Debra Groves Harman
Samnang walked along the waterfront with an old stolen Honda Dream. A plastic bag of rice chicken was hanging from the handlebar on one side and green melon tea from the other. He was a good man, but very poor. He was desperate to earn some money for petrol and for his family. Samnang saw the policeman, so he paused to slowly spit, feigning innocence.
The policeman, in a hammock under a frangipani tree, was sucking a toothpick when Samnang wandered into his gaze. He’d seen the long innocent spit before and wasn’t having any of it. The policeman yelled “Chope!” which means “stop,” and turned his entire attention on the thief, who adjusted the kickstand, fell to his knees, and said “Som toe,” which means “please.”
The policeman didn’t care one whit about pleases and prayers. He did care about food and petrol, so he listened when Samnang told him, “Please, sir, I will show you how this motorcycle makes money.” The policeman, like Samnang, was always hungry, just like most people who live hand to mouth.
The policeman bought Samnang a liter of petrol so they could ride, and the cop rode behind Samnang, telling him, “yoot, yoot,” which means “go slow.” They rode through the night, past yellow and red neon lights flashing around restaurants. They rode past women playing pool and flirting with the barang, the foreign men. Wealthy Chinese men drank beer and Khmer waiters in white shirts served them steaming fish and shrimp, rice with savory brown oyster sauce, and beef satay with peanut sauce. Samnang and the policeman rode past all of this, their stomachs growling.
“No funny business. Don’t dare to cheat me,” the policeman said to Samnang, who pulled into a Tuol Kork warehouse with hundreds of girls wearing short skirts and tiny little tops. Everything about them was small, these tiny girls from Southeast Asia, mostly Vietnam. Some girls were from the Cambodian countryside too. They were the stockier dark-skinned girls, with wide flat noses and subtly quiet demeanor.
One girl, Srey Nuon, ran to Samnang. Her long black hair had fragrant white flowers in it, and she wore a red leather mini dress. Srey Nuon was half Chinese, and the Khmer girls said she was smart.
“Oh, my friend,” she said. “Why is the police here?”
“If I can show him the motorcycle makes money, he won’t arrest me,” said Samnang. When Srey Nuon heard that, she clapped her hands and shouted. Tiny girls queued up, pushing and murmuring.
Samnang opened the gas cap and waited. One girl put her hands up in a praying position and dove into the petrol tank. Each girl disappeared into the tiny tank, leaving a little pile of white flowers nearby. Then, Samnang got on the motorcycle and kicked it on. It was a miracle no one could have believed! From the exhaust pipe flooded the Khmer riels.
At first, the monetary notes were small, a one hundred riel note here, a five hundred note there. Soon, it poured out in large denominations. After two minutes came the big money, one-hundred-dollar bills from the USA itself, with silver imbedded ribbons and fancy watermarks of the Liberty Bell. Pounds sterling emerged, along with the euro, but most of all came the Chinese yuan. The money just streamed out, and the policeman held up his hands and said, “Preah M’Chah! God on high!” It was a moment of great happiness.
After the motorcycle quit spitting out money, the girls—tiny little versions of who they’d been—crawled out of the exhaust pipe, wiping their hands off. The tiny girls slowly grew in size until they were as before, perhaps forty-five kilos.
“Did that hurt you?” asked the policeman, who blinked several times.
Srey Nuon answered, “No, sir. And we are helping everyone, especially our families. Our pain does not matter. The first time it hurt, but now it’s okay.”
“So, you willingly jumped into the petrol tank the first time, even though you didn’t know what your fate would be?”
“No choice. This is normal for us. We are taxi girls, hostesses who pour beer. The men here expect us to do this and more, for them, and for our own families.”
“Well, I didn’t know that you were expected to do such strange things,” said the policeman, as she peeled a hundred-dollar bill off her inner thigh and handed it to him.
“We work very hard,” she said. “but we are free after we work in the bars for ten years. We are going free today, and you can watch.” At this point, another twenty girls had jumped into the tank of the stolen motorcycle, and one-hundred-dollar bills were churning out of the exhaust pipe, blowing around the room like pink and blue sparkly confetti.
“Yes, later,” said the policeman, mesmerized. He was jumping up and snatching the money out of the air. And so it went, with lines of girls jumping into the tank, being churned through the mechanism of travel and time.
A time later, a very old lady came in with a bamboo birdcage. She was wizened and grey, wearing a man’s gray shirt and a fedora hat, sexless in that way old ladies become. She smiled broadly, showing missing teeth, and nodded at the girls, who now seemed tired.
The first set of girls lined up, staring at cellphones. Some looked older and heavier than they had before. Before the motorcycle process, the policeman and thief had looked covetously at them, admiring their brightly colored dresses and shiny long hair. Now, there was no interest. The girls seemed to sense that, no longer flirting and laughing. They yawned and slouched, holding their arms over their bodies and standing together, trying to get warm.
“This is now our time to leave,” said Srey Nuon. “We are no longer a valuable commodity for the motorcycles and men and bar owners. Now, we are free.” With that, she nodded to the old woman in the fedora, who ushered her into the bamboo cage. Srey Nuon was followed by the other girls, who turned into tiny birds. The old woman used a dark cloth to cover the cage. She filled cages with all of the old girls. The cell phones lay in a pile by the bamboo.
“You make old girls into the wishing birds!” exclaimed the policeman. “Those are for-sale lucky birds, and now you must sell them!”
“Yes, of course,” said the old woman. “But we will give the money to their families.”
The policeman said, “But the birds go free?”
And the old woman, “Well, they could go, but they always come back. Then, someone just buys them again. It’s like before, when they worked in the bars. It’s the only life they know.”
The policeman stood and watched, along with the thief, as the old woman loaded her tuk tuk with cages of tiny, chirping birds. Then, she tipped the policeman with a handful of dirty riels and drove away. The men shook hands, and everyone was very wealthy, and no one complained anymore.
About the writer:
Debra Groves Harman has a BA in English and an M.Ed. and has taught secondary English for fifteen years. Prior to that, she taught English in Cambodia, where she and a partner established a publishing company. Her memoir Dancing in Circles: An Expatriate in Cambodia is forthcoming, and her creative nonfiction appears in “The Nasiona.” She won a writing contest with Two Sisters Writing and Publishing as well. Her aesthetic often includes social and political work, and she opposes human trafficking and the exploitation of women. She tends to write creative nonfiction and memoir. This piece combines memoir and magical realism.
Image: “Wind Bouquet” by Melissa Milton. Unspecified medium. 13 x 19 inches. By permission.