1955 – India
Leather restraints chewed deep into his wrists like salty sweat and dirt scrubbed into raw, bloody flesh, when he turned his right hand under the direction where the restraint bolted to the table. He brought his clenched fingers under … over … under … over … and when the buckle busted with a hard clank and a ping from part of the buckle striking the cobblestone wall far to the right, he flinched. His hand throbbed and stung, and his acid-logged ribs, chest, back and shoulders shuddered with spasms as he brought his arm up, hand pointed to the dirty yellow light overhead. When he regained feeling, he unbuckled the left wrist and shot upright to unbuckle ankle restraints. The last restraint hit the table as the bolt in the wooden plank door ground in its braces before it slammed open.
Frozen, Raymond watched two oily barrels of German rifles ease into the light before their Nazi handlers, eyes concealed in shadows of helmets, entered with a figure between them who remained a bulky shadow.
“Now, gentlemen,” the man in the middle, bulked by heavy trench coat, said in German, “and I'm certain we'll all stay gentlemen ...” He walked to the simple wooden table and chairs to Raymond's left, bathed in white light from a lamp swaying overhead. When he removed his hat and placed it on the table, slicked back hair over dark eyes rang familiar in Raymond's head. The man sat across the table from Raymond and let the long coat over his shoulders drop back to the chair back. Dark, soft eyes watched Raymond, the face a still mask of something … superiority, a dignity. “You will come here? Sit with me here at the table?”
Raymond spun to let rubbery legs dangle, and when he slipped to his feet, he reached behind him to grab the table before he regained strength and shuffled to the table to pull a chair and land on the seat, slumped.
They faced one another, the high ranking man, with no insignia but a swastika, who folded his hands in his lap. He regarded his hands, worked his neck around in his collar and jutted his chin out to stare at Raymond.
“You take a cigarette, my friend? Yes?” He looked up and motioned to the guard to Raymond's right, who shoved a cigarette into Raymond's lips with a bitter sprinkling of tobacco on his tongue and brought a flame heavy with fuel fumes to the cigarette's tip.
Raymond drew flame into tobacco. The flame disappeared with a heavy clank as Raymond let out the smoke and rested his hand on his thigh. Smoke ribbons curled up into the light. The man smiled and nodded.
“Good.” He appraised Raymond. “I am Albert Speer.”
Raymond watched his dignified gaze and smiled through the body-lightening buzz from nicotine. “Why would they bring me to you?”
“I am an architect – a designer.”
“Yes, but why you?”
He shook his head and glanced up and away before he looked at Raymond. “Fate has its good reasons, I suppose.”
They remained in silence. Raymond drew from the potent, smelly cigarette again and relaxed.
“I understand you come to us from quite a fight.”
“Aren't you worried?”
Strange images flashed through Raymond's head as he looked at the floor.
“Aren't you the slightest bit concerned?”
Raymond smiled. “If you can give me good enough reason … then I will consider it.”
“You fear death?”
“Death in this life, in this form … and I am to be worried?”
“You are a brave man.” He looked at the guard to Raymond's right. “Look at this brave man – this brave Russian soldier … in the American uniform … who speaks German entirely too well.” He stared at Raymond as any amusement in his expression died. “So, what are you?”
“Don't be coy. You're Russian? American? German?”
“It doesn't matter, all these artificial titles you so believe in.”
“Then what are we?”
“Murdering eugenicists,” Raymond said in a flat, hard voice. “You see, this is what divides you and me.”
“What about this makes me so awful?” He looked skyward. “My leader – my leader is a genius.” He stared at Raymond. “I longed to see him come to power, and I long to see him win even still. What is so wrong with us? There are too many people in the world. There are only a few resources to go around to the strongest and best. There are races and people out there – look, we are looking to build a productive society, a strong society, a society where people can work and make their living, where people can provide for their families –”
“So long as they're –”
“So long as they're like you, my friend!” He laughed and the smile remained as he gestured towards Raymond. “Look at you, my friend! Aryan – through and through. Close to perfection.” He watched Raymond. “And we … we have such a task for you. That's what this little exercise – and I apologize about our means – that's what this little exercise regards. Your willingness to assist in this matter. You were just another capture, you know, until my intervention in your matter. You are a Marine. An Intelligence Marine for the United States, all the way in our Eastern Campaign. We cannot let Czechoslovakia be the edge of our frontier, and we cannot … we absolutely cannot allow enemy forces on the other side of this barren frontier, because they will cross it and occupy it, no matter how radioactive it still is.”
“So you've brought me here to bring peace to the world and end the war, hm?” Raymond looked at the floor as his shoulders bounced with a laugh.
