Introduction: The Voyage
He stared out from his mountainside, a guardian to those who traveled the rivers below. Abby looked up at him, thinking of the serenity he seemed to represent. After more than a year, she finally seemed to be finding some serenity of her own. She started to go up to the top.
She didn't know much about Buddhism, but her own faith demanded forgiveness. She had resisted. The terrorists who had taken away so much of her peace and serenity didn't deserve forgiveness. Their Jihad had destroyed many lives with the bombing that had killed Nafis and so many other government workers in Washington, not to mention all the other acts of terrorism over the years all around the world. But during her visit to China, seeing all the things that made it so beautiful, --the wonderfully strange and beautiful landscapes, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and all the other places on her tour-- she finally got tired of arguing with herself. Hanging on to the anger and resentment toward the terrorists took away energy for living. How much of the tour had she missed because she was too filled with that anger and resentment to see? Somewhere, in one of those places where the indomitable human spirit had shown through the ages, (was it on the Great Wall or in the cave with the 1600 year old poetry on the wall?) she just let it go. "Okay, God. Vengeance is yours. I just want to feel alive again." That had been all she needed to do. Slowly, over the rest of the tour, she became more aware of what she was seeing and found she was enjoying it. It wasn't that she was exactly happy yet, but now she remembered what happiness felt like.
She hadn't gone too far up the steps when she became aware of a commotion below her. For a moment she deliberated whether to ignore it and continue climbing, but a few screams made the decision for her. The military was moving in -- armed! She watched for a moment in disbelief as soldiers confronted everyone who was not Chinese, and many who looked like they were.
Ice settled cold and hard in the pit of her stomach as she watched the soldiers draw weapons and order people to go where they directed. She couldn't see the destination. In her head the words "Run!" "Hide!" "Get away!" roared, but the message never reached her feet. At the back of her mind, she knew there was no place to run to, or hide, no getting away.
"Where are you from?" a young soldier with a gun in hand barked.
"The United States." She was surprised at the calm in her voice. She didn't feel it.
"Show me your passport!"
She did as he asked and he grabbed it away from her. She gave him a minute to look at it and she grabbed it back. The stunned look on his face mirrored her own amazement.
"Go down! That way!" He indicated with his left hand as he pointed the gun toward her. It was enough to convince her to go.
She joined what was becoming a large group of people at the foot of Buddha. Once down there she could see where they were going. The soldiers had a ferry tied up and made a gangplank. They were roughly loading everyone in the group onto it.
Once across the river, they were taken to trucks and told to get into the back. The soldiers insisted they get so many inside that there was no room for any to sit down. They all stood, leaning on one another, as the truck drove to its destination. Standing as they were, the ride seemed to take forever.
No one understood what was happening, what had prompted this action against them. Most of them had tour guides who kept in touch with their homelands. Whatever had happened had happened quickly and without warning.
Her feet were swollen and she was hungry when they reached their destination. It was dark out. Abby couldn't see anything. She had no idea where they were. Again they were pushed at gunpoint, this time into small rooms. There was one dim bulb in the ceiling. They had been divided and had enough room to sit even in the small room. Most of them took advantage of it although the cold concrete floors were all they had to sit on. There was a toilet and sink in the corner, but no means of privacy when using them. No one brought any food.
That night was long, cold and hungry. For most it was sleepless.
Morning arrived with a gunshot.
Abby had dozed off and on through the night. It had not been restful. Somewhere in the distance she heard the roosters crowing at dawn. The tiny comfort that sound had given was taken away by the sound of a gunshot outside the building. After a slight pause there was another.
The only window in the room was high and small. No one could see what was happening. A man held his wife up on to look out. The window faced a wooded area. She couldn't see what was happening.
There was some shouting and then another shot Then another. Then silence. A few hours passed with no sounds, no visitors, no food. No one spoke during that time. They avoided each other's eyes. Couples held each other. Others sat wrapped in his or her own fear. Everyone thought of, and longed for, home.
The door swung open with a bang. Everyone jumped a bit.
"Come!" the order was shouted by one of the guards bearing a rifle.
Scared, tired people filed out of the room into the hallway to join others who had been rounded up the previous day. The armed guards prodded them out of the building, across a muddy square and into another building.
As each person entered, he or she was handed a small bowl. Abby looked at hers as she followed the person in front of her. She decided it was actually a medium to large size cup. It probably held about ten ounces of liquid. Somewhere ahead of her a commotion had started. She felt her stomach knotting up.
"You can't expect me to eat that stuff!" a man's voice stated somewhat imperiously. Abby tried to see who it was. When she saw him she tried to will him to be submissive. He'd been on the same tour with her and was, to her, the perfect example of the Ugly American. Whatever they had seen, he knew of something similar and much better in the US. Abby had wondered why he'd bothered to take a tour in a place that just wasn't good enough for him. The food was better, the hotels were better, transportation was better...everything was better in the US. Clearly, he seemed to think his luck was better as well, for he continued his fussing. "You drag us out to this godforsaken place, hold us overnight for no reason and then offer us this...this...paste!" His face was red with indignation. Abby felt others holding their breath along with her.
The guard standing next to the pot of food held his rifle ready. "Eat!" he ordered loudly. Just as stubbornly, the man stated "No!" As the guard started to lower his rifle into firing position, another guard came over and spoke to him in Chinese, then turned to the American.
"If you choose not to eat, that is fine." He took the cup from his hands. "You don't eat." He smiled and walked away with the cup.
The next person was pushed toward the food pot and the line started to move again. When it was her turn, she saw that it was nothing more than plain, sticky rice. An ironic grin teased at her own face as she remembered the name of the man who had refused it -- John Rice.
It didn't appeal to her, especially with her stomach in knots, but she didn't want anything to associate her with the man who had made the fuss. She also suspected, especially from the guard's grin, that this would be the only food she'd get for a while. She took it and moved on.
No one else had turned down his cup of rice, but judging from how few were actually eating, Abby guessed many would have liked to. A few hungry souls ate theirs. For some it clearly was not enough. They happily accepted more from those who didn't want it. With some difficulty, she ate hers before someone decided she didn't want it She couldn't shake the feeling that it would be all she'd get for a while.
When everyone had gotten his rice and most had eaten, they were pushed out into the courtyard. The mist of the earlier morning had settled into a steady drizzle. Abby saw the trucks on both sides of the building they had spent the night in. There were soldiers standing near them, armed and alert.
Abby didn't know one rank from another, even in the US armed forces, but it was clear to her from the medals, and even the manner of his stride, that the officer who walked out to the courtyard was of a higher rank than anyone else they had encountered so far. Others in the group noticed it also and the low murmuring ceased. He stood feet apart, hands clasped behind his back, staring into the group, saying nothing.
It became too much for John Rice to take. "What the hell is going on here? Why have we been brought here? We're American citizens and have our rights. Return us to our hotels. Our embassy will certainly hear about this!"
Abby wondered if there was a difference between arrogance and stupidity.
"Mr. Rice," the officer began. A large grin split his face for a moment. He knew about the rice refusal. "You have no embassy here. As of yesterday at noon our countries have been at war. For all we know, any one, or several, of you may be spies. You will be detained until we have settled this...ah...this dispute."
A few sobs punctuated the stunned, frightened silence. Even Rice stood with his mouth open, but no sounds coming out.
"You will now be transported to the detention centers. The men will go to that side of the building and the women over to this side."
He indicated each side with a wide gesture of his arms and the soldiers moved in to herd them to the trucks.
"Keep your cups if you wish to eat again today," the soldier announced as we approached the truck.
"Karen!" a male voice called out. Abby turned and looked toward the sound. A young couple, who had been on their honeymoon, were being pulled apart by the soldiers. Karen's face was frozen in terror. "You can't separate us! She's my wife!" He reached out for her. "Get back!" The guard hit him in the chest with the butt of his rifle. Some of the American men around him tried to pull him back, but he broke away. "No! She's my wife! We can't be separated. We're together!" As he ran toward his wife, the soldier between them raised his rifle and fired"
All day and into the night the truck drove on. It made two stops, but no one opened the back to let the women out. Late into the night they arrived and the doors were opened. The women, numb from new of a war, the incident before they left and from the long, bumpy ride on their feet, dismounted from the truck slowly. Impatiently, the gurads prodded them towards a long, low old building.
Even the dim light inside the building was enough to make Abby squint. When her eyes had adjusted, she saw that the building was a single room with what she hoped was some kind of bathroom at the end. Cots were lined up in three rows down the length of the room. Aisles of about three feet ran between them. The windows were small, high and few
"Select a cot and put your things in the box under it. The light will be turned out in 30 minutes. You must be silent and go to sleep," the guard told us.
"Don't we get something to eat?" a voice timidly called out from the crowd.
"You have had your food for today," he answered and walked out.
Everyone chose her cot in a daze. In half an hour, as stated, the light went out. Abby was tired. More than anything she wanted to go to sleep and wake up to find it had all been a nightmare. But sleep didn't come quickly for her. At first there was the quiet murmuring and sobbing of the other women. After they had fallen asleep, Abby became aware of the smells and sounds of the place. The building had a musty smell old buildings, particularly those made of compressed mud the way this one apparently was. There was wind and a slight whistling as it came in the crevices around the windows. There was the occasional call of a night animal and a background hum of crickets or katydids or whatever the local insects were. After going over and over the events of the last two days, Abby finally drifted into a troubled sleep.
As light crept into the room the natural early risers sought out the bathroom facilities. Their cries of dismay at the lack of modernization, however quiet they tried to keep them, woke most of the others. Morning had come and with it the realization that it was not a dream after all. By the time their guard showed up with his kettle of rice, they had all freshened up the best they could with the outdated facilities and without their suitcases.
Routine settled in right away. With the exception of the arrival of their 'inspected' suitcases a few days later, every day became the same as the ones before and after. The building in which they were housed was surrounded by a high fence. Once a day for up to three hours they were allowed to go out into the 'yard' and walk around. There was nothing within the fenced area to make it interesting, but most welcomed the chance to get off their cots and out of the crowded room.
Inside there was little to do. A few had playing cards. None of their electronic gadgets had survived the 'inspection.' It didn't much matter. They had no electric outlets to use and batteries couldn't be replaced. A few had paperbacks still in their posession, which they shared.. Abby had several notebooks she had been using for journals of her trip. A few were still empty, but it took several days to fill a page after their arrival. No one asked, so she didn't share pen or paper.
Abby took advantage of all the time she could get outside. She would walk and stretch. To occupy her mind and keep it off the unpleasant realities and even more unpleasant imaginings of her situation, she would sing songs quietly to herself as she walked. All her life she had loved music and what she missed most from her belongings was her Walkman CD player. But she had listened enough over the years that she had a fairly large repetoire. When she forgot the words, she made them up.
So, day after day, week after week, dull routine ensued. Shortly after dawn a guard would arrive with rice. At noon they were allowed out and Abby walked and sang to herself. In the late afternoon or early evening the guard came with more rice to which was added beans or vegetables or tofu on most, if not all evenings.
Two months went by before the routine broke.
During the night, Abby had awakened to the sound of a large truck. She wondered if more prisoners were arriving. If so, she hoped there was another building for them. The women in the building got along well and looked out for each other, but Abby could see and feel the strain growing. The building had only the aisles and a small space near the door where they could get off their cots. An occasional tiff erupted now and then, but so far they had been smoothed over quickly. How long would it be before someone reached a breaking point and no amount of peacemaking would smooth things over?
The other women saw Abby as cool and aloof. She tried to be polite and friendly, but her sense of self-preservation kept her from forming any bonds. Shortly before they been arrested, she had finally begun to open up after the terrorist attack that had killed her husband eighteen months before. The harshness of her current situation had caused her to pull back. She didn't know if it were true, but she thought because she could appreciate solitude and didn't form any close bonds, she would be able to keep her balance longer.
By morning, the noise outside had grown quite loud. As they dressed, the women speculated about what it could mean. Abby and most of the others had rejected any idea that it was more prisoners. When they had arrived, quiet had followed an hour after the truck had stopped. This noise had been growing. Men were shouting. They heard banging on the trucks and thudding on the ground. Clearly, something heavy, several somethings, were being unloaded.
Breakfast was late, but finally arrived. Normally the guard never bothered to talk to any of them, but this time he deigned to answer some of their questions.
"They are making a headquarters here. A top leader is here now. He will run things. Work will be done here, now."
Debate sprang up over what exactly he meant. Clearly his English was limited. Some believed it was not so limited that what he said was evident. Abby and others believed, based on their experiences, that his English was good enough, but what he said was not clear. There seemed too much room for interpretation in the translation of Chinese to English. Mostly, they wondered what work and who would be doing it.
After dinner they were called out to the yard. Before them stood a military man of some rank higher than a common soldier. Abby guessed then that 'top leader' had meant head of the local or nearest regiment. Although he didn't seem to be of the same rank as the officer they had seen on the first morning before they came to this place, he did have a clear attitude of authority. He also spoke English very well, and with an American accent.
"Ladies, these are sad circumstances that require us to detain you in our humble village. I trust you have been treated decently, if not with the standards you are used to. War is a very difficult time. Both sides are suffering. Much has been lost on both sides. Until our leaders see eye to eye on the issues that caused this terrible disagreement, you must remain here."
Abby had him pegged as a politician, trying to gloss over his own, or in this case his country's, wrongdoing. She wondered if he learned his English listening to American politicians. She couldn't resist a wry smile as he continued.
"We must cooperate with one another. The time you have spent here has been difficult for you, but I assure you that it has also been difficult for our people. You are hungry, but we are also hungry.
"We must enlist your help. We cannot continue to feed you without it. Soon, we will be starting a garden. If you wish to eat, you will work there each day. The harder you work, the more prosperous it will be and the better you will eat. It is that simple. There will be opportunities for some of you to do other work that will exempt you from working in the garden. If you have any skills you can share with us, tell your guards. If they are what we need, we will call on you. We are not asking you to betray your country, but only to help yourselves in your life here until you can return home."
Other than that they would be required to work for their food, he had told them nothing. The war that was so directly affecting their lives was still an unknown part of the equation of their existence.
The women returned to their cots hotly discussing what skills they should report. Some were of the opinion that they should do absolutely nothing for the 'enemy.' Others felt that, short of giving military information, they should do whatever they needed to do to survive. Abby wondered how long the strained atmosphere would remain calm.
The next morning after breakfast a guard came to take five women to talk to the new camp commander. They returned one by one with the guard taking the next five back with him after the fourth one returned. After returning, no one wanted to talk about it. At most some would say "I didn't tell him anything useful." Some seemed shaken by the interview, others were annoyed. Only a very few seemed unaffected at all.
Abby was on edge all day. The angry and unaffected ones didn't bother her, but she didn't understand the ones who were shaken. She wondered if some of the women were treated differently than others. Not all who came back shaken were the type she would have expected to react so, especially when some she did expect to be upset, weren't.
Finally, with the last group, she was called . They were taken to a building outside the fence. Though not opulent by any standard, it was much better than the one the women occupied. It looked more like a house to her and was larger, newer and cleaner. The walls were of the same compressed mud, but there were also wooden floors rather than the stone they had. There were larger windows. There were curtains and carpets. It had several rooms, also. Abby admired all of this as the other women went in for their interview. Again she was last. The last of the last. She wondered if it meant anything as she was escorted into the commander's office.
He stood behind his desk with a folder in hand. He was a pleasant looking man, perhaps her age. His hair was still dark and he was trim in his uniform. Unlike his speech the previous evening, he spoke in almost a monotone.
"Abigail Hassan. What kind of name is that?"
"American melting pot."
The commander looked at her with a frown, but Abby was serious. It was the simple answer she always gave.
"What does that mean?"
"It depends on what the question meant. I assumed you wanted to know my ancestry as well as my name. My ancestry is pretty much all of Western Europe. Hassan was my husband's name. He was born in Egypt."
"Where is your husband now?"
"He was killed in a terrorist attack in Washington eighteen months ago."
"I am sorry. I hope your are recovering from your grief."
Abby was startled by the sound of sincerity in his voice. "Thank you. Yes, I am adjusting."
