THE rain had come at last to Gudpiakorn: not as much as the villagers would have liked - many would have to buy rice from their neighbours to see them through the year - but enough to swirl muddy and brown through the irrigation canals and fill the paddy fields nearest the lake.
In these parched, flat lands of the North-east the rain is a special blessing: drumming on tin roofs, seeping through thatch, cascading from gutters in torrents to fill the empty rainwater jars. It brings pain with it too, and sickness - as muscles bunch into screaming, aching knots from bending over rice seedlings, and as diseases of all kinds multiply in the warm mud. But these are small prices to pay for the relief of seeing the land chequered again with every shade of green, of watching the buffalo wallow shamelessly up to their necks in the cooling water, of having the dust flattened at last for a few short months. It is a time for rejoicing.
Loui, the puyaiban*, straightened the collar of his official khaki shirt and stepped through the gate to walk to the lake. It was the best time of day, he thought: when the buffalo were safely tethered beneath the houses, the fierce heat of the afternoon was tamed, and the golden light lent a richness to the bright patterns of women’s skirts and scarves.
He walked slowly, savouring the evening. There was bustle everywhere. But the saffron sun and deep purple shadows lay like a feather-light silken shroud over the village, softening the sounds. Loui felt warm and proud.
How neat it all was - even at this, one of the busiest times of the year. Wide ditches carried the worst of the rain away from the muddy, rutted roads, trim bamboo fences enclosed the wooden houses, and flowers bloomed in pots beside each gateway. He passed the new school building - long and low, shaded by a row of trees - quiet now, and empty for once. They had built that school themselves with their own money and their own labour. On past the football field, its grass beginning to show green again after the long months of drought: the school team was one of the best in the area.
On any other evening this field would be alive: with shouts, flashes of brown flesh, red and blue tee-shirts, scuffling bare feet darting and skidding in the dusty patches near the goal mouths. But this evening the field was deserted. This evening the children had work to do.
Further on Loui came to Gudpiakorn’s meeting house: a sturdy wooden platform, roofed with corrugated iron and furnished with tables and stools, where people came to read the daily newspapers. Beside it was the new co-operative store, its doorway festooned with hanging plastic bags of biscuits, sweets, toothpaste. And outside were benches, where people could sit and wait to be served - or just sit and wait, passing the time, gossiping and laughing in the shade. They had built the meeting house themselves, and the co-operative store, less than a year ago. The smaller building beside it, the one that housed the drug co-operative, they had built that too.
This evening, though, the meeting house was nearly empty. Only a trio of old men, bent crooked as trees, teeth stained black with betel, sat smoking their cones of tobacco, gazing out from beneath the eaves at the lengthening shadows - waiting, like Loui himself, for darkness to fall.
Loui raised his hand in greeting, and continued on his way to the lake. He wanted to make sure all was ready.
It was the time of the ‘floating bowls’ - when banana leaves are woven into shallow circular trays and, with only lighted candles for cargo, set free on the surface of the lake. Everyone in the village had their own candle and their own bowl, woven by the schoolchildren. And everyone had their own fund of pain and sadness to relinquish to the healing water of the lake.
‘We are casting our sadness on the water.’ said Loui that night, gathered with the rest of the village in the darkness by the water’s edge. ‘Let the lake take all pain and sickness away from our village.’
Like a sprinkling of stars, the green flotilla bobbed gently on the water, floating away from the swampy margins. advancing on the current in an ever-widening arc. Every lighted candle flame, dipping and flickering in the night breeze, cast a reflection on the lake; a reflection smashed to a thousand silver slivers by the tiny ripples that broke and blended and raced across the inky black water.
Pirote lowered his green bowl reverently onto the surface and watched as a breath of wind sent it bobbing after the others. ‘Yes, take the sadness and sickness away from our village. Take away my uncle’s disease, that drove him to the hospital and forces him to carry his urine outside his body in a tube and a plastic bag. Bring rain to my few poor thirsty fields.’
Pirote was still a child when his family lost their land: a hundred hectares of good rice fields: gone - sold to pay a debt that no-one ever spoke about. Now he was left with land that no-one else laid a claim to: miserable, mean land, from which he could only coax enough food for two months.
He looked up and smiled as he caught Loui looking at him. Loui was a good puyaiban, he thought. He cared for the village. And now they had set their hearts on Gudpiakorn winning the ‘best village’ competition there was a meeting called every week. Pirote never missed a village meeting, though he didn’t always like what was decided at them. Last year it was fences and ditches for a road that swallowed up a third of his yard. He hoped the loss would prove worthwhile: they must win the competition this year, surely? Still, he had to admit it was nice to have a proper gateway to welcome visitors into his horn e.
Then he frowned, thinking of the home behind the smart new fence: a ramshackle platform with basketwork panels instead of proper wooden walls - only half a house really, but home to fourteen people. And of his poor arid fields. Would winning the competition make any real difference to him?
Still frowning, Pirote turned with the others to trudge back up the slope to the village, stepping carefully to avoid slipping in the slimy red mud as bats zig-zagged across the sky. Ahead he saw people silhouetted against the lamp in the meeting house and his frown lifted. It was a festival: there would be rice wine tonight.
Loui leant back stretched his legs in the lamplight, and sucked on his cigarette, making it glow brighter red. Outside the circle of lamplight other cigarettes glowed and faded in the darkness. Rice wine: he could never taste it without remembering the party he held before he was elected puyaiban. It was over six years ago, but the memory still made him wince.
