by Zach MacDonald
There are ghosts in the Bayon. It's what I was told when I was little, and it's what I tell the little ones now, late in the evening when they're exhausted but too restless to sleep, aggravated by that desire for the mysterious and unknown that children have.
I tell them that if they listen carefully they might hear the scrape of invisible feet against the stones, or the sliding of rough palms—once flesh, but no longer—against the ancient walls; I suggest to them the supernatural means by which bricks are loosened in the towers, and tell them to listen for the clunk as they join the others on the floor below.
But the kids soon grow up. They learn their roles. And before long they know every physical detail of the ruin—all that can be seen of it, at least. They know which stones have fallen before they began to wander there, they know which have fallen since they began their days sneaking among the passages, and they try to predict which will fall within a matter of years, learning that no spirits are required for the loosening of bricks, only a sufficient accumulation of weeks and months and decades. Centuries. In truth, the Bayon crumbles only on the scale of lifetimes.
Sometimes nothing feels more supernatural than time itself. It weaves the serpentine banyan roots through the bodies of other temples in Angkor, undoing the work of our ancestors, dislodging stonework that no one person could ever budge. It is the great dismantler of all things, invisible, uncontrollable and inconsistent; as it speeds faster with each passing year my memories of youth grow more vivid, but fewer and further in-between.
I've been coming to the Bayon since I was four, on a daily mission to acquire dollars. I started with Xs and Os, which I learnt how to win far more often than not, but only if I went first. Foreigners would stream through the site all day, mostly the ones called white people, though really most of them had skin more pinkish than white. Often whiter than them were the Japanese and the Koreans, especially the women: white like fresh paper is white. All of them were rich, and they all carried US dollars, but the Japanese and Koreans would come in large groups, and they'd be in a rush and follow their leader who carried a little flag on a stick. They cooed and murmured at my presence, and if I approached them closely, they said the greeting words that I knew like Konnichiwa or Annyeong; then some of them would take pictures of me, and sometimes I could see my reflection in the big camera lenses, and I was very brown and very small and thin, but my head was big.
I was not pretty, I understood, like how dried leaves on the ground aren't pretty, or ugly, or anything other than there just because they are, though my mother and father thought I was good enough, and much later I understood that that's why I was put out there, with the other girls, to play Xs and Os while the boys sold packages of postcards for one dollar. Because boys aren't pretty and the travellers didn't feel bad enough for them to give them a dollar for nothing to pocket in return.
The pink-white people, usually with disgruntled expressions, always with loud voices that carried a long way and marked their approach, came in smaller groups or alone on bicycles and tuk-tuks. It was easy to hold their attention when I came up to them outside the temple. I would count to ten in English, and when they exclaimed how good I was, I would count in the other languages I knew: German, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean. I was taught the numbers by my mother, then improved my pronunciation by letting tourists correct me. The pink-white people would gush praise and wonderment at my counting, especially when they heard their own language, if that language wasn't English.
"You will play Xs and Os with me?" I would ask, once my counting had a Pink-White hooked, and if they hesitated, I'd add: "I will win." Like the numbers, my mother had taught me how to say this.
The Pink-White would usually smile and agree to play. I always kept two good sticks stashed nearby, and I would run and get them, draw a grid in the dirt and say, "I am X," because it was easier to make a perfect X than a perfect O. Then I'd draw an X as perfectly as I could in the top right corner, and if the Pink-White didn't put an O in the centre, I would win, and when I won I would say, "Now you give me one dollar." Sometimes the person would guffaw and shake their head, but mostly they would just shrug a little and give me a one-dollar bill, or occasionally two one-dollar bills, which my mother would snap up and put in the wooden box which I was Never To Touch, inside the cart she sold the coconuts from.
I advanced beyond simple English phrases quickly, conversing with tourists in the short patch of time between the end of our Xs and Os game and when they moved on to enter the temple.
Even though they didn't all come for the Bayon. Like the fat sunglasses man.
