I have this persistent sleep disorder that makes life difficult for me, but still I want to keep it. Boy, do I want to keep it. It goes back twenty years, to Vietnam. To Graves.
Dead bodies turn from bad to worse real fast in the jungle. You’ve got a few hours before rigor mortis makes them hard to handle, hard to stuff in a bag. By that time, they start to turn greenish, if they started out white or yellow, where you can see the skin. It’s mostly bugs by then, usually ants. Then they go to black and start to smell.
They swell up and burst.
You’d think the ants and roaches and beetles and millipedes would make short work of them after that, but they don’t. Just when they get to looking and smelling the worst, the bugs sort of lose interest, get fastidious, send out for pizza. Except for the flies. Laying eggs.
The funny thing is, unless some big animal got to it and tore it up, even after a week or so, you’ve still got something more than a skeleton, even a sort of a face. No eyes, though. Every now and then, we’d get one like that. Not too often, since soldiers usually don’t die alone and sit there for that long, but sometimes. We called them “dry ones.” Still damp underneath, of course, and inside, but kind of like a sunburned mummy otherwise.
You tell people what you do at Graves Registration, “Graves,” and it sounds like about the worst job the army has to offer. It isn’t. You just stand there all day and open body bags, figure out which parts maybe belong to which dog tag—not that it’s usually that important—sew them up more or less with a big needle, account for all the wallets and jewelry, steal the dope out of their pockets, box them up, seal the casket, do the paperwork. When you have enough boxes, you truck them out to the airfield. The first week maybe is pretty bad. But after a hundred or so, after you get used to the smell and the godawful feel of them, you get to thinking that opening a body bag is a lot better than ending up inside one. They put Graves in safe places.
Since I’d had a couple of years of college, pre-med, I got some of the more interesting jobs. Captain French, who was the pathologist actually in charge of the outfit, always took me with him out into the field when he had to examine a corpse in situ, which happened only maybe once a month. I got to wear a .45 in a shoulder holster, tough guy. Never fired it, never got shot at, except the one time.
That was a hell of a time. It’s funny what gets to you, stays with you.
Usually when we had an in situ, it was a forensic matter, like an officer they suspected had been fragged or otherwise terminated by his own men. We’d take pictures and interview some people, and then Frenchy would bring the stiff back for autopsy, see whether the bullets were American or Vietnamese. (Not that that would be conclusive either way. The Vietcong stole our weapons, and our guys used the North Vietnamese AK-47s, when we could get our hands on them. More reliable than the M-16, and a better cartridge for killing. Both sides proved that over and over.) Usually Frenchy would send a report up to Division, and that would be it. Once he had to testify at a court-martial. The kid was guilty, but just got life. The officer was a real prick.
Anyhow, we got the call to come look at this in situ corpse about five in the afternoon. Frenchy tried to put it off until the next day, since, if it got dark, we’d have to spend the night. The guy he was talking to was a major, though, and obviously proud of it, so it was no use arguing. I threw some C’s and beer and a couple canteens into two rucksacks that already had blankets and air mattresses tied on the bottom. Box of .45 ammo and a couple hand grenades. Went and got a jeep while Frenchy got his stuff together and made sure Doc Carter was sober enough to count the stiffs as they came in. (Doc Carter was the one supposed to be in charge, but he didn’t much care for the work.)
Drove us out to the pad, and lo and behold, there was a chopper waiting, blades idling. Should’ve started to smell a rat then. We don’t get real high priority, and it’s not easy to get a chopper to go anywhere so close to sundown. They even helped us stow our gear. Up, up and away.
I never flew enough in helicopters to make it routine. Kontum looked almost pretty in the low sun, golden red. I had to sit between two flamethrowers, though, which didn’t make me feel too secure. The door gunner was smoking. The flamethrower tanks were stenciled NO SMOKING.
We went fast and low out toward the mountains to the west. I was hoping we’d wind up at one of the big fire bases up there, figuring I’d sleep better with a few hundred men around. But no such luck. When the chopper started to slow down, the blades’ whir deepening to a whuck-whuck-whuck, there was no clearing as far as the eye could see. Thick jungle canopy everywhere. Then a wisp of purple smoke showed us a helicopter-sized hole in the leaves. The pilot brought us down an inch at a time, nicking twigs. I was very much aware of the flamethrowers. If he clipped a large branch, we’d be so much pot roast.
When we touched down, four guys in a big hurry unloaded our gear and the flamethrowers and a couple cases of ammo. They put two wounded guys and one client on board and shooed the helicopter away. Yeah, it would sort of broadcast your position. One of them told us to wait; he’d go get the major.
“I don’t like this at all,” Frenchy said.
“Me neither,” I said. “Let’s go home.”
“Any outfit that’s got a major and two flamethrowers is planning to fight a real war.” He pulled his .45 out and looked at it as if he’d never seen one before. “Which end of this do you think the bullets come out of?”
“Shit,” I advised, and rummaged through the rucksack for a beer. I gave Frenchy one, and he put it in his side pocket.
