A 'voice from the sky' breaks _ and charms _ old hearts in Klong Toey

After descending into madness following an encounter with evil, Nung Ning is back and melting the wizened hearts of the Slaughterhouse grannies' corp with the sweet songs she learned from her mum

Somehow Nung Ning's music soothes the decades and the old pains of these elderly ladies and brings back the beautiful memories of yesteryear.

And they hold Nung Ning tight like her mum used to do, their breath strong with garlic and betel. And to Nung Ning it's the sweetest scent in the world because it reminds her of her mum

This savage/sweet tale is dedicated to Nung Ning, a roly-poly Slaughterhouse miss. Book learning was never her thing, and she only made it through the third grade. Later on, after troubles beat her up bad, she went through a ''loopy'' phase.

But Nung Ning came through it all with flying colours and she's our Klong Toey sweetheart of the year _ maybe the decade.

She's got a voice like an angel, and now that she's no longer loopy, she's happy. She loves her music, and she loves her blind Aids guy. I don't think she even knows how to frown.

But her loopiness was all too real _ she was crazy on the street for nearly four years, eating out of rubbish bins, competing with the stray dogs and cats for choice morsels. Actually it was probably being crazy that protected her, not that it was fun at all.

Now she is well: In fact, she has a slum-style wisdom about her.

Our fearsome beloved Slaughterhouse grandmothers _ the guardians and gatekeepers of our humble community _ once again call her Nung Ning, which can be translated into Tinker Bell. The grannies say that even while she was gone they never stopped loving her. Hoping she was still alive and that she'd come back some day.

And she did. What's more, she has self-respect for the first time in her life. Wears lipstick and 40 baht high heel shoes she bought from a street vendor.

Why did she go loopy? It was after that evil foul-smelling, one-legged stepfather stomped her face in the gutter, so to speak.

Nung Ning recalls now that during those horrible four years, she couldn't even think of her name, but she never forgot her songs _ ones her mum used to sing. And nowadays, in the Slaughterhouse, she melts the cold, cynical wizened hearts of our beloved awesome grannies. Her music touches their very souls. She's joined the great artists of the globe by singing on street corners in Klong Toey and even downtown Bangkok at times. With a gentle sweet voice, she sings about a place ''between Earth and sky''. She's never had any training, but mostly she stays on key, connecting the notes of the sad songs her mum used to sing to her.

Mum would come home bedraggled at early dawn, a mixture of garlic and betel on her breath, and hold her only daughter as tight as she could, crying, singing, crooning and whispering of tomorrow and better days. And Nung Ning would sing, cry, croon and whisper those sweet bitter songs of yesterday together with her mum. And our wonderful tough Slaughterhouse crones melted as Nung Ning brought sobs to their throats and tears to their eyes. Now that she's back, Nung Ning sings all the old songs and the grannies melt and cry just like they used to _ ladies who have been afraid to care, haven't cried in years, lest their own old hurts and wounds come back once more to haunt them in the night.

But somehow Nung Ning's music soothes the decades and the old pains of these elderly ladies and brings back the beautiful memories of yesteryear.

And they hold Nung Ning tight like her mum used to do, their breath strong with garlic and betel. And to Nung Ning it's the sweetest scent in the world because it reminds her of her mum.

Mum was a beauty from the provinces who never ''fit in'' in the big city. The bus routes were always a puzzle to mum _ complicated, like learning to tell time. Mum and daddy had migrated to Bangkok together. Their only child, Nung Ning was born in their Klong Toey shack. Mum was afraid of hospitals. Daddy, a humble un-lettered man, told mum to stay home to care for their daughter. He would work to feed the family.

Nung Ning was eight when daddy worked himself to an early death carrying 100kg sacks of rice up and down gang planks into the holds of rice barges. He got a cough _ didn't think anything of it, but it was all over from there.

After daddy died, mum found a job as a night maid in a back alley Bangkok no-star hotel. Mum used to tell her daughter that she was ashamed of what she had to do and hoped it wasn't a bad sin. Early each dawn as she was coming home, she stopped at the Klong Toey fresh market and bought throw-away fish heads at five baht a kilo and pork leftovers at 12 baht a kilo for the hungry cats and stray dogs she met along the way.

Looking back, no one really knows how mum got tangled up with the one-legged guy, but it could not have been nice. He gave mum Aids and used her bad. One morning, singing as she always did, with Nung Ning in her arms, mum just fell asleep and died.

