The Crocodile Grip

Louis M. Abbey

Elderly woman hands up - Issan, Thailand

Photo Credit: Ronn Aldaman/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

September 1982, Kamput—a refugee camp in Thailand

Two Thai soldiers grab Vannak by the arms and wrestle him to the ground. He struggles but the knee on his chest forces a bitter taste into his throat. They rub dirt on his hair, all the while shouting in Thai, then let go and walk away laughing. Vannak sits up, glares after them thinking—you are nothing compared to the Khmer Rouge; Kamput is nothing.

He had been looking for leaks in the roof of the hut where he lives with other Cambodian orphans from the Khmer Rouge Revolution.

Raking a hand through his hair Vannak stands up and hurries off along the dirt road to the top of a small hill near the camp’s center. He sits on the ground in his favorite spot to watch the sunset. Red, pink, yellow and orange clouds streak the horizon. Colors envelope him like warm water. He closes his eyes and his sunset dream returns.

He is in Cambodia, ten years old and three years a prisoner in a Khmer Rouge labor camp. It is dark. Monsoon rain drips through a hole in the roof onto his bed. He gets up, grabs a shovel and slops along the path to the work site. There he pushes the blade into the wet ground with his bare foot. Pain shoots through his heel into his ankle and grips his back when he lifts the mud into the basket beside him—dig, lift, fill, all day. By late afternoon, clouds break. He glances at the bright red sky. The old man nearby stops digging, leans on his shovel to watch the sun go down. In seconds a guard rushes over, kicks the old man’s shovel away so he falls then beats him on the hands and head with the shovel. The man groans, stops moving. “Learn this lesson!” the guard shouts at Vannak.

He blinks out of the dream. Fading pink washes over everything, making him drowsy enough to lie down in the thick, soft darkness that swallows the camp for the night. But he rises, walks quickly along the darkening road toward his hut, head down so as not to appear lost. Murmurs, bits of conversation, drift from unlighted huts beside the road. From somewhere, a flashlight’s golden beam strikes his shoulder and moves on.

People with lights never share them, he thinks.

Instinct and smell, not sight, tell him he has arrived at his hut. He climbs the steps, feels his way to his cot and lies down one arm slung across his eyes. Before sleep, another dream returns.

He is shoveling dirt in the same field a year after the old man was killed. Rumors of a Vietnamese invasion flash everywhere. Without warning, a guard drops his weapon and shouts, “They’re here!” Other guards run past Vannak and into the trees.

People flee in all directions, avoid eye contact. Vannak freezes with fear. A line of running men knocks him over. Two women grab him. “Turn around! Wrong direction!” He turns. Tears blur his vision. A hand yanks him to the side of the road. “Follow me!” The man’s voice and grip are strong. He leads Vannak away from the fighting and they begin a yearlong trek to the mountains and Thailand.

Images race behind Vannak’s closed eyes. At the border, Thai guards take them on a night ride to a camp called Kamput. Registration, interrogations—something called United Nations—photograph, picture ID, and a bag of clothing.

In a bright crowded room people shove and shout questions. Babies scream. Someone calls out in Khmer, “Attention! Listen! You will get out of this camp!” A lie? A dream? The voice goes on: “Kamput is temporary. Every morning there is a new list of people who will leave Thailand for a safe country.” Shouting and shoving begin again.

Vannak blinks, smiles in the pitch black. The list, he thinks, then shuts his eyes and falls asleep.

At first light he rolls over and sits on the edge of the cot scratching his head. From beneath the mattress he pulls out his pencil and three calendars, one for each year he has spent in Kamput. He opens the top one and draws a large “X” in the square marking his nine hundred and eighty-sixth day.

He replaces the calendars, rubs water over his face and hair and walks to the food tent where he picks up a bowl of watery rice and sits at a table with three other orphan boys. Eating is the only activity until the bowls are empty, then they talk, make plans to meet later for soccer.

Vannak steps outside and joins the foot traffic walking the dusty half-mile to the UN Office. He stands at the edge of the crowd. The list hangs up front on a weathered board. A UN worker calls out names. People stretch their necks, throw back shouts and questions. Vannak listens. No familiar names. He decides to leave.

As he turns, a hand reaches out of the crowd, grabs his wrist and drags him back among the jostling bodies. The hand belongs to a woman who, two days earlier, had asked him to help her carry a jug of water.

What does she want now, he thinks, and yanks to get loose. Her grip reminds him of the man who led him out of the labor camp.

“Let me go!” Vannak protests. “I’ll come back later.”

“You can’t,” she says. “I saw your name, Soeur, on the list. Tell the UN worker now.”

“It’s not true,” he scowls, struggling. “You dream.”

But the crowd presses him toward the woman.

She did say Soeur, my family name, Vannak thinks. I never told her. She thinks I am someone else. People always look for someone else. I’ll return later.

He pulls and pries at the woman’s fingers, bumping the hip of an old man and knocking into a child. She grips like a crocodile, Vannak thinks.

“Obey your mother!” the man yells, shoving him in the direction of the woman’s pull.

The UN worker stands patiently in front of the list turning pages. Every so often he calls out a name and answers questions.

“Go slower,” a man beside Vannak shouts.

“Go faster.” Another man.

“Back two pages,” the woman gripping Vannak’s arm shouts.

