Last Song of Saravat
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Last Song of Saravat

I

The day I met Saravat there were eight of us yoked to the plow, four men on each side. Straining against the wooden bar normally used for water buffalo, we struggled knee deep in mud. When I slipped, the man beside me silently pulled me up. This act of kindness made me notice him. He had light skin and wide cheekbones and looked about forty—a good twenty years older than me. I'd seen him before, surveying the rice fields and riding on the district leader's motorcycle, and so had mistakenly assumed he was Khmer Rouge. Up close, he had the dazed look of the new people like me, who had been evacuated from the cities and forced into labor camps after the Khmer Rouge victory one year earlier. Only he seemed better fed than the rest of us—stronger, less afraid.

When we stopped for the midday ration, he spoke in a Phnom Penh city accent. He didn't even try to disguise it or imitate the crisp rolled rs of the rural people as I did, hoping to hide my imperialist capitalist background: my parents had owned a small restaurant outside Phnom Penh. I'd changed my name from Sambath to Sam and told the Khmer Rouge I'd been a dishwasher.

"Where are you from?" I asked the man as we squatted in the shade of a small tree. His hands, I noticed, were not callused on the palms like a farmer's but rough only on the fingertips.

"Phnom Penh," he said straight out—just like that. "My name is Saravat."

"I remember a singer named Saravat," I said. It was a high-class name, a dangerous one.

"Yes, I was a musician."

I'd heard of him, though he was not as well known as the famous Sin Sisamouth. I asked if he was allowed to play music, and he said yes, but only during breaks and after work. I wanted to talk more, but we had to return to plowing. As I leaned into the yoke, I remembered the girls in high school standing on the edge of the playground, singing his love songs printed in blue books no bigger than their hands. I could listen from a distance, but if I came too close, they would stop. [End Page 69]

Early in that planting season, Saravat sometimes worked with us. I always looked forward to those days because, during the breaks, he would sing, and in those rare moments I could almost forget where I was. One afternoon, out of sight of the other teams, he enacted a battle scene from an old drama. He played all the parts, switching from one character to another with the deftness of a magician. Everything seemed to disappear except for the story he created for us. But when his gentle voice transformed into a giant's bellow, the spell was broken.

"Brother, be careful," I warned.

"Don't worry," he sang back, improvising new dialogue. "The enemy can't hear. They can't hear at all." He wielded his hoe like a sword, and we laughed as he stabbed a dirt clod at my feet, then thrust the hoe in the air, sparring with an invisible enemy. But his face turned solemn at the end, when he fell to the ground and closed his eyes, the hoe wedged between his arm and side as if he'd been impaled in the chest.

I thought of the young woman who had been caught a few weeks before, singing a pop song to herself after work, near the communal kitchen. I had almost started to hum along with her. The next night everyone was called to a meeting. Saravat must have been there, too, among the crowd squatting in the dirt, exhausted and scared. One of the subdistrict leaders—a short man known for his quick temper—held up a sarong soaked with blood. "Look," he said, spreading the stiff cloth between his hands. "This is what happens to the imperialist who does not want to leave behind the corrupt society and bad habits of the past."

Saravat...



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