Authors: Patricia McCormick
Also three time a day we hear the little ax hitting people in the head. One time in the morning, one in the afternoon, one at night. Sometime screaming, too, and then we hear the crack, like splitting coconut. After that, quiet. Small sound, cracking the skull, but you can hear it everywhere. You hear this three time every day. Even the killing on a schedule.
Sometime the kid in the field, they stop working when they hear these sound. They turn their head when they hear the scream. Or maybe they shake a little when they hear the ax. One boy, he jump like a rabbit every time. This sound comes many times each day, but every time the boy, he jump. And always the Khmer Rouge soldier, kid like us, they watching, always with the gun pointing.
One soldier, he yells at the boy who jump like a rabbit. “Stop that,” he says. “Get back to work.” But the boy can’t help it. His shoulder, they squeeze tight to his ear each time he hear the ax. So the soldier, he just shoot the boy. The other kid, they try not to notice. “You look, I shoot you, too,” the soldier says.
Another Khmer Rouge comes to see what happened. He doesn’t say, “Why you shoot that kid?” He says, “Why you waste a bullet?”
We play our music all the time now. Same schedule as the kids in the field. No audience. Only a microphone. And we hear the music two times—one time when we play it. Another time, one more beat later, from loudspeakers, up high on a wooden post. All over the camp, our music play now.
A soldier, Comrade Rat I call him because of his big teeth, he sit behind Mek, one hand on his gun. “Play fast,” he says. “No stopping.” So we play and play and play, same songs, faster, faster, all the time faster. Until one time, Mek, he forget what song is next.
He goes pale. Comrade Rat, he jumps up, yells at Mek. “Play,” he says. “Hurry up. Right now.”
But Mek, he only stares in the air.
Then we hear it. A skull breaking.
I hit the string of the khim. One note and the others come in. Comrade Rat sits down. And Mek, he wipes sweat off his head.
I understand now: the music, the Khmer Rouge make us play so no one can hear the killing.
SOMETIME WHEN THE KHMER ROUGE BRING THE PRISONER,
new prisoner, I see people from my hometown. Every time, I hope I don’t know these people, because I don’t want the Khmer Rouge to see. They see me looking at a prisoner, they think maybe I’m bad, too.
One day I see this guy from my hometown, the taxi driver, the one with the big belly, the one I gamble and beat. Same guy, but skinny now, no belly, skin sagging off his bone. I see him kneeling in the square, his hands tie behind, and I think: this guy can get me kill only by looking at me. So I rub dirt on my face, make it very dark, and look only at my feet as I walk toward him.
Just when I get close, I look up. I don’t know why. I can’t stop my eyes. And I see this guy look right at me. But his eyes blank, not seeing anything, not me, not this kid who one time tease him and take his money. And I think: now two times I beat this guy. Why he dies and I live?
Today the camp leader, moonface guy, he says our band is going on a trip. We know what this mean. It means the mango grove. Never do the Khmer Rouge say, “We’re gonna kill you.” Always they say something else, like “Help us with the oxcart” or “You going to a new place,” maybe so people don’t scream and cry and beg.
You scream or cry or beg, they kill you right away. You say nothing and just go with them, they kill you anyway.
I try to think of my family—my aunt, my sister, my little brother—to hold them in my heart before I die. I try to open the lock door in my mind where I hide them. But I can’t do it. I can’t see them anymore, I can’t make the faces come back.
All this time I work so hard to hide them; now I can’t find them. All this Khmer Rouge talk of forgetting, always I think I can disobey, always I keep my family alive in my mind. But now the Khmer Rouge, they win. They kill the family in my mind.
They take us to a truck, and we drive a long way, out in the country; and we wonder why not the mango grove, why take us far away to kill us?
Kha, my shadow, he hold my one hand; the drummer, he hold the other one. Mek says to one Khmer Rouge, “Where you taking these kid?”
The soldier, he says, “We gonna play the song in a new place.”
Mek hang his head. We know this new place. It’s like the lazy village for kid who don’t work hard. Or the resting village for old people too tired for working. People go to a new place, they don’t come back.
We drive to an empty field; and the leader, he says to get out. All of us, already like ghost, we do what he says; we walk where he point, to a dirt hill, small, with grass, tall and green, growing on it. We know this dirt pile. Always the dirt pile with dead bodies inside; the grass there grows very tall, very green.
Ten step we walk. Eight. Six. The pile now is only four step away; and my neck, it shiver, like a chill, ready for the ax. Only two step more.
The moonface guy, he yells stop, very loud, very angry. Right away I kneel down. I know what happens if you don’t kneel; the Khmer Rouge make you die extra slow, maybe cut the liver out, and you die watching it wiggle on the knife.
“Idiots!” he yells. “Go back to the truck.”
We get up slow, like maybe this is a trick.
“Hurry,” he yells, very mad now. “Go back and get your instrument.”
Again we do what he says. The Khmer Rouge, sometime they say one thing, then they say the opposite; you just do it.
“Idiots!” he says again. “How you can play the song with no instrument? How you can entertain the worker?”
He points now to long line of men coming from behind the hill, all in black pajama, all cover in mud from digging the ditch. These workers, all very quiet, they sit down, one row, two row, many row.
So what the guy on the truck says is true: we really are gonna play the song in a new place.
Another trick by the Khmer Rouge: to always keep us afraid and also confuse, sometime they tell the truth.
Now many workers come, sit down, legs crossed, on the grass. The head guy, he tell us to play a new song, the one about the workers in the field.
“Every day is like a holiday time,” we sing. “Good songs and shouts of joy ring out on every side as the peasants work the field. The earth can be hard as stone, and the sun may burn like flame; but nothing can be as strong as our love of Angka!”
“Hurrah for the new Kampuchea,” we sing, “a splendid, democratic land of plenty.”
We sing this, and the men, all like skull face—big cheek, eyes hollow, teeth sticking out—they clap. No smile on the face, only hand clapping, all starting together, all stopping together.
For many days we travel like this, to lotta different camp where people work. Sometime the workers all men, sometime all women, sometime kid and women together. The head guy from camp, he goes with us and ties us up, our feet tie to each other, so at night when we finish, even when we sleep, we can’t go anywhere, not even the latrine. And we can smell the good food he eat, he and the head guy at each camp; they eat meat all the time—meat, fish—and maybe sometimes rice wine. We can smell this good food, even in our dream.
One boy, he sing not smiling, just moving the mouth. Also, he make mistake a lotta time on his instrument. This boy small, younger than me, very good musician. But now he has a fever half the time. Fever, then half the time shaking with cold. Malaria, I think. I give this boy my shirt for sleeping, but still his teeth knock together at night.
One day the head guy sees this kid playing the song like he’s asleep. He says, “Come with me. I have medicine for you.” And that boy, we never see him again.
When we get back to the temple, the kitchen girl, she tell me to wait at the end of the line, then she give me extra food. She says I’m a little bit famous now, from playing the khim. She says the Khmer Rouge like our music. She says more high-ranking guys are coming here to hear us. She says all this good thing, but I stay modest. You act too proud, it means you love yourself more than Angka.
But I stay, sit on a rice sack, and talk with her. You could say maybe I flirt a little bit. Or you could say I also get her mind on me and not on her job while very slow, very sneaky, I pick a hole in the rice sack.
She says the top guy, the leader of the camp, he likes her, like girlfriend, like wife; that’s how she know they like our music. He very jealous, she says. “He see us together, we both dead.”
Then I say, “Look behind you. Is that guy watching you?” She look away, and quick I put one handful of rice in my pocket.
I keep this rice in my pocket a long time. I pass many Khmer Rouge, guy who can kill me if they find it. But I know one thing: don’t act scared. You look scared, you must be hiding something. You hiding something, you better look blank.
At the meeting tonight, I sit next to little kid who sleep near me, the kid who cry all the time at night, cry for his mother. I hold very still. Like statue. My hand next to his. My eyes straight ahead. Slowly, slowly, grain by grain, I hand it off to him.
One day, all of a sudden, a new guy is in charge of this camp. A guy in white shorts, no shirt. First person I see in more than one year not wearing black pajamas. No explanation about the other leader, about where he goes. Only at the meeting at night, this new guy in white, he says the enemy of Angka are everywhere. He says we already kill all the enemy from outside; now we have to kill the ones inside. Like cancer, he says, we cut them out.
Now, with this new leader, new kind of meeting. Every week you talk about your character, about how hard you work last week. Also you have to confess anything bad you did last week. Waking up too late. Being a lazy worker. Hunting for food. After you say your confession, you have to say, “Now I am very glad to listen to all my comrade also discuss my bad character.”
Anyone who acts bad goes for “education.” Education, now it’s not just sleeping in the manure pile. Those kid now, they don’t come back.
Now no one can trust. Some guys, they lie; they make up bad act about other people to punish them or maybe just to look good for the Khmer Rouge. Even your friend, if he sees you not working too hard, he has to say it or he can be punish. All suspicion everywhere, all the time now.
Next day, some new kid come to our camp. Dancer. Dancer who march and smile and sing about Angka. I learn these dance step, too, just volunteer myself so I can be in the dance show and also the band. So maybe I can get a little more famous. Because if I’m famous, everyone know me, maybe the Khmer Rouge won’t kill me.
We practice for many days, hot days, doing one big dance. We march and smile and sing about the harvest, how joyous we are, how we love Angka. End of the song comes and we freeze like statue, like picture of harvest. Each time, I kneel, like picking rice, and I get right up front so high-ranking Khmer Rouge will see me.
