The coolest part of the day had already waned, giving way to the sun that had scarcely breached the horizon into the hazy morning sky.
“All right Malee, you may play with the ducks later, we have work to do in the fields. Come along now” called out a slender, stooped man in loose clothing, sandals, and a woven sun hat.
“Yes, father,” replied a dark-haired, young girl as she tossed a handful of grain at a dozen or so excited black ducks and hopped down from the lowest fence-rail of the enclosure. Malee bent down, picked up her sun hat and a couple of empty satchels, then hurriedly adorned herself with them.
From behind her, Malee’s mother approached. She was a pleasant-faced woman who stood nearly twice as tall as her daughter. She gently patted Malee on the back and scooted her along so they could both catch up to her father.
“Prem, let us catch up. Our legs are shorter.”
“Of course, Sunee,” Prem replied while he halted, turned, and slowly cracked a grin watching the two scampering toward him.
Other villagers joined Malee and her parents making their way to the terraced fields.The adults offered each other semi-lethargic greetings, which grew full-hearted when speaking to Malee. Being the smallest and youngest among the crowd she was easily recognizable. She enjoyed the friendly attention she received, almost as much as her very special job.
The sun had already burned through much of the dawn haze, turning the distant hills to copper and the sea of rice paddies into sparkling peridot. The villagers broke off into smaller bunches and walked along the mounded ridges of earth separating the fields to locate where they had left off from the prior day. They stepped gently down into the watery beds with their shins and ankles bared and waded in the warm shallow pools to tend to their plantings.
Sunee and Prem helped lower Malee into the paddy where they would be working. The water came just below her knees, which turned murky as she walked amidst the long stems of grain. Malee wore her satchels cross-shouldered for balance and to keep them from perpetually slipping into the water as she worked.
Her method was simple: she reached into the water down to the base of the plant, separated the blades of grain between her slender fingers, and dragged her hand upwards to scrape off any pests, careful not to break or uproot the shoots. She would then lift her cupped hand from the water and nimbly sort out any critters she found. The larger snails would go in one bag, to feed their family, and everything else would go into the other, to feed the ducks. Either option brought her joy.
It was the dry season so the crops would not be as bountiful this time of year and pests could further weaken the harvest. Malee understood the importance of this to her family and village and her role in making a difference.
Hours of labor later, Malee and her family took a brief break from the strain and stifling sun.
“How’s the hunting going today, Malee?” asked Prem. She proudly lifted her shoulder bag for her father to inspect. Impressed by the heft of the bag, he nodded with approval.
“Looks like you will have more than enough here to share with your uncle.” Malee smiled broadly and glanced at her mother, who grinned in return.
“Aroon…?” Sunee called over.
“Yes, sister…?” a man several paces away replied and then drew nearer. Aroon was dressed like the others, but he did not appear nearly as shabby or sweaty.
“Would you care to join us for dinner this evening?”
“That would be nice after a long day, thank you! I’ll bring the spirits.” Aroon patted Malee fondly on the head.
They exchanged a few more pleasantries and passed around a water pouch one last time to ease the sweltering day then moved on to the next patch.
After the plip-plop of her feet dipping into the water, Malee continued on with her work. Delightful thoughts of her visit later that evening with her uncle rollicked around her head, which reflected on her face, as well as the water’s surface. Her cheery images were disrupted by a bit of a pinch on her fingertip. She wondered if she caught it on a rough frond edge. As she glided her hand up the next stalk, the sensation repeated again. However, when her hand came closer to the surface she saw a thick streak of deep crimson mixed with the water. She jumped back and screeched in fright and at the thought she might be injured. Malee inspected her hand, but there was no blood or sign of injury. She wondered if her eyes or mind were playing tricks on her in the sunlight.
“Malee, are you alright dear?” inquired her parents.
“Yes, I’m okay. Just saw a frog…or something,” Malee reassured herself with a smirk. Her parents nodded and returned to their toil.
