On an evening some time ago as young Yor Saeng left her home in Issan to catch the overnight bus to Bangkok, a jing-jok (small lizard) made its "tak-tak" sound at her. Her Momma shuddered: "Girl, that creature is warning you. Make a 'tak-tak' sound back to thank the jing-jok and change your clothes so the naughty mischievous spirits won't recognise you."
But Yor Saeng only laughed. Her name means something like "the beauty of a temple with a grove of sacred trees under a Northeast pre-dawn sky". And she's a Star. No doubt about that. That's a short step below Heroine.
Stars are tough survivors with a beauty about them. Also warts, wrinkles thrown in, with mud from the rice fields between their toes.
She was the baby of the family: the ninth child. Attended the village school and worked the fields with Momma and the family. Daddy died when she was five. She was 12 that night she shrugged off the jing-jok's forewarning and climbed on the bus to Bangkok to live with an older sister and work in her noodle shop.
Bangkok started off ugly. Snotty Bangkok teen girls looked down their noses at her shabby clothes and smirked, insinuating they could not understand her "country" accent.
Washing dishes and helping Big Sister sell noodles in the daytime, she attended adult education classes in the evenings and on weekends. After she graduated from the Equivalency High School, she applied for, and got, a job as a cosmetics sales girl. She was strikingly attractive when they dolled her up with their fancy make-up. Big Sister said the lipstick and rouge made her look like someone she didn't want to be. If people in the village saw her, they would surely get the wrong idea.
Like the warning of the jing-jok.
After her three-months' probation, the department store people assigned her to sell cosmetics to small-town girls in one of their up-country stores. Her rural accent would be a benefit there, they thought. She'd be a star.
There she met her first husband, also a farm boy. Armed with a high school education, he'd gotten hired as a salesman at a low salary, plus commission. The more you sell, the more you make.
It took a few months till he sweet-talked her into having a baby. She moved in with him into a rented room just a ten-minute walk from the department Store. He didn't tell her his two friends from the village already lived there with him. It was a bit crowded. Common stinky toilets. One for girls and one for boys. A single water tap outside, and you couldn't drink the water.
She was 21 when she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. But you never call your newborn beautiful or handsome, lest those naughty mischievous spirits hear you, steal the baby, or make the child sick. So you trick them by talking loudly to the baby, (so they can hear you), calling her "Piggy", or "Puppy", or "Kitty Kat" or "Sparrow".
The big problem was her husband. His money went for karaoke, pubs, tips for pretty waitresses, betting on the weekly boxing matches.
His salary was for him alone. Her salary was for food and the baby and rent. They argued at first. Then one fine morning, looking at a silent jing-jok on the wall of their shack, and still nursing her baby, Yor Saeng "had a long talk with herself".
She left that evening as soon as he had gone out, one more time, with his village mates and a couple of girlfriends _ "cousins" they said.
As she closed the door behind her and threw the keys in a mud puddle, she heard the "tak-tak" from another tiny jing-jok. This time, she listened, and she whispered "tak-tak" back to thank the creature for its warning. Said: "Be well _ find some squishy bugs." She caught the evening bus to her Momma's farm.
She never saw him again. Said that if she did, she'd cut his heart out with a dull knife. She stayed with Momma four years, working the fields, caring for her daughter. Momma had always said to her nine children, "Never give up, never look back".
Big Sister asked her if she wanted to come back to Bangkok. Always needed help in her noodle shop. Yor Saeng's daughter was starting kindergarten.
She kissed away the tears of her first born. "Momma will come back for you, we'll be a family. You be a good girl and look after Grandma."
Back in Bangkok, Yor Saeng would get up first _ to go to the fresh market each morning at 3.30am.
That's where she met the three-wheel taxi driver man. A monster of a man. Bearded. You just knew he could wrestle a water buffalo and win.
He took a liking to Yor Saeng. When she asked of his past, where he came from, he just looked at her and silently shook his head.
But he never missed _ was there each morning as she came out the door of her sister's shack to drive her to market in the tuk-tuk that he owned himself.
