On the Town Road
The slight figure of a child sobs down the townroad the black hulk of a water buffalo plodding alongside Mother says if she doesn’t sell Henry they’ll starve. Orchid doesn’t care about the other part. The part about getting rich like everytime Mother sells another piece of land there’s money again notlong Orchid is stealing rice again from the neighbors. It’s wrong to doubt Mother. The first time she was glad there were pretty new clothes food sweets. Mother was ecstatic about the Money and played Hi-Lo to make more. Orchid was nine then. Now she is eleven she knowsthestory: It is the curse of bad luck that came upon them when Father died.
“Anyway, Henry, there’s no more land for you to plough.” Orchid trying to sound sensible. “There’s no reason to be so sad.” Henry flicks his ears and smiles. “And Mother says we’ll be rich.” Orchid realizes afresh that we will not include Henry.
“I can’t do this!” whispering stopping in the road “I can’t. Why don’t you run away? Go!” Henry smiles Where are we going today? Will there be sweet grass? Will there be cool mud? He reaches his massive head to nudge Orchid with a nose bigger than her hand she steps back “Why do you trust me, dumb-as-a-buffalo?” shouting now “Go!” and tries to push him away pushing hard on his flank but his huge bulk absorbs her anger and she falls against him sobbing trying to wrap him in her arms.
“Not to a butcher!” she whispers. “No. Never to a butcher.” Of course not, dear, Mother said Only get a good price.
“Mother is wrong” it is wrong to say so but Orchid can say anything to Henry. She told him about standing under the stairs to peek up the monks robes when they come to chant at funerals and weddings about her friend’s taunts about stealing rice she has cried hunger and humiliation into his infinite black flank and it all dissolves in his inexhaustible contentment. It all finds its place among grazing lounging in the river plowing. Mother is thin and sharp it’s not her fault.
When everything is impossible Orchid tells Henry “I have to go to school” “I have to help Mother” and she can even if it means stealing even if it means being called a little thief.
“I have to help Mother.” Out loud, standing straight.
“Good girl.” A massive ancient treetrunk twisted with vines branches hanging over the road a man-figure thinner than thin tall pale black tattered sarong tied up in the old style Orchid screams hides behind Henry peeking under his neck as long as she touches him she feels safe.
“But can you sell your only friend?” the voice is gentle and sad the eyes seem to smile in the same way as Henry’s.
“But to whom would you sell Henry? Not to a butcher! But listen!” the sound of a tractor “No one wants buffalo anymore. Soon they’ll all go to the butcher, like Henry. Your mother is wise to sell now. In a few years he won’t be worth two baht.”
Orchid makes no move Henry idly snuffles the stranger.
“Here,” holding out a yellow slip of paper “I will purchase Henry for this. He will be happy with me.”
“Cheat!” Orchid shouts coming back to herself “That’s a lottery ticket poverty ticket” that’s what Father used to say Mother brings fistfuls saying, “We’ll be rich” Orchid steals rice from the neighbors.
“No!” the stranger says with shuddering force “It is a winning ticket! Besides, what do you think your mother will do with the money?”
“She’ll kill me.”
Orchid knows not to look into the eyes of a spirit, but the eyes are everywhere and everywhere empty her hand reaches for the ticket then she remembers. “Henry!”
But Henry slips his tether and shakes his head in a gesture of freedom Orchid has never seen. Henry and the man-figure vanishing into the shadows of the forest Orchid in the townroad yellow ticket and empty tether in hand.
“You what?” Mother screams. Like a leafless old tree with a monkey screeching in the branches.
Holding out the yellow slip “I got a lottery ticket. For Henry.”
“You? Don’t make me laugh. Orchid doesn’t knowthestory,” snatching the ticket, “128576. Stupid. I dreamed of a lion that means 497. The last three’ll be 497. Orchid didn’t even bow to the Buddha first did you. Did you?”
Orchid stands dumb Mother crumples the ticket and tosses it to the floor “Where’s the money? You didn’t spend it all on one lottery ticket!”
She said for Henry didn’t she or did she only think it she cannot think inside this misery pointing blindly at the crumpled ticket Mother’s face changes sarcasm for horror as the truth dawns Orchid flies for the door and down the stairs as Mother reaches for the stick.
Middleofthenight aching with reality light leaking through floorboards Orchid peeking through the cracks Mother sits rocking smoothing and crumpling the ticket. In the morning when the lottery is announced over the radio Mother will tear up the ticket and sleep. She whispers to Henry’s tether how stupid she was a thin pale figure haunts her sleeping.
In the truemorning Orchid awakens to Mother’s shouting in her face shaking her she’s sure to get a beating now but Mother is shouting “We won! We won! My pretty little girl we won!”
“Here” she said pointing.
Mother knelt hands in the prayerful gesture Orchid imitating for the first time feeling awe at what happened.
