Mekong dawn, p.1
By Bill Swiggs
Copyright 2016 Bill Swiggs
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A big thankyou to the members of the Donnybrook Writers Group. Your encouragement during my dark hours will never be forgotten. To Sean Doyle and his anonymous team of assessors at Lynk, thankyou for the polish. My work shines so much better because of your hard work. Finally, I’d like to thank my family and especially my wife, Rhonda, for a whole heap of unwavering support.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 1976.
Chey Chanthou hooked the fingers of her one good hand through the wire ceiling of the cage to prevent collapsing into the stinking mess at her feet as the truck bounced through the darkness. By the filtered glow of the headlights she could just make out the face of her son. The boy supported her tortured body with one arm while struggling bravely with the other to protect her from the crush of prisoners thrown across the cage as the truck swayed and bucked along a potholed road. She lifted her free arm to place it around his shoulders but the pain defeated her. A gasp of agony hissed from her mouth that she tried to disguise with a cough – a futile, motherly gesture, for their captors had forced the twelve-year-old to watch every moment of her torture and rape.
‘All right, Mother?’ The dread in his voice tore at her.
‘Yes, my boy. I am fine.’
She sensed his gaze in the darkness as he examined her, then the arm gripped her tighter, the strength of a man.
‘Where do you think they are taking us?’ His voice sounded faint in the darkness, barely audible over the groan of the engine.
Chanthou shook her head. ‘I don’t know.’
‘They might be taking us home.’
‘I don’t know where they’re taking us.’
The truck’s front wheels dropped into a rut and Chanthou and her son slammed against the steel cage under a press of tumbling bodies. Her vision exploded into painful stars and she fought to breathe until the men, women and children in the cage regained their feet.
The weight came off her at last and Chanthou’s son helped her out of the filth. A tiny breeze blew past her face and she followed it back to its source, discovering a small tear in the canvas. She sucked greedily at the air until the agony receded into that dull pain that had been with her for weeks now. Placing her eye to the tear, she glimpsed the outside world – a world she had been kept from for two months, since the night the men with scarves came for them. As best she could tell, the truck was making its way through the narrow streets of Phnom Penh. The buildings lining the road were in darkness and the footpaths empty. Not a single vehicle passed by.
The Khmer Rouge had driven everyone into hiding.
A sense of dread held her in its icy grip and she could see no chance for the future. Lowering her head, she placed her lips close to the boy’s ear. ‘I want you to make me a promise.’
‘If a chance comes I want you to run as fast as you can. Don’t wait for me. Don’t look back. Run as hard as you can and stay in the shadows. Hide from the men with scarves. When you can, make your way to Kampong Cham. Your uncle will hide you and keep you safe. Do you remember where his house is?’
‘Promise me you will do this. Run when I say and keep running until you are safe. Promise me you won’t come back for me.’
The boy, always so dutiful and quick to respond, hesitated. She kissed his forehead. ‘Promise me.’
‘I promise, Mother.’
The truck slowed and turned off the road. The tyres sloshed through water, the cage bucking as they travelled along a rough track. The tear revealed nothing but darkness. They could be anywhere. Some of the other prisoners whispered to each other, wondering at their final destination, but the voices fell away as a new sound grew in the distance.
‘What’s that noise, Mother?’
Chanthou cocked her head and listened. A tinny screech could be heard over the engine noise, like fingernails being dragged down a blackboard. The noise faded as the truck manoeuvred along the track, then returned louder than before. Now Chanthou recognised the sound. Somewhere in the distance music played so loud it had distorted into a painful roar. She squeezed her son’s shoulder and wondered what fresh hell awaited them.
With a jolt the truck stopped. The canvas covering was lifted, revealing men wearing the red-chequered scarves of the Khmer Rouge. They unlocked the cage and had to scream to be heard over the music.
‘Out! Everybody out!’
One by one the prisoners climbed to the ground. Chanthou followed her son to the rear of the truck. The boy dropped lithely to the ground and turned to help her, but she hesitated, unsure if her abused limbs could handle the fall.
A guard, a bull of a man with a bald head, grabbed her cotton shift, the only piece of clothing she wore, and pulled her from the truck. Chanthou sprawled in the mud. Her son helped her to her feet and she squinted against the painful glare of lights.
They were in a grove of trees. Bare electric bulbs and floodlights hung from the branches, throwing harsh light in every direction. A few trees had large trumpet-like speakers fixed into them, the kind normally found at sports stadiums, all blaring out the horrible, too-loud music. Beyond the trees she could see an old yellow excavator, fresh dirt clinging to the bucket.
The guard grabbed a handful of hair and twisted her head back to examine her face.
‘She was beautiful once, this one.’ His voice carried no pity, no hint of human kindness, as if he commented on a piece of beef in the market. In his other hand he held a pick handle, a stained and marked length of mahogany that had split near the narrow end and been repaired with red electrical tape.
