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- Child death
From our house on stilts, I could see rice fields, swampland, and the spires of a power plant rising high into the clouds. My sister Sopha could see all that and something else. “Listen to the ap scream,” our ming would say, and Sopha would push the curtain aside so we could peek out. She’d describe how the ghost’s face was a wide white moon with a bright red mouth, how its inside-strings tangled with the mist. I could see the glow that the ap cast, but not the intestines or the liver that shone before Sopha’s eyes.
Ming called Sopha a haunted child. The monks at the village wat looped red strings around her wrists to keep her spirit from being carried off, but we always knew she only half belonged to us. We used to burn duck meat and paper money so she wouldn’t be poor if her soul and body came apart. “We’re poor now,” I said once, scowling down on the fire that ate my hard-earned riel; across the street, they were selling candy and salted mangoes. Ming said, “If we are poor here, we eat grass roots and do without batteries for a month. If Sopha is poor there, they eat her flesh and torture her soul.”
“Why?” said five-year-old Sopha, frowning into the flames.
“Lay your head down,” Ming said. “Don’t let the ghosts see you disobey.” Sopha laid down. The fire burnt out and darkness congealed around us.
We lived in Psaodung, which the news would later call the oil lamp village. Before I went to school, I thought everyone lived in a kerosene haze and listened at night to the screams of the dead. We were terrified of anything that pierced the darkness. But Sopha loved the ghosts who showed their faces for her and only her, and the spirit world was where she escaped when Psaodung became intolerable for her.
I was twenty-seven when filmmakers came to Psaodung. Where they came from, no one knew for sure. I heard they were British, then French, then American. They spoke English but not TV English, so I knew they weren’t Hollywood people. They spoke no Khmer, but their translator Kao told me they were filming a documentary on life in our village. I asked him why. He said, “The province authorities are under scrutiny now, for running power lines right over your heads and telling everyone that you had power when you didn’t.”
Over the roar of the foreigners’ generators, I caught that I was supposed to describe my life here. The filmmakers had already talked to our neighbors; they knew my sister was a local legend. What she left behind, what lived in her wreckage, they wanted to show the world.
The foreigners weren’t officially paying anyone for interviews, but unofficially they’d brought sacks of rice big enough to feed a family for months. I don’t know who told them about Sopha, but whoever it was, they traded my family’s shame for their family’s stomachs. Words cost nothing, and pride has always been too precious for anyone in Psaodung to afford.
I talked for the same reason everyone did: I knew I’d earn more from a fifteen-minute interview than I did from a month selling phone cards on the roadside. But my reluctance must have showed on camera. I couldn’t make myself look directly at the lens. The camera was an eye I didn’t want to face, too much like the ghosts who glowed when our fires died.
“Did you realize that town just to the east of yours was fully wired?” Kao said while one man fiddled with a microphone and another shoved a bottle of mineral water into my hands. “Did you feel angry? Did you feel slighted?”
We felt afraid, I said. We knew we lived on the shore of the spirit-world.
The translator winced. “The producers,” he said, “want me to tell you that it’s not really that sort of film. They appreciate the local color, and they would love to hear your stories. But not during the interview.”
“Why?” I said.
“They say,” Kao replied, looking mortified, on my behalf or theirs I couldn’t guess, “that we’re trying to preserve your dignity.”
So I stopped talking about ghosts, which meant I also stopped mentioning Sopha.
Since my sister disappeared, my ming had lost the color in her hair, the sight in her right eye, and her faith in the monks who used to bind Sopha with red strings, but she still believed in ghosts and she refused to stop talking about them on camera. Her working eye focused hard on the eyes of the man filming and he flinched beneath her gaze. She said the word curse as many times as she could. She got the same admonishment I did, about local color and dignity. She ignored it.
I don’t think many people in America speak Khmer; I’m sure the filmmakers captioned our mouths with whatever words they wanted. They only needed enough audio to create the impression that we said what they wanted us to say.
Her third day of filming, Ming came home dragging a sack of rice and scowling. She said she had been dismissed by the crew, which meant this handout would be both her first and her last. “Stay away from those foreigners,” she snarled as she dumped a portion of rice into a basin for washing. “They’re not here to help us.”
They’d never said they were here to help, but I could see why she’d been confused. The filmmakers were not our first foreigners. Others had come, to build schoolhouses that the monsoons later destroyed or to hold clinics that healed us once and then never again. When we failed to smile in their photographs or come to their English classes, they would pack up their things and go abruptly, saying no goodbyes, making no excuses. We were a graveyard of failed charities.
