by John McMahon
In a remote valley of the mountainous Thai border, just north of the Ismas of Kra where Myanmar tapers off into the sea, Pa Lum, or just Auntie as is common within the language oversees the villages gathering of wild honey. Bees are followed to their hives where boys climb to great heights with smoking torches of green leaves to ward off stings while they collect the golden wax combs. The laden combs are broken up and the honey drained as the children doing the work snack on sweet larvea that emerge squirming from their cells within. The honey is warmed and blended with rice whiskey and herbs that Auntie and a select group of girls collect from the jungle which encloses the tiny outpost of Amper Suang Puan on all sides. The honey is stirred on the verge of simmer until the oils released from the herbs are spiked as the alcohol burns off and then poured carefully into old whiskey and fish sauce bottles and set aside to cool before being sealed with the original caps dipped in molten bee’s wax.
Pa Lum is old to the point that no one asks her age. She wasn’t born in the village, wasn’t born into the tribe but has lived with them for so long that she’s considered a respected elder. A role she takes seriously, spending equal time scolding and teaching the children and adolescents who remain in the village. By the age of 14 or 15 most will leave. They walk out on the long track through the forest to the dirt road which leads to all roads hoping to find menial work somewhere in the world.
Honey processing is her most important task in the village but for her passing on the complicated, almost endless chronicle of Pee, the spirits and ghosts that occupy the forest and recesses of the village is equally important for the good of the children. As complicated and dangerous as it is to survive this life it is three-fold without knowing the ways of the other world. When dark settles over the village the children gather at her small house to hear stories about one of the forty or so ghosts she knows intimately.
The children love the stories of the most gruesome and always ask to hear about Pret, the giant, emaciated, insatiable spirits who feed on human excrement through pin hole mouths which immediately burns the inside of their throats or Krasue, the floating woman’s head with attached viscera that feed on sleeping men in the night. There is no shortage of specters. One legged vampires who roam the forest, eyeless children who extend their arms infinitely to search for lost mothers. There are banana and coconut tree ghosts, water ghosts, jumping Chinese ghosts; even the termites and buffaloes leave spirits behind in her stories.
Little has changed in the village in a century where money is almost non-existent. They are self sufficient in most ways. The eight wooden houses and various outbuildings pieced together from bamboo and rattan that make up the village utilize only a hand full of mass produced goods. No power lines reach them nor is there any plumbing or sewage. They eat what they grow, butcher, hunt and pick.
Ultimately though there is no distance great enough to stay the encroachment of modernity. A jumble of packaged foods and bottled drinks are brought in for sale on the side of a motorbike evidenced by the plastic bags tangled and twined through the surrounding scrub. Several of the older children have cellular phones they charge from the single solar panel brought to them by the same foreigners who hand out second hand clothing donated from far off countries. There’s no phone service for ten kilometers in any direction but still they are a great source of pride and contention among the children.
The honey money becomes communal property managed by the five eldest men who do little else. It’s apportioned for fuel for the motorcycles, chainsaw and single old pick-up truck. Some is set aside for feasts and a bit for emergencies when they might have to send a very sick child to a Maw Farang, a foreign doctor; it has happened once before.
In addition to processing the honey it’s also Auntie’s responsibility to peddle it. This all important job falls on her, even at her wizened age as she is the only citizen living in the village. The tribes existed in the hills and mountains long before the countries on either side of them developed laws to exclude them but her ID card, so worn that it’s pressed between two pieces of clear plastic and taped together is still valid and allows her the freedom to pass through multiple military checks along the road to the city.
Once a month the village girls pack bottles into eight woven rattan baskets and load these into the bed of the decrepit pick up truck. Luang Ong drives Pa Lum and her honey over the rutted village path with bald tires and slipping transmission fish-tailing them slowly up the steep hills and occasionally bogging down in the valleys where the trail is sometimes more water than soil. Usually they reach the rural road in the still early morning where Pa Lum squats down with her baskets at the side of the road and waits without expectation for the diesel spewing blue bus to crest the hill.
Two buses and six hours later she arrives in the provincial capital of Ratchaburi. A place that seems to grow ever bigger, hotter and denser between monthly visits. Here the bus assistant unloads her baskets, stowing six of the eight behind the ticket desk while Pa Lum hoists a pair on either side of her yoke, fits this across her shoulder and begins her sales campaign. The baskets bounce with each step she takes as the yoke flexes over her shoulder and the bottles clink lightly against one another, tucked into nests of dry grass to keep them from breaking during the journey.
She follows a regular route, moving along the crowded sidewalks and as often as not because of carts, commodities and tables, into the streets. In town she wears shoes with difficulty over toes that are hammered and splayed by decades of living barefoot against sharps that might penetrate the thick pads of her feet.
At Watt Rua Nua, the cities central temple, she sits in the shade of the main building where monks pass the day drinking Cola and smoking cigarettes. They wait for the few who come for blessings or to buy fish and birds to release in order to make merit. The monks loll through the afternoon napping, playing with smart phones or reading newspapers as mostly only the old come with little to offer in way of compensation.
In the early evening this changes. The parking lot fills with flash cars and trucks still tagged with red license plates that identify them as new. The people who drive them wear beautiful clothes. They have white skin and their bodies are soft and smooth. They are so much like foreigners that often Pa Lum can’t be sure they’re Thai until they speak and even then it’s almost an alien language to her after decades of living in the village.
Women buy the honey two and sometimes three bottles at a time, pushing money at the old lady, barely ever taking the time to look away from their phones, or to count the change they receive. They make the traditional wai, just slightly bowing their heads, but it’s a perfunctory movement, a default motion that carries no meaning. She sells her load by nightfall and returns to the bus station for full bottles, re-yokeing her rig with double the amount to stagger through the now busy streets to the night market.
