I had that fucker in my sights. He was right in the middle of the ‘V’, all I had to do was pull the trigger. But I hesitated, and then, my life changed forever.
It was near the end of a collection of battles known as the Viet Nam war, but I
didn’t know it. All I knew was that I was in a fucking hot jungle and I just
wanted to be back home. For the past few days we had been trudging through this
damn jungle. I was in ‘detached backup battle unit 5’. A lance of 4. Our duty
was simple: follow in the wake of the main attack unit and clean up the mess
they made. Sometimes that meant burying the corpses of our enemies; sometimes
it meant burying our comrades. We saw the results of the fighting, but none of
us had seen any action yet, we were just janitors with guns.
The canopy suddenly opened up. We were entering a shallow rice field. In the distance the muffled roar of gunshots rang out, automatic weapons. We all knew there would be more corpses ahead, just waiting for us, the janitors, to place them in their final resting place.
At the sound of this gunfire, Ray smirked. Ray was a cool guy. He wasn’t one of those war haters, he embraced everything it was about. The killing, the fear. He embraced every moment of it with his soul, he would be up there in the front lines enjoying every minute of it if it wasn’t for his poor eyesight and slight limp. “It’s a good day to die”, Ray, said with a smile; bringing me out of my trance.
I’m what you would call a thinker. Things go on around me all the time, but I don’t really feel them. I hide from them by going inside myself. My internal dialogue, this is all that keeps me going here. This damn jungle is so harsh, I just want to go home. But I’m here, fuck. I can feel the weight of my body, fuck. I can feel the fear creeping into me, fuck. I can feel that damn heat, the sweat it causes, mosquito bites, itching all the time…….fuck.
The lance leader holds his left hand up in the sign of a fist, this means its time for us to stop. Finally, time for a break, after all this walking, apparently the main attack unit got into some heavy combat ahead of us, they want us to wait here until its clear. But I don’t really care about all that. I reach into the pocket in my right arm and retrieve my smokes. Lucky Strikes, unfiltered. I light one and draw in its smoke. Ah it feels better now, the heat of the jungle isn’t so bad. Things feel lighter. I take a few deep breaths and stare blankly at the clear blue sky of the mid-afternoon.
I can hear Ray and the lance leader arguing about something in the distance. The lance leader is a real dick with rules. Even though were out here, pretty much alone he insists on going by the book. Who wrote the book? Fuck the book, out here it don’t matter. Out here its just life and death, there aren’t any rules for that.
Ray is getting more pissed. The argument intensifies. I’m not really hearing the words, I’m too busy enjoying my cigarette. Finally, the argument reaches its peak and there is no more sound. I look down from the sky to see Ray walking towards me with his head up and the lance leader staring off at the edge of the jungle. I sigh.
“Really stuck it to him”, I say. Ray responds: “Haha, that old bastard thinks we should stay here for the night”, “Fuck that shit man, I say we run up into that bitch and fuck some shit up”. Yup that’s typical Ray for ya. Personally, I just want to take a bath in the shallow rice patties and get some sleep, despite the fact that it is mid-day.
Ah fuck it, I’m too tired. I reach for the foldable cot in my backpack. Its not much, but it beats sleeping on the damp earth. With a sigh I unfold it and lay down. I don’t really give a shit what everyone else is doing, I just want this to be over. No one seems to notice me and my cot, so I just nod off, trying to ignore my suddenly itchy leg.
When I wake up again it is the dead of night. The gunfire stopped, crickets and tree frogs shout into my ears. Their sound is comforting, it insulates me from all the bullshit going on around me. The moon looks good. I haven’t seen it in a few nights, the canopy was too thick, but out here, in the rice field I can almost imagine myself somewhere else, away from this jungle hell. I feel rested.
I slowly sit up and look around. I can see Ray and the lance leader, sound asleep in their cots. Then there is Billy. Strange guy. He kind of just blends into the scenery. I forget he is there a lot of the time, never talks. Good worker but not much else.
