Ban Me Thuot
The two American advisors and their Vietnamese and Montagnard paratroopers marched up the metal ramp into the back of a C-130. As Spec.-4 O’Keefe took a sling seat against the fuselage, he wished the plane had windows. From deep under ginger brows his blue eyes probed the aluminum interior. The door closed, muting the howl of engines. Sealed in with the smell of nervous sweat, O’Keefe wanted to flee.
He squirmed around, trying to get comfortable, but was too laden with his parachute, medical kit, and the M-16 strapped to his upper leg. Some of the men clutched their hands and breathed in gasps; others, including O’Keefe, leaned back and glanced around, feigning nonchalance. After all, it was his second patrol.
They flew for half an hour into the Central Highlands. Across the plane, Special Forces Sergeant Traver slumped in his seat, vein-lined hands clasped over the rucksack strapped to his midsection, head bowed. O’Keefe assumed he was praying until he heard snores purling from his open mouth. Mr. Cool, O’Keefe thought and tipped his fingers in salute at the older man’s nodding form.
As a boy, he had tied handkerchiefs to toy soldiers and hurled them into the air. Usually they fell streaming back to earth, but sometimes the cloth popped open and the metal man came floating down, ready to fight. In those backyard battles, the general, three inches tall with four stars, was always his father. His father’s real rank, though, had been Pfc., lower than O’Keefe’s now. They had fought together from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, and they always won. But when his mother ended the war with a call to dinner, the general stayed in the field with his troops.
As the jumpmaster slid open the door to a roar of wind and motors, O’Keefe’s chest clenched. “Stand up,” the jumpmaster shouted. The men rose automatically.
“Hook up.” O’Keefe’s group snapped their static lines to the anchor cable.
“Stand in the door.” Wind rippled the jumpmaster’s face to a rubber mask.
“Go!” Pressed tightly in line, O’Keefe was carried forward by momentum. The man in front of him disappeared. Reaching the door, heart jackhammering, he saw a flowing jungle and a silver snake of river. The man ahead was now falling and spinning in prop wash while the previous man’s chute burst into a green dome. On down, away and smaller, drifting canopies dotted the sky.
O’Keefe leaped. The torrent snapped him around, shook him limp, and threw him away, rolling and tumbling. A tug at his shoulders shut off the blast, and he swung through quiet blue.
Other men dangled in the air nearby. Above and far away, the plane spilled more paratroopers. Below him, nubbly treetops of rain forest spread over jagged hills into valleys gray with mist. In the center stretched a wide clearing.
A chute drifting under O’Keefe erased the earth. He pulled on his risers to slip to the side, but was falling too fast. His boots sank into the taut canopy until he stood in the sky, his own chute collapsing above him. Imagining himself plunging to the ground, O’Keefe bounded across the bulbous nylon and dived free, fell for a swooping moment, then hung upright from his shoulders again. As he glided by, he met his Vietnamese neighbor’s shout of alarm with a shrug of apology.
The clearing seemed to expand as it approached, and the horizon rose above him as if he were falling into a bowl. His stomach sank. The elephant grass met his boots, and he rolled onto the welcoming hardness of the earth.
The handkerchief had held.
On the field, amber-skinned Vietnamese and sienna Montagnards were bundling their chutes for the helicopter that would haul the equipment away later. Everyone could have ridden in on choppers, but jumping in was considered good for morale.
Traver, the only other American, smeared a camouflage stick over his high cheekbones to conceal his light skin. He handed the stick to O’Keefe, saying, “Cover up, pale face. We gotta blend in.” O’Keefe rubbed the dark crayon on his cheeks, but his pimples still showed through.
Soldiers straggled in from the far reaches of the clearing, and the ninety-man strike force gathered in ragged formation. Their commander, Lieutenant Vanh, led them in singing the South Vietnamese national anthem, and they marched into the forest.
Fleshy leaves dripped with moisture, though there had been no rain. Clusters of tiny lavender orchids clung to the branches. Emerald butterflies glided on currents musky with fumes of fertile decay. O’Keefe heard the rustle and chatter of birds and monkeys fleeing but couldn’t see them through the shadowed screens of foliage. The trail climbed steadily, and tree trunks stretched out of sight into the jungle canopy above.
