BY MARY ELSTONE
Copyright is held by the author.
AN OLD lady sat near the top of the steps, not quite out of the way of those entering or leaving the temple, but not obstructing their path either. The clothing she wore suggested to strangers that she was a heshang, a nun, who worked within the temple. Her robes complimented those of the temple monks although they were less vibrant in their intensity. Her white hair, pulled to her nape in a loose knot, allowed passersby to see her weathered face with its roadmap of corrugated lines, made more so when she smiled. She nodded to some, offered single flowers or blessings to others while her eyes kept searching the pedestrians for someone special. There, just climbing the flight of steps, a mother and daughter both with a determined stride heading straight for the large archway into the Phutthawat. They were pushed up the concrete stairs by gusts of wind swirling around the holy place. The heat and humidity of the day coupled with the ever increasing surges of wind gusts forecast a powerful storm before the day was out. This duo, this mother and daughter, were the ones the old lady sought.
“Pardon me, missus . . . could you spare me a minute, please?” A mouth only partially filled with teeth coffee tinted with age half smiled with the question. The mother hesitated to take the next tread up the stairs, a moment the old lady took advantage of. The mother was not nervous of this old woman she just needed to reach the temple to place her gift on the altar for the gods before there was more disruption in her home. They were, after all, simple farmers who sacrificed some of their precious pineapple crop to recognize and praise Buddha within the walls of the Phutthawat, the public area of the temple.
“Yes . . . ?”
“This lovely young lady is your daughter, yes?”
“Yes of course.”
“You love her very much and would wish for her safety to be protected by the gods, yes?”
“Of course. We have to go inside. What is it you want to say?” Annoyance crowded the mother’s train of thought by this old woman’s round about questions. The pout on her daughter’s face meant more peevishness before they returned home, which was the last thing she needed right now. With an irritable adolescent to keep her company she knew the forty-five minute walk home would turn into an interminable hour. And that in turn would lead to more harsh words and bad temper between the members of her family. She just wanted peace to reign.
“For the safety of your daughter she should remain within the temple this night. That is where true protection resides. She will be guarded well by the temple spirits and return to your home rested and balanced.” The aged crone lifted one hand in what the mother assumed was a half-hearted blessing directed toward her daughter.
The mother ran out of patience with this riddle speaking old lady and waved her off like a pesky fly. The exasperated mother grabbed her daughter’s arm, hurried up the steps into the holy building and promptly forgot the interaction on the stairs.
Sometime later the pair exited the temple and once again passed by the old woman. There was a distinct tiredness around the old ladies’ eyes before she called out to the mother once again.
“You have made your offering to the great Buddha, missus?”
“Of course. It’s what any good family would and should do to ensure a happy and prosperous life.” She wanted to keep up a strong pace, to reach home before the darkening clouds and gale force winds blew them all the way to the capital of Bangkok. She needed to get back home and make sure her sons had cared for their infant sister properly. She wanted to be away from this nuisance of a hag.
“Oh, please missus, won’t you listen for one moment . . . for the safety of your daughter’s future? One night in the temple is all that is required.”
The mother stopped one step down from the white haired old lady. She grabbed her own dress to stop it from billowing around her as the wind gusts continued to surge. Dark clouds scudded across the heavens, chased by even darker ones on the horizon. She’d had a trying day beginning with her oldest daughter and her husband starting a battle of wills at the crack of dawn. Six other children, all boys, who squawked and scrabbled for clothes and food before they started their chores and then the baby needed attention. There were signs of a serious storm approaching and the house needed to be ready for any situation. Her oldest child, Suda, the one who stood beside her with her pouts and sulky stares, believed she was too good to help around the house or help her father on the farm. She wanted harmony between her husband, Thuy and Suda so the rest of the family would follow suit and behave as a normal family. If she left Suda here overnight there would be peace because this eldest child could not argue with her father about working in his pineapple fields. But if she left Suda at the temple Thuy might become angry with her, Khun Mae, for disobeying his dictates for duties regarding chores around the house and farm. Thuy might see it as disobedience on her part thus creating more discord between the two of them. Khun Mae heard his voice now, as if he stood beside her, raised in anger because he thought both his wife and his eldest child were disobedient to the head of the house. He knew what was best for all of his family and his word was law.
Khun Mae looked toward her daughter who dared to raise an eyebrow, jutted out her hip and placed her palm on that hip still with a pout on her usually pretty face. The silent insolence solved the dilemma. Khun Mae turned her head and addressed the old woman.