The jungle suddenly grows silent. I can hear a ringing in my ears from the silence. Slowly, I begin to hear my breath. It seems too loud so I control it, until it is almost silent. I start playing with my pants. Not a bad hobby, I chuckle to myself in all my discomfort. Damn leg, I scratch it until blood comes out, then the pain washes out the urge to itch. Pain is easier to control than itching. I lay back in the cot again. Fumble with my M16. I know how to shoot targets, but just not people. I suppose it would be different somehow, but I don’t really dwell on it. I flick the safety on and off and on again, ‘click’, ‘click’, ‘click’. Just one little piece of metal and you have a very bad day, I begin to wonder if getting shot feels something like the itch, but then something happens.
Something is not right, I can sense it. I can hear voices in the distance. I can’t tell what language it is, it could be English, but then again maybe not. A wave of fear washes over me, a sweat that even all this heat can’t produce. Instinctively, I roll off the cot onto the damp ground. Still, not feeling right, I roll under the cot. I am very scared, my leg is trembling. I hold my M16 like a teddy bear, an object of comfort. I switch the safety off, …’click’.
Suddenly, a sound. Like a rocket, and then a muffled boom. The rice paddy becomes bright as day. It’s a flare, I can tell by the whiteness of the light. This couldn’t be good at all. Someone is scanning us. SHIT, loud gunshots ring out, 3 shots, semi-automatic. My ears are rigging, I breathe harder but I can’t hear my breath. With wide eyes I look around from the ground. I see something over near Ray’s cot. Something dripping. My god its blood, and its coming from a huge hole in his head. I wretch, I have seen lots of corpses, but this is someone I’ve been around a long time. I know he’s dead. The other cots look the same, shit. I see two people emerge from the forest. Heading straight for me. I can’t stop trembling. But somehow, I get my M16 pointed at them. The first guy is right in the V. All I have to do is squeeze the trigger. Fear overcomes me, I feel stone cold. Its hard to move. It feels like time is stopping, yet the two keep approaching. I’m hesitating, I can’t help it. I need to do action now, but I can’t. Something has a death grip on my soul. I am frozen, like Ray. Ray is dead. “You fuckers!!!!!!!!!” I jump up from the ground, throwing the cot off me with an angered swing of my arm. I loose control. The M16 snaps up to my shoulder, I just barely get them near the ‘V’ and jerk the trigger with the force of a demon, bullets cut through the air, so violent, so loud. My vision blurs. I can make out little spurts of blood in the white light, the two fall to the ground dead. The barrel smokes a little.
My entire body is trembling. My friends are dead, the enemy is dead. Now its just me. I remember the cigarettes in my shoulder pocket, my shaky hand tries to light one. But it just doesn’t seem to work. I try some more. Finally, I get it lit somehow. The nicotine calms me down a little. I can’t think about anything properly, I am just an animal, my mind is blank. I set the cot up again and lay down. I look at the familiar sky and forget my situation. Somehow, I grow tired and fall into the comforting abyss of sleep.
There was nothing, and then…. The sky again, still dark. Ah, it certainly is a
nice night I thought. But there was something else. I can’t put my finger on
it, it lived in the deep recesses of my mind, hidden away. I could feel its
presence, but not see what it was exactly. I stare up into the sky with
squinted eyes. Things didn’t feel bad at all. I leisurely arise from my cot and
instinctively reach for my cigarettes. Hmm, but they aren’t in my pocket, how
strange. Then I see the corpses again.
I had forgotten for a brief blissful moment all those grim events. But now it was back. I could still feel the sweat of fear on my body. The faint smell of blood. I was consumed in this moment. I can’t get out. Stuck, here with death. But soon I realized there was more than that.
I am in a jungle. I am alone. Then I began thinking: Those enemy soldiers, they came from the same direction as the main attack unit, they must have broken through the line. It is most likely the main attack unit is either dead or captured; at any rate I can’t go to them for help, enemies are everywhere. Shit, so what should I do? Oh shit, those men I killed were probably scouts, the main line can’t be far behind them, I need to move, NOW.
Ok, shit, I need supplies. What do we have. Ah that’s right, we had rations, I'll just take those. Yes, ammunition, I'll take that too. I should have enough for a few days. OK lets go.
I dart off, opposite the direction of the attack unit. My boots squish in the damp muck of the rice paddies. Soon it is very dark, I have entered the jungle again. I just need to find my way back to the field headquarters.
It took us a few days of hard hiking to get here. I just need to retrace those steps and I can be safe again. Fuck, I left the map at camp. No, I’m not going back. I am safer here.
The thoughts just keep coming, I was trying to put some kind of plan together, something concrete to hold onto or else I would loose it. I just started running, I want to get somewhere. Anywhere. That is my plan. As the branches scratched my arms and twigs snapped under my boots a feeling of utter hopelessness crept into my mind. I had absolutely nothing, no idea where to go or what to do. I became lost in my despair, like a lost child, tears appeared.
I was trying so hard to grasp something, anything, I felt this would lead me to where I needed to be. I thought and thought and thought. Nothing came besides panic and fear, running. This was certainly not the answer, no I need to do the total opposite of thinking and digging and grasping. I need to release everything, everything I know, everything I am. My situation is so terrible, I need to let it all go. Even these thoughts, all of it. It is the only way I will survive. I stop running. Crouched down facing a tree, I can almost make out its contours, but the darkness makes it seem unreal. Like all this was a dream somehow. With my entire soul I arch my back and sigh. My head loaded like the trigger of a revolver about to launch forward into another world. All it would take is the slightest impulse and it would all change. With an un-human laugh I released.
A dull thud echoes throughout the forest.
The morning light swept over the beautiful jungle. Everything was encased in a
dull reddish tint. An American soldier lay under a tree. His head seemed
damaged somehow. He arose from the ground. Without a thought he grabbed his M16
and began walking deeper into the jungle.
Carefully paced steps, like that of a monk or priest. So even and peaceful. His steps had nothing extra or special, just steps.
With his eyes focused intently on the ground he moved. It seemed as if he was staring at nothing. Almost like a corpse.
He reached into his pocket and retrieved a packet of rations. He tore the top off with his teeth, and consumed them, all this without missing a step. If anyone were to look into his eyes they would not understand them. Dull, glazed. Almost as if he were on some type of drug, but the detachment that drugs bring wasn’t there. He was very present. A very determined mind lay behind those eyes. Yet, there was no object of determination. His eyes were determination in themselves. His own body was all the motivation he needed. He was everything and everything was him.
Suddenly, he stopped. A faint sound; a hiss in the thick brush in front of him. He instinctively drew his weapon and fired a shot. The snake fell dead. The mysterious man continued onward as if nothing had happened.
I was me again, in a jungle, alone, walking. I came back into myself. Almost as
if awakening from a dream, the last few days were a blur. I check my equipment,
all the rations, gone. I have no food. I have no clean water. I was destined to
die soon. I feel very lightheaded, nothing seems real. Life is just a dream I
I am back at my house. My comfortable house. It was early in the morning, or rather, late at night. The leftovers of a party, a few people I knew and a few I didn’t. Ah, my belly is full of beer and a nice T-Bone steak. I am about to go to bed, I’m not used to staying up this late. Then I see her. Sitting in a corner. She is beautiful. I am a very lonely person because I train myself to be that way. Ignoring my natural urges makes me stronger somehow. No room for a girlfriend, no time to smell the roses, always time to work. But this girl made me forget all that. We talked for a while. My emotions got the better of me and I asked her to spend the night. It was then she made me aware of her boyfriend. Then I went back into my corner. Back, away from people. I figured it probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway.
‘Snap’, another damn twig beneath my feet. I was reliving a memory, I was there for a minute, out of this damn jungle. I collapse under the weight of my body. I see the dead leaves up close, I will be just like those leaves soon. A shell with no content, no use, no direction; trash. I squint my eyes into the distance, I see a dull reddish light hitting the canopy; it gives the forest a morbid orange glow. Sunrise, sunset. I am not sure which it is. “Alive when the sun rises, dying as it sets, dead at night”, those words, I remember from a book somewhere. They remind me of the impermanent nature of life. When I first read them I didn’t really understand, but now it makes total sense.
