State Of Grace
Winning Entry by Mac
Tim landed in Siem Reap, stayed that night and then caught a bus to Bandung in order to meet his contact, the man he had begun corresponding with over eight months ago: Nou Someth.
“We can stay one night here … let you rest. Then we go out to the village tomorrow. Up to you.”
Tim was torn between getting on with it and taking a little time to rest: acclimatize and take in the fact that he was finally here, the country of his birth that he didn’t know at all. The pair moved away from the bus station and found a small café to sit, have a drink and take stock. Someth was only marginally less nervous than his client.
Sometime guide, tuktuk driver and even barman when the need arose, he was now employed to act as guardian for this young American who was searching for the past he never knew. He realised long ago that it is never easy to try to recall those years, to revisit those places that tried to shed their acquired association with death and a damaged past. Better to leave it, in his view.
“OK. We can stay tonight … then I want to go to the village. I want to find him, you know? We’ll go to every village if we have to.” Tim’s voice was cool, without emotion. Someth nodded and then led the way to a small guest house near the bus station.
Next morning, they set off in a hired car. Their route would take them through a series of villages in the north western corner of Cambodia, into the Dongrak Mountains and forests where Pol Pot had been in hiding for many years; villages that had harboured him and suffered anyway. People who had spent the last twenty years trying to get on with their lives, struggling to survive the ensuing turmoil and poverty. People who knew the ghosts in the fields and remained silent, remembering old songs rather than the screams of neighbours.
This is where Tim’s family had been – his mother, father and older sister. Father and daughter had both died before he was born. Both were ghostly echoes somewhere in this forgotten part of a country slowly being rediscovered. Tim had worked to save for this trip and, having graduated, the time had come. His mother had sunk deeper into silence with the passing years, speaking only to tend to her son’s needs. What little he knew, he had gleaned in childhood not now. Now she would simply shake her head at his questions and turn to her cooking. But he had enough information to make the journey.
Tim had connected with others through the Khmer Association of New York, who connected him with agencies in Cambodia who knew people who knew other people … and this was how he came to be with Someth, after two years of enquiries and negotiations.
“Why are you doing this?” enquired Someth.
“I’d like to enter the new millennium with my family reunited,” he replied.
“But … they can’t be alive. Not now. Someone would have known. Some contact …”
“I know that. I know they’re dead. My mother told me. But I want to know how and I want to know where they are. Knowing why is impossible … it was mass insanity, wasn’t it? I want that final connection … to gain some peace. In my religion we would think of it almost as a state of grace. A sad fulfilment, I guess.”
“You’re not Buddhist?”
“I attended a Catholic school and then it just seemed natural to attend the church. My mom didn’t much care. She’s … had her struggles through the years. She isn’t the woman she was. She had me in a refugee camp and brought me up alone.”
Tim had his father’s name, his sister’s name, descriptions and one faded photograph. And he had three weeks before his money ran out. He could extend his stay for a couple of months if he was able to find some work, but he didn’t speak Khmer so he anticipated some difficulties because of that. And in the back of his mind, the stories his mother told when she was still lucid: the wonderful school teacher who became her husband, gave her a beautiful daughter and then denied his education to stay alive. He worked in the fields with other villagers, under the supervision of the young cadres who demanded more and more work.
They had all been beaten at some point or other, they all felt the threat of starvation. But even in this corner of hell there had been time and space for them to share secret moments of love and from these had emerged the realisation that she was pregnant: “Like Mary and your Jesus that they teach you at school,” she said, smiling sadly at one of her few beautiful memories. Her moment of grace, Tim came to call it.
It was half way through week four, Tim had stretched his money as far as he could to stay just one week longer. It was in a village so small, remote and poor it had almost gone unnoticed. It wasn’t on Someth’s map. They found someone to take them in for a few dollars and began their routine of questioning, Someth translating each conversation.
There was a man – Pheara – that they should see. He was out in the fields until dusk. When they met he was reluctant to talk to them but Someth explained the urgency of the situation and Tim pleaded until the man nodded and agreed to talk to them in his home, a ramshackle hut leaning precariously on stilts over the river.
