Lessons From Last Hearing Angels
Outside a buzz of cicadas rose into the night. She locked the sliding glass door, tugging the vinyl
curtains shut with a clatter. On television the news anchor bid goodnight with a one-liner about
the pain of dental visits, one certainly on his horizon, his voice overtaken by the washing
machine’s pulses as the screen faded to credits. She eyed a bottle of red wine on the hutch,
looked twice at it, walked toward it and then past.
In the kitchen island’s center sat a list of handwritten phone numbers scrawled on a notecard,
numbers without names or recognition. Pushing it aside, she pulled a carton of eggs from the
fridge and started to make the surface one of assembly. Soon it was a bricolage of ingredients:
eggs, a rasher of bacon, Philadelphia cream cheese, a bottle of olive oil and scallions, breakfast
for dinner again. She looked at the container of shrimp paste, thought for a second, let it be.
The program in the living room turned to black-and-white archival footage, a documentary about
Southeast Asia, during a war at once familiar and remote. In the footage two schoolgirls in plaid
walked by a row of idling cars, all waiting to enter a roundabout winding around an imposing obelisk.
Two women spoke a foreign language at a sustained clip in turns as the schoolgirls in the footage
walked at half-speed toward the roundabout. A translator’s voice, an older woman, overtook
each narrator in English.
“It was the day the Khmer Rouge came into Phnom Penh. We knew the world had changed for us.”
The voice of a second woman spoke, in tandem.
We didn’t realize what was happening, the second woman's voice explained. Young men came
out on the street, using big bullhorns, some of them were shouting, but some were also just
talking normally through them.
“I stopped what I was doing,” the original woman continued, the translator keeping pace. “I was
sorting the laundry outside, hanging it up piece by piece. We knew they would reach our
neighborhood well in advance. You didn’t think it would change that much. You knew on some
level it might, but on another it was just a different day. We’d had lots of bombs in our life, you
see. American ones mostly. Violence came to us in many forms."
So, we packed our bags when the young men came into our neighborhood. They were shouting
and shouting. They went first to the house of Borey Sok, his wife, and his four children. He was a
bookkeeper. He worked at a small accounting firm. There weren’t so many back then, I suppose.
“Srey Leak’s house was the first on our corner. She was a widow; I remember distinctly. Her
husband had died two years past, and his parents, her in-laws, paid her some money every month
to keep the family afloat. That is how it was described. No more, no less, just sufficient to keep
the family afloat.”
I remember the sounds of how it occurred like it was yesterday. I remember it better than when
my grandfather passed, and we had all stood there, with the candles burning, and felt him move
on. This day left a greater imprint in my mind, and I still wake up to it. I still wake up to the last
days of Borey Sok. I still hear it on the streets.
“Her house was always neat. You could not find a neater house in the entire district. No house
with a more manicured front yard than Srey Leak, with more immaculate clothing hanging on its
lines. You would think that the occupants of the house never wore them. Her and her two sons.
The oldest was a real menace. Mean, so mean. He used to run past the backs of the houses in the
night, scaring the roosters and the old people. But that was not all. Sometimes he hit the other
kids. Just pounded them. You had never seen a child this mean. He would make the grown
women cry. But we all knew Srey Leak was dealing with a lot. She just had that small monthly
income. The one from the parents of her dead husband. No more, no less.”
When the rainy season ended, we would always go to the home of Borey Sok. We would sit
patiently while his wife prepared us some rice and the kids would bounce around the home. My
husband’s business was in trading motorcycles. There weren’t many in the city then, and there
weren’t many good accountants who could handle the volume of sales my husband was doing.
Borey Sok would always laugh, this deep laugh from his belly, and say that it was good luck we
lived on the same street, him the bookkeeper and my husband the motorbike trader, because how
often in the world do two ends meet where they each begin? He would ask this as his cigarette
ash grew to the length of a fingernail. Where else do the threads just come together? He would
ask. Borey Sok could be like that sometimes. He could talk in circles.
