This is 11,687 words long, so grab a cuppa, find a quiet spot beneath a shady tree, and enjoy the ride. Inspired by my dad's childhood story.
Malaya, West Peninsula, 1944
A woman tears through the thick rain forest. She blinks, slaps her face into the next foliage, and the next, and the next. Sometimes she flinches, other times she ducks, but most of the time, she plows head on. Her breath is laborious. Her black hair mats to her head and her feet are red, but she can’t feel a thing. She’s going as quick as she can, but it’s not quick enough.
A loud bang forces her to skid to a stop.
Her ears perk up, she looks to the sky, trying to discern distance and direction. She’s panting. Her mind convulses. A pre-dawn shower had weighed down all the leaves, there's nothing but green everywhere. She’s hyperventilating. She leans backwards and her head thuds against the Yellow Meranti’s bark. Although fleeting, she's grateful for the support. Her hands strokes the growing bulge within her belly. It's been 38 weeks since that fateful day...
“Hey, Pei,” a voice said. “I've been looking for you all day. Where’ve you been hiding?”
The young woman looked up from her boiling pot of exposed chicken feet, through the plume of steam, at the person standing halfway through the kitchen door. It was the young man from the house down the hill. “You're not supposed to be here, Wei!” she whispers aloud.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ve got it sorted. I’ve asked Zhang to cover for me.”
She glared at him. Her mother always said boys were like Lychees, taking years to ripen, sometimes never. Wei was not the exception, but among the pink-red rough-textured fruits, he was one of the few good-looking ones.
“Come on,” he coaxed with his big brown eyes.
Pei, eighteen going on thirty, wiped the beads of moisture off her forehead. She dumped her hand-stitched mittens onto the nearby table and strode towards him. Grabbing a fistful of his collar, she yanked him away from the door frame, led him outside and down the side of the house.
“What are you doing?” he said, his legs failing to keep up.
“Having a break,” she mumbled. She paused when they were several feet away, her eyes surveying the entire walkway between the main house and the kitchen. No, she reasoned, still not secluded enough. Without warning, she grabbed and pulled his arm, the force almost dislocating the young man's shoulder.
“Pei!” he said. “You’re pulling my arm out—”
“Sshhhh…” She halted, turned, slapped her open hand on his mouth and shoved him hard against the wooden wall. “You stupid boy!” Her forearms pressed against his firm chest as she stared, her nose inches away from his body. His scent crept into her nostrils. It was impossible to tell where the sweat stopped, and where the pheromones started. She breathed in. Damn it, he smells sooooooo good…
A sense of betrayal seized her mind, forcing her primal self to relinquish control. But it was too late. Her heart was already pumping faster, her legs weak, and her senses teetering on the edge.
Pei didn’t know if she wanted bite his head off or shower him with kisses. “You will get us all in trouble again,” she said with her arms crossed.
“Trouble? Again?” he shrugged his shoulder, looking clueless, like he always did.
Oh my God! She cursed and cupped her face with both hands, the spark of rage returning. How could he not remember the incident? How is he standing in from me now, acting all ignorant, when he was the one who turned up late to the quarry… She screamed, but not as loud as she wanted, and shoved his chest again. Luckily, First Lieutenant Onishi was being generous.
“What's the matter?” Wei asked, touching her elbows. His eyes pleaded with compassion, his face glistened with sweat.
Pei was torn down the middle, unable to reconcile what she should and wanted to do. A pair of invisible arms kept her at bay, but every molecule in her body buzzed with energy. She hears her mother's voice echoing between her ears, You're a pretty girl, men will come. Heartache now is better than a future of lifelong regret. But this was different, the Japanese had occupied their homes, literally in her case, and conventional wisdom did not apply.
“Nothing,” she said without flinching. “I don't want you to get into trouble.”
He pulled her into his chest. His eyes found hers and melted her inside out, sapping all her strength. Her arms relaxed; and as if waiting for this last level of defense to erode away, he plunged his mouth onto hers and ravished her tongue.
“This is wrong,” she murmured when they gasped for air in between heated moments of passion.
“I know,” he replied, his voice caressing her ears. “But it feels so right.”
He squeezed her neck with a gentleness that belied his physique and drew her back into his warmth. Once again, their lips locked. They lingered in that moment, the sun above casting streaks of golden light through the shady enclave while the crisp morning breeze tempered the burning between their bodies.
Thoughts from beyond her reality bubble encroached. She hadn't even added any seasoning to the Lieutenant’s lunch. But she had time, didn't she? The chicken had just gone in. Should I check the broth? She wondered. How long has it been? I really should head back. Oh, his hands are moving down…
Electricity, coupled with feelings she never knew she could experience overpowered her. She reciprocated, reaching for the bulge in his pants. They moaned, eyes closed, their bodies were present but their souls were far away from this drudgery.
She jumped on him. “Not here.” She cocked her head sideways, indicating for them to go somewhere more private, where they could be safe from prying eyes. He glanced around, then like a man possessed, lifted both their weights and lumbered to the storeroom down the back of the house. They wasted no time shedding the layers off each other. He laid her down on some rags or fabric, whatever he could scavenge, and got on top. She didn’t care that parts of her bare back was touching the cold granite, all she could think of was him, every part—his rippled body, his kindred soul and his untameable spirit—including the throbbing heat between his legs.
Once again, he searched her eyes. She knew what he wanted. Submission. Total, utter, unadulterated acquiescence. But she couldn’t and she refused to accede. She looked away, but her fingers dug into his triceps.
He felt the acute pressure on his arms, gazed into her beautiful brown orbs, and plunged.
Pei hears barking from a distance. Her heart skips a beat; did that come from the East or West? She crouches as low as she could to the wet jungle surface, breathing hard. Strands of drenched hair stick to her face.
The woman twists her head in reaction to some rustling leaves. They’re everywhere! I’m going to die! She panics. They’re going to catch me. He’s going to rape and torture me, and murder my child!
There’s a kick from inside her belly, several more follow, and her focus renews.
She remembers where she is—somewhere halfway between the house and the river. She knows she’s got a chance if she can get to the river, but not if her legs remain trapped in a terrified stupor. She takes a deep breath and darts off through the leaves.
Pei’s only a few meters from her last position when she spots a rock the size of a Mango. She picks it up and lowers her profile. The woman waits for the right opportunity, then coils her arm and catapults as far as possible in the opposite direction. Her lower back cracks, and her arm goes limp. The rock skittles off several coconut trees, and thuds into the undergrowth less than ten feet from where she stands. It’s not far enough.
Shit! Her face is void of color. She holds her breath, focusing only on the shouts and cries.
“Asoko! Asoko!” A voice yells out. Over there! Over there!
Pei pivots on her feet, and dashes toward the river. A blunt pain sets her lower back aflame, getting worse with each subsequent step. She grimaces and stumbles, the pain is unbearable, but the young woman remembers what that evil man did to Wei and her resolve strengthens. She cannot let anything happen to her baby.
A sheen of sweat laced their skin. He was on top, she beneath, both maintaining their rhythm for an hour, his rigour never waning. They were connected in every way; their eyes, breath, hands and legs, even their essences were fused. All her worries had vanished—there was no space in her head left for anything else. This is perfect… she thought. I want to stay in this moment forever. She gasped as an escalating tension began building in between her thighs. She wrapped her arms around his torso, squeezed his waist with her inner thigh and stabbed her claws into his shoulder blades.
