20/08/2012 § Leave a comment
My name is Kaeng Khoi; my surname, Wongjoojuea. Before, my name wasn’t Kaeng Khoi; my name was Lap Lae. I only changed my name from Lap Lae to Kaeng Khoi two years ago. I am well aware that to start like this is puzzling and creates confusion about my identity. Besides, both names are words very few parents would be unconventional enough to give their children or grandchildren. As we know, they are names of districts more so than names of persons, but then all names have an origin. Therefore please give me time to explain about such an unusual name to bestow on a child, and why my father was adamant he had to call his progeny with names both dignified and full of hope he was proud of, paying no attention to the mockery of relatives and people around him.
Father told me of various events in the past after he had determined I was old enough to learn about what happened in his life and able to remember those events as lessons to guide me in the conduct of mine. It began one evening when I was nine years old and he was getting on for forty-four. He sat in the middle of the house platform after the three of us – father, mother and child – had had dinner and he was on his sixth glass of pretty stiff Hong Thong, the brandy he set out to drink every evening after Mother set before us the tray of food she had prepared. That evening Father kept staring at me all the time. I was aware that his eyes, unyielding and angry-looking as was his normal expression, were all over me, and I felt ill at ease. I was racking my brains trying to remember if I had done anything that day that would earn me yet another beating. When I looked up and glanced at him, I could feel his eyes looking at me in a probing way or trying to figure out something about me. After that, he raised his glass to his lips, drank up and then held out the empty glass to me.
“Top it up, son.”
I haven’t told you yet, have I, that I have a brother who is four years older than I am. His name is Kaeng Khoi. I know that mentioning my brother at this point will add to the puzzlement and confusion, but please allow me time to explain things a little. I believe the muddle will soon be sorted out and in the end the confusion will clear. So allow me to mention my big brother now merely to let you know that he sat by my side, quiet and obedient, but he was someone else altogether when he was outdoors. I’ll tell you about that another time. For now, let us go back to when Father held out his empty glass and told me to refill it. I went to the fridge to get ice cubes, carefully poured alcohol in the glass I topped up with soda water, used a chopstick to mix spirits and soda, stirring until foam rose to the brim of the glass, and then I held the drink out to Father. During the whole process my brother had advised me on how to go about what, as he later told me when the two of us were in bed, was a ritual Father relied on to convey some meaning to us. He said that when he was my age, he had also been asked to refill the glass for the first time.
Father raised the drink I had mixed and took a sip. “Needs work.” After that, he drank it up. This time he held out the glass, with only ice cubes left in it, to my brother, who mixed the drink expertly while giving me high signs with his eyes. Father tasted the drink my brother had mixed. “That’s more like it.” He put the glass down beside him, shot a glance at Mother as if she was in the way and said, “You go and wash the dishes, now.” And then Mother did as she was told diligently without uttering a word. I felt strangely gratified every time Father ordered Mother around. I lowered my head and slipped a smile at my brother. We giggled while Mother picked up the food tray and went out of our field of vision to the kitchen at the back of the house.
“Come closer. There’s something I want to tell you.”
First off, Father complimented the two of us for having behaved very well the whole week and now we had polished off the rice on our plates.
“Do you remember what I said about eating food?” he prodded.
“Eat lots of rice and easy on the side dishes,” I answered. He smiled and nodded happily.
When Father was in his teens, not only was he tall and lean, he was also muscular and swarthy, with wavy black hair sleek with coconut oil and a fine straight moustache, attributes that made a young man much sought after in those days. He further claimed that he was blessed with a good sense of hearing, of which he was proud, as during part of his youth this special asset had enabled him to feed his family, which comprised his mother and siblings, six lives altogether counting himself.
His mother, Grandma Joo, and his father, Grandpa Juea, were Chinese immigrants who had crossed the seas with nothing but a mat and a pillow each, fleeing the mainland which at the time was being invaded by Japan during the Second World War, and reached Thailand in 1941. But then right at the end of that year, Japanese soldiers, hard on their heels, launched their battleships to assault Thailand’s southern shores. Caught short, Grandpa and Grandma headed north and started a new life by staying with a kind-hearted man who tended a coconut plantation in Lap Lae, a town in Uttaradit province. Both Grandpa and Grandma felt very much indebted to him and would later tell all their children to respect Uncle Mart, who was no different from their real uncles. The main thing was that, although he didn’t own the plantation, Uncle Mart was generous enough to invite Grandpa and Grandma to build a hut at the far end of the plantation, without fear if the plantation owner found out of finding himself without a roof over his head. He pointed at a dark spot at the bottom of the plantation, where piles of leaves and palm ribs gave off vapours and a strong smell of dampness, and in that far-off spot Grandpa and Grandma built their own small dwelling, where Grandma was to live on for another thirty years.
Two weeks after their dwelling at the back of the plantation had taken shape as a small shed, Uncle Mart told Grandpa Juea that the plantation owner had his house in Phichai. He owned many plots of land which were mostly langsat orchards and coconut plantations, and he drove his Datsun pickup van to the plantation once a month to look at his fruit and give instructions to the workers, which meant that he was to show up next week. An increasingly restless Uncle Mart coughed drily as he told Grandpa he’d take him to Phichai to introduce him to the plantation owner; that would be better than skulking around. Maybe the owner could do with another worker.
There was a glimmer of hope amid all the anxiety. One evening Grandpa and Uncle Mart came back from Phichai with smiles on their faces and bottles of hard liquor stuck in their armpits. Grandpa told Grandma that the plantation owner was another kind-hearted man, and in the following years, when children were born one after the other until there were five of them over ten years, Grandma told the children that besides Uncle Mart there was also the owner of the plantation they must respect and prostrate themselves to for being such a noble person to their parents the like of whom in this world was not to be found. Grandpa’s work was to supervise the cargo of the six-wheeler transporting the plantation produce to the factory in the main provincial town. When Grandpa had told Grandma the good news, he took a bottle of liquor under his arm and skirting ditches walked over to Uncle Mart’s hut.
Grandpa was a strong and sturdy man and this had the plantation owner pick him out to go and work in the factory in Phichai and in other plantations where hard labour was needed. It was only on Sundays that Grandma would see Grandpa turn up at the coconut plantation, but feelings of loneliness and emptiness didn’t assail her too strongly because she and Uncle Mart and his wife were always visiting one another. Grandma built the small hut with her own hands, finishing what had been left undone when Grandpa went to work in town, with Uncle Mart and his wife coming to give her a hand on some days. And on some days Grandma went to help Uncle Mart’s wife husk coconuts piled up like hillocks to await the six-wheeler that would convey them to the factory. And when one Sunday Grandpa came back with a wad of money he gave to Grandma to buy rice to fill the pot with, the next morning Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle Mart and his wife got on that same six-wheeler to travel to town through chilly fog and soft sunshine, with Grandma, Uncle Mart and his wife taking the ride to reach a marketplace only four kilometres away. When they had bought rice and other necessities, the three of them went back on foot to the plantation.
Grandpa and Grandma’s lives went on like this until the first rains came and tested the hut with wind gusts and hailstorms. The sturdiness of the hut was confirmed as only a few drops of water leaked in and slanting rain only reached a few places inside. Grandma, who by now had built a new life in this northern coconut plantation for nearly a full year after asking for asylum as a drifting stranger, had during all those months volunteered to help with the work in the plantation to the point of becoming one of the workers whose income derived from husking coconuts. She worked with as much strength as a delicate woman could muster while bearing an ever-growing belly, and the time for giving birth to her first boy was getting near – and that first boy, whom she would name Pee Mai (New Year), was Father, who was born in December with the help of an improvised midwife, Uncle Mart’s wife.
Grandma said that Father was strong and in good health and easy to bring up, like her other four children – three daughters and the last one a boy. All of the children after they had been weaned, Grandma said, she had fed with rice gruel and salted fish only. Their dessert was boiled rice water mixed with granulated sugar and she served their food in coconut shells polished to a high gloss and devoid of shards. Not long after she gave birth to Father she perched him astride her hip to go to work husking coconuts in front of Uncle Mart’s hut. Father grew up with the sound of machetes cutting into coconut husks and cracking them open with twists of the wrist. Amid the sounds of daily activity were also the thuds of old coconuts falling off their stems and rolling along the ground covered with dry palm ribs that cracked and squelched until they finally fell into some ditch with a resounding plop. That sound of falling coconuts later became a breath of life when Father was seven years old and ran behind Uncle Mart to retrieve coconuts, whose thuds showed the way through the dim overgrown vastness of the plantation. In later years, Father was the one to go out and get the coconuts instead of Uncle Mart, who had begun to grow poorly and suffered from a chronic dry cough so that he couldn’t do any hard work, had to lie on a mat in his hut sipping hot water from a thermos flask and could only split kindling and cook food.
Father began to remember his life and that of his family as of the first time he ran out to pick up a coconut. As for bringing up the four siblings, who were brought into the world every other year like clockwork, it was a mystery how such a slight woman managed to handle those lives. It was like a treasure chest placed on a votive shelf which he could only honour and worship, knowing nothing if Grandma wasn’t the one to tell him, and Grandma was the kind of woman who didn’t like to speak much, so that Father only knew that he was the eldest son who helped his mother with his first sister until she was able to totter about and after that took care of the next sister until she too could totter and so on it went.
That marked the birth of Father’s good sense of hearing he had told us about. When he had to start work in the plantation aged seven or eight, for all the time spent living and working on a coconut plantation in his early years neither he nor his siblings had ever tasted any sweets made out of any part of a coconut. Grandma was strict about this, concerned as she was about their debt to the plantation owner’s kindness. She forbade her children to ever steal coconuts to eat, but that strict interdiction lost its potency out of necessity when Father was eleven and fate compelled him to take responsibilities beyond his age, because Grandpa left his family never to return as he was unable to withstand internal injuries while being taken to the district health station.
Father spoke about Grandpa with a mood that swung between admiration of his manliness and despondency at his desertion of Grandma and the children through his crude behaviour, which he wasn’t sure which image of Grandpa to select to make me fully understand. But finally he chose to recount Grandpa’s exploits with respect and understanding, even though his voice had an undertone of distress. Father said that Grandpa was a tough, unyielding man, and besides had a character that differed from the other Chinese refugees. How he had taken Grandma out of mainland China was still as much a mystery as his lack of roots, of ancestry. It was something he had never cared to respect and worship. Since he had set foot in Lap Lae district, he had done his best to blend in with the way of life of the locals. He spoke Thai quickly with the idiom of his fellow workers, who were either Northerners or North-easterners. He liked to pay his respects to revered old monks in various temples at the invitation of his friends. In those days he was much taken with talismans, especially metal amulets said to melt at candle temperature. He spent his time after work visiting places that were reputedly sacred and had amulets for “rent” and worship. The story was that the day he died, that very evening he had withdrawn his pay (and divided it: one part in his left trouser pocket to give to Grandma to purchase what was needed in the house; another part in his right trouser pocket to buy hot tofu water to give to the children; and a third in the pocket of his short-sleeved shirt to purchase fermented liquor) and had gone to celebrate on hard liquor with his fellow workers in Uttaradit, and when the liquor hit the spot he strained his ears to listen to the people in the market, especially the locals, to see if anyone was saying anything disparaging against people of Chinese extraction like him, and it so happened that not long before that day he had asked an elder monk to draw a yantra on his back. His friends at the party tested the protection it conferred and said that Grandpa had a really thick hide when they helped one another slash his back with knives and swords. They struck and struck yet couldn’t get through and were astounded when his back bore no trace of any cut. Therefore, given that he had a supernatural asset, his hearing could reach much farther than before. He strode up to a group of toughies of the never-say-die variety who sat drinking fermented liquor in the same shop and then toppled their table, sending glasses and bottles crashing, whereupon he was beaten up with fists and feet and left sprawled out flat and died of internal haemorrhage moments later.
Father smiled when he reached this point, and went on to say that from then on Grandma had raised her children and was head of the family in earnest, with him working to help raise his siblings as well. The contentment of old veered towards uncertainty. Grandma still worried that the mainstay of the family being gone this would have an adverse effect on the decisions of the plantation owner, but the latter didn’t say anything about evicting a family whose main half was now missing and was thus only half-useful to him. Grandma and Father went on working in the plantation even though they earned barely enough to buy rice to fill the pot. Father said that after Grandpa died, many a dinner was just rice gruel with much water simmered until the grains of rice broke and turned the consistency of thin soup. As for the accompanying dish, it was pebbles the size of little fingers dipped into cups of fish sauce. You took a mouthful of rice then with chopsticks picked up a pebble to suck on the fish sauce and then put the pebble back into the cup.
And then one day finally Father was willing to let Grandma punish him for being an ungrateful thief. After dithering and turning things over in his mind all night long, one morning when he heard a loud thud in the stillness of the plantation, he ran out barefoot and came back with a coconut, prepared breakfast as he did every dawn and then scraped coconut meat into the rice he had just cooked, and this was the special meal he took great pride in with which he would feed his four siblings until they were fully grown, through the expedient of petty larceny which, from that day on, by venturing out at the break of day, increased deception, in order to prevent Uncle Mart and his wife from getting wise to the fact that his family was robbing the plantation in order to eat.
One day Father found a delicacy for his little siblings, a source of happiness and smiling faces after not having eaten dessert of boiled rice water mixed with sugar for a long time. What he found was a round, fist-sized heart inside one of the coconuts he was handling. It tasted blandly sweet and had a doubtful texture when you bit it because its meat was full of air bubbles – an adventure in taste that was thrilling and quaint and worth the search that soon had his four siblings addicted to coconut hearts.
But the new taste of life-giving rice mixed with coconut meat was bitterness of sorts for Grandma. She never tasted any of the food Father prepared but stuck to rice gruel and sucked pebbles in fish sauce (both she and the children ate good food only on those days when she had finished her work and the six-wheeler came to take the coconuts to the factory and she was able to borrow money from the plantation owner). Grandma always kept her word. When she had forbidden something, going back on her word was unthinkable. But letting her children eat the same food that she forced herself to eat every day would be unforgivable, so she found herself faced with an impossible choice between keeping her word and her children’s welfare. Often she would take it out on Father by punishing him. One day when she could no longer stand the constant pilfering of what belonged to her benefactor, she grabbed Father’s arm together with the evidence, a coconut, and dragged him to Uncle Mart’s hut to report her son’s shameful behaviour, while using her rough hand to slap Father on his short legs until his calves turned a harsh red. She slapped him until her hands shook and hurt to punish and shame him in front of Uncle Mart, who at the time had been in the kitchen at the back of the hut when he heard a commotion and shouts, especially his wife’s, who was just back with pails of water to refill the jar, as she tried to make Grandma stop and called for him to come out and put an end to the matter. Peace thus returned with Uncle Mart’s wife taking Grandma back to her hut to calm her down and having a long natter there while Father was being comforted by Uncle Mart, who boosted his morale by saying that what he had done was for the best. He disappeared inside his hut and came back with a slice of pumpkin in a small dish he held out to Father. When Father had eaten, Uncle Mart sliced the rest of the pumpkin, set it in a big dish and walked ahead of Father to Grandma’s hut.
From then on every evening Father went and helped Uncle Mart make the food, and took back to his hut a big dish full of sundry curries and coconut-cream-flavoured sweets. This was the only way Grandma would accept to eat coconuts from the plantation which had provided her with a safe haven for many years.
Uncle Mart, whom Father’s family was much indebted to, passed away peacefully one evening during the cold season just as Father was turning into a young man of twenty-four. At dawn that day Father was woken up by a salvo of thuds from coconuts which had decided to fall like a shower of hail. Grandma, whom Uncle Mart’s wife had asked to help her look after him since the night before, walked back from Uncle Mart’s hut looking drawn. She was dead silent all of that morning, set out the work in the house and the plantation for Father to do, and after changing clothes went back to Uncle Mart’s hut once again.
She went to the temple to help with the funeral three days in a row and in late afternoon of the third day came back to take Father and his siblings along to attend the cremation of Uncle Mart, and then on the next day she received some of Uncle Mart’s ashes and put them in a small piece of white cloth for her children to prostrate themselves to and recall to mind the goodness of Uncle Mart.
With Uncle Mart gone, his wife and Grandma looked after the plantation in his stead until Uncle Mart’s wife fell ill. Even though she didn’t have any children to look after her, Father’s sisters were like close relatives as they made sure she took her drugs and gave her water until she too passed away. So the coconut plantation had suffered two losses, but later this gave steady work to Father’s family, and all his siblings grew up and helped one another assiduously – significant labour which led the plantation owner to realise that this substitute workforce was more useful and productive than it used to be.
One day the plantation owner driving his Datsun pickup van appeared at the plantation and called out for Father. He sized up Father’s build for a while and looked at the four siblings and then walked over to Grandma, who was busy husking coconuts by the hut. He announced that he’d like to take Father and his oldest sister to go and work in the factory in town. As for the other three children they’d stay and work in the plantation for the time being. Grandma showed reluctance because she didn’t want to part from her children, but in that narrow span of life a spark of hope flashed as the word “school” came out of the mouth of the plantation owner. This was a wonderful offer and Grandma agreed without hesitation when the plantation owner said that he would have the three young ones attend school in the neighbourhood in exchange for work in the plantation when they came back from school in the afternoon and on the condition that the two eldest children go to work in town with him. Grandma was aware that those words were like orders, that when the plantation owner showed his intention there was no gainsaying or negotiating with a benefactor anyway, and the favour of giving her children the opportunity to be educated was something too big to ever be entirely repaid. Grandma gratefully prepared a bag of clothes each for Father and his oldest sister with an eagerness which later Father would sum up as fear that the plantation owner would change his mind.
