Tuesday, January 20, 2009

8. The River

Photo Source: travelblog.org

We have reached the finish, Kinsayok work camp. The road at last has come to an end, a road of ten days walk, starting with 900 men and leaving 500-odd standing on their feet. Andre and I are among the fortunate ones, but my luck did not last long. Yesterday I came down with dysentery.

As one should, I reported this to my section commander and was promptly whisked off to the dysentery compound of Kinsayok, where I am now. One side of it borders the river, the other sides are fenced off by a wall of bamboo from the "healthier" parts of the camp. At the entrance to the compound a friendly jester has painted a skull and crossbones, in case anyone should think too lightly about it. As usual, there are no medicines to combat the disease and no beds are available. We lie on our groundsheets on the naked earth, in a canvas tent with about a dozen others, which makes the situation rather crowded. Should it rain and water come streaming in, well, that would be just too bad. Prisoner-orderlies keep off ants and spiders as much as possible, dish out the twice-daily rice porridge and lay us out on a litter, should our number pop up. There is the Doc or minister or priest, but no Japs to be seen, possessed as they are with a holy terror of the disease. The compound is the home ground of the filthy death; it is indeed the ultimate low in squalor and wretchedness. A doom-laden place redolent with the terrifying, unhurried certainty of death.

Five days have passed, five terrible days. Never before have I been so close, side by side literally, with the thing called Death. Just a minute ago it was right there in front of me. This morning it had come within ten inches from where I lie. Soon after death has come, a putrid and vaguely sweet smell emanates, like that which came, long ago, from the soggy flower stems, brown-green and rotten, when they were pulled out of the pond in the garden. Flies pounce in the hundreds to crawl and swarm over the eyes, open or closed, the nostrils and the mouth - entering the mouth when it was opened, which was the most dreadful thing to watch. This thing, death, this last snap, renders me humble and terrified at the same time because it is so absolutely final, the end. Here in the dysentery sector it usually comes stealthily, unnoticed for a time. The empty, drained husk has no more fight left to struggle or offer even a little resistance. Minister and priest, each in his own way, can do no more than comfort and prepare him for the grave. They kneel beside their men, whisper to them, read from The Book, but most of the time their patients do not listen anymore, having reached the state of extreme exhaustion taking them beyond the realm of worry or anxiety.

Map of Kinsayok POW camp
Image Source: http://www.britain-at-war.org.uk

Though very weak since arriving at this camp, I still manage to find the will to eat, to devour anything at all I can lay my hand on. The doctor says that it is a good sign when I have enough pluck left to try to fight the disease, which is in fact the only way to get well in our conditions. His advice is, make the best possible effort to keep your food inside for a reasonable time, and you've got it beat. And that is just what I am going to do. I'm not going to be felled by some lousy dysentery after surviving that long walk!

About a week has passed. The sullen pain in the abdomen is gone. Every morning at dawn Andre has come with greens and fruit. At first it seemed hopeless; the food would not stay inside long enough to be digested. But I tried again and again, and learned not to take too much at one meal, but to nibble a little, many times. That seemed to do the trick. Slowly but steadily my strength is seeping back.

My place in the tent is at the entrance, next to an Australian who I call Neighbour. He's never told me his real name. So what? What's a name in the condition we are in? Andre always brings more than needed for one day's nourishment, and the fruits and vegetables are of course shared with Neighbour. Often he makes out like he does not want the food, but it is obvious he has reached the state where he wants it badly. I slip the food beneath his blanket so that the other occupants will not notice. There isn't enough for all. It feels good to help an Aussie, in return for the friendship they gave, back in Changi. He is still full of life, a cause for wonder considering what little meat he has on his bones, and he is quick to smile, particularly with his eyes, large and deeply set in a drawn-out face.

Drawing by Jack Chalker
Image Source: British Medical Journal (October 5, 1946)

Here time is lost. Nobody gives a damn. As far as we are concerned the day is divisible into three parts: when the flies start to come, when they are at their worst and when the bastards disappear. Dawn is when the orderlies come to take the dead out, to lay them in rows outside the tents for the tally officer's check. Men who died during the night, unnoticed, passing away beside sleeping inmates. Most of them appear to have died quietly, even with a certain amount of dignity. Unfortunately there are some for whom death did not come easily. They are found with a cavernous mouth open in a soundless shriek, others with a clawing hand frozen in a last groping for help. The dead are buried as quickly as possible, but never fast enough to prevent the flies from settling in clusters on the head-end of the burlap-covered corpses. Later these flies will land on our faces, hands and food.

