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by Samruam Singh

The soft billowing green of planted paddyfields gives most people who look at them a feeling of harmony and renewal. But there is another group of people who can hardly wait for the rice and other crops of silver and gold to diappear from the land as quickly as possible. They have no interest in whether crop yields are high or low, or whether there are any yields at all. Because once the crops have been harvested and removed from the fields, the lands that appear useless once again become public property. Anyone can go and gather animals and plants of all kinds without owners getting upset. Lizards, mice, toads, frogs, fish, and even dung-beetles have been the delicacies of the poor for generations. In addition, there are edible plants of all descriptions, such as, haew, phak bung, phak waen, phak khiikhuang, and phak ihin. These plants and animals have never had landlords or tenants disputing ownership over them. This rainy season, just before the farmers began plowing up the land and before the young people came home from their jobs in the city, Kham had been able to catch fish in the paddyfields than ever before. He had sold so many fish that he had accumulated quite a sum of money. After consulting with Paa Phuang, his life partner, Lung Kham was finally able to buy something he had wanted for as long as he could remember. He had wanted it so badly that he had already given up attaining it in this lifetime. Every other rainy season Lung Kham had despaird, thinking if he only had a Mida lathern, he would be certain to find more fish than anyone else. The best way to find fish in the paddyfields was with a light to illuminate the water and a finely woven cage in which to trap the fish as they lay sleeping in the night. But with the dim light from his tin-can kerosene lamp and vision blurred with age, he could not rival the youngsters who used bright Mida lanterns. Many of his neighbors watched jealously as Lung Kham stroked, touched, caressed, and polished his brand-new Mida lantern that he had just bought from Chinaman Mong for nearly 300 Baht. Actually his lantern was a different brand than Mida, but everyone still called it by that name anyway, including Chinaman Mong. He was so engrossed, so enraptured with his new Mida that Paa Phuang finally had to remind him to go back and check the fish traps that he had set ealier. It was long after they had finished supper that evening when Paa Phuang finally decided to permit Daeng, their eldest sone who was just entering fourth grade that year, to go fishing with his father. Daeng had begged to go fishing at night with his fathere many times before, but both Lung Kaham and Paa Phuang had told him the same thing each time. The glow of a single kerosene lamp wasn't sufficient to light the way for both Daeng and his father at the same time. After getting dressed, with some delays lighting the lantern, father and son left home, setting off for the paddyfields. The fields had already been partly plowed, so there were no more weeds left; it would be easier now to see the fish. The lights of different kinds of lanterns of the other fish hunters twinkled all over the horizon and were redobled by their reflection in the mirror-still water. Lung Kham carried the lantern in his left hand and a fish cage in his right. A large basket to hold the captured fish hung over his hip. Ever so carefully he took one step after the other, wading cautiously in the calf- deep water. Daeng carried his bamboo fish cage in his left hand. In his right hand he carried a big knife about a half-meter in length. He walked on the left hand side of his father and just as cautiously. The gazes of both were transfixed, peering into the water. Their ears hardly heard the sound of frogs and toads croaking noisily about them in all directions. Dozens of fish-eater snes stuck their heads out of the water, motionless. They stared imperviously at their two human competitors, who in turn viewed them with equally little emotion. "Daeng, you can't use the cage for eels or scorpion fish, or they will escape. You have to stun them with the knife. Come down straight on top of their heads with all your might. Cut through the water with the sharp edge of the knife, not the broad side. Here, I'll show you how." The young red-colored eel the width of a thumb lay stretched out full-length in the water, so still it seemed to be arleady dead. They sharp edge of the knife came down on its neck, driving its head into the soft mud. It jerked around in every direction, muddying the water. Before the surrounding water could clear, the eel had been picked up and put into the basket of the little boy. "In a little while, it will recover. Now it's your turn. Why don't you practice hitting a scorpion fish first. If you see any eels, tell me. If I let you try eels already, there's chance you'll hit it so hard it may die. Then we can't get a good price for it. You have to hit them just right. You can't let any marks show either. And don't do anything careless like hitting a snake. Look carefully before you strike. If you hit a snake, it means that all night long we'll have not hope of catching any more fish. harming snakes brings bad luck." "Daeng, Daeng! Come here quickly and hold the Mida for me. Here's full-grown duk fish. They're very hard to catch. Other fish you just have to trap under the cage and then reach in and grab them. But duk fish of this size take patience. Sometimes you have to wait a long time for the right moment to grab them. Otherwise they can give you a wound that throbs for days." ****** The planting of the paddyfields marks the end of the golden age for villagers such as Lun Kham. Then the fertile womb of the paddyfields, which had been virtually public domain, reverts to private property. The owners guard their individual plots jealously, lest the tender rice seedlings be harmed. No longer can anyone roam through the waters looking for fish. Lung Kham and others of his class knew this unwritten law of their fellow villagers only too well and never thought to violate it. Only a single patch of swamp located at the far eadge of the paddyfields remained out of all of Lung Kham's fishing places; it, too, would dry up in the dry season. Then he would have to walk along the bunds in the paddyfields, taking his beloved lantern. He would also take along another implement, a bamboo stick the width of his index finger and about one meter long. It forked tip was interwoven with bamboo into a board used for hitting frogs. Lung Kham didn't like earning a living by catching frogs. The frogs' expression when hit on the head was awful. It tormented him to see their tears flow and their front legs reach up to their eyes to wipe them away. But Lung Kham and others in his position had ever fewer choices. The night arrived that Lung Kham knew was the last night he could hunt fish in the paddyfields before he would have to change his form of livelihood to foraging in the forest. That night his basket had fewer fish, crabs, frogs, and clams than ever, so few that he feared they would not make up for the cost of the kerosene he was using for his lantern. As he paused to set the lantern on the path through the paddyfield to pump more air into it, he caught sight of chohn fish. It was as wide as his wrist. Hiding among the ricestalks now over half a meter high, it lays so still that one almost might not thinks it was a fish. Lung Kham hesitated for a moment. If he used his fishtrap, he was afraid that, in the process, he might damage some of the rice shoots. Instead, he decided to get a firm grasp on his knife and came down with all his might on its head. He made such a loud noise that he startled even himself. The water became murky with mud and blood, but the chohn fish was no longer there. Instead, the sound of the writhing fish came from the middle of the ricefield. Lung Kham set off after the fish. He carefully waded between the rows of planted ricestalks, looking right and left, careful not to injure any of the seedlings, not wanting any of the plants to be damaged by him. Suddenly a gunshot rang out across the paddyfields. The lantern in his hand shattered. He was terrified. A cold shiver ran down his spine. His heart fluttered. When he came to his sense, he took off running for dear life, his two legs so light that he didn't notice them. The rice shoots in his path were trampled underfoot. From the distance, he heard voice velling out after him. "You cur! Trampling everything down! So it's you who have been ruining the rice! Now I'll have to replant it all over again, and I don't have enough money to buy more seedlings. If I find you again, I'll shoot you dead!"