I AM LYING on cracked, checkered tile, watching a cricket. He is hiding behind Samphy’s scuffed sandals, beside a broken pencil nub. The pencil is thick and brown, the kind we used here when this was a school. Samphy would recognize it, though he would deny this. He would also remember that crickets have always been drawn to this place. Sometimes two crickets would speak to each other from opposite corners of our school room, whispering cricket secrets in their soft, clicking voices. The other teachers lectured over them, but Samphy would stop teaching, angrily search out the crickets, and crush them with his sandal. Perhaps this cricket also remembers Samphy, and so he lies still and quiet on this tile, as I do.
Samphy’s glasses have disappeared, but he didn’t recognize me even when he wore them. The thin gold rims gleamed in the sun. I remember rushing into that gleam with my mind, the day they hung me from the old gymnastics frame in the courtyard. I imagined that the gleam was an angel’s light, and that I was being lifted to heaven. Sometimes, to extract confessions, they hang people. They hang us by our arms and leave us for days, with mounded rice husks smoldering beneath our feet. Sometimes we die.
I thought I would die that day. The heat built like the hiss of cicadas until it was everything—everything except the gleam of Samphy’s glasses. The fire scorched the hair on my legs and blistered my feet, but in my mind I followed that light to heaven. My father and mother were there, and Sister Jeannette, and Linh. I wept when the guards cut me down, and they mistook the reason for my tears.
They call this place Tuol Sleng—hill of the poison tree. Chantrea whispered this to me one night as we lay side by side, chained with fifty others to an iron bar running the length of a classroom. Chantrea smells of urine and fear, and she should not speak, but sometimes she whispers to keep from weeping, which is a worse offense. She tells me the workers next door had another name for Tuol Sleng—the place where people go in but never come out.
Chantrea is watchful. Even here she watches, her eyes wide and white, like little moons. The factory boss accused her of spying, and so now she sees for herself what happens here. Perhaps once she spoke to him disrespectfully, or maybe production had fallen and he wanted back into the good graces of the Party. Perhaps he really did think Chantrea was a spy. Eventually everyone will prove a spy. The last Khmer will have to slit his own throat for whispering secrets to himself. Then the death throes of my country will be stilled, and we will be but a corpse, stretched out from the salty stretches of the sea, across the rainy plateaus, to the mountains in the north. The cries of the dead will be like a mist over the earth, but there will be no one left to mourn us.
Samphy kicks me again, and blood warms my face. At first I was afraid to bleed, but I remembered the blood poured out by the Christ. To bleed is to be alive.
It is important not to let them know one’s fears. This, and the ability to go with one’s mind into the smallest thing—the breath of a cricket, or the gleam of eyeglasses—are the secrets to endurance. There is no surviving; there is only the enduring, until one is poured out. Endure for yet a little while, and he who is coming will come and will not tarry. This is what I learned from Sister Jeannette when I was a child at the orphanage, before she sent me here for a time, to learn things that now I can’t remember. All I remember today are the people I have loved, and the words Sister Jeannette taught me, and the two names Samphy believes he must learn, but which I will not teach him.
Before he was Samphy—hardworking, because he wants to be a good comrade—I learned from him in these classrooms. Now, he is the pupil, and I am the one with hidden knowledge. He knows that I deny him, even after the electrical shocks and the hanging, the suffocation and beatings, after they pulled out my fingernails. He knows it even though I have already confessed many terrible untrue things about myself and the nuns and poor old Bora the mute, who in the next room finally discovered something close to a voice, for they taught him how to scream. I’m sure he betrayed me in his newfound language, just as I betrayed him. We will be forgiven, for we have done one another no real harm; we were already condemned. In Khmer, prisoner means guilty one. We are all guilty ones.
Samphy steps back after kicking me, and absently, because death comes so easily here, he almost crushes the cricket. If not for the slightest motion, I would think the cricket is already dead. It has nerves of steel, this cricket. I will be like him today. Though I dwell in the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. The guard puts the flat of his sandal against my shoulder and rolls me to my back. My hands go to my testicles.
