Sophea

Illustration by Moeu Diyadaravuth
Sophea
A short story by ALAN LIGHTMAN
Old Hok died in his little room next to the pagoda. The day after the cremation, at dawn, Kamal was sent to gather up the monk’s few things. In the early morning, the village was quiet, except at the hour when the monks walked in procession to the river to bathe. An oxcart stood near the pagoda, shadowy in the dim light, and on both sides of the dirt road the houses perched on their stilts like fat birds on long skinny legs. In the rainy season, the road filled with puddles and mud. In the dry season, it exhaled great clouds of red dust.

Old Hok had been sick for two years, during which he hardly rose from his sleeping mat, and the air in his room was hot and stale and smelled like an old man. On the one shelf, Kamal found musty copies of the “The Unfaithful Woman” and “King Vehsandor,” and a pair of spectacles with glass as thick as the bottom of a beer bottle. He paused a moment to read a few pages of “King Vehsandor.” Closing the book, he felt a stab of regret that his work on the farm never left him time for such things. Then he gingerly put the items in his burlap bag, as well as the small statue of the Buddha and the photograph of the Venerable Thy Hut. There were no clothes aside from the monk’s sandals and saffron robes. Behind the room, amid the wilted garden, Hok’s broken bicycle leaned against an acacia tree. Kamal had not known the old man very well. But Hok was a cousin of his father, and he had brought a bit of respect to the family over the years.

Since the harvest, Kamal and his father had been spending their days threshing the rice sheaves against a wooden board out back of their one-room house. It was a mind-numbing task, but easier than plowing the fields in their farm, and Kamal liked to listen to his mother singing her songs as she sewed. The men started threshing at dawn and worked until dusk, when the houses began to softly glow with their kerosene lamps, and the smells of cooked chicken and ginger wafted through the village. After Kamal finished dinner with his parents and three younger sisters, he and his friends usually met in the rutted road, then ran laughing and shouting past the vegetable gardens and nervous cows until they reached the store opposite the market. If they passed a monk, they slowed down for a moment, gave a respectful bow, and rushed on. Gaining the store, the young men reclined in the white plastic chairs and drank palm wine until the surrounding fields disappeared into the night.

The week after Hok’s passing, the village began preparing for the Khmer New Year, and Chhay’s cousin Sophea arrived for her annual visit, staying with her uncle and aunt. Kamal followed a distance behind her as she walked to the market, waited in the stall that sold mangoes and rambutan, then followed her back to her uncle’s house. Her long silky hair swayed as she moved. Even under the shade of the covered stalls, her skin was so light she could pass for a barang. Her close fitting and skimpy blouses, bought in the shops of Phnom Penh, revealed the plump curve of her breasts. Some of the merchants would shoo her away as she approached their stalls. But Chhay, who sold fried crickets and grasshoppers in oval woven baskets, always welcomed her into his stall with warm cans of Coca-Cola. Sometimes, Sophea met her childhood friends at the market, and they locked arms like schoolgirls and spent a half hour chatting under the awning of the fabric shop.

After a night with his own friends, Kamal would walk by her uncle’s house, hoping to get a glimpse of her through the open window. If he could not see her inside, he would sit in the dark next to the chicken coop and find himself mumbling Buddhist prayers, something he never did at the pagoda. He saw her red lips when he went to sleep on the raised mat under his house, and her smooth skin the next morning, while he and his father raked out the damp rice to dry in the sun. At midday, he heard her voice in the monks’ chanting, which sounded like a hive of bees in the distance. And in the afternoons, in the sounds of the boys’ kites, whose arched bamboo struts and wrapping paper hummed in the wind. When he joined the other villagers in the evening for chol chhoung, tossing the scarf ball back and forth, he could think of nothing but her.

After a game of chol chhoung in mid-week, Kamal overheard two men talking, both drunk and chewing on betel nuts.

“The little whore is back,” said one of the men.

“A pricey whore.”

“Did you see how she was looking at Tararith today at the market?”

“How was that, brother?”

“Straight in the eye. And long. Rith’s wife chased her away.”

“She’s a slut all right. She’s looked at me just like that.”

“You couldn’t afford her.”

