This image was taken in Bangkok in 2008. These smiling faces are important to the photographer because of the moment that surrounded them.
There was no breeze blowing off the Chao Praya River and the air was heavy with stagnant warmth. Although the brightening dawn made Nampung’s heart beat with hurry, she breathed it away and gently spread flour over a large wooden board. The city, still a stranger to her, was beginning to rise. Soon the noise would be deafening. She placed a creamy ball of dough on the floured board and thought about the things she could not say.
Nampung moved with purposeful slowness. She did not see baking as an act of measurements nor did she see it has an art. Baking was catharsis. She would find a single happy thought and will it into the dough. Sadness, angst, pride, self-consciousness, it all went in because she believed in the interconnectedness of life. When people tasted her treats they heard a whisper—a secret just for them.
Measuring her emotions the way she measured cups of sugar or teaspoons of vanilla was a difficult skill for Nampung to learn. She wasn’t a baker by trade. She didn’t have a trade. She had been a mother and a wife. She had seen the path her life was taking and she had been perfectly happy to follow it below the horizon. And then, as her children became adults, her husband became a child. He ran away.
She didn’t chase him. She was done raising children. But she felt lost without him and that made her angry. When they first met, all those years ago, Nampung knew how to hold her own umbrella, but somewhere along the way she had let it close—she had cowered beneath his unable to protect herself. This truth was slow to arrive. After he left, time was not itself. It was rotten and unusable and Nampung was gone. She wiped away tears without defiance. She allowed herself to be passed from her sister to her daughter only vaguely aware that she had become a burden and unable to feel pain beneath the poison lump. Anger arrived overnight and unannounced. It burned away the last of her malaise. She was angry about being abandoned but angrier still that she had abandoned herself.
When she told her children she was moving to Bangkok they begged her to stay. “Let us take care of you! We’ll give you grandchildren to play with. We promise! Grow fat and happy, Mama. You deserve that!”
Indignation prickled her skin but Nampung refused to give it voice. Her children were barely into adulthood, much of their happiness came from the misguided belief that they no longer needed her. They were condescending because she was a symbol to them; a collection of rules, traits and quirks they called Mama. She was not Nampung. She was not a woman.
Nampung wanted to open her heart to her children but words had always betrayed her. She wanted them to know that she needed to be nurtured not coddled. She wanted them to know what it felt like to be abandoned. She wanted them to know the disbelief she felt every time she saw the decayed remains of her once beautiful reflection and the secret horror that she had never known either of those people. Her children would love her as Nampung if she only had the words. She would gain the strength to protect herself if she only had the words.
“Come visit me,” she told them. “We’ll have lunch.”
Bangkok was too big; it terrified her so she shrunk it down. She found a job folding laundry in one of the old neighborhoods, a hovel maze that had seen little change in a hundred years. It was a safe place where the gleaming buildings and hordes of foreigners did not exist. Nampung hid there, alone for the first time in her life.
She didn’t speak and she didn’t listen. All around her she heard noise; buzzing praise for children, complaints about husbands, bland words about weather. No one opened their hearts. No one told the truth. She wondered if the language of secrets could be expressed in the babbling of people.
The woman who folded laundry beside her became a grandmother and the community rejoiced. For an entire afternoon all the businesses shut down and all the mothers and daughters of the neighborhood gathered together.
In a sun bright room Nampung placed a cake on a table full of food and retreated. She hadn’t slept that night. She looked siphoned away. When her first cake came out of the oven she knew it was a lie; eggs cracked, sugar poured, batter mixed; rote actions—nothing. She didn’t want to touch it for fear of catching its dishonesty so she used a rolling pin to slide it into the garbage.
Nampung decided to bake what she could not say. She sat for hours thinking about the birth of her daughter. She thought about the first moment she knew, not when the doctor confirmed it, when she knew. She was so happy and so scared; unmixable emotions that sloshed around dousing her insides and leaving ragged breaths behind. She thought about the weirdness and pride of her growing belly. She thought about the first kick and the protective energy that electrified her body. She thought about holding her daughter and seeing her husband standing beside her so vulnerable and outside of himself. And realizing, maybe for the first time, that she hadn’t done this alone, that she wouldn’t have to do this alone.
Nampung started again. This time she shouted her secrets with every crack and every stir. She didn’t measure. That would come later. She baked with a deluge of all she felt and all she knew about becoming a mother. When the cake had cooled she applied the frosting with a tickling gentleness. She smoothed it the way she first touched her daughter’s skin, marveling at its impossible perfection. When it was finished Nampung slumped down in exhaustion knowing that she had made something true.
