Reprisals

Illustration by Moeu Diyadaravuth
Reprisals
A short story by ALAN LIGHTMAN

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Rina had just finished putting a quarter kilo of pork and a half dozen rambutan into her burlap shopping bag, wondering if her husband would scold her for spending too much, when she saw the man who had murdered her father.

At first, she wasn’t sure. She hadn’t seen the man for thirty-three years, since she was twelve years old, and he was now whitened and bent over and barely able to support his skinny body with a walking stick. But he had the same crooked mouth and angular cheeks that she remembered, the same mole above his left eye, and as she studied him from three stalls away, she became more and more certain. Many times over the years, she had imagined what she would do if she ever saw him again. What she had most wished for was some catastrophe to permanently separate him from his family, as had happened to her family, or for him to be stricken with liver cancer and to die a slow and painful death.

That evening, after her husband had finished eating his dinner, Rina said to him, “I think I saw Touch Pheng in the market this morning.” The smell of the pork blended with the odor of mildew, always present during the rainy season when nothing could be kept dry.

“Who?” said Pich, wiping his mouth. “Touch Pheng?”

“The commander of the camp at Sopeak Mankul.”

She looked over at Pich through the dim yellow light and tried to read his expression. The one room of the house was lit only by a single bulb, which dangled from wires that ran along the tin roof, down a wall made of packed palm leaves, around the two storage bags of corn and rice, and finally to a car battery in the corner.

“Why are you talking about that?” said Pich, annoyed. “And anyway, how do you know it was him? It’s been so many years.”

“Do you remember when I saw cousin Mala after forty years? You didn’t believe me then either.”

Pich didn’t bother replying. He was sharpening the blade of his plow, which he would need to finish preparing his fields for planting. Sharpening blades was their son Kamal’s job, but Kamal was out tonight, drinking cheap palm wine in the rain with his friends.

Pich stood and began putting his tools away. He was not much taller than his wife and almost as thin, with fleshy lips, perpetually bloodshot eyes, and a scar on his cheek where he’d been gored by a neighbor’s ox. Now, the rain was pinging like gunshots on the tin roof, causing the two oxen under the house to shuffle nervously. Rina could look down between the bamboo poles of the floor and see their shadowy forms fidgeting below.

“What should we do?” said Rina.

“Why do you want to think about such a useless thing? It’s a waste of time. And by the way, tomorrow don’t buy any rambutan.” Pich was always especially unpleasant the day after he’d spent the night with Lakhena.

“I am doing, I don’t yet know what.”

“What is silly Mae Wea going to do?”

“Something.” Unsettled, Rina sat down next to Thida, her eldest daughter, who began brushing her mother’s hair. Even though Thida was constantly trying to please her, Rina could not look her daughter in the eye. At age sixteen, Thida had been kidnapped and sold to a brothel by Pich’s cousin to settle a gambling debt. She’d been back home for a year, eating regularly, but her wrists were still smaller than the thickness of a cucumber. Their middle daughter Nita, Pich had married off at age fifteen to a traveling rubber merchant, who promptly deposited his new wife for safe keeping with his aunt in the far side of Battambang. But at least Rina still had her sweet youngest daughter, Sreypov, her mi-oun, still in school at her fierce insistence. She looked over and saw Sreypov in the corner, her face covered with whitening cream, reading one of her school books.

Rina closed her eyes, hoping the long brush strokes would calm her.
Her jet black hair fell to the middle of her back. Despite her age, she was still an attractive woman, with a slender body and a sympathetic mouth, but her skin had become worn with the heat and the life on the farm, and deep grooves spread out from the corners of her eyes. One could see the Chinese blood on her father’s side, as her nose was more narrow and her skin lighter than pure Khmer.

“I have had enough of silly talk for the day,” said Pich. “I am getting old. And tomorrow is almost here.” Without bothering to take off his sweaty shirt, he lay down on his sleeping mat. Almost immediately, Sreypov and Thida disappeared behind the dangling sheet that partitioned off the tiny area where they slept and undressed.

