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cobra WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


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cobra TRANSLATED FROM THE THAI BY MARCEL BARANG

© THAI MODERN CLASSICS Internet eBook edition 2008 | All rights reserved

Original Thai edition, Mae Bia, 1987 The saiyut hushes its heady scent in late morn WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


3 The saiyut hushes its heady scent in late morn By then lovesick still, still forlorn Day after night, crying out for you Missing you from dawn to dawn compulsively

From Taleing Phai

The cobra slithered out of the thick wild grass along the bank, moving slowly. Its fat, pitch-black body, more than two metres long, glistened in the fierce midday sun. As it crept unhurriedly across a territory safe from enemy intrusion, it looked like an ordinary, inoffensive reptile. Right then, an old man came by, and its nonchalance was gone instantly; the head was raised and the skin of the neck expanded into a hood.

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1 Chanachon didn’t pay attention to the woman. In fact, her incessant merry chatter got on his nerves. Even though what she said occasionally made the people around them laugh, he wasn’t interested. She raised laughter by mocking the names of fellow travellers. ‘Mr Somchai, that’s a very nice name. So many people consider it to be such a very nice name that there are more than a thousand Somchais in the telephone book. Ah, and then Mr Prasit. Is it Mrs Chamoi’s Prasit∗, I wonder? Glad to meet you, sir. And we have Mr Ma-na, whom we’ve known for a long time. Actually, Ma-na as a name isn’t enough. It should be Ma-na Wiriya Utsaha Phaya-yarm∗∗, because when you first opened your shop it had only one shophouse, now it has expanded to four and you’re having a new building built as your office. And then… Mr Chanachon, perhaps a new man to this kind of travel. You don’t look very happy. Yours is a beautiful name∗∗∗. When you were a child, did you fall into the water and someone rescued you, I wonder…’ ∗

Mrs Chamoi was the operator of a huge pyramid loan sharking scheme in the 1980s involving the upper crust of Thai society. She blamed everything on a mysterious Prasit. ∗∗ Meaning ‘endeavour’, ‘perseverance’, ‘industry’, ‘attempt’, ‘try’ ∗∗∗ Chanachon means ‘winner over water’.

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5 That’s what made him pay attention to her. He smiled at her a little and smiled at the laughter of the people he knew more or less around him. Of the nearly twenty tourists in the luxury coach he did seem to be the odd man out for the reason she had teased him about. He didn’t feel happy, because while the others were having fun, he was silent and grave. It couldn’t be said he was a stranger, though, as he knew a few people on the coach. Chanachon knew the organiser of this trip to Suphanburi and if he had come along it was because he wanted to see a Thai house. He had made up his mind to buy one. Upon learning of his intention, some people had suggested he’d be better off buying an existing one and have it reassembled on his land. He’d get better old wood, maybe completely teak, and it’d be cheaper than building from scratch, let alone the fact that finding craftsmen to build a traditional house in these modern times wouldn’t be easy. ‘You won’t find craftsmen to build a house these days, just Chinese contractors,’ one of his friends had told him, the one who organised the cultural tour, as a matter of fact. He didn’t think he’d come along, but his friend had insisted, telling him to take the trip on the odd chance he’d find a Thai house he’d fancy, and besides, before returning to Bangkok, there was a visit scheduled to admire one old Thai house of the Central Plains style. It was perhaps this last item on the itinerary that clinched his decision to take the trip. COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


6 All those who knew he was thinking of building a Thai house thought he was following a fad of the wealthy. The house he already had was huge and luxurious, so why bother setting up a Thai-style house next to it. When the people around him who had that opinion saw that he was determined, the advice and warnings regarding the shortcomings of Thai houses for a modern lifestyle petered out. His friends repeatedly entreated him to think carefully of why he wanted a Thai-style house, because Thai houses weren’t fit for people used to a modern way of life, especially those who had long lived abroad as he had. To make it comfortable would damage its Thai character, with the addition of brick and mortar, coats of paint, air conditioning and whatnot, as those ‘with Thai taste but Chinamen’s hearts’ did. ‘But if it’s to boost your prestige, that’s something else,’ his friend concluded after making lengthy comments. To cut the matter short, Chanachon admitted he wanted to have a Thai house to boost his prestige. But actually it wasn’t the case. He wanted to have an authentic Thai-style house on the model of those in the past, an authentic Thai house without brick or mortar, without air conditioning or even a fan, without modern appliances of any kind. And he wanted to live in such a house. Why? What for? He still couldn’t answer himself. He only knew he wanted it more and more with each passing day. The need to sleep in his own Thai-style house grew deep WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


7 inside him, but he was patient enough to wait. His friends promised to send people to ask around on his behalf, it might be possible to buy one right away, ‘but maybe it won’t be good enough for a wealthy man like you’. The coach had sped across Suphanburi town already. It was getting late in the afternoon. The coach turned back to Bang Pla Ma district and was about to reach the last part of the trip he was waiting for. That woman still spoke merrily through the microphone at the front of the coach. ‘…When you were a child did you fall into the water and someone rescued you, I wonder…’ Those playful words still resounded deep inside him. She was the guide on today’s trip to Suphanburi. He didn’t even know her name, heard only people calling her ‘Miss May’, making him think she was rather pretentious to have a foreign-sounding name though her skin was rather dark. Just the way she was dressed was enough to blot out any interest in looking at her further, though he felt she was rather pretty. The shirt and trousers she wore were loose and oversized. Her shirt was red, big and messy, and she had a big necktie loosely tied to look like a neckerchief, not to mention the scarf around her head. ‘We’ve entered the Bang Pla Ma area. Actually, if we had more time, we’d go to Kao Hong and to Makharm Lom to see the fish-farming reservoirs there. They raise catfish. It’s very interesting. If we went there, we’d see how they farm the catfish we eat – uh, maybe you don’t COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


