When I think of my life in the forest, I think of falling rain. Even now, many years later, I cannot listen to the slow, steady sound of rain without being drawn back to that time. The sound of rain brings to my mind an image: I see a group of men sitting in a circle, not exchanging words but only the warmth and security of each other’s bodies, and waiting in silence a seeming eternity for the gods to intervene and change their fate.
When I think of my life in the forest, I think of my thin body fighting against a wind sweeping across Cambodia like a sad human moan. Whenever I heard the wind coming, I’d kneel down on the ground so the wind wouldn’t knock me over. Because to get back up would take all the strength I had. Near the end of my time in the forest, I feared that just one more wind—so innocent, so benign, so comforting under normal circumstances—would kill me.
When I think of my life in the forest, I think of hunger, the only reality, burning like alcohol on a wound. The forest was rain and wind and hunger. But more than that it was a place of suffering and, ultimately, a place of transformation.
After Our Encounter With the soldiers who tried to kill us, the ten of us walked painfully and silently through the forest. We came to a cave where we took shelter. There we cleaned each other’s wounds by wrapping a stick with a piece of cloth and plunging water into the wounds. This caused agonizing pain and our collective shouts reverberated into the empty sky, falling on the deafened ears of God and a humanity too far away or too indifferent to hear. We wondered if the world knew what was happening in Cambodia. Surely someone would learn of our fate and come to help us.
We stayed in the cave for several weeks and debated what we should do. At first we thought we would leave the forest and fight the Khmer Rouge. But after days without proper food or water or medicine, our strength began to dissipate. We thought perhaps after we were healed we would try to escape to Thailand.
In Those Early Days, we sustained ourselves on the food we had taken from the soldiers, which was not much more than rice, and whatever leaves and berries we found nearby. We took turns going out to look for food and water, but mostly we stayed inside the cave. In that darkened atmosphere, there was little indication of night or day and we lost our sense of time. In the dark we could barely see each other’s faces. It was as though each man’s form dissolved and disappeared and all that was left was his voice and the energy escaping from his body. Our conversations then were like talking to ourselves. We talked of fear, hunger, and pain. We cried for ourselves and for Cambodia. We listened to the sound of the dripping water that had carved this enormous hole in the rock. We sat and thought about the future.
As a boy, my brothers and I had explored caves. But living in a cave was different. It was like going into the center of the earth or to the depths of my own mind with all the images it contained. It was like returning to the beginning of time. Indeed, my companions and I were starting life again with nothing at all. We were stripped to the nothingness of Buddhist monks or dead men.
We did have each other, though, and we were fortunate to have two doctors in our group. They knew how to find medicinal plants in the forest to heal our wounds. Honey became our salve, certain leaves stopped the flow of blood, and bark became the painkiller for our broken bodies. The doctors made an antibiotic by mixing a particular root with water in an indentation in a rock. We took turns sipping it and it made us feel better.
Both doctors were light-skinned Cambodians of Chinese descent. Like the other men they wore glasses. The other men were much older than I. One was a primary school teacher. He was a man about fifty years old, small and soft-spoken, meek, even. There were two professors. One, a teacher of math, was thin with a happy disposition. In the early days he tried to make us laugh at our misfortune, though he was seldom successful. The other professor was a teacher of philosophy.
Two of the men were engineers, one of whom was very dark-skinned, even darker than most Cambodians. Among us also were a major and a lieutenant—or at least that is what they told the Khmer Rouge. When I came to know them, I thought perhaps they were not really officers. The major could not speak French, as all well-educated people could, and he could not read the map very well. But their former identity made no difference. In the forest we were merely men, equal, as the Khmer Rouge had wanted us to be, equal in our sadness and misfortune.
Though I lived with these men for a year, I never learned their names, nor did they know mine. It was not important to us. We referred to each other as “doctor” or “teacher” or whatever we were. I was the youngest and was referred to as “Tooch,” little brother, as I had been called in my family.
