Ch. 1 Father’s Praying Room
I see sacred white strings tied around my mom’s ankles and wrists. Although I haven’t seen her since father told us that she left us for another family, I want to see her one last time. The charred body lies before me, burned beyond recognition, but the necklace father gave her years ago is still recognizable. I wouldn’t have believed that the burnt corpse was my mother if it was not for that necklace and my trust in the elders. They say my mom died in a fire accident. She is laid out on a table with her hands held together in a prayer-like gesture, holding a lotus flower and incense sticks. I look down at her blackened face and graze my hands over her necklace. Bits of ash flake off onto my hands. The act alone almost causes me to break mentally. The smell makes me turn my head and gag. My hands start trembling so hard that I push them against my black dress in an attempt to steady them. The undertaker pulls me aside and gently puts a coin in my mother’s mouth. I don’t know what sets off my anger, maybe it’s the ash stains on my hands that I can’t seem to rub off or the fact that my dead mother has broken her promise to never abandon me for the second time. First was when she left me for another family and now she has left me forever.
It’s been seven days since my mother passed away but the monks continue to chant and people in black continue to weep. They take turns pouring scented water over her hands. Most make blessings or ask for forgiveness for past misdeeds. The line to my dead mother is endless and I am waiting for my older brother, who is almost fourteen and a year older than I am but his squeaky, stupid sobs put me in a bloody temper. “Stop crying, Awut. Father will be displeased if he finds his eldest son crying like a little wuss.”
“But that drunken fool isn’t even here, Orasa.” My brother stops crying and those angry brown eyes are now playing tricks in the light coming from the candles situated around the temple. “He won’t even come to Mom’s funeral.” His dirt marked face wears a painful expression and while I am not crying like he is, his face mirrors my own. My dark short hair makes me look more like a boy than a girl; and more often than not, people mistake my brother and I for twins. My train of thought is interrupted when I feel drops of water falling onto my face.
“It’s raining. Let’s go home before father knows we are here,” I mutter. When Awut gives me an accusatory look, I deadpan, “Or would you rather face father’s wrath tonight? I’m not in the mood to get kicked out of the house again because of your stupidity.” My brother looks like he wants to beat the shit out of me. Instead, he sucks in his round cheeks and stares past me. Even though he’s my older brother, I’m the scarier of the two of us and he follows me around like he’s the younger one.
We find ourselves rushing to our house on silent feet. I nearly slip. It has begun to rain and everything turns slick. We make our way to the wooden fence that circumvents our house, and I climb on top of it. As I crouch on the apex of the fence, I look down to my brother and tilt my head to signal for him to follow my lead, “Come on over, you coward.”
He ardently shakes his head. He’s too scared that our old man will be waiting for us on the other side. I roll my eyes. I dangle on the edge of the fence for a few moments before my trembling hands finally let go. My legs crumple beneath me when I land. The impact knocks the breath from my chest, and for a moment I can only lie there on the muddy ground, drenched in rain, muscles aching, fighting for air. Strands of my hair cling to my face. I wipe them out of my way and crawl onto my hands and knees. The rain adds a reflective sheen to everything around me. My focus narrows. Awut and I need to get back into our house before father discovers we went to mom’s funeral. I scramble to my feet and just when I am about to call out for my brother, I hear something. I freeze in my tracks. At first the familiar deep voice seems distant, almost entirely muted by the rain, but an instant later it turns deafening, “ORASA!”
I tremble where I stand. Father. Before I can think of anything else, I see him, a sight that sends terror rushing through my blood –my father, his eyes flashing, materializing through the fog of a wet midnight. “Where were you coming from, Orasa?” he asks, his voice suddenly turns eerily calm.
I try in vain to escape his grasp, but his hands only grip tighter until I gasp from the pain. My father pulls hard – I stumble, lose my balance, and fall against him. Mud splashes my face. All I can hear is the roar of rain, the darkness of his voice. I peer through the fences to see if my older brother is still on the other side. Of course, he is nowhere in sight.
