Fiction from Web Del Sol


Robert Olen Butler

(from the book Coffee, Cigarettes, and a Run in the Park (Wisteria Press, 1996); first appeared in Mississippi Review Spring 1993)

      I have always been obedient to these true leaders of my country, even for their sake curling myself against a banyan root and holding my head and quaking like a child, letting my manhood go as we all did sooner or later beneath the bellow of fire from the B-52s. I said yes to my leaders and I went into the jungle and gave them even my manhood, but I sit now with a twenty-four year old pack of Salem cigarettes before me and a small photo trimmed unevenly with scissors and I whisper softly no. I whisper and I raise my eyes at once, to see if anyone has heard. No one has. I am alone. I look through my window and there is a deep-rutted road, bright now with sunlight, leading into the jungle and we are at peace in Vietnam, hard stuck with the same blunt plows and surly water buffaloes but it is our own poverty now, one country, and I turn my face from the closing of trees a hundred meters down the path. I know too much of myself from there, and I look at the objects before me on the table.
      He was alone and I don't know why, this particular American, and I killed him with a grenade I'd made from a Coca Cola can. Some powder, a hemp fuse and a blasting cap, some scraps of iron and this soda can that I stole from the trash of the village: I was in a tree and I killed him. I could have shot him but I had made this thing and I saw him in the clearing, coming in slow but noisy, and he was very nervous, he was separated and lost and I had plenty of time and I lobbed the can and it landed softly at his feet and he looked down and stared at it as if it was a gift from his American gods, as if he was thinking to pick up this Coca Cola and drink and refresh himself.
      I had killed many men by that time and would kill many more before I came out of the jungle. This one was no different. There was a sharp pop and he went down and there was, in this case, as there often was, a sound that followed, a sound that we would all make sooner or later in such a circumstance as that. But the sound from this particular American did not last long. He was soon gone and I waited to see if there would be more Americans. But I was right about him. I'd known he was separated from his comrades from just the way he'd picked up one foot and put it ahead of the other, the way he'd moved his face to look around the clearing, saying to himself, Oh no, no one is here either. Not that I imagined these words going through his head when I first saw him--it is only this morning that I've gone that far. At the time, I just looked at him and knew he was lost and after the grenade I'd made with my own hands had killed him, I waited, from the caution that I'd learned, but I knew already that I'd been right about him. And I was. No one appeared.
      And then I came down from the tree and moved to this dead body and I could see the wounds but they did not affect me. I'd seen many wounds by then and though I thought often of the betrayal of my manhood beneath the bombs of the B-52s, I could still be in the midst of blood and broken bodies and not lose my nerve. I went to this dead body and there were many jagged places and there was much blood and I dug into each of the pockets of the pants, the shirt, and I hoped for documents, for something to take back to my leaders, and all that I found was a pack of Salem cigarettes.
      I do not remember if the irony of this struck me at the time. I was a young man and ardent and at turns full of fury and of shame and these are not the conditions for irony. But we all knew, even at that time, that one of the favorite pleasures of the dear father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, was to smoke a Salem cigarette. A captain in our popular forces had a personal note from father Ho that thanked him for capturing and sending north a case of Salem cigarettes. This was all common knowledge. But I, too, liked American cigarettes, encouraged in this by the example of our leader, and I think that when I took this pack of Salem from the body, I was thinking only of myself.
      Like now. I am, it seems, a selfish man. Ho Chi Minh died that same year and we all went through six more years of fighting before our country was united and I owe my obedience to those who have brought us through to our great victory, but they have asked something now that makes me sit and hesitate and wait and think in ways that surprise me, after all this time, after all that I have been through with my country. The word has come down to everyone that we are to find any objects that belong to dead American soldiers and bring them forth so that the American government can name its remaining unnamed dead and then our two countries can become friends. It's like my wife's old beliefs and her mother's. These two women live in my home and they love me and they care for me but they do not change what they deeply believe, in spite of what I've been through for them, and they would understand this in their Buddhist way. It is as if we had all died and now we were being reborn in strange new bodies, destined to atone in this particular new incarnation for the errors of our past. The young VC and US soldier reborn as middle-aged friends doing business together, creating soda cans and cigarettes.
      Is it this that makes me hesitate to obey? I only have to ask the question to know that it is not. In the clearing, I put the pack of Salem cigarettes in my pocket and then I slipped back into the jungle and I smoked one cigarette later in the afternoon, shaking it out of the pack with my mind elsewhere as I sat beside a stream, a little ways apart from my own comrades. I did not wish to share these cigarettes with them and when I lit one and drew the smoke into my body, there was that familiar letting go from a desire both created and fulfilled by this thing I did, and I looked down the stream away from the others and in a few hundred meters the jungle closed in, black in the twilight, and I blew the smoke out and my nostrils flared from an odd coolness. I had never before smoked this favorite cigarette of Ho Chi Minh and for a moment I thought this soft chill in my head was somehow a sign of him. Such a thought--the vague mysticism of it--came easily to me and I never questioned it, though I think Ho himself would have been disappointed in me because of it. This was not the impulse of a mature communist, and much later, when I learned that there was a thing called menthol in some American cigarettes, I remembered my thoughts by the stream and I felt ashamed.
