Chapter One“What happens in a moment can change a lifetime,” Clayton mumbles to himself as he rests his elbows on his knees and looks down at the handcuffs lacing his arms together. He remembers his introduction to Miro, the Japanese war hero he met after his tour in Okinawa, and he remembers Miro’s wise sayings. He remembers wishing he had had similar offerings from his own father rather than avoidance and criticism. He feels the sun awakening discomfort on his skin. His bflond hair is almost white from months in the tropics. He touches his chest where his name tag, PRATT, would be, and realizes he is out of uniform. His olive drab T-shirt is stained from his travels and his arms and face are burned. He looks to the floor to avoid the tropical early morning glare as it shimmers through the ceiling high airport windows. He raises his eyes and squints across the landscape toward the horizon. The sun is low as it creeps above the Mount Pinatubo highlands and casts distinct shadows over the stranded passengers. The shadows take on the hue of the sunshade tint that is impregnated into the heavy glass. The sky is clear and blue, with no hint of the recent havoc that hit the air base.
He looks out the window again and blinks hard, once, twice, three times. His brain is clouded and his ears ring. He smiles to himself as he remembers Miro’s suggestion, “May you always stand in the shadow of the truth and not be blinded by the brightness of the lie.”
His glasses are loose as they try to slide down his bloodied nose. Have I been blinded by the lie? He wonders as he raises his handcuffed wrists to push his glasses in place. His side aches from the almost deadly swipe Jack took with the Igorot dagger.
Down to the bone, he thinks. He cut me down to the bone and into my side. A Jesus wound; I have a Jesus wound. In the Nam, this might have gotten me a ticket home.
Clayton tries to remember what happened. He touches the tender area gently. He rubs his finger across the wetness that seeps through his shirt.
He remembers a samurai sword, its bone grip balanced in his hand. It swung easily as he plunged it into Jack’s Adam’s apple, into his voice, to stop this menace in his tracks.
He remembers Tiwala. “You killed him,” she screamed at Clayton. “You killed my Jack…Now kill me!”
No. I wouldn’t, he thought. Not Tiwala. I know that. I love her…But I killed a boy. He was just in the wrong place. It happened, but it seems so long ago. He tripped the flare on my watch.
Now Clayton’s unreliable brain struggles with the truth. It wasn’t my fault, he tells himself. It seems so long ago.
He remembers the whooshing of the flares and the sudden brightness. He remembers how he instinctively spun his M-16 in the direction of the invader. He remembers that he was afraid. He remembers that he was edgy as he waited for the worst, and angry that he was not prepared for war.
His weapon, on automatic, stuttered with bursts of 22 caliber tumbling death. Perimeter guards on either side of him followed up with volleys. Their tracers cris-crossed the area he had fired on. More flares went up. Then, except for the hissing sounds of the burning flares and the ringing in his ears, there was silence.
The air smelled of phosphorous, sulfur and gunpowder. For the next two hours he stared into the mist, taking shallow breaths and suspecting every shadow of insurgency. As morning pulled back the darkness he walked over to look into the dead enemy’s face and gloat with a resolute sneer.
My first kill, he thought, as he leaned over the damp, musty smell of recent death and discovered what was left of a child of ten or maybe twelve. That interrupted life was severed at the waist and looked like a melted red Halloween candle. His eyes, jammed wide open, stared at the sky. His mouth, frozen in a scream, was filled with dirt and grass. That boy became a statistic. That boy became a body count. That boy continues to live behind Clayton’s eyelids and goes with him everywhere. He drinks to that boy.
And now Tiwala is gone, Clayton realizes. Was she my Magdalene? he wonders.
He can’t focus. His memory is a blur. He’s had too much rum, and he’s about to drown in his own reflection as he attempts to see himself beneath the surface.
What is my purpose? He queries. What are my motives? What directs me through this minefield of life? Am I nothing more than an observer in this universe?
His luggage is a wet, crumpled overnight bag. The starched and spit shined GIs give him a wide berth as they move about him and by him. They look at him sideways as though he doesn’t exist. They keep moving until a tall, young soldier stops and looks directly at him. He glances at Clayton’s white armband and turns toward his traveling companion. “Prisoner,” he says before he turns and looks at Clayton again.
Clayton glances around the air terminal
and then looks at his distorted reflection in the glass of a cigarette
machine. He’s dressed in blue jeans, sandals, and a dirty olive drab T-shirt.
“Fuckin’ deserter, I bet,” quips the other soldier.
“Prob’ly,” the observer remarks. “Let’s
go.” And the two soldiers leave.
Midnight till pre-dawn in Vietnam during the span of a waxing three-quarter
moon was like an old movie. There was enough of a silver glow to whitewash
everything in a corrosive coat of make-believe light and uncertain shadows.
Sand, with its own grainy quality, dispersed the light unevenly. The effect
was much like a bad photograph that had been over enlarged.
I’m supposed to alert everyone, he
realized, and he ran to the compound. “Incoming, incoming. Everyone take
cover. Everyone take cover,” he shouted as he banged on the doors. He pushed
through the rows of bunks and found no one. Where is everyone? he wondered as
he ran to the bunker.
“I don’t know…Yeah, barely, but look at his
head. Look at the blood. We need a medic…Who’s got the phone?”
