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Nightfall on the Waterway

Author: Ussiri Dhammachoti

Translator: Chamnongsri Rutnin Hanchanlash

ผลงานแปลจากเรื่อง....ของ อัศศิริ ธรรมโชติ

Unhurriedly, the man paddled his empty boat homeward against the current. The evening sun had sunk behind the uneven outline of treetops above the banks of the klong1, but its portent of night seemed lost on the paddler; for he continued to keep his boat moving with the same slow, tired strokes. His spirit was leaden and inert even though he felt a dull longing to be home before nightfall.

The man had been downhearted from the moment he pushed away from the market pier. His full boatload of heavy, green watermelons had brought him a sum so pitiful that he couldn’t bring himself to buy the cheap lace blouse that his wife had asked him to bring her from the market - not the blouse, not even a plaything for his little daughter. Already he could hear himself telling his waiting wife, ‘Wait till next time….we didn’t get enough this time.” Sad and disheartened she would be, as always, and he would have to allay her sense of disappointment as best he could, perhaps telling her: “Let’s save some for a rainy day.”

He had made countless trips to the market pier to sell his watermelons to the wholesale buyer, and each time he had been left with a sense of futility, a sense of wasted labour. His toil -- and his wife’s -- had seemed as worthless as the sweat that evaporated at the touch of a sultry breeze or dripped and dissolved into the ever-moving current of the klong, leaving only its moist and sticky residue that oppressed rather than vitalized. But that was the way things were -- the one buyer monopolized the watermelon market. As soon as the man’s boat moved alongside the pier, other melon growers whisper to him in a kinship of defeat, “Better to sell at his price than letting them rot.”

“We’ll just have to grow more, maybe two or three times more. Then you can have something new to wear to the temple and the little one can have dolls like other children.”

That was what he would have to tell his waiting wife. He couldn’t see any other way of earning enough to buy all the simple things that they dreamed of enjoying. Of course, meant more back-breaking drudgery, more stoic patience, and, above all -- more waiting. But then the woman was no stranger to waiting; it had become part of her life. She had always waited for things she wanted -- a cheap transistor radio to bring music into her drab life, a thin gold chain she could show off to her neighbours. These were the kinds of gifts he had promises before she came to live with him.

Just above the horizon of the darkening paddy fields, homing birds flew in flocks across a sky gloriously bathed in the gold and orange rays of the sunken sun. The trees on both banks darkened and grew patches of deep shadows that spread with a gradual ominousness. Ahead, just where the klong widened and curved, thin curls of white smoke twisted softly upward from behind a dark clump of trees and disappeared into the fast paling sky. As the man paddled on in the stillness of the evening, a motorboat approached from the opposite direction, passed him, and was gone in a rush of roaring speed, churning the quiet water into a commotion of foaming trails and ruffled waves.

As he guided his lurching boat to the bank for shelter, the rushing after wash of the motorboat rammed against its bow a mass of floating refuse and the light craft tossed and rocked precariously. The man held his paddle still and stared hard at the offending mass of flotsam; caught in it was a rubber doll bobbing to the rhythm of the disturbed water.

The man used the paddle to push away the floating garbage and picked the sodden doll out of the water for a closer look. The little toy was there in its entirety, not a part of it was missing --- a naked female baby doll with red smiling lips, pale rubber skin, and big, black-painted staring pupils that somehow suggested cold eternity. He moved its limbs back and forth with great satisfaction. This little doll was going to be a companion to his lonely little girl, who would no longer be ashamed of not having a doll to play with like other kids in their neighbourhood. He cheerful imagined the joy of her bright-eyed excitement and was suddenly impatient to be home with this precious gift for her.

The brand new doll came with the current. Who its owner was was beyond his interest and speculation. The klong had made its meandering way through so many villages, fields, and towns before it had reached this point. Who knew how many eyes and hands it had evaded as it drifted with this collection of refuse past countless other paddle boats and wooden piers that led down from waterside houses. He couldn’t help imagining its little owner crying over her beloved doll as she watched the water carrying it irretrievably away. He could see the pathetic childish helplessness that he had seen in his own little daughter when she once dropped a juicy piece of watermelon on the dust-covered ground, and he felt a flutter of pity for the unknown child.

With a heightened sense of urgency he skillfully manouvered his way, avoiding the vines and branches that trailed into the water. Motorboats that monopolized the center path of the waterway sent waves of agitated water towards the dark banks on either side. Occasionally he had to stop paddling and hold the paddle against the unsettled water to steady the boat, but it caused him no anger or resentment. Home was not so far away now, and the rising moon would soon be high enough for him to make his way more easily.

He continued to keep his boat close to the shelter of the bank, even when its overhanging vegetation had been swallowed by the velvet blackness of night. Now and then his movements startled nocturnal birds from their klong-side thickets. With harsh piercing shrieks they rose in agitated flight, flapping their wings over his head, and disappeared into the darkness of the opposite bank. Their stirring scattered airborne congregations of fireflies, which flashed like intermittent sparks from a kindled fire, before settling behind dark clumps of klong-side reeds like soft luminous shower. Whenever he drifted too close to the bank, the drones of the myriad of waterside insects sounded to his ears like plaintive wails of human miseries; and an aching loneliness would sweep over him.

