IT COULD have been a long and undisturbed sleep until my alarm clock whined and brought me to senses: it was Phassakorn’s gigantic trumpet call.

I usually would get up from bed when I could hear the brittle cracking of twigs, rustling of leaves and loud pounding on soft, mushy soil of the Palace garden, all unmistakably made by him.

But this time, it was not the twigs, leaves, and soil that woke me up. It was Phassakorn’s whining. It pierced through my ears like a knife shot from a distance, in a sea of unperturbed silence. It was not the first time I heard him wail. The last time—if I’m not mistaken—was when I was still a kid on a bright and sunny Chulalongkorn Day in October of ’92. I could still remember it as if it was only yesterday when Phassakorn’s trunk was stuck in a steel fence. He was so young then, with petty ears, pygmy trunk, and feeble knees. And what set him above the rest was his unusual skin pigment. He was a white elephant—one of the rare species that has notable white spots on their trunks. No wonder, he was of the same age with mine. We were both five years old back then. We grew together since my father had promised me to have a gentle giant like him—the national emblem of Thailand. I had known him for years, but this time, I was sure that it was not just a simple wail—but a plead for mercy.

With a heavy head and aching bed sore, I struggled to my feet and rushed to the window. The wailing grew louder. In Thailand, we have a noble respect for gentle giants like Phassakorn. But in times like this when his wailing consumed the entire Royal Palace in the wee hours of morning, everyone might think that it was an early wake-up call for the upcoming Thai New Year tomorrow.

My soppy eyes could not penetrate through the darkness that wrapped my entire room so I groped for the silky curtain and set it aside. The morning horizon slowly crept through the grounds of my room, diffusing a shade of fading magenta.

As I wiped off the morning glory on my eyes, I was greeted by a scene of total havoc. The serene view of greenery in the Palace grounds that had always calmed my innocent mornings had turned into a sight of utter desolation.

Small trees that were starting to find a grip within the shallow soil were already uprooted. Trunks and barks from decaying trees were scattered on the grounds. Piles of freshly harvested bananas that used to be Phassakorn’s favorite breakfast were now smashed, leaving a sticky mud in his pen. And to my great amazement, the fence that served as the guiding line between freedom zone and off-limits for Phassakorn was now in a pitiful wreck.

The whole palace was awakened by the sudden outrage of Phassakorn. For 10 long years of being accustomed to his wails and whines, I knew this was not an ordinary one. And during this time of the day when he should be savoring 50 bananas and wrapping his long trunk around Ngam Chit, the least sign of endearment he could do in thanking her after giving him a generous breakfast.

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If there was one person who knew Phassakorn so well, it was Ngam Chit, the maid of the Thai Royal Family. Usually, in the wee hours of morning, Ngam Chit could be seen in the Palace grounds, sweeping the fallen dried leaves beneath the plum tree when everybody was just struggling to get up from their silky sheets.

Every dawn, Ngam Chit would release the knot that bound Phassakorn from the age-old plum tree and she would ride him. They’d go to the nearby man-made swamp and they would bathe and play on the murky waters until the sun would finally perch on top of the Bangkok skyline. When Phassakorn would get tired, he would put down his trunk and sip from the swamp, and after having a full load of water, he would sprinkle it to Ngam Chit. Both wet and dirty, Phassakorn would reach his trunk to Ngam Chit and he’d bring her to the ground. After a time of bonding under the morning sun, both would head toward the plum tree where Phassakorn would spend the whole day, and wait until the next dawn when Ngam Chit would set him free.

But this time, not even a glimpse of Ngam Chit’s shadow was seen sweeping the dried leaves under the plum tree, harvesting bananas, and untying the knot of Phassakorn.

It was the last day of Ngam Chit in the Palace and a new royal maid had been hired. As much as Ngam Chit wanted to stay, she couldn’t because of her sick son. For the first time, Ngam Chit was stuck in a dilemma whether to attend his sick son, or to stay and take care of a gentle giant.

The wailing and whining of Phassakorn grew louder until it pierced through the ears of every tenant in the Royal Palace, prompting them to take a peek on the Palace grounds. Then for a fleeting second, I saw through the mist-covered window pane a tiny figured woman approaching a creature almost thirty times her size.

For a moment, all the wailing and whining was gradually gone, providing a time for all the tenants to rest their ears after a long and heavy surge of noise. Without hesitation, Ngam Chit stepped within the fence, notwithstanding the threat of being subdued in a quicksand, and softly caressed the creature’s trunk. Seconds of gasps and astonishment from the growing crowd followed as Phassakorn started to calm down as if it was his first time to feel a gentle touch.

The crowd was almost confident that the commotion was over until I saw Phassakorn grabbed Ngam Chit who was struggling to get off from Phassakorn’s trunk wrapping her.

