Lunar eclipse – Praphatsorn Seiwikun

17/06/2011 § Leave a comment

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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.

Oh moon
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

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