E. B. Robinson
To Jean, my wife, my beautiful friend, my lifelong companion
Although many events herein are based on historical fact, the characters in THE GODHEAD are fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
This, then, will be your touchstone, and this will be your light . . .Dao Chien Thieu, trying to remember the words, knew this would be the last incantation of his life, such a bewildering thought. Yet the thoughts, the words, stuck in the tight place in his throat, for he asked this grace from the searchlight of a French boat and not from the light of the Cao Dai, not from the Eye of God. . . .
"Glorious light," Chien whispered, allowing this deception, squeezing the words past the tightness in his throat, "let your prophecy and guidance be fulfilled in me, please, on this night."
The French LSSL patrol boat, the Arquebuse, had been scanning Chien's freighter, Erroa, from the moment she secured berth in the harbor of Da Nang. Their discovery was so unexpected, so completely unexpected here. He thought the Erroa would easily pass through Da Nang Bay unseen, only one more freighter harbored within the veil of rains. How could she be detected in these monsoons? The rains in the early summer of 1953 were the second heaviest since the keeping of records, and yet here they were, the French with their gun ship.
Dao Chien had already dismissed his men and told them to scatter inland after hearing the first hint in the transmission, mainly from the Arquebuse, that the French had identified the Erroa as a munitions carrier. The French boat carried three-inch cannon and ran at twenty-two knots and carried sixty troops, and the Erroa had no chance against a gun ship like the Arquebuse.
Dao Chien stepped down the ladder of Erroa's midships hatchway and shuffled back to the unlit aft-cargo where the more volatile munitions were secured, where the fume of bilge-diesel lingered and its taste clung to the air, and it stunk heavy in his mouth. A brown canvass shroud covered the container of plastique but he couldn't risk using the overhead lamp to find it. The French would notice that. Instead he used the emergency wall-flashlight to locate the pen detonators, still in their plain wooden carton, snugged between the containers of 81mm mortar rounds and the anti-personnel mines, packed in calcium silicate crystals and stowed atop the center container marked in English: "Caution--Granular PETN--Plastic Military Explosive."
He heard the French commandant calling from the gangway. The soldiers, noisily wharfside now, were boarding the Erroa off the pier ramp, rattling along the iron railings, deploying down the main deck, down toward the companionways, down into the holds and lower cabins, and Chien fumbled to get the timer set but his fingers wouldn't hold steady. He put his hands under his arms and squeezed hard, then groped the indicator to the fifteen minute mark and stuck the ends of the circuit wire into the clips on the detonator, which would give him enough time to get the ship's manifest and bills of lading. If he could get by the soldiers. . . . Little hope of that.
If he couldn't, he would stay in the navigation room, shut its armored door and let the documents be destroyed with him, because their destruction was necessary. Dao Chien Thieu knew at least this: There was no longer a choice.
French soldiers were running through most of the corridors but Dao Chien reached the steel-enclosed room next to the navigator's quarters without being seen, and had to gasp for breath as he did so, before he stepped inside. This was young men's work and he realized on this day of all days that he was certainly no longer young, and he rested his shoulder against the bulkhead wall before he saw the officer, and heard the words, obliquely, "God in heaven . . . Dao Chien Thieu?"
The French officer stared at him from behind the navigation table. "Dao Chien Thieu?" Major de Larocque said again, almost dropping the pistol as he re-gripped the sweaty handle. The barrel banged against the steel table. "God, the brother of the Minister of Defense is behind these shipments?"
"Major de Larocque . . . "
"Only last week we had dinner with your brother, for God's sake. Now I find you here?"
Chien tried to think but was too tired, too isolated to think of a believable lie. He lowered his head, reached his hands out to either side, surrendered to his world of lies. "I carry no weapons, Major de Larocque."
"God in heaven, the Minister of Defense had reports that some American was supplying the communists." The major began to shake his head. "Now look, we find his damned brother here." Major de Larocque thumped a stack of documents on the navigation table and stared down. He continued shaking his head.
Dao Chien felt the beginning of a cramp burning his shoulders but he kept his arms out, and the quickness of the pain told him of his frightful oldness. "An American supplying the rebels against the French occupation? Major . . . if my brother thought the Americans were taking sides with the Viet Minh," Dao Chien swallowed painfully, "he would probably join the rebels himself. But I don't really know who sends these weapons."
De Larocque's eyes, narrow, sitting tightly over his long nose and weak chin, made the 40-year old officer look too much like an aging ferret, thought Dao Chien. Not at all like the tall mustachioed regimental officers of the Tiraillers Tonkinois who once visited his family plantations in Tan Am. "Your brother is a big admirer of the Americans, monsieur . . . " Without moving his pistol the major began gathering papers with his other hand. "But even they would never, never persuade him to supply the Viet Minh guerrillas against the French, if such a thing were even thinkable. . . . "
Dao Chien closed his eyes and blocked out the words. He remembered the metal door, still open behind him, a step away, and wondered if he could take this final step.