"What abilities can you share with us?"
The commander sat in his chair with his elbows on the desk and rested his chin on his enlaced fingers. He did not offer Abby a chair. In fact, there was no other chair in the room. He watched her intently from head to toe as she answered.
She stood at ease, feet slightly apart and hands clasped behind her back.
"I'm not sure I have any useful talent, except perhaps the gardening you spoke of yesterday. I was a wife and mother for over thirty years. For the first eight years of my marriage I held various jobs such as store cashier and bank teller. I had no special education. When my first child was born, I left the workforce to raise my children. As the children grew up, I spent more time reading, writing poetry and gardening."
"Your husband worked for the United States government. You must have entertained many guests and managed a social life."
Abby couldn't keep the smile off her face. She had been waiting for some reference to her husband's job with the government.
"Sir, there are many levels of government service, as I'm sure there must be here. My husband was a teacher. He taught world history to military men and women working for degrees to improve their rank in service. He did not have a high ranking position. He was paid decently, but not so well that we were able to hobnob on the more visible social levels. Our social life was quite mundane, involving family and a few close friends."
"He didn't have a high ranking position? He had a top secret security clearance. Why would that be so?" He almost yelled as he rose from his seat and came around his desk to face Abby. She looked back at him and spoke quietly.
"The security clearance was necessary because of the building in which he worked and his access to sensitive historical documents that are apparently necessary when teaching military students. It was historical stuff, but the building held other sensitive information. Since he was there, he needed clearance."
"He never told you anything about this 'sensitive' information, historical or other?" His voice was stern and he was nose to nose with her. Abby didn't care.
"No, he didn't. Even if he had, I wouldn't remember it. When I study history, I don't care about the military strategies and campaigns. I want to know about the people, individuals, and how they lived through their times. I cannot help you with any kind of information about military secrets. I simply don't know any."
He walked behind her and put a hand on her shoulder and softly, slowly moved it down to her hand. "You remain calm when interrogated." He came around before her again and gently held her face. Abby breathed deeply, trying to hang onto the calm he was now shattering. "You are a beautiful woman. Men too often look only at the hot, young women. They miss what a slightly older woman has--her grace, her calm, her knowledge, her understanding." His hands slid down her neck to her shoulders, to her elbows and then to her waist. He rested them lightly on her hips.
He spoke again, almost in a whisper, his face a mere four or five inches from hers. "I saw you yesterday. You smiled during my speech. You did not show anger or fear and when you walked back to your barracks, your stride was sure and confident, but not arrogant. I knew then what position I would like for you. This afternoon, I am more sure. I need someone to run this house and office. You will answer the phone, file papers. I have a couple of servants to cook and clean. You will manage them. When I have guests, you will be my hostess. You will get to move out of the barracks and into the house with me. You will have enough and better food, and you will have new clothes."
"And for this job and these benefits, I must share your bed?"
He smiled. "That will not be so hard. I am not a...who? Harrison Ford?...but I am not unhandsome. You have been alone for a long time. You are hungry for the touch of a man, even if you have not yet admitted this to yourself. I have only hinted at the benefits."
As he bent his face toward her neck to kiss her, she stepped back.
"I'm sorry, but I cannot accept this offer."
His smile was gone and his eyes became cold. He forced his voice into a monotone.
"You are in no position to refuse."
"But I do refuse. And if you try to force me, I will resist. Vehemently."
His eyes bulged and his fists clenched. His voice, though quiet, burned with rage.
"You think I would try to force you?!!!"
quot;How dare you. I would have wished to meet you had we met without this war. I thought you were not an arrogant American, but I see I was mistaken. You look down on us and see us as no better than animals. You will learn who are really animals."
"I didn't mean..."
"Be quiet! You have revealed yourself. Don't try to find a loophole to save yourself." He called out in Chinese to the guard outside the door, who came in to escort Abby back to the barracks.
On her return she learned that she had missed dinner. "Great!" she thought. The commander had probably had something prepared for her. Why couldn't she have held off her refusal until after they had eaten. Perhaps it would have been too late by then. He was attractive. Until she'd said 'no' he'd seemed gentle. Maybe, if it weren't for the war, she would have been pleased by his attention, if not his offer (or the nonwar equivalent). Why had she been so moved by him? Why did he react so harshly?
Abby tried to figure out what had happened. All she could come up with was that he just couldn't take rejection any more than she could take the thought of 'selling' herself for a bit more comfort. She had been shaken when he became so intimate. Had she been tempted? She pushed the idea from her mind. It was war. Maybe he was just a very good actor. She thought about all the women who had come back upset. Had any of them been propositioned by the commander? Maybe he had a different plan for each of them, stinging each right where it had been most sensitive. Somehow he had managed to find a sensitive spot she hadn't yet realized had returned. How could she know what he would do or say if he thought it might help the war effort? She tried to convince herself that was his only motive as she fell into a fitful sleep.
The next two days were uneventful for Abby. Some of the women were called back to see the commander. None stayed, she noted. She was not called back. Life had returned to it's sameness.
On the third day, a guard called Abby right after breakfast. When she responded, he told her to bring her things. At the door, he took her suitcase and opened it. He took out all her clothes and rifled through them, returning only underclothes, a night shirt, three T-shirts and the two pair of jeans she had. He also removed her makeup bag.
"What are you doing?"
"You don't need all these things where you going. This is more than enough. You are fortunate to be allowed to keep this much."
"Where am I going?"
"The commander ordered you transfer to more appropriate detention center. I don't know where, only that you go now."
With that he closed her suitcase and pushed her through the doorway and to the main gate where a truck waited. She'd had no time to say goodbye to anyone. As she entered the truck, she glanced over to the commander's office. She thought she saw him in the window.
They drove for most of the day. She hadn't known where she was and didn't know where they were going. There were several people in the truck when she got in. They stopped a few times to pick up others. At last they arrived wherever. Abby glanced around. It looked so barren compared to what she was used to seeing in China. She decided that they must be somewhere in the west, in the plains or maybe close to the desert. Clearly they were still in a rural area. While there weren't many trees, there were fields, so it wasn't the desert yet.
The guard had been calling out names. Most ofof the names seemed to be Chinese. She wondered what they had done to be imprisoned. Finally she heard her own name.
She got off the truck and joined the others.
"This is not correct," the guard from the new place said to her. The old guard interrupted and they conversed in Chinese. The new guard turned to look at Abby with a very suspicious look, then returned to the conversation. He seemed to Abby to be arguing. Finally the old guard said something sharply, took his list and got back into the truck and drove away.
The guards took them to a single building in a fenced yard, much like the barracks at the previous camp. The building was about twice as large as the that one. At the entrance, the guard who had been arguing held her back and told her to wait. As she watched the rest of them enter the building, she felt the hairs on her neck rise.
These people were almost all Chinese and all MEN!
Abby waited outside the door as the guard gave instruction to the new prisoners. She assumed that was what he was saying since he spoke in Chinese. When he came out a few minutes later, he grabbed her arm and said harshly "Come with me." As if she had a choice with his iron grip.
They went round to a building outside the fenced area and he marched her inside. "Sit here and do not move. Don't attempt to escape. If you are caught outside, you will be shot." She sat and nodded her head.
This building was similar to the commander's at the old camp, but had not been fixed up as nicely. Whoever occupied this premises, did not need luxury, however modest. Benches lined one wall and a few more were lined parrallel to them in the center of the room. There was a table next to the door the guard had entered. There were no curtains, no pictures on the walls. It smelled old and was dimly lit. There was nothing to look at as she waited.
Listening to the murmur of voices coming through the closed door, Abby wondered what was going to happen. Obviously this was a men's camp. The guard had been upset to discover she was a woman. Where would she stay until they got it straightened out? Had the commander sent her here intentionally, figuring she would have to stay with this commander or quite likely be shot? She hoped this commander was as nice as the guard appeared to be.
The murmur had erupted into shouting and the door banged open.
"You are A. Hassan?" the commander asked.
"Yes." She didn't even try to be brave. He was clearly not as gentle as the guard and he was quite angry.
"I do not know the problem. I hear you are a man dressing as a woman. Now you come and you look like a woman to my assistant. What does he know? I have heard that those who change this way can fool many. Commander Qu could be fooled. You will not fool me. Take off your clothes."
"I can't do that. I..."
"I said take them off!" He pointed a gun at her. "Even if you are a woman, do you think you would tempt me? I am not interested in an American. You are devils! Take off your clothes!" He snarled the word 'American' as if it were a rancid taste.
Trembling, Abby fumbled to unbutton her shirt.
"Quickly! You waste my time!"
She managed to get her shirt, shoes, socks and jeans off. She stood in her bra and panties and tried to look the commander in the eyes, feeling hot despite the chill in the room..
"Everything! How do I know what you are faking or hiding?"
She glanced at the guard. He was clearly trying to keep his gaze on her face. She sensed sympathy in his eyes, but he could not help her.
She tried silently to talk herself through it. "In this day and age, women strip in front of men all the time." She unhooked her bra and removed it. "I can do this. It's better than being shot." She pulled down and stepped out of her panties. Trembling with fear and anger and maybe even the chill, she was grateful she'd had nothing to drink all afternoon.
She stood uneasily at ease glared at him as he slowly inspected her from head to toe with his eyes.
"Okay. Get dressed." He turned to the guard and barked out an order in Chinese. The guard answered and he yelled back at him. Abby had managed to dress with considerably more speed than she had undressed. When she looked up, it was clear that the guard had been admonished. With another sharp order from the commander he took her arm and escorted her out.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked.
"To the barracks with the other prisoners."
"But they're all men! Does the commander believe I am a man?"
"No, I don't think so. I'm sorry, but he does not care and there is no other place for you."
"Under excellent circumstances, I would feel uncomfortable living with only men I don't know. These circumstances are not even a little bit good. These prisoners are not all political prisoners, are they?"
"No, they are not and you will not be safe here. The commander is requesting a transfer to a proper camp because you are a disturbance, but until it is authorized, you must live with the situation. He does not care if your honor survives. He does not care if you survive.
"There is an American. I will order him to be your protector. He is big and works hard so I think he will be able to defend you. He always defends everything American."
They entered the barracks. It was longer than the previous barracks, but no wider. Rather than cots aligned in three rows, the sleeping area here consisted of mats on platforms built up along the longer walls. The space between the platforms was about the width of one platform. Above the platforms were shelves for belongings. There was very little up on the shelves. The only windows were on each side of the door at the end of the room.
The quiet hum of conversation ceased on their entrance. After a moment of silence the room erupted with catcalls and whistles. Some men called out in Chinese. Abby didn't understand the words, but the intent was clear. She tried to project an aura of calm confidence. She didn't feel it. She was tense and knew she probably looked as rigid and afraid as she felt.
"John Rice, step forward!" the guard called out.
Abby started at the name. When he had made his way to the front, she saw it was, indeed, the same John Rice she'd met earlier, when they were on the tour together. She wondered how he'd survived with his attitude. She had not been particularly fond of him before, but felt a surge of relief to see him. Although they had not become friends, exactly, he was someone she knew.
The group quieted, listening. She couldn't gauge who understood.
"This woman has been sent to this camp in error. There is no place for her except here until she can be transferred. Hassan, you will sleep at the end. Rice you will be next to her. You know what some of these men are like. You must protect her from them as if she were your own wife. Do you understand?"
"Sure. Keep the undesirables away from her. No problem." He still had an arrogant sense of superiority.
"You must also help her to know who is dangerous, who to stay away from."
"That won't be hard. Come on, Honey. I'll take care of you." He reached out to take her hand. Abby resisted the impulse to pull her hand away. At this point, she needed all the help she could get and she couldn't be too fussy about where it came from.
"By the way, John, the name's Abby, not Honey."
Every eye was on them as he escorted her to the end of the platform. She felt only slightly safer than she had at first. About two thirds of the way down he stopped and reached up to the shelf and took down a bag. At the end, he took the bag the guard had given him and tossed it up onto the shelf, followed by his own. He then gestured to the men sitting there to move down. At first they just glared at him. Then the guard spoke something in Chinese and they moved down to make room for Abby and John.
Holding her hand again he pulled her to the door at that end and waved his other hand toward it. "This is the washroom. I'm sure it's not what you'd like it to be. You'll probably have to get up a little earlier than everyone else to use it in private. I suppose I can stand here and guard the door for you."
Abby sighed. "Thank you. Do you think you can watch out for me now?"
"Sure. Go ahead."
After she crossed the threshold, he stood in the doorway facing the sleeping quarters. There were no private stalls of any kind. Fortunately the light was dim. She went to a darker corner to take care of her business and hoped John was a good door guard. She didn't bother to change out of her jeans and shirt.
When she came out the light was blinking.
John explained. "We have a curfew. They work us hard here and get us up early. They blink the lights a few minutes before they turn them off."
He reached to the back of the platform and unrolled a mat and blanket for each of them. It did not make a soft surface for sleeping, but it had been a long day. Abby fell asleep quickly after she lay down.
She had been dreaming of Nafis. She was in some kind of cave and there were tigers trying to get at her. It was dark, but she could hear them roaring and snarling. Nafis had come to defend her and take her away to safety. Instead of the Western or Middle Eastern clothing she was used to seeing him wear, he was wearing a traditional Chinese costume--an ankle length embroidered silk tunic over loose pants. He had to cross a chasm via a narrow rope bridge. He called to let her know he was almost there. She was so happy and so relieved that he was there, but before he reached her the tiger leapt she began to suffocate in the darkness.
Struggling for breath, she woke up. The 'tiger' was John. He had pulled himself atop her and was sucking the breath out of her. Abby managed to push him aside and gasp for air.
"What are you trying to do?" she managed to whisper through clenched teeth.
John's sweet whisper in return belied his massage.
"If I have to protect you as my wife, you damn well better act as my wife. At some point I'll probably have to fight off one of these bastards. I don't intend to do it for nothing I haven't had a woman in over two months and even though you're a little past prime for a roll here on the mat, at least you're white. I must look pretty good to you, too, after all these pitiful little Chinamen."
Abby grappled with his hands as he simultaneously tried to reach up under her shirt and to undo the button on her jeans. "Stop it!" she hissed.
"No, Honey. You don't really want me to stop, because if I stop, or if you keep struggling, it's going to be open season around here for you, and everyone in this place will have had a taste of you before they get your transfer straightened out."
Abby was a strong woman, but John's size gave him the benefit. She was afraid to yell out for fear that she would end up gang raped before the day was out. As she continued to struggle, she considered whether or not what he asked was a small price to pay for her safety from the others. Her loathing for the man made her decide she'd rather die defending herself, even if she had to try to fight off the whole barracks as well.
"Stop it!" Her anger and disgust made her raise her voice a little louder.
He responded by becoming rougher. He pulled both her hands to one side and held them down with his knee while he pulled at her jeans, popping the button. He grabbed her wrists, one in each hand and held them down next to her ears. He reached his face down and kissed....a foot! He no longer made a pretense of being quiet.
"What the hell!" he sputtered, loudly.
"The lady said to stop," stated the grim Chinaman standing on the platform next to them.
"Mind your own damn business!"
"When you treat her right, I will."
John lunged at him, swinging his fist into the wall as the Chinaman deftly stepped aside and started to walk away. Pushing off the wall, he grabbed him from behind in a bear hug, only to have the smaller man jab him hard in the ribs with both elbows and break away. He went after him again and landed a blow to his right cheek. Abby saw the rage rise in the Chinaman's eyes. In a second he was pounding John back, punching and chopping face, arms, chest and belly so quickly, so fiercely, that John's every attempt to return the blows was stopped immediately. When he had pummeled John back against the wall, he brought his knee up swiftly and John doubled over and fell to the platform.
Abby, crouching in the corner, was stunned by the entire episode. She looked from the fallen figure of John, to the clenching fists and then the rage filled eyes of Jackie Chan
"Wow," she muttered softly to herself. "It's just like in the movies!"
"This is not the movies!"
Jackie glared and continued to clench and unclench his fists, arms held stiffly at his sides.
