I place my boot on the neck of this commie bone bag, the toe resting on his chin. I think, I hate this wet heat he breathes. At least there is no rain in it–for now. I hate his elusive sky, too. A sky filled with foliage, unlike the limbs and leaves of the hickory or oak trees back home.
I watch as reality seems to shift; 5′ 7″, 176 pounds of ground foliage in front of me apparently transforms itself into a Forced Recon Marine, even though my mind knows it is just Luke stepping out of the underbrush.1
I glance at Luke. Luke and I are similar. There are just some minor differences between us. I am 11 1/2″ taller–part of the reason I’m called “Slats.” I can tan, even in winter, as long as the sun is out. He is from the smog and the city. Luke notices my rambling thoughts, and grins. It’s a grin that reminds me there is a whole lot of menace compressed in that ash white body of his. Given an even chance, I could take him. He knows it. We respect each other.
The heartbeat under my foot recalls my attention to the task at hand. It is either a few more moments for this worm food to protest its lot in life or an added chance for me and the others. The head, viced by my boot, needs to remain still until I can finish. It doesn’t matter if he would ever revive.
1) Forced Recon Marine: A U.S. Marine Corps member belonging to a Reconnaissance Team. Their job is to slip into enemy held territory and complete assigned missions.My M-16 rifle, Mad-dog, twitches restlessly in my hand. Ever since I endowed its rigid stock with a personalized, gun-blue, name plate I feel it imbued with life. I watch as my hand is animated by Mad-dog. Its barrel moves up to an inviting temple and cast its vote in my favor. It makes me angry when Mad-dog makes decisions on its own. I can’t really blame it though, just protecting its own interests. I wrestle the rifle away from its watchful position, it is still not fully convinced of the commies’ sincerity. Mad-dog is contented only after I clean its muzzle on a dull and ugly shirtsleeve and no motion of protest is registered.
A memory of high school comes to me. I once tried to learn the language of this fertilizer under my foot, or something close to it. Mad-dog doesn’t seem to want to dwell on that, I am reminded how bad I was.
I shoulder Mad-dog, wipe my bloody boot across an agreeable chest, and signal a “go” to luke. I glance again at Luke as we move off through this, now temporary, “safe” zone. Some minor differences between us, I realize, are purely superficial. I stride in an ambling gait, he walks fast. I am good-looking.
Mad-dog whispers, “Even the commie beaner is better looking than Luke, especially now”.With a frown I tell Mad-dog, “Shut up, or I won’t clean you, oil you, I may just throw you away”. A snicker faintly blows across my mind, then all becomes quiet. Me and Luke come into a clearing and await the arrival of the other team members.
A clearing out here is where enough light gets through the leafy guard of these sweaty giants that the locals call “trees.” It’s also where everything is not that awful piss yellow anymore. Being out in the light doesn’t concern us at the moment, it’s the damn monkeys. They are a double edged sword. If we have picked a spot they cherish, they will gather. Then they will start bickering, complaining, insulting, and finally refuse throwing.
That’s another thing I hate about this place. It’s not bad enough to be in deep *censored* out here, the monkeys have to toss it at you from the armpits of these depressing giants.
The other team member’s start sliding into the clearing. Eleven more uniforms of democratic manhood materialize out of the nowhere. There are no monkeys gathering; all is relatively quiet, as quiet as can be expected for a living soup of foliage and mud and prey. The only predators scented, at the moment, are here with me.
My kid brother told me once, when I went home for R & R that I had “Presence.”2 It could be seen in my eyes, he said. Looking at my team members, it is not “Presence” I see.
There are twelve other uniforms just like me, all the same, all identical, even Luke. The 2nd looey calls for a SITREP.3 We are low on everything. We are on the wrong side of a guerrilla encampment from our exit rendezvous. An encampment that was not covered under old intelligence. We have an estimate of twelve minutes, tops, before the guerilla band falls on us.