8 eat it, it’s not edible, it’s got that fishy smell, you only eat salmon…’ She stressed the word ‘salmon’ while glancing at him with a smile on her face. He wasn’t sure whether she smiled at him or at someone else, because as she spoke her face was beaming all the time. ‘…But never mind. Once you have visited the Thaistyle house, before returning to Bangkok, you’ll stop to eat grilled shrimp. Besides fish, Bang Pla Ma also raises a lot of shrimp. Do you remember? On the way in this morning we drove by many shrimp ponds…’ ‘…Bang Pla Ma also has plenty of rice fields. This is the flood season. In the eleventh month, the water overflows; in the twelfth month, the water is stagnant. We are now in the twelfth month, before long it’ll be Loy Krathong. Who will come and float a krathong∗ with this Suphanburi girl?’ There were exclamations from a few young men sitting at the front as well as boisterous laughter. ‘…Do come, and I’ll send you floating with the krathong down the river. Do you see the rice fields? Those green fields you see, they are called rice fields…’ She looked towards him and seemed to smile. He began to feel that her smile was teasing and derisive. She probably knew from his friend or from someone else that he had been abroad since he was a child. ‘…Rice fields, yes. Rice fields where farmers plant rice for us to eat. There’s ∗

A hat-sized banana leaf receptacle

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9 a song about the rice farmers. Don’t look down on the rice farmers as if they were hillbillies, who rest their backs on the rice field. It’s unfortunate being farmers, only to be scorned as ignorant hillbillies. With every mouthful of rice, do be mindful. My sweat that you eat is what makes you a man…’ ‘I buy the rice I eat, I don’t steal it or take it out of their mouths,’ a man raised his hand and interrupted amid laughter. ‘Yes, yes, wheat, barley, rice, no matter what kind of staple food, to have it available, there must be someone to plant it, right?’ ‘Well, they want my money, don’t they? They plant rice, sell it, and they get money,’ the same young man argued. Chanachon felt that the young man was arguing with the young woman in order to put her to the test and even more so with the aim of looking for ways to draw her attention to him. ‘But then suppose the farmers don’t want money and plant just enough rice to eat and to barter among themselves. What will your money buy then? Bananas, that’s all.’ She ended the sarcastic remark by laughing out, and others laughed with her as well. ‘Miss May is saying you’re a monkey,’ a middle-aged man said. ‘Not so, more of a child,’ a woman objected. ‘Not at all, not at all. Good gracious, who would dare to speak like that? It’s just that I thought bananas are aplenty and we can eat them instead of rice, that’s all.’ COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


10 More laughter. The argumentative young man was quiet, maybe because he couldn’t think of a timely reply. Chanachon chuckled. He stared at the woman and their eyes met. She made a little wink at him. He hadn’t been interested in what she thought of him before now. Maybe she resented him, because it seemed he was the only person there who wasn’t interested in talking to her, and he wasn’t interested in the description of the various places they had visited today, whereas several young men were trying to get as close to her as possible. Who was that woman? Her job was to be a guide – that’s what he guessed, because she seemed to be knowledgeable in arts and culture, explained the archaeological past of the various sites and monuments deftly and had excellent general knowledge. He observed that she was always able to find all kinds of anecdotes to enliven her conversation. But if Chanachon was the owner of the tourism company she worked for, he’d fire her. He didn’t understand how she was able to deride the company’s customers as she did, especially today’s lot, who could be called VIP clients, all people of wealth and knowledge. But none of them seemed to mind the way she spoke. Maybe she was someone of importance that had to be humoured by those who had come here today. Chanachon was a stranger who didn’t know many of the people here. He had just followed his friend. At this point, he thought he’d like to know her better. WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


11 She was busy gathering her things and telling the driver where to go. He stared at her searchingly for the first time and told himself she was pretty. Her big eyes were very black. Her bowed eyebrows matched her long, straight nose, which he guessed had known plastic surgery. Her lips were thin, her chin small and squarish, with a fairly visible cleft. The woman had a strange face, with high cheekbones that made her cheeks look almost hollow, but not quite. ‘We’ve arrived, we’re here. Now we’ll have a bit of an adventure, we have to get into a boat. Don’t be afraid the boat will overturn, it’s a big boat; we’ll all fit in it. Is anybody here afraid of water? Surely not – or maybe yes…’ Her words raised more laughter. Chanachon thought, Again! She was talking again of something that disturbed him. What was the idea for her to make a joke out of asking if someone was hydrophobic? There were mostly adults in the group here. Her duty was to be considerate to them. ‘But never mind…’ Her voice rose again. ‘Today we have someone the water is afraid of.’ ‘Who is that?’ someone asked. ‘Mr Chanachon, of course,’ she answered with a laugh. Others laughed too, so he had to force himself to laugh as well. The coach continued along the dirt road off the main road for a while. When it stopped, she got out first like every other time. Chanachon was almost the last one to COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


