Jiraporn looked up. Mother was approaching, shaking her head. "Bad news, Little Mango Tree. I talked to Bouchar. He says we lose the house unless we pay the remaining mortgage in one month."
"But so much money!" Jiraporn protested, hugging herself. "We can't harvest enough rice to pay that, let alone feed ourselves and the spirits."
Mother nodded dismally, and sat down next to Jiraporn. Gently, she pried the knife and half-peeled, slightly ripe mango from her daughter's fingers. "I don't like to see you with a knife, Jiraporn. You might cut yourself."
Jiraporn's soft, dark eyes restlessly watched her mother's hands wield the knife, sliding the dull, silvery blade across the scarlet-gold fruit in a peeling motion. "But Mother, I must help somehow. You let Vichai work the plow."
"Well, he is much older than you," Mother stated primly. Vichai was seventeen, three years older than Jiraporn. She paused a moment in her peeling, then stood abruptly and strode away across the smooth dirt. "Go work on your math homework, dear," she added over her shoulder.
Jiraporn's eyes grew moist and shiny, and she clenched her fingers in her loose black hair. Yes, she could go do her algebra while her whole family starved and lost their house and rice field. She tilted back her head and looked up into the shady branches of the kiwi tree. "But I would rather die than be idle and useless," she murmured to their rustling, sunlit leaves. A cicada chirped nearby, and a large cricket alighted on her navy blue skirt to rub its silken wings. "Next," Jiraporn confided to the cricket, "she'll be locking me inside."
Sighing, Jiraporn stood up, brushed off her clothes, and hopped onto her brother Vichai's bicycle. Pedaling with her feet, she gripped the handlebars and steered it over the dirt in front of her house to the narrow path that led to the market. The wheels spun slowly, bumping over loose stones and gravel, jostling Jiraporn from side to side. Yet she was relaxed and confident. It was not the first time she had taken her brother's bike while he was away in the fields. And she had pinned a note to a banana tree so her mother wouldn't worry any more than she always did.
"Jiraporn!" Visit exclaimed when she pulled up beside his stand and got off her bike. He grinned. "Off on your own again?"
Jiraporn shrugged. "I need help, I guess. What are you selling today?" she asked suddenly, avoiding the subject. "Scallops?"
"Nah, carp. Got the best here in all of Thailand." He gestured to the wooden bins of fish. "You must really be distracted to mistake carp for scallops."
"So I'm blind," she said carelessly. "Just one more thing to worry about." There was a brief silence and a man walked by, selling cotton and banana bunches. At last she said heavily, "The truth is, Visit, Bouchar is taking our house away if we don't pay by next month. We promised two months ago to pay, but we just don't have that much money."
Visit's wrinkled face was grim. "Nasty landlord. How much?"
She told him. "I need a plan. A good one. I do all this schoolwork that's supposed to make me smart since Mother won't let me work, and now I have a chance to put it to use and I can't think!" Jiraporn buried her face in the white cotton sleeve of her blouse.
Visit sighed and patted her back. "Maybe I can cheer you up. It's not much, but . . ." he wrapped two fish in some greasy brown paper. "Take this home to your mother. By the way, that Anna Kuankaew came by the other day."
Jiraporn nodded absently, stuffing the fish into a wicker basket nailed to the bike's handlebars. Anna Kuankaew was a rich lady who had come by once, wanting to buy their mango tree, but Jiraporn wasn't really interested. "Thank you!" she said with sincerity, pedaling off.
"Wish I could help!" Visit called after her.
"It's outrageous!" exclaimed Mother in anguish when Jiraporn slipped quietly into the kitchen. Mother set a dish of steamed rice and prawns on the table and put her hands on her hips. Jiraporn stood, still and solemn, for a moment before going to place the parcel of fish on the table.
"Explain yourself," Mother commanded angrily. "How dare you ride a bike, you could have been overturned and died!"
Calmly, Jiraporn said, "Visit gave us some fish."
"Take it back," snapped Mother. "I'll not be accepting charity."
"It's not charity, Mother," put in Vichai from the corner, sitting down cautiously on a low stool, "it's a gift."
Shaking her head, Mother sighed and placed a pitcher of coconut milk and some sliced mango beside the prawns and rice. Seating herself, Jiraporn poured coconut milk into her cup and put food on her plate. They ate glumly, in silence, except for one point when Mother, wiping her mouth on her apron, muttered, "If your father was alive everything would be fine."
Lying on her mat that night, staring at the filmy gray mosquito netting that floated beneath the dimly burning lantern, Jiraporn wondered sleepily what it was like to make a difference.
The next morning was hot, and Jiraporn opened the door to let some fresh air in as she cooked a simple noodle soup with mushrooms. Mother entered with an armful of bananas. "Sorry about yesterday, Little Mango Tree. I 'spect it's on account of that money." She dabbed at red eyes and sniffed. "'Fraid I cried a great deal last night."
Dropping her spoon, Jiraporn bent over and comforted her mother, hugging her. At least that was one thing she could do.
As she drew back, Mother set the bananas down and started making tea. After a moment, Jiraporn begged, "Please let me harvest rice, Mother."
Mother stopped, her hand above the ceramic teapot which she had placed, full of water, on the gas stove. Jiraporn stared into the smooth, milky, light brown broth, expecting to hear only heavy silence. But her mother took a deep, shaky breath, and whispered, "I'm going to tell you something, Jiraporn. It was a year after your father died of cancer, and you were playing outside. You were four. Perhaps you remember."
Of course she remembered. Oh, Jiraporn remembered all too well. The stifling morning heat, the shade of the banana leaves swaying. She had been stripping bark with a knife when the knife, in her chubby, untrained fingers, slipped on the slick bark and grazed her shoulder. It was a serious cut. It kept bleeding and bleeding, no one could stop it . . .
Her mother's trembling voice cut the painful memory short. "I was so afraid I'd lose you too. After that I just . . . couldn't bear to feel that fear again, that . . . I couldn't bear it." She turned abruptly and left, leaving Jiraporn alone with the soup, the tea, and her thoughts.
* * *
A month later, Jiraporn turned off the black-and-white television and went out to the rice fields where Vichai was hacking at the crop with a scythe. He had stripped off his shirt and his forehead was beaded with sweat. Jiraporn kicked off her thong sandals and let her bare feet sink into the soft, moist, cool mud in which the rice thrived. Squatting in the field to watch her brother, she wondered again how she could help. Probably it was no use: Bouchar came today to take away everything they owned.
Shading her eyes, Jiraporn took a last look at their house. One story, small, built of thin wood that smelled of sawdust with high small windows. Banana, guava, and kiwi trees grew at the sides, next to the pen of water buffalo they kept, and two palm trees grew in the back. When warm rains fell, inch-long red ants crawled from those trees and she and Vichai would gather them to fry for dessert.
Her favorite tree was an old mango tree, reaching gnarled but healthy, strong branches up to her bedroom window. When she had been recovering from her near-fatal cut, she ate so many mangos that Vichai said, "Is she going to turn into a mango tree?" That was how her pet name began.
Jiraporn went over to the tree and, a few yards away, buried a mango seed. Then she walked to join her mother at the spirit house.
Her mother was teary-eyed, placing a bowl of pork and cucumber salad with sticky rice on the altar inside the semicircle of flickering candles, meant to please the spirits of the fields. "At least," she gasped in a muffled voice, "we were always good Buddhists."
"I wish I could help," whispered Jiraporn, hugging Mother. If only she could think of something worthwhile, instead of doting over mango trees.
Mango trees! That was it! Running outside, she leapt astride Vichai's bicycle and pedaled with all her might. The bike whizzed over the rocky path, across the market, down to Anna Kuankaew's house.
"Anna Kuankaew! Anna Kuankaew!" She shouted the woman's name desperately, pounding the polished door with both fists. It finally swung open. In the doorway stood a short, smiling, dignified lady, practically white-skinned, with gray hair twisted into a bun held by chopsticks. "I'm Jiraporn," said Jiraporn breathlessly. "I own the mango tree on the other side of the village."
Recognition lit up the woman's sparkling black eyes. "Ah yes! Are you selling it?"
Jiraporn nodded eagerly and offered a price.
"Well, that sounds reasonable," agreed Anna Kuankaew. "Come in and have some tea."
"I'm in a hurry," protested Jiraporn. "Please can I have the money, and we'll work out the details later."
To her surprise, the old woman nodded and vanished into the interior. Peeking inside, Jiraporn saw a table set with delicate china dishes and a gold statue of Buddha.
Anna Kuankaew returned and handed her an envelope. "So glad you stopped by, dear," she added kindly, but Jiraporn was already on her bike and down the road.
She was almost home when she heard bleating ahead. Jiraporn slammed on the brakes, but a sheep in the road knocked into her. There was a smell of damp, muddy wool and the bicycle swerved, flinging Jiraporn off the road and down a hill, knocking her head against a rock. She struggled for breath, but her head ached and spun dizzily. Her last glimpse of the envelope was a sliver of white, borne by the hot wind into a nearby river.
* * *
Jiraporn opened her eyes. She was in a white-walled room that smelled sickeningly of soap and detergent. This was a hospital outside her village.
The door creaked open and Mother and Vichai walked in.
"I'm so sorry, Mother!" Jiraporn cried, trying to sit up. A needle was taped to her arm and her head throbbed. "I got the money but it floated away—I lost it!"
"No, no, Little Mango Tree," Mother crooned, stroking her hair back soothingly. "Anna Kuankaew accidentally gave you the wrong envelope. That was a letter to her son in America. She came by immediately with the money and we paid off the mortgage. The house is ours!
"She also found you by the side of the road and paid for your hospitalization. We have much to thank Anna Kuankaew for."
Jiraporn nodded. "Can I go home now?"
"Yes, you can go home."
Back at their beautiful house, Jiraporn sat outside, wrapped in blankets.
Mother had made her promise to rest. Looking about, listening to the birds' musical chirping, she noticed something. The mango seed she had planted had grown into a tall green shoot, freshly sparkling with morning dew. "Mother!" called Jiraporn, smiling. "I think the first sprig of hope is putting down its roots."