Two Blind Men and a Fool
by Sherman Smith
|Table of Contents|
Earl Crier wakes screaming from nightmares in which his ship sinks in the Arctic in World War II. He has survived but is now blind. He takes refuge in music and in the kindness of Stella. Meanwhile, other veterans return, and their most serious wounds are not always visible.
Chapter 5: Only A Dream
Ivory could not remember the last time he had slept well. When he slept he woke up more exhausted. His mind seemed always to be in a blurry fog. His body had been through hell’s grinder and needed rest; his spirit knew of worse places. He just wanted to be left alone, to be left alone to close his eyes and finally get some peace.
He had one constant nightmare; everything else that he had experienced as a prisoner of war was lost in a deep, protecting haze. He had escaped from the Japanese prison camp, but he could not escape its nightmare. He told the doctors all he needed was a few short naps and he’d be fine.
Take two of these and you’ll sleep like a baby was their usual answer. No, the drugs would just take him exactly where he did not want to go. He tossed and turned, then he tried to get out of bed, his one good leg betraying him. The medication proved to be stronger than his will, and he fell back onto his bed in a deep, troubled sleep.
* * *
His nightmare always began the same way: waking on a hard earthen floor, drenched in a fever sweat, exhausted, his joints aflame, his skin screaming from the fire ants that fed on the lice that swarmed across his flesh. This is the way he had woken every day he had been a prisoner of the Japanese.
He woke never knowing if he had slept. The morning was hot; the sun was not yet over the jungle canopy; the air was combustible, a miasma of jungle rot mixed with the stench of death palatable to all his senses. His latest bout of malaria had left him flushed and fuzzy; infected sores and tropical ulcers plagued his wasted flesh. The tattered remains of his uniform crusted with filth hung like strips of carrion. His extended gut ached with hunger; his tongue was swollen and raw.
This morning he had not been able to eat his meager ration of rice. Despite the heat and stifling jungle humidity his body shook with chills. He rose, fearing a beating if he did not, and stumbled out to his work detail. His limbs swollen with symptoms of beriberi made his walk a stumbling gait as he caught up with Sergeant Ware.
“How many?” Sergeant Ware asked without turning to look back at Ivory. The sergeant wore only a loincloth made of what was left of his uniform. His hair was long and matted with mud, dried excrement, and crud. His beard carried thirteen months of the same.
“Too many.” Ivory answered his voice weak and lethargic. He and the sergeant were on burial detail. Nine prisoners who had died in the tunnels overnight lay stacked like cordwood at the entrance. Five other prisoners had died in the camp from disease, abuse, or despair.
Ivory and the sergeant waited, eyes to the ground, as a guard beat a malingerer with a bukuto — a wooden practice sword. When he finished they went to collect the body. The man weighed next to nothing as they struggled to lift him.
“Six,” the sergeant groused. “If this keeps up there won’t be enough of us left to finish the tunnels.”
“He’s alive,” Ivory said. The beaten man’s lungs rose and fell in his pitifully shrunken chest.
The sergeant shook his head. “No, he’s dead all right. God just ain’t found him yet. That’s just his spirit, tired and broken, pleading to be taken from this hell.”
They carried the body to the edge of a cliff, the rocky river bed sixty feet below an open graveyard, then swung him over the side as they had the bodies of the men who had died the day before and the day before that.
“I gave him my word.” Ivory said. His body shook with malarial chills as sweat beaded on his forehead.
The sergeant reached out to steady him. If he were to collapse, and be seen by a guard, he would be gutted with a bayonet and thrown over the side. There were no replacements available and the sergeant knew that he couldn’t do the job on his own.
“I promised to visit his folks if I made it out of here and he didn’t.” He looked down at the horrid stack of cadavers. The sergeant could barely hold him upright as Ivory looked at him with a pained expression. “I... I can’t remember who he was.”
They turned back towards a stack of cadavers outside the tunnel entrance. One lone tear seeped out and evaporated leaving a short salty grimy trail. “Sarge, who was he?”
The sergeant pinched what was left of the flesh on Ivory’s forearm, trying not to draw blood because nothing healed and the slightest wound invited infection. Regardless a small spot of blood oozed forth. He nodded, then spat from a dry mouth. “It don’t matter,” Sergeant Ware said. “If we don’t get out of here we’ll be joining them soon enough.”