Along the way she’s stopped by dinners at street side tables who try and haggle the price of a bottle down but Pa Lum knows the value of her honey and demurely refuses to bargain,continuing on to the market. The thriving, brightly lit night market would have been the kind of event that might have happened once a month when the old woman was a child in her hometown. That this market, this cacophonous gathering of mass consumerism occurred nightly, she couldn’t understand. How could the people need so much, so often? It wasn’t just the foods for sale, some of the which she couldn’t place by sight or smell; but clothes, shoes, electronics and every bit of trivial adornment imaginable to even the ultimate narcissist.
Pa Lum settles her self on a bare piece of ground between the parking area and the market proper just at the edge of the glow and noise with her baskets in front of her and slips into a state of near unconsciousness while customers barely pause to buy bottles of her honey on the way out. When the market begins to fold up, going dark around her, the baskets are empty again and she stiffly raises up, her legs weary and feet aching, to trudge sleepily back to the bus station where she wraps herself in the long shawl normally kept tied around her waist in the village style. She sleeps on the wooden bench in the small office that stays open all night receiving travelers who arrive on the erratic schedules of the cheapest buses.
Under the influence of the sounds and smells of town her weary dream state brings her back to childhood. She was not a child of the forest. She grew up long ago in a house that would even now be a great luxury there. Her parents weren’t peasants but part of a new working class, her father wore western clothes. She went to school in a uniform and learned to read and write. She had a boyfriend with a motorbike when she was thirteen and they stayed out all night learning to drink and smoke cigarettes with their friends. There was loud music at outdoor disco’s where men sometimes fought to death over the attention of women.
She was pregnant at 15 and had traveled overnight to the capital city where a woman ended it in exchange for money she didn’t have but could work off. Five years later she could babble in a handful of languages and had foreign boyfriends wiring her money monthly. She lived in a modern house, wore her own beautiful clothes, rode her own motorbike and still had money enough to send to her mother.
She wriggled in her sleep. That distant period of her life went on for a long time but it was like trying to see through a fog. There was alcohol and drugs and men and money. Then the young men who spent money so freely began to thin and disappear all together. Her monthly allowances dried up and her daily income dwindled to pocket money while her needs stayed the same. She no longer sent money home. She moved out of her modern house and sold her motorbike and slowly her clothes became tattered and out fashion and she was no longer either young or beautiful.
She wandered and lived on the streets for some years, she never really knew how long, scavenging for food and booze enough to stay alive and eventually this wandering brought her to the outskirts of Suang Puan where she was taken in as a minor wife to the village headman. In the village her vices fell away while slowly she became one of the tribe.
Early, cool morning Pa Lum ate a small breakfast straight from her dreams of childhood; fried Chinese donuts and sweet, orange tea before selling off the remaining bottles of honey to morning commuters who picked them up without much thought and stowed them away in their oversized bags, heading off to jobs that didn’t exist a decade before.
When the heat of the day settled in earnest she would be back on the same ancient blue bus rolling towards the hills and forests on roads ever diminishing in size and integrity, shedding traffic, wires and signs until early in the evening she would meet the villages pickup truck, so sorry looking after her night in the town for the final bone jarring leg of her trip. The thick roll of bills hidden in among the folds of her shabby clothes.
They arrived in the village with the last light of day slanting green through the forest canopy. The women and children gathered to welcome Auntie home. She handed over the bulk of the honey profits to the elder men, keeping what she considered her fair share aside and retired to the veranda of the house she shared with the other old women for her evening meal. The food tasted like the village, of wood smoke and strong herbs. The noise and pollution of the city hibernated again in her sense memory. Children gathered at the foot of the stairs as they did every night for their ghost story, knowing that on return Pa Lum would tell them about real monsters.
She talked in length about the town’s people, the Honey Monsters she called them. She told them how they smelled like flowers and walked like cows. She described the way they looked, how their skin was white like the pret and their hair was orange and pink and stuck up and out in frightful ways like the Krasue. She said they only ate plastic foods, had metal on their teeth and all wore glasses because their eyes were burned out from the phones and computers they held in front of their faces all day.
The kids squealed and laughed while Pa Lum imitated the fat, funny looking people who lived in town but she hushed them and said it wasn’t funny. She described how these creatures would consume a bottle of honey that took the village maybe ten hours to make, that the boys risk their lives gathering from bee’s nests, that they all stirred until arms ached over the hot vats, that she traveled so far to bring them, in a matter of minutes like the old men drink rice wine, and she would pretend to up end a bottle of honey. Silently slugging it down.
She told them that this was the way they took everything. She said they spent money on petrol so they never had to walk. That they ran air conditioners in their houses and cars so that they never sweat. That they ate meat everyday but had never seen an animal bleed and she said they were coming always closer to the village. They were insatiable consumers like the Pret , but they weren’t after shit, that eventually they would take or destroy everything the villagers have and make them all slaves in their factories, farms and resorts. That there was no fighting them off, none of the magic used to repel and placate the Pee who haunted the forest would work on them. They lived in this world and had the power of the government’s guns behind them and when they finally reached the village the tribe would have to flee to deeper forests.
By the end of the story the children’s excitement will have turned to fear and many would have bad dreams that night. Pa Lum could sometimes hear them in the dark, calling for mothers in their sleep. She lay awake in her own bed, thinking of days past; she had little future.
Editor’s Note on Honeymonsters:
Honeymonsters is not John McMahon’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are: