THE TALE OF THE SALENG
(Winner of 1st Prize, Writers' Forum #218)
They’ve found many bodies in these waters, but they’ve never found hers. Lovers and adulterers, drowned children and murdered gamblers; jealousies, drugs, suicides; floating, weighted, bloated. They’ve found many bodies in these waters, but not hers. And the saleng knows why.
Scales in the crate on back, plastic packed, strapped in front, ready to go. The saleng cycles, eyes shaded under sun-faded grey-black baseball cap, checked shirt hanging limp upon wiry frame, darned trousers flapping upon stick-like legs, brown masking tape holding together scuffed white sandals. The scavenger, they call him, doing the rounds again upon his tricycle-wagon collecting, paying for cardboard and plastic bottles and aluminium cans by the kilo. For decades this has been his day and at its end he must — as always — take respite here, his favourite spot.
His favourite spot, every evening, beneath or besides a small bridge above a khlong down off Prakhanong, the most beautiful place in Bangkok. A vision of what the city’s waterways could be, but one that goes unnoticed, at best a sideways glance from a passing motorist. Here, lined by tamarind trees, the city litter is sparse, the khlong runs clear and its water does not slurry black. He unstraps his cracked blue plastic chair, carries it down the slope off the road besides the bank to sit with newspaper and quench his thirst with a bottle of soda, raising his feet upon an upturned crate after yet another day’s toil. But he neither slumps nor does his head fall, pursing his lips before they fall back to form a smile as gentle as the water that flows before him. It’s getting late, the evening is coming, he stretches back, rests his hands atop his head and recalls: the beauty of this place is not by accident.
He loosens, unsticks a rusting beer bottle cap trodden deep within the earth. He scours the khlong. The water hyacinth is lessening, their stolons broken, thinning out into separate strands. The water is taking back its oxygen and light. The saleng turns on his chair, checking again the ground beneath and the land surrounding, that there is no other waste to be seen, no plastic straw or broken shard of glass. He feels the blunted teeth of the cap, rotating it back and forth between finger and thumb, remembering how as kids they’d use them as money, back before they became money, long before he transformed the now endless logos through the scrap dealer into money — the Changs, the Leos, the Carabaos — a poor man’s street alchemy providing just enough for day-to-day existence. But he has no complaints, business is good. He folds his newspaper, places it back into his small canvas shoulder satchel; nothing has changed in the world. He removes from the bag a bottle collected on the morning rounds. An old bottle — nearly as old as him — its previous owner most likely having thrown it out, he presumes, paying it little mind. Its label is faded, peeling with the loss of its corners, tiny misshapen flecks of paper on smudges of dried out glue along its edges. And yet, from within its vanishing lingers the memory. This very same brand of red Sala water, nam daeng, their favourite; its syrup all sticky sweet upon their lips, softly gluing the corners of their mouths. He can see her now, guzzling it down, lowering the bottle to once more return her attention to him, to resume her affectionate joshing. How she would bet him using such throwaway currencies, not always for the cap but at times for a whole bottle, always daring him — to wear his clothes on back to front, to wear her clothes, to sleep the night under the bridge, to kiss. For those few years this was where they met, talked, played. And he remembered how that one day, having the week before reached the supreme age of 11, he protested, held strong against the unfairness of this system that she, his senior by a couple of years, had set up and rigorously enforced.
‘You’re always daring me,’ he confronted her. ‘For once, I’m gonna dare you!’ A rare bravery, but one that had been coming.
She smiled, her lips paused, uneven in a line both questioning and pleased.
‘You can’t think of any dares,’ she retorted, her tone a dare in itself, unfazed by the challenge of the upstart.
‘Yes, I can.’
‘Go on then.’
‘Well…’ She was right as always; he couldn’t think of one thing. Not one thing that she hadn’t already come up with before, and it was surely an unwritten rule that one had to be original, that one could never copy or repeat. But then it came to him. And it had come from her, but not from a dare – no – but inspired from the very tales she’d recounted to scare him on the nights they’d spent under the bridge, of the malign female ghosts who resided from within the river, who’d crawl upon the edges of the banks, their nails digging into the mud on their way to get to you. ‘Swim across the khlong!’ he yelled, his eyebrows raised high in triumph at just having the idea, and not the idea itself.
‘So what if I do?’ she countered, deflating him, putting him back in his place. ‘You see, I know the king of the nagas, and he will protect me.’ She turned her cheek to face him. ‘I shall swim with the naga.’
