MERA

by Randolyn Zinn

“This week we are remembering things too terrible…”

EditedSkyline

Note: In the first week of September of 2001, I enrolled in the MFA graduate program in Creative Writing at the New School in New York City, excited to finish a collection of short stories set in the world of dance. A few days later, the city was thrown into chaos by the attacks on the World Trade Center, and I, like many other writers and artists, struggled to find what, if anything, was relevant in my work. Who cares, I wondered, about the vicissitudes of dancing when the world can so easily shift towards catastrophe? After much soul searching, and nearly abandoning the project altogether, I formulated a question that would sustain me through the writing of this story: Has world history and dancing ever converged? “Mera,” set a few days after 9/11, imagines a Cambodian-American teenager living in Brooklyn who learns the deeper truth of her mother’s ordeal at the hands of the Khmer Rouge nearly thirty years earlier. Sometimes, when living through unbearable circumstances, only the imagination can be trusted.


MERA

Tran is crying again. Her hands are shaking. There are things she hasn’t told her daughter.

“Turn it off,” she says, and Srey rolls the TV stand into the corner, steadying the plastic Buddha that sits on top. Channel Two is the only station left with a local signal and for the last four days has shown the same shaky video over and over: a tilting plane crashes the outline of its shape into the north tower and a fiery wound of orange flame and black smoke erupts from the gash. The next clip shows the south tower burning down. “Like a cone of incense,” Srey’s grandmother keeps saying, “but with a thousand souls inside.” Srey wants to tell Grandma that it wasn’t like that at all, but Cambodian teenagers do not disagree with their elders — at least not openly.

On Tuesday, just after it happened, large ashes like dry snow blew across the channel and settled on their Brooklyn sidewalk. Lots of papers blew over too, scraps of shredded computer printouts and numbered columns, nothing really personal except for a few torn memos with hand-written signatures, but Srey didn’t feel right about throwing them away, so she stashed them under her bed in an old shoebox.

“The candles,” her mother says, and Srey fetches the matches. Pictures and name cards of friends and relatives from the old days sit on the altar of their ancestors next to flowers, fruit, and gold foil cutouts of the Apsaras, the female spirits of the dance. Tran was a member of the Cambodian Royal Court ensemble back when she was teenager and has taught Srey all her dances, including the most beautiful, the Apsara. Srey was supposed to perform it on her sixteenth birthday last July, but without a word of explanation, Tran cancelled the party the night before. Since the attacks four days ago, she hasn’t been able to sleep or eat, and now won’t let her daughter out of her sight.

Srey lights the altar candles. It was foolish to sneak out for pizza last night, but she couldn’t stand being cooped up in the house one more minute. When she returned, her mother yelled, “If you sneak around with your American friends again, I’ll…” but she couldn’t finish her threat because what would she do? Srey has tried to explain that her friends are Chinese-American, not American-American, but Tran doesn’t trust anyone not Cambodian.

“Mommy so worry,” Grandma said, trying to patch things up. “What if something happen to me while you away and I not teach you cooking? Never get husband.” Srey almost laughed. As if she cared about cooking. But she didn’t say that to Grandma. Her family doesn’t appreciate her restraint. Other kids don’t care if they diss their parents. Srey genuinely admires hers. Her father wakes up early, before dawn to open their fruit stand. And her mother used to clean people’s houses until her arthritis got bad. Now she does piece work at home, sewing buttons on sweaters. Srey is sorry for their troubles, but doesn’t want to end up like them, slaving to survive. She wants to be a doctor. Maybe when she’s thirty she’ll get married, but no kids until she’s established, that’s it. She dreams of taking her parents back to Cambodia for a visit someday, her treat, but does not want her story always to be about their story.

Grandma finishes her prayers from her chair, every so often spitting a wad of chewing tobacco into the little tin bowl she carries around with her. Her teeth are red-stained from the habit. Today she wants to make fried glass noodles for the poor souls lost in the attacks because “…they might be hunger.” Srey helps her scoot out of her chair and follows her down the hall as she grazes a bony finger against the wall to keep her balance. She’s pretty spry for an eighty-year old – if old fashioned. When Srey got her period the first time, Grandma wanted to keep her in a darkened room for three weeks so her presence wouldnot ‘weaken’ the men in the family. Tran squashed the plan, but allowed Grandma to tie a white string around Srey’s wrist so her soul wouldn’t ‘escape’. “Weak-weak,” Grandma whispered. Supposedly, girls are vulnerable when they bleed. As much as Tran says she denies the old ways, Srey suspects her mother still secretly believes in them.