The guard came in, weapon drawn, and yelled something in Chinese. No one else said anything. He looked around and saw John doubled up on his mat Then looked from Abby, adjusting her shirt that had been pulled awry in the scuffle with John, to Jackie, who was still working on subduing his rage. He looked confused for a moment. He turned to Abby.
"Hassan, what happened here? Did he try to attack you?" He indicated Jackie as he asked, but sounded uncertain about it.
"No!" She confirmed his doubt. "He defended me from this..." At a loss for an adequately repulsive word, she swept her hand toward John, still huddled on his mat.
"But he is an American. He is your protector."
"American, yes. Protector, no, just the opposite! He seemed to think I owed him something for protecting me, payment in advance. I wouldn't have it. He," she indicated Jackie, "heard me struggling and stepped in to help. He tried to step away afterward, but John attacked him and would not stop."
"I see." He turned to Jackie. "Chan, you are now her protector."
"I don't want to be her protector."
"It is too late to decline. You ARE her protector. Besides, you know English. She needs that since she doesn't understand Chinese. She will also be your work partner." He turned to Abby again. "You will work with him where we need you every day."
"And you will have to do a full job," the commander added as he entered the barracks. "If she can't keep up, you will have to take up the slack, Mr. Chan, or you know what will happen. And you will be expected to behave."
His dislike for Jackie shone through like a lighthouse beacon. It was clearly mutual. Turning back to Abby, he said "Don't rely too heavily on him for work or protection. His record for work here isn't too good and he's been proven not to be the greatest protector of women."
He turned and said something in Chinese to the group and left the barracks.
Abby stepped closer to Jackie and asked "What did he say?"
"He said it's time to work. We missed breakfast." He stared at her for a second and followed the other men out. She followed a step behind. John remained on his mat and glared after them.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause trouble. I don't know how I ended up here, but I did. I guess we just have to try to make the best of it. I'm not going to get into trouble on purpose. I..."
"Look, I don't want to be here either. I don't want to be your protector. I don't want to be your work partner. Now I have to do more work. If I knew this would happen, I would not have helped you."
"I'll work as hard as I can, I promise.. And I didn't ask for you to protect me. But you did. I appreciate it, too, very much! I think it's part of your nature to help like that."
He stopped and turned so abruptly, Abby walked into him.
"I am not like that! You think because you see my movies you know me. You don't know me! You know an actor/image who doesn't even exist any more. You should listen to the commander. Learn to help yourself. I might not be able to when it matters."
He turned and strode away. Abby followed, but not as closely as before.
A Hard Day's Labor
Several guards had joined them as they left the fenced yard around the barracks. They were led to an area behind the commander's building. Those who had arrived first had already started to work. In a cleared area there were two plywood boards braced about a foot apart. From further around the existing building some men carried buckets full of dirt to them. Men up on platforms hauled the buckets up and poured the dirt between the boards. Others on the platforms tamped the dirt down using what looked like large pestles.
As she joined the group, she was handed a long bamboo pole and two large buckets. Watching Jackie, she centered the pole over her shoulders and hung the buckets in the notches at the ends of the pole. She rested her wrists on the pole. Already, she was very uncomfortable. Abby had no idea how much was expected of her. Now she was grateful for the hard farm labor her father had made her do as a child and teenager, and for the weight training she had started a few years ago to get into shape. Still, she doubted she could give the same effort as the men, especially someone in as good shape as Jackie.
Jackie, followed by Abby, went over to get dirt. Men wielding picks and shovels worked in a pit about two feet deep. A couple of men pulled out the larger rocks and tossed them to one side. Looking agitated, Jackie lifted his pole off his shoulder, set his buckets down, and walked over to Abby.
"You should put your buckets down. Until you are used to it, it will hurt when they toss in the dirt. Here, like this." He went around behind her and put his hands out to each side and on her pole and pressed one side down until the bucket on that side touched the ground. "When it is as full as you can carry, push down the other side."
He went back to his own now filled buckets and hefted the pole up onto his shoulders. Before he carried them over to the wall, he said something in Chinese to the men with the shovels. Next to her a man shoveled dirt into her bucket. When it was half full, he waved his hand up at her to raise it. She lowered the other bucket and he filled that halfway also. Balancing the pole again, she started over to the wall. The pole dug into her neck and shoulders. Each step seemed to jar her spine. She wondered how long she could continue. Even if she could go the whole day, she wondered if the commander would consider half filled buckets "keeping up." Jackie knew what would happen, but she didn't. She wasn't sure she wanted to know.
In the time it took her to get to the wall, Jackie had returned with another load of dirt. Abby decided she'd better concentrate on breathing and watching her step. She hoped no one would punish her for her weakness and slowness.
The morning seemed endless. After every two or three trips, she would walk over to the water barrel and drink a ladle full. She wanted to pour some over herself, but had not seen anyone else douse himself, so she refrained. The earth was dry and the terrain rocky. She didn't know how precious water might be here. It wasn't quite desert like as far as she recognized, but it clearly was a dry area.
When the sun was high, a guard came banging a kettle lid. Everyone stopped where they were and went over to line up for dinner. They received a bowl of rice with vegetables. The serving was larger than she'd received at the women's prison. Abby found a large rock that provided some shade and sat against it. Getting the weight off her shoulders had been an immense relief, as was sitting, but she was still in pain. She tried not to think about it and put her full attention on eating. She hadn't realized how hungry she had become. Not even the dirt on her hands and face bothered her at this point.
"You work hard."
Jackie sat against the rock, just beyond her forward range of vision. she turned to face him.
"Thanks. I didn't think I had any choice. I'm grateful that at least there is food. We didn't have a midday meal where I was before."
"Yeah, they know they have to feed us if they want us to work. We get weak and sick if they don't."
"Am I doing enough? I don't want you to be punished. Or me either!"
"You are doing more than I thought you would. The peasant women here have to work so hard sometimes. I think you are as good as they are. Today anyway. We'll see tomorrow. Tomorrow you will hurt."
"I hurt now!"
"Not like tomorrow!" There was the slightest hint of a smile on his lips at this.
The smile wasn't reflected in his eyes. For a moment their eyes locked and she felt sorrow of an intensity she had never known, not even when Nafis had been killed. She had to look away.
Jackie finished his meal and leaned back against the rock and dozed off. Abby wished she could do the same, but the pain in her neck, shoulders and back kept her from relaxing.
Too quickly, the guards were yelling what must have been "Get back to work." Jackie was awake instantly and jumped up. He turned and offered his had to Abby. She wasn't sure she could have risen otherwise.
The afternoon passed much as the morning had except that Abby was aware that she was not moving as fast as she had been. She tried counting her steps, counting her breaths, breathing deeply in and out. She watched the other prisoners, trying to get an idea of their personalities based on the little interaction she saw. She saw that some of the men were cutting grasses or reeds and adding them to the dirt forming the wall. She hadn't noticed them before. Nothing helped. More and more as the afternoon wore on, pain began to dominate her thoughts. She wanted a hot shower, a relaxing massage and a soft bed. None of them was a possibility and knowing that was simply adding to the weight of the pain.
Mercifully, the work shift finally came to an end. Everyone dropped his tools off with one of the guards and headed back to the barracks. Abby gladly joined them. As soon as she became a part of the crowd, Jackie was beside her. He held her back.
"It's better to stay a little apart."
She had been aware only of the pain. Now she had to remember that she was not totally safe. It all began to crash down on her. Tears began to form and she looked up into Dae-jung's face. He was watching her coldly. The friendliness she thought she'd seen at dinner was gone. He clearly saw her as a burden. She swallowed her tears and walked silently with him back to the barracks.
Supper was passed out as they entered the barracks. It consisted of a couple of rolls and a mix of vegetables and maybe tofu. Abby wasn't sure. It wasn't as much as dinner, but anything was welcome to her. She had expected nothing.
She walked to the back with Jackie. He stopped on the opposite side of the room from where she had spent the previous night. He said something to the man at the very end spot. The man argued with him for a minute, then shrugged and got up. He gathered his mat and a box from the overhead shelf and set them down on the opposite side. Jackie handed Abby his supper and got her mat and suitcase from the other side. He put them down beside her and they ate in silence.
After eating, all Abby wanted was to get cleaned up and sleep. She got up to go into the washroom. Jackie held her back.
He looked as if he'd rather go to sleep himself. She sat back down and looked around the room. John was sitting on his mat glaring at them. Other men had formed groups and were talking or playing some kind of game. Her gaze faded to a blank stare. Eventually, they started going into the washroom. One or two at first, then several at a time. After about two hours the men had settled down on their mats. Most of them slept. A few still talked. Abby was in misery.
Finally Jackie spoke.
Abby rushed in and Jackie followed close behind her with his bag.
"Don't I get any privacy?"
Jackie sighed impatiently. "I have to go, too. I can't leave you out there while I'm in here."
He walked over to the latrine and Abby turned her back. She thought her own bladder would burst as he finished there and moved on to the washbowl.
He was quick and efficient. After a few minutes he came up behind her.
"I'll get your bag."
He held his bag in one hand and wet clothes in another. All the dirt was washed away and she could see where a bruise was forming where John had slugged him.
A few moments later her bag slid in next to her. She looked up and saw Jackie standing in the doorway with his back to her. She went about her business and tried to be as quick and efficient as he had been. She also washed the clothes she had been wearing.
When she came back out into the main room, Jackie showed her the small hooks attached to the underside of the shelf where she could hang her clothes. She noticed, then, that a few others had also done their laundry.
Jackie had unrolled their mats. They were both very close to the wall. She looked at him, but he simply indicated for her to sleep on the one closer to the wall. Once she had settled herself, he lay down on his mat with his back almost touching her. He was slightly angled, so that if anyone tried to get to her, he would have to step over Jackie.
Abby ached too much and was too tired to consider his reasoning. She fell immediately into a deep dreamless sleep.
"Hassan! Hassan!" The urgently whispered words pulled Abby from the depths of painless oblivion. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes and wondered what she had done to receive such an angry look.
"If you want to use the washroom in privacy, you must get up now."
Jackie held out his hand to her. She needed it. Her muscles were remembering every strain of the previous day. She hobbled into the washroom and returned a few minutes later.
"Cold water wakes you up, but it isn't much help for the sore muscles," she commented as she sat down again.
Jackie came around behind her and started to knead the muscles in her shoulder and neck. "You need to stretch. You will get used to it after a while." He stopped the massage and returned to his mat.
The other men were waking and making their way to the washroom. Several as they passed said something to Jackie or Abby as they passed. To every comment Abby asked about Jackie answered with "nothing." and occasionally "You don't want to know." Abby gave up asking.
That day and those that followed were much like the previous day had been. The jobs were sometimes switched and they might shovel the dirt, or tamp it into the wall. The aches and pains of hard physical labor became normal and Abby learned to cope with it. The stretching as she warmed up each day had helped.
Abby was fascinated to see that when they pulled away the plywood boards, what remained was a solid wall. It didn't seem like it could be enough to make a wall, but she remembered her tour of the Great Wall and how it was explained that that was originally how that one was made, although bricks were added later.
In the women's prison, Abby had kept herself somewhat aloof, but although she had formed no real friendships there, she did chat occasionally with the other women. She also wrote in her journal. Here she found herself almost totally isolated even though she was never alone. After dinner, she was too exhausted to write. She needed sleep then. She didn't know enough Chinese to converse with anyone as she worked and as far as she knew only John and Jackie spoke any English. She didn't want to talk to John and Jackie didn't want to talk to anyone. He only spoke to give her information she needed to know, usually something a guard said.
She was obviously a burden to Jackie that he didn't want, but whenever she caught a look at him when he didn't realize it, she saw that he carried much harder burdens. Something weighed him down. Something serious had caused that deep sorrow. He had been right. He wasn't the movie star she recognized. He had no laughter, no glint of humor in his eye. She couldn't imagine this man who worked beside her telling a joke or making a silly face. All she saw was that sorrow and it was visible only if she made eye contact. It was a sadness so deep, he had apparently cut off all feeling. Even the anger he had displayed that first day had been buried.
Abby had just gotten out of her own shell of grieving for Nafis and then she'd been caught in this mess. Ready to reach out to the world again, she had been effectively pulled out of it. But the routine of prison life lulled her. She was an optimist by nature. Somehow, she knew she'd be all right. She'd get through all of this. She found she couldn't dwell on the imprisonment, the sorrow, or even the fear she still occasionally felt.
One day, when the sun was shining and the breeze was cool she saw flowers out in the dry fields beyond their prison. It lightened her mood considerably as she carried her buckets of dirt to the new wall going up. Somehow, she was able to put aside her situation and simply enjoy the day.
At dinner break several of the men grinned as they passed her. When Jackie joined her by 'their' rock he looked at her curiously.
"Are you okay?"
The question took her aback. "Of course. I'm fine. Why..."
One of the other prisoners came over to her and yelled at her, loudly, waving his hands as he spoke. He was angry and clearly wanted her to know it. After he finished his tirade he stomped off, leaving her a little shaken.
"What was that all about? Why was he mad at me?"
"You don't know, do you?" She shook her head. "It was your singing."
She was almost as stunned by his response. He actually grinned!
"You have been singing all morning. Not loud, but we hear when you come near us. You seem so happy. Why?"
"I have? Yes, I've felt happy this morning, but...I don't know why. I saw some flowers out there and...I've been singing? Really? What? Is it really so bad that it makes people mad at me?"
"He was yelling because you were singing in English--American songs. This is China and you are the enemy. He thinks he should not have to listen to enemy songs."
"What was I singing, the National Anthem?"
He grinned again. "No, you were singing love songs. You sing good. I enjoyed it. So did some of the others even without understanding the words."
They finished eating without any further discussion. Abby thought hard, digging through memories as she ate. As usual, it was time to get back to work before she felt rested, but her spirits had been lifted. Even getting yelled at couldn't dampen them. Jackie had actually given up his scowl and smiled!
More conscious of it now, it was difficult to sing. She started by humming as she tried hard to remember the words. It was corny, but some how she felt encouraged to go ahead. Eventually she remembered enough words and she began to sing softly.
"Wo shuang jian kang zhu tian
Cai zhu jiao xia di huang tu di
Zou guo qian shan wan shui li jia wu bai li
Kan ri chu dong sheng sai wang xi yang xi chen
Wo bu pa shan gao shui chang lu zhao zhao..." *
She noticed a few heads turn as she walked near enough for them to hear her. She saw a few more grins like the ones she received at dinner. The angry man still didn't smile, though. She didn't care. She was still in a good mood.
She didn't remember that many songs in Mandarin and she knew she garbled many of the words. It didn't matter. It felt good to be singing and clearly some of the men enjoyed it also.
"Ni xian yao ku ma
wo de jian shang ke yi rang ni yi kao
ni xin qing bu hao
Wo ke yi rang ni yong bao pei ni chang tan huan xiao
pei ni chao pei ni lao lao dao dao
wo men du shi zui hao de peng you..." **
"Bu yuan rang ni dui wo tai wen rou
Zhi pa ni hui yao qiu tian zhang di jiu
Yin wei wo he bie ren yi yang mei you ba wo
Ai yi ge ren jiu jing hui ai duo jiu..." ***
The afternoon passed more quickly and more pleasantly than she could have imagined possible that first day. Again, many of the men smiled as the passed her. Even the guard who collected the tools gave her a quick smile as she stood next to him waiting for Jackie. The one who had been angry at her earlier just scowled at her, as did a few others.
She and John had pointedly ignored each other since the fight. Now he came up to her with venom in his eyes.
"Singing songs in their own lousy language. You traitor. You deserve the worst they can do."
She puzzled at that for a moment, then considered the source and dismissed it. Until she saw Jackie coming. He had a scowl on his face again. Something had broken the spell begun by the flowers that morning. He took her arm as usual to walk back to the barracks and whispered into her ear.
"I don't think the singing love songs was such a good idea, after all. Most of these men are not gentlemen."
Abby felt the tension as she entered the barracks. It was like the scent in the air before a storm. Something was going to happen. How had things changed so much since dinner?
The normal hum of chatter the men engaged in before, during and after supper time was absent. There were a few occasional comments from one to another and, although the men were never exactly cheerful, these exchanges now sounded terse. Others huddled together and talked in low tones. Lines were being drawn. Abby could almost see them. She noticed Jackie watching everything very carefully, as well.
