By Peter Mladinic
The morning Tet started, the many dead
in a grated rectangular clearing at the edge
of rice paddies. The others, Danang
Security, in the open back of a truck passed
the dead stacked in rows. I want to say 500,
of course, these weren’t numbers, corpses
that only 24 hours before were soldiers.
Bodies laid out in rows like piles of laundry,
lifeless in green fatigues. What fate
had brought those soldiers into rice paddies
the night before, if each chose to be there.
As I had chosen to stand watch
in the city, at an admiral’s quarters
the rooftop, the sky lit with flares.
The admiral in robe and slippers,
smoking a cigar. Like his guards, of which
I was one, unaware of the firefight
in the paddies, across the river from the city.
The heard and felt thuds, the sky bursts
of flares. Eventually
he left the rooftop for his bedroom.
At sunrise the truck came and collected us.
The rice paddies like a field of tall grass.
In its foreground the grated rectangular
clearing, on normal days for helicopters
to rise and land. It took up the
southwest corner of a paved intersection
that in daylight was busy with traffic.
Across the street, on the northwest corner
a tower in which, on normal days
I stood watch. At the base
of the tower one day Mai, who looked
about 10; she held the hand of her baby
sister, Huong. With Mai I traded
a sandwich I’d bought from a vendor
for her picture, which I have in an album.
The sandwiches I thought pork
and ham were likely dog meat.
They tasted pretty good. I bet Mai enjoyed
the one I traded her for her picture.
She didn’t eat in front of me. The sandwich
wrapped in newspapers in hand, she
walked away. Maybe she lived close by.
She and Huong in loose blouses and slacks
light colored, rumpled like cotton pajamas,
came and went from the base of the tower.
The field, the intersection, the normal days
a Quan Chan in smart fatigues,
polished boots, a red or white scarf, and
white gloves, with a whistle directed traffic.
His dark helmet
with white letters QC on front. Pivoting
his body, moving his hands, his ballet,
I hate to admit, entertained my eye.
Whichever QC happened to be there,
they always looked and moved
the same. Move is the key. They moved
gracefully, precisely, whereas soldiers who
died in the paddies, whose bodies I saw
as the truck passed
didn’t look like bodies, just piles of green
stacked in rows, presumably by ones
who’d shot them the night before, while
I stood on the admiral’s roof and Mai slept
or maybe huddled in a corner with Huong
in a house not far from the fighting
going on, the killing and being killed.
In Mai’s picture she’s in a studio gazebo.
If she’s still living… what became of her?
Peter Mladinic’s fourth book of poems, Knives on a Table is available from Better Than Starbucks Publications. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico.