by Khanh Ha
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. It rained into the eighth day, the ninth day and sometime on the tenth day the rain let up long enough for a glow to spread across the sky, and the forest shivered just once so we could hear the damp wind sough through the drenched foliage, and, in the lull, raindrops 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. 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.
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 came 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 swarmed around 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 thirteen days. Now he lay on the cot, his stomach wrapped with a soiled cloth strip. At least, for now, the rain kept the flies at bay. You could see them feed on the open wounds until their striped abdomens bloated. 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 opened 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.
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. His 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 and said, “You must eat something.” I pulled a hunk of cooked manioc from my trousers pocket. I broke off a piece and 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. His teeth were clenched. His skin felt hot. He was burning up.
“Giang . . . save it,” he slurred. “You’re 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 Americans and ARVN soldiers, we had eaten wild banana flowers and scorpions and snakes. We went looking for the 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 our throats with saline water so that after gargling a mouthful, it eased the killing itch. We ate cocoyam, the giant ones. They rose abnormally tall. Over two meters. Their trunks, thicker than wild bananas’ trunks, exuded a glossy look of unhealthy green, and their underground stems in the somber year-round shade 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 hand and put it back in my trousers pocket. My fingers touched the butt of a half-smoked cigarette. With the cigarette ration, we were running out of them. I plugged it in my mouth and 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. “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 rested 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 again 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 that. He 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 had to conserve the black opium’s supply for those who needed it most. He was dying nevertheless.
“If they can spare you some of that painkiller,” I spoke without looking at him. I meant the black pellets.
“It . . . hurts.”
“I know,” I said. 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 the days we had spent in the South. “You remember?”
“Wrote each day down . . . in my diary.”
He would never write again. Tears were seeping from his eyes. Those pretty eyes. The day his family received news that he was drafted, they panicked. Ethnic Chinese like him hadn’t been called up until then, when the North began drafting every male between eighteen and thirty-five. 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 center 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. The northern army was taken mainly from the countryside—the poor, the illiterate, the naive. The morning Huan was to take the army physical, he put iodine in his eyes. When I saw Huan’s eyes, I thought he was bleeding. 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 at his home. His younger sister said, “I saw him out crossing the railroad track.” “When?” I asked. “Short while ago,” she said. “To the market?” I asked. “I guess,” she said.
I headed out toward the track. He must be going to the marketplace to buy some eyewash, I thought. 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. The ties rattled. The horn wailed. The train went shussh-shussh, thunking and rumbling, the couplings clanked in the high-pitched clickety-clack of the wheels. It came up blasting its horn, roaring toward me like the blackest demon. Just then I heard someone scream. It died out in the rumble, but I could hear it. Huan’s voice. Like a 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. Quickly I took off my shirt, twisted it, wrapped it around his wrist. I tied it. Hard. My hands 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. The iodine trick didn’t save him from what he feared most.
I will never forget the pain that contorted his face. I said nothing. There was nothing to say. I hoisted him onto my bare back and started home.
“Tell my Ma and Pa . . .” Huan’s 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 ever came 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 no news was sent home. You can’t win the war with damaged morale infecting the people at home. The messengers of death came not from telegram but from the returning wounded who eventually reached the unfortunate families. To hide the most demoralizing picture of the war, the government quarantined 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. Two years in the South for both of us. I had once or twice thought of the day we would return home together. The thought was like a thief hiding in my head. The day I killed that thief, I stopped daydreaming. That day on the way South on the Ho Chi 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. I saw human bodies, alive and packed under the cover in mottled shades of green and brown. The wounded. Some had no legs. Some were burned by napalm so severely they looked leprous. Rain dripped on their limbless bodies as they slept. After the trucks came the stretchers. Sticks and bamboo slapped together. Lying on them were the blind. Some had no faces. We couldn’t greet them. They couldn’t see us. Some 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 moved past us, huffing and puffing. Rain-smeared sallow faces. Malaria-wrecked skin. They were all bones. So they headed home. Up North. I looked at them. I wasn’t afraid. Just queasy. We stood off the muddy trail, letting them pass. One day someone going South on this trail would look at me heading North. I might not then have a face. Or limbs.
Huan began to wheeze. Like he needed air badly. His hand on his thigh twitched. I got up to soak my handkerchief in the pouring rain. I wrung my kerchief and placed it on his forehead. 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 played on our nerves. Rain. The hunger that growled in our stomachs. Rain. There was no rice or grain left. Now we ate centipedes. Then earthworms after.
Now I saw his lips move. “Why . . . Giang?”
“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 . . .”
“You know what . . .” Huan’s voice came like from a ventriloquist.
“The dead men’s spleens . . . you took . . . will add to my karma . . .”
I heard every word. I thought about what I had done for him, the absurdity of it when, in the end, nothing worked. I had pled with the doctor who examined Huan. He pondered. He said there might be a chance, in 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. A dozen human spleens? I had felt bitter. I had loathed the miserable life we had lived. The venom had slowly built up in me but, then, 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. 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. 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 . . . anymore . . .”
I turned over the handkerchief. The side pressed against his brow was warm from his burning fever.
“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. “I swear.”
“Let me die . . . now.”
I clenched my jaw, staring at his emaciated face.
His eyes shut, his lips moved speaking soundless words. His odor grew. It got into my breathing, seeped to the root of my brain. I didn’t wince, didn’t reject it. The 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 took the kerchief from his forehead and went to the door of the hut to rinse it with rainwater. The cot creaked loud. I turned and saw him shaking from side to side, knees clapping, hands clawing at his stomach dressing. 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 my forearm. I pressed the wet kerchief hard against his nose and kept pressing it 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 for some time, like watching someone sleep. Then I 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.