The buzzer rings and Srey runs to open the front door. It’s Aunt Ratha, who’s crying, but that’s nothing new. She’s always sad.

“Chumriep sur,” Srey bows, pressing her palms together at her chest, a sign of respect.

“What a polite child,” Ratha says, pushing past her and blowing her nose into an old tissue pulled from her cuff. “Who family you belong? Not my.” When she bends down to take off her shoes, grabbing her niece’s hip to steady herself, Srey notices that Ratha’s fingernail polish is chipped and that her perm has grown out so the ends of her hair are still curly but the top part’s straight. She isn’t really Srey’s ming, her aunt, but it doesn’t matter. Ratha is like one of the family because she and Tran escaped a Khmer Rouge prison camp together. In 1970-something, Srey can’t remember exactly when, a long time ago.

“Where Mommy?” Ratha says, taking Srey’s chin in her hand and turning her face left and right. “Skin look good.”

“Thanks, Auntie.”

Tran shuffles into the hallway, Ratha cries out and they fall into each other’s arms, wailing something about how those men in the planes will suffer a thousand years bad karma… Srey understands Khmer better than she can speak it.

Grandma moves into the kitchen doorway to listen and the afternoon sunlight streaming through the window outlines her tiny figure with a silver line, making her look like a statue carved from an old banyan root. Since Tuesday, Srey has been noticing moments like this, as if her eyes have become a sort of a camera held up to the world.

Grandma points a crooked finger to the sky and hisses, “Salath Sar,” as if the words were poison. “He rose to power, why?”

Salath Sar was Pol Pot’s name before he changed it.

“Because in his previous life he accumulated too many merits. Now he’ll boil in oil for 500 years. Sahav nas!” Which means so savage.

Tran wipes her eyes and nods, always polite to Grandma, but then she turns towards her daughter and glares. “Suffering isn’t enough. You have to decide to do good when you come back in your new life. That’s the real test.”

“Srey talk back,” Grandma agrees, shaking her head. “Eat pizza. No good.”

Srey rolls her eyes. Now they’re comparing me to Pol Pot, she thinks. My mother should change her karma by letting me out of this damn house.

When Auntie sniffles, “I maybe plenty demerit in past life,” Srey turns away. All Ratha can think about is herself, the unluckiest woman in the world. Granted, her daughter Rany ran away with her boyfriend last year, and their whereabouts are still a mystery. Rany sometimes sends a postcard or will call from an untraceable pay phone, but Srey knows that she felt suffocated in her mother’s house and couldn’t wait to get out. Auntie took her disappearance pretty hard. Stomach pains and heart palpitations for which an herbalist has prescribed stinky teas made from deer antler and insect larvae and other gross stuff haven't helped.

Tran grabs Ratha’s elbow. “Running, running, we run so fast our breath burned our throats.” They stare at each other, wide-eyed.

They’re talking about the night they escaped from the commune. Srey recognizes the breath-burned-our-throats part. Her mother lost a shoe in the jungle and cut her foot on a sharp stone. Auntie got so thirsty, she pinched her little baby to make her cry so she could drink its tears.

“Let go temple,” Auntie says. “Pray.”

Tran shakes her head. “The music.”

Srey’s father has invited everyone over tonight because they have been hiding out since Tuesday. There will be food and music. And, Srey hopes, dancing. If her mother would let her do the Apsara, Pirun could see her in the headdress. Pirun is her brother Loy’s friend. They’ve known each other since they were babies, but lately when Pirun is around, Srey’s stomach feels giddy, like goldfish are swimming around in it.

The doorbell rings again and they all flinch. The bridges are still closed. No one in New York City has been able to enter or leave. What wartime feels like, Srey imagines.

Tran and Aunt Ratha walk to the bedroom, leaving Srey to answer the door. It's Uncle Keoun, Kusal, Touch, and Cang, who pile into the apartment, lugging their instruments. Cang flips Srey a stick of gum, the clove kind she loves, and she skips over to the Apsara headdress to try it on. The headdress took Grandma a whole year to build because each little gold disk on three tall tiers had to be wired separately. Srey isn’t allowed to wear it until she “proves” herself, whatever that means, so for the next five hundred years it will sit on its pedestal in the corner, collecting dust.