O’Keefe walked leaning forward, leading with his chest. His mouth was clamped shut, lips disappeared into a straining grimace. Beneath his mottled green shirt he felt the sway of two sets of dog tags, his and his father’s.
In front of him their radio covered the back of a short Montagnard, and its antenna waggled above. Traver strode ahead, breathing heavily through his mouth, face taut and angular, blue-green eyes scanning around. His lean body was bent under his rucksack. To shift the weight, he hoisted his Swedish K rifle across both shoulders and walked with his arms hooked over it.
Lieutenant Vanh hiked without a pack; a stocky Montagnard carried his equipment. The slender Vietnamese officer moved with a grace that made O’Keefe uncomfortable but that he couldn’t help watching. His oval face held a symmetry of tapering eyes, small nose, and pursed lips. Vanh’s long, thin fingers wore several rings and held a folding-stock carbine.
By afternoon, sweat, grease, dirt, and camo wax were blending into green gravy on O’Keefe’s skin. His legs had slipped into low gear and his mind into a nod. Dad and him…in Burma…behind the lines on a raid…had to blow a rail bridge. Soon they’d be going home…to mom, back together.
But dad stayed there…shot in the throat on Okinawa a month before the A-bombs ended it. Now just a white cross. Traver had fought in Korea…about the age O’Keefe was now.
“Trip wire!” Traver’s West Virginia twang broke the spec.-4’s reverie. His spread arms blocked the trail. The sergeant gestured the radio carrier to back up and pointed at a wire running above their heads to the straightened pin of a grenade lashed to a tree. “This is how they zap the command group. Antenna hits that, pulls out the pin…that’s all she wrote for the next guy — you.”
“Thanks,” O’Keefe said through the crimp in his camouflage-smeared throat.
“These with the wire aren’t that hard to spot. But sometimes they get that clear fishing line. You can kiss your ass good-bye.” The skin around Traver’s aqua eyes was creased from squinting. The edges of his front teeth, crooked and yellowish, chafed back and forth against one another.
The sergeant bent back the pin, untied the grenade, and gave it to Lieutenant Vanh, who accepted it with a forced smile. O’Keefe wished he’d given it to him: it was a World War Two pineapple.
At dusk the company stopped on high ground to make camp. O’Keefe dropped his pack and dropped himself beside it, too tired to do anything but pant and stare at the ocean of hills they had crossed. He tried to stretch back to his five-ten.
Traver shook his head in mock disdain and kicked some dirt at him. “Get up on your feet and jog around a little. We gotta set a good example for the troops. You don’t see me layin’ down, do you?” The sergeant limbered his arms while he paced.
Braces tarnished O’Keefe’s smile as he struggled to his elbows and looked up into Traver’s sinewy face. “Look at it this way, Sarge: You’ve had twenty more years to get in shape than I have.”
Traver blew a breath of scorn. “Lucky for you we?re just fighting the sorry-ass VC. You’d been in Korea, those Red Chinese would’ve scarfed you up a long time ago.”
“You mean you wouldn’t run ‘em off?”
“I’d run, all right. You wouldn’t be able to keep up with me.” Traver prodded him with his boot.
They ate their rice and dried shrimp with Lieutenant Vanh, who gave them stalks of wild sugar cane the troops had cut. As they chewed the sweet fibers, Traver asked the standard question: “What are you going to do after the war, Lieutenant?”
Vanh clipped off a laugh. “That depends who wins.” White teeth sank into his dark lower lip. “We win, I go back teach school. VC win…I go underground. Probably six feet. You, Sergeant?”
Traver’s wrinkled half-smile showed a new regard for Vanh. “If I can’t find another war…I’ll go fishing.”
Vanh chuckled. “Very good. I hope you catch many.”
They plotted the route of tomorrow’s march, then Vanh checked the guards on the perimeter. O’Keefe and Traver lay back on a granite slab overlooking the Annamite range and watched the hills they’d climbed merge into blue shadows as evening cooled the land. The rock still held the day’s heat, easing their pulpy muscles.
Traver groaned with relief. “First day’s always the hardest.” He pushed his camo hat back onto his graying brown hair and looked at O’Keefe. “You hung in there real good today. Getting to be a pretty fair field soldier. But I don’t think you’d be worth a damn back in the States. If you were in my outfit, I’d probably have to keep you in jail half the time.” His thick, joined eyebrows and the pinched furrow above them made him appear to be always glaring.
“Bet you’re right. I’m a lousy janitor.” O’Keefe’s speech dropped its “R?” and resonated with Boston nasality. His round face turned eager and his blue eyes gleamed as he plucked a blade of grass and whipped it through the air like a fly rod. “But I’m a good fisherman.”
“I’m not.” The sergeant pulled out a cloth and rubbed the dust from his rifle. “After this, I’ll take you to Ban Me Thuot for a week, recruit some more troops for the strike force. We’ll live with the Montagnards. They’re all Rhade back in there — best people you’ll ever know. If they like you, they might initiate you into the tribe, give you one of these.” He held up his wrist to show a plain copper bracelet.
“All-right!” O’Keefe sat up, nostrils widening above his closed-mouthed grin, more enthused than he wanted to show. “But the language…no biec.”
“I’ll teach you enough.” Traver checked the bolt action, ejecting several shells. “Just don?t try to sweet-talk the women. The chief’ll turn you into a Montagnard sacrifice.”
O’Keefe tossed up his freckled hands. “Been so long, might be worth it.”
Fatigue soon drove them into their nylon hammocks. O’Keefe’s was tied to a palm tree whose swaying, hacking fronds loomed above him like a spectral hand. Rocking back and forth, he repeated the sergeant?s praise: “a pretty fair field soldier.”
Falling asleep, O’Keefe sank into his mother’s stories about his father. She had told and retold them, then made them up when he demanded more. He had reread a stack of fading letters until they crumbled. Out of a yellowed snapshot stared a man with a lopsided grin, high cheekbones, and deep-set eyes hidden in shadow.
Birds riffed in the swift brightness of the tropic morning. The air was cool, about ninety degrees. The troops were lighting cook fires and fat, hand-rolled cigarettes. O’Keefe tumbled out of his hammock with sweaty feet: he’d slept in his boots to be ready for a night attack. He saw Vanh pulling his shirt over his supple arms and smooth chest, and he wished his mother would appear, bringing hugs and waffles. Instead, he and Traver shared a can of c-ration scrambled eggs.
The strike force left the forest for a valley rife with bamboo and elephant grass. The sun filled the sky and glinted from grass spears. Humid heat clung to O’Keefe, more freckles bloomed on his nose, and sweat stung the acne chafing beneath his pack. In a plodding trance, he noticed only the toes of his boots, the back of the man ahead, the freight on his shoulders.
Puffs of smoke stood out from distant bamboo; shots splashed like ice, shocking him out of his stupor. Chest pounding, he lifted his rifle and clicked it off safety.
Traver pushed the barrel down. “What are you supposed to do, first thing we draw fire?”
“The damned radio.”
“Right. Get us a spotter plane.” Traver’s squinting eyes probed the bamboo; he raised his Swedish K and fired a burst. Brass cartridge cases sprayed from the side of his rifle as he braced into the recoil.
O’Keefe motioned to the radio carrier, a five-foot-tall Montagnard with chestnut skin. The teenager saluted, flashed a gold-toothed grin, and offered him the handset with a brisk, “Radio.”
O’Keefe called Forward Air Control and relayed the patrol’s coordinates while Lieutenant Vanh, eyebrows arched in concentration, read them from the map.
The troops were letting rip with carbines and grenade-launchers. Their barrage tapered off, and after a peering, breath-held silence, a last defiant shot rang from the VC.
“Just a sniper,” Traver said, “trying to slow us down…help his buddies get away.” He told Vanh to send two squads ahead in a pincers.
The rest of the troops sprawled on the ground, grateful for a break. O’Keefe sat leaning against a thicket of bamboo. Now he could write the guys back home that he’d been shot at. He wouldn’t tell his mother, though. He touched the lithe bamboo, admiring its alternations of pliant shafts and rigid seams, the canes strong but able to bend. They reminded him of the Vietnamese: The thin leaves could be double-edged daggers or elongated hearts. When soldiers trod the young stems, they didn’t break but sprang back up.
Twenty minutes later, shots echoed as the lead squads fired into the sniper’s position. They radioed back that it was empty.
