1. 2.
 

                               Illustrated by Than Htay Maung

  She washed out her brush and regarded her painting critically: definitely a lot of blues. Bluegray monsoon clouds over the rippling waters of a river; on the far bank, dark green mountain ranges; a blur of red sky just at the top right edge. That last ray of fading sun fell on the lone boatman rowing against the current, the muscles of his arms standing out in relief in the light. A gloomy and dark painting overall, but she had wanted exactly that. It might storm, it might rain, and one might have to row against the current, but then, all one needs is the strength to row.

She went to wash her hands at the sink, running her wet fingers through her hair, retying the handkerchief fastened around her hair.
"Aren't you done yet?"
The night watchman called from the door. In the silence of the late evening his voice boomed out. She gave a tired but contented smile.
"Yes, I'm just about done, I'll be out in a minute."
"Its past nine, already. I thought you didn't notice the time; the others have all locked up and gone, you're the only one left," he said.
She took up her things, gave a glance at her painting, and went out of the door, smiling 0at the old man.
"Good night!"
As soon as she was out of the building, the icy breeze refreshed her in an instant.
She breathed deeply. In the darkness she could see the lighted golden stupa of the Shwedagon Pagoda.



She turned left as she came out of the gate of the State School offline Arts. She wished she could go and sit by the Royal Lakes not too far away and maybe spend half an hour or so, watch the nightfall, feel the breeze, listen to the night birds. But...how can she; the night and the breeze and the bird calls will surely be disturbed by the drunken leers of men from the nearby night stalls; it is dangerous enough that she was walking home alone,
this late. She could not help getting so absorbed in her paintings that she usually stayed on alone after class, finishing up her assignment which she was to do over two or three days. This headstrong streak was what brought her here to Yangon in the first place.

She had ignored her mother's pleas to finish high school, and had left their small delta village to attend the art school. She had found a place to stay in a nunnery not too far from the school, within the grounds of the Nga Htut Kyee Pagoda of Bahan. She did not ; mind the daily lunches of beans and rice, or in the evenings, a plate of almost. stale leftovers. Each evening she would happily scamper up the steep steps leading to the nunnery, where she had been allowed to stay because the elderly nun happened to be a distant cousin of her mother.
The walk to and from school took half an hour either way as the steep climb wound around a hillside, and past a small cemetery where, years and years ago, some minor princes and princesses had been buried fn a family plot.

She would go over in her mind the lessons learnt at school as she climbed the steps; she thought of those steps as symbolizing the stages of her progress. Where is she now?
Not yet near the top, she knew. But just wait.
One day, one day...

She was grateful that some donor had paid for some railings to be put up; she clutched at the metal bar as she started the steep climb, first taking off her slippers for one is not allowed to wear shoes on the pagoda precincts. From way up the pagoda, a dim glow of a 40 watts bulb hardly gave enough light for her to see the steps.
Suddenly she heard the shuffle of feet behind her... she felt so tired she did not bother to look around. Well, someone's coming up the steps, too. She felt less alone. But then, why should that make a difference? She had been going up these dark steps, alone, for a great many nights.

"Sister! Sister!"
Now whom could he b ailing to ? not turn around, but heard t footsteps quicken, and in the dark sensed someone coming up to stand besides her.
"Sister?"
She looked up; in the faint .light she could see a young man. She felt a stab of....fear?, Perhaps. They were alone on the steps, by the side stood the old tombs; beyond them, a cliff; in front almost total darkness. And beside her, stood a strange man. It was late: almost 10 p.m.

"What do you want?" Her voice sounded harsh to her own ears. What should I do? She thought rapidly. Who can hear her if she called for help? She noticed that he was dressed decently enough, in a neat white shirt. He held a pair of velvet slippers in one hand. What should she do?
"Are you going up there, sister?
His Ice was gentle and stood still, calmly. She could hear the resulting of the leave from the trees towering over the tombs.
"Yes."
Her answer sounded even harsher than her previous reply.
"The step are so dark, and you're alone, aren't you? I've been watching you for some time, going up there. Are you from the art school? Where do you have to go? I'll see you home.
She could not imagine what her eyes were saying as she stared at him. Is this a sincere offer, or is it a trick? A deep silence fell, broken by a sharp chirp of a cricket. She shivered, but gathered her thoughts to speak in a steady voice.

"Yes, I just came back from art school. I have to go beyond the pagoda to a nunnery on the other side."
"Oh...right up to the top, then beyond?"
She nodded. It seemed to her that his eyes widened. When he spoke it was hafting.
"Th...then it means I have to come back alone...its so dark, and those tombs! W...well, you're used to this place, right? Excuse me, I have to go."
He turned suddenly and ran down the steps. She glared at his back, and turned to make her way up again. After a few steps, she stopped and looked down...by then he was already more than ten steps down.
"Hey!"

Her voice was loud in the stillness. Startled, he stopped and looked up.
She smiled broadly; she hoped he could see that smile. She waited a few seconds before speaking, for a cricket had started to chirp shrilly. As soon as it paused, she called down:
"Thanks!"
She turned at once and ran up the steps. She heard nothing from him: he must be rooted to the spot in: surprise. After a while she heard him run down the steps; she smiled again, as she has done just now. She turned and looked down until the faint glow of his shirt disappeared past the bottom steps. She smiled again.
She could not understand why she kept smiling all the time, like. this.

(The above short story was translated by MTG)
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