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Authors: Patricia McCormick

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BOOK: Never Fall Down: A Novel
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His wife, she’s crying now, but the man says to hush. Very slow, like maybe he’s going somewhere important, like maybe to business meeting, he tuck in the shirt, brush the wrinkle out of his pant, comb his hair. Then he kiss each kid on the head very slow. His wife, he kiss her last. Then he leave with the soldier.

Three day go by and this guy never come back. The dirt pile in the woods, every day it get bigger. They don’t explain, but I figure what they doing. They kill everyone who used to be rich or high ranking. Anyone with education. All the soldier, the teacher, the doctor, the musician. Anyone poor, no problem. World is upside down. Being rich now is no good. Being poor, this can save your life. The list in the black book, that’s how they decide who live, who die.

 

All the time now we hear girl screaming, girl running, girl crying. At night but also sometime in the daytime. All the time, the Khmer Rouge they chase the girl, cut the hair. Sometime with scissor, sometime with knife. Chop short, to the chin, like boy. The girl, they cry and sometime they run. They run, it’s no good. The Khmer Rouge maybe shoot them, maybe take them to the bushes, do whatever they want. A lot of the girl afterward, they pull on their hair, pull like maybe they can stretch it, make it long, make it beautiful again.

My number two big sister, Maly, her hair like silk. Most proud thing about her, her hair. Shiny black, like blue, like a crow has. Every night she brush her hair, every morning. Sometime even she brush her hair not thinking, just dreaming maybe about the boy she love. One morning I wake up before everyone and see her making the rice. Her neck, it’s bare now, her skin there is pale, never saw the sun, her long hair gone. Last night while I was asleep, the soldier, they cut her beauty. So now when she give me a bowl of rice soup, her eyes stay on the ground.

 

The Khmer Rouge, today they make us go in two group. One group men, one group women. And they tell us: strip bare. My brother and me, we cover ourself, put our hand in front. One man near me, he unzip his trouser, dark blue, straight line down the front; he take them off very neat and fold them into a square. Very slow. Very scare. Then I see wetness next to his foot, small puddle of pee.

The Khmer Rouge, they take all the clothes, they check the pocket for anything they can take, then put all pant and shirt in a pile. They hand out black pajama for everyone and say get back to work. We go back to the camp and see all the women, all the girls, now also in black pajama. A thousand people all the same.

We go to work then, a thousand black ant in the rice field, and we smell the burning. All the old clothes, our old life, one big pile, is on fire now. And gone.

 

Many time at night the Khmer Rouge make us come to meeting. All day we work, at night we have meeting. “Brothers, sisters,” says the megaphone man. His cheeks fat like plum, his voice kindly and cheerful. Like a grandfather maybe. “Comrade, today we begin a new era of happiness. Now all of us, we live as equal, no rich, no poor.”

He says all of us, we have to give away what we own. “Everything belong to Angka now,” he says. Every pot and pan and bowl and spoon. “Do not be afraid,” he says. “Angka will provide all that you need.”

I don’t know this word,
Angka
, but I know not to ask.

Then the soldier come and take everything. Pot. Pan. Blanket. Pillow. Bucket. Toy. Fishing net. Cart. Lantern. Everything. My number one big sister, Chantou, she give her college book, tear running down her face; and my number two sister, Maly, she give her hair brush. I give my picture of the princess.

Our hut is bare now. No thing in it. Only people.

 

That night, a big feast. Rice and fish, soup with lemongrass and morning glory. All of us, we eat together. Long table in a long hut. Plenty of food. All for sharing. The grandfather guy, he smile, like Buddha. But the soldier, they keep the gun point at us.

 

Next day, they wake us up to work at 4 a.m. We work until dark. Dinner is rice soup and salt.

 

No water buffalo at this camp, so the kid, we have to walk on the rice husk, back and forth, back and forth, till it split open and the grain come out. We pound it with our feet. Hard work. And boring. And hot. Also, tough on the feet.

One girl, short hair like all of them, she notice the guard not looking; she stick her tongue at me. I know this girl. She’s from the next-door family, the family with the Mercedes. The young one. I stick my tongue back. We work longer, pounding the rice, then one time, I brush my arm on her. She pinch me next. And I think: okay, this is love.

