It had just turned dawn when Minh came out of the tunnel. The rain that had been falling all night had finally stopped, but the water was still dripping off the trees and the soil was muddy and so soft that his feet sank in almost up to the ankles. Minh took off his hat and wiped his face with the rainwater, letting it trickle into his eyes. He had not slept well, and the water cooled his burning eyes and forehead.
Around him the trees crowded like sentinels, and Minh always felt very small here in the forest. He felt that the forest resented him, personally, and that the trees sneered at him from all sides, like malign entities. Of course he would never admit it to anyone, not even to the other two members of his cell. If he did, they would merely laugh at him.
He was only sixteen years old, with a mop of black hair and prominent cheekbones. His lips were slightly too small, so that he always looked as though he was smiling, In three years he had been a schoolboy, this had got him into trouble with the teachers more than once. But that was a long time ago.
He walked down to the stream and plunged his arms into the muddy brown water, rubbing it over his head and face. His black pajamas were sticking to his body with a mix of rainwater, sweat and the mud of the tunnel, and he considered washing them in the river water, but there was no time today for that.
Across the muddy river, three egrets were pecking at the soil, probing busily for food. Minh watched them for a little bit, until there was a rustling to his right and Dung appeared. Dung was older, tougher and the leader of Minh’s cell. He stared at the boy with barely concealed disgust.
“Birds,” he said. “You watch birds. And we are supposed to be fighting.”
Minh shrugged. He had no particular desire to say anything, knowing that Dung would more likely than not ridicule him. Wiping his face on his checked scarf, he turned to go up to the tunnel.
“The Americans will come today,” Dung shouted up at him, “and you’ll still be watching birds.”
Minh said nothing. He felt intimidated by the others, because they were older than he, and because they had seen real combat. They had even fought the Americans.
He stooped low to enter the tunnel. Although he was small even for his people, the tunnel was constricted for him, and in the darkness he had to be careful not to bump his head on one of the supporting beams. He went down into the connecting tunnel and up again into the third tunnel, where the arms were. His carbine was there, carefully wrapped in sacking, and he took it out and cleaned and oiled it. There was the light of a kerosene lamp, but he could have done it in the dark, blindfolded. He had done it before.
On the other side of the little room, near the sacks of rice, Thanh sat, carefully priming grenades. The grenades were American, bought from the South Vietnamese soldiers on the black market. Minh thought Thanh was very pretty, and it made him extremely shy with her and blush when they were together. That was why he tried not to look at her or talk to her any more than he had to. He had a sneaking suspicion that Thanh knew exactly what was going through his mind and that it amused her mightily, but, of course, he could never ask her about it.
There was a scuffling noise in the passage and Dung entered, his hair wet and dripping. He looked around quickly. “A runner has just come from the village committee,” he said. “The Americans landed by helicopter on the other side of the river. Didn’t I tell you?” He slotted a magazine into his AK 47, the only automatic weapon the tiny village militia possessed. “We have to delay them as much as possible.”
Minh looked down at the SKS carbine. He dared not look up because he knew well enough that both the other guerrillas would be watching him. Mechanically, he made the weapon ready and got up. “Now?” he asked.
Dung and Thanh glanced at each other. “When else?”
They went down the slope in single file, quickly and carefully. Twice, Dung knelt to disengage spider-strand-thin trip wires connected to landmines, and after they had passed, he wired them up again. These mines were of great value. If the wire was pulled, they would bounce up from the ground and explode at waist height. One could slice an American leg off at the hip.
Minh walked along behind Thanh, looking at the ground. He had a metallic taste in his mouth, and wondered if it was fear. More and more, with every step, he was sure that he was afraid, but he could not say of what. Perhaps it was fear of combat, but a lovely girl like Thanh was already a hardened veteran, and as for Dung – he looked quickly up, under his eyebrows, at Dung. It was common knowledge that Dung was due to be sent to join a main-force regiment, a big step up from a part-time village guerrilla. Dung would never be afraid, whatever happened. Certainly he would not be afraid of a fight.
No, he thought, what he was probably afraid of was screwing up somehow. He knew well enough that he had no combat experience; not real combat experience. On two occasions he had accompanied raiding parties that had gone out at night to the American bases down in the valley, and both times he had fired off several bullets in the darkness at random, in the general direction of the American perimeter, but that was it. He had never even seen one of the Americans he was supposed to be fighting.
Minh had not wanted to join the National Liberation Front, not really. But there had been little choice. The village had nothing any more, no functional school since the teachers had left, no chance at an education, nothing. The Front at least offered some hope, the other boys had said, and they had joined, one after the other, when the village defense committee had been formed. But Minh had not joined.
Not, that is, until –
Dung held up a hand suddenly, and then pointed. They were at the crest of a low hill. Before them the forest petered out, and they could see quite a long distance, down to the valley and the broad rice paddies. Still quite far away, Minh could see a string of tiny dots. One had to look carefully before one could be sure they were even moving, but, unmistakably, they were coming this way.
It was the Enemy.
Minh lay in the hollow beneath the old fallen tree, waiting.
From here he could see down the slope of the hill, all the way down to the paddy fields below. The paddy fields were flooded and ready for planting, but no figures were bent over, busily working, the war had seen to that.
To his right, somewhere up the hill, were Thanh, and beyond her, Dung. The cell leader had already gone partway down the hill, right down to the edge of the forest, and planted a couple of mines. Now he waited, like the others, and watched.
Minh tried to keep absolutely still, as he had been taught in training. He watched a tiny orange centipede run up his arm, over it, and down to the ground again. The centipede had its own affairs, and knew nothing of the fighting. The centipede was lucky, he decided. Then he thought that someone could crush it beneath his foot without even noticing, and he wondered if it was lucky at all.
He still remembered the time he had gone down to the city with his father. They had never reached the city, because the road had been blocked just beyond a village where they had stayed overnight, where his parents had relatives. And so they had turned back, planning to stay in the village till the road was opened again. But they had never reached the village either.
Minh could still remember the sight of the American planes, like tiny silver arrows that had fallen out of the layer of cloud, and the napalm canisters that had tumbled from under their wings like eggs. The eggs had slanted downwards towards the thatched roofs of the village and blossomed like great yellow and orange flowers, and even though Minh’s father had grabbed him and pulled him into the drainage ditch at the side of the road, Minh had been able to see the smoke rising into the sky, and above the roaring of the aeroplane engines he had been able to hear the screaming.
Two days later, he had joined the village defense militia, and become part of what the Saigon puppet government derisively called the Viet Cong. Not even his mother had objected.
Minh shook his head and tried to concentrate. There was a humped black rock, just short of the paddy fields. Minh thought it looked like the back of a water buffalo. He had herded water buffalo as a child, and even now, he took them out when he was back in the village. He had one particular favorite, a great black bull, docile and friendly for all his immense size, called Dai. He wondered what Dai would do if something happened to him. Who would take care of Dai and who would graze him?
From there his thoughts drifted off to the village, and the tall black rock that stood behind it. Legend said that the village had its own guardian spirit which lived in the rock, and if the village was in danger, the spirit would defend it. The National Liberation Front, of course, discouraged such superstitious beliefs, but after watching the American planes bombing his uncle’s hamlet, Minh thought that in the event, the village would need all the help it could get, from whichever source.
It was oppressively hot, and Minh’s eyes began to sting from the sweat dripping down his face. Carefully, he reached up and wiped his brow. His hand was still at his forehead when, from behind a tree not far away, a man stepped out into the open.
He was very big, and looked even bigger with the equipment he wore, helmet and backpack and bandolier full of magazines. Minh stared at him, his heart hammering. It was the first time he had seen an American close up, and the enemy soldier looked even bigger, even stronger and even more intimidating than he had expected. Also, he had no idea how the man had come up the hill without his seeing him. All that was alarming enough, but most alarming of all was that the soldier was black. He had no idea about black men. He had never even been told if a black man could be shot in the same manner as a white man or a Vietnamese.
Minh carefully put his hand back down and pressed the carbine’s butt against his cheek. Through the rifle sights the American soldier’s face jumped into focus. He was close enough that Minh could see his eyes, swiveling from right to left, and sweat running down from under the green helmet. Then it was that Minh realized that the enemy soldier was afraid too, and with the realization he felt a little calmer.