The spotter plane arrived, but the pilot said he could see no enemy movement.
O’Keefe felt watched.
When they continued marching, the sniper fired again. The men stopped, but the far, haphazard shots weren’t worth falling on the ground for. O’Keefe remembered that snipers aimed at the tallest, in hopes of hitting an American; he scrunched down a little.
“We can chase the bastard now that we got air cover,” the sergeant said, cinching his pack firmer. He turned to Vanh. “Tell the troops to double-time.”
Vanh chopped his hand in front of his chest. “We no chase sniper. Too risk.” His lips tightened in his fine-boned face, and he stood straighter to meet Traver eye to eye.
“OK.” Traver shrugged. “So I’ll tell the plane to go home.”
Vanh’s expression flickered. “No.”
“We don’t need him then.”
Traver’s aqua eyes stared impassively. “Only if we’re in contact.”
Pondering losing their air cover, Vanh glared at the sergeant out of oblique dark eyes. He dropped his hands in disgusted concession and shook his head, then shouted to the men. They ran toward the sniper, equipment rattling, waist-high grass slicing their hands.
As he ran, O’Keefe saw himself as one of the general’s men fighting amid toy tanks and cannons on his sand table at home. Above them he had strung models of Flying Tigers, Zeros, and Messerschmitts, and from his favorite power-diving fighter he had hung his father’s dog tags.
He imagined going with Traver to Ban Me Thuot after the patrol. The sergeant would teach him the language. They would recruit more soldiers, and at night they would drink rice wine and chant with the tribe while an old man beat on a monkey-skin drum. The Montagnards would initiate him, smear his forehead with ox blood and clasp a copper bracelet around his wrist. He and Traver would be Rhade together.
The sniper had fled, and the company pushed on into rice paddies separated by dikes and boxed in by bamboo. The rectangular plots filled with nodding grain looked inviting after the rough country they had been hiking through, but the troops tensed and began scanning the tree line and murmuring. A breeze rustled the bamboo to a soft clatter, stirred shimmering ripples on the green rice, and carried them scents of stagnant water and dungy earth.
As they filed along the central dike, more puffs of gunsmoke blew out of the bamboo ahead, and the doubled reports of incoming fire jabbed at them, sporadic at first, then increasing rapidly, punctuated by the hammering of a machine gun. Men wailed. Winds shrieked past O’Keefe. A hole appeared on the face of the radio carrier, who fell in a half turn. O’Keefe collapsed beside him.
Traver’s voice steadied him. “Get us some jets!”
O’Keefe held the Montagnard’s twitching body and looked into his agate eyes. Gone…. O’Keefe wished he could hear his bright voice saying, “Radio.”
O’Keefe made himself pull off the blood-wet transceiver. Fingers quivering on the knobs, he called the spotter plane and watched helplessly while the boy writhed in the paddy mud. O’Keefe’s hand moved towards his medical kit, then stopped: not even morphine could help him now.
“Already got a flight on the way,” the pilot said in a soothing Georgia accent. “Y’all hang tough down there.” Machine gun tracers streaked up at the plane but missed as it climbed away in a fast chandelle.
Don’t go too far, O’Keefe wished as he slung the radio over his shoulder.
The enemy gunner returned to closer targets, flailing the paddy water. When he found his range, spouts leaped at the men. Troopers screamed as bullets plunged among them.
O’Keefe clamped his jaws and squeezed his hands together. Don’t lose it…not in front of Traver. Hold on.
Lieutenant Vanh scrambled to Traver. “I told you too risk. Boocoo VC. We no can do. You get helicopt. We go back Kontum.”
‘”We’re gonna fight,” Traver yelled into Vanh’s face, pale as a blanched almond. “Airplanes come…bomb VC.” He shook him until he stopped trembling. “See that dike up there? That’s where we’re going.”
The machine gun threw another volley, and their company began keening.
“Let’s go,” Traver hollered. “Chung ta di mau-len.” He ran among the men huddled beside the bank, kicking them, pulling them to their feet, pushing them forward. O’Keefe and Vanh followed his lead, dragging men up by the collar and forcing them ahead. One man O’Keefe lifted sagged limp and heavy, then splatted back into the paddy when he dropped him. The rest ran with nightmare slowness through the gripping mud twenty-five meters to the dike. Some in front crumpled into the rice and were run over by those behind.