If he felt anything, it didn’t show. Instead, he grunted louder, adding to the intensity of his movements.
“Pei,” he said, surprising her.
“Yes, Wei?” her voice was dry.
“Am I your first?” he asked, his hips gyrates faster and faster.
“What?” she frowned, trying to keep up.
“Am I your first?” he repeated, his tone urgent, demanding.
“Yes!” Pei screamed, her face contorted.
Wei replaced his thrusting with slow, sharp, intense jabs—each one pushing her towards her threshold—and after several pushes, he pulled back for several seconds; waited for her consent, then buried the full length of his extension into her, apex to apex. She threw her head backwards and moaned. A quake of pleasure erupted below her navel, waves upon waves of euphoria permeated her petite nubile frame.
Pei gasped, holding her breath as she’s overwhelmed.
Several moments later, and the fire was doused. They laid there naked, side by side, his front to her back, keeping each other warm. The corners of her mouth stretched from cheek to cheek and her head rested on the inside of his bicep. Pei found herself struggling with the myriad of thoughts in her head, with different emotions tugging and pulling at her. It was all too surreal and she feared that it may have all been a dream.
“Kore hanan desuka?” an unfamiliar voice intruded. What is this?
Both Pei and Wei scrambled onto their knees, trying to protect their modesty. Several soldiers armed with bayonet-tipped rifles took up flanking positions. Pei reached to the floor and pulled the rag up, draped herself, and looked at the owner of the voice. She knew him even before she saw his face. It was Second Lieutenant Matsuda, one of Onishi’s indirect subordinate. A snivelling rat on two legs if there ever was such a thing.
“Young love is so delightful!” Matsuda said in Pei’s native language. A shivering tremor travelled up and down her spine.
“Second Lieutenant,” Wei greeted the officer and shuffled backwards with his head bowed down.
“Ah,” the Japanese man said, his moving mouth revealed rows of stained teeth. “Mr. Chen Wei,” he continued. “The scoundrel that cost us a whole day’s worth of production.”
Wei kept his eyes glued to the ground.
“First Lieutenant Onishi was lenient in your punishment,” Matsuda said. “And I believe it had to do with this lovely young woman here.” He turned to regard Pei, who also averted her eyes.
“Ms. Wong Pei,” Matsuda said, “That’s your name, isn’t it?” He took a step toward the blushing young woman, who cowered away. “Oh, nothing to be afraid of my dear, I’m not here to hurt you. In fact, I’m here as your friend. Your protector.”
“You stay away from her!” Wei lashed out, but as soon as he took a step forward, two of the soldiers forced him down onto his knees.
“Please,” Pei urged, “don’t hurt him!”
“Hurt him?” Matsuda said. “Oh, hurting him is the last thing on my mind.” He looked at her, his lustful eyes taking liberties with her beautiful soft skin. “However, you’ll do anything for young Chen Wei, right?”
“Stop this!” Wei yelled out. “This is insane! I’ll tell the First Lieutenant!”
Matsuda charged over to the young man position, grabbed a rifle from one of his underlings, and jammed the butt of the weapon into Wei’s face.
“Nooooo please!” Pei screamed. “Okay, I’ll do anything you want! Please, don’t hurt him!” She got down to her knees. Just being in the same room as the man made her stomach turn, and now she needed to submit to the bastard’s heinous will. “Anything!”
The Second Lieutenant smiled as he puffed his chest. “Excellent!” he said and wiped the corner of his mouth. “And since you’re already down there, you might as well put those delicate lips of yours to good use.”
Pei’s face shimmered as tears streaked down her reddened face. She was inches from the man’s crotch.
“Onishi always had the best,” Matsuda said, unzipping his pants. “Always the first choice of assignments, first choice of women… now I will enjoy the privileges of rank.”
Pei can taste bile rising into her throat as she the incident replayed in her mind. She had heard of women taking a man in their mouths, mostly for money, sometimes for love, but regardless of the argument, it is utterly repulsive. But had she stomached every second of the ordeal, resisted every urge to throw up, accepted every drop.
She hears another set of barking and she’s down at ground level again. This one is new, or rather from a new direction, an unexpected one. They’ve stepped up the search. She tries to keep hidden, in between two large boulders, but she knows they’ll catch up. The river had done its job in throwing off her scent, but it was only the halfway point.
She pokes her head out, enough to get her bearings. She tries to remember the landmarks. From what she can piece together, the three British pilots were somewhere northwest of the bridge, and south of the mine shaft. There are two, maybe three locations that could disguise well enough both during the day and night. All she needs is to pick the right location.
The throbbing pain in her back is almost forgotten, and she’s about to press forward when she realizes her feet are bright red, coated in a viscous liquid. Pei follows the ribbons of blood stains up her pant legs to her groin. She balks at the sight, her head spins, but she grasps onto reality, and to the large object behind her.
She coughed and spluttered when it was done, her face was several shades of green. She wanted pour boiling water down her throat. The girl in her had disappeared, only the angry, acid spitting woman persisted. Her eyes roared with contempt while hate spewed from every orifice. Her fists were white, fingers grinding tighter and tighter.
“Not the best,” Matsuda said as he zipped up, his face smug. “But I’m sure that with some practice—”
“You dirty piece of cow shit!” Wei bared his teeth and flared his nostrils. His nose was inflamed, the swell obstructing his sight.
Matsuda laughed. “Such spirit,” he said, then sauntered towards the young man.
Pei’s hands were shaking. She had seen this before, or she thought she had. The vile man’s nuances, body language, every syllable that went unsaid: all culminated into one inevitable outcome. Her stomach were in knots, and she felt sick. “Please, Wei. Stop talking…” she whispered.
“You want a piece of me?” Wei goaded his nemesis, struggling against his restraints. “You and me, man to man! Come on! Come on! Are you chicken?”
Matsuda grinned with a sparkle in his eye. He released the buttons of his cuffs and rolled each sleeve with great care, exposing his forearms. The Japanese man hovered behind Wei. “Man to man… he said, his voice trailing off. Then in one fluid motion, he reached for the concealed knife in his boot, hooked his arm around Wei’s neck, and slashed from ear to ear—red liquid squirting out. “Except I’m a man,” he spat, “and you’re just an insect.”
Pei howled, her lungs hemorrhaging as she watched her man gurgle in a pool of his own sanguine fluid, like a fish out of water.
“You animal!” Her arms trembled violently. “You—”
“Miss Wong!” Matsuda boomed and shot her a glare. “Perhaps you want both my men to take turns with you?” He pulled his sleeves down after making sure every splatter of blood was wiped clean. “Maybe both of them together?”
She hesitated, but anger prevailed, “I don’t care what you do to me! You’re a fucking pig!”
“Well then,” he said. “It seems you need lessons in manners and respect.” He gestured to his soldiers. They dropped their weapons and edged towards the hysterical woman, but an even larger commotion from outside the shed eclipsed their attention.
“Matsuda!!” a voice blared.
There was a flurry of activity. Half a dozen soldiers filed into the room, bayonets poised. Their leader entered last, and the first thing he did was to surrender his uniform jacket to the young woman. He then walked into the middle of the room, and was greeted by the Second Lieutenant, who stood half a head shorter.
