Chapter 16

There are five steps leading to the dungeon. James Fisher has reached the fifth cycle of Ly Ba So Hell. This dungeon is about five feet deep, five feet long, and two feet wide. Its cover is made of corrugated iron, placed on bricks to allow airflow into the cell. The steps are slightly slanted. This kind of dungeon is known as the “cemetery cell.” James cannot lie down because the length of the cell is too short for him. Neither can he stand up, as it is not high enough. James cannot sit down because the floor is so muddy. He cannot move at all, as the dungeon is too narrow.

There is nothing in the cell. The guards pushed him down here when it was rather dark. Right now it is pitch dark. James is in the fifth cycle of Hell. He has attempted to stand up a few times. His head hits the metal cover that is held down by heavy stones. James has to stand in a stooping position. He stretches out his arms for his two elbows to touch the edges of the dungeon. This doesn’t help him at all. James stoops down to bear the punishment. It is getting late into the night. Drops of dew from the trees over the dungeon start to patter on the cover. James doesn’t feel the cold. At first, he enjoys listening to the dewdrops. He craves for any kind of sound. Gradually, each drop of dew is like a hammer strike making James’ head ache. He feels tortured by the dewdrops. Each drop is like a nail being hammered into his head. James stoops lower and lower to avoid the effect of the sound. At last, he has to kneel on the muddy floor, which is filled with human feces, urine, dead insects, and rotten leaves. James has been kneeling all night. He doesn’t think of anything except how to avoid more pain. He lets his dreams fly above. Then he folds his arms and whispers the Beatitudes again and again. James feels overwhelmed by peace. One night in Hell has passed. James has had another chance to measure his ability to endure. He needs to put up with another day. The sunlight has penetrated through the cracks of the dungeon cover. James cannot hear the sound of the metal bar from the prison compound. The sun is beating its heat on the metal cover. James takes off his shirt and uses it to cover his head. Luckily, the heat here isn’t as bad as that in the conex. James lays his head on one side of the dungeon. He falls asleep, still in a kneeling position.

On the second day, the cover is opened, and the guards bring him some rice and water. They don’t give him a spoon to eat with, so James eats his food with his fingers that have been soiled with mud. James calmly chews and swallows his meal. He wants them to know that as an American, he can endure suffering, and he will overcome it. James passes another day and another night in the dungeon. His spirit is well armed now. He cares for neither life nor death. During the second night, the dew is pattering more heavily. It seems to him that the cover is being struck with a stick every time a dewdrop falls. James is right. The guards beat on the metal cover every time a dewdrop falls. Then they beat it repeatedly like a roll of thunder. The piercing noise drives James crazy, although he has covered his ears with both his hands. James closes his eyes and mouth. The noise still penetrates his head through his nose, making him sneeze.

After a while, they stop beating the dungeon cover. As soon as James opens his eyes and stops covering his ears, the guards beat the metal cover again. Then silence. James cannot say when they stop, and when they will make noise again. He has to close his eyes, ears, and mouth all the time. He cannot sleep, even in a kneeling position.

On the third day, after giving him a bowl of plain rice and a cup of water, they treat him to a cup of cold milk. No sooner has James finished drinking the cup of milk than he feels a cramp in his stomach. He has to use his hands to dig a hole in the muddy floor to defecate in it, and cover it with mud. There is no toilet paper for James. As soon as he pulls his pants up, James has an urge to discharge again. He has many bowel movements that day. Now James understands the cup of milk is also a punishment. During the third night, James no longer has to endure the noise made on his dungeon cover. But his heart almost stops when James finds himself surrounded by a swarm of snakes. He grabs one and squeezes it hard. The others climb to his shoulder and curl around his neck. James is motionless. He is waiting for the snakes to bite him. Their venom will be carried to his heart through his blood. James will die, still kneeling down; his face buried in the pungent muddy floor. Oh God, if you want me to die a humiliating death in this dungeon, I am ready to obey your will. James murmurs his prayer while releasing his grasp on the snake. James is amazed. The snakes don’t bite him. God has saved him by filling these reptiles with compassion. A moment later, they disappear. James doesn’t know how they come and where they go in that complete darkness. While James is still bewildered by this miracle, the dungeon cover is opened. A flashlight shines on him and on the steps for him to climb up. The guards take him back to the bathroom near his room in the prison compound. James takes a bath, changes his clothes and goes to sleep. He doesn’t know how long he has slept. But when he wakes up, the guards take him to Chi Mai’s office.

– “Are you sorry now, James?”

– “I have nothing to be sorry for, Ms. Chi Mai.”

She hands him a mirror.

– “Look at yourself. You will feel sorry.”

James is shocked to see himself in the mirror. After three days in the dungeon, his hair and beard are disheveled, and his eyes are bulging out. Trying to maintain his composure, James hands the mirror back to Chi Mai.

– “What do you have to say, James?”

He smiles.

– “May I have a cigarette?”

Chi Mai pushes a pack of Winston towards him.

– “Oh, I forgot. Please help yourself.”

James pulls out a cigarette, strikes a match to light it. He takes in a large puff of smoke and exhales, making circles of smoke.

– “I don’t feel sorry, but I’ve discovered something. I hope you won’t be upset with what I’m going to say.”

– “OK, go ahead.”

– “I have met some snakes that have compassion.”

– “Really?”

– “Yes.”

– “You believe it was your God’s miracle that they didn’t bite you?”

– “Yes, I do.”

Chi Mai pushes a button. A guard opens the door and enters. She speaks to him in Vietnamese.

– “Comrade, bring me the whole swarm of snakes that were put into the dungeon of this prisoner.”

As the guard leaves the room, Chi Mai continues her talk with James.

– “Do you ever need to reconsider your belief?”

– “No, never.”

– “What do you think of your God when you believe He has done something, and it turns out that He didn’t do it?”

– “No one dares judge God, except you.”

– “Of course. I am a communist.”

– “What does a communist believe in?”

– “The Party and its leadership.”

– “What do you say about your Party leadership if you find out that they have done something that is completely wrong?”

– “My Party and leaders never make mistakes.”

– “Neither does my God.”

The guard has brought in a basket full of snakes. He opens the lid of the basket. The well-tamed snakes are crawling out on the floor.

– “James, take a close look. One of them has been injured because you squeezed it quite hard. Your God didn’t have any power to save you. It was me who ordered our technicians to remove their fangs and extract their venom.”

James says,

– “The fact that you ordered their fangs and venom removed was in God’s will, too.”

At Chi Mai’s order, the guard picks up all the snakes, puts them back into the basket, and leaves the room.

– “And it is your God’s will that you turn down my request?”

Without hesitation, James replies,

– “For me, whether I’m alive or dead, happy or miserable, all depends or God’s will.”

She speaks through her teeth,

– “I will have to brainwash your God, too.”

He stands up.

– “It’s up to you, Ms. Chi Mai.”

—> 17


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