AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 40

The city lights are on. Like Saigon, Vientiane has deteriorated since President Ford made the statement, “A new page of history has been turned,” giving the green light for the communist forces to occupy the city. Many light bulbs in lampposts around the capital have been broken without being replaced. This is the first time James comes to a city in Indochina, where he was supposed to participate in a war. From Utapao, he flew past the Mekong River to the skies of Vietnam. And he fell down to Hell. James has ventured to the ninth cycle of the communist Hell and has suffered many punishments of hatred in the past three million years. Now in Vientiane, he’s going to swim across the Mekong to go back to America. James’ adventure may be the greatest since the beginning of mankind. Chi Mai has told him the story of the two Vietnamese, Luu and Nguyen, who were once admitted to Paradise but later decided to go back to the world. She said that when the two men arrived in their village, everything had changed. The two adventurers suddenly became the most lonely and forgotten souls among human beings. James doesn’t know whether after his trip from Hell he also will be lonely and forgotten among his people in America. He wonders if technical progress has changed the relationship between human beings there.

Looking at the other side of the Mekong from the Laotian side, James feels overcome with anxiety. The summer river looks peaceful. The moon is shedding a glittering layer of silver on its surface. The soldier takes James and Chi Mai to the wharf of Tha Dua, about six kilometers south of Vientiane. The ferries near the wharf have been moored for many years. On the other side, at the wharf of Tha Bo, the motor ferryboats are lying immobile. The riverbank is wide and sandy. The river has become narrower this time of the year. On this side, the Vietnamese and Laotian forces are guarding the riverbank with caution. On the other side, Thai border patrol must have similar security measures. Chi Mai has explained to James that they may become the target for both sides to shoot at. The bed of the river is relatively narrow, but it’s a real danger for anyone who attempts to cross it. Never before has James felt his America so far away than at this moment.

The soldier again takes them back towards the capital. The truck stops in the center of Vientiane. At this part of the river, there is a sandy isle near the riverbank. In the summer, the water is shallow, and the isle appears. In the rainy season, torrential rains fill the river with red alluvium. The churning water rushes down and covers this sandy isle completely. As there isn’t a ferry wharf here, the Laotian forces don’t set up a sentry post. A few years before, the Thai army used to shell mortars to the Laotian side to harass the new government. But after the Vietnamese forces occupied Cambodia, the Thai army has stopped shelling Vientiane. They instead reinforce their troops along their side of the Mekong to prevent Vietnamese commandos from infiltrating their territory.

Chi Mai asks the driver,

– “Comrade Thanh, is it OK for us to take a look at the river from the isle?”

– “It’s all right.” The three of them leave the truck and walk down the sloping riverbank. They get to the bed of the river, walk straight ahead for a distance before climbing to the isle. At the middle of the isle, they stop. As it’s getting later in the night, the moonlight shines brighter than ever. Chi Mai can clearly see the water down below at the edge of the isle. James holds the binoculars to his eyes. He can see nothing but some bushes and trees. The distance from the isle to the other side is about a thousand meters. One thousand meters from Hell to Paradise. James feels anxious. On the other side is access to America, the glorious country, land of the free and home of the brave, where the people are kind and generous, the place he wants to take Chi Mai to. He believes his country will be glad to welcome Chi Mai, an extraordinary Vietnamese. And his people will understand that the heart of a Vietnamese can have the same heartbeat as that of an American.

Chi Mai asks the soldier,

– “Is there any problem if we sit here to enjoy the moonlight?”

– “No.”

He then adds,

– “As long as you stay right where we are. The Thai soldiers have killed many people who tried to cross this river to their territory. They don’t allow anyone to infiltrate their country. Our relationship with them is quite tense right now. We may soon have another war with them, don’t you know, comrade?”

Chi Mai replies,

– “No. In the forest where we’re working, we haven’t heard about that.”

Then patting the soldier’s back, she smiles.

