Kert awakened the following morning quite refreshed. The flunky brought a pan of water for the prisoner to wash. He stripped and bathed, using one end of the towel for soaping and the other for rinsing. The soap was nearly gone; Kert wondered if he would be given more. A brisk rubbing with the towel stimulated his cir- culation, and he exercised a bit, bending and stretching before dressing. If only he had clean clothes to put on. Heíd asked Hatchet Face the day before if he could wash clothes and had been told "Maybe later."
Breakfast arrived while he was dressing. The flunky set the rice and soup on the table and went out. Finished dressing, Kert turned to the food. Why in hell did the chinaman take the chair out? It would have been very nice to sit in the chair and eat. But every time he intended to be gone for any length of time, Hatchet Face put the chair outside. Kert resigned himself to being thankful that lack of the chair at least gave him some indication of when the chinaman was going to be away for a while.
But Hatchet Face and the chair came in shortly after breakfast. The chinaman came right to the point. "Have you considered your position?" he asked.
"What have you decided to do?"
"You mean you have not yet decided?"
"No, I mean I have decided there is nothing I can do."
"Ah, then you are still not ready to tell us about yourself and your mission."
"Iíve already told about that."
"You have not told the truth!" Hatchet Face spat the last word out.
Kert did not answer.
"Do you still expect to be treated as ordinary prisoner of war?"
Still no answer.
"Do you?" the chinaman demanded, threateningly.
"No," Kert replied softly. "Itís plain enough thatís too much to expect from communists."
"What do you mean by that?"
"No other way to say it," Kert replied with a shrug. "Itís obvious a prisoner of war canít expect to be treated decently by communists."
"That is lie!" The chinaman knocked the chair over as he got up, and moved around the table to stand over the prisoner seated on the floor. He jerked his foot several times as though to kick the American. Kert tensed to spring, but did not look at the chinamanís face.
But in a quieter tone, Hatchet Face launched a "spiel": "Pris- oners who are legal prisoners of war receive better treatment than is prescribed by Geneva Convention. The lenient policy of the Chinese Peopleís Volunteers guarantee the prisoner be well fed and cared for. This is only further proof of communist policy everywhere, and of our great concern for welfare of the people."
Kert said nothing when Hatchet Face paused. The chinaman had stopped his threatening gestures when he started his lecture. Now he moved back and seated himself, leaning on the table.
"Do you think different?" Hatchet Face asked.
"I sure as hell havenít seen any of this Ďlenient policyí youíre always talking about."
"That is because you are not common prisoner of war. Others enjoy benefits of our policy. Others want for nothing except to go home. You may qualify for these benefits, be permitted to know our lenient policy if you will only admit your crimes. Is that not a fair arrangement?" The chinaman paused again, giving the prisoner a chance to consider.
Kert sat quietly, knees drawn up with hands clasped over. He appeared to be thinking deeply, and was, but not in the way the chinaman hoped. Hatchet Face wanted the prisoner to think whether or not to comply with the demand. Kert had already de- cided against that. Now he was trying to think of something to occupy his mind until they let him out of his solitary situation, and he wondered how long it would be. He had the brief thought that perhaps he should think of something entirely away from war, Korea, and prison to concentrate ondetaching himself from the repetitious absurdities and accusations altogether. But then he decided there were still things to be figured out. He would study what Hatchet Face and the others did to him and try to figure out their method.
Several times, as he watched the prisoner, Hatchet Face started to speak and changed his mind. Apparently deciding on a different tack, the chinaman got up and left without a word, taking the chair with him.
Kert was grateful later that he had taken advantage of the opportunity for his sponge bath that morning. He didnít get another chance for weeks, not even to wash his hands or face. To add to his discomfort, the guard poked a hole in the paper on the door so he could peek in at the prisoner, and as a result the fly population increased rapidly. At first, they provided entertainment and exercise. Kert learned it was easier to catch them with his hand than it was to swat them, since he had nothing but his hand to swat with. To catch them, instead of coming up behind, one should swing from in front. He had to figure that out, toohad to know why. Finally he decided it must be that if you came at them from behind, they flew away low; and you either missed completely or just brushed them with the edge of your hand. But if you swung from in front, when the fly saw the hand coming and took off, he had to get enough altitude to make his turn; and if you closed your fist at the proper instant, you had him. After he had it figured out, it wasnít interesting any more. The flies became far more bother than entertainment.
