Chapter 27

On Chi Mai’s return, she requests the prison warden and the guards in charge of James to meet with her in her office. She opens a bottle of Johnny Walker, pours it out, and personally offers each of them a drink. She also asks them to eat some pork pies she just brought from Hanoi and gives each of them a pack of Winston. Everybody is having a good time, smoking, eating and drinking merrily.

– “How is the Yankee prisoner?” she asks.

– “Comrade, he is still safe in his cell,” replies one guard.

– “Does he cause any trouble?”

– “No, comrade. But he often sings at night. He sounds good and melancholy. It’s a shame we don’t understand what he sings about.”

– “I have orders to move him to hard labor. By toiling in the field, this dandy will understand what we mean by re-education. Comrades, I’d like you to select a secluded area in this forest for me to have him work in the daytime.”

The warden says,

– “I can find that location for you.”

She says,

– “I need a pistol, and a dagger.”

The warden says,

_ “You’ll have them tomorrow.”

When they finished the bottle, and the little party ends, she asks the warden to stay for a conference. The door to her office is closed and locked. Chi Mai gives him a watch made in the Soviet Union. She says,

– “Thank you for your assistance during my assignment here. This gift is a token of my thanks to you, comrade.”

The warden looks at the brand-new watch with pleasure.

– “I’ve talked to my director about you and your great performance here. He will include you in the list of a delegation to visit the Soviet Union.”

The man is obviously happy and proud.

– “As for the Yankee, our Central Committee has decided that we try hard labor on him for a while. If he is still stubborn, we shall trade his skeleton with the American imperialists. This is absolutely confidential between you and me. We shall locate a site for his grave.”

– “I’ll follow your order, comrade.”

– “We must carefully set up his death. For there is a possibility of reporters from foreign countries coming here to witness our unearthing his body. You will be the person who discovers the MIA. Our Party leadership has complete trust in you, comrade.”

– “Whatever you need, tell me.”

– “A US military fatigue, a pair of shoes, and a Colt.”

– “We must go into the nearest province to find US military equipment. As for the Colt, we have quite a few here, with enough ammunition.”

– “Are you sure they sell those things in the market?”

– “Black market, I mean. They are brought in from Saigon.”

– “We shall go there.”

– “Right now?”

– “Tomorrow. Right now, let’s go into the forest to look for the site for his grave.”

The warden and Chi Mai leave her office. He drives her into the forest on the trail that prisoners have cut through during the day of hard labor. The jeep runs slowly on the trail. To show off their victory over the US imperialists, the communist government has distributed to some prisons US military equipment such as M16, Colt, Jeep, locks, and handcuffs made in USA.

The warden says,

– “If we follow this direction, we can go to the border of Laos.”

Chi Mai asks,

– “Is there any other way?”

– “No, this is the only way used by those who have made attempts to escape.”

– “Escape?”

– “Yes.”

– “Successfully?”

– “Most of them were captured, if we found out in time.”

– “What do you mean by ‘in time’?”

– “A few hours. Many of them died of exposure, hunger, and malaria near the border.”

– “How long would it take for one of them to get to the border?”

– “Normally, it would take ten days.”

The jeep stops, as they have reached the end of the trail. Sitting in the car, Chi Mai observes the forest in front of her.

– “If one turns right for two kilometers, then turns left, it still leads to the border. But they will enter the area where only rattan grows. Escapees often go astray and die there. They don’t have strong knives to cut through rattan. Most of them either get caught or die of hunger. One who was caught told us that he defecated at a certain place, and two days later, after walking day and night, he returned to the same spot, his feces was still there.”

– “What if one turns left from here?”

– “If one goes south for a few kilometers and turns right again, he’s heading for the border.”

– “What kind of trees grow in that area?”

– “Cinnamon trees.”

– “Do most of them take this route?”

– “Rarely. It’s easy for them to be detected.”

– “Why don’t they go south instead of trying to reach the Laotian border?”

– “It’s more difficult to escape to the south. Heading for Laos, they hope the nationalists there will help them get back to Saigon. The Laotian people are kind; they won’t hand them over to the Pathet Lao. I’m talking about pre-war escapees.”

– “What about post-war?”

– “I don’t believe anyone would dare to think of going through Laos, and crossing another border.”

– “You mean crossing to Thailand?”

– “Yes.”

– “Those stupid people!”

Having made the vague statement, Chi Mai gets out of the jeep and starts walking into the forest. The warden follows behind to protect her.

– “In the Soviet Union, prisoners don’t escape from the camp, she says.”

Chi Mai stops, and looks at the warden.

– “That’s why I’m not as experienced as you are in this matter.”

The man is pleased at her comment.

– “With the escapees, they value fish sauce more than anything.. They save it for months, and take it along when they escape. Fish sauce keeps them warn at night and relieves their hunger.”

She smiles.

– “With me, after ten years living abroad, I crave for fish sauce from Nghe An province.”

