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The Black Meo

December 19, 2013

I

I went hunting with Shoob, a man in his thirties who I much admired.  He had two wives and five children and the ability to love them all.

He was also a fine hunter with the grace to let me stumble along, queering his stalks and alarming the jungle with my pungent, farang smell.

At the end of eighteen months when I packed up my notes to leave he said to me in Thai, “Now you know all my secrets.”

In my western arrogance I believed him.

II

Consider this a confession.

I am a man responsible for the death of a people, the destruction of a culture.

This is frequently done by missionaries and still is (God’s Work), but I was an anthropologist, a student of culture and I should have known better.

Not that I meant to cause the diaspora of the Black Meo.  In the words of fools everywhere, it was an accident.

III

You must understand what a treasure the Black Meo were to me.  A new people.  To do the first major investigation of an ethnic group was to secure your career, make your fortune and by the nineteen sixties it was impossible.

Everyone was found.  Everyone had been examined.  Looking for unknown people was as rewarding as searching Loch Ness.

I was working on the Kuomontang, the Chinese army units that retreated south into the hills of Burma, Laos and Thailand when the communists took over China, and found mention of the Black Meo.   I looked further and found a reference there, a cite here but no real work.  The most information I could find in one place were a few sentences in a monograph published by the Burmese government on the involvement of ethnic groups in the opium trade.

It became apparent that there was no ethnic study of the Black Meo in the West.  It was like wandering through a salvage yard and stumbling over the one true cross.

IV

I went to the anthropology department for help in locating funding and it was forthcoming: a generous grant awarded by the Western Institute of Eastern Studies, a group I understood was loosely under the aegis of the State Department.  They wanted a monthly summary of my notes, a linguistic survey, complete ethnohistory and copies of all collected material.

V

The Black Meo were a hill tribe in that part of Asia now famous as the Golden Triangle.  Like most hill tribes, they came from somewhere else and ended up where more numerous peoples had pushed them.  A wasteland people in the rocky, jungled hills where rice wouldn’t grow.  They learned to grow yams for food and opium for profit and to love their mountains.

They grew tobacco and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes using leaves for paper.  They wore blue cotton shirts with ties rather than buttons and carried bush knives in basketry sheaves at their backs.

They grew opium and those who smoked it did so in long pipes of beaten silver.  These pipes, hung by brightly colored and tasseled cords from the left shoulder, were part of their formal dress whether they actually smoked opium or not.  Formal dress was of heavy black cotton with ornate appliques of red and yellow.

VI

Young men courting wore orchids and stuffed birds in their hair and played love songs on wooden flutes.

VII

Opium smoking was considered an activity for the elderly, generally men aged beyond work though some women took up the habit.  Opium use by the young or family men was considered dissipation.  For the most part, opium was a male activity, betel nut being used by women.  Both sexes were fond of beer. VIII

The Black Meo had been hunters and were hunters still for food and additional income and simply because they were hunters.  They hunted small game with tangle nets, figure four deadfalls, blowpipes and crossbows.  With muzzleloaders and the occasional breech-loading shotgun they hunted gaur and banteng.  They also hunted barking, hog-nosed and sambar deer, mountain goats (tahr) and wild boar for food.  They hunted tiger and leopard where these still occurred for their hides and the medicinal qualities given to parts of the cats’ bodies.  They hunted Asian black bear with spears for sport and as a test of courage.  They considered the bear the most savage beast in their forest.

They didn’t hunt the elephant or golden wildcat.  Both were considered creatures of good fortune.  The golden cat, fire tiger in their dialect, was often kept in captivity and its fur was a specific for burns.

The hamarydad or king cobra was captured alive and held to be slaughtered when needed for medicinal use.  Their folk medicine attributed great healing power to the snakes’ gall bladders.

There were shamans among the Black Meo and female shamans or witches.  And seers and mediums.  Ghosts were believed in and dealt with as part of daily life.  The Black Meo believed that their dead remained close around them.  They were animists, believers in nature spirits and though they personified some of these spirits, their animism was less a matter of worship than a simple respect for the essence of the mountains, trees, bests and those people who had lived before them.  Some adopted Buddhism, but only as an addition to their animism, not as a replacement.

   IX

The last information I ever gathered on the Black Meo was a copy of a MACV report given me by a man I met in Lucy’s Tiger Den in Bangkok.

It described the Black Meo as brave in battle, fierce as Gurkhas when the spirit was in them, but too whimsical and fey for good military discipline.  They made reasonable guerilla fighters, were poor and willing to fight for pay.  They were politically naive.

Linguistically the Black Meo were connected to the Yurgiff and other Mongol-Siberian peoples.  Physically they were a stout, round-headed, full-faced people reminiscent of northern Asian groups.

They loved the mountains and now they are gone. X

I don’t know if it was the CIA or the Army Intelligence Service or the Office of Navy Intelligence.  Or SOG or CISO or MACV.  Or the Australians wanting some influence in the area or the French wanting to get some back or any combination of these groups working together or any number of them working separately.

It doesn’t matter from whence they came, the agents with bribes and propaganda and cajolery to involve the Black Meo in the anticommunist crusade.  The intelligence they used was from me.

XI

It didn’t take long: there weren’t that many Black Meo to begin with. About the time it takes a man to finish a dissertation and defend it.  To receive a master’s and accept a position as a research associate.  To rework the dissertation into a proper preliminary ethno history and have it published by a university press.  To write a popular version and have that published as well.  About the time it takes a bookish man with no outside interests to do these things along with a good start on a Phd, say five years, and the Black Meo no longer existed.

