A Wife's Tale
The Story of Nok kong Din
My father, mother and I used to live in a small, quaint hut on the outskirts of Siam. My father was a field worker, a laborer, and my mother spun beautiful threads of cotton. Sometimes when I was young I remember her weaving me the most lovely silken saris from scraps of the ones she used to own. You see, my mother's grandfather was a Kralohome's nephew's son, and through the nobility (however slight) she had inherited rather magnificent clothing. Once she married my poor father, however, her traces of nobility vanished. But their love defied money problems, and this I loved about my father. However, he was greedy about the things he did own, and would do almost anything for a sack of gold. Sometimes I wondered if that was why he married Mother. I would never know.
I grew quickly and bloomed early; long, slim limbs grew from my body and my form developed to be pleasing to a man's eye. When clothed in my mother's finery at age fourteen with my soft black hair flowing behind me, I was the jewel of Siam. I attracted suitors from all over the country, and my father, realizing that I was a prize, rejected each one for being too poor. He even rejected one of the King's own noblemen, absolutely sure that one day I would be one of his wives. He was right.
I had a neighbor named Locke who lived on a farm just down the road. He served as my plaything when no suitors showed up for the day. I enjoyed calling out to his house and having him attend me like a princess. He would sometimes carry me so that my feet would not touch the dirty road or make me things from wood. It took no guessing to notice that Locke had taken a liking to me from a young age, and he truly was a good man. I was absolutely horrid to him, however, when I was a child, for my father told me I was too good for Locke. But he was always patient, always smiling, and always subservient. I never understood him.
One day the Kralohome himself knocked on my door. He said that it had come to his attention that a rose had bloomed among the thorns of the poor of Siam, the Lady of the Laborers, and he wished to see her. Immediately my father brought me out to him. Upon inspecting me he informed me that I was to come with him to the palace where I would become a wife of the King. My father was simply ecstatic. He consented at once and I was packing my bags faster than my mind had time to grip it all. I was starstruck and gleeful, to say the least; I was to marry early and to the leader of the nation. Mother was much less pleased than my father, though, and was concerned for my welfare. The Kralohome assured her that I would be well in the palace and that I seemed to be born for the royal life. I completely agreed.
I was clothed in a sari of the most beautiful blue lined with threads of gold. Mother stared at it in awe before I had to leave, shook her head, and hugged me tightly. "You are not alone in the palace. You will make many friends there and be successful. Do you understand? I believe in you." It was the kindest thing she had ever told me, and I was almost hesitant to leave. She had lived in the palace before and seemed genuinely worried. But suddenly it was time to leave and I was put on a donkey, on which I was taken to the palace. When the first golden spire came into view, my fear came into full force. I knew nothing of being a Royal Wife. What if I failed or the King was displeased with me, and I was to be put to death? Or worse: he sent me home clothed in dishonor to my father?
I was taken off the donkey and led to a grand room decorated with red velvet and gold by four muscular guards. Suddenly I saw him: tall, important, with his bald head shining like a magnificent crown. My lips tightened and I tried to slow, but a guard prodded me from behind onto a round raised platform. I quickly fell on my face, spreading my fingers on the floor as my sari fluttered behind me.
"Who, who who?" I heard the King say in his loud, stately voice. I trembled but did not move from my spot.
"This is Nok kong Din, Your Majesty, of the peasant lands, the Lady of the Laborers. She is brought before you as a wife to link the poorer class to the King. This surely will satisfy them and they will feel represented by her."
Two sharp claps sounded, and I immediately rose. His eyes were bright with wisdom, yet lethal as a two-edged sword; they pierced into me as he examined the richly-robed commoner.
He put his hands on his hips. "And she is but a peasant?"
"Yes, Your Highness," responded the Kralohome.
"Ah." The blood rose to my cheeks as he stood, staring, eyes misty as he was lost in thought. My calves burned from the donkey ride but I dared not move. I settled for shifting a finger slightly.
Suddenly the King's eyes cleared and he brought his hands together, rings jangling as they collided. "I think you are right. I think I shall approve of her. See that she is made comfortable in the Wives' Chambers."
I hastily bowed low to the floor again, stood, and allowed the guards to lead me from his presence. As I left, I gave a quick glance behind me. A guard hissed and poked me with a finger, and I turned forward, but not before seeing the King give me a furtive wink. He must have seen that I was immensely terrified. He was a good man.
The Wives' Chambers were very beautiful. In each room were small groups of magnificently-dressed women, all lovely and dressed extravagantly. Some even outshown my raw, natural beauty, which both frightened and fascinated me. One girl with large brown eyes and dark black hair that framed her face looked at me and blinked. Swiftly she stood and stepped to my side.
"Are you new?"
I glanced at her richly decorated sari. "Yes, I am. My name is Nok kong Din."
