By Khanh Ha
The painted stork steps gingerly along the water's edge, the shallow water a clear blue so the stork can see the small fish roused up by its pumpkin-yellow bill sweeping from side to side.
With the motor turned off, our boat bobs on the canal. A breeze is coming through the tall grass on the bank and the water shudders when fish nib at the water lettuce's trailing roots. In pale-green rosettes they float. Chi Lan slowly raises her camera, her hand rotating the lens, as the stork suddenly cocks its head, flashing a yellow glint on the down-curved tip of its bill. In that moment you can see in the water the motionless stork on its reedlike, coral-pink legs.
I cough. It comes so suddenly. The stork startles, twitching its rump, then shoots up in a whoosh. It glides over the water, neck outstretched, legs trailing long and pink, the great underwings painted soot-black just like it was on a Japanese fan.
I cough until my eyes water. I spit into the water. "I'm sorry," I say to her.
"I ought to be quicker," she says, frowning, her finger still on the camera's shutter button.
I nod, blinking. "Like a photojournalist?"
"Yes, chú." Her voice is soft with a lilt in 'chú.' Uncle.
She gazes after the stork downstream, serene eyes, elongated and pretty, the brow not creased this time, this orphan child having been displaced to grow up into a comely girl, always exuding liveliness and consideration. She came to my inn in the Mekong Delta with her American mother who adopted her in 1974 when she was five years old. She's 18 now.
"I've taken tons of still-life photos," she says. "But live things move quicker."
I sip from my bottle of water. "You ever seen the napalm-girl photo?"
"The Vietnamese little girl running naked down the highway?"
"If you fail to capture that special moment, it's gone forever. Right?"
"Maybe so," I say, capping the bottle. "But I can bring back that stork. And its mirrored self in the water. In a drawing. See?"
"The difference between the camera's eye and one's memory?"
She fingers her neck strap. "You know something, chú?"
I look at her face in the mild sunlight, and her morning-fresh face holds my gaze until she blushes. "What thing?" I say.
"If I have one wish I'd rather be a painter than a photographer."
"One wish," I say, nodding.
"Not a wish but one wish. So you'd better wish it right."
Something takes hold of my mind. In the brief silence comes a quick pop when a fish rising to the surface snaps at a water bubble.
"Chú," she calls to me.
I glance up. Aiming her camera at me, her fingers adjust the lense.
"Smile for me," she says.
My lips form a smile. Click.
"I've got your smile now," she says. "You rarely smile, chú."
Her teasing voice is soothing. I should have smiled more naturally for her.
"You ever had a moment when you wish for that one wish?" she asks.
I shake my head. Perhaps too quickly. I did wish after I have known her. That she would never leave. But that's not the one wish one ever wishes for. I lift the cigarette pack from my shirt pocket and her eyes quietly follow my gesture. I hold the cigarette's end close to my lips, inhaling the dark tobacco smell.
"I'm not going to light it," I say, pausing to find words. "Well, I never had that one wish. Never had one. Except one time . . ."
She blinks. It must be my humorless tone. Saying nothing, she taps her finger on the film advance lever.
"I helped carry out someone's wish," I say.
"To make it come true?"
"Yeah. Long time ago."
"When I was about your age. Maybe a year or two older."
"The one wish in someone's life?"
For several days it was hot and muggy. Then one night the rain came and it rained with no respite until it leached the white out of the sky and it rained, rained into the eighth day, the ninth day and sometime on the 10th day the rain let up long enough for a glow to spread across the sky, and the forest to shiver just once so we could hear the damp wind sough through the drenched foliage, and in the lull raindrops trickled, trickled like the sound of pebbles. That evening rain fell again, crescendoing madly, tinkling and spattering like musical notes made of steel beads, a wet symphonic murmur that soon settled into a steady mindless cadence once again. We rushed out to snatch all of our uniforms and linens, still drip-drying, that we had hung on the strung-out twines between the trees near the cooking fires which had barely dried any cloth when they sputtered and died.