They can sense the ghosts around us, Ming used to tell me. I thought maybe they could sense that we were too haunted for their week-long projects to do any good.
“Did you talk about Sopha today?” I said.
“Of course I talked about your sister. What else can you say, when they ask what awful things have happened here?”
I could guess how she must have disappointed the foreigners, who wanted a domestic tragedy and instead got a ghost story. “How much did you say?”
Ming slammed the basin down. Grains of rice sloshed onto the floor. She huffed in frustration and rocked back on her heels to survey the mess. I knew her fingers were too stiff to pluck rice from the floor, so I knelt beside her and retrieved the fallen grains myself.
“It’s not what I said,” she told me. “They already think they know everything. They tell me back their own version like I wasn’t there, like I don’t know what happened to my own family. Then they tell me to calm down when I say they’re lying.”
“They’re foreigners. They don’t understand.”
“They’re going to put lies on their movie. Everyone will see.”
I doubted anyone we knew would see the film, but I didn’t say so. “I will talk to them,” I said. “I will tell them that they aren’t allowed to mention Sopha. Let’s take the rice back.”
Ming stared at the sack of rice with undisguised longing. She told me once that if you’re hungry long enough, your stomach never feels full again. You’re always wondering when your next meal will come, trying to keep the sting out of your belly.
“Will you make enough money this season?” she said.
We both knew I never made enough. I said, “Of course.”
When I dragged Ming’s sack of rice back to the foreigners, I found the cameramen standing in a clump with cigarettes sticking out of their mouths, staring at their clothesline.
An ap, I thought, seeing the dark red streaks across the white linens. But aps only went after those who wronged them.
“Whose blood?” I said to the translator.
“We think a production assistant,” Kao said. “We’d thought he went into town this afternoon. Maybe not. Do you know of anyone from Psaodung who might want to— ?”
“No,” I said, though Ming and I would be last to know if anyone in the village intended to hurt the filmmakers. I felt the crew’s stares shift to me, guarded, suspicious, and I decided to let the foreigners deal with their own haunting. I motioned with my chin to the sack of rice. “My aunt asked me to leave this with you. She doesn’t want any of her interviews used in the film.”
Kao did his best to look surprised, though I doubt he was, and heaved the sack over his shoulder. “And your interviews?” he said. “Should we strike them off the record?”
Ming would want me to say yes, destroy my tapes, I won’t add my voice to the lies. I wanted not to starve halfway through monsoon season, when the roads would flood and I wouldn’t be able to set up my phone card shop.
“No,” I said, watching the foreigners as they watched me. “You can keep my interviews. If you let me find a way to earn back the rice.”
I saw pity on his face and embarrassment burned my cheeks. The bloodied clothes flapped heavily on the line behind us. The foreigners would want an intercessor, I said. They didn’t believe in ghosts before, but they believed now.
“They don’t believe yet,” Kao said. Then he whispered, though none of them understood our Khmer, “But I could tell them some stories.”
Apart from hunting for snakes, Sopha’s and my favorite thing to do was wire-hopping.
Sopha and I first climbed the power lines to get away from the boys who chased us home from school. She was seven then; I was ten. Someone’s mother had lost a baby to an ap the night before and they thought Sopha was to blame. They followed us down the riverbank, through the rice fields, until the stilt-houses at our backs looked like miniatures. When we climbed the chain link fence surrounding the power plant, they did too. But I knew they wouldn’t follow us up the aluminum towers. We climbed until the air felt thin and the boys were impossibly small below. At the top of the tower, Sopha showed me how her palms glowed, ghost-like.
“I’m light, Dara.”
I tried pressing my own palms against the tower, but they remained disappointingly flesh-colored. “Do it again,” I said. She did. Her hands glowed as long as she touched the power lines, then a while longer. After a few minutes the glow softened, then went out. That night, sneaking back home, we found out the bunched ropes of wire could hold our weight if we crossed one at a time, clinging to the poles in the middle with fingers and toes, calling across the night to one another. Sopha’s hands made the wires glow so we could see our way back.
We snuck out to hop the wires whenever we could, after that. At first we thought we had to be careful; we waited until we heard Ming snoring in her hammock, we tiptoed. But Ming was ignoring everything else—the snakeskins tied to the roof, the bruises on Sopha’s body—and we realized she would ignore the wire-hopping too.
