Windows to the Soul
by Halbert Bai
Human skulls filled the shelves of the pagoda. I looked down. While it rained incessantly, puddles had begun to form near my feet. In the turbid pools of water, I could see remnants of torn clothing belonging to the late victims of the Khmer Rouge emerge from the ground. I walked along a marked path that guided me across sprouting vegetation. At a crossing, I stopped at a nearby tree and saw a sign that read: “Chankiri tree against which executioners beat children.” As if etched into nature as a testament to the cruelty of mankind, a shallow depression remained visible on the tree. Around the crater, red bracelets left by family members hung on pieces of decaying bark. I was lost, trapped between horror and hatred. In my reverie, I could feel droplets of rain flow down my face in place of the tears, which my transfixed body could not produce. A violent crash shook the ground and thunder echoed, creating an awful din that rang in my ears.
I ran, escaping from the burgeoning verdure. After scampering up two flights of stairs nearby, I came across an empty hallway sheltered from the wind and rain but exposed to an eerie darkness and a chilling shroud of mystery. I stood outside a prison cell. The sun suddenly illuminated a lone iron bed frame. The sun lit the way. The wind was soft on my face. I closed my eyes.
Just a few days before, our photography class travelled more than ten thousand miles across mountains, rivers, and seas to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. While the main purpose of our trip was to capture photographs of our experiences, we also learned about the lives of the Cambodian people. We were on a mission that transcended language and culture, stereotypes and preconceptions, fear and joy.
On the third day, we arrived at the Angkor Hospital. Dozens of indigent families crowded the entrance. For a brief moment, as we crossed a sandy courtyard, a pervasive stench of urine and decay assaulted my nostrils. Our guide led us past archways to the door of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and explained the history and mission of the hospital: “The hospital was founded by photographer Kenro Izu. Today is the foremost teaching hospital in Southeast Asia.” But while the lady talked, my mind strayed, entrenched in the moment. I peered through the glass door of the ICU and saw rows of white-linen beds lining the halogen-lit room. In the distance, I heard the heart-wrenching sound of a woman wailing and quickly noticed doctors and nurses gathering around her. A doctor wearing a cerulean mask closed the blinds on the door.
Unable to observe any further, I caught up with a few of my straggling friends. When I turned to look behind me, I unexpectedly noticed a girl no older than eight, wearing a yellow flower-laden blouse, walking quickly behind me. I slowed my gait, wondering if she intended to speak with me, and then the girl said, “You look like Cambodian.” I smiled. The girl looked up, grinning cheerfully. We had made a connection. Glowing with a shade of amber, her mesmerizing ebony eyes were illuminating rays of hope like stars in the night sky. Accentuated by the afternoon sun, her corneas glistened with sparks of something profound, and her pupils seemed to dilate and contract like a pulse in my head. But past her effusive smile and beautiful eyes, I could see a momentary hidden darkness shift into place as she looked ahead once more. She continued, “My mother in pain, maybe die.” The girl then ran to her beaming father who stood upright with a metal rod in hand, balancing his weight. His left leg was missing, no doubt the result of a mine placed by the Khmer Rouge. As I followed our guide back to the entrance of the hospital, I thought about the girl’s family, torn apart by illness, injury, and possibly death, yet she still found happiness in the quotidian occurrences of life.
I opened my eyes. The thunderclouds had receded, and the sun no longer remained trapped behind a wall of obscurity. Light shined through the iron bars of an open window, creating an uncanny shadow on the tiled floor. I stepped cautiously into the prison cell. Here the Khmer Rouge had tortured and killed hundreds of innocent people. Here deceits and stratagems had poisoned leaders and victims alike. Here I stood on the edge of morality peering into the depths of hell. For a short moment I was lost once more, spellbound and inundated by the vicious and gripping rays of evil. But the sound of bells tolling in the golden light of dusk rescued me from the storm of souls.
This time I did not run. I plodded down the stairs of the prison into the open air. The sun was low on the horizon, and as I walked past lush vegetation into the Killing Fields, scepters of light debouched from the thicket and dispersed across the undergrowth. After a streak of light blinded me for an instant, I stopped at a mass grave filled with rainwater glowing and reflecting in the afternoon sun. A droplet fell from an overhanging bough, roiling the water. I peered into the grave as the surface of the pool became still and saw my reflection oscillating with the soft breeze. I remembered the young girl with mesmerizing eyes. I could see her floating beside my reflection hand in hand.