THE SIGN

Ghant arranged the shreds of paper in a neat pile beside the box. Then he stretched out on his bedding. He slept.

Probably because they thought he was writing, the chinamen didnít come to see him that morning. Not one of them had appeared by lunch time. Ghant was awake by then. Only his mind had needed the rest. He awakened refreshed, feeling better than at any time since heíd been moved to this room. Alert once more, Ghant sat up when he heard steps approaching outside. Laughing Boy entered and set the food pan on the box.

"You stop thinking now," the chinaman said with a smirk. "Let your mind rest while you take lunch."

Ghant spooned some of the rice and soup into his bowl quickly, without a word. The chinamanís eyes glanced about. "How much do you write this morning?" he asked.

Ghant looked up, acting as though he hadnít understood. "Huh?" he asked.

"How much do you write this morning?"

"I didnít write any."

"Not any? Why do you not write?" The smile faded.

"Decided I canít do it." Ghant put the filled bowl down beside his leg.

"Canít?" All trace of the smile was gone. "Where is that you write before?"

"I tore it up." No dramatics, no play of heroics and defiance; only a simple statement of fact.

Apparently the problem was too big for Laughing Boy to handle by himself. Without a word, he turned and left. The pan of food stayed; Ghant had thought it might be taken away.

With the chinaman gone, the prisoner hurriedly wrapped part of the rice in paper and put it under a fold of his bedding. Then he set to eating rapidly. They might come back to take the food away, or if not that, this might be the last time theyíd bring him any food for a while. His mind was working as it should again.

But he neednít have hurried. He ate his fill, with an appetite much improved, and finding some rice remaining, concealed it with the other. Still no one came. Apparently the turn of events had upset the enemyís schedule. The sudden reversal on his part must have been entirely unexpected. Otherwise they would have had a plan in mind, and would have had it in operation by now. Then again, maybe this was the plan—just to let him worry for a while. Ghant decided to find something else to occupy his time.

He went to the door and called, "So-byen." The guard permitted him out to the latrine. There had been no change of instructions to the guard on that. Maybe Laughing Boy didnít dare do anything on his own under the circumstance, for fear of displeasing the "superior," who would be displeased enough anyway. That very well could be, Ghant thought.

From the latrine, Ghant looked toward the buildings which he had decided were headquarters for this special little group of the enemy. He saw six people outside the buildings. At such distance he couldnít recognize faces, but by their respective sizes Ghant presumed those were the five tormentors plus, very probably, their "superior." The group shuffled a bit, and for a moment Ghant had a clear silhouette of the sixth person. Even from so far away, there was no mistaking the hunched figure with the wide-apart legs— "Quasimodo," the hunchback, for sure. For some time he had thought the hunchbacked chinaman might be supervising this whole affair; now he was certain of it. That fact made it a more personal issue. The captain had clashed with the hunchback a year ago. Probably the chinaman still hated him. Ghant knew his own feelings. With this new knowledge, his determination to resist at all costs strengthened, Ghant returned to his room to await developments.

The enemy took considerable time before their next move. The afternoon passed without a visitor. Ghant wondered if he might expect supper and was pleasantly surprised when a flunky brought the normal ration at the usual time. Yet it seemed advisable to keep the rice he didnít eat in case the situation changed.

That evening the pressure was on again. They came at him singly, in pairs, and sometimes all five at once. All night it con- tinued, the next day and night, the following day, and into the third night. Coaxing, threatening, they were back with all the old devices. The same old phrases repeated over and over, with now and then a new one. Pounding—pounding—pounding—!

"Why did you start and then stop?"

"What can you hope to gain by fooling us like that?"

"Was it Just to get the bath?"

"You must answer!"

"Your country doesnít care about you!"

"Your family will never know what has become of you!"

"You are not a common prisoner of war; you are a criminal!"

"We do not have to send you home if the war ends, because you are a criminal!"

"Why should a captain not confess when others of higher rank have done so?"

"You say you cannot write, then we write for you; you only sign!"

At times all pretense was gone. "So you didnít do this; that is no matter. We only tell you to say you did."

In retrospect the captain knew they pressed as hard or even harder than before, but it hadnít seemed so difficult. He found it easier to ignore the harangue. He answered only if he felt like saying something; and on those rare occasions when he did answer, the chinamen were sometimes disturbed because his answers didnít match the questions.

Specs was the last one Ghant saw the third evening. The hour was well past midnight. The captain could hardly sit up, but his mind was neither clouded nor tired. Specs, who had to run through his repertory of threats and pleas again, was vexed by the prisonerís calm.

"Perhaps you think you are hero"—the chinaman sneered—"a martyr. Is that it?"

"No." It was true; Ghant didnít feel heroic at all.

"What then? You must have a reason!"

The prisoner was silent.

"No reason, eh? What about your religion? Have you lost your religion? Maybe you decide it is no good after all," Specs jeered. "Do you still believe in God?"

"Yes," Ghant replied, "I do." Though his face remained expressionless, the captain felt inside as though he were smiling.

"Why donít you pray then?" the chinaman shouted. "Get on your knees and pray! Ask your God to take you from here. If he is so all-powerful as you claim, he should take you away from us! Why doesnít he rescue you?" The voice rose still more; the shout became almost a scream. Anger to the point of hysteria—this time not pretended, but real. "Where is your God? Show him to me! Show me a miracle!"

And it was there, but the chinaman was blind to it. The little smile came out on the captainís face and shone from his eyes. It was not a conscious smile of pleasure at the enemyís discomfiture; perhaps it was not a conscious smile at all. If it was anything other than peace of mind, it was sadness and a little of pity for the blind fool who couldnít see what happened before his eyes.

In his attempt to disturb the prisoner, Specs had made a gross error. His derisive remarks about Ghantís religion only served to make the captain more conscious of it. Where before he had known the power of Faith, in that fleeting moment of pity for Specs, Ghant came to know the unconquerable strength of Love. "Love thine enemy"—not to embrace, but to defeat.

After the chinaman had left the room, Ghant crossed himself before lying down. In an instant, after he lay back, he felt himself lifted in a manner which perhaps few men ever know. He seemed in a realm of conscious sleep, with mind awake, yet still at rest, apart from the flesh, yet with it, so the body might rest while the Spirit kept watch. Though Ghant made no active supplication, within this cradle of "sleep" there was a prayer. Again, as always, it was for courage, strength, and wisdom; but it was different than Ghantís prayers of the past, for now he knew his God far better than before.

Manís soul is within him from his birth. The Spirit for a time may dwell without, waiting for the chance to be reunited with the soul. How long It must wait depends on many things. Until that reunion, until the time when the Spirit, too, has come to dwell within, prayers, even though they come from the soul of man, must be transmitted through the mind by thought. The answer, in turn, must be received through the same medium. Small wonder, then, that prayer or answer is so often lost along the way; for the pitfalls are many in the mind of man.

But when the Spirit has come to dwell within, It is united once again with the soul, and prayer becomes an impulse, not through the mind of man but from the soul directly to its Divinity. The need itself is the prayer, and the presence of the Spirit the answer. Thus did Ghant, in his hour of need, come to know the unconquerable power of Faith in God.

From then on, the torments of the enemy were powerless to hurt him. His body still became tired from lack of sleep, but his mind remained clear. His tormentors, once shrewd, were now pitiable, unseeing fools. Their shouted threats bounced off the impenetrable armor of his Faith. And his body, too, found rest behind the fortification, even while attacks were underway.

"You are sleeping with your eyes open! Stand up!"

So ordered, Ghant might stand. But if the demands seemed entirely too great, he sat calmly and refused to comply.

"We can kill you!"

"Why donít you?"

"You want us to kill you?"

"I can hardly prevent it." Calm and sincere as he said it, there was still a reservation in thought: "But youíd better be careful if you do, or one of you will accompany me to the hereafter—at least part way."

"You donít care if you live?"

"Sure. But itís not the most important thing. Besides, if you kill me now, while I resist your demands, it would be a favor to me; my future would then be certain."

"Your future? You mean that stupid superstition of yours— eternal life? Hmph!"

"It is my belief."

"And nothing can change that belief?"

"Only to make it stronger, as you have already done."

"We have done? How could we do this?"

"Iím afraid you could never understand." The little smile—pitying, sad, or whatever it was—appeared again.

The communists were disturbed by the prisonerís smile. But even if any of them recognized the Source of Ghantís strength, they did not dare admit it; for the Kremlinís word was law to those poor fools, and the Kremlin had decreed, "There is no God!"

The enemy searched his face for sign of fear or weakness. Finding none, they departed from him for a while.

They put Ghant back with Rickey. He was overjoyed to learn that the younger man had resisted them, too. Ghant saw in the boyís resistance further answers to his prayers, not realizing that part of Rickeyís strength had been supplied through himself. For Rickey had remembered, after Ghant was taken from him, many things the captain had told him.

After a few days of respite, the enemy tried once more. Jingles took Ghant back to the dingy room late one night. He found out the reason the next morning. Frisco and Bim came in just after the captain had finished breakfast. Frisco produced a paper from a folder he had brought.

"You will sign this," the chinaman said.

Ghant glanced at it, guessing beforehand what it was. He shook his head.

"Read it," Frisco insisted.

"Why? Itís all a lie. I still wouldnít sign it."

"This is your last chance."

"My last chance?" That was a new line.