As slices of her cake were passed from hand-to-hand Nampung wondered how the fragments of her story had been divided. Her heartbeat quickened as women, young and old, took their first bites. But, there was no explosion of chirping or universal recognition that this cake was somehow different than the one she had slid into the garbage. Nampung laughed at her own silly expectations. She had nearly taken a bite herself when she heard the ting of a fork hitting the floor.
Lifelessness swept the room like a sudden breeze. All around her limp arms swayed. She winced at the brief but intense clangor of metal against tile. Every other woman in the room had turned rubbery and absent—transfixed by the day dream distance. It was impossibly quiet. Nampung could hear the scrape of her tongue searching for moisture and feel her skin inflating and deflating in rhythm with her pulse. She forced herself to stand. She tip-toed among the women expecting their cruel trick to end with a BOO and the nausea of being laughed at. But their absence was real and somehow shared. Together the women raised their limp arms and rubbed the space above their bellies. They seemed awed by swelling that wasn’t there. Was this her story? Had she done this? Nampung stood perfectly still, but inside she was falling. There had to be a simpler answer.
She tried to calm herself with gulps of air. She tried to use reason to wipe away the fog. But the women remained awash in the trance. They shuttered as one and gasped as one. Their chairs nearly collapsed from the violence of clack and rattle. They held their bellies in a protective hug and their eyes were as readable as any story. Baby’s first kick! It had to be! There was nothing left to deny. Women she hardly knew were sharing her story. They were feeling things she had never been able to say. Nampung marveled at their joy and wanted to join them in that daydream place. When they screamed in agony she screamed too. She reached out and held a young woman’s hand. The woman tickled her forearm; gentle and hesitant. All around her entranced women were tickling fingers, thighs, cheeks—astonished by the smoothness of infant perfection, time-stopped by the undeniable fact that perfection had been within them.
Nampung pulled her hand away. This was her heart, her truth and yet these women understood. Nampung knew that the trance would end and she didn’t know how the women would react so she hurried away, over the bridge and into the gleaming city, to a place where secrets could be concealed.
What happened in that room, however beautiful, was a violation. But it was also empowering. Nampung saw herself as invisible. When she spoke she imagined that she died from memory before anyone realized she was there. That cake, those women; if she could temper that power, measure it out, she could share her stories without ever having to expose herself to another person. No one could reject her. No one could make her love them. No one could leave her. From her heart to her hands, secrets consumed. Nampung in love, Nampung abandoned, Nampung adored, Nampung coddled; all her stories could be told through the sweet unspoken.
Khao San Road made Nampung tremble. She had chosen Bangkok’s busiest district because of the anonymity it would provide but its swarming reality had forced her under a dark overhang with nowhere left to recede. Neon signs, vendors crawling over each other like grid-locked ants, thousands of tourists grinding out their horrible noise; Nampung pressed against a water-stained wall desperate to push it away from its foundation, away from the claustrophobic squeeze. She was holding a tray of donuts decorated with smiling raspberry faces. Each contained a secret. She had come to be consumed and now felt sure that she would be. The swarm would open its maw and she would step inside unnoticed. She would be bumped and nudged down to its belly, knocked to the ground, trampled, her unseen corpse stepped on and over until night cleared the streets.
Nampung thought about those women, the trance, and the potential of her gift. She willed herself away from the filthy wall and stepped into the maw. She closed her eyes and surrendered to the impact but it never came. Motionless in the center of all that madness Nampung watched the crowd open and close around her like a school of fish. A large man with a fat belly and a pink face pushed toward her. He smiled and she nearly ran. She took deep heavy breaths and gripped her thighs to slow the shaking. She had come for this. She needed to know. The crowd parted around them.
“How much?” he asked.
Nampung couldn’t think of the word she needed, an English word she had been practicing, so she took her time selecting a story she thought the man would like. She handed him a smiling raspberry face wrapped in wax paper. Again he asked for the price and this time she couldn’t hold back her toothy grin. She had remembered her word.
“Free!” she said.
Nampung followed the pink faced man to a café and waited impatiently for his coffee to arrive. The man treated her donut with frustrating delicacy. He arranged it on a plate and positioned it at the proper distance from his coffee. He dabbed granules of sugar with his pinky finger and savored those first. When he finally took a bite she remembered to breathe. She had tried to measure these stories but had no idea what the proper measurements were. She didn’t know if the man would fall into a trance or feel nothing at all. She didn’t know if the cake had been one-time magic.
