by Kaitlyn Newbery
Breath in, breath out. Breath in, breath out. I can do this. My face presses so closely to the fan that my hair threatens to catch in the blades. It’s Day 26. Nine days, only nine days. Then I can go home. Go back to my family and friends. Go back to my food and culture. Nine days until I can sleep under the covers at night. Nine days until I can take a hot shower. Nine days until I can hold a full English conversation. Nine days. I close my eyes and sigh. When I open them, I survey, for the millionth time, my bare surroundings. Tile floor. Tile walls. Tile ceiling. The room is a box, a cage, a cell. Only a bed, spare mattress, and a wicker shelf shade the glossy prison. I look down at the body sitting on the mattress with its back against the cool tile wall—the body I once considered my own. However, this person could not possibly be me. Not anymore. She’s gone places my legs would never take me. She’s seen sights my eyes would never allow in. She’s touched filth my hands would never reach for.
Yet, this body must be me. Maybe not the me I knew before, but some twisted version of my former self. After twenty-six days, my body has grown accustomed to the feel of sitting on this mattress for hours. I welcome the breeze from the fan that plasters my hair against the tile and choreographs a dance with my Bible pages. For twenty-six days, this has been the life I have chosen—a life lived in reflective silence. For twenty-six days, I have spent four to fourteen hours a day alone with God. Twenty-six days, 624 hours, 37,440 minutes, 2,246,400 seconds. Alone.
I look down at the skirt clinging to the legs that claim to be mine. Dirty oval-shaped stains spot the once white fabric—the shapes of little orphan toes belonging to little feet rushing towards me as I enter the orphanage. Dirty little feet, carrying dirty little Cambodian children, run full speed into my arms. My first instinct is to flee, but for some reason unknown to me, I kneel down and open my arms wide to hug these filthy children. Their teeth are free of tooth-brushing, their clothes are filthy rags, lice live in their hair, and their rank smell is almost overpowering, yet still I hold them. One by one, I pick them up and draw them close to me. I dance them around and tell them stories in a language they cannot understand. Tan little fingers with jagged, dirty fingernails reach for my own pale, manicured hands. The little girl sitting on my lap, whose name I will never know, plays a hand game with me. It is a simple game, with a simple Khmer song. Her once white Winnie the Pooh shirt is now a dingy grey color. It’s understandable: she’s worn it day in and day out for at least these four weeks. Yet, as her innocent little voice sings in rhythm with the slapping and clapping, I do not see her filth. I see a beautiful little girl.
I circle the oval stain on my skirt with my thumb, remembering the little feet that put it there. I can easily wash my clothes, but the love mark those children have left on my heart is permanent. My initial repulsion saddens me now. I can easily wash my hands, change my clothes, leave these children to their fates; their love is an undeserved gift. Yes, they are filthy, but they merely wear on the outside what I hide on the inside—uncleanliness. They humble me.
My eyes drift down to my bare feet, now dark save for white flip flop marks—either tan lines or the only clean parts left on my feet. Immediately, I am back at the dump that branded those marks into place. My nostrils flare with the smells steaming from the endless mountains of waste. The Asian sun is a roaring lion; its breath warms my neck with each snarl. A drop of sweat trickles slowly down my cheek, leaving its mark where a tear longs to trail. Is it wrong to cry for these people, though I have done nothing to help them? It seems hypocritical to me. I notice a sign sticking up in the waste that simply reads, “Wealth.”
Ironic. The two hundred families living here spread tarps over sticks and call it home. I find it hard to see the wealth of it all. However, as I look at the dirt-covered faces, the cheeks that have forgotten how to smile, the hearts hardened over years of scavenging, I see souls longing for something more. Something more than mere survival. I see that what I consider wealth and what God considers wealth are two different concepts. Maybe that sign had it right all along.
I turn my attention to a little Cambodian boy, his belly larger than a beach ball. He looks about 7 years old; however, when I ask him his age, he tells me he does not know. I suppose birthdays are not a big deal to someone who isn’t sure of his next meal, and each new day, each new year, is another survived in hell. Why count them? Before I can talk with him any longer, a garbage truck rolls in. Men, women, and children all gather around it, scooping out possibilities. The truck dumps, rearranges, and flattens the rubbish, with little regard to the people surrounding it. An Australian man turns to me to tell me that just last week, a man was killed by the trucks. “That’s the price you pay to survive here,” he reasons. Survival. What is survival in a place like this?
I now sit safe and secure on my mattress; a fan dissolves the former heat and my discomfort. Now separate from the scene, I can hardly believe that those were real people, real souls. Tears threaten to fall. I breathe deeply and close my eyes. Too many unshed tears. My throat constricts, begging those tears not to fall. I simply sit, overcome. I have allowed these eyes to see many things over these past twenty-six days, but not to cry. With my eyes closed, the darkness transforms into images of the past four weeks, jumping from one to the other like a poorly edited independent film. I again see the women, no, young girls standing on the corners late Saturday evening. Their skimpy tops and short skirts advertise like flashing billboards. Suggestive smiles and flirtatious motions convey an air of confidence: however, their anxious eyes reveal otherwise. Men older than their fathers saunter towards them: vultures, circling their prey, waiting for the pristine time to swoop in and devour. Without notice, the choppy editing of my internal film changes scenes to the streets outside the temple. Deformed children and dejected women rush me, hoping for my charity. I was told not to give to them, told that if I did I would be swarmed. I wait until no one is looking and sneak 1,000 Riel to a toothless, blind, deformed woman and slip away before anyone else notices me.
Again, my vision shifts to the streets of Psar Neak Meas, my home. I no longer see people and faces, but rather shoes and dirt. I cannot look up, I dare not look up at the people who pass me. Eye contact with women is acceptable; they either smile or scowl at my presence in their territory. However, it’s the men that I dare not look in the face. Oh, they smile, but not with looks I care to see. I try to block out their taunts and catcalls. I ignore the whistling, grateful I do not understand Khmer. The film playing inside ends on an image of one face: a face that makes the taunts, the judgment, the pain, the grief all worth it. I open my eyes, now back on my mattress, and turn on my camera to scroll my pictures, finally resting on the picture in my mind — Nhien To. To was my baby. While the other children were fascinated by my presence, she and I connected immediately and deeply. This baby, this sweet, sad little girl, makes everything worth it. She has, and is, hope.
She is what keeps me from becoming numb. She is the bridge from indifference to compassion. To me, she is Cambodia. Because of her, others I pass are not just faces, they are souls. Because of her, I cry. My eyes sting and my throat burns with weeks of unshed tears. I tenderly touch Nhien To’s face frozen on my camera screen and my tears now gently, comfortingly, fall onto my hand. I understand the weight of my task in that moment. In 10 years, will Nhien To, too, stand on that street corner?
Nine days. Only nine days?
Kaitlyn Newbery is an adjunct English professor at University of the Cumberlands. She enjoys exploring questions about her faith through metaphors and storytelling.