March 20, 1941
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 Americans scattered throughout Indochina hastened to Saigon, where they boarded ocean liners bound for their homelands. Meanwhile, the Japanese army massed on the outskirts of the city, poised for another victorious assault. The city held its breath.
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 and topped by two massive stacks that muddied the sky with exhaust. It had been berthed at the inland port on a tributary of the Mekong for a full week, but Andrew saw the crew now scurrying to get underway.
The wharf trembled slightly, and he 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 the brim hid his right eye. His tall figure marched purposefully towards the black-and-white behemoth, and his normally long gait lengthened with noticeable desperation.
Andrew, who was nearly eighteen, paused and panted 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 all around him shouted while the harsh twang of a military band playing "Auld Lang Syne" vaulted above that unbridled confusion of humanity.
Directly behind him 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, Andrew's father told him to quickly make his goodbye then sprinted up the ramp with the porters in tow.
Surrounded in a press of bodies, the youth reverently embraced the monk. The old man wrapped his arms around Andrew and drew him nearer. The monk's breath tickled his neck, which helped to dissolves his anxieties.
Using the native tongue of South China, he whispered, "Master, I'll come home as soon as I can."
The old 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 strive to apply everything you have taught me."
"No, Andrew. You will forget my lessons. Such is the nature of youth. But remember this—since you are American by birth, they will surely draft you. So, on the battlefield, resist the hate that is born from fear. Nurture only love in your heart, Andrew. 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."
Baffled, Andrew replied, "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." He 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 pants pocket. "Keep these beads to remind yourself of our time together."
The pressure against Andrew's thigh felt awkward, and before 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. He realized it took impeccable courage to maintain one's morality during perilous times, courage that he himself did not possess.
He had always assumed 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. That image was 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, finally.
Another blast from the ship's whistle sent Andrew running up the gangway, leaving the earthy world of South China behind.
He joined his father on the first-class deck. Entombed in steel—heavy riveted plates of metal underfoot that curved into walls—he jammed together with the other passengers at the rail, peering down at the apprehensive faces. Their body heat added to the stifling temperature. Sweat dribbled down his neck, and he had to gasp to get enough air.
Lines fell away, and 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 dense, opaque surface of the river. It reflected the cloudy sky, making the water seem gray rather than the usual brown, yellowish streaks of oil running with the current. The flat moving surface seemed strangely alive, carrying him along, muscling him downstream, as if it were an 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.
He saw the first planes against the darkening sky, droning above the city. Explosions grew even louder, and from his perch on the first-class deck, he saw sections of the city erupting. He turned northeast towards 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 really muster the courage to defy his father.
Reluctantly—at least, it felt that way to him—he climbed onto the railing to dive overboard, because he realized 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 been lost in the joys of youth like water in dry sand, and was only now realized.
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 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 end 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 traveled downstream 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, that a way of life, their way of life, had perished. Pain flooded his whole being, like that of a baby prematurely ripped from its protective womb.
He pulled away from his father's embrace and staggered farther down the deck to cry without being seen. 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.