“First Lieutenant Onishi,” Matsuda said in his native tongue. “How nice of you to join us. We found this peasant boy taking advantage—”
“Matsuda, I know what you did,” Onishi said.
“But sir,” Matsuda continued. “I was only trying to—”
“Enough!” Onishi said, his voice forbidding. “Dig no deeper Matsuda, unless you want to climb in yourself.”
“Sir!,” Matsuda continued in defiance. “That insolent boy was fucking your kitchen hand!”
“Silence!” Onishi bellowed and slapped the shorter man. “Second Lieutenant Matsuda,” he said after taking in a deep breath, “By the power vested in me through imperial edict, I hereby strip you of your rank, responsibilities and all privileges effective immediately!”
“You can’t do that!” Matsuda protested, his fists balled.
“Take him away!” Onishi commanded.
The soldiers loyal to the ranking officer acknowledged and dragged the disgraced imperial army officer away.
“My father knows the Emperor!” Matsuda shouted, his voice fading away. “You won't get away with this Onishi-san! Can you hear me? I'll be back! You better not be here when I do...”
“Worthless piece of shit,” Onishi said using the common tongue. He turned around to face the woman. “Are you alright…?”
Pei crawled over to where Wei was lying—his head soaked in dark red—ignoring the Japanese man. She rolled the young man onto his back and gently lifted his head onto her lap. “So much blood…” she said. “Wei, why is your face covered in so much blood? Don’t worry, Wei. I’ll clean you up. It’s okay. I’ll help. You’ll be handsome again”
“Pei,” Onishi knelt beside her, putting an arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “I swear, on my ancestor’s name and on my honor as a Samurai. I will not let any further harm come to you.”
Her face was dry, there were no more tears to summon. One of her hands was on Wei’s forehead, the other on his chest, still warm to the touch.
The blisters on her feet bite, but the pain had been gradual, and pale compared to the dull ache from her belly. Pei knows something isn’t right and the clock is ticking down fast. She arrives at the first location. Her sides are all stitched up. She’s bent over, one hand on a banana tree, the other on her lower back.
What do I do now? She searches the vicinity, trying to spot anything that doesn’t fit the landscape. Her plan was to get pass the river and to the next spot; she hadn’t thought about how she would actually find their hiding place. She didn’t know the men personally or why they would help—only they were white—but she’s here now. Should she call out to them? And what would she say?
“HALP?” She doesn’t know if she said it right. She feels foolish, imagining herself—a huge pregnant woman running around in the jungle like a headless chicken. No person in their right mind would risk their lives for a crazy like her. “Halp?” she says again but louder. “Halp!”
She pauses. Nothing but crickets and a cacophony of jungle noises, the errant orangutan mating call included. Her heart is hammering.
She looks down the hill. Several torsos the size of her thumb wade through the thick underbrush, cutting paths towards her. The dogs were slowing them down, but they’ll catch up before she gets to the next location. She looks to the horizon, not much daylight left. Pei is about to scramble up the hill again when a sharp pain stabs her abdomen. She traps the shriek with both hands, suffocating her trembling lips.
She looks down at herself, the crimson liquid had soaked through. A wave of nausea almost blacks her out and her legs turn to jelly. She’s on the ground massaging her temples.
Pei had heard the First Lieutenant’s daughter lumbering down the wooden stairs and into the kitchen, across the concrete kitchen bench where she stood. She had spent several minutes peering at the door frame where Wei had stuck his head through just weeks ago. She could still picture his crew cut hair, high cheekbones, and chiseled jaw in her mind. A rogue tear spilled out but she kept her back towards the girl so she could wipe her face in secret.
“Oh, sorry, Shizuka.” Pei turned around, an empty china bowl in her hands. “I didn’t hear you come in. What can I do for you?”
“Oh, nothing really,” Shizuka said with a cheerful smile. “Father wanted to know if you could start dinner a bit earlier tonight?”
“Dinner?” Pei said, still recovering from her thoughts.
“Is everything okay, Pei? You look tired…”
“I’m…” The young woman trailed off. She was unsure if confiding in the First Lieutenant’s daughter, who was a few years younger than her, was a good idea despite their growing closer after the incident. Onishi had adopted her into the family, first as an act of reparation, and second to keep his daughter company. “I’m fine. Honestly, I am.”
The older woman walked towards the dining table and tripped on her own feet.
“Pei!” Shizuka rushed to Pei’s side. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes,” Pei said, clutching the offered arm and shoulder. “I’m… no, I think I’m going to—” She gagged and covered her mouth.
“Oh, dear,” Shizuka said. “You better sit down for a while. Don’t worry, it’ll go away soon.”
“It? What are you talking about, Shizuka?”
“My mother had the same thing before she became big with my sister, Akane.”
The bowl crashed onto the floor and shattered into a million pieces.
The dogs are barking again and she’s close enough to hear all three, gnashing away at her inner ears. Her fears reignites. She lunges upwards, for the low hanging branch, and catches it. Her center of gravity skews her balance, every movement is awkward, but she pulls herself back up.
Which way do I go? Left or right? Her heart races again. Just pick a direction and run! She leans towards the left, lifts her foot up, but she hesitates. What if I’m wrong? Her eyes well up for the hundredth time. Why is this so hard?
She’s frozen stiff. Her legs are like cast steel irons, burning through the moist dirt beneath her feet. Her breathing quickens. There’s no time to lose. She needs to run; any direction, it doesn’t matter if she’s wrong.
Finally, her legs obey. She puts one foot in front of the other, repeat, rinse, repeat. It’s all about getting to the next foothold, and the next, and the next.
“Wong Pei!” a voice floods the hillside. She pauses, the familiarity invoking discomfort beneath her skin. “Please stop. I promise I won’t hurt you!”
She doesn’t stop. Her feet have a mind of their own. The voice looms further behind as her pace hastens. The barking is almost inaudible. For a moment, her confidence surges. She looks ahead. There’s a wide gap coming up. She doesn’t slow down because she knows the feature. Wei was with her the last time, chasing her up the path. He wanted to show her this hidden nook. She forgets she’s carrying more weight and the pain in the small of her back.
She gasps as she falls feet first, her throat jumping out. Her arms stretch out from either side, grabbing and pulling anything and everything, but nothing sticks. Her heart leaps every time her body speeds downwards. She can’t see past her bump, but she can make out a dark object ahead. It’s a massive rock. She’s flying down towards the moss-covered mass. She raises her forearms to brace. Her knees buckle against the huge deadweight, but her momentum carries her forward and her forehead slams into the cold slippery surface.
It was an early morning, the sun still an infant. Even the cockerel hasn’t stirred. But Pei was drawn away from sleep. She had awoken in the middle of the night and all her tossing and turning only made things worse. There hasn’t been any kicking since the night before, shortly after dinner, and Pei decided it was time to wake the baby. Sugar cane always did the trick.
Pei descended the stairs, hobbling down as she navigated the steep steps. She was about to walk through the rectangular wooden frame when she heard a voice from the entry lounge. Without thinking, she tipped her toes sideways and concealed herself behind the wall.
“What’s wrong, father?” It was Shizuka, speaking in Japanese.
