AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 19

– “James, you seem to be proud of your ability to endure, don’t you?”

– “Not mine, but of a human being.”

– “Are you ready for more tests of your endurance?”

– “I don’t enjoy it, but if the testing can please you, do what you must.”

– “Aren’t you sorry for your decision?”

– “I’ve replied to you so many times, Ms. Chi Mai.”

She pushes a button. The guard opens the door and takes James away. Chi Mai gets his first self-declaration and reads it again. She tries to look for something in his memory that she can exploit to make him give in. All she can find is his warm and sweet recollection of childhood. His childhood was a peaceful one. It didn’t have the tears and suffering one could find in Maxim Gorki’s and Charles Dickens’ lives. Just like James, Chi Mai had a happy childhood. The only differences were that she was a girl and her Red River was not the Rio Grande. If James’ name was replaced by a Vietnamese name, and the geographical details were adapted to Vietnamese settings, one would find his writing very similar to an autobiography of a Vietnamese writer, or any writer on this planet. For there is no boundary for childhood, anywhere in the world. Chi Mai continues to review the file about James. She is looking at some of his poems:

Come sit by me, Susan,
Sit closer to me, my dear.
Just once, maybe it’s the last time
in the foggy galaxy, leaving us an ocean apart
Come sit by me, Susan.
Sit closer to me, darling.
Just once, maybe it’s the last time,
For the earth is traveling on its course
Leaving us with loneliness and desolation.
How deserted I feel! It looks as though everyone has forsaken me.
The bells are tolling an obituary.
I can hear sobbing and moaning around me now.
Come sit by me, Susan.
I beg you, for the last time.
The earth is blowing up, and life ceases to exist.
You’ll disappear into oblivion,
And I’ll be forever lonely.

James has written dozens of free verse poems. In them, he urges people to love one another, for the earth is going to explode.

My darling,

Stretch out your arms to embrace the earth.
I fear to live in desolation.
Take hold of this miserable world.
Hasten to love me one day at a time.
What’s the use of crying over those lonely times?

Chi Mai looks out beyond the window, pondering. By this time, a new game has already been prepared for James, in a deserted area of the forest. He joins the game without hesitation. James is ordered to climb into the barrel. With his hands shackled behind his back, James wriggles into a metal barrel. His captors turn it up. Now James’ head is at the bottom of the barrel, and his legs cannot stretch out. The lid is closed tight. James breathes through the holes drilled along the side of the barrel. He looks like an eel being caught in an eel pot. He is a tree forcibly planted, his head being the stump, and his arms its roots.

The top of James’ head hurts badly. His skull and neck bear the weight of his whole body. James has the feeling all his blood has accumulated at his brain, that his brain has turned red, and all the organs in his body have been turned upside down.

James has just visited the eighth cycle of Hell. The twelve-day visit has left him with two swollen thumbs and ten painful toes. He has barely caught his breath when they take him to this ninth cycle. During his agonizing days in the eighth cycle, James had thought the ninth cycle would be the last stage of his suffering, the final milepost of the narrow way, and the life found through death. How James had wished he would enter it soon, step on it, and overcome it. While he was in the first cycle, James was very proud that the endurance of a human being could help him overcome the hatred and punishment of doctrines and ideologies. He thought he could be more proud than the old man in Hemingway’s novel. He had thought that there was only one cycle in Hell.

Chi Mai once said to him “The American people need to suffer so that they may sympathize with the suffering of human beings. They need to go to Hell in order to understand how much people dream of going to Paradise. They must experience misfortune in order not to destroy the well being of the people in other countries.

Chi Mai has taught him the lessons of suffering. And James has realized that Hell has many cycles. So, the truthful American, James Fisher, has reason to be proud that God has chosen him to drink up the bitter cup from the king of Hades.

The barrel is turned upside down again. James’ rump touches the metal lid. His knees and shackled arms touch the side of the barrel. It’s difficult for him to sit down. The blood in his head is rushing down again as if it was carrying along his brain. His heart, lungs and intestines drop back to their original position. James can hear clearly the noise of his inside organs moving. It seems as if his lungs were stretching his throat, making it longer. James hasn’t stopped feeling dizzy when they again turn the barrel upside down. His head hurts as it touches the bottom of the metal barrel. James cannot protect his head because both his arms are shackled. His internal organs are rolling. So do James’ past and present. At first, James can answer the questions, “Who am I?” “Where am I?” “What am I doing?” Gradually, these questions are in disarray, and James cannot answer them.