Someth bought beer and food and they sat down to talk. Yes, Pheara remembered the kindly school teacher and his daughter being killed. Like every other educated person, he had denied his education and hid amongst the peasants, working in the fields, trying to take care of his wife and daughter. He even shared what little food he had with the old people who were struggling to stay alive. The teacher was a good man and in silence and secrecy he had continued to pray to Buddha for better times to come. Tim’s eyes filled with tears – of pride and loss. They talked about those times, the hardships, the beatings and killings until Pheara indicated that he was tired; they could come back tomorrow.
Tim recalled lines from the poet, U Sam Oeur, who had written about those terrible times:
"With no food or water, dad lived on Buddha
while his body became covered with sores."
Someth smiled sadly and nodded his head: “So many like that,” he said.
They spent the next day wandering around the village and the outskirts – the fields, the forest, the river – until it was time for Pheara to return from his work and they could continue their conversation.
They brought more food and beer, settled down for the evening and picked up where they had left off. Pheara seemed to want to talk about the numerous friends and villagers that had been killed, died of starvation and sickness or simply disappeared. This had taken much of the time the previous evening too.
“It’s because people here don’t talk about those times,” explained Someth. “Nobody wants to disturb the ghosts so they keep silent. Yet when they start to talk, they open up … like our friend here.”
Pheara leaned back against the wall of his hut and continued his story, still rambling in different directions as old memories resurfaced and he tried to make sense of it himself. He had rarely been asked to articulate it before and certainly not for many years since U.N. investigators came to ask questions and assess needs.
The heat of the night and the beer eased the flow whilst tempering Pheara’s occasional flashes of mixed emotions. He talked again about the kindly young school teacher, his daughter and his wife. He recalled the day he was caught trying to gather grains of rice that had spilled from a sack to distribute to the old people. The young cadre, no more than seventeen, screamed and hit him with his rifle butt. When his beautiful daughter ran towards him, the cadre ran his bayonet into her and she died instantly. Before anyone could register the horror he stuck the bayonet through the school teacher’s neck. He gargled on his own blood and lost consciousness.
“That was probably the worst period of all … many deaths that year. They had learned to kill efficiently in great numbers. So a couple of deaths by an angry cadre simply went unnoticed. We had had two years of it by then.”
Tim suddenly looked puzzled. Something didn’t add up. His father was killed with a bayonet – his mother told him. But that was a few months before he was born in 1978. He pulled the faded photograph from his pocket – his father, mother and sister – that had been taken a year before the Khmer Rouge began their reign of destruction. Pheara nodded in recognition; it was long time ago, over twenty years, but he remembered them. He remembered the mother.
“The teacher and his little girl were killed in Angkar’s second year … they abolished our traditional calendar. It was 2519. Your western counting makes that 1976.”
“But I was born on 1 January 1978 … I don’t understand.”
Someth and Pheara quickly recapped the story, tried to recall other details, eager to help Tim understand. Perhaps there was a mistake. Pheara sat upright and began to speak slowly and deliberately.
“I’m sorry … you said you were her son. I presumed … well, hoped … I hoped she met someone to take care of her on the way to the refugee camps and to America. I cannot tell more. I am ashamed.”
Tim looked at him and whispered, “please.”
After a long silence, Pheara spoke again. “My brother and his wife and I tried to help her. She was silent for many days at a time. Gradually we thought she was returning to the normal world. But about a year after your father’s death, we got some new cadres. One – a strange boy, about fifteen – took charge of us. He took her out to the fields one night and … well, he did that several times before we realised.
“We helped her to escape … some soldiers operating close to the Thai border took her to the camps. We assumed she reached safety. We prayed she was OK. We didn’t know about her being pregnant.”
Tim sat in silence on the porch of the little hut, staring into the darkness beyond the fields towards the mountains. This is not what he had wanted. His father should have been a teacher, a Buddhist, a kind and loving man who died trying to protect his daughter.
Lines from the poet came to him again:
"He was alive under the sanctuary of worship.
Now in what grave does his skeleton lie?"
Wherever this good man’s grave was, it didn’t contain his father. His father was a murderous boy soldier. And his mother had lied. He could understand the lie but he couldn’t accept it or forgive it. Not then.
