Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat
By Pear Nuallak
When she said that to me, I felt she was being _______.
It hurt me since I know that ________.
This was not a slight that was personal to me, but a judgement against people who share my experience. It is unjust; I know this in my bones. Where are the words to describe what I am, how I live, and call others both like and unlike me to bear witness to my reality?
I do not know how to describe the system by which I claim a lack of justice.
My mind falls into _____.
As Pensri sat on their hands, they looked into the space between the tin roofs and felt there was brightness to the stars which seemed quite rude. Below, Aunt Soi listened to a radio soap opera as she washed up, water swirling in tin, careful enunciation vibrating through floorboards, meanings mere suggestions beneath Pensri’s palms.
Pensri’s sketchbook lay open just to the side with their glasses folded on top of the pages. That afternoon they’d swiftly opened it to the paper-clipped sheet with the bright conviction that this latest assessment, like any other, was simply a grade and a comment on this particular assignment, not Pensri’s entire character, self-worth, or future career.
They saw the mark and instantly felt ashamed. Dry-mouthed with shock, Pensri read the tutor’s comments and felt sure nothing would be right again. They’d failed their mother, sisters, aunties, and cousins. The rice crop would instantly wither, disappointed. The water buffalo in the family herd would snort in disgust upon hearing the news.
Strong draughtsmanship weakened by poor grasp of ideas resulting in imbalanced, inauthentic response, the tutor, Ajan Emily, had written. Texts which describe thewada as androgynous are mere apocrypha; it would be sensible to depict them as either men or women in form. Please see Thavorn’s treatise on Iconographies of Native Religion and Uccellini on Angels of Albion.
These were long-standing complaints. Over the course of the new term, Pensri constantly wondered how creating art that drew from their own heritage could be anything except authentic, and how Ajan Emily — who was not a Jamathewi native like Pensri but one of those sunburnt Angrit — could possibly be an authority on the subject. Furthermore, since neither of them had seen a thewada, both were equally ignorant of the reality of such beings. Thewada did not simply turn up in canals like mischievous nang ngueak or freely flit between mortal and heavenly realms as kinnaree did; they were protective of their true forms, taking on special guises on their occasional visits, revealing themselves only rarely. Unsurprisingly, thewada hadn’t expressed an opinion about their representation in human art.
Pensri couldn’t understand the objection to angels as androgynes, or the dismissal of the chosen sources (including a facsimile of a palm-leaf manuscript containing the testament of Isidasi) when they were generally regarded as credible. But then, perhaps Pensri wasn’t as good a student as they previously thought, an idea which increasingly worried them. It seemed that even the house in which they and Aunt Soi lived had grown worried, too, creaking and sighing. When Aunt Soi made her way up to Pensri’s room, each step slow and careful, the floorboards said, ‘Hmm? Ah, well,’ as if disappointed. ‘Ah, well…’
‘Noi-Nah, let’s have a chat before my evening round. I got you Khun Peun’s card,’ said Aunt Soi. A respectable medicine woman who operated within the law, keeping strict books, had to be particularly careful about keeping certain appointments until after dark. In her clever, rough hands, she held two bowls and short spoons, and small packages looped with string. ‘Why, what’s the matter, child?’
Pensri uncurled themself and licked their lips. ‘Well, I’m not sure Khun Peun will be interested anymore. I’m not doing as well as I thought this year.’ The first year at the Phra Nakhon School of Fine Arts required much from each student. Every single piece of work by Pensri — drawn, crafted, or written — had passed muster. Progression to second year meant greater creative independence and higher expectations, focusing disciplines and ideas into a strong artistic vision. Pensri could not afford to make mistakes.
‘But you work so hard! You made us all so proud when you won that scholarship,’ said Aunt Soi, ‘the first in our family at university.’
‘Maybe I won’t anymore. Maybe I won’t make you proud. Keep that scholarship. I can’t…’ Pensri’s voice thinned and frayed. They pressed their lips together, throat tight, avoiding the gaze of their aunt.
‘Poor marks won’t mean we love you any less. You’re a good child. That’s what matters. I never thought I’d see such change in my lifetime. More people can learn, can share knowledge.’
‘Auntie, I don’t know what to do, I never had the head for numbers, I’m not as strong as my sisters so I cannot farm…’
Aunt Soi drew Pensri close. Her poodle fluff tickled their cheek. She smelt absolutely clean and comforting, of soap and talcum powder and herbs on warm skin.
