The Girl Who Spoke English
Thomas sat in a cave high on a hillside, resting his sprained ankle. He’d been there two days and thought he might stay one more, but on the third day, about noon, when he had his glasses out, scanning the valley below, he saw a patrol emerge one by one from a line of trees onto open ground and string out along a stream that flowed down the center of the valley. When no more came out of the trees, he counted twelve men.
He watched them for half an hour until they stopped at a spot directly below him. A spot where his little stream, one that bubbled out from under some rocks just past his cave, meandered down the hill and across the valley until it merged into their larger one. That’s where they threw down their packs, sat on the grass, and smoked cigarettes.
That put Thomas on full alert, but he wasn’t too worried about them. All he had to do was stay hidden in his cave and let them pass. That seemed easy enough.
At least it did until two or three cigarettes later when they all stood up and he saw them looking up the hill in his direction. He knew they couldn’t see him or his cave behind thick bushes, but it was still unnerving to see those upturned faces, tiny as they were, and he was beginning to think his perfect cave wasn’t so perfect after all. He wondered if he had left something out that they could see, but he knew he hadn’t.
He could see them pointing and talking and he finally realized that they were pointing at the little stream of water next to his cave and that they were probably wondering why and how a stream of water could be coming down the side of a big, dry hill.
That was something he hadn’t thought of, that a tiny bit of water might cause him trouble. Then, worse, after more pointing and talking, they started up the hill, all of them, and they were coming up fast.
That set his heart pounding and his gut tightening because once they reached the spot where his stream came out of the rocks, they would see his cave and there would be no way they wouldn’t check it out.
I’ve got two choices, he thought, and running away isn’t one of them, not on my bad ankle and this open hill. I could fight it out with them and be killed or I could let them capture me and torture me and then kill me. Neither of those had any appeal.
He had one other possibility. Earlier, he had planted explosives on the hillside that he could set off remotely and although he had cursed the weight and bulk of them and all the work and sweat it had taken to get them planted, he was glad now.
His little stream flowed down the hill in a small valley of its own about thirty feet wide and five or six feet deep. The best thing about it was that it was almost obstacle free which made it the easiest and most logical place to climb the hill. That’s why he had put the explosives there and that’s exactly what the patrol was doing, coming up on both sides of his little stream.
He watched them coming up and he kept hoping they’d get tired of the steep slope and hot sun and turn back, but they didn’t. They kept coming up fast as if they were in some sort of race to see who could get to the source of the water first.
He waited until they were all inside the lines of his explosives. Then he flopped down on his cave floor, hit the remote, and simultaneously heard a huge blast. Pieces of rocks zinged through the bushes in front of him and bounced off the ledge above him, but nothing hit him.
When the dust cleared, he glassed the area again and saw nothing but bodies strewn amongst the rocks and not one of them was moving or making a sound. The only movement he saw was torn clothing lifting and falling as little breezes came and went.
After a few minutes, he decided it was safe to go down for a closer look. He swept the area one last time and was about to put his glasses down when a bit of movement caught his eye.
At the rear of the group he saw one body moving. He watched it push itself to a sitting position, hold it a few seconds, then topple over and not move. Dead or alive, he didn’t know, but he decided he had to go down and find out, not only for that one, but for all the others. He checked the revolver on his hip, the rifle on his shoulder, slipped through the bushes and started down.
It took only a couple of minutes to get to the small valley and when he crawled up to the edge of it and peeked over, he could almost touch some of the bodies and he could see no one was alive except for the one at the rear which was again trying to sit up and, to his surprise, it didn’t look male. It looked female.
Female with an orange scarf wrapped around her head except now it was falling off and he could see black hair spilling over her shoulders. He could also see, even in a uniform too big, hips and breasts and a face that didn’t look male at all.
He didn’t see any weapons on her or around her and she didn’t appear to be in any condition to cause problems anyway, so he stood up and walked straight down the ridge towards her. Before he reached her, she slumped over again and when he knelt beside her, he saw she was unconscious, but breathing okay, and, reaching to her wrist, he felt a good pulse.
