AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 33

When the grouses begin to crow, they turn to the right. She looks at her watch. Fifteen minutes later, they turn left, and look for a place to rest. The two backpacks are removed and put at the foot of a tree, to be used as pillows.

– “James, each of us will take turns sleeping for two hours. Would you like to be first?”

– “No, you sleep first.”

– “Then you will keep watch for me?”

– “Sure.”

– “Are you hungry?”

– “Not really.”

– “If you are, there’s dry food in the backpack. If you feel cold, sip some rice wine. But remember, no smoking, please. And don’t shoot unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

Lying on her side, her head on the backpack, she sleeps easily. Leaning against a tree trunk, with his legs stretched comfortably, James sits listening to the songs of the birds. He has come back to life, the immense life around him. Stretching his arms, he wants to embrace nature and pour out his feelings. James has never imagined a day like this: a day that he could sit in a forest, keeping watch so that the one he loves would have a peaceful sleep. In his mind, the Rio Grande and his golden childhood memories come back, brighter than ever. James is going to be reunited with life after his strenuous adventure in Hell. There is no fairy tale in the USA like James’ story. Neither is there any tale in the world that can be compared to his. If the saying “One day in prison is equal to one thousand years in the outside world” were true, James would have been about three million years away from the world. He has been gone away too far and too long. He is proud that he has picked a flower from the rocky floor of Hell to take back as a gift to the world. James would like to display this rare and precious flower in a museum.

James is savoring every sound of the deep forest. He is not hungry. Neither does he feel thirsty or cold. He looks at Chi Mai, the flower that blossoms on the rock of Hell. Chi Mai, you will see America, and you will get to love it, my dear. A sound nearby suddenly cuts off his thoughts. James sees a hare standing in front of him. The animal just stands there and looks at him. James thinks of the traps that he used to make to catch rabbits as a youth. He raises his hand and makes a sign for him to come near. Panicked, the hare jumps and disappears in a second. Another sound catches his attention. It’s the rustling sound of an army of termites. Millions of them are on their march; their horrible claws are shoving bits of dried leaves to their grinding mouths.

The sunlight begins to shine through the tops of the trees. Time passes fast. He lets Chi Mai continue her sleep and doesn’t wake her to keep watch for him. When the color of the leaves changes with the sun rising higher, James comes near Chi Mai and bends down to kiss her hair. She opens her eyes, and sits up at once.

– “It’s your turn now, James.”

He says,

– “You have slept for me already, darling.”

Looking at her watch, she exclaims,

– “It’s getting late. We have to leave right away.”

James suggests that they eat first. Searching the backpack, she pulls out a Chinese ration, which they share before marching on. The forest becomes thicker. Chi Mai’s legs begin hurting, making her unable to walk fast. James is walking ahead. With the machete, he clears the bushes and branches that block their way.

– “Are you still afraid of death, James?”

– “With you by my side, I’m afraid of nothing now.”

– “I’m afraid we are slowing down, James.”

– “I wouldn’t mind if we had to walk at this pace and arrive in America three years from now.”

– “Remember not to use too much of your energy, James.”

– “Don’t worry for me, my dear. I’m not afraid of dying, but I am craving life now.”

Thanks to the machete and the burning hope in James, thorny bushes are cleared easily. They stop a little after noontime. The two lovers lie next to each other, looking at the sky through the branches.

– “You can smoke now, James.”

James pulls out a locally made pack of cigarettes.

– “Have you run out of Winston?”

– “I didn’t bring them along, because the aroma from those cigarettes will help them track us more easily.”

James lights up the crude cigarette. Chi Mai holds it to his mouth as he takes one hit after another.

Placing her leg over his, she says,

– “James, I have the feeling we will be all right.”

– “Of course we will.”

– “Now that the war is over, we won’t meet any guerrillas. Laos and Vietnam have signed a transportation and trade treaty. It’s not necessary for Vietnamese to carry a passport when they go to Laos. I hope we shall have no problems with the border patrol. After we cross the Mekong River, America will be within our reach. But it may depend on luck, James. I think you can pray to your God.”

– “You are already my God.”