‘My child, stop thinking about what you don’t have, what you can’t do anything about. Now,’ she said, ‘I’ve bought us some salim.’ She emptied several portions of brightly coloured noodle pudding into the bowls and poured coconut milk on top. ‘Eat. Think. Tell me about one thing you can do.’
Night insects quietly sang. The hearth spirits chattered amongst the stones. A neighbour’s child, enamoured of the growing popularity of the saxophone, attempted to practise his latest piece. Once the noise had stopped, Pensri laid down their spoon and spoke.
‘I’ll talk to Ajan Emily.’ The tutor was particular, but she did not intimidate in quite the same way as this year’s other painting and drawing tutor, Ajan Jiiap, a solidly built woman, six feet tall and possessed of a piercing voice and devastating opinions.
Aunt Soi nodded, handing a small card to Pensri. ‘Good luck, and don’t forget about Khun Peun. She’s seen your work. Remember that.’
It was a warm day, clear and fresh, typical of the cool season. You can’t help but feel a little better for such weather: that morning, Pensri ensured their kiss curl was on point and wore their favourite green lightweight cardigan, leaf-bright against brown skin.
The golden apple tree cast dappled shadows across the campus courtyard. Pensri bent to pick up a smooth-skinned, sunny fruit and spotted Ajan Emily’s unmistakeable willowy form retreating into the pottery studio.
‘I was wondering if I might bother you, Ajan Emily—’ began Pensri in a strained, high voice.
The teacher looked up. Pensri couldn’t help but stare at the mousy centre-parted hair, how it opened onto a face which resembled a stretch of clean, raw pork rind. She had small features which chiefly comprised a pair of small wire-rimmed glasses and wet pink lips.
‘Miss Emily will do,’ she answered, then squinted. ‘You’re in my painting and drawing class, aren’t you…?’
‘Yes, Miss. I’d like to discuss my work with you. I’d be grateful to know how I can improve.’
‘I see. My office hours are four to six.’ Miss Emily smartly slid shut the studio door.
Pensri blinked. Seeing as their morning lecture was over (Clipped wings, jewelled trophies: Male human entitlement towards the supernatural feminine, a special contribution by Professor Manorah), they decided to spend an afternoon sketching in the gardens of the neighbouring University of Moral and Political Science.
The sound of familiar voices tickled their ear as they rounded a corner. Two classmates, Jiu and Daeng, chatted as they started down the path. Pensri shyly trailed behind the two girls, having long admired their forthright opinions in class.
Daeng tossed back her waved hair, skirt swishing against stocky calf with each step. ‘Nationalism? Nonsense! This doesn’t come from a narrow mind, but a well-informed, observant one. It’s native resistance against a set of knowledge which has already smothered much of the world. The farang don’t rule us, but we look to them as if we do. They don’t own progress.’
‘Then why’d you come here, knowing the history of this place?’ Jiu grinned, her smooth bob gleaming as she tilted her head.
‘Same reason as you,’ sighed Daeng. ‘We’re as bad as each other.’
Jiu frowned, then another mischievous grin split her face. ‘At least the prestige and resources almost make up for Ajan Emily.’
‘Ha! How badly did you do? I barely passed. Ajan Emily found portraits of my family, farmers save for one dragon-keeper, “charmingly quaint and deeply authentic”, but felt my loyalty to social-realism was “distasteful.”’ Daeng made a face.
‘I got a middling grade with mild encouragement. I’m surprised she wasn’t shocked by my nareephon, alive and emancipated though they are.’
‘Hey, what do you think that person got,’ said Daeng, ‘the quiet one who keeps a shaved head on one side and waves on the other and a kiss curl right in the middle.’
Pensri felt a strange excitement, cold and hot, shivering into their stomach.
‘It’d be more helpful to describe their work, wouldn’t it? But I know who you mean. Their work is… syncretic. In common with yours, yes, but where yours is concerned with what really is, theirs asks what more can we do? and speaks to us in a language of androgynous forms and ancient Jamathewi line work on steel wings.’
Daeng whistled. ‘You really like that, huh.’
‘It’s very interesting,’ said Jiu, punctuating with her hands. ‘I only wish I had the courage to say so, but they look so forbidding, I’d just seem bothersome…’
Daeng elbowed Jiu. ‘And what does your work say, my friend?’
