AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 24

With his arms still shackled behind him, James is lead to Chi Mai’s office. When the guard has left and the door is closed behind James, she puts a cigarette in his lips, and lights it. Looking at James, she asks:

– “You know why I have you shackled, don’t you?” James cannot answer because he’s smoking. He shakes his head, his eyes sparkle with gratitude.

– “Finish the cigarette, then we shall talk.”

Standing beside his chair, she taps off the ash for him. James feels ecstatic when she places her hand on his shoulder. This is the first time in his life, since James began smoking, that he enjoys these wonderful drags of smoke. It feels as though he were swallowing the burning fragrance of her flesh. Even Susan had never given him such feelings when they were together.

James has finished his cigarette. He wishes he could have another, and another, so that he could be near to Chi Mai, drawing into his lungs the fragrance of her flesh mixed with the flavor of the cigarette.

Having poured tea into a cup, Chi Mai holds it to his mouth.

– “Now you can answer my question, James.”

He says, “Will you repeat the question, please?”

– “Do you know why I have you shackled?”

– “No, I don’t.”

– “You Americans may be very good in scientific invention and business management but not quite good in areas of feelings and imagination.”

– “Maybe you are right.”

– “Because you like fairy tales, I want to have you shackled so that you may add more interesting details into your tales.”

James feels elated with her explanation. She continues,

– “Do you think it is like a fairy tale, James?”

He replies,

– “It’s poetic, and like a fairy tale.”

She smiles.

– “I shall have them shackle your legs, too.”

He says,

– “You can put me in the rolling barrel again.”

– “So that you will die?”

– “Yes.”

– “You don’t want to go back home?”

– “No.”

– “Why?”

– “Because I can’t find you in America or anywhere else in this world.”

– “You are flattering me?”

– “No, I’m only telling you the truth.”

She holds the cup of tea to his mouth again.

– “Would you like another cigarette, James?”

James no longer wants to smoke. All he craves for now is to listen to her voice and to speak with her.

– “No, thank you, Chi Mai.”

– “Do you think that your country is poor?”

– “Yes, I think so. Finally, Vietnam has assisted America. You have brought me gifts, given me some freedom in a place where no one could ever imagine such things exist.”

– “I’m only offering you what I have, in the name of understanding and sympathy between human beings. James, I think you need to survive and go back to America.”

– “I no longer care about that, Chi Mai.”

– “You must think about it, James. You will see me again in Paris, London, Rome, or even in Los Angeles. I cannot see you at this place for long, because I shall have to leave here in a short time.”

James’ voice is shaking.

– “That means I will…”

Chi Mai looks deep into his eyes.

– “You will not be compelled to do what I’ve been trying to request from you. For me, I don’t want you to do what you consider degrading to your honor. My superiors are thinking of some solution to your case. James, there’s something I’d like to ask you….”

– “Yes, Chi Mai.”

– “In your country, are people forbidden to love someone from an enemy country?”

– “No. Americans have been marrying Japanese and Germans. Why do you ask this question?”

– “You will soon know why.”

She puts another cigarette to his lips and lights it.

– “ James, go back to your place and rest.”

He insists,

– “Please, let me stay until I finish this cigarette.”

She shrugs.

– “No, James. Tonight they will shackle your legs and change the position of shackling your arms.”

Chi Mai pushes a button. The guard opens the door and enters. With the cigarette on his lips, James follows the guard to his cell. After his meal that evening, the guard handcuffs him in the front and shackles both of his legs. James can walk without much difficulty, as his legs are not bound close together. James gladly accepts the handcuffs and the shackles, which have become parts of the fairy tale he will write about in the days ahead.

Chi Mai is quite intelligent and romantic. She no longer carries out the orders of her superiors to punish him. Instead, she invents a new game for both of them. Chi Mai has changed back to the original person created by God. “You will soon know why,” she has said. But it isn’t easy for James to understand the delicate way this Vietnamese woman shows her love. James has said he had never seen or read “Tea and Sympathy.” Chi Mai is both cold and warm. James cannot understand her. But he anxiously waits for her at the East side of the Garden of Hell.