After taking a calming breath, Malee turned to begin her work again. However, she froze at the sight of something breaking the surface tension of the pool little more than a stride away. It was smaller than her hand, with a mottled maroon fin poking up. The clever, compact fish appeared to hover there, simply opening and closing its mouth, as though formulating an opinion of Malee.
“Oh, so you’re what I saw!” Malee spoke softly and slowly moved toward the fish, which immediately darted under.
“Okay, we’ll say hello another time then.” She started stripping the stalks of snails once again. And, just as before, she felt a plucking at her fingers. She could just make out the rufous fish pecking at the smallest bits within her hand, it reminded her of one of their ducks eating grain. Malee giggled as the fins faintly brushed her submerged hand.
“You can help yourself, just don’t be too greedy. And my fingers aren’t for eating.”
Once her hand broke free from the water, the fish jumped aside and waited eagerly for the next pass of Malee’s hand. With each repeat of this cycle it would stay a little longer in her hand while the water drained out, then leaped to the safety of the reservoir. Malee decided she wanted a closer look, so the next time she cupped both hands tightly beneath her carmine companion to keep the water in longer.
She moved her face very near to her hands. Her frilly friend stared back with deep, dark eyes that glinted in the sun. She noted that in the light its iridescent scales shimmered hues of vermilion, garnet, magenta, and plum. The two of them breathed in unison, and the dorsal fin stood up as they inhaled and laid down as they exhaled.
“My goodness, you’re gorgeous. You are all shades of red, aren’t you? Well, it’s nice to meet you, Daeng.” At the sound of her voice, Daeng’s fins flourished in agreement. “My name is Malee.”
“Who are you talking to Malee?” Sunee called out.
“My fish friend – Daeng! I’m going to bring him home to show the ducks. And Uncle Aroon.”
Sunee and Prem looked at each other with a shared smile.
“How will your fish friend survive the journey home?” Prem asked pragmatically.
That was a good question that Malee hadn’t considered. The water in her hands would spill or leak out too quickly. The same if she used her hat as a bowl. And her satchels were filled with dinner for the ducks and the family. Malee reluctantly released Daeng back into the paddy, though the fish didn’t stray too far. Straightening back up, she wiped her bent brow, then looked to quench her thirst.
“Father, do you have any drinking water?”
Sunee responded instead, “Have this one dear, it’s almost empty. Finish it up, we’ll be heading home soon anyway.”
“Thank you, mother.” Malee retrieved the pouch held out by her mother. She sipped all that was left and suddenly realized that Daeng would fit through the opening and survive well enough in it.
Malee scooped up some water from around her legs to refill the pouch. Now came the tricky part of convincing Daeng that this was all a good idea. She chased the fish around for a bit and soon realized she wouldn’t be able to keep up with, let alone catch, Daeng. Instead she decided to resume her chore of looking for pests and hoped her burgundy buddy would join her once again.
Before long, Daeng was back into the routine. Surprisingly, the fish cooperated with the scheme and swirled smoothly into the pouch and Malee closed it carefully to prevent any damage to the new found friend.
“Don’t drink out of this one!” She warned with a smile and her parents nodded in acknowledgement.
Shortly thereafter, the family left the marshy meadows to make their way home for their dinner preparations. Malee had more than her usual energy for the trek and with everyone she passed she’d show the pouch and describe her latest best friend. In time she spotted the profile of their raised thatched house just ahead and raced the rest of the way, straight for the paddling of black ducks.
Eventually her parents caught up to her at their own pace and Prem took the satchel of snails from Malee’s shoulder and brought them up to the house with Sunee. Meanwhile, Malee approached the ducks and, from a safe distance, she sprinkled the overloaded satchel containing the smaller pests into the enclosure. She amusedly watched the honking and shoving that ensued as the fowl greedily gobbled up the best trappings of the day.
“Malee, come in and wash up before your uncle arrives!” Sunee beckoned from the entrance of their house.
“Okay mother, I’ll be right in.” Malee turned back to comment to the ducks, “I have something else to show you that’s pretty special. But it’ll have to wait until morning. All I can tell you is that it’s in this pouch, it’s red, and it’s fearless!”