Authors: Patricia McCormick
But all this walking, all this dust, I get tired, so I lie down under the banana tree and take a nap. Perfect place to see the parade when the prince come to our town. Perfect place for the princess to notice me.
I think maybe I dream the war is still happening, bullet popping, ten, maybe twenty time. But when I open my eye, no noise. Only the frog in the ditch, calling his friend. And I think: let this guy go. Tonight I have money for a real supper.
Now the Khmer Rouge march back to town. But no prince. No princess. No soldier in the green uniforms either. Only Khmer Rouge. The people in town, they whisper to each other and run inside. The old wife of the high-ranking man, she fall on her knee. The pregnant wife, she hide her face in the handkerchief.
I run home to tell my aunt all of what I see, but when I get there, I see the bull-neck man; he’s digging in the ground. He have on too-small peasant clothes, and he dig with his hand. And bury his uniform under our house.
The next morning, more bullhorn. Outside our house, on the main road it seem like the whole city is walking by. Thousand and thousand. Never ever I saw this many people. Everyone walking. Men, women, little children, old lady, old men. Everyone carrying rice. And blanket. And suitcase. One man, like a buffalo, with two heavy can of water on a stick across his back. Another one, whole family on his bike. Big parade. Everyone leaving town like Hong.
They go slow, the sun already hot. And I think: too bad I got no ice cream. Good day for selling.
Another bullhorn truck, driving crazy. “All people!” the guy yell. “The Americans are coming to bomb the city!” The people on the highway, they all hectic now, running. “Prepare to leave city for three days. Go twelve miles in the country,” he shouts. “In three days you will be allowed back.” The soldier, he drive wild, like never he seen a truck before—this way, that way, almost into the people. “Don’t be chaotic,” he yell. “The Americans are coming!”
I don’t understand. The American war, in Vietnam, finish a while ago. But I don’t care. Today, I think, this the most exciting thing ever to happen here. Real American coming. Real airplane. I think of Hong on the train with his mother and her sausage and think: too bad he’s missing all the excitement.
I STOP, BEFORE I RUN TO TELL MY AUNT ABOUT THE AMERICANS,
and stand in front of the neighbor house. They’re a rich family with a Mercedes and five girl. Girl always doing homework. Every night I see them in the window working hard, so sometime I climb up the mango tree in our yard and make a face at them.
My number one big sister, Chantou, always says to quit joking around. Rich people don’t pay attention to poor people like us.
But one girl in the window, the one same age as me, the one with eyeglass, sometime she stick her tongue at me. And now I think maybe I love her a little bit. I don’t know for sure about this feeling, but I think maybe she like me a little bit, too.
The father of the rich girl, he stand next to the Mercedes, and argue with a young Khmer Rouge girl.
“No car,” she says. “Bicycle, okay. But no car.”
The father, he has a fat wallet, and he open it. But the Khmer Rouge girl give him only a frown face and cut his tire with the knife on the end of her gun.
My aunt, she smack my bottom when I come inside. “Where you been?” she says. “We need to go. Right now.” She tell me, carry this and carry that, and she point all over like crazy. My number one big sister, Chantou, she has all her college book and a sack of rice. My other big sisters—Maly and Jorami—they each carry some blanket and also food, dried fish and small banana. My aunt has a sack of charcoal and also one can of sardine. My little sister, Sophea, has a bucket of egg; and my brother, Munny, has his thumb in his mouth. I take a washtub and my picture of the princess and my peashooter, and then all of us, we all run out.
All of Cambodia is on the road. A hundred thousand people with a hundred thousand thing. Mostly rice. But all kinda crazy thing, too. One little girl, still in the white shirt and blue skirt school uniform, she carry a stuff rabbit, pink, almost big as herself. One man, he wear a suit, like in America or maybe France, and carry just one baguette, tin of sardine, bottle of wine. An old lady, she tie a rope around her stomach and pull a pony cart, her whole house in that cart. One guy has a baby pig tie to a piece of string. One old lady, she has a gold frame wedding picture and also lotta teacup.
One boy, from the school with the basketball game, he yell to me from far back in the crowd. “Arn!” he shout. “Wait up!” This guy a pest. All the time I beat him at the shoe game, and all the time he want his money back. So I pretend like maybe I can’t hear him.
He grab my elbow anyhow. “My father, he went to the airport with the Khmer Rouge,” he says.
This kid’s father is high ranking, so probably he wanna brag now about seeing the princess or something.
“They shoot my dad,” he says.
Both of us, we stop walking, even though the crowd push by us.
“How do you know?”
“My big brother, he was hiding in the bush and he saw.” This kid, his eye blank, he talk in a strange voice, not like sad, like robot. “They kill him,” he says. “The Khmer Rouge, they kill them all.”
I understand now. Those bullet I hear in my sleep by the side of the road, they not a dream. They real.
