BUSABA woke with a start and sat up quickly, peering through the folds of her mosquito net. It was the dog’s barking that had roused her, though all she could hear now were its rumbling, threatening growls. Something - or somebody - was at the foot of her stairs.
She buttoned her blouse, crawled out from beneath the net and scrambled to her feet pulling her pasin† tightly around her waist. The moon was still high, so it must be two or three in the morning, she thought, brushing her hair from her eyes with a workworn hand and peering over the rails of her balcony.
There, cowering in a pool of monochrome moonshine, stood a little girl in a grubby tee-shirt that reached nearly to her knees. She was staring wide-eyed at the dog, its teeth showing white in the moonlight as it crouched over its litter of puppies. ‘You’ve come about Arunya, haven’t you?’. The child nodded, her eyes still riveted on the snarling dog. ‘Alright. Don’t worry. I’ll be there right away.’
Arunya was straining and moaning in the throes of a contraction when Busaba arrived. Bathed in perspiration, she was squatting against the wall in the traditional way, with her arms spread wide, holding onto loops of rope her mother had tied to the eaves. The whole family was up and awake: Arunya’s father and her husband sat smoking moodily on the steps; the little girl knelt on a mattress in a corner, arms round her younger brother, whispering comfortingly to him as he clung to her. Their old grandmother sat hunched beside them, muttering to herself. The only light, apart from the moon, was a dull red glow from the squat clay brazier, where the other two sisters helped Arunya’s mother position a big smoke-blackened pot of water over the charcoal.
Busaba went into action at once, calling for a lamp and opening her midwife’s kit box. Inside was everything she needed. Thank goodness the area health worker had come yesterday to replenish her bottle of spirit.
It was a long, hard labour and Arunya bit her lips till they bled and pulled harder and harder on the ropes, knuckles white, arm muscles taut and rigid. Most births in
Gudpiakorn were long and painful these days, Busaba reflected - ever since she had begun encouraging the women to eat properly when they were pregnant. When Busaba had her children she and her friends had all tried to eat less, rather than more so that they would have smaller babies and easier labours.
Arunya sagged limply after another hard contraction and hung from her ropes like a rag doll. Busaba reached over and sponged her forehead with water. It was midmorning now and a makeshift screen had been created around them by hanging blankets from the rafters. Busaba examined her cervix again and knew there was less than an hour to go. That was something else she had learnt on the midwife’s course two years ago.
But growing big babies and measuring the dilation of the cervix were not all she learnt. Though she had delivered most of the children in the village - and many of their mothers too - she had discovered that some of the traditional ways her mother had taught her were wrong. It was dangerous, for example, to press down on the woman’s belly to make her expel the afterbirth. She had also learnt that it was better for mothers to lie on their backs when they were in labour. But, having given birth to seven children herself, she just knew that couldn’t be the case. Better for who? She wanted to know: the mother or the doctor?
It was late afternoon by the time Busaba got back to her house. That left her with three hours of daylight: just enough time to walk to the mulberry copse and gather leaves for her silkworms before the sunset. Now that her husband was dead and her children old enough to manage the rice and cassava fields on their own, she was able to concentrate more on the things that she loved: her silk weaving and her duties as ‘health communicator’.
Most of the older women in Gudpiakorn raised silkworms, but Busaba thought secretly that none could weave patterns as rich and shimmering as hers. She was the best health communicator too, she knew. Ever since her neighbours had selected her to go for training four summers ago, she had been determined to live up to their confidence in her. She hoarded all the health booklets she could get her hands on.
That night it was chilly and, after nearly 40 years of work in the paddy fields, Busaba woke with her joints tender and aching. She saw the village’s traditional healer walking stiffly down the track and she waved him over to chew betel. They commiserated with one another over their creaky old bones. In summer it was diarrhoea, worms and dengue, thought Busaba. In the winter it was colds and fevers and aching limbs. And, of course, there was back pain, from bending in the paddy fields, almost all the year round.
They settled down in a patch of sunlight and let it warm away their pain. But they were soon joined by one of Busaba’s oldest friends who had brought a baby swaddled in a blanket in her arms. It wasn’t a difficult diagnosis: a heavy, feverish cold - messy, but not serious: nearly every child in the village seemed to be going down with it at the moment. Then Busaba remembered that the drug co-operative had run out of ‘paracet’ syrup. She pursed her lips in irritation. It was the turn of Senit, another health communicator, to go to the hospital to top up their supplies. Strictly speaking it was also his turn to prescribe the drugs this week. She knew it was a busy time of year - people were out harvesting from sunrise to sunset - but they couldn’t expect her to take responsibility for everything.
She took the child in her arms to see how feverish he was. Perhaps he would be airight without the syrup? He started to cry feebly and she rocked him gently, marvelling at how light he was. Much too light for a boy of two, she thought suddenly, and folded back the blanket to take a closer look. No wonder he was sick: the child had practically no flesh on him at all. She looked up sharply. ‘When was he last weighed?’ she asked.
Senit was slipping bound trusses of rice onto a long pole ready for carrying to the threshing floor when he caught sight of Busaba striding purposefully towards him along the narrow raised banks between the paddy fields. He stopped working and watched her: diminutive and energetic with a mop of sparse, flyaway hair and a red and purple pasin tied tight around her wiry body. Had there been an accident? he wondered. As health volunteer, he was the only one in the village who had been trained to do first aid. Then he saw the set of her mouth and he knew he was in for a scolding.