      But at the time, I let this notion linger, that the spirit of Ho was inside me, and I took the pack of cigarettes out of my pocket and now I looked at it more carefully: the blue-tinted green bands of color at the top and bottom, the American words, long and meaningless to my eyes except for the large Salem in a central band of white--this name I'd known to recognize. And there was a clear cellophane wrapper around the pack, which I ruffled a little with my thumb and almost stripped off, but I stopped myself. This was protection from the dampness. Then I turned the pack over and there was a leaping inside me as if a twig had just snapped in the jungle nearby. A face smiled up at me from my hand, a woman's face, and I stopped my breath so that she would not hear me. I suppose that this reflex ran on even into my hands where I was ready to draw my weapon and kill her.
      And she is before me now. The pack of Salem is in the center of the oak table that I made with my own hands, breaking down a French cabinet from an old provincial office building to make a surface of my own. The cigarette pack lies in the center of this table and the photo looks up from behind the cellophane, just where he put it, the man from the clearing. I have never taken the photo out of its place and I have never smoked another cigarette from the pack and these are things that I knew right away to do, even before my hands calmed and the beating of my heart slowed again beside the stream, and I did not ask myself why, I just knew to look once more at the woman--she had an almond-shaped face and colorless hair and a vast smile with many teeth--and then to put the cigarette pack into my deepest pocket with the amber Buddha pendant my wife had slipped into my hand when I went away from her.
      I expect her soon, my wife. I look through my window and down the path and she and her mother will come walking from out of the closing of the trees and she will be bearing water and her sudden appearance there along this jungle path will make my hands go soft and I am wrong to say that the hair of this woman in the picture has no color, there are times of the day when the sunlight falls with this color on our village and her hair has no color only against the jungle shadow of my wife's hair.
      I wish I had the reflexes of the days when I was a freedom fighter. Instantly I could decide to kill or to run or to curl down and quake or to rob a dead man's pockets or I could even make such a strange and complicated decision as to put this pack of cigarettes into my pocket with the secret resolve--secret even from myself--to preserve it for decades. Now I sit and sit and I can decide nothing. Something tells me that my leaders will betray all that they have ever believed in and fought for, that they will make us into Japanese. But even shaping that thought, I do not have a reflex, my hands do not go hard, they just lie without moving on the table top before the smile of an American woman, and perhaps what began beneath the bombs of the B-52s is now complete. Perhaps I am no longer a man.
      Still, I will not act in haste about this. That is the way of a twenty year old boy. I am no longer a boy, either. And even the boy knew to put this thing away and not to touch it. Why? I bend near and I wait and I watch as if I am hidden in a tree and watching the face of the jungle across a clearing. The photo has three sharp, even edges, top and bottom and down the left side, but the right side is very slightly crooked, angling in as it comes down through a pale blue sky and a dark field and past the woman's shoulder and then it seems as if this angle will touch her at the elbow, cut into her, and the edge veers off, conscious of this, leaving the arm intact. I speak of the edge as if it created itself. It is of course the man who made the cut, who was careful not to lose even the thinnest slice of the image of this woman he clearly loved. He trimmed the photo to fit in the cellophane around a pack of cigarettes and I understand things with a rush: he placed her there so that every time his unit stopped and sat sweating and afraid by a jungle stream and he took out his cigarettes to smoke, she would be there to smile at him.
      Is this not a surprising thing? A sentimental gesture like that from an American soldier who has come across an ocean to do the imperialist work of his country? Perhaps that is why I kept the pack of cigarettes. I am baffled by such an act from this man. Even my wife has such ways. We still have an ancestor shrine in our house. A little altar table with an incense holder and an alcohol pot and a teakwood tabernacle that has been in her family for many years and there is a table of names there, written on rice paper, with the names of four generations, and she believes that the souls of the dead need the prayers of the living or they will never rest and I tell her that this is not clear thinking in a world that has thrown off the tyrannies of the past, but she turns her face away and I know that I hurt her. This altar and the prayers for the dead do not even fit her Buddhism, they are from the Confucianism of the Chinese who oppressed us for centuries. But she does not hear me. It is something that lives apart from any religion or any politics. It is something that comes from our weakness, our fearful hopes for a life beyond the one that we can see and touch, and it is this that allows governments to oppress the poor and create the very evils I helped fight against.
