“You keep quiet!”
I hit the concrete like a marble hitting glass. Everything hurt. There was a squeak of rusted metal as the iron bars clamped shut and more shouting, this time in an unintelligible tongue. Unintelligible to me, at least.
Such is life in a Japanese prison camp, in the midst of the greatest and most terrible war this world has ever seen.
“Hey! You look here!”
The guard proceeded to untie his pants and urinate on me. It was depressing, and disgusting of course, but I lacked either the strength or the will to move. Probably both. The warm, unwelcome liquid finally quit flowing, and the guard took a walk, laughing to himself all of the way. I didn’t even bother looking up. All I felt was the cold, damp floor beneath me, the warm, damp clothes on my back, and the ache in my flesh. The piss started to soak through my threadbare shirt and get into the lacerations on my shoulders, which made me curl up unconsciously and wince at the horrible, shameful pain.
It wasn’t until I felt someone touch me that I opened my eyes.
He had removed his shirt from his own back and was using it to wipe at the open sores on mine, trying to get the foreign contaminant as dry as possible. He seemed old, but you could never really tell in this place. When a man gets down to about eighty-five pounds, he’s nothing but skin and protruding bones- more skeleton than man. It’s almost impossible to discern age, because everyone looks like they’re already dead. He worked quietly, in an unassuming way. It hurt, what he was doing, but I knew it might prove helpful. As helpful as anything could, at least. A sudden spasm of the terrible cough I’d picked up wracked my body, and the skeleton of a man looked down at me with compassion in his eyes. That was something I’d not seen in quite a while.
“I’m sorry that I’ve already drank my water for the day,” the man said softly. “It would have been better to clean you with, but this will have to do until we get some more.”
He went back to his work, then. The soft scraping of the fabric against my skin was the only sound. I watched him as he completed his task. He had a big nose and his hair was dark, so he couldn’t have been too old. A couple of grays here and there.
He rose to his feet, squinting in pain and supporting his knee with his bandaged hand. He groaned, then shook his head and feebly walked to the corner of the small cell, only two steps away.
“They must have made a mistake,” he wheezed, breathing heavily as he sank back down to the floor. The small amount of effort it took to reach me and scrub at my skin for a minute had exhausted him. Still, I felt that he had more stamina than I. I was fairly certain I could not stand. Starvation has a funny way of taking the fight out of you.
“They don’t usually put prisoners together here,” he continued. The corner of his withered lips inched upward into what almost resembled a smile. “They must not have seen me, or thought me to be already dead!” He chuckled quietly to himself. I did not share his amusement.
“You’re British,” I said, hearing the Queen’s English in his accent. He nodded.
“How the Hell’d you get over here?”
The prisoner reached a trembling hand up to his nose and winked.
“That’s a rather long story,” he said. “But suffice it to say, you Americans are not the only ones fighting in the colonies.”
With effort and a lot of pain, I slid up the wall a little ways so that I could prop myself against it. I gritted my teeth against the sensation.
“How do you know I’m American?”
He pointed at my arm, where a tattoo of Old Glory rested in the folds of extra skin. I suppose that was as good an indicator as any.
The man across from me looked upwards and tilted his head toward the wall.
“It must be a lovely day outside.”
I glanced around. There was no window in the whole of the prison as far as I could tell. I looked at him like he had lost it. He probably had.
The man chuckled.
“I’m sorry- an odd observation in a dark room, I suppose. The air feels lighter today. I guess that it might be a sign of a clear day beyond these walls.”
“The air smells like vomit, rotting flesh, and the stink of these Japs holding us here,” I said. He just sort of avoided my eyes after I said it, like he was embarrassed or something. I couldn’t imagine why. I motioned to the wall with my head, and I immediately regretted the exertion. I tried to say my piece regardless. “The only lovely day I’m looking for is the one where American B-17’s, B-22’s, and whatever the Hell else we’ve got show up to get us out of this place.” I took as deep a breath as I could manage. Speaking felt like choking. “I heard their engines passing over a couple days ago.”
The man nodded solemnly.
“That will be a lovely day, indeed. God be praised for it.”
I narrowed my eyes at my new cellmate.
“What are you, some kind of a chaplain?”
I asked my question and there it was again- a smile. Right there on his face, in the middle of the bowels of wherever the heck we were, was an honest-to-goodness grin.
“I suppose I am. After all, with only me in the cell, I have nearly been press ganged into the position. Who else would have done it for me?” He chuckled then and leaned his head back. He seemed truly amused. “Of course, with your arrival, I suppose that we will have to find a civilized manner of election. When I was alone here, I ran uncontested for whatever duties I wished.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“You can keep the job, thanks.”
“I’ll treasure it. My name is Peter.”
“My, but we have Biblical namesakes.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
I couldn’t handle it any longer, the man was clearly insane, even if he didn’t exactly act like it. He had a strange way about him. It was a different sort of bearing than I had ever seen.