– “Will you go back to the city and buy a bottle of wine? Let’s all drink while looking at the moon.”

Chi Mai puts a bunch of bills into his hand, and the soldier walks back to the truck. She holds James’ hand.

– “It’s time for us now.”

James almost falls into a panic.

– “You mean right now?”

She nods.

– “Please pray to God, James.”

They lay their backpacks on the ground, remove the web belt of gun and ammunition and take off their clothes. Chi Mai embraces James and holds him tight.

– “Good luck, James.”

James repeats,

– “Good luck to you, too, my dear.”

They kiss. Then they run at full speed down the sloping edge of the isle. Chi Mai looks back. Vientiane has disappeared behind the slope of the isle. They slide into the water. The river flows gently. The moon makes the water cold. The two lovers look like the flowery ornaments carved on a silver plate. They wade. At first the water is up to their knees. Then it rises to their hips, their chest, and then they have to swim. Like two frogs, James and Chi Mai swim rhythmically. James is overjoyed. He has just come out of Hell. He is on his way to America. America appears in front of him, full of magnificent lights. James vaguely hears the tolling of church bells as Chi Mai and he walk out of the church on their wedding day. His family members, friends and relatives are clapping their hands, laughing, and cheering. And hundreds of doves are flying over them. James stretches out his arms and swims on his back. He sees the Rio Grande. He embraces Chi Mai tightly, and kisses her passionately. People will listen to him telling them the fairy tale that took place in Hell. And all America will cry after hearing the story. James feels his strokes becoming stronger. He is ecstatic.

A volley of bullets fired from the Thai side are showering on the surface of the water. James cries out with pain. Chi Mai panics. She swims to his side. They have crossed the middle of the river. The soldiers are aiming at them. Bullets fly all around them. Chi Mai keeps her head high and swims in a standing position.

– “AMERICAN! AMERICAN!” she bursts out at the top of her lungs.

James feels his strength leaving him. He cannot move his limbs and begins to sink. Chi Mai musters all her strength in the last howl of pain and wrath:

– “AMERICAN!”

All the guns stop firing. Chi Mai holds onto James with one hand and swims with the other hand towards a speedboat coming out from the shore. They pull Chi Mai and James into the boat, and take them to shore. James is placed on a canvas bed and covered with a colored bed sheet. A Thai border patrol soldier gives Chi Mai a military blanket to cover herself. A call is placed on the radio transmitter for a physician. James was shot in his side; blood is gushing from the wound. Chi Mai kneels beside him.

Breathlessly, James utters,

– “My dear.”

She begins to sob.

– “Oh, James, darling!”

She strokes his hair and caresses his cheeks.

True to his quiet acceptance of fate, and the realization of the imminent fate now upon him, James says in tones of finality,

– “Finally, my dear, I won’t be able to kiss you by the Rio Grande.”

Tears well up in her eyes; one pearl-like teardrop after another falling on his ashen face. She bows down to kiss his eyes, his lips. James is expended.

– “Chi Mai.”

He struggles to lift his arm to put on her shoulder.

– “You’re already my wife.”

His arm suddenly becomes too heavy and falls off her shoulder.

– “You need to go to America to really know my country,” James mumbles.

She gently moves her head from side to side, her face wet with tears.

– “I no longer need to go to America, James.”

Her face falls onto his chest. In a choking voice, Chi Mai passionately says,

– “James… to me…you are America…”

James’ eyes close. His head slumps to one side. Chi Mai embraces him tightly. The Thai physician has come. With the blanket wrapped around herself, Chi Mai stands up and forlornly wanders towards the riverbank. She looks to the other side of the Mekong at Vientiane, and beyond that towards the forests, the brooks, the prison cells– James’ days of agony and suffering, his nights of happiness, and his dreams. Chi Mai murmurs, as if she were whispering in his ears, “James, my darling, I have seen America!”

HẾT

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