‘Maybe, once.’ Another guard gestured at Chanthou’s exposed, blood-caked crotch. ‘Those bastards at S21 have ruined her.’
‘Pity. I would have liked a little time with her behind the hut.’ The big guard let go of her hair and Chanthou stepped back into the group of prisoners. Her son clutched at her hand and she linked her fingers through his.
‘Move!’ the guard bellowed and pointed through the grove of trees with the pick handle.
Like cattle, the prisoners filed through the trees, flanked on all sides by Khmer Rouge, who carried no guns but were armed with a strange mixture of farming tools and lengths of wood. The music diminished as they stumbled farther into the grove and Chanthou realised the speakers must face out
A few floodlights illuminated an opening beyond the trees where the excavator had been at work. There were piles of earth and long lines of raised ground like the levees between rice paddies. At each side the ground dropped away into shadow. A stench permeated the air, a high smell, sticky and cloying. It hung as thick as oil and Chanthou gagged at the first whiff. The Khmer Rouge herded them out onto a narrow levee and she could see down into the shadowed ground beyond. The sight that greeted her made her gasp and stumble. She gripped her son’s hand with a strength thought long beaten out of her, squeezing so hard the boy cried out in pain.
The pits at either side were filled with bodies – hundreds of human bodies. The corpses of men, women and children lay in grotesque positions, a tangle of limbs and torsos, three and four deep in places. Some had been dead for a long time, the decay well advanced. Others looked as if they were merely sleeping. Then she saw the terrible wounds that left her with no doubt as to the purpose of the cruel tools in the hands of the guards.
Near the head of the line a man screamed and tried to break away. The nearest guard thrust a pitchfork savagely at the man’s back. The prisoner let fly an ear-splitting wail that rivalled the music. The guard pulled the pitchfork free and the man teetered on the edge of the levee, blood spreading across his back. Another guard stepped up and swung a shovel into his head, sending him crashing into the pit.
Holding her son’s hand, Chanthou tried to pull back with the rest of the prisoners. The guards were ready. They closed in, swinging their killing tools with wild abandon. Rough hands pulled her to her knees. Beside her the boy wailed in terror. She could see the other prisoners being subdued and brought to their knees also.
‘Be brave, my boy. Remember your promise.’
The guards could do nothing to quiet the prisoners. The condemned had seen the fate awaiting them and howled for mercy. The Khmer Rouge were immune to their pleading.
‘Tepan! Bring me the first one. My little angel has tasted no blood yet tonight.’ The big guard patted the pick handle affectionately.
At the front of the line, Tepan pulled a man to his feet. He begged for his life as he was shoved to the edge of the levee. The guard ignored the sobbing pleas, widened his stance, like a baseball player at the plate, and swung the pick handle hard into the back of the prisoner’s head.
Chanthou heard the skull crack. The man toppled forward onto the other bodies. A wail went up from the watching prisoners, but any that moved were quickly beaten into submission.
The big guard gestured by holding his hand palm-upward and crooking his fingers. A woman was brought forward by Tepan this time. She sobbed uncontrollably but, resigned to her fate, walked willingly to her death. The guards recognised the lack of fight, the total loss of will and let her move freely to the killing place.
Holding her son, Chanthou watched as the guard brought the pick handle into a back swing then closed her eyes. There was nothing she could do to block out the sickening thunk of wood striking bone.
There were seventeen people ahead of Chanthou. She watched them murdered one by one, their bodies added to the pit. Those that resisted were held by Tepan, but others, those who could see no way out or had lost the will to resist, were allowed to show their bravery and step up to the place of execution unrestrained.
The Khmer Rouge worked quickly and without mercy. Soon Chanthou and her son were the next prisoners on the levee. Tepan came over and offered her a macabre choice.
‘You first, or the boy?’
Chanthou had to pry her son’s fingers from her. She kissed his cheek.
‘Remember your promise,’ she whispered then stood and stepped boldly to the edge of the levee. The Khmer Rouge let her move without hindrance, seeing another brave soul ready for the inevitable. Behind her, the boy made no sound, and she knew her words had been heard.
‘Ah! The once pretty one.’ The big guard waited with the pick handle resting over his shoulder, the end smeared with blood and hair. ‘I will make it quick for you, my beauty.’
Chanthou nodded once, just a quick incline of her head as she stood facing out over the pit. Below her, the legs of the last executed prisoner still twitched in a spasm of death. At the edge of her vision she could see the guard, Tepan, standing behind her son. The other guards were ten or more paces back down the levee, standing behind those prisoners they considered prone to flight.
She sensed rather than heard the pick handle lift from the executioner’s shoulder. Her blood pounded in her ears, each beat of her heart timing the moment. She drew a deep breath and held it.
He said he would make it quick.
Thoughts jumbled in her head, confusing her sense of time, and she needed her timing to be perfect.
