A short work of fiction by Stuart Thaman
Every day, more and more of them arrive. I watch through rusted binoculars as another transport crashes into the beach and lowers its door, unleashing a fresh wave of invaders upon my homeland.
I sigh and shake my head. They will never learn. Tonight will be my night to go to the beach and fetch their pale skulls. The rifle strapped to my bare back is cold and unforgiving. It itches to be used, by my fingers have grown weary of pulling the trigger. When the milky white invaders first appeared on our shores, I was eager to kill. Everyone was. I hid behind patriotic fervor in order to justify my slaughter. Now, every life I have taken weighs heavily on my shoulders.
I turn back to my brother with sorrow building behind my eyes. “How many?” I ask, waiting for him to finish counting the new invaders. His lips move slowly with each number and remind me of our life before the invasion. My brother was a singer, somewhat of a prodigy in our village, and the heart and soul of our close family. During the first week of the invasion, a bullet grazed the front of his throat and stole his voice forever - just another casualty of the needless aggression that plagues my country.
My brother draws a number in the wet mud at our feet and puts his binoculars away in a dusty leather pouch. “Thirty…” I read aloud. I had figured as much. It will be a long night.
Three other young men from my village crouch in the underbrush behind me and await my orders. As the eldest man of fighting age, I was selected by the elder to lead our people through the invasion. It is a burden I no longer wish to carry.
With a heavy heart, I give the men their orders. “Spread through the tree line and ready the mortar. At dusk, rain death upon them.” The men nod in unison and obey my orders without question. They know that the death they bring will be on my hands, not theirs. Guilt does little to slow down their youthful eagerness.
The sun falls down behind the mountain at my back and a thick curtain of humid darkness muffles my sounds. I creep along the shoreline until I find a thin length of braided rope poking up from the sand. I tug on the line and the hidden door rises up from the beach. There is just enough room to slide my body inside the hidden chamber and close the trapdoor once again. Once it is sealed, I turn on my flashlight and find the next tunnel.
The ground shakes and agonizing screams shatter the peaceful lapping of the waves above me. I close my eyes and offer a solemn prayer for the souls of the invaders. Even though our war is just, it does not feel right to kill them. Killing never feels right. The mortar thunders again and the shell whistles through the air. Three seconds later, it crashes into the invader’s camp and a fresh chorus of dying cries answers it.
Some of the invaders fire back with rifles and machine guns, but at night in unfamiliar territory, they are firing blindly. I begin crawling through a freshly dug tunnel under the sand as my fellow tribesmen return fire with their own automatic weapons. Judging by the frequency of the invader’s pained screams, it is a bloodbath. “You should not have come here…” I whisper to the damp sand, pulling my body through the tunnel a few inches at a time.
The white-skinned invaders yell back and forth in their strange language, scattering into the edges of the jungle. Another ear-splitting blast from the mortar quiets several of the voices.
I reach the end of the tunnel and direct my flashlight above my head, searching for the next trapdoor. I find the edge of the wooden plank and pry it free of the wet sand. Lifting the door a fraction of an inch above the beach, I use my flashlight to signal back to my brother that I have reached the invader’s camp. One final mortar shell crashes into the jungle not far in front of me and three of the invaders are thrown wildly into the air. What a waste of life, I pity them. Several of their bloody limbs land near me and the smell of fresh blood mixes with the once-refreshing aroma of the nighttime sea to make my head swim in nausea. Time to go to work.
With a single, silent heave, I push the trapdoor up and pull myself onto the beach. I unsling the rifle from my back and peer into the darkness. Despite his camouflage uniform, one of the invader’s milky white arms gives him away as he darts behind a tree. I crouch down to one knee and steady the rifle. He has no idea I am here.
As silent as death itself, I pull the trigger. The rifle bangs and sends a bullet hurtling toward the back of the invader’s spine. With a sickening crack, the man falls dead. I hold my breath and ready another bullet in the chamber of my rifle. For a long moment, everything is still and quiet. The soft lapping of waves against the sand is my only companion. When I am certain that I remain unseen, I dart toward the fallen soldier and draw my long knife.
With one fluid motion, I sever the fallen soldier’s head from his neck. Delicately, I pick up the disembodied head and carry it back to the trapdoor. It falls to the bottom of the tunnel with a wet thud.
I scamper back to the edge of the jungle and pause, listening for any signs of movement from the enemy invaders. From miles down the beach, the feint echo of gunshots reaches my ears and fills my heart with grief. Those shots are another tribe’s problem. I try to push the sound out of my head but can’t shake the image of my countrymen being shot and slaughtered. My eyes wander to the bloody knife in my hand. Do the invaders I kill feel the same way? Do they dread being shot and slaughtered? Do they cry for their fallen compatriots? “No,” I whisper toward the distant gunfire. “They invaded our homeland. They deserve their fate.”
One of the invaders calls out from behind a fallen tree trunk. He is whispering, but my trained ears locate his voice immediately. A second invader responds from the other side of the trunk. I steady my rifle and wait for the nearest soldier to settle back into the sand. The two pale-skinned invaders exchange words for several minutes before I fire. The bullet rips through the front of the soldier’s chest and kills him instantly. Without hesitation, I chamber another round and wait for the second invader to peak over the tree trunk. He does just as I expected, and my bullet rips his neck and collarbone to shreds.
I run to the fallen tree and make quick work of the two corpses, collecting their heads in the secret tunnel.
With my rifle clutched tightly in my hands, I run through the edge of the tree line and search for any more invaders that might have survived the mortar bombardment. I pass twenty or more pale corpses, but they can wait. There will be time to collect their heads when I am sure they are all dead.
Just as I turn around a large tree to follow a stream further into the jungle, one of the invaders leaps up from the dense underbrush with a furious growl. He jabs at me with a small black knife, but my body is smaller than his and more agile. I sidestep the attack and slam the butt of my rifle down on the back of his hand. The knife flies from his grip and is lost in the stream.
Without thinking, I headbutt the invader and smash his nose. Pain flares through my forehead, but I know it is nothing compared to what he must be feeling. The man stumbles back and clutches at his bloody face. His eyes, once soulless orbs filled with hatred, are sad and desperate.
I step forward and level the rifle at his chest. He holds up his hands in surrender, slowly walking backward until his back hits a tree. Blood cascades down his face and turns his uniform from green to red. He mutters something rapidly, over and over, while looking toward the sky. I don’t understand his gestures, but his intent is obvious. The pathetic cowardice in his eyes conveys nothing but surrender.
“How arrogant,” I spit at him, fully aware that our language barrier makes verbal communication worthless. “You came to my country, tried to kill my tribesmen, and then beg for mercy? You make me sick.” My finger caresses the trigger, but I decided to conserve my ammunition.
I drop my rifle and draw my knife, inching closer and closer to the muttering invader. Finally, with his hands still held above his head, I plunge my knife deep into the man’s gut and turn it, ripping it violently upward and spilling his innards all over the sand.
With my rifle back in my hands, I stalk the beach and hunt for any more invaders that might still be alive. I find none. It takes over an hour to collect all thirty heads, but I am thorough and efficient.
When the sun pushes up from the edges of the ocean and morning breaks, I return to my tribe with thirty heads in a bag on my back. The village elder comes out of his hut to greet me with a warm smile and a bow. “You did well, Giáp,” he congratulates me. Returning his bow, I drop the bag of heads on the ground at his feet.
As the long rays of sunlight climb up the mountain to the village center, every member of the tribe comes out of their hut to see the night’s bounty. The women gather the bloody heads and divide them up, taking them to the western side of the village to be boiled in large metal pots.
“Well done,” one of the villagers says as he claps me on the back. My brother stands next to him, unable to speak, but smiling nonetheless.
“Thank you,” I reply, but the words sound hollow in my chest. I take no joy in killing. To protect my family and my tribe, I will do everything I have to, but I will not enjoy my responsibilities.
By midday, the tribe has prepared a celebratory meal of fruit and roasted meat, and I allow my mind to slip away from the war and find refuge in the comforting food. The younger villagers come up to me and ask for stories, but they groan and turn away when I begin telling them the tale of Thi Kien, our tribe’s most celebrated ancestor. The youngsters are eager for the story of my recent victory over the invaders, but romanticizing war is not something I can bring myself to do.
Just before the onset of dusk, the women gather to carry the boiled skulls to hoa àu đỏ, the Peak of Red Flowers. Thirty women, each carrying a single white skull in front of them, form a line and march up the mountain to the summit. I follow grimly at the rear of the procession with my brother.
After an hour of hiking, we reach the highest point of the mountain. The area is flat, decorated with ancestral sculptures and icons, and offers a vivid view of the ocean. All around, vines grow in wild, crisscrossing patterns, and small red flowers blossom in abundance. At the center of it all, lies the mountain of skulls. Every night, after the invaders are killed, their skulls are brought to hoa àu đỏ as an offering to our ancestors for continued protection.
My brother and I stand watch as the women walk past the mountain and toss the skulls onto it. “There must be thousands…” I marvel, wondering if the war will ever come to an end.
Next to the growing mountain of skulls, intricately carved stone totems stand as grave markers for our fallen tribesmen. Several plots have been recently dug in the last few days. The women gather around the graves and grieve, crying for their lost sons and brothers.
“They will run out of men,” my brother croaks through his disfigured and wounded throat. It takes him several minutes to find the strength to say a simple sentence, but the accomplishment makes him feel human again.
As we turn to begin our descent, a bright flash of light catches my eye. I grab my brother’s binoculars from his belt and scan the horizon. Tears well up in my eyes as I count the ships motoring toward the beach – toward my homeland.
“No, little brother,” I sigh, handing him back the old binoculars. “America will never run out of sons. Even at this rate, Vietnam will fall.” Several transport ships land on the beach as we hike back down to the village. No one speaks. The deafening chorus of battleship artillery is all the dialogue we need.