On the way back from town mother and daughter happy in new store-bought dresses the taxi loaded with gifts for the monks. When you give to the monks you make Boon. Boon is power it is things going your way it is goodness like Money only more powerful with Money to buy gifts for the monks they would make enough Boon never to be poor again. But first. Hanging flower garlands on the big tree a deeper magic Mother muttering fortune lighting incense a cup of whiskey for the Spirit but as they kneel in the prayerful way Orchid feels Henry’s presence the sudden precipitous fall of his absence a hole in the world sobbing softly.
“Stop it now,” says Mother. “Do you want him to think we’re ungrateful? He might come and take our pretty dresses away.”
“Henry.” The girl says, catching a sob.
She carries the hole in the world in her heart following Mother into the Buddha Hall with the purity of her burden curtseys politely but disinterestedly as the monks exclaim over Orchid’s pretty new dress. Spontaneously she kneels before the golden Buddha gazing into the smile her heart eased by the third bow the eyes seem to sparkle that all is well. As the monks chant over the gifts the Boon which wafts freely about the Buddha hall gathers into a powerful buoyant force flowing from the mouths of the monks into the simplicity of Orchid’s heart, lifting her into the pure joy of the present moment. But for big gifts the monks chant long and the girlchild dozes and awakens suddenly into a trueworld shrieking of loss far from these mouthing figures.
The Boon is good and notlong there is a car Mother hires men in the village to drive them. Almost every day they make Boon gifts for the monks and leave flowers and whiskey at the tree even in the dry season Orchid finds sweet new grass an offering to leave for Henry.
One old monk is particularly friendly Father Wiset asks eagerly about Orchid’s Good Fortune Spirit. Mother says he knows about spirits casting them out and calling them up she says asking so many questions shows he does not understand this one. Orchid enjoys his attention, his praise when she tells him about dreams the Spirit hovering at the end of a familiar road waiting. She dreams sometimes too that she is in the fields with Henry Father in the distance and awakens aching to go back and the old monk listens and smiles. Father Wiset tells her to leave grass for Henry.
“No. Henry did not die.”
“Then he is still alive!” A sudden anxious pained hope.
Orchid and Mother move into a pretty little house like the pictures in shiny magazines with screens on the windows and doors that lock. The old house like most houses is just a rough room ten feet up on stilts the new house has a real ground floor, a closed in tiled room with a kitchen in the back. Uncle Ned shows them how to use the gas stove you mustn’t build a fire in a Modern kitchen he says laughing for some reason when the fire runs out you wheel the tank over to Uncle Ned’s big barn where his boys recharge it. Sleeping in a bed behind screens cooking and eating inside, the insect bites and dirt of Orchid’s eleven years fade like the harsh heat of the sun fades at dusk. Skin softens with Mother’s creams and glows to match the soft cleanliness of their new dresses.
there are good things and bad things
happy things and sad things
all without self
Orchid kneels in the light of the great golden Buddha’s eternal smile inside the litany of all that exists all suffering impermanent without self the sound of the litany like a temple in which there is no place for ghosts or for the multitude of damp earthy feelings loss sorrow dread for seven days Orchid returns kneeling wide-eyed inside that litany and every day the abbot speaks a little about Father Wiset always “Since there is no thing that lives there is no thing that dies. Go therefore beyond suffering.”
Orchid at the Monastery every day making Boon and morning and evening at home in the shrine room flowers and incense before the Buddha the glow of the Buddha’s golden smile the purity of the chanting fills her days and months. When she is thirteen Orchid with a few other girls spend a week at the monastery in white robes the sweetness of cooking and cleaning for the monks of listening to the precious teachings of the Buddha. A pretty young monk teaches them to meditate Orchid continues at home sitting every day like the Buddha watching her breath, settling into the lucid purity of a stillness beyond suffering.
“How did you wind up in Bangkok?” The man asked, he was an American writer looking for a good story that hadn’t already been done to death. As long as he had been here, he still found the Thai habit of referring to themselves in the third person a bit disconcerting.
“Like you touched fate...” He said. She shrugged.
Uncle Ned takes Orchid in you’re mine now his wife ships her off to Bangkok to keep house for a relative on the road to now neither hoping nor despairing down the road to now. Now drying her eyes making the prayerful gesture towards the little shrine high on the dirty wall the room windowless barely wider than the bed ceiling fan busily blowing back the heat. She pushes the man down with the lighthearted laughter of infinite sorrow infinite resignation.
Lying back for the non-descript woman thirty years old she says undoing his pants he looks down momentarily ashamed of those flabby legs gazes up at the little shrine the Buddha the photograph hanging over the edge he can see now a piece of rope among the flowers a bundle of fresh green grass. Despairing of finding a good story that hadn’t been done to death he gives himself over to Orchid and her rites of guilty redemption.