Wednesday, 27 August 2008 21:49
He was an old drunk who had sobered up as much as he could. He still swayed a bit, I think mostly out of habit. He hadn't cried in years, but embarrassed tears rolled down his face out of love for the little girl Kaewalee.

Called her his daughter, you know, for the children he never had. A confirmed bachelor, always said no decent lady would look twice, even once, at the likes of him. Illiterate. Never went to school. No documents. Not handsome - a junk man. So he lived his life alone. In his shack there beside the Klong Toey slums, in the Grove of Sacred trees next to where Kaewalee and her family stayed. Totally surrounded by used materials - e.g. plastic bags by the kilo, tin cans, beer bottles, scrap wire, etc - that he had not yet got around to selling. Or waiting for the price to go up a baht or so per kilo...


It's known as a sacred place. Although now gone, there was once a temple there. Sacred trees are common to temple compounds. Not unusual to find old Buddhist amulets.

Kaewalee simply thought of him as Uncle, and was always polite like her Momma told her to be (and whomped her along side the head when she wasn't). That was before Momma went to prison. Momma didn't do drugs, didn't sell drugs, but she'd keep them for the neighbours.

One day the police came. There was screaming, shouting, dogs barking. Everyone said Momma was innocent, and she was, but.... The policeman found drugs in Momma's dirty clothes basket.

Kaewalee never laughed at Uncle, at his clothes and long hair. She woke him up and got him inside his shack when he fell drunk outside. Even chased off the stray wild dogs when they snarled. She had a way. Even the most ferocious would obey her. And the police didn't bother Uncle. They knew he'd lived in that Sacred Grove for years. Had no documents, but everybody knew him. And as long as he didn't bother anyone...

He was generous with whatever he had, and almost always had five baht in his pocket for beggars - for "the poor," as he called them - he met along the way day by day. Himself, his average total income was less than 20 baht a day.

Most often, "the poor" wouldn't accept anything from him. They knew him and there is honour and dignity among the poorest of the poor. They might share a five-baht plastic bag of cooked rice and some fish sauce.

Kaewalee was often sent to the local temple to collect the leftover food from the monks. She would always stop on the way home and share a bit with Uncle.

When she was little, and her mom and dad were sleeping off a drinking binge, Uncle would take her and her brother off at first morning light, both half asleep in his junk cart. Early morning foraging so to be there first when the junkyard owner opened up. Uncle soon found a few items, not attached to anything. Enough for a few baht to buy them something to eat. Sometimes just rice and fish sauce. But that works well when you're really hungry.

It wasn't long after Momma went to prison, dad had died and her brother was on the street, that she came to live with us. Nowhere to go really. She was almost 12 and her dream was to learn to read and write. She'd never been to school and there was another girl she knew from the Sacred Grove who was already going to our special school. She lived with us eight months. Happy and in school. Her dreams come true.
SAYING GOODBYE

Now she was gone. Cremated in a donated coffin at the local Temple by the Bridge - the temple known to ruffians, hooligans, gangsters, saints and the poor.

No longer there to protect him. Strange how she had this gift with animals, especially stray dogs.

So he picked up this throw-away stick plus a sturdy walking one. Now, he knows his sticks, because a three-wheel push cart junk man needs something sturdy for stray bothersome dogs. You would think that stray junk yard dogs would cozy up to stray junk yard men, but they don't.

No need to whittle the stick to a point cause it's soft ground there under the Sacred Trees. They had a fire there a while back. Burned down about a dozen shacks, scorched a couple trees. We garnered a bit of money and rebuilt the shacks, and now with the monsoon rains coming early, two of the biggest trees are coming back. Bits of green on the branches.

Everyone said the trees were dead. Except Uncle. He'd put joss sticks and candles in front of the trees telling them he was sorry, and please don't go away. He, Uncle and the trees and the community had lived together a long time.

He'd bought a ten-baht garland that morning. Hey, that's why he was a bit sober. The garland instead of the booze. He didn't have the courage, the strength to go out with his junk cart. Afraid of the dogs. Afraid of everything . Without this little girl, Kaewalee, who lived in the Sacred Grove in a 200-baht lean-to shack.

She was that important to him, even though she wasn't his daughter. He stuck the pointy end in the ground and hooked the garland on top with a rubber band with an unlit cigarette in the middle. Yes, she was 12 and didn't smoke. But in matters of the next world, well, you never know.

He's a man of simple religion, and that was his way of properly saying goodbye. Even if he did smoke the cigarette himself. After all, it was an expensive cigarette. One of those from a package - two baht and a half for one and two cigarettes for five baht. Also he bought a five-baht plastic bag of cooked rice. Put that also on the stick also and then ate it. That is acceptable in the lore under the trees in the Sacred Grove.