The man finished his leisurely breakfast and chatted amiably with passersby. Left alone, he began to chuckle, slowly, like an engine struggling to start, then faster, picking up speed until he exploded in body shaking laughter. He slapped the table and leapt out of his seat. He ran, light and lifting—a scattering of infinitesimal flights.
Nampung yelped and gave chase. The donut tray banged against her thighs so she flung it into the street where her secrets were murdered beneath the wheels of a passing cab. She was quickly surrounded by others who needed to know where the happy man was going. At the edge of the river the man ran up a gangplank and descended into the bowels of a boat. His pursuers bunched together, jostling, waiting for his invitation to board. Nampung squirmed her way to the front. The man emerged wearing a bright orange life vest. He climbed onto the roof of the boat, waved to the crowd, and jumped. He tucked his legs beneath him and hit the water with a tremendous splash.
His followers surged onto the boat. Their clothing burst into the air. They jumped from the crowded roof, one, two, and three at a time. The water roiled with slapping, kicking joy. Nampung loved this secret. She was six years old. Her father held her hand and then he didn’t have to. It was one of her favorite childhood memories.
The man emerged from the water and ran for the gangplank. Someone grabbed his arm. They asked him why.
“I had to!” he said. “I haven’t done that since… I remember…”
He stammered and drained. He felt as though he had woken up with a beautiful memory full of color, texture and smell. But as wake gained distance from sleep the memory felt less real. The origin was gone. The timeline was wrong. Sickening loss washed over him. It wasn’t a memory at all. It was a dream not letting go.
Nampung backed away. The measurements would have to change. Memory was too invasive. She needed to leave people with the remnants of a memory, the feeling, inspiration and lessons learned, without the taint of dream loss. She had hurt the pink faced man, but the others, that had been perfect. With a raspberry smile she had given them a wonderful gift, an ordinary day turned unexpectedly into a story.
Nampung perfected her gift and for a time it gave her great joy but doubt was beginning to build. She had seeded her own experiences, she had changed lives, and yet she remained unremembered. When her husband ran away she did too. She abandoned her children. She wanted them to know her heart but she didn’t know how to do that without using her gift. And she wouldn’t, not with her children, that would be a drug. She was lonely and sure that she would die wordless and unknown.
The sun had risen now and beads of sweat dappled Nampung’s forehead. She removed a tray of donuts from the oven and placed them behind a glass case. She looked impassively at her secrets unaware that her own life was about to change.
Customers came and went but Nampung didn’t see them. She was in her routine and they were tones flashing past. A flare streaked into the daze. She tried to ignore it but it only grew brighter. She looked for the sender and found a young woman standing in front of the glass case with a camera half raised. Her faraway eyes told a story of doubt and fight. Nampung knew that story well—an umbrella closing and too heavy to open. She searched the smiling faces trying to remember if she had baked a secret that could help. The woman placed her hand against the glass and Nampung did the same. She didn’t know why. She only knew that she was supposed to.
With concussion and roar the woman’s story ripped across invisible lines. Nampung nearly crumpled beneath the torrent. From beginning to unfinished present, every emotion and memory, all the struggle and fight, Nampung possessed them now as though they were her own. She had never experienced her own magic. She felt new. She felt like she could crack her skin and step away. She sent her story to the woman. It was a shock and the conversation nearly severed but both women gripped it hard. They shared the secrets of their heart, wordless and pure. Nampung had always thought that her treats were the conduit, but she knew now that the interconnectedness had always been there. The woman smiled full of sweetness and thanks. Nampung imagined them raising an umbrella together; turning the hot sun dreamy and warm, and she knew the woman saw it too.
A young man pushed through the crowd. He had kind eyes hardened with determination. He gently touched the woman’s elbow and whispered sheltering words. With a jolt Nampung knew that the man was loved beyond measure. She told the woman to go. She told her to live and love and never be afraid. She told her to know and be known. The woman pulled her hand away from the glass and let the man she loved lead her into the wild city and a future less worrisome.
Nampung traced the outline of fingerprints left behind. She had let her secrets define her. She had been so determined to be heard that she had forgotten to listen. The world was full of secrets and invisible lines and she had time to live. She found the lines leading to her children and knew that she would follow those first. Nampung placed a cover over the glass case and removed her flour dusted apron.
Enough whispering, she thought. Today, I want to feel.