O’Keefe threw himself sobbing into the embankment. His chest was drenched; he clutched it, thinking he’d been hit, but found it was water. Bullets cracked overhead. The machine gun gnawed at the dike, spitting dirt into the air. Some fell on O’Keefe’s neck, and he brushed it away as if it were burning. Bile corroded his mouth and tears blurred his vision. His mind gaped open, no longer screening its input: On the dike a crab snapped its pincers at him, as threatening as the machine gun. A cricket fought a horde of red ants in a battle equal to his own. Any instant he might disappear.
Traver’s corded face brought him back. “Crawl down there. Get everybody firing.”
“But….” O’Keefe said, wanting to hold on to him.
“Do it.” Traver lunged to the top of the dike and fired his Swedish K in long bursts.
O’Keefe crawled among the soldiers, prodding and shouting, startled by his voice. A man lay at the base of the dike, covering his head and shaking. O’Keefe wanted to do the same but instead pulled him to the top and made him shoot. As he continued down the line, he imagined his father smiling approval at him.
A leech, like a slice of raw liver, sucked at his arm. He struck a match and singed the worm until it shriveled, then plucked it away with a shudder, leaving a puckered crimson circle surrounded by burnt hair.
Through the clangor he heard Traver calling for him; he ran back in a crouch. “They’re flanking us.” The sergeant pointed to where the bamboo was stirring. “Tell the spotter we need those planes now. If he’s got any rockets, put ‘em in there.” On Traver’s temple an artery pulsed, and tendons stood out on his neck.
O’Keefe radioed the pilot in a stammer while Traver lobbed rounds from a grenade-launcher.
“Those jets are only five minutes off,” the pilot said. “You boys are doing a great job. Here’s a little something.” The plane made a low pass, pivoted on its tail, and shot a rocket that exploded into dome of fire over the bamboo, then faded in a moment, leaving the thicket still.
Traver reloaded, breathing fast and shallow, forehead creased. “If they get around that side, we’re in deep shit. And they’re sure gonna try again. Another lesson for you — it don’t always pay to chase a sniper. Vanh was right.” Traver swept his arm toward the tree line. “You wanted to find Charlie, didn’t you? Well, there he is, Hard Charger.”
“Won’t the jets take care of him?” O?Keefe turned his round, shivering face away.
He peered above the dike with his M-16, but Traver pulled him down. “Get back on the radio. Tell him how far our position runs. We gotta be ready when the jets get here.”
O’Keefe gripped his rifle. Damn it, if he could shoot back, he wouldn’t be so afraid. More leeches were sucking at his legs, but he couldn’t look at them.
A crump of sound carried across the paddy. Traver yelled, “Mortar!” and plunged into the mud. O’Keefe and the others followed and lay helpless until a hurtling screech exploded thirty meters away in a fountain of brown water and yellow flames. As O’Keefe clawed deeper, he pictured the enemy gunner deftly clicking the mortar dial and dropping another round down the tube. He heard the outgoing report and stole a glance skyward, seeing only a tranquil cloud, then clenched his eyes and covered his head until the sickening rush came down closer this time, concussion knocking his eyes open. The ground bucked and heaved as he tried to hold it together. The round had struck the other side of the dike.
Again he heard the outgoing slap of a shell. Stop it, he begged, doubling up with no place to hide. The suspended silence was broken by a roar as two jets swept over the trees, checking the target area. To O’Keefe the planes shouted the loud beauty of deliverance. The mortar slammed in, erupting the paddy fifteen meters away and hurling rice, mud, and shrapnel at the men.
The first plane sprayed the grove with hundreds of cluster bombs. While they detonated into slivers of steel, the second jet swooped down for the high-explosive run. Its pair of bombs tumbled end over end, slower than the rising plane, and burst into jagged white fire that engulfed the bamboo.
O’Keefe winced as shock waves hit him. Those poor bastards at impact. Brains boil, fingers crisp to tendrils, vacuum sucks the screams from their throats. Then the families explode…never the same again. How do they find out? A visit from a cadre, or a form letter?
The returning planes shredded the thicket with their 20mm cannons. Inside him, his own loss rose in a flood; to keep from drowning in it, he clung to his rifle like a spar from a shipwreck.
