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The Song of The Leaves

Vanich Charungkij-anant

Translated: Chamnongsri L. Rutnin

Short Story from S.E.A. Write Award-Winning (1984) Collection : Down the Same Lane

แปลจาก เรื่อง เพลงใบไม้ ในรวมเรื่องสั้นรางวัลซีไรท์(2527) ซอยเดียวกัน ของ

วาณิช จรุงกิจอนันต์




Illustration : Indigo


Grandma rinsed her bowl after having used it to pour water into the ground as an act of merit-sharing with sundry acquaintances and relatives who had passed away.


I(1) Somchao, her eighteen-year-old granddaughter, wandered by to steal a look at Grandma--probably fearing the old woman might black out and drown. The girl had often told the old woman that the bowl could easily be washed in the houseㅡ-that there wasn't any need to come down to the pier to wash it. But Grandma would say that the pier was so close, there was no reason to waste the water in the jar--especially now that the river had risen so high that she didn't even have to go down the steps, making things so easy.


Grandma didn't in the least fear what vexed her granddaughter. She wasn't afraid of fainting and drowning, not even when the river was so swollen and the current so swift. So familiar with this river, she was--born from it.


In Grandma's young days, the pier wasn't where it was now She remembered having to walk from the house down to the pier. There used to be a sprawling guava tree and a richly foliaged banyan tree growing out there. Now they were all gone-Grandma couldn't remember when. Long ago, it was.


The swift current carried off a bit of the bank each year, especially in the eleventh and twelfth months when the water gushed straight into the bank where Grandma's house stood. The land on the opposite side grew and grew. The Suphan River was more winding now than in Grandma's girlhood days.


The house that in those days had stood a good way from the river now had the front stilts, which held up the wooden verandah, in the water. One day the house would collapse, Grandma thought.


Grandma worried. Where would I Somchao go if the house fell?


Grandma walked up from the pier not forgetting to fill the bowl with water for the jasmine that grew beside the wooden steps. The plant had always provided Grandma with white flowers for stringing into 'raggedy garlands' for the Buddha image. 'Raggedy garlands' was I Somchao's cynical way of saying that Grandma’s

handiwork didn't look anything like garlands.


"So what! I'm only a village woman, not a palace lady!"


That was what she told I Somchao, and went on stringing garlands in her own style, sharpening one end of the wooden part of a joss stick while cutting a nick in the other end for tying the string. I Somchao told her to use a needle but Grandma said that her poor old eyes couldn't see well enough to thread a needle.


But when Somchao offered to thread the needle for her. Grandma refused and scolded her for not minding her own business.


Grandma wanted I Somchao to learn her songs but Somchao wouldn't do it no matter how much Grandma urged her. She said Grandma's songs were so crude that she would never dare to sing them. Grandma retorted that it wasn't that she didn't dare, she just couldn't. Grandma had tried to teach her the art of the songs for so many years before finally giving up.


The old woman used to begin the song for Somchao to join in.


Grandma opened the song with,


"Oei(2) ..........the old kaew tree, your branches're heavy with blossoms so white…” and stopped, waiting to see when I Somchao would come out with the next line but the girl would only laugh or simply remain silent.


Then, after a while, she would get irritable and say that she would not learn the songs, she didn't like them, and she couldn't sing. The girl actually preferred luk thung(3) songs but she couldn't sing them either. No, I Somchao had never sung any real song, just hummed or made simple little tunes. In fact, she never spoke very much at all. Some people even called her 'dumb Somchao'.


Grandma had to continue herself. "Oei….., the old kaew tree, Your branches' re heavy with blossoms so white, close by and upright stands the tall krang tree, scattering its berries all over the ground........”