Speer looked up at the guards and motioned them away. When they hesitated, he nodded. “You may go. I will talk with him alone.”
They shuffled out and closed the door, but the bolt never sounded. Speer settled into his seat with a deep sigh.
“You will report something for us.”
Raymond watched him and dropped the cigarette on the floor in a spray of sparks to stomp it out.
“You are familiar with the Chinese. You will know how to find this out for us.”
“There is a bridge in China … it is resupplying forces against our Japanese counterparts. You will be transported there.”
“Why don't you and your friends bomb it, then?”
“We can't find it.”
“Then how do you know where to take me?”
“Because it is a legend. It is a place of legend. It is a bridge that allows resupply to front lines against the Japanese, but it cannot be seen with the naked eye.” He let that set in. “It cannot be found. It cannot be seen by our bombers, our reconnaissance – any of it. Any missions sent there never come back. The villagers there live in total peace amidst all this chaos. They have everything they need. They cannot be strangled off. They are somehow untouched.”
“So you are asking me to destroy one of the last, most peaceful places in the world.”
“You are so silly with your ignorant ideals. Don't be brash, sir. No. I am an architect. I want to know how that bridge is made. Tell us everything of it. It could mean supply routes which are untouchable for us.” He sat up, uncrossing his legs, and laced his fingers on the table. “Had we not obliterated Eastern Europe in 1944 with our doomsday weapon … we would have been backed against a wall, we could have very well lost this war. Come now, Raymond … we have been engaged in this ridiculousness for roughly twenty years. This is insanity. It is.” He shook his head and held out a hand. “You don't want to keep doing this. This must be done, and, by now, does it matter how it ends?”
“With everyone dead except the German people?”
“No-no-no … you have to be tired –”
“And so … why am I selected for this?”
“You know the Chinese … you are Russian –”
“And you know this how?”
“Your personnel record.”
“How did you get this?”
“An American sold it to us – someone who understands our work.”
Raymond stared into Speer's soft, watery, dark eyes. A machine clicked away in his head.
“I'll do this for you.”
“Wonderful,” Speer said with a sudden grin, slapping his hands on the table.
The truck's leaf-spring suspension bounced Raymond on the wooden bar seat of the German transport. In the blackness, leaves caught gray moonlight in a rustling mosaic of black and varying shades of gray, while the road split the lurking darkness with a swath of light gray dust stirred from the rutted, dark gray road.
Dirt narrowed his nostrils and gritted in his teeth. When he dug into the corner of his eye, a heavy crumb of something fell out. With a blink, eyesight glazed over in a haze and eyelids stiffened. Something rustled deep in the leaves. Raymond looked off over the trees as the transport took a curve, and he hunted out some sliver of the moon only to be disappointed by trees closing in over the road and more dust.
A gang of pops of varying intensity triggered the flash and loud crack that rocked the truck up on two wheels as instinct put Raymond on the steel deck. Brakes squealed as guards returned fire from the truck. When the truck's rocking subsided, Raymond slipped over the rear gate and dropped to the dirt road to fall on his side. He scurried to the tree line, where a hand grabbed his wrist.
“Friend,” Raymond said in Chinese in a huff. “Péngyŏu.”
Branches smacked him as gunfire trailed off in the distance, and they lowered over a ridge, where Raymond switched his footing sideways to keep upright.
“I am your friend, too,” an older man's rough voice said in Chinese.
Blurry-eyed, Raymond followed how the man pulled him, and they turned at a stream to follow its course right. The grip slipped away while Raymond blinked hard several times to clear his vision, sweat forming on his forehead.
“You follow me,” the voice said as his short shadow hesitated long enough to snag Raymond's wrist again and lead him into the shallow, babbling water, where they splashed.
“I know,” he said. They changed course, out of the water, and trudged over the sharp rocks at the stream's bank.
The fire danced with shadows over Long Yi's face as he stoked the flames with the charred end of a branch. Long Yi's grandson, nearly a man himself, sat on the ground at Long Yi's feet and watched Raymond.
“Do you speak much Chinese?” he asked, narrow eyes widening as he looked aside to Raymond, who sat on a felled log, feet crossed and knees sticking up and out as he shoveled rice from the bowl with his chopsticks.
Raymond lowered his forearms to his thighs, bowl in one hand, and chopsticks in the other. “I do not speak Chinese well,” he said. “I know a little Chinese.”
“What do you speak well?” Long Yi said to the fire.
“English,” Raymond said in English.
“Russian,” Raymond said in Russian.
