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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 155-167
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Caged Bird Will Fly
People say that rivers flow only in one direction, but in Cambodia, whether the Mekong flows into the Great Lake of the Tonle Sap or to the ocean depends on the season. During the rainy season, the water flows into the Tonle Sap, filling the lake as it rises and expands across the plain; during the dry season, the water reverses direction, draining the lake back into the sea.
Kunty stood alone in her family's small house, which had been built along a tributary of the Tonle Sap. She did not want to leave, not yet, so she packed her bag slowly as she gazed through the window at the river a few feet away. In the water, close to the bank, was the wooden pole that her father used to tie up his boat. It had been there for as long as she could remember. Her father was a fisherman and had taught her to read the seasons by watching the water rise and fall in relation to that pole. She had once spent an entire day braiding strips of cloth from an old shirt into a long thin rope her father tied to the pole to mark the water's level. Kunty knew that when the water rose above the rope, her father would soon return.
Today, she would be gone by the time he came home. It was easier to leave this way, while her father was away fishing and her mother was at the market. As Kunty packed the last of her belongings into her only bag, she wondered what would become of the pole when she was no longer around to keep it painted and retie the rope. Would her father get lost when he returned from one of his long fishing trips? Kunty had worked with her father to make the pole more visible to him in the heavy rains. Together they had painted it in two colors: green and blue. Through the years, while parts of the house were removed or added, the wooden pole had remained intact. It was the only thing about their house that had never changed.
She looked around the house one last time, zipped the bag, and placed it near the door. Still unwilling to leave, she went outside to sit on a plank that jutted out over the water. As a child, she used to sit there and watch the river flow past. "Be careful, daughter, you might fall off," her father would say when he saw her dangling her feet above the current. Kunty would smile at his concern. [End Page 155]
"Father," she would say, "Kunty could swim to the pole and hold on to it until you came and saved her. Father, you would rescue Kunty, wouldn't you?"
She wished her father could rescue her now, but she knew that she would have to face her fate alone. How she wished she could turn back time to when she was a girl playing in the rain. She wanted to run along the levees in the rice fields when the rice was just ready for transplanting, still green and fragile. She wanted to climb a sdaov tree and pick the young leaves and flowers for her mother to cook, and gather lotus blossoms to sell to tourists who traveled the road to Siem Reap. She wanted to collect snails and shrimps from the river and cook them for her father to eat. More than anything else, she wanted to watch her own children doing such things as they grew up beside the river.
Kunty thought back to the first time she had left her home. If she had known that her decisions would lead her to this moment, she would have rejected the marriage proposal. She remembered clearly the day a man had passed her house in a boat, watching her from a distance. She had been sitting on the edge of this same plank, dipping a bucket into the water, and hadn't thought anything of it...