All the risks we took, the trouble we found, I thought we were having fun. I didn’t realize that Sopha was figuring out what it meant to be a haunted child. What separated her from the ghosts. What made her the same.
I want to reach through time to tuck Sopha back inside the stilt-house and discourage her from doing anything that might part her soul from her body. I want to let the boys bloody our noses and blacken our eyes. Anything but that glow on Sopha’s palms and that shine in her eyes, anything but that thrill we felt as we carried our light home.
The night after the ap murdered one of their men, the foreigners saw something moving along the power lines. They wouldn’t say ghost, they would only admit to a glow.
“Like your neighbors report seeing,” Kao translated for me. “A white light.”
The province police had been called, but, as usual, refused to show. Even if the drive hadn’t been a long one on rough roads, policemen with batons and cattle prods couldn’t hurt vengeful spirits. I told the crew not to expect the police anytime soon. Then I told them how we stayed safe here: we stayed inside at night. We let our fires and lamps die early so the ghosts would not see us. We burnt money and food for our dead, so they would think well of us. We built spirit houses far from our own dwellings and burned incense to guide the ghosts home. We tied red strings around our wrists so our spirits wouldn’t be carried away.
One of the cameramen nodded to my wrists, a tangle of hastily-knotted threads, and said something to his friends, then laughed. Kao pursed his lips. I thought of the meals at stake and made myself smile.
“Have they hurt or insulted anyone since they came here?” I said.
The foreigners squirmed when Kao translated my question. “They say they haven’t,” Kao told me. “But they talk about your aunt. They say she needs to go to the police.”
They must not have understood when I’d said that the police refused to come here. “About what?”
“What happened,” the translator said, frowning. “With your family.”
“My sister let herself be taken to the spirit world,” I said.
“That’s not what your aunt believes.” He spoke in English to the crew. One of the men produced a camera with a screen built into the back.
On the film, Ming faced the camera with a hard stare. The frame was so narrow that only the creases of her face and the white cloud of her hair appeared. “We are under a curse here, the lights, the people, all the same thing. You think it is a mistake that ghosts roam freely here? Everywhere else they go to the spirit houses and leave the people alone, here they scream so loud we can’t sleep, they mock us with their glow in the darkness, they kill our children. We can do nothing for fear of them except kill more of each other. I know our neighbors killed my niece, they thought the ghosts would go, the curse would lift, but nothing will lift this from us.”
“Please stop,” I said. “I don’t want to hear more.”
The list of things I thought I knew about Sopha’s disappearance was always small.
1. She left sometime between sunset, when Ming poured dirt on the fire and sent us to our hammock, and sunrise, when I woke feeling cold air on my skin instead of Sopha’s bony elbows.
2. She wore her orange dress and her pink rubber flip-flops and the silver stud earrings that used to be Mak’s once. Nothing else was missing from the clothesline.
3. She did not wear the red strings on her wrists. Those, she left in a heap on the floor.
As soon as Ming saw the bundle of red strings on the floor, she knew Sopha had decided to abandon Psaodung and us for the spirit world. “What happened to her yesterday?” she cried, shaking me by the shoulders. “Did you talk her into this?”
“No,” I said. “She didn’t tell me anything.” I knew in my gut that Sopha was gone forever, but I couldn’t stop myself from looking for her. For days I searched. I went everywhere I thought she would go besides the power lines. I was afraid to climb the tower and hop the lines without Sopha. Finally, Ming made a sacrifice so generous that we didn’t eat square meals for a month, and told me there was nothing else we could do.
Knowing Sopha had gone to the spirit world made me feel like Psaodung wasn’t really my home anymore. I only belonged here as long as I had a body tying me down. I left school. I stopped selling snake skins. I took in fishing nets at the dock until the men got too rough for me to tolerate and then I sliced mangoes at the stand across the street until the stand lost too much business for them to tolerate. And then, when Ming borrowed money—from where, I was scared to ask—I got my own stand further down the road, where people didn’t know me, with a yellow umbrella to shade my face and a wire rack for hanging strips of phone cards, and a stack of small money to make change.
One more thing I knew about Sopha’s disappearance:
She never came back to haunt us.
When I stormed home, dragging my reclaimed sack of rice behind me, Ming blinked like she’d never heard the word murder before. She gave up when I repeated her exact words back to her. “They thought the curse would lift? Who thought?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But it wouldn’t matter if I did. What could we do? Take vengeance on them? You think that would help us?”
