Beast Fiction: Vaddey Ratner's Music of the Ghosts

Bestselling author Vaddey Ratner explores Cambodia and its exiles in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Photo llustration by Alex Brook Lynn/ The Daily Beast

A young Malaysian flight attendant in a blue flowered batik dress—a kabeya, Teera remembers from an article in the in-flight magazine—leans forward, pushing the heavy compact metal cart with her slender frame. She asks the elderly couple sitting next to Teera what they’d like. They don’t understand. Teera isn’t at all surprised these two old people can’t speak English, though she noticed earlier that they carry American passports. Like many elderly Cambodians she’s come across, they may have never, aside from this trip, ventured outside their community. The flight attendant repeats the meal choices, raising her voice slightly as if the old couple were hard of hearing: “Beef fried rice or mushroom omelet?—Asian breakfast or Western,” she adds for clarification. Still, they don’t understand. Teera tells her, “Fried rice—for both,” knowing, without having to confer with the old couple, they’ll always prefer rice. It’s in their blood. Once they may have even risked their lives to steal a spoonful.

Rice. Mama, rice. Her brother’s last words. He was born some months after the Khmer Rouge had taken over. When they left home that April morning in 1975, joining the forced mass exodus out of Phnom Penh, Teera hadn’t known her mother was pregnant. Rin hungry. Tummy hurts. Hunger was among her baby brother’s first words, his first knowledge, and he died as he was just learning to talk. She blinks away the memories. “And you, ma’am?” the flight attendant asks, her gaze on Teera.

“Coffee, please,” she says.

In the first years after their arrival in America, she and Amara did try to put it all behind them. When Amara was asked if the Khmer Rouge regime had been as horrible as portrayed, her answer was always simple. Yes. Amara’s silence reinforced her own. It built thicker and higher walls, until it seemed the two of them existed in separate cells, prisoners to all they couldn’t say.

“What about breakfast?” the flight attendant says.

Teera shakes her head. She wants to explain she’s not hungry, but the effort of finding words for her thoughts requires more energy than she can muster. Besides, there are crackers in her bag. She’ll nibble on those if needed. She hasn’t felt hunger, felt the desire to eat since boarding the flight in Minneapolis more than twenty hours ago. Since Amara’s death, really.

“No, just coffee, thanks.”

Teera sips the lukewarm diluted liquid, letting the mild bitterness glide down her throat. Next to her, the old woman seems overwhelmed by all the little packages on her tray, unsure what to tackle first. Then, following her husband’s lead, she peels the foil cover from the rectangular dish and sniffs the fried rice. The thick smell of reheated grease is overpowering. Again, Teera feels nauseous. She tries holding her breath to block the odor.

The old woman begins to pick out the greasy, stringy beef with her fork and puts it in her husband’s dish. Turning to Teera, she says in Khmer, “No teeth left.” She smacks her exposed gums together and grins. In spite of herself, Teera smiles and reluctantly lets down her guard.

“Is this your first time going back, chao srey?”

Teera’s heart skips a beat. It isn’t at all unusual for Cambodians to address one another in familial terms, but she can’t remember when she was last called “granddaughter” with such tenderness. An image of the cave where Teera left her grandparents blooms in her mind, its entrance illuminated by the setting sun, giving the impression that it was lit from within. She swallows, wondering as she has countless times over the years how they perished. Who went first—her gentle, diminutive grandmother, or her stoic, once-imposing grandfather? They’d already been starving, their bodies weakened and damaged beyond saving, when she and Amara were forced to abandon them in the cave in order to keep up with the rest of their group as they navigated the jungle. They probably didn’t last through the night. They had survived through the regime, through four long, miserable years, only to end up betrayed by life, handed over to death in the middle of nowhere.

Teera takes another sip of the coffee to help ease down the lump in her throat. She gives only a tentative nod to the old woman’s inquiry. Already she regrets allowing herself to be seduced by those toothless grins.

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“It’s our first trip as well,” the old woman says. “Now that we’re getting on in years we haven’t got much time left, as you can see. Soon we’ll be too old and sick to travel.”

Teera winces, recalling the oncologist’s words not long ago. At this advanced stage, I’m afraid the prognosis is not good. She remembers him looking from her to Amara as he spoke, unsure who was responsible for whom. When she and her aunt first walked into his office, he’d assumed they were sisters, as Amara’s petite frame made her look more like a woman in her late thirties than midforties. I am truly sorry, he concluded decisively after what felt like mere seconds. What could you know! Teera felt the urge to scream at him, at his useless apologies, the absurdity of it all. For them to have endured indescribable inhumanity only to succumb to something as nameable as pancreatic cancer seemed a mockery of their struggle all these years to rebuild their lives. It was their shared belief that after what they had been through they’d overcome anything, that their survival had purpose and meaning—a reason. They were meant to live, damn it, she wanted to tell the smug doctor. Amara was stronger than this. She’d live. Her aunt would fight and live. You’ll see! Instead, in a tone close to threatening, Teera rasped, We’ll seek a second opinion. And to Amara, she added shakily, desperately, A third and fourth, if we need to. Amara looked at her with pity, as if Teera had been the one with cancer. They left the doctor’s office in defeated silence.

Only later, when they were back home, did Amara speak. If I’d had more time, I might’ve returned to Cambodia. Her aunt had chosen her words carefully, speaking in her precise, practiced English. But all Teera could think of was that the verb tense was all wrong. Did Amara not remember anything about the past subjunctive from all those grammar lessons Teera had helped her with? You’re not dead yet, she wanted to say. There’s still time. You have more time. You do! Instead, she burst into tears, to which Amara responded, Oh, Teera, we’ve been blessed in so many ways. I’ve had a good life. I got to see you grow up, didn’t I? I’ll always be grateful for these extra years, for all we’ve built together here. Her aunt sounded as if she believed she ought to have died with the others. Teera grew more upset.

