Mae Nak

Para Vadhahong

My husband passes me from vessel to vessel. In the monsoon season he keeps me heated, pickled, salvaged from the torrent. In the high points of summer, he longs to see me simmer in my juices, translucent skin smothered in homegrown spices. He rocks me to sleep between the creased book of his nights, carrying his mother’s lullabies as though I have ears and their capacity for comfort.

He tells me tales from the war. How his fellow soldiers—never him, never him, or so we both need to believe—break the fingers of comfort girls, fucking them for mad distraction beneath the rubble. How they swallow the rice of starving farmers and drive their blood-stained elephants through the razed hollow of villages.

I have no hands and yet I stretch against the jars. The texture of his skin is so familiar to me; it is not glass, not porcelain, not jade.

The boy beneath the wooden alcove, tossing a rambutan in the air, laughs out a playful gust of wind as I run into his arms. Oh, if you could have seen him, you would know what it means to hold life itself. Your youth is also mine, I want to tell him. Why do your fingers stutter in their caress, why do your feet slip against the tiles? Where is our boyhood, our girlhood? He does not answer.

Sometimes I think he means to punish me—for losing you, the life growing in me while he was gone, fixing the tragic equation of our lives: I lost myself when I lost you, and he lost himself when he lost me.

Don’t get me wrong; I pretended for as long as I could. When he returned, I cleaned our house and sliced papaya and mixed fish sauces the way he liked, and when he pulled me into his lap I pretended to feel him—when the only thing I could feel was your mouth sucking on my thumb.

So good at pretending, in fact, that he didn’t believe the villagers. My wife is life itself, he said. She would never lie to me.

His body in those early days of homecoming was a stunted history, having lost an arm, while mine grew in accordance to my will. As a ghost, I could drive my own absence to any great lengths, and so I elongated my limbs whenever I found myself alone. In secretive moments of transformation, I pitied my love for his mortality, the haunted steps of his breath tickling my ear.

One evening, as the sun bared its teeth against the horizon, he came home from drinking with his friends earlier than expected. My memory is now a starved dog chasing its own tail, but I recall singing lullabies to you as you gurgled with delight. As I was about to skin a mound of lime, I lost my grip on the knife. The lime fell over the balcony and into the mud underneath our house; not wanting to leave you alone on the landing, I extended my arm to fetch it.

That was when he saw me, maybe for the first time since he returned. You are not my wife, he screamed. My wife is alive, and healthy, and happy; I have given the best years of my own life for her survival.

I wanted to shake him, to strip him of all his ghosts and insert myself in their place, but it was too late, you understand—he had already rushed to the village monk. Kill this imposter and make her mine again, he begged, I know my own wife is not really gone!

Lest you think I allowed the villagers to capture me so easily, let it be known I made their lives hell for days on end. I shook the jackfruit off their trees so the ground became knives, slaughtered all the chickens in their pens, squeezed the juice out of their limes.

When they caught me—because that is how the story always ends, you must understand there is no other end—he regretted his decision, that cowardly fear of limb and death. The monk stored the ghostly essence of my being in an earthen jar and buried it deep under the temple grounds, among the gnawing worms. My love found some semblance of courage and tore open the earth with his one good arm. His fingers had come away bloody, his muscles strained, his appetite dissolved.

I’m so sorry, he whispered, cradling the jar against his chest, the stubborn beating of his heart. I miss you, wife. Behind the veil of night, he could say anything.

Now he keeps me in his secret collection, which used to be my own collection. Earthen jars and water jugs and clay pots and perfume bottles! He slips the remaining air of me through each vessel when I least expect it, and rocks me to sleep when he senses my unrest. He would have been a good father.

In all my days of girlhood all I wanted was to be held, to be sealed and known in all my secret places. But his face grows blurry and aged through the haze of distance, and his resentment for death and disdain for existence wears me down. Oh, husband, shouldn’t you know by now your life isn’t merely your own?

It is you I yearn for. Because of you, daughter, I tug against the protection of these jars. I don’t know where you have fled, where you haunt the living, if you can remember me. My one regret, if you can call it that, is that I can’t make him see you. Since your birth, you have only ever been mine, your death imprinted on me as only a daughter could need her mother.

This alone is what I need for you: a love that doesn’t need taming, only carrying; so go on, surpass the boundaries of being, stretch towards the furthest fruits of the earth—see where your ghost takes you.

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