The girl smiled radiantly and shooed my guards away. "I will take it from here. Thank you." she turned back to me. "I am Ala din Na. I am sixteen years old. How old are you?"
"Ah, I see. Come to share our King with us?"
I blushed. "I...I suppose..."
She laughed at this. "Fine then. Two things you should know about His Majesty: one, he is not easily figured out. I am almost positive he is not the same man I first came to belong to."
"Second: do not expect to be doted upon. His Majesty is very sparing when it comes to attention. Seeing as he has many wives to give attention to in the first place. We tend to all get our fill of social interaction here in the Wives' Chambers."
She giggled again. "You'll figure it all out soon, I promise. I haveve been a wife for a whole year and I have not messed up too badly yet."
On my second night at the palace I met the King. It was rather odd and intimidating, but strangely nice.
I was investigating a balcony near my room when I heard a rustle of silk. I runed and to my surprise His Majesty was behind me, staring at the moon. I bowed, my forehead to the floor until he clapped for me to stand.
"Do you like the night, Princess?"
It was a question requiring an answer. I shook the fog from my head. "Why, yes. And it is such a nice, cool night, too."
"Yes." He stepped forward and leaned on the rail. Then he looked at me. "What did you do on nights like these in the country?"
"We...we would sometimes spread blankets on the ground in our yards and lay down on them, just looking at the stars and smelling the sweet night air." I took a long breath. "I suppose these balconies remind me of just that."
"It is good thing to find a way to be at home in foreign place, correct?"
"Oh...Your Majesty," I said hastily. "No, your palace is just splendid. I love it here-!"
He put a finger to my lips. "I understand. No need for explaining. I would do same if I were in strange place, no matter how comfortable."
How kind he was. I smiled and looked at the floor, reddening. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
He smelled the clean air and sighed. "I think I shall remember to do this. It clears the head. You are very wise, Nok kong Din."
I bowed again and left. It was not until the end of the day that I recalled that he remembered my name.
My days were short and happy. Ala was the best friend I could have asked for, but I made mny others, too. The only one that rarely showed a bit of politeness to me was Lady Thiang, the Head Wife. She was impatient and lacking in any sort of sympathy for me or any new wives. I mostly avoided her, but I did enjoy talking to her son, the Crown Prince Chululongkorn. He was a four-year-old masterpiece of a little boy, beautiful in fae and with limbs as artfully designed as a marble sculpture. He spoke well and asked many questions.
Most of his questions were about my past. He seemed to have inherited his father's kind, compassionate personality, but his was even stronger. Chululonkhorn was especially interested in my people and how they lived. I was embarrassed to tell him about our living conditions compared to the palaces'; his innocent brow wrinkled in concern and he seemed to be thoroughly upset when I told him that we sometimes had to skip two meals in a day because we were too poor.
"I think, when I am King, I shall help people the very best that I can."
I knew from that moment that he would become a legend of a king. He was a legend already for his loving spirit, and he would be a king loved by the people.
Over these first years I learned to paint my cheeks, define my eyes, and dye my lips with dark stain. This only emphasized my natural beauty and I was told I was simply radiant. Perhaps it was the very small piece of noble blood in me from which I inherited it, but I quickly rose to be respected by the other wives. The King, too, seemed to enjoy my company; not only because of my beauty but because I had a quick wit that amused him. By the end of the year I had my only child, a lovely, dark-haired girl with an odd feature: she possessed bright blue eyes, the envy of all of her sisters. I named her Ngrap dok Mai for her silent, peaceful personality, which could not have been more different than my fiery, passionate personality. Still, I loved her more than life itself. She seemed to float over the other girls as she grew older, dressing in dark reds and blacks with her long hair pinned in a bun on her precious head. He proclaimed our quaint family of two to be 'in favor of the King', which honored my parents and made me glow with happiness.
I realized right after Ngrap was born that I was in love with the King. Lady Thiang had warned me not to let this happen. She said that it was only a pain to my heart to fall in love with a man surrounded by so many women, but I could not help what I felt. I respected him so much. He seemed to honestly care what I thought and he was very interested in my past, like the Crown Prince. I trusted him even more than Ala. It was strange; I felt butterflies in my stomach whenever he greeted little Ngrap with a pat on her head, and she embraced him. It was a wonderful life. My parents were happy with the growing piles of gold at home and I couldn't be more satisfied with the palace life.
Shortly after my Ngrap turned eleven years old, the King gathered the wives and children in his favor together and told us that the children were to be taught by an English schoolteacher in the coming months and she was to arrive very shortly. I was very happy that Ngrap was to become an educated young lady. He also said that the favored wives may learn as well, which excited me. The only thing that made me sad was that Ala would not be going with me. She was currently not in approval because she was unable to have children. It was terrible because she so wished to learn.
