“We almost lost you,” Tuppence said. “Baby, you were in very bad shape. Feverish, and seeing things that weren’t there, and talking to people who weren’t around. All kinds of crazy languages. Dhang couldn’t understand you, and neither could I. And Dhang and I couldn’t understand each other, either, which made things like interesting. I tried to teach him a little English, but it didn’t take very well. The only words he knows are the kind that get you thrown out of places. Did you teach him?”
“I guess so. Tuppence-”
“You hungry, baby? There’s some fish baking. Dhang’s pretty cute at catching fish. I guess it’ll be done in a minute. He’s got this way of cooking it, you dig a hole and build the fire on top of the fish, and you have them all wrapped up in leaves-”
“I know. It’s his one recipe.” I sat up and looked around at the two of them and the fire and, a few yards off to the side, the river. Our boat was beached on the bank.
“How long was I like that? A couple of hours?”
“What’s the matter?”
“Would you believe three days, baby?”
“Frankly, no. Was I-”
“Three days. If we cut out of Tao Dan on Monday, then this is Thursday afternoon. Except that I sort of lost track of the days in Tao Dan, so it could be anything. But it’s been three days. We just went on floating down the river all the time. Dhang kept turning up with things to eat, and we got a little water into you now and then but no food. Feed a cold and starve a fever, or is it the other way around? But whatever it was, you were in no kind of condition to eat anything.”
“How did you and Dhang manage?”
“Sign language, mostly. Tell you the truth, I was pretty useless most of the time. I did a little paddling, but he took care of the hard part, like pulling up on shore for the night and making the fires and scaring up something to eat. We took turns staying up with you. You don’t remember any of it?”
“Bits and pieces.” I drew a breath. I was suddenly ravenous and I turned to Dhang, who had been maintaining a respectful silence. “About that fish,” I said in Khmer.
“It will be ready soon, Heaven.”
“Your soul left your body and soared through the open reaches of the universe, Evan. But the woman and I waited for your soul to return, and from time to time it came back. The woman is good. She washed your head with water and helped me with your hair.”
He lowered his eyes. “It is gone, Evan.”
I put my hand on the top of my head. Nothing – I was as bald as a newly laid egg. I looked at Tuppence, who was trying bravely not to giggle. I said, “What the hell?”
“It fell out in handfuls,” she said. “Must have been the fever. You looked pretty patchy there for a while. You would lose some here and some there, you know, and you got to be something of a sight.”
“I can imagine.” I ran my hands over my bald dome. “Dhang said you helped him with my hair. What’s he talking about?”
“I’m not sure myself. We both gathered up all the hair as soon as it fell out, and at night we burned it in the fire. Very bloody tribal.”
“I don’t know. He was very tense about it, and I figured like maybe he knew something.”
I asked Dhang. It seemed to have some deep religious significance, but either he couldn’t explain it or I couldn’t follow him. He seemed to feel that I owed my recovery at least in part to the ordeal by fire through which my hair had passed. For all I knew, he was right, so I didn’t argue.
“It’s just as well,” I said. “My hair never did look very Oriental. I must look pretty unusual.”
“When Yul Brynner does it, it looks pretty sexy.”
“I suppose it’ll grow back in eventually. Do I look as sexy as Yul Brynner?”
She raised her eyebrows. “You better look in the mirror.”
“You know – the river.”
I got unsteadily to my feet. I was very dizzy at first, but this passed quickly. I crossed the few yards to the river bank, dropped to my knees, and looked at my reflection.
It was shocking. I had lost an incredible amount of weight, and my skin was stretched tight over my bones. My skin did not need the tobacco juice treatment any more. I had turned a uniform yellowish hue all over. All of this combined with the utterly bald head left me looking not at all like myself. I had changed to fit my environment, all right. I looked more at home in an Indochinese jungle than I would have looked in Manhattan.
“Not exactly sexy,” I said.
“Not quite,” Tuppence agreed.
“I guess I can stand it if you can. Does anybody have any idea where we are?”
“Is that the best you can do?”
“We’re on a river in the middle of a jungle,” Tuppence said. “When you’ve seen one river, you’ve seen them all, and that goes for jungles as well. We’ve been paddling downstream, but I don’t know how far. I suppose if you follow a river long enough, you get to an ocean. I’m not exactly Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, but I seem to remember that that’s the general bag rivers are in, they flow into oceans.”
“It’s a good general rule.”
“I’d love to be more specific-”
“I wouldn’t mind it myself.”
“Anyway,” she said, “the fish is ready. I suppose a person could get sick to death of fish, sooner or later. And more sooner than later. Let’s eat, Bwana.”
