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Music of the Ghosts


Suteera wakes amidst the high grass to a tremor several meters away. She is confused for the first few seconds, thinking it music, thequiver of a plucked string. One of those ancient-looking instruments her father used to play for her when she was very little, a lullaby to helpher sleep. She’s forgotten its name. She’s forgotten many things—the taste of real food, her father’s voice, who she was before her mother and brother died, before hunger and fear.

The tremor continues. She stills herself to listen. It seems to be coming from the next field, but she can’t see past the rise of dirt in front of her. She shouldn’t be scared, she tells herself. Her aunt is sleeping beside her on the hard earth, cushioned by a layer of patted-down grass, and all around, dispersed among stalks and blades, the other members of their group are lost in dreams. It is twilight, the sky a muted gold. Soon, when it’s completely dark, they will wake and continue their headlong flight out of Cambodia toward the border with Thailand. But despite the distance they’ve covered, Suteera can’t shake the feeling of being pursued. Haunted.

It wasn’t long ago that Khmer Rouge soldiers, retreating from a battle lost to the invading Vietnamese troops, had forced their entire village into the jungle. Halfway through the journey, her grandparents, lacking the strength to go on, urged Suteera and their youngest daughter, Amara, to continue without them. Her aunt promised to return as soon as they found help, though they all knew this wasn’t possible, could never be. Days or maybe weeks later, they emerged from the dense jungle and found themselves in the middle of rice fields spiked with the dry cut stalks of crops long harvested. The sun was setting fast, a big shimmering globe straddling the horizon, tinting the sky and earth with its fiery hue. It must have just rained—an out-of-season shower, Suteera thought—because in the far distance there appeared the faint arc of a rainbow. Suteera weaved her steps around the bodies of a family, their possessions scattered haphazardly, among which was a ripped pillow overflowing with gold and precious jewels. The soldiers said they could take what they wanted. But the villagers shook their heads and scurried past the corpses.

Frightened, Suteera grabbed the arm of a young soldier walking beside her. He let her cling to him and murmured that she should stick close to the bodies, step over them if she could, because this was the safest path. These people were shot, he told her, pointing out how the bodies were completely intact, no limbs blown off, each one whole. He whistled a lullaby to soothe her—or maybe to keep himself calm—and softened his footsteps. They’d decided to cut across the rice fields instead of taking the wide, open road some distance away, because roads like those were more likely to be planted with mines and explosives. Suteera looked over her shoulder and saw Amara furtively bending down to pick up something. Don’t, she wanted to tell her aunt. Don’t steal fromthe dead. But too late. A flash of gold necklace dangled from Amara’s clenched fist as she quickly slipped it into her shirt pocket. Suteera faced front again, holding tighter to the soldier’s hand, eyes on the distant rainbow. They crossed one field into the next, following the trail of more bodies, more families, more gold. Suddenly they heard faint music inthe woods ahead. Some kind of string instrument. A lute perhaps, said someone, one of the older gentlemen who still remembered such sounds. There must’ve been a hut nearby, a farmer and his family, tenders of these fields. Everyone was certain of it. Those in front quickened their steps. Then, without warning, the fields lifted in explosion. Earth and flesh shattered. Blood sprayed the dried yellowstalks.

Now there’s only Suteera, and her young aunt, and the few who were far enough away when the mines exploded. The rest were killed. Who, or what, had made that sound? Was it a person, some kind of forest spirit, the rustle of bamboo leaves, the vibration of cicadas? Their joint hallucination? They’ll never know.

Suteera listens again for the sound that woke her. Maybe she’s imagined it. Another hallucination, she thinks. Beside her, Amara curls in the grass, her breathing calmed by sleep. Like this, with her eyes closed and her face in repose, Amara looks like a child herself, not someone left with the responsibility of caring for another. As far as they know, they are the only ones in the family to have survived. They have no idea what happened to her father, if he lived or died. He’d disappeared long ago, the first to vanish. Suteera knows she and Amara are lucky to have each other. Most of the others in the group are alone, their loved ones murdered or lost to hunger, disease. Maybe this is why they’ve all decided to take their chances crossing the border. There’s nothing, no one, to tie them to their homeland. There is no more home,only this land of open graves.

Her aunt takes a deep breath, turns the other way, continues sleeping, one arm swung over their scant belongings as if to guard against field rats that might try to invade the rice pot with the gold necklace inside. When Amara dropped the necklace into the pot while the rice was bubbling away, she explained that this would keep it safe from bandits and border guards. The thieves would never think to look inside a lump of rice no bigger than Suteera’s bony fist. Her aunt had been careful to make the lump look natural, eating around it, spooning it out in a seemingly abandoned way, leaving uneven edges. The necklace would keep them alive, she told Suteera. They could trade it for food and shelter once across the border. The ghosts won’t leave us alone, Suteera thought. They’ll follow us wherever wego.

The tremor resumes, more like scraping now—like the rasp of metal against rock, nothing at all like music. She hears whistling and knows right away it’s the young soldier. Comrade Chea, she used to call him. Now it’s just Chea. He’s the only one of the band of Khmer Rouge to survive, while his leaders, those who had gone ahead, died in the blasts. He’d been relegated to the back to guard over the slow movers like Suteera and her aunt. He was the youngest of the seven and seemed the least like a soldier, might even have been a new recruit, plucked from the fields a few months before when fighting started with the Vietnamese. She gets up and walks toward him through the tall grass.

Chea stops whistling when he sees her. She squats down, chin on her knees, watching him sharpen his knife against a rock half buried in the earth. When the mines exploded, he’d picked her up as if she were a toddler and run for cover behind the trunk of a palm they’d passed, her aunt and the others scrambling to follow, keeping to the course they’d already trod. Then, when all was silent again, the earth resettled, and the dead stayed dead, Chea tossed aside his gun. It was useless, he said, depleted of ammunition since their last battle with the Vietnamese. He’d had enough of this, he went on, without passion or emphasis, in the same tone he’d used when guiding Suteera’s steps among the bodies. He’d yet to kill another human being outside the battlefield, but he’d seen enough of death. He wanted no more of this place. Chea knew the way to Thailand. Before the war, he’d traversed the jungle many times, guiding young water buffaloes and ponies to the border to trade. It was the most he’d said. He started walking, retracing his steps out of the rice fields and back to the narrow dirt path where they’d started. He waited. Who wanted to come? They all did. Who else could they have followed? The dead stay dead. Days ago he was their captor and now he is their protector and guide, his knife the only weapon against possible bandits, wild animals, imagined sounds.

“I thought I heard music,” Suteera tells him.

They have formed a kind of bond. He looks to be about her aunt’s age—no, several years younger, maybe only seventeen or eighteen, and Suteera is thirteen, if what people are saying is true: that it’s 1979, andthey’ve endured this hell for four years. She’s certain a lifetime has passed.But it hardly matters how old she is or how old she was before all this,before she lived alongside corpses, borrowing from their expired breath,stealing from them to feed herself. She knows she may not live tomorrow. “Out here,” Chea says, his voice gentle, as if not to frighten her, “there’s only music of the ghosts.”  


First Movement

He feels his way in the confined space of the wooden cottage, hands groping in the dark, searching among the shadows through theblurred vision of his one good eye for the sadiev. The lute has called outto him in his dream, plucking its way persistently into his consciousness, until he’s awake, aware of its presence beside him. His fingers findthe instrument. It lies aslant on the bamboo bed, deeply reposed in itsdreamlessness. His fingers inadvertently brush against the single copperstring, coaxing a soft ktock, similar to the click of a baby’s tongue. The Old Musician is almost blind, his left eye damaged long ago by a bludgeon and his right by age. He relies much on his senses to see, and nowhe sees her, feels her presence, not as a ghostly apparition overwhelmingthe tiny space of his cottage, nor as a thought occupying his mind, but as a longing on the verge of utterance, incarnation. He feels her move toward him. She who will inherit the sadiev, this ancient instrument used to invoke the spirits of the dead, as if in that solitary note, he has called her to him.

