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It is Time to Leave this Klong

Ussiri Thamachote

The S.E.A. Write Award 1981

Collection : Khunthong, You Will Return at Dawn

Translated: Chamnongsri Rutnin

จาก เรื่อง ถึงคราที่จะหนีไกล ไปจากลำคลองสายนั้น ในรวมเรื่องสั้นชุด ขุนทองเจ้าจะกลับเมื่อฟ้าสาง

ผลงานรางวัลวรรณกรรมสร้างสรรค์ยอดเยี่ยมแห่งอาเซียน ปี 2524 ของ อัศศิริ ธรรมโชติ



Illustration:Indigo




She took her daughter in her arms and told her never to go on a boat like that ever again because it wasn't good for her. As the child started to ask a question, she said quickly,

''Let's go into the house.'' She took the little girl by the hand and led her home.


It had been 'the house' to her for many years--for so long that she had really begun to think of it as home. A hut assembled from lids of wooden crates and rusty pieces of corrugated iron, it squatted under the arch of a bridge that crossed over a dirty klong(1). It was a shelter for her and her two children. When they lay in it at night, they

could see the light of stars. In the daytime, bright sunlight shone through its gaps and holes. If this was a house, what would she call those stucco buildings along the sides of the klong , she wondered to herself.


The woman led the little girl by the hand. She walked at such a pace that the child had to alternate between running and walking to keep up. Her ragged little panung(2) fapped in the klongside breeze. Her son was waiting by their 'house'. He was wearing a pair of faded trousers cut off at the knees and a striped t-shirt, an outfit he had picked up from some garbage heap and had been wearing for several days.

"I have been waiting a long time,'' he said and showed his sister what he had been hiding behind his back,

"A tiger mask,'' he said, putting it against his sister' face.

"I found it on my way home,'' he held it up to show his mother, taking no notice of his sister's cries for it.


The woman stared at the dusty mask. "'So like atiger!'' she thought the tiger that snarled and roared in this metropolis. It looked ready to tear her to pieces, the way this city had done to her life. She want to throw it away from her so that it fell into the klong, whose current would carry it out of her sight forever. But all she did was soothe her crying daughter and hand her the mask.


"You can have it. He gave it to you. Tomorrow I shall put a string on it so you can wear it.'' She turned to her son and asked

"How much did you get today?''

"Twelve baht, but I spent two on cigarettes.''

"Oh..you brat, you..'' she lifted her hand, looked at him a moment and then laughed.

'' Do you have a cigarette left? Give me one. It was a bad day for me -- got not even five baht.'' She pushed him into the hut and then pulled her daughter in.


''I brought lots of food today," the boy pointed to plastic bags that were piled against a wall.

''Crawled under the tables. The hard-faced doorman didn't see me. Almost got some fried chicken....the people were just about to leave the table. But we started to fight for the good pieces. Hard Face came in and shouted at us. If it hadn't been

like that, I would've got lots more. Come on mother, cook the rice."

"I'll warm up this food of yours first,'' she answered. The bridge above them trembled under the wheels of passing cars and trucks making their hut shake and rattle.


The night air reeked of the smell of dirty water and spread an invisible blanket of unhealthy dankness over everything. City lights seeped dimly under the bridge and made the black water gleam in the darkness. Three or four ugly and shapeless little huts built with corrugated iron and wooden crates stood close together under the bridge. The woman and her neighbours were used to the rattling of their huts, the sounds of heavy wheels, blaring horns and distant whistles of the traffic police.


The woman lay on her side, her weight on one elbow. With her other arm, she held the sleeping girl against her breast. The boy had gone out again. She listened to the sounds that gradually dwindled as the night wore on.


The noise of wheels on the bridge was less frequent now, but not the music and the clinking of glass and cutlery on the other side of the klong-- noise of food, drink and music. She sighed and looked through the open door at the sky in the south. A lone star was glittering there, beautiful and far away -- far beyond her calculation.


Probably as far away as he, the man who had deserted her.

He, the father of her two children. Whenever she thought of him, she could see him sitting by her side on the train.


''We won't be as poor as at home. Got to be brave. There are a lot of jobs in the city. We will find something. It will be better than living on their field and sweating to make them rich. We'll make do in the city.''


Recalling the scene up to this point, she wept. Tears blinded her, she could no longer see the gleam of the glittering star....


The rhythmic dipping of a paddle in the water had a desolate sound. The boat that was passing downstream was paddled by a woman, with a man sitting at the front end. Short poles held up a low roof in the middle of the boat. There were curtains hanging from the roof.

''Still awake, auntie?'' the young woman called from the boat.

''Yes,'' she said and watched the boat pass from the area of dim light into the darkness of one of the deep bays that the current had eaten into the banks of the klong. A moment's interlude in the noise of music and clinking of glasses allowed the drones of waterside insects to surface in the silence. The noise flooded back and drowned it.


The sound of paddle strokes was part of the essence of this klong's life...yes, somehow she had not thought of that.


