Concerning the French prison
and what Hellmantle finds there
100km east of Dien Bien Phu,
Son La Province
In the morning, instead of
eating breakfast, Hellmantle chewed betel nut one after another while D'Aqs sat
with the family and had eggs and bread.
"Umm, are you nervous or
something? Why are you chewing betel nuts for breakfast?" asked his squire, who
was still favoring his ribs on the left side from his wipeout in the
"No. But having betels for
breaky isn't breaking any laws in this country." He tossed another into his
mouth and bit into it. He moved it to his cheek and began the process of
crunching it into splinters of liquorice tasting narcotic.
"Your teeth are now stained
just like one of the boys."
does it taste like compared to the ones we had in the Philippines?"
"Bitter," he said,
crinkling his face when he found a spot between his cheek and gums. "Bitter and
chewy tar it is." D'Aqs shook his head when he spat the red juice into an empty
"Is this normal behavior for
you? Or I suppose not since there's a wake of destruction and mischief in your
consider that a compliment, thought perhaps destruction isn't the correct word.
I'd say something like a wake of mischief and laughter with no one gettign
hurt...most of the time."
always got hurt when you were involved. I used to watch and wait unil whoever
you were sparring with would either limp away with a severe bruise or sprang,
or getting the cane from Tottenham." It was a fact that had slipped his mind;
and not once did someone commit the worst sin.
that time about six of us went out to play Space Invaders downtown that night,
must've have been late Novmber."
how could I not? Grandfield..." D'Aqs didn't want to retell the shame of
being caned for the first time, being a sportsman and A-student.
don't know if I ever told this to anyone before because I'm sure I didn't while
I was still at Lakefield."
did you not get caught by the way? I remember, because it was one of those
life-changing moments for me."
Tottenham hitting me with the cane telling me I was better than this and he
kept calling me Big Ball, which he called my Dad when he was there."
was never caned."
on! Never? I don't believe it."
I went in expecting one. I had over twenty-four quarters and it was only
think I remember that because you missed the cricket match." He recalled the
image of the proud Hellmantle posture for the first ten kilometers, but when
the afternoon sun began to set over the Maple trees along the edge of the
fields, his body was like mashed potatoes. Hellmantle was finally called in for
dinner after twenty-one kilometers of running.
only had three more quarters owing for the following Saturday so I did them in
the morning and that was the afternoon I had my one-and-only-no out and century
combo at Appleby."
on that match, too."
so when I walk into Tottenham's office to deflect I go to his bookcase and say:
‘Have you read all these?' He put down the cane - I remember that thing: long
and thin wood like willow or something; and he walks up to me and says:
‘Mantlepiece, you remind me a lot of me when I was young. I remember the
mothball smell of his tweed, worn and cut like a Lord."
was a real Lord you know?" Hellmantle nodded.
"How could anyone forget
that?" D'Aqs looked like he was fifteen again, sitting on the bottom bunk
hunched over feeling socially awkward. "So Lord Tottenham and I stood looking
at his books until we both reach out for a book at the same moment. And that's
when we both laughed, and I knew I would get a lecture instead." D'Aqs had an
image of Tottenham running down the hallways of Eton or Harrow inbetween
patrols by the master on night duty.
"So then what was the
lecture? Do you remember?" Hellmantle brought his eyes to D'Aqs' in a rare
moment of eye contact.
"Yes! I remember! It was a
life-altering moment for me too." He recollected silently as he stroked his
fluffy beard. "If you recall I started to wear a Herringbone tweed after that."
"So what did he say to you?"
"After some minutes flipping
through books, he said: ‘You know Mantlepiece, if you can read that book
in your hand than that would be the best punishment solution for you. Only
if!' he said, raiisng his hand. ‘Only if you never get a twenty-four again!
Deal?' He put out his hand and I was nervous as hell, because he hand was so
big!" "D'Aqs laughed at the unknowing Aspergers manifesting it so early.
book were you holding?" He shook his head.
said he had started to read in a whole other way atfer he read Leaves of
read most of it, enough to write a paragraph or page and hand it to him to
read. Yeah, I could say it had a very similar impact on me too." D'Aqs felt
admiration at his cleverness to deflect to bookshelves before the business at
hand, and envy at how his own caning had been horrible that left emotional
you went in for a caning and left confidence with the Lower School Headmaster
with a book of poetry in your hand and a new flair for herringbone tweed?"
about right, but back to that night when Grandfield caught all oyu guys. I
remember so clearly when we had just got to the bottom of the stairs, you
"I was the one who opened
the door and for a full second at least we stared at each other, eye-to-eye."
