As the third tank rattles out the back gate, Pham ties the third
knot in one of the cords hanging from his waist. Two soldiers
begin to swing the gate shut and the boy runs toward the center
of the compound, the helicopter staging area.
About eight soldiers with rifles sprawl on the red clay outside
the hatch of each of six helicopters. The rotors of the
helicopters spin slowly. No time to tie knots with an exact count
of the soldiers. He must hurry. Even with only twelve years, he
is certain that the fighting will not be far from the compound.
The facts speak clearly: no fuel truck with the tanks and the
soldiers carry no heavy packs. Rice paddies, where tanks cannot
go, surround the compound and the road – the single road
connecting the compound with all the nearby villages. The
soldiers plan to fight on or near this road.
Pham can see the ambushes in his mind: rockets and mines blow up
the tanks returning on the road and anti-aircraft guns hit the
helicopters returning from the fighting. There is no time to
waste. He knows the runner waits for his report outside the main
gate. He reminds himself that he must hurry. The runner hides in
a cone of rice straw beside the road, fifty running steps beyond
the small statue of the Buddha.
Pham runs past the sentries and out the gate just before it
closes. He ignores the hand-painted bilingual sign he cannot
read: ANY VIETNAMESE RUNNING FROM THIS COMPOUND WILL BE
SHOT – it is presumed that anyone fleeing has
probably set the fuse on a bomb. "I will learn to read," he
whispers to himself as two images of his village in his fifth
year pass through his mind: the burning school building and the
dead body of the teacher.
As Pham reaches the statue, he glances at the worn face of the
compassionate Buddha. Feeling a sharp ant-sting between his
shoulder blades, he shakes it off and begins counting his running
steps as the first raindrops fall.
He thinks that Au will be proud of me. In the underground
classroom, when the children kowtow and burn joss sticks in front
of pictures of our famous warriors, I will sit next to Au. I must
always protect Au; she is also twelve but smaller and weaker. Ten
running steps, one time.
She always sits in front of the picture of Trieu Au, her
namesake. Trieu Au sits on an elephant and swings two swords. Au
also likes the picture of Phung Thi Chinh, who gave birth to a
baby in the middle of a battle against the Chinese. The picture
shows her fighting a fierce Chinaman, her baby strapped to her
back. Au says that when we get older, she will carry our baby on
her back. The next picture is my favorite warrior, Le Loi, who
casts his net on the water. All children know he will bring up a
magic sword in his net and fight the Chinese invaders. Ten
running steps, two times.
When I return to camp, the corporal will let me sit next to Au as
she packs the explosive into the hand grenades. I love to watch
her quick fingers. She does not like this sticky explosive that
stains her fingers. She washes her hands many times. Always cool,
smooth, and clean, Au smells good. Ten running steps, three
Yesterday, the corporal told me that I was getting too tall to
visit the ugly hairy giants' base camp. I am getting big
but I am not afraid; the ugly hairy giants know nothing
and sometimes give me candy. Ten running steps, four times.
The last picture in the row of famous warriors is Ho Chi Minh,
Uncle Ho. The corporal promised me that if I am brave
enough to bring important news from the big nosed, ugly hairy
giants' compound, Ho Chi Minh will visit our camp and pin a
ribbon on my chest. The corporal also promised me a rifle. I will
then fight in ambushes as a young man and will not have to do
boy's work in the hairy giants' compound. I can see
myself in the rifle ceremony with Au watching: the captain smiles
down at me and presents me with a rifle, all my own. Ten running
steps, five times.
In front of the small roadside statue of the compassionate
Buddha, Pham lies face down in the red dust pocked with raindrop
impressions; a red hole between his shoulder blades collects the
by Peter Graebner
... who is a former Marine Corps officer and mathematics
professor, and a retired topologic geophysicist, now writing
freelance on Asian subjects, including a trilogy of spy novels
set during China's national revolution (1911-48). He has
published "Samurai Geometry" in the Journal of Asian
Martial Arts, "The Forever Motel" in Words of
Wisdom, and "The Philosopher's Shingle" in Words
of Wisdom. His writing has previously appeared in this