It Split the Heavens

by Steve Carr

This is the story of Nhean. It was told to me by Nhean from his deathbed.

A humble man, Nhean wondered aloud why I thought his life story was worth telling or remembering.

He raises his head slightly from his pillow and speaks in a whisper. “I was brought into the world in a manner befitting a mongrel, not a human,” he begins. He lays his head back, struggling to breathe. I give him water he sips through a red plastic straw. “I was born in the darkest shadows and recesses of the crumbling towers of Angkor Wat. Alone and afraid, her deception of conceiving me by a man, not my mother’s husband, forced her to keep her pregnancy hidden beneath her sampots until I was ready to be brought into the world. In the middle of the night she snuck from her house, went to the temples, and found a place to squat down and expel me from her womb.”

He searches my face. For what? Horror? Disgust? Pity? I feel none of those things and at the same time, all of them.

“She was just sixteen, having married my father six months before. She told no one of my impending birth. He was much older than she, and a respected member of the small community that had sprung up near Angkor Wat.” He stops and closes his eyes. I think he’s asleep, and then his eyes spring open. “At one time the area surrounding the temple was the largest metropolis on Earth with over a million people living within its boundaries. Then, after thirty years of drought, those million people just up and disappeared without a trace.” He sighs deeply. “A million people. Gone.”

It’s early afternoon and as if mocking what Nhean has said, a heavy downpour begins. It drums on the bamboo roof and rattles the one window in his bedroom. Moisture floods into the room through the open door leading to a small balcony. A long-tailed macaque sits on the railing of the balcony chewing on a piece of bark, seeming oblivious to the rain.

“My mother wrapped me in a blanket, carried me to the Buddhist monastery, and left me at the door.” His tone turns wistful, his eyes follow a hairline crack in the ceiling. He places the palm of his hand in front of his face for several moments. “The monks, both the men and women, took good care of me. Within minutes, he begins again.

“There were signs that the Khmer Rouge were hiding in, and spreading out, in the jungles all around the temple. They ate monkeys, wild pigs, fruit and whatever they could steal with impunity from the farmers and home gardens. I had just become a teenager, and their bravado and bravery impressed me. Their numbers included men and women, mostly young, who wore identical olive green uniforms, their sleeves rolled to slightly above their elbows, a green cap with a large bill positioned squarely on their heads. They came from Cambodia and beyond: Laos, Viet Nam.

“I made friends with a few of them, taking rice and buns to them that I stole from the larder in the monastery. Duc Pham, who had traveled from a small village in the south of Vietnam to Cambodia to join the Khmer Rouge had become a pal. I asked him why he had joined the Khmer Rouge. “To build the new Angkorian empire,” he replied.”

The wind has picked up. The macaque is gone. Rain blows into the room. Nhean is asleep.


“Built centuries ago Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu God, Vishnu. It was designed in the form of Mount Meru, home of the Hindu devas – divine beings.”

There is sweat on his forehead. It glistens on the small hairs above his upper lip. “I became a monk when I was seventeen. Being an orphan and having lived my entire life at the monastery, I had nothing to offer the monastery, or more importantly, Buddha, than my fealty. The one thing I gave up was my hair.” He rubs his bald head and grins. “I have never asked for it back.”

He declines when I offer him a cool, damp washcloth to wipe the sweat from his face.

“It was late 1975 and the Khmer Rouge had taken over rule of Cambodia. The round up of ‘intellectuals’ – practically anyone with a college degree, especially teachers and professors – began before that but it quickly escalated. The numbers of ethnic minorities and anyone who spoke a foreign language swelled the numbers of those loaded into trucks and taken to prison. Buddhist monks weren’t immune to the actions of the Khmer Rouge. They were building a nation that was racially pure, bound to them, and only them, in thought and deed.”

He stops, his breathing labored, his words becoming halted, uncertain. He’s seeking a way to continue on.

“Duc Pham came to me at the monastery in the middle of the night and warned that the Khmer Rouge had marked the monastery I was in for ‘reeducation.’ This was a code word for extermination. The chief of the monastery and many of the monks were teachers. Our connection to the Angkor history and religion didn’t protect us. Duc warned that I should say nothing to anyone, but to leave the monastery before daybreak. He would be waiting in the jungle nearby.

“I had no possessions, only the razor I used to shave my head and the clothes and sandals I wore. I waited until almost the break of dawn before I escaped into the jungle and met Duc on a trail cut through the jungle by animals and the flowing streams during the rainy season. He had removed the patches from his uniform and thrown his cap away. “The Khmer Rouge will kill us all before their madness ends,” he told me. Ducs words were more than just his fear.”

I give him a sip of water and check his pulse. It’s weak and thready. “You must rest,” I tell him.

He closes his eyes. His body relaxes into the soft mattress.

“We knew the jungle,” he says instantly upon awaking. “But never as fugitives. It made the jungle darker, more threatening. I knew of life only what I had learned in the monastery. It was when I heard that farmers and the entire families of those imprisoned were also being gathered up and being transported to prisons in the North that I feared for the lives of those who lived near the temple. Duc and I spent six months hiding out in the jungle before we were apprehended by a small troop of Khmer Rouge. Because he was a deserter, they shot Duc in the back of the head execution style. Me, they sent to a reeducation camp a hundred miles away from Angkor Wat. In the journey there all I could think about was Duc. My despair couldn’t be assuaged.”

He wrings his bony hands and bites his upper lip as if to seal his mouth from uttering another word.

“You don’t have to continue,” I tell him. “My intent isn’t to torture you.”

“I’ll go on. It was there at the camp that I met my mother and was told the story of my birth. As you can see I have a birthmark on my right cheek that is clearly the image of a meat cleaver. It was on my cheek when I was born, and it was how she concluded I was her child when she saw me next to her, bent over and planting carrots in a muddy field.”

“My infant boy had that same marking,” she said.

“That’s unusual,” I replied. “Where is he now?”

“He’s here now, in front of me.”

That was when she related the details of my birth.

“There were hundreds of us planting carrots and onions, subjected to being whipped and beaten for no reason other than the sadistic nature of those inflicting the pain. My mother had a serious cough that seemed to shake her entire body and when they struck her on the back with a cane stick she spit up blood. Trying not to be seen or heard we exchanged our life stories.”

“The monks gave me the name Nhean,” was the first thing I told her.

“It’s an honorable name,” she answered. “In there unfathomable ways the monk gave you a birth name that fits how I see you, as instinctive.”

“Why did they arrest you?” I asked.

“My husband taught English at the high school.”

The next day I searched for her in the fields but couldn’t find her. I never saw her again.


“I was being transported by a truck to a camp in the north when the truck came to a stop in the midst of a forested terrain. The two Khmer Rouge soldiers driving it got out, opened the back doors, and with guns pointed, ordered everyone out. There were about sixty of us huddled together in the truck, shackled by hand and ankle cuffs. They ordered us to stand in two rows, men and teenagers in the back row and women and children in the front row. Then they opened fire, mowing the screaming victims down like bottles in a practice shoot. When the shooting stopped and I lay under the bodies of two dead men atop me, I realized I hadn’t suffered a scratch. When the soldiers went to the front of the truck to retrieve the kerosene to burn the dead and shovels to bury the remains, I crawled out and ran into the forest.”

He slowly turns onto his side, groaning painfully as he does so, refusing my offer to help. Now instead of looking up at the ceiling or having to turn his head to see me, he looks straight at me. In his eyes I see his misery, if such a thing is possible. It is minutes later before he begins again.

“There is so much difference between a jungle and a forest. One, I was familiar with, the other one not at all. Almost naked and without a single tool on hand, or to make from things found on the forest floor, I quickly became on the verge of starving. Small streams and dew on leaves and plants kept me hydrated, but I had become too fatigued from lack of food to do anything more than walk a hundred yards a day. I missed Duc and wished I had had more time getting to know my mother.

“When I emerged from the woods, I found myself on the edge of a small farming hamlet of no more than a dozen thatched roof homes. There wasn’t a sign of the Khmer Rouge, disorder or violence. It sat like an oasis amidst the chaos of war. I wandered into the village, fascinated that independent villagers and farmers had chickens, goats, pigs and lush gardens filled with vegetables. There was a well in the middle of the courtyard. Whether it was from seeing the abundance of sites around me, or from starvation and thirst, I passed out.”

And he did so again. His eyes shut and his body grew limp. For a moment I thought he might have died, but I found a pulse, laid his arm across his chest, and let him sleep.


I arrange my notes, re-reading passages that most strongly told his story.

“Chantou. Was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen,” he says as soon as his eyes spring open. “While I lay in her family’s hut recovering I asked her why she was the one who tended to my needs the most.”

“I fear the most what must have happened to you before arriving at our village in the state you were in.”

“Terrible things are happening beyond your village, beyond the woods that surround it.”

She was silent for several minutes as she wiped my upper body with a wet cloth before answering, her voice quaking. “Nothing is as terrible as the fear of knowing you may not be safe from harm. It’s like waiting to be cut even before you see the sharp blade.”

“In the following weeks and months, as my strength returned, I assumed the duties of tending to the family’s four goats. I cut a trail through the woods in which I took them for exercise. I had taken the goats for their daily walk which lasted no more than an hour and returned to find everyone in the village had disappeared, including Chantou. Nothing was out of place, not a single animal pen, plate on a table, or fire burning beneath a boiling pot of soup.


“I was told I was found just outside the boundaries of tree and foliage growth of the woods, alongside a road, wearing barely nothing just as I had entered it months before. While I tried to imagine the village and Chantou as a dream, it didn’t answer the question of the passage of time, or if time had passed at all.

My rescuers passed me on to other small groups, one group after another, each a small cell who risked their lives saving others from the Khmer Rouge. My journey from the reclusive village – assuming without real reason that it actually existed – woods to a cargo boat headed to Great Britain nearing the end of the rule of the Khmer Rouge, had me asking myself, and often my rescuers, “Why me?”

“There was no right answer to the question. No one deserved being left to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

“In Great Britain I was brought back to full health, sent to a school where I learned English and where I excelled in drama. From there I was accepted into the Royal Academy of Performing Arts where I graduated with multiple offers for stage and screen work. I was the first actor from Cambodia to play the lead role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.”

Nhean lays his head back, closes his eyes, and as I flip through my notes concerning his arrival in the United States, his rise to movie star status, a win for Best Actor at the Oscars, I am reminded that his humility is even more remarkable given his success in the world. His eyes spring open with words already formed on his lips as they often did.

“A Khmer Rouge way of running many countries is on the rise and it must be fought against at all costs.”

I could swear that I saw his meat cleaver birthmark glow brightly like a burning sun just before suddenly burning out, leaving his cheek clear of any mark at all as his heart gave out, ending a remarkable life in which I was entrusted to be the last written documentarian of.

About the Author:

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 630 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews, and anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January 2022. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.


  1. It’s a beautiful heart touching story. It’s surprising how one human being can treat another so very inhumanly. It’s so very sad that such a thing can happen along with advancement in life. Thanks for sharing this story though a very painful one it teaches us a great lesson to be more humane towards each other.

  2. Such a rich story, that I could imagine it being the beginning chapter for a greater story. The unfolding details build suspense that grabs the reader, pulling us deeper into an historical tragedy. This story has a heart beat! I’m never disappointed in the quality of Steven Lester Carr’s writing, each piece a brilliant journey.