AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 38

Two helicopters are hovering over the bamboo forest. Chi Mai pulls James towards a cluster of dense bamboo plants. They jump into the middle of the cluster, trying their best to cover themselves. The helicopters are dropping lower. The forest is shaking. The bamboos are brushing against one another, making a horrible sound. The helicopters are flying back and forth; only two of them are enough to disturb the whole forest. Chi Mai is scared. Her heart is pounding heavily. The Party isn’t going to let her go unpunished. It’s no longer possible for James to go back to America. He’s lying there, more panicky than she.

After hovering above their heads for about half an hour, the helicopters fly away. Suddenly, Chi Mai and James hear the barking of dogs from a distance. As the sound is coming nearer, they can hear the voice of some people. There’s a sound of an automatic weapon unloading the whole magazine. The bullets are cutting through bamboo plants. Chi Mai can hear the sound of bullets hissing over her head. Another round of fire is heard from the left of their hiding places; then another burst of machine gun is fired from behind them. Guns are firing all around them. James and Chi Mai have been surrounded. Chi Mai thinks there must be hundreds of border patrol troopers around them. She is hopeless. In this situation, she can do nothing but wait for them to arrest her and James.

Chi Mai crawls towards James. She lies on top of him as if to cover him from the coming bullets. Two hounds have smelled their hiding place. They bark noisily and rush forward. Chi Mai pulls out her pistol, aims at the head of one hound and fires. The animal howls with pain and collapses. The second hound jumps towards them. James pulls the trigger. The dog falls to the ground. Machine guns from four corners are firing like shower over them. Bamboo plants are spilt open by the bullets and scattered to the ground. The siege is getting smaller and smaller. Suddenly, the firing stops. Chi Mai hears a voice from a megaphone asking them to surrender. She shakes James’ shoulder.

– “What now, James?”

James rises.

– “Let’s fight.”

Dozens of hounds are running towards them. She jumps away from James. Both of them aim and are firing at the dogs with their pistols. The violent hounds dash toward their prey. James and Chi Mai cannot load another clip into their guns. One hound bites at James’ arm, and another snaps at Chi Mai’s wrist. The border patrol troopers appear, putting their guns to Chi Mai’s and James’ heads. James doesn’t have time to commit suicide, and neither does Chi Mai. They are put in shackles and led out of the bamboo forest. An hour later, they arrive at the field of elephant grass, where a helicopter is waiting. Two soldiers pick Chi Mai up and throw her on board. Then it’s James’ turn. The pilot starts the engine and the helicopter flies back to Ly Ba So prison camp. They put a lemon into James and Chi Mai’s mouth, tape it tight before taking them to separate cells. That way, they can prevent the prisoners from committing suicide by biting their tongue.

Chi Mai doesn’t know how many hours she has lain in the dark. At the moment, the guards have opened the cell door and called her name. One of them peels off the tape and slaps her so hard that the lemon flies out. Another unlocks the handcuffs and shackles so that she can eat and go to the bathroom before they take her to a new cell. Chi Mai lies on the sandy floor; her feet are put in two irons next to the wall the lock of which is outside the wall. Her hands are locked in handcuffs, a lemon is in her mouth, secured with tape. It’s impossible for her to hit her head against the wall if she wants to commit suicide. Chi Mai knows that the Party wants her to have a slow and sure death. She is willing to accept whatever comes to her. But what about James? What other forms of torture are they going to give him? Finally, she isn’t able to save him, and he will suffer more humiliation before dying. As she knows a sure death is waiting for her, Chi Mai thinks it is best not to think of anything; for even thinking is useless now. She has realized how powerful the Party is over the people it controls.

The next day, they take her to the prison office to see her superior. This is the same office where, a few months ago, she was interrogating James. Now it’s her turn to be questioned by her former boss. He asks,

– “How do you feel, being in handcuffs and shackles like this?”

She replies,

– “I feel nothing, sir.”

The colonel changes his tone of voice.

– “You’ve betrayed the Party and the people. You are no longer my comrade.”

He bites his teeth.

– “You are now a convict, a traitor.”

