“Chan Kim” by Ilan Herman

05Aug09

1.

Cambodia, April 27, 1974

Chan Kim had finally lulled baby Chavy to sleep when she heard squeaks and rattles of large vehicles. They screeched to a halt, rusty brakes like a thousand fingernails scratching across a massive chalkboard.

“The Americans are going to bomb the city,” shouted a man through a distorted megaphone. “You must assemble in the street. All citizens of Phnom Penh must immediately evacuate to the countryside or you will die by American bombs.”

Chan Kim rushed the window and peeked through the curtain. Two armored trucks packed with teenage soldiers idled on the street below. Dressed in torn and dirty khaki outfits, red kerchiefs wrapped around their foreheads, the teenagers carried submachine guns and icy stares, gaunt cheeks awake with angry determination. Death was their daily routine, the sight of a bloated corpse much like a sack of rice.

Chan Kim entwined her fingers and tapped her thumbs. Baby Chavy had been ill for three days, suffering from fever and diarrhea, and was in no shape for a lengthy march in April’s dusty and scorching heat. Chan Kim had found it difficult to keep the six-month-old baby hydrated even in the relative coolness of the apartment. Where could she hide in the tiny one-bedroom apartment? Maybe the bedroom closet? Maybe the soldiers won’t search the apartment building? Their grim faces were exhausted. Why would they care if one mother and her sick baby stayed in the city? Chan Kim was prepared to take her chances against American B52 bombers.

She was about to move Chavy’s cradle into the bedroom closet, when the man shouted through the megaphone, “Anyone found hiding will be shot on sight.” His voice was clipped, angry, imminently clear about Chan Kim’s fate were she to ignore the orders.

The young mother peeked through the curtains. People were assembling on the street. Young and old, mothers and children, they carried blankets and plastic bags, and stood resigned, shoulders stooped, chatting in whispers. A soldier pointed his rifle at the sky and fired a barrage. Empty cartridges popped out from his gun and fell to the dusty street. Sobbing children rushed to hide in their mother’s laps.

