LONG LOVE, SHORT LIFE-CHAPTER 1
LONG LOVE, SHORT LIFE
A BROKEN CHAIN FINDS LOVE
Like many other poor Cambodian students, Udom Duongchan lived in a hut behind her high school in Tonle – in Takeo province – since her mother lived about 30 km away from the school. The hut was basic and made of thatch and coconut palm leaves, much like the huts used by the Vietcong in the jungle during the Vietnam War.
Almost every weekend, the 18-year-old schoolgirl would cycle all the way to her mother’s home along the badly damaged National Route 2 – left in bad condition by the country’s civil war and especially by the actions of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge – to collect rice, salted fish, and other items, before having to cycle back to her school in time for the new week of lessons. With the poor road condition and many potholes, it would take her about three hours to make the journey one way.
The food that Duongchan carried from her mom’s home would be enough to sustain her for the next two weeks. Duongchan’s features were much like many other Cambodian’s in the 1980s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge; thin, flat belly and chest, and pale skin as a result of malnutrition and the many illnesses that came from poor sanitation.
Duongchan’s father had joined the pro-republican forces led by General Lon Nol, whose US backed actions had ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk from power in the coup of March 1970. Five years later, the Khmer Republicans had lost the war to the Khmer Rouge who entered Phnom Penh in April 1975 and took power. Duongchan’s father was later rounded up by communist soldiers and accused of working for the CIA. Her father was taken away by the Khmer Rouge soldiers and was never seen again. They never knew his fate.
This unfortunate Southeast Asian nation had suffered much in the last few decades; first the effects and US bombings from the Vietnam War of 1965-1975, then its own civil war from 1970, and then the genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot, the architect of the Khmer Rouge, who came to power and plunged the country into darkness on the 17th April 1975.
Cambodia’s infrastructure had been virtually destroyed at the bloody hands of the Khmer Rouge, who ruled the country for 3 years, 8 months and 20 days between 1975 and 1979 during which time more than 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, diseases, and forced labour.
The two wars drove Cambodia’s infrastructure and people into an abyss, leaving the country isolated from the world. People likened Cambodia’s situation at the time to “living like a frog at the bottom of a well”; knowing nothing about what is happening in the outside world.
It was September and the monsoon rain was beating down. Thunderstorms were above all the villages on National Route 2 which links Phnom Penh to the south of Cambodia and Takeo province which borders Vietnam.
In Cambodia then, the traffic was slow. Almost all travellers used bicycles as their means of getting from one village to another and occasionally you would see one or two Vietnamese trucks carrying supplies from Vietnam to supply the Vietnamese troops stationed deep inside Cambodia, mainly where Cambodian villages were still being terrorised by Khmer Rouge rebels.
Such bad weather meant a bad day for the girl. But like it or not, the poor girl had no choice but to make the journey, and so it had been for nearly three years since she moved to attend high school in Kiri district which borders with Vietnam. Duongchan’s family, like many others in the village, live from hand to mouth. All they had to keep them going was working in the rice fields, cultivating and harvesting two seasonal crops each year, including wet and dry season rice.
There were potholes everywhere on National Route 2 and the old tarmac was falling apart, which made it difficult for Duongchan to ride her bike. Her bad day got worse when her bicycle broke, one end of the chain clinging to the bike while the other lay on the muddy ground. Wet and miserable, she began walking along the road in the pouring rain, the weather and almost darkness of the storm making it difficult for people to recognise each other.
Reach Dara, 20, was her classmate. He was from a middle class family; his parents were businesspeople since they returned from being refugees in Vietnam after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Dara’s features were half-Khmer and half-Chinese, but his classmates, including Duongchan, saw his feature as being those of the communist North Vietnamese Viet Cong instead. He was on his way in the opposite direction to Duongchan after visiting his uncle in Kompong Chrey village. As he was about halfway home, he spotted a young girl student struggling in the heavy rain. If it hadn’t been for the sudden light from a lightning strike, he might never have noticed her.
Being good hearted, Dara could not drive past her. He stopped and approached the girl and was shocked when he realised that the girl was his classmate. Soaked through, she was trembling and shivering and looked frightened by the power of the heavy cold rain and the shadows of the dark sky.