‘Well,’ said Jiu, leaning closer to Daeng, ‘I think women are delicious, and should be free to love as they please.’ They both giggled raucously, clasping hands, coming between Pensri and the entrance gate.
‘Excuse me,’ Pensri said, flustered, gripping their satchel strap closer as Daeng and Jiu turned.
‘Sorry. Oh, we were just talking about you,’ said Daeng, frowning as Pensri ducked their head and moved past. ‘Hey!’
Pensri wove their way around noodle hawkers and amulet sellers and into the gardens of the University of Moral and Political Science. When they opened their satchel, they were surprised by a bristling portfolio (when had they put that inside?) and a gorgeous, sweet perfume. Wedged between the fragrant golden apple was the card Aunt Soi had given them last night. It bore Khun Peun’s name, an elegant apple motif, and the address of the Moon River Hotel.
On the back, there was a note in meticulous hand. ‘Pensri: see me at any time before six during the week.’
They looked at their wristwatch. There was still time.
‘You’ve noticed the amount of farang clients we have, I’m sure,’ Khun Peun remarked, gesturing around the room with a dark, narrow hand. She had a low, dry voice and a richly lipsticked heart-shaped mouth.
Long-bladed ceiling fans whirred overhead in the dining area whose walls opened onto the surrounding garden. A waiter came by; Pensri watched the water sing from jug to glass. Glad for something to do with their hands, they sipped and nodded as Khun Peun spoke.
‘We’d like something bright yet unchallenging to decorate the walls. I could simply engage the services of a decorating firm, but of late I’ve cultivated an interest in the work of young artists; it will give a unique charm to this establishment,’ she smiled, ‘I saw your work at your aunt’s. I believe you can strike the right note.’
Pensri set down their glass. They were both in familiar territory now. ‘Thank you. May I suggest these copies of the Black Temple’s reliefs?’
Khun Peun scrutinised the offered pieces. The stone carvings surrounding the Black Temple’s main hall depicted tales of Lady Jamathewi’s ascent. Pensri worked hard to translate their rhythmic grace onto paper, modelling with red chalk for a richly textured series of drawings. An exercise in technique, but with enough flourish for Pensri to claim a sense of pride, particularly of the scene where Jamathewi wrestled a mermaid in order to save her lieutenant, the androgyne Isidasi.
‘Promising,’ said Khun Peun, and suggested a price which was higher than Pensri expected but lower than they hoped.
A boldness slipped into Pensri as they smiled and spoke of a higher figure, which amused Khun Peun. ‘Really, Younger Sibling, I think we can agree to the original price.’
‘The amount of riian is quite reasonable, Elder Sister,’ said Pensri. ‘I know my time and materials. On the way to the hotel I stopped by some dealers who were willing to have a look at my work at short notice.’
‘And you think you can trust their word?’
‘If they willingly give me the higher price and you won’t, yes.’ Pensri bit their lip and sat on their hands, the boldness leaving as suddenly as it had arrived. They wondered whether they’d gone too far.
She laughed so loudly that two tables away a farang woman with hair like egg yolk turned and stared, scandalised. Khun Peun shifted and smiled again, red half-moon manicured nails tapping against her glass. ‘This is quite delicious, young mercenary,’ she said, and got out her purse and her pen while Pensri fiddled with their notebook. The woman licked the nib before signing the page offered to her. ‘A smart little piece of business from beginning to end. Thank goodness you don’t do any of that swooning and gasping for the love of your art. I suppose your aunt taught you her ways?’
Khun Peun smiled as Pensri counted up each coin. ‘Pleasure to meet you. Come and see me again, won’t you?’
Palm leaf, 21 x 1.7 niu, 19 leaves. 6 lines per side, 19 niu long. An extract from the Testament of Lieutenant Isidasi in old Jamathewi script.
After my Lady Jamathewi saved me from that wretched creature of the deeps, we made our way inland near the mountain where thewada are said to live. Of course we might explore those heights for the rest of our mortal years & never see a single celestial being; their world is so often beyond our commonplace perceptions.
And yet I can speak to you of a great wonder: a thewada approached me, dark-skinned and tall, when I was alone and attempting to bathe. They waited until I had calmed myself, and gently pointed to my face, breast, and loins before touching the same three places on their body. I felt known. I had never felt the moulding of my flesh was tied to gender; in this respect it appears thewada and I are alike. I shall continue, without shame, to serve my Lady with this very body.