Once the house had grown silent, Rina began brooding again about Touch Pheng, and her hands started to shake. She would do something horrible to him. She walked to the corner of the room where the family said prayers for their ancestors. On a table were candles, a statue of Buddha, bits of colored string, and photographs of Pich’s parents and grandparents, Rina’s mother and two grandmothers. Rina possessed only a single picture of her father, which she kept safe in a small metal box. Now, she lit a candle and took out the photograph, stained and curled around the edges. Here, her father was a young man, perhaps twenty-five years old, handsome and sweet. In her mind, she could see the moonless night he was killed, she could see the glow of the hand-rolled cigarettes of the Khmer Rouge cadres as they sat under a tree, she could hear their voices as they came to her father’s bunk house and called him out and two other men who had all tried to escape that morning to find missing members of their families.

“We are moving you to another camp,” said Touch Pheng, a phrase whose meaning all understood. She could hear the commander’s raspy and arrogant voice. She had seen him order the executions of people before, as easily as if he were swatting mosquitoes. The cadres carried shovels and ropes. Rina looked at the photograph and said a prayer for her father. Inexplicably, she began thinking of the time they had gone together to Phnom Penh, when she was a little girl, and sat on the grass below the great monument celebrating the departure of the French. Rina had never seen a city. Amidst the noisy crush of buildings and people flying by on their cycles and motos, her father sat quietly humming a song to her. Somewhere, in the distance, she heard Pich snoring. Rina put a cupful of sticky rice sweetened with palm sugar on the sleeping mat of each of her children, as she had done for years, and lay down beside her husband.

After a night of tossings and turnings, Rina rose before dawn, climbed barefoot down the rickety wooden ladder in the dark, and began preparing breakfast and lunch for the family in the tiny shack next to the house that served as the kitchen. Her oldest daughter Thida had gotten up even earlier to start the wood fire. Until harvest, they would have little to eat except rice, but Rina could still season the food with garlic and ginger and kaffir lime leaves. A little later, Rina roused Pich and Kamal, who ate their rice and bits of dried fish in the dark without speaking. Afterward, the men loaded up the ox cart with sacks of rice seed and tools and left for the farm, an hour away.

When she and Thida had finished cleaning the dishes, Rina swept the floor and dusted the tables and the sleeping mats and the walls. Then she got ready to go to the market. Passing the kitchen, she caught sight of the pork knife, wrapped it in a piece of cloth, and put it in her shopping bag.

The market was always a tempest of color and buzz, offering a thousand distractions, but this morning Rina walked purposefully past the oranges, the red rambutan, the green morning glory and bok choy, the yellow bananas, the lavender and magenta fabrics, the screaming half-naked children, the disgruntled chickens darting down the muddy path between the stalls until she spotted the man, standing near the covered stall that sold mangoes.

She approached him as closely as she dared and got a good look, much better than the day before. She even heard him speak, asking how much he owed for a half dozen mangoes. Was it the voice she remembered? It was the tired voice of an old man. After a minute, he seemed to feel her eyes and returned her gaze. They stared at each other for a few uncomfortable moments. She gripped the handle of the knife in her bag. Then the man looked away and hobbled to the next stall. She would not approach him now, not today. Tomorrow.

Illustration by Moeu Diyadaravuth
It was only 8 a.m. and already so hot that the sweat had soaked through Rina’s shirt. She nodded to several people she knew and bowed to a procession of monks in saffron robes, stumbling over the deep ruts of the ox carts. Although Rina had lived in this village for nearly thirty years, only in the last few had she felt that she might begin to belong. This was her husband’s provincial home, not hers. Her birth village was in Pursat. She had not returned there since that frightening morning a lifetime ago when the young soldiers appeared and dragged everyone off to the camps.

