South Vietnam 1967
Phuong sees water spill across the red earth as she pulls herself out of the three-foot tunnel shaft. The fallen rain spreads across the bed of leaves on the forest floor. She feels the water too as it trickles onto her black pyjamas and blots the black and white scarf coiled about her neck. There was a time, her Saigon years, the time of liaisons with journalists and diplomats, when stains would have mattered. Now she fights like those she envied—with knife and gun. It is ten days since she last climbed up to the ground, and she welcomes the sweet dampness, her senses overwhelmed with light and air. She has reached the surface and has found the land under which she has hidden—her land, land of her ancestors and of her birth—to be fresh and crisp in the early morning sun. She blinks in the sunlight as she swiftly pushes the trap door closed and rearranges the foliage on top to conceal the entrance. An American soldier might stride right over it without detecting it. A Vietnamese puppet-soldier would know but walk on: he would not venture down into the dark to have his throat cut by his countrymen.
The scream that has lain within her since the road to Ba Ra rises to her throat. How she would love to let it free, to feel it sail on the wind across the trees, releasing her from her shame.
But she must be silent. She straightens and, with her cherished AK47 slung over her shoulder, runs across the open ground, swiftly putting distance between herself and the tunnel entrance. A soldier, she knows that she must be sacrificed (her great sacrifice already made) rather than endanger the tunnel. Yet the tunnels are not as important as the supplies and material concealed in them. The storerooms house weapons, food, and first aid equipment that were acquired at great cost. Even so, they would be abandoned to save the fighting force still below. Her comrades are awake beneath her feet, mending garments or weapons, assembling booby traps and bombs, whispering together. Some, like her, are natives of Cu Chi district, descendants of those who first began to burrow into the strong red earth to evade their French overlords. Some have come from far away to a part of Vietnam that is strange to them, ordered here by their superiors in the north. Although the people of Cu Chi died in great numbers during the struggle against the French, they would have fought for another thousand years to regain their land. Only the land itself is indispensable; it is the essence, to be preserved whatever the cost, nurtured by the blood red water.
She reaches the cover of the trees and crouches, gun ready, listening intently. She hears a rustle amongst the leaves. Someone with greater stealth lays waiting: Kha, her ten-year-old messenger boy.
“Phuong,” he whispers, only that he may say her name. Kha’s devotion is the closest she will ever be to love now. He thinks her beautiful, though her body has been whittled down to muscle and sinew. Today, her complexion is more pallid than usual because she has lain in the underground hospital for over a week while the injury to her thigh healed. The wound, made with a switchblade, was long and deep. SurgeonTin took the time to sew the jagged flesh neatly together again with precious cotton thread and the sharpest needle he could find. The neat bluish scar has begun to itch.
Kha looks at her adoringly. The only females he knows are peasants and fighters. All have roughened hands and grimy nails. None wear the ao dai. No colorful flowing slit tunics, just shapeless garments identical to the men’s. Some have scars and burns, and there are worse wounds he knows, that adults speak of only in whispers. His own mother clawed her way out of the rubble when the B52s came, flying so high they hit without warning. She survived until the thickened petrol, the napalm bombs. Kha saw her burned to oneness with the bodies of his brothers and sister.
He gestures to Phuong to follow him. She smiles, draws close and touches him briefly on the shoulder before they move off together through the trees. The political cadres would disapprove of that touch: it speaks of affection beyond the cause, of a loyalty that might prove awkward or even disastrous were woman or boy to hesitate in abandoning the other in battle. Phuong touches because she is no longer commanded to touch. It is her gift, a sign of freedom that she carries with her as she speeds through the forest where once, when she was Kha’s age, she played under the watchful eye of her older sister Lan.
However cautiously Phuong and Kha move, the forest responds to their steps with the hiss of snakes and the flash of wings. They make their way through thick undergrowth to the nearby village. The women have risen and are feeding the livestock. They see Phuong but do not acknowledge her. They do not need to look at her scarf to know she is VC. Phuong is as familiar as the morning sun. They knew her as a child; only her whereabouts in the years after her father’s death and Lan’s sudden leaving are unknown to them. They avoid eye contact because any hour the Americans might come demanding to know when they have seen Charlie. Better to tend the pigs and perfect the art of the blank stare.
