It begins with a girl in the water.
My stilt-legged home rises from a dark, slow-moving river; in it, I learnt to swim, buoyed by coconuts. For much of my nineteen years its murky depths held no fear.
In the water there’s fish, in the fields there’s rice. In the kingdom of Ayutthaya, none of us are left wanting; the abundance of water criss-crossing our land yields life.
But when I saw glittering jaws open and water closing over my sister’s face, the fact of death’s proximity dropped into my lap. I cradle this knowledge, warm it in my palms, move my lips as if in prayer: she is taken, she is gone.
Girls are always being taken, it seems. Within a temple’s sanctuary, you peer at the murals, painted women stolen by painted men, each face serene as praphodhisat. Safe at home, you sit with jostling family, the storyteller filling your ears with tales of heroes and brides.
You know what brides look like, of course: sculpted in beauty, skin smooth and lambent, hair long as a river and lustrous as silk. I’ve looked at women, wondering if they might be my bride—an impossibility, and in any case I’m ill-suited to marriage.
Once I spent an afternoon reflecting upon this. Lamentations on the irregularities of my face prompted Taphaothong to offer sisterly encouragement: “You’d better die and be reborn.” Her touch was soft, her voice was tart. My little sister always knew just the thing to say. She was lovely as a crow, sharp-eyed, dark, cackling.
But when my sister was taken, she was unexpectedly quiet. We were in the river with our entourage when I heard the slap of flesh-on-flesh. I looked over to Taphaothong and admired the bright, leech-thinned blood of her shoulder.
The water roared. My sister turned.
A crocodile strikes before a person can react. The screams always come too late, choked with blood and saliva and river water.
But this creature gave us long moments of its time. We saw a beast rising from the deep, we saw its remarkable size, the gleam of liquid eyes, skin and teeth fortified with a multitude of raw diamonds, and we said nothing, for in that moment we knew awe.
It gazed at Taphaothong, nictictating, still and silent, utterly reptilian. It struck, all speed and muscle, her whole, limp self held aloft in its jaws for just a moment before they went down into the water.
Once the ripples stilled, the screaming began. There’s one scream in particular I recall, startlingly bestial, like a wounded water buffalo. Against the panicked calls of my name and hers, it was a noise unmoored from language, from reason. Servants can be such a noisy lot.
This is how it is done: when my sister is taken, I’m given as a bride.
Father, the governor of our town, is a man vigilant of his property; naturally, he’s troubled by news of a man-eater snatching his daughter. The creature must be slain and Taphaothong’s corpse returned. He offers a share in his possessions (one daughter, some money) to the man who succeeds.
As a girl now sisterless but marriageable, you understand how to reimagine my likeness: a face pure and lovely in grief, lustrated with each beat of wet lashes; a mouth full and solemn, requiring kisses begun with assuaging sweetness and finishing in salt.
I’m not bitter. How could I, when bridehood so becomes me? I should be withered with sorrow but I’m a lotus in full bloom.
Fear and uncertainty courses through the whole town. A man-eater in the water whose diamond fang wards him against harm, unstoppable death lurking in that which gives life.
My world shrinks to the walls of the house. Mother approves. She’s convinced I’ll be wed, desperate for order and happiness in a time of despair. After all, a daughter is merely a condition which permits bridehood.
My hands want only to drive sharp instruments into fabric and flesh. Embroidery and fruit carving, those feminine arts, satisfy my needs. There’s a memory of my sister in each cut and stitch: one night, after she’d stolen my favourite sugar palm cakes, I sewed her toe and heel to the mattress as she drooled into the pillow. You can apply salves to soften the feet but there’ll always be a horny layer: it was here, where the needle cannot be felt, that I pierced. My hand was sure and precise from experimenting on my own skin. Such mayhem when she woke; I savoured it for days. Her retort was to stick pins into the hems of my phasin and sabai in such a way that I suspected nothing in the morning but was vexed by noon from pricking at knee, hip, and breast.
Each time we played such games, Mother sighed, Oh, daughters! Who’d ever want you? and fetched a switch-wielding maid. She didn’t reason with us, thinking the accumulation of pain and time would naturally remove unsightly behaviours, like milk teeth shed. Our games simply got quieter and more cunning.