By the time the fat sunglasses man came, I'd moved on to a new strategy for acquiring dollars. I guess I came up with it because of all the photographing people had done of me years before, when I was smaller. I'd find someone exploring the ruins alone and approach them, usually while they were examining one of the big sets of bas-reliefs that tourists are so drawn to. They always have cameras with them. Always, always, always. Nowadays many people use their phones, but back then they brought dedicated cameras that used film, so on the off-chance a person didn't have one, you'd know right away. I'd go up to them as they finished looking at the reliefs and say hello, and I'm sure I sounded shy, because I was to an extent, and there were some people that would speak gruffly or motion for me to leave them alone, but most would say hello back, and then I would point to their camera and ask if they'd take my picture.
It might be a strange thing for a person to be asked to take someone else's picture with their own camera, especially since they knew I would never see or receive a copy of the photo, and I assume they knew that I knew it as well, but many agreed to do it, and I would stand there, not knowing how to pose or what to do with my arms, even after having done it dozens of times, and I would think I should smile, because when I watched the Pink-Whites and the Japanese and Koreans and Chinese and the black people who were even darker than me, they always smiled when their friends were taking their picture.
After the picture was taken, I would say thank you and ask for one dollar. The dollar was for taking my picture. A Cambodian girl in a Cambodian ruin. A memento of their Cambodian adventure to take home. Most people gave me a dollar. Some grumbled first. Some laughed—at my audacity, I suppose. One man said, "Fuck off," and a woman once said, "Get out of here," and I was confused, and wanted to cry, because I'd spent half my life around the Bayon—all my memories were centered precisely there—and she was just a tourist, and I thought I shouldn't be the one to have to get out. But she was bigger than me, and rich, so I hurried away, and I wove like liquid through the narrow passages, avoiding foreigners' voices so I wouldn't encounter any, and went into the base of one of the towers where it's so dark that the tourists don't go inside and the floor is full of bricks that fell from high up before I was born. I sat down and finally did cry, because I was a bothersome little creature, always asking for dollars, and the travellers looked at me like I looked at the monkeys that lived near the road waiting for people to throw them scraps of food and the wrappers of sweets that still had some sugar stuck inside. I would be one of those creatures forever. That was my whole existence.
The Bayon had started to feel very small, as did downtown Siem Reap, where we would go once a month and my mother made me ask for money, so I could go to school. I saw kids in Siem Reap that went to school, who had uniforms and clean hands and faces, and shiny shoes, and looked so happy. The same day I hid in the base of the tower, I asked my mother if I could go to school, too.
"We hardly get enough money to survive," she said. "How could you think we can afford to send you to school?" She hugged me, and I started to cry just like before, and she said, "We're saving little by little. When we get enough, you'll be able to go."
I suspected that the savings were kept in the wooden box that I was Never To Touch.
It was a while before I went back to asking people to take pictures of me, and when I did I met the fat sunglasses man. There were lots of fat men with sunglasses who passed through over time, but this is the only one I remember clearly from those days. He was blonde, and his face wasn't pink but red. Ruddy. When he got up close, I could see that the ruddiness was all spidery veins. Hundreds of spidery veins on his nose and cheeks. His sunglasses were large and very dark, so I focused on his lips when he talked. His lips were wide and purplish, like the big worms that come up from the ground in heavy rains; they looked stitched onto his face rather than an original part of it. I watched his lips and his lips watched me back, his eyes made non-existent by those dark, dark glasses. I asked if he would take my picture, and he told me sure he would.
"Let's find us a good place now, hey?" He looked around furtively, like he was afraid someone was watching him, even though I'd been watching him for a while and he hadn't known. "Over here then," he said, and pointed where I should go, and his stuck-out belly led him while he walked behind me to a spot between two columns.
He looked around again, then raised his camera. I couldn't see to my left and right because the columns were on either side of me, but behind the man there was no one in sight. It was a slow day for tourists.
The camera clicked.
"Kay," the purple lips said. "That'll be lovely." A flash of yellow teeth. He came over to me, and I wanted to back away because I felt something was not quite right, but I wanted my dollar, or maybe more than a dollar, and soon I would be able to go to school with a clean face and hands and shiny shoes.