Luke lights up a cigarette, takes a nice slow drag, and passes it around. We accomplished our mission’s first priority–no more tracking and communications station. We now decide to finish the second one, get back, “Alive!”
“No sweat,” says Luke aloud.
A monkey, somewhere close by, suddenly frightened, protest Luke’s voice. An icy chuckle silently emanates from the team. The 2nd looey takes the unfinished cigarette, and with a smile only a cannibal could love, sticks it butt first in the earth. We dissolve like the cigarette smoke we leave contently behind us, struggling up through the wet air.
2) R & R: Slang for Rest and Relaxation. A time-off period given to personnel after certain missions or duties performed.
3) 2nd looey: Slang for Second lieutenant. An Officers rank in the Marine Corps. SITREP: Situational Report. A status check of people, items, and/or places that are relevant to the completion of a given mission.
Mad-dog flows into my hands as I pull the aged and weary foulness around me. I wear it. I use the foliage once more to cloak the predator. From Mad-dog’s direction, I hear the humming of a happy tune. Luke, the left hand, sinks into the soup around us. He is more at home, there, than I: he can become the foliage. Luke takes the drag, as I set the pace. The rest of the team follow, just as invisible as Luke.
Our assaults are abreast for maximum effect, like at the tracking and communications station, our first mission priority. However, on the run, like now, we go in a straight line. This is when time starts its slow stretch into eternity. Running hot and fast carries an underlying strength of passion to it. A feeling from the team tickles the corners of my reality–all is right with the world.
The enemy can be sensed.
This may be their land, their home, but they are not part of the soup, the foliage. They fight in their backyard for what they believe in; we are here to convince them of their error. We have come to their home to show them the beauty of democracy or the usefulness of foliage.
They stumble our way, disrupting the air, annoying the soup and the monkeys. I turn left to cut across their right flank; the team moves as I do.
The enemy number twice as many rounds as we carry. With luck they will continue on their way, insulting and disrupting the jungle around them.
4) “God”: Also nicknamed “Mother”. A sniper duty wherein the sniper sits out from the team in a position which allows him full view of the entire team; the purpose of which is so that each team member can be covertly covered or expended as the situation calls for it.
In my hand, I feel Mad-dog echoing Luke’s lemony thoughts, “We’ll catch them later.”
The flanking maneuver works well. We are past their main body and making good time in the wake of their passage. The first fire-fight, at the tracking and communications station, was a necessity. Now though, I can breathe dreamily with the anticipations of my next R & R back home. I know this because if there are any stragglers we encounter; they can be easily avoided.
It is with a shocking slap of abruptness that I suddenly feel the sneers of the team hit me. My mind momentarily struggles, then targets the reason for the sneers. When I half-consciously shifted the move of the team around a giant fallen tree, I had cut around three stragglers, technical support probably, resting against the tree’s base. I somehow missed them.
The team knows it.
The jungle knows it.
The foliage knows it.
The enemy stirs with an itching caution; they had felt the jungle change when I brought the team in on them.
I feel the team’s, “predator,” eyes on me. Accusing me, accusing me of my pretensions to foliage.
A memory is briefly hurtled at me. On an R & R after my first Recon mission here, I was in my old room. I was trying on loud, gaudy, clothes. Anything to not disappear into the background around my hometown. My mom walked by the open door of my room.
I was attempting to decorate my head with an expensive pair of sunglasses. Our eyes locked. I felt her start. Sadly, bitterly, I remember her rabbit eyes. Pleading eyes. Eyes that asked, “Where is my son?”
The team doesn’t ask who you are.
Mad-dog slides up onto my shoulder out of the way. Thoughtlessly my knife leaps out into my hand, a predator’s tooth. The first and second techs are swallowed by the soup and the mud and the foliage. No sound of devouring is heard. The third has only enough time to show me my mothers’ eyes before he, too, goes soundlessly into the jungle, into the foliage. I grab the foliage and start to wrap it around me, when I realize the truth that rabbit eyes shout with eloquence.
James Dan Johnson