I’ve always moved with the expectation of hurt. Barbs waited inside my sister, primed and ready to pierce at any moment. She is gone, she is taken, but I resist learning gentleness in her absence, for I don’t know if I’m capable of such a life.
As I labour, our—my—room is filled with dozens of sculpted fruits. Sapodilla and rose apples split into many-petaled flowers under my bird beak knife. Mother’s pleased, saying that industry despite grief is becoming of a girl. I appreciate her pragmatism but there’s no sorrow in me; rather, the shock of death ebbs away to a curious new awareness which pulls and nudges at a world previously unknown to my senses. Scaled bodies push against the backs of my knees and laughter bubbles from nowhere. Occasionally the light, floral, aqueous scent of lotuses drifts by. My response is to carve a series of crocodiles from papayas, guavas, and gourds, each one more resplendently scaled than the last. Similarly, I’m moved to embroider tales of two lovers on a length of cloth intended to be a curtain without knowing why.
I see life through a mosquito net, filmy and soft. The rhythms of the day cease to have meaning; what matters is silk embellishing fabric, how quickly I must work before fruit softens, rots, is ornamented in turn, beaded with flies and velveted with mould. My body is sweat-soured, my hands sticky with juice and blood. The air in our—my—room is tight and sultry, filling the nostrils with cloying sweetness, sharp metal, dirty scalp. Work brings the relief of cool water and lily pads brushing against limbs. Save for ordering more fruit, cloth, and silk thread, I refuse the ministrations of the servants and brook no distractions.
“Taphaokaew.” Mother stands in the doorway. I don’t know what hour or day it is. “Taphaokaew, that’s enough.”
Braced against one of our servants, I kick and strain. What they don’t tell you in stories is how strong women get from a lifetime of work.
“I have news, daughter.” She smiles, tentatively at first, then with expansive warmth, as if she brings hope. “Taphaothong is safe. You’ll both be wed to the hero, Kraithong. Once you’re made decent, we’ll celebrate.”
That scream again, that incredible noise. It was there when my sister was taken and it’s here when she’s returned. Yes, it was me who screamed that day, only me.
Mother is kind. Only when I’ve emptied myself of all noise, once I’m finally slack and quiet, she has me lowered into a tub and washed. Two women towel me fore and aft until my breath catches before bundling me into a room fenced with screens. I’m presented before the table and mirror, a supplicant at an altar. My skin is perfumed with jasmine and burnished with turmeric until I’m the colour of wealth, matching the gold-patterned silk wrapping my hips and chest. Before me, a woman pushes past my lips, knocking against gum as she polishes each tooth to gleaming black; behind me, a comb rips into my snarled hair.
Pain grounds me, keeps my senses from returning to the water. Anent my gagging and whimpering, Mother tells me about my—our—husband-to-be, Kraithong.
He’s a man who knows how to court victory through protection and patronage. Kraithong went to his spellwork teacher, acquiring sacred arms and a favourable prophecy before plunging into the river, as a hero should. The townspeople saw water running incarnadine, smelled the reek of blood and magic; they knew where to gather and how to cheer when Kraithong came heaving onto the bank, slumped and coughing, clutching his sacred spear. Taphaothong stayed behind, calmly treading water.
The hero leaned heavily against his spear and spoke a beautiful invitation, addressing Taphaothong as if she were a queen. It was only when he stumbled that she moved towards him, mild and interested. Kraithong took her cold fingers and led her from the water.
Mother finishes her story with a smile, admiring the composure of hero and bride.
Fingers withdraw abruptly from my mouth and hair. Mother wipes the tears and smudges from my cheeks with delicacy. In the same manner she opens a crock of powder and works on my face until my complexion is like moonlight. I think: it is a mask, and the bracelets fastened to my arms are manacles, the gold necklace Mother holds to my neck a garotte.
Panic swells like a blood-fat leech. In the mirror is a girl condemned.
Mother hooks the chain at the back of my neck and I’m returned to myself, a daughter beloved, whose mother is so attentive, so kind, who wants only the best for her children.
“You’re happy to wed him, I hope?”