He'd park his push cart near the hospital and wait for news. And after she died, he and his cart were outside the temple. Wouldn't go in because he was afraid they'd shoo him out. With his clothes and haircut, he didn't want to be an embarrassment to Miss Kaewalee. That would be terrible. Her family never did like him. Always hollered and cursed her when she gave him some of the temple rice left over from the monks. They told her that's why their dogs barked and snarled at him, because Kaewalee give the rice to him instead of their two dogs.

As he told us later, he didn't know. After death, lying there in her donated casket, could she still control the stray temple dogs? Protect him from them?

Besides he didn't know how to act there in the temple. He said that he didn't know any prayers, never had been ordained a monk as a boy. Family was too poor.

Uncle said his secret wish was to become a monk before the casket to make merit for her. Just even for the three days till the cremation. But his head was too thick, as they say, like a water buffalo, and he couldn't memorise the prayers and thought that he was too old, and if he asked, the monks might gently refuse him. So in the end, he didn't dare.

Also he didn't think it proper to bring his sturdy stick into the temple proper. No weapons you see. But the strays were strangely silent, even though the three days they waked Miss Kaewalee at the temple it was the time of the full moon. A couple even came and slept beside him and his cart. He stayed there, just outside the temple the three nights, keeping vigil.
THE NAME ON THE PAPER

Everyone called her Gaew. Short for Kaewalee. Her whole life, she had answered to that sound. As far as she knew, her official name was: Kaewalee Chareonsuk.

Documents such as birth certificates, house registration, identity cards were not heavy duty, industrial-sized priorities in her family. Besides, living in a 200-baht clap-trap lean-to shack, where do you keep such things? To keep them away from the rain. From the mice and rats and creepy crawlies that love the taste of document paper.

At birth, her mom could not afford the minimal payment in the welfare section of the Maternity Ward of the government hospital where Kaewalee was born. She waited till the night shift nurse was sleepy and snuck out of the hospital with her baby. She begged bus fare to Klong Toey and the Sacred Grove. Promised herself if she ever had some money she could come back and get her birth certificate. That's what she told the police when they found the drugs in her dirty clothes basket. But they said that didn't count. Worse, the hospital wanted a name. A name for her baby girl. Momma didn't quite understand all the legality of registered names. She needed to consult with local soothsayers and ancient ladies in the neighbourhood before giving her child a name: how could she decide right there on the spot in the hospital. She didn't have that much schooling, and needed to consult. What year of the religious cycle, what lunar month, what day of the week according to the waning and waxing of the moon. All these things are totally important in choosing a name.

Without consulting, they'd think she had no ethics, didn't know her traditions and customs and religion. If she decided a name on her own, maybe the spirits would not be pleased and her baby would not be blessed and protected from evil.

Hospitals function by modern rules, so as is custom they registered the baby's name as Bua (beautiful lotus blossom), as they name every girl child born there who has not been given a name, plus her father's family name. They need it for their records.

That, as far as we know, was the first and last time anyone even suspected her name was Bua. It simply slipped off the charts. How did her mom choose Kaewalee? It means woman seeking for truth and knowledge. We don't know any more than that.

Mom's in prison for a long time to come. It would be totally bad form to ask her about any special meaning in the name of her daughter who has died. Most likely Momma had consulted with a monk at the temple who looked into the books according to the lunar calendar.

To Momma, she was simply Gaew. Easy to say. Easy to remember. Her birth name - Bua Chareonsuk - only became important when she got sick. That is, who pays the hospital bills?

She was really sick, even from the beginning. Died in three weeks. At the first hospital, the local quack gave her paracetamol to lower stomach pain: she was in agony. Told her to come back in five days. That went on for half a day, till we got her to a proper hospital.

Was it too late? Yes, but it was too late from the moment she got sick. Cancer. No hope.

The hospital said we needed to give her one last chance. Dialysis. Needed money up front. She had no papers. The name we gave was not in the records. So off to see Momma in the slammer. She was the only one who might remember her daughter's real name. So into the big computer. Her official name was there. Government paid the bills.

We told Momma she was dying and wouldn't make it till the end of the month, and that her only daughter asked for her each day, and in the dark hours of the night before dawn.

And to Kaewalee we could only say, your mom loves you more than you can dream of.

Her mom said "when she dies, please do not phone. Don't ask a guard to bring me the news.

"Write me a letter with nice pretty hand writing. When I try hard, I can read the words. And by the time the letter arrives, you will have prayed for her at the temple and her spirit will be safe.

"Also when you see Uncle, the junk man, tell him I'm sorry for all the bad words I ever said to him. Please ask him to buy some candles. Light them for Kaewalee. Especially at night... so that if her spirit wanders, she might see the candle light and find her way home."