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Beneath a sky burned vaporous white the men marched as they had the day before and would the day after and the day after that. The dust from those ahead imbued the humid air with a granularity and phantom massa resistanceas manifest as the weight of exhausted muscle. They marched along a gradual incline where the dust stirred in thick currents at their feet, and they marched along a straightaway where the dust glowed in a white nimbus. Then the loose-columned group bunched to a stop where the road passed through a field of dry cogon grass.
Jack stumbled into the man ahead of him, but he did not look up from the chalky, sun-impacted road. The faint staccato of the Japanese officer at the front of the ranks came to him from a great remove. He stared across the road. A blackened sedan jutted from a swale of burnt grass. One tire still smoked. Something dark was smeared on the crazed windshield. At the bottom of the swale shone the brackish mud of a carabao wallow. A dead Filipino lay there. His uniform was stretched tight as sausage casing over his body. His pant pockets were turned out. The smell of water and rot was unbearable.
A guardgunjinwaved a fixed bayonet. Jack saw he'd stepped from his column toward the wallow. He felt a tug on his belt as Conrad pulled him deeper into the ranks. They were ordered to sit. Conrad steadied him as he knelt. The dust was powdery and white. It settled like a particulate of the heat. Jack breathed shallowly. An ache sharpened with each expansion of his ribs. His breast pocket held a deck of cards with a divot prized free where shrapnel had struck.
A light breeze threshed through the high grass. The men stilled. Not far from the wallow two gunjin squatted with their tin mess kits. They ate their lugao with the same famished intensity that the American and Filipino POWs fixed on them. Near two hundred eyes tracked the boiled-rice paste from kit to mouth, took in the glint of water trickling from canteen to tongue. This went on for what seemed a long time. The gunjin wore woolen field caps with a gold star sewn to the front and cloth panels that protected their necks from the sun. The barrels of their Model 38s jutted above their shoulders, the bayonets burnished silver. They were always careful to clean them, Jack thought.
As the gunjin finished, an American second lieutenant rose and stepped from the ranks. Light glanced from the lenses of his spectacles and the gold-bar insignia on the shoulder of his uniform. He gestured with his canteen toward the wallow. The gunjin looked at each other. One closed his kit and stood and walked toward the front of the column. The other stared after him. He said something, and when the lieutenant did not respond he said it again and yanked the canteen from the lieutenant's hand. The gunjin then turned to the wallow and filled the canteen. When he turned back toward the men he paused. A murmur swept through the line. Several men stood. Then they sat back down.
The gunjin looked up the road. His officer strode toward him, solidly built and moving mechanically, as if on parade. He held one hand to the hilt of his saber to keep the scabbard's tip from dragging in the dust, the effect terrifyingly comic. The men he passed hushed and stilled, ducking their heads as their eyes marked his progress.
He stopped between the American lieutenant and the gunjin. He knocked the canteen from the guard's hand and clouted him. Jack watched the water stain the ground. When the gunjin fell the officer waited for him to stand and resumed striking him. He did this twice with a furious indifference. Then he turned to the lieutenant. He reached out and removed his glasses and snapped the frames and dropped them in the dirt.
The lieutenant's face was white with dust. He stared out at the frayed sweep of cogon grass as if to memorize the sight.
The officer spoke to the guard without looking at him. The guard set off at an unsteady run. Blood dripped from his chin. The officer surveyed the Americans and Filipinos. He circled the lieutenant and ripped the man's insignia from his uniform and dropped these by the glasses and crushed them all with his bootheel. The lieutenant swayed as if the ground were unsteady.
The heat was staggering. Jack wanted to retreat deep into his body, to shelter in the dark recesses of his skull until evening's fall. One of several New Mexicans from the scattered 200th Coast Artillery, he had been fighting in gradual retreat for nearly three months, first abandoning Clark Air Field to Japanese air raids, then leaving Manila for the more defensible Bataan Peninsula. Fighting as provisional infantry on the southwest side of the Bataan Peninsula, he and Conrad and the others of the 200th had joined the general surrender the previous day, fatigued, malarial, starving, abandoned by General MacArthur months prior, and by U.S. war strategy even before that.