We are a civilised people; I can still negotiate, but I see no need. Marriage is distant to me, my anticipation is yoked solely to the idea of a new game between sisters, but if I must have a groom, Kraithong’s manners are beautiful and that is enough.
When I finally nod, the three women around me relax. Mother beams. “Your sister will return presently—she and Kraithong will be feasted. And you, of course.”
Her voice comes dimly for I am there, a mossy pool clarifying the jasmine and turmeric clogging my throat, a thumb pressing from collarbone to breast, smoothing away the bodily depredations required of beauty. Not so exquisite this time; dismay plucks at the edge of sensation, but I let it claim what it may. Mother thinks I’m caught in nuptial daydreams: this, too, I allow.
There are many stories in which we may learn that inhumanity doesn’t save you from bridehood and the making of a woman isn’t necessarily the shape of her flesh but her place in a tale.
You might have heard how Suphannamatcha the ngueak was so charmed by Hanuman that she not only betrayed her father but mated with the monkey god in the sounding sea. The fruit of that union was Matchannu, like his father but for his mother’s tail. He must have come out smooth and pellucid at one end, brown and wrinkled at the other. Natural to ngueak, I imagine, but the details of their coupling bother me. Who can say what’s inside god or mermaid?
The interior of common creatures, of you and me and the animals we keep, is horrifying enough. When I was five, I crept into the kitchen and saw a hen cleaved in half. I couldn’t look away from the treasure of its innards, that lightly veined, coral-bright cluster hanging obscenely from the scaffolding of its ribs. A hen cracked open naturally yields all its eggs-to-be; each glistening yolk might become anything it wished. It’s better for certain secrets to remain unlaid, I think.
But knowledge ripens and drops of its own accord, particularly if you’re a daughter. When I accept my betrothal, I understand how Suphannamatcha accepted a monkey god, her moment of weighing, of consideration, and how Hanuman had manners beautiful enough to persuade a mermaid bride.
That evening, we gather in a circle to feast the return of my sister and the making of a hero.
If the story has a hero, you know what he’s like: handsome, strong, smart enough to understand the order of things.
My eye passes over Kraithong; not a single feature captures my attention. He’s simply a boy my age, grave and polite. There’s little conversation between us, no courtship to speak of; it’s Father who takes up his time, peppering his son-to-be with questions, holding forth on family and property. He must be pleased with Kraithong: he hasn’t demanded Chalawan’s corpse as proof and trophy, apparently content with a whole daughter. Father would’ve liked a fine crocodile skin.
Beside me, Taphaothong has eaten nothing. Her lips twitch like beetle’s wings but do not give forth her usual noises, her bright words and cacchinating laughs. I watch her face, every lineament familiar to me; as sisters and brides, you might say our fine features are cast from the same mould, that in bridehood we’re interchangeable with each other and every single woman in any given story. It certainly seems that way to fathers, suitors, and storytellers.
I don’t wish her gone again, exactly; in her quietened state she’s much improved. But it cannot be mere coincidence that, since her return, my thoughts have been untouched by the exquisite caress of water.
That night my dreams are viscid, eelish; ova fill my mouth until I gag and bring forth nak and ngueak, crocodiles and monitors, tukae and jingjok. I wake retching, fingers massaging my throat. As my breathing calms I realise Taphaothong is watching me, blank-faced. It seems hours pass before she pinches her eyes shut, even longer until I sleep again.
The ending you require of a story is marriage and happiness in quick succession. The ending brides need is knowledge of an auspicious date and how to swallow the days between engagement, dowry, and wedding.
Taphaothong is determined to reach a different conclusion. She’s a flattened image of a girl, her voice comes from far off and her outline is skewed and uncertain. My sister is a shadow puppet, and we’ve failed to find the light in which she’d be legible.
In the days and nights before the final ceremony she moans two names, Wimala and Lueamlaiwan, strangers to us, known to my sister as faces limned and lovely, necks that curve, fingers strong and elegant. My sister was never one for the lyrical; now she alliterates and rhymes so prettily, pairing flower with flower and trees with birds, describing a lover’s bower beautiful in prosody but implausible according to the laws of nature.
