Authors: Patricia McCormick
I almost cry one time, it’s so hard. But the old man, he whisper in my ear. “Learn fast,” he says. “You don’t learn, they gonna kill you.”
I work very hard now, even harder. This khim, it has so many strings they swim in my eyes and I play very fast, hit one string, then another, so fast I can’t see my own hands going. So fast, so many times, I know all the song in my heart.
The other boys, they can’t do it. Next day the other boys, they don’t come to class.
The old man, he spend two more days teaching me. Then one day he say, “Now that you learn the songs, they gonna kill me.”
I tell him, no, the Khmer Rouge need him to lead the band.
He just smile, very sad, and tell me all the other music teacher already dead. He’s maybe the last one. The Khmer Rouge don’t want anyone who know the old song. All those old song gonna die out, he says.
This guy, he save my life, and now he will die. And nothing I can do to stop it.
The next day, he doesn’t come. The Khmer Rouge appear then and say to me, “Come to the mango grove to see the old man. See what we do to him.”
I say I don’t want to see.
I don’t know how I can say this. You don’t say no to the Khmer Rouge.
But it’s gamble. If Khmer Rouge kill me now, they don’t have anyone to play their song. I think for a minute what my aunt say about how to survive—bend like grass—but this time I don’t bend. I stand a little tall.
They go away, and I just play the song alone. I think of the old man, and I play for him in my mind, scared, but also in that moment, proud.
Other boys come now to the building where I learn music. One more khim player, one guy who can play fiddle call tro sau toch, one guy with a drum, and others with instrument like I used to see when my family has the opera. A new music teacher come, too, not so old, but this guy is like walking dead man. Very sad, like broken heart, nothing living in his eyes.
We gonna be a band now, the Khmer Rouge tell us. No more working in the field; now we play music all the time. Soon a big meeting is going to happen at this camp, so we have to be ready. Ready to play the song perfect. For high-ranking Khmer Rouge. We have one month to learn.
We practice music every day now, but never does it sound like a song. More like animals all calling out, all different times, and very slow, not like the old music teacher taught. The kid in the band, they all too tired, too hungry to give attention to the song; and this new music teacher, he look asleep all the time, like nothing can make him care. Not even this big meeting coming. And I think: all this work—learning the khim, learning the song—and we all will die anyway.
One night the girl next to me at dinner, she dies. She dies just sitting there. No sound. Just no breathing anymore. All of us, we eat so fast, no one even see this girl. Very quick, I take her bowl of rice and keep eating.
“You,” says one Khmer Rouge to me. “You come with me.”
It’s nighttime, the other kids working in the fields, big torches burning so they can see. The harvest coming soon, so everyone has to work extra. Except the band. Our job is only to practice more. But this guy says, “Different job for you tonight.”
He take me on one path, then another, then the path to the mango grove. Dusty path, so many feet walk down here on the way to die.
All these days I don’t think of my aunt or my brother and sisters. Too dangerous to miss them and maybe cry or go crazy or just give up. But now I speak to them in my mind. I say good-bye; I say I will see them again someday. Because I know what this moment means.
Already I can see the dirt pile. Tall grass, very green. Bones sticking out: leg, arm, skull, also pieces of cloth. Also I see a ditch. And a line of people—maybe fifteen, maybe twenty—all hands tie behind, kneeling. And high-ranking Khmer Rouge standing behind them.
Then this guy, he take the ax, small ax like for chopping, and he hit one kneeling guy on the back of the head. The guy fall down, like just a pile of rag hitting the ground, very fast. Then the Khmer Rouge, he go down the line, hit each one. Terrible sound, like cracking a coconut, only it’s a human head.
“You,” he says to me. “You put them in the ditch.”
I don’t want to do this, but I do it. My body does what this guy says. I push the people, very heavy, lot of blood. I push them into the grave. I do it. One guy, he’s not even dead. They say to push him in anyway.
Then the guy with the ax, he look at me. Deep in the eye. To see what I feel.
I make my eye blank. You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.
THE BAND, IT’S STILL NO GOOD. WE FORGET THE WORD ALL THE
time, we play too slow, then too fast, then we play all different times. No beat. No beat at all, because the drum guy, he so scare, his hand shake all the time. And the new music teacher, he can’t hear it. He always look like crying in his mind. No tears on his face, but all the time sad, no life in him, only sadness.