“I know someone who speaks Russian,” Long Yi said, and then he smiled. “She may be a problem for you.” He laughed, and then he nudged his grandson's shoulder.
His grandson rolled up on one knee, but he hesitated and stared at Long Yi. Long Yi gestured away with one hand, which started his grandson on his race into the darkness, feet smacking hard-packed earth.
Raymond finished the bowl of rice and Long Yi managed the fire before his grandson returned, breathless, eyes widened to his grandfather before he took his seat again. A small woman in a brown uniform with red squares on the lapels and glaring eyes stepped into the fire's light and turned her stern gaze from Long Yi to Raymond. Raymond placed the chopsticks in the bowl on the ground.
They stared at one another, the woman's brow stern.
“And who are you?” she asked in Russian.
“Mikhail Pastukhin,” Raymond said, “but my name was changed to Raymond Smith when I came to America.”
“This is why you have the American uniform?”
“You were what the Germans were transporting?” It was more of a statement.
Raymond blinked and nodded. “Yes.”
She looked at Long Yi and switched to Chinese: “What else did they have?”
Long Yi laughed and looked away, and then he looked up at her again. “This is the treasure.”
Raymond cocked his head at Long Yi, and then he looked at the woman. “Did he say treasure?”
“You were a prisoner?” she said.
“What else was there? Did you hear anything about something very valuable coming through?”
Raymond smiled. “Just me.”
“Puh,” she said. “Why were they transporting you alone?”
“I was supposed to tell you I was being transported to the Japanese, but Albert Speer showed up and told me of a bridge that cannot be seen with the naked eye, and they want to know how to build such a bridge.”
“Who are you to report to?”
“They never told me anyone to report to. I suppose they thought I would return on my own for some reason, but I will keep going.”
“To … to fight the Japanese. To get back with my unit.”
“You are Intelligence?”
“What do you do?”
“We go forward of basic operations to obtain information at critical junctures. I work closely with Soviet forces on the Korean and Mongolian fronts.”
She scanned him up and down. “Hm. You're here to see the bridge.”
“Believe me … I don't know that I care about this bridge. I want to do my job.”
“Can you stay with us?”
“I can. I'm officially captured.”
She looked at Long Yi. “He will stay with me.”
“I am no one to question you,” Long Yi said in Chinese, “and I know your modern Communist ideas are new and unusual for my old brain, but he could just as easily and perhaps more comfortably, stay with me.”
She scanned Raymond again and put her hands on her hips to lean forward, throwing a hand out in dismissal. “Good, then, he'll stay with you. You can acquaint him with things.” She pivoted and stomped off.
Long Yi laughed. “You will thank me later.”
When Long Yi introduced Raymond, the villagers gathered, some giggling behind hands, others reaching forward and poking him in the shoulder or the arm. They called him giant and examined him, even when Raymond and Long Yi walked away to the dirt road that led to the enormous rice paddy, where dirty water rippled, waving green weeds growing from its bed. Long Yi sat on a ridge overlooking the rice paddy.
Hsiao Feng stomped up in her Communist uniform and planted her hands on her hips as Raymond sat down next to Long Yi.
“I am to translate. You cannot walk around freely without a translator. You make me look lazy.”
She plopped down next to Raymond.
Long Yi spoke in Chinese.
“He says to translate this,” Hsiao Feng said, switching her glance between Raymond and Long Yi, but as he spoke, her lips clamped as her brow grew sterner. “He said that I am not supposed to interrogate you, we will never turn Communist, and I am about to tell him what a mean, nasty, old man he is!”
They went back and forth in Chinese.
“Wait-wait-wait,” Raymond interrupted. “Wait.”
“You have a wonderful village full of wonderful people here,” Raymond said, switching between them, “and I am grateful for all the hospitality you have extended … but I need to get towards Mongolia. I need to report who they have on the Indian Front, troop numbers I've observed, actions … that Speer is there ...”
Long Yi started in Chinese, which Hsiao Feng translated:
“Take yourself down the road about three miles. In fact, why don't we all go there, close to the woods where you were taken from in the attack? We will –” her eyes widened with worry as she followed Long Yi's suit and stood, watching him – “We will all go. I will show you myself.”
She went after him with agitated rattling in Chinese, as he trudged along with his staff bobbing, shuffling along the dirt road, his whole body silent and resigned, but Hsiao Feng unleashed a panicked speech as she raced ahead of him to watch his face.
Raymond stood and followed light and relaxed, reinvigorated from last night's dinner, sleep, and a good breakfast. As he followed the frail steps, Hsiao Feng glanced back in breaths between phrases. Long Yi walked and said nothing.
