Dominique Barraza Ángeles

The Feet of Bona



Dominique Barraza Ángeles is a Mexican writer based in Arizona. She has a BA in Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Arizona State University. She knows none of her names are pronounceable. Her writing concentrates in fantasy and magical realism. Currently, she is working towards publishing her work and forcing thousands around the world to pronounce her name right.

twitter: @starbcrns

ig: @shaziskhalid

Last Chapter: 1977

Past the field of rice and under his favorite palm tree, where that family of rats always climbed, the little boy was buried.  The rats weren’t there now, as if they knew not to disturb Sann at work.  He tilled the ground, patted out a rectangle, placed his nephew’s body in the hole, and started to push the dirt back in.

“Wait,” she whispered behind him.

Sann turned back, looking at his half-sister, Veasna.  Her hair was already shaved, her thin cotton dress already white.  She did not have her son cremated, as their culture called, but she did follow the traditional wear of mourning.  That much she could give him.  Her face was drained of color.  Red-rimmed eyes that didn’t meet his gaze.  “Let me say goodbye to my son.”

He nodded, but quickly froze.  Behind her, a shadow.  The sturdy shape of his own son, Bona, quietly coming closer until his presence was so loud Veasna felt and saw him, gazing over her shoulder.  Their eyes met.  Bona shifted in his spot, an empty chest, a silent request.

“My cousin…,” he began, and that alone almost shred Sann to pieces.  His son continued, “Can I say goodbye too?”

Deafening silence.  Sann left the decision to his sister, who after thirteen heartbeats nodded her head slowly.  So Bona approached, twine in hand, and kneeled next to her.

It was an immaculate picture.  Bona and Veasna, kneeling side by side over little Pisey’s body.  Her with a hairless head, him with wet eyes.  Utter silence, but for the scuttling of insects in the trees surrounding them.  It was the wickedest thing Sann had ever witnessed.

He stood up, leaving son and sister in privacy, but not before catching a motion, a bit of movement.  Bona had thrown something in the grave.  Sann walked up the trail leading to his house, where he stashed Pisey’s makeshift plaque.  Two bamboo sticks held together, his name and years of life engraved on a rough piece of bark.  In Cambodian Khmer, not French.  Never French.


Fourth Chapter: 1976

“Why have I never met your sister?” Bona asked his father.  “I am almost a man.”

Sann hesitated before answering.  “She and I did not get along well as kids.  We grew out of it, but since she and I weren’t great friends, there was no reason to keep in touch.”

Bona’s eyebrows furrowed.  “Oh.  You do not like her.”

“I did not say that,” Sann quickly objected, “It’s not that I don’t like her.  Our lives simply went separate ways.”

“Ah.  She’s from the city, too.  Pa, almost no one from the city comes here.  I just found that out.”  His son pondered over the thought for a minute, forehead creased.  The pimples on his chin had vanished away, and subtle black hairs reared their heads in their place.  Around his wrist was braided twine, which he wore proudly.  It pushed his father’s heart down to his stomach.

Somehow he gathered the strength to finally say it.  “Bona, listen to me.  Remember what I told you about your aunt?  How she is different?  It is nothing bad, but we need to think about what we do.  You cannot greet her or her family when they come.  You must not,” Sann turned Bona’s body so it faced him fully.  “Go gather water, and don’t talk to them without me once you come back.”

Three figures took shape from a distance, one smaller than the rest.  Sann ran to greet his half-sister, her respectable but forgettable husband, and their lanky child.  Sann took their heaviest bags from under their arms, noticing how winded the boys were, and led them to his house.  To them it would look more like a shack.  A backyard shed.  Some thrown-together sticks and leaves to cover thrown-away magazines and hammers.  Bona did not greet them at the door, as he promised.  As Sann forced him to.  Inside, the first words Sann ever heard from his nephew’s mouth, the slim boy in high-waisted pants, was “Is this where people with no money live?”

