Trial and Tragedy
At the time when we arrived in Ponlear Chey’s village it was harvesting season. Therefore, most of the new people were asked to help harvest the rice crops in every way they could. Those who could use the sickles would help cut the rice stems, while others walked around the fields collecting the bundles of harvested rice stems and loading them onto the oxcarts. As for children like me who had never carried a sickle before, we were given either a basket or a little bag to take along with us and go into the harvested fields to pick up any stem of rice seeds kour srov which had been broken off during the harvesting process.
Following the universal policy of the Khmer Rouge, people were divided into work brigades according to their ages, not their abilities. My father once again went to work at the village’s crafting center, while my mother and the rest of my older brothers went to work in the rice fields. Once the rice harvesting was done, all the adults were mobilized to build dikes or dig small canals in preparation for the upcoming planting season. As for the children, we were once again ordered to go into the fields to collect dried cattle dung and bring them to the compost pits to be turned into fertilizer. Every morning, I set off along with Oss, our host’s son, to look after the water buffalos while, at the same time, collecting any dried cattle dung we might find in the fields to bring back to the compost pits. Oss taught me how to ride and handle water buffalo while we were out in the fields. Though I was still afraid of the beasts, my experience with the young oxen in Prek Rumdeng had given me some confidence to overcome my fear. So with Oss as my instructor, I climbed up on the back of one of the buffalos to ride along with him. It was my maiden ride on the back of a water buffalo, and the experience was rather exhilarating for me. However, as I belatedly learned upon the conclusion of my ride, the water buffalo’s back and its skin gave me the greatest surprise of a life time. Oss showed me how to ride on the water buffalo’s back, but he didn’t tell me how or where to sit on it. Naively, I sat close to its shoulder where the beast’s vertebra protruded upward. As a result, the end of my behind smacked right against the protruded vertebra which caused severe inflammation to that sensitive area. As soon as I dismounted from the water buffalo’s back, I knew that something was wrong with my rear end. The pain was so excruciating that it gave me renewed respect for the expression “pain in the butt.” In addition, I was wearing shorts while riding on the water buffalo’s back, and as my skin touched the beast’s hide, rashes and blisters developed all over my legs. Upon arriving home, I was in very bad shape and crying in pain. After inspecting the rashes and blisters on my legs, Om Po brought me a handful of rice kernels and told me to put the grains into my mouth and chew on them until they became milky powder, then sprayed it onto my affected legs. I did as told, and afterward, lay down on my stomach to recover from the ordeal.
It took me a few days to recover from the painful skin rashes and the unmentionable inflammation in my behind. I didn’t know whether the rice kernels remedy healed my skin rashes or if it was my frequent bathing; but, whatever cured me, I was so thankful. From that ordeal, I learned that my skin rashes and blisters were an allergic condition Cambodian farm folks called Skear, which resulted from first-time contact with the buffalo’s hide that, needless to say, was filthy with mud and murky water in which the animal wallowed to protect its skin from sunburn. As I rode on the buffalo’s back, the area where my skin touched its hide heated up, which, coupling with the heat from the sun, caused me to sweat. It was the interaction of my sweat and the buffalo’s filthy hide that produced rashes and blisters on my skin, an allergy that I discovered the hard way.
After my debacle with the water buffalo ride, I took on yet another experiment in my endless trial to fit in with the local kids and their ways of life. This time, it was palm trees that captured my interest. Living across the street from us there was a boy named Penh, who was about my age. I had been eying him for some time as he was climbing a palm tree called Tnaut behind his house to collect its sap. One day, I approached him and inquired about how one could learn to climb and produce palm sap. Penh told me how it was done. But I was not satisfied. So I asked him if I could climb after him to see how it was done. To my absolute delight, Penh agreed to show me how to climb and produce palm sap. Before long, I was up on top of a palm tree. Penh took out a pair of round bamboo sticks about an inch in diameter and 3 feet in length. The bamboo sticks were tied together at one end. Penh held the other ends of the bamboo sticks in each hand and spread them apart like bush cutting scissors. He put the palm tree’s flower in between the bamboo’s sticks close to the area where they were tied together and gently squeezed the palm’s flower from the base to its tip. After squeezing it, Penh pulled out a sharp knife to cut off a thin slide from the tip of the flower while explaining to me the entire process of producing palm tree’s sap. He told me, to get the sap flowing, one must squeeze the palm’s flower with the bamboo’s sticks for at least one week. Each palm flower could produce between 1 to 2 liters of sap per night.
Climbing palm trees was not something for the faint of heart to do. It was a dangerous proposition. Any misstep meant that the climber would fall to his death or, if he was fortunate to survive the fall, be disabled for life. I was the only new people’s kid in Ponlear Chey who had the guts to climb up palm trees. Hence, my unusual bravery soon got some notoriety in the village.
One day a man named Saroeun approached me and inquired if I would be interested in going along with him to help collect palm tree sap. Like us, Saroeun was new to the village. He was a former medical student who had been banished from the city. During his youth living in Takeo province, Saroeun used to climb up palm trees to collect their sap. After arriving in Ponlear Chey, he volunteered to join the village’s palm trees sap collecting team which was composed of about five men. In my eagerness to learn how to produce palm sap, I tagged along with Saroeun without giving it much thought. At first, Saroeun let me climb only the short trees while he was tackling the taller ones. However, when he didn’t feel well, sometimes I would climb up and collect sap from all the trees for him while he was standing on the ground giving me instructions.
