Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Wild Grass

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.)


  1. My heart-felt condolences. What a touching tribute to her.

  2. Davin, I'm so sorry about your grandmother! Did you know her, I mean for an extended period of time? Losing both my grandmothers was so hard for me, especially because I lived with one sometimes; they're in my fiction too.

    The Wild Grass is so good; even though the story's about Kimchaa late in life, I feel as if I know her whole life from the beginning. There's an inevitability to the voice, both forwards and backwards in time. I really like this beautiful line/imagery: "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."

  3. I am so sorry you lost your grandmother. This story is a most extraordinary tribute, so rich and complex. I loved the trail of jasmine and topaz in her slipper. Such love. I totally understand why it was published in Rosebud. It will linger with me for sometime. You do your grandmother proud. Thank you very much for including us today.

  4. I'm sorry to hear about your grandma. I love the imagery in your story. It's fantastic.

  5. My condolences on your loos, I hope you and your family are able to recall the fondest memories in these times of sorrow.

  6. Davin, I'm so very sorry about your grandmother. This is a beautiful rendering of her though. I hope that working through this has eased your loss a little bit, even if it is just for a moment.

  7. Scott and Rebecca, Thank you both. I couldn't have made it to her cremation in time, so this was my way of saying good-bye to her.

    F.P. Thank you to you too. Because she was in Thailand, I have met her about five times. One of those times was a longer visit because she came and stayed in our house for about a year when I was a kid. I was very drawn to her. Her history was very interesting to me, as was her parental philosophy. I'm sure she'll appear in more of my stories in the future.

    Tricia, Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate that you took the time to be a part of my life!

    B.J. Thank you. My grandmother was sick for the last couple of months, so at least all of her children had a chance to say goodbye to her, and she was more or less lucid most of the time.

    Thank you very much, Rick. I appreciate your words. :)

  8. Davin, thank you for posting this. It makes me sad and awed and feel beautiful all at the same time. The emphasis you place on objects in this piece is amazing - it really helps to bring out the flimsiness of life after our reasons for living dwindle to nothing or die, as your grandfather's death for Kimchaa.

    This piece struck me in such a way that it makes me want to post a piece that I did for one of my ancestor's who traveled from England to the United States, and then all the way to Utah in the late 1800s.

    I can't post it yet, though, as I know some of my research is off, and I have a lot more work to do on it.

    I'm so sorry for your loss, Davin. I think writers have an advantage in times of loss like yours - we can pin our emotions and thoughts down in a way that can truly touch others. I feel like you've opened a window to yourself and your grandmother in this piece. Thank you for an exquisite view.

  9. I'm so sorry for your loss!

    Love the story...such great attention to detail.

  10. “Nothing brings me joy!"

    I'm sure this story would.

    I love the way this has a self-referential structure, the story of the snake becoming the story of Kimchaa and her husband at both the meta and micro levels. I also love the way you point into the future at the end; I know the idea of generational stories is important to you, and this really works well. Your love for the real Kimchaa comes across, too. You may roll your eyes at this, Mr. Malasarn, but The Wild Grass is very sweet. Thank you for posting this.

  11. So sorry for your loss. I love your story - the imagery is awesome and it is a touching tribute. Thank you for sharing.

  12. What a beautiful, heart-felt story. She sounds like a lovely woman. I'm sorry for your loss and will pray for you and your family.

    I think my favorite thing about this story is a part not actually in the story: "My maternal grandmother, Kimchaa Chumnanrob, passed away on Monday in Thailand at an unknown age."

    It amazes me that her age was unknown... it just makes me stop and think how wonderful it might actually be to not keep track of all these numbers like age and years and time.

  13. Eric, Thank you. This story was actually written a few years ago, as I was trying to understand my grandmother after my most recent visit to see her. (She had said good bye to me all those years ago, telling me that we probably wouldn't see each other again. It was all very practical, and that gave me a glimpse into her wisdom.) Presenting the story again has helped me, though. And, I really appreciate everyone for reading it.

    Michelle, what a nice compliment. Thank you. You're right about the writer advantage. I have some old stamp albums from my grandfather, but having this story of my grandmother feels much more personal, even though it came from me, rather than from her.

    Beth, Thank you so much!

    Scott, you brought up my favorite part of the story as well. I still remember writing that, the way it seemed to come out of nowhere, completely natural, like it wasn't my brain creating it. That's something I try to tap into, but it doesn't happen very often at all.

    Robin, thank YOU for reading and for stopping by. :)

    Shorty, the facts about my grandmother's real life are completely fascinating. I think that's why she intrigues me so much. I have written a few other stories of her, and yet there's a lot I haven't said. She didn't know how old she was because she was lost in a bet when she was a girl. So, she has very little memory of her parents and her early history. Then, what she did know about her life is also amazing!

  14. i'm sorry for your loss, david. a wonderful testament to her.

  15. Lost in a bet! Now there's a story! I don't know you or your grandmother, Davin, but your tribute touched me. I don't know if you believe in an afterlife, but I do, and I'd bet money your grandmother is telling your grandfather about the snake in the kitchen.

  16. Davin, I am so sorry to hear of your grandmother's passing. I know no two losses are the same, but I believe there is something magical about grandmothers, and the experience of losing my own at least allows me to feel around the edges of your pain. I also know what it's like not to make it in person to pay one's respects and, as the search for a proper tribute goes, this one is achingly lovely.

    As for the story itself, I love the voice in this and the details/imagery. I particularly liked your descriptions (such as Kimchaa's waiting after she speaks "as if her voice traveled slower than the normal speed of sound"), how you show us without telling us about their relationship ( e.g., that she would rub eucalyptus oil on her husband's shoulders), and how you capture what it is to lose someone who meant so much (both within the story, between husband and wife, and otherwise--between grandson and grandmother.)

    I am anxious to read more of your work and can imagine your book on my shelf.

    Take good care.

  17. Glass Dragon, Thank you. Yes, my grandmother has a fascinating story, and I've been lucky enough to learn about some of it through her children. That is perhaps one of the best things of being a writer. I can record some of this stuff.

    Jennifer, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your comforting words and compliments. Yes, grandmothers are very special, aren't they? I don't know what it is that drew me so much to this woman. She was just so interesting and wise to me.

  18. I'll be honest: I didn't read the story. Still, sorry for your loss. I suppose such is inevitable until people get on the ball, so to speak.

  19. Davin, I am so very sorry. I pray for all of you. It's very sad to loose someone so special. I love the story. What a tribute! Take care friend. :)

  20. Thanks, Justus and Robyn!

    Justus, I don't mind at all that you didn't read the story.

  21. Davin, I just read this story, and I'm sorry about your grandmother.

    The story was very touching, but mostly I'm amazed you'd only seen your grandmother a few times in life, yet you know so much about her. My grandparents I've seen a few times a year my whole life, and I don't feel I know them too well.

    It is wonderful that you knew her in life and also through your stories.


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