Midday is when the doctor takes our pulses, talks to us a moment, or declares us dead. What else can he do without any medicines? As regards declaring someone dead, that can be done by anybody. Just watch the flies. If they all alight on one man, you can be sure the chap has cashed in. Simple, and always true. After the doctor has gone the clergy take over to care for their flock, dead or alive. Differences in denominations have ceased to exist. Hope and solace are offered to anyone who cares to listen, to believe, if he is still able to. I call them "men of God", who seem to recover with us, to suffer and die with us, time after time.

Night. That is when the pigeons stop their cooing in the treetops and all the flies have gone. But now it is the mosquitoes' turn to feed. The best protection is to pull the blanket over head and hands. One more reason why some of us die unobserved. Of course, there are those who do not care anymore about mosquitoes, which regale themselves on a feast of sick blood.

When it is quite dark, Neighbour and I have our bedside talk about the hometown and the folks left behind. We never tire of listening to the description of what is eating in our hearts.

Tonight, he says, tonight he is feeling particularly well, thanks to the extra food, no doubt. He insists that, when the war is over, I should come to Australia, the best country in the world, where he will take care of me until I have found work and a home for my family. Solemnly we shake hands over blankets. An hour or so later, while I am tossing about, fully awake, Neighbor is asleep with a trace of a smile on his face, no doubt dreaming of his beloved Australia. There is that owl again outside in the woods, and I can hear the river. The still contours of the sleeping men are dimly lit by the fluttering flame by the tent post.

Another day's forenoon. Andre and I are having a last smoke together; he will shortly depart to another camp. Money offered for all the food he had brought is curtly brushed aside. Then some small talk about this and that. Afterwards we stand in silence, gazing at our cigarette ends. Suddenly he grasps my shoulders with his strong, bony hands, squints closely, and blowing his smoky breath in my face, mumbles, "Now don't you go an' die on me, wet-pants, 'cus Ah may need your peepers some other day." And with that a very good friend turns about and walks away, forever.

I step into the tent and find Neighbor asleep. He is the only one left, the others having returned to their outfits or been laid out for the last roll-call. Overwhelmed by a sudden lightness in the head, I lie down and doze off.

Somebody tugs at my arm, constantly. Groping through layers of sleepiness, I open my eyes. It is Neighbor, and one look at his face turns me cold and fully awake. He is going! He is dying, all the symptoms are there. Dear God, not him, please, not him! He did say that he was feeling better, didn't he? Give him another chance, just one more chance, please? Where is the doctor, the orderly?

"Orderly! Orderly!"

Desperately trying to speak, he reaches out with his chin towards me, making every effort to say something. I put my ear quickly to his mouth but there is no sound, only his lips move feebly.

"Orderly! Orderly! Doctor! God!"

His hand goes to his breast pocket, drops limply back on the blanket - and I understand. He has read it a hundred times before, but if he wants to hear the words once more...

Fading ink on the stained envelope, the letter unfolding in my hands is smudged, some of the words hardly legible. But this letter was the last one to reach him from Australia, just before our capitulation had put an end to all communication with home. Reading will be difficult with the big lump in my throat but it must be done. Quickly, there isn't much time left.

I begin to read, and his eyes are fixed on the letter - large eyes, sunk deep in their sockets. A minute of reading passes, seconds more - then a sudden commotion outside blots out my voice. Shouting and screaming, buckets clattering down. Visible in the tent opening are two orderlies outside slugging it out, heaven knows what for, their voices shrill in blasphemous, filthy language.

"SHUT UP, IDIOTS! STOP THAT! I've got to read!" But they pay no heed and just go on. Raising my voice above the din, I continue:

"...and I end this letter with the hope to see you again soon, darling, for they say that it will all be over in a month or two. How happy we shall be when you are home again. With all my love..."

Folding the letter, I glance at him and see - oh, God, no! A fat, stinking fly is crawling over his naked eyeball.

For God's sake, close his eyes, they've got to be closed! But they won't. They open up as soon as I take my hand away, staring with a cracked smile in them. But that's impossible, that cannot be so. When one dies, his eyes close...and he's dead, stone dead, there's no heartbeat at all. Damn! That rotten fly again. Suddenly my own eyes become moist, tears tasting salty in my mouth. Try again, press them down. Still they won't close!

That does it. Now I've had enough, plenty enough of death and flies. Out, out, or something will snap. I can't find the tent opening, can't see through these stupid tears. Beating madly on the canvas, my fist suddenly hits through the open tent flap and the momentum throws me out on all fours. I jump up and run away, away from that stinking tent with that stinking fly. There's a tree. I beat that tree, beat it with my fist until it hurts and bleeds. Oh God, why?!

Footsteps, and a hand is laid on my shoulder. It is the minister. He talks about God, heaven. Let him. Who cares? He's a good man, the minister, but he'll be dead one day, perhaps soon. Then a fly will crawl over his eye too. Stifling a scream, I close my eyes tightly and hand him the crumpled letter, the last one from Australia, and walk back to the tent. It is empty. On the place where he had lain and talked to me, on the place where he had died - a fly, busily exploring the naked earth.

At dusk my name is called and a moment later my brother Han enters, sporting a long, thin beard. Stooping down, he calls my name again and starts to cry, begging me not to die. What does he mean, die! I rave about flies, orderlies, the bad food and the filth. His face lights up while he brushes tears from his cheeks, saying that to hear me carrying on like that means, thank heaven, that he has no reason to worry. Is there anything he can do? Yes, a pair of pants is badly needed; I've got only one pair left on my body. He takes a pair of faded khaki pants out of his haversack and hands them over. Good old Han. A minute later and he is gone again, running all the way back to his outfit. He was given ten minutes to see me before marching off to a river camp, way up north.

A cold loneliness falls upon me. A chilling awareness of being completely cut off from everyone I have loved or cared for. Lisa, baby, family, Andre, Neighbor. And there's Han, going away too. What the hell is the use of caring for anybody, anything? What did Andre say when I became so upset at the sight of what the lorry had brought in at that road camp? The naked corpse with the ugly wound, which was once a friendly and learned man. Andre had said, "You care too much. Don't, boy. You wanna take, take. You wanna give, give. But don't give yerself away. Stop carin'. Cus' there's only one thing to care for. Git the ass out in one piece, wet-pants, that's all you wanna do."

How right the old trooper was. I want to get away from people now, from friends and mates. I pick up my bundle and go to see Doc for permission to stake out my own place under that tree, yonder by the river. The doctor, knowing that by now I have beaten the dysentery, has no objections. The Japs, however, insist on an observation period of two weeks before anyone is officially declared clean. Where I wish to sleep in the meanwhile is up to me, as long as it is within the compound.

Here now I lie, under the tree where that owl I've been hearing at night must have its nest. Let's try to find it. I scan the trunk to where it divides itself into branches, twigs, boughs and a myriad of leaves. I can't find anything that looks like a bird's nest, or does an owl have one? What about a hole? Once more the truck is checked right up to the top. Hold it, this tree has a double crown! Yes, it is a double crown, positively. I know my trees, remember?

"Talk to me, tree."

I see you, boy. Look how tall I am.

"You've got a double crown!"

Photo Source: Han Samethini Collection

Goodness! Flashing back from a far-away world, a secret game. I was a child of four, five years? It seems centuries ago. I forgot all about it, until this moment. But that I should remember it now, of all times, and here, of all places. Yes, that happy, careless childhood, and now here, in this wretched place. Yet, there it is. I am playing the old game all over again. I heard the tree talk. Maybe I am hearing things, having become a bit confused through what has passed during the last week. Well, so be it. It'll take my mind off worse things. The mess orderly rattles with his spoon on a bucket: the signal for those who can walk to come and get their meal. The day is almost done. Diffused light shimmers through the brush.

Image Source: www.digitaltutors.com

Night has fallen. Sleep will not come. I am wide awake. A light breeze which sprang up late in the afternoon is blowing now with force on the treetops of the dense jungle on the other side of the river, about fifty yards away. The trees shake and bend sideways, and straighten up again. Over the rolling wilderness roof rides a quarter-moon, blinking silvery behind racing and scattering clouds. And high above all this, a carnival of glittering stars in a sky swept clean by the wind. All that is across the water seems so pure and wild. The dark mass of jungle rises behind a fringe of elephant grass, untouched as yet by the filth and suffering brought by man upon this side of the river. Oh, how hateful this place is, and everything it stands for.

A pang of desolate longing for freedom sets off an absurd, crazy thought. What about swimming over to that no-man's land across the water, to feel the touch of Jap-free soil? Stay there just a little while, then...then what? It's still a million miles from home, and I'd be shot on sight if caught. But I'm a good swimmer, always was one, especially underwater. Besides, who would think of watching this part of the camp, where people are dying or weakened by dysentery? How wide would the river be from here to, say, that patch of shrub on the edge of the opposite bank? Forty, fifty yards? What had started a moment ago as merely a spontaneous idea is already turning into considered planning. A feeble voice of warning: Wait! Wait! What's this, an obsession? Have you gone mad?

A gust of wind brings the smell of blood-excrement from the latrines to where I am under the tree. It is only a whiff, but it is sufficient to spark the planning into a driving force...

Photo Source: www.astroleaguephils.com

Undressing quickly to a pair of brief shorts, I crawl through the undergrowth and slip quietly into the water. A chill runs along my back as I pause for a moment to adjust my body to the colder temperature. Above me in the brush an insect creaks, shrill and monotonous. Now! Inhaling deeply, I bend down at the knees until completely immersed and swim with forceful strokes in the general direction of the opposite shore. Soft mud and slippery things brush along my face. Careful, I'm too close to the bottom. Let's get up a bit.

At least a minute of swimming has passed. The undercurrent is stronger than I suspected. Blood pounding in my temples, I feel a stinging pressure in my ears, unmistakable signs of tiredness. I feel the river pulling with increasing force at my arms and legs - God, where am I being drawn to? I should have reached the other side by now. I'm going too far downstream, to the guardhouse jetty! Easy target for their bullets. For God's sake, back to the tree, back, back. But my lungs are bursting. I must get air this instant or drown. Easy, easy, no splashing. Keep hands and legs underwater. Don't make any noise.

My head emerges, cool air brushes along my hot face. I press my lips hard to muffle the sound of gasping. I open my eyes...

It's all right! There's the tree, right there on the opposite shore. I've come up at the right spot. I bubble a sigh of relief into the water. Now for that patch of shrub on the edge. Get beneath the tangle of branches and leaves to hold it. Just a moment to make certain that nobody is watching me on this side. Now crawl onshore, but keep the body flat on the ground. A large cloud sails toward the moon, seconds later dimming its light. In that instant I flit through the waist-high grass towards the shelter of the darkness beneath the trees.

Here I stand, holding my breath, ears pricked for any suspicious sound. Have they seen me? What's that, there on the grass, a man crouched for a leap? My throat thickens with sudden panic. Thanks heavens, no, it's only a clump of nettles. Overhead the moonlight is totally cut off by overarching leaves and branches of the forest. Icy droplets fall from the rustling foliage. The wind tugs softly at my wet body, causing a violent shiver. The dip has sobered my mind, leaving me in heart-sinking doubt. What is the purpose of all this? The earth under my feet is still another part of Jap-infested land. So back at once, but wait. Wait until the moonlight has gone. Then an odd sensation, a strange awareness of being unencumbered is filling me. Now I'm free, yes, free! I know that this can be only in the imagination but yet, in some deep way, it is there. I feel as if I have torn myself from a cesspool, from an existence of hopeless wretchedness. Fear is gone. Only an alertness and a watchfulness remain, with a now tingling emotion, a dream of fancy: on this side of the river I am a free man, on the other I am a prisoner.

Down the river must be the guardhouse. An angry Japanese voice throws a challenge into the night. A torch light is flashed on. Another voice answers, a fisherman, challenged by the guard. Too far to be dangerous but it is a warning. Crouching in the grass, I crawl back to the river.

At first I had made a genuine attempt to listen to the voice of warning and I stayed where I was in the compound. Alas, the pull is too strong. It's so easy. All I need is to be careful. Also, that jungle sector appears completely deserted. Daytime scrutiny from the spot by the tree has not revealed any form of human life. It is nothing but a patch of wilderness considered unworthy of attention by the Japanese. Thus I have reasoned, but it is so fascinating, this new thing. Keep yourself within earshot of the camp and keep out of the light while moving about, that's all you have to do.

Photo Source: www.tripadvisor.com

And so I go, night after night, exploring a little bit more every time. I find a paw-paw tree bearing ripe fruit, offering a pleasant change to the daily rice and stew. The railroad's clamour has driven off the big cats, but occasionally a skittering in the brush, a dull pounce and a little cry, prove that there are enough small beasts of prey around. Sometimes there is a screech from a little monkey in panic, roused from sleep. Squatting in the fork of an old willow's branches, I can look for hours at the reddish, glimmering camp lights across the river. All around me the never-ending drone of the cicadas recall the evenings in Java's hills. I listen to the sweeping rustle of a light rain across the grass, the soughing sound of the water beneath my dangling feet. One night the shimmer of the moon reflected in the water bore the image of delicately formed lips, gently curved forehead. Her face in all its girlish sweetness, whispering, terribly hurting, to be cast aside at once. Before the air grows too chilly, before the moon has sunk under the treeline, back I am in camp, deep in dreamless sleep. The daily bath and fresh fruit are wholesome. The doctor seems surprised at what he terms "an undue healthy outlook."

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