Approaching the border

Excerpt from The Clay Marble by Minfong Ho

Photo by Kiril Dobrev | Accessed on

This is an excerpt from the book The Clay Marble by Minfong Ho.

The last rays of the afternoon sun were filtering through the forest as we approached the Border. Gradually the trees thinned out and the path widened. Several trails merged into ours. It seemed as if all the paths out of Cambodia were converging on this one spot on the Thai border.

I could barely contain my excitement. I imagined mountains of rice lining the horizon, and piles of tools and fishnets everywhere. Perhaps there would even be mounds of sweet moist coconut cakes and banana fritters. “Hurry,” I urged my brother.

Yet, as we finally emerged from the forest, all we could see was a vast barren plain dotted with shrubs and scraggly trees, flat and desolate. Overgrown clumps of fireweed and red sorrel stuck out from patches of buffalo clover, and then even those gave way to the cracked, hard soil of paddy fields in the dry season.

As we drove farther through the scrubland, though I noticed that there were signs of life in the distance, of people and ox arts so far away that at first they look liked black specks. Sarun urged our oxen on, and soon we could see more evidence of human activity. The branches of the few trees around had been chopped bare for firewood, mudholes had been dug for buffaloes to wallow in, and makeshift fences had been built around small vegetable gardens. We drove past these and approached the fringe of the refugee camp itself. It looked like an endless brown sea of thatched lean-tos, mingled with bright blue patches from clusters of plastic tents. Spirals of smoke from countless cooking fires broke up the vast flatness of the landscape.

We passed women taking down laundry from lines, children spinning tops near the makeshift shelters and quiet groups of people sitting around chatting. Why did it look so familiar and yet so unusual?

And it suddenly struck me: everyone was part of some family — not the cold-blooded Khmer Rouge version, the state as family, but a living, laughing, loving family.

I looked around in wonder. Even though many people seemed to be only fragments of a family — a frail grandmother with several young toddlers, or a group of young boys clustered around a few old men — they were a family just the same. like a patchwork blanket, I thought, the people here were survivors of families who had been ripped apart and then joined again.

And everyone seemed to be busy doing something. Not just sitting alone silent and hollow-eyed with hunger, or organized into huge groups digging endless ditches. No, the people here were preoccupied with countless different chores of their own. I saw a sinewy old man splitting firewood; children lining up to draw buckets of water from a well; boys scrubbing their buffaloes in a shallow mudhole nearby; sisters combing each other’s hair. And because it was getting close to dinner time, there were women cooking everywhere. I could smell rice steaming, salted fish sizzling in hot oil spiced with chili, peanuts roasting — I even thought I caught a whiff of coconut cakes!

“It’s like coming home,” Mother said, with quiet wonder.

I knew exactly what she meant. Nong Chan was a strange place unlike anything we had ever seen before, a vast barren field teeming with refugees. But in the bustling quiet of dusk, it had the feel of our village during the years of peace before the fighting had started, when farmers would come in from the field as their wives fanned the charcoal fires and their children bathed with fresh well water.

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The Clay Marble – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

When civil war in Cambodia erupts, 12-year-old Dara and her family are forced out of their home and flee to the Thai-Cambodian border, where they find food, refuge and friends. But this security is short-lived as fighting and shelling hit the camp. In the ensuing chaos, Dara is separated from her family, and it will take everything that she has and more to bring the people she loves back together again.

Copyright © 1991 by Minfong Ho.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.