A Bowl of Soup
The day Dao discovers that Ma is a witch is so cold that the children dare each other to lick the school fence, their tongues briefly sticking to the frozen metal bars.
‘The witch is coming,’ Dao hears them whisper. Most run and hide. The bolder ones crowd around to gawk.
Ma’s skin glows as if the sun is shining through the clouds, and her black hair floats open around her waist. She just appears out of the fog so, that day, even the bigger kids run. All except for Kev McKinley.
Kev, who started the witch thing, has licked the frostiest metal bar and now Kev is stuck. He pushes against the fence, fat bottom wriggling, but he can’t break free. As Ma reaches the gate, Kev squeals. She lifts her hand. Dao holds her breath. Maybe she will turn him into a pig.
But Ma just waves and smiles. Then Kev’s mother is there to unstick and scold him. She jumps a little when she notices Ma, then drags her son away.
Dao pulls Ma away too, so fewer people can see that Ma’s hilltribe jacket is threadbare. So fewer people can hear Ma’s bangles jangle around her wrist. They turn into the street where the cold house huddles against other identical brick houses.
‘Come in quickly.’ Ma says, opening the door, ‘and take off your coat. We’re home now.’
Dao shakes her head. She still feels cold. Ma shrugs.
‘Nice to be home, na?’
She says the word home a lot when they are inside the red house, repeats it like a spell. Dao begins to doubt the other kids. Then she thinks of Kev’s frightened bottom and smiles.
Dao hangs up her bag and notices her sister’s empty peg.
‘Where is Pear?’ she asks.
‘At Anna’s.’ Ma says.
Pear has friends. And when they came here, Pear already knew things; like what a coat peg and what Dairy Milk was. Dao doesn’t know anything.
‘I’m hungry.’ Dao says.
‘Let’s get a snack.’
Ma leads the way into the kitchen, the only warm room in the house. Dao sits at the table, while Ma climbs a step to reach a high cupboard. Dao looks her mother up and down: black hair, milk-tea skin, bright clothes. She is just Ma. But maybe, in this place of white fog and grey rain, she does look different.
‘Ma, what’s a chink?’ Dao asks.
Ma turns around, frowning.
‘It’s a bad word for someone from China.’
‘But we’re not Chinese, are we?’
‘No, Dao. We came from Thailand.’
‘So why do they think you’re a chink?’
‘Sometimes people just don’t know better.’
Dao does not tell Ma that they also call her a witch. She does not want to hurt her feelings. Ma finds the biscuits and hands one to her.
‘I want to go home.’
‘This is home, Noo. This is our home now.’
Ma says it twice again, like a broken spell.
Dao bites her lip, but Ma can see the tears before they fall. She rushes over to hug her.
‘Noo, shall we have something special for dinner?’ Ma asks.
Dao nods. Ma heats up silky-white coconut cream. She adds leaves and stalks, roots and bulbs to the pot. Familiar smells fill the room: sweet with lemon grass, hungry with garlic.
Ma fetches a straw mat and spreads it on the linoleum floor next to the big radiator. Dao sits cross-legged on the mat, as close to the radiator as she dares. From here the tiny kitchen looks bigger and instead of the backs of other houses the window now frames the distant beckoning sky. In her wool coat, Dao starts to thaw happily. Then she notices Ma’s precious photo hanging above the sink. A black and white younger Ma, draped in a long cape is reaching forward, head bowed before the King.
‘Why were you wearing that funny dress?’ Dao asks.
‘Because I was graduating.’
‘It’s when you finish studying and get a diploma.’
‘That magic scroll the King is giving you?’
‘Yes.’ Ma laughs, ‘It gives you the power to get a good job.’
Jobs are the reason they have come to this country. It is why Dad goes out every day to a special place to find work.
‘So why don’t you have a job, Ma?’ Dao asks.
‘When would I have time?’
Ma is very busy; cooking, cleaning, sewing. She fixes things in the house. Like when that rock smashed through the front window. Ma patched it with cardboard until the council put in new glass.
‘When I graduate,’ Dao says, ‘Will the King give me a scroll?’
Ma cocks her head.
‘Only at Thammasat University.’
‘Where’s that?’ Dao asks.
‘In Bangkok, but you need to speak Thai to study there, Noo.’
Dao thinks of all those painful afternoons when her and Pear had to sit and copy the sing-song voice on the cassette. Ma was annoyed because Dao got the tones wrong again. Then there was reading and writing, tracing symbols that had heads and tails. They looked like animals or people. They told a story, just not the one Ma wanted her to read. But at least they had been home, where it was warm, where her friends were.
‘If I promise to learn Thai, Ma,’ Dao says, ‘Can we go back home, please?’
Ma does not answer. She goes to stir the soup, tapping the spoon on the edge of the pot like a wand.
‘It’s ready,’ she croons.
They eat their tom kha gai sitting on the mat in the warmth of the radiator. Dao feels cocooned in the coconutty broth. When she slurps the last drops straight from the bowl, a little bit dribbles down her chin. Dao wipes it up with her palm and licks that too. Ma is a witch and her potions work better than her spells; she can fly across oceans with you, all in a bowl of soup.