When she arrived, I noticed immediately that she was nothing like me or the fellow wives. She was a lady by the name of Mrs. Anna, pale as a glass of cream, with hair golden as a ray of sun. She wore finely made clothes with ribbons and buttons, and a large, round skirt that to us was the height of hilarity. She did not speak our tongue, and she sang with a voice light as a little bird in flight. Each of our children introduced themselves to Mrs. Anna with hopeful smiles, and my daughter came out last, greeting her with a radiant face. I had hope for this woman.
Our lessons went wonderfully. I learned English very quickly because I loved it so much; the sound of it on my tongue was wonderful music. However, during one memorable lesson, Mrs. Anna's anger about the King's apparent 'broken promise' bubbled up out of her and she spoke in fury to him. The wives all turned and looked at each other, wide eyed. None of us had dared to ever speak like this to him before. The King stared at her for a while, barely believing his ears. And then, to our surprise, he responded by attempting to keep her in the palace with offers of bigger rooms and servants. It did not make sense. He usually wouldn't take such an angry outburst from a woman. I knew this from experience.
My husband craved respect. His worst fear was not being able to be seen as the authority figure he dreamed he was but sometimes wasn't. He even planned an entire ball to convince Mrs. Anna's country that he was indeed a respectable King and not a 'barbarian'. Apparently his spies had found evidence that England had a rather false opinion of him. One of his ignorant, foolish wives, a new girl by the name of Tuptim, wrote a musical rendition of an English book that she read. Tuptim was a dreamer; quiet and subservient, yet fiesty behind the King's back. It was common knowledge that her heart was with a poor servant from Burma.
Many disliked her. Perhaps that was why she was so lonely, I do not know. Only Mrs. Anna seemed to understand her. This, she said, was because Mrs. Anna had been in love before and had known how it felt. I did, too. I would do anything for His Majesty. But no one knew. Except Ala, that is. Even though she was still childless and rather an outcast, I spoke to her often about what I was feeling.
"Just be brave and follow your star," said Ala. "I heard Mrs. Anna say that once, I think. It is a strange English saying, but I believe it holds much truth. You are funny; most girls don't even consider the King to be on the same level as love, he is more like an idol or a master. But you, you dream big. I like that about you. It is sad, though, that that will be your eventual downfall."
Eventual downfall? I tried to hide how afraid that made me. How could love ever hurt anyone?
The first evidence of that was, after performing Tuptim's ballet, I saw Mrs. Anna in the King's arm, dancing to strange Western music. His face was lit and his eyes were bright with happiness, though his lips were tight with concentration on his precise dance steps. It was beautiful, and yet my heart shattered like a glass vase dashed to the floor. I slipped behind a velvet curtain and saw Mrs. Anna whirl with him across the floor, smile merry and feet light. Mrs. Anna had no place here. She needed to go back to her land of large round skirts and white face powder where she belonged, instead of bringing her home here and taking our King away from us. Suddenly I burned with anger, and I was just about to step out behind the curtain when the Kralohome rushed onto the scene, breathing heavily and crying out that they had found Tuptim.
Found Tuptim? They dragged her in by the arm, and she flung herself on Mrs. Anna's dress, screaming pleas for help. They planned to beat her, I knew that much; a surly guard carried a long, black whip in one hand and had the other poised on his hip in a ready position. The Kralohome carried a rich black robe in one hand and accused her of running away with her lover.
She had run away with her lover.
I realized with a start that I was jealous of Tuptim. Although he was just a servant, the boy loved her with such intensity that he would risk death to seek happiness with her. The King had never loved me. Although I lived in his home and he called me a wife, I was never loved like one. I would never be loved like one. He was in love with one he would never be able to have, one who was just as far from his reach as she was close. Silent tears streamed down my face as the guard readied the whip and the King's love fell onto the guard's arm, attempting to wrench his weapon from his hand. How could this happen?
As I closed my eyes to block out my feelings of anguish, I heard Mrs. Anna and the King begin to argue. She was pleading with him to understand this girl, explaining to him my exact feelings through this young girl's love for a poor boy. He refused to listen and decided to punish her himself.
"You are a barbarian!"
There was a moment of disbelieving silence that seemed to stretch on for hours. I opened my eyes to see him staring at Anna. This time, rage and confusion swept over his frame, and he trembled slightly, something I have never seen in him. He brought the whip down in frustration hard on the floor next to Tuptim, and she flinched away from it, tears falling like rain down her painted cheek.
"Am I KING or am I not KING?" he shouted, directed at Mrs. Anna. She retreated a few steps, eventually bumping a guard from behind. She jumped and stepped to the side, face even paler than normal. He continued to rant in frustration, and I could see through this that her words truly hurt him in a place no one had touched before. No one could even reach that place besides Mrs. Anna. Especially me.