Veasna made to pinch his arm, yet did not stand to correct him.  Sann could tell she taught the boy not to lie, only to keep certain truths to himself.  She certainly did.  Sann examined her.  This woman who shared his father, who would now take up residence in his home, had yet to fully meet his gaze.  Instead, she turned her neck to her husband.  “Chanvatey, take our bags to our rooms.”

“Room,” Sann corrected.

They both turned to him, eyes piercing.  It made him straighten his back.  “It is more of a living space with a curtain, to be fully honest.”

Chanvatey huffed, a mocking laugh.  He turned to Veasna, “Good backup plan,” and cut off whatever she meant to spit back by groveling to their new room.

Veasna stood lethally still.  Her black hair cut short, sharp, resting beneath a round chin.  When she turned, Sann wondered if she trimmed it herself, if the pent up truths she bottled up inside poisoned her less, maimed her less if she could somehow physically cut away at a piece of herself.  “Pohn proh,” she let up, “little brother.  How many years?”

“Close to fourteen,” Sann answered in a heartbeat.

She nodded.  “And… your son?”

He gestured with his head for her to follow.  Veasna let him take her outside the home, across his small rice field, to a left-bending path leading towards a lake.  Bona met them halfway there.  Across his back was a thick stick, a pail overtipping with water on each end.  Seeing Veasna made him stop in place, unsure what to do.

“Bona,” she said, more than asked.  Not a step had been taken to close their distance.  Sann made to help take the water off his son’s back, allowing half a minute of purely awkward pregnant silence in between.  At last, Bona looked at his father, wiped his hands at his sides, and faced Veasna.  “Nice to meet you.  I am Bona, your nephew.”  He extended his hand.

Just then, Veasna’s kid came up from behind, unnoticed by all in his silent sulking or how he followed his mother’s steps.  “Oh, gross,” the boy grimaced, “You have the dirtiest hands ever.”

Sann was stunned, but not surprised.  Bona, on the other hand, simmered internally.  He limited his response to “Your hands will look like this too if you want to drink any water around here.”

“No they won’t!”

“Then drink nothing and die.”

“Bona,” Sann warned.

“Shut up!  You are jealous for having no money!”

Veasna tugged at her kid’s shirt until he stumbled behind her, and with barely moving teeth she scorned him.  Told him to greet his cousin properly.  He huffed, like his father, and finally admitted, “I am Pisey.  I live here now.”

It went about as bad as Sann had expected.  It continued to be bad, specifically those first few weeks.  Accommodating did not come easy to his sister, or her financial sector husband, or their child that was so used to water springing from the turn of a faucet handle.  Pisey whined, though not nearly as much as Chanvatey.  Veasna internalized the situation the way most women do.  She cleaned their room, then cleaned the rest.  She hand-washed her husband’s textile trousers, her son’s favorite green button-up, and her own gold-threaded av pak blouse.  She cooked.  Occasionally.  From visiting neighbors, she soaked up news of the real world, her world, and its politics.  Phnom Penh capital evacuated under threat of American bombs, the Khmer Rouge party leading millions out of their homes.  Thousands still displaced.  She avoided Sann and his son as much as possible, staying indoors while the two of them tended the crops.  She urged Pisey to do the same.  Chanvatey needed no instructing.

The first time Bona turned up with a dead snake, ready to cook it, Veasna nearly fainted.  Chanvatey’s skin paled.  It confused him, since everyone in their area generally liked snake soup.  He’d been eating it since infancy, taught to make it on his own at eleven.  That, and the other cuisine made from captured animals, from unlucky insects.  It was normal for Bona.  Not so much for his cousin.

