She had not expected so much death.
“It’ll be okay. You’ll feel better once we get a bite to eat,” Elliot told her, as if Miranda needed more proof that their marriage was doomed.
That night they did dine. Luk, their guide, took them to a spot just outside of Battambang. Like Elliot, he told Miranda to eat, only it seemed a warning coming from someone whose advice they were paying for, someone with a history, a person thin as smoke.
Dishes clanged, sitar music—it seemed to be sitars—came up from the cracks in the warped floorboard. Outside the room, through speakers that were attached to fence posts and laundry poles, an urgent yet methodic voice spoke to the sticky darkness about a God in a language Miranda did not know.
Luk brought her a bowl of simmering beige broth with some type of beige meat and handed it to her. “Why is everything so?” she wanted to ask. “Where is all the color in this godforsaken land?What has been done?”In the past few days, she’d learned much of the story, of course—Pol Pot, 1975, Toul Sleng, Toul Sleng, Toul Sleng, forever Toul Sleng…Still, Elliot was right, wasn’t he?He had to be. There came a time when you moved on, forgot, rebuilt, got angry.
So Miranda was careful not to complain. In two more days their Cambodian excursion would be finished, she’d be on a plane back to Seattle. She could piece together the fragments then.
She ate with her eyes closed, chewing more than swallowing. The coils of meat were rubbery and grizzled. I will not be sick. I will not. I will not. Jiggers of bile shot up her throat but she pushed the burning liquid down. Miranda had a bit of history on her side as well. This was how it had been when she was pregnant, when there was still so much hope.
Miranda looked up. A young girl with matted black hair and a dirty face stared back, leaning against the door frame. Her dress was filthy and threadbare, her eyes black but full and curious. Her chest was a single protruding clavicle, not dissimilar from the yokes Miranda had seen binding roadside oxen. A kitten’s head poked through the hook of the girl’s stick-figure arm. Miranda raised her brow, working up a smile. The girl returned it, her teeth too big for her mouth, her flesh drum-skin tight and skeletal. She moved her arm in a way that should have jostled the kitten, and when the animal failed to move Miranda realized it was dead.
In bed, Miranda listened to the voice from the speakers. Luk told them it came from a monk saying prayers, twenty-four hours a day, every day, switching off with fellow monks for meals or a brief sleep. Though she wasn’t religious, Miranda felt a tug of jealousy sluice through her gut. Restless, she listened to Elliot’s sonorous breathing underlying the monk’s voice. She thought about the girl with the kitten and began to weep.
She miscarried somewhere in the final trimester. It was a stumble more than a fall, a hiccup, bloodless, without warning. Such a lack of fanfare should have aggravated her remorse, but it didn’t.
Miranda’s mother visited. She touched Miranda’s forehead in a tender and irretrievable manner she hadn’t since Miranda was a girl. “It’s nature’s way,” she whispered. “That’s how she course-corrects. ”
When the Khmer Rouge claimed victory mid-afternoon, April 17, 1975, those in the streets cheered. There are photographs of this, children waving hands in the air around a cache of discarded machine guns, young boys and girls knowing something has changed and hoping for the right thing the way God must.
If you find some of these photographs and compare them to others taken just months later, well…
Miranda’s mother taught her how to make dessert houses, gingerbread ones, and other buildings made of shortbread heavy on the lard with just enough brown sugar to settle the roofs. She created an entire town, populated with cookie men and women, bejeweled with cinnamon buttons and gumdrop necklaces. She made chocolate chip Dalmatians and snicker doodle Shih Tzu’s.
Miranda kept the habit late into her formidable years, figuring herself for a spinster, but then came Elliot, persistent, dashing Elliot. After a month of dating, when it felt things were moving fast, too suddenly, Miranda swallowed hard and presented him with her own game of Truth-or-Dare. Taking Elliot’s hand, she led him to the secret room of confections, and when he marveled over them, when he grinned and stammered and said, “Why you’re a cross between Willy Wonka and Betty Crocker,” well, that was enough, just plenty, and Miranda rightly fainted into his arms.
Another month later, they were married.
Elliot’s father died in Viet Nam, three miles off the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). His name was one of 58,000 etched on the black-glassed memorial in Washington, D. C. Elliot had been there and he’s not sad about it or the fact that his father died in valor instead of raising a son. Elliot was the live-and-let-live type, forgiving and optimistic to the core. Elliot always believed things could be improved if a person was willing to work hard and be solution-based.
