“The Revolver” won second place in short fiction at the Nou Hach Literary Contest in 2006, and was published in Nou Hach Literary Journal, Vol. 3. Translation by Nou Hach Literary Association, 2006. Author Phin Santel blogs at KhmerBird.com. He is working on a new novel “The Quiet Cambodian.”
The Revolver by Phin Santel
Author’s Note: The original story was written in Khmer. It was limited to twenty-five pages and I was advised not to write about the subject of love. It was also the first time I had written a story so I wasn’t really sure what to write about. I wrote a story longer than twenty-five pages so the one I sent to the Nou Hach Literary Competition was a shorter version. It actually won the second-place prize for short fiction, making me a little nervous. “The Revolver” comes closer than the original story to what I have been facing from the first day that I started to write about my country. It’s more about me and my difficulties than the real story itself. The real story is about a rural woman and her rice field, a water pump and a revolver. Forget about me ...follow the woman. I hope that you will like her as much as I do. The fact that you came back to Cambodia didn't surprise anybody much. They already knew, since you decided to begin your studies of Khmer literature in Paris, that one day for sure you would return to Cambodia. You ask your parents' permission since you won't be able to help them in the restaurant anymore. Smey and Deth, your youngest sister and brother, have promised they will replace you. Except Caroline, you don't know how you can say goodbye to her. Having gone through all these years together, it is impossible to imagine how much you will be lost without her. “Are you leaving now?” she asks in front of the boarding gate at Charles De Gaulle Airport. “Yes,” you answer spontaneously. “Without me?” she asks. “Because you can't go!” you say. “How do you know I cannot go? You didn’t ask me yet?” she insists. “Because I know the answer,” you reply. Don’t cry, Caroline. You cried already once when you were born. You are not going to cry again and again for your whole life. You might cry again when you die but not this time. At least not in front of me... “Write to me when you arrive in Cambodia?” she requests after releasing you from her arms. “I think it is better if we forget each other,” you tell her instead of answering her question. “Do you think so?” “Yes.” You turn your back and leave. You let her cry in your mother's arms. It is not true. You will never forgot her. How could you forget someone you’d made love to a thousand times? But Paris is too cold. It is difficult to live alone. She will have a lot of chances to find some- one else. It is sad to live with such promises. With time, these prom- ises would be forgotten and betrayed. Time passes, nothing remains the same. Eternity is nothing but a lie. We should not believe in eternity. Sometimes saying goodbye to someone doesn’t always mean goodbye. Caroline will understand this one day. You are very curious to know the true Cambodia. You have been watch ing Cambodia from far away, in every detail through all its history and literature. You believe it is not enough to know a country from reading the newspapers or listening to the radio or watching television. A lot of things remain hidden. It is for this reason that you left Paris. You have already informed Vincent who is currently in Cambodia. Vincent is an old friend. Your parents escaped to France in 1975 because of his father Monsieur Nicolae's help. Monsieur Nicolae and your father worked together at the French Embassy before the war began. The two fam- ilies remained emotionally close since then. Vincent picks you up at the airport as you wished. You are very ex- hausted, due to fifteen hours on the plane and six hours of time differ- ence between Paris and Phnom Penh. Vincent brings you to his own apart- ment on Sisowath Quay. You wake up late the next morning. Suddenly you feel the heat of the sun. It is something you have been dreaming about for the last twen- ty years. You hurry to get out of bed. You step out on the balcony to bask in the sunshine. You cannot express how excited you are to be back again in your own country. Vincent has been living in Cambodia for four years. His mission for the French Embassy is finished but he doesn't want to return to France. He,after all, has fallen in love with a Cambodian woman. This does not surprise you because you know your friend very well. Vincent has a great deal of knowledge about Khmer culture. He, at the moment, works at the French Cultural Center in Phnom Penh. They get married three months later, after you arrived in Cambodia. They celebrate with a traditional Khmer wedding. Thyda, his wife, is very beautiful. She has dark shiny skin. She looks like a little girl but not quite as small. You find her very cute. The two of them seem made for each other. Your parents and Vincent's parents fly a long way from Paris to Phnom Penh to join his wedding. Your father wants to introduce you to some good daughters of his old friends. But you tell him you are just twenty-five years old, too young to get married. You want to remain like a wild man for some more