Free by Len Kuntz

They were giving away babies. The war had ended decades ago, but its wicked curse still shone in the glazed faces of limbless beggars and bone-thin children.

We were tourists on our last afternoon. Phnom Penh hyperventilated like a slain animal. A million mopeds jammed the streets, sputtering black exhaust. Here, inside the market, hawkers shouted urgent orders in their native Khmer. We were ambushed by a troupe of ragged salespeople, some no older than seven or eight, and now, to get out, we were forced into a line that slogged past booths filled with all kinds of wares: jewelry and counterfeit handbags, shoes and hats.

We’d been warned to avoid their eyes, but a girl caught me staring. She grabbed my hand and pulled me from the crowd, beyond her makeshift tent, through a sheet serving as a door.

There must have been a dozen of them, all swaddled and stuffed inside wicker baskets. At first I thought they were dolls. But one squalled, and then another.

“I’m out of money,” I said.

“Free, Mistah. Free child for you!”

When I protested some more, the girl’s grandmother came forth and thrust a baby at me, the woman’s eyes wet, pulsing and pleading.

I fought my way back outside. I was happy to see the line. I got lost inside it. I pressed forward, but kept my head down, staring at my shoes, seeing the image that would haunt me my whole life, hearing their wail.


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Filed under Len Kuntz

12 responses to “Free by Len Kuntz

  1. Randal Houle

    Nice work. The point of narration keeps the flow going. The last paragraph really brings home the theme.

  2. Powerful and chilling, saying so much in so little space. You really brought it home.

  3. Very intense and moving Len; I like how this narrative builds. You nailed it with that last line. Brilliant.

    I’ve been to Siem Reap and I’ve seen the young kids begging for money, some holding a small baby in their arms.

    • Len

      Thanks so much everyone. I really appreciate it. Jeffrey, yes, I was in Cambodia for two weeks and the things I saw broke my heart a thousand times.

  4. guy

    Have no idea what they call kids in Cambodia, but in Japanese slang they are gaki (俄鬼). The word comes from the Chinese translation of preta. I’ve seen it as ‘hungry ghosts’ in English. Preta are thin, emaciated creatures with huge bellies who are always hungry. They are supposed to be invisible, but in the right (or wrong) state of mind, one was able to see them. In any case, preta are just a grim projection of a kind of human existence into the supernatural.

    This conveys the horrors of tourism & the world we turn away from.

  5. And that is exactly why I have not – thus far – visited these countries. I am such a sucker, I think I would never get away. So, a powerful story.

  6. Ganymeder

    Very moving.

  7. Thank You for sharing this excellent story.

  8. The lack of detailed characters and setting emphasizes the stark reality of this story. Beautifully done.

  9. Len

    Thanks everyone for your kind comments. I really appreciate it.

  10. Pingback: Week #23 – long lines « 52|250 A Year of Flash

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