“Tell me Sokhem Rithy, where is your hope today?” Samphy chuckles. My father was named Sokhem—hope. His family name was Sotha—pure—but my mother died bringing me into the world, making me a bad-luck child. My father gave me his own name to be my family name. Khmer fathers only do this when they want to show great love for a child. Father wanted our village to know that I was not a bad-luck child to him. He was a hopeful man, but he was wrong.
The guard, Heng, does not laugh at Samphy’s joke. To Heng, I am just Rithy—great strength—because I have endured longer than the others. Nobody endures long here, unless they want you to, but I have been here the longest. The older guards, like Heng, whisper sometimes as they walk me from my cell to an interrogation room: Good morning, Rithy. Is the iron still in your veins? They whisper, but with cruelty still in their voices, in order not to be accused.
The young ones whisper nothing, for fierceness and hate bubble in them like fish stew in a pot. Their parents are dead, their aunts and uncles and grandparents are dead, and they have been taught that this is good. They have abandoned the names of their families, and they wear like badges the names of revolutionary leaders. They screech at me that my gaze is insolent, and beat me if I look at them. The worst of these is Mao, because though he is only twelve, he is strong. He screams that I am spying, as if I will whisper to the cricket the secrets of their electric cables and wire snips.
Samphy kicks me again, on my jaw. A tooth breaks free and, without thinking, I swallow it. My body no longer knows what is food. It is like Cambodia, feeding on itself. I wonder through what crack the cricket got here, and if I could follow him back out. Lead me home, cricket. Lead me to my Linh.
“Sokhem Rithy, we have lost patience with you.”
In the first days, Samphy was an “I.” Now he says “we.” I can tell by the clothes and faces that another cleansing has begun. They are dragged into our stinking cell, well-fed and wearing fresh black shirts and pants. Some mumble that there has been a mistake, others snarl at us for accidentally touching them, as if they are not guilty ones too. Some beg to confess, even before they have been interrogated. In these times everyone is more careful, because each watches the other to see who does not belong. So Samphy says “we” and he squints, because his eyeglasses made him look like a westerner.
“Rithy, why do you make poor Linh suffer?”
I close my eyes, and this is a mistake, because it tells him what is in my heart. It is best to kill everything you cared for, but I cannot.
“She wants to see you,” he says, “and she does not understand why you are being so stubborn. I know there is still something you keep from us, because there is resistance in your face. Spies and counterrevolutionaries who reveal all of their crimes have no resistance left in them. They are empty cups, ready to be refilled with loyalty to Democratic Kampuchea. But your cup, Rithy, it is not empty. Tell me what you hide in the dregs. Tell me what is so important that you would let Linh suffer.”
Linh came to the orphanage with several others. The nuns took them in, though we were full, as they did until the very end. I was chopping wood by the kitchen, but I stopped when I saw her. She was taller, and her skin far lighter than a Khmer’s. She was also beautiful, even before Sister Jeannette gave her soap. When she saw me watching her, she smiled, though it was more like a wink of her mouth than a smile. I returned a smile. The sisters had chided me to do this more, because my scowls frightened the littlest ones. The sisters always chided me for scowling, even when I was only a boy myself, sent here by my aunt after my father and uncles drowned. They were fishermen, and the sea had appeared calm the day they took father’s old boat out past the foamy waves. Fishermen know that terrible strength lies beneath the cool glass of the sea, but sometimes they are deceived. The people in my village whispered that I had been the last to see them alive. They remembered that I was a bad-luck child.