The sun was already perched above the chaotic Bangkok skyline when Ngam Chit made another deafening wail, but this time, Phassakorn was becoming aggressive and unstoppable. He was not letting go of Ngam Chit as if he was going to devour her.

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Astonished and dumbstruck, the royal guards mounted their guns and pointed it to Phassakorn. But the whimpering just grew louder and unbearable. For 10 years of his stay in the Royal Palace, not a single guard was able to tame him. Perhaps, Phassakorn had this phobia of guns and prejudice against Royal Guards since he witnessed how his mother had been shot by the same guards. The guards could do nothing but to hold their breath and wait with their mouths wide open, waiting for a miracle to happen.

The morning rush of honking tuk-tuks in Bangkok was matched by the agitated frenzy of panic that grew inside the Palace. Some Buddhist monks in screaming robes of orange gathered around the vicinity to pray while the elephant keeper rushed in the middle of the commotion. Some monks rushed to the nearby temple and quickly ignited their incense and kissed the floor as if they were demanding Buddha to listen to their prayer at the most immediate time.

All eyes were set on Phassakorn as if he was a culprit and a sinner. Every move he made was strictly watched and every person in the palace was holding his breath for Ngam Chit’s dear life. But amid the piercing looks of spectators that bore through the thick skin of Phassakorn, it was astonishing to see Ngam Chit who was very calm and placid despite the odds of being smashed by a gentle giant.

Like Phassakorn, I had been attached to Ngam Chit. Eating in silver spoons; sleeping in soft-cushioned pillows; wearing traditional Thai robes made in silk; living inside the Thai Royal Palace with glittering golden wats, stupas, and buddhas; and riding on white elephants that were very rare were one of those things that I did not dream of. Every time a commoner would see me, he would wear that look of bewilderment as if I was a demigod who descended from heaven. It felt very unreal and I did not feel like I was living my own self. But with the arrival of Ngam Chit, I started to feel that it was much easier to breathe, no pretensions and no prejudice—just being a typical Thai.

Ngam Chit was set to leave before the Thai New Year tomorrow. It had been the Palace’s custom to hire new maids every New Year. I could not think of a way to convince her to stay for another year in the palace—or perhaps for a lifetime.

The grey sky morning was still clouded with mist when every witness started to murmur Thai prayers and recite Buddhist incantations to save Ngam Chit from almost certain peril. However, there was still one thing that could save Phassakorn but it was something that was beyond the norm of all Thais—to give a wai to Ngam Chit. But it was not that easy. For Thais, especially us who were from the Royal family, we would not simply give a wai to commoners like Ngam Chit because it is a holy and sacred act in Thai culture. Even my father, who was the most respected royal authority in Thailand, would not simply give a wai—even a chest-level wai. In fact, if a royal servant like Ngam Chit should give a wai to my father, it must be so low that her lips and forehead should touch the ground, giving the highest tribute andrespect for the King of Thailand.

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As I peeked through the antique windows from the second floor of the palace, a vigorous knock on the wooden door broke the stillness that shrouded the whole palace. I wondered who it was. Then I got hold of the brass knob. It seemed to absorb the coldness of the night that just passed by. Then I twisted it and I was faced with the most powerful man of Thailand—my father. He was wearing a canary yellow robe—the symbol of Thai royalty. Somehow, the light shade of yellow he wore seemed to alleviate the aura of panic. His sulky chestnut eyes probed every corner of the room, then it dawdled on my own eyes. We stared for a moment. Without uttering a single word, he backed off and turned his back on me and walked at a faster pace, as if he knew I had understood what he meant. Being the crown prince, I had nothing to do but to obey him, and so I did.

When we reached the Palace grounds, we found ourselves surrounded by mass of crowd wearing orange and yellow, facing Phassakorn, who was still having a strong grip on Ngam Chit, not letting go every inch of her.

As I bore my eyes straight through Ngam Chit’s, I saw my clear reflection. But after a couple of seconds, that reflection started to shiver until it began to fall like tiny, shiny pearls from her chestnut colored eyes. She slowly opened her mouth, but not an audible word came from her gasp. Then mustering her courage , she tapped Phassakorn’s trunk and miraculously, the gentle giant heeded her gentle caress and let her go. When she had finally gained her composure, she kneeled on the mushy ground, placed her forehead in touch with the murky mud, and did the highest wai a commoner could ever give in front of me and my father.

The next thing I knew, my father did his first step towards Phassakorn but he was stopped by royal guards. Not withstanding the appeal of the royal guards, he raised his two hands, placed it front-to-front with each other, put it in front of his chest, and bowed his head. It was not a simple gesture. It was the act of highest respect. Like an epidemic gesture, everybody from the crowd flattened their hands in front of their chests, bowed their heads, and gave it to Ngam Chit. Then suddenly, I found myself doing the forbidden wai like what my father did. And suddenly, I felt a tingling sensation prickling within my eyes then streams of pearls rush through my eyes, like the ones I saw from Ngam Chit.


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