‘Mangoes’ by Trirat Petchsingh (Thailand)

Short story selected for the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Soon after my discharge from the army, I’d gotten a job driving a pickup truck delivering supplies to a general store in a remote valley about four hundred kilometers from Chiang Mai. My boss had told me that on the return trip I would be carrying illegal ore from his buyer. This didn’t make me feel any easier, but it was either take the job or leave it.

“Don’t drive too fast or recklessly,” the towkay had warned, handing me the key to the pickup and the invoice for the goods. “When you reach Mae Tuan make straight for Nai Boonchuay’s. It’s a big village, but ask anyone and they’ll tell you the way to his store.”

“What about the police?” I asked.

“They shouldn’t be any problem,” the towkay said. “I’ve seen to that. I’ll expect you back sometime tomorrow evening.”

The first two hundred kilometers of the roller-coaster highway spun by easily enough, as the road was paved. Then at the top of a rise I saw the sign to Mae Tuan. Swinging the pickup off the main road and staring up at an impossibly steep grade, I shifted down and stepped on the gas. The pickup was in fine tune and we fairly shot up to the top, where the road turned to a dusty red laterite. After that, the journey alternated between long stretches of ragged forests and denuded open spaces, crossing hills and skirting valleys. For hours I saw not a soul, nor a sign of one. Finally there was another steep grade ahead. I revved her up and, fairly flying over the mound at the top, entered a wide grassy clearing bordered by neatly planted orchards and had to jam on the brakes: I had almost whizzed past a sparse roadside settlement.

To the left was a large timber shed. On the opposite side of the road, was a small hut raised on posts which, at closer inspection, turned out to be a police guardhouse. A gray-haired policeman dozed in a rocking chair on the porch. Further down the road there were a few more buildings, all smaller than the first.

A large mango tree stood near the shed.  I parked the pickup in its shade and walked towards the building. The tree was in fruit and clusters of mangoes dangled invitingly on long stalks from the branches. The mangoes were large and plump and a deep green color. Perhaps they were still sour, I thought, because no one had picked them.

The shed was a simple affair with a wide door that swung up as an awning. The front part consisted of rough tables and chairs, and a stall for making coffee and noodles. There were jars of sweets and cakes on display, and a small showcase with cracked glass which held cigarettes and other odds and ends.

An old woman, her hair tied up in a bun, was brewing coffee at the stall. Her face was deeply lined and her gums blackened. Two dark, beak-nosed Karens, dressed identically in black Chinese trousers and red tops, sat at one table smoking short bamboo pipes and talking.

The back of the store was raised two or three feet above ground. Sacks of rice and other goods cluttered the platform and well-stocked shelves lined the rear. A doorway led to the back of the building, hidden from view by a limp strip of cloth hanging from the doorframe.

“So you’re towkay Suang’s new driver,” the old woman piped, having seen me alight from the pickup. “What’s it going to be? Noodles?” I nodded and said, “Bring me a bottle of orange juice, too. I’m thirsty.” I sat down at an empty table. The old woman made coffee for the Karens and then brought me the juice with a glass of ice.

There was a loud squeal from under the Karen’s table. I then noticed a young pig trussed up on the floor. It was a plump, pink boar of a foreign breed. The old woman, seeing me eye it, said, “They brought it all the way from Chiang Mai.” Then, when she brought me my bowl of noodles, she added, “They reckon to mate it with the sows in their village—improve the strain, like. Bah! It won’t last two months up in these hills.”

I tucked into the hot noodles with relish. The journey had made me ravenous and the aroma of the steam rising from the bowl enhanced my enjoyment of the food. The presence of the pig didn’t dampen my appetite at all.

Just as I was calling out for a second helping, a buxom young woman carrying two buckets of water balanced on a flat bamboo pole came jogging towards us. She moved jerkily under the weight of the load and her breasts under her blouse bounced with each step. She eased the buckets down carefully onto the ground in front of the store. Then she propped the pole against a wall, picked up the buckets and carried them with quick shuffling steps behind the stall. She hefted the buckets up one at a time and poured the water into a large jar. Her plump arms flashed white as porcelain as she worked.

When she completed this chore she put the buckets away in a corner. As she squatted down she revealed the outlines of shapely hips and thighs encased in her gaily-pattered panung. “That’s four buckets,” she said to the old woman. “They should do us the whole day, shouldn’t they?” Her face, a little wide and plump, was not unpleasant when she smiled.

“See what the young man wants,” the old woman instructed. I repeated my order. The young woman prepared it and then brought it to me. She stood by watching me eat.

“You’re a bit green to be driving for towkay Suang, aren’t you?” she asked, sizing me up. “What’s your name? How old are you?”

“I’ve been in the army,” I replied defensively. “Name’s Vinai.”

“Old enough,” she said. She smiled again, showing her white even teeth. “All the same, be careful on the return journey,” she warned.

“Why?” I pretended innocence.

“Hah! You should know that better than me.” Then, in a conciliatory tone, she added, “You look like a decent guy. On the return trip you can sleepover here. Don’t risk getting caught by the police. We have spare quilts and a mosquito net.”

“Thanks,” I replied, “I’ll keep that in mind.” It was something to fall back on, I thought, eyeing her rosy cheeks and white throat dipping into her blouse.

The Karens got up and paid for their coffee and cakes. They then slipped a thick bamboo pole through the ropes binding the pig’s feet and carried it upside down, kicking and squealing, out of the store and down the road.

“Thank goodness they’re gone,” the young woman said. She grabbed a broom and, squatting down, started to sweep vigorously under the table. Her thin white blouse appeared too small to restrain her ripe breasts, which shook with the exertion. I couldn’t take my eyes away from them. They were round and ripe, like the plump mangoes. I was aroused and my blood seemed to be charged with electricity. She kept meeting my eyes, an Eve tempting Adam.

A shadow fell across the table, forcing me to tear my eyes away from her. It was the policeman.  He stood just outside the store and looked at me distractedly, a man of about fifty, short and spry. The green jacket that he wore over his khaki uniform made him appear bulkier than he was. The tip of his holster protruded from under the jacket. His face was dark and he had thick, black eyebrows. A faint scar ran across the left cheek. I felt uneasy under his scrutiny. “Won’t you join me for lunch, sergeant?” He hesitated a moment, then broke into a wide grin, revealing crooked, tobacco-stained teeth.

“I’ve eaten, thanks,” he said. “Could do with a little booster, though. Eed! Bring me a finger of whiskey, will you.” Turning to me, he said, “So, towkay Suang is up to his old tricks again, is he? As long as he pays his way, I don’t mind. It’s when he tries to get smart…” He made a throat-slashing gesture. I looked away uneasily. Everyone was grabbing what they could, and the police were taking their cut.

A little later it was time to be getting on. I called to Eed, the young woman, and paid for my meal. I offered to pay for the sergeant’s drinks too, but he wouldn’t let me. “On your way back, you could bring me a couple bottles of Boonchuay’s moonshine. Mae Tuan brew sure is potent stuff. They don’t call it “Stargazer” for nothing. It’s guaranteed to put stars in your eyes!” He guffawed at his own joke.

I walked to the pickup and got in. Eed had come outside and was leaning against the front of the store. I started up the engine and gave her a parting wave as I drove past. She smiled and made a sign with her hand. I didn’t get her signal, but whatever it was it sure made me impatient to get back.

The red laterite road soon turned into a narrow, bumpy forest track, very steep in places. I passed Karens trudging along. They flagged me down for a lift and, for company, I obliged them. When they alighted they pressed a few baht into my hands as payment, for they wouldn’t accept charity. It took another four hours of steady driving to reach Mae Tuan.

It was late evening by the time I crossed a rickety timber bridge over a wide, muddy river and entered the Mae Tuan valley. The sun was already dipping behind a distant line of hills and darkness was descending rapidly. I encountered only a few boys chasing some straggling water buffaloes homeward.

I stopped to ask the way to Boonchuay’s store several times at a number of the lamp-lit homes. It was very dark when at last I found it. Boonchuay was standing with his wife at the front waiting for me. He had heard the sound of the pickup, the engine’s drone carries for miles in the quiet valley, he explained.

I stayed the night with him as towkay Suang had told me to do. Dead tired, I ate the food he provided and went straight to bed. The next morning I woke up late and found the pickup already loaded with tobacco leaves. Boonchuay had also refilled the gas tank from the spare can I carried for the return trip. Then I remembered the sergeant’s message.

“Can you spare a couple bottles of moonshine for the old policeman?”

“I’ve put two bottles in your bag for him,” he said. “But be careful. I don’t trust him.”

“What about Eed?”

“Let’s go have breakfast and you can listen to what I have to say.”

While we were eating he said, “Tell towkay Suang on the next trip I want another five baht a kilo for the tin ore. There are other buyers in the valley and if we don’t go high enough, we won’t get the ore.

“How much are you sending out?” I asked. I knew the ore, which had been mined illegally, had been stashed in the back under the tobacco leaves because the pickup truck was riding low.

“About a ton. You shouldn’t have any trouble at any of the regular police checkpoints. They’ve all been sewn up by towkay Suang. If you hear of a special police unit setting up a checkpoint near Chiang Mai, lie low at Eed’s.”

“Can I trust her?”

“Up to you.”

“What happens if I’m caught?”

“Then you’re on your own.”

I arrived back at Eed’s place at about one in the afternoon. The journey so far had been uneventful. I met hardly a soul on the way. The only thing eating me up was that there might be a police checkpoint at Hot. I parked under the mango tree and got out. I glanced towards the guardhouse. Old Scarface was nowhere in sight. The old woman was hunched up on the platform smoking a cheroot. There were some travelers sitting at one of the tables, and Eed was serving them.

“Where’s the sergeant?” I asked her.

“Round the back somewhere. Or sleeping off a hangover.”

She walked over to me and said softly, “I heard from a customer that police have set up a checkpoint at Hot. If you want to stop here for the night, take the pickup round to the back. It’ll be less conspicuous there.”

I did some thinking. There was no way I could bypass Hot. I would have to go through the checkpoint. It would be risky. The sensible thing to do would be to stay the night here. But was Eed sticking her neck out to help me because she liked me, or because she was hoping to benefit in some way?

When she brought me my noodles she sat down opposite me, with her arms folded and resting on the table. She looked at me while I ate, amused at how hungry I was. When I finished I pushed the bowl away and wiped my mouth. She leaned forward and I could see her breasts beneath the blouse. They were gently heaving as if she’d just come from running. I stared from her breasts to her face. She stared back and smiled, but didn’t say a word.

I knew then I had to spend the night there. So I got up and drove the pickup round to the back. There were steps leading to a porch. I went up and lay down on the wooden bench running round the porch and dozed off.

When I awoke it was late in the afternoon. I sat up and remained motionless, waiting for my head to clear. It was hot and quiet and still, and very lonely. Then I noticed a long bamboo pole leaning against one of the trees in the orchard. It had a small wicker basket at the end for picking fruit. I fetched it and carried it round to the mango tree in front. I looked towards the front of the store and found it empty of customers. Across the road old Scarface was back dozing in his chair.

I selected the largest and plumpest mango I could find. I reached up for it with the pole and, with a flick of the wrist, had it in the basket. I took it out of the basket and cupped it in my hands, stroking its smooth skin. My finger tips tingled as they lightly traced its contours; the sensation sparked images of other curves in my brain. A little blob of milk-white sap oozed out from the tip where it had been attached to the stalk.

I carried my prize inside and found Eed alone on the platform. I gave her the mango. She took out a knife, peeled it, and gave it back to me. I ran my tongue over the fruit, tasting its aroma. I expected to find it sour, but it was sweet and juicy, with a tang. When I finished eating, I returned to the back porch.

At about five-thirty I heard Eed closing up the store. Presently she came out the back door onto the porch. She had changed into a black panung which was hitched high over her bosom. She carried a bucket and was heading for a bath at the outhouse. She walked with swaying hips and had tied her towel like a turban round her head. As she passed by she looked at me with her soft, dark eyes. I felt a terrible yearning in the pit of my stomach. I watched her as she walked down the steps. Her round shoulders glowed white against her long black hair.

The outhouse was about fifteen yards from the porch and I could see it from where I lay slouching on the bench. There was a huge water jar outside. Eed filled the bucket with water from the jar and knelt down. She poured water over her face and body from a little bowl and lathered the exposed parts of her body with soap. The water made her panung cling tightly to her body. She loosened the panung and lathered her breasts. Then she hitched up the garment and in the fading light her legs and thighs glowed white as she scrubbed them. When she finished her bath she slipped a dry panung over her head and let the wet one slip to the ground. By the time she came back up the porch the light had almost faded.

By seven it had become completely dark. There was nothing to do except to go to bed. Eed provided me with a quilt and mosquito net that I strung up on the porch. She’s a mango, the plumpest of them all, dangling just out of my reach. “Come to me later,” I said. She didn’t reply. As I lay curled up under the quilt I could hear old Scarface singing drunkenly from far off. Earlier in the evening he’d come to get his moonshine from me and now I was hearing its effect.

At the back of the store, only a few yards from where I lay, I could hear Eed and the old woman moving about in their room. A flickering yellow light peeped through cracks in the boards. I thought of Eed and visualized her white arms and shoulders and buxom, shapely body. Drowsily, I wondered what were the chances she’d come to me later in the night when the old woman was asleep.

I dozed off and dreamt that I was picking mangoes, baskets of them. I fondled each one before placing them in a jar. Someone put a dark, wiry hand on my shoulder. I turned round to see my nemesis, Scarface’s cynical, laughing mug. “Stealing our mangoes, are you? You wouldn’t last two months in these hills,” he cackled.

Then there was some commotion. “The truck,” I thought. “Someone’s trying to get at the truck.” I ripped off the quilt and tore out of the mosquito net. I bumped into someone in the dark. We grappled for a moment and I realized, from her jasmine scent and the softness of her body in my arms, that it was Eed. “It’s me,” she said. “I heard someone prowling about down below.” She thrust a shotgun into my hands. “Here, take this.”

I grabbed it and ran down the steps to the truck. I tried the cab doors. They were locked. I examined the back of the truck. The tarpaulin covering the tobacco leaves hadn’t been disturbed. Whoever it was had been scared off by all the noise I had made.

I walked slowly back up the steps. “He’s gone,” I said. “I’d better keep the shotgun, in case he comes back.” I reached out and groped for Eed’s hand and gave it a tug. She came willingly. I grinned as I recalled the tangy flavor of the mango.

The next day I returned to Chiang Mai. There was no checkpoint at Hot that day. I continued driving for towkay Suang down that long and winding road for considerably longer than two months. Eed always made my trips a joy.

Glossary:

baht: the name for Thai currency
laterite: a land surface formation rich in iron and aluminum, found in hot and wet tropical regions
panung: is traditional Thai clothing
towkay: a Malaysian word to mean sir, master; big-boss

Illustration by Katherine Jones

About the author:

Trirat Petchsingh is a contemporary Thai writer who writes fiction in English rather than Thai. He was born in 1954 in Petchaboon, Thailand but was educated abroad, earning a degree in engineering from the University of New South Wales. In 2007, Bangkok Book House published his debut book, a collection of short stories entitled Thai Mangoes.

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