Careful not to shake any grains frorfi the ripe stalks, he laid his pole gently on the ground, then led her to sit beneath the rough thatched canopy he had built as a retreat from the fierce noonday sun.
They talked for a long time, until shadows started to lengthen and people began gathering their tools together. Busaba said she understood that he was busy, but that things couldn’t go on like this. The weighing was important, she said. And the drugs. If he knew he wouldn’t have time to do his job properly, he shouldn’t have agreed to be health volunteer.
Senit knew she was right. As always, he had taken on too much. He was neglecting his responsibilities as agriculture volunteer too. But what option did he have? He had 15 hectares of rice to work and, though his children weren’t old enough to help him, they were old enough to eat, to grow out of shoes and to wear out clothes. It was poor land too. So he could not rest even during the slack season, doing building work to earn enough to see him through the year. Had Busaba ever seen him idle? he asked finally. And Busaba had to admit that she hadn’t.
Eventually they came to an agreement. As soon as he had finished his threshing, he promised to teach her how to weigh the children and record their weights on their growth charts. In return she would teach him all she knew about delivering babies. Babies always seemed to come at night-time anyway, she informed him with a grin. So he wouldn’t be able to use work as an excuse any more.
Arunya waited impatiently for her husband, Boonlert, to come back from the meeting. She was fed up. Her eyes smarted from the smoke, her clothes felt dirty and damp from the steam of the incessantly bubbling water - this was the traditional way: every mother had to spend the first week after delivery bathed in steam to make her cervix return to its correct position. And Arunya’s breasts were aching and leaking milk into her blouse and down her belly. She was tired of staring at the walls of her tiny prison:
she knew every cobweb, every knot of wood, every chink in the boards. She was missing all the fun too. There was a scandal.
When Boonlert had first told her the news she could hardly believe her ears. Busaba resigning? Why, she had been helping the villagers and delivering their babies since before Arunya was born. Why was she resigning now? Boonlert explained that while Busaba was gathering mulberry leaves she had overheard a snatch of conversation from two other women in a nearby thicket. They had noticed how much time Busaba spent with the area health worker and that she was almost the only person dispensing drugs from the drug co-operative these days. They concluded that she was probably cheating the village - getting extra money from the health worker and keeping some of the money from the drugs she sold.
Busaba had said that if the people did not trust her then she would not work for them any more. She had tears in her eyes.
It was terrible. Everyone was so worried. Busaba was like a mother to the village. She was by far the best health communicator; she prescribed drugs sensibly; she was gentle and sympathetic. And it was she who had helped most of the villagers into the world - holding their slimy, squirming red bodies as they struggled for their first breaths. It was unthinkable that she should resign.
The puyaiban immediately called a meeting. And, judging from the sounds from outside, the whole village must be at the meeting house. Everyone but me, thought Arunya. Would Boonlert never come back?
She must have drifted off to sleep, because when she opened her eyes it was pitch dark and the embers had burned low beneath the big black pot. There were excited voices outside and the sound of bare feet climbing the ladder to the house. Soon Boonlert, appeared with a lamp in one hand and a sleepy baby in the other.
Arunya lifted her arms to take the baby and opened her blouse to let it suckle while Boonlert sat down to tell her what had happened. ‘She’s a stubborn woman, that Busaba,’ he said admiringly. It had taken several hours to
convince her, with one villager after another rising to make speeches - telling of their affection and trust for her, begging her not to desert them. But she seemed unmoved. It was all very well making speeches, she said. But people would soon forget this meeting. As long as she was doing the bulk of the health work by herself, they would always have a nagging feeling of distrust. She would not withdraw her resignation unless Senit and the other communicators vowed to take a fairer share of the responsibility.
‘But it’s alright,’ said Boonlert at last. ‘She’s staying.
Arunya stared across at the rising sun and took a deep breath. How wonderful it was to be out in the fresh air again. She tied her pasin tight above her breasts, dipped the aluminium bowl into the water jar, and splashed water over her body. It was cold, and she gasped. But it felt so good to be fresh and clean once more. She loosened her pasin a little and poured water between her breasts and under her arms, then tightened it again, clammy and wet against her body. When she finished she took the dry pasin, stepped into it carefully, and held it loosely while she dropped the wet one to the ground.
Half an hour later she was on her way to Busaba’s house. On her shoulders she carried a pole with two pails of fresh rainwater from her family’s water jar. And in her hand was a small woven basket containing a new bar of soap.
Busaba came down the steps to meet her, then stood and watched as the younger woman tipped the shining silver buckets, one by one, into her own water jar. Arunya then turned and walked over to her, the little basket held ceremoniously in both hands in the traditional way. Gazing shyly into Busaba’s eyes, Arunya presented her with soap, just as her mother had done when Arunya herself was born. ‘Thank you for sponging my forehead when I was in labour. Thank you for delivering my son safely. Thank you for washing him gently and giving him to me.
Busaba smiled as she took the basket. It was all the payment she needed.
† A pasin is a tube of cloth worn as a skirt.