Just looking – Jirat Chalermsenyakorn
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
The deserted townhouses crouch amid clumps of reeds outside of town. The grime of sun and rain covering the walls has given them the dull patina of age, but today they look brighter under the scouring reddish rays of dusk. The mango trees in front of one dwelling stand among scattered leaves as if awaiting death in their own shadows.
I open my eyes in the dark because of the thunder, look past the mosquito net beyond my feet. Father is still standing at the same place. A flash of lightning – I can see him staring at me – followed by rumbling thunder. Father is still standing at the same place. Raindrops beat a slow rhythm on the tin roof before spreading their blandishments over the whole neighbourhood. I turn to look at Granny and reach out and shake her arm lightly. She opens her eyes and looks at me. I tell her that Father is here again. She tells me to close my eyes and sleep. Every time she tells me, her eyes swerve to look past her feet to see if I am fibbing and then turn back to glare at me as if to order me to close my eyes. If you close your eyes, your father won’t be there. I comply.
Given such forlorn and remote conditions, there shouldn’t be anyone staying here any longer, but on the upper-floor balcony there’s a lean man standing with his face turned towards a dull light in dismay. Both hands clasp the railing still warm from the afternoon sun. The eyes look down towards the clumps of grass in the yard covered with dry mango leaves, a lone sandal, plastic bags, crushed soft drink cans, coffee straws and lumps of earth. His coppered face has deep-set, hollow, glint-less eyes that lock in worry and confusion. A fly buzzes around his face, lands at the corner of his eye. He blinks once. It scampers and lands on his nose. He shakes his head a little. It loops back and lands on the swollen line of blood at the back of his hand, its feet too light to be felt. The fixed, empty stare sees a mangy dog nudging its muzzle into a plastic bag until it almost bumps into the rusty gate of the fence. Can this fence be said to be doing its duty of separating the grounds within from the outside world at this time of night?
Each minute of time stretches so much that I can’t sleep, as I lie listening to the rain on the roof, from downpour to light rain. I still can’t sleep. Inside the mosquito net it’s hot and stuffy. I kick the blanket and mat away from me to lie flat on the cool floorboards and have enough air going through their cracks to wipe some of the clamminess off my body. When I turn over to the right, the floorboards creak. When I lie still, the floorboards still creak.
After a while, the noise stops. I feel something is moving into the mosquito net, and then a weight bears down beside me.
After that, silence returns.
The man on the upper floor tilts his face up to look at the grey clouds spread on the dark red sky. Light projects a shadow into the room. The inside is dim, devoid of furniture. It’s only a room whose construction is unfinished. On the ceiling three revolving fans blow on a clump of hidden cobwebs and swing them back and forth in a haphazard mesh. The walls are blunt cement. Only part of the floor is covered with tiles and it is there that the old woman lies prone, her limbs sprawled at all angles like a spider lying dead-still in its own web. The dust-covered shirt is in tatters; the sarong is torn along its length. On the flesh are faint bloodstains and black-and-blue marks.
The air while it rains is so muggy I’m unable to sleep again, for all my efforts. When a flash of lightning blasts down, I open my eyes at once and find that Father has come and now lies beside me. He’s staring at me, only staring. I can see dimly that he is still wearing the clothes I see him wear every night.
The old woman is still breathing but breathing lightly, so lightly it makes the man standing on the balcony think she’s dead. Within the mass of dishevelled grey hair there’s still faint breathing, unable to make a strand of hair flutter. Only the eyes show that the old woman’s still alive because they project a sparkle in lieu of the constant begging inside.
My right arm is getting numb so I turn over and find Granny’s eyes staring at me as well, as if to see whether I’ve closed my eyes or not as she ordered. She doesn’t blink at all. Her face is deathly pale. Any flash of lightning makes it look like wrinkled cloth. I tell Granny that it’s hot: she should buy a small fan.
Granny doesn’t answer.
I lie looking at Granny for a while until my left arm grows stiff, so I turn and lie supine, look at the mosquito net moving in small ripples under the feeble breeze entering through the window, too faint to blow through the net.
The old woman’s eyes are fixed on a pillar that reaches the ceiling. Many small dotted lines move in rows stretching all the way down to the dust below. Those ants walk in line to go and eat what is in three small cups. The first holds rice that has dried into hard grains; the second a curry that has grown froth; the third yolk fudge balls cooked in syrup with green mould in their yellow folds. Flies buzz in the vicinity. Close by is a glass of water made dirty by evaporation. Next is another glass, only half full of sand, with several joss sticks, some stuck straight, others slanting, and some have fallen next to a dried-up garland and scattered marigolds.
