A bamboo bridge over rapids – Seksan Prasertkul
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