17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
Some stories seem to be buried stubbornly in our memory. They usually come back to haunt us on nights of loneliness, at moments when we let our mind drift with the whisper of the sea or the sighs of the breeze. They return time and time again like whirling waters and form a sad melody of life, intruding faintly, regardless of place, whenever we are engrossed in the present.
On the last day of September 1980, my eight friends and I were walking down a high ridge and, a little before noon, we reached the upper course of the Kha Khaeng stream. Monsoon rains had been falling for days on end, at times seeming to split the whole range asunder, at others melting in a fine drizzle that lasted from dawn to dusk. Even when the rain stopped, the whole jungle was still as dim and damp as a deserted theatre. The smell of old leaves and soggy rotting logs had filled our nostrils along the way.
Taking the ravine near the source of the Khwae Yai River as our starting point, we had walked for five full days in the rain, up and down steep mountain slopes. We were coming from the west, cutting across the common borders of Uthai Thani, Tak and Kanchanaburi provinces in order to reach the jungle’s edge at a place called Sap Fa Pha. Another day and we would reach our destination, provided we could safely cross the Kha Khaeng rapids. It was the end of the rainy season, and the water was at its highest level. The stream, turbid like a sea of boiling mud, had overflowed its banks and spread wide. All along its course we could see a scattering of half-submerged bushes, which swayed about like drowning men struggling wildly as they called out for help. Whole trees – roots, trunks and all – drifted down, and some got stuck on bushes which the current hadn’t yet torn up.
On the opposite bank, a little beyond our route, a large monitor lizard had been swept onto a branch, to which it clung, bobbing up and down under the thrashing of the current; it was unable to climb up the bank and unable to let go, as it would be whisked away by the rapids. What a pathetic sight!
It was a fully grown lizard which must have gone through a lot before being caught in the stream…
Before deciding to leave the mountains at the end of September 1980, I’d spent more than five years of my life in the jungle. It hadn’t been easy for someone who happened to be born and lived for nearly two decades in a village by the sea, and all the more so for someone who had always been conscious that his parents had hoped he would provide for the family once he had graduated from university.
I was able to get rid of the first burden within a fairly short time: it took me no longer than two rainy seasons to feel at home in the jungle and mountains. But the second burden was different. During those five years, I shouldered it every step of the way, day and night, from high rocky ridges through to meandering brooks.
I still vividly remember the day I had to leave. I had travelled to Bang Pakong, my birthplace, to bid farewell to my parents. Father was the only one at home that day. Mother had gone to a neighbouring province to buy fruit she’d sell at the market. As I sat waiting for her to return home, I thought about the days of my childhood, when we still lived together. The more I brooded, the more I felt she was an angel heaven had punished by making her the mother of someone like me.
Mother spoke little and hardly ever had a harsh word for her children. She was nonetheless one of the proudest women I have ever known. Because she was abandoned by her father in her infancy, had no relatives and never went to school, she was used to relying on herself since a very early age. No matter how destitute she was, she never begged from anyone; even among her own children, she’d never ask for help to ease her weariness if we weren’t considerate enough to see it ourselves.
She usually got up before dawn to take goods to the market and, depending on how much there was, carried them either by pushcart or in baskets hanging from a yoke balanced on her shoulder. After selecting fruits for a while, just before it was time for her to leave the house, she’d nudge me gently awake or call me in her usual tone of voice; under no circumstances would she shout, because she disliked making noise and, besides, was afraid to unnecessarily awaken my little brother and sisters, who were still very young.
One day, she tried to wake me up three times, but I wouldn’t get up. I was already awake, but I still wanted to sleep late like any child who was growing fast and showing signs of puberty. After a while, I began to feel that Mother was unusually quiet. I got up and saw her busy carrying goods on her shoulder, holding this, grabbing that, and on her face, which had begun to wrinkle, tears were streaming down.
“No need.” She whisked my hands away after I jumped to relieve her of what she was holding.
Since that day, I never allowed her to wake me up more than once. This, however, didn’t mean the end of our sad story.
There was a time during which my mother had no money to buy fruit to resell or pay the rent for her stall at the village market. She earned five to ten baht a day from selling shaved-ice with syrup and toasted bread at the parking bay for the minibuses that ran between Bang Pakong and Chonburi. During that period, my father had gone looking for jobs in the South and my eldest sister and elder brother were earning their living in other provinces; thus I was the oldest child in the house. With my three younger siblings, it meant Mother had many mouths to feed day in and day out. She had a plaster piggy bank, made in the shape of a horse, in which there were more than ten coins in various sizes and a five-baht banknote. Any day when she didn’t earn enough from her sales to buy food, she’d take the coins to supplement whatever she had, and whenever she had one or two baht left, she’d slip them into the piggy bank. Things went on like this for a long time.
One day, she came home looking utterly exhausted. She grumbled that there had been no one at the parking bay all day. After resting for a while, she took out the horse-shaped piggy bank, turned it upside down and inserted a hair clip to retrieve the five-baht note she badly needed to solve her current predicament.
In no time her face grew tense and she suddenly burst into tears.
“To have come this low, and still have them doing this to me,” she said between sobs.
I sat stock-still and stole glances at the tears on her weather-beaten cheeks. I had the urge to hug her and say something, but I felt that, for people like us who’ve only had sad parts to play since the day we were born, it would be overreacting. I knew she didn’t feel sorry about the money but was disheartened that we were harming one another at a time when society at large was wilfully tearing itself apart.
That day – the day of my departure – I sat waiting for her until it was near dusk, but she didn’t come. Father, who didn’t know why I had come home, tried to get me to stay the night, but I had to refuse. An appointment had been made that could not be missed – an appointment with my destiny which was tightly linked to the future of the country.
Father hobbled to see me off at the end of the alley leading to our house. As I walked away quietly, I didn’t dare turn around and look at his face again for fear he might catch on to the fact that this time our separation could be final. Besides, I knew he didn’t like to see any of his children cry.
And certainly not his sons.
While we stopped for lunch, we argued among ourselves about the best way to cross the rapids. One member of our party was my lifelong soul mate, and she couldn’t swim, so we had to discard the option of placing our knapsacks on our heads and letting ourselves drift to the other bank. But even if she could swim, I doubt we’d have gone ahead with that method. We had no way of knowing what could be submerged beneath these fast-flowing waters. I once heard the story of an able-bodied man trying to swim across some jungle stream only to be impaled through the neck by a piece of wood. I myself had once waded chest-deep through a flash flood, and besides having to fight against the current with all my strength, had to step with both feet on bamboo thorns underwater; by the time I reached the bank, I was in pretty bad shape. Our eyes couldn’t assess the danger of such waters.
One method we thought might work was to ask the strongest among us to tie himself to a rope and swim against the current to the opposite bank, then fasten the rope to make a line for the rest of us to cling to as we waded across. To test this theory, one of my friends, who had been acting as my bodyguard along the way, tried to enter the main watercourse to check its depth and strength of current. In the twinkling of an eye, his big, tall body was swept away as if snatched by a ghost. I saw him toss and tumble in the current for what seemed like ages and by the time he managed to grab a branch near the bank, he had been whisked fifty metres downstream.
The test had been conclusive. Even if we were able to throw a line across the rapids, clinging to it to reach the opposite bank was not a sensible thing to do. If one of us were to let go of the rope under the pull of the current, the rest of us would have to spend days looking for the body, and at least one more day digging a grave for it, not to mention the eons it would take us to get over our sorrow.
So, there was only one option left: we had to build a bridge across the torrent.
While my wife and I took turns using the only spoon we had to scoop the rice, two or three men who had already eaten went to look for long stems of bamboo among the clumps that lined our path. We were lucky to have a couple of Hmong brothers as our guides. During the past five years, I had never seen anyone use a knife as deftly as the people of this tribe, especially when they used it to cut wood in the jungle. Cutting bamboo stems from their clump is highly skilled work for jungle dwellers. They’d pay for a mistake with their lives, as offerings to the Lord of the Jungle. Stories of chests pierced, throats gashed and main arteries slashed by bamboo stems were common in the mountains. Once, I saw a friend of mine knocked down for the count after a bamboo stem he was cutting had swung back and hit him right on the forehead. Only an expert could tell how the top of the stems intertwined and in which direction they’d swing when you hacked them at the base.