"Ever seen a wee wee?" asked the man. "A proper wee wee?"
I didn't understand him.
"Can I have one dollar?" I asked.
"You can have a dollar," said the man. "Two dollars." He leant against the column, trying to share with me the thin strip of shade it cast. Sweat rolled down his red cheeks. "Why don't you show me that little pussy of yours first."
"One dollar is OK," I said. "Only one."
"Shuddup with that bloody shite." He lurched forward and suddenly his hand was wedged between my legs, jerking back and forth.
My entire body squeezed closed, even my lungs. I was unable to draw breath or scream. Paralysed.
"Feels good, don't it?" he wheezed, like his lungs were being squeezed, too. "God but you'd be a tight one." The sides of his fingers rubbed me through my pants, and suddenly they were gripping my wrist, hurting, pulling my hand to his crotch, where his own pants were bulging queerly. He groaned, forcing my fingers to brush against the lump. "You examine that now," said the wriggling earthworms. "You learn its shape. You'll get your two dollars, sweetie pie." His grip loosened slightly on my wrist. His palms were wet with sweat.
I tore my hand away, lungs unclenching at last. "No," I forced out. "No!"
The man lurched away from the column. "You muddy little twat." He grabbed for me with meaty red claws, missed.
I fled, almost tripping as I darted around the column. I knew the stones as well as my own skin—I'd run there many times, playing games with other children in the late evenings, after the park is closed to outsiders—and I didn't fall. I circled back to the front of the temple, where there were other people around, and I stayed for a long time where everyone could see me, even though he hadn't followed.
I spotted the man once more that day, hours later, as his tuk-tuk bore him past the Bayon. I crouched out of sight, in a place he was too big and heavy to ever know about, watching him go through a gap in the stones.
After that, I begged my mother to send me to school, and when that didn't work, I went to my father, who left early in the mornings and did groundskeeping around the most visited temples. It was nighttime when I asked him, after he'd arrived home; he glanced at me with weary, bloodshot eyes, set in the folds of his sunbeaten skin, and he told me to go ask my mother.
But the answer was still no, because school was too expensive and we couldn't afford it. In all the time I'd been getting dollars at the Bayon, and asking for school money on the streets in Siem Reap, we still hadn't saved enough. No one else's parents had either, apparently—not those of the other kids around Angkor Thom: the girls that tagged along beside tourists with their hands extended, and the boys that sold postcards bearing pictures of the god-king's stone faces and monks in orange robes walking serenely through the ruins.
I hatched a plan to open the wooden box in my mother's coconut cart. Twice a week she rode to Siem Reap by tuk-tuk, where she would purchase two large sacks of coconuts from a farmer she knew, and the same driver would transport her and the sacks back to Angkor Thom. She was gone for an hour or two on these trips, and I would be left to watch the cart. I had never thought, in all those times, to open the lower compartment where the box was concealed.
When she left for town a few days later, I opened the compartment, using the key that hung on a piece of wire behind the rear left wheel. The wooden box inside had no lock, just a thick rubber band around it. I felt a shivery thrill at the forbidden act I was performing. Without removing the box from the cart, I committed to memory the exact position of the band, then peeled it off. The hinges of the box were very old, and loose, and they wiggled.
I opened the lid and found a dollar inside.
A single US dollar bill.
I'm not sure what I had expected. More, I suppose: so much more: every dollar I had ever acquired compressed within, springing out as I removed the pressure of the lid.
But there was only that one bill, flat on the bottom of the box.
I closed the lid and strapped the rubber band back on, making sure it was just as I'd found it. I shut the compartment door, locked it, stuck the wire through the back of the key and replaced it behind the wheel.
I went into the jungle and walked for several minutes to a scattered collection of large sandstone bricks, which had never found their way into the body of a temple, and which I fancied, at the time, no one alive except me knew about. I sat on one and wept.
