It rained all night. In the morning the distant mountain lay shrouded in a fog burning slowly off as another wall of fog would come rolling in, thinned then by the sun and drifting away like hallucination.
Outside the prisoners’ hut I saw Ian sitting on his haunches, swathed in a burlap bag. It was what we gave the prisoners for a blanket. We took the U.S. Agency for International Development rice bags―stamped on the outside with a clasped-hands logo above the line Donated by the People of the United States of America―cut them open and sewed them together to the size of a small blanket. It was chilly. Ian peered up at me, his hands palming a tin cup. It must be hot tea, for steam was curling up from the cup. They received tea ration but never coffee, and by now most of them must have forgotten what coffee tasted like.
I drew a deep drag on my cigarette and his gaze followed my hand motion as I exhaled a plume of smoke. I could tell he craved a cigarette. Yet I couldn’t offer him one, for the guard in the lookout shack behind me must be watching.
“Tea is good on a morning like this,” I said to him in English.
“This isn’t tea,” he said, dropping his gaze to the cup. “Sữa ngọt.”
He extended his hand that held the cup. The condensed milk looked like chalk water. He sipped, holding it in his mouth as if to savor something precious in it. As he gulped it down he sucked in his cheeks. Gaunt and anemic looking, his face had a fuzzy line along the jaw. His beard wasn’t growing anymore because of malnutrition. He clasped his hands around the cup, shivering.
“Where’re your sandals?” I asked, looking down at his bare feet. Hunched up, he looked like a pelican at rest with the burlap bag draping his back.
“Saving them,” he said, eyeing my black-rubber sandals. “Wearing them only when I go picking greens.”
They would go with the guards deeper in the forest to pick wild greens and the guards would tell them which plants they should stay away if they were to live another day—most of the greens were inedible and some poisonous. Often they brought back wild banana flowers and then peeled away the tough outer layers until they reached the tender-looking, finger-length buds, yellow and lithe. They would cook them in watered-down nước mắm and eat with cooked rice. They craved fish sauce which was rationed, so Ian told me they added water to it and boiled it. The heated nước mắm would taste much saltier that way and they would wet their rice and eat it.
Like most prisoners, he cherished rice. I knew between that and boiled manioc, they would beg for rice and nước mắm which they treasured for the scarcity of salt. Once I saw him sitting outside under the sun with the rice pot between his knees. “Rat shit,” he said. I could see black clumps among the shiny rice grains. Whenever they forgot to lid their rice pot, much often as they would with their latrine, rats would get in the pot in the night and eat the grains. Mornings they would have to wash the rice grains to get rid of rat feces which, at times, were so clumped up with the grains they could not be separated.
The next day I gave Ian a handful of black seeds and told him to soak them in water overnight and then plant them. “What are they?” he asked. “Mồng tơi,” I told him. “Red-stem spinach.Very nutritious.”
The following day I saw him behind the hut, burying seeds in the soil. “Some kind of seeds,” he said to me and showed me the can in which he’d soaked the seeds. The color of water was wine-red. I explained to him that the red-stem spinach would grow as tall as an average Viet man and he said, “I’ll build a teepee for it.” “What’s a teepee?” I asked. “Wait till you see it,” he said and started splitting bamboo and drove the strips into the ground and tied the splits with the choại strings―the vines from a swamp fern plant that we would soak in water and use them as ropes. The conical-shaped support he built became a home for the climbing spinach. Monsoon rains that soaked the forest for days helped the seeds sprout quickly. In two weeks scarlet stems began pushing up and twining around the teepee and pale green leaves shot out from the stems that now lost their baby red and turned into a deep-wine red. After I showed him how to cook the spinach, he went around collecting more than two dozen cigarettes and traded them with the guards for two chicken eggs. He cooked the spinach in two pots they had―the rice pot and the pot for boiling water―and borrowed from the guards another pot to cook their rice in. He had his mates crush a handful red peppers that they grew behind their hut and mixed them with the diluted nước mắm in a wooden bowl. He cut up the two boiled eggs and dropped them into the bowl. It was the first time I saw the prisoners eat together, sitting on their haunches in a circle, the pots in the center on the dirt floor, swept clean, arms flying, chopsticks clacking, shoveling rice into their mouths, dipping clumps of spinach into the egg-and-red-pepper nước mắm, inhaling their food and all forgetting the latrine-nauseating stink that made the air blister.