Noi Lilawadee watched as Yai Yai followed the herd. She wondered what her own life would be like. Grandmother stuck to the traditions her family had held for centuries. Her hair, though grey now, had been pulled back into a bun and a high crowned straw hat perched over it; she wore a blouse and the traditional blue cotton sarong tucked in at the waist with a sash over one shoulder which she had tucked into the waist too. Her bare feet slapped the dusty track. Eyes permanently squinted against the sun and the wrinkles and folds on her leather brown face were testament to the rural life she’d led. Nearly bent double, the walking stick she carried almost as tall as her but despite the squint she could see enough to strike the butt of a recalcitrant cow with it.
Noi didn’t want to end up like that. Nor did she want to be like her friend, Lak, who at fourteen had succumbed to her parents dictate and taken a fiancé.
No, she wanted to go to higher school. She wanted to learn English and go to foreign countries.
Strolling in the opposite direction from her grandmother, she went straight to the shack where she would buy Yai Yai’s breakfast. Although the sun was up it remained cool enough to feel pleasurable. She gave the appropriate Wei
to everyone she met but when she reached the shack it was a perfunctory Wei to Lak who returned the Wei
in a slapdash manner. Noi was grateful for the corrugated tin roof which provided shade.
Lak grabbed a second wok and spooned in a ladle of oil. “Pork noodle soup for grandmother?” asked Lak.
Noi nodded and swished her hand around her head to remove the flies. Yai Yai’s breakfast never varied and Noi wondered again about her own life. Would she end up like her grandmother? Bent, wizened, thin as a cow’s tail and only two teeth? She shuddered and wished she could see herself in her visions but that never seemed to happen. Noi had no desire to labour like Yai Yai or to sweat over a steaming wok like Lak. But she had no idea where her skills would take her.
“Have you entered a cow in tonight’s cow race?” Lak asked.
“Yes. And I have made a cow hat and covers for the horns. They’re red and blue and yellow and I sewed tiny bells in the ends.”
“You are good with your hands. I can only cook, so I buy a cow hat. It is red and blue and has long braids that dangle down to chin level. The prize bull is coming, too, and they are selling his semen for 3,000 baht a tube.”
They both paused as they reflected on such an amount of money.
Noi looked at the common land; the men already erecting the pole and tossing tyres around it. Food stalls were setting up or those on wheels were slowly making their way around the perimeter selling spicy sausage or chicken or bags of pineapple. Visitors were arriving already, well before the races started, and they would all want to eat and drink. The fancy goods sellers knew that and were spreading out their hand-made cow decorations and cow ornaments on the ground or on the top of old boxes. As cow bells jingled, Lak sighed and poured the food into the plastic bag artfully twisting the elastic band around the ends to secure it while Noi left 20 baht on the table.
Nodding her thanks, Noi stepped into the full sun and trotted along the shortest path. She wanted to hand over the food whilst still hot but it would depend on how far the cows had gone.
She’d walked less than ten minutes when she caught sight of the cows stretched along the thinly grassed embankment. Yai Yai squatted beneath the sole mango tree, her arms folded across her knees, her sash pulled up to protect her face, patience etched in her rheumy eyes. What did she think of whilst doing nothing but watch cattle? Despite her appearance Noi knew her grandmother would reach at least fifty years of age. No aura indicated otherwise. Yai Yai pulled her tobacco and papers from her sash and then a spoon. As Noi watched, Yai Yai’s deft fingers unravelled the elastic band and wielded her spoon confidently.
Noi left her to it knowing that she would turn soon to keep away from the glare of the sun and that she would roll her smoke before taking a mouthful of water from the skin at her hip. Noi returned to the village and carried on with her chores twice more going to her grandmother with small bags of food before settling down with her school books. She glanced at the television, longing to see the other worlds portrayed there.
In the late afternoon Noi went to the village square to feed the chickens and the geese roaming around. She had no desire to return home and pulled out a small notebook that she used to write about the things she saw. She wrote in English – the universal language of commerce and creativity, her teachers stressed to encourage their students. Noi wanted to learn and any words she didn’t know she wrote them in Thai and late at night she’d read the dictionary by the flickering lamp.
She followed her usual route. Up to the prawn farm at the top of the river then she made her way back via the river road and through the mud where the water buffalo wallowed at the swampy edge. They’d be back working as soon as the rice paddy was ready for tilling. She sighed. School would be halted again so as many hands as possible could tackle the job.
A fisherman stood in a longtail boat in the centre of the lake. A second man lay stretched at the front of the banana shaped boat to keep it balanced while his compatriot tossed a net over the side. At the furthest land boundary, a young woman stood thigh deep in the water and washed her long dark hair, pouring water over it from a multi-coloured mosaic bowl.
Further on, at the edge of the village where the river veered to the right and the land turned to marsh and then to farms, pineapples grew in straight furrows, a line of feathery pine trees trimmed the horizon, and a field of searing orange chrysanthemums rambled in spires. Milk churns waited collection at the house gate and Khao watered the pots of purple orchids. There was comfort in the familiarity of the scene and she tried to find peace in the knowledge.
But her mind was restless. Something disturbed the air: something was going to happen. Noi turned as she heard a motor scooter puttering behind her and hoped Rong wouldn’t stop. Maybe he’d taken her words of rejection to heart because he rode past without looking her way.
