“It’s hot,” the reporter said, wiping ineffectually at the sweat streaming down her face.
Her guide, hired because he could speak English, grinned. “It is always hot here, ma’am.”
“I know, but I wish it wasn’t quite so damned hot.”
The reporter wished she hadn’t come. The rice paddies on both sides of the shimmered in the heat, and the smell of wet mud and stagnant water made her want to retch. Ever since they had left the bus back in the dirty little market town, her doubts had been growing. But it was too late to turn back now.
“Forty years after the Khmer Rouge takeover,” the editor had told her over the phone. “Do a feature on how the country’s recovered and how it’s coping. We’ll pay well.”
“Everyone will be doing one,” she’d protested. “Time, Newsweek, you name it, every international magazine will be doing one.”
“You’ll find your own way of describing things,” the editor had said, the familiar cajoling note in his voice. She’d waited for the ego massage, knowing it would come. “You’re the best, you know that. Nobody else has touched the features you did on Afghanistan and the Congo thing.”
The damnable thing was that the editor hadn’t really been wrong. She was among the best, and she knew it. And it was that professional pride, not the money – though god knew she needed the money, with the lifestyle she’d grown accustomed to – that had driven her to take up the assignment. And now she was regretting it.
She wished once again that she’d never had the bright idea of going out into the villages to interview the former Khmer Rouge soldiers now making a living as farmers and labourers. At the time it had seemed a brilliant idea, worthy of the woman who had gone into Afghan villages and talked to Taliban commanders and foot soldiers. The former Khmer Rouge in the villages would be the voice of the other side, the oppressors, and how they were coping. She was sure none of her competitors would have thought of that. They might talk to one or two of the former brethren of the black uniform who now lived in the cities, but they’d only get a watered down, politically-cleansed version. Only the real Rouge, living in the real Cambodia, would give her the truth.
Now, after seven different interviews, and on her way to the eighth, she’d given up hope of learning anything new. The stories were always similar; the former rouge wanted to get on with life, and didn’t much appreciate having their past pulled open again. She’d have got as much from reading a book or two on the four-year rule of the Angkar.
From both sides of the narrow path, the paddy fields stretched as far as she could see. Far away to the west rose the blue mountains, but on the other side, the land was so flat that the sky met the ground in a haze of heat and distance. The sun beat down on her, and she knew her broad face, never pretty at the best of times, was red and the sweat was making her make-up run. Ineffectually, she tried to tuck her straggling hair back under her white cloth hat. The straps of her camera and recorder were chafing her neck, and her right foot had blistered at the heel. She bit back a curse.
“How much further?”
“Not much. He lives there.” The guide pointed to a clump of trees, in the shade of which the woman noticed a couple of thatched houses. A water buffalo stood tethered to a post, methodically chewing the cud.
“Will he be home at this time?”
“We will see.” The guide’s round face seemed to be set in a perpetual smile, and the reporter began to wonder if he was taking a secret delight in her suffering. “He said he would be home.”
The water buffalo lowed at them as they passed. Its horns were swept back so sharply they almost touched its dark grey flanks. The reporter had seen plenty of buffalos in Asia, but had never quite lost her fear of them. She gave it a wide berth.
Close to the huts looked better constructed than they had from a distance, cooled by the shade of the trees. An ibis was pecking at the mud by the side of the path, and waited until they had almost reached it before taking to the air in a flurry of white feathers. The reporter reached instinctively for her camera, but the bird was already far away.
“Here he is,” the guide said.
The reporter turned. The man who had come out of the nearest hut was thin, and short, even for a Cambodian. He was probably around fifty but seemed ageless, his features cast as though they could never change, and the hair on his head was greying but still thick and hung to the collar of his yellow T shirt.
“This is Mr Khieu,” the guide said, and turned to the man. In the jabber of speech that followed the reporter heard her own name, badly mispronounced as it was. The former Khmer Rouge, Khieu, bobbed his head, smiling, and gestured.
“He asks if we’d like to go inside,” the guide said.
Nodding, the reporter stepped through the low doorway, pausing briefly to remove her shoes. The interior of the hut was dark and surprisingly cool. Khieu gestured again, at a cot set against the wall.
“Is this his house?” The reporter sat on the cot, and the guide followed suit.