Supper was over and the last guard left, locking the door behind him as usual. During this time between supper and lights out the men would talk and, in no order Abby had ever been able to discern, walk down to use the washroom. Usually at least one of them would make some remark to her or Jackie as they entered or left. Abby assumed they were lewd or rude remarks, since Jackie would never answer or translate them for her. Except for the unusual quiet, this night started no differently, although Abby was careful not to doze off as she often did.
He walked down to the washroom. He usually had something to say to Abby. He stopped at the door and turned to face her. Before Abby could look away, he dropped his pants and grabbed himself and started toward her while raucously saying something whose meaning was clear enough to Abby without translation. Despite her awareness of imminent danger, despite being more alert than usual, she was unprepared, stunned into inaction.
Jackie stepped between them and yelled. The man pulled his pants back on, but defiantly stood at the edge of Abby's mat. Whatever the sign had been, it had been given. Ten of the other prisoners stood around them, then lunged.
With his attention focused on the gang around him Jackie called out.
"Hassan! On your feet. Fight for your life!"
It wasn't like in the movies at all! Nothing was choreographed. Style meant nothing. Neither did fair play. They swung, punched, jabbed, chopped and kicked. Jackie stood in front, while she was backed up closer to the corner. At first he seemed almost slow next to them. he waited for them to move first and then he was more effective. He quickly discerned their weak spots. Each of them had received a good blow from him before he had received one from any of them. He held his ground, moving more quickly as the other prisoners came at him en masse.
But the odds were not in their favor. Abby was terrified. She caught a glimpse of John lounging on his mat as if watching a show. He was smiling for the first time since the night she'd arrived. He wasn't going to help. She hoped no one joined the other side. How could one man defend her against eleven? They were all coming at once.
Her fears were justified. Two of the men had grabbed Dae-jung's arms and another was punching him. The man who had started the fiasco came at her. Abby kicked out at him. She was surprised at the force with which she sent him reeling. There was something to be said for carrying buckets of dirt all day, every day for weeks!
Some of the men who had remained on their mats had started yelling, most cheering on the eleven, but a few clearly cheered for Jackie and Abby.
The prisoner who came at her next was kicked into those who were holding Jackie, setting him free. He grabbed an arm and pulled the man in as a shield for the next blows. Then he shoved him into the one who was punching him, knocking them both off balance. He spun and kicked away the man coming at him from his left. He was grabbed from behind and he jabbed his elbows into his attacker's ribs. He reached over his head, pulled the man forward and slammed him into the floor.
The fear that had immobilized her at first, now galvanized her. She didn't know kung fu, but she could kick. She could make a fist and put a little bit of force behind it. Once she was grabbed from behind, but had the presence of mind to imitate Jackie and jabbed with her elbows using all her strength.
Jackie grabbed the shelf above the platform and pulled himself up enough to swing and grab another attacker with his legs. He held tightly and let go of the shelf, landing back to back on one of the fallen and pulling the one between his knees down with him. He rolled quickly, came up on his hands and swung he leg out to trip the next attacker.
It seemed to go on forever. Jackie had been able to keep more than one at a time away from her, but she was getting exhausted. A large man loomed up before her with a stupid grin and grabbed her breast. He pushed her against the wall and, with his other arm stretched out, his hand on her shoulder, pinned her to the wall. Both of her hands were pulling at his arm, but it wouldn't budge.
Jackie was still battling at least three at once. He started to bring a hard chop down on Stupidgrin's arm, but was pulled away. A man at each elbow held him. He used them for support and flipped up and landed both feet in the face of a third man coming at him. Coming down, he pulled the two together in an attempt to knock their heads together. They were knocked off balance, but recovered as quickly as he and continued their attack.
"Your knee, Hassan! Where it hurts!"
Abby didn't have to be told a second time. She brought her knee up with as much force as possible. Stupidgrin doubled over in pain and she brought it up again into his face, for good measure. He swung his fist up and caught her on the cheek, but remained bent over. She clasped her hands tightly and brought them down on the back of his neck. He joined those Jackie had already dispatched into the aisle between the platforms.
At each blow, more seemed to have joined in the yelling and it had become louder. Evidently it had finally become loud enough to rouse the guards. Five of them came armed into the barracks. Four rifles with bayonets aimed into the fracas. Shu, the head guard, held a handgun. After taking in the situation for a moment he fired it into the roof.
Abruptly, the room became silent. Everyone up who was not part of the fight scrambled quickly back to his mat. Shu walked toward the back of the room. Seven men lay silent or groaning on the floor between the platforms. Abby, Jackie and four attackers were still standing, bloodied and disheveled, breathing hard.
Shu tapped his gun on one man's chest and asked a question in Chinese. The man answered and received the back of the guard's hand in response. Shu shouted something and advanced to stand before Jackie and Abby, who still held the corner. He looked Abby in the eye.
"What happened?" His tone indicated he wanted a complete, but short answer.
"One of them," she indicated the heap on the floor, "acting very lewdly, started to come after me on my mat. Chan stepped in front of him and told him to behave, I assume, and suddenly there were ten more here and they came at us, kicking and punching."
"Did he hit him?"
"No one hit anybody until they all attacked."
"Did anyone else help you?"
"Chan disabled all of them?"
"No! Hassan helped defend herself. I can't do this alone." Jackie looked a bit stunned at the pile of bodies at his feet. He'd been too busy fighting to count.
"I see," Shu said, gently touching Abby's bruised cheek and frowning.
He turned to the other guards and gave orders. Two of the guards and the standing attackers helped the fallen get up. While the other two guards kept their rifles at the ready, they left the barracks.
Shu spoke again. Everyone stood on the floor at the end of his mat. He continued. Abby didn't understand the words, but the tone of voice was as clear to her as if it were in English. He lectured and admonished the rest of the prisoners for not coming to her aid and or for cheering on the fight. His anger was evident throughout. What she didn't understand was the increased intensity of his anger when he singled out John, poking his finger onto his chest as he spoke--still in Chinese.
John just stood there, looking bored and irritated. Abby caught herself wishing he'd joined the fracas just so she could have had the opportunity to smack him--hard!
Shu turned to Jackie and Abby again.
"You two, get your things!
They looked at each other and complied.
"Where are we going?" Abby ventured.
"To the clinic. Your wounds need to be tended."
"I'm okay," Jackie said.
Shu glared at him. "Where ever you go they want to fight you. From now on you will be kept apart to prevent fights." He turned to Abby. "And since your transfer doesn't seem to be coming, you will be kept apart for your safety. Follow me."
As they walked through the darkness Abby wondered why they hadn't separated her from the start.
"Where's the clinic?" she whispered to Jackie.
"I don't know."
"Shu, are the others in the clinic?"
"No. They are being punished."
They crossed the yard where they had been working each day and came up to a small shed. Shu unlocked it and entered.
"Come in," he said impatiently.
The room was about ten feet square with shelves of supplies along one wall. He rummaged around the shelves until he found a first aid kit and handed it to Abby.
He looked at Abby. "Do you trust him alone?" he asked, indicating Jackie.
"Good. I don't like this, but it is better than before. Set your things down. You still work out there in the day. When the walls are finished, they will be connected here to make a proper clinic for the men injured in battle. You will both remain here at night. There is no proper sleeping place yet. You can take extra blankets if you need them. I must lock the door. If you come out, you will be shot."
Shu left and Abby and Jackie were left alone in a cold, dark, windowless shed.
Jackie had cleared a space and settled the mats before Shu had left with the light. Abby instinctively had reached for the blankets Shu had indicated as soon as he closed the door. She was glad she did. It was cool and the darkness was total. She couldn't see anything.
She stood in the dark vainly waiting for her eyes to adjust when a hand came to rest on the middle of her chest.
"Can you see in this dark?"
"No. I watched where you were standing when the light went out. You moved a little. I meant to touch your shoulder." He moved his hand to her arm.
"I have the blankets. It's cold in here."
"Good. Winter is coming. The nights will get colder now. I hope we get the clinic done soon and it has some conveniences like a washroom and heat."
Jackie led her to where he had placed the mats on the floor and they each took a couple of blankets and made their beds in the dark. They didn't speak. He had again arranged it so that she was next to the wall, the better to defend her if anyone came through the door. He lay down facing the door, his back to her. Abby settled in and soon heard Dae-jung's regular breathing, indicating he slept.
Everything had happened so fast she hadn't had time to think about it. Now she unwillingly replayed it all in her mind over and over. Had it been just today that her heart had been so light that she sang? Even the fear and adrenalin rush in the barracks seemed long ago. Now, feeling the soreness of her battle wounds on top of the ususal ache, she felt as if she had always been alone and outcast. It was too many extremes of emotion to feel in one day. Abby turned to the wall and tried to bury her sobs in the blankets.
She didn't know how long it took to exhaust her supply of tears. Sleep would not come. She tried to banish the memories of the day. She wanted only emptiness, so that she could sleep. She took a few deep breaths and counted, trying to even out her breathing and keep other thoughts out. Her breathing became less ragged.
A few inches from her ear a soft voice asked "Do you feel better now?"
The gentleness and concern in his voice broke the fragile calm she had not quite reclaimed. She turned to him and said "Yes, I'm fine..." but she could not stop the second wave of sobs that rose up from deep within her. He reached his arms around her and pulled her to him. He held her close patting her back and stroking her hair. He didn't speak another word that night. Eventually, they both slept.
A loud rap on the door and rattle of keys woke them sometime after dawn. Shu came in followed by one of the prisoners carrying a large bucket of water. Shu dismissed him to the guard outside as soon as he set the water down.
"From now on, you will have to get your water the night before. I'll expect you to be ready to go to work as usual."
He thrust out some rolls. "The commander is in a foul mood today. I couldn't get you rice. I managed to put these aside before he noticed. He is not happy about the fighting last night, but agrees to let you remain apart as long as you cause no more disturbance." He looked out into the yard and snorted. "He is more unhappy that his new house must become a clinic. I think we will all suffer for that." He looked back at them. "Be ready quickly. I do not wish to suffer his wrath any more today."
Jackie scooped a handful of water and splashed his face. One eye was almost swollen shut and both were black and purple. Several bruises also marked his arms. He seemed not to notice and picked up a couple of rolls and went to the door.
"I'll give you privacy, but hurry. We'll figure it out before we are locked in tonight."
There was no mirror, but Abby imagined her own face wasn't much better. The rest of her body wasn't. This part wasn't like the movies, either. After washing and putting on a clean shirt, she gobbled down her two rolls. Before going out the door, she picked up the bucket of water in one hand and the chamber pot in the other. She decided that if she had to do this job, she needed to get a pole.
Crisis - Abby's story
Outside in the yard, work went on as usual. Abby looked at the walls and tried imagine them as a clinic, hopefully with a warm room, even a tiny room, for her. The days followed, one after the other, all blurring into one another. Songs did not rise in her heart or to her lips. She had no view of flowers. She felt the weight of the war all around her as she had not felt it before.
Nights were as difficult as ever. She felt safer, but even more alone than ever. After the first night in the shed, when he had comforted her, Jackie returned to his own self imposed isolation. He would go out and bring back water when the guard came with supper. Shu had given them a light, but they sat in silence. If Abby asked a question, Jackie answered in monosyllables. He never asked anything and clearly did not want to talk to her. After they ate, he would go behind the blanket they had hung as a curtain for privacy, and wash up. When he came out he would lie down on his mat with his back to her. Often he would go right to sleep.
Abby was tired as well, but sleep did not come as easily as it had. Sometimes she would simply watch Jackie sleep, but mostly she would think about home and what her life had been like before Nafis's death. Many times since her internment Abby had wanted to go home. Now it had become a full blown case of homesickness. She felt herself returning to the state she had been in when she first came to China. She was neither alive nor dead.
The walls were all up and roof was being put on. Some of the prisoners had been working in the fields around the camp and more were called to this duty to get the winter crops in. Abby, Jackie and a few others were kept to help the roofers and other miscellaneous jobs.
One evening Abby was particularly tired from carrying rocks in her buckets instead of soil. Shu came with supper and Jackie went out for their water. Before he returned, the commander arrived. Abby's dislike and distrust of the man made her tense up.
He looked around the shed. "Cozy. Where is Chan?"
"He has gone for water, sir. Shall I get him?" Shu didn't seem happy to have the commander around either.
"No, don't bother. Hassan, tell him that General To has been killed in battle. I thought he'd like to know that. Remember to tell him, Hassan. Don't forget." He smiled as he walked out of the shed.
Shu was muttering softly to himself.
"Who is To?" Abby asked Shu. "Was he a friend of Sima's?"
"I don't know. The commander does not like Chan and I do not know why he had to tell him this news. Perhaps To was a friend. I don't think so, but I do not understand. The commander wishes to see Chan unhappy. I do not, but you must tell him. Here." He handed her a whistle. "If you need assistance, use it. I will get it back tomorrow."
Jackie came in then and Shu left, quickly enough that Jackie stared after him for a moment. Abby wondered why he felt she would need his help. If he thought Jackie would do something harmful to her when he heard the news, why didn't he stay? Why had he been in such a rush to leave?
Abby waited 'til after they ate to tell him the news. As he lay down to go to sleep she spoke.
"Chan, the commander had some news for you this evening."
"What news? Why didn't he tell me?" He sat up and faced her.
"He asked me to tell you. Someone named General To was killed in battle."
Before her eyes he transformed. His hands clenched and she saw the muscles in his arms and across his chest flex as if preparing for battle. His eyes, usually tired and sad, flared. From a man who was bone tired, trudging through the day, feelings and emotion shut off, wanting only sleep, he became a man on fire with rage.
"NO! He was mine!"
He pounded his fists on the ground beside him and then was up on his feet. He continued to cry out in Chinese as he paced the room, lashing out at whatever was in his way. He flung down the curtain at her. He kicked the dishes that sat next to the door, sending them flying in all directions. The contents of the shelves flew across the room and the shelves themselves took a beating, one of them cracking loudly under the impact.
Abby cowered in the corner, afraid to use the whistle lest it draw his wrath upon her before Shu could arrive. She watched as he continued to vent himself upon almost everything in the shed and feared he might even knock the walls down, such was his fury.
Finally, the late hour on top of months of hard labor with never enough sleep prevailed to bring him back down to his mat. Abby noticed the fire remained in his eyes and knew that, however tired he may be physically, he would not sleep easily. She wondered what thoughts went through his mind as he sat and stared with blank rage for more than an hour, clenching and unclenching his fists.
"Chan?" She spoke softly.
"What?" The anger was still there, but he had regained his composure.
"Who was he that his death evokes so much rage?"
"You wouldn't understand. You never lost someone as I have."
"I would. I lost my husband. I know what it's like."
"It's not the same. Your husband died. It is sad, but it's not the same as someone viciously taking his life. You have sorrow, but not the hatred."
"No, my husband was killed viciously. And I do know the hatred that comes with that."
He looked at her with curiosity. "Tell me," he said, simply.
"He worked for the government, for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was just a teacher. His students were leaders and future leaders in the area of defense. The building he worked in had top secret clearance. I don't have any idea what was there to require that. He taught history, focusing on wars and battles and how they were won or lost.
"About three years ago, some Arab terrorists decided it was a good place to use to draw attention to their cause. They studied who came and went and one of them became friendly to Nafis. Having been a foreigner once himself, he always extended a friendly hand to others, especially those from the Middle East. This man took his time and saw him often. They would have lunch together. They talked about their past, their families left behind, whatever they might have in common. I remember he told me he liked this fellow.
"He developed this friendship for over a year. Nafis tried to help him by introducing him to people. He was always profusely thankful and offered small gifts as his way of saying thank you. He had discovered Nafis's sweet tooth and a box of sweets from Egypt was often one of those gifts.
"Then one day..." Abby had to stop. She wanted to gloss over the details of what had happened. She looked up at Jackie. The look in his eyes showed that he wanted, no, needed the truth in detail. She took a deep breath and continued.
