What’s left of our platoon, including me and sergeant Sunu, are eleven men. They caught a Viet Cong. When I come to the area they hold him, he’s squatting before a tree stump, shorn white and split like someone has tried to wedge it. Toppled trees lie crisscrossing the charred ground, flinging their roots entwined like a mound of knotted snakes. The heat swells with a stench of rot.
The prisoner is bare headed. His head, flattened in the back like a catfish, draws your eyes to the profuse wiry black hair that comes down on his low brow in a sharp wedge. He looks in his forties but you can’t tell how old the Viets actually are. A few feet from him I stop. I think something in his stare made me do that. He lifts his face up at me and grins. Sharp-cheekboned, his swarthy complexion, grooved deeply around his mouth, makes me think of sergeant Sunu’s dark skin. His hands aren’t tied behind his back. They rest on his knees. One hand is missing. The stump’s end at the wrist is rounded. You can see a cross-stitched scar, like two embedded pieces of thread. Standing in front of him I drop my gaze. His ankles are tied with a string. They must have tied him up in a hurry, for the string goes around the hems of his black trousers, the front of them caked with brown mud. Darting around on his bare feet are red ants. He sits stock-still, looking at me with the grin on his face. I stare down into his eyes. The sun is full in his face, yet he doesn’t squint. Just grinning. Stained teeth, chapped lips. Not a mindless grin. I feel irked. We lock eyes until I feel sweat drip down the side of my face. I wipe it and jab my rifle at his chest. His white shirt, opened at the neck, has yellowed with dust. My armpits feel damp. There are no sweat stains on his shirt.
“Quit grinning, you moron,” I say.
His head doesn’t move as he looks down at his chest. He looks up again. His wide grin suddenly changes something in me. I feel wounded. The hollow inside turns to hate. I level my rifle at his face.
“Quit that grin!”
He doesn’t blink. He grins into the rifle’s muzzle. His eyes keep their stare on me. Like he knows we don’t shoot prisoners. My breath feels hot. I have to blink off the sweat and when I can see again I glimpse a smirk fleeting across his face. I kick him with the heel of my boot full in his chest. He falls backward against the tree stump. Quickly he pushes himself back up on his haunches. I regain my breath, towering over him. He’s looking down between his knees, watching the ants zigzag on his feet, red ants and now winged ants. Slowly he raises his face at me. He grins.
“Where’s Sarge?” I call out to the men lounging under the shades of cajeput trees, those still standing.
“He’s off somewhere taking a crap, LT.”
“Hey, here he comes, LT.”
I turn. Sarge already stands at my elbow. He’s naked to his waist and his brown skin from his face to his chest glistens with sweat. “You talk to him, LT?” Sarge speaks with a cigarette dangling between his lips.
“How?” I glare at him. “You gonna teach me some Vietnamese?”
“Chao eng mon joy,” Sarge speaks to the prisoner, bending slightly to get the words across.
The prisoner’s eyes narrow at Sarge. Instantly I feel that he is human. Those words, whatever they are, must have triggered a feeling in him.
“Are you proposing to him?” I ask Sarge.
“Means how are you, bro.” Sarge shakes his head. “That’s about all I’ve learned from ’em Viets.”
“This Viet kid. He’s got red hair and blue eyes. I kid you not, LT. He was walking this little mouse on a string outside one of ’em shacks you see from our base. Where Viet hookers do bizness.”
I glance back at the prisoner. He’s watching us, his face grimy, his lips curling up at the corner. Something wry, something smug about his little grin unsettles me.
“Why he keeps grinning, Sarge?” I flick my gaze at him.
“We’ll find out why, LT. He got Mikey good, right in the chest.”
“Nale?” I size up the prisoner. “With one hand?”
“I speculate that much, LT. Must’ve set his ay-kay fifty on his stumpy arm there and took shots at us.”
“He’s wily enough to me. Wonder how he lost his hand.”
“Must be from the other war, LT. Look at him. He’s no teen.”
