Chapter 1: Prologue
“We all want to break our orbits, float like a satellite gone wild in space, run the risk of disintegration. We all want to take our lives in our own hands and hurl them out among the stars.”—David Bottoms
The young Irish sailor challenged me. “Yo, Havra, why don’t you come along? Let’s see how those fancy initials after your name and all that feminist shite you spout looks like in the real world,” Paddy said.
My mouth opened before my brain had engaged. “Why not?” I replied.
“Bleedin’ rapid! We’ll see ya in the mornin’.”
What in the world was I thinking? Walking back to the hotel from the café, I replayed my conversation with Paddy. He had boasted that his UN navy unit had run into a Khmer Rouge division along the Mekong River the day before. “The swamp donkeys threatened to kidnap or kill us, but we’re goin’ out in da’ mornin’ and knack their ballix in,” he had bragged—his anxiety masked by a palpable testosterone high. Good luck with that. Acting like a military groupie, I promised them a round of beers when they returned from confronting the guerrillas. That’s when they invited me to accompany them. That’s when I accepted.
I had come to Cambodia to win back my independence from my estranged husband and to offer humanitarian help in the war-torn country, not to go on a military operation hunting for genocidal killers.
Screams woke me. It took me a few minutes to realize that they had been my own screams. I stared out into the semi-darkness and studied the shadows by the curtains and the tallboy dresser. I laid my head back on the pillow and shined my flashlight on my fancy world-time wristwatch, but my meeting with the sailors was still hours away. Dreamless sleep. How I longed for dreamless sleep, but I knew it would not come.
Stretching my full length on the lumpy mattress and closing my eyes, I stayed there until the dawn finally broke, ushering in the day and whatever crazy quest lay ahead.
The guys were still drinking their morning whiskey-laced coffee and tea when I arrived, parking my bike on the side of the razor-wire fence that surrounded the navy house. I fixed myself a cup of coffee and took a seat near the young Irish sailor, who was suddenly pulled out of his chair by a much larger man.
“Yo, Chief, what the hell?” he grumbled.
Outranked and outsized, he moved over to another seat. The chief sat down in his place and took a long sip of his spiked tea. Paddy grudgingly made the introductions. “Chief Petty Officer 1st class, Russ Welling, meet CJ Havra, UN electoral officer.”
“Hiya, I’ve seen you around town,” he said lazily as he turned to face me.
“Oh really, I can’t say that I remember seeing you,” I said, making no pretense of noting his wedding ring.
His bright parrot-blue eyes narrowing a bit, he quickly took his hand out of my line of sight. Without a moment’s pause, he asked, “How could that be? Who else is worth seeing, if not me?”
I sighed. What more could I expect from a sailor? Still, he looked as if he could be a descendant of the Roman Ninth Legion, with his closely cropped ginger hair and his aquiline nose. Definitely interesting. No, hell no, I’m not looking for a man. Besides, as my feminist students would say, he’s a turtleneck with ears.
Russ stood, his demeanor changing from flirty to deadly serious. “A body, or what was left of it, washed up on shore late last night. The brown bastards cut off his head and his balls. He was one of us, a UN military observer. Let’s find them.”
Apparently that was the signal for us to leave. The sailors and I headed down to the wharf. Paddy and a sailor with a face like the loser of too many rounds at the fight club began untying two Zodiacs.
Russ got into one of the rubber dinghies, along with a few sailors and the interpreter. As I eyed the four-foot drop into the second one with no small amount of trepidation, he looked up, bit his lip to keep from laughing and smirked. “Look lively, CJ. It’s a dossy jump.”
Holding on to Russ’s extended hand in a death grip, I gingerly climbed down. The 30-horsepower outboard motors revved up, and we sped up the murky brown Mekong River—the heart and soul of Southeast Asia—and perhaps the remnant of its black heart.
Given the opportunity, the sailors wanted nothing more than a chance to confront the Khmer Rouge who had threatened them the day before and, for all they knew, had mutilated the body that Russ described in his pre-op pep talk. On our way up river, hunting for signs of the elusive guerrillas and establishing the UN presence, we stopped local boats and checked cargo. The naval men hoped that a confrontation would discourage acts of piracy as well as prevent the guerrillas from crossing the river to pillage remote and defenseless villages that still belonged to Cambodia and not its land-hungry neighbor, Vietnam.
We hit some big waves. I slammed against the hard rubber, bruising my butt as spray from the river doused us with every sharp turn. I must be a mad woman, I thought, as I tried to quell my nausea while staying on board.
After a particularly wet dousing, I looked up to see Russ, his hand balled into a fist and yelling into his radio loud enough that we could hear him on the other boat without a walkie-talkie. “We missed one with Khmer Rouge onboard and a mounted machine gun. Stop arsin’ around and start paying attention,” he hollered.
“Will do, chief,” someone shouted back.
Not two minutes later, we encountered another suspicious boat, and Russ wasn’t about to miss another opportunity. While he was boarding it, I noticed one of the Khmer Rouge crew slide over to a mounted automatic machine gun—his head cocked to the left and then, his face impassive, he shifted the barrel until I was directly in his line of sight. Fear oozed out through my skin, bathing me in a fine sheen of sweat. I looked down at my neon-orange life jacket; too bad it wasn’t a flak jacket in disguise. With Russ on the boat and Paddy right behind him, our interpreter shouted something to the captain—who barked out a command to the guy with the gun.
The soldier never altered his gaze, but he slowly used one hand to push the gun barrel off to the right. Only seconds passed, if you didn’t count them by my heart beats, before the tension cooled down. Rooted to my rubber boat with the gunner’s gaze still burning through me, I watched both appalled and awed as Russ used the occasion to take photos with his mates next to the machine gun. It wasn’t the big gun that frightened me. No, what struck fear was the hatred—the hatred in the eyes that bored into me.
“They weren’t the pack o’ dogs we’re looking for. These guys were attacked and robbed a short time ago,” Russ informed me as he clambered down into my boat, seemingly unfazed by our encounter except for a twitchy muscle along his jaw bone that I hadn’t noticed before.
“Others robbed them, government KPAF soldiers,” our interpreter added.
“Hold on, aren’t they the good guys?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Russ said, sarcasm plainly evident and eyeing me as if I were clueless. “They’re all gits and they’re all robbers. But since they’re also all military, they were nice enough to take only half of their fellow soldiers’ things. A sort of fifty percent honor code. What a bunch of tossers.” Snorting with laughter, he revved up the engine on the Zodiac.
I kept my eye on the mounted gun as we pulled away. Staring back was the Khmer Rouge gunner, who was lighting up a hand-rolled cigarette and watching me. What if he was the one who had castrated the body that washed up on shore?
The gunner’s image pursued me as we continued up the river to meet the navy’s landing craft. Happy to be off my rubber dinghy, I clambered onto the big flat boat. By the time we rounded the dock into port, my only interest was to get back onto dry land, alive.
Despite my shaky sea legs, I rode my bike the short distance from the navy villa to the hotel, smiling like an idiot at everyone I passed. I wished that I had a big banner across my chest reading, “I survived the big gun.” The tremors in my legs dissipated quickly, but not the adrenalin rush. As terrifying as my encounter with the mounted gun had been, playing with the ‘big boys’ was a lot more fun than staying on the dock. Still, my fear thermometer was rising, and the gun-toting soldier’s face—his hollow cheeks, his black, cold, hatred-filled eyes—would haunt my dreams.
I couldn’t wait to tell my young Belgian roommate about this alarming misadventure. Although in typical Brielle fashion, she would probably say, “Oh, CJ, Ne sois pas si dramatique.”