Only two years after the Khmer Rouge regime ended, when Rina was fourteen, her mother had died from gangrene, then later her sister. Without any parents, her marriage to Pich was arranged by an uncle. At first, she had vague thoughts about going to school, but Pich put her to work on the family farm, and then the children began. After the birth of Thida, when Rina had been ill with pneumonia, Pich sat by her side day and night putting wet rags on her cheeks and massaging her back. He did the same when she was sick with dengue fever. Over the years, she and Pich had grown accustomed to living with each other.

Slowly, she had made friends in the village, at the funerals and the weddings. All of her uncles and aunts had passed away and now seemed like the shadows of vanishing dreams. The only remaining link to her own village was her childhood friend Makara, who upon marriage had refused to share a sleeping mat with her husband until he agreed to live in the same village as Rina. On Sunday afternoons in the dry season, she and Makara always went walking together in the forest.

It was Makara who had first discovered that Rina’s husband was sleeping with Lakhena. When Rina confronted Pich about the affair, he said only: It’s none of your business. Since then, three years ago, Pich had been spending one night a week with Lakhena. Every month, Lakhena sent little gifts to Rina’s children, pieces of fruit and bits of colored fabric, delivered by a toothless former monk. Rina would always throw the gifts into the river. Pich called Lakhena his bropun jong, his second wife, but Rina and her friends called her a srey somphen, a slut.

That night Rina could hardly close her eyes. It was hot, without any breezes, and she was thinking about Touch Pheng. She saw him covered with blood, swaggering about their village. Then she was back in the camp, digging the canals in the mud with her fingers, hungry, always hungry, trying to catch sight of her father and little brother and sister.

The following morning, the whitened old man with the crooked mouth was not at the market. Nor the morning after that. A week later, Rina spotted him again, standing in front of some children playing in the mud near several crates of oranges. This time, she walked straight up to him. “Are you Touch Pheng?” she asked. He seemed to lean more heavily on his stick. “Do you know who I am?” said Rina, her voice not as confident as before. He shook his head no. He smelled of tobacco. “Were you in Sopeak Mankul during the Pol Pot time?” whispered Rina. The man said nothing, but she could see something cross his face for a moment. Slowly, he turned around on his cane, putting his stooped back toward her.

On her way home, Rina stopped at Makara’s house, set back behind a wire fence. “The man who killed my father,” she said, “he’s alive. I saw him here, in the village.”

Makara stopped feeding her chickens and looked up. Over the years, she had lost a couple of teeth, and gained weight, but she still had her broad and welcoming smile. “When?”

“Ten days ago.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? What are you going to do? The police won’t do anything.”

“I know. I haven’t decided what I am going to do.”

“But you are doing something,” said Makara. “Those killers should be brought to justice. They should suffer. You owe it to your father.” She put her arm around Rina. “I’ll tell Sayon. He knows about these things. He’ll tell you what you can do. Where’s this man living? Can you show him to me?”

“I don’t…” Rina found herself suddenly frightened. She needed time to think. “I’m not sure where he lives.”

“Sister, this is your chance to have courage. If I could get the soldiers who murdered my uncle and sister…” Makara gently patted Rina’s back. “Just tell Sayon when you’re ready.”

In the following weeks, Rina saw Touch Pheng several more times at the market. They would stare at each other from a distance, then go about their business. She noticed that the old man was always alone. And, as he limped from one stall to the next on his stick, he seemed to hold himself above the people around him.

The new rice shoots were coming up now, several centimeters tall, close packed and velvety and intensely yellow-green in color. Every afternoon, Rina spent hours on the farm picking out the invading snails, one by one, and dropping them in a bucket. Soon, it would be time for transplanting. Pich went out to drink several nights a week, sneaking 500 riel notes from the envelope under their sleeping mat. In the wee hours of the morning he would call up to Rina, too drunk to climb the ladder without her help.

