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Chapter 39: Lessons Learned

On the way home, Nhean sat beside me, attuned by then to my moods and behavior. I was still shaking from both fear and frustration. He reached out and touched my hand.

“Pol Pot very terrible, Momma,” he whispered, his face pensive and concerned.

“Yes, yes, he was. But these were just young boys. Younger than you. They could have asked me for my boots,” I told him.

“Momma,” he said, chuckling. “They do not know you and you cannot trust.” His face suddenly dropped and looked old. “I tell you a story about my family, okay?

“We running in the jungle, my brothers and older sisters and I. We were trying to reach the Thai border. My mother was behind with the twins―baby girls, Keang and Kesor―and she not keeping up. Kesor was ill and crying. My mum try earlier to give her to a barren woman. But when the baby ill, the woman thought that she was cursed and said no to keeping her.” Nhean showed no emotion; his story was Cambodia’s story. My eyes burned as tears spilled down my cheeks. No little girl named Kesor lived in the small house across the road from me where Nhean’s sister Keang lived with his mother.

Nhean averted my face; my tears probably embarrassed him or perhaps confused him. More subdued, he continued. “We stop, wait for them, but no one could quiet Kesor’s crying. Oldest brother make the decision. ‘Mother,’ my brother say, ‘you must leave the baby. Pol Pot find us, and all die.’”

I touched Nhean’s hand. He met my eyes briefly and then silently looked straight ahead. I felt connected heart to heart with Nhean, maybe to the whole wretched country. In the silence that followed, I imagined rescuing Kesor from the Khmer Rouge—saving her and keeping her safe.

Suffering from a second bout of dengue fever, Brielle had returned to the UN’s German-field hospital in Phnom Penh. The house was empty, and the worst of the rush and fear from meeting with the Khmer Rouge had still not dissipated. I needed to move. My bike was leaning up against the bathhouse wall downstairs. Straddling it, I began peddling in the direction of the Skon pagoda. Soon I had passed the small wooden and cement houses as well as farms, bony white cows ambling slowly through the brown fallow rice fields and a kid on an old rusty bike. Skinny dogs yapped at me from the safety of their compounds. The warm air was soothing, and I let my thoughts tumble out of my head.

Radush suspected me of being CIA; Kyrill thought I was doing research for a book exposing the UN’s peacekeeping policies; and the Chinese imagined that I was rich and connected, simply because I was American. The locals called me “Momma” or “Momma Thom Thom,” the big mother. There was something profound about being an American immersed in a foreign country that humbled me and gave me pause about my sense of entitlement.

I reached the ornately carved seven-headed Nāga, the serpent that guards the entrance to Skon’s pagoda. Heavy boughs of brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea hung over the path and covered much of the stone lentil, with tall palms standing sentry on either side. I gazed up the narrow road that led to the golden-spired temple and modest monks’ quarters and inhaled the scent of incense on the breeze.

I was beginning to experience this kind of focus often. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt purposeful in the States, where I always seemed to have at least two personas inside of me—intent on collision. One of them bought the 1950’s June Cleaver version of a happy life, dependent upon a hubby to give me all the meaning I needed. The other wanted to be Wonder Woman—extraordinary, brave and courageous. But in Cambodia, I was becoming whole.

I turned my bike back towards town, feeling lighter and happier as I pedaled slowly, filling my lungs with the fresh warm air and letting my mind go blank.

Almost a week later, Leannán’s early morning radio message reported that Brielle was healthy enough to return to Skon. Leaning over the porch railing, I waited for her. The creaking of wagons, piled high with clay pots and other primitive cookware and pulled by pony-sized horses, distracted me from my vigil. Finally, I saw Brielle’s 4X4 park below our balcony.

Mon amie.” I was so excited that I cried and laughed at the same time. She looked rested and happy. I brought her a pillow and we snuggled on the chaise while I interrogated her about her treatment at the hospital.

“Damn-ed mosquitoes,” Brielle carped. “I thought I would be dead for sure. Every muscle and joint in my body ached, and my head burst from the pain. The worst of it was behind my eyes. I shared a ward with twenty militaries, with only a drape between us. And those German doctors, savages, they have no sympathies. But the head doctor assured me I have no liver damage and am well recovered.”

“Today we get mosquito nets for our bedrooms. I can’t bear you being away and sick,” I said.

Brielle smiled and murmured, “Donc, nous sommes tous bisou-bisou, heureux-heureux ànouveau?”

“Yes, kiss, kiss. We are all fine and good as new, but I lost my ivory Buddha,” I confided, rather than relating the guerrilla incident while she was in a weakened state. “The weird S-hook they use for a clasp here must have opened, and the necklace fell off.” Instinctively, I put my hand up to caress the missing tiny totem. “The entire village is searching for it. I’m sure they think that I’m a mad woman, but my Buddha is not to be found.”

Brielle scuffled off to her room and returned with the wooden Buddha that Hon had given her on the same day I got mine.

“It’s more important to you than it is to me,” she said matter-of-factly, with her hand outstretched.

“No, you’ll be unprotected from Pol Pot’s bullets, malaria and tigers,” I protested―half-joking, but the momma bear in me thought how horrific it would be if something terrible happened to her. As it almost had to me.

“Take it. I unfriended god a long time ago.” she said, averting her eyes from mine.

As I felt the smooth, old wood between my fingers, I found myself momentarily cloaked in Hon’s strength and optimism. Not wanting to let go of the sensation, it took me a minute to come back to myself and respond to Brielle’s act of love. I hugged her, my eyes welling up with tears over the friendship of these two young women. Brielle stiffened and stepped back.

“Really CJ, it’s not so big a thing. I’m glad for you to have it.”

Merci,” I quipped, attempting to lighten the mood. “A talisman will come in handy if I meet with the Khmer guerrillas.”

“But you will. You and Wati are planning to sleep with your teams during registration. You will need more than this religieux pendentif to protect you.”

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