Empire of Trees ((A Short Story of Fiction) (Caged Girl in the Jungles of Vietnam))

Where trees are numerous and a soldier’s eyes and ears and nose are altered, danger can be circumvented;

That’s a way a soldier thinks, anyhow.

I moved through the rainforest with all the assurance of a soldier who has known no other life-that is to say, after six months the human being can adapt itself to whatever environment need be.

And this day already my ears and nostrils had become inured to my surroundings, to such an extent, I could overhear the Viet Cong, and the familiar sounds and odors of the jungle, increasing as I silently moved in its direction.

There are many strange things in the orient, in its jungles, that the western mind cannot grasp.

To include ghosts, tigers.

I have seen them myself, ghosts, yes ghosts, with dirt and sweat on their faces, and legs, and arms.

For many this is a mystery.

But the fact is, they are and remain a fact in the jungles of Vietnam, and Cambodia, and Thailand;

I have been in all three jungles, and down the Mekong: the evidence for me is I have seen the materialization of disembodied spirits on countless occasions.

Seeing is believing.

In our era and our civilization this is of course crazy talk, but here I was following the sounds of the Viet Cong, they were dressed like primitive hunters, naked but for a patch, perhaps of some leopard or tiger skin, rubbed to a dark leather like smoothness.

They were not ghosts of course, they were real human beings.

They had no boots like me, just rude sandals of no certain fashion.

They had stopped and lay quiet now, myself almost opposite them, so I could clearly overhear all they passed between one another.

The man in charge appeared to have little if not petty authority, for he argued with all three men, making him the forth, I appointed him the captain.

“Should we return without the American Nurse?” said this man.

“You are not talking intelligent,” said one of the three, in Vietnamese which I could understand and now am translating to you in English.

As the third man stood up, moved about the fire, I heard him suggest going back to pick up the American Nurse, this was the captain of course, they had captured an American Red Cross woman, whom was being kept in some bamboo cage, I gathered a few miles from where they were.

The longer I listened, the less I thought them being Vietcong.

Yet my judgment told me they were some kind of warriors that inhabited this jungle. Doubtless, of some centuries old village, who came upon this girl, who evidently got lost from her unit, or had wandered away from one of the villages, or was kidnapped from one of the clinics, in one of the villages; not sure exactly what her status was, perhaps a UN, volunteer; the war had been going on now for a while, it was 1971.

I was mystified by what I was seeing, creatures from a delirium.

It was simply my mission to find this abducted nurse, or bring back to headquarters, her, or her death notice.

So I had no intention to alter my course; I was a sniper and Green Bert, and knew how to move through the jungle with ease, getting lost of course is the thing not to do, and my campus was not working all the great, I meant to replace it, but never got around to it, the pointer was flipping and flopping every-which-way.

I figured I’d have time enough to think of a retreat once I got what I was looking for. Dead or alive. Thus it was better for me to keep this group in sight.

In the morning the group had decided to go back to their village, although they didn’t, they sat around a fire debating, drinking rice wine and telling dirty jokes, and deliberating at length of what they should do.

I doubled back, trying to retrace their steps the day before that is before they came to making this campfire, where evidently they had caged the Girl.

It was not hard to find, not more than a mile from where I was, it was there pushed up against an old temple ruin, the cage the girl was in, and the girl was in it. And hence, I moved a little more rapidly, then slowed down, near a creep, and looked in a three dimensional view, as might a scout, and then I halted, more like froze in my blood, to a stop!

There pacing around the cage was a tiger facing the girl.

I could see her puffed up eyes, glossy with terror and tears. She was as if in a trance.

I was frozen to this spot, likewise.

She was slender, and had just rages for clothes on her, and had been missing I knew for three or four days, how fantastically I pondered, she had survived.

Her white uniform torn, soiled, as I said, more like rages, draped on her, exposing large parts of her skin: face and arms scratched and bleeding. She didn’t even see me; her whole mind was on the tiger.

There was no way for the girl to escape, and had she, this was her reward, the tiger’s meal.

To save her from this terrible death, should the tiger decide to rip open the bamboo cage, now surely thinking, ‘Any moment!’

I tiptoed slowly forward, and beyond the realms of possibility that the tiger taking one big leap at me, would not be successful.

And perhaps by smell, instantly the tiger got distracted now, for he turned his attention from the girl onto me.

And so now the center of interest was the brute tiger and me, and I upon him, and the girl now found hope I suppose, hope for escape.

I shouted at the tiger, and it wheeled complete about, taking a 90-degree flip, and a sudden jerk.

The tiger glanced back at the girl, his meal.

The tiger had kicked the hole in the bamboo cage, big enough for her to escape and nearly big enough for him to enter: I could see that now, yet her other fate was too dreadful for her, so she stayed put:

“When I shoot him, even if I miss, run out of that hole and make for a tree,” I decreed.