There were moments when his dislocation and incomprehension were overwhelming. A year earlier Jack had not imagined a place like the Philippines existed, or soldiers like the Japanese. The word "war" was nothing but a blunt and brassy sound. Now, though, the slate in his head was filled with conflict's scrawl, the unfamiliar characters scratched too deep to erase. There was no reading it, just as there was no reading what surrounded himno orderly progression of victory and defeat, no high-minded goal. There was only the motion of one moment to the next and the demands of survival.
The gunjin trotted back with two narrow-bladed entrenching tools that clattered dully. The chest of his olive uniform was smeared a brighter white where dust had thickened over the bloodstains from his split lip.
The gunjin and the American lieutenant fell to digging by the wallow.
From where he knelt, Jack closed his eyes. It was almost possible to imagine away everything but the heat and the tickling of the flies at the corners of his mouth. His eardrums had been damaged by the shell that ruined his cards, and for the moment the partial deafness was a gift. He licked his lips, tasting the salt from his sweat, as a malarial chill ran through him. He felt he was floating in a swell, or that what tethered him to the ground had grown elastic. He remembered swimming in the ranch cistern at sunset just a year before. The warm water had held him suspended like some lighter medium, like air made fluid. He floated with his face upturned as the light faded and the planets and stars flecked the sky, the constellations wavering slightly behind the warp of summer air. A coyote yipped, and Frank barked from the house. The lowing of cattle came faintly beneath the rising shrill of crickets. He heard the nearly inaudible sound of his breathing, the creak of the windmill's face and side vane as it pumped up cool, alkaline water. He smelled flowering yucca, the hint of manure, pinon woodsmoke. There wasn't an unfamiliar sound or scent, not a plant or living creature he couldn't name, all of it as fixed and ordered as the stars above. A door clapped against its frame, and he remembered his father watching him from the porch as he climbed in the truck to report at Fort Bliss. Ross had stood with his hands in his pockets and his hair damp with sweat, a pale line visible on his forehead where his hat normally rested and his face as clenched as a chunk of rock. Ross pivoted before the truck's engine turned over, the screen door banging shut as he disappeared into the shadows of the house.
Shots sounded. The Buzzard Squad, Japanese soldiers executing those who had collapsed on the road, was catching up. Jack looked at his hands. Metallic-green flies clustered around a suppurating burn on his palm.
The Japanese officer gestured for the men to stop digging. The gunjin climbed from the hole. The lieutenant looked up at the Japanese officer and sank the shovel blade again into the boggy earth. The gunjin took up his rifle from where it rested against his pack and tentatively jabbed the lieutenant with his bayonet. The lieutenant dropped the shovel and stood holding his hand to his bicep, his khaki sleeve darkening.
The officer spoke again to the gunjin, whose face was inclined and hidden by the shadow of his cap's shallow bill.
"Conrad," Jack said. His voice sounded thick and unfamiliar, his tongue a wad of gauze.
Conrad touched his right leg and Jack turned to him, reassured by his and Miguel's presence. Miguel held a finger to his lips. "Calmate," he murmured. His thick black beard was plastered with the dust. He reminded Jack of the Conquistadors from his high-school history books, his dark eyes and drawn face searching for something just out of view.
Jack knew he wasn't supposed to look; he didn't want to. But he did. He was compelled by every corpse he saw in a ditch or the weeds or tangled in a tree's branches, as if a message resided there that would save him if he could just decipher it.
The back of the lieutentant's shirt belled as the bullet exited his chest. The gunjin lowered his rifle and looked to the side, at the wrecked sedan. The black smoke from the car's burning tire hung, painted on the air.
The officer spoke. In a moment the gunjin shouldered his rifle and bowed. "You son-of-a-bitch," Jack said. The midday glare blurred in his eyes.
They marched over a pitted section of road hemmed by cloven palm trunks. Several shattered 155mm artillery pieces, downed trees, an old command car, and other, less identifiable objects had been bulldozed into a pile some twenty feet high. The air above it writhed from the heat of the sun on the metal. Furious clouds of flies clotted air gone syrupy with putrefaction. The men coughed and spat out the swarming insects. Jack saw a pale swatch of flesh and something wet in the wreckage. Even when he was well past it the rot coated his throat.