After a stifling night in mid June, Rina took the photograph of her father from its safe place in the metal box and, for the first time in years, carried it out of the house. When she saw Touch Pheng at the market that morning, she gingerly pulled the picture from her pocket and held it in front of his face. “This was my father,” she said. He looked at the photo without speaking. Then he took some sugar cane and rambutan from his basket and held it out to her. “No,” she said. But as she turned to go home, he slipped the food into her shopping bag and hobbled away. She threw his food to the ground.

Illustration by Moeu Diyadaravuth
Now Rina was certain that the old man was Touch Pheng. That evening, while she and Pich were listening to Sinn Sisamouth songs on their radio, she wanted to tell her husband about her meetings with Touch Pheng. She wanted Pich to hold her and talk softly to her, as he had done when they first married.

But she could not make the words come out of her mouth. For years, her husband had acted as if the Pol Pot time had never occurred, although he himself had lost a brother and two aunts. He always said that he was only a simple farmer who wanted no trouble with anyone, desiring nothing more than a peaceful existence with palm wine and comfortable surroundings in the next life. When they first married, Rina told Pich all the horrors she had witnessed in her camp – seeing an old man hung upside down from his ankles because he had complained about his thin soup, her little brother dying of starvation, his belly so swollen that he looked pregnant, her pretty sixteen-year-old sister Lina snatched up by one of the Khmer Rouge officers and used every night in his hut, the pile of fresh bodies with slit throats that she stumbled upon in the bushes one day. And the murder of her father. Pich had listened, nodded, and said, “We will not speak of this again.”

In the fields, in the afternoons, Rina found herself remembering things about her father that she thought had been lost to the years and the hardships of life. She remembered that she would sit on his lap while he told her the story of “Grandma and Rabbit,” in which the mischievous rabbit ate all of Grandma’s bananas. When she got older, he read her stories from other parts of the world. She remembered that when he would come home after being gone weeks with some Chinese businessmen, he would bring a maroon woven bag, out of which he would happily pull beautiful carved hair brushes and strange tasting spices and fabrics.

He once gave her a turquoise silk scarf decorated with apsara dancers, and she now remembered the precise moment, his hands touching her shoulders, the view of pink bougainvillea outside the half-open window. She remembered that he would give her a foot massage before bed. Rina thought of these things as she and her daughter Sreypov worked their trowels into the mud and scooped up the young rice plants, to be replanted in the adjacent fields. Each fist-sized chunk of mud and rice shoots, a miniature island of dense yellow-green trees, they painstakingly carried to the new field and buried in the mud under the water. She remembered his laugh. She remembered that she was his favorite child. She remembered that he called her his svay pa-em, his sweet mango.

In the evenings, as they unrolled the mosquito nets, she told her daughters these fragments of memories. “Grandfather seems so different from Father,” said Sreypov. “You must have loved him very much.” “Yes,” said Rina. “I wish I could kiss him,” said Sreypov. “I wish he was here. I hope he is not sad in his new life. Put your hand on my shoulder, Mae.” “Why?” “I will imagine it is Grandfather’s hand.”

One morning as Rina was leaving her house to take rice to the monks, Makara’s husband rode up on his moto. Sayon was a tall man, whose hands were always clean despite his work in the fields, and he had a perennial grin on his face. “I am offering my help with this killer,” he said. “What have you decided to do?”

“I’m not sure,” said Rina.

“You shouldn’t wait,” said Sayon. “These KR killers don’t stay in one place long. There’re thousands of them among us. They think they’re invisible, like fleas on an ox’s back.”

“I’m planning something,” said Rina.

“I can do it for you,” said Sayon. “Or have a friend do it.”

“What would you do?”

“It’s easy. We watch him. We get him at night, on the road.”

“You kill him?”

“Do you really want to know? We don’t kill him. We beat him with a bat until all of his bones are broken.” He put the kickstand down on his moto and walked close to Rina. “Don’t you want revenge?” he said in a gentle voice.

