A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
“How did you lose your leg?”
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg,
It comes back jocosely
And he says, “A bear bit it off.”
Edgar Lee Masters
Our hearts thud inside our heads, our gaunt faces are streaked with sweat, our lean bodies bend and dip as we move forward, trudging like old men through the infinite green. How long has it been? Two hours? Three? Someone hand-signals a two-minute break. I squat, dig into my pack, hand my camera to the weary machine gunner, who sits beside the angular weapon.
“Here,” I say. “Take my picture.”
Or was it the lanky blond rifleman who will flail and scream after losing his sight in a mortar attack?
Or the short thin teenager who walks first in line, and who will years later overdose on drugs?
Or the new sergeant who accidentally shot the married man in front of him? “Oh, my god,” he said, trying to comfort the dying lieutenant.
Or the Southern soldier who shotgunned a sapper at close range? “Spun round twice, she did,” he said, circling the air with a blood stained finger.
Or the burly squad leader from Montana who kept us alive? I don’t remember. I loved them all.
“Smile, Doc,” he says. “C’mon. Just once, smile.”
“For Christ sake, just take the goddamn picture, will you?”
I lean forward, tilt my steel helmet back, lift my head up. My uniform, dark with sweat, clings to my body like a second skin. Three bandoleers with twenty-one magazines crisscross my chest; four grenades hug my pistol belt; my rifle hangs from my shoulder like a stiff metal flag. Scarred by heat and mud my nylon pack holds a dozen canteens, canned food and medical supplies. After the shutter’s mechanical click he returns the camera, which I carefully stow into my pack, and offer him a cigarette.
“Thank you much,” he says, and lights it, inhales the smoke deep into his lungs, then releases a gray plume which rises and melts into the tangle of canopy.
Someone signals, “Saddle up.” There is the sound of rumpling cloth, the squishing of mud, stifled groans and breaths. Canvass and metal gear rattle as a hundred men adjust their packs, check their weapons, one by one rejoin the single file.
Twenty-five years later I hallucinate the photo in a Sumatran rain forest while walking with the earnest Mr. Mohammad. For one week, eight hours a day, I love these jungle treks with this dark-skinned wiry young man who is my guide. I love the sweet organic scent of the dangling thorned curtains of wait-a-minute vines, the forbidding dense underbrush and thick scrub, the ever present gauntlet of exposed twisting roots. I love the endless rocks encrusted with slippery moss, the dragon-like toppled rotting trees. I love how the sun-dapped light filters through ten thousand leafy branches as we sweat and march and make our way.
Mr. Mohammad cuts a trail like the teenager who walked first: a hundred times he lifts the well-honed machete up, hammers it down, whack, whack, whack. But today no leeches fall from trees to scavenge our blood, today we are not hunting humans, and they are not hunting us. Today there is no well-concealed ambush site hiding mines and men who lie in wait. No merciless kill zone from which none survive, no tell-tale enemy footprints or their pungent scent. There is no cloud-soaking monsoon, there are no sudden firestorms of smoke and steel. Today there is no glissando chorus of moans or shrieks from the wounded or dying. Today we take no prisoners.
Today is a good day. There is only our rhythmic cadence as we ply, bend and shift, carefully step off slippery rocks, or crawl under or over fallen trees. There is only the gentle pulling back of saplings so as not to whip the man behind. But my body is hunched forward, my eyes do not blink, and my index finger is pressed flat to an unseen trigger guard. Who will shoot first? Them or us?
From time to time Mr. Muhammad surveys the jungle floor, or the canopy above.
“Monkey,” he whispers, and seconds later, high overhead, a troop of gray haired Macaques make jittery vocals as they swing and scamper and disappear.
“How did you know that?” I ask.
“Monkey, parrot, snake, all jungle friend,” he says.
Mr. Muhammad is a good man. A good guide. He has worked with people from around the world. He knows what to say and when to say it. As we cross cold rushing streams, climb soft steep hills, grab roots and trunks to pull ourselves forward through muck and grime, as we plod and trudge past spiraling banyan trees, past brilliant grooves of emerald bamboo, deftly jog down narrow paths, I wonder, what is he thinking? He is a good man. He must know I love these jungle treks. He must.
Two hours later, breathing hard, our clothes caked with dirt and sweat, we finally stop, crouch and smile. Speak to me, friend. Tell me about yourself. Are you married? Do you have sons? Do you have land and food? Where is your village? Where are your ancestors buried? Tell me your stories.
