Sunday, May 21, 2017

Stephen Evans writes

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.

A buffalo named Henry content to follow the girl who has led him to graze in the fields and to wallow in the river for -- forever he doesn’t even mind plowing if he is with Orchid. In the bare early morning dirt road through the forest around the monastery full of the spirits of the cremated tree spirits and Others Henry has no fear but even at mid-day Orchid will hurry through muttering protective verses. Now they dawdle along Orchid oblivious beyond the monastery the forest opens out into cleared fields and you can see the town in the distance.
“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.

They started down the townroad before light because Orchid didn’t want anyone to see to know. And it wasn’t so bad then they were not in the town then it was only a road on a morning now was only now then with a sort of evil magic they go forward fifty meters more and the forest gives way and you can see the town. Now is now.

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.

Orchid stands up straight “Every good child takes care of its parents” she says proudly “And is obedient.”

“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.”

“She may beat you today. But tomorrow, when the ticket wins ten million baht...”

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.

After dark Orchid creeps back under the house and lies in the dirt still gripping the empty tether she sleeps. In the morning there is boiled rice with pork she leads Henry out across fields fallow in the dry season toward the river he noses the dry stalks looking for grass Father working early waves from across the way Orchid knowing it’s a dream because Father’s dead.

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!”

There really was boiled rice with pork purchased with the very last twenty baht. On the way to town to claim their winnings, Orchid told Mother the whole story excitedly proud of herself Mother praising her remarkable good fortune as they passed by the monastery not feeling the dread of the woods but at the ancient tree Orchid’s heart fell suddenly. Nothing. There was nothing but trees.

“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.

“Oh, hell. He was just a filthy old buffalo.”

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.

“But you leave gifts like that for ghosts.” Orchid cannot say out loud for the dead.

“No. Henry did not die.” 

“Then he is still alive!” A sudden anxious pained hope. 

“No,” says Father Wiset gently. “He is just gone. But Father Wiset is sure that it will make him happy to leave grass.”

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. 

Relaxing into the certainty of the next meal.

Mother orders from catalogs in town and as the little tables and sofa arrive the room on the ground becomes more and more like the French sitting room in the photograph Mother tore from a magazine and taped to the wall. Orchid twirls about the room as in a magic palace and loves to make the tile floor shine, the wood furniture glow. Mother gives tea parties the village wives exclaim their admiration and gulp tea with betel stained lips. The photograph remains taped to the wall by the front door.

One of the upstairs rooms they make into a shrine room a golden Buddha sitting, as big as Orchid Ganesh elephanthead roundbelly beautiful white faced Mother Kwan Yin. Mother even makes a shrine to the Spirit with a yantra a magic design from Father Wiset squares curlicues strange letters. Orchid makes a little shrine for Henry, a table she begged Mother to buy with the old tether arranged on top. They light incense and candles everyday for each image. Mother fills a cup of whiskey and lights a cigar for the Spirit Orchid places bunches of fresh sweet grass before the tether. They do not neglect to make offerings at the big tree by the townroad it is only there that Orchid feels Henry’s presence a mute and musty upwelling of life mingled with a presence that belongs to the Spirit a dread that is not hostile an icy feeling that is also earthy and warm. When she tells Father Wiset she misses Henry he makes a yantra that she pastes on the east wall of her room. Henry comes into her dreams they plow new green fields in gentle rain and play old games a warrior princess and her faithful elephant steed Father watching in the distance. The aching to go back to stay in the dream is so strong that Father Wiset makes a yantra of forgetting that Mother pastes on the west wall of Orchid’s room so that Orchid may move more easily between the worlds of dreams and of waking.