Trees rustled in cool breezes, and Raymond heard the return of the stream. Long Yi stopped at the edge of a road, where he turned and said something.
“We have to cross the stream and go to the other side of the ridge,” Hsiao Feng said. “The other side is the side where I found you.”
Raymond followed them down the hill, dirt breaking loose under his sideways steps. They splashed across the rolling, clear water; pebbles made things slick in some places, and new rocks felt like they could stab through the worn-thin soles of his boots. They trudged up the other bank, more dirt making all three of them lurch forward and use hands to climb. They crossed through more trees at the top of the bank, and then the clearing opened up. Raymond scanned black pits in the ground as a familiar smell filled his nose, tightened his throat and made his eyes water. He had started off good with smells – odors – but as he aged, they made his body lock harder each time he encountered them. When he scanned harder, Raymond spotted mounds among the higher grasses, dried black blood with bodies turned blue, white, swollen, some rupturing open a dark pink striated with glistening red, from the sunlight. Long Yi ventured forward, but Hsiao Feng hissed something at him. He waved behind him, poking the ground with his staff, head scanning back and forth. He stepped up to one of the mounds and motioned for Raymond, squinting under his rice bowl hat.
When Raymond stepped out, Hsiao Feng cautioned: “Follow his footsteps exactly.”
Raymond paused to look at her, and then he searched the ground for every footstep. When he joined Long Yi, Long Yi squinted at Raymond with tears in his eyes, and his voice was thick.
“This was my cousin. This was my cousin.”
Raymond looked down to stare at eyes bulging in terror from a head set up carefully on the ground, set only on his jaw and the place where the Japanese had removed his body. His mouth sat wide to accommodate flesh stuffed inside, and when he looked closer, Raymond spotted the head of a penis and the swollen, overflowing sack of a scrotum underneath, black blood having dried in rivulets down the outside of his silent, screaming mouth.
When Raymond scanned, he found decapitated bodies of French fighters grouped with Chinese. Not a body had a head … but not a head had a body. As the old man looked down, then looked up at Raymond with such horror and grief, something broke in Raymond, and he reached out to place an arm around the old man's neck and hug him as he looked at the creamy blue sky.
“Is this only as far as they get?” Raymond said to Hsiao Feng.
“Only for now,” she said. “We used to have fortifications here, but they've filled them up.”
“Why did they stop advancing?”
“Nationalist forces came from the South. The Japanese high command was taken by surprise, and so they redirected them to move south.”
“What do they want here?”
“They want the bridge.”
Raymond tilted his head at her.
“We are the keepers of the bridge.”
“Long Yi,” a man's voice yelled through the door as Raymond, Long Yi and Hsiao Feng looked up at the door. “You have a giant in there! I have heard of it!”
Another series of pounds followed as the three of them looked at one another, mouths popped open in surprise. A pan fell from the wall in delayed trauma from the knocks. Long Yi stood, but Raymond placed a hand on his shoulder and took his place.
“They say –” Hsiao Feng started.
Raymond motioned to her to be seated and crossed the wooden floor to the door. When he opened the door, two men with belligerent faces broke into smiles.
“There is a giant here.”
Raymond and the man in the lead stared at one another. Both men outside the door wore gray robes and still shaved their foreheads, long queues down their backs. The man in the lead poked Raymond in the chest.
“I am the champion of Duàn Yì.”
Raymond smiled down at him.
“I am here to defeat the giant and be a legend.”
His companion laughed.
Long Yi charged out of the house, shoved past Raymond with Hsiao Feng in pursuit, then he circled to the men's right sides to jab a bent finger at them.
“You have no business here!”
“Hsiao Feng,” Raymond said.
She looked at him.
“What have they been saying?” he said as he watched them with a mild smile, but he kept eyes on them.
She repeated it all in Russian.
“Tell them I have no challenge with any Chinese. I have challenge with Japanese and Germans – the people who have been terrorizing them –”
She rattled it off as he spoke.
“– that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
She said it, but she turned to Raymond with worried eyes. “They are too stupid.”
As the last word left her mouth, the first man, the speaker, hit a traditional horse stance and shot a fist out with a yell. Raymond smiled, but his eyes softened, brows relaxed. He turned sideways, facing the man, arms bent, the trailing arm over him, the other arm extended and bent, like a sidelong boxing stance, heels off the ground. The man let out one dramatic laugh, cocking his head back. Raymond shook his head and smiled.
