He came to, woozy and disoriented, aching all over. It was hot. Hotter than Florida. He could barely move his neck, there were sharp pains on both sides of his rib cage, and a burning sensation radiated from just below his pelvis. When he pulled his hand over his forehead to wipe it dry, he felt the gash and the sticky goop in his hairline. His hand came up crimson, awash in sweat thinned blood. He was lying on his back.
Light poked through the thick green canopy, angling in. The high-pitched whine of thousands of insects shrilled from the mass of black and green high above. Mosquitoes buzzed in his ears and all around his head; some heavy with his blood, others light and determined. He tried to shoo them away and as his eyes began to focus he saw small grey lumps on both of his hands. He'd never seen them before but he knew what they were. He rubbed his hands over one another feverishly, and when that didn't separate the gelatin from his flesh he pulled and plucked the slimy masses off with his fingers, shivering and shaking, one at a time. He was pumping with adrenalin. He put his elbow into the wet earth below him and with his other hand clutching and pushing at the sodden soil he managed to pry his heavy frame up and look over his legs. He moved one booted foot and then the other, but something wasn't right. He reached down to where the pain seemed to emanate. There was a large rise midway to his knee, the lower half of the broken femur pushing the outer flesh taut.
There was a tree just to his right. With his hands and forearms he spun his mass and then dragged himself backwards, gasping, until he was leaning against the wide trunk. He winced from the pain in his ribs. At least two were broken. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and tried to take long breaths so that he wouldn't pass out. When he regained his equilibrium, he opened his eyes again and craned his neck from side to side and up and down as much as he was able. There was a large hole in the canopy high to his left pushing light through a tunnel of snapped and hanging branches past where he was sitting and down the steep forested hill. Hanging all along the splintered path were bits and pieces of shiny patterned and striped paper, mostly red and pine green, and here and there ribbons and bows. There was a box on the ground just a few yards from his feet. He could just make out the glittery script above the plastic window that framed the tiny blonde in the shiny red party dress: Hollywood Barbie. He twisted his head back and gazed up the burrow of light and about halfway to the point of entry he saw a large animal, limp and lifeless, swaying slightly from side to side, its hindquarters wedged between trunk and branch. One side of its face was torn off, antler and all, and an eye was dangling a good six inches below the bloody shattered socket. He couldn't tell which one it was.
He could feel the leeches burrowing through his heavy beard to suck at the skin below. He tried to raise his hands again to clutch and claw and pull at them all, but he was too weak. He allowed his eyes to close.
He woke to the sound of voices. They seemed far off, somewhere below him. He sat blinking and looked at the wall of greenery and darkness around him, dizzy and delirious. There was a fluttering sound and he jerked his head to see three large black birds take flight and follow the path of light up and out of the jungle shroud. He blinked and strained to focus. There were forms coming towards him, the color of the jungle -- deep greens and dark browns and black -- and they were moving so slowly it was difficult for him to separate them from the blur that surrounded, but they were human.
The first to come into focus was a boy. No more than fifteen, he had dark brown skin, high cheek bones, slanted eyes and short black hair wet from perspiration. Army fatigues hung loosely over his small frame, the sleeves rolled, the pants cut at the bottoms. His mudded feet were bare. He was holding a shiny black automatic rifle. He wasn't smiling.
"Koj moog dlaab-tsi lug?" yelled the boy.
He tried to speak, but couldn't.
"Koj moog dlaab-tsi lug?" the boy yelled again, this time louder. And then, stepping forward and bracing the weapon against his shoulder, "Koj lub npe hu lee caag? Koj lub npe hu lee caag?"
He tried to speak again but his tongue was thick and heavy. It took everything he had to keep his eyes open. Three more figures separated from the background and came into view behind the boy, one about the same age and two that looked younger. They all wore army greens. Two of them stood behind the first boy, their guns leveled, and the other stood a few yards off, cautiously tapping at the shiny box with his toe, his rifle pointed at it. One of the boys said something short and the first boy turned and snapped at him and then turned quickly back, spun his weapon, raised it, and thrust the butt end into his forehead.
He drifted in and out of semi-consciousness. There were voices, rattling and clanging sounds back and forth to one another. Feet shuffled only inches from his head, but something was odd. He seemed to be looking up at the small muddied feet and the dark ground on which they clambered, as if he were floating just below the surface of a strange place where the inhabitants dangled like bats waiting for nightfall. He shifted his gaze and tried to focus on a tree, but it moved and swaggered and then disappeared behind him as another came into view. There was an internal burning at the back of his neck and when he strained to pull his chin towards his chest hoping to quell the fire there, he saw that his arms were bare and bound at the wrists to a rough cut wood pole. He could feel the tightness and the swelling in his hands and feet. His strength gave out quickly and his head flopped back and swayed with the jerks and starts of his bearers and he watched the feet shuffle and grab at the earth while he floated on.