Pei peeked out. First Lieutenant Onishi was in the middle of the spacious enclosure with his torso was exposed and his shins flat against the floor. He was making an offering of fresh incense before his ancestor’s shrine. Her adoptive father was fond of sharing his memories, often over a pot of hot green tea after dinner. She remembered just a few days back, Onishi-san had spoken of his longing for his yearn of his homeland. Apparently, most if not all of his brethren that were sent inland from their island country—to secure various Southeast Asian strongholds—lacked the necessary prestige that would have guaranteed a more luxurious assignment. Like his peers, Onishi-san was here because his family name carried little significance among the social hierarchy. But Pei couldn’t care less, because to her, the First Lieutenant stood out among his peers. He was a man of honour.
“Nothing,” the man said. Then in a softer tone, he turned his head sideways. “Nothing, my dear. Why do you ask?”
“You always sit in front of our ancestors, for a long time, when you are troubled.”
Onishi sighed. “You are no longer a girl anymore, Shizuka. So, I will not treat you as one.”
The young woman scurried to her father’s side, both hands rested on his forearm. “What is it, father?”
“I have lost favour with the Emperor,” he said, his frame contracted. “I am being replaced.”
“Replaced, father?” she said. “Does that mean we are going… home?”
Pei gripped the wooden frame and broke a nail. A half dozen thoughts crammed into her brain. For one, she was now apart of this new loving family of hers and she loathed to be without them.
“Yes,” he said, managing a weak smile. “But…” Onishi paused.
“But what, father?”
“Nevermind,” he replied. “You have nothing to worry about.”
Shizuka sat next to her father, appearing to contemplate what the change might mean to her and her family. She had spent a few years in the jungle of Malaya, and had likely grown accustomed to the torrential rain and equatorial climate, but nothing could beat the familiarity and comfort of being home. Pei felt naïve, but she’d like to think her relationship with Shizuka had blossomed beyond friendship.
“What about Pei?” she asked. “Will she come home with us?”
“I’ll do my best to arrange for her to...” Onishi replied but his jaw dropped.
“What is it, father?” Shizuka beckoned.
“My replacement,” he said. “It’s Matsuda-san!”
Pei’s heart sank into her bowels. She wasn’t familiar with military protocol but she knew if Onishi-san was being replaced, then he was also being demoted, or maybe he already had. That filthy bastard Matsuda was not one to forgive or forget, and the evil man had likely already arranged so she couldn’t leave with her new family.
“What about my baby?” Pei walked out, startling both father and daughter.
“Pei!” Shizuka exclaimed. “How long have you been standing there?”
The pregnant young woman strode into the room—both father and daughter had stood up—and offered Shizuka a passing glance before coming face to face with her benefactor. “Onishi-san,” she greeted, her head tipped downwards.
The man was speechless, even neglecting to acknowledge the nod. Onishi was about to open his mouth when the pregnant woman wobbled onto her knees with unexpected quickness and caught him off guard.
“Please, Onishi-san!” Pei said. “Please take me with you! I will do anything!” The floodgates burst and tears poured out. “I beg you!” She fell onto her face. Shizuka was by her side a moment later, persuading her to return upright.
Onishi joined distraught woman on the floor. “Pei,” he said with sympathetic eyes. “I will do everything in my power to keep you safe. I promise. We will not abandon you.”
“Come, dear sister.” Shizuka said in her mother tongue. “You shouldn’t be on the floor.”
They were about to get up when one of Onishi’s soldiers, a much younger man, appeared from the outside. He half-ran half-walked through the main entrance and his boot caught the bottom lip of the door frame. “Sir! I have urgent news!”
The First Lieutenant sprung up and ushered the soldier back outside.
Pei and Shizuka locked gazes. “Help me up, please,” she said to the younger woman. They stood, supporting each other, waiting in anticipation. Minutes later, Shizuka’s father was back inside, his face sunken.
“It’s Matsuda,” he said. “He’s coming here. He’ll be arriving within the hour.”
Pei felt a sudden weight on her shoulders, forcing her to lean on Shizuka. Her mouth went dry, her palms sticky moist, and all she could hear was the sound of her heavy breathing. Both Shizuka and Onishi’s mouths were moving but nothing registered in her mind. Blackness forced its way into her surroundings, her field of vision tunneled closed and she succumbed to the darkness. The last thing she saw was Onishi’s bearded neck.
It’s warm. Warmer than she expects given it’s dark all around. Her double vision clears away and she notices the licking flames nearby, making crackling noises. Three persons huddled around the campfire in conversation. She strains to get a better view and alerts the strangers. She shudders as they rise up, but relaxes when she doesn’t see the rising sun insignia on their uniforms.
One of them says something she doesn’t understand. She tries to sit up, but one of the other men moves to her side, resting one hand on her forehead, coaxing her back down. The expecting mother pushes up regardless and the sudden elevation creates a vacuum in between her ears, and she gives in, letting the force pull her head back down.
Pei rouses. She had been dreaming. The scenes were vivid: she was right there in the cave with the three white men. It was icy cold. She had pulled out one of her hands from beneath the cotton blanket and explored the frigid surface. A wave of heat travelled up her forearm; the ash from the pit still glowing orange. Her ears expanded beyond the alcove, as far as they could. It was so quiet, she could hear the dead speaking.
Her abdominal muscles tightens and her eyelids fly apart, the whites of her eyes cutting through her dirt-crust face. It’s unbearable, unlike anything she'd encountered before, but a voice inside her head tells her to calm down, that it’s normal. You’re fine, relax. She breathes. Deep breaths.
The man who came to her before kneels next to her. He says something, waits for a few seconds, then uses his hands to gesture. He wants to know if she wants to sit up. She nods. Pei realizes it wasn’t a dream.
He raises a hand, joins the tips of his fingers and thumb together and puts it near his pouting mouth.
He smiles and picks up the crude saucepan off the top of the fire. He scoops out a spoonful of viscous white goop and slops some onto a piece of banana leaf.
Pei accepts the food. She hasn’t eaten since dinner the previous night and she’s starving. The pregnant woman wipes her hand on her sleeve, swabs with one finger and lets her tongue absorb the taste. It’s a few steps down from what she’s used to—gourmet dishes prepared by another cook employed by Onishi—but she doesn’t complain.
It’s all gone in two mouthfuls. She considers licking the substitute plate but when she notices the man’s sunken cheeks and worn eyes and a different pang creeps into her stomach.
He smiles and reaches for the pot again.
She lunges forward to grab his sleeve. “No,” she says. “Thank you. I’ve had enough.”
He gently pushes her hand aside, then tentatively moves it towards Pei’s belly, and when she doesn’t coil away, places it on her bulge and pats it.
If not for you, then for your little one… he doesn’t say the words, but she understands.
Oh no! She remembers. The blood. She tears the covers off, layer by layer, until only one remained. It was a dull army green trousers. The pregnant woman tilts her head up.
He touches his chest. They’re mine, she imagines him saying. It’s big on you, she adds that part herself.
Pei smiles; her eyes are moist, reflecting the vermillion glow of the smouldering ash.
“Sam,” he says, referring to himself. “You?” he points at her.
“Pei,” she replies.
His mouth moves. Nice to meet you, she imagines again. It was after all something a kind person would say. There's a familiarity in his smile. He's gentle, but strong. Kind, but confident. Only two people in her world fit that description, and one of them is dead. Murdered. She catches herself, starving her mind before her tear ducts overreact.
She pauses. Something isn't right. It's like she's surrounded in a black fog that chokes her from the neck down. It doesn’t feel at all like the first time.