People came from other places and met here on the klong despite its dirtiness and pollution. Lives that floated on it and existed along it seemed polluted, useless and incomplete.

"How long have you gone without a bath?"'

"Six days. I am waiting for the high tide so that the water' ll be cleaner"

"The water in the klong is cleaner than you are now, you..."


She smiled to herself at the way her klong-side neighbours teased one another during the day.


Garrulous voices came to her from a boat that was being paddled up the klong against the current. The voices grew clearer as the boat came nearer.


'Terrible. Just like a log,'' cried a man's drunken voice.

''Go to a hotel, if you want something better. This is all you get for thirty baht,'' a woman's voice screamed back.

''You bitch! I'll smash your teeth in for talking like that!"

''Go ahead, and see if I don't bash your head with this paddle!"

"Being nasty to a customer, eh? I'll report you to your boss."

"Go on, tell him. I'm not afraid. What the hell do you expect for thirty baht.'' The voices grew fainter as the boat moved further and further away....

''Aw, no. Not this song,'' this voice came from the other side of the klong.


Males and females... ..husbands and wives....what made them go their own separate ways, so far apart, so easily. It was easy to understand in the case of the drunken man and the woman who had come together on the boat for a cheap exchange of pleasure and money. But surely not with a husband and a wife who had travelled together far away from home, who had shared years of living and loving, who had

had two children together. Why had her husband deserted her? Was she 'terrible - just like a log' and he had to leave her for someone better? ....some one who was good and not like a log?


The woman started sobbing again.....


"Mother, I got three more baht." Her eleven-year-old son was back from the all-night market, a lighted cigarette glowing as he inhaled.

"Give me one,'' she said. He lighted one and handed it to her. She drew on it and blew white smoke into the darkness.

"Not so many people tonight. So there wasn't much food," He sat down by her side. She was putting his little sister into the dirty mosquito net that covered almost the whole area of the room.


The cigarette butt that he threw into the water sizzled and went out. She watched it drift slowly out of sight, like the debris and refuse that the dark water carried pass her hut every day and night. Discarded, unwanted things floated by on the klong whose nightly sound was of paddles rhythmically dipping in the water.


''I'm going to sleep now, Mother,'' the boy rolled himself into the mosquito net.

"Where's the three baht,'' she asked.

"I can't give it to you, I spent two fifty on some chewing gum,'' he replied.

''Where will you go tomorrow, Mother?"

"Same place."

"That's not so good. Why don't you go to food shops, take Ai Noi to beg with you and they will give you more.'' 'Ai Noi' was his sister who was fast asleep.


She gave the cigarette a last draw and threw it into the klong. As she was closing the door, a voice came from a paddle boat,


"Why are you up so late, auntie.''

"I'm going to bed now,'' she said with a laugh that was answered by fresh young laughter from the woman on the boat. The boat passed like others before it.

"Was that Aunt Daoruang?'' her son asked, his voice coming from the darkness. ''Aunt Daorung 's nice. She takes Ai Noi on her boat and gives her candies. She's pretty with her powder and lipsticks and the paint on her nails. One day, when I have enough money, I will pay to go with her in her boat..."

"By the time you have enough money she will be old,'' she chuckled lightly at his thought.

''Go to sleep. It's late.''


Long after her son fell asleep, she was still sitting outside the mosquito net, thinking.


The woman recalled the sight of her daughter that evening, there on the klong. The girl's dirty little face was bright with laughter as she sat at the front end of the boat paddled by the pretty, painted, smiling young woman. Fear that lurked in her sad, worn heart conjured the image of her daughter - full-grown, painted and smiling - padding a boat that carried man after man, young and old, towards the privacy

of the klongside little bays that were protected by steep banks. There in the middle of the boat, hidden by the curtains, her daughter would make love to so many different men...night after night.....


She thought of the mask, the tiger mask. Tomorrow she would put strings on it so that the little girl could wear it. Life as she had known it was far more savage than the teeth and claws of wild tigers. How could she let it prey on the daughter that she loved more than anything in the world?


"Can I paddle a boat like Aunt Daoruang?"' her daughter's voice -- yes, she heard it only that morning.

''No, you aren't pretty enough,'' said her brother. "You have to paint your lips and nails and cheeks Besides, you aren't strong enough yet. Even if you were, men wouldn't want to go with you."

"You wait! I'll learn to paddle. I'll do it and look pretty, too."


A sudden thought sent her rushing into the mosquito net to hug the little girl tight against her breast. The child wailed softly in her sleep as the bridge rumbled and the tin hut shook to the fury of a speeding truck.


A tear fell on the child's hair.


There were no more sounds of music or the clinking of glasses on the other side of the klong. Coming at long intervals, the roars of passing cars and trucks drowned out the drones of night insects.


But all through the night she lay listening to the light, lonely sounds of paddles in the drifting water of that klong.....


When morning came, she took her children away from that klong.

 

(1) a canal

(2) Thai version of the sarong

 

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