The plantation owner gave Grandma a certain amount of money for expenses and, with the small steps of two children, a boy and a girl, moving slowly away from the hut at the bottom of the plantation, Grandma’s two little darlings cleared a way to the future for the younger siblings that were staying behind. The eldest son named Pee Mai (New Year) and the oldest daughter named Aruno-thai (Dawn) thus before the last day of the year gradually disappeared in the dim and winding paths of the coconut groves in the twilight.
Chapter 1 of Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi, Amarin Printing, Bangkok, 2009.
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
There is no one like Mim.
I tried to think of other imaginary names, Tor (Wasp), Duang (Beetle), Maeo (Cat), Fon (Rain), Phueng (Honey), but there is no name like Mim… In the throat, lips protruding, stretched on both sides as if in a smile, the ‘m’ morphing into a short ‘ee’, closing the lips to end on ‘m’ – eummmm … mmimm … mim … Mim! The lower lip touching the upper lip, making you feel like savouring a kiss. Mim … mim. Mim.
There is no woman like her.
I know many women, some broken-hearted, including by me. We are like balls in a pinball machine even though no one wants to get hurt and no one wants to hurt others. Mim is not my first woman, and far from the last. She is the fourth. I remember because I like to think in figures (I’m a clerk in a bank). Most women I ignore. Some are gossip fodder; others I secretly admire in my heart; some I feel like walking up to to ask for their phone number; and a few, to be frank, I’d like to lift their skirts and gawp.
As for Mim?
Was it love or not? Not at all. Don’t know love, don’t like this word, don’t like feelings that can’t be put into words. Used to think I loved Jan (the first woman) but now know that wasn’t love: it was ‘mutual affection’. As for Joy, the second woman, it was ‘admiration of corporeal beauty’. See? Everything can be explained with language.
Never thought I loved Mim, except there was a special kind of feeling. Once we knew each other, I told her I’d like to marry her.
She smiled wryly.
You’ve heard it often, haven’t you: ‘life is stranger than fiction’. In this case, how was life different from fiction? Everyone says fiction is exaggerated, is excessive, anything can happen, the prostitute reformed by the moneybag, the bus driver inheriting a billion baht, the deaf-mute shouldering firewood at the far end of the ricefield a police captain in disguise. Fiction isn’t reality.
But we say life is even stranger than fiction.
If fiction is too implausible it gets shunned by the crowds and panned by the critics. Before a character makes a decision, every time, one factor must support the other, minor events must lead to the main event: we might find that actually the heroine reminds the hero of his poor mother, so he can’t bear the thought of her working in a brothel. Fiction has plots, has messages. The harpy ends up utterly destroyed while the goodies live in clover ever after.
But there is no one to raise his voice when life is not like real life. It all happens at random as at the toss of a coin. Life has no plot. Nobody knows right from wrong. We may cross the street at the red light every day until a ten-wheeler comes along. In fiction only one Hamlet dies and Pritsana gets to marry her Honourable Sir Phot, but reality is multifarious, I may be a bank clerk just as much as head of the loans department.
My shift ended at two in the afternoon the day I met Mim for the first time. She came to open an account with us at two fifteen. She made a thirty thousand baht deposit, but had forgotten to bring her ID. We agreed to let her bring it the next day. She thanked us. By three o’clock I walked out of the bank and found her by the door. We talked. She asked where I had parked my car. I told her I didn’t drive and always rode buses. She laughed, said she’d take me home. The two of us sat listening to Elvis all the way.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true. Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
Today, the manager called me up. He praised me for being diligent and conscientious, but ended up faulting me for lack of ambition. He is right. I’m satisfied with what I am – no heavy responsibilities, enough every month to live on and save some, no wish for subordinates, no need for headaches, all in all enough to live comfortably.
Because I live alone.
What would it be like if that day I hadn’t gone to that party? Would I be more ambitious today? Would I want more than this? A life full of obligations, holidays abroad once a year, monthly instalments for house and car, tuition fees for the children, doctors’ bills, and when looking in the mirror really wondering who this fellow is. Is that me or not? Or me as someone else – one with responsibilities, working his backside off to raise a family?
I stretch out my right hand and with the forefinger touch the mirror, coming into contact with the forefinger of that man’s left hand, feeling the thinness of the barrier between us two.
You must have heard that life is a matter of chance. The universe came out of a big bang, primal matter scattered into masses, for no reason other than chance. Life evolved from some genetic aberration. Chance begat the universe. Chance begat man. Chance begat one child. Chance it was that had his father lose his life in a road accident, so the child resolved never to drive. Later he became a bank employee who left the office at two o’clock every afternoon, except on the day his friend called to say he’d be in late. The bank has three counters for accounts, but a woman came to open an account at his counter and because she spent some time chatting with an old friend at the door, the two of them met again when he left.
And that day was the day the DJ put on five Elvis songs back-to-back.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true. Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
I ask the man in the mirror whether he is happy.
‘Sure,’ is his first word. He glances up, his black gaze surveying his daily life. ‘Wake up every morning at six.’
‘I get up at seven.’
‘I have to drive the kid first.’
‘Son or daughter?’
‘A daughter. Her name is Mein (Porcupine),’ he answers. ‘I get to the office a little after eight. I run the business loans department, handle customers until twelve. In the afternoon, there’s a meeting with the other departments. After that, I sign documents and tend to other chores until five and then head for home.’
‘Does Mim come and pick you up?’
‘No, I take the car, learned to drive when she was pregnant.’
‘Were you afraid?’
He is quiet for a while. ‘At first I guess I was but it was necessary. Now I’m used to it.’
I ask further, ‘You go back home and then what?’
‘I help Mim with the housework and then wait for dinner.’
‘Mim cooks, does she?’
‘I’ve never seen her wear an apron. Does it suit her?’
He smiles to himself and asks me what it’s like when I go back home.
Mim took me to her house. She has a twin sister named Taen. Their mother is a nurse. As for their father, he teaches Thai music in a monastery. Before going, Mim warned me Father was very protective of his daughters. Must be true, because he kept staring at me. The mother, though, was fun to chat with. She even took out an album to show me, so I played the game of guessing who was Mim and who was Taen. I learned what Mim’s pastime was: she likes to collect freebees from TV. Fancy that: this world has people eager to collect coupons to try their luck.
Before going back, Mim played the xylophone while telling me that the night before she was born, her mother dreamed someone brought her a Buddha image but as she took it it split into two, so when she delivered she knew she had twins. Besides, outside the hospital window there was a beehive, so she called her daughters Mim (Little Bee) and Taen (Little Wasp). I teased her saying that she watched too many soaps on Channel 7. Mim laughed, insisted it was true. I smiled, sat watching Mim playing the xylophone, feeling as if she was a lady out of an epic, a flower of sweet beauty even first thing in the morning. I did want to see her then, wake up to see Mim dishevelled, see her half-awake in a thin nightgown.
I asked her to marry me. She smiled and said why not, but she’d die before I would. When in the womb, the weaker of the twins would have the other steal her food and once born would be of weaker constitution. While Taen was strong, Mim was sickly: she almost lost her life to haemorrhagic fever as a child.
That evening her father drove us to the bus stop. I felt uneasy because he didn’t say a word, but Taen discreetly whispered that Father liked me. Once there, I bowed and thanked him. Before unlocking the doors, Father mumbled he counted on me to take care of his daughter, and then made a prompt getaway.
Tonight I sleep alone, letting my brain ramble. What was Taen thinking in the womb stealing Mim’s food? Does she feel any guilt? And then is Mim resentful of her twin? I think of the man in the mirror, the twin that lies on the other side, the twin that didn’t go to the party, the twin that wakes up at six, heads the loans department, works till five and can drive. Between the two of us, who is stealing the other’s food? Doctors say that in some cases one foetus swallows the other.
I push away the blanket, lie hugging myself, hairs standing on end, body wrapped up in air, a strand of thin fog linking me to my twin. After I am swallowed by him, what happens? Will I be part of him? Is it possible that one morning I’ll wake up to see a dishevelled woman half-awake in a thin nightgown with a smile on her face?
The bus drives past the hospital. I’ve never stopped here but today it looks strangely familiar. I get off at the stop, walk through the entrance, bow to the spirit house, say hello to Reception, take the lift, push the fourth-floor button, as certain I have done all of this before as I am sure I’ve never come here. The lift door slides open. I walk past an unfamiliar hall, stop by the nursery ward.
I’ve got it: Mim gave birth here.
That time I walked back and forth in a narrow corridor without windows for nearly six hours. A nurse came to tell me a Caesarean section might be necessary. She led me to the anteroom. Father, Mother and Taen sat on a blue sofa. I told the nurse my wife was of weak constitution and might not stand a great loss of blood. Mother and Taen pacified me, said it was the only way. Father sat saying nothing but going through five cigarettes in a row. Finally someone brought documents for me to sign.
Two more hours went by. We all followed the nurse in a green uniform into the room. Doctor said both mother and child were safe, a daughter of normal weight, two thousand five hundred grams (almost one kilo heavier than Mim at birth). Tears came to my eyes as I looked at mother and child. Couldn’t say a word, just lightly kissed my wife, telling her she did great. So did Father, Mother and Sister-in-law, all of us teary-eyed, even Father.
I blinked, looked at the dim empty corridor. A baby was crying some way off.
Who said I never came here and Mim was not my wife? Mim and I at the same party…
…The day the alarm system at the bank broke down at ten in the morning and went on blaring until eleven thirty. Even the firemen couldn’t stop it. Finally the bank decided to close down for the rest of the day. I took the opportunity to call Mim and invite her to lunch. She said she had arranged to meet her school time friends and I could come along if I wished.
I said I would.
Everything started with the alarm. What triggered it? Was it because the night before the watchman had boiled instant noodles and the vapour messed up the sensors? Usually the guard ate at a food stall but the stallholder hadn’t shown up because she wasn’t well. The stallholder wasn’t well because her child at home had left a window open. The child had opened the window to retrieve a shuttlecock in the tree next to the house. Before that, the child startled by a car honking had missed and the shuttlecock had got stuck on a branch…
The sorority party…
Mim’s friends from her university days – I knew some, most I met then – numbered almost forty. Mim introduced me all around. I must confess I can’t remember anyone. She and I had to sit apart, she with a group of her best girlfriends. She took me to sit at one table. I felt somewhat uneasy; I’m not used to strangers. The man sitting next to me told me he used to court Mim. Another said he was her former boyfriend.
Over shrill shouts from the women, another man said something about Mim but I couldn’t hear properly. A woman smiled at me. She wore a ring with a deep-purple stone on the ring finger of her right hand. A man was singing on the stage.
…Love me tender…
I heard outcries. Someone had spilled some water. Pungent smells of food wafted in. A woman at my table got up to help herself to food. I overheard a man at the next table talking about his work. He worked in a shop selling exotic fishes. Someone asked him which fish he liked best.
‘I like squid. Actually squids are not fish but molluscs. I like to see them mating. Do you know what they use for that?’ He marked a pause. ‘The ordinary squid has eight tentacles, each studded with suction pads, but there’s one that’s smooth and that’s his willy. But the coolest thing is the squid’s pussy. Do you know what they use for pussy?’ He smiled. ‘Their nose hole!’ Some laughed. He stopped to drink some water. ‘When squids mate, the male sneaks one of his side arms into her nose hole…’
Mim came up to me with two friends of hers. She looked listless, unlike her friends.
‘Hello, my name is Fai,’ the shorthaired one said first.
‘And I’m Orm. We’re both close friends of Mim’s from back at the U.’ How strange: Mim had never told me anything about these two.
‘You work in a bank, right? A friend of ours also works in a bank, but in a different branch,’ Orm said to me, but I paid no attention to her. Mim, head bent, looked sad.
…I don’t want no other love…
Another man walked up to speak to her. I pricked up my ears but Orm’s voice covered theirs. Orm must have said something funny because Fai laughed aloud. The woman who had gone to get food first was back. The whole room began to shift around. I took the opportunity to queue up too but I simply couldn’t eat, took only water, went back to the table. They were all gone, leaving only Mim so I sat down beside her. She said something to me but I didn’t hear what she said.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
I answered her even though I couldn’t hear what I was saying either.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
She was crying.
Mim got in touch with me less often. When we met we hardly spoke, sometimes quarrelled over trifles. I went over what had happened. I’m sure it began at the party that day but the ins and outs became as clear as last week’s dream.
I tried to ask her for reasons, but Mim never answered. Sometimes she seemed to be about to cry, so I stopped trying. Since we had met by chance, we parted by chance likewise.
If our lives were fiction, the critics would tear us to pieces and the audience grumble that they understood nothing.
They say life is a succession of hazards.
Buddhism has it that everything proceeds from cause and effect. Even Einstein believed thus so he came up with the theory of relativity to explain every phenomenon – at a time when an English lawyer defending a man accused of rape and murder pleaded that his client had been forced by his environment to commit evil and whoever grew up in similar circumstances would have ended up acting the same: the lawyer won his case.
Many years after Einstein became famous for his theory of relativity, another theory came up to shake scientific circles – the chaos theory: everything might proceed from cause and effect, but if cause and effect form a very long chain, it loses all meaning, like a tale spread by word of mouth changing entirely in the process.
According to the law of cause and effect, when you throw a stone into a pond, waves spread out all over the surface, reach the edges and flow back to the point of impact: any human action generates a reaction. But ponds are full of weeds, turtles, fish, larvae… Even though it might be possible in theory to calculate the velocity of the waves, hundreds of factors intervene to change the waves so that even a supercomputer cannot determine the shape of the backwash.
Similarly, with millions of people the chain of causality is boundless so that in the end everything is absurd, is meaningless.
…Once upon a time when sea gypsies still believed that the world was a big drop of water and the earth floated on it, it was said that if you held your breath long enough to swim to the heart of the world you would meet the true partner the heavens meant for you. The daughter of a super-rich man was sent to find a fiancé on another island. On the way a storm destroyed her sampan. The super-rich man’s daughter went under for a long time until she was rescued by a young sailor. The two of them drifted on a small boat for months before they reached shore. Nobody knows what took place between girl and sailor but as soon as the small boat landed, the young sailor put out to sea again on another boat, never to return. From then on the super-rich man’s heiress refused to marry any man and stayed single until old age, until one day when she thought she was near the end she proclaimed that whichever craftsman was able to make a sky-blue jar that pleased her would be richly rewarded. Potters from all over the world brought sky-blue jars to her but urn after urn the old woman smashed with her own hands. Years passed and the old woman was about to breathe her last without having found a jar that pleased her. One day she decided to go for a stroll on the beach, saw a peddler of old wares amongst which was a jar the colour of the sea, the colour of the sky. The old woman bought the jar there and then and as soon as she was back home ordered her young maid to cut her head when she died, put the head in the jar and bury both. Nobody knew what her reasons were, but there were plenty of guesses. Some said she was insane, but others thought that all her life she must have wanted to go back to those four or five months she spent on the small boat with the young sailor looking everywhere around her and seeing nothing but blue underneath and blue overhead…
Mein is asleep, turns to one side; the cuddly bear in her arms falls off the bed. I pick it up and put it beside her, stroke her hair lightly. Next month she’ll be eight. I intend for her then to sleep in another room. She lost her mother when she was four. My wife had a frail constitution. Since she gave birth, she had been sickly. I lie down and kiss my daughter on the cheek.
In front of the mirror, I straighten the collar of my shirt before putting on my necktie. Taen steps into the room.
‘What time will you be back?’
‘Probably late, ten or eleven or thereabouts.’ Taen buttons my cufflinks. ‘Thanks for going to the trouble of looking after Mein.’
‘No sweat. She’s my niece after all.’
I stare at my sister-in-law. She’s cut her hair again. Since Mim died, she always wears her hair short. She says she doesn’t want Mein to be confused about her and her mother.
‘I’m going.’ I walk to the garage. I bought the old Volk when Mim was pregnant. I start the engine and take a deep breath before going into reverse.
I was with Mim all of the last twenty-four hours. The doctor did his best to alleviate her pain. In the morning, Taen came to help wash, dress and comb her pretty sister. Later in the morning the parents came. Father had brought her the bean curds she favoured. Around twelve friends of hers trickled in. Mim greeted each with a sweet smile. I kept kissing her on the cheek so much it made her blush. Her mother said she was the happiest comatose patient she had ever seen. I held Mim’s hand until the last minute. Everything ended beautifully. Everybody told me how peacefully she had gone. Nobody knew that Mim’s nails were sunk deep into my hand, drawing blood.
Maybe Mim is still alive in a parallel world as science fiction has it, in a ‘what if’ world. To mention only big issues, what if the Jews were still under the power of Egypt? What if the Nazis had won the war? Those worlds are in no way inferior to ours in terms of their physical condition. The possibility for an infant like Moses to float down the Nile and reach the Queen of Egypt’s bathing grounds is so small as to be only a matter of chance. If Hitler hadn’t turned his guns against Moscow, Germany might not have lost the war.