The tiger hesitated for another instant to see the girl again, and then back to me, it was a rude interruption but it gave me time to aim my M16-

The animal snarled, I was twenty-five feet away, he easily leaped a fifteen feet distance, what more could I do but stand my ground-

In a brief instant, I made a photograph in my mind of his forehead the side of his head, and neck, then figured I’d miss it, and put all my muscle and weight and aim into this one shot, without waiting for the beast to position himself into a second leap.

My shoulder held the rifle tight, timed to a fraction, and my shot hit him full in the chest, his paws curled under him, and the leap he was about to take, caused him to fall to one side, and the girl ran to the tree, like hell was on fire.

I asked myself: is he dead or simply disabled?

I wasn’t going to guess, I put five more shots into the dying body of the beast.

The intended prey, high up in the empire of trees, I could hear taking a long and deep sigh.

Now I approached the tree.

Her face was still filled with fear and terror, stained with blood and wet tears.

She thought the beast might still be alive; she didn’t want to leave the tree.

“Go away,” she commanded me, as I put out my hand to help her down.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

As she stepped down from the tree, it looked as if she had the beginnings of a pernicious fever.

“Pardon me,” said the nurse, “I didn’t catch your name Sergeant?”

“You have no need to fear me,” I assured her.

“I overheard a group of Vietnamese saying they had captured you, and had put you into a cage, although I had orders to find your whereabouts, and rescue you or bring back a report of what happened to you; so I came looking, and to be honest, they may have decided to come back for you, they were thinking of it. Hand you over to the VC.”

“I’ll trust you Sergeant to get me out of here and to a military base,” she said, “for there is no other way, I cannot go back to the clinic I was working at, they took other nurses also, and a white doctor.”

“They’re all dead,” I told her.

“What is your name?” she asked me.

“Sergeant Evens” I replied.

“And what is your name,” I asked.

“Natnof.” She replied.

“What kind of name is that? I asked.

“They gave it to me in the village I was at,” she said with an eye on me, closely on me, as if the name made any imprint on me, and it didn’t.

I found myself appraising her beauty, her dark brown eyes, black velvet hair, and bronze skin, her white ivory teeth.

She was my age, perhaps younger, twenty-three, thereabouts.

I could not help but gaze at this delicately molded figure of a girl, beside me. She had courage and beauty.

A soldier of the United States military could not be less.

Just the stamina to endure this for day or four days not knowing what would be the end, proved her to be an equal to any soldier.

“If I am going to rescue you,” I said with determination, “we had better get trekking, and find a way back to the South China Sea, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. We are eighty-three miles from the sea, and three miles according to where I assume your village is, or that where those militia men had taken you, and no more than a mile from where the militia men were camped:

I call them militia men, for lack of a better name, they will come looking for you to take you hostage again.

I expect they will be told to come back for you, sooner than later by the VC commandant.”

As we set out in the direction of our prescribed destination, it was apparent to me, the young nurse was tired to the point of collapse.

How she sustained herself this long was on pure will-power.

She was lean and small, it was not hard to have her place her one arm around my shoulder and neck, and use me as a helpful walking stick, although she was walking on her toes then, per near.

We walked in a long silence, which induced hunger, thirst and fatigue.

I told myself I must remain strong!

Somehow I found myself near the location I had been before, where the Vietnamese militia men had their campfire; anyhow it looked familiar, yet I wasn’t positive, I was too tired to be positive.

We stopped here because it was a clearing, plus there was a stream, and cold clear water.

For twenty minutes or so we both laid stretched out upon the ground.

Nearby, one of the militia men stood up, his ears had caught the sound of something approaching-

The forth militia man had just returned from a hunt, he had a small wild pig, a boar, dragging behind him, but that was not the sound in question.

“Be quiet,” said one of the men around the campfire, noticing their companion with the boar, “You too be quiet!” he said, he also was hearing something behind him, a light conversation in English, and the sound was drifting back to them.

Now all four heard the noise.

The sergeant and his rescued nurse, had not gone in the direction of the South China Sea.

The leader of the militia, the only one with a skimpy neck, and sparse mustache, signaled his warriors to silence and pointed in the direction of the stream, they knew exactly where it was.

As they all crept slowly in that direction, the sound became closer, and clearer, as they neared the stream, and more pronounced than what they had first heard.

Thus approaching steadily, and then in their sight, they saw the sergeant and the runaway nurse whom they sought, and were having second thoughts over, to return and if still alive, bring back to the VC for a hostage, and perhaps get a reward.

They had taken what they need, what all men seem to think they need from women, unwillingly, as a trophy or perhaps as they say booty, and thus could not kill her outright, had they been VC, this would not have been an issue.

Elated, the one with the mustache leaped from his place of concealment, calling wildly to his men to rush the two.

At sight of them, the sergeant turned to escape, seeing the nurse frozen in fear, he stopped his escape, and put his M16 on Rock and Roll, and sprayed the area in front of him with an array of 7.62 millimeter bullets; knowing of course he could make no headway while burdened with the nurse.