I met Tim in 2014, living in a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Siem Reap. We became friends and he told me his story … slowly. He’d returned home to America but two years later he moved to Cambodia. His mother chose to stay behind. He was now a monk, he worked with the poor and he taught the children. He felt that here, among his people, serving them and caring for their education he could achieve a state of grace.
First, they give me one drug that knocks me out so I won’t feel a thing. Then they give me another shot, and that one stops me breathing. You’d think that would be enough, wouldn’t you? But they follow it up with a third to stop my heart. No beat. No breath. No pain. No me.
My family, and my lawyer…they’re still holding out some hope of a Hail Mary. A stay of execution from the Governor, or my sentence commuted to life. Like somehow that will be better. Now, I read somewhere that the survival instinct in a man is so strong that they’d rather live on a square foot of earth than step off to their death. I mean, I can see that, in the short term; but after years? Decades? I think you’d walk. I really do.
I’m innocent. ‘Course, everyone here says they’re innocent. It’s a jailhouse joke; all of us were done wrong, somehow. As to me, well, you can choose to believe me or not. Doesn’t really matter. Family of the girl that died, they think I did it. Police think I did it. Judge and Jury think I did it; my lawyer thinks I’m innocent, innocent enough that he worked for free, pro bono he calls it, to help me out. Innocent enough for campaigns and newspapers and politics and petitions.
Comes to a point though, where it doesn’t really matter what anyone else believes, because all the stories over all the years; all the testifying, the police reports, the circumstantial evidence? They’re just confusing. There were times when they damn near convinced me that I did it! End of the day, the only one who knows what happened to that girl now? Is the one who killed her. What I believe, or you believe? Don’t make a difference to what actually happened now does it? Won’t bring that girl back to life. Won’t give me back whatever future it was I had when it was taken away from me. Won’t bring justice for the real killer, and who knows, maybe they found it someplace else. Karma or something it’s called, right?
Ah, who am I kidding? I know I shoulda been here. I would have ended up in jail one way or another, it was just the way I was going. I was a no good punk. Shooting my mouth off, stealing cars, cheating on my girl, beating on my friends. I was never gonna settle down, get the nice house with the yard and the picket fence. Every chance I had? I just threw it away. I didn’t kill that girl, but I’d have been biding my time here just the same. It’d have been something.
I was a jerk. That’s why I’m here. When fingers started pointing, a whole bunch of them started pointing at me. Why? Well, my girl was mad at me for getting with her sister, and her sister needed to make it up to my girl so they said some things. I don’t blame them. They just wanted me to get some heat, they never meant for me to spend my life in prison.
The rumours just kinda snowballed, grew big with all the other stories of shitty things I’d done so it seemed like I was the only guy in town who coulda done it. A car like mine had been seen around when the girl disappeared, and I couldn’t tell them where I’d been. I didn’t remember. Spent half my life drunk and the other half high; how was I supposed to remember details?
I just thought…you know what? In a crazy way, I believed in justice. I did! I might have been “bu bu bu bad to the bone”, but all those cop shows I watched made me think that they’d find who really did it. There’d be some piece of evidence, or a witness or something, and I’d walk. I don’t know when I stopped waiting for that. I don’t know when I stopped believing.
Even when the jury said, ‘Guilty’. Even when the judge said, ‘death sentence’, I was waiting. All through the appeals, up and down the circuits. Motions filed, motions rejected. I had faith in the system. Sometimes I think I had more faith in it than anyone else who was a part of the whole damn circus.
A preacher is coming, in a while. He came yesterday too, just to be with me in these last days, he said. I could tell that he wanted me to confess. He kept talking about how I could be at peace. I said to him, ‘I am at peace. I didn’t do the thing they said I did, but I did other things. I was a bad seed, Father, and being in here was the best thing for me. I woulda wasted a life, if I’d had one. But I’m tired now. I want to step off my square meter, and see what it feels like to fly.’
He didn’t understand. Just looked at me like I was crazy and said he’d pray for me, that I might find forgiveness.
