Front Towards Enemy

Published in The Michigan Quarterly Review

(for Jeff)

…the fuck?
Guard, Martin. Ten minutes.
Huh? Oh, yeah. Thanks, Louis. He gripped the sides of his hammock and swung himself to the earth floor of the bunker…. I’m awake.
We’re on LP 3 tonight.
Right… He knew it was Louie’s responsibility, went with the territory, as they said, but it annoyed him, being reminded, prodded along like that, particularly by such a lilting, sing-song, little girl voice. It had been better before Louie’s promotion… Well, in some ways it had been better. Once, getting ready to leave the camp, the Montagnard had told him to make sure Moon Eater didn’t swallow the team while he was gone.
Moon Eater was the dragon superstition of the Vietnamese, never to be confused with Montagnards. Moon Eater could be frightened away only by consecrated firecrackers. Also, to cross water three times in one night meant contracting a repulsive and fatal disease.
If you could read my mind, love, he thought sardonically, addressing himself to the small, doe-eyed Montagnard, you would know why my voice last night sounded so apologetic.
Anything out there?
No. Only other carriers of capitalism.
Good.
His dream hung for a moment behind his eyes. A kind of film. He rubbed, and both the dream and Louie went away, as if by prearranged agreement. He yawned hugely, shook hiiself, and took the pair of dappled dark green and black tiger pants off one of the two hooks on the wall next to his hammock.
The dream had been about Sally. She had been pushing his mother, who sat stiffly in a gun-metal wheelchair. In that one image, he remembered more than he would have wanted. Usually, he came into this world, this twilight jungle zone, bringing nothing with him. A dead man resurrected.
He pulled the tiger pants on over his slim, hairless legs. Once, there had been a black and white movie in which somebody—Clark Gable?—gave his girlfriend a lecture about the different ways men got dressed.
Then came a black sleeveless t-shirt and another shirt of the same material as the pants. He pulled on white socks before sliding his feet into the canvas jungle boots, boots made heavy by the thin plates of steel in the soles. They were supposed to protect your feet against punji sticks.
He tugged a battered patrol cap on his head, buckled on a web belt and checked the equipment that hung from it—canteen, bayonet, flashlight, first-aid pouch and a length of blackened bicycle chain. Adjusting the belt around his hips, he took his M-16 off the other hook and walked down the row of hammocks… Lilies of the valley deck my garden walk/ Oh, don’t you wish that you could hear them ring? That will only happen when the fairies sing… Of all the mothers he knew or had heard about, she was the only one who had wanted girls and gotten boys.
Louie was waiting at the other side of the room. He handed Martin two small tins of gritty camouflage paste.
What’s the matter, Louie? Your hands too tired this morning?
Louie shrugged without looking up. You have been around long enough now to do your own, he said in his overly-precise, uncontracted English. Do a good job, though. It is bright out there.
Graduation, huh? But Louie wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t smile.
Martin took the tins and dipped two fingers in the larger of the two. He rubbed the dark green paste over his cheeks and neck. The second tin held burnt cork; he smeared that over his cheekbones and ears, avoiding any sort of regular pattern. Finished, he handed the tins back to Louis and submitted to his inspection.
You are learning, Louie said.
The voice was as neutral as water, the face as impassive as stone.
You’re being particularly inscrutable this morning, Louie, my man.
Perhaps. Louie’s expression was what a novel might have described as the ghost of a smile. –Perhaps… But until we are out there, everything must be the same or even more so. You are agreed?
Martin nodded. To the core, he thought. Aloud, he said, I am agreed.
His high school English teacher had said he was wet behind the ears. For him, as perhaps for the other boys who dreamed their way into what was called adulthood by staring out that second-floor window, she seemed to have been his only English teacher. He remembered her vividly, Miss What’s-Her-Face, remembered her under that name, remembered even how in some childhood book, “under the name” had been explained as meaning having a sign with your name on it poised over your bed. Or was it door?
