by Khan Ha
Sometimes when the weather got cold like tonight, Dzu felt that dull throb in his abdomen. The old shrapnel wound was bad enough to have given him a view of his own intestines.
From the couch where Dzu lay, the window of his apartment began to fog from his cigarette smoke. Outside the snow fell like white rain, at times blowing in thick, beaded strings. He hated snow.
The moldy smell of the couch made him wrinkle his nose. It was morning by a few hours. He didn’t feel sleepy, yet the dark stillness of insomnia always reminded him he’d spent years alone. He imagined cuddling against Lan. A stiffness in his crotch brought his hand down there. Unconsciously, he rubbed the swelling. What made her go off with Minh? It hurt him. He was spellbound the first time he met her through an acquaintance. Lan. Orchid in Vietnamese. She was nineteen, a sophomore at the University of Maryland. He was thirty-two, a Vietnam war veteran. He fell in love with her on Parents Day, a month before, watching her perform onstage. When the lights dimmed at the curtain’s fall and the auditorium grew hushed, he sat in semidarkness with his arms folded across his chest. Then he heard the emcee announce a soloist, and the spotlight shifted to the right of the stage. From the wings, Lan floated out, her long black hair touching her waist. Her áo dài, the color of violet impatiens, swayed about her legs, and beneath it she wore white pants, loose and silk. When the spotlight shone on her, she suddenly ceased to be a treasure he could keep for himself. The band started.
As she sang, all eyes in the audience were fixed on her, perhaps every part of her body. He wished the song would end and the curtain drop so that she could be his again and his misery would be over. But as if in slow motion, she sang again. From where he sat, everything gained depth and distance, and then he was no longer there but was watching the scene from far away.
He observed her performance as if she were someone he had never met, yet he wished he knew well. When the song ended, she bowed while the men applauded and hissed for an encore. She stepped backwards, her eyes shyer than her smile, then turned toward the wing with the curtain falling.
He believed his wife was the most beautiful woman in the world, but she died during their boat escape in 1975. Lan warmed his heart at night with fantasies about his dead, beautiful wife. This afternoon, he had joined Lan in the Vietnamese march on the Washington Monument grounds. Ngày Quốc Hận ―April 30, Black April, the day South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam. Barely five years had passed since the fall of South Vietnam. Long after the march was over, Dzu saw her leave with Minh, a senior at Maryland, who tried hiding Lan from him in a discotheque.
All the tables were full. Dzu scanned the room and saw Minh and Lan at a table far from the noise and dancing. He knew he was unwelcome at Minh’s table, but the glower in Minh’s eyes didn’t shake him and Minh knew it. Dzu grabbed a chair nearby and planted it next to Lan’s and sat down.
“A pleasant surprise,” Lan said.
“Having a good time?” Dzu twisted open his beer bottle’s crimped cap and tilted his head back to suck the cold.
“I’m glad the march was a success,” Lan said.
Dzu flicked his cigarette with his little finger. “You didn’t tell me you left. I was stuck with a Vietnam Vet.”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t find you in the crowd. Too many things on my mind.”
She lied, he could tell. He was ready to spring up like a compressed coil. After all, what did he do wrong but be a supportive friend and steadfast admirer? He kept his grin while looking at her. The neon lights colored her face a pale blush. She looked away.
He leaned forward to bring his lips close to Lan’s ear. “How about this dance?”
It was a slow tune. On the floor bodies swayed in a massive lump, dark, amorphous.
“You mind, Minh?” Lan asked.
“Have fun,” Minh said.
Dzu walked her to the dance floor. The flow of her beige knee-length skirt held his eyes, the way it hugged her hips, draped around her thighs, and hung loose over her kneecaps. Her calves, firm and round, made him want to trace his fingers down their fleshy curves until they became thin at her ankles. She wore reddish-brown sandals, yet in skirt and blouse she seemed like a girl in a magazine.
