“Men are gold, and women are white cloth. Gold, once sullied, can be cleaned and polished, while white cloth, once soiled and torn, can never be clean again.”
Srey Phal led the wheezing Barang with the wedding ring on his finger up the murky staircase heaving with the sour milk stink of bad sex to the room she had been taking her most recent clients to.
Cockroaches darted from one bundle of shadowy rubbish to another and scuttled over their feet.
Srey Phal didn’t even flinch, but the Barang jumped and shrieked like a little girl.
The music from the strip had faded to a dull, rhythmic thud like incoming artillery landing far out on the Paddy fields that she felt through her feet more than heard with her ears.
They reached her battered door, and as Srey Phal fumbled with her keys in the dark, the Barangs hands were up her mini skirt and on her backside like a swarm of fat leeches.
The door opened, and she pulled away from the Barangs blood sucking finger tips.
Her hand spider-crawled for the light switch.
It blinked once, twice, like someone being woken from a dream, the element fizzing, the bulb illuminating the room and not liking what it saw.
The sagging double bed that dominated the room was swathed in a soggy pink sheet.
It resembled a giant, severed tongue.
Brown and black water marks shaped like tentacles stretched out from a split in the ceiling, spreading across peeling and faded wallpaper the colour of viscera.
The tiny, barred window was swathed in a meaty red curtain spotted with stains.
A sheet served as a door between the bedroom and the toilet, which was little more than a soaked concrete cell with a hole and a drain and a mosquito infested water barrel.
The Barang sat on the edge of the bed, and it hissed under his weight.
He took off his glasses and tried to wipe the fog of condensation from the thick lenses with his vest front, but it just smeared the moisture, and made him squint.
His bare arms were wrinkled and flaccid, like two-day old balloons left out to wilt and die in the sun.
His pointed tongue flicked out, coating his lips in a film of grease.
Srey Phal looked at the Barang.
I hate you forever, she thought in English, which surprised her, because she never thought in English, limited as it was.
He was somehow both a Chrouk, and a Psa, a fat pig and an evil snake that shared the same contemptuous body.
His lips split open in a sad attempt at a smile, revealing yellowed teeth that resembled pieces of corn.
His swollen hands fidgeted with one another, like a pair of fighting crabs.
A finger tugged at the ring coiled around another but it was stuck tight and wouldn’t budge.
“I’m John. I’ve not done this much. Do I pay now or after? You are very beautiful.”
Srey Phal didn’t understand anything the Barang was saying except the word pay, because he was drunk and talking too fast, spitting out the words like they would kill him if he didn’t.
His sweaty hand produced a wallet, overflowing with both Dollar and Riel, the notes poking out of the cavity like the innards of a gutted fish.
Srey Phal saw the picture in the plastic sleeve, a photograph of the Barang on the bed with two small children smiling and climbing on him as if he was a tree and a plain faced woman next to him holding his hand.
Srey Phal smiled and locked the door.
“Pay Later OK,” she managed, pushing the Barang backward so he was lying on the bed.
He shuddered and began to whimper as she took down his trousers.
She kissed him on the inside of his thighs as tenderly as her hatred would allow, ignoring the vague smell of shit tingling her nostrils and noticing despite his nervousness that he had grown excited.
Srey Phal took him in her mouth, fighting the urge to bite down and tear into his flesh with her fangs and make him scream, but knowing if she was patient, like she had been before, she could hurt him more, worse than he could ever imagine.
she could curse him with a living death.
She gripped him tight with one hand and ran the sharp edge of her finger nail down him, hard enough to draw blood and make him buck, but not hard enough to make him cry out and panic.
“Ow! Careful down there sweetheart. Shit!”
“So Sorry,” Srey Phal said, feigning bashfulness, kissing him and stroking him better.
A bright ruby red bead of blood had risen to the surface of his member, and she shed her clothes the same way a snake shed its skin and climbed onto him.
He was too drunk to think about protection and Srey Phal was too quick and she let him in before he had a chance to even think about it.
He gasped and started to tremble as Srey Phal ground her hips into his, and she smiled, with the knowledge that she had just hurt the disgusting Barang in the worst way and that he was too stupid to notice.
The Barang mistook her cruel smirk as a sign of enjoyment, and started thrusting as furiously as his tired old bones would allow.
Srey Phal laughed, and remembered the first time she had died, when she was still a little girl.
Srey Phal remembered her twin sister. They used to finish each other’s sentences and they knew each other’s secrets without saying anything and they even shared the same dreams.
After Srey Phal’s father died, her mother, half mad with grief and despair, had sent Srey Phal and her Beautiful twin Srey Neary away from the family farm in Kampong Cham to Poi pet, to live with their aunt.
