The Rice Mother in Red’, Pear Nuallak

Illustrations © 2015 Robin E. Kaplan

 [ Rice cooker, © 2015, Robin E. Kaplan ] Nisa expects no dinner guests, but the rice goddess sees no reason to await her invitation.

Phra Mae Phosop arrives in a rush of red silk and billowing steam, springing out of Nisa’s rice cooker, bare feet landing solidly on the laminate floor. The goddess turns, face framed from ear to forehead in finely wrought gold, and regards the human stumbling away from her with perfect calm.

Nisa gazes back and brings trembling palms together in greeting. “My lady, would you—may I offer you dinner?”

When Phosop’s nostrils flare, Nisa becomes sharply aware of her childish grasp of Thai, her comfortable leggings and bobbly pink jumper, the dusty clutter of her tiny apartment. A small, reasonable part of herself understands she can’t possibly know how to receive the presence of a celestial being, but her face still heats with shame. She makes small, apologetic noises and carefully peers into the rice cooker.

The rice goddess resists the urge to smile. Instead, she plays her part by reclining on the sofa with Darani the cat, fingers buried in smoke-coloured fur, resolutely ignoring Nisa as she clears away stacks of paper to make room for herself.

When she sets down two dishes of hot rice and crisp-skinned sardines, one on the coffee table and the other on the floor next to her, Darani is enticed away from the goddess.

Nisa kneels at the coffee table and attempts a bright, friendly voice. “My lady has made friends with the cat?”

“That is my cat.”

“Oh, is it?” said Nisa. “I was wondering where she’d come from. Well, I’m glad. You’d better take her home.”

“Do not presume to tell me what I should do. I am, after all, the one who puts food in your belly.” Phosop looks meaningfully at Nisa’s dish. “Surely your mother and father told you to finish all the rice on your plate and never waste a single grain? You’d starve utterly if not for our work.”

Nisa considers explaining that most her meals comprise pasta or Mama instant noodles, but thinks better of it.

“Bold, to meddle with that which belongs to me. Ignorant, too—how did you not know this cat has the touch of a god?”

“Please, my lady. I meant no offence.” Her head begins to throb; the rice goddess plays her voice like an instrument, each phrase a study in mockery. She wishes Robin were here, with their level head and gentle hands, but remembers her best friend isn’t talking to her.

Phosop smiles and leans forward.

What Nisa did know at the beginning of the week was how the tap water chilled her fingers when she washed the rice, which told her it was time to wrap herself in wool and savour long-simmered pork bones and bitter melon in clear broth. November made London all of an unrelenting greyness, days beginning with a gasp and shiver, ending much the same. As she pulled on warm layers in cheering colours to ward off the crisp, bitter air and laced up her favourite black glitter boots over thick socks, she looked forward to the comfort of mundane routine, a day like any other.

That was not what happened.

She opened her door to a procession of people in loincloths bearing a flower-covered bamboo cage, a procession which the surrounding city ignored utterly. Each figure was sketched onto the world like chalk on pavement; Nisa watched blurred red buses and school children pass behind them. As voices lifted in song heard only by her ears, she found herself mourning her grandparents’ first language, a family she’d never known, histories lost, roots buried. She recognised certain features in each person, her father’s elegant hands, her mother’s strong jaw, jutting cheekbones, bluntness of chin: a vocabulary of the body was all she could understand. A yearning ache worked through her, thudding heart to fingertips.

Only the bamboo cage remained when she blinked away tears. It sat neatly in front of her, fragrant, unblemished blooms woven onto the lid, pale jasmine and curled rak, pink roses and yolk-bright dao-rueang. Inside sat a dust-coloured cat with peridot eyes. She shared its quiet and watchful gaze, added cat food to her shopping list and a vet appointment to her errands.

Pigeons fluffed against chill morning air huddled together, barely stirring as Nisa rustled past them, hefting cage and cat in a large Ikea bag.

