I Am Not My Mother

The soft hum of Jorani’s breath wakes me from my sleep, filling the corners of the gray-washed hut. Soon, the sun will rise, its rays shooting a myriad of color into the room, but I must finish my chores before then. I get up from my mat and scan the room before noticing Maman’s vacant mat. She must be at market, begging for money, for food, for anything.

Maman was gone often, and even when she was home, she was distant, staring off at the bamboo walls of our hut, eyes unblinking and glazed. Even when Jorani would tug at the folds of Maman’s skirt, clenching her stomach until her knuckles turned white, silent whimpers escaping her lips, Maman would stand still. Some days she was angry and turbulent, like the flood waters that swept through our lands when the rain poured incessantly on our tiny, stilted house. Those were the days I learned not to speak, not to cry, even when the sting of her slap tingled on my face. In those moments, Jorani and I escaped inside our heads, a place untainted by the reality surround us. We would go outside and draw pictures of smiling faces, shooting stars, and flowers in the dirt — -all images that did not mirror the life we knew. But sometimes, when Maman thought no one was looking, she would be my Maman, the Maman I so desperately wanted back.

I gently nudge Jorani, and she stirs, stretching her arms high over her head. She sits up slowly and wipes the sleep from her eyes.

“Where is Maman?”

“I don’t know, probably at market.”

“I’m hungry.”

“I think we have a little rice left. We’ll have to go to the river and fill the water jug.”

“I’m always hungry, Kanya.”

“I know, Joranim, but if we get this jug filled up fast enough, we can surprise Maman with rice with coconut milk. We can borrow a coconut from Sakung. How does that sound?”

She smiles, always eager to please everyone, and grabs the jug, racing out the door and down the ladder in mere seconds. I follow slowly, praying that maybe a surprise is just what we need to bring Maman back, if only for a day.

We walk down the dirt path, dust rising around us with each step we take. The sun peeks over the horizon, and birds begin to circle overhead, their beautiful colors painting the morning sky. Jorani asks me to tell her their names, her eyes wide as she points her tiny fingers toward each pair of wings sweeping overhead.

When we get to the river, I begin to fill the jug while Jorani dances and twirls on the banks. She dips her foot in and splashes me, giggling contagiously. I drop the jug and run after her, tackling her into the water until we both are dripping from head to toe. I make Jorani go fetch the jug and watch her stoop down to fill it, the weight of the jug stretching her forearms. I can’t help but notice how much she looks like Papa. Her skin, coffee brown, and cheeks that dimple when she grins. Her hair, glossy black silk, falls to the middle of her back. She turns and squints in my direction, scrunching her nose from the glare of the sun, just like Papa used to. I love her a little more for that. She joins on the rock I have been laying on, attempting to dry our clothes.

“Do you remember Papa, Jorani?”

She shakes her head lightly and looks the other way. She does not want to talk about Papa. I know she remembers we were happy then. She remembers what it was like not to be woken by the rumblings of her stomach every morning. We lost both our parents that day.

When I was little, Papa and I would get up before sunrise, gather our bamboo fishing poles, and walk to the banks of the Mekong. We would cast our lines and stare at the silhouettes of the fishermen boats enshrouded by swirling ribbons of morning mist. The water would light up into dancing ripples of fire as the sun glided above the tops of the palm trees, spreading pink and purple rays throughout the sky. Papa would turn to me and smile, throwing his thick arm around my shoulder. The smell of coconut and honey would fill my nose; he always smelled that way, and I would lean in close to soak it all up.

I miss his smells and his deep, booming laugh that filled every corner of our hut. I miss our rickshaw rides to market where I would help him sell our day’s catch to hungry passerbys. I miss his stories of growing up, his eyes like the Mekong, holding mysteries under the surface. I miss him tucking Jorani and me in each night, singing softly the same song his mother used to sing to him.

“We should probably get going, Kanya. Maman may be back soon.”

Jorani’s voice jolts me back to reality. I grab the jug and Jorani slips her hand in mine as we run down the path. I cringe as the impact of my steps with the hard dirt radiates through my shins. I hope Maman is not home yet.

“Don’t forget the coconut!” Jorani says as we round the last curve of the path.

I freeze as our hut comes into view. A man stands next to the wooden ladder leading to the entrance of our home. The ladder Papa built with his two bare hands. The ladder I taught Jorani how to climb. The man talks to Maman hurriedly and places money in her hand. He turns suddenly and looks directly at me, staring like I am cattle in line for slaughter, his eyes slicing me apart like knives. I shiver so fiercely that I drop the jug, causing it to shatter into pieces on the ground, creating a muddy pool of water around my feet. I look at Maman. She stands in the doorway, her face expressionless. She stares at the money in her hands. Jorani squeezes my hand as sobs escape her pursed lips, startled with confusion. I hug her quickly and whisper in her ear.

“Walk to Sakung’s hut, now.”

“But…I don’t…”

“Go, Jorani, I will see you soon,” I mumble and quickly kiss her on the head.

I know why he is here; I have seen it before. Girls sold like animals by their mothers, mothers who trade their children for 4000 riel, cowering in the doorway all the while, as men take their daughters to a place worse than death.

“Why?” I yell to her, my knees buckling underneath me as I crumple to the damp earth. I reach for her hoping she will grab my hand and cradle me in her arms like she used to when I was hurt.

“Look at me, Maman.”

“Face me!”

“Maman.”

He drags me away as I scream for her, but she turns her back to me and goes inside.

***

I look in the mirror as the sunlight seeps through the mud-washed window in jagged streaks barely illuminating the mold-flecked, concrete walls of my room. How I obtained the privilege of my own room, I am not sure. I think it may be because I am Davuth’s favorite, or mayve, because I don’t try to run anymore.

My skin is golden and dry like the parched earth I used to play Leak Kanseng upon when I was still a child. I have not felt the warmth of the sun caress my face since the day at the Mekong with Jorani. Three years. Two months. Seven days. I have been counting. My hair falls limply around my protruding cheekbones, black against my face my face like the dried blood of my people during the Pol Pot regime, whose lifeless bodies were scattered like pebbles upon the ground. I do not recognize the girl staring back at me, eyes opaque and desolate, eyes just as dead as theirs. I stare harder but force myself to look away quickly when I realize how much I resemble Maman.

I can hear Davuth’s steps as he approaches, his heavy treads echoing through the empty hall. My muscles tense as each footfall sends my body vibrating like the strings of the krapeau my father used to play for our family, before my mother sold my innocence.

Davuth enters and walks toward me. He grabs my silken robe, sliding the edges between his fingers before he slowly removes it from my shoulders, and then my arms, letting it fall into a heap upon the floor. His eyes fixate on me, scanning me wildly, and I pray to spirits I have no faith in that he will not notice the swell of my stomach that has slowly grown in the last three months. I shake but I am not cold. My hand brushes the ridged burn on my navel, a reminder of the last time Davuth knew I was with child.

He pushes me to the mat I sleep on, and I can feel the bristled straw poking into my back. He shoves my legs apart, and thrusts himself into me, so far I let out a cry. He mistakes it for pleasure and grabs hold of my sides in order to drive himself further into my body. His eyes are black and soulless, like the King Cobra lunging for its prey. I am defenseless against the poison he pours inside me and numbness course through my body. Davuth locks his calloused hands tightly around my wrists, cold, metallic chains shackling me to the ground, and I am forced to look him in the face. His veins bulge from his forehead like hundreds of maggots wriggling through the carcass of a rotting elephant, and spit clings to the corners of his swollen lips, reminding me of the fat on a leg of chicken. He releases my wrists, and my head bangs against the wall as he plunges so deep into me I can hardly swallow. Moving his hands to my neck, I am left breathless, wheezing for air as he squeezes my throat tighter. I think my chest may explode as the burning in my lungs sends my head spinning. Drops of sweat crawl like spiders down my face, and I can’t help but wonder if death could be better than this. He digs his nails into my flesh, smiling, until his jaw unclenches, his grip loosens, and he is finished. He gets up, snorts loudly, spewing saliva on the ground next to me.

He kicks me in the side.

“Get up, Kanya. Wash your filth. The client will be here in an hour; I think you may enjoy him.”

I hear him laugh to himself, a high-pitched whining that scrapes my eardrums. He walk toward me so his shadow envelops my battered form. Blood streams down my neck, and already, I can see black and blue contour my hip. His eyes travel to my stomach, and I hold my breath silently.

“You must be getting too much food. Heavy women do not earn me money.”

He turns his back to em and walks out the door.

I walk to the rusted pipe in the corner of my room with faltered steps and let the small trickles run down my body. I try to wash the acrid smell of prahok and sweat from my skin, but I know I cannot remove him, for his is always with me.

***

The hum of motorbikes fills the night, people returning home to families now that market is closed. Howls of children playing games outside my window makes me long for Jorani. She is thirteen now, the age I was when I last saw her, and I wonder if she still looks like Papa. I wonder if she has been doomed to the same fate as me. A baby cries somewhere in the distance, sharp wails of hunger piercing through sounds of dusk. I hold my stomach and bury me head in my hands, knowing that my children will never be soothed in my arms. They will be nothing more than phantoms that haunt my dreams as I turn my back on them.

I hear Davuth’s steps dragging through the hall, and I know he is drunk. He swings the door open, letting it pound against the wall, and I can see the hot piece of metal gleaming in his hand; he knows. He staggers toward me, his figure faceless in the glow of the moon. I crawl to the edge of the concrete wall, pulling my legs to my chest, bracing myself for what is to come. Am I any different than Maman? I cower in the shadows in shame, waiting for Davuth to come beat me and take away the life I hold inside. Another baby dies without so much as a fight. I should fight though.

I will fight. I will not let him take my child like Maman. But I hear the hollow sound of the door shutting and the click of the lock echoes loudly in my ears.

I do not run anymore.