Last year, I completed the NSW HSC (finished Year 12 and graduated from High School). One of my HSC courses was English Extension 2, whereby I basically spent the whole year working on a single 8000 word short story.
At the beginning of the year, my English teacher told me that taking Extension 2 would be like falling in love: throughout the year — during school-term and holidays, in class and out of it — it would consume a huge amount of my thoughts and emotions and energy. Having finished the project, I can say that she wasn’t far wrong. There were times when the project was further from my mind than it ought to have been, but when you add up all the brainstorming, planning, research, writing, rewriting, re-rewriting, editing, polishing and reflection that have gone into this project, it far outstrips the effort I have put into any other of my pieces of fiction (even ones that were much longer).
Why am I posting it here today? My reasons are twofold. First: as always, I want readers of this blog (both regular ones and chance visitors) to enjoy. But second, I also want to post this for the sake of other students taking English Extension 2 who want to get a feel for what some of their peers have written. Personally, I loved reading the works of previous Extension 2 students during my creation of this piece, so I hope you enjoy reading mine now (but don’t plagiarise!). Also, if you’re trying to get a feel for the marks that short stories get: this one, together with my reflection statement (which I might consider posting if anyone expresses interest), got me 44/50 (43/50 internally, 45/50 externally).
Feel free to give me feedback — it will help my future writing, even if I consider this particular project finished. And please do also comment if you have any questions about English Extension 2 that you think I might be able to help with. Otherwise: enjoy!
I looked toward the bus, a dark shape against the hazy orange sunset. They had shut the hatch on the engine and a stream of insignificant figures, silhouetted against the sky, climbed, back-stooped, up onto the road and boarded the bus. It was finally fixed and we were to continue the long journey from Banlung, Ratanakiri province, to Phnom Penh.
It was dark inside as I climbed aboard. Seat-backs and passengers’ faces were black against the windows. I stumbled over cargo in the aisle. As I sat, I saw that the man in the seat next to me was awake.
He was a short man, with brown skin, brown eyes and a flattish nose. He was unshaven, but his beard was thin and he looked young. So far, he had spent most of the trip asleep, but now he was looking vacantly out of the window. Behind him, the orange haze had turned dull brown, and the rubber trees beside the road cast deep shadows. As the bus began to move, the shadows fell across his face like a shroud.
“Dark deeds have happened here,” he murmured, all of a sudden.
“What’s that?” I asked. He did not respond.
“You’ve seen bad stuff, haven’t you?” I asked at length.
“I have,” he replied softly, still gazing at the twilight.
“I know all about it,” I said. “I’m here because an NGO I sponsor has stuffed up.”
“NGOs, development companies… damn their lies and false promises. People are bugs under their feet, shadows on their land.”
“I try to change that.”
“Sometimes it’s not possible. Leave, cut your losses.”
“Tell me,” I said. “What have you seen?”
For the first time, he turned from the window. He looked at his feet. “It’s not a story that flatters me,” he said at length. “But I’ll tell you.”
Behind him, the sky was dark purple. A car sped in the other direction, no headlights on. The stranger began his tale.
My name is Dara. My parents were refugees from the Khmer Rouge. I myself was born in the United States, but I was Cambodian and I felt pride in my country, deep sorrow for its tragedies. I dreamed of returning one day and helping to restore Cambodia from the horrors of its past.
Last year, I heard about a Vietnamese rubber company operating here. Perhaps this was the way forward for the country, I thought. It would mean capital investment, exports, employment — a way to finally ease Cambodia out of the quagmire. I applied for a job and was offered one as supervisor in Ratanakiri.
A month ago, I flew into Phnom Penh. I remember peering out the plane window to get a first glimpse of my homeland. I saw a patchwork. Squares, rhombi and trapezia, all different shades of green and brown, and then, in much larger patches, a tidy green sea. I would see plenty of that green sea at ground-level.
A week later I left Phnom Penh for Banlung; the first stage of my journey into the remote country. At dawn, the driver arrived in an old Mercedes van. He sprang out cheerfully, shoved my bag under a seat, and we were away, chugging off down the narrow street. Even at that hour, there were hundreds of scooters on the streets of Phnom Penh, weaving around the cars like water around so many pebbles. Lanes were disregarded, indicators given a holiday and traffic signs ignored, but everyone knew their place and ended up where they wanted to go.
As we left Phnom Penh behind, the flat ground began to undulate gently. Rice-paddies and marshes gave way to rubber plantations, that tidy green sea I had seen from above. It was after the lunch-stop, though, that the land changed in earnest. The previous undulations had been mere bumps, now the countryside rolled beneath us like waves. In the distance, I could see the forest, dark and ancient. We passed over bridges; crossed creeks, ponds and the great Sre Pok River, lying dormant like a monstrous python among the trees. There was a vitality in this land; the trees, the hills, the red earth throbbed with it. The waterways carried it like lifeblood. Perhaps in this rich land we would find the power to heal our scars.
An hour later I was standing outside the arched, steel gate of the company’s headquarters, trying to get in. The driver had wrenched out my bag, claimed his payment, and leapt back in to drop off the other passengers, leaving me alone on the roadside. Through the steel bars I could see the building; concrete, two storeys high and painted mustard yellow. In front was a gravel yard bordered by short grass, with a few scattered saplings standing in islands of bare dirt.
“Hello,” I called. “Anybody there?”
Nobody answered except three sturdy dogs, who had been sleeping on the porch. The largest, a black mongrel, barked at me with fury. People in neighbouring houses and roadside shops watched placidly. The sun beat down and sweat trickled from my armpits.
I yelled out several times before a man finally appeared, slouching up to the gate with a hefty bunch of keys. He was pimply, and wore an unbuttoned shirt which let his balloon of a belly march out in front of him.
“You’re the new fellow?” he asked, as he tried keys in the lock.
“Yes, I’m Dara.”
He yawned. “I’m Bunty. The Manager’s inside.”
He tried every key in the bunch, and some twice, before he finally found one that fitted, opening the gate a crack for me to squeeze through. As I walked towards the building, the big black dog followed, still barking. When Bunty opened the front door for me to enter, the dog followed me inside.
The room we entered was smoky and dim. In the middle stood a tremendously bulky wooden table, surrounded by several massive cylindrical stools. Each was crafted from a single piece of luxury wood and looked about as comfortable as a slab of marble. The only person in the room was a man in a shiny, black swivel chair. As we entered, he spun round to reveal a pale, narrow face, with ears that stuck out incongruously. He exhaled some smoke and dropped a cigarette butt onto his desk. I waited, hoping he would send the dog out, but he didn’t.
“Hello,” I said, to break the silence. “Are you the Manager?”
“Yes, indeed,” he murmured. “Manager of Ratanakiri branch. Prestigious branch these days.”
“Pleased to meet you, then,” I said. “I’m the supervisor.”
“Ah, good. Thought you’d be along one of these days.”
I was confused. I had emailed him twice, confirming the date of my arrival.
“I sent you my itinerary,” I said. “You didn’t…”
“Ah, yes,” he said placidly, “but you never know.”
My bag was getting heavy. Bunty slouched off to another room.
“Well,” said the Manager, “I hope you enjoy it here. Once you’ve settled in, you’ll visit a few plantations. Give them some tips. Then…” but his phone rang, and he answered it.
By now my bag was very heavy. I let it drop to the floor. Was there anywhere to sit, besides those great wooden stools? I dodged the dog as he made to snap at my ankle, and looked appealingly to the Manager, but he seemed not to notice.
“What was I saying?” he asked, when he’d hung up. “Ah, yes. You’ll go up to Ou Yadaw district, to oversee a new plantation. You may have to do some of the preliminary work there too.”
“I look forward to it,” I said. Actually, I looked forward to a shower and then bed.
“Yes,” he said, lighting another cigarette. “Well, that’s good, then.” He seemed to be done with me.
My enthusiasm was dampened by his lackadaisical attitude. If this man was to bring development, it would be a very lazy kind. Was I wrong to hope in this company? Was there no escape from the shadow of the past? But then, maybe this man was largely irrelevant. Only ordinary Cambodians could bring lasting change. They would bring prosperity to themselves, not merely have it granted to them by a man in a black swivel chair.
The next morning seemed like a holiday. I rose early, but nobody was about. The black dog lay on the porch and growled when I came near, so I meandered about the yard as far from him as possible. Finally, close to noon, Bunty rode in on his motorbike and offered to give me a tour of the town.
As we rode into Banlung, the smooth tarmac road widened before us into a grand dual-carriage way. On the right side of the road were tall concrete buildings, more impressive than any I’d yet seen. To the left, I could see a broad valley, thick with trees. Plantations or forests, I couldn’t tell.
“Let’s go down to Lake Konsaeng,” said Bunty. “Have a beer.”
This was the life; sitting in the shade sipping beer, across from the smooth, blue lake. Across the road, a few people had spread out mats right on the lake’s edge. Cars purred by; a Lexus, a Hilux, a Prius. Young people rode past on scooters in convoys, chatting with each other; the passengers texting on smart phones.
On the way back we passed a magnificent house; huge, with tall, marble gate-posts and a uniformed security guard sitting behind the gate.
“Who owns that?” I asked, in awe.
“New governor,” replied Bunty.
“The governor? Fancy that. He any good?”
“A wise man: doesn’t interfere much. Open to investment.”
The company’s headquarters, asleep when we left, was wide awake when we rode back in an hour later. The gate was thrown open, two cars parked in front, and half a dozen men were hanging around in the yard. The Manager was on the porch, his phone glued to his ear.
“Yeah, we have a problem,” I heard him say, as I approached. “Didn’t clear the village … Tried to stir up an uprising … Got someone to replace him.”