As she waited for the vet to call her in, she thought about texting Robin. Her thumbs hesitated over the touchscreen. Nisa had been raised to think of spirits and deities as myths shut up safely in books, a heritage to be calmly read and studied when it could only be experienced at a remove, not ghost-games and stories matter-of-factly shared in everyday life. Tapping out the letters would make the morning’s events unnecessarily real; clearly, it was some kind of prank whose silliness was exaggerated by a mind slightly raw from poor sleep. Better to ignore it entirely and stick to the facts.

The flurry of messages went like this:

I literally found a cat outside my flat this morning?? Nx

Just at the vet’s now. Nx

Hmm do you think we could go to the hotpot place this week? Haven’t been for ages. Lots to talk about! Miss you. Nxxx

My sisters once asked me why humans only knew my name, Phosop. We’re all rice goddesses of unknowable ages, Phosi, Nopdara, Chanthewi, Srisuchada, and Phosop. Our first memories are one and the same, of our decision to leave the heavens and tread rough mountains, agile seas and fish leaping beneath our feet, eager to meet the earth and perform our duty. Yet it’s my single likeness that humans mould onto their statues and paint in their murals, my sole name to whom they address their devotions.

I should like to believe my sisters’ question free of envy, which is base and unsightly and therefore better left to men, so I reminded my sisters that mortals pay homage to all of us in certain villages, recognising our many names and guises: we may be young ladies in sbai and chada, old women in farmers’ hats and lace blouses, or yellow-eyed hawks swooping across the firmament, but we are all known by the rice sheaf we bear.

“Mortals may not know each of our names, but they know that rice mothers are many,” I said. My sisters seemed content as I smiled to myself, secret thoughts warming my heart. They didn’t notice their question remained unanswered.

“You love to be known,” Thorani murmured to me once, when we were alone.

I pulled a comb of fragrant wood through the length of her hair. “My sisters are far more generous than I, true mothers who give all of themselves. As grain gods, it’s our duty feed the world, and I’ll not begrudge that—but claiming what’s mine is right and just, in turn.”

“But you choose to hide your desire.”

I shrugged, seeing no reason to explain why my sisters’ esteem mattered so much. I was not like them, and I was not like Thorani; the duty and conviction of the earth mother differed from mine.

All goddesses of this land were ancient before language, but we answered as politely as we could to new names when mortals welcomed a new order which pushed us beneath gods and enlightened sages of patriarchal aspect. There have always been fools who forget the true owner of rice. A regrettable mistake on their part: goddesses bring death as well as life.

Still, we arrive when honest farmers who invite us each year, give us our food and our beauty, and apologise to us when required. On earthly Fridays the women hold mirrors high before us so we can see our own beauty. Offerings are laid out, sweet, mild desserts and sour fruits to suit our cravings, perfume and talcum powder to make us lovely.

So propitiated, this is our obligation:

In the fields to become full and heavy, green and gold. This is how our people may eat.

We hear and give answer to human pleading for health, prosperity, anything at all which makes the truth of mortality easier to bear. This is how our people may live.

For all this, is it any surprise a mother may want something which is hers alone?

In that week of November, Robin’s phone buzzed in their trouser pocket at the same moment they noticed a woman of a certain height standing by the river. She leaned against the railing, peering into the morning mist.

With her sharp black outfit, cocoon coat above platform boots, she looked like any other urbane Londoner. Robin was fairly sure why such a person hung around Shad Thames at this hour.

“Are you early for the press view, too?”

She answered with a gap-toothed smile and a wink accented by a flick of lotus-blue eyeliner. “Why don’t we have a little fun?”

“There’s a coffee bar inside the museum.” It’d be warm and lively, perfect to catch up with people they knew and get to know others they didn’t. The woman took long moments to consider the proposition, playing with the length of her high braided ponytail, ombre-dyed, black grading to rich turquoise. Robin glanced down at their phone. 9:35, plenty of time, and a flutter of delight upon seeing Nisa’s three texts. Their thumb hovered over the screen when the woman finally replied.

“Wouldn’t you rather share rock cakes and tea with Mother Thames? I’ve been meaning to visit her. It’s been such a long time.”