“Ah,” Cang smiles wide when he sees Srey wearing the headdress, “are we playing the Apsara tonight?”

Before she can answer, Tran reappears and jerks the headdress off her daughter’s head. One of its wires scratches Srey’s cheek.

“Ow!”

“No Apsara,” Tran barks.

“But why?

“No questions.”

“I hate you!”

“What did you say?”

Srey repeats the forbidden words to see what will happen, and Tran slaps her cheek hard. They stare at each other, stunned, until Srey storms into the bathroom and slams the door.

Tran has never before hit her daughter. Until this moment she thought she had escaped the bad karma of spoiled American teenagers behaving badly. But Srey went too far and needs to learn to respect her elders once and for all. Tran will not knock on the door with an apology, even though she wants to. Instead, her longing for her country will stab her again like a dagger just under the breastbone. If she closes her eyes she can see her childhood. The long green stems of lotus bundles for sale in the market with their drooping heavy buds still closed tight, their seller women squatting at the curb, towels covering their heads against the sun. Hot pink bougainvilleas draping over verandas. Scarlet poinsettias as tall as lilac bushes. Orchids growing wild everywhere. Such lushness can only be found here in high-priced flower shops, but is doomed to die early from the same pervasive cold that plagues the joints and lodges in the lungs, retreating only briefly for short humid summers that too soon give way to bone-piercing chill. Was her beautiful country a dream? How could a paradise like Cambodia ever have become the hell she survived? She cries for its lost beauty, for her own loss of innocence, for what can never be repaired. There are no satisfactory answers for Tran, no relief, no rest from her memories. Only lotus, their bunches of green stems and closed buds can stem her despair.

Srey can sniffling on the other side of the door, but won’t take back what she has said. She wants her mother to feel bad. She’s tired of being the good daughter all the time. Talk softly and walk without making noise. Tell in advance what you’re doing and where you’re going. Don’t hang out with boys. Don’t be late. Don’t do anything wrong. Don’t do anything at all….!

She turns on the faucet and splashes cool water on her face. Girls are supposed to keep their feelings and thoughts inside them like a closed coconut, but she would like to smash hers open and drink the milk. It’s like I’m living two lives, she cries behind her hands. The boring one everyone judges and the secret one inside my head.

“Come out, Srey.”

It’s Aunt Ratha, who will, of course, take her mother’s side.

“Leave me alone.”

Srey sits on the rim of the tub and idly picks at some mold growing between the tiles. Maybe there are extra demerits for mothers who slap daughters, although she’s not sure if she believes in karma, per se. People do bad things all the time and get away with it, so how is that a trustworthy belief system? And why bother doing good if the world could blow up at any minute?

On the other hand, talent might be the proof of karma. Like how dancing comes so easily to her. Such gifts aren’t given to just anyone, so one could argue that talent requires several lifetimes to mature. But how many, she wonders?

Smells of Grandma’s cooking seep under the door and make her mouth water. Garlic, onion, ginger, curry. She opens the door a crack to see the hall table filling up with little dishes of good things to eat. Her father is home now, pulling oranges and two hands of bananas from a sack he’s brought from the fruit stand. Auntie is twirling green banana leaves into cones. When no one is looking Srey slips out to grab a slice of orange, which tastes sweet and juicy on her tongue.

She listens to the musicians as they set up and tune their instruments in the living room under the poster of Ankor Wat. The same carved bas-reliefs that inspired the dance Tran won’t let Srey perform. Apsara goddesses are limber and voluptuous despite their stone bodies and despite being trapped in walls for centuries, they still seem to be laughing behind their eyes.

Cambodia2Edited

Uncle Keoun tells his story about what happened to him Tuesday morning when his J train stopped service at Chambers Street. Throngs of people poured from office buildings into the streets, running away from the heat and smoke of the burning towers. Keoun jumped onto the back of a pick-up going across the Brooklyn Bridge and when he looked back, he saw the first tower fall.

Tran hears his story and gasps, drops her husband’s envelope of cash from the fruit stand. Cash spills all over the floor and when she bends down to gather the bills spilled on the floor, Srey notices that her mother’s hands are shaking. Tran hasn’t slept since Tuesday because she’s waiting to see if the firemen and rescue workers digging through the rubble will find survivors. She shouldn’t be watching the news anymore either because they’ve been showing veiled Afghani widows and sad-eyed children picking their way along dusty, rubbled roads en route to the Pakistani border, their scant belongings wrapped in cloth bundles hanging off pack mules. No place on earth feels safe now. Srey’s father wraps his arms around his wife.