Phuong finds the man who goes by the name of Chot and, with Kha waiting outside, receives her orders. Though Chot reveals nothing about himself, she knows from his accent that he is a northerner. He slurs his vowels as Heng used to do, and he reminds her of her Saigon controller in other ways too. He is abrupt and brutal, but his left sleeve hangs empty at his side and she guesses he nurses his grievances until they hurt in the same way that he rubs constantly at the stub of his arm. He cannot like leaving the action to her—today her orders are to lure the enemy into an engagement to delay their assault on the VC stronghold of My Tinh. The intelligence is, as always, detailed. Chot’s contacts work within the American base. Last year, an important man visited the base to entertain the young American soldiers. He made one joke that so delighted the VC that many of the barbers, cleaners, and cooks carried it back to the tunnels. As he stood on the stage, the big American said, “We’re so close to the fighting we had to give the Viet Cong half the tickets.” How they laughed in the tunnels at the notion that they needed tickets.
Chot did not laugh at the joke then, nor does he smile at Phuong now. There is no small talk, no good luck, comrade. He refuses to recognize her as a woman or as a fellow human being. She is merely functional; his orders require that tomorrow she stand in the way of American tanks. These rasped instructions are more welcome than endearments. He demands only that she risk her life.
She leaves Kha in the village sharing the villagers’ breakfast. She smells the manioc boiling and knows there will be salt and sugar, even sesame seeds to accompany it. They would share with her too, but she will not take from them. She has her daily ration of cooked rice wrapped in a cloth and, anyway, she wants cleanliness more than food. On the outskirts of the village is the lake where water buffalo stoop to drink and by their hooves chickens wander in the mud, seemingly oblivious to the mighty creatures above them. On the far side of the lake is shelter, with trees overhanging the water, their roots twisting and coiling above the shimmering surface. There Phuong discards her clothes and slips in. She dips and glides, then floats on her back. Finally she rises up and walks towards the lake’s edge, coiling her hair to squeeze out the moisture. She retrieves her clothes and plunges them in the water, rubbing and squeezing out the worst of the grime and sweat. There’s no time to dry them in the sun. She must dress immediately and return to the village for Kha, fresher than she has been for weeks, the thigh wound no longer irritating. She glances at the mottled scar on her arm. The wound was inflicted long ago when circumstances forced her to tend it herself. She covers it with her tunic then picks up the leather strap for her wrist. Replacing it affirms her as a soldier once more, for the crude bracelet is there to enable a comrade to drag her body if she is injured. Maybe it will be to haul her to safety and medical care, but if duty demands, her comrade will pull her out of the way and abandon her. This she knows and accepts. She picks up her rifle and returns for Kha.
He follows her out of the village. She will instruct him on the messages he must carry before the operation begins the following night. They travel through patches of dense vegetation, tall trees, and then through the sharp thick elephant grass taller than them both before they reach a patch of open ground. Phuong sees something glinting in the sunlight. She was about to step on that very spot. She carries the map of the mines in her head and knows there should be none here. It is a pristine Coca-Cola can. Kha prods it gingerly with the sharpened punji stick he carries. He’s watched in the workshop as such objects are being booby trapped, but still he’s drawn to touch it. His comrades might have laid it there to trick a foolish American, or the beautiful vessel might have been discarded carelessly by the enemy. Phuong has told him that Americans are so rich they can do this, but secretly he wonders why those who have such means need to plague his land. Why do they fight to take Vietnam when they refuse to drink its water? Kha scoops the Coca-Cola can up on the punji stick before Phuong can stop him. It is empty and, for a moment, he is any boy idling his time in the sunshine, but his face clouds as Phuong grabs the can. The GI who threw it away could be close at hand, and he will not be alone. She pockets the can and gestures to Kha. Alert now, they track the Coca-Cola drinker and his comrades through the disturbed grass.