He lifts the lute to his chest, rousing it from its muted sleep, holding it as he often held his small daughter a lifetime ago, her heart against his heart, her tiny head resting on his shoulder. Of all that he’s tried to forget, he allows himself, without reservation, without guilt, the reprieve of this one memory. The curve of her neck against his, paired in the concave and convex of tenderness, as if they were two organs of a single anatomy.

Why are you so soft? he’d ask, and always she’d exclaim, Because I have spinning moonlets! He’d laugh then at the sagacity with which she articulated her illogic, as if it were some scientific truth or ancient wisdom whose profound meaning eluded him. Later, at an age when she could’ve explained the mystery of her pronouncement, he reminded her of those words, but she’d forgotten she’d even uttered them. Oh, Papa, I’m not a baby anymore. She spoke with a maturity that pierced him to the core. She might as well have said, Oh, Papa, I don’t need you anymore. Her eyes, he remembers, took on the detachment of one who’d learned to live with her abandonment, and he grieved her lost innocence, yearned for his baby girl, for the complete trust with which she’d once regarded him.

Something fluid and irrepressible rushes from deep within him and pools behind his eyes. He tries pushing it back. He can’t allow himself the consolation of such emotion. Sorrow is the entitlement of the inculpable. He has no claim on it, no right to grief. After all, what has he lost? Nothing. Nothing he wasn’t willing to give up then. Still, he can’t help but feel it, whatever it may be, sorrow or repentance. It flows out of him, like the season’s accumulated rain, meandering through the gorges and gullies of his disfigured face, cutting deeper into the geography of his guilt.

He runs his fingertips along the thin ridge, where the lesion has long healed. The scar, a shade lighter than the rest of his brown skin, extends crosswise from the bridge of his nose to his lower left cheek, giving the impression of two conjoined countenances, the left half dominated by his cataract eye, the right by smaller grooves and slashmarks.

If his daughter saw him now, would she compare the jaggedness of his face to the surface of the moon? How would she describe the crudeness of his appearance? Would she see poetry in it? Find some consolably mysterious expression for its irreparable ruin? He never did make the connection between the softness of her skin and her imaginary moonlets. Now he is left to guess she probably associated the distant velvety appearance of the full moon with the caress of sleep, the lure of dreams that causes one’s body to relax and soften. But even this is too rational a deduction, for he cannot trust his memories of the full moon to make such a leap. The last moon he saw clearly was more than two decades ago, the evening Sokhon died in Slak Daek, one among many of Pol Pot’s secret security prisons across the country, each known only by their coded euphemism as sala. School. That evening, at Sala Slak Daek, the moon was bathed not in gentle porous light but in the glaring hue of Sokhon’s blood. Blood that now tinges his one-eyed vision and sometimes alters the tone and texture of his memories, the truth.

He closes both eyes, for the effort of keeping them open has begunto strain the muscles and nerves of the right one, as if the left eye, unaware of its uselessness, its compromised existence, continues to strive as the right eye does. Sometimes he thinks this is the sum of his predicament: he is dead but his body has yet to be aware of his death.

He reaches into the pocket of his cotton tunic hanging on a bamboo peg above his pillow and withdraws a cone-shaped plectrum made toput over the fingertip. In the old days, this would be crafted from bronze or, if one was a wealthy enough musician, from silver or gold. But this plectrum is fashioned out of a recycled bullet casing. Art from war, said Narunn, the man who gave it to him, a doctor who treats the poor and sometimes victims of violence and torture; who, upon examining his eyes, informed him that the cataract covering his left pupil was caused by untreated “hyphema.” An English word, the Old Musician noted. A medical term. A vision clouded by spilled blood. Or as the young doctor explained, Hemorrhaging in the front of your eye, between the cornea and the iris. Caused by blunt trauma. I believe yours happened at a time when there was no means of treatment. The doctor did not inquire what might’ve been the source of the trauma, as if the lesions and scars on the Old Musician intimated the blunt force of ideology, that politics is not mere rhetoric in this place of wars and revolutions and violent coups but a bludgeon with which to forge one’s destiny.

