Talk about mosquitoes and snakes and leeches. Monsoon rain and heat. Mamma, this sun in Nam is a killer. I’ve got freckles like Rice Krispies on my face and my arms and we all got darker, the whites, the Hispanics, only the blacks stay where they are.
Now outside the Quonset infirmary hut we stand in the early morning heat, me and sergeant Sunukkuhkau, each with a yellow malaria pill in our hands—I never like medicine—and I’m fixed to swallow these bitter pills one a day so I won’t sweat and shake like many of them around here before the hospitals have them. Sergeant Sunu—nobody remembers his name much less spells it—lights a cigarette and drops the yellow pill into his Blue Diamond matchbox and closes it.
“What’d you do that for?” I look at his brown face pockmarked like orange peel.
“Saving ’em, Lieutenant.”
“I’m like the Chinamen. They don’t get malaria.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“They boil their water, add tea to it, they never forget soaking their feet and scraping their tongues with a wooden stick ’fore they go to bed.”
“What all that has to do with malaria? And who told you this?”
“My grandpa. Said in Sacramento back in the old days the mosquitoes would swarm you in droves at night up and down San Joaquin river. Terrible malaria in those days. So many ranchers just leased their land to the Chinamen and went off living someplace else themselves.”
“You bathe your feet at night?”
Sarge shakes his head.
“Don’t tell me you drink tea in boiled water.”
He flicks his eyes at me. “Tea means whiskey, LT?”
He has eyes of a snake. Dull, beady, unblinking. I never look long enough into those coal-black eyes to see if his pupils are vertical.
“LT, you take those malaria pills long enough,” he says, wrinkling his hawk nose, “your dick will hang like rice noodle when you call on it. I scrape my tongue every night though.”
“A stainless steel tongue scraper.” He turns his head toward me, his eyes not moving. “Som’tin’ll never change when it becomes a habit. Like white men sleep with his blankie covering his feet and his head out. I sleep with my head covered. All the time.”
“All Indians do that?”
“Full-blooded Indians like me.”
Sarge is half Algonquin, half Sioux. This is his second tour of duty.
“My grandma never let any white men come near her with a camera,” he says. “Except once. She was in town with her baby and this white man came out of nowhere and took a picture of her and her papoose. Soon after that the baby died. Grandpa went to town looking for that man to kill him.”
“Did not. If I was me I’d track that sonofabitch wherever he goes and slit his throat.”
“Just because he took a picture?”
“White men know full well not to do that. We believe they can do harm to our souls if they get hold of our pictures. But our beliefs mean jack to ’em.”
Trucks are bringing in the Viet laborers. Truckloads of them. It’s barely past seven in the morning and the heat is quickly rising. Beyond the hundred-yard-wide defense perimeter around the base, the trucks unload them on the red-dirt field. They are dwarfed like children. The trucks pick them up in the U Minh forest’s buffer zone where they live, some living even deeper in the forest, and the trucks will bring them back late in the afternoon. Before they leave they’d visit our garbage dump. They ransack it to find things they can bring home. Cardboard boxes, beer cans they would flatten to build their huts. Food cans they would treat like gems.
Sarge slaps his python-sized biceps and flicks off a squashed mosquito. On his upper arm is a red-devil tattoo. He points with his cigarette pinched between his fingers. “Bet you a cigarette, LT, one out of ten gooks over there is a Charlie.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
“You have any feel for them, LT?”
“Them whom? The Viets or Charlie?”
“You’re telling me they’re different?”
“They’re people. Like us.”
“Jesus H. Christ! I’m overjoyed. I don’t consider ’em Viets people when I say people.”
We know that. They are either a gook or a commie. That’s how most of us see them, Mamma. And we want to think that way so if we have to shoot them, we’re not shooting at a human. But there were times I couldn’t help sympathizing with those garbage pickers.
Now the soldiers give them axes, machetes, spades, hoes and take them in groups to work the field. Sarge squints his beady eyes. “There must be plenty of commies in that bunch. Getting paid to spy on us.”
“How’d you figure that?”
“Must be figgring this time themselves how to cut through ’em rolls of barbed wire—after the last time.”
From where we stand I can see the barbed wire catching the morning sun with steel-white glints. The last time also the first time, five weeks ago, our base came under attack by the Viet Cong 306th Battalion . They hit us before midnight with 122-mm rockets while their sappers crawled their way through coils of concertina wire. Explosions shattered every light bulb in our shacks and the whines of rockets had us pray to Jesus Christ to make them go away. The attack stopped shortly after midnight. During the night I could hear the rats and the wild hogs jerking and tearing the flesh of bodies that hung on the razor wire. I could hear the hogs grunt, the rats squeak and the wire shake.
Three days later Alpha Company trucks through the red-dirt countryside. We are moving on the heels of Dog Company into the U Minh forest.
