05/21/2013 02:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Killing Tree


The land is green, rolling and gentle-seeming in the way only places far from home can seem. Valleys are carved into the ground, covered in carpets of silky grass and steadfast moss. There are meandering paths on which to walk. To view the nearby rice paddies and lotus flowers, the thick orchards of exotic fruit trees, the sugaring fronds with razor edges. Tourists of all creeds wander about with audio guides affixed to their ears, stamped lanyards hanging dorkily from their necks. I am among them, with my new friends. First together and then not together. Because like all new friends, we are merely friends of convenience and therefore, not really even friends at all. We scatter, drawn close to the attractions that we'd rather look at than one another.

Mine is a tree, quite big and quite ordinary. It looks a lot like the trees which I saw and cared little for growing up. Unspecial. No paper bark to peel off and write messages, no autumn leaves to play in, no interesting looking pods or birds among the branches. Except this one is blanketed four feet high with a rainbow of friendship bracelets, as though a gaggle of pixies or hippies came through in the cover of night to spread some sort of ridiculous joy.


Except this is not a park, it is the Killing Fields, now excavated and overgrown since the Khmer Rouge massacred somewhere between 2 and 3 million people. The valleys are not valleys, they are the mass graves. The tree is not a tree, but The Killing Tree, and when it rains the earth swells below it, releasing its morbid gifts of clothes, hair and bone fragments that have not yet been cleared away.

Even its name is not the worst. This is where they took the children. They did it in front of their mothers. The friendship bracelets belie the red stained bark they hide.

At the foot of the tree trunk is a jawbone. Bleached and white and clean.

It's here where I drop to the ground in awe, or whatever is bigger than awe. I sit. I look. I pray. I don't know to whom or for what. I don't even know who to pray to or what I believe or what praying even is, the motions. I know to close my eyes only because the tears stinging them will fall otherwise. I know to close my mouth because I am grinding my own jaw, shifting it left and right and feeling how sturdy it seems, how connected and how much a part of me it is. Who I would be without it. Nothing, likely.

As I stand, I take the jawbone with me, touching it, running my fingers along the smooth grooves of the undecayed teeth. It's here I realize that I am complacent in the desecration of this person before me, that I am close, even intimate, with parts of this person, the skeleton of this person, in ways its owner never could be. How communal this act is, and how sad. One day my bones, though mine, will be seen bare without me by someone else. They will be held by someone else, cradled as I am doing now. How strange of humanity that this is the case and yet it is true of every person on this earth. What is deepest inside me, what is most mine, I will never know in this way. Only someone else will, as I do with who I hold at this moment.

This is why I came here. This is why I left all the good stuff behind. I knew it in the abstract but now I know it for real. And still, it is too much though I thought I was so smart and so strong and so prepared. I am so overwhelmed. What I will do will never be enough.

Even so, I move the jaw so that the groundskeepers can see it. So they can care for it. I stand and I find my new friends. I walk with them. I think about the orphanage in Phnom Penh I will be teaching at in a few weeks, and the one on the beach where I will hopefully start art therapy and language for street kids abandoned there in another month.

What I will do will never be enough.

Even so.