It was just before planting season when father decided I should drop out of school. We’d finished dinner, and mother was putting away the uneaten rice for breakfast. I was looking out the window; somebody’s cow had gotten loose and was wandering between the houses, and the fields beyond the village were turning purple in the dusk. Suddenly, father stood up from where he’d been sitting on the floor, with no shirt on, and said, “Daughter, I want you in the fields with me tomorrow.”
“Daughter has school tomorrow, and Pouk knows it,” said Mae.
“Other girls help their fathers in the fields,” said Pouk. “Sreyrath, Dina, Veasna. Look at them.”
“Our Nita is different,” said Mae. “She’s very clever. All her teachers say so.”
“Enough school,” said Pouk. He began waving his arms like he did when he was angry. Pouk always looked bigger when he waved his arms, but he was actually only a little taller than Mae, and just as skinny. “Daughter has no need of school,” he said. “In a year, she is being married.” Mae just let her face go slack, like she does when she has to be a good wife and do what Pouk wants.
I ran behind the dangling sheet where my little sister and I slept, and I put my school books inside Mae’s old trunk where nobody would find them.
Early the next morning, before my father and brother got up to load the ox cart, I crept down the ladder and went to hide at Lina’s house. It was still dark outside, so I took a kerosene lamp, but I knew the way. Lina and I had made many trips on the rutted road between her house and mine, chatting and pretending not to notice the boys lolling under the acacia trees and doing nothing except sucking palm sugar juice out of plastic bags. “What’s up, little srey chhlat,” they would say to me, which was sweet, but maybe it wasn’t so sweet and they just wanted me to do their math homework for them. They all paid the teacher to get the answers to the tests, but I got the answers on my own. Lina, they called sa’at. They never called me that. Lina could have had her pick of any boy in the village, but her parents wanted her to marry her cousin Hin Rachana, so that’s what she did. Then her husband left to get seasonal work in Thailand, and the boys began looking at her again. Sometimes she looked back. Afternoons, after our household chores, Lina and I walked along the river to watch the wooden fishing boats dragging their white nets behind them. She’d wear her knockoff Diesel T-shirt and matching flip-flops. Some afternoons we made baby toys out of sticks and pieces of cloth, to sell at the market. Lina had plenty of friends, but she liked me the most because I didn’t jabber all the time.
That morning, I hid in Lina’s storage shed. Her mae was up in the house listening to the radio. All day I stayed there, sweating in the heat. Lina brought me some rice and dried fish. To pass the time, we put pink polish on each other’s fingernails. “I thought you’d stay in that dumb crazy school for the rest of your life,” whispered Lina. “I wish that I could,” I said. “What are your plans, sister?” said Lina. She held my hand. “Why don’t you live in my house with me. It’s lonely when my parents go to Ta Kao. You can keep me company.”
Lina always said a lot of silly things. She said that she had been born to marry a rich man, because she’d done a lot of good deeds in her previous life, but that some crazy accident had occurred and she got stuck with her cousin Rachana. Also she said that her father had 17 girlfriends. Now how could that be. I figured out that if her father spent only $50 on each one, it would cost more than he made in a whole year in his fish stall at the market. My father had only one girlfriend, Lakhena, and she cost him plenty.
I stayed in Lina’s shed until dark, then I went back to my house. Pouk had been outside drinking palm wine and could barely stand up, and Mae had to help him up the ladder. He picked up the broom like he was about to beat me. He beat Mae with that broom. This time he changed his mind. He just touched me on the shoulder and said “daughter” and lay down on his sleeping mat. It wasn’t late, but Mae turned off the bulb dangling from the tin roof, and the house was dark. For a long time, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about how much I would miss school and learning things, especially maths, and how I would never go to university, which had been my dream, and then I began wondering about my dear sister Thida and if I would ever see her again, and then I was thinking about the boys who looked at Lina and whether they would ever look at me like that.
The next afternoon, two teachers from my school came to my house, krou Phally and krou Sophal. Krou Sophal was my maths teacher. She had hair on her chin, like a man. Krou Phally and krou Sophal told my parents that I was the best student in the class, the best in five years, and that none of the other students paid attention for one entire minute during the day. Then they began complaining about how they got paid only $50 a month and there was no toilet in the school. Their only satisfaction was a good student like me, every five years.