“No. My daughter returns home with me. She is perfectly fine in her own home.” She turned to descend the steps once again.
“Before you depart… a flower for the lovely child…a remembrance of an old woman at the temple…yes?” So saying she removed a flower from her basket and held out a red poppy to Suda who hesitated, then stepped forward to accept the floral offering. Courtesy obliged her to acknowledge the gift.
“Thank you, grandmother for the lovely flower.” The young girl and her mother continued down the stairs.
The old woman allowed a frown of sadness to cross her face as she watched the two depart.
Khun Mae desired peace for her family so she chose her words carefully as the duo returned to the farm.
“Suda, I realize this is not the life you wish for yourself. But your future will be realized once you understand what all good parents wish for their children . . . are you listening?
“Sulking like this will only add wrinkles and lines to your face. Do you want to look like that old woman on the stairs of the temple? Listen to me child . . .”
“I am not a child. I am seventeen years old and I am not a farmer. I’m going to be famous . . . I’m going to Bangkok where I will be a model or a movie star and my picture will be on magazine covers and . . . and I will travel all over the world. I will not stay in this . . . this…pineapple dirt . . . my teachers all said I could do this . . . that I am meant for greater things than staying on your farm. I’m tired of Papa constantly telling me what to do.” Suda exhaled the last of her words like a final gust of air from a bellow. She inhaled then grasped her mother’s forearm and continued.
“You and Papa want this life; want your pineapples and fruits and vegetables. I’m old enough to make decisions for myself, can’t you see that? You’re happy with your life here . . . but . . . can’t you understand that I want more . . . that I deserve more, can’t you Mae?”
Khun Mae saw the determination in her eldest child’s eyes and knew this child . . . no, this young woman was not destined to stay with her family.
“Suda, all I ask is that you respect your father and his wishes about helping around the farm. No, don’t start…I’m only asking that you pitch in and help as long as you’re here. Maybe while you’re doing that you and I can plan for when the right and proper time is for you to travel to the city. Maybe your aunt in Bangkok could help us. We could write and ask her, eh? But please, no more arguments with your father…let us have peace, okay?”
Soft pouted lips pulled back to reveal pearl white teeth in a large smile that chaperoned an energetic nod of the head.
The storm struck closer to midnight than after. Great gusts of wind battered the sides of the house making the walls tremor like tattered ship sails. These sturdy thatched walls resisted the pummeling from the tempest beyond the yard and the open fields surrounding the house and provided shelter for the family inside. Everyone ignored the windstorm enveloping the house except for Suda whose head pounded with a beat to match the wind thumps against the house walls. She tried to adhere to her mother’s wishes for peace within the family but her father started dictating chores for the next day before the table was cleared of dishes and Suda lost her cool. She refused to be part of the family work crew. It was the first time in all her seventeen years her father raised a hand toward her, with him threatening a beating if she was not up early in the morning to help bring in the field crop of pineapples to be sold at market. Suda had glanced toward her mother for support, found none as her mother tended to her baby sister Takara, while her six brothers all smirked behind their hands at her being scolded by their father. After threatening to harm herself if she was made to do menial work, she stalked away to bed, the argument left wanting a satisfactory resolution. Now her head pounded like a damaged gong being hammered on by an untrained musician. She wanted medicine, anything, something, to take the ache away. As she reached the medicine cabinet the power went out in the house but she knew where the bottles of medication resided and grabbed a phial, uncapped it and spilled the tablets in her hand. From hand to mouth followed by a drink from one of the bottles near the cabinet and she made her way back to her room without benefit of light.
Thuy called for his daughter just after sunup. It had been a restless sleep for him due to both the storm and the previous night’s confrontation with his eldest child. She’d never argued like that with him before, never in front of the entire family. Did Suda deliberately want to shame him before his family with her constant criticism and mockery about the farm she was raised on? Did she not understand the hard work necessary to put food on the table, a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs? This ungrateful child needed to be taught a lesson and to heed her father’s word. He’d never actually landed a hand on her flesh, but if needs must . . .
He could hear his elder sons as they stirred in their room. Thuy’d surveyed the yard as he dressed and noticed the yard littered with debris but not as much as he’d anticipated during the gale which had struck through the night. He determined that between Suda and his two eldest sons they could quickly clear it away before they began the pineapple harvest. He went back down the hall and called for Suda again. There was no response. Thuy returned to his bedroom asked Khun Mae to rouse their daughter, once his wife finished feeding the baby.
