Amy Ward-Smith is an Australian writer who spent several years living in South East Asia. She currently resides in northern New South Wales, where she tries to find time to write in between caring for her three young children and studying an MA. This story originally appeared in Issue Eight, which can be purchased here.
A filthy dawn breaks over Monivong Boulevard, the first rays of sunlight mingling with the black smoke that is still being vomited by the destroyed oil depot. The flame trees are in mourning. Red flowers drop gracefully to the street, landing on still-sleeping refugees who brush them unconsciously to the ground. There they join their already flattened relatives, decorating the smooth stone footpath. No traffic clogs this once-busy city road, transformed now into a makeshift village.
It is surprisingly quiet. The war is over. It appears as though there has barely been a fight in Phnom Penh, apart from a few explosions the night before and random bursts of gunfire. After so many years of conflict, it seems like an anticlimax. The government soldiers are all running away or surrendering. The government itself is long gone.
Bopha squats against the closed door of a deserted bakery, no smell of fresh bread emanating from its ovens today. Pulling her skirt around her like a curtain, she relieves herself. She watches the warm stream as it trickles towards a neighbour whose eyes are flickering out of sleep. Bopha is somewhat disappointed when it stops just short of the woman. Before she has a chance to stand up, a huge, painful tightening grips her swollen stomach. Struggling to maintain her balance, a low groan escapes from her lips. The neighbour, awake now, jumps up and helps Bopha to steady herself. A lone government soldier dashes past them, rifle in one hand, guitar in the other. They watch this odd figure as he disappears down the street.
“This baby will arrive before the rain,” Bopha tells the woman. “I’ve had these pains all night.”
“That child will not survive,” the woman says harshly. They are from the same village. “Look how small your stomach is. It should be much bigger than that.”
Bopha looks down, placing her hand on her belly. Although her vision is perfect, her eyes are cloudy like a blind person. Bopha, her name, means beautiful flower, but the people in her village say she is more like a weed. Small and dark, her lips too big, her nose flat and wide. A coffee-coloured stain covers half her face.
The woman pauses, regretting her words. “Just don’t get your hopes up. It’s a bad time to have a baby. Especially on your own.”
No one in the village knew who impregnated Bopha. At first, when she started vomiting a putrid green substance, they were sure she was finally dying. How such a wretched creature had survived so long was beyond them. Her parents had died many years ago. Since then she had lived off the scraps they threw to her, and the things she scrounged in the jungle. People said she was cursed. Others believed she could commune with spirits.
Only when the bump of her stomach started to show did they realise something was growing inside her. None of the villagers ever would have married her. Not even the old men with no teeth.
She frightened them. They whispered that it was a spirit baby. Or that the guerrillas had done it. In spite of themselves, they brought her with them when they came to the city, fleeing the war that had enveloped the countryside. They didn’t want to take the chance that she would curse them too.
More and more soldiers are entering the city, many of them only boys. Bare, dirt-stained feet are visible beneath their black pyjamas. Red and white checked scarves adorn their heads and necks. Though the sun is still low in the sky, the heat is intense. Soon the city will become an inferno, unless by some miracle the rains arrive and clear the air. It is the last day of the Khmer New Year, but there has been no celebration. No cleaning of houses, nor splashing of water or visiting of relatives. The refugees’ footpath home reeks of human filth and misery.
The boy soldiers are arriving on commandeered army vehicles. Children run out to meet them. People start to cheer. Saffron-robed monks walk back to their temple, its white and gold pagoda rising above the tall palm trees, beckoning them home. Their alms bowls are mostly empty. Like everyone else, they are hungry, but their faces are serene, an image of peace. Indomitably beautiful.
Some of the black pyjamas are talking with the refugees, smiling and hugging. These boys are farmers’ sons, children from the villages, swept into this guerrilla army. The refugees fear them less than the government soldiers. A few even recognise friends and family among the victors. There is no hint of the famed Khmer Rouge atrocities in these young faces. Only a sense of relief that the fighting is finally over. And a timid, cautious optimism.
A foreigner with a big camera comes past, taking photos hesitantly. Some boys on a truck invite him on board, and he goes with them. His long face reveals a mix of excitement and fear. A bony-backed cow surveys the scene with its milky eyes. Bopha howls as the invisible hand in her stomach tightens its grip. The other refugees watch but don’t touch her. When the pain subsides, she starts to sing to herself. Rocking back and forward, the unintelligible words flow from her mouth. A secret, ancient language, older than Khmer, older than the ruins of forgotten kingdoms that dot this land. Older even than Buddhism. Her coarse, wavy hair is hanging down her back, almost touching the ground. She moans as another pain washes over her. Her neighbours back away.
People are starting to leave, heading back to their homes. Bundles of possessions balance precariously on their heads. Children with distended stomachs cling like monkeys to their mothers’ slim hips. Bopha doesn’t move from her perch in front of the bakery. She imagines the bread that was once baked there, the workers behind the counter, the rich customers who came to shop there each morning. Between moans, she greets these invisible city people. The refugees whisper.
“She is talking to spirits again.”
“We should leave her behind. She will bring bad luck to us all.”
“She will probably die anyway. Look at her.”
Bopha vomits, a pathetic trickle of bile. There is no food in her stomach, hasn’t been for many days. The woman who had helped her before offers her a small sip of dirty water. She smiles at this kindness, revealing black, rotten teeth. On the bakery door, a tiny, translucent gecko observes the humans who have invaded its home. Bopha smiles at it too, discerning primordial mysteries in the mosaic of its eyes. A boy soldier walks up, stares at Bopha as she resumes her singing. His face is so small, so thin, that he seems to be all eyes: huge moons of sorrow and terror.
