by PJ Stephenson
“OK, marines, listen up.”
I don’t want to listen up. I’m tired and thirsty and my bowels ache with the dysentery that’s been plaguing me for weeks.
I’m through with listening to mindless orders. I’m through with seeing the point of it all. I’m through with being scared. I know my feelings are contrary to everything the Corps stands for – and that just makes me feel worse.
Like the rest of the squad, I squat on my haunches in the mud and rotting leaf litter. The storm has passed but the raindrops that sought safety in the forest canopy are losing their battle with gravity and tumble down in short bursts, splattering soldiers already soaked to the skin. The patter of water on khaki sounds like distant gunfire. I shift the weight of my rifle to the other shoulder.
The captain addresses us hurriedly. “To recap: our AO is the village up ahead – a Viet Cong training camp. The air strike should have taken out most enemy combatants. But be advised there may be survivors.”
I swat a mosquito on my damp forehead. It’s a lazy-looking gesture but I’ve become an expert, a fast and efficient killer of tropical bugs. My fingers are splattered with its red stomach contents. My face must look like I painted it with blood.
“We’re gonna move in and mop up. Detain any men of fighting age for interrogation.” Over the captain’s shoulder, palls of grey smoke swirl into the air, merging with the angry storm clouds as they recede towards the horizon. “Keep alert, men. Lock and load. Let’s move out!”
There is the clatter of guns being prepared for battle. I sling my M16 off my shoulder and flick the safety to “full-auto” in a move I’ve practiced a thousand times. I avoid eye contact with the other marines so they can’t see my fear.
We emerge from the rain forest into the clearing, spreading out, guns raised. The smoke is coming from a cluster of mud and straw huts, some still burning brightly despite the dampness. I’m pleased to be on the perimeter, sweeping the edge of the village; I’ll be spared whatever horrific sights await us in the middle. I’ve seen too many gruesome sights; I watch replays every night while I lie sweating on my bunk. I have no need of fresh viewing material.
I pass a hay stack and one of my comrades starts stabbing it with a bayonet. I step around a dead pig. Chickens squawk. I smell burnt grass and burnt flesh. A cow stumbles around untethered; wide-eyed with terror it hurries off towards the edge of the forest where bamboo smolders.
I hear talking up ahead, a high-pitched chatter. It sounds like a child playing – but it can’t be. I move stealthily around the next hut.
A little girl is sitting cross-legged with her back against the wall, talking intensely to a plastic doll. Her dress and face and bare feet are smeared with mud. Her tangled bird’s nest of dark hair cascades over her shoulders. She looks up briefly and stares straight through me before going back to her conversation with the toy baby. She rambles on incessantly, recounting a long, convoluted tale.
She reminds me of my little niece back in Arkansas – Sally, or Sweet Pea as I call her. She’s a similar age and has a similar button nose and that permanently quizzical look.
I bend down. “Xin chào.” A simple greeting is about the extent of my Vietnamese – other than beer orders and a few different propositions for obliging boom-boom girls back in the city bars.
She ignores me and keeps talking. The doll is missing its left leg and right eye. I pull a Hershey bar out of my jacket pocket and hand it to her. “Do you want some candy?”
She stops talking and turns to look at me. Her grubby fingers snatch the bar quickly. She unwraps the foil and takes a large bite. A frown creases her brow. I reach forward slowly and gently stroke the hair out of her eyes. She is so like my niece; a smaller, unsmiling version of a girl I love as my own daughter.
Are we really here to fight our brothers’ children? I can’t help thinking that God is sending me some sort of sign. The smoke from the burning village stings my eyes.
“Corporal, what the hell are you doing?” A barrel-chested marine with sergeant’s stripes scowls down at me. “Stop shamin’ and leave the kid.”
“Sarge, we should find this girl’s mother. She’s traumatized.”
“You’ll be fucking traumatized if you don’t get your ass moving.” He points at me with a stubby finger. “The commie bitch mother is probably hiding her husband some place. It’s him we need to find.”
I stand slowly. “This doesn’t look like a Viet Cong training camp to me, sir. It’s just a regular village.”
“Corporal, move out now. That’s an order.”
“Yes, sir.” I pat the girl’s head and reluctantly leave her chewing on the chocolate.
I saunter round the next burning hut and head towards my squad. The girl has made me even more despondent. My heart is not in this fight. How will I survive the remaining twenty-two days of my tour of duty?
“Xin chào. Xin chào!” I stop and turn as the girl runs up to me. In the hand that isn’t clutching the battered doll she holds a small yellow flower on a crumpled stalk. She thrusts it towards me. Her face is serious, concentrated, turning the gesture into a formal presentation ceremony.
I stoop to accept the gift. “Thank you, Sweet Pea. Cảm o’n.” I tuck the flower into my breast pocket and she turns and skips off, singing to her doll.
I’m vaguely aware of the crack of a rifle. Then there’s only darkness.
Pain. Intense pain.
The pain becomes light.
The deafening clatter of machine-gun fire.
No, I’m sliding headfirst on my back. There are strong hands on my shoulders and arms. The taste of blood and dirt. The smell of smoke.
My jacket and shirt are ripped open. I feel the pressure of a dressing being applied to my rib cage. I want to tell them to look after the girl but, when I try to speak, I can’t form the words.
Voices drift in and out: “Hang in there, Corporal… You’re gonna be fine… Stay with me. Stay with me… There’s a chopper on its way.”
And, then, somewhere in the distance I hear the chattering of the little girl talking to her one-eyed doll. She seems to be speaking even faster now.
It was nice of her to give me the flower. I hope it doesn’t get lost…
I see her face. She is babbling in her own language, her voice rising and falling melodically. And I understand her this time. She wants me to go with her.
“Sure, Sweet Pea. I’ll come with you.”
I close my eyes and float in a sea of pink. I see smoke. It’s rising from leafless trees that spit and crackle as the flames lick at their trunks. The smoke becomes clouds. Large, swirling white clouds. Down below there’s a field, a field of yellow flowers. Birds sing. In the burning forest they never sing, but in this field they soar and swoop and dance in the air as the little Vietnamese girl picks a huge sun-colored posy of blooms.
“Corporal, are you awake?”
My eyes struggle to open. I smell antiseptic and clean linen. Everything is white; the lights, the canvas roof, the walls, the bed sheets, the bandages, the mask of the man in the surgical gown who stands over me. He uncovers his face to reveal an angular, stubbly chin.
“You had a close call, soldier. But we got the bullet out and you’re gonna be fine.” The smile he gives me cracks his face as if it’s not an expression he uses often. “Rest as much as you can. We’ll send you somewhere quieter to recuperate when you’ve got your strength back.”
I struggle to take in the situation. My head swims and I close my eyes. I must be delirious. I can still hear helicopters, soldiers calling, a little Vietnamese girl talking.
I see her face again, staring down at me quizzically. I try to raise my hand to touch her. But then the man in the surgical gown blots her out.
“Corporal, this little girl was choppered out with you. She’s the only survivor from the village.” He puts a reassuring hand on her head. “She screamed every time anyone tried to separate her from you. We’ll find somewhere she can be looked after properly, but can she stay here a while?”
“Sure, Doc.” My voice is hoarse and croaky. “I’ll take care of her.”
“Swell.” And with a swish of his gown, he turns and leaves.
Outside the hospital, choppers come and go, jeeps rev, and men run and shout. Inside the tent the little girl clambers clumsily onto a plastic chair, almost knocking over a can of cola on my bedside table. She rearranges the can and for the first time I see the little yellow flower sticking out the top. She pushes it closer to my bed.
“Cảm o’n, Sweet Pea. Thank you.”
She doesn’t reply. She just sits quietly on the plastic chair and smiles back at me.