Comrade Aeon inspects the snake and decides it isn’t the one he is looking for. Most of its body is tucked away inside the garbage bin, but he can tell from the size of its head that it can’t be much longer than 2 metres, maybe not even that. Had it not died, the reticulated python might have grown to somewhere between 4 and 6 metres and could have become a capable hunter of cats but, at this juvenile stage, it would only be able to feed on frogs and mice or baby rats. He takes hold of its head and eases it out of the bin, admiring as he does the brown-and-black markings intricately interlocked in a determined symmetry across its shimmering scales. The snake’s lidless eyes glint at him under the streetlight and, by the way its spine is flattened with haphazard angular depressions, Comrade Aeon guesses it was beaten to death with a wooden plank. Gently, as if it might still feel pain at his touch, he coils the snake into a plastic shopping bag – he will find some piece of undisturbed earth where he can cover it with leaves and let it return to the swamp in its own good time.
Over the past few days, Comrade Aeon has been criss-crossing the area he mapped out around the dead cats, a semi-residential neighbourhood of narrow lanes that tapers off from one of Bangkok’s traffic-clogged thoroughfares. Despite existing beneath the long shadows of the skyscrapers that line the main road, the area has a bucolic, almost sleepy, atmosphere. Some of its compounds, like the private kindergarten or the occasional empty plot used for parking overflow from the main road, are easy to search – he only has to wait till they empty out at the end of the day. The gardens of private homes or high-walled townhouses are trickier and necessitate working out which dogs can be bribed with a stick of barbecued pork and which security guards are the soundest sleepers. Time isn’t an issue for Comrade Aeon so none of these obstacles are insurmountable. He has set up base camp in a derelict wooden house that is gradually giving in to the unchecked embrace of a banyan tree. Inside the doomed house, he can rest undisturbed and wait for the best time to hunt.
Yai Sunan was right. Comrade Aeon had been changed by his years in the jungle. He would never have agreed to coming back to the capital had it not been for the chaos caused by the Sino-Soviet split and the Thai military’s subsequent efforts to flush the insurgents out once and for all. When the government offered an amnesty to the Communist Party of Thailand and the students who had taken up arms with them, Comrade Aeon’s wife, whom he had met and married in that same jungle, had convinced him that their destiny was now in the hands of greater powers and that they should defect to the winning side. Though she had once been the most fervent of Maoists – The east is red, the sun is rising! – she slipped back into urban life with remarkable if somewhat disturbing ease. After re-joining the university and completing her degree, she found a job in an up-and-coming adver-ising agency and quickly rose through the ranks until she was managing big accounts for American soft-drink brands and imported Japanese whiskies. For Comrade Aeon, the process of reintegration had felt like another kind of battle. He dropped the ‘comrade’ from his name and found a job as a teacher at a state high school but, when he was given responsibility for history classes, he was unable to endorse a syllabus that failed to incorporate the very segment of history in which he had been involved; the textbooks contained no explanation and barely a mention of the student protests of 1976. Officially, and in the minds of the upcoming generation, it might as well not have happened at all. His wife told him to let it be – they had two sons by then and their duty was now to their family (‘We’ve got to get on with our lives. Don’t let the past lay traps for you, Aeon.’). But Comrade Aeon kept looking for the lost years of his life. He understood for the first time that things that have happened can be unhappened, not forgotten through absent-mindedness but strategically erased and rewritten. And so he went ahead and did exactly what his wife had cautioned him not to do: he let the past entrap him.
Comrade Aeon spent months interviewing people who had been involved in the events of ’76, going to some lengths to include both sides of the conflict even when it meant listening to one retired policeman express pride at his contribution to eradicating ‘commie scum’ from Thai society (‘We were successful, too. Don’t see any of those leeches around any more, do you?’). He interviewed people who had been students at the time, people like himself who hadn’t been that interested in politics or communism but had been swept up in the feverish ideals of the period. He tracked down some of the leaders of the right-wing gangs that had massed in Sanam Luang outside the university campus, egged on by army radio, and chanting at the students, ‘Kill them! Kill them! Kill them!’ He searched for the seldom-seen photographs of semi-conscious students burned on funeral pyres made of tyres, and dead bodies hung from the tamarind trees on the parade ground. He recorded the official death toll of forty-six, though the number seemed too low and did little to encapsulate the ferocious blood-letting that had taken place. And then he reinstated the missing chapter into his classroom’s copy of the school textbook and taught a lesson about that fateful day on 6 October 1976 when some 4,000 students had been barricaded inside Thammasat University grounds, surrounded by armed police and an angry mob. Within a week of teaching the lesson, he lost his job.
