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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 128-136

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A Mysterious Passenger

Translation from Khmer to French by Christophe Macquet and from French to English by Marie-Christine Garneau and Theo Garneau

It is late afternoon, nearly four o'clock. Returning to the capital, a Toyota Corona disappears into the shadow of Pech Nil Mountain, halfway between Phnom Penh and Kompong Som. At the wheel is a thirty-year-old man: close-cropped hair, dark skin, hatchet-faced features with slightly protruding eyes, and deeply furrowed brow, which gives him an expression of constant worry.

Next to him, a man with a light complexion but features that are typically Khmer: handsome, Eurasian, about thirty-five years old. A vague smile floats on his lips. He has an intelligent face. His large, dark eyes gaze languidly at the passing countryside. He is holding a small video camera. From time to time, he asks his driver to slow down so that he can film something in the landscape.

Abruptly, the driver turns to the man in the seat beside him and, using the deferential form of address, asks softly, "Elder Brother Veasna, when do you think you'll be going back to America?"

The handsome Veasna lowers the camera and manages a slight smile. It's evident he's not interested in chatting. "That must be the tenth time you've asked me that question, Chan! Don't you want me to stay here in Cambodia?"

"Me? You must be kidding!" the driver responds. But the furrows in his brow grow even deeper. "Before you arrived, every day was dull. But now that you're here, I'm never bored!" He sighs. "I'm sorry to insist, Elder Brother. It's just that every time I ask, you either say nothing or you change the subject."

Veasna turns slowly to his driver. The sincere melancholy in the driver's tone has surprised him.

"Well, I can see you aren't going to give up easily. OK, stop worrying about it. I'll answer your question. But while I do, be sure to concentrate on your driving. This winding road is especially dangerous, and I don't want to end up at the bottom of the ravine."

"Don't worry, Elder Brother. I'm not like other drivers. I talk a lot while I'm driving, but I always keep my eyes on the road, and both hands on the wheel." [End Page 128]

"Your driving doesn't usually worry me," the Cambodian American says, lifting his eyebrows slightly. "But last night when you were dancing at Snake Island, you looked pretty frisky. I wouldn't be surprised if your eyesight is a little blurry today..."

Chan bursts out laughing. Easing the car expertly into a sharp curve, he smiles broadly, the ends of his mouth turned up like a gondola.

"Oh, yeah! Ha-ha! You've got bags under your eyes, too, Elder Brother! Last night it looked to me like you weren't feeling any pain either. Ah, yes. With all those gorgeous girls...Were you able to film some of them?"

"Film them? What for?"

"What do you mean, 'What for?' I thought that was the purpose of your trip this time: to crisscross Cambodia and film all the beautiful Khmer women! Isn't that why we borrowed your parents' car?"

"That's partly true," Veasna concedes, slowly nodding. "But I'm not here to film bargirls!"

"Well, I'll be damned!" Chan replies, not daring to take his eyes off the road. "What more do you want? Didn't you see those curves, those glowing faces? They were all as gorgeous as the celestial apsaras on the walls of Angkor Wat!"

The car reaches a small wooden bridge that's badly decaying and in need of repair. Veasna holds his breath until they have crossed the hazard.

"What I'm looking for," he says finally, casting a glance behind him at the bridge, "is a young country girl—a girl from the rice fields."

"A girl from the rice fields?!" squawks...


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