When the man charged, Raymond's arm formed a blur that rocked the man back on his heels. Raymond held his stance. The man's angry brows relaxed into dumb wonder as blood ran over his lower lip. A brown tooth tumbled onto the dirt before the man fell on his butt, still dumb-faced before he collapsed back. The companion ran.
Raymond looked down at the challenger. “Sad.”
When he turned to enter the house, Long Yi grabbed Raymond's arm. Long Yi nodded and smiled.
“Indulge me, Bái Lóng,” he said.
Raymond smiled, but the old man launched a fist at his head as Raymond smacked the incoming wrist with his, hand raised with fingers extended up and head aside. The old man rotated in a jerk to launch finger pointed in a spear at his eye as Raymond did the same maneuver. The old man shuffled back, but Raymond slid forward, popped his lead hand out, and as Long Yi raised his block, Raymond smacked his side lightly with the top of his foot before he returned to ready.
Long Yi laughed and waved a finger at Raymond, eyes narrowed.
“You were hiding something from us,” Hsiao Feng said in translation. “We have a gung fu man here.”
Raymond looked up from the deep, rocky valley to watch ropes wobble against the creamy, light azure sky. When they pulled taut, Long Yi let out a laugh. Between the ropes, as a single airplane roared in the distance, cloth filled the space, pulled tight. The image of one truck, then another, painted on the fabric on wire frames for each vehicle, eased out over them. Long Yi let another laugh between glances skyward and then at Raymond, who grinned as he watched. A set of diesel engines putted in echoes until they emerged through overhanging grasses on the valley's rock wall. Long Yi yanked Raymond back from the convoy. When they stepped back far enough, Raymond watched a single Mitsubishi Zero buzz overhead.
“We go,” Long Yi said before he grabbed Raymond's wrist and led him to another tree line in the valley.
They picked up pace as the Zero buzzed in harder. The last of the convoy followed the dirt road next to the bluff, accelerating, and when Raymond and Long Yi dropped behind a boulder, the Zero – a massive body of silver – pounded into the ground before it split and erupted into an orange ball of flame that swept tree branches over them and felt like it split Raymond's eardrums. When black smoke rolled in, Raymond popped up while his head throbbed with a frequency that counted every other beat of the high, whistling ringing in his ears.
Wind in the valley carried smoke away in a billowing ribbon and cleared the view of a black human form, flames licking off of him in the cockpit, as he writhed and beat against the glass, but when his head cracked the glass canopy in some desperate, animal reflex, he dropped to the instrument panel, black smoke rolled in the absence of wind, then Raymond watched his blackened skin rupture open and spill clear fats mixed with blood. The pilot twitched once before he succumbed.
Raymond watched fire, certain it crackled, but the ringing grew louder and ached throughout his head as smooth, acrid jet petrol burned. Something else in the aircraft discharged noiselessly in a ball of flame that erupted up and dissipated into more black smoke. Raymond stared at the dead, eroding pilot, flames eating him down to his skeleton. Long Yi pulled his arm.
Raymond followed him, and as they walked he scanned again the wreckages of other planes that had been stripped, skeletons of beams and loops. When they passed the mouth of the cave, villagers covered it again with long grasses and branches. They passed another opening, where villagers prepared camouflage for the tunnel opening.
“Where …” Raymond felt only vibrations of his own voice in his skull.
Long Yi trusted Raymond to follow him along the valley, back to the stream, where the pilot's face played out in Raymond's head, some strange movie of him saying goodbye to his family – a wife and two children, cheery-faced, proud, already lonely without their father – and he, proudly sent off by his entire town or village to go fight the evil gai jin, already a hero draped in a red and white flag. Yosh. Banzai.
He followed Long Yi between trees, under waving branches, over ground dappled with dancing sunlight, everything quiet and slow, and everything like a dream. When they reached the emptied village, Raymond followed Long Yi into his house, where he sat at the table. Long Yi turned his back and brought out two plates of gelatinous bean curd and noodles. When Long Yi sat, elbows out on the table and posture slumped over dinner, Raymond watched him. He reached out for Long Yi's forearm. Long Yi looked at Raymond, pointed to his ear and shook his head. Raymond waited, something in the old face speaking to him of wisdom, gentleness, unspoken right and good.
“Why is this bridge important?” Raymond said to feel the vibration in his jaw and skull bones.
He watched the movie of the pilot again. It played over and over as he ate. He remembered faces … thousands of faces … about whom his brain had constructed similar movies without reason.
When he heard the door slam shut far off, Raymond turned to find Hsiao Feng and Long Yi's grandson, Dà Lóng.
She said something.
“We can't hear you,” Long Yi said.
