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.