Earlier/Later

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

A soldier in Vietnam wages a harsh and precise war. A woman cannot seem to make sense of her world. The connection between them runs deeper than they know.

 

 

I can smell the mud and dirt in the water as it runs under my nose.  We made excellent time through the jungle… really good time.  But that just means more time spent standing in the river.  My gun is in my hands, water-proofed by a plastic bag, held below the waterline.  Only my head from the nose up is still dry.  I hope there aren’t any goddam leeches.  I hope I did a good enough job of tucking my pant legs into my boots and my sleeves into my gloves.  Leech bites can be real trouble if you don’t get them seen to pretty quick.  And I’m not sure when I’ll be near a doctor again.

I survey the land in front of us.  Just some sparse trees and clear terrain; should make for an easy run in.  My guess would be the area was deforested about twenty years ago to build the village.  The trees that have grown back are all uniform, about ten centimeters around.  They won’t provide any kind of cover so it’s just going to be a straight run.  Usually that’s not a problem unless we have some real trained people guarding the village and that’s a rarity.

A small alligator swims by just out of arm’s reach and we make eye contact.  I slowly shift my hand to my knife and wonder if I’m gonna have to kill the thing.  That kind of noise could blow the whole operation if there was a scout in the woods here.  But he just glides by.  I turn to watch him as he swims down the line of my men to make sure he doesn’t attack anyone else.  If these guys were less highly trained one of them might panic and instigate an attack.  But I know these guys are better than that.  A lot better.

The alligator just glides past, never even changes his pace.  Probably thinking the same thing we are.  Keep still.  Don’t be seen.

I turn my attention forward again.  I can just see the outline of the village.  There are no fires and no noise coming from it.  I can see one man lazily doing his patrol.  I spot his outline in the breaks between the huts.  His AK-47 hung on his back.

I re-adjust my stance to brace against the current.  Maybe next time I’ll take it easy on the march up.  This is just too goddam long to wait.  It’s probably another two hours till sun up…

Later

I wake up with a start, feeling that awful feeling of fear again.  I never seem to be able to sleep past sun up.  I take a breath and wait for my heart to stop racing.  Then I roll over and see my husband, sound asleep as always, facing away from me.  He helps a lot.  A big, stable, peaceful… protector I guess you could say.  It was a lot harder, without him, to wake up terrified.

He does feel like a protector in a way.  But I don’t know from what.  I’ve never had anything to be terrified about.  And yet I wake up most mornings…sometimes in the night… feeling scared to death.

I look at his heavy, steady-breathing form and close my eyes.  I know I wont get anymore sleep but I might as well try.  I don’t want to get up and disturb him.  No reason we both should be up.

Earlier

The sky is lightening quickly and the birds are starting to sing.  Those fuckers better be on time.  I don’t want the whole village to be up.  Someone might come to bathe in the river and that would be the end of that. 

I hear the distant rumble of jets with relief.  Finally we can get this going.  I hate waiting.

The men are shifting now.  Stretching a little to make sure their muscles don’t cramp up when they start running.  I do the same.

The planes scream suddenly from the left.  Three of them in a delta formation. The next instant a wall of flame goes up on the other side of the village.  The heat on my face is intense even at this distance.  A perfect drop.

The men don’t need my command.  They have their orders.  And we rise as one on the other side of the river and run swiftly to cover the ground.  We take our guns out of the plastic as we run.  We move in through the trees and are at the edge of the village in under a minute.  The napalm has had the desired affect because no one is left standing around over here.  They’ve all run to the other side to see what happened.

When we reach the first huts we press in close against them and I signal the men to hold for my orders.  I can smell the smoke from the burning houses on the other side.  Men and women are yelling.

I try as best I can to locate the soldiers in the village by hearing where the male voices are.  I can’t locate them very well; they seem to just be generally on the other side, out of sight.  I signal the men to split up into two groups and attack from either side.  Pretty standard, they know what to do.

I duck and run into the next house and look around the edge.  I can’t see anyone from here so I run further in; six guys follow behind me.  Some chickens are milling in the dirt between the houses.

