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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-two THE CAVE

by
KEN WILLIAMS
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Y

ou aren’t a bum. You’re a wounded man. A wounded warrior.”



Observing Linh’s way of soothing Miles' painful anger told Pops that the two had entered a new stage in their relationship. The smile that started died abruptly. Pain from his busted lips again cut through the painkillers. Then his eyes darkened. The phrase: “Wounded warrior.” Registering with vengeance. Every pain pathway in his busted body was firing as one. The words forced his sight to drift to the medal in his hand. “’Wounded warrior.’ Not exactly the words I’d used. Maybe gutless soul? Perhaps sap.”



“Yours?” Miles questioned. Having followed Pops line of sight. Ignoring his words. Pops did not respond. “They only give those things for bravery: Courage in the face of the enemy. It’s a Bronze Star.”



Pops’ mouth opened wide. It closed without uttering a sound. It was up to Linh to devalue the myth. “You did not earn this for bravery.” It was not a question. A gentle yet firmly stated fact.



“Why do they call everyone who fights in a war a hero?” Pops asked. Lacerated voice. Pouring his widened eyes into Linh. Miles turned to leave. Linh stopped him. Gently laying her hand on his arm. Angrily. He threw it off. Turned his scathing gaze into her eyes. She did not blink an eyelid. Did not take a step back. Firmly. She held his gaze till his self-loathing abated. Shamed. He dropped his stare onto the medal. Broken voice.



“Because they’re stupid.”



“Don’t they understand we were too scared to be heroic?” Pops was pleading to an absent jury. “Even those that I know---who did something brave. Told me they just reacted. Said that they didn’t have time to do anything else. That if they'd had time to think about it. They probably wouldn’t have done it.”



“But some did think. And still did something heroic?” Linh offered.



“Yes. And they’re dead! All of them---dead! Do you hear me? The true heroes never came home.” Pops’s voice ended in a whisper. Coming from far away. Dark place.



“And yet? There is more? Is there not?” Linh question.



“More? What are you asking?” Miles stated. Lost to the direction that they conversation had lurched to.



Finally. A soft smile that did not test the wounded mouth came to Pops. “Smart girl. I mean woman. Where would I begin?” He questioned.



“The A Shau.” Linh replied.



Pops rocked back in his bed as far as the pillows would allow. What little color he had. Bled out. Turning his face a ghastly white. “The A Shau.” He repeated. Voice tense. Like a child would use to say: Under the bed. Or in the closet for the location of the bogeyman that had scared them.



“Winter of ’69. The A Shau Valley straddled the border between Vietnam and Laos. Running straight down the middle of hell. It was the major transportation road for the N.V.A. They moved every bullet. Mortar round. Artillery shells. Hell. Even hauled their artillery down that road.



“The valley itself was from the time of the dinosaurs. It ran miles long. Trapped within these high and incredibly rugged mountains. Trees on the mountain tops were so tall their crowns disappeared into the clouds. They looked like they had simply been decapitated. Swear to God it had ferns as big as a man---and the most mystical rushing rivers. The forest was triple canopy. It was so thick that the sunlight never made it to the ground. And this ghostly mist covered everything. It was so bright it hurt to look at it. So thick it smothered sound. It was the kind of mist that chilled you to the bone regardless of the temperature. It clung to you like a second skin. We lived in that mist. Ate in that mist. Slept and died in that mist. And I think. We eventually lost our sanity to it.



“They told us that the A Shau was supposed to be deserted. Just us---the NVA. It had been fought over so often. So brutally that no civilians could survive.”



“But they did. At least some.” Linh stated as knowledge. Not as a question.



“Yes. Some. We had been there two weeks already. Had already lost a quarter of our company to the NVA and a shitload of medieval diseases: Malaria. Dysentery. Dengue fever. Typhus. You name it. We had it. And like I said. The land was as primitive as could be. Snakes. Falls. Drowning. Even had this new guy squished by a falling tree.



“And then you had the NVA who were pretty good at killing. Hell. That valley had more ways to kill you than you had of keeping alive. That damn valley was a killing machine. It was haunted!”



“You mean... alive.”



Miles shot a quizzical look to Linh. What the hell had she meant: Alive?



An element of fear pulled at the corners of Pops eyelids. Dropping them low. “Yeah. Alive.” Fear hollowed out his voice. “We began to hear things.”



“Hears things?” Miles questioned. “What things?”



“I don’t know… Things. You know: Like soft moaning. Also. Someone walking. Very gently. Much more gentle and quiet than a Marine. Or even a North Vietnamese soldier. Of course, we’d light up the place when we heard it. Scores of M-16s and all the arty and air strikes we could muster. But when the ringing cleared from our ears. And in the very early morning---two---maybe three we’d hear the rustling again. Who knows? Maybe it was just fatigue? At least that was what we tried to convince ourselves. Then the moaning would start. It was like someone was wailing in grief. But? Then again more like in pain? It was the scariest thing I’d ever heard. Or hope ever to hear.”



“That was not all.” Linh.



“No. That was not all.” Pops’ body collapsed further into the bed. It was like air had been pumped out of it. “Some began to see---I guess you’d call it an apparition. A floating image of this ancient Vietnamese dude. White flowing beard. Some of the Vietnamese scouts said he was a spirit---a protector of the mystical land. If you looked right at him… You could never see him. But if you looked away and suddenly back. There he was.”



“What does he have to do with the Bronze Medal?” Miles asked. Confusion ringing in his ears.



“Nothing. Everything. This one morning we were ordered to come down off the peaks. We went into this really deep canyon. First thing we did was run into an NVA base camp. They had squad size bungalows built on stilts. Shiiit. We found cooking pots full of cooked rice. Covered in maggots. There were abandoned uniforms. Rifles. Tons of ammo. Mortars. Everything you needed for a war. But no soldiers. There weren’t any soldiers! We continued our recon-in-force. A few clicks beyond we came upon this stone-age village. Thatched huts. Pigs. Farming stuff like. And people. They were short. Deep bronzed skin. The women were half-naked. Held their potbellied babies in slings. Old men. And for the first time any of us could remember. We saw men of gun bearing age not in uniform. Damndest thing. They didn’t speak Vietnamese. Our scouts were contemptuous of them. Treated them badly. Long story short… Our Captain. With hand gestures and pieces of broken Vietnamese. Tried to tell them the best he could that they had one night to evacuate the valley. After that… Their valley---the whole length of the A Shau would be subjected to ongoing B-52 strikes.



“Towards evening we pulled back a few clicks. Set up a perimeter. The villagers either mistook the warning as a threat. Or more likely they realized a threat when they heard one.



“About one that morning they came at our lines as if hunting boar. They didn’t seek protection. Simply walked right into the fire from our rifles. We mowed them down like blades of grass. The next morning when we policed the carnage, we found blowguns. Bows. Arrows. A few single shot rifles. Hell, even a flintlock. A fucking flintlock.” Pops said. Shaking his head in disbelief.



“Towards late afternoon of the following morning we lit up the village. Some R.E.M.F. ordered an airstrike. High explosives. Willey Peter. Napalm. You name it. It was delivered. And of course later that the ancient guy in white came to our lines. His moaning was even more hurtful than before. Believe me. It cut like a knife. Time after time a solitary M-16 would open up. Did no good. He just kept up that wail. Swear to God it sounded like he had crawled inside our heads. Nothing would shut him up.



“Same shithead that ordered the strike ordered us the following morning to sweep the village. He was determined that the village must have been part of the NVA base camp. Also told us we were bugging out at 1500 hour. A half hour after that the B-52 bombardment would commence. Any Marine left behind was as good as dead.



“Not only was I tired. But I was in the opening rounds of malaria. Swear to God it felt like someone had worked me over with a 2x4. Thought my head was going to split open it hurt so bad.



“Of course nothing was left alive when we got to the village. The place stunk like rotten eggs. That would be courtesy of the white phosphorous. The sweet smell of burnt flesh was everywhere. Then we caught a few rounds of AK-47s. Should've known something wasn’t right. The villagers hadn’t used any automatics in their suicidal night raid. Our captain was out looking for a medal to pad his resume. So he ordered us to engage them. They ran. We followed---except me. I collapsed. The malaria was kicking my ass. They put a few flak vests over me to keep me warm. Put me under some bushes. Told me they would be right back.



“They left me there like that Miles. Can you believe it? Only thing I kept thinking was that John Wayne would never abandon a fellow Marine like that! Hell. Any NVA punk with a sharpened pole could have taken me prisoner.



