According to the water marked paper and the official stamp, he had been reduced to the three letter acronym during an ambush on the Batangan peninsula. It fell into the hallway twelve days ago. You didn't cry at first. The tears came two days later when you received a letter from him posted a week before.
You hadn't been sleeping well since he left eleven months ago. After five years of marriage its hard getting used to sleeping alone. You feel guilty when even your foot stretched onto 'his' side. Ever since you got the letter you've been sat here on the cool wooden steps of the porch each morning, watching for the sun to cast new shadows across the grass. You wake at dawn, glazed eyes facing the ceiling, the wall, the window, and only know you've slept from the echoes of dreams in your mind. He was here last night. You were dancing in the garden together. You slept last night.
This morning, waiting for the world to stretch and acknowledge the new day, you wonder if he died at sunrise. Is that why you keep waking then? You try to remind yourself that he is just missing in action. But a feeling like heavy Vietnamese rain flows over you. He told you about the rain. Drops the size of small frogs, he said. You smile now,remembering the silly things that he would say to fake a happy tone. And you always knew it was more than the rain that got him down.
You hear footsteps on the stairs behind you. It had been hard to keep a smile on your face when he had asked questions. You never read to him what the letters really said, but made up stories about daddy's adventures hunting wild animals in far off lands; more for your own salvation, you sometimes thought.
I'm sitting on the steps waiting for the sun to rise. But unlike before, now he's next to me. He stood at the door, arm in a sling and his Bergen at his feet. His face was tanned and unshaven. His eyes looked anxious. As if perhaps scared that he was at the wrong house. It was six weeks after the M.I.A letter had arrived that he stood on our front door step, crying through his smiles.
We walked gently up the stairs. Me not wanting to disturb the dream. Him trying to avoid mines, trip flares, claymores. I bathed him. Ran my fingers over scars that were strangers to me. A long line of pain ran from his ankle to his knee. His fingers found mine and we stared into familiar faces that belonged to people who had become strangers this past year. We didn't speak. I lost myself in his eyes. Eyes that were desperate to talk. But a mouth that said nothing.
I woke one night to find him in the bathroom, scrubbing his uniform. The water was cold, his knuckles were raw. I held him and his tears ran warm on my neck.
In time he became more like he used to be. Before. But that look would mask his face sometimes and I wished that I could help. He never spoke about what had happened to him. The things that he had seen. The only time he would unlock those thoughts was at night, when I'd wake to him mumbling or shouting at his dreams. Then he would talk of places I had never heard of. Foreign rivers, villages - I guessed. There was one name I recognised in the confused dialogues. The Batangan peninsula. It made me shudder. It seemed to penetrate most of his dreams. As he thrashed about, I'd rest my hand on his forehead, trying to soothe him. Other times I would lay still, scared of the ghosts in the room that troubled him so painfully. When he woke the next morning in sheets wet through with sweat, his eyes would look shameful, awkward, but his mouth never spoke an apology never uttered an explanation.
He hung his uniform in a closet in the spare room. His Bergen was in there too. Still smeared in mud and caked in blood, the number, his alternate identity, faded on the front. It was still packed. Not touched since the day he came home. The smell was unbearable at first. After a few months he got a job on the nearby farm. He came home early one night and found me unpacking the brown and red smeared bag, desperate to erase the sickening smell. He lunged at me and snatched at the contents. Then gently, precisely, placed each item exactly where it had been. He heaved the dead weight back into the closet and turned to me. At that moment I felt the violent blow of his words. But none came. He looked at me. Frustrated tears wet his eyes, but did not escape. One look was enough. I did not enter that room again.
The war was never mentioned in our house. He didn't even acknowledge Veterans day. At our son's graduation he wore a deep blue suit with a white shirt. At his wedding, his morning suit matched that of the groom's. On both occasions he stood tall and straight, feet firmly together. His uniform remained in the closet, unlike other veterans, who seemed to relish in the celebration of their time as soldiers.
We drove back late after our grand-daughter's first birthday party. We talked all the way home. Laughing the events of the day to each other and smiling the memories of our son's first birthday. Tired, we went straight to bed. He held me, his warm arms around my waist as we fell asleep. A quiet sleep. A deep, peaceful sleep.
I woke in the early hours of the morning. I was cold. The bed was empty. Moving my way across the room I could see a light shining in the hall. I pushed open the door of the spare room. He was sitting on the floor. His Bergen unpacked, its contents lay about him. "Thought I'd never get the goddamn soil out of my skin. Red soil! You ever seen red soil? I've never seen so much red soil!"