He caught a picture of a dense deep green forest in one of the next frames. Charley recognized the place and it brought back horrifying memories. It was the rainy season and by the time one could run 10 meters; a downpour could drench him to the bone. Typically it began in a trice as if somebody just turned on a giant shower and it might well quit as fast. The continual rain always meant high humidity which, coupled with the insufferable heat made existence in the jungle miserable at best. Added to the misery of the place where its inhabitants seemingly bent on human destruction. After a day of scouting one had to pick off a multitude of blood sucking leeches and disinfect mosquito and chigger bites. After that, it was necessary to cleanse the inevitable wounds and scratches caused by the razor sharp elephant grass of the jungle. Then maybe there was time to calm the nerves from encounters with enemy traps or snakes like the “two-
The torrent momentary stopped. And as if on cue, pandemonium broke out. It started with six muffled metallic chunks followed by six jungle shaking explosions just as someone shouted "incoming" as though it wasn't obvious to everyone in the patrol. Then the automatic weapon fire started with bullets burrowing holes, chipping bark and severing branches searching to tear into any flesh getting in the way. This was the third skirmish of the day as the patrol probed ever deeper behind the ever changing enemy lines. The intensity of the fire was such Charley knew it came from a large force of maybe 200 or more. He also knew his patrol was vastly outnumbered and this patrol could be his last.
A bullet struck a branch about four inches in front of his forehead followed by the report from the sniper’s rifle a split second later. He immediately dropped to the ground as though hit, hoping to buy some time and possibly spot the marksman. To him, the soldier apparently thought the round had found its mark as he turned his attention to other targets. The two sides exchanged automatic gunfire for what seemed much longer than the few minutes of actual terror and soon the patrol was ordered to fall back as their position became overrun by enemy soldiers. Charley tried to get up and follow his comrades to safety, but as he got up to run his foot remained attached to the jungle floor, entangled in the root system of the forest. Momentarily he panicked, trying to force his freedom, but then realized his continuing struggle would only draw the enemy's attention and he would either be shot or taken prisoner. He decided to play dead, a very difficult task in that part of the jungle crawling with all kinds of vermin. And indeed, In the course of about twenty minutes he had encounters with animals having four, six and eight legs, as well as some without any at all. A krait crawled across Charley’s chest and paused mere inches away from his face before scuttling off. At the same time he saw a black pajama clad VC passing about five meters away carrying a rifle with a large scope. The soldier paused for a few seconds and looked directly at Charley, who felt his heart pound as loud as the mortar rounds heard earlier. He recognized the man as La'nh (LaNee), a villager he met just hours before. Charley and his sergeant interrogated him, his wife and small son about ten or eleven, concerning the location of enemy soldiers and, of course, they denied seeing any.
In the present and from the vantage point of the frame, Charley saw something he couldn't see at the time and the new information shook him to the very core. La'nh (LaNee) was indeed aware of a large contingent of the NLF (National Liberation Front) regulars (Viet Cong) within earshot of the village. La'nh and his wife hated the killing, despised the war and were not sympathetic to the NLF. He knew the small American patrol was grossly outnumbered and would be killed if they encountered the NLF and only wished for the American patrol to avoid contact and escape. La'nh was an expert marksman and a deadly sniper for the VC, he also knew he was about to embark on a mission with them. Later, with Charley's temple in his crosshairs, the assassin moved his vertical crosshair forward four inches, squeezed the trigger and saw Charley react as expected. Later, La'nh left with the regulars and deliberately passed close enough to Charley to verify he was unhurt. "Praise God", he thought mentally, and continued on his way.
Time passed and Charley heard the commotion of battle pass in the distance and found himself alone in territory saturated by VC. Unlacing his shoes he was able to slip his foot out of his boot and then release it and himself from the jungle's clutches. He gathered his rifle to go. “NO! You Can't! Don't!” Charley shouted in the present while in his past, he heard rustling just meters away. It happened so fast. His rifle at the ready, safety off, the child appeared. His mind flashed to his father's intent to kill him a little while ago, anger and revenge raged, he squeezed the trigger, the torrent began. As the young boy bled out in his arms, his mind said accident and that became the official truth, but Charley's heart knew the real truth and his wounds might never heal. He wept his own torrent, that of bitter tears.
At the next frame, he was back at the firebase in the office of Colonel Matt Ulbricht. The officer was very concerned because he was inundated by reports of the murder of a civilian child. The locals had complained at practically every opportunity. Some networked with the military; at cafes, bars, brothels and shops. With every delivery to the military the drivers raised hell with them. The soldiers, in turn, related their stories up the chain. At the peace talks, the VC complained to the UN contingency of the “murderous act” of the soldier renegade as they referred to Charley. It caused a great deal of embarrassment to the UN “peace” negotiators who saw their righteous posturing slip after months of tedious work. They were now on the defensive and demanded an investigation.