I think it worked, just maybe not in the way he was thinking. Just that last night, after I told them what I wanted to eat for my last meal. After I met with my lawyer who was still talking about the Governer and public pressure and yada, yada, yada. After all that, when I was lying down to sleep, I suddenly felt kinda peaceful.
I only felt like that once in my life before, when I was a kid. I was out fishing, with my Grandpa, on a boat, on a lake. It was so quiet, we’d walked miles and miles from the road to get to this little lake and there was no one else there. There was no wind, we just floated out there in the sun and after a bit, Grandpa’s eyes started to get heavy and his head nodded forward. It was like someone had cast a spell; I was still young enough to believe in fairy tales a bit. Maybe it was a mermaid of something, who knows? But I lay down in the bottom of that boat and looked up at the bluest sky I ever saw. It felt like I dissolved, like I was part of something big. Part of the wide, blue sky. Like anything was possible.
And there I was, feeling it again but in a hard prison bunk on death row. Funny, huh? I just couldn’t be angry any more, I didn’t have it in me. Not with the killer, or the liars, or the cops, or the judges. Not with anyone. I closed my eyes, and I thanked God for giving me the peace to understand that it was over. It was over.
The Preacher asked me if I would give the family of that girl some peace, and tell them where she was. Oh, now that question has made me so angry, over the years. Worse than thinking I’d hurt her at all, is thinking that I’d hurt her family so bad that I wouldn’t let them bury her proper. I didn’t know them, didn’t know her…why would I hurt any of them? You’d have to hate someone pretty bad to do something like that. When the Preacher asked this time, it didn’t make me angry though, just sad. I said, ‘I’m sorry, Father, I can’t answer that. I wish I could, but I can’t.’
He left, just after that. He said he’d pray for me.
And it’s OK. It is. It’s OK. Even if they find out today that someone else did it. With this DNA evidence or whatever, even if they proved once and for all that I didn’t do it? How does that change anything? Doesn’t bring the girl back to life, doesn’t make her family feel better, doesn’t turn back all the time I served. It’d just be me, tossed out of jail to a family who disowned me. I can’t remember what life was like outside, where you choose your own clothes, food, job. I don’t know as I could do any of that, any more.
I just got a few more hours until they come and bring me my meal; chicken fried steak, baked potato and corn, peach pie and cream. Until then, I’m just gonna lie here in my bunk and feel the boat rock. See my Grandpa’s nodding shadow. Let my mind become as big as the wide, blue sky.
It’s OK. It’s OK.
I was there. Right there. On my lawn outside my house with the sounds of the school drifting down from the hilltop. My cat did eights around my legs looking for attention and a moment to leap up into my arms, which he only did if I looked down and called him. The chickens were methodically picking their way through my new seedlings; I could hear them behind me.
I looked at the cat. 'Up you come, then,' I told him and up he bounced, landing in my arms. Together, with him providing the deep warm soundtrack prrrrrrrrrrrr we watched the chickens. I knew he was waiting for a chance. I knew the chickens wouldn't let him and he probably knew it too, deep down where he made his purr, so he played this game where he'd creep up on them and chase them a little and they'd cluck angrily and turn on him all puffed up and he'd run off, twitching his nose. Now he ignored them, rubbed his head against my chin and settled himself over my shoulder, a living shawl.
I carried on hanging out the washing, the cat balancing, me bending down awkwardly balancing him back.
All those things and something else; a feeling I was due this, after the ups and downs and sheer hard work of the last few years of moving and children and family illness and depression and my autoimmune illness and relationship difficulties and all of it, everything else. Nothing huge but together all very massive and overwhelming.
I breathed in that perfect sea air and smiled, tickled the cat under his chin and looked out to sea.
I didn't want to try and describe it any more; I just wanted to feel it and enjoy it for I'd never known anything quite like it, sober. Straight. In the morning.
I listened and all the sounds were just right: the distant dog, the children's playground shouts and squeals rising and falling in the wind across the village, the seagulls, the waves, the wind and the chickens' baby dinosaur noises that meant worm worm mine mine gerroff! They were like little golfers, the way they ran, little armless golfers, their plus-fours chubbing about their legs as they dashed after the newest member of the flock who'd pulled an indignant worm from the ground and was going to take it away from her sisters to eat it under a bush on her own thank you very much.