Hatchet Faceís visits variedas did his tactics. Sometimes the prisoner was left alone for the whole dayóthe apprehension treat- ment. Again, it would be a full dayís session of coaxing, and per- haps pleadingsometimes even with other of the interrogators to assist. There were days of sympathy, when Kert was reminded how unfortunate he was. Hatchet Face told him he "must consider" himself; it was foolish for him to be a martyr. There were periods of logic and rationalization, without a trace of anger or animosity on the part of the chinamen. Now and again, there was violent flareup, with threats by word and gesture.
The outward calm Kert generally maintained through it all was partly due to preoccupation. His analytical mind sought answers. Just as he had sought the answer to fly-catching trick, Kert had to know not only what the enemy was trying to do, but why, and how. Most pressing at the moment was the question, how?
It was all so damn preposterous. Hatchet Face, Kert felt certain, knew that what they wanted from him was a lie just as well as he did himself. Yet the chinaman spoke as though what they wanted was entirely true. The enemy didnít want a "confession" written as falsehood either. They wanted the prisoner to adopt the same attitude as they didto act as though it were really true. Just as though it were possible to make a lie into truth, merely by pretending, by saying it was true. Just as though you could have two things, exactly opposite, but both true, depending on whom you were talking to.
Right now it was Hatchet Face talking, but Kert was so pre- occupied he didnít hear the words. The chinaman asked a question. This time he didnít get angry at the lack of answer. Instead he seemed to be trying to fathom Kertís preoccupation. To arouse the prisoner, Hatchet Face spoke sharply, but not angrily.
The prisoner looked up, almost startled.
"What do you think about?" the chinaman asked.
Kert shrugged, but didnít speak.
"Is it about your family? Are you homesick?" The tone was sympathetic.
"Not much of anything."
"There is no reason why you shouldnít tell me your thoughts. Unless they are bad thoughts?"
"No reason why I should, either." Kert had the feeling that somewhere in what the chinaman had just said was a clue to the enemyís method.
"Yes, I suppose that may be so," Hatchet Face agreed. "Except that it is better for you to talk with someone. It is bad to keep thoughts to yourself. Maybe you become sad and bitter. That will not be good for your health."
"Bad for whom?" Kert asked himself. "Him, or me?" Aloud he said: "Wellsince youíre so concerned about my welfareremember I had people to talk to until you brought me here on this phony deal."
"Soyou call this a phony deal?"
"What else could I call it? Thatís what it is to me."
There was a pause. Hatchet Face seemed to be considering. Perhaps he was thinking that this prisoner was too much resigned to fate to expect present success in the efforts to make him submit.
"Would you like to be with other prisoners again?" the chinaman asked softly.
"What difference does it make what I want?" Kert didnít even look up. His hands were clasped over drawn-up knees again, and he tapped his thumbs together with a slow, rhythmic monotony. There was another pause while the chinaman again studied the abstraction of the prisoner before him.
"Pack your belongings," Hatchet Face said. "You will move back with other prisoners. I will come for you in a few minutes."
The prisoner looked up in disbelief. But the chinaman had picked up his portfolio and was on the way out of the room. Kert didnít waste any time packing. With the bundle tied, he sat in the chair and leaned his elbows on the table. His cup and bowl were on the table beside him. There was still some "kai shwee"boiled waterin the cup. It felt good to sit at last in the chair.
As Kert took the cup of tepid water up in his hands, it suddenly became a steaming mug of coffee. The wall by the table became a window and through it he could see a big river. No, it wasnít a riverit was a harbor full of small fishing boats with tall masts swaying gently.