“Corporal, what the hell did you do up there?” he roared in his most intimidating voice. “Sir, the boy stepped out of a clump of buffalo grass into my line of fire. It was an accident just as I told Sargent Scott.” he asserted. “But Scott said you had blood all over you when you got back to the base. Is that so?” “Yes sir, after the boy was hit, I went to him to see if I could help him but couldn’t. He bled out in my arms.” “Then how do you explain the knife wounds all over the kid’s body?”
The Charley in the hall saw the Charley in the frame turn ashen as the shock of what the Colonel told him sunk in. “Knife wounds?” he questioned. “Come on, Corporal, the way I see it you were trying to escape the regulars and you would attack anything perceived in harm’s way. “After all, weren’t you just about killed by Charlie that day? And didn’t you just barely escape son?”, “Yes sir, but I . . .” His words left him.
“Look son, you put us in a pretty nasty spot. The Cong wants your ass on a platter, the Whigs want to pacify the Cong, the villagers want justice and the Army wants the sacrifice. “Sir, it was the villagers that turned us. Sargent Scott and I interrogated some of them, a man named La'nh (LaNee) and his wife. They both denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of Charlie.” “So what you’re telling me is the villagers are VC?” “Yes sir”, Charley said adamantly. “Ok son, I think I know how to handle this”, the Colonel said. “I don’t think they will be able to trouble you further. Now get out of my office and don’t talk to anyone about this incident.”
The Charley in the hall began to shiver even though the temperature was very pleasant. He knew what was coming, and what he was about to witness would open a festering wound and he would feel bathed in the pus of guilt. Once again, he felt tormented and wanted to run. Yet, his feet would not move, but even if they could, they would not escape the fact his two words corroborated a lie and would seal the fate of an entire village.
The scene changed before his eyes. The weather had cleared and a mist rose like puffs of smoke from the freshly drenched foliage. He was back at the village, the same one his small platoon encountered the week before. The pungent smell of rain drenched thatch clashed with the odor of excrement filling Charley’s nostrils. He tried to bury the stench in his arm, but it would not move and so in agony, his senses on alert, he watched as the memory in the frame unfolded. Hanh, La'nh’s wife had just emerged from their hut. From the very beginning Charley found her very attractive and was especially drawn to her cascading black hair. It flowed around her diffident unblemished face, then across her bare shoulders and onto her almost transparent dress. He remembered it was the same loosely hanging dress he had seen before. Somehow, Charley knew her name, Hanh, reflected her character. It meant faithful and moral. This time, her eyes were bloodshot and her face mirrored her grief as she moved so mechanically, unlike the poetry in motion she displayed earlier. He couldn’t help but draw the mental analogy of a beautiful butterfly, now a cocoon bound by sorrow.
La’nh looked at her and at his very core empathized with her anguish. But even in sorrow, their chores still had to be done.
He picked up a pail and walked to the community well, now filled to nearly overflowing with the recent rain. The fluid in it was perfectly still, reflecting the azure sky above. As he was about to disturb the water, he noticed the reflection of three white thin lines in formation making their way across the sky. Though he could not hear any sound other than those emanating from the village, he knew the trails came from American B52s flying at more than 45000 feet above them carrying packages of death in their bellies. La'nh, used to calculating trajectories and plotting courses of his bullets, could also dead recon the destination of an aircraft by its course. This time, as he mentally calculated, his face turned ashen by what his mind told him. He did not want to believe.
“Hanh! Hanh,” he cried. And just as his mouth formed the word “Run,” the entire village erupted in flame and carnage. Hanh vaporized as did all of the villagers. As Charley watched through the frame, before his eyes, the village, once teeming with life and color now lay before him in the homogenous gray of ashes. He now sensed another smell, that of the death of every living thing within.
They didn’t deserve that, he cried to the emptiness of the hall. It was me who caused it. I shot their son and lied about it; I lied to the Colonel and I couldn’t stand up for the truth. “I alone am responsible for annihilating this village and killing these dear people.” Charley lamented, and then once again he wept in bitter anguish as he had done many times before. He convulsed until finally spent.
Through his tears, he looked back into the frame and saw two translucent images standing in the ashes of the village. La'nh and Hanh were transfigured but recognizable nonetheless. There was another personage behind them who was more discerned than seen. La'nh and Hanh looked at Charley. And while they clearly recognized him, their gaze was that of compassion in their countenance. The other presence behind them looked piercingly into his eyes holding his gaze then silently spoke. Charley could not divert his eyes as he conveyed his message through the frame transcending both time and space. He, or she (Charley could not discern at the time) spoke almost audibly, “Shalom, we’re glad you are here”, and with that, the frame closed.