by Owen Jones
1 MR. LEE’S PREDICAMENT
Mr. Lee, or Old Man Lee as he was known locally had been feeling strange for weeks and, because the local community was so small and isolated, everybody else in the vicinity knew about it too. He had been to seek the advice of a local doctor, one of the old kind, not a modern medical doctor and she had told him that his body’s temperature was out of balance, because something was affecting his blood.
The woman, the local Shaman, Mr. Lee’s aunty in fact, was still not quite sure of the cause, but she had promised that she would know in about twenty-four hours, if he left a couple of samples for her to study and came back when she sent for him. The Shaman handed Mr. Lee a clump of moss and a stone.
He knew what to do, because he had done it before, so he urinated on the moss and spat on the stone after hawking deeply. He handed them solemnly back to her, and being very careful not to touch them with her bare hands, she wrapped them separately in pieces of banana leaf to preserve their moisture for as long as possible.
“Give them a day to rot down and dry out, then I’ll have a good look and see what’s the matter with you.”
“Thank you, Aunty Da, I mean, Shaman Da. I will await your summons and return immediately when you call me.”
“You wait there, my lad, I’m not finished with you yet.”
Da reached around behind herself and took an earthenware jar from the shelf. She uncorked it, took two mouthfuls and then spat the last one all over Old Man Lee. As Da was incanting a prayer to her gods, Mr. Lee was thinking that she had forgotten about the ‘cleansing’ – he hated being spat on by anyone, but especially old ladies with rotten teeth.
“That alcohol spray and the prayer will tide you over until we can sort you out properly,” she assured him.
Shaman Da stood up from her full-lotus position on the earthen floor of her medical sanctuary, put her arm around her nephew’s shoulder and walked with him outside, rolling a cigarette as they went.
Once outside, she lit it up, took a deep draw and felt the smoke fill her lungs. “How’s that wife of yours and your lovely children?”
“Oh, they are well, Aunty Da, but a little concerned about my health. I’ve been feeling a bit dicky for a while now and I’ve never been sick in my whole life, as you know.”
“No, we Lees are a strong lot. Your father, my dear brother, would still be fit now, if he hadn’t died of the flu. Strong as a buffalo he was. You take after him, but he never got shot. I think that’s what has caught up with you, that Yankee bullet.”
Mr. Lee had been through this several hundred times before, but he couldn’t win the argument so he just nodded, handed his aunt a fifty Baht note and set off home to his farm, which was just a few hundred yards outside the village.
He was feeling better already, so he put on a jaunty pace to try to prove it to everyone.
Old Man Lee trusted his ancient aunty Da completely, as did everyone else in their community, which consisted of a small village of about a five hundred houses and a few dozen out-lying farms. His aunty Da had taken over as village Shaman when he was a boy, and there weren’t more than a dozen or so who could remember the one before her. They had never had a university-qualified medical doctor of their own.
That was not to say that the villagers did not have access to a physician, but they were few and far between – the nearest permanent doctor was ‘in town’, seventy-five kilometres away and there were no buses, taxis or trains in the mountains where they lived in the very top north-eastern corner of Thailand. Besides that, doctors were expensive and prescribed expensive drugs, from which everyone assumed they earned high commissions. There was also a clinic a few villages away, but it was staffed by a full-time nurse and a part-time circular doctor who worked there one day a fortnight.
Villagers like Mr. Lee thought that they were probably all right for rich city-dwellers, but not much use to the likes of them. How could a farmer take a whole day off work and hire someone else with a car to do the same to go to visit a city doctor? If you could find someone with a car that was, although there were a few old tractors about within ten kilometres.
No, he thought, his old aunty was good enough for everyone else and she was good enough for him and besides, she hadn’t let anyone die whose time wasn’t up and she certainly hadn’t killed anyone, everyone would swear to that.
Mr. Lee was very proud of his aunty, and anyway, there was no alternative for miles around and certainly no-one with all her experience – all…? Well, no-one knew how old she was really, not even she herself, but probably ninety if a day.
Mr. Lee reached his front yard with these thoughts in mind. He wanted to discuss the matter with his wife, because although he appeared to the outside world to be the boss in his family, the same with every other family, that was only show, because in reality, every decision was made by the family as a whole, or at least all the adults.
This was going to be a momentous day, because the Lees had never had a ‘crisis’ before and their two children, who were no longer children either, would have to be allowed to have their say as well. History was about to be made and Mr. Lee was well aware of it.
“Mud!” he called out, his affectionate name for his wife since their first-born had not been able to say ‘mother’. “Mud, are you there?”
“Yes, I’m out the back.”
Lee waited a few moments for her to come in, but it was hot and stuffy indoors, so he went out to the front yard and sat on their large family table with its grass roof where the whole family ate and was wont to sit if they had any free time.