Her hand felt warm in his, her palm soft and smooth when he ran his thumb over it. His other hand pressed against the small of her back, his fingertips nudging the groove of her spine under her blouse. The lazy sound of the organ curled, and the bass guitar struck each chord deep and vibrant. In the music trickling languid and slow, he wanted to melt. He tightened his arm around her waist. Her breasts brushed his chest, her chin scraped the ridge of his shoulder. He nuzzled her neck.
She squirmed in the lock of his arm. A nervous giggle left her mouth.
“No, Dzu, please.”
He pressed his lips against her ear. “You never gave me a chance to show you what I’m made of.”
The smooth touch of her skin gave him goosebumps. His lips brushed her earlobe. This time she pushed him in the chest.
“Dzu– you don’t understand?”
He arched his back to look at her. “I take it that you act this way because you want Minh to think…” The song ended. She dropped her arms, her lower lip tucked in. He grabbed her by the elbow. “Don’t leave. We just got started.”
“Minh is waiting,” Lan said.
He saw her eyes waver, then dart to Minh. Damn. He walked her back, his hand on her hip. He still had a chance with her. She could have been his date tonight.
“Want to leave now, Lan?” Minh said.
He ignored Minh as he sat down. He lowered his voice only for Lan to hear. “Want to join me for dinner?”
“It’s late, Dzu,” Lan said.
“Only ten,” Dzu said. “Viet Garden closes at midnight on Friday. I cook there.”
“Would you like to join us, Minh?” Her voice, soft and yielding, gave Dzu a twist inside.
“We’re leaving, Lan,” Minh said.
“Please?” Lan said. “Besides, Dzu took it upon himself to look me up. . . .”
“You remind me of my wife,” Dzu said, clamping his hand over Lan’s on the table. “Always appreciative, always positive. I’ve seen nagging wives, sharp tongues. Then she died, and I realized what I’d lost.”
He knew flattery was Lan’s weakness, but he also recognized his false sentiments. The beer made him soppy.
“My wife,” he said, stroking Lan’s hand on the table, “she wasn’t as pretty as you, but she was pretty enough for me to fall in love with her and marry her.”
“So you married her for her good looks?” Minh snorted and looked at Dzu’s hand still covering Lan’s.
“And because she was a virgin.”
Lan winced. Dzu felt as though he had just touched her between her legs.
Minh leaned back in his chair. “Virginity is an obsession among Asian men,” he said. “You know that?”
“Educate me,” Dzu said. Minh hadn’t touched his drink since Dzu sat at the table.
“Asian societies value it,” Minh said. “It boosts the men’s egos.”
“Sexual hang-ups aren’t ethnically related. Where’d you learn that from? College? Doesn’t matter if you’re Asian or American, men think alike. Tell you something. Where I come from, a girl sleeps with one man, and one man only. The first man she sleeps with is also the last one.”
“I’ve never been married. Can’t help you on that.”
“But when you decide to get married, won’t she be…”
“A virgin?” Minh said.
“Yeah,” Dzu said.
Lan nodded. “I think a female’s virginity is her God-given treasure.”
His girl surely cherished the treasure she had, because the groom, on their wedding night, would spread a sheet of white cloth on the rush mat under her buttocks. If he spotted no blood stains on it, his bride had not been a virgin. Then one noble way to alert the bride’s family was to cut off both ears of a roasted pig’s head, which they carried during their next day’s visit to her family.
“Did you hear Lan?” Dzu said. “Tell me, if you ever fall in love with a girl, sleep with her, then find out she’s not a virgin, would you marry her?”
Minh nodded quickly with a hardened glint in his eyes.
“You guys excuse me.” Lan stood up and patted Minh on the hand.
Both men watched her head toward the ladies’ room, then Dzu snubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray and slowly looked at Minh. “You’re a liar. You’re also a hypocrite. Ha, marry a girl who’d lost her cherry to someone? What do you take me for? An idiot? You are a kid from enough money; you have your head in the clouds.”
