By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
The sacred tree is a mysterious thing to many, but not to a group of six- and seven-year-old orphans in Bangkok’s biggest slum
There’s a really big tree with roots all over the place and beautiful deep green leaves shaped like a Valentine’s Day heart. It's a nice tree, but it’s slightly unkempt. However, Auntie Gung and our children say it’s fine for a sacred tree to be unkempt. And this is a sacred tree with a sacred spirit, or angel. It's called a dhon pho tree in Thai and it’s in the back of the Klong Toey slum flats.
Auntie Gung visits the tree about once a week and brings some of our girls, if they want to go, and a regular visitor is Miss Sprite, whose mum died of TB and HIV/Aids a few months ago. Auntie Gung tells the children she believes she is protected by the spirit of the tree, as is Miss Sprite.
Auntie Gung had been with us for 10 years and remembers the day six-year-old Miss Sprite arrived after the cremation of her mum. The spirit knows that Miss Sprite’s mum died of TB-HIV/Aids because Auntie Gung told it so.
The spirit of the tree knows how Auntie Gung came to us also because Auntie told her. Ten years ago, Auntie was broken-hearted and destitute — a murder victim who had refused to die.
Miss Sprite came to us directly from the temple, after the cremation of her mum, because she had no place else to go. Auntie Gung is deeply devoted to the sacred tree, day and night, and she believes the spirit in it protects her and her 39 girls.
So she tells her girls each morning, after their normal morning prayers: “Don’t forget to say hello to the lady in the tree.” The girls know the tree and its stories well, as does everyone in the slum. One of these stories, from a half dozen months ago, goes something like this.
Next to the tree trunk, on the ground, were a couple of packets of discarded facial powder that a tipsy old drunk left there. He kicked the tree and hurt his foot and said some "nasty un-Klong Toey-like words", which I won’t repeat. He complained that this “bloody tree” tricked him.
The neighbourhood kids said the number was right, but he was too hammered to read it correctly. The trick is you rub powder on the tree trunk to see if there are any lucky lottery numbers there. It’s standard practice, but only for “lottery number trees”.
Our Klong Toey tree is friendly, but it's not a lottery tree. It's been growing in the neighbourhood since before the first slum pioneers settled in to work in the nearby port. The folks there, young and elderly, know it’s a sacred tree — not stately or beautiful, but still sacred. You could say it’s "Klong Toey majestic".
Besides, it’s our slum's sacred tree and it's decorated with classical Thai silk dance dresses, elegantly hung from its branches. Auntie Gung tells our girls to ask the spirit in the tree for protection and to keep them healthy.
Miss Sprite’s own granny asked the spirit in the tree to keep her only granddaughter free from HIV, after living so close to her sick mum. She was a bit naughty, as six-year-olds tend to be, an orphan, full of energy, and had been living with a sick mum and a frail granny in a rented shack. She is totally healthy today.
Nowadays, when granny talks, she doesn’t make much sense. But other times, it’s better, there’s clarity. Like that day of her daughter’s cremation. She said, in sorrow, looking at her only daughter in the cheap casket they use for cremations: “My daughter, you deserve better than this. You’re 24, prettier than I was at your age, and I was a beauty queen and you’re beautiful, even in death.”
Everyone knows that a fine lady, of some age, named Mae Yah Nang makes her home in the sacred tree. Her spirit dwells there. A nice grandmotherly spirit, not moody or fickle.
There are rules: more like courtesies really. When you approach this sacred tree, you should dress properly and not be unruly, like that tipsy old drunk looking for lottery numbers for booze money. Plus, he stank of body odour — smelled horrible and had dirty fingernails. That too is not acceptable to the fine grandmotherly spirit in the tree. Nor should you ask her for favours which are not accepted by normal Klong Toey society.
Our Auntie Gung, when sending the children off to school, tells them to stop and pay respect — even just for a quick moment. Her girls know that the lady in the tree likes it when the girls dress nicely and their school uniforms are properly pressed and clean.
Even slum motorcycle taxis riders will stop and pay their respects to the lady in the sacred tree — unless it’s raining. The classic Thai silk dresses hanging from the branches are there for prayers answered and for requests of favours or protection. Traditional dresses are wrapped in cellophane, like those from a dry-cleaner, which protect them from dust, rain and spiders. But she does not frown on birds building nests in the long ago donated dresses.
It’s important that you know these Thai formal dresses must be store-bought new. Not dresses well worn, sweat stained from dance and performance on the stage.
