It looks like rain – Rewat Panpipat
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
Sanphajee lies pondering for two days and two nights after receiving a phone call from an older relative. Deep down he’s shivering with cold. The cold season must be already here. Before he decides he should go – go and join the send-off of his defunct uncle’s soul.
He sees a man boozing steadily under the evening sky. That man is playing a sweet-sad tune on his flute. A shooting star fizzles out.
He sees an old black dog crouched not far from the drunken man.
He sees a boy who sits hugging his knees under a wild olive tree by a stream at dusk – a boy who is no more.
It’s an irrigation community in the middle of arid bush: strange-looking pebbles glittering in the sun; local accents with old Laotian roots; weird sounds of the wind when it whooshes through the sugarcane fields that stretch as far as eyes can see; low hills with funny shapes; two-storied row houses built out of wood and corrugated iron, twenty compartments altogether. Up front is a storage pond with a distant water gate and at the back of those ugly row houses, a six-metre-wide sandy stream flanked on both sides by trees tall and small.
Flowing water and sand grains talk things over ceaselessly.
The boy feels very much bound to that stream and to that olive tree as well.
In the month-long holiday of the fifth year in primary school – that’s the hot season, all Pride of India bloom and cicada rap – the boy from the house in the rice field is going north to the irrigation folks. Even though it’s only thirty kilometres away, it’s the first long journey in the life of the boy who feels excited and lethargic, lethargic because he misses his mother. He is still mama’s boy, even though he has graduated from pencil to pen.
His uncle is a low-level mechanic of the irrigation community whom everyone in that block of row houses calls Somrak the Drunkard behind his back, a man of medium build with coppery skin and a frank outgoing smile, a heart of gold and a sense of fun.
Uncle Somrak lives his life as a bachelor, but the vegetable patch behind his quarters is verdant, there’s never any lack of fresh, salted or smoked fish in his kitchen as he is a savvy catcher of fish, and of moles and butterfly lizards in the hot dry bush, a bush of stunted trees standing firm yet torpid and lifeless, jumbled over rocky mounds under the scorching sun in hot-season months.
Someone’s whistling an utterly lonely tune.
Leaden clouds drift across the indigo sky.
Those trees that neither bloom nor bear fruit, pshaw!
The boy often thinks of black plum, mamao or wild olive trees when his parched throat is desperate for water. He and his three or four newfound friends wander across the arid hostile bush, each with a catapult of Burmese rosewood, and clay bullets in a cloth shoulder bag. They are a bunch of failed hunters that even the quails and other short-sighted birds in the singed shrubs and tufts of grass mock on the sly.
They each dream of catching twenty or thirty butterfly lizards they’ll broil to the right aroma, finely chop and then mix with wild olive leaves. The boiling sun makes them oddly light-headed, their heads swell and shrink, swell and shrink, and thoughts float away like dark cloud puffs in the middle of a huge topsy-turvy indigo bowl.
Someone lets out a yell as devoid of meaning and liquid as the vision of a pool of water in a desert landscape.
When they are fed up with their fruitless hunting, they turn around and make for the storage pond, take off all their clothes before splashing in and romping about. Rings of water bob outwards around them. Their skin is sun-scorched. They get out and lie down on the flat top of the concrete casing of the pond, restless in their crotches as they ponder the odd-sounding moans roving around at night inside those twenty rooms.
A few days only in that tin roof community and the boy forgets his mother, especially at night in front of the TV set of the first row house, a grocer’s shop. Bats crisscross the air at low level. Every night it’s lights out at ten. In the boy’s house in the fields at that hour they still go by lamplight, a bright orange flame burning in the dark, the smell of kerosene welling up all around.
The racket of cats fighting on the tin roof startles the boy awake. He sleeps under the same mosquito net as his uncle. He feels frightened and tries to close his eyes to sleep further, because there’s no one on the mattress next to him. The darkness is mysterious and void. At such a time, his heart flees to his mother like a startled bat.
The sound of Blackie’s ears flapping as he shakes his head to get rid of mosquitoes comes from downstairs. Birds sing in their sleep. Night insects buzz and crackle.
Flowing water and sand grains talk things over ceaselessly.
Is that wild olive tree by the stream dreaming in its sleep?
The black of darkness swirls in the boy’s thoughts. He sees trees, stunted and gnarled.
He sees uncle riding a bicycle along a grey path, with Blackie following him everywhere. When he drinks himself into high spirits, uncle sings old folk songs. He sees uncle shimmering in the sun heat, melancholy under the rain and solitary in the cold wind, but he’s never seen uncle’s tears or else uncle cries in secret dreams – black dreams, the black of devils’ raiment.
In the rainy season that year, the boy is only five. The news of the death of his auntie travels to the house in the field, a death at odds with his former understanding, a death that makes him nervous, because auntie has died by swallowing insecticide, her little daughter just three months old.
The boy remembers auntie clearly, a beautiful and sweet woman, hardworking, and always neat whenever the two of them came visiting the house in the field; auntie who had a way with words and was so polite, unlike the women around these parts. She’d keep the house spick and span and put things in their proper place. Food from her hand tasted just right and rich.