After the miscarriage, making a new baby became Elliot’s obsession. Miranda understood this was all about him and his get-back-up-on-the-horse-and-ride philosophy. He said it wasn’t, that she’d see how much better things would be with a second—a second, as if the first child was already part grown and riding a tricycle.
“We’ve got so much to look forward to,” he told her one evening. They were on a balcony and the sky, glittering like a gown, perfectly matched his perfect outlook. “You do realize, we have the rest of our lives?”
Miranda wasn’t so sure.
When the woman at the clinic said, “You’re sure about this, right?Five years is a long time and it can’t be undone if you change your mind. ”
“I’m positive. ”
“Oakie dokie then. ”
Miranda gritted down as the needle pierced her buttock, and just like that, she’d child-proofed herself for five years.
And now they were on a tour because they were in trouble.
It pained Elliott to admit as much, and to a large degree he never did. Instead he worked around the issue with all the guile and deliberation of Sun Tzu. While Elliot’s father had been a mechanic before the war, Elliot fixed things too. He was a top man at Microsoft, whose primary duty was crafting code-munching viruses that could wipe out whole programs, the idea being: fix a problem before it’s created; hell, create the problem, fix the problem, then destroy the creation. He was that good.
Viruses, automotives, people: anything was fixable if one was determined and purposeful.
“I have a solution,” Elliot announced.
Miranda was ready to fold her cards. She realized she was cowardly, knew so much of her world view demanded certainty, safety and the presence of a candied town where nothing hurt because nothing moved or changed.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m tired. ”
“If you don’t know, that means there’s still hope. ”
“I said I’m tired. I am. ”
“You can’t just give up. ”
“Some people do quit, Elliot. A lot of people. ”
“You think that because you come from a broken home. ”
“Okay, sure, I’m sorry then. I’m sorry my father only abandoned us instead of going to some stupid war and getting killed. ”
“It’s never just one person’s fault when someone ends the relationship. ”
“So you’re blaming me!Bastard!”
Her hand came off his face with a stove-burning sting. Miranda caught herself crying but stopped when she saw his grin.
“There,” he said. “You’ve got fight left in you. You’re not ready to give up yet and you know it. ”
Big on surprises, Elliot packed for both of them, drove to the airport and shielded her view until they were on the plane. When Miranda took the blindfold off and didn’t see a single Tommy Bahama shirt, her heart sank. She’d been expecting Hawaii.
The Benson’s were across the aisle, both gum-grinning like senior citizens who know they should be happy but not why—Brian, Elliot’s supervisor and his wife, Connie, with her big hair and maple syrup accent.
“The Bensons are coming with?”
“For God’s sake, where are we going?”
“To see the real world. ”
Toul Sleng was a school that became a prison that became hell. Even today bloodstains are still leeched into the concrete walls, and though each room wears a perpetual specter of dust—in Cambodia, dust is a second skin—a weak imagination is all that’s needed to reconstruct a torture chamber, one where moans and screams and shackles dragged over bone fill your ears and stone your heart.
It’s true. Go. See for yourself.
She’d tried to turn them into people she knew. For some reason making them real seemed a way to make them not real.
Here is one that looks like Becky Estes, if you squint and take off forty pounds. This one is Danny Yamamoto, the first Asian boy Miranda knew, a skinny kid who never laughed and once was accused of stealing blackboard erasers. Look there at Cracker Armstrong, pipsqueak with pants pulled up to his chin. This one is no one. Not this one either. This one has to be a ghost. And this one. This one as well. They are all ghosts, were ghosts even as they were being sited into the camera lenses.
The wall of photographs stood eight feet high and twenty feet wide. It was double sided. Each black and white portrait was life-sized, though life was indeed the question.
Miranda thought about running out. The white echoing noise of nothingness made her cringe and twist. Shoe-shuffling sounds shot a shiver up her spine. It was like being inside a tomb. “Why?” she whispered.
Luk leaned forward, hands grasped behind his back, swaying. When he pursed his lips his face became fleshy and loose, elongating his jaw so that you might not even know he had those awful horse teeth. “The Khmer were meticulous in detailing,” he said, sucking air through his teeth, speaking slowly to lessen his accent. “They wanted proof of their dominance, a document for all history. ”
Miranda let Elliot take her hand, his fingers working over hers, just that sound of skin on skin louder than the voices of those few tourists bold enough to speak. Even the Bensons—Brian and Connie—were stone quiet, a first for them this entire trip. Brian had a firm, large belly and wiry blonde hair spread over on his arms, neck, and head like some strange garden weed. Though they had little in common physically, Brian favored Elliot’s pluck and saw him as an upstart similar to himself when Brian had first come to Microsoft in the early years: a champion of possibility.