But every time with this song, the big guy, the one holding the flag, he also come to the front. And every time I kneel, he put the flag in front of my face. Every time.
“Hey, man,” I say one time. “Move that flag out of my face.”
He’s a tall guy with big slow feet like elephant and big sad face also like elephant. He says sorry. He says he gonna remember next time. But when the song ends, same thing. The flag over my face.
That night, again, the kitchen girl give me extra food. She says I’m a star in the show. I stay and maybe flirt a little bit. Also, I steal some rice for the big guy who always forget and put the flag in my face. Rice and also a corncob. So maybe his stomach can remember.
That night, I dream of fish stew. My favorite thing to eat. Smell like heaven and taste like nothing else. When I wake up, it’s like I can really smell it. So I sneak out to hunt for it. I can’t help it; I go.
In the square I see this new guy, white shorts, no shirt, and six soldier. Also ten guys down on the knees, hands tied, all naked, in a row. The guy in the white shorts, he has a gun with a knife attach, a bayonet. He point the bayonet at the chest of one guy in the row. Then very quick, he slice the skin and pull out the liver. So quick, so neat, the liver, it stick on the end of the knife. The kneeling guy, he’s still living; his liver not inside him anymore—in front of his face. Crying, only saying “No, no, no,” then he fall down.
The guy in the white shorts, he do this to each man in the row. Like butcher, he cut each one and pull out the liver, the spleen, the heart.
Blood everywhere. The white pant, the bare chest, all blood.
I see all this, smell the blood, like raw meat. And my eyes see it. But I don’t feel anything. If you feel, you go crazy.
A new guy bring the letters now. The old guy, he’s gone because one time he take the wrong girl to the woods. The girl of a high-ranking Khmer Rouge. We don’t see him ever again. The new guy, also from my town, is kind, like a grandfather. This guy doesn’t eat the kid food. He just give the news.
He tell me my number one big sister, Chantou, died. By sickness. In a hospital. But I think maybe he doesn’t want to tell me the truth. I think he doesn’t want to hurt me. I know these Khmer Rouge. Most of the girl, they do whatever they want with: they rape, they kill. I don’t trust that she died in the hospital. But I try to believe it.
I walk away from this guy, my leg like water. I trip a little, and maybe for one minute I think I will fall down. I fall down now, never will I get up. So I walk.
Next day, the kitchen girl give me extra rice again. Also, she says, she has special treat for me later; and at night she come to the building where I sleep and says, “Come with me.”
You don’t say no to the Khmer Rouge, even Khmer Rouge girl; they have gun, they can kill if they want, so I go with her to the building where the women live. She make me lie down on her mat, and she says to hug her. She’s older than me, like my big sister, but she’s Khmer Rouge, so I let her kiss me. Then she handle me. She does thing to me, thing I don’t know before. I don’t know if my body can do this thing that she want. So I hold very still, and in my mind I go somewhere else.
When she finish she gives me a lump of sugar. Like treasure, this sugar, like gold, like sapphire.
I take it and sneak over to the building where Mek sleep. I hold this sugar in the air and drop it on his chest. When he wake up, I tell him that the spirit, the one with the sugar, finally has come. We break this treasure in two and eat it very, very slow, melting on our tongue. Then I lie down next to Mek. We sleep close, like father and son, until the morning, and I sneak back to my building.
Tonight I’m lucky. Again I’m cook. I can sneak some extra rice. And this time, save it for myself.
A Khmer Rouge, he comes to the kitchen with something sticking on the end of his bayonet. He puts it on the plate and says, “Here, fry this for me.”
I know what this is. It’s liver. Human liver. From someone just killed. Still bouncing on the plate.
I do what he says. I do this. I cook it. I fry this human flesh.
We live here a very long time now, more than one year, on only rice soup. No meat, no fish, no spice. A body with no meat for one year has a big belly full of nothing, skin like lizard, gums all black. And this thing in the frying pan, it smell good. So good I want to eat it. I want to eat this meat. I want to. I am so hungry and it smell so good.
But I don’t do it. Because maybe next time another kitchen boy, he will be eating me.
I sneak to Mek’s building that night to tell him about this thing that happen in the kitchen, but I hurry so much, I crack the branch in the wood. A Khmer Rouge guarding the rice, he yells stop. “Traitor,” he says. “Come out and show your face.”
This is death. To be out alone at night is death. To run, that’s also death. So I raise my hands and come out of the wood.
The Khmer Rouge, he click his gun, ready to fire. “You the khim player?”
He put the gun away. “Go back to bed,” he says.
The big dancer with the flag, his name is Siv. Since I been sneaking him food, he tries very hard to remember about not covering my face, but still sometime he forget. Always he says next time he will remember. This guy, he smile a little, like embarrass. A long time since I see someone smile, and I think maybe I should warn him: Khmer Rouge see you smile, they can kill you. But this guy, so kind, so simple, I think he can’t hide his feeling.