They laugh together. "I mean, what is this guy doing up at four in the morning
by the showers? I still relive that moment sometimes out of the blue; his
unshaven and coarse hair, his pale skin, his skinniness, his intensity."
how do you think that saved you? Do you think he recognized your face?"
been wondering that so twenty-five years. If I saw him how couldn't he see me?
So immediately we're all running for our lives, right? I knew exactly where
Grandfield would go: it was either D Dorm or ours in B. So I ran after him
listening to his footsteps, and when he went up the extra flight of stairs, I
ran into the dorm and slipped under my covers maybe ten seconds before
Grandfield arrived. Once the lights came on he could see who was still out
there in the woods. I never understood that."
some guys ran back to the safety of the trees. It was so obvious you would get
the cane." D'Aqs looked away, not wanting to admit that that was exactly what
he had done. Hellmantle's red-stained teeth made him smile.
"Yep, you sure are weird,
and get an A-plus for consistancy."
"Thank you. I never fall
into the category of normal!. I never have and never will, and I'm proud
I don't. It behooves all men to live an extraordinary life in my opinion. Never
be normal because normal is unexciting and it has been done before."
"Yeah but it's not safe, you
riding and chewing betel. It's reckless."
to me we both did it on Luzon."
was one. You've had what? Five so far?"
"With the amount of
motorcycling experience I have under my belt I don't think you should worry
about me. It's you I worry about with your riding technique. Watch me and learn
My Son because I am among the best who ever lived when it comes to this. So let
it go - your worries - and let's focus on the prison we have on our agenda this
morning. When we go to the prison," he said more to God than to himself, "we
need to be patient, so we don't miss anything. Only with patience and humility
we will best serve God. Even contemplative warrior monks must perform some
labor, and cannot live without devoting time to activities other than
Outside the colonial hotel
immediately they both saw the convergence of several rivers that they couldn't
have seen last night due to darkness.
"Look," said D'Aqs. "There
are three rivers that converge here."
"Or four if you include that
dried stream there." Hellmantle pointed to an intermittent stream. "It likely
comes alive during the rainy season."
They warmed up their engines
and clipped their helmets to their knapsacks, preferring the wind in their hair
than the claustrophobia of a tight-fitting hat.
Heading toward the prison,
they stopped on a bridge from where they could see the yellow walls on the
prison up on a escarpment above where the rivers met.
"This must be it," said
D'Aqs. No more words were spoken because Hellmantle knew in his gut that this
was the prison where the Great Dane had left the map.
Reaching the prison above
where the rivers converged, they stood in front of what was left of the doorway
to the old colonial prison.
"Damn!" said D'Aqs. "All
this way to find the thing smashed up!"
"Oh ye of so little faith,"
came the reply. They hadn't been able to see this old part from the road
because it was way up on the hill. The prison had been completely blown apart
but some walls and cells were still partially standing. There was a part, the
main body, where there was a second floor balcony in tact right along a steep
grade in the hill.
Parking their motorcycles
they walked around to the main part but didn't see anything but the bars on the
windows in the European style. The jungle was in the process of overtaking the
old wall. The barracks where the guards would have slept was the only part of
the jail that was still untouched, as well as the infirmary with old wooden
floors. It was still in beautiful condition. It was now part of a museum with
some rooms being used as offices. Everything was open so the two cousins
checked out everything, not letting one single nook or cranny escape their
"Where is everyone? We're
going have to pay to get in," said D'Aqs, looking around as if someone were
spying on them.
"Those that run it must
still be sleeping in the office." So Hellmantle led the way by checking each
room on tiptoes to minimize suspicion from any wandering Vietnamese ladies who
ran the museum. One eventually caught the two Normans and they paid the twenty
cents for admission.
"You want tour?" the lady
"No, it's okay. We will do a
self-guided tour," Hellmantle replied. The Vietnamese lady nodded in approval
and went about her business.
In the museum section the
walls were covered with black and white photographs, each hanging crooked.
Every photo was scrutinized efficiently with some deserving more attention than
others. All the enlarged photos showed the French using the prison and many
showed the abuses of the Vietnamese by the French officers clad in kepis. From
these rooms Hellmantle was able to have a better idea of the original layout of
the prison during French rule. At the end of the corridor they climbed creaky
wooden stairs up one of the two turrets on the east side of the compound. What
was likely once a gendarmes old personal living quarters with balcony
and sectioned rooms spreading south down the hill, it gave a good view of the
rivers below. From high on the hill on the second floor, they both could see
the four rivers converging by the hotel. The small intermittent creek was too
small for the map.
"Remember, the map is buried
in the east tower lying at the mouth of four rivers behind the inscribed stone
and hidden by an oak," Hellmantle said like a student wanting his homework
checked when he knew it was right.
The way the morning sun
reflected off the balcony directly into the room caused the wood beams to light
up into something that looked alive. The rooms on the other side of the
compound appeared to have been transformed into classrooms beside what was now
a defunct kitchen. Walking out to the courtyard, Hellmantle could sense the history
of it: the horses, the spit, the boots, the laughter and the cries of terror in
the deep of night, and the smell of French coffee.
"The French were known for
their sharp rule during their stay in Indochina, so it's not surprising that
the Viet Mingh destroyed the prison after 1954. They were at least smart
enough to keep the courtyard despite the lack of functioning kitchen
facilities, unlike the Khymer Rouge who left no more than walls standing
in the entire summer retreat town of Kep during their communist revolution in
looking as if the betel nut had taken effect, Hellmantle examines his compass
and identified what must be the east tower. It was the stairwell closest to the
jungle side, where the land jutted upward. There was an opening in the south
part of the courtyard so he went through the deep grass to the corner.
Hellmantle thanked God that his motorcycle boots protected him from snakes.
D'Aqs, who was not wearing motorcycle boots, walked stiffly through what could
be a snake pit.
looking for some sort of oak motif," said Hellmantle.
"Look at all the oaks
though." They walked to the corner where there was an old oak tree.
They both saw the cornerstone at the same time. There was an inscription or
mark of some kind on the stone, but it had been painted over and worn from the
elements. Hellmantle had anticipated this so he removed sandpaper from his
have the necessary tools," he volunteered. He bent closer to the stone and saw
that it was the cross of the Blonde Acquitaine.
the Acquitaine cross!" said D'Aqs.
Hellmantle peelled the
foliage away from the tower. Some of the weeds were barbed and sharp, so he
slipped on one of his motorcycle gloves. Minute jagged barbs scraped the
leather on the glove as he pushed the weeds to the side.
"Look, below the cross. It's
an arrow!" The arrow pointed east and downwards to the stump of the oak tree.
"There's a hole." Hellmantle
reached in with his gloved hand and pulled out debris of leaves and twigs. Down
on his hands and knees, he took out a flashlight.
"I see it!" D'Aqs said from
his standing position.
you hold that foliage back for me?" Hellmantle asked. He was about to suggest
the gloves but D'Aqs responded with alacrity grabbing the barbed weeds with his
bare hands. Just then D'Aqs let out an involuntary cry.
he yelled to cover up his outburst.
one. Trooper." There was blood where his hand had been ripped by the
barbed weeds. "Chin up." He tried in vain to repress his laughter, so in an
effort to hide his mirth Hellmantle reached deeper into the hole.
"Is there something?" He
pulled out the last of the grass and soil and then reached in deeper this time.
"What is it?" D'Aqs let go
of the foliage and promptly put his hand, albeit a bit gingerly, into his
something hard and smooth. Wait! It feels like it's a corner of a bottle."
Hellmantle stood up from the stump and removed his knapsack and put on the
it feels like a bottle. It's slippery. I need more space. It's buried in
been there over fifty years."
"Yeah, yeah." Hellmantle
knelt down again shining the light directly into the hole in the earth. When he
bent his neck at a hyper-extended angle, his heart jumped into his throat. For
a second he couldn't breath. From the light of his flashlight he saw a
reflection of glass. He lied flat on his chest and reached as far down the
stump as he could.
"There is something else
that feels like a cork." This time Hellmantle was able to grasp the top of the
bottle. Wiggling it a little, he finally had enough of a grip to pull it out.
unable to complete his sentence. Hellmantle was laughing hysterically. His eyes
popping out of his head as he rubbed his hands around the bottle with noted
care. He was on the verge of losing control.
got it! I can't believe it!" The bottle was small like a medicine bottle. The
cork was jammed in deeply so it required care to remove it. Hellmantle held it
in his hand for them both to look at.
see it," said D'Aqs.
not open it here. In fact we should split."
should." Hellmantle made one final reach deep in the hole and found nothing
Placing the bottle in his
bag, he covered the hole as best he could and they walked briskly together
unseen to the prison's main compound and then under the gateway where old
Frenchmen had once saddled their horses. There, Hellmantle lit a smoke. He was
so giddy he could hardly stand still. D'Aqs stood there shaking his head with
his mouth wide open. The missionary felt his edifice of belief threatened as if
by an earthquake.