We’d been driving through the Cambodian countryside for seven or eight hours and I’d become restless from sitting so long. Wriggling around to get comfortable, I slipped the shoulder strap of my seatbelt over my head and stretched out as well as I could. The Hilux was brimming with road-trip supplies: backpacks, camera and laptop bags, water, tropical fruit, even a whole roast duck. Next to me in the back seat, a young mother held her new baby girl, shifting her from arm to arm. She did not speak English and I had long exhausted my limited Khmer, but I smiled over at her and considered offering to hold the baby. If the mother’s arms ached she hadn’t noticed, there was nobody else in her world as she gazed lovingly down at that tiny sleeping face. I didn’t interrupt them.
In the front seats my colleagues Jedtha and Buffalo chatted softly with the ease and warmth of old friends, reflecting on the improved welfare of the families and communities we’d visited. We were weary but elated with the progress made and I saw it in their tired smiles. Weaving through the chaotic traffic in the dark, we passed a battered road sign. We were almost home. I hooked my headphones over my ears and scrolled lazily through my iPod, looking for something I hadn’t played to death already. I found a song I hadn’t heard before by the Kiwi band Fly My Pretties. As I listened to the soft lyrics I toyed with the greenstone pendant around my neck. My eyes drifted to the stars reflected in the paddy fields out my window, my thoughts to my loved ones in New Zealand.
I sat up to get a better view of the stars, slipping my seatbelt back into place across my chest. Jedtha and Buffalo tensed abruptly. I looked up to see a car fish-tailing across the centre line, lit up white in our headlights. I’ll never know if I shouted the word or only thought it, but every cell in my body yelled a defiant NO. This was not how it ended. NO. In the slow split-seconds that followed I had just enough time to realise what being alive was, and what death was, and that death was now. BANG. At the moment of impact everything in the back seat flew forward. My ears flicked as the headphones were torn from them by the iPod hurtling out of my lap.
Darkness. Silence. An almighty stop.
As if waking from one nightmare into the next, I found myself alive but unable to draw a breath. As though trying to inhale through a pinched straw I fought for air. I fought and fought. Suddenly, finally, the seal of my winded chest broke and the sweetest feeling filled my lungs as the air poured in. I sucked deep, gasping breaths greedily as though they were my first. Only then did I begin to take in my surroundings.
There is a guttural sound that a mother makes when she realises a child is seriously or fatally injured. It’s a sickened, dreadful, animal moan that chills the blood. It was as I heard this sound that I noticed the baby face down and limp on the floor of the car. The mother and I locked wide eyes and I watched as, shaking and pale, she scooped the baby up. I watched the baby flop in its mother’s arm. I watched its eyes roll back into its head. The mother’s shrieks filled the car as she jiggled the baby and pushed her nipple into its slack mouth.
That baby is going to die, I thought, feeling nothing more than if I had looked at a clock and read the time. My attention turned to the two men slumped silently forward in the front seats. I shook each of them by the shoulder.
“Buffalo, Jedtha – are you alive?”
Buff sat up with a start, examined his arms and body and turned to me.
“Yeah” he beamed, “things like this don’t kill me, man!”
This was no exaggeration. In his youth, Buffalo had survived the Khmer Rouge who had used him as a child soldier. He had escaped to Vietnam and become a tank driver, returning to fight against Pol Pot’s regime. Buff was the sole survivor when his tank was blown up by a landmine. Short and stocky, covered in scars, he was now a father of three who spent his days helping some of the poorest families in Cambodia.
Jedtha, a former monk, sat up from the steering wheel and turned to me, smiling widely. A stream of bright blood ran from his hairline, down the centre of his face and between his front teeth.
“Yes, alive,” he breathed.
I looked back to find the car door open. The mother and baby were gone. Vomit was everywhere.
“Should we get out of the car Buffalo?”
“Yes, quickly.” He paused for a moment, looking around. “Before the big truck gonna come along and hit us.”
My stomach, which had started to throb, lurched with nausea. We were still in danger, stopped in the middle of the unlit highway in the dark. Only my left arm was working and with it I fumbled to remove my seatbelt while the men gathered our bags. Buff came around to open my door and helped me to a nearby stone bench. People had emerged from nearby houses and began to crowd around us as Buffalo and Jedtha piled our belongings next to me and instructed me to watch the bags.
“Stay here, we need to do first aid!”
I nodded silently. They approached the other car, now a crumpled ball of tinfoil against the bull bars of our SUV.
From amongst the gathering onlookers, an elderly woman emerged. Wailing, she rubbed soot in a black circle on the baby’s forehead. The young mother stared blankly at me, rocking slowly. I leaned forward to look down at the baby; her eyes fluttered briefly open, she gurgled and let out a cry before falling unconscious again. I stroked her cheek with a trembling hand.
The elderly woman turned her attention to me, shaking me by the shoulders and pointing at the crashed cars.
“Not good! Not good!” she shouted in Khmer.
I blinked numbly at her as she began to peel my shirt off, the task made difficult by my stiffened right arm which had retracted like a chicken’s wing. She vigorously rubbed my body with tiger balm. Her gnarled brown thumb scooped a large glob of tiger balm and made for my temple, but as I was jerked back and forth the thumb was mistakenly jammed into my eye. Really? I thought. Now?
Had anybody called for help? With my one working arm I pulled out my phone. Every movement was in slow motion, every thought an enormous task. I blinked at my phone but could not make sense of the swirling vortex of rainbow pixels where the screen should have been.
Over on the roadside, near the cars, Buffalo cradled a little girl of about four years and tried to breathe life into her. There was no blood on her but her small body was far too broken and within a few minutes she had died in his arms. Next to them her aunt gasped, her head broken open.
“Is my niece okay? Is my niece okay?!” she begged. She clutched Jedtha, her own life ebbing hot and red onto the dust.
This is Part One of ‘A car crash in Cambodia’ by Marnie Walters. Part Two was published on Corpus on 3 December 2018.
Marnie Walters is a Dunedin-based writer whose work focuses on creative non-fiction and memoir. She completed a BA in English, minoring in Writing, at the University of Otago in 2010 and has since worked in communications in the not-for-profit sector. Marnie is compelled by the power of storytelling to connect worlds, foster empathy and create change.