Trying to decide what to do, Chan Kim snapped her fingers rapidly and paced by the window, when heavy footsteps sounded on the stairway to the second floor. She ran to the bedroom, where she wrapped a cotton sling over her left shoulder, and then rushed to Chavy’s cradle. She lifted the baby and placed her in the sling. The infant started to cry.
            “Shoosh, my little one,” Chan Kim whispered, but Chavy continued to weep. Her face turned red and she soiled her diaper with runny, smelly feces.
            The front door swung open and Chan Kim stared into the barrel of a submachine gun held by a teenager with bloodshot eyes filled with hatred. Knowing her and Chavy’s lives hung by a thread, Chan Kim bowed deeply and said, “I am coming, my baby is sick— ”
            “I don’t care about your stupid baby,” the soldier yelled, the barrel of his gun pressing against Chan Kim’s throbbing temple. “Move your boney ass or I’ll shoot your stupid baby.” He aimed his gun at Chavy’s tiny head.
            “Yes sir,” Chan Kim said breathlessly.
            Wearing a maroon cotton shirt and a skirt that reached her ankles, a yellow scarf wrapped around her shoulders, baby Chavy lying in the sling and crying, Chan Kim rushed out of the apartment she’d never see again. Feeling the soldier’s murderous stare penetrating her back, she ran down the stairs and lost her footing. Trying to shield her baby, Chan Kim fell sideways and landed on her shoulder. The side of her head struck the stairs. Jagged lights exploded inside her head, but she refused to faint. Eyes blurry, she jumped up and ran out to the street. Baby Chavy was choking on her tears, crying guttural, scattered with hiccups.
            Chan Kim sat on the gravel and tried to focus her eyes. The buildings swayed; swishing noises, like distant waves, rumbled inside her head.
            “Chan, are you all right?”
            The young mother recognized Punthea’s gentle voice and looked up at her elderly neighbor. The old woman’s light-green eyes flickered with concern, and her rough, wrinkly fingers pressed lightly on Chan Kim’s shoulder.
            “I tripped on the stairs and hit my head.”
            Punthea squinted and examined the right side of Chan Kim’s forehead. “You have quite the gash.” She brought out a handkerchief from her skirt pocket. “Here. Press this against the wound.”
            Chan Kim’s vision had settled, but her head throbbed. She feared standing up, unsure if she could walk. A great deal of commotion sounded around her—shouting soldiers, rumbling engines, nervous chatter of huddled families—but all she could hear was her baby’s crying.
            “Chavy needs her diaper changed, but I don’t have any,” she said.
            “Let me see what I can do.” Punthea reached in to lift the baby from the sling.
            Chan Kim sat cross-legged on the dusty street, face buried in her palms, eyes shut, heart racing. Overcome by the memory of the gun pointing at her baby’s head, she heaved on the dirt pavement.
            She was trying to catch her breath when the man holding the megaphone shouted, “Everyone start walking. Long live Angkor and Khmer Rouge.”
            Chan Kim stood up while her bleary eyes searched for Punthea who was holding baby Chavy and standing beside her husband, Prak. The armored trucks set in motion and raised clouds of dust that aggravated Chan Kim’s headache. She touched the gash on her forehead; blood still dripped from the cut, but was starting to coagulate. She pressed the handkerchief tightly against the wound.
            Punthea and Prak were by her side. “Can you walk?” he asked.
            “Yes.” Chan Kim reached out to take her baby and nestled her in the sling. Chavy’s new diaper was a swath from a shirt. She was awake and sucking on a piece of flat bread, and cooed when she recognized her mother.
            “I see you’re feeling better,” Chan Kim said softly, and tried to shield the baby from the diesel fumes and clouds of dust swirling around them.
            The marching column had reached an intersection and was united with two more groups. Chan Kim was now in a group of hundreds. Some carried belongings but many had only the shirt on their back.  
            “What is happening? Is it true the Americans will bomb Phnom Penh?” she asked Prak.
            The thin, elderly man, legs bowed, cheeks plowed with wrinkles, bald scalp glistening with sweat, shook his head. “Khmer Rouge is trouble. I don’t know what they’re doing, and neither do their leaders.”
            “I thought Cambodia would be liberated when they won the war, that the siege would be over,” Punthea said and offered Chan Kim a canteen of water. “Sprinkle some on the kerchief and rinse out the wound. You don’t want it to get infected.” 
            Prak’s abundant crow’s feet tightened as he narrowed his eyes at his wife. “You believe anything. You still think the Americans are good people.” He pointed to the submachine gun wielding teenagers and seethed, “Dong kov cheag Pi sacig Aagn, the worms from our own skin.”
            Punthea glared at her husband. “There’s no need to be rude. We have—” She stopped talking when shouts rang out a short distance ahead of them. Two soldiers dismounted their vehicle and pulled a man out from the marching convoy. The man fell to his knees. “I was only doing my job,” he cried. Urine trickled through his pants and formed a puddle around his knees.
            “You are a capitalist pig,” one of the soldiers shouted and pressed the barrel of his submachine gun against the man’s forehead. 
            The man clasped his hands and shrilled. “Please. I swear loyalty to Khmer Rouge.”

“To preserve you is no gain. To destroy you is no loss,” the soldier said and pulled the trigger. The bullet pierced the man’s forehead. He collapsed to the ground. A pool of blood formed beneath his ruptured skull.

A woman screamed and rushed to kneel by the man. She was accompanied by two preteen girls who circled their dead father and wept. The soldier looked to his commander, a bald-headed man, eyes obscured by dark shades, who stood in the armored truck. The commander nodded. His eyes narrowed and unblinking, the soldier swiftly discharged three bullets into the back of the mother and her two daughters’ heads. They fell to the ground and died without a sound.

“Do not look at the soldiers. Do not look at the victims. Keep your heads down,” Prak whispered.

Dizzy and trembling, Chan Kim fought to stay on her feet. As deeply as she breathed, not enough air came. Her heartbeat rushed faster than it ever had. She kept her gaze fixated on the barefoot man marching in front of her. His feet were heavily calloused and raised tiny puffs of dust.

“Stay strong for Chavy,” she whispered under her labored breath. The baby had fallen asleep. Chan Kim gazed lovingly at Chavy’s delicate face—tiny nose, long eyelashes, wide, generous lips, innocent forehead—and could breathe again.

The murdered family left to lie in the dust, the convoy now marched by the city’s main market. Empty stalls, shuttered stores, and ghostly silence had replaced the gregarious shouting of bartering merchants, the smells of fresh fish and ripe bananas, and the chatty high-pitched clamor of housewives.

The convoy turned left and marched down a wide boulevard lined with white two-story houses, wide porches sporting hammocks and wicker chairs. The houses exuded a leisurely French Colonial opulence, but now they stood empty, wide windows like curious eyes staring at the throng of people below.

“My knees hurt,” Prak whispered through clenched teeth.

Punthea reached for his elbow. “Hold on to my arm.”

Prak jerked his arm away and snapped, “I’ll be fine.”

Punthea smiled meekly at Chan Kim. “Prak was a feisty young man before I met him. One day, the police beat him. They struck him with batons across his knees. Lately his injuries have flared up. Eucalyptus oil helps, but I didn’t bring any with us.”

“I’ll be fine,” Prak said in a loud whisper. He spread his legs wider apart to even his body’s weight. “Don’t say another word about my knees.”

They were walking by the Buddhist temple Chan Kim used to attend with her husband, Boran. Two sides open to the wind, its golden pagoda reflected the late afternoon sun. Surrounded by thin white pillars connected by a white picket fence, the temple projected harmony and unity with the dense white clouds floating above.

Boran had disappeared four months before, only eight weeks after Chavy was born. On a Monday morning, after a breakfast of rice and pineapple, he’d caressed the baby’s emerging curls and smiled at his wife. “I’ll see you tonight. I love you.”

Chan Kim smiled. “I love you.”

Boran kissed her and set out to work at the radio station where he was a technician. The six o’clock hour passed but he failed to return home. After an anxious night and sick with worry, Chan Kim went to the radio station. The station manager said Boran left at five the day before, as he always did.

 Chan Kim returned home and sat in the kitchen, her body as rigid as a tree stump. She remained in the chair and waited all day and all night. When dawn broke, she knew that Boran was never coming home. Boran was dead. Who killed him and why, she never found out, but that was around the time when other men, like whiffs of smoke from a smoldering fire, disappeared silently and never returned. Sitting at the kitchen table on that dawn, she let out a guttural moan filled with sorrow beyond what she imagined she could endure. But endure she had, for the sake of little Chavy.

 

“Khmer says that God is dead,” Prak said, lovingly observing the temple.

“How can someone be so arrogant to say that?” Punthea asked.

“Sometimes, I wonder myself,” Chan Kim said, heart aching with memories of her husband. She knew that blaming God, real or imagined, for Boran’s death was childish. Boran died by the hands of his fellow man, someone with free will who made the choice to act cruelly rather than compassionately. And when man chooses to be cruel, like the Khmer Rouge, that amounted to no good. A chill ran down Chan Kim’s sweaty back: something terribly wrong was happening to the citizens of Phnom Penh.

A sensation clear as daylight seized her heart: millions are going to die a useless, unceremonious death by the hands of men too proud to admit mortal shortcomings. Pride constituted a great sin in Chan Kim’s worldview.

Shouting sounded behind her, then shots and screams, but the human horde continued to march silently. Two soldiers walked by. No older than fourteen, barefoot, short and skinny, dwarfed by submachine guns built for men twice their size, their white cotton pants torn and filthy, cigarettes dangled from their lips, and their glassy-red eyes sparkled with mute indifference.