There was someone seated across the table from him, a girl. She was holding a cup, too. It was a cup, now, instead of a mug, a cup made of fine china. That was Carol across the table from him. How mce to see her again; to be with someone you liked in such a pleasant place. He wondered if she were married now. She was planning to be when he saw her last, to a mighty fine fellow, too. Well, he would ask her, now, while she was here. He was just about to, when the door opened
He had in his hand a battered metal thing containing a mouthful of flat, tepid water. He took the rest of the liquid in his mouth and put the cup in his pocket. In response to the chinamanís call, he picked up his bedroll. As he moved out the door, he sprayed the water out through his teeth against the bare mud wall.
So for a time Kert was with other prisoners. Sometimes only two or three were together; at other times, as many as ten. All were in similar predicament. The enemy wanted "confessions" and tried different ways with different men to get them. So those prisoners were in and out of solitary; sometimes for only a few days, at other times for monthsin one place or the other. For some there would be a change of chinamen, for others, not. Kert had to deal mostly with Hatchet Face, except at times when two or three more would take turns hammering at him, continuously day and night.
When the prisoners were together, besides having the benefit of one anotherís company, they usually had the privilege of bathing and of washing clothes. Sometimes they were told they could not bathe, perhaps because they had broken some rule. Often, then, they deliberately violated the orders. Ignoring the shouts and threats of the guard, they would walk single file to the nearby stream, feeling certain the guard was not authorized to shoot them, except in self-defense or to prevent escape. Some of them swore to each other they would resist to death if necessary, but mostly the pledge was unspoken, simply understood among them. In such a way the weeks and months went by.
Each time he was taken out to solitary, Kertís hatred for Hatchet Face increased. Each time, too, he sank a little deeper into the preoccupied study, trying to fathom how the enemy hoped to break him. Perhaps it was because Hatchet Face made his plays in so many different moods that Kert began to think of that as the method. Control of emotionsthat was where the struggle seemed to be. Hatchet Face was trying to gain control of his, Kertís emotions. So then the answer must be self-control, and Kert practiced it well.
But one thing stayed with Kert from his first session with the long-faced chinamanóhis vow that if Hatchet Face ever actually struck him, he would kill his enemy with his bare hands.
Deep in his preoccupation, the prisoner didnít hear the first sharp call.
"Kert!" The chinaman banged on the table and stood up.
The prisoner looked up at the enemy.
"You do not listen to what I say! Do you think I talk just for myself?"
Kert made no answer.
Hatchet Face moved around the table to stand over the prisoner, glowering. "Answer me!"
Kert displayed his hands palm up with a shrug and shook his head from side to side, indicating he had nothing to say.
"I will wake you up!" The chinaman struck with his open hand across the prisonerís face.
The world shrank suddenly and became an eight-foot cube with only two people in it. All outside that room was lost. Two people in a little square world, and there wasnít room for both. Kert grasped the chinaman around the knees. The otherís weight going down helped pull Kert atop him. The interrogatorís flailing right arm struck the table hard as he fell. Astride his enemy, Kert grasped the fellowís throat and squeezed. For a time Hatchet Face struggled, but then became too weak.
In his anger, Kert pounded the enemyís head on the floor. Perhaps it was that which saved the interrogator from suffocation. Kertís lifting and slamming caused a momentary relaxing of the pressure from his hands. Hatchet Face drew an occasional rasping breath. How long Kert choked and pounded the enemy, he didnít know. In his rage, the prisoner cursed as he pounded his opponentís head on the floor.
"Die!" Bam! "You dirty bastard!" Bam! Bam! "Rotten, lying!" Bam! Bam!
The Korean woman who lived in the other part of the house heard the disturbance and hurried to call a guard. He called another, and they ran to the room.
Even when the door opened, it was only the sun of the little square world becoming a bit brighter. But two beings from outer space grabbed Kertís arms and jerked him roughly from his enemy. For a time the prisoner struggled to get back to the task he felt he had to do, but the two from outside forced him against the wall.
Suddenly the world was big and round again, and Kert was back in a little mud-walled room. No longer was it men from space, but Chinese guards holding him. Kert slumped down, weakened as much from emotional loss as from physical exertion. He slid down the wall to a dejected sitting position. One guard continued to hold his arm while the other went to the assistance of the interrogator.
