Forgive me for being self-indulgent today. Moreso, than usual. My maternal grandmother, Kimchaa Chumnanrob, passed away on Monday in Thailand at an unknown age. She was someone I wrote about often, and this story is dedicated to her.
The Wild Grass
Kimchaa Sulakorn saw the python first. These days, the old woman thought of sleep, not as comfort, but as a burden. So early one morning, she ignored the advice of her daughter, urged her body out of bed, and walked into the kitchen where she found the snake stretched across the vinyl floor.
The python’s scales were the color of canal water. Its body reached across the room. Its head was by the doorway, and its tail ran beneath a table that held six overturned bowls like six hopeless, abandoned eggs.
Kimchaa’s lips puckered. She squinted her ancient eyes. She made her way back to the bedroom and shook her sleeping husband.
“There’s a snake in the kitchen,” she said, speaking with her usual, certain way: her face was turned toward the sky outside, and when she finished speaking, she waited, motionless, as if her voice traveled slower than the normal speed of sound.
Nothing happened. Her husband flipped over from his stomach onto his back and stretched his legs out from beneath the blanket. His face twisted as if he smelled the eucalyptus oil she had rubbed over his shoulders the night before. But, he didn’t open his eyes.
Kimchaa saw her husband asleep beneath the wooden beams of the roof, and she saw the green concrete floor that was fractured from countless, repeated steps. The details of the room saturated her vision, and for a moment, she was an object looking at other objects. (She would wonder, later, if death had already been in the room at this point. But for now, it was nothing more than a pause in her tired mind.) She started to move before her thoughts awoke, and soon the thoughts returned, and she continued, once again, to look for someone to help her.
Her son-in-law, Doon, was washing himself by the water tank, and when he came inside, she pulled him toward the kitchen. Doon saw the snake and tensed in such a way that his towel almost fell. He said words his wife usually didn’t allow. And, after leading Kimchaa out into the hall, he went to his room and emerged again, dressed, with a broomstick in his hand.
Kimchaa watched as Doon went outside and poked at the snake through the window. From her spot she saw the man jab on one side of the wall and the snake slowly move on the other side. It lifted its head. Its gray tongue flickered in and out. Then, the enormous python started to make its way out into the hall.
Through the patio and past the washing machine and the line of drying clothes, the snake glided along the gray brick enclosure that surrounded the house. Kimchaa’s daughter, Nan, was just returning from feeding the catfish, and she screamed and dropped her bag of grain when she saw the snake coming towards her.
“Stand back!” Kimchaa yelled. Her daughter picked up the bag, crossed over to the other side of the road, and stood in the shade of a neighbor’s house.
Doon had a pan and a metal spoon in his hands now, and he banged them together to keep the snake moving. Children from other houses looked up. They abandoned their toys and Coca-cola bottles and arranged themselves along the roadside. Their eyes followed the snake as it slithered out of the courtyard. Then, one by one, the children started to help. They ran back to their houses and returned with pots and spoons. They banged them so loud that the chickens scattered under the houses, the catfish swam to the depths of their ponds, and Kimchaa’s senses became filled with the young vitality of life.
The snake made its way into an overgrown field that lay between two houses. It was invisible now, but the villagers followed its movement through the tall grass, and followed the sweeping sound it made, until it was so far away that they couldn’t tell if the movement and the sound were due to the snake or simply due to the wind.
That was the morning Kimchaa’s husband died. She returned to the kitchen and was eating breakfast when the realization struck her.
“Go and try to wake your father,” she told Nan. “He may be dead today.”
Kimchaa listened to her daughter’s voice in the bedroom. Nan called her father, quietly at first, but soon her voice got louder and more urgent. Then, when Doon was also called into the bedroom, Kimchaa wondered if the snake had come from the afterlife, and whether an angel could take such hideous form. Listening to her daughter’s voice, Kimchaa continued to eat. She accepted her husband’s death as the obvious ending to the life he lived, and she knew, now more than ever, that her remaining time would be half empty. She ate, thinking to herself, “I will eat to stay alive, even though there’s no reason for it.”
* * *
They stored the old man’s ashes in the same temple where his father’s and grandfather’s ashes were kept. All of the men had good fortune, the neighbors decided. His father died at age eighty-seven, his grandfather at age eighty-two, and he had lived for ninety-three years, long enough to see his children marry, and to teach his grandchildren the virtues of poverty.
Kimchaa wore the black clothes of mourning. She ignored her daughter’s advice to get more sleep and refused to go for walks. Each day, despite the heat, she sat on the porch and crocheted, and soon her doilies collected around her like cobwebs.
Even after two months, her appetite did not return. The food that her daughter cooked felt dry and brittle in her mouth. She did not want the energy. She did not want the nutrients. Yet, driven by the force that had kept her from crying, she ate and ate and ate.
When the dry season arrived the following year, her belly hung over her sarong and her knees swelled whenever she walked. Her eyes looked as sad as they always did, but now they seemed to have stopped seeing, as if their only purpose was to reflect the sky through the open windows she stared through every day.
Each morning, the sun rose and baked the courtyards and the houses, until the people came in from their chores and fell asleep on the cool concrete. Kimchaa still wore black, but she no longer crocheted. She limped out of bed each morning, ate breakfast in the kitchen, then sat on her living room floor beside her husband’s empty chair and swatted mosquitoes until the sun set.
“Nothing brings me any joy! It would be better if I just died!” she said whenever Nan took the time to sit with her. The daughter, old as well these days, would tug her sarong up to her thighs to cool them while she sat. She stared out the same window that her mother stared out, both of them watching the amorphous shapes of clouds.
The days passed, one by one, like the repeated washing of a shirt. In the morning they were stiff and dry, by the evening they were loose and moist, and over time they became soft and worn and transparent. So, too, the anguish of her husband’s death was worn away in Kimchaa’s mind. She no longer wished for that day back, when she could shake her husband harder and wake him, if only for a moment. She did not miss not being there when he died. She started to recount the story of the python, and her husband’s death was nothing more than an introduction to the story. “On the day my husband died…” she would say, and she would tell the listener about the snake.
But, though her mind became more comfortable everyday, and her eyes gave the impression of seeing again, the rest of her body seemed to continue on its journey to join her husband. Kimchaa developed diabetes. She could feel herself having to pee, and before she could crawl to the bathroom, her sarong would be wet, and there would be a sticky puddle of urine underneath her.
Doon and Nan collected money and made the necessary home improvements to accommodate the aging woman. They put tiles on the living room floor and screens over all of the windows. They built a second bathroom with a toilet, so that Kimchaa wouldn’t have to squat with her bad legs.
“Nothing brings me joy! It would be better if I just died!” Kimchaa repeated as usual, but her daughter didn’t have time to listen anymore. Working to recover the money they spent on the house, Nan tore out the grass from the unused field, imported tangerine trees, and sold the fruit at the market. Each day, when she returned from the orchard with her heavy baskets, she arranged them in a circle around her and counted the tangerines one by one. She did this in her mother’s field of view, and the old woman watched, counting along silently until they got through all the baskets.
When Kimchaa’s knees got worse, she stopped going into the kitchen. Nan brought food over in the ceramic bowls and placed them on the ground in front of her. Kimchaa would pour broth over the rice so that she could swallow it. She picked out the sweetest dishes, since that was the only thing that contented her. And, on the rare occasions when Doon’s mother would visit and warn Kimchaa that she needed to lose some weight, Kimchaa said, “It’s nobody’s business!” and she slurped up a bowlful of sugary salad dressing after dumping the vegetables on the ground.
Her story of the python became the story of her husband, telling children who bothered to listen about the man’s life in the military and his working as a delivery man in the years after the war. Kimchaa told the children about the day she accepted his marriage proposal after refusing to speak to him for an entire year. As she spoke, dark red liquid dribbled down her chin from the betel chew she once used to make her teeth as black and lovely as onyx. She leaned on her hands, which were deformed by arthritis. “He died on the day the snake came into the house,” she said, and what once was the beginning of her story now became the end.
She remembered her husband’s love—the way he attracted her to their first private meeting with a trail of jasmine winding from her door to the lake, the pink topaz he left in her slipper the first time she stopped speaking to him, the fields of rice he harvested for her parents when she accused him of not loving her family. Whenever she was angry, he was able to calm her down, his eyes as patient as the moonlit lake, until the day he died peacefully in his sleep. A death deserving of a man so calm.
Kimchaa woke each day, crawled into her spot on the living room floor, and her daughter brought out her breakfast and placed it on the tiles as if she were feeding a dog. Kimchaa poured broth over her rice so that she could swallow it. When she felt the urge to pee, she crawled to the bathroom, but more often than not, her sarong would be wet, and there was a puddle of sticky urine beneath her.
In the hot afternoon, Nan returned home with the baskets full of tangerines. She arranged them in a circle around her, spilling some out for counting. Kimchaa looked out and counted silently along. She didn’t think she would die in her sleep. No, not a woman as stubborn as she was. For the last time, her senses were flooded with the existence of objects around her. She wondered how long it would take to count the tangerines. She wondered how long the trees would bear fruit.
("The Wild Grass" was previously published in Rosebud.)