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Picture of Sybil Smith Poppies

Available Now - Hanna Duston's SisterHe dreams he is in Laos, as he was once, long ago. He dreams he lies in his own-made grave, leaves covering his face, his pants wet with urine. He dreams he cannot move, the dirt that covers him is alive with tiny roots; those translucent, hairy fimbriae that steal their sustenance from the soil, with delicacy, with polite persistence. He knows that they are the roots of poppies, the poppies that grow all over the Plain of Jars, swaying acres of red mouths licking at the sky. They are growing in the outline of his body, marking where he hides, yet he cannot rise. His limbs are heavy with their opiate, though the ground trembles lightly with approaching feet.

He wakes. It is his heart, kicking like a rabbit trapped in a bag. It is his wife, risen from bed, walking about stiffly, holding her back. Her back spasms at night sometimes, just as his soul spasms. He pretends to be asleep, though he knows she knows that he will wake. No matter how softly she creeps from bed, his eyes snap open. But if he were to turn, sigh, rise on an elbow, she might feel free to pry into his dreams. Like an archeologist, with her tiny pick, her little brush, her warm breath blowing the loosened dirt away. Ah ha! what have we here.

A buried soldier. A buried soldier, but of what nation? He wears green pants, a green jacket, a black beret. You would have to go deeper, into his heart, to find the answer. American. Marine. Fifty One Sting Ray. Jack of Hearts. Formerly Tom Bullard of Vermont. How came he to be buried here, alive? In the hills of Laos, near the Plain of Jars. She would puzzle, pick, brush, not stopping till she knew the story.

***

He volunteered. When the Major told them he needed a man for a covert mission in Laos, a mule, to carry the radio. They were to seek out enemy positions, to call in the B52s. It was called "Operation Good Look." He reasoned it might be better than where he was, in Vietnam. Like a hike, perhaps, an outing. In his dreams.

***

They skirted fields of poppies, the two Hmong tribesmen leading. The naval officer came next, then Tom.

They had walked for a week, mostly at night. They lay low during the day, slept irregularly. The naval officer was boot, he'd never been in the shit. Academy boy, picked because he spoke French, and they needed an officer on this mission. He carried gold bullion, they bribed their way across each petty kingdom.

They ate rice and fruit and chocolate bars. Shit discs, Tom called the chocolate. Nestle's Crunch pressed into circles. Sometimes he tried to imagine who packaged it, back home. Who ran the machines, who cleaned the vats? Did they drive a pickup with a gun rack? Or was it a woman. Did she curl her hair? Did she drive an old Chevrolet? Did she think of the boy who would unwrap her sweet work?

But mostly he didn't think. He listened, he looked, he walked, he sat, he ached. He learned a few words of French from the guides; vite, ici, arret. They were hit at night. All Tom remembers was a sudden burst of small arms fire, AK 47s. He was saved by his radio, he slept curled next to it. He felt it thump against his back, was shaken instantly awake. But it wasn't like a dream. He could run. He was gone, through the jungle, like a deer, nineteen, lean, fast, determined to live. He would never know the fate of the naval officer, cannot remember his name, blocks it now. He would never see the guides again.

To the river. Should he swim up or down? Up. They'd look for him downstream. He swam, quietly, against the current. When he was tired he climbed the bank, into the jungle again. He dug a hole and buried himself, covered his head with vegetation. He lay there for two days, wetting himself with urine. He slept, daydreamed, went fishing. Back to the farm in Vermont, back to that certain bend in the stream where trout cooled their bellies near the bottom. To Rita, his cow. How he loved to hold her round the neck and feel her rough tongue on his face, slap her hot flanks. He recited poetry, the poems he learned in school. To you from failing hands we throw/The torch, be yours to hold it high/If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields.

They did not find him. He arose, finally, from his own-made grave, arose starved and afraid. He walked south, carrying nothing but a pistol he didn't dare to use. Walked. South. East. Four days, five days, weaker by the hour, will sapped. He began to nap a lot, forgot to hide himself. That was when it happened.

He woke to the eyes of a man. An ancient brown man, like a figment from another time, bent over him, ready to leap away, peering down at this gaunt boy, nestled in the leaves. Perhaps it was an hallucination. Their eyes were locked, Tom's blue, the man's black. Perhaps angels come dressed in furs, shoeless, with scarred feet. Perhaps they peer with innocent curiosity into the blue eyes of a white man, bringer of bombs. They want to know what kind of people have this power, this strange hunger. And they see a human being. A creature who hurts and is hurt. A boy who has fished, and fought, and loved a cow named Rita.

The old man moved. He found something in his scant belongings, threw it down on Tom's chest. Fruit and meat of some kind. Their eyes locked again, they thought good-bye.

***

He thinks he should have followed the man, as long ago lost travelers sometimes did. He might have been adopted, learned their language, loved their women, spread his seed, hunted, lived and died another life entirely, as if he had been reborn, spawn of the forest floor risen. But he didn't. He ate the food, the strange meat and fruit. His hunger woke, he killed a rock ape with a stone. And walked again, south, east. Carrying bits of monkey and a moment of redemption. Hiding from anyone he saw.

Eating snake when the monkey was gone. Skirting fields of poppies. Coming, finally, to a guard post on the border with Thailand. He gave the guards his gun, they made him squat and wait in the open. No one spoke English. Oh, but there were ways. They could fetch those who spoke a few words, there was his serial number, there was a phone. And lo and behold, there were Americans. Big, in their jeep, arriving in a whirlwind of dust. Come to get their mule who had come home. A good mule, and there was still much to be done.

The killing had not stopped as he walked in the hills, the bombs were still waiting.

***

And he didn't complain. he didn't balk. He did as he was told, he was a bullet shot from the mouths of fat, safe, contentious old men. Though he'd been offered the truth in the eyes of another old man. This is one of his sorrows, this is what the others must not know. His
wife wants to see into his heart. She would exchange her pick and brush for a scalpel, a clamp, a sponge. She doesn't understand that you can't go into the heart without getting hurt. His secrets are like dangerous germs. His soul is a laboratory with automatic doors, with code numbers and filtered vents, masks offered at every port. If the truth got out it would hurt someone. It nearly killed him and he was strong. The truth about what men do to one another.

What he watched them do and what he did. He doesn't want his wife to know how easily a bullet could penetrate her soft skin. She cannot imagine the indignity of her screams, her pleading, the stink of her spilled guts. She would hate him for the bad news he brought.

***

And he was strong? Not so. What got him through? Masks. Armor. An armor called amphetamine. He learned how not to sleep. He could remember those yellow capsules that took away his fear, the cowardly lion. A mask called morphine, that told him when to sleep. He could remember the first aid kit with its amphojects of morphine, that stuffed his mind with beautiful, soft, scented straw. He could remember the shame of his need, the shame of his contamination.

***

So when she comes back to bed he moves away. She follows his retreating warmth with her innocent body. He opens his eyes and sees, through the window, the hard, fast flakes of the first good snow. By morning the earth will be buried. In February it will be hard to remember summer. A visitor from another world could not imagine the abundance of life that waited, quietly, frozen. His wife moves closer again. He gives in and lets her touch. Like the hot pack she's brought with her, that she keeps against her back, he lets her warm him. He knows if there's a cure it may be human.

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