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Sybil Baker

Picturing Snakes

After spending the morning stepping over bones and scraps of clothes that poked out of the grounds of the Killing Fields, Elise was happy to accept Arun’s invitation to his house for lunch. Even as she traced her transparent reflection in the glass stupa that was stuffed with more than 8,000 skulls (classified by age and gender), the rumbling of her stomach had been an embarrassing reminder that although she was here to understand why people, and by extension herself, had suffered unfairly, her base human needs—food, shelter, clothing—demanded to be met.

He was waiting for her at his scooter, polishing the plastic and chrome with a blue bandana. He held the scooter steady for her to climb on.

“How far to your house?” Elise placed her sandals on the tiny metal extensions at the base of the scooter.

“Not far,” he answered vaguely. He climbed on the bike, allowed her a moment to circle her hands around him.

“What did you do before you were a driver?”

“After the Khmer Rouge, I was an orphan,” Arun said. “I sold postcards.”

“My parents are dead, too,” Elise said.

“They were very old?”

“My father died when I was a baby. My mother almost two years ago.”

“In America? How can that be? Your country is rich and powerful.”

“Your country was rich and powerful once.”

“Long time ago.” Arun searched the sky, then the ground as if the answer might be written there. “Shit happens, as you Americans say.”

He started the scooter. “Time to eat. You must be hungry.”

The road to Arun’s house was little more than a one lane clearing with dust and rocks and crater-sized holes. Elise knew that walking would have been faster and more comfortable, but instead she tightened her hold on Arun’s waist and closed her eyes to keep the dust from blinding her.

He wore a pale blue, long-sleeve, button-down shirt with a polo player sewn on the front pocket, the collar and cuffs frayed to a dingy white. Yesterday, when Elise first saw him wiping his already shiny scooter in front of the guest house she was checking into, he had worn that same shirt. That night he had driven her to the Silver Pagoda, a glittering and majestic monument that mocked the poverty around them. She guessed he would be wearing that shirt again the next morning. He was to take her to the boat she would ride down the Tongle Sap River to Siem Reap, which housed the temples of Angkor Wat. He had already warned her that those boats were not safe and might capsize from being overloaded. He suggested that she fly instead—he knew of someone who could sell her a ticket. She told him that she would take her chances with the boat.

The scooter sputtered to a stop in front of a group of women and children gathered around an ancient TV that was housed under a rickety wood and tin structure stacked with bottles of soft drinks and faded canned goods. The women were wrapped in sarongs, their dark hair coiled low on their necks. They touched their children’s shoulders, who then ran toward Elise with their eyes large and palms open. She took a stack of riels out of her money pouch and passed out single bills, worth only a few cents.

“Dollar, please,” one of the oldest asked, holding out her hand. As soon as Elise shook her head and tucked the riels back in her pouch, they ran back to the TV, their arms raised with their bills tight in their fists.

Arun led her along a dirt pathway past a row of simple bamboo and concrete homes. He stopped in front of a square building where a young woman was scooping water out of the well in front of their house. She, too, wore a sarong and was as beautiful as the other young Cambodian women Elise had seen. Also outside was a concrete stove and grill, where two large pots and a cluster of small fish hissed from the fire crackling underneath. After they greeted each other with a few soft words, Arun’s wife went back to the stove, and he gestured for Elise to follow him inside.

The room was dark and cool and suddenly still. Arun unbuttoned his shirt and hung it on a nail jutting out of the wall next to a white shirt identical in cut. A small infant boy, naked and curled, slept on a straw mat while a young girl fanned his face. Although the girl’s eyes were downcast, Elise could feel the girl’s focus was on her. Arun’s wife entered and turned on an electric fan plugged into an extension cord that ran out of the house to a generator.

He showed Elise the two framed pictures resting on a plank of wood that sat atop a pile of stacked stones. One was of him, his wife, and their infant son. The three of them, solemnly huddled into the center of the frame, looked more like siblings than parents and child. Elise smoothed her hand over her back pocket, where she kept the half photo of her father taken not long before he’d died.

The other picture was of Arun and an older western man with reddish hair and a large stomach that made him look pregnant. “He is my German friend. He paid for this house. Five hundred dollars.”

Elise surveyed the concrete square dwelling, admiring its compact utility. “It’s nice.”