“Privileged?” Minh glared at him. “In what sense? My education? I earned that. Maybe you ended up in the wrong place because you didn’t have an education. If you feel sorry for yourself, don’t blame those who made things happen for themselves.”
“You didn’t get drafted. You didn’t have to flee from the communists. Those are your lucky numbers.” Dzu leaned back, crossed his leg, and touched the flame to another cigarette. He puffed, squinting at Minh behind a coil of smoke. “Yeah, you have an education and I don’t, but that’s because I wasn’t as lucky as you. When you grow up in Cần Thơ, you have two choices. Either you join the South Vietnam army or join the Viet Cong. I bet you city boys never had to worry about a rap on the door in the middle of the night when they came to take you away and made you one of Uncle Ho’s soldiers.”
“You found the wrong man to blame for your misery.”
“Men like me spilled their guts in the war so people like you could sit at home with dreams floating in your heads.” Dzu thrust out his chin. “You ever lost a friend?”
“What if I haven’t?”
“You see,” Dzu said, waving his hands and scattering ash on the table, “you’re the one who didn’t give a damn about the war, while so much suffering went beyond the city limits. I lost a close friend when I was a Viet Cong.” He rinsed his mouth with a swig of beer. His nose tingled with its fermented smell. “My man was wounded by a mortar shell while we were trapped in the jungle. I helped a doctor operate on him with no morphine. He had lost his dick, and a piece of shell was still lodged in his loin.”
He gasped as if he were still by his friend’s side, heard the man scream as the doctor pulled out a piece of shrapnel coated with blood from his abdomen. Beneath his wound was a gaping hole where his genitals used to be, now taped up with zigzag white gauze slowly soaked with scarlet streaks. Within an hour his friend died from loss of blood. A week later he sneaked back into Saigon on a fake ID. He got past the security checkpoints and arrived at a house where his friend’s sister was working as a maid. He never forgot the happy look on her face when she saw him. Then the news. She slumped to the ground, then rubbed her temples with the Tiger Balm. He had seen mangled GI bodies, heads blown off, dog tags gone. Some had their dog tags shoved in their boots in case they died without their heads. But the bereavement sickened him just the same.
Dzu pressed a finger between his eyes while Minh was silent like bad jade. “You blame me because you think I feel sorry for myself, that it’s my fault I failed at my education. But you forget that millions of us, the underprivileged, failed at our education.” He took a pull on his beer. “You’ve never been poor, so how the hell do you know what it feels like? I wish you could watch this freak show in a hamlet in Quang Nam. You could’ve watched a child who’d been burned half-dead by napalm. She glowed in the dark. At night, her father charged ten xu a head for those who wanted to peep through the window.”
He wet his lips, then took a quick sip of beer. His temples throbbed. “You’re no smarter than me. Swap shoes and you won’t walk that far.”
“You’re such a jealous loser.” Minh shook his head. “Now you take shots at those who made it.”
“How about getting off your butt and helping refugees who get here broke?”
Lan came back.
Minh slammed his glass on the table. “I’m not going to get into a patriotism contest with you. Let me set this straight: Don’t confuse your value system with mine; don’t malign me before you even know me.” He stood up. “Let’s go, Lan.”
Dzu jabbed his finger at Minh. “Don’t start acting like you own her. I was inviting her to dinner. You don’t order her around– not while I’m involved.”
“This is getting out of hand,” Lan said. “People are watching us.”
Dzu sneered. “He’s overreacting, Lan. He cracked up.”
“I must go,” Lan said, her face hardening at Dzu.
The ruckus they made had other people looking in their direction. Dzu sat back and watched them leave. Their figures became hazy in a veil of bluish cigarette smoke that drifted across the room. He felt violence simmering in his veins. He had come so close to being with her. He imagined that intoxicating scent of her virgin body, but in his nose the bar smelled like a wet rag just quenched from burning.