I had hardly started to roll myself a cigarette in a leaf after lunch than the hacking of bush knifes on bamboo stems started up. It resounded above the sizzle of the rain on the treetops and the roaring of the rapids, forming an odd rhythmic tune only its composer could fully appreciate and understand.
‘Even on our way to defeat, we still have to overcome obstacles,’ I thought as I puffed clouds of smoke into the air.
It didn’t take long to gather the amount of long stems we needed. The strongest man in our group was chosen to walk some distance upstream in order to drift back with the current and grab a branch of the nearest treetop in front of us. As we extended the first bamboo stem from the bank, his duty was to fasten it to one of the branches slightly above water level. The second stem was then held out parallel to the first and again my friend tied it tightly to the branch. Our makeshift bridge was beginning to take shape.
One of us crawled on it and sat astride the stems, helping to put in place two more big bamboo stems so that they reached the next bush further out in the stream. We used the same method to place stems from one bush to the next, tying them up securely with rope or creepers while some of us waited in the water to grab the stems and coordinate all the work. We all helped one another and did whatever had to be done as best we could. Boisterous shouts kept resounding and sometimes those who had to stay in the water for hours on end would complain about the cold. The rain was still falling and the current kept flowing furiously.
Before dusk, the bamboo bridge over the rapids was finally ready. Its width was that of two stems laid across the stream in a zigzag course of four or five segments. It stretched just above the water and kept wobbling with the swaying bushes we used as poles. At waist level, along the whole length, we had tied a thin rope for our balance, to grab and pull as we walked across.
We gathered our weapons and personal belongings and started to cross one at a time. It was only then that we noticed that the big monitor lizard stuck on a branch on the opposite bank was no longer there. In its struggle it must have been whisked away by the current while we were busy building the bridge.
I learned about my mother’s death in November 1977, almost four months after she had died. I was then staying on the Hin Rong Kla mountain range. The letter reached me, long after the sun had set behind the ridge, as I sat in a meeting with several of my friends. I unfolded it and read it under torchlight; when I was fully acquainted with its contents, I slung the rifle over my shoulder and left the hut quietly to walk alone on a small jungle path under the sparse light of the moon and stars filtering through the branches.
I don’t know how long I sat against a tree trunk, my face pressed against the barrel of the rifle. I only know the tears that ran down the barrel to the chamber of the assault rifle glistened in the dark and seemed like they would never end.
Near dawn, I found myself in the hut, gazing mournfully at the fire we had built to protect ourselves from the cold. The flames were blurred as if the fire stood behind a sheet of clear water. When I blinked, they heaved along with the folds of the water curtain. My soul mate was stroking my arm as if to let me know that no matter what, we still had each other and I wasn’t alone.
I knew that, yet I couldn’t help but recall that horse-shaped piggy bank. I would have liked to have told Mother that I had never thought of taking advantage of her or the three young ones. If I had taken the five-baht note to play cards with my friends at the back of the market, it was because I thought it would be a way out of the situation we faced. I never intended to make Mother grieve; I had only forgotten to think carefully enough, that some solutions may make a bad situation worse.
The sun began to set very rapidly. I lifted the knapsack which only held the manuscripts of short stories I had written and slung it over my shoulder. I took one end of a piece of rope, tied it around my waist and used the other end to do the same for my companion, who was waiting to cross with me. For this trip, I only had a pistol with me, which wasn’t much of a load to carry. I tied my slippers to the knapsack so that my bare feet could move along the bamboo stems with maximum efficiency. After standing still for a while, I started to step forward. My companion gripped my back with one hand and followed me step by step without saying a word.
Our combined weight made the bamboo stems bend, touch the water and even dip slightly into it at some points. The bridge vibrated under the force of the current; I felt the vibrations running through the soles of my feet, up my legs, right to my heart. If we failed, we would die together, but at such a critical juncture, how could we possibly cross separately?
Right then, the width of the Kha Khaeng torrent seemed limitless. I felt it was taking us an eternity to reach the last section of the bridge, which sank into the water deeper than at any other point. The extremely cold current rushed past my ankles as if to snatch me away as soon as possible. At the same time, the bridge was swaying as though it despised the steps of the defeated. But we finally made it to the opposite bank. Somebody had already built a fire and was drying his drenched shirt by it.
As we sat by the fire, I kept turning to look at the stream we had just crossed. All kinds of thoughts were rushing through my mind with the force of wild waters. The very next day, I would relinquish my arms officially, as well as my hopes to create a world in which horse-shaped piggy banks would not be necessary.
I had no idea how long I’d be bound to the stream of memories, which is much scarier than the current of the Kha Khaeng rapids. I only knew that, from then on, I’d have to struggle to build bridges alone.
First published in this translation in the February 1994 issue of the Bangkok magazine Caravan
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
“Do you already have to go, darling?”
“Yup,” Yut turned to answer his wife pithily, but the instant he saw her still wondering, he expanded his answer. “The chief wants us to give a hand. On Saturdays and Sundays, there’s a morning market, lots of people as if everything was free, as you know.”
He picked up his walkie-talkie and clipped it to his belt, went into the bedroom, sat down by the bedhead and slowly slipped a hand under the thin mattress.
“Don’t take it, please!” his wife, whose eyes had followed him knowingly, remonstrated. “You aren’t allowed to carry it. Besides, you risk being arrested by the police, darling.”
Yup, Yut admitted. His wife was right. He had no right whatever to this gun, a Thai-made sawn-off shotgun.
Security guards had no right to guns, whether homemade Colts like this 12-bore shotgun or foreign-made ones.
He was well aware of this, had been since he got it from a friend long ago, so he kept the lethal weapon hidden away under the mattress.
He stroked it gingerly before putting it back into its hiding place, discreetly sighed at being unable to pocket it to comfort himself and merely hoped that one day he’d have the opportunity to pull the trigger at least once to his satisfaction.
He stretched himself erect. His stout body was tall and impressive in his uniform. He picked up the handcuffs and clipped them to his belt and then did the same with the truncheon.
Yut loved his uniform and was proud of it. It looked like a second skin as did army uniforms. He loved it because he had been a conscript once.
Once discharged from active duty, he had applied for a job as a security guard in a company which was a big firm in charge of the security of a housing estate.
He liked this job very much because even though he was no policeman or soldier, he dressed almost like a soldier and performed almost like a policeman.
Some of his fellow guards had complained within earshot.
“Being guards sucks. It’s like being slaves to the rich in the estate. Them bastards have never enough. And then what about us? A pittance every month. My pay is less than what some of these homes spend on dog food.”
Hearing this, Yut couldn’t help bringing his colleague to his senses. “Don’t go and think like this, man.” He tried to explain his point of view to his disheartened friend. “We must be proud. We’re not guards. Our duty is to ensure security. There’s dignity in that. To prevent stealing. Our work, besides helping people in the estate to be safe, is like being the eyes and ears of the police. We’re helping officialdom, man.”
Most of his friends agreed with Yut. Some of those who used to be dejected found it in themselves to feel proud of their duty. The chief praised Yut and often offered him as an example for thinking positively like that.
Every Saturday and Sunday a market was held throughout the morning at the entrance to the estate. Yut and the other security guards were called upon to cover all the angles. They took care of the traffic, arranged for the easy flow of vehicles and looked after security as well.
This being a large market which kept expanding, with all kinds of goods for sale, clothes, foodstuffs fresh or dry, vegetables, fruit, you name it – whoever wanted something came by and found what he or she was after, even copies of films just showing in the cinemas.
The previously spacious parking lot was no longer sufficient for current needs, because the housing estate alone had more than three thousand households and there were also people from other housing estates along the same road. The more buyers, the more items for sale, the more traders, male and female. Vehicles queued up in search of parking space.
Some of Yut’s friends were given the duty to second the traffic police, others to keep their eyes peeled for criminal elements skulking among customers. Such dubious characters took advantage of the throng to lift a purse here, snatch a necklace there, from both buyers and vendors, so that eventually warning signs had been set up all over the market – “Beware of thieves”, “Mind your valuables”.
Yut didn’t hesitate at all when the chief ordered him to be on duty every morning there was a market.
He had once chased and caught a young man who had snatched the purse of a middle-aged woman busy purchasing some ornament. It had been a chase as in the movies – startled people giving way, the thief running very fast but not as fast as Yut who finally collared him at the parking lot. The fellow threw him a punch. He returned the compliment. The fellow’s mouth bled; Yut’s hand hurt. He got him in an armlock. Other guards came running to the rescue and helped drag the thief to the police booth where they called on the policemen to deal with him.