“Stand up, you ungrateful brat,” my father hisses in my ear, yanking me forcefully up. I smell alcohol on his breath. Then his voice turns soothing. “Come now, dear. You’re making a mess of yourself. Let me take you home.”
I glare at him and pull my arm away with all my strength. His grip slips against the slick of rain. My skin twists painfully against his, and for an instant, I am free.
But then I feel his hand close around a fistful of my hair. I shriek, my hands grasping at the empty air. “So rebellious. Why can’t you be more like your brother?” he murmurs, shaking his head and hauling me off away from the wooden fence. “Where did you come from? Did you run off to the funeral? Answer me!”
I scream. I scream with all the air I have in my lungs, hoping that my cries will alert the people in the village, and they will witness this scene unfolding. Will they care? I doubt that. I’m just a daughter after all. Girls are expendable. My father tightens his grip on my hair and pulls harder.
“Come home with me now,” he says, pausing for a moment to stare at me. Rain runs down his cheeks. “Why don’t you be daddy’s little girl? You know daddy knows what’s best.”
I grit my teeth and stare back. “I hate you,” I whisper.
My father strikes me viciously across the face. I stumble, and then collapse in the mud. My father still clings to my hair. He pulls so hard that I feel strands being torn from my scalp. “You look so much like her,” he whispers in my ear, filling it with his smooth, icy rage. “You look so much like your mother.” My father slowly pulls out his belt. I immediately recognize that predatory look on his face. I shut my eyes and pray for the beating to be over soon.
Later that night, I wake up to the sound of a thunderstorm. Water drips from the leaky ceiling, running in streams and splattering over my head. The electricity is cut short but I can still hear the echo of footsteps heading towards me. “Orasa! Orasa, wake up!” It’s my backstabbing brother.
I mumble, “Go back to sleep, Awut. It’s just a thunderstorm.” My body aches from the beating I received from father. I roll to the side and try to cover my body with the ragged blanket. However, the blanket is too small to cover my feet and I can feel my toes freezing as the wind blows through the cracked windows. As if the wooden floor I’m sleeping on and the water dripping onto my head are not making me cold enough, my brother has to put his cold hands over my face in an attempt to wake me up. Frustrated, I finally turn towards him. “For Buddha’s sake, what do you wa—”
I stop midsentence when I see the look on his face. Despite the darkness, I can see how pale he is. His voice is shaking, “Orasa…I think I did something I don’t think I’m supposed to do. I think…”
I roll my eyes. “Spill it out already.”
He fidgets and rubs his hands together nervously. “I went to father’s praying room.”
“You did what?!” I sit up and grab my brother’s shoulder tightly. I wince slightly at the throbbing pain that runs through my body. My brother looks at me with concern. I know he’s sorry that he didn’t stand up for me; but of course, my cowardly older brother would never do anything about it. I regain my composure. “You fool. You know what father will do if he finds out you went into his praying room.” I grab his shoulder tighter as if I’m trying to force a confession out of him.
“I didn’t go in though,” he continues weakly. “I followed the monks from Mom’s funeral. I saw them heading towards father’s wooden hut in the forest so I thought they were going to pray for mom. I was about to follow them in but then I heard something.” At this point, Awut’s entire body is shaking uncontrollably and his puffy red eyes are starring into empty space. He whispers, “Her voice wasn’t soft and smooth like I remember. But I heard her, Orasa. I heard Mom calling out for us.”
I sit still and stare past my brother’s face. He looks at me and his hands reach to grab mine as if to comfort me. My body is shaking and I think he is expecting me to cry. Instead, I give him a small chuckle. “You fool. I think you ate too much of that free intestines soup at the temple today.” I push my brother away and slump back onto the ground.
