‘This war is like a cold glaucoma dimming away the world; old sins cast very long shadows.’ Tony glared at the floor as he spoke; a cold sensation took over him. It diffused like a forsaken disease. It possessed him. It made him into something he did not have power over.
His eyes finally moved slowly back to the announcer whose mouth was moving, but he couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. And for the first time since being in this bleak room, he noticed that the announcer was wearing a grey windowpane-patterned suit, single breasted, but with fancy lapels. This peculiar detail, along with the handmade buttonholes and functional cuff buttons adorning it, gave the garment away as bespoke.
The average stuck up rich bloke who doesn’t know what’s really going on in the world.
‘…do you believe that at some point, it will end?’
Tony believed in anything until it was disproved. He believed in suppositions, myths and even magic. He strongly believed that all things exist, if even just in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?
‘Richard Nixon has betrayed everything that is human and just in the world today. He is a new Hitler, and as long as he lives, it will go on and on.’
‘So America is to blame?’ Tony sighed an almost conciliatory sigh.
‘Yes, the United States bears responsibility for the use of force in Vietnam, and has, therefore, committed against the country a crime of aggression and most certainly a crime against peace!’ The announcer’s voice was now firmer. ‘Your photos have caused plenty of controversy within the public. There is a riot happening outside the studio as I speak.’
‘Did you think that taking photos of this wretched war would cause your own death?’
Tony tried to think about a world without him: would he be remembered for being a hero or just another victim? He then began to think about his beloved wife. It was her smile. The way her lips lifted upward as her dimple crinkled, showing perfectly aligned teeth. It gave off rays of sunshine; and Tony was sunburnt.
The announcer’s eye grew narrow as he scanned Tony. It was as if he had locked onto a target, awaiting confirmation.
‘I hope it doesn’t come down to that…’ Tony’s hope wriggled into the ground like a seed, and no matter how big and terrifying the darkness was, doubt was never felt. He embraced the growth as it was what helped him live for tomorrow. For hope is what got Tony out of bed.
The announcer took out a photo. ‘Many listeners believe this is the reason for the outcry amongst Vietnamese…’
Tony interrupted; he knew what was coming. ‘What are you trying to say; what is your question?’
‘Well a lot of people have mixed emotions on the matter, but many truly believe that instead of taking the photo, you could have tried to save her life.’
Tony’s normally calm and pleasant demeanour slowly changed and his face contorted in all- consuming anger. His nostrils flared, his eyes flashed with ferocity, his mouth quivered, as words spewed into space like a volcano releasing its pent up emotions.
On this moonless night, even the silhouettes have disappeared. The comforting smattering of stars is masked by dense cloud. Ordinarily, he would stay in the hotel on a night like this. Instead, he was at a Vietnam army camp. Tony placed his hands near the crackling campfire, orange flames licking hungrily at the wood, as he stared in its oasis of warmth. The frosty forest was silent even though he was surrounded by soldiers. It was as if there was not a single living thing for miles, apart from himself. A thick fog hung to the edges of the clearing and a sudden icy breeze rustled the leaves. Something was near.
The commander Nguyễn came and sat next to him on the log.
‘Writing letters home is the most difficult thing.’ Nguyễn had unprepossessing features, no tapering cheekbones, just a judicial eye and a critical nature. He then went on to say, ‘Spelling has always been a problem for me, so I’m always scared to use large words.’
Tony grinned, ‘It would be my pleasure to help.’ Tony sensed that letters home were all that kept Nguyễn going, to re-read his crumpled mud-stained correspondence, to remind him what he was fighting for. In the end it was brief; Nguyễn ended it with a description of the battlefield at sundown and hoped it was poetic. He declared his undying love to his wife and prayed she would wait for him – always.
Out on the rolling skyline, fifty miles away, aircrafts were approaching. Instantly, the commander ordered blackout and every flashlight extinguished. Dust was sprayed from trucks as the strong wind rattled against the tents.
Tony took out his camera ready. A lance-like ray of red light flickered in the darkness, shooting up into the gathering dusk, from three deep shafts a mile across, blended into one by the distance.
‘BOMB! TAKE COVER!’
A few moments later, there was a blinding sheet lightening and a huge ball of fire splattered upward, leaving a series of smoke-rings to glide more slowly after it. Every officer lay on the ground, some in fatal positions trying to protect their ears and organs, others splayed like puppets on the dew. The shouting of the slaughter was hushed; silence lay on the red-stained snow.
Tony crawled to safety and picked up his camera, holding it to his eyes. The lens focused on an innocent woman in the far distance on her knees, pinned down by the American soldiers. Her hands connected to the rope, which clung to her throat. She scratched at it tenaciously. He locked eyes with her…
Tony’s hand uncontrollably closed into a fist. He crouched forward towards the announcer and aimed for his face. With success. His face almost dared him to repeat once more the words that had torn his heart into fragments, that had dashed all his expectations of ‘doing the right’ into nothingness. Tony stood still in confusion watching the now bleeding announcer on the floor.
‘I just wanted…I thought I could change the world.’ He ran for the front door. The door smacked Tony back into reality. Uprising of roars engulfed the area: ‘bạn chỉ là xấu như họ’. All the hungry eyes were on him. He began blinking harshly, anxiety curled into his stomach, making his ears twitch at every noise around him. He hoped that nothing would pounce at him from the darkness.
The police officer grabbed Tony and said, ‘Follow me quickly’. He knew that the barricade was not going to hold the mob for any longer. And for the first time ever, Tony was speechless. It was as though hands had clawed up his throat and choked him, snatching the words he had practiced over and over again in the bathroom mirror, back down his throat to be dissolved into his acidic belly. Tony wished he had never agreed to do the interview.
The metal fragments of a bullet spiralled through the air, piercing Tony’s chest and torso without consideration, without real meaning or relevance. The speed was as fast as a blinking eye, making the impact wound burst out with blood. He dropped on to the police officer who slowly put him on the floor.
‘10-18 multiple calls, shots fired in the area of CỔNG THÔNG TIN ĐIỆN TỬ CHÍNH PHỦ Victim injured critical position. All units dispatch now.’ Tony was shocked, to know he was dying, and not be overwhelmed by the emotion he had assumed would accompany such a violent end.
*** Tony gracefully closed his eyes. He began walking down a heavily lit road. He felt a tender touch on his back. Someone familiar spoke to him: ‘just let go my love.’ The smooth complexities of her voice, too endearing, and he said, “I can go a little longer.”
A group of children laughed and clapped whilst the summer breeze danced around their skin. And then he was running his hands through his wife’s hair, Her hair so shiny and sleek like a dove’s feathers folded around the soft curves of her face.
Tony began crying.
‘Our eyes need to be washed by our tears once in a while so that we can see true beauty clearly again,’ she whispered as she kissed the tear drops away. And she took his wrist and they swayed through a white corridor where rows of dresses hung from the ceiling above.
Those dresses turned into a bed of daffodils…