“Sorry, what?”

But when Robin felt breath on their neck, arms wrapped round their waist, their head emptied of a need for answers. In its place rose a desire to be with her, and when she took them down into the river, their last thought was how she smelled like frangipani.

I must be clear that we who are goddesses have seen many things. Our absences are not for want of love or tolerance.

After the harvest, grain and goddess rested in rice barns that humans held sacred to us, a sanctity different to that of a temple. Amorous young people crept into these private, sweet-smelling places so they could couple with each other before taking vows, finding the quietude within agreeable to their purposes, a silence they filled with giggling and other unspeakably irritating noises. After a hard year’s growing and the indignities of being threshed and winnowed, I wanted peace. Even my sisters, on the whole more patient creatures than I, agreed with me on this.

We sought a home just to the side of where we worked, tucked away on a plane not-quite-earth, planting a house in the middle of a great garden, a tall, stilt-legged structure in teak. Phosi grew fruit, coconuts weighing with juice, mangoes to make you weep, chillies that curl and beckon. Under the shade of splendid tamarind trees, Nopdara may be found throwing pottery, tracing designs in haematite. Chanthewi slept in the highest room of the house and rose in the evenings to chart the skies. Srisuchada wove at her great loom and occasionally writing poetry.

I kept cats, feeding all six of them fish and rice from my hand. As we protected rice stalks from the depredations of mice and water monitors, cats chased immortal cockroaches and other such vermin from our cupboards. It warmed my heart to know they performed such things out of their own appetite; it would bore me utterly to have companions who felt an obligation towards me.

 [ My favourite cat, © 2015, Robin E. Kaplan ] But now one of my cats has gone, my favourite, the kitten left underneath a rice barn before we departed earth for the first time. I’ve walked the boundaries of our home and called for her, set out objects scented with myself, but she will not come.

Phosi took one look at me and began pounding the chilli salt of paradise. Nopdara chose my favourite dishes and laid Phosi’s young mangoes on them. All my sisters save Chanthewi gathered around me.

“Perhaps one of us left the gate open,” said Srisuchada, looking up from her verse, “though I believe we locked everything on our return. The last one to depart from our place was—oh…”

“Thorani, I believe, after our party,” said Phosi, peeling a mango held flat in her hand, her knife moving swiftly under its pale green skin. “She can be a little careless if she gets into high spirits, that one.”

I stared at an empty spot on the table, then my lap. After a couple of breaths, I said, “I’m not sad.”

Nopdara patted my hand and pushed the dipping bowl towards me.

Death and fear did not occur to Robin; there was only the thrill of travelling in her arms as the river gently received them both, parting into a dark, gleaming corridor. After long moments they came to a grotto decorated in mosaic, offerings from centuries past, worn coins, pilgrim’s badges, icons, flip phones. Shifting light filtered through a blown glass ceiling.

Standing before a table laden with food was a woman who could only be Mother Thames, crowned in shell and purple loosestrife. Her fitted canvas dress showed pale against deep brown skin and soft, murky water, flesh flowing into river and back again. “Guests! How lovely. Khongkha’s not with you?”

“Why, no,” said the woman, “you know what time of year it is. It’s just me and my companion.”

Robin smiled nervously. The high ebbed away; delicate fingers of doubt crept in, memories of people waiting for them, a cantankerous goateed editor awaiting copy due that afternoon, two fiercely loving grandmothers, and a round-faced young woman who could make them laugh like no-one else.

They were offered rock cakes studded with jewel-like fruit and tea brewed from pale, delicate, narrow leaves. Dishes of steamed cockles, goose sandwiches, and samphire with vinegar appeared at a wave of Mother Thames’ hand.

“There’s no trickery here, love,” she chuckled. “Eat of my bread and salt with no fear. Perhaps you’ll prefer these?”