Everyone already knows Touch’s story . Touch is a messenger who was scheduled to deliver a package to the 75th floor of the south tower that morning, but he decided to pick up his new pair of glasses first. He has always complained about his bad eyesight, but no more.

Cang looks up from his crocodile zither and suggests that maybe they should pool their money for a boat to moor in the bay.

“A boat wouldn’t save us,” Touch argues. “People were stealing boats on Tuesday. Like pirates. You could be fighting your next door neighbor for your boat. Think of that.”

Maybe they could ride bikes over the Verrazano Bridge, Srey thinks, escape to New Jersey. Except that they don’t know anybody in New Jersey. Everyone lives here in Brooklyn. This is their home. When school let out early that morning, she and a couple friends ran over to the Valentino Pier. With only the Buttermilk Channel between them and lower Manhattan and a clear view of the towers, they didn’t stay long. The wind was blowing towards Brooklyn and carried a terrible smell on its back, like burned plastic and oil, acrid, but with something else in it too that no one could name.

Tran spots her daughter standing at the food table and hustles over to her like a storm cloud. Srey doesn’t know whether to bolt or stand her ground, but before her mother has a chance to say anything, she blurts, “I want to dance the Apsara.”

Tran stops and drops her arms.

“Don’t bother your mother,” Dad warns, using his sharp voice. Dad’s lips roll in tight when he’s angry. Srey thinks of her parents as this inseparable unit because they always seem to know what the other is thinking.

Dad jerks his head to the side, indicating that Srey should go back to her room, but Tran’s face looks strangely open and Srey decides to disobey her father and wait.

“Srey,” her mother whispers in a rusty voice, “there is something to say.”

Srey lowers her eyes, anticipating the good karma of her mother’s apology.

“Mommy,” Dad murmurs, “not now. People coming. Srey, put on something nice.”

Tran waves him away like a fly and he retreats to the kitchen.

“I…was your age,” Tran begins, focused on the poster of Ankor Wat. “Sixteen. Living in the Royal Court Palace in Phnom Penh the day the soldiers came.”

Srey nods. She knows this story by heart.

“I heard them before I could see them, so I ran. Instinct, I supose. I found a janitor’s closet to hide in. I couldn’t see anything through the louvers. But I heard things. Boots. Machetes. Screams. I still hear them. Every day.”

Srey stays very still, aware that Ratha and Grandma are watching from the food table, whispering. They must already know this part of the story.

Her father returns with a glass of coffee for Tran, and gently slides a chair behind his wife’s knees. Srey settles at her mother’s feet.

The musicians continue to tune their instruments, more guests arrive, but Auntie keeps them clustered in the hallway.

“How long were you in the closet?” Srey wants to know.

Tran takes a long breath and slowly exhales . “I don’t know. Hours? It was hot in there, but I was afraid to come out or even make a sound. I made friends with the mops and brooms. They comforted me. It sounds silly, but they were my protectors with their long bamboo handles, my private guard. Finally, I could tell that night had fallen, but I was still afraid. Because maybe they had left one soldier behind, waiting in the shadows to kill me. Only when it had been quiet and dark for a long time did I dare open that door. With one finger, very carefully, a little bit at a time.” She shows Srey how she pushed the door open with her index finger.

“Then what I saw…” She closes her eyes and swallows.

“The palace, Srey, where we had learned to dance and play music… We used to skip along those marble hallways, flower fragrance everywhere, so beautiful it was like living in heaven. But everything can change in an instant.

“I stepped out of the closet, first heel, then toe, then the other foot. I heard a noise and froze. A cat. I slipped into the main gallery to discover that…I was the only one left alive….unimaginable.”

Srey sees the letters of the word ‘unimaginable’ spelled out letter by letter as on Scrabble tiles. Her mother speaks English better than any first generation Cambodian in Red Hook. As soon as Tran arrived in Brooklyn, she enrolled in language classes and applied her dancer’s discipline to the task.

Tran names teachers, friends and musicians of the Royal Court who were in the palace that day, some of whom Srey recognizes from name cards on their altar.