Connie dipped her eyes when they grazed Miranda’s. She was a hard woman, Connie, a good match for Brian, but even the hardest crumbled at Toul Sleng. She wiped her eyes and clutched her gut when one of the photographs punched her especially hard. Brian’s pawed her shoulder, his hand wide as a catcher’s mitt.
Luk scanned the room, taking in the other forty or so tourists, shelling thoughts with his eyes, as if trying to decide what to tell. “After the Khmer Rouge had been defeated and driven out, canisters of film were found, hundreds of canisters. These are but a few of the pictures,” Luk said, nodding at the wall of window-sized portraits.
What must it have been like that day?This morning in Phnom Penh, Miranda went for a jog before dawn. The streets were damp, the air thick and musty, smelling of molding things—newspaper, hide and fur, food scraps, mildewing laundry. Great rivers of muddy water washed over curbsides, this being October, near the end of the rainy season. A couple miles into her run she passed a school built in the same linear, staple-shape as Toul Sleng. Already a few bicycles were on their way, uniformed girls, some of the richest around, pedaling unaware of anything. Was that how it had been the day the Khmer Rouge overtook Toul Sleng, an ordinary morning, hope still a reality?
Later that afternoon Luk took them to a different museum, one of the Killing Field Museums where they were greeted by a twenty-foot tall glass fixture with row upon row of skulls.
“I can’t take this,” Miranda said. “I’ll wait for you guys in the van. ”
“This is what we talked about,” Elliot said, his face frozen, his voice so assured that she almost believed him.
Connie grasped Miranda’s palm, the way you would a runaway child. Connie was older by ten years, forty, her hands already veiny with a paleness that matched her Irish face and red hair. “I’ll be here with you, sugar. All the way. ”
Outside was worse. Like loping horses, the lines of tourist were led down paths where intermittent death pits awaited them, each with a hand-painted sign delineating the number murdered, dumped and left—most times—unburied.
Carol squeezed Miranda’s shoulder, their arms and chests clammy, yet Miranda’s covered in goose flesh. Brian met his wife’s eye, flattening his lips, a big man lighting up, proud as hell.
The sun beat down upon them. Those without sunglasses cupped a palm over their brow. A young girl with a bowl hair cut and arms like a praying mantis brought around trays of lukewarm water.
A third through, Miranda’s stomach stopped growling. She’d tricked herself into believing the bones she saw were clay, store bought Halloween bilk, and that the rags purported to be victim’s clothing were just that—rags, no different than something you’d use to wash a car or defrost a fridge.
And then they came to the baby pit.
“And here,” a guide different than Luk said, “the soldiers would beat the childs against this tree. Sometimes the childs—“
To get to Siem Reab they had to waste a lot of time heading north, then working their way southeast. In Siem Reab were Ankor Thum and Ankor Wat, great temples built before the 12th century. At first Miranda thought the trip was about Elliot’s father and some kind of Viet Nam connection, but now she saw that Elliot had long gotten over that. The temples were the reason they’d come.
“Tomb Raider was filmed there,” Elliot said.
“Yeah, the second one,” Brian said.
“Really?” Connie asked. “Is that when Angelina Jolie did her baby shopping?”
“Actually it was,” Brian said, chuckling
For the first time the entire trip, Luk grinned, his teeth like arthritic fingers, gray-black between the grooves. “In Ankor Wat we will eat at Angelina’s favorite restaurant, ‘The Red Piano’. On the wall is a photograph of Angelina and my brother, Chey. I will show when we arrive. ”
In two days they were to fly home out of Phnom Penh. The drive to Siem Reab, and then back to Phnom Penh, would eat up an entire day. Brian pressed Luk about this.
“There’s no short cut?”
Luk shrugged his shoulders, causing Miranda to shiver as she saw something squiggle in his hair, just behind the earlobe.
“There’s always a short cut,” Elliot said.
Luk explained that they could cut through the jungle, but the rains made things unpredictable. Besides, he said, whispering to Brian, those roads had not been cleared of landmines.
“What’d he say?” Miranda asked.
Winking at Elliot this time, Brian said, “You only live once, right Elliot?”
“As far as I know. ”
“We’re here for adventure and whatever it costs, we’ll pay it. Right?”
Brian cupped his ear. “Can’t hear you buddy. ”
“We’re here for adventure!” Elliot shouted.
“Then let’s do it!” Brian yelled, thrusting his beer arm into the air, showing soaked pits. His neck was dust-coated and sweat-ringed, as if someone had just unwound a garrote.
