“More rice. Please.” Stafford added the courtesy word as a reluctant and unwarranted afterthought as he held his dented empty tin bowl towards Sergeant Anzai. The stench of old sweat, outhouses, machinery grease, dust, and wet jungle lay in an unnoticed pall over the prison camp.
Lieutenant Stafford still covered his bald spot with his lank brown and greasy hair hand combed over. Unshaven, his uniform khaki shirt hung down from gaunt shoulders and covered a waist cinched with a belt three notches smaller than his prewar size. A dirty big toe showed in one of his sockless dress uniform shoes. A heavy brow ridge with long eyebrows shadowed his light brown eyes and their ring of crud. He looked down into the snapping brown eyes of the Japanese sergeant.
The sergeant did look rather like a snapping turtle he had observed on his uncle’s Ontario farm in a pond. Mean, vicious, and ready to bite. Stafford blinked his long lashed eyes and wished for enough water to wash the crusty build-up away. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he located a last grain of rice stuck in a tooth, worked it out and swallowed. A fly buzzed down and he jerked away.
Hands behind his back, Sergeant Anzai glared up at Lieutenant Stafford as if the black hatred emanating from him could vaporize the officer and all that he represented in opposition to the Japanese Empire on the spot. The fly dashed past him and landed on the rim of the rice pot with a dozen others. Silent spectators, the prisoners of war around the nearly empty pot watched the confrontation escalate like a tropical boil. One of them slipped away between flimsy bamboo huts to get the Major.
“No more rice,” Sergeant Anzai spat out.
“I need more rice, I am sick and hungry.” Stafford did not want to sound petulant but did. Rather like pleading for more birthday cake when he was ten, he thought.
“You think you get more food than me?” Clenched into tight fists, Anzai dropped his hands to his hips.
“I’m bigger than you. I need more.” No point in rationalizing with the dictatorial pricks, but dogged persistence occasionally produced results, and today Stafford was very hungry. Perhaps he really was sick, he thought. His stomach felt completely empty after eating a cup of rice and his bones ached.
“You bigger make you more man? You surrender! Disgrace self!” His spit landed on red soil and dissipated in the morning heat.
“I surrendered in Singapore on orders. Per the Geneva Convention…”
“You no even learn to speak Japanese! I have to speak English to you!” White spittle formed in the corners of his lips. “My uncle had his store stolen from him. He in jail for being Japanese. He no soldier. You man to put family in jail for being Japanese!? You man!?”
The half-ring of soldiers behind Anzai laughed at Stafford’s now red face even though they likely understood little but the emotion of the exchange. At a gesture from their sergeant or officer, they would beat any prisoner into submission. Some had never returned from beatings.
“I should like sufficient food to eat, per the Geneva…” As he spoke, Stafford thought that he felt a rat gnawing its way out from his empty stomach and then Sergeant Anzai interrupted with a virulent flood of Japanese that had his soldiers laughing.
“That’s enough then Stafford, old chap, you did your part,” said Major Jennings striding in as fast as his gimp leg allowed. “Stand down there, man. Have another go another day. Jolly good show,” he finally whispered. A young lad that pushed too hard, thought the veteran.
Jennings slapped Stafford’s back as Anzai’s tirade continued with the sergeant pointing to his groin and miming penis size. Behind the jeering guards, a black and gold hoopoe with a long, curved beak landed on a patch of grass. Transfixed, Stafford watched the bird find an insect and work it up the long bill to swallow.
Anzai, observing that he had lost the attention of the target of his audience, shifted his position so that he could see what Stafford was looking at. On seeing the bird, he rushed at it with a kamikaze yell. In a whirring blur the bird fled.
“You have time to watch bird, you no need food!” Anzai began miming an officer walking with a cane as his continued his Japanese oration on the evident evil of the British, bird watchers, and surrendering.
In a fugue of starvation, Stafford had been wondering if there were any small nets to catch birds available during the loud display. Jennings pulled him back and steered him back to the mess with a hand on his shoulders.
“Have a seat, old man,” Jennings said pushing him down onto a broken cane stool.
Sergeant Anzai’s eruption dissipated into the occasional flare of a magma laden comment as the prisoners of war pretended to focus on clean up and the Japanese withdrew to the scant shade of some trees.
“Did your part to get the Japs riled up there Stafford, old man. Now we need to get out and get some blasting done.” The blond hairs of Jennings stiff, thin moustache appeared to be glued onto his parchment yellow skin. A fly landed to drink in the tear dripping down the side of his nose and he waved it away with a flick of his long, tapered fingers. “Remember, push the limit, but don’t go over it,” he said in a tone just loud enough to carry around the mess.