He hung up, and started slightly when he saw me.
“A few… troubles, up in Ou Yadaw,” he said. “We’re leaving now. Get your things.”
I went off in a daze. The morning had been so relaxing I’d half-expected the afternoon off as well. When I got back, the Manager informed me that we would travel separately. Bunty and I would stop at a few places along the way, but tomorrow we would meet up in a remote Jarai village.
“Wait in the car,” he said. There was a shiny gold Lexus and a rusty grey Camry. He pointed at the Camry.
I waited in the hot car for half an hour before we left. Bunty had ridden home to pack his bags. As we drove out the gate — Bunty and I in the Camry; the Manager and the others in the Lexus — I realised I hadn’t been told what to do at the “other places” we would go to first. I tried to phone the Manager, but he didn’t pick up.
For the first part of the trip, we sped along the smooth tarmac road with the windows down. No air-con, but the breeze was okay. We glided up and down long hillsides, where tall, swaying rubber trees peopled the slopes. Gazing into the plantations was magical. Sunlight struggled through the leaves to form dappled patterns on the ground, dancing as the branches swayed in the breeze. As we sped past, the rows of trees flashed by like snowflakes; each was similar to the last, but not identical. Occasionally a bird would fly through the trees keeping pace with the car, weaving its way amongst the trunks, continually disappearing and re-emerging.
Before long, we turned onto a side-road leading into the plantation itself. We were arriving. Suddenly there were worms wriggling in my belly, rats gnawing at it. The people here would assume I knew my job, but I had no idea. I’d look like an idiot.
“Time for you to do your stuff,” said Bunty.
“What the hell is ‘my stuff?’ The Manager didn’t tell me anything.”
“Just give them some tips,” laughed Bunty. “Tell them about plantation maintenance.”
I looked at the trees. This was a young plantation; the trees were already tall, but they still had light bark and sparse branches. I supposed I could “give some tips”. A group of workers and supervisors assembled and I found myself standing before them. So I gave them some tips. I started falteringly, but soon gained confidence and regurgitated all the things I’d learnt in Plantation Management.
The group sat in silence while I talked. When I finished, they came alive. A few disappeared and came back with two large pots and some firewood, and they began cooking rice and a stew. It smelled delicious and I sat down, faint with hunger.
A young man sat beside me. I asked him his job.
“Decent, five dollars a day.”
“An improvement from what you did before? You have a field round here?”
“An improvement,” he said. “But I’m not from here. I’m from Kandal province.”
This surprised me. Did the company have far-reaching impacts, providing jobs for even those from other parts of the country?
“Are there many, like you, coming for work from other provinces?”
“Yes, lots,” he said. “Lots from Vietnam, too.”
It was late afternoon by the time we set off again. Already it felt like a very long day. The paved road gave way to a path of fine, red dust, inches thick. We rolled up the windows, but the sealing had long since worn away, so the dust still came into the car like so much water into a leaky boat. It was a long trip. We sped through the dust for half an hour before turning onto a smaller road, so rutted and pot-holed that the bottom of the car kept scraping the ground. We were jolted like popcorn on this road for another half hour before we finally pulled up outside a small, brick company building just outside a village.
The village was fairly typical. Fifty or so huts thrown together randomly, some of them wooden and more imposing, while others were thatched bamboo. There were a few trees, and clumps of weeds and bushes in places, but mainly it was bare, dusty dirt with plastic bags, bottles and wrappers scattered across it.
It was the forests, though, that made this village different from the others I had seen along the way. They loomed behind it, reaching full thickness only a few hundred metres behind the last huts. Mighty trees, black against the darkening blue sky.
This time I succeeded in ringing the Manager for instructions.
“Do a bit of a survey. Ask our man there, he’ll tell you what to do.”
“Our man there”, the company official in that village, was a quiet, mouselike fellow. He found it hard to believe my job description was as vague as I claimed, and he strung up hammocks for us to sleep with a face immobile and grim. In the morning, though, I set his mind at rest. We surveyed the area so thoroughly that I had the impression he’d never seen such expert preparation.
Our work took us out to the edges of the forest, down small roads and tracks, and on one occasion some way into it. But going in with my colleagues, focussing on our work, the cool, dark, ancient feel of it was reduced. Afterwards, though, I went in alone to relieve myself and to look around.
The forest was thick. I waded through grass, ducked under the tall shafts of bamboo, and hoped that none of this nature, which pressed tightly on all sides, was hostile. I thought of malaria. But malarial mosquitoes only come out at night. No, a bigger worry would be snakes, or even those hairy caterpillars….
The trees came in all shapes and sizes. There were behemoths towering forty metres above my head. There were medium-sized trees; narrow, upright youths, children of the ancient towers — and also, occasionally, more leafy, spreading fruit-trees. And there were saplings, small, yet seeming to say ‘One day I will loom above you too’.