Ah, the naga, she played the naga. The king of the giant serpents who parents told stories of, who they’d learnt about at the temple school in the parables of the Buddha, and who they’d seen drawn in such intricate, curving detail in the newspapers after yet another rumoured sighting way up north, along the Mekong. These magnificent beasts exhaling red fireballs from deep within the waters, sending them up high to disappear within the very ends of the skies, as they voyaged towards the wider expanses of the oceans. How once, his favourite story went, one had taken on human form in the guise of a monk in a quest for enlightenment, only to be turned away by the Lord Buddha himself, who in great compassion, it was said, revealed to the lesser being the way to be born human the next life, and the way thereon to enlightenment.
‘Not if the river ghosts get you first!’ he’d joked, pleased with himself that he could have the last word, for a change.
The saleng turns the bottle between his hands, studying it, then removes from his bag another bottle, full and still sparkling in recent manufacture, a bottle bought from a nearby shophouse, a rare survivor among the many convenience stores. He compares the two, inspects them in detail. The very same brand, still on sale today. But not the same; the loops of its logo flattened, its swirls reined in much as he himself has wrinkled and folded, but which she never did. Yet the bottles, one in each hand, feel alike; the rays of the low evening sun come flood the empty bottle, gifting it a thousand tiny sunshines.
He’d warned her, and it was after all she who’d started it, telling him so many times of the strange figure she said she’d seen pulling herself up from the muddy banks, all dark and shadowy.
‘A ghost,’ she’d said. ‘And she’ll pull you under if you get too close or break the surface of the water with just a finger.’
‘You don’t scare me,’ he’d told her, his head stuck out unnaturally high. But though it had been untrue, he was scared, and he had come to realise the danger of his dare.
He remembers her long black hair all rugged and uncombed but trailing in beauty, turning to smile at him, standing only in her white underwear, unafraid, confident, as if she knew what she was doing descending into the water, her figure stretching out, having begun to grow into womanhood but then, there, shortening, consumed in gradual measure by the water.
They found him upon this spot, and he spoke one word.
Repeating its name. Beside him her shed clothes.
They never found her body.
For weeks afterwards, he said nothing but this word, this name. They suspected him of being behind her disappearance. And why not? He believed he had, still believes. It was his dare, after all. But it was all soon forgotten, neither child being deemed worthy of further effort or exertion on the part of the indifferent authorities. He, present, too simple, too harmless. She, absent, merely gone. Nobody cared, certainly not his own father who, whenever on rare occasion would return to the shack that housed them, likely never learnt or cared about the event. Only her mother came to the bank to weep, who wept for so long, and whose body was found soon after, among the drifting water hyacinth that one morning carpeted the khlong.
And she too was forgotten.
And naga was all he said.
Yet he remembered nothing of seeing any such serpent. All he could see was her smile, her descent, the light reflecting upon the water; a flash of sun perhaps upon a scale, but then nothing more. No river spirits, no struggle; nothing more. The moments that followed were gone, not even to reemerge through dream or reverie in the days that followed, but simply taken from his life.
The day is darkening, and across the khlong a woman crouches opposite. Perhaps a ghost or perhaps it is her, kept safe by the naga, returned to the bank after all these years.
‘The shadows are playing with me,’ he says aloud to ground himself. The memory of her mother he thinks, so broken in those days, come down by the side of the water to add her tears. To her he could say nothing, and she’d never say anything again, silently she’d stare at him without reproach, trapped within her own mourning. Across the khlong there is no-one.
His attention is drawn elsewhere, above, to his left, to hurried chatter. Upon the bridge two young men hold a gutted armchair, its worn caramel faux leather coming away in pieces, its springs for innards uncoiling, undone. Raising it upon the bridge wall, they ready to cast it into the water, and so to anger the naga.
‘Oi! What do you think you’re doing?’ he bellows up at them. They freeze, the armchair falling back down upon the road. They still, their cheeks redden, silent in a moment that weighs heavy, stunned. They come to, after what may have been a few seconds or a hundred years, avoiding eye contact, placing the chair into the back of their pick up, they slowly drive off, most likely to dump it elsewhere, another khlong. But not now and not here. Not at his spot. Her spot. Their spot. He smiles to think that for a man near eighty, his bones cracking and crumbling into dust, his muscles atrophying, strung between thick, gnarled sinews, that he, a lowly saleng, a scavenger, can convey such command in his voice, that this place will be respected, that tonight the naga will not be displeased. He looks out as far along the khlong as he can see, disappearing a little further under the shadowy arch of the bridge, wondering where it ends.