Jennings was looking at the red and black dirt that had accumulated under Stafford’s ripped and torn fingernails, and worrying about his mental state when Stafford asked, “Do you know where I could get a fine mesh net?”
A tin mess cup dinged against the water pot in the silence that followed Stafford’s question. In a babble of jokes and laughter, Jennings gasped out of white lips, “Good God man, you’re not going to start collecting tropical birds are you? They’re just feather and bone man, not worth the effort.” He was now very worried about his junior officer and gazed at the other men for support.
“I think that three or four would be the size of a quail,” blinked back Stafford. He then closed his lips and pouted, feeling his idea as disregarded as that of a child.
Jennings knuckles were white on his cane. Another gone to battle fatigue, he thought. “Look man, plucking small feathers would take ages even if you could find a net to string between trees. And how would you stop the Japs from finding it and taking it away?” He stopped talking as he reflected that talking to a mule would be a more effective expenditure of energy. “Right then. You’ve already missed the morning medical so you’ll have to come out and help blasting that damn pass! Can’t think why the Japs had to put a line here. I’ll send you to the doc’ as soon as I can. Mess crew, carry on. Blasting crew, with me. Maybe we’ll find some fruit on the way.” He limped towards some Japanese guards followed by the blasting crew in loose formation.
Bloody waste of another good man, he thought as he marched through a mixed crew of Malays, Tamils, and island Chinese already at work carrying steel rails in 120 degrees before they became too hot to touch in the afternoon. Rain or shine, this railway was a killer; one rotted and the other cooked any laborers. The Asian slave labor all wore loin clothes, Jennings noted as he turned to look at his tattered crew. His lot looked like blast survivors in threadbare and ripped uniform remains, he thought. At least the natives were used to the heat, he thought as Stafford tripped on a loose rock at the tail end of the group. The hospital today for that officer, thought Jennings as he resumed his trek.
Stafford stopped and looked at the pale red blood that oozed from the scrape on his ankle. It should feel sore, he thought, but it felt numb. He looked up and saw that Jennings and the others had continued on.
One of the guards cracked a whip across the bare back of a coffee brown slave. The small man fell to the ground pleading and was whipped again. Then the guards began kicking him where he lay on the gravel rail bed. No other prisoners tried to help.
Stafford stepped back into the shadows of some drab olive leaved trees and looked down at the ichor that now welled out of a bone-like lump that appeared under the wound. With a bump he sat on the ground. He would have to go to the hospital, he thought. That was a blooming infection already yet bloody Jennings would have to clear it first. What a pest that man was, thought Stafford, forms and orders for everything. If there were an order for nets for birds, Stafford would have had them. At least his stomach had settled its demands to a throb.
With a ping-clang, sledges almost as tall as the men that heaved them began to hammer in nails around the rails. Stafford had just decided to get up before the guards found him when he saw a red patch peeking out from the cover of a branch of leaves in the crook of a tree.
His sluggish heart skipped a beat as he raised the branch to see a plump, juicy mango that had been placed there until someone had time to eat it. Saliva began to lubricate his mouth. Stafford jerked around looking back and forth and saw none of the slave crew nearby. ‘Wogs,’ he thought as he grabbed his red treasure as he scrambled away into the trees.
Used as a fence by the Japanese, the tangled jungle that clad the steep hills of Siam usually killed those that tried to escape into it. Snakes, spiders, scorpions, tigers, and mosquito born disease were additional deterrents to the rugged landscape to any attempted flight.
Stafford could still hear the slave crew when desperation drove him to sprawl heedless of venomous snakes and spiders on the ground. With shaking fingers and tartar coated teeth he peeled a strip of skin and sucked the fibrous orange interior. Not since Singapore had he had one and this one was sublime.
He had rolled onto his back to suck the juice more easily when a small brown man ran up and leaped down on him. Spitting and growling, they thrashed together into and around creepers and thin barked trees. Stafford whimpered as he pushed the thick, spice laden greasy hair away from his nose with a punch. Digging his knobbing fingers in around the large seed, he ripped the fingers of his other hand through the welts and bruises on the Malay. The heart thudding shock of the attack over, Stafford began to truly fight for the succulent fruit, blocking the blows of the shorter man while inflicting pain whenever possible. If he wanted the mango so badly, he should have held onto it, thought Stafford as he pressed his thumb into an eyeball and felt a pop. His assailant reeled away screaming with fluid dripping down between his stubby fingers. Stafford was aware that the Malay’s grimacing in pain displayed teeth filed to points at the same time both men realised that Sergeant Anzai and three soldiers with fixed bayonets had quietly become spectators.
