All of human life is unending chaos and storm, interspersed with brief moments of calm. The belief that there is absolute good in the world depends upon one's subjective interpretation of the historical evidence, but too often that evidence is insufficient to make a convincing case and the court of passing time must go into recess...
THE POINT OF IT ALL
The wind was strong. It gusted fiercely under the heavily clouded skies, sweeping all before it with a disregard as ancient as the land itself. Above the lush green of the hill’s thicket of tangled growth the sky was hidden by a vast jungle canopy of interconnected tendrils. Except for the small circular break in the uppermost layer of the matted vegetation, the impression from below was one of an enormous green tent, growing translucent as the apex of the womb-like space soared above the disturbed soil directly below it.
Standing beneath the ragged opening in the roof of this silent natural cathedral, Nguyen could see the fringes of the gap shiver as the draughts of wind passed above. Her tall, slender figure paused at the edge of the dome’s living wall. After a moment of silent contemplation, sensing the powerful indifference of the torrent of air beyond the uppermost treetops, she allowed her gaze to fall back upon the hollow’s blackened crater.
A violent intrusion, at once unnatural and out of place, had occurred here nearly 18 years ago. The thick, palpable feeling of it seemed to fill the empty space before her and seized her imagination with ghostly hands. Even the animals and birds, normally oblivious to any disturbance after the merest of brief pauses in their noisy activity, remained unseen and unheard in this strange place. Nguyen thought she could detect the faint odor of burnt oil, but it was at best nothing more than the hint of an aroma blended into the rich mix of earthy smells produced by the jungle’s growth and rot.
She had been told of this place by her mother for as many years as she could recollect. From the moment she had been capable of understanding anything at all with her childish awareness, she could recall the disapproving conversations of her aunties and the strange way they had of looking at her mother when she repeated these things in front of her only child. Their looks, she remembered, had seemed curiously to reflect both sadness and condemnation.
Nguyen was tall for her age, with large curious eyes and a disturbing way of gazing questioningly at people. With her lustrous, dark hair braided into the long queue that her mother wove for her, at such times she appeared deceptively youthful and willowy in the simple ao dai she dressed in. As if expressive of her serious, reflective inner nature, she had a habit of hugging her arms to her chest when considering something. To some her gesture suggested an instinctive need to reassure herself that she was physically here and not somewhere else. Now, confronted by the objects enclosed within this silent cone of vegetation, she gripped herself in this unconscious manner as she surveyed the scene, eyes wide and hardly daring to break the absolute silence with the small sounds of her breathing.
In the center of the hollow, all but completely covered by 17 years of jungle growth, were the mangled remains of some large war machine. Nguyen had seen enough airplanes flying over her village to recognize the remnants of an aircraft fuselage, its smoothly rounded sides split open like a burst wintermelon to reveal twisted internal structural members. Contorted beyond recognition by the violence of a crash, scattered bits and pieces of it were dark with stains and oxidation, but sections of the original faded camouflage paint were still visible here and there in the subdued sunlight. What fire there had been on impact had apparently blown itself out shortly after the explosion, but the flash- blackened area, though small, remained barren. Nothing now grew upon that part of the jungle floor which had been scorched by this man-made fallen star after its fiery descent from the heavens.
Stepping closer, delicately, Nguyen studied the quiet scene. If her mother’s story were to be believed as something more substantial than mere fable, this wreck was the only other remaining trace of her father’s earthly existence....an all but forgotten relic of his fleeting presence in this jungle, long gone. Her wide eyes softly drank in every detail of the sight confronting her as she brought back the details of the story her mother had told her so many times in the past.
The front part of the airplane (or what had once been one) was somewhat more intact than the rear of it and her gaze was drawn to the large, empty space on its upper surface which was surrounded by shards of yellowed Plexiglas canopy. There were cables hanging from it now, intermixing so strangely with creeper vines and other natural growth that it was nearly impossible to tell one from the other. The explosion’s flame had not touched this area from what she could see. Directly above this part of the wreck hung the circular entrance to the air spaces above the jungle, through which the plane had originally come screaming in, almost 18 years ago. She tried to form a mental image of that moment, when the broken machine had had wings, a tail, and had flown through the air like a metal bird of prey, bearing her father in its sharply pointed beak. It was a strange thought.
Her father, so her mother had said, had been a pilot. Not just a pilot, but an American pilot, tall and well built and also....her mother had told her....a handsome pilot. Thinking about this, Nguyen remembered that her grandmother had also found the pilots of the great Asian War very attractive, during the early years of the Viet Minh resistance. 'Dashing' was the word she had used.