Mrs. Lee’s real name was Wan, although her husband affectionately called her Mud, since their eldest child had called her that because he hadn’t been able to say ‘mother’ yet. The name had stuck with Mr. Lee but not with either of the children. She came from the village, Baan Noi, as did Lee himself, but her family knew nowhere else, whereas Mr. Lee’s family had come from China two generations before, although that home town was not far away either.
She was fairly typical of the women of the area. In her day, she had been a very pretty girl, but girls were not given much opportunity back then and nor were they encouraged to be ambitious, not that things had changed much for her daughter even twenty years later. Mrs. Lee had been content to look for a husband on leaving school, so when Heng Lee had asked for her hand and shown her parents the compensation money he had in the bank, she had thought that he was as good a catch as any other local boy she was likely to get. Neither did she have any desires to wander away from her friends and relations to a big city to increase her scope.
She had even come to love Heng Lee in her own way, although the fire had long gone out in her short love life and she was more of a business partner now than a wife in the family firm dedicated to their mutual survival.
Wan had never sought a lover, although she had been propositioned both before and after her marriage. At the time, she had been outraged, but now she looked back on those moments with a degree of tenderness. Lee was her first and only, and now would surely be her last, but she had no regrets about that.
Her only dream was to see and take care of the grandchildren that her kids would surely want in the fullness of time, although she did not want them, especially her daughter, to rush into marriage like she had. She knew that her children would have children as sure as eggs were eggs, if they were able, because it was the only way to provide some financial security for themselves in their old age and have a chance of developing the family’s status.
Mrs. Lee cared about family, status and honour, but she did not want any more material things than she already had. She had learned to do without for so long that it didn’t matter to her any more.
She already had a mobile phone and a television, but the signals were poor to say the least and there was nothing she could do about that but wait for the government to get around to upgrading the local transmitters, which would surely happen one day, if not any time soon. She didn’t want a car because she didn’t want to go anywhere and besides the roads weren’t very good anyway.
However, it was not only that, people of her age and station had thought a car so out of reach for so long that they had ceased to desire them decades ago. In other words, she was content with the bicycle and old motorcycle that formed the family fleet of transport.
Neither did Mrs. Lee hanker after gold or fancy clothes anymore, as the realities of raising two kids on a farmer’s wage had knocked that out of her many years ago too. Despite all that, Mrs. Lee was a happy woman who loved her family and was resigned to staying as she was and where she was, until Buddha called her to go home again one day.
Mr. Lee watched his wife walking towards him, she was adjusting something under her sarong, but from the outside – something wasn’t sitting right, he supposed, but would never ask. She sat on the edge of the table and swung her legs up to sit like a mermaid on a Danish rock.
“OK, what did that old crone have to say?”
“Oh, come on, Mud, she’s not that bad! OK, you and she have never hit it off, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes, isn’t it? She never speaks a bad word about you, why, just thirty minutes ago she was asking after your health… and the kids’.”
“You can be such a fool sometimes too, Heng. She speaks nicely to me and about me when people are around to hear, but whenever we are alone, she treats me like dirt and always has done. She hates me, but she’s too devious to let you see that, because she knows that you would take my side and not hers. You men think you are worldly-wise but you can’t see what’s going on under your own noses.
“She has accused me of all sorts of things over the years and many times too… like not keeping a clean home, not washing the children and once she even said that my food smelled like I’d used goat droppings for flavouring!
“Bah, you don’t know the half of it, but you don’t believe me either, do you, your own wife? Yes, you can smile, but it has not been very funny for me these last thirty years, let me tell you. Anyway, what did she have to say?”
“Nothing, really, that was just a check-up, so it was the same old routine. You know, pee on some moss, spit on a stone and then let her spray you with alcohol from that toothy old mouth. It makes me shudder to think of it. She said she’d get word to me tomorrow, when she could let me know the outcome.
“Where are the children? Shouldn’t they be here to take part in this family discussion?”
“I don’t think so, not really. After all, we don’t know anything yet, do we? Or have you got any ideas?”
“No, not really. I thought I might have a massage off that Chinese girl… that might help, if I ask her to go easy on me. She learned her skill in northern Thailand and she can be a bit rough, can’t she… so they say. You know, especially with my insides being like they are. Perhaps, they’ll benefit from a gentle rubbing though… what do you think, my dear?”
“Yes, I know what you mean by gentle rubbing. If that’s the case, why don’t you ask your uncle to do it? Why choose a young woman?”
“You know why, I don’t like having men’s hands on me, I’ve explained that before, but all right, if it upsets you, I won’t have a massage.”
“Look, I am not saying that you can’t go! Heavens, I couldn’t stop you if you wanted to go anyway! However, as you say, they say she is a bit rough, and she may do more harm than good. I think that it would be wiser not to, until we’ve heard fro your aunty, that’s all.”
