AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 35

At noon, they arrive at the field of elephant grass. They can walk quite fast now. It’s easy to move in the terrain. All they have to do is use their hands to part this grass which grows as high as their heads. For two hours they walk without stopping straight through the territory of the tigers. James spots the carcass of a deer, scorched under the sun and covered with flies. He shows it to her. They come nearer to it.

– “It must be one of the deer that came to the brook last night.”

She says to him,

– “The tiger must have killed it and saved it here for its meal tonight. Will you cut the deer’s hind leg and take it along, James?”

– “It smells already.”

– “It still looks fresh to me.”

– “We shouldn’t eat it.”

– “Have you forgotten you once swallowed a cockroach, James?”

He takes off the backpack, and with the machete chops off the hind leg of the deer carcass that the tiger has killed. They are on their way again. Flies are covering the hind leg of the deer. When it is dark, they arrive at a dense forest. She looks for a place to hang the hammock.

– “I think they don’t know we are here.”

– “So do I.”

– “Let’s build a fire.”

They walk around to gather dried branches and make a fire. When the embers are red, James throws the deer leg into it. The smell of burned fur and skin is very strong. Chi Mai takes out a small bag of salt. After a long while, James pulls the deer leg out of the embers. With Chi Mai’s dagger, he cuts off the burned skin and carves a chunk, then cuts it into small pieces which they eat with salt.

– “Does the meat taste fresh to you, James?”

He laughs.

– “It’s very delicious.”

They are satiated with deer meat. He drinks some whisky before putting out the fire. She sleeps while he keeps watch. He doesn’t wake her up after four hours as she has instructed him, because he wants her to sleep longer. Chi Mai sleeps for six hours, and wakes up by herself. She is a little upset with him because he doesn’t take care of himself, but James reassures her that he only needs to sleep two hours a night.

The next day, they depart early. After crossing two more streams, they arrive at another bamboo forest. Chi Mai opens the map to check their coordinates. She exclaims,

– “Look, James! We’ve almost reached the border.”

He looks at the map and turns around to embrace her.

– “Darling. America is within our reach now.”

She looks at the compass. They are heading in the right direction.

– “From now on, we shall walk by night, and rest during the day.”

He says,

– “My dear, whatever you decide.”

They move deeper into the bamboo forest. After resting for a while, Chi Mai asks James to chop down a big bamboo plant. She selects the part at the bottom of the plant and cuts it off. James doesn’t know what she’s up to. Chi Mai builds a fire and puts the bamboo joint into the fire. Then she pulls out a bag of dry cooked rice from the backpack.

– “This is the combat ration of the South Vietnamese soldiers.”

She cuts off the top of the plastic bag of rice and asks James to hold it. Then using the tip of her dagger, Chi Mai pokes a hole into the top part of the bamboo joint. Holding the bamboo joint with her handkerchief, she pours the hot water into the rice bag. The contents increase in size quickly. In a few minutes, they have a steamy bag of cooked rice which they eat with relish. James eats slowly, enjoying every spoonful of rice. The water in the bamboo joint gives the rice a sweet flavor.

– “I admire you for being so resourceful, Chi Mai.”

– “That’s the benefit of being born in a poor country, my dear.”

– “I’m so happy now, darling.”

– “So am I, even though we’re almost out of food. Your bottle of whisky is almost empty too. Do you know that you will become Boris Kanazev after we cross the border, James?”

– “Why?”

– “Because Laos is no longer a kingdom. The people there may not like to see a US soldier escaping from prison.”

– “Where are we heading from the Laotian border?”

– “To Luang Prabang.”

James snuffs out the fire after finishing his cigarette. Because the bamboo forest is near the border, in an elevated area, there aren’t many mosquitoes in this summer climate. The two lovers lie down, using their backpacks as pillows.

– “James, are you going to write a novel when you are back in America?”

– “Definitely.”

– “What will be in your first novel?”

– “I’ll write about our love.”

– “James…”

– “Yes, Chi Mai.”

– “There’s a song in my country that describes the yearning of life and mankind.”

– “Will you sing it for me, my dear?”

She sings the song softly to him:

Go on, and drive me from the land of Paradise,
Where it is icy cold, full of darkness, and where
Passion is the forbidden fruit.
Go on, and banish me from the land of myth,
Where loneliness reigns, and I am just a sad statue.
Where is my life, my former life, which I’ve been longing for?
Where is my love,my lost love, which I can only find in my dream?
The dreams have ended, and I wake up, choked with tears.
Chase me away, I beg you, so I can return and live among human beings
With all the pains and sufferings of life,
Where I may have the happiness of saying “I love you.”

Chi Mai translates the song for James to understand. Its strange melody and lyrics fascinate him. James is impressed by the thoughts of the songwriter. Hell is a desolate place, and so is Paradise. Only life is warm and worth being in; for there are human beings in it. In this life, people may undergo a lot of pain and suffering; but they still can express their love to one another. Both the Hell of communism and the Paradise of capitalism are desolate. Chi Mai and James belong to neither ideology now. All they want is to return and live among human beings.