It had been over seventy years, but Grandma remembered these lines very clearly. She was only twelve or thirteen in those days when she used to sneak off from her father's house to learn the art of the songs from Pho Phet(4) at the house with the big fence behind Wat Lao Thong. Pho Phet would open the song with these very lines:


"Oei . .., the old kaew tree, your branches're heavy with blossoms so white......." and no one else could think up the next lines except Grandma. In Pho Phet's yard grew a kaew bush full of white blossoms. A big krang tree towered nearby, the ground underneath it was covered with hundreds of its small round berries. That's why Grandma came out with the lines "close by and upright stands the tall krang tree, scattering its berries all over the ground…”


Grandma stepped out on the frail wooden verandah that looked down on the river to lay down the large spoon that she used to ladle the rice into the alms bowls of the monks. Beside it, she placed the bowl in which she took the rice to give as alms to the monks each morning, turning the bowl upside down to dry. The weather-worn old wooden flooring shook and swayed when Grandma walked out to collect two brightly colored sarongs that she had hung out to dry overnight. Feeling them still damp, she left them where they were. Tonight was the night of the kathin(5) festival at Wat Pa or ‘the forest temple’. A month ago Mae Khwanchit(6) had told Grandma about it and said that the organizers had wanted to have the i-sdew(7) songs. That was why Grandma brought out the two bright sarongs which hadn't been worn for so long. She had sniffed at them and, finding them to be musty, had washed them.


Grandma had told Somchao yesterday to be ready for the temple fair tonight. The girl said that she couldn't have forgotten even if she had wanted to because Grandma had told her the same thing over and over about ten times. Grandma wanted Somchao to go with her because she could at least sing the refrain along with the others. Grandma had given up hoping that she would ever become the second or the third in the line of songstresses. If she didn't want to try then there was nothing Grandma could do.


These days Suphan Buri River was quiet and serene. Only a few boats passed by each day, unlike last year when motor boats and long-tailed boats created an almost constant ear-splitting din. Since the asphalt roads were built, leading to just about everywhere, nobody wanted to use the motor boats and the long-tailed boats. Only the traders' barges, with their strings of boats and other barges in tow, made their way along the river at infrequent intervals.


In the days when Grandma was a young girl, the river was as serene as it was today. Paddle boats were the only traffic. But once in a long while boisterous sounds shattered the tranquility, and those were the times of temple fairs and traditional merit-making it was on those occasions when she had followed the singers to the festivals at Wat Pa that she really became able to absorb the intricacies of the song. In those times, the people of her village would paddle their boats to the main town of the province. Grandma as a little girl would go along with them. They would puddle along in a jolly procession of twenty or thirty boats, singing songs that reverberated along the banks of the river.


In front of the riverside mansion of Chao Phraya Yomarat, songsters used to float their paddle boats close together like an enormous raft and sing phleng rua or boat songs for the nobleman of the mansion. The singers of Grandma's village often came home with the prize money.


Grandma herself had personally won a fine reward when she was still young but already well-versed in the art. She could still recall that there had been a boat of men from the neighboring province of Ang Thong that had stopped to challenge her boat of women. What the pho phleng or the songster's name was she couldn't remember. What she could recall was the extreme darkness of his skin because Grandma had retorted to his challenge with,


"Oei ... , Hearing a voice ever so bright and clear, I had to peer out to take a good glance, oh where's that singing man from Ang Thong, first sight of him almost sent me into the water, oh dear sir so very black are you, is it true that you live at the 'Golden Bowl'? And do you burn charcoal or do you grow rice?"


Chao Phraya Yomarat so enjoyed this repartee that he actually gave Grandma the generous reward of five baht.


Grandma had 'played the songs' all her life, traveling up and down the country on countless waterways. Ang Thong, Singburi, Uthai Thani, Ayutthaya--she had been through all those provinces. When it came to the game of songs, Grandma wasn't afraid of anyone. Whether it was phleng rua, phleng choi, or i-saew, or any of their special variations, she could sing them all.


Grandma went into the kitchen, spooned some rice onto a plate and sat down to eat it using her fingers. She ate the rice with nam phrik, the shrimp paste chili dip she had made the day before. With it there was fresh morning glory and the subtle flavored yellow sano flower, both lightly scalded, and the salted fish made by Somchao. Having finished the meal, Grandma washed the plates, filled a pail with water and took a rag from the top of the steps, damping it to clean the floor.


