March 20, 1941—0800 hours
IN THE spring of 1941, the Japanese army surged across the border from China to extend their bloody campaign to all of Southeast Asia. As war crept south, the French, English, and American foreigners scattered throughout Indochina hastened to Saigon, where they boarded ocean liners bound for their homelands. Meanwhile, the Japanese army massed at the outskirts of Saigon, poised for another victorious assault. The city held its breath as the invaders prepared for the onslaught.
Andrew Waters pursued his father across a bustling wharf, still wearing his boarding-school uniform and clutching a bamboo flute.
The ship that loomed before him was a floating city, mammoth, with numerous passenger decks topped by two massive exhaust stacks muddying the sky. It had berthed at the port of Saigon—an inland port on a tributary of the Mekong—for a full week. Now, Andrew saw the crew scurrying to get underway.
The wharf trembled slightly. Andrew heard the rat-tat-tat of gunfire over the sirens blaring from the center of the city.
Andrew’s father sported a tussore silk suit of superlative cut and a Panama hat tilted so that the brim hid his right eye. His tall figure marched purposefully toward the black-and-white behemoth, and his normally long gait lengthened with a noticeable desperation.
Andrew, who was nearly eighteen, paused while panting from an acute nervy rush. He searched the sky for planes. They were still beyond his field of vision, but the drone of bombers echoed through the cloud cover. The rumble of explosions grew loud and the air carried the faint stench of sulfur.
He hurried on, jostling through a mélange of beings: Caucasians dressed in fine Western clothes (like his father), rich Chinese in their silks, merchants in long-sleeved jackets, coolies wearing only tattered shorts. Voices around him were shouting while the harsh twang of a military band playing “Auld Lang Syne” vaulted above that unbridled fusion of humanity.
Behind Andrew trotted an aged wisp of a monk who wore the traditional orange robes and held a string of wooden prayer beads. Each bead was the size of a marble and had the chalky gray coloring of Mekong silt. The monk’s thumb deliberately ticked past each bead, one after another, like a timer counting down the seconds. Behind the monk came the porters carrying four steamer trunks.
At the gangway, his father told Andrew to make his good-bye, and he sprinted up the ramp with the porters in tow.
Surrounded by a press of bodies, the youth reverently embraced the monk. The old man’s arms wrapped around Andrew and drew him nearer. The monk’s breath tickled his neck, which helped to dissolve his anxieties.
Using the native tongue of South China, he whispered, “Master, I’ll come home as soon as I can.”
The monk’s face contracted, as if Andrew had posed a difficult question. “Andrew, war and time will whisk away everything that you love. This is our farewell.”
The youth wiped away a tear that broke free from his almond-shaped eyes and slid down his amber-colored cheek. “Master, I will remember everything you have taught me.”
“You will forget my lessons, Andrew. Such is the nature of youth. But remember this: you are American by birth, so they will surely draft you. On the battlefield, resist the hate that is born from fear. Nurture only love in your heart. To love all beings is Buddha-like and transcends us from the world of pain, for love is the highest manifestation of life. To experience love’s full bounty is life’s only purpose, so tread the moral path before you and sacrifice yourself to love. All else is folly, a dream of the ego.”
“Master, I do not understand about sacrificing myself to love.”
The old monk’s eyes opened wide and his lips spread into a grin. “Meditate on what I have said. Understanding will come when you are ready.”
The monk methodically bundled his string of beads into a ball, roughly the size and shape of a monkey’s skull, and forced them into Andrew’s left pant pocket. “Keep these beads to remind yourself of our time together.”
The pressure against Andrew’s thigh felt awkward. As the monk pulled way, Andrew became distracted, thinking of how fortunate this man was to be wise and compassionate in the midst of the impending carnage. Andrew realized that it took impeccable courage to maintain one’s morality during perilous times, courage that he himself did not possess. He had always assumed that he would live a quiet, studious, and spiritual life under this old monk’s guardianship and eventually become the old man who stood before him. But that image, of course, had been shattered when war turned the world on its head. Now all Andrew could think about was getting on that ship and sailing to safety, if such a thing existed.
The ship’s whistle cut the air, long and terrible, and loud enough to be heard throughout the city. The monk pressed his hands together in front of his forehead and bowed, silently, with finality.
Another blast from the ship’s whistle sent the youth running up the gangway, leaving the earthy world of South China behind. He joined his father on the first-class deck. Entombed in steel—underfoot, heavy riveted plates of metal curved into walls—Andrew jammed together with the other passengers at the railing, peering down at the apprehensive faces. Their body heat added to the stifling temperature. Sweat dribbled down his neck. He had to gasp to get enough air.
Lines fell away; the gangway was hauled aboard. Tugs pushed the ship into the middle of the channel and withdrew, leaving the ship to the whim of the current.
Andrew stared straight down at the seemingly dense, opaque surface of the river. It reflected the cloudy sky, making the water seem gray rather than its usual brown, with yellowish streaks of oil running with the current. To Andrew, the flat, moving surface seemed strangely alive, carrying him along, muscling him downstream, as if it was some overwhelming force whose motives he could only guess at.
On the dock, Asian women held their infants over their heads for a last look. Handkerchiefs waved. The band played on.
Andrew saw the first planes against the darkening sky, droning above the city. Explosions grew even louder. From his perch on the first-class deck, he saw sections of the city erupting. He turned northeast, toward his boarding school. Flames. That entire section of the city was engulfed in fire, as if Hell had opened its mouth to swallow it whole.
“Clifford,” he whispered.
A searing stab of regret lodged in his chest. He had been forced to abandon the object of his adolescent love, and he imagined himself dashing through the chaotic streets to reach the boarding school. There was still time, he thought. They could disappear into the forest. They could live on, together. He wanted to perform that fatal act of love, but he wondered if he could muster the courage to defy his father.
Reluctantly (at least it felt that way to him), he climbed the railing to dive overboard, because he realized that the love he shared with Clifford wasn’t a trifling adolescent crush at all, but rather a deep and consuming love—a love that had somehow lost itself in the joys of youth, like water in dry sand, and was only now understood.
His father pulled him back, forcing him to stay and suffer what felt like an unquenchable loss. Locked in his father’s embrace, he entered a narrow canyon of desolation, knowing that the days and hours and minutes ahead would be heartbreaking and that he might not be strong enough to endure it.
The ship’s siren sounded three blasts for its farewell salute. The engines throbbed and propellers chewed the river. The noise swelled to a din like the ending of the world.
The passengers on deck could no longer hide their sorrow. Everyone wept, not only those people parting but the onlookers as well; even the dockhands and porters shed tears.
The ship launched itself downstream under its own power as the military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
To Andrew, the orange-robed figure crushed within the throng on the dock seemed at odds with the fires raging across the city. He now fully understood the monk’s words—that war would steal everything he loved. A way of life, their way of life, had perished. Pain flooded his whole being, like a baby prematurely ripped from its protective womb.
He pulled away from his father and staggered further along the deck to cry without letting his father see. He positioned himself at the rail, one arm folded around a steel support beam and his face pressed against the hot metal.
People on the wharf seemed to hesitate, then regretfully turned and scurried away. He watched the smudge of orange, scarcely visible and standing at the edge of the pier, utterly still, quiescent, until the harbor faded from view and the land disappeared as well, slowly swallowed beneath the curve of the earth.