There was a pause, and the two chinamen exchanged glances. Bim spoke: "What would be your thought if we tell you the war is ended?"

A flash of hope; then calm control again. "Iíd probably think it was just another lie."

"Well, it has ended," the chinaman paused for effect. "The fighting stopped on July twenty-seven. All prisoners are to be exchanged—except WAR CRIMINALS!"

Ghant studied the enemy faces. It could be just another trick, easy as not. Looking at the two with their smug expressions, the prisoner decided they were lying. He told them so.

The two chinamen looked at each other again. They had expected him to grasp at the announcement without doubting it. When at last they told him a truth he should be happy to hear, he still doubted them.

"Okay, wise guy," Frisco said. "Címon, have a look for yourself." He pushed open the door and indicated for the captain to follow him. From the yard they could see to the open end of the valley, where the little stream flowed into a much larger one. A dozen or more trucks were parked there and dark-clothed figures moved about—prisoners. From the singing and shouting, made faint by distance, it was apparent the men were going home.

"Now do you believe?" Bim asked.

"It looks like for once you are telling the truth."

"Yes, we are telling truth. Those prisoners you see are going home. And here is more truth. You may also go home, if you sign this paper!"

The same thoughts flashed again. First, the tremendous longing to return home. But then there was the vision of others reading a "confession" bearing his name. Following that, came the realization that even if he wanted to sign it, there was a strange, unrelenting force which compelled him to refuse. Perhaps the sadness he felt for a moment was not entirely concealed from the enemy. But then the little smile stirred within him once more and came to rest lightly on his lips. He shook his head slowly. "No," he said softly and turned to walk back to the room.

Frisco and Bim didnít follow him, but watched as Ghant entered and closed the door. They looked at each other, back at the door, and at each other again. Both dropped their eyes and without a word walked together to their own headquarters.

Some time later Ghant heard steps approaching again. He watched the door open and could not completely conceal his sur- prise. "Quasimodo," the hunchback.

As the eyes of captor and captive locked, neither man attempted to conceal his animosity. Many months before, at their last meeting they had looked at each other in the same manner. Strong as the hunchback had found the pale-blue eyes of the prisoner before, he recognized more strength than ever in them now. It was many seconds before the chinaman relaxed his own intense gaze and spoke.

"You have this one more chance to redeem yourself. Will you sign this paper?" The hunchback proffered the prepared "confession" once again.

"No," was the answer, soft but firm.

"Then I must read you this," he produced another paper. "Pyoktong, North Korea, 20 July, 1953. Captain John Ghant, an aviator of the United States Marine Corps, has this day been tried by a tribunal of the Chinese Peopleís Volunteers and the Chinese Peopleís Committee for World Peace and found guilty of engaging in Bacteriological Warfare. Under the sponsorship of the aggressor United Nations and United States of America forces in Korea, Captain Ghant dropped germ-bearing bombs on defenseless and innocent, peace-loving peoples of North Korea. For his part in this heinous crime, Captain Ghant is sentenced to twenty years of confinement—" There followed details about "approval of sentence," a future designation of the place of confinement, and the signature of the presiding officer of the "tribunal."

"How does it happen that itís dated the twentieth of July?" Ghant asked. "Thatís a month ago."

"It has been withheld to now in the hope that you might redeem yourself by confession, and so we could be more lenient with you as with others."

Ghant asked nothing more. He might have asked why the "ac- cused" was not present at the trial, but decided it would be pointless to pursue the issue. "Quasimodo" would have an answer for that, just as he had for the other question. It might not be a good. answer from a logical point of view, but such was not necessary in communist "justice." Thoughts of what his next move should be sped through the captainís mind. Should he make a desperation escape-attempt right now, or await developments and perhaps a better opportunity? He decided it would be best to wait, for a time at least, to think the matter through.

"Gather your belongings," the hunchback said. "You will move from here."

"Where to?"

"Just now you will move to another building closer to where the truck will come to take you away."

So they moved him closer, where he could hear more clearly the happy voices of the prisoners getting ready for the trip south. He could see them, too, though care was taken that none of them should see him or that he should have a chance to signal. The trucks were loaded, all but one, when Laughing Boy appeared.

"I have good news for you," the chinaman grinned.

Ghant looked at him wonderingly. Laughing Boy was eager to continue. He read from a paper: "In keeping with the lenient policy of the Chinese Peopleís Volunteers in dealing with prisoners of war, and in spite of the serious nature of your crime against the peace-loving peoples, and because you were acting under orders of the aggressor UN and US forces, your sentence of twenty years at hard labor is hereby suspended and you will be permitted to go home."

Laughing Boy looked up from reading with a tremendous grin. "Come," he laughed. "I take you to your truck."

Before he arose to follow the chuckling chinaman, Captain Ghant bowed his head and made the Sign of the Cross.






© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.