Even now he cannot rest, for this is his work. Kept it clean, kept watch over it, he has. For all his taking of other people’s wastes, work that fate could not have better suited to him, work that he knows the value of and takes pride in, whatever others may say or think, for all this, this is the place that has been his most precious, most paramount of tasks, the work his heart has beaten within. As it had when they were children.
’Let’s make it worthy of the naga’ she’d said, desiring that one day she’d see the mythical creature swim within it. From the water they scooped out every discarded bottle or carton, from within the blades of grass every flicked cigarette, and from the banks the fragments of abandoned spirit houses and shopping trolleys. And with the pooled deposits earned from returned bottles, they’d lie back and share their favourite drink, pondering where the khlong would end and what would be there.
Throughout all the years and the many bottles thrown casually over the bridge’s side, he’s made this spot the most beautiful in Bangkok. For her, for when he hopes to see her again.
He lowers himself from his chair, eases down to sit upon the crate-stool, to be nearer the water. The day is nearing its end. He sees the woman again opposite. It’s darker, but she’s clearer. He can see her now. He wais, picks up the bottle of nam daeng between his hands and pours its soda-blood into the khlong. It fizzes and snakes upon the water’s surface before dispersing, lost to the whole.
He exhales wearily and shuffles off the crate to lie flat upon the bank. He stares up at the few stars faint within the city dark, and loses himself to time.
A man approaches, walks past the trees, towards him along the path along the bank. He leaves no footsteps, wears down no grass, moves without sound. The saleng cannot describe him, but recognises him, his smooth skin shining as moonlight upon water. He stops before the saleng, takes in the surroundings. Their gazes meet, for a few seconds or for a hundred years. The saleng bends his knees inwards with the help of his hands, raising them high and up close to his chest, he suffers in doing so, but he must make way for this man to pass. And the man passes, disappears into and beyond the darkness of the bridge, towards the end of the khlong.
With focused, concerted effort the saleng raises himself to a stand. He removes from his bandaged sandals his feet, places the big toe of his foot in the khlong, breaks the surface. He feels a tingle, but not the pricking of nerves worn thin by age, instead a tingling driven by a cool new energy, a shedding, a peeling. A renewal. He crouches upon the earthy bank, tries to push himself off, to leverage himself into the water but his arms, feeble, give, and he falls backwards, sliding in one movement deep into the khlong. He neither struggles nor flounders but glides, senses a strange alien delight, a ripening of his long numbed skin as through transformation. And as he does so, he speaks but one word: ‘Naga’.
The busy curtain of bubbles thins, rises to reveal her, floating vertically there before him. She is as she was that day.
Her uneven smile. ’We kept it clean, didn’t we?’ she says.
‘Yes, we did,’ he answers, swirling around her in newfound might, his long body flickering and twisting with the ease of a young eel.
‘And I did it.’
‘What?’ he asks.
‘Your dare.’ She holds up the bottle cap from her favourite drink. A thin dark shadow encircles her ankle. She is not free.
‘And how was it? Being human?’ she asks.
A good question, a remnant of his human self tells him, yet he doesn’t know how to answer it. Nearly eighty years taking on their form, searching among their dirt, taking on the human mind and he struggled to use their means of understanding. His had been a solitary life, unpicking their waste to find things of value, amidst all the empty cartons and the bottle tops, and he’d returned only to her.
But in that moment he is made aware.
He swims around her, ducks his head to nudge below her arm. She climbs onto his back, grips his topmost fin. He flicks his body-tail, and the shadow grip releases as if it had never held her, only ever a phantom of their invention.
‘See,’ she says. ‘I knew the naga would protect me.’
He eyes the ahead, sees far further than he had before.
‘So, where now?’ she asks again, gently insistent, still in the manner of his senior.
He delights in the light pressure of the water upon his scales, each shining like a thousand empty bottles, reborn to his true nature. ‘To the ocean,’ he answers as he contracts his body, rears his great head and pulls in the spear end of his tail, to surge forward in an undulation the size of a mountain.
Off Prakhanong, a khlong lined by tamarind trees. A passing motorist brakes, waits to overtake an unattended, stationary tricycle-wagon, to let the oncoming traffic pass. She looks off to the side, pauses for a moment early in her day, and she sees the most beautiful place in Bangkok. An old, empty bottle floats upon the water, catches the sunlight. She moves on.
In the distance, far along the khlong, a red fireball rises into the sky.