Hatchet Face lay on the floor, gasping for breath and moaning. His hands at his throat tried to soothe the pain as air rasped through his crushed windpipe. The guard helped the interrogator to a sitting position and onto the chair. There he sat for some time, rubbing his throat and breathing deeply. The rasp diminished slowly. Hatchet Face glared at Kert, slumped against the wall.
Kert cursed himself for a fool. Heíd lost control of his tempersomething he knew he shouldnít do. There was nothing wrong in wanting to kill the interrogator, he still wanted to do it. The thing was that when he had the chance heíd failed because he lost his temper. Hatchet Face hadnít cried out as he fell, and hadnít been able to, once Kertís hands were on his throat. Except for the Americanís own angry curses and banging of the chinamanís head on the floor, Hatchet Face would be dead.
If he had succeeded in killing the interrogator, chances are Kert couldnít have made good an escape. So what? So heíd be executed. The prisoner knew he was going to suffer for the attempt anyhow perhaps more than if he had succeeded. For Hatchet Face was alive to wreak vengeance.
After a time Hatchet Face rose to his feet. Still glaring at Kert, the interrogator spoke to the guards. His voice was still raspy. The guards pulled the prisoner to his feet.
"You try to kill me," the interrogator accused.
Kert did not lift his head or his eyes.
"You will pay!"
"Hear me!" Hatchet Face put his left hand back up to his throat. It hurt when he shouted. More softly he said: "I will make you pay dearly."
With his right hand, the chinaman slapped Kertís face while the guard held the prisoner firmly by the arms. Hatchet Face winced with pain as the blow landed, and clutched his right elbow, where it had struck the table when he fell. He began slapping Kert with his left handone cheek and then the other. Kert raised his head, then, looking at his attacker and rolling his head from side to side with the blows. Hatchet Face couldnít hit hard with his left hand.
The chinaman realized after a time that the blows were not hurting the prisoner very much. He stopped the slapping and looked about the room. Spotting a flashlight hanging from the belt of one of the guards, he spoke a word and removed it. The guards still held Kertís arms.
Using the flashlight, Hatchet Face lashed at Kertís jaw with the same back-and-forth motion. Now, rolling the head didnít help much. Blood came as the hard material bashed against the jawbone. With the sixth or seventh blow there was a crunching sound as the bone broke. Kertís head dropped again and the next blow landed on his temple. He slumped into unconsciousness.
When he regained consciousness, he was lying on his bedding. He heard voices before he could see. The talk was Chinese. The voices stopped as his eyes began swimming with a whirling :grey haze. The door opened and closed. Forms appeared in the haze, and the whirling stopped. Suddenly Kertís vision was clear again, and his mind as well.
Hatchet Face was seated at the table, and a guard stood just inside the door. The interrogatorís right arm was in a sling. Kertís mind, seeking answers, thought perhaps the Chinese medic had been the one he had heard talking a few moments before. Or could it have been another of the interrogators? Maybe Hatchet Faceís superior had been here to discuss what should be done after the incident which had just occurred. Kert was sure it wasnít a guard talking; they talked little with the interrogators.
"You are awake?" Hatchet Face asked.
Kert grunted in reply and started to sit up. He winced at a sharp throbbing in his temple and lay back down.
"Good," the interrogator said. "There is something we must talk about now."
Kert did not reply but, bringing himself up more slowly, arrived at a sitting position without the painful throbbing.
"Why did you attack me?"
"Because you hit me," Kert answered, rubbing the temple.
"I only slapped you," the chinaman asserted.
"It made me mad."
"Did you try to kill me?"
"I donít know." There was no point in telling him the truth about that.
"You did try to kill me!"
"I donít know, I tell you. I was mad; I lost my temper. A guy doesnít know what heís doing when heís mad like that."
"You should not lose your temper then. You should not get mad like that."
There it was againtelling you not to do something he was forcing you to do. Trying to control your emotions. Kert didnít reply to the chinaman. He just thought.
"Well, anyhow, you realize now it was wrong to try to kill me," Hatchet Face said.
