Volume 30, Number 4

The Tree

John P. Kristofco

It had been fifty years, time enough to fade though it never could have been forgotten. Fifty years, and David Amis was going back to the one place on earth he swore he never wanted to see again. Ever.

From the window, he could see the lush green beneath the thin lace of clouds. He had seen that view before, going in and coming out.

A wave of dread came over him; he closed his eyes.

He had been nineteen the first time, in his green uniform like all the others on the noisy plane rattling its way through choppy weather down to the newly built airfield below. The fear that had gripped him quietly when he received his orders two months before had risen its voice to drown out all other sounds in his soul. His breath shortened as if to only nibble nervously at the edges of the experience that was already dwarfing him.

David opened his eyes, leaned back in his seat and thought again about the letter, the phone calls, the arrangements that had somehow been made to make this happen, to put him on this plane.

It was a Senator who first had the idea, a man who had served three years in-country there, he and some folks from the Veterans Administration. “Why not have some soldiers from both sides get together and meet,” was the simple theme. “Why not have them meet in peace this time.”

“Are you crazy!” was David’s first response. “Why the hell would I go meet with people who were trying their best to kill me, to kill all of us?! Why would I go back to that place… to that hell…?!”

But before that day came and went, before he tore the letter up and dismissed the whole idea, another thought entered David Amis’ mind: “but then, why not?” And it took him back to those days before Helen, before the kids, before…

He was a grunt, they were gooks; soldiers at two ends of a tangled valley between two dirt roads, a location deemed to be of “strategic importance to supply and communications lines,” at least by those men who put the soldiers there.

There to crawl and claw their way like animals in night and day to kill those who had, before all this, never wronged them, whom they had never wronged, enmity conferred by order onto people they might pass by on the sidewalk, bid “good morning,” or just walk by, stand beside at corners. People who would never kill until they came to kill within someone else’s philosophy, someone else’s will. People who would help them push a car, share an umbrella, sit beside them at a ballgame.

Instead, they humped through swamps and brush so thick it gave in only by the inch. They patrolled, reconned, set perimeters, sent up flairs, called in arty and in months of push and pull, advance and retreat, had managed to kill two thousand of themselves because the compass of their lives had been moved from its true north by the magnet of some other, awful will.

It wasn’t as if he thought these exact things, ideas that grow more out of reflection than immediacy, but by the next day, David Amis found himself agreeable to the idea of going back.

“They ask you to bring something with you, a memento of some sort,” Helen said at breakfast, “something to show the other soldier….”

He squinted at his wife. “A present? They want me to bring a goddam present?!”

“A memento, Dave; not a present,” the thin blonde woman read from the invitation. “Please bring one item from your service that represents your experience or that took on importance to you as you served.” She took off her glasses and squinted at her husband. “That’s a memento, not a present.”

And as his wife read those words, the man knew in an instant what he would bring.

He had seen it on that first day with his unit, a tall, scrawny tree about four hundred meters out on the right of their position. It stood apart from the other trees, as if watching them, looking down on them, standing aside because it was different, and it knew it.

It had fewer leaves than the others, held like carefully balanced plates. Its trunk and branches looked like a line drawing from a great artist; Picasso, maybe. In the daytime it was a marker, a monument. At night a lighthouse, a beacon.

Once, David saw it lit with flares above a skirmish in the weeds along the marsh line, and, for a moment, he felt the safest he had felt since he arrived there. He didn’t know why or how, but from that point, he thought of the tall, scrawny tree as his, as if it knew him, understood him somehow.

All these years later, he still had a picture of that tree. He kept it in the top drawer of his dresser at home. He didn’t look at it often, but he did from time to time. Now, that picture was in the small canvas bag beside him, along with the letters and contact information for the trip. David placed his right hand on the small bag and drew a deep breath as the plane began its descent to the bustling urban airport now in view off in the distance.

There was a “welcoming party” waiting at the airport as the ten invited visitors came in from the plane. There were several reporters and a small crowd forming a semi-circle behind a camera that glared at David and the others. Three men in uniforms like the one he wore fifty years ago stood off to the side smiling; they stepped forward, extending handshakes to the arriving men.

David moved awkwardly forward to be greeted. The first man, a Colonel with an impressive array of ribbons on his breast, looked down at the nametag David had been given.

“Welcome, Corporal Amis,” the Colonel smiled. David had not heard himself called that in a very long time.

He nodded.

“We’ll be taking you out to the hotel and down to the dinner after that, okay?”

“Is that where we’re going to meet….” his voice trailed off.

“Yes, that’s where you’ll meet the other soldiers.”

David felt the dread rising again.

“Each of our veterans will meet one of theirs, someone who was involved in the same battle.”

Images that David had stored deep away stirred and came forward from their exile, still potent, still ferocious. David closed his eyes.

“You’ll be meeting Hoang Nguyen. He was in that valley at the same time you were.”

David Amis silently repeated that name in his mind: Hoang Nguyen, Hoang Nguyen. Faces he had seen a long time ago appeared before him. He shook his head, placed his right hand on his small canvas bag and moved ahead with the others.

The hall was small and not very elaborate, but it was almost filled when the twenty soldiers entered from the two large side doors, David and his fellows from the right, Hoang Nguyen and his from the left. Each man carried his memento in a plain brown bag.

They were led to an open area at the center where the Colonel David recognized stood beside a senior officer from the other army. Two interpreters stood with them as they introduced the pairs of soldiers.

As it happened, David was the tenth man in his line. Across from him, at the end of the opposite line, Hoang Nguyen stood with his own brown bag and his own dread and apprehension.

Their names were announced, and the two men walked uneasily toward each other.

How old he looks they both thought. How soft and old.

Hoang Nguyen was short and skinny. He walked with a limp.

David Amis was tall and a little overweight. Hidden was the scar that ran across his right side to his back. Just as the interpreter joined them, Hoang Nguyen extended his right arm.

“Welcome, David Amis,” he said, as if he had rehearsed it a hundred times. “It is good to meet you.”

A world of sights and sounds boiled in both men’s minds at once, words pushed and shoved for position. David closed his eyes a moment, then opened them again to find the other eyes that also searched the vacant space between them.

“It’s good to meet you, Hoang Nguyen,” he heard himself say. Then he repeated, “it is good to meet you.”

The short man smiled and held out his small brown bag to David.

“For you to see,” he said.

David did the same.

“And for you.”

Hoang Nguyen withdrew the picture slowly, and as he did, his left hand rose to his mouth. His eyes widened and looked at David.

Amis looked up from the memento he now held, mirroring the stunned expression of the man across from him.

In his hand was a photograph of the tall, scrawny tree with the leaves like plates and a line-art silhouette, only this time it was on the left of the frame.

“My compass point,” Hoang Nguyen said.

“My lighthouse,” David Amis muttered just above a whisper.

There was a moment of complete silence, and the two former combatants simply stared at each other. And then, all at once, as if there was nothing else in the world they could do, the two men embraced, an embrace neither could have ever imagined before, but that now both believed in absolutely.

“Two thousand souls,” Hoang Nguyen said with a voice that came from somewhere he never realized he had.

“Two thousand souls,” David Amis said, as if in prayer.

And there was silence in the room and a flutter in the trees outside the windows.

And the two new friends found a way to smile.