"You are thinking, perhaps, of trying an escape, Deputy Minister," said the Major, seeing Chien look toward the door. "Please do not. Please. You would not succeed. I have no desire to hurt you."
A squad of footsteps went by outside, along the passageway. A thin voice shooing men into the cabins and sleeping quarters of the ship's crew. The door swung in as a disheveled young lieutenant stepped through and saw Dao Chien and stopped, and fingered the flap of his holster. "Everything all right here, Major?"
"Everything's all right, Lieutenant Aumont." Major de Larocque waggled a hand toward the lieutenant's holster. "I think you know Deputy Minister Dao. . . . What about the weapons?"
"Sir, the boat is loaded." Lieutenant Aumont gave up trying to unsnap his side arm. "We can start an inventory-"
"-No. No inventory right now," said Major de Larocque. "Secure and post watches. Get those worthless Headquarters people to take inventory."
"I'll do that, sir." The lieutenant, seeing that Dao Chien presented no threat, saluted himself out, but Chien felt his chest cinch up at the sight of the young officer. At least a company of men were on or around the Erroa now, and there was the patrol boat alongside . . . too many men. He never thought of himself as a field soldier and he did not want to die like this, with the killing of so many men, but he needed to keep the documents inside this room forever.
He reached toward the door. . . . "Jesus--no!" The major yelled and raised the pistol and fired as the door clanged shut, and Chien felt the bullet thread into him, and he sagged against the wall, and he slid awkwardly down, groping the bulkhead as the major came over him, bent over him, reaching at the wound--"Christ in heaven, what in hell were you doing?" De Larocque lifted Chien's white shirt where a scarlet rose of blood was soaking through. "I thought you were trying to escape! Have you gone insane?"
Chien could barely hear the words. The old Vietnamese squirmed upward, propping his back to the wall, and waited, waited, for the stinging in his chest to stop. "You must give an order. . . . Make your men leave the ship, Major."
"Leave the ship?"
Dao Chien felt the blood leaking warm through his hand. "You need to give an order, Major. Tell your men to leave the ship. Now, please." He heard the pounding at the bulkhead door and the lieutenant's muffled voice hollowing through a quarter-inch of steel: Major! Everything all right in there?
"I'm okay, Lieutenant." Major de Larocque tried to turn the door handle. "Wait there a minute." Looking back to Dao Chien. "What have you done here, Deputy Minister? Where is the key?"
"We've only a few minutes, Major. Please, order your men from the ship." Dao Chien felt beaten, terribly disoriented, but thank God, blessings from the Cao Dai, the pain was beginning to slip away. "I'm sorry. I'm very sorry, Major, that you have to be with me."
"What are you saying, Deputy Minister?" Major de Larocque squinted at the old man. He yanked at the door handle. "Lieutenant! Break this door in--now!"
"He won't be able to, Major," said Dao Chien. "There is not enough time."
De Larocque aimed his pistol at the lock as the thud of a body, or foot, crashed against the other side of the door. Give me some help here! they heard the lieutenant yell. On this side, the report from the major's pistol reverberated like a cannon in the steel room, the bullet spat into and away from the lock, ricocheting downward, past the major's knee.
Major! You all right? A tremendous bump now shook the door. It's solid, sir. Need to get tools.
Major de Larocque gaped at the lock, for only a moment. He pushed at the door again, once, and let his hand fall away--"Lieutenant, get the men off this ship!"
"The ship's going to go up! Get the hell off this ship and tell the patrol boat to pull away! Do it NOW, Lieutenant!"
The other side went silent, for a heartbeat. Then a short mumbled discussion took place before they heard the junior officer begin shouting away from the door, steps banging up the metal stairs of the adjacent companionway, a mixture of running and yelling that lasted only a minute on deck before the two men in the navigation room felt the rumble of the patrol boat backing its screws. Noise accelerating, whining to a higher pitch and then fading, fading, until everything became quiet.
Quiet. The quiet of death's approach, thought Dao Chien. The final quiet of the Cao Dai, perhaps.
Major de Larocque let his arms drop, watched the bulkhead door before wiping his forehead with his gun hand, still loosely holding the pistol. "You could open this for me, Deputy Minister. You can't . . . I know you have the keys here, somewhere in this room."
"I'm sorry, Major. I do not have the keys," said Dao Chien. He prayed that the soul of Major de Larocque would understand the reason for this one last lie. "I'm so very sorry, Major," he said, "but I cannot open the door."
"Mother of Christ," whispered de Larocque.
"Nothing else I could do," apologized Dao Chien. "I couldn't let you take the papers. Forgive me, I couldn't."
"There are other documents. . . . Someone else will just be assigned . . . " The major's voice wavered, then limped into silence, and he walked away, unsteadily, to the navigation table, laboring himself onto the edge of its elevated seat. "Even your brother's son has been assigned to this . . . to the investigation of these shipments, Dao Chien."
"I know, Major. I know." Chien tried to nod. "Such a mixture of loyalties in this land, even in my own family." He stopped while the major made a trembling sign of the cross over himself, and Dao Chien thought, What a waste of this man. If only there were another way. . . . "My brother says the Americans are sending his son and another Army man, by themselves, to do their own investigation of these shipments," said Dao Chien, succeeding this time at producing a weak smile. He felt his words might help the major in these last seconds. Such a frivolous token, while taking a man's life.
"My brother feels these Americans will find who is right and wrong here." The major didn't answer, and Dao Chien, struggling to sit upright, felt himself getting weak. His left side felt very cold and weak.
"Whoever could tell right and wrong in Indo-China could explain rightness everywhere, n'est-ce pas?" said Dao Chien. "If such a thing exists."
Chien's voice, his last words had begun to rasp as the first discharge went off, searing into the two men and jolting the Erroa like a ship collision a moment
before the giant yellow firebloom tore the ship from gunwale to waterline,
swallowing masts, booms and kingposts into its hold, destroying the pier and
cranes, destroying even the dockside warehouse.
Dao My Linh lifted the hem of her white ao dai where it circled the top of her ankles, and settled quietly on the wooden ledge of the irrigation mound. The villagers and tenant farmers in grey calico tunics gathered around, an activity they did each week to hear the girl-priest of the Cao Dai speak, although some of them still preferred that she speak in the temples like the older, more orthodox priests did.
Her father, Dao Phuong, owned these fields. He owned the rice lands, the banana trees, the coconut palms and corn crops. He owned the breeding grounds of the cream-colored Peking duck. The family of Dao Phuong, in fact, used cows instead of buffalo for the shallower rice fields, an indisputable sign of wealth.
They, the workers of Dao Phuong, had almost completed the first picking of rice that brought in over seven tons per hectare, almost a record for their region's January-June crop. They had already filled many of the lower paddies with water for the six-month breeding of carp, so if they could not hear her in the temple then this clearing made the next most desirable gathering place, certainly better than the lower and wetter fields to the south.
The affluence of Dao Phuong had spread through the area--seven families out of ten owned radios here--but his presence was not the reason these people came today. The villagers had not expected to see Dao Phuong today, in fact, for everyone heard that he still wept over the death of his brother Dao Chien, who had died so terribly, they heard on their radios, in the ship explosion at Da Nang.
The earth around the irrigation mound was still wet from the recent flooding, and it soiled the white blousings of My Linh's hem. It distracted Dao Phuong, for he was a fastidious man, while his daughter waited for the people to become quiet before she began in her soft clear voice: "Do you remember the philosopher I spoke of last week? Socrates?" The people looked at one another. Some grinned self-consciously.
"This week I found a passage in his dialogues that describes the joy of finding the true goal we spoke about." And she beamed her enthusiasm for this discovery, her crescent eyes widening, her pink unpainted lips smiling, releasing this dazzling whiteness over them. And they thought, Aiyee, but she is beautiful, is she not? A porcelain goddess, and what ideas she had! And she, only a village leader, had not yet taken the next step in the Cao Dai of becoming a student priest, and she wore an ao dai rather than the white robes, and she spoke of this Socrates rather than the decreed saints of the Cao Dai such as Christ or Confucius or Winston Churchill.
Indeed, she was a special gift to them.
"The Tao says our world is only one of many world-illusions, so if we wish to bring meaning to an existence that is only one of these illusions, the people within it must then create a goal. . . . " She took a small brown book from her satchel as the villagers tried to look thoughtful for her. She carefully opened its cover.
"What goal could be more sensible, then," she said, "than to make this world as good as we can for each other, since we are all in this one particular illusion together. Even if this requires our own personal sacrifice, which would give the highest meaning to our lives. . . . "
Enchanted by that idea, My Linh began to leaf through the pages while the villagers poked and nudged each other, but only when she could not see them. They intended no disrespect. These gestures were their way of paying attention: See our leader? they would indicate. See our own village leader? See our girl-priestess here?
"It is found in a dialogue written by Plato called `Georgias,' where Socrates attempts to explain these things to a man called Callicles. . . . Yes, oh . . . " and she began to read: "Socrates talks to Callicles and he says `Callicles, if my soul happened to be golden, don't you think I should be overjoyed to find a stone to test the metal, the best stone possible which, when I applied it, if it proved that my soul had been well cared for, then I need no other touchstone?'"
Delighted with this beginning, she continued her reading from Plato, and the words sent chills through her father Dao Phuong, like blessings from God. She far surpassed him now, he knew. For she had approached her touchstone, this thirst to make life better for everyone, although neither he nor the gentle villagers nor anyone in the world might ever truly understand her.
But he would try.
The word had distracted him from the writings of Plato.
It was such a perfect word, his daughter's most favored word: touchstone. The Americans had asked him for a key word--a secret word--as a reference for this mission they were sending his son on, to find the reason for the ship explosion at Da Nang.