artwork by Kay Nielsen
Artwork by Kay Nielsen

I see you standing before me, a flash of your teeth visible behind hair you’re always brushing off your face. I see your pale skin; those tiny blue veins that swirl across your temples and under the dark circles of your eyes. The faint lines encircling your mouth from your constant tired smile that tells the world you’re okay when you’re really not. The faded blue of your muslin scarf, the tiny tinsel rose pinned to your chest. You’re dancing, executing moves you memorised in your long days at the studio owned by the retired ballerina with the French name. Your fingers twitch as you walk, eat, live, breathe, playing an invisible piano whose silent music has forever enraptured my struggling heart. I still hear the music in my head, a quiet and beautiful beginning that mirrors your exterior, followed by a fast, frightening and desperate second movement that unmasks your trapped and fascinating soul within.

At night, and sometimes during the humid, sticky day, when the only sound is the crunch of leaves and vines from my fellows’ footfalls, I hear your music in my head. Your graceful arms and legs follow the rise and fall of the orchestra, and you dance across my mind, leaving no room for any sane thought. I see your face as clearly as I see my hands that hold this heavy Colt Rifle, the knuckles swathed in cuts, foreign dirt stuck beneath broken fingernails. But then a sound of war interrupts your performance. The concerto stops, your limbs drop, and your tired eyes and blue veins disappear from my mind.

The rest of my platoon sends letters home to their sweethearts, but I don’t know where you live. I picture a house with flowers and weeds growing freely together behind a wooden fence with peeling paint. I see you run down the path to the letterbox, discovering something sent to you from a stranger far across the ocean, someone you’ve never met before, or would’ve forgotten if you had. A hopeless love letter from a boy who watched you everyday from his parents’ diner as you practiced in the ballet studio.

* * *

I didn’t see it coming. There was no flicker of bright light, no scenes from a distant childhood. Just the faint click of the mine before the ground broke and the world shook. I cry out, but my howling comrades drowned the sound. Some fell quickly, motionless and silent. My head hit the muddy ground as I collapsed, arms too shocked to break my fall. Distant voices shouted our names, taking what felt like centuries to reach us. Pain quickly overcame shock, a horrible, raw pain that shot through my body. My left leg felt strangely numb, like the tips of fingers in the sharp, wickedly cold wind of winter. Smoke filled the air and screams of injured men flooded my mind. A shadow hovered over me. Trembling hands lifted my head. Frightened eyes stared down at me, dark and alert, dust clinging to lashes, blood trickling through an eyebrow. And then your eyes replaced those of the scared, homesick fighter, my beautiful ballerina. And I saw tears fall from your sad little orbs, and I cried too, for I thought I would never see you dancing again.

* * *

Bouncing Betty blew half my leg off. They thought they’d only have to clean the wound and close the stump, but I am not to limp away too easily, my graceful and lonely darling. A tiny morsel of shrapnel, an insignificant fragment of tin had found its way through the chaos of the explosion and lodged itself in the joint of my knee. Now they’re talking of an upper-leg amputation.

They’ve flown me out to the military hospital at Cam Ranh Bay, which I’m sure is filled with suffering boys like me who pine for their own ballerinas back home.

* * *

I’ve been here two weeks, my body healing, but my battle is not yet over. There’s someone watching me. He’s hovering, lurking, waiting. He stands there, in the corner of the ward, face hidden in shadow but red eyes staring straight at me. I’ve asked the nurses if they see him too, but they just feel my forehead and tell me to sleep. But in sleep he prowls closer, bringing cold winds with him, and I feel his rattling breath on my body as tries to pull me to my death. It was he who killed my friends, who stole my leg, and now he waits for the rest of me. He thinks he’ll take me in my sleep. I’m grateful when pain or the smothering heat wakes me in the night, for it robs him of his chance. He’s pushed me off the peak of Phan Xi Pang, laughing as I fall to the bottomless depths below. He’s tried to drown me in the oceans over which we sailed to get here, his long claws holding me under until my lungs are filled with murky water. He opens the arms of his smoke-like cloak, smothering the room in darkness, and engulfs me, swallowing me, leaving me without light or air. He wants me to lose my mind, so he can take me as easy prey.

But I won’t let him get me. I think of your face, of your hands and your hair and your wonderful weary eyes. I picture you by my bedside, nursing my wounds and driving the red-eyed monster away with your beauty and your love. And then we’ll go home and dance together and repaint your picket fence.

The sound of an explosion wakes me. I feel sweat dripping down my temples, a throbbing ache in my thigh. All is darkness, yet there is a red glow somewhere. More distant blasts go off, followed by screams. I smell fire, the burning of buildings and chemical fumes. He’s trying once more, trying to lure me out of my bed and to my death. But it won’t work. I close my eyes and don’t move, ignoring the stinging fumes and cries for help. More shots go off, and the smash of nearby glass makes me jump, but I refuse to give in to him. I watch you dance across my mind instead, tap my fingers on the bed sheets, and wait for the nightmare to pass.

* * *

She dropped her head and rubbed her tired eyes, turning her back to the mirror and walking away from the bar in her worn satin pointe shoes. Kissing Madame on the cheek and shouldering her bag, she walks out into the cool evening air. At home she pushes open the gate, arm swinging gracefully by her side. On the porch lays the newspaper. She sits at her table with it, scans the front page, fingers tapping on the surface of the table.

Thursday, August 7, 1969
A Viet Cong attack has killed two and wounded ninety-eight at the US Base of Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. The terrorists fired rockets at the hospital and surrounded the air base with bombs. One man died on the way to the 12th USAF hospital where other victims were taken for treatment. Another man, an American amputee sleeping within 10 feet of a satchel charge explosion, died instantly.

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