time. A few days after the wedding, Vincent and Thyda go to Europe for their honeymoon. They let you live alone in their apartment on Sisowath Quay. Your parents also go back to France because they are concerned about their restaurant. You have to live alone with your solitude. It is said that solitude is good for a writer. He can imagine so many things from solitude. But for you nothing goes well.You have been in Phnom Penh for three months; still you have nothing seriously to write about. You dream of being able to write a love story about Cambodia. You were ashamed when you searched all the world's libraries but could find only books on Cambodia about genocide, stories of blood and survival. You want the world to find a different book about Cambodia. You came here for this reason. You came to this country to write a book. “What kind of book are you writing?” asks a woman one day. “A love story,” you reply. “A love story? What kind of love story? Do you think that love exists in this country?” “Yes, love exists in the heart of every human being. Wherever a person exists, there is a heart. And when there is a heart, there is love. Isn't this enough for you to believe love exists in Cambodia?” You question her in return. “Can I read your story?” “I haven’t written it yet. I don't know what kind of love story to write ...” What kind of love story can you write? Every day, for three months, you find only accident reports and police reports about murders and crimes. The country is still suffering from poverty. People need to survive. They don’t have time to think about love or any other emotional engagement. There are only a few teenagers and other people who can close their eyes and remain ignorant of all the depressing events occur- ring in society. It is said that Cambodia provides what you want. You can make love with all kinds of women. You can invite the beer girls or Karaoke girls for “night soup,” a secret code of invitation if you don't dare ask a girl directly for sex. You can also have a waitress from a restaurant in your bed if you have the right contacts. You can even ask a high school student or a market vendor to your room if you have the right contacts. You could also have a singer or movie star illuminate your night if you have the right contacts. It depends on how much you have in your poc- ket. This country is crazy about money. You try to escape and avoid all these things. It is hard, after all, to imagine something else. The surrounding environment makes you feel completely lost. When you get lost, only women can say who you are and what to do. Women are the mothers of everything. A woman can give you thousands of reasons to live, especially when she moves her hands and caresses your hair. A woman can make you feel alive or make you angry. You don't wait for the big thing from her. You just wait until she puts her finger in her mouth. It was very simple. Without women, you are hopeless. You are zero. You find nothing to write about in this country; but from women’s naked bodies, you find thousands of mysteries to discover.At least you can find a story from every woman that you make love with. You begin to show up frequently at the bars downtown, especially the Heart of Darkness, a very small, pleasant bar at the corner of Pasteur Street.“Would you like to buy me a drink?” A young, lovely woman asks one evening. “Sorry? What did you just say?" You ask in surprise. You don't believe what you've just heard. It is rare to hear a real Cambodian woman ask a guy to buy her a drink. She doesn’t even look like any of the prostitutes that you know here. “Buy me a drink!” She repeats. “OK.” You order a whiskey for her. “Is this seat taken?” “Hmm... Not really... it could be yours if you'd like to sit down.” “Oh, I see. Would you like to dance?” “With you?” “Yes with me, would you like to dance with me?” How can you refuse a pretty woman’s request? She comes from nowhere and appears in front of you like an angel. She treats you like someone she has known for a hundred years. You feel very passionate about making love to her. She is like a starving wild animal, gone without food for three months. However, there is something she doesn't tell you. She doesn't tell you that she is the mistress of a Taiwanese gangster. She doesn't tell you that she goes out at night to get vengeance on her man. It is be- cause he has abandoned her for one week to visit his wife in Taiwan. She is sad and has an emergency need. You never think that she would be able to endanger you. It is as people say: "Women are dangerous and the most beautiful women are the most dangerous." It starts from there, in the Heart Darkness, that you get to know Sam. He lets you live. If it had not been for him, you probably would have been killed without being able to say a single word. It is not good to deceive a woman who belongs to someone else. A woman, whether here or there, cannot be shared. If you want to try, you will be killed in silence. This is the evening the gangster returns to see his mistress. This woman, she does not love you at all, or at least she is not willing to protect you. She leaves with her master without saying anything. You never be- lieved that this