He looked at Ivory, weighed what he saw, then took a good measure of himself. “I figure it might be two, three days at the most before they slaughter the lot of us. The Japs don’t want no witnesses to what they’re burying in the tunnels. They’re in a hurry to get out of here themselves and want no trace left behind.”
He stopped talking while they loaded three bodies into a wobbly wheelbarrow and moved awkwardly back towards the cliff, where they stopped three yards short of the cliff’s edge. Sergeant Ware squatted in the hot sun, his hands still on the handles of the death cart for support. “You and me are China Marines, most likely the last of our outfit still standing. If we die here no one will know what happened to some of the best men the Marine Corps ever produced.”
He rubbed his cheek, grimaced, then pulled a rotten tooth from his mouth, which he bounced a couple of times in his hand before giving it a gentle toss towards the cliff’s edge. He spat a bloody spot of phlegm a he glanced cautiously around to see if any of the guards were paying attention.
The sun was at its height, and when it beat straight down the guards sought shelter in the entryway of the tunnels to keep cool. The camp appeared empty of life except for the two wretched souls who struggled with the death cart in the blazing sun.
“Doubt we’ll get any better shot at getting out than right now. You with me? There’s an animal track along the cliff about thirty yards out at the bend in the river. It’s too steep to take us down all the way, but it looks like the pool at the river’s edge might be deep enough to make a jump for it.”
Ivory shook his head, confused. He knew that the Japs guarded the narrow trek, the only path in or out. They had carved it through the hardwood and sucker vines. There was no need for a fence. Escape in this jungle was suicide, especially in the prisoners’ condition.
The Japs had a standing order that for every man who tried to escape they would execute twelve. The last man who had tried had been captured and burned alive, after he had witnessed the executions of twelve of his fellow prisoners.
Sergeant Ware, his body shaking with malarial chills and fear, cocked his head. “You are thinkin’, why try, it don’t matter? Every man jack here is dead. You. Me. We stay here we’re dead, and that is God’s honest truth.”
He tried to spit and came up dry. His voice crackled from lack of moisture. “Only there ain’t no God.” He looked out at the vast green canopy that ate the horizon. His Adam’s apple worked its way up his emaciated neck. “The jungle isn’t going to give us much more of a chance, but it’s all we got. You with me?”
The sun beat down. Ivory’s head pounded with a relentless headache. Every single bone, each muscle, every inch of skin ached. There wasn’t much left of him that cared anymore. “I’m... I’m...” A spasm in his gut caused him to winch as his dysentery ran another lap. He couldn’t answer.
He squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to shake off the fog. He was sick in so many ways and just wanted to lie down in the cool shade and let it all go. There was shade but none cool; the air was hot and hard to breathe.
He gathered the last reserves of his strength and opened his eyes only to find that he was staring into the sightless eyes of one of the carcasses in the wheelbarrow. Sergeant Ware was gone. “Wait.” He had no choice but to follow.
The jungle crowded the cliff’s edge where thick, moss-covered branches hung low. Sharp thorny vines tore at his skin. Insects buzzed, swarmed, and he waved his hands to protect his eyes. He strained to breathe, the air a thick, hot porridge smelling of jungle rot mingled with the odors of the graveyard below. The river was an illusion beneath a pall of steaming humidity.
Frantic, he spun around and tried to follow the sergeant’s tracks, while at the same time searching desperately for the telltale flash of sun off the muzzle of a Jap rifle raised in his direction. Dysentery doubled him up with a mind-numbing spasm. His vision swam dizzily as his strength failed him.
He heard a splash as somewhere ahead Sergeant Ware took his leap for freedom. His bowels released and he fell forward, his energy sapped. He was unable to move; the heat, stench and fear formed a rolling fog in his muddled mind. He wasn’t afraid of dying. It was the terror of being caught by the Japanese that screamed at him to get up, to keep moving.
Sergeant Ware froze. The trail was steep and narrow, the earth beneath his feet loose and crumbly. He wasn’t close enough to jump, but couldn’t get any closer: he glimpsed a nine-man Japanese patrol through a break in the jungle across the river below.
He was a sitting duck. Small stones and loose earth slipped out from beneath his feet, a small landslide that in moments would cascade into the quiet river below. All they had to do was look up. The trail gave way. He flung himself towards a small ledge that he hoped might conceal him from hostile eyes below.
He landed with an audible UMMMPH. A rib snapped, driving the air painfully from his chest. He rolled frantic for a handhold. It sounded as if half the mountain had splashed into the river below.
