Authors: Patricia McCormick
I walk right to him. “Why you not hit me?” I say. “Why you not tell the Khmer Rouge I steal the food?”
Still he’s quiet.
“The other Khmer Rouge, they find out you not report me, they beat you, maybe kill you,” I say.
He only walk away. And this time, it’s me just looking at him.
Now I watch this guy all the time. I see how he tap his foot when we play the music. I see also his face is like a baby. No hair on his lip. Soft cheek. This fierce guy, he’s a kid. A kid four, maybe five years older than me. A lot of Khmer Rouge soldier just teenager, but this guy, he make frown face all the time so he can seem old. Quiet all the time, and watching very suspicious so he can seem fierce. But all the time, really, he’s a kid.
Also never he yell at us. Never yell at Mek. Only time he use a strict voice is when we play at the meeting, when the top guys come for celebration and we play for them. But when only us kid are around, he doesn’t yell, doesn’t hit. I tell Mek, “This guy, Sombo, he’s not like other Khmer Rouge.”
Now a lot of day, Sombo, he asks me to play for him after the band practice. First couple time, Mek hide behind a building and watch to make sure nothing bad can happen. But soon he leave me alone with Sombo, no problem. I play for him now, no blindfold, only playing the song. Still no talking.
One day I ask him again why he never tell the other Khmer Rouge about me stealing the food.
“I see what you do,” he says. “Sometimes you give food to the other kid. So I stay quiet.”
Finally this guy talk, and I don’t know what to say.
“Before the Khmer Rouge,” he says, “I was orphan, and hungry all the time. The people, they judge me, shame me, hit me sometime for what I do to get food.” He look over at the rice field, where kid are working now at night. “Why I would give this shame to other kid?”
So one Khmer Rouge is good, I think. One guy, this Sombo, he is good inside.
Many night now, I play the khim for Sombo. He sit under a tree after dinner and I play song. These night I can lose myself in the music because I don’t sing the word. No blood-red field, no glory to Angka, only notes. No hate in notes; notes just notes. All the hate is in the word. Also this music, it’s not to cover the sound of people being kill, of skull cracking. It’s for this one guy, this Khmer Rouge who really is just a kid acting like tough. Like me.
One night I show him how to play the khim, like the old man taught me. His hands clumsy—hard skin from hard work—and I tell him, “Touch it light, like hummingbird wing.” He hold the bamboo stick dainty now, like girl; and inside I smile at this Khmer Rouge, this tough guy, playing the music so gentle.
After, we walking home, I ask him, “The other Khmer Rouge, what make them be so bad?”
Sombo says, “It’s not bad or good. They kill only so they won’t be killed themself.”
ONE WAY TO KNOW HOW LONG WE’VE BEEN HERE: COUNT THE
season. Eight harvest now means two year and a half. The Khmer Rouge give us new black clothes two or three times a year. Just one shirt, one pant. Just one, because no one can have any possession at all. No toy, no pillow, no bowl. Not one thing.
Another way to tell the time: how often they let us wash in the pond. Maybe one time every six weeks. Sometime the clothes smell bad. Like shit and sweat. Stiff from so much wearing. But sometime you have one hour to rest, and the Khmer Rouge say, “Okay, jump in the pond.” Everybody at the same time. Even the kid too weak.
When I was a small boy I like to take my clothes off for swimming. Jumping. Doing a flip. Throwing a leech at my little brother. A fun thing, too dangerous to think of now.
Here, they separate us for the bath. Girl with girl, boy with boy. But Kha, he says we can see the girls, see naked girls, if we crawl under the building where we sleep. Siv giggle and shut his eyes tight.
Me, I cover my eye but peek out between my finger. They timid, these girl, when they take off the black uniform. Nervous, I think, to show private thing, like breast, like bottom. But these girl, they not like the apsara dancer with round breast carved on temple wall. They like old woman. All bone. Skin like paper. Some with hair falling out. The boy see this, they don’t want to look anymore.
When it’s our turn, we play a little bit. Me and Kha and Siv, we pretend we like elephant, making water come out our nose. Not crazy splashing. Not crazy trick. Not enough energy in us to be crazy. If you crazy, you drown. So we just play gentle with the water. And maybe try to sink a little. Hold your nose and go down to the bottom, all quiet and dark. No blood smell, no loudspeaker music down there. No Khmer Rouge.
But you can’t sink yourself. You go down, and you feel like you’re floating again. Because nothing in your stomach.
Everyone here is afraid. Not just us kid but also the Khmer Rouge. The low-ranking soldier, always they have to praise the leader, do whatever he say, or maybe get sent away. Maybe to the manure pile, maybe the mango field.
Then one day that leader, someone says he’s a traitor and now he’s the one who goes to the mango grove. And after that a new guy in charge, and all the soldier, they pretend they never even know the old leader.
The Khmer Rouge, they do anything to stay alive. Same for all of us. Always trying to see which way the wind is going.
One day I see Sombo walking in the middle of camp with a new high-ranking guy. I run to him, ask where they going. The other guy, he look at me like pest and push Sombo to keep walking. Sombo, he stare at me with little shark eye, like never he even know me, and says to go away.