“I can,” Raymond said in Russian, controlling his voice based on memory as comical films of him shouting played out. “I want to know … why is this bridge so important? Can't the Germans and the Japanese tell what it is?”
She shook her head, and the usually scolding expression melted into a smile as she sat next to him. “The bridge is not important. The supplies which get through are.”
“But they're – they're fixated on this bridge, they want to know all about this bridge.”
“Of course. Like anyone else, they see what they want to see, and what they want to see has nothing to do with what is real.”
Raymond shook his head. “But … wait,” he said as he shook his head.
“It's a painting of vehicles on a bridge,” she said with a laugh.
“I know, but they can't tell –”
She widened her eyes with her smile. “We have some good artists –”
“They're putting so much and time and resource into this. Aren't the Nationalists also fighting to defend it?”
He stared at her.
“It is too high and too well defended for them to understand it from the ground. They cannot enter the valley, and they cannot cross the stream. It is posted too deep in the valley for them to know it from the air. There is a stream of air that throws airplanes off their flight when they get too close. They put their equipment to it, and it shows them a ghost. They are convinced it is real, but it is not real the way they think it is. They are convinced our roads are fine, but their engines blow out. They try to cross on foot, but they fall into the stream and drown. The stream we cross all the time. When they try to get close to the bridge, they drive into the ground. They are determined, resolved – even into death – to know what it is – what we are – but they … they beat against the edges of their imagination. The edges of their imagination, the boundaries of their thinking, tell them this is a ghost bridge, something supernatural. And because it is such a wonderful thought, they must believe.”
In a frog-buttoned suit, Raymond shuffled with Long Yi’s shorter, slower steps while Dà Lóng, arms up in case of fall, watched Long Yi’s every step. The pitted and scarred gray cobblestones comprising the street passed underneath, dizzying to Raymond, so he watched Dà Lóng’s arms spring up-relax-pop up-drop when Long Yi's less steady steps threatened a tumble.
At the bamboo and red lumber framed temple, Buddha – shiny, fat and golden – smiled on them, candles blowing wax-scented heat at them. Raymond bowed with the other two as the abbot emerged, draped in ocher robes. He smiled, placed both hands palms together, and bowed to them. They regarded the Buddha with another look, Long Yi’s eyes wide, but Raymond watched the other two leave. With a sweeping motion, the narrow-eyed, smiling abbot invited Raymond to the shadowy back, and the short doorway earned bows from both to enter, Raymond twisting sideways to squeeze for narrow passage.
Dust from the dark room open to the courtyard of sand gardens danced and swirled in yellow sunlight beyond. Raymond smiled to the dance of all things and watched. The abbot sat on the floor, glanced back where Raymond watched, and then Raymond joined him across the short table.
Raymond stared at the abbot. The abbot narrowed his eyes and hunted around Raymond's head.
“Ha. Look at you,” the abbot said. He grinned and hunted with eyes only before he swayed a hand back and forth in front of Raymond's face. “Ha.”
Raymond smiled and kept his eyes neutral, but the abbot's joy spread, infecting him with a deep joy.
“Another Western man come to see me.”
“Oh, yes,” he said with widened eyes and a nod. “He is lighter than you. He is like you.”
The abbot waved his hand with disregard. “He glows, too.”
Raymond slid a hand down his face. “Because we're pale. Because we're white?”
He shook his head. “Okay … what do you know, Joe?” he said, cocking his head into his neck with a grin, like he had just made the most marvelous bon mot.
Raymond laughed. “Nothing.”
The abbot stared at him with a quick death to the smile.
“Neither do you.”
The abbot watched him. They remained in tableau. Raymond pulled a beautiful lotus from a large, clay vase on the table and held it up between them. As he adored it, the abbot switched between Raymond and the white flower. Raymond smiled. Tears rolled over the abbot’s cheeks. From Raymond’s left, a small outburst turned them; a young monk lowered to knees, smiling through tears. Raymond smiled to the rail-like young monk as he dropped the lotus to its place, bloomed from the vase’s mouth.
“Have you had a wonderful thought?”
The monk smiled brighter.
Raymond rose. The abbot snatched his hand.
“You are a teacher.”
He patted the abbot’s hand. “As are you.”
He left. In the street, Long Yi's brow stiffened to peer up at Raymond. In stroke-damaged voice, he asked:
“What did the abbot tell you?”
“Nothing you didn't already know?”
“No – he just told me nothing. I told him nothing back.” Raymond scanned crowded houses built wall-to-wall, sagging lines bearing clothes in front. “He's back there if you want to learn the talk.”
