The darkness was complete. So dark that my mind was inventing light; the little flashes of color here and there. You can see them when you close your eyes and apply light pressure to they eyes. I should be sleeping but there was little chance of that. I was frightened and uncomfortable, in an unfamiliar place. And there were people out there who wanted to kill me. In spite of the darkness, the world was alive with noise. Small things skittered across the detritus of decaying leaves, there were reptiles that made sounds that sounded like rude vulgarities, and larger things moved in predatory stealth as they sought out a meal. Insects and leeches, blood suckers, were everywhere but were, for the most part, leaving me alone. But the most noticeable thing was the fear. It was pervasive and encompassing. It traveled through the body like signals from unhappy nerve endings, a light kind of electrical shock that wouldn’t stop.
This was the part of the long patrols I hated. The other four men in my squad had taken up positions nearby. Each of us had found a bush that permitted a hollow where we could hide ourselves. Of course, snakes and spiders also found these places attractive and became just one of the discomforts one had to get used to. That’s just how it was, how it worked. I thought about the other guys and knew that they were thinking many of the same things I was. How could they not? Like me, they were telling themselves that this is what we signed up for, a contradiction in terms though. We didn’t really sign up for this. We signed up for the army and then the rest was more or less the luck of the draw, although no one was playing with cards. If we were it would be a stacked deck anyway. Welcome to Vietnam.
There were stars overhead but I couldn’t see them. If I could see stars then Charlie, our enemy, could see us in the dim light they cast. So here I was, stuffed in a bush with god only knows what wondering what I tasted like. Hiding from Victor Charlie and wishing that sleep would come, or better yet, the sun. My ears strained to hear my surroundings. I tried to listen for the metered vibrations of footfalls, the sigh of cloth in motion, the sound of a breath. My nose, already filled with the musty odors of earth and jungle and decay was straining too. It reached out for the smell of human perspiration and the odoriferous traces of different foods on exhale. I couldn’t see anything but still my other senses reached out, hyper-extended, searching. Fear will do that to you. It’s simply a matter of choosing to survive. To come out the other side of a task intact.
Just like the false flashed of light, the nose and ears would invent things too. Things that made me startle and to myself think what was that? But the worst of it were the thoughts that accompanied fear. They were the darkest and most frightening of all. Why is it that we think the worst in the absence of information? Everyone does it. The things our imaginations can show us as possible alternatives are awful and in seemingly endless supply. Out here in the night the thoughts grew and choked everything up like kudzu.
I felt it through the ground first. Then I heard the whisper of parting branches and the sound of careful steps. Close. Impossibly close. Slow but metered, careful steps one after another. I silently reach to my side and gripped my weapon, my fingers feeling for orientation. The pistol grip, the trigger guard, the position of the safety, the position of the selector switch. I already knew it was locked and loaded, ready to fire. The brush around me moved as something –someone moved slowly past. I listened carefully for the footfalls, knowing that it was a person. An animal would have smelled me long before it got this close, and it would come right at me, not be passing so slowly by my position. I could heard rushing blood in my ears and felt the pounding of my heart. It was all so loud and obvious I wondered why the intruder couldn’t hear it. Was he deaf? Stupid? My legs wanted to shake and I had to concentrate to keep them from doing it. The motion would give me away. My hands shook and those I couldn’t stop snd so I gripped my weapon with one hand and clutched the other into a fist. And then I just waited.
Time slowed down. I think maybe it stopped. I sat still, breathing gently to stay soundless for what amounted to an eternity. My senses reaching and straining, my mind envisioning all kinds of mayhem. I could almost see the bright stars of muzzle flashes, smell the cordite of expended ammunition, hear the screams that followed the wet thump of a bullet striking flesh and wrecking havoc. I could smell the coppery odor of misted and flowing blood as life drained away in rivulets of red. The fear pressed on my bladder, threatening to soak me in the warm wetness of my own urine. But still I remained motionless and waited. Waited for hell to explode into being so sudden and deadly.
I felt old. A thousand years had passed. But I also felt a difference in the air. A difference in state. I carefully rolled from beneath the bush and above me appeared the stars. The wonderful, beautiful stars. I paused to look at them, to stare as though my eyes could reach out and embrace them. Then at once I remembered where I was. I carefully looked around, straining to see any straight or curved shapes and lines. Looking for anything that wasn’t leaves or vines. Anything human. I tried hard to pierce the darkness to find a threat and, satisfactorily, failed. I realized I’d been holding my breath and I let it out. Not in a rush, but slowly and quietly. A breath in. A breath out. Then I quietly rolled back beneath the brush again.
I know hours passed. It was almost sudden when I realized that I could make out the leaves and branches that were my cover. A world of charcoal darkness that was slowly developing definition. I knew I must have fallen asleep, but when, for how long I didn’t know. Again I rolled from under the bush, but only after straining again ti listen and smell. To absorb any vibration from the ground. Out of the brush, the world was slowly developing color. It looked like a faded photograph. I clicked my tongue quietly and around me other bushes gently shook. Reunited, my team and I set back off to continue our patrol.