|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Pham Truong Thi
It was deep into the night. Tien gradually came out of his coma and recognised his surroundings. "Is this the frontline?" he asked himself. "But there's no gunfire, no sounds of aircraft and no flares. There's nothing at all!"
The sky was full of stars that twinkled brightly. A fresh wind was blowing strongly. It reminded him of the place in the country where he grew up. "There's nothing to show that this place was just a battleground," he whispered. "Yet why have my arms been cut off and my legs nearly crippled?"
He tried to rise up to the edge of the bomb crater in order to observe the world outside. But his wounded legs and amputated arms refused to obey.
Slowly he opened his eyes. The moon had risen high. Thanks to its light, he saw that there were a lot of tiny flickering flames on the field. He also smelt something burning. Perhaps it was the contents of the destroyed tanks, ruined artillery pieces and ammunition, bags of rice, even novels or poetry anthologies. Sometimes he perceived the whirr of an L.19 reconnaissance plane.
Clearly, it was the battleground of the Quang Tri front. Those who were still alive had returned to their barracks.
"Am I the only soldier still alive? A hyphen between death and life, perhaps?" He had engaged in a fervent battle in a K.3B tank fully equipped with various heavy guns and a lot of shells. Sadly, now his four companions lay here motionless. "Doc, Loc, Phong and Nam, where are you now?" Tien said in a sorrowful voice. "I'm the only survivor and I'm in a terrible condition."
In the bright moonlight, the immense expanse of white sand looked like a huge mirror. In front of him, about fifty metres away, something like a great snake lay within sight. It was Highway One. A deep hollow on the ground shed light on his situation. As the commander of a company of tanks, he used to keep its door, close to his seat, wide open for convenient observation. When his vehicle was hit by a heavy shell, he must have been pushed out. His current lying place was a large bomb crater not very far from his ruined tank.
This wall was formed by white sand. Strangely enough, it was dotted with tiny black stains. Pondering this, he realised they were drops of his own blood left behind when he was cast into the crater by a bomb explosion.
He lay full length, his head resting on the edge of the hole, and looked upwards for a long while. Waking up, he knew that death was gradually crawling to him. His comrades-in-arms would hardly be able to find him in such a nasty place, amid the vast expanse of deserted sand. Even if they saw his tank lying upturned alone near the highway, they would give up their search, thinking that it was nothing but a colossal steel coffin with a number of charred bodies inside.
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Later, a typed notice filled in with the name Tran Van Tien would be sent to his village. His wife Nguyen Thu Huong would read the cliches from his superiors about his outstanding exploits on the battlefield. Together with that consolatory sheet would be his letter, which said, among other things, "…Do you weep much for my death? Can you bring up our nine-year-old daughter properly? What will you do in the future? Will you marry again?,…"
Tears began trickling down his cheeks.
"No! I must survive," he said to himself. He imagined the day he would be return home. But how would he move when his legs were no longer working? What would he do when his two arms had been cut short? And how could his wife feed three mouths? Many miserable pictures of his uncomfortable condition tormented him. "Come what may, I must return home to my wife and daughter," he said to himself.
Then he changed his mind. "No, no! They are only hallucinations. Death is near," he whispered to himself. When the Devil encountered Tien, he would torture him so brutally that he only wished to die.
The sky was now very clear. All around, things remained quiet. All seemed to have fallen into oblivion. All of a sudden, he found something bulging under his back. It turned out to be his grenade. "So much the better! I could end my life quickly and easily with just a press on the trigger. However, how could I reach it when my arms are this short?"
If he survived in that sand hole, he might bite the dust the next day or the day after tomorrow due to the terrible heat of Central Viet Nam. After that, a heavy downpour would take place and he would turn into prey for vultures.
Then he lost consciousness in a seemingly eternal coma. When he woke up, he had a strange feeling. He felt comfortable, as if nothing bad had happened to him. He looked upwards and realized that the moon had risen high and was shedding an illusory kind of light on the sand.
He opened his mouth wide, as if he could swallow up that sweet air.
Suddenly, he spotted two black figures slowly moving on the sand.
"Who are they: friends or foes?" he asked himself. "What would happen to me if they are hostile?" If they were his comrades-in-arms, they would come to his rescue, thus lengthening his physical torture beyond his imagination. If they were enemies, they would kill him immediately, thus ending his long-lasting agony.
The two silhouettes loomed larger and larger with every passing minute. Close to him, they silently lay down on the sand.
"Clearly, they've seen me," Tien whispered to himself, lowering himself further in a defensive manner. He saw them huddle together, then crawl in two opposite directions. "They're approaching me in a hand-to-hand fight," he said to himself. When they were only about ten metres away, they stopped abruptly.
"Who are you? Nationalists or VC's?" one of them asked Tien. His accent made Tien recognize that he was a soldier of the Sai Gon Army.
"I'm a Liberation Front fighter."
"No, I can't. I'm seriously wounded."
"Don't try to cheat me. Now hands up."
"I've got no hands to raise!"
"Really? Drop your gun and stand up."
"I've got no legs to stand up! They've been cut off."
"Face him," ordered the other man.
They continued to creep closer and closer. Now Tien could see two AR.15 sub-machineguns directed straight at his chest.
"Check him carefully."
At once, Tien's body was searched. The Sai Gon soldier found Tien's grenade easily.
"Here's his grenade."
"Where's his gun?"
"There's nothing of that kind."
"What about his haversack?"
"None. Poor guy! He hasn't got any arms and legs."
The commanding soldier knelt down on the edge of the crater and urged his man to examine Tien carefully.
"You're an officer, is that right?"
"Shot me dead right away, will you? No more questions," Tien said calmly.
"It's not that easy, mate," the soldier said, lifting Tien's chin.
"Sorry that I haven't got a pistol to talk to you with," Tien whistled.
"No more of that warlike attitude, mate. Your name and rank, please."
"Tien. My full name's Tran Van Tien."
"Lieutenant, Company Head."
"It's the one that beat you to pieces yesterday."
"Well, E.202, right? We'd better take him to our superior so that he may be promoted to a higher rank and enjoy a week off in Sai Gon."
"You won't be able to lead me away," Tien told them. He was going to spring up, but failed. In his delirium, he overheard their talk.
"He's unable to go away, Sergeant. Let's give him a coup de grace."
"You want to shoot him."
"No! I couldn't do it well."
"So, you're going to instigate me to kill him?"
"Far from that, Sergeant! I'm a Buddhist."
"You think that I'm keen on murder, don't you?" retorted the sergeant. "'Love others as you do yourself,' do you know that admonition to mankind by Jesus?"
"In our division, you're said to be a notorious Tiger."
"War is another story. When two tigers fight each other, only their paws matter. When we rush into the battleground, it's one thing, but our present situation is quite different. Shoot him dead, even though you're a war correspondent."
"Don't force me to do so, Sergeant, please? I can't shoot a weaponless guy."
"So what should we do for the time being?"
"Leave him to his fate, Sergeant. Now, lead me to a typical place of the battleground for me to take a few photos, please."
"He'll surely die. Blood is oozing out profusely. We'd better give him a coup de grace."
"How can we have the heart to do that, Sergeant? Besides, I'm sorry that we haven't got a roll of bandages. Think about it, Sergeant."
Immediately, the Sergeant took off his combat jacket, tore it apart and threw one piece to his man.
"Is that enough?"
Both of them were now in the big hole. They lifted Tien up. They turned out to be fairly skilled in administering first aid. Meanwhile, Tien convulsed terribly in agony.
"Water! Water! I'm awfully thirsty," Tien insisted.
A few drops of water dripped into Tien's mouth from the soldier's water bottle.
"Some more, please!"
"No, no! The more you drink, the more dangerous your life is."
"OK, thanks anyway," Tien said in a weak voice.
"Oh dear, Sergeant. I've found out the contents for my article and picture-to-be. They'll go as follows: 'The wound of a Liberation Lieutenant is bandaged with the jacket of a Nationalist Sergeant'."
"Excellent! How smart you are! Compared to you, I'm just a blind man. OK! Let's perform our duty."
"Please give me your hand, Sir."
"Eat it, will you?" said the Sergeant, showing Tien a piece of biscuit.
"No thanks," Tien shook his head.
"Do you smoke, Lieutenant?"
Tien nodded his head.
Tien puffed deeply at the burning cigarette. The three of them stared at one another silently.
"Please shoot me," Tien told them at last.
"Lieutenant, don't you think about your wife and child in the North?" asked the soldier. "Don't you want to go home?"
"War is a cruel game. For me, being captured means death."
"Come what may, we can talk to each other."
"Sir, the soldier-journalist's statement sounds reasonable. You'll be taken to your military base safe and sound."
"No, no! Shoot me as soon as possible, please. I need a bullet rather than an extra day of life."
"Where does your unit billet?"
"I don't really know," Tien replied calmly.
"OK, let's assume that the fight has come to an end here. The southern section of that village over there is the base of our Nationalists' Army; whereas, the northern part is that of the Liberation Army. We'll take you to your place, Lieutenant."
They took turns to carry Tien northwards on their backs.
"Do they really intend to save my life? I must be vigilant, or else," Tien said to himself.
Finally, they put him down on a dune with some low bushes.
"Your village is very near here, Lieutenant. Sadly, we're unable to come closer. If we wait until early morning, you'll certainly die," said the soldier.
"Well, I'll find a way out," he said again. "It seems to me that when you need a rescue, you'll fire three shots upwards, is that right?"
Tien just stared at him.
"We've taken you here, but you're still doubtful?" the Sergeant remarked. "If we wished to kill you, we wouldn't have done so. What's more, we want to return your side's favour of healing the wounds of our men several days ago. That's fair."
"OK, let him lie here. After going back about thirty metres away, we'll fire three shots upwards," the soldier told his superior.
They left. All of a sudden, the soldier came back.
"Lieutenant, when your men come to your rescue, please tell them to shoot three salvoes to reply, you see," he said to Tien.
In a minute, they disappeared into the immense field of white sand.
Hearing three shots, Tien's comrades-in-arms went to his place. Immediately, they recognized the head of their K.3B tank, who had been hit by a howitzer shell the previous day.
"My dear men, please shoot three salvoes upwards," Tien told them in a low voice.
"What for, Sir?" asked one of them.
"He might be in delirium," observed another.
"No, no! I'm quite sane. That's my order. Do as you're told," Tien said in an emphatic voice.
"Yes, Sir. We're ready."
Three resounding shots were heard.
Tien smiled. "Surely, they're smiling too," he whispered to himself.
Translated by Van Minh