woman could leave you without a single word. Sam re- ceives his boss’s order to eliminate you from this world. He takes you to a place far from the city. He waits for the right moment to shoot you with his revolver. You already believe that you are going to die with- out being able to say anything. But we die only once; why not resist, a least with words before the end? “I cannot die!!!” You shout with all your strength. “Why? Why can’t you die? You are playing around with someone else’s woman. You must die. Isn’t it justifiable, no?” Sam asks you with a smile. “It’s because I haven’t done what I want to do yet.” “What do you want to do, precisely?” “Write a story!!!” “What kind of story do you think you can write about this country?” He asks you. “A love story.” “Love story? What kind of love story? Do you think that love exists in this country? Do you believe that deceiving someone else’s woman is a love story? Is that what you think?” “No, no... It was a mistake. I made a mistake. It is true that I am going to die. To die today or tomorrow is nothing important. But before I die, I want to at least finish writing one story.” “Do you believe that you actually can finish one?” “I’ve already got some ideas.” “When can I read it?” “If you kill me now, how can I write it?” You don't know if Sam can wait to read your love story. You don't know if you will or will not be able to finish this story one day. The important thing is that he doesn't kill you. He lets you live. This good man later becomes a very sincere friend. He has worked for the Taiwanese gangster for a few months. You ask him why he chooses this job. He tells you that he doesn’t have a choice. He has a lot of debt to pay after having lost so many soccer bets. The boss has lent him a sum of money to pay them off. It is also for this reason that his wife Sim comes to look for him. He hasn’t sent money or any news back home for the past three months.His wife has been worried about him. Sam and Sim grew up together in the same family. Sam was an orphan. His parents were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Sim’s family found Sam on the street while they were re- turning to the village after 1979. Sam has lived with Sim’s family since then. Sam can do everything an ordinary man can usually do. He is a ser- ious man.It is because of his qualities that Sim’s family married him to their daughter when he reached twenty. Sim, with the arrangement from her parents and also with her will, got married so young. She was only eighteen. She didn't know anything about love. She didn't know what she should do after getting married.. Sam could not get close to Sim for the first three months. Sam fell from the bed every night after trying to get close to his wife. You don't know how Sam could make love to his wife. You don't know what he did so that Sim finally agreed to make love. You have heard it said how this happens to some rural women. It's because they don't know anything about love. Sim knows how to grow rice. She knows how to raise cows. She knows how to clean the house. She knows how to cook.Moreover she's good at it. She wakes up early in the morning at four a.m. to cook. She knows how to make other things. But there are some things she doesn't know. She doesn't know why she's been sad since her husband left her to work in the city, since he hasn't returned home. She doesn't even realize that she is sad. “Do you love him, your husband?” “I don't know... I don't know what to say. I don't know about love... I don't know how to talk about it... how to love...” “But why do you come look for him?” “I worry about him.” “So then, that means you think about him a little I imagine?” “Yes, I think about him all the time, all night long. I want him to come back home. I want him close to me to help grow rice, to raise cows and to do other work.” “But it doesn't have anything to do with your wanting to kiss him, for example? Rather to reassure yourself that he still loves you? Or to tell you his feelings in sweet words of love?” “I don't know about any of that. He never spoke to me of love. Nor I…I don't know how to say big things. I don't know...” “I see that you love him a lot, this man. I can see it in you, this love. Why can’t you feel anything? It exists in you, I'm certain of it.” “I don't know. I want him back home with me. I also need a water pump.” “Why is a pump necessary?” “It’s because there's not enough rain, not enough water in the rice field. We need a machine to pump water. Otherwise, the rice will die.” Sam leaves home because the rice paddy doesn't yield enough rice to sup- port his family. He starts working in the city two years ago, in a car garage. He sends all the money he earns to his wife every month. He is a great man. It is his mistake betting on soccer matches. You believe he did it to return home with a bit of money in his pocket. He doesn't know that soccer is just a great choice for loosing all his money. There are a lot of people in this country and many who are obses- sed with games. They are poor and would like to have a little more money. Sam leaves his wife with you without telling you what he is up to or where he is going. You only know that he has a very