The sky-blue jar – Panu Trivej
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
There is no one like Mim.
I tried to think of other imaginary names, Tor (Wasp), Duang (Beetle), Maeo (Cat), Fon (Rain), Phueng (Honey), but there is no name like Mim… In the throat, lips protruding, stretched on both sides as if in a smile, the ‘m’ morphing into a short ‘ee’, closing the lips to end on ‘m’ – eummmm … mmimm … mim … Mim! The lower lip touching the upper lip, making you feel like savouring a kiss. Mim … mim. Mim.
There is no woman like her.
I know many women, some broken-hearted, including by me. We are like balls in a pinball machine even though no one wants to get hurt and no one wants to hurt others. Mim is not my first woman, and far from the last. She is the fourth. I remember because I like to think in figures (I’m a clerk in a bank). Most women I ignore. Some are gossip fodder; others I secretly admire in my heart; some I feel like walking up to to ask for their phone number; and a few, to be frank, I’d like to lift their skirts and gawp.
As for Mim?
Was it love or not? Not at all. Don’t know love, don’t like this word, don’t like feelings that can’t be put into words. Used to think I loved Jan (the first woman) but now know that wasn’t love: it was ‘mutual affection’. As for Joy, the second woman, it was ‘admiration of corporeal beauty’. See? Everything can be explained with language.
Never thought I loved Mim, except there was a special kind of feeling. Once we knew each other, I told her I’d like to marry her.
She smiled wryly.
You’ve heard it often, haven’t you: ‘life is stranger than fiction’. In this case, how was life different from fiction? Everyone says fiction is exaggerated, is excessive, anything can happen, the prostitute reformed by the moneybag, the bus driver inheriting a billion baht, the deaf-mute shouldering firewood at the far end of the ricefield a police captain in disguise. Fiction isn’t reality.
But we say life is even stranger than fiction.
If fiction is too implausible it gets shunned by the crowds and panned by the critics. Before a character makes a decision, every time, one factor must support the other, minor events must lead to the main event: we might find that actually the heroine reminds the hero of his poor mother, so he can’t bear the thought of her working in a brothel. Fiction has plots, has messages. The harpy ends up utterly destroyed while the goodies live in clover ever after.
But there is no one to raise his voice when life is not like real life. It all happens at random as at the toss of a coin. Life has no plot. Nobody knows right from wrong. We may cross the street at the red light every day until a ten-wheeler comes along. In fiction only one Hamlet dies and Pritsana gets to marry her Honourable Sir Phot, but reality is multifarious, I may be a bank clerk just as much as head of the loans department.
My shift ended at two in the afternoon the day I met Mim for the first time. She came to open an account with us at two fifteen. She made a thirty thousand baht deposit, but had forgotten to bring her ID. We agreed to let her bring it the next day. She thanked us. By three o’clock I walked out of the bank and found her by the door. We talked. She asked where I had parked my car. I told her I didn’t drive and always rode buses. She laughed, said she’d take me home. The two of us sat listening to Elvis all the way.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true. Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
Today, the manager called me up. He praised me for being diligent and conscientious, but ended up faulting me for lack of ambition. He is right. I’m satisfied with what I am – no heavy responsibilities, enough every month to live on and save some, no wish for subordinates, no need for headaches, all in all enough to live comfortably.
Because I live alone.
What would it be like if that day I hadn’t gone to that party? Would I be more ambitious today? Would I want more than this? A life full of obligations, holidays abroad once a year, monthly instalments for house and car, tuition fees for the children, doctors’ bills, and when looking in the mirror really wondering who this fellow is. Is that me or not? Or me as someone else – one with responsibilities, working his backside off to raise a family?
I stretch out my right hand and with the forefinger touch the mirror, coming into contact with the forefinger of that man’s left hand, feeling the thinness of the barrier between us two.
You must have heard that life is a matter of chance. The universe came out of a big bang, primal matter scattered into masses, for no reason other than chance. Life evolved from some genetic aberration. Chance begat the universe. Chance begat man. Chance begat one child. Chance it was that had his father lose his life in a road accident, so the child resolved never to drive. Later he became a bank employee who left the office at two o’clock every afternoon, except on the day his friend called to say he’d be in late. The bank has three counters for accounts, but a woman came to open an account at his counter and because she spent some time chatting with an old friend at the door, the two of them met again when he left.
And that day was the day the DJ put on five Elvis songs back-to-back.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true. Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
I ask the man in the mirror whether he is happy.
‘Sure,’ is his first word. He glances up, his black gaze surveying his daily life. ‘Wake up every morning at six.’
‘I get up at seven.’
‘I have to drive the kid first.’
‘Son or daughter?’