Dara spoke softly but loud enough to be heard over the noise of the weather.
“Is that Duongchan?”
“Yes it’s me,” she said, and then asked, “Who are you?”
"This is your classmate. Do you not remember me; the guy you call Mr. Viet Cong? I sit in the second row behind you in class.”
To be continued...
“Oh! Hi. I am sorry I could not recognise your face because of the pouring rain. And I can hardly hear you because of the thunder. Where are you coming from?”
“I have been visiting my uncle who lives about six km from here.” Dara pointed in the direction of his uncle’s village. “What happened to your bicycle?”
“The chain is broken,” she replied.
Dara could not stand and watch how miserable Duongchan looked so he handed her his jacket to put on and keep warm.
“Please put on my jacket and I will try and fix your bicycle,” he said.
Dara looked around and saw there was no bicycle repairer so he also pulled his scarf from his bag and gave it to Duongchan to cover herself, making her feel warmer as they both stood under a big tree at the side of the road to shelter from the rain.
Duongchan’s white thin blouse was so wet and dirty from the rain and from cycling along the muddy road. She did not have many clothes and had to wear it a lot for school. Because her blouse was so wet, Dara could clearly see the red bra she wore underneath and he could feel his heart beat faster. How beautiful this girl was. He could feel love taking hold of his heart and he found himself blurting out shy and clumsy praise.
“You are far more strong and beautiful than the other girls in class.”
“I am not that strong, but maybe I am cute. If I was strong I could fix my bicycle chain,” she replied and tried to smile although she was shivering. Her answer made Dara’s feelings become stronger and he wanted to help her as much as he could.
He got a pack of Vietnamese instant noodles - lobster flavour - from his bag and gave it to Duongchan, saying, “My friend, please eat this and I will try and fix your bicycle”.
But he could not fix the broken chain. The spanner and the screw driver he had in his motorcycle bag would not work with the old bicycle because of different screw sizes.
The rain continued falling and he couldn’t just stand and watch Duongchan who was cold and was still shivering.
“I have an idea… and…” Dara said.
She interrupted. “What is your idea?”
“We can leave your bicycle with a villager here. I can give you a lift home and I will get this bicycle to your home later,” he said. “How does that sound?”
“That sounds like a good idea,” she answered as Dara walked the bicycle to a villager’s house nearby. She shouted; “Do not lose my bicycle. That bicycle is everything I have.”
He turned and looked at Duongchan, saying “It is OK. I understand that since I have seen you riding it for three years now.”
Dara returned and saw Duongchan was still trembling in the cold rain. She looked frail after more than one hour’s cycling from the school.
“Please get on my scooter and I’ll take you home,” Dara insisted.
It was the first time she had ever been on a motorbike since she was born in 1969.
As Dara drove, she cried, “Do not drive so fast, I’m scared.”
He almost laughed, saying, “It is normal for someone getting on a scooter to think it feels fast when they’ve been cycling for so long.” Duongchan felt better once the rain had stopped.
“How much longer will it take to reach your house?” He asked.
“Do I bother you? She asked.
“Not at all, just tell me how far please, I’m just asking,” Dara replied.
“It is still about half an hour away,” she answered, “Are you Ok?
“No problem then. I can drive all day and night,” he said. “But one thing I am worried about is that the Khmer rouge could kidnap you.”
“You are quite right. The Khmer Rouge attacked my village about two months ago and they slaughtered pigs and cows and took the meat and rice as well as stealing clothes from the villagers, even my mum’s blouse.”
Dara was shocked at first but then laughed till tears came out and he almost lost control of his scooter as he drove on the muddy path leading to the village.
“Why are you laughing?” she asked as Dara almost skidded off into a rice field. “We are not going to that rice, but to my mum’s house.”
Dara replied to her, giggling, “The Khmer Rouge fighters have no mercy; they even took your mom’s old blouse.”
“She only has two more left though they are quite old,” she said, adding, “The Khmer rouge attack anything, even taking people hostage. They often take young men like you to join them to fight the Vietnamese troops.”
