Fragmentary Thoughts at the Killing Fields

Late afternoon sun through the trees, dusty lot and birds singing, the stillness of a temple. I slide off my shoes and the tiles are hot on my feet as I walk slowly around the pagoda, a tower of skulls.

And it isn’t the skulls that get me—sorted by age and gender, piles that are missing jaws and teeth, holes where the smashing happened, the jagged line were the cranium stitched itself together—lines that were hidden, kept under hair and skin, kept a secret from them, themselves for as long as they lived—and laid bare here now, with nothing to disguise it anymore: This is how you were sewn together, and this is where the wound occurred, and this is what is left.

But the skulls aren’t what gets me, because the skulls don’t seem real. It’s the piles of clothes on the bottom shelf. Shirts and shorts, dusty and tattered and vacant now, a limp pile—this is what is left.

We walk through the field, where the earth dips down into ditches (it’s not rain or erosion that made these), trees that stand stoicly, silently by. We come to stand beside an exhumed grave (but “grave” is too good a word—there’s no word for what this was). A sign says that teeth and bits of bones and scraps of clothes continue to come up, out of the earth, after it rains or floods.

Sometimes the earth write the metaphors for you, I think. Sometimes the ground itself is a poem—this place a poem you couldn’t possibly ever write, no one could write, just walk through—the stillness; the birds; the smell of incense and smoke; someone burning off wild grasses somewhere, behind the fence; schoolkids singing somewhere in the wind. Two monks walking, orange robes, reading the signs with impassive faces, round faces, young young faces.

There’s scraps of clothes everywhere. “Are these…?” we begin to ask each other, but don’t finish the question. (There is no question for what this was.) Surely someone would have gathered these scraps, dusted them off, “deordorized” them as the sign said, added them to the pile of All That Is Left.

But we keep walking and I realize there’s too many, too much—scraps of clothes existing like ghosts, or souls that haven’t quite made it up out of the earth, out of what there aren’t words for, poems for—this.

The trees all saw this, I think. These same trees, noble and twisted and standing here still. Some were forced to take part, and I imagine something in them weeping, their trunks dulled and bloodied. These same trees, bearing witness, the same way they bear witness now—silent, petrified in their places, the way parts of our brains are, the way parts of our brains bear witness (secret stitching, secret from ourselves)—roots tangling and rising out of the earth, with the teeth and bones and scraps of clothing and all the things there aren’t metaphors for: a dusty field in the afternoon sun.

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9 Responses to “Fragmentary Thoughts at the Killing Fields”


  1. 1 Sarah March 17, 2011 at 4:42 am

    A beautiful written, yet harrowing account which seems to perfectly put across the utter inability to comprehend such atrocities.

  2. 2 crystellitobjorn March 17, 2011 at 9:51 am

    I cannot imagine what it must have been like to tour the killing fields. I thought your post was very appropriate in how it captured the experience. Whenever I witness anything that stands as a reminder of the horrors of mass human violence, I can’t help asking the big questions in life. It all seems so entirely bereft of meaning.

    But back to your writing… do you intend on writing a follow-up piece on your experience? I am guessing it takes a while for everything to settle after seeing all that. I feel like every cogent piece of writing about mass killings, by the Khmer Rouge or others, will stand as an open rebuke to the forces that are still pursuing ruthless massacres today…

    Thanks for your post!

    • 3 laurenquinn March 17, 2011 at 9:54 am

      Yeah, I’m actually writing what might turn out to be a whole book on my experiences in Cambodia, of which the actual Killing Fields is only a very small part. I’ll keep y’all posted. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

    • 4 Thena May 6, 2011 at 10:35 pm

      Didn’t know the forum rules allowed such blirliant posts.

  3. 5 Hal Amen March 17, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Yeah, it was the clothing that got me too. So limp.

  4. 6 Kirk Bluegreen March 18, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Well written but I think the skull would have gotten me more than the actual clothing that was left behind. Never been to Cambodia dont think my wife would want to visit the killing fields though.

  5. 7 Fern March 20, 2011 at 7:53 am

    You write beautifully. I think the clothes would affect me the most. Because there’s something disconnected about skulls. We see it in scientific contexts or anatomy lessons, but it’s not really what we associate with a personal story. But clothes, those are personal… And maybe most of all, they’re empty and speak of what isn’t there. There’s something so odd about outer wear being more human than an inherent inner part of our bodies.

  6. 8 Steph April 4, 2011 at 9:18 am

    You did such a beautiful job capturing that afternoon. I remember the heat of the tiles and the eery peacefulness of the trees. and I will NEVER EVER forget those scraps of clothing reaching up out of the earth. That is the stuff of nightmares.

    I’m glad I didn’t have to face it alone.


  1. 1 The dim side of Phnom Penh « adventures and such. Trackback on March 22, 2011 at 11:15 pm
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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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