The men began laughing, showing their red teeth in the light of their lantern. Kamal should have walloped them he later told himself, he was 27 years old and far stronger, but instead, he only slammed his fists together and slowly walked home on the dirt road. He had seen whores before, in Takeo, and Sophea was not one of them. Her voice was not grainy and tired, but sounded like music. She smelled of jasmine. She read books.

That night, lying on his mat next to the oxen, Kamal couldn’t sleep. His father was snoring beside him, and above, in the house, he could hear his sister Nita softly humming to her baby and another sister turning over on her sleeping mat. Across the way, their neighbor was rambling around his two rooms, laying out sweet sticky rice to feed the ghost in his house.

As he looked out at the dark road, Kamal thought of Sophea. He always found himself occupied with her during her visits home, but something felt different this time. Perhaps the ugly comments made by the two drunks had disturbed him more than he’d realized. Or perhaps she was even more lovely than the previous year. Somehow, she seemed closer, as if he could touch her. He remembered how he used to see her as a little girl helping her mother make cakes to give to the monks. He remembered her washing clothes in the river while she sang Baek Ka’oum. When she got older, he sometimes talked to her in the market or at birth ceremonies. By age 18, she was the most beautiful girl in Praek Banan. To Kamal’s surprise, a month after her father’s surgery, which forced her family into terrible debt, she slipped away from the village and got on a bus to Phnom Penh. A year went by. Then another. Then another. Her parents accepted the fat envelopes of money she sent them each month, but they would not allow her to set foot in their house again. In the second year she was gone, her uncle Sovann offered her a place in his own house near the pagoda. He told cousins and friends that she was now his dearest daughter, his mi-oun. But Sophea came back to the village only for occasional visits. Each time, she brought gifts for everyone she knew. Then she returned in her white Land Rover to the city.

As Kamal lay on his sleeping mat thinking of Sophea, a warmth spread through him like palm wine. Why had he never written to her after she’d left the village? Why had he never talked to her on her visits home? And suddenly he knew that all of these years he’d been waiting to marry her.

The next night, after dinner, Kamal spoke to his parents about the girl. It was the beginning of April, the hottest time of the year, and 32 degrees even at night. Drenched in sweat, Kamal held a wet cloth to his face as he talked. His father sprawled at the wood table without a shirt, attempting to tally up the meager number of 50-kg bags they had filled the past week, and he slammed down his pencil when he grasped the meaning of his son’s faltering words.

“Are you my son? You’re crazy. That girl is a whore.” Pich stood up and began pacing the small room. Although a short man, his head struck the one light bulb dangling on a wire from the ceiling, and shadows swung back and forth across the room.

“Please, husband,” said Kamal’s mother, Rina. She put aside her sewing needles and glanced anxiously at her youngest daughter Sreypov, who was cleaning the dishes with a scrub brush and a tin can of water. “Ouv Wea should take care what he says.”

“Take care?” shouted Pich. “It should be Kamal who takes care, Kamal more stupid than a cow.” At the sound of her father’s booming voice, Nita, who had been nursing her baby, appeared from behind the dangling sheet that partitioned off her tiny area of the house, but she knew to remain silent. The eldest daughter Thida ceased massaging her mother’s back.

“That girl has been the whore of rich men,” said Pich. “More than one.”

“She has a sweet heart,” said Rina.

“Are you crazy too?” hollered Pich. “Do you want our son marrying a whore?”

For a short while, it appeared that Rina would challenge her husband, as she sometimes did, but she only sighed and began smoothing out the shirt she had just made for the Khmer New Year festivities. She turned to Kamal, sitting quietly on the floor next to the car battery. “Dear son, there are many girls you can marry. Lina and Rany’s daughter. Dara’s daughter. Nary and Falla’s daughter. You are clever. You are handsome. And I’m not the only one saying that.” Many times in the last years, Kamal’s mother had said exactly the same thing, only changing the names of the available young women. He knew that she loved him, but she didn’t know his heart.

While his mother was suggesting brides, Kamal pictured in his mind how Sophea had looked that morning at the market as she placed various items in her basket. Her hands were as delicate as the hands of an Apsara dancer. And he remembered the proud way that she carried herself, undaunted by village gossip. He had almost gone to speak to her then. Surely she must have noticed his staring at her, but she just flipped her hair to one side and walked on to the next stall to purchase some fresh river fish. Around her left ankle was a thin silver chain with several turquoise stones.

