The boys had gone swimming and Red wanted to go too, but her mother wouldn’t let her. She was too young and didn’t know how to swim. So she waited for a while and then sneaked away, following the path to the pond. As she approached through the trees, she could see their backs, five naked boys sitting on a level branch which grew out across the water, and called out to them.
There was a scream, and a splash, then more screams and four more splashes. It was strange, because the screams were shrill like the screams of girls, but there were only boys at the pond. When she came up over the rise to the bank there was no one on the branch, and five heads in the water. So she walked along the branch, holding her arms out for balance, and sat down. She started chatting to them, while they all trod the muddy brown water.
She chatted away happily for about half an hour while the boys stayed in the water. They seemed to have less and less to say, but she was happy in the dappled shade of the trees, swinging her legs above the pond. Time went by, and then she thought she’d better go back before her mother noticed she was gone, so she stood up carefully and balanced her way back to the bank. When she turned to wave goodbye to the boys, she noticed that their lips had turned blue.
The King came to the village, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, ninth king of the Chakri dynasty. Among his many titles, Phra Chao Yu Hua — ‘Lord Upon Our Heads’ — and Chao Chiwit — ‘Lord of Life’. The people of Chum Phae and the surrounding countryside assembled on a big field covered in a carpet of straw-coloured sugar leaves — the harvest had finished the week before — sitting in a great oval-shaped ring. No one stood, even the people at the back, because in Thai culture your head must be lower than the head of the King at all times. The big helicopter landed in the middle, whipping up a storm of leaves, which flew around and stuck to people’s clothes and faces. After a while the King and Queen emerged with their retinue, stooping below the slowing blades. King Bhumibol was known as a intelligent, studious man, refined and modest in demeanour, who asked many questions and listened attentively to answers. His village tour of the North of Thailand was combined with visits to royal development projects — irrigation, water detention and aeration, river basin improvement, check dams and artificial rainmaking. He had been educated in Switzerland, but made prolonged efforts to know his people and improve their lives, developing his ‘sufficiency economy’ theory in opposition to the export-oriented policies of elected governments. He became known not just for his musical compositions but for his science.
The King walked around the ring of people, and wherever he looked they lowered their heads to the ground, as if a gust of wind was passing through a field of grass. The people at the front spread scarves and towels on the ground for him to walk on. He talked to villagers here and there, put his hands on people’s heads, until he came to a little girl who held herself upright on her knees, almost standing. She looked up at him in his dark glasses and neatly pressed safari-style shirt with its big chest pockets. He wasn’t a tall man, and his face was almost delicate with its fine straight nose and narrow cheek-bones. She was particularly struck by the pale yellow of his skin, like early morning sunshine. She noticed that he avoided stepping on the scarves the people spread out before his feet.
‘Are you really the King?’ asked Red, her brows furrowing up almost to her hairline. Next to her, her mother, face to the ground, was shushing her and pulling on her arm for her to get down.
The King looked down at her with amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes. At his shoulder, half a step behind, the Queen smiled brightly at the girl.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I am.’
‘You don’t look like him,’ she said. She had only seen pictures of him in his ceremonial robe of gold. Beside her, her mother moaned softly, pressing her face into the sugar leaves.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I don’t mind that you say so. But I am your King.’
And then he moved on.
One day when she was four her mother left her in charge of her little brother, who was eight months old and already walking, and when she wasn’t looking he fell from the deck of the house onto the ground with a dull thud and lay there without moving. Her mother came running, and gathered him up in her arms. Blood was coming from his ears and nose and gurgling from his mouth. The mother pushed the girl away from her brother with hate in her eyes. Wailing, she ran down the road with the little boy in her arms, and Red ran after her but could not catch up, but she ran until she fell down in the road, with the sun low on the horizon flooding her eyes with red light, and then blackness, knowing nothing until local women came and picked her up.
Later that day her mother came home and hit her, and then took a sarong and wrapped her up in it, tying it tightly around the little girl’s wrists and hanging her from a hook on the ceiling, where she left her for a long time.
Later she would visit her brother in hospital where he lay in a glass tank. After three months he came home, and there was no lasting damage. But the beatings continued.
They told her she was ugly. Over and over again they told her, until she believed it. She had wide cheek-bones, a button nose and bright brown eyes, and looked no different from any of the other girls in the village. But ugly, ugly, was all she heard. Because that’s what they say, meaning difficult. An obedient, harmonious child is beautiful in their idiom. One with too many questions, too much spirit — a difficult child — is ugly, ugly, ugly. She was stubborn. She was difficult to feed, because she wouldn’t eat meat. When the men of the village, every couple of months, went trekking to the mountains of Phu Wiang, and came home with a deer or a pig slung on a pole across their shoulders, she would never join the feast.
