A Strange Village in Wartime; or, What I Found When I Went Looking by Brandon Oâ€™Connor
The war was over, at least dying out. So they said. I returned home either way. In the strange country where I had carried out monotonous orders for several years I saw a land rip itself apart from the belly out, like a diabolical disease, like a monster set on destroying every independent land. We could have simply stepped back and watched the massacre self-perpetuate, as did God when creating man. The evil was not in us, but in the catastrophe we created. We didnâ€™t need to intervene, though we did, in the miraculous warfare being fought between these individuals, united only by the similar dirt beneath them. The man I took orders from was General Ingus, a darkskinned, angular man resembling a starving East African dik-dik, with eerily dark eyes, always wet as if he had just left his cot. His small stature made him look something of a child stealing a Generalâ€™s identity. He was, or seemed, indifferent towards
everybody on base, except for me. To me he felt some sort of brotherhood, a connection in the realm of his mind. It was something I would never find answers to, as it was guarded, secured, stowed away behind his weathered face. I had no hint of why, it had always been that way, since I became stationed here some time ago. Maybe it was because I was different from the rest of the men there. General Ingus knew of my background in biology and anthropology, and my absence in any military training from before the war. I was a scientist amid a pack of idiot boars. Drafted unlike the rest of them. They volunteered. That’s probably why one day, while maintenancing a broken typewriter in the storage room of the barracks, the beaming sun being too unforgiving to be outside making land surveys, General Ingus confronted me in regards to a “special mission.” “Lieutenant Dodds,” that’s me, “tomorrow you’ll be relocating to observe the natives of a small village located near the coast of Insolitus Bay, six kilometers south in fact.” His voice was 3
like the gentle sound of an old, weary farmer shoveling loose gravel. “I need reports on any problematic issues you may find. We usurp their location two weeks from tomorrow.” Usurp a village? Near Insolitus Bay? “Lieutenant?” “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” No time for questions.
The town I was to observe was an insignificant village positioned between two vast mountain ranges that never collided, but ran inland from the ocean at widening distances, eventually rotating away and venturing into distant, unknown lands. One could smell the ocean’s breath trapped and circulating at the foot of the mountains, sweet and crisp, like a freshly braised cabbage salad, or a hand-rolled cigar. Morning would wake with clouds gathered over the shore, blanketing the cold sand; but the noontime sun would tear it apart, its fingers touching and warming the thick patch of healthy ferns and taro plants. Upon the shedding of 4
daylight, a world was exposed that I had, before then, never seen anything similar to, occupied more by nature than filled with any person. In a seemingly objective sense, the place was beautiful, and undiscovered by the plague of view-seeking voyagers. It was like the harmonious cry a mosquito might sing when dying; beautiful, but you would never guess it was there. My camp was neatly tucked into a crevice of two adjoining boulders at the root of one of the taller mountains, a safe distance from the village. A convenient mask of shrubs and moss was layered around the rock, allowing my camouflage draperies to remain invisible. There was no possibility of seeing the village from my camp. Climbing down through the valley would be my only way of scouting the natives. The morning just after arriving, I decided to explore the land surrounding my new site. Walking through the undergrowth, following the easiest route between the incredibly tall teak trees, I heard a low echo of sprinting water. Following it close to twenty meters I discovered a hidden plunge pool for a relatively small 5
