The day the package arrived, the boys ran into the common room, pushing and shoving like animals at a watering hole. The House Mother had to fend them off as she cut through the thick cardboard box to expose the glittering gifts inside. The instant she was finished, they began to swarm the box, eager to select the nicest gift from the bunch. Each boy was allowed to take a single gift, and each was determined to make it a good one.
Jaseyn stood on the outskirts of the mob, his tiny head attempting to peer through the mass of bodies for a glimpse of the package and its contents. Just as soon as they had come, the children issued in a mass exodus from the room, their carefully selected items clutched firmly in hand. The remaining box was almost in shreds, empty but for a small, brightly-colored paper hat.
Jaseyn looked around at the decaying orphanage, examining the low, wood-beam ceilings, patched together with pieces of palm leaf, and the cracks forming at the base of the walls. Their soft beige color had turned a muddy brown, and were it not for the vibrant green of the bamboo plants tucked in the corner, or the faded maroon of the boys’ mats on the floor, the room would have been a desolate sea of this putrid color. That is, until the hat arrived. Shifting his focus back to the floor, Jaseyn picked up the hat, admiring the glaring yellow writing on the front and running his fingers across the soft white string that hung below.
Jaseyn was four years old, the youngest of the boys. On the day of his arrival at the orphanage, he had broken custom by looking a nine-year-old named Akra in the eye. Ever since, the group had called him shugut, or stupid, whenever he passed, hissing when he got too close.
They knew his story, for they had watched as Jaseyn’s mother dropped him off at the orphanage exactly one year ago. “Go play with the other boys for a minute,” she had said from the doorway, the rain forming a cloud of mist around her silhouette. Jaseyn obeyed, forgetting to remove his muddied boots. The boys crowded around him just as they had the package earlier that day. Akra was the first to speak.
“Look at the dirt on his shoes,” he said. “Do you come from filth, or just decide to wear it?”
“I do not come from filth,” said Jaseyn. As soon as he said it, he remembered to put his head down, but it was too late.
From behind a wooden pillar near the entrance, Jaseyn’s mother was speaking with the House Mother in hushed tones. She turned to look at the group of boys encircling her son, their faces dripping with disdain. Jaseyn stood, petrified, in the center, looking smaller than ever before. She winced at the sight, but turned her head to look away. For a few moments, his mother stood there, her body shaking. Eventually, however, she regained composure and, careful not to make a sound, slowly crept out of the building.
The eldest boy, Narith, was the only one to witness her departure.
“Look, your mother’s leaving you!”
Jaseyn jumped at the sound of his voice, but did not move from where he stood.
“No she’s not,” he said, careful this time to keep his eyes on the floor. Jaseyn knew the truth, but he refused to watch her go.
The boys often referred to this moment when they harassed him. Not only was he shugut, he was a motherless bastard whose own family had been so ashamed of him that they abandoned him once and for all.
“I saw your mother the day she left you,” Narith would say. “She wouldn’t even look at you. She just turned around and walked away.”
“I’ll bet she was glad to get rid of you,” said another. “No one wants a fool with mud-stained shoes for a son.”
Over time, Jaseyn became used to the taunting, but this new gift changed things. When the boys saw it, he thought, perhaps they would decide to leave him alone. It was, after all, sure to be the best gift in the bunch.
Careful not to break the string or crumple the paper, Jaseyn delicately placed the hat atop his head. He wished he could see the way it would look to the others—the vivid colors nestled into his thick brown hair, the yellow writing glistening whenever he happened to pass through a stream of light. It would be an impressive spectacle.
The House Mother, who had left to avoid the mob of screaming boys, appeared in the room once more to collect the scraps of cardboard left behind. She was a large woman with large feet that stuck out underneath her clothing. Unlike most, she wore her krama around her neck so that it cascaded diagonally across her thick frame, as though to swaddle an infant. She was a dispassionate woman, hardened by years of caring for children who were not her own in the midst of a war-torn nation. Even still, she was not entirely blind to her surroundings, and could tell from the beginning that Jaseyn did not fit in with the other boys. As she watched him standing there alone, examining the hat, she took pity on him.
