He crouched in the darkness, pressing his hands into the earth walls to push himself as far as he could into the bend of the tunnel. The ground around, below and above him was no longer trembling to the concussion of the enemy’s bombs, so he wouldn’t be buried alive – not just yet. But they would be coming, dropping in from their helicopters or riding on their tall boxy armoured personnel carriers.
He knew what would happen after that. He’d seen it many times before. They’d comb the blasted forest, seeking among the charred undergrowth and snapped off tree trunks for the entrance of a tunnel. And if they found this one...
Then they’d flood it with gas, or send in the small brown-skinned soldiers with the pistols and grenades. And he had nothing to defend himself with, not even a knife.
Despite the muggy heat in the tunnel, he shivered. He was afraid, and he didn’t want to be afraid.
Not long ago, he hadn’t been afraid. Not so long ago, he’d been the boldest man in the section, so that his cell commander had given him a dressing down for foolhardiness. But that had been when he was just out of training, and everything had been strange and new and he could do anything he wanted, anything at all.
Back in the hamlet, nobody had ever taken him quite seriously. Old Schoolteacher Van’s son, they had called him, with a mixture of condescension and pity, would never be anything more than a copy of Van himself, small, meek and the butt of everyone’s jokes. And they’d been a bit suspicious of him because, being the schoolteacher’s son, he was a bit too educated. But that was before the war had reached this far, before it had stained the forest and rice paddies, and before the hamlet had formed a defence committee.
Nobody had expected him to volunteer, though. He still remembered the look of shock on the face of the defence committee chief, Minh, when he’d turned up.
“But you’re Van’s son!” he’d said.
He’d looked at Minh. “I’m also one of the men of the hamlet,” he’d said. And Minh had looked away.
“All right,” he’d mumbled. “Report for training tomorrow.”
His father hadn’t said anything when he’d heard. But his face had frozen, and his eyes sunken back into his head. And his mother had cried, but softly, in another room, so that she’d thought he hadn’t heard.
Why had he joined? He hadn’t had any interest in politics, in the Party, and, if truth were to be told, he hadn’t been all that interested in the liberation struggle – not then. That was before he saw villages burned by the hairy pink American invaders, before he’d seen their inhabitants shot and dumped in a ditch. Then he’d become very interested in the liberation struggle.
It was in training that he’d met Phuong. She was from a larger village down on the delta, a place with a road cars could travel and even electricity. He was almost afraid to speak to her, even when they were allocated to the same guerrilla cell. She was too sophisticated, too knowledgeable, and far too pretty for him. But she’d been kind to him then and later, and hadn’t laughed at him even once, not even when he’d stammered and blushed whenever she’d spoken to him.
Little by little, quite naturally, he’d fallen in love with her. He’d realised that in the first bombardment, when she’d crouched beside him in the forest while shrapnel slashed through the trees. He’d realised it when they’d been setting up an ambush for the Saigon puppets, and she – who had been banned from taking part in the fighting – had given him a small amulet on a string to wear around his neck. It was a good luck charm from the village, she’d said. And he’d realised it again, more than ever, one more time.
He’d never spoken of his love to her, of course. For one thing, it was forbidden as long as they were fighting. For another, he was terrified of being rejected if he told her, or, even worse, laughed at. Perhaps she’d decided that she would marry someone in the city after the war, he’d thought. Maybe, if he didn’t say anything, she would finally fall in love with him herself. And then maybe after the war was over they could get married.
So he just loved her, and waited.
Then there came the day when their unit had been surrounded and bombarded. First the shells had exploded among the trees, blasting aside the trunks like matchsticks, and then the planes had come roaring over, napalm exploding over the jungle in a rain of fire. There had been nowhere to go, nowhere to run.
Phuong and he had got away then, though. They and a third guerrilla, the unit commander, who had been temporarily blinded by a head wound, had managed to survive the bombardment and evade the American troops when they had come searching. They had even managed to find their way down to the river, Phuong leading the commander by the hand because he had a bandage round his eyes and couldn’t see. For almost two days they’d kept moving, drinking from puddles and eating leaves when they could no longer stand the hunger. Finally, they’d reached the river, and once there they’d believed they had managed to escape.
But they’d been still beside the river, waiting for some way to get away to the main force regiments to the north, when the American patrol had arrived. It was his own fault they’d got so close without being seen; he’d been so tired that he’d half dozed away while Phuong changed the commander’s bandage. And then, suddenly, they’d been there, walking along the path by the water, coming right in their direction. It was already too late to run.
Fighting back hadn’t been an option. They’d had no weapons between them but the commander’s pistol, ad that had only half a clip of ammunition. And the enemy had been a full platoon, forty heavily armed soldiers. They wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Another moment, and they’d have been seen.
And then Phuong had got up, and walked down the path away from the soldiers, as quickly as she could without running. He’d seen her do that, known instantly what she was doing, and yet been unable to stop her or even to protest.
The Americans had seen her too, of course, and their attention had been drawn instantly to her. One of them had called to her, in heavily-accented Vietnamese, to stop. She’d broken into a trot instead, not running, not going fast enough to provoke them to fire, just fast enough to make them run to catch her.
He’d watched them catch her, and he’d watched them do things to her. He’d reached for the commander’s pistol then, but the older man, who still could barely see, had grabbed his hand.
“Don’t be a fool,” he’d hissed. “She’s given her life for us. Stay down and don’t move.”
So they had stayed down and he’d watched the soldiers roll Phuong’s body into the river when they’d finished with her, and then they’d stood around smoking for a while before going on with their patrol. And when the night had fallen they’d continued their journey.
He’d been brave then, and reckless with the force of his love for her.
Now he was merely afraid. Now, he was alone in the dark, unarmed and terrified.
It wasn’t completely dark. There was a tiny chink of light, invading from somewhere, a pinpoint-thick dot of illumination showing nothing. He stared at it with hatred, imagining it to be something which would pick him out to the enemy as brightly as a searchlight. He wanted to seize the light, take hold of it, twist it and crush it and bury it where it could do no harm. But he didn’t dare leave his niche in the wall.
Once more, knowing it was useless, he felt about him in the darkness for the carbine, or failing that, anything at all, even a bayonet or a panji stake, which he might use as a weapon. But there was nothing except the stale air and the heat.
Suddenly he stiffened. Surely that was a noise in the darkness? He thought he heard a voice. He listened intently. Yes, it was a voice, and now footsteps. He could imagine the tunnel rats, in the darkness round the bend, pausing as they listened for any noise at all, even that of breathing, before coming further. They’d be small men, tiny by American standards, and they’d have a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other. He’d fought them many times before and he’d won.
But that was then, when he’d had weapons and he hadn’t been afraid.
He began to shake, the tremor starting in his neck and shoulders and spreading down his back and arms, shivering with terror, as the muffled footsteps came closer. He buried his head between his shoulders, and fought down a whimper of fear.
Light flooded in on him.
“Father,” the round-faced middle-aged woman said. “There you are, in the wardrobe again. I thought I’d find you there. Really, you’re getting impossible. Come out at once!”
The old man crouching in the corner got up slowly and shuffled into the room. Tears streamed down his cheeks and his shoulders shook.
“Father,” said the woman, “what’s wrong? You’re crying.”
The old man shook his head.
“The war is over, Father,” the woman said gently. “It’s been over a long, long time.”
The old man didn’t reply. The female interrogator asked him something. He didn’t even try to understand what she was saying. It no longer mattered what they did to him.
Phuong had given her life for him, and he’d been through so much, only to be captured so ignominiously after all, and the tears of shame just kept flowing.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014