Pisey almost cried when he saw the dead scaled thing dangling from Bona’s hands, limp as a noodle, and refused to eat the subsequent stew.  Yet he watched the ordeal in disgusted wonder.  He couldn’t rip away his gaze as his thirteen-year-old boy of a cousin washed the reptile in boiling water, then took it out to run a knife across the scales.  After chopping off the head, an image Pisey was surely never going to forget, Bona expertly cut straight down the body, opening it up, his hands following a rhythm they were clearly used to.

“Ew.  What is that?”

“The insides,” Bona explained, tugging out the flimsy bloodied parts.  “We don’t eat those.”

Pisey pondered for a minute.  “Then what do you eat?  That leaves nothing!  Only that ugly head.”  He pointed to its place on the sand floor.

“The meat attached to the scales, dummy,” Bona replied.  He reached for the severed head and threw it in Pisey’s direction.  The younger boy swerved out of the way, screaming, and called him an imbecile before storming off.

Four more snake stews later, Pisey grew hungry enough to try it, and once he did, there was no stopping that current.  He was soon chugging them down.  It didn’t stop there, as he eased more and more into rudimentary cuisine.  Bona presented him with roasted crickets, salted tarantulas, and seasoned frog soup.  Their dance was always the same: Pisey dramatically refused, gagged for a while, and after some time eventually bit into the food.  The mix of hunted meat with salt enchanted him.  Once, Veasna caught him with a cricket halfway in his mouth, and smacked him behind the head until he spit out the insect.  Her screaming was shrill, and her usual vocabulary sprang out.  Poor, uncivilized, savage.  The usual terms for her brother and his son.  Pisey started meeting with his cousin in secret, under a palm tree crawling with rats where he could enjoy the taste of dead animals to his heart’s desire.

“I did not know we were poor until Pisey told me, Pa,” Bona confessed to his father one night.  Sann was unsure what to say, but he didn’t need to since his son finished with, “But it is fine, because soon I will have to tell him he is poor too.”

It wasn’t long into their new form of residence that rules were established.  Sann and Bona slept on the first floor, ran the kitchen, the stock, tended the earth and traded with neighbors.  The upstairs family washed the clothes, cleaned the house, traveled for newspaper clippings.  Rice fields and farm-tending were a day-long job, one that began and ended with the sun.  Therefore it lined up perfectly where one family mustn’t interact with the other besides sharing a living space.  If Pisey wanted a treat from downstairs, Veasna would stop him and get it herself, feet rushed.  Whenever Bona had any inclinations to check on the upper floor, Chanvatey made sure to drape their curtain closed.  That curtain was a substitute for a door, separating the two spaces.  Veasna and her husband grew fond of it.  The working men had plenty to do outside the house, and the city family preferred their room to the harsh sun.  Cogs in a machine that never met, only moved simultaneously serving a single apparatus.

Sann lived in a state of unnerve.  His thoughts raced rather than walked, and that tiny jump his heart made whenever Bona and an upstairs family member shared a room never went away.  Inevitably, Pisey fell in love with rural life, with the presence of his cousin.  Bona too, though being older he would never admit that much.  There was a spark in his eyes everytime Pisey recounted stories from movies he’d watched, telling them from scratch and acting out every part.  He didn’t even mind that his older cousin often interrupted him for questions.

“We’re going on a secret mission,” Pisey confessed to Sann.  His mismatching teeth were pronounced in his wide smile.  “Don’t tell my mom, but I’m going hunting.”

“He’s coming with me to gather from the traps,” Bona added with a tone of nonchalance.  Across his back was a bamboo pack.  Green and sturdy, with a lid closed off with twine so when he took the snakes or fish or crabs from the traps he could deftly throw them in with lock.  Pisey held in his hands the large pot where the food was cooked.

Sann thought over how much his sister hated him already and how much more she possibly could.  Letting out a sigh, he bid them away with “Do not let Pisey close to the animals when they are alive.  Cleaning and cooking only.”

He continued to reap his harvest, corn being in season.  The rice was abundant and he’d traded a chicken for a sack of beans just the day before.  Not long after, his mind got the better of him and he ran off into the trees.  Sann panted, following the trustful trail.  He found the boys sweating on the ground, Pisey coughing once very loudly and laughing.

