|Jul/Aug 2001 • Fiction|
Edward opened his eyes to find himself sitting cross-legged under the shade of a tamarind tree on a grassy knoll high above the small Thai village of Napo. Looking down, he couldn't help but watch the disordered crowd of protestors he had climbed the hill to avoid. He had wanted to find a quiet place to meditate before that evening's likae performance, but in surveying the place he had called home for the last ten years, he felt his frustrations rekindle the sense of malaise he had hoped to cure.
Gazing beyond the crude bamboo stage, the smoking food stalls and the gentle coming and going of the villagers, he contemplated the river. From where he sat it was just a thin brown line cutting an irregular path through the paddy fields. It seemed such a natural part of the landscape, as peaceful as the temple in the forest. It was almost unthinkable that it could soon consume the entire valley.
As he pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of his costume and was just about to wipe his eyes, something small and sharp struck him just above his left ear. Ducking instinctively, he covered his head with both arms, only to be hit hard in the ribs, this time by something much bigger. He gasped with pain and, clutching his side, looked down to see a rock the size of a mango rolling through the dusty earth just beyond the mottled shade.
"Take that, weirdo," a teenage voice called from somewhere out amongst the glaring sunlight.
"Hey. Who's that?" Squinting out into the sunshine, Edward strained to see whether he knew who the boy was. "What do you think you are doing?"
Another stone whistled past his ear and bounced off the thick bough of the tree. Edward felt as if he wanted to chase the boy and exact some kind of revenge, but he let the urge pass. He would test his upekkha, his equanimity.
"Hey, look at the stupid farang," a new voice called.
"Yeah, what does he think he is doing?"
Another missile clattered against the ground close by, but Edward kept his eyes tight shut, trying to concentrate on the breathing exercises he had been learning from Phra Acharn at the Buddhist monastery outside Napo.
"Look, he doesn't even defend himself," the first voice shouted. "Watch this."
Determined to remain calm, Edward opened his eyes just in time to see the stick rushing through the air towards him but too late to get out of its way. He heard the crack of wood against bone before he registered any pain and felt himself sprawling amongst the tough roots of the tamarind tree. Unable to contain the violence inside him, he scrambled to his feet and started to give chase.
"Come here you little..." He stopped suddenly as he felt his sarong slipping down toward his knees and realised he had hung the long hemp belt he had been wearing on one of the tree's thick branches. Realising his stomach was still churning as a result of the fish head curry his mother in law had made him eat the night before, he made do with waving a fist and shouting until he calmed a little.
He watched three hazy figures disappear across the rice fields; only their dark heads were visible, bobbing above the tall yellow crop that was almost ready to harvest, until they reached the towering bamboo that marked the edge of the buffalo track leading into Napo. Sitting back down, he picked up the handkerchief again, this time to wipe away the blood that had already begun to trickle from the wound on his head.
Edward decided to walk back to his house to clean himself before returning to the protest. He was hurt and confused by the attack; he had never experienced violence first-hand since moving to his wife's village. Was it just because he was foreign? Or was it something to do with the protest against the construction of Napo Dam? Surely it was related to the protest.
He had crossed the small dirt track that led towards the town and started along the road to his village when a shiny new Toyota pick-up truck pulled up along side him.
"Hey, you need a lift?"
A puffy pink-faced westerner grinned from the truck's open window.
"You look like you need a lift," the stranger said. "Come on, hop in."
Edward caught himself staring. He hardly ever encountered foreigners so close to his home, and the rough voice and shiny complexion seemed horribly out of place. "No, it's okay," he stammered. "I'm not going far."
"Oh you're an Aussie, eh? Come on mate, I can't let a fellow countryman walk, can I?"
Before Edward could protest further, the man had leapt out of the truck and was holding the door open.
"Thank you," he said, clambering into the space behind the driver's seat, flushing self-consciously as he pressed the handkerchief to his head again to try to hide some of the theatrical make-up around his eyes.