      But as I look more closely at these objects and think more clearly, I realize I should not have been surprised at the sentimentality of this American soldier. I am confused in my thinking. His wife was alive. This was the picture of a living person, not a dead ancestor. And whatever excess of sentiment there was in his wanting to see his wife in the jungle each time he stopped to smoke a cigarette, his government had bred such a thing in him--it was their power over him--and I look beyond this smiling woman and there is a sward of bluegreen nearby but then the land goes dark and I bend nearer, straining to see, and the darkness becomes earth turned for planting, plowed into even furrows, and I know his family is a family of farmers, his wife smiles at him and her hair is the color of the sunlight that falls on farmers in the early haze of morning and he must have taken as much pleasure from that color as I take from the long drape of night-shadow that my wife combs down for me and the earth must smell strong and sweet, turned like that to grow whatever it is that Americans eat, wheat I think instead of rice, corn perhaps. I am short of breath now and I place my hand on this cigarette pack, covering the woman's face, and I think the right thing to do is to give these objects over to my government. I have no need for them. And thinking this, I know that I am trying to lie to myself, and I withdraw my hand but I do not look at the face of the wife of the man I killed. I sit back instead and look out my window and I wait.
      Perhaps I am waiting for my wife: her approach down the jungle path will make it necessary to put these things away and not consider them again and then I will have no choice but to take them into the authorities in Da Nang when I go, as I do four times a year to report on the continued education of my village. If my wife were to appear right now, even as a pale blue cloud-shadow passes over the path and a dragonfly hovers in the window, if she were to appear in this moment, it would be done, for I have never spoken to my wife about what happened in those years in the jungle and she is a good wife and has never asked me and I would not tempt her by letting her see these objects. But she does not appear. Not in the moment of the blue shadow and the dragonfly and not in the moment afterward as the sunlight returns and the dragonfly rises and hesitates and then dashes away. And I know I am not waiting for my wife, after all. It is something else.
      I look again at the face of this woman. The body of her husband was never found. I left him in the clearing and he was far from his comrades and he was far from my thoughts, even after I put his cigarettes in a place to keep them safe. Perhaps she has his name written on a shrine in her home and she lights incense to him and she prays for his spirit. She is the wife of a farmer. Perhaps there is some belief that she has that is like the belief of my own wife. But she does not know if her husband is dead or he is not dead. It is difficult to pray in such a circumstance.
      And am I myself sentimental now, like the American soldier? I am not. I have earned the right to these thoughts. For instance, there is already something I know of that is inside the cigarette pack. I understood it in a certain way even by the stream. I think on it now and I understand even more. When I shook the cigarette into my hand from the pack, the first one out was small, half-smoked, ragged at the end where he had brushed the burnt ash away to save the half cigarette, and I sensed then and I realize clearly now, that this man was a poor man, like me. He could not finish his cigarette, but he did not throw it away. He saved it. There were many half-smoked cigarettes scattered in the jungles of Vietnam by Americans--it was one of the signs of them. American soldiers always had as many cigarettes as they wanted. But this man had the habit of wasting nothing. And I can understand this about him and I can sit and think on it and I can hesitate to give these signs of him away to my government without thinking myself sentimental. After all, this was a man I killed. No thought I have about him, no attachment, however odd, is sentimental if I have killed him. It is earned.
      Objects can be very important. We have our flag, red for the revolution, a yellow star for the wholeness of our nation. We have the face of the father of our country, Ho Chi Minh, his kindly beard, his steady eyes. And he himself smoked these cigarettes. I turn the pack of Salem over and there is something to understand here. The two bands of color, top and bottom, are color like I sometimes have seen on the South China Sea when the air is still and the water is calm. And the sea is parted here and held within is a band of pure white and this word Salem, and now at last I can see clearly--how thin the line is between ignorance and wisdom--I understand all at once that there is a secret space in the word, not Salem but sa and lem, Vietnamese words, the one meaning to fall and the other to blur, and this is the moment that comes to all of us and this is the moment that I brought to the man who that very morning looked into the face of his wife and smoked and then had to move on and he carefully brushed the burning ash away to save half his cigarette because this farm of his was not a rich farm, he was a poor man who loved his wife and was sent far away by his government, and I was sent by my own government to sit in a tree and watch him move beneath me, frightened, and I brought him to that moment of falling and blurring.
      And I turn the pack of cigarettes over again and I take it into my hand and I gently pull open the cellophane and draw the picture out and she smiles at me now, waiting for some word. I turn the photo over and the back is blank. There is no name here, no words at all. I have nothing but a pack of cigarettes and this nameless face, and I think that they will be of no use anyway, I think that I am a fool of a very mysterious sort either way--to consider saving these things or to consider giving them up--and then I stop thinking altogether and I let my hands move on their own, even as they did on that morning in the clearing, and I shake out the half cigarette into my hand and I put it to my lips and I strike a match and I lift it to the end that he has prepared and I light the cigarette and I draw the smoke inside me. It chills me. I do not believe in ghosts. But I know at once that his wife will go to a place and she will look through many pictures and she will at last see her own face and then she will know what she must know. But I will keep the cigarettes. I will smoke another someday, when I know it is time.

Click on the right arrow below and go to next page