This isn’t a story my parents wish to know.
“Her khwan has been frightened,” Mother says, “common in soldiers returning from war and those who’ve not taken well the changeability of life. Their very soul takes flight.”
A khwan doctor is called to the house. A room is chosen, the boundaries marked with taut white cotton, corner to corner. In the centre stand bai sri large and small, banana leaves folded into spines with eggs speared at the pinnacle, the tallest rising over trays of dainties and sweetmeats made to be seen but not eaten. Musicians open the ceremony, falling silent as my sister takes her place amongst the offerings. The doctor moves towards her and the invocation begins. Taphaothong is anointed with a ring-clad finger, her khwan feasted with a spoonful of air and bound in thin white cotton tied at her wrists. A girl ringed by candlelight and family, joined in a ritual meant to enfold and clarify, close the gap between soul and body, daughter and parent.
Mother’s wrinkled brow, Father’s tensed neck: in these I read their love for my sister and the weight of understanding pulls at my gut. In my weakness a question flickers at the back of my mind: if she won’t recover, what will become of us?
But the oldest sibling should be strong, someone who bends without breaking, who keeps her bitter root unseen. I know myself, her, us: she will yield. I’ve always been the quiet one, biding my time.
Afterwards, Taphaothong’s silence takes on a different quality, as if she’s gathering herself. I choose my moment.
That night, I pinch her awake. “That’s enough, Taphaothong.”
She smiles, turning towards me in languorous recline. The eye she fixes on me is alive again with bird-like cunning.
“Tell me what happened.” I find myself sliding the cotton off her wrists, dividing the white threads so we wear an equal number.
“But you already know.” She chuckles at my knit brow, points to my embroidery of two lovers in the corner of the room. “Look at the curtain you made.”
I crawl out from the mosquito net. The taper flickers as I bring it to the cloth. My handiwork gleams, fine and detailed, but the designs aren’t how I remember them: the lovers aren’t couples but threesomes, two crocodiles encircling girls whose faces are both mine and my sister’s. I haven’t touched any of it since my frenzied labours. Something breaks in me, releasing a knowledge which oozes between my fingers.
Taphaothong makes herself comfortable beside me and begins. “I woke in a cave with gold walls lit by a glass orb that gave the light of day. Two women stepped into its glow and I knew at once what I wanted. There, now, you’ve no right to be shocked; I’ve seen the way you look at women who aren’t our kin.” She elbows me gently. “Wimala and Lueamlaiwan were Chalawan’s wives. He was greedy for a third wife.”
“But—what happened to the crocodile?”
Her faces creases. “Why, they were all crocodiles, dear sister. The orb’s light made them human, slowing their age and robbing them of hunger. They could have lived a long, pure life but for Chalawan’s delight in human flesh. He was hunting all of us on the river that day, you know.” A flicker in her eyes conveys the horror that could have been. “But he took only me.”
Taphaothong’s voice trails away. Her face brims with delight, chin wobbling in a manner which should endear but simply irritates; she’s hiding something, a morsel whose sweet scent she’ll flaunt before me but enjoy alone.
“So what else happened? Something must have made you sick with fear. Or were you simply sulking? You’ve always liked making Mother and Father worry.”
“You—” she seethes, hot with anger, and my pulse thunders in anticipation of her retort. But after a moment her breathing calms, her features pull into a quiet smirk, and my sister continues as if I’d said nothing. “Do you remember,” she muses, “when I sewed your toe and heel to the sleeping mat?”
“But that was me. That was me . . . ” The words leave my mouth again and again until I no longer sound like myself but the mimicry of a mynah bird, girl-echoes piping from my beak.
Taphaothong laughs all the while, pulls a satchel out from a wardrobe. “Why, elder sister, you’re confused! No, you’re the hot-headed one, bristling with sharp retorts. I’m the one who waits until dark to get what she wants.”
I make my nails bite into the meat of my palms, easing me back to human speech. “That’s not true. I know who I am. How could you say that?” I watch her pack and organise as questions pour out of me. “Why won’t you tell me what happened? Where are you going?”