If I’m too late, then I’m dead – and so is my boy.
Chanthou turned and lunged.
The executioner was at the full extent of his back-swing, at the moment of imbalance with his arms twisted away to the side. She only had one weapon to fight with and brought her hands up, reaching for his eyes. The executioner tried to turn away and was quick enough to save his eyes, but her nails dug deep into his cheek, dragging away flesh.
‘You little whore.’ He roared like a water buffalo, dropped the pick handle and reached up to his damaged cheek, the other hand flailing to get a grip on Chanthou.
‘Tepan! Help me!’
She saw Tepan leave her son and come at her and she lashed out at him, ignoring the pain in her injured arm. Her movements were slow but she managed to catch him by the scarf. With her other hand she grabbed the executioner's shirt as tight as she could. Both men were held fast, hampered by her weight.
‘Run! Run, my boy!’
Her son leapt to his feet in one fluid movement and sprinted along the levee, his legs pumping fast.
Tepan punched and chopped at Chanthou’s arm. She felt the blows but the pain was nothing, dulled by her fear for her child. The boy reached them and for one panicked moment she thought he might try to come to her aid.
The executioner let go of his bleeding cheek and reached for the boy as he dashed past, but his fingers closed on empty air.
The men punched and kicked at her in a rapid frenzy. A fist connected with the side of her head and her vision exploded into painful lights. Another punch landed in the small of her back, driving the air from her lungs. She gasped and tried to hang on, her strength draining fast. Her hands slipped from the guards’ clothing and she fell onto the levee in a panting, sobbing heap.
‘You bitch!’ The big guard’s face was covered in blood from his torn cheek, but it did little to hide his rage. ‘Sit her up, Tepan. We’ll knock her head off, and then you can go catch that brat of hers.’
They dragged Chanthou to a sitting position and she turned to look down the levee. As the pick handle started its lethal arc she saw her son reach the shadows at the far end and disappear into the darkness beyond.
Western Australia. January 2013.
Scott Morris watched the way Dr Sally Womack’s eyes barely met his and knew instantly that the news would not be good. Nancy had sensed it, too. Her grip tightened on Scott’s hand and he had to pry her fingers away so they could sit in the chairs on the nearside of the expansive desk without having their arms linked across a metre of open space.
Dr Womack walked around the desk, lowered herself into the high-backed office chair and studied the open file on the blotter. Scott could hear Nancy’s ragged breathing. He glanced across and the look of fear on her face nearly tore his heart in two. He stood and pushed his chair against Nancy’s then sat and put his arm around her, noticing that the doctor did not look up during the whole exercise.
This is definitely going to be bad news.
Nancy had her gaze fixed on the Jacaranda tree in magnificent bloom outside the window. Scott studied the plastic models of human anatomy on a side table and wondered which one the doctor
‘It’s not good news, I’m afraid.’ Dr Womack lifted her head and peered at them over the top of her horn-rimmed spectacles.
‘I didn’t think so,’ Nancy said, her voice a hoarse croak. She shifted in her seat and Scott knew she was fighting hard to hold back the tears. A battle his wife would win. For now. Tonight, at home, she would cry her heart out. ‘It was the ovarian cysts I had as a child, wasn’t it?’
The doctor shook her head. ‘There is absolutely nothing wrong with you, Nancy. You are as capable of having children as any woman in her early thirties.’
‘Then what …’ Nancy’s head turned towards him. Her green eyes were awash with tears, but the look of fear had been replaced by something else. Scott felt the slide in his guts as he recognised it.
He looked at Dr Womack and saw the same emotion on her face. ‘Me? The reason we can’t have kids has something to do with me?’
The doctor nodded. ‘Your sperm count is extremely low, Scott. I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that you will never father a child. Not without some sort of medical assistance.’
Scott felt as if the walls were closing in on him. For eight years, from the day they were married, they had been trying to have a child. Nancy had always thought it her fault, that she was paying the price for a childhood illness. And Scott had gone along with it. After all, Nancy was the nurse. She knew about these things. Never, in his worst nightmare, did he ever think it would be his fault. He was thirty-six, a dashing helicopter pilot and ex-army officer. He jogged fifteen kilometres a week and spent four or five hours in the gym. He was tall and fit, but apparently couldn’t produce enough sperm to put together a swim team.
This doesn’t happen to guys like me!
Nancy leant forward. ‘So what happens now?’ Gone from her voice was the emotional desperation, replaced by a cold, clinical inquisitiveness. Her thumb rubbed the back of Scott’s hand.
‘There are plenty of options,’ Dr Womack said. ‘It’s not the end of the line. Far from it. But, you may want to take a little time to digest this new information. When you’re ready, we can work out the next step together.’ She smiled and stood. Scott followed her and Nancy to the door, his mind a jumble of racing thoughts.
Mekong Dawn by Bill Swiggs / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on16 votes