AN END, A BEGINNING
On the sixth day the preparatory observances end and it is time for the final rites.
too long in arm and leg
We have suited ourselves in sombre attire. We have closed the coffin. Daily, we have listened to the monks' blessings and offered them food. The lead parts in these rituals have been played by my son, aged 24, and my daughter, just 16. It is assumed, when a mother of grown-up children dies, the wits of the widower will not be in such fine tune that he can deal with these heavy matters; the onus falls on his children.
So it is the son who must knock on the coffin before each hour of prayer, point to the empty chair over which her last portrait hovers, bid her spirit come out, if she will, and join us with folded hands. It is the daughter who, from her mother's handbag, must take out the lipstick, face powder, mascara, nail varnish, make the corpse up, dress her hair; choose the dress she shall last wear and put her in it; lay at the bottom of the coffin, for her to lie on, all those other clothes she might have need of in the unpredictable climate of the after world. Son and daughter each must hammer in a nail as the lid is fixed; and in this act the widower is allowed to join them. We all touch the body as it is laid to rest.
Now, in the evening of the sixth day, from the dais buried in a mound of jasmine, orchids, fake money, paper prayers, the coffin is lifted down and borne to the cremation site. The children carry the large portrait photograph in front of her. We mutter a commentary about our whereabouts, about what we are doing with her, as we go; after only a week of death spirits are still in bewilderment and may be disturbed if they are not kept informed.
Climbing the stone steps, nearest and dearest first, the congregation go up to add each their little bit of tinder to the pyre.
one last look
beneath the prized-up lid
a week old face
And then the smoke.
In the early hours of the morning the oven has cooled, and as we assemble again a temple worker has prepared everything. On a small tablecloth, artistically no, with some anatomical accuracy yes, he has laid out the cooling bone fragments in the form of a being. A caricature, a satirical manikin, next to unsorted ashes. A doll's head skull, leg bones no longer now than those of a large bird, the pelvis (from which I saw her children born) like fiddle sticks. We say a prayer and the worker ties the four corners of the cloth together. It is given to my son to hold by the knot and he suspends it as one might a hot dripping suet pudding. My daughter holds the portrait and we again walk in procession to the waiting car.
It is half an hour's drive to the little fishing port close to the mouth of the Chao Phya River. As red lights turn to green, as the policeman signals us to halt, as we wait for a pedestrian to cross, we inform the spirit. Each of us has a bag of almost worthless coins, to scatter whenever we turn a corner, for urchin boys to fight over, to 'pay our way'.
every smell for sale
fish lip feelers stiffen
on crushed ice
To reach the jetty we have to pass through the riverside market place. The pudding bag, followed by the portrait, followed by half a dozen mourners, weave through the shopping throng to the waiting river launch. Our murmurs competing with the chug-chug of the outboard motor, we continue our commentary as we rock across a freighter's wake, tossing out more coins, till we reach the bar.
The boat idles where the in-tides and the out-tides meet. Here the sea may suck the bones and ashes a small way here, a small way there, but never far away. My son unties the bag and sheds them as a dispersing cloud.
purling from side to side
her ring like a stone
David Cobb is recognised internationally, to quote the Welsh Haikuist Ken Jones, as 'the Grand Old Man of British haiku'. He was one of the founders of the British Haiku Society in 1990, is a past president, and remains a tireless activist for haiku internationally. He is the editor and author of over a dozen books of haiku writing, including The Iron Book of British Haiku (Iron Press 1998), The British Museum Haiku (British Museum Press 2002), Business in Eden (Equinox Press 2006), and the book length haibun, or nikki, Spring Journey to the Saxon Shore, first published in 1997. His Web site is www.davidcobb.co.uk .