The aunt had auctioned the thirteen-year-old sisters’ virginities to a wealthy businessman from Phnom Penh who believed that their youthful secretions would keep him strong and powerful and give him good luck in business.
He had paid Srey Phal’s aunt $800 for a week of sex with both of them.
The hotel room he had taken them to was hot and smelly and they both tried to escape and fight with their nails and teeth, but the man was as strong as he was rich and soon they were both crying on the bed clutching themselves between the legs, trying to claw away the pain and keep their deflowered shame from spotting the mattress.
The man licked at the stains greedily, proclaiming how tasty they were.
“Chanang,” he smiled, like a man slurping soup.
The man had the warty face of an evil toad, and his breath reeked of cigarettes, and he kept saying, over and over, into their ears, “Srey sa’rt, Srey sa’rt”, Like a mantra, as if by paying this small compliment, by calling them beautiful, he could undo the great evil he had done.
By the time the man took the sisters back to Poi pet in his expensive car, the sisters had practically forgotten who they were and where they had come from.
Srey Neary Sobbed and chewed the end of a length of her own hair.
Srey Phal held her hand.
Looking at her sister had always made Srey Phal feel like she was gazing into a mirror and seeing a more beautiful version of herself, but now, the reflection was blurry and the mirror was cracked, and she feared it wouldn’t take much more until it was truly shattered.
When they returned, their evil eyed aunt said nothing.
Phal combed Neary’s sheet of night black hair and sung softly to comfort her but Neary didn’t say a word.
People around them became faceless. They moved away or turned their heads and couldn’t look Phal in the eye until the group of drunk young men arrived one afternoon spattered in mud from the paddy fields, their eye sockets hollowed out into empty tunnels by toil and rice wine.
Srey Phal looked into these tunnels and saw nothing.
Her sister hung her head.
She couldn’t even look.
The young men paid less than the businessman, because the sisters had been dirtied, but it was still more than a month’s wage for them.
Srey Phal’s aunt tried to barter, tried to bargain, but she knew better than to push men like this, men angered by poverty and offended by beauty.
It was dark when they drove the sisters far out into the countryside, further than what was arranged, and they threw Srey Phal and Srey Neary from the truck like sacks of rice and dragged them by the hair deep into the fields, their ghostly flash light leading the way like the disembodied Ahp, the spiteful spirit that haunted the countryside in the form of a floating severed head.
The mud sucked at their feet and they stumbled.
The men laughed.
They reached a twisted tree gnarled and blackened by lightning strike.
A rope went around Srey Phals neck and tightened before her scream had a chance to escape her mouth.
Her head was pushed and her face slammed into the tree trunk.
Hands were all over her, tearing at her clothes, pinching her flesh.
She tried to cover her nakedness. More hands appeared out of the dark, out of nowhere, and bent her arms behind her back.
Wine was poured over her head. She tried to suck in air.
The rope pulled tighter.
Srey Neary Shrieked and the men laughed. The sound of glass breaking shredded the air and lights filled Phals head.
When she opened her eyes again, she was on her back naked in the mud, the flash light in her face burning her eyes.
She blinked and tried to shield her vision, but someone forced her hands away.
A playfully vicious punch split her lip.
She tasted blood.
The laughter of demons filled in the strange patches of nothingness that sat between each fresh violation.
Another punch landed.
Then a kick.
A man was on her and in her. And then another.
Her crotch burned.
The sky split itself in two with a thunderclap and rain began to machine gun down.
The men howled like wolves.
She turned her face away, from the light, and from the rain, and saw her sister in a limp heap swathed in mud, a procession of trouserless men that seemed to be moulded from mud themselves cheering and drinking and awaiting their turn as a man that looked like a frenzied dog mauled her with a rain of punches in between his rabid thrusts.
The flashlight illuminated her sister’s face.
Her eyes were rolled back into their sockets.
“Som toh Bong Srey,” Phal tried to cry out, I’m Sorry sister.
Something hard came down onto Srey Phals face and something gave way inside her flesh and crumbled like old stone.
Srey Phal wondered why pieces of Kep crab shells had suddenly filled her mouth and she spat them out when she realised, they were her teeth.
When she opened her eyes again, she was in hospital.
She tried to move, but a pain as vast and as powerful as ancient Angkor filled her body and pinned it in place.
A tube like a long worm ran out of her bruised arm into a bag of blood that was hanging from a metal frame.
She didn’t understand.
She slept, for a long time, and she had terrible dreams, where a handsome Barang doctor with a pretty Khmer nurse at his side sat down and told her that Srey Neary was dead, her sister was dead, she had suffered a stroke and she had bled too much and she was dead.
