AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 20

Over the next two weeks, James has gradually recovered. He is under the care of two prison doctors who give him antibiotics and vitamins. His daily ration has been increased. James can hear the bird songs, now. He can breathe normally. His wrists, thumbs, and toes no longer hurt. The multiple little cuts on his chest, belly, back and seat have healed. James can now remember exactly what happened to him in the ninth cycle of Hell. And he is still stupefied. Just having to enter that cycle once more, James will either die a truthful person or live as a man who has betrayed himself. He doesn’t know why they play that game with him only twice. He doesn’t know if there’s another cycle of Hell waiting for him.

During these two weeks, Chi Mai hasn’t had him brought to her office. James knows she wants him to write his statement voluntarily, in his room. For she has told the guard to leave paper and pen on the table. James also knows what will happen to him. He has no hope of returning home. They will kill him and keep his skeleton for an exchange. James would rather they do it. At least his family will know that he is dead. Susan will be free to marry someone else, in case she is still waiting for him.

James wishes they would do away with him soon. He is fed up with all the games they have played on him. While James is thinking about how they are going to kill him, a guard opens the door and takes him to Chi Mai’s room.

– “Are you feeling better, James?”

– “Yes, I am. Thank you.”

She points at the pack of Winston and the Coke on the table. – “These are the last ones. We can’t afford to buy more of them.”

He smiles.

– “I don’t find it necessary to use them.”

She laughs.

– “Because of your stubbornness, we have run out of funds to entertain our special American guest.”

He says,

– “You have taught me to find happiness in a cup of cold water.”

She waves her hand.

– “Let’s forget that, James.”

As she looks at him, James detects in her eyes some kind of compassion. This is the first time he notices this expression. James feels comfortable not having to say “Ms. Chi Mai, I’m sorry” again.

– “James, tell me the truth. Do you hate me?”

He looks at her with a complexity of emotions. He gives her the reply that must have harbored long inside him.

– “No. Honestly, I’ve never even thought of hating you. As a Christian, I believe in the Bible and try to follow its teaching. The Bible says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

– “I can’t understand it. Why do you have to love your enemies?”

– “Because there won’t be a reward if I only love those who love me.”

– “Are you quoting the Bible, too?”

– “Yes, I am.”

– “I am surprised that you don’t resist me. Why?”

– “I hope you won’t be offended by my reply.”

– “No. Tell me.”

– “The Bible tells me not to resist the wicked.”

She laughs.

– “You would make a good priest if you decided to be one. In this age and time, GOOD and BAD, RIGHTEOUSNESS and HYPOCRISY no longer stay in the Bible. They are in the hand of those who hold power. Why did you become a soldier, James ?”

He doesn’t answer her question but asks,

– “In Vietnam, do young people have to fulfill their military duty, Ms. Chi Mai?”

She says,

– “Yes.”

– “It’s the same in America. I have to fulfill my duty toward my country.”

– “A lot of American students were against the Vietnam war and burned their draft cards. Why didn’t you do so?”

– “Because I wanted to be a good citizen.”

– “Do you mean those who burned their draft cards weren’t good citizens?”

– “They were a bunch of cowards and traitors. America is one of the most democratic countries in the world. There is a battlefield for those who are ready to die to fulfill their duty towards the country. There are also prisons for cowards and traitors.”

– “You seem to contradict your Bible, James.”

She strikes a match for him to light a new cigarette.

– “Your troubles are going to end, James.”

He exhales a puff of smoke.

– “Thank you.”

– “They could have ended in the second or third time you were in the barrel. But because you wanted to be a truthful person all your life, I had to accommodate you.”

– “Thank you, I understand now.”

– “You should understand this, too. In Siberia, even the toughest prisoners couldn’t put up with being in the barrel three times.”

She sighs.

– “Now it’s time for me and my troubles.”

He is bewildered.

– “Why?”

She sadly replies,

– “Because as communists, we are not supposed to have compassion. Deep in my heart, there is still a little compassion. I think I have lost the communist quality. In that case, troubles will surround me.”

James is suddenly on guard again. He sits silently, smoking, without asking her any more questions. He is wary that Chi Mai is setting a trap for him. James thinks he needs to test her sudden kindness and compassion.

– “I no longer ask you to do what I’ve requested. You are free to write whatever you’d like to write. It’s fine if you don’t want to write anything. I want to help you. I want you to go back to America soon. But I don’t have authority to do so. I’m sorry, James.”

James feels a chill run down his spine. She pushes a button. A guard opens the door.

– “You can go to your room and rest now.”

He says goodbye to her, and the guard escorts him to his room. James doesn’t lie down. He’s waiting for a new game from Chi Mai. In the outer world, “I’m sorry” is a gentle expression. But for James, any time he hears it, it’s another kind of punishment. So when he heard her say, “I’m sorry, James,” he immediately thought of the tenth cycle of Hell with its more severe punishment and torture. James wants to believe in people, but he dares not trust Chi Mai. He notices that she has changed her parting words from “Go back to your room and think about it” to “Go to your room and rest now.” James waits and waits until after dinner. He doesn’t feel comfortable yet. Anyhow, James needs to rest for a while. As soon as he begins to lie down, the guard opens the door and takes him to Chi Mai’s office.

Looking straight into his eyes, she gently says,

– “This afternoon, I forgot to tell you something personal.”

– “Please tell me now.”

– “Thank you for not hating me.”

– “I really meant it, Ms. Chi Mai.”

– “I understand.”

She lowers her voice,

– “I hope you won’t have to go through what you have experienced these past weeks.”

He says,

– “Until the day you people get rid of me?”

– “I don’t know. Are you wary of me, James?”

– “Yes, Ms. Chi Mai.”

– “Very few people are as honest as you are. You could have denied it, but you didn’t. It’s too bad you don’t trust me. But what can I say? It’s up to you.”

She hands him the half pack of Winston and some matches.

– “Take them to your room and smoke sparingly.”

Her voice softens,

– “I don’t know when I’ll go back to Hanoi. Until then, there will be a few more talks with you. Take care, and good luck to you.”

She pushes a button, the guard enters the room. James follows him back to his room. He lies in bed, thinking. All his thoughts center on Chi Mai.

—> 21

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