Chapter One of The Boy With A Bamboo Heart
Ban Sawai Jeek, 1941
MY MOTHER slipped away in the middle of the night without saying good-bye. Life trickled out of her over a period of three days and then she was gone. It was an illness that even the herb man could not cure. I loved my mother. She had nicknamed me “Lek”, the little one. She was the only one I had left. My father had died the previous year. I had no brothers or sisters. Like a tsunami, her death turned everything in my life upside down. I was hurled out into the world, all alone, and I was only 5 years old.
I remember the day of her funeral. The sun penetrated through the cracks in the bamboo wall of our hut. Bright light forced its way into my dark world. I turned my back on it. I wanted dawn to go away. The door creaked open. I pretended to be asleep. The nightmare that became my life had arrived in broad daylight.
Two villagers stepped into our hut. It was nothing more than one big room where everything happened— eating, mending, singing, and sleeping. The other things like cooking, cleaning, and bathing took place outside. My mother and I had shared one mattress — my favorite place — and one stool. My father’s scraggly straw hat had continued to hang on a hook by the door long after he had died. My mother had refused to give it away.
One of the villagers, missing a front tooth, squatted next to me where I lay, beside my dead mother. He put his crusty hand on my shoulder and rolled me away from her body.
“Lek, little boy, it be time to take your mommy. She go to other life now.” Gently, he released my fingers grasping her stiff hand. “Give you mommy a last kiss,” he said.
With all my strength, I reached out to embrace her. I crushed the jasmine flowers that were still in her hair. My tears tumbled onto the sheet and onto the tattered green sarong covering her. I began to shake uncontrollably next to her lifeless body. Silently, I wished for her arms to comfort me but I knew she would never hug me again.
The hand on my shoulder tugged me away from her. Crouched on the mattress, I watched the two villagers move my mother onto our wooden cart. This was the only thing we owned. They took her out through the front door. I did not know then that this was contrary to local traditions. Corpses should be taken through a window, a roof opening or any way other than how a person normally enters the house. If not, it is believed the person is not dead and their soul will return as a ghost.
If I had had an uncle or aunt, they would have made sure to observe the proper rituals. But we had no relatives here in the village. My parents had moved here when I was only 2 years old. I had never met any of our family and did not know if they even existed.
The villagers lowered my mother onto the cart and covered her. The older man reached for my hand. On my short legs, I struggled to catch his hand and stumbled on the door ledge. No one was there to catch me. I felt the urge to run back into the house and lie down on the mattress. But my feet, heavy as sacks of rice, would not move. I began to cry, tears gushing down with enough force to fill a paddy field.
“Lek, my sweet little one, do not sob. You must not show your emotions at a funeral. Tonight I will sing you to sleep and you can cry all you want.”
The villager’s hand remained outstretched, waiting for me. I wiped my tears with the back of my hand. I could not let my mother go alone. I walked up to the cart, reached for her hand, and held it tight. The men pushed the cart forward.
The sound of shuffling sandals moved toward the temple. A few family friends and some curious neighbors followed. We walked in silence. The chimes, gongs, and trumpets that were normally heard to banish the sorrows and fears of the dead were missing. The incomplete funeral procession marched on like a beheaded parade. No one walked ahead with a white banner on a long pole. No elders carried the traditional silver bowl of flowers. No monks accompanied the coffin. The only vigil for my mother had been the hours I had spent with her on the night she died. Frightened by her stillness, I had pressed against her, pretending she had just fallen asleep. I drew make-believe animals and flowers on the sarong that covered her body. I had traced the outline of her hand and sung her lullabies to help her sleep.
Unable to keep up with the cart, I skipped alongside, sometimes jerking my mother’s hand, but unwilling to let it go. When I saw the pyre appear ahead of us, panic seized me. My feet dug into the ground, causing my mother’s body to slip backward on the cart. The villager pulling the cart stopped and turned around to see what had happened. Without saying a word, he nodded and motioned me to keep walking.
With my gaze fixed to the ground, I took smaller steps. We stopped outside the temple grounds. Four monks waited in front of a table, which rested on a pile of wood, branches, and planks. This was not a proper cremation. It was not like my father’s funeral. Why were there so few monks? Why were we not taking her inside the temple ground to the village pyre? I wondered how my mother’s soul would travel safely to her next life without a real funeral.
