Thorn crosses the border*

Franciscan Collaborative Ministries

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By Julie Rattey


Thorn (“TOUR-in”), 19, turned to gaze at her sleeping husband, his tranquil face and wiry arms lit by the moonlight scattered across the jungle floor outside Battambang, Cambodia. She then turned to look at her little sister Vana, 6, curled up next to her. What if this is the last time I see them? Thorn thought. What if we die today?

Thorn pressed her hands to her chest, trying to quiet her thudding heart. She was used to making big decisions; when her mother died when Thorn was 12 and her father had gone away to war, Thorn had quit school to take over the family farm and care for her brothers and sisters. When she was 16, she had married Van. And in only three months, in January of 1979 — Thorn placed a hand gently over her round stomach — she would be a mother. But this decision was life or death. If they stayed, they would live in a country at war, a country without freedom, a country where they might be killed at any time by the Khmer Rouge, the communist organization that had seized power a few years before. Yet if they continued their flight, they would be walking for weeks, facing death if they were spotted making their way to Thailand. What if they never reached the better life they longed for? What if they failed?

“I think we should start walking,” Thorn whispered to Van, who had begun to stir. “It’ll be morning soon.”

“We don’t have any rice left,” Van said. “I’ll have to go to that pond we found last night to try and catch some fish.”

“You could find fish in the middle of the desert,” Thorn teased. “I think you fish in your sleep.”

The laugh that slipped unexpectedly from their lips infused them both with courage.

“I’ll be back,” said Van, slipping quietly out of their hiding place. Thorn lay back, drifting into dreams of her mother, her father, of endless fields of rice…

Only moments later, she was gently shaken awake. Van, empty-handed and taut-faced, was leaning over her.

“Khmer Rouge.”

“Close?”

“Close enough.”

Thorn, suddenly nauseous with hunger and fear, sat up. Vana awoke and immediately began to cry. “I’m hungry,” she sobbed. “I want to go home.”

Thorn rocked her in her arms. “We can’t go home,” she said gently. “We’re not safe there. We’re going someplace where we will be.”

They rose and began to walk, the grass cool beneath their bare feet. Van, who before the Khmer Rouge regime had often traveled to Thailand on business, led the way, pausing them every few minutes to scout the army’s progress. Finally, he turned to Thorn, an apology in his face.

“They’re too close. They might see us. We’re going to have to run.”

Thorn was aghast. “Van, the mines—”

“I know,” he said. “We have no choice.” Thorn felt another wave of nausea overtake her as she watched Van hoist Vana onto his back. “Whatever happens,” he told Vana, “do not let go of me.” Vana nodded, frightened. “Step only where I step,” he reminded Thorn. “I will be right in front of you.” Impulsively, he kissed her. Then, with the sounds of waking jungle insects buzzing loudly in their ears, they began to run.

Those days from the war seemed so far away as Thorn, 47, slowly rolled her housekeeper’s cleaning cart down the hall of the Pen and Pages Tutorial Center run by the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, New York. Today, she faced not armies or jungles, but herself.

Sister Rose Garramone’s office was just three rooms down now. She would be there, as she always was, with her door open and a warm, ready smile on her face. And Thorn must speak to her. At least, she should speak to her. It was a possibility, anyway. But then, there was always tomorrow.

Thorn’s hands began to shift the cart into a turn. Then she stopped.

So, you can walk three weeks to Thailand, and then, with the help of the United Nations, start a whole new life with your family in the United States a few years later, but you can’t do this?

Thorn sighed, pushing the cart on toward Sister’s open door and knocking on it before she could stop herself.

“Thorn, how nice to see you!” said Sister Rose, rising from her desk to greet her. “How are you? How is Van and the family?”

“Well. Thank you, Sister,” said Thorn quietly. She hovered in the doorway, fingering a dust rag.

“Can I… help with something?” Sister asked.

Thorn took a deep breath. “I don’t know how to read.”

“Oh, I bet you do,” Sister said encouragingly, when Thorn said nothing else. “You might surprise yourself!”

“No, Sister,” Thorn said quietly. “I really can’t read anything.” Before Sister could reply, she continued. “I know you help people read, study. They say you’re very kind. You seem, to me, kind.” She paused. “In Cambodia, I had school only one year. When we came here, I tried, but I never learn….” She looked down in embarrassment. “I’d like to read. Like to… become more than legal resident. I want to be an American citizen.”

“I see.” Sister folded her hands and looked at Thorn with a smile. “When would you like to get started?”

 

***

 

“Emanipation… Emancipiation… I’m sorry, Sister.”

Thorn was frustrated. This word always gave her trouble.

“You don’t have to say you’re sorry, Thorn,” said Sister Rose. “Try it one more time.”

Thorn closed her eyes and concentrated even harder. “Eman-ci-pation… Emancipation Proclamation.”

“Wonderful!” Sister beamed at Thorn as she placed the last of the vocabulary cards down on the pile. She placed one hand on the pile and the other on the citizenship test study booklet, with its hundreds of questions.

“Do you realize you have learned all this in a year and a half, Thorn? Do you realize what an accomplishment this is? I am so proud of you!”

“I… I feel good,” Thorn replied. She felt shy, but pleased. It had been a long struggle — English was a difficult language to begin with, and then they had discovered that Thorn had dyslexia. It was so hard to read when the letters kept inverting themselves on the page. Then there was the day she had gone to the immigration office to get fingerprinted, only to return with a book of new citizenship test questions. They had already spent months laboring over the old ones.

But now, it was almost over. The date of her test had been set — just weeks away. Thorn felt as though a small fish had just done a flip inside her stomach.

Sister must have read her mind. “I know you’ll pass that test, Thorn,” she said. “You’ve studied and worked so hard. And, if you don’t pass,” she grinned mischievously, “the immigration office will wish they’d never heard of me.”

Thorn grinned shyly. She reached out her small hand and placed it over Sister Rose’s. “Thank you,” she said. She hoped the gesture conveyed that with her new friend’s help, she was reaching the end of one more difficult journey, crossing one more border.  CD

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.