I pull on him, on his sleeve, and say, “Please, I want to go with you.”
Then Sombo, he make an angry face, mean and ugly, and he swear at me. He spit on the dirt and call me a very bad word. Like he hate me. He push me away, hard, till I fall down on the path. And I see only his back now as he walk away with this new leader.
How sudden the wind change here, where Sombo, this one guy always so good to me, now is so mean to me.
That night I go to see Mek and tell him what happen. I say now I hate Sombo, that he trick us, that really he like all the other Khmer Rouge. But Mek only shake his head.
“All the time, Sombo save you,” he says. “This time he save you again.”
I can’t understand.
“You don’t know?” Mek says. “Sombo in trouble himself. He bring water to some guy at the manure pile, some guy still loyal to the old leader. Little kid, spy for new leader, he tells on Sombo. Now Sombo goes to jail.”
“But why he calls me that bad name?”
“So you don’t follow him. To save you from being punish also.”
Every minute now I think only about Sombo. I worry that maybe he is in the jail, dying for water. Or that the new leader will beat him. Or maybe kill him. And every minute I try to think of how to get to the jail—the place where before there were horses, now men tied up—how to sneak there. Maybe to bring him water, maybe to help him escape.
All day I wait for a chance, then at dinner a soldier, he grab me and say he need me for a job. I know what this job is. It’s like when they took the old music teacher to the mango grove; they want me to come see what they do to Sombo. I don’t even feel afraid. I’m not little kid anymore. Like old man myself now.
This soldier he grab me and Siv, he take us to the temple. The temple, the place where the torture happen. In there other soldier, they have the prisoner tied up. Hand behind, head down. Quick I look for Sombo. But these prisoner all old people.
“These people, they no good,” says one Khmer Rouge. “They old; they don’t work so hard. They gonna die soon anyway.” Then, very quick, he take the ax and hit them in the back of the head. Blood fly everywhere. The wall of the temple, beautiful tile, beautiful painting, now all dripping with blood.
Then the Khmer Rouge says to us, “It’s time for your job. You pee on them. You pee on their head.”
I think: I will not do this terrible thing, I will not do this.
But then I look down, and I see the urine coming out of me.
After this bad thing me and Siv, we leave the temple. We so shame of this bad thing we done, we don’t even look at each other. Siv, he cries like a baby. Then he grab my arm. Coming toward us, walking through the middle of camp, it’s Sombo. Like ghost, I think, but when I see him smile, I know it’s really him. We run to him and he explain.
The new leader, he said Sombo was corrupt, that he should be kill. Then someone else, he said the new leader, he was corrupt himself. Lotta fighting, then all of a sudden the old leader is back in power. And he set Sombo free.
The wind, somehow, it change again.
Now Sombo is back, I play for him every night. And sometimes, after I play, he let me listen to his radio. One station is Angka speaking. It says the rice fields in Cambodia every day now full of joyful cries of the peasant working. Great harvest coming. Soon, it says, everyone in Cambodia will have dessert every day.
Here kid are starving. Here the rice plant also look like sick. The soil very tire now from planting and planting and planting with no rest. Just like the kid. Sick from working, working, working and no rest.
Another station is Voice of America. This station, we get caught listening, we die. This Voice of America, it speak Khmer and it say Vietnamese soldier are coming across the border to fight the Khmer Rouge, to take over Cambodia. It say fighting has begun many miles from here, near the border. But Sombo snap the button off before I can hear more.
I hide from Sombo that this news makes me a little bit excited. That maybe now I hope we can be rescue. Always growing up, we hear the Vietnamese, they like the devil, that they cut the ear off the people they kill. The ear, maybe also the tongue, and cook little baby for eating them. Maybe these devil soldier, I think maybe they can beat the Khmer Rouge. But when I go to bed, I also feel afraid. Afraid that maybe these Vietnamese, they will kill us kid, too. For helping the Khmer Rouge.
All the time I get a little more famous here. The other kid, Kha and Siv, they play the music or they dance; but me, I’m the only one who play the song, sing, dance, do everything, always with big smile on my face. So now, the leader in the white shorts, he notice me. He says to come to his house to play music. No others, only the khim player, he says.
Kha and Siv, they all make a worried face. Mek, he make a sound like choking. But I don’t feel afraid. I feel hype, excited now, because maybe I can get food for myself, for Kha, for Siv, for Mek. So maybe all of us, we can live one more day, then one day more, until maybe the Vietnamese will come and kill this guy.
This leader, his house not at the camp. Down the path where we first came to this temple, in the town. But the town is not a town anymore. The houses all empty, with vine growing over top, roof all sunk in, and weed inside. The streets empty, too; car and bike stop right in the middle, also suitcase, sleeping mat, even sewing machine, all drop in the middle of the road by people leaving in a hurry. No people, no cat or dog, even. Only dust blowing.