Yut still remembered the resentful glare in the fellow’s eyes. No way he’d forget that.
“Aren’t you afraid he’ll take his revenge?” his wife had asked him out of concern.
“Not at all,” he had answered confidently. What made him confident was that he was well versed in Thai boxing, having trained since he was a child, and he had had even more intensive training during his time as a soldier. He was confident he could handle the criminal young man any time.
“What if he shoots you?” his wife still worried.
“I’ve got a gun too,” he had answered without having to think.
He was confident that the secret lethal weapon hidden under the mattress would be a great help and comfort. Even if he loaded it with a single bullet, with a 12-bore shotgun like this, whoever met that bullet would have a hard time surviving its shattering impact.
Before leaving the house, Yut turned to tell his wife, “If you want to get yourself something to eat at the market, go ahead, but don’t buy anything else. There’s nothing there the likes of us can afford.”
He waved at his beloved spouse before striding away to get his bicycle and go and perform the duty he took pride in.
On this Saturday morning the sky was cloudless, a boon for everyone who came to buy or sell.
Yut parked his bicycle, greeted his fellow guards and then proceeded to do his duty. Experience had taught him that whichever stall had many customers, that’s where criminals would mingle waiting for the chance to snatch a bag or nick a purse.
He walked about in the market, keeping clear of the crush and observing the comings and goings in the stalls. He had the deep conviction that no crook would escape his attention. His eyes and the determination in his heart cooperated as if they were radars detecting anything unusual. Each of his steps was firm and assured.
A fellow guard in uniform came by from the opposite direction. They smiled at each other with the same feelings and the same heart.
“All clear,” they whispered to each other meaningfully.
Some of the guards wore no uniform. They acted as police informers who mixed with the crowd. They wore their shirts outside their trousers to hide the walkie-talkie ready to be used for coordinated action if anything untoward happened.
The centre of operations was at the guard box. That’s where the chief was, along with many other guards on duty, with walkie-talkies and with motorcycles ready to move in hot pursuit of malefactors.
“Help! Help! Car thief!” a woman shouted repeatedly.
Many people turned to look. Many people rushed forward for a closer look. Among those were Yut and his fellow guard, running in concert.
A cream-coloured car was moving out of the parking lot, with a woman running after it and yelling.
“Help! He’s stealing my car!”
“Fuckin’ hell! Daring this much now, are they?” Yut growled, exchanging glances with his friend in uniform – not the same uniform, but the same heart.
“Let’s get a bike. I’ll go with you,” he told him.
They ran to the guard box. His friend grabbed a motorcycle, jumped on it and kicked it roaring.
The chief instructed all the guards by walkie-talkie to intercept the cream-coloured car.
“Maybe he’ll take the other exit.” He ordered the guards on duty at the box in the other street to close the exit.
The housing estate had two exits. Thanks to prompt cooperation, the car was trapped between the two.
When the motorcycle caught up with it before it came to the guard box, “Overtake him and cut in front of him,” Yut told the driver. The motorcycle sped up, overtook and cut in front of the car recklessly.
The car braked hard. Its muzzle stopped an inch or two from the motorcycle. Yut jumped off, rushed to the door on the driver’s side, unclipped the truncheon from his waist, ready to pounce.
“Come on out,” he ordered.
The driver stepped out promptly, looking mighty displeased. He slipped his hand under his loose shirt as if to grope for a gun.
“What the hell’s your problem?” he hollered.
“You’ve stolen this car,” Yut yelled back.
People were gathering round.
“Get that motorbike out of my way, you jerk,” the man ordered threateningly.
He pulled out a gun to frighten him, and Yut immediately thought of his secret lethal weapon under the mattress.
He felt sorry. If he’d taken it along, the big shotgun would have dampened the thief’s arrogance, for all his handsome features and obvious social status. The man had his gun trained on him.
Upon which the female car owner riding pillion on another guard’s motorcycle arrived. She paid no attention to the gun in his hand, went straight to snatch the car keys from him and a confused tug-of-war ensued.
“You thief!” The woman pointed the finger at him and then had another go at the keys.
“It’s my car!” The man put away his gun and tried to snatch the keys back from the woman.
“We’re divorced! We agreed the car’s mine,” the woman objected in a loud voice. “And you’ve the nerve to steal it from me. Look at you, pinching my keys when I wasn’t looking. Don’t you have any shame?”
Yut was beginning to understand. The people massed around were getting enlightened by the minute from the heated exchange between the two sides.
More and more cars were brought to a standstill. Many couldn’t stand it and hooted their horns. Some came out to listen long enough to figure out what the fuss was about. Others tried to stop the argument.
“It’s a domestic matter. Don’t interfere,” the man shouted to repel them.
“I’m not your wife, and it isn’t your car either!” the woman shouted back at once without any sense of embarrassment. There was no longer any sign of their being husband and wife.
“Then please pull the car over to the kerb so the other cars can go by,” Yut told them, to the approval of many of the held-up drivers.
Right then the police, having received a report that a car had been stolen, arrived. Thanks to their good offices the car was moved aside. Soon the road returned to almost normal traffic.
Yut’s wife pushed her way through to him with a pale face. “I was afraid he’d shoot you.” Yut was silent, thinking about the heart-stopping minute that had gone by. It wasn’t just his wife who had been scared: he had been terrified.
Right then, if he had had his secret lethal weapon in hand, he might have shot the man dead out of fear.
“Let’s go, darling. It’s just a domestic tiff.” His wife pulled him by the arm out of the event, leaving it to the police to sort out the marital dispute over who it was owned the car.
“Talart Chao Na Moo Barn” in Chor Karrakeit 46, 2008
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
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
The expanse of water at that bend is quiet and peaceful, cold with mist and dew vapour at dawn. Once in a while a passing boat stirs up wavelets, making the timber rafts moored along the bank heave ponderously.
Small clumps of morning glory are woken to a stir along with them. Their slender shoots rise high as if in pride of their perfection. Some droop down to water level and you can see their light green shimmer as they move in the turbid red water.
Those clumps are strung with wires attached to a rotting stake long immersed but still good enough to prevent them from floating away with the current.
Long scrawny legs wade through the mud-coloured water, past the edge of the bank into deeper water, waist-high, chest-high, head-high. After a moment their owner shoots back up, the coveted treasure in hand, waits to recover breath on a raft for a while and can’t help looking at the beautiful small fish swimming around at the head of the logs. Even though the water is so turbid it looks like red mud, the small light-blue-streaked purplish fish can be seen glistening in the current. As soon as the person on the logs moves, the startled small fry flee for cover.
The water dripping from the hair blurs all vision momentarily. The owner of the face raises an arm to wipe the blur away for a second before the water ripples down the same grooves.
Filmy mist still loiters over the water but then slowly drifts and evaporates in a lingering way like intimations of love whispered before parting.
The sky is bright and clear. A bevy of seagulls dash out of the water when a train clunks over the bridge at full speed. Dust from the bridge falls like sand through the mist and vapour onto the calm stretch of water.
After waiting for the train to disappear from sight with the fleeting glimpses of pallid faces in the carriages, the owner of the long limp hair lets herself down into the water, spreading wavelets around. The water is full of mud mixed with sand. Before long, she surfaces, clinging to a log as if to rest for a while.
A tiger perch, yellow with black dots, tail flapping, scurries by within reach. An instant later it squirts water plumes, hunting some unlucky insect.
A big boat triggers waves that make logs knock on logs and the small fry scamper in every direction.
The one sitting with his feet in the water grips the logs tightly, stares without blinking, almost holds his breath like the one who has disappeared into the water. It is only when she resurfaces that he too discreetly draws a long breath.
“Come back up, sis’. Let me do it.”
“It’s cold, you know.” The one in the water, clinging to the wires that tie the logs together, looks up. A pale sun lurks on the horizon but doesn’t give relief from the biting cold.
The wires tying the logs are what brother and sister are after. They are not diving for pearls, for sure. The two of them and their little brother who live in a hut by the Rama VI bridge rely on what looks worthless to sell and thus draw out their living.
“Let’s go back first in case he’s woken up.”
“All right then.”
The white tense bony hands grip the logs firmly. The arm joints seem hardly able to pull the body up, looking as thin and fragile as reeds as they do.