Peering around the edge of this house I can see the beginnings of the damage the napalm did.  The front of the house across from me has been charred black.  The thatched roof is on fire.  Looking further through the houses I can see the actual spot where the napalm landed.  It landed right on the far edge of the houses.  It hit about three houses square on and five or six more are on fire from the blast.  There are about thirty people running around and yelling, pulling singed and burned people out of the houses.  There are maybe six I can see who have guns with them.  I take aim at the one furthest away from me and plan in my head how to hit the rest in order of distance. 

Just as I’m about to pull the trigger there’s a pop from the other side of the houses and he goes down.  I readjust my aim and take the next guy down, the gun kicking hard against my shoulder.  It’s a clean hit in the head and he goes down fast.  By the time I’m sure he’s down and I’m looking for the next target they’ve already been taken care of by my men.  Oh it feels so good when it all goes smoothly.  Gotta make sure I don’t get cocky though.  It’s not over yet.

Later

I hold the coffee just below my mouth, like I’m about to blow on it, but I’m just staring off into space.

Thinking.

Not thinking really… looking.  Looking at what? 

“Oh sorry hun.”  I get up and shuffle to the door, shaking the fog off a little as I go.  “Sorry, I was just thinking”

“Yeah I know,” he sighs. “Try to pick yourself up a little.  Go for a walk or something,” he says and smiles.  He’s so great.  I often find myself wondering how he can be so upbeat about things.  Nothing seems to get him down.  He holds me up where he is.  Without his stable influence I don’t know where I would end up.  I feel sometimes like I’m hanging over a cliff and he’s all that I’ve got to hang onto.

“I will for sure,” I muster up a weak smile, “have a good day at work.”  I’m trying hard to sound positive but I know the insincerity shows through.

“Ok,” he says, and flashes me a genuine smile “I will.”  We kiss briefly and he looks me in the eyes.  I know he can see everything.  I know my smile isn’t fooling him at all.  He can see it all and it worries him. He smiles again, turns and walks out the door.  I watch him for a minute.  Oh I wish he would turn around one last time.  I need another of his stable glances.  But he doesn’t and I lazily close the door with a sigh.

Earlier

So it looks like the armed men have all been put down.  The two teams of marines with myself in the lead are walking out into the open from the places where they were firing.  We have our M-16’s braced against our shoulders.  We look at the remaining villagers down through the crosshairs.  As I approach a man, he looks like a farmer, I lower my gun to point at the ground but I keep it tight against my shoulder.  I know I’m safe to let my guard down a little.  I’ve got a dozen men covering me.

Just as I’m about to talk to the farmer a kid come in between us, maybe twelve or thirteen.  He doesn’t have a shirt on and is wearing red shorts.  He’s very lean but not unhealthy.  Probably works with his Dad. He starts yelling at me and flailing his arms.  I know little Vietnamese but I know these words are not nice.  These kids always do this. They’re all fired up about these American invaders but don’t understand the reality of the situation.  I explain it to him with the butt of my rifle.

SMACK!

His head flings back and he drops to his knees.  Blood flies everywhere.  He puts his hands to his face and the blood runs in a steady stream between his palms.  He tries to scream but it’s mostly a gurgle.  He’s coughing and spluttering.  His Dad moves to get up from where he was sitting with his wife but I raise the rifle to meet him and he settles back down.  The house behind him is on fire.  They have a small child… I guess it’s a really more of a corpse… in their hands.  Their clothing is burnt and the mother is burned on one side of her face.  Her eyes are wide.  She was screaming a moment ago from the pain.  Now she is just scared.

“Viet Cong!”  I shout at them “Where!” It’s a command more than a question.  The couple looks at one another but don’t say anything.  I lift my attention to the other twenty or so villagers standing around.  “Where!” I shout again.  I know how to say this much in Vietnamese.  You gotta learn the important stuff.  Everyone stands completely still.  No one says anything.  The only sound is the low roar of burning houses and few of the injured moaning.  They’re passed the point of screaming.

Ok, I think, you don’t want to tell me?  That’s ok.  I’ll figure it out.  I point my rifle back to the man sitting next to his wife.  “HIM?” I shout “VIET CONG?”  I chose my target wisely, he is obviously well respected as the others standing around react.  “No!” a young man shouts.  Then, more softly as he walks towards me, “I will show you.” He sounds defeated.

Good.  I was starting to think I would have to get mean.

Later.

