The boy was twelve years old when he entered the Hsayadaw’s monastery school. As the newest novice, his became the smoothest bare head; he was given dark ochre robes and taught how to wear them. With his scavenger’s eye for opportunity, he saw how lucky he was. The men here gave him food, and a mat to sleep on beneath a wooden roof. He saw also that the school was a poor place, but the monks who ran it were generous with what little they had.
This didn’t stop him from jealously guarding his own possessions. He even refused to be parted with his filthy blanket. The monks said it should be thrown away, but he insisted on washing the thick swath of Chinese felt himself. When it was dry, he folded it with haughty care and placed it on his sleeping mat. The old Hsayadaw – abbot of the monastery school – observed this patiently, accustomed to children who clung to the relics of their old lives.
Because the boy had never been to school, he received lessons from his very own tutor, but sometimes the Hsayadaw excused the tutoring monk and sat down to teach the child himself. This seemed like a favour to the tutor, but the truth was that the abbot enjoyed teaching the boy. He had run the monastery school for more than forty years and this was the first time he’d ever seen an illiterate child dedicate himself so passionately to the alphabet. Learning his letters made the boy shine, and the old man liked to sit in that clean, honest light. They were both happy during these lessons, and their happiness made them laugh at almost nothing, a bird shooting through the leaves beyond the glassless window or the voice of the papaya-seller in the street, calling out the sweetness of her fruit. More than half a dozen times, in the middle of the night, the Hsayadaw caught the boy with a candle burning and a notebook open in his lap, his grubby hand drawing the thirty-three consonants and fifteen vowels of the Burmese alphabet over and over, and he had to force himself to be stern when he sent the child back to bed.
The boy’s name as a Buddhist novice was too long and tricky for him to write, so he insisted on learning how to spell his birth name. When he wrote it from memory for the first time, such was his jubilation that the tutoring monk whispered to the Hsayadaw, “He acts like he’s discovered the formula for turning lead into gold.” To which the abbot only smiled.
When he was not learning to read, or trying to write, he was quiet, sometimes sullen. He was a secretive, ever-hungry boy, uninterested in playing with the other children – though he often watched them as if they were animals he was afraid to approach. The abbot endeavoured not to pick favourites, but he adored this peculiar child. If only all of them were so interested in reading, and so dedicated to their Buddhist studies. Apparent to everyone, even the more recalcitrant monks, was that the boy had embraced the rituals of worship with surprising devotion. He sometimes spent hours in the temple, just sitting and watching the image of the Buddha. There hadn’t been a child like that for more than a decade.
The monastery was full of boys, large boys, small boys, boys with harelips and boys with flippered limbs, boys from poor families or with no families to speak of. The Hsayadaw adopted them all. The old proverb says that ten thousand birds can perch on one good tree; the Hsayadaw was such a tree. His children found refuge in him, and he taught them to seek a greater refuge in the Buddha’s Dhamma of Theravada, the teachings of the Middle Way. He did not cane his children or send them off, even if they misbehaved, because the state orphanages and reform schools were dangerous places.
The boy came to love the abbot with the same anxious tenderness he’d felt for the Songbird. This love declared itself through the laughter they shared during their lessons, through the tears the boy blinked away as he struggled with all the letters and their complex combinations. One morning, watching him wrestle with frustration, the Hsayadaw said, “It’s all right to cry. It’s just a little water that needs to get out. We could put it in a cup if you’re worried about losing it.” That made the boy laugh again, and his work became easier. For just over three months, he lived this way, making his path through hard terrain as quickly and gracefully as water.
But one morning, trouser-wearers appeared, two military intelligence agents who asked about him. They came again very late that night, and their shouts scared the children.
The Hsayadaw was calm with a lifetime of meditation, but inside he was afraid for his favourite son, so afraid that he broke the Fourth Precept: to abstain from telling lies. He knew it was wrong, but he lied to the military intelligence agents. Morning and evening, he told the men that the boy was very wild, and had run away. “What did you expect, with the way the child has been raised?”
“Did he take his belongings with him?” one of the men asked.
“Belongings? He was the poorest among poor, he had nothing but a bag of scraps and an old blanket. Of course he took them away.”
On their first visit, the morning meal was just beginning, and the military intelligence agents insisted upon walking slowly among all the children as they sat eating on the floor. But who was to know one particular novice among sixty-seven shaven-headed, hungry little monks? The boy they were searching for was also calm, calm with a short lifetime of surviving by his rat-stick and his wits. He went on eating with the other children. All of them kept their heads angled to the floor. They called out his name, demanding that he speak up if he were in the room. The boy didn’t even blink; he would never answer to the voices of the cage again. The men came back that night and performed the same theatre, but all they succeeded in doing was making a few boys burst into tears.