LAMOON bent, pushed two silver watering cans under the water, and listened to the gurgling as they began to fill, Easing the pole from her shoulders, she stood upright - knee-deep in the tepid lake - and straightened her back with a groan She put a hand on her belly, heavy and distended with her second child, and looked out over the lake.
Far away, on the western horizon, menacing banks of grey cloud were gathering, billowing up to challenge the afternoon sun Lamoon wondered whether their load of precious rain would fall on her family’s fields this evening. So often she had watched the clouds build up like this, had seen lightning cut through them like a quicksilver knife, heard the rolling roar of thunder in the distance - only to be disappointed as the storm veered southwards.
The rain was so unpredictable. Three years ago it had poured day and night for weeks and the villagers had to stand by helplessly as the river broke its banks and the angry, foaming water ate away at the irrigation dykes, whisking away the rice plants and drowning the cassava and sugar fields. The richer households in Nungeetal survived on savings from previous years. But poorer families like her own had to sell what they could to neighbouring villages: chickens, ducks, pigs - all had to be butchered and sold. Her family had lost their two buffalo as well and had to hire them now when they wanted to plough.
But at least they had held onto their land. And the cholera epidemic - that had swept through the village as the lake crept up towards their houses - had spared their family. The following year the rains had been kind: they had harvested enough rice for six months and had earned enough from selling cassava and working other families’ land to see them comfortably through the year.
Yes, that was a good year, Lamoon remembered, bending to hoist the pole that held the watering cans back onto her shoulders. It was the year that she bore her first baby.
That baby, too, had come during the rainy season. It was before the harvest and the family was still suffering the ill effects of the previous year - living on rice borrowed from relatives and on credit at the store of the puyaiban’s brother-in-law. When her time came they could not afford to hire a truck to take her to the main road. Instead her mother and husband had lifted her into the old wooden barrow they used to carry the water drums.
That seemed the longest journey of her life. The midday sun burned down as her womb spasmed in pain and the barrow jolted and slithered down the steamy track. It took four hours just to reach the main road. Mercifully a bus came within minutes and half an hour later she was lying with her head on a clean white pillow surrounded by the reassuring symbols of modern medicine: starched white uniforms and stainless steel instruments clanking in trays.
It would have been easier to go to the health station in the next village to be delivered by the midwife. But her husband had heard rumours that’ the workers there demanded payment if they attended you out of government working hours - even if you had a special poor card - and that year they simply could not afford to pay for treatment.
It was nearly as bad this year, Lamoon thought, as she climbed quickly up the bank, bent low under the weight of the water. She tipped the cans and felt the weight gradually ease off her shoulders as the water showered onto the neat rows of chilli and shallot plants. Her vegetables were green and healthy. But the rice was wilting and the irrigation canals were dry. She would have her baby at home this time, she decided, and save the bus fare to the hospital. Everyone said the second child was easy, anyway.
One by one the ducks plopped into the lake and swam merrily around in the shallows, quacking busily to one another, beaks chattering as they sifted through algae on the surface. Lamoon smiled as she watched them; then frowned as she felt a stab of pain. Surely she wasn’t due yet? By her calculations she had at least another month to go before she had the baby.
Oh well, she thought, at least the baby would be small. She was expecting a small baby anyway: it had been a lean few months and she knew she had not gained as much weight as she had during her first pregnancy. This baby should slip out nice and easily. Then she remembered something the area health worker had said about small babies. It was at one of those rare meetings the puyaiban called when he had an announcement to make. Usually it was something about the temple. But this time the health worker was there and had been invited him to address the villagers.
He was an impressive-looking man, she thought. His pale blue uniform had razor-sharp creases in the sleeves and he talked confidently in a loud voice, using all sorts of words she had never heard before. He spoke for a long time about injections and latrines and water jars and something called a drug co-operative. And he said that all pregnant women should go to be weighed and examined at the health station where he worked. At the time Lamoon had thought it a silly idea to weigh pregnant women: even if they were too thin, what could they do if they had no money to buy extra food? But before she could give it any more thought, he had gone on to announce that the puyaiban was going to select six people to be health communicators and one to be health volunteer. They would all go for training at the end of the month.
She remembered wondering why they were selecting more health communicators. She seemed to recall that they had gone through exactly this process a couple of years earlier - a meeting, an announcement, selection and training. Nothing seemed to change in the village as a result, so she didn’t pay much attention to the names of, those the person who stood out in her mind was Mehai. And that was because he had actually volunteered himself for training But, as far as she knew, he-had only been trained to take blood smears from people who thought they had malaria, She doubted whether he knew anything about delivering babies.