"I didnít try to kill you. If Iíd been trying to kill you I would have done it." As he spoke the falsehood, Kert cursed himself again for his failure.
"To attack me then. You know it was wrong to attack me."
"Yes. I apologize. Iím sorry." The last was true at least, though heíd best not tell the chinaman what he was really sorry about.
"Then you will write self-criticism."
"Self-criticism. You must write apology. Explain your mistake."
"I donít understand."
"You must make written statement that you realize your mistake, and that you are sorry."
"But I already said Iím sorry, and admitted I made a mistake."
"You only say you are sorry. That is not enough. It is easy for you to say something you do not mean. You must write to explain your mistake, to prove good faith."
Kert pondered that. It seemed so silly. What in the devil was the object in that? He didnít say anything.
"Here, you may sit in chair to write. There is paper and pencil."
Numbly, Kert arose and went to the chafr. He looked for a moment at the paper and picked up the pencil, but still had no idea what he was supposed to do.
"Go on, write."
"I donít know what to write." The prisoner looked up at the enemy.
"Explain that you realize your mistake and are sorry." There was a slight pause. "I will be back later." With a word to the guard, Hatchet Face went out, and the soldier followed.
For a long time, Kert sat trying to think. What the hell could anybody say about something like that, except to admit he was wrong and say he was sorry? Certainly if thatís what they wanted, there wasnít any harm in it. He wrote on the paper, "I realize my mistake in fighting with the interrogator. I am sorry." He thought a while longer. Deciding there wasnít anything more to be said, he put the pencil down.
So then Kert sat in the chair and wished he could drift off into pleasant reverie againlike that one time so long ago at the end of his first session in this room. But his mind was too full of problems. He was still turning them over when Hatchet Face arrived. A guard came in with him.
"You have finished writing your self-criticism?" the interrogator asked.
Kert indicated it with his hand, as he got up from the chair and moved over to his bedding to sit down. Hatchet Face glanced at the words.
"Do you try to make joke?" he asked angrily.
"No," Kert answered honestly.
"This is not self-criticism!"
"I donít know what else you want."
"You are to write in detail," the chinaman directed, "why you attack me, and why it was wrong. Also, what is your guarantee for the future!"
"I can make no guarantee."
"You must! What do you mean you canít?"
"I just canít, thatís all. I donít know whatís going to happen."
"You mean you wonít?" Hatchet Face demanded.
"If thatís the way you want it."
"Will you do as I tell you? Answer yes or no!"
There was a word to the guard, and two to Kert: "Go outside."
Out in the yard were two more guards. One of them held a coarse rope. The guards tied his hands behind his back and walked him over to a spot under the limb of a large tree. The rope on his wrists trailed behind him. One of the soldiers tossed it over the limb. On instructions from Hatchet Face, the guard pulled until the prisonerís heels came off the ground. Kert grunted at the pain in his upper arms and shoulders.
"Maybe you have changed your mind, now?" Hatchet Face said.
"Go to hell!"
The chinaman struck Kert in the face with his left hand, open. The blow didnít hurt much. Hatchet Face only did it as a token of his wrath. Following that, the interrogator gave orders to the other two soldiers. One of them had a length of the coarse rope and the other the butt-end of a mule whip. They commenced beating.
The first blow hurt the most, and then there came a sort of numbness. They avoided hitting him any place where it might make him unconscious. Occasionally there was a pause and the question: "Now will you do it?"
Time after time Kert answered, "No"and cursed.
The beating became harder, but with no increase in pain. In fact, pain seemed to lessen as the body became more numb. His body was weakening, though, and the "Noís" became less audible. It didnít have enough strength left for curses. The prisoner seemed ahnost senseless when Hatchet Face called a halt and bent down to ask the question again. This time, Kert could barely shake his head.
The beating was not resumed. Instead, at an order from the interrogator, the soldier holding the rope over the limb began jerking. He jerked a little harder each time. Nerves deep in Kertís arms and shoulders, not numbed by the beating, screamed in intense pain.
"Stop," he called weakly. "Iíll do it."
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.