By Victoria Giang
They called it the ghost voice because of the way it crackled and warbled into a piercingly high register. It was a voice to captivate and bind the listener. Ros had it.
“Once I fed a flower only music,” she confessed to Eung, her manager, confidante, and lover. Likewise, he slaked her thirst with a stream of abuse so endless that her sobs lost their sounds.
That cattleya she had cared for bloomed only once, then its green tongue hung limp, and the plant never again burst out in color. A flower is a leaf that has gone mad with love, so says Goethe. She had always thought that a flower was a leaf trembling with song. Her people were pleased to have produced Ros, flower among leaves, and she sat happily among them, offset by their adoration.
Eung was one of those hopeless decadents first to die under the Khmer Rouge, an unknown bourgeois to be slain on sight – you only had to see his paisley satin shirts to know – but that foreknowledge wouldn’t have provided any consolation to a heart so rare.
The cattleya of her confession was born in a little village outside of Battambang when it was emerald green with recently sown rice. Can you see her then? In those sun stricken fields, a child too shy to speak one day broke into song, a clear and unearthly voice. Issued from a little girl, it was eerie and entrancing. Those who heard her stood stiff as the young shoots. Was she possessed by spring fever? Or was she a ghost in the body of a girl? How strange that she should suddenly sing! Now that the habit of silence was broken, she gained the power to inflict it on others, their voices caught in throats choked with sobs. As she sings, she appears, girl and woman, only through a veil of tears, conjured like a specter.
In ancient times, apsaras only danced, so in Siem Reap, kings kept hundreds of lovely slaves who could channel these supreme beings dancing on a rotation to ensure the continued spinning of the globe. Shiva creates the world with his dance atop a turtle’s back, and it stops turning when he tires. Maya, the illusion of reality, is revealed or disappears.
As puppets, we spin and twirl to move the world. What a heavy burden to bear! At every conceivable moment, a person is moving their limbs in this eternal dance. When the ghost voice pierced the veil, the burden somehow became joyful again. After all, what other choice is there? Bending in the fields, quick gestures of the hands to dig and pluck somehow seemed refreshing, like the hand motions of earthly angels who pluck strings in the air. The endless entertainments of Sihanouk’s capital, which had become so forced and tedious were festive and novel again, if only for a moment, but the impression of that moment brought vigor with it.
Now let’s conjure him up again, Sinn Sisamouth waiting outside the studio door. Strumming his mandolin with downcast eyes and a half-smile, he leans against a wall, his face inscrutable as the severed heads of statues sleeping beneath Bayon, but he comes alive at the call of Ros’ voice, as if he were a spring that patiently endured being wound, and she, in her infinite mercy, had released him.
At twenty-eight, she has the fresh, sweet face of a naive girl, but carrying along the memories of two miserable husbands has given even her romantic songs a melancholy hard to bear. So light, she seems fragile enough to die of heartbreak, but the ghost voice has as much a hold on her as anyone who has heard it. It sings inside her head. Though she badly wishes to die, it infuses her with a warmth and vitality that has her continue to open herself to love and betrayal.
They’re all phantoms now. I hear their voices floating to me through the aether of the tape deck. The brutality and senselessness of death at the hands of dead-eyed children, sparkling only with blood lust, boys in black shirts. The edges of these violent memories have dulled now. Little is left of that generation, those on either side. A prince powerless to fight against stronger powers descends into decadence, signaling the end of an empire. Everyone in the capital drowning in meaningless luxury. The golden parasol shades them all, hides the harshness of a life stripped of any authentic action, and any freedom. So no decisions were made, each day was lived to the height of its pleasure. Opulent films starred the prince, inviting the citizenry to share in this depraved decline. The party swept the provinces and our Ros, a little snail selling girl with a supernatural and alluring voice was caught up in it.
These empty pleasures, this opulent escapism was imbued with dignity and meaning again. Chasing women led to love, revelry gave way to celebration, and slowly the peasants, never shaded by parasols, prepared themselves to gaze at the sun, to face fate and the future boldly and meet its challenges.
We all know how that turned out. The ghosts still surround us, their voices carry through. That kind of vitality to face up to reality, to swim, fly, and dance through life’s pains and pleasures, that never really dies. It haunts us always, waiting for a chance to come alive again.
Victoria Giang is a writer from South Florida who has lived in Taipei, Taiwan for the last several years. She is currently a graduate student of Asia Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University. In her free time, she writes and edits a feminist zine called Frisson.
Photo Credit: simon gurney / Adobe Stock