While the woman and Mother Thames talked of tributaries, offerings, and pollution levels, Robin tasted a spoonful each from a plate of brown stew fish with hard food and a platter of deep fried carp with three-flavoured sauce. These were specialities strictly guarded by each of their grandmothers, proudly laid side-by-side at family gatherings. They weren’t quite right under the river, the flavours less sure, the textures odd. They set down their spoon and nibbled at a rock cake.

When they returned to the surface, the corridor subsiding into quiet tide, the woman giggled as she let a flick of river water soak Robin head to toe. They spluttered and shivered as they checked their phone. It had escaped the drenching, Nisa’s three messages were still there, and the time remained 9:35. The woman watched them expectantly.

“Why did you do that?” Robin dared to let irritation harden the edge of their voice. “All of that,”—they waved at the Thames—”and all of this?” They gestured to their dripping hair.

She tilted her head and answered with quiet confusion at having to state so obvious a fact. “Because I wanted to.”

“I can’t go to the press view like this! Best I can hope for is dying of hypothermia before my editor starts asking questions.”

The woman took them by the elbow. They both reached the entrance to the Design Museum in a single bound, clean and dry.

“Well,” they said, the words sticking in their throat, “what’s your name, anyway? I’m Robin.”

The woman simply repeated their name, savouring it in her mouth. “Well, Robin, I’ll see you later.”

Nisa, Thai by virtue of Krungthep parents and British by accident of birth, was unexpectedly produced on London soil 29 years ago. The young family weighed up the supposed benefits of a foreign education and decided to stay. In the years that followed, each of them had to reconsider their definition of happiness: dignity and contentment were distant concerns to food in bellies and roofs over heads.

As the cat purred and wound herself about Nisa’s ankles, she remembered a moment years ago, when she still enjoyed cooking elaborate meals and had enough of a family to crowd around a full table. They had got onto the subject of cats.

Her mother said, “Khorat cats are very rare, very beautiful. Grey, like sawat seeds.”

“I read that they were given as gifts to married couples for good luck. Is that true?” Nisa said, looking at her parents. She’d never grown out of the idea they were the prime repository of authentic Thai culture.

“Really? How lovely!” her mother said

“I’ve never heard of it,” said her father, wonderingly, “but it might—”

“That’s all just a little fantasy of yours,” said Then-boyfriend’s mother in a hard voice, with a sidelong look at Nisa.

Nisa wanted to say something, but recalled a lunch where she’d gently asked then-boyfriend’s mother to stop calling her “an Oriental” and received only an icy stare. Then-boyfriend had told Nisa she couldn’t talk to his mother like that.

She looked up and saw wrinkles of worry around her parents’ eyes, silently pleading her not to cause a scene. She wanted so much to finally have a full, happy family, and so chose to become highly involved with some prawn and aubergine salad. It was her fault, anyway, for saying something so stupid: Wikipedia was obviously not a reliable source. Then-boyfriend began an exploration of the etymology of “cat”, reminisced about the cat at his old college, and segued into a lengthy retrospective of his Oxford days.

Shame burned Nisa’s mouth for the rest of the evening. She hated how sensitive she’d become, wondered when she’d started peeling away in layers. Perhaps it began when Then-boyfriend told her, in the kind of detail which rises from overcooked bitterness and contempt, how his ex-fiancee had low self-esteem and that he liked Nisa because she was different. Maybe it was how he’d matter-of-factly measured her ring finger with a piece of paper after they’d been together for two weeks, or when he told her that completing an MA wouldn’t make a jot of difference to her career; she would never be independent, never get a job.

“You’re angry with me. Don’t get emotional,” he’d say to her. “I just want you to be your best self.” He knew her before she knew herself, his warnings continuing despite her best efforts at calm disagreement and explanation. She began watching herself through his eyes, just to be safe.

“It could be worse. Relationships take work. I just need to work even harder,” Nisa said to Robin over hotpot later that week, each sentence a desperate, unhappy rush. “I mean, maybe I should shut up because I’ll never meet anyone else as good as him.”