What happened to them, Chan Kim thought. She recalled her teen years, shrouded in poverty but also in safety, her devoted parents, Nary and Vannak, the high school teacher, Mrs. Kolab, whose endowed bosom fascinated the preteen girl who wondered how breasts emerged and grew so large. She touched her own breasts—small and stingy with mother’s milk. She was able to nurse Chavy once a day, in the morning, but otherwise the baby would suckle only to cry when the breast proved dry.

The boy soldiers picked up pace and moved to the front of the column. A morbid silence surrounded Chan Kim—dull scraping feet across gravel, muted cries of infants quickly silenced by mothers, metallic creaking of armored trucks.

“Notice the soldier’s eyes,” Prak whispered. “That’s from sniffing glue. Their brains are rotting.”

“Poor boys,” Punthea said. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better,” Prak said.

“How quickly we revert to becoming animals,” Punthea said.

“Animals?” Prak’s voice vibrated with a growl. “Animals don’t kill their own, don’t take glee in other’s misery. They’re not animals, they’re monsters. And it’s all the American’s fault. If they hadn’t invaded Vietnam, we wouldn’t be walking to our death.”

“Death? Why say such things?” Punthea knit her brow. “We’re not going to die.”

Prak squinted angrily at his wife but said nothing.

 

They left the city behind and had been marching for three hours. The late afternoon sun set westward. The countryside, usually alive with squawking parrots and the barks of monkeys, was quiet.

Chavy woke up and started to cry. Chan Kim tried to nurse her, but the infant, face flush, couldn’t be consoled. Chan felt her daughter’s sizzling brow.

“Chavy has a high fever,” she said to the elderly couple.

Punthea handed the water canteen to Chan Kim. The canteen was less than half full. Chan trickled water sparingly into her daughter’s mouth. The baby’s tongue was coated with white mucus, and her gums had swelled.

Perhaps it was Chavy’s crying, or maybe the sun hiding behind the clouds, but other babies started to cry. The earlier, mournful silence now vibrated with sobbing infants incapable of quietly reasoning why they were cast into a mass of strangers marching to oblivion. Alarmed by the crying of other babies, Chavy’s weeping grew louder. Like a colony of frightened bees, the babies joined in raising a ruckus so loud that all the adults could do was cover their ears. The crying continued, with toddlers and children as old as ten adding their shrill voices. Mothers also cried. They shed silent tears, but the babies quickly sensed their mother’s grief, and found new powers within their lungs to protest. Angry soldiers shouted for the mothers to silence their children, and then fired guns in the air. The mothers cried out in fear and tucked their children into their bosom. Feeling their mother’s hearts beating frantically, the babies’ agony grew worse, as did their crying.

“May the Buddha have mercy on us all,” Punthea said breathlessly and clasped her hands.

The tsunami of human misery reached its peak, and then, exhausted and depleted of tears, subsided and set the stage for silence so deeply sad, that Chan Kim found herself wishing for the tearful mayhem to return. Chavy slept in the sling, her breathing labored, limbs twitching from the fever. Her skin glowed with a pink rash.

“She looks so unhappy,” Chan said.

“She’s a strong baby,” Punthea said. “I’m sure she’ll be fine once we settle down for the night.”

The convoy was climbing a tempered hill when Chan Kim looked back. The air froze in her lungs. The throng of people stretched as far as she could see, shrouded by dust rising from their feet. Each tiny puff of dust a monument to one scared soul, the tiny puffs gathered strength and became a gray cloud that hovered over the people and settled in their hair and irritated their eyes.

She turned to Prak. “What are the Khmer Rouge doing?”

Cheekbones tight with pain, torso moving stiffly, Prak shrugged. “ To preserve us is no gain. To destroy us is no loss. I guess that says it all.”

