Sneak Peak: One for the Other
I rise to the tips of my toes, spread my arms out to my sides and twirl around. Eu and Mae are clapping their hands; Srey is laughing but no one is happier than me. Only I can hear the music but I am as free as the red-capped tailorbird that flies over the rice fields. While the rain pounds down on our thatched roof, my bare feet glide across the bamboo-woven floor of the house. It is a happy dance. The monsoon is in full swing, our reserve of rice is running low and we have to wade out into the waist-deep, muddy brown water that makes our house an island to urinate but, when I dance, I do not care.
My family watches as I sweep toward them, twirling around and around. There is only one large room in our house, but with four of us sharing it, it seems small. I pinch the sides of my cotton dress and pull it up over my ankles so my feet can move freely. I duck around the frayed, sky blue blanket behind which Srey and I sleep. Our bed mats are spread out and my feet glide over them before I whirl out from behind the hanging blanket. Mae claps, Eu cheers and little Srey, laying with her head in Mae’s lap, laughs.
I dance until I am breathless, until strands of my coal-black hair slip into my eyes. I dance until there is nothing but joy around me. I lift my arms into the air and spin until I am dizzy. Then I fall to the floor, smiling.
“Again!” Srey says happily, clapping. Mae laughs and pats my sister’s leg. Eu gets up; he likes to watch it rain. My heart is still racing from the dance. I move to sit with my sister; I start to braid her hair. She is six years younger than me; I am eleven so she thinks I am a grown-up. Sometimes I feel like I a second Mae to her.
“Mae, the rash is still here…” I point out the red splotches on the back of my sister’s neck. Mae leans over and nods her head. She says nothing. Srey hasn’t been herself the last couple of days, not since the day before the flooding started. She’s been complaining of headaches. And she had a fever this morning, but we put a damp rag over her forehead. It seemed to help.
When Eu comes back from the porch, he tells Mae it is time to eat dinner. Her eyes slide toward me and Srey. Mae is very strong. She is the strongest person I have ever met. She does not want the rice to run out. She would rather save it than eat it. But Eu is right and she knows it. We skipped breakfast and only Srey had lunch.
We have to eat.
In one corner of the room sits our food. Our last jar of rice has already been steamed; it is ready for us to eat. Mae puts a spoonful of rice on three plates. She will go without tonight. Her bony fingers reach for the salt. She shakes it, testing to see how much remains. Her lips purse together. There is not much. But we have nothing else to eat with the rice. She shakes a little salt onto each pile of rice, then nods at me. I pick up two plates, one for me and one for Srey, and carry it to the receiving area of the house.
We eat the rice and salt without talking. When something is so good, and you’ve wanted it for so long, there isn’t anything to say: you just accept it and are thankful. When something is so good and you’ve wanted it for so long and you know that soon there will not be any of it left, you are too busy savoring the taste of it in your mouth to talk. That is how eating the rice feels tonight. One of the most terrible things to take for granted is food.
I eat the last bite. The knot in my stomach rolls over, still hungry, but I know I cannot ask for more. I lay back on the floor, close my eyes and pretend I am dancing because when I am dancing I do not worry that I am hungry.
**** ***** *****
The geckos are loud tonight. I can hear them chirping. I imagine them jumping higher up a tree, waiting for a moment, then surprising a mosquito by swallowing it whole. Except tonight the gecko is probably climbing the tree to stay out of the water. It is shrinking, but slowly. Eu hopes it will be gone by week’s end. We can wade in it now but it doesn’t help. It would be a day of trudging through the muddy water to the nearest village. Eu says the sheep are gone from the shed. The shed is destroyed. So we have no animals to sell anymore.
Everyone is thinking about money. Eu is a farmer and farmers grow their own food. Except when the Mekong River floods; then even farmers need money to eat. We dream about it. I woke up earlier from a dream in which it rained from the sky; beautiful tan bills brightly colored with pink and purple. It was not a happy dream, though. It was a nightmare. The bills rained from the sky but it was as though I were in a race to collect as many of the bills as I could. And I could never get enough.
A sound from Srey draws my attention. I look at her. She is restless on her mat tonight. She is sweating. The house is always warm and humid. But it is not the air making Srey hot tonight. I can tell because she thrashes around, uncomfortable and miserable while I lay content, unbothered by the humidity.