He remembered her as Miss What’s-Her-Face because he had never, somehow, been possessed of an awareness of her as a face, as a person with, for example, eyes, kindly, stern, with glasses, otherwise. At first, she had only been a voice—a kind, bodiless voice, a voice that had set him to furious scribblings, bad poems about the wind in the pine trees. And then, much later, she had become all body, only body—a long, express-train faceless force of a body, a body that threw him off balance just by the power of its rushing by.
He and Louie pulled on their dark green gloves, then walked around the bunker and down a short slope to the first ring of accordion wire. The tall spirals of barbs were dark in the moonlight. Hung with tin cans, strips of wire, anything to make noise, as well as grenades, trip wires, and an occasional Claymore fastening. In his mother’s magazines, December people trapped in far-off places had used cranberries or hair ribbons to decorate their valiant Christmas trees.
Louie wrapped a soft cloth around Martin’s left hand and another around his own. he reached out delicately, pulling at a strand. Then, holding the wire, he walked slowly backward. An opening about three feet wide and two feet high appeared. Martin slung his weapon across his back and eased himself down, under the wire, keeping his arms tight against his sides and pushing himself forward with the minimum of side-to-side motion.
It wasn’t true that Montagnards never cracked, though. Last night, after all Partin’s teasing about his being “inscrutable,” Louis had finally said something other than “Perhaps.” Right before leaving the bar, he had turned and said, “It is my opinion that I can be most scrutable at times.”
Martin approached the kill zone with the sharpened consciousness he had come to expect. It seemed to him that he understood war better than he had ever understood anything before. School, for example, its patterns and its purposes. The first-grade teacher had told him to raise his hand when he wanted to go, and he had said How is that going to help?
When, as always, he turned to look, Louie, as always, had disappeared.
The tangle of wire had been anchored three feet down. It arched over and curved underneath him. He could feel strands winding through the hard soil. They pressed upward against the cotton-padded gloves that were supposed to protect your hands. Wire to the left of him, wire to the right of him—
He edged forward by pushing with his hands and feet against the dirt. He could feel his shoes digging in—CPC’s. canvas personnel carriers, the Special Forces called them. All SF jokes were private.
He passed a pair of ranked Claymores, curved, ledger-sized mines facing outward. He looked sideway at the Claymores as he went by, turning just a fraction to do so and remembering what Louie had told him, centuries ago: It is always advisable around here to watch where one is going. Do not look to the sides and never, never look back unless you are stationary.
FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY, the Claymores advised him… Steel and glass flechettes over a hundred yard area, one in every two square inches, each with the force of a high-powered rifle bullet.
Miss What’s-Her-Face had given them exercises in writing self-descriptions. You can learn something from everything, even if it’s nothing, his had begun. Even then, he had geared the most random of his jottings to future biographers, as if to say—There, you small-mouthed, small-minded, tinsel-balled bastards—Take that and that and that—
He rose to a low crouch at the inside rim of the kill zone. Resting on one knee, he looked over his shoulder. Louie reappeared right on schedule and lifted his arm. Martin ducked his head, looking for the guideposts that were supposed to lead you intact through the minefield. The dark red arrow at his feet pointed ahead and to his right. Still bent, he set off across the sandy ground. The second guide was thirty feet from the first, another arrow indicating a ninety-degree change of course. He did not stop moving. Another of Louie’s lessons. The second arrow led him to a small, round depression in the earth where he stopped again. He was almost in the shadow of the second ring now.
His college girlfriend had been a philosophy major who said marriage was better seen through a telescope than a microscope. Louie had said it was better to think than to feel. Best was just to react.
Squatting, he sighted to his left and picked out the head-shaped banyan tree. He sighted to his right and identified “the hooker,” a large white rock standing in the center of a cluster of strangle bushes. Keeping his bearings both ways, he moved at a fast, bent-over hustle into the shelter of the perimeter wire. There, he bent over even more and moved his head from side to side without changing the placement of his feet. The mines were planted thickest here, where the shadow of the wire could hide anyone coming through from the other side.