“Soon as they left the moaning began. I was hurting. Shaking bad. But somehow managed to look up. There in the middle of that burnt hell that used to be a village stood the old man. Staff in hand. When he saw me looking over. He stopped moaning. Just stared at me for the longest time. Didn’t move at all. Tried shutting my eyes. Hoping he would be gone when I opened them. He wasn’t. Then he slowly waved to me as if beckoning me to come over to him. I buried my head under the vests. Started crying like a baby. My head was hurtin’ so bad. I was so tired. Burning up with fever. I simply wanted to die. Just wanted to shut my eyes and have all of it disappear. I didn’t care if I ever opened them again. Figured even death was better than this shit.”



“But it wasn’t just the physical pain was it?” Linh inquired softly.



“All I could think was that those poor villagers were a community: A communal group of family and friends one day. Crispy critters the next. I didn’t…I never would had…



“Then the first rockets flew overhead. I swear to God I heard a thousand AK-47s cuttin’ loose. The company had run into an ambush. Time passed. Guess I musta’ passed out. The high-pitched sing-song of spoken Vietnamese woke me.” A brittle. Caustic snicker broke the monologue. It was rapidly strangled to a stop. Pops continued. “Nothing scares you out of a suicide wish like true death staring you in the face. Somehow I stood up. Staggered into the jungle.



“Hours? Or minutes? Mere feet? Or miles? I’ll never know. Not even sure it was real. I know that later aboard the hospital ship I went in and out of a fever induced, hallucinatory semi-coma for days. Anyways. I found this trail. Followed it till it ended at the base of this mountain. And next to this huge, two story tall boulder. The old man in white stood. I pulled up short. Leveled my M-16 at him. I was going to shoot him. Was fully prepared to till I looked him in the eyes. You know what I saw?”



“Disappointment.” Linh stated quietly.



“Yeah. Disappointment. Yeah. Like I was letting him down by killing him.”



The room grew bitterly quiet. To no effect, Miles stuck his hands into his pockets. Trying to warm his suddenly cold body. “So what did you do?” He finally asked.



“I know I shoulda’ wasted the fool. In my state probably took an NVA soldier for the old man. But I couldn’t. Just couldn’t. I lowered my rifle. The hurt lifted a little from his eyes. And then the damnedest thing. He beckoned me over. Just like he had done before. I was too tired. Too sick to do anything other than go towards him. When I got there. He was gone. But…” Pops lips quivered. His eyes moistened. A living hell was being wrenched from the man.



“What happened next? What was behind the boulder?” Linh asked.



With a shaking voice threatening to break. He began anew. “An entrance to a tunnel. It cut into the mountain. Couldn’t see it till you were standing right next to that big rock. It was like it was hiding the entrance. Just as I entered, I heard the sound of a lot of running feet, also bodies thrashing through the jungle. Then a few M-16s began firing. Followed by a whole shitload of Ak-47s coming from behind. Then came the screams---lots and lots of screams and grown men crying out for their mothers. Whimpering. Blood-curdling cursing in both languages was being exchanged. The air was full of savagery. It was basic barbarism: Animals tearing each other to lifeless shreds. And above all that---the hideous cry of the wounded. The dying. It was Dante’s Infernal brought to life.” Pops’ voice trailed off. Died. He belonged to another time. Another dimension.



“What was in the tunnel?” Linh asked.



“The tunnel?” Pops questioned. Trying hard to reenter the here. The now.



“Yes. What did you find? What did you do?”



“At first it was tall, maybe eight feet. But then it quickly grew smaller till I had to hunch over. It turned left. Right. Went straight. Doubled back. Where the shadowy light that bathed the tunnel came from I, haven’t the faintest. It was this eerie yellowish-red. I ain’t never seen before nor since. Every so often I could hear people whispering. The singsong of Vietnamese, harsh American voices and…” Pops stopped. Looked from Miles. To Linh Back. His eyes were painted black in fear.



“And what?” Linh prompted.



“French. I know how crazy that sounds. But I know French when I hear French.”



“What else?” Linh prodded.



“Maybe he’s had enough.” Miles weakly protested.



“No. The time for the truth is now. And the place is here.” Linh stood with shoulders thrown back. Her feet planted firmly into the ground. Miles was learning just how strong and persistent that this woman could be.



“I. I turned into this shaft. It emptied into a larger room. Blood stained cots were neatly lined up---maybe a dozens or so. Gauze and bandages littered the floor. Mosquito netting hung from the ceiling. It was an NVA hospital ward. A primitive one. The smell of death and decay swept over me. It was so bad that I barfed.



“Off to one side---a man in a blood-splattered doctor’s smock attended a wounded patient lying on one of the cots. The doctor turned. His patient propped himself up with his arm. He cried out in French. He wasn’t Vietnamese. He was white. The next thing I knew the cave echoed with the brutal sound of an M-16. Looking down. I saw smoke curling up from my rifle. I hadn’t consciously---I mean it was like this death reflex. I backed up till I was against the cave’s wall.



“The doctor was gone. His smock was lying on the ground. The steel-jacketed rounds had slammed into the patient. Knocking him back onto the cot. But then he raised himself up again. Looked over at me. It was the old man. Again my M-16 rose. Before I could fire this lady came out of nowhere. She put her hand on the barrel of my M-16. Lowering it. Her head was covered in a long scarf. She was wearing a flowing robe. In shame, I lowered my eyes. Knowing the pain and disappointment that I would find in hers. She lifted my face till I was looking into hers. She was beautiful. She was the perfect picture of calmness. Of compassion.”



“It was Quang Yuan? Wasn’t it?” Linh stated.



“Yes. Later. After the war, I saw pictures of her.” Shaking his head slowly. “And. Like the old man had done before. She beckoned me to follow her. I started to. Again she put her hand on my rifle. I froze. Only when I dropped it did she lead me. Now and then the sounds of rifle shots from within the tunnel could be heard. Also pistol shots. Curses. Pleas. The sounds were horrible. The worst that man was capable of: A war was being fought in those tunnels. Then everything shook violently. The ground heaved and swayed so badly that it knocked me down. Thunder from outside was captured within those walls. It was shock waves from the B-52 strikes that were being force fed into the tunnel. Compressed into hurricane strength winds. My ears rang so loud. Dust clouds filled the tunnels till breathing was damn near impossible.



“Suddenly. Scott Brown. A kid from my squad came racing down a tunnel towards me. He stopped. Turned. Fired his M-16 at whoever or whatever was chasing him before resuming his heedless flight. He ran into me. I ain’t never seen eyes jacked that big before. He tried saying something. Only rambling nonsense came out of his mouth. Looking down on my empty hands he must have questioned what had happened to my M-16 ‘cause he handed me two hand grenades before taking off again. Always thought it funny that he hadn’t noticed the lady standing at my side.



“The explosions came louder. They came closer together till they rolled into one hellish and continuous sound. Years later. When I read that the bombing campaign against the north was called Operation Rolling Thunder. I remember thinking that they finally got something right---The name that is.



“Anyways.” Pops said. Waved his tubed arm dismissing the interruption from the tunnels. “Again. Time lost meaning. We walked for days. Maybe hours? Miles? Or yards? But eventually, she led me back to the entrance. She beckoned me to leave. I wanted to ask her so many things: What was real? What was due to the malaria fever? Had I killed the doctor? His patient? Had I meant to? Or had I simply reacted out of fear? Did it make any difference in the end?



“And French voices? What the hell was that about?”



“I think you know.” Linh stated simply.



“So? What happened next?” Miles asked. Casting a perplexed look at Linh. What the hell had she meant?



“Next?” Pops asked. Choosing to answer Miles question. He looked with fear onto Linh. Also choosing to ignore her statement. Knowing full well… “I wandered in the jungle for days. O maybe just hours. Possibly minutes before a rescue chopper picked me up. Then they deposited me onboard the USS Repose. A hospital ship. When I recovered from the sickness, they gave me this here medal. They said it was for ‘bravery in the face of the enemy.’ But mostly it was simply for staying alive in that death-valley. Hell. Maybe even for killing an enemy combatant doctor. Most assuredly it was not for bravery. Regardless of what they said.”



   
   

 

endmark



The Cave is excerpted from the as of yet unpublished novel: Seven Levels; Homelessness, A Combat Veteran, Mental Illness, A Love Story.

Ken Williams worked as a social worker for the homeless, primary the mentally ill, but including veterans, women, the elderly, drug and alcohol addicted and the physically disabled in Santa Barbara CA for over thirty years. His dedication to his clients has been acknowledged by the Board of Supervisors, the State Senate, State Assembly, A.C.L.U. Santa Barbara Chapter, Housing Authority, California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, Mental Health Association, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and others. The late Paul Walker highlighted his work in the documentary, SHELTER which Paul produced. His writings have appeared in the Huffington Post, The Criterion, Scars Productions, Edhat, noozhawk, the Santa Barbara Independent and the News-Press. He is a combat Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. Books by Ken Williams: China White, Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets, There Must Be Honor, and Fractured Angel is his most recent novel.



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