Clayton avoids the eyes of the passing
soldiers as he sits in the terminal and he vaguely remembers lying in a
hospital bed. He is unsure of where or when, only that he heard someone speak
in slow motion.
Again, How do I know her? He thinks but his mind
is at a dead end. The answer is, he does not, but he returns to thoughts of her
and then to thoughts about the children; the urchins he met whom had been
grabbed up by the vultures of the night; by Fear. He thinks of the young bodies
to be sold and molested by deviants who crouch in narrow darkened alleyways. He
mourns the damaged memories of youth, theirs and his own, memories invaded by
the owls of civility that ride the warm currents of life to steal the soul of
childhood. These depraved killers of serenity that rifle precious puberty and
devour the spirit. He sees the image of that pleading child in Alangalang,
sunken black thumbprints for eyes, her gaze fixed on an uncertain point behind
him; an unreachable point. Her skin shines with a sweaty film, but inside that
sweaty skin lives a cold, cold child, a “House of the Rising Sun” child. That
child is him.
Late March was filled with wet as Clayton
worked the flightline by day and guarded the perimeter by night. There was no
drying out. His body wrinkled and his skin peeled. Rain streamed from the
forest overhang and the tang of fungi invaded his nostrils with a jolt.
Three-hour stints of perimeter guard had Clayton lying in frog giggin’
stillness to become one with the elephant grass, the mud and the darkness.
Rain splashed from his jungle hat to his jungle rot booted feet. It collected
on his brim, rolled down his cheeks and off his chin to drip quietly on the
undergrowth. He imagined it heading to the Perfume River to find its way to
the South China Sea to float the gun ships that were manned for war.
Clayton left Father Mike and huddled with a dozen robed penetentes as he waited for act one to start. He wanted to laugh out loud as he scanned the crowd. He was elbow to elbow with his compatriots, who also wore charcoal faces. Closer to the church steps were the makeshift Roman soldiers. They were surrounded by toga clad masses and a mix of observers in straw hats or holding umbrellas. Others just fanned themselves with handkerchiefs, fans or pieces of cardboard.
Clayton looked up toward the bell tower and
was blinded by the midday sun as it excised the tower, overpowering his vision
even with his hand shading his eyes. The sky was white with heat and not a cloud
was visible. As he turned his head away from the sun, he realized he was on the
crest of a hill. His eyes drifted to his right until the sun was directly behind
him and he looked over some low treetops and across a turquoise bay that sat
calmly in the distance. The bay blended into the sky on the horizon. There was a
hook of land to the left that edged into the water and pointed a sandy finger at
a small island several hundred yards to the right. The island was lush with tall
foliage, so green that it almost appeared to be dark blue in the undergrowth. He
wondered if he was looking toward the coral reef that sank the pirate ship and
gifted the church with the golden bell. I could live here, he thought.
Clayton woke up to the sweet smell of jasmine
incense and the sound of Eartha Kitt singing, “They said some day you’ll find
all who love are blind When your heart’s on fire you must realize smoke gets
in your eyes…”
Clayton was lying under a pile of dead bodies and he couldn’t move. He was having trouble breathing and there was water all around him. He couldn’t find his glasses and couldn’t see where he was. The bodies were slippery; no, they were in body bags. He squirmed to free himself of the heap and tried to run through the rice paddies, but it was in slow motion and he still couldn’t breath. Suddenly he was on the top of a hill trying to make out the details of his surroundings. He was naked and he had a piece of paper with instructions written on it. He stared at the paper, but couldn’t focus on the words. He was now behind a wall looking out at a swamp and Viet Cong advanced toward him. He could barely make them out without his glasses and then he realized that he didn’t have his rifle. Soldiers around him were shooting, but the enemy was not falling. Now he had a rifle, but it wouldn’t fire. The rest of the troops around him were gone and the Viet Cong came over the wall and began to pile on him. He still couldn’t see much other than forms as they piled on top of him. He couldn’t get a good breath. He was suffocating under their weight.
Clayton opened his eyes as he forced a deeper breath. Someone was on top of him. He stared into the eyes of what looked like a girl. Tiwala, he thought. How? Was this all a dream? What’s going on?
He focused more clearly on this person, this girl, who he now realized was naked and straddled his chest. She wasn’t Tiwala, and she had a straight razor in her hand. He remembered drinking half of his rum last night before he found a Jeepney to take him to town. He never remembered getting there.
“A soldier ain’t some ground pounder out
there sprayin’ bullets in a volley of ‘mad minutes,’ with no clue if he’s hittin’
something or not. It ain’t perimeter guard. It ain’t droppin’ bombs or napalm on
a village. A soldier lays and waits, sometimes for hours hunting them whose
huntin’ him. Hours on the ground, or in a tree or on a ridge with his M700 bolt
action ready for the shot. It’s one man with one twenty-cent bullet set for the
kill. A soldier got to gauge the distance, the moisture, and the weather. A
soldier takes out one gook from 800 yards with one shot and lays fear in the
hearts of a thousand others. They’re afraid to step into a clearing. They
desert. That’s a soldier. That’s a sniper. That’s me. I got a hunnert and
seventeen confirmed and a shitload unconfirmed and killin’ one more wouldn’t
make me no nevermind.
go back home