 I’m walking like my husband suggested.  I’m trying to enjoy the fresh air and the greenery of the world around me.  I would have rather been doing something in the house, some kind of work to keep me distracted.  But there isn’t anything to do there.

We don’t have any kids yet.  John wants some but I don’t…  Well I do I guess…  I’ve just always felt kind of…  Unworthy.  Kids are great, too great for the likes of me.  At least that’s what I’ve always felt.  Whenever I see kids I like to watch them but I always feel like I should stay back.  If one of my friends offers me the chance to hold their baby I always refuse.  I’m such a klutz I know I’ll drop it or something.  I just feel like kids are so precious and I’m such a… what?

I’ve never done anything bad.  Never hurt anyone, but I feel like the capacity is in me.  And I’m scared to death that it’s going to surface.  Kids always bring that out in me.  I don’t think I’d be able to hurt anyone else.  I’m very little, very slight.  I couldn’t do anything to hurt an adult.  But kids are defenseless.  I know I should keep back.

I’m at the grocery store now, buying a couple of things we need.  There is a girl about my age at the checkout.

“Hi,” she says.  Seems friendly but maybe it’s just put on.  Maybe she’s really as sad as me.

“Hello” I say back.  That strained happiness in my voice.

“How are you doing today?”  She says this like we’re old friends but I don’t think I’ve seen her before.  

I think about how to answer that but I can see she’s not really waiting for a response.  She’s busily scanning the items in.  “Not too bad,” I mutter weakly. I watch as she expertly bags the items.  Maybe I could do that.  She seems pretty happy.  It would be nice to have a job.  I feel so useless hanging around the house all day.

But as I watch her scanning the fruit in I see that she has all the codes for the fruit memorized.  I couldn’t do that.  I’ve never been good at things like that.  I never could hold a job very long.

As she takes the cash from me and rapidly counts out the change from the till I sigh inwardly.  Again something I couldn’t do.  At least not that fast.  I’d be standing there counting the money out slowly while people in the line up get mad at me.  Then I’d panic because I hate that sort of negativity.  So I’d give the wrong change.  The manager would come around and the customer would complain.  And that would be the end of that.  Just like my other jobs. I guess I should stick to the house.  At least I can run things pretty well there.

Earlier.

The young man leads me and six of my guys to a long building on the western edge of the village.  The other men stay to guard the villagers.  He stops about fifty feet back of the building and points. “In there,” he says.

“Good,” I indicate with a jerk of the head that I want him back with the others.  He goes off running.  Smart boy.  I watch him run for a moment till he’s far enough to not be a danger.  Then I turn my attention to the house.

It has a door on the short side closest to us, and window openings on the long side.  We hide behind another house where we can have a view of the door.  I turn to the men to explain.  I almost don’t need to.  This is pretty standard.  Mostly a problem of who does what.

“Stevens throw a concussion grenade in through the nearest window.  If it gets thrown out we’ll have a firefight on our hands.  If not we’ll rush the house.  Carlson, you and Brown run to the sides and fire in the windows.  You two come with me.  We’ll take the door.”  I speak in a whisper and the men nod in response.

Stevens, Carlson and Brown run to take up the best spots they can for the maneuver.  I stay where I am with the other two.

The three arrive at their positions and Stevens looks back at me for the nod.  I check to make sure the other two are in place and ready and I give him the signal.  He nods back, pauses to view his target, and starts running.  He stays low to the ground till he’s about ten feet from the window.  Then he stops and readies himself to throw.  He already has the silver grenade in his hand.

There is suddenly a rapid POP POP POP from inside the house and I see three bullets rip through Stevens’ left shoulder.  “FUCK!” he yells and moves from a crouch to kneeling on his left knee.  But he pulls the pin anyway, god bless him, and deftly chucks it through the window.  Then he collapses to the dirt and starts swearing.

But my eyes aren’t on him now.  They’re on that window.  If that grenade comes out we could have a lot of trouble. I can hear frantic yelling inside.  I count in my mind.

Three

Two

One

I’m already running before the I even hear the bang.  I watch the black holes of the windows flash white.  The yelling inside turns to a screams.  The door flies open and a single man dressed in black runs out.  He doesn’t look left or right but just heads, straight away from us, toward the trees.  I take him down quickly and he pitches face first into the dirt.  Carlson and Brown have taken their positions but aren’t firing.  They’re yelling for the people inside to get down.