Wracking coughs killed Long Yi’s emerging laugh, but he waved off concern while they continued. “I – I'll leave him back there.”
Away from the temple, voices burbled from sprays of people that grew denser and thicker, but one voice shouted above them.
“And if this white dragon – this giant – truly is a giant … then he will be too slow!”
The crowd erupted. A man in gray robes stood atop a large stone dais.
“This is what we came for,” Raymond said to Long Yi. He edged through shifting people and mounted the circle to face the bald man who grinned like a tiger.
Left fist pressed in his flat right hand’s palm, Raymond bowed.
“He is like a ghost!” someone shouted, shrill. A group laughed.
The opponent laughed. “Yes, this great ghost – let him come for me.” He strode large steps around his side of the circle. “Do I have anything to fear of you?” he said with a nod and a pointing arm.
“No,” Raymond said. He smiled and shook his head.
The opponent charged. Raymond waited. When he stopped to punch, Raymond slid past and smacked him on the head. Eyes wide, the man spun, but he stood straight and pushed his chest out with a grin.
“I don't fall for these devil tricks.”
He sprang, but Raymond glided back like a magnet’s charge pushed him. The trailing heel lifted, Raymond dropped as the kick whizzed overhead, and the opponent spun down to one knee facing away from him. Raymond stood. The opponent grunted to his feet, face ugly with rage. He shot forward, fists clenched and leg pumping, as Raymond dropped to one knee in a bow again. The opponent dove over his shoulder, off the dais. Amidst gasps, Raymond kept his head down. He stood with a pivot to seek and find his sleeping opponent propped between gape-mouthed students. Raymond repeated his bow, and then he searched for Long Yi, who beckoned Raymond with a downturned hand’s scooping motion.
The crowd parted for them. Once clear, Long Yi grumbled. They walked.
“Can I speak with you?” someone from behind said in crisp American English – proud, clear.
They all stopped and turned.
The lean, angular, blond flat-topped man with the aqua blue eyes watched the party. Having just taken it from his head, he held a brown fedora in his right hand, brown trousers crisp, white shirt sleeves rolled in broad cuffs to the elbow.
“Are you American?” the man said. Something in the arch of his brows and the curl of his mouth suggested amusement.
Raymond blinked and stared at him. His mouth worked to refuse his command.
“Who are you?”
He stepped forward with a hand out, which he watched as he approached in what Raymond thought an awkward gesture.
Raymond shook his hand.
“I'm –” he looked down, and then his lips tightened into a smile, face low and eyes wide – “I used to be – a Colonel in the United States Marine Corps.”
Raymond's brow tensed, and then he relaxed. “Chief Warrant Officer Raymond Smith, United States Marine Corps.”
Bennett's brows flew up. “Wow. A CWO. All the way here.”
Raymond lowered his face. “I may not be a CWO for anything anymore, I'm afraid.”
His mouth turned down while he shook his head. “There's nothing wrong with that.” He scanned Raymond. “Can I walk with you guys?”
Raymond switched to Chinese: “He wants to walk with us.”
Long Yi’s viewed Bennett with narrowed eyes, brows down, face still. He waved a dismissing hand at Bennett and walked away. Bennett jogged to them as Raymond followed Long Yi.
“I suppose he doesn't like me,” Bennett said.
“He knows something,” Raymond said.
Bennett’s lips parted in surprise.
“I'm not being insulting,” Raymond said. “He knows many things. He is expecting great injury.”
They walked on.
“No-no-no,” Bennett said, chopping flat hands back and forth, one over the other. “I – I can't go all the way back to your village. I can't.”
They stopped in the road, but Long Yi shoved in:
“We are going back to the village, that is where we live –
“Ray, what is he saying?”
“– and we don't care if you go or not! You can stay here, go there,” he yelled waving a hand around in broad strokes of the arm, “or go to California, for all we care –
“– but let us be!”
Bennett stared at Raymond; Long Yi appraised Bennett.
Long Yi’s innocent face joined sadness and weariness in his voice: “Bái Lóng … tell this man we're going to our village. Tell him he can come or go – I don't care – but we are going there. He is a good man, I know this …” Long Yi softened, his shoulders sinking with his gaze, “but I …” he shook his head and turned away. “I expect trouble from him. You can tell him this if you want, and I know it is my failing as a person that agitates me against him, but I expect great troubles from him.”
“I will do as you ask,” Raymond said. He turned to Bennett. “Long Yi says you can come with us to our village, or you can go, he doesn't care which, but we're going to our village because that is where we live.”
“Did he say anything else?”
“Nothing of consequence.”