He was in a hut and a small fire burned off to one side and there was the smell of something rotten. He could feel some kind of straw beneath his bare skin. He was shivering and wet. He tried to move his arms but could not. They were extended past his head and pinned to the ground. He arched his neck and peered down over his round midsection. There was a large shadowed figure crouched at his feet, two muscled arms braced; a man was holding his ankles. Another crouched figure shuffled out of the darkness from his right and squatted beside his thigh. He was old, wearing only what looked like oversized boxer shorts tied around the waist with string. From waist to neck his dark skin was intricately patterned with blue-black ink. With both hands the old man kneaded at the swollen flesh as if he were looking for something lost in a lump of modeling clay. "Uhhh," he said as if he'd found what he was looking for and then, with his hands clutching at the thigh a few inches from one another, he shifted his feet, bounced on his knees, and thrust his body weight into his outstretched hands.
There was a loud clack and pain shot up through his pelvis and raced through his ribs and up his spine, pushing in on his skull like a spring-loaded vice. He yelled out. And then there was a silence.
"Tsis ua le caag," the old man said walking out of the hut, and from the silhouettes following him came laughter.
One solitary figure remained, crouched in the darkness beside the opening. He was squatting, his rifle across his lap, and staring, still and quiet. The glow of the small fire illuminated the left side of his face. Tiny beads of sweat glimmered on his forehead. It was the boy who had found him. "Tsis ua le caag," the boy said quietly, then stood, shouldered his rifle, and stepped out into the dark.
Light and dark and light and fire and dark and hot and fiery cold -- shivering, clutched under the stiff hide covering, tossing in fits, the cold abating to warmth, through warmth and beyond -- wrenching his fetid covering from him and lying still with pools of sweat in the pit of his chest and the folds of his flesh -- purple spotted lizards look down on him from the thatch through blinking hazel eyes and curse him in all the languages he knows -- turning and trying to curl and relearning that he couldn't -- dripping, chilling, chattering, and clawing at his sides for the covering he had discharged either minutes or hours or days ago only to find it fall over him, softly, from above -- visions of angels and devils and children and corpses -- fevered dreams of plummeting through the night sky but calm, expecting a soft and welcoming plunge into water warm and still, but then the sound of ripping and tearing and shattering and splintering and -- eyes wide and body taut and a soft voice -- "Huas dlej" and water on lips and -- "Huas dlej" and water on tongue -- and daubing and wiping, warm wet when all was shivering ice and tepid when ice would have been welcome -- light and dark and darker dark and blinding light and dark again -- time immeasurable.
He woke feverless to a soft female voice.
"Noj mov," said the woman crouching at his side. "Noj mov," she said again and placed a white plastic dish next to him. She pointed behind his head and he twisted his neck to see that something like sandbags had been stacked there. She moved around behind him, pushed her hands under his shoulders, slipped her fingers into the crook of his sweaty armpits and pulled. He pushed at the ground and inched himself from side to side back and up until he was in a sitting position. He was on a matt made of woven straw, damp and stained, naked but for a small strip of quilting which lay over his groin. His right leg had wooden slats on each side that ran to his ankle and were bound tightly every few inches by strips of hide. There was a clay stove next to the wall where coals burned red, and a blackened tin pot sat steaming. The hut was round, with a pitched roof of broad dried leaves, open at the top to allow for the smoke. Directly in front of him was a small rectangular opening and as his eyes began to adjust, he could see the edges of two similar structures across what seemed like a small sloped clearing of smooth red earth. From somewhere outside he could hear the muted toll of a cowbell.
The woman came back around into his view. She wore a purple sarong that covered her from waist to ankle, and an old black t-shirt that said something in a script he could not identify above a faded and peeling picture of Hello Kitty. She was dark, her cheekbones set high on her round flat face, and her black hair was pulled into a ponytail that ran the length of her back. She crouched at his side and placed the white plastic dish in his lap. "Noj mov," she said with what seemed a smile and with a tin spoon she scooped from the plate and held it to his mouth and he opened and let her feed him. It was watery rice porridge, warm and easy to swallow, with bits of red meat cut small so they didn't need chewing. After the first few spoonfuls went down, she took his hand in hers and placed the spoon in it. He was weak and shaking, but able to scrape at the dish in his lap and raise the spoon to his mouth. She smiled, stood, and ducked out the opening. He ate all he could, which wasn't more than a few bites, and then dropped the spoon in the plate and pulled it from his lap. As his fingers slid under the plastic plate, there was something familiar about the feel of its bottom, something that he had felt many times before. With difficulty he turned it over, spilling the remainder of the porridge out onto the dirt floor -- it was a 175 gram world-class Frisbee.