I can feel my life drain away, body growing heavy. My eyes close themselves as I become drawn into something, I am not sure if it is death or sleep; maybe they both feel the same.
I am on the train, on my way to work. I work in a very bad suburb. Homelessness, hard drugs, everywhere. As I pass a station I notice the main shopping center. The main billboard is a rusty heart, you can just barely make out the wording. All the stores, run down, falling apart. If it weren’t for all the people you would think it was a long abandoned city. As I walk the sidewalk to work homeless people jump in front of me, begging for something, anything. Maybe if they are lucky they could collect enough change to buy a cup of coffee or maybe a candy bar to sustain their lives for just a little longer. If they could get together four dollars they could live in a homeless shelter for a week. They could have shelter and soup every night. But those are just dreams to them, they are trapped in the hell of reality. A reality where nothing is taken for granted. Where waking up every day is the worst thing that could possibly happen to them.
I gasp for air as I sit straight up. My entire body aches. Through blurry eyes I can see the forest that all too familiar green color of mid-afternoon. I must have slept for 12 hours at least. Everything hurts so bad. I can’t imagine a bath in acid causing so much pain. But I’m not ready to die yet, I am not giving up until my body does. I can still hear the voice in my head, I can still control the voice in my head. Until that voice is gone I will keep trying.
I laugh, in all my pain, I know what I need to do next. I crawl over to the nearest tree and sit up, facing it. I cock my head back like a branch bending under the weight of an unseen hand, charged. I just need to release the branch again. I fill the forest with spontaneous laughter. Yes, its time to let go again.
Birds scatter as a strange dull thud disturbs the peace of the jungle.
“Good morning, ready for combat?”. A calm female voice in my head, things are
different now. Not like the first time I did this. Instead of leaving my body
and observing my life from the perspective of another person I am now further
into myself. My actions, my thoughts, this new voice, everything seems more
The voice said good morning. I open my eyes. It is morning. The forest is a dull crimson, its hard to make out anything. It is cold. Ah I realize I am still very hungry, but don’t really feel it, its just a thought. I better get food somehow. “I suggest eating fish from the river”. That damn listless female voice again. “Ok where is the river then bitch” ,I think to myself. “One kilometer in the direction you are facing now”, it says. Ah well, not like I have any other good options. I follow the instructions.
Walking is strange now. I can feel every minor motion of my legs, its almost hard to walk. Before I didn’t even give walking a second thought, my legs just kind of numbed out. But now I feel them so much. I can control every little aspect of them. I marvel at how simple it is to walk, but how complicated it seems now. Soon, I find myself at a river. How in the hell did that female voice in my head know where it is? Ah well, fuck it.
I see some fish swimming near the shore. Ah, there’s my food. I just need to grab one real fast. Like lightning. I hold my hand steadily above the fish for a second to gather my energy, then in an instant a fish is in my hand.
I am so hungry, the idea of eating raw fish like this disturbs me, but my hunger is much worse. I sink my teeth into its side. Lots of bone. But with my front teeth I manage to rip off a piece of meat. It is very chewy, almost like gum. But when I swallow it I can feel my stomach warm up. My body is rebuilding itself. My mind is becoming clearer. I remember my knife. Hell, when I was a kid my dad taught me how to gut a fish. What the fuck am I doing? I grab the fish and cut off its head, then split it in half, then remove all the bodily organs. Finally, I remove the spine and all the bones attached to it. I am left with two perfect filets. I almost swallow them whole because of my hunger. But attempt to slow down. I might not get to eat like this soon. Ah, I need to catch some more. I poise my hand over another fish in the river.
“Two armed men are approaching from upstream, I suggest seeking cover and drawing your weapon”. That voice again. Well she wasn’t wrong the first time. I do as told. Right behind a huge tree I prepare my M16 for its duty again. They must not have seen me. They are smoking cigarettes, walking down the stream, holding their guns. They seem pretty leisurely. Like their just out for a stroll or something. Maybe I won’t have to kill them.