When she came alongside Khun Rat’s land her thoughts of the boy evaporated and she frowned. It was overgrown, thick and dark as a jungle, with banana trees fighting for space with the foxtail palms and the basket ferns. Once again he’d put up a length of fishing net as a fence and she saw another dollar bird struggling valiantly in the mesh. With a light finger she stroked the bird’s head and muttered gently to it as she felt the rapid beating of its heart beneath the palm of her other hand. It seemed to understand that she was trying to help and stayed still long enough for her to pull the threads tangled in its wings and around its feet and neck. She ripped the net without shame, careful not to tighten it further around the little creature.
Her head shot up when she felt a shaft of anger hitting her and stared through the dank space.
Khun Rat crouched inside the sala along the back wall and glared at her.
Noi stared back, looking him in the eye, not allowing her rage to waver.
He lowered his gaze. Her powers were too well known and too strong for him to take any direct action against her but his anger remained a threat. The dark colours around him scorched the air.
When the little bird was free, Noi lifted it in cupped hands and it flew up, its shimmering blue and green wings taking it away from her and the trauma it had experienced. It wasn’t harmed. She knew others hadn’t been so lucky. She grabbed the fishing net, tearing at it, pulling the thin bamboo sticks from the dry ground until the makeshift fence collapsed in a heap.
Another look at Khun Rat and she saw his colours change and swirl like a cyclone. His anger was virulent but there something else shadowed it, growing stronger as she continued to stare at him, as the cyclone of colours matured and twisted until just one colour remained – the colour of death.
Noi would have to tell her Little Mother.
Running over the gravel, skirting the dragon pots, taking the steps two at a time, round the spur and onto the tiled patio she spoke without pausing for breath.
“Little Mother,” she said, “the dark spirits will be rising tonight.”
“Do you know who?”
Noi nodded but kept silent. No-one wanted to know what she knew and she bore the reality alone.
Little Mother pursed her lips. “Okay. Go find two bamboo sticks. And I’ll need cardboard and string.” As she ran inside the hut she yelled, “Pa Joy, Aunt Joy, fetch the hammer and a couple of pins; you, young man, leave the Game Boy and whittle a point on a stick. And bring me a tin of paint. White or black.” She dashed into the laundry room and rummaged through the rag box pulling out items and discarding them. “These will do,” she said, holding up a pair of faded cotton shorts and a floral blouse without buttons.
With all the equipment gathered, Little Mother directed the making of the dummy. When Aunt Joy finished binding the sticks together with the string, Noi pulled the arms of the blouse over the two vertical posts then dragged up one leg of the shorts over the lower horizontal and pinned the two pieces of clothing together. Little Mother opened the can of white paint, dipped in the pointed end of the pen shaft, and began to write on the cardboard.
“We need a melon for its head,” said the boy. “I’ll go.”
While they waited for him to return, Little Mother continued to write. In the fading light, the cicadas chirruping in waves rising and falling with the setting of the sun, Noi sensed someone watching and looked back at the road. A few of the neighbours saw the dummy. They didn’t need telling but Noi nodded at them anyway. Then Little Mother raised the sign higher so they could read it.
“Please, Mr Ghost, no dark spirits should come to this house tonight.”
They rushed away to make their own scarers and to spread the word.
“Go meet Yai Yai,” Little Mother said.
Noi caught up with her grandmother plodding down the road. She didn’t have to say anything to her because already the ghost scarers had started to appear on the farms and in the gardens with signs around their neck. Yai Yai couldn’t read them but she knew what they meant.
“What is coming?” she asked Noi.
“The dark spirits,” Noi said. “They’re not for you.”
“Make sure the spirit house is well stocked. The best, mind you.”
Noi did. She put out rice and chicken and fruits and left a small dish of Nam Prik for dipping and a cup of Chai. Their ghost would be appeased by the offering.
The party at the cow race was frenzied. The visitors and the food sellers were undisturbed by the spooky apparitions that had appeared because they didn’t live in the village. The cows continued to behave like cows. Cell phones took lots of photographs of the races and of the winners bedecked in their finery with the large rosette pinned on a decorative collar. Children gathered in circles and played being cows, having their own race. The scent of Pad Krapow
vied for dominance with that of sugar from the fried doughnuts. Crates of beer emptied, food wrappers tossed to the grass, and eyes became heavy. The moon was full and sat low.
In the morning, villagers gathered to clear the ground of the litter. Yai Yai took the herd to a grazing pasture as usual while Noi brought her breakfast.
Last night, in her dreams, she was in England and America; accepted for what she was. In the daylight, she knew this wouldn’t happen. The Westerners had no belief.
On her way back home a dollar bird flew over her head and sat on a branch. Another joined it. Then more came along until it seemed as though the tree would collapse from the weight of them. Their behaviour puzzled Noi.
They were solitary birds usually. She became more puzzled when they began to call: check-check-check-kak-kak-kak. As she neared they flew up and to another tree several metres further on and the call began again: check-check-check-kak-kak-kak. They did it a third time disappearing after she’d passed them and felt their knowledge coming at her in waves.
Khun Rat was dead.