Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Red Ball I

Shiao Lu Buys Rice

Granny sent Shiao Lu to the market to buy rice. She gave him four kwai and told him there was no extra for a red bean icy.

~~Dear Fiends,
I am posting from Northern Thailand where I have a second home. Tonight I went to the Post Office for dinner. In our town the Post Master also runs a small restaurant and bar to the side of the stamp counter. Thus, his establishment is called, The Post Bar. As is my habit each time I come here, I stop to see Kuhn Aong and to pick up any mail that has come for me. There has never been a letter, not one in three years, but it is an excuse to say hello and to catch up on what is happening in town. He is also witness to a relationship I have with a small boy in this village. No one knows much about him as he is most likely the child of an undocumented Burmese refugee. There are a large number here, but he also may be from the hill tribes of Hmong and Karen. No one knows.

But tonight, let me begin to tell you a long story. Tonight I asked the Post Master about the boy. I have been here three days and haven’t seen him. Kuhn Aong smiled as if we share a secret and then gave me some hint of what I may find tomorrow if I stand quietly in the bicycle shop that is adjacent to the school gate. So that is where I will be. Tomorrow, at three.

But it begins like this, two and a half years ago. I wrote my daughter all about it.

June 16, 2007
Mae Sa Ban Doi

Sawadee Kah Dear Leigh,
I await your arrival in Thailand next month with joyful anticipation. Dad and Ben arrive next week. I have been here a month already. I spend my mornings sketching and preparing boards for painting, but often just sit, observing the villages around me from the veranda on the second floor where I have great views across the valley of several hill tribe farms. Directly across from me, over a ravine, I can observe, quite intimately, the comings and goings of a family as they farm without them being the slightest bit aware of me. I became fascinated with them when I began to hear the chatter and cries of a small boy every morning around dawn. The acoustics are such that I kept thinking someone was in the house. So I heard him before I ever saw him.

The boy is about 4, maybe five. His mother farms a plot of capsicum and cabbages with the help of a daughter who looks to be about 12. The mother rarely stands straight but when she does I can see a broad smooth face and a high forehead. The daughter is quiet. She looks somewhat beaten down and has wistfulness about her I can see even from across the ravine.

The boy is the orneriest child I have observed in many years. At dawn I hear him talking, singing, shouting and bantering with the two women as they descend the hill towards their patch of land. Within an hour he is bored and begins a relentless and annoying ploy to get attention. Usually he is unsuccessful. He frustrates his already tired mother and drives his sullen sister completely mad. Several times I have seen her lunge to whack him but he is always just a hair out of reach and a second too fast for her. He pees on her vegetables, throws rotten cabbages at her butt, howls, scowls, and pouts. He is insufferable and if I were his mother I would turn him over my knee and give him a sound spanking or a good flick to the ears.

Yet I confess he is riveting to observe. I am almost ashamed. And even as I cluck over the most outrageous childish tantrums, I chuckle and have even guffawed out loud and fallen off my perch. He seems so full of himself, so confident. He never wavers or acts confused. He is demanding. I wonder about them...is there a father?.....why doesn't the girl go to school? Where do they live? Are they Hmong? If so why no embroidered clothing? Are they refugees? They seem so alone in Mae Rim. I never see them with others at the market in our village or loitering about the food stalls or baht bus stops.

In the evenings around 6, the Wat in Pong Yaeng sounds a gong six times. Niran, our gardener, says this is not a call to prayer as I thought, but a reminder to the farmers, who don’t wear watches, that it is time to go home and that if they leave when the gongs go off they can make it up hill before dark. The ringing of the gong is also my signal to grab a drink and get myself in position on the veranda so that I can observe the little family pack their baskets for the day and head home. The boy loves this, happy to leave the boredom of farming. His mother, despite having worked all day bent over, picks the clinging boy up and carries him home on her back. He is as spoiled as a rotten egg.

Yesterday, I was walking up to the village when this family unexpectedly and quite suddenly passed me on a tinny looking motorcycle. In their speed they did not notice me or pay me the slightest attention at all. I had never seen them anywhere but in the field so it was shocking to see them out, sort of like when you run into your 4th grade teacher in a nightclub. They whizzed passed me. The mother was driving, the girl on the back seat with her arms behind her gripping the rack for balance and upon which was an over stuffed, loosely woven basket of freshly cut cabbages. This load looked to weigh more than all three of them combined. No helmets. The boy STOOD on the seat between his mother and sister casually leaning against his mother's back. His pose indicated complete ease and I am sure this is the only way he has ever traveled. He seemed as comfortable as if he was simply leaning against an immovable fortress wall. His arms were stretched out like wings. He was flying. His little tuft of hair was blowing wildly back. I gasped aloud and clutched my chest at the danger and speed.

I was terrified I would never see them again. I watched them disappear down the road and had an awful feeling wash over me as I stood in the steamy pavement staring at where they had just passed. This might be what feels like to be God. To observe others without them knowing you are watching. To know what dangers people face and to worry and fret about their well being without their own slightest concern. For the rest of my day I could not refrain from scheming as to how I could rescue this family. I could give them money. Move them into my house. Provide for them. I would give them advantages. Buy them a car with seat belts or better yet a car seat. I could improve their lives. Keep them from danger. Save them.

In the afternoon when Kuhn Niran came to water, I almost rushed him to ask if he knew anything about this family. "Don't woolie madam, 'dey come back. Go market...sell begetable...it's ok. not danger."

He was obviously right for in the morning I awoke to their chatter again. The boy seemed louder and more excited than normal. When he came into view I could see what made him so happy; a big juicy rubber red ball the size of a basketball. Clearly the expedition to the market had been successful enough to afford this small luxury. He was delighted and played merrily all day long tossing it, spiking it, bouncing it. He threw it at his sister a dozen times but she seemed appreciative it was not rotten produce and didn't scowl at him. He tossed it high and then squealed when he caught it. But mostly he chased the bounding ball all over the mountain side.

Yesterday noon, I again went up to the market, but first stopped to have lunch at the Post Bar and chat some with Kuhn Aong. I like him. He is a Chiang Mai University drop out from the School of Architecture. It seems he ran out of money so he got a job delivering the mail for Pong Yaeng village and the Royal project nearby on account of his good English reading comprehension. He never calls me Kuhn Jeanne, like everyone else does, but my whole address. "Oh Good Morning Miss Jeanne Ming Brantingham Hayes of Fouteen Dash Three Mae Sa Ban Doi."

The Post Bar is a post office, but it is also a bar. It is a bamboo shack of which half of it hangs dangerously over the side of the gully where a seasonal river rushes. It sounds nice; the water on the rocks, but it makes me a little queasy. I mailed a letter to Grandma from the Post Bar over a month ago and she never received it. I am pretty sure that if I were to hike down to the river bed, I would find my mail stuck to a boulder with the ink running like mascara. The slats on the bamboo floor are wider than mailbox openings. I would bet the most important letter one would ever write would end up falling through the floor never to be delivered or read. Maybe it is just as well.

Anyway, I was thumbing through Kuhn Aong’s impressive collection of Thai architecture magazines when something red caught my eye down on the river. The boy’s ball was bouncing violently from rock to rock making its way down the waterfall into a sludgy pool just below the Post Bar.

I again gasped, fearing that the boy must be behind the ball and in the same peril. I dropped my spoon of rice, hopped the thicket and half slid half bolted down the ravine wading into the water to save the ball and if need be, a boy. I expected to catch his shirt or to look find him on the rocks with his hands outstretched demanding the balls return, but there was no sign of him. My heart froze and I desperately waded in the water looking for him. Soon though, I heard him howling. Kuhn Aong hung over the Post Bar, literally, directing me where to step so I could scoop up the rubber ball.

I was suddenly delighted to have an excuse to meet the boy; to hand him the ball or throw it to him and that he would thank me and that we would become best friends instantly. Maybe he would see from my face that I liked him or sense that I already cared very much about him. As I hiked out of the ravine up to the highway and then further up the hill towards his inconsolable cries, I considered how returning this ball might change his life. My imagination went wild and at the point where I could picture them living with me in America, I came to the path that leads to their garden.

I could smell potent earth. Clay. Musty and rich dirt mixed with some night soil and this brought me to my senses. Maybe my intrusion wasn’t a good thing. I had unwound all my fantasies by the time I reached the path which leads to their patch and thier field is marked by a tall bendy stand of bamboo trees that forms a curtain, shielding the plot from view. I could still hear the boy crying and carrying on. I could hear him scratching and searching for the ball and his mother trying to dissuade him. Her voice had that sound of resignation when toys are won and lost in a day.

I decided at last it would be best if I was to stay invisible. So I backed up and kicked the ball as high as I could, hoping it would clear the tree tops. I could hear it fall softly into the dirt. I knew I had hit the mark when I heard the boy squeal joyfully announcing to his mother that his ball was in sight.

In the two minutes it took me to get back to my veranda perch, I found him staring up to the tree tops. How had his ball fallen from the sky? It had rolled down. Now it had come from up there. I could see him with it tucked under his arm as he stared cock eyed trying to figure out how his ball had come back to him. He pointed, trying to interest his mother and sister in this mystery. Neither paid him any attention and continued hoeing. He bugged them all afternoon to explain it. I could tell by his voice. Questions Questions Questions.

With the sounding of temple gongs at dusk, the boy’s mother picked him up and juggled him to her back. His sister gathered up the tools and balanced a basket on her head. She handed the boy his ball, which he tucked tightly under his arm again and when they were all set, when he was sure he had it tightly and would not lose it again, only then did they slowly trudged up the hill to what I hope is a cozy home.

And so my dear girl, I hope too you will find this place a cozy home. Hurry.



  1. Your portraits are incredible - you are very talented.

  2. Oh I want to know what has become of this inquisitive boy! Please share!

  3. Can't wait to hear the rest of the story!!

  4. You need to write a book. Your writing is equally as skillful, eloquent and gorgeous as your art.

    Our Q has a lot in common with this little boy, I think. They share a similar personality. Fearless, strident, demanding, questioning, curious, artless, self-confident and outgoing. She doesn't tantrum much, but give her time...she definitely is not afraid to make her opinion known to one and all. Q is also, btw, a huge fan of big squashy red rubber balls. Her favorite. And yes, much to our dismay, she would happily and confidently stand upright on a moving motorbike, given half a chance!


Tell me