In the hut I could smell the wood smoke. It smelled odorous whenever a fire was suddenly put out and now the rain that had doused it brought a stink that seeped through the clammy air. Under the cot a red centipede was crawling out. I watched it measuring the soggy ground with its whisker-thin legs. They would come out at night, the red centipedes, the brown centipedes. The earthworms too. All except the yellow and black deerflies. They had swarmed him, my Chinese friend Huan, when I carried him on my back for two days after the carnage by the American artillery until we reached the forest. It had been 13 days. Now he lay on the cot, his stomach wrapped with a soiled cloth strip. At least, for now, the rain had kept the flies at bay. You should see them feed on the open wounds until their striped abdomens bloat up. If you don't clean the wounds soon, the next day the gaping wounds seem to move with tiny, dough-white maggots.
A hand touched me on my elbow. Huan's face went dark when the lantern on the ammunition crate suddenly wavered. The forest groaned in the wind. I moved the crate closer to the cot. A rusty metal crate stamped with a single star on its grooved top. I bent to his face.
"Water," he muttered.
His breath smelled. I raised his head until his lips touched the rim of the tin cup. His cracked lips open to receive the rainwater. It was our drinking water now. The rain had become our savior. We also had a shortage of cooking utensils after the last B-52 bombing had shattered most of our porcelain wares. Now most of us used the tin cups from our mess kit as rice bowls and drinking cups.
"You hungry?" I ask him.
He did not answer. His eyes were closed. Their long lashes brought a softness to his repose. He hadn't opened his eyes much these days. The pretty-girl eyes. Gently I lay his head down. He didn't weigh much and every time I changed his dressing I could feel his bones. Life was ebbing from him. Shadows pooled on his sunken cheeks. I dabbed some water on his lips, said, "You must eat something," and reached into my trousers pocket. The hunk of cooked manioc had hardened in my hand. I broke off a piece, pressed it against my palm until it softened. His lips felt like hard rubber. "Eat," I said, "you hear me?" But his jaw was set. "Huan?" I pried open his lips with my fingers then I let go. His teeth were clenched. His skin felt hot. He was burning up.
His voice sounded my name. He hadn't eaten much.
"Save it," he slurred. "You hungry too."
That hunk of manioc was my whole day's meal. We had run out of food because of the siege. Trapped deep in the forest by the surrounding forces of the Americans and ARVN, we had eaten wild banana flowers and we had eaten scorpions and snakes. We went looking for snakes. Before that we all dreaded seeing them. We ate wild taros, even those that caused itch, and afterward many of us retched and clawed at our throats, finger-forcing ourselves to vomit, and our doctors had to calm them with saline water so that after gargling a mouthful, it eased the killing itch's claws only so slowly the victims were left remembering the evil prickling in their throats. We ate cocoyam, the giant ones. They rose abnormally tall. Over two metres. Their trunks thicker than wild banana's trunks exuded an eerie glossy look of unhealthy green and their underground stems in the somber year-round shades twined deep in the earth where, in earlier days, corpses of our comrades had lain unburied. After vultures had picked away the flesh, the crows came, then centipedes and ants. Then worms and maggots. Then forest rains. Rains washed the human remains into the depth of soil which nourished the flesh-loving cocoyam which then nourished us, day to day now.
I put my hand on his forehead. The heat shocked me. I looked at the manioc hunk in my other hand and then put it back in my trousers pocket. My fingers touched the butt of a half-smoked cigarette. Even with the cigarette ration, we were running out of cigarettes. I plugged it in my mouth, dragged on the unlit cigarette. In the dry tobacco smell hung a malevolent odor of rot. It came from his stomach wound. One that had damaged his spleen. The soiled dressing looked wet.
A silence. Then, "They . . . told me."
"Told you what?"
