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The Bondage

Ussiri Thamachote

The S.E.A. Write Award 1981

Collection : Khunthong, You Will Return at Dawn

Translated: Chamnongsri Rutnin

จาก เรื่อง แล้วหญ้าแพรกก็แหลกลาญ ในรวมเรื่องสั้นชุด ขุนทองเจ้าจะกลับเมื่อฟ้าสาง

ผลงานรางวัลวรรณกรรมสร้างสรรค์ยอดเยี่ยมแห่งอาเซียน ปี 2524 ของ อัศศิริ ธรรมโชติ



“My master says you must leave. He’s coming tomorrow to deal with the farm … and with this house,” the visitor said in a slow, toneless voice as he stood alone under the open sky.

“My master has told me to guard this house and the land even if I have to die doing it,” replied the host in the same tone. He was sitting on the top rung of the wooden ladder of the house.

“Your master lives in the city. He can’t help you. He won’t even see your corpse,” the reply came back laced with a discordant laugh.

“Oh that! Forget it, Nak. He owns my life, and you know it.”

The man called Nak straightened his thick shoulders, standing like a pole driven deep into the earth. His baggy trousers were made of the same rough black fabric as that of his shirt, and the ends of his pakaoma fluttered like banners in the breeze that blew over the fields. His body threw a deep shadow over the wind-touched grass.

Specks of wind-blown dust circled in the hot sun. The sun rose so high in the sky that it seemed as though it was escaping from its own scorching heat.


“I’m doing what I have to, Hern. This is the last day that he’ll let you stay on this land. If I don’t get you to leave, my wife and kid’s lives won’t be as easy as they are now.”

As he spoke, the man called Nak tightened the knot of his pakaoma with his rough hands and drew himself up to an uncompromising height.


Hern remained seated at the top of the ladder. He, too, wore loose black trousers, but the top part of his muscular body was bare, except for a pakaoma thrown carelessly over one shoulder. He looked as vital as he was strong and as implacable as his visitor. A shaft of sunlight slanted through the eave of the house. It caught a steel-like glint in the eyes that gazed down at the standing man. The gaze was so steady that the eyes seemed incapable of blinking.


“I know. But, with me, everything is up to my master. We are the same, Nak. It’s duty first,” Hern said tersely. “So, how shall we do it?”

Nak chuckled and looked down to trace an aimless pattern in the dust with his foot. He leveled his gaze at Hern and chuckled again before answering.

“You, on your own, Hern.”

“And you?”

“On my own,” said Nak. “I have men, but I won’t bring them. They’re young. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“Thanks. Sword, or gun?” asked Hern, looming at the top of the ladder.

“Swords. They don’t make too much noise.” Nak answered, with a sinister hint of laughter in his voice.


Hern paused and laughed along with Nak. “Would you be jailed if you killed someone?” he asked.

“No, my master would help me. And you?”

“My master would take care of that.”


Silence fell briefly before Nak said, “I’ll be back just before dawn.”


With a nod from Hern, Nak turned and walked away. He seemed to have relaxed, walking with his arms swinging lightly as if taking a stroll. Hern sat down and rolled some tobacco in a piece of dried palm. He drew on it serenely, as if tomorrow would be just another day.

He breathed out a cloud of smoke, still watching Nak’s receding figure.


In his memory, he saw Nak walking up to these fields years ago. In those days, he had been a very young man as Hern himself had been. He was walking behind the two brothers, the ‘masters’, whom Hern rushed out to greet, humbly and happily.


“Hern, this is Nak, my brother’s man,” said Hern’s master, the younger of the two brothers. And that was how they were introduced.

With the smiles they exchanged a friendship WAS BORN which existed on instinctive recognition of their common stand and values. Each was his master’s man.


“D’you drink?” Hern had asked when the masters had passed into the house.

“Sometimes,” Nak replied, laughing. “Why not celebrate tonight?”


The friendship was like roots of two trees planted close together - roots that reached out and entwined under the ground creating stability and power for the spreading trees above. Hern often felt that he and Nak were one and the same. They had the same toughness and strength. They were close in age, height and physique. Their respective masters arranged their marriages, supported their families, and gave them the houses they lived in. Their duties were the same; each followed his master everywhere to protect him. And their masters were almost always together – almost like twins. In their thoughts, both placed their masters above their own lives.


“Our masters have given us everything we have. We are men. We can die for them if we have to,” Nak used to say, echoing his very own thoughts.

It was beyond Hern’s understanding why the two brothers who were once so close suddenly hate each other so. They turned their backs on each other. It was worse than if death had come between them.


“My brother betrayed me. We shall live in the city.” With those words, his master moved to the city with his wife and children, taking Hern and his family with them.


Then, one day, the master gave a terse command,


“Go back to the fields. Keep my brother away from the land and the old house. Guard them with your life, Hern.”