The cold makes her shiver but she can’t help splashing water playfully before she comes up. She jumps from log to log until she reaches the bank and past the clumps of morning glory grabs a handful of white, plump young shoots.
Their father and mother are dead. Father died in that hut. As for Mother, she went to die in hospital, leaving her with two little brothers who know nothing but hunger, hunger and hunger.
The Chinaman who buys old wire gives them a low price, sometimes just enough for a bottle of fish sauce. At least their mother’s death has led them to know the doctor.
“The doctor said that if mum hadn’t been operated on she’d have died anyway,” she consoled her brothers when their mother too passed away. The three of them sat dejected in the seedy house. The small oil lamp was on its last dregs. A star would send a stronger light, when compared to the brightness from the nearby power station fed by the Bhumibol dam.
Father had stomach ulcers, so it wasn’t surprising Mother died of the same ailment. The doctor looked at the three little lives not knowing what to do when he found that they weren’t even able to take the body out of hospital to what those three urchins called home.
A messy, musty wooden floor; holes in the roof patched with various materials.
The word “materials” to an architect might mean newly made pricey items, but here the word “materials” meant bits of corrugated iron, old canvas falling apart, the odd plank.
In here he almost refused to breathe, but five lives had used the place to eat and sleep. The people in this house didn’t even know what they died of. Good health was something they never knew, because even a single meal was hard for them to scrape together.
From the bridge, he had seen this mess of huts. Such an eyesore should have been got rid of.
“This is my home,” the patient had said by way of invitation.
But there was no place for him to sit in this house.
The picture of the patient dead on the operating table came back to haunt him again. In such patients’ background were things like these he saw with his own eyes in almost all cases. Tuberculosis festered among the poor, those living in congested places, those who were in a condition where they couldn’t help themselves.
The three little faces were staring at him as if they expected loving kindness. How could he have the heart to leave without thinking of those children?
There weren’t only those three faces but hundreds and thousands of them hidden here and there.
“In Thailand the weather is conducive to tuberculosis, so it is no wonder that the statistics on lung-disease patients here keep growing every day, and now their number in this town is at an all-time high – the highest in the world as a matter of fact.”
The doctor ends his speech thus. A ladies’ society has invited him to talk in order to raise funds for a foundation for lung-disease patients.
Many of the ladies on the committee are specialists in their respective fields. They have invited the doctor to a meal in his capacity as commentator, to congratulate him or thank him or for whatever reason. So he is now sitting in this restaurant.
Aperitif wine in the western fashion is served in fine glasses, either dark red or off-white, depending on individual preferences.
On the table the crockery is spanking new; the silver forks glitter; the tablecloth is the same dark colour as the towels folded in the shape of blooming lotuses. The melodious recorded music playing softly is exactly right for this setting.
The doctor takes a sip from his glass. The taste is smooth on tongue and throat. It is alcohol to trigger the digestive juices to better enjoy the various dishes.
“You must have much experience with your patients, doctor?” the lady sitting next to him invites him to chat while waiting for the food.
He has a fleeting thought of the house by the Rama VI bridge.
“Tuberculosis is dreadful.” She shrinks her shoulders. Long earrings dangle and sparkle in dazzling competition with her tapering eyes which look like big dark jewels.
Her talkative mouth opens on pearl-like teeth.
“If I caught it, would you treat me?”
“Most willingly.” The doctor puts down his glass, looks with pleasure at this beautiful picture of a woman. “But…” He smiles sweetly. “You have nothing to fear from tuberculosis, Khunying.” He calls her by her title as he remembers it. She is the daughter of a second-rank princess. “As I said, tuberculosis afflicts the poor or the weak, the undernourished … but in your case…” He ends his words with a last sip of the wine in his glass.
“Oh dear!” Her voice is as soft as breeze through foliage. “What are you saying, doctor? I’m not rich at all. Quite poor actually.”
He sighs, merely rotates the empty glass in his hand before him absent-mindedly. The sparkle of those gems truly belies her words.
“You’re only talking with Khunying, Doctor,” the woman across the table remonstrates in a sweet voice. “Talk to us as well.”
The doctor looks up from his glass. Across from the flower vase on the table, several pairs of eyes are trained on him.
“Please excuse me,” he says under his breath.
“Won’t you order another glass, doctor?”
He does as he is told.
“I’ll be drunk before the food arrives,” he says with laughter in his voice.
Each side observes perfect social manners at the dinner table. The doctor smiles at this person, speaks with that one, laughs with a third until the time for socialising is over for the night.
A gorgeous lady offers to give him a lift.
“Why don’t you treat yourself to a car?” she asks as an opening.
“I can’t drive.”
“And you don’t have time to learn,” she adds. “You must be very busy, mustn’t you?”
The doctor smiles.
“I can’t afford one, actually.”
“Oh, I don’t believe you.”
“Well, you’d better.” He lights another cigarette. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all. Where shall I drop you, then?”
The doctor tells her.
“The food tonight wasn’t bad. I like to come here. It’s quiet. There’s no crowd, even if it’s a bit pricey.”
“I seldom come here.”
“You must be too busy. When you’re free, please come again. As my guest, this time.”
“The drinks too are good. The bartender is good at mixing them. I’m told he keeps being offered raises in salary if he goes with the big hotels … Bar owners, people like that, are fighting over good bartenders.”
“Is that so, really?”
“I have a soft spot for him too. The khunying who sat beside you likes it there very much. She likes soft cocktails. She gave us several drink recipes but when I try them they aren’t as good as his. I can only mix two drinks, which are the ones I like.” She keeps a running comment, then changes tack. “Your house is in the same direction as mine.”
“I’m afraid to be an imposition,” the doctor apologises. “Actually I can hail a cab. Tell me when you reach your house. I’ll get off then. That way I can pretend I took you back home.”
“Never mind. I’ll drop you off first.”
“Please don’t insist. Tell me when you get there.”
“If I do, then you must favour me with staying for a drink. Won’t you? A good turn deserves another…” Her eyes glitter as she adds, “This way, I’ll show you how good I am at mixing drinks.”
He hesitates for a while.
He nods in assent.
The expanse of water there is quiet and peaceful. The rising sun chases the fog away. Two little children are diving in and out of the water. A cursory glance would make you think they are having fun playing in the water.
The Chinaman buying old stuff has again squeezed the price of steel wire. Sometimes there isn’t enough to buy even a bottle of fish sauce.
Those clumps of morning glory are still producing tender shoots loyally. It’s the only thing you don’t need hard-to-come-by money to get.
A dark shadow stretches across the timber rafts, stops and stays still.
The cool morning breeze lightens the leaden feeling left by alcohol.
“Look, doctor’s come early!”
In haste the dripping little bodies get out of the water joyfully.
“Did you bring us rice, doctor?”
Her eyes are deep black, fixing him as if to stop breathing. Those eyes have more than a glimmer in them. They sparkle in an indescribable way.
Even though the air is warmed by the sunrays in his back, freezing cold enters his heart.
“Nao Khao Nai Huajai” in Nak Khian Rueang San Dee Dein Warra Khrop 100 Pee Rueang San Thai (Outstanding writers during the first one hundred years of Thai short stories), Khlet Thai Publishing, 1985
17/06/2011 § 1 Comment
‘Hey, you! This is a man’s house, not a urinal!’
‘Oh!’ The man, who wore a white shirt and dangling necktie, stepped back in haste. ‘I’m sorry. I thought it was a rubbish dump.’
The younger man, who had long hair and a long, scraggy beard, poked his head out and shrugged.
‘Never mind. You aren’t the first.’ Having said so, he made as if to withdraw back inside. The man was zipping up his pants as he called out: ‘Hey, wait!’ He adjusted the round bottle he held under his armpit.
‘What do you want?’
The man wearing a shirt went and squatted in front of the man with the long hair, suffusing him with the boozy smell of ripe sapodilla.
‘I’d like to talk to you.’
‘That’s weird! Nobody never wants to talk to me.’
‘And I’d like to come inside as well.’
‘That’s even more weird. People only come here to piss; no one’s ever wanted to come inside.’
‘May I come in?’
The owner of the house pulled his head back inside. The guest opened the rumpled plastic sheet and crawled in.
‘This is a pretty comfy place you’ve got here.’
‘If I can fin some cardboard and some planks, I’d like to extend the floor a little so I can lie down and look at the stars.’