The forest had a timeless aspect. Surely it was as old as the earth. It had stood, just thus, when mankind landed on the moon. When the atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima, not a tree was disturbed. Even when Marco Polo passed near here, centuries and centuries ago, these forests already stood, as ancient then as they were now.
That was when I spied the plastic bag. A regular, clear, flimsy plastic bag, snagged on the tip of a bamboo stalk. Were these forests really so unchangeable, so eternal? They might have been as old as time, but they weren’t going to last much longer. Even now they were being polluted by plastic. And soon: fire and chainsaw. I would bring the fire and the chainsaw — I and my company. These dim, ancient forests would be razed — and in their place? A new forest; an artificial one. A forest all in rows, so neat, so orderly. As you drove past in your car, the rows would flash by like movie frames, or like letters spelling the word ‘MAN’.
We pulled out of the village at noon; the final stage of our trip into the remote north had begun. What would we encounter, at our journey’s end? What were the “difficulties” that the Manager had hinted at? I pictured some wild beast coming out of the forest. Perhaps a tiger, orange stripes glowing like flames, striding to and fro in the dark night, paralysing everyone with fear.
We came to the banks of the great Se San River. There was no bridge, so we eased the Camry onto a little boat and began the precarious crossing. A careless movement by any of us could have capsized the boat and sent the car to the bottom of the river.
The road on the other side had not been built for Camrys. Often I could have walked faster than we drove, as we pushed through the tall, dry grass; thumped the bottom of the car on the uneven road; and purred cautiously across tenuous bridges. Frequent clearings gave way to thick forest; but the dust remained thick, and the car would slide, as if on ice. We spewed great clouds of dust into the air, befouling the cool, dark rainforest, turning green leaves brown with the hue of imminent death.
Abruptly, we rounded a bend and before us was a little village. The forest came up close to it on several sides, leaving only enough space for a few small fields and vegetable gardens. The huts in this village were mostly thatched bamboo. A few women walked ahead of us wearing back-baskets, and an old man sucked his pipe as he watched our approach. In the midst of this, the Manager’s Lexus was parked; a spaceship from another planet.
His driver was squatting beside the car when we piled out.
“What’s happening?” asked Bunty.
“We’re waiting for the police. Things got worse.”
“He’s shut himself up with a gun. Won’t come out without a fight.”
As they discussed the situation, I gradually guessed at what had happened. The mysterious criminal was in fact an employee of the company whom they had posted to this area to do some job. Instead of doing it, he had pledged allegiance to a self-proclaimed “King” of the Jarai people, and set himself up as the King’s envoy.
“He’s raising money for the King’s independence movement,” Bunty told me. “Or so he says: I think he spends it on his house.”
“Independence?” I asked. “Who from?”
Bunty didn’t answer.
The police — one in an immaculate full uniform, one wearing his police top over a pair of knee-length shorts, and one wearing only a pair of old trousers, but each carrying AK-47s — rode in on one motorcycle late in the afternoon. The Manager came out and shook hands with the shirtless policeman, the most senior of the three. I expected him to explain the situation to them so they could immediately arrest the Envoy (as we took to calling him). Apparently, though, there was business to attend to first.
“It will be more expensive,” said the shirtless policeman. “He has a gun.”
The Manager stared at him icily, and they spent the next few minutes haggling over the price. It seemed a strange concept, to me, paying the police to do their job. Something about it was out of place, almost disturbing; like hugging your parent for punishing your sibling.
As the policemen prepared to arrest the Envoy, a small crowd of villagers assembled in a wide arc around his tall wooden house to watch. They were a motley group, short and thin but muscled and tough, some wearing traditional, centuries-old dress, while others wore jeans and T-shirts. I waited by the car, where I could see the villagers, but not the police. I had no desire to witness the arrest, much less to be caught in the cross-fire.
The villagers stood stock-still, passive and unblinking, until the guns went off in a series of deafening cracks. At this, several young children, who had been standing in the front, ran, squealing, behind their parents. One elderly woman stumbled backwards, twitching and wheezing, and as she tried to get away, she fell to her hands and knees in convulsions. I thought of my parents: the nightmares, the spasms, the shortness of breath. The scars from deep wounds take a long time to heal.
I didn’t stay after that. I decided to wander down the road by which we’d come; I’d return when it was over. As I walked in the dappled shadow of the trees, I wondered what the villagers would do now. Would they fight to free the Envoy of their King? Or would his arrest convince them that the hope he promised was false? In any case, it would be our job to show them that hope lay in unity, not independence. Their best chance at happiness would be development… but would it be worth the loss of the forest?
By the time I returned, the police had apprehended the Envoy. It had grown too late to take him to the police station, so they had simply tied him up and thrown him into the corner of his house.
