Cloudscape: Pittsburgh Snow Brings Childhood Memories
Translated by Thar Tet Toe
Photos by Than Htay Maung
As it was too cold to settle into the night’s sleep, I reminisced about a poem by the celebrated poet, Kyi Aye about a girl who could not sleep. And I looked out of the window. Here and there was snow, and snow, and snow. Everything, all white with snow. The black-and-white landscape of the night made me feel more lonesome. And I retired to bed, my mind wandering through all places that I have known.
The sound—I heard it soon as my back touched the bedding—the sound of water flowing. It could not be rain; I had just looked out the window. And there was nothing in the bedroom to spill and flow. Considering all this, I could only make one conclusion: it came from inside of me!
The sound was not like the sounds from a pleasant creek, nor was it harsh like those from the angry sea. It was not as forceful as those from a waterfall, either. Just rhythmic with sporadic rapidity as when a stream passes an eddy. Sometimes it hissed as if it passed over an obstacle.
Suddenly, I realized that it was the sound of the creek in the little village where I grew up. Then, I began to forget the discomforts of a sleepless night.
The current is a little high as the inlet departs from the sea. The impact from the sea makes the creek agitated. The creek, as if it were girl, will not be pleased with the intrusion of the outside current that crashes in without entreaty. Yet, the girl-creek has to give in. With rushing currents the girl-creek responds with harsh stamping. The foreign water flows in. Though it might have been resistant, the little creek begins to wear a smile. She knows that the handsome incoming water brings in good things for the people. The sweet-talking stranger makes enticing rhythms in the sound of waves. And the girl-creek melts. It is for the good of her friends, the people.
The incoming currents flow in some twigs, even some trunks of fallen trees. They are valued by villagers for making fire. Men and women alike come in boats to fetch the floating wood. It usually is a happy occasion. They come in groups: families, youngsters, a mother and her son, or a father with his daughter, or even some in boats large enough to collect a handsome amount. The collected wood is good for the whole year for a family and even earns some surplus for sale.
There is another gift that the creek brings in. It is very attractive to children. Its shape is round and it is dark brown in color. It is the offspring of a certain mysterious tree, the shape or color of which is unknown to the villagers. Nor do they know the region where is grows. However, they make a wonderful missile [“doe” in Burmese] for children in their game of pitch. Children fetch such fruits, called “gon-nyin,” fervently whether they are shrunken or sumptuous. Then, they give their gathering to the elders.
The elders then crack the hard outer covering, mince the sharp-smelling seed inside it, and conserve it in sugar that is boiled to a thick consistency. Though of baseless belief, it is said to do good for girls. Each of girl-visitor is given some “gon-nyin-yo,” the medicinal jam. It is fondly shared among families with a number of women folks. Sometimes in summer, I would buy “gon-nyin-yo” from hawkers passing my house in the city.
I don’t know what good it does to girls, yet I eat it with yearning for the days past when children ardently collected them in boats. In fact, whether it be medicinal or not, it does give us some refreshment of fond memories. In that way it is a kind of medicine.
Together with twigs, wood, and “gon-nyin,” the currents of the rainy season bring chunks of crude oil. The crude oil can be seen from afar as it has an oily film floating around it on the surface of the water.
While boating for “gon-nyin,” we children take a break, tying our boat to a protruding tree branch on the river. Though our hands and bodies rest our eyes did not. Soon as we catch sight of something that could possibly be a chunk of crude oil, we call out that we were the ones who saw it first.
Because most of the inhabitants of our little village make their living in fishery, most of us own boats. We heat the oil chunks in an old pot when the rains come. We apply oil to the boats that brought the oil in. Thus the boats become more durable and protected. Some use the oil for their houses as well.
Houses with oil-coated wooden walls can stand strong weathering, the oil we feed to the walls prevents them from rotting in the rain. Because it is so important to protect the walls we feed them more oil and whatever is leftover is used to polish the floor.
We use rags in applying oil to the floor. We soak one end of the rag with oil and cover it with the end that does not have oil. Then we rub it against the floor, over and over again until the floor becomes bright and shiny. Lying on the polished floor, we had wonderful time listening to stories told by Grandma. It was so delightful that I find myself unable to compare it to any other time in my life. Grandma tells stories until she had no more stories she could think of. So we play telling Grandma’s stories to each other.
We children sometimes put characters of stories in wrong places. The half-bird, half-human mythical heroine of the much-loved romance, “Dwe-me-naw” became the legendary lady who bore many sons and daughters, “Shin-mway-lun.” Mr. Tiger went with Mr. Rabbit into the forest to fetch thatching that happened to be on the grounds where Mr. Rabbit (another Mr. Rabbit) competed running with Mr. Tortoise in our re-told tales. Our beloved Grandma, who fell asleep while telling stories, woke up and chuckled at our absurdity. She corrected our mis-tellings.
Lying on the cool floor, I gaze at the moon hanging in the fork of the palm tree, and say: “How beautiful is the Moon, Grandma!” I say it on each and every night the moon is full. And each time, Grandma raises her head abruptly and says: “Oh! It sure is.”
Young and callow as I was, I can only now appreciate the value: the values of the cool floor I loved lying on, the boating trip to collect the raw oil chunks that were heated and applied on the floor, the stories Grandma told, the beautiful odor of scented wood from Grandma, and the moon that Grandma raised her head to.
These romantic attributes of life are the underlying qualities that put us where we are today.
Now in Pittsburgh, I lie down on a spring mattress and I glimpse the snowy landscape from the nearby window. I can feel tenderness and warmth when my feet touch the carpeted floor. And the room is scented electronically with the smell of a certain flower I know well.
Underneath is not the oil-polished floor that I used to love.
Nor is the Moon resting at the fork of the palm tree branches.
And no bedtime stories from Grandma.
None of the lovely aroma of “karamek” the scented wood Grandma used for cosmetics.
No more was the “sound and blissful” sleep that I used to know…
…but had not learned to value…
READ Khet Mar’s bio.
READ Khet Mar’s story of coming to Pittsburgh.