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Chapter 38: Lessons Taught

“This is Madame CJ, muntrey bauhsnaut srok Cheong Prey.” Nhean introduced me as the electoral supervisor for the Cheong Prey district. Was I there to explain the election, I wondered, or had I been invited as a pawn in some ploy to create mischief? Inhaling deeply, I began.

“Whether or not you trust in the election, if you do not register you will have no voice in the new government.”

The commander, his black eyes giving away nothing, listened without expression. Smiling, I thought I saw sparks of interest in the eyes of the younger men but, following their commander’s lead, they asked no questions and barely changed their dour expressions. Afraid to offend them, I spoke scarcely above a whisper, my cheeks cramping from the permanent smile frozen on my face.

Finally, with no feedback to guide me, I handed out some trinkets and cigarettes from the two packets I was instructed to bring. The soldiers reacted like little boys, grabbing at the stuff, laughing and stuffing key chains and lighters into their pockets.

A mixture of relief and exhilaration washed over me. They might be outlaws, but I was Xena, girl warrior.

Nhean hauled over the rice, which already had been unloaded near the Jeeps. Kyrill held up his camera, smiled, pointed to the camera and then to the guerrillas. The commander, his eyes cold and narrowing, hissed something to Nhean in Khmae. The air crackled with new tension.

Looking frightened, Nhean shook his head emphatically at Kyrill. Disappointed, Kyrill lowered the camera and joined the other two Unmos by the Jeeps. The commander and one of the young guerrillas turned away, dragging the bag of rice into the forest and leaving Nhean and me alone with the other three. Suddenly, Xena was gone and I was left standing alongside my very skinny, very nervous interpreter.

I spoke again, as if by repeating myself I could keep other thoughts and fears at bay. “Registration is required if you want to vote in the May election. You will have no voice in Cambodia’s future if you don’t vote. The ballot is stronger than the gun.” As Nhean repeated my words in Khmae, one of the guerrillas began to fidget nervously. He nudged the boy next to him, pointed down and whispered to him. The second boy snickered and, stroking a large jungle machete hanging loosely from his belt, suddenly became quite interested in the spot where I stood.

Sbek cheurng kor veng nesh Americh cowboy Billy the Kid, kaphleung vyokmeng nas chea videau,” he growled. Curling back his lip, he bared his teeth and looked at me as if waiting for my response.

Nhean translated, his eyes wide. “Momma, the soldier like your boots. He say he is American cowboy Billy the Kid. He know from videos. All Cambodians know American cowboy and Wild West.”

I looked from my boots to the boy’s dirty bare feet and at his comrades wearing crude rubber sandals made from old truck tires, a mix of pity and understanding taking form as I imagined the prize even my fake plastic cowboy boots would be to this guy. If he wants the damn boots, give ’em to him, I thought. I could turn this standoff into a win, gain some goodwill. I looked up to see the soldier’s raised eyebrows and stretched lips, the steel of his machete glinting and winking as the sunlight hit the blade while he watched me–waiting for me to give him the boots or perhaps for the chance to take them. Then I remembered the silence of the skulls on display at the Killing Fields monument that I had toured shortly after arriving in Cambodia. They began to scream as I stepped on the bones of the dead, crushed into the fine white powder that covered the ground. “Remember me, remember me,” they cried. No, you bastard, I’m not giving you anything.

I saw the machete rising into the air. The air closed around me and the sweat pushed through the skin of my palms, but I had no time to respond. Crippled with a terrorizing fear that rooted me to the ground, I could focus on nothing but the machete as it began a downward arc. I saw the blade, cold and sharp. I shifted my gaze and saw the cold, black eyes of the boy who wielded the weapon, his mouth twisted into a maniacal smile.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I could see myself disintegrating, every atom separating from every other, and my heart stopped.

As the machete sliced into the ground, a few centimeters from my feet, the soldier laughed. I opened my eyes barely in time to see him raise his arm over his head again. As he did, a shot rang out close to the edge of the forest; birds squawked as they rose as one into the sky. The commander stalked out into the clearing, an AK raised above his head, barking orders. Nhean was shouting in Khmae. I saw the boy’s raised arm coming down.

Then throbbing pain.

Russ had grabbed my arm in a vice-like grip. Half dragging me from the circle, he pushed me towards the Jeeps.

“Ouch, you’re hurting me!”

“Your boots, he wants your boots.”

“Yeah, I guessed that,” I said. “I should have given him the damn things. They’re only fake cowboy boots.”

“He could have cut off your feet.”

I looked down at my imitation plastic boots, stepping slightly forward. “I should go back. I’ll give them away if that will help.”

But Russ shoved me back.

“It’s over,” he said. “Radush will sort them out. It’s not a botched job, but you’re done here.”

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