Soul of the Fire

Free Soul of the Fire by Eliot Pattison

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Authors: Eliot Pattison
the horizon. Then he turned toward the north, and a cold hand gripped his heart. Longtou Prison too was washed in moonlight, but its searchlights slashed into the night, battling the stars.
    Lokesh had spent more than half his life in prisons. He knew how to survive, though his instincts often had little to do with survival. In their hard labor camp, he had organized inmates into chanting groups, driving away despair with old mantras and invocations of the earth deities who watched over the dangerous mountain roads where they were forced to work. In those days, when the guards discovered him breaking the rules, they would drag him away to solitary confinement for a month. Today, at a place like Longtou, guards would respond with batons and tasers. Shan had met an old Tibetan who had been repeatedly tortured with electric cattle prods. The man had forgotten his own name, forgotten how to put sentences together, and just sat in a corner, drooling and staring at his beads.
    He picked a window at the corner of the largest prison building and pretended Lokesh was behind it, then directed soft mantras toward it. Lokesh had taught him that such mantras should focus him, should calm him, should banish anxiety. But as he chanted, he found his fists clenching. He was angry, he was frightened, he was tormented by the certainty that Lokesh was suffering because of him.
    After several minutes, his voice cracked and he fell silent.
    At first he thought he had heard a murmuring echo, but when the sound continued, he turned and ventured in its direction.
    The two dim shapes wrapped in blankets might have been lost in the shadows were they not silhouetted against the adjoining building. The woman was singing in a low, almost whispering voice. The man was playing a harmonica. Their song became vaguely familiar as Shan approached, but he did not recognize it until he was a dozen feet away.
    â€œBeautiful dreamer, beckon to me,” the American woman sang softly toward the night sky, then suddenly gasped as she saw Shan.
    Judson hesitated only a moment. “Rest easy, Hannah, it’s only Comrade Shan. Have a sit, brother, and try some of my bourbon. We can teach you the words of our song.”
    Shan declined the extended bottle but stepped to Judson’s side. “The songs of Stephen Foster are well known in China. You slipped your handlers.”
    â€œYou slipped your handler,” Judson repeated back to Shan, slightly slurring the words.
    Shan shrugged. “Ex-convicts are the ghosts of modern Tibet. We are creatures of air and shadow. Once other Chinese know who you are, they tend to look right through you, like they don’t even see you. We are not of any substance, and we never last long. We appear and disappear all the time, just a mirage of a person, which can evaporate with the slightest breeze. But when Americans disappear,” he added after a moment, “the entire iceberg can collapse.”
    â€œIceberg?” the American woman asked. Her voice was hoarse, as if she had been crying, and before she turned to Shan, she dabbed at her eyes.
    â€œI helped organize watcher teams for foreigner visitors in the early days of Westernization,” Shan explained. “We usually had teams of six agents on surveillance for every American. Now it’s done only for special cases. Americans serving on a Chinese commission would be very special cases. When your affable hosts go off duty, they report back to a bigger team, who will debrief with them for an hour or two every day. For every one you can see, there will be three or four below the surface.”
    Judson seemed unconcerned. “Comrade Tuan is with Religious Affairs, Major Sung wears a Public Security uniform, Madam Choi likes to speak nostalgically about her reeducation in the rice paddies but she got drunk one night and boasted that she had graduated from the special Public Security academy reserved for those expected to become senior diplomats.

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