The grass huts ringed the center of the village. The church bell tower stood above the grass roofs, majestically. They were hiding from us, waiting for us to appear in their sights. The only ones left were the young, the rest had been carried off by the insurgents months before.
Mud squished around my boots as I tried to get steady. The clicking of my sixteen-millimeter movie camera set the cadence of my steps. Along the tree line, mix in among the leaves, were the faces of the young boys and girls waiting to attack us. With no experience, they were soon to be massacred.
The lofty sounds of muttered prayer rolled out of some of our men. Others cursed the job and continued with their usual battle rituals. The officers, huddled in the recesses of the rear, pointed to their maps and ate their boxed lunches. This scene had become far too normal.
The first shot echoed across the open field. Then another. Screams and hollers catapulted the kids, fourteen at most, from behind the barn, their eyes fixed on the enemy ahead. The distinct rattle of an AK-47 preceded the bolt slapping sounds of a Ma Deuce stippling a line of bullets through the boys along the tree line. The thunder from a grenade covered the shrillness of a lone soldier screaming in pain, all captured in brilliant color.
I lost my place in this mess, unable to tell where my camera pointed. The richness of the brown and camouflage scenery melted into the iris, swallowing the background of blue so that I didn’t know how close to the fighting I had wandered. Even in the fog of my thoughts, I found a place to hide, a small recess in the ground where I would be safe. Trembling as the film rolled, I continued, steadfast in my duty.
An explosion rumbled across the open field. The staccato sounds of shots bouncing around me were like musical triplets. The bass line rang from the thumps of the tubes on the hill, scattering shrapnel in the midst of the boys held behind the barn in reserve. I stood to capture the moment on film when, in an instant a single shot rang out from the bell tower. After the echo left, I found myself engulfed in utter silence, devoid of my senses except for my sight.
The sun’s rays shone on the field as I viewed the whole process from above. I drifted past the bell tower window and saw the girl, no more than sixteen years old, ratchet another round in her rifle. She pulled the trigger without emotion, killing my sound man. I watched his soul rise above his body until he crashed through the clouds and out of sight, followed closely by the dead boys of the field.
The ragged clothes and unkept hair of these kids somehow made the whole situation more palatable to us. The girl was too young to know about killing someone, to not feel anything as she watched someone die. She was a throw away child in a useless country, the victim of some far off dictator whose quest was for power was at the expense of those young children. For the child’s lost soul, I was sad.
I felt strangely safe as I rose through the clouds, hovered over the earth still draped in a blue hue. Crashing into space left me speechless. I was floating, but not at my will or my direction. I was drawn to that place, dark and murky, as if pulled along the way. The darker it got, the less I felt until I know I slept.
Waking on a lawn, I looked across the green, lush field of freshly cut weeds. In the foreground stood a stately old mansion, one like my father restored for our family to live in. The wrought iron rails were entangled in vines and weeds, and the English boxwoods had grown high enough to cover the first floor windows. The whitewash on the bricks was faded and failed to cover the bricks behind it. The woodwork had lost its charm as the bare wood rotted in place. All manners of critters roamed the rooms as the missing windows allowed them access. I thought I was in heaven, but I must have found hell.
My camera was still around my neck so I filmed the building. It may be disheveled, but no one could deny its majesty and beauty. Perhaps, for my sins, I was sent to hell to reclaim this house. Perhaps if I did, God would reclaim me. I didn’t know, but it felt good to film something so beautiful. Not the least of my joy was filming something devoid of blood and guts.
As I stood in the rough grass, my camera to my eye, a man placed his hand on my shoulder. "This is your mansion, Son, but it is not ready, yet. You must return home so that I can prepare this place for you."
I lowered my camera so that I could meet this man, but all I saw was a Navy Corpsman frantically working on my chest wound. Flat on my back in the blood-soaked mud, I felt the cold prick of fear climbing up my spine. I held my camera tight to my side as they rolled me onto a litter. The bouncing trip to the Huey sent bolts of pain across my chest with each step until they racked me in a bunk.
They returned my camera to me several weeks later, untouched by others. I often watch the footage of the house when I am down or blue. Just knowing there is a restored mansion waiting for me is comfort enough. But I often wonder what happened to that girl.