The spotter flew in calm circles off to the side; the pilot radioed that the jets were empty, but others were on the way. On their last pass the jets rocked their delta wings at the troops before flying off, trailing a snarl through the blue. The men, who had been whooping and cheering, gazed after them with stricken looks.
O’Keefe cut the trousers away from a Montagnard’s shattered leg. He poured wound powder into the pulp and tied two compresses around it while the man ground a handkerchief between his jaws. O’Keefe punctured a morphine Syrette, jabbed the soldier’s rear with it, squeezed in the liquid, then stroked his sweating, mahogany forehead.
A rush of tears made O’Keefe close his eyes. In flashes he was a child again looking up at his mother crying over a piece of yellow paper. He forced his eyes open.
Between grimaces, the Montagnard was trying to smile at him. An inlaid gold star gleamed on his front tooth. O’Keefe couldn’t return the smile, but they nudged fists. If they couldn’t get him out today, he’d lose the leg.
The field brimmed with quiet. Smoke lazed in the air. Through his ringing ears O’Keefe gradually heard the drone of the spotter plane, the pops of burning bamboo, the cries of wounded men. He tried to slow his breathing as the Fourth-of-July scent of cordite drifted over the paddy. He shut his eyes and saw a flag folded in the closet, a Purple Heart in a velvet case, the medal’s enamel worn away from O’Keefe having touched it so often. Wails of mourning rose within him, faint at first, then surging over him. He had to get away from all that, cut it off before he dissolved into it, trapped forever as that little kid. No way…anything but that.
He slipped another morphine into the trooper’s pocket for later.
“Get the men firing,” Traver said, lips drawn back from his crooked teeth, turquoise eyes keen, face almost exultant. “We can’t give Charlie a chance to regroup. And get me a casualty count.”
Traver’s voice braced O’Keefe; he molded himself to it, drank it in. This way’s better. He could tough it out: he was a soldier, not that soft kid. With a sob he stifled the grief back down. Get them!
As O’Keefe started along the line, Traver called, “You’re doing good.” He nodded and kept crawling, imagining himself as the first warrior, a primate with a stick. It must’ve always been this way.
An ancient Skyraider flew over the paddy. O’Keefe stopped, hands to his face, watching the single-engine plane. Just like World War Two. The stubby, propellered fighter looked like a Flying Tiger model above his childhood battle. She’d sat on his bed and read to him while the air force flew on guard. Now dad was here…they’d fly away…back together.
He jumped up and ran toward Traver while the fighter dived.
Look at that baby come in.
The plane released its canisters, which bloomed into orange globes of napalm.
Driven out by flames, a dozen gray figures with leaf-covered helmets rushed from the bamboo, yelling and firing their AK-47s. The Skyraider roared in low, strafing the VC. Several fell but others kept coming.
A hot cloud of engine exhaust cascaded over O’Keefe, blowing his camo hat off, baring his sandy hair. He rubbed his blue eyes from the sting of the av gas. Bullets tore past him with dopplered whines.
The sergeant rose to his knees above the dike and shouted, “Get down, you fool.”
Traver shook with spasms and fall back into the paddy. Through the fumes he looked wrinkled.
O’Keefe’s mind broke in a shriek; a bright, frozen glaze spread over his sight. He ran to the sergeant, who lay twisted in the mud, legs still trying to move, three holes across his chest gushing blood. O’Keefe sank down beside him. “I’ll fix you up.” He pressed his hands to the wounds, but Traver’s wet warmth throbbed through his fingers.
Traver’s eyes fluttered and darted, lips moved mutely, fingers scratched O’Keefe’s arm. O’Keefe dropped his rifle and held the twitching hand. “We’ll call a medevac.” He clutched the sergeant while his M-16 sank into the paddy.
Lieutenant Vanh crawled to them and knelt. One slim hand wiped mud from Traver’s cheek and the other touched O’Keefe’s head.
The troops began throwing down their packs and carbines and running back across the paddy. Vanh yelled at them to stop, then pulled out the VC grenade and hurled it to cover their retreat.
“We go,” Vanh told him, and O’Keefe nodded dumbly.