Black smoke is up ahead. We pass through the center of town, by the movie palace, and see a big fire in the park. Where the fancy lady and man come out to stroll at night, where my brother and I do the twist, now a big pile of thing on fire: radio, television, record player, record, book—all burning.
We pass the hospital, and the sick people come out, squinty eye from not seeing the sun in so many day. All of them in blue nightgown, some of them attach to pole with liquid in a bag. One old man, his family carry him. One baby in the middle of the road, no pants, cry like crazy, but no people stop for him. The crowd, now it’s like jungle, a jungle of elbow for a short kid like me. Everyone jab and push. I try to grab onto my aunt skirt, but the crowd, it sweep her away, swallow my whole family up. Then it carry me over the bridge, like my feet not even touching, and it spit me out on the side of the road.
I look back at the town, palm tree like crown on the main road, and all the flower, red and gold, like jewel, and wonder what will be left after the Americans come.
The sun is a white flame in the sky and the road all dust. Dirt in your nose, in your teeth. The boy with the dead father, he has dust in his hair, his eyebrow, so he look like an old man. I carry the washtub on my head so maybe it will make me taller, make my aunt see me better. Sometime I try to run to the front of the crowd where maybe my aunt is, but the pot so big and I’m so small, it slow me down even more. I go so slow I even lose the boy with the dead father, and now I’m with all stranger.
Next to me is a young guy with a pretty wife, long braid down her back, big pregnant belly. I walk with them and pretend that maybe I’m her son. Soon I feel the woman lean on me. She too weak even to ask, she just grab on. And so I act tough, like a strong son who can carry a washtub and also help his mother. After a while, I feel her arm lift away from me, and she slip to the wayside. The husband, he call out to the Khmer Rouge. “My wife!” he says. “She need water.”
The Khmer Rouge, he only grunt. And point with his gun to go forward. The young guy open his mouth to say something more, and the Khmer Rouge hit his cheek with the gun. The guy fall over backward, and the crowd swallow him up. Him and also his pregnant wife, both are in the belly of the crowd now, and everyone just walking forward.
I learn a lesson already. Be invisible around these Khmer Rouge guys.
All the time now, people fall behind. Very slow, no noise, they drop at the side of the road. I see this and think maybe I might do this, too. I can pretend, play sick, and hide in the grass until everyone gone by. Then I can run home and maybe see the Americans and their plane. Everybody come back to town in three day, then I’m a hero.
A ditch is next to the road. Perfect place to hide. But in the ditch, in the place I pick to hide, is an old lady lying down, like resting. Her eyes are open, but no life in them, like dead fish at the market. Everyone pass by, pretend not to see. I feel kinda scare, but I do like the other people. Inside I say to myself: so this what a dead person look like.
Hour and hour of marching and still I don’t see my aunt. Along the road, lotta thing people dropped. Lotta shoe, all with no match. A suitcase split open, clothes spilling out. Sewing machine, bike, one lace sock. I drop my peashooter already, I don’t remember when. Also more bodies now all the time. Some just die while they walking. Some with blood on the shirt, from the bullet or maybe the knife at the front of the Khmer Rouge gun, I think. The baguette man now is under a tree, sitting, look like taking a nap, except for blood coming out of his mouth. A little girl in a yellow dress, dirt on her dress, like people step on her. One whole family dead: a man hug his baby under him, his wife, her mouth wide-open, like still screaming.
In just one day a person can get use to seeing dead body.
Finally, at dark, the soldiers say to stop. Some people just lie down right where they stand, right on the road. Some go to the side of the road; they set up cook pot and blanket. I wander all around—sleeping mat and people everywhere, the good smell of dinner cooking here and there—until finally I see my aunt. My sister and brother all close around her, like hen and chick. Never ever in my life I’m so glad to see them. My aunt give me a little spank, like she mad, but really she trying not to cry, she so happy to see me. Then she let me sip sweet milk, Nestlé milk in the can, my head in her lap, too tired even to finish.
The next day more walking. We see more body—one, a baby wrap up, old red sarong around it, not even in the ground, just put by the side of the road. A big sack of rice on the shoulder of one fat guy, it split a little and rice spill out. He can’t see, so people grab some rice from the ground. Even me. I pick some grain from the dirt, keep walking.
Now is deep country. Farther than ever I been before. Farther even than the frogging pond I go with Hong. Very beautiful here—all gold rice fields, many blue fish pond, all square, like in checker cloth, very neat, very pretty. No people in these village. Only dog eating trash.
We get to one empty field and the Khmer Rouge in charge, he says some people, maybe a thousand, can stop here, make a camp. The rest of us, he says, keep going. Another field, maybe another one thousand, can stop. This one guy, he pick who can stay and who keep walking. At the next field, he pick a man with an accordion, the kid with the baby pig. Also, he let in the boy with no father. I feel sad for this kid, no dad now, just like me, but also a little bit jealous. He can stop marching now. Also maybe he can hear this accordion sometime.
