AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 31

Chi Mai hasn’t done what her superior has instructed. She hasn’t forced him to labor really hard. Neither has she given him scanty food to expose him to hunger with the intent to strip him of his dignity. Nobody, but Chi Mai, knows what is in her mind. Every communist has to remember the saying, “One can express his or her thoughts through action.” Chi Mai feels she needs to do something concrete so that the warden may send favorable reports to her boss in Hanoi. She knows she will do everything because of James Fisher.

Chi Mai rings the bell for the guard and has him summon the warden to her office. Giving the warden a bottle of whisky, she says,

– “This is a token of my thanks to you, comrade.”

Holding the bottle, the man asks, still bewildered,

– “I don’t know what you are thanking me for, comrade.”

She smiles graciously.

– “For the reports about me that you’ve sent to headquarters.”

She adds,

– “I’ve read those reports. They’re wonderful.”

The warden says,

– “I just report the good things that you’ve done.”

She asks,

– “What if I do something wrong?”

The man says,

– “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Offering him a Winston cigarette to smoke, she poses a probing question:

– “Since my return, have you sent any reports?”

The warden says,

– “No, comrade.”

She strikes a match and lights the cigarette for him.

– “Then are you going to file a report in a few days?”

The man nods, and she continues,

– “As for the American, I haven’t carried out headquarters instruction to make him labor hard and give him scanty food. According to my method, I shall give him enough food first. Then as he labors harder, I shall reduce his food until, out of hunger, he will have to beg for food. At that time, he will be ready to do whatever we ask him to. Do you have any questions about my method?”

The warden says,

– “No, comrade.”

She gives orders.

– “I want him to be transferred to a small cell. Put shackles on both his arms and legs. Give him just rice and salt. I want to finish this case soon; for he seems to be too stubborn to be re-educated.”

The warden stands in attention.

– “That’s clear, comrade.”

Chi Mai smiles as he leaves her office. After the evening meal, James is taken to the small cell he had been in before. He doesn’t care. James sleeps well that night. When the metal gong announces morning, the guard opens the cell door and removes the shackles. James puts his nose at the vent to breathe some fresh air. Then he runs in place, as he has been told. At noon, James is very hungry. He expects the regular meal with meat, fresh vegetables and fruits. To his dismay, he sees only a bowl of rice and some salt. He finishes it anyway and wishes he could have another. Physical labor has made him hungry. James drinks the cup of water to fill his stomach. He now realizes he has survived the past eight years because he spent most of his time in solitary confinement. Had he been forced to hard labor without enough to eat, he already would have perished.

In the afternoon, the guard puts shackles on his arms and legs, and takes him out for Chi Mai to drive him to the forest.

She opens the locks and removes the shackles from his arms. Throwing a hoe and a machete at the foot of a big tree, she says,

– “GI James, your assignment is to bring down this tree.”

His eyes open wide. With disbelief, James asks,

– “With these tools?”

She replies indifferently.

– “There aren’t many power saws in my country.”

– “Do you mean I have to bring it down this afternoon?”

– “Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow… As long as it takes to bring it down.

She explains to him how to do it.

– “This tree has at least nine layers of roots. First, you need to hoe up around the tree to expose the first layer. Use the machete to chop the first layer of roots before continuing to hoe to expose the second layer. Then you’ll…”

She bursts out laughing. James is bewildered.

– “At the ninth layer, you’ll have dug a small pond that is head deep. You’ll then bend down to cut the last vertical root. The tree will surely fall down.”

James begins to hoe up the grass around the trees. He scoops out the dirt with his hands. An hour later, the first layer of roots appears. All these roots are huge. James’ eyes glaze because of hunger. As he wields the machete to cut the roots, it falls off his hands.

– “James, it’s time for a break. You must be hungry.”

– “Yes, very.”

– “I don’t think you’re very hungry. The really hungry person no longer has the feeling of being hungry.”

She brings him a big bowl of rice and a fried chicken leg. James eats the food with pleasure. She opens a can of Coca-Cola and gives it to him. He finishes it in no time.

– “Are you full now, James?”

– “Yes, thank you. That’s delicious.”

– “James, can you imagine that two million people died of hunger in just three months?”

– “No, Chi Mai. Where did it happen?”

– “In my country. 1945.”

Chi Mai tells James about the famine in North Vietnam in 1945 during the Japanese occupation. The Japanese ordered the North Vietnamese peasants to pull up the rice plants and replace them with jute. There wasn’t enough rice, and people began to die of hunger in January that year. In March, the number of people dying was at its peak. There weren’t enough people to bury the dead. Some villages were completely extinct, even after their inhabitants ate the rats, insects, and roots of banana plants. Bodies of people who died of hunger could be found on every street corner, under bridges, and at the market place. One could see babies sucking their dead mother’s breast for a while before they also died. Some people waited for others to die so that they could cut the meat off the corpses to roast and eat. But they also died a few days later. The Japanese stopped the relief trains carrying rice from South Vietnam to feed the hungry. They even used unchaffed rice instead of coal as energy.