Then, from nowhere, a guard yells, “Stop!” And we see a guy running, very fast, away from the men’s group, the group that dig the canal. I know this guy. Back in the city, he flirt all the time with my number three sister, Jorami, and one time give us a free ride on his cyclo. This guy, I watch him now; he run this way and that way, and the guard shoot, but the bullet go into the air. And then he disappear into the jungle.

The rich girl, she squint like she can’t see so far.

“Where your glasses?” I ask.

She make a mad face and tell me to shut up. She whisper then. “The Khmer Rouge, they kill people with glasses,” she says. “Anyone with glasses must be high ranking and go to a real school.” She squint at me. “The Khmer Rouge, they ask you about my family, you tell them we poor, okay?”

I look at her. Weak eye from so much book reading at night. Round tummy. Soft hand. And I think no one ever will believe that. But I say okay.

 

That night, everyone whisper about the runaway guy. My sister Jorami, she sit outside our tent all night, looking to the jungle, like waiting to see him. In my dream I see him. No bullet can catch him. All day he hide in the jungle; and now, at dark, he sneak out to the main road. And very slow, very quiet, he run back home.

 

One day the Khmer Rouge come for the father of the rich girl. They say he has special skill; they need him. We don’t see him that night. The next day the whole family is gone, the soup still cooking on the fire.

 

My little brother, his stomach now getting bloat, full of air from no food. He cry at night, he beg me, he says, “Arn, remember the palm sugar candy you buy with your gambling money? Tell me again, what it look, how it taste.” I tell him no; I tell him remembering this good food only will make us miss it more. But one time when Comrade Lazy clean his nail, I pick a little mint leaf from the field and sneak it to my pocket. That night my brother and me, we fall asleep chewing this little leaf, but in our mind is candy.

 

My sister Jorami, every night she sit outside and look to the jungle for the runaway man; and in the daytime she look up from the field a hundred times, always waiting in her eyes.

 

One old man digging a ditch, he fall down. He cry and says he’s too old for this hard work. A Khmer Rouge come to him, says, “You tired of working? Okay. We take you someplace you can rest.”

Never again we see that old guy. But the dirt pile, it get bigger all the time. Bigger and worse smell. Like rot. And also like some kinda gas. And flies all over. That pile, now it’s like mountain.

 

Tonight it’s another meeting. These meeting, sometime they last four hour. Always, someone talking about Angka. Sometime, you so tire, you fall asleep. But you too afraid the Khmer Rouge will see, so you sleep, your eyes open.

This night one Khmer Rouge, a high-ranking guy, he take money from his pocket and rip it into shred. I wake up for this, to see someone so crazy he tear up money. “No need for money now,” he says. “No school, no store, no mail, no religion. No thing from the American, from the imperialist. In Cambodia, now it’s Year Zero.”

No one can talk at these meetings. No one allowed. But one old lady, she mutter. “This guy is not the prince. The prince, he’s the only one who can decide; only he can say this.”

I think the Khmer Rouge gonna kill her, but the man, again, he make a Buddha face. “Angka,” he says, “sees what inside your heart. The prince, he has two eyes. Angka, as many as a pineapple.”

 

Angka.
We hear this word all the time now. Angka will end corruption. Angka will double the rice crop. Angka will cut out what is infected. Angka will make Cambodia great again. The Khmer Rouge, they don’t explain this word, only tell us Angka now is in charge of our country, and new rule is we have to clap when we hear this word. Not regular clapping. Everyone start at one time. Everyone stop at one time.

 

Three month at this place and my sister Jorami, her beautiful face now is old, her eyes not waiting anymore. The Khmer Rouge, they make people disappear all the time. My sister, she disappear little by little every day.

 

The Khmer Rouge, they organize everything. Then they organize it again. They make two group: base people and new people. Base people are the good one, peasants from the rural area, the Khmer Rouge say, hard and dug out of the earth like diamond. New people, city people, are bad, not pure, lazy like imperialist, like America, like lackey. Bad from soft living.

Base people get two can of rice soup, new people only one. Base people are strong. New people are weak. But in the rice field, new people do the work; base people watch.

We work this way for another month, maybe more, then the Khmer Rouge organize us again. New work unit, they say, will be men with the men, women with the women, children with the children. Each work unit will go to a different farm. Men to one, women to another. Kid like my age will go to one, kid my little sister Sophea age will go to another. Kid who are almost adult, like my three big sister, they go somewhere else. Kid who are too little to work, like my brother, they will go to school. All families now will be split; parents must give their children to Angka.