– “Chi Mai.”

– “Yes, darling.”

– “You have taught me many things. When we arrive in my country, we shall stand by the Rio Grande and proclaim our love, so that all America, all Vietnam, and all world may hear.”

– “James.”

– “Yes, my dear.”

– “What do you think about me?”

– “Why?”

– “Because my feeling for you is something I can’t define; something I can’t describe, even if I spend the rest of my life trying to understand.”

– “James.”

– “I’m listening.”

– “Is your house still at the same address?”

– “Yes. My grandparents built that house. It’s our family heritage. I will not move anywhere. Do you remember its address?”

– “Yes, my dear. I even remember the phone number with the area code.”

– “That’s wonderful, Mrs. Chi Mai Fisher.”

As Chi Mai falls asleep, James sits by to keep watch over her. Early next morning they walk deeper into the forest. When the sun rises, they stop and wait for nightfall before crossing the border. Chi Mai tells James to take off the US uniform and put on the Vietnamese fatigue that she has placed in his backpack. James digs a hole and buries his old clothing. The new fatigue fits him pretty well although the trousers are a little short.

– “Remember, James, that from now on you are Boris Kanazev.”

– “I’ll remember.”

– “You’re a Russian geologist.”

– “Yes, Chi Mai.”

– “Now, it’s your turn to sleep.”

James kisses her before lying down, using his backpack for his pillow. He closes his eyes and goes to sleep quickly. Sitting by his side, Chi Mai opens the map to check for the last time. Her worry intensifies. She no longer is afraid of danger. What occupies her mind now is the silence that is lying somewhere ahead, waiting for her. She doesn’t believe her superiors can give up that easily. They don’t send troops to go after her just because they are sure where she is heading. They may already be at Luang Prabang, near the bank of the Mekong River, ready to welcome her. They may even be waiting at the border to Thailand. She has tried her best to hide her worries so that James doesn’t know. She would rather keep him in high spirits. What’s the use of his knowing about all the difficulties that lie ahead? It would be impossible for him to deal with new situations. Even if he dares to face them, there’s a high probability that he will be killed in Laos, and will never see America again. But at any cost, she is determined to take him to the other side of the Mekong River.

James must reach the other side of the river. He must go back home. That’s all she wants. James must live to write a novel about a fairy tale that took place in Hell. The American people will know about Vietnam and understand the Vietnamese people. Chi Mai doesn’t want the USA or any country that has caused deaths and destruction in Vietnam to make amends to her people. No, the Vietnamese are a proud people who hold their heads high in spite of suffering, pain, and humiliation. The Vietnamese are poor but kind and forgiving. They possess an indomitable spirit that helps them defeat their enemies. Chi Mai hopes that James will be a voice to build an understanding between the American people and the Vietnamese people. There is nothing worse than hatred between countries. The American people didn’t lose the war in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people didn’t win the war, either. These two peoples have nothing to hate each other for. It was the two ideologies, capitalism and communism, that started the war. These damned ideologies chose Vietnam as the battleground. US soldiers died, and so did the Vietnamese. Those who were responsible for the crime have been identified and judged in the history of mankind. Besides Vietnam, other small countries have gone through similar tragedies. In those countries, when capitalism wins, there come wicked dictators who exploit, imprison, and torture their own wretched people. In countries where communism prevails, murderous leaders will rule by concentration camps and punishments of hatred. The tears and blood of the people will fill many graves. That’s why it’s imperative that James gets back to America. As for Chi Mai, where will she be? James has described to her the good life they will share by the Rio Grande. He thinks she has thrown away everything she has just to hope for a peaceful life in America. His thinking is that simple. He doesn’t know that besides her love for him, Chi Mai wants to prove that human beings must struggle in order to get back their sacred rights of being human. When a human being suddenly wakes up and realizes his sacred rights, he is unbeatable. Chi Mai has conquered herself. She wants to confront her former ideology face to face and defeat it. James must return to his country. He will be happy; and he deserves to be happy. Happiness, however, isn’t for her. She will have to lead a life in exile indefinitely, maybe until the last day of her life. America belongs to James. It will never become hers, even though she becomes his wife and the mother of his children. She only has Vietnam, a land of unending sufferings, but forever dear to her.

Chi Mai is fanning for James as these thoughts rush through her mind. He is sleeping soundly. Maybe he’s dreaming about America. He is embracing his parents and his little sisters. A few teardrops are falling from his eyes, the tears of joy and happiness from someone who just come back from Hell. James fidgets and opens his eyes. Seeing Chi Mai still fanning, he places his arm over her neck and pulls her down. He gently kisses her.

– “I love you, darling.”

She remains silent. He holds her tighter.

– “Chi Mai, I love you.”

—> 36

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