"Then one day... They told me this is what must have happened. No one will ever know for sure. One day he gave a box of sweets to Nafis at the end of their lunch. Nafis put it in his briefcase. It went through the detectors at the doors with no problem. Plastic, they said. No one knows what the trigger was. Maybe Nafis decided to have a sweet while he worked and opened the box. Maybe it was triggered from outside. Anyway, the box of sweets was a bomb. About twenty people were killed by the blast and resulting collapse of the old part of the building, where Nafis worked."
Tears ran down Abby's cheeks.
"I hated that man who had used a friendship to destroy lives. I hated all of them. They used the name of God to justify what they did, but nothing could justify such acts. Later they found this man, but he was killed when they tried to capture him."
"You don't hate them any more? How do you stop hating them?"
"I didn't for a long time. 'Til I came here, in fact. I was dead, just going through the motions of life. But when I started seeing all the things here, something woke up again inside me. I don't know why. Maybe because they are often such beautiful, old things and they say something about the human spirit. Everyone suffers in some way. I was tired of being numb and worn out. And I thought if I continued like had been going, they'd be able to claim me as one of their victims also. I didn't like that thought. I'm alive. I want to live." she looked around her. "Even when it isn't very pleasant"
Jackie looked at her for a while taking it all in, thinking about what she had told him.
"That is why you were singing that day. You were happy to be alive even here."
" It is horrible what happened to your husband, to you. But you weren't there. You had no way to help him. If you had been there, you would not have known anything. You would have died with him. You did die with him, in a way--what you said. That made you numb."
He got up and paced, fists clenching again.
"I don't have that. I am not numb. I am dead, too, but in pain. Over and over, I see her death and I cannot, I cannot..."
He slumped down onto his mat again and sat facing Abby. Tears filled his eyes, tears and that overwhelming sorrow.
Crisis - Jackie's story
Abby waited while Jackie sought to control the tears.
"Over and over, I see her death and I cannot help her. I could not help her. I tried. I tried."
He held his face in his hands and let the tears flow.
"We have been through so much. When we were young, we were so much in love. Then, I was too involved with my work, with myself, what I wanted. We grew apart. But she was always there. Whenever I needed her, she was there. She never complained. She never asked for more than I could give. And then a couple of years ago I realized how much she meant to me. What a priceless treasure she really was. Not just words any more. The real thing
"You can't mend a marriage quickly. We were working on it. I was working on it. There was so much I didn't know. She was not the girl I married any more. I didn't know her any more. I failed again and again, but she knew I was trying. She realized how hard it was for me. I was so used to putting my goals, my wants first. It was hard to change. But sometimes I did something right. Then, when I would see the look in her eyes, the love in her eyes, love would fill me again. I fell in love all over again.
"Last year we decided she would travel with me. I wanted to show her off, but mostly I just wanted her with me. And she told me she wanted to be with me. It was like a honeymoon after so many years -- at first.
"Then I had to travel here in China. I love China and so did she. We thought this would be so much fun, but it became a nightmare. ...*
"Jackie, do you have to work today?"
"Yes, I do."
"And what will I do?"
"You can see the sights"
"I want to see them with you."
"You can shop, then."
"I don't need anything."
A smile started in his eyes and spread to his whole face. "Dong-moon, would you like to come with me?"
She smiled brightly in return. "Are you sure it will be okay?"
He pulled her to him and held her close. "Mmmmm..." He kissed her neck, her chin... She struggled against him half heartedly until their lips met. After a lingering kiss, he pulled away and held her at arms length. He spoke seriously. "I'm the boss. I think if you can behave yourself, it will be okay..." but her laughter was contagious and they fell into each other's arms again.
She stayed out of the way, watching from the sidelines, as they went over scenes and choreography. She knew the hard work that was required of him and was content simply to watch. The day was long and when they were finished they all went to a restaurant. As they entered, their identification was checked. She was stopped.
"You're from Taiwan?"
"Why are you here?"
"She is traveling with me. She is my wife." Jackie was impatient with their questions. What did it matter where she had come from?
They conferred a moment and then let her go in with the rest of them.
They were filming in a village. For days they worked from early in the morning until late at night. Some days she would go with them and watch. Others, she would stay in the little inn. When they finished, he took off some time to spend some time alone with her. They spent the afternoon walking through a local public garden, holding hands as the few other tourists did. He took her alone to the local restaurant and they sat at a table for two. After eating he lingered, talking to her, listening to her. They retired early to their room at the inn and were not seen until it was time to leave the next day.
They had been oblivious to the eyes watching them.
In Shanghai, he had agreed to do a charity concert with several other Chinese stars. At one point, the stars auctioned themselves off for a dance. When it was his turn, he changed the format. Instead of asking for bids, he gave one. It was substancially higher than the highest bid before it. No one matched it. He danced with his wife. As he danced with her, he was able to forget he was on-stage. He became aware of her only. The audience nodded and whispered approvingly among themselves.
Others watched and whispered among themselves, also.
In Beijing, he wrapped up filming in China and took several days to see the sights with her. They went to the Forbidden City, climbed the Great Wall, visited the Temple of Heaven. Time passed quickly and business commitments called him to Hong Kong and then to the US. It was time to leave China.
They knew they had to make their move now.
At the airport most of the crew had already gotten on the plane. Security was always heavy in airports, especially those that had international flights. Jackie didn't think much of it when a security officer approached them as the were ready to board, until he spoke.
"Ma'am, you'll need to come with us."
"Why?" Jackie asked.
"General To needs to ask her some questions."
"It's okay," she said, but she looked worried.
The security officer took her arm and started walking. Jackie followed them.
"It isn't necessary for you to come along."
"Yes. It is. She is my wife. I can't leave without her."
They were taken to a building not far from the public building of the airport. Inside they were asked to sit in a plain room with only a few chairs and a table. They sat...and waited. The plane with their friends and fellow workers left without them. And they waited.
Eventually, General To walked in. Jackie was agitated. It was already night.
"Why have you detained us? Why have you kept us waiting?"
"Sit down and shut up, Mr. Chan. You could have left."
Jackie sat. He was not unaware that the single security guard from the airport had been replaced with four military guards with rifles.
General To set some papers in front of her and stared down at her.
"What have you been doing in Beijing?"
"I'm just traveling with my husband. He works. I shop. We visit the sights."
"No! Tell me the truth." He leaned in close to her face. "We already know, so don't try to hide anything."
"I'm not hiding anything. What I said is the truth."
To slapped her hard across the face. Jackie jumped up..at least he tried to. One guard held each shoulder down and a third guard held his rifle across his chest. The fourth aimed his rifle at Dae-jung's head. He looked from the rifle to General To.
"She's telling the truth! What else could she do?"
"That's what we want her to tell us."
To looked back at her. "Well?"
"I am telling the truth." She answered quietly, calmly, but Jackie heard the fear in her voice.
"No!" To bellowed. He picked up the papers in from of her. "You have had another agenda while your husband worked. Do not deny it."
"I don't know what you mean. I've done only what I said."
To's face contorted in rage. "You are working for the Americans! Now you must tell me who you have seen and what information you have given or gathered. Do not try to hide behind your husband's work. This is not the movies. He cannot help you in this. You have been caught!"
"But I don't know what..."
To slapped her hard again. "Tell me!"
"I don't know..."
To's next slap knocked her out of her chair. Jackie took a chance and leapt at the guard with the rifle aimed at him and knocked it away. He lunged at To and pushed him aside. "Leave her alone. She hasn't done anything like what you say." He helped her to her feet, touched her face where To's hand had left a print.
To's rage flared further. "Get him out of here. Shoot him if he doesn't cooperate. The guards grabbed him and dragged him to the door. He struggled to break free.
"Shut up!" To said striking her again, pushing her back into the chair.
Dae-jung's own anger had reached rage, drowning out any fear he had had. He dropped to the floor and kicked the legs out from under two of the guards and sent a third through the door. He gave a quick chop to the fourth and started toward her.
Her eyes widened in terror as he approached. She jumped up and threw herself at Jackie.
A shot rang out. Jackie pulled her to him. She looked into his eyes as her own softened and filled with her love for him. "I love you." Her eyes went blank and she slid to the floor, a pool of blood growing beneath her.
An animal cry of pain and rage, rose out of Dae-jung's throat from the very depths of his being. He spun to see the guard who had fired the shot and attacked him with the full force of all his training augmented by this pain and rage. The guard had no defense against the force that drove Jackie. It took the other three guards and General To to pull Jackie away, but not before his eyes registered terror just before they too went blank.
Dae-jung's sobs halted his narrative. Abby closed her eyes and let her own tears fall.
"Maybe when I was younger I could have fought and beaten them all, but they called in others and I am not a kid any more . I tried, but it was too late, anyway. I was charged with both deaths and sent here. There is no trial like in the US. I would not admit guilt, but the guards and General To said I am guilty, so I am.
"What they said about her, it wasn't true. She didn't have those kinds of connections that she could be a spy. She was not guilty of anything!"
Abby looked up again. He sat there with his shoulder's curved down, his hands resting limply in his lap. Tears ran silently down his cheeks. Everything she had seen in him was gone. The anger and rage, the hatred, the defiance. Everything except the sorrow. The sorrow filled him. It filled the room.
She reached out to touch his knee and another sob escaped his lips. She moved to his side and put an arm around him. When he didn't flinch or pull away, she gently pulled him closer and held him as she would a hurting child. With his head resting on her breast she rocked gently and he cried. Abby realized it must be the first time he had allowed himself to cry.
A few days later, as they put their tools away, Shu came to them as they started toward the shed.
"Tomorrow the supplies for the clinic will arrive. The commander has assigned you both to work there. You will be in charge of setting things up. When the doctor arrives you will work for him. You can move to the new building, but you will still have to stay apart. You can't stay with the patients. The only space will be a storage area again. At least you will have heat." He looked at Abby. "As long as they aren't needed by patients, you can sleep on cots. I tried to get him to allow Chan to go back to the barracks. He doubts Sima's changed. He blames him for the fighting." He gave a quick glance at Chan and continued. "Chan is treating you okay? You are all right?"
"Yes, he has been a true defender." Abby smiled. Shu was always as hard on her as anyone when they were working, but his gentlemanly compassion for her from the moment of her arrival had been as much responsible for her safety as Sima's fighting to protect her. She decided she liked him, even if he was the enemy.
"Good. Tonight and in the morning you must clean the shed. The commander says he wants no evidence that anyone lived in there. He fears reprisals if the Americans find out about it. He thinks it was a terrible punishment, worse than the barracks. I think you knew you were safer there than anywhere else."
He looked into her eyes as if to be certain of his statement and then he walked away shaking his head and muttering to himself in his own language. Abby smiled after him. It was nice to know a military man who didn't seem to enjoy war.
The following morning Jackie and Abby moved their few things to the new building. The shed was swept. Jackie had repaired the broken shelf and everything was put in order. Shu came to look at it. He nodded as he backed out and put the padlock on the door.
The new building was larger than the commander had planned it to be when he started it as his new house. It had two large wards across the front on either side of a hallway. At the back, at the end of the main hallway, along a narrower hallway crossing like a T, were four small rooms, one of which was the storage room that also became their room. It wasn't as large as the shed had been, but they would not need to wash up or eat in there. Their mats were set one in each corner along a wall with a small window near the top. Two free standing shelves stood at the end of their sleeping area, creating a bit of privacy. The other part of the room held more shelves with just enough room for one person to walk between them. Next to this room was the washroom. The other two rooms were for the doctor's lab and office.
The supplies arrived. Other prisoners were pulled out of the fields to help bring them from the gate to the clinic. Abby and Jackie looked into the boxes as they were brought in and pointed out where they were to go. There were cots and blankets, various basic medical equipment, medicines, and boxes marked for the doctors only to open.
"Well, well, well. Nice setup you have here, Honey. You gonna be the doctor?"
These were the first words John had spoken to her since the day she'd left the barracks. He stood there, holding a large box, an insincere smile on his face. Abby just looked at him for a few seconds. Then she shook her head and looked at the box. Although she couldn't read what was written on it, Jackie had shown her which symbols to look at on the boxes to know what was inside. She had them written, with their English equivalent, on a piece of paper which she held in her hand.
"You can put that down in that corner with the others like it," she told him, indicating first the box he held and then the corner she meant. She turned her attention to the next box.
By dinner time, the supplies were unloaded. Abby sat alone, on top of her usual rock, rather than in the shade, eating. She looked around and watched curiously when she saw Jackie arguing with Shu. Jackie seemed adamant about something, but Shu repeatedly shook his head. After a few minutes of this he said something and walked away. Jackie stared after him for a minute and then slowly made his way to the rock.
"Shu's pretty nice, but he's still a prison guard. Aren't you being a little incautious to argue with him?"
"He has a soft spot for you. He is old fashioned and protective toward women and you are not really a prisoner to him. You are here by mistake. I was trying to get back to the barracks and on work detail. I thought he would agree, for you. He doesn't like that we are forced to be together." He stopped talking and ate hungrily.
"I take it he didn't agree."
"No.. He thinks you still need protection. Also you will be needed to help with patients and you don't speak Chinese, so I am picked to translate for you. Besides, he says the commander won't let me go back. He believes I instigate fighting just by being there."
"What's so terrible about this assignment? It's certainly easier than hauling dirt and rocks."
He rested his chopsticks and looked at her.
"Hassan, this is a hospital. People will be sick, injured and dying. It will not be easier. Not easy at all. Not for me." Sighing, he went back to his food.
During the following week they set up as much of the equipment as they were able and filled the shelves in the storage room and what would apparently be a lab. Most other work assignments were in the fields. The prisoners from the barracks were no longer allowed in the area of the clinic unless under strict supervision.
Abby wondered when two doctors arrived. She didn't see why they would need two when they were so far inland away from any fighting that she was aware of. She has assumed that most of the fighting would be on the coasts -- perhaps of both countries. Within a few days of their arrival, she found out.
The first patients arrived. A few of them had obviously been wounded in battle, with missing limbs or other severe wounds. A large number of them were ill in other ways. Some of them were so injured, so sick, so frail that Abby often had to blink back tears and force herself to be calm when trying to help them. She didn't know what their illnesses were, but they reminded her of patients she had seen in cancer or aids wards.
"Abby, do you know about these things, hospitals, illnesses? Is this what you expected?" Jackie asked her that night.
"Not really. I've visited sick friends, but that's really the only firsthand experience I've ever had. I didn't know what to expect. I've never thought there was any fighting near us. We're so far inland. I guess we're getting the patients who need longer term care so they have room in the other hospitals for those who will heal quickly. Is it what you expected?"
"Yeah. Maybe worse. I've seen enough dying."
Abby thought about his question and wondered if he knew more than he was telling. Maybe it was simply his dislike of hospitals and what they represented on top of what he'd been through. As sleep finally caught up with her and she drifted off, she realized he hadn't called her Hassan.
Their daily routine changed from one of physical labor to that of nurses. The doctors would unlock their door in the morning and they would have a chance to use the washroom and eat. Then they would go to the wards and pass out the medications. Each cot in the wards had a number on it. The doctors dispensed medications in little cups with the patient's bed number on it. Sometimes their medication was part of their meal, traditional healing herbs and foods. These were also indicated by their bed numbers. After the medicinal meals were passed out, Jackie and Abby would pass out breakfast to the others, and assist those who were unable to feed themselves.
When the breakfast and medications were done they assisted the doctors in whatever way they were told. Their duties at this time included cleaning the floor, cleaning bed pans and chuck bowls, putting away the items received twice a week and doing laundry.
Laundry was a major chore they did after the midday meal and medications. Plumbing facilities were poor at best by Abby's standards. There had never been hot water at this camp, so they had to heat water in a large vat outdoors over a fire. When it reached the specified temperature the soap and items to be washed were put in. They had a large wooden paddle to 'stir' them with. Heavily soiled items might need to be taken out and scrubbed with a brush and then returned to the vat. A smaller vessel was filled with cool water and the items were rinsed there. The doctors requested that some things be rinsed in boiling water as well. They were simply put in a large soup pot or cauldron. The laundry area had a large bamboo framework over which they could pull a canvas cover in case of rain. From this they hung things to dry either directly on the bamboo or on ropes stretched from one side to the other.