They edge closer and closer to me. It is almost ludicrous that they don’t see me yet. Suddenly, they end their jovial banter, the trickling sound of the river is the only sound in the jungle. And then another sound, a high pitched sprinkling sound, like a small stream of water falling from somewhere into another body of water. I realize that the soldiers are pissing into the river. I begin to ask myself if I should kill them or just let them go and then that damn calm female voice enters my head again, “kill them”. These words were said with the same objectivity as two old men talking about the weather on their porch. The death of these two enemy soldiers seems inevitable at this point.
I calmly raise my M16. Dammit to hell, I left my safety on. The click of it might give me away, I will have to do this fast. I put my finger on the trigger and aim near the middle of the chests of the men. I slowly move my thumb to the safety. Just a small movement and it will all be over. Suddenly, I simultaneously flip the safety with my thumb and squeeze the trigger. Bullets spew forth disturbing the jungle. I don’t really pay attention to the bullets as they fly, I think about the peace of the jungle. Zen masters would have said that I had heard the sound of one hand clapping or the sound of a tree falling in the forest with no one around. I calmly break my death trance and become aware of two corpses, not too far away from me.
I sit for a moment, not moving from the position I fired from. The jungle is
quiet again, just the sound of the stream. For a moment I feel peaceful. As if
I am sitting on my front porch at home, watching a sunset. I forget that I am
in the middle of a jungle, surrounded by death with little hope of getting out.
I feel good, and then I start to feel restless. I begin to feel less and less
at peace as the reality of the jungle surrounds me once again. I cry out to the
female voice, “What do I do now!!!”……No response. Again I cry out, even louder,
“WHAT DO I DO NOW!!!!!!!”…….a few minutes pass, still nothing. I get the
sensation that the voice is gone forever.
I somberly creep to the river again to catch another fish. I catch one, skin it and slowly consume it. My body doesn’t feel any better as it did when I ate my first fish, now eating seems so mechanical.
With a frown on my face I turn away from the river and creep back into the never ending jungle. My body feels so heavy, the weight of mortality. The thrill of facing death and beating it fades away. Things seem so much more real somehow, yet my body feels so numb. I am just surviving and nothing more.
I have arrived in what seems like the middle of the jungle. It is night, the
crickets are loud, annoying, as if they are creeping into my brain in some
attempt to disable me and eat me.
I have finally accepted the fact that I may never get out of here. I will die here and my body will become food for trees and animals. But for now I will just survive. I will just allow time to pass over me here.
I no longer seek happiness; I don’t want to seek the feeling I had when I ate that first fish in order to sustain my life. The feeling of happiness is evil, a few moments of pure happiness will just make my remaining time here seem much worse. Happiness creates a standard by which everything else is measured. “Does eating fish number two make me happy?”; well not as much as fish number one. “How about pissing in the leaves, does that make me happy?” Well not as much as fish number one. It will just continue on and on like that if I hold onto memories of happiness. I just need to let them go.
Does hell really exist if you are right in the middle of it all the time? Given enough time man becomes accustomed to a certain way of life. Within the context of hell there is a certain emotional range. Once one becomes accustomed to this range, hell ceases to become hell and becomes just another place. The concept of hell slowly fades away like the newness of a new car over time or that new badass gadget you saw in the store, or that fish……..damn, I am hungry again.
I have been wondering aimlessly in the jungle for a few hours. I have absolutely no idea where I am in relation to anything. The steady crunch of twigs and brush under my feet gives me reason to keep moving, like a drum march or something. It is almost hypnotic. As long as I keep moving I feel like I am doing something, some small feeling of accomplishment, a purpose to keep living.
My stomach makes a sound, not so much a growl as a scream. My stomach is pissed off that its master can’t feed it. It looks like my stomach has formed an alliance with the rest of my body too, it is getting hard to keep this pace up. With each step my body becomes wracked with pain, as if reeling from a hard punch. A few more steps and I fall to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Ah, a potato would be so good right now, with sour cream, bacon and cheese. Hell, it would even taste good uncooked with no toppings. I would happily bite right through the skin and savor its bitterness.
I must have been sleeping. I could almost taste that potato. But now I am back in the jungle. I run my right hand along the ground, picking up some dirt. I could eat this maybe. The trees can eat it, so why not me? No, the trees eat it and are strong, so why not just eat the tree?
