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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 92-97

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Love on Cowback

Translation from Khmer to French by Christophe Macquet and from French to English by Nick Bozanic

His parents had ordered Comrade Mok to watch over their cattle, but he had something else in mind. He turned them loose so they could wander freely in the fields while he, Comrade Mok, went off to lie down under a tamarind near the rice paddies. His eyelids half-closed, he set his mind adrift on the waves of the day's heat. Invariably, his thoughts led him back to Mademoiselle Proem, the being he loved most in all the world.

If we take a peek in the bushes opposite Comrade Mok, we glimpse a young girl. She imagines that no one sees her, so she sings, she dances, arching her back and swaying from side to side. She is petite and truly very charming, her long, black hair flowing about her shoulders and her lovely golden skin the color of soybeans. This fetching cowherd is none other than Proem, the daughter of Uncle Sek and Aunt Nom. It is she whom Comrade Mok secretly loves. He is so smitten with her that he cannot let one day pass without catching sight of her.

She has certainly changed a good deal, this little Proem, since she was maid of honor at the marriage of Nhom, daughter of the district chief. The wedding really turned her head around, made her even a little crazy. Ever since then, she sways wherever she is, even when she's seated. Ever since then, she sings and chatters like a magpie, fearless of adults' disapproving looks, shameless in front of boys.

For here's the deal: if Mademoiselle Proem seems a bit absentminded, if she takes leave of her senses from time to time, it's because she's gotten the notion to take a husband—a strange affliction with terrible symptoms, provoking spontaneous singing, rendering one now sad, now joyous, hardening one's face until the skin of it is thicker than a buffalo's hide, impervious to shame!

Thinking herself alone, Mademoiselle Proem dances the way they dance in Indian films: she takes little leaps, she moves her head sharply—left, right—like a lizard. Thinking herself alone, she sings loudly in the open air, improvising:

Little, little, little gecko,
why do you hold your head like that?
What are you looking, looking at?
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Could it be my bowl of angel hair?
Don't get your hopes up, little gecko.
I've a cleaver here—beware!

Little, little, little gecko,
with villainous face and shifty eye—
now, see he dives into your knickers
and everyone comes running on the fly
to see a gecko in his knickers
who hasn't paid the proper price—
that isn't nice!

She sings, Mademoiselle Proem, she is utterly happy singing. She sings four times, ten times, twenty times the very same verse, and without her being aware of it, her steps bring her near the spot where Comrade Mok is lying.

At this very moment, Mok, precisely our distinguished Mok, is sleeping like a baby. A woman's voice so near, so potent startles him awake. His eyes still heavy with sleep, he looks nervously about him, then sees and recognizes Proem, Mademoiselle Proem, the idol of his life. He swallows hard, coughs quietly to clear his voice, and opens wide his mouth, answering her in song:

I'm just a little farm boy
I'm just a little farm boy
No merchant's son am I
I love my folks, I drink no booze
I smoke some hash, it's true
And honk as loudly as a goose
And am as thoughtless, too.

At dawn I rise
My hair untouched by comb or brush
Out under the sun I tan my tush.
Work's not worth the worry
Work'll ruin you, surely!

At midday in these woods, the girl supposed, there wouldn't be anyone else but her. And so when a man's voice replies...


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