(Chosen for inclusion in
Best New American Voices;
First printed in the literary journal Prairie Schooner;
Reprinted in Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction)
What I see before anything else, is space. The unadulterated space of central Cambodia which gives me the feeling of reaching the end of something. I look away from the window and wait for the other passengers to get off the plane. Everyone else has come with someone, and they stare at me, the lone woman in no hurry. What they don't know is that I consider this just another place, another destination, and there are so many in this world. But I think I can guess why my brother, David, came here, and why he refuses to go home. He must like the privacy of so few people, and a sun which always keeps the country warm. No winter, only a dry season and monsoons. The greenery barely has time to fade before it sprouts uncontrollably in the rains, giving the air its sultry, overripe scent as foliage invades the rice paddies and colors the fields.
The last time I heard from David, nearly four years ago when I was back in Chicago, he'd written to me in this excited scrawl that Cambodia is "clean." He explained what I already knew: at least 1.7 million people dead from Pol Pot's scourge, a fourth of the total population. All the bad karma has washed over this place, he wrote. It's annihilated past sins. This is the cleanest place on earth.
Cambodia, a "clean" place. That alone told me that this was just another one of his escapes. It sounded like he'd become a Buddhist. Or something close. I wasn't surprised by his new incarnation, and Cambodia? Well, why not. It sounded as good a place as any. He didn't have to worry about the American authorities pursuing him in a country where the Khmer Rouge was still actively collecting foreigners' heads. Hell—I doubted even his own ghosts would have the courage to follow him there, particularly when there were so many others to compete with. Nearly two million, give or take. A country aching in sin. Cambodia had always depressed the hell out of me. Even the Associated Press didn't like to send me there, and they knew I didn't care where I went as long as it wasn't home. To me, Phnom Phen had always looked like it'd been bombed. Crumbling buildings, shit in the streets, child beggars who'd had their legs blown off. The first time I went there, it took me a week to discover that all of this tragedy was normal—actually represented a country at peace—though I'd been in these kinds of places before and had seen much worse. But there comes a time when your life catches you off-guard and you suddenly pay attention. What did it for me was seeing a scrawny dog with its head caught in a clear plastic jug, running around the streets of Phnom Phen, banging into laughing people, getting kicked away, taunted, and eventually forgotten. Reminded me of David, somehow. Just the fact that no one tried to get the jug off—not even me; I could do nothing but watch. I knew right then it was time to go home. I'd had enough. I took a couple weeks off and flew back to Chicago, not leaving my apartment for days. I ate stale Frosted Flakes, leafed through year-old copies of the Washington Post which had been catching run-off from the radiator, and tried to figure out how in hell I could forget the world.
The problem is, memory claims everything—good or bad. David realized this long before I ever did, which has kept him running ever since. Me, it took a while. I kept thinking I could disappear from the past. My apartment off Lake Shore Drive had just enough windows to convince me that I was a part of something greater than myself, a huge maternal city, aloof and resplendent at night, sky scraper lights usurping the stars. All I saw was everyone else, all the lives, all the destinations as the cars edged by before my windows.
But Siem Reap notices me. It's back to that unfamiliarity which makes me feel so much at home. Out the window, I can see the crowd of young men with their American hand-me-down T-shirts from aid organizations, looking like a bunch of poster boys for Nike and the University of Virginia. They sit on mopeds in the airport parking lot, waiting for someone like me, the rare and foolhardy "rich tourist" willing to brave Pol Pot and beheadings for a single glimpse of that fabled kingdom of Angkor Wat lying outside of town. Supposedly it's more incredible than the Pyramids, if only I went to places for the sightseeing. If only this time I didn't have to find David wherever he's hiding in this land of lotus pools and killing fields, where a fourth of the people greet you from mass graves.
I leave the plane and walk across the tarmac. Already I'm sweating, and put on my baseball cap and sunglasses. A water buffalo chews its cud in a nearby paddy, watching me, its jaw unhitching from side to side like the arm of a record player. I stop to watch it, and try to imagine the afternoon when my brother had arrived at this very airport. I picture this same animal chewing away, gazing at him with its Buddha eyes, casting no judgment.
I claim my bag and pause at the airport doors to stare outside. A few disinterested palm trees sag along one side of the parking area, yellow fronds clattering in the wind. I've never had reason to come to this part of Cambodia before, but yet I like it. It is clean. Pure. I walk outside, leaving my sunglasses off for a moment, the sun always brighter when I notice it. The moto drivers soon surround me, assailing me with offers to drive me into town. I know they all want my U.S. dollars, the hard currency which is more widely used here than the Cambodian riel.
A young man practically runs me over, pulling up and beckoning me on behind him. He
starts his script. It is always the same tedious script the world over.
"C'est bon marché, Madame."
"I'm not French," I say.
"Cheap for you. Ten dollars."
"No profit for me. Okay, six dollars."
"Two dollars or forget it."
We stare at each other in silence. I cross my arms and wait.
"Okay, okay." He pats the seat behind him. "You come. Two dollars. But no profit for me."
He balances my bag on his handlebars, and I sit behind him. The motor bike putters out of the parking lot and down the narrow asphalt road toward town. No trees anywhere now, just the flat green rice paddies. Paddies and blue sky and a horizon at 360 degrees.
I shut my eyes and sigh, the wind whipping hair from my baseball cap and sending it flying about my face. I think of my mother, 90 pounds in a hospital bed, dying. Whenever she's upset, she mumbles in Czech as if her mother tongue knows her pain better, can express it more accurately to the world. "I want to see David," she'd said in Czech, delirious from the morphine. She held my hand, blue eyes focused on mine, her face wrinkled and sallow well beyond her 60 years. A dying face. And nothing I could do.
"Matka," I said, my Czech sounding foreign and reluctant as it came out, "David's gone. Remember?" But I'd decided I'd try to find David. Somehow, I would bring him back.
I have to remind myself how he used to be. My brother was the kind of boy who needed to bury any dead thing that he found—overturned beetles, road-kill squirrels, wilted azaleas. After our father died from a sudden heart attack, David had screamed during the entire wake because he wouldn't be able to bury Dad along with the baby robins and drowned earthworms of his backyard cemetery. He was only eight, still too young to be jolted from the illusion that we all live forever and that Dad would come back. Me, I was 13 and knew better. I spent the whole wake trying to get him to shut up—even threatened him with promises of Dad's ghost coming back to punish him.
"Dad will come after you," he'd snap back. "You're the one not crying."
He was always smart like that. Too smart. Yet even with his I.Q. of 159, he couldn't have known the real reason why I wasn't crying: because I hated the fact that death demanded it of me.
But David had such a huge heart, such sensitivity, that I used to worry about him. Particularly after Dad died. You can't afford to be so sensitive, I'd think. Not with life the way it is—sudden heart attacks. People getting old, dying. I didn't want him to know about any of that. I was determined to keep him innocent, Dad's death his only lesson. And overall, life was good to him. He was the precocious child every parent fantasizes having, extroverted and charming, very much my opposite. My parents had taken out a second mortgage in order to send him to the best private elementary school in the Chicago suburbs, a school "for the gifted" that had a minimum I.Q. requirement of 130 for its students. David was already well into algebra when my father died, a boy genius for whom everyone had such great expectations. Including me.
"Do you go to Angkor Wat?" the moto driver asks me over the noise of the tiny engine.
"What?" I open my eyes.
He glances over his shoulder at me. "Do you go to Angkor, Miss?"
"I don't know."
He laughs. Why else would I be going to Siem Reap? Why does any foreigner ever come to Siem Reap, if not for Angkor? But my thoughts aren't even in Cambodia anymore, let alone Angkor Wat.
"I give you good price," the young man is saying. "Ten dollar for day. I take you, Angkor Wat."
The driver readjusts my bag on the handlebars, sending us zigzagging across the road.
"You're going to kill us," I yell over the sound of the engine.
"Ten dollar for Angkor Wat, okay for you?"
He's got me thinking about the story on the AP wire about the French woman who was shot here last week. It was in all the papers. Travel advisories against going to Siem Reap. "What about the Khmer Rouge? A woman was shot."
"Yes, but she go too far. Not safe, place she go. I know safe place."
I watch the rice paddies drift by, the sun streaking the water between the new seedlings. The color of young rice plants must be the purest green on earth. An intoxicating green.
"Do you know an American named David?" I ask him. "He lives in town."
"No. I never see this man."
But his answer was too fast, too negligent.
"He's got brown hair, blue eyes," I say. "He's a Buddhist student. I think he lives in a temple somewhere."
"No. I never see this man."
An old woman, hunched and walking by the side of the road, her red sarong torn and stained, stops and gazes somberly at us as we speed by. I look over my shoulder at her. She hasn't moved. Her eyes remind me of my mother's eyes. Eyes that know too much, that can't bear the knowing.
Reminds me that according to Buddhism, life is suffering. My mother had had enough pain by the time my father died, though. She was nine when her own parents, Czech dissidents, had been sent to their deaths in one of the Nazi camps. Her aunt ended up taking her to America after the war, to Cicero, Illinois, the closest to Prague you could get in such a strange and prosperous place. Still, my mother made every effort to grow up an all-American girl; she had done such a good job that by the time she was an adult, all that remained of the Old Country was the faintest perception of a rough roll to her Rs. She had, in every other way, reinvented herself. Her life was like one great part to play in the name of normalcy. No more pain. No more suffering. She wanted things to be Good. Thy will be done. A Catholic, she prayed every day, morning, noon, and night, with the fervor of the Jews I've seen nodding before the Western Wall. Thy will be done.
Hard, then, to go on remembering, but I have no choice. I remember. The police cars arriving at our door on that Saturday night. Me, just graduated from Boston University and home for the summer, unpacking clothes and trying to picture myself in New York City and Columbia's graduate program in journalism in the fall. David, 18, now a senior in high school, gone with my mother's car. Gone all day, past his evening curfew. Gone well into the night. And so the flashing lights from the cruisers, the firm, unfamiliar knock on the front door. All of these things combined into a single, crushing terror. We pictured blood, hospital beds, horrible talks with funeral home directors feigning sympathy. I heard the slow beeping of a machine monitoring vital signs. The terror crushed into me. As I stumbled from my room to the front door, my mother already stood there, speaking in a low voice with a policeman, an old acquaintance of my father's, standing on the stoop.
"What happened? I asked her.
They were both silent.
I turned to the cop and must have yelled for an explanation. He took a step back. Another policeman looked at me solemnly from one of the squad cars.
"David has had an accident," my mother said.
"What happened? Is he OK?"
The policeman watched me from the stoop, his eyes looking tired. Profoundly tired. So sick of delivering bad news.
"This man has been telling me… that David—he just killed someone."
My legs quivered from the adrenaline.
Now the tears rolled down my mother's face. "This man says that David killed a little boy… with the car. Killed him."
The little boy was Jeremy Randall Parker. Age four. I can never forget the name: Jeremy Randall Parker. Services for Jeremy Randall Parker. Of 1201 Windhaven Court. David Marzek held for driving while under the influence and manslaughter in the death of Jeremy Randall Parker. About to begin preschool at Manning Elementary, La Grange, Illinois. Jeremy Randall Parker.
According to the papers, it happened this way: David had been driving down an alley behind some houses, well over the posted speed limit of five miles an hour. He had had some beer at a friend's house and his blood-alcohol level had reached the point of illegal intoxication. Little Jeremy had been playing inside a large washing machine box, and David, thinking the box was empty, had accelerated to run it over. When he felt the bumping sensation, he immediately stopped and got out of the car. A moment later he was running to a nearby house to call 911. An ambulance came and the boy was rushed to the hospital. Jeremy died en route. Time of death, 5:38pm CST.
After my mother paid David's bail and took him home from the police station, he'd stopped speaking and eating. That same evening, he'd put a knife to his arms and wrists and carved himself up so thoroughly that by the time my mother had discovered him, he'd been unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital. From that moment on, he took up residence in the state mental ward. They restrained his arms. He was fed intravenously and counseled by psychiatrists. Doctors performed a kind of medicinal alchemy until a concoction was found which doped him up enough to curb his self-mutilation impulses and bring back his voice.
"It was an accident," was their mantra to him. "You didn't mean to do it."
I was there during one of these times, standing just outside the door, listening to one doctor's recitations. David's voice, low, foreign-sounding, snarled out, "What the fuck do you know?"