Dara pretended to not hear what Duongchan had said as he was scared. After driving for a while more, Dara began to get more worried as it was now getting dark. He began slowing down. Then he stopped and peered at Duongchan sitting behind him with bewilderment on his face.
“You are not joking, are you? Dara asked, “The Khmer Rouge soldiers will not attack this evening, will they?”
To be continued...
Duongchan realised that Dara had never experienced the Khmer Rouge’s brutality. “Who knows? Only time will tell. By the way, where did you live while the Khmer Rouge ruled the country?”
“I was in Vietnam and living with my parents as refugees,” said Dara.
Duongchan joked: “I thought you are Vietnamese. You are not Vietnamese, are you?”
“Of course not. Why?” Dara asked.
“I heard from my mum and villagers that the Khmer Rouge hated the Vietnamese so much. The Vietnamese are the number one enemy of the Khmer Rouge,” she said.
“But I am not Vietnamese,” Dara said, and added, “… if Vietnamese soldiers had not driven the Khmer Rouge from power in early 1979, all Cambodians, including you, might have been murdered by the Khmer Rouge. I thank the Khmer Rouge for sparing you.”
“You cannot say that; the Khmer Rouge did not spare my life. I was just too small and so sick and skinny and lived at the orphanage centre in the jungle. They did not bother us there, otherwise I would have been gone,” she said in a broken voice.
“Oh God! Too much is too much. Please stop crying,” Dara consoled as she leaned her face on him.
The sky had begun to clear and the sun was low on the horizon. The rice fields and villages all looked green and beautiful. The branches of the coconut trees were still swaying with the strong wind and birds were singing.
Then the sun had set. The sky was dark and the crickets and frogs were making noise throughout the rice fields on either side as Dara and Duongchan drove along, heading to the village where Duongchan’s mom lived. On the path to Duongchan’s home there are no scooters, only a couple of people bicycling from one village to another. Others are on an oxcart carrying rice seedling plants to the fields for planting.
They arrived in the village and Duongchan’s neighbours came out to greet Duongchan as usual while the children stared at Dara and played with his scooter which was now parked in front of Duongchan’s small house.
Dara raised his hands with the palms together as the Khmer gesture of showing respect (Sompas) to Duongchan’s mum who had just come out from the small house she shared with Duongchan when her daughter was not at school.
It was now past 6pm. Duongchan hurried to prepare food for her classmate who had so kindly brought her home on his Vietnamese-made motor scooter.
“I need to cook rice for you, Dara. We will eat together before you go back. We have some dry fish and Prahok (salted and fermented fish paste, fondly known as ‘Cambodian cheese’),” she said to Dara, while holding dried fishes in her left hand and carrots in the other.
“I thank for your kindness, but it is ok, I am not that hungry. Please take care of yourself and your mum,” Dara said in gentle voice as respect to the young lady, whose mother had nothing but the small house, the bundle of dry fish, the sack of rice, and a can of salt sitting next to a wall made of palm leaves.
“I am sorry, Dara. I do not have as good food as your parents serve you at home,” she said to Dara.
“No worries. That is not the point. But I really want to go home soon because I do not want my mum to be worried about me,” Dara replied.
“It is not a good idea for someone to drive their scooter at night because your scooter makes a loud noise and the Khmer Rouge rebels may hear that and come to get you,” she said, “And your scooter's light might alert the Khmer Rouge soldiers that there is a stranger visiting the village. They will come and get you and take your scooter away.”
“You are trying to scare me, aren’t you?” Dara asked.
“I am serious and you can ask my mum about that if you do not believe me. Please stay with us tonight. You have nothing to lose. I know your mum may worry tonight. But it will be worse if you are killed or captured by the Khmer Rouge.”
As Duongchan spoke to Dara he sat motionless on the rattan chair, being fed on by the mosquitoes since he is a stranger and the insects like this new and fresh blood. Duongchan’s mum is also sitting there and nodding her head as a sign of agreement with her daughter’s thoughts.