It was uncomfortable in the steamy restaurant; a lightweight binder would have sufficed for this evening. Robin chewed their lip and thought about how they loved Nisa and hated seeing her unhappy, how Then-boyfriend had a face like an unbaked roll. They breathed in, trying to ease the strange, difficult tussling high in their chest, twin snakes.

When Robin finally exhaled, they said, simply and with great gentleness, “Well, I don’t think any of those things are true,” and ladled sliced pork belly and glass noodles into Nisa’s bowl. The chilli-speckled broth was so spicy it cleared the sinuses and stung the palate, so rich and complex you still wished to savour its depths. Nisa sipped it in silence. She’d known Robin since second year methodologies classes, catching herself staring at them for reasons which went beyond their well-tailored waistcoats, but which she was unwilling to name. One day Robin caught one of her insistent gazes before the seminar started, and brightly asked if she’d done the reading. From that moment, it was so easy for the two of them to talk—from Spivak to current events to drinks in the evening—and they’d always made her feel safe, demanded no change from her, no re-arrangement of her self.

That night Nisa woke up in a sweat and understood at once that the man slumbering beside her was irritating beyond all belief.

“I’m leaving you,” she said to Then-boyfriend the next afternoon. She packed up her belongings and closed the door on his convictions that she couldn’t break up with him like that.

Since then, she’d defied all expectations, including her own. Secretly she delighted in the fact her role as a corporate writer would earn deep disapproval from Then-boyfriend, as would the string of lovers she shamelessly brought to her tiny flat. Her parents responded with heartbreakingly gentle disappointment, but resigned themselves to it: they understood it was no burden to them. She was the only daughter they had.

For the first time since childhood, Nisa had both food on the table and a tentative kind of peace in her home. She was no longer obliged to quietly receive what others tossed at her. Nisa made an exception for Darani, naming the creature after one of her mother’s old cats. As her new companion purred on her lap, she checked her phone, Facebook, Twitter. Days had passed; still no sign of Robin. But then, with the spate of new exhibition openings, it was no surprise they were so busy. She worried a hangnail with her teeth until she tasted blood.

For the next three nights, Nisa dreamed deeply of winged termites pelting at her doors and windows, cats with pelts like rainclouds singing to a soft dark sky, and a woman in red silk walking through fields of green and gold.

Evening was deep and quiet with stars spilling themselves across the darkness. I sat next to Chanthewi, knees to breast, and peered at the gardens below through the balcony railings. The wood floor was cool and smooth underfoot.

“My cat,” I said, “is enjoying the company of a mortal.” Once I’d calmed down, it was a simple matter of folding rice stalks into a compass with a heart of shed fur.

“Mmm.” Chanthewi peered into her telescope, one eye pinched shut, jotted something down on a her great piece of paper. “Thought you said you weren’t sad about that.”

“Were you not asleep upstairs, younger sister?”

“A degree of omniscience is one of the many boons granted to us gods,” said Chanthewi. “That, and Phosi told me. Stop fiddling with my pencils, please.”

“A god has their creatures. It isn’t home without everyone here.”

She sharpened her pencil with a blade as fine as a young leaf. “Well, what will you do about it?”

 [ Beloved farmers, © 2015, Robin E. Kaplan ] “I came through your rice cooker, Nisa, because I wished to compromise,” says Phosop, her voice now gentle. “You are a child of the city. Even my beloved farmers raised in the traditions of the land have begun to forget how to receive me, but I have never blamed them. The ways of the world rot with speed beyond any individual’s control; whether new growth will come of it is yet to be seen.”

“I don’t understand why you’re still here.” It comes out with more sulky petulance than she wants. She shuts her face like a cupboard so no more careless remarks can escape.

“You cared for my feline errant, returning the creature without a second thought.”

“I’d always wanted one,” says Nisa, picking at the cold rice before her. “I did it because it pleased me. But she’s your cat, so it would be wrong to keep her, no matter how much I enjoyed her company.”

The answer seems to please the goddess. She shifts closer. “That’s not the only thing you like, not the only thing your heart yearns for. Tell me.”