“What did I tell you?” Brian said, holding his palms up once they were underway. As he shimmied, his belly shook and rolled, his shirt soaked with perspiration.
The van’s middle row of seats had been removed which enabled the couples to face each other.
“Not bad,” Elliot said.
“We’ll cut travel time in half, not to mention it’s scenic. ”He pointed out the window but turned to Miranda. When he winked at her yet again, her stomach recoiled. Elliot and Connie sat transfixed by the view, a stale-smelling breeze coming through the window, kite-tailing Connie’s hair. Brian took a full, bold stare at Miranda, his eyes starting high, then dropped down her jaw to her throat to her breasts, where they stopped but flicked side-to-side.
Miranda remembered their kitchen, the wood block that held an assortment of thick-handled butcher knives. With Brian refusing to blink, she imagined herself withdrawing one and—
“Miranda,” Connie said, “you’re bleeding. ”She reached and dabbed her thumb beneath Miranda’s nostrils. “Sugar, tilt your head back. ”
“Actually,” Elliot said, pulling a tissue from his cargo shorts, “use this. ”He tore off a section and folded it into one thick chunk, about the size of a tooth. “Put this inside your mouth between your upper lip and gums and press down. Your nose should stop bleeding in a minute or so. ”
Connie fluffed her hand in the air.
“Connie’s a nurse,” Brian said, winking again.
Miranda titled her head and when her nose stopped thirty seconds later she removed the wad of tissue but never said anything. Instead she stared at the roof of the van, a handprint of wine or sauce smeared mysteriously there. Then, she thought, Blood, it must be blood, and switched to studying the view outside.
The road was one of the narrowest roads Miranda had ever seen. To veer off more than a foot would send the vehicle plunging twenty feet on either side. To the east was a rolling –what? what was it?a river?a sewage line?— a tributary, water thick and slow-moving, the color of milky coffee. After a mile the huts came, one after the other in single file, like a choir of wobbly-legged mosquitoes. None were bigger than twelve by twelve. All were thatched and nearly everyone was without a door so that the four of them could eavesdrop on the natives.
“Look at that,” Connie said.
A young boy squatted, angled as he defecated from his hut into the water. Twenty feet downstream a woman stood in this same stream, water chest-high, washing clothes with a large hairbrush. Fifteen feet from her three boys swam laughing, splashing.
“My dad used to mix his food up, swirl it all together with his fork like a milkshake,” Brian said.
“What’re you talking about?” Connie asked, her Texan accent coming through as a whine.
“I used to get grossed out seeing him do that, but he’d always say, ‘What’s it matter?Stuff ends up in the same place. ’Watching all them out there, it reminded me. ”
“Oh,” Connie said, scratching her lip with a fingernail, “I see what you mean. ”
A few miles more and the waterway disappeared, the road broadened and Miranda flew in the air, smashing her head on the roof.
“Seat belts!” Luk shouted.
“The rains. They ruin this road. ”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Brian said.
These roads were sun-baked, rock-hard and laden with craters. To Miranda it appeared like a map of dusty skin covered in lesions. There were more divots than flat ground. The bouncing and jolting was extraordinary. Miranda couldn’t get her seat belt fastened soon enough, and she shot in the air twice more, slamming her head. It was like being locked inside a suitcase and beaten by a gang of gorillas.
“You all right?” Connie asked. “Now it seems as if your head’s bleeding. ”
When Miranda pulled her palm from her hair, red pepper flecks clung to the skin. It was blood all right, but not hers. Looking up she saw just a few crimson fingertips remaining of the smeared handprint.
“I’m fine. ”
“Luk!” Brian shouted. “Luk, control this vehicle. You almost killed Miranda. ”
“I will go slower, but still--”
“Don’t slow down, just watch the potholes. ”
“It ain’t his fault,” Connie said.
“What are you doing?” Elliot asked.
“You hear me, Luk?”
Brian stood up when the van stopped, shirt drenched and riding high up his spine, revealing a dense bed of hair.
“You can’t do no better,” Connie said.
Brian opened the van door with such force that the hinges screeched. Miranda thought it might break free and might hit Luk.
“Give me the keys. ”
Luk did so.
“I’ll show you how to drive this thing. ”Once he’d buckled up and turned on the engine, Brian lifted his chin toward them and said, “This is your Captain speaking. Today we’ll be riding at an altitude of I-don’t-give-a-shit-as-long-as-no-teeth-get-busted. ”Connie laughed and Elliot did too, his grin gone a second later.