Nguyen stepped back from the metallic wreckage and squatted down so that she could gaze across the whole clearing. A handsome American pilot... What must he have looked like, she wondered? How had his voice sounded? Did he smile with his face, or with his heart? Or did he smile at all? The questions crowded each other, saturating her thoughts like the heavy Monsoon rains as she strained to recall the conflicting details of the stories told her by her mother and her aunties.
Her mother had said he was a good man, a wonderful man. She said that she had even seen him cry once—although Nguyen could not even imagine such a thing as tears coming from the face of one of the rough and sternly domineering men of her own village. She sighed, wrestling with the contradictory thought. He must have been a most unusual man, for her mother had hastened to tell her that this had not been a display of weakness in him, but rather that he had been stricken with grief over his involvement in the war, 18 years ago—a burden of terrible sorrow which she had never explained further or gone into.
Nguyen meditated upon this. First about her mother and then about the story. A mother who would become with each retelling, filled with obvious emotion, expecting her daughter to attend without demanding deeper explanation—as if the tale were something which revealed itself in the listening. A mother who the other villagers told her she took after so much in appearance, thought and gesture. The mother her aunties had clucked their tongues about and waggled fingers at so frequently each time she began telling Nguyen the story, starting off as if it were new and had never been told before. And a mother who she knew had always been so quietly proud of both her beauty and her Chinese ancestry.
Squatting on her thighs, sandals jammed into the soft jungle loam, Nguyen reflected on the melancholy enigma who was her mother. She had once been a very beautiful woman, everyone had said, with long, slender and shapely limbs joined to a figure that was the envy of all the village women. She could have easily had her choice of any man in the village, according to gossip. Her hair, as dark and silky as the soft fur of the panther’s underbelly, she habitually wore in a single long braid down her back as she worked in the village paddies. Her battered Kalashnikov automatic rifle slung in the crook of a nearby tree, she always pulled the straw hat carefully down over her eyes to protect her face from the hot noonday sun, according to Mother’s Third Auntie. With her fair face and comely bottom, many an idle village man found an excuse to pass by while she bent low over the rice and rudely speculate on the charms which the shapeless, thin cloth of her garments did not manage to hide well enough.
There had been many things about her which had set her off from the rest of the villagers. Not the least of these had been her education in the missionary school. Precious enough among the people of the village, where any education at all was usually rare and costly, she had impressed the teachers with her keen mind and quick grasp of subjects. Working under the hot sun in the village paddies she stood out, with her tall, willowy gracefulness and long legs, from the other, drabber women.
At that time the Viet Cong had been operating more actively in the province, and one day her silhouette had caught the eye of a young NLF cadre passing through the village. He had returned later, inquiring about her. Upon learning of her exceptional abilities, he had arranged with her family to recruit her for political education and training—despite her being a mere woman—and had taken her up north with him to Hanoi for 6 months. The trip had been hazardous, but her mother had finally returned to the village fit, healthy, and browned by the sun, possessed of a serious new look on her face after her studies of the 'people’s struggle.' Second Auntie had said you could see the unnatural flames of National Liberation Front idealism burning in her intense eyes, where before there had been only peaceful reflections of Wah with the simple village routines. Nguyen paused in her ruminations to wonder what this looked like, for she had never seen anything in the dully glazed eyes of the dreary village women but weariness as they labored to take care of their families and the endless field work. Her aunties had said that education, for a woman, could be a dangerous thing, but Nguyen had her doubts.
Not long after their return from Hanoi, the young cadre, who had helped cultivate these new political awarenesses in her mother, had been caught in an ambush by a squad of ARVN rangers some kilometers east of the village and Nguyen’s mother had thereafter taken over his work as the village’s political educational officer. Sometime after this she had learned of his death under questioning by the ARVN soldiers, but had banded her heart with the steely strength of her belief in the cause of liberation. Like the soldier she now supposed herself to be, she had not shown any emotion at all upon hearing the news of his torture and death.
Thus had her life progressed, submerged within the senseless savageries engaged in by both sides. As the war progressed, the village passed back and forth between the NLF guerrillas and the ARVN like a worthless prize zealously fought over by fanatical gamblers in a crazed lottery, rewarding both victor and loser with nothing but misery. For years the war continued in this manner, as did the ageless rural routines of the village, interrupted only by the pointless battles which punctuated their coexisting rhythms. There was no such thing then as concern for past, or future. Only the present had even remote meaning for any of the villagers. Most had merely regarded Nguyen’s mother as an unavoidable nuisance—a politically 'emotional' person who they usually ignored in the midst of their more pragmatic daily struggles for food and shelter. All except the men, however...who even burdened as they were with the terrible deprivations of the war could still smirk at each other over her more obvious attractions. The irony of such exceptional beauty, managing to survive amidst the horror and ugliness which surrounded the village, was utterly lost on them.
