AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 36

Suddenly James feels weak after catching cold. He sleeps for many hours and doesn’t want to rise. His mind is weary and his body worn out. James feels as if his flesh were rotten inside and his backbone crushed to pieces. Only now has he realized the toll of eight years of imprisonment. After the long years in solitary confinement, he had barely regained his strength when Chi Mai helped him escape; and James has exhausted himself crossing forest after forest, one stream after another, during the past ten days. With just a little food to sustain him, his system is not strong enough to fight off this mild cold. James had thought that his faith and determination would help him overcome everything, including sickness, but he forgot that his endurance was like a guitar string that had been tightened higher, and higher, until it finally broke. Now James is lying with his head on his backpack. It is difficult for him to move. His whole body is aching. He feels as if his hair were a bunch of needles that stick to his scalp; a touch on his hair can cause pain all over his head. Both his arms and his legs are heavy. His mouth is dry and his tongue feels bitter. James wishes he could sleep more, but his eyes remain open.

Chi Mai knows that James has been so fatigued by the hard and long journey that even an unhealthy wind could strike him down with a cold. She has no choice but to wait until he feels better before even thinking of crossing the border. She has given him some aspirin and Vitamin C, but these tablets haven’t done much good. James is still moaning. Chi Mai boils some rice soup in an aluminum cup and puts a lot of sugar in it for James. She doesn’t eat her share of sugar, but lets him have it. As James cannot sit, she stays up all night to fan away the mosquitoes so that he may sleep. Chi Mai is exhausted, but she tries to remain strong. Anyhow, they are still lucky; for there is no sign of their enemies coming after them. Neither is there any summer rain, which may be deadly for them in this situation.

It has been two days, and James’ status has not improved. Chi Mai is very sad and nervous. She doesn’t know whether she’ll have any strength left to take him to the other side of the Mekong River.

– “James.”

– “Yes?”

– “Flu symptoms may last for a week or two. You must try to get up and do some exercises if you’d like to continue the trip to America.”

James listlessly shakes his head.

– “James, Hemingway has said something like this: “Great men usually die because of a little thorn.” Would you like to die because of a thorn or die valiantly on the battlefield?”

He remains silent.

– “I’ve seen the film, “Mr. Roberts.” Henry Fonda plays that role so well. Some Americans would rather die in the middle of the ocean than in a small river. As you didn’t die in prison, I don’t think you should die in this forest, either.”

James musters all his strength to sit up.

– “Show me you are brave, at least as brave as Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett.”

He pushes himself up with his right hand and stands up. Chi Mai is so happy that tears well up in her eyes.

– “James, I’m very proud of you.”

James stretches his arms. He inhales deeply and exhales. He does some arms movements and runs in place. She boils a cup of hot water, adds some sugar, and asks him to drink it warm. Chi Mai has him lie down and holds him tight. He sweats profusely. She wipes him dry. James begins to feel more alert. He can see more clearly now. Chi Mai suddenly remembers something.

– “James, will you lie face down, with your arms along your side?”

She pulls his shirt up over his shoulders and applies tiger balm all over his back. With the cap of the tiger balm container, she scrapes along his backbone, and from the middle of his back, she scrapes towards his ribs. James grinds his teeth to bear the pain. Soon his back is marked with dark-red stripes. She puts the cap back on the container and begins massaging his back with both her palms. James feels a great relief after she massages his arms and legs.

– “How do you feel, my dear?”

– “Thank you. I feel much better.”

– “That’s how our poor people treat colds and the flu.”

– “That’s a wonderful treatment, darling. I wish I could be sick often.”

Chi Mai shakes her head.

– “Not now, my dear. Wait until we reach the other side of the Mekong River.”

James gradually regains his strength. He is anxious and wants to cross the border right away; but Chi Mai doesn’t agree. She suggests that they move on to a more discreet location in the bamboo forest.

– “James, I’d like to wait until you are really strong again.”

Chi Mai feeds on dried ration, and drinks only plain water. She saves rice and sugar for him. They stay at the bamboo forest for two more days. Chi Mai is surprised that her Party seems to have done nothing yet. James Fisher isn’t an ordinary prisoner. The Party continued to keep him after the Paris Agreement had been signed. James had been held back for some long-term purpose. Chi Mai knows for a fact that after the Geneva Agreement was signed between France and the Hanoi government, quite a few French prisoners were held back in North Vietnam. Those “valuable” prisoners were listed as “missing in action.” When price negotiations weren’t successful, the Vietnamese communist regime eliminated them one by one. When Chinese general Tieu Van led his troops to Vietnam in 1945 to disarm the Japanese armed forces, some Japanese officers refused to surrender to Tieu Van’s troops. Instead they joined and served the Vietnamese communist forces. Although they tried to adapt, and even became Vietnamese citizens, the communists didn’t trust them. All of them were finally mass-murdered in Lang Son province after many months serving the communist regime. Their bones will some day be exhumed and be put on sale.

As for James, he has been kept to prepare for the normalization between communism and capitalism. Chi Mai was called home to implement the project of presenting the American people half-alive POW’s or bartering the skeleton of an American GI for some valuable item. To the Party, James is a precious treasure that they don’t want to lose that easily.

Exactly where the Party is preparing their snares, Chi Mai doesn’t know. She is trying to muster her intelligence to outwit them no matter what consequences she might face. Checking the dried food they’ve taken along, Chi Mai finds there is enough for a few more days, at minimum consumption. A thought comes to her mind. What if James and she stay in this bamboo forest for some time, so that the Party may think they have perished in the rattan forest, or have been eaten by tigers in the elephant grass field? As James’ health has improved, he constantly urges her to cross the border.

– “Let’s be on our way, Chi Mai.”

– “It’s my turn to be sick now, James.”

James doesn’t know that she is faking. Looking worried, he sits down by her side, stroking her hair.

– “I can wait, my dear. It wouldn’t be too late if we arrived in America two months from now, would it?”

Holding his hand, she asks,

– “When people no longer believe in their abilities, who do they turn to, James?”

– “To God, James replies.”

She turns around and holds him tight.

– “Will you then pray to your God for both of us?”

He kisses her lightly on her cheek.

– “You’re already my goddess, Chi Mai.”

She says softly.

– “I’m sincere, James. You will pray so that we may have confidence and strength to overcome all obstacles, won’t you?”

He laughs.

– “Certainly, we will reach the other side of the Mekong.”

She releases her hold on him.

– “Don’t be too optimistic and complacent, James.”

He stops laughing and looks at her.

– “All right, Chi Mai, I’ll pray to God every minute.”

She nods.

– “Remember to pray for me too!”

Chi Mai tries to suppress a sigh. As for James, it seems to him that a mysterious light has penetrated his mind, filling him with indescribable emotions. Although he has not arrived in America, James has brought Chi Mai back to God. He feels he has come to the end of the narrow path to find the wonder of life. James holds Chi Mai tight and showers her with kisses.

– “My dear, God has given you life.”

She says,

– “He has given my life meaning.”

He holds her closer. America has appeared in front of him, glowing in every color.

—> 37

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