A machine gun opened up off to our right. Frenchy and I grabbed the dirt. Three grenade blasts. Somebody yelled for them to cut that out. Guy yelled back he thought he saw something. Machine gun started up again. We tried to get a little lower.
Up walks this old guy, thirties, looking annoyed. The major.
“You men get up. What’s wrong with you?” He was playin’ games.
Frenchy got up, dusting himself off. We had the only clean fatigues in twenty miles. “Captain French, Graves Registration.”
“Oh,” he said, not visibly impressed. “Secure your gear and follow me.” He drifted off like a mighty ship of the jungle. Frenchy rolled his eyes, and we hoisted our rucksacks and followed him. I wasn’t sure whether “secure your gear” meant bring your stuff or leave it behind, but Budweiser could get to be a real collector’s item in the boonies, and there were a lot of collectors out here.
We walked too far. I mean a couple hundred yards. That meant they were really spread out thin. I didn’t look forward to spending the night. The goddamned machine gun started up again. The major looked annoyed and shouted, “Sergeant, will you please control your men?” and the sergeant told the machine gunner to shut the fuck up, and the machine gunner told the sergeant there was a fuckin’ gook out there, and then somebody popped a big one, like a Claymore, and then everybody was shooting every which way. Frenchy and I got real horizontal. I heard a bullet whip by over my head. The major was leaning against a tree, looking bored, shouting, “Cease firing, cease firing!” The shooting dwindled down like popcorn getting done. The major looked over at us and said, “Come on. While there’s still light.” He led us into a small clearing, elephant grass pretty well trampled down. I guess everybody had had his turn to look at the corpse.
It wasn’t a real gruesome body, as bodies go, but it was odd-looking, even for a dry one. Moldy, like someone had dusted flour over it. Naked and probably male, though incomplete: all the soft parts were gone. Tall; one of our Montagnard allies rather than an ethnic Vietnamese. Emaciated, dry skin taut over ribs. Probably old, though it doesn’t take long for these people to get old. Lying on its back, mouth wide open, a familiar posture. Empty eye sockets staring skyward. Arms flung out in supplication, loosely, long past rigor mortis.
Teeth chipped and filed to points, probably some Montagnard tribal custom. I’d never seen it before, but we didn’t “do” many natives.
Frenchy knelt down and reached for it, then stopped. “Checked for booby traps?”
“No,” the major said. “Figure that’s your job.” Frenchy looked at me with an expression that said it was my job.
Both officers stood back a respectful distance while I felt under the corpse. Sometimes they pull the pin on a hand grenade and slip it under the body so that the body’s weight keeps the arming lever in place. You turn it over, and Tomato Surprise!
I always worry less about a hand grenade than about the various weird serpents and bugs that might enjoy living underneath a decomposing corpse. Vietnam has its share of snakes and scorpions and megapedes.
I was lucky this time; nothing but maggots. I flicked them off my hand and watched the major turn a little green. People are funny. What does he think is going to happen to him when he dies? Everything has to eat. And he was sure as hell going to die if he didn’t start keeping his head down. I remember that thought, but didn’t think of it then as a prophecy.
They came over. “What do you make of it, Doctor?”
“I don’t think we can cure him.” Frenchy was getting annoyed at this cherry bomb. “What else do you want to know?”
“Isn’t it a little . . . odd to find something like this in the middle of nowhere?”
“Naw. Country’s full of corpses.” He knelt down and studied the face, wiggling the head by its chin. “We keep it up, you’ll be able to walk from the Mekong to the DMZ without stepping on anything but corpses.”
“But he’s been castrated!”
“Birds.” He toed the body over, busy white crawlers running from the light. “Just some old geezer who walked out into the woods naked and fell over dead. Could happen back in the World. Old people do funny things.”
“I thought maybe he’d been tortured by the VC or something.”
“God knows. It could happen.” The body eased back into its original position with a creepy creaking sound, like leather. Its mouth had closed halfway. “If you want to put ‘evidence of VC torture’ in your report, your body count, I’ll initial it.”
“What do you mean by that, Captain?”
“Exactly what I said.” He kept staring at the major while he flipped a cigarette into his mouth and fired it up. Non-filter Camels; you’d think a guy who worked with corpses all day long would be less anxious to turn into one. “I’m just trying to get along.”
“You believe I want you to falsify—”
Now, “falsify” is a strange word for a last word. The enemy had set up a heavy machine gun on the other side of the clearing, and we were the closest targets. A round struck the major in the small of his back, we found on later examination. At the time, it was just an explosion of blood and guts, and he went down with his legs flopping every which way, barfing, then loud death rattle. Frenchy was on the ground in a ball, holding his left hand, going, “Shit shit shit.” He’d lost the last joint of his little finger. Painful, but not serious enough, as it turned out, to get him back to the World.
I myself was horizontal and aspiring to be subterranean. I managed to get my pistol out and cocked, but realized I didn’t want to do anything that might draw attention to us. The machine gun was spraying back and forth over us at about knee height. Maybe they couldn’t see us; maybe they thought we were dead. I was scared shitless.
“Frenchy,” I stage-whispered, “we’ve got to get outa here.” He was trying to wrap his finger up in a standard first-aid-pack gauze bandage, much too large. “Get back to the trees.”
“After you, asshole. We wouldn’t get halfway.” He worked his pistol out of the holster, but couldn’t cock it, his left hand clamping the bandage and slippery with blood. I armed it for him and handed it back. “These are going to do a hell of a lot of good. How are you with grenades?”
“Shit. How you think I wound up in Graves?” In basic training, they’d put me on KP whenever they went out for live grenade practice. In school, I was always the last person when they chose up sides for baseball, for the same reason—though, to my knowledge, a baseball wouldn’t kill you if you couldn’t throw far enough. “I couldn’t get one halfway there.” The tree line was about sixty yards away.
“Neither could I, with this hand.” He was a lefty.
Behind us came the “poink” sound of a sixty-millimeter mortar, and in a couple of seconds, there was a gray-smoke explosion between us and the tree line. The machine gun stopped, and somebody behind us yelled, “Add twenty!”
At the tree line, we could hear some shouting in Vietnamese, and a clanking of metal. “They’re gonna bug out,” Frenchy said. “Let’s di-di.”
We got up and ran, and somebody did fire a couple of bursts at us, probably an AK-47, but he missed, and then there were a series of poinks and a series of explosions pretty close to where the gun had been.
We rushed back to the LZ and found the command group, about the time the firing started up again. There was a first lieutenant in charge, and when things slowed down enough for us to tell him what had happened to the major, he expressed neither surprise nor grief. The man had been an observer from Battalion, and had assumed command when their captain was killed that morning. He’d take our word for it that the guy was dead—that was one thing we were trained observers in—and not send a squad out for him until the fighting had died down and it was light again.
We inherited the major’s hole, which was nice and deep, and in his rucksack found a dozen cans and jars of real food and a flask of scotch. So, as the battle raged through the night, we munched pâté on Ritz crackers, pickled herring in sour-cream sauce, little Polish sausages on party rye with real French mustard. We drank all the scotch and saved the beer for breakfast.
For hours, the lieutenant called in for artillery and air support, but to no avail. Later, we found out that the enemy had launched coordinated attacks on all the local airfields and Special Forces camps, and every camp that held POWs. We were much lower priority.
Then, about three in the morning, Snoopy came over. Snoopy was a big C-130 cargo plane that carried nothing but ammunition and Gatling guns; they said it could fly over a football field and put a round into every square inch. Anyhow, it saturated the perimeter with fire, and the enemy stopped shooting. Frenchy and I went to sleep.
At first light, we went out to help round up the KIAs. There were only four dead, counting the major, but the major was an astounding sight, at least in context.
He looked sort of like a cadaver left over from a teaching autopsy. His shirt had been opened and his pants pulled down to his thighs, and the entire thoracic and abdominal cavities had been ripped open and emptied of everything soft, everything from esophagus to testicles, rib cage like blood-streaked fingers sticking rigid out of sagging skin, and there wasn’t a sign of any of the guts anywhere, just a lot of dried blood.
Nobody had heard anything. There was a machine-gun position not twenty yards away, and they’d been straining their ears all night. All they’d heard was flies.
Maybe an animal feeding very quietly. The body hadn’t been opened with a scalpel or a knife; the skin had been torn by teeth or claws—but seemingly systematically, throat to balls.
And the dry one was gone. Him with the pointed teeth.
There is one rational explanation. Modern warfare is partly mindfuck, and we aren’t the only ones who do it, dropping unlucky cards, invoking magic and superstition. The Vietnamese knew how squeamish Americans were, and would mutilate bodies in clever ways. They could also move very quietly. The dry one? They might have spirited him away just to fuck with us. Show what they could do under our noses.
And as for the dry one’s odd mummified appearance, the mold, there might be an explanation. I found out that the Montagnards in that area don’t bury their dead; they put them in a coffin made from a hollowed-out log and leave them aboveground. So maybe he was just the victim of a grave robber. I thought the nearest village was miles away, like twenty miles, but I could have been wrong. Or the body could have been carried that distance for some obscure purpose—maybe the VC set it out on the trail to make the Americans stop in a good place to be ambushed.
That’s probably it. But for twenty years now, several nights a week, I wake up sweating with a terrible image in my mind. I’ve gone out with a flashlight, and there it is, the dry one, scooping steaming entrails from the major’s body, tearing them with its sharp teeth, staring into my light with black empty sockets, unconcerned. I reach for my pistol, and it’s never there. The creature stands up, shiny with blood, and takes a step toward me—for a year or so, that was it; I would wake up. Then it was two steps, and then three. After twenty years it has covered half the distance and its dripping hands are rising from its sides.
The doctor gives me tranquilizers. I don’t take them. They might help me stay asleep.
© 1992 Joe Haldeman.
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.