Thursday, February 21, 2008

Empty Beds

By: Minh Allen

Soun’s father, brother, and two sisters were hacked to death in the kitchen and in the field, the boy unconscious thrown in a pit of limbs. His mother bent down to grab him and they hid in the forest together. There would be no turning back for the faces mangled like twisted stalks, broken and slashed by teenage guerillas on the front, racing into the clearing to catch the mutineers and deliver them to their darkest hour. In search of justice as these young men saw it, they roamed in search of new recruits in the foothills, in the looted temples, in the huts where skin smoldered.

Running past trees filled with monkeys whose howls disturbed their sleep, Phum and her son made their way into Thailand. In the refugee camp, they lingered on tension wires strung from one gate to the other, and little Soun played soccer with many kids whose scars proved they had witnessed the same twist in fate. Luckily, mother and son were shipped off to California where they were given no time to cry over the damp bones of loved ones. Had to work, had to eat, had to work and eat in the presence of humans who couldn’t tell them their future because they refused to look into their past. It was slow, the return of trust in anything that moved like a leopard or stood like a soldier.

Soun turned into a hunter of wounded flashbacks, tracking their blood trails into the bush, spearing them in the gut, and disemboweling them of every steaming memory. But these animals kept creeping up on his sleep and they were the same ones he thought he had killed. His covers thrown on the floor, he sneaked out of the apartment. His bed still empty the next morning.

Fast food caused indigestion, but at least they were alive, at least. That was the good fortune. Phum believed her son was alive with the spark of youth, but charged with the duties reserved for her husband, his father. It was her son’s turn to play forgiver, redeemer, idol, provider, and charmer of venomous snakes that could attack at any time. Welfare and broken English kept him humble, until Soun embraced the code of the streets. The Big Brothers swelled his chest, made him proud to be a survivor, told him that he would never be alone, told him he was made of the thickest iron, showed him that with a loaded 9mm people would make way for the young rooster.

In his mother’s mind, if hell had supplanted Cambodia, then the U.S. had to be the Promised Land tilled by the meek. She saw no reason why Soun refused to do the dishes, study to make her proud, bow down in front of his ancestor’s shrine, bring back the girls he met for her close scrutiny. All she saw was a small, green check, her son’s empty bed, and the pictures of her family smiling back at her. Anchored in her place along an unwelcoming shore, she could only cry when her son threatened to beat her if she continued to pester him about his absences from school and the knife in his dresser.

When Phum got a call from the San Jose police telling her that they had a Bonset Soun in custody, the officer asked her was he her son. There was not a hint of remorse in her voice when she lied, “Yes, of course, a bright, courageous boy, a model son. My flesh and blood, my only key to heaven.”

Soun had emptied his gun into the huddled body of another Cambodian turned citizen, turned manager of a video store. In his best English he screamed, “All of it, now! I swear I’ll shoot you dead if you don’t give me the money!” He shot more rounds than he could count. Stood frozen amid the smoke and the alarm going off and the customers scattering for cover. His hands went numb because the future wrapped around his wrists, snatching light, movement, and space back into the tunnel leading to his last remaining sister lying on the floor. Her brain spilling out like noodles from a bowl, her arm bent backward, one leg in the corner and teenagers wearing fatigues stacking skull upon skull during a war that emptied beds in the night.

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