There were fewer men in the column now. Miguel leaned into him. He took Miguel's arm until his pace evened. Miguel's pants were crusted with filth from dysentery. He spoke earnestly, even though Jack understood little of the delirious Spanish. Miguel was from Penasco; he and Jack shared the same rural background, though Miguel's family ran sheep, not cattle. They had been bunkmates at Clark Field, and in the barracks there Miguel had sometimes spoken to him in whispered Spanish as the others slept, a soothing liturgy to mask the strange noise of the tropics. He was always telling stories: The story of how a bear ripped through his tent and, frightened by Sancho's barking, retreated with only his shoe in its jaws. A year later, he'd found Sancho chewing on the same shoe by his campfire, miles from where he'd encountered the bear. Then the story of how La Llorona howled through the arroyos: he'd seen her one night with her dark hair twisted over her face like a writhing mask, weeping for her drowned children. And, once, the story of how he had stolen the glass eye of his priest. It was the only tale Jack had fully believed, maybe because he'd heard it just the once. He'd told Miguel as much, and Miguel had only shrugged, placid before the skepticism. "Está bien saber que si es mentira, está urdida, y si es verdad, para allá va." If the tale is not true it is already woven, and if it is true it will go forward.
He said that Padre Villaseñor wore a brown-lensed eye to match his true one, but when he taught the catechism he wore a gray-lensed one that fascinated and frightened the children; it was impossible not to stare at the mismatched iris, and because of this it seemed always to be watching, no matter the focus of the Padre's other eye. "I dreamed about it, sabes? It would be in the sky like the moon, judging, glaring. And everyone in the dream had the same eye. I couldn't sleep. I made up sins for confession with the Padre and paid penance for these and still it watched me in my dreams. I confessed los sueños to the Padre. He said they held the truth, that God was always watching and it was no good trying to deny this. And the next catechism class still he wore it. I hated him for this and I confessed even this and still he wore it." Then he had stolen the ball of German glass from the rectory, where it rested in a lined box like a prize jewel. "If I was to feel guilty I would be guilty," he said. "At least there was truth in that." He had wanted to crush it with a rock, but this would have rendered the transgression permanent, and so he had hidden it. "He knew," he said of Padre Villaseñor as the geckos chirped from the barrack walls and the breathing of their fellow New Mexicans stirred around them. "He had to know, but he never said nada. Made me hate him more."
"You still dream about it?" Jack murmured.
"No," Miguel said. "With sin came relief. Like when we lay with the putas."
He had been surprised at this, and surprised by Miguel's curse; he hadn't called them that before, and the word was like a wedge between them; Miguel was aging faster and differently, with a harder edge. For both, the Sapangbato brothel's women had been their first and only, and Jack had yet to sort it out. It was more than butterflies in the stomach and the brief, ecstatic orgasm, more than the wet warmth of the Filipina and her red, betel-stained smile. A necessary lesson. Not a sin, though perhaps as instructive as one. Surely there was more pleasure in sin, more certainty.
The sun felt too close, swollen and sagging from its zenith, the dust that hovered at head level a heat-charged haze. Miguel stumbled and Jack lurched with him, ambushed by this sudden unbalance. Conrad grunted as he steadied them both. "Keep moving," he said.
"How far?" Jack asked.
"Not far," Conrad said. The guards told them this again and again, and though it was always a lie, a means of keeping them in motion, it was a lie in which resided the shadow of hope and was therefore welcome and repeated amongst themselves.
"Tengo sed," Miguel said.
Conrad had two canteens on his belt, one empty, one a quarter full. "Wait," he said. They couldn't risk drinking it in daylight. The canteen would be wrested from him before Miguel tasted a drop. Conrad rationed their water at night, while those around them slept. They drank furtively, guarding one another from their own.
"Míralo." Miguel pointed. To the east, a clearing in the trees allowed a glimpse of Manila Bay. The surface was a brilliant, polished silver, a plate of beaten metal reflecting the dazzling glare of the sun. "All that water," he said longingly.