“You’ve been here before?” I asked Atith, the Cambodian police captain, as he led the way along an obscure path through the jungle to search for a boy who had fled from slavery on a fishing ship.
“Yes,” he said. “I have been here before. I have been here several times,” he replied in his excellent English, marred only by being a bit too careful, too precise.
“What would bring a high-ranking policeman like you to this deserted island?”
“This kind of thing has happened before. The channel out there”—and he gestured toward the open ocean where the big fishing ship was waiting—“is the best fishing grounds in Southeast Asia. Lots of boys become, let us say, fatigued with the fishing life they are forced to lead and try to leave it. Somebody tells them about this island and this trail, and they come here. The ships’s owner then calls the president or the police chief or an army general. He calls whoever he knows best. Then they call me. I come here.”
“Why do all those escapees pick this place to escape to?”
“You will see why in a few minutes. Just be patient, American. It’s hard for Americans to be patient, I know. But in Asia patience is a virtue.”
A philosopher-cop no less. Plato should’ve met this guy.
• • •
Like a lot of things, when you knew where to go, it looked obvious and easy. Once you broke through a few feet of brush along the edge of the jungle, there it was: a well-worn trail as clear as if it were a road through the trees. A few hundred yards into the jungle was a small clearing, and behind the clearing a large cave, and in the cave a chamber sheltered from the elements with a pool of fresh water in its center. Amazing.
What was even more amazing was what we saw beside the pool. Two people sat on a large boulder beside the calm pool of water. A little light entering through holes in the roof relieved the gloom with rays of eerie sunshine. The chamber was cool and damp and shadowy in an almost mystical way.
The two figures sat close to each other. Looks of alarm crossed their faces when they saw two obscure figures emerging from the darkened tunnel. They reached out to each other. They held hands. One’s arms circled the other’s shoulders. One was male and the other female.
One of them was a boy. The other was my Mouse.
• • •
“I heard you screaming at me this afternoon when you woke up from your nap and couldn’t find me in the palapa or on the beach,” Mouse told me later, after we were back in the palapa, when I asked why she had left with no explanation.
“It sounded really mean. It reminded me of how you’ve done it before, again and again. It reminded me of all the bad times, of your bullying and anger. You get frustrated, you get furious, you take whatever your problem is out on me. You don’t just start screaming. You get aggressive. You crowd me, threaten me. Someday you are getting to get violent. I’m sure of it. I’m afraid of you, at least sometimes I am. I just decided right then that I couldn’t take it any more, that by God I wasn’t going to stand for it any longer. I hid in the trees behind the palapa until you walked along the beach looking for me. Then I lit out in the opposite direction.”
“Where were you planning on going?”
“I had no idea, I just wanted to get away from you. Then I saw the boy on the beach. Somehow we communicated. We found a few words in several languages, just enough to tell each other we needed help. He knew about the cave and so I went with him.”
“He still needs help. That’s why I brought him back here with me. I told the captain about our jobs, that you were an investigator for the anti-slavery program of Amnesty International and I worked for the United Nations Human Rights Council. I warned him that if he tried to stop me from taking the boy with me, I’d go to the American Embassy and the President and the newspapers and the United Nations, and the whole world would after all these years finally get the real story of slavery in Cambodia.”
“Which president did you have in mind, theirs or ours?”
“Both. But theirs scared him more. He could care less about ours. The threat scared him enough that he decided that after all the boy wasn’t so important. That guy from the ship, Boran, was clearly unhappy but there wasn’t much he could do about it once the captain had decided.”
“So he let the kid come back here with you?”
“What will happen to the boy now?”
“One way or another, I’ll get him out of the country. He said he wants to go back home to Indonesia.”
“So what now? What about us?”
“I don’t know. Part of me wants to leave you forever, and part of me wants to stay with you forever. I still love you. I just don’t trust you.”
“And if I promise never to yell at you again?”
“That’s a start. It’s part of the solution.”
“And what else?”
“Stop putting yourself first. At least occasionally, put my welfare ahead of ‘me’.”
“I promise to try. That’s the best I can do. It’s not easy to reverse a lifelong habit. But I will try.”
“One more thing.”
“What’s that, Mouse?”
“Never call me Mouse again.”