So that the boy keeps her in his daydreams while wishing for the day he’ll have grown into a young man. When he thinks about it, his heart beats so fast his chest shakes.
They said auntie had broken with all sorts of dreams and hopes. She’d dreamt of having a grocery store of her own while uncle, her life partner, looked increasingly strained hanging about in drinking and gambling circles as if possessed by an evil ghost, making his much pregnant wife wait at home every night and taking his wife’s threats of killing herself as mere jokes.
They said her will was fierce. On the night she swallowed insecticide, even though her husband tried to force lard and raw eggs into her mouth to make her vomit, she struggled and spat them out every time. People in that community thus saw a confused and distraught man holding in his arms the limp body of his wife darting here and there in the dark night as he hollered, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave our child!”
The three-month-old child in her hammock let out a disconsolate cry.
What is that wild olive tree by the stream dreaming about?
The current in the stream still goes on talking things over with the grains of sand with no end in sight. When a red leaf is left to fall onto the water, that leaf never turns back.
After that day a man would always be feeling, “It looks like rain.”
Yes, it looks like rain.
The little girl thus goes to live in the care of the deceased’s younger sister.
The flute moans every night, turning the community grey.
As if by prior arrangement, a human being thus soothes his heart with music, seemingly conscious that a good chunk of life is tragedy.
This is a mistake that cannot be corrected. After that, life turns into a maze and all the tenets of life collapse on top of one another.
The drunken man sleeps stretched on the bench in front of his room, one arm hanging loose, fingertips grazing the ground, and loyal Blackie keeps licking with his tongue the back of his master’s hand. When the man comes to, he sits up and holds his head in his hands. The sun has vanished from his life. He feels weak and sad to the very depths of his heart and can only talk to his true friend, his dog. “Or is it I must go on drinking for the rest of my life? What say you, Blackie?”
It seems it was only yesterday when life still made sense with its ups and downs, but today it’s tasteless as a stone in a field of dew. Trampling through any one night is such an ordeal. The plaited barbs twirl in the air. The smells of the loved one and of the little child are sunk deep into the bedding. The sweet scents in the kitchen are like yesterday.
People in this community call him Somrak the Drunkard behind his back but he’s never been at fault in the work under his responsibility, he’s never been reprimanded by his superiors. When he’s free from his assigned work, he won’t allow himself to remain idle. If he isn’t busy making tables or beds he’ll go and tend the vegetables of his kitchen garden or else grab the equipment he needs to catch fish and trawl the waters.
Every night he can’t do without booze with his friends or with himself and with Blackie.
Look at that dog! He never deserts his master, he won’t touch food from other people’s houses and he won’t allow other dogs to intrude upon his domain. Look at Blackie, look at his eyes, glossy black and shining, and you might as well think he can talk.
The boy and his new friends roam the whole expanse around the storage pond, an area where the hot season sun scorches everything – desperate cuckoo cries, leaden clouds, indigo skies, barren fields once the cane has been cut and sold to the factory. They filch mangoes and santols in farmers’ gardens, but only a few. They memorise and mimic quaint accents. Pebbles sparkle in the sun. The wind shifts a little, sending ashes from the burning rubble floating into the air. The world turns grey.
When the men go to work, the women do the washing and get card games going. They wear sarongs and brassieres only. Some sit nodding on folding chairs in front of their lodgings, gazing emptily through the heat haze over the scorched lawns at the pond. It’s as if the large group of women and children had come to rest and shoot the breeze at the seaside. The haze makes it impossible to see the opposite bank, only black dashes swooping and wheeling back and forth – swallows.
Some housewives rig themselves out as if a gala is awaiting at the hotel.
The woman peddling baskets of Thai sweets of the sweetmeat wriggles in coconut milk and black bean sticky rice kind will scurry past, pole on shoulder, every noon.
Somrak never fails to leave coins behind for his nephew.
Every morning, the boy’s duty is to steam the rice and cook the food. He runs out to buy a few ounces of beef at the grocer’s, picks fresh holy basil leaves and bird pepper in the garden whenever his uncle orders him to fry devilled mince, and the fish at hand will go well with the drinks at sundown, but uncle hardly eats, so his body grows thin and wan with every passing day.
The boy has never heard his uncle mention his daughter even once. A girl’s doll has been put away in the glass cabinet. It seems he once intended to visit his daughter, who lives in the next district. It seems that he once did.
In the evening, after cooking dinner and watering the vegetable patch, the boy likes to ignore his friends to go and sit under the wild olive tree by the stream. The stony mound on which he sits is iridescent. The boy reads The Zoo by Suwanni Sukhontha, reads Son of the Northeast by Khamphoon Bunthawee. The wild olive tree communicates with the boy by moving its branches, twigs and leaves. A little tailorbird sends loud sharp trills into the evening air. The water whispers secrets of some kind to the pebbles and sand. That clear water is only knee-high and in the stream trough there are lots of shells burrowed in the sand. Sand shells can be pickled in good-quality fish sauce or fried with basil leaves to eat with hot rice porridge. Children always have a great time waddling in the stream to collect sand shells and larking about in the water, and the adults consider it’s a pastime that isn’t unproductive – a good way to avoid the rod indeed.
The boy absorbs the things that surround him, like the wild olive tree spreading its roots deep into the earth to flower and bear fruit some day in the future.
The hot season is over.
It looks like rain. Yes, it looks like rain.
A randy alley cat fights it out with a resident cat on the roof of a row house, startling the boy awake in the middle of the night, and he feels all the more frightened as he can’t see his uncle sleeping next to him. He won’t speculate on where his uncle has gone.
One day a friend whispers to the boy that Uncle Somrak sleeps with his best friend’s wife who lives right in the next row house, a big, tall woman who usually wears a sarong and only a brassiere yet pampers herself as if she’s going to a party every day. Her husband’s duty is to watch over the water gate, some three kilometres away from his place, on alternate day and night shifts. They have a son about five years old.
The hot season is over…
The boy enters secondary school in the district town and is also a temple boy there. He thus leaves behind Uncle Somrak and the irrigation community.
Every hot season, he looks at a boy who sits holding his knees under a wild olive tree by a stream at dusk, a child that is no more.
That stream doesn’t flow back to its source.
Sanphajee disappeared from Uncle Somrak’s life for more than twenty years but he still dreams of that boy, dreams of the wild olive tree by the stream, dreams of the hot season, dreams of the arid noxious bush.
The young man has wandered through many towns and gone through sundry jobs to sustain his body, for his body to support his aspirations and his soul. He still writes to his mother regularly.
So what happened in Uncle Somrak’s life has come to the young man’s knowledge now and then. When he read her letters he felt as though it looked like rain, and in secret dreams he looked the boy in the eye and found sadness there.
The boy drops a red leaf to have it float on the flowing water. The young man feels empty as if he’s fallen into the night of the randy alley cat.
When the secret was no longer a secret, the man who was uncle’s best friend swallowed insecticide. His will was fierce. Even though uncle tried to force lard and raw eggs into his mouth, he struggled and spit them all every time.
People in that community thus saw a confused and distraught man holding in his arms the limp body of his best friend darting here and there in the dark night as he hollered, “Why did you do this? Why did you do this?”
After that day, Uncle Somrak lived together with that woman openly.
His mother told him that, now in his fifties, Uncle Somrak’s hair had turned white and he’d lost nearly all his teeth.
Does a poem have any impact on life?
Does literature have any impact on life?
But the various books of literature Sanphajee read in his childhood are talking with him still, as birds, as flowers, as seasons, as…
He loves every single human being in this world, human beings who sit absorbed in books of literature on trains, in buses, in bed, at a desk by a window on starry nights.
Sanphajee has never seen books of literature in his uncle’s house or in the house he was born in.
On the night he receives a call from Duangta, his uncle’s daughter, the cold he feels makes him shake deep within. The cold season must be here indeed. But why is it that he feels as if it looks like rain?
After he had retired, uncle took his family to a plot of land he had prepared beforehand by building a small, single-floor concrete house, digging a pond to keep fish and arranging for a vegetable patch, and that woman’s son had followed suit by building a hut close by to live in with his wife and their little daughter.
Two years later that woman had an affair with another man.
Uncle Somrak made sure he swallowed enough insecticide.
Leaving no word behind.
Sanphajee doesn’t know whether anyone has endeavoured to save the suicidal man.
He has lain pondering for two days and two nights and has been haunted by visions of the past to the point of being unable to find sleep.
He sees a boy who sits holding his knees under a wild olive tree by a stream at dusk, a boy that is no more.
Flowing water and sand grains talk things over ceaselessly.
What does that wild olive tree dream about?
Sanphajee has never met another dog as loyal as Blackie and he’s learning to play the flute.
The cold wind over the sugarcane fields surrounding the rural temple sounds like wind-churned waves on the paunch of the sea.
That afternoon, Sanphajee dresses in black, shoulders a dark blue cotton bag. Unkempt long hair and shaggy beard, he goes out and stands amongst the guests who have gathered for the cremation before reading out a poem.
This flesh-and-blood man of the land
Fate brought to the rice fields
To be seasoned by sun, cold and rain
Chasing the wind, grabbing rainbows
Across the stubble
With father, mother and siblings
Providing valuable loving care
Poverty-stricken as usual
Two arms, eyes that marvel
He leaves for the wide world he fancies
But doesn’t forget heat, rain and cold of old
There is black, there is white and there is heat
There is joy and sorrow hidden, burning cold
His mind was set on craftsmanship
A really arduous calling
Instant birth to live on and on
And see the whole picture of life
Love water, love rain, give them shape
Water creatures as sacred food
Trees and grass as lifelong friends
Essential to heart and mind
But in human life, as the soul knows
Failure is an old teacher
What is life? It is defeat
A load too heavy you let go
Let it go and then leave
Relieve the body for the mind to soar
Into the void with pride
For those left behind to know
How little there is to life
When he has finished reading, he steps out of the pavilion, walks out of the temple. He feels shaky and in pain deep inside while waves of cold wind keep sweeping in as if never to end.
“Muean Fon Ja Tok” in Muean Wa Mueawannee Eng (As if only yesterday), 2008