In April, AsiaLIFE and Saraswati Publishing launched a short story competition to find talented young Cambodian writers. The quality of entries was high but there could only be one winner, whose story will appear in Mekong Shadows, which is due for release next month. Here’s Voleak Phan’s winning tale.   

Kac Keeng Kong Kert! Kac Keeng Kong Kert!

Veasna woke up to the sound of roosters crowing, signalling the morning of another new day. Supposedly, it would be a promising day for a twelve-year-old like him, what with school to go to, friends to play with, and food to eat. But Veasna was not normal and hoping was most pertinent in his case.

He got up groggily to light a lamp in the semi-darkness of early morning. He rolled the carpet he had been sleeping in and laid his folded blanket on top of his pillow. With one hand holding the dimly lit lamp, he tiptoed towards the dishes nearby and washed them. Then he climbed down the stairs and grabbed a broomstick to sweep the ground. All the while, his mother was preparing his sister for school. She beckoned her daughter to climb on the motorbike and did not even glance at Veasna. Jompa turned back to wave at him.

Later that day.

“This is kor…khor…ko ,” said Jompa with her fingers pointing at the letters on the page. Veasna shook his head in confusion as he tried to copy the letters. They were sitting on a bed underneath the mango tree outside of the house.

“AH   SNA! You stole my money, did you? Where is it? Give it back?” snarled his angry mother as she grabbed him by his shirt and searched his body. With quivering lips, Veasna shook his head vigorously in denial.

“You won’t tell me huh? You won’t tell…”

Her voice trailed off as her gaze fell upon a bamboo stick nearby. She seized the stick and started to whip her son.

“You liar! You have become a thief, huh? I work so hard to raise this family, and this is how you pay me? Let me teach you, pathetic child!”

“Errr…mmmmmm…” cried Veasna, who pressed two palms together in a praying manner, begging for mercy.

“Mother, please don’t hurt brother. He was with me the whole time; he couldn’t possibly steal your money. You might have misplaced it somewhere,” said Jompa.

“Shut up Jompa! I am sure he stole it. Let me teach him how to tell the truth.” Veasna was crying hard and his eyes pleaded with his mom, who only looked at him menacingly; there was no mercy in those demon-possessed eyes.

Blood started to ooze from his wounds. His mother was getting exhausted as her whipping lessened its harshness. Just as she was about to whip him using the last of her strength, Jompa seized her brother’s hand and blocked him from the terrible blow of the whip. She screamed as she had never before in her life as pain ripped through her body.

“Stop it. Please, stop it,” Jompa cried, hugging her brother. Seething with anger, her mother threw whatever she could grab and cursed. The neighbours heard the commotion; some peered out of their houses to look, but none of them dared

to intervene. They either didn’t care or were afraid to interfere with another family’s business.

Sobbing so hard, Jompa asked, “Why? Why are you so cruel to my brother? He’s your son, too!”

“WHY? Because he is a mute. He is so stupid and slow like a cow. A disgrace! A distasteful disgrace! I should have killed you at birth.” All the while mother pointed her finger at him as if accusing him of some crime he didn’t commit.

“He didn’t choose to be born this way. My…my teacher told us not to judge people…”

“I don’t care what your teacher said!” her mother yelled. She stormed to the kitchen and came back with a bundle of clothes, which she threw at Veasna.

“Get out of my house. I am so sick and tired of raising you. You’re useless to me, as if I am not poor enough! I don’t want to deal with you anymore. GET OUT!”

“Mom, no! Don’t do it!” begged Jompa. Veasna crawled to her and bent his head to her feet with his hands raised to his forehead. Fury and disgust engulfed the woman’s soul so much so that she acknowledged him with a kick to his stomach and walked away.

Veasna could only watch with teary eyes. Then, he turned and checked on his sister’s wound.

“I’m fine,” reassured Jompa. She used her shirt to wipe the blood from his arms. “What are we going to do? She means what she says…you’ll have to…you’ll have to…” She broke down into an uncontrollable sobbing. Veasna hugged his sister, and they clung to each other for comfort.

After a while, Jompa said, “I will go with you.” Veasna shook his head.

“You can’t stop me. I have made up my mind.” Seeing the adamant look in her eyes, he yielded. She went to grab her belongings, and together hand in hand, they walked out.

Suddenly, Jompa was tugged away from Veasna.

“Where do you think you are going?” said her mother.

“He has no one; I need to be with him,” argued Jompa.

Seizing her by the arms, she dragged Jompa away, who screamed and kicked at her mother. Veasna rushed to free his sister, but his mother pushed him aside. He fell and banged his head against the pillar. Dazed, he struggled to get up as his sister was pulled further away from him. He hurried to her one more time, and their hands found each other. Jompa clasped her brother’s hand tightly one final time as her mother yanked her from him and pushed her inside the house.

Veasna fell down on his knees and cried. He looked inside his hand and found a necklace there. On the necklace was a rusty jompa. He clutched it tight to his heart as he took tentative steps away from home, from his sweet little sister, whom he would never see again. His hunched silhouette walked off into the distance as the sun cast its final light and plunged the earth into a veil of darkness.

As for Jompa, she didn’t know what to do besides sobbing over the loss of a brother very dear to her.

“Oh cruel world! A heart holds love, yet the heart of the woman I call mother is anything but kind.” She paused. Her gaze was so distant. “Veasna …what will yours be like?”

Veasna

It was a small village, but seemed so vast. He felt his way through the dark interior of the night, oblivious to the pain his wound caused him, not knowing where to go.

Suddenly, he was surrounded by a gang of boys. They called him names and taunted him, but he only walked away, terrified of them and everything around him. But they didn’t let him go as one of them saw the necklace. He didn’t know what happened as a feeling of numbness possessed him when his head hit the ground. Their feet were on his hand, forcing it to open, only to no avail. He only knew he needed to keep it safe; it was his jompa.

But then, another group of boys appeared from the corner of the road and chased Veasna’s tormentors away.

They inspected the inert Veasna.

“Just leave him here. I don’t want to get in trouble,” said one of the boys.

The tallest boy who was the leader pondered the suggestion. “No, we should help him. He can be useful to our business.”

For days, Veasna stayed in a ramshackle house, where he was taken care of by the boys. To him, they were his saviours; he had food and a place to sleep. When he had recovered, they brought a school uniform to him.

“Put that on, Ah Heng,” said the leader. They called him by that name, hoping that he was the luck-bringer. The leader took Veasna by both shoulders and looked intently into his eyes.

“Listen to me, boy. Your job is to go to the back of the school we will bring you and deliver this package to the students you meet there. Then, you come out as quickly as you can with the money they give you and make sure you don’t stop to let anyone else talk to you. Do this right and you’ll get more food and some sweets tonight.”

Veasna nodded and smiled at the leader.

“Good. Now go.”

Veasna carried out his mission cautiously. When he handed the package to the boys at the school, they grabbed it hungrily and took the pills. After that, they looked blissful and gave him money.

He didn’t know what the pills were for, but they definitely made you feel better. More than once, he had missions like that. When he failed to deliver the packages, they didn’t let him eat. Sometimes, the leader beat him up. In pain, he would take the necklace out from its hiding place and clung to his jompa.

It was another raindrop on the same old wound.