We were racing the sun. It was begining to glow orange, cut into pieces by the great green palm leaves. The Mekong Delta—the landscape of every Vietnam War movie I’d ever seen, where boat engines sounded like the echoes of helicopter blades.
We were trying to get to Ba Chuc before the sun went down. It was the site of a Khmer Rouge massacre; a pagoda with the bones of the deceased had been constructed. I’d planned on visiting it the next day, but when Sam Mountain turned out to be a bust—cages full of endangered birds for sale, and small boys peeing between make-shift altars—I’d decided to make a run for it.
We pulled into a dirt lot with the sun low, barely above the squat structures—corrugated tin walls and thatched roofs. The motorbike driver didn’t speak English; he pointed at the sign on a small, concrete building. “Ba Chuc.” I handed him my helmet, and he leaned back to wait.
Inside was empty, a lonely government building—fading paint and dusty floors. The walls were lined with photos depicting the massacre. Along this stretch of border, there were several Khmer villages; it had, at one time, been part of the Khmer kingdom. In 1978, the Khmer Rouge had come into the town of nearly 4,000; only one person survived the massacre.
I’d read this all in my guidebook. Here, all the signs were in Vietnamese. The brutal black-and-white images didn’t need translation. I walked slowly, alone with the freeze-frame horror.
A barefoot woman entered the room. She was withered and hunched. She tugged at my sleeve, pointed to the picture of a girl’s body impaled through the vagina. She made a thrusting motion, her eyes desperate. She motioned around.
She kept pointing, I kept nodding—what else do you do? She held incense out towards me, made a motion for bowing. I didn’t want to buy any incense. Not so much that I didn’t want to buy it, but that I didn’t want to burn it, to bow—to mime the motions of someone else’s religion, someone else’s sanctity, someone else’s tragedy. Not mine, not mine. (I hadn’t wanted to go to my uncle’s funeral as a little girl, and it was the same feeling—an old feeling, buried feeling, that I’d forgotten—something in me saying, “No, no, no.”)
I walked over to the pagoda. It was in a grassy lot, mostly deserted. A large tree grew next to it. It was pretty, rural, littered with trash. Two teenagers sat holding hands. Three small, dirty boys played on the steps leading up to it. They leapt up, walked over to me, palms open. I shook my head (no, no).
They followed me as I walked in a slow circle around the pagoda. Behind glass, skulls had been arranged according to age: 0-2, 17-25… It didn’t seem real.
I circled around once, twice. I didn’t feel anything I thought I should be feeling (“There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.”) I didn’t feel anything, really, but numbness, and a “no.”
I walked back down the few steps, back towards the motorbike, the driver, another distance to be traveled in silence. A rock hit the groumnd beside my sneakers. I looked back, and the boys giggled. Had they meant to hit me? Was it malicious, were they playing, who was I, what was I doing there?
I walked back to the motorbike through the dirt-lot dusk, feeling nothing but “no.”