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In the shade of the Sacred Tree

A moving tale of hardship and triumph from a dark corner of Bangkok

In the shade of the Sacred Tree

Miss Sprite is now one of the little girls like this one, looked after by Father Joe Maier's Mercy Centre in Bangkok (picture courtesy the Mercy Centre)

Published: February 21, 2014 07:57 AM GMT

Updated: February 20, 2014 09:07 PM GMT

She’s known as Miss Sprite, and she’s ‘angel of the week’ after winning a coloring contest in second-year kindergarten.

Approaching five years of age in elegant fashion, she has a voice pitched between that of an angel and a chirping baby bird perched on the edge of the nest but not quite ready to fly.

She likes to put a leaf behind her ear – a leaf picked from the Sacred Tree behind the family shack in the Klong Toey slum. Her mum used to do that, too.

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Miss Sprite has lovely features and a smile that would stop anyone in their tracks. In the slums, that can be dangerous. Orphan girls fetch a pretty price.

A chocolate sandwich is her favorite food – just chocolate paste swooshed between slices of bread; or better still, chunks of chocolate without much bread.

But crippled Auntie Gung, her ‘second’ mum, won’t allow that. She says that Miss Sprite’s real mum, now dead from AIDS almost a month back, and certainly in heaven, would not approve.

Miss Sprite talks nonstop like only a bright five year old can, and shares secrets whispered at bullet speed in your ear. As a silly adult, you’re not expected to understand the secrets of a top-notch kindergarten orphan. You’re only expected to nod knowingly, and for that you sometimes get a hug.

Miss Sprite has the lithe fingers of a future traditional Thai dancer and proudly states that her grandmother was one and her mum wanted to be one before she got sick.

Miss Sprite sometimes goes silent when she misses her mum, and in these saddest of moments, she grasps a tiny locket she wears on a string around her neck, kisses it and puts it in her mouth – a tiny locket with a lock of mum’s hair.

Miss Sprite didn’t contract HIV from her mum, even though she was born in a Klong Toey shack without hospital procedures and fed from her mother’s breast.

And her story began long before she was born, when mum escaped from the family shack and slept under tables in the market, begging for food and being protected by the women vendors. She was 13.

Mum fled because an uncle living in the family shack abused her and then threatened her if she told anyone. She ‘tattled’ but no one listened. They cursed her instead.

Then mum fell in with a wild bunch – the drug crowd under the expressway – and stayed because they accepted her. She avoided drugs but eventually married the leader of the pack. He became Miss Sprite’s father.

The ‘reception’ – a modest affair – was held in the shade of Klong Toey’s oldest Sacred Tree (Dhon Tha Kien,) where pious believers are convinced that lottery numbers are revealed in its bark.

Eighteen months later, Miss Sprite was born in grandma’s shack. Mum was not yet 16. An elderly betel nut-chewing midwife dealt with the birthing.

But the father had had a wild moment or three before he met mum, and he had HIV and didn’t know it. He passed it to his new wife, who didn’t know either until it was too late. The tragic consequences were still a few years off.

When Miss Sprite was almost three, father kissed her and mum goodbye and promised to send for them when he could.

Several months later, a new man tried to bully his way into mum’s life. He was not a Klong Toey man, and grandma knew he was bad. 

One night while drunk, the new man wanted to be alone with mum. Miss Sprite was sick and crying, so he kicked mum and stomped on Miss Sprite’s chest.

It didn’t kill her – young bones are supple – but she was injured for weeks. The police arrived, and mum lied for the new man because she feared he would return and kill her.

Miss Sprite’s father heard about it. News travels fast in Klong Toey. He came at midnight with friends on motorbikes. The new man was never seen again. Word in the slums was that he had gone for a swim.

A year passed, and mum was not well. She went to hospital and learned that she had AIDS. She knew full well that she was dying.

On Miss Sprite’s fourth birthday, three generations – grandma, mum and child – knelt before the Sacred Tree to seek a final blessing and protection.

The next morning, grandma and mum brought Miss Sprite to us at the Mercy Center. Mum feared for her daughter. She had nowhere else to go, and orphan girls are highly sought commodities.

But Miss Sprite would not let mum leave. We finally agreed to have mum stay at the center for a few days while Miss Sprite got acquainted with the other 41 girls who live at the center.

But at the age of 22, mum died – with father holding her hand. He had since resolved some of his problems, but in his type of business he couldn’t stay in one place too long. Afterward, he came to see his daughter when he was ‘in town’.

Miss Sprite faced another hurdle when grandma got in trouble with some local gambling brokers. She owed a hefty sum, and the brokers suggested that they take Miss Sprite to study as a novice with a Lit Gae troupe in a distant border town. Orphan girls make wonderful collateral.

Grandma came to the center, and we phoned the father. “Please make these people go away.” And he did make them go away. A penitent grandma asked if we would accompany her and Miss Sprite to that old Sacred Tree to seek forgiveness at the holy place.

Now a year on, Miss Sprite keeps a picture of her mum – the one she drew that won the coloring contest – and kisses it each night before she goes to sleep.

She doesn’t talk much about her father, but she knows he’s out there somewhere and she knows that she’s safe.

Grandma is doing ‘government services’, as they say in Thai. She’ll be out of jail in another two years. She got into debt again and tried to move some ‘product’ to pay it off.

And so Miss Sprite’s story continues. Born as Miss Waranut on a Sunday in the fourth month of the year, according to the lunar calendar, on the ninth day of the waning of the moon in the year of the rat – and in the shade of the old Sacred Tree.

And she’s at the top of her game.


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