The nurse, who Phal noticed looked like Srey Neary, identical in fact, then told Srey Phal that she could never have children because she was so damaged and that she was sick, and that she would always be sick, until she died. ‘You will never be well again,” the nurse said.
The nurse that looked like Srey Neary started to cry and chew her own hair, and slowly the tears that ran down her face turned to rivulets of blood and Phal noticed the nurse had no clothes on, she just cried blood and hugged her knees to her chest, and she wasn’t a woman anymore but a child, and the doctor next to her was just a lump of shit coloured mud shaped like a person slowly oozing out of a white doctor’s coat.
“I’m dead!” the nurse cried out.
When Srey Phal looked back at the nurse she had slid out of the chair onto the floor, and she was stiff and blue with bruises, her face and forehead were gashed, her eyes were rolled over white but somehow staring, her privates were torn and gory, and her once beautiful hair was now a wild bush busy with twigs and pieces of glass.
It took a long time for Srey Phal to recover and walk again.
She struggled to understand that she would never have kids, and that when she looked in the mirror it was just her reflection and not her sister staring back.
Her dreams worsened, but in a way, she began to relish them, because it was the only way she could see Neary.
In her dreams, her sister, in death, had become an Ahp, a tortured spirit of vengeance that prowled the wilderness at night for vulnerable souls to tear to pieces.
Her beautiful head would tear away from her dead body and fly away into the oil black night and Phal would chase after her, trying to grab the blue rope of innards that dangled from her sister’s neck like string from a balloon, trying to pull her back.
“Don’t go sister!” she would try to shout, but the sound wouldn’t come out. It felt like a rope was around her neck again.
Phal would wake herself screaming, not because the dream had scared her, but because it had finished, and she wouldn’t see Neary until she decided to haunt her again.
Phal had entered the hospital as a young girl and left it a broken old woman.
When she returned to Poi pet her aunt pretended she didn’t know who she was.
“Chkai Chkuot,” she had shouted, flinging stones and handfuls of dirt at her. “Go away you crazy, sick dog.”
There was only one place for girls like Srey Phal to go, and there was only one thing that they could do to stay alive long enough to die.
Srey Phal didn’t care.
She had already died a thousand times.
The Barang lay panting on the bed, a sleepy smile of satisfaction spreading across his face.
“Wow. that was amazing. You’re incredible,” he gasped, as his filth slithered down Srey Phals leg.
She had tried to be as rough as possible so her dirty sewer blood would mingle with his and kill him slowly, which was what he deserved.
She hoped he would pass on the sickness, which Phal knew to really be a curse, to his own children and family, and to his own wife, and she sincerely hoped they would all suffer as greatly as she had.
They didn’t deserve it but nor did she. That was life.
Srey Phal lit three incense sticks and kneeled in front of the golden buddha.
The pagoda was empty, and rain started whispering upon the roof.
Phal prayed for forgiveness for her own evil, and thought about all of the Barang men she had cursed over the last few years.
She Prayed to Neary’s ghost. It had been a long time since her sister had haunted her dreams and she missed her.
She wiped the tears from her face and left an offering of rice and walked out into the rain.
Srey Phal thrashed in bed. Her fever was rising, and her bones felt like they were being crunched in the jaws of invisible dogs.
No matter how much she drank, her thirst raged.
The storm had worsened with the onset of night.
The tin roof threatened to either collapse under the weight of the rainfall or peel off in the wind and fly away. The hospice shook, as if an angry devil was trying to crush it.
Rain poured down the windows, and when Phal looked out, it looked like they were at the bottom of a lake.
There was a scratching and Phal turned her head toward where the noise had come from.
There was a shadow.
A blue tendril of lightning lit up the room and Phal could see it was Neary, her naked body as pale as milk, her eyes black as onyx, her mouth a spiteful slash stuffed with teeth, her hair savage.
She walked slowly and awkwardly toward the bed, like a crab.
Like a toddler taking its first steps.
Neary reached out with long yellowed nails and peeled back the sodden sheet and climbed into the narrow hospice bed next to Phal.
Phal Shuddered at the ice of her sister’s touch and recoiled from the rotten stench of her dead breath, but inside she exploded with the warmth only love can bring.
Her sister had listened to her prayers.
She wrapped her frail arms around Neary and laid a kiss on her scabbed forehead.
Nearys’ monstrous face softened, and she started chewing on a matted quill of hair and began mewling like a happy baby.
Phal cradled her and sang softly to her.
“Knhom Srolanh romsakhnom Srey sa’rt kar slab,” Phal said.
I love you, my beautiful sister death.