The sisters ushered Linh and the others to water troughs, and I saw no more of her until dinner. She sat with the quiet children, away from the rambunctious ones who attracted the sisters’ attention. When she saw me filling my bowl from the big steaming pot, her mouth again twitched upwards. Her slender oval face was like cream, and her eyes were a rich brown, like good earth. They were sad, her eyes. The rags she had arrived in were gone, replaced by stiff pants and a blue cotton shirt made by Sister Jeannette, the shriveled French nun with hard bright eyes. By this I knew Linh was not only beautiful to me, for the cloth had come from Sister Jeannette’s curtains, one of her few European luxuries. The shirt was deep blue like fishing waters, with curls and lines of stitches that traced about it in aimless joy, like the wake of a fishing boat.
Linh passed close after finishing her meal, and I could smell the sudden freshness of juniper. I have never seen juniper, but I know its name because it is the smell of Sister Jeannette’s soap, and she told me. Sister Jeannette was not always a nun. “Old mother,” I asked her once, letting a smile bubble up to my face, “why should a virgin married to the Christ make herself so lovely and sweet smelling?” She did not look up from where her nimble old fingers pinched at the herbs sprouting from the earth around her knees, but a smile came to her face. She shook her head and made a disapproving noise. “The Savior could come at any time,” she said, “perhaps even to catch his bride being harassed by an impertinent young heathen in her own garden.” This was how we always spoke, Sister Jeannette and I, even after Father Paul baptized me in the cold stream.
I realized that Linh reminded Sister Jeannette of someone. I knew this not so much by the way she looked at Linh, or from the crisp blue shirt or the juniper soap, but, of all things, by the way she sometimes would not look at Linh. As I said, Sister Jeannette was not always a nun. She told me once that some are called gently to the fold, but others must first be broken. All we Khmers who belong to the Christ are like Sister Jeannette, in need of breaking. And she is like us, a Khmer, even though she is a Frenchwoman with an herb garden and juniper soap.
Linh soon became a tutor in the orphanage, once the sisters discovered that she already knew most of what they could teach. She was fourteen, though she looked younger, and it was only when she spoke that one realized her maturity. Her parents had been shop owners, and Viets. They were murdered by a mob of hill people—dark and angry, like the guards of Tuol Sleng. Linh’s father used to sing in the evening from his seat on their porch. Her mother used to grow orchids in a small garden behind their kitchen. This is all Linh ever spoke about her parents.
Heng is lifting me to my feet, and for a moment I think it is morning. I have been unconscious. I lean against Heng and my tongue skates along my teeth to see if others are missing, while my hands flit across themselves to see if there are still eight fingers. Samphy glowers at me. “You will speak to us soon, Rithy. Comrade Duch knows of your resistance.”
I nod respectfully, because I am grateful to Samphy for not killing me today. In these moments, when it has ended, I love Samphy the way the Christ intended. Love thine enemies. I will protect his name from himself.
Heng leads me from the room. In the wide hallway we pass closed doors. Behind some there is groaning or low talking, and occasionally a scream punctuates the warm, dense air. “You are foolish to waste the time of Comrade Duch,” whispers Heng. I am filled with affection for him, and I lean closer into his body. His muscles recoil and he forces me to stand upright. “Fool.”
What the European priests and nuns did not understand is that in our country it is good to marry young. For this reason they watched Linh and me nervously. For our part, we demonstrated the lightest affection, and whispered, whenever we were briefly alone, about how we might convince the Father to marry us. There was no leaving, for work and food were scarce. The church had rice. We believed in the Godhead of the Christ, and in the sacrament of holy marriage. We needed the church’s rice, and we wanted its blessing.
So we waited, and I endured the ache that men feel. Old Bora would make fun of me, when it was just the two of us tilling the big garden, or fishing at the river. He would straighten his battered frame to be sure no one was watching, then grab his crotch. He would groan with mock pain, and then snort while pointing a thick finger at me. He meant no harm.
A few weeks before the Khmer Rouge came, I found Sister Jeannette sitting on a stump behind the kitchen. She often went there after dinner, to smoke a thin cigarette and watch the sunset. Her legs were deeply crossed, her sharp elbow planted in the top thigh, working like a hinge to deliver the cigarette to her lips. She gave me a lazy glance before returning her eyes to the orange and purple spread out above the swaying trees. “Sister,” I said, “does God know who we will marry?”