“Your hat is beautiful, little one,” she said. “Do you know what it says?”
Jaseyn shook his head.
“It says ‘Happy Birthday’ in English. Do you know what a birthday is, Jaseyn?”
He shook his head once more.
“A birthday celebrates the day you were born, and it only happens once a year, so it’s a special day just for you.”
Just for you. The words intensified in his mind. This was indeed the best gift of them all, something special, just for him, something that none of the boys could share. He imagined their faces when they saw the hat, how exotic it would look and how envious they would be when they learned what the writing meant. But when the boys returned to the room an hour later, they erupted in laughter.
“What the hell is that on your head, shugut?” Narith asked him.
“It’s a birthday hat,” Jaseyn said. He ignored their laughter. In a minute, he thought, their expressions will change.
“What’s a birthday?” one of the boys asked. Jaseyn explained that it was a holiday celebrating your day of birth. The words “Happy Birthday” were a way of congratulating someone on their special day. The House Mother had told him so.
“How does she know what the words mean?” Narith asked. “She probably made that up to make you look like the fool that you are.”
“You’re probably walking around with a hat that says shugut in English,” said another, causing the boys to burst into laughter. Jaseyn put his head down, this time not to avoid eye contact, but to prevent the other boys from noticing the stream of tears cascading down his face. It was no use.
“Look, he’s crying,” said one of the boys. “Maybe the hat has some magical power that turns you into a woman.”
“Look, shugut,” said Narith. “We can’t have a woman hanging around us. We must take that hat off right away.” He snatched the birthday hat off Jaseyn’s head, causing the string to snap in half, and Jaseyn’s patience along with it. He lunged at Narith, but he had already stepped backward. Jaseyn fell to the floor. Birthday hat in hand, the other boys sprinted away.
Jaseyn did not know what exactly propelled him to chase after them. It was just a hat, a hat that had only been in his possession a short while. But something inside him believed in its mystical nature. For that brief moment, the hat had made him feel invincible, like nothing had ever made him feel before, and he would do everything in his power to hold on to that feeling for as long as possible. Lifting himself up off the floor, Jaseyn began running as fast as his little sticks for legs could carry him. He ran through the doorway and out into the courtyard, a large expanse of dirt extending all the way to the forest up ahead. Jaseyn could see the herd of boys heading toward the dense foliage, laughing and tossing the hat back and forth.
When they spotted Jaseyn chasing after them, they continued to taunt him with their laughter. “He’s on our tail! Run faster!” one of them said, but somehow they made sure to run just slow enough so that Jaseyn was never out of sight. After reaching the heart of the forest, the boys stopped and formed a blockade, so that Jaseyn nearly ran into them when he finally caught up. The mangrove trees loomed, forming an emerald cloud so thick it hid the sky from view. Narith stood in the front of the pack, the birthday hat dangling from his right hand.
“Catch,” he said as he threw the hat to one of the boys.
“Stop it!” Jaseyn said, taken aback by the sheer aggression in his voice.
Narith motioned for the boys to stop, a smile inching its way across his face.
“Shugut says to stop,” he said. “Well, maybe he’d like to be thrown about instead.” A group of three boys approached Jaseyn and hoisted him into the air.
“Wait,” said Narith. “There’s something missing.” He grabbed the birthday hat and placed it atop Jaseyn’s head. “There.”
The boys split into three groups, throwing Jaseyn back and forth between them. At first, the shock of it so overwhelmed him that he did not realize the pain. But soon, he began to feel the boys’ sharp nails puncturing his skin. Jaseyn cried out, powerless against the forces propelling him as he collided with each new set of hands. With every impact, his body grew limp, until he could no longer sense the sting of collision.
When they grew tired of throwing him, the boys flung Jaseyn to the ground, a rag doll left to rot on the forest floor. Although his mind was racing, Jaseyn could barely feel his body, save for the shooting pains in his arms and legs. He lay there for hours, the dirt soaking into his open wounds, until finally regaining the strength to stand. Raindrops were seeping through the gaps in the leaves, pelting his body as they fell. Jaseyn looked around at the surrounding abyss of emerald, unable to find a way out. He turned his eyes to the forest floor, where he spotted a patch of brilliant multicolor near the base of a tree. Blinking twice to focus his vision, Jaseyn watched as the birthday hat came into view. It was covered in mud, and had been crumpled and torn from the altercation, but nevertheless remained intact, its bright yellow letters still projecting a slight glow in the middle of overwhelming obscurity.
