The flower jail – Manot Phromsing

17/06/2011 § Leave a comment

1

I call it jail.
I spend my life here.
Anyone getting off the bus at the market and turning right into the tarmac road heading due east, past the shabby old wooden cinema, then taking the red-earth road with a boxing club and a little school facing each other before it crosses a grove which is part of the military camp to reach a wide expanse of paddy fields, and then again turning left into a dusty cart track and over a small turbid canal – that person will see an area which has been parcelled out according to different space and building uses.
Given that the boundaries are built in a way which is neither secure nor strong but scary, first-time visitors might get the mistaken impression that the neighbouring villages in the cogon grassland or on the hill slope are also part of the jail. It might even be possible that all the children in the villages feel there is no difference at all between the jail and their own homes, they being equally comforting. Nevertheless, there is the insistent rumour among the convicts that those casual fences are full of terrifying hidden traps.
The dawn after a waning moon night was my first dawn here. The big round pale yellow moon looked forlorn. Its light fell on the roof battens above the bedhead, which in the darkness looked very much like cell bars. The rays that got through to slap my face woke me up eyes wide open, as if that pale moonlight was the hand of a demon tearing my eyelids open, pulling me out of a warm bed and dragging me to the window. I looked through the dim moonlight glossing everything over. My friends got up and came to stand beside me quietly. We didn’t tell one another anything at all as we looked at the many species of flowers whose petals and beautiful hues were like a painting in the first glow of dawn amid scattered fog.
I shifted my gaze from the line of flowerbeds to the cart track running alongside the fence that disappeared into the grove. Some five hundred yards from the place where I stood a high earthen dyke came into view. After a few moments, I heard echoing bursts of gunfire coming from that dyke line – always loud at dawn as a wakeup call, day after day, as if to stir each day awake after a long sleep. The rays of dawn slowly grew bolder. The sounds of killing increased further like flowing blood whose reek spread all over the fields and grove…
Every day without exception.
It’s a jail. I spend my life here.

2

‘Pang! Pang! Pang!’
I raised the hoe and stopped it in mid-air, flung it down forcefully to turn the soil the colour of dry leaves, then took it out and put it by my side, stretched myself erect, my legs straddling firmly the row of earth dug into a plot. I looked up at the fence and saw the pretty smiles of the innocent children standing there.
‘Pang! Pang! Pow! Pow!’ The children mimicked the burps of guns. They all had their index and middle fingers up, aiming through the fence at me.
‘Watch out! Don’t get too close to the fence. It’s dangerous,’ I shouted to warn them.
‘Will you go there, uncle?’ A child pointed at the earthen dyke far away in the military grounds.
‘What for, hey?’
‘To see the soldiers practise shooting.’ ‘Practise warfare.’ ‘Shooting each other as in the movies.’
‘No way.’ I shook my head, smiling. Drops of sweat ran into my eyes, making them sting.
‘Over there, there are phayom flowers fallen from the trees too, you know,’ they shouted, ‘but the soldiers step on them so much they’re all squashed when they go back to their barracks once the training session is over.’
The children set off down the cart track running alongside the fence, their teasing like bell chimes fading in the distance. They are the sons and grandsons of poor villagers in the nearby cogon grassland.
Children are all bright cheerfulness. They are like substitutes for the convicts’ hopes and dreams, just like the flowers that bloom in this jail, a jail which has only fences of rotten bamboo of various sizes in thick rows on all sides, yet never has anyone been able to get away from this place. Even though there have been attempts and flights to freedom, before long everyone always returns to detention.
I looked at the building which was like a rest house. Two friends working close by smiled broadly at me in the sunlight. Their faces were oozing sweat. They were mowing grass and spreading fertiliser on the birds of paradise which were blooming into bird-shaped posies of vivid yellow, pink and red.
I waved at them.
Last night, the three of us were talking quietly by the campfire burning bright and warm. The register of flower sales lay open to check the accounts, with the night wind flipping through its pages slowly, one at a time. We note down sales details in it, but all the money is kept by our warders to await the time when our sentences will end. When that day comes, each of us will have money available to get on with his life.
‘When will we be released?’ I mused, breaking the silence, pricking the fire idly with a branch, sending spurts of small sparks flying.
‘They’ve told us many times since the day we were brought here, were made to fall in line and given our gear, then sorted out and assigned to the various areas. Don’t you see there are warning signs all over the place? So why keep asking?’ the older man asked seemingly in irritation.
‘I can answer instead of the jailers,’ the younger one said, his gaze lost in the darkness, out of focus. I saw his eyes were full of clear tears reflecting the sparkle of the fire. Night birds called out in the woods.
‘When we are at the end of our sentences, when our relatives and friends that we love remember us, love and worry about us, truly want us, that day they’ll come and take us out of here, and then that day … stupidity, stubbornness, the bad in us will change for the better, in tune with society… That’ll be the day.’ His voice wobbled while the old man and I looked for stars in a sky veiled in clouds and fog.
‘Do you miss home?’ I asked the old man.
‘Sort of.’
‘Are you thinking of running away again?’
He kept silent. The three of us and everything else were swallowed up by the silence. Even the fire’s brightness dulled.
Last year, the old man had run away from here. He had left at dawn during the rainy season. We learnt about it when the jailers came to tell us and ordered all of us to keep quiet with harsh voices. Five days went by. The old man came back with the jailers and a strong posse of police officers. He looked exhausted, hardly recognisable, like a flower trampled underfoot in the dirt. The sunken eyes and gaunt face were devoid of any glint of hope. The whole week he had to lie helpless in bed after being confined to isolation as punishment. That night he called me out for the first time. I dragged a chair to sit by his bed, leaned out to peer at his face closely. I was able to note the expression in his eyes. It was the expression of someone remorseful. He asked me if he had been wrong doing a bunk in search of freedom.
I asked him about his condition and asked him, in the same words I had asked him last night, ‘Are you thinking of running away again?’
‘Surely not. I’ve just realised there’s no-one outside that cares about us. Nobody extended a hand to help with even a grain of rice or a coin. Nobody at all. It looks like outside is just another jail everybody is stuck in for life…’
He laughed sheepishly before saying in sorrow and hopelessness, ‘I hid at night at the railway station, in passenger trains, in public parks, foraged for water and refuse in the rubbish heaps at the market, avoiding police and jailers all along. The dry bird of paradise flower I kept in my shirt pocket, even that was taken away… I don’t know who stole my shirt on the third night. Damn it! I’d tried my best to keep it as a sort of amulet from the very first night I came here… No matter who runs away must meet with it – death, I mean. It’s already waiting.’ He sank his head between his knees out of weariness.
We were too scared to ask about the traps in the fence. No one dared to mention them.
I stared at a star with a dark blue shine as I thought that I, he or any one of us might try one more time. It might be death as he said, even though we knew that everywhere the eyes of our jailers were on us, eyes like those of venomous snakes in the dark, eyes with glints of scorn, devoid of benevolence, and tricky.
One day, some convict would try again.

3

It’s late in the morning. Emerald green chameleons are basking in the sun on branches and on the ground. Squadrons of dragonflies are looping the loop in the bracing air.
I’ve hoed five plots. My two friends shout out the warder wants to see me in the central building. I put down the hoe against a tree trunk, walk around the dormitory block straight to the gloomy building which stands next to the watchtower. There’s only one tower and it’s hidden by the thick foliage of a tall banyan tree. There’s always a group of people on watch no matter what time. Up there we can see dark silhouettes of things looking like weapons. Whichever corner of the jail we’re in, when we look up they are always pointed at us.
Past the door which is smeared with what looks like blood, it’s as if there is smog inside. I see a row of blurry benches, with only a few people sitting forlornly. At the far end of the last bench a student with a pale face and quivering mouth, a glimmer of utter distress in his eyes, sits despondently listening to one of the jailers chattering I don’t know what in his face. Some of the words have overtones of solace.
‘He hasn’t had news of his wife for months… Could be she took the child and moved in with a new hubby,’ the warder in charge of relations between convicts and the outside world says when I ask him. ‘Looks like he’s getting himself crazy with worry. Well, it’s the same woman who sent him those highbrow books regularly. Lucky he didn’t become mad as soon as he read ’m, right?’ There’s something like dry laughter in the voice as he flips through the mail then pulls out a brown envelope and hands it over to me.
‘Someone sending five hundred marigold seeds. Must be your sweetheart, I reckon. We’ve allowed it as a special case,’ he goes on saying as the young student is being helped out while mumbling tedious sentences.
‘Where’s freedom? Where are the dreams? Where’s…’
The whining fades away. I step out of the blood-smeared door, out of the smog, and stand gulping a lungful of clean air as I look against the sunshine at the tall tower. My eyes get totally blurred before they black out. In a flash I see those weapons aren’t trained on me but where the student is walking out of sight, or so it seems. Maybe it’s just an illusion.
I go back to the flower garden once again. A shabby old black delivery van is parked in front of the dormitory block. My friends are taking armfuls of flowers of many species into the van. A young female convict stands by to help arrange them in there.
‘What happened to the regular?’ I mean the big-bellied middle-aged woman who usually performs this duty.
‘Oh… she was taken with cramps this morning. Looks like she’s about to give birth,’ the young woman answers.
‘A boy or a girl?’ my young friend asks absent-mindedly.
‘It isn’t born yet, how could anyone know? But no matter, all children here are ours, you know,’ the old man answers with a solemn face.

