A short story by Khanh Ha
Have mercy on the younger generation. Yes, Mamma. I remember those words you said in a letter. One hot afternoon here in IV Corps in the Mekong Delta, I stood watching the Viet Cong prisoners sitting in rows under the sun and none in the shade. Sitting on their haunches, blindfolded with a swathe of cloth over their eyes. Their shirts were torn, their black shorts soiled, their legs skinny. Most of them looked no older than seventeen, like those faces in junior high schools back home.
We have boys in our company, too. Mamma, have you ever had a good look at the faces in a crowd? These young-old faces that I’m looking at every day, I know them, but I don’t. Some, like me from OCS, and those from ROTC, The Citadel. Sons of dirt farmers. Fathers of just-born babies. Many of them will be in somebody’s home under a Christmas tree, gift-wrapped in a war-photography book.
Today I saw the new boys. They were lining up to get their shots along the corrugated-metal sides of the barracks. They stood shirtless, the sun beating down on them, the khaki-yellow dust blowing like a mist when a chopper landed – and shrouded in the yellow-brown dust, the boys looked like a horde of specters.
They stood shirtless, the sun beating down on them, the khaki-yellow dust blowing like a mist when a chopper landed – and shrouded in the yellow-brown dust, the boys looked like a horde of specters.
He was one of them. His name was Coy. A week later I made him our slackman. He was seventeen. How he got here, I don’t know. Maybe his Ma and Pa signed the papers so he could come here and die. Today is his third day in country. Now he left the line with two other boys, Eddy and Marco, walking together like brothers, one much shorter than the other two, past the Bravo Company tents, past the water tower where the local Vietnamese girls every morning would crowd together on the old pallet, washing the troops’ clothes in big round pails, walking past the wooden pallet now dry and empty of buckets, going around the cement trucks, the water-purification trucks, crossing the airstrip, and stopping at a row of three conex containers.
That boy Coy, Mamma, had a full scholarship to Duke University. He had big brown eyes. He still had pimples on his face. The way he smiled and looked at you, you’d never think he had ever left his boyhood behind. I asked him, “Can you navigate in the jungle?” He said, “Yes, Lieutenant.” I said, “Why do you say that?” He said, “I’ve never got lost anywhere I go in my life, sir.” I said, “Well, you’ll be our slackman when we go out next time. You’re Ditch’s replacement.” He said, “Where’s he now?” I said, “Gone.” He said nothing, just blinked. Those big brown eyes.
I heard a round coming over us. That long and thin mosquito-whine sound before it shattered. We all threw ourselves onto the dirt.
I said, “Your other duty is carrying the litter when we’re shorthanded. You think you can handle it?” He said, too eagerly, “Yes, sir, it’s an honor. I will never let anyone down when they count on me.”
Mamma, on that sultry afternoon he was 15 feet behind our point man, breaking a trail. I heard a round coming over us. That long and thin mosquito-whine sound before it shattered. We all threw ourselves onto the dirt. It went off, and I saw Coy’s back red with blood, for he didn’t hit the ground, and then I heard a crack of the rifle. It struck Eddy, who was carrying a machine gun to the left of our point man, and now Coy screamed as he ran to Eddy, and I don’t know, Mamma, if he screamed because he was hit or what he saw from Eddy.
Then there was a steady sound of machine guns. We were pinned down, flattened to the ground, the dirt in our noses, our mouths, until we could see the muzzle blasts of the guns hidden under nets of leaves, the white flashes in the over-foliaged jungle. We returned fire, machine-gunning them as we crawled for cover in the whopping sound, round after round, of our grenade launchers.
When it was over, the edge of the jungle once heavily bushed now singed and smoking and shorn white by our artillery shells, I went up the trail and heard someone say, “He’s done, go help our wounded.” Then I heard Marco, “He’s not done, damn it.” I saw Eddy lying on his back, and crouching over him was Marco, and next to him stood Doc Murphy, our medic.
Mamma, you ever seen grown men argue over a wounded man who was hanging on to his life by a mere thread? Eddy was my machine-gun man. Only five feet five, with size-ten feet, but he carried that 25-pounder proudly like a six-footer. The round had torn open his front, and he was gurgling like he was choking on his own blood. Doc and me, we watched him quake. Doc said, “He’s not gonna make it, no sir.” I yelled at him, “You’re not gonna let him die are you?” and Doc said, “I wish there was an alternative,” and I said, “Give him three cutdowns right now,” and we squeezed three blood bags, just squeezing and squeezing, all the while watching Eddy’s eyes as they rolled in his head and suddenly froze like marbles. When Eddy stopped shaking, Marco was still holding one of his legs, his size-twelve boot pointed away. Eddy wore size-ten shoes, but the Army had given him size-twelve boots.
“Where’s Coy?” I asked Doc.
“Sedated,” Doc said. “Over there, LT. Chopper’s coming.”
I went to the edge of the trail where the dirt was a darker yellow and dog’s tooth grass was a green-gray thick mat on which he lay sprawled, his head tilted to one side. A bullet had shattered his cheekbone, knocking out both of his eyes. His nose wasn’t there. Just red meat left. Had I never known him, I wouldn’t have known what he looked like before. He still had pulses.
Now Marco just held the boy’s hand, said, “You’re going to make it, you hear, you’re going back home soon.”
Then Marco and Doc came and sat beside him, and Marco whispered to him, “Coy, hey buddy,” and Coy’s head moved just a twitch, but it moved like he heard us or maybe it was just a reflex, and I said, “We’re gonna bring you through,” and I knew I didn’t mean that as I was looking down at his face, half of it gone, seeing the raw meat where the nose had once been, the pink bubbles rising and breaking from the cavity.
I didn’t want to turn him over, didn’t want to ask Doc about Coy’s back, for I knew it too was a sight to see. Now Marco just held the boy’s hand, said, “You’re going to make it, you hear, you’re going back home soon.” And hearing it I thought of his scholarship and his big brown eyes. We gave him more morphine. At first Doc refused to do it, then he gave in. Coy just lay there. If he had felt pain he didn’t show it. He was one of the boys I wanted to bring through. Now he just lay there like he wasn’t belonging. Just lying there, Mamma. Marco held his hand. Doc walked away. When I heard the chopper, the sound of its rotor pitch thumping over the horizon, I looked back down at him. He was gone.
I never cried when they sent me here. But that time when they took him away on a litter, I did cry.
Khanh Ha is the author of “Flesh” and “The Demon Who Peddled Longing.” He is a five-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, and the recipient of Greensboro Review’s 2014 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction.