wake, including, probably, my auntie Bora.

  It may even have started earlier still, when my parents decided to leave their country to seek their fortune—or at least escape their misfortune.

  Who can tell when and where a story begins and ends? Life, my father says, is a circle. We’re born, we die, we’re born again…There’s no point looking for beginnings and ends.

 

* * *

 

  —

  My sister was trembling, as if she were cold.

  I was sweating.

  It had been over a hundred degrees that day, and the heat built up in our shack like water at a dam. The nights brought little relief. Hungry mosquitoes whined around our heads; a spider crawled up my leg. I didn’t even try to shake it off—I was afraid of waking my sister. We were lying on our raffia mats, and it must have been after midnight because the evening voices had died down. The old drunk next door had settled in for the night. The cantankerous couple opposite us seemed to have dropped asleep in exhaustion. Even the shanty belonging to the widow with six children and as many lovers was quiet at last.

  Our parents were asleep beside us; I could tell from my father’s snoring and my mother’s heavy breathing, broken by bouts of coughing. She was sick too. Maybe she’d caught what her sister had. Whatever it was, she had a cough and a temperature and was getting weaker by the day. It might be malaria, pneumonia, TB. Or it might be the new virus. We’d never find out, just as we’d never know for certain what Auntie Bora died of.

  Yesterday, with my help, my mother had made it to the bathroom. Today she hadn’t got up at all. Every breath she took sounded painful and labored.

  I’m not especially sensitive to sounds. The gnawing of rats at my ear, the buzz of insects, the shouts of people arguing in the shack next door, the low moans of lovers and indigents—I heard them and at the same time I didn’t. They went right through me without leaving a trace. My sister’s sobbing was different. It gave me an almost physical pain. It reminded me too much of my other little sister, Mayari, who had died three years before. She had whimpered like that too, in the nights before she fell asleep and never woke up.

  “Thida,” I whispered, “what’s wrong?” It was a stupid question. I knew quite well she was hungry.

  I wondered whether there was anything left to eat. I’d had a little packet of cookies hidden between the boards, but she’d had them the day before. The bananas were long gone. There were no leftovers from dinner, because there hadn’t been any dinner. Or lunch for that matter. The only meal of the day had been a bowl of rice and a mango that we’d split between the three of us. It was a mystery to me where my father had found that mango. Chewing gum sometimes helped the hunger, but I’d swapped my last piece for half a cup of rice a couple of days back.

  I stroked Thida’s sweaty hair out of her face, and she looked at me with half-open eyes. Her lips moved, but there was no need for words. My belly was empty too. A hole in my gut. If you’ve never been hungry, you don’t know what it feels like. I’d had cramps all day. But I’m eighteen, I can take it. Thida is five.

  A rat scuttled across the room, stopping halfway to stand on its hind legs and sniff the air. I threw a flip-flop at it. Not even a rat would find anything to eat in here, and I was afraid it might get it into its head to bite Thida.

 

* * *

 

  —

  Not long since, we hadn’t known what hunger was. My father had worked as Mr. Benz’s security guard for fifteen years, and we’d been pretty well-off. Mr. Benz wasn’t his real name, but when we first knew him—before he started building shopping malls and converting paddy fields into housing plots—he had had a Benz dealership, and I can’t remember ever calling him anything else.

  My father had started out as an assistant gardener and quickly worked his way up to security guard. Most of his days were spent on a stool in a little hut next to the gate, dressed in his gray-blue uniform and meticulously polished black boots. Every morning when Mr. Benz left the house with his chauffeur, he would jump to his feet, slide the heavy, black-barred gate open, and then stand to attention and watch the car drive away, not moving until it had disappeared into the traffic. This scene was repeated every evening when Mr. Benz returned home, or when Mrs. Benz or the children went out. Other than this, my father’s job as a security guard demanded little of him. The grounds were surrounded by a high wall topped with shards of broken glass and three rows of barbed wire. For a time, there were also surveillance cameras connected to a monitor in my father’s hut. He used to spend hours switching from one camera to the next and staring at the identical black-and-white images. I sometimes kept him company when I was a kid, but nothing ever happened, and I would soon tire of it. Not so my father—or at least he never let it show if he did. Then the cameras stopped working and no one bothered to replace them.

  My mother cooked for the family, and Auntie Bora did the shopping and helped out in the kitchen. In our last year there, I was put in charge of the big gardens and the tennis court after the previous gardener was fired for taking secret photos of the grounds on his phone.

  I was also responsible for looking after the spirit house. There was a big old banyan tree in the garden, inhabited by a spirit who watched over the villa and its grounds. Long ago, a small house had been built for this spirit, and every day I would leave offerings in it on behalf of the Benz family: a vase of fresh flowers, a small glass of water—things like that. The Benzes were Christian, but Mrs. Benz was very superstitious and went to the spirit house several times a week to make sure it was clean and the flowers fresh. I often saw her lay large pomelos or mangos in front of the altar, and ask the spirit for a favor or protection. In the months after her daughter’s accident, she was there every day.

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