Last Days Before the End of the World

khmer dancer

The spirits were hard to conjure that April, the link between heaven and earth fractured. The dancers were assembled with their master teachers. The kben was wrapped around the waist, then twisted and pulled through the legs to form the practice leggings. Hands were stretched and arched, expressive with the face serene, but harmony with the gods was not obtained. An unease had settled in and hung tandem with the humidity; these were the last few days before the end of the world.

Fifteen years earlier, the terror now advancing on the city was launched out of deserted boxcars in the railway center of Phnom Penh: the first Party Congress of the Workers Party of Kampuchea held in that empty train in secret. The Khmer Rouge—Angka—would leave the capital and hide in the northeast hills and later battle Lon Nol’s forces in the border sanctuaries and throughout Cambodia before returning victorious but eerily noncelebratory on April 17, 1975 to rid Phnom Penh of every vestige of the Old World, every person and everything to become a victim of the black pajama psychology of ultimate revolution.

The sound of rumbling trucks, of honking horns and motorcycles steadily grew louder and louder that day, pushing through the walls and music until these outside forces could no longer be ignored. The Khmer Rouge had descended upon the city and soldiers were ordering everyone out onto the streets, barking through bullhorns at the confused populace to leave their homes and shops. The Americans were about to drop bombs on Phnom Penh. Staying would be dangerous. No need to take anything; everyone could return in a few days.

The rehearsal hall emptied. Music books and instruments were left behind to be destroyed; headdresses and masks were abandoned and lost. Costumes were snatched up, and hastily hidden in hems and secret pockets, or folded and placed against the small of the back under shirts and blouses to eventually fade, erode into mere fibers, ruined by sweat and dirt and fear and time. The ballets and their movements, never written down but transmitted from teacher to student, now survived as memories in the minds of the palace dancers and their masters as the royal company was flushed out onto the boulevard.

Two of the younger dancers panic and resist; they can’t leave without their families. They are frantic, but a soldier is pushing them along with the butt of his rifle, shoving it first into one dancer’s back, then the other’s. Their teacher runs over to try and calm them and plead their case, but other soldiers come and grab the girls by the arms. They are taken away and hoisted onto one of the trucks in the convoy that has rumbled into the capital. Their teacher is dragged to a nearby tennis court, made to kneel, then shot dead.

It will be a long time before the gods can be summoned again, before harmony between heaven and humanity is restored.

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