Pouk didn’t say a word. He just sat picking at the dirt under his fingernails.
That was his answer.
I hated working on the farm. I hated tossing the stinking cow dung and beating the rice seeds into the mud and sifting out the snails. It was stupid work.
At night, after Sreypov and I went behind the dangling sheet and undressed, I studied my schoolbooks with a kerosene lamp. When I was studying, I forgot who I was and where I was, and I just floated in the land of learning. But I knew that I would never be in school again.
After a few weeks of this kind of talk, it was like Noth Bun was a member of our household. I’d never heard his name before a month ago, and now he was practically eating at our table. Of course, I knew what Pouk was doing. But I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to get married. Look at Lina. What good did a husband do her? I had another friend, Chenda, who worked day and night making food for her husband and his friends and washing his clothes and his uncle’s clothes and taking care of their two babies. Chenda used to be so pretty. By the time she was 17, her skin was wrinkled like an old lady’s and her face looked like a stone. Her sister Marady died giving birth. The doctor in Ta Kao asked for $115 to save her, but her parents didn’t have near that much money. I didn’t want to get married until I was at least 20, maybe 25.
Pouk and Mae kept talking about this Noth Bun, and one day they announced that he was coming all the way from Battambang to meet me. “You should be nice to him,” said Pouk. “It’s a long trip.” “Why is he coming?” I asked, understanding exactly why he was coming. “He wants to meet you,” said Mae. “He’s rich,” said Pouk. “He could take good care of you.” “There must be other girls in Battambang,” I said. I knew that I shouldn’t dare say something like that to my parents, with a knife blade in it, but the words just came out of my mouth. Mae looked over at Pouk and waited for him to talk. “Mr. Noth has heard that you are clever,” said Pouk. “And he and cousin Narith are good friends.” “Just let him meet you,” said Mae. “You don’t need to say anything to him.” Pouk frowned at Mae. “Daughter should talk to him,” said Pouk.
The next Sunday, around noon, a big silver car drove up the rutted road to our house. It couldn’t get all the way, because of the mud, so it stopped about 100 meters away, and Mr. Noth began walking. It had to be Mr. Noth. I’d never seen a car like that in our village. I hurried down the ladder and ran to Lina’s house and hid in her storage shed.
An hour later, I heard Mae’s voice from outside the shed. “Dearest daughter, mi-oun, you have to come out now.” “I don’t want to.” For a while, Mae didn’t say anything. “I know how you feel,” she said. “I know.” “So don’t make me come,” I said. “Your pouk wants you to meet Mr. Noth,” said Mae. “He’s a nice man.” I loved Mae. I thought about how she was just doing what she had to do, so I went with her back to our house.
Mr. Noth sat in one of our two chairs, Pouk in the other. Pouk was wearing his green silk shirt, which he usually wore only during the New Year. Mr. Noth was dressed in a jacket and lace-up shoes. He had bushy eyebrows that met in the middle, and the hair on his head was starting to fall out, and when he stood up he leaned to one side, like one leg was shorter than the other. He wasn’t handsome, and he wasn’t ugly.
Mr. Noth knew that I’d been hiding somewhere. I stood against the wall, keeping a distance. “I like a girl with spirit,” he said and grinned. I noticed that he had all of his teeth. He began asking me questions about various things, like what kinds of jobs people did in our village and how much money tires cost at the market. At first, I didn’t want to talk to him, but words started coming out of my mouth.
“She’s a pretty girl, isn’t she,” said Mae.
“Not so pretty,” said Mr. Noth, “but she’s clever.”
“Yes, she’s clever,” said Pouk. That was the first time in my life that Pouk ever said I was clever.
“What will happen to me?” said Lina. “I can’t go anywhere. I have no money. You’ll eat good food and ride in your husband’s car and he’ll take you to shops in Battambang town. How did you have such good luck?”
Whenever I was stupid enough to say that I’d rather shovel cow dung for the rest of my life than get married to Mr. Noth, Lina would get even angrier and begin shouting about how I didn’t know anything about anything except my school lessons. Then she’d start in on her own rotten luck and how puny her husband was and how he’d probably found girlfriends in Thailand by now and was spending all of his money on those srey somphens with the big tits. But then she’d start crying and put her arms around me. Lina did love me. She was my best friend. I told her things I didn’t tell anyone else. I told her when I had my first period even before I told Mae. I told her about what happened to Thida, being sold to a brothel, which was a shameful secret my parents said we should take to our next life.
