My wet swimsuit dries quickly in the late afternoon heat, its cool-water embrace left behind as I walk home from the pool. A striped towel is wrapped around my waist; my flip-flops smack the cement. My father walks beside me. I am eleven, brown freckles melt together on my skin from the summer sunshine. I am embarrassed by his tennis shoes and white tube socks pulled up high. Socks in the summer? We are tired, worn out after a long day in the sun. Our bodies are caked with chlorine. The few blocks we have left to walk stretch on.
He talks next to me, using his hands once in a while, gesturing the shape of a helicopter. Glimpses of Vietnam populate his stories, falling into step with us, as if they belong there. I almost listen, but something else draws my attention, the tiny, raw, red sores on the undersides of my toes. Strawbabies, we nicknamed them. From pushing off that rough blue floor of the pool, again and again, rubbing just enough skin off the bottoms of our feet to sting later on. There isn’t much to be done for them. Their size doesn’t warrant a band-aid; they don’t bleed all that much. Mostly they are just a nuisance.
“When we flew Scouts, we flew very low to the ground to get a good look . . . .”
“Uh huh,” I respond. I have stopped to check the biggest sore on my long skinny second toe. My left-foot balance is wobbly as I examine my right foot grasped in my hand. My father reaches out to steady me.
“Sometimes we got close enough to lift up the tops of the hootches with the skids of the helicopters.”
“You lifted up the roofs?” I continue walking, trying not to think about my stinging toes, but, in trying not to, that is all I can think about.
“Thatched roofs are made from straw or water reeds, Sara, they aren’t like brick or wood.”
“Oh.” I play a game with my feet, trying to walk on the heels, not letting my toes touch down. I feel like a penguin, waddling along. “Was that hard?”
“Well, we were pretty good at it, but yes, we had to go in slow and careful, but not too slow. We learned real fast over there.”
“What were you looking for?”
“The Viet Cong. Sometimes if we had chased a guy into one of the homes, but weren’t sure who else was inside, we’d—” A quick snapshot of dark-haired people flashes through my mind. He has described this search maneuver before. The red open strawbaby on my pinky toe throbs with its sting, as if my heart is beating from there now, instead of my chest.
“Was it hot in Vietnam?” I cut him off before he can finish, his face set and serious.
“Yep, hot and humid. I remember times when it rained a lot too. Many of their homes were right along the water, a muddy river for a front yard. Trees and bushes almost covered them. Other times, the ground around the homes was dry and cracked open in the heat.”
We round the corner to our house. I kick off my flip-flops to sink my toes into the thick cool grass that has been waiting in the shade for them, and his story leaves me. The chilly blades tickle my feet, but feel soft and welcome.
Dinner is ready, then eaten, and finally I drag my sleepy body to bed. I lay listening to the whir of the attic fan, to its meditative lullaby, and I feel my aching strawbabies, somewhat soothed by the lotion I have lathered upon them, but still there, nagging at me.
I close my eyes and dream. This is how I tell the dream now, years later: I am sitting in the helicopter with my father. He wears a helmet and dark sunglasses. We are on a mission.
“What are we looking for?” I ask. Trees and land and water move fast below us.
We are searching for Charlie, I hear on the radio. No sound comes from my father. I cannot even see his face as he pays close attention to the land before him. Who is Charlie? Is this a game we’re playing? Small homes border the rice fields and we head in deep towards them. What do we do when we find him? I think to ask for a second.
These questions and answers are overshadowed by the shimmering, wheat-colored, thatched roof coming towards us. The handmade roof is beautiful, like its name, thatched. The overlapping of reeds fans out, around and around. I am mesmerized.
Ch ch ch. The sound of the chopper picks at my brain. I think once more to ask my question, but I don’t. I am not so brave. Besides, there are no voices to be heard as we get closer; the chopper drowns out all other sounds. Ch ch ch…closer now.
Flickering sunbeams bounce off the ground and play in puddles probably left from an early morning rainfall. Little pools of magic glass. Dust and dirt fly up from the ground. The curved, thatched roof comes towards us, closer and closer. The sandy-colored home and the muted green of the helicopter blend together in their sounds and hues.
Steady now, closer, closer, steady. Lift the roof up with these arched feet. A man in the seat next to me—my father?—controls the buttons. I hardly recognize him. Steady now.
Ch ch ch CH CH CH. Louder, like a Knock! Knock! Knock! Anyone home? With great skill, one dark, lean leg of the chopper hooks under the roof—so close I can almost reach my hand out of the helicopter and touch the dried straw, shimmering like gold.
CH CH CH CH.
A question nags at my mind—I try to ask it, but the ch ch ch silences my words. Before I can reach out and touch that pretty roof, the chopper’s leg has lifted it up and away. I peer inside the openness, but everything is dark. I think I want to look deeper, but in my dream we pull away. Before I can look back, our chopper has headed off into the sky, the shadow of its belly left trailing behind. Did we find Charlie? Is the game over? My eyes still fix sometimes on that place under the thatching—was there movement? A face? Blinking eyes? A muffled voice? All these things often come back to me; the crafted roof, the open darkness, my unasked question.
fiction poetry "fact" photography