‘A daughter. Her name is Mein (Porcupine),’ he answers. ‘I get to the office a little after eight. I run the business loans department, handle customers until twelve. In the afternoon, there’s a meeting with the other departments. After that, I sign documents and tend to other chores until five and then head for home.’
‘Does Mim come and pick you up?’
‘No, I take the car, learned to drive when she was pregnant.’
‘Were you afraid?’
He is quiet for a while. ‘At first I guess I was but it was necessary. Now I’m used to it.’
I ask further, ‘You go back home and then what?’
‘I help Mim with the housework and then wait for dinner.’
‘Mim cooks, does she?’
‘I’ve never seen her wear an apron. Does it suit her?’
He smiles to himself and asks me what it’s like when I go back home.
Mim took me to her house. She has a twin sister named Taen. Their mother is a nurse. As for their father, he teaches Thai music in a monastery. Before going, Mim warned me Father was very protective of his daughters. Must be true, because he kept staring at me. The mother, though, was fun to chat with. She even took out an album to show me, so I played the game of guessing who was Mim and who was Taen. I learned what Mim’s pastime was: she likes to collect freebees from TV. Fancy that: this world has people eager to collect coupons to try their luck.
Before going back, Mim played the xylophone while telling me that the night before she was born, her mother dreamed someone brought her a Buddha image but as she took it it split into two, so when she delivered she knew she had twins. Besides, outside the hospital window there was a beehive, so she called her daughters Mim (Little Bee) and Taen (Little Wasp). I teased her saying that she watched too many soaps on Channel 7. Mim laughed, insisted it was true. I smiled, sat watching Mim playing the xylophone, feeling as if she was a lady out of an epic, a flower of sweet beauty even first thing in the morning. I did want to see her then, wake up to see Mim dishevelled, see her half-awake in a thin nightgown.
I asked her to marry me. She smiled and said why not, but she’d die before I would. When in the womb, the weaker of the twins would have the other steal her food and once born would be of weaker constitution. While Taen was strong, Mim was sickly: she almost lost her life to haemorrhagic fever as a child.
That evening her father drove us to the bus stop. I felt uneasy because he didn’t say a word, but Taen discreetly whispered that Father liked me. Once there, I bowed and thanked him. Before unlocking the doors, Father mumbled he counted on me to take care of his daughter, and then made a prompt getaway.
Tonight I sleep alone, letting my brain ramble. What was Taen thinking in the womb stealing Mim’s food? Does she feel any guilt? And then is Mim resentful of her twin? I think of the man in the mirror, the twin that lies on the other side, the twin that didn’t go to the party, the twin that wakes up at six, heads the loans department, works till five and can drive. Between the two of us, who is stealing the other’s food? Doctors say that in some cases one foetus swallows the other.
I push away the blanket, lie hugging myself, hairs standing on end, body wrapped up in air, a strand of thin fog linking me to my twin. After I am swallowed by him, what happens? Will I be part of him? Is it possible that one morning I’ll wake up to see a dishevelled woman half-awake in a thin nightgown with a smile on her face?
The bus drives past the hospital. I’ve never stopped here but today it looks strangely familiar. I get off at the stop, walk through the entrance, bow to the spirit house, say hello to Reception, take the lift, push the fourth-floor button, as certain I have done all of this before as I am sure I’ve never come here. The lift door slides open. I walk past an unfamiliar hall, stop by the nursery ward.
I’ve got it: Mim gave birth here.
That time I walked back and forth in a narrow corridor without windows for nearly six hours. A nurse came to tell me a Caesarean section might be necessary. She led me to the anteroom. Father, Mother and Taen sat on a blue sofa. I told the nurse my wife was of weak constitution and might not stand a great loss of blood. Mother and Taen pacified me, said it was the only way. Father sat saying nothing but going through five cigarettes in a row. Finally someone brought documents for me to sign.
Two more hours went by. We all followed the nurse in a green uniform into the room. Doctor said both mother and child were safe, a daughter of normal weight, two thousand five hundred grams (almost one kilo heavier than Mim at birth). Tears came to my eyes as I looked at mother and child. Couldn’t say a word, just lightly kissed my wife, telling her she did great. So did Father, Mother and Sister-in-law, all of us teary-eyed, even Father.
I blinked, looked at the dim empty corridor. A baby was crying some way off.
Who said I never came here and Mim was not my wife? Mim and I at the same party…
…The day the alarm system at the bank broke down at ten in the morning and went on blaring until eleven thirty. Even the firemen couldn’t stop it. Finally the bank decided to close down for the rest of the day. I took the opportunity to call Mim and invite her to lunch. She said she had arranged to meet her school time friends and I could come along if I wished.
I said I would.
