AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 32

A rush mat covers the labor tools. The two hounds of the camp are seated on the back bench of the jeep, their leashes tied securely to the frame of the driver’s seat. Chi Mai is dressed in camouflage fatigue and boots. On her belt are a dagger, a K54 pistol, and four clips of bullets. There is a grim look on her face. The guard takes James to the jeep. He is wearing a flight suit and a pair of US-made boots. They also put a web belt with a Colt 45 in a holster around his waist. James has the feeling death is near. His hands and legs are shackled. The guard helps him get on the jeep and puts a handcuff on his right hand and the frame of his seat.

Chi Mai says to the warden,

– “I may come back late today. I may take this prisoner back again if he stops being stubborn.”

She turns on the engine, accelerates, and drives to the forest. James’s heart begins to pound hard. He sweats. Looking at Chi Mai, he sees her cold face. Without saying any words, Chi Mai’s looking straight ahead, concentrating on the trail. James remains silent. He’s sitting next to Death. Instead of giving him two weeks to live, Death has come sooner than expected. James is confused. She has told him, “Don’t ask me anything. Just do what I tell you. That way you can postpone your death for two weeks.” When she said it, he didn’t understand her; but she told him that soon he would. All he knows at this moment is that he’s going to die. At the encounter with death, people will crave to live, even though they’re living in pain and suffering. The poor and naive Lennie didn’t know he was going to die; so he was able to absorb himself in his wonderful dreams until George put a bullet in his head. As for James, he knows he’s going to die. It’s hard to dream while being afraid.

The jeep stops. Without any expression of feeling on her face, Chi Mai unlocks his handcuffs. Taking the Colt 45 from his belt, she tells him to go forward and stand on the edge of the grave. From the back of the vehicle, she pulls out a backpack and puts it on her back. The two water canteens are hanging on her shoulders. Chi Mai unties the dog leashes. With one hand carrying the second backpack, and another holding the leashes, she is walking a long distance behind James. He has reached the grave and is standing at its edge. Chi Mai ties the leashes to the foot of a nearby tree and puts the second backpack down on the grass, together with the two canteens. James is still standing with his back towards Chi Mai.

– “Kneel down, James Fisher.”

He follows her order and kneels.

– “You can now pray to your God, James.”

She’s standing behind him. James dares not turn back. He dares not face Death. James dares not look at Chi Mai’s face and see Death in it. He wants to cherish the memories of her image and her fragrance, the same ones he felt those nights in the dark cell. Her doesn’t want to smell the odor of Death.

– “Chi Mai.”

He calls out her name, the name of the lover who came to him on those wonderful nights in the cell.

– “Pray now, and don’t look back, James.”

– “I’m not going to pray.”

– “Why?” – “For there’s nothing to pray now.”

– “Don’t you believe in your God?”

– “Of course I do.”

– “He no longer gives you life.”

– “But he did give.”

– “Once?”

– “Once is enough.”

– “Tell me what you truly feel now, James.”

– “God has let me live in suffering and die a happy death.”

– “You mean happy in dreams only?”

– “Yes, happy in dreams.”

There’s a little pause, and James asks,

– “Chi Mai, why do they make my death so formal?”

– “So that they may sell your bones more easily. James, they are still keeping your dog tag. Being made of stainless steel, those tags won’t rust even though they have been buried for years.”

Chi Mai cocks her pistol. A chill runs down James’ spine.

– “I’m looking at my watch now. In ten minutes, I’m putting a bullet in your head.”

Coming nearer, she places the gun muzzle at his head. James is stupefied. – “Aren’t you going to let me die the way we have practiced?”

– “No.”

– “Why?”

– “Because it’s not practical. Aren’t Americans a practical people, James?”

James looks at the bottom of the grave. He was lying in it a few days ago to practice dying. He had thought he would be able to have a few more practices before the real death. He had expected that during one of these moments of ecstasy, while he’s closing his eyes in dreaming, she would put a bullet in his head. But now, it’s different. James visualizes his body being covered with dirt and as it decomposes, millions of maggots will climb in the eyes, nose and ears. James suddenly becomes nauseated. He wants to vomit.

– “James, don’t you have any other dreams besides making love to me before dying?”

– “No, I can’t think of any right now.”

– “Don’t you dream that some day you will go back to America and write a fairy tale about what has happened in Hell?” – “What’s the use of that?”

– “In that case, James, you don’t deserve a quick death. I will use this hoe to break you head, and you’ll die a violent death. In fact, you’ll suffer pain and moan for a while before dying.”

– “Can you be that cruel, Chi Mai?”

– “Why not?”

– “Have you forgotten what you’ve promised me?”

– “Yes, James, I’ve forgotten.”

James is hopeless now. He’s waiting for his violent death. Thinking of the hoe blade coming down on his head, James unknowingly pees in his pants.

