Authors: Cynthia Kadohata
Late that afternoon the trail was so fresh that Y'Tin started running forward in excitement. The trail was easy to make out now. He didn't even glance at it anymore, just ran forward in the general direction of the tracks. About twenty minutes later Y'Tin and Y'Juen came upon the elephants feeding with Tomas. Y'Tin ran right toward Lady. When Lady spotted him, she trotted over, picked him up with her trunk, threw him to the ground, and bonked him on the head. Then her trunk swayed back and forth the way it did when she was happy. Y'Tin tried to stay calm so she wouldn't pick him up and throw him down again. He stood still while she stroked her trunk this way and that over his face.
“Y'Tin, you're safe!” Tomas was crying out. He pulled Y'Tin away from Lady and grabbed him with both arms. “You're safe! Where are the others? Did everyone get out in time?”
There was much to say, but Y'Tin couldn't think. “Tomas . . .”
When Y'Tin didn't say more, Tomas turned to Y'Juen and slapped his shoulder. “Glad to see you.” He turned immediately back to Y'Tin and grabbed his shoulders again. “And Y'Siu?”
All of a sudden, Y'Tin's elation evaporated.
“The soldiers killed him,” he told Tomas. “I saw his body.” He gulped. “I saw his ghost.”
Tomas's arms dropped. “Y'Siu?
Why would anyone kill Y'Siu?” He shook his head as though to shake the very idea out of his brain. After a moment, though, he asked, “Did he have a proper burial?”
“There was a mass grave.” Y'Tin held back a sob.
Tomas shook his head over and over again. Y'Tin felt dizzy. He motioned Lady to
so he could climb on her back. As he lay across her, he felt as if she were replenishing his energy supply.
“A mass grave?” Tomas said. “Are you sure? Did you see the grave?”
“I helped dig it,” Y'Tin replied.
“All the men did. They brought us to the cemetery and made us dig a hole.”
“For everyone? Our whole village?”
“Some of them seem to have gotten away. Lots. Maybe half,” Y'Juen answered.
“And . . . and my family? Did you see them?”
“None of them,” Y'Tin replied.
Y'Tin watched Tomas soak in this detail. He seemed confused, unsure whether the news was good or bad. Then he said, “That's good.”
Y'Tin continued to lie atop Lady. Tomas and Y'Juen took the other elephants to a nearby river. When Y'Tin felt stronger, he slipped down Lady's side and said, “Lady,
.” He headed in the same direction as his friends.
When Y'Tin and Lady reached the river, Y'Juen and Tomas were down the way, watching the elephants drink. Y'Tin wanted to be alone right now, so he didn't go stand with them. Lady filled her trunk and sprayed it into her mouth, over and over.
“Y'Tin!” shouted Tomas. Y'Tin waved at Tomas. Tomas continued. “Go back to camp and get our things. Hurry, we need to get going.”
It wasn't that far back to camp, but Tomas's tone annoyed Y'Tin. Tomas hadn't talked to him that way since Y'Tin was in training. And he couldn't believe that Tomas was yelling when they all should be quieter than that. Maybe Tomas didn't understand how bad things were right now. He'd been isolated in the jungle with the elephants. So Y'Tin shrugged off Tomas's yelling and returned to camp. He knew which things were his and Y'Juen's. Everything else he put in Tomas's bag.
When he returned, Tomas took his bag and declared that they'd head west. “We need to put
distance between us and the soldiers and then decide what to do,” he said. “Y'Tin, carry my bag. I need to concentrate.”
Y'Tin didn't see why Tomas couldn't carry his bag and concentrate at the same time, and he also didn't see why Tomas didn't just hang his bag around Geng's neck.
The elephants lumbered through the jungle, their padded feet absorbing the noise of their footfalls. A bird called outâ
âfrom high atop a tree. Somewhere a monkey howled. Y'Tin spotted a bright green bamboo pit viper, and his pulse raced. He remembered that Shepard called the snake a “two-stepper” because when you got bit by one, you'd be dead in two steps. Y'Tin kept his distance.
It felt as if they were making little progress because the elephants kept stopping to feed. It seemed they spent most of their waking hours eating and drinking or wishing they were eating and drinking.
At first they traveled silently, Y'Tin's mind racing about where they were going and where they were coming from. He thought his family would likely be heading west as well and for the same reason. Y'Tin knew that at some point one of them would have to
find out for certain what had happened at the village and also where the villagers who had escaped were. But for now they needed to operate in panic mode. One thing his father said was that panic could be controlled and used. Supposedly, when you were panicked, you didn't notice how hungry you were. Since Y'Tin felt ravenous for some meat, he figured he wasn't panicked anymore.
The next time the elephants stopped, the boys watched as the animals examined the possibilities. Their trunks moved here and there, as the elephants decided what they should eat. Lady tore at some grass, and after she'd made a pile of it, she pushed it this way and that. Finally, she picked some up and placed it into her mouth. Y'Tin was starving. He wished he could eat grass.
“Should we go hunting?” Y'Tin asked. “I'm hungry.”
“Eat another banana,” Tomas replied.
An irrational anger surged in Y'Tin's chest. He wanted meat. He did not want another banana. When his mother had meatless days, Y'Tin often dreamed that night of meat. Now it was all he could think of.
Y'Juen was patting Dok's hide and murmuring
to her. Dok took a few steps away and stood there. She was missing Y'Siu. But Y'Tin's mind was on meat. He wished that he and Y'Juen had had an opportunity to search the village for chickens. His mouth salivated as he thought of cooked chicken. He pulled a banana out of his bag and peeled it unenthusiastically.
Tomas gave Y'Tin a sharp look. “At least we're not starving. Don't complain.”
“I didn't say anything.”
“You were thinking something, though.”
“So now I'm not supposed to think?” retorted Y'Tin.
Tomas closed his eyes and took a big breath. Then he turned away from Y'Tin as if he couldn't waste any more time on him.
After the elephants ate their fill, the boys climbed up on them to ride. The jungle grew darker and darker. When Y'Tin could hardly see, Tomas said, “We'll stop now.” They slid off the elephants. Y'Tin was still annoyed that Tomas hadn't wanted to go hunting. Now all Y'Tin would dream about as he slept was meat. Tomas laid a hand on his shoulder. Y'Tin thought that was an apology until Tomas said, “We were thinking you should go back to scout
tomorrow and see what happened to the people who were captured.”
“You're such a good tracker,” Tomas said, slapping his shoulder. “We really admire that about you. With your tracking skills, you'll be the safest.”
So Y'Tin was elected.
The boys lay on the jungle floor. Y'Tin spread the poncho over himself and Y'Juen. The ground was cold against Y'Tin's bare back. If he'd had more time, he would have brought one of the shirts his father had bought in Ban Me Thuot.
“My father once said that guerillas need half a day to fight or travel and half a day to hunt for food,” said Y'Tin. And, of course, if his father said so, it was true. But Y'Tin did not say more, sensing that Tomas might take offense at suggestions that weren't asked for. Y'Tin was too tired for another quarrel. He remembered that a few years ago some boys from the village had gotten lost in the jungle. When they finally returned home, they mentioned that they had squabbled almost constantly with one another. At the time his father had said to Y'Tin, “The jungle changes a man.” But even knowing this did not make Y'Tin feel less mad.
Far away, gunfire sounded. It went on and on. “It's a battle,” said Tomas.
Y'Juen asked, “Do you think it's our village?”
Tomas paused. Then: “No, it's coming from another direction.”
Lady slept a few meters away. She'd been subdued all day, and Y'Tin wondered if her pregnancy was making her tired. In the dim light he could see her stomach bulging. She looked as if she could give birth at any moment. He closed his eyes but still felt wide awake. He knew he must sleep to be strong for whatever might come next. He wondered whether his father was fighting somewhere at that very moment.
Y'Tin did not even know if his mother had changed her mind about leaving the village at the last minute. He did not know if that was really Jujubee he had seen near the fence. He did not know how his aunts and uncles had fared. He felt a pain inside. He opened his eyes. He had to know what had become of everyone. He felt glad that he was the one who would go back to the village. He wanted to see it for himself. But he was annoyed that neither Tomas nor Y'Juen had talked to him before they decided. Y'Tin wondered vaguely when they had decided this. When had they become a “we”?
When Y'Tin awoke, his face was damp with dew. He felt something on his elbow and saw a centipede as long as his forearm. “Ah!” he cried. He jumped up and shook the insect off. Jujubee was allergic to centipede venom and had once gotten sick for a week after being bitten. Y'Juen had shoes, so he stamped it to death.
“Thanks,” Y'Tin said.
Tomas was also awake, brushing Geng. Geng loved being brushed, and Tomas tried to brush her several times a day. He looked Y'Tin's way and said, “You'd better get started.”
Y'Tin laid his forehead against Lady's trunk and
Good-bye. I'll be back
. Then he slipped away on his mission. He was so nervous, his ears filled with pounding. He could hardly hear anything else. The pounding seemed to shake his whole body. He stood still and concentrated on silencing the pounding before setting off again.
He put the danger out of his mind as he glided forward. He swam across the river and traveled through heavy bush, the plants scraping against his bare arms. Later, when he reached the halfway point to his village, he could feel something ominous in the air. He stood still, listening.
Then he noticed human footprints in the moss. They were fresh and perpendicular to Y'Tin's direction. A bug squirmed in one of them, meaning the print was so fresh that the squashed bug hadn't even died yet. Y'Tin told himself to stay calm. The tracks were fresh, but they were going in a different direction. Then he heard voices. He froze. The pounding sound in his ears grew so loud, he couldn't hear the voices anymore. But he knew the voices were there. There was such a din in his ears that for a moment he thought he was losing his mind. He fought the instinct to crouch lower. Instead, he stayed as still as possible. He thought
to himself over and over,
I won't die. It's my destiny to take care of Lady. I won't die. It's my destiny to take care of Lady.
The spirits were not with himâanother centipede crawled over his foot. He closed his eyes and concentrated on staying still as the centipede paused on his ankle and then didn't stir, as if it had fallen asleep. After about a half an hour, the centipede began crawling up his leg, and Y'Tin couldn't stop himself from brushing it off.
It was growing dark when he dared move again. He hadn't moved before that because he wasn't sure what he did or didn't hear. He decided to set off again.
The closer Y'Tin got to his village, the more certain he was of where he was going. He knew where he was by feeling the trees. He had spent countless hours in this part of the jungle, and he knew the trees almost as well as if he could see them. At the same time the area also felt strange, even new. He felt as if he had been gone for months.
There were no signs of people as he slipped through the gate. For a moment he stood amazed. Nearly every house had been touched by fire. He had once walked through a section of jungle that had been bombed. The carcasses of two elephants
and a monkey had lain on the ground, their flesh torn open. The village looked as if a bomb had hit it, and the houses looked like carcasses. All that was left of some of them were the stilts. Other houses were nearly intact. Others had lost only their roofs. Others were gone completely. The soldiers had taken the time to set every house on fire. Why did the soldiers hate them so much? Then his own heart filled with hatred. He had always been fascinated by the missions his father had gone on, but that was just because he was drawn to the adventure of it. Thisâright nowâwas the first time he really understood what his father had been fighting for with the Americans.
He watched a few last embers twinkle in the darkness. For the first time in his life, Y'Tin questioned the spiritsâafter all, what did it matter which spirit had burned these houses? If it was Yang Lie, so what? If it wasn't Yang Lie, so what again? He walked to where his house had been. Dead chickens lay in what had been the chicken coop. The chickens had burned to death. There were large empty rice-wine jars all over the place. Maybe burning a village was easier if you were drunk. And maybe killing people was easier if you were drunk.
Y'Tin knew where he had to go next. He knew the people who had been captured were buried in the cemetery, but he had to make absolutely certain. He did not want to see the cemetery, but he had to. He walked through the gate and stepped along the edge of the jungle until he reached the cemetery. The large hole had been expanded far wider than it was before, and it was all filled in with dirt. He had no way of knowing how deep it was now. He stared a second. Then he dug at the dirt with his hands. He didn't have to dig deepâonly about a third of a meter. Then he accidentally touched someone's skin and pulled his hand away with a shout. But he couldn't stop himself from looking at what he had touched: It looked like an ear. He quickly swept the dirt back into place. It was too much; he couldn't comprehend it. He suddenly felt faint and lay down on top of the hole, hugging his knees to his chest.