I can hear them breathing . My brother at the back of the makeshift stage. My son at the lighting console. Chantrea the length of a hand away. I have always been able to hear people breathing, hearts beating. It comes from years of lying quietly as a child, with nothing but the sound of my own breath, my own heart.
The platform smells of sawdust and paint and the cigarettes Daniel smoked as he wielded his saw and brush. The air still bristles with the sound of his hammer, his many expletives. Without him, we would not be here. We would not have a stage, an audience, a second chance.
I deepen my own breathing. Empty my mind. My years with the monks still serve me, still underpin my life.
The chapei wails in the small space. It is a startling sound if you are not used to it, like the cry of a wounded tiger. I flinch as the words fall from Chamroeun’s mouth, harsh and hard. Words that can twist whatever is straight in you, break whatever is whole.
A light creeps across the floor, up the black painted steps to where I sit. I am leaning forward, an elbow on each knee, my hands hanging loose, my left foot on one step, my right on another. An
unlikely Cambodian pose but my son insisted.
I wait for the tiger to slink away before I speak.
Solid. That was my first impression of Canada.
Houses built of brick and stone. Sidewalks. Paved streets.
Even the clothes people were wearing seemed sturdy: parkas and long woolen coats, knitted hats and fur-rimmed hoods, thick boots that looked like they could walk on the moon.
The light shifts to Chantrea and leaves me in darkness. Her voice is strong and delicate, as supple as a bamboo leaf, her French formal, which means she must have studied at a lycée back home.
Why have I forgotten this about her?
She auditioned to sing with our band once. We were not expecting her as she had not called or signed the sheet we had posted at the Cambodian Centre. She started to sing while we were putting our instruments away, while we all had our backs to her. A traditional song. Stunned by the strength of her voice, the depth of her sadness, we stayed where we were, sitting on our instrument cases or kneeling on the floor, afraid to move, to turn around, to break the spell. She disappeared as soon as she finished, without leaving her name or number. Chamroeun called her the ghost singer, claimed he was in love with her. I never told him what I knew.
It was still dark when I woke up my first morning in Montreal. I was lying on the floor, beside the bed my sponsors had bought for me, tangled in a comforter that smelled inexplicably of lemons. I must have been jet-lagged, not that I would have known the difference, after so many years of deprivation.
I was not hungry so I made myself a pot of tea. Figured I would buy some noodles from a street vendor later. I pulled on the parka, the boots, the hat and mitts I had been given. Opened the door to a blast of cold air. Went down the icy steps that wound from the third floor to the ground.
It was lighter now. The street was empty and I wondered where all the people were, unfamiliar with the concept of sleeping in, of a day, like Sunday, being different from another.
The wind was cold and sharp. Slashing through my parka like a blade through bamboo. I did not mind the cold – it was just nature being nature. I remembered a different kind of cold, back home, when my brothers and I were digging ditches. We often had to sleep where we were working, too far from camp to return there. At the mercy of the elements and the mosquitoes. Burrowing into the damp slope of the ditch to avoid the water pooled at the bottom. Shivering in the mud while our guards laughed and smoked cigarettes on the embankment.
The chapei wails again but the light stays on me. My brother weaves my words and Chantrea’s into his song, sharpening their edges, pressing them into my flesh.