Grandma cleaned the floor by wiping it with the damp rag everyday, morning and evening. She just squatted down and did it bit by bit--it didn't take all that long. Somchao had tried to stop her from doing this chore, to no avail. The girl finally stopped crying, saying that the old woman was like a stubborn child.


"I can do it, can't I? This house is only as big as the space it takes a cat to have its dying throes!" Grandma used the time-worn simile to support her point.


This little house was very old indeed. Built by Grandma's long-dead parents, it now leaned precariously to one side due to age and the creeping erosion of the river bank.


It was where Grandma was born. Her three siblings were now all dead. Grandma had a husband when she was eighteen. It happened chat a young fellow from Ban Makham Lom, a nearby village, saw her when she went to Suan Hong Temple to 'sing the songs'. With the help of his gang of friends he had abducted her. They had a daughter--I Somchao's mother. But Grandma had stayed with her husband for only two years because he kept insisting that she give up the songs.


Her love for the songs was deep and boundless . . . "even whenin the hands of the demon, I went on longing for you, to leave my husband I'm not afraid, I won't be separated from my songs......"

Grandma still remembered the song she improvised when singing with her songster friends soon after she regained her single status. Her husband came several times to plead with her to come back to live with him, but Grandma was adamant. No matter what, she would go on with her life of songs. Eventually, the

husband took their daughter to his village to take care of her.


I Somchao's mother came to live here with Grandma after her own husband died. She soon died, too, leaving I Somchao with Grandma.............. The problem was that she went and took a husband when she was too old, so she died before her child was big enough to be of any use to her--that was what Grandma used to tell her friends.


Somchao was about five or six when her mother died. The orphan was raised by Grandma who earned a living from her song. When no one hired her to sing, she picked the guava and the maprang and sold them to earn the money to feed I Somchao.


Grandma often felt worried about I Somchao--how would the girl live when Grandma was no longer here! No matter how much Grandma told her to learn the songs, she wouldn't even make a start. If Somchao knew the songs, she would at least have some work to keep her body and soul together. It didn't matter if she became only a second rate songster, because Grandma could ask Mae Khwanchit to make some use of her. As it was, the girl could only sing the refrain----what good would she be to anyone?


After cleaning the floor with the rag, Grandma lay down to sleep. Nowadays, Grandma's days were almost equally divided between waking and sleeping. Grandma never went far out of the village except on her singing missions. She had some small savings which she asked Somchao to keep for her funeral. Most of the savings came from her singing but last year the amount had diminished mainly became the four or five maprang trees bore almost no fruit.


In the days when all the master songsters and mistress songstresses of her generation were still alive, Grandma earned quite a lot of money. At that time, Grandma didn't think she would remain alive this long, and she didn't know that there was going to be I Somchao to look after. So she spent most of the money she earned in making religious merit like giving alms. Now Grandma had to be very frugal indeed, even refraining from buying a new phanung to wear.


Most of the songsters and songstresses of her generation had died-Mae Tuan, Pho Phrom, I Chua, Nai Tom and Mae Ning Only I Thonglo was still alive. The woman talked far too much but Grandma still wanted to see her again. The only times they met were for the songs. I Thonglo must be terribly old by now, like Grandma herself.


When Grandma was asleep, Somchao would wander off to some of the neighbors' houses to borrow those filmstar magazines with pictures and stories of the stars. Whenever Grandma went anywhere to sing, Somchao would always accompany her--at least she could be put to use in singing the refrains or marking the rhythm with the wooden clappers or the metal ching(8) or merely by clapping her hands. Somchao deigned to go just because Grandma went; if Grandma couldn't go Somchao wouldn't go either.


There was once, the one and only occasion, that Grandma couldn't make it--and that was when she hadn't the strength to stand up. Even though she couldn't stand up, Grandma had insisted that she was going. Somchao, however, wouldn't let her go and went out to ask the people who came to invite Grandma whether they really wanted Grandma to die.


Somchao rarely opened her mouth to speak. She had absolutely no interest in the songs. She didn't care how many people praised Grandma as a top-class songstress. The girl liked luk thung songs and had dreamt that she might go and dance in the luk thung chorus. But of course it was just a day dream she wasn't even attractive, and then there was Grandma to be looked after--she rejected the possibility of actually realizing her fantasy.


Somchao completed grade four at Wat Manao temple school. She didn't pursue her studies any further, nor did she look for work anywhere. People had asked her if she would like to go with them to work in the factories. Somchao would have liked to go because the luk thung song about Chantana, the factory girl, was a great hit. Grandma wouldn't have stopped her from going, but somehow Somchao changed her mind and didn't go. Maybe it was because some people asked if she really had the heart to leave Grandma who was so old.


But Grandma had been the one to tell Somchao,


"You go where you want to. Don't you worry about me."


That was because Grandma was already resigned to the fact that Somchao would never take up singing the songs.


Somchao's routine work was looking after the fruit tree and planting a vegetable garden. Not that there were that many trees, Grandma's land being such a small piece. It used to be much bigger but the river had taken it bit by bit each passing year. Growing in the garden were the four or five maprang tree, one thong dam mango tree, the guava and some lamut trees. When the sapodilla season came around, Grandma and Somchao would pick the fruit, take it to the market in the provincial town and bring back the modest proceeds to buy the necessities of life.


The only other income source was the songs, but it was now no longer a reliable one. Some years ago, the great Mae Khwanchit had come to ask Grandma to go and sing with her troupe. That day, Grandma's old eyes had filled with tears of pride. And because Somchao had gone along with Grandma, Mae Khwanchit actually taught her to mark the beats and sing the refrains.


Before Somchao's mother had died, Grandma went to live in Bangkok, somewhere in the Nonthaburi area. She stayed with a distant relative and took care of his children. The reason she went was to be near her songster and songstress friends, they could then come together conveniently whenever they were needed at fairs or shows. At that time there were enough occasions for the songs. Grandma was happy to earn money for use in making merit.


When Mae Tuan died, followed by Pho Phrom, Grandma began to feel lonely. The friends who used to 'sing the songs' with her died off one by one. Some died before Mae Tuan and Pho Phrom, some after, until almost no one was left. Grandma forced herself to remain at Nonthaburi until the death of Somchao's mother brought her back to Suphan Buri.


Back at Suphan Buri, Grandma took care of I Somchao. She had no other close relatives living anywhere else. Even here the relatives of her own generation were all dead and gone, leaving only the younger generations with whom she had no close ties. Grandma wasn't rich, no one wanted to bother her and she had no desire to bother anyone.


Grandma had managed to live on her income from the fruit and the songs. Once in a while, a long while, she went to Bangkok when someone asked her to sing the songs with them. She had even gone on television. Lately, though, she would go whenever Mae Khwanchit wanted her, and sometimes Pho Wai would come and invite her, too. Though Grandma was this old, her wits ewre stilI sharp and her retorts in the songs were second to none---fearless and resourceful they were. Besides, her voice was still clear and resonant. It had always been so, ever since she was a young girl.


Grandma woke up in the afternoon. She put the betel leaf and areca nut in her mouth and chewed for a little while before discarding the fiber. She felt that they didn't taste good. Grandma was never particular about her betel and areca. She had always enjoyed it no matter whether the areca was unripe or dried, whether the betel leaf was fresh or pressed. But today she didn't enjoy the taste of them in the least. She tried another mouthful and stood up only

to flop down on the floor.


Grandma spat out the betel and areca. She felt unwell. She could tell that she was very ill because it was the first time ever that she had failed to enjoy her betel and areca. The old woman felt neither excitement nor fear, for she and death had been close companions for a long time. At her age, most of her friends were long dead. Grandma was familiar with death, she had been preparing for it for such a long time, making plenty of merits to allow her soul passage in the right direction.


Grandma thought of her commitment tonight and gathered all her strength to sit up. A good thing that she would be travelling by car--not like the old days when she had to walk a lot of the way. In those days if they were to sing in a hilly area, they would have to walk, and sometimes it took all day. In the eleventh and twelfth months when the water was high though, they would mostly paddle their way on boats.