Lina sewed two beautiful turquoise kramas, one for me and one for her, and we wore them during the wedding days. We were sisters, as much as Sreypov and Thida and me. For most of the wedding ceremonies, we stood side by side and held each others’ hands, while Mr. Noth put his hand on my shoulder. His car was waiting to drive him and me to Battambang.
The night before the last day of the wedding, Mae had a private talk with me, behind the sheet where Sreypov and I slept. My sister’s clothes hung over the sideways bamboo pole. I’d already packed mine, along with my glam photos of Pich Sophea and Sokun Nisa, which Mr. Noth said I could take with me to Battambang.
“Sweet daughter, mi-oun,” said Mae with tears in her eyes. “Listen to me. It’s your job to keep peace in your new family. Never complain.” I nodded. Mae held my hand and whispered, “Don’t be shy tomorrow night.”
“What will it be like?” I asked.
“You might feel uncomfortable,” said Mae. “If you bleed, it’s normal. Your husband will be happy that you’re bleeding.”
“How was it with you?”
“I did what I was supposed to do.”
Then Mae gave me her necklace, which her mae had given to her.
It had a tear-shaped gold pendant, encircling a plant with six leaves.
I never knew what my husband did when he was gone. Once I heard him talking on his handphone to somebody in Chinese, and another time in Vietnamese. Auntie said I shouldn’t ask. Every time he came to Auntie’s house, he brought me new clothes and beautiful shoes, like the film stars wore. “Don’t wear those shoes on the road,” he said. “You’ll get them dirty.” “I’ll wear them only with you,” I said, and that made him smile. My husband also brought me perfumes and an expensive wristwatch he’d bought in Phnom Penh. He never gave me any money. He gave money to his aunt.
My husband liked to watch me dress up in the new clothes, starting with the padded bras. He’d say, “You look sexy like that” and take a big drag from his cigarette. While he was looking at me, he’d limp over to the cabinet and turn on the radio, so that his aunt wouldn’t hear us from her room. Then he’d take off all of my clothes. He had a hairy back. When he was finished, he’d kiss me and ask, “Did I hurt you?” Usually he did hurt me, but I wouldn’t say anything.
There was always a certain smell when we did it. Sometimes he smelled like that when he came home after being away. I figured my husband had girlfriends. But he’d chosen me for his wife.
Auntie Champey had red-tinted hair and very white fake teeth. She thought she was about 30 years old, but she was 53. She wore nice clothes and jewelry even if she wasn’t going out of the house. The first months, she was sweet to me. She had a maid named Chakrya, who cleaned and cooked for us. Auntie said to me, “Daughter, konsrey, anything you want done you tell Chakrya. You should live like a queen in this house.” I looked at Chakrya, who was the same age as me, and I knew I couldn’t ask Chakrya to do any chores for me. “What would you like me to help you with, Auntie?” I said. “You’re my nephew’s wife,” said Auntie.
“You don’t need to do anything around here.” She was peeling the spiny skins off some rambutans and plopping them in her mouth one after another. “You know, my nephew is a big man. Do whatever you want.” But there wasn’t much I could do without any money. And I didn’t know anyone in Ang Chrum. So I studied my books most of the day. At least I didn’t have to work on a farm. I was content studying, but I missed Mae and Pouk and Sreypov and Kamal. My husband let me call them a couple times a week.
One day, Auntie said that there was no reason to pay Chakrya when I could do the cooking and cleaning for free, so she fired Chakrya. “It’s your house,” she said. “Don’t you want it to look nice? Konsrey should take pride in her house.”
From then on, I had to get up every morning at 5 a.m. in the dark and light the cooking fire. Then I had to cook breakfast and take it to Auntie in her room. Then I had to sweep and wash the floors. While I was doing this everyday, Auntie stayed in her room and watched television. Sometimes, she walked around the house dressed up in expensive silk sarongs. I cried about my hard life to my husband his next trip home. He hugged me and said, “When I’m not here, Auntie is the boss.”
