He feels his way in the confined space of the wooden cottage, hands groping in the dark, searching among the shadows through the blurred vision of his one good eye for the sadiev. The lute has called out to him in his dream, plucking its way persistently into his consciousness, until he’s awake, aware of its presence beside him. His fingers find the instrument. It lies aslant on the bamboo bed, deeply reposed in its dreamlessness. His fingers inadvertently brush against the single copper string, coaxing a soft ktock, similar to the click of a baby’s tongue. The Old Musician is almost blind, his left eye damaged long ago by a bludgeon and his right by age. He relies much on his senses to see, and now he sees her, feels her presence, not as a ghostly apparition overwhelming the tiny space of his cottage, nor as a thought occupying his mind, but as a longing on the verge of utterance, incarnation. He feels her move toward him. She who will inherit the sadiev, this ancient instrument used to invoke the spirits of the dead, as if in that solitary note, he has called her to him.
He lifts the lute to his chest, rousing it from its muted sleep, holding it as he often held his small daughter a lifetime ago, her heart against his heart, her tiny head resting on his shoulder. Of all that he’s tried to forget, he allows himself, without reservation, without guilt, the reprieve of this one memory. The curve of her neck against his, paired in the concave and convex of tenderness, as if they were two organs of a single anatomy.
Why are you so soft? he’d ask, and always she’d exclaim, Because I have spinning moonlets! He’d laugh then at the sagacity with which she articulated her illogic, as if it were some scientific truth or ancient wisdom whose profound meaning eluded him. Later, at an age when she could’ve explained the mystery of her pronouncement, he reminded her of those words, but she’d forgotten she’d even uttered them. Oh, Papa, I’m not a baby anymore. She spoke with a maturity that pierced him to the core. She might as well have said, Oh, Papa, I don’t need you anymore. Her eyes, he remembers, took on the detachment of one who’d learned to live with her abandonment, and he grieved her lost innocence, yearned for his baby girl, for the complete trust with which she’d once regarded him.
Something fluid and irrepressible rushes from deep within him and pools behind his eyes. He tries pushing it back. He can’t allow himself the consolation of such emotion. Sorrow is the entitlement of the inculpable. He has no claim on it, no right to grief. After all, what has he lost? Nothing. Nothing he wasn’t willing to give up then. Still, he can’t help but feel it, whatever it may be, sorrow or repentance. It flows out of him, like the season’s accumulated rain, meandering through the gorges and gullies of his disfigured face, cutting deeper into the geography of his guilt.
He runs his fingertips along the thin ridge, where the lesion has long healed. The scar, a shade lighter than the rest of his brown skin, extends crosswise from the bridge of his nose to his lower left cheek, giving the impression of two conjoined countenances, the left half dominated by his cataract eye, the right by smaller grooves and slash marks.
If his daughter saw him now, would she compare the jaggedness of his face to the surface of the moon? How would she describe the crudeness of his appearance? Would she see poetry in it? Find some consolably mysterious expression for its irreparable ruin? He never did make the connection between the softness of her skin and her imaginary moonlets. Now he is left to guess she probably associated the distant velvety appearance of the full moon with the caress of sleep, the lure of dreams that causes one’s body to relax and soften. But even this is too rational a deduction, for he cannot trust his memories of the full moon to make such a leap. The last moon he saw clearly was more than two decades ago, the evening Sokhon died in Slak Daek, one among many of Pol Pot’s secret security prisons across the country, each known only by their coded euphemism as sala. School. That evening, at Sala Slak Daek, the moon was bathed not in gentle porous light but in the glaring hue of Sokhon’s blood. Blood that now tinges his one-eyed vision and sometimes alters the tone and texture of his memories, the truth.
He closes both eyes, for the effort of keeping them open has begun to strain the muscles and nerves of the right one, as if the left eye, unaware of its uselessness, its compromised existence, continues to strive as the right eye does. Sometimes he thinks this is the sum of his predicament: he is dead but his body has yet to be aware of his death.
He reaches into the pocket of his cotton tunic hanging on a bamboo peg above his pillow and withdraws a cone-shaped plectrum made to put over the fingertip. In the old days, this would be crafted from bronze or, if one was a wealthy enough musician, from silver or gold. But this plectrum is fashioned out of a recycled bullet casing. Art from war, said Narunn, the man who gave it to him, a doctor who treats the poor and sometimes victims of violence and torture; who, upon examining his eyes, informed him that the cataract covering his left pupil was caused by untreated “hyphema.” An English word, the Old Musician noted. A medical term. A vision clouded by spilled blood. Or as the young doctor explained, Hemorrhaging in the front of your eye, between the cornea and the iris. Caused by blunt trauma. I believe yours happened at a time when there was no means of treatment. The doctor did not inquire what might’ve been the source of the trauma, as if the lesions and scars on the Old Musician intimated the blunt force of ideology, that politics is not mere rhetoric in this place of wars and revolutions and violent coups but a bludgeon with which to forge one’s destiny.
Indeed the doctor was kind enough not to interrogate. Instead he revealed to the Old Musician that the brass plectrum was made by a young woman who’d lost half her face in an acid attack, who worked to reconstruct her life, if not her visage, by learning to make jewelry in a rehabilitation program for the maimed and the handicapped. Hope is a kind of jewel, don’t you think? his young friend pondered aloud. At once metal-hard and malleable . . .
Certainly it is the only recyclable currency, the Old Musician thinks, in a country where chaos can suddenly descend and everything, including human life, loses all value.
He places the plectrum over the tip of the ring finger of his right hand, the brass heavy and cool against his nailless skin. It refuses to grow back, the nail of this one finger, the lunula destroyed, a moon permanently obliterated by one smash of his interrogator’s pistol. The other fingernails are thick and deformed, some filling only half of the nail beds. He’s often surprised that he can still feel with these digits, as if the injuries they sustained decades ago heighten their wariness of contact, sabotage.
He tilts the sadiev so that it lies diagonally across his torso, the open side of the cut-gourd sound box now covering the area of his chest where his heartbeats are most pronounced, its domed chamber capturing his every tremor and stirring.
Ksae diev, some call it. He dislikes it, the harshness of the ks against his throat, as if the solidity of the first consonant pressed against the evanescence of the second inevitably leads to a betrayal of sound. He much prefers sadiev, the syllables melting into each other so that it’s barely a whisper, delicate and fleeting, much like the echo it produces.
Eyes still closed, he takes a deep breath as he would before every performance, diving past the noise in his head, the surging memories, his plagued conscience, until he reaches only silence. Then tenderly, with the ring finger of his right hand, the brass plectrum securely in place, he begins to pluck the lower part of the string, while higher up the fingers of his left weave an intricate dance. He plays the song he wrote for his daughter, upon her entry into his world, into his solitary existence as a musician. I thought I was alone. I walked the universe, looking for another . . . He remembers the day he brought her home from the hospital, her breath so tenuous still that he wanted to buttress it with notes and words. I came upon a reflection . . . and saw you standing at the fringes of my dream.
He adjusts the sadiev slightly on his chest. He often dreams of her. Not his daughter. But the little girl to whom this lute rightly belongs. Except she’s no longer a little girl, the three-year-old he once met . . . He wonders about the person she’s become, the woman she’s grown into. He dares not confuse one with the other, the young daughter he lost long ago and the woman he now waits to meet. They’re not the same person, he reminds himself. They are not. And you, you are not him. Can never be him. The father she lost.
Sometimes, though, his memory rebels. It contrives a game, tricking him into believing that the past can be altered, that he can make up for the missing years, give her back what he stole from her. He can amend—atone. But for what exactly? A betrayal of oneself, one’s conscience? Was that what he’d hoped when he decided to write to her? To seek forgiveness for his crimes? Or was it simply, as he said, that he wished to return the musical instruments her father had left for her?
He thinks again of the letter, not what it said, but what it was on the verge of saying, what it almost revealed. I knew your father. He and I were . . . His failing eyesight had required him to enlist the help of the young doctor to write those words. He told Dr. Narunn to cross out the incomplete sentence. When he’d finished dictating the rest of the letter, the doctor wanted to copy it onto fresh, clean paper, without the crossed-out words. The Old Musician would not allow it. He’d send it as it was, with the mistake, as if he wanted her to see the duplicity of his mind, the treachery of his thoughts. He and I were . . . What they were—men, animals, two sides of a single reality—was destroyed with one deliberate stroke, the laceration made by a moving blade.
He glides the fingers of his left hand closer to the gourd sound box, producing a periodic overtone, like an echo or a ripple in the pond. I thought I was alone. I walked the universe, looking for your footsteps. I heard my heart echo . . . and felt you knocking on the edge of my dream.
The quality of each note—its resonance and tone—varies as he slides the half-cut gourd across his chest. He plucks faster and harder, reaching a crescendo. Then, in three distinct notes, he concludes the song.
Music of the Ghosts
Leaving the safety of America, Teera returns to Cambodia for the first time since her harrowing escape as a child refugee. She carries a letter from a man who mysteriously signs himself as “the Old Musician” and claims to have known her father in the Khmer Rouge prison where he disappeared twenty-five years ago.
In Phnom Penh, Teera finds a society still in turmoil, where perpetrators and survivors of unfathomable violence live side by side, striving to mend their still beloved country. She meets a young doctor who begins to open her heart, immerses herself in long-buried memories and prepares to learn her father’s fate.
Meanwhile, the Old Musician, who earns his modest keep playing ceremonial music at a temple, awaits Teera’s visit with great trepidation. He will have to confess the bonds he shared with her parents, the passion with which they all embraced the Khmer Rouge’s illusory promise of a democratic society, and the truth about her father’s end.
A love story for things lost and things restored, a lyrical hymn to the power of forgiveness, Music of the Ghosts is an unforgettable journey through the embattled geography of the heart and its hidden chambers where love can be reborn.
A Story that Explores the Geography of the Heart and the Love it Retains
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Reading Group Guide
As Music of the Ghosts opens, Teera’s beloved aunt Amara, the only link to her traumatic childhood escape from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide, has just passed away. Now, she must return to her homeland to rediscover a family legacy.
At age thirty-seven, Teera is in many ways a stranger to this new Cambodia and the stories it holds. In addition to fulfilling her promise to return her aunt’s ashes to Phnom Penh, she has been called by a letter from a half-blind man, the Old Musician, who is searching for a peace he can’t find in the temple compound where he earns his keep by playing for ceremonies and funerals. Still, the Old Musician and the young woman are bound by history, and the story of the three instruments that are her birthright.
In this lyrical and poignant novel (the follow-up to the author’s bestselling In the Shadow of the Banyan), the heartbreak of the Old Musician’s past intertwines with Teera’s own voyage of self-discovery, as questions of see more