OUR FATHER, WHO survived the Killing Fields, would never let me travel to South-East Asia when I was a student, so the first time I visited Cambodia was when I was twenty-nine, with him and my sister Alison. In the plane, he warned us about the smallness of the airport, the dirtiness of the streets and the poverty of the people. He described the landmines and the lepers. It was as if he had raised us the way Siddhartha was raised – safely ensconced from all the possible perils of the world – so that the first time we saw sickness, ageing and death, we would feel like our insides were sucked dry. He wanted us to be prepared.
Our father was twenty-three when Pol Pot′s army marched into Phnom Penh, on 17 April 1975. They were an army of children. Their skin was brown. Their hair shone orange. Their eyes were oysters in two moons. They looked around, moving slowly, as if they were lost. Theirs was the breath of small animals in the night. It was as if they had not been taught how to walk, eat or laugh, but had learned these things by doing them. Every sense woke up when they reached the city. Many of these boys had never been inside a city before, so every stimulus could only be predatory. Their uniforms were pyjamas dyed black as night, and some carried their AK-47s upright, as though they were going to set off fireworks.
They were children who had never tasted candy, to know that this was the stuff you were meant to steal from the shops. Instead, they smashed things up. Children with guns, children with bang-bang-shoot-them-dead-I-kill-you-long-time-Mister minds. Kill was a long time; dead was even longer. This was the only truth they knew. When they looked up at the sky they did not see the fingers of God; they saw the direct cause of death of their parents, the American bombs.
The only modern marvels they had seen were the stick of a gun, the iron bird in the sky and the green disc on the ground. But what was a stick of gum? A block of paper fastened at one end? What was a globe of the world? A balloon? What was a cinema? A grandfather clock inside a house? If you didn′t know anything, how did you know it was not a new sun that crawled up over the fields every day? How did you know that the earth was not flat? They didn′t, but they were assigned the task of taking over the only world our father had ever known. And during their reign, they had assigned our father the task of burying the dead on higher ground when the floodwaters came.
During peacetime, the yearly floods would wash over the vegetation, leaving behind rich level soil. But during the reign of slavery the floods that came completely washed away the sweet potato leaves, wild weeds and grasses that the people had come to depend upon for food. People would just collapse in the fields and their bodies would be there days later, next to the workers, beside them, beneath them, as they worked. In the village next to our father′s, the whole collective of more than three thousand people – except their four Khmer Rouge soldiers – had perished.
In his own collective, half-living people were assigned to carry off the dead to elevated ground and bury them. Our father was assigned the task with another man. With a blanket between the two of them, they would hoist the body out of the floodwaters and onto the blanket. He and his companion would then each take an end of the blanket and heave it onto their shoulder. A walking hammock. One last free ride for the dead. Except it wasn′t a very stable ride. They were so malnour-ished and weak that they kept slipping and falling into the water. Each time they fell, the blanket would become more waterlogged and heavy.
'Don′t worry,′ our father′s friend told him, 'just look forward to the day when others will be carrying you off wrapped up nicely in a blanket and getting more attention than the living ever did.′
'Maybe I′ll be the one giving you the special treatment,′ our father replied.
'What do you mean? Sweet Bodhisattva, I hope you′re not going to be this heavy when it′s my turn to heave you out of the floodwaters!′
A few weeks later, our father was assigned with another man. They were both silent on their first journey, carrying the blanket containing his nameless friend whom this new companion had replaced. They walked uphill, dug a shallow grave, placed the body in carefully, and then scooped a light mound of dirt over it.
NOW, THIRTY-ONE YEARS later, we were heading back to the field where our father had buried all the dead. We came in a convoy of SUVs and Mercedes-Benz, all owned by our Uncle Kheav. Uncle Kheav was our father′s older brother. He had also survived the Killing Fields and was now an immensely successful bank CEO and property developer. Former soldiers who were now my uncle′s personal bodyguards surrounded us wherever we went, because our uncle did not want any of us to be kidnapped for ransom. The cars stopped in front of an empty white field and we all got out: our father, sister, Uncle Kheav and our auntie.
My senses stretched, working their hardest to take in the world. At first there was the field. And the heat, when the sky breathed its fever breath over the field. Then back to the field and its unyielding dust. Nothing grew on it. Yet once death here had hot halitosis that withered away the bodies much faster, and the field was used to plant crops during each following season. 'The best fertiliser in the world,′ our father told us. 'When I was digging up the ground to plant the next season of rice, I unearthed the small wooden marker of your auntie′s mother′s burial spot.′
'Did you stow it away and keep it?′ I asked.
'No, of course not. If you even picked up a handful of dirt from the ground, you were stealing from the revolution.′
'People dug the graves up, over and over again, after the liberation,′ Uncle Kheav told me. They were looking for rings and gems looped around finger bones and wrists.
'There was nothing,′ our father said. 'When I buried those bodies, they didn′t even have proper clothes.′
Now there were not even any bones left. None of those people seemed to have existed, and yet the SUV played a slow Cambodian dirge, and our auntie was kneeling on the floor in front of an incense urn she had placed on the soil, with three sticks of incense clutched in her hand. When she rose up after her third bow and turned around, her shoulders were shaking with the memory of her mother.
It hit me at last: Dad buried bodies here, I realised, bodies in each handful of dust. Bodies of strangers, and people he had worked with, known as family, and loved. Bodies that needed to be held, that needed to move and exhale and blink, just as we were doing. Bodies no one will ever remember, not like the skulls in stupas that westerners always wanted to visit. By now our father was looking elsewhere, away from our auntie, who was weeping over her dead mother. He pointed to the trees. There weren′t many, and they were skinny coconut or sugar palms huddled by the edges of the yellow field, as if afraid to step into the soil of a million souls.
'Look at those bamboo ladders attached to the trees,′ he said. 'They′re used for climbing to the very top, to collect coconuts or the juice of sugar palms.′ I grabbed on to the ladder and started up.
'Only the first few rungs,′ he said, 'or you could fall and die.′
I let go, and didn′t bother to try.
I felt that the country was something precious – brutal, split open like a pomegranate, with a million hidden red and buried eyes. It was a visceral land, a land that gave me strange dreams at night: dreams of Job sitting in the middle of his burnt-out house, his children dead, scraping at his skin with bits of broken pottery, set in a prelapsarian paradise. It was a land of earth and water where the living people lived; and a land of wind and fire where the dead were cremated and malingered over hot fields.
I watched as my uncle′s bodyguard carefully dug a hole in the ground and lit a fire in there, so that my auntie could burn heaven banknotes for her mother. My auntie wanted to make sure her mother, stripped of everything in life, had enough in the afterlife.
'You must remember your ancestors,′ said the ex-soldier who was now my uncle′s bodyguard, 'and honour them.′