He was breathing through his mouth. His long black hair on the back hung over his shirt collar. None of us had had a haircut for many weeks now. His hand lay on his thigh. I looked at his long fingernails, so long they had begun curving down and a thought hit me. He might not ever have a chance to cut them. Me? I just chewed on them every day so they stayed snub.
"Doctor told me," he said, without opening his eyes.
"How you got the human spleens . . . for me."
I said nothing. I felt empty. All I did for him was in vain. My stomach gnawed.
"They told me. . . they could do nothing more. . ." His voice trailed.
I already knew about it. He suddenly choked on his breath. I bent down. "Hey." His face simmered with heat. The doctor had made him swallow the little black pellets to ease his pain. But now they must conserve the black opium's supply for those who needed it most. He was dying nevertheless.
"Tell my Ma and Pa . . ." His jaw clenched. "Write them a letter . . ."
But the letters would never get to them. Before I left the North, I knew those who had gone South to fight the Americans. Some of them were my friends. Going South. One by one. Nobody had heard anything from them since. I asked people why none of them was ever coming back and they shushed me. Most of them my age tattooed their arms with four words, "Born North Die South." Like it would boost their morale. Most of them died — true to their tattoos — and there was no news sent home. Now I knew why. You can't win the war with damaged morale suffered by the people at home. But the messengers of death weren't a telegram but the returning wounded who eventually reached the unfortunate families with the tragic news. To hide the most demoralising picture of the war, the government quarantined all the wounded — they were not to see their families. But that only came after they had been seen in public. And the sight of them, maimed for life, had painted a Biblical hell about the war.
Now I put my hands between my knees. I didn't want to touch his inflamed body. It foreboded the end of his decay. Two years in the South. Both of us. I had once or twice thought of the day we would be coming home. Together. The thought was like a thief hiding itself in my head to steal away slivers of joy once lived. Once. The day I killed that thief, I stopped daydreaming. That day on the way South on the Hồ Chí Minh Trail I saw camouflaged trucks heading North. It was raining. Rain fell on our nylon raincoats, fell on the open beds of the trucks. We stopped, exchanged greeting words. Then I saw human bodies, alive and packed under the cover in mottled shades of green and brown. The wounded. They had no legs. Some burned by napalm so severely they had the leprous looks. Rain dripped on their limbless bodies as they slept. One peek at them and I thought of a litter of dozen pigs piled in and carried to a slaughterhouse. After the trucks came the stretchers. Sticks, bamboo slapped together. Lying on them were the blind. Some had no faces. We couldn't greet them. They couldn't see us. At the tail end of the convoy were those who had one leg, one arm, some with no arms. We stood off the muddy trail, letting them pass. They struggled on their crutches finding their footing in the mud-spattered tracks the trucks left behind. The armless ones had had their raincoats tied around their waists so the wind wouldn't blow their coats away. They walked past us, huffing and puffing. Rain-smeared sallow faces. Malaria-wrecked skin. They were all bones. So they headed home. Home. Up North. I looked at them. I wasn't afraid. Just queasy. One day someone going South on this trail would look at me heading North. I might not then have a face. Likely. Or limbs.
I could hear him wheeze. Like he needed air badly. His hand on his thigh twitched. I touched it. His skin was burning hot. I got up, walked out and soaked my handkerchief in the pouring rain. I wrung my kerchief and placed it on his forehead. Then I sat hunched on the edge of the cot, hands between my knees. Rain clattered on the foliage. Rain fell sluicing from the leaves. Rain. The white noise it played on our nerves. Rain. The hunger that growled in our stomachs. Rain. There was no more rice grains left. Now we ate centipedes. Then earthworms after.
"If they can spare you some of that painkiller," I spoke without looking at him. I meant the black pellets that bribed pains for a respite.
"It . . . hurts."
He wasn't sleeping. He could hear me.
"I know," I said. I thought of the time on the bridge back home when I was hurt by the American bombing and how he was worried for me. And other times. A dark feeling enveloped me. The lantern light made shadows on his cheeks. I looked closer at his abdomen. His blue sweatshirt had a dark, wet stain under his diaphragm. It smelled like rotten eggs. I had washed his green uniform, blood-soaked and foul, and put on his spare uniform. A sweatshirt and cotton black trousers. The only spare we each had.
"Seven hundred and fifty-three days . . ."
"What?" Suddenly it dawned on me. He had counted days we had spent in the South. "You remember?"
"Wrote each day down . . . in my diary."
He would never write again. I felt a shiver. He was gasping for air like a breathing corpse. Tears were seeping from his eyes. Those pretty eyes were, once, almost ruined on the day his family received news that he was drafted. Ethnic Chinese like him hadn't been called up until then, when the North began drafting every male between 18 and 35. The day he was to take the army physical, he put iodine in his eyes. I was already drafted. I had seen what the boys tried to do to shun the draft. They hid away when summoned by the recruiting centre only to see their family's rice ration cut off. They chewed tobacco leaves and their blood pressure shot up just before the physical. None of them, though, could fool the examining doctors and the recruiting officials. Yet I had seen other boys disqualified from the draft — those from wealthy families who bribed the examining doctors. Or those from influential families — the government officials, the Party leaders, the politburo members. Those boys were sent overseas to study. Years later I saw that the Northern army held a majority of boys and men from the countryside — the poor, the illiterate, the naive. So when I saw Huan's eyes after he had dropped iodine in them, I thought he was bleeding. His eyes were screwed shut. They said if you get iodine in your eyes, you can't see the wind. His bloodshot eyes couldn't see well for two days and I thought his eyes were ruined for good. He went in for the physical with his vision foggy. It remained foggy for several days after when the news came. His classification was "A" — to be drafted. That afternoon I didn't see him when I came by his house. His younger sister said, "I saw him out crossing the railroad track." "When?" I asked. "Short while ago," she said. "To the market?" I said. "I guess," she said.
I headed out toward the track. He must be going to the marketplace to buy some eyewash. The track cut through a heavily foliaged area with tin roofs peeking between the sun-bronzed leaves, and above them were inked the electric wires between poles, evenly spaced, watching over the track. I walked on the graveled shoulder until I saw ahead of me someone sitting on the bottom of the shingled slope where it met the grass. A train was coming around the bend where you could glimpse the distant mountain peak, hazy in the sun. The ties rattled. The horn wailed. The train went shussh-shussh, thunking and rumbling, the couplings clanked in the high-pitched clickity-clack of the wheels. Now it came up blasting its horn, roaring toward me like a blackest demon. Just then I heard someone's scream. It died out in the rumble but I could hear it. Huan's voice. Like a bleakest horror that had no face but all sound, and can't be mouthed in words. He was slumping on the grass, blood oozing from his wrist, his palm laid open on his thigh. I stood rooted to the ground, staring at the blood, at him, his head pitched forward. Quickly I took off my shirt, twisted it, wrapped it around his wrist. I tied it. Hard. My fingers, my palms turned red. I picked up the knife he'd dropped. I wiped the bloodstained blade against the grass, jammed the knife down behind the waist of my pants, and hoisted him up to his feet. His face was full of sun when he looked at me, his eyes red, like blood had gotten in them. The iodine trick didn't save him from what he feared most. I could never forget the pain that flew across his face any more than I could make the sun rise in the west. I said nothing. There was nothing to say. I worked him onto my bare back and started home.
Now as I looked at him lying on the cot, his eyes still shut, I saw his lips move. "Why . . . Giang?"
"Why? What?" I raised my voice.
"Why . . . you did that? With those spleens?"
"I thought they'd help save you." I looked at the half cigarette between my fingers. "Our doctor gave me the notion. . . ."
That doctor was the one who had told me about the eye muscles and how he had trained his eyes to gain back their muscle strength, which, eventually, improved his eyesight and allowed him to see normally without eyeglasses. The same doctor who told me the spleen extracts could help improve the function of a damaged spleen.
"You know what . . ." his voice came like from a ventriloquist.
"The dead men's spleens . . . you took . . . will add to my karma . . ."
I heard every word he mouthed. I thought about what I had done for him, the absurdity of it when, in the end, nothing worked. I had felt bitter. I had loathed the miserable life we had lived. The venom had slowly built up in me but, now, hearing what he said I couldn't help pitying him for the little worries, among other trifles, that had hounded him all his life. I turned away from him and looked out to the darkness. You could only hear rain in that blackness like hearing rain in the blackest Hell. Where had all the fireflies gone to? The wind howled. A mournful wail sighing through the forest.
"How many . . . you took?" came his voice again.
"A dozen." I didn't turn around. His hand grabbed mine.
"Help me . . ."
His knees banged each other. His hand was coal-hot. I lifted my bottle of water and brought it to his lips. "Drink some."
He gripped my hand tighter. "Hurts . . . so much . . . I can't take it . . . any more . . ."
I turned over the handkerchief. The side pressed against his brow was now warm from his burning fever. The smell grew. Sweet stink.
"I'm here," I said, looking down at his parched lips. "I'm not going anywhere."
His head shook side to side. "Hurts," he said, the kerchief slipping off. I put it back on his forehead. "I know," I said. "Damn all this."
"Giang . . ."
"I have one wish . . ."
"I hear you."
"Can you . . . help?"
"Will you . . . help?"
"I'll help you."
"Swear . . . you must . . . swear!"
I took a sharp breath. "Swear."
"Let me die . . . now."
Words came to my lips. I clenched my jaw, staring at his emaciated face.
Thirteen days before, we were ordered to join another unit in another zone in the Mekong Delta. Both of our forces had been decimated. So the consolidation order came. At first light our undersized battalion came out in an open field. We were moving toward the woodland, only a kilometre from it, when we were shelled. Suddenly the ear-prickling whines of incoming rounds, big as a house, rent the air, the earth gushed up, the bone-crushing blasts threw you up and slammed you down, you reared, ran, your guts hanging out, you ran in the agonised squeals, the scalding screams that imprinted themselves forever in your brain, and everything around you peeled off in a flash — flesh, innards, blood, bones.
In the elephant grass we hid, crawled, and overhead came two Skyraiders. They swooped down so low over the scrub trees I could see bombs hanging under their wings. Our soldiers dreaded them more than they feared the jet fighters, for these Spads could fire dead-on. They could hang around for several hours until we turned white with fear. That day we all turned white. I lay in the grass, my rucksack on my back, watching the sky. I had my arms covering Huan's head. On his back he lay, his abdomen split just below his diaphragm and his hands pressed down on the wound were wet with blood. Our doctor was nowhere to be found, so I cut off a sleeve from a dead man's khaki shirt and wound it around Huan's torso. Men were crawling through the tall grass toward the woodland. I thought, dead or alive, I would carry him on my back, walking. Our uniforms were quickly stained with sweat, with blood, smelly and sticky, me dragging my rucksack and his rifle and mine, walking slumped in the cawing of crows, some circling the sky, some already on the ground picking at the flesh of the dead, my throat searing with thirst, his moans soon in rhythm with my panting, my eyes blurred from dirt, from sweat dripping down from my brow, stumbling in eternity in stunned exhaustion, in the shame of defeat.