“All of them,” Tran whispers, “strewn across the wet floor like broken dolls. I had to…tiptoe around their…”

Quietly, she tells Srey how she ran to a corner to throw up, and when crickets began chirping she started to cry because how could the night sing after such a day? Still afraid that the soldiers might come back, she crawled into the bushes encircling the perimeter of the palace. From her hiding place, she heard sirens and smelled buildings on fire. Tall pyres of books burned in front of the library. The Khmer Rouge had ransacked the city. Trawling through the streets, trucks with loudspeakers barked invitations to the city’s children, enticing them away from their homes. “Come out, little ones,” they cried. “It is your uncle. Join us.”

Tran wasn’t fooled. She had listened to the soldiers in the palace screaming about their glorious mission to ‘eradicate the aristocratic pox’ of artists and intellectuals. The new Cambodia would be transformed into a land of workers and farmers. Obviously, if they found a dazed Royal Court dancer walking around dressed in silk dancing clothes, they would kill her on the spot.

“I should have died that day. But I wanted to live! I was so young. Like you, my Srey. You don’t know what the world can be like, the terrible things that can happen…” She strokes her daughter’s hand and her fingers remind Srey of flower stems.

“Then what?”

“Well, a stroke of luck. I spied an old pair of trousers and a filthy shirt balled up in a puddle that someone must have dropped. I ran back to the bushes to put them on, rubbed dirt on my face, pulled my hair every which way and pretended to walk with a limp. I made it to the edge of town where some officials stopped me. Oh Srey, I thought I was going to die, so frightened I couldn’t stop shaking, but I told them a lie. That I was an orphan and they believed me.”

Srey realizes that her mother carried the culture of her country in that lie, and the promise of her daughter’s life, as well.

“They transported me to a farm commune up north with a hundred others, where I met Ratha.”

The doorbell rings and four screeching toddlers pull their parents into the apartment. Kusal plays a long series of notes on his ranat ek, the wooden xylophone that resembles a canoe with keys strung above it like a wobbly footbridge and Tran closes her eyes to let in the round, green notes. Music is like a flavor the soul can taste.

“Okay,” she smiles, and Srey sees why her mother’s eyelids droop down at the outside corners. Because she can never be happy again.

“Ratha and I escaped, you know that part, brave Mommy, right? I met Daddy at the refugee camp in Indonesia, my brother found us, and here we are.” She clearly wants to end their little chat because Loy has walked in, all tall and lanky and red-knuckled from his dishwashing job at a Bay Ridge restaurant. Tran’s only got eyes for her boy.

Pirun has come over too and when Srey catches his eye, he nods.

“What’s up, Ma?” Loy says, and Tran lifts her cheek for a kiss, aglow with pride.

She never looks at me like that, Srey thinks, even when I’m on the honor roll. Every semester. Loy is a freshman at Columbia on a math scholarship—okay, great, big deal, but nothing Srey ever does counts for much with her mother. Tran would never admit it, but Srey believes that her mother wants her to stay in Brooklyn to take care of her in her old age. “Good” daughters are supposed to do that, like how Tran takes care of Grandma.

“So,” Tran says, turning back to Srey, “no Apsara tonight, okay?” Like it’s settled.

“But why?”

Loy apes his sister. But why? You sound like a whiny cat.

“Shut up.”

“Srey,” Dad says, holding up his finger. “Being nice.”

“You could do Sek Sarika,” Tran suggests.

“Oh, please.” In Sek Sarika dancers imitate parrots.

“Or Neary Chea Chua?”

Neary Chea Chua is more like a demonstration exercise than a real dance.

Softly, so Dad can’t hear, Srey whispers (but doesn’t understand how she’s finding the courage to say all these things today), “We need the Apsara, Mom. You’re the one who always says that dancing is like praying.”

Two tears roll down Tran’s cheeks, until she spots Susie Lee stepping from behind Loy. “Who’s that?” Tran frowns at Srey, wiping her tears. “Who invited Chinese?”

“Loy, I guess.”

“She at Columbia?”

“I don't know.”

Tran blows her nose and nods to Grandma, who hops off her stool and hobbles towards them with the headdress. And just like that, Srey’s wish is granted. Grandma places the dome on Srey’s head and pushes down hard.

“Ouch!”

“Shhhh,” Grandma says. “Apsara feel no pain.”