That same night, before I went to sleep, my mother asked me if I'd opened the box. It was in her voice that she knew, like how rain is in the air before the drops fall. I couldn't see her face, because we'd already turned the battery-light out.
"I did," I burst out, on the verge of fresh tears. "There was only one dollar there, but I didn't take it!"
"Why isn't there more? Where's the saved money for me to go to school?"
"There isn't any, Beauty. We use it all up. Every bit." She often called me Beauty, at night when she was being tender.
"Where?" I asked. "How?"
"Everything has costs. Our food, our water, the rides to Siem Reap and back, the coconuts ... I have to pay a little to the park authorities, too, to let us keep our cart so close to the Bayon. We hardly make enough to survive."
"What about Dad?"
"Your dad's money we keep, in a special secret place. There's only a little there, Beauty. It's so someday, when we're very old, we can still have clothes to wear and some food to eat. Don't you want your mother and father to have food to eat when they're old and weak?"
I told her that I did, sobbing in the dark. I wanted them to have clothes to wear and enough food when they were old and weak.
We didn't speak about savings again after that, but I promised myself that if I had a child someday I would send it to school, even if it took all my money and I had to sleep every night in the dirt.
I became a teenager, and I wanted to work in Siem Reap at one of the restaurants or market stalls, but my mother said no. She said she was more tired than she used to be when I was little, and she needed help with the cart. By then we weren't only selling coconuts, which I'd become skilled at hacking open so they could be sipped from with a straw, but also bottled water and carved wooden figurines in the shape of Angkor Wat, which came from a man in town who received entire boxes of them from somewhere.
I sold coconuts and water and figurines until I was seventeen, the year my father had a stroke while raking fallen leaves near the Terrace of the Elephants. It left him mostly paralysed on one side of his body, able to move about only with a crutch from then on. He took to minding the cart—and the water cooler and the table of figurines—with my mother, while I acquired the groundskeeping position that opened with his absence.
After a few years on the job, I knew the other ruins of Angkor Thom almost as well as my original haunt, though no amount of time spent among them could emulate the depth to which youth had driven the Bayon into my soul: the smell of the walls, the minutia of its reliefs, the cracks where the skittish lizards hide and where the tiniest pebbles were stuffed by my child self and generations of others, the mythologies my daydreams wove around the great stone faces, and the coolness in the shadows of its halls—all of these are as familiar and a part of me as the beat of my own heart.
It was through groundskeeping that I met Kosal. Eventually I started taking him to my secret place of forgotten bricks, always late in the evenings. We would lay down a blanket among the old stones and make love there. It was only a matter of time before a baby would catch in me, and so one did.
My father lived long enough to see his granddaughter, but died of a second stroke when she was still an infant. I came back to working the cart with my mother, who's alone now save for me, and never returned to raking fallen leaves and trimming back the edges of the jungle.
My mother hardly smiles anymore, except when asking if a sir or ma'am would like some bottled water. Or a coconut to sip from. Or perhaps a figurine. I will make sure she has clothes to wear and food to eat when she is old and weak.
My daughter is old enough to wander the temple now. She can count to ten in English, Japanese, Korean and Mandarin. She can play Xs and Os and usually win at it. Someday she may think of a new way to acquire dollars for us, but what that will be, I don't know, and sometimes I fear, when the flow of tourists is slow and she is out of sight somewhere in the structure, that a new fat sunglasses man will come. Or the one from before, with grey hair now, and the same purple earthworm lips.
We have the money to buy more coconuts and water and figurines, and just enough left over for food and clothes. We always keep one US dollar bill in the wooden box in the cart, no matter what, like a charm to ward off complete destitution.
And late in the evening, as dusk swallows the sun, the children of the other vendors come back from the ruins they frequented that day, and my daughter and her barefoot friends gather near the cart, tired and thirsty. The Bayon looms nearby, empty for another night, the dark erasing its old familiarity and reawakening in them a sense of the mysterious and the unknown.
They ask if there are ghosts there, to which they don't expect a truthful answer, and I tell them, "Oh yes."
Yes, there are ghosts in the Bayon.