“Yes.”

“These killers have to pay. And you owe it to the memory of your father. Can you tell me his name? Can you show me where he is?”

“I’ll let you know,” said Rina. She felt nauseous again, like the first morning she had seen Touch Pheng. “Not now. I’ll let you know.”

“Don’t wait too long,” said Sayon. He patted her shoulder and drove away.

That afternoon, Rina prepared dinner for her family earlier than usual. Makara had given her a chicken. It fluttered and squawked when Rina held her knife against its neck. As she slit its throat, she noticed how easily the blade cut through the muscles and vessels and nerves. Almost in a trance, she watched the blood drip drop by drop to the ground.

Rina did not see Touch Pheng again until the middle of July. He was sitting in a plastic chair underneath the awning of the shop that sold sluk bas and cabbage, and he appeared to be dozing. Without speaking, she walked close to him and just stood staring. She realized that she didn’t know what she would do from one moment to the next. She was trying to make his face change into the face of the arrogant young Khmer Rouge officer. She remembered that other face well, but this was the face of an old man. Yet it was also the same.

“My name is Rina,” she said finally. She was surprised at the sound of her own voice. He opened his eyes and nodded. “Are you here by yourself?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said and reached for his stick. It was the first time he had spoken to her. In her mind, she saw Touch Pheng lying in a dark road, bleeding to death.

She hesitated. “Do you have a family?”

He leaned forward on his stick and squinted with milky eyes at the crowd of people moving between the covered food stalls. His forehead glistened with sweat. “My wife died ten years ago,” he said. “My children live in Vietnam.” He stopped and began coughing. “I don’t want to live in Vietnam. The Vietnamese are cheaters and liars.”

“May I ask Ta what brings him to Praek Banan?”

“I am visiting the daughter of a cousin,” said the old man. “For a few months. Then I will go.” He sat back in the chair. “And you? Neang must live here?”

“Yes, I have lived in this village for thirty years,” said Rina.

“Are you married?”

“I have a husband and four children.”

“You have good luck,” said the old man.

In the many scenarios that Rina had rehearsed over the last couple of months, she had not imagined such a conversation.

Rina began taking the photograph of her father with her every time she went to the market. She did not show the picture to Touch Pheng again, or even take it out of her pocket, but she wanted it with her when she saw him. One or two days a week, she and Touch Pheng would have bits of conversation. A few sentences. He never said much. One morning outside of a new stall that sold used tires, which hung on wires from the roof like giant black fruit, Touch Pheng confided that his favorite son had mechanical skill and had secured a job repairing motos. “But he married badly,” said the old man, shaking his head, “and is always arguing with his wife. What can I do.”

He told Rina that he had seven grandchildren. On another occasion, as he leaned on his stick and picked at the mole over his eye, he mentioned that for many years now he had been moving from one province to another every few months, living with cousins. “I come and I go, I come and I go. What is an old man to do. I’m lucky to be alive.” One day, Rina told him that Kamal was beginning to look for a wife. They were sitting next to a stall that sold chickens. She told him that her daughter Nita was pregnant and would be coming home to live with her and Pich, arriving soon, in early September, in time for Pchum Ben Day. If all went well, this would be Rina’s first grandchild.

That afternoon, as she was washing the family’s clothes in the river, Rina realized that she had confided far too much in Touch Pheng. How could she have revealed such personal things about herself and her family to that killer? She scraped a shirt against the cleaning rock harder and harder until it was ripped to shreds and her fingers were bleeding.

She had more memories of her father, small things. She remembered that his hands were soft and delicate, unlike the hands of Pich. Everyday life developed a strangeness she had not experienced before. One morning, contrary to her usual routine, she stopped on her way to the market and just listened to the chanting of the monks. She looked closely at the red-toothed old women chewing on betel leaves under the shade of an acacia tree. For a week, she sat with a friend’s fifteen-year-old son who was dying of tuberculosis, watched as he gasped for air and coughed up fountains of blood and clawed at the puss-filled lesions that broke out on his back. At his cremation ceremony, she suddenly began weeping and couldn’t stop until evening.