Finally, Mother’s Fourth Auntie had told Nguyen, the long anticipated Tet Offensive had struck with vicious surprise against the Americans, rising like a great poisonous snake from underfoot. The NLF had come out into the open for the first time in waves supported by regular NVA soldiers, to sweep through the countryside. But after the shock of their offensive had diminished they had ultimately been beaten back, leaving only more death and desolation in their wake. With the subsidence of their initial victories, the village had been plunged into a thicket of skirmishes as the reeling ARVN forces responded with a new threat: the introduction of American aircraft to strafe and bomb the countryside in support of the South Vietnamese troops.
It was on one such day, when Nguyen’s mother, alone and at some distance from the village in the aftermath of the Tet, heard the distant scream of planes approaching. Unslinging her AK, she quickly crouched among the growth at the edge of the paddies to take cover from the danger. Gazing out beyond the line of trees, she managed to catch sight of a group of four Intruder aircraft coming in at low level, wings laden with the horrible eggs of liquid death that was napalm. Seized with fury, she wildly fired off the whole clip of her AK at the center aircraft as it passed directly over her, giving vent to a surge of impotent outrage. That it was a hollow, futile gesture was certain, but at least it had been a positive response of some kind, and better than enduring the exhausting emptiness of helpless inaction. She knew instinctively that it was little more than the act of a defiant mouse cornered by a large and hungry cat, and yet she had fired at these demon planes with a murderous rage that surged forth from sources deep within her which were primal and beyond her understanding.
As the planes screamed overhead she had ducked back into the thicket, but not before noting, thunder-struck, that her bullets had apparently hit something! The center airplane was streaming a thick black plume of smoke from one of its two exhaust pipes, its turbines howling with mechanical indignation as it streaked away from her. Almost immediately after it disappeared from sight she heard a strangely muffled explosion, followed closely by another larger booming sound. The watery verge under her sandals shook briefly as the earth heaved from the detonations , then subsided.
Since there were no more airplanes to be heard or seen, she had carefully emerged from the growth and peered in the direction the planes had departed in. Not too far from her, a roiling, greasy column of smoke was visible emerging from the trees on the low hill-side a thousand metres distant from the napalm scorched target. Just beyond her vantage a whole section of the paddy fields was covered with a blazing sheet of flame, and a hundred metres above it, and still borne on the wind, a small figure hung suspended under a large camouflaged parachute canopy! She had actually managed to shoot an American plane down with little more than a popgun and her raging indignation! The American pilot had ejected and was coming down almost directly on top of her!
Her intellect vaguely resisted acceptance of the reality of what had happened, but her body’s reflexes had already leaped beyond mere thought. Leveling the gun, she slapped the spare clip taped to the AK’s magazine into its action and ran forward to capture this Yankee air pirate who now symbolized everything she hated about the enemy’s imperialistic war.
The updrafts created by the blazing napalm had blown him away from its inferno and a few seconds later the pilot thudded heavily to earth beneath the chute, struggling with the shroud that covered him and hid Nguyen’s mother from his sight. A firestorm of emotions briefly shook her, but taking a second to reassert control, she stood with the AK aimed at the center of the nylon shrouded mass, believing herself fully prepared to kill this dog at the slightest provocation. Recognizing the bizarre contrast of her outwardly brave behavior with her undeniably nervous inner state of anxiety, she wondered what the pilot would look like. A brute? A murderer? A baby-killer? What sort of monster would meet her eye? What kind of demon would thoughtlessly incinerate whole villages of helpless people on the ground with liquid fire? The sweat on her hand made her finger slippery on the crude metal trigger of the heavy Kalashnikov as she confronted her fears.
The pilot managed at last to cut through the entrapping parachute fabric and emerged awkwardly from the canopy’s folds like a monstrous silkworm from its cocoon. That part of his face not hidden by his helmet was bloody and he staggered forward almost into the muzzle of her weapon. Shock registered in his unsteady posture, and he held his right hand absently to his helmet, as if checking to see whether his head was intact and still on his shoulders.