Everything started with the alarm. What triggered it? Was it because the night before the watchman had boiled instant noodles and the vapour messed up the sensors? Usually the guard ate at a food stall but the stallholder hadn’t shown up because she wasn’t well. The stallholder wasn’t well because her child at home had left a window open. The child had opened the window to retrieve a shuttlecock in the tree next to the house. Before that, the child startled by a car honking had missed and the shuttlecock had got stuck on a branch…
The sorority party…
Mim’s friends from her university days – I knew some, most I met then – numbered almost forty. Mim introduced me all around. I must confess I can’t remember anyone. She and I had to sit apart, she with a group of her best girlfriends. She took me to sit at one table. I felt somewhat uneasy; I’m not used to strangers. The man sitting next to me told me he used to court Mim. Another said he was her former boyfriend.
Over shrill shouts from the women, another man said something about Mim but I couldn’t hear properly. A woman smiled at me. She wore a ring with a deep-purple stone on the ring finger of her right hand. A man was singing on the stage.
…Love me tender…
I heard outcries. Someone had spilled some water. Pungent smells of food wafted in. A woman at my table got up to help herself to food. I overheard a man at the next table talking about his work. He worked in a shop selling exotic fishes. Someone asked him which fish he liked best.
‘I like squid. Actually squids are not fish but molluscs. I like to see them mating. Do you know what they use for that?’ He marked a pause. ‘The ordinary squid has eight tentacles, each studded with suction pads, but there’s one that’s smooth and that’s his willy. But the coolest thing is the squid’s pussy. Do you know what they use for pussy?’ He smiled. ‘Their nose hole!’ Some laughed. He stopped to drink some water. ‘When squids mate, the male sneaks one of his side arms into her nose hole…’
Mim came up to me with two friends of hers. She looked listless, unlike her friends.
‘Hello, my name is Fai,’ the shorthaired one said first.
‘And I’m Orm. We’re both close friends of Mim’s from back at the U.’ How strange: Mim had never told me anything about these two.
‘You work in a bank, right? A friend of ours also works in a bank, but in a different branch,’ Orm said to me, but I paid no attention to her. Mim, head bent, looked sad.
…I don’t want no other love…
Another man walked up to speak to her. I pricked up my ears but Orm’s voice covered theirs. Orm must have said something funny because Fai laughed aloud. The woman who had gone to get food first was back. The whole room began to shift around. I took the opportunity to queue up too but I simply couldn’t eat, took only water, went back to the table. They were all gone, leaving only Mim so I sat down beside her. She said something to me but I didn’t hear what she said.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
I answered her even though I couldn’t hear what I was saying either.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
She was crying.
Mim got in touch with me less often. When we met we hardly spoke, sometimes quarrelled over trifles. I went over what had happened. I’m sure it began at the party that day but the ins and outs became as clear as last week’s dream.
I tried to ask her for reasons, but Mim never answered. Sometimes she seemed to be about to cry, so I stopped trying. Since we had met by chance, we parted by chance likewise.
If our lives were fiction, the critics would tear us to pieces and the audience grumble that they understood nothing.
They say life is a succession of hazards.
Buddhism has it that everything proceeds from cause and effect. Even Einstein believed thus so he came up with the theory of relativity to explain every phenomenon – at a time when an English lawyer defending a man accused of rape and murder pleaded that his client had been forced by his environment to commit evil and whoever grew up in similar circumstances would have ended up acting the same: the lawyer won his case.
Many years after Einstein became famous for his theory of relativity, another theory came up to shake scientific circles – the chaos theory: everything might proceed from cause and effect, but if cause and effect form a very long chain, it loses all meaning, like a tale spread by word of mouth changing entirely in the process.
According to the law of cause and effect, when you throw a stone into a pond, waves spread out all over the surface, reach the edges and flow back to the point of impact: any human action generates a reaction. But ponds are full of weeds, turtles, fish, larvae… Even though it might be possible in theory to calculate the velocity of the waves, hundreds of factors intervene to change the waves so that even a supercomputer cannot determine the shape of the backwash.
Similarly, with millions of people the chain of causality is boundless so that in the end everything is absurd, is meaningless.
