As it turned out, Ba Hmong wasn’t Hmong. But nobody knew this. Nobody knew where she came from and no one could remember when she arrived. As far as anyone knew, she’d always been here. A crazy old woman who’d wandered away from her people. Or was driven out for being lunatic. Which was more like it, people joked.
Been at the shelter for twenty years, maybe more, smiling, muttering all day, humming. She liked to rock on her haunches and sing. If you passed by too close, she’d reach out, touch your leg, ask something in the language no one knew wasn’t Hmong.
She was harmless really. I liked her. Kind of. You had the feeling she was asking you something important, leaning towards you eagerly as if you might be the one who knew the answer. They said it was the madness, but she seemed alright most of the time.
Ba Hmong always rose before dawn. She tied back the mosquito netting, rolled up her bedding, and waited. We gave her chores to do. She swept the floor of the big room, put down the mats, helped in the kitchen, all before the others woke.
Some days we asked her to spoon out the rice soup. She’d take a bowl, fill it to brimming, and hand it over, muttering something or other. Always the same question. They said it was crazy talk, but to me it sounded kind of hopeful, like she might finally get the answer she was looking for.
Tongsak, who was here for a while when luck was against him, liked to have fun with Ba Hmong. Fun for him, that is, and a few of his comrades.
“Thank you, Ba. Thank you most graciously.” He loaded on the sugary tone, not minding our disapproving glances. “Thank you so-o much.”
She heard no falseness. She smiled, patted his hand, muttered her unintelligible question.
They said she’d been up at Chang Mai before they brought her here. On the streets mostly. But it was too cold there. And it didn’t look good, an old woman on the streets, begging day in and day out, grabbing at the tourists’ legs, asking questions no one understood. I thought it was a bit strange, since there were plenty of Hmong in Chang Mai, and you’d think they’d have understood her, so maybe it was just crazy talk. It did get me wondering though.
If you asked Ba to sing a song, she understood. She’d always sing the same one, soft and sad. It’d get in my head, and as I worked, I’d find myself humming it.
There were other signs, if we chose to notice them. Like she covered her head. Like she wouldn’t eat some things, skip dinner altogether some days, which was strange. In a shelter like ours, no one skips dinner. But some days, Ba would hold the steaming plate up to her face, peer into the pile of rice and curry, sniff and recoil. They said it was her lunacy and all. Ba Hmong on a crazy day.
She liked children. Always smiling at them and patting their heads with those ancient hands. The children tolerated her. I often praised them for this, proud of our ways.
Once, a leper came. It was Ba Hmong who tended him. He arrived at night after the electricity had been turned off. That meant we couldn’t see his face clearly in the lamplight, or we’d have had to turn him away, send him down the road to the temple. Later, I suspected Ba might have known. She bustled in, speaking something in her language with authority in her voice. Relieved to hand over our duties, we let her lead him away to the men’s quarters and returned to our card game. Above the low roar of crickets, there were faint sounds of splashing from the bathroom and Ba in the kitchen preparing a plate of food.
At dawn, when the other men saw his chewed away nose, there was a lot of arguing. Everyone was angry and afraid. Someone ran to get the director. He ordered us to wash down the bathroom in bleach and burn the bedding, then left to call the leprosarium up north.
Before he returned, though, the leper had gone. From the upstairs window, I saw him in the back alley with Ba Hmong. She handed him his shoes and made hand motions, tugging at his shirt like she was asking him to wait. She went inside and a minute later returned with rice and fruit tied up in plastic bags. She patted his shoulder. He took the food quickly and left. I can’t be certain, but I think he was touched.
The director was angry, first that we let the man stay, then that we let him leave. They would have kept him in the leprosarium, though, until he was cured or until he died; and from what I saw, he was too far gone to be cured. Ba understood. I believe she was thinking of her own life. You can’t keep someone locked up if they want to be free.
We had a message some student researchers were due to arrive from Bangkok one Monday. It was bad timing because it was the day after the Dragon Boat Races. We had all planned to go down to Phitsanuloke to watch, but the director said we could go only if the preparations for the students were all done.
On Sunday morning, we woke early and served breakfast as quickly as possible. Working together, we cleaned and scoured the floors, tidied the sleeping quarters, and scrubbed the kitchen. Manewan offered to stay back with Ba Hmong and a few others who didn’t want to go.
It was a good day. We met up with friends and found a shady place along the riverbank. Suchow raised a kite, and I stretched out on the grass and watched it dance and twirl in the breeze. After a while, Suchow tied the string to the handle of Suriya’s bag, and we forgot about the kite, joking, gossiping together, sharing treats. Later, we heard the thwap-thwap of the wind against the paper. The kite dipped suddenly and then flew up again and strained hard against the string as if it was trying to break free and fly off to another country.