“What the Hell is wrong with you?” I demanded. The growing smile began to fade from his lips. “What reason in the world do you have for smiling? Have you seen what they do to people here? Haven’t you seen the guards make your buddy kill your other buddy because they threatened to kill the whole row if he didn’t? What the Hell reason do you have to smile?”
The man looked like he had been taken aback by what I said, as if I had somehow offended his British sensibilities. There was no place for sensibilities here, only anguish and thoughts of revenge.
“I apologize if I have upset you,” he began in his telling accent. “I only thought that today has been an exceptionally good day, and so my natural response is to grin.”
“A good day?” I wheezed. I laughed a dry and bitter guffaw before coughing again. He raised his chin and looked at me confidently.
“Yes,” he affirmed. “I now have a cellmate, something I never thought to have again. I was beginning to doubt if I would ever get the opportunity to again converse with a living person who speaks English, and here you are. I woke up this morning, and now I have you here as well. These are good things.”
“Buddy, they don’t have good things in here. Good things are only coming if we manage to live long enough for the bombing squads to blast this place to smithereens and get us out. Smile if you want to be an optimist about what’s coming. Me, I gave up the optimists’ approach long ago. But those bombers, they’re coming. I heard ‘em a couple of times. Their engines are real loud.”
Peter scratched his nose and looked off for a moment as he thoughtfully replied. I was resting up from doing so much dang talking. The smell of the cell and my own filthy skin made me want to vomit. I always wanted to vomit in this place.
“Do you do addition, John?” Peter asked calmly.
“Addition?” I whispered. Conversing with a looney tune like this one could be a confusing experience, I thought.
“Two plus two is four, three plus five is eight; that sort of thing.”
“Yeah I do addition. What’s wrong with you?”
He paid my comment no mind.
“When you were a school lad, did your instructor lay a multivariable calculus equation on the desk before you, citing several proofs and theorems connecting space and time from the work of Einstein and Newton and the like? Pages and pages of complexity?”
I raised my eyebrow again.
“Of course not. I started with two and two is four, just like everybody else.”
“So you did,” the prisoner continued. He scratched at his torso absent-mindedly, and I saw his shirt rise as he moved. His flesh was so bitten up by fleas and roaches, and who knows what else, that it hardly even looked like skin any more. “You were presented with something simple first, so that you would get the way of it. No distractions, just one concept. And from there you learn. Maybe, one day if you chose to study higher mathematics, your training to solve simple equations would help you, because you could break down the complexity of calculus into something manageable. You could see the math in it through the muddle, because you’d been trained in simplicity.”
I coughed again, then, and the Brit waited patiently for the fit to subside before he spoke again.
“It is the same with us here. I think that God sometimes allows us to experience lows in life to show us one concept, with no distractions. Here, in the depths of this dungeon and suffering, I have nothing but myself and God. In the absence of distraction, I have learned that this is all that I need. My needs are fulfilled, I am alive, and I am thankful. This is good.”
“What’s that got to do with calculus?” I asked him. He was almost making sense, even if I didn’t buy it. Cleverest lunatic I ever met. His eyes were calm as he focused them on me.
“In the simplicity of having nothing, in realizing that God is all I have need for, now I am equipped to see good elsewhere as well. This morning my few sips of water were cooler than usual. What a treat it was! As I sit on the floor, I experience the sensation of oxygen passing through my lungs and out of my mouth. What a delight! And above all of these small things, I have now been given you for whatever time we may here remain together, and this has been the greatest blessing of them all. My mouth may bleed from dryness, my feet- ha! I don’t want to discuss what is happening with my feet. There is much suffering, it is true, but I have learned from reduction to see also what is good.”
I cocked my head at the man.
“What, so next you going to tell me you don’t hate the Japs who did this to you? That everything is hunky dory?”
I sneered in contempt. He waited, considering for a moment. It wasn’t easy for him to talk again, but he finally did.
“No. No I don’t hate the Japanese. I hate what has been done to me, but how can I hate another of God’s creation? I cannot.”
I scoffed at Peter and went off on a blue rant against the devils who stuck us in this place. He just averted his eyes again, just like the first time I said the word “Jap.” It bothered me. Finally, I didn’t have the breath to speak any longer and I was feeling unbelievably fatigued from the effort. He had the floor by default.
“You would be wise, my friend,” he began, “to examine your own heart first. You are right that wrongs have been done to us. You are right that the American planes will one day come. But listen to me closely,” he said, leaning forward and continuing like he had never heard my outburst at all. “The bombers are coming, and that is good. Good things are coming. But here- even here! Good things are present already. No matter what happens to me now in all that remains of this life, I will relish in its goodness with a depth I have never before known. Because I have seen the essence of good, and that is God Himself.”
He leaned back against the cold wall, then, his eyes shut in satisfaction. I stared at him in disbelief, contrary to him in my heart, but unable to bring my mouth to form any words. I sat there for what must have been hours, just staring at the contented, beaten skeleton of a man who dared to hold onto peace. I saw the corners of his thin lips begin to curl upwards before I ever heard the noise.
In the distance, a fleet of American engines hummed and started to grow louder. They started getting louder than I had ever heard them before.