The barrel is now kicked to a horizontal position, and they begin to roll it on the ground. They roll it slowly at first. James is able to use his fingers to absorb the impact. Gradually, they roll it faster and faster. James is like a pig being roasted over the fire. He gets dizzier and dizzier. His past and present are turning like a spinning wheel. James becomes nauseated. He closes his lips tight. In vain. His stomach has thrown up everything left in it. James vomits and vomits. James closes his eyes. He can no longer control himself. His mind has been upset, and he cannot remember anything clearly. Past, present and his sense of time and space are intermixed. James is at the verge of losing consciousness.

The lid is opened, and James is pulled from the barrel. The warden puts a microphone close to his mouth and presses the RECORD button. But James cannot say anything. He staggers a few steps and collapses. A guard splashes a bucket of water over his face and body. Another sits him up and lets him drink a glass of water with sugar. James gradually gains consciousness. They let him eat two bananas and give him a cigarette. James can see the tape recorder now. Suddenly, his thoughts, which have been dispersed earlier, begin to come together again. The warden brings the tape recorder to where James is sitting. He smiles, and holds the microphone close to James’ mouth. James smiles back at the warden, and shakes his head. He looks at the warden without any resentment. James used to ignore all the doctrines and ideologies in this world; for he considered them as insignificant to life. Since he heard Chi Mai condemn capitalism as the enemy of the proletariat, James has realized that he himself is also an enemy of proletarians, and the punishments he has suffered come from that ideology, not from human beings. James’ misfortune is that he was born in a rich and powerful capitalistic country. The American people are not capitalism. Neither are the Russian people and the Vietnamese people proletarians. People are unfortunate because of their birthplaces. James has a reason not to hate any human being. And he gives the warden a friendly smile but shakes his head at the same time.

The warden orders James to squeeze himself into the barrel again. He has his men turn it, roll it on the ground. They then use an iron bar and hit it repeatedly. James wishes he could cover his ears form the deafening sound. He can’t, with his arms still shackled.

On a chair not far from James, Chi Mai is reading another page that James wrote while he was in a trance: “My dear Susan, the honey of my soul, the breath of my existence, the dream of my life, why can’t people stay close and love one another? Why can’t I be near to you and love you? There are harsh doctrines and stupid ideologies that forbid people to approach one another, and love one another. People are incapable of freeing themselves of these doctrines and ideologies. They just resign themselves to destiny; thus forfeiting their right to love, to be close to one another, and lead the free life of truthful human beings. I’ve just been told about doctrines and ideologies. These things are heartless, without compassion or feeling, and unable to love. They don’t let people love one another, and people dare not protest. As for me, I will never surrender. No doctrines or tortures can stop me from loving you. I love you even in moments I am most exhausted and humiliated.”

James cannot close his ears. He can only close his eyes tight. The clanging is so piercing that James feels his eyes are bulging out. He knows that his eardrum is going to break. Suddenly, blood gushes from his nostrils. James has arrived at the door to the palace of the king of Hades.

Chi Mai reads again the last part of James’ writing: “Why can’t people stay close and love one another? Why can’t I be close to you and love you? I’ve just been told about doctrines and ideologies. These things are heartless, without compassion or feeling, and unable to love. They don’t let people love one another, and people dare not protest.” Chi Mai has the feeling that these are the words Boris Kanazev is saying to her. Putting James’ writing back into her bag, Chi Mai dashes to where James is undergoing the torture. She raises her hand to the warden.

– That’s enough.

Chi Mai asks,

– “How

nbsp; The warden proudly says,

– “Twice, comrade.”

She gives the order.

– “Pull him out.”

James is pulled out from the ninth cycle. Two guards lift him up. Blood continues to ooze from his nose and ears. His hair is disheveled, and his eyes are dull. Chi Mai walks to him. Snatching the bunch of keys from the hand of the warden, she unlocks the shackles.

– “James, I’m very sorry.”

Fearing he hasn’t heard, she repeats, this time louder:

– “James, I’m very sorry.”

James’ head drops. But one can see a faint smile on his face.

—> 20

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