He longed for a woman. It had been six years since his wife died. When the Thai pirates jumped onto his boat, they singled out his wife for her beauty. She had fair skin. Her bà ba blouse, soaked from the waves, clung to her body. Even he could see her cupped breasts. Her pretty face stood out from others, grimed, filthy. He grabbed her when a pirate pulled her away. Then he felt an explosion inside his head, flashes shot out in his eyes from inside his skull. The blow against the back of his head knocked him out.
He woke to voices above him. Hands pulled him up on his knees. A hand pointed toward the Thai fishing boat still moored against his boat. A woman’s voice trailed in his ear, “Nhìn làm cái gì?”
But he had to look. On the prow of the Thai fishing boat, a man clad in shorts was standing over his wife. His khaki shirt was unbuttoned down to his midriff, exposing a sooty chest glistening with sweat. He stepped up, planted his legs on either side of his wife, still lying naked on her back. Then he lowered himself to his haunches over her chest and stroked her cheeks, the chin, the lips, tugging at them until his eyes clouded over with a self-hypnotized daze. Then, abruptly, he fumbled with his fly. He grasped the victim’s hair as if about to scalp her, pulled her head up and forced his victim to suck him. It didn’t take long. Then he braced himself with one hand on the ground, flipped her over, hunched forward on his knees, and entered her from behind. His act finished, he stood up while at his feet the victim lay prostrate, crawling like a snail that had lost its tentacles.
Dzu felt drugged.
“Cổ xỉu rồi,” an old woman said, shaking her head, and sat down as his wife passed out.
When his wife no longer responded to the pirates’ acts, the next man slapped her as if to wake her up, then shoved her face to one side. Two men picked up her naked body, one grabbing her head, the other her feet, swung her once, twice, and heaved her over the gunwale.
The Thai fishing boat revved up, surged, and lunged forward. Waves rolled, the boat Dzu was in rocked hard. Seawater splashed his face, the salt got in his eyes. He blinked, then tears ran down his cheeks.
He still thought of her a lot. He wanted to buy a few square feet of land in a cemetery back in Cần Thơ, his hometown, and place a headstone there so he and his son and her relatives could visit her from time to time.
He coughed. It had been so long since he envisioned them. Perhaps one day he would reunite with his only son, who was barely six months old when they were separated. The boy was born on a star-crossed hour, and difficult to raise, according to his parents. His wife was instructed to take a roll of satin to a pagoda and ask the abbot to bless it with a red-dyed seal stamped on the fabric in a two-inch square. They made a shirt for him, which was washed separately from other dirty clothes. Dzu’s parents said the Buddhist seal would keep the evil spirit away. Would father and son recognize each other again? The boy wouldn’t, but he would. His son carried the image of his wife.
Now his arms felt cold. He snatched his leather bomber jacket from the end table and spread it over his chest. He coughed again and felt a stab in his stomach. Several times during the war he had been injured, but that shrapnel wound nearly took his life. He remembered lying on his back with his intestines spilled out. He could smell death in the gun smoke. He knew afterward how meaningless his life was.
In summer of 1969, when Dzu was a Kit Carson scout, Alpha Company, 1/5 Marines was sent to garrison a hill in the Happy Valley in Tuy Hòa, a coastal province of the Central Highlands. Shortly after midnight, less than twenty-four hours after taking position, the Marines were hit by the Viet Cong mortars. The fierce barrage kept up for several minutes, then suddenly stopped when the Viet Cong streamed out from the valley and overran the hill. Bravo Company was dropped on the hill by helicopters to reinforce Alpha Company. Toward morning, in the rage of the battle, Charlie Company was sent into the valley. They sat at the bottom of the hill, waiting until dawn when they were ordered to saddle up. They worked their way toward a side of the hill where the bloody assault had begun to slack off.
