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Velocity over the Rolling Waves


Wat Wallayangkul

Translation : Chamnongsri L. Rutnin

English proof reader: Lindsay Neilson Siripongpanit

จาก โลดแล่นรวดเร็วเหนือรวงคลื่น ของ วัฒน์ วรรลยางกูร


Illustration: Indigo

The wooden blades of the forty-man paddle crew slice the water, churning it into wild spirals in the wake of the long, slender boat. With the acceleration of his heartbeat, the young orchard hand curbs his feelings by focussing all his attention on the blowing of the whistle between his lips to give rhythm to the crew’s strokes. The paddle in his own hands keeps time with those of his mates. With each stroke, the men’s full-spirited vocal exhalations “huea… huea… huea” ring out in such unison as though to overpower the wide river with their resonance.


The pungent sweat glazes the dark brown skin and accumulates with the exertion of each stroke. ‘Huea…huea…huea” the bow of the teak craft rears higher above the water as though to show off its name, “Plai Noi”. Looking like the curved end of a sword, the raised bow-stem slides forward with speed as the keel cuts the water into showering arcs.


The saffron spot on the temple sala grows larger by the second until it takes the shape of a man. It is Luang Poh, sitting there watching the approaching display of speed. When the boat reaches the stretch of river in front of the temple, he waves for it to stop but the young orchard hand pretends not to see the signal and continues to blow the whistle without any detectable interruption to the rhythm.


“Preet…preet…preet”

“Huea…huea…huea”


Such a behavior may not seem too far out of the ordinary had it not been for the long years of close association between Luang Poh and these young men, especially Tan – the leader of the lot. Luang Poh has known him from the days when his face was still round and cherubic. Today the cheekbones on that face have grown into determined mounds; the chin has squared out and sprouted a luxuriant beard. Those cheekbones and chin have drawn their daily nourishment from the rice at the bottom of Luang Poh’s alms bowl up to the very day Tan left the temple to earn his living as an orchard hand.


Though that was some four or five years ago, Luang Poh feels as if it were only yesterday. Chewing his mixture of areca nuts and betel, he follows the foaming backwash with his eyes. Something is not as it should be…


The boat is on its way back. This time it slows to a stop off the sala pier, each man gasping for air – pitifully, like fish out of water. Luang Poh stops chewing and takes a look at each of the young faces before spitting the chewed-out areca quid into the river with such a force that it makes the short sound of a pebble dropping into the water. The gesture causes those who are new to it to beat a hasty retreat and take a stand at a safe distance. At a time like this, only the one-time gang-leader of temple boys dares to face the monk.


“Well, are you all dead?” Luang Poh asks, his eyes fixed on the hard-breathing nose of Tan. The gaze, however, shifts location on catching the hint of a smile on the young man’s lips.


“Who, Luang Poh? Who is dead?” The question is followed by the metaphoric remark of one familiar with the nature of the man he is talking to, “Ah, I see, you have just swallowed a wasp nest!”


Luang Poh lifts his saffron robe threateningly to reveal the muscular calf of a former orchard hand; “I’ll give you a thrashing with this in a minute!” The young man puts his palms together in a wai, teasingly posturing as the Ramayana’s White Monkey General avoiding a blow from the irate rishi.

“What are you going to bawl me out for, Luang Poh?”

“Why didn’t you stop when I told you to?”

“Well, isn’t it good to practice hard?”

“Do you think just practicing hard will make you win?”

“Oh, good! Then I’ll spend whole days in bed with the wife!”

“Want a taste of my foot?” Luang Poh’s hard gaze combined with the appearance of some tiny white beads at the corners of his lips are enough to make his protégé’s eyes drop, “You are afraid of losing, aren’t you?”


The person at the receiving end of the question remains silent, color and perkiness draining from his face. Luang Poh commands,


“Ai Tan, tell your mates to take their places.”


Once the crewmen have resumed their positions, he commands them to paddle slowly before ordering some to change places for better weight distribution. This continues until both rims of the craft are of equal distance from the face of the water.


“A good boat has to move like it’s flying. A lopsided boat can’t fly. Understand?” Luang Poh continues his instructions well into dusk, not forgetting to issue the final command for the crew to return the next day for some secret tips to improve their performance.


“What secret tips, Luang Poh? I’ve been paddling since I was in my mother’s womb. I think I’d know…”


“Yes, secret!” shot the immediate retort from the monk’s areca-stained lips above the saffron robe. Luang Poh plies an imaginary paddle to demonstrate his argument, “You think you’re going to win by shutting your eyes and paddle…quick…quick…quick…. Like fucking a whore? The boat would capsize, that’s what!”


“As if you’ve done it,” says Tan, stifling his laughter.


