Tu and Mi stayed at the makeshift camp, the one black rifle between them while the unit moved to stage an ambush on the road, nearby. The plan was always Hit and Run, Hit and Run. They knew that they could never stand against the forces and might of the Americans in a stand up, toe to toe fight. Their helicopters and other air support and artillery would be brought to bear in moments, bringing the whistling death from above. So, Hit and Run, Hit and Run… Heavy emphasis on the RUN. But as Julius Caesar was purported to have noted, no battle plan survives an initial contact with the enemy. Before the unit could take up their positions, an American patrol stumbled by and the battle was joined.
The Americans knew that when such a battle presented itself, they had very little time to inflict as much damage as possible before the little, brown men in black pajamas would fade like the morning mist back into the jungle as if they had never been there. Thus it was that the young American Lieutenant urged his men to close and engage with particular fury. But it was as if he was trying to grasp the fog. The people were mountain farmers. Their lives were in the forest and the forest was as a sheltering mother to them. The Americans knew that if one of them saw a black-clad shape it was because the black-clad shape wanted to be seen for some strategic purpose. Perhaps to draw them into range or to entice them into a kill zone. Like a snake charmer or a stage magician, it was about misdirection then… BAM! Thus it was that the young Lieutenant’s enthusiasm was not reciprocated by his platoon. His 23 year old, shake-and-bake instant Staff Sergeant and Acting Platoon Sergeant made some appropriate noises then took up a position behind a paddy dike and called for artillery, which he guided far over their heads and which at about $500.00/round fired, managed to clear a patch of jungle and cost the taxpayers about $20,000 without causing so much as a hematoma on an enemy soldier who had, by then, taken their leave. The Lieutenant estimated 15 enemy KIA. He got a medal and a desk job in Brigade HQ.
Tu and Mi were startled at the close proximity of the gunfire. Something had gone horribly wrong. As both sides maneuvered to gain advantage, and the villagers tried to disengage, the women could hear the movement and decided to abandon the camp and hide in the bush until the noise stopped or her comrades could break off the engagement. They moved a short distance away from the road, Tu carrying the rifle by its handle. Mi was hesitant to even touch the ugly black gun. To her, it reeked of evil.
Tu had never killed. She had never wanted to kill. She had never needed to kill. She had never tried to kill, not even a chicken or a mouse. She was of the House of Buddha and all life was sacred to Buddha and to her. She ate only small fish from the mountain stream and the plentiful plant life and rice. If Quy wanted chicken it was his task to catch and kill one. But even as she prepared a chicken for Quy’s dinner, she silently intoned a prayer for the unfortunate bird.
They moved, silently, through the bush. They stopped often to hunker down and listen, more like furtive rodents than people. Tu heard a sound nearby and froze. She signaled Mi to do the same. The sound came again. A metallic sound accompanied by a frustrated, stifled moan. Moving as silently as possible, Tu moved to investigate. Perhaps it was one of her comrades in some difficulty. She crept toward the sound. The black rifle shifting in her hands so as to stifle any sound it might make in passing through the dense bush. She reached up with her free hand parted the leaves just enough to make out a small man-sized clearing and peering through the branches she saw a young American soldier, frantically, desperately trying to clear a jammed cartridge from his rifle. When his weapon failed, he dropped to try to fix the problem and the fight moved past him, leaving him horribly alone, so awfully alone and abandoned. He had the panicked look that one might see on a child at a shopping mall who realizes that his Mommy was no longer in sight.
He had yellow hair and blue eyes and a round, moon face and looked frightened and his frantic movements conveyed a deep, deep, primal fear. Tu almost felt sympathy for him. She moved a little closer and he looked up. Startled, their eyes met. For an instant time stopped for them both… Then, unconsciously, Tu’s rifle barked, startling her, almost as much as the young soldier, as a red spot appeared on the young soldiers breast. Tu had not been aware of her hand gripping the rifle or even of her finger on the trigger, much less pulling it. The young soldier looked curiously surprised then relaxed as the red spot grew and he lay back as if to nap. Tu crept closer. She looked at this young man that she had killed. She reached out and gently closed his now vacant and empty eyes.
Then she, quickly, took his equipment belt with its ammunition and his rifle and turned and ran with Mi at her heels. As she ran her mind raced. Yes, she hated, but hated what? She had killed a young man; a young man with a mother and a father and maybe even a wife and children. Could she ever be forgiven? She had seen death. She had helped prepare the torn bodies of comrades who had fallen in battle for burial. She was no stranger to blood. But this time it had been her hand that released the deadly steel that had pierced a living heart. She cried as she ran. But, somehow, that could not assuage her fevered soul. She tried to push the black rifles to Mi but Mi would not touch them. In the end, she had killed him. She did not hate that young man even though she knew that had he the opportunity to fire first, she and Mi would now be laying on the jungle floor, staring emptily at the canopy of green above them instead of him. She hated everything that had put her in this position. She hated the world for its mindless cruelty. She hated herself for hating.
They ran until they could no longer hear the gunfire. They ran until the only sounds were the jungle and their ragged breathing and their beating hearts. The battle had broken and her comrades were exfiltrating the area. She met Bon and Ngoc on a trail and they moved toward a rally point silently, together. Ngoc was gentleman enough to shoulder the black rifles and the captured gear, relieving Tu of at least some of her burden. But not even Ngoc, funny, kindly, gentle Ngoc could begin to ease her spiritual burden. Tu could not bring herself to tell Ngoc or Bon… or Quy when she saw him, what she had done. Mi kept her secret for many years.
Tu was asked how she had come by the second black rifle and gear. She told a fiction of seeing them in the bush as a soldier was relieving himself and snatching them before the soldier could even call out. This was received with an eruption of raucous laughter at the silly Americans and seemed to satisfy the company. The Political Officer made a note the decorate this heroic young mountain woman. Tu endured the congratulatory gestures and pats with a sickly, false smile, all the while seeing the face of the young man before her… awake and asleep. He was a part of her, now, and would be for some time.
Tu continued to run missions with the unit but she never touched a black rifle, or any weapon, again. She would die first. She wondered if she could ever cleanse her soul; could she ever wash away the blood? She wondered if Buddha had turned away from her even knowing that Buddha was all forgiving. She wondered if she could forgive herself.
Eventually, the Americans became war weary and left Viet Nam to their Vietnamese allies. Thus it was that a semblance of peace came to the Peoples Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, if “peace” can be defined as the absence of war. But there were broken, torn bodies and spirits scattered across the lands on both side of the vast ocean.
Tu returned to the rice fields and midwifery and healing. Quy was broken, physically and horribly disfigured but he was still a strong man. Tu bore five more children, a boy, born during the war, who she spoiled sinfully and rarely let out of her sight, followed by two girls, followed by two more boys. The eldest became a police officer, the second youngest studied for seven years and became the Chairman of the Peoples Committee for the district. The eldest girl was called Lan, which is a Mountain Orchid, a beautiful and delicate flower… as tough as her mother.
Somewhere along the way, Mi let slip the truth of Tu’s deed. Perhaps to garner for Tu what Mi felt she deserved or perhaps to bask in reflected glory. Tu was honored as a Hero of the American War and photographed in full military uniform. Bon had been recognized as a smart and courageous young man and was sent to the Military Academy in Ha Noi and rose to the rank of Captain of Engineers. He parlayed his training into a successful construction business after his service. Ngoc had suffered a head injury and a damaged hand as the result of a faulty Chinese grenade that detonated too soon. He stayed on as a teacher for young soldiers for 17 more years. But for years he was prone to sudden, violent, black rages. Fortunately, they had stopped before I met him.
Their world was changing but it would still be 33 more years until electricity came to the village. A cell phone tower appeared on a mountain top overlooking the valley and cell phones spread like a plague eventually giving way to SmartPhones. Every little wooden hooch now boasted a satellite dish on the roof and at night, one can look across the valley and see the flicker of television sets in the homes of the villagers. But for all this new and wondrous technology, food was still produced using a water buffalo or very put upon cow pulling a plow consisting of a plank with wooden dowels for teeth and ropes for a harness and a long, curved, sickle-like knife for hewing what needs hewing.