A dismissive chuckle. “Where to begin? I wish Robin was still talking to me. My best friend. I—care for them dearly.”

This answer disappoints. The goddess stands up and paces about the room, no more than three steps in any direction, before turning back to Nisa. “Oh, my child,” says Phosop, “do not lie to yourself.”

Robin has lost count of the days since that first trip into the Thames. Their disheveled appearance each morning draws looks from colleagues; their editor grumbles at their mistakes. There is no time for themself between work, sleep, and the woman.

This evening they take the lift up The Shard. With each moment of ascent, Robin watches the straight walls become sinuous glass, wood, and metal. In the flower-lined eyrie they are seated on spotlessly clean mats, offered bael fruit tea and sommanat cookies. Around them, chatter in Thai and Angrit, codeswitching with fluid ease. Sharply suited women tuck their long bird legs to the side, formal elegance, flicking out their plumage as they sip bright cocktails. The glimmering capital opens beneath them.

“Why don’t you come away with me?” the woman says eagerly. “We could carry on like this, free and easy, simply sharing each other’s time. I don’t believe in exclusivity.”

“No,” Robin whispers, avoiding her eyes, crumbling a cookie between their fingers, “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve been trying to tell you—there’s nothing left for me when you share my time.”

She puts down her teaspoon. “Oh.”

Robin rubs the back of their head, screws up their face, but she speaks before they can open their mouth.

“No, don’t apologise. I’ve been told about this carelessness of mine. It makes me so happy to be with you, but I oughtn’t have… I should have realised.” She drains her tea in one gulp. “But you, Robin. You already have someone in your heart—she stayed there all through our time together. Why don’t you acknowledge that?”

Two quick blinks. The curved lift encloses the two once more. “There’s somewhere you need to be,” says the goddess, “don’t you think?”

Hey. Sorry for being a shit friend lately. I’m actually near you right now if you want to meet up? I know it’s late… x

Robin I really need to talk to you. Nx

I’m outside. Right outside your door. X

In three heartbeats Nisa pulls open the door and stumbles backwards with Robin in her arms until they fall onto the sofa, limbs intertwined. She doesn’t care if the flat is empty or not; nothing else matters tonight.

“I thought you said,” Robin murmurs between kisses, earlobe, nape of neck, “that you wanted to talk?”

She laughs in a raucous shriek which slowly subsides into humming thoughtfulness. “Well,” she said, “here is where we start.”

The gate is already open, so it is a simple matter of stepping over the threshold and closing it behind us. The path of bright silk that winds before us is unnoticed by the city below.

“Well, Thorani,” I say, “you were a little more careful this time, weren’t you?”

She shrugs, fiddles with her braid. “I don’t feel any happier for it.”

“I’ve missed your honesty.” My cat impatiently jumps out of my arms and runs ahead, chirruping.

We are level with a certain first floor flat. Thorani crosses her arms and turns to look at the silhouettes in the window, the desire plain in her face.

“Come.” I hold out my hand. The silk unfurls and becomes a corridor.

She glares at me, her mouth twisting, arms tight around herself. “You can’t hide the fact they’ll hurt each other. Mortals lead short lives, have frangible relationships. Can you blame me for wishing to give some respite—for showing them how my love could endure?”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes. Let them hurt each other—they’ll mend. They’ll begin again. It is fair for them to desire such things; I certainly admire their tenacity, how capable they are of changing, bending without breaking. Do not undo the good you carried out, my dear one. You should honour them, as you should honour the fact a god’s desire is too heavy a burden for any one mortal to bear.”

She says nothing for the rest of our journey. I let her walk several paces behind me. Thorani returns to my side in her own time.

“Besides, you’ll always have me.”

She laughs, says I never want to leave my cats during rest days, but I point out that I don’t mind an adventure now and then. The silk path has reached its furthest point; I see my garden and my house, my sisters and my cats, all present and complete. Thorani takes my hand, and my heart warms with yet another secret—one which I will tell, of course, but for now, I am glad to be home.

© 2015 Pear Nuallak

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