In those days the country had no electronic communication, and the only way they could communicate across any distance was by sending a letter. There was no point in Dara sending a letter to his mother for an overnight stay as he would arrive home before the letter. But an urgent task he had to do was to report to the local authority about his stay in the villager as a stranger, and to assure them that he was not a Khmer Rouge agent. Duongchan went to her village chief and told him that she had her classmate Dara staying with her family tonight.
As Duongchan talked to the village chief, Dara looked at the wooden signboard hung on the gate of the village chief which read: “Don’t listen to the enemy, do not believe or hide the enemies, but report them to the authority.”
Dara looked at the surroundings and took a long deep breath, telling himself that it is maybe not such a bad idea to stay overnight at Duongchan’s house. But then he looked around the house and sees that there is little apart from Duongchan’s small bed room. The walls are made of bamboo shoots and covered with coconut branches. Her mum’s room is next to Duongchan’s. He glanced around and spotted an old hammock he could sleep in. So he responded positively to Duongchan, saying, “O.K. I can sleep in the hammock here and I will leave after sunrise in the morning.”
To be continued...
The rain had washed away all the dust and grey grass from the roof of Duongchan’s house, and the coconut and palm trees around the house all looked clean. The moon shone on the tree leaves, reflecting the light, and looking very beautiful to Dara.
The windy evening carried the noises of animals such as crickets and toads from behind Duongchan’s house, making Dara feels like he is spending the night on another planet. He felt tired but he could not sleep in such a threadbare hammock. He walked around inside the house which only measured about 4 metres by 8 metres and he looked through the gap in the wall of the house to see the trees and rice fields.
Duongchan heard Dara’s footstep and she peeped through her room wall and saw all of Dara’s activities. Duongchan’s mother was a sleeping like a baby and snoring loudly like a tired cow after a long day ploughing the rice field. Duongchan came out of her room and stood like a zombie in the dark.
Dara was surprised and asked, “Why did not you go to bed, why have you come out?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I saw all your activities, Dara. I am sorry that my house is not suitable for you and that is why you cannot sleep.”
“Do not mention it. It is ok. Please your return to your bed,” said Dara.
“As long as you are not sleeping, I can sit and chat with you until the sun rises.” Duongchan spoke to Dara in a soft voice like the voice of a ghost spirit from the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge asking for love.
Shortly after Dara heard Duongchan’s sweet voice and she sits beside him, Dara loses his self-control as she moved closer to him. Dara starts to say his first loving thoughts to her.
“You are poor. But you are so beautiful in so many ways, Duongchan. Whichever guy will marry you is the luckiest guy on this whole earth.”
“You are right, maybe… and maybe not… Whoever will marry me could be an unlucky man instead because I am poor and live in this small house,” said Duongchan. “You saw my mother has to work on the farm, planting rice and harvesting the crops to support my living and school costs. But you have parents who have several businesses and can easily support your study.”
On that dark and quiet night, Dara and Duongchan first admitted to themselves that they are falling in love after hiding their feelings for many months. But there were many reasons why they could not show these feelings in public; school regulations, the traditional way of life as Khmer people, and the different economic statuses of their families.
It was now 2am but they both kept talking. At one point, Dara admitted to Duongchan,
“Hey, I saw you when you walked in the class and you know what? I knew I liked you more than any other girl in the class”.
“You like me in which ways?” Duongchan asked.
“Firstly, you are 100 per cent girl,” Dara said, “Number 2, you are just so beautiful in many ways…you name it; your face, your eyes, hair, lips, your brown soft skin, and your soft voice… I cannot describe them all.”
“So you like me in many ways. But you do not love me, do you?” she asked.
“I do love you, Duongchan. But I am shy and have not yet found an appropriate time to tell you this till now.”
“Thank you for all that. I love you, too. I have the same problem. But now I admit it. I have been falling in love with you for about six months but told no-one.”
“The falling rain and the broken chain, the poor house, and the fear of the Khmer Rouge have all contributed to us revealing our secret love. It is not bad, is it?”
“No,” said Duongchan as she bent her body towards him.
They talked quietly in the dark and each heard only the other’s voice. They were like two ghosts talking in the still of the night. At that time, Cambodian families in the countryside had no access to any real infrastructures; no electricity, no good toilet/latrine, and no clean running water. But there were things the Cambodian villagers did have; rice, fish, and good hearts. They had little complaints as they had survived the genocide and the starvation of the Pol Pot regime.