Then small stories such as how many times I brushed my teeth this morning might be duplicated in ten parallel worlds, but brushing one’s teeth being such a trifling matter without big repercussions, those ten worlds would be similar, twin worlds that eventually would be swallowed into one.
I look at Bangkok at night from the elevated expressway, thinking idly how it would be if another nine ‘me’ were hidden in this city, with the one ‘me’ out here, twins alike yet different, separated by the cogs of daily life.
At the party I see from behind someone who looks familiar inching away through the throng. Someone greets me and I stop to exchange a few words out of courtesy. As soon as I can I beg to be excused and resume my chase. Finally I find that familiar back. Taking a glass from a waitress’s tray. I walk around to come upfront. The orchestra on the stage is playing that song softly, movingly.
…Love me tender…
Mim sips orange juice in front of me.
I have found my dead wife at the bank’s end-of-year party.
Mim smiles, abashed.
I take stock of what used to be before I smile. ‘How are you?’ I tell her.
She laughs sheepishly. We are talking for the first time since we parted almost seven years ago. She looks nervous. She must be aware she owes me an apology. What I am feeling is hard to explain – sadness, loneliness, sorrow, but secretly a little pleased she isn’t dead after all. She has married a man in the import-export business. Her husband has come to the party with a friend (by chance again). I ask her if she has children. She has, two, and sons too. I’m happy that she looks healthy.
I open my mouth to ask her about that other party. Almost eight years have gone by since then, maybe today Mim will answer me, but the song drowns out our words.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true. Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
Around ten pm, I get on the bus headed for home.
This morning a Volk drove past me. Too fast to see the driver, but the little girl in the back seat looked familiar. I smiled a lonely smile as I watched the car speed away.
Tho Fa, in Wannakam Tok Sara (Vowel-less Literature), Nanmee Books, 2005
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
The expanse of water at that bend is quiet and peaceful, cold with mist and dew vapour at dawn. Once in a while a passing boat stirs up wavelets, making the timber rafts moored along the bank heave ponderously.
Small clumps of morning glory are woken to a stir along with them. Their slender shoots rise high as if in pride of their perfection. Some droop down to water level and you can see their light green shimmer as they move in the turbid red water.
Those clumps are strung with wires attached to a rotting stake long immersed but still good enough to prevent them from floating away with the current.
Long scrawny legs wade through the mud-coloured water, past the edge of the bank into deeper water, waist-high, chest-high, head-high. After a moment their owner shoots back up, the coveted treasure in hand, waits to recover breath on a raft for a while and can’t help looking at the beautiful small fish swimming around at the head of the logs. Even though the water is so turbid it looks like red mud, the small light-blue-streaked purplish fish can be seen glistening in the current. As soon as the person on the logs moves, the startled small fry flee for cover.
The water dripping from the hair blurs all vision momentarily. The owner of the face raises an arm to wipe the blur away for a second before the water ripples down the same grooves.
Filmy mist still loiters over the water but then slowly drifts and evaporates in a lingering way like intimations of love whispered before parting.
The sky is bright and clear. A bevy of seagulls dash out of the water when a train clunks over the bridge at full speed. Dust from the bridge falls like sand through the mist and vapour onto the calm stretch of water.
After waiting for the train to disappear from sight with the fleeting glimpses of pallid faces in the carriages, the owner of the long limp hair lets herself down into the water, spreading wavelets around. The water is full of mud mixed with sand. Before long, she surfaces, clinging to a log as if to rest for a while.
A tiger perch, yellow with black dots, tail flapping, scurries by within reach. An instant later it squirts water plumes, hunting some unlucky insect.
A big boat triggers waves that make logs knock on logs and the small fry scamper in every direction.
The one sitting with his feet in the water grips the logs tightly, stares without blinking, almost holds his breath like the one who has disappeared into the water. It is only when she resurfaces that he too discreetly draws a long breath.
“Come back up, sis’. Let me do it.”
“It’s cold, you know.” The one in the water, clinging to the wires that tie the logs together, looks up. A pale sun lurks on the horizon but doesn’t give relief from the biting cold.
The wires tying the logs are what brother and sister are after. They are not diving for pearls, for sure. The two of them and their little brother who live in a hut by the Rama VI bridge rely on what looks worthless to sell and thus draw out their living.
“Let’s go back first in case he’s woken up.”
“All right then.”
The white tense bony hands grip the logs firmly. The arm joints seem hardly able to pull the body up, looking as thin and fragile as reeds as they do.
The cold makes her shiver but she can’t help splashing water playfully before she comes up. She jumps from log to log until she reaches the bank and past the clumps of morning glory grabs a handful of white, plump young shoots.
Their father and mother are dead. Father died in that hut. As for Mother, she went to die in hospital, leaving her with two little brothers who know nothing but hunger, hunger and hunger.
The Chinaman who buys old wire gives them a low price, sometimes just enough for a bottle of fish sauce. At least their mother’s death has led them to know the doctor.
“The doctor said that if mum hadn’t been operated on she’d have died anyway,” she consoled her brothers when their mother too passed away. The three of them sat dejected in the seedy house. The small oil lamp was on its last dregs. A star would send a stronger light, when compared to the brightness from the nearby power station fed by the Bhumibol dam.
Father had stomach ulcers, so it wasn’t surprising Mother died of the same ailment. The doctor looked at the three little lives not knowing what to do when he found that they weren’t even able to take the body out of hospital to what those three urchins called home.
A messy, musty wooden floor; holes in the roof patched with various materials.
The word “materials” to an architect might mean newly made pricey items, but here the word “materials” meant bits of corrugated iron, old canvas falling apart, the odd plank.
In here he almost refused to breathe, but five lives had used the place to eat and sleep. The people in this house didn’t even know what they died of. Good health was something they never knew, because even a single meal was hard for them to scrape together.
From the bridge, he had seen this mess of huts. Such an eyesore should have been got rid of.
“This is my home,” the patient had said by way of invitation.
But there was no place for him to sit in this house.
The picture of the patient dead on the operating table came back to haunt him again. In such patients’ background were things like these he saw with his own eyes in almost all cases. Tuberculosis festered among the poor, those living in congested places, those who were in a condition where they couldn’t help themselves.
The three little faces were staring at him as if they expected loving kindness. How could he have the heart to leave without thinking of those children?
There weren’t only those three faces but hundreds and thousands of them hidden here and there.
“In Thailand the weather is conducive to tuberculosis, so it is no wonder that the statistics on lung-disease patients here keep growing every day, and now their number in this town is at an all-time high – the highest in the world as a matter of fact.”
The doctor ends his speech thus. A ladies’ society has invited him to talk in order to raise funds for a foundation for lung-disease patients.
Many of the ladies on the committee are specialists in their respective fields. They have invited the doctor to a meal in his capacity as commentator, to congratulate him or thank him or for whatever reason. So he is now sitting in this restaurant.
Aperitif wine in the western fashion is served in fine glasses, either dark red or off-white, depending on individual preferences.
On the table the crockery is spanking new; the silver forks glitter; the tablecloth is the same dark colour as the towels folded in the shape of blooming lotuses. The melodious recorded music playing softly is exactly right for this setting.
The doctor takes a sip from his glass. The taste is smooth on tongue and throat. It is alcohol to trigger the digestive juices to better enjoy the various dishes.
“You must have much experience with your patients, doctor?” the lady sitting next to him invites him to chat while waiting for the food.
He has a fleeting thought of the house by the Rama VI bridge.
“Tuberculosis is dreadful.” She shrinks her shoulders. Long earrings dangle and sparkle in dazzling competition with her tapering eyes which look like big dark jewels.
Her talkative mouth opens on pearl-like teeth.
“If I caught it, would you treat me?”
“Most willingly.” The doctor puts down his glass, looks with pleasure at this beautiful picture of a woman. “But…” He smiles sweetly. “You have nothing to fear from tuberculosis, Khunying.” He calls her by her title as he remembers it. She is the daughter of a second-rank princess. “As I said, tuberculosis afflicts the poor or the weak, the undernourished … but in your case…” He ends his words with a last sip of the wine in his glass.
“Oh dear!” Her voice is as soft as breeze through foliage. “What are you saying, doctor? I’m not rich at all. Quite poor actually.”
He sighs, merely rotates the empty glass in his hand before him absent-mindedly. The sparkle of those gems truly belies her words.
“You’re only talking with Khunying, Doctor,” the woman across the table remonstrates in a sweet voice. “Talk to us as well.”
The doctor looks up from his glass. Across from the flower vase on the table, several pairs of eyes are trained on him.
“Please excuse me,” he says under his breath.
“Won’t you order another glass, doctor?”
He does as he is told.
“I’ll be drunk before the food arrives,” he says with laughter in his voice.
Each side observes perfect social manners at the dinner table. The doctor smiles at this person, speaks with that one, laughs with a third until the time for socialising is over for the night.
A gorgeous lady offers to give him a lift.
“Why don’t you treat yourself to a car?” she asks as an opening.
“I can’t drive.”
“And you don’t have time to learn,” she adds. “You must be very busy, mustn’t you?”
The doctor smiles.
“I can’t afford one, actually.”
“Oh, I don’t believe you.”
“Well, you’d better.” He lights another cigarette. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all. Where shall I drop you, then?”
The doctor tells her.
“The food tonight wasn’t bad. I like to come here. It’s quiet. There’s no crowd, even if it’s a bit pricey.”
“I seldom come here.”
“You must be too busy. When you’re free, please come again. As my guest, this time.”
“The drinks too are good. The bartender is good at mixing them. I’m told he keeps being offered raises in salary if he goes with the big hotels … Bar owners, people like that, are fighting over good bartenders.”
“Is that so, really?”
“I have a soft spot for him too. The khunying who sat beside you likes it there very much. She likes soft cocktails. She gave us several drink recipes but when I try them they aren’t as good as his. I can only mix two drinks, which are the ones I like.” She keeps a running comment, then changes tack. “Your house is in the same direction as mine.”
“I’m afraid to be an imposition,” the doctor apologises. “Actually I can hail a cab. Tell me when you reach your house. I’ll get off then. That way I can pretend I took you back home.”
“Never mind. I’ll drop you off first.”
“Please don’t insist. Tell me when you get there.”
“If I do, then you must favour me with staying for a drink. Won’t you? A good turn deserves another…” Her eyes glitter as she adds, “This way, I’ll show you how good I am at mixing drinks.”
He hesitates for a while.
He nods in assent.
The expanse of water there is quiet and peaceful. The rising sun chases the fog away. Two little children are diving in and out of the water. A cursory glance would make you think they are having fun playing in the water.
The Chinaman buying old stuff has again squeezed the price of steel wire. Sometimes there isn’t enough to buy even a bottle of fish sauce.
Those clumps of morning glory are still producing tender shoots loyally. It’s the only thing you don’t need hard-to-come-by money to get.
A dark shadow stretches across the timber rafts, stops and stays still.
The cool morning breeze lightens the leaden feeling left by alcohol.
“Look, doctor’s come early!”
In haste the dripping little bodies get out of the water joyfully.
“Did you bring us rice, doctor?”
Her eyes are deep black, fixing him as if to stop breathing. Those eyes have more than a glimmer in them. They sparkle in an indescribable way.
Even though the air is warmed by the sunrays in his back, freezing cold enters his heart.
“Nao Khao Nai Huajai” in Nak Khian Rueang San Dee Dein Warra Khrop 100 Pee Rueang San Thai (Outstanding writers during the first one hundred years of Thai short stories), Khlet Thai Publishing, 1985
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
“I’ve been raped!” She wanted to shout out these words to let the world know that those people had abused her, had ganged up on her and torn off her clothes. Their vile and filthy hands had groped her body all over, forced themselves into her most secret recesses and then turned them inside out as they would have pig guts. Those people had feasted on her greedily. Once full, they had scampered at once, leaving her prostrate in utter solitude.
“In utter solitude…” she moaned, adrift. Once, she had mocked a girl next door who had dragged herself up to her with her clothes in tatters. She had urged her to report to the police, to tell the officers truthfully what those sex maniacs had done to her, but the girl wouldn’t go and wouldn’t talk any longer, just kept on crying. Was she stupid or crazed? Why wouldn’t she tell them she had been raped? Those bastards had violated her body and her soul. Crying and sobbing, what would that get her?
But now she understood. She had just realised why women who have been raped do not want to talk about it: they do not want to be raped a second time around. Once was more than enough. But, for all that, they still could consider themselves lucky to some extent.
That’s right – a lot luckier than she was. To them it would happen in the darkness of night, down some secluded alley or else in some underbrush. Apart from the rapists, there would be no prying eyes around, and there could be just two or three of them, or even one – that’s all.
But what had happened to her, how would you call that?
Those people looked dignified, dressed conservatively and wrapped themselves in thick layers of compassion. Even their words were brimming with solicitude, sympathy, and resentment at what she had been through.
Those people said that for the sake of the thousands of fellow human beings that might at some point in the future suffer the same fate as she had, they merely asked her to promise to do them the honour of taking part in their show. Everything would go smoothly. There wouldn’t be any problems. Let her case be a caveat for fellow human beings. Let her testimony be like a sharp sword cutting through the feelings of greedy capitalists so that the whole thing would lead to a demand for self-consciousness and a sense of responsibility in their hearts.
One of them told her she should do it for the sake of righteousness, but there were some among them who said she was lucky in her misfortune. They said she was the first to be invited to the show, a show with the highest ratings in the country, a show on which many important people in this land would like to appear even for a short time, but most unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity. But in her case an exception had been made specially, to fit the event and situation in hand.
“We must beat the iron while it’s hot,” one of them said, and they all nodded their heads, even the man she loved.
“You must go, darling,” he whispered to her. “It’s a great honour, you know, and you’re very lucky. Few are given the chance you are. More importantly, you’ll reveal everything that happened. At least those black-hearted capitalists might feel some shame.”
He spoke and smiled at her gently. He was always gentle and rational, and that’s why he was always in her heart – always, even in the life-and-death ordeal she had gone through only days before.
“I’ll go and keep you company,” he promised as he squeezed her hand so hard it hurt. After that, she no longer remembered what it was exactly she had told those people. All she remembered was feeling the hand of the man she loved that squeezed hers slowly withdraw. They all smiled, bowed to her, made the appointment and left their name cards behind while promising to come and fetch her at the hospital three days hence.
Everybody said she was lucky. The patients on the next beds were excited. They tried to raise their hands even though they were cast in thick plaster. Someone, she wasn’t sure whether a nurse or an auxiliary, shouted she’d watch her on TV.
And then those people came and helped her shuffle to the car, her lover close behind her. She felt secure beyond words, secure even though she still dreaded what she was about to face.
Like so many girls, she had always entertained dreams in secret. She had dreamt of being a glamorous star. She wanted to appear on the small screen of the world of illusion, just like those goddesses she followed in the various programmes, but then what she had never dreamt would happen to her suddenly had: she was about to feature in a television show, her picture and her story would reach viewers all over the country…
She couldn’t help feeling excited.
“You have nothing to fear.” It was as though he could read her feelings like an open book. He drew closer, giving her courage with his smiles and his words. “There’s nothing difficult or scary. In any case, you’ve already gone through scarier than this.”
“I’ll try,” she told him, feeling the dissonance in her own heart.
After that, everything started and proceeded as those people had told her beforehand. She was taken to a recording studio to tape the film for the show and made to sit in front of a handsome presenter and his beautiful female assistant she had long secretly admired.
The conversation began sluggishly. The audience in the studio was dead quiet. In her inexperience, she hardly knew how to behave. It was oppressive and scary, as if she had no idea how things would turn out, thus in no way different from what she had felt when she found herself caught beneath the rubble of that accursed building only a few days ago.
The young anchorman always performed well. That day he began the conversation in a way quite unlike his usual approach. His sharp clean-shaven face which had spinsters and widows swooning all over town looked sad. His usually cheerful voice was low-pitched and shaky. The female star who acted as his assistant was the same. Those people made her feel burning hot round the eyelids. Their greetings made her feel even more sorry for herself.
The young presenter told her to relate in detail what had happened to her during her four days in the anteroom of hell that time, how she had coped and how come she had survived when hundreds of others had to die inside the collapsed building. He’d like her answers to be like surrogates to the shouts of those unfortunate victims.
They hoped that the talk show that day would trigger self-awareness and a sense of responsibility among the people involved, be they the group of capitalists concerned by the event or the state machinery.
She began slowly and haltingly, to the point of feeling frustrated with herself. All the cameras and all eyes in the brightly lit room made her feel lonely and confused and she forgot even the recommendation of the anchorman before the start of the show to look straight at the camera for the picture that would come out to look most natural.
He had told her to act normally to relate the terrible and most terrifying event of her life. Everyone was absorbed in her story. All the cameras were recording her picture and her words, and in a few days they would be broadcast all over the country.
Actually, she hardly remembered what she had said during the long recording session. She only knew that she had lost her identity. Everything took place as they had planned and wanted it to be – until a few days later when the show went on the air, and then she saw.
On the narrow screen she saw herself sitting there, round-shouldered and looking pitiful. She spoke slowly, repeating herself at first. It was such a shame! Such a shame that at times she had to turn away from the picture she saw.
She heard her own voice coming out of the television set. It began with ordinary events as every other day. She had left her house to go to work on time, clocked in and then gone to her workstation. By then it was ten in the morning. The coffee shop in the hotel where she worked had just opened. The staff were preparing the food and cleaning. Everything was going on as usual. The kitchen supervisor told them to get the snacks ready for the guests attending the seminar being held on the next floor up.
