A gong chimes, the mellow sound resonating through the trees. After a moment’s pause it chimes a second time, this time joined by the howl of a dog. As the tempo of the gong picks up the dog is joined by its friends, the deeper howl of the larger breeds counterpointing the high-pitched staccato yap of the Jack Russells, with a backing track provide by the continually crowing roosters, until the previous tranquillity of the temple is filled with a cacophony – even the cockerels join in more heatedly. The gong stops, it’s song drifting away, and within moments the dogs silence until all that is left is the on-going crowing of the roosters.
An elderly lady shuffles to the concrete bench near where I’m sitting in front of the lake, supported by her daughter. The bench they aim for has no space between it and the metal rail guarding the pond so I offer my seat in the shade. The elderly lady is here to feed the fish to gain merit by giving them life and hopefully prolonging her own.
As mum feeds the fish from a bag of bread pieces, daughter and I chat for a while before she goes back to her car to collect the live fish they bought earlier in the day at a market and will release as a further merit-making gesture. I’m left looking after mum, who’s no trouble at all as she’s verging on senile and simply sits holding a colourful cloth to her mouth and smiling peacefully.
The fish in the lake are seriously ugly, or at least what you see of them in the murky water. All you see as the bread breaks the surface is a gaping mouth that spreads half-way around the head and elongated whiskers that look more like tentacles – no sign of eyes, body or tail to give any measure of size. The certainly don’t give the appearance of the type that nibble at your toes in a foot massage, more something you’d surprise you granny in the bath with to bring on an instant heart attack.
Daughter returns with three plastic bags of thrashing fish. Mum complains that the stone bench she’s been sitting on for the last twenty minutes is hurting her bum, so I’m left with the bags of fish while daughter takes mum back to the car for a comfy sit down. I haven’t baby sat in years, but within twenty minutes beside a lake in Thailand I’ve babysat a senile old Thai lady and three bags of live fish. Could life get any better?
While the fish and I keep each other company, the warmth of the afternoon sun and splashing of the fountains lull me into a meditative doze.
Daughter returns thirty minutes later and we finally introduce ourselves. Khan– known as Katie to her farang friends – explains the principles of Bhuddist belief in the merit gained and passed on from past lives. The simple act of offering a seat to her mother might be a small repayment for an act of kindness she or her family gave me many lives ago, and will also gain me merit in lives to come.
The evening sun is setting as we wait for Khan’s sister to join us for the small ceremony of pouring the fish into the lake. The movement from the plastic bags has slowly decreased to an occasional flick of a tail and we are both getting a bit concerned that she may soon be earning herself some demerits if we don’t get them into the water soon and they go stiff on us.
I look down and see what looks like a small brown eel which must have escaped from the slightly open neck of one of the bags, showing not a lot of action. Khan ask if I think it’s dead, but not being an aficionado of small eels I’ve no idea, so I pick it up and throw it in the water, working on the premise that it will literally sink or swim. We make a joint decision that at least we should get that bag in the water, so Khan tips about a dozen other eels over the rail. We wait. Nothing happens. After a couple of minutes we see a few air bubbles rise to the surface, followed by a cloud of mud rising from the bottom. A couple surface and one glides across the surface of the lake, so at least there are some survivors.
Khan phones her sister to say that if she doesn’t get here soon they will be having fish suppers for a few days to come. Sister can’t come yet because she’s listening to a talk by a monk who is part of the extended family and she wouldn’t like the repercussions of what would happen if she walked out. A quandary – do you avoid the demerits of leaving a monk’s talk or chance them by letting the fish snuff it. “I think I’ll get my mum,” says Khan. I’m now reduced to babysitting two bags of fish, which might possibly be dead.
Soon mum and Khan are coming along the footpath at a fair lick of speed, mum as excited as if she was being taken to open her present under a Christmas tree – although not likely in Thailand where Christmas is basically ignored other than to cull extra dosh from foreigners. Within two minutes both remaining bags are opened and tipped into the lake, the thrashing silver bodies sparkling in the late afternoon sun. We watch for a few moments and then decide that, after all, merits have been earned. We say our goodbyes, mum nodding repeatedly with a big smile on her face.
The sun is gilding the tree tops as I leave, and groups of monks are sweeping the dead leaves into piles with long brooms.