Koun?” he threw at Bona.  Son.

The kid was popping a dead cricket in his mouth.  “Just playing, Pa.  Pisey is as bad at wrestling as he is gathering water.”  He proceeded to push at Pisey’s gut with his foot.

His younger cousin followed in suit, kicking at Bona with his small bare feet.  Neither looked to have plans of standing up, just laying on the ground, going at their silly kicking game without a matter in the world.  Pisey coughed again.  Sann took a seat next to them, a deep sigh escaping his lips.  He never thought the boys would get to this point, certainly not after that introduction.

“What did you catch, koun?”


“Mmm.  Good,” Sann made himself horizontal on the ground too, forgetting the corn, “Crabs are delicious with prahok paste.”

Pisey arrived upstairs with a white footprint adorning his shirt.  It escaped both his and Bona’s mind completely to dust off the evidence of their getaway.  When Veasna saw, the air around her trembled.  Pisey didn’t mean to tell his mother, but she pried it out of him anyways.  The next afternoon, she locked herself and Sann in the closet, the physically closest they had probably been for years.  “Do not ever let that boy near Pisey again!  He rubbed his dirty feet all over my son!  Have you forgotten what that means, brother, or has farm life turned you stupider than you already were?”

She did not lie.  In Cambodia, the feet were the most impure part of the body.  A walking obscenity.  Forget about letting a foot touch your head, which carried the soul.  It was an instant death wish, the utmost sign of disrespect.  If there was anything consistent about Veasna, it was both her hatred for the French and her stubbornness in defending the traditional.

Sann could take it no more.  “What do you want me to do, cut their tongues off?  Bind their hands?  Those boys deserve to be happy.  After what you’ve done, do not dare pit them against each other,” he yelled.  He was so mad spit was flying from his mouth, “Our Pa may have done a number with us, but I will lay down my life before that same venom touches those boys.  Punish me, and be done with it.  Fault me for our father’s mistakes.  But let Bona and Pisey grow together.  If you will not give them the truth, give them peace.”

Veasna did not speak for a week.  She caved into herself attending to the needs of the house, nothing more.  It was in that silence that Pisey coughed his way into a weak sleep, and by the time red spots sprouted from his neck up to his face, it was too late.  Sann’s friend Akra, who had some healing remedies, confirmed the sickness wasn’t caused by any one accident or contagion.  Rather, the little eleven-year-old boy had simply been too weak in the body.  Too unaccustomed to air, soil, water that was not from the city.

“He’s going to get better, right?” Sann was asked, and he had enough strength to maintain the lie that night, nodding at his boy.  Veasna cleaned her tiny son’s arms with wet towels as her husband smoked outside.  From his sickbed, Pisey looked at Bona’s wrist.  He grabbed for the bracelet.  “Teach me this.  Show me how to make one.”

Bona’s eye twitched, and choked out “Of course.”  He grabbed for some loose twine under the bed, then added, “If you tell me another movie.”

Veasna watched their exchange in stunned silence.  There was a heaviness to her now, Sann noticed, not just around the edges but lodged between her ribs, sinking her core into the wooden floor.  Veasna looked at Bona, let her eyes linger for once, something she never let herself do in the months they lived together.

Pisey grabbed the end of twine from his best friend’s hands and smiled, playfully starting with, “Someday, I’ll take you to a movie myself, you bastard.”


Third Chapter: 1975


Brother Sann,

It is me.  Veasna.  I hope this letter finds you in good health.  I write to you from my home in Takeo, close to the Phnom Penh capital.  My husband has settled us in a nice home, for me and our family.  Sann, I know it has been years since we talked but this is a desperate hour.

I do not know where to begin so I simply will.  I have gotten married, to a banker named Chanvatey who takes good care of me and comes from a good family.  We had a son together in 1966.  We named him Pisey, and he is almost ten.

We are under duress.  The Khmer Rouge are advancing, and people at Chanvatey’s work are speaking of a revolution.  Some do not show up to work anymore.  The French have been defeated, yet I fear a new enemy has sprouted in their place.  Whispers come from all sides, telling us to fear the communists, or to fear the Vietnamese, or to fear the Americans.  We paid no mind until Chanvatey’s bank came under fire.  He might lose his job, and Pisey’s school is also in threat of going under.  Two hospitals have been closed already.

This does not bode well.  For once, I am afraid for my family, and the little piece of happiness I’ve created for myself here.  Please brother, let us come live with you until the fire dies out.  If not for me, for my child.  For the duty you must carry out as a brother.  After the Frenchman, I know you owe me nothing.  And if you allow us into your home, I cannot promise that it will be easy, not between me and you and him.  Nevertheless, I beg you to give us the chance.

I implore you.  Be the man that our father never was to me.  Once again.


Second Chapter: 1961

Pa had swindled away their inheritance in bets and drinking money the last sickly years of his life, leaving Sann and Veasna to fend for themselves in the adult world.  Sann tried for architecture, but found himself bored to death with it.  His school money ran out along with his father’s dignity anyway.  So he left behind an academic life of little achievement to go beg his half-sister.

She lived in a house with three other girls, all attending jobs at the embassy.  When she first opened the door, she hardly recognized him.  “So this is father’s benevolent son.  The favorite.  Looks like you’ve gotten yourself in a tangle, pohn proh.”  Sann asked her for money, and she laughed in his face.  Sann asked her for a bed, and she slammed the door shut.  Sann then waited outside the house, watching as her housemates peered at him from behind window curtains, until Veasna dragged him by the collar inside.  Three days later, she bought him a plot of land away from the embassy, on the outskirts of civilization and told Sann to take his chances living off the land.

For three months he staggered into his new life.  He built a house from what little he remembered in class and asked the neighbors for farming tips.  He knew nothing of his half-sister’s job at this time, of the foreigners she met, of the French she rubbed elbows with, the ones who refused to leave after Cambodia escaped their rule.  Into the fourth month, Sann hated life as a farmer a little less, at least much less than university and his father’s ghost.  Then Veasna called for him.

“You need to do me a favor,” she said without meeting his gaze in that small hut he called a home.  “I cannot go alone.  Someone needs to drive me here and back, and it has to be you.”  In her hands was a small print of an address.  Sann did not know the nature of their trip until he found himself behind the wheel, pulling up to a tiny clinic.  He stopped her from leaving the car.

“Are you pregnant?” he pronounced into the air.

Veasna looked at him from red-rimmed eyes.  It took thirteen heartbeats for her to speak.  “It was a mistake.  He was… is... a Frenchman.  Don’t look at me that way.  We met through the embassy.  He had a nice voice and he promised me… Nevermind what he promised!  That is none of your concern.”  She made to get out but Sann gripped her arm.

“The baby is not to blame for its mother being a French-loving traitor whore.”

She slapped him.  “I will not bring an unwanted child into the world!  I am more than aware of what life that leads to,” she yelled at his face, and nearly struck him again.  Sann almost let her, if she weren’t too weak to pull her hand down.  Still, he told her, “You are a monster if you do this.”

“If you want this babe so much then you take care of it.  I will not.”  And there it was, a decision.  Veasna and Sann, in the car outside an abortion clinic.  No rain, not dramatic fog to set the mood.  Only a sunny day coming to an end, the sky a tinted pink.

She hid the pregnancy from her mother, who lived away, and Pa was close to 4 years dead now.  When her half-Cambodian half-French infant came into the world, it wasn’t a week before the boy was deposited on his uncle’s, now father’s, excuse of a doorstep.  He wept and cried, indignant to it all, with nothing of his mother’s but a small tag that read “Bona”.  Common name for a common boy.