…Once upon a time when sea gypsies still believed that the world was a big drop of water and the earth floated on it, it was said that if you held your breath long enough to swim to the heart of the world you would meet the true partner the heavens meant for you. The daughter of a super-rich man was sent to find a fiancé on another island. On the way a storm destroyed her sampan. The super-rich man’s daughter went under for a long time until she was rescued by a young sailor. The two of them drifted on a small boat for months before they reached shore. Nobody knows what took place between girl and sailor but as soon as the small boat landed, the young sailor put out to sea again on another boat, never to return. From then on the super-rich man’s heiress refused to marry any man and stayed single until old age, until one day when she thought she was near the end she proclaimed that whichever craftsman was able to make a sky-blue jar that pleased her would be richly rewarded. Potters from all over the world brought sky-blue jars to her but urn after urn the old woman smashed with her own hands. Years passed and the old woman was about to breathe her last without having found a jar that pleased her. One day she decided to go for a stroll on the beach, saw a peddler of old wares amongst which was a jar the colour of the sea, the colour of the sky. The old woman bought the jar there and then and as soon as she was back home ordered her young maid to cut her head when she died, put the head in the jar and bury both. Nobody knew what her reasons were, but there were plenty of guesses. Some said she was insane, but others thought that all her life she must have wanted to go back to those four or five months she spent on the small boat with the young sailor looking everywhere around her and seeing nothing but blue underneath and blue overhead…
Mein is asleep, turns to one side; the cuddly bear in her arms falls off the bed. I pick it up and put it beside her, stroke her hair lightly. Next month she’ll be eight. I intend for her then to sleep in another room. She lost her mother when she was four. My wife had a frail constitution. Since she gave birth, she had been sickly. I lie down and kiss my daughter on the cheek.
In front of the mirror, I straighten the collar of my shirt before putting on my necktie. Taen steps into the room.
‘What time will you be back?’
‘Probably late, ten or eleven or thereabouts.’ Taen buttons my cufflinks. ‘Thanks for going to the trouble of looking after Mein.’
‘No sweat. She’s my niece after all.’
I stare at my sister-in-law. She’s cut her hair again. Since Mim died, she always wears her hair short. She says she doesn’t want Mein to be confused about her and her mother.
‘I’m going.’ I walk to the garage. I bought the old Volk when Mim was pregnant. I start the engine and take a deep breath before going into reverse.
I was with Mim all of the last twenty-four hours. The doctor did his best to alleviate her pain. In the morning, Taen came to help wash, dress and comb her pretty sister. Later in the morning the parents came. Father had brought her the bean curds she favoured. Around twelve friends of hers trickled in. Mim greeted each with a sweet smile. I kept kissing her on the cheek so much it made her blush. Her mother said she was the happiest comatose patient she had ever seen. I held Mim’s hand until the last minute. Everything ended beautifully. Everybody told me how peacefully she had gone. Nobody knew that Mim’s nails were sunk deep into my hand, drawing blood.
Maybe Mim is still alive in a parallel world as science fiction has it, in a ‘what if’ world. To mention only big issues, what if the Jews were still under the power of Egypt? What if the Nazis had won the war? Those worlds are in no way inferior to ours in terms of their physical condition. The possibility for an infant like Moses to float down the Nile and reach the Queen of Egypt’s bathing grounds is so small as to be only a matter of chance. If Hitler hadn’t turned his guns against Moscow, Germany might not have lost the war.
Then small stories such as how many times I brushed my teeth this morning might be duplicated in ten parallel worlds, but brushing one’s teeth being such a trifling matter without big repercussions, those ten worlds would be similar, twin worlds that eventually would be swallowed into one.
I look at Bangkok at night from the elevated expressway, thinking idly how it would be if another nine ‘me’ were hidden in this city, with the one ‘me’ out here, twins alike yet different, separated by the cogs of daily life.
At the party I see from behind someone who looks familiar inching away through the throng. Someone greets me and I stop to exchange a few words out of courtesy. As soon as I can I beg to be excused and resume my chase. Finally I find that familiar back. Taking a glass from a waitress’s tray. I walk around to come upfront. The orchestra on the stage is playing that song softly, movingly.
…Love me tender…
Mim sips orange juice in front of me.
I have found my dead wife at the bank’s end-of-year party.
Mim smiles, abashed.
I take stock of what used to be before I smile. ‘How are you?’ I tell her.
She laughs sheepishly. We are talking for the first time since we parted almost seven years ago. She looks nervous. She must be aware she owes me an apology. What I am feeling is hard to explain – sadness, loneliness, sorrow, but secretly a little pleased she isn’t dead after all. She has married a man in the import-export business. Her husband has come to the party with a friend (by chance again). I ask her if she has children. She has, two, and sons too. I’m happy that she looks healthy.
I open my mouth to ask her about that other party. Almost eight years have gone by since then, maybe today Mim will answer me, but the song drowns out our words.
…Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true. Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true…
Around ten pm, I get on the bus headed for home.
This morning a Volk drove past me. Too fast to see the driver, but the little girl in the back seat looked familiar. I smiled a lonely smile as I watched the car speed away.
Tho Fa, in Wannakam Tok Sara (Vowel-less Literature), Nanmee Books, 2005