“You lied to me. I thought she left us because she wanted to.”
“Better to believe she was still flitting all over Psaodung, than that she lay in some hole in the ground, used and battered and hurt,” Ming spat. “I didn’t want you afraid of all our neighbors because maybe they were the one, maybe they’d do you too.” She prodded the bag of rice with her foot. “I see you sold me back to them. Did they make you a deal?”
“It’s not your rice,” I said. “It’s mine. There’s an ap haunting the foreigners and I’m helping them. If you don’t want to eat it, then don’t.”
Ming cursed under her breath. “You will get torn inside out with the rest of them. I hope you know that the ghosts feel no kinder towards you than they do towards the foreigners.”
I didn’t believe the ghosts would hurt me. I was Sopha’s sister. I was almost one of them.
I didn’t understand.
Another foreigner died that night. They found his body torn down the middle and gutted. His blood slicked the grass like dew when the first members of the crew woke in the morning. Now that the director had died, and not only a production assistant, some of the crew wanted to get international authorities involved. American police would paw around and investigate and find nothing, I told Kao. “I know,” he said. “I tried to explain to them that there is only one way to get rid of the ghost.”
“If we don’t know who it is, we can’t look for the body,” I said, but I had a sick feeling that I already knew who the ghost was. I just didn’t know where her body had been buried. “The crew’s seen nothing but a light?”
Kao glanced towards the site where the director’s body still lay, awaiting the arrival of a helicopter that would transport the remains to Siem Reap for examination. They would find no fingerprints, no evidence. When we killed in Psaodung, we killed each other.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m sure Mr. Lethem could tell us more, but …” He motioned to the body and drew air between his teeth.
“Mr. Lethem was the one who planned the film, correct?” I said.
“And he was interested in my family.”
Reluctantly, Kao nodded again. He wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t already figured out. No one besides Ming got a 25-kilo sack of rice for a couple of short, unsuccessful interviews. We were the perfect centerpiece for the foreigners’ story of lightless misery. Ming’s single-minded focus on the spirit world must have come as a great disappointment. I said, “Let me see the interviews you have. All of them.”
In the interviews of our neighbors, the foreigners asked about the caves where we slept when the heat in our houses became unbearable, the flashlights we clenched between our teeth while we cooked our evening meals, the fires we built at night on our dirt floors. Then they asked about the people here. For all the director’s eagerness to avoid spirits, they lingered in every frame of the film, peeking out from accounts of schooling or fishing or child-rearing to haunt the story of Psaodung.
People were afraid, but mostly they were angry. They said the haunted people who lived in Psaodung worked like magnets, drawing the ghosts close. Some of them mentioned Sopha by name. More than a few talked about Ming, who I knew couldn’t even see the spirits. Some talked about a pair of girls who flitted through the air, lights trailing from the palms of their hands.
Most of our neighbors had something to say about the ghosts, but one interview was different. The man was my age, maybe a little older. He told the camera that he used to know a girl who could kill children by looking at them. When he was ten years old, his mak lost a baby after she stared too long. That girl belonged in a banana orchard with the other ghosts.
“Why did you think she was a ghost?” a foreigner asked on the tape.
I stopped the tape, blurring the man’s face.
“Do you know him?” Kao said.
“Yes,” I said. “But that’s not what I needed to know.”
Banana orchards were supposed to be haunted, which meant that sensible people avoided them and boys on dares flocked to them. So did Sopha. We could see one from above if we hopped power lines long enough to the west. Miles away from Psaodung, as far as we could get before our arms ached too badly to hold us, we would watch ghost lights drift among the banana fronds. We heard no screams there; we saw no bodies among the trees. Maybe we weren’t looking hard enough.
A few weeks before she disappeared, Sopha and I stayed a long time over the banana orchard. I straddled a utility pole and got as comfortable as I could, but my muscles always wore out before Sopha’s did.
“Wait,” Sopha told me when I moved to go. She was tugging at the red strings around her wrists, trying to loosen the knots that Ming had yanked tight. “Wait, I want to see.”
“See what?” A flicker of unease passed through me. Not fear yet, because I knew Sopha too well to believe I could really lose her, but I felt out of control. “Keep the strings on, Sopha. They’ll take you.”
“What if they do?” she said.
“Sopha, no.” I tried to make my voice hard and sure like Ming’s, but we both knew I couldn’t make Sopha do anything while I crouched on a wire like a gecko. “We’re going home.”
Something in my voice made Sopha stop, even though I could tell she didn’t want to. She let go of her bracelets and shimmied down the pole, out onto the wires. As soon as she touched the wires, they began to glow. I wondered if the ghosts in the banana orchard could see us. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s go then.”
When we climbed down from the power lines, we were in my world again, even if ghost light still shone on Sopha’s hands. I grabbed her by the elbows and held her close to me. We both shook with static and fear. “Never again, do you understand?” I said. “Never ever, I don’t care what happens here. Don’t leave me alone.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry. I won’t go.”
We linked pinkies. The glow that radiated from her fingers never landed on mine. I wanted to cry but I didn’t. I didn’t believe her. I wanted to believe her.
At the mouth of the banana orchard, I turned and checked for the third time to see that none of the foreigners were filming. I wouldn’t let them make a movie about my sister the ghost. I’d let her kill the entire crew before I did that.
“You’re certain your sister is here,” said Kao, fidgeting with the threads looped around his arms. I had wrapped the whole crew from wrist to elbow before we’d left.
“Her spirit or her body,” I said. “Or both.”
I still wanted to believe that there was no body, that Sopha had shed the world of Psaodung like the rest of us shed clothes, but she wouldn’t be an ap if something worse hadn’t happened to her. Angry ghosts didn’t come out of nowhere. Girls who escaped their fears didn’t wreak vengeance on foreign film crews.
One of the men called out that he’d found something. I followed the sound of his voice, but he was dead when I got to him. The ghost light was sun-bright around me, crackling down my spine until my limbs felt stiff, but I still couldn’t see the spirit that had killed the foreigner.
Kao caught up to me. Seeing the dead man, he cursed in English and then in Khmer. “We need to get out of here.”
“No,” I said. “She’s here. Do you have a knife?”
When I cut the strings from my wrists, the orchard changed. The ghost lights were brighter now, bigger, focused around faces and bodies. They were people but they were wrong. Their features shifted so their faces drooped to one side. Their mouths opened too wide or their sockets had no eyes. Their hands hung down past their knees; their legs ended in toeless clumps. In the dark, I could see them and only them. Hands came out to grab me, teeth showed, and I realized the spirits didn’t care if my sister was a haunted child.
Then they gave way and there was Sopha: sharp incisors gleaming out of her crimson mouth, viscera pulsing like a fish on a spinal line. Her light opened a path through the orchard for me and I stepped through, towards Sopha, then towards what used to be Sopha but wasn’t Sopha any longer.
Sopha’s body had been lying in the grass beneath the banana trees for so long that she should have been gone, but an ap needed a corpse to climb back into when the sun rose. Her spirit had kept her body from disintegrating. Mak’s silver earrings still glinted in her ears. Pink rubber shoes still stuck to her feet. In the banana orchard, my sister was still eleven years old.
“Sopha,” I said. “I’m here to take you home.”
I knew she couldn’t talk to me. I didn’t really think she would. But my eyes still stung when she disappeared, darkening the orchard, pulling the other ghosts away with her.
I went back to the banana orchard in the morning, my wrists bare. The film crew had mashed the undergrowth into a path I could easily follow. Sopha was still lying where she’d been lying for thirteen years, and in the sunlight, she was not a body, she was only my sister.
I carried her out of the orchard, slung over my shoulder. I had planned to conceal her body in a rice sack, but seeing her, I changed my mind. I had also planned to bury her discreetly behind our house. If our neighbors caught me with the perfectly preserved body of a girl many years dead, they would believe that I too was haunted. Already I was wearing white, I had shaved my head, one look at me would reveal that I was mourning someone. But I gave myself up completely and took Sopha to the middle of Psaodung.
The sun had risen an hour ago and the well was crowded. I saw the faces of my neighbors through a veil of sun glare and dust, their shock, their confusion, and they were like something I was dreaming. I felt only distantly afraid. This walk into the center of Psaodung was just another climb across a bundle of electrified wires, and Sopha was still leading me.
By now I had an audience. Half the village at least, men coming in from the riverbanks, children stopping on their way to school. Ming standing on the ladder to our stilt-house, open-mouthed. The film crew, stumbling over themselves to find their cameras before my shovel hit the dust. They were still filming when I finished digging Sopha’s grave and walked away.
I never saw the foreigners’ movie, and I still don’t know whose story they told. But Ming told me they dropped three sacks of rice at our house before they left Psaodung. She didn’t refuse, she said she couldn’t. Pride has always been too precious for us to afford.