Suddenly in the swirling dust appears a man standing on the roadside. Up close I see his face. The old geezer must have caught sight of our convoy and came out of his hut and now stands on the edge of the dirt road in his ragged army coat. Not our kind, so it must be an old French army coat. In his hand he holds a French tricolor flag and keeps waving at us like he was a road construction’s crew member. Or maybe he thought we were French coming back after all these years. Like those Japanese soldiers who remained in the Burmese jungle long after the World War II had ended. Down here in IV Corps, Mamma, we don’t see much of the French colonization traces. The colonel said up on the highlands in II Corps you will see a whole lot of rubber and tea plantations and those white colonial mansions lived in by rich French citizens. He said the French capitalists pay both sides, meaning the Viet Cong and the Saigon government, big money to stay out of their plantations. He said they even charge our U.S. government for each tea bush or rubber tree that we ruin during our operations. He said he saw them French dames walking naked around the swimming pool in those mansions when he was riding down the road in his Jeep. Here we haven’t seen anything like that for a long time now. I mean women, Mamma. They said each day back home is a month long in Nam.
It has rained every day for three days now and the forest shivers with winds and rain. Rain patters on the dense canopy of tree crowns, rain drips from tangles of boughs in a baseless cadence. Everywhere we turn we hear the tattoo of rain on the leaves. The peat swamp is mushy underfoot and it’s wet and damp and the dampness crawls on the skin and brings out mosquitoes from the inky-black harbors of tangled fern and leeches crawling down the snakelike climbers. We button our shirt cuffs, button up our collars at night and in the shivering dampness we sleep. Sometimes in the night we hear a scream that pierces the sound of rain. Someone in his sleep must have had a leech crawl into his ear.
On the evening of the fourth day, Dog radioes us. “We’ve got a problem. Need reinforcement quickly.” We slosh through the pouring rain for a long time until we hear Spooky overhead. Suddenly the sky glows a hazy yellow and the yellow illumination lights up the rain-glistening leaves long enough that we can see raindrops on them and on our faces. When the flares dim a long shadow drags across the forest floor and now we smell the rain-wet gunpowder. Someone stumbles ahead of the column. “Oh Jesus!” There is a commotion. The sky glows again, like a yellow shawl trembling in the wind-blown rain. “Muthafukin! Hey Sarge! There’s dead gooks all over the place!” Then sergeant Sunu’s shrill voice, “Shuddup! They’re Dog men.”
Mamma, after all these years, with the war now long over, I can still smell the odor of the dead. I can still smell the stinging whiff of a crushed leaf its green goo I daubed on my nostrils. I can still smell the leaf’s odor on my fingertips. But the stench of the dead doesn’t go away. It comes not from the air, Mamma. Not after all these years.
That one time when the dinks took our Alpha Company and Dog Company by surprise with the sheer size of their regiment, after the dust had settled there was no more than three dozens of us left. Night came. We could hear our artillery coming over the forest and the trees snap each time a shell exploded. We could hear our jets hunting for targets above the impenetrable tree canopies and hear the sounds of rockets and bombs and the bright fire they lit up in the bowels of the forest. All night long the flare ship droned above us dropping flares until it ran dry just before dawn and it was then we heard a sound like a train bearing down on us and here came two jets over the top.
Mamma, I can still see the errant jet that came roaring over us and the canisters fell tumbling on us like cigar-shaped olive-colored cylinders. They hit our foxholes. I turned my head away just as a blinding light fell on my eyelids. The earth heaved with an explosion that tore my eardrums. I went deaf in both ears. Just plain deaf. Till I heard someone scream, Call it off! Call it off! The grasses curled up. The air blistered and crackled and then there was no more air and I gasped and the men in the foxholes danced in the liquid fire like they were flaming marionettes. The ammo burned and the bushes singed and came screams that could pierce a ten thousand miles of black smoke. My throat, my tongue were sand-dry. We ran. Carrying the burned bodies with us. The man I helped carry by the feet was burned through his flesh and all his clothes were gone. He had no more hair on his head. He died while we carried him, for he had breathed the fire into his lungs. When we laid him down his boots came apart and with them the flesh.
When morning came it brought the early summer heat and if you walk in on us at that time, Mamma, you wouldn’t see us for the color of mud that covered us in. Midday when the dinks had pulled out, the heat seared. We began looking for our dead. It was like walking on the ground of a butcher shop where blood and mud had the same color. There were people or what looked like them hung dangling on the tree branches. The work of the errant napalm bombs. There were people lying in all sorts of positions on the ground. They weren’t sleeping. They smelled horribly. Ants and flies were feasting on their bloated bodies. I found a man from our company. He was sitting against a tree. He looked like he had just crawled up through a mine shaft, a burning one. His clothes had fallen off like crumbs, his skin blackened except for the unsightly burns, red and raw-looking. Centipedes and black ants crawled freely on his arms, his legs. He wasn’t dead, Mamma. “I can’t see too well,” he said. And that was all he ever said when I gave him a cigarette. He didn’t know he had gone blind.
Later they sent in two Chinooks and we hauled in first the whole bodies then the parts and then the pieces in blood-filled rubber ponchos and in silence we hauled the dead until our hands were red and slick and our fatigues were so darkened with sweat and blood they had the color of plum. When we could no longer pile the bodies from floor to ceiling, we saw blood leaking through the hinges. The choppers lifted. The wind ripped through the open doors and then came a steady splat of rain on the windshields but it wasn’t rain and soon I saw the windshields turn red.
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.