Cold enters the heart – Suwannee Sukhontha
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