I turn to face Granny because I want an answer from her. Her still wide-open eyes are staring at me and then she asks, Why aren’t you asleep yet? I answer that I can’t sleep. She tells me, If you can’t sleep, it’s because you sleep in the daytime, isn’t it? I tell her, No, it’s too hot, she should buy a fan. With a petulant voice, Granny says, My house has no electricity, what would be the use of buying a fan? I tell her, Open the mosquito net, Granny, so we get some air. She tells me, If we open the mosquito net, the people outside will come and lie down with us. I ask, Which people outside, Granny? She tells me, Those damn people outside, of course. I ask, Where outside? Father has already come to sleep beside me. I turn to look at Father, who now lies with his back turned to me. Granny says, Go and look for yourself outside the window, then. I begin to wonder, so I get up and crawl to the corner of the mosquito net nearest to the window. l look hard through the net. The curtain of rain outside is thick, glistening, unrelenting. Strikes of lightning allow for snapshots of a crowd of people lying in tight rows on soggy ground where the water almost covers their bodies, which indicates that before long the water in the canal will overflow the banks. If the rain keeps falling like this, the bodies of these people will be submerged for sure.
The man standing on the balcony turns his face and enters the room. The fly on the back of his hand enters too and joins the swarm over the rotting things inside and almost at once loud footsteps are heard from downstairs, sounding like running, getting closer, increasingly clear until they reach the upper floor.
I go back and lie down, stretch sideways facing Granny and then ask her, Why have these people come, Granny? Granny tells me, They’re waiting to enter this room, of course. I ask, What about their houses, then? Why don’t they go back to their own homes? Granny answers, This house is their home. I’m silent for a moment, because I don’t understand her answer. How can this house be theirs, given that, since I was born, I’ve never seen any of them come to live under the same roof with us? So, what reason is there for this house to be theirs? Granny tells me, If you don’t want them to come in, don’t open the mosquito net under any circumstances, wait until morning. Close your eyes now and you won’t see anything.
The footsteps are of a boy about ten years old, big head, sunken cheeks. The rag he wears for a shirt is torn all over. Around his shoulders and close to his armpits are big singed holes like those you bore with a cigarette tip, and the rest of the shirt is falling apart.
I close my eyes, see darkness all over, but not long after that, a red spot begins to glower in the dark, mixed with light blue, changing to dark blue until it alternates with green, and while I’m engrossed in the image printed on my eyeballs, I feel that Father is beginning to stir brusquely. His weight makes the floorboards creak again, all around me. I feel that light, cooler air is blowing against my skin, creating ventilation that dispels some of the stuffiness. I take a deep breath and shift my body to be comfortable. My hand gropes for the blanket that has fallen aside to hug it as I lie.
The man standing on the balcony is face to face with that child. He sees every feature of the child, from head to foot. The boy is tired and gasping for breath as he looks at that man, who by now is only a dark silhouette against the dimness of the evening. The two of them stand looking at each other for a moment. A crow caws in the distance and then comes close and lands on a mango tree branch. The child decides to ask:
“What did you come up here for, Father?”
The man standing on the balcony doesn’t answer.
After a while there’s a thumping sound from the staircase. I open my eyes. Instead of the mosquito net surrounding me, everything now is dark. What is to be seen through the window is the falling rain. I turn to look at Granny still lying on her side in the same posture as before, but now her eyes are closed.
The child waits for a moment, waits for a break as the crow caws again. When he doesn’t get an answer, he shifts his eyes to the old woman who sleeps prone without fear. He doesn’t panic and flee in the least, instead stands and looks at that body as if it was a piece of furniture forsaken in the room, as if he saw the old woman lying in that same posture every day, and since there’s nothing new for the child, he turns round and asks again:
“What did you come up here for, Father?”
I look further away, see the back of my father walking towards the door and stretching his hand to release the bolts, upper and lower. The door is pushed wide open even before Father opens it a crack. Father pulls back and steps aside, letting the throng of dripping people file in. People pour in steadily, each looking for a place to lie down. The rain outside gives no sign of relenting. Men and women of all ages grow in numbers ceaselessly. Their flesh is pallid green. Churning densely out of the darkness, they walk in, even though their eyes are still shut tight. Whoever finds an empty spot lies down there, one after the other, until little space is left inside the room. So they begin to lie down on top of each other, piling up in layers. I don’t see Granny any longer as people are layered on top of her. I’m chased out to a corner of the room, sit curled up looking at the people piling up until they reach the tin roof. The air around me is getting scarcer all along.
Father doesn’t answer. Both hands bury themselves in the trouser pockets, left and right, searching for cigarettes, but only find a few coins. He’s beginning to have a dull ache at the temples. He staggers backwards, leans his back against the balcony guardrail, asserting from memory that he definitely put them in a trouser pocket and where have they gone now? He wants one, to help lower the tension in his chest, various kinds of worries in life at a time like this when he must meet the old woman who lies prone and the boy who calls him Father. He isn’t his father, so there’s no need for him to answer.