DANCER TURNS SURVIVOR
Following her mother’s cremation, Miss Sprite came back with us, sitting scared, sad, crowded with the other girls in that old red, smoke belching Klong Toey baht bus. Living with frail, forgetful granny in a rented shack with one light bulb was not safe for little girls.
The girls were so sad on that day that Auntie Gung had to cheer up her six- and seven-year-olds. She told them her own bittersweet story about a pink Thai silk costume dress, which she had brought in a plastic bag that hangs today in her closet at the Mercy Centre. The dress, she explained to the 39 girls on the bus, had a story of its own.
Once upon a time in a land far away in Northeast Thailand, she had performed from village to village and at country temple fairs as a traditional Thai dancer — dances she had learned from her mum and grandmother.
That is, until her boyfriend tried to murder her. He left her for dead, or so he thought. Full of fight and spirit, she survived — but was left terribly crippled.
On the night he tried to kill her, she had just finished a performance with a local troupe at an annual northeastern village temple fair. It was at night and she had changed into ordinary clothes, carrying her pink costume dress in a plastic sack. Her boyfriend — or so she thought — was there to meet her. He had tired of her. She wouldn’t peddle drugs for him. So he ran over her with his pickup truck and sped away in a cloud of dust.
Barking village dogs found her in the morning along the roadside, her legs broken and mangled, no longer those of a dancer. Doctors at the hospital said she might hobble/stumble walk, but would never dance again. During five lonely months in the charity ward of an up-country hospital, no one came to visit her.
And to top it all off, hospital blood tests revealed she had contracted HIV/Aids. It had to be the boyfriend — he was her only love. Her relatives said the whole incident was her fault, so she decided "there was nothing there for me".
She didn’t know where to go in Bangkok. A cleaning man at the bus station told her to go to "slum Klong Toey". "There’s other poor people there and they probably won’t laugh at you. That’s where I would go."
She started walking, hobbling along in the slum with her walking stick, not knowing where to go, just walking. “Seeing the sacred tree, she sat and rested. She was hungry, so she picked up some cooked rice wrapped in plastic — an offering to make merit that someone had left there earlier. Brushing off the ants, she said humbly to the tree: “Please do not be offended that I eat this food. Thank you for it. I promise I’ll come back. I won’t forget.”
She also still had her pink dress all folded up in a plastic bag. She hobbled down the road to the Mercy Centre where she saw our six- and seven-year-olds practising traditional dance. She asked if she could dance with them and they said “yes, come dance with us”.
At that moment she began to dance again, forgetting her loneliness, forgetting her pain, even forgetting about her walking stick. It was too much and she got dizzy and collapsed in pain.
It’s amazing the pulling and pushing power of determined six-year-olds. They propped her up in a stray chair someone had left there. She was wheezing a lot, then caught her breath and then whispered, can I stay with you?
They all said yes. And so it began. She stayed. For the 39 girls there in our shelter, she became Auntie Gung.
Now many years later and Miss Sprite is back home at the Mercy Centre after a long ride in the belching, old red baht bus from the cremation. Miss Sprite had stopped crying about her mum, so the girls decided it was time to dance.
The girls know about deep and mystical issues. They went to the closet, got Auntie Gung’s pink costume dress and demanded — yes demanded — she put it on. They helped her dress. It was wrinkled and soiled, but it still fitted and she danced. And the children danced with her, beside her, fearing she would fall down, but she didn’t. She danced with the elegance of her youth.
And then Auntie Gung made her a promise. Holding Miss Sprite on her lap, she promised them all: "All the beauty of your mums and all my skill — and my singing voice, then, not now as it’s raspy, but of then — goes to you my beloved granddaughters. And tomorrow, I will go and dance in front of the sacred tree so she too knows my promise."
That’s what this Klong Toey tale is all about: A dancing mob of orphans, some with HIV/Aids, living along with Miss Sprite, living in tune with things mystical and deeply instinctive.
And Miss Sprite and her mob of six-year-old girls, they know these things. Things that women know, but often are too busy to think about. We men know them too, but often we forget — deep, instinctive, yes, mystical things.
It’s an old tree, strong, sturdy and revered. Its leaves and foliage are distinctive, its limbs draped with traditional Thai performance dresses. We call it a dhon pho — with leaves shaped like a Valentine’s Day heart — and the name of the lady is Mae Yah Nang.