Arun shrugged. “It is enough for us.” He said something to the girl, but she didn’t look up or change the rhythm of her fanning. “That’s my niece. She lives with us. I pay for her school.”

“That’s kind of you.”

“If I don’t pay she can’t go.”

Arun’s wife came in with plates of rice, broiled fish, sprigs of green plants, and sliced limes. The fish were small, and Elise picked the bones with the tines of her fork, while Arun ate his fish whole. The wife lifted the baby and pressed him to her chest while she watched them eat. Arun and his wife spoke to each other in low, even tones, without rancor or hostility, and Elise felt calmed by the steady, quiet rhythm. She wondered if they had reached a place of peace or just necessary detachment, borne out of unbearable loss and suffering.

After thanking them for the meal, she took a photo of the family with her camera, promising to send a copy to the guesthouse for Arun to pick up sometime in the unknown future.

Next was the Genocide Museum, a secondary school building converted into a place of torture under Pol Pot’s regime. Now tourists could walk through the concrete rooms adorned only with the vestiges of that past—bare mattresses on metal springs, dried blood stained on the floors, electric prods, chains, and whips hanging from bare walls. Between the torture instruments hung black and white framed photographs of the victims, their bodies electrocuted until they were only charred outlines on stained beds. Most of the posted explanations were in Khmer only, for reasons unclear to Elise. Few Cambodians could afford the one dollar admission fee, and besides, Elise thought, why would they pay to see something they had lived? When she had offered to pay for Arun to come into the museum, he refused, saying he had seen it all before, but that he hadn’t been to Angkor Wat yet, and hoped to do that someday.

It was the sparseness of the place, the lack of detailed explanations, the bloodstains, the torture implements ready for use that felt to her that this had all happened yesterday and would again tomorrow. One wall of the museum was lined with hundreds of photos of the victims, headshots of them before their death, like a high school yearbook where the photographer had forgotten to remind them to smile. Another wall was populated with victims’ skulls that mapped the shape of Cambodia.

Outside, the sun was strong, and Elise walked by the children tossing a volleyball toward Arun, who was wiping his scooter with a folded handkerchief. By the time she reached the scooter, the children had surrounded them again. They ran in packs, barefoot and in tattered clothes, some asking for candy or money, others selling postcards. The older ones edged their way up front, spreading the pictures of the temples at Angkor Wat like pages from a catalogue.

“Ma’am, you buy postcard.”

“Just one.” She chose a picture of a houseboat on the Siem Reap and paid for it. More children had gathered now, dropping postcards on her lap, surrounding her with pictures of the ancient Khmer temples. She shook her head and refused to meet their eyes. She hoped Arun would shoo them away, but he did nothing. Finally he started the scooter, and the children dispersed as quickly as they had gathered.

Through the window near her table at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, Elise watched the people on the street below crawling, squatting, weaving, and strolling. Some balanced baskets on their heads, while others cradled children or guns with their free hands.

“Best sunset in Asia.”

A clean-cut man in his early thirties with an American accent was standing next to her.

“No more seats,” he said, sitting at her table. “Hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” she said, before taking a sip of her gin and tonic.

He waved to the bar, and a young Japanese man in dreadlocks and a Bob Marley T-shirt walked over with two Angkor beers and set them on the table.

“This is Haruki. I’m William.” They raised their beers expectantly until Elise clinked her drink with theirs. They then took long draws, tipping the bottoms toward the ceiling. William said something in Japanese to Haruki, and the two laughed.

“First time here?”

Elise nodded. “I got in last night.”

“Thought I hadn’t seen you here before,” William said.

A Rolling Stones CD blared from speakers on the ceiling. A few men in trousers and button-down shirts sat on the stools at the bar. The tables were full of tourists and well-to-do locals drinking bottled beers and mixed drinks. The bar had a faded, wood-paneled colonial look that made the place feel more decadent than it really was. Haruki took out a pack of Marlboros from his jeans pocket and gestured to Elise. She shook her head. He pulled a lighter out of the pack and lit his cigarette, turning his head away from William as he exhaled the smoke from his mouth.

“Haruki’s been here for a few days. I’m taking him to Angkor tomorrow.”

“I’m going tomorrow, too.”

“Plane or boat?”


