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Entries in dark years (1)


The Dark Years

It was curious seeing the Cambodian barber open on the last day of Khmer New Year.

The small southern river town of Kampot was dead quiet. Merchants and families slept in shuttered shops behind metal gray accordion sheets. A tropical afternoon sun beat down. White cumulus clouds billowed in the east.

The barber had a white haired customer. He’d fought against Thailand, Vietnam and Khmer Rouge. He didn’t talk about it. He survived. That was his conversation. His legacy.

He sat in a solid steel chair staring at his reflection. He saw a thin serene brown face and wavy white hair. A long mole bristling white hair resembling an inverted Buddhist pagoda hung from the left side of his chin.

The mole saved him from Khmer Rouge executioners. They were superstitious peasants and said he was the Devil, an evil spirit. They’d let him go.

They conversed in French. The gaunt barber had lived here all his life. The Devil survived four years of genocide by hiding his family in nearby mountains and jungles where the French constructed and abandoned a post office, hotel and casino. They called them The Dark Years.

No one talked about The Dark Years.

The old man closed his eyes. The barber trimmed with hand clippers. Snip, snip, snip. White hair fluttered to the floor meeting piles of black hair. Electric trimmers with frayed wires collected dust on a narrow wooden table under a fractured mirror. A holiday television program featuring Apsara dancers blared from a box on a bamboo table inside the long narrow room.

After trimming top, sides and neck hairs he adjusted the chair easing him back. The barber extracted a thin razor blade from a small piece of paper. He severed both ends into a soda can clinking metal fragments.

He opened a wooden handled straight razor and clicked the blade in. He sprayed water mist around the man’s head. Moisture refracted rainbow light prisms. Whispering the outside edge of an ear lobe angling the man’s head with his left hand he trimmed microscopic hairs.

The razor rasped temple to temple across the scalp line. He was quick, silent and efficient. Smooth hands touched head and face fast light and artistic. The blade followed the line of the nose, curled and danced across skin below closed eyes. He wiped the blade on a white towel lying on the man’s chest. He shaved lower sideburns.

He returned the man to a sitting position. The man smiled at his reflection. The barber snapped a towel across thin shoulders scattering dead cells.

The man eased out of the chair as they chatted. He removed a roll of money hidden at his waist. He handed peeled notes to the barber. Merci. Au’voir.

He shuffled into white heat. His son waited for him on a motorcycle. He tried to swing his right leg over the rear seat. Feeling off balance he hesitated. His left hand reached for a shoulder. His frail contorted useless right arm dangled in space.

The executioners had broken the Devil’s arm. They taught the Devil a lesson in compassion and forgiveness and power and control. Before giving him freedom they wanted to hear the Devil scream for mercy. They wanted to hear his pain echo through The Dark Years.