The office was filled with sunlight, piles of paper on the floor and trinkets on top of cabinets. Pensri sat on their hands again as they waited for the tutor to speak.
Miss Emily licked her lips. ‘Now, you are — yes, what do we have here,’ she glanced down at an open folder. ‘Ah. Pensiree. If I may be quite frank with you—’
‘If you please, Miss, the -sri is one syllable.’ The words were out of Pensri’s mouth before they could think better of it.
There was the slightest pause, during which both of them had smiles nailed on and stretched tight. Miss Emily continued as if Pensri had not spoken, opening their sketchbook and paging through it.
‘So, about your latest mark. Can you tell me what is it you find so difficult? Your performance in the pieces set by Miss Jiiap and all other classes is quite adequate.’
‘Well,’ said Pensri, ‘I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. I try to improve…’ Their throat went dry. Coherent words poured away like sand through fingers; only a yawning anxiety remained.
‘You’re a bright girl,’ said Miss Emily, ignoring Pensri’s wince, ‘and you’ll understand my methods soon enough.’ When Pensri did not respond, Miss Emily sat back, fingers clasped over stomach, and continued, voice cool and soft. ‘My father, as you know, began the school as an open university; he loved his first generation of students not wisely but too well, leaving their wayward ideas uncorrected — defects which I now understand to be racial — and they became spoiled children. It took many years to introduce the type of rigour and structure necessary for true progress. You need only apply yourself properly. I and the rest of the department believe you can do much better.’
Something reached up through Pensri and unclosed their cold lips. It was anger.
‘Thank you,’ said Pensri, ‘and I’m sorry to correct you again, Miss Emily, but I’m not a girl. During our first class I told you about my identity and how it can be expressed in Angrit as androgyny. It would be unjust not to respect this.’
Though she pinked, Miss Emily’s voice remained calm. ‘How curious. Indeed. Is this general fixation related to your depiction of thewada?’
‘I find it difficult to understand how you can cry injustice when I have simply asked for accuracy. I studied the scriptures you mention myself and, despite popular opinion, find them dubious. Now, I am a rational woman: if this injustice were real, surely it would have a name. Won’t you please tell me what that name is?’
All the boldness left Pensri. The same despair from last evening soaked through them. For a terrifyingly clear moment they saw who they were: small, incoherent, alien. No words could protect them.
When she said that to me, I felt she was being _______. It hurt me since I know that ________.
‘This institution is no place for students who cannot accept criticism. After our conversation today,’ she said, ‘I must ask you to consider, very carefully, whether this institution is the right place for you.’
I was hurt, but it felt — deeper. Unjust.
She stood. ‘You will think about what I said, won’t you?’
But what is the system by which I claim a lack of justice?
There was nothing left to say except, ‘Yes, Miss.’
My mind falls into _____.
Pensri listened to the disappointments of the house as they swept out the hearth to please the Mother of that place. The flame spirits eyed Pensri warily.
Aunt Soi came up after she closed her practise. She gave Pensri one look and said, ‘Talk about it, don’t talk about it, I just need to know what I can do.’
They pushed the bag of riian towards her. ‘Thank you. Khun Peun is fair.’
‘What’s this? Are you saying I’m failing in my duties as your elder?’
Pensri shook their head. ‘I want to contribute more. Please, Auntie.’
The older woman’s mouth quirked as she took the money. ‘If that’s what you want, my child.’
Words felt slow, as if caught in chilled syrup. Aunt Soi lightly touched their hand as they silently wept.
The 9 Lakshanas of Thewada
Mulberry paper folding book, black, 12 x 7 niu, 3 folds. 4 lines per side, 11 niu long. Northern Jamathewi script in golden yellow ink. Fine illustrations of thewada.
1. A piercing voice like a bell.
2. Tall and sturdy frame as that of a young ficus tree.
3. Gently sloping shoulders.
4. Skin dark as a water buffalo.
5. A lion’s chest, deep, gently curved.
6. Hair black as ebony and curled tight as snail shells.
7. Quick, fluently moving fingers.
8. Their characteristics, no matter the form and flesh, remain ungendered
9. Ability to change appearance at will.
‘You need to make a decision,’ Ajan Jiiap said, pointing a length of thin bamboo at the life model’s shoulder (human today; last week, a sriha-upsorn sat for a portrait).
