Lovely Miss Sprite had the odds stacked against her before she was even born

Published in the Bangkok Post, Sunday, March 9, Spectrum Section: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/398899/a-sprightly-angel-and-a-sacred-tree

By Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.

Lovely Miss Sprite. Angel of the week — second year of kindergarten — winner of the colouring contest — elegantly going on five years of age. She has a voice pitched between the song of an angel and a chirping baby bird sitting on the edge of the nest, not quite ready to fly. Likes to put a leaf behind her ear — picked from that Sacred Tree behind their slum shack. Her mum used to do that too. Lovely features, she has a smile that could stop any herd of wild elephants that might be visiting the neighbourhood. As for her innate beauty? You would immediately pick her out of a crowd. There was a problem: orphan girls fetch a pretty price. But we dealt with that.

Chocolate sandwiches are her favourite food on the whole planet. Chocolate paste smushed between slices of bread. Even better still, whole chunks of chocolate in the middle without much bread. Best of all, skip the bread entirely and just gobble plain chocolate. But her disabled Auntie Gung, her second mum, won’t allow the "no bread" recipe. Says that Miss Sprite’s real mum, now dead from Aids almost a month now, and certainly in heaven, would not approve.

Miss Sprite talks non-stop like only a bright five-year-old can. She shares loads of secrets whispered at the speed of a bullet in your ear. And even though you (as a silly, grown-up adult) are not expected to understand secrets of a top-of-her-class kindergarten orphan, you are required to nod emphatically. For this you sometimes get a hug.


She’s highly practised in a special noisy game for little girls that she and her 41 friends here at Mercy invented. At least that’s what they tell us, and who, even the boldest among us, dares doubt the solemn word of 42 little girls in such serious matters? If you ask, they find your “adultness” beyond belief and they fall on the floor in fits of raucous laughter and giggles.

The game is something like laugh and giggle and jump up and down then laugh some more. Any disputes are settled by Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Even at five years of age, she has those beautiful hands — the lithe fingers of a future lit gae dancer. Proudly states to everyone her grandmother was a lit gae dancer and her mum wanted to be a dancer, but got sick first, so she, Miss Sprite will take her mum’s place.

In stray moments, she goes silent when she misses her mum, and just for these saddest of moments, she grasps a tiny locket she wears on a string around her neck, kisses it and puts it in her mouth. A tiny locket with a bit of mum’s hair.

Miss Sprite didn’t catch HIV during birth from mum, even though she was born in a Klong Toey shack without hospital-like procedures, nor from her mum’s own milk.

Miss Sprite’s story started way before she was born. When her mum escaped from their shack in Klong Toey — sleeping under tables in the fresh market where she begged for food and was protected by the women vendors. She was 13.

Why escape? An uncle living in the same shack abused her. Then threatened her if she told anyone. She tattled but no one listened. They cursed her instead.

She found the wild ones: a drug crowd under the expressway. She hung out with them because they accepted her. She never got into drugs herself. The leader of the pack she married proper-like, even though she was only 14. He became Baby Sprite’s father. He was her first love and she was for him.

Their wedding “reception” had tin tables and folding chairs borrowed from the local temple. A pavement under the shade of Klong Toey’s oldest Sacred Tree (ton tha kien) where pious believers adamantly “know” lottery numbers are revealed.

The bridal couple placed flowers at the foot of that ancient Sacred Tree, mum with a crown of sacred leaves in her hair, asking for heavenly protection. They scratched the bark to see if a winning lottery number might appear. None did. The meal featured slum delicacies of sticky rice, Klong Toey-style grilled chicken with som tam. Each guest donated 30 baht to pay for the food.

A push cart bag lady, notorious in our slum for protecting stray cats, acted as the bride’s sponsor and set the dowry at 50 baht. She also “catered” the wedding reception.

Eighteen months later, Baby Miss Sprite was born — in Grandma’s shack. Mum was not yet 16 years old. Her family name stands high in Thai Society. Poor is an embarrassment. A mum at 16 is unforgivable.

An elderly betel nut chewing midwife dealt with the birth. Miss Sprite’s father — before he meet Mum, had had a wild moment or three. Didn’t know he had the virus. Gave HIV/Aids to his new wife. She never knew, until it was too late. His blood counts are fine, for now, but has never forgiven himself for literally killing his wife, Miss Sprite’s mum.

Then one night, when Miss Sprite was almost three, her daddy kissed her and Mum goodbye. Promising, “I’ll send for you when I can.”

Several months later, a new man bullied his way in with Mum. He was not a Klong Toey man. Mum’s mother said he was bad. He was.

One day, drunk, he wanted to be alone with Mum but Little Miss Sprite was sick and crying, so he kicked Mum and stomped on the little girl’s chest. Didn’t kill her — young bones are supple — but she screamed in pain for weeks. It was a loud fracas. The police came. Mum, her nose bloody, lied. Terrified that this new man would come back and kill her and Miss Sprite. Said her former husband beat her up for leaving him for this new guy.

Sprite’s real dad heard. News travels fast in Klong Toey. He came at midnight with some friends on motorbikes. The new boyfriend was never heard of again. Word was … that he went for a swim.

A year passed. Sprite’s mum was not well. Went to the hospital: got the terrible news that she had advanced Aids. She also knew full well she was dying.

On Miss Sprite’s fourth birthday, the three generations: Grandma, Mum and Miss Sprite knelt before that Sacred Tree to seek a final blessing and protection.

Years before, mother was a nationally renowned lit gae dancer, then took sick, became slightly paralysed. The show goes on; a younger singer took her place.

Sadly she took the dress she had worn for her last performance and hung it on the Sacred Tree — following old traditions.

Next morning, the women brought four-year-old Miss Sprite to us. Mum feared for her daughter. She had nowhere else to go. Orphan girls are good money. It was horrible. Miss Sprite would not let Mum go. Finally we agreed that Mum would sleep here a few days with Sprite while she got to know the other 41 little girls who live here. Also we began taking Miss Sprite and some friends home each day after school to see her mother.

She was in bed, sick — died at 22 years of age. By the time she died, it was now safe for her husband, Sprite’s daddy. He had worked out his problems. He was there holding her hand when she died. But with his type of business, he moved around a lot. Couldn’t stay in one place too long. Came to see five-year-old Miss Sprite when he was in town.

Then a nasty scam. Half-paralysed Grandma was a “regular” at the local “ping pong” gambling game. Owed a large handful of cash. The brokers suggested she take Miss Sprite to perform as a learning novice with the best lit gae troupe in Thailand in a distant border town. Orphan girls make wonderful collateral. Grandma came to see us.

We phoned Sprite’s dad. “Please do make these people go away.” He did. Later, a penitent Grandma asked if we would go with her — bring Miss Sprite to that old tree — to seek forgiveness in a holy place.

Now a year later, Miss Sprite keeps a picture of her mum and kisses the picture each night before she goes to sleep. She doesn’t talk much about her daddy, but knows he’s out there somewhere and she’s safe.

Grandma is doing “government service” as we call it. She’ll be out — free in another two years. Got back into debt again: tried to move some “product” to pay her new debts.

I must tell you of the colouring contest. We have a big box of broken crayons and let each child draw their most beautiful picture — to keep and put in their own personal treasure of valuables. Miss Sprite drew a picture of her mum.

To conclude. Miss Waranut — nicknamed Sprite — born on a Sunday morning, according to the lunar calendar on the ninth day of the waning of the moon in the fourth month of the year of the rat, in the shade of the old Sacred Tree is at the top of her game.