Wiping the blood from his eyes and seeing the gun aimed at him, he sat back stupidly, snared by the parachute harness that had ironically delivered him safely to earth only to hold him firmly captive when confronted with imminent capture. The surprise of their encounter lingered only a split second before Nguyen’s mother reacted, yelling at him to get on his feet while gesturing menacingly with the gun. When he complied slowly, still trapped in the nylon shrouds, she signaled with a flick of the AK-47’s barrel for him to free the harness, indicating that he was to turn and walk away from the discarded parachute with his hands over his head. Motioning him roughly to walk in the opposite direction of the wrecked aircraft’s column of black smoke, the muzzle of the AK pointing all the while at his back, they were safely away from the site before the first enemy aircraft came rolling in from the east in an attempt to locate the downed pilot.
For some time they traveled in this manner, he stumbling forward over the uneven ground, her following grimly, resolute, determined, but also wary and considerably frightened. After an hour, they stopped: he had indicated that he could go no further without a rest, and they had encountered no others, neither villagers or VC. They were by this time near the shade of some hillside trees on the edge of the jungle growth, though still far from the village. As he sat, she watched him with restrained hostility, squatting somewhat apart from where he rested. After observing him in this manner for several minutes, she threw her corked bottle at his feet with some water in it for him to wash the blood from his eyes and off his face. It was an afterthought which she came automatically to her and which she really couldn’t explain...he was, after all, a murderer....
As he swabbed some of the clotted blood away, she was shocked to find that he was not much more than a boy....tall, large, and strong....but a barely grown-up boy, not much older than she. He was speaking what she decided must be English to her, and of course she did not understand. After he had cleaned up his face somewhat and put a bandage from his survival vest on the scalp wound, she found to her further amazement that he was a very handsome boy, despite the bloody superficial cuts and gashes. His features were Chinese, and his dark hair and eyes, though disheveled and still bearing some bloody residue, were striking, she reflected with some surprise.
The shock of the crash was obviously wearing off, leaving the American pilot once more in possession of his senses and therefore—she reminded herself—doubly dangerous. Still, this was not the image of a blood-thirsty vandal she had expected to find...and possibly to kill. Immediately upon thinking this, the political inappropriateness of these thoughts overcame her with a flash of brief shame and once more she leveled the gun at him, grunting for him to rise. Confronting this moment of womanly weakness with the admonishment of her confused emotions did not quell the feeling, and she tried very hard to regain her former sense of anger as they made to move out.
She was about to motion him on again when he turned to face her and asked calmly in recognizable Cantonese dialect, “Are you Chinese?” She was stunned! He was speaking words she clearly understood, but it was not possible for a Yankee to say what he had said! She glanced quickly down at his feet, as if the sight of them would help reassure her that she had heard what her ears thought they had heard. His scuffed black boots, braced on the solid earth beneath his undeniably real presence, were not much help in convincing her that this was in fact actually happening. It was a trick!
He spoke again, “Do you speak Chinese?” This time there was no denying it. He was speaking fair Cantonese dialect, although with a peculiar accent. Was it not a dream? Still numbly disbelieving the evidence of her own ears, she shook her head slightly to indicate she had heard him, but kept the AK’s ugly muzzle aimed at his stomach.
“Where are we going?” he asked. Still confused but determined not to let this cloud her thinking, she decided finally not to speak to him and motioned him on again. It was a trick he was playing on her, surely, this knowledge of Chinese! She could not help but wonder abstractly about his use of a language she understood all too well.
Gun at his back, she poked its barrel at him to move again and was about to follow him, expecting him to comply. Suddenly his hand shot out, grabbing the muzzle of the AK and swiftly twisting it away from his back, wrenching her wrist as he did so. With his greater strength, now recovered from the crash, he had disarmed her in a moment of catastrophic indecision! Shocked to find herself his prisoner now, she glared at him with disbelief clearly etching the handsome lines of her determined face. Her moment of pause had been her undoing! She had been trapped by her own careless breech of emotional discipline.
“Sit,” he now commanded her in Chinese. She squatted as he ordered, no longer in control. Slinging the weapon muzzle down over his shoulder, he squatted across from her at a safe distance of several feet. “I am not going to hurt you,” the American said, again in Chinese, “but I need your help. Are you Vietnamese? You look Chinese.”
Nguyen’s mother, still dumbfounded to hear this American speaking relatively good Cantonese dialect, finally responded: first to her senses, then reluctantly to his questions. “Yes, I am Vietnamese, but my family are Chinese. How is it that you speak as you do?” she ventured, her training and caution momentarily overcome by irrepressible curiosity. He was not the image of the horrible demon she had expected to meet—but then, she reflected quickly and with some irony, she was not a typical VC woman either. Swallowing this thought, she studied him, his prisoner now.