When the road narrowed, Miranda hoped for relief but either the conditions worsened or Brian’s driving did because none of them were stationary for more than a minute
Brian punched the car horn and swore. He swerved, inches from hitting a roaming herd of cattle.
“Look at the pitiful things,” Connie said.
Miranda had never seen cows so thin. Pale, ribs sticking out, they sauntered like beige ghosts. Even with the car horn sounding, their zombie pace never picked up.
“Stop!” Elliot shouted.
“I’m not stopping. ”
“The spare came loose. ”
Brian cussed and hit the brakes.
“What the hell!”
“It popped loose from under the van and went flying. Must have landed over there. ”
Brian studied the area Elliot pointed to, his eyes working over a recovery scenario he hoped to avoid.
“Hell with it. We don’t need the thing. ”
“No!We must have the spare,” Luk said, his voice deeper than any of them had ever heard. Even Connie took a step back.
And that’s when they heard the scream.
Elliot ran toward the sound. The others followed.
The road gave way to a crumpled ravine on the side, opening up to endless, dense jungle. A woman sat on the ground, holding the body of a young boy, his skull a mass of blood and brain matter.
When Connie knelt down, the woman shrieked and slapped Connie’s hand, jabbering.
“What she saying?”
“She say we are murderers, that we killed her son. ”
“She’s nuts,” Brian said, but as he did he saw what the others saw, mud-caked with a knuckle of chrome catching the sun and glinting at them.
“The spare must have landed on his head. ”
“That’s crazy talk,” Brian said.
“This woman says it was the tire. ”
“Well, what are we going to do?” Brian asked.
“What do you mean, ‘What are we going to do?’” Miranda asked.
“He’s the guide. It’s his van. ”
But you were driving. No one said it, but Miranda knew they all wanted to.
“Where’s this lady even live?” Brian asked. “I don’t see a house, a hut, nothing. ”
“She lives there,” Luk said, “in the jungle. ”
“Oh come on. ”
“We need to do something,” Miranda said.
“Yeah, but what?” Elliot asked, stymied.
“We need to do something. We need to do something. ”Miranda couldn’t stop saying it, wouldn’t stop saying it, even as the words became chopped up and she choked and bawled, tears mixing with sweat.
The boy’s name was Youk. Youk had started to run toward the escaping cattle. Youk’s father was away trying to catch fish. The nearest place to fish was fifteen miles away. If there was nothing to catch, Youk’s father might be away for days. This time he’d been gone since Tuesday. Youk’s mother was six months pregnant with her second child, Youk being her first. The group learned all this through Luk, who translated as the five living people and one dead boy huddled beneath a lean-to built between a triad of trees. Jungle mice skittered across the thatch roof as Youk’s mother talked, and Miranda wondered if the vermin were as spooked as she was.
Youk’s mother held her son in her lap and rocked. Miranda was grateful that the woman owned a blanket, because she had very few possessions at all. With the blanket Youk’s mother covered her son’s crushed skull. Still, blood had seeped through the cloth and was crusting up now.
Miranda couldn’t help herself. She started to whisper the words, a cadence developing the statement into a chant: “We need to do something. We need to do something. ”
Youk’s mother looked at her, mouth open, face twisted in anguish. Even though there’s no way she could comprehend what Miranda was saying, the woman nodded each time Miranda finished a sentence, nodding and rocking forward.
“Can you get her to stop that?” Brian said.
“Honey?” Elliot said.
“We need to do something. We need to do something. ”
“I’m gonna blow a gasket if we don’t get this taken care of. ”
“Taken care of?” Elliot said.
“Look, here,” Brian said, raising his buttocks off the bamboo mat. “Do you know how much this is?”He said the words slowly and loud, fingering four one hundred dollar bills in front of the woman’s face.
Youk’s mother cried.
“This’s gotta be a fortune,” Brian said. “Here’s another two hundred. With this, she and her husband are millionaires. Explain it to her,” Brian said, nudging Luk in the side.
The woman raised her eyes. There was something unsettled about them now, much like the way the surface of a lake closes up and regroups after a trout’s leap. Youk’s mother couldn’t have been older than twenty, but her hands—mottled and brittle—looked sixty. Miranda noticed the steadiness of the woman’s fingers as she took the bills.
Luk drove. A mile away the road flattened out, smooth as a board.
Elliot rubbed Miranda’s cheek. They both saw it at the same time, Youk’s father walking toward the van. “Don’t look,” Elliot said, shielding Miranda’s eyes, but it was too late—she’d already seen him wave.