He saw a small bump on her head and a cut on her shoulder and blood on her face and down her side. He saw no other wounds. He was thinking, do I shoot her? He decided he couldn’t do that. Do I leave her? He decided he couldn’t do that. He decided what he should do was get her back to his cave. He carefully picked her up and started up the hill.
Luckily, he didn’t think she weighed a hundred pounds and after a great many one steps at a time and a great many glances at her to see if she were awake or still unconscious, he made it back.
In his cave, he laid her on a blanket along one wall, squeezed antibiotic on her shoulder cut, wetted a rag and wiped blood from her face. All he could do for the bump on her head was put a cool rag on it.
While he was doing that, she opened her eyes, stared at him, and then said calmly and in very good English, “Are you going to kill me?”
He was surprised, not at what she said, but at how she seemed completely out of it one moment and alert the next.
“No,” he said. “I don’t kill people unless I have to.”
“You will kill me.”
“No. Not unless you try to kill me.” He could see she wasn’t buying anything he said.
“Are you going to rape me?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t rape people either.”
She was quiet a moment and then asked, “Where’s my patrol?”
“Just down the hill,” he said. “They’re all dead.”
“How could that be?”
“I killed them.”
“All of them?”
“It was a matter of explosives, sweetheart. You were the only survivor. I think a boulder saved you. I went down, picked you up, and brought you here.”
“All dead,” she said softly. He couldn’t tell whether she was happy or unhappy about it or whether she just wanted to make sure she had heard him correctly.
“I’ll help you outside and you can see for yourself,” he said.
She didn’t move.
“How is it you speak such good English?” he asked.
“I studied it for years and taught it for years. That’s how,” she said.
“All right. In your good English tell me this. What’s a girl like you doing in a patrol like
this? You weren’t even carrying a weapon.”
“I don’t carry weapons. I carry English. That’s all I carry and that’s what got me into this uniform I don’t want to be in.”
“Sounds like you’re not a wholehearted trooper,” he said.
“No, but not only did I have to be, I had to be happy about it. What are you going to do with me?” she asked and for the first time. She looked worried.
“Nothing,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, you can go back to wherever you came from anytime you want.”
He could see she wasn’t believing that either. Once again, she just stared at him.
“Sweetheart, walking is the only way in or out of this valley, and by the time you get back to tell anybody anything, I’ll be long gone.”
“I won’t say a word about you. I promise.”
“Thank you, but if you have to, to save yourself, go right ahead. It won’t matter.”
That seemed to ease her mind and after giving him an up and down look, she said. “You don’t look like a soldier. Where’s your uniform?”
“I don’t have one and I’m not sure what a soldier is supposed to look like, but I am one.”
“Why are you alone?”
“That’s the work I do. I do it alone and now that I’m done with it, I’m getting out of this shit-ass war zone as fast as I can, except I hurt my ankle and that has slowed me down.”
“Where are you going?”
“Can’t tell you, sweetheart, but you can tell me something. Why did your boys climb the hill when all they had to do was look up and see nothing except a stream. It makes no sense.”
“Because they’re boys. They wanted to see where the water was coming from and they were making bets on it. That’s why.”
“Well, they should have stayed with serious patrolling. Luckily, they left you behind or the vultures would be dropping in on you too.”
“Vultures?” He could see her shudder.
“Yes.” He pointed through the bushes. “Quite a few out there already.”
“Oh,” she said.
Later with the sun setting and shadows creeping up the hill and the cave getting dark, he looked at her curled up on her blanket with her back against the wall and saw she was asleep. The side of her face rested on the palm of her hand and she looked very beautiful, her face all smooth and peaceful looking.
Not so many worries now, he thought, but he was also thinking, I don’t care how peaceful she looks, I don’t dare fall asleep unless I want to end up with a rock on my skull or a knife in my heart or something like that and I can’t bring myself to wake her and tie her up, not after telling her I wouldn’t hurt her and that she could leave anytime she wanted.
