I understand that you buy and sell, and that you don’t ask many questions.
I am looking to buy some brazenly valuable jewellery. Preferably gold, in a hue so rich it looks wet. I want yolk gold, set with the ready stones: emerald, ruby, sapphire. I want banana gold and stones like bad flowers.
Actually, I am particularly looking for something with emeralds. An emerald brooch. The emeralds are set in a brooch the shape of an elephant’s head. Three lotuses too, I think. I am particularly looking for something that closely resembles this description.
An elephant’s head with three lotuses was the symbol of the old Democratic Party. I apologise for my handwriting. I don’t know how to render it in Khmer script. I only know the elephant, or rather, the idea of the elephant.
The description I have given you matches the description given to me by my mother, of a brooch that she would sometimes see in her mother’s jewellery box. The brooch was never worn; she would only see it on the evenings she watched her mother dress for some event she was too young and too strictly policed to attend. Her evenings ran together and could only be distinguished by the movement of people outside of her sphere of experience.
I have here resisted the use of the simile ‘the evenings ran to together like the black ink of badly written script,’ because my mother was not a good scholar. She liked cats and eating enough green tamarind to make herself pretty unwell. Therefore it would not be useful for you to have this simile if you are looking for a particular piece of jewellery.
“Why is it an elephant’s head?” my mother asked her mother.
“It is the symbol of our party,” her mother explained. Or perhaps she used the past tense. It does not affect the shape or whereabouts of the brooch.
As it may be useful for you while you are looking, I should explain that my mother’s mother was not a politically minded woman. She also liked cats. But her marriage was arranged with a political man and the brooch was a gift to her.
This brooch would have been part of a collection of brazenly expensive jewellery. I am sorry that I don’t have a description of the box it was kept in. Much of it was gold and ruby or emerald, but there were some sapphires too, and a few clusters of diamonds. A few of these pieces survive. I am sorry I am not able to include pictures. I hope my descriptions will suffice for now. (Clump of stars; a band hung with blood; twists laden with lazy fruit; a storm-coloured mirror; some ropes; the lighthouse light.)
The cats in Cambodia are quite small, by the way, with triangular heads and perpetually harassed expressions. I like cats. I feel sorry for them. My mother’s father — my grandfather — also like cats. His favourite was a snooty French cat which was allowed to sleep on his bed. As far as I can tell, he hated everything else. He didn’t like the French (who didn’t like the Democratic Party). He didn’t like the royal family (who didn’t like him and had him arrested in 1955). He didn’t like the Americans (their opinion of him is unknown).
I imagine he joined the Democratic Party in a state of fury at something, and presented my grandmother with the brooch at a later date. The party was dissolved in 1957, which would explain both its presence in the box and its absence on my grandmother’s evening wear. Both he and the brooch disappeared in the 1970s, along with so many other things that if I were to list them all I would look like someone fruitlessly dabbling in zeugma. I will not trouble you with the full list.
‘Disappeared’ is a disingenuous word and I suspect its use will obstruct you on your search for the elephant brooch. I will try to be more transparent.
After the passing of the particular three years, eight months and twenty days that lie across this narrative like a blindfold, my mother’s cousin and some surviving family returned to their abandoned house in Phnom Penh and found the jewellery they’d hidden in the ceiling. This was sold so that they could get out. Not getting out was, at that stage, not an option.
People are always selling their jewellery to get out of some place. They never specify to whom they’re selling these precious things, but they’re always doing it. They swap their heirlooms for boat and plane tickets, finishing their barely-controlled trajectories in countries where their only jewels are their memories. Yes! The jewels of their memories! Isn’t that a beautiful image? Memories studded in their brains like pins in a pin cushion, glimmering melancholically! I hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into poetic language. I trust it will motivate you on your search.
I do not know whether the brooch was sold to someone like you, or whether it was stolen when everyone was marched out of Phnom Penh or even in the tiny town of Prek Loeung. It may even have been given away or destroyed. I cannot discount any of these options. I present them to you because I think the easiest route would be complete honesty.
Prek Loeung, incidentally, was where my grandfather was last seen alive, under arrest yet again, and so sick that the family rumour has it that he tried to kill himself before they arrived. The rumour goes: something something army issue cyanide pill. I don’t know how much of that is my mother’s nightmare visualisation. He was already old when Phnom Penh was stripped of its people. He could have been sick with age, not despair and cyanide. I cannot quite believe that he could have foreseen those three years, eight months and twenty days. He was born in 1902. He saw his country go through a lot of violence and change. It must have looked like much of a muchness for a man who was convinced of the idiocy of practically everyone else in the world.
My mother didn’t see any of this. She left in 1970, recently married to her tutor and desperate to get out of the house. Her only real understanding of the political upheaval was that her marriage was not the usual three-day celebration but a very brief affair as a curfew had been imposed on the capital. When my grandfather, in another fit of fury, ran for the presidency against Lon Nol, she’d already spent two years in the United Kingdom, where no one understood what she wanted her haircuts to look like and where fried fish turned out to be disgusting huge soggy things in lumpen batter.
Upon her marriage, my mother took some pieces of jewellery with her, but not many. Her mother wrote to her some time before the three years, eight months and twenty days held the country in its black and timeless band and told her that if she wanted any of the jewellery, she would have to come back and get it. “I won’t just send it through your sister,” she said. (My mother’s sister was studying veterinary science in Belgium. It will not surprise you to learn that she liked cats.)
My grandmother suspected that my mother, ecstatic about her newfound freedom, was reluctant to return. She was right. My mother never returned to her home. By the time the borders reopened, after six years of silence, there was no home to return to. I am sorry that I cannot give more accurate dates, which I realise would help you check your records. For many people of my mother’s generation, time is divided into ‘before’ and ‘after.’
You have to understand that her reluctance was not neglect or cruelty. She had simply never been so free. At home, her father would time her walk home from school to make sure that she didn’t take any detours to meet boyfriends. He would rifle through her books and her chest of drawers in search of love letters from non-existent suitors. The only thing he ever found was some green tamarind and salt.
“Why do you have this in your drawer?” he asked her.
“So I don’t have to get up at night and find it,” replied my mother. This was the same reason she later gave to a kindly English landlady who wanted to know why she was hiding smelly pickled fruit in her wardrobe.
My mother’s aunt and uncle were much more bohemian and free-spirited. They would sometimes throw parties for the political and cultural elite, which my mother was allowed to attend. The nicest photos of my mother’s childhood and youth are usually from these parties.
One evening she was asked to dance by some young man and they slow-danced at arms length from one another. Partway through the dance, my mother’s cousin crept up to my mother and whispered the following sentence:
“Om baoy phare!”
I’m sorry that I can’t render the first two words in Khmer script. The first word means ‘person that is older than my parents.’ The second word means ‘open.’ The third word is the French word for lighthouse, but can also mean headlights.
My mother’s cousin was trying to warn my mother that my grandfather was glaring at her with wide-open eyes, lit with fire.
He was controllingly protective and not much good at expressing softer sentiments, and his flashes of fire seem to be what the people who knew him remember best. When my mother was away from them, he sent her a photo of her favourite cat and wrote on the back (in French), “She misses you!” because he couldn’t say it himself. My mother wrote back in Khmer because she was worried that her father would tell her off for her poor French grammar.
I am given to understand that gems are sometimes described as having ‘fire,’ that is, rapidly changing flashes of colour. I hope this anecdote has been illustrative.
If there is any other information you need regarding the elephant brooch, please let me know. It was emerald and it is gone.