They brought Kien back to the fire-base in an armoured personnel carrier, the heavy vehicle bouncing so that he was thrown from side to side. With his arms tied behind him, he couldn’t brace himself, so he was tumbled around the troop compartment, colliding with the boots of the men sitting on the benches along the sides. One or two of them kicked out at him, but the rest of them just sat there. He couldn’t do any harm now, after all.
He could smell them, a mix of sweat and the strange musky perfumes they wore, and more besides, some kind of ointment and gun oil. With his eyes covered by the blindfold, he couldn’t see a thing, and the bouncing and the blow to his head made him want to vomit.
Kien had been in the fields, getting the ground ready for harvesting, when the soldiers had come. He hadn’t been too concerned at first, because they had come many times before, walking through the village and poking at anything they wanted with their gun barrels. But this time it had been different. They’d come right for him, their big boots trampling the dyke between the paddy fields.
One of them had motioned him to move up on the dyke, with a jerk of a rifle barrel. Kien had come up on the dyke, still thinking it was something minor, and then something had struck him hard enough on the head from behind to knock him down. The next thing he knew, he was trussed up and bouncing around in the APC.
The M 113 stopped just before he’d have had to throw up, and he was pulled out and thrown to the ground. He could feel the sun on his face, and the familiar smell of mud, and the two things made him feel a little better. But they didn’t let him lie there for long.
“You,” someone said in Vietnamese, with a strange accent. “Get off the ground. Up.”
With some difficulty, Kien got off the ground and squatted awkwardly. The blindfold was too thick to allow him to see anything more than shadows, but he could make out that there were at least three men standing in front of him. One of them bent, thrusting his face so close that Kien could feel the breath on his face. It was cool and smelt of cigarettes.
“Your name is Nguyen Kien, is that right?”
“Yes,” Kien said. “I am from –“
“We know where you are from. Tell us about the VC.”
“I don’t know any VC,” Kien said. “VC buku, very bad, number ten.”
“Don’t lie. We know the VC were in your village, we know they talked to you. Tell us about them, and nothing will happen to you.”
“No VC,” Kien insisted. “I don’t know any VC.”
“You lie!” the foreigner screamed so loudly that Kien flinched. There was a moment of silence, in which the distant clatter of a helicopter was suddenly audible. Another helicopter flew overhead, and then another. “You might as well tell us,” the American continued, more softly. “All you have to do is tell us, and we’ll let you go.”
“But how can I tell you what I don’t know?” Kien asked, trying to sound reasonable though his arms were going numb below the elbows and his head was throbbing again. “I have never met a VC.” From the puff of angry breath on his face, he thought the soldier was going to hit him, but the man stood up and moved a few paces away. He could hear them talking, in their incomprehensible foreign language.
Kien wondered what they were planning to do with him. He’d heard tales that anyone the Americans took prisoner, they killed. Someone said they were thrown out of helicopters over the forest. He wondered what would happen at home, if he didn’t go back. The thought made his head hurt more, so he tried to think of something else.
He thought of the field as he’d seen it that morning, the earth that needed breaking up and readying for the sowing. He’d planned to borrow his neighbour’s buffalo for the job. The buffalo was a mean beast, with bloodshot eyes and wicked horns, but at least it was capable of work, and old Quang didn’t charge anything for lending it out except the feed and water. He was glad he hadn’t borrowed the animal already, or it would have been left in the field, still yoked to the plough. He suddenly felt sorry for the buffalo and didn’t blame it for its mean mindedness so much.
The helicopters had passed, the sun was very hot, and he began to feel thirsty. The soldiers were still talking among themselves. Kien tried to wriggle his arms into a less uncomfortable position.
“Don’t move!” the Vietnamese-speaking foreigner snapped, and his shadow moved closer again. “I’m warning you for the last time – when did the VC come to meet you? How many were there? Who were they? Do you know their names?”
One of the other Americans said something, in a high nasal voice. The first one replied, and then turned back to Kien. “They asked you to plant landmines, didn’t they? They gave you the mine which blew up our patrol yesterday – the one you put in the hollow tree trunk outside the hamlet. Isn’t that so?”
“I don’t know anything about it,” Kien insisted. “Yesterday I was getting ready for the planting. Ask anybody.”
“Do you think we’re fools?” the American snapped. “We have information that the VC came to your hut at night, and gave you the mine. It isn’t the first time you’ve done a job for them either.”
“Who told you? It’s not true.”
“Doesn’t matter who told us. If you know what’s good for you you’ll stop lying and tell us what we want to know.”
Kien heard the third American mumble something below his breath. The second soldier, the one with the nasal voice, replied sharply. He sounded angry. The third mumbled something, even lower. Kien could see his shadow move away a little, as if he were dissociating himself from the others.
“We could hand you over to the Rangers,” the first foreigner said to Kien. “They’ll get everything you know out of you.”
Kien knew the Rangers, and their reputation for cruelty. They were worse than the Americans, even though their victims were Vietnamese.
He wondered what it would feel like when they shot him. Would it be over in an instant, a shaft of pain and then nothingness? Or would he suffer for a long time before dying? And then what came afterwards? Were perhaps the old Buddhist sayings about rebirth his father had been wont to mumble relevant after all?
“The Rangers,” the American repeated. “You know, they’ll cut off your ears.”
“No VC,” Kien repeated. He wished he knew what he could say to satisfy the foreigners enough for them to let him go, or at least to let him stand up and get the circulation back into his limbs. “No mine. I’m just a rice farmer. I don’t know anything about VC.”
The American sighed, almost with regret. “You know,” he said, “one of the men the mine blew up, the one who lost both legs, he’s a friend of mine, from back in school. What do you think his wife and kids will do now, with him crippled? What do you think of that?”
Very far away, almost too far to hear, something exploded. Kien felt the vibration of it in the ground.
“The VC aren’t your friends,” the American said. He sounded almost reasonable. “You know as well as we do what they’re like. They come to your villages, and force you to give them your rice, right? I’ll bet that was what happened when they came to you. They forced you to do it, didn’t they? Put a gun to your head, maybe? They’re too cowardly to take the risks, so they make an innocent farmer like you do it. Isn’t that so?” He paused. “Tell us about them, and we’ll make sure they won’t hurt you ever again.”
Kien said nothing. A helicopter flew by overhead, so low that even if he had said anything it wouldn’t have been heard.
The shadow belonging to the soldier with the nasal voice stepped forward, and lifted a leg back, so that Kien knew he was bracing for a kick. But the first shadow threw out an arm. “Khoung,” he said in Vietnamese. “No.”
The second man said something short and violent-sounding and moved back.
“Is one of the VC a friend of yours?” the soldier asked. “Is that it? A school mate, or someone you used to play with as a kid? There’s no point protecting him – when they join the VC they drop their old friendships. You know this already, don’t you?”
Kien nodded. At least that was a safe thing to do.
“You’ll want to go home, right? You have the field to prepare. Old parents waiting for you – maybe a wife and kids? You want to go home, don’t you?”
Kien nodded again.
“Then tell us,” the soldier said. “Who are the VC who met you?”
“There were no VC.”
The soldier came closer, and bent. Kien felt something press against his forehead, something hard and cold, and smelt gun oil. “Last chance,” the soldier hissed, the friendliness gone from his voice. “Tell us who they were, you little dink, or I’ll blow your head off now.”
Somebody called something urgently, and Kien heard hurrying feet. The gun barrel moved away from his head a little, and the Americans huddled together, talking. The third soldier, the one who had been mumbling, was talking now loudly and excitedly with the newcomer.
“Get up!” The first soldier’s hand was on Kien’s shoulder. “Up! Get up and in the truck.”
“Where are you taking me?” Kien wanted to ask, but his throat was too dry. His legs were shaking at they took the weight of his body.
“Why didn’t you tell us which Nguyen Kien you were?” the first soldier asked angrily. “We want Nguyen Kien from Vu Ac hamlet, not you. We could have saved ourselves all this. You almost forced me to kill you. Stupid gook!”
“I tried to, but you wouldn’t –“
“Shut up.” Hands fumbled at Kien’s wrists and his arms dropped helplessly by his side, completely numb. The blindfold came off, and blinding sunlight struck Kien’s eyes, almost making him cry out. The first soldier leaned towards him, a narrow face with a sparse moustache and blisters below the lip. Sweat made rivers down his cheekbones. “Get in the truck.”
Kien looked around a moment, and saw the other Americans, watching. The one he thought was the third soldier looked quickly away, as though guilty. Behind them, other troops were digging positions along the firebase perimeter and stringing barbed wire.
“Get back home,” the first soldier said, wiping his face, and looking suddenly elderly and exhausted. “Don’t let me ever catch sight of you again.”
Kien trudged up the dyke between the paddy fields. The truck was already a plume of beige dust, rolling back towards the fire base. A tiny helicopter crawled like an ant across the sky to the west.
Kien felt good, happy to be alive. Even the painful tingling as sensation returned to his arms felt nice. He paused a moment to finger the bump at the back of his head where they’d hit him. It was crusted with dried blood, which also matted his hair, but he’d heal. It was better than a bullet to the brain.
From here, he could see the hamlet, a cluster of huts under the trees. OId man Quang’s buffalo was tethered under one, and it raised its head from its heap of grass, watching him. Kien thought he’d try and be kinder to the animal from now on. Maybe it would lose its suspiciousness and maybe it would even become his friend.
The smell of rain was in the air, and it would not be long in coming, Kien thought. He would have to hurry with the planting. Today, though, he was too tired to work further and still in pain. He’d bathe in the pond and then try and rest as much as he could before the evening.
In the evening, his squad leader would come, to ask what had happened in the fire base and to debrief Kien completely. Kien would be able to tell him all about the defences of the fire base from this side, the nearest approach to the village, the layout of the trench and the barbed wire. He could even give a fair description of the number of vehicles the fire base had, and the types. The squad leader, a hard-bitten veteran of the war, would be pleased.
It was almost worth being arrested and nearly getting killed to win the squad leader’s praise, Kien thought. It was almost worth all that.
By the time he reached his hut, he was humming.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013