It was Dhang who explained it to me. After they had sent us on our way, after they had taken us to the edge of the clearing and ordered us to walk off into the night, Dhang translated it all for me.
“It is not permitted,” he said. “Throughout the entire Week of Tears and Sighs sexual relations of any sort are forbidden under penalty of death. If we had come at any other time, we could have had any woman in the village. Any one at all, we would have only to choose. Any of them-”
His voice broke. We walked through utter darkness in utter silence. I tripped on a vine and said one of the English words I had taught him.
“I wanted to,” he said. “But it was forbidden. I touched her. Her tit. How soft and smooth. She had a delicious smell. She was warm. She would have let me have her but for the custom. I took off her panung, I saw all of her body…”
We walked onward.
“I ache,” he said. He touched himself. “I am in pain.”
“Chew some betel.”
He popped a slice of betel nut into his mouth. His jaws worked furiously, and he spat.
“I still ache,” he said.
“I was afraid of that.”
“If they had waited just a few minutes, Evan! I actually touched her cunat with my purick. In another moment-”
“Don’t think about it.”
“But how can I avoid thinking about it?”
He fell silent. We trudged on a few more paces, then gave it up; it was impossible to see clearly and seemed pointless to continue stumbling about in the darkness. I had a few matches left and managed to light a small fire of leaves and twigs.
“I will not be able to sleep,” he said.
“You will sleep.”
“We could go back in a week, when the Week of Tears and Sighs is ended. Perhaps I could have her then.”
“No. They think we are devils now. They say that we are barbarians. I shall never have that girl, Evan.”
“There are other girls.”
“Ah,” he said. “But where?”
Crossing the border from Thailand to Laos is about as awe-inspiring an experience as crossing from Connecticut to Rhode Island. When you go into Rhode Island, at least there’s a sign that welcomes you to the state and tells you what the speed limit is and all the terrible things that will happen to you if you exceed it. And you know exactly when you cross that border, too; the surface of the road changes to show you where the Connecticut road crew stopped paving and where the Rhode Island crew took over. None of those formalities are observed when you sneak across from Thailand to Laos. One morning we were in Thailand and that afternoon we were in Laos, and somewhere along the way there had been a border that we had crossed, but the exact moment of our crossing remains undetermined.
We had come a long way, Dhang and I, and it had been an equally frustrating journey for both of us, albeit for different reasons. Dhang was still a virgin, and I was still uncertain as to Tuppence’s whereabouts, or whether she was alive or dead, or precisely why she had been kidnapped in the first place. We had met occasional natives who had heard occasional rumors that pointed us down a particular jungle trail in pursuit of the four black men and one black woman, but I had been no more successful in getting precise information from the natives than had Dhang in finding a woman.
We had made progress of a sort. We had moved from a portion of Thailand that was vaguely and ineffectually dominated by vaguely Communist-oriented guerrillas to a portion of Laos that was quite thoroughly controlled by the forces of the Communist Pathet Lao. We had, in other words, successfully worked our way out of the frying pan and into the fire, had wriggled off the spit and dropped into the coals.
We kept moving. The jungle thinned out and gave way to level land with a scattering of trees here and there. At a river bank we stopped to drink and wash ourselves. A stranger looked back at me from the water’s surface. I had not shaved since leaving Bangkok, and my beard was thick and wild. The sun had done a good job on the unbearded portions of my face, and the betel nuts that I had been chewing more and more frequently of late had turned my teeth quite black. I did not look much like myself, but neither did I look like someone indigenous to the region. I looked as though I ought to be lurking on a mountain in Bhutan or Nepal waiting to terrify passersby. There was no snow around, but I certainly looked and felt abominable.
We pressed onward across the plateau and into the craggy, mountainous country. The path widened into a rude sort of road, and a few miles further on, the road was paved after a fashion with loose gravel. We stopped at a roadside hut to ask directions to the nearest town. The woman who answered our knock looked at our weapons and my beard and shrank in terror. Dhang explained calmly that we came in peace, that we were holy men, that we wished to know the route to the nearest town. She told us haltingly to follow the road for about an hour’s time to the city of Tao Dan.
“Too old,” Dhang said.
“The woman. She was too old, and her skin was wrinkled.”
“There will be younger women.”
“Perhaps,” he said, and fell silent.
We walked for what seemed like a good deal more than an hour until, from the top of a hill, we saw the town of Tao Dan in the distance. It was a fairly sizable city, a great change from the hut-encircled jungle villages we had passed through. A town of that size meant policemen and sundry officials, which in turn meant that I would draw an uncomfortable amount of attention. It was unsafe to go there, but at the same time the town seemed the most logical place to get word of Tuppence.