“I don’t want to hear any more,” said Pich. He sat down heavily on the bamboo floor across from Kamal. For a moment, Kamal feared that his father would strike him. “It looks like we might have only 20 or 25 extra bags of rice this year,” said Pich, “half what we had last harvest. We’ll try to sell them to Duy when he comes around in his truck.”

Illustration by Moeu Diyadaravuth
Kamal nodded. Somehow he must talk to her, he thought to himself, tell her of his admiration, and intentions. But how? And then what? He tried to imagine the future, but he could not get past this moment, with the sound of his father’s voice in his ears and the smell of the dinner’s garlic still hovering in the air.

“Duy will cheat us like he did last year,” said Pich. “Then he’ll sell our rice to his people in Vietnam for a nice profit. But what can you do.” Pich stood up. “Enough silly talk for one night.” He picked at the dirt under his fingernails, which he never bothered to clean. Then he climbed barefoot down the rickety wood ladder and lay on his sleeping mat below the house. Disturbed, the chickens squawked and scattered in all directions. Kamal looked down between the bamboo poles of the floor and watched as his father performed his nightly ritual of wrapping his checkered krama twice around his neck for good luck. Nearby, in the slatted light, were his own mat and their two oxen tied to a wood post. He and his father had been sleeping below ever since Nita escaped her wandering husband and moved back with the family. At least now, his father did not have to call out to his mother for help getting up the ladder when he returned home drunk in the middle of the night, waking up the neighbors and embarrassing the family. Long ago, Kamal had vowed to himself that he would never be like his father. He would have gone to university had he not been needed to work on the farm.

Five years ago, his friend Chivon, who came from a family of many sons, had gone to university with a full scholarship.

After stowing her sewing needles in her wooden trunk, Kamal’s mother also went down the ladder, to empty her bladder before the night’s sleep. Sreypov and Nita had already gone behind the hanging sheet and were preparing for bed.

“Bong, don’t feel sad,” whispered Thida. She dabbed at the sweat on her brow. “You’ll find a wife. Rany is rich. And his daughter is not so bad to look at.” Kamal was staring at the muffled shadow cast by the hanging bulb and was turning a kernel of corn over and over in the palm of his hand. “What are you thinking, dear brother?” said Thida. She was the daughter closest in age to Kamal, the daughter who helped her mother with the cooking and cleaning while Sreypov studied her school lessons and Nita took care of her baby. Because of her own unfortunate experiences, Thida was also the daughter who knew most about the affairs between women and men. “You are thinking of Sophea, aren’t you dear brother.”

Kamal nodded. “I cannot bear it,” he whispered.

“I will take a letter to her for you,” said Thida.

Kamal rose and held his sister’s hand. He hesitated, overwhelmed by her offer. “I am being grateful to you for the rest of my life. I know Father will change his mind. He is worried now about the bad harvest. I will speak more strongly to him next week. If he can meet Sophea, if he can talk to her…”

A sequence of events began forming in Kamal’s head. Sophea would receive his letter, and she would understand his feelings for her and also his worthiness. He would talk to her about books, about the pages of “King Vehsandor,” and about places in the world. She would see that he knew more than just farming. And his father would eventually give his approval. He would marry Sophea. They would travel together. He wanted to see Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, and even Bangkok. What a strange and wonderful place it must be. He had heard rumors that Sophea had been to Bangkok. She would show him Bangkok. And then. Perhaps they would open a shop in Phnom Penh. Surely Sophea would want to stay in Phnom Penh, she would not want to move back to the village. They would live in Phnom Penh. But how could he take care of his parents and sisters if he lived in Phnom Penh? His father needed him on the farm. And Pich hadn’t been walking so well in recent years. Perhaps they should let the farm go. Kamal could send money home. He would have money from his shop. Somehow, he would figure it out. He was confident he would figure it out.