He gave the radio to Vanh, took off Traver’s pack, and gathered him in his arms. Unaware of the weight, he ran, splashing and frantic, following Vanh back the way they had come. Everybody going home. The Montagnard with the shattered leg held up his hands as they ran past him. O’Keefe’s lurching steps jerked his vision and his tears smeared it so the images of bamboo, running men, and swaying rice stalks registered in blurry jumps.
Looking down at Traver limp in his arms, he noticed for the first time the sergeant was smaller than he. Breath whistled from the chest holes and blood flowed warm and steady down their bodies, staining both their uniforms ruddy brown.
They passed through a bamboo grove and reached another beyond it before they stopped running. Vanh called the spotter plane while O’Keefe laid Traver down next to a small fan palm. Keep him from going into shock. Raise his feet…wrap him up. He tried to prop Traver’s boots up, but the sergeant began thrashing and convulsing. He squeezed O’Keefe’s hand then stared blindly at him. A flicker of recognition lit his face, and his lips parted as if to speak, but red froth bubbled out. O’Keefe tried to draw the filming eyes into his, to keep their light as they faded.
Traver drew his knees to his chest; his jaw sagged, breath rasped.
“No!” O’Keefe cradled him in his arms and rocked back and forth. “You can’t. You didn?t teach me the language yet. We never went to Ban Me Thuot.”
He pulled all the morphine Syrettes from his medical kit and counted aloud while stuffing them into Traver’s shirt pocket, then slipped the last one under the general’s watch band. Winken, Blinken, and Nod…the wooden shoe through the velvet night, the stars to guide them home.
The young boy sat spraddle-legged on the kitchen floor. His small hands held his favorite toy: the round lid of a casserole. He brought it close to the linoleum and adjusted its angle. With a deft flip of his wrist, he set the lid spinning. It rotated from edge to edge, then whirled on its handle.
Bubbling with private laughter, he leaned over his handiwork, brown eyes dilated, mouth drooping open. His curly auburn hair contrasted to his pale skin, which was translucent as porcelain. As his head, then his upper body, traced the revolutions, he slipped into a hypnotic dance, captivated by the wobbling clack and rhythmic flashes of light.
“Dad, Kevin’s spinning,” Darci called, mortified as only a twelve-year-old can be.
Michael tossed his newspaper aside and walked into the kitchen. He put his arm around her, and they looked down at Kevin, rapt in his own world, oblivious to theirs. Michael’s mouth squeezed into a tight line.
While watching her brother, Darci pressed her fist to her chin. “Stop him,” she said.
“The doctor said to let him,” Michael replied in a voice wearied into resignation. He pulled his daughter closer, liking the nudge of her slim shoulder against his side. “You’re definitely getting taller.” He rested his hand on her head, then tickled the back of her neck in the way that sometimes made her laugh but now got no response.
She looked up at him and whispered, proud and astounded, “I’m almost taller than grandma.”
His wife, Julia, carried dishes into the dining room while humming an inner melody. Her curly auburn hair was pulled back with a barrette, a chartreuse wooden parrot from Guatemala. It was a birthday present from Darci, so she wore it despite the colour clash. “Get Kevin,” she told Michael. “Let’s try him at the table again.” A battered optimism quickened the corners of her mouth.
Darci rolled her eyes and twisted her lips.
Julia’s expression sparked half a smile in Michael’s; he patted her arm while staring at Kevin. With a long exhalation he took off his glasses, set them on the credenza, and approached him, thinking back to those terrible months when they’d gradually realised he wasn’t just slow in learning to talk but hardly knew they were there.
Michael knelt in front of Kevin, reached out, and touched his temple. Somewhere beneath that wavy chestnut hair and white skin, his son’s mind writhed in solitary. Aching to be able to free him, Michael rolled up his shirt sleeves until they bunched above his elbows. When the lid stopped spinning, before the child could begin again, he hoisted him. “Let’s go, partner.”
Kevin whimpered to see his toy shrinking, but his blue-veined arms hung limply and his head bobbled. He drooled into his father’s shoulder. Michael stroked him, thinking he didn’t seem to rock his head into the wall so much anymore, maybe he was getting a little better.
