Read Silk Umbrellas Online

Authors: Carolyn Marsden

Silk Umbrellas

BOOK: Silk Umbrellas
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“Your elephant looks so alive, Kun Ya,” Noi said, leaning close.

Her grandmother painted an elephant lumbering across a yellow silk umbrella. As she worked, her small body rocked with the thick, bold brush strokes.

“The eyes even sparkle,” added Noi’s older sister, Ting.

Noi loved to be with Kun Ya and Ting in the jungle clearing, the three of them sitting on the bamboo mat, surrounded by pots of color.

Noi dipped her fingertip into the gray, then rubbed the slick paint slowly between her thumb and forefinger.

Usually Kun Ya asked Noi and Ting to mix the paints. As Noi blended colors to create new ones, she enjoyed the way the smooth texture slipped back and forth with her brush.

Ting was content to mix paint and wash brushes, but Noi always longed to paint. Sometimes Kun Ya let her paint simple things like leaves. Noi’s whole body came alive with the shades of green. Her hands felt magical when she guided the brush.

“The elephant is coming right toward us,” Noi remarked. Even though she was eleven years old, she liked to pretend that Kun Ya’s creatures were real.

Kun Ya laughed softly, and a breeze broke through the canopy of trees to let the sunshine in.

All morning, Noi and Ting had opened the umbrellas, getting them ready for Kun Ya’s brush. They pushed the fretwork of bamboo slivers up the bamboo pole until the silk bloomed into translucent flowers of pinks, greens, purples.

Just before handing a new umbrella to Kun Ya, Noi liked to hold it up to the light, enjoying the weightless cascade of color on her face.

As Kun Ya finished, Noi carried each umbrella to the sunshine and hung it to dry. The forest floor felt soft under her bare feet. When breezes came up, the umbrellas floated back and forth like big soft bells.

Kun Ya handed Ting the elephant umbrella. Ting stood up and twirled the umbrella overhead as she skipped around the clearing, her movements light and strong. “Look, Noi, the elephant is dancing!”

Noi laughed.

Kun Ya took up a small child’s umbrella. She sketched in a pink hibiscus so quickly that it seemed as though her arm became part of the paintbrush.

Noi crouched close to watch.

Suddenly, Kun Ya held the umbrella out to Noi. “Paint a butterfly landing on the flower.”

“Me?” Noi asked, staring at the green silk. A butterfly was much more complicated than simple leaves.

Kun Ya still challenged her, offering the umbrella.

“But, Kun Ya, I don’t know how.”

“You’ve watched me for years, Noi. Now try yourself.”

Noi dipped the brush into the yellow. Her hand trembled as she brought the brush near the silk stretched across the bamboo frame. She glanced at the butterflies dancing close by, then began to paint yellow wings above Kun Ya’s jungle flower.

“Your trembling is good, Noi,” said Kun Ya. “That’s the way the butterfly moves. Let the movement spread to your whole body, not just your fingers. Paint with all of you. Become the butterfly.”

In an instant, Noi understood what Kun Ya meant. She sensed the butterflies hovering in the thick shade of the banana leaves, then flittering out into the sunshine. The flit of the butterflies moved into her, then out into the brush, so the paint seemed to lay itself down.

Noi held the umbrella away from her. “I did it!”

“It’s pretty,” said Ting.

Kun Ya smiled and began to collect the brushes, dropping them one by one into a jar of water.

Noi and Ting laid their heads down in Kun Ya’s lap to wait while the umbrellas dried. Kun Ya stroked their hair and sang, “The yellow bird flies away,” while Noi gazed at the flowers and creatures that Kun Ya had created. The shadows of the trees crisscrossed Kun Ya’s face as she sang.

As usual, after the song was over, Noi said, “Tell me about when you were young in the jungle.”

Kun Ya took a deep breath and began. “As soon as I could walk, my mother brought me to catch frogs and to gather wild mushrooms.”

“Go on, tell me more.” Noi knew the rest, but wanted to hear it.

“The mushrooms are still here, but the frogs have disappeared.”

That part was sad to hear about, and Noi hurried the story forward. “Tell about the elephants.”

“Whenever we saw elephants dragging huge teak logs through the forest, we fed them sugar cane.”

“How did their trunks feel, Kun Ya? Did they grab the sugar cane from your hands?” Ting asked.

“Their trunks felt wrinkly and alive with muscles under my fingers. And yes, they snatched the sugar cane that we held out.”

