Thunder on the Mountain

FROM Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

At midday Paul Berlin spotted Cacciato. He was half a mile up, bent low and moving patiently against the steep grade. A smudged, lonely-looking figure. It was Cacciato, no question. Legs much too short for the broad back, a shiny pink spot at the crown of the skull. Paul Berlin spotted him, but it was Stink Harris who spoke up.

Lieutenant Corson took out the binoculars.

“Him, sir?”

The lieutenant watched Cacciato climb toward the clouds.

“That him?”

“Oh, yes. Yes.”

Stink laughed. “Dumb-dumb. Right, sir? Dumb as a dink.”

The lieutenant shrugged. He watched until Cacciato was lost in the higher clouds, then he mumbled something and put the glasses away and motioned for them to move out.

“It’s folly,” Oscar said. “That’s all it is. Foolish folly.”

Staying in the old order, they climbed slowly: Stink at point, then the lieutenant, then Eddie and Oscar, then Harold Murphy, then Doc Peret. At the rear of the column, Spec Four Paul Berlin walked with his head down. He had nothing against Cacciato. The whole thing was silly, of course, immature and dumb, but even so, he had nothing against the kid. It was just too bad. A waste among infinitely wider wastes.

Climbing, he tried to picture Cacciato’s face. He tried hard, but the image came out fuzzy. “It’s the Mongol influence,” Doc Peret had once said. “I mean, hey, just take a close look at him. See how the eyes slant? Pigeon toes, domed head? My theory is that the guy missed Mongolian idiocy by the breadth of a genetic hair. Could’ve gone either way.”

And maybe Doc was right. There was something curiously unfinished about Cacciato. Open-faced and naive and plump, Cacciato lacked the fine detail, the refinements and final touches, that maturity ordinarily marks on a boy of seventeen years. The result was blurred and uncolored and bland. You could look at him then look away and not remember what you’d seen. All this, Stink said, added up to a case of gross stupidity. The way he whistled on guard, the funny little trick he had of saving mouthwash by spitting it back into the bottle, fishing for walleyes up in Lake Country. It was all part of a strange, boyish simplicity that the men tolerated the way they might tolerate a frisky pup.

Humping to Paris, it was one of those crazy things Cacciato might try. Paul Berlin remembered how the kid had spent hours thumbing through an old world atlas, studying the maps, asking odd questions: How steep were these mountains, how wide was this river, how thick were these jungles? It was just too bad. A real pity. Like winning the Bronze Star for shooting out a dink’s front teeth. Whistling in the dark, always whistling, chewing Black Jack, always chewing and whistling and smiling his frozen white smile. It was silly. It had always been silly, even during the good times, but now the silliness was sad. It couldn’t be done. It just wasn’t possible, and it was silly and sad.

The rain made it a hard climb. They did not reach the top of the first mountain until late afternoon.

After radioing in position coordinates, they moved along the summit to a cluster of granite boulders that overlooked the Quang Ngai plain. Below, clouds hid the paddies and the war. Above, in more clouds, were more mountains.

It was Eddie Lazzutti who found the spot where Cacciato had spent the night, a gently recessed rock formation roofed by a slate ledge. Inside was a pile of matted grass, a can of burnt-out Sterno, two chocolate wrappers, and a partly burned map. Paul Berlin recognized the map from Cacciato’s atlas.

“Cozy,” Stink said. “A real nest for our pigeon.”

The lieutenant bent down to examine the map. Most of it was burned away, crumbling as the old man picked it up, but parts could still be made out. In the left-hand corner a red dotted line ran through paddyland and up through the first small mountains of the Annamese Cordillera. The line ended there, apparently to be continued on a second map.

Lieutenant Corson held the map carefully, as if afraid it might break apart. “Impossible,” he said softly.

“True enough.”

“Absolutely impossible.”

