THE VIGIL OF MAH MAY (Told on the Pagoda TALES OF BURMAH, 1895) by Mimosa
MAH MAY was a little Burmese girl who kept a small stall filled with cheroots in one of the crowded many-coloured streets of Rangoon. There she sat all through the sultry, languorous days smoking and waiting, with philosophical calm, for customers; now and then a great, big, well-fed looking Indian would stop and handle her goods, and, grumbling perhaps a little, would eventually buy; or a lean Chinaman, in baggy blue trousers, would pause and smile and talk awhile; or some little naked child would come and beg one for nothing; or the black coolies, their silver belts glittering in the sunlight, would cluster round and bargain and quarrel among themselves, perhaps, in the end, throwing her goods back to her with no very complimentary language; or a “Chetty,” airily attired in scanty white muslin, his shaved head protected by a big cotton umbrella, would come and haggle over the annas as a poor Burman would never dream of doing; then, again, a well-to-do woman of her own race, dressed in silk, and with gold bracelets on her wrists, would purchase, but they were always, as Mah May used to say with a shake of her small head, the meanest of all.
She was a bright little girl, though very poor; often hungry, and always wretchedly clad.
For two years past she had squatted behind her tray, in the hot, hard, cruel glare, when the sun beat on the flat-roofed white houses mercilessly; when even the river, with its forests of ships, seemed to cease to flow; when all things were gasping and weary and the gharry wallahs slept soundly, and the poor lean ponies tried to flick the flies off their backs with their tails; when the Indian shopkeepers stretched themselves on wooden beds just in the shadow of their door-ways and snored away, dreaming of rupees and curry; while only the pariah dogs scratched and smelt in the road for something to eat. No one stirred; the drowsy influence of the heat seemed universal. Or on the dull wet days, when the sky was clouded and rain poured down, soaking everything through and through, and the thin coloured dresses clung pitifully round their owners’ dark forms, and nobody had time to think of buying as they passed on in the warm, damp, oppressive atmosphere. Still Mah May sat, no matter what the season, rolling her cheroots, cutting betel chews, and crooning some little song to herself. At mid-day she ate some rice, and got a draught of water from a pump not far distant. Often some one was kind, and gave her some fruit or a cake; oftener they were unkind, but oftener still they were indifferent.
It was a hard life—very, and she was only seventeen. Yet was she content. Nature had been her nurse. The sun and the rain had made her what she was—a hardy, honest, upright little soul, envying and hating no one.
When the shadows grew long and the green shutters of the shops closed, Mah May rolled up her wares and wended her way homewards through the noisy, many-hued crowds to a miserable wooden hut, which stood in dirty yellow water, spanned by a rotten plank, and was situated in one of the poorest and most squalid quarters of the town—a quarter in which poverty, in its most hideous form, stalked. Half-clothed men, women and children of all ages, dwelt together there, and kept life in them as best they could.
In the huts there was scarce one piece of furniture, save perhaps a bed or a roll of matting or a ragged purdah.
The scorpions, the white ants, and the great toads held high revel. Amidst rows, hard words, evil things, cries of little children, and growls of half-starved dogs Mah May dwelt, and was happy.
She did not know of any better life than hers. The day passed in the fresh air under the changeless azure of the skies and the night curled up in a corner of the hut, with the purple stars looking down through some chink in the roof; and knowing of any other, it is doubtful if she would have cared to exchange.
Mah Khine, a black-browed woman whom Mah May had lived with as long as she could remember, was very good and kind to her in her own way; but she had many children tugging at her skirt, and her life was a very hard one. She was married to an Indian who had nearly all the faults of his by no means faultless race; his past had been bad, his present was even more so.
He counted the cost of anything, done or undone, as small if it only brought in pice; pice sufficient to procure “toddy, the hot, horrible, poisonous stuff kept in the little shop by a Chinaman in one of the narrow, tortuous bye-lanes of the native quarter. To him it mattered nothing that his children had oftentimes not enough to eat, and that the lines about his wife’s patient mouth deepened.