“In those first frightening moments the young fighters walked by me and my laundry. They
disregarded us entirely. I knew of them from the newspaper, from the grapevine that informed
the entire neighborhood, ellipses of stories that talked of rebel gains and government retreats. It
was mid April, and we had known they were coming for some time. But when they appeared
they were like ghost men, or really ghost boys. Some of them did not walk so straight. For some
reason, you always expected the real soldiers to walk straight. Because you saw the government
ones around the city – they always slouched. Smoked cigarettes one after another. Passed bottles
among each other, dabbled in gossip and women. But you figured the real fighters, the ones who
had been living in the brush, would come into town with their chests puffed out and all the
bravado of a hundred nights among mosquitos animating their limbs, straightening their joints.
But these men, these boys, they walked hunched and crooked. They skulked down the street like
pecking cormorants, their beaks angled toward the ground, their shame following their footsteps.”
I recall Borey Sok’s wife did not like shrimp paste. She would dab some fish sauce on her rice,
but she did not eat shrimp paste. I always thought it strange, how she avoided the shrimp paste.
It was studious and purposeful. We would sip rice wine and eat huge gobs of rice, clutched in our
fist like large oysters, and talk at first about our families, the weather, the neighbors, and Borey
Sok’s wife would douse her rice with fish sauce, but never would she scoop up shrimp paste. I
always thought it strange.
“‘Srey Leak,’ one of the boys called. I remember that. He said her name, just like that: Srey
Leak. I did not expect it. But one of the boys must have been from the neighborhood. No more
than fifteen. He did not have a bullhorn or anything. To this day I am not sure if he was with
them from outside the city, or if they merely found him that day and placed him in an ill-fitting
uniform. It’s not clear to me. ‘Srey Leak,’ he said. He pointed his gun in three directions at once.
I do not think he knew how to fire it.”
The nights were never short at Borey Sok’s. Even if you weren’t there for business, Borey Sok
and his wife would keep you late. I wish I could remember his wife’s name. It is unusual that I
can’t, to be frank. I remember the names of all of us other women on the street. I almost can’t
believe I’ve forgotten, and I’m hopeful that one day it comes back to me, like those rumors you
hear about lost cats returning to their owners. But there are many names I have forgotten. I
forgot the name of my astrologer, the one who forecast me meeting my husband. Of the
seamstress by the quay I saw each weekend, even if I did not need anything tailored. Of the man
at the bank, the one with the Fu-Manchu moustache, with the filthy sense of humor. Who talked
that way around women and felt comfortable with it? I’ve forgotten many names.
“I stepped behind the laundry line. I felt like I could be invisible there. If I just stood still enough,
I would become a ghost, a specter of shirts and skirts in the wind, although I could feel no wind.
The one thing that felt like the wind was my own breath, and I had to hold it in, lest I create my
own maelstrom. It was a wind I did not want them to hear, emanating from a flesh I did not want
them to see.”
“‘Srey Leak!’ the man-child shouted.”
I do not remember them entering his house. I do not remember how I knew they were in his
house. His house was five homes down from ours. Years have overtaken me. I knew only that they
were in the house of Borey Sok, that initially his wife was screaming, that whatever was
happening could not be stopped. They must have come first into the room with the purple divan.
No one owned furniture like that. I can imagine they commented on it. Shot it, stabbed it, pissed
on it. I can imagine they did the things to it that they would do to Borey Sok and his wife. That
they would fill it with holes and watch as its stuffing unspooled into pools of formlessness at its base.
“‘Give us your son, Srey Leak!’ the man, or the boy, screamed. His voice was loud, yet almost
shrill. That’s how I knew he was not quite a man. It wasn’t just his slouch that spoke of late
adolescence. It was his manner of speech. I’ve heard boys speak like that many times. In the wet
market, when they came running by the girls, pawing between their legs, the butcher coming out
to chase them, yelling, saying he’ll send them back to their mothers as chopped ruby-red hind
quarters with their bones ground into five spice powder.