That day the hotel was especially busy. Several seminars were being held in the various meeting rooms. There was a bustle of people coming and going – hotel employees, customers who came to eat, guests who came to stay, delivery boys, repairmen who came to fix the air-con ducts, and many other people she didn’t know. At the time everybody was busy with his or her own duties. She walked up to the floor where the meeting was being held. And then…
Everything she saw in front of her and around her suddenly vanished, vanished as did the five-storey hotel which collapsed as if sucked into the ground. There had been no portent. There was no warning. There was nothing.
Those people were clearly excited. The anchorwoman brought her hand to her chest as if she could see the event taking place right before her eyes. There were mutterings from the audience in the studio. The young presenter promptly intervened. He asked about what she had felt as soon as she became aware of what happened. He’d like her to show what she had felt then.
She saw herself force a smile, close her eyes and stay still as if deep in recollection, but then she just shook her head. Indeed … even today she still couldn’t think how she had felt at the time.
The anchorman smiled at her as if he didn’t mind. He showed understanding and acted as if he could read her feelings through and through. He changed his question in a few words and ended by saying that when she was stuck inside the collapsed building she wasn’t alone but she had company, didn’t she?
“How many persons?”
“Only one,” she answered.
“Man or woman?”
She answered, a man. He asked forthwith whether she knew him before and how come he happened to find himself with her.
“Please tell us about this in detail,” the female assistant added, leaning forward as if what she was about to hear from her was especially important. “That is, everyone wants to know what happened to you then. Where you were stuck was rather deep down, as we know, and there was almost no one else left around. Please tell us in your own words.”
“I’d never met him before,” she heard herself answering the question. “He was a young man, about my own age. He told me he was a guest in the hotel. When the building collapsed, he was coming out of his room to go downstairs but then the building came tumbling down, the floor I was on gave in and I found myself thrown together with him.”
“It’s very strange, isn’t it, that the two of you were thrown together with no one else there,” the young anchor remarked. “But then, anything can happen, right?”
“I don’t know either how it happened.”
“And then?” the assistant pressed.
“At first I knew nothing. I must have passed out for quite a while. When I came to, everything was totally dark. I tried to piece things together and then I just knew the hotel had collapsed. At the time he was pressed against me. It was cramped in there and it was hard to see anything.”
“He was pressed against you!” the anchorman broke in.
This is when she saw the young presenter turn to exchange glances with his assistant before turning to look at her briefly. After that he resumed his questioning.
“He – uh – what did he do to you?”
“What did he do?” she repeated the question, nonplussed.
“Uh – well, I mean, the two of you were alone, and then he was a young man. You yourself are a young woman and er – pretty too. Besides – I do beg your pardon, you were wearing the hotel uniform. That is, I don’t mean to imply – I understand that uniform is rather short and tight fitting and from the pictures we saw when people came to your rescue, your clothes were in tatters. That is, it’s something that…”
She smiled bashfully at his words but it seemed that she didn’t quite understand. The young anchorman reclined on the sofa as if to wait and give her time to speak. His eyes swept through the audience in the studio. The picture on the screen changed to a view of the viewers. They were all silent, peering intently ahead. Then the camera moved and framed the man she loved. He sat motionless, staring at her with frozen eyes, frozen but so unyielding she was the one to look away.
She had almost forgotten that he was there. He was like the other men: he wanted to know what had happened to her then. He had asked her before, when he kept her company as she recovered in hospital, but given her weariness and the shock she had received he hadn’t dared to insist.
The anchorman’s cough brought her back to the present. He asked again what that young man had done to her, he meant while they were alone under that accursed building, how they had got along.
She took a deep breath. “He was hurt.” And then she heard herself saying, “He must have hit something while the building collapsed, but it seemed it wasn’t too serious. He could still move. He told me not to cry, he wiped away my tears. At that time I only thought there was no way we could survive. The rubble pressed on us from all sides. We could see each other only blurredly. I wanted to die. I didn’t know what was the point of living any longer. No matter what, we had to die in there, because there was no way out. Breathing was difficult. There was nothing at all to give us hope of coming out alive. Actually I wasn’t seriously hurt, just a few grazes and bumps on my head. He was in a worse shape, but nevertheless he kept saying all the time that we had to survive, we mustn’t die…”
There was a moment of silence on the screen. The two anchors blinked away. She went on with her story.
“We tried to help each other find a way out by furrowing through the heaps of brick and cement, but nothing doing. The more we moved the more rubble piled up on us. Oppressive – it was really oppressive. Not enough air to breathe. Tired and short of breath, we finally had to lie and rest, lie looking at each other and await death…”
“But for all that you were still lucky,” the young anchorman observed. “At least you had a friend. When you felt hopeless, you still had a friend.”
“Yes … I still had a friend,” she said quietly.
“What kind of a person was he?”
“He was a good man,” she answered without having to think. “He was polite, helpful and very resilient.”
“He was very resilient, was he?” the young woman queried further. “You must have been very impressed with him.”
“Yes, I was very impressed with him.”
“Uh – could you tell us a little why you had such a feeling? That is, we just want to know what you felt deep inside. But if you’d rather not answer, we’ll understand.”
“Oh, I can answer that,” she said, her voice more assured than it had been so far. “We were together for the whole of four days, till death us do part. Even though we would die, we still felt we had a friend in each other, right? We were friends in need. It’s only now I understand the meaning of that expression. For four days we were together, in a cramped space, not knowing what to do, except vent our spleen and stare at each other, seeing only a glint in each other’s eyes, hearing each other’s sighs of hopelessness. When we were too tired, we slept; we slept only to find upon waking that everything was still as before. He told me to sleep and rest as much as I could to preserve my strength. He hoped someone would dig us out of there, so when I slept he didn’t, because if we slept at the same time, maybe we wouldn’t hear when they came.”
The anchorman turned to the audience. He repeated what she had said. He wanted the audience in the studio to see in what a pitiful situation she and the unfortunate young man had found themselves. He talked about human fate, nightmares and impossible choices.
“Let me ask you this: how much did you trust him?” The anchorwoman was the one to resume the questioning.
“Even if I hadn’t trusted him, what do you think I could have done? I had no choice.”
“Meaning that whatever would be would be, right?” the young man took over. “In a situation like that, I can understand that whatever happens we have to give in, that is, er – that is, I’d like to make a supposition of my own. Just suppose the young man who was with you suddenly thought of doing something crazy, er – that is, I think as any man would, right? If he felt like doing something bad to you…”
He stopped briefly and turned to look at the audience as if to convey a message of some kind, and then went on.
“That is, I think it’s entirely possible. You’re a young woman, there’s no way you can protect yourself, and in a secluded spot like that … That is, we can’t see at all, can we, what he thought deep down. Now, if he really felt like doing it, what would you do in this case? How would you get out of it?”
In the narrow rectangle of the television screen, she saw herself struck dumb. Her eyes opened wide as if in sudden terror and then she bowed her head and raised her hands to her face. The picture she was seeing was no longer of herself, but of someone she knew who was being trussed up to a large chopping block, at the end of her tether and unable to protect herself, while those people were eagerly taking her clothes off one by one in clever and expert ways before a row of expectant onlookers, before cameras that kept sweeping like as many demons’ eyes, all of them watching her in crude yearning.
By now the flesh of that young woman was bare, wide open. The honourable hands of those people were helping themselves, taking samples of her flesh and laying them out as exhibits, removing her internal organs, reaching through to the very bottom of her soul and leaving it without any secret whatsoever.
She didn’t know what happened after that. She was confused and hopeless, just as when she had been trapped in that stuffy space among the rubble. Everything still went on as it would. They still had some time left. The time that remained was valuable and they had to make use of it to the utmost.
Dazzling light still assaulted her eyes, questions still poured forth uninterruptedly, but she felt she was in the dark, couldn’t see anything any longer and didn’t hear even the wailing in her chest. She couldn’t see even the man she loved – he had got up and vacated his seat for good.
The programme ended that day with her feeling empty and lost, no different from the feeling of hopelessness when she had crashed into that dark recess of hell days ago. She went back home in utter loneliness and had no opportunity to see even the shadow of the man she loved in the days that ensued.
She had been well and truly abandoned. There was no one left in her life any longer. That was unlike the hell beneath the rubble into which she had been thrown. In the darkness and hopelessness there, she still had a friend – a friend in need that fate had thrown into the same hell as hers. In the dimness of that gap she had been given the opportunity to see the glimmer of friendship assert itself little by little. In the parchedness of life, she still had had the opportunity to savour the goodwill a fellow human being had bestowed on her.
Those people never found out what happened between her and that young man, because what those people wanted to know and kept asking about was not what she intended to tell, but what she wanted to tell, those people never asked.
Those people didn’t want to know how many times during those four days spent in the arms of the Great Reaper the friendly hands of that young man had yanked the rope of death off her neck.
Those people didn’t want to know how many times in those days of despair at still being alive his words had prompted her to force herself to breathe. Those people would never hear the comforting voice of that kind-hearted friend.
He had told her she must not die. As long as she still had faith in life, she would not die. She still had a man she loved: he stood waiting for her at the mouth of the pit of death. His love would be a strong rope reaching down for her to cling to. Love and hope in their splendour would pull her out into a new life.
Those people didn’t know and didn’t want to ask. Therefore those people didn’t have the opportunity to learn that that unfortunate young man was willing to die so that she could survive. On the last day of their wait he rallied the little strength he had left to fumble about and claw through the rubble in search of a way to communicate with the outside world. He succeeded. A beam of light entered that corner of hell. Fresh air came through for her to breathe lungful after lungful – in the same instant as a beam of concrete fell and crushed him to death before her very eyes.
Those people didn’t know, because that wasn’t what they wanted to know.
Before this she had always had nightmares. She used to dream foolishly that she was whirling down a mysterious, totally dark abyss, used to dream that sex maniacs ganged up on her and abused her crazily, and she used to dream with uneasy wariness that the man she loved had left her. But now everything that happened was no dream.
She still thought of the poor girl next door. She had mocked her for refusing to report to the police and tell them truthfully what had happened to her. Was she stupid or crazed?
But today it was at herself she was laughing. That girl had been raped in a deserted street, in the dark and without any prying eyes around.
Nai Thee Satharrana Lae Tooktong Tam Kotmai
in Tula-khom (October) 1994, Samnakphim Nakhorn, Bangkok
17/06/2011 § 1 Comment
The Indian Ocean was heaving, exhausted, after sending a tide of demented waves lashing at seaside resorts and towns in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives and, beyond, along the eastern shores of Africa, on the morning of the last Sunday five days only before the end of the year 2004.
Saturday morning 1st January 2005…
Ariya dreams she is floating in the Dead Sea, the sea with the saltiest waters in the world – at least ten times the salt concentration of the Mediterranean, so that swimming is out of the question, hence no human life will ever be lost there.
The Dead Sea in Ariya’s dream is full of marine animals of all kinds swimming about in profusion all around her – whole shoals of sharks, whales, tunas, giant squids, sea slugs, lobsters, oysters, turtles, sea lions and oodles of nagas – even though in reality hardly any living organism can survive in the Dead Sea, apart from bacteria and a few species of salt-inured marine plants by its shores.
Besides those sea creatures, all around Ariya tourists from all over the world are milling about, floating here, floating there, children and adults alike. Some lie smoking cigars in the middle of lucent blue-green seawater; others lie reading the morning papers in English. Some are singing songs of praise of Bedouin shepherds, others writing electronic epistles to their lovers. Some yell and thrash about and make a fuss; others lie caked in black mud in health spas.
A gag of children shouts al-Bahir al-Mayyit!; another shouts back Yam HaMelach!
Ariya knows that the first expression is Arabic for Dead Sea. As for the latter, it is Hebrew and means Salt Sea. From there, Ariya sinks into a reverie, squints at the sky and tries to find the borderline between Israel and Jordan, but what is moving in the sky over the Dead Sea turns out to be a flock of thousands of migrant birds. She knows that these birds have flown from Europe.
But how odd! Instead of veering towards Africa, the birds are all heading for Southeast Asia.
Absorbed in sky, clouds and birds, Ariya starts humming a song, the song of a widow on an island in the middle of the Andaman Sea endeavouring to raise her daughter by herself after her fisherman husband took his boat out to sea one evening and vanished into the horizon.
And it is that song that sets Ariya thinking of her mother.
The widow on the island in the middle of the Andaman Sea is the same person as the mother in the song Ariya is singing. She wonders what her mother is doing at the moment and where, and how come she finds herself in this sea, given that her fondest dream has always been to travel to the Maldives, Paradise in the middle of the Indian Ocean, not to this Dead Sea here.
As she tries to find an answer to herself, a giant shark suddenly pounces and snaps at her ribs with full might.
Pain and shock yank her out of her dream.
But as soon as she opens her eyes, she finds that the shark of her dream is the corner of a table or, if not, the corner of a sofa, or something like that, which the force of a wave has thrust into her side.
Ariya tries to push that object away from her, but as soon as it is shunted aside other debris move in instead.
For something like an hour she fights off drifting debris that come whirling at her from all sides, leaving her aching and bruised all over.
The more she tries to swim away from them the more they harass her as if endowed with a life of their own – divers’ oxygen cylinders, fishermen’s floats, bulbs, slabs of foam, boat planks, sofas, house partitions, window frames, bamboo hut roofs, fridges, car tyres and countless other objects.
In all the twenty-two years of her life, Ariya has never felt as exhausted as this, exhausted and lonely in the middle of surrounding danger. Besides, the morning rays that glitter on the surface of the waves blur her vision all the more.
To regain some of her strength, she merely stays still protecting herself just above the water, squinting at the flock of seabirds swimming in the open space of the deep-blue morning sky.
Ariya knows how terrible these birds can be, because three days earlier some of these oh so beautiful birds dived and pecked at the eyes of a young Japanese girl. Ariya is sorry that she was unable to help her little friend because at the time she was fighting off a column of crabs that were storming her.
As she broods over the little Japanese girl, a clamour edges through the surrounding wreckage and reaches her.
Sometimes it sounds like weeping, sometimes it sounds like laughter; sometimes it fades out as if that rumour had travelled all the way from the far-flung horizon; sometimes it is so clear it seems to buzz right inside her ear.
Mingled in that clamour, there is what Ariya perceives as a young woman’s shout calling for her mother, and the language is neither Arabic nor Hebrew but Thai.
‘Mummy, hold fast to my hand, mummy.’
At this very second, Ariya realises that actually she is not floating in the Dead Sea, but she can’t think what part of the world it is she is in.
‘Mummy, hold fast to my hand, mummy.’
The call sounds scared and doleful; it is weak and comes in waves.
After listening attentively for a while, the young woman is both excited and happy when she realizes that it is her own voice.
It is she shouting on this late morning of Sunday 26th December 2004.
When it started, the first giant wave hurled Ariya onto a red mangrove bush. Her mother had tumbled into the water, but the young woman caught hold of her in time, so that her mother’s body dangled between the roaring wave and the clear late-morning air.
As Ariya snatched away her mother’s body from the paws of the demented wave, a new wave swept through the top of the coconut trees just as she felt a heavy object of some kind crash into her side.
So the clasped hands of mother and child were prised apart and each went tumbling under the might of the wave.
Later, Ariya found herself lying dumb and sore under the belly of the sea amid the wrecks of so many fishing boats, houses, shops, and fellow human beings by the hundreds, by the thousands, people from all corners of the world.
Unable to stand the dumbness and harassment from sea animals any longer, she heaved her thoroughly battered body towards the surface.
That was on the night of 28th December 2004. The late-evening waning moon lit up the whole expanse of sky and sea.
That night should have been a beautiful night had not the surface of the mighty sea been ridden with dark splotches of human beings and wreckage brought on by its fury all the way from the shores of Sumatra.
It seems Ariya still had no idea what had happened to her, what had happened to the open sea and to the small island where she had lived since infancy and had never stepped out of in the twenty-two years of her life.
Maybe out of utter exhaustion or because of the rocking of the moonlit waves, Ariya fell asleep for three days and three nights, and woke up again under the storming of sea crabs among the shrieks of the little Japanese girl, after which she dozed off briefly until she was ripped in the ribs by a shark in her dream.
After that, she heard a young woman calling for her mother in Thai. The next minute, she realized that that shout was her own and that actually she wasn’t floating in the Dead Sea, although she couldn’t think which sea in the world this was.
After piecing together the snapshots of her memory – the sight of her mother whirled away in a coiling wall of water, the sight of foreign tourists hurled by the giant wave into coconut trees, the sight of fishing boats and cars sent crashing into the hills, the sight of children wrenched from their mothers’ hands straight into the watery depths, the sight of some islanders hacked in two by flying tin roofing slabs, the shouts of family members calling out for each other…
If that’s how it was, Ariya murmured to herself, then I must by now be floating in the Andaman Sea or else in the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Ocean!
Even though sad pain and fright swept over her, as soon as the words ‘Indian Ocean’ resounded in her head, Ariya forgot all details of the tragic event.
She forgot that before it all happened she was thinking of her mother – her mother who had detained her on the island trapped in the confines of love and utter faith in Allah for all of twenty-two years.
