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A careless promise, a priceless gift

(Page 2 of 2)



My gaze fastened on a wonderfully vital stone carving of the apsara, or dancing girl. How marvelous the design, how remarkable the movement, how beautiful the headdress....

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"Buy knife. One dollar."

Desperate, I threw caution to the wind. "Tomorrow!" I cried carelessly. "Maybe tomorrow." I had no sooner said this than I realized my mistake. A crack had appeared in my resistance.

"Noooo," wailed the young Cambodian, pressing his attack. "You buy today, not tomorrow."

I turned away without answering. I would not be bullied into buying useless knives and cowbells. Besides, I had no more room in my suitcase.

The tour ended. We had brought picnic lunches, though, so we lingered behind when the bus left. We bought sodas at a stand and walked over to a shady spot to sit down.

What could be more pleasant than a picnic under a banyan tree here! The crowd had gone. Fawn-colored cows grazed nearby, their real cowbells clap-clapping intermittently, not continuously as in the peddlers' hands. We opened our bag of bananas, French bread, and peanut butter.

I had just spread peanut butter onto the first piece of bread when, "Buy knife. Buy cowbell."

I looked up, straight into those familiar black eyes. "Tomorrow," I said angrily. "I'll be back tomorrow." I instantly knew I had committed myself.

The boy's face darkened with mistrust. Suddenly, it was not only the mistrust of one small brown boy; it was the mistrust of all Asia for the West. The boy's voice was cold and cynical. "You no come back. You fly away to big city far away." He turned from me and walked with great dignity to his bicycle, which he mounted and rode away.

Tomorrow came. I told myself that I would go back to Angkor Thom and would buy the old knife. But I didn't. My husband was interested in taking pictures of Angkor Wat, so we spent the day there. I didn't see the boy the next day, either. That day we met an American engineer and his family stationed in Siem Reap and spent the time sightseeing with them.

The following day, we were to leave in the afternoon. We got up early and hired a motorcycle to take us to Ta Prohm, a gem of a ruin. After Ta Prohm, I told myself, we shall go to Angkor Thom. I shall search out that boy and I shall buy his old knife and maybe a cowbell, too.

I didn't have to wait until we got to Angkor Thom. As we stood in one of the jumbled inner courtyards of Ta Prohm, looking at an ancient doorway caught in the giant roots of a silk-cotton tree growing atop it, a small gold-brown boy appeared, wearing blue shorts and a white shirt. He saw me instantly. His sober face lightened into a broad smile. "You did come back," he stated incredulously.

Now I had to sit on my suitcase to get it shut; for in addition to everything else, it now contained one brown wood sheath inlaid with cheap metal containing a crudely made knife, and one bone cowbell with twin clappers.

But the biggest thing I took home was a memory: a small gold-brown face wearing a very broad smile. For this, I paid no duty, but its value is incalculable.

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