So I lead the kid. I try to show the drum guy how to keep the beat. Also I help the other khim player, kid name Kha—skinny kid with elephant ears that stick out on the side—I show him how to hit the string like the old music teacher teach me. “Touch it light,” I say, “like hummingbird wing.”
I think of the old music teacher. How he gave me, in one week, his whole life. I don’t know music, only what he taught me, but maybe I can try to teach these kid a little bit and we all can live.
No rice for a few days now, and many kid are dying. Already they look like skeleton, lying on the straw mat with flies crawling in the eyes, the mouth, like already they’re dead.
Tonight, Khmer Rouge say, we get special dinner. Black stew, sour smell. We know what this is. This food for pig—banana peel, rice husk, and all rotten thing. But we eat it anyway.
One song the band is learning, it’s about the bright red blood that is spill to create a new land. I tell the kid to sing this song smiling, showing all the teeth, so it shows we love Angka. I sing loud, extra loud to show the way. Kha, the kid with elephant ears, he like my shadow; he copy everything I do. But the other kid, they don’t learn so good.
Beside, I can’t teach the music, the very hard instrument like fiddle, like xylophone; and so the song, they still not right. Big meeting in two week and still we not ready.
Kid dying from no food, from malaria, they die slow, they moan, they cry, they ask for death to come. We don’t learn the song, we go to the mango grove. Death there is quick. Either way, it’s death.
One night I see Khmer Rouge guy, the one from the mango grove, and he ask me how the band is going. I tell him it’s very good.
He touch the small ax on his belt and his eyes go small, like lizard. “How’s the new music teacher?” he says.
I don’t blink one eyelash. “Very good,” I say. “Excellent.”
He let go of the ax. “You will tell me about this guy; you will tell me if he has bad character.”
I say I will.
That night I go to the building where the new music teacher sleep. Very dangerous thing to do. To be out at night. If I get caught now, I can say, “Sorry, I can’t find the latrine.” But if this new music teacher can’t teach us, if we play bad in front of Khmer Rouge meeting, no chance to be sorry. I know this now from the mango grove.
This guy not really asleep, just looking far away into air. I shake him, say, “Wake up. They gonna kill you if you don’t teach us to play good.”
He says he doesn’t care. He says already he’s dead in his heart. His children, all dead; his wife, he doesn’t know where she is. Once before he already prepared to die, after his baby boy starve to death. He lit incense, pray to Buddha, and wait to die himself. Then the Khmer Rouge tell him to come be a music teacher. No choice. He goes. But he hate this music, this music about blood and about hard work, about the glory of Angka. He refuse to learn it.
“So they can kill me,” he says. “It’s okay.”
I hit this guy with my fist. “Okay if you die!” I say. “But what about us? You don’t teach us to play, we die too. Us kid. Like your kid die, we will die also.”
Now he wake up. First time any light in his eye.
The next day this guy, he different. He still hate these Khmer Rouge song, I can tell. He grit his teeth and make a frown face. But now he really teach. He show one kid how to hit the xylophone, show the fiddle player how to make a good sound, not screeching like a cat. And now the band, it start to get better.
I think a minute about the first music teacher. I never even ask him his name. Because too short of time. That guy, he save my life, but nothing I could do when they kill him. This new guy, I ask what’s his name.
He look at me like I’m crazy. No one says the name anymore. We all just comrade, we all just workers, all the same, no name, no personality.
“Mek,” he says. “My name was Mek.”
This guy, Mek, he decide to live because of what I say. Now, I know, it my job to keep him living.
Now the band, it get better every day. And every night I give a little of my soup away. One night to the drum player, another night to Kha. These kid think maybe I’m crazy. “Why you give us your food?” Kha says.
You can say maybe it’s a gift. Or maybe you can say it’s also payment for my life. These kids eat better, maybe they learn the song better. They learn the song, the Khmer Rouge let us live. They can live, I can live, we all can live. They don’t learn the song, none of us can live.
