5
min

Prisoner of War

Image of Mal

Mal

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FINALIST
Jury Selection

He was a soldier. He was confused and tired and homesick, or maybe lovesick, or maybe a cruel combination of the two. He made his way through the jungle, stumbling on the shards of broken sunlight thrown down through gaps in the overhanging trees, his legs aching for some reason he could no longer remember. He felt himself growing younger and younger until he realized that he had never grown any older at all, and that he had always been the same age, which was not really an age at all but a thin line of consciousness wound around inside his mind that grew longer with time. His face was tan with dust, and drips of sweat drew long rolling lines of brown down his forehead. His nose was straight and angular, and his eyes were overshadowed by two blond eyebrows that eternally turned downward in a pensive squint. His jaw hung loose and unsatisfied as if he was mouthing the beginning of a word he could not get out. The hair on his head had been cut short once, but now fell down around his eyes and curled around his ears like the untamed jungle underbrush. A dented canteen- almost empty- swung from his belt as he moved. He was looking for her. He had searched the entire village, or what felt like it, and the air was beginning to taste foreboding and hopeless on his swollen tongue. He tried to call her name again, but what was left of his deepened, raspy voice dissolved into the humid air and was eaten away by the patiently hovering mosquitoes. A surge of realization shot him through the back of the head, and he doubled over, panting, wiping his broken glasses on the canvas of his trousers. He held them close to his face, rubbing at the mud running through the cracked glass- like the veins in his thin, limp wrists- like the roots that intertwined themselves with the dry dirt beneath his combat boots. There was a slight breeze, and he staggered into it, her face still burned into his eyes where the bright constant ghost of the sun used to be. He saw it wherever he looked, hovering right in front of him like a lure on a fishhook, beckoning him closer and closer and then retreating back into his fantasies. He screamed her name again, two painfully graceful syllables that ended in a choked sob that he had been trying to contain.

He was no longer in the jungle. He stood, braced against a tree, and stared out at the ravaged ruins of what he had known as paradise. A sickly yellow smoke rose from blackened, crumpled thatch-hut roofs of the houses he had slept in, and he ran his hands down the sharp bark just to feel something other than betrayal. The air was dizzying, smelling of burnt straw and dusty skin and unfinished poetry, and he inhaled it, forcing himself to hold the breath on his tongue until he could not get the taste out of his mouth. Everything was gone, ashes and blood, he thought to himself, finding the brown body of an old woman with his eyes, her dress thrown up over her knees, her face speckled with dust and blood like a constellation of millions of dying stars. She seemed to be split down the middle, like the magician’s assistant in a magic trick, so he took off his glasses to piece her together again. The world became an explosion of light; washed-out colors and sharp shapes melting into each other like impatient watercolor. The village now resembled an old senpai photograph of a beautiful young girl torn into a thousand tiny pieces and spilled out over the grass. In his mind, he took a match to it. He set fire to some unrealistic dream that he had carved into the very back part of his mind; set fire to an American wedding and to a house with blue shutters and to two little brown-haired girls with slanted eyes.

There was an anguished cry, and he pressed his glasses back to his face, rearranging the world once again. He searched the soot for any signs of light, for some phoenix that would burst upward from the scorched rubble, but found instead the thin outline of a young Vietnamese boy lying underneath a charred plank. He recognized him immediately- recognized him as some small part of himself that was now just an elusive fish swimming purposelessly around the hidden recesses of his being. The boy’s face was burned, blistered on the left side, already peeling up to reveal tortured red flesh. His eyes were pressed closed, and his hand rested against his cheek, shielding the wounds from the biting air. The soldier faltered over to the form of the child, approaching him slowly, like you might a cornered animal. His hands swung unevenly by his sides, catching on the air as they fell back to meet his waist. He summoned them to lift the board from the boy’s shoulders and threw it aside with a surprising numbed ease. He crouched down beside the child, his hands on his knees, examining him for any signs of acknowledgment. He poured the cool water of his canteen over his hands and pressed them against the hot skin of the boy’s face.

It was no longer day. The sun had faded into a darkened sliver of itself, a closing eye, and was hanging drunkenly in the starless sky. The soldier realized that he could no longer feel the distant rising and falling of the boy’s side underneath his palm, and he grabbed the loose t-shirt falling around the scarecrow frame and shook it with a violent urgency that sent him to tears again. He could hear the berating shrieks of treetop monkeys and the consoling whispers of a woman killed by his own apathy and a high pitched machine-like whirring that he couldn't quite place spinning through him, a constant mocking lullaby that put him to sleep just to wake him up over and over again. He let the ghost of the boy fall back onto the thirsty ground and struggled to his feet. He tore his glasses from his face like a part of himself he wanted to be rid of forever, dropping them through his fingertips next to the body, the world disintegrating again into tranquilizing patches of blue and purple.

He walked. The whirring grew louder, his sobs more intense, until they became the same noise- just a deafening and unforgiving scream that he had heard in some nightmare back when he was kinder than this. With each step, he seemed to be walking off the edge of one world and falling into another, and he felt his head melting downward onto his shoulders. He staggered into something stiff and warm, and reached out his hands, flat-palmed, bracing himself for an inevitable fall that he knew inside himself he would not be able to break. Tears were rolling down his face like a thick and compliant sweat, and his mouth was stretched painfully at the edges in a hopeless grimace that twisted his features beyond recognition. He felt the weight of the entire earth dragging him down by the ankles like a ball and chain, and so with no bitterness, he submitted to the gravity that was throbbing inside the ground like a ragged heartbeat. He felt a tension around his wrist, a recognizable pressure that flooded his conscience with short and confused memories that slackened his tightened face and relaxed the strangled muscles in his chest. His eyes looked upward involuntarily, and he found himself staring into the white round face of a girl he swore he knew. She was young, her shining black hair tucked behind an ear, and he cried a different kind of tears to look at her. When she touched his hand, it flipped a switch that turned on a light he believed had burned out completely. He was suddenly aware of the presence of a half dozen faces crowded around him, like masks hanging on the white hospital walls, but he knew they had no significance.
“Bian?” he choked, reaching up to feel the shape of her sweeping jawline. “Bạn còn sống không?”
“We were just going to the back room to check your blood pressure, Mr. Lawman,” the nurse said, her voice attempting to be soothing but coming out as a broken, embarrassed murmur. “Please, put your glasses back on.”
“Don’t mind him,” said his daughter, “he doesn’t remember anything.”
He was a soldier. But he was only a man.

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