We walked about halfway there. Then I took Dhang by the arm. “Leave your weapons with me,” I told him. “I’ll wait out of sight in the brush. Go to the town and make inquiries. Say merely that you are a Thai and have made a journey from the west. Say that you have heard that black men and a black woman were to be seen in the area and see what you can find out about them.”
“And you will wait here?”
“Yes. Find out as much as you can, then come back here. You will be able to learn more now, when people are awake. Try to obtain clothing for yourself, and for me if it is possible. At night, when all is dark, then we will both be able to pass safely through the town.”
“You will wait for me, Heaven?”
“If the police ask me who I am-”
“Tell them your name and your village, that is all. Do not tell them about me.”
“I will not.”
“Evan? How will I obtain clothing? Or food?”
“You have no money?”
He shook his head. I had no money, either; the guerrillas had taken my money belt along with everything else, for whatever good it was to them. I still had the flashlight, but the thought of Dhang attempting to pass a British gold sovereign in a provincial Laotian town was somehow disquieting. The only other articles of value in our possession were the rifle, the machine pistol, the machetes, and the canteens. I had the feeling that it would be impossible to exchange the guns for anything. They would simply be confiscated by the authorities. I asked Dhang if he thought he could use the machetes and the canteens for barter, and he said he thought he could.
“I’ll keep one canteen, though,” I said. “I’d hate to run out of water. And you’d better leave me some betel nut.” It was surprising I thought, how quickly habits could develop. “Be cautious with your questions. Try to attract as little attention as possible, but learn as much as you possibly can. Do you understand?”
“Go, now. And return as soon as possible.”
“You’re doing it again, you said Yevan. Evan.”
“Evan. If I find a girl in the town…”
He looked at me, hope in his eyes. He would not find a girl, I thought, and if he did, she would have nothing to do with him. But it seemed less than kind to tell him this. Nor was there any point in ordering him to come directly back to me without wasting his time on whatever woman he happened to locate. If I told him to, he would still follow his instincts and then might be so dismayed at having disobeyed me that he would desert me altogether. The secret of command, I decided, lies largely in giving orders that are apt to be obeyed.
“If you should find a woman,” I told him, “may the gods grant you enjoyment. But do not dally too long with her and come back to me when time permits.”
I watched him head on down the road, a machete in either hand, a canteen slung over one shoulder. He did not cut a particularly heroic figure, that little man bobbing along, lost in the immensity of the Laotian landscape. His own self-confidence was at that moment the only confidence he inspired. I had a terrible feeling that I was dispatching him to certain doom, my own doom to follow shortly when he told the Laotian Communists where to find me.
I made myself reasonably comfortable in a clump of brush some twenty yards from the side of the road. I popped a chunk of betel nut into my mouth and chewed and spat and chewed and spat. It was quite possible, I thought, that Tuppence and the four musicians were being held prisoner within Tao Dan itself. From the long-range view I’d had of the city, it seemed likely to be the largest town in the immediate area. If the rumors I had sifted added up as I had added them, the five had been kidnapped by Laotians and taken into Laos. They would probably have wound up on this very road and thus would have passed through Tao Dan. They might well be there now.
If that were the case, the whole village would be aware of their presence. Dhang would learn where they were being kept. He would return before long, and under cover of darkness the two of us would sneak into the city. While Tao Dan slept we would find where Tuppence and the others were being held prisoner. Perhaps there would be a guard or two to overpower. Once that was done, we would liberate the prisoners and escape.
I thought the thing through about that far and then let go of it. The details to follow – just how we would escape and just where we would go and so on – I did not want to think about for the time being. It was simpler by far to sit back comfortably and chew the betel nut.
And then, after a long time of sitting and chewing and spitting, I heard the jeep.
It was just a low rumble at first, like the droning of a persistent insect. Then it came closer, and I recognized the sound as a car of some sort. I had been a long time in the wilderness, and this was the first mechanized vehicle I had heard since the guerrillas had halted my Land Rover. I peered through the underbrush and watched as a U.S. army jeep came into sight at the crest of a hill. For a hysterical moment I thought that I was being rescued by a detachment of Green Berets. Then reality intruded – evidently the vehicle was one that had been captured by the Pathet Lao’s troops during the fighting in the Plain of Jars.
The jeep passed me and headed on toward Tao Dan. There were two uniformed soldiers in the front seat and a third in the back. I watched the jeep disappear over the next rise in the road, then listened as the sound of its engine faded and died in the still afternoon air.
I shifted the hunk of betel nut from one side of my mouth to the other. I chewed like a cow munching its cud, then arced a stream of red juice off to the left. I told myself quietly that I should have stayed in New York. With all of its muggings and stabbings and race riots and air pollution, it was worlds safer than the hills of Laos. The FBI agents who bugged my apartment and the CIA clowns who read my mail were nuisances, but they had never done me any appreciable harm.