The civilian could always be identified by his greedy demand for the truth, the truth about the war, the country they had never been to, the club to which they had never been invited. Fixing you with their bloodless, bayonet eyes, they asked their questions and the points of those questions seemed to have been dipped in church tea as in curare…
Louie liked expensive French wine. He knew vintages like some Americans knew batting averages. When he got drunk, you couldn’t really tell any difference—he just got a little harder to figure. And sometimes, like last night, he would not only let you tease him, he would tease back.
Martin located two strips of tan cloth hanging from the wire, lowered himself againa dn very slowly slid forward.
They were blundering through the toy lands of these miniature saffron people like prehistoric water buffalo: they must expect, being Americans, to be punished, to die dramatically. But the dying, the getting killed he had seen was like getting caught with your pants down pissing in your mother’s flowerbed. Messier, was all.
The clearance here was less than eight inches. He held the M-16 in the crook of his arm, under his body, kept the other arm extended in front of him. “This is my weapon. This is my gun. This is for killing. This is for fun.” The Army’s idea of poetry.
He moved with gentle pushes of his feet, transmitted along the length of his body with a rippling motion. Even with a full moon, it was pitch black under the wire.
Last night, when some jerk had accused Louie of not believing in anything, he had looked at Martin before answering. “I believe in the most important thing,” he had said, as if talking solely for Martin’s benefit. “I believe in my own power to survive. What else matters?”
A bitter metallic smell gave an edge to the air. He could smell dust, his own cold sweat, the faint odor of long-decaying flesh. He guided himself by delicate feelings of his leading hand, left and right from one wall of the tunnel through the wire to the other.
He and Denise had never done more than what the books called light petting. She would have said it never became an issue between them. How was it with Louie and women, he wondered. Maybe there were no Montagnard women left. Montagnards were dangerously pretty by any standard: maybe the women had all been sucked up by the Saigon whorehouses.
At last, he saw a dim, milky blue glow ahead, filtering faintly down to him. he slowed, moving forward an inch at a time, with a three-second pause between each movement. Then, abruptly, his outstretched hand met sharp-edged wire—wire on every side, cutting him off.
In the dream, he and Sally had been in the snackbar. The room was full of trees that had anti-war posters instead of leaves. She was wearing a white dress which he knew had nothing to do with her wanting to be a nurse, but then she was pushing his mother in a wheelchair and they seemed to be coming at him down a slight incline, a kind of metal ramp or runway which was also a jungle path. His mother was making a kind of disapproving, clacking noise which at first he thought was coming from a sub-machine gun. But, no, she was just trying out for the part of Mother Goose in the school play and since he was her crooked son, it all fit, it locked into place like a metal bolt in a metal chamber. Sally wagged her hips engagingly, then cracked her gum at him with an I’m-forever-blowing-bubbles smile. The sound startled him but he aimed carefully, remembering how he had once thought medics wouldn’t have to use, perhaps wouldn’t have to carry weapons at all, only to discover they were given the best arsenal of all.
He continued moving the truck of his body until his face was touching his hand, an inch from the nearest barb. Squinting through the strands, he saw a small ditch. It was less than five feet ahead. He lay without moving until he had scrutinized every inch of it and assured himself that it was empty. Then he extended both gloved hands, placed them on the wire and pushed.
He aimed directly beneath the antique brooch that had been his father’s present to her on their twentieth anniversary and was not surprised to find that his weapon was made of cut-glass and shaped like a perfume atomizer. Lowering his mask, he sprayed the air with the gas they’d nicknamed Tanglefoot. His mother got up out of the wheelchair, shed the shawl he’d never liked, and wandered absentmindedly away into the jungle without so much as a backward glance at the tigers with enormous moon-eyes that followed her. The wheelchair lay upside down, wheels spinning. Slowly, the section of wire in front of him, a chunk about five feet long and two feet around, slid forward and rolled down into the slope and into the gully.
Watching his mother toddle away, Sally smiled a wider smile. She took a few little mincing steps toward him—they made her seem invincible. She was dressed in a short white cheerleader’s tunic: in one hand, she waved a baton; in the other, she held a bouquet of sweetheart roses. On her head was the homecoming crown. This time they’ve done it, he thought, but arraying all his weapons on the slight rise in front of him in a kind of musical keyboard, he found fingers enough to press all the triggers simultaneously.
