Hoa leaned down and snatched another stem. Her fistful of flowers was leggy, tattered, but brilliant. Gold, orange, red. Just seven years old, she stood in the center of the path, her toes sunk into the fine pale dirt. She waved the flowers at me.
“Jaymes-man,” she called. “You take picture?”
Earlier in the week I’d let her wear the thin leather camera strap around her neck and take pictures of her father and mother, her aunts and uncles, the cooking fires, the rice fields, earthenware bowls of pho, even me. I’d developed the film and made enough prints to share. From each, faces peered, looking down, laughing, pointing. In one, Hoa’s grandmother offered a bowl of steaming noodle soup, fogging the lens and catching the moment before everyone squatted to eat. In another, a baby brother was hidden under his mother’s blouse, the blur of his small kicking feet a contrast to his mother’s silent gaze. And one without faces, only cumulus clouds, sunlight, a sweep of green grass and purple cattails.
Assigned to my battalion as a photographer, in the field I carried the Kodak I brought from home, a dozen film canisters, an M-16, ammunition, and a pair of canteens. I’d signed on as an infantryman, but my CO caught wind of the camera, decided I was better suited to capturing images than VC, and put me in charge of changing the mood. “I’m talking morale, Williams. Get these men’s fucking bravery and honor covered; you’ll do better there than covering their asses.” Stars and Stripes published nearly everything I gave them, only a tenth of the photos I took. The other percentage was out of focus, or out of bounds, the negatives sealed in envelopes and filed in heat-resistant boxes.
It was Year of the Rat, and we all became water rats, sinking in rivers and rice paddies, my camera and film bag held above my shoulders along with my rifle. We had wit and curiosity, and we were nervous and aggressive. Tagging along behind the point man, itching for a fight, smoking in order to stay quiet. Waiting, listening. I measured my steps, I refocused, I balanced my load, so much smaller than some. The light meter gave me a reading; I adjusted the viewfinder; I pressed the shutter release, advanced the film, and just as quickly discovered the next image, a fraction of the field before me, the picture as contained as the war was wide.
Sometimes you have to go away to come back.
My orders were to honor men and make them noble by documenting their actions. “Now let’s get this straight, Williams! We are not talking about combat. We are not talking about the goddamned beauty of the battlefield. We are talking about survival and making sense out of this mess.” My orders were to look through a lens into men’s souls. “These are not your friends, goddammit! These are heroes. Make it so.” My orders were to hump into the hills with my own platoon, with my own rifle, with my own canteens and 35 mm camera, but not with the lump in my throat that came from seeing and hearing and disbelieving.
I tried my best, and still, the CO kept on yelling.
“He just loves you, Williams, bro,” Shields promised. “He just wants to get all up inside of that sweet shiny lens himself.”
“Why don’t you get some pictures of the girls for us, Jamesy-boy?” McPhee licked his fingers and squeezed one eye closed, as if he were aiming a camera instead of an M-60. “Slide up under some ao dai and see what they have to offer.”
I did take pictures of women, in silhouette, from afar. Women in yellow, red, white ao dai, like flowers, their long black hair swept under their conical hats, shadows over their faces. They walked through the markets and called out to the merchants, laughing, taking green papayas into their arms, silver fish into their baskets. Sometimes they looked at me—me trying to frame their eyes, their burdens—but mostly they looked away.
I was the grunt, the new boy, the one chosen to shoot pictures, rather than people.
The children in the villes found me curious and stared and followed me when their elders let them. Children standing at the front gate of a school, waving and calling out until their teacher called them back inside. Children in flooded rice fields, their trousers pulled waist-high, catching crabs and small fish. Later these same fields were flooded with light, that of the moon and artillery fire, the petals of water lilies scattered with the scales of dead fish, the carcass of a buffalo calf, and men’s bodies hidden beneath the tall, silent grasses.
I’d heard about the bamboo jungles, tigers that appeared shining like bright butter in the forest when all was quiet. I’d heard of the meadows of poppies, opium available in rooms above the bars in Saigon, an long arm’s length away from Long Binh Jail. And I learned there were tunnels that reached under the earth for miles and miles, and pits covered in thatched grass to hide the punji stakes. Firsthand, these became my education, better than that of a classroom, and I memorized each breath of each day, laden with salt from the salt tabs in our packs, laying low under sniper fire, old timers telling me to stay down if I wanted to see the sun set.
“Williams Jaymes-man,” Hoa said. “You come home soon?”
I had been in country for barely a month and had almost the full tour still in front of me.
I knew how to fish in Florida mangrove swamps. Hunting for Charlie was something entirely different. The underwater roots of the Vietnamese mangroves hid leeches, not bonefish. Straight from the bottle I had my first taste of backwash whiskey, on the banks of that brown-water stretch of river, in a downpour that outclassed any thunderstorm in the Keys. No matter the tropical heat, I shivered under the standard-issue rain poncho, in a daze of fever and confusion, not sure whether to hold my rifle or camera.
“You got to take your Monday pills, baby boy,” Shields said.
Monday pills. CPs. Chloraquine-Primaquine. Anti-malaria pills. Another standard-issue item that hadn’t gotten lost in the mail between boot camp and the boonies. I had been given the dosage, same as everyone else.
I shook harder, and Shields raked me with his stare.
“You think you’re going somewhere, Williams? You ain’t going nowhere, man. You are staying right here in this shithole, just like the rest of us.”
McPhee was bad enough; Shields was worse. Shields was bad news, trippin, kick-em-til-they-die crazy, one re-up too many. Sly slept with one eye open, Torchdog with the other eye shut—partners in crime. Tibbs wrote in a notebook that he rolled up inside his sleeve after each entry. Baker hummed under his breath, and hid a harmonica in his pack. Mankiewitz kept quiet and then kept us all guessing.
Mankiewitz, who in the middle of one already miserable sodden night, sent incoming our way by yelling, “Come over here and light up my landing zone, Little Miss Saigon!”
The same night Shields broke down and kissed the ground one final time. The same night marionettes danced in the jungle and not just in my mind. The same night the rain spiraled down in strands, like those beaded curtains in that one-time bar. The same night poppies grew from my chest and bloomed bright and vermillion right there in the mud. The same night the dust-off flew out one KIA and one WIA.
“Jaymes! You go away long, long time?” Hoa stood on the road and waved her flowers. I held up my camera, but didn’t wave back.
Karin C. Davidson‘s stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Post Road, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Lesley University, Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations, and awards including the Orlando Prize for Short Fiction, the Waasmode Short Fiction Prize, and the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award. Her fiction has been shortlisted in several writing competitions, including the Jaimy Gordon Fiction Prize, the Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition, and the UK Bridport Prize. A chapbook of her story collection was a finalist in the 2012 Iron Horse Literary Review Single Author Competition. Originally from the Gulf Coast, she also writes at karincdavidson.com.
Read an interview with Karin here.