At night, Aunt Champey would ask me to rub her back. Then she talked to me like I was her real daughter. “You’re a good daughter, mi-oun,” she said. She’d be lying on the floor naked from the waist up, watching television while I rubbed her back. There was one cream to keep her back from hurting, and another cream to whiten her skin. It was really hot in her room, but Auntie wouldn’t let me open a window. She said she didn’t want anybody looking at her naked. “My nephew loves you,” she said while I rubbed her back. “You’re clever, and your children will be clever. Be a good wife and make clever babies for him.”
“I’m trying,” I said.
“That’s being a good wife,” said Auntie. “Nephew deserves to be happy. Look at everything that he’s given us. Make him a clever son. That’s what he wants.”
After I rubbed her back at night, Auntie would sometimes go to the corner of her room where she kept her green Buddha and some photographs of her relatives. “I pray for my dear parents and wish them happiness in their new life,” Auntie said, half naked, and lit one of the incense sticks. Then she said a prayer for my husband’s deceased mother and a prayer for my husband’s father, even though nobody knew whether he was living or dead. He’d remarried and walked away from his children. While Auntie was praying, I clutched Mae’s necklace and thought about when I might see her again. Sometimes, I imagined leaving Auntie’s house at night, when she was sleeping, and taking the bus home to see Mae. But it was so far, and I had no money.
When my husband took me to Battambang town, we never stayed in his big house there. It was only for business, he said. We’d park his car and pay a boy to watch it while we walked along the main street, which was a wide concrete road. My husband liked to go into the shops. Everyone knew my husband. He would joke around with his friends for a few minutes, sharing his expensive 555 cigarettes with them, and then touch my shoulder and say, “This is my wife,” but he never let me talk to anyone more than a minute. One time we were eating in a restaurant, and when I went to the toilet one of the waitresses passed me and said, “I really like your shoes,” and she smiled at me. Her name was Thea. After that, Auntie let me take the bus to Battambang town twice a month to see Thea. It was an hour and a half each way, but I didn’t mind because I was getting away from the house, and I had a friend. I’d sit at one of the tables, getting free food, and Thea would come over and talk to me during her breaks. “All the male customers want to sleep with me,” she’d whisper. “Do they think I’m a beer girl or something? Do I look like a beer girl?” “No,” I’d say. “You look like a nun,” and we’d start laughing. Actually, Thea was pretty, much prettier than me, but she dressed as plain as she could, without any jewelry, and she didn’t use any lipstick. She did wear a wristband with three stones in it, which she said warded off the evil spirits. “You need one of these, sister,” she said to me. “There’re strange powers at work in the world, things we don’t know anything about.” I didn’t believe in evil powers, but during Pchum Ben I’d felt my dead grandparents brush past me looking for food. Thea was always worrying about one thing or another. Even when she was sitting down, she twitched her legs back and forth and looked around like she was waiting for something bad to happen.
Thea got paid only $40 per month, but the hours were better than in the garment factories, and she got free food. She lived with a cousin and sent $20 home to her parents every month. On Sundays, she took English lessons at the Very Extraordinary American University of English, a two-room house with dirty floors and lots of photographs of the U.S.
Thea was always asking me to introduce her to my husband’s friends. “I don’t care what my husband looks like,” she said. “He can be fat. He can be ugly. I just want my own house in Battambang town so I can bring my parents to live with me.” I felt guilty that I lived in a nice house in Ang Chrum and that my husband owned another mansion in Battambang town.
After a year, Auntie began asking me every month if I’d missed my period. Sometimes she asked me twice in the same day. “You’re not much of a wife,” she said. “Does konsrey hear me?” I nodded. “Nephew can get any girl. Do you want him to have a son with another girl?” As she was talking, she looked right through me like I was nothing, like I was a prostitute. While Auntie was out with her friends, I saw where she kept her money. It was in the bottom drawer of her dresser, underneath her underwear. Auntie didn’t need that money. She had so much money. All she did was watch television and look at herself in the mirror all day. There was $600 in her drawer, more money than Pouk made in a year. I took $10, enough to buy a new math book in Battambang town. By then, I’d read through all of my books twice. Was I wrong to do that? But my husband didn’t give me any money, not even 100 riel, and I was his wife. I felt guilty for one week, and then I stopped feeling guilty.