A few minutes later, Khun Mae opened Suda’s door to see her eldest child still asleep on the bed, one arm up over her head on the pillow, the other across her abdomen holding onto the red poppy.
An old lady sat near the top of the steps, not quite out of the way of those entering or leaving the temple, but not obstructing their path either. The clothing she wore suggested to strangers that she was a heshang, a nun, who worked within the temple. Her robes complimented those of the temple monks although they were less vibrant in their intensity. Her white hair, pulled to her nape in a loose knot, allowed passersby to see her weathered face with its roadmap of corrugated lines, made more so when she smiled. She nodded to some, offered single flowers or blessings to others while her eyes kept searching the pedestrians for someone special. There, just climbing the flight of steps, a mother and daughter both with a determined stride heading straight for the large archway into the temple. They were pushed up the concrete stairs by gusts of wind swirling around the holy place. The heat and humidity of the day coupled with the ever increasing surges of wind gusts forecast a powerful storm before the day was out. This duo, this mother and daughter, were the ones the old lady sought.
As Khun Mae neared the top of the stairs her step floundered for purchase to the next tread. A memory flashed across her mind when the old lady came into focus. Her daughter mimicked Khun Mae’s steps and she looked to see what had startled her mother. “I’m fine Takara . . . just a pebble or something on the bottom of my shoe. I’m fine. We need to present our gift to the gods. It is the anniversary day. Now hurry.” Khun Mae grabbed Takara’s arm and rushed her up the steps, ignored the old woman as they hurried into the Phutthawat, Buddha’s temple.
Takara was slightly ahead of her mother as they left the temple. She’d just passed by the old flower lady sitting on the steps when the old lady called out to her. When Takara hesitated at the sound of her name Khun Mae reached her daughter’s side and attempted to hurry their steps. But the old voice once again called out.
“This lovely young lady is your youngest daughter, yes?”
“Yes of course.”
“You love her very much and would wish for her safety to be protected by the gods, yes?”
Khun Mae believed this was an echo of sixteen years past. A past she wanted to place in a recess of her mind and only return to it once a year when she came to the temple specifically to pray for the spirits of her family. Today was that day. However this was the first time in sixteen years she had seen the old lady on the temple steps. Why now?
Khun Mae placed an arm around her daughter’s shoulder to keep her close.
“Of course I want to protect her.”
“For the safety of your daughter she should remain within the temple this night. That is where true protection resides. She will be guarded well by the temple spirits and return to your home rested and balanced.” The old lady bent her head in half a blessing at the same time as she pulled her flower basket closer to her side.
Takara looked between her mother and this old woman with her basket of multicoloured flowers and wondered who she was. Her mother seemed to know her but Takara sensed nervousness in her mother which now transmitted itself to her. “Mae, who is this lady?”
Before Khun Mae could respond, the old lady spoke.
“Your mother and I are old acquaintances my dear. We met, right here, many years ago when your sister was about the same age as you are now Takara. I offered your mother the same advice then as I just suggested now, that you would be safer here, in the temple, tonight than you would be at home. History has a way of repeating itself does it not, missus?”
Khun Mae shuttered her eyes for the briefest of moments as the last picture of Suda popped into her mind. Asleep on her bed with the red poppy on her chest, only it wasn’t sleep that kept her so still. Khun Mae didn’t want that for her youngest child, now her only daughter. She would find a way to explain her decision to Thuy so that he would understand. He had to understand. She opened her eyes and turned Takara to look into her face.
“My dearest child, I want you to stay her tonight with this wise old woman of the temple. She will keep you safe and you’ll return home tomorrow after a night praying for your ancestors. I love you, Takara. You are a jewel to cherish and I need you to obey me in this matter.” She looked now toward the old woman and said: “You give me your vow, a sacred oath that no harm will come to my daughter?”
“My sacred oath to you missus, that no harm shall befall your lovely child. I pledge this to you both.” So saying she handed a white chrysanthemum to Takara with a slight bow.
Khun Mae kissed her daughter on both cheeks, gave a slight bow to the old woman then continued down the stairs without looking back.