"I'm Bill," said the man offering a plump hand. "And this is my wife, May."
A dark skinned, round-faced Thai woman with cherry red lips and tired eyes, grinned insincerely back from the front passenger seat.
"And you must be Edward, eh?" the man said as he put the truck into gear. "You're pretty famous round here. What is it they call you? Edward the Strange Bloke?"
Edward laughed. "Some people call me Edward Maitammada. But it doesn't mean strange. It translates as unusual, or extraordinary."
"Edward the Extraordinary?" The man rolled the words around his mouth as if they were difficult to pronounce. "You're the bloke who does the transvestite show, at the country fairs."
"It's not a transvestite show." Edward tried not to sound irritated. "It is a likae show: a traditional Thai folk performance that originated in the South of Thailand. I am a member of one of the few troupes up here in the Northeast." He took a deep breath, in an attempt to stem the wave of anger and frustration he felt rushing through him. "What's wrong with that?"
"Calm down mate, I was only kidding." The man shot a conspiratorial look at his wife who giggled before snapping a make-up case open and busying herself with a stick of lipstick. "What happened to your face anyway?"
"Oh nothing. I fell over."
"Dangerous stuff is it? This likae. Never seen it myself but I'm sure it's all good fun." He leaned round to look Edward in the eye. "That's what I love about this country, they really know how to have fun. Know what I mean?" He poked his wife in the ribs as he turned back towards the windshield and she twittered to order.
"Yeah, I'll try and catch your show sometime," he continued in a tone that suggested his patronage would ensure a successful season. "Seeing as it looks like I'll be staying round here for a while."
Edward wound down the window a little to let some fresh air into the car, and to allow him to avoid the man's eyes in the rear view mirror. He wanted to escape from the car and the man and his wife, but he was too polite to say anything. Although he had no interest in their lives and it irked him that this man thought they should become acquaintances simply because they originated from the same country, he tried to find something to like about them.
"Close the window, there's a good fellah. It stinks of pig shit out there," the man said, wrinkling his nose in the mirror. "Yeah we'll be neighbours until the dam is finished. That's what I'm doing here. I'm an engineer. What do you do for a living?"
"What did you say?"
"I asked what you did for a living, mate."
"No, before that. You said you are working on the dam."
"Yeah mate, it's my job to make sure the thieving bastards leave us enough concrete to build the bloody thing. You know what it's like with these big projects, eh? Everyone wants a piece of the pie."
"What about all the people who will lose their homes?" Edward felt his eyes fill with water. "Haven't you thought about them?"
He wanted to know whether the man realised he was helping destroy an entire valley, a beautiful, vibrant living thing, where people lived in harmony with their environment. He wanted to know why this man thought he should come and disturb such a perfect symbiosis; couldn't he see how rare and valuable life here was? Didn't he know dams were an affront against the environment? That they were tantamount to a knife attack on Mother Nature? And he, this man, this fellow Australian, was helping blight one of the last pure areas on her already scarred body? But he didn't feel he could trust himself not to cry, so he took a deep breath and concentrated on the copperpod trees, which had just come into bloom and lined the dusty road on the other side of the window.
"You can't stop progress, mate. This dam will generate enough electricity to supply the whole northeast of Thailand. A few people moving up onto higher ground is a small price to pay. They'll be right. People are great adapters. Change or die, that's the law of the jungle in the modern world. They can do all the protesting they want down there, but it ain't going to change a thing. They've gone too far to stop now. This whole valley will be underwater within six months."
Edward controlled his rage and decided he was right not to have said anything. It would be inappropriate to argue with a man who had been kind enough to give him a lift.
"This must be where you live, eh?" the man said as the car squealed to a halt outside Edward's house. "Bit of a hike into town from here, but I must say it s a tidy little property."