Ariya couldn’t control her excitement when she thought that right now she was floating in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean.
Allah! Is my dream really taking shape, Ariya mumbled to herself. Is my dream really coming true? I am starting on a voyage… I am starting on a voyage…
It was then that Ariya heard the distant sound of a little girl crying followed by voices quarrelling in Thai with a southern accent. She tried to listen carefully, but what she heard was some people speaking in English and in Japanese.
The next minute, the mumbling, whispering, calling and quarrelling rippled forth in dozens of languages.
All adding up to a deafening din in her ears.
Ariya tried to make sense of the clamour but her efforts were almost in vain.
Who are you? This is my sea. Don’t get near me, you hear! Rich people like you should get the hell out of here. Believe in Jesus! Give me a chance, will you. Daddy? Daddy? Daddyyyy? Oh Lord! Put your faith in Jesus! I guarantee I’ll lift you out of your underprivileged condition in— Allah! —one day. You should ask yourself what it is exactly you want. Oh Lord! Oh Lord! Because this is my house, my ancestors here have been— Man, let me tell you something. —for hundreds of years. Get a little closer to me, hon’. See that blond lad? That one there. Oh Lord! Oh Lord! Oh Lord! Ah-ha! Actually you’re just a small-fry angler. Mummy? Mummy? Mummy? Get away from me! Believe in Jesus! Or else I’ll have one of my servants throw you out. My darling, my darling, mummy’s here! Allah! Allah! Believe in Jesus! Put your faith in Jesus! Go away! To redeem your sins. Go away! You seashore whore! You dirty massage girl! Will you all shut up! Don’t you know I own the hotel and all the grains of sand on this beach? Just get away from me. I’m on furlough. I don’t want to be soiled by you! Shut the fuck up, all of you! I’m here darling, I’m here darling – darling? Leave me alone, you hear. Those damn ragheads! Oh God! Don’t you dare touch me! Oh no son, that’s not a shark, don’t be afraid. Oh mummy! That’s not a shark at all. Oh! Oh! You heathens! Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid. You fiends! Orahang samma samphutthophakha-wa— Orahang samma… Help! Help me! See? I’ve got money. In the name of all mendicant monks, everything that the people of the world including angels, devils, Brah— Here’s my money, see? Help me! Go away! You Burmese trash! They’re just cheap foreign labour. Hurry up to climb the coconut tree. Go away! Run up the hill, quick! You dago! Climb higher! Higher! A shark! Dirty foreign labour. A shark! Higher! A shark! Shut your mouth, you hear! I come from America, dammit…
A long time later, those voices gradually weakened until they faded into the distance.
As the morning sun grew fierce, a wake of buzzards drew circles on the dark-indigo slate of the sky.
Far away, on the horizon, a black dot appeared and grew and a deafening roar spread between sea and sky.
The next moment, a similar noise was heard also, but this time it was the drone of a boat. Not long after the drone of the boat, another helicopter rattled the sky from a direction opposite to the first two.
They must be searching for me, Ariya thought.
A wave pushed a batch of wreckage towards her and in the middle of that wreckage a young white man was fighting off a sheath of quivering fish clinging to his slender body.
The next minute another wave rolled over the young man, bringing him close to Ariya, so the whole shoal of fish left his slim golden body and turned round to assault her.
By then Ariya was thinking of her mother, thinking of travelling far away. If her mother was close by, the door to a long voyage would be locked, but in the absence of her mother she felt lonely and sad.
The young woman thus asked herself what was better: being found by a helicopter crew and returned to her mother on the Andaman island or eluding their search to make for the archipelago of her dream.
But then harassment by the fish was such that the thread of her thoughts snapped.
Mummy, help me. Please mummy.
Ariya tried to flail her arms around blindly but her body was too numb and sluggish to be able to protect itself from the nimbleness of the fish.
She felt drained as bits of her flesh were torn off and gobbled up by the fish. And then a wave pulled her body underwater for a few seconds and the wicked shoal of fish fled in terror.
That was the first thing that flashed through Ariya’s mind.
In this extensive stretch of sea, she thought, no other animal than the killer from the deep could have raised panic among the gnawing fish.
But then a voice arose from the clutter of wreckage bobbing towards the young woman’s body.
The voice was hoarse and off pitch; the accent, that of a farang speaking Thai.
* Assalamu ’Alaikum, Arabic for ‘Peace be with you’; Sawatdee or Sawasdi, Thai for ‘goodness, virtue, beauty, prosperity, progress’ – in one word, in this context, for both expressions: ‘Hello!’
That voice was heard again, right as the same rush of fish returned to assault her once again.
In her astonishment and gagging panic, Ariya heard a loud voice chasing the nasty shoal of fish from her body but they were swift enough to steal a chunk of flesh off her hip.
Happy New Year, the voice said from close by. My name is Jonathan.
Ariya cast her eyes towards the source of the voice. A young man with golden hair was sending her a smile from among the wrecks. The young woman from the Andaman lowered her eyes out of modesty.
Happy New Year. My name is Jonathan.
Happy New Year. I… my name is Ariya.
From the day she fell under the full fury of the mighty sea on that late morning of Sunday 26th December 2004, from the day her body was snatched into its murky numbing depths, from the day she bobbed back to the surface, from the day she was assailed by evil creatures from the open sea and open sky, it was only this minute that Ariya felt the mighty sea to be a comfort and a true friend.
She wasn’t sure whether this was because today was the first morning of the new year or for some other reason.
Where are you from, Ariya? Jonathan twisted his body towards her.
Instead of answering, Ariya asked in turn, What about you, Jonathan? Where are you from?
From Scandinavia and I’m on my way to the Maldives.
The Maldives. I’m going to the Maldives, Ariya.
Jonathan, are you telling me we are now in the Indian Ocean?
That’s what I figure.
Are you kidding me, Jonathan? The young woman from the Andaman just couldn’t keep her excitement and pleasure out of her voice.
I was born on a small island in the Andaman, Ariya said, but those Paradise-like islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean are the only dream in my life.
Are you kidding me, Ariya?
Something tells me, the young woman said, that my true life is there, Jonathan.
In that case… The young Scandinavian smiled sweetly. We’ll go and celebrate the New Year there together. Shall we?
The Indian Ocean lightly ripples. Jonathan flings out an arm and his hand touches the hand of the young woman. Ariya closes her eyes. A smile blossoms at the corner of her mouth as she gently takes the young man’s hand.
The helicopters and the boat roar around again but it seems that the young man and woman don’t hear them.
A spring of flying fish plays leapfrog with the waves, their small bodies sheathed in gold by the morning sun.
And in the rippling of the waves two bodies float side by side, headed towards the Maldive archipelago, the Promised Land in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
[Translated from Khao Karn Hai Pai Khong A-riya Lae Rueang Uen-uen (About Ariya’s Disappearance and Other Stories), Siriworn Kaewkan, Phajon Phai Samnakphim, Bangkok, 2006; short-listed for the 2008 SEA Write Award. First published in English in the Bangkok Post 6 October 2008.]
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
I call it jail.
I spend my life here.
Anyone getting off the bus at the market and turning right into the tarmac road heading due east, past the shabby old wooden cinema, then taking the red-earth road with a boxing club and a little school facing each other before it crosses a grove which is part of the military camp to reach a wide expanse of paddy fields, and then again turning left into a dusty cart track and over a small turbid canal – that person will see an area which has been parcelled out according to different space and building uses.
Given that the boundaries are built in a way which is neither secure nor strong but scary, first-time visitors might get the mistaken impression that the neighbouring villages in the cogon grassland or on the hill slope are also part of the jail. It might even be possible that all the children in the villages feel there is no difference at all between the jail and their own homes, they being equally comforting. Nevertheless, there is the insistent rumour among the convicts that those casual fences are full of terrifying hidden traps.
The dawn after a waning moon night was my first dawn here. The big round pale yellow moon looked forlorn. Its light fell on the roof battens above the bedhead, which in the darkness looked very much like cell bars. The rays that got through to slap my face woke me up eyes wide open, as if that pale moonlight was the hand of a demon tearing my eyelids open, pulling me out of a warm bed and dragging me to the window. I looked through the dim moonlight glossing everything over. My friends got up and came to stand beside me quietly. We didn’t tell one another anything at all as we looked at the many species of flowers whose petals and beautiful hues were like a painting in the first glow of dawn amid scattered fog.
I shifted my gaze from the line of flowerbeds to the cart track running alongside the fence that disappeared into the grove. Some five hundred yards from the place where I stood a high earthen dyke came into view. After a few moments, I heard echoing bursts of gunfire coming from that dyke line – always loud at dawn as a wakeup call, day after day, as if to stir each day awake after a long sleep. The rays of dawn slowly grew bolder. The sounds of killing increased further like flowing blood whose reek spread all over the fields and grove…
Every day without exception.
It’s a jail. I spend my life here.
‘Pang! Pang! Pang!’
I raised the hoe and stopped it in mid-air, flung it down forcefully to turn the soil the colour of dry leaves, then took it out and put it by my side, stretched myself erect, my legs straddling firmly the row of earth dug into a plot. I looked up at the fence and saw the pretty smiles of the innocent children standing there.
‘Pang! Pang! Pow! Pow!’ The children mimicked the burps of guns. They all had their index and middle fingers up, aiming through the fence at me.
‘Watch out! Don’t get too close to the fence. It’s dangerous,’ I shouted to warn them.
‘Will you go there, uncle?’ A child pointed at the earthen dyke far away in the military grounds.
‘What for, hey?’
‘To see the soldiers practise shooting.’ ‘Practise warfare.’ ‘Shooting each other as in the movies.’
‘No way.’ I shook my head, smiling. Drops of sweat ran into my eyes, making them sting.
‘Over there, there are phayom flowers fallen from the trees too, you know,’ they shouted, ‘but the soldiers step on them so much they’re all squashed when they go back to their barracks once the training session is over.’
The children set off down the cart track running alongside the fence, their teasing like bell chimes fading in the distance. They are the sons and grandsons of poor villagers in the nearby cogon grassland.
Children are all bright cheerfulness. They are like substitutes for the convicts’ hopes and dreams, just like the flowers that bloom in this jail, a jail which has only fences of rotten bamboo of various sizes in thick rows on all sides, yet never has anyone been able to get away from this place. Even though there have been attempts and flights to freedom, before long everyone always returns to detention.
I looked at the building which was like a rest house. Two friends working close by smiled broadly at me in the sunlight. Their faces were oozing sweat. They were mowing grass and spreading fertiliser on the birds of paradise which were blooming into bird-shaped posies of vivid yellow, pink and red.
I waved at them.
Last night, the three of us were talking quietly by the campfire burning bright and warm. The register of flower sales lay open to check the accounts, with the night wind flipping through its pages slowly, one at a time. We note down sales details in it, but all the money is kept by our warders to await the time when our sentences will end. When that day comes, each of us will have money available to get on with his life.
‘When will we be released?’ I mused, breaking the silence, pricking the fire idly with a branch, sending spurts of small sparks flying.
‘They’ve told us many times since the day we were brought here, were made to fall in line and given our gear, then sorted out and assigned to the various areas. Don’t you see there are warning signs all over the place? So why keep asking?’ the older man asked seemingly in irritation.
‘I can answer instead of the jailers,’ the younger one said, his gaze lost in the darkness, out of focus. I saw his eyes were full of clear tears reflecting the sparkle of the fire. Night birds called out in the woods.
‘When we are at the end of our sentences, when our relatives and friends that we love remember us, love and worry about us, truly want us, that day they’ll come and take us out of here, and then that day … stupidity, stubbornness, the bad in us will change for the better, in tune with society… That’ll be the day.’ His voice wobbled while the old man and I looked for stars in a sky veiled in clouds and fog.
‘Do you miss home?’ I asked the old man.
‘Are you thinking of running away again?’
He kept silent. The three of us and everything else were swallowed up by the silence. Even the fire’s brightness dulled.
Last year, the old man had run away from here. He had left at dawn during the rainy season. We learnt about it when the jailers came to tell us and ordered all of us to keep quiet with harsh voices. Five days went by. The old man came back with the jailers and a strong posse of police officers. He looked exhausted, hardly recognisable, like a flower trampled underfoot in the dirt. The sunken eyes and gaunt face were devoid of any glint of hope. The whole week he had to lie helpless in bed after being confined to isolation as punishment. That night he called me out for the first time. I dragged a chair to sit by his bed, leaned out to peer at his face closely. I was able to note the expression in his eyes. It was the expression of someone remorseful. He asked me if he had been wrong doing a bunk in search of freedom.
I asked him about his condition and asked him, in the same words I had asked him last night, ‘Are you thinking of running away again?’
‘Surely not. I’ve just realised there’s no-one outside that cares about us. Nobody extended a hand to help with even a grain of rice or a coin. Nobody at all. It looks like outside is just another jail everybody is stuck in for life…’
He laughed sheepishly before saying in sorrow and hopelessness, ‘I hid at night at the railway station, in passenger trains, in public parks, foraged for water and refuse in the rubbish heaps at the market, avoiding police and jailers all along. The dry bird of paradise flower I kept in my shirt pocket, even that was taken away… I don’t know who stole my shirt on the third night. Damn it! I’d tried my best to keep it as a sort of amulet from the very first night I came here… No matter who runs away must meet with it – death, I mean. It’s already waiting.’ He sank his head between his knees out of weariness.
We were too scared to ask about the traps in the fence. No one dared to mention them.
I stared at a star with a dark blue shine as I thought that I, he or any one of us might try one more time. It might be death as he said, even though we knew that everywhere the eyes of our jailers were on us, eyes like those of venomous snakes in the dark, eyes with glints of scorn, devoid of benevolence, and tricky.
One day, some convict would try again.
It’s late in the morning. Emerald green chameleons are basking in the sun on branches and on the ground. Squadrons of dragonflies are looping the loop in the bracing air.
I’ve hoed five plots. My two friends shout out the warder wants to see me in the central building. I put down the hoe against a tree trunk, walk around the dormitory block straight to the gloomy building which stands next to the watchtower. There’s only one tower and it’s hidden by the thick foliage of a tall banyan tree. There’s always a group of people on watch no matter what time. Up there we can see dark silhouettes of things looking like weapons. Whichever corner of the jail we’re in, when we look up they are always pointed at us.
Past the door which is smeared with what looks like blood, it’s as if there is smog inside. I see a row of blurry benches, with only a few people sitting forlornly. At the far end of the last bench a student with a pale face and quivering mouth, a glimmer of utter distress in his eyes, sits despondently listening to one of the jailers chattering I don’t know what in his face. Some of the words have overtones of solace.
‘He hasn’t had news of his wife for months… Could be she took the child and moved in with a new hubby,’ the warder in charge of relations between convicts and the outside world says when I ask him. ‘Looks like he’s getting himself crazy with worry. Well, it’s the same woman who sent him those highbrow books regularly. Lucky he didn’t become mad as soon as he read ’m, right?’ There’s something like dry laughter in the voice as he flips through the mail then pulls out a brown envelope and hands it over to me.
‘Someone sending five hundred marigold seeds. Must be your sweetheart, I reckon. We’ve allowed it as a special case,’ he goes on saying as the young student is being helped out while mumbling tedious sentences.
‘Where’s freedom? Where are the dreams? Where’s…’
The whining fades away. I step out of the blood-smeared door, out of the smog, and stand gulping a lungful of clean air as I look against the sunshine at the tall tower. My eyes get totally blurred before they black out. In a flash I see those weapons aren’t trained on me but where the student is walking out of sight, or so it seems. Maybe it’s just an illusion.
I go back to the flower garden once again. A shabby old black delivery van is parked in front of the dormitory block. My friends are taking armfuls of flowers of many species into the van. A young female convict stands by to help arrange them in there.
‘What happened to the regular?’ I mean the big-bellied middle-aged woman who usually performs this duty.
‘Oh… she was taken with cramps this morning. Looks like she’s about to give birth,’ the young woman answers.
‘A boy or a girl?’ my young friend asks absent-mindedly.
‘It isn’t born yet, how could anyone know? But no matter, all children here are ours, you know,’ the old man answers with a solemn face.
I remember the day I received the marigold seeds from the warder, the day I met the young student but didn’t meet the pregnant middle-aged woman. Late afternoon I planted the seeds in a small plot, slipping the long brown pods into holes I dug with a finger and covering them with a thin layer of soil.
And then at dawn the next day, in the nippy air of the end of the cold season, gunshots burst out from the dyke area in the grove. Right then we heard the first wails of a newborn along with the gunfire. Later in the morning the news spread all over the jail that the young student had hanged himself in the dormitory block.
I wasn’t surprised that many events would happen all at once. Many things happened, and each according to the ways of this jail. My friends went on planting birds of paradise and I, marigolds. We all carried on with our lives. Each of us was consigned to jail, with no exception even for births or for souls.
Two days after the seeds were sunk into the dark warm soil sprouts of marigold began to grow through the earth in rows under mild sunshine. They grew until they each had three pairs of tender green leaves. The round translucent green saplings grew into twenty-five rows running the length of the plot. I used a curved spade to prick out the saplings as gently as I could, placed them in a square-shaped plastic basket I took over to a plot with a mixture of manure and lime. I planted them lengthwise along its perimeter in two rows, at two-span intervals. They grew rapidly as I watched over them and cultivated the soil for them.