4

I remember the day I received the marigold seeds from the warder, the day I met the young student but didn’t meet the pregnant middle-aged woman. Late afternoon I planted the seeds in a small plot, slipping the long brown pods into holes I dug with a finger and covering them with a thin layer of soil.
And then at dawn the next day, in the nippy air of the end of the cold season, gunshots burst out from the dyke area in the grove. Right then we heard the first wails of a newborn along with the gunfire. Later in the morning the news spread all over the jail that the young student had hanged himself in the dormitory block.
I wasn’t surprised that many events would happen all at once. Many things happened, and each according to the ways of this jail. My friends went on planting birds of paradise and I, marigolds. We all carried on with our lives. Each of us was consigned to jail, with no exception even for births or for souls.
Two days after the seeds were sunk into the dark warm soil sprouts of marigold began to grow through the earth in rows under mild sunshine. They grew until they each had three pairs of tender green leaves. The round translucent green saplings grew into twenty-five rows running the length of the plot. I used a curved spade to prick out the saplings as gently as I could, placed them in a square-shaped plastic basket I took over to a plot with a mixture of manure and lime. I planted them lengthwise along its perimeter in two rows, at two-span intervals. They grew rapidly as I watched over them and cultivated the soil for them.
By now fifteen days have passed since they were bedded out. I stand watching the vivid green rows of marigolds and feel so happy and enraptured. The long funnel-shaped thumb-sized flowers are blooming into pale yellow petals. A cloud of butterflies frolic gracefully over the flowerbeds under a pale sun, while small chameleons race all over the ground. I gaze at them as if they were hopes, dreams, like the fair silky yellow stars casting their rays above leaf-patterned green carpeting.
The sky of the beginning of the hot season is empty and clear. A scent of manpla flowers wafts by with the wind. The sweltering weather that has come since last night will probably worsen in the afternoon. There are rumours of thunder in the distance.
‘Hey, look over there!’ the old man points sideways.
I look up and see a mass of cauliflower-shaped clouds on the horizon as I busily take off the tiny buds that have sprouted in the leaf groves to leave a single big flower at the top of each of the six stems of each plant.
‘Beware of hot-season storms. I heard warnings on the radio.’ He steps out of the bird of paradise bed.
‘The roots of marigolds won’t be strong enough to hold out for sure.’ Our young friend steps out in turn with worry on his face.
The looming dark clouds unfurl and spread, hiding the sun and everything grows dark… Big raindrops drum by. The wind gusts. Buffeted chilling masses of water lash down all of a sudden. Flashes of lightning crisscross the sky with terrifying bursts of thunder. My two friends rush out to take refuge under the eaves of the dormitory block, signalling for me to join them. The marigolds resist with all the strength of their puny bodies, shaking all over in fright. The rain pelts even harder, meaning to overwhelm my body and all the rows of marigolds, while the wind whips back and forth, gushes unremittingly, thrusting punches with all its might. Infinite numbers of glittering white raindrops pummel, blurring my vision, flattening everything, bringing utter destruction instantly. The sky roars in every direction, while branches snap, slide and hit the ground in resounding crashes that sink deep into the auditory nerves…
Rapture gone to pieces…

5

It’s jail.
The old events that happened in jail are deeply sunken in my memory.
After the evil storm flattened all the marigolds, I remember that night. I sat dejected, staring at the remains of hope destroyed in the twinkling of an eye. The smell of manpla flowers came with the wind like whiffs of incense at a funeral. I gazed blindly way out there through the darkness, through memories, through dreams of the future, through to the ashes after the light of life has gone out. Warm tears were dropping onto the back of the hand that helped keep my mouth shut tight.
I remember that a bunch of children appeared by the fence. They stood in a dark cluster out there.
‘Uncle! Uncle!’ The clear voices resounded through the nerves along with the noises of night insects.
‘Your marigold has blossomed, uncle… up there! It’s in full bloom up there.’ Their clear laughter chimed away.
I looked up at the glittering moon emitting a light as tender as a gentle hand reaching out to hug me. How comforting it was! Moments later, I raised my hand to wipe away the tears, got up, picked up a kitchen knife which flashed white, walked over to the bamboo stack, set about cutting and shaping finger-thin stakes the length of an arm, carried them to the patch of marigolds and undertook to plant them as supports for each plant, carefully arranging torn stalks and bruised stems around them.
I gave it all of my strength and all of my heart after the children had pointed at the moon blossoming in the black expanse of the sky. But who could know that in my heart of hearts I could see marigolds blossoming in a place which wasn’t the vast and distant firmament?
Three years later, I had to pack up my things. The jailers moved me from the flower gardens to the mental health building after the old convict chose freedom once again. This time he succeeded: the jailers found his cold stinking body by a rubbish heap at the market. The young fellow went on planting flowers. The student’s soul went on its restless wandering without end. The newborn had grown up a lot by then and several new lives had been born in jail as well.
As I stood on the roof-deck of the nutcase building in the beautiful warm rays of dawn which surged forth between white clouds on the horizon, I could see many species of flowers in a rainbow of colours, their petals showering in the dew sprayed down from above amid a stretch of off-white fog dusted with particles of sunlight, while gunshots rang out of the dyke area, their furious patter resounding like a funeral chant, gruesome, sickening.
I knew my marigolds were still blooming whether under the bright sunlight of daytime or under glossy moonlight at night.
I call it jail.
I live here.
We all live here.

Khuk Dorkmai, in Chor Karrakeit 19, 1994

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