All were dead but the leader.

“We are lost,” said the Sergeant.

The sergeant placed another bullet in the Vietnamese’s throat, he bleed quickly out.

The nurse hesitated, “Did you have to?”

“Yes,” said the sergeant, lest I let the animals eat him alive; plus, I can’t carry two, you and him, who would you prefer I save?”

Natfou, whose name was really Gayle Rosenboum, gave a grimace, hiding her discontent.

Then knowing there was food and supplies at the militia’s camp, they headed in that direction.

The foliage was thick and so they could not rush forward, being as hungry as they were. The girl continued to fall back slowly with a low brow.

At the camp, there were three dead monkeys, and a pig.

The Sergeant had guessed from the attitude of the four man militia, that they were simply an outpost, that soon the more powerful Vietcong, a more courageous and resourceful enemy would be following them as soon as they grasped the situation.

After eating, and pinning some of the meat he put in pouches, to his belt around his body, he took his broken directional compass, and checked the sun to see what direction it was descending, and it was descending in the west of course, thus he went in the opposite direction, following the example of his campus.

The dinner was serene, monkey meat, and over the tiny fire was tasty hot vegetables ready to have the pork cooked in it, but out of necessity to move, they let the delicious pork rot where it lay.

They both were quite content with the full meal of monkey and vegetables, and so looking forward to seeing the South China Sea, for they had both eaten generous portions, the hightailed out of the campsite.

The sergeant had found Gayle to be in a good humor now, no longer immersed in melancholy for the death of the four militants.

Regardless, however, the respectful attention shown him before by her, was not shown any longer.

Prior to this she had figured the sergeant knew his way back, that it was an accomplished fact, now, because of his mistake, he had brought death to four men that might have lived.

She even questioned, if it was for his personal entertainment if he killed the last one.

As they pushed their way through the darkening of the jungle, their wrists, necks, faces and ankles, exposed skin areas, received a multitude of scratches.

Sargent Evens had stripped the four men of their weapons, and what he couldn’t carry, he buried so the VC could not use them against them, now he had to allow the AK47 rifles, three he had taken, lay, gathered together in a pile by a great stack of limbs and branches, and twigs and grasses of the jungle, he could no longer carry them.

And when night fell they lit a light fire, which held a dual purpose, as a fire against the crawling beasts, to protect them, and a gruesome light for the spooky night:

And there was enough wood to burn during the full night, as the Sargent feed it accordingly.

The flames jumped here and there, high and low, shot out against the foliage, against the trunks of the trees.

And the shadows of the fire ushered in more shadows of darkness-greys mixed with flickers of flames that looked like red eyes.

And the silence, and the mystery inverted, by the flames, created ghostly inhuman like figures, and then consumed by smoke, they disappeared, and then the sergeant fell into a complete dead sleep.

For Gayle, sleep was a nightmare; she had asked someone inside her nightmare, “Do all men in this far-off country, especially soldiers, or alike do brutal and cruel things?”

The nightmare demon told her, transplanted in her head “Soldiers do not change. They do not play harps.”

There was an undercurrent she appeared to be endeavoring to conceal, a soft emotion, she was ashamed of what they made her do, and this undercurrent, this hint was sharp.

And now she was gambling on if she would be used for the instrument of pleasure by Sergeant Evens, as she was by the militia men.

“God forbid,” she cried in her sleep, “if they are all alike… “

“No,” whispered another voice, “They are not all alike!”

Was she now stricken with fever, she questioned her mind’s eye.

Eating monkeys, and half naked, looking at weapons ready to be fired at any moment, and the sergeant looking at her with lustful eyes, or were they eyes, simply eyes, attesting to her beauty.

And those roughhousing want-to-be soldiers: watching those four men get stain.

And a beast killed with a single shot, one wanting to eat her.

The Militia wanting her for pleasure, and having their pleasures met, it was all too much.

And now the fever!

Gayle dreamed questioningly if she really ever wanted to wake up!

I mean, was it only a matter of misfortune if she did?

She was ungrudging with admiration for the bravery of Sergeant Evens, then she rose, couldn’t sleep, passed about the fire, walked to the spot where the sergeant had put his M16 rifle.

Picking it up, she examined it closely.

“By gosh,” she ejaculated, “it has blood on it!”

And had the sergeant been awake, it would have been noticeable immediately, she had changed instantly to a melancholy deep void, a depression: however could her life with all this inside of her head, be mended, especially the shame of it all!

Plus, if she was dead, that would give the sergeant a better opportunity to escape.

After a meager drink of cool water, and a prayer, she put more wood on the fire, making it blazingly warm.

A moment of thought passed.

And here, she found a concrete substantiation for life-within that moment: death! And with the sound of the bang of the rifle, the sergeant awoke, and looking at what took place, knew all that he had left to deliver, was a story, a report.

No: 1040 (11-29 & 30-2014)