By now fifteen days have passed since they were bedded out. I stand watching the vivid green rows of marigolds and feel so happy and enraptured. The long funnel-shaped thumb-sized flowers are blooming into pale yellow petals. A cloud of butterflies frolic gracefully over the flowerbeds under a pale sun, while small chameleons race all over the ground. I gaze at them as if they were hopes, dreams, like the fair silky yellow stars casting their rays above leaf-patterned green carpeting.
The sky of the beginning of the hot season is empty and clear. A scent of manpla flowers wafts by with the wind. The sweltering weather that has come since last night will probably worsen in the afternoon. There are rumours of thunder in the distance.
‘Hey, look over there!’ the old man points sideways.
I look up and see a mass of cauliflower-shaped clouds on the horizon as I busily take off the tiny buds that have sprouted in the leaf groves to leave a single big flower at the top of each of the six stems of each plant.
‘Beware of hot-season storms. I heard warnings on the radio.’ He steps out of the bird of paradise bed.
‘The roots of marigolds won’t be strong enough to hold out for sure.’ Our young friend steps out in turn with worry on his face.
The looming dark clouds unfurl and spread, hiding the sun and everything grows dark… Big raindrops drum by. The wind gusts. Buffeted chilling masses of water lash down all of a sudden. Flashes of lightning crisscross the sky with terrifying bursts of thunder. My two friends rush out to take refuge under the eaves of the dormitory block, signalling for me to join them. The marigolds resist with all the strength of their puny bodies, shaking all over in fright. The rain pelts even harder, meaning to overwhelm my body and all the rows of marigolds, while the wind whips back and forth, gushes unremittingly, thrusting punches with all its might. Infinite numbers of glittering white raindrops pummel, blurring my vision, flattening everything, bringing utter destruction instantly. The sky roars in every direction, while branches snap, slide and hit the ground in resounding crashes that sink deep into the auditory nerves…
Rapture gone to pieces…
The old events that happened in jail are deeply sunken in my memory.
After the evil storm flattened all the marigolds, I remember that night. I sat dejected, staring at the remains of hope destroyed in the twinkling of an eye. The smell of manpla flowers came with the wind like whiffs of incense at a funeral. I gazed blindly way out there through the darkness, through memories, through dreams of the future, through to the ashes after the light of life has gone out. Warm tears were dropping onto the back of the hand that helped keep my mouth shut tight.
I remember that a bunch of children appeared by the fence. They stood in a dark cluster out there.
‘Uncle! Uncle!’ The clear voices resounded through the nerves along with the noises of night insects.
‘Your marigold has blossomed, uncle… up there! It’s in full bloom up there.’ Their clear laughter chimed away.
I looked up at the glittering moon emitting a light as tender as a gentle hand reaching out to hug me. How comforting it was! Moments later, I raised my hand to wipe away the tears, got up, picked up a kitchen knife which flashed white, walked over to the bamboo stack, set about cutting and shaping finger-thin stakes the length of an arm, carried them to the patch of marigolds and undertook to plant them as supports for each plant, carefully arranging torn stalks and bruised stems around them.
I gave it all of my strength and all of my heart after the children had pointed at the moon blossoming in the black expanse of the sky. But who could know that in my heart of hearts I could see marigolds blossoming in a place which wasn’t the vast and distant firmament?
Three years later, I had to pack up my things. The jailers moved me from the flower gardens to the mental health building after the old convict chose freedom once again. This time he succeeded: the jailers found his cold stinking body by a rubbish heap at the market. The young fellow went on planting flowers. The student’s soul went on its restless wandering without end. The newborn had grown up a lot by then and several new lives had been born in jail as well.
As I stood on the roof-deck of the nutcase building in the beautiful warm rays of dawn which surged forth between white clouds on the horizon, I could see many species of flowers in a rainbow of colours, their petals showering in the dew sprayed down from above amid a stretch of off-white fog dusted with particles of sunlight, while gunshots rang out of the dyke area, their furious patter resounding like a funeral chant, gruesome, sickening.
I knew my marigolds were still blooming whether under the bright sunlight of daytime or under glossy moonlight at night.
I call it jail.
I live here.
We all live here.
‘Khuk Dorkmai‘, in Chor Karrakeit 19, 1994
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
Some stories seem to be buried stubbornly in our memory. They usually come back to haunt us on nights of loneliness, at moments when we let our mind drift with the whisper of the sea or the sighs of the breeze. They return time and time again like whirling waters and form a sad melody of life, intruding faintly, regardless of place, whenever we are engrossed in the present.
On the last day of September 1980, my eight friends and I were walking down a high ridge and, a little before noon, we reached the upper course of the Kha Khaeng stream. Monsoon rains had been falling for days on end, at times seeming to split the whole range asunder, at others melting in a fine drizzle that lasted from dawn to dusk. Even when the rain stopped, the whole jungle was still as dim and damp as a deserted theatre. The smell of old leaves and soggy rotting logs had filled our nostrils along the way.
Taking the ravine near the source of the Khwae Yai River as our starting point, we had walked for five full days in the rain, up and down steep mountain slopes. We were coming from the west, cutting across the common borders of Uthai Thani, Tak and Kanchanaburi provinces in order to reach the jungle’s edge at a place called Sap Fa Pha. Another day and we would reach our destination, provided we could safely cross the Kha Khaeng rapids. It was the end of the rainy season, and the water was at its highest level. The stream, turbid like a sea of boiling mud, had overflowed its banks and spread wide. All along its course we could see a scattering of half-submerged bushes, which swayed about like drowning men struggling wildly as they called out for help. Whole trees – roots, trunks and all – drifted down, and some got stuck on bushes which the current hadn’t yet torn up.
On the opposite bank, a little beyond our route, a large monitor lizard had been swept onto a branch, to which it clung, bobbing up and down under the thrashing of the current; it was unable to climb up the bank and unable to let go, as it would be whisked away by the rapids. What a pathetic sight!
It was a fully grown lizard which must have gone through a lot before being caught in the stream…
Before deciding to leave the mountains at the end of September 1980, I’d spent more than five years of my life in the jungle. It hadn’t been easy for someone who happened to be born and lived for nearly two decades in a village by the sea, and all the more so for someone who had always been conscious that his parents had hoped he would provide for the family once he had graduated from university.
I was able to get rid of the first burden within a fairly short time: it took me no longer than two rainy seasons to feel at home in the jungle and mountains. But the second burden was different. During those five years, I shouldered it every step of the way, day and night, from high rocky ridges through to meandering brooks.
I still vividly remember the day I had to leave. I had travelled to Bang Pakong, my birthplace, to bid farewell to my parents. Father was the only one at home that day. Mother had gone to a neighbouring province to buy fruit she’d sell at the market. As I sat waiting for her to return home, I thought about the days of my childhood, when we still lived together. The more I brooded, the more I felt she was an angel heaven had punished by making her the mother of someone like me.
Mother spoke little and hardly ever had a harsh word for her children. She was nonetheless one of the proudest women I have ever known. Because she was abandoned by her father in her infancy, had no relatives and never went to school, she was used to relying on herself since a very early age. No matter how destitute she was, she never begged from anyone; even among her own children, she’d never ask for help to ease her weariness if we weren’t considerate enough to see it ourselves.
She usually got up before dawn to take goods to the market and, depending on how much there was, carried them either by pushcart or in baskets hanging from a yoke balanced on her shoulder. After selecting fruits for a while, just before it was time for her to leave the house, she’d nudge me gently awake or call me in her usual tone of voice; under no circumstances would she shout, because she disliked making noise and, besides, was afraid to unnecessarily awaken my little brother and sisters, who were still very young.
One day, she tried to wake me up three times, but I wouldn’t get up. I was already awake, but I still wanted to sleep late like any child who was growing fast and showing signs of puberty. After a while, I began to feel that Mother was unusually quiet. I got up and saw her busy carrying goods on her shoulder, holding this, grabbing that, and on her face, which had begun to wrinkle, tears were streaming down.
“No need.” She whisked my hands away after I jumped to relieve her of what she was holding.
Since that day, I never allowed her to wake me up more than once. This, however, didn’t mean the end of our sad story.
There was a time during which my mother had no money to buy fruit to resell or pay the rent for her stall at the village market. She earned five to ten baht a day from selling shaved-ice with syrup and toasted bread at the parking bay for the minibuses that ran between Bang Pakong and Chonburi. During that period, my father had gone looking for jobs in the South and my eldest sister and elder brother were earning their living in other provinces; thus I was the oldest child in the house. With my three younger siblings, it meant Mother had many mouths to feed day in and day out. She had a plaster piggy bank, made in the shape of a horse, in which there were more than ten coins in various sizes and a five-baht banknote. Any day when she didn’t earn enough from her sales to buy food, she’d take the coins to supplement whatever she had, and whenever she had one or two baht left, she’d slip them into the piggy bank. Things went on like this for a long time.
One day, she came home looking utterly exhausted. She grumbled that there had been no one at the parking bay all day. After resting for a while, she took out the horse-shaped piggy bank, turned it upside down and inserted a hair clip to retrieve the five-baht note she badly needed to solve her current predicament.
In no time her face grew tense and she suddenly burst into tears.
“To have come this low, and still have them doing this to me,” she said between sobs.
I sat stock-still and stole glances at the tears on her weather-beaten cheeks. I had the urge to hug her and say something, but I felt that, for people like us who’ve only had sad parts to play since the day we were born, it would be overreacting. I knew she didn’t feel sorry about the money but was disheartened that we were harming one another at a time when society at large was wilfully tearing itself apart.
That day – the day of my departure – I sat waiting for her until it was near dusk, but she didn’t come. Father, who didn’t know why I had come home, tried to get me to stay the night, but I had to refuse. An appointment had been made that could not be missed – an appointment with my destiny which was tightly linked to the future of the country.
Father hobbled to see me off at the end of the alley leading to our house. As I walked away quietly, I didn’t dare turn around and look at his face again for fear he might catch on to the fact that this time our separation could be final. Besides, I knew he didn’t like to see any of his children cry.
And certainly not his sons.
While we stopped for lunch, we argued among ourselves about the best way to cross the rapids. One member of our party was my lifelong soul mate, and she couldn’t swim, so we had to discard the option of placing our knapsacks on our heads and letting ourselves drift to the other bank. But even if she could swim, I doubt we’d have gone ahead with that method. We had no way of knowing what could be submerged beneath these fast-flowing waters. I once heard the story of an able-bodied man trying to swim across some jungle stream only to be impaled through the neck by a piece of wood. I myself had once waded chest-deep through a flash flood, and besides having to fight against the current with all my strength, had to step with both feet on bamboo thorns underwater; by the time I reached the bank, I was in pretty bad shape. Our eyes couldn’t assess the danger of such waters.
One method we thought might work was to ask the strongest among us to tie himself to a rope and swim against the current to the opposite bank, then fasten the rope to make a line for the rest of us to cling to as we waded across. To test this theory, one of my friends, who had been acting as my bodyguard along the way, tried to enter the main watercourse to check its depth and strength of current. In the twinkling of an eye, his big, tall body was swept away as if snatched by a ghost. I saw him toss and tumble in the current for what seemed like ages and by the time he managed to grab a branch near the bank, he had been whisked fifty metres downstream.
The test had been conclusive. Even if we were able to throw a line across the rapids, clinging to it to reach the opposite bank was not a sensible thing to do. If one of us were to let go of the rope under the pull of the current, the rest of us would have to spend days looking for the body, and at least one more day digging a grave for it, not to mention the eons it would take us to get over our sorrow.
So, there was only one option left: we had to build a bridge across the torrent.
While my wife and I took turns using the only spoon we had to scoop the rice, two or three men who had already eaten went to look for long stems of bamboo among the clumps that lined our path. We were lucky to have a couple of Hmong brothers as our guides. During the past five years, I had never seen anyone use a knife as deftly as the people of this tribe, especially when they used it to cut wood in the jungle. Cutting bamboo stems from their clump is highly skilled work for jungle dwellers. They’d pay for a mistake with their lives, as offerings to the Lord of the Jungle. Stories of chests pierced, throats gashed and main arteries slashed by bamboo stems were common in the mountains. Once, I saw a friend of mine knocked down for the count after a bamboo stem he was cutting had swung back and hit him right on the forehead. Only an expert could tell how the top of the stems intertwined and in which direction they’d swing when you hacked them at the base.
I had hardly started to roll myself a cigarette in a leaf after lunch than the hacking of bush knifes on bamboo stems started up. It resounded above the sizzle of the rain on the treetops and the roaring of the rapids, forming an odd rhythmic tune only its composer could fully appreciate and understand.
‘Even on our way to defeat, we still have to overcome obstacles,’ I thought as I puffed clouds of smoke into the air.
It didn’t take long to gather the amount of long stems we needed. The strongest man in our group was chosen to walk some distance upstream in order to drift back with the current and grab a branch of the nearest treetop in front of us. As we extended the first bamboo stem from the bank, his duty was to fasten it to one of the branches slightly above water level. The second stem was then held out parallel to the first and again my friend tied it tightly to the branch. Our makeshift bridge was beginning to take shape.
One of us crawled on it and sat astride the stems, helping to put in place two more big bamboo stems so that they reached the next bush further out in the stream. We used the same method to place stems from one bush to the next, tying them up securely with rope or creepers while some of us waited in the water to grab the stems and coordinate all the work. We all helped one another and did whatever had to be done as best we could. Boisterous shouts kept resounding and sometimes those who had to stay in the water for hours on end would complain about the cold. The rain was still falling and the current kept flowing furiously.
Before dusk, the bamboo bridge over the rapids was finally ready. Its width was that of two stems laid across the stream in a zigzag course of four or five segments. It stretched just above the water and kept wobbling with the swaying bushes we used as poles. At waist level, along the whole length, we had tied a thin rope for our balance, to grab and pull as we walked across.
We gathered our weapons and personal belongings and started to cross one at a time. It was only then that we noticed that the big monitor lizard stuck on a branch on the opposite bank was no longer there. In its struggle it must have been whisked away by the current while we were busy building the bridge.
I learned about my mother’s death in November 1977, almost four months after she had died. I was then staying on the Hin Rong Kla mountain range. The letter reached me, long after the sun had set behind the ridge, as I sat in a meeting with several of my friends. I unfolded it and read it under torchlight; when I was fully acquainted with its contents, I slung the rifle over my shoulder and left the hut quietly to walk alone on a small jungle path under the sparse light of the moon and stars filtering through the branches.
I don’t know how long I sat against a tree trunk, my face pressed against the barrel of the rifle. I only know the tears that ran down the barrel to the chamber of the assault rifle glistened in the dark and seemed like they would never end.
Near dawn, I found myself in the hut, gazing mournfully at the fire we had built to protect ourselves from the cold. The flames were blurred as if the fire stood behind a sheet of clear water. When I blinked, they heaved along with the folds of the water curtain. My soul mate was stroking my arm as if to let me know that no matter what, we still had each other and I wasn’t alone.
I knew that, yet I couldn’t help but recall that horse-shaped piggy bank. I would have liked to have told Mother that I had never thought of taking advantage of her or the three young ones. If I had taken the five-baht note to play cards with my friends at the back of the market, it was because I thought it would be a way out of the situation we faced. I never intended to make Mother grieve; I had only forgotten to think carefully enough, that some solutions may make a bad situation worse.
The sun began to set very rapidly. I lifted the knapsack which only held the manuscripts of short stories I had written and slung it over my shoulder. I took one end of a piece of rope, tied it around my waist and used the other end to do the same for my companion, who was waiting to cross with me. For this trip, I only had a pistol with me, which wasn’t much of a load to carry. I tied my slippers to the knapsack so that my bare feet could move along the bamboo stems with maximum efficiency. After standing still for a while, I started to step forward. My companion gripped my back with one hand and followed me step by step without saying a word.
Our combined weight made the bamboo stems bend, touch the water and even dip slightly into it at some points. The bridge vibrated under the force of the current; I felt the vibrations running through the soles of my feet, up my legs, right to my heart. If we failed, we would die together, but at such a critical juncture, how could we possibly cross separately?
Right then, the width of the Kha Khaeng torrent seemed limitless. I felt it was taking us an eternity to reach the last section of the bridge, which sank into the water deeper than at any other point. The extremely cold current rushed past my ankles as if to snatch me away as soon as possible. At the same time, the bridge was swaying as though it despised the steps of the defeated. But we finally made it to the opposite bank. Somebody had already built a fire and was drying his drenched shirt by it.
As we sat by the fire, I kept turning to look at the stream we had just crossed. All kinds of thoughts were rushing through my mind with the force of wild waters. The very next day, I would relinquish my arms officially, as well as my hopes to create a world in which horse-shaped piggy banks would not be necessary.
I had no idea how long I’d be bound to the stream of memories, which is much scarier than the current of the Kha Khaeng rapids. I only knew that, from then on, I’d have to struggle to build bridges alone.
First published in this translation in the February 1994 issue of the Bangkok magazine Caravan
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
“Do you already have to go, darling?”
“Yup,” Yut turned to answer his wife pithily, but the instant he saw her still wondering, he expanded his answer. “The chief wants us to give a hand. On Saturdays and Sundays, there’s a morning market, lots of people as if everything was free, as you know.”
He picked up his walkie-talkie and clipped it to his belt, went into the bedroom, sat down by the bedhead and slowly slipped a hand under the thin mattress.