“I don’t understand that saying,” Punthea said.

“They’re communists from the Mao Zedong school,” Prak explained. “Some estimate that as many as forty million people died in China’s cultural revolution.”

“But Cambodia has only nine million people,” Chan Kim said.

“What’s your point?” Prak grumbled.

Chan Kim didn’t have a point. There was no good reason for what was happening, no moral path leading to anything constructive. She grunted angrily. Humanity’s gift and capacity for free will had again proved toxic and murderous.

The tempered slope they’d been climbing turned steeper, and the path narrowed. Exhausted people bumped into one another as bottlenecks of traffic formed. Shots rang not far in front of them. Soon after, Chan Kim passed by the corpse of an old man who wore nice cloths and looked dignified even in death, with a well-trimmed beard and silver hair woven in a tight braid. She recognized him as Mister Sov, the owner of a small apparel factory.

“Dear me,” Punthea clamored beside her. “Mister Sov was a good man, always helping the less fortunate.”

“I only knew him from afar,” Chan said.

“They probably killed him because he owns a factory,” Prak said, then groaned. “This climb is killing my knees.”

Punthea reached out to hold Prak’s elbow. This time, he didn’t resist.

Dusk fell as the climb continued. Gunshots rang in growing regularity as fatigued people fell behind and were executed. Their demise instilled panic in the living who clenched their fists and continued to find strength they hadn’t known dwelled in them.

A clear moonless night had settled when the tip of the convoy reached the top of the hill, and when the Khmer Rouge commanders ordered the people to sleep. With no food, water, blankets, or sanitary facilities, the multitude was allowed to venture off the path and told to lie on the ground.

With a grunt, Prak slowly reclined on the grass and stretched his legs. His knee joints popped like firecrackers. He let out a muted cry.

“Are you okay?” Punthea asked.

“What difference does it make whether I’m okay or not?” he shrilled angrily.

His wife knelt beside him. “Do you want me to rub your knees?”

“No.”

Chan Kim took off her scarf and bundled it into a pillow. She lay down sideways and cradled Chavy in her arms. The baby stirred slightly, but then, comforted by a lullaby Chan whispered in her ear, she puckered her lips noisily and slept.

 

Chan Kim slept deeply, like someone recovering from a long illness, and woke up with the dawn, when Chavy started to cry, her weeping needier than ever. Chan Kim’s heart fluttered with dread and panic. The baby’s fever hadn’t subsided; the pink rash on her arms and face had spread and deepened; her tongue was gray and her breathing wheezed with effort.

“I won’t let you die,” Chan Kim whispered, as tears ran down her cheeks.

2.

Punthea rushed to her side. “What is it? How is Chavy?”

 “Not well,” said Chan Kim and wiped her tears. She set the baby on her bosom and discreetly offered her breast, though no one would’ve cared if she danced naked and howled at the rising sun; they were all too tired to be moved by any spectacle barring food and drink. The baby suckled for a moment but then, breathing through her mouth instead of her stuffy nose, choked on the milk and coughed strenuously. Chan Kim gently patted Chavy across her back and waited for the coughing to subside before letting the infant suckle on whatever milk she had.

“You have one minute before we move on,” the bald-headed commander shouted through the distorted megaphone. “Whoever isn’t walking will die.”

Prak tried to stand up but winced in pain and sat back down. “I can’t walk. My knees are like water.”

“What are you saying?” Punthea said. “You don’t have a choice. Now stand up and stay up.”

Prak stood up, and remained standing for a moment before taking a step and losing his footing. He sat down and shook his head. “I can’t walk.”

“Let us help,” Punthea said, and motioned Chan Kim to come over.

The concerned wife and Chan Kim placed their hands under Prak’s armpits and helped him stand up. Prak tried to balance but couldn’t put any weight on his knees.

“Leave me be,” he said and sat on the dirt.