After a time Mr. Muhammad peers and points to a half hidden den thirty meters away. “Look,” he says, eyeing the empty lair. “Tiger. Maybe gone.”
From somewhere dark and deep there is the old lust and fear, the need to hide or attack, shoot and stab and bayonet the snarling thing until it weakens and moans and finally slumps dead. Blood. Everywhere blood. See how the crimson pools glisten then soak the earth and all is quiet.
“You wait,” says Mr. Muhammad, who melts into the jungle to cut and carve spears.
I lean forward, press my palms to my knees, shift invisible weight off my back. Gulp down windless air. My heart roars inside my head. Sweat bleeds down my face. Take deep breaths, a dream voice says. C’mon, Doc. Deep breaths.
Danger arrives when you least expect it. Without thinking I look up. The two-legged monster is ten meters ahead. It is life sized and solid and three dimensional. It stares straight at me. There is ancient fear in its young battle face, there is a lifetime of hard won pain and fatigue, there are infinite valleys of sadness and sorrow. Seconds later this metal and flesh and nylon mimic, this phantom sail, this spectral breeze, flickers like star light then disappears.
Danger. Steps. Someone behind me. The claws of my fingers form a throttling fist.
“For you,” says Mr. Muhammad.
He hands me a ten foot pole with a sharpened point. “You see tiger, you kill,” he laughs. His black mustache accentuates a toothy grin.
Drenched with my tears and the tears of my sweat we move out.
For an hour we advance like sturdy flag bearers who have lost their flags. Where are you? Show your curved white fangs. Extend your long sharp claws. Hurl your lowing growls. C’mon. Attack. But there is nothing. The animal is gone.
Back at camp, a small wood cabin in a slashed and burned field, we see the old woman dressed in rags who lives with monkeys in her rickety hut.
“She is crazy,” says Mr. Muhammad. “Her spirit is lost.” The woman follows us with her unseeing eyes until we depart.
Inside the dimly lit cabin Mr. Muhammad prepares Nasi Goreng. He mixes water, spices, eggs and rice in a large blackened pot. He strikes a match, lights a handful of tinder, gently blows on it until there is fire.
“You have walked jungle,” he says, while stirring the mixture with a metal spoon. “Not like other people.” An inscrutable gaze, as he tends to the food and fire.
There is the sizzle and crackling sound of burning wood. The comforting muted scrape of metal on metal. There is the sight of rising scented steam permeating the cabin. Soon the boiling rice erupts with miniature craters.
The egg yoke coagulates in scattered strips. Mr. Muhammad empties out the remaining water. He adds a small tin cup of amber shaded cooking oil.
“Yes?” he asks, stirring the spoon in widening circles.
I turn my head, as if my eyes sting from smoke. Yes, I once lived in the jungle. Yes, the jungle lived in me. You know that. I can tell you know it.
“You are much hungry?” asks Mr. Muhammad. “I make, you want.”
More? I’ll give you more. I touched the living and dead from sun up till sun down every day of the week for one year straight. Their bloody torn rags, their dark raw muscles bubbling up from broken skin, the tilt of their heads for one last glance. You want more? After the mines hollow flash bang men’s voices shrieked past human bounds; every night legs and arms fell like living rain. More? Their bullets or bombs threw us back or ripped us in half, or blew us skyward; see how the screaming cartwheels fall in strange elastic shapes. Blood. Everywhere blood.
It begins to rain but the well built cabin keeps out the heaven sent drops and their steady tattoo. Mr. Muhammad lets the fire die out. He scoops equal portions of the rust-colored fried rice onto two metal plates. The food is good and afterward we talk. In a halting voice, in a haunted voice, I tell him things: This keeper of the unspoiled natural world. This good earnest guide. This man who does not snare or stun the living with clever hand made traps. Does not bash wagging heads with held-high rocks, or skin still pulsing bodies with sharp tipped knives. Or bind struggling arms and legs, stake them down, the better to rip out innards. He does not do that. Does not interrupt the whole time I confess my sins, our sins, theirs; and the knowing touch of his hands on my trembling back comes the moment the rain stops.
“Thank you,” I manage to say.
Side by side, Mr. Muhammad sets a pair of simple mats and hand woven blankets on the wood plank floor.
“When we walk,” he says. “Jungle say you good.”
Without fear or doubt or second thoughts he takes the bed on the right.
“Now,” he says, “Now sleep.”
MARC LEVY was an infantry medic in Vietnam/Cambodia in 1970. His work has been published in various online and print journals. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.