“Of course! When I was young! … Oh, go away, get out of my sight!” Realizing his own slip of the tongue, Luang Poh chases them all away. Only Tan remains using an old battered bowl to scoop out water trapped in the boat. On the riverbanks, electric lights begin to appear, becoming numerous and bright where the sawmill stands on the opposite bank. Strains of music float across the river, the bass guitar clearly dominating. Tan sits scraping and throwing out the water, his eyes drawn irresistibly to the brightly lit area on the other side.

“You know why you are afraid of losing?”


Luang Poh bends down to ask. Startled, the young orchard hand looks up without answering. The monk walks away and disappears into the temple.


………………………...

The afternoon sun is losing its strength and throwing shadows of trees on the water. Sunlight reflects off the tin roofs across the river. Most of the roofs are of the flatter bungalow style, though there remain some old houses with gables so sharply pointed that sparrows in flight must feel nervous about scraping their breasts. The water edge in front of the sawmill is full of lumber, chained together into rafts.

But the lumber is far from being the focal point of interest. Rather, the eyes of Tan and his gang are riveted on the planks which have been assembled into a race boat that are floating in front of the temple. Brand new, that boat seems to be as light as a black-collared starling, and as capable of flying. The bright scarlet of its crew’s shirts seems to cut into their eyes, and there is a white sports boat escorting it.


Luang Poh emerges to greet the Plai Noi crew with “Wonder why you’re going to lose?” a question that produces a row of embarrassed faces. “Why don’t you go on pushing yourselves? Aren’t you afraid Plai Noi will grow lazy, too? Yesterday you were practicing so hard! Today, why are you doing nothing but floating and admiring other people’s boat? Oh well, I suppose it’s the way of losers.”

Losers…lose… come on, why do you keep on repeating those words! Tan feels anger starting to simmer inside. “Your words are going to give us bad luck – why don’t you just go back to bed, Luang Poh?”


“You! Why don’t you ask my foot! Remember whining and begging me for that boat? Have you forgotten that I was the one who gave it to you? Brat!”

Tan gives his whistle the short quick blows, but for all its shrill urging the Plai Noi moves without any real speed - the paddles that churn the water into scattering, frothing swirls are somewhat out of synchrony. At last, the Plai Noi is back floating off the temple pier, its occupants gazing after the red-shirted crew in the boat on the other side of the river as they paddle in unison until out of sight.

Luang Poh sits down on the sala steps, “Have you ever thought why this boat is called Plai Noi?”


His saffron robe flutters in the breeze. A noisy ‘long tailed’ boat roars pass, its navigator shouts over the din to Luang Poh, teasingly, without waiting for a reply,


“Sure about this year’s race, Luang Poh?”


The monk tightens the robe around his body as he starts telling the youthful paddlers,


“It’s a teak boat and very slim. More of its hull is under water than the hull of other boats. Well, it’s heavy… heavy like a small elephant. People who don’t really understand it would go fast with the paddles like you did just now. Well, there is no surer way of making it

a true losers’ boat… ha…ha…ha…”


The listeners’ hearts grow attentive as the speaker continues with his explanation,


“To drive the Plai Noi you must dip deep so that the blades are fully submerged. Don’t hurry. Make the strokes slow but steady like the steps of an elephant. That’s what I call understanding our Plai Noi. Now, try it.”


The breeze carries a pleasant coolness down the waterway. The boat heads up the river with the tide though, against the breeze. With the strong, steady strokes prescribed by Luang Poh, the Plai Noi moves deep and lazy at the beginning. But just when the crew begins to sweat, the boat’s hull rises… higher and higher.


The swift needlefish swimming on the surface of the water is overtaken, then left far behind by the Plai Noi.


The noiseless forward speed accompanied by minimal frothing takes a school of small fish surprise causing them to scatter in fright and flip away in silvery flashes of sun-caught scales.


The young planters feel the quiet flow of satisfaction deep within. The breeze is cool and soothing against their skin. Even on such an evening, Luang Poh persists with the question; “Do you know why you are so afraid of losing?”

…...................................................


The end of Lent comes around with the flood that swells as high as the heart of a waiting girl anticipating her man’s leaving the monkhood. After the day of the Devo alms celebration on the eleventh month’s first waning moon, each temple will hold its annual temple fair with alms-giving to monks at dawn, boat races later in the morning, afternoon likay shows, and an evening of socializing and entertainment afloat a river full of boats.


This year, the eleventh month’s first waning moon holds great significance for the young orchard hands in the temple neighbourhood.


