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from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Light Splash Sound

Uthis Haemamool’s amnesiac temple worker recognizes the false side of true belief. 

Before the Memory Shake-up

Before his memory was shaken up, if you were to look inside that brainpan of his for something special, something different from what was in other people’s brains, his only unique memories would be the personal ones: deep, intimate memories of people close to him, and of relatives, but distant and unreliable when it came to people in general. You’d say that back then, his brain memory was as common and ordinary as anyone else’s.

What made it special was its having been so shaken up—if you could put it that way—that he couldn’t store anything there. In fact nothing recorded in that brain stood much chance of being recalled: he completely lacked any desire to connect one thing with another. He merely saw, imagined, and had questions, like a curious little kid. But now he was grown up, no longer a child, and therefore came across as strange, odd, or simple, words that people use as a matter of course to describe that sort.

So it’s up to you to watch him. Do the remembering for him.

All right, his brain was the ordinary kind: invisible, hidden within a skull, you could see only the outer shape. But he himself was visible enough. Looked young. Rough skin, tinged reddish-brown. Wore a white T-shirt, really a discolored gray, with some lettering printed across the chest. Not one of those trademark Western labels—sometimes authentic, sometimes fake—that people wear. You couldn’t deny it was something like one of those, but for some reason people passing by would turn and flash a look back, just a quick look, and it would click that he must be from the provinces. He was certainly a bad fit, standing in a courtyard in front of a shopping mall and looking as if he had no interest in buying anything there.

It was all wrong, everything, from the place he was presenting himself to his apparel, oddball head to toe. And walking awkwardly across the yard, as he reached a group of people sitting in the middle absorbed in images on a giant screen, he had stopped abruptly when his body and theirs were assaulted by sound from the humongous video speakers. He watched those folks stare as if mesmerized by the excitement of images, light, and sound, then gradually stepped his way forward until directly in front of the mall entrance, almost all the way into it. A huge picture had been set up right in front, a bunch of people forming a loose line halfway around it. He alternated between watching the people and looking at the picture.

 

It was a while before the crowd started to break up, isolating him as he still stood staring at the picture. After having presented himself at the wrong place in the first place he had now moved in and was standing right in the mall entrance. The front door security guard was the first to notice, and told him to go stand somewhere further away where he wouldn’t be blocking the walkway. But he kept on stubbornly standing in that spot so long that people who’d been looking at the giant screen started turning around to check him out. The security guard thought he was being pigheaded, and a consensus quietly formed and grew among the people watching that this was indeed suspicious behavior. Sensing this, the security guard had words with him in an official capacity, like what was he was doing, he shouldn’t be stupidly standing there, right there, doing nothing. When, as one should, our boy returned the rent-a-cop’s gaze, the guard said, “don’t be a RE-tard.” Four or five people drew near and surrounded him. One said, “What’s your problem, staring so long at the picture?” Others agreed, they’d like him to explain this, they’d like to know what was going on in his brain, what possessed him to stare like that. The more he didn’t answer, the more their own questions rebounded at the group, making them feel provoked, challenged.

The incident, when it happened, occurred in a flash, taking no longer than two minutes in all: their resentment erupted in a fury! A muscular fellow standing behind him lashed out with a punch and the full force of it caught him on the base of the ear. After that, it was all chaos.

You saw these things. Observed them. But he was no longer aware of any of it.

 

A New Memory

He felt his eyes open. His whole body was soaked. Faintly, he heard birds calling from far off, arousing in him a joyful, lighthearted feeling. Under low light in the duskiness of a shanty he lay on a bamboo stretcher, surrounded by an assortment of plastic water bottles, cardboard boxes, and various other things. There was a middle-aged guy squatting there sorting out all this trash, apparently for recycling. When our boy moved over and sat up, the bamboo stretcher made a loud cracking sound. The old guy turned around to look at him, then went back to sorting trash.

Walking out of the shelter, his whole body felt weak and shaky. When the intensity of the sun’s rays hit him he blacked out for a second, and hunched down right where they were the very strongest. The old guy told him to get out of the sun, go sit in the shade under the trees. Little by little he dragged himself over into the shade. The old guy left off working and walked over to join him.

His host naturally had plenty of questions, but he couldn’t come up with an answer, because he couldn’t remember a thing. What kind of person was this?