– “James, I’m saying it with sincerity.”

– “Then I will pray.”

– “You should pray every day.”

Chi Mai rubs out the cigarette. She slides over on top of James to kiss him. He puts his arms around her and holds her tight.

– “Chi Mai.”

– “Yes, James.”

– “From this moment, you are my wife. You are Chi Mai Fisher.”

– “What about Susan?”

– “It’s finished between her and me. I’ve been away from America three million years, don’t you remember?”

James again holds her down to drink the nectar in her sweet lips. When they get up, Chi Mai pulls out the map to locate where they are. She points at one green mark on it.

– “We shall arrive at this brook.”

She hangs the binoculars on his neck and looks at the compass. It points west. They are going in the right direction. Chi Mai puts the map and the compass back into the backpack. With the machete in his hands, James clears the bushes and branches ahead of them. He feels like a child, filled with excitement, who goes out with his mother to discover the world. James was growing up at a time when all the mysteries of Nature have been banished by science. People are no longer afraid of forests, mountains, and the desert. One can only find dreadful memories in movies. Red Indians are now driving trucks through the forests, and helicopters are hovering over deserts. The horses of the Wild West heroes cannot outrun vehicles on freeways. It’s not quite easy for James to fend for himself in a situation like this. Chi Mai is a godsend for him. She has carefully and thoroughly planned almost everything for him. Thanks to her, he has more courage and energy for their escape.

After every two hours, they stop to rest for ten minutes, enough to take a bite from the ration, drink a little water, and for James to smoke. Chi Mai carefully buries the cigarette butt and ash, covering them with dry leaves before moving on. At sunset, they arrive at the humid and stale bamboo forest. There are lots of mosquitoes and jungle leeches here. Knowing that James is sleepy, Chi Mai hangs the hammock between two bamboos for him to sleep. Using the map as a fan, she chases away the mosquitoes so that he may have a good sleep. Surely Susan McCareen can’t love James as much as Chi Mai; for true love can only be proven at critical times. Chi Mai stands all the time to fan and keep watch for James, although she herself is very tried and sleepy. James sleeps soundly. When he wakes up, he stands and keeps watch for her while she sleeps. While fanning to keep the mosquitoes away, James looks at Chi Mai and feels a deep love for her. He looks into the dark sky, trying to find a glittering star to believe that God has used it to witness the love between him and her.

James wakes her up when the grouses begin to crow. She reaches up to kiss him. Chi Mai waits until he finishes the cigarette before she says,

– “I’ve brought along a bottle of tonic. Only a small glass is enough to make you strong, less hungry, and not feel the cold. In fact, it can cure a lot of illnesses too.”

He asks,

– “Is this some kind of wonder medicine?”

She says,

– “Vietnamese astronaut, Pham Tuan, was able to fly into space with the Russians, thanks to this tonic. The only problem is that it’s rather hard to swallow.”

Chi Mai opens the backpack and pulls out a bottle of fish sauce with a little glass. She fills the glass half way and drinks it at one gulp. When it’s James’ turn to drink, he has to sip it a little at a time, grimacing with each sip. Chi Mai cleans the glass, wraps it with plastic, and puts it into the backpack. James smokes another cigarette. He suddenly finds the flavor of the cigarette sweeter. This fish sauce is really amazing. James’ whole body feels warm. He doesn’t care for any dry rations. Chi Mai gives him two pieces of unrefined block sugar and tells him to eat them one small bite at a time while they are walking.

– “James, the Vietnamese soldiers endured much more hardship than we are when they were fighting the US armed forces.”

They continue again. They rest during the night and walk almost all day. If James had attempted this escape alone, he would have died of hunger; for in all the forests they have passed, there are no fruit trees. Neither is there any game for hunting. Only very rarely have they seen a rabbit or a mongoose.