By the time I get to the door the situation is well in hand.  I stick my gun in and look around.  Six guys are all on the ground with their hands over their heads.  One other guy is collapsed on the floor.  His hand has been blown off and most of his face.  Guess he tried to throw the grenade out.  Well, good effort buddy. The three of us move into the room and cover the guys on the floor.  I signal to the two at the window to come inside and start securing the prisoners.

I look around the inside of the house.  It is goes back quite far and it’s piled right to the back with stores of food.  Yup, a supply depot alright.  There’s just one thing missing…

I move my feet in arcs across the dirt floor, sweeping wide half moons.  Then, about half way in, my sweep uncovers a flash of metal.  I quickly expose the rest of the door and find the chain used to pull in open.  I look up at the prisoners who are being tied up and smile.  One of them is looking at me but doesn’t smile back.

I bend down, grab the chain and yank the cover off the opening.  Here we go.

There is an underground chamber with a wooden ladder.  I climb down and survey my find.  The chamber is about thirty feet long and piled to the ceiling with boxes of ammunition and explosives.  There is only about three feet of space to walk between the stores on either side.  This is quite the find.

I climb out of the hole just as my men start marching the POW’s out of the building.  Time to call the choppers.

Well…one other thing first…

Later

I flick the TV off and sit in the silence for a moment.  I can hear some voices outside. Some car doors slamming, birds, wind, Nature.  Some traffic noise too.  It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and outside people are doing the things people do at this time of day.  I have spent the last three hours watching TV.

The thought of the wasted time hits me hard.  It’s a feeling I don’t want to face and it makes me instinctively reach for the remote again.  Noisy oblivion.  No need for thoughts.  No silence.  No me.

I physically stop myself, the remote in my hands, three inches off the table, almost pointed at the screen.  I hold that pose for a moment with a struggle.  One touch of a button and nothing else matters.  Oprah, Regis, CNN, will be my world.

But I am resolved.  I get like the every now and then.  After three hours of watching TV I know the world is going to hell.  Everyone who is talking is either talking about sex: how to get it, how to do it, how there is too much of it or violence: how there is too much of it, how you should be afraid of it, how cool it is.

But I am resolved.  I drop the remote quickly, gravity making the decision for me.  I know if I hadn’t done it that way the remote might have won.

I pull out my knitting.  I am going to create.  I can do this… It’s something I have learned.  I pull out my blanket, it’s starting to get big.  I’ve been working on it for months now.  Not steadily though.  I usually make excuses and watch TV or whatever. It’s nothing special, no cute patterns sewn in.  It’s made from this special thread you can buy now where it’s one colour for a while and then changes to another.  The one I have is green, red, blue, green, red, blue, green, red, blue, over and over at regular intervals.  By sewing the blanket in a continuous line it creates waves and fields of the colours together.  It’s kind of random where they land but as the blanket goes on and on it begins to make patterns.  Stretches of blue and green, forests and oceans.  The red… I don’t know what the red is… humanity perhaps.  Fitting in harmoniously unlike in the real world.  My blanket is the world I create.  The world the way I want it to be.

As I sit there and knit and knit and knit, the blanket taking shape almost beyond my control, I start to weep uncontrollably.  This is all I can do.  It seems this is all I will let myself do.  Create something beautiful, something to undo all the bad things in the world.  Things I, somehow, feel responsible for.

Earlier.

The screams of the POW’s are starting to fade now in my mind.  I’m standing in a clearing on the edge of the village, scanning the sky for the choppers.

I’ve just finished getting all the info I need from the prisoners.  By firing blanks at close range it looks just like powder burns received in regular fighting.  Not that anyone cares really, but there are those who frown upon torturing bound men in warfare.  You never know when some wise-ass reporter will sneak his way onto the pickup chopper.

It’s necessary though.  How else are we supposed to know where to go next?  How did we find this place after all?

The men are back at the village keeping an eye on things and I’m taking a bit of a breather waiting for the choppers.  I used to get really strained when I had to get information from prisoners.  Not anymore though.  You get used to it.  They are the enemy.  They would do the same to us if they needed to.  I’m thinking about this as I scan the sky.

I hear the soft, quick footsteps behind me a split second too late.