Due to the primitive living conditions, life in Ponlear Chey was tough for all of us, especially the new people. The barren landscape appeared to be devoid of vegetation. Beside the rice fields and palm trees, it seemed that not much else could grow in the area. Most villagers had already had a tough time eking out a living prior to our arrival. Thus, the influx of new people put even more strain on the village’s resources. The rice crops which we helped harvested upon our arrival were kept in a communal granary. Each week, every family was given a ration of these rice grains to consume according to the number of people in the family. Once we received the rice grains, we had to mill them by hand with pestle and mortar.
The process of cleaning husks from the rice grains was an arduous task which required both brute force and patience. It was usually done by women, for men were probably too impatient to get the job done properly without spilling all the grains onto the ground. There were eight people in our family, and my mother didn’t have any daughters to help her with the rice milling process. So she soldiered on alone with this backbreaking work to produce food to feed us. After seeing my mother exhaustively doing what appeared to be a never ending task of breaking rice husks to obtain the necessary kernels to feed us, I felt that there had to be something we could do to help her. One day, as she was husking rice grains along with Om Po, I went down to see them work. After watching them for a while, I asked my mother to let me pound on the grains for her. My mother reluctantly gave me the pestle as she was concerned that my inexperienced hands might cause the precious grains to spill onto the ground which could deplete our meager food supply. Om Po told me to put an old mat underneath the mortar just in case I misguided the pestle and cause the grain spillage. After some trial and error, I finally mastered the rice pounding skill. From that point on, my mother was doing only the light tasks of separating the broken husks from the rice kernels while leaving the heavy work of pounding the grains to me. Sama, my brother, sometimes helped me pound the rice grains, if he was not being sent to work far away from home with the youth brigade. Both of us would perform this hard work until the time when we were no longer allowed to eat at home individually.
As the rainfall began, people in the village were mobilized to prepare lands and seedlings for the crop growing season. Those, especially men, who could handle plows, were given the tasks of tilling the lands for planting. As for the rest of the people, they would be ordered to do whatever was needed to get the rice seedlings planted in the muddy soil before the rainy season passed on. All of a sudden, the barren landscapes were alive with people everywhere. One could not help but noticing that, with people lining up to transplant rice seedlings as far as the eye could see, the whole place looked like a gigantic agricultural assembly line.
Rice planting was and is backbreaking work. The process of tilling the lands, growing the seedlings in the nurseries, and transplanting the seedlings by hand in the muddy soil two or three stems at a time demanded a lot of effort. Hence, the grueling regimen eventually took a tremendous toll on our health, especially new people who had never before been conditioned to perform such strenuous work. Because we were mentally and physically not fully prepared to cope with such a demanding condition, our health deteriorated rapidly. On top of that, we were given only a small ration of rice to eat without anything else to supplement it. The weekly ration was just barely enough for us to stave off starvation. As a result, we grew weaker by the day. But what worried us the most was malarial disease which appeared to be prevalent in the area where we lived.
As the rainy reason began in full swing, the emergence of malaria-borne mosquitoes appeared to be everywhere. Because of our primitive living condition and the lack of protection from mosquito bites, there was little chance for us to protect ourselves from malarial diseases. There were a couple of old mosquito nets that we still had in our possession. Every night, we would crawl inside them to sleep. But that flimsy line of defense was no match for the cunning mosquitoes. Soon we were struck down by malaria one after another. The first person to succumb to malaria was my father. Each day he would suffer a few bouts of shivering and sweating before the disease gave him a short break. I remembered each time my father went into shivering, he would ask me to put a couple of blankets to cover him and lie on top of his uncontrollably shaking body to keep him warm.
My father was not the only one who suffered malarial attacks. My brothers Hong, Heang, Sokha, Sama, and I, myself, were also struck down by malaria. Even Kne, my nemesis, was unfortunate enough to suffer from this dreadful disease. Though all of us suffered and recovered from malaria with only minor concern to our well being, Kne came close to dying during her harrowing struggle to overcome the grip of malarial attack. Her case was plasmodium falciparum in its purest form. I remembered seeing her ghostly body lying listlessly in the house. Kne’s hair had been falling off. As a consequence, her head became bald. Her mother, Om Po, was doing everything she could to help her recover. She even resorted to shamanism, despite the Khmer Rouge’s ban on such practices. But, in her desperation, she discreetly invited a village’s shaman to perform a spell to cast away whatever spirit possessed Kne. Miraculously, Kne recovered from her ordeal, whether because the shaman freed her from the possessive spirit or because her mother gave her a number of homemade medicinal remedies, nobody knew. What mattered most to everyone was that she had cheated death by pulling herself away from the dreaded stranglehold of cerebral falciparum. After we all took turns to complete our battles with plasmodium falciparum, the disease seemed to fade away along with the rain.
(To be continued)