She traced a pathway down to the sacrum and outwards to the hip. ‘If you make a mark here, you can get to there. A puzzle across the page: the lines will fit as a body fits together. The eye and hand will trick each other, but we must uncover the truth. For this, it is necessary to make a decision. So,’ she said, straightening to her full six foot, the bell of her voice ringing to the back of her studio, ‘make your choices.’
Drawing needed practise; the doing was the learning of it. It was always difficult to begin. Pensri felt the blank page was staring back; it was worse than ever today, even after a day of rest since her meeting with Miss Emily. They dithered longer than usual.
‘Make a decision,’ said Ajan Jiiap, suddenly looming over Pensri’s shoulder and plucking the chalk out of their fingers. ‘You can see it. Determine the most informative point of the pose.’
Pensri, still wordless, indicated the place where the life model’s fingers met the dip of the waist. They looked up at Ajan Jiiap, thinking there might be scorn in her features, and was surprised to find a gentle expression on her face. Pensri saw a remarkable glow pass through her lineaments in the blink of an eye, bringing out all the rich colours of that dark face, purple, ochre, blue. They looked Ajan Jiiap in the eye, who smiled.
‘That’s right,’ was all she said. ‘Mark it down.’
The class continued until the sun dipped low. At the end of it, gesture after gesture and two long poses, Pensri stood back from their easel, fingers smeared with rust-red dust, hardly conscious of the pile of work they had created, but somehow, satisfied.
Each student turned their easels outwards, tense with anticipation, even though the class were beginning to acclimatise to their tutor’s abrupt manner. She would thoroughly make her way across the room, giving a series of blows before presenting a soothing balm.
‘And finally, Pensri,’ said Ajan Jiiap, ‘you navigated your way across that pose well. You, too, Daeng. You’ve quite a lot in common: neither drawing is quite right — the waist is a little long, and Pensri didn’t leave enough time for the head — but your forthright approaches make bold, interesting work.’
It wasn’t so bad this week. Pensri stared at their feet as they heard Jiu whisper something to Daeng. Upon returning from cleaning their hands, Pensri found Daeng had come over to their easel and was poring over the drawings.
She looked up and smiled. ‘Pensri, right? I like your drawings.’
‘Such daring lines!’ said Jiu, coming up behind both of them, hugging a folder to her chest.
Daeng tilted her head, waves of hair sweeping her shoulder. ‘Are you busy? Do you want to walk with us down to the river?’
It’s almost like having sisters again, thought Pensri, as they found themself walking by the lapping waters of the Mother River flanked by Jiu and Daeng, all of them companionably nibbling at sticks of grilled pork meatballs in sweet chilli sauce. Words came back to Pensri, finding it easy to ask as well as listen. Daeng told them how her farming family was from the same region as Pensri’s, while Jiu explained she was descended from three generations of Phra Nakhon merchants.
‘You weren’t there when the second years took it upon themselves to give the freshies new nicknames, were you?’ said Jiu.
‘No. I deliberately avoided it. I’m fine with Pensri, anyhow. My family call me Noi-Nah.’
‘My favourite fruit!’ said Daeng. ‘You don’t like it when people at school call you by your nickname?’
‘Never thought about it, really. It’s only teachers who want my attention.’
Daeng snorted. ‘But what about your friends?’
‘Never really had to think about that, either.’
‘Oh. Um.’ Daeng involved herself with the rest of her pork balls.
Jiu gently elbowed Pensri. ‘Forgive her, she talks too much.’
Pensri nodded. They all walked together in a silence which steadily warmed and turned friendly. Once the three reached the small white bridge, all turned towards each other.
‘I’m going that way. Aunt Soi’s expecting me,’ said Pensri.
‘Looks like we’ll have to split,’ said Daeng, ‘listen here, Pensri. I know you probably want to keep yourself to yourself, but I like you. I’m here if you want me.’
‘And me!’ said Jiu, her bob swinging as she rocked back on her heels. ‘We were talking, actually, about our collaborative projects in the coming weeks. Let’s talk about it soon.’
‘Thank you.’ They started towards the bridge, then stopped. ‘Please call me Noi-Nah. See you tomorrow.’
It was a curious thing: with each passing week, Pensri worked harder, spent more time than ever at the studio, yet felt increasingly out of place at the school. Miss Emily was perfectly civil and never referred to their conversation. Pensri continued to disappoint her, though the average mark was frequently tempered by Ajan Jiiap’s assessments.