I sit up and scoot beside her bed mat. I run my hand over her forehead. She is burning with fever. Slivers of the moon are shining through the cracks in the walls—there are no windows—but I cannot see well enough to tell whether or not the rash has spread.
“Maelea, how is she?” Mae comes around the blanket. She has been awakened by the sounds Srey’s making. She kneels onto the floor and does what I did: she places her hand over Srey’s forehead. Her lips purse together.
“She is sick.” I whisper.
Mae says nothing. She opens her mouth, then closes it.
“She needs a doctor.”
“There is no money for a doctor.”
“She has a fever.”
“Yes.” Mae sighs heavily and sits back on her heels. Her eyes never leave my sister. “Eu thinks it could be dengue.”
Srey is my second sister. I had another when I was just two. But she died when she was a baby from dengue fever. Mae pats Srey’s leg and stands. “I’ll bring water.”
I look at Srey.
She is still sleeping, but lightly. She moans and rolls. Dengue fever. Sometimes it goes away. Sometimes it kills. My sister needs a doctor.
I pull my bed mat closer to her. Mae brings a pail of water and puts a rag over Srey’s head. Then she says goodnight and disappears around the curtain again. I listen to her feet pad across the dusty floor to the bed mat she shares with Eu.
I close my eyes but the sounds of the gecko croaking and those of my sister moaning keep me awake. I don’t want to think about Srey being sick and I don’t want to think about how the rice will run out tomorrow so, instead, I listen to the gecko. Mae taught me a game to play with them. I listen for the croaks. I say, “Widower” when the first croak comes and “Bachelor” when the second croak comes, then repeat. Whichever word I’ve said last when the gecko stops croaking will be the status of my future husband—-a widower or a bachelor, a man who has never married.
I hope it is a bachelor.
***** ***** *****
Every time Eu catches a fish with his bare hands, I think he has super powers. Every time I see him do it, I think of the Nagas. The Nagas lived long, long ago in a Eu empire in the Pacific Ocean. The king of the Nagas had a daughter and she married the king of ancient Cambodia, our home. They had children and so we are all descendants of the Nagas. The Nagas were powerful and also magical. Their bodies were half reptilian, half human. Seeing Eu catch a fish with his bare hands makes me wonder if maybe there’s still more Naga in him than human. Mainly, this is because I’m eleven and I’ve tried to catch a fish with my bare hands my whole life and I still haven’t done it. I just end up making a big splash. Eu makes very little splash and usually has a fish to show afterwards.
Eu is a small man. He’s not much taller than Mae and not much bigger, either. But Mae says he never, ever gives up. He says that sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. He’s not much of a dreamer, but he is a hard worker. And today, I love him even more because he caught two fishes. That means we will have supper.
The kitchen is not in our house; it is a separate hut outside but it’s on stilts too, like the house, so the flood doesn’t hurt it. When I climb the ladder with the basket of fish, I see Mae smiling and humming. She is ready to cook. When Mae smiles, it’s like she becomes a different woman. Her whole face lights up. Her smile is so bright against her cocoa-colored skin. I hope my smile is as bright as hers. Mae says I am prettier than she. If that is true, then maybe I will marry a handsome, rich Naga man and have lots and lots of food to eat!
I help Mae by washing the fish. She will gut it but I like watching. We aren’t done cooking the fish when we hear a noise coming from the house. Eu is yelling. Mae and I drop the fish and climb down the ladder as fast as we can. We run across the soggy ground and climb up into the hut. Eu is holding Srey. Blood is coming from her nose and she is crying loudly.
Mae takes her. “Get me a rag!” she calls loudly. I run to the corner, grab a rag from the bucket and bring it back to her. She cleans Srey and rocks her. The smile she wore minutes ago is gone.
“I am going to town.” Eu says solemnly.
“To do what?” Mae asks.
“Srey needs a doctor.”
“How are you going to pay for a doctor?”
Eu sighs heavily, drops his head. A moment later, he shakes it. “I don’t know. But I have to try.”
Mae says nothing more, just holds Srey close to her. I sit down in the corner of the hut, looking at my sister. She is limp and her tan-colored skin is pale.