12 get out. He was still feeling annoyed by the way she talked. He felt that she wanted to tell him something or else have him say a few words to her. Her way of teasing him with words and looks seemed to indicate that much. The woman was playful and probably a flirt, he thought to himself with contempt. The boat was big indeed; there was enough room for twenty people to sit tight without fear of overturning. Chanachon balked a little. He didn’t know how to swim and every time he had to go somewhere on the water he always hesitated. His subconscious had haunted him all his life with the idea that he and water were opposites. He had never thought of conquering this feeling, had never thought of learning how to swim. It was a fear that hid something that made him believe that even if he tried he wouldn’t succeed in overcoming it. Nobody knew he couldn’t swim, not even his wife and children. He had never deliberately concealed the fact, but he had never told anyone. Maybe because of his name. His name meant ‘winner over water’. But actually he wasn’t. He had never thought of himself as winning over water, except only once in his life. And that victory then had made him into what he was now. ‘This boat is a fast dugout. It’s used to transport paddy. When the paddy is being transported, there are woven mats on two sides, or sometimes on all four sides, WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


13 so it can transport a lot of paddy. This boat can transport dozens of cartfuls of paddy at a time.’ The woman called May stepped from the bank into the water without batting an eyelid. She pulled the gunwale of the boat to bring it level to the bank. At the stern stood an old man holding a long oar. He was dark-skinned, silvery-haired and thickset. He wore an off-white short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts. From what could be seen of his body and joints, he must have spent his entire life doing heavy work. No one paid attention to him. He let himself go into the water to help bring the boat parallel to the bank. The water wasn’t very deep by the roadside. Everybody went onboard. The young woman pushed the bow of the boat outwards as she hoisted herself up and sat alone at the prow. The old man gave the boat a push, got onboard, sprinkled water on the chain of the oar, grabbed the shaft and raised it so that the oar protruded out of the gunwale. He dropped the oar into the water and began to casually pull on it, using one leg to steer the rudder. The boat slowly slid forward. It progressed slowly because of its weight and bulk. The water around it was clear. One could see waterweeds whose branches and leaves waggled sluggishly with the flow, and a scattering of lotuses with minuscule flowers and buds. Bright-red dragonflies looped around close by the people from Bangkok, who exclaimed in COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


14 delight. Some nipped bits of the waterweeds to take a closer look; others let their hands trail in the water. ‘This water weed is edible, you know, dipped in chillishrimp-paste sauce,’ the young woman explained with a smile to a woman who had picked up some leaves to take a look at. ‘Is it good?’ ‘Not really. There are plenty of other vegetables more palatable than this… This trip won’t last long. We’ll just go through the main stream and then come to the river. We’ll be there in a moment. Around here during the dry season, there’s no water. During the dry season we don’t use boats. Here the water is clear, but it’ll get murky in the river. Careful, please, of that bamboo branch.’ The boat slid past the underwater growth into a wider expanse of water. There were tight rafts of morning glory floating by the banks, which were delineated by tall trees and clumps of bamboo. The young woman grabbed the bamboo branch that bent almost to water level and obstructed progression, lifted it over the prow and passed it on to the next passengers and on to the old man who pulled on the oar. ‘How much does it cost to build a boat like this?’ asked a man sitting in the middle of the dugout. ‘Uh, I’m afraid I don’t know. But these days they are no longer built. This boat is about a hundred years old. It’s very old. Notice how it has four oars. It’s more or less certain this kind of boat was only used to transport WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


15 paddy, or else used by its merchant owner to attend to business here or there, with him sitting comfortably in the middle and his servants pulling the oars.’ ‘When it was used to transport paddy, how was it done? Where did they put the mats?’ ‘To transport paddy, the floor where you sit was taken out. The hull of this dugout has no keel; it’s carved out of a single tree…’ This brought expressions of surprise and excitement among the group. ‘If you take out the flooring, you can see the hull of the boat. To pile the paddy over the gunwales, you had to use woven mats to contain it. They’re like ordinary mats, only thickly woven. They are pretty effective against humidity, as they are coated with resin. Farmers also sometimes used cow dung to waterproof them.’ Chanachon sat in the middle of the boat. Even though he didn’t feel at ease because he was in a boat and on water, he still was interested in listening to what she was talking about. He quietly admired her overall knowledge of life in the countryside. She should be a country girl, though her features and the way she dressed indicated otherwise. Chanachon was used to keeping his fear of water to himself. From his appearance, you would never guess his worry and utter lack of confidence when he was in water. His face was always peaceful and he had never said anything to make anybody aware of his feelings. COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