“Yes. His and his family’s.” The guide talked briefly to Khieu. “He says he sent his wife and kids to the town for the day. He doesn’t want them disturbing us, he says.”
“Pity; I’d wanted to meet them.” The families were about the only thing that had distinguished one former Khmer Rouge from another. They provided something on which to hang her story. “Could I ask him some questions, please?”
Half an hour later the reporter sat back, trying to hide her disappointment. The story she had heard was almost a carbon copy of the others she’d been told so far; she could even have answered her remaining questions herself, and not got a thing wrong on the essentials. “Isn’t there anything else he could tell us? I haven’t heard anything from him I haven’t already heard before.”
The guide and the former Khmer Rouge man talked for a long time, the latter gesturing vehemently. At length the guide turned back to the woman. “He says...” he hesitated briefly. “He says he has a story from back when he was a soldier, during the Angkar rule, which he can tell. But he does not know whether he will be believed, and he doesn’t want to be laughed at.”
The reporter shrugged mentally, but reached again for her recorder. “I’m not going to laugh at him,” she said.
****************************** ************ *********************
That year the stench of the corpses rotting in the fields by the river had grown so strong that the boys used to tie their chequered scarves over their faces when they crossed them. The flies were like a blue-green carpet over the rotting corpses, scarcely bothering to rise when disturbed. The oldest bodies were already skeletons, and yet more were dumped daily, intellectuals from the cities, or malingerers and counter-revolutionaries from the villages who defied the word of the Angkar.
That summer Khieu was thirteen years old, and had already been a soldier for three years. He no longer remembered his parents or his home in a village on the other side of the Mekong. He knew his sister, of course, but then he saw her almost every day; she was already, at the age of ten, senior to him in rank, and rarely acknowledged that he existed.
One evening, the village committee declared that the fields by the river could no longer be used to dump the bodies of the enemies of the revolution. There was an old, ruined temple on the fringes of the forest, and the committee decided that henceforth this would be the dumping ground.
Some of the older Khmer Rouge cadre demurred. “That temple is the home of the old spirits,” One-Eye Samnang had protested. “We must not anger them.”
The head of the committee laughed. “Brother, there is no such thing as a spirit, and there is no better use for those old temples than this. You will see to it that tomorrow’s lot are put there.”
“But, First Brother...” Samnang’s remaining eye was wide with fear. “The spirits of evil may walk the earth if we disturb the temple.”
“Enough,” the committee head snapped. “You will do what you have to do.” His furious gaze roved over the gathering, and everyone fell silent, even Samnang.
Later, after the meeting had ended, the head of the committee beckoned Khieu and his friend Duch aside. “Tomorrow night, you two will stay at the temple and watch over the bodies.”
“Why?” Normally, Khieu would never have thought of questioning an order, but the very strangeness of it made him ask. After all, corpses were corpses, and nobody bothered to sit over the dead that littered the countryside. “Why, First Brother?”
Even stranger was the fact that the committee head chose to answer. “You heard how some of the men were muttering? One-Eye and the rest? I’m afraid we haven’t been able to stamp out superstitions as thoroughly as we should have, here.” He leaned close, smelling of fish paste and stale sweat. “I wouldn’t put it past some of our less educated comrades to...arrange things to suit their superstitions. You understand?”
Khieu hadn’t, not quite, but nodded anyway. “Shall we leave in the morning?”
The committee head patted him on the shoulder, approvingly. “Not till afternoon. Stay there while they dump the bodies, and then guard them overnight. Once nothing happens the first few days, nobody’s going to worry about anything anymore. Remember,” he added, “I’m depending on you.”
Khieu felt joy flood through his young heart. The committee’s members never handed out praise or approbation lightly. “You won’t find us lacking, First Brother.”
“I know I won’t.” The committee head clapped him on the back and stood up, to show that the meeting was over.
The temple was a roofless ruin, carved grey stone walls mostly overgrown with creepers. It had once been very large, but most of it had succumbed to the jungle. Only the entrance and the first two rooms still had anything resembling a recognisable structure.
It was very old. Nobody knew how old, not even in the village nearby around which the new town had been built to house the counter-revolutionaries and the intellectuals. It had been a ruin as long as the oldest greybeard in the village could remember, and the villagers told stories about it and avoided it. They said it was a “bad place.”