She rolled her eyes, then surveyed me. Her hinge of an elbow delivered another drag. Through the smoke she asked, “Why do you want to marry her?” Her eyes wandered down to my crotch, in a way that nuns are not supposed to look at a man, before returning to my face. “Is it because you want to lie with her?” Sister Jeannette was not always a nun. She sucked deeply from the cigarette.
She chuckled, and the dregs of smoke tumbled from her lungs. “Then you would be the first man.” She looked back to the sky. “So it is love, is it?”
“Will you stay with us? Will you build a house near our land, and stay with us?”
“Yes, old mother.”
She nodded. “I will speak to Linh. Then perhaps I will speak to Father Paul.”
For the rest of the day I didn’t scowl once. But as a second day stretched into a sleepless night and then into another endless day, I began to worry that Linh did not love me. Perhaps I had imagined everything. I am ten years older. Maybe she was only kind to me because I reminded her of her father, or of a favorite uncle.
I thought about the proofs that she loved me. The way we called each other my sweet, when no others could hear. How, when she stood at the large black pot to ladle rice into our bowls, she would steady my bowl by placing her warm hand beneath my own. She only did this with the small children. I thought about the times we had whispered of marriage, and wondered if I had confused myself. Perhaps Linh had simply been sharing dreams of marriage with me, her big brother friend.
By the third day, I was sure Linh did not love me. As I hacked at dirt clods in a new patch of garden, I could see Sister Jeannette in the shade of the kitchen, shelling beans, watching me. I was certain, in that moment, that Linh had confessed no love for me. I could feel the pity and dislike in old mother’s gaze. It was the same face of the mourning women in our village, on the day they made me leave.
With my angry chopping at the dirt, I did not feel Linh approach. She stood at my elbow, holding a small bucket of water. A wooden cup floated inside. “The sun is hot today,” she said, in her quiet voice.
I squinted, searching her face for pity. But there was only the cream skin, the gentle curves of her smooth cheeks, her rich brown eyes, and then, the slight turning up of her mouth. “Soon, sweet,” she said. She said this as a woman, knowing all the things soon meant to a man. As she took back the cup, her hand squeezed my own. I watched her pick her way across the clotted dirt, and into the kitchen. I have always been so faithless. In the Bible there is a man who says to the Christ, I believe, Lord, help my unbelief. This is who I am.
Comrade Duch is shorter than Samphy, and very thin, with high, hard cheekbones. His hair is cut short with a razor, and his shirt and pants are blacker than black. His sleeves are rolled up, in the way of the worker. He enters the room slowly, his eyes on me from the moment he appears. He is like a tiger. He looks hungry, as if he has never eaten, and for a moment I am afraid that he will eat me, that Samphy and Heng will hold me down while Comrade Duch devours everything I have ever been.
Then he smiles, as if we are being introduced at a party. “Good morning, Sokhem Rithy,” he says. “My name is Comrade Duch.” I am kneeling on the concrete, and I lower my head almost to the floor.
“Comrade Samphy tells me that you are not yet empty.”
Now I touch my head to the concrete. I am swallowing the names. I do not know the names. I am Rithy. Behind Comrade Duch is Samphy. These are the only names we have. If my friend the cricket were here, I would whisper the other names to him. He could spirit them away, before I am eaten.
Comrade Duch stoops and grips my wrist. He is holding a hatchet. It is best not to watch, so I look at his face. He is very thin. He is studious about his work, and this reminds me of my father. Comrade Duch looks the way my father did, when he would squat to the deck of his boat to bait a hook. As he takes my finger, all of his muscles tighten in unison, like a man being electrified.