A few individuals still lived, but as a cultural unit, the Black Meo had been destroyed.  Adult males of military age had been eliminated.  There were none left unmaimed and alive.  Within five years an uncrippled Black Meo male was either a grandfather or a child.  Their land, the rocky uplands no one else in history had wanted suddenly became valuable.  The communists wanted it and the anticommunists wanted it and the Black Meo fled under waves of bombers that did not consider indigenous populations.  While the men died in the war their dependents languished in camps outside the capital and later across the river in Thailand.
By the time I returned to Asia, shortly after the United States decided it had no further business there, they were gone.  The men were dead, the elderly dispersed among camps, the children adopted by barren Europeans and the young women serviceing tourists in Bangkok.

XII

The dust is what I remember most.

I’d heard a rumor that some of the tribal people’s survivors, loose family groups, were scuttling between free fire zones, squatting in hidden nooks and reverting as best they could to normal life until the war found them again.  Some of these could be Black Meo.

Chasing another story, one of those half-answers you get there with a shrug and a smile, I had gotten into the highlands in a Japanese jeep with a Thai driver using a variety of University IDs and a couple mail order press cards to manipulate the various police men and soldiers trying to turn me back.

A valley between jungled ridges.  About a mile wide, the floor remarkably flat and unfeatured except for a stream down its center.  Perhaps a canal.  It seemed too direct and unbending to be natural.  Dirt tracks paralleled the stream bed on either side.  Across from me a shambled sheet-tin shed, perhaps an abandoned shop, and a woman walking in the dust, the only person in the valley besides us in the jeep.

I wanted to talk to her, to ask my incessant questions, and walked toward her.  I had to cross the stream bed and was down there when the first bombs hit.

XIII

I’d never been bombed before and don’t know if this was typical or not.  The sky was solid cloud cover from ridgetop to ridgetop.  I saw no aircraft, heard no warning whistle.  The plain around me just began erupting, the earth throbbing beneath my feet.

A shrill crack, a basso roar, a rush of heated air.  Swellings of red dust and gray-black smoke with hearts of flame.  And then, insistent through the roaring, loud in my ringing ears, I heard whistles and whispers and whinings.  This was shrapnel, those jagged little bits of metal exploding bombs whip out.

For a moment I was overshadowed, something passing overhead.  At the time I had an impression or an aircraft or some great bird, but now I think it must have been some part of the abandoned shop.

I ran in the direction I was facing, away from the jeep, toward the shop.  Not a thought in my head, no ideas of finding cover or hiding, just running.

The hole was there and I fell into it.  Otherwise I would have kept running across the valley and either made it or not, but the hole was there and I fell into it and onto the woman.

XIV

The dust.

At each detonation the earth spewed clotted clouds of red dust like arterial bleeding.  In the hole I could barely see and only realized I atop the woman when I inadvertently grasped her breast, felt the nipple against my fingers with the heart’s flutter underneath.  My nose was choked shut and I gasped open-mouthed, mud caking my tongue.

I pulled away from her as far as I could (even in a bombardment an Asian woman would be offended by over-familiarity) and saw a woman in either late youth or early middle age looking at me with that expression which says nothing, but is just there, and a hole in her face.

A small hole (half a dime) beside her nose.  Little bleeding, nearly none and the hole was clean, by which I mean it was not ragged, but surgically neat.  Not a round hole, but rather a rounded triangle.

I didn’t know if I should try somehow to bandage the wound: she seemed to be breathing through it.  Moist whistles.

And you never know about head wounds.  A scalp wound, for example, always bleeds like hell and you must burrow down through the thick, black hair not knowing if you will find scratched skin or brain tissue.

XV

I wetted a handkerchief with spittle, the only moisture available besides sweat and urine, and dabbed at the dust around the wound, then used it to give her a mask against the dust, covering her face beneath the watching eyes.

The nearer explosions heaved the earth and tossed us like dice in a cup.  My one firm notion of first aid is that the injured should be kept still and, disregarding convention, I embraced the woman, wrapped my arms and legs around her trying to give her my body as an anchor, but it was no good.  The bombs were stronger than I and in a lover’s clasp we flew in our hole.

Sense left me and, though I was conscious, I knew nothing.   I don’t remember when the bombing ended.  I remember realizing that the woman seemed to have stopped blinking.  It was over then, I don’t know for how long.  I pulled the mask away and looked for respiration, but the hole was silent.  I tried to lick my fingertip, but could no longer produce saliva.  I spat dust and finally found some moisture inside my lower lip.  With my wetted fingertip I gently touched her fixed eye and knew I was alone.

XVI

I tried to close her eyes as I’d seen done in movies, but they wouldn’t stay shut.  In the end I laid the handkerchief over her face.

Out of the hole I started to walk away, then returned.  I couldn’t leave her lying in an open pit.  It was the notion of flies finding her that bothered me.  I have for some time had a horror of flies.  I once watched a man smoking a cigarette while flies walked on his brain.  So I kicked and pulled at the dry dirt and interred her.

Of the jeep I found one wheel with a piece of axle attached.  Of the driver, absolutely nothing.

 

 

 

From my book Dancing The Maze by Pretend Genius Press

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