By Melvin Sterne
On the morning of the 40th day of his incarceration, Oudom's jailers open the cell and march Oudom down the corridor and out into a small, narrow courtyard. Although he has no way of knowing it, the walk will be repeated irregularly, a phenomenon countless other prisoners before him have experienced, and countless others will undergo in the years after Oudom was gone. A slow walk down the dimly-lit corridor and out into the courtyard where one day Oudom will face a firing squad.
For 39 days Oudom has stooped, sat, or lay in his cell, hands and feet chained. His cell is two paces in length and breadth, space halved by the narrow metal bedframe upon which he can lay, if he wishes. There is no mattress, only the bare wires of the frame. Oudom sometimes endures the pain and sleeps on the frame. The floor is concrete and a bit cooler, but the rats and roaches will bite him if he sleeps on the floor. He is free to choose his torture. The only other item in the cell is a rusty bucket that sat underneath the bed – his toilet. Once a week a jailer empties it.
There are three walls to the cell, and a wall of concrete block with a door of iron bars. The bars are rough, rusty and skeletal, as Oudom is becoming skeletal too: his ribs betraying his shallow breathing; the points of his hips; sunken, hollow sockets of his cheeks and eyes. The walls have long been polished to a near-black finish. There is no window, no light, no ventilation or running water. Oudom takes a meal comprising rice and vegetable gruel once a day. Most days his jailers bring him a plastic bottle of brackish water.
There is no sound in the prison save the occasional groan, or cry of insanity from other prisoners. Should a prisoner make a noise that attracts the guards, there would follow the sound of beating. Oudom has not uttered a word out loud since his arrival.
The courtyard is paved with red bricks, surrounded by a high wall topped with coils of concertina wire. Oudom's guards march him into the courtyard and leave him there. Oudom looks around and blinks into the light. A rectangle of indeterminate grey sky above hints at neither morning nor afternoon. It is hot, air humid and heavy.
Towards one end of the enclosure, someone has erected a rusted steel-piped T, like a clothesline. It is the post to which Oudom will someday be strapped on. For a moment Oudom thinks the time for his execution has arrived. Instead the guards take their leave, as they have left the others before, to let him circle the courtyard and ponder his fate. It is a tradition, a kind of mental torture. Prisoners want relief from their cells, but none want to face their execution. Consequently, every walk to the courtyard is a reminder of what awaits them, a moment longed for and dreaded, and every time the guards enter the block the prisoners' faces light up with imagined possibilities, and alarm. They face their hopes and fears. And the gloom is reinforced when a prisoner is taken out for his exercise and not returned.
The guards leave Oudom and he stands, momentarily confused, gazing up into the sky. He begins circling the courtyard, walking slowly, staring down at the red-brick pavement. He circles the courtyard twice and then stops. The floor is swept daily, but somehow a single leaf has been missed, or has fallen recently. But from where? There are no trees or plants. The leaf is small and brightly-coloured, in orange and pink and yellow and green. The bricks are grimy and dull, so the leaf stands out. It is the only thing of any colour that Oudom has seen in a month, and it strikes him that the leaf is the most beautiful thing he has ever held. Oudom bends down and picks it up. He holds the leaf close to his face, studies it and wonders: Where has this come from? Outside there is a world of trees and farms and fields and rivers and villages. There are food and water and bathing, family and friends, and radio and music. There are flowers and pretty girls and games, sunshine and rain, and wind. There are days and nights, hot and cold spells. There are mangos and mosquitos, satay and the smell of charcoal, and steaming balls of rice wrapped in pandan leaves, and the taste of garlic, curry and coconut – it seems to Oudom that this leaf has seen it all. It must have witnessed from its perch on a tree somewhere.
It was night when Oudom was arrested. He was taken in the back of a pickup truck to the local police station, hands cinched with cable ties. It was still night when he was taken by that same truck to the district police headquarters in the city. It was another night when he was taken in the back of a larger truck from the city to the prison. He was chained this time. The prisoners lay like logs in the back of the truck, and they rode for hours staring up into a rainy sky. They were on a highway. A dirt road. A dirt track.
There were rumours, of course. Everybody knew. The location? Even the people who knew never said they knew. They dared not admit it even to themselves. The trucks to and from. The walls. The bursts of gunfire at random hours. A shrug. Who knows? A factory, perhaps. Some training facility. Oudom knew what he was, but not where he was, and certainly not why.
Oudom wore the same pink, sleeveless tee shirt and black running shorts he was wearing the night he was arrested. He was sitting in a hut playing cards with seven other men. They were home from work, from fish-farming along the river. It was hard work. There were pens to tend, and fish to net and box and send to the city. Two other people were arrested with him: Sour and Mok. Oudom has not seen them since. He does not know the charges against him. Were there even charges? Did they need charges? The soldiers surrounded the hut and called them, one by one, by name. They were tied and blindfolded, thrown into the back of a truck and driven away. Oudom was not beaten. In a sweltering office at the headquarters, an officer in a green camouflage uniform pushed a paper across a desk, and said, "Sign here." When they said sign, you signed. Oudom could not read. What difference would it have made if he could? He made his mark and was taken to a cell where he fell asleep and woke to the sound of the same woman weeping inconsolably in an adjoining cell.