Picking up a mango to eat during the night, Kamal climbed down the ladder and got on his sleeping mat without removing his clothes. As he lay there and looked out toward the road, the posts of the front gate shone like white cloth in the light of the moon. That night Kamal dreamed that he and Sophea were in a boat drifting down the river. She reclined with her head in his lap, and her beautiful hair wrapped his waist like sweet loving arms.

Illustration by Moeu Diyadaravuth
Sophea did not respond to his letter. Kamal sent a second letter, which his sister placed in the girl’s hand as she walked out of the pagoda following the Maha Songkran. She didn’t reply to that one either.

At Thida’s advice, Kamal asked Ming Oeun, the matchmaker, to speak to Sophea’s parents. She was a talkative woman, the wife of the village chief, with a good stock of magic beads she employed for matrimonial missions. However, she had scarcely begun her long speech when Sophea’s parents announced that the girl was no longer their daughter. Talk to the uncle, they said. The matchmaker then went to Sovann’s house near the pagoda. It was mid-morning, the best time of day for such business. “With gracious respect, and all due courtesy, I am coming to your door on behalf of Kamal,” said Ming Oeun, and she vigorously rubbed the beads hidden in her hand. “I understand,” said the uncle. Sovann would have been a handsome man had he not been missing most of his teeth. When he spoke, his voice made a whistling sound as the air forced its way through his fractured mouth. “But I’m afraid that I cannot make decisions for my niece. Do you know the girl? She has her own mind.”

Ming Oeun relayed the news to Kamal and returned the crumpled riel notes he had advanced her for the job. “Dear boy, you will have to make your intentions known directly to her. And after all, she is already 23 years old.”

On the last day of the Khmer New Year observance, after the prayers for all the parents and grandparents killed by the Khmer Rouge, after the villagers had poured perfumed water on the heads of their surviving elders, Kamal spotted Sophea standing alone beneath a banyan tree. She wore a red silk dress with a white silk blouse and a gold-colored collar around her neck and shoulders, and her hair was folded in a bun held together by a wreath of white flowers. With her head gently tilted to one side, as if listening to the monks, she seemed to be in a world of her own even though all her relatives were only meters away, kneeling in the pagoda. And there was a sadness about her that Kamal had never seen before but that burrowed itself deeply into his soul, and the sadness and the perfume in the air made him feel like he was floating far beyond the village. He had to talk to her, now. She would be returning to Phnom Penh in the morning.

Stiff in his ceremonial clothes and perspiring in the heat, he walked towards her. She looked up, and a strand of her hair came loose and fell upon the white curve of her neck.

“Bong Kamal,” she said. As soon as she spoke, he realized that he had no notion of what he would say to her. She asked him if he was enjoying the celebration. He said something in reply. She remarked that she had offered a prayer for her parents even though they would not speak to her, and also a prayer for her grandfathers and grandmothers. While she talked, she turned a silver bracelet round and round on her wrist.

“Sophea, did you get my letters?”

She smiled. “How many were there?”

“Two. There were two.”

She gave a small laugh and tossed her head, and another strand of hair slipped from its flower prison and dropped to her shoulder. At that moment, her uncle and aunt and cousins came out of the pagoda with plates of kralan cakes, and she joined them under a white festive canopy. Kamal stood for a while next to the banyan tree, his thoughts a confusion of disconnected pieces. Then, he joined his own family in the pagoda.

That night, Thida whispered to him, “Maybe she is not the right girl for you, dear brother.”

“Please do not say such things,” said Kamal. They were in the shed, and he was sharpening the blade of the plow. Planting season was one month away. “I have not shown her my heart, and my strength.” Despite his failures so far, he was more determined than ever. He would begin going to the pagoda every morning at dawn, before he and his father went with their oxcart to the fields.

He did not see Sophea again until July, when she came back to the village for the wedding of her good friend Srun Kimleang. Kimleang was the last of her friends in the village to get married. Kamal waited to talk to her outside her uncle’s house, but she had already sequestered herself with the bride to prepare the many dresses and hairpieces Kimleang would wear.