In the following days and weeks, Amara, with her characteristic equanimity, proceeded to put her life in order. She resigned from her longtime position as the head of an organization that provided social services to Cambodian immigrants and refugees in Minnesota. She went to a lawyer and made a will to ensure that Teera, her only kin, would receive all her savings and assets, which, including a life insurance policy she’d had the foresight to buy many years earlier, amounted to a small fortune. Certainly enough to allow you to devote time to your own writing, she explained matter-of-factly, while Teera listened in stunned dismay. You must look after yourself, darling. Tend to all that’s alive in you, to what’s living. And let me tend to the dead.

Besides the inheritance she’d left for Teera, Amara had bequeathed an amount for the construction of a communal stupa at Wat Nagara, their old family temple. She told Teera she’d already written to the abbot of the temple, expressing her intentions that it serve as a kind of memorial to their family, and to those who had perished during the Khmer Rouge years. Weeks passed, then a month, then two. Amara grew visibly sick, her physical deterioration reducing her to a pale copy of herself. Then one day, sitting Teera down and handing her a small wooden box, Amara said, If you should ever return to our country, please take a bit of my ashes in this and leave it in the stupa there. Teera reeled in the midst of her aunt’s calm instructions. But you’re still alive! she wanted to shout, too confused and upset to make sense of her own words, let alone Amara’s. Divide up the ashes? She felt certain this was sacrilegious—a violation of Buddhist custom and belief, even as she was acutely aware that a divided self was something her aunt had to live with daily since their arrival in America, a reality she struggled to accept as she built her life in a country where she felt she never truly belonged.

If you should ever return . . . Those words angered Teera. They sounded like a betrayal. Why should she? Why would she want to? There would be no one for her to visit or reconnect with. Unless this was Amara’s way of saying she wanted Teera to return, to take her back and reunite her, if only in spirit, with the rest of the family. Teera couldn’t voice her objection. Amara was dying.

Every time she thinks of her inheritance, Teera can’t escape the feeling that she’s always gotten the better end of life, while her aunt bore the brunt of it, suffered. Died. Is this why she’s going back now? To purge her own guilt by fulfilling Amara’s unspoken longing for home?

Amara passed at the beginning of the year, three days short of her forty-seventh birthday. Her sudden death sent shock through the Cambodian community, and the tremendous outpouring of grief engendered a kind of collective mourning on a scale befitting a minor celebrity. Teera shouldn’t have been surprised. For many years, Amara was a constant fixture in the lives of so many. There was never a birthday, graduation, wedding, or funeral she failed to attend. If invited, which was almost always, she was there to offer her quiet support. Naturally, when news of her death got out, the whole community came to pay respects, gathering at a funeral home in Minneapolis, where the undertaker, familiar with the rites of a Cambodian funeral, arranged a row of chairs for Buddhist monks on the pulpit facing the mourners. They went on to the crematory a few blocks away, where Amara’s body was incinerated and the ashes collected in an urn with the efficiency, Teera noted with dismay, of a well-run bakery. The next day they gathered once more at Wat Minnesotaram, the temple in rural Hampton where an evening wake was held. The urn was on display atop a small table beside a photograph of Amara, accompanied by funerary chants and music meant to ease her aunt’s spirit on its journey into the otherworld.

Then, sometime at the end of June, a bit more than half a year after Amara’s death, just when Teera felt that everyone had grown accustomed to her aunt’s absence and she could begin to mourn privately, a letter arrived from Cambodia. The author of the letter offered his condolences. He had heard of Amara’s untimely passing from the abbot of Wat Nagara, the temple where he had sought shelter. To Teera’s astonishment, the stranger went on to explain that while he offered his deepest sympathies for her great loss, he was in fact writing in regard to some musical instruments belonging to her father, which he wished to give her. Teera didn’t know what to make of it, believing for a moment it might’ve been an opportunist’s vague solicitation for money. She ought to trash it. But something about the letter made her hesitate. Its tone, perhaps. A tone is the intention of a note, Amara would say in moments of unbidden remembering, quoting her father, repeating things that had struck her as mysterious or prophetic. The tone of the letter made Teera believe that the stranger’s intention was honorable. Sincere.

Three instruments, the letter said, yet it failed to mention what they were. Teera couldn’t help but think how ironic it was that, while houses and monuments and entire cities had dissolved and vanished, these instruments, trivial and fragile by comparison, had endured. How had the instruments found their way into this man’s care? If indeed they’d once belonged to her father, what would she do with them now? What use could they serve when she could no longer hear her father’s music? She tried repeatedly to put the letter away, stashing it in various drawers, burying it under piles of mail, or filing it randomly in one of the hanging folders at her writing desk so she’d forget its whereabouts, only to retrieve it again and reread the words, its whispers and intimations.

The man knew her father. They were together, it said, during the final year of the Khmer Rouge regime. Imprisoned, her father had survived almost until the end. But how? By what means? Had he made any effort to find them during the prior three years? What was his crime? And, most curiously, why did this man, who claimed to know her father, only now make contact? Who was he? What could he possibly want? Hard as she resisted, Teera couldn’t escape the pull of the past.

Truth, she believed, lies in what is said as much as in what isn’t, in the same way that a melody not only is a sequence of audible notes but encompasses the spaces and pauses in between. When listening to music, you must learn to take in even the atmosphere of an echo.

From Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner. Copyright 2017 by Vaddey Ratner. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.