The quiet night continued, both teasing and chuckling with each other in low voices.
“Our love could have been hidden for months or years to come, given we had our own reasons for remaining quiet. I must again thank your broken bicycle chain for bringing us together,” Dara said.
“I saw you from a distance and I broke my bicycle chain,” Duongchan joked.
Both giggled in the dark at this. It was now 4am. The roosters in the village had already begun to crow, heralding that dawn was a mere two hours away. Still Duongchan and Dara did not sleep. They instead spend time hugging, kissing, and experiencing the first ever feelings of love in their lives.
Though they are both falling in love, the boy and girl still respect their traditions that despite being in love they will not have sex until after they are married. Such a difficult situation to withstand at that age.
Duongchan’s mother had slept like dead woman in her rattan bed and did not wake until a bad palm fruit fell from the palm tree hitting the house roof and then landing onto Duongchan’s rattan bed with a bang. It was like an alarm clock for her. About half an hour later Duongchan returned to her room, leaving Dara tired and falling asleep in the hammock like a fallen combatant returned from the frontline.
To be continued…
But for now she says nothing as this will only hurt Duongchan and her family’s reputation as Khmers.
Duongchan’s mother went to the kitchen and made a fire by using a lighter to set fire with charcoal made of wood. She prepared breakfast for her daughter and Dara.
The two high school students did not wake up until it was almost noon. They got up and had lunch together, continually glancing at each other, a sign of hidden love. Duongchan’s mum sees it all. After lunch the young lovers went behind the house and talked about their coming plans.
Duongchan went to her mum and spoke in a broken voice;
“Mum, I love you very much. Every time I leave you and go back to school I miss you and I dream about you. I wish father were still here to stay with you. I wish I could do more than I say to help you. But I cannot do for now. I promise you that I will do my best to complete my studies and find a good job so that I can support you the way you have supported me.”
Dara heard all Duongchan’s words and they moved him deeply.
She returned to him, saying: “I need your help to pick up my bicycle, Dara.”
“I will do that now. Will you come with me?” He asked.
“Why not.” Duongchan replied.
They both raised hands and offered “Sompas” to say goodbye to Duongchan’s mom who took her scarf from her head to dry her eyes which were welling up with tears. Usually when Duongchan visits home at the weekend she would take back a bunch of food, such as dried fish, salt, rice, and seasoning, all of which she will store for one or two-week’s supply at her hut near the high school. But this time is different as Dara told Duongchan’s mom,
“Do not worry, I have plenty food which I can give to Duongchan when we get back to school.”
On their way back, Dara worried about nothing but Duongchan kept asking Dara to speed up so that she can get her bicycle and get it fixed as soon as possible.
When they arrived at the village where they left the bicycle the night before, Dara stopped his scooter and Duongchan ran to the house where her bike was. But when she got there the bicycle was no longer there; A Khmer Rouge bandit had come in the night and stolen it.
Dara was so disappointed and said to her, “I am sorry. Your concern was well placed. You told me to not lose your bicycle, and now it is lost. It is my fault so I will give you my own bicycle, which is at home as I do not use it.”
He drove all the way and dropped her off at her hut near the high school and promised to get a bicycle to replace the stolen one.
Dara then drove home to find his parents crying. He was shocked and asked: “What happened?”
“We were so worried about your safety and security. We thought you could have been arrested and taken away by Khmer Rouge soldiers. You did not know but the Khmer Rouge attacked a village on the other side of the mountain in our district last night and they slaughtered pigs and then took anything they could carry with them. Luckily, no one got killed.” said Dara’s mom.
Dara explained what had happened and where he had been the previous night.
“I am sorry for worrying you and I am thankful for your concern. But I am ok,” he told them.
Dara looked frail. He told no one that he had fallen in love with a poor girl from a village 35 km away from where his parents lived. His hidden love for Duongchan would stay secret till it was discovered by his communist teachers.
the end of chapter one.
(Ek Madra, aka Ek Tha. Views & expressions are my own as the author of the book. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)