She was walking across a rice field when I first saw her. It was late spring and another goddamn rain storm was just on the horizon, pushing in with those hot, humid winds that made it hard to breathe. Waves of rice stalks swirled around her waist in the wind.
She was a banner. In all white, her long black hair loose and dancing.
She had picked me out from a distance, recognized me as the leader and was walking straight at me. Her eyes were locked on me; I could tell she was going to chew me out for something. Here I am, fucking 6-foot-5, armed to the teeth and looking like something that crawled out of the mud and she's coming right at me. Goddamn if she isn't still like that.
I whistled at JP to drop in case it was a trap. Everyone sunk into the grass and suddenly it was just me and her.
"Nous sommes vos amis" I said.
"Why you speak French at me?" she asked, her eyes holding mine to hers.
"I thought you might know it. I don't know Vietnamese," I said. "But English is OK?"
"It OK. My English better than your French. You and your friends go around."
"Go around?" I said, laughing.
"Yes. Go around," she said, still holding my stare with hers. "This field mine. You go around; shoot up other field."
"Shit, sweetheart, we're not gonna shoot up your field. We're just going from here to there, OK?"
"Not OK. I tell them, I tell you: go around."
"Them?" I said, dropping to one knee.
I pulled her down to the ground. She slapped me -- hard -- and I put my knee in her gut. The rest of the guys reappeared from the grass and we pulled in tight.
"Them who?" I hissed.
"Who you think? Them," she said.
I let her squirm out from underneath me. She punched my leg and sat up. When she went to stand up, I grabbed her dress and she shot me a look. Oh, man, she was mad. Just that look was enough to make me let go. I heard JP giggle and he told me later that I looked like I was going to shit my pants. Big ol' Tex Madog and this little thing making me act like a kitten. She stood over me, locked her eyes on me again, and brushed herself off.
"You go around."
"Where'd they go?" I asked.
"I don't care. Not here. You go same place -- not here."
"C'mon, goddamn it," I said. "Where are they?"
"I don't care."
"I do care. I want to keep my shit intact. You should care, too. We're fucking here to help you," I said. "The least you can do is tell me where the fuck they went."
"I don't care. You shoot, kill, rest of Vietnam. This my field. You go around."
"Darlin', please," I said. "Where'd they go?"
Suddenly her gaze shot over my left shoulder. I watched her eyes move slow to my left, then dart back to me.
"I don't care," she said.
"OK. We'll go around."
They were right where she had said they would be. We slipped behind and came up on them while they were sleeping. We called in help and cut most of them down. They were like snakes in a nest, there were so many of them. But I didn't lose any of my boys. That kid from South Dakota got stung in the arm, but it wasn't bad enough to stop him from pulling the trigger.
It was rough, though. It's all bullshit to think about now, but it made me cry so bad at the time. I probably cried for four days. All that shit I had talked back home. But I go off to Vietnam and kill 33 men and I couldn't take it.
They gave us a load of medals. You should see me on Veteran's Day. I'm a shiny son of a bitch. Sally drags out my damn uniform and makes me march in the parade in town. Man, people sure love to kiss my ass now. They'd probably refuse to believe how I really was.
I used all those kills to get myself into a cushy gig watching after refugees. They're pretty self-sufficient people, so mostly all I did was stand around. Some of the old guys would play cards with me, especially once they found out how bad I was.
I was playing cards when Sally found me, as a matter of fact. I was down $20 when she touched me on the shoulder.
"Hello, Français," she said.
I didn't recognize her at first, wearing military-issue refugee garb, but then she hit me with those eyes. She locked me in and everything else melted away. It was like the whole camp had slipped into the grass like JP and the boys.
"Uh, bonjour. I know a little Vietnamese now," I said. "Chao ong."
"You just call me old man," she said, and she burst into laughing.
She still has that laugh, too. Man, that a woman who's seen everything she's seen could still sing like that when she laughs -- it makes you know there's a God. Somewhere there is good, that she can laugh like that.
"Sorry. How are you? I never got your name," I said.
"Sally? What kind of Vietnamese name is that?"
"It not. But your Vietnamese horrible."
I smiled. Felt like a teenager. Hell, I wasn't too far off from it back then, I guess.
"You find them?" she asked.
"Them? Oh, them. Yeah. A lot of them."
"You get them?"
"Yeah. Well, not all of them."
"No. Not all," she said.
I found out from my superior that they had killed her family. They suspected someone in the family had tipped us off. She managed to slip out into the rice field and spent two days waiting for them to find her and kill her. They didn't and she got picked up by our guys a few days later. Our guys loaded her field with explosives, so she didn't even have that anymore. She had been bouncing around ever since.
I was able to get her a gig at the camp. She helped watch the kids and I made excuses to be around her. When I left Vietnam, I took Sally with me.
A lot of marriages like that turn out real shitty. I've heard some seriously fucked up stories. You wouldn't believe. But Sally and me, hell. There's something we got.
We used every penny the Marine Corps and Colling Credit Union would give us to buy a ranch out in the Hill Country. I raised sheep for a while, then got sidetracked raising daughters. Mom says we're blessed not to have had boys like me and my brother, Ronny, but she didn't have to deal with boys like me and Ronny showing up at the door wanting to get in her daughter's pants.
Now that they're grown up, though, I can see the girls have got some of Sally's spirit in them. It almost makes me feel sorry for their husbands. Katy's husband won't ever call Sally anything but "Mrs. Madog."
"It's lovely to see you Mrs. Madog." "Is there anything I can do to help out, Mrs. Madog?" "That dinner sure was delicious, Mrs. Madog."
Little kiss-ass. It's about enough to make me bust a gut, if I didn't know it'd get me in trouble with Sally.
Today is our 35th anniversary. I pretended we were out of syrup, and convinced Sally to go down to the store for me. That bought me about an hour -- Sally hates driving so much that she'll usually walk the two and a half miles down to Finley's.
I've made a big breakfast of pancakes and eggs and sausage and bacon and biscuits and gravy. I've got toast and some of Mom's homemade jam and a pot of chicory coffee sitting on the table, by the time our dog, Sanjo, lets me know someone's coming down the road.
I step out onto the porch into the spring morning and see her walking toward me among the bluebonnets. Beyond her, hills of green raise into the morning mist. A cool rain looks to be pushing in on the horizon.
She is a banner. In all white, her long black hair loose and dancing.
"Qui est cette belle femme?" I shout to her.
And I mean it. She is beautiful. After all these years. How can she be so beautiful? And here I am, busted-up ol' Tex, not really good for a damn, and she loves the hell out of me. Thirty five years of her loving me and me making a damned fool of myself over her. How did we get this? What did I do right?
"Your French is so bad," she says, breaking into laughter.
Her laughter carries out on the wind. When she gets to the porch, I pick her up with my right arm and kiss her and all of the blue and the green and the red and the white is ours. All of Texas is ours. Just ours.
The above is a piece of Flickr Fiction based on this photo from Flickr user Ozyman.
Also writing short pieces based on this photo are Donal, Elisa, Isobel, and Sarah.
You can find out more about Flickr Fiction here.