‘The stars? Er, right, I had forgotten there were such things in the world. Believe it or not, I haven’t looked at the stars in twenty years.’
The man with the long hair looked up at the roof and with the tip of his index finger enlarged the gap between two old pieces of cardboard.
‘Look for yourself. Tonight, there aren’t many, because it’s the rainy season.’
The guest moved closer to the gap and, through it, looked at the sky.
‘I had also forgotten there was a sky,’ he mused. ‘Wow, the stars are really beautiful. Oh, look! Did you see that falling star?’
‘I see them all the time because this gap is right above my head at night,’ the young man said matter-of-factly.
‘That’s right. These days, there are lots of things around us we just don’t notice anymore.’
‘What’s this?’ said the young man, pointing at the bottle before him.
‘What?’ asked the man with the necktie, turning away from his contemplation of the sky and looking down. ‘Oh, that… Well, Chivas, of course.’
‘All right, Shiva to you.’
‘But what is it?’
‘It’s liquor. Imported liquor, too, and so expensive you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve drunk half of it already. Would you like some?’
The young man didn’t answer. He grabbed the bottle of Shiva, prized it open, lifted it up to his mouth and took a gulp.
‘Oh, wow!’ he exclaimed. His coarse, weather-beaten hand, nails black with grime, went up to wipe his lips. ‘Can I have some more?’
‘Why not. You can have the whole bottle.’
The young man was nonplussed.
‘Sure. Take it.’
The young man put the bottle back on the floor.
‘Why won’t you take it?’ the owner of the liquor asked.
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I don’t take things for free. If you give it to me, then I must do something for you in return.’
‘Ah! Ah! Ah! What nonsense! You must be out of your mind.’
‘Not at all. They call me the crackpot.’
‘Well, it’s the same thing, really. These days, nobody thinks that way, you know. What people do is try to figure out how to get things from others without having to invest in, or work for them, and the more they get the happier they are.’
‘I don’t understand. In the morning, I’m hungry, so I go to the market and help vendors unload their trucks and they give me some money to buy myself something to eat.’
‘All right, then. I’m giving you this bottle as payment for the time you’ll spend talking with me.’
The young man smiled and his eyes shone. He lifted the bottle to his mouth and took a swig.
‘This Shiva of yours is so smooth!’
‘Haven’t you ever tasted foreign liquor before?’
‘Never. Them trishaw drivers, sometimes they let me have some of their bootleg, but it don’t taste as good as this Shiva.’
‘Actually, I think you’re rather nice, you know.’
‘What d’you mean, ‘nice’?’
‘Er, never mind. Tell me this: do you still feel angry that I peed over your house?’
‘Angry? No. I just pretended it was raining. I don’t know what being angry means.’
‘How right you are. If only we could avoid getting angry, our lives would be so much better. It might even bring us the greatest happiness in the world.’
The man with the long, scraggy beard wasn’t paying attention; he was lifting the bottle and taking yet another swig.
‘Go easy, young man,’ the guest said, patting the bearded fellow on his dirty shoulder, ‘or else you’ll get drunk and won’t be able to do your job to the full value of that bottle.’
The owner of the house, looking scared, hastily put the bottle down.
‘You seem to like reading newspapers,’ the man with the necktie remarked as he looked around.
‘No. I use them for the walls and I also look at the pictures. I can’t read and anyway, I don’t see why I should read them.’
‘Yes indeed. I’m sure I’d be much better off if I couldn’t read. Do you know how much time I have to waste reading every day? Nearly four hours for five business dailies in Thai, and another two in English. I read them from start to finish, including the ads, and I don’t even know why I have to be so thorough. You’ve no idea how unhappy I feel when I’ve gone through the lot of them. My head feels heavy and all I can think of is what to do to beat my competitors.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Of course you don’t, because your world in here is so different from that of the tall buildings outside. These days, we have no time to think, except about how to make a profit.’
‘You don’t understand that word either, do you?’
The young man with the long beard shook his head.
‘Suppose I pee into this bottle of Shiva and claim that whoever drinks the liquor in this bottle will be able to fly and people believe me and keep queuing up to buy it at whatever extravagantly high price I set. Well, the money I make selling the piss in this bottle is what we call ‘profit’, and the higher the price I sell it for, the more profit I make.’
The man with the beard made as if he was going to vomit.
‘So that’s your piss in this bottle!’
‘Of course not!’ The man in the white shirt laughed. ‘It’s just an example to give you an idea of what’s going on in the outside world. There’s no justice as you understand it.’
‘All right, I’m convinced you’re really stupid. But then again, sometimes I tell myself if I were stupid too, I’d be a lot happier than I am now.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I bet you don’t. There’s no way you could understand. As you just told me, when you’re hungry, you go to the market and help carry baskets of vegetables and earn yourself some money to buy food with.’
‘Sometimes they don’t give me money, they give me food instead.’
‘One way or the other, that’s what we call ‘justice’. But what the likes of me are doing these days isn’t like what you’re used to. What they do is make you unload their baskets and then drive away without giving you money or food because they consider what they’re not giving you as their profit.’
‘Can I have some more Shiva? I can’t make head or tail of what you’re saying.’
‘Sure, it’s yours already. Don’t you remember? It’s what I’m paying you with for talking with me.’
The young man smiled gleefully, raised the bottle of foreign liquor to his mouth and took a swig. He wiped off his wet moustache with his dirt-incrusted index finger.
‘My world isn’t the same as yours. Yours is totally honest, mine is full of lies.’
‘Lies? I don’t tell lies because I don’t talk with nobody. Actually, it’s the others that don’t talk to me.’
The man with the necktie laughed.
‘But you know what? Every day I have to say hundreds of lies. I lie to my friends, I lie to my business partners, I lie to my subordinates, I lie to my children, I lie to my wife. I lie so much I don’t feel guilty about it anymore, and what’s worse, I even order other people to do the lying for me. I suppose you never watch TV?’
‘I do. I watch it at a shop by the roadside where they’ve several screens playing at the same time. I watch until they kick me out because they want to close. It’s fun watching TV. I enjoy it so much. I’d like to have one here.’
‘Well, that’s where I order them to tell lies for me. I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying. The advertisements are all lies, you know.’
The young man shook his head. ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Of course you didn’t. Millions of other people don’t either, because I ask them to lie as smoothly as they can. If people were aware of the lies, how could I sell my products?’
‘Your piss, you mean?’
‘Forget that, it was only a supposition. What I mean is things such as utensils, foodstuffs and whatever else I can come up with. I get these products to be advertised with big words claiming they are the best this and the most that – whatever it takes to make people buy them in large quantities so that I can have a lot of profit.’
‘This profit must be so damn smart: you keep talking about it.’
‘Right. It’s the smartest thing in the world. And you know what? These days, every time we breathe in and out we turn a profit.’
‘I don’t understand. You mean we can take it in through our noses?’
‘Of course not, stupid. It’s just a figure of speech. Are you still willing to listen?’
The man with the beard nodded. ‘Yes. I don’t get all you say but it’s fun. You’re good at telling tales.’
‘This is no tale. What I’m telling you is true, a hundred-percent true. Profit is very strong, so strong it can dominate the hearts and minds of all the people in the world…’ He interrupted himself briefly. ‘…except you, that is. It can put everybody under its power.’
‘It must have lots of guns, then, or perhaps a magic sword.’
‘Not at all. Its weapons aren’t swords or guns as you understand them, but mere pieces of paper, just like the ones you use to make your walls.’
‘Huh?’ The house owner’s eyes opened wide. ‘Then, I’ve got this profit of yours in here as well!’
‘How come? You just said profit is like paper. Oh, you’re confusing me.’
‘The payer I’m talking about is money. Everybody wants money. Money can make you do anything, even the most evil things. You know, money makes some people commit murder, kill animals, hack down forests or even destroy entire mountains just like that. As for me, it makes me tell lies; it makes me bullshit people so that I get money from them.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Don’t worry. Even if you don’t understand, I’ll keep on talking, because I’ve been meaning to talk like this for a long time. Do you realize how hurt I feel every time I think about what I am actually doing? I feel less and less of a human being every day. I think of nothing else but profit. The bigger my profit, the richer I am. My children have told me they want to go on a trip to Europe this summer. My wife says she’ll never ask for anything else in life if only she had a billion baht deposited in her bank account.’