Sam reaches for her shoulders. He’s trying to calm her, his mouth is moving, but there’s no sound.
Searing pain slices through her pelvis and everything attached to it. It grips her insides, like a tiny feral animal boring through, clawing its way all over. She cries out.
One of the other two men, the taller one, rushes over from where he was keeping vigil. He snatches the back of Sam’s shirt and drags him up to eye level. Their conversation is brief. Seconds later, Sam is back crouching on the ground. He touches his lips with both index fingers. Sshhhh…
Pei doesn’t know what’s happening, but she pieces together from the trio’s body language and nuances that danger was afoot. She watches them from further back. It doesn’t take long for her new friends to get into positions. Several moments later, faint voices travel to their hole in the hill. Beams of light cut through the night sky from below. There are at least a dozen torchlights, maybe a hundred, with dogs. There’s shouting and yelling, and the noises resonate louder with each second.
Another wave of nauseating cramping engulfs her abdomen. She clamps her mouth shut with both hands so nothing can escape. Her eyes snap tight, her eyebrows contract, she’s trembling. But it’s over as quick as it arrives. Pei lets out a deep sigh, relief sets in and her breathing returns to normal.
Sam scurries to her side. He pulls out a handkerchief and dabs her forehead.
“Pants,” she says. “Please help me take off my pants.” She tugs the garment.
He nods, hesitates, and complies with the request.
“Thanks,” she whispers, her smile unconvincing. She’s glad she’s not alone for this because she’s heard stories about women that labour for weeks. She remembers the fresh blood from earlier and she’s worried that something’s already terribly wrong with her pregnancy.
The next wave rips through before she could prepare. Her brain implodes. She tries to run away from the pain, but there’s no corner in her mind that’s safe. She reaches the next plateau soon enough. Her eyes are open, and she notices the look on Sam’s face. He looks down at her knuckles. They are blushing red with teeth marks.
Sam looks around. He picks up a piece of firewood. He tears some fabric off his pants and then wraps up the small branch. The man looks at her, waiting for acknowledgement. She nods and opens her mouth to accept.
Time flies. Hours, minutes, seconds. Everything's a blur.
Pei can’t remember if the Japanese soldiers are nearby or gone. All she knows, and experiences, is exhaustion. She’s flat against the wall, leaning alongside, on all fours; and everything below her waist shielded by the sheet she laid in.
It's time. She doesn't need the voice to tell her, she knows it. The woman prepares to bite down hard despite the soreness in her gums. Pei looks to Sam and grabs his hand, squeezing tight. She sucks in, filling her lungs with air, and searches for whatever strength endured within her embattled body and mind: and she braces.
Then, with all her might, she pushes.
The baby, snuggled in her arms, laid against her bare chest, imbued in a blue tinge; his delicate hands tucks against its expressionless face and his eyes appears still beneath its protective layer. The blood on its face is still moist, but there’s nothing, not a sound or even a twitch. Pei looks at Sam, but the young rifleman offers nothing in return.
“Why is my baby not crying?” she asks, tears roll down her cheeks. “Please, tell me why!”
One of the other men, the shorter one, rushes over. He picks the infant out of Pei’s arms and slaps the baby’s bare bottom.
The sound of new life fills the cave.
Pei’s face lights up the cave. She accepts the newborn into her protective arms, her smile is contagious. The baby’s mouth follows its natural calling, and she abides, letting him search for her nipple. He takes a while, but he gets there and latches on, suckling in comfort.
She’s engrossed with her tiny miracle and doesn’t notice Sam walking away. It’s not until the young man is back by her side that she takes heed of his long, sullen facial expression. He tries to explain but doesn’t persist. His index finger is back on both her lips and the baby’s. She nods.
The Japanese soldiers are back.
Only the crickets are out this time of the night; owning the jungle with their bold clicking consuming the void, inviting predators to a game of hide and seek. A thick fog rolls over the luscious landscape, encroaching on every square inch of the rainforest. Their hiding spot is obscured from view, but anyone can find it if they knew what to look for.
There’s some rustling nearby. It’s too difficult to tell how far, or how many. Just breathe normally, she calms herself. Just breathe. She watches her son. He’s sound asleep, cooing. But Pei isn’t taking anything for granted. Her heart is pulsing. What do I do if he wakes up? Her fingers are shaking. She knows what she must do in case the worst happens, but she doesn’t want to. She’s not brave enough.
Pei’s baby is in a light snore, but her heart is pulsating. She knows how reliable infants are when it comes to sleep.
She jumps as bits of loose soil trickle down the slope, pattering through the camouflaged facade, likely from an unsure footing from above. The baby stirs.
Pei stifles her son’s mouth in an instant. She feels the penetrating stares from Sam and his cohorts through the darkness and her ears burn hot. She doesn’t know what else to do. The baby struggles and squirms, his tiny forehead scrounges up. Still, she doesn’t relent. She knows she has to keep him quiet or they all die.
Stop crying! She screams silently, hoping her baby can hear her. Please, stop crying. Please, please, please… It’s no use; he whines and wriggles and squeaks, refusing to be quiet. She puts more pressure; not knowing he can't breathe.
Shut up, baby! Just, shut up!
Shut up… shut… up.
The young woman’s dozed off, but the sound of own her name sinks into her ears and lingers, just enough to keep her conscious.
“Wei?” She lifts her eyelids and the fleeting unfamiliarity of Sam’s face startles her awake.
Sam wraps his fingers around her wrists, attempting to calm her.
Pei relaxes. “Sam,” she hisses.
She spurs to life in an instant and rummages through the layers. He’s gone! She scrambles onto her knees, searching high and low. The hysterical woman gets up but her legs fumble. She grabs the man’s offered arm. He’s talking, attempting to make eye contact, but she’s having none of it.
“Pei!” Sam cups her cheeks and holds her head still. “Pei!” he shouts into her face.
She pauses, stunned by the ferocity. She nods. He’s trying to calm her down, she knows this now. He says something, then gestures to the cave’s opening. They walk over. The shorter of the other two turns around and steps forward to meet Pei and Sam. And right there cradled in his arms, was her day-old baby boy, awake, his eyes fluttering about at all the different sounds and sights, blowing tiny bubbles.
The men introduce themselves, or at least they try. Arthur is the lanky one, and Dick the stubby one—who tries to return the precious bundle—but Pei recalls the slap from the night before and throws her arms around man’s neck instead. “Thank you!” she says, offering half a dozen bows in quick succession. “Thank you.”
The stocky man returns the hug and pats her back. He quips in his guttural voice and chuckles, causing Sam and Arthur to join in the light-hearted moment. Your little boy is so cute, I want to eat him up! Pei translates with her wild imagination.
So, this is her life now. Three Gui-laos, or ghost-men due to their fair complexion, and her, a little Chinese woman with a baby. It isn’t what she expected—it’s not something a woman her age even thinks of—but it’s what she has. She’ll do anything and everything to keep her son safe, and if that meant being a single woman cohabiting with three strange men, then it’s a small price to pay. Her parents would not be happy, but they can sulk all they want from beyond their graves.
Pei’s stirring a pot filled with chicken fillets, Pakchoys, and dates. The water’s foaming out, but it’s not until the steam scalds her thumb that she realizes her mistake. She recoils, curses, and sucks her fat digit. The young mother shifts the pot, thinking to temper the heat, but she forgets the handle’s exposed; the pot overturns and dinner is all over the ground.