Suriya returned with a bag of oranges and collapsed next to me, out of breath. She’d heard there were shadow plays at Wat Phra Si. She spoke excitedly. A famous performer was visiting from Nakorn Si Thammarat. We decided to get our dinner at the temple market and watch a play or two before returning to the shelter.
He sang in an archaic dialect we could only just understand. We knew the characters, though, and most of the stories, so it wasn’t hard to follow. There was a lot of playful flirting going on between me and Suriya that day. I confess I was paying more attention to her.
The music changed and a new puppet appeared, the scatter-brained old woman, walking along a path, singing to herself; then Hanuman was there, hiding behind a tree. He played tricks on the poor woman, pretended to be a ghost, snatched away her basket while she cowered. We laughed.
“It’s Ba Hmong,” Suchow whispered. And everyone laughed again.
I laughed too, and then I had a bad feeling inside.
The play continued. A prince met his lover for a picnic in the forest. They were so enchanted with each other they paid no attention when all the birds flew away, when the tiger fled the forest and the crocodile left the river. Even the scatter-brained old woman passed by, shrieking incomprehensibly, exhorting them to leave. (Suchow nudged me.) The lovers ignored everything except each other. The music reached a climax as Hanuman raised up the mountain, burying the lovers under the earth forever.
On the way back we got to talking.
Suriya said, “I read that frogs always leave an area before an earthquake. Somehow they know it’s going to happen.”
“And before the tsunami last year, all the elephants took to the hills.”
“I heard some of them died returning to help,” someone added.
“And cows always huddle together just before a monsoon.”
The signs are there, I guess. All you have to do is read them.
The student researchers arrived early the next day. The director was there to greet them. He gave them a tour of the shelter. They wanted statistics, and he asked me to find some files in the front office.
I had a view of the front verandah, where Ba Hmong had retreated. She sat on her haunches, singing the familiar song. One of the students had come out to smoke. As he went back in, Ba Hmong reached out for a crisply-ironed pant leg, asked him her crazy question. He shook off her hand, offended, then caught my eye and hurried in to the others.
I took her back to the kitchen, handed her a broom.
The floor was immaculate, but Ba Hmong swept, glad, I think, for something to do. She sang the same sad tune, the words we didn’t understand.
Later, one of the students—the dark-skinned one with round glasses—asked me for water. I went into the kitchen and she followed. Ba Hmong was there, resting on her haunches, humming. Her eyes were closed. She didn’t seem to notice us.
“I know that tune,” the student said. She began to sing. Ba Hmong’s eyes flew open.
“It’s a Yawi nursery rhyme.”
“A dialect of Malay. It’s spoken in some villages in the very south of Narathiwat. Where I’m from.”
“Ask Ba if she has any family. Ask her how she got here.”
Ba Hmong spoke, and for the first time she was understood. She had a Malaysian husband, she said, and seven children and eleven grandchildren. She’d gone on a shopping trip across the border. On a Thursday, like always. She didn’t know what happened. She must have taken the wrong bus.
“She ended up in Bangkok,” the student translated, “and again took the wrong bus. To Chang Mai, this time.”
The other researchers came in, and some of the shelter workers, and then the director. Everyone crowded round Ba Hmong. She stood there smiling, speaking her language, not Hmong at all, but Yawi. Not crazy, just lost, all this time.
The student with the round glasses said Ba’s name was Jaeyaena.
“Tell her,” the director said, “tell her, we’ll see she gets home. We’ll make sure she’s reunited with her family.”
The student translated this promise.
I saw the muscles of Ba Hmong’s face tighten. Her eyes went hazy and she stopped speaking. Everyone thought she was moved by the idea of seeing her family after so long.
I poured her a glass of water. She took it with shaking hands.
The director left to call the police in Narathiwat. The centre staff returned to their duties. The students followed me to the file room, where I found the statistics they needed. Underneath these activities, my mind was buzzing with the story of Ba Hmong—Ba Jaeyaena—who must have been missing for twenty-five years.
None of it made any sense. She wasn’t stupid, I knew, and she wasn’t mad. I always thought she understood more Thai than she let on. After twenty-five years, I suspected she knew quite a lot.
It made no sense.
The sun set. We made dinner and served it up. Ba Jaeyaena wasn’t around, not on a mat, not in the food line. I went looking for her. First, in the women’s quarters; then, on the front verandah. I scanned the dining hall again, thinking I’d missed her. I checked the bathroom and looked in the kitchen.
Panicky, I opened the back door and found her in the alley. There she sat, rocking on her haunches like always, back and forth, not singing though, but with a fist to her mouth.