So he grabbed his sleeping bag, crawled through the bushes quietly as he could and walked along the hillside for probably a quarter mile until he came to a terrace with some pine trees on it. He found one with the tips of its branches almost touching the ground, slipped behind them, spread out his sleeping bag, wriggled in and fell asleep almost as soon as he shut his eyes.
At first light, he headed back to his cave and when he pushed the bushes aside and looked in, he saw she was up already, sitting on her blanket with her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them. She looked happy to see him.
“I was worried,” she said. “I thought you left and weren’t coming back.”
“I would think that would have made you happy.”
“No, I was worried.”
“Well, I have bad news for you then. I am leaving.”
“Yes. In a few minutes.”
“What’s your name?” she said, rocking back and forth, still hugging her knees.
“Thomas,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Tam,” she said.
“Tam and Thomas. Not bad,” he said.
“Thomas,” she said and as she said that, she straightened up, arms pressed to her sides
and walked on her knees towards him until she stopped in front of him.
“Thomas,” she said again, looking up. “Kiss me.”
That sent thoughts spinning through his head because he was thinking—what’s going on?—what kind of ploy is this?—but he had to admit, he was beginning to like her and ploy or not, he straightened up on his knees too, tilted his head down to kiss her cheek and then her lips and he kept kissing her and she him and in about two minutes it became love on a blanket in a cave.
Maybe it wasn’t love. He wasn’t sure. It was definitely sex on a blanket in a cave. He didn’t go anywhere that day. That day was divided into three things, eating, resting, making love and when night came they slept on top of his unzipped sleeping bag with a blanket over them.
At first light, they made love again and then he started packing up the last of his things. That last love making was a little sad, he thought, although they didn’t act sad. They acted bright and happy and cheerful, but afterwards she didn’t watch him finish packing his things. She crawled outside and sat on a rock in front of the bushes.
She had nothing to pack, but at the bottom of the hill all the supplies of the patrol still sat in a pile, some of which she would take and some of which he would too.
In a few minutes, Thomas was ready to go. He pushed his pack through the bushes, crawled out behind it, stood up and they started down the hill without saying a word. They skirted far around the remains of the patrol. With all the heat and vultures and time that had passed, it wasn’t a sight they wanted to see.
Once past them, they angled back to the stream and followed it down the hill and across the valley to where it poured into the big stream. That’s where the pile of supplies sat and after she got hers, and he his, they stood face to face and she pulled his head down and kissed him and he was on the verge of telling her he loved her, but he didn’t.
All he did was wish her good luck and all she did was wish him the same plus tell him she liked him and that she hoped somehow someday they’d see each other again.
With one last look she turned and started down the valley, and he turned and started up it, but after a few steps, he realized he was missing some vital information. He stopped and called back to her.
“Tam,” he said, “what’s your last name?”
“It doesn’t matter, Thomas,” she said, slowing her steps and looking over her shoulder at him.
“Of course it matters. How can I find you if I don’t know your name?”
“You can’t, Thomas. You know that. It was only a happy thought,” she said and gave him a wave and a smile and kept walking.
“It could be more than a happy thought,” he called after her.
She didn’t turn around this time. She kept walking straight and strong through the grass along the bank of the stream. This grass was still green, not dry and yellow as it was up on the sides of the hills and it made a beautiful sight, her walking through it, the stream beside her, the sun shining down and the valley ahead.
Beautiful except she was walking away, but Thomas didn’t move or say anything more. He wanted to, but he didn’t. He watched her walk for probably two hundred yards until both she and the stream disappeared into a stand of trees.
He stood longer, staring at the spot where she disappeared, hoping to see her walking back through it towards him, but he didn’t and he knew he wouldn’t.
That’s when he turned and started up the valley beside the same stream. She’s right he told himself. It can only be a happy thought. You were foolish to think otherwise.
For once you were the foolish one, which is a very unsettling thought for one who cannot afford to be foolish about anything, but in a few hours from now when you have walked away the foolishness, you’ll know for sure that she was right.
“Maybe,” he said against the silence of the valley and the sound of his footsteps through the grass. But hours later when he set up camp in the darkness and crawled into his sleeping bag, maybe was still there and in his uneasy sleep it did not go away.