“Yes, OK, you’re probably right. You never said where the kids are.”
“I’m not really sure, I thought they’d be back by now… They went off together to see about some birthday party or other on the weekend.”
The Lees had two children, one of each, and they counted themselves lucky for them, because they had been trying to have children for ten years before their boy was conceived. They were twenty and sixteen now, so Mr. and Mrs. Lee had long given up hoping for any more.
They had stopped trying long ago too.
However, they were good, respectful and obedient children and they made their parents proud, or at least, what their parents knew about them made them proud, because they were just like any decent kids: 90% good, but could get up to mischief too and had secret thoughts that they knew their parents would not approve of.
Master Lee, the son, Den, or Young Lee, had just turned twenty and was nearly two years out of school. He, like his sister, had a happy childhood, but the fact was beginning to dawn on him that his father had a very hard life planned for him, not that he hadn’t worked all his life both before and after school anyway. However, there had been time for football and table tennis and the girls at the school dances back then.
That had all finished now and so had his prospects of a sex life, not that there had ever been much to boast about – just the rare kiss and even rarer fumble, but now he had had nothing for nearly two years. Den would have left for a city at the drop of a hat, if he had any sort of clue what to do when he got there, but he had no ambition either, except to have sex often.
His hormones were playing havoc with him to such an extent that some of the goats were looking very attractive to him, which worried him no end.
Not very deep down, he realised that he would have to get married, if he wanted to have a regular relationship with a woman.
Marriage, even if it came at the cost of having to have children, was starting to look decidedly attractive.
Miss Lee, better known as Din, was a very pretty girl of sixteen, who had left school in the summer, having studied two years fewer than her brother, which was quite normal in their area. Not because she was less bright, but because both parents and the girls themselves assumed that the earlier they started their families, the better it was. It was also easier to get a husband when a girl was younger than twenty even a few years older. Din accepted this traditional ‘wisdom’ without question, despite her mother’s misgivings.
She had also worked before and after school all her life and probably harder than her brother, although he would never have been able to see that, as girls were virtually slave labour everywhere roundabouts.
However, Din did have fantasies. She dreamed of romantic entanglements, in which her lover would whisk her away to Bangkok, where he would become a doctor and she would spend all day shopping with her girlfriends. Her hormones were also troubling her, but their local culture forbade her from admitting to them, even to herself. Her father, brother and even mother too, probably, would give her a hiding, if they caught her even smiling at a boy from outside the family.
She knew that and accepted it without question too.
It was her plan to start looking for a husband straight away, a task that her mother had already offered to help in, because both the ladies Lee knew that it was best accomplished as soon as possible, in order to prevent any risk of shame befalling the family.
All in all, the Lees were a typical family for the locality and they were happy to be so. They got on with their lives within the constraints of local mores and thought that right and proper, even if the two children did harbour dreams of escaping to the big city. The problem there was that the lack of ambition that had been bred into the hill folk for centuries held them back, which was a good thing for the government otherwise all the young people would long ago have disappeared from the countryside into Bangkok and from there to foreign countries like Taiwan and Oman where the wages were better and the freedom from rigid peer pressure was alluring.
Many young girls had taken the trip to Bangkok though. Some of them had found decent jobs, but many had ended up working in the sex industries of the larger cities and from there, a few travelled even further abroad and even outside Asia. There were many horror stories about to dissuade young girls from taking that route and they had worked on Din and her mother alike.
Mr. Lee liked his life and loved his family, although it was not the done thing to admit that outside the confines of the home and he didn’t want to lose them to some sickness that might have started building up in him when he was still only a lad.
Mr. Lee or Old Mr. Lee, as he was better known (although he knew that some of the less respectful youngsters in the village called him Old Goat Lee) had been an idealist in his youth and had signed up to fight for North Vietnam as soon as he had left school. They lived right on the border with Laos, so North Vietnam was not far away, and he knew of the bombs that the Americans had dropped there and on Laos and he wanted to do his bit to have it stopped.
He had joined the communist cause and gone to Vietnam for combat training as soon as they would have him. Many of the people he was training with were just like him, part Chinese, but fed up with foreign powers meddling in his countrymen’s future. He could not understand why Americans living thousands of miles away cared who was in power in his little part of the world. He had never worried which president they had elected.
However, as fate would have it, he never had the chance to fire a shot in anger because he was hit by shrapnel from an American bomb as he was being transported from the training camp to the field of battle on his very first day out of boot camp. His wounds had been very painful, but not life-threatening, although they were sufficient to get him invalided out of the army, after he was fit enough to leave hospital. He had been hit in the upper left leg by the biggest piece, but a few smaller bits had peppered his abdomen, which he now thought may be the source of his discomfort. That had also been the source of the rumour that he had been shot.