– “Even the truthful American is afraid of death, isn’t he?”

James nods repeatedly.

– “Yes, he is. Yes, I am.”

– “Even your God cannot save you, can he?”

– “No. He can’t.”

– “If someone can save you, is that person greater than God?”

James is tongue-tied. He blurts out,

– “I don’t know, Chi Mai. I really don’t know.”

Chi Mai bites her lips to avoid laughing.

– “You are really a truthful person, now.”

She continues,

– “Does your Bible teach that the truthful people will receive their rewards after death?”

– “Yes.”

– “I’ll give you a reward before your death.”

– “You mean death by a hoe blade?”

– “No, by a bullet.”

– “That’s enough. I don’t want to hear more. Shoot me, Chi Mai. Shoot me, please!”

Her voice is indifferent.

– “No, not now, James. I should prolong your fear of death.”

– “What use is that?”

– “So that you’ll stop believing in God, and start believing in human beings.”

James closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to look at the bottom of the grave. He doesn’t want to listen to her, either.

– “James.”

James is profoundly silent.

– You’ve decided not to speak?

James remains silent.

– “All right. Are you ready to get your reward?”

– “Yes. Shoot me, please.”

– “Is this reward from God or from me, James?”

– “I don’t know.”

Walking back to where the second backpack and the water canteens are, Chi Mai picks them up, and returns to the grave. James is still standing there, his eyes closed. She tells him to stretch out his arms. She puts the backpack and the water canteen on his shoulders. James is confused. He just stands there, completely speechless while she stoops to open the shackles on his legs.

– “James, did you forget love when you were near death?”

– “No, I didn’t.”

– “Are you sure?”

– “Yes, I am.”

– “You haven’t prayed to love. Pray, and love will give you life, a life that is different from the one God has given you.”

James turns back. Chi Mai’s smile has brought his soul back to him. Emotions are rising in his heart. He holds Chi Mai close and kisses her.

– “Thank you, my dear.”

She holds his hand.

– “I will take you to America.”

James closes his eyes for a while. Emotions are flowing violently in his heart and soul. He murmurs,

– “I understand now.”

He understands that she has ordered him to run in place, cut down a tree, hoe up a termite mound, so that he would regain his strength and be able to escape.

– “Chi Mai.”

– “I’m listening.”

– “Why now? Two weeks haven’t passed yet.”

– “Because we can’t predict what will happen tomorrow. I’m afraid something may happen unexpectedly.”

He follows her to where the hound dogs are tied. Giving back the Colt 45 to him, Chi Mai tells him to pick up the machete.

– “Now you can use this to clear the bushes without hurting your hands.”

James is excited. He has eluded death. America is nearer to him now.

– “James.”

– “Yes, my dear?”

– “Get rid of these dogs for me, please.”

With the machete, James strikes at the heads of the dogs and kills them. Chi Mai and James go deeper into the forest. With her, this is a new adventure. She has publicly trampled the communist doctrines under her feet. Chi Mai has risked everything she possesses. With the forest still clear, they hurry on. Chi Mai is confident for she has studied the map well. She has taken along the warden’s map, compass, and binoculars. The two backpacks are filled with dry ration, lighter, cigarettes, alcohol, fish sauce, sugar, nylon hammocks, and a first aid kit with medicines.

Chi Mai and James hasten their pace, one after the other. They dare not stop, even for a moment. It would be late evening before the warden and his men find out about their escape. By then, the couple will have been long gone.

– “James, your feet don’t hurt, do they?”

– “No.”

– “Then let’s walk faster.”

When darkness falls on the forest, Chi Mai turns on her flashlight once in a while, then turns it off to save batteries. James follows close behind. The warden would never guess she has chosen this direction. He will have assumed she picked the direction through the rattan or cinnamon area. James feels stronger than ever. He doesn’t feel hungry or thirsty. He has Chi Mai, and he is going to have America. Truly, James is almost reaching the end of the narrow path; Chi Mai is his life now. She is leading him to a wonderful new life.

Chi Mai looks at her watch. She’s unable to figure out how many kilometers they have covered. She only knows how many hours have passed. Like James, she is excited. There’s something inside that urges her to quicken her pace.

– “James.”

– “Yes, Chi Mai.”

– “Would you like to rest now?”

– “No. Let’s walk through the night.”

They continue to walk on a trail filled with rotten leaves. The forest is quiet. There’s no sign that the lovers are being chased. They need to go to a denser part of the forest where it would be easier to hide in case their enemies are pursuing them. The skies are gloomy. There are no stars shinning through the branches and leaves above them. Chi Mai is glad there is no light to reveal their movement. After midnight, they stop and rest for half an hour. Then they are on their way again.

—> 33

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