Grandma was annoyed with herself for being ill at this important time. She tried to stand up again but the dizziness in her head sent her staggering into the wooden wall with an impact that shook the old house. She lay down again and closed her eyes, exhausted to the point of feeling as if her heartstring would snap,


“Maybe I won't be able to sing the songs with them tonight,” Grandma murmured to herself before falling into a sleep with the thought that everything would be all right because the money she had asked Somchao to keep for her would be enough for the funeral.


“Oei..., the old kaew tree, your branches' re heavy with blossoms so white, close by and upright stands the tall krang tree, scattering its fruit on the ground, the sakae has put forth his branches, who was it that cut the tako trunk, and left the stump sticking up among the curly ngon kai, the krang leaves have grown old and dry, not catching people's eyes as they used to, when comes the blowing breeze, the old leaves get blown away . . . blown far, far away…..”

Where did the i-saew song come from? It seemed to pierce Grandma's ears, startling her eyes open. She sat up to look toward the top of the house steps but saw nobody. She looked all around the house and still could see no one. It must have been a voice within her ears, and that reminded her of tonight's work. What

time was it now? She didn't know.


Grandma made a determined effort to rise again, very slowly. She didn't want I Somchao to see any signs of sickness and get bossy telling her grandmother not to go to sing the songs tonight.


Grandma shouted to I Somchao and heard her voice answering from somewhere at the back of the house. Grandma called out her orders that Somchao should get ready for the car that was coming to fetch them and take them to Wat Pa, so that they had enough time to stop on the way to pay homage to Luang Pho To(9). Had Somchao forgotten that they had to go and sing tonight? Somchao called back to ask what was the hurry, it was only one o'clock.


That made Grandma sit down and look pensively out at the river beyond the verandah. The Suphan River was flowing with a torrential swiftness, its current twisting into great spirals right where Grandma's house stood. Big clumps of water weeds came floating by at intervals, some of them turning in a circle in front of the house before continuing on their watery way. Some of the clumps were so enormous that had the current thrown them against one of the wooden stilts, the house might well have collapsed.


The 'cha-ha-hai' part of the refrains sounded somewhere in Grandma's consciousness, as if coming from that distant bend in river.


"Opening my lips to bid goodbye, both my eyes are filled with tears, oh dear heart how I think of you, how I'll miss you dear brother, in the twelfth month of the swelling tide, when the water rises between the banks, though I must take my leave, I am so

grieved at our parting, take care paddling home your boat, for if you chose the wrong paddle, you might fall into the river and drown ..."


The song sounded disjointed, now clear, now lost. Grandma looked dreamily at the river, smiling to herself.


Grandma arrived at Wat Pa, all dressed and well-speckled with powder. I Somchao had tried to stop her from going after seeing her condition that afternoon, but Grandma had insisted

"I'm allright. I can go. I want to pay my homage to Luang Pho To, too."


Once she had finished dressing and winding the breast cloth around her chest and over one shoulder, Grandma's eyes shone brightly and looked for all the world as if the illness had vanished completely. Somchao, who had kept a close watch on her grandmother felt rather relieved. But, knowing full well that Grandma always seemed fresh and full of life whenever she was about to 'sing the songs', the girl didn't feel any real confidence about Grandma's condition. Grandma had shown strange symptoms when the car arrived to fetch them at the house. That was when Somchao had tried to wake her from her nap. Grandma seemed to be unconscious. Somchao had to do so much shaking and calling before Grandma could be woken.


Somchao had kept so close to Grandma that the old woman had to chase her away to get herself dressed, not forgetting to hand the girl a thin gold chain to put around her wrist. Grandma believed that Somchao, being a young girl, should wear some gold ornaments when meeting people. The old woman told the girl not to worry about her. And so, like Grandma, Somchao got dressed in the only brightly-colored clothes that she owned.