And silence. Because they didn't know. How could they? All those doctors had gone to school, gotten their Ph.D.s in clinical psychology or psychiatry, thought they were experts in the human soul. But David had killed someone. It wasn't a reparable thing. Jeremy Randall Parker could never come back.
The moped lurches.
"Can you slow down?!" I yell.
He does. For once, he takes it easy.
I breathe deeply, feeling the adrenaline pulsing through my body. I look out again at the incredible space of this part of Cambodia, and the blinding green of the rice paddies. Considering all that's happened to this country, I don't understand how it can be so beautiful.
"What do you think of Pol Pot," I ask the young man's back. "Do you like Pol Pot?"
Over the sound of the engine: "Yes, of course."
I'm not surprised. I push my sunglasses higher up on my nose and stare at the back of his neck, at the slice of dark brown skin above the top of his Bulls T-shirt.
"He kill clever people. Clever people steal from poor people."
"All clever people dead. If people doctor, dead. People teacher, dead. People rich, dead. This is good thing for Kampuchea."
I remember an old Slavic fairy tale my mother used to read to me called "Vasilissa the Beautiful." An evil witch, trying to trick a young girl in order to kill her, discourages the child from asking too many questions. "If you know too much," the witch warns, "you'll grow old too soon."
As we slow down at a crossroads to wait for a truck to pass, I know I can't be near this man anymore. I hop off the moped and grab my bag from the handle bars.
"What is problem?" he demands.
I throw a dollar at him. "Fuck off."
I walk into the downtown area of Siem Reap, and I'm relieved to see that it hardly resembles Phnom Phen. Rather, it looks tired to me and ready for sleep. There is no urgency here, no sense of chaos. The air doesn't smell sickly pungent from garbage rotting beside the streets. Instead, it smells fresh, like after a rain. White-washed, mildew-stained buildings languish along the streets. On the side roads, a few colonial-style houses sit as evidence of France's old Indochine empire, shaded by giant trees. Moto drivers wait in groups on the side of the main drag, watching me pass, perhaps hoping I'll hail one of them. But I like the walk. It gives me a pleasant sense of direction, purpose.
I'm not worried yet about finding David—if I can dig up Dinka warlords in the Sudan for interviews, I'm sure I can find Siem Reap's only American Buddhist novice. Yet, I can't figure out how to convince him to come home. You'd think it'd be enough, our mother's dying, but if he were to come home, he'd have to face all the legal responsibilities of his actions. After he was discharged from the hospital, he went to court. My mother spent a fortune of Dad's insurance money on the bond and a decent lawyer for him, and the judge ended up suspending his sentence for manslaughter, heavily fining him and requiring him to stay in the state by putting him on probation for years. David would be able to avoid prison. It seemed a blessing. I started to believe in the miracle of time then, that it could resolve anything if enough hours went by, enough days passed. Each night felt especially auspicious, as if it were proof of my brother's inevitable rescue.
I still ended up going to Columbia University, hoping my journalism classes and the enormity of New York City would distract my attention from my brother and what had happened. I simply couldn't stay home to watch it all unfold. It was making me crazy, and my reaction was to just get away, stay away, for as long as I could.
My mother told me about the continued fallout, though. Shortly after the six month anniversary of the accident, David had broken the conditions of his probation by driving my mother's car without a license, in order to go to the Fox River. He'd parked, then hiked along the river with a pick axe and towel. It had been one of the coldest days on record for the Chicago suburbs, -3/F, wind chill factor in the double digits. I can imagine some of the tree limbs so weighted with ice that they'd broken and were dangling despondently over the river. I can picture David debating all of this, stopping every now and then to feel the river's icy surface with his fingertips. Perhaps he was conscious of the silence of the snow, the sense of a world so deeply caught in winter that the green spring is unimaginable. And here in this place, he stopped finally, something inexplicably correct. He heaved his backpack to the ground, brushed snow from the ice's surface, and started to chop himself a hole.
The hole needed to be large, because he would have to dive into it four times—naked. Four times in, four times out. On the forth plunge, he would have to dive to the bottom and come up with a handful of silt to put in a leather pouch, a sacred pouch.
All of this came out of the shrink's report. I still can't imagine what was going through his mind, though. It's not clear how many times he actually got in and out of that water before conditions became too much for him. I was told that afterwards, back in the state hospital, he kept mumbling an old Algonquin phrase for days. A shrink got the translation out of him—"See the great warrior, I will make him rise." Apparently David had dug up some information at the Newberry Library in Chicago about an old Shawnee manhood ritual. Teenage boys wanting to be reborn into men with honor and virtue, underwent an arduous sort of baptism by jumping into a river four times in the middle of winter. On the fourth plunge, the boy dived down to the bottom of the river to grab a handful of silt which would be sewn inside his pa-waw-ka pouch, a magical charm of protection that he wore around his neck. Only the bravest, strongest of them attempted it on the very coldest days of winter, achieving a more potent reward. Wearing the pa-waw-ka, the new warrior was blessed and became immune to malign forces. All the evil in the world could no longer hurt him.
David had wanted the hardest test, of course. He would have died if a man hadn't driven by and noticed him, naked and floundering in the river. As it was, he was rushed to the hospital with a severe case of hypothermia and barely a pulse, and they were lucky to have resuscitated him.
When I heard about it, I left grad school and flew back from New York. Someone needed to knock some sense into David, and if the shrinks or my mother couldn't (and obviously they couldn't), then I would. My brother needed me.
I head toward Siem Reap's post office. David's last letter, which arrived a year ago, gave it as a return address. There's a chance someone might remember him, know where he's living. The post office is a small building which resembles a run-down warehouse, a staff of dozing employees seated behind an ancient window stained with fly carcasses and fingerprint smears. I show the employees my press credentials to let them know I'm serious. Using the manager as translator, I tell them I'm looking for an American. Apparently, he's been in here and it's important that I find him. I give his name and physical description.
The woman at the counter shrugs. Another man says many of the Buddhist monks live in the temples by Angkor, but he's not sure if there's a white man among them.
As I head to a guesthouse nearby, I stop in a couple government offices and some stores along the road to make inquiries about David. My Cambodian is terrible; we speak in either French, English or Japanese—whichever of these tourist languages they've learned. I have to coax the French out of some of the older staff, as they still hesitate to use words which would have sent them, "clever," educated people, straight to the killing fields. They tell me they've seen no foreigners in Buddhist robes. It is the same old story.