At noon the next day, they arrive at the rattan forest. They have to bend their backs to go through some caves of rattan that look like a wasp’s nest. When there is no more clearance ahead, James has to clear the way. Cutting rattan is more difficult than cutting bamboos or branches. Rattan is pliable, tough and full of sharp thorns. It’s painful to have these thorns in your hands. Chi Mai tells James to put a strong branch under the rattan before cutting it. Soon both his hands and arms are lacerated with cuts from the rattan thorns. It’s quite time-consuming to clear the way through this rattan forest. They spend the night there. Since there are no tall trees on which to hang the hammock, they select a place under a cave of rattan. They cleared the ground of thorns to lie on it.

James sleeps first. Chi Mai sits beside him to fan off the mosquitoes. She does not want his homecoming hopes to be shattered by anything. She has hidden her worries from him. James doesn’t understand that both of them are like acrobats flying about without a net under them. She has taken on an adventure that has no guarantee of reaching their destination. She has openly opposed a doctrine, a party, and a powerful regime. Chi Mai knows very well that there will be a military operation to pursue her. They may even use helicopters in their pursuit. Her life doesn’t mean anything since she escaped with James. They are after James now. They will gun him down, let the vultures eat his flesh, and take his skeleton back. It’s difficult for her to escape the communist net. Hasn’t she told him before: “James, I’d like to help you go back to America soon, but I have no authority to decide anything? “

At that time, only compassion touched the dark shroud of ideology that used to cover her common sense. Gradually, the darkness cleared. She has been revealed by love, the love of one human being to another. Chi Mai has begun a revolution to free herself from the conditions that were shackling her mind. She has found it essential to decide her own destiny. And she has fought. As an individual, she believes she should never surrender, no matter how weak and lonely she may be. Chi Mai has openly trampled the communist doctrine under her feet and declared war with its ideology so that she can become a truthful person, like James. She is ready to accept any consequences. Chi Mai doesn’t care, as long as she still breathes; she must fight to protect her life and her love.

James fidgets, and opens her eyes. He sits up right away.

– “Chi Mai, it’s your turn to sleep now.”

She says,

– “You’re more tired than I am. You need to sleep more.”

He pulls her down. Both of them lay their heads on the backpacks.

– “Sleep now, my dear.”

James lights a cigarette. He smokes and fans her while all around them the rattan forest is silent. Obviously no animals choose this as their breeding place. Even poisonous snakes are afraid of rattan thorns. For those who escape from prison, they find the rattan forest a dangerous frontier. One has a chance to be free if he can cross it. James strongly believes he will be able to make it and return home. He doesn’t realize the communists have ample means to search for and catch them. He has very little knowledge of the communists. So do his people. The Americans have slept on their glorious victories. They are also sleeping on their disastrous defeat. Actually, they are a carefree people. But the American named James Fisher has begun to think. All his thoughts center on Chi Mai. She has a bright future before her. She is well educated, intelligent, and beautiful. Why has she thrown away everything in order to love him and do all she can to take him back to America? This question keeps circulating through his mind.

James looks into the sky but doesn’t see any stars. The clouds have covered everything. Chi Mai and James are like a pair of wasps in their nest. He has just found out that nature is really marvelous. And so is love.

– “What are you dreaming about, James?”

Chi Mai has awakened. James lies down beside her.

– “I’m dreaming of a life in America.”

– “With me?”

– “With you, of course. We shall have a lot of children.”

– “How many?”

– “Five.”

– “That’s a lot, darling.”

– “Our first born will be named Vietnam Fisher.”

She turns sideways. He turns towards her. Their faces touch.

– “Go on dreaming, James. It will shorten the way back to America. Dreaming will help us forget our fears.”

He folds one arm over her back and pulls her closer to him.

– “Chi Mai.”

– “Yes, James.”

– “When did you begin to love me?”

– “The moment you crawled out of that metal barrel.”

– “When did you decide to save me?”

– “In Hanoi, when my boss gave me orders to personally execute you.”

– “Why did you prolong my death?”

– “So that I might have a chance to lie down by your side in your grave.” James kisses her passionately. He gently caresses her back.

– “My dear, don’t worry about tomorrow. I’m afraid of nothing now.”

Chi Mai squeezes his shoulder hard.

– “Let tomorrow take care of itself. I agree with you, James. But every minute you’re awake, don’t forget that the communists will never rest until they have regained what has been snatched away from them.”