He waited another ten seconds in the opening, bringing the M-16 into his hands. With his thumb, he pushed the selector to SEMI. Taking a deep breath, he slid himself forward into the gully, using the roll of wire for concealment. He came to his feet with the rifle at his shoulder and swung his upper body around in a semicircle scanning the ground, with the muzzle of the weapon following his eyes. Then he put the weapon on SAFE and slung it. Working quickly, he lifted the roll of wire and shoved it back into the opening in the vast accordion behind him. Every man for himself, and that included Montagnards, no matter how pretty.
At first he thought he had missed. Sally continued to smile as convincingly as before. But something unpleasant was stirring under the creamy white smells of toothpaste and deodorant. She smiled and smiled as though she were once again standing at the head of the class, in front of the teacher’s tank-like desk, as though she and she alone knew the answer.
He unslung the rifle, put it back on SEMI and set off, following the gully to his right along the tiger path toward the river. He proceeded through a route of gullies and depressions in the earth across the plain, until the firebase was finally lost to sight behind the tall elephant grass. He stayed bent with the M-16 at his hip, the muzzle elevated slightly but always pointing ahead. After about five minutes of cautious progress, he came to a gully that seemed straighter and more even-sided than the others. It was about forty feet long, the length of a long room, and seemed to end abruptly in an unusually thick clump of strangle bushes. He stopped in front of this and called softly.
But a small, very delicate floweret of blood had expressed itself in the center of the petalled white skirt of her tunic and it blossomed slowly into a cloud, into an avalanche—an orgasm, an education of blood.
Hey, Jim.
No answer.
Hey, Lulu.
The answer was little more than a whisper. Yeah…. It seemed to come from the center of the bush.
One comin’ in. Hold back.
You got a handle?
Lobo Two.
Come in nice and slow, Lobo.
He moved forward with exquisite slowness, weapon pointed almost straight up. As he approached the bush, a section of it was slid back. He ducked through, into a small semicircular concavity about the size of a restaurant booth. There were two men inside, the Thai named Chittatouk looking delicate and feminine next to the burly, red-bearded Harris. The bush formed a roof overhead but the surrounding plain was clearly visible through the vines. The walls of the listening post were shored up with sandbags. They held racks of flares and grenades and a PRC-25 radio, switched off.
She had failed and she knew it. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this, she held up a small white pennant of paper and read aloud in that woozy, sexy, always breathless voice, “For my poem, I have chosen to read ‘Tigers Have Eaten the Moon.’” That was all she found time to say before she was drowned in a babble of laughter, the laughter of children, which only a civilian would have confused with the laughter of idiots.
Martin nodded to the two and set his weapon against the wall. Anything going on, Harris?
Harris shook his head. Too damn bright. Everybody’s staying home tonight. He had a loud, gravelly voice. It was a testament to his reflexes that he’d survived this long with a voice like that. A Texas voice, too, from deep in the heart of wherever.
Fine with me, Martin said.
Harris and the Thai waited until Louie appeared, then slid out through the bush, weapons at the ready.
Martin picked up his M-16. set the selector on SEMI and laid the weapon across his knees. With his left hand, he adjusted the sandbags behind him. He waited until Louis had similarly settled down; then, still looking straight ahead out onto the moon-swept clearing with its scattering of strange, fragile trees—he extended his right hand slowly up and out from his side until it found the back of Louie’s neck.
Feeling as though he were a dog with a wild bird, he put his thumb on the near pressure point and the tip of his index finger on the far one… He stroked the hair on the nape of the Montagnard’s slender neck for a moment, marveling once again at the sleek smoothness it managed to preserve even in its close-cropped state, like the neck of an otter or some other small, water animal… The breathless moonlight night increased the feeling of being in an underwater burrow, sharing the warmth, the supportive darkness of the lair.
Still looking straight ahead, he said softly. “Louie, last night, I—“
“Shh.” The Montagnard’s voice was like tissue paper. Like silk.
“There are two times when it is better not to speak,” he said. “Two times. And now is both of them.”