One night, instead of having sex with me, my husband just wanted to put his head on my lap. That was fine with me. It was the rainy season, when nothing gets dry, and the house was damp and moldy. My husband began telling me the story of his mae and how she had died from starvation in the Pol Pot time. Then he talked about his pouk and how one morning he was gone from the house, just disappeared, and never came back and never wrote one letter and never made one phone call. “I remember him so well,” said my husband, closing his eyes. “I can see him this minute in my mind. I can see him clearly. He could lift me up in the air, even when I was 9 years old.” My husband stopped talking for a moment and looked up at me. “I thought that he loved me. I was his oldest son.” Then my husband starting crying, right there with his head on my lap. I stroked his cheek. “I will be a good father,” he said, crying.
“Bang, don’t cry,” I said.
“Do you love me?” he said.
“Yes,” I answered. I wanted to love him. He had given me a lot of nice things, and he never beat me the way Pouk did.
“Do you love me?” he asked again.
“Do you love me?” He kept asking, like he didn’t believe me.
I realized at that moment that I didn’t love him. But I felt terrible for what had happened to him.
“It’s been that,” I said. We were sitting in the storeroom of her restaurant, eating mango and sticky rice. “Don’t give up, sister,” said Thea. “What can I do?” I said. “I don’t know what to do.” “If the spirits want you to have a baby,” said Thea, “you’ll have a baby.”
A week later, my husband stood in the doorway of his aunt’s house smoking his cigarette and looking at me like I was somebody he hardly knew. “You’re an empty bag,” he said. “I’ve spent so much money on an empty bag.” He had proof he could make babies, he said, so the problem was me. Auntie didn’t say anything. She just gave me that bad stare. But she seemed to feel sorry for me. She began helping me cook meals. Sometimes in the late afternoon, just when it was getting dark, we walked together along the road and listened to the chanting of the monks. The cows would be coming in like a brown river.
At night, after auntie’s massage, I studied my new math book, and I thought about the shocks that had happened to me in my life, good and bad. I tried to remember what I had done in my past lives to make things come out this way, but all I could recall were dim floating things, maybe houses or people or animals.
Poor Thida must have done bad things in her past lives, but she had such a sweetheart. I knew that someday she would be free and come back to Mae and Pouk.
Then I missed my period. And I missed again the next month. I felt nauseated. “You’re pregnant,” said Aunt Champey, and she hugged me. “Am I pregnant?” I asked, disbelieving. “I’m sure of it,” said Auntie. She gently placed her hand on my stomach. “You’re pregnant, my mi-oun.” I looked at myself in the mirror.
“You’re pregnant,” Auntie said and laughed. “After all of this time. I’ve been saying prayers for you and Nephew. You took a long time.”
When my husband came home a few weeks later, he put his hand on my stomach and smiled. “Our son,” he said. After a day’s visit, he drove back to Battambang town. “His business with the rubber,” said Auntie. “It’s no matter,” I said. “He can stay away as long as he wants. What should we name the baby?”
“Oh, we have plenty of time to think of a name,” said Auntie. “You’ll have a clever baby boy. Maybe we should name him Chamness.” I thought to myself that I could have a son, but I might have a daughter. A daughter would be nice. My husband and Auntie wanted a son, but I decided I was going to have a daughter.
That night, as I lay on my bed I imagined that I could see my daughter curled up inside of me. She was a perfect being. And she’d come from my body. I’d made her myself from my own body. A feeling like warm water moved through my insides where my daughter slept. I would be a good mother, I was certain, like Mae. My husband could come and go as he pleased. I was the one who would nurse my daughter and bathe her and watch her grow. She would be so clever, and she would go to university. And I would always be her mother. Thinking these things, I slipped into sleep, and I dreamed that I was a queen standing in a great house. When I looked out, the glassy stone floors went on and on until they joined with a garden. Beautiful spirits hovered in the air all around me, blessing me and my daughter. And there was beautiful music from invisible instruments. Mae was there, and Pouk was there. Sreypov and Kamal were there. And dear Thida, smiling at me. And Lina and Thea. Everyone was so kind. And the milk poured from my body, white and perfect and good.
Alan Lightman is a physicist, writer and professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, which works to empower young women in Cambodia.