death’s other kingdom

If I thought that I were making
Answer to one that might return to view
The world, this flame should evermore cease shaking.

But since from this abyss, if I hear true,
None ever came alive, I have no fear
Of infamy, but give thee answer due.

Dante’s Inferno (Canto XXVII, lines 61 – 66)

1. Pursuit of Flesh

The monsoon rain fell heavy upon the jungle canopy, pounding relentlessly until he thought the rain would destroy the jungle. The rain had cooled the air so that now a dense fog lingered amongst the heavy vegetation and the darkness, making it nearly impossible for him to see where he was going. The night was never this dark in the civilised world – the world of men and cities.

He stood, pressed against a tree, hugging it like a long lost friend. The wet moss soothed his battered face. Fresh blood dripped from his swollen lower lip and mingled with the rain water coursing through the scattered trench lines in the bark. He wore no shirt and no shoes, only a tattered pair of U.S. Army jungle fatigues. Around his neck hung a pair of stainless steel dog tags that read, ‘Holis King, 255-09-3421, O Positive, Christian.’

Holis closed his blackened eyes and slipped his tongue out to catch the rain. He was tired and wary and needed to rest, but he also needed to run, for he knew that they would be coming for him soon. Already he could hear the baying of the hounds echoing through the jungle; their muffled cry competed against the pounding rain, making it hard for him to judge whether the hounds were near or far. At least the rain would mask his scent.

His tormentors would not be so easily deceived by the rain; they were excellent trackers, and the wet ground would more likely betray him. Besides, they knew the condition of his feet would not let him get very far, very fast. He could do nothing now but keep moving and pray the jungle would hide him like a frightened woman whose husband had come home to soon while her lover lie in her bed.

As punishment for his first attempt to escape, his tormentors had taking his combat boots and his shirt. His failed second attempt ended in a session with Phan Trong Chinh, the Doctor, as he was known amongst the inmates. They feared and loathed Phan Trong Chinh, but the mere whisper of his name by the camp guards was enough to make them compliant to their tormentor’s will. An appointment with the Doctor could last a few hours or a few days and never ended with the patient feeling better, but the memories cured any future thoughts of disobedience.

Holis had spent four hours with the Doctor. Four hours he spent crying like a newborn baby, four hours cursing the day he had been drafted in to the army, four hours denouncing the country he loved, four hours wishing he had never been born, and four hours wishing he could die.

Phan Trong Chinh had beat the bottoms of feet repeatedly with a bamboo stick rendering them into a mangled pulp of blood and shredded flesh. The Doctor, his eyes alight with sardonic laughter, had delivered each blow with orgasmic intensity, sweating and panting at each yelp of pain that escaped Holis’ quivering lips.

For his recovery, they shoved him in a metal box that afforded him only enough room to lie curled in the foetal position. The cell had no light; it’s only air hole doubled as the drainage hole for his excrement. He laid in the darkness of his cell until time became no time; his past, present, and future mixed with the acrid smell of blood, sweat, and urine. His only comfort was the Code of Conduct he whispered over and over to himself:

I am an American fighting man. I serve in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.

If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape.

I will never forget that I am an American fighting man, responsible for my actions and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and the United States of America.

When his tormentors had deemed he had learned his lesson, they released him from his box. He could not stand on his feet for weeks and was reduced to having his fellow inmates carry him around the camp on a stretcher.

Holis did not try to escape again – until now.

That his tormentors had had not found him yet was a miracle, and if he wanted to remain free, he needed to keep moving under the darkness and cover of the rain and fog. He knew that if he headed south, he would eventually reach friendly lines and the salvation of his own troops.

To be continued…

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