The sun is high when the announcements start. Different kinds of black pyjamas are coming, their faces older, stiffer. These are hardened warriors. No smiles now. The short burst of hope that had occupied the city melts into the shimmering haze of noon.
The city is being evacuated.
Take only a few possessions.
Everyone must leave within 24 hours.
Whispers ripple through the refugees who remain. Somebody says the Americans will bomb the city. They are evacuating people for safety.
A kind boy soldier walks up to them. His face is angular, like a bird’s; the eyes narrow slits of black light. Scars pattern his long fingers.
“It is only for a few days, maybe a week,” he tells them. “Hurry up now, gather your things.”
“She is in labour,” Bopha’s neighbour says. “She can’t walk.”
“Everyone must leave,” the boy soldier says, walking away to join his comrades.
“Come on,” the woman says to Bopha. “Everyone is leaving.”
Bopha leans against the bakery, closes her eyes. Her mind is a lush jungle, and in it she roams alongside a tiger whose eyes flash with the light that filters through the canopy. Above them, the voices of gibbons sing out through the trees. It is cool and mossy. She pauses to sip dew from a leaf, and her tiger pauses with her, observing this lovely mistress. A huge brown moth flutters past. On each of its patterned wings, a large spot gives the impression of a pair of enormous eyes. It stops momentarily before them, tranquil in the speckled light, before continuing on its leisurely journey.
The woman touches her shoulder.
“We are going now. Are you coming?”
Bopha doesn’t answer, doesn’t open her eyes. Another pain shakes her body.
“Just leave her,” another neighbour says. “We tried our best.”
The procession in the street is huge. The whole city is departing, an unimaginable exodus. Lucky ones have bicycles and carts. A few are even driving cars, slowly navigating their way through the crowd. Most walk, carrying whatever possessions they can. Pots and pans clang against each other. Occasional grains of rice drop from sacks. The black pyjamas watch over all, shouting at anyone trying to bring too much. Knocking small treasures from their hands.
Bopha opens her eyes. Watches them. The gecko has re-emerged. It looks on with her, through the thick, steamy air. Hundreds of red flowers are crushed under the constant march of feet. A soldier is approaching. Bopha closes her eyes again, but her tiger is gone. The gibbons’ song is desolate now.
The bare toes that strike her knees knock her off balance. Her back falls into the bakery door, the heavy wood vibrating for a moment. She looks up. The face attached to the foot is round and soft, like a woman’s. The eyes are slanted downwards, adorned by ridiculously long lashes. The foot strikes her again, this time in her side. Long toenails dig into her skin.
“Get up. Everyone must go. No exceptions.”
Bopha struggles to her feet, the pretty soldier watching. She looks down, considers her pathetic bundle of rags for a moment, before deciding to leave it behind. Bidding a silent farewell to the gecko, she joins the river of people heading north. It doesn’t take long to get used to the burn of the road, occasionally broken up by the smooth, sticky texture of squashed petals underfoot. Every few minutes she pauses, bending over and letting out a long wail. People look on with sympathetic eyes, but no one can help her. She is just one of many: the pregnant, sick and wounded, the young and the old. No one is spared this journey.
They pass by huge piles of weapons that have been handed over to the new masters. Every now and then the black pyjamas single out an individual or family, leading them away solemnly to an unknown destination. The heat of the day peaks; soon people begin to die, the life seeping away from them without fuss. Bodies line the road. It is clear not all the deaths are of natural causes.
An inner rocking settles on Bopha as she walks. The gentle waters of the Tonle Sap ripple in the depths of her body. She imagines the child swimming in there, the child she already loves with all of her being. Soon they will meet, these two who have known each other since the beginning of time. It will not be long now.
The city is disappearing behind them when Bopha’s pains build one on top of another, until they are relentless. She breathes deeply, driving her howls as far as she can within herself. The nearest soldier has his back to her, shouting something indistinguishable at a family who are trying to push their car through the crowd. Bopha takes her chance, slips quietly down from the road into a ditch. Before her, the endless, brown-yellow rice paddies stretch out in every direction. All signs of life are concealed now, patiently awaiting the arrival of the monsoon to release the luminous torrents of green that will soon carpet the land.
Bopha leans down on all fours, gulping in the damp air. A final scream rises up from her and escapes into the sky. The creature slips out easily, its streamlined reptilian form making for a quick passage into the world. Bopha drops back, sinking into the slope of the ditch, examining her progeny. It is a spectacular thing, about half the length of her arm, its leathery black skin painted by some master artist with dazzling turquoise spots. The lizard, stunned by the experience of birth, is motionless. It regards this strange mother with its unblinking orange eyes. Long, clawed toes unfurl slowly, exploring the sensation of dirt and grass for the first time. They stay like that for an immeasurable amount of time, just the two of them, silent in the dry paddy field.
Finally Bopha speaks, leaning close to the lizard.
“Go, my child. Be free. Live,” she whispers. And the lizard is off, fleeing across the field, its feet barely touching the ground. Not looking back. Bopha stays, singing her song, until it disappears into the setting sun. In the depths of her mind, a tiger is waiting.
She scales back up the embankment, a trail of blood dripping behind her. No one notices her as she re-joins the great flood of humanity, marching relentlessly towards the coming night.