Ten silent birds fly in formation in a sapphire sky as new recruits march in rows. Late November, but the uniformed figures in camouflage are in the spring of life – young, muscled, healthy. Slender and acne-faced, he steps in time with his comrades.
Nine months into his army career, Peterson gets his orders to join the conflict across the blue Pacific. Excitement and trepidation ensue.
Eight letters to his mother, every Sunday for two months, assure her he is managing. The war in Vietnam is practically over anyhow, he writes. I miss your brownies, he writes. Do you think the Reds stand a chance this season? he writes.
Seven days a week he trudges with swampy water in his boots and slaps at insect bites covering his skin. He remains wet, hot, and filthy.
Six planes fly in on that fateful Thursday, bringing more troops and even more guns. The C-97s drop their cargo and leave, the propellers barely having a moment to come to a rest before spinning the planes forward again.
Five buddies along with Peterson become lost in the jungle while delivering supplies. Gunfire rings out around them, past their ears, in front of their eyes.
Four muddied men circle the redhead, Thompson, as he gropes his chest, blood erupting in a vermillion poppy flower against his olive t-shirt. His breaths come urgently; he is drowning in the crimson.
Three blasts boom suddenly – three bombs explode – three men scream and run.
Two thin eyes appear and peer at Peterson’s face as he holds the fiery flesh of his thigh. His body writhes on the muddy ground. Hit by mortar and infernal pain, he watches in terror at the enemy soldier above him.
One thunderous bullet to the forehead takes his life in the sweltering rice paddy and a stillness falls over the land. No movement through the brush, no stirring on the earth, except –
Ten silent birds fly in formation above, in a sapphire sky.
Katherine Caswell Hughbanks’s poetry and narrative writing have appeared in Trajectory, Calliope, Kentucky Monthly’s Penned Literary Edition, Kudzu Literary Magazine, and the Louisville Eccentric Observer’s Literary LEO. She currently teaches creative writing in Louisville, Kentucky.