“You mean the Indochina War?”
“That. Or maybe stole something from ’em Legionnaires and they chopped his hand off.” Sarge spits into the dirt. “He’s no amateur, LT. They’ve got guys like this guerrilla who’s seen just about everything from the wars and we’ve got cherries like Mikey. We’ve got guys who’re about to get a good grip on how to fight Charlie and guess what, LT? They go home. After one year. Then you’ve got FNGs coming in and when these fucking-new-guys get sent to the bush they shit in their pants. Aw Christ they get homesick.”
Then I see the prisoner grin that smug grin. Does he understand us? Sarge fixes his beady, unblinking stare on the prisoner. “You think it’s funny?” Sarge asks him, taking the cigarette out of his mouth. The prisoner levels his eyes at the tattoo on Sarge’s biceps. His grin gets wider. He sneers. Sarge walks up to him. “Let’s see wat-you-got.” He seizes the prisoner by the neck, yanks down his shirt. Buttons fly. I shift on my heels, lick my lips. Sarge looks at the man’s arms, left then right. “You aint one o’em, eh?” Sarge jerks his chin at him.
“Damn. What’re you doing?” I snap at Sarge.
“He aint got no tattoos like those young commies. All o’em have this tattoo on their arms that says Born North Die South. You know wat I mean, LT.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Like I told you, LT, he’s the fox of all the foxes. He aint need no tattoos. Probably speaks French and English and make us look like fools.”
The prisoner pulls up his shirt with one hand. He looks composed, his eyes neither look at me nor Sarge but at a space between the two of us. On his legs winged ants and fire ants run wildly as if they smell something palatable. Sarge steps back, the prisoner’s gaze follows him. I can see his eyes looking at Sarge’s little red devil. He flashes a grin. For one moment his grin looks like the red devil’s grin on Sarge’s upper arm.
“You sure wanna play with my nerves,” Sarge says, nodding repeatedly to himself.
“He just plays dumb,” I say.
“Will you excuse us, LT.” Sarge turns to me, his nose twitching. “Lemme have a moment with him.”
I step back and the prisoner peers up at me. I feel as if he tries to measure me for my nerves. His eyes squint the way one sights some game in the cross hairs. Then smiling, he nods at me. I turn and walk away.
Something eats at me while I gather information from the radio man. Black flies and mosquitoes buzz and whine in the sultry heat and in that thick humidity hangs the stink of human rot. I drink from my canteen, standing in the sun, while the survivors of the carnage lie in the grass, helmets on their faces, boots pointing skyward. Most of them have battle dressings on the arms, the legs. One man, lying with his head on a trunk of a felled cajeput, is wrapped with the dressing on his stomach. The tail of the dressing’s olive drab dangles on his side and I can see his intestine bulge out in gray. I turn and walk back to our area.
Sarge is coming around a toppled tree lying crosswise on the ground. A cigarette, unlit, hangs loosely between his lips. He sees me and walks past me. There is blood on his lips.
“What happened to you?” I stop and he stops.
“Wat? LT?” His speaks with his lips barely moving.
“You cut yourself?” I point at my lips.
His touches his cigarette, one bloodstained finger on the lower lip. “Aint cut myself. I need water. Guys from Dog have some.”
He hurries off. The strange look on his face makes me turn and follow him with my gaze. Did he scuffle with the prisoner? After the felled tree our area is baking in the sun. The shades have shrunk. The sleeping men’s legs are cooking in the heat. On the dirt lies the prisoner. He lies flat on his back, his legs splayed at the knees, ankles still tied. His good arm rests against the tree stump, the amputated arm on his stomach, bare, bloody, for his shirt is ripped on the front and soaked through with blood. The stumped arm rests on a gaping cut below the diaphragm. Blood still leaks through the slit. Wide enough to slip in your fingers.
I look down at him. The prisoner’s face glares. His eyes are open, still. His mouth is open too. Like screaming a silent scream when someone plucks out your liver and eats it. Or maybe he was trying to grin just one more time.