The cylindrical piece of metal concealing me only magnifies the noise of war, making up for the fact that I can’t see anything outside of my cold steel pipe. Through the gunshots and screams, the loudest noise for me is my mother’s voice echoing throughout my head. “Hurry home,” she said, “You don’t want to be caught in the middle of a battle,” she said. I shake and feel more tears slide down my face, scared that the last words my mom spoke to me were a warning. A warning that I neglected to heed. My beautiful mother, with her long dark hair, who always took care of me, I can’t leave her. I can’t leave our little house, lying snug in the valley of a Vietnamese mountain. “An,” she told me, “peace is so important. Be gentle, be peaceful, and you will prosper, and bring honor to yourself and your family. That is why you are named An. Because peace will carry you far.” I grow numb thinking about the irony of it all. Is war the way a girl named peace will die?
My face, splotched with dirt, must be pale, as my brother told me it grew whenever I was scared. I wonder if Quang is here. When he left for the war, to fight for what he believes in, he told me, “An, I am sorry to leave you, but when I come home, we will both have life.” I have his letter in my pocket. The letter saying he was coming home. I remember leaving the house, when it was still dark out, to tell my grandmother the news. The morning sun had beaten down on me, reminding me to hurry along. I remember her face when I told her, how reassured she looked. I remember hearing the first boom as I sat down to rest in the middle of the forest. I got dizzy I stood up so fast, and started pumping my legs as fast as I could, sprinting through the thick trees. I remember the blinding pain in my ankle as I stumbled over a fat tree root, and the throb of pain persists still. I remember the sound of a bullet spinning past my head and hitting a nearby tree. I remember realizing that I had to hide. I remember ducking into a large steel pipe, that had probably been blown off a tank or some other form of hateful machinery. I remember it all.
A stench of blood floods my nose, and smoke stings my eyes. I can taste my own salty tears in my mouth. There are too many of my tears. I hate they way they splash quietly on a curve of metal. They should be louder. The way that the war penetrates every single centimeter of everyone’s lives never ceased to amaze me. Now, sitting in a pipe, covered in dirt and grime, I understand that when peace is broken, nothing can remain unharmed. That is because hate takes no prisoners. I hope my mother will be okay, if I don’t make it home to her. Hate must never harm her. I couldn’t bear the thought of it attacking her the way it seems to be attacking me.
The dirt feels heavy on my face. Of course, I’ve imagined death before. I just never thought I’d be dirty. I assumed I would be clean. If I died in my sleep, I would have bathed the night before. If I was old, I would be comfortably dressed, surrounded by those I love. I’ve never thought death an injustice, either, simply a reality of life. Death seemed natural, but this is the most unnatural thing I could have ever imagined. However terrible this all seems, I feel as if a curtain has been drawn, letting in a strange light. Are there really forces so strong that people would risk their lives to see them prevail? It is strangely beautiful.
I pull out the letter from Quang, unharmed from my sweater pocket. The thin page unfolds easily before my eyes.
Mama and An,
I am coming home. Soon. Expect me within the week. They have too many men to feed, and the war will be over soon, I suspect. I will be honorably discharged tonight. I can’t wait for a home-cooked meal! Please tell Gran. I know she was worried about me. I can’t wait to see you all! One year seems like an eternity.
Memories of my fun-loving brother flood my senses. I hope he doesn’t blame himself if I die here. I instinctively reach up to the small scar on my cheek. I was only six years old when I got that scar. I had been walking with Quang in the forest when three older boys crossed our path. The biggest one held out his hand, asking for our money. Scared, I ran hard at them, trying to get through their blockade. I don’t even know who did it. All three boys reacted at once, pulling out their pocket knifes. I remember feeling something heavy on my head, and I blacked out. When I woke up, the first thing I saw was Quang, with a big purple bruise around his eye and a split lip. My Gran shuffled between us, telling Quang how stupid he had been, fighting them off. She rambled on, about how he could’ve gotten killed. I sat up, and tried to smile big, so I could tell him I was ok. As soon as I opened my mouth, I felt a blinding pain, realizing that the flesh on my cheek had been torn. A picture of the switchblades the boys have flashed in my mind, and I stumbled over to Quang and collapsed in his arms. He stroked my hair as I cried tears and gratefulness and love.
