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This was my second assignment in that short story course, to write a literary story, one filled with symbols and hidden meanings. Relying on my experiences in Korea, I came up with this.
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The boy was afraid.
His fear showed in the whiteness of a face that refused to be covered by black shoe polish.
He was next in line behind the sergeant, with the other five in single file behind him. They had only come a few hundred yards, but already he could feel sweat tickling down his spine. Nobody had told him about the fear, how it would lump under his chin and knot in his stomach, how his legs would feel boneless, almost too limber to support his upper body.
But now it had settled in him and become a part of the night along with the other sensations of sound and movement. Far to the left, shell flashes danced through towering thunderheads, like heat lightning on a summer night in Kansas. He could feel their thumping vibrations--big, gentle sounds, distant and impersonal. Nearby, infrequent flares popped softly and cast tiny halos as they floated down through the night sky. All activity seemed removed from him. But the immediacy of war was there as occasional shells hissed overhead. The boy hated the sound. He didn’t know if the shells were friend or enemy. He didn’t care. He kept imagining one of them swooping down on him--death waiting for him up there in the darkness.
There were personal sounds also--pants whispering faintly as he shuffled after the sergeant, footsteps muffled in the powdery earth, breath rasping through open mouth.
The seven men moved on, each man shrouded in his own thoughts and fears.
Suddenly a flare popped directly above them, and they automatically fell to the ground. The brightness of the flame as it rocked downward made waves of shadows swing back and forth over the pocked desolation of the valley. They might have been on the moon. The terrain within the lighted circle showed white and lifeless, completely barren from the incessant shelling that had gone on for months. The circle narrowed as the flare sputtered out. The blackness closed over them, and they rose and went on.
Incredibly to the boy, it had been only an hour since the seven of them had been briefed for the patrol. The boy remembered the lieutenant’s words: “. . . routine assignment . . . the colonel thinks the enemy might be pulling out of our sector . . . just cross the valley, get close and listen.”
Get close and listen! It had sounded so easy when the lieutenant said it in the security of the bunker. The boy could see them standing in the sandbagged room, candlelight shining on their blackened faces.
The boy had arrived at the front only two day earlier. He was very young and very green, and this was to be the second step in his initiation to war. The first was when he got off the truck that brought him there. He had been greeted by the laughter of the men. It was not the ordinary jeering of the veterans of one or two weeks as they let new replacements know how seasoned they were. It was a laughter the boy had known all his life. He was small and slender, almost fragile, with a delicacy that always targeted him for the laughter of schoolboys and infantrymen. He could never grow immune to it, and it was always painful.
The patrol was the next part of his initiation. It was to be a trial by fire, and the men were careful to stress the dangers involved.
The sergeant said nothing. He was a large, dark man, hairy, elemental, primitive. He felt an aversion to the boy beyond his understanding. The boy made him doubt his manhood, as though virility had to be proved. When the time came for them to get ready, he explained as to a child the things the boy would need to do to get ready for the patrol. The condescension angered the boy, but he did as the others were doing. They dressed in black, removing from their pockets everything that could make noise or be of information to the enemy if they were captured. They used shoe polish to blacken their hands and faces. It was a ritual of silencing and blackening. The boy’s smooth cheeks refused to retain the dark of the shoe polish, the pallor of his complexion defeating any attempt to cover it. Then in a confusing rush of events, they had met with the lieutenant for the briefing, and then been passed through the lines to make their groping way into the valley.
They were close now, the ground swelling ahead of them and the darkness of a hill bulking against the sky. The sergeant stopped and motioned them down. They would crawl the rest of the way. Straining on elbows and hips, weapons across their arms, like great black slugs they made their slow way up the hill. Barbed wire in a five foot curling maze followed the crest of the hill to the right and left. In the faint light the boy could see cans tied among the strands, like black berries, metal fruit on thorny metal bushes.
The sergeant stopped there, waiting for the others. The boy, as he rested, could taste his fear, dry and coppery, and they desire for water was almost overpowering. Then the last of them arrived, and the seven huddled together, conferring. Whispered instructions from the sergeant. The ground beyond the wire sloped down gently and then rose to a higher hill some fifty yards away. Here would be the enemy lines if they were still in the vicinity. They needed to get closer. They would cross through the wire.
The sergeant and two others spaced themselves about four feet apart and began to make their cautious way into the maze. Slow motion crawling--ducking under, spreading strands for a narrow passage, then a slow inching forward. The wire plucked at them, its metal fingers holding their clothes. There was a need for caution. Any hasty movement in the wire would cause the cans to bounce and rattle a warning to the blackness ahead.