And Hern took leave of his wife and children and came back to this house, his master’s command imprinted on his conscience. His friendship with Nak had ended because Nak was now the ‘enemy’. They had not met since the master left the farm. He had come to think of Nak with distrust and suspicion. Nak was someone on the other side. That was as clear to him as his own boundless allegiance to the master.


“It’s our duty, Nak,” he murmured.


Nak walked past the fence that bordered the fields, uneasiness nagging at his thoughts. He kept thinking, “Hern, you should go away. You really should go away.” It was only wishful thinking because he knew Hern too well.

Nak knew the man’s nature from the day they had first met, the day he had followed his master to these fields. Nak and Hern had become friends because of their masters’ shared common interest in the field. It was only natural that they should turn their backs on each other when their masters quarreled.

The masters’ dispute was above and beyond his reasoning. The master’s affairs were not for people like him to understand. They were like the skies, the winds – things that he accepted without questioning. What he understood was the loyalty they owed to the master whose commands were sacred. He knew it was the same with Hern.


“My brother cheated me – the house and land are mine,” the master said.

Then came the day when he told Nak, “Go and get Hern to leave. Tomorrow I shall take over that house.”

As he made his way past the huts and the woods on either side, he heard again the tales told by his mother when he was a child. So many of them were about the indestructible ties between servants and their masters.

The bountiful masters and their indisputable commands, the faithful servants with their unquestioning loyalty – such were the shining examples he heard in those early years of childhood.

“Mother, I am doing the same as the servants in your stories,” Nak said in his heart.

Looking up at the setting sun, Nak felt sad at the thought of the final end to the friendship between himself and Hern. The hostility between their masters had stifled it – but not with the deadly finality of what would happen before tomorrow’s dawn.

Nak had no thoughts of who would win and who would die: and, he knew, neither had Hern. Such things belonged to the realms of time and destiny. It was not their concern to speculate about what lies in the future.

The sky was still dark when Nak came to the house in the middle of the fields. Hern was already waiting with an oil lamp.

In the dim light of the oil lamp, the two men’s swords flashed like lightning in a thunderous sky. The night rang with the clashing of iron against iron. Sparks that flew from the furious blades looked momentarily like stars before falling earthward. The stillness of the pre-dawn air shook with the sounds of breathing, the din of shaking floorboards and the noise of the men’s bodies against the house’s wooden walls.

The light moved to the unrhythmic swaying of the oil lamp in the intermittent breeze. Now and then it shone on the faces and bodies of the fighting men in the lonely house. Sweat and blood oozed down the crevices of their faces and smeared their muscular chests and arms, giving them the appearance of blood-crazed demons. Sometimes the pupils of the staring eyes gleamed red like the eyes of wild animals. The beams from the swaying lamp caught the blood-soiled blades, now making them gleam like white lightening, now losing them to darkness. The light shifted randomly, often falling repeatedly on one place while quickly glancing over others; but wherever it shone, there was always the sight of blood.

The clashing of the swords, the sounds of quick breathing, the noise of bodies hitting the wooden walls and of feet on the floorboards did not stop until dawn. The pale moon had dropped behind the treetops far away in the horizon and morn awoke with shrill cockcrows.


Nak stood swaying on the house at the top of the ladders, surrounded by the stirring of the new day. His eyes were unfocused; the tip of the sword in his right hand was buried in the wooden floor. Hern’s body stretched out on the floor behind him. It was deadly still. The light of the oil lamp looked wan in the morning light.

His black trousers were wet with blood from the wounds on his bare chest and arms. Blood streaked his face. He staggered down the ladder, leaving the sword trembling with its tip buried deep in the wooden floor. Nak descended a few steps and fell. His body rolled to a stop against a clump of tall grass.

'Hern’s gone…,' he thought as he lay still, his breathing growing short and light. 'Master will be able to do what he wants with the fields. I’ve done my duty.'


It dawned on Nak that his friendship with Hern had not ended. What had stopped was his friend’s breath. The bond of life, understanding, and honour was unbroken. Hern’s life was gone and his own was ebbing away… Nak felt tears mingling with the sweat and blood on his face.

Tales that his mother used to tell drifted back - those strange tales of masters and servants that he had heard again and again as a child; the tales of masters and men, of honour and loyalty. Though he lay face down against the clump of grass, he clearly saw – one after another – his master, his wife, his children, and Hern. Then, last of all, he saw his long-dead mother. He saw her clearly. Her image lingered the longest of all … and her stories …

“Mother, your stories were good but I am glad I haven’t told them to my children.” Nak was weeping because of the pain he felt in his body and in his heart. Along with the blood that flowed from his wounds, he was losing his children and his wife – his friend he had already lost. He was losing his master, too, but somehow he felt no sadness. Not the unspeakable sadness that he felt at the thought of losing his wife and children … and Hern.

But the last moments of consciousness were actually tinged with a lightness of the heart. At last there would be no 'master'. The bondage had been broken. Nak and Hern were no longer bound to their masters.

Nak’s fingers clutched and pulled at the grass. They left trails of bruised and broken blades as his last breath mingled with the sweetness of the morning air.


 

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