Death was close at hand, but the wounded creature leapt and twisted, desperate to escape. Seng Sotharith pulled his line taut and played the fish, sensing in the animal’s erratic movements its furious refusal to give in. He would do the same, he thought—had done the same, when he was caught.
Sotharith sat on the crooked trunk of an enormous cottonwood that leaned out over the water and watched the river flow by. Sometimes as he sat here, suspended above the water, he whispered the words over and over again, intrigued by their strangeness on his tongue. Minnesota. Mississippi. He had been in America a long time—five years in California, and now nearly eight years with his cousin’s family in Saint Paul, but still the music of the language eluded him.
High above on the bluffs, the noises of the city droned, but here he could shut them out. Sometimes on foggy mornings, he looked across the water and felt himself back in Cambodia. He saw houses on stilts, heard the shouts of his older brothers as they played and splashed in the river. The pictures never lasted long, dissipating quickly with the mist. Now the sun was rising behind him, gilding the leaves on the opposite bank. Soon he would have to scale the steep bluff and get to his job at the restaurant. All afternoon and evening, deaf to the shouts and noise of the kitchen, he would wash dishes, wrapped in his thoughts and in memories that billowed through his head like the clouds of steam that rose from the sinks.
He had once harbored a secret ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. Now, nearly forty years old, he knew it was far too late. But he was determined to learn English at least, to conquer its strange sounds and even stranger writing. It was the one way he could bring honor to his father’s memory.
Sotharith concentrated on his fish, letting the creature run one last time before reeling it in. Coming here helped clear away the images from his dreams, the tangled arms and legs he stepped through every night, the expanse of skulls covering the ground like cobblestones.
When he first arrived in Saint Paul, his cousin had brought him to a doctor, a gray-haired woman with kind eyes. She asked him to speak about the bones, but he could not. No words would come. They all looked at him—his cousin, the interpreter, the doctor. She tried to tell him that he had nothing to worry about, that he was safe here in America. He repeated the English word inside his head: safe. No matter how many times he said it, the sound meant nothing to him. Sotharith only knew that he had to climb down to this riverbank as often as he could, to walk the woods and sandbars below the green canopy and hear the birds at first light.
His catch was finally tiring. Sotharith stood and edged his way down the cottonwood’s broad trunk and landed the fish in the shallows beside its exposed and twisted roots. It was time to go. He gathered his sandals and the rest of his gear and headed to the place where he cleaned his fish, a pool in a marshy clearing just below the bluff.
When he reached the place, Sotharith took out his knife, giving the blade a few sharpening swipes against a small oval whetstone he kept in his pocket. The flash from the knife fell upon a bunch of red berries growing a few feet away. Sotharith set the knife aside and crawled toward the fruit that hung like tiny jewels, bright crimson against the dry leaves. He plucked one berry, biting into its sweet-and-bitter flesh, the taste of survival. Then he lifted the fish from the basket and cleaned it with a practiced hand, slitting open its pale belly and clearing the shiny, slippery viscera from between the ribs with one finger as he watched the light in its staring eyes go out.
The sun was barely up, but already the heat—and the smell—were almost overwhelming. They were being marched across a muddy field littered with bodies, and although he tried not to, he could not avoid stepping on them. The soldiers ahead stopped for some reason, and they heard voices raised in argument.Get down, his father whispered suddenly.Get down and be still. He’d felt a hand pressing on his shoulder, and had done as his father commanded, slipping down between the still-warm bodies, and trying not to look into their unseeing eyes. He felt a cold, lifeless hand laid across his face, then heard the orders barked at his father and the others, and felt icy terror as they moved on without him. He did not make a sound. A few moments later he heard the soldiers call a halt. No shots followed, no shouting, just the distant, dull sound of blows and bodies falling, and a single faint cry, abruptly cut short. It hadn’t taken long; by then the killing had become habit.
Everything was less clear when he tried to remember what came after, how long he had lain among the dead, waiting for a chance to escape, or all the days and weeks he’d spent hiding in the jungle, catching rainwater as it fell from palm fronds, eating the fruit he could gather, insects and grubs he dug out of the ground, whatever he could find. Time lost all measure; it seemed that he had lived with the birds and the monkeys for years before the soldiers caught him and sent him to the camps. It had taken another kind of will to survive there.
Here in America, he had always felt the mark of death upon him, a stain where that cold hand had touched his face.
He washed the fish blood from his hands in the pool of spring water that rose up from the forest floor. After cleaning fish, he always took care to bury the entrails. He’d chosen this spot not just for the spring, but because the earth around it was soft—easy to dig. With one hand, he cleared away dead leaves; with the other, he picked up a broken branch to use as a tool. At first, the ground yielded easily, coming up in irregular clods. Then his makeshift hoe snagged on something. Rocking forward on his knees, he pulled harder, tugging the branch to one side and then the other, and felt the earth erupt beneath him as the object suddenly came loose. He tumbled backward, tasting a shower of rotting leaves and feeling dry branches snap under his weight. Sotharith raised himself on his elbows and looked down to see what he had unearthed.
On the ground between his feet rested a human skull, its cheekbones cracked and splintered, empty eyeholes staring. Sotharith could only stare back, not daring to breathe. Inside his chest, he felt a slow resurrection of the knowledge that he had carried within him for so long. There was no safe place, not even here. The killing fields were everywhere.
© 2010 Erin Hart