I had two fishes and could have eaten more, but I was afraid of hitting my stomach with too much too soon. Dhang wanted to make camp for the night. I talked him out of it. He and Tuppence could sleep as safely in the boat as on dry land, and we would make much better time if we kept going through the night. I didn’t mind paddling all night long. I felt it would be less nerve-wracking than sitting around listening to the jungle noises while the two of them slept.
We drowned the campfire, climbed into the boat, and pushed it back into the current. The river seemed wider than when we had started out, which rather stood to reason, since widening is a propensity of rivers, along with flowing into oceans. Tuppence sat in the stern this time, Dhang took up his post in the bow, and I was in the middle. This was ideal from a conversational standpoint; since I was the only one who could converse with both of the others, it was a logical spot for me.
First I talked with Dhang, who assured me he had kept his hands off my woman, although he admitted that the effort was becoming exceedingly difficult for him. He launched into an unembarrassed discussion of Tuppence’s anatomical virtues and the uses to which various portions of her could be put, and I decided that it was just as well she couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
Then I talked with Tuppence, and she went over the story of the capture and all the rest. It came through more or less as it had while I was delirious with fever but made a little more sense this time. Evidently the musicians were picked as pawns in a rather elaborate plot to discredit both the United States and the Souvanna Phouma neutralist regime in southern Laos. By returning the jewels and the heads of the Kendall Bayard Quartet, the Pathet Lao would show himself to be a staunch friend of Thailand and an implacable enemy of the thievery and deception that characterized U.S. imperialism. Now I could appreciate Tuppence’s insistence upon recovering the jewels before we left the Tao Dan command post. If they stayed in Communist hands, the whole scheme could have been carried out more or less as planned.
But now, if our side returned the gems, the diplomatic tables would be turned. The Pathet Lao would get a black eye, American intelligence would come off looking good, State Department goodwill tours would not suffer a loss of prestige, and the Chief’s faith in Evan Tanner would burn more brilliantly than ever. The CIA would retain its mandate to use Bangkok as a launching pad for Oriental fun and games, and the old Francophile in Tao Dan would not have died in vain.
I frankly wonder how much effect these little international ploys and counterploys have on the course of world events. Not very much, I suspect. Another report is filed in capitals throughout the world, another affair makes newspaper headlines for a day or three, and then the world returns to its usual routine of hypocrisy and intermittent violence. One throws a stone into a pool and attaches great significance to the manner in which ripple after ripple passes concentrically outward to the water’s edge, but in truth once the ripples stop, the pool is as it was before, with the same water in it.
The Chief, I know, finds worlds of meaning in little gambits like this one. This only stands to reason – it is a rare man indeed who plays down the significance of his own life’s work. Or perhaps, professional that he is, the Chief has outgrown the habit of looking at the greater implications of things. Perhaps instead he merely sees each little affair as an incident in an international game, worth a certain number of points on a worldwide scorecard, worth other points on another scorecard in which he is pitted against the CIA and military intelligence and the other game-playing agencies.
I decided that I did not too much care. I had come here because I thought Tuppence was in trouble, which turned out to be a massive understatement, and I had found and rescued Tuppence, and now we were on our way back to what we persist in calling civilization. If it made the Chief happy, that was an added bonus.
I just wanted to get home.
After the sun went down, there was a brief spell of rain. We got fairly well soaked, but it didn’t last long enough to be really bad. Then the sky cleared, and there was enough of a moon to provide adequate visibility for nighttime paddling. Dhang paddled until he got tired. Then I took over. Tuppence stayed awake for a while before dozing off in the middle of a conversation. I kept paddling on through the night. The river was quite empty, the jungle alive with night sounds that I now found rather comforting. A jungle, I decided, was not quite so hostile a place as we are led to believe. I could understand now how people might choose to live their lives in it.
From time to time I pulled the paddle inside the boat and closed my eyes and rested. I felt completely recovered, and long before dawn I was hungry again. When the sky lightened, we beached the boat, and Dhang and I went out to look for food. I found some fruit that he told me was poisonous, and he brained a few lizards with the butt of his pistol and seemed surprised when Tuppence and I showed little enthusiasm for them. He managed to unearth some edible roots, and I picked some non-poisonous berries. Tuppence and I made do with them. Dhang roasted the lizards and seemed to enjoy them considerably.
Around noon we stopped the boat again, and Dhang and I went exploring. We saw smoke rising off to our right and headed toward it, moving silently through the jungle. We had been a long time without seeing any other human beings. Where there is smoke there is also fire and often food, and living off the jungle can have its limitations.
We crept close to the campsite. Through a break in the undergrowth I saw uniformed men sitting around a campfire, talking and laughing. I listened closely but could not understand what they were saying. Whatever language they were speaking, it was not one I recognized. Dhang couldn’t make it out either.
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