Trifecta 81 – Hill of The Poisonous Tree


He’d arrived during what should have been a beautiful summer’s day. Through a rip in the transport’s canvas covering he could see pavements, parks, buildings. They were deserted. A once prosperous capital city of half a million people reduced to an empty shell. Everyone had left. They had all been made to leave. He was coming back and knew exactly where he was going.

He became prisoner 54. No longer a name. Just a number. He didn’t know how he survived those first days.


“Traitors. Name traitors!”

It’s all they wanted. They never stopped asking. He’d had no choice. The screams of his childhood friend reminded him nightly of that decision. They had only lasted minutes. They would remain with him forever.

Most others would stay chained all day. Prisoner 54 had a job. He mopped up after the seemingly continuous torture sessions. Was it a reward for all the names? Perhaps this was his torture. Whatever the body was capable of producing he had to clean it up. He had to watch it spilling onto the stone floor of the interrogation chamber.

The stench in the tiny wash room was overwhelming. A cracked light on the wall flickered. The electricity supply stubbornly unreliable since brother number one claimed power.  As he sent the grime from his brush down the blood soaked grill his suffocating layers of guilt weren’t so easily dismissed. He wondered whether he should end it. They were always being watched but it would only take a moment. The cleaning bottles. Perhaps if he drank one quickly?

No. He didn’t have the courage for that. He was sure they would come for him soon anyway. That was the ending he deserved. A quick way out was for better than him.

“Traitors. More Traitors!”

54 was almost out of names. Almost out of time. There were only two left. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t bring his parents here. They weren’t traitors. What did that matter? None of them were.

These 333 words are my entry into the Trifecta Week 81 writing challenge. This unapologetically shocking story is dedicated to the 12,273 people known to have lost their lives in S-21. Otherwise known as Tuol Sleng or the ‘Hill of the Poisonous Tree’, this Phnom Penh genocide centre was at the heart of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.


Only three survivors had the chance to tell their stories. What happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 is often forgotten. If told some would scarcely credit it did happen. It did. The world should never forget. The estimated two million people who lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge regime deserve better.


40 thoughts on “Trifecta 81 – Hill of The Poisonous Tree

  1. seablackwithink

    As I was reading..feelings of suspense and reality set in…and now I see why.
    You honor them.Incredible.

    and…best gravatar ever! 1st place.

    1. paulmclem Post author

      What happened in Cambodia defied the normal parameters of human behaviour. My words are trivial but if they make one more person aware of what happened then my job is done.

      Oh and yes it is an excellent gravatar. However, my partner is the arty one around here. She takes all the credit for it!

  2. Cobbie's World

    It is always noble to honour those who have suffered needlessly and to shine a light on the horror of what befell them. You wrote a compelling narrative about an infamous and important chapter in world history. To simply remember the forgotten is, often, the highest compliment you can pay. Well done.

    1. paulmclem Post author

      A lot of people don’t. There are a lot of good books out there on life before and during the Khmer Rouge. Not easy but I would say essential reading. Thanks for commenting.

  3. paulmclem Post author

    Just to clarify this is a fictional character set in a non-fictional environment. There would have been a prisoner 54. This wasn’t him/her. I have simply used a historic setting to write a fictional story to remind people of one of the most shameful periods in our planet’s history.

  4. Joe Owens

    No one outside the situation can ever fully grasp the ramifications and depths of reality in such a time as this. I think people are quick to deny because they either cannot or do not want to admit it is possible for humans to treat each other so bad. Time after time the stories come detailing such abuse and horrific experiences, yet we still want to declare it fiction. Your addition to the Trifecta is sure to rank near the top this week.

    1. paulmclem Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed comment. Much appreciated when people do this. What went on in Cambodia almost defies narrative. However, it’s something I’ve always been interested in and so took this opportunity to incorporate that interest into a work of fiction. Whether it is near the top of this week’s stories will be for others to say. I like it and importantly it was the best I could do this week. That’s all I expect from myself. To do my best and keep improving. Thanks again for commenting. See you on Wednesday for FF!

      1. Joe Owens

        If I read a blog I always comment. Sometimes my comment is long, but usually it is just a quick word of appreciation or a compliment. Your story drew more from me.

  5. Draug419

    I had stumbled across this bit of history a while ago as one stumbles across things on the net. Horrific. You captured that horror.

    1. paulmclem Post author

      Thanks Joanne. Yes, this is a picture of the actual rules/regulations from Tuol Sleng. Basically it was a case of speak when you were spoken to otherwise there would be trouble.

      Ooh. More love for the gravatar. It is fun and it actually does look like me so that’s a bonus.

  6. angelgal3176

    I love historical fiction, so this is a good one for me. Nicely done. It’s mind blowing how horrible human beings can be to each other, even our own government (I can’t see anyone being surprised at that anymore, but they still manage to be 😦 ).

  7. Suzanne

    This is awful, but so well written. And so important that we don’t forget. I’m actually currently editing a paper on the impacts of the Khmer Rouge regime on Cambodians. Your story captures the horror of those years very well.

      1. Suzanne

        I agree absolutely. As tough as it is to read some parts, I am really glad I took on this project for exactly those reasons.

  8. Kylie

    In addition to the well-deserved praise above, I’d like to add that the ending is perfect, considering the importance of honoring one’s parents in this culture.

  9. lena de almeida

    My stomach was tight as I was reading this, even before I realised you were referring to this specific historical event. Awful as the thought is this could be about so many other places too…

    1. paulmclem Post author

      I’m pleased that quite a few Trifectans have been introduced to this page in our history by my 333 words. Fiction can be a powerful vehicle. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    1. paulmclem Post author

      Thanks. On holiday at the moment so won’t be entering the next couple of Trifectas. However, I’m always thinking of ideas for stories. Hopefully you will like some of the things I come up with over the next couple of months. Thanks again.

  10. Sini

    Congrats on ur win. It is important that we dont forget the tragedies that men allowed to happen. Why could no one stand against these devils ? Why doesnt man help man ? Why do we let tragedies happen to unknown people ?


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