“Bring only the clothes on your back,” they tell us. “Angka will provide everything you need.”

Also, they say, we only will be gone for three day.

 

We all keep a stone face at the meeting. But back at our hut, all my sister, they start to cry. “No crying,” my aunt says, very strict. “You cry only in your mind.”

Then she hold us all in her arm. “Do whatever they say,” she whisper. “Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blow one way, you bow that way. It blow the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.”

But later, when everyone else asleep, I hear my aunt, her tears, they fall like rain.

WE WALK THREE DAY. ONE LONG LINE OF KID, ALL IN BLACK, ONE
black snake with five hundred eye. Very tire, my leg heavy like boulder, my mind think only of the next step, then one more step, just walking, no thinking, no caring. Some kid die on the way. They die walking. Some kid cry for their parent or say they tire, they hungry. They get shot or maybe stab with the bayonet. Now we don’t even look. We only walk.

The rainy season is here now, and the path is like river of mud; and the nighttime is very cold with no blanket, only thin pajama, so we sleep with all of us very close to stay warm. Also it’s the season when malaria can come, and all the time we get bit by bug. At night I think maybe to cry a little bit for my family, but I do like my aunt says, cry only in my mind. In the daytime very hot, like steam almost; and when we walk, I think maybe I go crazy. Because I can think of only one thing. Ice cream cone.

 

After all that walking, we come to a temple. A big temple in the country with red roof like wing and many building all around. Long wood building for the monk to live, for the nun, all empty now. Also a giant tamarind tree. And a pond with morning glory and whisker fish. And a mango grove. Very beautiful and quiet, very quiet, with Buddha eyes on top of the temple, watching everything.

The Khmer Rouge, they say we can all sit down, sit in this big square in front of the temple. “Angka is happy to welcome you here,” says the head guy, different guy from the camp with my family; this guy has moon face, fat cheek. I don’t understand how Angka can be here and also at the camp with my aunt. But this moonface guy, he can read my mind.

“Angka,” he says, “is a head with four face. It follow you everywhere.”

He says this camp is special. Not just a rice farm. A special place where the most high-ranking Khmer Rouge leader will come sometime. He says the leader will be watching, to see how good we work.

Then he says that we kid, we the beginning of a new society, a new country, with no memory of the past. “Do not spend time thinking about the people you left behind,” he says. “Angka will take care of them.”

“Angka,” he says, “is your family now.”

 

It’s a long wooden building where we sleep. Row and row of kids, all the feet facing in, sleeping on straw mat. One building for the girl, one building for the boy. A kid like me, eleven years old, I’m a little bit older than the kid in my building, so the Khmer Rouge say I’m in charge. “You teach these kid to love Angka,” they tell me. “And you tell us if they have poor character.”

And the work now is even harder. We get up before the sun, have only a little rice soup, then work in the rice field all day, hot, hot sun burning our skin, mud coming up to our knee. No grown-up around, so we do all the work. Digging with only our hand, pulling the plow like ox, pounding the rice, everything. Very tire now from all this work, so tire, it’s like we work in our sleep. At night, meeting, always meeting. And sometime even work at night.

At the meeting, always they talking about rice, about digging water canal. “With water we make rice, with rice we make new society,” they say. All this talk about rice, but never enough of it for us to eat. Each night, less and less for dinner. Each day, more and more work.

Also at the meeting, they tell us how we can make ourself pure. The Khmer Rouge, they mock the city people, the new people. “Your hand too soft,” they say. “Only good for holding a pen, not for hard work.” And they rank us on our work. Good, medium, or weak. You weak, you have poor character. You good, maybe you get a little more food.

Many kid get sick, not enough food, too much work, maybe malaria, but the Khmer Rouge say also it’s poor character, it’s “disease of the consciousness.” Or they say you just lazy. The kid who don’t work hard, sometime they get sent to another place call the lazy village. And we don’t see them again.

One time I hear a kid ask where is his sister. The Khmer Rouge laugh and say she still working in the field, “only now she fertilizer.”

 

All the rice, finally we harvest it. We lay it out to dry, almost tasting it with our eye. So beautiful this rice, and now we will have plenty to eat.

Then the truck come and take it away.

 

Only a little left for us to eat. Usually thin soup, like water, so thin, in your mouth you can taste the metal from the pot. And the kid, they get more and more thin, too. Rib sticking out. And big belly, swole, like air inside.

So hungry all the time now, my stomach it eat itself, a pain like never I had before in my life. And so tire, I think sometime I sleep standing up. Other time I think maybe I will just lie down in the field; the ground, it call my name.

I see some kids die in the field. They just fall down. Maybe it’s malaria. Or maybe they starve. They fall down, they never get up. Over and over I tell myself one thing: never fall down.

 

Today, the Khmer Rouge in charge of our crew, Comrade Frog Face I call him because of his big lip, he send me to another field with a message. I come back a different way and see buildings where you keep the horse. No horses in there now. In each stall, men. Many men, altogether maybe one hundred, all tie together like animal. Tin roof, very hot, small stall, very crowded. All waiting to go to the temple for beating, and later, for killing.

They cry, call out to me, beg for water, beg for help. Before, on the march, I learn to not see things. Now, I learn how not to hear also.

But I understand something now. Why this place is special. Not only a rice farm, this holy place; it’s also prison.

 

Today, the Khmer Rouge does a new thing to decide who is good and who is the enemy. They classify your skin. They call a meeting and look at each kid in the face. If you have a smooth skin or a light skin, they say, “You must be middle class. You don’t work in the sun.” They point to their own skin, very dark, like copper, and they say, “You see, we are dark skin; we work all day under the sun. We are peasants. Revolutionaries.”

I use dirt, smear it on my face so I can look dark. I do this while the Khmer Rouge look at another boy, a light-skin boy. “This one can go to the mango grove,” they say. And that boy, they take him away and we don’t see him again.

A few days later they have another new way to find out who is good and who is the enemy. They call another meeting and look at each kid again. People with faces a little bit Chinese—eyes like almond—they say, “Come with us.” People with faces a little bit French—long nose, like a bird—they go to the mango grove also. We don’t see any of those kids again.

 

Every day, the Khmer Rouge tell us we have to forget the past. This is Year Zero, they say; nothing has come before. All past knowledge is illegal. Also they tell us, over and over, about a new disease in the mind: thinking too much. You must be like the ox, they say, no thoughts, only love for Angka.

But inside my head I keep a door, always lock, where I hide my family. Where inside is my aunt, my sisters, my little brother, all waiting.

 

This night, it’s raining very hard. Everyone sleeping. I don’t know why, I just sit next to the window and look out. It’s open window, no curtain, very dark. But I can see, at the temple, three, maybe four soldiers; one is Comrade Frog Face, the others I don’t know, and one guy with his hands tied. The Khmer Rouge push him to go first. Into the rain. They take him to the place right outside the window where I am.

I hold still. Like statue. I move, they see me. They see me, they kill me.

Right away they hit him. They push him in the back, and he drops flat on the ground, blood all over him. But he gets up again; and I can see Frog Face, very mad face, hit him with screwdriver, hit him in the knee, the back, the shoulder.

The others, they push him again and his legs drop. He stumbles, falling, coming toward me. Very close to me at the window. Then he fall down. He lies close by to me now. Very close. I can smell the blood on him, like killing the chickens at the market. But I don’t move. Not one hair.

Now they drag this guy under the tamarind tree. They make him like he’s sitting down, put a helmet on his head, an American helmet, and they light a cigarette and put it in his mouth. They laugh, then they gone.

This guy, he look right at me. Eyes open. But dead. Already dead.

I think maybe I gonna feel sad or maybe scare. But no feeling in me. No crying. I don’t care about anything. Death is just my daily life now.

 

We kids, so hungry now, we hunt for food for ourself. Insect, frog, maybe mushroom or plant. So many kids crawling for food all over, maybe three hundred kids still living, it’s hard to find this food. And some kids, lotta kids, eat poison plant, maybe spider, and die. Me, I eat the tamarind fruit. Very sour and very good. But also give you diarrhea. Already I have diarrhea, but I can’t help it; I still eat the tamarind. You eat some, your mouth wrinkle up inside, and you want some more. You eat more, your stomach pain you so much, you can’t stand straight.