“Don’t take it, please!” his wife, whose eyes had followed him knowingly, remonstrated. “You aren’t allowed to carry it. Besides, you risk being arrested by the police, darling.”
Yup, Yut admitted. His wife was right. He had no right whatever to this gun, a Thai-made sawn-off shotgun.
Security guards had no right to guns, whether homemade Colts like this 12-bore shotgun or foreign-made ones.
He was well aware of this, had been since he got it from a friend long ago, so he kept the lethal weapon hidden away under the mattress.
He stroked it gingerly before putting it back into its hiding place, discreetly sighed at being unable to pocket it to comfort himself and merely hoped that one day he’d have the opportunity to pull the trigger at least once to his satisfaction.
He stretched himself erect. His stout body was tall and impressive in his uniform. He picked up the handcuffs and clipped them to his belt and then did the same with the truncheon.
Yut loved his uniform and was proud of it. It looked like a second skin as did army uniforms. He loved it because he had been a conscript once.
Once discharged from active duty, he had applied for a job as a security guard in a company which was a big firm in charge of the security of a housing estate.
He liked this job very much because even though he was no policeman or soldier, he dressed almost like a soldier and performed almost like a policeman.
Some of his fellow guards had complained within earshot.
“Being guards sucks. It’s like being slaves to the rich in the estate. Them bastards have never enough. And then what about us? A pittance every month. My pay is less than what some of these homes spend on dog food.”
Hearing this, Yut couldn’t help bringing his colleague to his senses. “Don’t go and think like this, man.” He tried to explain his point of view to his disheartened friend. “We must be proud. We’re not guards. Our duty is to ensure security. There’s dignity in that. To prevent stealing. Our work, besides helping people in the estate to be safe, is like being the eyes and ears of the police. We’re helping officialdom, man.”
Most of his friends agreed with Yut. Some of those who used to be dejected found it in themselves to feel proud of their duty. The chief praised Yut and often offered him as an example for thinking positively like that.
Every Saturday and Sunday a market was held throughout the morning at the entrance to the estate. Yut and the other security guards were called upon to cover all the angles. They took care of the traffic, arranged for the easy flow of vehicles and looked after security as well.
This being a large market which kept expanding, with all kinds of goods for sale, clothes, foodstuffs fresh or dry, vegetables, fruit, you name it – whoever wanted something came by and found what he or she was after, even copies of films just showing in the cinemas.
The previously spacious parking lot was no longer sufficient for current needs, because the housing estate alone had more than three thousand households and there were also people from other housing estates along the same road. The more buyers, the more items for sale, the more traders, male and female. Vehicles queued up in search of parking space.
Some of Yut’s friends were given the duty to second the traffic police, others to keep their eyes peeled for criminal elements skulking among customers. Such dubious characters took advantage of the throng to lift a purse here, snatch a necklace there, from both buyers and vendors, so that eventually warning signs had been set up all over the market – “Beware of thieves”, “Mind your valuables”.
Yut didn’t hesitate at all when the chief ordered him to be on duty every morning there was a market.
He had once chased and caught a young man who had snatched the purse of a middle-aged woman busy purchasing some ornament. It had been a chase as in the movies – startled people giving way, the thief running very fast but not as fast as Yut who finally collared him at the parking lot. The fellow threw him a punch. He returned the compliment. The fellow’s mouth bled; Yut’s hand hurt. He got him in an armlock. Other guards came running to the rescue and helped drag the thief to the police booth where they called on the policemen to deal with him.
Yut still remembered the resentful glare in the fellow’s eyes. No way he’d forget that.
“Aren’t you afraid he’ll take his revenge?” his wife had asked him out of concern.
“Not at all,” he had answered confidently. What made him confident was that he was well versed in Thai boxing, having trained since he was a child, and he had had even more intensive training during his time as a soldier. He was confident he could handle the criminal young man any time.
“What if he shoots you?” his wife still worried.
“I’ve got a gun too,” he had answered without having to think.
He was confident that the secret lethal weapon hidden under the mattress would be a great help and comfort. Even if he loaded it with a single bullet, with a 12-bore shotgun like this, whoever met that bullet would have a hard time surviving its shattering impact.
Before leaving the house, Yut turned to tell his wife, “If you want to get yourself something to eat at the market, go ahead, but don’t buy anything else. There’s nothing there the likes of us can afford.”
He waved at his beloved spouse before striding away to get his bicycle and go and perform the duty he took pride in.
On this Saturday morning the sky was cloudless, a boon for everyone who came to buy or sell.
Yut parked his bicycle, greeted his fellow guards and then proceeded to do his duty. Experience had taught him that whichever stall had many customers, that’s where criminals would mingle waiting for the chance to snatch a bag or nick a purse.
He walked about in the market, keeping clear of the crush and observing the comings and goings in the stalls. He had the deep conviction that no crook would escape his attention. His eyes and the determination in his heart cooperated as if they were radars detecting anything unusual. Each of his steps was firm and assured.
A fellow guard in uniform came by from the opposite direction. They smiled at each other with the same feelings and the same heart.
“All clear,” they whispered to each other meaningfully.
Some of the guards wore no uniform. They acted as police informers who mixed with the crowd. They wore their shirts outside their trousers to hide the walkie-talkie ready to be used for coordinated action if anything untoward happened.
The centre of operations was at the guard box. That’s where the chief was, along with many other guards on duty, with walkie-talkies and with motorcycles ready to move in hot pursuit of malefactors.
“Help! Help! Car thief!” a woman shouted repeatedly.
Many people turned to look. Many people rushed forward for a closer look. Among those were Yut and his fellow guard, running in concert.
A cream-coloured car was moving out of the parking lot, with a woman running after it and yelling.
“Help! He’s stealing my car!”
“Fuckin’ hell! Daring this much now, are they?” Yut growled, exchanging glances with his friend in uniform – not the same uniform, but the same heart.
“Let’s get a bike. I’ll go with you,” he told him.
They ran to the guard box. His friend grabbed a motorcycle, jumped on it and kicked it roaring.
The chief instructed all the guards by walkie-talkie to intercept the cream-coloured car.
“Maybe he’ll take the other exit.” He ordered the guards on duty at the box in the other street to close the exit.
The housing estate had two exits. Thanks to prompt cooperation, the car was trapped between the two.
When the motorcycle caught up with it before it came to the guard box, “Overtake him and cut in front of him,” Yut told the driver. The motorcycle sped up, overtook and cut in front of the car recklessly.
The car braked hard. Its muzzle stopped an inch or two from the motorcycle. Yut jumped off, rushed to the door on the driver’s side, unclipped the truncheon from his waist, ready to pounce.
“Come on out,” he ordered.
The driver stepped out promptly, looking mighty displeased. He slipped his hand under his loose shirt as if to grope for a gun.
“What the hell’s your problem?” he hollered.
“You’ve stolen this car,” Yut yelled back.
People were gathering round.
“Get that motorbike out of my way, you jerk,” the man ordered threateningly.
He pulled out a gun to frighten him, and Yut immediately thought of his secret lethal weapon under the mattress.
He felt sorry. If he’d taken it along, the big shotgun would have dampened the thief’s arrogance, for all his handsome features and obvious social status. The man had his gun trained on him.
Upon which the female car owner riding pillion on another guard’s motorcycle arrived. She paid no attention to the gun in his hand, went straight to snatch the car keys from him and a confused tug-of-war ensued.
“You thief!” The woman pointed the finger at him and then had another go at the keys.
“It’s my car!” The man put away his gun and tried to snatch the keys back from the woman.
“We’re divorced! We agreed the car’s mine,” the woman objected in a loud voice. “And you’ve the nerve to steal it from me. Look at you, pinching my keys when I wasn’t looking. Don’t you have any shame?”
Yut was beginning to understand. The people massed around were getting enlightened by the minute from the heated exchange between the two sides.
More and more cars were brought to a standstill. Many couldn’t stand it and hooted their horns. Some came out to listen long enough to figure out what the fuss was about. Others tried to stop the argument.
“It’s a domestic matter. Don’t interfere,” the man shouted to repel them.
“I’m not your wife, and it isn’t your car either!” the woman shouted back at once without any sense of embarrassment. There was no longer any sign of their being husband and wife.
“Then please pull the car over to the kerb so the other cars can go by,” Yut told them, to the approval of many of the held-up drivers.
Right then the police, having received a report that a car had been stolen, arrived. Thanks to their good offices the car was moved aside. Soon the road returned to almost normal traffic.
Yut’s wife pushed her way through to him with a pale face. “I was afraid he’d shoot you.” Yut was silent, thinking about the heart-stopping minute that had gone by. It wasn’t just his wife who had been scared: he had been terrified.
Right then, if he had had his secret lethal weapon in hand, he might have shot the man dead out of fear.
“Let’s go, darling. It’s just a domestic tiff.” His wife pulled him by the arm out of the event, leaving it to the police to sort out the marital dispute over who it was owned the car.
“Talart Chao Na Moo Barn” in Chor Karrakeit 46, 2008
17/06/2011 § 1 Comment
‘Hey, you! This is a man’s house, not a urinal!’
‘Oh!’ The man, who wore a white shirt and dangling necktie, stepped back in haste. ‘I’m sorry. I thought it was a rubbish dump.’
The younger man, who had long hair and a long, scraggy beard, poked his head out and shrugged.
‘Never mind. You aren’t the first.’ Having said so, he made as if to withdraw back inside. The man was zipping up his pants as he called out: ‘Hey, wait!’ He adjusted the round bottle he held under his armpit.
‘What do you want?’
The man wearing a shirt went and squatted in front of the man with the long hair, suffusing him with the boozy smell of ripe sapodilla.
‘I’d like to talk to you.’
‘That’s weird! Nobody never wants to talk to me.’
‘And I’d like to come inside as well.’
‘That’s even more weird. People only come here to piss; no one’s ever wanted to come inside.’
‘May I come in?’
The owner of the house pulled his head back inside. The guest opened the rumpled plastic sheet and crawled in.
‘This is a pretty comfy place you’ve got here.’
‘If I can fin some cardboard and some planks, I’d like to extend the floor a little so I can lie down and look at the stars.’
‘The stars? Er, right, I had forgotten there were such things in the world. Believe it or not, I haven’t looked at the stars in twenty years.’
The man with the long hair looked up at the roof and with the tip of his index finger enlarged the gap between two old pieces of cardboard.
‘Look for yourself. Tonight, there aren’t many, because it’s the rainy season.’
The guest moved closer to the gap and, through it, looked at the sky.
‘I had also forgotten there was a sky,’ he mused. ‘Wow, the stars are really beautiful. Oh, look! Did you see that falling star?’
‘I see them all the time because this gap is right above my head at night,’ the young man said matter-of-factly.
‘That’s right. These days, there are lots of things around us we just don’t notice anymore.’
‘What’s this?’ said the young man, pointing at the bottle before him.
‘What?’ asked the man with the necktie, turning away from his contemplation of the sky and looking down. ‘Oh, that… Well, Chivas, of course.’
‘All right, Shiva to you.’
‘But what is it?’
‘It’s liquor. Imported liquor, too, and so expensive you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve drunk half of it already. Would you like some?’
The young man didn’t answer. He grabbed the bottle of Shiva, prized it open, lifted it up to his mouth and took a gulp.
‘Oh, wow!’ he exclaimed. His coarse, weather-beaten hand, nails black with grime, went up to wipe his lips. ‘Can I have some more?’
‘Why not. You can have the whole bottle.’
The young man was nonplussed.
‘Sure. Take it.’
The young man put the bottle back on the floor.
‘Why won’t you take it?’ the owner of the liquor asked.
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I don’t take things for free. If you give it to me, then I must do something for you in return.’
‘Ah! Ah! Ah! What nonsense! You must be out of your mind.’
‘Not at all. They call me the crackpot.’
‘Well, it’s the same thing, really. These days, nobody thinks that way, you know. What people do is try to figure out how to get things from others without having to invest in, or work for them, and the more they get the happier they are.’
‘I don’t understand. In the morning, I’m hungry, so I go to the market and help vendors unload their trucks and they give me some money to buy myself something to eat.’
‘All right, then. I’m giving you this bottle as payment for the time you’ll spend talking with me.’
The young man smiled and his eyes shone. He lifted the bottle to his mouth and took a swig.
‘This Shiva of yours is so smooth!’
‘Haven’t you ever tasted foreign liquor before?’
‘Never. Them trishaw drivers, sometimes they let me have some of their bootleg, but it don’t taste as good as this Shiva.’
‘Actually, I think you’re rather nice, you know.’
‘What d’you mean, ‘nice’?’
‘Er, never mind. Tell me this: do you still feel angry that I peed over your house?’
‘Angry? No. I just pretended it was raining. I don’t know what being angry means.’
‘How right you are. If only we could avoid getting angry, our lives would be so much better. It might even bring us the greatest happiness in the world.’
The man with the long, scraggy beard wasn’t paying attention; he was lifting the bottle and taking yet another swig.
‘Go easy, young man,’ the guest said, patting the bearded fellow on his dirty shoulder, ‘or else you’ll get drunk and won’t be able to do your job to the full value of that bottle.’
The owner of the house, looking scared, hastily put the bottle down.
‘You seem to like reading newspapers,’ the man with the necktie remarked as he looked around.
‘No. I use them for the walls and I also look at the pictures. I can’t read and anyway, I don’t see why I should read them.’
‘Yes indeed. I’m sure I’d be much better off if I couldn’t read. Do you know how much time I have to waste reading every day? Nearly four hours for five business dailies in Thai, and another two in English. I read them from start to finish, including the ads, and I don’t even know why I have to be so thorough. You’ve no idea how unhappy I feel when I’ve gone through the lot of them. My head feels heavy and all I can think of is what to do to beat my competitors.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Of course you don’t, because your world in here is so different from that of the tall buildings outside. These days, we have no time to think, except about how to make a profit.’
‘You don’t understand that word either, do you?’
The young man with the long beard shook his head.
‘Suppose I pee into this bottle of Shiva and claim that whoever drinks the liquor in this bottle will be able to fly and people believe me and keep queuing up to buy it at whatever extravagantly high price I set. Well, the money I make selling the piss in this bottle is what we call ‘profit’, and the higher the price I sell it for, the more profit I make.’
The man with the beard made as if he was going to vomit.
‘So that’s your piss in this bottle!’
‘Of course not!’ The man in the white shirt laughed. ‘It’s just an example to give you an idea of what’s going on in the outside world. There’s no justice as you understand it.’
‘All right, I’m convinced you’re really stupid. But then again, sometimes I tell myself if I were stupid too, I’d be a lot happier than I am now.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I bet you don’t. There’s no way you could understand. As you just told me, when you’re hungry, you go to the market and help carry baskets of vegetables and earn yourself some money to buy food with.’
‘Sometimes they don’t give me money, they give me food instead.’
‘One way or the other, that’s what we call ‘justice’. But what the likes of me are doing these days isn’t like what you’re used to. What they do is make you unload their baskets and then drive away without giving you money or food because they consider what they’re not giving you as their profit.’
‘Can I have some more Shiva? I can’t make head or tail of what you’re saying.’
‘Sure, it’s yours already. Don’t you remember? It’s what I’m paying you with for talking with me.’
The young man smiled gleefully, raised the bottle of foreign liquor to his mouth and took a swig. He wiped off his wet moustache with his dirt-incrusted index finger.
‘My world isn’t the same as yours. Yours is totally honest, mine is full of lies.’
‘Lies? I don’t tell lies because I don’t talk with nobody. Actually, it’s the others that don’t talk to me.’
The man with the necktie laughed.
‘But you know what? Every day I have to say hundreds of lies. I lie to my friends, I lie to my business partners, I lie to my subordinates, I lie to my children, I lie to my wife. I lie so much I don’t feel guilty about it anymore, and what’s worse, I even order other people to do the lying for me. I suppose you never watch TV?’
‘I do. I watch it at a shop by the roadside where they’ve several screens playing at the same time. I watch until they kick me out because they want to close. It’s fun watching TV. I enjoy it so much. I’d like to have one here.’
‘Well, that’s where I order them to tell lies for me. I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying. The advertisements are all lies, you know.’
The young man shook his head. ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Of course you didn’t. Millions of other people don’t either, because I ask them to lie as smoothly as they can. If people were aware of the lies, how could I sell my products?’
‘Your piss, you mean?’
‘Forget that, it was only a supposition. What I mean is things such as utensils, foodstuffs and whatever else I can come up with. I get these products to be advertised with big words claiming they are the best this and the most that – whatever it takes to make people buy them in large quantities so that I can have a lot of profit.’
‘This profit must be so damn smart: you keep talking about it.’
‘Right. It’s the smartest thing in the world. And you know what? These days, every time we breathe in and out we turn a profit.’
‘I don’t understand. You mean we can take it in through our noses?’
‘Of course not, stupid. It’s just a figure of speech. Are you still willing to listen?’
The man with the beard nodded. ‘Yes. I don’t get all you say but it’s fun. You’re good at telling tales.’
‘This is no tale. What I’m telling you is true, a hundred-percent true. Profit is very strong, so strong it can dominate the hearts and minds of all the people in the world…’ He interrupted himself briefly. ‘…except you, that is. It can put everybody under its power.’
‘It must have lots of guns, then, or perhaps a magic sword.’