He took up the slack of the trigger, and squeezed gently, aiming at the exact centre of the black soldier’s face. The rifle kicked hard against his shoulder, and he blinked reflexively from the bang. When he looked again the American had vanished, as though he had never been. From up the hill he heard Thanh firing too, her carbine cracking, and then a long continuous rattle as the Americans opened up with a machine gun from down the slope. Someone was screaming wordlessly, and then he heard the unmistakable sound of Dung’s AK firing. There was a tremendous explosion and things went whistling through the branches overhead. Shredded leaves and twigs rained down on Minh’s legs, but he still could find nothing to shoot at.
Something smashed into the fallen tree above Minh’s head, and he felt the tree move. For one moment it felt as though it would roll backwards and crush his back and hips beneath its weight, but it settled back into place again. Another terrific blast, so close that it jolted through the ground and hit his chest, driving the breath out of his body. And still he could find nothing to shoot at.
The screaming was now thin and high and continuous, stopping only to draw shuddering breath. All the shooting seemed to be coming from the enemy side now. Minh had no idea what had happened to Thanh and Dung. He wanted to get out from under the log and crawl back away from the shooting, but with the machine gun sweeping the trees he was safer where he was. Thinking he saw movement somewhere down near the buffalo rock in the paddy, he fired a couple of shots. The noise was so great that he could not hear his own carbine.
Suddenly everything was silent. The shooting had stopped. Even the screaming had died down into a moan, and then even that stopped. Minh lay where he was, and from the corner of his eye he thought he could see men moving in the jungle around him, and he thought he could hear foreign voices. He lay very still and hoped he would not be seen.
A long time afterwards, he was sure they had missed him. He then crawled out from under his log and stood up. His clothes were soaked and muddy, and he thought he had urinated in his trousers, but there was no way to be sure. It no longer mattered anyway. He looked around and – crouched over and stiff – moved up the slope to where the other two were.
He found Thanh first, or what was left of Thanh. He did not look at her long. The sight of what had happened to her made his stomach churn. Just beyond her, Dung’s corpse was still hanging from a tree where an explosion had thrown it. His eyes stared at Minh, accusingly. How had he, the cell leader’s dead eyes asked, allowed the Americans to get so close?
Minh shook his head. His ears still rang from the shooting, but his hearing was finally returning to normal. He slung his gun over his shoulder and began trudging up the hill towards the village. He saw the booby traps Dung had placed, the tripwires still undisturbed, and gave them a wide berth, automatically moving off the trail and back again. The sweat dripped down his face and the gun on his shoulder weighed him down.
He walked all the way up to the tunnel. The Americans had passed this way, he saw, because the marks of their boots were deeply imprinted in the soil, the earth crumbling between the treads. When he reached the tunnel, however, there was no sign that anyone had been there, so he ducked inside. He crawled back into the second room, where Thanh had been priming grenades, and sat down to rest. The grenades were still there, and he picked one up, turning it over in his hand over and over again.
He had been there a while when he heard the noises outside. The Americans were here at last, then, at the entrance of the tunnel. He moved to the back of the room. There was a trapdoor there, which led to a communicating tunnel that in turn led to a hidden exit in the forest. He crawled into the tunnel and to the end of it, hearing the Americans coming down the tunnel, slowly and noisily in the darkness. They were too large for the tunnels, and there was plenty of time for him to escape and hide in the forest.
Then he thought again of the imprints of the American boots in the soil outside, and he saw the silver dots diving through the clouds, napalm dropping from them like fire from heaven. He thought about how Dung’s eyes had looked at him. And then he thought of Thanh as he had last seen her, naked and disemboweled. He thought of them and listened to the Americans crawling down the tunnel. And then he chambered a round and waited, crouching in the darkness, for the enemy to come to him.
The tunnel was dark and narrow, and inside the earth, the earth, above which all the things grew, and where the wind blew and the rain fell, the earth, where all the good things were.
Bill The Butcher’s newest fiction reminds us there are two sides to a war.