Excerpt from "A Cloak of Good Fortune"
In the heart of the monsoon season, my new close friend, Tang Su-Weng, mentioned he had discovered a cassava field not too far from the village. (Cassavas are the starchy, tuberous roots of trees eaten in tropical countries.) He pulled me aside and excitedly whispered that some neak mool thaan (original local villagers) had just completed their harvest. He wanted us to sneak in and forage for abandoned scrap cassavas. As we stealthily ran through the forest, I was excited at the thought of finding food to bring back to the family.
At the edge of the vast clearing, a wrinkled, grey-haired man squatted under a huge tamarind tree. He was dressed in black and smoked tobacco wrapped in a leaf.
I bowed my head and asked him politely, “Pou [uncle], may we collect leftover cassavas?” The man looked at us with suspicion and slowly nodded his head. He flicked the cigarette to the ground and briskly walked away. Su-Weng and I entered the field.
Except for the cries of wild birds, it was quiet and deserted. We hurriedly scoured the plowed furrows for discarded cassavas. I took a broken branch and started digging into the hard, sunbaked soil as fast as I could. Eager to share my excitement with Su-Weng, I panicked when I looked around and couldn’t find him. I frantically screamed his name over and over, wondering where he could be. Clutching my shirt full of cassavas tightly against my belly, I kept scanning the field for Su-Weng.
“Thief! Stop! Don’t move or I’ll shoot!”
A Khmer soldier clad in black, with a krama wrapped around his head, charged at me from the other side of the field. I ran for my life. The sound of gunfire and bullets zipped past my head. Paralyzed with fear, I stumbled over exposed tree roots and pitched forward, spilling cassavas to the ground. I struggled to regain my balance and raced toward the thick forest.
Fearing that I was bleeding, I kept feeling around my body as I ran. Too exhausted to keep up the pace, I paused in the middle of thick foliage, gasping and trying to catch my breath. I shielded myself behind one of the giant trees. I heard the sound of snapping branches growing close. Suddenly it was dead silent. At that moment, I realized I could be shot and killed.
Bang! Bang! Gunshots broke the silence. Bang! Bang! The shots kept coming.
A few moments later I heard the soldier’s footsteps receding. Having no more strength, I slumped back against the tree trunk, my calves sore and cramping.
I noticed a strange tickling sensation behind my ear. I had disturbed a nest of red fire ants. They trickled down the back of my shirt, but they didn’t bite. I quickly removed my shirt and shook them off.
I needed to find a way out before darkness fell. After wandering in fear for a while, I found a familiar path and ran toward home. Nearing the village, I was stunned to spot a Khmer Rouge soldier emerge from the forest and aim a rifle at me. I started zigzagging in case he opened fire. I darted through the back doorway of my cottage and found Grandpa Kaing H. Y napping. I stepped past him and peeked through the woven bamboo wall. My body trembled at the sight of the soldier approaching, his rifle still at the ready.
I tore off my black striped shirt and grabbed a dark green one, hoping he wouldn’t recognize me. Then I jumped out the front door and kept running until I reached an area flooded from recent torrential rains. I was too scared to look back, afraid he might be catching up to me. The rains had engulfed the road and swallowed the forest floor. I sloshed into the water, looking for trees to climb. The only ones I saw were in deeper water, but I didn’t know how to swim.
Desperate, I grabbed some thick reeds to resist the pull of the strong river. I pulled myself down into the murky water and slowly let my face rise up until my nose broke the surface to breathe. A horde of hairy field rats splashed chaotically back and forth as I struggled to keep my head above the surface. Cold water filled my nostrils and rushed down my throat. I lost my grip and panicked while the current swept me away.
I awoke to a familiar voice yelling in my ear. I violently coughed up water. Tang Su-Weng’s older brother, Tang Su- Kwong, kept pushing on my chest to force water out of my lungs. He lectured impatiently, “You’re so lucky—you would have drowned if I hadn’t jumped into the water to rescue you. You shouldn’t get into the water if you don’t know how to swim!”
By the time I arrived home, trembling and shivering, it was completely dark. Mei Juang and Sok sat and huddled against the bamboo wall, staring at me with puzzled looks. Grandpa Kaing H. Y quietly told me, “You have a bad odor and should wash yourself thoroughly.” I asked where my parents were. In a shaky voice, he said, “Khmer Rouge soldiers ordered everyone in the whole village to report for an urgent meeting.” He cautioned me not to go, but I wanted to see for myself.
When I arrived, I saw people gathered around the fierce flames of the blazing campfire. They were seven or eight rows deep. I crouched low, hoping I wouldn’t be noticed, and waited until I could join the outer edge of the crowd. I saw that Papa and Brother Chen were standing at the center, so close to the fire that their faces were red. I knew something bad was about to happen. A soldier stood with his rifle pointed at them. I recognized the soldier as the one who chased me.
Brother Chen was tied with vines. Papa dropped to his knees in front of the Khmer Rouge commander and pleaded for mercy. “Please give my son a chance. I promise he will never steal food again.”
The commander barked, “Stop making noise!” His solitary voice echoed through the forest. No one dared to say a word. I noticed Brother Chen was wearing his black-and- white-striped shirt, identical to the one I wore earlier. The soldier must have mistaken him for me.
Mama rushed out from the crowd and fell to her knees at the commander’s feet, crying, “Please forgive my son! Please forgive him! He’s only a child.”
There was a long moment of deafening silence. Then the commander ordered Mama and Papa to stand up before the entire village and loudly swear, “If you steal, you will be shot to death.”
I crept quietly away from the crowd and hid in the yard, weeping with guilt. Much later, the rest of the family returned. As soon as Papa saw me, he exploded, “Where have you been? You must be the one who stole the cassavas! Chen said he didn’t do it. You make my blood boil! I’m going to beat you to death if you don’t stop stealing!”
“But, Papa ...” I tried to explain.
“I don’t want to hear another word out of your mouth,” Papa interrupted.
Grandpa Kaing H. Y broke the silence, “Try not to be too hard on the boy. Don’t forget, he’s the one who finds and brings home most of the food we eat.”
A moment later, Papa burst into tears, covering his face with both hands, and said, “I just don’t know what to do.”
That was the first time my father cried in front of me.
When enough time passed for emotions to settle, we sat quietly in the darkness, devouring a late-night dinner of field crab soup with banana trunk.
The next day at the crack of dawn, Mama told us about a dream that came to her in the night. A man dressed in black had snuck under our cottage and listened to our conversation. Mama believed the dream was ominous. She became paranoid, repeatedly warning us to watch what we said to one another. As we prepared to leave for the day’s labor, no one spoke.
By then we had learned that talking could get you killed.