Ghost town, except for this guy’s house. Biggest house in town. Yellow, with iron gate. And big porch where I play the khim. Inside is the party. Many, many girl and only this guy and a few other. But the leader, the guy in white, he doesn’t care about the music. Only girls and the alcohol from France call Hennessy. He smoke many cigarette in one night and has many girl with him. Khmer Rouge girl, mostly, but also girl from the camp, skinny girl, young, and very afraid, crying, shame face afterward.
I play so long, same song over and over, I almost fall asleep playing. Finally the head guy, he come to me and says to stop. I pack up my instrument, but he says no, tonight you sleep here. This party goes for three days, maybe, and I see this guy bring many girl to his room, also sometimes boy. Many time each night I get up and go sleep in a different place so he never can find me.
When finally I go back to camp, I have some good food to share with Siv and Kha. One special thing I steal: sweet potato. Siv and Kha and me, we eat this not cooked and hurry to swallow so no one can see. Next day when we shit, you can see it. Orange pieces in our shit. We kick dirt on it to hide it. Because the Khmer Rouge, they always watching to see who steal food. They even look at our shit.
The head guy, he treat me a little bit special now. Not like other kid, bringing them to his room. Like helper. Like assistant. I don’t know why he treat me good like this, and always I think maybe sometime he gonna make me come to his room, but instead he treat me like toy, like pet. I play for him and he give me good food, like tiny bit fish and vegetable sometimes. Also he has a little white horse, and one day he says I can ride it. I think maybe it’s a trick, to see if maybe I will run away; but he says I can ride this horse to another camp, give the head guy there a letter.
This horse, he goes fast, like flying. I hold the mane, no saddle or anything, so I just feel him under me, hoof galloping. I see up ahead small river, like stream, and I think: oh God, we can’t go, but this horse, he fly right over and keep going.
Strange thing is happening now. Nice thing. But very strange. Smile is on my face. Not fake smile like when we sing song about Angka, but real smile, and laughing. Also wetness on my cheek like rain, but it’s tear. For three year laughing not allowed, crying not allowed. Now, on this horse, I am laughing so much I am also crying.
This camp where I bring the letter is big, a lot bigger than ours, huge, and for men only. Like a city of one hundred rice field with one thousand men working. All around are ditch for holding water. Long, straight row, like river. And field also huge, with many, many men digging in the mud. The whole place one giant farm.
The leader at this camp, he has one wristwatch on each arm, canteen across the chest, and grenade on each hip. He hold the letter I give him a little while, then yell to an old guy sweeping the floor. “Old man,” he says. “Come here.”
The old guy, very slow, like grandfather, come over and squint at the letter. Word by word, he read it to the head guy. When he’s done, the head guy smack him on the ear and call him stupid old man. Then he says to me, “This guy was professor at college, now my slave. He so slow, some day I think I might kill him. But then who would read my letter?” He smiles wide, his gums black, like dog’s. “A few of these people who can read, we have to keep them around, right, comrade?”
I don’t know why he ask me this. Why he talks to me so friendly. Then I understand. I come on a horse, with letter from high-ranking Khmer Rouge: he thinks I’m young comrade, young Khmer Rouge.
Back on the horse now, I make him go slow. Slow so I don’t have to go back too soon. No one watching me now. No one around at all. First time in three year, except for the manure pile, I ever been alone.
I think about the leader with black gum, how he thought I was Khmer Rouge. I think also about how everyone wearing black pajamas now, everyone in the whole country dress the same. No way to know who is Khmer Rouge and who is just citizen. And I have the idea to maybe stay on this horse. Anyone try to stop me, I say I’m Khmer Rouge bringing important letter. Then maybe I can ride and ride and never go back to the camp where I see all those killing. No more smell of blood and dead body, no more kid moaning at night, no more living every minute like maybe you can get kill for no reason. Maybe I can live in the jungle, go fishing for food, and ride and ride and ride until I get somewhere else, somewhere where no Khmer Rouge anymore.
Then I think about Mek. And Siv and Kha and even Sombo. All of them will worry. They will think maybe I disappear like all those kid in the mango grove. I think also about what will happen to the band if I leave. One other problem: where a kid like me can go? No home exist anymore. My family all scatter at different camps or dead. No way to find them. Also, I never before been anywhere except my town and the camp.
I wish I can be like this horse. Like simply animal. Only eating, sleeping, running.
We been walking very slow, but now we at the stream we cross last time, when the horse, he flew over. And the horse, now he pull to get going. I hug his neck and whisper in his ear, “What we should do?” He snort a little, then plod his feet very slow through the stream toward home. He know only one thing: how to get back to the camp. Me, I guess I’m like this horse after all.
For a few day I live at the leader’s house. Play music a little, but mostly I take care of the horse. Any time the leader, he need a message to deliver or maybe to bring thing to his house, like cigar, like Hennessy, I ride the horse and bring it. I ride to the camp sometime, see Siv and Kha, Mek and Sombo, show them how fast this horse can go, also to sneak them some good food from the leader house.
Me and this horse, we friend now; we fly over the field and race very fast, no one watching. Rest of the time I just take care of him, give him water, scratch between his ear so much he go to sleep standing up.