Just as the footsteps registered in my mind I tensed up and got ready to fight.  But I was too late.  I reacted too slowly.And the next thing I knew I was feeling the machete burying itself in my head.  For a moment I had the strange sight of the machete right between my eyes.  I could see both sides of it at once, and then…. It just fell away…

I heard a heavy thump below me and I turned to face my attacker.

It was the farmer I had threatened earlier.  But he wasn’t looking at me.  He was looking at the ground.  I tried to swing at him… his hands were at his sides… totally defenseless.  But…nothing.  I felt lightheaded

I heard some of my men yelling at the edge of the village.  I looked up and saw they were raising their rifles to shoot.  I tired to tell them not too… Tried to yell to them that I was in the way.  But…. Again nothing.

They went ahead and fired.  I watched the farmer get hit six times in the body, standing not two feet in front of me.  I watched the bullets slide swiftly out of his body with a zzzzzip zzzzip noise.  I watched the fabric of his shirt pull forward in little pyramids as each one came through his chest and stomach.  He barely seemed to notice.  Nothing more than grunt.  I think he was numb from the day’s events.  His wife had died earlier from her injuries.

Then I watched him fall.

There was someone else on the ground already.

I felt disoriented.

It took me a moment to realize it was me. 

I was terrified.  What had happened?  I stayed completely still looking at the body.  I felt completely exposed.  I didn’t want to move out of fear that it might trigger something.  Maybe no one had noticed I died.  Maybe if I stayed still long enough they could fix me.  Maybe if I moved someone would find me.  Someone I didn’t want to find me.

The men came running – the ones who shot the farmer.  They ran straight through me and tried to roll my body over.  But as soon as they saw that the machete was still buried six inches in my head they knew it was useless.

They swore and ran back to the village, shouting as they went.  I suddenly was afraid to be alone.  So I turned and followed them.  There was no sensation of movement anymore.  Like the world was moving around me and I was totally still.

I got to the village with the two guys who were running.  I was going to follow them further but I suddenly looked around.  The village was on fire.  Bodies were piled up in the dirt.  Who had done this?

The true reality of this crept over me slowly.

I had done it.

Now it all looked different.  It was abominable.  Women and children had been killed.  What was I thinking?  How could I have been responsible for such horror? 

When the choppers came to transport the rest of the platoon.  I tagged along.  I couldn’t bear to be separated from my body.  I would be totally lost.  I drifted high up and looked down at the smoking village.  The people who were left alive were milling about.  Dealing with the people they had lost.  Putting out some fires.  Crying.  It was so hard to face that I was to blame.

I drifted along trailing behind the helicopters.  I wasn’t sure what else to do.  I didn’t want to stay at the village.  And I didn’t want to see my body, but at the same time I didn’t want to be separated from it.  So I just followed the along.

I stayed with my body when it was put on a ship heading back to America.  The whole ship was full of bodies.  That’s all it was carrying.  Every deck of the ship was wall to wall with steel coffins covered with flags.There were others in here too.  Others who had died and stayed with their bodies.  I could feel them but I didn’t know how to communicate with them.

I followed my body all the way across the Pacific, onto a transport truck and back to my home town.  When I got there I left it.  I didn’t want to see it buried.  No one would be there.  I had no family.  My friends were all in ‘Nam.

I drifted around the town not sure what to do.  What does one do when one is dead?  I guess I was a ghost now.  Was I supposed to go haunt some place?  I thought that when you died someone was supposed to tell you what to do.  But the thought of that was terrifying to me.  After what I had done I knew that if I met anyone and they told me what to do there would only be one thing on their mind.

I felt like I needed to hide.  I needed to forget and run from what I had done.  The only way I could think of was to become someone else.  I felt exposed now, I was just me and my guilt hanging out for the world to see… though no one seemed to see me…

I had to get back into a body.  But it had to be different this time.  If I was a woman this time I couldn’t be in the army again.  I couldn’t use my hands and my strength to do that kind of hurt to anyone ever again.  I was resolved.

Never again.

 

 


Submitted: April 25, 2012

© Copyright 2022 Dan Neuman. All rights reserved.

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KatzieWhatziz

One word : Awesome

Wed, April 25th, 2012 6:42pm

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Well thank you very much :) Got any more words on just what you liked about it? Feedback is very helpful to me.

Wed, April 25th, 2012 11:50am

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