As winter set in, this chore took them well into the evening, sometimes after lights out in the barracks. It didn't help that the commander had included all his own and other personnel's personal laundry. They would leave it for their supper and patient meals and evening medications and then went back to finish up the last vat for the day.
Abby pounded a muddy pair of jeans with the scrub brush.
"Wow, that must really have a stubborn stain. Bet you wish you had American washer and washing soaps." Jackie almost grinned as he said it.
Abby did grin. "These are the commander's jeans. What I wish is that he were still in them!"
Getting to bed late each night, they were asleep as soon as they reached their cots.
As winter wore on the wards filled. Jackie and Abby had to relinquish their cots, and were sleeping on mats again. Some patients left due to the extremes of death or full recovery. Others were well enough to be cared for by relatives. Some, though not likely to recover, chose to spend their remaining time with loved ones. Patients still kept coming. Any who could get up and walk on their own power were also bedded down on mats on the floor. A third of the patients were war wounded. The others had a variety of illnesses, many of which seemed quite serious.
The two doctors worked hard, harder than any other non-prisoner in the camp. They arrived early each day and had already been working for a while when they unlocked the storage room each morning. They were often still working when Shu locked the storage room at night.
A crash followed by cursing kept Abby from sleeping right away.
"Jackie, do you know why they are working so hard? Why don't they sleep more?"
Jackie didn't answer right away. Finally he sighed.
"They are worried about all the sickness. It's too much. They want to know why."
"Isn't it just because it's winter and shortages because of the war."
"I just want it all to go away. I don't want to know why."
Dr. Wu came up to Abby as she finished her breakfast.
"Hassan, I need you and Chan to collect information. We don't have time to do the paperwork. We need to take care of these men. But we need to keep better information if we are going to help any of them. I want you to go around to the men and talk to them. Write everything down." He handed her some papers.
"I don't speak Chinese."
"Chan will keep records in Chinese. Some patients will try to speak in English. He will translate for you. We need it in English, too. In addition to what the patients tell you, write your own observations about them. Don't consider anything unimportant. Everything is important. If you notice it, write it."
Her eyes widened when he also handed her a digital camera. "Take a picture of each one to go with the notes about him. The commander has a computer and I will download the pictures in the evenings. Just note the number of the picture with each patient's notes."
Abby and Jackie spent the next several days talking to the patients. They asked things like "Where were you before you became ill?" "When did you first start to feel ill?" "Where were you at the time?" "What were your first symptoms?" In addition to the patients' responses, they noted their physical appearance, mental state and morale. Both Jackie and Abby filled many sheets of paper with their notes.
The patients were arriving continuously, one after the other. They were also dying almost as quickly. She and Jackie would interview each one as he came in the door. Then he would be placed on a mat on the floor because all the cots were filled. They had to step over patients to move around the room. Taking care of them took all their time. Other chores didn't get done. They ate as they moved from patient to patient. Sleep became a thing of the past.
The commander and John Rice came to the clinic and started to drag the patients out and throw them into a communal grave. Abby followed them, pleading. Not all of the patients were dead! They told her it didn't matter. This was war and they would die anyway. She tried to pull out the living from the grave, but didn't have the strength They were pulling her in.
Abby sat up abruptly and managed to stifle a scream. Moonlight lit the room. She had not dreamed in a long time, that she remembered. If this is what it would be like, she didn't want to again. She just sat there in the silence, eyes closed, grateful that the sounds from the ward didn't come through the walls. She had no tears.
She felt a light tug of her blanket against her thigh and opened her eyes.
"Are you okay?" Jackie whispered. He was sitting next to her, his face close to hers.
"I don't know. I think I died," she answered flatly. "You were right. This work is so much harder. The other wearied the body. This wearies the soul."
Anger flared in her. "I'm sick of this! I'm sick of death and dying! I'm sick of sickness! I'm sick of being too tired all the time! I'm sick of not being able to help them!" Her anger died again. "I just want to know if I'm alive."
For a moment nothing but silence followed her outburst. Then she felt Dae-jung's hand on her cheek.
"Maybe it's easier not to feel now, better not to know if we're alive. If we feel, we will be hurt again and again until all of this is over."
She turned her head to face him. "Being dead like this is just a different kind of pain."
He moved his hand behind her head and pulled her face to his, meeting her lips with a strong, demanding kiss. For a split second she recoiled and started to pull away. Then she felt the warmth and energy from that kiss pour through her. Arms, reaching out to push him away, now encircled him, pulling him closer. Still cradling her head in his hand, he eased her down to the mat. His kiss moved across her face onto her neck and over to her shoulder as his hands slid from her head to shoulders to breasts. She pulled his face back to her own and gave him a kiss as deep and strong as his.
Jackie pulled away and sat up.
"Sh." She put her finger to his lips, then reached down to pull his T-shirt up over his head.
She looked deeply into his eyes. With trembling hands she disrobed herself. He watched her for a moment, then removed his jeans. They kissed as if drawing life from each other. Her hands pressed against his back, kneading his muscles, then with a barely lighter touch moved down to caress his buttocks. He kissed her neck and throat while caressing her breasts, then he kissed there as well. She pressed her hips to his and their hands explored more and more intimately...
Neither sunlight nor moonlight shone through the window when Dr. Lin called out his usual, if somewhat oddly cheerful "Good morning! Rise and shine!" Both Abby and Jackie were glad for the maze of shelving that prevented him from seeing their still entwined, nude bodies. Jackie quickly jumped up, pulled on his jeans and headed to the washroom. Abby dressed more carefully. After a few minutes he called back "OK!" to let her know it was her turn.
They sat at the table alone in the lab and ate in silence, not looking at each other. Both were still somewhat uncomfortable with the intimacy of the previous night. Finally Jackie spoke.
"Abby, I'm sorry. I'm supposed to be your protector and I turn out to be no better than Rice."
Abby looked up at him. He looked miserable.
"No! It's not the same at all! You are my protector, no less so last night than when you fought off the men in the barracks. Then I was in danger of being attacked by them and possibly killed. Last night I was in danger of being overwhelmed by despair and dying of that. Now I know I'm alive." She smiled at him. "I know you're alive, too."
The doctors arrived with the medicinal meals on a cart, ready to be taken to the patients. Jackie smiled at Abby as they finished their rice. She grabbed a pen and the sheaf of reports and they wheeled the cart out to the wards.
Jackie did most of the talking, as usual. Knowing how he felt about working there, Abby admired the way he gave all his attention to each patient and really listened to them, without showing any of his distaste for the situation. He would relate back to her how they were feeling, any changes in symptoms, and answers to any new questions the doctors had put on the reports. Without understanding the words, she knew he often gave encouragement. She would note the information on the report as well as anything she noticed about the patient. Jackie would whisper anything he noticed as they moved to the next patient.
Mr. Qiu was one of the first civilians brought to them. He worked in the camp where Abby had first been detained. She'd never seen him, but he'd seen her. He handled all the reports and filing there. He came in on his own two feet, but it was just stubbornness that allowed him to walk. He was unable to get up again and the doctors said he was very sick and not likely to recover because of his age. Despite the obvious discomfort his illness caused, he never failed to smile when Abby came with meals or to assist him.
"Abby Lynn, Abby Lynn..." Abby smiled at him as he continued to talk to Jackie in Chinese, answering questions, telling how he was doing. She wrote on his report. Before they went to the next patient, she patted his hand and said "Get well soon, Mr. Qiu." After Jackie translated, he shook his head. "Bu," he said softly. "Bu."
"Jackie, how did he know my name?"
"I tell everyone your name when we talk to them."
"But how did he know my middle name?" He looked at her quizzically "He called me Abby Lynn. How did he know Lynn was my middle name?"
Jackie laughed softly. "He did not call you 'Abby Lynn.' He called you 'Ah Bilin' -- 'Dear Neighbor.' Some of them call you 'Ah Bi' which is 'Dear Pen' because you are always writing in the notes--more than I do." He put his arm around her waist and gave her a quick hug. "You need to learn Chinese!" He pushed the cart to the next patient.
Abby smiled at the misunderstanding and the nicknames, but she didn't need Jackie to tell her what 'bu' meant. Mr. Qiu had said "Bu," he wouldn't get well.
Before the winter day's early sunset, Mr. Qiu died.
Day after day, through the winter, it was the same. No matter how she tried to keep her distance, someone would manage to find a crack and take root in her heart. Then he would die, leaving the crack a little deeper, a little more tender.
Her only comfort through this was Jackie. Sometimes they would make love, but mostly they just held each other and talked a little before sleeping.
One morning as they finished their breakfast in the lab, Dr. Lin stood up from his microscope and fell to the floor. He was dead.
Losing Dr. Lin hit hard. Dr. Wu was visibly shaken. Dr. Lin had never told him he was sick. More patients had started arriving. Sometimes one or two a day, other times as many as ten or more. Abby lost track of numbers. Wu worked harder than ever, but worry lines crossed his face more than they had ever before.
Their routine was basically the same, but there was no time to chat with each patient any more. No time for translations. Jackie often said something, speaking softly and sounding kind or encouraging to Abby. She still took time to make reports for new patients, but there was no time to keep up the old ones in detail. All she added to old reports was the date of death.
The patients' morale had fallen. No one called any longer for Ah Bi or Ah Bilin. If they called for anyone, it was for Jackie, or for some family member not there to answer. All the patients who had known Dr. Lin saw his death as an omen. New patients had seen so much death where they came from, like Liang, that they took their own deaths for granted.
It was a morning when several patients had arrived. Abby grabbed her pen and papers and followed Jackie to them. Jackie gave her perfunctory statements, using the time they had to talk to the patients rather than translate unnecessary words. Abby hardly saw the patients as she wrote. At the third patient, Jackie asked his name...a phrase Abby had learned. She was startled by the answer.
"My name is Liang Weimin. My American friends called me William."
Abby stared. He was the commander who had sent her here!
"I understand, Abigail, if you are not happy to see me, but it seems you are the luckier of us. I was the last person alive at the women's camp. This sickness devoured all of the women. Those in charge gave no thought to them." Abby saw the same anger, once directed at her, now given to 'those in charge.' "'They were just prisoners,' they said. 'Our resources are only for our own.' I was left to care for them on my own. I am not a doctor. I learned CPR when I was in college, but it is of no use on these dead." His body was weak, voice low and rasping, but his fury was intense.
Abby was still trying to grasp all he had said. Her emotions for the women and Commander Liang were in turmoil. Jackie seemed a bit confused, but asked his usual questions. When he realized that only Abby wrote, Liang gave his answers in English. They had no more time to chat. They had to interview the next patient.
Whether or not they called her, Abby seemed to know when someone was near the end. It was impossible to be there for every one, but if she could, she would sit with them and hold their hands. Sometimes they would talk to her. They didn't seem to care that she didn't understand. Jackie seemed to realize what she was doing and worked without her whenever he saw her sitting with someone.
Abby awoke to the sound of the wind whistling around the building. She was surprised to see Jackie already up since usually the doctor had to call to wake either of them.
"I don't know. I thought I heard a shot. That is what woke me up. No one came to open the door. Inside is quiet. Not outside. There was a lot of activity outside, running, yelling. I heard trucks. Now nothing."
Abby jumped up and went to the door and tried to open it.
"I already tried. Come here and I will boost you up to the window. Tell me what you see."
Jackie laced his fingers and held them like a stirrup for her to step onto. He lifted her about two feet so she could look out.
"All I can see from here is the back of the barracks and the fields."
"Try pushing open the window."
He lifted her a little more and Abby pushed with enough effort to cause Jackie to stagger slightly. After a couple of efforts, the window pushed open. She grabbed the sill and pulled herself far enough out to see toward the commander's building and the front of the clinic.
She pulled back in. "I don't see anything there, either. No one is around. The gate is open, too."
"Go out. We are locked in here. Go out and come back in and open the door to let me out."
"The door is locked. I can't open it."
Jackie thought a moment. He lowered her back to the floor. "Okay. Lift me up. I will go out. It opens in. I can kick it open from that side."
He showed her how to thrust her laced hands to give him a boost when he stepped onto them. He grabbed the sill and pulled himself through the window. She heard a soft thud as he landed.
Abby went to the door, staying far enough away not to be hit should it come flying open. After what seemed like a long time, she heard the key in the door and Jackie walked in.
"What did you see out there?"
"Nothing. No one anywhere. Just very quiet. The keys were on the table in the lab. Patients are waking up, but there is no Dr. Wu, no medicines, no guards with breakfast.
"Come with me to find him or Shu."
Abby followed him down the hall and out. She had never realized how much ambient noise there was until now when they walked across the yard in utter silence.
Jackie knocked on Commander Mo's door. There was no answer. After trying several times with still no answer, he opened it cautiously. He stuck his head in and looked around, then entered. He went to the commander's office. Abby followed and walked into Dae-jung's back after two steps.
"What..." Then she saw. Commander Mo lay forever silent on a cot in the corner. They stepped closer to look at him. Judging by what she had seen in the clinic, Abby guessed that he had been sick for at least a week, maybe more. She hadn't seen him in over two weeks.
They went out and over to the next building where the guards lived. The door was open. Jackie called out in Chinese as they entered. They heard no response. After looking into several empty rooms, they found Shu on a cot in his room.
"Come in," he said in a feeble voice. Abby pushed past Jackie to see if she could help him. His head was hot and his lips parched. She looked around for water and saw Dr. Wu.
He was sitting slumped over at a table next to the door (behind it as they walked in). Jackie had walked over to him. He looked back to Abby and shook his head.
"Hassan..." Shu tried to sit up.
"Sh, we'll take you to the clinic and try to help you." she knelt beside the bed.
"No!" The effort cost him. He fell back and coughed. He grabbed Abby's hand. "No, don't take me in there. I will not live after today anyway. Listen, but then leave me.
"I have not felt well all week. Last night I felt worse and called Dr. Wu. It was quite late, but he came. He too has been sick, but he never stopped to rest. He was fixing some herbs for me. He never got up. I guess I dozed off.
"This morning the other guards came in all excited. They found Commander Mo dead in his office. They wanted to know what to do. Then they saw Dr. Wu, dead, and me, too sick to move. They panicked. They took the trucks and left." He paused, breathing hard..
"Hassan, Chan, it is very bad here. In the barracks many men are ill. Some there have died. I don't know what to do. There are no guards. There are no doctors...dangerous people....sick people...." He trailed off into Chinese and became silent.
Jackie handed Abby a bowl of water from the table where Wu sat. She took a cloth from the bedside table, wet it and wiped Shu's face. He gave a half smile in thanks and closed his eyes and slept. She rose and they left the room and the building.
"We could leave," Jackie said as they walked over to the barracks.
"Maybe you could leave, but I think I'd be shot on sight, being an American. Despite all this, I think I'm safer here. Where will you go?"
"I'm not going."
"But you said..."
"I said we could leave, not that I would."
"These are not your people. They put you in prison here and treated you badly. But you have taken care of them as if they were your own. And I don't believe being shot is the only reason you don't go. You still want to help as much as you can. You are the only comfort many of these men will have. How can I leave if you are doing all that?"
At the barracks Jackie told the situation and asked for volunteers to help bury the dead and tend the sick. There were a few. Others took the opportunity to run away. Many simply remained on their mats, to ill to care.
Abby and the ten or so volunteers looked to Jackie for leadership. He grimly took charge. He assigned the volunteers to dig graves out beyond the fields. When they were dug, he helped them bury Commander Mo, Dr. Wu and those patients who had died.
Shu was buried the following day with the patients and prisoners who had died in the preceding twenty four hours.
Abby made reports for Shu and Mo and the prisoners. For Shu and Mo she guessed from what Shu had told them that morning. She questioned the men helping them to help her fill in as much information as possible about the dead prisoners. Jackie helped with the reports when they went to feed and tend the sick in the barracks. There was no more room in the clinic.
For one sick prisoner she didn't need his help. At first John had tried to act as if he weren't sick, just taking advantage of not having to work and not running for the same reason she gave. But Abby could see the fever in his face and she pressed until he told her the details.
The men helped with the patients as much as they could be forced to, but they feared getting close and getting sick themselves. Jackie had them do the routine things around the camp, such as the cooking and the laundry.
Abby tended the ill as best she could. She offered food and water, wet cloths, and gave herbs and medications according to what Dr. Wu had already written for them. She held their hands as they talked. Jackie was the only other one who would sit with them as Abby did and try to comfort them as they died. He also talked to them, speaking softly, giving them something Abby couldn't.
Every morning they awoke before they had rested enough. They worked steadily through the day. Every night Abby would note in the reports who had died and then fall asleep with the same prayer. "God, please don't let Jackie get sick."
For a few weeks after Mo and Shu had died, patients kept coming. Some came in the trucks as before. Sometimes a few came on their own, or were brought by family members who had heard about the clinic.
Occasionally someone felt well enough to go home. The few who left this way gave Abby hope. None of the prisoners helping them became ill. This also gave her hope.
Then no new patients arrived. Abby was grateful, but wondered about it. How did they finally know there was no one to take care of them here?
"They are not getting reports from here any more. No one calls on the phone to them. No one here answers the phone."
"But wouldn't that automatically make them send someone to check it out?"
Dae-jung's eyes went wide and innocently questioning. "You miss being a prisoner instead of in charge?"
Abby relaxed and let half a smile show. "No!" She got serious again. "You know what I mean."
Dae-jung's shoulders drooped. His eyelids half closed. His smile became a frown. He studied the floor a moment, then looked Abby in the eye.
"Abby, how many of our patients are soldiers?" He waited a moment. "We have not had any soldiers in a while. All civilians. They tell me things. This sickness is in a lot of places, sometimes where there has been no fighting at all. I think...maybe it is too big to worry about a place like this. They must know what it was like here. No more reports means to them that everyone is dead, or will be. Until they get this sickness under control, they have no time to worry about a few possible survivors."
It was Abby's turn to study the floor. "You don't think maybe people are finally getting better, that they don't need to come to a hospital any more?"
Jackie took her chin in his hand and raised her face to meet her eyes again. Sorrow and fatigue were etched in her face.
"It could be. I don't know. I hope so, but..."
He put his arms around her and pulled her close. She stood there accepting his embrace, but not returning it. She wanted to cry, but there were no tears.
Gradually the patients in the barracks were able to come to the clinic. Then the clinic became less crowded. Abby had more time for the patients. She would go to each one and wipe their faces with cool cloths, give them more covers or do whatever she could to make them feel more comfortable. Most of them didn't speak English any more than she spoke Chinese. Her chatter about inanities such as the weather and any positive details Jackie had told her about them was all she had to offer them. Once in a while it was clear that a patient didn't want her around. She would quietly leave those patients to themselves. Some patients gave her wan smiles indicating they understood her intent, that she wanted to be there for them even if what she could actually do was limited.
"Hey, Honey, now I know how to get you interested!"
"What do you mean?"
"This is the most attention you've ever given me. I should have gotten sick on the first night."
"Oh, John! I don't understand you This is nothing to joke about. I'm caring for you because you're another human being. Beyond that nothing about you attracts me.."
"Nothing at all?"
Abby thought a moment. "Yeah. One thing. The fact that you have not let being sick change you. You're still the same obnoxious boor you were the first time I saw you in Beijing."
"Guess I'll accept that. Come sit down here, Honey. You look pretty beat, yourself. That Chinaman isn't wearing you out, is he?"
John tried to laugh his former robust laugh at his innuendo and ended up with a coughing fit. After helping him to calm down, Abby accepted his offer. She was tired and grateful for a chance to sit for a while. John's voice droned in the background as Abby sat staring blankly in his direction.
"Abigail, you are working too hard. Sit here and rest. Do you get enough sleep?"
Abby smiled at his concern. "I'll sit, but it is for the pleasure of your company, Weimin, although I would rather you hurry up and get well so you could help us. These patients could use another nurse who speaks their language."
She sat and dabbed his lips and face with her cool, wet cloth. He seemed so frail against the pillow. His cheeks were hollow, his eyes small, dark and deep. She wondered that he had once both frightened and attracted her.
"Whether I get well or not, it doesn't matter. You are a comfort to many of the men here even without speaking Chinese. Besides, if I get well, I'll have to take over and run this place. You know, rank and all that. I'd rather rest right now. You didn't answer me. Do you get enough sleep?"
No, she didn't really wonder that he had attracted her. Underneath the self importance and uncertainty of a man given power too suddenly, she had seen glimpses of the real Weiman. Perhaps even during his first speech at the women's camp.
"I get as much as I can. I'd like more, but I've gotten by on less."
Abby smiled and listened as he launched into a recounting of his experiences in the US as a college student.
Morning always came much too early. As usual, Jackie was up and dressed before her.
"Come on, sleepyhead, time to get going."
"Nnnnnn," Abby moaned as she pushed her face up from her pillow. She held that position a moment and then turned to sit on the edge of the cot, elbows on knees, face in hands. Jackie was talking about something. 'It's too early to focus,' she thought.
"...so I think if you could sign it, too, it might help them when things finally return to something like normal. Abby! Abby, wake up. You didn't hear what I said, did you?"
"Yeah, something about things getting back to normal, whatever that is."
Abby pushed herself up off the cot.
"Abby. Abby." Dae-jung's voice had a slight tremor to it. He held his arms tightly around her. She looked at him, confused. There were tears on his cheeks. He sat on the cot, pulling her back down with him.
"Jackie, what's wrong?"
"You fainted." He looked at her with concern. "I think you should rest today. Stay here. You need more sleep."
Abby stood up. The room swayed a bit, but she was resolute. "Nonsense. I just got up too quickly. You know I'm not worth anything in the morning, that I don't get my energy until almost noon. I just need to eat. C'mon. Let's get going."
Abby headed out to the washroom. She was grateful for the bookshelves as she went. Jackie stood and watched her, then followed to the door.
She turned to face him. He knew. For a moment she said nothing. Then,
"I have to keep going. I'll be okay. If I go back to my cot and stay there all day, I'll never get up. I'll never leave. I have a reason to get up, a purpose out there." She indicated the wards. "It's what keeps me going. Has kept me going all these months. Don't take that away from me."
"Abby, how long..."
"Never mind how..."
A loud crash interrupted them. Jackie gave her another intense look of concern and then went out to see what the problem was. Abby went into the washroom. She leaned over the washbowl and scooped cool water over her face. Breathing deeply she set about changing into a fresh T-shirt and jeans. She walked out to the ward.
Jackie stood just out of reach next to John's cot.
"No! No! No!" John shouted.
Abby was surprised at the power in his voice.
"I don't know, " Jackie replied. "He knocked over the chair. That's what we heard. He is upset about something, but I don't think it's here. His eyes look far away. I think he's dreaming. He punched me! I didn't think he could still be so strong."
John started yelling again, but Abby didn't understand. Dae-jung's eyes went wide. After a moment he looked for and then grabbed a cloth and went over and stuffed it into John's mouth. John struggled to continue his rant.
Abby's eyes went wide at this. "Jackie!" She rushed over to John and pulled the cloth away, but it had done it's job and John was now silent. Comprehension had returned to his eyes.
"Hey, Honey! How do I rate this morning to get your attention so early?" His voice was weak and raspy.
"You were having a bad dream. We had to wake you up before everyone else became so upset they would go to some other place to get their rest."
Abby sat on the chair Jackie had righted. She looked up at Jackie with questions in her eyes. His held only anger. He turned away and went out to get breakfast for the patients who would eat.
"What's with him?"
"You said something in Chinese. He apparently didn't like it."
John stared at her with haunted eyes for a moment, then made a feeble attempt at a laugh. "I guess I got the words mixed up again, whatever it was. Tricky language. You gonna sit here a bit?"
"I think I might. "Til things are calm again anyway."
Two hours later Jackie looked over to see Abby resting her head in her arms against the side of John's cot. He went over to her and saw that she was sleeping. John's eyes stared unseeing at the ceiling.
Jackie picked up Abby and started to carry her to their room.
"Put me down."
"You need to rest."
"Put me down, please. I know what I can and can't do. Let it go." She looked down at John. "I'm okay, just very, very tired."
"Don't argue with me about it. Please, Jackie."
He put her down. She started toward John, but Jackie held her back.
"I will take care of him. Go spend time with the living if you must be out here."
She nodded with relief and reluctantly left the comfort of his arms.
The rest of the day was uneventful. She spent time with each of the patients, sitting beside their cots chatting and listening.
At dinner she asked what John had said in Chinese that had upset Jackie so much.
"Not much different than he has said so many times before. He did not think much of Chinese people."
"Then why did you get so upset?"
"Before he always said it in English. Everyone knows what he means, but do not understand the words. Today he said it in Chinese and everyone could understand. He speaks Chinese very well. He knows the worst insults."
"He said all Chinese should die. He was...You don't want to hear, Abby."
"I can guess. He was glad about this sickness, even if it meant his death. He was an ass, Jackie, remember? I knew that."
Abby insisted on checking each patient as usual that night, before going to bed herself. She made sure that everyone's water cup was filled and a damp cloth was at hand, should they need them during the night.
"Abigail, can you sit a couple of minutes before you go?"
"Of course, Weimin. Do you need anything?"
"Just you to be here."
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Then Liang spoke.
"You know, I loved you when I first saw you."
"I know that now. I'm sorry I didn't know it then. I was frightened by the situation and by my own reaction to you. All I could think of was that it is war and I can't trust the enemy. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. You were right. I loved you, but I would have used you if I thought you could help us win this war. Then I didn't understand, but I wanted you and I used my power to hurt you when you refused."
"It turned out for the good. I was safer here."
"How safe are you here? But I meant for you to be destroyed, not to be safe."
"You were angry and hurt. Under the anger and hurt, it was not what you wanted and God honored what was underneath."
"I was right, you know."
"Your understanding. Your grace. Your calm. Your knowledge."
"Thank you. But I was wrong, then."
"No. You knew. Underneath. If you didn't, you would still hate me."
"I don't hate you."
Weimin smiled and closed his eyes. Abby held back her tears until she was sure he was no longer breathing.
End of war
Abby woke up on her own cot. Daylight filled the room. She looked around without getting up. Beside the cot a table had been added. On it was a pitcher of water, a glass, a basin and a cloth. Jackie sat reading, cross-legged on his cot against the opposite wall, papers spread out around him.
"What time is it? Why didn't you make sure I got up?"
He raised his eyes to look at her. "There was no point." He coolly returned to his reading.
Abby had felt too warm until then.
"What do you mean?"
She saw the fire in his eyes as he jumped up and off his cot toward her, waving the papers he held.
"I mean these!! You never said anything! For two months, you never said anything!!"
Abby closed her eyes. She wanted to sleep. His yelling hurt her head.
She felt the cool cloth on her forehead and opened her eyes. That old sorrow was back in his eyes. The look she had seen when they hauled dirt.
"What? What are those?" she asked, indicating the papers.
"When Liang died, I found you asleep in the chair next to him and brought you here. Do you know when that was?"
"No, last week." He waited to see how the information affected her.
"No, it had to be last night. There's nothing in between. I fell asleep after he died and now I woke up."
"You have been delirious. Sleeping, crying. You have a fever."
He stopped and lips pursed, eyes tightly closed, took deep breaths. Then he continued.
"I knew it was important to keep the records. I have been doing it in Chinese and I know you kept them in English. Since you couldn't write on Liang's report, I went to do it for you. I had to look through the papers to find it and I found these."
He held the papers in her face a minute and then threw them back over to his cot.
"Those papers have your name on them! You told Dr. Wu, but not me! You have been sick for two months and never said anything to me.
"Why, Abby? I thought ... I don't know what I thought. Why didn't you tell me? Didn't you think I would notice when you got this sick? Did you think you could keep working 'til you...'til you dropped dead?"
He pressed his eyes and lips shut again.
"No. I hoped I wouldn't get this sick. Jackie, you've kept the records. Have you read them?"
"What do you mean?"
"Have you read them, one after the other, seen the symptoms and the results?"
"Yes." He sounded uncertain, not knowing exactly what she wanted him to see.
"I'm not trained in any medical field but I wanted to help and since Dr. Wu asked us to keep the records, I tried to see the common points. I couldn't see any. I asked Dr. Wu. At first he didn't either. Then he saw something. Jackie, the most common thing was the variety. Wu said one person would get a disease and it would be diagnosed. Someone else got something else. They should have gotten better most of the time, but then they would develop a whole new set of symptoms. Before they died some people had developed as many as five sets of symptoms. It took time to separate and diagnose them all. Sometimes more time than the patients had. Those who got well, seldom had more than one or two sets of symptoms.
"I didn't tell you because I didn't want to believe it would happen that way with me. Nothing seemed to be that serious. I had headaches, more than normal stomach aches. Nothing constant. I was tired, but who wouldn't be? Who wasn't? I tried to take things easier, but then Mo and Shu and Dr. Wu all died. Dr. Wu had given me some herbs and they helped. He told me a few other things I could take for specific symptoms, if I needed them. I didn't have many concrete symptoms. Everything helped when I needed it. But I wasn't the only one who needed them and we ran out of so many things...so many..."
Abby started to shiver. What little energy she'd wakened with was gone. Jackie held her head up so she could take a sip if water. He wiped her face with a dry cloth and pulled her blankets up under her chin.
"Sleep, Abby. I will be here." He caressed her face with his fingertips and kissed her forehead.
Abby drifted back and forth from short periods of wakefulness to sleep. When she slept, Jackie went out to check on the men who were watching over the patients.
When she had first become delirious he had ordered them, under threat of violence, to help him with patients. They did the minimum needed -- passing out food, mainly. Jackie would check each patient at least twice a day. Never more than two days seemed to pass without needing to wrap a body so that the others would help him carry it out to the graveyard behind the barracks. The burden got heavier as the work got lighter.
Now he spent the greater portion of his days with Abby. He tried to get her to drink broth he kept on the hot plate in the former lab. He gave her water. Sometimes she would talk. She told him more about herself. She asked him about himself. He told her stories of his life, the one that ended so long ago when this war had started.
When she was awake, he tried to put on a cheerful face. He smiled for her. He brought in flowers. He told her she was getting a little better. When she slept, he let his tears fall. He wondered if anyone would leave this camp. He knew he felt fine now, but would he stay well?
It didn't matter. Abby wasn't getting better. She wouldn't eat and barely took any broth. He had no herbs or medicines to give her and wouldn't know which ones or how much if he did have them. He watched day after day as her eyes became darker and deeper and her cheeks more hollow. Her skin seemed almost transparent at times and papery at others. He was losing her and he was as helpless as he had been when he lost Dong-moon.
One morning he heard trucks arrive.
"Hello? Anyone here?"
"Hey, Bill! Looks like we have a hospital in here. Better call the medics. Tell them there are twelve people here."
Shirtless, Jackie ran into the ward and came to an abrupt halt as he faced four rifles all aimed at him.
"No! No! I am not the enemy. I just help the patients. See? No weapons"
Hands held high, he slowly turned around. The others cautiously lowered their rifles.
"Okay. Are you a doctor?"
"No. I was a prisoner, but now I just try to help sick people here. You have a doctor with you?"
"No, just some guys with some emergency medical training. They'll look at these men and we'll notify your authorities that they're here. There have been a lot of sick folks, though. I don't know when the doctors will come."
"There is another patient, very sick, you have to take to a real hospital."
The medics came in. "Sorry, but we can't take anyone with us. We're just trying to help the Chinese officials cope with the decimation of this sickness."
"You are working with the Chinese? You are American! War is over?"
"Yeah, a couple of months ago. You're out of touch out here, aren't you?"
"Yes. You must take the other pat..."
"Like I said, we can't take anyone anywhere."
"But she is American!"
"American? She? How'd an American woman get out here? I thought all the Americans in China who hadn't died were gone home. Take me to her."
Jackie led the medic to the room at the back where Abby lay sleeping fitfully. The medic took in the room.
"Why is she in a storage room instead of the ward?"
"Everyone else here was men. This was to keep her safe."
He eyed Jackie as he knelt down beside Abby's cot. "She needed two beds to sleep on?"