That night, we slept in the Envoy’s house. He himself was a tall man, dignified, almost noble, even as he sat in the corner, bound hand and foot. He would be uncomfortable, spending the night in that position. The policemen, by contrast, slept in luxury on his soft double bed, cradling their AK-47s like teddy-bears. I, the Manager, Bunty and the others strung up hammocks.
Sometime during the night, when all was as black as prehistory and only starlight shone through the barred window, I awoke with a full bladder. I groped my way down the stairs and wandered a little way beyond the house to where I watched my urine form a pool on the ground which reflected the stars in all their majesty.
As I re-entered the house, I heard a stir in the corner. It was the Envoy. Instinctively, I made my way toward him. I tried to make out his form, but it was too dark to see even his outline.
He whispered to me. “Hey there.” His whisper was deep and enchanting. “Dara, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I returned, my own whisper flat and powerless. How did he know my name?
“Can you untie me? I need to use the toilet.”
I moved forward, under the spell of his voice, but then checked myself. “Untie you so you can do a bunk? I don’t think so!”
“Dara,” he murmured. “I fight for a just cause.”
“Extorting money and spending it on your house?”
“I take voluntary contributions!” he whispered menacingly. “For the independence of these people. And a worker is worthy of his hire.”
“You’re mad. You’re ruining these people.”
“You’re the mad one,” he returned, “if you think it’s better to force them off their land into poverty. You’ll destroy the country.”
I wondered if what he said was true. But then, hadn’t he himself worked for the company, before he switched to something that paid better? This man was just a voice, an idea. The idea sounded good, but it was hollow; a balloon that would easily pop.
It was only then that one of the policemen awoke. He growled at the Envoy and must have reached out of bed and lashed him across the head with his AK-47. At any rate, there was the sound of a blow and my interlocutor whinnied in pain and fell silent. I slunk back to my hammock, but spent the rest of the night turning over the conversation in my head.
I rose the next morning to the droning of chainsaws. The hut was deserted, except for Bunty, who was snoring loudly in his hammock. I barely noticed him; my eyes were drawn to the corner from which that compelling whisper had emanated during the night. It was empty. There was no sign that anyone had been there.
Though it was still early, the village was like a disturbed ants’ nest. The two younger policemen strutted here and there, shouting at people to stir themselves because it was time to move. From out in the forests came the buzz and whine of chainsaws, accompanied at intervals by the crash of trees falling to the ground. Birds flew, squawking, over the village, fleeing their felled homes, and all around dogs barked, disturbed by the activity and needing to make some noise.
In the midst of this, the Manager stood in the shade of the Envoy’s house, placidly smoking a cigarette. I moved over and stood beside him.
“What’s my job here?” I asked. “It’ll be weeks — months — before they finish cutting the forest.”
“You’re to go to a village further along the road. Get the people to move out.”
I was annoyed; this hadn’t been in my job description.
“They’ll leave willingly?” I asked.
“Don’t give them a choice.”
The next village appeared to be the final frontier. It was the end of the road, surrounded by the forest like an overshadowed cul-de-sac. People looked up in surprise to see the car approaching; some seemed vaguely apprehensive, others merely curious. Small children scampered out of view to peer at me shyly from behind the posts of their huts. They were an isolated people, untouched by society. It would be a difficult time for them, regardless of what benefits we might deliver in the future.
A man came out to greet me as I pulled up in the rusty Camry. He was short but well-muscled, and his face had a solemn, intelligent look. He introduced himself as Kroh, and agreed to take me to the village Chief.
The Chief’s house was smaller than the Envoy’s, and fashioned from bamboo rather than wood. It was cool and dark inside, and a breeze rose through the spongy floor. Hammocks were slung from poles, mats were spread out on the floor and a small pile of traditional tools and artefacts lay in the corner.
The Chief himself was a tiny man. He was sitting with his back to one of the poles supporting the house and weaving what seemed to be one of the back-baskets I had seen the women wear. As I entered, with Kroh, he put his weaving aside and rose to greet me, shaking my hand with both of his. With regret I informed him of my errand. His face turned grave, and he sat down again.
“You cannot do this,” he told me. “Without the spirits’ approval, you will fail.”
I asked him if the spirits would really disapprove. “Development is good for the country,” I said. “It will be difficult at first, but in the end, you’ll be better off.”
I didn’t sound convincing. To him these were lies, false assurances. He could not imagine that the destruction of the forests could bring about anything but evil. As I turned to leave the hut, my brain was seared by an image of his face, a picture of hopelessness and sorrow. Perhaps my father had worn the same look forty years ago, when he learned that his village had been burned by the Khmer Rouge.
As we left the Chief’s hut, Kroh invited me to stay with him. I accepted, with a word of thanks, but inwardly I was disappointed. How could I tell him to leave after sleeping in his own home?
An hour later, I was seated to dinner on the springy bamboo floor of Kroh’s house, surrounded by his extended family. All of us ate in silence: myself, Kroh, Kroh’s young wife and child, his parents-in-law and his parents-in-law’s unmarried children — ranging from a bearded young man down to a nappy-less youngster who pushed his plate away in favour of his mother’s breast-milk. I wished I could push my plate away too. This was the last food these people would produce on their land, and I shouldn’t have been the one eating it.