After A Month, Our Wounds were almost healed and our supply of food had run out. We left the cave in search of food and water and hoped we might make it into Thailand. In our discussion of who should lead us, the major spoke loudly. He was mean and strict and liked taking charge. After some debate, the major convinced us, in his authoritative voice, that he should lead us because he had a compass and a map. At the time this made sense, though we came to find that these objects of science offered us no direction. They knew nothing of the danger of mines, the desperation of men, or the strange situations that would confront us.
At that time we were near the Tonle Sap and about a hundred kilometers east of Thailand. We knew a national highway led to Thailand, but of course it would be heavily patrolled and dangerous. The only other way to Thailand was through a dense forest over the high Phnom Kravanh mountains to the west. That is the way we began.
We had become used to the relative security of the cave and felt vulnerable in the forest. The vegetation was dense and this, combined with our weakness, caused us to trip easily. Falling and bumping our unhealed wounds caused us great pain. The thick brush made numerous hiding places for enemies. Our eyes and ears were on guard every minute for the black uniforms of Khmer Rouge soldiers or the slow, heavy step of tigers. From the time Cambodians are small, they hear stories of the forest. We have folktales of people being abandoned in the forest. The stories tell of struggles to avoid its darkness because that is where wild animals, malarial mosquitoes, and evil Neak Ta dwell. I felt like a character in one of those stories.
We had trouble sleeping without shelter. The nights were cruel with no bed to lie on, no blankets to cover us, and no light but that of the moon. The nights were cold and full of danger—tigers and snakes. And there were dangers inside our heads too—nightmares and the seductions of death.
We spent our days walking west looking for water and food. We lived on fruit, leaves, and potatoes. We dared not start a fire lest we call attention to ourselves. I tried not to think about anything except food and water. We believed it would take two weeks to reach Thailand, but the way was not easy. For one thing, we didn’t have enough food. Often we got lost and would stop to argue about which way to go. We had many quarrels. Some of the men wanted to throw away the guns we had taken from the soldiers because they were heavy, and we argued about that. We would walk in one direction for a while and then hear mines exploding. Or we’d come upon a Khmer Rouge camp, then turn and go in the opposite direction. It was exhausting and discouraging.
My efforts to think only about my physical survival began to falter. I began thinking about my family all the time. I remember whispering, “Where is my mother?” When I did so, a song came to me and I began to sing: “Oh mother, oh mother, I wish you were by my side.” Cambodian people cry when they hear that song. It is from a sad movie about children lost in the forest. The children call for their mother and their voices reach the trees, reach the leaves, reach the air, reach everything except their mother’s ears.
I knew that eventually I would have to accept my circumstance and somehow find peace. Away from the others, I asked the sky: “Before, I had a house, a family, food. Now I have nothing. Who has put me in the forest to live naked and hungry? Where is my family? How can I survive? Is it better to die? What fate awaits me?” Though I had no answers and I found no peace, I knew one thing. It was not my time to die.
When we did not have the strength to walk, we sat quietly in thought—or without thought if our thoughts were too much to bear. After being in the forest for weeks with so little food, we did not have the energy to do more. Sometimes we sat together and drew maps in the earth with a stick to help us decide which way to go. Each man told the others what he believed was the right way. No one knew for sure. We followed our intuition more than anything. But our intuition was often wrong and our way was blocked by soldiers or by nature. Sometimes we sat alone and drew pictures of food and smiling faces and the names of those we loved. We would look at our drawings, meditating, and finally sweep them away with a brush of our hands so we would not die of longing.
* * *
At That Time I Had Not Yet accepted my forest home. I felt my humanness too much and felt set apart from the life of nature. But this attitude changed suddenly one day when I climbed a tree to pick some fruit and there, in the top of the tree, I saw some fish. These fish, known as ksan, were in a pool created by a huge round plant that attaches itself to the tree and fills with water when the Tonle Sap overflows into the forest.
I looked at the fish a long time. Finally I said to myself, “If fish can live in a tree through some force of nature, I can live wherever fate puts me.” I then came to accept the circumstances of my life.
Living With Nature In The forest with no house, no bed, nothing, can be very difficult unless you recognize its beauty and surrender to it. After I surrendered to my fate, I saw my world differently. I saw the beauty of its order. I saw the artful arrangement of rough red leaves on delicate green ferns, flowers in vases of stone, berries in perfect geometric patterns—the whole of it reflected in hundreds of dewdrops. Everywhere, especially in the rainy season, new was springing from old, life was springing from death.
After I surrendered to my fate, I saw my world differently.
That Cambodian forest was beautiful. It was grand to have a house covered in green carpet soft on bare feet. Marble walls. Carved staircases. I was provided with paintings and sculpture. There was music—symphonies of birdsong, wind in the trees, harmonies and choirs. I wondered if those animals knew they were in harmony with one another or if each believed he was alone. In the forest there was theater and drama, too, the whole story of life acted out for me. I was the audience for the rituals of mating, migration, growth, the fight for survival, death, and rebirth.
I found many valuable things in the forest, even sapphires and emeralds. One day the engineer found some diamonds in a rock. He got very excited and started jumping up and down until his pants fell down. The professor of philosophy said to me, “Look at that man. How does he have the energy to jump up and down? How does happiness create such energy? How does power come from paying attention to a rock? Why doesn’t he go look for a leaf to eat instead of jumping at the sight of a rock?” We both wanted to laugh but neither of us had the energy.
He Was Right, Of Course. When you live in the forest, diamonds lose their value. They are no more precious than anything else. It is all the same: the life, the value, of everything is equal, is as important as the next. Even my human life was equal to that of a fly eaten by a frog in the eyes of a tiger who knows only hunger, which was the same burning hunger as mine.
This same hunger, though, could blind me to the forest’s beauty. When I was desperately hungry or thirsty, beauty had little value. I remember a waterfall cascading into a pool of water lilies that was extraordinarily beautiful. Yet I looked at that waterfall and saw only water to drink— water that would keep me alive a little longer so my heart would continue to beat. Life meant my voice could create another song, my mind could have another memory of a day lived upon this earth. I drank that water and received another chance to discover the meaning of my life. Water made that possible.
This idea of the value of food and water was introduced to me by my father. But it was only after living in the forest that I understood. I remember my father talking to us while we picnicked one day. He playfully said to us, “Does anyone here see any gold?”
We all looked around and said no. And my father said: “You must see it. It is everywhere!”
“Where?” we all cried.
“You are sitting on it. You are eating it.”
“What do you mean, Father?”
“It is simple and easy to understand,” he said. “This ground and your food are gold. They are the most valuable things. Why? Because the ground gives us food to put into our bodies and this allows us to live and have children and go on into the future. That is gold. Life is gold, more valuable than anything.”
My father, he knew. He knew everything.
So You See I Began to change. I believe the point when I was transformed came on the day I began to understand the chatter of birds.
This happened while I was lying on the ground, looking up at the sky, listening to the songs of a bird. I wondered, “If I sang like a bird, could I fly like a bird? Is it their music that gives them flight?”
I watched as a mother bird left her nest to find food for her young. I heard her say, “I think I will take that leaf for my children. There, there, little ones. I have enough for all of you.” I allowed myself to become that bird and soon I was flying across that great expanse of sky—a sky without soldiers to stop me, without borders, without hidden dangers. I felt the sweetness of freedom and was released from my sorrow.
When I returned I looked at those birds, not really with my eyes, but as if through a telescope. And when I lay on the ground and looked at the earth, I saw everything from a different perspective: close enough to experience the slow, peaceful crawl of a worm, close enough to see its· heartbeat and its struggle—close enough, that is, to feel compassion for a worm. After I felt that compassion, I was not the same. I was adopted by nature. I was now part of nature.
Bree Lafreniere was a Peace Corps volunteer who in the Solomon Islands. She met Cambodian refugee Daran Kravanh in 1992 while working at the Refugee Assistance Program of Tacoma, Washington.
Daran Kravanh survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. He is presently working to bring democracy to Cambodia and is the leader of the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party, founded in 2007.
From Music through the Dark: A Tale of Survival in Cambodia by Bree Lafreniere. Copyright © 2000 University of Hawaii Press. Reprinted by permission of University of Hawaii Press.