‘Choeung Ek’ by C.A. Steed

This time, the image comes to me while I am feeding my baby in the early hours one morning. A child — not very much older than the baby lying milk-full and sleepy in my lap — is grasped by the ankles and swung, head-first, against a tree. I am thinking about Choeung Ek.

Choeung Ek is out of the city, on a peaceful and quiet expanse of green. I take a tourist bus to go there, and as I step off it into the building furnace of the day I hear chatter and laughter in a dozen languages. I take a picture. I like the trees here. They have low, twisting, gnarled branches, like loops of tangled string. I take more pictures of these. Behind me, the lush green grass is pitted with the craters of excavated mass graves. I take pictures of these, too.

It is dark and quiet in my baby’s room. I am in a rocking chair, and the baby now has his head on my shoulder, his slowing moth-breath tickling my ear. I am thinking about bones.

The nurse, one of the women I met while traveling, is walking ahead of me on the dry earth path. Her head is bent. She stops, frowns, then with her foot traces a white stick half-buried in the path. “That’s a thigh bone.”

We stop, look. The white stick that is not a white stick pokes through the ground. I take a picture. You can see the nurse’s foot in the top corner, pointing.

Further along the path, there is a huge, thick tree trunk. A notice next to it, white letters carefully painted on wood, explains that this tree was used to kill the children who were taken here. The adults required pickaxes to break apart their skulls. The children, whose skulls were more delicate and therefore required less delicacy, were simply picked up by the ankles and swung repeatedly against the tree trunk. I have a picture of this, too.

My baby has fallen asleep. His head, his delicate little skull, is resting against my cheek. I stroke the fine strands of his hair, and think about the fact that almost a decade ago I took a picture of a tree where other mothers’ babies were killed. I think about the thigh bone, and how I’d filed away the nurse’s comment to impress my friends when I returned home. My friends went on holidays to places like Marbella and Ibiza. I went to Cambodia, and visited killing fields and prisons. I took pictures of places where people had been murdered and dismembered, took pictures of the remains of those people, posted these pictures with careful captions online, and considered myself a far more enlightened traveller.

I take a moment before leaving Choeung Ek. I stand near one of the twisted trees and look around. The field undulates with pits, long since overgrown with grass. The white stupa, filled with skulls, rises to the cloudless sky. There is a glass case near me brimming with neatly stacked bones which have risen to the surface over the years. On top of the bones is a Tupperware container filled with teeth. Our guide had explained that wind, rain, and the passage of feet erode the soil, and bones and teeth rise regularly to extrude through the earth. They estimated that these remains, found outside the boundaries of the exhumed mass graves, would continue to rise for years due to their sheer number.

I will leave this place, climb onto the rumbling bus, return to the city and to my hotel room. I’ll travel to more places in this country: beaches, night clubs, ancient temples. I’ll drink cheap whiskey and buy trinkets. I’ll meet children who sell me books on a city street, who throw cockroaches at my friend when she says no, and who threaten to kill me with flat, adult eyes when I try to send them away. I’ll have all my pockets picked in less than a second by a little girl who is walking past me after midnight, and who is carrying a baby in her thin arms. She needs both arms to carry him, and I will have no idea how she manages to get her hands into my pockets while walking behind my back. I will feel her fingers, moving like a hummingbird flitting between flowers, alighting on each of my pockets in turn. I will turn in amazement, watch her as she keeps walking, carrying the baby in both arms, disappearing around the corner into the night. On this trip I keep my money, cards and passport in a money belt worn under my shirt around my waist, and my pockets are empty. She will get nothing from me.

At the end of this trip, I will get into a tuktuk with the man who has driven me around for the last three weeks, make awkward conversation with him, then get on a plane and leave this country for ever. I have travelled across Cambodia like a stone skimming across the surface of water.

Years later, I will sit in a quiet room with my sleeping child, and I will see the knotted bark of a thick tree trunk, and a thigh bone that has risen, slowly but inexorably, to the surface of hollowed and scarred earth.

C.A. Steed is a teacher of English, and currently undertaking a MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.  She has been published in Causeway/Cabhsair and has a story shortlisted by the Nebula Chronicle.  Find her on Twitter at @ZaciDeets.

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