The camp leader, big moonface guy, he come to the building where we play the music. Glorious news, he says. Big meeting is in one day. More good news: tonight, the band, we can have one extra bowl of rice so we can be strong and give glory to Angka.
This rice is real rice. Not rice soup, rice water. Rice to chew. White and sweet. We eat it slow, like maybe not believing it’s real. But Kha, he eat it all very quick, like never again he’s gonna see this kinda rice. Me, I eat some now, put some in my pocket. Because this good rice, I know it can be like money. You save it, maybe you can use it to get something later you need.
All night we practice, only a flashlight from Mek to see what we doing. We make many mistake and stop many time because a couple kids sick in the stomach from this good rice. Kha, he’s the worst; many times we have to stop so he can shit. We see it, his shit, we see rice in it, not even chewed. And Kha, he cries, so much pain, and all his rice is wasted.
You think maybe you feel sad when you see this, kid in pain and also so scare for the big meeting. But instead you feel like angry, like he can get us all kill for this stupid thing he does. But after all the kids, they fall asleep playing, too tired, too sick to practice anymore, I wake Kha up, give him some of the rice I save. Little bit at a time, very slow, I tell him to chew it good.
“You play good at the meeting,” I tell him, “later I give you more.”
Tonight is the big meeting. The Khmer Rouge with the little ax, he comes to the place where we practice and tells us to come now. All the big leader here, and they want to hear us play. Now. Right now. Kha, he wet his pants. We all can see it. Mek, he goes pale. The Khmer Rouge, he put his hand on his ax.
I tell him it’s okay, we know the songs.
Right away he take us to a wooden stage in the middle of the grass. Kha, this boy who is my shadow, walk so close he like in my pocket. Mek, he hang his head like walking to his death. All around us dark. But we can see people already sitting on the ground, thousand people, waiting for the show, all Khmer Rouge, with gun, with ax, with suspicious face.
Mek, he whisper in my ear. “You lead,” he says. “I can’t remember.”
I close my eye and hold the bamboo stick in the air. “Touch it light,” I hear the old man say. “Like hummingbird wing.” I let the stick drop, and one note, one tiny ping, float into the air.
I wait a thousand year in that next second and then Kha join in, then one second later, the other kid. We play, we finish the song, we don’t wait, we start another one, then another and another. We play all the song, no stopping, just playing. Only playing, not even hearing. We play, we sing, we smile—big big big, all teeth, all gums—we sing how we love Angka, how the blood was spill to set us free, how happy we are now to live in this land of plenty.
And then all the song are finished and we have no more. Only quiet. A gecko, high in the tree, he screech. Silence again.
I can see in the dark many Khmer Rouge, all waiting, all watching to see what the most high-ranking guy will do. I study this guy. I stare at his hand. I don’t hear any clapping, only see hand moving. His hand, then all the hand. And we live one more day.
I sneak into the building where Mek sleep that night. Not so scare to be out at night now. I think the Khmer Rouge won’t shoot me, now they like our music.
I wake Mek up, tell him he save us kids. All of us. He save us from dying.
But he says I save the kid, and him, too.
I think this might be a little bit true, but also I know in my heart I’m saving myself. “It’s only surviving,” I say.
Mek says he survive by dreaming. Sometimes even when he’s awake. Same dream every time. He dream of a place where the children don’t have to work in the field, where they sleep on the grass, and in the sky a spirit fly by and drop sugar on them.
When he wake up, he think of his own children and wonder if maybe it’s better to die. “To live with nothing in your stomach and a gun in your face,” he says, “is that living or is that dying a little bit every day?”
New rules after the high-ranking Khmer Rouge leave. Now no one can hunt for food. Eating by yourself is a sign of bad character, that you love yourself more than you love Angka.
Another rule: no boy can fall in love with a girl. No girl can fall in love with a boy. Only thing you can love is Angka.
Also the band, we play song sometimes at the nighttime meeting now. So the other kid can learn the word. So they can sing how much they love Angka.
Many time when I play I keep my eye close. You look out the window, you can see the other kid working in the field, so tire, so hungry, almost dead. You see this, you think maybe you will feel sad. But you don’t feel anything. Only relief that you can be inside playing music, not working in the field.