I crawl to a tree a few feet away and rest by back against it. It almost feels like a bed. But I need to eat first. I produce my machete and scrape some bark off. It tastes bitter, utterly flavorless. I think my teeth are bleeding, but I keep chewing through the pain. Eventually, I grind the bark up into a fine paste, it goes down quite easily. I don’t really feel much better, but at least my stomach is beginning to feel full.
I continue scraping and eating for what seems like hours. The canopy is beginning to get light. Day must be coming. Closing my eyes I press my back into the tree I ate from. I feel connected with the tree, the one who sustained my life for just another night. My body grows numb as sleep takes the pain away.
The trees of the jungle stretch as the first dull rays of the sun fill their extremities with a warmth no woman could provide.
My stomach. Something is wrong. I am suddenly awake and my stomach feels like
it is on fire. A wave of nausea sweeps over me. I don’t want to vomit, if I do
I will be hungry again. My stomach begins contracting on its own, I am no
longer in control of it. The familiar taste of stomach acid enters my mouth. I
keep telling myself to not vomit. But it spews forth anyways. My eyes burn as
my stomach caves in time. I can’t think straight. Thoughts only coming up in
I think I am done vomiting, but my mouth still tastes like stomach acid. I try to stand, but the pain just brings me back down. I collapse in a heap and just lay there. I can see a few dead leaves in front of me. A few rays of the setting sun. I can hear a few animals chirping. So what now?
I just exist. I am just a body with thoughts. Does there need to be anything else? Can I just lay here until death takes me. Is that the answer?, but I don’t even know the question.
I begin to think about my family. I haven’t thought about them for a long time. They provided life for me, I owe them a great debt. But look at me here, almost dead. Its sickening to think that my parents, after devoting so much of their lives to my life will wake up one day and hear a knock on the door. It will be some army official who will tell them that I am dead or MIA. All of their devotion to my life will be for nothing, they will never see the seed they planted grow into something great, something they can be proud of. They will lay on their death beds with a sense of hopelessness, that there will be no one to continue what someone started eons ago and eventually carried on to them. It was their job to carry it on to me and for me to carry it on to someone else, but that will never happen. The essence of this brand of humanity will die here on this jungle floor.
I remember when I was young. Bits and pieces. Bright green grass, freshly cut. Playing football in a neighbor’s yard. Falling down and not caring. Grass stains on my new shoes. Not realizing the impermanent nature of my experiences; of my life in general. Things seemed to exist in stasis forever, and then, things started changing around me. People started moving away. My parents grew older. Close relatives died. I began to see the hopelessness of life. After a while I began to notice myself changing, I too was not exempt from this hopelessness. My hair began falling out, injuries took longer to heal. Not only was the world around me slowly dying, but I was dying as well. This realization put me into a chronic depression. My life became this feeling of depression. My parents tried hard to support me, but there was nothing they could do, no amount of counseling or drugs could make me forget that everything was dying. In the midst of the depression of my life I got drafted, and after a seemingly endless sequence of events I was here. Hell on the outside, hell on the inside.
At some point I stopped daydreaming. I can hardly see the leaves in front of me. It is dark. My body still hurts. I am not sure if I can move, or if I should even try. But somehow, I feel calm. As if the rehashing of my memories gave me new life. Somehow the words and emotions that were those thoughts gave me something to hold onto. Life may be impermanent, but I am not dead yet dammit!!
I had fallen asleep. It is morning now. The dull red rays of the morning sun
reflect off the brown leaves in front of me. I prop myself up next to a tree
and take a deep breath. Yes, I am still alive somehow. The feeling of peace I
felt yesterday is still with me now. I can feel it in my soul, peace has become
a part of me.
With another deep breath and stand up and brush all the dead leaves off. I begin walking. Yes, one step after another, I can feel the peace of it, so simple, the movement of life, the movement of my spirit, body and mind as a single entity. Step, step, step. Yes, so simple and peaceful. There doesn’t have to be anything more. These steps are the question and the answer.
And so the mans mind merged with his environment. The man had found pure peace in the midst of hell