James Fisher is lying in the conex like a cricket lying in an empty matchbox. Conex, short for container exchange, is a square metal box; each side measures two meters. These containers used to contain US military equipment and supplies shipped to Vietnam during the war. When the Americans pulled out of Vietnam, they left behind a lot of things. Among them were handcuffs, locks, batons, and conexes. The conex holding James was brought here from Da nang seven or eight years ago. The communist police in the camp cut open one side of the container to make a door and turn it into a cell for solitary confinement. A chain secures the door with a lock made in USA. The prisoner in the conex breathes through the slit in the door.
James has been in the conex since 5:00 P.M. the day before. He is dressed in boxers. He has a terrible night, without a moment of sleep. James must stand by the door; his nose pressed to the slit to avoid the smell of feces, urine, and rusted metal. Hell, James thinks, will not smell like this. His eyes feel hot because of the smell. It almost suffocates him, as he is unable to breathe. For a few times, it nearly knocks him unconscious as if he were injected with a powerful drug. James cannot stand by the door all night, because as it is farther into the night, each gust of wind is like a sword cutting into his bare body. In order to avoid the cutting sword, James has to endure the smell that a human being can never find anywhere, in any prison cell, since mankind knew how to build prisons to hold their fellow men. James cannot lie down. Neither can he sit on the rusted metal floor covered with dry feces that have built up a layer like cement. James stands all the time. He has the feeling his head will bump into the top of the conex if he just stands on tiptoes. James folds his arms over his chest to protect his lungs from the cold. As it is getting colder, he runs in place and throws punches in the air like a boxer in training. Forest dew is collecting on the top of his conex and drips along its sides. The container has been turned into a refrigerator. James closes his eyes and grinds his teeth, trying to put up with the punishment. He stands and runs in place all night. When the prison gong sounds and the birds begin to sing to announce a new day, James whispers to himself “Sufficient to the night is the evil thereof.” He is ready to endure another punishment for the daytime.
As the sun rises higher, James feels warmer. When it is almost noon, the dew has evaporated from the top of the conex. The tropical sunlight is dancing on it right now. Heat begins to build up inside. A giant log is burned just a few feet away from the conex. At about two P.M., the conex has become a toaster. James, a human being, has been turned into a loaf of bread by some human beings whose hearts are controlled by their Party and its ideology. James is jumping again. He is like a live duck being thrown into a burning hot pan. The duck cannot fly. It is jumping up and down, trying to avoid the burning heat. Its eyes are dull and wet, as if it’s praying for death to come sooner. Blood is flowing down to its legs. The duck is dead. The cook cuts off its legs to make a delicious soup. James is also like a fish, fresh from the lake, being put into a pan of boiling lard. The fish wriggles, then curls its body into a crisp, brown delicacy. James is sweating as if he just took a shower. Sweat is trickling down to the floor of the conex incessantly. James is enjoying the treat of a communist steam bath. James’ throat is scorched by thirst. He’s craving for water. James feels like his blood is going to dry up. A terrible drought is causing his skin to crack. James lays his face against the slit at the door. He sticks out his tongue, like a panting, thirsty dog. His captors know how to act at the right moment. Cups of water are splashed in the middle of his face. James swallows those drops of water. He curls his tongue up to lick the drops around his mouth. Then he opens his mouth waiting for another splash of water so that he may have a mouthful. His captors don’t want him to die of thirst. They only want him to crave for water. James can see the pail of water they put near the conex door on purpose. How James wishes he could bury his face in that pail and drink his fill!
Seeing him with his mouth open, they don’t splash water on his face as before. They splash it over his chest, his groin and his legs. His wish for a mouthful of water never comes true. Thirst is more terrible than hunger. It’s easier for a person to behave in a cowardly and base manner when he is thirsty and hasn’t had anything to drink for many days. His captors are still watching him. He is standing at the conex door; his nose, mouth, and two half eyes are showing through the slit. His mouth is still open with his tongue sticking out, and he is panting heavily like a dog. The guards laugh at the sight. They kick the pail of water to the ground and go away. James is desperate. He thinks he’s going to die of thirst. The scorching sun is glaring at the top of the conex, which surrounds James in its seething heat. The log nearby continues to burn, sending its smoke and hot air into the conex. The drops of water on James’ body have turned hot and evaporated. And now his sweat is hot, too.
The conex door suddenly opens wide. Chi Mai is standing there, with two guards holding AK47’s aiming at James. She points at a new pail of water nearby.
– “James, you can drink now. As much as you like.” Without saying “thank you,” James picks up a cupful of water and empties it in one gulp, panting heavily as he drinks. One by one, he has drunk five cups.
– “Drink more, James.”
He drinks another cup, then another.
– “Isn’t the water wonderful, James?”
– “You Americans are snobbish and disgusting. When you were in our country, you didn’t drink our water. You drank only bottled water from America and the Philippines. Your people need to experience sufferings so that you can empathize with the people in other countries. American people need to go down to hell to know the wishes and dreams of the people in poor nations. They need to suffer disasters in order to refrain from causing disasters to humanity. They must be thirsty like you so that they won’t consider the water in underdeveloped nations unsanitary and impotable. You Americans need to learn from us, the Vietnamese. Your people need to be defeated by us in order to grow up.”
