MONDAY: Once Upon a Time, a Soldier

BY HARRY POSNER

Copyright is held by the author. This is from a work-in-progress collection of flash fiction, AND MAYBE YOU FLOAT AWAY.

WHEN YOU wake up, they appear on the horizon of your vision like a ragged black pencil line moving across the floor of the jungle. With one eye blinded and the other bleeding, it’s impossible to know how far away they are. And whether they are moving toward or away from you. In any case, you can’t move — your leg bones having been pulverized by the crushing weight of the elephant’s feet.

One leg of the M2 tripod slashes across your vision, and you recall Htet’s final orders:

Hold your ground, Cho. Do not retreat under any circumstances.
   
Yes, sir.

You’re a good man, Cho. Show us how brave you can be.
   
Yes, sir.

Yes, sir. Yes, sir. How many times did you say it during the training? How many times did they slap you with their shoes, throw sand into your soup, because they could, because you were too small, too weak to do anything about it? Yes, sir. Yes, sir. They laughed as you and the others in your troop were made to crawl through trenches filled with mud and dung. Forced you to take apart and reassemble over and over again (Faster, Cho!) the M2 that was to be your constant companion. Slung 100-pound packs onto your back and told you to run up the sides of mountains.

Taught you to hate them. The “enemies of the state.” The ones who would come and kill your family. Mama, Papa, your little brother, Haing. You didn’t get very much of what Htet told you (what could you know at the age of 13?), but when he showed you the pictures of the mutilated and the dead, it didn’t take any more convincing.

When they took you away (Oh, how Mama cried.), Htet sat you down and said, It’s time for you to become a man, Cho. A man loves his country. A man fights for what is right. A man who dies for the love of his people is a hero. He put his heavy hand on your shoulder. Do you want to be a hero, Cho? A hero of Myanmar?

I guess so.

The vein in his forehead bulged, and then he slapped you across the face. The pain made you want to cry, but you knew that he’d hit you again if you started, so you held your tears.

That is the wrong answer, Cho. He shook his finger in your face. The right answer is “Yes, sir.”

Yes, sir.

His expression softened. He grabbed a hank of your hair. Good man. Now let’s turn you into a real soldier.

***

The sun has gone down on the Bago Yoma forest, and the gunfire has died away. You are alone in the jungle and night is falling. You should be frightened. But you feel no fear, and no pain. At least, not a pain that you can describe. It’s so deep, has wrapped you so completely in it arms, that you have nothing to compare it to. And even if you felt like screaming, your training has taught you to remain as silent as you can when in range of enemy territory. So, where are they, these enemies of the state? Maybe they retreated. Maybe they ran away like scared dogs when you started to cut them down with the Browning. But, where is your company? Where is Htet, who promised to take care of you (like my own son)?

The insects, too, have fallen silent. Bago Yoma is nodding off, and you are nothing more than a dark log under the jungle’s feet.

The pencil line seems to be moving closer, a dark smear crawling over leaf and twig, an army of smothering shadows filing through the curving gates of mangrove roots, overrunning everything in its path. Before falling unconscious, a memory invades your blurred mind. An image of Haing’s face, when you let him use your pencil for the first time. He was always sad, rarely smiled. Life was hard for your family, and he, a sensitive boy, felt it most acutely. But when you taught him how to hold the shaft, how to run the graphite line along the surface of the paper, his face lit up in an explosion of joy. It is a memory held to like a life raft, as you sink into darkness.

A stab of fear wakes you momentarily, and strafes your guts, as you begin to grasp what is about to happen, what has happened. It was something your Papa once told you: The jungle is a living thing, Cho. You cannot abuse it, or take it for granted, for it will fight back.

And he was right. You are a hero, and yet the jungle doesn’t care. Elephant and ant, working together like good soldiers, like heroes, will trample your dreams, and, in the end, eat your courage. The sand in your soup is the taste of defeat.

4 comments

  1. Georgia Dayley

    I love the imagery of the pencil line and the little flashback story about lending his brother his pencil. Well done.

  2. Suzanne Burchell

    We who live in a land so free can be even more grateful when we read this story that war does not take our children captive or make them become soldiers.The anticipated slap if you cried hit right into my belly. The war you describe is brutal — Trampled dreams and eaten courage — you a log under the jungle feet. I never really ‘got’ the Viet Nam war until this morning …………a superb piece. Suzanne

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