Edward's chest swelled with pride as he looked up at the two story wooden house with its wide Thai style portico and carved wooden lintels, surrounded by a neat picket fence that he had skilfully concealed behind beautiful pink bougainvillea.
"Not in six months it won't be." His shoulders sagged as he remembered the dam.
The man sighed. "Listen mate, I didn't order its construction. I just build the bloody things."
He stuck out his hand and Edward looked up into a broad open face as he shook it. They were about the same age and came from the same country, but he felt as different to the man as it was possible to be. He resented the intrusion into his world; he had never liked men like him: big, cheerful, practical men who think you're queer if you don't like beer and the footy and are proud to say they're not frightened to tell you so. Australia was full of men like that, and he wanted to tell this man that he belonged in Australia, not Napo.
"Thanks very much for the lift," he said as the man got back into the truck. "It was very kind of you."
Edward watched the truck pull off and patted ineffectively at the billowing film of dust it left in its wake. He turned and walked past the lotus pond along the path to his house, stopping briefly to pick up an upturned bicycle his daughter had discarded before he had taken his family to the protest.
He thought about what the man had said about the dam and then thought about the villagers protesting at the building site as he pushed the door open. What did they expect to achieve? It was more of a carnival than a protest. Families went every Sunday to visit the shanty village that had sprung up below the construction site. They went to eat, drink and catch up with the local gossip. They went to show each other their children and to watch the likae show. Sure, there were activists and students there making speeches and passing out leaflets, but the protest had woven itself so neatly into the fabric of village life that they had all forgotten what it really meant.
What it meant for Edward was the end of his life in Napo, or life as he knew it. He wasn't sure what he would do. He had spent all his savings on buying that land and building his house. If he lost it he would have to move to Bangkok and try and find a job, or take his family to Melbourne. No, he would rather die than go back to Australia.
But what would it be like in Napo after the dam was built? There would be new roads, villages, migrant workers, and trucks rumbling past his house, if he still had a house. Karaoke bars would spring up like weeds amongst the paving stones and nobody would be interested in his little likae troop. Why couldn't things just stay as they were? Why did something always have to change things, spoil things?
Lost in thought, it took him a moment to notice the two youths lounging on his rattan sofa.
"Oh, hello Pip," he said in Thai to his wife's teenage son from a previous marriage. "I didn't know you were back."
"What did he say?" Pip's friend asked. "I didn't understand a word he said."
He didn't recognise the boy but there was something familiar about the voice.
Looking directly at Pip, he decided to overlook the other boy's rudeness. "Does your mother know you are here? She hasn't seen you for a week, and she's been worried about you."
"Look at his head. Doesn't he look weird?" the friend continued.
"You," Edward stammered, as he realised the boy was one of his attackers on the hill. "It was you, wasn't it?"
The boy narrowed his eyes and edged forward on his seat as if he was daring Edward to continue.
"I know it was you." But he was having trouble holding the youth's gaze. There was a menacing look in his eyes and he felt that if he provoked a confrontation the boy would not back down.
Laughter taunted him as he returned his attention to Pip. "I asked whether you had seen your mother today?" he stuttered.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've already seen her," Pip said, pulling a cigarette from behind his ear and smirking confidently. "I had to tell her about my new job."
"Oh really?" Edward was taken aback. He had never seen Pip do a stroke of work or indicate that he had any other ambitions other than to borrow money from his mother and lose it betting on football matches.
"Yes, I'm working for the Kamnan's son now, so you better watch your step around here."
Edward bit his lip before he said anything. The Kamnan was the godfather of Napo, and his son had recently been elected as headman of the district that included Edward's village. He was supposed to take care of public grievances and promote their interests at council meetings, but Edward knew he was usually too busy organising the underground, illegal lottery and selling drugs to pay any attention to politics. However, the local grapevine said he was now funded by the company responsible for constructing the dam and had been employing teams of young bully boys to intimidate villagers joining the protests. "Do you think your mother will approve?"