"Hold this girl." The guards stretched her back toward the King, and he uncoiled the whip, sweat making his bald head shine in the dim light. He stretched it a few times and then reared back. He paused, and the silence was deafening. He tried again. No avail. Slowly he let his arm fall, disbelief etched in his face as he stared at Tuptim's back. The King looked back to Mrs. Anna, eyes tired and weak.
He threw down the whip and ran from the room.
I took this opportunity to slide from the curtain and I ran, far and long, down the numerous hallways, but the terrible emotions outran me and met me wherever I stopped.
I found out later that Tuptim had leaped off a balcony to join her lover on the other side (for he had died in the struggle) and to escape His Majesty's wrath. I was deeply saddened by this though I did not particularly like Tuptim. After running away from the scene, the King locked himself in his room and allowed no one to enter for over a he finally allowed a servant to enter, they found him emaciated, exhausted, and deeply weakened. The royal physicians examined him and could find nothing wrong with him, but it was sure as day that he was dying. If my heart had been broken before, it was nothing compared to now. If someone you loved has never faced death before, you could never know how I felt at that moment. I once snuck a peek inside his room, and he was like a shadow of his former self. He could barely move at all and he was almost as pale as Mrs. Anna. I remember crying for weeks after that. Poor Ngrap was struggling to keep up on her lessons, but she just couldn't do it. She deeply loved her father. She began to slip in school, and Mrs. Anna became very concerned about it. But she was not the only one. Several, including Chululongkorn, were suffering. I wouldn't wish a child's pain of losing a parent on anyone.
After three months Mrs. Anna just could not do it anymore. One day she told us with tears in her eyes that this would be her last lesson. Ngrap clung to me and cried with pain too deep for a young eleven-year-old to feel. I held her as Mrs. Anna tried to talk but failed, she was so anguished. It was then I realized that she loved the King just as much as he loved her. But now he was dying. She knew it was her fault for saying such heartless words to the King; it was she who broke his heart and dealt the final blow. This King's love was so strong it was like a deadly weapon that in the end killed its own warrior. But now he was practically gone.
I attempted to speak with the King several times. Once, I actually made it into the room. His suffering eyes turned on me and, seeing a wife, they closed tightly.
"Away, away, away. Why are you here? Do you come to bring upon me more pain? This is not scientific. Away, begone."
It injured me that he would send me away, though it did console me that he did not allow Mrs. Anna to visit him in his rooms either. But one day, he called his favored wives into his room for his final moments. He expected to die within the hour. I tried my best to contain my grief but it was very difficult. We sat in a ring around him, our heads bent with sorrow. After a while, Mrs. Anna also came to say goodbye; she was to leave that very evening back to her country. He was weak but he fully raised his head when he saw her; smiling slightly.
"Many months. Many months I do not see you, Mrs. Anna. And now I die."
The expression on her face was tortured. "Oh no, Your Majesty."
"This is not scientific, Mrs. Anna. I know if I die or do not die." He leaned back then, easing his head back down onto a cushion. It was a terribly heartbreaking scene, so I continued to stare at my lap as she visited with him for the last time. He left her with a shining ring to put on her finger, informing her to 'wear it always'. I was strangely not envious. I at least had Ngrap to cling to when I was sad, but Mrs. Anna had nothing. Now she did.
He called Prince Chululongkorn before him and asked him what he would do if he was King. To my surprise and delight, he proclaimed that no longer should we bow with our heads touching the floor. He instructed us to bow as in Europe, with the help of Lady Thiang. As we began to bend, Lady Thiang's face turned pale and tears spilled from her eyes. I turned and saw my husband the mighty King with his eyes closed, peacefully slumbering. Mrs. Anna was gripping his hand tightly and sobbing on it. My eyes started streaming as well, and I dipped in his direction, low and respectful. As did the rest of the people in the room.
So died the King.
I took a donkey alone back home, with only my mourning clothes on my back. Ngrap had decided to stay at the palace to continue learning with Mrs. Anna, who had also decided to stay with the Royal Princes and Princesses. Ngrap would some day be the smartest woman in Siam, and I was very proud of her. However, I could stay no longer in the place that my husband had died. I left my beautiful blue and gold sari in my closet, almost as a way of feeling that it was still in the King's possession. It was strange and sentimental, but I could not help it.
I approached my parents' home, but it was empty inside. All the furniture was gone, Mother's spinning wheel was absent, and of course, all of Father's gold was missing. No one lived here anymore. So I left and continued walking down the road. At the next house a man looked out his window and saw me pacing down the road on my donkey. He immediately ran out of the house to me. It was Locke, now slightly more weathered and many times more handsome. He slowed and we stared at each other for a few moments. Our paths had strayed apart so drastically and again had wandered next to each other again.
"Your parents moved west," said Locke.
I said nothing. I only handed him the leather lead on my donkey. He took it and led my donkey along the dwindling road that eventually took us to his house.