16 The boat altered its course after floating past a big cluster of bamboo. ‘We won’t go into the river. We’ll turn here. If we went on straight, we’d come to the Tachin river. This here is called the Suphan river. The current here is rather strong. One man at the oar can’t cope, the boat is too heavy.’ After a while, the dugout came to a large house. Several people were excited at the sight of the lines of stilts, each of which was of round wood and enormous. The boat skirted the side of the house and came to the front and then came level with a large wooden bridge that joined the stairs of the pavilion in front of the house. A big olive tree full of fruit grew near the stairs. Some branches were so laden that they skimmed the water and there was a constant plopping of old olives falling into the water. The olive tree intrigued the tour group and even though they had all left the boat, they were picking olives and looking at the tree from the wooden bridge at the head of the stairs. Someone picked an olive and tasted it. ‘It’s sour!’ ‘As sour as the owner?’ someone else asked. May turned to smile a little then walked up the stairs. Chanachon started a little upon hearing the words ‘the owner’. She must be the owner of the Thai house, he thought. The place where he stood past the stairs was the river pavilion, jutting out from the large house platform. Besides the olive tree, the area was green with other big WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


17 trees. The Suphan river flowed slowly and quietly. There were no boats of any kind passing by. There was a faint scent of flowers, which he found strange. Several people in the river pavilion were talking about how old and large this Thai house was. ‘Please do sit down and rest here for a while and make yourselves at home. Let me take care of a few things first and then I’ll show you the house or if you want to wander about and see it for yourselves, you’re welcome. The big central house is the oldest; it was built in the Fourth Reign∗. The other two smaller units were built a little later. The left one used to be a raft house, but it was built not long afterwards, nearly a hundred years ago. Do make yourselves at home.’ When she had finished speaking, the young woman left the pavilion and cut across the platform to one side of the big central house. Everybody went their own way, walking around looking at the house and at the various artefacts on display, including water jars and plant pots, all along with exclamations of interest, surprise and excitement. Chanachon didn’t walk anywhere but stood in one corner of the river pavilion, looking at the large Thai house in front of him. He had no knowledge of Thaistyle houses, didn’t know where the beauty of a Thai house stood or what it consisted of. He had seen a few Thai houses but never at close quarters. Yet he felt that this big, old Thai-style house was beautiful. ∗

Mongkut, Rama IV, reigned from 1851 to 1858

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18 Above everything else there was a vague feeling that was starting to overwhelm him. It was a feeling that permeated his whole body. He had never felt like this before, and he asked himself what it was and why it was happening. Why was he so taken by this antique Thai house? He tried to throw off the strange feelings that surged through him until he felt his heart pound and he tried to still his mind. He took out a cigarette and lit it, walked unhurriedly up the stairs of the river pavilion and stood on the platform, and then followed the wooden railing to its far corner. The strange perfume was stronger where he stood. He bent over and saw the floor strewn with white flowers. He picked one up and smelled it. ‘Cork tree flowers. Don’t they smell good?’ a voice said from behind him. He turned round. She stood in front of him, smiling at him. Chanachon didn’t smile back at once. He almost didn’t recognise her the second he saw her because she didn’t look like the modern woman that had sat with them in the coach. She wore a jong krabein∗ and a sabai∗∗. She had let her hair fall to below her shoulders and decorated it with two or three white champak flowers. ‘I almost didn’t recognise you.’ Chanachon smiled back, feeling excited and conscious that his voice was trembling. ∗

Long hip wrapper with a palm-folded end tucked in back to form a kind of breeches ∗∗ Scarf or sash worn across the left shoulder and under the right arm

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19 ‘Let’s get some refreshments.’ There were calls for her and hearty laughter. She turned away from him and walked to the river pavilion where people sat or stood and talked. Chanachon’s eyes followed her slender body in the jong krabein. His heart almost missed a beat upon seeing the naked flesh of her shoulders down to her chest that showed beyond the red silk cloth and it still didn’t beat normally when she turned and left him. Unwittingly he looked at her slender calves below the folds of the krabein. After a moment he followed her. It looked as though everyone was very intrigued to see the owner of the house wearing traditional Thai dress, but she didn’t seem at all embarrassed. An old woman bearing a tray of fruits came to the river pavilion and put the tray down on a stool. A young girl brought in a big tray with as many glasses as there were guests and put it down too. Ice, water and snacks followed soon after. The servant woman looked very old but still strong and efficient. She didn’t say anything to anyone and didn’t look at anyone and it seemed that nobody paid attention to her. Everyone’s eyes were on the young owner of the house who went about graciously pouring drinks. ‘Do you always dress like this when you’re at home?’ Chanachon stared at the man who had asked the question. It was his friend the organiser of the tour who had asked the question he felt like asking. COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


20 ‘Not at all. I can’t do it often. The rumour around here is that the lady of the house is a bit deranged.’ ‘Meaning that when you come back to this house and there’s no one with you – I mean, when we’re not here, do you dress like this?’ She nodded and smiled. ‘Why? Is that so strange? I have these old clothes, lots of them too. What I wear is very old, but well kept, so it looks new. As I have them, so I try them on, that’s all. Today, since I am a guide taking you to admire a Thai house, I thought I’d dress up in a Thai fashion to match the atmosphere. Excuse me for not telling you in advance, I can see it’s a shock for several among you.’ She ended her words on a laugh then glanced sideways at Chanachon. It wasn’t the first time she had looked at him in this way, but this time he had the impression that his reaction to it was different. He had not paid any attention before, even though he knew her glances had a hidden meaning, and he even had felt irritated by them. But this time it wasn’t like the previous times – he felt stunned. Her smooth and immaculate flesh from her chin down her well-rounded throat to the fold of her arm from where the sabai was strung aslant to her other shoulder made him feel as if his throat had gone dry. There was boisterous conversation and much teasing, making for a lively atmosphere in the river pavilion, as two or three young men flirted and bantered and sought to get close to her. She answered their flirtation in high WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


