- Excerpt from Sunday Girl
The kunai grass is high and dense, taller than I am. I unsheathe my machete and begin to whack away at the thick growth, flinging spates of rain from the blades. Slowly, I make my way through the narrow parting, careful of the knife-like leaves that can slice clean through the flesh, leaving deep cuts for the sweat to seep into. The stinging can drive you crazy.
Earlier that morning the rain came down more heavily than usual and for hours I fought through the perpetual waterfall. The rain caught on the rim of my cap, pouring in a torrent down my face. I could hardly see three feet ahead of me. Every few paces I slipped in the mud, struggled to get up, slipped and struggled up. Then I didn’t have the strength to get up anymore and slumped to the side of the path. Just for a minute, I signaled to Sato who had tried to prod me on. “I’ll be along soon,” I said and then closed my eyes to the soldiers passing by in a sluggish march. Within seconds I’d fallen asleep.
I don’t know how long I’ve been separated from the rest of them. It’s like that in the jungle. The trees are tall in the way things are described in fairy tales, their branches weaving a thick matted canopy that blocks out the sun. Already, it’s late afternoon and the lush tangled foliage is immersed in gloomy shadows. I have three days, three days to find my unit or else I’ll be shot as a deserter. [End Page 49]
Boots squelch in the rain-laden mud. I come upon a narrow pass obstructed by a dead body. In the jungle, without roads or signs or lights, the dead are the only guides pointing me in the right direction. From several feet away, I can see flies hovering over the body, a swarm of them, buzzing noisily. The feet are bare; someone has already stolen the boots. It’s a recent death, I estimate, as I run my eyes up and down the limbs stiffened with rigor mortis, sprawled as if in the depths of the most profound sleep. But as I approach, I see that the flies aren’t flies at all, but a different species of insect all together. They look exactly like bees, but the notion confounds me. I’ve never seen such a curious sight. Marveling, I stand staring at the thicket of insects swarming above the body. Then, as if soldiers obeying an order, they spread, marshaling around the contour of the dead man like some strange energy field.
Suddenly something—neither noise nor a change in the monotonous green wilderness—makes me turn, and I see a soldier sitting on top of his pack slumped against a tree. A white man. My first encounter with the enemy up close. Though I’ve heard them rustling through the darkness, smelled the aroma of the sentries’ coffee wafting through the jungle in the middle of the night. The soldier waves his hand, motioning me over. His uniform is soiled the color of the wet earth, and the lower part of his face is dark with an overgrowth of bristly brown hair, on top of which a pair of desperate, demented eyes—the eyes of a trapped, tortured animal—peer out at me. He points at my gun. Then as if the effort’s too much, his arm falls into his lap.
“What do you want?” I ask in English. I suspect he’s already gone mad. The soldier doesn’t respond. He merely raises his hand again and points at the gun. But this time, he mimes the cocking of the trigger and brings the finger to his own head. I wonder how long he’s been sitting there alone. There’s a particular calm about him, the kind of calm that comes over a man who’s given up all hope. I’ve witnessed it before, how a man can crawl like an animal [End Page 50] into a corner, lean his...