Story: Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook
Translation: Khunying Chamnongsri Hanchanlash
Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, The Dream of mother, 1990
It should begin in childhood…shouldn’t it? Not that I intended the cliché but because childhood is the beginning of arrested time… of frozen Present.
But then which of the childhood scenes should I take up – there being so many that it has filled the attic of memory with near-rancid stuffiness. Take hold of anything in it, up comes some grey memories. Come, out, out you come. It turns out to be shadows of a group of people cast across the first road of my life on late afternoon. Beautiful yellow sunray shone on the smooth little road. The group of shadows crept across to the other side, to incinerate the well-beloved.
The shadows still cast themselves on the same road over and over every year. It wasn’t long before the silent ceremonial crossing of the road became the symbol of farewell.
And it should be night… shouldn’t it? It should be night because that’s when we can escape day. The night shuts day’s consciousness with sleep… that is when there are no bad dreams.
And then what season should it be? The choice season should be when the wind moans and moans, shouldn’t it?
But we can’t choose everything, can we! Otherwise we why would all pick sun-yellow flowers – and the reds and the whites… when on a dewy dawn the undertaker told us that the what is left of the remnants of the skeleton were there under the ashes on the steel tray that was pull from the still-warm crematorium yesterday night… flowers for placing where that breast should be as token of the last goodbye (even though we have bade so many goodbyes during those seven days of funeral rites). While running on the damp grass to find flowers in those three colors, I could only think that I wanted blue or bluish mauve because it would go better with the grey ashes – but there were no blue flowers on the temple ground.
That road gave me my first pride of accomplishment when I crossed it on my own, having escaped the care of the adults. Looking back from opposite side, the ‘home’ that sheltered me didn’t ‘feel’ to me as it had always done. I didn’t know then that later on, after crossing larger and more significant roads would flush me with larger pride, the little house by the river would silently hide in a secure corner of my memory.
สัปเหร่อ laid down the tri-colored bouquet on the place where the breast should be and, with his fingertip, drew the skeletal outline – head, body, arms, legs – like a child’s drawing. Four expressionless monks in bright orange robes chanted words reminding the transiency of all things, rousing the morning air from lingering sleep to witness the last rite on the crematorium. The wind wafted as the undertaker scattered the ashes in the verdant forest that surrounded that crematorium. I departed the scene carrying the bones wrapped in a white cloth.
That road that passes the house ran parallel to the river. The houses that faced the road each had its own pier with steps down to the water – the wide expanse that ran cold and deep through many episodes of memory. At that time, though, the water was cool, the road was warm. We always have choices, don’t we? So it seems.
The tolling of the bell from the belfry of near-by Christian church spread over the faces of the river and the road, seeping into the house to the cot with pale green railing by the parents’ bed. Both father and mother must have forgotten to cover up the pictures of the human bodies whose skin was peeled back to show the muscles. Head, arms, legs, torso – redness spread all over. And that’s what the baby, curled in the cot, looked at daily.
Still line ups of body parts, there they were in the pre-dawn dimness. Tolling of church bells resonated across as usual. The river flowed, lazily bathing house’s wooden piles, and the road lay still – just still – was there any remnants of those days that grew and moved in the mind of the little child as days passed?
Yes, one of them was the softness of Mother’s green blanket of floral design from the big bed… the softness when the blanket swaddled us both as she curled with me on the tiny space of the railed cot. Cool river breeze blew through the window moving the curtain with its cut-out embroidery. That episode of life, so filled with warmth, how much longer would it last?
I can’t remember what we thought as children. Perhaps when hungry, we thought of the aroma of yellow corn fritters wafting from the kitchen, or scent of hot cocoa rising from the mug. Perhaps when overcome with sleepiness, we thought of bed. Perhaps nostalgia for us was so faint that it encompassed nothing but the lingering warmth of soft beds in the morning and the golden sweet smoothness of the egg-yolk dessert on the green banana leaf – nothing else but these.
When we grow up, we think back of things that no longer exist. Our yearnings cry hungrily like children who demand to be fed with substitutes – with tolling of other bells from other churches, with short and transient daily routines on other small roads temporarily visited – but not the river, there can never be substitutes for that river…never.
The infant was sometimes carried out on the verandah to take the river air, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening. It probably saw the river without truly knowing its nature - not until it could pull itself up against the railing to look down at the current, not until it could sit on the steps to dip its toes in the water, not until it fearfully took hold of the circular ring buoy and steeled its heart to wear the buoy and started to swim.
Not so fast… there were other bright scenes that came before that one. There was one when the face of the river reflected the lights of wishing candles that flicked and shone from banana-leaf floats on Loy Kratong night. It was the very last time that Mother and her three-year-old daughter ever went together on that river. Not many days had passed when father carried Mother down the steps, her nightgown trailing. The sound of speed and ambulance siren finally faded. The little girl stood holding the railings of the verandah. The familiar river flowed swiftly to the finality of life. Mother never returned.
If this chapter ends where the river rushed swiftly and Mother never returned, memory would be left with just one picture and one season, the season of the fast-flowing, swollen river. But every memory, no matter what, should have an escape route, should it not?
There came the day of the incident. It was the day when the little girl put on the circular ring buoy and swam out, crossing the river, on her own. Perhaps again, the night of the speeding current challenged her to try something that might wipe out that episode from her memory.
