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Chapter 40: The Woman in the Moon

Turning over, I could smell strong coffee coming from the sitting room.

“Did you leave some for me?” I called out, hoping for a reply.

Oui, come join me on the porch,” Brielle responded.

Grudgingly, I stretched and slid out of bed. Brielle was already outside, but her funky aluminum drip coffee pot was still sitting on the small portable gas burner. I quickly poured a cup, grabbed a piece of crusty nupon before it became ant food and joined her. Even at that early hour, the sun was a searing white disc in the sky, a prelude to the afternoon torrential rains. Shading my eyes with my free hand, I sat down across from her.

“Why do you smile?” Brielle asked. “There’s nothing here to smile about. Everyone’s h’angry with everyone.”

“You got that right,” I said.

I knew that the months of stress were taking their toll, but Brielle had caught me off guard. Tempers were short; mistrust and rumors flourished. Kyrill had complained bitterly about Radush’s arrogance and his refusal to come to his defense whenever Kyrill and Russ clashed. “Did you have another fight with the Filipino king?” I asked, trying to understand what had triggered her continual moodiness. “How bad are things between you and your partner?”

“I am so out of my shoes, I get désactivée, disabled by every little thing. And I am not enough in my work. He thinks I’m jealous, a few arguments and . . .” Brielle paused before continuing. “Nothing bad, though. Really, I can’t understand why he has so little regard for me that he can't even do simple listening.” Her long fingers twitched, then did a drum roll on the table as her voice rose. “He was my partner when we came; now he thinks he is the boss of me. I tire of his bullshit. He tries to control everyone and is unkind to our local staff. I have l'esprit de l'escalier. I think of my clever comeback only when it is too late to deliver it.” Her rant over, she sipped the dredges of coffee in her cup.

Studying the empty cup, Brielle frowned and muttered, “If only we were partners, I would be so much better.”

“Yeah, that should’ve happened. The UNV staff didn’t like us from the beginning,” I said. “Maybe we should’ve been nicer to the creeps.” Verbally tiptoeing, I murmured, “You know, I’m not sure we would fare any better as partners.” Brielle drew her shoulders back. My hand shot up defensively. “Wati also resents my need to control, but she came to Skon late so she does not say anything.”

“Phff, it is a big problem. The Cambodians are too dependent on us for their sécurité et avenir that these tensions undermine their confidence. C'en est trop! There is too much tension in Battheay.”

Not wanting to discuss a partnership any further, I smiled and got up to leave. “Khium sroline te, I love you.” As I said the words, I knew that I did; I loved her.

“Merci,” said Brielle, a wan smile fluttered on her lips.

It was Nhean who provided relief from the gloomy mood. I had returned from a particularly heart-thumping drive on the slick, rain-drenched dirt levees that served as roads to the interior villages. Grateful not to be in a ditch somewhere, I parked the 4X4 and looked hopefully towards my house and an early night. Nhean was waiting for me with moon cakes, a gift from his mother. He was in his usual white shirt, black pants and bare feet. “Momma, will you make an offering to the Moon Goddess? You can make a wish, too.”

The air was heavy with the scent of incense burning in front of homes up and down the road. Evidently, everyone around me was celebrating something.

“Is the moon a woman?” I asked, thinking that I already liked this holiday.

“Some people think she is a rabbit,” Nhean smirked.

He took my hand and led me across the road. His mother gave me another moon cake, imprinted with a dragon, and whispered something to Nhean. “This one has an egg yolk inside, very special,” he said. Like a schoolgirl practicing for a Miss Teen America contest, I wished aloud for peace for my Cambodian friends. Silently, I thanked the Moon Goddess for getting me safely home. I put a small bottle of nail polish on the tray in front of the spirit house. Already on the crowded tray were plates with perfume, combs, mirrors and other small gifts for the moon. The moon was clearly a she.

“Momma, I happy you celebrate with us. You coming make the people happy.” Nhean beamed. Had he understood that his invitation would foster trust between the villagers and me? If he had, he was definitely a man willing to grab the day.

More relaxed, I crossed back over the road to home and bed. Fannett was missing, not yet back from his day’s explorations. I stood at the front door with my hands cupped to my mouth and hollered, “Fannett.” I heard myself echoed up and down the road, the sound of “Fannett, Fannett” punctured by laughter and guffaws. Cats were for catching rats and perhaps a meal in bad times—but kept as a pet in a place with no resources to provide for them?

Finally, two of the minions, Moam-Moam and Hoay, arrived with the cat squirming in Hoay’s tight grip. Fannett soon was snuggled up against the small of my back. His body heat and soft purring let me know that he was feeling safe. Crazy was everywhere. But that night, like Fannett, I felt safe.

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