John took a deep gulp of cool palm water as he walked down the hot, dusty road. The vendor had charged him extra. Cambodia’s unofficial “foreigner tax.” But it was worth it for something cold. Sweat trickled down his face and back. He was starting to regret taking the scenic route instead of hiring a tuk tuk driver. John had been a big hiking enthusiast back home, but the heat just wasn’t the same.
As he crumpled the empty cup to toss it aside, John heard the strumming of a guitar and soft singing floating through the hot breeze. The melody had elements of traditional khmer songs but also sounded surprisingly western influenced. A bit bluesy and jazzy. As he drew closer, John was even more surprised to realize the words were in English.
“I’m just an old soldier
Who fought in many a war
Never paid much mind
To what the fighting was for”
In a small clearing on a ragged mat sat the musician. His skin was dark tan, his hair jet black, and his face old and wizened. As John stepped forward the man flashed him a grin, revealing a surprisingly healthy set of teeth. He had a jagged scar across his right eye. The iris was milky white. His other, good eye, sparkled darkly like a starlit sky. His right leg ended in a stump near the knee. A wooden crutch lay on the ground next to him. He plucked at a Chapei with expert precision.
“They said the war is over
But I never could go home
Far and wide across the earth
My feet will ever roam”
The voice was soulful, with a rough edge. It suited the lyrics. As the verse faded, the guitar’s mournful melody lingered. As he listened, John swore he heard other instruments accompany the guitar. Chimes, gongs, woodblocks, and a flute. But that was impossible, and as soon as he focused in on the sound, they vanished. Must have been the heat.
When the music stopped John reached into his pocket, fished out some bills, and put them in the wood box at the musician’s feet. The man grinned again.
“Thank you, kind sir,” he said, in astonishingly good English. Only a trace of an accent. That was rare around these parts, especially for a roadside musician.
“You’re welcome,” John replied, smiling as warmly as he could muster with his head spinning from the heat. “Where’s that song from?”
“From me,” the old man responded.
“Really!” John exclaimed, “Impressive. Are you actually an old soldier?”
“Of course,” the old man replied, “I didn’t get this picking mangos.” He smacked the knee of his right leg, calling attention to the stump.
“I guess not,” John said. “How’d it happen?”
“Roadside bomb. Khmer Rouge. Fought for the government against the insurgency.”
John nodded solemnly. “I understand better than most. I’m an old soldier too. Operation Desert Storm, then another tour in Iraq. I didn’t lose any limbs but I knew guys who did.”
“What brought you to Cambodia?” the old man asked.
John chuckled, “It’s like your song. I wasn’t comfortable at home after the war. I’ve roamed all over the world ever since. Eventually I found my way here. Odd, huh?”
The man set his guitar aside, picked up his crutch, and stood up. He was nearly two heads shorter than John, but somehow John felt like he was looking up into those mismatched eyes as the old man clapped him on the shoulder.
“Not odd. The spirits of old soldiers call out to each other, brother.”
John swallowed a lump. “How’d you learn English so well?” he asked.
The old man chuckled and sat back down. “When you’ve roamed as long as I have, you learn things.”
“You’ve traveled? Not a lot of people here can afford to.”
The old man didn’t respond. He picked up his guitar and started strumming again.
John sighed. “Secretive huh? Alright. You here every day?”
The old man nodded. He seemed to be engrossed in his tune.
“Well I’ll be back to talk to you again, tomorrow.”
The old man smiled up, wordlessly.
John turned and headed back. The heat was still killing him. About half a kilometer down the path it mercifully intersected with a road. After several minutes, he managed to hail a passing tuk tuk driver and sank down into the back seat, gasping out the address for his apartment and settling in for a long drive.
John was just beginning to relax and enjoy the breeze from the drive blowing across his damp skin when he felt a stabbing pain in his arm. The pain made its way up his shoulder and into his chest. He couldn’t breathe. John doubled over, gasping. As he toppled forward out of his seat he could faintly hear the tuk tuk driver swear in Khmer. He barely felt the asphalt against his face as he toppled out of of the vehicle. As his vision grew dark, he thought he heard a lilting, mournful melody, carried by the wind.
“You’re just an old soldier
In a war that’s never won
But your final battle’s over
Your earthly roaming’s done”