“I will not leave you be,” Punthea shouted, hysteria creeping into her voice. Around them people hurried toward the path and stood in groups waiting for the order to march.

“Listen to me, you foolish woman,” Prak hissed in a low voice. “Remember what happened to the woman who cried when her husband was shot? She died, as did her daughters. Now stop making a scene and walk away from me, so no one knows we are related. The last thing I need in my next life is having your death on my conscious.”

Punthea started to shake. Her neck withdrew into her shoulders; fingers curled and fidgeting like angry snakes, her wide-open eyes darted fearfully. Most people had gathered on the path, and the three of them stood conspicuously apart.

Prak looked up at Chan Kim, who was paralyzed with indecision. Gunshots, like the devil’s whip, sounded close by. Prak pointed to his wife. “I need you to get her to the path. Get her out of here, quickly! The soldiers are coming.” His head jerked to the left.

Chan Kim saw the four soldiers walking toward them. Suddenly, all she could think about was Chavy’s survival. She grabbed Punthea’s arm and pulled her toward the path, but the old woman wrestled her arm loose.

“My place is with my husband,” she said calmly and handed Chan Kim the bag with the food and the water canteen. “Now go.”

Chan Kim looked in Punthea’s eyes. Serenity dwelt in them, one she couldn’t argue with.

“May you achieve Nirvana,” Chan Kim whispered. She ran to the path and melted into the silent horde looking on.

The soldiers converged on Prak who sat on the ground, legs crossed.

“Walk or die,” said a youngster with a green kerchief shielding his forehead and placed the barrel of his gun against Prak’s temple.

Dong kov cheag Pi sacig Aagn,” the old man shouted and spit on the soldier’s bare feet.

“Worms from our own skin? What the hell does that mean?” the soldier said, and chuckled as he fired a bullet into Prak’s head.

Prak slumped to the ground, brains dripping from his shattered skull. Punthea fell on his body and pleaded, “Shoot me, so I can join my husband.”

“To preserve you is no gain. To destroy you is no loss,” the soldier said, the words mechanical, as were his cold eyes, as was his finger pulling the trigger.

Chan Kim shut her eyes tightly and trembled in horror. She would’ve liked to beg the soldiers for mercy, however improbable, but she could do nothing, say nothing, for if she yelled out her contempt, Chavy’s sake was at stake. The baby was crying softly, little energy left in her to wail with authority.

 

Prak’s and Punthea’s bodies were left to rot by the roadside atop the hill, while the convoy marched on. The morning was a hot one, and Chan Kim’s shirt was drenched in sweat. Precious little water remained in the canteen, so she only wet her lips and saved the water for Chavy, who lay listless in the sling, her breathing shallow and quick. Chan Kim hadn’t eaten since breakfast the day before, but she wasn’t hungry. She walked in monotone, body stiff, eyes fixed on her baby, lips mumbling nursery rhymes.

Gaps formed in the convoy, and no amount of threats and bullets proved to mend the chaos and desperation seeping deeper into the ranks. The law abiding citizens of Phnom Penh realized that Armageddon was upon them, that they would all die soon, and that no prayer or deity will rescue them.

Had the citizens made up their mind to resist, even though they had no weapons, they could have overcome the ragtag army enslaving them. A hundred able men marched to the threat of one gun, yet they didn’t find the courage to swarm their aggressors. For who will be first to stand and shout, “We’re not sheep. We are men,” and rush his captor?

These thoughts plagued Chan Kim. For the first time since the march began, angry feelings consumed her, but she, like the rest of Phnom Penh’s citizens, chose to tuck them deep under her breath. The teachings of her parents, devout Buddhists, had taught her that violence was never a solution for anything. Violence only served to exasperate a situation, no matter how dire. But now, marching in a column of defeated people, her baby girl fighting to live, Chan Kim wasn’t sure if her parents were right. Maybe resistance is sometimes needed for one to retain human dignity, to rise against becoming a doormat.