“My family also came from China....from Hong Kong. I was raised there. We moved to the US just before I started college.”
He had been watching her carefully, appraising her as he spoke, alert to any sudden move but confident and calm in his manner and not betraying his fatigue. He had already decided that she was no ordinary Vietnamese villager, and had also guessed that she was not just an unexpectedly pretty woman but an intelligent and educated one....not the sort of peasant he had expected to find at the trigger end of a gun, despite her black outfit and careful absence of expression.
His hand probed his left temple. “My head still aches a bit. It’s too far from the crash site now to expect a quick rescue and we need a rest before continuing. Just before the crash I caught a single string of tracers coming up from below the plane; they must have hit the one of the engines...blind luck! How many more of you are out there?”
Nguyen’s mother hesitated, sensing that she might successfully employ a lie to help her situation; imaginary VC might be as valuable to have around her as real ones and she had nothing to lose. “I think it was my gun that brought you down, but the others are very close. They know where you came down and they are searching for you as we speak.”
The American looked at her with a clear look of cynicism in his expression. “Well....there’s little choice but to...” He let the statement dangle, unfinished. Shifting the Kalashnikov into his left hand, he motioned to her with it. “Come closer, turn around and kneel down.” An electric tingle of alarm shot through her at this and she stared hard at his face to read the meaning of these words, her heart fluttering slightly with fresh new fear.
"Relax." He read her anxiety in the brief slip of her composure. “I don’t intend to hurt you.” She glanced at his face. He was smiling.
He had brought a length of nylon cord out of his vest then and tied her hands together, lashing her ankles in a similar manner and joining them to the wrist bonds before running a line around her neck and fixing one end to his left wrist. “You might as well relax, we’re going to rest here for a while. It won’t be comfortable, but I can’t leave you loose, obviously enough.” The bonds he placed on her wrists weren’t tight but there was not enough slack in them to permit thoughts of slipping free of their constraints. It took a great effort not to let her mind run loose with worry, and she lay quietly for the moment, scrutinizing him.
Shifting the AK across his lap, he gazed across the few feet of clearing beneath the overgrowth at her, the look of fatigue now showing more clearly on his face. She watched as he brought out his emergency rescue radio and attempted to call out on it, noting that it appeared to be visibly damaged. It failed to elicit a response. Reaching into another pocket on the survival vest, he pulled out a bar of tropical chocolate, glancing about in all directions to reassure himself of their temporary safety. Finally he turned back to gaze at her, noting her eyes as they followed the candy bar to his mouth. “You’re a damn beautiful woman for a VC. What’s your name?"
She hadn’t answered, but rather stared blankly back at him, her frustration over being captured by an American she herself had shot down embarrassing her as she sat helpless and bound before him. His question had sounded harmless enough but she felt an increasingly chill surge of fear rising from her gut to her throat as his eyes roamed frankly over her body. The precious chocolate was forgotten in an instant.
Without expecting a reply, the American continued, more to himself than to her, “Fucking-A lousy, stinking little war this is.... I didn’t come over here to kill civilians and simple peasants, and yet here I am, brought to earth in the middle it by a gorgeous VC woman who obviously regards me as some kind of a mass murderer. Back in the States I have a family....probably not too much unlike yours here....brothers, sisters, mother, father, lots of cousins, uncles, aunties. Believe me, it wasn’t my idea to come here and drop bombs on your people! I just want to fly. Flying’s my passion, not killing. I would have had my commercial airline ticket by now if it hadn’t been my lousy luck to get caught up in this worthless fucking war.....” He paused, listening to the sounds in the dense thicket before turning back to her and continuing. “You really hate me, don’t you?....can you understand what I’m saying to you, woman?.....it wasn’t my idea to come here.”
Separated from him by the few feet of the clearing in the thick undergrowth, Nguyen’s mother was indeed listening to him carefully, wary of his Asian appearance and uncertain of this unpredictable American pilot in a blood-stained flight suit who spoke Chinese. She reflected on it for a moment, struck queerly by the fact that it was his own blood on his hands. As he continued to talk, the slight chill of her fear subsided a bit and she took a closer look at him. His face was very Chinese, his eyes, skin, his dark hair.....she reflected on the irony of a war that placed two people of similar ancestry at bitter ends of a horrible contest of wills. For what purpose? He could be her older brother, she thought, or...and she paused again....her lover....if it were not for the powerful political struggle that swept all personal considerations aside. Leaving that ironic thought suspended in her mind, shocked for even considering it, she caught him saying once more, “You really are a beautiful woman...I wish you would tell me your name.” The thrill of fear floated through her again as she noted the look on his face. It was a mix of things: a residue of shock, fatigue, hunger, frustration, and what?...a suggestion of lust?
