Heavy like a Sack of Rice

“‘Sea Slaves’: Forced Labor for Cheap Fish” NYTimes, July 27, 2015

By Bunkong Tuon
My name is Dara Chan.
I’m from a village under the clouds,
near Phnom Kulen where our god-king
Jayavarman II declared independence
from the kingdom of Java many moons ago.
My mother and father are farmers,
as were their mother and father before them,
so are my wife and I. My wife is Chantea,
but she is called “Mother of Rithy,”
after our firstborn. I have two other
children: Chanda and the youngest, Vutha,
who smiles whenever he sees me.

The crop in recent years has yielded little.
I was left making excuses came dinner
so that my children could have their fill.
It got so bad that all they had was rice
and salt. Then word spread like fire
through the village about work in Thailand.
My wife told me to do what I must
to feed our children, then she wept.
Our goodbyes were whispered in secret
with sidelong glances. When told to care
for his family now that he was the oldest male
Rithy asked, “How do I know you’ll come back?”

We were taken to a building in Thailand
and kept in the basement. Our translator
said it was for our own good. Thai police
were known for their metal-tipped boots
and swirling batons. The next night
we were herded into a small van and taken
to a wharf. A crew of men was waiting.
They pushed us onto a small fishing boat.
My heart sank. The land was receding.

The next day we helped with fishing,
gutting, cleaning, and storing the catch.
At night we were crammed like the fish
we caught. I thought about karma.
Maybe I didn’t give enough alms
or was cruel to someone in past lives.
I prayed to Buddha for strength
and ancestors to guide me home.

Sok, a fifteen-year old from my village,
dropped mackerel into a bucket for herring.
The captain, a tiny man with a dragon
tattooed on his chest, his heart hardened
by sun and salty air, kicked and beat Sok
until he lay still on the blood-stained deck.
I carried him to the bottom floor of the boat.
Sok groaned from pain, hunger, and longing
for our village. I cried along with him, rocking
us into sleep, where our families awaited us.
When the captain learned that Sok needed
medical treatment, he ordered his men to pull
Sok’s body up the stairs and throw it overboard.
I didn’t go to the upper deck fearing the nightmare
would haunt me, but it did me no good. Plock!
I kept hearing in my sleep. Heavy like a sack
of rice, and I felt his fate pulling me
to the bottom of the blue water. I thought
about Rithy’s question and cried in the dark,
“I need to return to my wife and children.
Let me die in my village, in the land of my birth,
surrounded by friends, family, and ancestors!”

I don’t know how long I’ve been on this boat.
Days and nights blend into one long nightmare.
Some have been beaten; the sick thrown overboard.
Those caught escaping are shackled, necks collared.
One was decapitated with the same knife we used
to gut the fish, his body and head thrown
into the violent water as bait. Nighttime
I saw his head bobbing, eyes opened,
mouth opening and closing like a fish.
I must stop telling you. My body’s shaking.
The captain is here to sell fish to Americans
where it will be made into cat and dog food.
I escaped after being sent to carry more fish.
They’re looking for me right now.
My name is Dara Chan.
I’m from a village near Phnom Kulen.
Note: I read about the so-called “sea slaves” in an article published by the New York Times on July 27, 2015. Haunted by stories of dehumanization, where human life is cheaper than pet food, I wanted to tell this story from a survivor’s point of view and, equally important, create an encounter between the survivor and his potential rescuer, putting readers in the rescuer’s position.
Bunkong Tuon teaches writing and literature at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. His prose and poetry have appeared in the Massachusetts Review, Paterson Literary Review, Chiron Review, Cultural Weekly, and others. He is the author of the full-length poetry collection, Gruel (NYQ Books, 2015). His second collection, And So I Was Blessed, is forthcoming.