The passion for drink possessed him, to the exclusion of all other feelings.
Stretched on a wooden settle in the crowded, dirty shop that abutted on the still dirtier street, reeking with filth and smells, he passed his time sunk in a semi-conscious stupor.
The proprietor looked upon Moulla Khan as one of the best customers he had.
For him was his smile the sweetest, to him was he most accommodating in the matter of money.
Of a day the frequenters of the place were comparatively few, but when the night crept on, Pun Lun lit up his place with many sickly oil lamps, whose light showed up the gaudy signboard with its ill-written “Toddy Shop” on it, surrounded by a curious design in Chinese, and drew the human moths round in dozens to smoke, drink, play, and talk. Indian, Burmese, all countries were represented there in that crowded, noisy, dirty place. The babel of many tongues broke on the ear afar off.
The neighbourhood was a notoriously bad one, so that the fighting and sickening sound of blows that usually ended these gatherings of convivial spirits excited no comment.
Even the deep groans from those who, wounded, lay helplessly for many hours gained no sympathy or succour of any kind.
Often, but in vain, in the hot, sulphurous nights Mah Khine had found her way there, and begged of the great coarse brute whom she called husband to return with her, but for a long time past she had ceased to plead, realising how useless it was.
And yet, strangely, with all his drunkenness and cruelty, the faithful soul refused to desert or even see him as he really was. He had been the chosen one of her girlhood, when she, young and pretty, had left her people to wed this stranger out of India.
They had deemed her disgraced by the union.
They had been well-to-do people, and would have married her to one of her own race.
Her life had held many bitter, unhappy years, but she was proud in her way, and from her lips no word or moan had ever passed.
Children had come and multiplied, and though the wants of such people are very few, often they had not the wherewithal to supply them.
But of late years things had been better, for Mah Khine, who had a keen eye for business, had made and saved a little unknown to every one except Mah May.
The money was kept buried away in a teak-wood box in a corner of their damp, worm-eaten house.
Mah Khine’s cherished ambition, trader that she was, was to open a little shop, as many of her class did.
A little place filled with miscellaneous articles: pillows, lacquer boxes, wooden trays, crockery, pewter pans, some sandals, and perhaps, there was no knowing—that is, if she was lucky—some tameins and silk potsos for the men.
There behind it the proud possessor, she dreamt that she would sit and roll the cheroots and have her children by her, keeping an eye on the younger as they played.
This picture Mah Khine often painted to herself; it was her ideal of earthly bliss. She dreamt of it by day and night, but kept it locked up in her own heart.
Anything that she could spare from what she made by washing the clothes of her richer neighbours she put by so carefully, handling it so fondly, storing it so cautiously: grimy brown pice, little silver pieces, one or two soiled, crumpled notes, how often she looked at them and counted them and took them in her lean brown hands! She would start out of her sleep, fearing some one had stolen her treasure, that represented the scraping together of two hard, long years.
There was some little history attached to every coin.
She remembered how each one was gained, every circumstance of toil or sacrifice through which it was put by.
And not a soul knew, not a soul save Mah May and herself; Mah May she could trust. Mah May loved her, and was as honest and true as a little dog.
Mah Khine never left the box in the house with no one to mind it, for fear it should be taken, though for two years gone by it had rested securely and undisturbed in its hiding-place.
The knowledge of its existence, and what in the end it was to accomplish, leant a courage to her to bear with the blows, the sickness, and the abject poverty of her surroundings; it upheld her, it leant a brightness to her eyes, a lightness to her feet when they would have been otherwise pitifully weary. When she spoke there was oftentimes a strange ring of gladness in her voice; for Hope, that wonderful strengthener, dwelt with her.
So time went on, and it wanted but three months for the money to be complete. They had been rarely lucky.
Mah May had sold well every day. Mah Khine had had much to do. A great content abode with her. Even the morose, savage manner of her husband troubled her but little.
The children flew at his approach, and hid behind the mud hill close by, or their mother’s ragged skirts, or anywhere they could, and she soothed and comforted the little trembling ones as she best could, and on her face was a happy smile.
