‘Chintana darling, I’m going to be late tonight. Please don’t wait up for me.’
‘Alright Auntie Tok, have a great night. Don’t drive if you have too much to drink.’
‘I know and I won’t have more than a couple. I’m not your age anymore. I wish I were though,’ Tok laughed as she closed the front door.
Tok adored her niece Chintana and the feeling was mutual. Chintana just turned thirty and Tok was a young fifty something. They shared a little house in the outer suburb and they were more like sisters. As far as families were concerned, they were the only family that they had in the country. They felt lucky that they had each other.
Chintana sat down at the kitchen table. She was looking at an advertisement about a discounted flight to Bangkok where she was born when she heard the cry of something small in the backyard. Peep, peep, peep! The cry sounded urgent, desperate and somewhat indignant. It was a feisty little thing though, as its cries were energetic and persistent. When Chintana came out to investigate, she found a tiny bird on the ground.
‘Oh dear, did you fall out of your nest?’ Chintana looked up at the tree. She knew that there were cuckoo birds around the area.
‘Or were you pushed?’
Chintana picked the little bird up from the ground. She could feel its warmth, its softness and its fighting spirit through its wriggling body. Beyond its helplessness, she also saw the outrage and the injustice. She saw herself. She had been there before.
Chintana was the eldest of three girls. She started her uneventful life with her family in Bangkok. For the want of a better word, life was normal. Life was good. There was just one little problem. The family did not have a son. It was not uncommon for Asian families to value boys over girls and Chintana’s family was no different. Her parents longed to have a son. The more sons a family had, the higher their social status. There should be at least one, however you obtain him.
Chintana’s parents finally managed to bring in a son. He was three years’ old when he was adopted into the family. Chintana was already nine at the time and her two younger sisters were aged seven and five. The adoption was a surprise to Chintana because she thought her parents had given up on the idea of having a son. She had believed that she and her sisters had proven themselves to be good enough. They had been really good daughters. They were model children compared to their male cousins who were often up to no good. Their male relatives spent more time in trouble than out of it. In contrast, she and her sisters also had good grades from school and were never in trouble.
‘Mum, who is this boy?’ Chintana asked.
‘His name is Charong. He’s your younger brother. He will join our family and become a member of this household. We will all love him like he is one of us.’
‘Why do we need a brother? Aren’t girls good enough?’
‘It’s nice to have a brother. I’d like to have a son. Plus, it’s not up to any of us.’
‘What do you mean it’s not up to us? Whose idea is it?’
‘It’s God’s will.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Chintana, mummy had a very special dream a couple of months ago. It was a very vivid dream. I remember all the details. It was not a regular dream where you remember just bits and pieces of it and things don’t make sense. This dream was different. It was crystal clear. It was a message from the heavens. I’m very sure of it.’
‘What happened in your dream?’
‘In this dream, I walked past a very old man sitting on a mat along the side of a road. He was dirty and his clothes were torn in multiple places. He looked like a beggar but he was actually a deity in disguise. He had dark, deep and piercing eyes. He’s one of the gods. I know it. He stopped me and asked me if I wanted a son. I was taken aback. How did he know? I told him that I already have three daughters and I would be most grateful if I could have a son. He told me that he would make my wish come true. I woke up with tears in my eyes. I was so happy. A deity has granted me a son.’
‘How could a real boy come from a dream? Did you wake up with him sitting there?’
‘No, of course not. The next day, I went to the market. I got the green mangos that your baby sister asked for and fresh okra that your father loves. There, at the chicken stall, I saw an old man holding the hand of a very young boy. The boy was fascinated by the chicken in the cages. He was mimicking them by thrusting his head forward and back. The smell of the feathers was strong but he didn’t seem to care. He looked like he wanted to be one of them.
At the sight of that boy, my heart pounded and I felt a surge of excitement. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. My affection for him was overwhelming. So I went up to the old man to ask them who they were. He told me that the boy was an orphan and he was his relative. I could not believe my ears. This must be a sign. This must be the boy that the deity had promised me in my dream.’ Chintana’s mother started to cry.
‘So the boy is living with the old man because he has lost both his parents?’
‘Yes, but the old man can’t look after the boy forever. He is already in his seventies. So your father and I adopted the little boy. He has a new family now. Chorong is your new little brother. He is a gift from the deity. A gift from the heavens. The deity has kept his promise. The gods have blessed us.’
Chintana looked at the boy, her new brother, at a distant. She didn’t want to approach him. There was something about the whole deity thing that made her uneasy.
Chintana’s parents renovated the apartment to make room for Chorong. The store room was converted into a new bedroom. They were lucky that their apartment was on the ground floor. This meant that the children have easy access to the common courtyard.
Chorong was quiet and obedient. He kept to himself mostly. The younger girls played with Chorong at times but Chorong was really closest to Chintana’s mother. He was always by her side. Chintana’s mother was delighted to finally have a son in the family. Chintana’s father was also relieved that he had a son to brag about. Being the only boy, Chorong received everything new. He had his own clothes and toys for boys while the girls had hand me downs and shared their toys with each other. Apart from a little jealousy from the girls due to the special treatment, the household got on and everything functioned as it had in the past.
The first sign of trouble appeared when Chorong turned into a teenager. He had not only grown tall but also a temper. It started with the door slamming and objects being thrown at the wall whenever he was in a bad mood or when he didn’t get what he wanted.
‘Hey, mum, Chorong is throwing another tantrum. He needs to stop or the neighbours are going to complain. I’ve got to study for my uni exam as well and he’s distracting me,’ Chintana would raise her concerns to her mother. She knew that her mother was the only person that could influence Charong.
‘He’ll calm down soon. Just leave him alone. Don’t make it worse by provoking him alright?’ Chintana’s mother would say.
‘Why is he allowed to behave so badly?’ Chintana asked with anguish on her face.
‘Are you asking for permission to behave the same way?’ Chintana’s mother responded.
Sensing that her mother was not going to side with her, Chintana retreated to her own room and swallowed her resentment. She tried to focus on her study and not think about the injustice of how her mother let Chorong get away with being bad so often.
For some reason, Chorong targeted Chintana more than any other members of the family. Even though Chorong’s behaviour had not been good to others, it was Chintana that he picked on. It was as if he really disliked her.
‘Ouch, that hurt,’ Chintana yelled at Chorong when he pushed her from behind and slammed her into a wall along the hallway leading to the front door.
‘You’re walking too slow. You are making me late. Get out of the way!’ Chorong yelled back at Chinatana angrily. He then slammed the front door as he left the apartment.
Chintana rubbed her bruised elbow and felt the anger grow inside her.
‘Mum, Chorong is getting worse. Something is wrong with him. He has such a short fuse and he takes his frustration out on me. He blames me for everything and even started to push me around physically,’ Chintana appealed to her mother for help.
‘He probably didn’t mean to. You are the older sister and he is the younger brother. You can show more patience to him. Please forgive him and be a good big sister,’ Chintana’s mother pleaded with Chintana.
Chintana tried to keep the peace by avoiding Chorong as much as possible. She would move to another room as soon as she could hear Chorong entering the same room. She wanted to do the right thing and not cause any drama, particularly in front of her younger siblings. But the change in the family dynamics was obvious.
‘Sis, what’s the matter with Chorong? He has become so mean,’ Chintana’s younger sister asked. She sat down on the bed next to the desk where Chintana was studying.
‘I don’t know. Maybe he’s having a hard time at school?’ Chintana didn’t believe it herself but she had no explanations either. Chintana sighed and looked out the window. The trees outside were lush as they often were in the tropical climate.
‘He seems to be angry all the time.’
‘Yeah, particularly around me.’
‘He is mean to me too. He would snap at me and sometimes wouldn’t even look at me.’
‘Well, I’d rather be in your position. At least he is not targeting you. Stay out of his way. I don’t know what’s going on with him. You know what, I think there is something wrong with mum too.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Mum lets him get away with all this bad behaviour. It’s strange. She would never let us get away with any of it. Can you imagine what she would do to us if we only did half of what he’s doing?’
‘Well, he’s a boy, isn’t he? That’s why. It’s not fair.’ Chintana’s sister lowered her head and held her hands to her waist as a gesture of protest.
‘It’s not fair at all. But it’s more than that. Mum seems to get out of her way to defend him as if she is scared of him. She is awarding him some special status that he doesn’t deserve. It’s as if Chorong is better than all of us. It’s just weird,’ Chintana cupped her face and frowned.
‘Yeah, even Dad can’t stand it. But when Dad tried to intervene and told Chorong to behave, mum held him back. Dad couldn’t discipline him either. Mum kept saying that Chorong is a gift from God, but she actually acts like he is a God.’
‘And a vengeful one at that,’ Chintana sighed.
‘What are we going to do?’
‘Stay alert, stay out of his way and hope that this is a passing phase. Hopefully, whatever is bothering him will stop, and he’ll grow out of this nasty phase,’ Chintana got up and hugged her sister.
Only the nasty phase didn’t stop. It got worse. The tantrums and the bad temper became more violent and his attitude more contemptuous. Chorong had started drinking.
‘Mum, I can smell beer in his breath. He leaves empty beer bottles at the foot of the sofa. He’s too lazy to even pick up his rubbish. Look at the way he staggers. Chorong is drinking alcohol and he’s not supposed to. Are you going to allow that?’ Chintana told her mother.
‘Chintana, you mind your own business. ‘
Chintana walked away in a huff. She thought that her mother would draw a line with the drinking but she was wrong. Chintana was also growing more afraid and wary of Charong. He was getting stronger and had become more mindless in his rage.
‘Who took my magazines?’ Chorong shouted from the living room.
‘What magazines, Charong?’ Chintana’s mother asked.
‘The ones sitting on the table. My car magazines. They were right here yesterday. Someone has taken it and I want them back. NOW!’ Chorong yelled.
Chintana’s mother started to look around for Chorong’s magazines. She checked the cupboard, behind the couch and searched every inch of the room to help him find his magazines. She hadn’t noticed that Charong had left the living room until a loud scream came out from one of the bedrooms.
She ran over to the side of the house where the bedrooms were. She could hear Chintana scream out in pain.
‘Jesus Chorong! You are crazy. That really hurt. I’m going to call the police.’
Chintana’s mother ran into the bedroom to find Chintana lying on the ground holding her head. Blood was streaming down her face and neck. She froze in horror.
‘What’s going on? What happened?’ Chintana’s mother went in to check on Chintana.
‘I was reading in my room when Chorong barged in suddenly. He accused me of stealing his magazines. When I told him that I hadn’t even seen them, he didn’t believe me. He took off his belt and started whipping me with the buckle end. Mum, he is mad and he’s going to kill me one day. He has to go,’ Chintana was near hysterical and cried with her shaking voice.
‘Okay, let’s get you fixed up first. We need to go to the hospital,’ Chintana’s mother helped her daughter up and grabbed a towel. She drove Chintana to a local clinic where Chintana received a few stitches. Chintana’s mother told the doctor at the clinic that it was an accident. A picture had fallen from the wall and unfortunately hit Chintana’s head where she was sitting underneath it.
‘Mum, you lied. You lied for him. You told us not to lie and yet you lied right in front of me. Why?’ Chintana confronted her mother.
Chintana’s mother had no response to that. She remained silent during the drive home. Chintana knew that her mother had shut down and would not engage with her. It was as if a door had been slammed onto her face. She tried to hold back her tears but the outrage and the injustice were overpowering. The only thing that she could do was to let herself cry. She cried and sobbed until her face was red and her body was heaving from exhaustion. Once they got home, Chintana’s mother went to Chintana’s room and started to pack her bag.
‘Mum, what are you doing?’ Chintana asked weakly.
‘I’m sorry darling. This place is not safe for you anymore. It’s better that you stay somewhere else. You can go to stay with my sister, your aunt, until things calm down.’
‘Your sister auntie Tok, the one in Australia? What? Are you joking?’ Chintana was shocked at the suggestion.
‘I’m sorry Chintana. I don’t know what else to do. It is not safe for you to stay here. You have to leave.’
‘I have to leave? Why am I the one who has to go? I’m not the aggressor here. I’m not the bad one. I’m the good one. I was here first.’ Chintana yelled.
‘I’m sorry Chintana. I know it’s not fair. You deserve better. I’m so sorry.’
‘Is a boy really that much better than a girl? There are plenty of women who saved the world you know. You are a woman yourself.’
‘No, it’s not that.’
‘Then what is it Mum? Why does Chorong mean so much more to you than me?’
‘It’s not just about Chorong. It’s… I’m sorry Chintana.’ Chintana’s mother started to sob.
‘What is it Mum? Why are you doing this to me? If I have to leave, I deserve the truth.’
‘Chintana, you know the dream that I had with the deity?’ Chintana’s mother looked guiltily.
‘How can I forget?’ Chintana stared at her mother.
‘Well, there’s something that I didn’t tell you.’
‘What did you not tell me?’
‘When… when he offered me a son, he asked for one of my daughters.’ Chintana’s mother let out a sigh.
‘In order for him to give me my son, I will need to give him one of my daughters.’
‘It was an exchange?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘You gave me away for Chorong?’
‘I didn’t know it was you. I didn’t actually know what the exchange meant. But when Chorong started hurting you, I wondered if it was the deity seeking his exchange.
‘So you are giving me up for him?
‘It’s the deity. I had made a deal with the deity. If a deity wants something, you can’t stop it. I don’t want to lose you. But this is why you need to go. In losing you to this house, perhaps that could fulfill the bargain.’
‘I’m sorry Chintana. I didn’t know that it would come to this. I’m sorry. But at least you could be saved.’
‘I don’t know if I can forgive you for this.’
Chintana’s father and her two sisters stood frozen outside Chintana’s bedroom door. They have come to check on Chintana and heard everything. Chintana’s father placed his hand over his brow and hung his head so low that his face was hidden. The two girls clung onto each other as their bodies have gone weak from the shock.
With a heavy sigh, Chintana’s father stepped into the bedroom. He gave Chintana’s mother a very stern look and then knelt in front of Chintana.
‘Chintana, your mother has made a very big mistake. She should never have entered into a deal with the Gods. I should have done more. I am sorry. You are a wonderful daughter. We have failed you as parents. This will be the greatest regret in my life,’ he started to sob.
Chintana’s sisters ran over to hug Chintana.
‘Mum, please don’t let Chintana go. Dad, do something. Please let her stay, please, please!’
‘I should have been content with what I have, three beautiful daughters. What have we done? This has gone too far. The only way to save Chintana is to let her go. But I will clean this up. Chintana, I’ll bring you back one day. I promise you. Please believe me,’ Chintana’s father pleaded.
Chintana brought the little bird inside. She gently placed it on a towel.
‘Well, there is always a place for creatures like us. One door shuts, another door opens. Welcome to your new home!’