With a hand holding the leaf, he circles the square. He stares at the leaf, mesmerised. He memorises the feather-like shape, branches of veins running through, orange and red and yellow and green and brown rising flame-like from the stem to the crisp, brown tip. He stares until he closes his eyes and sees every detail.
In an hour the guards return and lead him back to his cell, the leaf concealed in his fist. Once alone, he places the leaf gently, almost reverently, into a slot where the mortar has loosened between two concrete blocks. In the coming months he will take the leaf out and turn it over and over again in his hand, remembering its colours even in the dark of his cell. He will take the leaf to his lips, his tongue, his eyelids. He will hold it to his nose and breathe in, trying to recall its scent.
There was a girl in his village, Kaknika. It was probably less than a year ago, but it feels like another lifetime. She had a bright yellow dress with a broad white sash, and she wore flowers in her hair on weekends. They would walk together along the river, hand in hand. Oudom wonders what has happened to her. In another life, they might have got married and been poor-but-happy raising a family. There would have been school fees and illnesses and accidents and laughter and quiet nights of breathless intimacy. Splinters and infections and insect bites and holidays to the beach or the mountains, and funerals. This was his hope when he went looking for work at the fish farm. His family had a small plot of land. They grew cassava, groundnuts and beans, but one could barely make a living growing cassava, ground nuts and beans. There was not enough land to feed a wife, much less a future child. The fish farm needed men to cut bamboo stakes and hammer them into the mud, and boys to swim and dive and string the net pens. Oudom worked hard, his body transforming from a boy's into a man's, so that one day he would have an income to support a wife and someday a family.
Oudom whispers this to the leaf in the night and asks that whoever takes Kaknika from her village will be kind to her and that she will always wear bright yellow dresses, and have flowers in her hair. And he whispers to his leaf in the hope that it can carry word to his mother and father, to let them know he is well and will return soon, even though he now shivers from malaria, there are bloody sores on his chafed wrists and ankles, and his body is shrinking from hunger and disuse.
In the months that follow, Oudom will never find another leaf in the courtyard. No flower, not even a blade of grass. Once he finds the cast-off, faintly iridescent shell of a beetle. He marvels at it, but the shell comes apart in his hand like shards of glass. He crushes and rubs them into his palm. It is an omen, this broken shell, and Oudom will worry over the stain it leaves on his hand.
On the day of his execution Oudom stiffens when the guards do not leave him at the gate but enters the courtyard with him instead. Smiling, they dangle the blindfold in front of his face, and he shuts his eyes. They tie him to the pole, and he stands, chest rising and falling. He feels his heartbeat, blood pulsating in his veins and ringing in his ears, and the ache in his swollen joints and festering sores.
He is an ordinary man, Oudom. He is like you and me. He holds no dangerous beliefs. He has no special skills or knowledge or connections. He shelters no enemy and incites no rebellion. He does not know why he is chosen for this moment, or even if there is a reason. Mistaken identity? A wrong address? Did the farm lack the money to pay his wages? Was there another man waiting to take his job for less pay? Were there missing fish? A knife lost in the water? Oudom does not know, just like you and I will never know: a virus, a moment of distraction, the random act of a stranger.
Oudom stands and the soldiers linger. They tease Oudom with the knowledge that this is the end of knowledge. They grin as they take aim. For days Oudom has endured heat and starvation and insects and thirst and the pain of infections and the gnawing loneliness in his heart, and now he stands and longs for this moment to go on, and knows that it may be – should be – his final relief. But what the soldiers do not know is that Oudom is neither blind nor bound, in pain, to this post, but rather, is bathed in an indeterminant light with a brightly coloured leaf in his hand. And this leaf is the most beautiful thing Oudom has ever seen, not because of its texture and shape, or refracted colours, but rather, because he remembers the first time he saw this leaf he understood the meaning of beauty and its place in the world, in his life. So Oudom stands forever as the bullets churn through the air. His limbs throb and his heart aches, and he would not have lasted five minutes were it not for this thing that we call beauty which comes in endless forms and is given to us freely every single day.
The bullets will cause ghastly wounds, winding tunnels of ablation mixed with shards of bone and organ and tissue, which cannot be surgically repaired. They are manufactured for this purpose. After Oudom is dead, his body will be put in the back of a truck and driven to a river where it will be tossed from a plank bridge and swept out to sea. The courtyard and the walls will be hosed clean of his blood. The leaf, secreted away in his cell, will be found by another prisoner, whose fingers are feeling the walls for no reason, just as Oudom's fingers once searched the wall for no reason. In the dark, the prisoner will not know what to make of this thing, but will find its alien presence in his cell as miraculous as Oudom has found it to be.
And what do we do with this gift? Walking the streets, working our jobs, eating, loving our families, living our lives, do we take the time to see it?
Oudom, if he could, would whisper that all of us are also standing in a similar confined space and in a light that reveals neither morning nor afternoon. We are already there, at this very moment, whether we know it or not. And what do we make of that small, insignificant thing we have found: discarded, seemingly random, indescribably beautiful? Standing in the darkness, in our blindfolds, and waiting for the final reckoning, what is it we cling on to and wish for the world? Make no mistake, we are all bound to that post, and waiting. All of us.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 3 Jul 2019