They rested in Cacciato’s rock grotto. Tucked away, looking out over the wetly moving mountains to the west, the men were quiet. Eddie and Harold Murphy opened rations and ate slowly, using their fingers. Doc Peret seemed to sleep. Paul Berlin laid out a game of solitaire. For a long while they rested, no one speaking, then at last Oscar Johnson took out his pouch of makings, rolled a joint, inhaled, and passed it along. Things were peaceful. They smoked and watched the rain and clouds and wilderness. Cacciato’s den was snug and dry.

No one spoke until the ritual was ended.

Then, very softly, Doc said, “Maybe we should just turn back. Call an end to it.”

“Affirmative,” Murphy said. He gazed into the rain. “When the kid gets wet enough, cold enough, he’ll see how ridiculous it is. He’ll come back.”

“Sure.”

“So why not?” Doc turned to the lieutenant. “Why not pack it up, sir? Head back and call it a bummer.”

Stink Harris made a light tittering sound, not quite mocking.

“Seriously,” Doc kept on. “Let him go … MIA, strayed in battle. Sooner or later he’ll wake up, you know, and he’ll see how nutty it is and he’ll–”

The lieutenant stared into the rain. His face was yellow except for webs of shattered veins.

“So what say you, sir? Let him go?”

“Dumber than marbles,” Stink giggled. “Dumber than Friar Tuck.”

“And smarter than Stink Harris.”

“You know what, Murph?”

“Pickle it.”

“Ha! Who’s saying to pickle it?”

“Just stick it in vinegar,” said Harold Murphy. “That’s what.”

Stink giggled again but he shut up. Murphy was a big man.

“So what’s the verdict, sir? Turn around?”

The lieutenant was quiet. At last he shivered and crawled out into the rain with a wad of toilet paper. Paul Berlin sat alone, playing solitaire in the style of Las Vegas. Pretending ways to spend his earnings. Travel, expensive hotels, tips for everyone. Wine and song on white terraces, fountains blowing colored water. Pretending was his best trick to forget the war.

When the lieutenant returned he told them to saddle up.

“Turning back?” Murphy said.

The lieutenant shook his head. He looked sick.

“I knew it,” Stink crowed. “Can’t just waddle away from a war, ain’t that right, sir? Dummy’s got to be taught you can’t hump your way home.” Stink grinned and flicked his eyebrows at Harold Murphy. “Damn straight, I knew it.”

Cacciato had reached the top of the second mountain. Bareheaded, hands loosely at his sides, he looked down on them through a mix of fog and drizzle. Lieutenant Corson had the binoculars on him.

“Maybe he don’t see us,” Oscar said. “Maybe he’s lost.”

The old man made a vague, dismissive gesture. “He sees us. Sees us real fine.”

“Pop smoke, sir?”

“Why not? Sure, why not throw out some pretty smoke?” The lieutenant watched through the glasses while Oscar took out the smoke and pulled the pin and tossed it onto a level ledge along the trail. The smoke fizzled for a moment and then puffed up in a heavy cloud of lavender. “Oh, yes, he sees us. Sees us fine.”

“Bastard’s waving.”

“Isn’t he? Yes, I can see that, thank you.”

“Will you–?”

“Mother of Mercy.”

High up on the mountain, partly lost in the drizzle, Cacciato was waving at them with both arms. Not quite waving. The arms were flapping.

“Sick,” the lieutenant murmured. He sat down, handed the glasses to Paul Berlin, then began to rock himself as the purple smoke climbed the face of the mountain. “I tell you, I’m a sick, sick man.”

“Should I shout up to him?”

“Sick,” the lieutenant moaned. He kept rocking.

Oscar cupped his hands and hollered, and Paul Berlin watched through the glasses. Cacciato stopped waving. His head was huge through the binoculars. He was smiling. Very slowly, deliberately, Cacciato was spreading his arms out as if to show them empty, opening them up like wings, palms down. The kid’s face was fuzzy, bobbing in and out of mist, but it was a happy face. Then his mouth opened, and in the mountains there was thunder.

✥❆✥❆✥❆✥❆✥

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Published in: on March 9, 2010 at 1:28 PM  Leave a Comment  
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