Dzu remembered the scene when Charlie Company reached the hilltop. A point man—he was called a Kit Carson scout, a former Viet Cong recruited to serve as a forward man in the U.S. line company—he was the first to step over the bodies of from Alpha and Bravo companies. What had been triple-strand concertina wire was now dangling coils, cut up, or blown apart by the VC sappers. The air smelled acrid with gunpowder; bluish smoke hung thick in a rising mist. He tripped over a body and fell into a foxhole. His face hit the back of another body. The soldier’s head was smeared with dried blood from a shot in the temple, his dirty blonde hair matted above his ear. Sand was leaking down from crumbling sandbags above the foxhole, running down the side of his face. The man’s lips were white as chalk.
They stumbled on the survivors of Alpha and Bravo companies. Fifty Marines remained. They counted the bodies. All were shot in the temple—a coup de grâce by the VC. Dzu had shot his dead enemies in the head when he was a Viet Cong before looting the GIs’ bodies of their watches and rings.
He was standing on a ridge, looking down the valley when he heard the explosion. It was loud enough to turn your head and think serious. Then shouts and screams. He ran toward the lieutenant who kneeled by a mauled soldier and waved his arm in frantic. “Corpsman,” he screamed. “Get the goddamned corpsman.”
There’s no need for a corpsman, Dzu thought. The man was gone. His crotch was split all the way to his abdomen as if he were butchered with a meat cleaver, his dangling testicles dripped blood through their ruptured pouch, his eyeglasses were shattered, a piece of glass stuck in his eyeball. Blood was spattered on his thighs, his fatigues were dyed a blackish red. A few feet from where he lay was a dead GI with his hips blown off. That must be where the Viet Cong laid their booby trap. Dzu figured it was a hand grenade with its safety pin taken off, tucked away under the corpse. You turn the corpse over with your foot then whatever remains of you is God’s mercy.
The next morning, egrets flew odd formations beneath the ragged fog, and Charlie Company split up in four platoons and fanned out over a ten kilometer area of operations. Dzu’s platoon moved across valleys and climbed hills and more hills. They went down into valleys. They crossed streams. The summer heat caked their sweat. The air didn’t move. They swallowed salt tablets. Some men fell. Dzu was light-headed at times, but his body was used to such long treks. On the second day at noon, they reached a hill. From the distance, the hillside looked lime-white. They came upon tons and tons of rice strewn on the hillside. In the sun, their ivory grains gleamed.
“Fucking VC will have to come here for their meals,” the lieutenant said.
Dzu thought of the starving villagers. This rice-strewn hillside could feed a whole village for many months. Yet the VC rice supply was destroyed by the Americans.
The platoon pressed with no fog between them and the sun and more Marines fell from heat exhaustion. Their canteens flashed as they gurgled down water. Men grumbled, cursed. Acrid odors emitted from their sweat-caked bodies. Late that afternoon, they entered a hamlet. Yellow dust rose as they trod down the dirt path shaded by tattered banana fronds. Hens and roosters squawked, scattering; mud-stained pigs went oinking as they minced across the path. The slow ones were booted and went bellies up. Scrawny dogs came sniffing at the GIs’ legs, yelped, legs buckling, as rifle butts were banged down on their heads.
The lieutenant, tall, lanky, wearing a sweat-soaked baseball cap waved Dzu over.
“Find the chief,” the lieutenant said. “Bring him here.”
On his right shirt pocket was his name: Jensen. Dzu understood him. Dzu had been with the Chiêu Hồi for a year now. He was taught English when the Americans came to recruit him at the Chiêu Hồi center in Saigon. Early they had problems in placing him as a point man in the US battalions. The American soldiers didn’t want a Kit Carson scout in their troops. Nobody trusted a hồi chánh. Finally, he was taken in by Charlie Company of 1/5.
The chief wearing faded maroon pajamas was an old man in his seventies. His beard was a gray wisp.
“Where’s papa-san?” Lieutenant Jensen asked, bending down slightly.
“Ổng nói gì?” the old man asked Dzu.
“He asked you where Viet Cong are,” Dzu said. Papa-san! The word wasn’t even Vietnamese. He didn’t know why these Americans used it.
“Không biết,” the old man said.