Tran fingers the tassel and the golden lotus circles. “Looks like I’ve been outnumbered by you two.” Grandma winks at Srey, and Tran turns to speak to Uncle Keoun about the music.

Strange how her mother gave in so easily, Srey thinks, although she is exalted by the prospect of dancing tonight. Maybe seeing the Apsara will upset her mother. Srey hasn’t practiced in a while and she’s out of shape. She could lose her balance. Forget the steps. Pirun will see her make a fool of herself.

Susie grabs Pirun’s arm and they laugh about something. Are they dating, Srey wonders? Her stomach flips over.

“Mom,” she calls, “it’s okay, we don’t have to do it.” But her mother doesn’t hear.

“Stand still,” Grandma says. She is pinning silk petals down the length of Srey’s hair. “Apsaras love spirit hair and want to kiss it.”

Maybe, Srey wishes, the Apsara will act like a love charm on Pirun, who will want to kiss me. And just to make sure all goes well, she runs through the steps of the dance from beginning to end with miniature movements, just like her mother used to do in secret on the commune. No one was allowed to dance or sing there, so Tran would lay on her straw mat every night, moving toes and fingers in miniature reenactments. Remembering the dances kept her alive.

More guests file into the apartment. The men light up cigarettes and Auntie opens the windows. It’s warm outside. The weather’s been like summer all month. Since Tuesday the skies have been quiet, no planes roaring towards Kennedy. Yesterday the wind finally changed direction so it doesn’t smell quite so bad either. From her spot before the hall mirror, Srey watches the men push the living room furniture against the walls, making room for her dance. It would take too long to put on the real Apsara costume, so she wears a simple pair of cotton practice trousers with a fitted half-blouse. Grandma adjusts the headdress one last time, then goes back to her stool next to the food table. The headdress is so heavy, Srey must hold her neck very straight or it will get sore.

Aunt Ratha steps behind her and murmurs, “Your mom, everybody say she a goddess when she dance Apsara. You look like her, Srey.”

“Thanks, Auntie.”

“And uh…Mommy not show how much.”

“Hmm?”

“Too much show love spoil kids. They no listen, okay?” Ratha raises two incense sticks raised over her head and walks to the altar to pay obeisance to ancestral spirits. Everyone else settles into his or her seat.

The room goes quiets when Tran walks to the center of the cleared space, because each of her steps is as thoughtfully placed as a stone on a garden path. She bows and gracefully holds up a finger in the gesture everyone knows means ‘today.’ The audience is rapt and Srey experiences the power of her mother’s presence, a born performer.

“What to say? This week we are remembering things too terrible.” She lowers her head in thought and everyone waits in silence for Tran’s next word.

New tempo, brightly, she continues. “Once it was spring. Rice planting time in the work camp. Our hands were so scratched from the sprouts in the field, they looked like octopus heads.” She shows her palms and puffs out her cheeks.

Auntie pipes up, “That really did. They look like that.” Everyone laughs a little. The little kids puff out their cheeks and giggle until their parents shush them.

“One night,” Tran goes on, “a girl sang. Do you remember, Ratha?”

Auntie stands up, thrilled to be included. “Humming, humming all the old songs from girl’s village. No good. Not allow. Commune leader tie her to a tree. Poor girl stand all night. Sing all the songs she know. In morning, she still by tree. But rope fall off from song.”

“Maybe,” Tran murmurs, “if we sing and dance tonight, the rope will fall off our city.” She bows low and takes her place next to her husband, which is Srey’s cue to walk to the middle of the cleared floor.

So nervous she can hardly take a deep breath, Srey sits down on her knees for the starting position. Loy and Pirun are standing off to the side against the windows. Susie is next to Pirun, chewing gum and squinting. She must not want the guys to see her in her glasses, Srey figures, although, clearly, she really needs them.

Uncle Keoun strikes the gong and the sound reverberates around the room like a deep metallic sigh. A sigh that could part the ocean. Srey will dance inside that corridor of sound in the role of Mera from the Apsara, the same part her mother was famous for in the Royal Court ensemble.

Only hands speak at first in gestures taken from the time of animal magic, a kind of sign language from heaven. In one pose, all ten fingers splay open like a hand of cards and then change into two sharp pagodas with a flick of the wrist. Moving out of the kneeling pose, where her middle body looks like the prow of a boat, she loses her balance for a second, but the next part is easy and she easily lifts her toes off the floor for a swift walk on her heels. The haze of incense and cigarette smoke has made an invisible curtain in front of the audience behind which Srey can concentrate on the dance. She knows dancing isn’t really a place, but she knows she belongs there.