As he doesn’t receive an answer, the child thinks he should ask a third time.
“What did you come up here for, Father?”
I close my eyes, as tight as I can so that I won’t see. I don’t see anything at all except darkness, followed by overlapping changing colours. The picture of the people who’ve squeezed in to lie down in the room a moment ago fades away, as does the picture of the bedroom. I get up and stand, even though my eyes are still shut, groping my way about. When I find that there’s nothing to impede my progress, I move forward cautiously, one step at a time. There’s only the creaking of the floorboards and the patter of the rain to make me aware that I’m not dreaming.
Father is silent and still as a tree trunk, leaning against the balcony guardrail.
As the boy doesn’t get an answer and understands his father doesn’t intend to answer, he feels it’s no longer his business. His business is to hurry straight to the food offerings, sit on the floor, scattering dust in a circle. He casts another look at his father to make sure he is still at the same place as before, after which he starts pouring coconut cream curry over the rice, uses his hand to mix them until he feels the rice has softened enough, scoops some and brings it to his mouth, uses his hand to shovel it in, chews with gusto less than ten times and swallows, shovels some more, chews and swallows. A few mouthfuls and there’s nothing left. After that, he turns to the yolk fudge balls, shovels them in. A few mouthfuls and there’s nothing left either. The syrup that has settled into scales he licks with his tongue until the cup is clean.
I walk on step by step. When I don’t see that crowd of people, it means that they don’t exist. I come to the door of the room. Cool wind along with mist gusts in so that I feel cold all over. I’m beginning to feel sleepy. It must be very late, perhaps three or four in the morning. With my eyes still closed, I go down the stairs carefully.
When he’s eaten everything he presses his face to his shirt sleeves left and right as a way to wipe his mouth, and then stands up and wipes both hands on his trousers, but before walking away, the child turns his head to look at his father once again. Now his father squats on the balcony guardrail, looking still and waiting for something. The child knows that his father has watched his entire gluttonous behaviour of a moment ago. The boy turns his back and then runs down the stairs and leaves.
The sound of footsteps disappears into the darkness.
I think that around here there must be a milling crowd waiting to enter the room. So I keep my eyes shut tight, not to see outside at all, but I still must be especially cautious going down the stairs, clutching the banister. I like to count steps. Wherever I go, I always count steps. But the strange thing is that when I count the steps to my house their number is never the same. Sometimes the number goes up, sometimes it goes down. At dusk I counted fourteen. Now I have come to the eighth step.
And the last step ends at fifteen. When my foot comes into contact with water on the sixteenth step, it means the flooding has risen very much already.
The man who squats on the balcony guardrail laughs in his throat, accompanied by the renewed racket of a cricket. He laughs again, his eyes on the body of the old woman who’s been lying prone since he came in here, and now he is sitting and looking as he did before, but the difference is that now he must have received some sort of answer from standing there and looking at the old woman alone for a long time, from last evening until this dusk. He is still laughing.
My eyes are still closed. I wade through the water. The pelting rain makes me shiver with cold. A flash of lightning sears my eyes. I turn left to enter the space below the house. When I’m sure I’m well past the crowd, I raise my eyelids and it’s exactly as I thought: there’s no crowd of strangers any longer.
The old woman who lies prone breathes harder than she’s been breathing for the past two days. In the deep darkness that hides her face, a small spark in her round eyes appears. The tears dwelling in her eyes are the only thing returning the arid atmosphere to some life, but that hope appears only fleetingly and is smothered by thin clouds.
I find Father squatting on the bamboo platform. In the darkness that hides his face, I know very well that those eyes are staring at me. I wade through the water closer to him, closer still. Right then, a rooster in the henhouse crows, flapping its wing and crowing deafeningly. It must be close to five. Father’s rooster likes to crow at this time every morning.
Inside, the room is dark, devoid of furniture. It’s only a room whose construction is unfinished. On the ceiling three fans blow on a clump of hidden cobwebs and swing them back and forth in a haphazard mesh. The walls are blunt cement. Only part of the floor is covered with tiles and it is there that the old woman lies prone, her limbs sprawled at all angles like a spider lying dead-still in its own web. The dust-covered shirt is in tatters; the sarong is torn along its length. On the flesh are faint bloodstains and black-and-blue marks, but she is still breathing, breathing feebly, so feebly anybody would think she’s dead.
I go and sit beside Father.
Father sits with his eyes closed and he asks, “Why are you up so early?”
I answer, “I can’t sleep.”
“Phiang Mong” in Rahu Om Jan, Vol. 6, 2009