“My legs hurt, Mae. My arms hurt real bad.” Srey is crying but quietly. Mae says nothing, just stares straight ahead, rocking.
She is remembering.
After awhile, Srey goes back to sleep. Mae lays her down, tells me to stay with her, and goes back to cook the fish. I sit in the quiet hut, listening to Srey breathing. When Mae comes back, she is carrying two plates of fish. Srey is asleep, so Mae and I eat together.
“Do you think he’s there yet?” I ask.
Mae shakes her head. “Tonight.”
I picture Eu walking all day in the heat. It is hot almost all the time here. The sun won’t set for another three hours. How can he walk for three hours and still have time to find a doctor who will come for free?
Mae’s eyes are stark when she looks at me. It feels weird when she goes to lay down even though it is not dark. I don’t want to lay down so I climb out of the hut. I walk around, picking up small rocks. I need forty-two of them. When I have found enough small rocks, I find a piece of mud, drop my rocks on the patch of red dirt and look for a stick. I see a perfect one and fetch it. I use it to dig ten holes in an oval shape. Then I fill each hole with several of the rocks. Bay Kohm is supposed to be played with a friend but I don’t have a friend. Mae taught it to me one New Year’s but I don’t think she wants to play right now. She is too worried about Srey. And, the animals being gone, I’m sure she’s worried about that too. With no animals and no crops, we cannot sell anything and if we cannot sell anything we cannot eat.
I pick up all the stones in one of the holes and drop them, one by one, in the other holes. When I come to an empty hole, I stop. Then I pretend I am teaching Srey how to play and it is her turn. I pretend I am Srey gathering up the rocks in another hole and repeating the process. Soon, the holes on my pretend sister’s side are full and the holes on my side are empty.
***** ***** ****
Time passes slowly when you are alone. I clean up the debris on the ground leftover from the flood. There are lots of pieces of wood from where the animal hut was destroyed. Srey could get hurt from stepping on the boards. So I gather and stack them up. Eu can reuse them to build another shelter; we will have to buy more animals. We have had at least one sheep and two goats for as long as I can remember. Sometimes they drown in the floods, sometimes they escape. We always get more.
The flies and mosquitos come out when the sun sets. I climb the ladder to the hut and sit on the makeshift porch. I am waiting for Eu. A fly buzzes around my ears and I swat him away. I look down and pick at a scab on the back of my hand. I think about the rash on Srey’s body. Dengue fever is caused by a bite. How many times have I been bitten today?
It is five kilometers from the nearest road and about seven kilometers from the nearest hut. I don’t know how much further than that it is to the village but I stare at the orange sun sinking below the purple and pink skyline and know Eu will not be back tonight.
Still, I wait until my eyes feel heavy and my head starts to droop. Only then do I get up and walk into the hut. Mae and Srey are asleep. Srey is moaning but she isn’t thrashing around anymore. She has a fresh rag on her head. Mae is on her bed mat so it is just me and Srey. I lie on the bamboo floor and stare up at the thatched roof. My two uncles helped Eu build this hut for us. It took them almost a week to do it. They had to weave the bamboo together but the hardest part was the roof. It had to be strong so that the rainfall wouldn’t leak inside. It droops over the walls on purpose, so that the rain slides off of it.
They are strong builders.
The hut has lasted twelve years. It will last another twelve too. Sometimes I wish they had built our hut near other people but Eu needed the land to grow crops. I guess it wasn’t so important then how his unborn daughter would ever find a husband if she never saw anyone.
My stomach churns and rolls into a knot, reminding me that I am hungry. I hope Eu does not sell the last of our rice, or promise to capture and then give away any fish. As soon as I think that, though, I feel guilty. He will sell whatever he has to, to get enough money to help Srey.
Worry steals things.
Neither Mae nor I slept at all last night. This morning, we were up early together, working together to keep Srey’s fever down and wait on Eu. I sit on the porch on my knees, pushing one soiled, frayed shirt and skirt after another into the bucket of water. I use the wooden plank to scrub it, then haul it out of the water. I hang it on the clothes line that’s draped from one side of the porch to the other.
I like washing clothes.