Midway through the meal, Kroh addressed his family. “Do you know,” he said (in Khmer rather than Jarai, clearly for my comprehension), “that this man has come to make everyone leave the village?”
Evidently they didn’t. Their faces tightened.
“But,” he said, “Mr Dara says he is doing it for the good of the country.”
“Absolutely,” I said, trying not to wither under the hard stares. “Look, I understand this is very difficult for you all, but in the long run it’s for the best. You’ll get jobs on the rubber plantations. You’ll have shops here selling all sorts of things. And medical facilities. It’ll be great.” It sounded hollow.
Kroh looked caught between a laugh and a grimace, but he quickly turned grave. “None of this will happen,” he said. “The best jobs are filled by people from other provinces and by Vietnamese. And shops,” he looked at his father-in-law. “What is our shop?”
“The forest is our shop,” said the old man. “We get everything we need there, for free.”
“Tomorrow, I will take you to the forest,” said Kroh. “You can see for yourself.”
The next day, Kroh and his father-in-law took their crossbows and we headed for the forest. I was struck, more than ever, by how overshadowed this village was, how hemmed in. It was the final frontier. The forest surrounded it like a great cloud of fog, broken only by the road heading back the way I’d come. A few thin tracks seemed to disappear into it, like cracks in a concrete wall. But were they made by men or by squirrels? And did they lead anywhere, or were they a trap, drawing you into an inescapable maze? We followed one of them now, pushing through like ants into the towering forest. It was dark in here, ominous. What would we catch, I wondered? Would anything catch us?
“We cannot catch the big game anymore,” Kroh had told me. “Leopard, gaur… tiger. My father caught them. Now they don’t live here. I can only catch squirrels, civets, snakes.”
Even so, as we pushed aside bamboo shoots and draping lianas, I imagined facing a remnant tiger. Would we win or lose? Were a few crossbows any match for the largest of the cat-kind? Almost as terrifying would be a snake. A snake wouldn’t fight like a sportsman, it would leap out and strike the heel, injecting poison and death.
Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice that the others had stopped silently, bows held in both hands. I blundered past them and tripped on a concealed root, falling heavily.
“Sshh,” hissed Kroh. “Get up, quiet.”
I rose and scanned the foliage. I couldn’t tell what they had sensed, but they were tensed, ready to fire. Suddenly a blurred shape burst from the trees, squawking. Kroh and his father-in-law both let fire and the creature fell to the forest floor with a soft thud.
“What was it?” I asked.
“Monkey,” said Kroh.
And so it was. A large, male, golden-furred monkey with one arrow in its leg and another in its chest. Kroh pulled out the arrows and put the kill into a plastic bag. He looked satisfied. This was meat; this was nourishment.
I thought we would return to the village after that, and I wasn’t sorry; the forest was tall, dark, powerful. I could understand why these people believed it was the abode of the spirits. It didn’t strike me as a resource so much as a force to be contended with; an entity, sublime and threatening. People talk about the sea like that, but what’s the sea, really, except a body of water? The forest is different: the forest is a living thing. The forest breathes. It grows. It lives. It dies. The forest is powerful. And yet… it would be no match for 21st century man. The thought was somehow terrifying. Even if I didn’t believe in the spirits, it was impossible to stand in the forests and not fear the supernatural. What punishment would there be for a man like me, helping to destroy these mighty palaces?
We didn’t go back to the village. Instead, we turned another way, coming to an area of sparser forest where the trees were younger and smaller.
“This area was cleared for rice,” said Kroh. “Eight years ago. You can tell from the growth of the plants.”
Kroh’s father-in-law began examining one of the trees. There seemed to be some sort of resin covering the branches. He took hold of something stuck in the resin, and began carefully working it free. It wasn’t until the last bits of the sticky substance were pulled off that I realised what the thing was: a bird! They had smeared some sort of glue on the tree to catch it. These people were resourceful; they might not have cars or factories, but they had the wits and the know-how to survive.
On the way back, Kroh stopped to pluck some little black berries from a plant on the forest floor.
“A medicinal plant,” he told me. “Good for bronchitis.”
It seemed to me that the forest was good for everything. It was like a mother for an infant child. Its milk was so rich, so nutritious, these people didn’t seem to need much else. Maybe we should all start to rely more on the milk of the forest, I thought. Enough of turning its trees into chairs and beds and massive cylindrical stools. Enough of razing the leafy palaces to plant a bit of rubber. Why should the healing powers of the forest be extinguished like a candle? The berries were good for bronchitis. What else might they be good for? Swine flu? Dengue? Cancer?
The sun had sunk low by the time we returned. Kroh’s wife and mother-in-law took the kills and began skinning and plucking off feathers. Kroh and I sat down inside.