“Back to Wimala and Lueamlaiwan. I won’t be given as a minor wife—I’ll go into the water and be theirs. They taught me a little spellwork; our parents will recall only one daughter come morning, and the servants are in the deepest of slumbers. You were always intended as the principal wife; you can have the riches, the hero, the honour.”
Duty and propriety hadn’t entered my mind; I’d been thinking of marriage in familiar terms, that she and I would turn from daughter to wife, a new game between sisters. The nuptials were intended for both of us at once, her bridal house was not far from mine. To be taken alone by a strange man was an idea I hadn’t fully contemplated. The prospect of connection so new and naked, the thought of being unable to point to an old mark or a scar and say, with the weight of memory, You did this, was unbearable.
“You can’t leave me like this.” I reach. For the first time in years, my hand on hers is gentle, seeking comfort.
Her gaze flicks downwards as if an unusual insect landed on her skin. “Dear sister, we’ve never liked each other.”
“It’s not that simple.” My breath comes in blades. How do I tell her about the feeling of water? How do I find the right words to make her yield when she’s so eager to leave alone?
“We’ll both be comely brides, only your bridal house is wood and mine is stone. An ending familiar and complete.”
“But why can’t it be me who goes into the water? It was you driving me to madness with its touch, you and your two brides, flaunting your happiness!”
Incredulity blooms on my sister’s face, eyebrows unfurling, lips parting. Her mouth quirks; a laugh comes strangely through her lips, a moth winging stutter-start. “This isn’t how I wanted to say goodbye. Elder sister, might we not be cordial just this once?”
Her palm turns upwards, pressing against mine, drawing me close.
She smells like a sister should, new sweat on clean skin, bruised pandan and split pomelo. She tastes as a girl ought, iron-rich and supple.
I bite her as I wished the crocodile had done. Taphaothong gasps as I break her skin, piercing the meat of her shoulder. She drops her satchel. We tussle with our full weight. With a strike to my thigh she fells me, biting me in turn, and in the tangle of pain and limbs and salt we lose ourselves. She’s above me; I push her beneath, but I’m the one on the floor. My blood wets her nails, her blood roars in my veins. She and I roll over us; we roll under me, over and under and over until one of us gets away.
I—whichever I that may be—flee through the house, tripping over servants in stone-dead sleep, running into the deep, hot night.
When I come towards the black length of the river, I find a diamond-scaled crocodile waiting on the bank, and I give myself, only myself.
I break through the shell of slumber, damp as a hatchling, and find myself in a golden cave lit by a glass orb which gives the light of day. I push sweat-stuck hair from my forehead. Despite my wounds, I’ve never felt so new, so fresh and lively; turning about on my knees, I pat the reed mat, the packed earth, reaching up to feel that improbable wall, smooth and bright, as if gilded by a master hand.
Two women watch me. This cave, their faces—known to me, but not familiar. I flex my fingertips and see blood dried into the quick, the taste of rust and salt revived at the push of my spit-smooth tongue. I’ve little time to savour it: the women bound forward almost as one, putting their faces close to mine, so near I can see the liquid of their eyes leap into shattered colours, dark opals split with black.
Their names come to me: Wimala and Lueamlaiwan, the crocodile wives of Chalawan. Neither introduces herself. Each wife is absolutely quiet. It must be their native form which gives them such stillness.
Both women reach for me, hands open, mouths parted. Their touch is the caress of water, their scent is the light fragrance of lotuses smeared with dark, sharp tamarind pulp. Revulsion presses deep into the length of my throat; desire plucks and ripples beneath my belly. They are women unmoored from humanity with no reason for gentleness. Their tender offering is perverse; I yield in delight. A crocodile can rip a water buffalo in half but their lips are petal-soft. They card their fingers through my hair and murmur welcome and gladness into my ear.
I draw back with a start and ask where their husband is. Life, for me, has always featured a man on the periphery.
Each woman gives a moue, a sigh. “Let’s not go over that day again,” one says. She tucks her hair behind her ear, a gesture both charming and startling with its human nervousness.
“Wimala is right.” The other woman’s voice rings sure and sharp. Lueamlaiwan must be so-named for her sequin-bright eyes. “It’s done. The boy broke the seal of the diamond fang; we completed the task, each taking what a wife is due. The fang and scales, this cave and its contents, our time and affection—only ours to give.”