Seeing his grandmother at the dining-room table, the boy grew animated. He squirmed and reached, wriggled out of Michael’s grasp, and ran to her. Wordlessly he scrambled onto Alison’s lap and knelt, staring at her crystal pendant. “Hi. Aren’t you strong,” she said and shifted under his weight. To gaze at the sparkles from an angle, he pressed his face against her silk blouse. Its smoothness attracted him and, as she reached up to pat his head, he rubbed his hands down her chest, then slid squealing from her lap to the floor.
“Quite an acrobat.” She righted her bifocals on her nose, pushed back her roan hair, and braced for a fresh attack.
Michael caught him as he was clambering up again. “OK, champ, let’s eat. Your grandma’s not a sliding board.” Michael and his mother-in-law shared looks of commiseration, then he turned away as he wondered again if the gene had been hers.
In his chair Kevin grew still, staring at his shiny round plate. He reached out to spin it, but his mother covered the shine with a spoonful of macaroni and cheese. Kevin drew back to refocus, plopped his hand into the hot food, squeezed through it for a moment, then wailed.
With a moan Julia dipped her napkin into her glass and swabbed his red fingers.
Darci snapped two taunting fingers in front of Kevin. “Snap out of it, spacer.”
“Don’t be mean to your brother!” Michael pointed at her until she lowered her flushed face and ate in silence. When he looked at Kevin, he couldn’t help wanting to smear his snuffling face into his plate. He bit his lip to block the thought.
Julia spooned up some of Kevin’s food, blew on it to cool it, and helped it into his mouth. He let himself be fed, but would pull the food back out and roll it around in his fingers or suck the cheese from elbow macaronis and stuff them into his pocket.
Alison mopped the spills. Darci dangled her espadrille from her toes, teeth clenched.
Kevin allowed some string beans to enter his mouth but promptly ejected them. His mother tried again and met a locked jaw. “Come on, just a little bite,” she coaxed. At her next attempt, he went slack, slipped off his chair, and disappeared beneath the table.
Julia glanced away from Michael’s trying-him-at-the-table-was-your-idea look.
They waited to see if he would emerge, then Michael lifted the tablecloth. Amid legs and shoes the boy sat on the hardwood floor, mouth open, fingers fluttering in front of his glazed, dark eyes.
“Hey, we got ice cream for dessert.” When Michael’s words went unregistered, he got down on his knees and began hauling the child out, wondering what he was going to do when he was too big to lift. He saw himself stuffing Kevin into a trash bag and cinching it shut. He shuddered and tossed his head to drive out the image, then silently repeated his most-used verse of scripture: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” He held the boy to him and kissed his pale cheek.
Kevin’s arm jerked at the elbow, his head snapped back, jaw jutted as a spasm shook him. A moan built to a bellow. He bolted from his father, careened off a table leg, and fled around the room, knocking the fireplace poker from its rack, toppling and shattering a floor lamp. Alison clutched her chest. Darci held her ears and glared at her plate. Julia grabbed for him but missed, and he crashed full speed into the couch, sat down with a thud, and rocked back and forth. The arteries of his neck swelled with blood surging to his head, changed from milky to crimson.
“The bottle, quick,” Julia said.
Michael gave her the baby bottle of apple juice, and she guided the nipple into her son’s mouth. He took it voraciously but couldn’t grasp it. Julia rocked with him, holding the bottle, her chestnut curls blending with his. Gradually his spasms eased and the blood faded from his skin. He sat very still on the rug while his mother stroked him and his father cleaned up, cheek twitching, lips drawn flat over his teeth. Michael cupped his hand behind his son’s head and closed his eyes, trying to soothe them both. Hundreds of times before, thousands to come.
Darci grimaced at Kevin. With a sneer that pinched her freckles, she lifted her plate and spun it. While it wobbled, she rocked back and forth, moaning and pretending to drool.
“Stop it!” Michael shouted at her, baring his teeth. “Don’t do that to him!” His face turned as pink as Kevin’s. Arms quivering, he grabbed the fireplace poker and brandished it at her. Its jagged tip traced loops in the air.
Darci looked up at her father and cringed.
“No!” Julia cried to him, standing with her son in her arms.
Michael’s eyes followed theirs to stare at the iron rod he was waving. With a groan he dropped the poker. His chin trembled and his eyes squeezed shut. He tried to say, “Sorry,” but a knot blocked his speech. A spasm like Kevin’s shook his body as he sank into a chair.