waterfall. Keeping unseen behind the brush, I found that no sort of activity, other than the flow of the waterfall, appeared to be happening. I stepped out and peered into the water. In the clearing of trees surrounding the pool, a comforting harmless breeze found life, dipping in above the leaves and bouncing out again on its way to the shoreline. I cooled my neck and stared into the shallow water. My face wrinkled back up at me, my knotted furrowed brows concerned with the dirt sprinkled on my cheeks and thickset nose. My jaw gave way to knobby ears, like I had found most of the men in this war carried. I was an ugly human belonging to an ugly troop in an ugly war. I decided to use the pool to wash the travel off of my body. Undressing myself, I laid my outfit and gear on the nearest rock. Stretching, with my arms extended overhead, and now completely nude, the sun warmed the scale of my taught body. The shadows my ribs created looked like dimples in wet sand at the beach, those caused by the cross-motion of waves. My chest was covered with
meager fuzz which continued down my stomach, crotch and legs, tinting my skin slightly. I dove in off the tallest rock I could find. I wasnâ€™t concerned that the water was too cold to be enjoyed as a leisurely swim since it would be quick. The waterfall swept mist over the surface and the pressure of the plunging water pushed me farther away towards the outflowing streams. In an attempt to see the waterfall from beneath the surface, I dove deep and swam hard against the water. Down there I noticed the floor supported a garden of various plants I had never seen before. Also, small, luminescent fish-like creatures wove themselves between the plants and rocks, darting in all directions as if dancing. Their joie de vivre excited me to look closer and identify them, but I was unable to get a good visual because of their swift movement. I resurfaced. Filling my lungs with the air I was beginning to appreciate so much (after so long in the dust-laden air at the base), I looked across the water and saw standing amongst the trees a young person dressed in long charcoaled fabric, the fashion of the 7
villagers I was to be observing. Shocked, I must admit, for I don’t know what I was thinking swimming in the pool for so long after only wanting a quick wash, I swam towards my pile of clothes, keeping my attention on the young villager. I took it to be a girl by the ponytail behind her. I climbed out and began redressing, though when I looked back at the trees, the girl was gone. I decided to track this mysterious person to be safe. Though my secrecy was not exactly part of my orders, I did not want to give away my presence for reasons of my own. In part, I didn’t want my stay here to be social, merely remain an observer. Any sign of tracks remained elusive to me, though. I was never trained for this sort of recon, so my wits were all I could rely on. Unfortunately, after several minutes of plodding through bushes, I concluded to make my way back to camp. It wasn’t until I passed by the same hidden waterfall that I noticed the child on the opposite side of the pool.
“Hello there,” I called out, though the waterfall may have killed my greeting, as the girl remained still. I waved, but still she did nothing. Slowly and in an attempt at a harmless stride, I began circling the pool, making use of the staggered stones. She didn’t seem to mind, remaining completely still the duration of my reaching her, as if trying to blend in with the trees. When I was within four meters of her, I lowered my stance, crouching, making sure not to position myself as if about to leap, but holding my shoulders back. I wanted to appear as friendly and safe as possible. “He-llo,” I said. Then, pointing to myself, “D-ah-dts” “I know who you are, asshole.” I stood there, stupid and staring. She spoke with an unremarkable flair like that of an average, civilized, suburban teenager, tilting her head so slightly, hinting at the attitude she held within. One could imagine her, if dressed appropriately, with her own soft hands gripping at her waist, smacking gum like a horse, twisting a lock of hair around her index, like cotton in a spindle, as if winding up her brain. 9
Though she in fact was not doing any of those things, for she was still a native villager. Whatever connotations that seemed to hold now I was unsure. “And I’m Yda.” “Ighda? What?” I said, attempting to solve the puzzle. “Yda! And you’ve been swimming in our holy waters!” And then my neck felt pierced with flames and my vision melted into water. Consumed by darkness.
First, light slowly filtered its way back into my eyes. Then the sounds of clicking, pops and mumbling into my ears. The light began resembling scattered indiscernible shapes and colors. Dull pain covering my body became sharp aches. Smoke invaded my nostrils, pushing me further back into reality with its pungent flavor. My spinal cord felt like dogs had been chewing on it, each vertebra gnawed and slobbered on, knobs reshaped into apple cores.