“You a mute?” the old guy exclaimed, after receiving not a single word in response. And so the old guy told him what had happened, anyway what he knew of it.

How, when in the late morning he was walking to the back of the temple, at the steps leading down to a little dock, he sat down to relax with a smoke, looking at the muck that lay between the temple and the shopping mall, it was when the tide had gone out, it looked almost dry at a narrow stretch of muck, and here was this body washed up in the ditch by the steps. A brief look, and it was clear he was still breathing, so he’d brought him up. Searching all over he couldn’t find anything of substance, no wallet, ID card, nothing at all. Posing questions and getting no answer, the old guy had him figured for a mute. Seeing he had nothing to identify him, the old guy began to wonder whether he was Thai or not. But from his facial features, he probably was Thai, right? He nodded his head yes. The old guy was pleased to get at least some response.

Where had he come from, where was he going? That was the puzzle. He looked to be nobody: no wallet, no ID, right? And beyond that, he seemed empty of intention. The whole day he sat around the shelter, it appeared he didn’t know where to go. There was a period in the evening when he walked around to the back of the temple, to the little dock, glancing around at this bank, over at that bank. The old guy shared some food with him.

The old guy told him he was a temple caretaker, plunked down there specifically to care for the back area of the temple. All the work behind the temple, he was the guy who managed it. He arranged funerals, took care of everything in a smooth and orderly way. The plastic water bottles and stuff like that, this provided him with extra income. The temple committee had given him management rights over certain things. He called himself “Recycle Man.” There were three others with similar caretaking duties: one was responsible for the front of the temple, another was assigned to the western side, and another for the east. The Sangha administered the middle area themselves as a group. The old guy said, with a touch of humor, it was good he’d floated to the back of the temple and into the hands of Recycle Man: if he had turned up somewhere else he would have likely been a piece of garbage which would not have been recycled. Like what happened with his wife, who’d had only one life, used once and tossed, gone into the crematory chimney, atomized into dust and cinders. The old guy told how he had a son probably about his age, the kid worked as a security guard at a department store not far off, but they didn’t see each other often. “He has his own life, his own group.” The security firm took good care of his son, gave him an allowance, a room to sleep in, and various benefits to ensure he wasn’t in difficulty. His son was moving along in life ever so slowly, but at least with some security.

The old guy told him he could stay for another day or two, but had to live in an “eco” way, conserving a bit. Saying this, he broke out in a laugh.

 

The sound of prayer dimly entered his ears. He arose in the late morning of a new day. The old guy had left the shack to attend midday temple prayers, leaving him alone there. His memory of the day before was clear enough, so without any need to ask he just began bit by bit sorting out the recyclable trash that lay around, following the procedures he’d seen and understood from yesterday. Amid the peaceful quiet and shade was heard only the sound of bird chatter, chirps and warbles whispered down from the treetops. He found it pleasant, this clear, cool atmosphere.

Around noon the old guy came back with a bag of food. Seeing the steady buildup of work done without his having to lift a finger, he felt good about our boy’s behavior. As they ate lunch together he asked, can you write something down, like do you know who you are? He answered with a single phrase: “your son,” pointing a finger at himself, then at his host. That made the old guy go quiet.

In the afternoon the old guy suggested he sweep up the area back of the temple, so he did that. Wherever he found plastic he put it in a recycling bag and brought it back to the shack. The things he was doing gave him pleasure. Working alone among the bushes and shrubs, fresh greenery and shade, listening to the surrounding birdsong the whole day gave him a peaceful and happy feeling.

Three days and nights passed as he busied himself with these activities. He took these things to be his life, they became his memory. He was the old guy’s son: this is what he told anyone he met in the temple grounds who asked. He had neither been told nor forbidden to do it, but he knew. Knew, too, that he shouldn’t wander around into the other areas in the temple grounds. Keep to the area in back. That was safest.

 

Light Splash Sound

After three days, his regular morning walk was becoming familiar. He would read the varietal names posted at the base of trees and where orchids had been attached to their trunks and branches. There were all sorts of sounds to be heard along the cement walkway leading to the trash cans behind the temple. In the earliest morning it was prayer. At eight a.m. there was a song, and after that, the atmosphere filled out with the trilling and harmonizing of many different bird species. As his familiarity with these sounds increased, so did his curiosity about what he was actually hearing. On the afternoon of the third day, sweeping up at the back of the temple he heard an unusual birdcall from above. Curious what the bird might look like that made that sound, he turned to look up in the trees. But the sun was shining directly at him, so he couldn’t make out the source, only a blaze of stinging light in his eyes.