In a timeless moment of solitude on the lightless klong with no passing boat to keep him company - a timeless moment in which the moving water made soft sounds like the breath of a dying man -- he thought of death and suddenly realized that the quiet klong breeze brought with it the smell of putrefaction.

A rotting carcass of some animal, he thought. A dead puppy, or perhaps a piglet, that klong-side inhabitants would never hesitated to throw into the waterway, relying on the current to bear it away while nature completed the process of decay and water finalized the disintegration of the once-living flesh. There …..there it was… the source of this nauseating smell held by that mass of floating garbage under the shadow of an overspreading banyan tree.

A momentary glance, and he was about to navigate his boat away from the stinking repulsive thing when something about it caught his attention. His unbelieving eyes were drawn back to it -- a rotting human corpse floating there with that mass of lifeless garbage. He was frozen with shock and fear, his paddle held in mid-stroke.

It took him more than a few moments to gather his courage and with his paddle push aside part of the floating garbage so that the pathetic nauseating object could move closer. With the help of the pale moonlight that glimmered coldly through the banyan leaves, he scrutinized the lifeless body with morbid curiosity.

Like the doll that he had just picked out of the water, it was a nude baby girl about the same age as his daughter. Not a part of the pitiful little dead thing was missing, yes -- like the doll, except for the absence of the doll’s fixed smile and black vacant stare. The child’s body was horribly bloated and, in the palor of the fugitive moonbeam, had taken on a nauseating tinge of green. It was hard to imagine what this little girl had been like in the freshness of life, what bright innocence must have been hers before she became this festering corpse in the course of the sad, inevitable process that would finally make her one with the ever-moving current of this klong.

The man was sharply conscious of the poignancy of the sadness and loneliness of man’s individual destiny. He thought of the child’s parents, of their reaction to this cruel turn of fate. What could he do to let them know? He started to turn his boat this way and that to call for help, covering his nose with the palm of his hand to block out the sickening stench of the corpse that became unbearable each time a breeze moved from its direction.

Turning away to look for a passing boat, he involuntarily glanced back and caught sight of a glint that made his eyes widen. Almost entirely buried in the bloated flesh of the dead child’s wrist was a slim chain of yellow metal. The sight of it in the moonlight inflated his heart and made it miss a beat.

“Gold!” he cried inwardly, stretching out his paddle to move the pathetic swollen little body closer. The sudden roar of a motor-boat and the light from its kerosene lamp made him jump with guilt. He turned his boat so that its shadow fell on the corpse, hiding it from view, and waited until he was alone again in the silence that followed. It would have been a gross injustice, an unforgivable stupidity, to let someone else take the prize away from him. He would not let anyone take advantage of him now as they did when he sold his watermelons. After all, he was the discoverer of this treasure, he had suffered the dreadful company of this bloated corpse, he had borne its unbearable stench in this moon-blanched darkness. Even if the fortune weren’t that much, it would still be worth more than what he was paid for his boatload of watermelons; and the current had bore it here to this spot to be found by him.

He was elated by visions of his careworn wife wearing the lace blouse she had so long waited for; perhaps he would even buy her one of those prettily coloured panung2 from the north to go with it, and he would get clothes for their child and for himself. For the first time he would enjoy the happiness of spending without twinges of pain that always came from the parting with hard-earned money. What did he have to do to earn it but paddle home against the current which he had to do anyway? The happiness that would light up the drained face of his wife and the eagerness that would shine in his child’s eyes, short-lived and transient though they might be, were blessings as precious to his joyless life as a shower to a drought-parched paddy field.

The moonlight lay like a rippled silver sheen on the moving water, and the seemingly interminable hum of insects now resembled prayers chanted for the dead. He held his breath and, with the thin blade of his melon-knife, cut into the soft swollen flesh of the fingers and hand of the dead child. Piece by piece the decomposing flesh fell away from the white bones and was carried away by the drifting current, gradually exposing the bright chain of gold that it had almost hidden from view by its ghastly swelling. The stench was so strong that he gagged for air; and by the time he had the prize in his hand, he could no longer refrain from retching. The horrible smell of death clung to his knife, his hand, and his entire body. Vomitting copiously into the water, he washed his knife and his hands, letting the water carry away every disgusting trace of what he had done, just as it had carried away the pieces of the dead child’s flesh.

The corpse, freed with a push from the paddle, was drifting slowly downstream, further and further away, in silent finality. The man pushed his boat away from the bank, guiding it to midstream. The doll lying face up in the middle of the boat caught his eyes. It was lying there with the fixed smile on its red lips and the blank stare in its painted black eyes, its hands stuck up in the empty air as if begging for pity. “It’s haunted! It’s that little girl’s,” he thought and hurriedly pitched the doll into the water so that it drifted away in the same direction as its owner. “So what!” he thought, his heart filled with elation. He could buy another one, or even two such dolls, for his daughter to play with and amuse herself. He was no longer depressed with what he had thought was a futile trip. Thinking of his wife and child who were as yet ignorant of their unexpected luck, he paddled as fast as he could with new-found energy until the lights from his home come in sight from behind the bushes not so far ahead.

He no longer had any time for thoughts about the poor little corpse. He no longer cared where it came from or whether the parents would learn of their child’s fate. The little human tragedy receded to the back of his mind where only a trace of it lingered.

The man quickened the strokes of his paddle with unaccustomed vigour and exuberance.


1 canal

2 Thai version of the sarong

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