The Hand of the Father

Tell them it was an accident. Always an accident. Say that he slipped in the quarry, hit his head against the rocks, there was nothing we could do. That Father wept over his body, blessed him, and anointed him with khloem oil, personally. That these incidents break Father’s heart. Use words like tragedy, heaven, God’s will.

Look them in the eyes when you tell them. If a group, address the eldest, the boy’s grandmother. Press the funerary money into her dry palms, seven million riels, the violet bills crisp and unsullied. More money than she’s ever seen.

Do not look down when she throws the money at your feet. Do not wipe her spit from your cheek. If you flinch when she curses you, know that she’ll feel better, that she’ll feel her curse will work. Know that you’ve been cursed for years.

Never look Father in the eye when he tells you. Follow his hand as he rubs the khloem into his palm, seven drops, then seven more drops. He works the oil slowly and uses words like accident, horseplay, love.

He loves all his children.

As dusk falls, walk the perimeter. Check the low sections of the walls, the sections where the jungle encroaches. Take notes where the acolytes should make repairs. Remind them there are tigers in the darkness, and worse. When all is secure, return to the sanctuary and burn incense for the boy. Pray for his soul. Pray for your soul. Pray there’s a god or many gods and hope your prayers aren’t heard.

Lie with the pistol beneath your pillow, the machete beside your sleeping mat, your ear to the whispering wind outside. The jungle devours the wind’s secrets, greedily, but secrets still emerge, creeping over the wall. Know the difference between the footsteps of a man and the footsteps of an old woman. Know they both mean to kill you, and that the old woman is deadlier in her quiet rage. Decide whether you can let her put the flaming brand to the sanctuary’s foundation.

Talk to him again. Tell him it’s not safe again. The Jeeps are ready; there are helicopters waiting; you can leave tonight. Tell him to send the boys back to their villages. Nod when he says the Lord’s work is not yet done. Follow his hands with your eyes as he folds them across his lap, those delicate hands with polished nails. Remember to clean your own fingers after you bring him another boy.  

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