I twist the cotton at my wrists, letting my eyes wander about the cave. Uncountable little stretches of water are scattered throughout, the nearest to me a small pool of water hyacinth. Dimly, at the far end of the cave, I glimpse lapping waters beneath a great florescence, hundreds of nodding lotuses the size of human heads.
A chime startles me. Dozens of clocks tick and flow along a section of wall, marking days which can no longer be felt.
Wimala tilts her head, a wing of hair escaping her ear. “Will this suffice, or were you expecting a husband or two? If a groom offered dark eyes and bright lips, would you eat him whole?”
“No,” I say. In this I am sure, but uncertainty still creeps, light-footed, many-legged.
“Hush, Wimala. You miss the other one, don’t you?” Lueamlaiwan waits for my answer, grave and curious.
I want to say it’s not that simple, but explanations are uncomfortable, a mango hair between the teeth.
Wimala smiles and touches my cheek with a fingertip. “Well, you’ve only to wait—there’s the right moment for everything.”
Each woman compliments my cleverness, my lovely embroidery, how soft my cheek and quick my tongue. I may never know which sister I am. It doesn’t matter now—perhaps it never has, so I’m free to be whoever I wish.
We mark time by the wall of clocks and lunar calendars, probing astrology manuals for auspices. Lueamlaiwan and Wimala promise a beautiful wedding, but I’m ever-troubled as they increasingly refuse my embraces and invitations to play, preferring to keep themselves to a corner of the cave behind the stream pool of morning glory, a place forbidden to me.
I know, gut-deep, that I can’t play games with them as I did with my sister. I satisfy different curiosities instead. As they busy themselves with their secret, I spend my days looking at every other pool, pushing the aquatic blooms to reveal calm water. In a parted tangle of arrowheads I see my sister as in a mirror; her image ripples at my touch and she starts, her mouth open for a moment before surprise sags into weariness. I can’t help but smile; soon, I’ll see her again.
I turn to the dark reaches of the cave and walk towards the incredible mass of lotuses, the last pool open to me. The water is cool about my knees and blush-pink petals tickle my nose. As I part the blooms with a sweep of my arms, I wonder why we’ve never played here, and the silent water gives forth an answer.
I’ve found him, a husband in the flesh, a husband forgotten.
He is caught between crocodile and man, no rot or bloat to his corpse, no death-reek, only the scent of wet stones and bruised petals. He bears Kraithong’s mark, two round penetrations at neck and chest which gleam eerily. Shallow wounds pit the surface of his crocodile self like an emptied lotus pod, his diamond fangs and scales torn out, leaving only crusted black.
And his face, his face—
Wimala and Lueamlaiwan call for me. I turn away, wading towards their voices in a body which doesn’t entirely feel like my own, thinking of their strong, elegant, precise fingers.
They permit me to cross the stream pool of morning glory. They stand, faces radiant, beside a mound of dirt which gives off a strange heat.
“We’ve something to show you.”
Crouching by the water’s edge, the two gently scoop away dirt with their hands, eyes wide and gleaming, lips shiny and wet. Once they locate what they seek, each woman looks towards me, brightly expectant, and a smile breaks across my face like a river bursting its banks.
I know what happens at my sister’s wedding: nine monks in saffron, bright platters of fruit, a rowdy bridal party. My sister’s face is powdered white, her body polished with turmeric, silk-wrapped and jewel-fettered. Her groom’s face is a quiet blank. Together they take a tiny receptacle of lustral water and pour it into a little dish.
Wimala and Lueamlaiwan arrive from the river in full splendour, suited in raw diamonds, jaws open and ready, claws shining.
There’s a pleasant warmth somewhere in my centre, like I’ve swallowed young peppercorn. I hum as I sit with the crocodile eggs and gaze out at the morning glory, the long fronds and pale blooms. The eggs are quiet; I’m told they’ll call to one another near hatching, wise embryos who already know how to choose their moment.
A distant, gentle plashing catches my attention. I look towards the cavern entrance and the reek of blood fills my throat. She is here, she is come home.