The fact is that the sawmill Tao Kae’s son, Udomsak, who happens to be a member of the provincial football team had come to the temple to play football with them. After a while,

a tiff on the field developed into challenges that put honors at stake. Udomsak had derided them by saying they pushed their toes into the ball as if injecting it with a syringe, and concluded that they were good for nothing but breaking holes in the earth. If they met Udomsak’s challenge on the football field, Udomsak’s team would surely boast of a handicap of two to one. His words had assaulted the ears of Tan and stirred fighting blood in his veins.


To face the challenge could prove awkward because kicking around that round ball looked easier than it actually was. There had been times when Tan had given his all into a kick only to find the thing spinning like a top right there at his feet. It was no different from when someone unfamiliar with the paddle plied it with all his strength only to spin the boat round and round like paddling a wok. It was thus that our orchard hand didn’t dare pick up the gauntlet just then. However, after a great deal of back and forth bandying, the opponents agreed on a boat racing which was considered fair as the members of both sides had all grown up along the banks of the river.


At first Luang Poh knew nothing about it. Not until his longtime protégé came and wheedled him to find a racing boat for the contest. Luang Poh had come upon the Plai Noi as it lay abandoned in Rajburi Province. As no one was interested in it, Luang Poh spent a tidy sum of money to have it towed along the waterways to his temple. The Plai Noi had been runner up in the championship races of Angthong Province and had won many prizes adding up to well over a hundred thousand baht. But in the end it had become a loser’s boat. Luang Poh says that’s because its crew didn’t truly love it.


News keeps seeping through grapevines from across the river. News that the other boat has been built with special lightweight planks which the sawmill people have carefully selected from thoroughly dried wood, and that the builders happen to be the best boat-builders from Ayutthaya, and that the crew is comprised of football players and sawmill laborers, and that they are kept in camp and fed with nourishing food during the training period. During the very first practice days on the river, the betting rose to two to one in favor of the Sky Lab.


The comparative advantages are obvious for any prospective betters. In the evenings, the crew of one boat stays in camp to rest while those of the other go out setting bait to catch fish after a whole day of hoeing and pulling weeds. While the crew of one is fed boiled eggs, bread and ovaltine, those of the other are eating salted mackerel, chili paste and water mimosa. One crew go by the elite British handbooks, the other follow the areca-stained practical theory from Luang Poh’s lips.


By the day of the race, the betting has grown to a voluminous scale.


The radio weather forecast has announced a depression bringing a continuous rainfall. The water in the river is murkier than usual. It has risen and swollen to flood the banks and the ground beneath houses and the monks’ quarters. With water so plentiful, the annual temple fair should be just great!


On the first days of the fair, tests of speed are tried out on the face of the river as a kind of warming-up for the big day. More rumors spread around concerning the much-talked about up-coming race – with the effect that the bets continue to escalate until they reach the price of several colored televisions.


During the warming-up days, the Plai Noi has managed to score victories of less than a length over other contestants by overtaking them towards the end of each race. The Sky Lab, however, leaves them so far behind in such a flying start that none could catch up despite its loss of speed towards the end.

Members of the Plai Noi crew are clad in blue shirts adorned with the logo of a fertilizer company smack in the middle of their backs.


Rain has paused after having been falling since dawn. Moisture is blown about in the freshened air. The good thing is that wind is not strong. The line of flags and the colored papers in front of the temple show up in all clearness and respectability. The megaphone at the sala pier blasts out luk thung songs reverberating down the waterway. In front of the temple floats a buoy with a flag stuck on it to indicate the finish line. The race boats draw frothing lineal wakes behind them as they move back and forth warming up for the actual race. The supporting boats follow in the wake of their racers with fluttering flags that flaunt their teams’ names. The race boats crews are all shirted in their team colors.


The Plai Noi’s support craft is a small motor boat fitted out with a Rotax engine. Seated in the middle is Luang Poh chewing his betel and areca. The little motor boat swerves here and there, rubbing sides with the smart white sports boat, support to the Sky Lab.


Tan rose before dawn to scoop out the rainwater that had been caught inside the Plai Noi. Gripping the sides of the boat, his heart feels as unruffled as the surface of the water at sunrise. Though he went to bed late last night, his sleep was deep and fulfilling. Looking back now, he can’t help but laugh at himself for being so frenzied in those first days when everything had seemed so unsatisfactory, so displeasing. Luang Poh had found such an apt comparison for the state he was in “paddle quick…quick…like…”


..............................................


He had slept fitfully for nights, unsuccessfully groping and searching his mind to find the answer to Luang Poh’s question, “Why are you afraid of losing?” Striving to win the race had been such an exhausting task. As though trying to beat the sawmill Tao Kae’s son had not been energy draining enough, now he had to try to beat Luang Poh’s question as well! ‘Oh, this is all the brain I have, why should I go on racking it to find an answer!’