The two boys rolled around the sofa laughing loudly before Pip replied. "You really don't know anything do you? I have bought some land near the new village. Mother will be coming to live with me when your house is at the bottom of the lake!" Both boys howled with laughter as they rolled off the sofa theatrically.
Edward's spirits were raised a little once he had repaired his face. The wound to his head was merely superficial; when he had cleaned the coagulated blood away from his pale skin it hardly showed. And once he had repaired his make-up he felt ready to go on stage. He was to play Sangtong, the prince born in a conch shell who was tricked out of his royal inheritance by his mother's rival only to overcome adversity and eventually take his place on the throne.
It had taken him months to learn the lines, many of which contained obscure Thai phrases he had never previously encountered. He ran through them in his head as he walked, delighting in the nuances of language so few foreigners understood. He had almost forgotten his worries and was relishing the opportunity to show his talents to the whole village. Pen, his wife, would bask in his celebrity, and his foreignness, which often made him feel an outsider in the tight-knit village, would transform him into Edward Maitammada, the extraordinary likae performer from Napo.
He slowed to a walk as he realised the protest site was deserted; his mind had been so completely occupied by his likae he hadn't noticed that the usually busy paths around his village had been devoid of people. Looking around he saw the ground was littered with leaflets proclaiming the demise of his village, but there were no villagers; the bamboo stage had come undone and almost collapsed, reminding him, suddenly for some reason, of a broken deckchair on St. Kilda beach in winter. He shivered.
Where was everyone? He felt alone and excluded again. He was there on his own and they were somewhere else, together. His foreignness and the melancholy that clouded his existence swept over him once again.
A red pick-up truck chugging up the path towards the end of the site that had already been marked for construction did nothing to lift his spirits, even though he found himself trudging wearily toward it.
"G'day mate," a familiar, jovial voice barked as Edward approached. "All dressed up but you've missed the party, eh?"
The man had unrolled a plan of the area onto the bonnet of his truck. "Looks like the protest's over and we can start work at last."
"Why?" Edward's first thought was of his likae performance, then for his wife. "Where did everybody go?"
"Some local guy came with a big gang of fellahs and made a long speech. Don't know what he said but it seemed to do the trick. They all jumped in some trucks the company laid on and headed back towards Napo. Must have offered em some money or something 'cos you should 've seen 'em go. Fighting each other like kids at Christmas they were.
Edward slumped to the ground. It was ten kilometres to Napo and he was exhausted.
"If you don't mind hanging around I'll give you a lift into town," the man said as he returned his attention to his plans. "Funny bunch the Thais, eh? I don't even bother trying to understand 'em."
It was almost dark when the truck slowed to a halt outside Napo's small district office. Edward breathed a sigh of relief as he recognised some faces he knew amongst the crowd of protesters. He needn't have worried; the protest seemed to be continuing; they had simply changed venue. He wondered whether they had enough space to erect another stage in the narrow street.
"Bloody crazy, eh?" Bill grunted as he surveyed the throng of people swarming around the food vendors.
Edward scoured the crowd for his wife and daughter. When he couldn't find them he searched for someone who might know where they were, finally locating his friend Kumjai, the schoolteacher, who was leaning against a wall at the fringe of the throng.
"Kumjai, I'm so glad to see you. What's going on? What happened to the protest? Have you seen Pen?"
"Calm down," the older man said, cleaning his spectacles before perching them on the flat bridge of his nose. "How do you expect me to answer so many questions at once?"
As Edward opened his mouth to continue, Kumjai raised a dark, sun scorched hand to slow him down. "No, I haven't seen them, but if they are not with you I expect they are here somewhere trying to make sure they don't miss out on the Kamnan's generosity." The schoolteacher's normally sparkling eyes seemed tired and listless and although Edward recognised a touch of irony as he mentioned the Kamnan, there was none of the biting sarcasm for which he was renowned.
"What are you talking about?"
"Haven't you heard?" Kumjai continued, shaking his head wearily. "Our protest has been bought off. Our villagers named their price and the Kamnan has arranged for it to be paid. Simple economics really."
"No, surely it can't be?" Although Edward hadn't had much faith in the protest he had not expect it to capitulate so easily. The old schoolteacher was making it sound as if the protest had been a negotiating tactic.
"Oh yes my friend. Our neighbours think they have been very clever, but I don't trust this Kamnan. He will find a way to trick them yet. He will probably issue fake land papers or offer us land owned by someone else." He let out a brief snort. "And with this army of bully boys he has assembled, what else is there to do but accept his offers and pretend he is our saviour?"
Edward's head was spinning. Was it so easy to sell out a whole way of life?
"Papa, papa." Edward turned to greet his daughter, gathering her in his arms and clutching her tightly to his chest.
"There you are," his wife clucked cheerfully. "I've been worried about you. Have you heard the news?"
"About the protest, yes..."
"Oh dear, what has happened to your face?"
"Oh, its nothing."
"Never mind. You can tell me later. I have wonderful news. The Kamnan has arranged for us to sell our land for us and given us a new plot of land on a hill just outside Napo at a cheap price."
Edward watched the excitement in her face as the words tumbled out of her. Was she happy? No, but she was relieved a deal had been made and the conflict within the district had been resolved; she wanted to get on with their life.
"It will be good to move," she sighed. "We can take the house with us. It won't cost too much to move it. And we will be closer to town."
She was pleading but he knew there were no choices left to be made.
"And Pip will be able to come live with us, too."
He looked down into her face at the high, proud cheekbones and the full mouth that had never been touched by lipstick yet always glistened as if it had just been kissed and wondered whether he really knew her, or whether he simply saw the parts of her he wanted to know.
Did he really love his wife? Or was she just part of it? The village, Buddhism, the likae. He had bought into the whole package and now it was coming undone as if it were a timeshare apartment that he had been unable to keep the payments up on.
"You wait here a moment," his wife said as she took their daughter from him. "I just want to find out what I have to do to get the new land papers from the Kamnan."
Edward looked at the mass of chattering, bickering Thai people. He felt separate and useless standing on the edge of the crowd, and suddenly ridiculous dressed as a mythical Thai prince. His head was throbbing with pain from the attack. They didn't want him in Napo; he was an unnecessary complication to their lives. No matter how he tried he could never fit in the way he wanted to. He began to walk away from them, he knew no one would notice and suddenly he no longer cared. Shoulders hunched and his feet dragging, he trod a slow and lonely path back down the dusty road.
"Your mind should be as a clear forest pool," Phra Acharn had said to him. "Try to be mindful and let things take their natural course."
But his thoughts were churning as if they were floodwater. Images flashed in his mind's eye, taunting him: a broken deckchair on St. Kilda Beach; Pip's friend laughing; Bill's wife giggling, and Bill winking at him. Change or die, he heard the big Aussie say with the confidence of a man who had never doubted his place in the world.
As he approach the tamarind tree he felt as if his life had finally taken its natural course. He was not worried about his wife and daughter; their lives would be easier without him. They could adapt. He hauled himself up onto a broad branch and edged forward until he reached the long golden likae belt, which was swaying gently in the light breeze just where he had left it. He noted the coolness of the evening air as he tied the strong hemp sash around his neck and felt the waters in his mind begin to still as he inched forward, taking the weight of his body to edge of the branch. To the point of no return.
Then, looking up into the brilliant night sky, he hesitated. He saw his daughter's face amongst the stars and heard the cicadas calling her name from the shadows. His suffering, he realised, was merely one aspect of his life. There was still some beauty left in his world, some hope. "Beauty," he heard Prince Sangton say from somewhere inside his own heart, "is rooted in truth." And truth can be ugly.