My mother wanted to boil potatoes but only had a shallow pan. This would not do, so she sent me into the next village to borrow a pot from a friend. When I knocked on Sovanara’s door there was no answer. My mother had warned me that she might be at the well outside the village, drawing water for her evening bath, so I sat in front of her hut and waited.
Many of the huts in the village had a stone Buddha sitting out front, like Sovanara’s. Some had herb gardens and chickens strutting about, pecking at the ground for bugs. Others had cats lounging by their doors, or children playing games. But the ground was barren in front of the hut that stood across the path from where I sat. Nothing there but dry, black dirt.
The door of this hut opened and a frail old man came out with a broom. He began to sweep, and swept so vigorously it seemed he was trying to remove the very dirt from the ground. After a few minutes he stopped to rest, his shirt wet and clinging to his ribcage. He wiped the sweat from his face with the chequered krama wrapped around his neck and leaned on his broom, looking pleased with the results of his work.
I didn’t care to speak. I only wanted to sit quietly in the fading light of the sunset and watch the changing colors of the sky. I was happy with this. The old man was not.
“Little girl, what are you doing here?” he asked softly, his hands folded over the top of his broom.
I stood and bowed. “I’m waiting for Sovanara.”
“I saw her leave with a bucket for the well. Why have you come to see her?”
“My mother needs to boil potatoes and I came to get a pot,” I answered, wishing to get back to my sunset.
This perked him up and he beckoned me with a bony finger. “I have just what you need.”
The sun was sinking lower and I didn’t know how much longer Sovanara would be, so I followed him into his hut. In the faint light from the doorway I could see that the hut contained no furniture, not even a mat for the old man to sleep on. There were marks on the dirt floor where the man had swept, and the bristles of the broom had bit so deeply into the earth it seemed like an animal had been digging there with its claws.
He led me through to his back garden, if one could call it that, for there were no plants, flowers or trees there. A large iron oven sat rusting in the center, and the ground around it was littered with crockery of all kinds—cracked bowls and plates, twisted spoons, forks with missing tines, broken and rusted knives—and many, many pots. They lay in piles against the back of the hut, they stuck out of the ground like stones, half buried in black mud and scorched by the sun, they hung from a long line of wire stretched across two wooden stakes, like a gallows.
With a serene and gentle face the old man began to pace among the pots. I squatted to examine one sticking out of the mud and ran my finger across the number carved into its bottom. When I looked up the old man was standing over me, looking down so far that his eyelids appeared to be shut. He smelled of damp clothes, betel, the smoke of a cooking fire.
“I gave each of them a number,” he said in a barely audible voice, “to keep an accurate record. We are most human when we are organized, when we are methodical.” He glanced at the iron oven and breathed in deeply, as if to savor a pleasant fragrance in the air, then resumed his pacing.
“I was once a cook, the best,” he continued. “I trained in Paris and knew how to make proper food. I have cooked and eaten many meals in these pots. Each one was unlike any of the others. Each had its own unique flavour, texture, and nuance. Some were hearty meals, some petite, some were savory, others sweet.” The old man smiled at his rhyme, then looked at me and licked his lips. I stood and walked over to the oven. It’s doors had rusted off the hinges and it looked as if it had not been used for some time.
The old man bent down and unearthed one of the buried pots, a very large one. He brushed away the mud from the bottom and looked closely at its number.
“944,” he said, smiling warmly. “I cooked your grandfather in this pot.”
I imagined that gigantic pot in the oven with my grandfather sitting crouched and naked inside, wiping the sweat from his face because the pot was heating up. I wanted to laugh but it would have been disrespectful, so I covered my mouth with my hand to hide my smile.
The old man picked two other pots from the top of a pile and held them up, one in each hand. “5,007 and 5,008. I cooked your mother’s brother and sister in these.”
I thought of my aunt and uncle sitting in the pots, facing one another, arguing about who would taste better, my aunt mocking the scrawny arms of my uncle while he pointed at her drooping breasts. I nearly wet myself trying to hold in my laughter.
The old man continued to walk around the garden, picking up pots here and there, reading the numbers from their bottoms, reminiscing about the tastes and textures of fathers, daughters, great-grandparents, wives, cousins, sons, and mothers.
When I felt like I could control my giggling, I asked, “What about my mother? Why didn’t you eat her?”
But when I thought about how my mother’s rough feet would be kicking the inside of his stomach I laughed out loud. The old man nodded his head, his face contented like those of the Buddhas sitting by the doors of the village huts.
“I ate your mother’s soul,” he said. I didn’t have the urge to laugh at this, for I could not imagine what a soul looked like. Much less a soul sitting in a pot.
The old man pulled down an especially deep pot hanging from the gallows wire, and it was then that I noticed his hands were stained. I thought perhaps he had just prepared a meal of curry with kunyit. But the color of his hands was too red. Maybe he had been grinding some root or spice from Paris.
“Is this big enough for you?” he asked, holding out the pot. I nodded and took it. “You should be able to fit anything in this.”
“I only need it for potatoes,” I replied.
“Anything will fit, anything you can put in your mouth.”
He opened his mouth wide like a crocodile and pointed at the dark hole behind his teeth, which were stained like his hands. I imagined the head of my grandfather poking out of the black hole, complaining that it was too dark and demanding a torch.
The old man led me back through his empty hut and out the door. As I stepped onto the village path he picked up his broom and once again began to sweep. I bowed. “I’ll bring the pot back tomorrow morning before school.”
“That isn’t necessary,” he replied. “I don’t need it.”
“Why not?” I asked. “This is a valuable pot, and very useful.”
“I am no longer a cook. It is of no use to me.” The old man dismissed me with a wave and swept harder at the dirt, grunting as the bristles bit deeply into the black ground.
It was now very late. There was barely enough light left to see the path through the jungle, so I left the old man to his senseless task. The pot was very large, and as I walked back to my village I carried it in both hands. It was smooth and olive in color, with handles carved from bone. I turned it over and there was the number carved in its bottom, just like all the others. The number was 2,000,000.
This old man from Sovanara’s village was obviously insane. Maybe he had fever or a parasite. Maybe the heat of the jungle had driven him mad. When I got home and told my mother where I got the pot she grew quiet, and her eyes seemed vacant. For a moment she looked like the child in the photograph she had once shown me, the one of her as a young girl, a number pinned to her shirt.
“At oy té,” she finally said. It doesn’t matter.
She said nothing else the rest of the evening, and went to bed as soon as she finished cooking the potatoes.
It’s been many years since that day in the jungle. My mother and I moved to the city not long afterwards. I trained to be a teacher. Just after my mother passed away, I married a doctor, a young man with no living relatives, like myself. Maybe when we are older we will explore our family histories, and perhaps get to know all those who died before we were born. But that will have to wait. We will soon be starting a family of our own.
Although I’m much older now, I still laugh when I think about how demented the old man was. Living in the jungle with all those pots in his garden. That rot about being a famous cook and eating all those people. What nonsense. The old man was just like the elders who tell stories about prisons and killing fields and generations swept away. All crazy people, making up things to scare children, things so absurd they could never have happened.
Even so, I find myself thinking about the old man every evening as I watch the sun dying over Phnom Penh, turning the Khmer sky a blush of rouge, then the deepest shade of red.