Grandma made her way to the front of the stage. The stage Grandma felt, was her birthplace as well as the place in which had grown into adulthood, reached maturity and passed into old age. Everything was familiar no matter where she looked. Dancing and singing songs were so easy and so much fun. Even the specks of dust on the floor were familiar. Yes, Grandma knew every granule of dust on this stage.


That was what Grandma really felt.


"Raising this tray above my head, I pay homage to the Triple Gems, with lighted candle and sweet incense, to the four directions I rise the bai si (10) in respect to the spirits of this place, to the grace of good angels, to my teacher named Pho Phet, who's made me mistress of songs in Suphan, it was he who taught me the i-saew songs….”


Grandma's resonant voice extolled the teachers of the songs. It mesmerized some people into an attentive silence, while those who were not interested in the songs went on chatting and boozing. Grandma hardly ever noticed how many people were listening or not listening to her songs. Right now her entire consciousness was centered on what was taking place on the stage. She listened to the master songster, what was he singing?.. .


"Don't you ever leave an opening where I can get at you!"


In any case, Grandma didn't want to look towards the audience because her eyes were so blurred that she could hardly see a thing.


Grandma forced herself to stand firm and concentrated on the voices of the master songsters and mistress songstresses, waiting for her moment.


Then Grandma went out to sing a brief opening kroen song and sang a retort to the master's cheeky approach. When she stumbled into a fellow songstress, the audience broke into an affectionate laughter.


They thought that Grandma was clumsy from age, but they were wrong-Grandma's eyes could no longer see.


No one on the stage saw anything out of the ordinary in Grandma, not even Somchao herself, because Grandma's old face was wreathed in smiles, her voice as vibrant as ever.


"Oh you smiling man of the moon, with your jerky monkey gait, has your head ever been hit, with nice big weighty cane? You annoy me so much, uttering such silly words. How can you be trusted, when your hair's so fuzzed, and your eyes so bulged?”


Nobody noticed anything unusual in Grandma, not even when she stepped backwards into a wooden bench. She put out her hand to feel the bench in order to locate the seat and sat down on it, looking as if this was something she normally did. After all, she was too old to be standing for long. That was what everybody

thought.


Somchao stopped working the clappers to come to Grandma to ask if she wanted anything. Grandma smiled at her and said


"I want some betel and areca.”


Somchao led Grandma to the side of the stage, eased her into a chair, picked up the betel box and put it on her lap. Grandma arranged the betel and areca, keeping her bright eyes on the master songster who was coming out with strings of razor-sharp words. From the audience, laughter at the battle of the songs between the songsters and songstresses broke out intermittently.


Grandma could no longer see anything at all, but she still had strength to put the betel into her mouth.


Grandma didn't chew the betel. She didn't know whether it tasted good or not. She could no longer taste it at all.


On the stage, Somchao stumbled. She laid down the clappers and danced out ever so smartly.


It was during the chom dong--or the admiring of the forest----that the songs reached the part where the man was taking his new wife home.


"Oei ....., the old kaew tree, your branches're heavy with blossoms so white, close by and upright stands the tall krang tree, scattering its berries on the ground, the sakae has put forth his branches, who was it that cut the tako trunk, and left the stump

sticking up among the curley ngoen kai, the krang leaves have grown old and dry, not catching people's eyes as they use to when comes the blowing breeze, the old leaves get blown away….blown far, far away........."


Somchao had got that far with her singing when all the songsters and songstresses as well as all the lesser singers rushed around to take hold of her while Mae Khwanchit, the leader of the troupe, ran towards Grandma shouting her name.


Somchao's voice was so unmistakably Grandma’s.

 

(1) Tile used before a woman's first name or nickname, traditionally derogatory

but also used with close relatives and friends

(2)sound signaling the opening of traditional folk songs

(3) popular modern folk music

(4)Songster Phet

(5)annual festival at which new robes are presented to monks

(6) Songstress Khwanchit

(7)one kind of traditional folk entertainment

(8) Thai cymbals

(9) huge statue of the Buddha

(10) rice wrapped in a banana leaf, an auspicious ceremonial ornament

 



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