It is hard work, but it makes me feel like I am helping. It makes me feel like I am important. I also like it because it gives me time to pretend. Today, the sound of the water is music and I pretend I am dancing. My mind’s eye sees myself twirling. Srey is laughing, Mae is smiling and Eu claps for me. Everyone is happy. I wish I could dance right now.
But worry steals things.
Even pretending doesn’t make the worry go away. Not really. It is still there in the back of my mind. Every time I hear something, I turn, expecting to see Eu and maybe a doctor with a black bag with him. But it is always nothing.
I get the last shirt washed and hung on the line to dry when, again, I hear a sound in the distance. I turn around to see and there is Eu!
“Mae! Mae! It’s Eu!” I cry.
I jump up to see.
It looks like there are donkeys. They are riding donkeys. The sound is great, and loud. He’s brought a doctor—-a couple of doctors!
Mae runs out to see.
I expect to see her white smile but I do not.
“He’s got a doctor!” I say.
Mae stares blankly, then turns and goes back into the hut, her usually beautiful face pale.
I wait on the porch of the hut but it is hard to so. I want to run to them, to meet the doctor who has come to care for my sister. I want to give Eu a hug because he was the one to get the doctor and so he is the one who really has saved her.
“Eu!” I cry out when they close enough to hear me. I cannot wait anymore. I climb down the ladder and start running to meet the donkeys. That is when I realize there is a woman and a man with Eu.
I put my hands together, as though in prayer, at nose level, and bow. Mae should be very proud of me for remembering that, I think, since it has been so long since I have seen anyone but us.
“Eu, is this the doctor?” I ask.
Eu sighs. All three climb off the donkeys.
“Let me show the good doctor inside,” Eu says. He climbs up the ladder first and the doctor, a tall man, climbs after him. The woman waits and stares at me. She is pretty. She is taller than Mae. Her hair is cut to her shoulders and her eyes are close together. She watches me but says nothing.
“Would you like to come inside?” I ask. The lady shakes her head, says she will wait. I am torn. Part of me wants to stay with her, find out who she is, but most of me wants to see my sister. So I climb the ladder into the hut.
The doctor is at Srey’s side.
Mae and Eu are in the corner. Mae is crying. Eu is talking in a furious whisper, too quiet for me to hear over the doctor’s noises. Finally, Eu stands and walks to me.
“Come outside, Maelea.”
If there is one thing the girls in my family are good at, it is obeying.
When we walk outside, Eu scratches the side of his head, looks down at the lady who is waiting patiently. Then he looks back at me.
“Maelea… This woman…. This woman paid for the doctor to come help Srey.”
I look back down the ladder at the woman. She smiles. I smile back at her.
Eu sighs heavily, his bony chest rising and falling. “She has food too. You could go to school.”
The word has always meant paradise…. A faraway, distant land filled with books with letters and numbers and hope…. The word school…. It means paradise.
I stare at my father.
“I can go to school?”
He nodded. “You just have to work for her, just for awhile, just until the money she gave the doctor is paid off. And she will let you go to school and eat good food.”
“She paid for the doctor. So you have to pay her back.”
Eu frowned, nodding. “So you will go with her now and work for her in her house. It will be a good job.”
“And I can go to school?”
The lady hears me and nods. “Yes.”
Eu says: “Go and get some clothes to take with you now. Hurry; you need to start so you can get to the village before dark.”
I turn and run back into the hut. When my fingers pull the sky-blue, frayed curtain back so I can reach my bed mat, somehow I know I will not ever see the curtain again. I only have two shirts and one skirt. I grab them all.
The doctor is leaning over Srey, listening to her heart, so I cannot kiss her. But I know she will be well again when I come home.
Then I see Mae sitting in the corner of the room. Mae is the strongest woman I ever saw. She is sitting with her head high. She smiles at me but the smile does not reach her eyes. Quickly, I lean down and wrap my arms around her neck. One of her bony hands pats my back. I pull away. I see the tears slipping from her eyes. She is worried. But there is nothing to fear.
“I’m going to school now.” I am going to paradise.
Mae nods her head once. “Be strong,” she says.
And then I am on a donkey and we are riding. It is not until I look over my shoulder and see my father still standing there, looking at me, that it hits me. No matter where I am going, no matter what I will eat…. I have been sold.