21 spirits. Nothing in the way she deported herself or talked showed that she was embarrassed or ill at ease. At times, when her thin silk sabai slipped, it revealed the smooth flesh on top of her chest fleetingly. She merely pulled the cloth from the back of her shoulder to make it fall into place. Some men looked away politely out of consideration. Chanachon didn’t look away. He didn’t share in anyone’s conversation. He sat at a distance, munching on snacks, sipping water and smiling whenever others laughed boisterously. His heart which had beaten normally all day seemed to beat faster now. He hid himself quietly in the overall conversation and waited tremulously for her to look at him again. Finally she looked up. ‘Well now, let’s have a look at the house. It may not be the oldest in Suphanburi, but to find an older house in the province would be difficult all the same. Come this way to the main house first.’ They all stood up and followed her. He was the last to rise and he followed the others quietly. Nobody knew how he felt now. Some would think he was beginning to be bored. His friend, the organiser, stared at him thoughtfully, but he smiled at him to let him know he was still enjoying himself and was interested in the day’s proceedings. He didn’t want anybody to know how he felt, not even himself deep inside. He didn’t want himself to know what he felt right now. There was some embarrassment COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


22 and bashfulness, but he didn’t have time to sort out his feelings. The huge Thai house the inside of which he was about to view was interesting and held power over his mind entirely at this moment. ‘They say Thai houses are built in a day. Was it the case with this one?’ a middle-aged man asked before walking under the eaves. Several people made remarks, saying that it couldn’t be true. ‘Only the frame of the house. When Phlaikaeo∗ built his it was also done in one day. Actually I don’t know, but it’s believed the house where we stand was built in a single day. Everything had been made ready. They must have used a lot of labourers because it’s a big house. With the conscription of servants and other helpers, it isn’t hard to believe it was done in a single day.’ ‘I’ve seen how they build houses in America. They do it the same day too. They get everything ready first,’ an old woman added. ‘Yes, they compete to build a house against the clock, I know, to establish world records for the Guinness Book of World Records or something like that. They have specialist craftsmen and plan well ahead. They use almost a hundred people. There are plasterers, electricians, plumbers and so on; they have them all.’ ‘Was this house really made according to the model of a Thai house?’ someone else asked. Chanachon felt ∗

The original name of Khun Phaen in Sunthorn Phoo’s epic Khun Chang– Khun Phaen

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23 slightly irritated. He wanted to enter the house rather than stay in a group talking things over at the entrance. ‘What do you mean by a model of a Thai house? Can you give an example?’ ‘For instance the Khum Khunphaen at Ayutthaya with sitting quarters, sleeping quarters, that kind of thing.’ ‘Oh,’ the young woman rolled her eyes, feeling amused, ‘not at all. Not like that. Sitting quarters, sleeping quarters, glass quarters, that’s not what a Thai house is all about. A real Thai house is as we see here. There’s only the house and then there is the kitchen, at the back or at the side of the main dwelling. Real Thai houses from the first were only like this. The Khum Khunphaen at Ayutthaya was built afterwards. It was built to please a politician, on the model of aristocratic houses in a new style. Mr Pridi∗ was from Ayutthaya. In a Thai house, there’s only one sort of quarters, the sitting or front quarters, which is there on the side of the river pavilion. That’s all there was to the old Thai houses of farmers. But let’s get inside.’ She turned to look at Chanachon a little to invite him in. Chanachon pressed in with the others. The inside of the house was rather dark. ‘A Thai house usually has three rooms, I mean ordinary Thai houses. This one has five. If not five, then seven or nine. If it’s a nobleman’s house, the house of a man of substance, it’s usually divided into clusters of ∗

Preedee Phanomyong (Pridi Bhanomyong) (1900-1983), former prime minister (1946) and elder statesman of Thailand

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24 three rooms. But Khun Chang’s houses have nine rooms, they are very long, like Chinese shophouses. They are built to boast of wealth rather than for beauty, because they are too long for people to view them in their entirety at a single glance.’ ‘This house is not ordinary either, because it’s split into five rooms.’ ‘Well, this is the house of a Jao Sua∗. There, see, that’s the picture of the Jao Sua, my grandfather. And what you see hanging next to him are the pictures of his various wives, for instance Granny Lek, Granny Yai, Granny Phoeng, Granny Jerm.’ The house owner pointed to the row of very old pictures on one of the walls. ‘Here is the main hall, but it’s not in the middle. On one side is one room; on that side there are two rooms. The room over there you enter through the side adjacent to the end wall of the house…’ ‘Wait. These are the pictures of your grandfather and his wives. But there, whose pictures are those?’ one man interrupted, pointing at another wall lined with the portraits of a man and women, all of considerable age. Even if some of them still looked young, their coiffures, faces and the way they were dressed showed they were people of a former generation. ‘That one is my father, and the pictures of women are all of my various mothers. My own mother is this one…’ ∗

Rich Chinese merchant, merchant prince

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25 She pointed at the portrait of a woman who was very beautiful. Several people nodded at each other in agreement: the face of the woman in the picture was the same as that of the woman explaining the characteristics of the Thai house she owned. ‘…and the others are my various stepmothers, Mother Chuea, Mother Ning and Mother Sai. Let’s go into the rooms now, and then we’ll go to the other two houses. If there’s something you’re interested in, feel free to ask. All the objects here are old, inherited from my grandfather’s grandfather some of them. Please excuse the mess; there’s hardly anyone to keep the place clean.’ Chanachon walked looking around the main hall quietly. The others split up and stepped through the rather high thresholds of the doors to the various rooms. There was a buzz of desultory conversation but it seemed that everybody was interested in the old objects in showcases and around the room rather than anything else. The owner of the house walked and peeked into a room where the guests were milling about, then she walked out to the veranda. Chanachon stood there already. ‘I hear you’re interested in Thai houses. Do you like this one?’ ‘More than I can say.’ Chanachon didn’t hesitate to pick up the conversation. ‘So you’re the owner of it all? Uh – I beg your pardon; I didn’t mean to be derogatory.’ ‘No, not at all. I don’t mind. I’m not the only owner; it belongs to my family too, except that they all have COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


26 houses of their own, so this house is rather deserted. There’s only me staying here for the time being. My family come visiting sometimes. They don’t live very far away. One of my brothers’ houses is at Kao Hong, just a short distance away.’ She pulled on her dark-red sabai to adjust it after it slipped. Chanachon felt his heart miss a beat when he saw a dark spot on that swollen flesh for a second. He turned his face away, feeling annoyed at himself all of a sudden. Why should he get excited at the sight of a woman’s briefly exposed flesh like this? He had seen a lot more than this in his time. Why be so nonsensically excited? ‘You don’t seem to be very happy. Have you forced yourself to come here today?’ ‘No, not at all. I wanted to come and I’m happy enough. Your knowledge of Thai things is amazing. It makes me wonder. I don’t know anything myself. I like Thai houses, I like typical Thai objects. I’d like to have a Thai house to rebuild, but that’s all there is to it. I have no knowledge to support myself at all. I think I should learn a lot from you – uh, I mean I’d like to have your knowledge.’ She laughed gently. Chanachon felt bashful. At the same time he felt stifled. It would be better if there were not people walking by; he could talk with her more. ‘I’d be glad to, but don’t call it giving you knowledge. I don’t know much actually. But please, let’s go to the house WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


27 over there,’ she made her invitation when the others began to come out of the main hall of the large house. ‘These cork tree flowers are so fragrant! There’s a lot of Thai trees here, aren’t there?’ a woman remarked after bending over to pick up a flower on the floor and smelling it. ‘A lot, yes, many Thai trees, but they are at the back, on a high hillock. We had to make a hillock because Thai trees can’t stand water. When it’s flooded they die. This cork tree is also on the hillock. If you lean over you can see it. Please, let’s look at this house. It used to belong to my grandmother Phoeng and it was a raft house, a very big one indeed, not the same as the big house at all.’ Chanachon went along quietly as before. He didn’t speak to anyone and it seemed nobody was interested in talking to him, for one thing because he was a stranger and for another because his reserve didn’t encourage the others who had come along to start up a conversation. Several people there knew only that he was a rich man and a friend of the man who had organised today’s tour. Some had made friendly overtures but he merely smiled and avoided questions that would have led to lively conversation. The young woman was still tirelessly explaining the history of Thai houses and telling various stories about them. Chanachon thought of her name and realised he still didn’t know it. He only knew her nickname was May. He was sorry he hadn’t asked her when he was COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


28 talking to her a minute ago, and he didn’t feel like asking anyone nearby, so he thought it would be better to ask his friend. Maybe his friend would give him details about this very mysterious and strange woman that affected him so much. He wanted very much to find out about her, even though before he had come to her house he didn’t want to know anything about her, not even her name. ‘If you like Thai trees, you can walk up to the hillock at the back of the house. There are various kinds, all very old, but it’s a bit wild because no one is taking care of them.’ The owner of the house walked ahead of her guests and came to the large platform once again. ‘The house on that side has three rooms. Come this way, please. This is the kitchen, but it’s no longer in use. In the old days when there was a feast or whenever the rice was cooked, it was done on the hillock at the back of the house. This house had to cook rice in a huge frying pan. At the side of the hillock over there what you see is an elevated house used as a granary, and next to it is the mooring for the boats. The dugout in which we came and which you’ll take to go back is stationed there. And the wooden bridge leads to the hillock.’ She pointed to the thick grove when everybody stood by the archway of the door at the back of the house. The bridge stretched from the stairs to a biggish island in the middle of the water. It was thick and large, almost WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


29 two metres wide and ten metres long and made from a single piece of wood. ‘Do you want to see the trees first?’ Everybody agreed and felt like having a stroll. Although the place looked very wild, the atmosphere was good for a walk because it looked like a big island amid the water, wider than one rai∗. As the young woman led them to the bridge, the old man whom everyone remembered had rowed the dugout said something softly from the prow of the dugout that lay still in the dock. ‘Mind the snake.’ Everyone froze and turned to look at him. The young woman clearly showed her annoyance and under her withering gaze the old man looked down as if he felt guilty in having issued the warning. ‘What snake, uncle?’ someone asked. He looked embarrassed and turned his face away as if to avoid the gaze of the young woman. His answer was muffled, with a true Suphanburi accent. ‘A cobra. I saw him yesterday. About two metres long.’ At the old man’s words, almost all those who wanted to go and see the Thai trees changed their minds. ‘What will it be? Will you go or not?’ the young woman asked when she saw everyone hesitating. It wasn’t strange that everyone hesitated, because all the guests came from town and weren’t used to living ∗

1 rai = 1600 square metres of land

COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


30 with venomous reptiles close by as in the countryside, and even less so when the snakes were cobras, whose very name sent shivers up your spine. ‘Never mind, Miss May. We’ll see them some other time.’ The young woman forced out a laugh. ‘As you wish. What Uncle Thim told you is right, there’s a snake. This is the rainy season; cobras and other reptiles take refuge from the water on the hillock. If that worries you, you’d better not go.’ When the situation was presented like this they all retreated and walked up the stairs leading to the main platform. Chanachon let them walk past and stayed on the wooden bridge up front. The young woman moved to follow the others onto the house, but when she saw him still standing there, she stared at him, looking puzzled. ‘I want to go to that hillock,’ Chanachon said with a straight face. The young woman went on staring at him then smiled. ‘Thank you. I thought there were no real men left,’ she told him in a low voice, then turned to address the people heading towards the house. ‘Please make yourselves at home in the house. Mr Chanachon would like to see the cat-tits climbers. They are very fragrant at the moment. We’ll go just there, it’s not very far.’ Having said this, she turned and walked ahead of him, almost as if she was afraid he might change his mind. WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


31 Chanachon made as if to follow her, but he turned briefly to the old man. The old man pointed at him with his hand then pointed at one corner of the stairway. Chanachon saw a handy wooden stick about one metre long set against a pillar. The old man’s expression made him understand he wanted him to take that stick with him, so he went over to pick it up and he felt strange when he saw that one end had a small blade the size of a matchbox. Holding this homemade knife he followed the young woman. He turned to look at the old man once again, who moved his arm to and fro, as if to tell him to use the stick in his hand to beat at the grass and undergrowth in order to chase away the snakes or other dangerous animals that might be there. He nodded to show he understood. Chanachon was unable to work out why he was so daring and wanted to climb to the overgrown hillock. Maybe because he didn’t want to disappoint the owner of the house or maybe because he was brash and by nature had confidence in himself. When he asked himself again whether he was afraid of cobras, he answered himself immediately that he was. ‘Aren’t you afraid of cobras?’ the young woman asked when they stepped onto the hillock. ‘I don’t quite know how to answer that. If you ask me if I’m afraid, I must answer yes I am, but I have this belief that a cobra won’t attack me.’ The young woman laughed loudly. COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


32 ‘That’s right; you understand the nature of cobras correctly. What’s this stick you’re holding? Oh, Uncle Thim’s sugarcane cutter. Be careful, the blade is very sharp, don’t touch it.’ ‘He motioned for me to take it, no doubt to beat at the bushes and scare snakes away. What kind of knife is it? What’s a sugarcane cutter?’ ‘Oh, a sugarcane cutter is a sugarcane cutter. You probably don’t know about cutting sugarcane. Do you know that with the cutter you hold you can cut up to ten stalks in one stroke? They have bets on it.’ ‘I’ve never heard of that.’ Chanachon looked puzzled, raised the cutter and inspected it. ‘It was a sport among Thai people in the old days but not so much these days; hardly anybody plays it any longer. Uncle Thim was a master sugarcane cutter. This knife of his is old, probably from the time he was a young man. He has kept it. He likes to hold it and keep it sharp. Maybe it reminds him of the past. Here, the cattits creeper I said I’d take you to see.’ The young woman pointed at a big clump of trees, picked a flower and handed it over to him. The man took the small flower with soft yellow petals and smelled it. ‘A very strange fragrance indeed.’ He looked perplexed. He brought the flower in his hand to his nose several times. His puzzled face made her laugh. ‘You look as though you’ve smelled something from a former life. This is a cat-tits, not the tree of paradise.’ WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


33 ‘You may be joking, but that’s actually how I feel. I’ve smelled this kind of flower before, and it’s very strange that I can’t remember when I did, but I’m certain I did once. Cat-tits flower, I’ve heard the name, but it’s the first time I’ve seen one.’ ‘I have an answer for you. If you know cat-tits oil, you’ll know that it has almost the same smell. Cat-tits oil is used to make cakes. If you’ve eaten wheat cake, you’ll know that it has almost the same smell as the flower. When I was a child, they still put cat-tits oil in Singapore sweetmeat.’ ‘Huh…’ Chanachon’s face still registered perplexity. ‘I don’t know. I’ve never known the cat-tits oil you speak of; I’ve never eaten any wheat cake either. Never mind. It must be my own confusion.’ She led him away from the cat-tits clump. He looked at her back and saw a picture that made him wonder deeply. He felt as if his mind was in turmoil. The image of her walking ahead of him was something he had never seen before in his life and it had never entered into his thoughts that what he saw in this way would make his heart beat so hard. Like a nymph. Even though he had never seen nymphs, he believed that if there really were nymphs they would appear in this fashion. The young woman in her delicate flower brocade jong krabein and red silk sabai had her back turned to him. Her red sabai looked bright in the shade of the trees as wild as deep jungle. The long COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


34 silky hair spread over her shoulders enhanced all the more a picture that found deep echoes in his chest. His eyes moved down to her slender calves. The jong krabein was hitched high, showing the fold of flesh at the back of her legs. He let his eyes linger there, feeling as if someone was dangling a sour plum in front of him. He stood there like that until she turned to him with a puzzled face then smiled, and with long strides he went to her. ‘They’re orange jasmine, the two trees planted along the way. Beyond are trees with beautiful flowers, one is tabek I think, and beyond the tabek is a devil tree. The salapee is on the waterside over there. Do you know these trees?’ Chanachon shook his head. ‘I know nothing much. I know some species, but in most cases I’ve never seen the ones I know. I’ve only read about them in classical literature, so I only know the names.’ ‘Classical literature…’ the young woman repeated. ‘You read classical literature, did you? I was told you’ve lived abroad since you were a child.’ ‘True. I went abroad when I finished middle school to study further. My father sent me Thai books to read, classics of Thai literature, the likes of Phra Aphaimanee, Khun Chang–Khun Phaen, The Three Kingdoms, so I read some. He wanted me to learn about being Thai, but I didn’t do so well at that. I didn’t know anything much about being Thai, not as much as I wanted to. The thing I WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


35 thought I could do was to try to speak Thai without using any English. When I first came back to Thailand, it was very awkward for me, because I couldn’t think of some Thai words.’ ‘Have you been back long?’ ‘Five or six years. I was abroad for more than ten years. Uh, we’d better go back, the others are waiting.’ The young woman nodded and walked past him to go back the way they had come. A faint smell of sweat came out with the scent of the champak flowers by her cheeks and stirred Chanachon deeply once again. He thought it was good he had been the one to suggest they go back and she hadn’t disagreed, as he was beginning to feel that he was being taken by a raw instinct that should be kept under wraps. He felt it becoming so intense that he began to realise that if he stayed alone with her in this place any longer he might do something he’d forget to restrain. His self-control was weakening thoroughly. Before he stepped onto the wooden bridge leading to the stairs of the house, Chanachon used the cutter in his hand to hack at a small branch by the water. The branch broke neatly. The old man still sat in the same place on the fast dugout floating in the mooring not far from the stairs. Chanachon stopped at the bottom of the stairs to let the young woman go up first, and replaced the sugarcane cutter where he had found it. The old man smiled at him. COBRA | WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN


36 ‘There was no cobra, uncle,’ he told him with a smile. ‘There is, but you haven’t seen him yet.’ Chanachon was amused by the old man’s answer. He smiled at him then walked up the stairs without saying anything further, stopping briefly on the last step before entering the house. He thought the old man had tried to say something to convey the meaning of something else. Or did he? But he didn’t see anything in his somewhat strange remark. When the group of guests began to file into the boat to go back, Chanachon knew that the young woman owner of the house would not return with the group. He was the last one to step on board. Amid an exchange of goodbyes, before the boat headed out, he apologized and explained he had forgotten his cigarettes and lighter at the pavilion. He didn’t wait for anyone to say anything, but stepped out of the boat and walked up the stairs once again. He picked up the lighter and cigarettes he had forgotten on purpose. She walked up to him. ‘You shouldn’t have forgotten these. That lighter is worth almost twenty thousand baht.’ There was laughter in her voice, but he didn’t pay attention to anything else. He asked her in a manner and voice that he tried to make sound normal, ‘I wouldn’t dare come and see you alone in this house, but I’d like to meet you again. Where can I meet you?’ ‘Meikkhala Tours, Siam Square, Soi six.’ WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


37 ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Meikkhala∗. Meikkhala Phlappla.’ ‘My name is Chanachon Suphannaphoom.’ Meikkhala grinned at him. ‘I know, sir! Oh yes, I know.’ Chanachon turned to look at her again when the boat left its mooring. Several people waved at her, including him. She sat with a hand resting on the top step, her legs stretched against the railing, waving at the people in the boat and smiling away. Chanachon saw her crinkle her eyes a little. He knew she was doing this only for him and it made his heart beat faster again without reason. Or maybe there was, but he was too cautious and worried to accept that reason.

Meikkhala is the goddess of the Ocean, and of lightning

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38 Wa‐nit Jarungkit‐anan, born in Bangkok in 1949, is best known for this one novel and for a collection of short stories which earned him the SEA Write Award in 1983. This son of a Chinese immigrant, thoroughly fascinated by Thai cultural mores, has made a career in multi‐media entertainment. Cobra, which came out in 1987, was turned into a success‐ ful movie, Mae Bia, in 2001 (poster below).

WA‐NIT JARUNGKIT‐ANAN | COBRA


cobra | wanit jarungkit-anan  

A man, a woman and... a cobra — shivers, shudders and thrills

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