On the second day of the wedding, Kamal and his family and Sophea and her uncle and aunt joined the other villagers in the groom’s procession to Kimleang’s house, while the musicians marched behind and played “Hea Chumnoun” on their flutes, and family friends carried pigs’ heads and plucked chickens and mangoes for the evening’s feast. In the wedding tent, Kamal sat only three rows from Sophea. She looked as lovely as ever, but she spoke to no one around her, and Kamal sensed again that terrible aloneness he had witnessed before, which did not subside even through the joke telling and the communal singing and the ritual hair cutting of the bride and groom.

The old ta ah ja, who had already performed two marriages in Praek Banan that month, stood in front of the young couple and turned to Kimleang. “Be respectful to your husband, serve him well, and keep the three flames.” Kimleang nodded. The bride and groom exchanged rings.

When the parents tied the red string around the wrists of the bride and the wrists of the groom, Sophea began quietly weeping.

That evening, after the wedding dinner and after Kamal’s parents had returned to their house, Kamal managed to sit at the same table as Sophea.

Her melancholy of earlier in the day had vanished, and she talked happily with her friends and accepted numerous invitations to dance. He noticed how the men looked at her, even some of his own friends, and she smiled at each of her partners although none of them were worthy of her. As she spun and turned to the music, her hair flowed like the morning river in the rented fluorescent lights.

Finally the moment arrived when Kamal was alone with her. “You are looking beautiful tonight,” he said, gripping his leg fiercely to give himself courage.

“Thank you,” she said.

He handed her a new letter. She read it without comment. He studied her face. What was she thinking? Another dance started, and “Sra Muoy Keo” blared from the speakers on the canopy posts. The music was so loud he could see the lemonade vibrating in her cup. Somewhere, people were singing an old Sinn Sisamouth song. What was she thinking?

He looked at her, and she was perfect. She put her hand on the table. Her hand lightly brushed against his hand. “You are sweet, Kamal,” she said to him. “If you want to talk to me, come to my house in Phnom Penh.” She took a piece of paper from her purse and wrote down her address. She mentioned a date a month away.

Kamal felt his blood pounding in his ears. The music crashed and crashed.

“I will do it,” he heard himself say.

“You probably haven’t ever been to Phnom Penh have you.”

“I can get there. You can be sure of that.”

“I live near Wat Lanka. All the tuk-tuk drivers know where that is. Go to Wat Lanka and ask for directions to my street.”

Kamal nodded and mumbled something. Suddenly, he felt that he should leave the tent before Sophea changed her mind. He said goodbye and hurried away.

Kamal began brooding over what clothes he would wear to Phnom Penh. Day after day, he thought about this serious problem as he and his father replanted the rice seedlings, which resembled a miniature forest.

The rainy season had started, creating a lavender mist that hung over the river.

“Do you have a nice shirt you can lend me?” he asked Chhay one Sunday when he was eating lunch at his friend’s house. He had known Chhay since primary school and trusted him above all of his other friends.

“You must be joking,” Chhay said and made one of his monkey grins.

“He had a nice shirt when I married him,” said Kunthea, Chhay’s wife. “I haven’t seen it for three years.” Chhay’s little boy climbed up onto Kamal’s lap.

“Then can you lend me some money?” said Kamal. “I’ll buy a shirt in Takeo.” He reached down and tickled the child’s feet.

“Of course, brother,” said Chhay. “And I’ll take 100 percent of the credit when you achieve victory. It would be a relief for cousin Sophea to get married.”

“You don’t need a nice shirt,” said Kunthea. “From what I hear, most of the girls are already in love with you.”

“I don’t want most of the girls,” said Kamal.

Kunthea wagged her head at Kamal as if he were a spoiled child. “Sophea must already love you. She invited you to Phnom Penh. She’s never invited us to Phnom Penh.”

“We can go to Phnom Penh on our own,” said Chhay.

“When will that be?” said Kunthea, who had begun clearing the plates from the table. “She must get cold in those tops she wears.”

Illustration by Moeu Diyadaravuth
On the day that Kamal started his trip to Phnom Penh, the heat was not diluted by the rains, and he was already sweating when he got on his moto to follow the road to Takeo. There, he would catch the three o’clock bus to the city. Passing the flooded rice fields and oxen and occasional cluster of tin-roofed houses along the road, he rehearsed the words he planned to say to Sophea. At two o’clock, he arrived in Takeo. After locking his moto to a metal post, he took a seat on a crumbling wooden bench in the bus station. In his hand, he held the piece of paper she had given him with her address. Occasionally, he glanced at the painfully slow clock on the wall. An hour passed. The bus did not come. His new shirt was wet against his skin. Another hour passed. At 10 minutes past five, the bus arrived with no apologies, and he sat down near the front so that he could be first off. Only a few other people occupied seats on the bus—an elderly couple who would not stop chattering about meeting their son, and a single man who stared out the window. At Chrey Thum, a Muslim family boarded the bus and went straight to the back. A handful of others got on at Prek Sdei and then at Prek Ambel and Raka Khpos, and the farms went by one after another in the hazy afternoon light. The road widened. Kamal began to see cars and low buildings and crowds of people on the street as they approached the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

By the time the bus came to a stop at the Central Market in Phnom Penh at half past seven, it was dark. He was already two hours late for his appointed visit with Sophea. Next to the bus station loomed a vast mountain of a building, several stories high, lit up as if several fires blazed within it. In the distance, he could see silhouettes of other buildings. Throngs of people and cars and motos buzzed and throbbed through the streets even though many of the shops had closed for the night. Kamal got off the bus, confused. In front of him, lights on a shop sign saying “Angkor Samnang” flashed on and off, on and off, on and off. He stepped on a bottle and heard the crunch of the glass. Looking down, he saw that the street was littered with bottles and paper and rotting food. After a car nearly hit him and the driver honked and shouted, he hurried onto a side road, then another.

Remembering the purpose of his trip, he walked toward a group of tuk-tuks parked outside a restaurant. A man and woman, well dressed, stood by the entrance and smoked cigarettes. They looked at him casually, as if he were a leaf blowing by in the wind, and continued their conversation.

“I wish you had brought me somewhere else.”

“I thought you liked this place.”

“I never said I liked this place.”

“Yes you did.”

“No I didn’t. It’s so…you know.”

Kamal spoke to one of the tuk-tuk drivers, who said yes, he knew Wat Lanka, it was near Independence Monument. They started on a road named Street 51 and drove past shops crammed together as thick as new shoots of rice. Further, gates of houses, small groups of men playing cards, starved looking dogs. At Wat Lanka, Kamal got out of the tuk-tuk and paid for the trip. He asked about Street 308, and the driver waved vaguely in a southerly direction. Now, the streets were dark, lit only by the occasional light in a house. Kamal set out on foot, walked by one house and shop after another. On Street 294, he got lost. A man sitting in a chair outside a prosperous looking house, a security guard half asleep, looked up as he walked by. Kamal asked directions. The man only belched and put his head back down.

The next road over, he found Street 308, almost completely dark and deserted. The address written on the rumpled piece of paper was a fine two-story house, mostly hidden behind a wrought iron gate, with handsome marble columns on both sides of the gate and glass-enclosed lanterns atop the columns. An engraved brass plaque gave the address. Kamal peered inside the gate. In the light of the lanterns, he could see Sophea’s white Land Rover, a tiled patio, and a garden that wound around a little dark pond. Two windows of the house glowed from the light within. Above them, a dim balcony. For a moment, Kamal tried to imagine how much money such a house must cost. He glanced back at the empty street. The incessant sounds of the city had faded to a soft murmur. In his pocket, he turned the piece of paper over and over. Then he heard Sophea’s voice from one of the windows. It was a voice he knew, and at the same time a voice he didn’t know. He remembered his last conversation with her, in the wedding tent, every word that she’d said. And he tried to match that voice to the one that he heard now.

His eyes found the window, and he wondered if she might come into view, but all he could see was a moving shadow. Should he knock on the gate? Would she even hear his knocking? After all, he was hours late. Perhaps she had decided he wasn’t coming at all. Or perhaps she would look out and see him in the light of the lanterns, walk across the tiled patio and greet him. Would she then invite him into her house? Kamal stood in the dark and listened to her voice. And standing there, he realized how foolish he’d been. He glanced again at the street and saw how it narrowed and dimmed in the distance, until it merged with the dark houses and disappeared.

Alan Lightman is a physicist, writer and professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, which works to empower young women in Cambodia.