‘A billion baht? Isn’t that a lot of money? I can’t think that big. I’d be very happy just to have a ten-baht note from time to time. I’d hold it in my arms until I fell asleep.’
‘There you are. These days, I haven’t the slightest idea any more whether all the money I have has got any value or meaning at all. We may grow to be filthy rich, but if we are no longer human, then what’s the point of it all?’
‘You keep talking about things I don’t quite understand. May I take another sip?’
‘You don’t have to ask, I’ve told you over and over it’s yours. Just don’t get drunk too fast, because if you do, I won’t have a friend to chat with any more.’
‘Friend? You think I’m your friend?’
‘Yes. You know, I haven’t got any friends left in my life now – friends who are ready to understand me, and who are sincere and honest. In my circle, friends only lie to one another, always looking for one another’s weak point to take advantage of it. My friends tie me up with words and contracts, and they won’t have any mercy for me. If I falter or fall, they’ll kill me, as soon as I’m no longer secure with my silver and gold.’
‘But I’ve never had friends, not even one. I don’t know if I could kill you like those friends of yours.’
‘I’m certain you’d never do that.’
‘No, I think I’m not hard-hearted enough. During the Chinese New Year, I was hired to cut the throats of the chickens, but I just couldn’t do it. I felt they didn’t want to die anymore than I did.’
‘Right. Nobody wants to die, and nobody wants to be bullied, but all of my friends are just waiting for the opportunity to cut one another’s throats.’
‘When I was a boy, my schoolmates were always bullying me. They’d wait and punch me every day after school. They hurt me a lot. They cut my lips and gave me black eyes. So, I decided to fight back, and after that they never bullied me no more.’
The man with the necktie laughed.
‘My friends have other ways of bullying me. They bully me through business tricks and by cheating me off my share of the profit. Oh sure, we keep smiling at one another, but deep in our hearts we’re always on the lookout for the opportunity to snatch one another’s profit away. I known I’ll never win my friends’ hearts.’
The man with the beard raised the bottle to his mouth and drank up the last drops. His voice began to slur and stammer: ‘You must b-be very r-rich.’
‘I own a very large department store, a soft-drink business, a paper manufacture and two illegal lumber operations on the side.’
‘So you’re a t-tycoon?’
‘That’s right. But you know, the life of a tycoon isn’t a happy one. I’ve got twelve cars – one for each day of the week, plus two for my wife and one for each of my children. My house is so large you feel like an ant when you walk in, and it has nearly two hectares of land to go with it. But you know something? It can’t compare to even half of your home, because it has no love, no warmth. It’s full of stress, rules, and endless longing for even more.’
‘I don’t believe you. I think you’re afraid I’ll turn into a tycoon and become your rival, right?’
‘So you do have a sense of humour after all? Well, don’t you ever dream about it. Even a dream like this is a nightmare. I don’t feel money has got any meaning in my life any more. I keep asking myself why I’m working like mad to get more – is it just to keep it in the bank or to take care of the future?’ He stopped talking for a while and turned to ask his young friend: ‘Have you ever thought about your future?’
The young man shook his head. ‘My future? Is that important? I live for today. When I’m hungry, I walk over to the market and help them wash dishes, so they give me something to eat. When I want to take a bath, I just walk into the marsh at the back of the market. The water stinks, I know, but less than my body.’
‘Sometimes life isn’t as complicated as we make it,’ the man with the necktie said. ‘Where exactly is true happiness? I have more than a hundred million baht to my name and yet no chance to see a falling star or dream in the moonlight. I have completely forgotten there are still many things in the world that can give us happiness. Instead, I have come to think that only money can provide it. You’re right: sometimes, man is too taken up with himself. We don’t only think of tomorrow but of the day after tomorrow, of next month, of next year, of ten years, a hundred years ahead. We work not only for ourselves but for our children, our grandchildren and all of our descendants. If I didn’t think about the future, I’d be much more happy, wouldn’t I?’
‘I’m not sure.’ The young man was casting a doubtful eye on the necktie.
‘What do you call this thing around your neck?’
‘A necktie. Why? You want it?’
‘No. I’m just wondering why you put it on.’
‘Me too.’ He tugged at it sharply and took it off. ‘It’s not too bad, actually. You should see me in the office: I have to wear a jacket as well. Wherever I go I have to dress like this, even though I’m thoroughly fed up and it bothers me no end. Sometimes, I fell trapped in my own clothes as if I were wearing a straightjacket.’
‘But you can’t dress like me.’
‘I can’t, but I still envy you for being so carefree.’
‘Actually, I’d like to dress like you.’
‘Well, the world is upside down. Yeah, it must have been upside down for quite some time. I remember in the days when I had nothing I used to think just like you. I was pining for a suit and tie and I promised myself one day I’d wear them too, but when I was finally able to, I felt like a prisoner in my own clothes. I’m bored with money, I’m bored with my work, I’m bored with everything I’m doing, because I know this isn’t what real happiness in life is about. But there’s nothing I can do about it. Have you ever seen a man riding a tiger? He can’t get off its back. The moment he steps off, the tiger will be at his throat. It’s the same for me. Even though I’m fully aware this kind of life is totally meaningless, artificial and can’t bring me any happiness, I can’t walk out on it. I must go on with it, telling lies, deceiving and taking advantage of millions of people to keep making even more money. I envy you for being able to live happily in the world you’ve made for yourself. But the world has already changed for me. It’s no longer the world in which we struggle for food, clothes, medicine and accommodation, but an entirely new one in which everyone has to fight with everyone else to make as much money as possible.’
‘Aren’t you sleepy yet?’ the young man asked, and yawned loudly. ‘You can sleep here if you want. I’ll go on listening to you until I pass out.’
‘So you’d like to sleep?’ the man with the shirt asked while raising his wrist to look at his jewel-studded gold watch. ‘Four in the morning already. No wonder you’re sleepy. Well, I’ve had my bottle’s worth. You can go to sleep now. I’m leaving.’
‘No, no, I’m still enjoying myself. You sure you want to leave?’
‘Yes, but I’d like to add something.’
‘The world outside is the world of NICs. Everyone lives, thinks and behaves the NICs way, and I’m one of those soulless NICs beings who are being taught only one thing: to get whatever you can without ever giving a thought to how you get it.’
‘You’re using funny words. I don’t understand.’
The man with the shirt laughed and crawled outside through the plastic sheet opening.
The well-mannered house owner also crawled out to see him off.
‘Can I come and chat with you again?’
‘Sure. But you must bring Shiva with you.’
‘And one more thing.’
‘Don’t piss on my house again.’
They both burst out laughing at the same time before the man wearing the white shirt walked away into the darkness and the man with the shaggy, unkempt beard disappeared back into his rubbish dump of a house.
A falling star suddenly shot across the sky…
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
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.
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
17/06/2011 § Leave a comment
At first, when he came to the funeral, he had nothing much in mind. He didn’t try to talk to her relatives, but walked in to pay his respects to the body, and then went and sat alone in a quiet corner, answering whoever greeted him. With Grandma Jan, it was the same. They didn’t talk much together; they merely exchanged a few words when they met, as old acquaintances do. It seems they only started to get intimate after her husband’s cremation was over.
Everyday he’d walk by her house and poke his head in and ask if she was home. If she wasn’t, he’d leave right away, but if she was, he’d go in and chat with her for a while before going back home. Besides, he never came empty-handed. He brought packets of rice with sliced chicken or pork, bags of iced black coffee, sweets or oranges, and left them behind every time. You could say that after he left, her offspring ate to their heart’s content.
His visits didn’t bother anyone, because he was a nice man. Though he was seventy this year, he still looked fit as a fiddle. He dressed neatly, his shirt always well tucked into his trousers, his hair tidily combed. More importantly, his son was a judge who was highly respected in the village; when people were in trouble, they went to visit him at home and he helped them as best he could, and if he couldn’t help, they let fate take its course.
As for Grandma Jan, she didn’t think much about it either. If she allowed him to get friendly, it was because they had known each other since they were in their teens, and she didn’t see why things should be any different now. Life is too short and we’ll soon die — take her husband for instance: he’d never shown any sign of sickness before, he just went and died. If she didn’t say so herself, nobody would have believed it was true.
As the days went by, however, everyone in Grandma Jan’s house began to see him as a bit of a joke, because of his habit of popping up every day with his packets of chicken rice and bags of iced coffee. Sometimes they teased him gently, but he didn’t seem to mind.