I’ll miss Quang. I selfishly hope that he will miss me. I hope so many things for a life I may be soon leaving. I wish so many things for the people who I won’t be near too any longer. I think I’ll be okay. I think they’ll be okay. We’ll make it through this. Death can’t separate love, right? That seems like a shallow saying now. Something to be stitched into samplers, or on a cheap anniversary card. The thought of being gone is already segregating my own conscience. My brain can’t decide if I’m okay with leaving or not.
I know The Forces Above have already decided my fate. I wish I could know. I think, I think I hear those Forces coming. I hear them whizzing towards me, coming to save or condemn me. Is this my fate coming? “An, wake up! You are thinking like a child,” my own conscience says to me. Snapped out of it, with only a second to think, the dirt feels heavier on my face. My ankle throbs harder. My tears fall quieter on the pipe. The smoke seems to grow thicker. I can hear people dying. They are so, so close to me. I will be with them soon, I think. Now, what I heard as my Fate, explodes on the ground below me.
Blowing up is such an unnatural feeling. There is no other way to describe it. I don’t feel pain, only the strangest sensations running throughout the empty shell that was my body. The break of bones feel like gentle pops. Muscle ripping as easy as getting a haircut. The only unpleasant thing I experience is a foul smell emitting from what was once my long dark hair. My mother’s hair looked just like mine, and I always took pride in that. I knew that many young girls wanted long shiny hair just like ours. Now, I hope no one ever must have the displeasure of having their hair look the may mine does right now. Dirty and bloodied, if not burnt away as easily as paper. Paper. Quang’s letter must have burned away with me. Maybe death does separate love. No, that can’t be true. I still love Quang. I still love Gran, and Mama. I still love our little house in the valley.
I hope Mama knows the hate did not kill me, because I know that now. I was only killed by people with the same goal. Simply because now I think that everyone has the same goal, just different ways of getting there. Death comes with knowledge, I guess. I like knowledge, and I always have. I feel sad looking at the pipe that shielded me, it too has been destroyed. Never to be whole on this Earth again.
I can see the battle now. And hear it. It’s easy to match up the noises I heard while in the pipe with the things I can see now. I want to stop the battle. I would like the innocent men to stop fighting each other. I guess, though, that much like death, passion is also a reality of death. I admire them for their passion. I was always a little numb to the extremes when I was alive, save the last few minutes of my life. I was never bothered by the cold, or the heat, nor by extreme sadness, shame, and even happiness. I feel sorry for the families of the people who are dying here. Not for the ones who have died. They died fighting for their passion.
I see one man. He is leaning against a tank, half dead, and scribbling on a scrap of paper, blackened on the edges. I understand immediately two things. One, that he is writing to his family, hoping that some kind person will tell them what became of him, because he knew, that he wouldn’t be able to tell them himself. Two, he found that scrap of paper lying miraculously on the ground where an explosion had minutes before occurred. He disregarded the short note written on one side, from someone named Quang, and wrote a quick note of love and reassurance to his family. Stumbling, he returned to the battle, because he is not a coward. With the note in his pocket, he took one final bullet for his passion, and joined the unmoving.
Time passes abnormally when you’re dead. Only hours after the short yet devastating battle has ended, my mother walks through the wreckage, silent tears streaming down her beautiful face. I can tell she knows. She knows deep down that I’m not going to come home. Her steps are still so sure and deliberate, as they have always been. Finally, giving up, I watch as she sinks to her knees, and lets her long hair out of its tight, pinned up bun. I always loved the way her hair fell in one neat curtain down her back. My mother was always a caring person, and in one final caring act before she left the war torn forest, she gently put her hand over a fallen soldier’s heart, to reassure his spiritless body. She was surprised when she felt a lump in his breast pocket. I was not, because I recognize this soldier. She reached into the pocket, and pulled out a folded piece of burnt paper. Trembling, she opened it, and read the note written. I can tell what she is thinking. She knows she will send this letter to the family of whoever wrote this. She knows that she will do this for the fallen man who wrote this in his last minutes, as well as for me, her burnt angel. She didn’t bother to flip it over.