Jaseyn limped over to where the hat lay, and slowly bent down to pick it up and place it on his head. In the midst of it all, a dazed smile overcame him, for he knew that in spite of that day’s violent occurrences, it had ended with him in possession of the hat once more. Adorned with his beloved gift, Jaseyn resolved to navigate the forest alone. He could tell that it was nighttime by the chill of the breeze and the fact that the rain had picked up speed. Jaseyn wondered whether the House Mother would worry that he had not returned, but she rarely checked to make sure each boy was present. To her they were all the same.
It took all Jaseyn’s strength to lift one foot after another and propel himself forward. As his bare feet made contact with the damp and muddied ground, he thought he felt something slither underneath them. Taking a painful step back, Jaseyn realized it was simply a moss-covered branch. He remembered hearing once that stomping warded away cobras, but the stomping motion proved too much for his weak frame to handle. Even so, Jaseyn was not afraid. The hat would protect him. And so he made his way through the forest until at last he saw an opening in the trees that gave way to the light of the morning. With every step, the light grew closer until, after what seemed like hours, Jaseyn emerged from the forest, the orphanage in plain sight up ahead.
For the next few weeks, Jaseyn refused to remove the birthday hat, despite the House Mother’s plea that it had grown too dirty for wear. Since the string had been severed, the hat constantly fell from his head. Each time, Jaseyn picked it up and replaced it, careful not to squish it down too hard or widen any of its tears. It had become a signal to the other boys that he could not only withstand their torture, but remain unshaken by whatever violence they hurled.
The boys, in turn, never mentioned the hat again. The truth was, they were impressed by Jaseyn’s resolve. Jaseyn knew what their silence meant, and even though they still called him shugut and hissed at him when he walked by, their insults now had a little less bite.
Three months after the incident, the House Mother informed the boys that a couple was scheduled to visit the orphanage the following day. “They are from America,” she said, adjusting the krama on her hip, “so they might look a little different from you, but you needn’t be scared.”
This was not the first time that foreigners had visited the orphanage. The older boys knew what was at stake. The couple would sit with the boys, laughing and smiling, talking in a language they didn’t understand. After the couple left, one boy would receive a gift, often accompanied by a photo. Over the next few months, the gifts would continue until, finally, the couple would come back to the orphanage to take him home.
Unlike the other boys, Jaseyn was too young to know what was going on, and the idea of strangers in his home frightened him. He knew that Americans were responsible for the package that contained his birthday hat, and wondered if this couple had come to retrieve their gifts. The thought of losing his hat was more than Jaseyn could bear.
That night, Jaseyn dreamt that he was lying on the forest floor, his lifeless body covered with bruises and scars, attempting to will his body to move. In a daze, he glanced up at the treetops above him to find Narith and the rest of the boys nestled in the mangroves, cackling at him and swinging from branches. In a second, they were gone, and Jaseyn saw his mother standing over him, the precious birthday hat in her hand.
“Here you go, son,” she said, offering it to him. Her expression was vacant, and her eyes were cold. Jaseyn tried to lift his arm and reach for the hat, for his mother, he didn’t know which one, but he could not summon the strength. With every contraction of his muscles, every tightening of his body, Jaseyn witnessed his mother getting farther and farther away, until the hat in her hand became a small blur of color. Jaseyn cried out, begging for her to wait, assuring her that he would be able to stand soon, but she simply turned her head and faded out of vision.
The following morning, the House Mother informed all the boys that the American couple had arrived. Jaseyn was overcome by his vision from the night before. The boys’ laughter still rang in his ears, and his mother’s empty expression was emblazoned in his memory. He knew now that he could not trust anyone, especially not a couple he had never met. Jaseyn resolved to hide, lest they force him to surrender his only prized possession.