If her offspring laughed at him, it was because of Grandma Jan herself. She would sit with an unusually dreamy expression in her eyes and, when queried about it, flush with embarrassment.
‘Isn’t Old Thong-in coming today, Grandma?’ or else: ‘Who are you daydreaming about, Grandma?’ If she felt like answering, she’d berate them: ‘Don’t be fresh, just remember who you are talking to.’ But actually, the young ones were right — she really did let her mind wander. She couldn’t help but worry about him. Where was he now? Had anyone prepared food for him yet? It was getting late, so why hadn’t he come? Or maybe he’d fallen sick? Had he got anyone to take care of him? …
She kept on brooding quietly. Whenever someone teased her — ‘Daydreaming again, Grandma?’ — she’d turn red in the face, pretend not to hear and talk about something else, or she’d grab some betel leaves and areca nuts and pound them, her head bent over the mortar, not daring to meet anyone’s eyes, afraid of being embarrassed should anybody guess what was on her mind.
Grandma Jan always sat on a worn-out sofa next to a table where she put a jumble of tins, bottles of medicine, various utensils and all her other precious personal belongings, so much so that, sometimes, her daughter, who was a teacher, would lose her temper when she came back from school and saw the mess. She would help her sort it out and throw things away because ‘you don’t want to lose face when he comes.’ Grandma Jan had long wondered who her daughter was referring to until she realized Old Thong-in dropped by every day with his chicken-rice and iced-coffee offerings.
The sunlight had reached the refrigerator, so she went to close the window and look out through the iron lattice to the front gate. On any other day, no sooner had the sunlight reached the refrigerator than the old man would show up at the gate.
Where was he now? Was he sick? She wouldn’t mind paying him a visit for a change, but she was afraid her grandchildren would shame her by saying something like ‘You’re always complaining you can’t walk because of the pain in your knees, so how come you can saunter to the landing of Old Thong-in’s house today?’ Having thought this far, she could see no way out, so merely prayed in her heart that he was all right; it didn’t matter if he didn’t come, he could come whenever he thought of her.
Wasn’t it odd? They had known each other for so long, yet why was it only now that they were beginning to think of each other like this? It was only since her husband’s cremation that she had come to feel this way, and besides, she was still in mourning! Why did she feel so flustered? Or was it that some evil spirit had come to torment her and make her feel ashamed whenever she was told that, old as she was, she already had one foot in the grave, so how could she still have lurid thoughts like these? It was so unfair! Why did she have to be in such a quandary at the age of sixty-eight when she was so close to the end?
When she was overwhelmed with such thoughts, she had to find something to do to prevent her fantasies from running even wilder. She entered the kitchen and, seeing that it was untidy, took a broom and went about sweeping the floor, but she couldn’t help craning her neck toward the front gate.
After she was done in the kitchen, she went to clean the sitting room. When her eye caught the photograph of her daughter in her teacher’s uniform that had pride of place in the room, she felt quietly elated. Wasn’t it these two hands that had taken her daughter through school till she became a teacher respected by everyone in the village? Surely her daughter’s father couldn’t have achieved this on his own!
These days, there was something else that was odd: she liked to look at herself in the mirror. She knew she was getting older by the day, yet she still liked to check. She had only a few teeth left and they weren’t much good at chewing anything anymore, yet she still felt for such things. But the more she thought about it, the more she was ashamed of herself. Look at me: all my hair has turned white, my face is all wrinkled, and yet you have the cheek to come and woo me! Isn’t it funny? She smiled absently to herself.
‘You look in the mirror all the time these days, Grandma. How about some perfume and lipstick? I’ll get them for you if you want.’ Her pretty granddaughter, who was eighteen, had appeared from nowhere. Grandma Jan was really embarrassed, as what the girl had said hit home.
‘Where are you off to again? You never stay home these days.’
‘I’m not like you, you know. I can’t just sit and wait for someone to bring me some nice chicken rice every day. I haven’t got anyone to buy it for me, and if I stay here, I’ll just starve to death.’
‘Listen to the little wench, talkative as a parrot!’ Having said this, Grandma Jan huffed and puffed, pretending to be angry to avoid being further embarrassed by any more jibes.
‘Isn’t that so? Come on, I dare you, say it isn’t true. Say it.’
It’s because of his outlandish behaviour that my grandchildren are being so disparaging with me. It’s him who’s making me lose face among my kith and kin. It’s too much, too much really at such an age. But then, it’s unfair to blame only him. After all, I’m also urging him on. Men just don’t keep coming back if you don’t encourage them. What a shame! This shouldn’t be. Why did I have to get involved in such a disgraceful affair in my old days?
While she let her mind wander, she heard her granddaughter say precipitately: ‘Here he comes, Grandma, walking tall with chicken rice in his hand.’
This was enough for Grandma Jan’s heart to swell in rapture, as if it had been soused in consecrated water, or as if a sudden downpour had come showering down on plants withering in the middle of the hot season. She pretended not to hear, made no answer whatever and remained impassive, yet in her heart she couldn’t help but feel excited at the prospect of seeing him, and she was eager to know what had delayed him for so long.
She heard him ask her granddaughter: ‘Is she in?’
The children nearby had to tease him again: ‘No, she isn’t. She’s just gone to market, but you can leave your chicken rice with us.’
Those brats showed no respect to the elderly. Why were they lying to him? She felt like calling out, but was afraid her meddlesome granddaughter would shame her again, so she kept her peace.
‘How long ago did she leave?’
‘Just before you arrived. You missed her by a hair’s breadth. If you go after her now, you’ll catch up with her in no time.’
Everything went quiet. Maybe he had already left. The thought made her furious. Why did they do this to him?
‘Grandpa… Grandpa, don’t believe them. She hasn’t gone anywhere. Grandma, your boyfriend’s here to see you. Why are you so quiet?’ That was her granddaughter speaking, who else.
Then, there was a peal of laughter all around.
When Grandma Jan went to open the door for him, she could see that, despite the signs of anger that lingered on his face, his eyes behind his dark glasses sparkled with joy.
She invited him to enter and sit down as he did every day, went to fetch him a glass of water, then sat down quietly. She remained silent for a long while as she was afraid of letting out her real feelings and of giving the children outside something to gossip about. So, she cocked her ears to make sure there was no longer anyone around.
As days passed, the relationship between Grandpa Thong-in and Grandma Jan became more intense, to the point that on some days he would arrive at dawn and not leave until after dusk. This very much upset Grandma Jan’s daughter, who felt utterly ashamed by her mother’s obnoxious behaviour. At such an advanced age, her mother should concern herself with spiritual matters instead of entertaining all manner of lewd thoughts.
On one such evening as he was still visiting, the daughter looked askance at her mother several times, and as the older woman pretended not to notice, she finally decided to speak up.
‘Does your family know you’ve been here all day? I’m sure they must be worried by now.’
‘They know. I tell them every time I come here,’ he said, then averted his eyes.
‘I think it’s getting dark and you’d better go back and have dinner at home. You can come here again tomorrow.’
Both the old man and the old woman felt something hard hitting their chests. Elderly people like them should not let their offspring order them about in this manner. The shame of leaving the house upon being told to get out prevented him from standing up then and there, so he put on a brave face and went on sitting for a while before he felt it proper to take his leave.
At night, the long lane that led to the boat landing looked desolate and it would have looked a thousand times more so had anyone known what was in the old man’s heart as he walked back home alone.
Grandpa Thong-in would very much have liked to tell other people, so that they understood him better, that when he and Grandma Jan were in their teens, they were in love with each other, so much in love that they’d gladly have died for each other, so much in love that they were ready to elope, but their parents had thwarted their plans, claiming they were no match to each other, and time had finally separated them. Grandma Jan had married first, and he had been despondent for five years until he, too, had got married. For all of fifty-three years since then, he had had to live with his sorrow, suppress his feelings, bow to social constraints and try to be a good father to his son.
Come to think of it, it was funny, very funny indeed! He wondered what kind of evil spirit had prompted him to start fantasizing in earnest.
The power of love is so strong that no tradition can stop it. And so it proved to be for Grandpa Thong-in and Grandma Jan. Once the fire of love smouldering in their hearts became unbearably hot, something had to be done about it.