Muted by quaking trees, a blast shook the ground – Jennings had blown a hole near completion last evening thought Stafford. Gazing at Anzai, he raised the mango to his gaping mouth almost as slowly as the fruit had grown. The clangor of the sledges continued below. As if drawn up by a string, Stafford’s arm lifted its treasure as he watched the slave and the soldiers, noting every sweat bead on Sergeant Anzai’s thin moustache, that his thick lips were open with curiosity and anticipated cruelty, aware of the whimpers of the desperate brown man who still protected a destroyed eye and ignored a toe nail hanging by a strip of skin. Even minor injuries killed as the Asian slaves had no hospital or access to medicine, but Stafford was indifferent to anything but the tasty fruit.
“Stop, you stop now,” barked Sergeant Anzai.
In reply, Stafford sank his teeth into the orange pulp as the Malay attacked him screaming and flailing uselessly with limbs that knew their lifespan was short. Curled up with his long boney back to the blows, Stafford continued to eat, stuffing his mouth with large bites. He heard Anzai snap an order and felt the soldiers pull the Malay away. Then he heard the thumps of boots and rifle butts breaking the man. Sergeant Anzai stepped on Stafford’s wrist with one foot and wrenched his sugar prize away with long nailed fingers as the prisoner cried out in desolation over the loss of his mango.
“Stan’ up!” ordered Anzai.
Awkward, Stafford lurched to his feet and swayed as dizziness assaulted his balance. The man on the ground had been silent though blows still rained down on his pulped, broken, and bloody body. Looking from Stafford to the Malay without moving his head, Anzai gave an order in Japanese and his men stood at attention.
Still holding the remnants of the mango, Anzai led the way back to the railway. None of the men looked back at the ruined wreck. On the embankment above the Malay crew, the sergeant stopped and waited for the sniffling Stafford to stumble to a stop. He flinched aside from a last push with a rifle butt by a blood spattered soldier.
Stafford looked down into a sea of black hair and bodies shaded yellow and brown. ‘Inscrutable’ was the word Jennings would use, thought Stafford as he swayed transfixed by the raised gaze of the men below. With ill yellow and red eyeballs, they looked just as desperate as their deceased comrade and he was alive, he thought. ‘I am British,’ he said to himself.
“Now,” Anzai said grinning. “Now you fight for mango,” and he tossed the fruit into a lunging, jumping, grabbing, punching, kicking melee of hunger and rage.
Stafford licked the dried syrup around his lips as the now grit filled fruit kicked into view in the scrum. He began to lean forward to assess his chances and stepped back when he realised that his shaky legs would not hold him from falling into the writhing pit below.
Stafford looked into the grin folds that held black eyes in a face whiter than his own. “I think that I must return to my work party now, Sergeant Anzai.” I will find another mango, he thought.
“Yes, I tink so to. An’ you no leave again or ‘accident’ happen you.” The sergeant continued to grin. “You no want to be fight again.”
On wobbly knees Stafford took short steps between the immobile soldiers and walked around the curve cut into grey and brown rock. A bamboo grove on the lower side had been logged for building supplies and material. Morning and night work parties cut the section they now called ‘Hellfire Pass’ into the side of a steep hill. Exhaustion and starvation pitted against solid rock and hatred had won due to British ingenuity and courage thought Stafford as he shuffled up to his fellow prisoners.
“Bloody hell! Stafford old man, where did you get to? You look like you’ve been in a fight,” said Jennings in concern.
“I think I was, can’t remember…” Stafford trailed off as he knew that he could not explain his actions, as Jennings would note that it was ‘not cricket’ to take a wog’s fruit.
“Was it one o’ the wogs, Lieut’nant?” asked a Scottish corporal.
“Well, I’ll make sure Sergeant Anzai knows…” Jennings began and was interrupted.
“Already knows, told me to stay with group, remember that…” Stafford fainted.
“…maybe we can trade with the Thais for a chicken,” suggested an American private as he waved a shirt over Stafford’s recumbent form. “Obviously we’re not getting enough to eat.”
“What do we ‘ave to trade, mate?” asked an Australian officer. “Japs keep takin’ our Red Cross parcels.”
“Right, he’s awake,” said Jennings.
Stafford’s eyelids fluttered as he woke to a babble of consternation. He winced as a shirt blew sand into an eye. As tears flooded the eye he covered his face with his hands and turned away. When he saw the Malay’s face again, he began to bawl in great gulps as if each breath that he took would bring the starving man back.
“Alright then, give Stafford a moment then,” called Jennings. “There’s four holes to be drilled. Let’s get at them, lads.” Tears were not shed or shed in private.
There was a scuffing, shuffling, muttering as the prisoners of war dragged themselves back to their tasks. Stafford wept on, thinking about the Malay’s eye and wondering how he found the fluid to weep. Jennings would decide to say nothing if he was told, Stafford thought as his bubbling dwindled, but then he would be excluded from officer’s duties.
A boot kicked him to writhing pain in a kidney. Then a flurry of kicks reminded him that he was as mortal as the brown Malay. He heard Sergeant Anzai order the beating stopped and lay choking and gasping for breath.
“Look, no cry Ingrishman, look what I give for you,” jeered Anzai with a plump red mango perched on his manicured fingertips. “Look, look, you go get.”
Stafford’s stomach growled and an arm betrayed him by reaching to bring the juicy fruit to his lips. He was kicked in his boney buttocks as the prize remained out of reach.
“Ger up! Ger up!” ordered the corporal.
“See, for you we find. Now you go get,” said the sergeant as he sidestepped to the recently blasted wall.
A cloud loosed a caul of rain that misted down on the cut as Stafford got up and took one small step. His tongue wiped the moisture from his lips with the taste of dust and cordite. He should call for Jennings, he thought.
“Come. I no tell. Come,” urged Anzai who ignored the fine rain.
Stafford stepped forward again, thinking that Jennings was a good sort but would not understand after all. He was really close to the fruit too, so close that if Anzai were careless then he could grab it. He thought to feint a half-step stumble but Anzai stayed put. In the shadow cast by the cloud and the wall, he could not see the miasma of hatred in Anzai’s eyes yet felt worry needle his brain.
A tremor began in his knees. By clenching his jaw, Stafford found that he could stop his knees from shaking. He felt the soldiers behind him step closer and stepped forward to get away. Their breath carried the odor of horseradish and Stafford wrinkled his nose as he again stepped forward.
“Come, come,” said Anzai, shaking the mango like a treat for a dog. “Come, come.”
Anger made Stafford stop. He swallowed and glared down at the shorter man. A rifle butt connected with a kidney. He groaned and sagged forward. Anzai had a plan to disgrace him, Stafford now knew in the fog of his starved thinking. How he planned to do so near the freshly blasted wall, Stafford could not see, so he decided to fight.
In the thin soles remaining to his shoes he rushed forward and smacked into the wall as Anzai called out in Japanese and the mango lifted in a net tied to a rope above his head. Almost had it, thought Stafford touching a bloody nose and listening to laughter. He had felt the net brush against his hair as it rose.
“You try again. Go, climb and get mango,” directed Anzai as three bayonet points connected with Stafford’s back.
Hungry, tired and with the tendrils of terror beginning to wrap his body, Stafford thought again of calling for help. The prisoners had heard the Japanese guards and were making more noise as they pretended to work harder.
“No call Jennings, you climb,” ordered Anzai as he observed Stafford’s head shift. “Now.”
The bayonets pushed and Stafford began to climb the sloping wall. He had half a mind to climb to a ledge and call for help, but he could just see the plump red fruit bounce up the wall. If he could get it, he could embarrass Anzai too. With that excuse to fortify himself, he climbed hard and fast on rain slicked rock watching the prize bob just ahead of him.
A foot slipped and he held on shaking. Anzai called from below, “You climb more,” and laughed.
It then occurred to Stafford that the rope itself, a thick hemp used to secure railway ties, was now the prize. If he could grab that then he would be away from Anzai and not clinging to a ledge. He shifted his weight and waited. Jeering Japanese voices announced the dropping of the prize.
Stafford watched it pass and eyed the rope for a spot that passed over a gap in the rock face so that his hands had space to grasp the rope. Someone shook the rope like a cat’s tail from side to side. Stafford shifted his weight one more time to the tips of his toes and jumped. His hands slid on the harsh fibres and held. Then pain spread in his arms and shoulders as his weight stressed his weak sinews and muscles. His feet scrabbled on the rock to take the load off.
Toes caught on a ledge, he leaned out with a smug smile at his achievement. The sun returned and showed him Japanese soldiers very close above and well below him on the glittering rock face. He was planning to climb up when Anzai called an order and the rope was loosed from the top. Stafford fell with the rope and landed on the rough cut rail bed. Next to his sightless eyes, the mango had split open.
Anzai barked an order and the rope whipped upwards. His giggles were shrill cackles.
“What happened?” asked Jennings drawn down finally by the thud. “Stafford!” he exclaimed.
“Most unfortunate accident. He fall from rope while checking rock wall. Write report.” Anzai walked away from the shocked officer giggling.
“You bastard!” spat Jennings, enraged.
Deadman’s Tome is a growing horror zine that publishes short stories and flash fiction whether it’s ghost stories, zombie invasions, bigfoot sightings, slasher sprees, bizarre fiction, classic horror literature or erotica. The darker the tale the better. If you enjoyed the story, or even if you didn’t, leave a comment below as it helps the authors.