‘Not at all. Its weapons aren’t swords or guns as you understand them, but mere pieces of paper, just like the ones you use to make your walls.’
‘Huh?’ The house owner’s eyes opened wide. ‘Then, I’ve got this profit of yours in here as well!’
‘How come? You just said profit is like paper. Oh, you’re confusing me.’
‘The payer I’m talking about is money. Everybody wants money. Money can make you do anything, even the most evil things. You know, money makes some people commit murder, kill animals, hack down forests or even destroy entire mountains just like that. As for me, it makes me tell lies; it makes me bullshit people so that I get money from them.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Don’t worry. Even if you don’t understand, I’ll keep on talking, because I’ve been meaning to talk like this for a long time. Do you realize how hurt I feel every time I think about what I am actually doing? I feel less and less of a human being every day. I think of nothing else but profit. The bigger my profit, the richer I am. My children have told me they want to go on a trip to Europe this summer. My wife says she’ll never ask for anything else in life if only she had a billion baht deposited in her bank account.’
‘A billion baht? Isn’t that a lot of money? I can’t think that big. I’d be very happy just to have a ten-baht note from time to time. I’d hold it in my arms until I fell asleep.’
‘There you are. These days, I haven’t the slightest idea any more whether all the money I have has got any value or meaning at all. We may grow to be filthy rich, but if we are no longer human, then what’s the point of it all?’
‘You keep talking about things I don’t quite understand. May I take another sip?’
‘You don’t have to ask, I’ve told you over and over it’s yours. Just don’t get drunk too fast, because if you do, I won’t have a friend to chat with any more.’
‘Friend? You think I’m your friend?’
‘Yes. You know, I haven’t got any friends left in my life now – friends who are ready to understand me, and who are sincere and honest. In my circle, friends only lie to one another, always looking for one another’s weak point to take advantage of it. My friends tie me up with words and contracts, and they won’t have any mercy for me. If I falter or fall, they’ll kill me, as soon as I’m no longer secure with my silver and gold.’
‘But I’ve never had friends, not even one. I don’t know if I could kill you like those friends of yours.’
‘I’m certain you’d never do that.’
‘No, I think I’m not hard-hearted enough. During the Chinese New Year, I was hired to cut the throats of the chickens, but I just couldn’t do it. I felt they didn’t want to die anymore than I did.’
‘Right. Nobody wants to die, and nobody wants to be bullied, but all of my friends are just waiting for the opportunity to cut one another’s throats.’
‘When I was a boy, my schoolmates were always bullying me. They’d wait and punch me every day after school. They hurt me a lot. They cut my lips and gave me black eyes. So, I decided to fight back, and after that they never bullied me no more.’
The man with the necktie laughed.
‘My friends have other ways of bullying me. They bully me through business tricks and by cheating me off my share of the profit. Oh sure, we keep smiling at one another, but deep in our hearts we’re always on the lookout for the opportunity to snatch one another’s profit away. I known I’ll never win my friends’ hearts.’
The man with the beard raised the bottle to his mouth and drank up the last drops. His voice began to slur and stammer: ‘You must b-be very r-rich.’
‘I own a very large department store, a soft-drink business, a paper manufacture and two illegal lumber operations on the side.’
‘So you’re a t-tycoon?’
‘That’s right. But you know, the life of a tycoon isn’t a happy one. I’ve got twelve cars – one for each day of the week, plus two for my wife and one for each of my children. My house is so large you feel like an ant when you walk in, and it has nearly two hectares of land to go with it. But you know something? It can’t compare to even half of your home, because it has no love, no warmth. It’s full of stress, rules, and endless longing for even more.’
‘I don’t believe you. I think you’re afraid I’ll turn into a tycoon and become your rival, right?’
‘So you do have a sense of humour after all? Well, don’t you ever dream about it. Even a dream like this is a nightmare. I don’t feel money has got any meaning in my life any more. I keep asking myself why I’m working like mad to get more – is it just to keep it in the bank or to take care of the future?’ He stopped talking for a while and turned to ask his young friend: ‘Have you ever thought about your future?’
The young man shook his head. ‘My future? Is that important? I live for today. When I’m hungry, I walk over to the market and help them wash dishes, so they give me something to eat. When I want to take a bath, I just walk into the marsh at the back of the market. The water stinks, I know, but less than my body.’
‘Sometimes life isn’t as complicated as we make it,’ the man with the necktie said. ‘Where exactly is true happiness? I have more than a hundred million baht to my name and yet no chance to see a falling star or dream in the moonlight. I have completely forgotten there are still many things in the world that can give us happiness. Instead, I have come to think that only money can provide it. You’re right: sometimes, man is too taken up with himself. We don’t only think of tomorrow but of the day after tomorrow, of next month, of next year, of ten years, a hundred years ahead. We work not only for ourselves but for our children, our grandchildren and all of our descendants. If I didn’t think about the future, I’d be much more happy, wouldn’t I?’
‘I’m not sure.’ The young man was casting a doubtful eye on the necktie.
‘What do you call this thing around your neck?’
‘A necktie. Why? You want it?’
‘No. I’m just wondering why you put it on.’
‘Me too.’ He tugged at it sharply and took it off. ‘It’s not too bad, actually. You should see me in the office: I have to wear a jacket as well. Wherever I go I have to dress like this, even though I’m thoroughly fed up and it bothers me no end. Sometimes, I fell trapped in my own clothes as if I were wearing a straightjacket.’
‘But you can’t dress like me.’
‘I can’t, but I still envy you for being so carefree.’
‘Actually, I’d like to dress like you.’
‘Well, the world is upside down. Yeah, it must have been upside down for quite some time. I remember in the days when I had nothing I used to think just like you. I was pining for a suit and tie and I promised myself one day I’d wear them too, but when I was finally able to, I felt like a prisoner in my own clothes. I’m bored with money, I’m bored with my work, I’m bored with everything I’m doing, because I know this isn’t what real happiness in life is about. But there’s nothing I can do about it. Have you ever seen a man riding a tiger? He can’t get off its back. The moment he steps off, the tiger will be at his throat. It’s the same for me. Even though I’m fully aware this kind of life is totally meaningless, artificial and can’t bring me any happiness, I can’t walk out on it. I must go on with it, telling lies, deceiving and taking advantage of millions of people to keep making even more money. I envy you for being able to live happily in the world you’ve made for yourself. But the world has already changed for me. It’s no longer the world in which we struggle for food, clothes, medicine and accommodation, but an entirely new one in which everyone has to fight with everyone else to make as much money as possible.’
‘Aren’t you sleepy yet?’ the young man asked, and yawned loudly. ‘You can sleep here if you want. I’ll go on listening to you until I pass out.’
‘So you’d like to sleep?’ the man with the shirt asked while raising his wrist to look at his jewel-studded gold watch. ‘Four in the morning already. No wonder you’re sleepy. Well, I’ve had my bottle’s worth. You can go to sleep now. I’m leaving.’
‘No, no, I’m still enjoying myself. You sure you want to leave?’
‘Yes, but I’d like to add something.’
‘The world outside is the world of NICs. Everyone lives, thinks and behaves the NICs way, and I’m one of those soulless NICs beings who are being taught only one thing: to get whatever you can without ever giving a thought to how you get it.’
‘You’re using funny words. I don’t understand.’
The man with the shirt laughed and crawled outside through the plastic sheet opening.
The well-mannered house owner also crawled out to see him off.
‘Can I come and chat with you again?’
‘Sure. But you must bring Shiva with you.’
‘And one more thing.’
‘Don’t piss on my house again.’
They both burst out laughing at the same time before the man wearing the white shirt walked away into the darkness and the man with the shaggy, unkempt beard disappeared back into his rubbish dump of a house.
A falling star suddenly shot across the sky…
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
I raise my head and look at the moon on one side of the sky as the small ferryboat floats in the middle of the peaceful river – it has been so long since I last saw a moon as splendid as this, but how long that is, I can’t say. If memory serves, it must have been when I was a child and lay peacefully out there on the porch, while Mother, who sat beside me admiring the moon, hummed an old song of which I can only remember a few lines – Oh Lady Moon, please have mercy … Give way a little, My Lady So we can banter and flirt And giggle in mirth. As for me I preferred the lullaby that began with Lady Moon Give me rice Give me food, but what I can’t help wondering about is how come Mother and I admired the full moon so much.
Truth be told, I have precious few memories of Mother – I have often tried to recollect her features, but in vain. I only have this picture of her sitting with her legs tucked back to one side in the darkness, the outline of her face upturned towards the moon, like a heavily shaded charcoal drawing … Mother was petite and thin as a rake, knuckles and tendons showing on her hands like chicken feet. I don’t know why she was so thin. And that’s the only picture I have of her. It’s an old picture carefully stored away so that it gets forgotten at times, but every time I think of Mother, I look at the moon and recall the past whose redolent atmosphere has never faded, be it the large ylang-ylang by the porch with its faint cloying scent, the files of marching red ants, the soft breeze, the buzz of the night insects and the big round moon with the orange ripeness of a nutmeg that stood out so near you felt you might pluck it down by merely reaching out…
Look there! Beautiful outstanding moon,
Radiant in full orb, so nice.
In its middle, our ancients said,
Gran and Gramps are busy growing rice.
Faint ramwong music comes from afar. I peer out at the bend ahead and watch the distant shimmers of the bits of glass decorating the finials of the new temple as they dally with the moonlight – long ago, when the old temple was still there, what couldn’t be missed during the yearly fair were likei and ramwong. Even though the troupe was in no way special, the likei had to have a knock-out prima donna and the tricksters had to be wildly tricky. Oddly enough, the local folk were never quite excited by the male lead. The stories played came inevitably from Janthakho-rop, the audience waiting with baited breath for the moment Mora deliberates on whether to hold out the double-edged knife to her husband by the handle or the blade, and cheered with delight when the jungle bandits kill the moon, even though everyone knew the story by heart and watched those parts of the performance every year. As for the ramwong, having the drums beat loud enough to shake the world was all it took. Nobody cared about the song the singer was belting out or the wrong notes of the band nearly as much as about the curves of the dancing girls who wore skimpy skirts, plastered their faces white and daubed their lips a fierce red.
That was before there was a new abbot and a new temple that came from changes in the format of the yearly fair, from likei and ramwong to string bands clashing with famous country crooners and competing with films on giant screens and a hundred and one other forms of entertainment.
“How long has it been since you last crossed over?” the oarsman asks when he has grasped who I am.
“Ten or maybe twenty years,” I venture, thinking back.
“The world these days is changing so fast,” he mumbles, as if talking to himself. “After four or five years you can’t remember what it was like before.”
“But around here nothing much seems to have changed.” I turn round again to look at the water pavilion we just left.
“I wonder when it’ll all come tumbling down,” the oarsman says as if he is resigned to the current state of things.
“Not any time soon, I’d say.” I am trying to pass on hope.
“Who knows?” The oarsman shrugs his shoulders, perhaps as a way to handle his oar rather than to show unconcern.
Each of us is silent, the silence around us making us feel empty. I shift my gaze to the reflection of the moon on the ripples of the flowing water and recall with longing a night down the Mekong river, and that revolutionary song is still in my ears.
With stars aplenty all around
Like the Lao nation flanked by multitudes
Moonlight is like a leading light
For the Lao people to forge ahead
And build a nation just as bright
“These days, to make a little money it has to be late at night when the motorboats stop running,” the oarsman mumbles.
“Do you still have children cross the river to go to school?” I let my hand skim the water and tell myself that the chill I feel on my fingers comes from the coolness of the moon on the expanse of water.
“They still do, but when they’ve finished their studies they don’t return to the other side.” There is an emotion of some kind in his voice.
“That’s only normal.” I pretend levity. “It’s the same everywhere. Take me, for one. It’s taken me more than twenty years to get back.”
“There’s only a few miles from town to pier,” the oarsman says, sounding perplexed. “Why don’t those kids cross over and go back?”
“We all like to forge ahead,” I answer softly.
“But going back to the past is nothing to be ashamed of,” he objects. “At least it’s better than rushing ahead and tripping over your own feet or stepping over other people’s heads.”
“Oh, sure.” I join my wet hand and the other one. I can’t tell if it’s wetness or warmth I am transmitting to myself.
“When you went to school over there, did you ever think of what you wanted to do once you grew up?” the oarsman asks as he pulls on the oar to cut across the current.
I am silent and search for an answer within myself for the first time in years.
“An orchard worker’s daughter with only primary education…”
Moon looks at me.
“How could I have big dreams? At best, I’ll be a worker in a factory. With looks like mine nobody would want me even as a background dancer in a band. But actually, in the end I’ll be stuck in the orchard, that’s all.”
“This year when I finish third form, I’ll go and study further in town.” My hands are plaiting a coconut palm spine out of habit rather than out of feeling abashed at being alone with her so close in the dark late at night.
“That’s good.” Moon nods. “When you graduate, come back for a visit, will you?”
“Sure will,” I promise and hold out to her the barb I have just plaited.
“Lovely.” She holds it up to the light from the house and peers at it. “I’ll hang it in my mosquito net. I’ll look at it when I’m not sleeping.”
I think up some silly remark such as “When you do, think of the one who plaited it” but I only think it.
“How about you?” She lowers the barb in her hand. “What do you want to be?”
“I don’t know.” I shake my head. “Haven’t thought about it yet.”
“Soldier, cop, teacher or district official?” Moon seems to be demanding an answer.
“No idea yet. For the time being, I just want to finish my studies, that’s all.”
“You know something?” She lowers her voice as if to tell a secret. “I’d really like to go and live on the moon.”
“Why?” I can’t help smiling.
“Don’t laugh at me.” Moon is embarrassed.
“I’m not!” I suppress the smile and ask again, “Why?”
“Uncle, do you think there’s a rabbit on the moon?” I turn to ask.
“What do you mean?” the oarsman asks back while raising his head to look at the moon whose shine is soft on the eye.
“The rabbit in the song, you know,” I answer.
“Maybe there is,” he says, noncommittal.
I hum the song.
They say there’s a rabbit on the moon, is that right?
Look carefully, sweetheart, it’s right inside its light.
“But maybe not,” he changes his mind. “Maybe astronauts have already caught and eaten it.”
“I think the moon is a better place to be than this human world.” Moon’s answer comes from afar. “Because when I look at the moon I think of things that are good and gentle and sweet.”
“But there’s nothing on the moon,” I object. “So who will you stay with?”
“At least there’ll be a rabbit,” she says. “Just that is enough.”
Actually, what is it that we want? And how much? Some only want the basic requisites of life, but once those requisites are there, they struggle to acquire other things, and yet more, almost without end, while a girl like Moon merely wanted a rabbit on the moon even though she knew in her heart it was impossible.
“Who was it you were pals with at the time?” the oarsman further explores, while I use the bamboo stick to push away clumps of floating weeds that obstruct the prow.
“Wichai, Bunrort, Pathum … Amphorn … and then Moon.” I think long and hard but the list is still short.
“Wichai – was that the one who was a soldier and then he stepped on a mine and lost both his legs?”
“Probably.” I’m not sure either.
“Bunrort must be the one who trained as a nurse and then fell for the owner of a ten-wheeler. She moved to town ten years ago.”
I nod and try to remember what she looked like.
“Pathum, there’s two of them. One is a teacher, the other’s a whore.”
“Well, one or the other.” I cut him short, because whatever she is is none of my business.
“As for Amphorn, that name doesn’t ring a bell.” He shakes his head, at a loss.
“What about Moon?” I let out.
“Moon, you say?” the oarsman repeats.
The old water pavilion looms dim and adds resonance to the sounds of darkness accompanied by the rustle of trees swaying in the breeze, mixed with the muffled chirping of night birds along with the lament of the waves expiring on the bank – rather like a familiar old song, a song that brings out tears of joy and sorrow, sweet and poignant, the kind of song we hum in snatches on occasion without concern for complete lyrics or melody.
“Twenty years or so is quite a long time,” the oarsman remarks as he leads the boat to land.
“Long enough for some people to remember what they used to forget.” I remain seated and still in the boat.
“Or else forget what they used to remember.” He is not being derisive.
“Was Moon good at plaiting barbs?” I ask in a weak tone.
“She was,” the oarsman confirms. “But who in this time and age will buy coconut palm barbs any longer? And after she was cheated by her brothers and sisters, the little she was left with wasn’t enough for her to earn a living.”
“She didn’t suffer much, did she?” I stare into the darkness.
“Probably not.” The oarsman is silent for a moment. “I heard the women vendors in front of the school say she rushed out to a farang in a car who wanted to buy a barb and never saw the motorbike coming the other way … She was killed on impact.”
“Will you come back again?” the oarsman asks after he has taken the boat across the river slowly.
“I don’t know exactly,” I answer without conviction.
“Where your old house was, the owner has built a shed with snooker tables. As for Old Monk Seng’s cell where you used to stay, the abbot had it pulled down to build a Brahma shrine years ago,” he tells me.
I raise my head to look at the sky again. The moon is still radiant with no cloud to hide it.
“So, do you think there’s a rabbit on the moon or not?” the oarsman asks out of the blue.
“Of course there is,” I state confidently before lowering my eyes to the reflection of the moon on the river and bending over to scoop refreshingly cool water in the palm of my hand.
Jantharupararkhar in Thawin-ha|Nostalgia, Matichon Publishing, 2001