Mehai looked up from where he was working in his vegetable garden on the bank of the lake and watched Lamoon as she drove her ducks up the opposite bank, back to the village. He chuckled to himself at the sight: ducks waddling, webbed feet askew, in an untidy brown herd; and Lamoon in her brown pasin, back arched, one hand supporting her belly, waddling behind them. How thin and frail she looked - hardly more than a child herself. Yet she already had one child, He made a mental note to visit her after the birth and try to persuade her to have her tubes tied. He was paid a big bonus for a female sterilization: not as much as for a male sterilization - men didn’t like the thought of that knife slicing anywhere near their manhood, and he didn’t blame them either - but enough to make a visit to Lamoon well worthwhile,
He had hoped that being trained as a more general health volunteer would give him more opportunities to help the other villagers. He had been disappointed not to have been selected when the puyaiban first chose people for training three years ago. It was only to be expected, he supposed, that he would chose his relatives and friends first. But it made him feel so frustrated to see them all pocketing their expenses payments and stowing away their piles of training manuals unread - knowing that they had neither the time nor the inclination to use their training properly. One of them had gone for the longer, fifteen-day training to be health volunteer. But he did not even live in Nungeetai any more. He had gone off to work in Bangkok only a few weeks after he had come back from training.
A tiny sound made her reach for the hammock - a faded pasin tied to a wooden frame - and lift her newborn baby onto her lap. He lay there, blinking and dazed as she began to unbutton her blouse. She had been right about the birth: She was only in labour for a few hours and the baby was even smaller than she expected - a perfectly-formed little doll-baby. She hardly dared hold him at first in case she should hurt him. She put him to her breast, but he turned his head away and began to cry - a weak, thin wailing that tugged at her heart and made her breasts tingle with their waiting load of milk. If only he would suck, she thought, cradling the tiny body against her. Two weeks old and he hadn’t fed properly for days.
Perhaps there was something wrong with her milk, thought Lamoon. But what else could she give him? He couldn’t eat sticky rice and the local midwife who delivered him had warned against giving banana. Given to a baby before its first tooth was through, banana caused baby sickness. Everyone knew that. Lamoon sighed. There were so many different kinds of baby sickness, she thought. And so much conflicting advice. Everyone she consulted seemed to say different things.
The midwife had told her to call the traditional healer from the next village. He would ask for a little payment for his trouble, but he had a good reputation and a chicken or two would probably suffice. But Lamoon was beginning to wonder whether she should trust the midwife. One of the other midwives had said it was her fault the baby was sick in the first place: the baby had the kind of sickness that happened when mucus was not cleaned properly from its nose at birth, she had said.
Perhaps she should go to the hospital after all; borrow the money from somewhere. But babies who went to the hospital never seemed to come back alive. There were some kinds of sickness that even the white-coated doctors, with their stethoscopes and X-ray machines, couldn’t cure.
The healer held the baby in his arms and muttered strange words. Lamoon stood watching, the rest of her family gathered anxiously behind her. What the old man said made sense: she was glad she had decided to call him. The baby’s ghost was weak, he had told her, peering into its feverish, glazed eyes. He could feel the presence of a larger ghost hovering nearby, drawing the breath of life out of the tiny body. Looking at her son’s downy head, his unnaturally dark skin and his shallow, laboured breathing, she could almost see the ghost drifting out of him.
The healer finished his strange muttering, then gently bared the baby’s chest. Lamoon’s eyes filled with tears as she saw the skin flutter faintly where his heart beat fast with fever. The little bones were sharp and fragile, like a bird’s. The old man leant his head over the body and, opening his mouth, dropped a stream of red, betel-stained saliva onto the baby’s chest and rubbed it in carefully with a wrinkled forefinger.
Lamoon stared dully at the lifeless little bundle in the health worker’s arms while he delivered his lecture. Her son had died of tetanus, a disease caused by cutting the umbilical cord with an unsterilized knife. Next time she was pregnant she should visit him in the area health station and he would give her an injection to help prevent this happening again. And she should make sure she had her next baby delivered by a properly-trained midwife.
They buried the baby in a grave without a headstone. There was no ceremony; no funeral: the ghost had barely inhabited the tiny body at all.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7