I give up. For now. I'll head to Angkor tomorrow. I get a room at a place called the Mahogany Guesthouse and have dinner in the rooftop restaurant. A group of young backpackers sits nearby, an outspoken American man bragging to them that no matter where he's traveled, he's "drunk the water everywhere" and has never gotten sick.
"Only people with weaker constitutions get dysentery and all that," he's saying. "It has to do with the constitution."
Another genius. I order a beer and take out David's letter. I don't open it yet, but study the envelope made of thin, airmail paper. My beer comes and I take a long sip, wondering if David didn't have someone else going into town, mailing his letters for him. I take out the letter now and stare at the handwriting. Small, printed script. Calm script which is barely familiar. Used to be I couldn't read his handwriting at all as it traveled and wound about, looking more like Arabic than anything English.
I finally got your letter about Mom. (The post office in town had it for months.) I know why you're upset. You think I've just run away from everything. And I know you think I need to own up to what you call my "responsibility" for what happened. I can't figure out how to get you to understand that I'm not running from anything anymore.
I've thought about what you wrote, how Mom is getting worse and needs to see me. It's not that I don't care about her, or you. Believe me, I wish I could see her but if I return to the States, they'll never let me come back here, and I've found something here that sustains me. I've found the virtuous path, the Noble Eightfold Path and have entered the Sangha.
I put down the letter and sigh. I've read it over a hundred times, but it always feels like a first reading. I have trouble knowing where my brother's sincerity ends and his indoctrination begins. This seems like a milder version of his pa-waw-ka ritual back at the Fox River—yet another attempt to obliterate the guilt.
I'm starting to think that David is too much of a coward to ever come home. It must be cowardice. I think he has this illusion that if he stays away from his problems for long enough, they'll vanish. I've met expatriates like that living in remote corners of the world, burnt-out, alcoholic men living in grimy bungalows with local mistresses fussing about them. Sometimes they're useful if you're following a story, need tips on how to handle a situation, but they've stocked up so much history there's an odorless stench about them. Maybe they killed someone, made a bad business deal—you never find out why. I just don't want David to turn out like that, burnt-out, drugged-out on some West African beach, abandoned by the world.
I sip my beer. An Indian man sets up a microphone in a corner of the room and starts singing a Bob Dylan song. The backpacker clique next door passes around a joint and sways to the music. The American man offers it to me and I shake my head.
"Where are you from?" he asks.
"Seen Angkor Wat?"
The other backpackers turn their attention to me.
"We're going to try to hire an army escort so we can see Banteay Srei. If you want to pitch in some money, you can come with."
They're talking about the distant temple where the French woman was shot last week. The Angkor Wat area is too heavily guarded by government forces for the Khmer Rouge to ever get close to it, but Banteay Srei, all alone in the countryside, is fair game. I've never seen any photos of it, but it has always been described to me as "too beautiful for words." And it had better be, for people to risk their lives to see it. It had better be one of the most beautiful places on earth.
"You won't be able to get an escort there," I tell them. "The place is off-limits. The Khmer Rouge are still all over."
"We're going to try. We're hiring some soldiers."
"Look," I say, "I'm a reporter, and they won't even let me near the place. I did some asking around today, and the situation is still bad."
They glance at each other. Why should I care? Let them go, let them try to go. The French woman had herself an armed escort, and she was still shot. But they're so young, like my brother. I somehow feel responsible for them, for what they don't quite know about the world.
"If you end up going somehow," I say, "stay inside the buildings as much as possible. Don't let someone get a fix on you."
"’Get a fix’?" one girl asks.
I feel exhausted. "Snipers."
They glance at each other again. The American remembers about the joint and checks to see whether it needs to be re-lit.
"Cashed," he says.
I turn back to David's letter, to the part that starts to get crazy.
I've written to Mom already to tell her how I feel, and I think she understands. It's just you who I can't seem to reach. It's just that for the first time since what happened, I've found peace in the Glorious Root-Guru, the Blessed One, Avalokiteshvara. Every day I pray that I and all beings will reach the Blissful Realm, free of all suffering. I pray that the Root and Lineal Gurus will bless me with Resolution in order to reach this end. May they bless me with Emptiness.
Chris, I love you and Mom, always.
"The ’Glorious Root-Guru,’" I say, trying out the words. The backpackers look over at me, thinking I've called to them.
The Indian man starts singing a Steve Winwood song, "Can't Find My Way Home." Figures. It's time to go to bed. I head down to my room on the second floor, opening the door with my key. None of these rooms have windows, and only the tired light from the hallway seeps in beneath my door as I close it behind me. I don't turn on a light. Don't want a light. From one of the rooms down the hall, I can hear the dull pattering of Cambodian voices coming from a radio or TV set. Tonight, I miss silence.
I collapse onto the bed, smelling the dust rising about me from the sheets. It seems amazing that I may actually see my brother tomorrow. I remember the last time I saw him, how they had called him a "critical case" in the hospital, his pa-waw-ka rite an "attempted suicide"—they always had a marvelous way of disguising situations with words. I had understood everything for what it was, though, that he was trying desperately to pay for the death he'd caused, and it seemed inevitable that both my mother and I would also have to pay: we would be forced to watch him suffer, unable to help.
I was finally allowed to visit him a few weeks after the incident at the river. I remember all the security in the hospital and how the visitor's area felt like a prison with a make-over of summer camp: steel doors opening up into a large, unassuming lounge area with wood-paneled walls and fluffy, friendly couches, counselors pumping out obligatory smiles in passing. David was smart, though, would have noticed how all the friendly objects he encountered had been chosen with patients' self-preservation in mind, none of them able to be removed or destroyed.
I waited in the lounge, facing an overhead television with the volume turned off, basketball players running around the screen, in and out of my consciousness. I must have been frowning; a man with glasses and mustache hesitated before coming into the room. He smelled like after-shave lotion, was trim and professional in a button-up blue shirt and tie.
"Christine Marzek?" he asked.
I crossed my legs and nodded. "Chris."
"I'm Dr. Moran, David's doctor." He shook my hand. "You look like you'd rather be somewhere else."
"Yeah." I studied him: in his early thirties, probably fresh out of some doctoral program and in his first real job—David was his first real job. My hands were shaking and I ordered them to stop.