In the next section her heart flies, she circles the room like a bird with wings outspread, held up by invisible breezes. The air feels cool on her arms. Her pulse beats hard in her ears. No thoughts. Just a world of breath and muscle and music…foot touch, foot cross…no, that’s not right.

The music spins beyond where she can catch it.

Do something, she thinks, repeat something, but such thoughts close the ocean corridor behind her and strand her on an empty beach where she can’t remember what comes next. Out of the corner of her eye she sees her mother crossing her feet, but Srey doesn’t understand the clue. And in the next instant, Tran is beside her, dancing, something she hasn’t done since Srey was little. Srey’s movements sync up with the music again and its vibrations stream through her muscles like a current of magnetic power attracting everything good. A long series of notes from the ranek ek sound like bubbles and she’s swimming, she’s a fish and the current that hurries it along. Now the steps are gleaming perfect bubbles accomplished by precise shifts of weight, no more forgetting, her body knows what to do.

If the dance lasts fifteen minutes, it is over in a second. Mother and daughter wait together inside the applause as if under an umbrella, their hands crossed over their chests in a gesture that means ‘happy’. There is no rush to move from the downpour. This is where Srey wants to live. She is careful not to scratch Tran’s cheek with the headdress as they incline their heads closely towards each other. Baby powder, salty sweat, fruit and yeast, her mother.

Ratha runs to them first, dabbing her eyes with a tissue, then everyone crowds around and Srey begins to fall back into the world, aware that her feet are throbbing in time with her heart. She’s got a floor burn on the top of her instep, the skin is pulled back and raw. Funny how she can’t recall when it happened. Dancing trumps pain every time. Her neck begins to feel sore and her forehead pulses from the weight of the headdress. Loy offers her a slice of pineapple—he’s such a dork. He should know by now that dancers can’t eat anything right after a performance because they’re not quite back to being human yet.

She still must have some of the magic of the Apsaras in her because she senses Pirun’s eyes on her, so she slips over to the food table and he follows her. Grandma is perched on a stool and when she turns her head to the side, she really does look like an old owl. Grandma lifts the headdress from Srey’s head and scratches her scalp.

Pirun says, “You were really good in the dance.”

Srey sees Susie Lee talking to Loy and Tran.

“Thanks, but I really messed up.”

“Really? I couldn’t tell.”

Grandma dishes some curry onto a plate and pushes it towards Srey, who looks down at the food like it’s going to help her somehow, and then, without thinking, blurts, “Some papers blew over from the towers.”

“No way.”

“They’re in my room.”

Pirun lifts the plate of food and takes a bite. His lips are like a sealed envelope Srey would like to open with her tongue. She needs someone to be with and to talk to.

Aunt Ratha runs over, excited. “Srey, we just decide. Take music to firehouse. Where costume?”

For so long Srey has dreamed about wearing the fancy beaded tunic and silk trousers that hang in her mother’s closet, but now that the moment has arrived, she would much rather sit with Pirun in the backyard or walk to the pier and look across the channel. They probably wouldn’t say much. The skyline looks so different now. It’s not like New York anymore.

Tran eats her first meal in days, then nods off on her husband’s shoulder. Loy leaves with Susie, and Auntie cleans up. Srey stands still while her grandmother sews her into the Apsara costume, but it takes so long, Pirun has to go home to put his little brother to bed. When Grandma knots the last knot on the bodice and bends down to bite off the thread, she whispers in Khmer so only her granddaughter can hear.

“Tonight you are Mera, the mother of the Cambodian people.” Srey nods to show respect, but knows she’s something else besides.

The dance at the firehouse will go pretty well. She won’t forget the steps. Pirun will show up to walk her home, just the two of them, and Srey will be flying in a hundred directions. At the Valentino Pier, they will hold onto each other and cry. She will say whatever is on her mind and no one will tell her no.

Cambodia1Edited

* * * * * *

Lower Manhattan skyline photo by Allen McCullough, used with permission

Cambodian photos of Ankor Wat by Anita LIn, used with permission

Photo touch-ups by Angus McCullough

Robaim Monosanhchetnana by Sam-Ang Sam Ensemble, available on iTunes

post mastered by Connie Munson

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