Someone told me about it much later. That is, the details of how it happened. I know I remember
the sounds. But the details began as a story from another, and from that person it became a story
to me, and I transmitted it on, my own epistles to foreign congregations, like how the French
colonialists said that the apostle Paul did for the Galatians. How could they believe in a miracle
they had never witnessed? I know that in this process the story stayed pure, the message. It
became our own Gospel. Our own way of understanding, a lasting stenography. Borey Sok would
be the proud, meticulous bookkeeper that he was, that we turned the street’s suffering into an
archive of terror, line after line accounting the grotesque final tally. The Galatians received the
message of a miracle they had never witnessed, and they believed it. We received the message of
a tragedy to which we were all present, and it was not a question of believing.
“Davuth Samveasna, the neighbor, emerged from his home holding his arms high. He always
walked at half speed, even when he was healthy. He was not healthy in those years, however.
The past three years had dragged on him, pulled on him like the last flumes of a cigarette. His
skin looked like ash and his voice cracked when he spoke, but he let out a forceful yell. The men,
maybe in fact the boys, they all turned toward him.”
I do not remember them entering but I do remember how I knew they had reached the house of
Borey Sok and his wife. It was because of the record. It comes to me now. Borey Sok was a
collector, a real bon vivant. He enjoyed modern music. It came with the sensibility of his job, and
from his role as an official clerk for the Belgian embassy. He had reams of wax in his study,
which was also novel solely for the fact that he had a study. Most people would have filled it with
their children, but not Borey Sok. It was laden with vinyl records, a small globe, and a teak wood
desk that he said came from Burma. Borey Sok had good taste, even if he was a bit garish at times.
“They all looked at Davuth Samveasna. You know how when cheetahs see their quarry, they all
pivot on their feet, they just move like that? That’s how the boys, the men, were. And some of
them even stood up straight. They all faced Davuth Samveasna. ‘Old man,’ one of them said.
‘Prepare to die.’ Maybe I don’t remember it right. It doesn’t sound real. ‘Prepare to die,’ that’s
what I heard him say. I don’t know if he got it from a movie, or if it is in my mind now from
some movie that came later, something I must have seen recently. But that is precisely what I
remember – ‘Prepare to die.’ And then the scrape of gunfire, which did not sound real either, but
like tin-hollow droppings of glass from the sky above, rain on a corrugated roof."
Borey Sok wore eyeglasses. In the years later that is a fact we all recounted. Maybe he was a
victim because he wore eyeglasses. Or because he was a bookkeeper. It was an easy excuse. A
convenient one. The truth is they killed Borey Sok because they did not like him. I grant the
eyeglasses did not help. But you cannot ignore reality sometimes. These people wanted to settle
scores, to land a hit, so to speak. Borey Sok was an easy target. In coming years, the targets
would be less easy to justify but no fewer in number.
“The body of Davuth Samveasna looked like a mummy. I could see it from behind the corner of
a hanging shirt, one that I had spent an extra several minutes trying to remove a red dust stain
from earlier that day. I don’t know why I had even bothered with laundry that morning.
Sometimes it’s most important to feel normal, to give the universe some ritual that makes sense,
to affirm life. But there was nothing life affirming about this day, and the body of Davuth
Samveasna lay unmoving, his left wrist splayed upward as if it was his last attempt at defiance,
one final motion before the life seeped out of his body cavity.”
I must digress for one brief minute. Borey Sok’s music was indeed the best. He had Ros
Sereysothea, Sin Sisamouth, Pan Ron. The Archies. Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. At Borey Sok’s
house you could hear it all. The rice wine would keep flowing and so would the vinyl. Sometimes
it sounded like galloping horses, layers of guitar bouncing in syncopation with the air-lofted
chorus. As children we had fairy tales. As adults we had Borey Sok’s vinyl records.
“‘Srey Leak!’ the one who knew her name shouted one final time. They stood like a group of
spiders arrayed in front of her house, casting an invisible web with the muzzles of their guns.
‘We want your son!’ he shouted. A silence descended on the street. I could see two other women
along the block. One had been grinding spices, the other out on a walk to a neighbor. We were all
frozen, all awaiting the appearance of Srey Leak or her mean son. I swear on that day you could
hear your own sweat drop. My heart did not skip beats but instead fell into a place deep in my
stomach where it continued to strum, rocketing up my sternum and into my throat.
What happened next was not something I expected. Srey Leak walked out of her house. The
widow just walked out the front door. She held her wrists out, as if she was about to be crucified,
showing the skinny rankle of her inverted forearms. It was ethereal, Srey Leak walking out like
that. I did not know how she could stomach it. Maybe her mean son was burrowing his way
under the house, furiously digging a tunnel all the way to Vietnam, shovels full of raw earth
piling up in her master bedroom, the one where her husband once lay. She looked at them, her
eyes even with theirs, the half-slouching half-erect boy-men with their toy guns that were in fact
real. Then she smiled.”
The last night we spent at Borey Sok’s we listened only to American and British music. Nothing
from our country, he said. It’s a bit derivative. His wife said no, Borey Sok, you’re just being arrogant.
“I really don’t know how she had the strength because I certainly did not. Srey Leak stood there
as an orchid that has reached its peak, years of pruning and sunshine and lily white in
evanescence despite her dark skin. I put my head down, clutching the hanging laundry deep into
my face, and listened as they rained lead in her direction. This time it was so loud that I did not
care that I was crying with my mouth open.”
I did not hear anything bad coming from their house. Truly, I did not. Not in the conventional
sense, at least. Instead I heard the elegiac, high-pitched but boundless, voice of Ros Sereysothea
transmuted from vinyl into outer space. The killers must have put it on as they did their work. I
do not know exactly how they reached that final tally with Borey Sok and his wife, but I know
that they did it to good music. And it is for this reason that I cannot bear the sound of music any
longer. That I must retreat at each phone call placed on hold, each lurching elevator with its
doldrum songs, each stoop I pass on the Lower East Side with young men and their boomboxes. I
just can’t bear it. So, I don’t listen. And I certainly don’t listen to her, to Ros Sereysothea.
But about five years ago I went into a Khmer restaurant in Queens, a cafeteria-style place run by
a rich old family who had migrated before the takeover, halfway through old king Sihanouk’s
reign, and they were playing Ros Sereysothea. A group of old men doused their rice in fermented
shrimp paste, and it was like they did not even notice the grounded angel among them. I could
clearly hear her waxen voice, embalmed in vinyl amber, ricocheting across the linoleum tiles,
and I could see my entire past unfold before me like Laika the space dog in her capsule and the
sprawling earth below her – at once an exploration, but also a death.
The woman listening to the show set her plate into the sink. The program faded out from the
screen, and she shut out the lights in the den. The sound of the old television’s vacuum tube
lingered a moment and then evaporated. Under the thrum of the English-language translator she
had tried to make out the film’s original Khmer speech. Her cousin’s sapphire voice came out
direct, pellucid. She remembered when the film crew had come to ask questions, had untangled
all those memories. But her own voice – her own voice had sounded different on television, like
she had been speaking from inside a closet from another dimension, or through a conch shell on
some unmapped beach.
John Arterbury is a Virginia-based writer and former journalist whose work has focused on armed conflict. His nonfiction has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Bangkok Post, New Statesman, and Roads & Kingdoms and his prose has been featured in Glassbottled, Deek Magazine, 365 Tomorrows, and staged for production by the Delta Literary Arts Society. His most recent work of fiction, "The Wrong Side of Heaven," is forthcoming in the Delmarva Review.