– “James, you must understand why my people have constantly been in misery.”

– “Yes, I understand.”

– “Because you’ve known what hunger is?”

– “That’s right.”

– “World communities are unjust and lack compassion. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the number of people who died of the nuclear bombs was less than the number of Vietnamese who died of hunger, due to the cruelty of the Japanese. Each year, the Americans bring flowers and scatter them over the two cities they had bombed. The Japanese have completely ignored the graves of the Vietnamese peasants who died of hunger because of them. World communities have condemned the USA for dropping the two nuclear bombs over Japan; yet, they say nothing about the crimes of the Japanese during their occupation of Vietnam. Japan was at war with the USA in 1945. The deaths of the Japanese people could be justified. But my country never declared war against Japan. Why did they cause millions of our people to die? I haven’t seen any books written about the crimes of Japan towards my people. James, I’m not talking about hatred now. But you must understand that all the miseries that have happened to my people originate from abroad.”

James’ eyes fill with tears. Suddenly he feels an extreme compassion for the Vietnamese people. In a voice pervaded with deep emotions, James says,

– “I’ll do my humble part to recompense your people.”

She shakes her head.

– “No, James, that’s not necessary. My people don’t need any compensation. My people are proud enough to endure suffering and continue their valiant fights. My people suffer misfortunes but don’t hold hatred and grudges. After all, nothing can compensate for all the miseries sustained by my people. The Vietnamese give something without asking for something in return. They can lose something and don’t bother to get it back.”

James blinks his eyes.

– “Thank you, Chi Mai, and your people, too.”

James feels deep compassion for Vietnam and her people. He forgets he is going to die. He wants to “do my humble part to recompense your people.” Without waiting for Chi Mai’s order, James picks up the machete and continues cutting the roots. His strokes are more accurate now. James feels strengthened. Again, he dreams of another death practice with Chi Mai at the bottom of the grave. He looks up and finds she is hanging her head in sadness. The afternoon sunlight is dying in the bushes behind her.

– “James…”

– “Yes?”

– “Let’s go back early today.”

After putting the handcuffs on him, Chi Mai helps James get on the jeep and drives back to the camp. The guard takes him straight to his cell without letting him take a bath. His evening meal still consists of a bowl of rice, some salt, and a cup of water. Chi Mai has ordered the guards to shackle only his legs and not to handcuff him during the night. James feels uneasy because the dirt and the sweat make his whole body itch. Lying down on the cement platform, James tries to sleep, but he can’t, although he’s very tried after laboring all afternoon. He thinks about Chi Mai and her people. Really, James can’t understand her. “How can a person with a two-hundred-year background understand someone whose history dates back four thousand years?” she has asked. James regrets he won’t live long enough to learn more about Chi Mai and the Vietnamese people. He’s going to die, and his country is so far away. Filled with emotion, James starts to sing. His voice is full of pain and melancholy. The song is about twilight on a river, and teardrops in the dark. Then James dozes off for a while, and is suddenly wakened by an intense feeling of hunger. It seems like hundreds of claws are scraping at his stomach. James thinks about the bowl of rice and the fried chicken leg he had the previous afternoon, and his mouth waters. He turns and lies with his stomach pressed to the cement platform, hoping it will ease the hungry feeling. Two million Vietnamese died in 1945 of hunger. It seems that very few people in America know about that. But here in this prison, a Vietnamese woman knows that the American soldier is hungry. Chi Mai doesn’t eat her portion of dinner tonight. She saves it for James. Putting two pieces of pork chop and rice in a nylon bag, she wraps the food up and throws it into James’ cell through the air vent.

James hears a “plop.” Sitting up, he fumbles in the dark for the gift. And he has a wonderful midnight meal. When he finishes eating, James wraps the bones in the nylon bag and throws the bundle far away from his cell, through the air vent. He is like a character in a fairy tale who receives blessings from the fairy queen. The USA has sent military aid of airplanes, tanks, cannons, guns, mines, and defoliating chemicals to Vietnam. Nobody would expect that there could be a day when a person from poor Vietnam would send aid to an American citizen.

James is moved to tears. Sitting in a corner of the cell, he cries, laying his head on his knees. James closes his eyes, as if he were praying or dreaming.

– “Thank you, my dear, and your people, too,” he softly says.

—> 32

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