“At last! at last!” she thought.
One warm, clear night, when the sky glittered with stars, and a young moon showed against it, Mah Khine made ready to take some silks that she had been washing home. She had promised them, for it was the eve of a great Buddhist feast. It was a long way for her to go, right across the town, but she did not mind. So she cleared up the remains of their evening rice, swept the floor with her straw besom, filled the water-chatty standing in the corner afresh, bade Mah May to watch carefully; and Mah May assured her, as she had often done before, that if any one was ever to find out their secret, the money they should never have, save they killed her first. So Mah Khine took up her bundle and went forth into the radiance of the night.
Mah May looked after her until she was out of sight, and then squatted down, smoking.
The hours went by; the lights were put out in the huts. Mah May felt very sleepy and tired where she sat, but she was good—she remained awake, staring out into space….
A tall, dark figure stood before her. It was Moulla Khan; he had not been home for two days. His eyes were blood-shot, his turban disarranged. He stood over her, and looked down at her. She trembled a little; she feared him greatly. She stirred uneasily, but nevertheless met his look without flinching.
He only uttered one word, and that in a voice which drink had rendered hoarse and thick.
“Money.” He spoke in Hindustani.
“I have none,” she answered him in the same tongue.
He gave a sort of gurgling laugh.
“Look you,” he muttered, “I know there is money hidden somewhere—pice and annas and rupees—and I will have it; I know it, I tell you, I know it.”
“There is none,” the girl replied. She had risen; she had her back to the hole in the wall where the money was.
“Give it to me,” he cried, in a voice of frantic rage.
“I do not know who has told you this thing,” she said, “but it is not true.”
She felt chilly with fright. She knew that, once his suspicion aroused, he would search till he found. She would be powerless to protect it. Tears dimmed the fond eyes of the child. She knew, none better, all the toil, privations, and hopes that lay in that poor little box.
Yet what could she do? She was so small and her strength so puny. If he searched he would find it; its hiding-place was not so secure as to be proof against those cruel fingers.
Though all Mah Khine’s future lay there, she gave no sign of fear. She kept her ground boldly. He shook her savagely, when she stood. She was wondering who could have told him. She watched him with a dull, throbbing brain move unsteadily round the wretched room, groping by the light of the moon; feeling, feeling everywhere along the wall for holes; turning over all the things; then, with a muttered word or two, out he went on to the rafters, made of mud, behind, into a little piece of ground; but there was nothing, nothing anywhere. Her breath came a little quicker, a little more freely. Perhaps, after all—but, with a bound, he was by her side. He nearly wrenched her slender, childish wrists off. “It is there!” he cried in triumph.
She set her strong white teeth in his black arm; but with a brutal gesture he flung her light weight from him. She fell with a dull, heavy thud. He did not heed her for awhile, searching eagerly, thirstily, his eyes glittering with cruel greed.
At last he drew it forth triumphantly, the poor little shabby treasure-house, and took the money, letting some drop in his haste, hiding it with trembling, feverish hands in his white linen jacket.
Then he put the box back, and turned to Mah May. He looked; she was very still; he crept nearer and nearer, and his cowardly soul shrank within him. The moonbeams had found her out and fell upon her thin, upturned face. He peered round, he held his very breath; no one was stirring, there was silence everywhere. His dark, acquiline face was as cunning as that of any fox cub. He paused for a second or two. Then, as if a sudden thought struck him, he gathered her up hastily in his arms.
She was a little heavy, but he was strong.
The river, that was drifting outward to the ocean, and the moon were the only things that shared the secret of that night with him.
And they guard their secrets well.
“If Mah May wanted the money, I would have given it to her, for I loved her; she need not have left me,” Mah Khine said, with a great sorrow and sense of desolate despair in her heart, and tears in her honest eyes, when Moulla Khan told his tale.
She never learnt different—she never will—unless, indeed, the day dawns when the sea shall give up its dead.
Read more folk and fairy tales from Burma.