He had returned home with a bad limp and enough compensation to buy a small farm, but since his leg was bad, he had bought a farm and a flock of goats and bred and sold them instead. Within a year of his return, his leg was as good as it would ever get and he was married to a pretty local girl that he had known and fancied all his life. She was also from a farming background, and they settled down to a happy, but meagre existence.
Every day of the week ever since, except Sunday, Mr. Lee had taken his flock up into the uplands to graze and in the summer, he would often stay overnight in one of the bivouacs he had here and there which he had learned to make in the army. He looked back on that time with nostalgia, as happy days, although he would not have called them that at the time.
There were no predators in the mountains any longer, except men, because all the tigers had been killed long ago for use in the Chinese medicine industry. Mr. Lee had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand he knew that it was a shame, but on the other he had no desire to have to defend his goats from marauding tigers every night. When the illness had struck him only a week or so ago, he had been a goatherd for almost forty years, so he knew the mountains as well as most people knew their local park.
He knew which areas to avoid because of landmines and strychnine packets dropped by the Americans in the Seventies and he knew which areas had been cleared, although the sappers had missed one or two as one of his goats had discovered only a month previously. It had been a shame about her, although her dead body had not gone to waste and the end had come quickly when a dislodged stone had triggered a mine and been blown skyward, taking her head clean off with it..
It had been too far to carry her carcass home, so Mr. Lee had spent a few days in the mountains gorging himself while his family were worried sick about him back on the farm.
Mr. Lee was a contented man. He enjoyed his work and the outdoor life, and he was long reconciled to the fact that he would never be rich or go abroad again. For this reason, he and his wife were now happy to have only had two children. He loved them both equally and wanted the best for them, but he was also glad that they had left school so they could work full time on the farm, where his wife grew herbs and vegetables and kept three pigs and a few dozen chickens.
Mr. Lee was thinking of how much he could expand his farm with the extra help. Maybe they could manage another dozen chickens, a few extra pigs and a field of sweet corn perhaps.
He awoke from his reverie, “What if it’s serious, Mud? I haven’t mentioned this before, but I fainted twice this week and came near to it two or three times more.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“Well, you know, I didn’t want you to worry and you couldn’t have done anything about it, could you?”
“No, not personally, but I would have got you to your aunty earlier and maybe tried to get you to see a medical doctor.”
“Ach, you know me, Mud. I’d have said, ’Let’s wait to see what aunty has to say before spending all that money’. I must admit to feeling mighty queer sometimes though and I am a bit scared of what aunty will say tomorrow.”
“Yes, so am I. Do you really feel that bad?”
“Sometimes, but I just don’t have any energy at all. I used to be able to run and jump with the goats, but now I get tired just watching them!
“Something’s up, I’m sure of it.”
“Look, Paw,” which was her unimaginative pet name for him since it meant ‘Dad’, “the children are at the gate. Do you want to bring them in on this now?”
“No, you are right, why worry them now, but I think that aunty will send for me late tomorrow afternoon, so tell them we are having a family meeting at teatime and they have to be there.
“I think I’ll go to bed now, I feel tired again. Aunty’s spittle livened me up for a while, but it has worn off. Tell them I’m all right, but ask Den to take the goats out for me tomorrow, will you? He doesn’t have to take them far, just down by the stream so they can eat some river weed and get a drink… It won’t hurt them for one or two days.
“When you get ten minutes, could you make me some of your special tea, please? The one with ginger, anise and the rest… that should buck me up a little… Oh, and a few melon or sunflower seeds… perhaps you could ask Din to crack them for me?”
“How about a mug of soup? It’s your favourite…”
“Yes, OK, but if I’m asleep, just put it on the table and I’ll have it cold later.
“Hello, children, I’m going to bed early tonight, but I don’t want you to worry, I’m all right. Your mother can fill you in with the details. I’ve just got some sort of infection, I think. Good night all.”
“Good night, Paw,” they all replied. Din looked especially concerned as they looked anxiously first at Mr. Lee’s retreating back and then at one another.
As Mr. Lee lay there in the quiet darkness, he felt his sides throbbing even more, just as a decayed tooth always seems to be more troublesome in bed at night, but he was so worn out that he was fast asleep before his tea, soup and seeds were brought in to him.
Outside, on the big table in the half-light, the rest of the small family discussed Mr. Lee’s predicament in hushed voices, despite the fact that no-one would have been able to hear them if they had spoken out loud.
“Is Paw going to die, Mum?” asked Din almost in tears.
“No, dear, of course not,” she replied, “at least I don’t think so.”
=== End First Chapter ===
Genre: comedy-vampire, suitable for all ages
For more details, The Disallowed website is at: http://thedisallowed.com