Monday, 20 July 2020

Thai Folk Tales: The Water Elephant



"Do not follow that little stream," said the hermit, "true, there are some very fine mushrooms to be found along it banks. But it is not safe for young people like you to wander about there."

"But, Uncle," answered Noi Sawang, "my grandfather went there only last month and brought back some magnificent mushrooms and he never spoke of any danger; why can't my wife and I go there too?

Noi Sawang was a young farmer from the village at the foot of the mountain. He was twenty-two years of age, and his wife, Bua Kieng, was only seventeen. They had been married but a month. The padi-planting season was over, and they had come up the mountain to search for mushrooms, some to sell, some to flavour their curry. The old hermit dwelt in a small cave at the mouth of the little streamlet where Sawang's grandfather had reported the existence of a specially tasty species of mushroom. The hermit had lived there for thirty years and was known throughout the country-side as the greatest authority on all matters relating to the mountain.

"Your grandfather is a very old man my lad," said the hermit. "He must be nearly eighty. He ran very little risk. There is a water elephant living near that stream. It is a tiny creature, no larger than a rat, but formed exactly like a full-sized tusker. It has a lovely black, glossy skin, and little white ivory tusks. I saw it once, and it seemed to me be the most beautiful creature I had ever beheld. But I was safe enough. I am old, very old, and your grandfather is even older than I. The water elephant takes no interest in aged people like us. It seeks only the souls of young people, to stay with it and keep it company in the forest, for it has no mate and no companions of its own kind, and often feels lonely. Last year two boy scouts came here to search for orchids. I warned them, as I am warning you, but they would not heed me. They went far along the stream, and collected hundreds of wonderful orchids, When they came back, they told me they seen no sign of any water elephant, but only a week later one of them died quietly in his sleep. I am certain that the water elephant either cast its shadow on him or else used its tiny tusks to stab his footprint in the sand at the side of the stream: in either case, he was doomed to die. Hearken to my words, and seek for your mushrooms in some other place."

Sawang was a well-educated young fellow. He had passed the Matayom Four examination, and his mind was full of modern learning and up-to-date ideas. It seemed to him ridiculous to talk about an elephant the size of a rat, which could kill people by casting its shadow over them, or by stabbing their footprints with its tusk. He answered the old hermit politely, thanking him for his advice, but saying that he and his wife were ready to take the risk, and would take good care to keep well away from the water elephant and its shadow, should they chance to run across it.

So off they went along the little stream, laughing and singing. Soon their baskets were full of fine, succulent mushrooms. Then Sawang saw a huge purple orchid, high up on a forest tree. "Sit here on this mossy bank, little wife," he said, "and wait for me. I will climb up and pick that orchid. I know a farang who will pay me at least thirty bahts for it."

In a few minutes, Sawang was high up among the branches of the tree. He got his orchid, and then espied another on a higher bough. In the end, clambering from branch to branch, he collected five fine orchids. When he came down again, he found that Bua Kieng, tired of waiting so long, had fallen asleep on her mossy couch.

"Wake up. Wake up!" cried he, "We have at least two hundred bahts worth of mushrooms and orchids! What a good thing it was that we did not let the old hermit scare us away with his stories about the water elephant. Of course, no such creature exists."

Soon they reached the hermit's cave, and Sawang said to the old man: "Uncle, it was good of you to warn us about the water elephant; but, as you see, it did not injure either of us: so we are among the lucky ones, and maybe we will come here again in a week or so to collect more mushrooms and to climb the trees for orchids."

Then Bua Kieng said to the hermit: "Uncle, 1 feel sleepy after walking so far. Let me lie down on the bamboo floor of your cave and doze for a few minutes." So saying, she lay down on the floor, using her arm as a pillow, and was soon fast asleep. Ten minutes later. Sawang called to her to get up, as they must go back home, to avoid being overtaken by darkness. She did not move. He shook her. She lay still, quite still. Then Sawang began to feel afraid. He felt her hands. They were cold. She had stopped breathing. She was dead.

Sawang knelt by her side, weeping: "Uncle, Uncle," he wailed, "I was mad not to listen to your warning. The water elephant must have come while 1 was up that tree collecting orchids. The tiny, cruel water elephant has stolen her from me, and taken her to wander in the forest and cheer him up, along with the boy scout you told me about. I was mad, mad."

Next day. Sawang returned with some of his friends, and they carried back the body of his little wife to the village and cremated it. And Sawang went back to live in his parent's house, a desolate, lonely young widower.

Days and weeks passed by, but Sawang did not forget. His heart was filled with feelings of rage against the elephant, and he longed to be revenged upon the tiny animal which had stolen away his wife. At last he determined to kill it. He took his old flintlock gun, loaded it, and set forth for the mountain. When he reached the hermit's cave, the old man sought to dissuade him from going any further.

"You cannot shoot the water elephant," he said, "others have tried and failed - and they did not all return alive."

"Never mind." answered Sawang, "I will do my best to kill the devilish little creature, to avenge the death of my wife and the boy scout. 1 can at least have a shot at it, if I should chance to meet with it. As for myself, I do not care what happens to me. I have lost all interest in life."

So once again he set forth along the fateful streamlet, until he came to the place where he had left his wife sleeping on the former occasion, while he searched for orchids. Then he called out in a loud voice:- "Water elephant, come forth!

Let me see you, wicked, cruel little beast, you who steal young people's souls to keep you company in your cursed forest. Come forth, and let me see you. I am not afraid of you. Come forth!"

There was a high, rocky boulder a few yards away from where Sawang stood. As he uttered these words, the little water elephant appeared on top of the boulder. It flapped its tiny ears, and swished its little tail, exactly like a full-sized elephant. Then it lifted its trunk as though in salutation.

Sawang raised his gun. But he felt unable to shoot.

As he stood there, pointing his gun at the water elephant, he felt all the rage and hatred in his heart melting away, and in their place he was filled with love and affection for the tiny, beautiful creature. He flung his gun to the ground and knelt down with outstretched arms.

"Water elephant!" he cried out, "lovely, beautiful, kind-hearted little water elephant, I do not want to hurt you. I only want you to let me join my little wife, and wander forever with you in your lonely forest. Cast your shadow upon me, I beseech you and let me stay here with you and my wife, and the boy scout. Have pity on me, and grant my request.

The rays of the setting sun shone through the trees and cast the shadow of the little elephant upon Sawang's face as he uttered these words. Then he cried out:- "Water elephant, I will remain kneeling here until you are ready to take me. Do not make me wait too long."

When night came on, and Sawang did not return, the old hermit took his lantern and went into the forest to search for him. There, by the side of the stream, he found him kneeling dead. The water elephant had heard his petition.

by William Alfred Rae Wood (aka Lotus) from 'Tales from Thailand" 1962

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