As the final term approached, Pensri began to develop a wild look in their eye and move about as if in a dream. One day Jiu and Daeng cornered Pensri, sat them down, and fed them black tea with sweet milk.
‘You’re always sleeping at the studio, tucked up under your canvases. We’re working hard enough, too, and we still sleep in our own beds most nights. Doesn’t your auntie miss you? When was the last time you wrote to your family?’ Jiu hefted a steamer basket full of dumplings in front of Pensri, whose only response was to groan softly before they ate with the slow caution of a tortoise.
Daeng was bent over her own snack, eating pieces of young mango crusted with chilli-salt. ‘If we weren’t collaborating, we’d hardly see you. I’m very proud of our group project, Noi-Nah, but this is worrying.’
‘I need to do this,’ Pensri mumbled, ‘the tutors are fine with it. That’s why they let us stay here. There’s bathrooms and everything.’
‘It’s been a while, hasn’t it?’ said Khun Peun.
‘Exams.’ Pensri gestured to the cordoned-off area in the lobby, a dust sheet poking under the foot of the door. There was a whiff of art studio, bittersweet turps and oils, reams of paper, powder pigments and fresh paint. ‘This is new, isn’t it? What’s happening?’
‘Oh, that. My special project — you’ll know more soon enough. Now, I believe you’re here to do business?’
‘Noi-Nah,’ whispered Jiu, ‘come to this party.’
Pensri slowly put down their paintbrush and said, ‘Firstly, I don’t go to those. Secondly, our exams are next week.’
‘It’s on the evening of the last exam day. An exhibition opening. It’ll be fun. My cousin has extra invitations.’
Neng, who fancied himself the class flirt, said, ‘Hey, a party? I’ll go with you if Pensri doesn’t want to.’
Daeng poked her head round one side of her canvas. ‘Shush, you.’ She emerged on the other side and addressed Pensri. ‘Good food. I know the auntie who does it.’
‘Let’s see the invitation, then.’
Footsteps sounded outside the studio. Jiu quickly passed a card to Pensri. The door opened and Miss Emily entered. She looked around and said, ‘Is there anything the matter?’
‘No,’ said Pensri.
Daeng frowned. ‘Absolutely nothing.’
The rest of the classmates giggled.
Feeling Miss Emily’s cold gaze on the back of their neck for the rest of the class, Pensri waited until they got home to look at the invitation, eyes widening as they pulled it out of the envelope. The exhibition was taking place at the newly furbished room in Moon River Hotel.
Name: PENSRI SUESAT
Candidate no: 45
Name & brief description of piece submitted for examination: 3 over life-size representations of thewada, mixed media (oil paint, dried golden apples, Macchanu’s salts, gold leaf, and pencil on board).
Pensri had never been to the hotel at night, all lit with softly flickering bulbs. They’d put on their best clothes, a homemade silk blouse and dark slacks, but felt shabby next to a beaded and shimmering Jiu. Daeng wore a well-cared-for teal dress. She and Pensri looked around at the glitter and wine and finally at each other, both understanding at precisely the same time that no-one here except them had really known hunger.
‘Meet Som,’ said Jiu, reappearing with a well-powdered cousin, one of the members of the artists group showing work that night, almost all of them graduates of the school. ‘She’s the one responsible for that monstrous horse painting.’
Som screamed with laughter and playfully pulled her cousin’s ear. ‘You must be Daeng and Pensri. How do you like everything?’ she winked.
Pensri half-listened as Daeng launched into a detailed critique. They were sure they’d heard a familiar voice in the crowd, a voice with an unmistakeable piercing tone.
Ajan Jiiap wandered into view — arm-in-arm with Khun Peun, no less. Jiu followed Pensri’s gaze and stared. Daeng followed suit, trailing off mid-sentence. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a tutor to attend parties, but Ajan Jiiap had always seemed so uptight, so teacherly. Yet here she was looking into Khun Peun’s long black eyes, sounding that bell-like laugh which seemed even louder and fuller and warmer outside of the classroom.
‘Jiiap! Over here!’ Som called brightly, bangles clattering.
‘I can’t believe this,’ Daeng muttered.
Pensri grabbed Jiu and Daeng and hauled them through the crowd and into the garden, all of them bundling onto the bench tucked away from the dining area.
‘We’ll be bitten to rags by mosquitoes,’ said Jiu.
Daeng absent-mindedly stroked Jiu’s high-crossed shin. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be out here than around teachers right now, ‘specially the ones marking our exams.’