The best part their of new life is going to the movies. Orchid runs out to find someone to drive the car who has to wait while they make themselves pretty. “My brother would make a good husband for you,” the driver sometimes says as they bounce over the dirt road. Or, “I’ve got a fine piece of land for sale.” But Mother gaily refuses and if the driver is ever alone with Orchid he might say, “What’ll she do when the Money’s gone?” But all is forgotten in the magic plush seats Marilyn Monroe large on the screen as her breasts or Audrey Hepburn mouths moving strangely to the words sometimes they sit through the movie twice just to see that it is the same. Afterwards they go to the department store labyrinths of clothing racks lace blouses pink skirts petticoats three way mirrors every color of lipstick creams to make your skin white the fat saleslady with pins in her hair all smiles and curtseys (not like that first time are you buying something severely Mother still earthlined caressing silk skirts lacy lingerie the girl looking down ashamed at her own dirty toes and torn trousers Mother’s coarse sarong). Laughing and playacting together they dress themselves like the people in the movie glamorous for the rest of the day.

Sitting by the window of her room Orchid delighted by occasional sprays of water through the screen the sky hurling barrages of water at the earth through the roar Mother’s screams screech like a monkey in a tree Orchid runs to the head of the stairs. “I’ve been calling you!” The sitting room is under a foot of water. Afterwards the water stained, mildewed furniture shoved against the walls there are Hi-Lo parties the village ladies chewing betel and sitting in circles on the floor, throwing down dice and cash. Orchid more and more goes to the monastery alone a princess in the back seat of the chauffeured car, seeking the warmth of Father Wiset’s attention now as much as the Boon.

Kneeling in a new dress placing the grass and whiskey gazing sadly past the tree though she cried at first and thought she would promised herself she would cry every time she wonders now what it was like to cry. Bits of sunlight fall among the drifting leaves in the forest she seems to sense a sudden movement a rustling a snapped twig heart throbbing with a sudden rush of dread she sees the figure of the Spirit deep in the shifting shadows of the forest suddenly oddly convicted by the harsh reality of her former life and the depth of the change the feel and the smell of the tether images of the night after selling Henry and before vistas of open fields riding tall on Henry’s shoulder. The sonorous cry of a buffalo. “Henry!” she cries leaping to her feet, it’s just a farmer in the townroad his buffalo pulling a wagon complaining. The spell broken the girlchild goes shaking with feelings too strong to name into the monastery with her gifts. The chanting of the monks has become monotonous but today she looks forward to it and to the attentions of Father Wiset she will tell him about this vision and the pain and fear will go away.

Approaching the Buddha Hall the soles of her feet eager for the cool marble they are chanting already someone must have brought gifts already but then she recognizes the death chant:

Kusaladhamma akusaladhamma...

Orchid knows the meaning

there are good things and bad things
happy things and sad things
all suffering
all impermanent
all without self

Father Wiset died the night before. 

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.”
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.

“The money ran out after three years,” Orchid said, telling her story. “Mother sold the car to Uncle Ned and mortgaged the house. Orchid had to work. There wasn’t time for school with running around to different houses doing laundry and cleaning. Doesn’t matter. It was making money for Mother and that made me happy. Uncle Ned fondled me.” She demonstrated, caressing her own breasts, “Like this. They were just tiny then.” Orchid giggled. The man tilted his head slightly, checking the recorder. “He couldn’t do more because his wife was always around and he gave me money to keep quiet. The best thing was Orchid could demand more money and he had to give it. That way there was more for Mother. It was good to make her smile.”

“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.

“Oh. Well. You see, Orchid saw the Spirit one more time. Mother had Hi-Lo parties in the house. Orchid played too. You know how it is -- you’re sure you are going to win, and you usually lose, but you’ve touched something. Something real.”

“Like you touched fate...” He said. She shrugged.

“Anyway, we heard a high-stakes dealer was coming to the village. Everybody was trying to come up with enough cash to play. Uncle Ned loaned people money. Some people mortgaged land. Mother was desperate. She was sure that this was our chance and I thought so too. I prayed to the Buddha and Mother offered extra whiskey to the Spirit. We even scraped together something for the monks and walked down to the monastery. To make Boon. I asked Uncle Ned but he said for that kind of money I could say he raped me. What are servants for anyway?

“In the end, Mother made some kind of deal and he loaned her the cash.