That party had cost him a small fortune. But he had been determined not to be shamed a second time. If he was going to put himself forward again, he knew he had to play by the rules. And tradition decreed that people will only vote for you if they have tasted your wine.
Loui was a relative newcomer who had married into the village. He had been persuaded to stand for election the first time by neighbours impressed by how hard he worked organising the digging of a new irrigation canal system for the village. But their support had been no match for his rival, who seemed to be related to half of the villagers and who lavished ten thousand boht** on a party the night before the voting.
So the second time he stood, Loui gritted his teeth and reached deep into his pocket. And the people had come to his party, had supped his wine, and had - newcomer though he was - finally given him their vote. Looking back, Loui thought it had been worth the effort. Not just for the salary - though six hundred baht a month certainly helped - but because he really felt he belonged now.
Before dawn the village was woken, as it was every morning, by the steady. mournful tolling of the temple bell. Ducks and chickens flapped and squawked in the half-light and pigs squealed excitedly as rice-bran and water was slopped into their troughs. Sleepy faces were splashed awake with cold water, bare feet descended stairs and were slipped into thonged sandals. Buffalo were untethered and, heavy bells clanking, were driven in a lumbering, hulking procession out to the mist-shrouded rice fields.
Another procession - of old women - made their way to the temple, carrying covered baskets of rice and enamel plates of meat, fish and vegetables: their daily offering to the monk and their assurance of a better life in the hereafter. Kneeling respectfully beneath the vaulted wooden roof, they intoned ancient prayers in unison as the saffron-robed monk, seated on the floor beneath a gilded statue of the Buddha, leant forward to begin his breakfast.
Loui stepped onto his balcony as the chanting began, and looked over at the temple - a plain raised wooden structure with a jumble of old women’s shoes at the foot of its stairs. Other villages had far grander temples: brilliant white concrete structures with gold, blue and red-painted turrets and spires. He wondered if he had done the right thing by persuading the meeting to use the temple fund for digging latrines and buying timber and cement for the drug co-operative building.
What a stormy meeting that had been! Whatever people might say, it wasn’t easy being a puyaiban.
Someone else who remembered that meeting as though it were yesterday was Visuth. When he heard the rumour that the committee wanted to take the money that villagers had given to the temple he was outraged. He didn’t trust the puyaiban - or the committee. He thought they just wanted an excuse to get control of the fund and keep it for themselves. Visuth didn’t have much schooling; he couldn’t read or work with figures. But the puyaiban was well-educated. How would Visuth know if he was embezzling the money? He didn’t understand all this talk of co-operative shares and revolving funds. All he knew was that they wanted to take the temple money.
He was not alone. Many others opposed the idea too. That money was special, sacred. No-one but the monk should touch it. At the meeting Visuth stood up to make a grand speech. declaring he would boycott the drug co-operative and urging others to follow his example. There was a murmur of approval as he sat down.
Squashed onto benches or squatting in the mud, the packed meeting argued late into the night as children fell asleep in their mothers’ arms and frogs began to serenade one another in the darkness. The temple belonged to the village, said the puyaiban. It was their temple and their money. So long as it was spent for the good of the village, and as long as they had the monk’s blessing, they could do whatever they chose with the money. And the monk was a member of the committee, so they already had his blessing.
Visuth was angry and confused. They might have the monk’s blessing, but they would never have his.
Loui had gone to bed exhausted that might. But he couldn’t sleep. He lay awake listening to the night’s noises - to the soft clanking of bells as the buffalo tossed their heads beneath the house, to the whine of mosquitos as they hovered above his net. He and the committee had won their case. But perhaps at too great a cost. Because now they had enemies in the village. True, the head teacher and most of the other respected men had supported him. But Visuth had never liked him, he knew. He stared into the blackness and thought about what he should do. Then, as the first rooster of the new day crowed defiance at the blushing horizon, he had an idea.
The truck had been hired from someone in a neighbouring village. In the back, sitting among sacks of cassava and open baskets of fresh-cut green vegetable leaves, women and children wrapped scarves around their heads to protect them from the wind on the road. In the front, easing himself between the driver and the treasurer of the committee, was Visuth.
He braced his feet against the floor as the truck shuddered into life and began to make jarring, painful progress over the ruts and out of Gudpiakorn. How had he got himself in this position? he asked himself for the twentieth time. He didn’t know whether to be proud or ashamed, happy or angry, at this unexpected turn of events.
The committee had proposed that, since he had proved to be the person most concerned about the way the temple fund was used, then he would be the best person to oversee the spending of the money. So now he was on his way to the nearest town, Khon Kaen, to tour builders’ yards with the treasurer and come back with a truck-load of cement blocks, corrugated iron, timber, nails and cement for the new drug co-operative building.
And next week he was going to Khon Kaen again - to be trained in the construction of latrines: he, Visuth, who had never even finished primary school. Secretly he was pleased and flattered. But he was determined not to let the committee see that. He had feigned a grudging acceptance of the offer. But he and the others had held out against buying shares in the co-operative fund. It would not do to lose face.
Loui, standing beside the head teacher, watched as the truck shuddered and jolted out of the village. Then the two men turned to each other and grinned.
* the puyaiban is the ‘head of the village’
** One baht = four US cents.