In that hour of survival, sobs intermixed with prayers from the strong woman who saved her life. The woman patted the little head with water from the river, calling blessings upon her with prayers before paddling the endlessly sobbing little thing back home on the other side of the river.
It may be that we can’t ever deny the call of pride over life’s “First Crossing”, even though the response to that call brought the experience of failure – the ignominious capsize under the towlines of barges that almost brought with it the end of life.
What is there that we can exchange with life? Well… isn’t it this that we are exchanging with life?
Earthen Mound by the River
We took a long journey to the arid pink land. Father said pink stand for Communism, and that’s why I pictured either soldiers or border patrol police standing around the clear space where the helicopter landed in front of the medical base each time Father went to take care of villagers in dry forests with seared brown leaves. The house we stayed in, however, was in town. The road in front of it lead to a temple, it was lavishly lined with trees. Strange it was that we had a much bigger river running behind the house. Its sweeping bend was so wide that I felt no desire to swim in it..
While we were there, Death did not pay us a visit – no one’s Death - not from the neighborhood nor from where we had come from. No more excitement at crossing new roads, for it was erased by the immediate fun of children’s games. We kept the first pet dog. It was followed by many others. For the first time, the exhilarating speed of bicycle that took the child’s world a distance from home to the community of immigrant Vietnamese, to the village where vegetable were grown in long rows – it was rumored that human waste was used as fertilizers.
But no matter how far the mileage I covered, alone on the bicycle or with father on the helicopter, one cloud-inked rain spattered evening when climbing on the wet roof, I glanced towards the Wat Luang* and saw its towering crematorium funnel spouting black smoke that floated skyward and dissolved into the gloom of dusk. That veritable symbol of parting was beckoning to me.
After school, I set off to explore Wat Luang, the temple whose walls were the sweetly-colored sema-shaped repository of ashes and bones – blue, green, yellow, pink. At intervals in the riverside temple compound, short wide steps leading down to the river. Even here, rows of cement tombs scribed with dates stretched along the walls on the right and left of the steps. Death seemed to blossom joyously everywhere. Bunyan trees teased these white cubicles with their roots, so rudely that the cement split into cracks of tantalizing blackness that whetted desires to investigate every nooks and crevices. These cracks in the cement also drew the stale scent into the imagination. It was the scent of dreams blown by the river breeze that bantered with the perfumes of kaew and pikul*.
The most marvelous item of all in that temple was the tomb of a Chinese. It was wooden, polished, dark in color. It stood immobile in the wide pavilion, dignified in its oblivion to the presence of Death around it. It stood in the dimness of day where sunlight could not reach, in the brightness of night lit by neon light amid sounds of chanting of prayers that seemed to cradle it. It was as beautiful as the royal bed of a princess. Came the end of the funeral rites, this princely bed would be surrounded by mourners in rough white cotton attire alternating with the beautiful colors of the hearse that move out on its way to the cemetery amid sounds of weeping. The stage prop and the actors (not so sure which is which) who played Death in the temple confused me because I could not conclude what was death - the bone fragments in the sema-shaped repository, the tender scents of flowers mixed with the stale scent that seeped through the black bunyan-root cracks in the cement, the inscription of dates that were and the cobwebbed stony stillness, the bright colors of the Chinese hearse moving through the sounds of white laments, the dignified stillness of the Chinese coffin amid the severity of the funeral rites under the palely luminous neon light.
The bicycle still rolled past the deserted Farang* cemetery in the late mornings of holidays. Not only can Life be deserted, but Death, too. On a grave, a beautifully engraved white cross was covered by creepers whose leaves of dark and light green were dotted with gleaming white flowers. Nature celebrated Death’s memoriam behind the heavy iron door encrusted with rust – the barrier that divided the movement of the lonely road from Death, even though the soul of the road was as silent as the souls in the graveyard – still, they were divided.
One evening, the little bicycle followed the smell of flesh burning on the open pyre by the road. There, in the winter dusk, flickering flames were actively extinguishing the remains of a life. Two สัปเหร่อ hunched close to the pyre for the warmth, smoking. The duration of time in which the little bicycle sliced through the air fetid with burnt flesh was like a vacuum in the process of living. Without passing through death, would life’s vacuum occur from other sources?
At that moment in time, there wasn’t a shadow moving towards the cremation rites. There was only the death of the little lives of a parrot and a beloved dog, sweat from grave digging, sobs of loss amid bright flowers in the garden. All this brought about a clean, uncluttered line of communication between the little girl
When I grew up, I went back to visit both of the two rivers. On meeting the first river, a sentence sprang up in my mind.
“The river seemed to stop flowing when we met. The bridge, the lampoo tree…” After all, the river and I were well acquainted.
The little mound in the garden with the bend of the river as its base… where was it now?
The passing decades have changed it in to the cement backyard of the home for the resident doctor. As I skirted the mound, the sound of Esarn kite in chill night air stirred in the memory as Thought sequenced scenes from bygone days.
Death’s Realities and Rites
Isn’t it the reality of Death that diminishes the imagination where Death is concerned?
But then, do we need imagination with Death?
It’s also the customary procedures and rites to which people are so attached that utterly smothered any possible reverie on Death.
The more is Death talked about in the public context, the more is the charm of Death lost.
Death should have its own corner - a close, unventilated corner – where it can find its own breath once more.
*Draft version in translator's drawer.