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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 60-63
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Ghouls, Ghosts, and Other Infernal Creatures
During 1945 and 1946, a cholera epidemic struck my village on the island of Koh Somrong, which is part of the province of Kompong Cham.
There was panic, general upheaval. At night, the villagers lit fires near their huts to ward off the dead who were coming back to take lives. These dead feared fire. That's what we as Khmers believed. As soon as the sun set, no one dared to make a noise. We were all barricaded in our homes, careful to turn off all lights and extinguish any indication of our presence.
In the beginning, a gong was struck with each new death, and people trembled like frightened little animals, especially when this happened at night. Dogs barked and moaned without stopping.
So many people died that we stopped striking the gong. Everyone kept silent. Everything was still. Some wrapped their dead in mats or towels and carried them into the forest to be buried. When a family was in mourning, people no longer came to visit, fearful of the corpse and contagion.
At night, you could hear strange whisperings all along the route.
"Let's go in this house."
"No, not right away. Tomorrow. Let's take care of the house that's on the edge of the village."
These fragments of conversation spread terror among the villagers. Dread paralyzed their tongues.
Then misfortune reached my family: my sister-in-law died. The very evening her husband was to bury her, one of my uncles died too. The following day, it was one of my older brothers.
Such tragic events! My mother was white with fear. When I fell ill two days later, she no longer had any tears left. She prayed as much as she could to all the deities and divinities. She feared that I would die too, but I just threw up a little. When evening came, only my uncle Ros dared stay in my room.
Outside, the wind swirled. The leaves of the banana trees rustled in the night with a gloomy sound. Sick and at the end of my strength, I still could not sleep. I was fully conscious of what was being said around me. My mother had lost hope: I was going to die. It was only a question of time. [End Page 60]
At midnight, I still hadn't closed my eyes. Uncle Ros prayed at the foot of my bed. As soon as he closed his prayer book, yawning, a dog started barking furiously outside the door. Then a muffled sound was heard under the floor.
"This doesn't seem to be it."
"We must have made a wrong turn."
"Right. It's more to the south. It's not yet time for him."
"Well, let's go."
Stretched out on my bed, I heard every word. Uncle Ros must have too. As if petrified, he remained seated for a long time, then left to wake up my mother, who, thinking that I had died, rushed in to take my pulse.
"Has it happened, Older Brother?" she asked.
"No," he answered. "He's out of danger. Tomorrow he'll get better, that's for sure. I just heard the dead. They said he's not on the list."
My mother's face regained its color immediately. The next day, I got better, and two or three days later I had all of my strength back.
That year, cholera almost decimated my village, and my family, like others, lost many of its members.
Illness had struck every day, leaving behind mounds of bodies. These were usually cremated near a stand of bamboo about five hundred meters from my house. Because it was impossible to burn so many bodies in a single fire, the mounds were left in the bamboo overnight. The bodies—some only partially consumed by the flames—would be burned again the next morning.
One evening, one of my older brothers and two or three of the peasants returning from...