“Damn!” she said, her hands sift through her straight black hair, grabbing clumps of it. “What am I going to do now?” The chicken she can, or could, catch again, but the vegetables and dates came directly from the men. They had a stash but she didn’t know where. Her eyes landed on the cave entrance.
It’s only been a week, but Pei has amassed a trove of knowledge about the trio. For starters, they aren’t soldiers caught behind enemy lines. She knows this because each of them would alternate every second day, heading out before dawn and returning after dusk. Every night after dinner, they gather around a metal box that talked. She knew it was some kind of special device that allowed people across vast distances to converse, similar to the how the lights came on at home without kerosene.
A bird call penetrates the humid afternoon air. It sounds strange, but she doesn’t think twice. It’s Sam’s turn to venture out today, so Arthur and Dick are chatting inside. The bird is at it again but the frequency increases. Pei looks up into the canopy, wondering if she can spot this elusive feathered beast.
A twig snaps.
Pei jerks her feet and is up in a split-second, gasping at the intruder who had sneaked past the nearest tree line. It’s impossible! The traps didn’t go off!
Arthur rushes out. “No problem, no problem.” His Mandarin is bad, but it’s adequate. He pokes both thumbs up, a gesture that Pei picked up just the day before. He smiles at her and waits for her to nod, before he calls out to the hidden person.
The figure walks out, the leaves rustling beneath his feet. He’s wearing a conical straw hat that conceals most of his face. It’s not until he’s right in front when she discovers that he is a woman, and her face was familiar, like a lost shadow.
“Shizuka!” Pei blurts out.
The younger woman squeals, runs up and wraps her arms around Pei like a hand snug inside an old glove. Their delicate faces overflow; they laugh and sob, fingers clutching each other’s clothes. Is this real? Am I really here? Is she? Pei’s afraid to wake up. Shizuka’s scented hair, her soft skin, and her sweet voice; everything seemed too real and too vivid to be a dream.
“Pei,” Shizuka says, tears streaming down her cheeks. “You’re alive! I thought you were dead!”
“I thought I did too,” Pei replies.
“Your belly!” Shizuka squeals again, her eyes illuminating.
The new mother beams. She beckons Shizuka to follow and they walked into the cave. Pei brings her son out, passing him over to the younger girl. They bask in the baby’s innocence, sharing recent memories of their lives before things became crazy, laughing, crying, sobbing, more crying, until Dick and Arthur walk up. Pei’s eyebrows furrows at the sight—all three of them in a group, exchanging words and expressing thoughts, even arguing. It doesn’t take long for her to realize the obvious. A few minutes later, the girl storms away from the men.
“Are you alright, Shizuka?” Pei asks, one hand on the girl’s arm.
Shizuka takes a deep breath, but remains quiet, or hesitant.
“You speak English?” Pei asks, not knowing what else to say.
“Yes,” Shizuka replies. “I learned it back in Japan. It is the white man’s language. Father said…” she pauses, holding back the tears. "...that the white man will rule the world one day and—” the girl covers her face and falls to the damp grit-laced ground, weeping.
“Shizuka,” Pei gets down, a hand on the girl’s back. “What’s wrong?”
“My father,” the girl says. “That bastard’s going to kill him!”
“Oh no,” Pei frowns. “But why?”
“Father got angry at being insulted and punched Matsuda in the face.”
Pei pauses to think, her face surly. “What are you going to do?”
“That’s why I’m here,” Shizuka says. “I’ve come to ask for help.”
Pei looks to the two men behind. They weren’t smiling, which was unusual, and instead they appeared dampened. Shizuka’s plea for help has fallen on deaf ears, but she doesn’t know what to think, her brain is full of questions. How did Shizuka know where to find her? Why were they not surprised to see Shizuka? Pei glances up the hill again, and the odd couple, and then it hits her square in the face. No, Pei counters, Shizuka came here looking for them!
“I know about the soldiers even before I met you,” Shizuka breaks her silence, as if Pei’s thoughts were leaking out of her head.
Pei watches as Onishi’s daughter stands up and steps away, clearing her lungs, and of the immediate despair. “The soldiers,” she says. “How do you know them?”
“Father knew about them because of Wei.”
Pei withdraws at the mention of the name. “Wei? How is he involved?”
“I don’t know exactly why, but Wei used to sneak out at night, bringing supplies to the British soldiers. One of my father’s soldiers caught him during an unscheduled patrol. Under decree, father had to execute him for treason, but spared his life because Wei was the key. You don’t know this, but father had grown weary of the war, and he knew the empire was on the losing side. He wanted a way out. So, using Wei, father negotiated with the men: if he continued helping them with supplies and protection, they would return the favour when the war was over.”
“Pei,” the teenager says. “Are you okay?”
Flashing images of her dead lover takes her mind hostage. It’s been awhile since she’s had to redress that wound, cut deeper than any blade could, and it still stings fresh in her mind and heart, but she fights it. “And you took over Wei’s role after he was… killed?”
“So, why are they not helping you?” Pei asks, peering at the fair-skinned men.
“Because they can’t. They have orders to continue spying on the Japanese troops on the other side of the hill where they’re building an air strip. They can’t abandon their position, especially not for a suicide mission to rescue a man that has no value to them.”
“No value?” Pei perks up, her irritation boiling to the surface. She glares at the duo. “After all the help you and Wei have given them, every time, risking your lives, so they can what? Have a smoke every other day?” She’s staring at the men, her eyes fuming.
“Pei,” Shizuka says, tugging her friend’s forearm. “It’s not their fault.”
“No,” Pei replies. “That’s not good enough.”
“But what can we do?”
“I have a plan,” Pei says after a while. She faces Shizuka, her eyes steeled. “Listen carefully,” she says. “It’s not a perfect plan, but if you do exactly as I say, we might have a chance.”
The younger woman nods and leans in closer.
The lush tropical jungle is awash in a pearly glow. Once again, the boisterous chirping saturates the midnight air, hindering attempts at deep thought. The wildlife is remarkably tame despite the late hour, with only the odd scavenging possum poking in and out of the thick undergrowth. The sound of cautious footsteps interrupts the serenity. A lone figure wades through the veil of darkness.
The house she used to live in belonged to Matsuda now; the son of a bitch probably staked his claim immediately after usurping power. She counts two guards on patrol, each on opposite ends of the house and far enough apart that avoidance was easy. He’s not expecting anyone to come rampaging at the house, not at this hour, and not since Shizuka had rallied the troops for a special Geisha performance in the common hall a few hundred yards away. There’s a chorus of singing, and judging from the amount of slurring, most if not all of the men are halfway towards the point of passing out. Her final destination is the hole in the ground, an old well at the boundary of the open area, flanked by the main house and the adjoining kitchen. She can get there in one sprint, but her feet are not nimble enough and it hurts when she runs; so she needs to land somewhere in between to maximize stealth.
She estimates the time each guard took to complete their circuit. Four, three, two, one… Pei claws out from her hidden nook, and dashes to the space in between the main house and kitchen. She’s too distracted at first to notice, but when she does, her heart plunges. It’s the spot. It’s where they made out; where she gave herself to him.