One time I open my eye and see in the field the Khmer Rouge hitting one boy, very skinny, very sick, trying to dig with his hands. The Khmer Rouge hit him and say, “Why you so lazy?” This is the hardworking boy, the boy who one time said I had bad character, the guy who got me sent to manure pile. This boy, he still work the hardest, always wanting the Khmer Rouge to like him. Now he fall down in the mud.
These Khmer Rouge, they are monster. I watch this boy fall and for one minute I feel like happy, relief that this boy is now the one in trouble. Then one minute more and I think: maybe now I am monster also.
A guy from my old town, he come to our camp sometime. He Khmer Rouge now, and he travel around to all the camp bringing the message to the leader. He says he can also give you news or maybe letter from your family. “You give me your dinner,” he says, “maybe I give you a letter.” To the girls he says, “You come alone with me to the woods, I tell you about your family.”
I give him the last of my good rice, and he give me a letter from my number one big sister, Chantou. She says, “I’m at a mountain camp where I been sent with Maly and working hard. We both are fine here but no one knows where is our other sister. I write this letter in secret so no one knows I have education. They try to make me marry Khmer Rouge, but I say no. I will not marry, not till I see you again. Take care of yourself, little brother, and be brave until I can see you again.”
Very dangerous to have this letter. Danger, too, just to think about her. You can’t trust yourself to have a memory. Because these Khmer Rouge, they can see inside your head.
All the time we get extra job after practice; cook, clean—whatever they say, we do. Today I’m very lucky to be cook, because maybe I can sneak myself a little taste.
The soup we make, it’s like water though. Only a little rice, maybe two, three can, for all these kids. All the rest is water. You eat it, you pee right away. No shit. Only water comes out even when you shit.
We feed all these kid in line, all these hungry kid, these kid working so hard. But I save one small bowl for myself. One extra taste for me. Just this one time. In a hiding place under the stove. Then when all the kid done eating, I look to see that no Khmer Rouge is watching. Even in the grass behind the kitchen, sometime they put a little kid to spy. He catch you, you beg him not to tell; you say, “You can have my food.” He eat your food. Then he tell on you anyway.
No kid is watching. No Khmer Rouge either. Just a tall figure in black. A big guy, but very skinny. Cheek like hollow, eye pop out. Like almost dead. In the grass, looking for food. This guy is a runaway, maybe from the prison. I don’t know why I do it, but I put the bowl of rice in front of him. “Please eat quickly,” I say. I don’t know why I’m giving this to him. I’m hungry myself. Very hungry. I just do it. I go away then. If the Khmer Rouge catch this guy eating, I want to be nowhere around. I come back after a while. The bowl is empty. The guy is gone.
All the time I can smell the good food cooking for the Khmer Rouge. Chicken, fish, cardamom, and lemongrass. Sometime even palm sugar I can smell. The Khmer Rouge, their faces get fat and shiny from all this good food. The kid, their face pale, skin thin, like paper.
New kid come to our camp this week and one girl, she refuse to cut her hair. So the Khmer Rouge, they take her to the temple step, to a large drum on a wooden stand. They put her inside this drum and beat it. Inside, you can hear her scream. Then they make a small fire under the drum, and you can hear her cry more.
Finally, they let her out; and she has blood coming from her nose, from her mouth, from her ear, and her hair is all crazy like ghost.
“So,” they say. “You still want to be beautiful?”
Everything on a schedule here. Waking up, peeing, working, eating. New schedule now for work in the rice field. Wake at 1 a.m., work till 7 a.m. Rest one-half hour. Work again, 7:30 till 11:30 a.m. Soup, then work again 1 p.m. to 5. Then at night, meeting. Always meeting.
Do this again the next day.
Every day the Khmer Rouge take six, maybe ten people to the temple. One time in the morning, one time after noon, one time in the evening, they take people from the stable. Men, mostly, but also women. Hand tie behind, head hanging. The Khmer Rouge say, “Confess, tell us what you did before. You were doctor. You were teacher. You were government soldier. You were pro-American. You spy for Vietnam.” And they hit, sometime with a big stick, hit hard. Sometimes they whip with wire and the people cry, they scream. “Yes, yes,” they say, “we confess.” Maybe not even true what they confess, they just say it so maybe the hitting will stop.