Someone is screaming in my cell. All the pain that is in the world has found its way to the place where my hand has lost part of itself. I look up at Comrade Duch, who now stands over me. His sandal is on the stump. His eyes are like the eyes of a fish, but to him, it is me who is the fish. Hasten thee to help me, O my God. Sister Jeannette, when she used to teach me Bible verses, liked to joke that she was a bad Catholic not to teach them in Latin. Plant them in your heart, she used to say, and in your hour of need they will spring to life unbidden. Thine, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and the earth is thine.
Comrade Duch puts weight on his sandal. “I will take them all, Sokhem Rithy.” He leans forward and stares at me. “You are protecting someone.” The names are flopping about in my mind like fish, trying to burst from the net. They want to be free. They want to betray themselves. Thine, O Lord, is the kingdom, and thou art exalted above all.
Samphy chuckles. He is holding a folder full of papers. Everything we whisper or scream is inked to a page. They drain us onto paper, until there is nothing left except the pages, to mark where we used to be. “Would you like to know what we are doing to Linh?” He is lying. He is lying because he is afraid, because Comrade Duch has to do his work. He is afraid, and so I try to love him with the love of Christ. “She satisfies all of us,” Samphy says.
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips.
“It is good work for her. She enjoys it.” Comrade Duch nods, and grinds the stump of my finger. Someone is screaming in this cell.
Samphy makes a vulgar motion with his hips. “And we enjoy her.” Let the wicked fall into their own nets, O my God.
I utter the name, “Sambath.” Comrade Duch grabs my throat. “What?” His fish eyes shine.
I stare at Samphy. “Sambath.” It means great wealth. It is a name a merchant might give to his son. It is the name of a teacher who once taught history within these rooms. To be either a teacher or the son of a wealthy merchant is to be emptied onto a page by the Party. Samphy looks like I have struck him.
“Who is this Sambath?” Comrade Duch tosses his hatchet aside and takes a cane from the corner. “Was he your collaborator at the counterrevolutionary training camp? Where is he now?”
Samphy looks small and childish cowering behind Comrade Duch, and now I am sorry that I have vomited up the name. I try to love him with the love of Christ. Nobody deserves to be a guilty one here. His eyes are wild and crazed, darting between me and Comrade Duch, who continues to ask me questions in his high-pitched voice. At the end of every question, he strikes me with the cane. The blows are to my thighs, the bottoms of my feet, the back of my neck. I see now why Comrade Duch commands us. His skill at causing pain is far superior to that of a history teacher.
My throat strains to betray Samphy. It is ready to betray even my own name, the name I received the day Father Paul baptized me in a rushing stream. This is my secret self. If I give it to them, there will be nothing left of me for Linh. They will destroy it as they destroy everything, and I will have no soul to fly to heaven. But I think to be nothing would be better than this pain. What does it matter, when there is no one to mourn us?
And now Samphy saves me, because he has pushed past Comrade Duch to stomp my face. As he withdraws his foot to stomp me again, I see that tiny nub of pencil, lodged in his sole.
We knew the Khmer Rouge were coming hours before they arrived, because of the children and women streaming up the soggy road. We recognized some of the women, though their faces were streaked with mud; they were teachers from a school in the valley. The Khmer Rouge had called it a CIA training center. Some of the nuns led the refugees to the dining hall, while others shepherded our own children back to the school building. Bora sidled up to me, and motioned that I should go. I shook my head. It was safest here. Father Paul and the nuns are westerners, and of the church. The Khmer Rouge would not harm us here.
The first of them to appear was a boy. He wore ragged black pajamas, and sandals cut from thick pieces of tire, bound with wire. His fingers continuously spread and tightened over his rifle. Soon others appeared on the path behind him. They shouted at us in high, piercing voices to assemble in the commons. One of them went into the dining hall. The screams of the children were loud and piercing as they streamed outside.
We gathered around Father Paul, who shook, his eyes wide and watery. The Khmer Rouge captain shouted at him in Khmer. Father Paul tried to keep up, but he was quickly befuddled. Linh was beside me now, her hand clamping mine. One of the nuns, a Viet, stepped forward to translate for Father Paul. “He says this a CIA camp. That we all CIA.”
