THE NICK OF TIME
(and other abrasions)
You Can't Get There From Here
Al Bruno III
Let me explain how it all got started for me.
It was almost twenty years ago now, back when I was a young man and I thought poetry was just for girls and sissies. I wasn’t even called Zeth back then- I was just another jarhead in Vietnam.
They called us The Walking Dead and when it came to Khe Sanh we were on our own. Oh sure Westmorland said he was going to back us up but that was a load of crap, he wasn’t going to send his precious army units into a meat grinder.
The shelling never stopped, even when you did get a break you were just waiting for it to start up again. We got so we could tell what kind of incoming we had from the sound it made. And snipers were everywhere, you only had to forget once for them to catch you.
Every day, every night, every patrol I would pray for deliverance. Not to God though- I didn’t think God had anything to do with Khe Sanh. I prayed to my guns. I threw myself to the mercy of the bullet and the firing pin. I would find spent shells out in the elephant grass and carry them around like talismans.
It was halfway through the siege when the man in the silver glasses showed up. It was, during one of the rare breaks in the shelling- a patrol found him wandering at the edge of the camp.
He was in cammo with standard Army issue gear but he wasn’t wearing dog tags, he had no identification of any kind. He had a prisoner with him too.
The CO didn’t like it, he had the man in silver glasses disarmed and interrogated. They left Blackwelder and me in charge of the prisoner. At first I thought he was a brother but then I thought maybe he was one of those dark skinned Cambodians. His wrists and ankles were shackled, that was pretty normal with prisoners, especially the squirrelly ones, but he was blindfolded and gagged too. And there were some kind of headphone things on his head and it took me a few minutes to realize that was so he couldn’t hear.
That really made my skin crawl and all I wanted was to get to my post at the edge of the camp. Most nights, while the other guys were hunkered down I would peer through the barbed wire with my rifle and scope. I had so many kills that I stopped keeping track- all of them sacrifices to the unforgiving saints of gunpowder and the firing pin.
Don’t know how or why but the CO gave the Stranger the run of the camp, gave him his own bunker and everything. And by the way, that is what the CO called him- “the Stranger” like that was a name or something. Well pretty soon we were referring to the guy as the Stranger too.
What else were we going to call him?
From then on the Stranger traipsed around like he owned the place, while the rest of us just tried to survive.
We didn’t see anything of his prisoner, I would have thought he was dead if not for the two trays of food the Stranger ordered brought to his bunker in the morning and at night.
About a week later this thick fog started up you could maybe see ten feet in front of you. That meant that we could relax a little and send a detail to get some fresh water, C-rations and ammo. We rode out in a pair of M42 Dusters, waiting for the sound of artillery to start up again.
It was on the way back that we spotted the Stranger walking around the edge of the trail. I told the rest to go on without me.
When the Stranger asked me what I was doing I told him I thought he might need an escort.
He laughed at that, “You think you can follow me? Try to keep up then.”
I followed him as he wandered around out in the fog. I expected us to blunder into a claymore or a nest of NVA. I asked the Stranger where he was going. He told me he was scouting. I asked him who he was and he told me he was a chaplain. A minute later we were back at the other side of the camp, somehow we had gone all the way around the airfield. Fog or no fog I didn't know how he did it.
The artillery started again that afternoon and by nightfall I was pinned down out by one of the Quad 50s. I know it may sound crazy but when you’re pinned down for hours like that you get bored, there’s no way to have a conversation with a guy- even if he’s right next to you. You can’t even think most of the time.
So just for a goof I turned my scope back onto the camp, and watched my fellow marines scurrying around or staying under cover. The lines were down again so there was a sergeant going from Quad 50 to Quad 50 trying to get them coordinated. Then I spied the Stranger came storming out of his bunker turn on his heel and start shouting back into the doorway. The shelling kept getting closer and closer but the Stranger either didn’t hear it or care.
I realized he had to be yelling at his prisoner but this was no interrogation, it looked like some kind of a marital squabble.
A shell hit a gun emplacement near to them. I knew the men in there. I didn’t even dare hope they were all right.
One last shout and the Stranger walked off into the dark.
That was it. I had to know what the Hell was going on so as soon as he was clear I made my move and ran like crazy from one bit of cover to the next until I got to the Stranger’s little patch of to Khe Sanh.
I found the prisoner on his knees, still bound and blindfolded but his ears and mouth were uncovered. I couldn’t hear the sounds of war anymore, I couldn’t hear anything but my own breaths. The peace of it made me uncomfortable.
The prisoner turned his head in my direction “Are you Zeth yet?”
Back then I thought he was just talking nonsense, years later I would realize it was prophecy.
“He'll kill you if he finds you here,” the prisoner had this weird accent, I couldn't place it.
I had thought the prisoner was Cambodian but I realized he wasn't and he wasn't American either- he was just like the Stranger, a mystery.
When I offered to take the blindfold off he panicked, “No. I can't bear it.”
“Bear what?” I asked.
“The world.” He told me, “It's too brutal.”
“You want to be this way? Who are you?”
He said, “I am Rask of the Pungo-Basium.”
And I said, “What are the two of you doing here? You’re not soldiers.”
“The Pungo-Basium cross from one Shard to the next- following the Current.”
None of it made sense and decided that they both had to be crazy. The artillery had slowed so I decided to make my way back to my station before the snipers started up again. Rask called after me- “There are fissures in every corner, they move like tides. You just have to be patient- and wise.”
It rained the next two days making everything sloppy with mud, there was no way you couldn’t feel disgusting and cold. Sometime during that two days the Stranger and his prisoner disappeared. No one knew where they went and no one bothered to look for them.
Most put the whole thing out of their heads, they were too busy doing the mundane and terrible tasks that kept us all alive. But I couldn’t forget. All I could do was think about what Rask had said, running it over and over again in my head until finally one day in April I understood.
The trick of it is so easy if you have the inclination. I stepped into a stinking rat infested corner of our camp and an eyeblink later I was stateside. A few miles from here in fact.
So am I a deserter? Yes.
Am I a coward? Try me.
Am I a poet? The jury’s still out…