Finally, the Khmer Rouge says we can stop. He says to make a hut. “Cut down the tree, use the branch, the leaf,” he says. “Eat the fruit, anything you can find. This rich guy, he own the land, he can give it to the Revolution.”
I don’t know what this is, this Revolution. But I think maybe this guy not too smart. The rich, they chase you if you steal their things. Poor people, they the one who share.
Three day. The Khmer Rouge say we go back to town in three day. Now it’s already one week. Already New Year’s passed, time for fun, for big meal, for gambling.
My little brother, Munny, he run up to a soldier and ask when we can go home. I think maybe this guy gonna get mad, but he just says the same thing as before: three day.
Munny, he wait three day, then he ask the solider again. Three day, he say. Always the same answer, even after three day already pass.
All this time and still no Americans, still no bomb.
One night, two Khmer Rouge with a little book, they come to our hut. We make it nice, a sheet on a banyan tree, big branch, soft ground, blanket all over, even one pillow.
“Give us the name in this family,” they say.
My number one big sister, Chantou, she says all the name fast, so fast the guy with the pencil, he hang his mouth open, catching flies. Then he grip the pencil, like squeezing a chicken neck, like never he seen a pencil before, and make mark in his book. Mark like little kid make. Clumsy.
“Give us your background,” they say. “Tell us what job you have.”
My aunt says only that we sell in the market. She doesn’t tell about the old days, about my family having the opera. Always she brag about this before; today she doesn’t say it, I don’t know why. And the Khmer Rouge, they write everything down.
“Now you grow rice,” they say. “We all the same now. No more elite. Even city people have to grow rice.”
They don’t explain, just go to the next hut.
I follow these guy. My little sister, Sophea, she come, too. She says she gonna tell our aunt if I don’t let her. Also she says she can protect me, make sure I don’t get in trouble. She’s skinny and a girl, but also she’s brave and climb tree and know how to swear, so I say okay. We hide in the bush behind the two Khmer Rouge when they go hut to hut. Same thing each time. “Give all the name,” they say. “Tell us what you do.” And they write it down in the book.
Sometime they ask about other people in the camp. “The man next to you. He a teacher? A doctor? He a soldier?” they say. “Give us the names of all professional people, all high-ranking people.”
Also they take people’s belonging. Flashlight, pencil, toy, photograph, money, and wristwatch, always wristwatch. One Khmer Rouge guy, he take so many watch he have six or seven on one arm. One old man, I see him throw his watch in the bush before the Khmer Rouge can take it. One lady, she bury her ring in the dirt.
When the Khmer Rouge get to the hut of the bull-neck guy, this guy, he look at the ground. He give them a strange name, not his real name, and says he is farmer. One soldier, the guy who strangle the pencil, he start to write down this answer. But another guy, this guy with lotta bullet strap on his chest, he put the tip of his gun under the bull-neck man’s chin. He lift his head.
“But your skin so pale, comrade,” he says.
The bull-neck man, he’s quiet.
The soldier with the bullet, he pretend like he now talking to the other soldier, but really he says this loud, for everyone to hear. “This is not a man who spend his days in the sun. This is a man who lie.”
The two Khmer Rouge tie this guy by the hand and take him away.
The Khmer Rouge, they want the name, the background of everyone here. But the Khmer Rouge themself, they all the same. All black uniform. All grim face. All name “Comrade.” Comrade Soldier. Comrade Elder. Comrade Cook.
In my mind, I give them names. The one who steal is Comrade Wristwatch. And the one who all day clean his nails I call Comrade Lazy.
But they only say “Comrade” this and “Comrade” that. Because they don’t want us to know the real name.
Every day now, we all work in the field. Planting, digging ditch, hard work and in the sun. Everyone. Children, old people, everyone work together. Only time for rest is to use the latrine, maybe to get water from the stream. One time, when I take Munny to the bush to pee, I see, in the wood, big pile of dirt. A pile tall as a house. Fresh, like just dug. And not a good smell. Sweet and also like rot. Like nothing I ever smell before.
The Khmer Rouge measure rice for each family with can. Nestlé can. Half can for each family. Maybe some salt also. Our family rice almost gone. Only a little left. Like maybe twenty grain.
So my aunt, she dig a little in the earth. I think maybe for mushrooms. Maybe for herb. Maybe wild plant. Something for the soup. She come back, just a little dirt in her hand.
Only way to make it thick, she says.
The Khmer Rouge come to the hut next to us, check the little book, then tell the father to come out. They say an oxcart is stuck in the mud. “You,” they say to the father. “Come help us move it.”
This man is teacher, mathematic teacher at the rich-kid school. Skinny guy, thick eyeglass, no muscle, soft hand. Why the Khmer Rouge not choose a strong guy? A farmer, maybe, or a guy from the river barge?