“No bic,” Jensen said. “You must know. This is the VC-controlled area. We know that. What do you grow over there?” He pointed toward a garden plot behind the hooch. “Fruits, right? You grow them for the VC.” He poked his finger at the rim of the old man’s conical hat. It slid back. Under it the old man wore a white turban. Jensen hooked his finger on the string used as the old man’s chinstrap. He plucked the string once, twice, then snapped it. “VC come by here tonight?”
The old man kept shaking his head. Jensen glared at Dzu. “Don’t stand there like a fucking dummy. Tell him what I just said.”
The old man lowered his eyes, his shoulders trembling.
“He know no VC,” Dzu said, his mouth dry.
“When did he say that?” Jensen said.
Now Dzu lowered his eyes.
Jensen shouted, “Corporal!”
The corporal was leaning against a guava tree whose fruits were shriveled by the heat. He lumbered over when Jensen took out his bowie knife.
“If he moves, shoot him,” Jensen said to the corporal.
With one hand he pulled the old man’s wisp of beard, jerking his face downward, and with one stroke cut his beard off. He brought his fist to his lips and blew. The whiskers went up in a puff.
“Now you don’t look like Ho Chí Minh anymore,” Jensen said. “Now you look stupid. Eh? You got me?”
The old man kept his smile, nodding as if he understood. Then an old woman walked up behind him. She wore a brown collarless bà ba stained with dark betel juice. She pulled on the old man’s arm. “Tha cho ổng đi mà,,” she said, pleading with Jensen without looking up.
Dzu cringed when Jensen gripped the old man’s shoulder.
“Not so fast,” Jensen said, lifting up the old man’s face with the tip of his bowie knife. “Get me water, grandpa. Water.” Head tilted back, he made a sign of drinking with an imagined glass.
Dzu lowered his voice. “He wants water. Better give it to him.”
The old man still smiled but he didn’t budge.
Jensen wiped the sweat from his brow. “Chuck him, corporal.”
The hulking corporal seized the old man by the neck, lifted him off the ground with one hand, and tossed him sideways. The old man flew like a rag doll and crashed against the guava tree. He slumped to the ground, clutching his shoulder.
The woman shrieked, “Ông ơi!”
Jensen shoved her. She tottered backward. He reached out, grabbed the top of her blouse, and ripped it down. The woman froze. Her skin was mottled, her breasts sagged, wrinkled like a pair of bitter gourds. Laughter roared around them.
Dzu looked away. He had seen the worst of the American troops in villages he went through as a Viet Cong. Cold-blooded murdering. Burning hooches. Rape. They owned the village when they entered it. The Viet Cong were no better, except their atrocities weren’t publicized.
Jensen gave an order for chow time. While the men ate from their C-ration cans, he walked to the rice paddies and surveyed the area through his binoculars. On one side of the hamlet, rice paddies spread steppe-like up the hill, cut up by hedgerows of thick bamboo and coconut palms. Straight ahead, the paddies stretched to a river, and across the river was the wood line. They rested until dusk. At seven o’clock, they blocked the hamlet with a few men. The rest went across the paddies, walking on the muddy dikes under a full moon. Dzu was told they were on an ambush mission. He realized that, by blocking the hamlet, Jensen had cut off any possible communications between the hamlet and the VC about the platoon’s activities.
The night was still and clear. Alone ahead, the platoon trailing behind following his steps, Dzu sloshed through the paddies. Frogs croaked down the wet dikes, a fish leaped with a tiny splash. He traced his steps, putting down one foot ahead the other. He listened with his brain, he felt with his sixth sense. He took no chances even though the paddies seemed harmless. A wrong assumption, a wrong step could set off a booby trap. He might be blown up. He sniffed like a mouse. The air hung thick. No wind. The moon shone on the water and here and there were gleaming fish traps and weirs. After the paddies, they waded across the river at low tide in waist-high water, entered the woods laced so dense with coconut palms, bamboo thickets, and razor-edged undergrowth that they had to shield their faces with their hands to weave through. Then they found a narrow dirt path. Dzu knew what Jensen thought. Beyond the woods were valleys, hills, then the jungle of the Trường Sơn mountain range. If the Viet Cong were to trek back to their bases, they must make their way through the woods, on this path.
