State Of Grace

Entry by: Mac

10th August 2016

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.