My vision clearing, I saw I was surrounded by onlookers. A small fire set to the side of me blew smoke at my face. I closed my eyes and coughed, making my ribs claw at my insides. I noticed I was securely tied to some kind of tree trunk or pole with my limbs bound to my sides. “Where am I?” “He wakes!” Attention was brought to my audience. My throat seemed full of grease and mucus by the feel and sound of it. “Feeling better, D-ah-dts?” Yda stepped through the crowd. “Who are you? What is this?” “Yda. This is ransom.” “Wha—?” “We found your camp, Mr. Dodds. With it, all of your briefing and whatnot. We know you’re a spy and that you plan to kick us out in two weeks. I don’t really care why or anything, because we know you don’t know either.” I felt utterly dumb. “Thing is, we like it here. We were here first. I don’t think we’re gonna be moving anywhere.” 11
“Is what ransom?” Words were coming out confused and mixed. My head was still thick with whatever had caused me to slip from consciousness. “You are, Mr. Dodds. You’re the ransom. We have you, they want you, we want to stay. Your trade for our well-being. Get it? Ransom.” This could not be happening. Not now, on my first mission, in this beautifully serene place. Well, it used to be serene. I should have built my camp in the jungle. No, farther into the mountains. I should have brought help. I was never trained for anything of this nature. And now everything was over. What will General Ingus think of my failed mission? I presume I will be back in the storage room, fixing useless hardware for an assemblage of retarded machine-gun whores. Or will I be involuntarily discharged? Shameful as it was, it was a real possibility, one that I should not disregard. Being discharged would mean being disowned by everyone else. Forget any worthy job opportunities. 12
My pathetic, immobile body shook from the thought of it and threads of pain scraped through my spinal cord. The skin of my face contorted itself so that my cheeks moved over my eyes, my lips over my cheek, and brows over my forehead. With my jaws twinging and fastening themselves together, I resembled a caricature of my already ugly self, clownish and hell-bent. Yda and the natives seemed to think it was an especially comical scene. “Ha ha! You’re a character, Mr. Dodds,” said Yda. Everyone else laughed too. “How does this work?” I asked in one exhausted breath. “How will you let them know you have me? How do we trade?” “Already on it, dude. That dart to your gullet knocked you out an entire day. We’ve been busy. Let’s see, we’ve already sent a telegram to your base, some how or other. And—” “To the base? You know where the base is?” “All in your backpack, Mr. Dodds. Very simple directions on how to make contact. The people at the village just north of here
had a telegraph, don’t ask me how, I don’t know. Anyway, we sent the message last night. I guess we’re just waiting on a reply now.” So it was already in motion. Now I just needed to be rescued. Humiliating, but necessary. I also needed a doctor. And then a loud zip was heard in the distance. Then several more. They seemed to be coming from a few directions, scattered about in front of me. Bullets! Panicked, the villagers surrounding me sprinted in various directions, like smashed ants. There was nowhere for them to hide. Tiny metallic projectiles speared my captors on all sides that I had retained visibility. Blood spat from the shoulders of a woman onto the face of Yda, who remained hidden by climbing beneath the fallen body. Another man running towards me received three hits to his torso, hip and elbow, in that order. Guts were spilled onto all sides of the lively, plush grass field. Then silence, except for the breaking of waves over rocks behind me. Men descended from the bushes of the surrounding hills in stiff striding movements looking like waiters carrying trays of hot 14
food. Moving in, they held their guard until finally circling around my helpless self. “There’s a girl under that body over there,” I motioned with my nose and toe, “I think she’s dangerous.” One soldier kicked over the body on Yda and dropped his machine gun at her. While looking up at him, she attempted what appeared to be a clawing motion at him. “You motherf—” kheuoo! Limp. “Hoorah!” yelled the soldier. “Hoorah!” repeated the machine.
While I was relaxing on a hill above the beach, bandaged and weak, absorbing the lasting view of the horizon over that sapphire bed of water, and the ripe wind flying to and from the mountains, General Ingus came from behind and occupied the lush seat to my right. I attempted to stand for a salute by leaning forward, but my tender bones caused an involuntary gasp for air. 15
“Stay seated, Lieutenant. No condition to be saluting anyone.” “Yes, sir,” I said. I had never shared much conversation with the General, nor many others in military positions. Unsure of the etiquette to be followed, and knowing I needed to speak of something, I asked the only thing I could think of. “How is the war coming, sir?” “The war? Coming to an end. Intelligence sent word last week.” “Last week, sir? Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, then what was the ultimate goal of my mission? We don’t set up a new base at the end of war, and we never attempt to seize land under alien territory, hardly even during desperate times.” “Ever heard of spoils of war, Lieutenant?” “Of course, sir.” “Have any idea how well a resort would do on this beach?” “Sir?”
“People pay good money for a vacation like this. Beach, trees, mountains, nature. I see sunbathing, waterskiing, hiking, swimming; an entire week full of activities for any well-paying family or newlywed. And now it’s mine.” I pondered the perplexities of his statement. “Spoils of war, sir?” “Spoils of war, Lieutenant. Spoils of war.” “Yes, sir.”