I smiled to myself, grateful, thanking I didn't know who because I don't believe in any one Thing or Who, just in the energy that fills us and surrounds us.
For a few seconds, I was in a state of grace. Suspended for a few seconds in my life, able to see all the best bits of it and appreciate them and feel them and experience them fully and know how beautiful they were. I was right there in that moment and it was a moment of perfection. Me, the washing, the cat, the chickens and the sea.
But I am too in tune with life, generally. I know when periods of difficulty are coming my way. I was given this short perfect moment, shortly before this thought burst into me:
Oh shit, what's coming...?
For I felt it, something wicked, coming at me over the sea.
I looked up at the sky. I may have mumbled thank you, for those perfect moments I'd just known.
In the next instant, I had a glimmer of an idea of what was coming.
Really? I thought. Do I have to? Fucking Really? (This last 'really' would have been in italics if I was able to do it.) Really?
And the answer, drifting down at me from whence all that good had just entertaineth me, was Yes. Yes, really.
'Oh bring it on then,' I said to the sky. 'I'll bloody well deal with it.'
It was that night I found the lump. So tiny it almost wasn't there, but I knew right then what it took the next five weeks and a lot of tests to find out for sure.
The C word. I wasn't able to say it for a while without it being a bit uncertain. Cancer. Really? Again: italics.
cancer cancer cancer cancer
My birth sign. My grandmother's death sentence.
By the pricking of my thumbs after the temporary extraordinary state of grace I'd found myself in, something wicked this way came.
Apparently I'm being brave and positive and tackling it head on at a rush - as I do everything. This is good because I'm feeling like that inside too, post op, still sore, but positive and four months down the line of this weird trip. I'm glad the exterior and the interior feelings are the same. I've not fallen apart. I've taken on the challenge - not willingly but knowing I had no choice. It was coming, whether or not I wanted it to. Like a roller coaster or giving birth, once it's started there's nowt you can do but hang the hell on and go with it.
I've learnt a hell of a lot in these last few months. It began with this state of grace, this tiny peek at life's beauty, this knowledge that I'd actually reached a peak and for now, would get no higher. There was another hill - there's always another hill. And that hill hath lessons and up we climb because the only alternative is to sit on your jacket and use it as a sledge and slide
Not an option. I want to get to the top again.
I've always been trying to live properly and fully and well, having posters and cards and inspirational quotes written on my windows. Live now! Live, Love Laugh! Live every day as if it's your last! Don't have regrets.... You know the kind of sayings, right? Everyone's got a favourite. I had heaps and in the end I wasn't really living any of them; I just liked having them around me.
Being told I have cancer is the biggest push to live life fully I've ever had or ever experienced.
Wow. Everyday, I get Wow moments. Lots of them! Always with an exclamation mark at the end! I've never lived so fully.
And here's the rub: if it wasn't for that state of Being, that perfect moment hanging out my washing surrounded by fur and feathers and the big blues of the sea and the sky, I'd never have allowed myself to be enough IN the moment, to just stop and feel and experience it, without rushing and thinking and planning and all the things we do every day, and if I'd never allowed myself to be fully in that moment I'd not have felt the wicked thing blowing in at me and I'd not have found the lump because why would I even have checked?
What an exquisite irony, and one I am grateful for being given.
All agree I found it early. So tiny it wasn't seen on a mammogram, even. But the nurse told me if I'd not found it, if I'd not checked, it could have been there for......... YEARS.......... Sorry for shouting. Years. By which time, it could all have been too late becasue it could
and I would have been dying instead of learning how to live.
Interesting. I was planning to write a story this evening about a bloke who thinks he's in a state of grace and uses it as an excuse to murder baddies but the whole thing's a con and... I won't give it away in case I decide to write it again. Instead, I've written about my own little state of grace, my own tiny glimpse of peace in a moment. I hope you enjoyed reading it. And don't be scared, in case cancer's a thing that really scares you. It's a monster, sure, but it's a monster we are all capable of taking on, and smiling whilst we do it.
And the best thing of all? I remember how it felt to be right there, in that place, with my cat and my chickens and my washing. And I allow myself to be right There, wherever I am.