Late one night at the end of July, Makara called from the bottom of the ladder, seeking asylum from her husband. Sayon had beat her before, but that night Makara seemed particularly terrified, and she had dark blue bruises on her face and a bleeding mouth. After Makara had come up into the house, Rina leaned down to Pich, half asleep, and said, “If Oul Wea ever hits me like that, I’ll be gone in the morning, and he is never going to find me.” “Watch your tongue,” said Pich, roused from his sleep. “You are the one who needs to watch out,” screamed Rina, surprised at her anger, and suddenly she had a memory of her sister Lina in the camp, passed around between the officers and beaten so badly she couldn’t walk. Rina took Makara behind the curtain into her daughters’ tiny space, and the four of them slept on the mats side by side. The next morning, Makara rose at dawn without speaking and went home to her husband.

At the beginning of August, they started the harvest of the beans and the cucumbers. Rina would sometimes go to the farm with Pich and Kamal at dawn, to pick the cucumbers when they were most cool. In the early mornings, a mist often hung over the land and the rows of green looked like soft folds of cloth and each cupful of air shone with its own source of pink light. When Rina returned to the market, she always looked for Touch Pheng.

She lied to Makara and Sayon. She told them that the Khmer Rouge officer had left the village. But she could see in their eyes that they didn’t believe her. “Please take this,” said Sayon, handing Rina the bat. It was heavy, painted half black and half red, and it had Thai writing on it. “Your husband will know what to do with this.” Without replying, Rina nodded and put the bat in the trunk that contained her clothes and her hairbrush and a few letters. She, not Sayon, would choose the time and the place of avenging her father’s death. That night, she had a dream. She and her father were in the camp, just before dawn, sitting on a log together drinking their thin gruel of water and rice. In the distance, the dim shapes of soldiers moved about. Strangely, her father was wearing the saffron robes of a monk, but with sharp chains cutting into the flesh of his ankles. “My dear father, what should I do?” she asked him. He touched her cheek but did not answer her question. Then she was back in the dark house with Pich.

Illustration by Moeu Diyadaravuth
When her daughter Nita arrived on the bus in Ta Kao, struggling with her two bags of belongings and her stomach bulging beneath her faded sarong, Rina could hardly stop weeping with joy. “Mi-oun, mi-oun, mi-oun,” was all she could say. “Mae looks tired,” said Nita, who had not seen her mother for over a year. Nita’s breasts, tiny buds when she first married, had grown plump. Her lips were bright red and her fingernails and toenails the same color.

“Tonight, I will make amok for you,” said Rina. “I will make amok and luk lak and bok choy, and I have some nice bananas. But first, you are resting.” Rina wrapped her arms around her daughter and helped her get into their ox cart. The bus stop was crowded with people and motos and carts, some of the little motos carrying entire families wedged together like new shoots of rice. One moto had a pig strapped across sideways. “Is your husband angry that you are leaving him?” asked Rina. “It makes no difference to him,” said Nita. “He doesn’t care about me. I think that he has a girlfriend in Kampot.” She hugged her mother. “He gave me one hundred dollars.” She took out the bills and handed them to her mother. “We will use it for the baby,” said Rina.

After Nita moved in, the house was so alive and so crowded that Kamal and Pich slept in hammocks under the house, hung between the corner posts, and the oxen were retied to a stake near the kitchen. On the first day of Pchum Ben, they all dressed in white clothes and went to the pagoda at dawn. Several hundred villagers were already there, wearing white tops and black pants and skirts, praying and tossing rice on the ground to feed their dead ancestors. Before dawn, Rina had given each of her children a bag of special rice with small grains because some of the ghosts had been cursed with tiny mouths for their sins. She had also gathered up all of the ancestral photographs, including the one of her father. During the Pchum Ben holiday, Rina always thought of her parents, wondering if she might hear them as they crept about the village, but on this Pchum Ben day, with the return of Touch Pheng and the flood of old memories, she was certain that she could feel her father brush past her, and she prayed that he had not been cast in some unfortunate form.

