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Wednesday
Jan052011

The Dark Years

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

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

The barber had a customer. A white haired war veteran. He’d fought against Thailand, Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge. He didn’t talk about it. He survived and 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 resembling an inverted Buddhist pagoda hung down from the left side of his chin. The mole had saved him from the Khmer Rouge executioners. They were superstitious peasants and said he was the Devil, an evil spirit. They’d let him go.

They conversed in fluid French. The gaunt barber had lived here all his life. He survived four years of genocide by hiding with 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 small steel 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 singers and dancers blared from a bamboo table inside the long narrow room.

After trimming top, sides and neck hairs he adjusted the chair, easing him back. The old man closed his eyes. The barber extracted a thin razor blade from a small piece of paper and 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 while angling the man’s head with his left hand he trimmed microscopic hairs. The razor played from temple to temple across the scalp line making a rasping sound. He was quick, silent and efficient. Smooth hands touched the head and face razoring skin 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 the bullwhip towel across thin shoulders scattering dead cells. 

The man eased out of the chair, they chatted in French, he removed a roll of money hidden close to his waist as if a thief might suddenly steal between them. 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 echoing through The Dark Years.