On the Outskirts of Phnom Penh

by Peg Bresnahan

Atrocity prowled the halls, pulled his blood-crusted
robe close, turned his head. Six thousand paper faces
affixed to the walls of what was a school—a record

in black and white of those about to be tortured by boys
fifteen to nineteen trained in interrogation.

In one building, classrooms remain as they were found—
each with one desk and chair, a steel bed frame,
shackles at both ends. A metal bar to hold the victim down.

Thousands, barely alive, stuffed into trucks, driven
to an orchard, bludgeoned after torture to save bullets.
Mass graves, special pits for children.
One and a half million people, dead in fields like this.

Even now, nooses hang from trees. A glass tower
full of skulls. Barrels for waterboarding. After the rains,
the soil weeps bone, teeth, pieces of fabric.

Stories are told and retold.

They came for me, took me to a boy's compound.
I was twelve—in charge of a cow. If I brought her
back at dusk, I lived. One day the cow disappeared.

I crawled through forbidden places. A rice field
belching rancid odors, a forest of chankiri trees.
That's where I found her.

Loudspeakers rigged to the trees blared sounds
of heavy machinery mixed with music
to smother screams of the tortured.

I still hear it.
It never quits.

Peg Bresnahan's second collection of poetry, In a Country None of Us Called Home, was published by Press 53 in 2014. Garrison Keillor read the title poem on The Writer's Almanac. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Peg lives in Cedar Mountain, North Carolina.

About On the Outskirts of Phnom Penh—My husband Dan and I visited the school building and the Cambodian Killing Fields several years ago. The photography on the walls, the stories of torture were horrific. The Killing Fields were as I've described them. I found it difficult to write about our experience, but believe there can never be too many reminders of what evil humans are capable of when power and greed take over. Our guide was a Khmer and a survivor. He told us the story of the cow.