I wrote this in April of 2006, while we were building our house and waiting for our daughter Luna to be born:
Sometime shortly after Sopheak and I moved out of the guest house and into the small house on our property she received a phone call from Phnom Penh. Her cousin Sokha was in trouble. Sokha’s mother and father had both died when she was only four and since then she had been cared for by a succession of relatives. An uncle in Phnom Penh had most recently taken her on but when he remarried his new wife decided there wasn’t room enough in their small home for her any more. One possible “solution” was, if no one wanted her, Sokha, now 15, could be sold to a brothel. What could I say? We took a bus to PP and picked up her and her small bag of belongings and brought her home to live with us.
Sokha is a sweet girl. She’s a willing helper and always returns a smile with a smile. On good days she’s just one of the girls, sitting around with the others and gossiping (I assume: I don’t understand a word they say) while they do their chores. On other days she’s silent and withdrawn. She still does her jobs, but does them silently, in a world of her own. No one bothers her on those days. They all know she’s lived a very troubled life.
One day in April, in the middle of the week-long Khmer New Year celebrations, not long after our fateful trip to Shray Rinh (see Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), Sokha “complained,” if that’s the word, of having a headache. “OK?” I asked, seeing the pained expression on her usually placid face. “Choo kabal” she replied with an apologetic smile, as if she was doing something wrong. In my infinite Western wisdom I gave her a Panadol.
A little later she went up to the loft to sleep. A short time after that Sopheak’s brother Rah went up to fetch something and found her lying on her back staring at the ceiling. But she wasn’t staring at anything. There was nobody home. Her body was lying there, head propped up on a dirty silk cushion. It was breathing, but Sokha was gone. Rah called everyone up to have a look and to try to bring her back. Words like “catatonia” and “catalepsy” ran through my mind, though I couldn’t remember which was which. I thought about zombies and wondered if some of the New Age voodoo I’ve learned over the years would be of any help. But especially I thought about my sister, who at the age of 19 was sent home from college in exactly the same shape. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she spent her life one of the unhappiest people I’ve ever know.
I flicked my fingers in front of her eyes. Not so much as a blink in response. Her hands and feet were cold. “She go inside,” I offered as my diagnosis. “She have too many problems,” Sopheak explained knowingly, “her spirit (“proh-leung”) go.” Sounded like as good an explanation as any. Half and hour, give or take, passed by with various failed attempts to revive her. I was just beginning to wonder if this was going to be a permanent condition and if so what were we going to do about it when she closed her eyes. At last! I thought with relief as I watched her eyes twitch and roll beneath their lids: REM, Rapid Eye Movement. She’s dreaming.
“She’s dreaming,” I said softly. The others nodded. It was obvious to them as well. I was not privy to special knowledge, just a little fancy Western terminology.
A few minutes later she opened her eyes and sat up. Sokha was back! Groggy, but she was with us. She said a few words that I didn’t understand, changed her position and lay back down, facing east for what that’s worth. “Her mama wants to visit,” I was told. Not comprehending, I assumed they were saying she had been dreaming about her mother and wanted to go back and dream about her again. But not long after she opened her eyes, sat up and began to speak and I realized there wasn’t a problem in translation: Sokha’s mother was paying us a visit.
When I tell you her demeanour changed completely, just believe me. You had to be there. Yes, it was the same teenage face, but the person in front of me was not Sokha. She was older, worldly-wise, with the confidence of a woman who has seen and endured enough that she doesn’t care anymore whether her words or actions are approved of or not. The face was Sokha’s but the personality that expressed itself through her simply was not the shy and retiring teenage girl I knew.
“She’s back,” I offered despite the evidence to the contrary. “This not Sokha. This mama for Sokha,” Sopheak corrected me. As I watched her speak to the others with confident authority, I knew that Sopheak’s words made more sense than mine. Then I caught her eye. She looked at me quizzically, the way some older Khmer had in the country, where Western faces are rare. She pointed at me and said, “Scoot” (crazy). I was neither insulted nor troubled by the statement. Most Cambodians think Westerners are crazy and when I see us through their eyes I can see why. I smiled in return. “Scoot,” she repeated, this time with a smile in return. “Her no see barang (foreigner) before,” Sopheak offered apologetically.
Some more words were exchanged and then the woman offered each of us in turn the traditional palms-together gesture that represents both hello and goodbye. Then she lay back down on the small silk pillow and closed her eyes. Mama’s short visit had come to a close.
Thinking the strange crisis had ended, I went downstairs for a smoke. I hadn’t finished my cigarette when I was summoned again. Sokha was awake again. No, let me be more precise. Sokha’s body was consciously inhabited again, but not by Sokha. This time it was inhabited by a bright-eyed baby. By the time I got to the loft she was sitting up close to Sopheak pulling at her shiny gold jewellery, a look of absolute delight and fascination on her glowing face as she giggled like a baby.
And that, it turned out, is what she was. When Sokha’s mother died she left a seven-month-old baby girl behind as well as the then four-year old Sokha. The baby died three months later. Still breast-feeding when her mother died, the baby endured her final months without the comfort of mother’s milk and she told our assemblage she was starving for milk. Rah went straight downstairs and poured her a full glass of milk which she drank down greedily in one gulp. It’s worth noting here that I’ve never seen a Khmer drink milk and that I’ve never seen Sokha drink milk since.
Sokha’s baby sister then said her goodbyes and Sokha’s body laid down again. When she got up a few moments later, Sokha was back. She had been visiting her mother while her sister was in her body and her mother had told her to go back to the wat in Shray Rinh for a water blessing. So the next day, accompanied by Sopheak’s oldest brother Rote, she did just that. When she returned, she was fine – for awhile.
It’s no wonder Khmer have their “superstitions” and almost universally consult cards, astrologers and oracles of all kinds for direction. We barang like to write all this off as “primitive beliefs” but we don’t have a clue. Our minds are fixed on the crazy idea that the Newtonian physical world is the “real” world. Alternative perceptions are aberrations to be analysed and rationalized into something our limited perspective can grasp and, if possible, eliminated. It’s a world-view I understand, having been there myself. But personal experience has led me to believe that we’re babes in the spiritual woods. Indeed, Khmer don’t consider ghosts, spirits or other non-material beings to be “spiritual” in the way we do. They are a part of ordinary reality. Being physically incarnate, their understanding is limited and so some of their methods of dealing with them are less-than-perfect. While our science quite happily calls its failures “experiments” that same science self-righteously dismisses the trial-and-error methods of shamans and priests as “superstitious nonsense.”
And so Sopheak’s recovery was not complete. It was to be expected, because, in Sopheak’s words, “her spirit so small small” that she continued (and may continue) to be subject to possession. She was fine for a couple of weeks. Then one morning she had another headache and became pensive and withdrawn as she had before. I saw her sitting and staring at a photograph I’d taken of her. I noticed the symptoms, but failed to become alarmed enough to tell Sopheak or Mal (Rah’s wife) when they came home from the market. By the time they returned, Sokha had been upstairs for about an hour and they found her as she had been before, lying on her back staring blankly into space. Next to her was the photograph of herself and she’d written something on the back of it. Sopheak read it while Mama, Mal, Rah and Ana (Sopheak’s sister) worked on reviving Sokha. This time it took only a few minutes and this is where things get complicated. She “woke up” and everyone believed it was Sokha, but as it turned out, it wasn’t. It was Sokha’s oldest sister.
The note on the back of the photograph was worrying. She had written that she was not destined to live in her current body much longer and wished to be reborn as Sopheak’s and my next baby. That brought tears to my eyes and I told Sopheak to tell her she could be our baby in this lifetime, but she already had. Nonetheless, everyone feared that Sokha might simply lose the will to live and die (violent suicide would be unnecessary – she would simply die), so they called in a priest from Wat Leu.
I didn’t know they’d called a “loke” (priest or monk) and thinking everything was OK, I left. When I returned, he had come and gone. In Sopheak’s words, “Her want kill Buddha (the loke). Her change. I see black black and her have this ones (pointed to teeth) like monster we see inside tv (a vampire).” The “monster” was Sokha’s jealous sister. Sokha remembered her oldest sister, but was unaware she had died. But she had, and she was furious. Not only had Sokha been their mother’s favorite, Sokha had gone on living and found a loving home while she had died. Determined to “set things right” and enjoy life again, she had inhabited her body, written the heart-rending note and acted like the sweet and gentle Sokha we knew. But the priest had found her out.
He was able to make the sister leave Sokha’s body, but for how long he wasn’t sure. He told everyone to watch her and if there was another episode to bring her to the wat for an exorcism. That would drive her sister away for good. Sokha had no recollection of what she had written but agreed with the sentiments when she read it.
to be continued . . .