“That’s ridiculous. Tell him we are of the church. Tell him I am a priest. Tell him I am from Belgium.”
The Khmer Rouge screeched louder, and his men and boys began to shift their weight from sole to sole. His fingers darted on and off the rifle balanced in his palms, as if it were a musical instrument. “It no use, Father. He says we go with some his men, but leave Chinese and Viets here.”
Father Paul looked very old and ill. “What does he intend, Sister Maria?”
Sister Maria stared into the shining eyes of the Khmer Rouge captain. What she saw there made her face look like water under clouded sky. “They bring death, Father.”
“No,” he said meekly, and I knew then that he had already surrendered in his heart.
“Father, if I tell him you say no, his men kill us all now. Go with him. You and whites go. Maybe they let you live.”
The captain screeched, and then pointed his rifle at Father Paul’s face. A second later I could smell his urine, strong and pungent from afternoon coffee. “Sisters,” he whispered, “those of you who are white should go with them now.” The handful of white nuns, except for Sister Jeannette, formed a tight cluster and followed some of the Khmer Rouge. Father Paul glanced at Sister Maria. “I am sorry, child.”
One of the white sisters took Father Paul’s arm. He let her lead him, stepping over the mud created by his urine. He did not look at any of us.
The Khmer Rouge began to separate the children. Some of the children squealed, but most were now quiet, shivering like rabbits, like Father Paul. The soldiers separated the darker Khmer children from the light-skinned Chinese and Viets. Linh was pulled away from me, to the second crowd. I moved to be with her, and felt a sharp blow to my back. I was on my knees, and a Khmer Rouge shouted in my ear to follow him. Linh was shivering, like the other rabbits.
“Go with them, son,” said Sister Jeannette. She joined the light-skinned children. “I will watch over these little ones.”
A Khmer Rouge yelled at her, but she only looked at him, almost with curiosity. He pointed his rifle at her face. Sister Jeannette stared down its barrel, into his eyes. She placed a hand on her crucifix, and with the other she stroked the hair of a child quaking at her hip. The Khmer Rouge captain said something to the soldier. The soldier chuckled and nodded, lowering the barrel. He motioned for Sister Jeannette to stay.
They made us march, myself and old Bora, Father Paul and the white nuns, with the dark Khmer children following behind. Soon the Khmer Rouge relaxed. They smoked and spat and bantered. It was almost as if we were strolling. A couple of them even put Khmer children on their shoulders. Far behind, I could see the blue of Linh’s shirt amidst the small bunch of light-skinned children. Sister Jeannette and Sister Maria stood on both sides of the little bunch, their short arms outstretched, as if to hold all of the children at once. We rounded a curve in the long rutted road, and I could not see Linh any more.
I am lying on cold tile. Light streams through the slats over the windows and tries to warm me. There is pain like a blade, running from the top of my head to my scrotum. It is my new name, this pain. It has forced out everything that I was. I am afraid that I betrayed my secret name. There is whispering. It is Chantrea. I am back in the cell, though I cannot smell the others.
“I thought you were dead, Rithy.” I try to speak but there is only moaning in my throat, and it feels as if the blade inside me is twisting. “Your mouth is broken.” She weeps quietly as she whispers. “You are hurt very badly. Soon you will join your Linh. I pray that in your new life you will be together, far from Cambodia.” I feel her turn away from me, toward the door, and then she draws closer. “They have arrested Samphy. I was led past his cell and I saw him, chained to a bed.”
My eyes try to weep, but the pain is too great. I have condemned another man. Perhaps, before Samphy stomped me unconscious, I betrayed my secret name as well. I am nothing but emptiness and pain, and I will wait for death. Chantrea places her head gently against my own. “I shall miss you Rithy. I hope we are brother and sister in the next life.”