“We need the forest,” he told me. “Without it, we’ll be digging for gems that aren’t there, or looking for jobs where there are none. Our women will work in karaoke bars in Banlung, and even those who don’t will have to be careful…”
“My sister lives near where rubber workers have quarters. She doesn’t dare go far alone anymore.”
“Can’t you protest?” I said at length. “Fight back?”
“People don’t realise what’s happening. They’re given some money for their land, so they accept it, buy a motorbike. But the main reason is,” he said softly, “they’re afraid.”
The room suddenly seemed much darker. Outside I could see the flame of the cooking fire through the cracks in the bamboo walls. People moved in front of it, silhouetted eerily against the flame.
I left the hut. I wanted to get away from these people. I didn’t want to feel their problems. There was an old radio in the boot of the car; I pulled it out and called the Manager.
“Hello, it’s Dara.”
“What do you want?”
“Supposing there’s a protest? A lot of people aren’t happy.”
“Is there a leader?” he asked.
I paused. “Yes.”
“Then, we arrange for him to disappear.”
I stumbled through the darkening twilight. A cacophony of cicadas started up in the trees, each one mimicking the Manager’s words. Their raucous chirps ricocheted through my brain: “we arrange for him to disappear”, “for him to disappear”, “him to disappear”.
Goosebumps erupted on my arms and I shivered; my hair stood on end. Before me, a shadow flitted through the trees — perhaps a person, perhaps a dog. The people were nothing to the company, they were merely shadows in the gloom beneath the trees. They might as well be dogs as people; they were to be shoved aside, stuffed in a corner, while the great work of fattening one’s wallet went on. The forest, the lifeblood of the people — it was an un-liquidized asset, waiting to be liquidized. An asset to be sold, expended without thought for those who’d come later. This was no vision for a greater Cambodia; for a return from the years of ignominy. Each person’s grand plan was to look out for himself, fill his own belly, enlarge his own purse.
As I wandered back into the open, the dark blue sky began erupting into stars. This calmed me. I returned to Kroh’s hut as the waning moon began to rise, blood-red, over the pitch-black treetops.
Somehow, I slept. I lay down on a mat on the floor of Kroh’s hut and was soon dead to the world. I dreamed, that night, of whispers. Powerful whispers. Whispers like the Envoy’s, telling me secrets of wealth, power, satisfaction. Grand, wonderful secrets they seemed, but were they true? For in wakefulness I could never remember what they were.
As I slept, the powerful whispers morphed into flat, weak ones. These whispers told no wonderful secrets. They sounded anxious, fearful, overwhelmed. It took some time to realise I was awake. People were hurrying to and fro across the hut and the thatched bamboo floor bounced gently beneath me. I saw Kroh standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the stars.
I half sat up, but then lay down again. Whatever the problem, I would be unable to help. I closed my eyes. The whispering of the household and of the chill breeze rising through the floor merged gradually back into the whispers of my dreams.
When I woke the next morning, the family, plus some extra children, were seated around the fire where Kroh’s wife was cooking rice-porridge. They all looked bleary-eyed and weary. I asked what had happened during the night.
“It’s the chief,” Kroh responded. “He was sick. Mad. We brought some of his children and grandchildren here.” He nodded at the extras. “It was disturbing.”
Kroh’s mother-in-law said something darkly in Jarai, looking at me angrily as though she thought me responsible.
“He’s still very bad,” Kroh said, ignoring her. “We will sacrifice a buffalo and ask the spirits to relent.”
I’ve never identified with animal-rights activists — I love meat of all kinds — but that sacrifice was sickening. The buffalo whimpered, it grunted and finally it screamed out in animal agony as they jabbed it again and again with their instruments of torture. It was as though the more pain they inflicted on the beast, the more the spirits would take notice and relent. I wondered why they did this, rather than use their forest medicines. Surely that would have been more effective, and substantially cheaper? But a deep-seated fear will breach all reason.
I saw many emotions in the villagers that day. In the eyes of the Chief’s family: fear and pain. Across the faces of the slaughterers: determination and even fury. But when the beast finally died, its great carcass stretched out on the blood-soaked dust, and when they began to carve it up and light fires to cook the meat — then I saw something else: hunger.
How often did these people eat meat? Undoubtedly they were better fed than my parents during the Pol Pot years. These people weren’t subsisting on milky water, eaten before and after a gruelling day in the fields. But they were thin, they were short, they were clearly undernourished. And my company would send them from their lands, from the source of their food supply. I didn’t feel I could eat. Until now I had eaten their food, slept in their beds, drunk their water. And in return, I was driving them out. Now that misfortune had befallen them, I couldn’t feast on their meat.
Then they brought out the wine. Rice wine in tall, narrow gourds with bamboo straws sticking out the top. The orgy of eating became an orgy of drinking. Villagers congregated in two or three huts where they sucked at the straws with gusto.
“Dara,” called Kroh, spying me from a hut. “Come and drink with us.”
The wine was strong. I gasped for breath after my first sip, and the liquid remaining in the straw slid back down with a plop. I sucked again, this time prepared. It still burned my gullet as it went down, but in a pleasant, distracting way. I could forget myself, drinking this. I could forget the misfortune I was bringing to these people. No doubt they could forget themselves, too; forget that within days they would leave their home, their forest, their livelihood.
Some of the men began to sing. One brought out a strange stringed instrument, fashioned, seemingly, from a gourd. I listened for a while, sucking on the bamboo straw, the music flowing over me like warm sunlight. Then I sat up and began to sing too. I didn’t know the words, but that was immaterial. I hardly knew the tune, but that didn’t matter either. What mattered was that we were together, unified, fighting misfortune.
Kroh’s wife appeared in the hut. I thought she had never looked so beautiful. But when she glanced at me her face showed disgust. She marched over to her husband and grabbed his collar. He rose to his feet and struck her across the face. The wine turned to acid in my stomach and I burped into my straw, feeling sick. Was I dividing even families? Everything I touched was falling apart.
I rose. It was time to go. I wouldn’t help the company any longer, but neither would I stay and fight it. These people would do better without me. I would go away, instead, and tell the world what the company was doing. And if that didn’t work… well, maybe I could try something else; unleash the mother’s milk. The forest was good for more than just rubber…
On the homeward journey, the tree branches encasing the road melded into a woven blur above my head. The constant thumping of the car over the bumps became a sort of static, the humming of a radio. I opened the window a crack and the wind whispered, enticingly, into the car.
A shadow appeared on the road, coming the other way. What was the shadow? Perhaps a motorbike, perhaps a dog. But no, I thought, it simply was a shadow, nothing more.
Suddenly I felt drawn to the shadow; I twisted the steering wheel toward it. As I passed it by, I heard a thump. A loud thump. I felt it, too. It couldn’t have been the shadow, I thought — shadows don’t make thumps. I looked in the rearview mirror. There was a motorbike overturned on the road, its rider stretched out in the dust. That was strange: I didn’t remember seeing him as I drove past. I didn’t stop, though — the shadow wasn’t there. I kept driving, jolting under the woven blur of the treetops.
I woke slowly the next morning. I was sprawled across my bed at the Company Headquarters. I remembered: the shadow. I rose to my feet. What should I do? If I confessed to my crime, I could never say a word against the Company. They would have it in for me. Better to leave quietly, pretend nothing had happened. Hopefully the motorcyclist would be okay — and later I could go back, make it up to him.
But just then there was a knock at the door and I opened it to find the Manager. One look in his face told me he knew everything.
“He’s been paid off,” he told me, and left.
My heart sank. I was in their debt. One word against the company and it would all come out. What was the point of trying to do good? It always got twisted. I’d do evil without meaning to, hurt the people I was trying to help. I’d do better not to try, to keep myself to myself, mind my own business.
He fell silent. Cars flashed by, some like black wraiths, with no headlights, others blinding us with full beam. The glow of the city rose before us; soon we crossed the Japanese bridge, passed over the murky waters of the Tonle Sap River.
“Dara,” I said at length, “don’t give up now.”
“There’s no point. I tried to build up Cambodia, I joined hands with those pulling her down.”
I was silent. Outside the window, neon lights flashed. Towering billboards displayed girls talking on mobile phones and men drinking beer. Shop windows gleamed.
“Think of the forest,” I said. “Think of the people of the forest.”
The bus pulled up in the station. We stumbled down the aisle, tripping over cargo and suitcases. A crowd of motorbike-taxi and tuk-tuk drivers gathered round the door of the bus, but we pushed past them and stood together on the dim side-street. Deep shadows lay across the road.
“I’m calling a friend to pick me up,” I said. “Want a lift?”
Dara didn’t answer. He was gazing into the shadows, lost in thought.
“Ancient forests,” he murmured. “Been there since the beginning. Millennia ago there were people, wading through the grass, pushing aside the vines. They caught fish in the bubbling streams; used their crossbows to shoot sugar gliders and their traps to catch tigers. The trees, the behemoths, towered over them, dark, ominous — and yet kindly and wise.… And medicines,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “Medicines. Europeans were bleeding themselves to death trying to get better, and all the time these people had medicines.”
He looked up at me. “Before … the accident, I was beginning to think a lot about the medicines.” He paused. “Why is everyone going after rubber, or just logging for wood — why don’t they go for the medicines?”
“You could go for the medicines.”
We stood together in silence. Dark buildings loomed around us, a concrete jungle. Ugly brick walls surrounded every dwelling, their tops lined with jagged glass. In the gutter, bulging plastic bags shone dully; further along an old man in tattered rags lay curled up asleep.
“Wait here,” said Dara at length. “I need to buy a bus-ticket.”