When Khieu and Duch arrived, it was three in the afternoon and the sun was beginning to sink towards the west. The two boys had bamboo staves and an old M16 rifle with half a magazine of bullets, which Duch carried. They were just in time to see some of the older Khmer Rouge bring in one of the people from the town. The man was weedy, middle-aged and dragged a bandaged foot. He even wore glasses, one lens of which was cracked across, the frame mended with tape.
“Intellectual,” Duch said. “Wonder how he was allowed to survive this long. With glasses too!”
The man turned his head at the sound of his voice. “Boys! Don’t throw away your lives doing...” He was about to say something more, but one of the guards struck him across the back with a bamboo pole, almost knocking him on his face. Two others grabbed him by arms and dragged him into the temple, the others following, one idly swinging a pickaxe. Khieu and Duch watched indifferently. They had seen all this before.
Duch was the same age as Khieu, but taller, tougher, louder, in all ways more suited for command. And yet for some reason it was Khieu who had the favour of the head of the committee and the older Khmer Rouge men. Maybe it was because he was quieter and more obedient, and thought to be more reliable. Duch didn’t like it one bit, but it didn’t prevent them from being friends.
The two of them waited until the noises from inside the temple ended and the four guards emerged, one of them whistling a tune. Another, the one still swinging the now bloody pickaxe, nodded at the boys.
“No more today,” he called. “You two had better be clearing off too. Night’s coming.”
Khieu said nothing. The man looked at them once more. “You heard me? The temple spirits will be up and about in a while. Go home!”
“First Brother said we were to remain here,” Khieu said.
The man stared at him for a long moment, then shrugged and followed behind the others. “Your problem,” he called over his shoulder. “Not mine.”
“Let’s take a look inside,” Duch suggested once the men had gone.
“What for? We’re just supposed to keep an eye on the place. Why should we go inside?”
Duch snorted. “Of course, if you’re scared of some stupid superstition...very well, I’ll go alone.”
“No, wait.” Khieu trotted after the other boy. The steps up to the old temple’s entrance were crumbling and overgrown, except where the feet of those who had entered today had broken and trampled the vines.
“There might be snakes,” Khieu muttered, but not loudly enough for Duch to hear.
The front room was littered with broken pieces of carved stone and other debris, but otherwise empty. The walls were covered with carvings, most of them partly effaced with time and weather.
“In here,” Duch said, pointing with his bamboo stave at the door to the inner room. Khieu followed him reluctantly, stepping high over the decomposed corpse of a small animal. The creature’s skin had peeled back from its skull, and there was little left except bones and scraps of fur.
“What are you looking at?” Duch said impatiently. “In here, that’s where they are.”
There was a pit in the centre of the second room, like a small swimming pool carved out of the floor. The bottom was thick with rotting leaves and stagnant rainwater, and here the bodies lay, five of them, partly on each other. The top one was the man they had seen being brought in, blood smeared across his face from the pickaxe blow to the top of his skull. He still had his spectacles on. More blood splashed and stained the stone at the edge of the pit.
“Reactionaries,” Duch said. “Don’t they die easy?”
Khieu looked around the room so he wouldn’t have to look at the corpses. On the other side, there was a doorway which was almost completely blocked by a further wall which had fallen in. Except for the door by which they had entered, the only other opening in the walls was an arched window, which was obscured by the thorny branches of a bush growing on the other side. Flies had already found the dead men, and buzzed around the room.
“Tomorrow,” Duch said, “I hope they let us kill some of them. I’ll ask First Brother.”
“What’s that?” Khieu pointed across the room, mostly to distract Duch, and then realised that he was actually pointing at something interesting. “That thing, the broken piece of stone...over there.”
“This?” Duch walked over and picked it up, turning it over in his hands. “What a piece. Look at it!”
Khieu took it from him and almost dropped it. It was heavier than it looked, and he had to make a quick grab to stop it falling on his foot. The piece was about twice as large as his hand, and about as thick round as his biceps.
The carving was of a creature. It crouched, its upper body supported on its front legs, its faintly doglike head thrust forward between its heavy shoulders. The eyes were slits above the snarling snout, the mouth a fanged pit from which a pointed tongue lolled. The paws were armed with claws, and the sloping hindquarters ended in a stubby tail that merged with the back legs. The detailing was marvellous; Khieu’s fingers could feel the texture that had been meant to represent fur.
“It’s horrible,” he said, suddenly wishing he hadn’t seen it at all, and gave it back to Duch. “Put it back.”
“Put it back? Are you crazy?” Duch held up the statuette admiringly. “I’ll take it back with me. It’s great!”
“You’re going to take that back?” Khieu said incredulously. “You’re crazy.”
“Here,” Duch said to the stone figure. “Have a lick of this.” He scooped up a little of the blood and smeared it on the statuette’s snout. “Tasty?”
“You’re really nuts.” Khieu glared at the other boy, turned away, found himself looking into the pit with the corpses, and blundered out through the door. “I’ll be waiting outside,” he said. “Do whatever you want. Just don’t expect me to be part of it.”
Duch’s laughter followed him out all the way.
“It’s beginning to rain,” Khieu said.
“Yes,” Duch said, his voice muffled in the hiss of falling water. The raindrops were fat and heavy in the darkness, cooling the air. Neither of the two boys made any attempt to seek any more shelter than that of the tree under which they were standing. There was no shelter to be found this side of the village anyway. “Damn, I wanted to have a kip if I could.”
“It’s keeping the mosquitoes off, at least.” Khieu could scarcely see the bulk of the temple in the darkness. The clouds had gathered almost as soon as the sun had set, and there was not a glimmer of light. Even the fireflies were absent. “Even if someone came here now, we’d hardly be able to see them,” he added.
“What?” Duch seemed distracted. “What’s that?”
“Something just went past me...” Duch said. Khieu could see the other boy poking around with his bamboo stick. “You didn’t feel it?”
“Feel what? I didn’t feel anything.” Except the sting of the rain. “Some kind of animal?”
“I don’t know.” Duch’s voice was suddenly sharp. “Hey. What did you do with my stautue?”
“Your statue? I didn’t touch the damned thing.”
“Don’t lie. It was here by my feet only a minute ago, and now it isn’t.”
“Maybe your animal took it,” Khieu said. “I wouldn’t touch it.”
“Let the rain stop, and I’ll see.” Duch said something else under his breath that Khieu couldn’t catch. He sat back against the tree, hugging his knees, and stared off into the darkness.
It was hours later when the rain finally slackened off. Khieu had long since fallen into a fitful doze, but it was the absence of the sound of the rain that woke him. There was only the drip of water from the trees.
“Duch?” he whispered. “Are you there?”
“Here,” Duch’s voice came from up ahead, near the temple. “There’s something...”
“Where are you?” Khieu started forward, but some nameless instinct held him back. “Duch?”
“I tell you there’s something in the temple!” Duch’s voice rang out. “There’s something in the temple and it’s...”
If he said anything after that, it was lost in his screaming.
************************ ***************** **********************
“I spent the night in the tree,” Khieu said through the guide. “I climbed it as fast as I could, and I was just in time. Something was prowling round it and scratching at the bark, and jumped up at me more than once. I could smell it, and hear its teeth clashing together. It was so dark I couldn’t see a thing, but it could see me. It prowled around the tree most of the night, and sometime before dawn, it went away.”
“A tiger, perhaps?” the reporter asked.
“There weren’t any tigers left in that forest. Besides, in the morning I couldn’t find any pug marks. The ground was soft from the rain, and I found Duch’s and my footprints, but nothing else.”
“Duch? What happened to him?”
Khieu looked away, rubbing his face. “He was in the temple, lying in the pit. There wasn’t much left of him, or of the other five bodies. They’d been eaten.”
“What did you do?”
“I went back to report to the village committee. They came and looked everything over, and said that a tiger had done it. But after that one day they didn’t dump any more corpses in the temple, and a few days later they blasted in the walls with dynamite until it was just a heap of rubble. And they ordered us to stay away from the place.”
The silence that followed stretched until the reporter had to break it.
“There’s something more, isn’t there? Something you haven’t told us?”
“Yes,” Khieu agreed. “When I went into the temple that morning, just after dawn, I found something else in the pit as well. It was the statuette Duch had taken. It was much larger than I remembered it, and covered in blood, and...”
“I poked at it with my bamboo stave,” Khieu said, so softly that they had to strain to hear. “And it turned its head and bit the stick in half.
“And then the dawn came, fully, and it shrank before my eyes, turned back to stone and didn’t move anymore.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011