She gave him two sons. Masters Awt and Amh. Both Northeast strong and wiry like momma, and growing up to be huge like dad.
Shortly before Awt was born, she went back to Momma and gave birth to her first son at home. Amh was born in Bangkok, at Government Hospital.
That's where she found out her monster tuk driver husband had given her Aids, and her first son and now this one were both born with it too. He swore that he never knew. But blood tests can't be wrong, he'd got the virus somewhere before he met her.
They stayed together, both still healthy, and raised their sons. She loved and forgave her tuk tuk driver husband _ fed him, bed him, cared for him. He was still strong as the strongest water buffalo and still took her to the fresh market each morning before he drove off looking for customers.
She got deathly sick five years later. Somewhere she'd heard about Mercy Centre, and her husband brought her and the boys here in his Tuk Tuk. In bed for a year and a half, she eventually recovered.
Her tuk-tuk driver husband? There was an accident and someone died. With his past police record, he knew _ jail for a long time. So he drove all night, moved in with relatives in a distant provincial town.
Then Yor Saeng heard that he had been "meandering", and she was not pleased.
She'd always cut her husband's hair to save money. As a good and pious Thai wife, she'd saved his hair clippings, and put the clippings on a banana leaf in the water with joss sticks and candles, to ask the Lady of the Waters to protect her husband and keep him from sickness and pain.
But now, she gathered the clippings, threw them all out on the street. Watched a stray mongrel dog come, sniff and then do his business there. She took no pleasure in that. Said watching the actions of that dog broke her heart.
After a year and a half in bed, she rented a one-room shack in Klong Toey for herself and her two sons. Recovered for a while, as much as anyone ever does from Aids. And her boys back in school again. Twice daily taking their anti-viral meds.
We had a Star on our Aids Visiting team, Yor Saeng qualified perfectly. Only an Aids person really understands. She'd visit the Aids sick through the city's slums, encourage them, and tell them that after Aids, life still goes on.
But being alone isn't that much fun. And the slums of Klong Toey are not totally cool for single women living in rented shacks, even with two young sons.
That's where she met her third husband.
He found her. He was renting a shack next to hers. He's a welder in a small iron works shop here in the slums.
She didn't tell him she had Aids and he didn't ask.
After a few months they moved in together "to save rent money". She agreed to "take him in", but first she had to ask her sons. They agreed, begrudgingly.
Theirs was the joy of earth and sky for a few months.
Then he noticed that she and the boys regularly ate pills, twice a day. He asked why they needed to eat meds. She told him she and the boys had the "I'm allergic disease".
He didn't talk to her for two weeks. Then she asked him, "what now?" He agreed to stay. It worked for a while, till he started drinking. Yor Saeng said, "I'm not going through this again. He will not hurt me and my boys. And I don't want my daughter to know her Momma is living with a drunk."
It was like the warning of the jing-jok all over again. Then he started mixing the ya ba with his booze. He was making 400 baht a day. True, the booze was cheap, but the pills, at 200 baht a pill, two, three pills a day _ you work out the maths.
She thought of mixing his booze with rat poison or insecticide, but didn't want to commit a sin. Plus if she went to prison, her boys would be all alone, and she promised her daughter that Momma would come back someday.
She began smoking drugs herself. Inhaling is a better word. Maybe just to get even with him. Didn't really know why.
Then one day he said in a joking way, that, "ha ha ha", maybe he'd let the boys inhale the meth, just for fun, and her now teen-age daughter who'd come to live with them too. She grabbed a rather unsanitary knife she used to clean fish with and threw him out of the shack.
Then, she stopped the meth. Just plain stopped.
We often think it is our love that saves the children, but it can also be true that it's the children's love that saves us.
Yor Saeng's three children took clippings of their own hair and fingernails, and hers, and placed them on the waters in a banana leaf with the joss sticks and candles, asking the Lady of the Waters for a blessing
They hugged her and her daughter said "Momma, we're together as a family. We promise you Momma, no matter what, we'll always take care of you and love you."
The Star on our Aids Visiting Team is back, and now at long last, nowhere can she hear the "tak-tak" sound of the jing-jok.
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