Her father, at that time, kept pigs, and when she was ten he gave her one as her own to take care of until it was old enough to be sold. Her father said she would have the money from the sale. She loved the pig, and she didn’t understand what would happen to it when it was sold. But when the day came, somehow she knew. She cried and cried, and her father comforted her and told her that she could spend the money on whatever she wanted. But she ran to her room and threw the money at the ceiling, and it fell on top of the mosquito net above the bed where she lay, face down, sobbing into the pillow and grieving for her pig.
It wasn’t until a week later that she took the money down and caught the bus to the market, where she bought herself a fancy pair of flip-flops with shocking pink straps and high heels, and a nice top. The rest of the money she spent on snacks and sweets for her family. By the time she got off the bus on the way home, tottering on her heels and handing out snacks to her friends, she was happy again, and so proud of her heels, feeling as tall as a queen. Her aunties were sitting at the kitchen table, and Red happily took out the sweets she had bought for them, but when her mother saw her it was as if the sky fell in. She grabbed the child and almost turned her upside down, wrenching the shoes from her feet. ‘Clean them!’ she commanded. ‘Tomorrow you take everything back!’ In front of her aunties, Red wanted to die from embarrassment.
So next day the shoes and the top were returned, and instead she was forced to spend her money on sensible Nam Yang shoes, despite what her father had said. She spent the next few weeks subtly trying to destroy them, taking a knife to the soles, digging it in to the stitching, contorting her body to drag her feet in the dust when she sat behind her brother on the motorbike. The brand was famous for durability, and she couldn’t be too obvious about her sabotage, but she was determined that they would not last long.
She was punished for every little thing, beaten sometimes with a stick, until she had bruises on her bruises. Her brother had it too, but never as bad. Her mother tied and hung her for every transgression, though she often didn’t know what she had done wrong. It was always her grandmother who took her down. Never her mother — and never her father, either. Her father was a kind man, but he never took her down.
This went on until she was nearly fifteen. It went on, that is to say, until she was big enough to look her mother in the eye and make a movement with her hand that was so slight it was almost imperceptible, but clearly said: No more. You won’t do this any more.
Her harsh treatment had not made her submissive. Far from it, in fact. In her teenage years, her father was a teacher at her school, and this made her unpopular. The others said she was stuck up. Often she cut class, and climbed a tree inside the school grounds, where the janitor would find her, pointing out this tree or that one to the teachers. One day a group of girls — seven or eight of them — followed her home from school, taunting and insulting her, chanting her name. Finally her blood rose, and she turned to face them.
‘All right,’ she said, and drew a line in the dirt with the toe of her shoe. ‘If you want me, come and get me. But you come one at a time.’
Something authoritative in the tone of her voice made them obey, and the girls stood there in a semi-circle glaring at her. There was a still moment, and in that moment something extraordinary happened. It was as if her spirit left her body for a second and flew up above the battlefield. She could see everything in her surroundings, a complete 360 degree vision, down to the smallest detail. A flow of red ants along the power cable next to the road, their whiskers catching the sunlight. A beetle shuffling in the dust. Nearby she heard the bird that chirrups in seven rapid pulses of sound, four quick and three slow. Further off, the bird that whistles in a looping tone, ‘For real! For real!’ Over to her left, where there was a motorcycle taxi rank, she saw that the men had left their game of bottle-top checkers and were laying bets, twenty baht notes changing hands. Everything seemed simultaneously distant and close, sharp and defined.
Then the leader of the girls stepped forward and was immediately enveloped in a fury of fists and knees and feet. It didn’t last long, and ended with the girl on the ground and Red on top of her, the girl screaming as Red sank her teeth into her the flesh of her face.
She stood up and spat out a piece of the girl’s cheek. She wiped her bloody mouth with the back of her hand, finding that she held in her fist a clump of the girl’s hair, with skin attached.
She brandished the trophy in triumph. ‘Next!’ she roared, as the girl crawled whimpering away.
There was no next.
Her father had to pay money for the girl’s stitched face. It wouldn’t be the last time he had to pay, but he never complained. Secretly he was proud of his fighting girl.
That was not how Red earned her nickname, which she had had from babyhood, because her hair had a hint of red in it when it caught the light. But it was how she discovered what she had beating inside her chest:
jai nạkrb —