Then it was the boy’s turn. He entered the coil, not noticing the cord strung along the ground near the wire. His knee caught it and released the trip flare just as he was halfway into the entanglement. It was so unexpected. They froze in the light like little boys caught in an apple tree. The automatic weapon found them there, and touched them with its fiery bees.
Then there was motion--a nightmarish scramble in the wire. They tried to stand but the tangle held them. Noise and confusion--the harsh staccato of the gun, the screams of the men, their grotesque writhing as bullets hit them and hit them again.
The sergeant clawed his way free of the wire, but the gun caught him there and he fell, clutching himself. The boy had fallen forward into the wire. The barbs ripped his face and head. Hysterically he gripped the wire and pushed himself back, the barbs sinking into his hands. He didn’t feel any pain. He didn’t feel anything. And then he was out, free from the wire. He rolled twenty feet down the hill and fell into a shell hole. He lay on his side, his knees pulled to his chest, holding himself and rocking and moaning.
The flare went out. The firing stopped. The only sound was the slowly diminishing clatter of the cans as the wire vibrated with the motion of a moment before. And then the silence rolled in, heavy and ominous in contrast. The boy stopped moaning and listened. Nothing. Silence like the dark surface of a swamp marsh, its horrors hidden in the muddy depths. He listened for the sound of the enemy, the sound of the black men coming for him. All the ghosts and dark closets of his childhood swelled into his mind. They hysteria of crouching on the floor, feeling something behind him, the pounding and screaming to get out, to get away. Here it was again. The forgotten, carefully hidden memory crept out to spread and surround him in the darkness. Black shapes moved toward him. He would make himself tiny and be very still and they would pass him by.
And then a long moan from the direction of the wire. The boy sat up, startled. The sound began low and then mounted eerily, filling the night. It diminished and then stopped.
Then again, louder this time. The boy began to sob. “Oh no no no no no,” he whispered. “Please be quiet, they’ll hear you.” He peered over the edge of the hole. Two of the men were hanging in the wire, black lumps silhouetted against the sky, ripe fruit on metal bushes. A darker shape on the ground between him and the wire. The sergeant. The dark shape moved and then moaned.
“Oh God oh God, oh please shut up, oh please, oh Christ, oh please shut up.” His teeth were clenched and his jaw shook as his voice rose with the intensity of his words. He imagined figures moving beyond the wire, coming to get him.
When the sergeant moaned again, the boy bolted out of the hole and up the hill. He slapped bloody hands over the sergeant’s mouth, pressing down. The sergeant unconsciously fought the hands. They struggled. The boy gripped him by the throat, nearly standing upright in his fury, all reason gone as he concentrated on this one task.
The bullet struck him in the left side, just under the ribs. It had been fired from about fifty yards to the left along the barbed wire. He released his grip on the sergeant. He sat down in surprise and then fell forward over him. He could feel the warmth spreading through him, a heavy rose growing in his side, opening and expanding throughout his body. No pain, only numbness. His hand brushed the sergeant’s automatic weapon that lay next to them. The black men were coming! He could feel them closing in from the depths of the closet. He could hear their heavy breathing as they stole up on him. Then he had the weapon in his hands. He twisted around and fired into the black shapes moving along the wire. He held the trigger and screamed. He sprayed bullets back and forth in front of him until the weapon was empty. But his screams continued, high-pitched and hysterical. No movement along the wire. The black shapes were still or had vanished.
His screams changed to loud, uncontrollable whimpers. The night was alive with the shadows of panic and the boy wanted to get away, to go back, but he was afraid to be alone. He held the sergeant in his arms and rocked him as he continued to sob.
Then, rather than face the night alone, somehow he found strength to drag the sergeant away from the hill, away from his fears and back toward the location of his company.
A rescue patrol met them just as the boy was on the point of collapse. He was weak and nearly dead from loss of blood, but they could barely force his arms apart to release the sergeant from his hold.
They were taken to a helicopter waiting to fly them to a field hospital. The lieutenant was there as they were taking they boy aboard the helicopter. He tried to tell the boy about his heroism, but the boy was delirious and didn’t hear what the lieutenant said. The warmth of the wound had spread all through him, and he babbled of rotten fruit and black men and dark closets.
The lieutenant held him up, one arm supporting his head and shoulders, and gave him a few sips of water from his canteen.
The boy sighed and the pain left his face. The black men were gone. The blackness lifted and the world brightened as the boy died.