For two days we subsisted on water and rice ration during our trek until we arrived at the rendezvous zone. We hooked up with our other unit and, much undersized now, the combined forces made their way to the hideout in the bowels of U Minh forest. Huan's wound had turned green. He babbled in his fevers. The doctor sedated him, said it was only a matter of time. I trusted this doctor who no longer needed eyeglasses after he practiced eye exercise. I had also seen him experimenting some healing method on a dog. What he did was to snip off two inches of the dog's intestines and then pieced the severed ends together. I didn't think the dog would live with the patched-up entrails, but a few weeks after I saw the dog again — it lived. I pleaded with him if there was anything he could do to save Huan. He pondered, then said there might be a chance with the alternative medicine, unorthodox in its speculated theory. For a deteriorated spleen, what might help boost up the immune system was spleen extracts. From not one but at least a dozen human spleens to produce just a small amount of extracts. What he said meant to me a death sentence deferred. A dozen human spleens?
It was sultry that night. The ground still breathed warm vapour, the air reeked of wild vegetation. In the wavering lights of gas lamps we hacked away waist-high bushes of toothed fern and fox grape, the air soon foul with fresh sap and gas-lamp smokes. We hung our hammocks between trees, double-decking the hammocks and stringing them from one tree trunk fanning out to others in that neighboring fashion so we could hear each another, see each other, and sleep safer. My hammock was above Huan's. He couldn't move around much. We slept with the lamplights burning in the night, hearing the hooting of owls, whooo-whooo, waking and falling back to sleep in the restless sawing and whirring of insects coming from the peat-covered earth, from the dark crevices of underbrush, filling the forest like an ocean of sound that carried with it here and there the viscous krek-ek, the throaty gwonk of treefrogs.
At two in the morning the first bombs fell. No one heard the coming B-52 bombers. Then the forest heaved in one cataclysmic bang and then another and trees snapped, toppling in a hair-raising whoosh, cracking loud, and the smells of burnt fumes seeped through the air blasting like air out of a furnace. We were thrown off our hammocks. Lights flickered, dirt clods rained down, the lamps spurted and quivered like a scene in Hell. We crawled, we groped for one another, we flattened ourselves on the ground, our ears hurt, our heads rang, our eyes teared from dirt and smoke. I found a hand clawing mine. I heard Huan's voice. He was alive. A tree, broken in half, splintered in a shotgun burst and men screamed like they were machine-gunned down. Huan was sobbing. "I can't see!" I couldn't hear him. "I can't see!" he screamed. I shouted, "We don't need lights!" He screamed louder, "Something busted my eyes . . ." I squeezed his hand. "Keep still. We move, we'll die." Voices erupted. "Comrades! Help me! Please, comrades, help!" Explosion after explosion ripped through the forest, the earth ruptured, the human cries drowned out in the successive blasts, we went deaf, we tasted blood salty on our tongues like a hundred-kilogram rice sack just slammed us in the stomach. Overhead came the screeching sounds of the escorting jets. The air grew hotter, the sap smells grew stronger, the white glares lit up a corner of the forest after each thunderous bang, the forest floor spewed, raining down clods and shreds of vegetation. Then the sounds of Hell died out. So did the cries for help.
It was pitch black. Half past three in the morning. The burned smells of fumes and vegetation filled our lungs. Shouts and moans. The eerie moans drifted through the blackness. Men weeping. Find them before it got light. Find them before the reconnaissance planes would show up at dawn and, if they spotted us, Hell would repeat itself.
"Your eyes, Huan?"
Chills and fevers, despite antibiotics the doctor had given him. His hand felt clammy in mine.
"I'm bleeding," he said.
I struck a match, held it toward him. Smudges of dirt covered his face. He looked black, you couldn't see his girllike fair skin. I peeled off a leaf stuck on his forehead and saw blood glistening on his lips. I wiped my wet nose, the back of my hand stained red. I was about to tell him we all bled from the bomb concussions when the match went out. He groaned about his stomach and I lit another match. His wound was bleeding. The dressing was soaked with blood.
"Lie down," I told him. The match died. In the dark I took off my shirt and, using both sleeves, began wrapping them around his wound. People were clearing branches, pushing and rolling broken limbs out of the way. The air hung thick, the evil fumes refused to vaporize. My hands felt the shaking of his body. He was sobbing.
"I'd rather die . . ." His voice sounded muffled perhaps because of blood in his mouth.
"Bombs should've killed me . . ."
He had lost the will to live. I was about to snap at him but his shaking gave me a thought. Would I rather suffer a slow, agonising death if I became an invalid like him? I cared for him. I always did. More than that, his family wanted me to look after him when we were sent South.
I heard the relayed order: Go retrieve the bodies. Rescue the wounded. Use flashlights. No lamplights. Without seeing his face I said to him, "I'll be back."
I stood in the blackness, saw circles of flashlight bouncing and colliding around me. Moans and cries came up from underground, from the monstrous tangles of collapsed trees. Shielding my eyes, I crawled through a net of tree branches. I couldn't see my own hands in the dark. Deep in the branches I heard moans. They came up from beneath a severed tree trunk. I shook my head, crawled on. The raking flashlights gave me pause. Pit after pit opened up in the ground. Those cavernous cavities could swallow a tank. There were bodies down there. My foot kicked at something. A rucksack. As I picked it up my hand touched a body. It lay still. I sat down, touched it, shook it. Then I drew my knife. I felt with my hand for his heart and, certain that he was dead, I torn his shirt open. My left hand's fingers probing around his abdomen, I brought the tip of my knife to where my fingers stopped. Firmly I sank the knife's tip and slashed across the left side of his abdomen. The knife's blade cut him open just enough and I reached in with my hand. The cavity was still warm. I felt around with my fingers. They touched the spleen. Slimy and pulpy. I yanked it.
I dragged the rucksack with the spleen in it. In the shouts that men called to each other were the cries, the whimpers that soon became part of the night, like the endless symphony of katydids, crickets, and grasshoppers. I kept moving. My shirtless torso soon became drenched with sweat, my hands slick with blood. One corpse came alive when my knife tore through its flesh. I thought I heard him scream, a choked scream. I said a silent prayer. To whom I did not know, but I knew I wanted him to bear me no ill will. When it started getting light, my rucksack was full. The moaning from underground had stopped. Death had taken all of them.
Now, still clenching my teeth, I looked at Huan's face. His eyes shut, his lips moved speaking soundless words. The odor grew. It got into my breathing, seeped to the root of my brain. I didn't wince, didn't reject it. Its stench made my heart weep. I had done everything I could, even inhumanly, to save his life. I had sat by him for hours in the sultry heat, the morning after the bombing, fanning away deerflies and horseflies that came to feast on his festering wound. The only time I was called away came in mid-morning. We had to bury the dead. They began attracting flies. Striped abdomen, green-eyed flies. Metallic-blue blowflies. Wherever we were that morning, the flies followed us, humming. The blood-darkened soil, plowed by bombs, looked like a confetti ground speckled with yellow and black flies coming in myriads for the sugar in the blood and for the shredded flesh buried like fibers in the soil.
I rose. Then I picked up the kerchief from his forehead and walked to the hut entrance and held out my hand. I felt rain pelting my hand, the kerchief dripping rainwater to the ground, and rainwater ran down my forearm until it reached my elbow where it beaded and fell. The cot creaked loud. I turned, walked back and saw him shaking from side to side, knees clapping, hands clawing at his stomach dressing. His face went dark in the wavering lamplight. His mouth fell open and out of it came a garbled sound. "Huan!" I held him by the shoulders. He kept quaking. His hand grabbed me by the forearm. I felt wetness on my skin. His face was so hot I pressed the wet kerchief hard and kept pressing it like I wanted all the moistness to soak into his skin and I did not lift my hand during the whole time until he stopped shaking and kicked out one foot.
I stood looking at him like watching someone sleep and then turned and walked out of the hut. Rain smelled of wet ashes and coals and the charred smell was in the air and followed me through the forest and I kept walking in the pitch dark until I came to the bomb craters where we had buried our comrades. I stood over the rim of a crater, looking down into the black pit, until my drenched body and my head went numb.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013