Indeed the doctor was kind enough not to interrogate. Instead he revealed to the Old Musician that the brass plectrum was made by a young woman who’d lost half her face in an acid attack, who worked to reconstruct her life, if not her visage, by learning to make jewelry in a rehabilitation program for the maimed and the handicapped. Hope is a kind of jewel, don’t you think? his young friend pondered aloud. At once metal-hard and malleable . . .

Certainly it is the only recyclable currency, the Old Musician thinks, in a country where chaos can suddenly descend and everything, includ- ing human life, loses all value.

He places the plectrum over the tip of the ring finger of his right hand, the brass heavy and cool against his nailless skin. It refuses togrow back, the nail of this one finger, the lunula destroyed, a moon permanently obliterated by one smash of his interrogator’s pistol. The other fingernails are thick and deformed, some filling only half of the nail beds. He’s often surprised that he can still feel with these digits, as if the injuries they sustained decades ago heighten their wariness of contact, sabotage.

He tilts the sadiev so that it lies diagonally across his torso, the open side of the cut-gourd sound box now covering the area of his chestwhere his heartbeats are most pronounced, its domed chamber capturing his every tremor andstirring.

Ksae diev, some call it. He dislikes it, the harshness of the ks against his throat, as if the solidity of the first consonant pressed against the evanescence of the second inevitably leads to a betrayal of sound. He much prefers sadiev, the syllables melting into each other so that it’s barely a whisper, delicate and fleeting, much like the echo it produces.

Eyes still closed, he takes a deep breath as he would before every performance, diving past the noise in his head, the surging memories, his plagued conscience, until he reaches only silence. Then tenderly, with the ring finger of his right hand, the brass plectrum securely in place, he begins to pluck the lower part of the string, while higher up the fingers of his left weave an intricate dance. He plays the song he wrote for his daughter, upon her entry into his world, into his solitary existence as a musician. I thought I was alone. I walked the universe, looking for another... He remembers the day he brought her home from the hospital, her breath so tenuous still that he wanted to buttress it with notes and words. I came upon a reflection . . . and saw you standing at the fringes of my dream.

He adjusts the sadiev slightly on his chest. He often dreams of her. Not his daughter. But the little girl to whom this lute rightly belongs. Except she’s no longer a little girl, the three-year-old he once met...He wonders about the person she’s become, the woman she’s grown into. He dares not confuse one with the other, the young daughter he lost long ago and the woman he now waits to meet. They’re not the same person, he reminds himself. They are not. And you, you are not him. Can never be him. The father she lost.

Sometimes, though, his memory rebels. It contrives a game, tricking him into believing that the past can be altered, that he can make up for the missing years, give her back what he stole from her. He can amend— atone. But for what exactly? A betrayal of oneself, one’s conscience? Was that what he’d hoped when he decided to write to her? To seek forgiveness for his crimes? Or was it simply, as he said, that he wished to return the musical instruments her father had left for her?

He thinks again of the letter, not what it said, but what it was on the verge of saying, what it almost revealed. I knew your father. He and I were . . . His failing eyesight had required him to enlist the help of the young doctor to write those words. He told Dr. Narunn to cross out the incomplete sentence. When he’d finished dictating the rest of the letter, the doctor wanted to copy it onto fresh, clean paper, without the crossed-out words. The Old Musician would not allow it. He’d send it as it was, with the mistake, as if he wanted her to see the duplicity of his mind, the treachery of his thoughts. He and I were . . . What they were—men, animals, two sides of a single reality—was destroyed with one deliberate stroke, the laceration made by a moving blade.

He glides the fingers of his left hand closer to the gourd sound box, producing a periodic overtone, like an echo or a ripple in the pond. I thought I was alone. I walked the universe, looking for your footsteps. I heard my heart echo . . . and felt you knocking on the edge of my dream.

The quality of each note—its resonance and tone—varies as he slides the half-cut gourd across his chest. He plucks faster and harder, reaching a crescendo. Then, in three distinct notes, he concludes the song.

Music of the Ghosts
by by Vaddey Ratner

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • ISBN-10: 1476795797
  • ISBN-13: 9781476795799