James remains silent. She continues,
– “Go on drinking, James. The plain water in Vietnam is already your happiness. At least you have drunk our water with complete pleasure, without asking if that water has been brought in from America or some stagnant pond. Any American who is about to die of thirst will find it a divine pleasure to drink the water you have just drunk. They will have to admit that it is their real happiness. That kind of happiness cannot be found in their bombing missions to kill innocent people.”
Chi Mai picks up the half empty pail, and the two guards shove him inside. The door is slammed shut. James’ thirst has been quenched. He’s standing in the middle of the conex. Those cups of water have really been a blessing for him. He has never drunk anything that is as sweet and refreshing as that water. Only after James has been thrown into this toaster can he realize the wonderful value of water. Chi Mai is right. Happiness can be found through unfortunate situations. James has paid a dear price to realize that happiness can be found in a cup of cold water. James thinks many of his fellow countrymen haven’t experienced the crucial suffering he has been through. They are afraid of suffering and don’t have the guts to endure it. James believes men are born to enjoy life, not to suffer from it. But this world is not populated by happy people; for one man’s selfish ambition is the cause of suffering for another. That’s why there is more suffering in this life than happiness. It may be unrealistic to think that by learning to suffer, one can empathize with those in distress. But it is quite possible to share one’s happiness with those who are desperate for it. Perhaps this is a thing that most Americans cannot do. James hopes that if he can survive and go back to his country, he will be able to help the unfortunate people there; for he has been through so many miseries and hardships. James may be one of a few Americans who have been inspired by suffering. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled.” James is not at all ashamed; neither does he feel humiliated by the way these communists have been treating him. He believes that a man will have to answer to God for whatever he has done to his fellow human beings. Perhaps nobody in his lifetime has suffered more than he in this game of punishment. James is just a normal human being. He is not a martyr of any kind. Above all, he is an honest man, a man of integrity, true to his conviction. People like James Fisher will recreate this world.
A bowl of rice and a cup of water are brought to James’ conex. There is no other food to eat with rice. Neither is there a spoon for him to use. James needs to live. He needs to reach the destination at the end of the narrow road he has chosen. Without hesitation, James eats the rice with his hand. He looks like a gorilla locked in a cage. God created man in His image. It is the corruption of ideologies that turns people into wicked human beings. And on judgment day, both the wicked and the meek, the righteous and the hypocrites, will find their reward and punishment.
James enjoys his meal with pleasure. He slowly chews and swallows the precious grains of rice. “Therefore, take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or what shall we drink?” James has the feeling God is right there talking to him, sharing the rice with him. Suddenly, the rice he is chewing becomes gently sweet, sweeter and more delicious than the bread and steak he was eating last week. James takes a little sip of water. He knows he should be frugal with water for he will need it badly tomorrow.
Darkness has covered the jungle. The conex is going to become a refrigerator again. James curls up in the middle of the conex, folds his arms around his knees, and closes his eyes. He has the feeling God is in his arms, giving him warmth. He is dreaming now. James lets his mind fly through the conex door, over the jungles, rivers, mountains, ocean, to his home. Dreaming helps him forget the harsh condition he is in. In his dream, James meets his parents, sisters, friends, and his lover. He doesn’t know he is sleeping while in the sitting position. It is these dreams that lull him to sleep and keep him from falling. James has spent the second night in the conex. The following day, with the cup of water he has saved, James quenches his thirst by just dipping his tongue into the cup. The scorching sun doesn’t make him suffer as much as on his first day. The fact that he doesn’t suffer much bothers Chi Mai.
After James has spent a week in the conex, Chi Mai thinks that it is enough. She knows it is better not to prolong that form of torture because the prisoner may die. She has the guards take him back to his room. He takes a bath, changes his clothes, and has a wonderful sleep. At dinner, he is served meat, bread, fresh vegetables and fruits. James calmly eats the sumptuous meal with the same calmness as when he was eating the bowl of rice in the convex. He no longer cares whether the food they give him is delicious or not. He just takes it in order to survive.
When the meal is over, Chi Mai has the guard bring him to her office.
– “What do you think about the conex, James?”
– “It’s terrible.”
– “The Americans made it.”
– “We use it to contain and transport cargo.”
– “The Americans use it to transport ammunition to Vietnam to kill our people.”
– “And you are using it as a toaster/refrigerator to hold prisoners.”
– “To hold American prisoners, to be specific.”
She looks at him; her eyes are filled with anger.
– “The way our soldiers were held by the Americans was a thousands times crueler than what we are doing to you. The evidence of their shameful prisons can still be found in Saigon and Con Son.”
James calmly responds,
– “I have no knowledge of that. I haven’t been to Saigon.”
– “Are you ready to cooperate with me?”
Without waiting for him to answer, she continues,
– “Are you ready to write what I read to you?”
He stands up straight, and holds his head high.
– “I’m sorry, Ms. Chi Mai. I can’t do it.”
She says coldly,
– “That’s fine. It’s up to you.”