The one-legged guy wouldn't leave their shack, so 13-year-old Nung Ning ran. Sleeping in an abandoned pickup with a lame, half-blind kitten curled up next to her. She'd feed that kitten good stuff out of the garbage bins and softly sing herself to sleep while that kitten played with her hair and kept the rats and roaches away.

One drunken night her one-legged stepfather caught up with her. Told her to do ''her duty''. He gave her Aids and made her pregnant, and it drove her insane.

Pregnant, loopy and wandering around the Slaughterhouse neighbourhood. Later in her pregnancy the grannies were afraid she'd lose the baby, so one of them called her daughter, a police woman. She brought Nung Ning to us, just in time. We gave her food, a clean bed and a large dose of antivirals before she gave birth. She delivered a healthy baby girl and named her ''Little Grasshopper''. Luckily we had another new mum, and she had enough milk for both children.

A month later, Nung Ning began wandering again. We'd find her, and she'd be OK for a while. Then one night, we lost her. She climbed over the gate and disappeared. We searched the city morgues, hospitals and police stations. Six months later, we included her in our prayers for the dead: ''May her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.'' But secretly we always hoped and we told little Grasshopper that maybe someday, her mum would come home. And Grasshopper would kiss her mama's picture each night before she went to sleep.

Her daughter was four when we got the phone call. Her mum was in a government mental ward. After weeks of sedation, she ''came around'' _ remembering her name and us. She thought that she'd had a baby, but wasn't sure. The hospital staff said she always sang softly, so softly.

We brought her home. She didn't mention her daughter, nor did we.

For over a year she slept more than she was awake, all the while becoming more active and lucid. She could care for herself and began helping in the Aids ward. We gave her small tasks and spending money.

This is when her Prince Charming comes into the the story. She began buying lipstick for herself and instant noodles for this blind guy who was in a bed close to her in our Aids ward. After several months, he was strong enough to go home. He lived in the Slaughterhouse with his mother, and Nung Ning went home with him.

The Slaughterhouse grandmothers did not approve, much less give their blessing. They see Nung Ning as a fragile innocent girl to be protected. Plus, the blind Aids guy and his mother came from outside the Slaughterhouse.

But she told them she was happy, and she stayed put, and the grannies still love her and her beautiful voice. Till this day Nung Ning's life revolves around her music, and the blind Aids guy.

She found a second-hand battery-powered voice box and microphone for 185 baht, and she sings for the pure joy of it. If you ask, she will sing you a tune, for a small token of course. Her blind Aids guy hangs on to her shoulder. Early in the mornings, for added income, they push the small three-wheel cart she rents for 20 baht a day and comb the Slaughterhouse, collecting ''sellables''. In the afternoon, after a nap, it's music time.

Grasshopper is now eight years old. A healthy, shy girl in the second grade, she excels in all she does. She stays with us because she doesn't like the blind Aids guy, but that's OK too.

Some of you may be wondering what happened to the horrible one-legged stepfather who gave Aids to Nung Ning and who is Grasshopper's father. Several months ago our some of our ladies of the Slaughterhouse had a ''conversation'' with him, suggesting (in a ladylike fashion) that he go away. But he still hung around, though no one saw much of him. Then one evening, after a bottle of our cheapest local moonshine, he was staggering down the road, and boom! _ hit head-on by a six-wheel truck delivering pigs. Passed on, right then and there. The driver was hammered, high on speed.

One of the grannies saw the accident and told the driver (a nice young man whose mum is known in the Slaughterhouse) to drive on quickly and deliver the pigs. The granny's nephew is a policeman, and she called him to come to the accident scene _ slowly.

Our local man from a benevolent society that deals with accident victims collected the body. Said he would take care of the paper work. The grannies attended the cremation.

And Nung Ning? No matter what happens tomorrow, today she is a happy woman. She loves the blind Aids guy, and he loves her. He was the first man on the planet to treat her respectfully as a woman, outside the Mercy Centre that is, and we don't count in matters of the heart.

The glint of madness is gone from her eyes. She's not loopy any more and she brings joy and a smile to everyone she meets, and to quote her song, Nung Ning's music flows ''between Earth and sky''.


Fr Joe Maier is the director and co-founder of the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey. For more information, call 02-671-5313 or visit www.mercycentre.org.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Father Joe Maier
Position: Reporter