Chavy opened her puffy eyes and stared bewildered at the face hovering above her. The baby’s eyes were filled with the exhaustion and sadness of an old woman.

Chan Kim forced a smile and said, “Hello, precious.”

She trickled water into Chavy’s mouth and wiped her face. The infant licked her crusted lips and let out a whimper that pierced Chan Kim’s heart like a dagger. Never had she been more helpless. Tears clouded her eyes.

You’ll get better soon, I promise,” she said.

A tear dripped from her eye and landed on the baby’s forehead.

 

Chan Kim shut out the world—heat and humidity, grunting of the elderly, crying of infants, a soldier’s gunshots and cussing. She marched one foot following another and never took her eyes off Chavy. She put aside religious skepticism and prayed to Buddha, beseeching him to heal her daughter, to prove that compassion and sanity lived within the madness, that miracles did happen, that the power of prayer and faith could withstand and defeat evil and ignorance. But every time Chavy opened her eyes, less of life dwelled in them.

The full realization that her daughter was dying gripped Chan Kim in a torturous squeeze. She looked up at the people marching with her, faces tight with the will to survive, eyes remote and still. Darting their pupils was an expenditure of energy they couldn’t afford.

“My daughter is dying, please help me,” she said to the woman walking behind her.

“I cannot help your baby,” the woman said with empathy. “I have nothing. Trust in God.” She had deep-brown eyes, almost European in their roundness.

“But what if God doesn’t help?” Chan Kim said.

The woman smiled weakly. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

“Please, someone help me,” Chan Kim said, her shaky voice rising.

Everyone stared at the back of the person walking in front of them, or the ground beneath their shuffling feet, anywhere to escape the probing eyes of the young mother fighting to save her daughter.

“You have children, you must know what it feels like—” Chan Kim cried when a man, relatively young and healthy looking, cut her off and snapped, “Hush, or you’ll get us all in trouble.”

No one protested his cruel remark. Chan Kim wept silently and kept on walking.


Ilan Herman is a musical producer and a piano player (www.emily-music.com) who is always in quest of writing a good yarn. Visit www.scribd.com/ilan-herman to read more of his work.

To read Ilan Herman’s comments on Bart Scagnelli’s “Regrets,” click here.

______________
Notes from Denis J. Underwood, Online Managing Editor

Ilan Herman placed me smack in the middle of a death march. The scenes, with their sounds, smells and action are well-realized. Following the people caught up in the relentless march, I glimpsed what it’s like to live in a time and place where life has no worth. I read on, driven by the pace, buoyed by the humanity and dignity of some of the survivors. There are keen descriptions and the writing’s clean with strong narrative tension and emotion. There’s a sick baby too — Chan Kim’s innocent charge — and I’m not sure whether she’s going to make it or not. Herman doesn’t hold much back and that’s why his writing resonates and stayed with me long after I was done reading.

______________
Comments on this story by Terry Sanville, author of “The Way Things Happen”
Flashback! Flashback! This excerpt from Ilan Herman’s novel took me back to Southeast Asia, to that insane time during the Vietnam War when pointless suffering and violence were televised on the nightly news. It begins in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with a gripping action sequence – residents forced from their homes by the murderous Kmer Rouge and marched at gunpoint to what we readers can guess will be their own Killing Fields. We witness this irrational world through Chan Kim’s eyes. She’s a young mother struggling to keep her feverish baby alive while teenage thugs toting oversized assault weapons summarily execute the elderly, disabled, and the politically incorrect.

But despite Ilan’s excellent narrative, I found myself numbed by the atrocities he so vividly portrays, maybe because they continue to occur – in Darfur, in Somalia, at Abu Ghraib, and other places where fanaticism reigns. Chan Kim says Buddhists teach that violence is never a solution for anything. This story reminds us that our world is still not committed to solutions. A depressing tale? Maybe, but a good read with a message worth repeating lest we become tolerant of the intolerable.




%d bloggers like this: