T.W. Bell

The ramshackle bar, one of a few along the Phnom Penh riverfront, is open to the sky and to the tall weeping trees that surround it. Parts of it are sheltered by low, dull-brown thatch and overhangs of corrugated iron. The rough, grey wooden floorboards and tables, and low partitions dividing it from the street are all held up, ten metres above the river, by thick tree trunks sunk into the riverbank. The slow sweet smell of stale tobacco and malt from the counter and the beer-soaked floor hangs over everything. It is strongest in the sun the morning after the barang clientele have let their hair down, some few left slumped dozing in their chairs. 

Mosquitoes poach in this humid, stale air above the Khmer barman. Their drone mixes with the Khmer pop music in the background. The barman sleeps, half standing, half draped over the waist-height counter. His breath is softly rhythmic except when, in his dream, he is laughing with cousins he has joined for a day of kindnesses, singing under the soft light of a waterfall hanging from a blue sky. 

This bar is the sort where in monsoon season the afternoon downpour pounds big flat drops that thock rapid-fire on the tin roofing above the bar counter, drowning the quickened murmur of the barang as they huddle close to the bar and grow excited by the cool, sweet breath of this passionate beast on their cheeks.  They watch it lash the rough tables half a metre from their barstools, and hold their hands out to it. Puddles form from the thick streams runnelling down the corrugations in the tin roof. 

For some of them it suggests the obscure fury that has been raging elsewhere in the country, the conflicts that have again encroached on the city, spilling over the line of coloured sand laid around Phnom Penh by the government to give it magical protection. It has again boiled into the city streets of shop houses outside of which the owners once hung portraits of Sihanouk that carried a picture of Pol Pot on the back, to turn over, depending. 

The monsoon obliquely justifies the expensive security threaded so exactly around the foreigners by the aid outfit or company or government that sent them. For some it is just another deprivation in the third world, another triumph of their sacrifice.

This bar is where the crisis of a drink wrongly poured or dropped on the slippery floorboards by the Khmer staff develops into shouts and sometimes blows rained upon them by the owner or his patrons. And where Thero, the blind throur player, was asked about his eyes.

As he lies on his mat nested behind the cardboard and plastic of his shanty, Thero is remembering the barang’s question outside that barang bar. No. I cannot speak of it. I cannot think of it. 

Above Thero the river’s evening breeze feathers the lined trees’ fronds that are sheathed in their boles like an upturned shuttlecocks. It snuffles at Thero’s skin, harbinger of early monsoon rain.

Thanks to the barang, he has eaten good food for the first time in three days. His stomach aches with the bulk of the rice and prahoc, fermented fish-paste from the market. They could eat like this for a long time with the barang’smoney. 

In the dark Thero smooths the mat with his fingers, then raises his hand to his brow to massage his temple. An absolute weariness. His hand falls back to his side. Till dawn, “When the sun returns to the world, born again and breaking free from between the black panther’s groin.” He can hear his father ending the recital that Thero knew by heart, and can see him smiling behind the small ovals of his bifocals. “And we begin again.” Thero is back, back then. Two decades before Pol Pot time. A light in his mind swings lazily across the memory.

He is six years old. They are in the Sneng village classroom by the pagoda. This is where his father teaches. It is dusk, the hour of the black panther, when the big cats come scavenging; when they suddenly leap out of the close swollen shapes of jungle, seizing screeching fowl, a goat, or a child. 

Because of this, his father has been cautioning him for being out late. In fact Thero has been down on the red banks of the river, alone, playing the throur. He had watched the water cede its shattered colour, moment by moment, to a low, brilliantly burning red moon, as he tried to think the diffusion of the light into the sound through his arms and hands to the instrument, the way his father had told him. 

Thero remembers the dusty schoolyard that was also the pagoda courtyard and the village square. It formed a causeway from the ancient, moss-covered stone tower in the east, to the entrance of the pagoda. 

The lotus bud tower had four faces of the Healing Buddha, You climbed a narrow cut staircase to a landing set in the centre behind the faces. Hanging there was a bronze gong with a wooden beam that swung against it to sound all over the village and out over the fields. 

The Buddhas had eyes that were closed, heavy-lidded with slender slanted brows. They had broad noses, full jaws, mouths closed with thick benevolent lips like swollen fruit. They were smilingly slightly, ironically, at some inner dreamt amusement, smoothly voluptuous, crumbling, shrouded by the thick vines of lilac bougainvillea creepers and rambling orchids bright against the dull grey-brown stone. The monkeys and the jungle prowled and grasped at the Buddhas, who had been asleep forever. 

In the evening, most of Sneng, met in the courtyard, to tow leiying; to drink, to sing and play, and listen to the stories of Buddha told by the monks, and have fortunes told by traveling guess-men. They watched mask and shadow plays, danced circle dances around flowers. 

The river was a black jewel, lisping vowels and sibilants to its banks thirty metres away. In the light of the glowing candles and the wood-fire braziers that spat sparks into the night, they gathered to eat boiled eggs and fried beetles and snake, and sometimes grilled tortoises from the river, and the mothers cooked rice snacks wrapped in banana leaves. The flames threw violet shadows into the cavities of the school buildings and the temple. 

The courtyard was canopied by tall green coconut palms, big fronds like the enormous drowned pale eyes of the river dolphins that were sometimes brought up in the nets. 

In the daytime the shadows of the palms’ spiky fronds would hypnotise Thero as they slid across each other in the breeze. Their cross-weave strobed the sunlight from where he sat, cutting tiny fractal wedges whose shapes altered as their shadows moved over the red ground and the benches beside the giant dark-green pads of elephant-ear plants, where the children gathered, talking. When he closed his eyes the fronds left moving cut out rows of negatives, moving checkerboards of bright and dark.

Thero remembers his father’s history lessons in the courtyard, lessons that would always relate back to his visit to Sarnath when a youth. “The first turns of the wheel of Buddha’s law were in Sarnath. We show like this,” his father said, and put his thumb and forefinger together, touching to make a circle, with the other fingers straight out. The tip of this circle touched the middle of his other palm; the palm was open and twisted back towards himself so his fingertips touched his heart. He held his hands up for the class to see, and the children copied. “You see the Buddha statue with his hands like this.”

And in the courtyard the tight pink bundles of oleander blooms bright against the dusty khaki leaves, like the shape his mother’s mouth became when she put French lipstick on; and she would wriggle away, laughing when his father tried to kiss it off, telling her she was too pretty, that she was his mas prah ling, jewel spirit.

The colours and the confluent essences of all kinds of flowers were there, in the courtyard. He remembered. A garland from a girl. Sovanara, and a sniff-kiss on the cheek.

Lying on the mat he remembers his house upriver at Kum Jai: bamboo frame and woven bamboo mat walls, and dried palm leaf thatch roof, perched on stilts, with hammocks underneath in which they lay at the height of the sun, surrounded by the panting yard dogs and the chickens and other beasts, which crowded in beside them. 

Next to the house there was a waterwheel with revolving bamboo buckets that turned into the water of the irrigation ditch from the trawpeang, house-pond. The pond was covered with dark green moss and brilliant pink lotus and lilac-blue hyacinth flowers. There were giant red hovering dragonflies. Rows of ducks glided through the moss and fat pigs wallowed. Here and there one of the wide round lily and lotus pads were raised like, his father joked, sun parasols for the carp.

The family washed here when the water-jars were empty, his mother pushing through the lotus pads and pond slick as she waded in, edging up her krama as she kneeled, till the water covered her breasts. 

The matted bamboo walls felt laughter, silence, songs, tears, children’s voices. No-one knew of time, of hours, or age then. Not until they fell out of the wheel of years.