‘Wouldn’t it be better if we did the right thing, so that we can live happily together?’ Grandpa Thong-in suggested one evening when they were on their own.
The old woman looked at him as if she couldn’t believe her ears, but she didn’t answer immediately. She took a stick of tobacco and wiped the lime off her lips and teeth, then sat thinking for a while before she said: ‘Both of us are old now. We just can’t be reckless like children and start the neighbours gossiping.’
‘But if we don’t do the right thing, they’ll gossip even more,’ Grandpa Thong-in objected.
‘Then tell me what you want me to do.’
Grandpa Thong-in’s heart was pounding. What he felt now was no different from what he had felt that first time. He still remembered the day of long ago when they had agreed to meet at the temple fair to build a sand castle together. The beautiful girl named Jan had told him something similar after she had become his that very same night.
He smiled at her before answering thoughtfully: ‘If you don’t mind and really want me to be your companion, I’ll ask my son to come and talk to your daughter.’
He thought his idea was correct and everything would turn out all right. His son was a judge respected by everyone. If he came and asked Grandma Jan’s daughter for her mother’s hand on his behalf, she certainly wouldn’t refuse him. There should be no problem with his son either, because his mother had been dead for all of twenty years.
After they solemnly agreed that they would each bring the matter up with their children, Grandpa Thong-in undertook to talk to his son, but it was difficult for him to find the right time to do so, as he had to observe his son’s expression to make sure he was ready to listen to his plight. Their conversation left him utterly disappointed.
‘Why are you like this, Dad? I don’t understand you at all. If you do this, how can I look people in the face again?’ his son had said with a shaky voice.
He had felt his face become numb with shame. He had never thought the situation would turn out this way. His idea had been that it was the right thing to do — once you are in love, you should do what tradition requires. When his son had fallen in love with his future wife, he had been the one to ask for her hand for him, but now that it was his turn to be in love, why did it prove to be so difficult? He didn’t argue. He didn’t say anything. He kept everything bottled up. Every word his son had said was right: he was a judge, someone everybody respected; how could he save face if his friends, the neighbours or whoever else sniggered at him because his father had become a laughing stock? What if the newspapers announced something like: ‘A dirty old man humiliates his son, a judge, by remarrying at the age of seventy!’
‘At your age, why don’t you turn to religion instead? You should go to the temple to take your mind away from these kinds of thoughts.’
He hadn’t known how to answer. If he had told him he and Grandma Jan had been in love in their youth, it would have sounded like some fairy tale he had brought up to try and outsmart him by obscuring the real issue.
As for Grandma Jan, she had the same problem. After she talked with her daughter, she felt like a prurient old woman.
‘I’m not up to anything. I just want to consult you. Please stop yelling like this; think about the neighbours.’ She waved her hand, signalling her daughter to lower her voice.
‘You don’t give a damn about my reputation!’
‘Go on, go on shouting if you don’t mind the neighbours.’
‘It doesn’t make any difference whether I shout or not; everybody knows what you two have been up to.’
‘And what is that, pray? Don’t you dare look down on your mother like this!’ She raised her voice this time as she couldn’t allow her daughter to blame her and get away with it.
She was both pained and ashamed to be criticized by her offspring at such a ripe old age. No one knew that she wept alone in the dark all night long. She kept asking herself what kind of evil spirit had turned her feelings loose like this, and why it was she had to hanker after him and be so concerned about his welfare, even though the loving bonds of yore had been cut off such a long time ago.
After they were separately instructed to bridle their desires and refrain from lusting, they agreed to turn to the temple to purify their thoughts through the teachings of the Buddha as their children suggested.
Not long after he entered the temple, however, Grandpa Thong-in decided to leave, because the teachings of the Buddha did nothing to alleviate his suffering. On the contrary, he felt that the longer he sat meditating, the more confused his mind became. He had come to the conclusion that the only way he’d get rid of his suffering was by having other people understand and commiserate with him. Tradition is a set of conventions thought up by man so that everyone performs one’s social duty happily. Its function is no different from that of a shirt, which not only prettifies but also provides warmth to its wearer, and when a shirt is too old or too tight to be worn anymore, one must discard it and put on a more fetching one instead.
That night, after he and Grandma Jan had made up their minds they would elope together and had set the time for it, they secretly stuffed clothes and other basic items into their travel bags.
Grandpa Thong-in had insisted she should take along as little as possible, to avoid being overloaded as they travelled. Three or four items of clothing should be enough; she could always buy some more once they had settled down.
‘Have you thought it through?’ Grandma Jan asked, to make sure once again.
‘Yes, I have. If we let things go on like this, we’ll just make them miserable for nothing. Besides, we are old now and will be dead in a few years anyway.’
‘But I’m worried about my daughter, I’m afraid she’ll feel lonely,’ Grandma Jan said and then burst into tears. They had been together all of her daughter’s life, so why, oh why, did they have to part now?
Throughout the journey, Grandma Jan kept complaining she was missing her daughter and grandchildren.
Grandpa Thong-in took her to a small house in Rayong province. It was the same place where he had once taken the beautiful girl named Jan and they had walked hand in hand along a beach of fine white sand. He still remembered the freedom of the seagulls swooping up and down above the deep-blue sea; the small but swift land crabs that challenged the young couple to run after them and catch them, which was great fun; and the stretch of sand on which they had helped each other etch the words that confided their innermost feelings to Mother Earth: ‘I will love you forever.’
These impressive scenes had hidden themselves in a secret recess of his heart for all of fifty-three years, such a long time that he sometimes completely forgot that he, too, like everyone else, had once had a first love. Never had he thought that in this life there would be such a day again, a day in which he’d have a chance to taste anew the sweetness of the past.
That day long ago, they had hooked their little fingers together and poked fun at each other as they ran along the beach, like any other young couple in love. But today, just walking together without so much as touching or plying her with I-love-yous made him very happy.
‘Are your knees still hurting?’ he asked with great concern.
‘Of course they are.’
‘I’ll give you a massage when we are back. I brought some ointment with me.’
Grandma Jan didn’t answer. Her mind was still in turmoil. She missed the loved ones she had left behind. By now, they must be searching high and low for her.
The place they were to stay in was a small section of a long townhouse built for renting. They moved in as soon as they had paid the rent.
This was the first night they would share the same bed. Though they each had known married life, it was their first night together — the first night of a new life, the first night of mutual dependence until death would part them.
The old woman bowed to Buddha, recited prayers dedicating merit to those who had passed away and asked the house spirit to protect her. She then lay down stiffly right against her side of the mosquito net and lay there almost motionless.
As for Grandpa Thong-in, he kept tossing and turning but couldn’t find a comfortable position. He had no idea what time it was, but it must have been very late, because the radio in the adjoining house had long stopped broadcasting yet kept hissing, as its owner had probably forgotten to turn it off before falling asleep.
Although they had switched off the light, a neon tube outside sent a faint glow into the room and he could see that Grandma Jan was lying with one arm across her forehead.
The old man extended a hand and placed it on her stomach, which was heaving up and down as she breathed.
‘Aren’t you asleep yet?’
‘Not yet. I was thinking of my daughter. By now, they must be at sixes and sevens looking for us.’
This time, there was no answer from him. He let her drift back into her thoughts, and after a while she began to feel uneasy when she realized that the hand that had been on her stomach was no longer there but awkwardly moving up and down, giving her goose pimples all over.
‘You want to?’ she asked.
It was a language that poured from the goodness of their hearts. They just said what came to mind; there was no pretence.
She took off her sarong and then her blouse and let him caress her for a while before she extended her hand to stroke his groin.
‘But you are still limp!’
‘You want me to help?’
It was a way of expressing mutual concern rather than sexual passion.
‘Enough. You should sleep now.’
‘I know you are tired, I understand.’
‘As you wish, then. Let’s lie quietly.’
The deeper the night, the colder it became. He had long fallen asleep but she still laid with her arm across her forehead. Despite her weariness, she went on worrying about her daughter and grandchildren. She blamed herself for what she had done; she shouldn’t have left them and travelled so far away. How were they now? Did they have anything to eat?
Tomorrow, she’d tell Old Thong-in to take her back home.
Born in 1960, Reungsak Kamthorn is a journalist, and the author of short stories and journalistic potboilers. This short story, written in 1992, was published in the present translation in June 1994 in Caravan, a monthly magazine in Bangkok during that year. It was republished in Kyoto Journal No. 50 2002.