The woman came back in through the light and squatted next to him. She had a bucket and she dipped a large ladle into it, a dried coconut shell connected to a length of bamboo. "Huas dlej," she said, and tipped it to his lips. He drank it all and half of another. He leaned his head back against the sacks stacked behind him, and again he slept.
There were more than a dozen people in the hut. The woman was there, as was the old man. They squatted to his right and a small girl of five or six peered out wide-eyed from behind the woman's back. There were children in their teens -- boys dressed in fatigues and girls wrapped in sarongs -- three or four women of differing ages, and three men standing behind them all, just inside the opening, two in greens and one shirtless, all armed. There was light coming in from the opening, but it was softer and cooler than it had been when he'd eaten.
"Hello," said the old man.
"Hello," he replied. "Oh, hello." His voice was different than he'd remembered. There was laughter.
"Hello," the old man repeated.
"Hello," he said, clearing his throat. Now everybody laughed louder. "You speak English?"
"Hello," the old man said again, smiling and waiting.
"Hello," he sighed and everybody laughed again.
The woman came again in the morning with rice porridge and water. The little wide-eyed girl followed skittering about her feet and hiding behind her sarong when she could. Some more young children, naked and dirty, crouched at the door and peered in but the woman called out to them and they ran away laughing. She boiled water and rubbed his body with warm rags. She daubed something pasty on the gashes in his head; it stank, but felt cool and tingled. She ladled water to his lips and left him.
Throughout the day, children came and crouched at the opening, silent and staring and then laughing and scattering when he spoke. Women young and old passed before the opening, across the smooth red earth outside, carrying buckets and bundles, some with infants slung on their backs. The old tattooed man crossed once, entered the hut on the other side of the clearing and then crossed again carrying a shiny black rifle. He drifted in and out of nervous dreams.
Something woke him. It was dark and he was alone. There was silence. Even the scream of the night insects had ceased. And then he heard it again, distant popping, like a fireworks show miles off. There were voices then, calling out to one another across the clearing. They were women's voices. Children began to wail in all directions. There was the sound of people moving and he heard the slap of feet on the smoothed earth of the clearing. They all seemed headed in the same direction, up the angled slope. Men's voices came from somewhere far off and then got closer. He watched dozens of forms pass through the dark past the hut. There was a zipping sound and then a roar. The ground shook beneath him and the clearing flashed white and then glowed in a soft orange. A young boy stumbled into view. Seven or eight years old, naked, one of his arms was missing and he was burnt black, charred flesh hanging off him in smoking strips. He took two steps, fell, stood, took two steps back in the direction from which he'd come, as if to return for something he'd forgotten, and then he fell again and lay still. There was another zip and he watched the hut across the clearing flash white then cool to a crimson inferno.
A boy appeared in the door. It was the boy who had found him. He was dressed the same as he'd been when he first saw him, but he now had a backpack slung over his shoulders. The boy crouched, placed his rifle on the dirt floor and swung the bag to his front. There was dried mud on it here and there, but it was brand new, black and green, a Jansport. He pulled on the zipper and reached deep into it. The boy pulled the pin out with his teeth and let it drop to the floor and then pressed the large heavy oval into his hand carefully wrapping his fingers around it so as not to allow the spring-loaded handle to rise. Then the boy pulled the hide blanket over him, rose and stood looking down on him, the bag on his back and the rifle cradled in his arms, the glow of fire silhouetting his small frame in the door.
"Sib ntsib dlua," the boy said and then turned quickly and disappeared through the opening.
He knew there was nothing to do but wait. Even if he could raise himself, he could not walk. He sat looking out at the smoldering hut across the clearing and watched the dawn light bleed into the jungle beyond. He thought of the woman and her child. He thought of the boy. He gripped tight. And he listened to the voices of men grow nearer.
When the boy heard the single crack of a distant rifle rise up out of the jungle beneath him, he stopped, turned, and began counting. The flash came before the muffled rumble and a thin spire of dark smoke rose from the trees into the misty morning sky. He allowed himself a smile and then turned and marched with his people, up and into the steaming green.