important task to finish tonight. He says it will be his last job, his last payback from his boss. If he is successful, he will be returning to the countryside with his wife. After her husband leaves, Sim cannot remain calm. Her concern be- comes more and more intense. She is afraid that something unfortunate will happen to her husband. She walks from right to left, from left to right. She descends and ascends the stairs many times. She comes to you asking the same questions: “Where is he now? What's taking him so long?” You don't know how to help this woman. You don't want her crying either.Suddenly you think of a place you hope may calm her down. You take her to Dangkal Temple, a place where people usually pray for happi- ness and blessings for those they love. Sim does this. She prays for Sam. It is said that the Dangkal diety is a good lord. Whatever people ask for comes true because of the power of the Dangkal god. You don't believe in gods; but when you see Sim pray, you pray for her. You hope that Sam will return safely and in good health. Then he can take his wife back to the countryside. After prayers are done, you take her to the old market to buy gro- ceries so she can prepare a meal. You don't know what to do to make her happy. You think that cooking will reduce her anxiety about her husband. In the kitchen, you try asking many questions to keep her occupied. You find out this woman doesn't know how to speak her mind. She is very shy. Every time you ask her a question, her face turns red. She is very shy when speaking about love. You find out a lot of funny things, especially when she tells you about pushing her husband off the bed every night when he first tried to touch her. This way you learn a lot about their time together early in their marriage. But you cannot fool her for long with conversation... After the meal, she is doing nothing but walking around, going to watch the people down along Sisowath Quay. She goes up and down the stairs looking for Sam multiple times. Her husband is not back yet. You drive her in the car Vincent left for you. You tour the city to calm her down a little. She is looking for her husband on every street. She does- n't get bored looking at every street corner, looking for her husband. She doesn't stop even one minute to rest. You can see it in her eyes, the deep worry she has for her husband. You bring her to the Heart of Darkness, the place where you first met Sam. But he is not there. Where is he? It is a question you cannot answer. At two A.M. you finally manage to get Sim back home. She is tired but doesn't want to go to bed. She is sleeping in the front room waiting to open the door for her returning husband. You don't want to sleep either. You want to write something about this woman. She touches you deeply, with her silence, her unspeak- able feelings she doesn't know how to express. She keeps everything in- side. If you were her, at least you would be able to say something. But she doesn’t know how to communicate feelings. But what could we speak about, love? Hours pass; you find no words either. Can this woman's feelings be ex- pressed in words? Do we have some words to exchange that could relieve her concern? It is too hard, you find, for her to keep everything suppressed.You keep searching for the exact words until someone knocks on the door. Sim wakes up and goes before you to open it. There is Sam, finally. There he is at the door, smiling. Thank god he is still alive. Moreover he is grinning. His smile is enough to assure you that his task has been suc- cessfully. Sim hugs her husband tightly. She tells Sam repeatedly: “Don't leave me alone anymore... don't leave me alone anymore.” Sam wants to leave immediately, to take a taxi and head back to the countryside. You tell him to wait a moment. Then, you go get some money from your room. You give him 200 dollars. He refuses at first. You knew he would so you tell him that you are going to write a story about his wife. It is the price you will pay for her information. You believe that 200 dollars will be enough to buy a water pump for the rice field. In return Sam gives you his revolver. You don’t want the gun; but if you refuse, he will not accept your money. “What kind of story are you writing about me?” Sim asks before they leave. “A love story.” “A love story? What kind of love story? Do you think that you can write a love story about me?” “Yes, love exists in everyone's heart. Wherever there is a human being,there is a heart. And with a heart, there is love. Is this not enough to make you believe there is also love in you?” “Can I read your story?” “I wrote it yesterday. I must reread it and correct some mistakes. I am going to bring it with me when I visit you in the countryside.” “Don't forget then to bring it with you. I want to read...,” Sim requests very sincerely. The next morning you go for a cup of coffee as usual in the restaurant down along Sisowath Quay. You find out by chance just glancing at the front page of a newspaper. It reads “Chinese Man Murdered Last Night”. He was shot three times by a revolver. It reminds you of something. You check the bullets still in the revolver that Sam gave you. There are exactly three left.