The question gradually faded from his mind as days passed. The paddle seemed to grow progressively lighter with the daily practice of using deep and firm paddle strokes just as instructed by Luang Poh. A progressive lightness also grew within him. Sitting in the boat which moved so swiftly made him quickly forget things passing by his eyes and through his mind.


Bright water surface flashed by and all he heard were the sounds of his own breathing, grunts, and the paddle shafts against the sides of the boat. He had gritted his teeth to fight the tiredness that summoned the aches and pains that seemed to lurk in each of his bones, spreading them through the muscles and tendons.


The more he worked the paddles, the more he had to fight these battles until he almost felt like giving up prospects of victory in exchange for being able to lie stretched out inside the boat. In such moments something inside him would ask, “Can’t you make just one more stroke that sinks the paddle deep into the water?”


At times, when cowardice came into play, the paddles would dip only half blade, churning and frothing the water into white foams, their strokes seemingly forceful to distant watchers but could not raise the Plai Noi hull.


The time had come; Tan had learned it wasn’t easy to paddle a race boat. It was a matter of victory and defeat between sinews and the paddle, between the breath and the folds of his lung, between the past mindset and the present one.

It was just like the time when he first took up a spade when he was fresh from the temple. How his hands had blistered and the sweat that ran down the arms like rivulets acerbated the stinging pain! And afterwards, how heavy those arms had felt - as if the whole spade had been buried inside his flesh! And his back so burned by the sun. When he used to sit and watch others hoeing, he used to think it was easy, but when he himself had to enter the fray, it became altogether another matter – a far fiercer battle fought almost to the death to reach victory.


What with the burning sun beating down from behind and the eyes watching one’s own shadow on the grass. Again and again that shadow had seemed to deride him, to drive him to defeat. It was necessary to use the height of the sun and the needs of the stomach in building up a determination until he could finally work the grounds with ease.


................................................

The rain is light. The wind is picking up strength. Boats are heaved and dropped like seesaws by the waves in the winding river.


On land, the bets are still pouring in with the Sky Lab as the clear favorite. The red-shirted paddlers seem indefatigable as they coast their boat up and down the riverbank. The blue-shirts park their boat close to the mooring, taking shelter from the rain.

The raindrops are growing thicker, the waves humping higher. The referee gives his whistle a long blow summoning the two finalists to the start line. People on the banks stretch their necks for a full view. The peddler boats stop to moor at sheltered spots along the banks only to float out again during the excitement of the race.


The announcer is speaking quickly using urgent choice words and ways to depict what he sees.

Udomsak blows preet…preet…on his whistle with confidence. The Sky Lab takes its place poised for catapulting off with speed. In the supporting boat sits Udomsak’s lovely fiancée to wave encouragement with her pretty hands.


When the Plai Noi has taken its place at the start line, Luang Poh’s boat moves alongside.

The monk reaches over to pat the backs and shoulders of the crew. Tan puts his palms together to wai on Luang Poh’s shoulder, the high cheekbones and square bearded chin mixed with the folds of the rain-soaked saffron robes.


“Come back to the orchard after getting to the victory line, don’t you forget that, boy!”

“Yes, Luang Poh, back to the orchard.”


The wind is blowing hard, the waves hump high, the start whistle sounds long and loud. The paddles cut into the water, blades fully submerged.


“Preet…preet…preet…”

“Huea…huea…huea…”


The Sky Lab darts forward in the left lane. Helped by the current and powered by the strong crew, it spurts ahead of its rival with every well-synchronized stroke. The Plai Noi moves smoothly, its keel bisecting the waves leaving a trench-like wake. The young orchard hand plies his paddle, his eyes looking ahead over the row of blue-clad shoulders at the river. The rolling waves twist and curve like ears of paddy in flooded fields when the stalks have lengthened up and up to escape the rising water and the rich moisture-fed ears have grown fat and weighted down and down till the ends dip into the water.


...Preet…go on paddling… huea… the heavy paddle is growing light. The sluggish boat is beginning to raise its hull. The orchard hand feel the prow rising, rising, as though the boat is about to leave the face of the water, as though it is about to turn into the rain-mist that is gyrating in the sky leaving the watery wake well behind. The keel that has been cutting the water into twin fringes is now riding the water, pointing the prow stem skyward like the curve of a sword. The bottom of the hull moves atop of the waves to a rhythm that is unassociated with the length of a man’s breath. The rain is thinning in the still strong wind. The twisting waves curve up and down. The clouds are moving in the opposite direction from the boat. Blueness is gaining more and more territory in the sky.

The young orchard hand looks ahead into the distance. The blueness of the sky has dissolved into the blueness of the horizon….


 

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