The long night finally passed, with the first rays of the dawn glowing pink in a narrow band of sky that separated earth and the grey clouds overhead. Each of the two had drifted off from time to time during the night out of sheer weariness, but the rest had been brief and elusive as the thick vegetation’s nocturnal population of small animals, snakes and birds came alive in the black depths of the small, close hollow, creating an uncomfortable background quotient of additional anxiety. At least there didn’t seem to be any of the woman’s VC companions nearby, the American had satisfied himself with some relief. Nguyen’s mother, for her part, felt he had suspected her lie about the others from the onset. Before the sun was fully up, he rose, shaking off the remnant of the fitful night. It struck her that he was watching her carefully, conserving his motion the way a mongoose might while fixating a cobra before seizing it.
Alarmed, she concentrated on his movements as the morning sun filtered through the heavy undergrowth, outlining his form. Was he really such a depraved person, she wondered? Was her political indoctrination correct in insisting that the enemy had no human scruples whatsoever? She had long since had a suspicion that all was not as it had been made to seem to her, once the enemy had been revealed and reduced to a personal encounter of some intimacy such as this. He seemed intelligent, gentle; he was obviously educated, and he shared her ancestral heritage...even though he was a person she should have hated. Again, the futility of the war with all its incomprehensible madness flooded in upon her, drenching her with the nauseous awareness of its conflicting paradoxes and insoluble contradictions.
The humid night had left her hot and sticky, her garments wet and uncomfortable from being unable to move throughout the long darkness. He caught the intensity of her gazing at him and spoke to her in Chinese. “Look, I’m going to untie you, but I want you to agree not to try to escape. Do you understand?” He placed his hand on the Kalashnikov to emphasize his meaning.
Nguyen’s mother stared doubtfully at him. Some hidden sense filled her with renewed anxiety as he moved towards her across the small cleared area in the foliage.
He crossed around so that he was kneeling just behind her. The moist warmth of the Vietnamese night had pressed her thin garments to her body, revealing the swell of her breasts and hips. She sensed him behind her, studying her body. Momentarily fascinated by her long dark braid of hair, he hesitated before gently grasping the sinuously thick braid at its root. His other hand reached around her waist and came to rest on the bonds which joined her wrists. Despite the heat of the jungle, she felt the warmth of his hand upon the soft, protected skin of her inner wrist and then the strength of his grip upon her upper arms. “You are so beautiful...,” he murmured. Once more, as it had when she had lost the gun to him, her heart began to flutter. Bound and tied up like this...all of her NLF political strength and resolution were now doubly cursed, betrayed by her 'gift' of woman’s beauty, and reduced by it to a graceless jelly of primitive fear and helpless apprehension.
Her brief feeling of intense self-disgust dissolved instantly as he slowly turned her to face him. She saw, glittering without pretense in his eyes, what she had feared ever since she had become his prisoner....she was going to be raped. The sick realisation washed over her with the force of a torrent.
As he pulled her head back toward his she caught the scent of his sour-sweaty maleness and felt an dread, unreasonable sorrow for this person who has going to do this to her. It occurred to her that if she were very lucky, she might survive the assault, although she knew what the outcome of such an attack would be had it been a common ARVN soldier who took her in this way. It was, however, only a faint hope, for she had heard all the stories about what the enemy did to captured women.
And then, maintaining his grip on the thick braid of her hair, he cut the cord binding her ankles. Using the braid as a sort of harness, he forced her knees apart and pushed her bound arms out in front of her. A fleeting urge to resist surged within her, but what good would it do...out here...alone...and tied? Weakly, her spirit utterly drained, she sagged to her knees, aware of his hands as they untied her shirt, then pulled her pants down around her knees. It amazed her that he was gentle in doing this—not ripping her clothes from her body in preparation of doing violence, but undoing them carefully, almost reverently. The preposterous nature of this thought flickered insanely through her mind and then guttered as his hand cupped her breast.
From behind, as her pants fell free, she felt the heavy warm morning air bathe the heart-shaped cheeks of her vulnerable and exposed rear. Her small but firmly rounded breasts, revealed and sweaty beneath her chest, stood free. Absurdly, in front of her, she noticed a brilliant purple flower standing by itself among the growth. A large bee was darting in and out of its succulent, crescent-shaped orifice. She felt his hand cup itself again around one of her breasts. Then a brief wave of hysteria swept over her, and she trembled, waiting in this position for her fate to overwhelm her.