"I am taking care of her. I'm her protector here."
"Oh, you protected her," he said sarcastically as he checked Abby.
"Yes!" Jackie retorted angrily. "I protected her against the men who would hurt and dishonor her." His anger melted. "But how could I protect her again this sickness? I am not a doctor."
The medic stood up and rested his hand on Dae-jung's shoulder.
"It's okay, man. Even the doctors weren't able to help many with this sickness. Do you have some proof of her identity? We're not supposed to take anyone except American soldiers, but she's pretty sick and if she's an American, she can go home with the next batch of soldiers."
Jackie reached under the cot and pulled out Abby's suitcase. There was little in it and he found her passport tucked away in her journal. He gave it to the medic.
The medic glanced at it. "Okay. Get her things together while we check out the other patients and call for someone to come help you with them."
He gave Jackie a friendly slap on the back as he left the storage room.
Everything she owned was the clothes on her back and what was already in the suitcase. Jackie looked around the room and rested his eyes on the pile of paper beside his cot. He went to them and gathered them together neatly. He pulled out one of Abby's T-shirts and put the papers inside it and replaced it in the suitcase.
Abby watched him. "Why?" she whispered.
"If they stay here, I think they might be destroyed. Maybe they will go through with you without a problem. When you are in a hospital in America your doctors will see them. Maybe they will be important, helpful somehow."
"I'm going home now?"
Jackie knelt beside her. He brushed the hair off her forehead, caressing her face as he spoke softly.
"Yes. War is over and American soldiers are here to take you away. Doctors will come to help with the others. Rest, Abby. Get well."
About noon the next day the soldiers carried Abby on a litter to the waiting truck.
"She'll go to the US and a hospital right away? Someone will take care of her on the way?"
"We have a small air base near here and she'll be flown to Hong Kong from there. I think they'll probably check her out there and then she'll be flown to Hawaii and then on to LA. Mr. Chan, she's very, very sick. I don't want to give you false hope. She might not make it."
"You are not a doctor! You don't know."
"That's true. I hope I'm wrong, but like I said, I don't want to give false hope. We'll do what we can, but it may be too late."
"You just do everything you can. Don't give up on her."
Jackie went to the back of the truck where they had just finished strapping Abby in. He called out sternly.
"Hassan! This war won't be over until you get better."
Abby smiled. "Okay. Don't get sick, Jackie. I'll let you know when it's over. Wo ai ni."
Jackie smiled and kissed her forehead. "I love you, too."
Tears flowed down his cheeks as he watched the truck take Abby away to the air base.
After the War
"Superstar Jackie Chan has returned to America to begin filming
his new movie. US fans have been waiting for this visit since the end
of the China-US war. Chan disappeared about six months before the
war and returned to Hong Kong several months after the end of
the war. There have been rumors of his having been imprisoned for
murder, but these have not been confirmed. Whatever the reason,
arms. His last movie was released for the Chinese New Year,
following his usual custom. It became the number one box office hit
there and all over Asia. Americans will get to see this movie when it
opens in theaters here next week.
"We caught up with Chan and asked him how he thought the film
would do here in the US.
"JC: 'It's an Asian film. We have a different sense of humor
sometimes. I don't know how much it will translate for
Americans, but I think it's a good movie.'
"ET: 'I understand that it quite funny, more comedy than action. Is
"JC: 'Yes, that's true. After the war we need to have something to
make us smile again. I want to do more drama, but the time was not
right last summer. This movie I'm doing now is not so funny.'
"ET: 'But what about the action?'
"JC: 'It has action...'"
Jackie flicked the television off and threw down the remote. He'd been polite for the interview. That was enough.
"Action, action, action! Of course, the film is action. That's what I do. I make the best film I can, but that's all they care about!"
"You are in a snit tonight, aren't you?" Willie commented. "You should be happy they didn't go off on the murder rumor. Those who have, are being quite creative."
"Yes. I know. 'Sima Jackie killed his wife and her lover during the war!' As if the Chinese authorities would have let me go if I had done that. Then there are those who say I was off spying! Sometimes reporters can be so stupid."
"It sells. That's all they care about. Your fans know better. You'd better get some rest tonight. You have a busy schedule tomorrow."
"Aarrgh! I hate PR!!"
All the next day, between calls on the set, Jackie did interviews. For those that were taped, he gave his brightest smile. As he answered the same questions over and over, he thought to himself 'This is for all the fans who welcomed me back with so much love.' Every now and then one of the reporters would ask about the war, but the questions stayed strictly along the lines of the rumors. At those questions, even the smile disappeared. The most he said was "I don't want to talk about that." Then it was back to questions about the movie being released and the one he was making.
Several days after most of the interviews had aired or printed, Jackie was having dinner in a favorite celebrity restaurant. He appreciated that even when fans saw him they usually just smiled or waved and let him eat his meal in relative peace. He was alone. Everyone on the set had expected it to be a long shoot that day, but they had finished by eight and he had no plans after eating. He didn't like it and he sat thinking of how to fill the rest of the evening.
He was approached by a few fans who saw he was no longer eating and he happily signed autographs for them. One man lingered after the others left.
"You want my autograph?"
"No, I have it already. Mr. Chan, may I talk to you?"
Jackie thought a moment. He hadn't figured out what he'd do for the evening. He shrugged and looked at the man, then indicated a chair at his table.
"Sure. Sit down. What's your name? What do you want to talk about? You want to be in the movies?"
He sat down. "I'm David Langer."
Jackie looked at him more closely. He had a beard and his hair covered his ears, but... Recognition lit his eyes. "Yes! I remember you. You were one of the soldiers who was in China after the war. You came when I thought we would never see anyone alive again. You look different. More hair." He smiled.
David smiled quickly and became serious again.
"Mr. Chan, I've seen a lot of interviews you've done since you got back into the limelight. I was wondering why you've never told anyone about your experiences during the war. Why you refuse to answer their questions."
Jackie stiffened, but then thought 'He was there. He saw.' He looked him in the eye and thought a moment before answering.
"At first it was too hard. I didn't even want to remember everything. Now, they don't want to listen. They want to make me an action hero during the war. Here they say 'You must have kicked butt during the war.' Or 'Were you doing spy work?' What kind of questions are these? I wasn't an action hero. I didn't kick butt. Mostly, if I fought, I lost. Kung fu isn't much good against guns, except in movies. I wasn't a spy! Who I'm going to spy against? I'm Chinese. I'm not going to betray my people. My son is American and I work here. I like America. I'm not going to do anything against America either. I want to be an action hero in my movies, but this war was not the movies! War looks bad in the movies, but it's worse in real life. In the movies you get to go home at night. In the movies the dead people get up when their scene is over. I was not in the fighting with soldiers, but I saw a lot of death, too much. What I would have to say is not like my movies. There is no happy ending, no comedy. It wasn't the drama the gossip papers talk about, but no one wants to hear what I have to say about this war."
David listened and nodded.
"That's why you have to speak up. I think your being silent about it makes them think their version is the right one. So many people in China, not only the Chinese people died during this war and just after. The west coast of the US had an unusually high death rate during the war and for several months afterward. This is a war where there was very little actual fighting! So many people died because they got sick. You saw that. You know it better than I do. Did you ever wonder why so many people were dying of illnesses?"
"Yes. Every day for a while. But then I knew near the end. One patient we had gave it away. I don't know. Maybe not. He always talked big, thought he was important. I hoped he was just bragging."
"Tell me about it, Mr. Chan. Too many people are intentionally keeping quiet. Let me record your story so people will know what happened. If they don't learn the truth, it could happen all over again."
Something about David Langer's intense interest broke down the wall Jackie had built around the war.
"...Then you guys showed up. You sent Hassan to a hospital and called for medicines and workers. Finally people started to get well. Only one of the twelve men died. No one else got sick there."
"Jackie, how is it that you are a free man? You were apparently there by legal process of Chinese law."
"Yes. I stayed and new guards and a warden came to the prison. The other prisoners who had not run away after the guards were there also. We weren't locked up. We were still working, helping. I didn't much care, then, where I was. After the patients were well enough to leave, the warden called me in to see him. He showed me a report that Shu had kept. It wasn't very good in the beginning. I was still very angry about everything that led me to that prison. But after the clinic was built and patients started to come, he wrote only good things about me. The warden read this. He also pointed out that I hadn't run away after the guards did. In China prison is for rehabilitation. He said I had proved I was rehabilitated. Then he added that General To was actually part of the 'Other Problem' and I had unnecessarily suffered at his hands. He signed the papers and I was free. I didn't question it. I went to Hong Kong."
"Will you attend our memorial? Having someone like you there will draw others and people will hear."
"What is this memorial?"
"Basically it will be a brief summary of the spread of disease during the war. But to bring it home, survivors will be reading list of names of those who didn't survive, both American and Chinese. Pictures will be shown as we read."
"Yeah. I got sick at the very beginning. I was lucky. They sent me home and doctors caught things before they became lethal. I figured out what was happening. That's why I went back. I didn't know what I could do, but I had to see how bad things were and do what I could."
"I'll be there."
"Did you ever talk to Hassan again?
"I never heard from her. I believe she died."
"What do you mean, they don't have them? I gave those reports to the doctor who came. He should have them. Aaaahhh!"
Jackie slammed the phone down.
"What is it? Why didn't you let me talk to them? Maybe I could have done something."
"No. They lost any papers I gave them. It's what you said, David. I think. Some people don't want to let the truth out."
"Well, we have a lot of lists from various sources. It's pretty clear an awful lot of people died of illnesses. We can manage without them."
"No! We can't! Don't the people I saw die have as much right to be remembered as the others? This is the memorial, not just for proof to get people's attention."
"Well, our agents in China will keep trying to find your papers, but in the meantime make as much of a list from memory as you can. A lot of people asked to read lists made from memory. They might not have the legal clout, but like you say, this is the memorial. We'll need your list a week before the memorial, if not sooner."
"Why is that?"
"We need to make sure we aren't repeating the same people, for the legal points. it's no problem otherwise. If we repeat, the powers behind this whole devastation and cover-up will make sure to point out the duplication and they'll imply it's much, much more that it actually is, that we've padded the numbers. The Center is keeping records and cross checking every name, here and in China."
Jackie sat at the desk in his suite. The sun was setting on the ocean in front of him. The day had not gone well. First he had received the news that the reports he had kept for Dr. Wu had been lost. Lost! He shook his head.
The rest of the day was colored by that news. He kept trying to remember. He noticed everyone avoided him. If they said anything to him he snapped back at them. Any little error or problem on the set elicited a yell or sharp complaint. He could see it happening, but felt helpless to stop it. "I'm sorry, was a phrase he used frequently that day. Fortunately it seemed to be enough. People seemed to understand. After apologizing, invariably he'd get a "No problem!" often with a hearty pat on the back.
He stared into the red and gold clouds swirling over the ocean at the horizon. Such good friends and coworkers!
He looked down at the blank paper in front of him. He'd never thought to commit the names to memory. So many people died in the clinic. He remembered less than ten names. He squeezed his eyes shut as if the pressure would make the names pop back into his memory.
He had avoided getting to know the patients too well. He tried to be kind and would chat, but he stayed distant. Abby had healed him of the disease that had eaten at his heart, but he hadn't thought he could bear any more death. After they had died, he wanted to forget them. Not because he didn't care, but because he was tired of the pain. Not Abby. She had let each one into her heart. He didn't understand how she bore the pain of all those deaths. Each patient had meant something to her.
"Abby," he whispered. "I still can't remember their names."
He looked out the window again. Then, sighing deeply, he wrote something on the paper. He closed his eyes again.
Willie returned to the suite after midnight. He found Jackie still at the desk by the window, snoring lightly, his head resting in his arms.
"Jackie, " he called softly. "Get up and go to bed!"
Slowly Jackie became aware of his surroundings.
"Go to bed. You'll feel pretty awful if you keep sleeping there."
"Yeah." He got up and stretched. "Good night."
As Jackie walked off to his bedroom, Willie glanced at the paper still on the desk. It was a list of names. 'Abby Hassan' over and over, covering the paper.
Finally the time for remembering had arrived. It had been a difficult year of keeping quiet. Any mention of those who had died had brought looks of doubt. Those who hadn't been involved, hadn't seen it first hand, believed that every one who spoke of the illnesses was exaggerating how many died. It was beyond their comprehension.
First they would remember in Los Angeles. A week later, they would remember in Beijing.
The morning of the memorial service was a gloriously sunny spring Sunday. People filed into the Coliseum. They had come from all over, not only China and the US. Amnesty International was the parent group of the Center. The world was watching this morning.
After the preliminaries David Langer spoke.
"I'm here because I'm one of the few lucky ones. As soon as I became ill I was sent home. Doctors quickly managed to discover what was wrong with me. My illness was treatable. Along the coast here in the US, many were also lucky. Some here weren't. Throughout China most weren't.
"This morning two countries should hold their heads down in disgrace. Although neither government sanctioned it, they both somehow allowed agents to slip through the safety checks they should have had. Those agents caused these illnesses, not using fancy military weapons, but simply by introducing the pathogens to populated areas. We don't know the details. Perhaps agents on one side did this in retaliation. Perhaps they just got the idea at nearly the same time. Those details don't matter.
"Armies killing each other in war is bad enough, certainly something we should have given up many years ago, but those soldiers going into battle know they might die. The populated areas where these pathogens were released were much more than military bases. Many civilians who thought they were being protected by their military died as surely as the soldiers.
"We're grateful our countries have reached a peaceful accord and are working together. Our purpose today is not to point fingers, not to lay blame. We ask only two things of our governments this morning. First, remember those who died. Acknowledge them. And second, do what it takes to make sure a travesty such as this never happens again. We are here this morning specifically to remember the dead. We invite all those delegates from around the world to join in preventing this from happening again.
One by one, people walked up to the podium. Some told of their experiences during the war and how they had come to know or care for the dead on their lists. Some, often with tears and great difficulty, read names of family members. Many names, particularly Chinese names, were read by members of the Center. As names were said, a picture appeared on the screen above the speaker's head. For those who had no photograph, it was a picture of their national flag.
Jackie had asked not to be introduced. He was just one of the many people who spoke that morning. He walked up to the podium in silence, as the others had. The interview he gave David had aired and many of the mourners knew his story. He briefly recapped for them.
"I worked in a prison clinic during the war. From October until the Americans came to us in the spring, April, we had many sick. At first they were soldiers, but as more and more arrived there were fewer soldiers and more civilians. We had only two doctors ... an American woman, Abigail Hassan... and me to help these patients. We had few medicines. the sick kept coming to our small clinic."
He hung his head. "I don't remember all their names. There were so many and I tried to block death out. I have remembered some of them."
He pulled his list out of his pocket and placed it on the lectern.
From behind him, Abby walked up to the podium with a thick binder which she placed over his list. Taking a deep breath, she opened it. It contained her reports. She spoke loudly and clearly, taking care to pronounce the first name as correctly as she was able.
She turned to the wide eyed Jackie and indicated for him to read the name on the next page. After a moment he did so.
They continued to read alternately, creating a steady rhythm.
When they had finished they had spoken one hundred seven names. Almost as many faces had appeared above them.
Others came up to read their lists.
He stared out from his mountainside, a guardian to those who traveled the rivers below. Abby looked up at him across the river, thinking of the serenity he seemed to represent.
Jackie stood beside her.
"Can you imagine all he's seen in his twelve hundred years?" she asked him.
"Yes, and it's a good thing he's made of stone, even if he does have trees growing out of his chest."
"That's how he prevails. The stone makes him strong. The trees show he's still alive."
He tightened his hold around her waist.
"That means we must to stay together."
She pulled away and turned to face him with a puzzled look.
"What do you mean?"
He held her face gently in his hands and answered softly.
"I am the stone. You are the tree. You are growing out of my heart. We have to stay together to prevail."
Abby knew again what happiness felt like.
* "Red Sun"
** "Laugh With You, Cry With You"
*** "I Would Start to Say But Never Could"
*In the memory section all the dialog is in Cantonese, Taiwanese, or Mandarin, depending on the place and who is talking.