The Larks Still Bravely Singing Fly

This article was originally published on Five Thôt.

We found Choeung Ek more or less by accident. It was on the way.

I love Southeast Asia, I always have. I am treating my mother to a road-trip from Saigon to Bangkok as a 70th-birthday present but also because I want her to love it the way I do. The trip is going well. She grew up in the tropics, and this place, with its mangoes and palm trees and firecracker sun, brings her back to her childhood.

The ten-mile tuk-tuk ride to the memorial costs us five dollars round-trip. Everything here is priced in American money. Admission is five dollars per person and includes rental of a high-tech headset that serves as an audio guide for the tour. Dante had Virgil, I get this gizmo. Headsets are available in English, German, Spanish — almost in any language other than Khmer. Choeung Ek is for foreigners now.

It isn’t what I expected. 

Half the area is taken up by a small lake, crowded with lilies and shaded by acacias. Birds sing and zip across the mirror-finish water. The grounds are mostly grassy meadows. One section, like much of western Indochina, remains dimpled by bomb craters. Whitish butterflies rest on long stalks of grass, then flutter off.

Once an orchard, Choeung Ek became a Chinese cemetery for a while. Those graves are mostly gone now, or at least the gravestones are gone. Still, I can imagine the peace of mourning here: a family encircles the grave site, holding a portrait of the departed. They burn joss-sticks and stacks of ersatz currency: their ancestor will be not only honored but prosperous in the afterlife.

From the earthen dike that forms the west end of the little lake, I can see a rolling valley of farms and rice patties, now lit brilliantly by the setting sun. My camera is slung around my neck, of course. I’m supposed to be a tourist, but I can’t bear to take a picture, not here. What could I do with the photo? Show it to my friends? “Here. See this? You’d never know…” I want to say something to my mother, but I don’t. She is quiet too and she takes my arm and we walk along the chain-link fence that separates Choeung Ek from the neighboring fields.

Two children are standing in the weeds on the other side. They beg through the fence. The girl must be about six, she’s missing her upper incisors. The boy is younger, still a toddler. We give them a dollar — probably more than their parents earn in a day — and we take their picture. The toddler grips the fencing with one pudgy hand.

We walk past the Magic Tree, where a loudspeaker used to hang. It would play patriotic songs at full volume, day and night, to drown out the screaming. The headset plays a sample for me, an eerie caterwauling. I pull the headset off for a moment and hear only birdsong.

We come to a roped-off patch of sand and gravel. The headset says that this area, unlike the rest of Choeung Ek, was left unrehabilitated, left exactly as it was found by the liberating forces.

This, in some sense, was what we came for, the real thing. I don’t know what my mom was expecting, but I had braced myself a poisoned landscape, churned mud, the carnal-house stench of the Somme in 1916.

Even the small area left untended looks nothing like a battlefield. It looks no worse than a vacant lot. I suppose that the banks of the River Somme today are as pastoral and sunny as Choeung Ek. Nature heals.

The spot isn’t much different from the rest of Choeung Ek, less grass, more pebbles and dirt. Both of us bend down to see the unhallowed ground more closely. I put out a hand, instinctively wanting to touch the earth, but many of the pebbles are teeth, some still embedded in fragments of jaw, and I jerk my hand back. My mom nods empathetically.

A cheeky little lizard seems to know he’s safe behind the ropes. He’s perched on a white stick that’s poking up from the ground, and he does comically frenetic push-ups. I realize the stick is a length of human femur, too small for an adult’s, even the small Khmer adult. We move on.

A long time ago, I was riding my bike along the crest of a very steep hill, and the bike suddenly slipped down the muddy slope. My face hit the ground so hard that I momentarily blacked out. When I came to, I was dizzy but surprisingly felt no pain. Only when I got home and saw in the mirror the blood sheeting from my cheek and chin did the injuries begin to hurt. The impact, the shock of it, had numbed me.

It is something like that to stand up next to what the headset calls the Baby Tree. Enemies of the state small enough to be easily lifted, the children of bourgeoisie and engineers, were executed here, the headset explains. A guard would just swing the child by the ankles, bang against the tree. I run my fingers over the bark; thirty years of sun and rain have mostly cleaned it.

The headset plays a confession by the former commandant responsible for Choeung Ek, Comrade Duch. He fled when the regime fell and while hiding in China, became a born-again Christian. On the tape, he sounds genuinely remorseful to me, but I don’t speak Khmer.

The center of Choeung Ek is the pagoda. We take off our shoes and approach it. Five levels of glass shelving, overflowing with the bones that the invaded Vietnamese army found here. Nine thousand bodies were found, but the pagoda can only fit a sample, several hundred, mostly skulls and long bones, neurotically sorted by age and sex.

I cannot picture the two million who died in this country, not even the twenty thousand killed right where I’m standing. All the shelves, all the grimacing departed, blur together. The bones become Halloween props. Dazed from the brilliant Cambodian sunlight, I pull off my cap and stuff it in my pocket.

There are other visitors to the pagoda. An earnest Asian boy davens over a lit incense stick. An elderly couple stares from the base of the shallow steps that lead to the pagoda, too frail or too wary to climb. My mother is studying the inscription. She looks as if she’s expecting to read something helpful there, an explanation, a good reason for all this. I’m sure the headset could explain everything, but I don’t hear it. It must have come off with my cap.

I try to focus on the skull closest to me, a few inches away through the window of the pagoda. “Juvenile female,” reads the tag. “5 to 10 years old.” She’s got all the incisors in her upper jaw; she lived long enough to have her permanent teeth grow in. At the time she died, she and I were the same age, younger than my youngest daughter is now. Older than the beggar at the fence.

I can see perfectly well the reason for her death, if anyone is still looking for reasons: there’s a nearly round hole punched in her right temple. The guard probably used a hammer to perform his patriotic duty.

She and I are at eye-level, and I can see my own face reflected in the window, superimposed on the weather-beaten bone. I put a hand against the warm glass to steady myself. I couldn’t have saved you, I want to tell her, I was only a little kid myself. I would have helped if I could. I wish you could have grown up, the way I got to, to have children of your own and to take them for walks by lake and watch them chase butterflies in the orchard. My mother, with a mother’s instinct, puts her arm over the quaking shoulders of her son.

We return the headsets to the front gate and walk back to the tuk-tuk.

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