Bennett sighed, eyes up, but frustration surrendered to uprightness. “How long?”
“Not far,” Raymond said. He extended an arm to Bennett and joined the party already leaving.
Bennett followed when Raymond dropped his arm.
“Did you know – well, how long have you been out of civilization?”
“Well – Western civilization.”
“It's like Gandhi said … ‘Western civilization would be a good idea.’” Raymond scanned a bamboo grove. “I came here … I'm fairly certain it was 1955.”
“It's 1962, Ray. Seven years.”
Raymond watched the passing ground. “Hm.”
“Haven't you ever wondered what's going on in the world?”
“We went north to try to find my unit. General Chiang was slaughtering Communists to keep them in check. One of our friends was killed in that.”
“So you never left Tiāntáng?”
“Oh, I've been challenged, so the village wants me to go to represent them.”
“Like that fight back there?”
“Are you ever coming back to America?”
“Perhaps not, I think.”
“You've really assimilated.” Bennett swiped an encroaching branch. “The Germans have signed a non-aggression pact …”
“Perhaps this one will go just as well as the one with Stalin.”
Bennett chuckled. “Hitler's been in real bad health for a long time.”
“So he just wants Germany to be secure. He's softening up in his old age. The year that Goebbels took over – he says that was a huge backslide for Germany. Hitler's done with executing his ministers.”
“That's good, I suppose.”
“Well, Berlin is rebuilt – oh, Stalin died. A guy named Nikita Khrushchev took over – a party boss for Moscow. They developed something called the integrated circuit and they've just taken off in technology ever since. You know America and Russia have their own versions of the nuclear bomb Hitler used in Poland and Czechoslovakia, right?”
“He also used it in Russia.”
“Okay – well, that's how Russia headed off any more attacks. Then … then they launched Sputnik I in 1957, making Germany worry they could lob a bomb into Germany. Since America started scaling back the war effort in '56, we've been trying to find out what this integrated circuit thingy is, and we're starting to get tons of them. They're going to have really big computers in homes now.” He paused. “I got recalled from the Korean Front to participate in a project where we launched a man into space, but Russia sent up their own man.”
Raymond stopped, halting Bennett, as the other two continued.
“Why would we launch a person into space?” Raymond tilted his head and blinked.
Bennett grinned and huffed a laugh. He searched over Raymond. “To explore, to learn what's out there.”
Raymond led Bennett away. “What did you find?”
“Well … stars … and, uh, blackness … space …”
“I could have shown you that. Just wait a few hours.” Raymond chuckled. “I mean no disrespect.”
Bennett laughed. “I understand where you're coming from. I can see where someone would think that. I think it has something to do with the teamwork, the competition with the Soviets on technology, the ability to show the world that America can do something on such a scale … the pioneering spirit. There are a lot of reasons to do it, but I understand what you mean. Just out like that, it seems silly.”
“But you were part of this program?”
“I was the first American to orbit the earth.”
“You said the Soviets –?”
“Oh, they beat us. Kuh-roh-shin. Sir-gay Kuh-roh-shin.”
Raymond glimpsed Bennett with a frown. “Sergei Khoroshin.”
“Oh, you know him?”
“They beat us. They beat us pretty good. They launched him in 1958. Then he went off to make an orbit not long after.”
“Have you ever thought of coming back to America? I mean, things are different now.”
“Well … a lot of guys came home. I mean, Eisenhower came home and became president; now Richard Nixon is president. He beat some Catholic from Massachusetts – Kennedy – and now we're ready to work towards going to the moon, because Senator Johnson and a bunch of others keep talking about the threat of going to sleep every night under a red moon – swastika or otherwise.”
“A legitimate concern, I suppose.”
“Have you ever thought of coming back?”
“Don't you have family in America?”
“Not to speak of. I don't think.”
“I was taken from my family, given to an American family. One day, the woman leaves a note, it says, ‘I have gone,’ quite simply. The man is beside himself, he leaves, so I go to stay with my friends, the Wongs –”
“Puts you right at home here.”
“The woman's parents made a claim to me, the police brought me to their farm, I left back for the Wongs' and to go to college, then I joined the military. I made good connections in college – people who highly recommended me. I came here, to Asia and Russia.”
“You could go back to the farm.”
“I have many reasons. Chiefly, it feels wrong.”
“Well, Ray, America is starting to boom right now, because the war has brought about a lot of industry.”
“Will someone tell him to shut up?” Long Yi said in a low voice.
“Good for them,” Raymond said.
Bennett’s mouth snapped shut, jaw firmed. “You seem resolved to stay.”