Perhaps an hour into our stroll, the Khmer Rouge who had stayed behind at the orphanage began to appear. One of the Khmer Rouge boys wore Linh’s blue shirt, with the curled stitching. Another held a crucifix. He darted among the older soldiers, showing off his prize. I had been praying, and listening for the crack of rifles, which I know was double-minded. The book of James was Sister Jeannette’s favorite. Do not be double-minded, she would say. I was sure there had been no shots, even though my prayer had been a double-minded prayer. I did not understand then what I have learned since, which is that efficiency is very important to the Party. It does not waste bullets.
I strained to turn back, but old Bora pulled me into him, his arm like a tree trunk. We walked that way, and he assured me that he had not heard rifles, either. We told each other that the Khmer Rouge had simply robbed everyone, and left them there. We whispered plans to escape and return to the orphanage. We walked and walked.
We are walking. Hands grip my arms, the tops of my feet drag over tile. I can barely lift my head, but I see that Heng is to my left. He stares straight ahead, his jaw clenched so tight that he looks to be chewing a ball. I haven’t the strength to look to my right. Perhaps it is Mao. I am sorry that he will see more death, and that he will enjoy it. Now my feet are drag-thumping down whitewashed concrete steps, and we are outside. The sun is warm, and I pray that it will melt this sharp blade where my spine used to be. We are in a part of the grounds I have not seen before.
Beside me someone is talking. It is Samphy. I force my head to look up, and fireworks ignite behind my eyes. When they focus, I see that he has been beaten. We are on our knees, in a line with other prisoners. I am propped against someone’s leg. Heng, I think.
Samphy is reciting the kingdoms of Britain. His face is peaceful, beneath shiny purple and red bruises. He turns to me as if I have spoken to him, though my mouth will not work. “It is better this way,” he says, smiling, “because in my heart I was a traitor. I treasured in my mind the things I learned in the reactionary university. I believed myself superior to my comrades. My mind is hopelessly polluted. It is better. I will return as a loyal Khmer.”
I hear the guards conferring in a small group behind our line of kneeling forms. Heng does not join them, because if he leaves me I will fall into the freshly turned dirt. Samphy frowns at me. “You were wrong not to reveal who I was, Rithy. Were I your family, even your precious Linh, it is still better to reveal the counterrevolutionaries among us. It is the wheel of history. I see this now, though I silenced you in the cell. Comrade Duch has made all of this clear to me.” Samphy looks down at the dirt and nods, as if recalling a childhood song. “Yes, this is better.”
The guards have finished their conversation, and I hear the scratch of their sandals as they pad over pebbles and soil. Heng squeezes my shoulder and I know that he is wishing me a speedy voyage to my ancestors. I pray that he will come to know the Savior before it is he who kneels in this dirt, awaiting an iron bar to the skull.
Samphy curses me now, his voice thick. “I know you hid more than my name, Rithy. I tried to help Comrade Duch see this, but he says you are an empty husk. I know, Sokhem Rithy. Tell me what other names you are hiding.”
They take their positions behind us. Someone tells Heng to hold me at arm length, so the killing blow can be administered. Some of the kneeling ones are weeping. Samphy screams: “Rithy! I must know! Comrade Duch! He is not yet empty! Comrade—”
The sound is like a gourd being sliced open. The other guards congratulate Samphy’s executioner for shutting him up. I am whispering a prayer, and trying to look at the sky, that I might see the angels coming for me. Heng understands, because he gently tilts my head upward. For a moment I think I have already been struck, the pain is so sharp. But now I can see thick sheets of cloud, and the waiting blue sky. “Nahh,” my executioner barks at Heng. “You make it harder to hit the base of his skull.”
“He is nearly dead already. Are you a woman? Just swing hard. Swing like a man.”
I am praying thanks to God, that his name for me was never uttered here. My treasure is in heaven. There they will call me by my secret name, Gabriel—God is my strength. In heaven I will not remember the hill of the poison tree.
God has appointed my death for a beautiful day. I thank him for the silent blue sky, looking down at what we have become. They kill everything here, but they cannot kill the sky. It will be our witness, and it will mourn us.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.