“May your ancestors be released from their misery and reborn in a happy life,” chanted the three monks, who sat cross-legged on white cushions. Behind them, a long table was laden with bowls of rice and fruit, and on the wall a large photograph of the Venerable Thy Hut, who had worked in the resettlements after the war. As Rina sat with her eyes closed, feeling her family around her, her three dear daughters and her son and her husband, the thought came to her that not all of her luck in this life had been bad. Now, she knew that her father and mother were near. She could hear them breathing. She half opened her eyes and saw among the throngs of people Makara and her husband, kneeling on mats. At the other side of the pagoda, beneath the photograph of the venerable monk, she saw Lakhena, sitting alone and wearing a white lace blouse with a lavender sash draped over her shoulder. Lakhena was looking intently at Rina and her family. When she noticed Rina looking back, she dipped her head in a bow. Rina hesitated and then gave a slight nod in return. Lakhena surely had her own suffering, she thought, like all women. “May your ancestors bless you for what you are doing to release them from their misery and for offering them food,” droned the monks.

A week after the dry season had begun, after the mud turned to dirt and the dirt turned to red dust that hovered like mist in the air, Rina saw Touch Pheng limping up to her front gate. When she went down to meet him, he told her that he had come to say goodbye. He was leaving Praek Banan. It had been five months since she first saw him in the village.

“You are leaving before the rice harvest?” asked Rina.

“I have to go,” said Touch Pheng. “An old man has worn out his welcome. Do not feel sorry for me. I am lucky to be alive. I am going this afternoon, to a nephew in Banteay Meanchey. My bags are packed.”

“That is a long trip on the bus.”

“No matter.”

The old man leaned against the gate, thin as a reed even in his travelling coat. He would not live long, she thought to herself. “I would like my daughters to meet you before you go.”

“What?” Touch looked at her as if he didn’t understand what she had said.

“Two of my daughters are here. If you are all packed.”

“I am packed,” said Touch Pheng. “I do not have much to pack.” He began coughing and could not stop for a full minute. “All right,” he said, taking large gulps of air. “I will meet your daughters. I am coming.”

With some effort, Rina helped Touch Pheng up the ladder into her house. As always, he smelled of tobacco. He looked around without comment. Nita was napping behind the curtain, and Sreypov, just home from school, sat cross-legged in the corner with a book. Rina introduced her daughter, who greeted the visitor and went back to her studies. The radio was playing some songs of Pen Ron. Letting his stick drop to the floor, the old man sank into one of the two chairs.

“Do you like her singing?” said Rina.

Touch Pheng nodded. He seemed a bit out of breath from struggling up the ladder and closed his eyes. Rina was again impressed at how thin he was.

“If you don’t like Pen Ron, I can change the dial,” said Rina.

“Don’t go to any trouble for me. Whatever you want to listen to is fine with me.” Touch Pheng rubbed at the mole over his eye and shifted in his chair. “To be honest, Pen Ron is a little crazy for me.”

“Rock and roll,” said Rina. “What about Sinn Sisamouth? There’s a channel that plays Sinn Sisamouth all the time.”

“I like Sinn Sisamouth,” said Touch Pheng, opening his eyes. “Violon Sneha is my favorite song.” Rina turned the dial of the old radio until she found the Sinn Sisamouth channel. “Yes, that’s him,” said Touch Pheng. “It’s a song I don’t know, but no one can mistake his voice.” He closed his eyes again.

“My husband and I listen to him all the time,” said Rina. She noticed that Touch Pheng sat so that he cocked his left ear towards the radio, as if he might be deaf in his other ear.