The platoon took up their positions—two M60 machine guns from the weapons squad were placed facing the trail, each manned by five men, two rifle squads crouched behind bushes on the other side of the trail, their M-16s sighted toward the river. The command post was set up between the emplacements of the two machine guns, and claymores were placed beyond their perimeter up the trail. The men sprayed themselves with insect repellent, but fear of snakes and scorpions made them toss and turn throughout the long wait for the enemy.
The night passed. In daylight the platoon searched the valley when they received the order to stay the night before linking up with other platoons in the morning at a rendezvous. The men couldn’t wait. They were due for resupply. That night, after dinner, they saddled up and sloshed across the river to pull the ambush duty. Dzu’s stomach churned. He doubled back to find the lieutenant.
“No same place,” he said to Jensen.
“Say it again,” Jensen said with a smirk.
“Two nights, no same place.” How much did this young gung-ho lieutenant know about the guerrilla warfare?
“Yes, same place. We’re gonna cream their asses tonight.” Jensen pointed to the forward column. “Get back there.”
They moved into position. Exhaustion took its toll. Dzu saw men around him nod off toward midnight. Jensen cursed when he checked on them at two in the morning.
Sometime after two they got hit. Explosions of grenades woke them, then bursts of machine guns swiped the branches and kicked up chunks of earth in their faces. The tak-tak-tak of the AK-47 seemed to come from everywhere.
The Gunnery Sergeant shouted: “Return fire! Return fucking fire!”
The men snatched their M-16s and fired at the flashes of gun muzzles between tree trunks and behind bushes. Their M-60 machine guns blasted. The pigs, the men called their M-60. They snorted in quick bursts as they were fired. Dzu quickly reloaded his M-16. The singsong voices of the Vietnamese shot across. High-pitched. Staccato. Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army? What the hell was the difference? Hand grenades were tossed. Successive detonation silenced one of the platoon’s machine gun nests. Dzu ducked when the tak-tak-tak of the AK-47 sent chips of rocks flying in his face. The attack came from behind on either side of the trail. The platoon was forced into a defensive stance when every man had to turn around to fire back.
Then he heard the sergeant yelling, “Get the M-seventy-nine going. Goddamn, get them going!”
Then came an explosion. Dzu covered his head. The enemy’s B-40 rocket cut down a tree toward the sergeant’s position. Then another explosion. Men ducked to the ground. Dzu glanced around and saw the platoon’s early casualties. Figures of men draped against bushes, sprawled on the ground in the flashes of gunfire.
Suddenly, he heard a whoosh in the air. Incoming artillery. It blew up on the trail near their position. Someone screamed for a corpsman. Then the sergeant scurried over and grabbed Dzu by his neck. “Get over there!” the sergeant said, spit flying in Dzu’s face. “The lieutenant wants you. Now!”
Dzu darted across the trail, lunged for cover behind a coconut tree just as machine gun bullets torn up tree barks and bushes around him. Jensen jammed the handset into his hand.
“Call the ARVN!” Jensen shouted. “Tell them to shift the fire. Fucking ARVN’s getting us killed!”
Next to him, the radioman was dead. His face was covered with blood from a bullet wound in his forehead.
Dzu screamed the coordinates in Vietnamese into the handset when another round of artillery went off on top of them. Someone a few yards away hollered, “Get me some water.” It was the corpsman. A man must be hurt.
Jensen shoved him in the back. “Run over there! Give him your canteen.”