When the umbrellas were dry, Ting and Noi closed them up, the way that flowers close themselves up for the night. They put them in the basket of Kun Ya’s
samlaw,
or three-wheeler.

“We worked hard today,” said Kun Ya.

Kun Ya had done the real work, Noi thought. But then she recalled her butterfly umbrella, which lay in the basket with Kun Ya’s umbrellas.
She
had worked too.

The large tricycle had two wheels in front with the basket between them. Behind the rider was one wheel. Kun Ya lifted her narrow sarong, climbed onto the seat, and began to pedal down the soft jungle path.

Noi ran alongside, carrying the paints and brushes. Ting followed, the bamboo mat rolled under her arm.

When the jungle parted, the house appeared, built high up on stilts to guard against flooding in the rainy season. The house had once been dark green and the big wooden shutters a rusty red, but most of the paint had flaked off in the moist jungle air.

An enormous tree spread over the front garden. Long seedpods dangled from the branches.

Noi spotted their mother to one side of the house. Her black hair tied out of the way, she hung laundry on the line, pinning it carefully while smoothing the wrinkles.

Their father was working in the space underneath the house where the pigs and chickens lived. He stirred a pot over a small fire, boiling young banana-tree shoots for the animals. His blue denim pants were rolled up around his knees as always.

“Kun Mere,” Noi called out as she ran. “Kun Ya let me paint a butterfly!”

Kun Mere turned from the shirt she was hanging. “That’s lovely news, Noi. Here, take this up for me.” She pointed at the empty laundry basket.

Noi moved close to Kun Pa’s cooking fire. The steam rising from the pot smelled like bananas. “I painted a butterfly on an umbrella!”

Kun Pa lifted the spoon from the pot and looked at Noi. “That’s an honor, little daughter. Maybe you can learn to paint as well as Kun Ya does.”

“Oh, Kun Pa, that would be hard!” Kun Ya didn’t just decorate umbrellas; she was an artist, and her umbrellas were known throughout northern Thailand.

Yet as Noi helped Kun Ya park the tricycle under the house and put away the painting supplies, she recalled the way she had captured the butterfly with her painting, how it now lived on the green silk, landing delicately on Kun Ya’s hibiscus. Her heart danced from one bit of the memory to another.

She climbed the steep wooden ladder that rose from the ground to the front door of the house. The late sunlight splashed through the door and onto the clean expanse of teakwood floor in the living room. Against the wall stood a chest carved with elephants. On it, set in frames, rested a photo of the king and queen of Thailand and another of the revered fifth king of the Chakri Dynasty, Piya Maharaj, who had abolished slavery. All around, tall windows extended from floor to ceiling.

No walls separated the living room from the cooking area, where Ting was already busy. Noi smelled the salty fish sauce that flavored almost every dish.

“Kun Ya wants to teach you to paint, Noi,” said Ting, cutting a block of bean curd into cubes.

“And you, too, Ting. I’m sure she wants you to learn, too.”

Ting shook her head. “No. I don’t have the feeling for it, or she would have taught me when I was your age. Here, help me chop.” She pushed several cloves of garlic and a knife toward Noi.

It was true, thought Noi, that Ting wasn’t drawn to painting as she was.

Leaving the outer husks on the cloves, Noi sliced them into thin ovals. Out the window, she watched Kun Pa feeding the pigs far below. They gathered around him, pushing at his legs with their snouts, squealing as the boiled banana stems fell into the carved wooden trough.

Ting scooped the garlic slices into a pan of hot oil, added eggs, then stirred quickly. She hummed a little song under her breath as she worked.

Noi took the empty egg basket and put it near the door, then swept the wooden floor, reaching the broom into the corners. When she was finished, she laid out the large mat for eating, making sure that it was straight and even.

Kun Pa came up the ladder into the house, his empty cooking pot banging against the rungs. “Today those animals were acting like Srithon’s children,” he remarked. Srithon, who lived across the village, had ten children, all boys. They impolitely took large servings of food onto their plates.

Kun Pa loved to joke. At dinner he liked to be entertained. Maybe he would like to see the green umbrella, Noi thought. She would show him and Kun Mere the butterfly.

But when Kun Mere and Kun Ya came up the ladder, they were whispering together. Did they have a troubling secret? Kun Ya’s wrinkles looked deeper, and the corners of Kun Mere’s mouth were pinched tight.

BOOK: Silk Umbrellas
11.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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