She senses rather than hears the patrol, and then they come into view. They are intent on their own task. She knows them to be tunnel rats—specialists in finding and destroying the tunnels, but not so expert that one of them has failed to leave a trail as obvious as a billboard on a Saigon boulevard. These men are smaller than most Americans, shorter than Pyle and slighter than the blacks that her comrades fear cannot be killed with bullets. They have found a tunnel entrance and the first, a wiry man with red hair, disappears quickly in. Phuong raises her gun. Five men are left on the surface. If her first shot kills one of them (she already knows which will be first, not the one with the sergeant’s stripes, but the most dangerous—the murderous looking one) then she has a chance of killing the other four. Kha with his punji stick will be little help unless they meet in close combat. Even then, if they “take the enemy by his belt,” Kha will be easily overcome, for the men are small but more powerful than the ten-year-old boy. Killing these men is not her mission. They are a distraction. Chot will be displeased if she fails to carry out her orders tomorrow because she has been injured in this encounter. Yet six men invading the tunnel complex will wreak havoc. She thinks of Ngoc, who had pains yesterday that might be the start of labor. If she has at last taken to bed in the underground hospital, she will be unable to fight. Phuong thinks of her diminutive friend with her rounded belly lying in the chamber hung with American parachute nylon and decides. Kha tries to read her expression, surprised at her inaction. He expected her to fire by now.
Still she waits. Another man eases himself down into the tunnel shaft. Phuong gestures to Kha. Realizing what she means, he tightens his grip on the punji stick. Another GI descends. Phuong mimes to Kha, in case he has misunderstood, but now he shakes his head. She pulls his punji stick from him as the fifth GI, the bulkiest, struggles into the hole. There is only one man left on the surface now, and by chance it is the murderous one, the one with most trophy scalps slung on his belt.
Holding the punji stick like a spear, Phuong watches as he eases himself into the shaft. When he is shoulder-deep, she rushes forward, silent, implacable, and plunges the stick into the man’s gullet. It skewers him, emerging through both sides of his neck. He gurgles first, like a child about to cry, then shrieks and goes on shrieking, clutching at the stick, a terrified cork in the bottle neck of the tunnel complex. His screams alert those he sought to surprise. The Americans’ enemies move through the dark towards them, armed and ready.
The other rats hear his screams too. They are trapped, their retreat blocked by their skewered companion. They can escape if they pull him down, killing him in the process. Since he cannot survive, to spare him pain, they should stab him through the heart immediately. While he lives and screams, they are imprisoned in the tunnel. If they choose to kill him, they can come out fighting. One, two might live.
Lying on their stomachs in the long grass, Phuong and Kha wait. She has her AK47 trained on the tunnel entrance to see who might emerge fighting. He remains writhing, so they rise, turning and running until they hear him no more.
They run through the open scrubland and only when they reach the cover of the forest do they slow down. The midday sun shines through the trees, and they stop to rest against a tree trunk. “Why didn’t they kill him?” asks Kha, delaying the moment when he must speak of his own failure.
“He’s an American, like them. They care for their own.” She wishes she could explain their curious caring natures and strange beliefs. The first American she knew wanted to spare even her blushes, believing her to be the delicately brought up daughter of a mandarin from the ancient capital of Hue. This isn’t a bit suitable for her, he had objected, as if an entertainment could hurt. From the first, he presumed to know what was suitable. But how can she explain such enigmas to Kha, who found only remnants of his family to bury? She tries, “Each one is precious. They say—an individual. Each American,” she amends.
“But he will die anyway,” Kha objects. “Slower if they leave him, quicker if they pull on him and stab him. I would stab you,” he boasts.
“They do not like to be close to suffering. They inflict pain… differently.”
“From airplanes.” His nightmares are full of the burning sky.
“Sometimes.” She hands him her ivory-handled knife. “Better have this until you can sharpen another punji.”
His eyes well with tears. He hates Americans completely and irrecoverably, so why could he not plunge the stick into the man? “Phuong,” he asks humbly, “did you always know how to kill Americans?” Her duty is to tell Chot of his failure, and he will be disciplined. His age will not save him.
She gives him a smile. “Don’t worry. You did well. I will tell Chot that you found the Coca-Cola can which led us to the rats. Many supplies and fighters have been saved. And no, I did not always know. I could not always do what I do now. I learnt slowly.”
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