Anger. Grief. Elation. And everything in between cascades out, churning her insides. She fights the urge to succumb, reminding herself that her adopted father’s life hangs in the balance. It’s fine Pei, the woman breaths in and out. In and out. But he butchered Wei! She clenches her fists, her knuckles whiten. He took everything I ever loved from me! Her brows wrinkle, her cheeks ashen and contorted.
She opens her eyes to the deep ethereal masculine voice.
A young man emerges from the shadows. His skin gleams under the moonlight.
“Wei?” she hushes. “Is that you?” She steps forward, hesitating.
Pei. The visage says. I’ll always love you. I’ll always be with you.
Her knees collapse at the sight of Wei’s boyish grin and she buries her face into her palms. The sting of reality fractures her broken heart and spiralling her down a slippery, windy path; she’s edging towards the chasm like a moth to fire. It’s chilling warmth offers solace to a lost, twisted, and confused soul, like a frog in a boiling pot of water.
Pei, come back! Stay with me!
A distant crash, accompanied by the smashing of glass, followed by wild exuberant laughter yanks her back into the real world. She drags her closed knuckles across her eyes, displacing the tiny pearls of moisture, then takes in a steadying breath.
She shuffles back to the edge of the wall, then closes her eyes to give her ears potency. Two murmuring voices, still far away, maybe? She can’t tell with any amount of certainty. Pei sticks her head out and sees one guard—he’s walking away. The second is nowhere in sight, but it’s a risk she needs to take. The woman counts to three and bolts.
She arrives two seconds later.
“Onishi-san!” Pei throws her voice through the gap of the metal sheet. She doesn’t know how close she came to crashing.
The ensuing silence is deafening.
She tries again. Then a third and fourth time.
“Pei?” a man’s disembodied voice floats back up.
“Onishi-san,” Pei says with too much excitement. “I’m here to get you out!”
“No, Pei.” The voice responds after a pause. “It’s too dangerous. Get away from here. Go, now!”
“I’m not leaving you!”
“Someone’s coming,” Pei whispers and gets up from her crouch. She spins around and heads for the nearest tree. It’s pitch black, but she makes out the form of a giant tree. She reaches for the bark.
A hand comes out from the darkness and seizes her mouth, muffling her scream. A second hand wraps around her waist and lifts her backwards against her attacker’s body. She yowls, thrashes her arms, and kicks out beneath her. Pei’s trying to break free and couldn’t bring her arms out in time as she smashes into the hardwood.
There’s a hot rancid breath on her face, stinking of alcohol. A pair of hands fumbles about with her outfit. His weight pins her waist down. All her instincts are crying out: fight, claw, bite, scratch, do whatever you can to stop this; but she overrules, lays limp, pretending to be out cold.
The man—she’s guessing one of the two soldiers on duty—rips her top to shreds but leaves her undergarment intact. He says something lewd and Pei imagines him leering at her half-naked body, savouring the moment. A few seconds trudge past. The cold air caresses her exposed skin.
What’s he doing? Why has he stopped? Her fingers grasp a rock the size of her fist. I can’t wait any longer, she reasons. I need to act now! Pei feels the weight on her abdomen lift off and she coils her arm.
She’s unprepared for the sight. Her assailant’s dangling from the neck down, both hands locked up with his neck. He’s desperate for air, twisting, stretching, but he has no leverage at all. Her would-be rapist is slowly choking to death.
The spasms stop. The man’s arms are limp and his head tilts sideways. Pei doesn’t give him a second thought, all she cares about is the dead soldier’s killer, and what he plans to do. She squeezes the rock harder.
“Pei,” her rescuer says, followed by a string of unintelligible words. Are you OK? She translates.
“Sam!” The woman jumps up and wraps herself around the man. “You came to help,” she says, still clutching onto the back of his neck. “I’m so glad. Arthur and Dick refused to come…” She pulls away suddenly when she hears noises. Two hidden figures appear from the shadows.
Pei is about to scream but Sam clamps her mouth. He whispers into her ear—she still doesn’t understand the language—but she recognizes ‘Arthur’ and ‘Dick’. Stay calm Pei, it’s Arthur and Dick, she deciphers. Sure enough, both men walk into the moonlight, smiling. Dick has a cheeky grin. The woman is filled with reprieve. The dark clouds in her mind evaporate, and beams of sunlight cut through.
“I know I was foolish,” she says knowing the men can’t understand. “But I had no choice. I had to do something.”
Sam spins her around and hugs her. He grabs her by the shoulders and says, “Sam, Arthur, Dick, halp Pei, halp Onishi.”
Pei grins and nods.
Dick walks up and removes a bundle from his back. Her ears glow red hot—she’s forgotten all about her baby! The young mother retrieves and inspects her baby; she sighs because his eyelids are fluttering. Dick’s running had done the job. That’s one less thing to worry about and she sighs again.
Pei attention is drawn to the common hall. The music is lively, glasses clink with gusto, and sporadic laughter fills the gap in between. Sam tugs her forearm and urges her to stay hidden. He mumbles and she extrapolates: stay here and wait, we’ll get Onishi-san out.
The three men head out, Arthur and Dick reaching the hole in two or three strides while Sam runs ahead, diving behind a tree and vanishes into the darkness.
Pei’s attention wanders back to the brightly lit building where Shizuka is busy entertaining the men, some of whom were probably still loyal to her father. Onishi had bled with these soldiers, putting his own life ahead of theirs on many occasions, even carrying one to safety on his shoulders.Those soldiers must be pained to know of their commanding officer’s humiliation at the hands of that sorry excuse of a low-life scum. Do they know Matsuda is going to execute their leader the next morning? Would they lift a finger if they did?
Her vision veers back to the action in front. Dick has pried off the metal plate and Arthur is tugging on a rope that leads into the man-sized cavity. The shorter man returns and anchors himself to the end of Onishi’s life line. She holds her breath. Time could not tick any slower.
Pei feels a tonne lighter when Onishi’s head pokes out. But the celebration will have to wait; the men must now put everything back as before as not to raise the alarm prematurely, allowing Shizuka to make good her escape in the early hours of dawn.
She readies to move but ducks behind the tree again. A garrison of soldiers—with their rifles primed—storm out from their hidden locations, exploiting the element of surprise.
Oh no! Pei wants to scream out but it’s too late to warn her friends. The squad leader yells out a warning cry.
There’s a flurry of activity as the men from inside the common hall filter into the open area. Search lights come alive, each targeting the trio, emphasizing the growing commotion. Onishi and the two British soldiers are on their knees with their shackled hands tucked behind their heads.
Shizuka weaves through the men in her Kimono, shouting in Japanese, “Please! Don’t shoot him please! Please don’t kill him!” The girl reaches her father and pleads with his captors. One of soldiers spins her around and grabs her in a bear hug.
Matsuda appears at the rear of the mob. He swaggers past his men, each step in deliberation, his face a portrait of triumph.
The bastard set this up! Pei’s mouth is agape. Her heart is racing and her mind agitates like a trapped possum. The image of Sam disappearing into the background pokes into her head. She peeks out and confirms that the young man is not with the group of captives. If she could keep her baby quiet long enough, she was sure she could make it back… no, the cave’s location would be compromised, the woman speculates. There’s nowhere to go but to confront the enemy.
Pei ambles out of from behind her bark shield.
There are gasps from the men as each of them turn to gawk at a young Chinese woman—baby in arms—strolling through their ranks.
“Ms Wong Pei,” Matsuda enunciates her name in full for the benefit of his audience. “You’re alive!”
Pei walks on, head high, ignoring the fanfare. The soldiers move aside, allowing her right of way. “Matsuda-san,” she greets when she’s within earshot. The young mother even manages a bow.
“I was certainly not expecting to see you,” he said. “How are you?”
“I am well,” she replies with a hint of annoyance.
“And your child, is it a boy or girl?”
“Boy,” she replies.
“Wonderful,” he says, “just wonderful. He is thriving?”
“I’m curious,” Matsuda says. “Why are you here…” but he holds back. He glimpses at Onishi and the two foreigners. “Wait,” he does a double-take at the woman and the prisoners. “You found them!” he exclaims, then laughs. “I see now, I understand. That morning when you ran away into the jungle, you managed to locate them, because he told you about them. He gave you directions to find them.” He stares at Onishi smugly.
Matsuda turns to his men and shouts something she couldn’t follow. The small man is standing a few inches taller as he addresses the soldiers. He’s being accusatory, trying to prove Onishi’s guilt by alleging that the former First Lieutenant was conspiring with the British soldiers.
Shizuka is bawling her eyes out. This could be the last time she sees her father alive.
“Matsuda-san!” Pei barks. Her audience hushes and everyone watches her in awe. “Please, spare his life,” she says, her tone solemn. “I’ll do anything you want. I’ll be your mistress. You can do anything you want. Anything.”
“You want to be my whore?” he asks.
“Yes,” the woman replies. Pei gestures for Shizuka to approach. Matsuda tips his head and the soldier releases the girl.
Pei hands her baby over to Shizuka, then nods for her to retreat. She steps closer to Matsuda, tugs at the knots on either shoulder and lets the last piece of clothing separating her bare skin from the chilling air slip to the ground. She stands, stark naked, her milky white skin radiating, permitting everyone to scrutinize every inch of her body.
The corner of Matsuda’s lips curved up, revealing a row of stained teeth, and his eyes brighten. He rubs his chin. “No. You squandered that chance when you ran away.” He pulls his ceremonial Katana from his waist. “But, I have a counter-proposal. If you put this inside you, I might reconsider. Your choice.” The man flips the blade around, pointing the hilt at Pei.
A cacophony of protests from Onishi and Shizuka interject, both petitioning for mercy, but they are quickly silenced.
She grasps the handle. If I could just thrust it through, she thinks, I can end this right now. But there’s a chance she might miss. No, it’s too risky, she reasons. Without further delay, she takes the weapon; her fingers curl around the solid grip, her palm in contact with the rough surface. It is going to hurt.
“I’m waiting, Pei.”
The woman looks up, her eyes colder than ice. That evil bastard holds all the keys and she needs to get on with it before he changes his mind. She squats carefully. The solid blunt shaft is in position. She wonders how best to do this.
She winces. Everyone’s looking. Ogling.
She cringes. I can’t stop. Not now.
She gasps. No, it’s too long. I can’t.
She breathes. Exhales. She can see Onishi and Shizuka from the corner of her eyes. Both with heads hung low, crying, weeping. The ground where they kneel is moist.
She breathes. Almost there.
She groans. I can feel the last bit…
She sighs in relief, shutting her eyes. She’s done it. It’s inside. All of it.
The sword clanks onto the ground.
Matsuda laughs with pure evil. It sends chills up her spine. He picks up his Katana. “Well done, Pei. You have proven your resolve. I will let you be my mistress, but Onishi was insubordinate and he must serve as an example!” He takes two steps towards his political rival.
Pei throws herself at the man’s feet. “Please, Matsuda-san! I beg you. Please.” The woman grovels, planting kisses on his shiny leather boots. She moves up his legs until she’s straddling the man’s knees. “Please, spare Onishi-san’s life, please don’t kill him. You promised.”
Matsuda is grinning from ear to ear. He sheaths his blade. “You’re lucky I’m in such a generous mood tonight. Very well, I’ll grant you your wish. I won’t kill him, but my soldiers will.” The man gives a sharp instruction to the armed men.
“No!” Shizuka cries out.
Pei sits on her heels and looks to Shizuka as she struggles against the lone soldier holding her back. “He’s going to shoot father!” the girl warns, her eyes big as saucers. The topless woman turns back in an instant, lunges for the man’s legs. A deluge of tears stream down her cheeks and she begs again, and again, and again. But it’s all in vain. There’s no swaying this demon.
The private marches up to Onishi. He cocks his rifle.
Pei’s petite body is heaving as she continues imploring her master from the ground. Her head shakes as her torso rocks to and fro. A glint from inside the lip of the man’s boot catches her eye. She knows right away what it is and what she needs to do. Her hand reaches down.
Matsuda lets out a high pitch scream as Pei slashes, missing his neck, but catches his chin. He backhands the woman’s face, staggering backwards, clutching his neck. She crumples onto the floor. His eyes reek of fury as he lets loose a chain of profanities. The angry man frees his sword and is poised to strike, but he doesn’t see the fast-moving object crash right into him.
The boom of a high-calibre rifle thunders at the same time. A single bullet whizzes into the melee of bodies, exploding through, tearing bits of fabric and flesh, spraying the air red.
Pei’s ear is ringing where Matsuda’s hand had impacted. Although her sight is blurry, she knows it was Sam who fired the shot. There’s turmoil around her. Arthur, Dick and Onishi had instigated a revolt, overpowering their subjugators. But she’s drowned everything out, only focusing on the man stirring a few feet away.
The naked woman propels forward, knife in hand, and lands on Matsuda like an injured feral Musang. Her instincts compels her to strike the man’s head, the least violent solution, but her vengeful spirit coerces her to press the end of the blade into his larynx instead.
Matsuda comes alive at the prickly sensation. He opens his mouth, but Pei pushes in.
“Shut up!” she screams into his face, fresh tears roll down, some dripping onto his face. The man’s neck and chest are bloody from the gash beneath his jaw.
“Please,” he gasps. “Don’t kill me.”
“I said, shut up!” Pei twists the hilt. He relents. “You killed Wei,” she says calmly. “And you wanted to rape me, and make me your whore. Then you threaten to kill Onishi-san and humiliated me in front of your men. I should kill you right now, you son of a bitch, the same way you murdered Wei.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Please. I’ll grant everyone pardons. You can—”
“I loved him,” she continues, staring right through him, “and you took him away, slaughtered like an animal. You are a bastard and a fucking asshole. You don’t deserve to live.”
She eases her wrist against Matsuda’s neck, closing the gap between her fingers and his lower jaw. There’s an initial struggle, involuntary writhing for a few seconds, and then everything stops.
The woman lifts her head off Matsuda’s expressionless face. She looks up at the person hovering above. “Sam,” she says. “Is it over? What’s happened?”
Sam protects Pei’s bare body with his own shirt. He guides her away from the corpse. Another scene unfolds before them. It’s Onishi, on the ground, cradling Shizuka in his arms, his hands are stained red. The man is sobbing. The girl isn’t moving.
“Shizuka,” Pei gasps. “Oh no.” She sinks down.
She leans her head on Sam’s chest. Her heart is hemorrhaging, but her eyes are lackluster, there’s nothing left to give. She looks around, at Arthur and Dick, the soldiers, and the grieving father and his deceased daughter. There’s no way to know how things will pan out, but she’s got a feeling that she’ll never have to run again.