She comes at midnight and wakes him up with a gentle bite on his lips. Then he lies on top of her, cradling her head between his handcuffed arms. Pulling his shirt up, Eve runs her slender, ivory fingers over his warm back. Then the fingers become passionate claws digging deep into his flesh. The hoofs of the horse again are caught deeper and deeper in the sandy dune. Adam slides down. He savors the bites of peach on the hilltop of love. Adam slides down further. The butterfly Adam is fluttering around the flower Eve. The bee is sucking the nectar of the flower. The tempest begins to brew, along with the happy moaning of the wind and rain. Outside the cell is the blind and deaf ideology with its dumb leadership, blind hatred, and vain ambition.

That is how James and Chi Mai have written their love story in the Garden of Hell. They have spent heavenly moments together. The pleasure is not only from lovemaking. James enjoys so much just being able to talk with her. And on other nights, through the air vent, she throws in a broiled chicken drumstick, a roasted pork chop, a few bananas, or some pieces of local brown sugar. Vietnam has sent humanitarian aid to America at the time of urgent need. This is the most glorious sign of our age that has happened silently in Hell. It is given without being asked for. It is a voluntary donation without any binding condition. It has moved the American soldier to tears. Never in his life has he tasted anything more delicious than the chicken, pork chop, bananas and brown sugar that are thrown into his cell. And if he ever gets out of this place and goes back to America, he will not likely enjoy anything better. Actually, he no longer has any hope of returning to his country. He will become a pile of bones waiting to be traded and negotiated. James doesn’t care. During the days ahead, as long as Chi Mai continues to help him discover more mysteries of life, James feels he’s satisfied.

One day, the guard unlocks James’ handcuffs, and takes him to Chi Mai’s office. He is quite surprised to see her in the traditional ao dai. The dress is yellow, embroidered with dark yellow narcissus and green leaves. In this ao dai, Chi Mai looks so tender, so smooth, and so Vietnamese.

– “Why are you staring at me like that, James?”

– “You are magnificent, Chi Mai.”

– “This is how a real Vietnamese woman should look.”

– “I admire the Vietnamese ao dai.

– “This is the latest version of the ,b>ao dai in Saigon, before 1975. After 1975, many cute things of Saigon, ao dai among them, were destroyed.”

She asks him to drink and smoke.

– “You see, James, I’ve kept my promise.”

He gently nods.

– “Thank you, Chi Mai.”

She picks up her cup of tea and takes a sip.

– “You must see our young women dressed in ao dai, wearing conical hats and velvet shoes, walking by the lake or on the side walks in autumn; then you’ll fully appreciate the beauty of this traditional dress.

He says,

– “I’ve seen you. And that’s more than enough.”

She looks at him; her voice soaked with sadness.

– “I have to go back to Hanoi this afternoon.”

James is stupefied. His hand suddenly shakes, and he doesn’t know that the tea from the cup in his hand has spilled on his lap.

– “My superior called this morning, ordering me to return immediately. I’m very sorry, James.”

James is dumfounded. His voice fades away.

– “Will you be back here again, Chi Mai?”

She blinks.

– “I hope to be back.”

Walking towards James, she puts her hand on his shoulder.

– “While waiting for my return, please be reasonable and keep discipline as you have been doing in the past eight years. Don’t forget the teaching of your Bible: “Don’t resist the wicked.”

She returns to her desk, and sits down on the armchair.

– “Even if I don’t return, I hope you will not forget that teaching.”

James feels a lump in his throat.

– “I’ll listen to you.”

Tears are welling up in her eyes.

– “I want you to go to America,” she whispers.

Chi Mai hastens to wipe off her tears before pushing the button for the guard.

When the door closes, she bows her head over the desk and weeps.

—> 25

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