The first shot drove a million birds screeching from the jungle canopy. The echo of the rifle shot died in the chorus of startled birds as they lifted from the trees filling the skies with their rush of wings and sharp cries.
Ivory had not heard the shot nor the riotous cries of the jungle. He had lost consciousness. His body was hidden in dark shadows. There were more shots. He remained hidden until the heat of the sun dropped below a neighboring mountain peak.
He woke. A leech clung to an infected jungle-rot sore on his green moss-stained cheek. He tried to grasp his surroundings. The jungle floor grew dark with murky shadows.
If he stayed where he was, the Japs would find only his bones in the morning. He remembered the wheelbarrow and the dead man’s face — a hundred faces — ghosts urging him on. The sergeant had gone without him and he hadn’t the strength to follow. He thought of the river, the cool shallow water below. A peaceful way to die. So many waited for him there.
Ivory heard the camp scream to life: “TENKO! TENKO!” The alarm had been raised. The camp was just on the other side of the trees. The Japs were tense; the camp commander was screaming for a roll call, the fifth for the day.
“SPEEDO!” The guards were afraid, for if there was a successful escape one of them would face the wrath of their Commander. People would die for the Sergeant Ware’s foolish flight.
Ivory winced as he pulled the leech from his cheek and slowly chewed it for the protein. His throat was so dry that the moisture from the leech was barely enough to allow him to swallow it. He continued to chew as he reached up into the mossy undergrowth and began to climb up into the dark.
Guards screamed and beat the path near the cliff’s edge, stabbing into the thick foliage with their rifles and long bayonets. None looked up; their screams masked any sounds from his escape. The dark curtain of night that was falling swiftly across the jungle would render their search short. The Japs were as afraid as he was of what lurked in the jungle at night. Ivory climbed into the dark as high as he could; then he stripped off his rags and tied himself to the branches lest he fall.
From the height at which Ivory was hanging, there was no dawn, nothing so merciful. Instead there was an explosion, a searing nova that struck his exhausted eyes like red-hot needles. He had not slept as he hung suspended in the night. His malarial chills had returned, and it had taken all of his will-power to keep his teeth from clattering and his shaking from giving away his hiding perch.
Without mercy the sun moved from warm to cruel heat and began to scorch the jungle with a blinding yellowish-white glare highlighting Ivory’s pale, ashen flesh against the deep green foliage. From his perch he could see down into the camp where the prisoners had stood all night as the Japs demanded one roll call after another.
Three bodies lay in a pool of gore where they had been beheaded. Another three were kneeling at the edge of the execution pit. Panic stole reason, and Ivory tried to untie the frail cloth that bound him to the tree.
He was in plain sight, hard to miss. A guard had only to look up and that would be the end. The branches cracked with protest as he struggled with the knotted cloth. He froze as he saw the eyes of several of the prisoners gaze up at him. His fingers, swollen, tore at the cloth in desperation as the eyes of the Japanese Commanding Officer followed their gaze.
“Soooo!!” He raised and pointed his sword at Ivory’s naked form twisting and turning in the tree branches. “Ketojin!” the officer screamed.
A soldier raised his rife and fired.
The cloth tore just as the bullet sheared a small branch inches from Ivory’s shoulder.
He fell, caught a branch, fell again, grasped one that held and hung on for dear life. Shots, too many, too close. He could hear the Japs crashing through the undergrowth. The branch snapped, and he dropped. His hands were scraped raw as he reached out.
He screamed as he landed squarely on the back of a Jap soldier. They rolled near the cliff’s edge. The Jap, outraged, smaller, though stronger than he, pinned him to the ground with one arm and raised his bayonet with the other.
* * *
Ivory thrashed wildly in his bedding. “Wake up! It’s only a dream,” someone said. “Wake up!” Strong hands held him down as he fought for his life. The bayonet raised and started to fall. He tried to run, his amputated leg useless as he opened his eyes, his terror beyond measure.
“Easy, fella, it’s only a dream. I’ve got you.” Henry Akita said.
Ivory’s eyes went wide as he shrieked at the sight of his Nisei face.
“Easy Ivory, it’s only a dream.”
The terror slowly faded from Ivory’s eyes.
The only sounds Ivory heard were the words “it’s only a dream,” the pounding of his own heart, and in the distance someone singing sweet and low with a piano whose music sounded as pretty as a waterfall in springtime.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith