From the outside, the hut looked like all the others, surrounded by rice paddies and winding dirt roads. It was nestled at the edge of a grove, in the middle of a dusty yard. Wooden stilts elevated it a few feet off the ground — a measure to protect the people inside from monsoons. The only way in was up an unsteady ladder, under which a few stray dogs had made their home on that late summer day.
Inside, the hut’s one room functioned as both a kitchen and bedroom, a warehouse and gathering space. There were no windows, so the only light that shone in was through the cracks under the door. The place felt cramped, and the walls were cluttered with things the inhabitants had collected over the years: posted flyers and whitening cream ads and empty plastic bags.
At the center of it all sat a Cambodian woman, her legs folded beneath her on a straw mat. She looked to be in her 70s, with cropped hair and deep wrinkles. And yet as old as she seemed, her eyes still looked hard and alert. They were fixated on some point at the back of the hut, past the camera set up in front of her. A microphone was clipped to her blouse. The interviewer who had placed it there was sitting by her side. A translator sat to her left.
The mic kept slipping as the woman spoke, and she swatted it away as though it were interrupting her story. She wouldn’t let anything stop her. These memories had been locked away for almost 30 years, and now that she had started, nothing could keep them from pouring out.
The worst sound in the world, the woman began, is the sound of your children crying out in pain. When they fall and scrape their knees perhaps. Or when they bruise their elbows against low branches. Or when their hearts break for the first time. But this is normal, she continued. This is a part of growing up, and as a mother, she was prepared for this. While she would never get used to such sounds — her heart always twisted when she heard them — she knew that her children would be there and safe and in her arms.
Those cries did nothing to prepare her for that night so many decades ago. The Communists had taken over only a few years before, and instead of living the lives of farmers, she and her two sons now lived as prisoners, held captive in a pagoda she had once visited for prayer. Now she prayed for numbness, a numbness that would carry her through to the end of each second before her time ran out, like the lives of so many others around her.
One day — she paused to remember the month, they all ran together now — she was outside when she heard the sounds of her two children. At first, she thought she was dreaming. She must have been dreaming because she heard them calling for her over and over again. The hunger often did that to her; it mixed together her dreams and reality. But as the sounds grew more frantic and hopeless, she realized that the voices weren’t simply in her head. They were coming out of the pagoda in front of her.
She realized something else then, too. The worst sound in the world, the woman told the room, isn’t the sound of your children crying out in pain. It’s the moment after, when the noise ends violently and abruptly. The silence is deafening when you’re straining so hard to hear.