She suddenly requests,

– “Please share with me your expertise in catching those who escape.”

The warden says,

– “We have hounds, compass, military maps… If you ever need any of these, just let me know.”

She compliments him.

– “If you share your rich experience with our comrades in the Soviet Union, I’m sure they will be impressed.”

The two of them continue stamping on tall grass, clearing through branches, to go deeper into the forest. She looks at her watch, counting the time as they walk. About forty minutes later, she stops.

– “I’d like to have his grave dug right here: Not too deep. Not too shallow.”

The warden breaks a branch and marks the spot.

– “When do you need it, comrade?”

She snaps,

– “By tomorrow.”

Looking straight at him, she says,

– “I’ll be working here every day. You should bear in mind that this is a secret operation. Any presence of any guards around here will be considered a violation of Party order.”

The warden stands at attention.

– “Yes, comrade.”

She continues,

– “I need a Jeep for two weeks.”

Still at attention, he says,

– “Yes, comrade.”

Chi Mai and the warden walk back to the car. This time, she drives. Chi Mai turns the ignition on, puts it in reverse, backs up and makes a U-turn. She drives at full speed towards the camp. Stopping in front of her office, she turns off the engine, and asks,

– “How many hounds do you have?”

– “We have two, comrade.”

– “I want to befriend them and use them as my bodyguards during the time I work with the Yankee prisoner in the forest.”

– “I’ll have them ready for you by tomorrow.”

– “Comrade warden, I repeat: This should be top secret.”

– “That’s clear, comrade.”

Chi Mai shakes hands with the warden and returns to her room. She takes a bath, changes, and has dinner. Then she lies down on her bed and waits for the night. She misses James Fisher. She has fallen in love with him. She knows she won’t be able to go to his cell to make love with him tonight although she is certain he has been desperately longing to see her again. “He often sings during the night. He has a good but very sad voice.” Chi Mai has thought of calling him to her office the moment she reached the prison camp. She also longs to see him again. But she believes it would be better to be cautious so as not to cause any suspicion from the warden and his men.

Her ideology and her Party want to have control over her thoughts and activities. Chi Mai thinks once a person is being controlled by an ideology, that person is no longer a human being. She feels her superiors are keeping a tight control over her. The colonel has opened the door wide enough for her to see what will happen to her in the days to come. Chi Mai should be happy for she has been allowed to come back here to give James Fisher a tender death.

James is going to die. He won’t go back to America. The Vietnamese Communist Party will sell his skeleton to the capitalist government. The capitalists will buy it. Both sides are indifferent and business-like, similar to the merchants who trade in cows and buffaloes. The skeleton of the truthful soldier James Fisher will be bargained and traded like any merchandise. Perhaps James’ soul will speak out on behalf of those wandering souls in Vietnam, Cambodian, Poland, Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Africa, The Soviet Union, and The USA, to ask for an explanation of the “friendship kisses” between the leaders of the two ideologies. In the name of ideologies, people are killing one another; while anywhere in this world, even over mass graves, one can see the great leaders of the two ideologies holding champagne glasses, embracing each other, and making speeches promising to create happiness for mankind.

James deserves to represent those who have died during this period of history. Hopefully, his struggle may clear the shroud of darkness that is covering the common sense of mankind. Why do people die for an ideology and not vice versa? Why do leaders of ideologies incite their people to hatred and killing while they are always ready to shake hands and compromise? The dead will wake up the living. And when those who are alone actually wake up and free themselves of the control of their ideology, they will regain their roles as human beings. When that time comes, all ideologies will be buried in the ground.

As people are not fully awake, they cannot free themselves. And Chi Mai doesn’t know whether she can free herself for her Party. She will have to kill James. Her boss has instructed her to shoot him in the head. But she loves James. She wants him to die peacefully, and not to suffer before dying. She is anxious to meet him again to finish his life. In order to give his a quick death, she must play the role of a cruel warden. The warden of Ly Ba So prison is loyal to the regime. He will report to headquarters everything about her. Chi Mai is ready to accept any trouble that may come to her. As for James, the troubles he has been through are quite enough. He shouldn’t suffer more.

At midnight, Chi Mai walks to the cell holding James. Earlier in the evening, she had picked a hibiscus flower and sprayed it with the perfume she always wears. From a distance, she can hear him sing. “He has a good but very sad voice.” Chi Mai listens. His voice is soaked with suffering and melancholy. She is petrified. The feeling of loneliness is rising in her, rising, and overflowing. Chi Mai feels she is at the end of the walk of life. In front of her is a chapel. The graveyard is nearby. The church bells are tolling an obituary. The hearse is passing by. With soft steps she approaches his cell, throws the flower through the air vent, and walks back to her room. Behind her, James has begun singing a love song. “When the stars start to shine, Just remember, darling. Remember you’re mine…” And he stops singing. Silence. Chi Mai can hear the sound of her teardrops.”

—> 28


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