Souvenirs for My Daughters


Not many hours after the takeover of Phnom Penh in April 17, 1975, we’d heard from our radio in Battambang that all city dwellers were driven out of their homes. They were told that Phnom Penh would be bombed by the Americans. Who were they to second guess the sources of the bombing? They all were aware of bombs exploding in places such as markets and theaters every day, leading up to the takeover. They witnessed the catastrophes; they experienced pieces of shrapnel embedded in their bodies. Our two younger aunts were hospitalized for a number of days after an explosion in a market in Phnom Penh, and we had acquaintances who lost their lives. Therefore, most inhabitants embraced the scare. They quickly bundled up their belongings and braved the heat. Ones who questioned were driven out at gun point. Ones who refused were quickly gunned down. In Battambang, however, our family was allowed to stay behind a bit longer than others (4-5 days from when Pa-pa left on the 19th of April) because our mother was kind to the Khmer Rouge soldiers. We did not leave right away because we did not want to leave without our father. Eventually, we were ordered to leave.


To Leave

Bong Pyead, Bong Pyead,*
please come help me down!
I wait for that pair
of Doberman Pinschers to race out of the house and clamor
onto the fencing wall, like they usually do.
But they do not. No barking.
No bare teeth. Nobody’s
coming over to get me down.
None of the usual
hysteria. Just the urgent sound of my calling
for help from one of my brothers.

After my brother helps me down
into our yard again, I am afraid
of being more bored now. I decide
that I should give the monks
a visit. After I move the stool
to where the first window is,
I peek into their classroom.
No monks. I move
down 1, 2, 3 windows. No monks today.
Everyone’s gone. Or is it their day off?
I’ll ask Muuc (Mother)
. And, I am told about the silence.

Beyond our concrete fence,
a couple days earlier, the neighbors
had been ushered out of their homes,
by the rifle barrels
of the black-outfitted insurgents,
leaving behind echoes –
my call for play atop the fencing wall.

The monks of Wat Domrei Sar are disbanded.
The evening chanting
of French and English phrases resound
only in memories. Upcoming test dates still hold their places
at the top corner of the chalkboard.
Forgotten un-tucked-in chairs remain forgotten.
The morning lines of yellow robes vanish.
The whole wat’s compound stands, emptied
of enlightenments –
leaving only the fluttering
of wings on roof beams.

Yotear (rebel soldier) has come to our door more than twice.
This time I stand beside Muuc.
He is the oldest of the bunch. He smiles at me.
Quietly, he stands shifting, looking down at his feet.
I want to tell him I know the feeling.
Muuc can make you feel guilty
with her kindness
. Muuc greets him.
He speaks and I catch
another day twice and then father.
He shakes his head side to side
and tells Muuc that’s the order, not mine.
Pack light –
for one week at most. Go to the countryside
because the city will be bombed
.

After he leaves, Muuc does not look at me. She tells me to go play.
Later, Muuc gathers us all. She says we have to leave our home.
We can no longer wait for Pa-pa’s return
.
I know she wants to cry, but she doesn’t. She has to be strong
because she is our mother.
After telling us what to do, she leaves
pretending to be busy. She wants to be alone,
but my baby sister doesn’t know that, so she cries to be held.

*Bong Pyead – elder Pyead (our neighbor’s teenage brother) who usually calmed the dogs and helped me off the fencing wall. I’d gotten attacked by those dogs early on, not too badly, just scratches. Ever since, they told me to call for help if I wanted to come over, instead of jumping right into their yard.
*Wat Domrei Sar – White Elephant Pagoda

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