Dzu scampered several yards behind the bushes. He saw the stout corpsman crouched behind a bamboo thicket. A red-faced machine gun team leader lay prone next to him. A deafening blast lit up the trail. A blow to his stomach lifted Dzu up, he dropped his M-16, and fell facedown. A shearing pain blinded him. He rolled on his back, clutching his abdomen. When he blinked away his tears, he made out a figure bending down over him, his trousers legs rolled up. An NVA soldier wearing green uniform and pith helmet, camouflaged with green leafy twigs tied around his waist. Dzu recognized the banana-shaped clip of his AK-47 as the man jabbed his finger at Dzu.
“Hồi chánh hả?” he said.
Dzu’s lips moved but no sound came out. Yes, a VC defector.
“Motherfucker, you turncoat!” the man shouted.
He pulled up and pointed his AK-47 in Dzu’s face. Dzu didn’t feel anything. The pain had him groaning like an animal. A thunderous bang shook the ground, a bright flash, then the NVA soldier toppled over Dzu. The ARVN artillery got him. Dzu lay on his back with the dead man’s legs pressed down on his face. He heard more explosions, farther away now. Each time a shell fell, his back shook with concussion. He sensed the ARVN artillery had found its target. In his ears, the tak-tak-tak became sporadic, then the barrage of NVA’s machine guns died out. His head felt light; the pain in his abdomen seemed to tear through his body, front to back. Feet shuffled around him. Shouts, curses. The clanging of canteens, the snapping of cartridges into the guns. The NVA soldier’s legs were lifted off his face, then his head was raised onto someone’s thigh. He opened his eyes.
“Just hold on,” the corpsman said. “I’m going to give you something.”
Dzu glanced down at his stomach. The front of his shirt was ripped open. He felt a wetness in his midsection. His hands were red, slippery. Something protruded from his stomach. Opaque white, pinkish.
“You’re cut open,” the medic said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Dzu’s throat felt so dry it hurt.
The medic tilted Dzu’s canteen and let the water drip into his mouth. Then he fumbled in his bag and pulled out a bottle of serum albumin.
“Hold it,” a voice rang out. Jensen pushed the corpsman’s hand away. “This is worth twenty-five dollars a pop. You can’t give it to a gook.”
“He’s dying, lieutenant,” the corpsman said.
“We have our men to take care of right now. Johnson got a sucking chest wound. Don’t waste IV fluid or morphine on the Kit Carson. He’s not worth it.” Jensen walked away.
The medic picked up his bag and stood up. “Sorry.”
Lying on his back Dzu looked up. Bamboo thickets vaulted and laced with vine-tangled canopies of greenish-black vegetation. The moonlight was filtered to a faint glimmer on the ground. He clasped his hands over his gaping wound. Maybe if he remained on his back his intestines would not fall out. He knew his status as a Kit Carson scout with the United States Marine Corps. He had killed many men for them. Pain surged, tearing in him as though it had cat claws. His whole body went into spasm. He had just married his wife. Her letter was folded in his shirt pocket. Eyes shut, he felt tears leaking out the corners of his eyes.
Two men knelt down beside him. Jensen and the medic. Jensen leaned down on his arm, his face inches from Dzu’s. Dzu could smell the man’s sweat as strong as ammonia. It stung his eyes.
“You told me no same place, two nights in a row for an ambush,” Jensen said. “You know?”
“VC.” Dzu heaved. “Before.”
“I give you credit for that,” Jensen said, “for whatever you told the stupid ARVN.”
“Làm ơn,” he said in Vietnamese, barely audible. He wanted to be saved.
Jensen bent down further, then jerked his head up, his hand covering his nose. “Lloyd, give him IV fluid. He stinks.” Jensen stood up. “The bird will be here in minutes. We’re gonna get medevaced. If he holds up, he might make it.”
Now he heard the howling of the wind outside his apartment. The pain in his stomach throbbed. He clenched his fist, cursed. He could smell his own musky body odor, and faintly, Lan’s lemon-scented perfume, on his forearms.
From that moment he knew a rapist was no different from an opium addict, and a virgin girl, like Lan, was bạch phiến ―heroin.
He hated that wretched feeling.
In the stillness memories smelled like cigarette ashes, clinging to his clothes.