‘Oh, I see what you’re saying,’ nodded Pensri, ‘it doesn’t matter to me, really. I know I’m going to fail.’
Daeng rolled her eyes. ‘Looks like we’ll be needing this, then,’ she said, reaching into the bosom of her dress and pulling out a bottle of rice wine. Jiu gasped and covered her eyes while Pensri laughed.
The evening air grew thick and sultry with stories that came with each sip of wine, the bottle passed between friends. Daeng slapped her thigh and howled when Pensri told her about the conversation with Miss Emily. ‘You told her!’ she said.
‘It’s a wonder any of us can work with her around,’ said Jiu. ‘Does she even like it here? She treats Jamathewi like it’s her personal burden. Ajan Jiiap’s stern and everything, but she’s a… a blessing, really.’
‘Maybe I can be a teacher like Ajan Jiiap, but with a little school and workshop of my own,’ said Pensri, ‘we’ll be open to anyone who wants to learn.’
Jiu grimaced. ‘You say it like that and it sounds good, but wasn’t that how our school originally started? Look how that turned out.’
‘We’ll have rules. Boundaries!’ Pensri jabbed the air. Daeng gently closed her hands over their fingers.
‘And how thickly will those rules be laid down before we simply have another version of what you sought to escape?’ said Daeng. ‘I know I like to mouth off about indigenous resistance, but what if it’s all false — we’re still trapped, just running about in another part of a different maze?’ She got up and walked a few paces away, shoulders sagging.
Pensri said, ‘We must try. Such a thing must be a lifelong effort. We must re-learn. We must begin.’
The three friends were silent in their bower. A great shout came from the direction of the party.
‘Well, I’m finishing my degree,’ said Daeng. ‘We can think about tutoring as our side project. That’ll give us something to do once we graduate. That’s sensible, isn’t it?’
She turned, and Jiu held a finger to her lips. Pensri was fast asleep on her shoulder, quietly snoring.
The next morning was deeply unkind to Pensri, who barely managed to bathe and dress before half-crawling towards the smell of food. They found Aunt Soi frying an acacia omelette.
‘I thought I was going to have to use a shovel to get you out of bed,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Time for our midday meal, don’t you think? Your favourite, sour curry with baby watermelon.’
After the meal, Aunt Soi spoke of only light-hearted things, which Pensri found suspicious. They listened silently until the question burst out of them. ‘Auntie, how did I get home last night?’
‘Why, one of your teachers brought you here. Carried you home herself. Strong as a tree, that one, but of course…’
Pensri covered their face. ‘Aren’t you angry with me?’
‘No.’ Aunt Soi smoothed her skirts. ‘It is often said that thewada are not worthy of worship. They are so similar to us, the same passion and pride and individuality, only long-lived and without the strength of higher beings. But the favour of a thewada is not to be taken lightly, all the same.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘It is my business to know a little of such things. Yours, too, come to think of it.’ She took Pensri’s hand. ‘You see now, don’t you?’
Daeng, Jiu, and Pensri held each other tight in front of the results board.
‘We all made it,’ said Jiu.
Daeng lightly tapped Pensri. ‘You’re still going to follow through?’
‘Yes. I’ll meet you at the ice cream place later. There’s somewhere I need to be.’
The school was open, students and tutors wandering the hallways.
‘Well done on your exam result,’ Miss Emily said, appearing in the doorway of her office as Pensri walked by.
Pensri regarded her for a moment and said, ‘You’ll have to excuse me.’ They continued onto the upper floor, their old, light-filled, paint-scented studio. Ajan Jiiap stood there, looking out of the window.
‘I’m thinking of dropping out,’ they said.
Ajan Jiiap kept her back to Pensri. ‘You’ve been thinking about this for a long time.’
‘Well. There we are then.’
‘You’re not going to ask me why?’
She turned, finally, and shrugged. How tall she was, how absolutely dark and glorious and terrifying and kind.
Pensri looked at their feet, then the walls, followed by the ceiling. ‘I wanted to say thank you.’
‘I’m leaving, too,’ said Ajan Jiiap. ‘Don’t look so shocked; I’m a visiting tutor.’
Pensri looked away. ‘Please let me be your apprentice. Teach me to teach.’
Ajan Jiiap simply smiled. ‘I was thinking of stopping by the campus coffee shop. Would you care to join me?’
Pensri smiled back in the full belief that there was truly a future with them in it.