“Same here. Great way to travel. All that about the boats being dangerous is a bunch of shit. Don’t believe the crap people will tell you about ambushes and drownings. Sure they overload the boats, but I’d say it’s about as safe as anything else here.”

“Are there snakes?”

“In the river?” William shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

If Cambodia had snakes, then certainly Thailand did as well. Perhaps a snake had bitten her father after he’d fallen in the Kwai River, and he had drowned accidentally after all.

William suddenly looked toward the door, as if he had seen someone he knew, but no one came over to the table. “I guess you went to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum today.”

Elise nodded and tossed her drink back. The ice slammed against her teeth.

William shook his head. “Always tough the first time. Where you staying?”

Elise told him the name of her guesthouse.

“That’s where the French stay. Expensive, too—what, twelve dollars a night? Me and Haruki, we’re at the Rainbow. A bit of a hole, but it’s the place to be. Rooms five dollars, lots of grass, laid-back. For three months I’ve been living off of ramen and smoking dope in a hammock. It’s a great life.”

Haruki was silent, watching her through slitted eyes. He said something to William.

“He can’t speak much English,” William said. “How’d you get here?”

“I have a scooter and driver outside.”

“How much you paying?”

“Five for the evening.”

“Did he tell you it’s not so safe for you to be riding around on a scooter this time of night? You’re a sitting duck. I bet he didn’t tell you because he wanted his five dollars.”

“He’s a good guy. And five dollars isn’t so much.”

“That’s what he’s counting on you to think.” William glanced at Haruki, whose face was like steel. “Hey. We’re going to the Heart in a few. Grass is free. Tell your driver to go home. We’ll make sure you get back okay.”

In the cab to the Heart of Darkness, they sped past the crumbling French colonial architecture, past wandering children and frail, squatting men, past young girls in short skirts and red lipstick, past young boys, handsome and lean, pointing their AK-47s at anything that moved.

She climbed the stairs to the bar, trying not to trip over the cripples maimed from land mines, the children in their torn, dirty clothes, everyone with their hands out.

The Heart of Darkness, run by an ex-Vietnam vet who had settled there with his Cambodian wife, was packed with expatriates: journalists, English teachers, NGOs, and backpackers who drank and smoked in fleeting camaraderie. A few older men with large shirts untucked over their spilling stomachs played pool, while miniskirted prostitutes vacantly appraised the surroundings. William pinched some leaves out of one of the wicker baskets on the bar and rolled a joint, nodding to the grunge rock blaring from the speakers.


He passed the joint to Elise, where she held it briefly before inhaling, remembering the first time she’d smoked pot—the summer she was fourteen. She’d gone to a hill to escape the funeral of the boy she’d secretly loved. A girl there, a classmate, had passed her joint to her, much like William did now.

Plastic snakes and spiders of different sizes and colors hung from the ceiling. William raised his hand and touched a green snake suspended above them so that it bounced and jiggled on its elastic strings. “I guess they do have snakes in Cambodia. Scared?” William asked, looking pleased with himself.

“Not really,” Elise said as she reached up and ran her hand along the length of the snake, which was as long as her arm.

After she’d smoked a few joints, the night started to blur. She thought of Arun at home with his wife and baby and wondered if he was at all worried about her out this late. She hoped he was.

The music was slowing. She watched Haruki laugh for an absurdly long time. William filled a glass pipe and passed it to her. She held the smoke in her lungs for as long as she could before she blew it out. She was overwhelmed by a sudden smell and taste of incense.

“You down with ope, right?” William asked.

Elise nodded, even though it was her first time smoking opium. She tried to regulate her breathing and stay relaxed. She stared at the snake above her.

When she was fourteen she’d been in a boat with a boy who rowed across a lake until they were shaded in leaves and hanging branches. After they’d shared a beer, he’d leaned over and touched her lips and breasts at the same time just as a snake fell from the branch above them. Its black body slapped on the hot metal of the boat while its tongue shot darts at her. Terrified, she’d jumped in the water, and she felt then like she did now, light and weight, bright and dark, hot and cold, all at once. She wasn’t sure if she would ever come up. When she was underwater, she saw her father there too, except that he was flailing, fighting to breathe. Then she felt a grip around her waist, and she was being pulled upward to air and sun and into the boat. She never forgave the boy for saving her.

William and Haruki sparkled near her, while the other objects faded into silhouettes. She was floating across the room now finding her way by touch.

She wanted to tell someone to turn down the music, but she had forgotten how to speak. She wanted to touch the greenish glow above her, but her arms were too heavy to move.

While her body had betrayed her, her mind was clear and unimpeded. She recalled math problems from high school that she had been unable to solve but whose solutions were now obvious. The music resonated around the room; its notes were reflected in the shadows of others in a profound way that she could not articulate. She picked out the individual harmonies and rhythms and followed them to their logical conclusion. She closed her eyes and bobbed her head with the music, so beautiful, so poignant, and then she was a girl again wrapped in her bed listening to her mother play the most beautiful Beethoven. The soundtrack of her dreams. Now she was in one of those dreams and she could not stop smiling.

Things were making sense. Like that ubiquitous bumper sticker back in the States that Arun had quoted: shit happens. She laughed then, fleetingly enlightened.

She commanded her arm to take the photo of her father out of her shorts pocket. Her father was soft and glowing. She had not seen it before. That her father was sending her a message through the photo. He was smiling right at her. She smiled back at him. She kissed the photo, then William, then Haruki, then the snake.

When she opened her eyes, the sun was out, and she was in her bed, alone.

The boat rumbled fast and loud down the river. William and Haruki were crashed out on their backpacks down below. Elise sat on the deck wearing a beige boat hat and sunglasses in an attempt to shield her face from the heartless sun. She felt raw and headachy. A few girls in bikini tops and short-shorts were sunning themselves on the corrugated roof, eyes closed, ears stuffed with Walkman earphones. The boat sped past the bamboo houses on stilts, fishing boats docked on the grass, and children splashing in the water.

What would happen if she walked over to the edge of this boat and jumped off as it sped by the bamboo huts, small dots along the river’s edge? Would someone save her? Would she swim back? Would she let herself drown, just so she could feel what her father had?

She unzipped her money pouch and extracted the picture of her father. Palming the photo in her left hand, she traced its rough edges with her index finger. With his long hair and bandanna, her father looked carefree. The liquor bottle in his hand added to his enjoyment, just as the woman cut out of the photo must have.

She circled her father’s face and trailed his smile, a soft curl like Arun’s sleeping child. Last night had shown her: there were other ways to understand him.

That evening, Elise sat with William and Haruki on one of the hills to watch the sun set over Angkor Wat. They had met another backpacker on the way up, a Canadian woman with unshaven legs and underarms, wearing nose and tongue rings. The four passed a joint around in silence as they watched the sandstone temples turn copper then deep red under the darkening sky.

“I just don’t understand,” the Canadian said. “How can the same people do both? Make these monuments of incredible awe and beauty and yet kill their own by the millions?”

“Lots of slave labor for both projects.” William spoke in Japanese to Haruki and they laughed.

“I’m serious,” the girl said.

“I am too,” said William. “You’ve got to think about the big picture.” He drew an expansive frame with his fingers, then patted Haruki’s leg. “Look at the Japanese. They were enlightened once. Then they got the brilliant idea to conquer the world. Got fried to a crisp for their effort.”

“What the hell are you saying?” The girl’s voice was tight and high-pitched.

Elise’s mouth worked into a slow smile. “Shit happens. And then you die.”

William laughed for a long time at that one. Haruki did, too. There was no need for translation.

And even though Elise laughed with them, she was thinking of when she would return on the boat five days later. How Arun in his worn, blue shirt would be waiting for her. How after that she would go to Thailand, where it was easy to get opium. How she would pass her days in a boat on the Kwai River. There, with only the moon and stars and sky to save her, she'd row to her father's ghost, the heart of her own ruinous peril.

©2010 by Sybil Baker

Sybil Baker's first novel, The Life Plan, was published by Casperian Books in 2009. "Picturing Snakes" is part of a linked novel through stories collection titled Talismans, which is forthcoming from C&R Press in the fall of 2010. Both of these books follow female protagonists on physical and emotional journeys throughout Asia. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including upstreet and The Writer’s Chronicle. She lived in South Korea for twelve years, and has traveled extensively in Asia and elsewhere. She currently lives with her husband in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is at work on a novel partially set in South Korea.

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