The storm struck closer to midnight than after. Great gusts of wind battered the sides of the house making the walls tremor like tattered ship sails. These sturdy thatched walls resisted the pummeling from the tempest beyond the yard and the open fields surrounding the house and provided shelter for the family inside. But this storm was worse than the one sixteen years before. The deluge of rain caused the river near Khun Mae and Thuy’s farm to overflow its banks and race toward the house like lava from a volcano. This time the house trembled and shook as the water found insipid little cracks and sinews to invade and ravage the home with silt and mud destroying the best of family memories.
Takara shared some tea and rice cakes with the old flower woman in the morning then returned to her village. The old woman handed the still vibrant chrysanthemum to her with a semi toothless smile and a blessing for safety. As Takara walked, she noticed palm leaves littering the ground like someone had turned the trees upside down and shaken them. Everything was covered in mud and broken branches the closer she came to her home. Birds flittered from branch to branch or swooped to search for food. But these were normal sounds. At her laneway Takara stood rooted to the spot while she looked in vain for the place she called home. Nothing remained of the house she’d left yesterday except for two broken window frames lying on the ground and half of the stairs leading into the house. She heard wailing from somewhere on her right and knew it wasn’t birdsong. Her mother and two of her brothers sat huddled on a log with one of their neighbours. Takara hurried forward.
“Mae, what has happened? Where are my brothers and my Papa? Where is our house?” She didn’t know if crying was warranted or anger. She only knew she was frightened and wanted answers.
Her eldest brother stood as he replied. “There was a great flood last night . . . from the river . . . caused by the rain which swooped down from the mountains. There was no time to get everyone out of the house. Our papa and youngest brothers perished when the waters invaded the house. Somehow our Mae alone survived. Now you are home. We are all that is left of the family.” He slumped down on the other side of their mother Khun Mae while his remaining brother consoled the woman in her state of shock for she saw nothing in front of her.
Frightened at first by her brothers’ words, frightened again by her mother’s silent weeping, tears absorbed by her soaked and mud crusted nightgown. Takara dropped the forgotten chrysanthemum dangling from her hand and hugged her mother tighter than she ever had in her seventeen years.
Khun Mae felt warmth begin at her neck, then her arms, then through her chest and abdomen before realizing that her precious daughter was clinging to her, crying, and begging her to respond. Slowly she raised her arms to grasp Takara’s own and through her tears she kissed her beloved daughter’s cheeks and said, “Thank the gods you were not here last night. You are safe…thank Buddha you are safe. Praise the gods.”
The following week Khun Mae and Takara returned to the temple with a gift of food for the old woman who foretold of Takara’s safety. There was no old woman on the temple steps as they approached. Thinking perhaps she might be inside they hurried in and found no one resembling the old flower lady. As a monk approached them Khun Mae asked if the old lady, the heshang from the steps was somewhere in the temple. The monk looked confused and replied that he knew nothing of an old lady on the steps. Impatient with this young monk’s confusion Khun Mae asked where the lama could be found. The young man pointed toward the altar and indicated the robed man replacing candles was the holy man they sought.
Khun Mae and Takara approached the head priest of the temple and again asked the whereabouts of the old lady. They wished to present a gift of food to her for keeping Khun Mae’s daughter safe from last week’s flood. The older monk looked as confused as his young novitiate. Khun Mae, in her frustration, continued, “Master, this old flower lady told me sixteen years ago that my oldest daughter, Suda, would be safe if she stayed one night in the temple. I did not listen and Suda died that night. Last week, on the anniversary of Suda’s death my youngest child, Takara, this child of mine here, and I came to place an offering before the gods to honour our departed loved ones. Once again this old woman, I believe her to be a heshang, a nun of the temple, who sat on the temple steps suggested that my younger daughter would be safe if she stayed the night within the shrine. I allowed her to do so. That night my husband and my four youngest sons perished in the floods which ravaged our farm. Now I have come . . . we have come, to offer our thanks for saving my daughter’s life. Only we cannot find this elder nun. Won’t you please tell us where she can be found?”
The elder monk observed the earnestness on he faces of the two women before him and knew that his response would not satisfy their search.
“There has never been such a one as you describe associated with this temple.”
Mary is a Toronto native who discovered her passion for reading at the age of seven. In her free time she likes to explore new walking trails, read, play video games and volunteer with literacy groups. She attained her MRS. before her B.A. from the University of Toronto, in English and History, as well as earning a degree in Creative Writing from the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. She lives in Toronto with the MR. half of her MRS — her husband. Winds of Change is her first publication.