Chi Mai says,

– “Abandoning an ideology is never betraying one’s country. Any ideology cannot be compared with one’s nation. The nation is above everything.”

The colonel pounds his fist on the table.

– “You are now a person without a nation.”

She holds her head high,

– “The nation of Vietnam is in my heart. It will remain there until I die. No authority can take it away from me. The people without a nation are those who are fascinated and deceived by an ideology.”

The old man glares at her.

– “You have left the Party, your family, your nation, and your bright future to follow an enemy. Do you think that’s an honorable thing to do?”

She says,

– “I’m not following any enemy. I only want to preserve the dignity of a human being. That’s all.”

The colonel bites his lips.

– “As a communist, there is only one place for you to rely on, and that’s the communist party. Out of it, you’ll be lonely and rejected, wherever you go.”

She smiles.

– “I’m sorry, sir. But you are wrong. When a person becomes a human being again, he can find refuge and peace wherever he may be.”

The colonel jerks his chin up.

– “You even have the audacity to love an American invader?”

She shrugs.

– “Maybe loving an American isn’t as weird as loving Messrs. Lenin, Stalin, and Brejnev. I think a woman loving a man isn’t as scandalous as men loving men.”

The old man yells,

– “That’s fallacious!”

She says softly,

– “That’s the truth, sir. You don’t understand it because you haven’t been truly in love. All you’ve experienced is hatred.”

Her former boss pushes a button.

– “Chi Mai, I’m very sorry.”

The guard comes in, and Chi Mai stands up to follow him. At the door, she turns back.

– “I have no regret, sir.”

Chi Mai is taken back to her cell. The next day, she is blindfolded and taken by Jeep to the forest. When the car stops, they take her, still blindfolded, further into the forest. When the blindfold is removed, Chi Mai sees James kneeling in front of the grave he had dug, where he had practiced dying with her. A lemon has been put into his mouth, secured with tape. He looks at her, uttering strange sounds. The colonel is standing there, together with the wicked prison guards. The old man can’t hide his satisfaction.

– “You could have outwitted us by reaching the middle of the Mekong even though Thai soldiers could shoot you dead when you would move to their side. But it would take a miracle for you to take the American to this side of the Mekong. Such a miracle will not happen. With the communists, nobody can have miracles.”

Chi Mai remains silent.

– “This American invader will die, but you will live to suffer. You will witness his execution. Do you have anything to say?”

She asks,

– “To James Fisher?”

The colonel taps at his chest.

– “To the Party.”

Chi Mai replies coldly.

– “The Party isn’t a human being. I’d rather not speak to it.”

The colonel gives order,

– “Execute him.”

One guard picks up a hoe. He walks towards James and measures the distance between where James is kneeling and the hoe handle. He wants to make sure the blade of the hoe will hit James right in the middle of his head. The guard spreads his leg for a firm posture. He wields the hoe upward. With all his strength, the guard gives a mighty blow. Chi Mai buries her face with both her hands and cries out. James startles. He places his hand on her face and gently shakes her,

– “Chi Mai, Chi Mai.”

She opens her eyes, bewildered. James holds her tight.

– “Were you dreaming, my dear?”

She sits up.

– “Yes, darling, I was. For sure, we shall kiss each other on the bank of the Rio Grande. I was so happy that I shouted out.”

He pats her back.

– “I don’t blame you. For sure, we shall kiss each other on the bank of the Rio Grande.”

Chi Mai hides her nightmare from James although it has filled her with terror. She takes a sip of water and tells him to sleep while she fans away the mosquitoes. There’s complete silence in the bamboo forest. Chi Mai decides that they should continue their journey. Early next morning, they departed. She reminds him again,

– “You are now comrade Boris Kanazev, remember?”

– “Yes.”

– “Geologist from the Soviet Union.”

– “OK.”

The two lovers are on their way, each one keeps thinking about their own dream. James is anxious to get to Bangkok. He wants to hold a conference and say the things he said in his dream. As for Chi Mai, she wishes she could only reach the middle of the Mekong River. Then even if they did shoot her in the head, she wouldn’t mind, as long as James could go back safely to America.

—> 39

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