The following day his familiar domain took on depth and clarity. On one of the trees he was stunned to see a cluster of orchids trailing down, a garland of fresh beauty. Yesterday it had just been a clump of green, today it was in full flower! He drew closer, staring in awe, and reached out to touch it . . . only to discover it was actually a string of plastic orchids! This was a shock. He snatched the fake orchids off the living tree, and, seeing others similarly hung on all the trees at the back of the temple, pulled them all off. He put them in his bag to sort out with the recyclables later on.

Back at the shanty when he opened the bag, the old guy asked where the plastic orchids had come from. Learning the truth, he ordered him to put them all back as he’d found them. Why had he taken them down? So what if they were plastic, if they weren’t real? Visitors to the temple felt refreshed at the sight, they were looking at flowers, said the old guy.

But they were plastic, he answered.

But in form and color they were flowers, said the old guy, and insisted he go put them back. After all, he certainly couldn’t recycle them. Putting the artificial orchids here was the temple’s idea, they belonged to the temple.

It was afternoon on the next day before our boy had put the plastic orchids back in place as before. By that time news of their disappearance had spread everywhere and was known to the caretakers for the north, east, and west sections of the temple grounds. The orchids were gone from the back of the temple! It set up quite a clamor. When the other caretakers were done interrogating the old guy about this abduction they all told him sternly he should keep a closer eye on this person he had taken responsibility for, and not let something like this happen again. These worthies had seen the fellow and all felt he wasn’t quite playing with a full deck: care should be taken, or this rather odd person could very well cause problems in the future.

It wasn’t even dusk, it was still late afternoon that day as he was putting the orchids back that once again the strange new birdcall came whispering down from above. It appeared to come from a fork in the trunk of a persimmon tree. Eager to catch a glimpse, he drew close, and with every step, the birdsong was clearer and stronger. He peered up into the branches through which the afternoon sun shone. One more step and he saw it, the source of the unusual new sound. But it wasn’t a bird! It was a loudspeaker box.

He stood stock-still. The peaceful, clear, pleasant sounds he’d been listening to for days, this thing here was its source! This and only this was its physical being and visage! Seeing the speaker box, his eyes moved to the wires, and these he followed, walking out of the back area to the western section of the temple.

There he stood before a great bodhi tree, sashes of three colors tied around its trunk, with a shrine holding an image of the seven-headed naga protecting the serene Buddha beneath. A group of people were gathered around, lighting candles in preparation for worship. He wasn’t much interested in that. What interested him was up there at the top of the Bodhi tree, hidden by its leaves and mistletoe tangled about in its branches—it was like a tree with a mixed-up lineage. In back, at the top, were scattered a number of hidden speaker boxes. If you weren’t looking carefully you probably wouldn’t see them, especially since in front of the speakers was a spotlight which shone down at an angle into people’s eyes. That birdcall he’d been hearing was the sound of the light splashing down!

He stood for a long time looking up at the splashing light. He stood so long that the people gathered there for worship began to suspect he was a troublemaker. Standing still, going nowhere. Making it hard for other folks to move around. Till people started asking each other, who is this guy? Is he going to steal something? Or is he just some know-nothing clown standing there senselessly blocking worshipers? He lifted his finger up as if asking the people around to look to the top of the tree, where he was pointing, to see there were speaker boxes up there, was a spotlight up there! People started berating him, said he didn’t know up from down, pointing his finger up crazy on and on like that, pretty quick he’d get that finger cut right off!

The caretaker for the western part of the temple came over and made himself known, told him to skedaddle, get out of there. Said to go back behind the temple. Our boy tottered back, step by step, as though being pushed, but all the time he was staring at the top of the tree.

“You don’t make any sense,” the Keeper of the West said, “What do you want, you creep?”

“The birdcalls in the tree,” he answered. He wanted to know what type of birds those were.

“Oh, so now you’re a comedian, right?” said the caretaker, shoving him back another step. “Don’t come around here with your crazy act! Go on, get back!”

He cried out there were speakers up there, and a light, too.

A lady standing there asked, “So what if there are? Everybody knows that!”