As villagers arrived, they stayed back. They were present, yet they were absent. They did not know how to participate in this funeral that lacked the traditional rituals. No food had been offered to the monks to assist my mother’s soul in traveling to her next life. No white thread joined the monks to the coffin made of old bed sheets and sarongs. The thread was necessary to carry the monks’ sutra to my mother’s body. I heard an elder say that without merit and proper rites, my mother would have a perilous journey to rebirth.
People continued to arrive from the paddy fields. Most of them were women and children. A mother in bare feet wiped her hands on an old apron and fidgeted with the handkerchief covering her hair. At her side, a little girl grinned and tugged at her mother’s skirt. I remember watching the child balance on one foot, then scratching her bare leg with the toes of her free foot. A white-haired woman in a sun-faded sarong leaned on a stick. Her hands were covered with enormous callouses. She squinted and allowed her head to droop. Her smile disappeared into sorrow.
A hand yanked at my shoulder and pulled me away from my mother. I looked up and peered into the dark brown eyes of the villager.
“Come, Lek, it be time they start now.”
I clutched my mother’s hand, bit my bottom lip, forcing the tears to stop. I refused to cry at her funeral. I held her hand for the last time. I gave it a squeeze before releasing my grip. I was left with nothing to hold onto, not even nat leaves used to keep ghosts away. I tucked my trembling hands between my stomach and the rolled edge of my sarong. My chin dropped to my chest. I did not want to look at anyone, or see anyone looking at me.
The villagers who had pulled and pushed the cart from our hut then approached my mother’s body.
They lifted her by the shoulders and feet to move her onto the pyre. Someone I did not recognize placed a few jasmine blossoms next to her body, a small gesture to adorn her final resting place.
One of the monks then leaned forward and placed dried bamboo shoots on each corner of the table. He set the first bunch on fire. The other three monks repeated the same actions. I did not want to see what would come next, but I could not take my eyes off my mother’s body. I dug my nails deeper and deeper into the soft flesh of my stomach and bit my tongue harder. I felt no pain. It gave me courage to keep looking.
When the last monk had lit his bunch of bamboos shoots, I looked around to see what the other people were doing. Everyone was watching the fire without moving or talking. They had never seen a body cremated in this way. The flames licked the table and crept toward my mother’s body. I stopped breathing. The flames joined hands, turning the sheets and sarong into a curtain of fire. A faint smell of jasmine rose from the burning flowers.
I turned away as pain exploded in my belly. I tried to scream and call for help but the words would not come out. I tried to call for her. Still nothing came out. The pain inside me had robbed me of my voice.
I forced myself to look at my mother so I could see her one last time. The flames consumed her. The sounds of burning wood and popping bamboo thundered in my head. It sounded just as scary as when she had screamed in the middle of the night in agony from her illness.
I covered my ears and howled. This time my voice rose above the burning fire. As I looked around for help, people looked away. They turned their eyes to stare at the monks. I stamped my feet and beat my fists against my thighs to get their attention. I was not crying, I was hollering.
No one moved. I stepped towards the fire. I was determined to hold her hand again. I needed to touch her one last time. The heat scorched my forehead. An old villager reached over and pulled me back, without tenderness, without anger.
I dug my toes into the ground. I refused to back away from the fire. I could not let my mother begin her journey to the other life like this. She at least had to know that I was with her. The fire that was consuming my mother’s body was also searing loneliness into my heart. I stood my ground while the flames destroyed the last of any affection and tenderness I would know for the rest of my life. My mother was gone. How could I continue to exist?
As I watched on, my mother’s torso suddenly shot up for a brief moment. It looked as if she was reaching out for me. I jumped back in shocked surprise. Then I moved towards her.
“I am here, Mommy,” I screamed. Sweat, mixed with tears and soot, poured down my face. The urgent need to give her something to take into her next life swept over me. I had to give her something to remember me by. She could not forget me.
I ran through the small crowd towards the temple grounds. I grabbed a violet orchid and raced back to the fire. I approached the fire as close as I could stand the heat and offered her the flower. Eyes closed, I begged the universe to let her be reborn as a beautiful butterfly, like the ones she loved so much. Most of all, please let her not forget me.
Extracted from The Boy With A Bamboo Heart. Published by Maverick House 2015. Available now to download from Kindle, iTunes, Google Play, Kobo and Nook.