Bona grew knowing only a life of labor.  Sann evaded answering any questions about his past, as much as a father could.  He rubbed his runny nose and cured his fevers by burning leaves on his chest.  He taught Bona to create rudimentary traps, the skill of catching sea snakes and crabs to make meals out of them.  To enjoy the taste of crispy cooked cockroaches and salted frogs.  As Bona neared teenage years, bumps sprang up on his back and under his chin.   Sann asked his healer neighbor Akra for help, who pressed a leaf clotted with aloe vera to the pimples.

His son wanted to learn how to make bracelets, and Sann attempted to teach him using twine.  It took six tries before he got the length correctly, and Bona eagerly lapped up his father’s look of pride once he finally got it right.

Bona is three years today, I drew how he looks,” he wrote Veasna.  “Bona is six.  He likes to run across the rice field and he’s gotten so strong.  Bona is eight, I wish I had a picture to send you.”  All the letters were returned until finally, he got one in response saying no one named Veasna lived at the address he was writing to.  She wanted nothing of him, or her son.  They were the picture she refused to take, the blip of history she elected to omit.  A visage her eyes couldn’t bear to witness, something she turned away from.  Sann realized that by taking in Bona, he had unified the two people Veasna positively despised more than anyone else.  Besides her father.


First Chapter: 1945

“Your hands are dirty.”

Her father was late again.  Late leading to absent, absent leading to never-planned-on-going.  She presented a piano rendition of Clair de Lune to a full room but not her father.  As compensation he had the great idea of taking her and Sann out for ice cream together.  Veasna patted her hair down as pretty as she could.  Her entire school costs including piano lessons came from her mother’s pockets.

“Your hands are dirty,” her brother said again.

Veasna didn’t know much about her little brother, but she knew three important facts of his life: his mother was a homewrecking whore, he stole away her father, and he just called her dirty.  The former was courtesy intel of her own mom, who taught Veasna the art of a short tongue,  to keep those kinds of things to herself.  She wiped away the sweat on her hands.  Pa pulled up, calling for Sann first and a half-hearted Veasna after.  She was an afterthought made human.

“Pa bought me a viola last week,” Sann informed her proudly.  He bit rather than licked the green ice cream, some dribbling down his chin.  “He’s going to pay all my music school until I’m famous.”

“That’s right,” Pa said, pulling up into the parking lot of his work office.

“I also play music.  I just had a piano recital.  I did Debussy,” Veasna told them both.

“Debussy, huh?  Of course.  French.”  Pa shook his head and ushered them out of the car, into his workspace.  He turned to Sann, speaking only to him now.  “You know the difference between us and the French, koun?  It’s beyond the war.  Beyond those bastards pillaging our country and sucking every cent.  It’s deeper, baser than that.”  He opened the door for both of them, practically pushing them in.  Pa faced Sann, coming to eye-level with him and pointing at his own heart.  “Pride.  French have no pride.  Look at how they treat their families.  Leave them behind for glory in the east.  No, not Cambodians.  We are men.”

Veasna didn’t eat much of her lemon ice cream.  Only took a seat next to Pa’s desk, her head inclined to his as to not miss any word.

“We care for our women, our wives, our children.  Cambodian men take responsibility and are strong.  Have you seen the French half-breeds they leave behind amongst our own?  Do you see the soldiers of France paying for their school, buying their rice, teaching them to be men?  No, son.  I care for you.  As you will care for your son.  And him for his.  And so on and so forth.  We make a line of strong Cambodian men.”  Pa let out a deep, rumbling laugh.  He sat behind the desk with a sigh, raising his feet, comfortably swinging them over on the wood.  The tips of his shoe came dangerously close to hitting Veasna, who leapt back in silent shock.  The swerve made her smudge ice cream on the front of her dress.

©The Acentos Review 2020