Birds are twittering to announce the beginning of another day. It’s still dark in the rattan cave. The sun has not risen yet. The two lovers have a light breakfast and get up to continue their journey. James patiently chops off the rattan rods, one by one. Without gloves, James has to wrap cloth around his hands before he can pull out the long, thorny rods that intertwine. Chi Mai helps him pick up the chopped-off parts and throws them behind. Escapees from Ly Ba So camp die in this rattan forest because they run out of food and water. Other prisoners die because they don’t have strong knives to clear the way. They just wander around for a while and die of exhaustion. Once they have entered this rattan forest, if the escapees are smart enough to block the entrance, their pursuers won’t be able to figure out which direction they’re heading. Chi Mai and James have blocked the entrance. All they need to do now is to cross this forest to escape the pursuit of the prison guards. As for the previous pursuits, Chi Mai isn’t sure. But the search for James must be more intensive.

The rattan thorns cause James excruciating pain; but James bites his teeth to endure. While clearing the rattan, James lets his mind wander home. This helps him ease the pain. James dreams of a pair of pliers to cut barbed wires and a pair of leather gloves. With these tools, he could look down on rattan forests like this. But alas, this is still Vietnamese territory, and he is a real prisoner, escaping from a real prison. Anything easy can only be found in movies where the director has everything within reach of the actors. James wishes he could make a film about prisons in communist Vietnam. He is sure that no directors, even the most gifted ones, could make a more complete, accurate, and realistic film about communist prisons and the punishment in those prisons than one made by him.

– “Chi Mai.”

– “What are you dreaming about now, James?”

– “If US soldiers had been able to endure hardships like I have, could we have lost the war?”

– “Yes, you could.”

– “Why?”

– “Because your GI’s didn’t like hardships. They stayed in the forest and counted every minute for choppers to go down and pick them up for their R&R’s.”

She adds,

– “But the US armed forces didn’t lose the war. It was capitalism that lost the Vietnam War. This was the first time the rich were defeated by the poor. However, my people didn’t win, either. It was communism that won. The GI’s died, and so did my people. At last, James Fisher is the victor. Isn’t that enough for you to be proud of?”

James didn’t answer. He continues to cut the rattan and clear the way. They stop and rest at every two hours. They eat a little dry food, have a few sips of water and are on their way again. When they sun rises high in the sky, its light cannot pierce through the dense rattan caves, but there is enough light for Chi Mai and James to see each other.

They spend another night in the “wasp net.” There isn’t any sign that they are being pursued. James is very optimistic. He sits up and fans off the mosquitoes so that she may have a good sleep. James dreams of a clear fresh brook that they will meet tomorrow, where he will immerse his whole body in it. How refreshing it will be! James’ hands and arms should heal fast after being washed in it.

Thanks to their taking turns sleeping and fanning off the mosquitoes, James and Chi Mai don’t catch malaria. They spend another exhausting day in the rattan forest. By noon the following day, they can see the sunlight clearly. They gradually climb out of the rattan forest. The two lovers throw down the backpacks, embrace each other, and joyfully roll on the grass. They then block the passage they have just exited. James exclaims,

– “We are free at last!”

Chi Mai gently shakes her head,

– “No, James. We haven’t reached our destination yet.”

Patting James’s shoulder, she says,

– “My dear, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But we can’t be too optimistic.” The two lovers lie down to bathe in the sunlight. They have a good meal and stay there that evening. James smokes a cigarette while Chi Mai has her hand on her forehead.

– “What are you thinking about, darling?”

– “About the wrath of communism.”

– “I’d like you to forget about it.”

– “Yes, my dear. I will forget all about it when we both stand by the Rio Grande.”

They take turns sleeping and have a restful night. The next morning, they set out at the first crowing of the grouses. Chi Mai chops off two rattan rods and strips off all the thorns. She gives one to James.

– “What’s this for, darling?”

– “To chase off snakes. A rattan blow to a snake will crush its backbone right away. My people have handed down this experience for generations. And it’s invaluable experience, too, James.”

At last, they have arrived at the brook shown on the map.

—> 34

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