"So you're his big sister?" he asked, smiling. I'd forgotten psychologists' expertise at smiling. Their obsession with gaining trust.
"Yeah." My voice was quaking, and he acknowledged it with a flicker of his eyes. "How is he? When is someone going to help him?"
He sighed and pulled up a chair. "It'll take some time."
"This must be part of it, part of the deal," I said.
I looked at him. "His deal with the universe. His penance for killing a person."
Dr. Moran studied me for a moment. He had the classic moist shrink eyes, the voyeuristic compassion.
"I'm not sure he's being punished by anyone," he said gently. "He's too busy punishing himself."
"You ought to be a priest," I said.
He blinked in curiosity.
"You're so eager to save people. You know, there's nothing you can do for my brother. How do you reverse what he did? How do you make up for it?"
He watched me intently. "I can see how much this hurts you."
"Can your Prozac bring people back from the dead? My mother goes to church three times a day now. She can't talk about anything without quoting the Bible. All I ever hear about is goddamn redemption and salvation, redemption and salvation. Drives me crazy."
"This must be hard for you."
I sighed and re-crossed my legs, glaring at the TV. Tiny men were throwing a ball back and forth to each other.
"We can talk about it, if you want." He crossed his fingers and waited, but I didn't say anything. "Look—I can't promise any quick fixes. But I do suggest that—"
"My brother's brilliant. He excelled at everything." My voice was too loud. I shut up and stared at the TV again.
"These things take time."
I laughed at that. His silly optimism. If I couldn't get over it, then how was David supposed to?
He studied me in silence. Finally: "Your mother said you'd dropped out of grad school to come back here."
"She told me that she's worried about you. Do you plan on returning?"
"I don't know."
"You were going to Columbia's School of Journalism, right?"
"It's a prestigious program."
I shrugged. "Matter of opinion."
He leaned forward and looked at me, waiting. When my eyes finally met his, he said, "I'm concerned about you, Chris. I want you to go back to school. How many more lives have to be messed up over this?"
It didn't seem like something a shrink would say. It was too direct, too certain. I rolled my eyes, my hands shaking again. "You don't even know me."
"Okay," he said, leaning back.
"I just want to see David."
They brought him in. To take one look at him was to know that he would never again be the little brother I'd grown up with, whom I'd taught to read and write, to recognize the constellations, the cumulus clouds catching the skirt of Cassiopeia. I realized then that the images I held of people were inaccurate at best, nothing but a desperate composite of choice memories. Five years older than David, I remembered holding his newborn self in my arms. I remembered the delicate vulnerability of his tiny fingers, the softness of his skin. The first time my mother had tried to hand him to me, I'd run off in terror. I hadn't wanted the responsibility of him. What if I dropped him? Ruined him in some way?
David was thin now, pale, with limp, shoulder-length brown hair. In my memories—those intractable memories—he was still athletic-looking, had a runner's sinewy body and broad shoulders. He was still the wrestler who'd won State, the National Merit Scholar, the grinning, mischievous young scientist whose project on electromagnetism had won him first in Nationals.
But I tried to focus on the present: David, wearing a stained white T-shirt and blue sweatpants, smelling moldy like disinfectant soap. He had a dragging walk, like some crazy person's. His eyes wandered about the room as if he were a baby trying to fix on things and understand their purpose. When he sat down in the chair next to mine, the orderly with him—a fairly large, strong man—took a seat in a far corner of the room and locked his gaze on the TV screen. He was here with us because David had been caught with a pen he'd stolen, hurting himself.
I wasn't sure what to say at first. I tried laughing. "This place is a pit, isn't it?"
No response. He was working at the cuticles on his fingers, peeling off pieces of skin. I glanced briefly at the long pinkish scars covering his hands and arms.
We'd never been a hugging kind of family, but I hugged him. I took his heavy body into my arms and held it. He felt bony, frail, his arms remaining at his side. When I caught the orderly glancing at us, I cupped the back of David's head in my hand.
"You have to get over it," I whispered into his ear. "You have to."
No response. I was told that he often refused to speak, that his voice had to be coaxed out of him.
"Talk to me."
Here was something I couldn't solve. David had done this to himself, and I couldn't think of a cure.
Holding David tighter, I looked across the room. The sun was slanting in, lighting up the end of a blue couch. I focused on the light as it hit one landmark after another—the next cushion on the couch, the edge of a floor tile. The onslaught of light was barely perceptible, yet soon the entire end of the room was blinding me.
I motioned to the window and the orderly got up to pull the curtains. Then I heard a sound. From between David's legs, a stream of water rolled off the vinyl chair and trickled to the floor.
I went back to New York. There was nothing I could do, and I couldn't handle seeing him again in that psych ward. My mother called me periodically to tell that he was getting better, that his therapy was working. Finally, after nearly a year in the place, they discharged him under a policy of out-patient supervision. My mother took care of him, making sure that he stayed doped up on his medication and visited his doctors. In the meantime there were more court dates and talk as to whether he should go to prison for breaking the conditions of his probation and driving my mother's car. It seemed as if the craziness would never end.
Yet, he'd gotten out of the hospital. I couldn't believe it until I was actually talking to him over the phone. His voice was soft, hesitant; he sounded like a child keeping secrets. When he asked me for money, I hadn't thought anything of it. All I wanted to do was help him. I had a few thousand dollars saved up, and I sent it all to him, believing—as did his doctors—that he really wanted to get his GED and apply to college. But a few days after he got my check, he disappeared. It was a serious matter, as he had broken the out-patient agreement with the hospital and the courts. The police had a warrant out for his arrest; if they caught him, he'd be going to prison for sure. Then I received a postcard from Mexico. All it said was, "I'm sorry."
I knew David wouldn't be coming back.
I leave my guesthouse as the sun rises, determined to find my brother. The stray cats and dogs claim the mornings here, sniffing about the closed-up food stalls of the central market and the piles of garbage stacked along the streets. The closed stores and empty streets remind me of being in Skopje, Macedonia on my way to cover Bosnia's war, and how I panicked and wouldn't leave the train station because of the steel shutters pulled down over the storefronts outside. In the Sudan and Mozambique, shuttered stores meant impending chaos: rebel advances, women being raped, male children conscripted into ragtag rebel armies. They meant destruction—with me in the middle of it. Again.
Yet, I'd asked for this life. Originally, I'd been going to school in broadcast journalism, but it had suddenly seemed too quaint and meaningless after all that had happened with my brother. I began studying international affairs with the idea of becoming a foreign correspondent and getting the hell away from home. A year went by, and I didn't hear a thing from David. Then I got a postcard from Varanasi, India, with no message on it. But being from Varanasi told me everything I needed to know. I wondered if the brahmins of that holy city were teaching him anything. I wondered if they'd convince him to go home and deal with the repercussions of his actions.
I ended up graduating from Columbia and accepting a job with the Associated Press. I'd be a stringer, covering international news. They needed people to work in their foreign bureaus, people who didn't care where they went or what they did. Pretty soon I was off on my own, freelancing in places like Khartoum and Mogadishu. As one war photographer once told me, "The shit holes of the world always have the best stories—if you can get yourself out of them." David might have said my karma was good, though he couldn't have known how much I tempted the world. How much I hated it for its senseless parceling of benevolence and pain.
I start walking down a street, taking deep breaths. The moto drivers notice me and materialize from the alleyways to ask me whether I need a driver to take me to Angkor Wat. I look at each person, not knowing who to choose. Whenever possible, people and things need to feel right. Across the street, I see an old man in gray cap and wrinkled white shirt. His face is drawn, somber. He leans against a beat-up blue motor bike, watching the young men swarm around me.
I quickly walk across the street. He looks at me with quiet surprise as I get on the back of his bike.
"Angkor Wat?" he says.
We start driving along the river and through the downtown, building after building shuttered with the dawn. The air is cool, still. Almost cold. Yet, with the rising sun, I can feel the midday heat beginning its offensive.
The driver leans over to tell me his name is Ga. "Muslim," he says, pointing at himself. Then he cuts a finger across his throat. "Pol Pot."
I know what he's telling me. The Cambodian Cham Muslims were Pol Pot's pet project, were among the first people to be slaughtered along with most of the country's Buddhist monks. Ga is a rarity. The last of his kind.
"Mother, father, brother, sister—" He cuts a finger across his throat as he drives, then points ahead toward the Angkor temple complex. "Sras Srang."
The large mass graves of Sras Srang, in the midst of the most popular of the Angkor ruins.
"Me," he says. Then he points at his ankle and pretends there's a chain around it. "Khmer Rouge. Understand?"
We drive on in silence. I don't know what to say. There is nothing I can say.
On the way out of town, I see a small Buddhist temple and ask Ga to stop so I can ask about David. No one is inside when we enter. There is an old stone Buddha without a head, surrounded by brass bowls, prayer flags, rice offerings. A single stick of incense burns from a bowl before the altar, giving off a thick, sweet scent.
I point to the headless Buddha. "Khmer Rouge?" I ask Ga.
He nods emphatically. "Kampuchea is bad, bad country. No good, Kampuchea."
I put my own chin on the neck of the Buddha, linking my hands with those of the statue. Ga stares at me, perplexed.
"Is Banteay Srei beautiful?" I ask him, remembering the temple where the French woman was shot.
"Yes, yes." He looks at me, his eyes moist. "You want see? I can take."
I move away from the Buddha. "You mean, go there?"
"Oh God—it's too dangerous." I laugh.
"No, no." He pulls the red checkered scarf from around his neck and puts it around my hair. "You hide." He tucks my hair under it. "Okay. You Kampuchea girl."
"Too dangerous for you, then."
He shrugs, his face drawn. Perhaps he's not scared of anything anymore.
A monk in an orange robe appears from the back of the temple and slowly approaches us. He winks a hello to me and I bow to him. I ask in French if he's seen a young American man named David, living at any of the temples in town.
He grins and answers in English. "Yes, yes. Yesterday I see him by the Bayon temple. By Angkor."
"Is he all right?"
The monk looks at me, perplexed by my question. "Of course," he says.
We return to Siem Reap, to the French Cultural Center in town so I can make an international phone call. I want to give my mother the good news—that I know where David is, that he's all right and hopefully I'll be bringing him home. It takes the manager twenty minutes to put the call through, and I keep waiting, hands wringing, wanting to tell Matka that after six years, she'll be seeing David again.
The manager hands me the phone at last, and it's my great-aunt on the other end of the line. Her voice sounds fuzzy from the bad connection, her heavy Czech accent further obscuring her words. I have to ask her to repeat what she says, and when she does, and when I think I understand, I lean back against the wall, closing my eyes.
"Since when?" I say.
"Since yesterday morning."
"Will she come out of it?"
Silence. "They don't think so."
I don't know what a "coma" means, exactly. I've only seen it in the movies, where it usually means death. Coming out of it, then, becomes the convenient act of divine intervention—and I know that real life is never so convenient. I ask my aunt in Czech to tell my mother that I've found David and he's coming home. We lose the connection.
I pay the manager for the call and go to the bathroom. Leaning my head against the mirror, I avoid looking at myself. I know I should have come out here earlier, when Matka was healthier. I shouldn't have waited so damn long. I bang my head against the mirror, shaking my head.
I leave the bathroom to sit on the veranda of the French Cultural Center, and order
a glass of scotch. When it comes, I drink it down and order another. A couple of French businessmen, over-dressed for Siem Reap in shirt and tie, glance at me as if I were an afterthought.
Maybe I hadn't come out here for Matka. I was the one who wanted to bring David back. Without Matka and David, who do I have left? What connections? What reason to go home? The loneliness of my life can make me go crazy at times. There was that assignment down in Madagascar when I ran into Helmut doing a piece for the Berliner Zeitung. We were both down in Toliara where the riots were starting. I forget what those riots were about. All I really remember are the seashells. Spectacular seashells set up in perfect rows along the sand. Raggedly-dressed children sold them by the oceanfront, shells of all colors and varieties. Conches, augers, giant cowries, the shells giving off the undeniable stink of rot. Shake them and you heard a dead thing inside.
I bought some anyway because they were so beautiful, then Helmut and I got a room in a dumpy hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean. We made love while the first shots went off outside, the rickshaw runners leaving their ranks in front of the hotel to dash for cover further down the road. We made quick, hard love, as if the world were about to end, the ceiling fan wobbling and pumping away at the dusty air over our heads. Afterwards, when we discovered to our dismay that the world hadn't vanished, we hired a driver to take us back to the capital, Antananarivo. We wanted to fly out to Nairobi, forget Madagascar had ever existed. During the ride, Helmut and I kept our distance and we talked about mundane things. We both knew what we wouldn't say: we were disappointed by the sudden normalcy of things, our lovemaking trivialized to mere boredom—just a bout in the heat of yet another dumpy hotel room. I forget the rooms faster than anything else. They might have all been the exact same room, somehow transported from one country to the next, mysteriously finding me again and again, like a bad dream.
I finish my scotch and see that Ga is waiting for me across the street, gray cap pulled down. When our eyes meet, he offers me a smile. I try to smile back, but it feels sloppy on me.
I pay for the drinks and walk over to him. I steady my voice as I speak. I want to know if he'll take me to Banteay Srei, after all. I want to see something beautiful.
It's a long ride. Ga dresses me up like a Khmer villager, checkered red scarf hiding my hair, one of his wife's hand-woven silk sarongs around my waist. The rice paddies trail by on either side, sharp, brilliant-colored fields which pass like enormous seas of green. Farmers tend to the tiny seedlings, glancing up as we speed by. Small villages of raised, thatch-roofed huts appear at intervals. I hide my face in the small of Ga's back, taking peeks at them. Even these poorest of families have lotus pools in front of their huts, sacred pink and red flowers spreading out across the surface of the water, their color offering a sanctuary for my gaze.
I remember when David used to talk about going to Brazil just to see the giant macaws, those rainbow-colored parrots. He used to be obsessed with color. I once bought him a New Guinea Birdwing butterfly with wings of blue-green satin, and he hung it up in his room over his bed as if it were a cross, enraptured by it.
"I'm going to go to the Amazon and New Guinea," he'd said to Matka.
She smiled, convinced. We were all convinced.
"I know you will," she said.
But he never did make it there. Probably never will. It doesn't make sense to want anything. Everything is a matter of what you're allowed to have. Thy will be done. Reminds me of being in the Middle East. People unable to speak to me about the future without saying Insha'allah—God willing—their eyes directed toward the sky.
No one has noticed yet that I'm not Cambodian. And this, too, feels like a gift. Something I'm allowed to have. I wonder when the generosity will end. The Khmer Rouge have already collected twelve foreigners' heads in the past three years, each one bringing international notoriety and news coverage. Young aid workers were taken while trying to rid the land of its mines. The there were some foolhardy backpackers looking for a good story to tell people back home. And of course the French woman last week, with her army escort and their AK-47s.
None of it, enough.
We do about 15mph now, the road dusty and full of potholes. Ga points ahead. In the distance, in the midst of a large patch of jungle, I can see what looks like a small pyramid. Banteay Srei. We drive closer until we reach a thatch enclosure, some kind of barn. Ga stops and tuns off the engine, parking the bike inside. From a distance, we're only peasants getting out of the sun. I must be content to view the temple from afar or not at all. I understand why Ga insisted on this, on my staying by the road; approaching Banteay Srei, having any obvious interest in it whatsoever, will endanger my life. The only way I can see the beauty is to pretend I don't see it at all.
A few old village men drive a water buffalo toward a nearby village, glancing at us as they pass. Their eyes widen when they see my blue eyes and white skin, and they mutter
something to Ga and shake their heads. He quiets them and shoos them on.
Alone, I walk up the road, clutching the scarf beneath my chin and stuffing some stray hairs behind my ears. I take a peek at the temple. It was constructed over 1,000 years ago but is so well-preserved that it looks as if it had been finished yesterday.
It's made of sandstone, a central tower rising in the middle. I've never seen such a place: the stone is so intricately carved that even from this distance it looks animated. Smiling, full-breasted women gaze out from porticos guarded by coiling serpents. Flowering filigree wind and trail about columns and cover the walls like vines. On the arches, elephants parade before Shiva, the Destroyer, seated on his throne above all his minions.
Ga whistles to me from the side of the building, telling me I've gone too far, that I should come back.
I head across the moat, toward the entrance to the temple. It's guarded by human-sized men with snarling lion heads. They kneel on one leg before the entrance to the temple, their heads cracked open by the Khmer Rouge. I pause before them, and wait for a moment. They seem to be daring me on. I head up the stone steps and into a courtyard. Tiny figures flutter about the walls and gaze out at me from the filigreed buttresses and archways, looking curious or perhaps scared. I glance up at the cobra-headed nagas, each scowling at me, then out at the surrounding jungle. I see no one, but that doesn't mean no one is there. In the distance, by the barn, Ga is waving at me, urging me back to him.
I see a spread of dried blood on the stone floor of the courtyard. It must be where the French woman was shot. The rain hasn't come since last week, and there hasn't been anyone brave enough to come by to wash up the blood. I walk over to the spot and wait. I pull off my scarf revealing my blond hair, and wait. This is how it happens. A decision is made. Fate or bad
luck. My mother would call it fate. All of it, fate. The will of God.
Ga waves his arms wildly at me.
Shiva, the Destroyer. Vishnu, the Redeemer. They are the reason for this temple.
But no shot is coming.
I head back the way I came, through the courtyard and down the steps past the lion-headed guardians. I slowly make my way across the stone bridge and over the moat to the safety and anonymity of the dirt road. The lion-headed figures now look small and helpless from this distance.
I walk over to Ga, where he is already starting his motor bike. He shakes his head at me.
"Not safe," he says, pointing at Banteay Srei. "Bad place."
I replace my head scarf and get on the back of his bike without a word.
There are tears in his eyes. "Bad place."
On the way to the Bayon temple, to find David, I ask Ga to stop. He pulls over without a word, turning off the moped's engine, leaving us in the middle of an ancient bridge bordered by giant, beheaded figures. I walk to the side of the bridge, gazing down at the waters of a wide moat, heavy with algae and duckweed. If I find my brother, I'm not sure what I'll say. Because of how my mother is now, half of me wants to yell at David, demand to know what kind of life he thinks he can have here, deluding himself with his Buddhism.
Ga joins me, gazing down at the murky waters, and I watch him. He was imprisoned, probably tortured, and I wonder what he thinks when he sees these beheaded figures everywhere, all over his country. I want to give this man thousands of dollars, make him a rich man, convince him that there is such a thing as a kind god and a benevolent universe.
Instead, I do nothing.
We look out at the ancient moat, jungle pressing in on both sides. At the end of this bridge stands a giant stone turret topped with four faces of Avalokitshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. Here is David's "root-guru," his bodhisattva. I turn to stare at the faces, each one looking off in a different direction and smiling serenely. The bodhisattvas intrigue me. According to Buddhism, they were on the verge of reaching nirvana but refused to go to it. They opted to return to the world of suffering so that they might offer their assistance to all beings. For one thousand years, these sublime faces have been gazing down at the world. At the great Khmer civilization rising before them. At the invading Thai hoards. At the abandoned city of Angkor, left to the jungle until a French explorer discovered it again in the 1860s. And then, not so very long ago, directly beneath their gaze, at the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge driving Siem Reap's undesirables over the moat, to mass graves prepared among the temple ruins. Perhaps Ga's father came this way. Perhaps his brother, or his sisters. The faces would have gazed down with their half-open eyes, blessing all who came before them, judging no one.
"Do you like this place?" I ask Ga.
"But do you… Your family…" I cut a finger across my throat and point down the bridge.
He picks up some pebbles from the ground and beckons me to him. Placing them on the stone bridge, he looks at me then throws one off.
"Brother," he says.
He knocks off a second.
"Sister number one." And a third. "Sister number two."
Two more stones leave for his parents. And a few more for other family members and friends. Finally, he holds up what is left of the pile of stones, a small handful now, and these he pockets. "Mine," he says. He taps his pocket. "Mine."
But he shakes his head in frustration and points to my shorts. I pull out the empty pocket. "I haven't really—"
He grabs my wrist and hands me his pocketful of stones. "Yours." He looks me in the eye until I realize I'm supposed to pocket them. "Yours."
The Bayon is directly ahead, at the end of a long road bordered by jungle. At first glance, it looks like a large pile of rubble. Giant carved stones lay haphazardly in the grass, and Cambodian children in ripped T-shirts climb about them. As we approach, little girls lift younger siblings to their hips and run to the road. They surround me, begging for some riel.
As I pass out what bills I have, I see a couple of Buddhist novices in white robes sitting in the ruins, muttering mantras. I'm thinking one of them might be David, and go to them, but they turn out to be Cambodian women. When I give them David's name, say "American," they nod their heads and point at the Bayon temple.
Looking for some way to enter the temple, I climb up a steep stone stairway. It ends at a dim corridor which winds into alcoves where beheaded Buddha statues rest in smoky candlelight. Monks in orange robes sit alone or in pairs before the statues, praying with their alms bowls before them. I search every dark chamber, confronting one headless Buddha after another in the labyrinth-like passageways.
All of the Buddha statues in this temple have been beheaded. I know from being in Phnom Phen that it's almost impossible to find a Buddha anywhere in this country which hasn't been decapitated. There must have been so many heads to take off. Did the Khmer Rouge smash them all? But they must have done something with them. I want to know where they are. I want to find them, put them back on. I swear to God, I could devote my life to putting them back on.
I go up some stairs which are narrow and slippery from the polishing of nearly 800 years of passing feet. Light appears, and I find myself in an outside courtyard where gigantic stone faces greet me from all angles, some head on, others in profile. No matter where I walk, there is no way to avoid them. Every approach to this inner sanctuary is guarded by these visages of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. The architecture is such that they look through entryways at me, through small windows and long corridors. It's impossible to escape their gaze, to be forgotten by them. Always: the wide lips, half-closed eyes, delicately curved nose of the bodhisattva.
David isn't anywhere. There is no one in any white robe. I sit on the stone steps, the giant faces beaming down on me from several angles, some from high above, others great and auspicious before me. I can't stop looking at them—they're whispering and cooing to me. Such kind reassurances, such beautiful words. Secrets about life. Glorious, enigmatic secrets, and all I can do is listen. I tell them I'm afraid to leave this place. I tell them about my brother, and how he killed a young boy. I tell them my father died and my mother is dying. I tell them about the woman I knew in Sarejevo who kept her little girl in a bomb shelter for a year, only to finally let her out and see her get blown apart. So much that I can tell them. The ravaged villages I saw in Mozambique. The anguish in refugees' eyes—I've lost count of it all. So much that I can tell.
The faces know all of this already, and they coo to me, whispering beautiful things though some have pieces of their cheeks missing, their eyes, the crowns on their heads, from Khmer Rouge target practice. They want to guide me into the inner sanctuary, the tower of stone which is at the center of the temple. I walk up the steps, the light growing dim. Incense smoke catches on sun beams and wafts out through shafts of stone into the sky. In an alcove, a headless Buddha rests among bright red prayer flags, lit by a single candle. A Buddhist monk in an orange robe sits in front in the near-darkness, holding his mala in between his hands and counting off one bead after the next, eyes closed, lips flawlessly moving. He doesn't seem to notice me as I walk by him; only the flame of his candle is swept up by the motion of my passage.
There is a faint light in the darkness ahead, and I feel my way along the stones to the spot. It's a tiny patch of light, and when I stand in it and look up, I see that 50 feet above, at the very top of the tower, the sunlight falls in. Smoke spirals up to it past the enormous stones, and I'm certain—I can't explain how—that my mother has just died in this moment, the stone faces still whispering their wisdom.
I hear the mantra of the monk, a low, even humming, and discover that I've been crying for some time. The tears have soaked the front of my shirt, and now the cool air of this inner chamber causes me to shiver. I turn around and glance at the monk, trying to make out his face. His eyebrows and hair are shaved off, and that, along with his placid expression, makes him look innocent, as if he were a child. I'm envious of the radiance of his face, how it resembles the giant faces outside. I watch how effortlessly his lips move. How gracefully his head bows. And now, as his entire body leans forward, the light illuminates his hands that hold the prayer beads, and glows on a series of pale pink scars which wind down his arms.
I fall back against the stone wall. Whispers assail me, repeating my brother's name over and over. Kneeling down, I can feel the stones in my pocket pinching my skin. I want to see if his lips will stop moving. I want to know if the mantra will end. Minutes go by. He doesn't stop. An hour. Another hour. The incense smoke finds me, curls about me, its scent lingering on my skin. I can't wait any longer. There must be some way to leave here without disturbing him.
© 2008 Kira Salak, KiraSalak.com--all rights of reproduction in any form reserved