With no other school willing to hire a teacher so reckless with the kingdom’s history, Comrade Aeon had taken to wandering the city looking for patches of overgrown land where he could return to the jungle, if only for short stretches of time. Unlike some of his fellow students, Comrade Aeon had never fought for the Communist Party and had been deployed on the supply chain, carrying a gun only when he went on hunting expeditions for the communal kitchens. He had adopted his moniker from the classes he taught during the evening education sessions around the campfire, based on the evolutionary theory he’d begun studying at university, and his explanations of how every era must, at some point, come to an end so that life can be born anew. After their return to the city, his wife had started using unfamiliar phrases like ‘client approval’ and ‘consumer rankings’, and Comrade Aeon realised that she had, perhaps inevitably, been born anew herself. He found himself staying away from their apartment for longer stretches of time, until months, and later years, would pass without him ever returning home.
As he used to do on procurement duty for the Party, Comrade Aeon is conducting his python hunt in a systematic and methodical manner. He stops at regular intervals to examine the storm drains, shifting loose concrete slats and hanging his head down to peer into the dark channels, looking for movement. Once, he thinks he sees the glint of something muscular moving in the sludge below, but when he stretches further into the drain to get a better look, he sees it is just a plastic bag twirling in an eddy of sewage. As he traverses the neighbourhood, he pauses often to listen, training his ear above the steady thrum of air-con inverters and the muted night-time grumble of traffic from the main road. He notes all the familiar sounds of Bangkok wildlife – the cicadas that chirrup in unison from a bush or tree and that fall instantly silent when he nears, as if to the baton of a miniature conductor, the fussy tut-tutting of bats navigating around him, the occasional wolf-like howl of a street dog alerting its pack to a territorial breech. Whenever he hears the strangled yowl of a cat in distress, he hurries towards the source of the noise only to find it the result of the usual nocturnal activities of stray cats – unhappy couplings or scrapping toms.
Late one night, Comrade Aeon follows a trail of bloody paw prints over a wall and into the leafy enclosure of a condominium’s swimming pool. Stealthily avoiding the beams of the garden lights, he moves around the pool but mistimes his explorations and, when some early swimmers come down for their daily laps at dawn, has to crawl inside a manicured hedge and hide. He spends the morning watching the legs and feet of the condo’s mostly foreign residents padding back and forth between the elevator and the pool – farang feet, unfeasibly soft, the women with painted toes bright and shiny like lollipops and the children’s plump and pinkened by the heat and always diligently followed by the darker, calloused heels of their Thai or Burmese nannies. Only when the pool empties out around midday, as the sun reaches its peak, is he able to creep from the hedge and slip out over the wall.
Back at the derelict house, Comrade Aeon takes out his notebook and documents his search – the ground he covered, the dates and times of animals sighted. A mewling noise interrupts his train of thought. It is high-pitched but low in volume, and coming from somewhere inside the house. He walks through the empty, unlit rooms, feeling his way instinctively over rotting floorboards that threaten to collapse beneath him, and finds a litter of new-born kittens inside a cavity in the floor where one of the planks has disintegrated to wood pulp. The rate of attrition is high for stray kittens in Bangkok and these ones are already emaciated, clearly abandoned by their mother. As Comrade Aeon speculates as to whether she might have been killed by the python he is looking for, he reaches into the hole and picks up one of the starving kittens. Its eyes, only recently opened, are filmy with mucus and jellied like toad spawn. He cradles it in one hand, stroking its little tiger-striped head. Then he wraps his fingers snug around either end of its pliable body, twists his hands in opposite directions, and snaps its neck. A thick silence fills the house and the only audible sound is the popcorn snap of tiny bones as Comrade Aeon kills each one of the remaining kittens in turn.
Photograph © tox brown