Open Arms

His face turned to me now, and I could not draw a breath. I thought for a moment that my first impression of him had been correct. He was a ghost and this was the moment he would carry me away with him. My breath was gone, never to return. But he did not dissolve into the air. His eyes fixed me and then they went down to the file on the desk, as if to say that I asked what I already knew. He had been sent to Phu’ó’c Tuy Province to indoctrinate the Villagers. He was a master, our other sources said, of explaining the communist vision of the world to the woodcutters and fishermen and rice farmers. And meanwhile, in Kontum, the tactics had changed, as they always do, and three months ago the VC made a lesson out of a little village that had a chief with a taste for American consumer goods and information to trade for them. This time the lesson was severe and the ones who did not run were all killed. Thp’s wife and two children expected to be safe because someone was supposed to know whose family they were. They stayed and they were murdered by the VC and Thp made a choice.

  His eyes were still on the file and my breath had come back to me and I said, “Yes, I know.”

  He turned away again and he stared at the cigarette, watched the curl of smoke without drawing it into him. I said, “But isn’t that just the war? I thought you were a believer.”

“I still am,” he said and then he looked at me and smiled faintly, but the smile was only for himself, like he knew what I was thinking. And he did. “This is nothing new,” he said. “I confessed to the same thing at your division headquarters. I believe in the government caring for all the people, the poor before the rich. I believe in the state of personal purity that makes this possible. But I finally came to believe that the government these men from the north want to set up can’t be controlled by the very people it’s supposed to serve.”

“And what do you think of these people you’ve joined to fight with now?” I said.

He took a last drag on his cigarette and then leaned forward to stub it out in an ashtray at the comer of my desk. He sat back and folded his hands in his lap and his face grew still, his mouth drew down in placid seriousness. “I understand them,” he said. “The Americans, too. I learned about their history. What they believe is good.”

I admit that my first impulse at this was to challenge him. He didn’t know anything about the history of Western democracy until after he’d left the communists. They killed his wife and his children and he wanted to get them. But I knew that what he said was also true. He was a believer. I could see his Buddhist upbringing in him. The communists could appeal to that. They couldn’t touch the Catholics, but the Buddhists who didn’t believe in all the mysticism were well prepared for communism. The communists were full of right views, right intentions, right speech, and all that. And Buddha’s second Truth, about the thirst of the passions being the big trap, the communists were real strict about that, real prudes. If a VC got caught by his superiors with a pinup, just a girl in a bathing suit even, he’d be in very deep trouble.

That thing Thp said about personal purity. After it sank in a little bit, it pissed me off. But this is a weakness of my own, I guess, though at times I can’t quite see it as a weakness. I’m not that good a Buddhist. I live in America and things just don’t look the way my mother and my grandmother explained them to me. But Thp suddenly seemed a little too smug. And I wasn’t frightened by him anymore. He was a communist prude and I even had trouble figuring out how he’d brought himself to make a couple of kids. Then, to my shame, I said, “You miss being with your wife, do you?” What I almost said was, “Do you miss sleeping with your wife?” but I wasn’t quite that heartless, even with this smug true believer who until very recently had been a bitter enemy of my country.