“No one sings like Sinn Sisamouth,” said Touch Pheng. “Listen to the
words. He knew the pain of romance, didn’t he.”

“He’s my favorite singer,” said Rina. She closed her eyes, and they both sat with their eyes closed, listening to Sinn Sisamouth on the radio. Some minutes passed, how many Rina couldn’t tell. It was sweltering in the house, and she could feel the sweat on her face and on the small of her back.

“Did you know that he went to medical school?” said Touch Pheng. “At one time, he was going to be a doctor. Think of that.”

They could hear Nita behind the curtain. She drew long breaths as she slept, and she turned over several times.

Rina looked at Touch Pheng. He appeared to be dozing, his head drooped down to his chest. She stood up. “What?” he said, opening his eyes and looking around as if he did not remember where he was.

“Let me give you something to eat,” said Rina. She went down the ladder and came back with rice and pork with scallions. She watched him as he ate.

“Neang will not eat?” he asked.

“I ate already.” She served him more rice.

“Thank you,” he said when he finished. “It was kind of you to allow me into your house. I doubt I will ever be back to Praek Banan.” He started to rise from his chair but then sat down again. “May I ask Neang a favor? May I stay a few more minutes? It is old age. I need to rest a bit after eating.”

“Stay for a few minutes.”

While Touch Pheng was digesting his lunch, a thought came into Rina’s head. “Why doesn’t Ta help me make diapers for my grandchild, coming in only a few weeks.”

“Diapers? I know nothing about making diapers.”

“It’s easy,” said Rina, “I’ll show you.” She got her scissors, which she had been using the night before, and a piece of sarong and cut out a square fifty centimeters on a side. Then, she took out her needle and thread and began stitching around the perimeter to keep the edges from unraveling.

Touch Pheng shook his head, incredulous that she would ask him to do such a thing.

“It’s easy,” said Rina. “We are making diapers for my first grandchild, Nita’s child.”

“I could never do a thing like that,” said Touch Pheng.

“Of course Ta can. Let me just find another pair of scissors. I have plenty of cloth and thread.” Rina began looking around the house. There were not many places to look. She went through the three drawers of the table. She looked on the floor next to the car battery where they kept a box of odds and ends. She rummaged through her trunk. Underneath her clothes, her hands felt the heavy bat that Sayon had given her, and she paused for a moment. She gripped the bat. Then she let it go. At the bottom of the trunk she found the second pair of scissors. “Here,” she said, handing the old man the scissors. “Just do what I do.”

“My hands,” said Touch Pheng, “I have pain in my fingers.” Rina showed him how to hold the scissors.

“I cannot do this,” said the old man.

“Yes you can. Do what I do.”

Touch Pheng began cutting a square out of the cloth.

“You never thought you would be making diapers, did you.”

“I have never done anything like this before,” said Touch Pheng. “I have no ability at this.” But he kept cutting the fabric. He was sitting forward in his chair now, concentrating. Somewhere, in the distance, the radio was still playing Sinn Sisamouth.

“Do you need any help?” asked Rina. She pulled her chair a little closer to his.

“No, I can see what you are doing.”

Even though Pchum Ben had been over for weeks, Rina felt her father in the room, here, now.

“Ta is doing a good job,” said Rina, “making diapers for my grandchild. Is it hurting your hands?”

“No, it’s not hurting at all.” He continued cutting. “Look, I have finished one.” He held up the diaper, amazed.

They heard some rustling behind the sheet, and Nita appeared, her belly as large as a goat. “What are you doing, Mae?”

“Touch Pheng is making diapers for your child,” said Rina, “for my grandchild.”

“That is wonderful,” said Nita, smiling.

“I made a diaper,” said Touch Pheng.

“Yes you did,” said Rina, and she looked out of the window just in time to see a white-breasted plover, flying straight for the river.


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