But the sounds weren’t real, they were fake, he cried.

“Yeah, what’s that about?” said someone else. “You don’t like the bird sounds, or what?”

“Don’t argue with him or even say anything,” warned the Keeper of the West, then turned to him again with “Go, get out of here, now!”

So he walked back behind the temple without making any kind of fuss.

 

By nighttime the story had reached the old guy who cared for the area behind the temple. He told his young charge to just keep his mouth shut, say only things that should be said, doing otherwise would be dangerous both for him and for the old guy himself.

“But the birdsong is fake!”

“Sure, they all know that,” the old guy responded, “There aren’t any more birds in the city nowadays, so the temple has to create a temple-like atmosphere somehow.”

“But it isn’t just the birdsong,” he tried to explain, “It’s the prayers, the National Anthem, the call for donations, even the news.”

“What’s your problem with that?” asked the old guy. “That’s what loudspeakers do.”

“But they’re fake sounds.”

“You aren’t making any sense! You’re scratching where it doesn’t itch. How are they ‘fake sounds’? They improve the atmosphere around the temple, they have a lot of benefits for the temple. Seems like there’s a lot more helpful than harmful here. You’re asking things you shouldn’t have to ask. Where do they come from? Not important. But since we have them, they’re beneficial to everyone. Ask useful questions. Why ask about where those sounds are coming from?”

He couldn’t really understand the explanations the old guy was laying out, because he was looking for one cause, the reason behind them being there. But in the course of their conversation the old guy’s tone was clear: he should just shut his trap.

“They’re fake,” he muttered under his breath. Something made him say it, however softly.

 

Before the Memory Shake-up

Thinking about it he wasn’t actually sure which it was, the fake birdsong, or that everyone else thought it wasn’t important. But whichever of the two was stronger, it was an obsession, and that’s what had made him go back to the spot where he’d gone the day before. He stood immobile in the sun, face turned upward to the top of the bodhi tree. People started noticing, and gathered around, this was suspicious behavior. One of them came up and asked what it was he was looking at, just standing there like that. Come to look at the fake stuff, he answered. The questioner nodded his head, up, down, his jaw dropped, and then he walked back to join the group standing under the bodhi tree.

Not long thereafter the Keeper of the West appeared, and strode boldly over to him, with the group of both men and women under the bodhi tree tagging along right behind.

“You going to go peaceably, or do we have to throw you out?” came the gruff voice of the Area Keeper.

“Who is this creature, dares to say things we worship are fake?” asked a middle-aged woman.

He pointed up toward the top of the tree. The things he was saying were fake were up there, not down below.

A teenage kid reached up and with all his strength, struck down the hand that was pointing upward.

The old guy who was caretaker for the back of the temple appeared, and hurried over to join them.

The Keeper of the West said in a loud voice, “This weirdo is the old fart’s son.”

“Well, damn! Eats the temple’s food, then disses the Buddha! And you still take care of him?” said somebody.

“Ingrate!”

“He’s not my son,” sputtered the caretaker of the back area. “I don’t know who he is. He just showed up.”

Our boy turned around to look at the man of middle years under whose roof he had slept for four nights.

“Oh, right, so it’s just some outside person, so how is it the temple lets crackpots like this in?”

“Yeah, they let some who-knows-who like this just come in and show contempt for our faith, huh?”

“But they really, really are fake!” he cried, trying to slip free from their grasp and draw the whole group closer to the bodhi tree.

“Shut yer damn mouth! Ya don’t have no right to speak!” said the teenager, and punched him in the mouth.

A second hand, and a third, and a series of powerful blows soon followed, delivered amid bellows of rage. When the chaos had subsided, the Caretaker of the Western Area half-carried, half-dragged his body away.

 

The body was thrown back into the mucky ditch at the foot of the staircase. That was the first low tide of the day. When the current came in for a second round, his body would be washed over to the other bank. He was to be thrown over, then thrown back between those two banks with the ebb and flow of the tide, in the in-between of those nearly instantaneous phenomena, remember and forget.

You are looking at these things, seeing them, because that shakeup made him a special person who wondered about things no one else wondered about. Special because he lacked memory. All the many people who described the way he acted said, “The fool! Felt pain and didn’t know to remember it.”

He doesn’t know. Has no memory. There’s only momentary pain.
 

© Uthis Haemamool. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Peter Montalbano. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
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