Pushing her head down and forward, legs splayed widely, the American took her from behind, thrusting himself into her dryness with shocking fullness. But not rudely, not violently, not brutally. She gasped at his enormity as he gripped her buttocks with gentle force and penetrated her, finding to his amazement that she had never been touched by a man before in this manner...or any other. He seemed to overcome his momentary surprise at her maidenhood then, and oblivious of her sweat and dirt, he had actually kissed her neck and caressed her body with what felt to her like tenderness. Wordlessly, he continued, seemingly unmindful of the potential danger surrounding them. His rape of her seemed the rape of a vigorous lover, as she might imagine it, not the emotionless rutting of an animal. Although she had tried to feel nothing—summoning up the paper courage of political, idealistic convictions to distance herself from the shame of his forced intrusions—she found herself, for more than a fraction of the moment, swept up in feelings and emotions never before guessed at or even imagined. It was no good, she found herself thinking, to deny that there had not been some insanely delirious hint of dangerous pleasure mixed in with all her fear. It was an exotic, fantastic mixture of wildly contrasting emotions which coursed through her mind and body throughout his insistently forceful mounting of her. Before long, after enduring long minutes of his thrusting, she strangely found herself losing some of her fear and abandoning herself sacrificially to ancient instincts and emotional urges utterly beyond her ken.
Finally, she felt him shudder, his hot flood of explosive wetness filling her. She slumped, still impaled upon him and aching slightly. He had finished with her and now she must prepare to die; with any grace she could summon, if that were possible...
Waiting for the feel of his sharp blade upon her throat, she tensed, all her senses suddenly alive and the adrenaline rushing within her once more. She knew what the chances of surviving a rape were for a woman who had been used this way by the enemy...gentle or not. A captured woman was abused and then destroyed....there could be no alternative, and certainly no mercy from the hated enemy. Not even from one who was so strange and different.
She felt his hands release their steel grip on her thighs, shivered as he withdrew himself, dripping and still engorged, from her moist recess. Determined to turn and confront her death, however it might come, she dared to look at his face. She was startled to find him squatting beside her, spent, sweating, but with a strangely soft look illuminating his familiar-but-foreign eyes. “You are so beautiful.” He spoke the words quietly, with a low, gentle quality in his tone which was a shocking thing to discover coexisting within the terrible threat of death that his act of domination represented to her. “Do you hate me for this, beautiful woman?”
He placed his hand on her face, and caressed the smudges of dirt from it. She was stunned by the wholly unnatural experience of it. It seemed a dream, truly. Could this really be happening? Were she dead and in another universe, it could not have seemed more strange...yet not entirely disagreeable. “You will not kill me?” She managed finally to eject the words that struggled to form on her lips.
He laughed with a consuming foreign humor that was apparent on his face, “No, my beautiful one, I will not kill you. How could I kill something so beautiful? Would I kill my own mother? Or my sister? Or my lover? No, I told you I wouldn’t hurt you. Have I been so hurtful?”
The cold grip of raw fear had left Nguyen’s mother just enough to allow her a flash of rational reflection that he had not hurt her much after all—except for some tears and painful moments upon his forced entry into her unprepared maidenly parts. It had not been painful as much as it had stirred her with strange, dangerously primitive feelings, long smothered and repressed by the brutal realities of this war, with its constant reminders of ever present death.
She contrived to force the vestige of a shy smile, still uncertain of his motives. “That’s better,” he said. “And now I need your help to find my own people. It’s long past time to get the hell out of here and return to safety.” Reaching out, he inspected her freed ankles but left her wrists bound. Cramped from the long hours of being bound and thrown off by the unreal tumult of sensations which had smothered her wits during his taking of her, she struggled to rise, falling briefly back to the ground. Seeing this, he helped her up, having refastened her clothes about her, and almost tenderly brushed back a few dusty strands of hair from her face. “My god....you are a lovely creature,” she heard him say.
It was then, as he looked searchingly into her unreadable eyes and holding her at arm’s length, that she reacted. It was the work of a second to grab his unsnapped survival knife from its sheath with both her hands and swing wildly out at his face. An anguished scream, welling from deep within her, cut the stillness as sharply as the steel blade bit the air.
The surprise written on his face was immense as the sharp point of the carbon steel knife connected by pure chance with his throat. The blade caught him just below his chin and cut far into the windpipe, ripping the carotid arteries on both flanks as the stroke finished its slashing arc through his trachea. The blood that sprayed out drenched her fully with a horrible, sticky rain of his crimson life fluid. As he staggered backwards, propelled by the tiny dynamo of her pent-up power stroke with the knife, his eyes bulged with disbelief.
It was all over in a flicker of the eye, and he had not even made a sound. The shock was upon her then, as she saw what she had done. He lay sprawled on the ground at her feet, the blood still pumping out of the frightful gash in his throat. Exhausted, stricken with horror, she fell nearby, releasing the knife as she tumbled down and quivering with a mixture of rage, passion and pure adrenaline. Shortly afterwards she collapsed completely, wrists still bound, and fell into unconsciousness.
It was some time later before she awakened. Finding the strength to saw through the bonds on her wrists, she searched absently about for something with which to remove some of the thick, dark clots of blood which coated her. Finally, she left the American pilot where he had fallen, his flight suit coated with his own blackly coagulated blood and the ancient, red Annamese soil. The tawny Chinese features of his face were amazingly unstained as the jungle midges swarmed upon the gaping wound in his throat. Wiping the knife’s blade clean on the pilot’s flight suit and gathering up her strength, she set out to find her village with the AK-47 slung in place over her slim shoulder. With a last blank gaze at the grotesque ruin below his handsome, boyish face, she swung about unsteadily for home. As the tall grass of the fields parted before her with each step, a single disjointed thought burned itself stupidly into her mind: his eyes had had tears in them
Nguyen’s thoughts were distracted from her meditation on her mother’s story by a single ray of random sunlight, as it chanced down through the dense green foliage overhead, illuminating part of the ruinous metallic wreck before her. She stood, scrutinizing it carefully. There appeared to be some faint and weathered writing below the shards of Plexiglas on the forward, upper part of the overgrown fuselage. Standing, she ventured towards the sunlit metal panel, the shuffle of her footfalls the only sound breaking the heavy silence.
There were indeed words there, although written in something other than her familiar native language: Jason Wong, 1Lt...a name in English? According to her mother, this had been her father’s airplane long ago. Was this his name? She wondered about this as she looked toward the rear of the shadowed relic. Her mother had said she had loved her father very much, that he had been a kind, gentle and sensitive man. And a handsome American pilot, as well. Nguyen remembered the silent tears which would always come into her mother’s dark, empty eyes whenever she repeated these things to her daughter.
Puzzled greatly by all of this, and no closer to being able to understand any of what she had been told by either her mother, or her aunties, Nguyen glanced up again at the hazy grey clouds which swept over the hole in the foliage above. She meditated a minute on her own self, the meaning of her life and her being here. What was the point of it all? Who could possibly understand any of this, let alone what the whole world of experience which surrounded her own life was all about? She decided the Buddhist priests of the nearby retreat were correct after all....there was no meaning in any of these things. It was simply all a darkly humorous and very strange riddle to which there was no apparent meaning. The only thing she was certain of was the fact that she had herself been born some nine months after her mother had returned from some duties outside the village, and that her mother had—from what she had been told—never been quite the same ever again. Even her forever-disagreeing aunties had agreed upon that fact.
That, she told herself, was over 17 years ago, during a war which was now history. All she was left with now were the stories of her mother and her aunties, this relic of an airplane that must once have brought her father here, and the uncertainty of her private thoughts. Nothing she knew about them seemed to make the slightest sense whatsoever, in combination.
Pausing by the cockpit of the aircraft to take a last look at the overgrown tangle of wreckage before her, Nguyen pulled the rusty old survival knife from her waistband and placed it carefully on the instrument panel behind the yellowed canopy shards. With a start, she saw the rusted blade of the knife seem to become dark and red, and glancing upwards, felt the first heavy drops of rain cascade through the gap in the trees overhead....‘Buddha’s tears’, the bonz would tell her.
Nguyen stared at the knife for a moment as the moist rust changed the blade to a sinister ochre shape on the wreck’s exposed console. Then, with a brief shiver, she turned her slender, youthful woman’s form away from the wreckage. Hugging her arms to her maidenly breasts, she retraced her foot prints through the humid maze of jungle and back towards the entrance to the hollow, as the deluge of warm Monsoon rain began to pour from the ruptured clouds above.
“Good-bye, Father,” she whispered to the stormy winds sweeping above the silent grove. Looking up at the gray expanse of clouded sky, she added: “My mother loved you.......”
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|Reviewed by Lisa Adams
|excellent narrative - as I was taught, a good writer describes a picture; an excellent writer paints one with words.