“But, Orasa. I – “
“Go back to sleep.” I cover my face with the blanket and mumble. “If you talk about this nonsense again, I’ll beat the crap out of you.”
I hear my brother sighs in defeat as he scuffles back to his sleeping spot. I hear him shifts uncomfortably at first but eventually his breathing levels, indicating that he has fallen asleep. I try to go back to sleep as well but my brother’s words keep haunting me. A fragmented image of my mother comes back. I can barely remember what she looks like. All I can see is that charred face with none of mom’s resemblance at the funeral. Despite the cold weather, my brow is covered with sweat, and my cheeks are wet with tears. I’m breathing heavily. I sit up, brush a wet strand of hair out of my face and rub a hand wearily across my eyes. I feel dumb. Crying doesn’t solve anything. It’s pointless now to go back to sleep so I stand up and take one last look at my brother before I walk out of our room. As I exit, I make sure that father isn’t around. I look first at the stacks of crates in one dark corner, then at the burlap lining the floor, and lastly the little sack of jasmine rice and water sitting between them. Good. He’s nowhere in sight. It takes me a minute to reorient myself and direct where I am heading.
Father’s praying room is situated in a hut in the middle of the woods away from where we actually sleep. He says that the praying room is too sacred to have little brats like Awut and me running around. As I take a step out of our house, the cool air washes over my face and the moonlight drenches the whole night in dark silver. My heart pounds erratically in the way it does after running away from my drunken father when Awut or I have disappointed him. My train of thought halts when I reach a lake our family used to swim in— when we were still a family that is. I hesitate but quickly shake the happy memories out of my head. I turn the corner and head towards a tiny, boarded-up hut with faded inscrutable Thai characters carved on its door.
Gingerly I climb my way over the rusty aluminum roof, and then listen intently for any sound from within. Through the roof’s gaps, I see and hear bald men in orange gowns chanting prayers. I still can’t see the entire view but these men must be the monks my brother told me about. They are sitting in lotus positions and forming a circle but I can’t see what is in the middle of that circle. I hear shuffling noises inside but they are soon subdued when I hear father’s shaky voice, “Please. Please. Please.” I can’t believe my ears. The last time I heard him say such a polite word was when mom was still with us. My pulse quickens. I need to see more. I go from one spot on the roof to another until I finally find one that has a crack between two of its aluminum boards. Father is standing furtively in the corner of his prayer room with his head in his hands. I see him reach for a small family portrait. The moonlight shining through the roof allows me to make out the image of father smiling in the picture. “Please release her,” he mutters. My father suddenly swings our family portrait across the room. His breath comes in ragged sobs, and he claws his scalp in agony. Blood trickles down his face. The sight of it alone triggers the smell of iron filling my nose. My father puts both his hands to his face and I hear him cry in despair.
It’s too dark inside for me to immediately make out the figure in the middle of the monks’ circle. However, I can see that one of the men who was sitting among the monks stands up and walks towards the figure in the middle. He appears to be wearing a different outfit from the monks. Instead of having his head shaved and wearing an orange robe, this man is in a white robe and he grows his hair and beard wildly. He holds out a long sharp object and after squinting my eyes, I realize that it’s a dried stingray tail. I gasp. I have never seen one up close before but the man in front of my eyes is the shaman. The elders said that a person’s illness or drastic change in behaviors is caused by black magic called “tai”. Specifically, it is an object that is magically implanted in the body of the afflicted person by another person. The shaman must then suck this object out before a cure can happen.
In one swift movement, the shaman whips the figure in the middle of the circle with the dried stingray tail and the silhouette shakes wildly. The sound the figure makes is incoherent but I can see the anguish etched into every single crumpled, devastated muscle of the uncontrollable body. It does not take long for me to realize what, or more specifically whom, that body belongs to. The sound of her crying is so foreign that it tears my heart. I’ve seen my mother cry before, but never like this.
For more information on Exorcism in Mental Illness Across Different Cultures, please take a look at this article.