“Go to the end; start over.” Another voice.

The woman presses Vannak ahead of her into the second row, forcing others aside.

He squints the list into focus, but the page turns before he can read the names. He tries to shout Go slower but no sound comes out. A breeze cools his damp T-shirt, and he shivers.

After the last page, half of the crowd drifts away. The UN worker remains on guard. Vannak stares at the list. Sweat creeps down his wrist below the woman’s clamping hand. With his free hand, he fingers the letters on the front of his T-shirt.

The UN worker shouts, “Page one!”

Vannak looks up.

The woman nudges him aside for a late arrival.

I don’t have to speak, he thinks. Who listens to a boy anyway—nothing on the first page.

He smiles. One family takes up half a page—nothing on page two.

On the next page, one family is listed to go to Australia and France. He remembers those countries on a map. USA is easiest to remember. He recalls a story he heard of a man who went to the USA. The government gave him money, even though he didn’t have a job. Vannak smiles, pictures an American on the street handing out money—no Soeur on page three.

“I know I saw your name,” the woman looks down at him—nothing on page four.

The first name on the fifth page is Chann, clearly printed in Khmer. Vannak shakes his head—looks again, smiles—yes, my friend. Closing his eyes, he pictures a soccer ball descending from high in the air; Chann leaps like a frog, lands, captures the ball, steps to the side, changes direction and everyone runs after him. Vannak fingers the letters on his T-shirt and in his mind recites the lesson Chann taught him: “A… B… C… D… E… F… G…” Everybody likes Chann.

“I know him,” Vannak says aloud to no one, then blinks, checks again. Chann is still first on the list. Then he notices U… S… A… printed after Chann’s name. A tingle shoots down Vannak’s arm. The woman lets go. Makes no move to grab again.

Now I can run, he thinks. But I want to see the others. Below Chann’s name are several unfamiliar families. Vannak’s T-shirt sticks to his back.

He rubs his aching eyes, opens them, focuses again and there it is: “SOEUR, Vannak,” plain and clear. He blinks, shakes his head, looks again—“SOEUR, Vannak,” printed in Khmer and USA after the name.

“Look there! I told you I saw it,” the woman says, grabbing and shaking his arm, then letting go.

Vannak feels light-headed but paralyzed, unable to shout, cheer or cry, or even pray. Men, women and children spin around him in confusion. He searches for Chann’s name but all he can see is the UN guy’s wide smile, the large gap between his two front teeth.

Vannak locks his eyes on that gap and it becomes a window through which he is looking out at the shouting people in shirts, shorts, and sarongs. A thin, brown-eyed boy with black hair grins up at him from the second row. Gold and black words (IOWA Hawkeyes) splash across the front of his white T-shirt. What do the words say? Vannak wonders.

Then the picture dissolves and he’s standing alone in front of the smiling UN worker. Even the woman with the crocodile grip is gone. He feels unbalanced, about to fall. Looking down, he fingers the gold and black letters on his T-shirt, thinking, I am on the list with a place to go.

A fly buzzes his sticky neck, then his eyelid. Vannak turns to face the road in front of the UN Office. The stream of people drift slowly by in the hot, red dust, like in a movie. Some carry large bundles on their heads. Others are without burden. They gesture in the air talking and joking. A pair of Thai soldiers stroll hand in hand right in front of him, guns slung loosely on their shoulders. Three people on a moped sputter toward the main gate stirring up a dust cyclone that catches a waft of afternoon wind, whirls up the road then disappears.

On the highway, a hundred meters away outside the gate, trucks roar toward Bangkok. Drawing a breath thick with the smell of diesel and burning shit, he wonders, will I see Bangkok? But he floats above it brushing away another fly on his nose.

Is it a dream that didn’t really happen? With the question, tightness rises in his throat. Where are the others? Chann and I could not be the only ones. He drags a nearby cement block in front of the board, steps up and turns the pages of the list. Chann’s name is at the top of page five. OK, proof enough—look no further.

Idly fingering the smooth surface of his photo ID, he turns to face the road. A woman in a bright red sarong with a large bundle on her head walks quickly along in front of him. Her bundle remains perfectly still as if attached. Where is she going so fast? He Looks at his image on the ID: SOEUR, Vannak is written underneath in both Khmer and, supposedly, in Thai. Does the Thai writing really spell my name? Maybe they wrote “Water buffalo” or “Dog” instead. What if Chann is on the list and I dreamed I saw my name? He turns back, reaches up and leafs to page five again. Chann is indeed there. He moves his finger slowly down the column. As the names come into view, he whispers each one and counts. The fourteenth name emerges. Maybe it was a dream; I think I was closer to Chann. Then the fifteenth name rises like the sun. SOEUR, Vannak, USA. Real. He smiles, steps down, replaces the cement block and climbs the stairs to the UN Office.

pencilLouis Abbey is a retired Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology from VA Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU. His work has appeared in Indiana Review, The MacGuffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Georgetown Review, among others and online in Grey Sparrow and twice in Toasted Cheese. One of his poems was anthologized in Blood and Bone, Poems by Physicians, Angela Belli & Jack Coulehan, Eds. U. Iowa Press, 1998. He lives and writes in Revere, MA. Email: lncabbey2004[at]

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