When the House Mother officially summoned them all to the common room, every boy put on his best behavior, taking care to walk calmly and politely into the room rather than push and shove as usual. When he thought no one was looking, Jaseyn slipped away from the pack and hid behind a bamboo plant in the corner of the room. The boys saw him run and hide, and they smiled to one another, as if to say, “Look at shugut, living up to his name once again.”
From behind the bamboo plant, Jaseyn watched as the couple, a slightly older man with brown hair and a pair of thin-rimmed spectacles, and a woman of the same age, her blonde hair tinged with gray and pulled into a tight knot at the nape of her neck, laughed and interacted with the children. Of all the boys, they seemed to pay special attention to Narith, who was the first to accept their offer to play with the small colored blocks they had brought along with them. As always, Narith stood out among the pack, maintaining a constant level of enthusiasm during each new game.
When the visit began to wind down, the couple patted each of the children on the head, the woman stopping to plant a small kiss on Narith’s, and made their way to the doorway. Before their departure, the House Master asked the boys to thank the couple for their time. “Awkunh!” they all said in unison, the brightest of smiles on their faces.
The woman smiled back. She motioned to her husband, and pointed in the direction of the bamboo plant. Everyone in the room turned to where Jaseyn was hiding, the now-faded colors of his birthday hat still visible from behind the leaves. The woman walked toward the corner of the room, and found Jaseyn crouched in the fetal position, his knees shaking.
“What’s his name?” the woman asked the House Mother.
“Jaseyn,” she said. “Shy little boy. Never goes anywhere without that hat.”
The woman and her husband examined the hat, eventually making out the words “Happy Birthday.” They exchanged glances. “I wish every day was my birthday too,” the woman said, and they laughed.
Weeks passed, and the boys taunted Jaseyn relentlessly. “You really blew it, shugut,” Narith said one day. “Those are the type of people that give you a home, and you made yourself look like a common fool. They were mocking you, shugut, didn’t you notice?”
“No,” Jaseyn said. “I didn’t.”
The other boys laughed and hissed. Jaseyn tried once again to avoid eye contact by putting his head down, but every time he did, his hat fell to the floor, the string no longer present to hold it in place. This caused the boys to laugh even more, but still they kept their distance from Jaseyn and the hat, never venturing to touch either.
The following day, a package arrived again at the orphanage and was met with much the same reaction as before. All of the boys crowded around to see what was inside, elbowing one another to get in front. The House Mother opened it in a similar fashion, but this time pulled out a small gift wrapped in multicolored paper. Attached to the gift was a card with a name written on it in English. “What does it say?” the boys asked her.
“It says ‘Jaseyn’.” At these words, the crowd shifted so that Jaseyn was surrounded on both sides. As he walked toward where the House Mother resided, Jaseyn could sense without looking that all eyes rested on him. When he eventually arrived in front of her, the House Mother handed him the card, which he opened slowly, careful not to crinkle or rip the paper. Inside was a note written in English, and a picture of the couple that had visited those few weeks ago. The rest of the boys gasped, and even Narith hung his head. Jaseyn, on the other hand, wondered to himself why on earth this couple had sent him their picture, let alone a card with words written in a language he did not know.
“What about the gift?” the House Mother asked, nudging Jaseyn, curious herself as to its contents. He proceeded to retrieve the box from her hands. Once more, Jaseyn was careful in opening it, removing each piece of tape individually and delicately loosening each fold. His work was done, and he opened the box to find a hat nearly identical to his own sitting squarely in the center. This one was brand new, so it still had a glossy sheen, and its string was intact.
“Put it on,” said the other boys in unison, but Jaseyn merely stood there in silence. Right away, he was drawn to the beauty of this new hat, its clean, crisp writing, the way the colors seemed to glisten in three-dimensions, but he remembered what had happened the last time a hat had arrived. He thought about the torturous night in the forest, the couple coming to take away his precious gift, and he knew what he had to do. Resisting temptation, Jaseyn threw the hat to the floor, turned around, and walked away. The boys looked at one another in confusion.
Some moments later, Narith finally spoke. “He is a fool, that shugut.”
As he left the room, however, Jaseyn thought to himself what a wonderful decision he had made. He couldn’t, after all, afford to start over again.