“I was outside doing laundry at the edge of the village when I saw the slim figure of the dealer on the townroad dressed all in black a case slung over his shoulder. Orchid’s heart fell all of it, the dealer was the Spirit that took Henry. It was just like my dreams, at the end of the road, that same odd feeling of fear and sadness. He wasn’t wearing a sarong like before; he was wearing modern clothes. Black silk. Tailored, expensive. Orchid squatted there with the wash. I couldn’t move. When he got close enough he looked right at me and it made me think of Henry. It felt like looking into Henry’s eyes and suddenly I missed him again, like at first. Then something changed and the eyes were empty. I jumped up and ran as fast as I could for home.

“Mother said we were sure to win. I went upstairs and lit incense for the Buddha and filled the Spirit’s cup with fresh whisky. Then went out and found grass, sweet new grass and put it in front of Henry’s tether. I hadn’t done that for a long time.”

“Why not?” the man asked, thinking these people and their damn superstitions.

Orchid shrugged. “I guess with all the meditation and chanting, I just kind of forgot. It was sweet. People say it’s too hard to meditate and chant all the time but it’s sweet and you don’t think about anything. After a while you don’t even dream anymore. So everything is for the Buddha...”

“So the dealer came to town?”

“Oh. Yes. The dealer came straight to our house and set up the Hi-Lo board in the center of the room. Mother offered him a glass of whiskey making the prayerful gesture bowing like he was a high monk. He said don’t do that it’s bad for business. But he drank the whiskey and asked for something to eat. All the time there was this strange feeling that made you a little afraid. While I fried rice in the kitchen other people came in -- some with money to play; more to watch.

“There were only about ten people with enough money and some dropped out after a couple of rounds before they even ran low. You know how it works? The dealer shakes the dice in a bowl, then slaps it down, over the dice. People put their money on the number they want then the dealer lifts the bowl to see who won. If nobody had the right number the dealer gets it all. It’s really more complicated...

“The bowl went down again and again the piles of money grew and shrank. Uncle Ned tended to win. And Mother too. The dealer kept losing but he seemed to have an endless supply of money and the pot kept getting richer. They played for hours. The ones who dropped out early said that there was something creepy. Mother had me keep the dealer’s whiskey glass full but no one thought about stopping for food. Finally the luck shifted and the dealer started winning and players started going bust. By nightfall it was just Uncle Ned and Mother. Then just Mother. Uncle Ned quit while he was ahead. He’s smart with money. Nobody went home; the house was packed, people were even standing in the yard. Mother had a fair pile of cash, I think couple hundred thousand, we all thought it was a million. But she was playing for everything. As the dice and the money were slapped down Mother’s pile dwindled. I knew Mother. She was getting frantic. Finally she called a break and went upstairs. She came back down with incense and a fresh whiskey bottle. ‘Faith,’ she whispered to me and went back to the board, kneeling on the floor opposite the dealer. She filled his whiskey glass and lit the incense. Then she bowed to him, three times. People laughed. Like she was cracked. But the dealer smiled peacefully. 

“He drank the whiskey down in a gulp, shook the bowl and slapped it down. At the same time, Mother took one bill and, eyes closed, slapped it down on the board. 4. She put her hand over the bowl. ‘Everything.’ she whispered. I’m sure she still had five or ten thousand, but the dealer nodded, ‘Yes, it is time.’ Then loudly, Mother said again, ‘Everything.’ She held the bowl down for a moment. Reciting incantations.”

Orchid closed her eyes and stopped talking. “And?” The man said eagerly. “What was it?”

“3, 5, 6.” She stopped again, staring vacantly. “Mother just sat there rigid like, eyes wide open. The dealer gathered up the money, folded the board and went out without saying a word. We were all stunned. I pushed through the crowd and caught up with him on the townroad. He heard me coming because he turned to face me. Those same empty eyes.” Orchid shuddered. “He said: ‘I always win. In the end.’ Like that. Slow and sad. He turned again and he was suddenly down at the end of the road.

“Coming back somebody came running. They told me,” she stopped again. Struggling. “They said that Mother is dead.” The man saw tears streaming down her cheeks as she made the prayerful gesture toward a little shrine, a ledge high on the wall: a Buddha image, an old photograph, fresh flowers.

“Orchid is so sorry,” she said forcing a smile.


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.

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