All the kid have diarrhea now. With this diarrhea, you feel like you have to shit a hundred times each night. You so tired, you work all day, you almost think, maybe I can just shit right here in my bed. Some kid do. Then Khmer Rouge get very angry, beat them. So you don’t care how tired, you get up. You go to the latrine, and it’s crawling with maggot; just one board, very slippery, over a ditch, also crawling with maggot. Some kid so weak, they fall in. I think they die too.

Seems like a hundred times each night, you shit. But nothing comes. Only like water. And you go back to bed, but all around you, kid crying, kid moaning. One little boy next to me, always he cry for his mother. No way you can sleep with this sound. You do sleep, you have a nightmare: you see killing, dying, same as in the day. And soon it’s time to get up and go to work.

 

You not allowed to go around by yourself at night. Khmer Rouge see you, they think you trying to escape and they shoot you. But night is when I get most hungry, so I sneak out and try maybe to catch frog or cricket. No time to cook, only to eat fast. Sometimes I can feel the cricket legs running, running in my throat, trying to live.

 

One night, I go down the path to the mango grove. I don’t know why I go, hungry, maybe, but curious, too. I just go. I know what I think I’m gonna find, and I find it. Big dirt pile and bad smell, very bad. Ghost, also, I think, and I run back to bed.

 

Sometime when we work in the field, I grab my stomach and tell Frog Face I have to run behind a bush to shit. It’s not true, just a trick for taking a little break in the shade. I make a sick face, drop my work, and run fast, fast, fast, like maybe I will shit in my pants if I don’t go to the bush right away. Anyone can do this trick, I think, but no other kid think of it or maybe they too afraid. I hide in the bush as long as I can, watch them still working very hard, hot sun, no rest, and I don’t feel anything. Not sorry. Not shame. Maybe even a little proud.

Then one day a boy in my group—this boy, he want the Khmer Rouge to like him and so he work very hard, always first to start, last to quit, big smile all the time—he tells Frog Face I have bad character. He says I’m a faker. He says he counts how many times I go to the bush, more than everyone else, he says.

Because of my bad character, the Khmer Rouge send me for education. This education, it’s not in school. It’s sleeping three nights in the manure pile. Three nights, very bad smell and always feeling bugs crawling in my clothes. By myself and very scared. Scared of ghost, scared also if I don’t do this thing—lie in the manure—the Khmer Rouge will come and shoot me.

Three nights not sleeping is lot of time for thinking. I think two things: when I come back, I will find the hardworking boy. I will smile very big at him, in front of Frog Face, and tell him thank you for helping me see my poor character. Also I will watch this guy, watch him every minute, catch when he does a bad thing. Then I will say to him, “I know what you do, but I’m not telling on you.” And then I will say, “You will not ever be telling on me again.”

 

New guy in charge our group today. No more Frog Face. No explanation about where he goes. Looks like the Khmer Rouge even make other Khmer Rouge disappear.

 

Another meeting. This time, the high-ranking Khmer Rouge guy says, “Who can play music?”

No one, not one kid, make a move.

He says there will be a new music troupe, a band to play songs. And dancer, too.

We all still, like rocks.

I think maybe this is test, new way to find out who is elite, who has education and music lesson. Or who likes the American imperialist and their lackey singer.

They say the band will play for the glory of Angka. Song and dance. To cheer the worker and teach new ideas.

Maybe, I think, maybe you play these song, maybe they feed you a little more. This is like gamble. Like the shoe game back home. You throw the shoe, you eat better.

I raise my hand. Just give me one bowl of rice, I think, then you can kill me.

 

They choose six boys. Stick boys, so skinny. And they take us to a wood building where this old guy, white hair, white beard, sits on the floor, instrument all around him.

The Khmer Rouge say we have to learn these things in five day only. We also have to work in the field, they say, like the other kid, so the music lesson can be only at night.

The old musician, he gives me the khim. Wooden instrument with many string, string you hit with a bamboo stick. You sit on the floor and play, and it give a beautiful sound, like heaven. I hit the right string sometime, the wrong string sometime, but always I hit it too hard.

“Touch it light,” says the old man. “Like hummingbird wing.” Also he says, “You have talent. Work harder.”

All these Khmer Rouge song are fast song, fast and happy-sounding, and all about the Revolution. About sacrifice. About hard work. About rice. Always rice.

 

Next day, I work in the field all day like the others, then go to the old man. Three day more only. Three day to learn this thing.

BOOK: Never Fall Down: A Novel
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