THE TENT OF BABEL
By Steven Torres
Steven Torres is the author of the PRECINCT PUERTO RICO series, published by St. Martin's Minotaur. The fourth in the series will be out this fall and features the protagonist of this short story. Torres' other short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alfred Hitchock's Mystery Magazine, Crimespree, Demolition, Shred of Evidence and SHOTS. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Damaris.
More information is available at www.steventorres.com
Above all other things, separation from the group was a situation to be avoided. But at the end of the Battle of Chorwan Pass when for two and a half days, through a howling wind that stabbed cold into one's marrow, Ernesto Molina had killed adversaries from distances great and small, he found himself separated from his group, the 365th Infantry. He was nineteen, had seen more death than many generals, lost behind enemy lines, without a weapon, and unconcerned except for the cold. He had been drafted off the island of Puerto Rico in the tropics, and had never dreamed of temperatures in the fifties let alone the below freezing marks that passed for highs in Korea.
He walked a dirt road, his hands as far into his jacket pockets as they would go. A week earlier he had been discussing how easy it would be to rejoin the troop if he was separated from them.
“Just follow the sound of fighting,” he said. Easy.
Now, just a half-day from roar of cannons, and the tearing sounds of small arms fire, the countryside was at peace. There wasn’t the sound of tanks or planes or guns to lead him anywhere. The road he was on took him south, and he figured that couldn’t be too far wrong.
Near the bleak mid-day, quickly churning clouds covered the sky, put out the Sun, and began to drop snow. The pain in his ears, his fingers, his toes had subsided, but he knew from what others had told him, that this was not always a good thing. He pulled off his green wool mittens and tried to feel his ears. They were warm.
Ahead of him on the dust road was the sound of a man singing. Korean; Chinese, maybe. Molina approached with caution. A South Korean might be helpful. Off to one side of the road, on a rock beside a frozen pond, a soldier in a North Korean greatcoat sat, string in hand. The other end of the string was in a small hole in the ice. Molina picked up a rock and started to move in slowly. His plan consisted only of a quick bash to the man’s head; a second hit if needed. His approach was noiseless. The victim was unaware until Molina lifted his arm to strike. The Korean turned and the rock smashed into his jaw, teeth and blood spraying free. He fell off the rock, and Molina pounced onto his chest. With three more swings, the man was dead. Molina had the rock above his head again, just in case, when he heard a twig snap. He froze. It could have been a rabbit, he thought. Looking up slowly, he saw four boots with one leg for each; further up – two Soviet made rifles aimed at him. Were he to interpret the expressions of the soldiers who had captured him, he’d say they were filled with horror.
There would not have been a point to struggling. He heard another twig snap behind him. He raised his hands, the right one bloodied, and dropped the rock.
There were four soldiers all together. They stripped him of his coat and his shirt and threw his helmet into the pond; it skidded on the ice. He couldn’t stop his torso from convulsing with cold. They tied his arms behind his back at the wrists and at the elbows. One soldier motioned with his rifle at Molina’s boots. Apparently he wanted the prisoner barefoot. Molina said nothing, could have said nothing, but he thought that if they tried to take his boots, he’d fight. After all, shoeless, he’d be close to dead already. The three other soldiers said something, and the issue was dropped.
They escorted him toward the fading sun, the wind picking up, the air getting so cold Molina felt like his skin was seeping blood. His forehead was numb; the flesh would no longer work itself into a frown. He could not feel his fingers – the mittens were in the coat that one soldier carried. He assumed he’d been stripped to keep him from running; it worked. After a mile, the group walked into camp. There were maybe a half dozen two-man tents, and three larger ones. He was brought into one of the large tents and, with a kick to the back of his left knee, he was put into a kneeling position. There was no heating, but also no wind in this tent. Molina was glad. The guard who stayed with him forced him to kneel at attention. After an hour, a Korean lieutenant came in with three soldiers, not the ones who had captured him, Molina was sure. The officer spoke in English, but the only word Molina understood was “English.”
“Spanish,” Molina said.
The lieutenant stopped and stared at Molina. He said something in English that Molina couldn’t understand, then he said something in Korean and one of the soldiers kicked Molina in the gut, toppling him.
“English,” the lieutenant emphasized at the end of another speech. He was stooping over Molina, and Molina was tempted to butt him with his head, but it wasn’t time yet for fighting.
“Spanish,” Molina said. “Puerto Rican.”
The officer paced the length of the tent, then he said something softly in Korean and went out. Two soldiers lifted Molina to his feet and pulled him outside. They pushed him to the ground. The lieutenant was there. The stick in his hands looked like a policeman’s baton. He pointed the stick at Molina’s face and said something Molina couldn’t understand. He clearly wanted an answer. Molina would have given him one. When he said nothing, the officer was angry. He beat Molina with the stick, hitting his arms, his chest, his head. Molina wanted to kick his tormentor. The man came close enough to be hurt several times, but Molina knew it wasn’t the right time.
After the beating with the stick, a few kicks, and another attempt at communication, the lieutenant gave up. Molina was dragged back into the tent, a stake was driven into the hard dirt, and his hands behind him were tied to that. A guard was posted inside the tent to make sure he stayed kneeling. Soon Molina’s knees ached, his body shivered, the muscles of his jaw worked to grind his teeth together though he tried to control them. He wanted to think of ways to escape, ways to hurt everyone he had seen in this camp, but the cold wouldn’t let him think of anything at all for very long. The sun was near to setting when another prisoner was thrown onto the floor of Molina’s tent. The lieutenant came back, spoke to the new prisoner in English, got gibberish in return and beat the man with the baton.
The new prisoner was also, eventually, tied to a stake, lined up right next to Molina. They leaned into each other for warmth. The new prisoner was a U.N. soldier, Greek or French, who could say? Molina had no idea what he said, and the new prisoner did not understand a word of what Molina had to say. No difference. The guard threatened them with the butt end of his rifle whenever they said a word. They slept huddled.
Before dawn, the lieutenant was back. Molina could tell the man was more angry than he had been the day before. He had given up on speaking in English. Now he yelled in Korean. He shouted right into Molina’s face, spitting on him. When Molina didn’t answer, he brought out the baton again. He lay into Molina for five minutes. The welts raised and bled freely on Molina’s shoulders. Cuts were opened – his lip, his nose, his right eyebrow and all over his shoulders and back. Molina told himself only that he could survive this. He had survived beatings before. He reminded himself of the time four American G.I.’s had cornered him in a bar and laid into him while other whites, even officers, cheered. A week in the infirmary, and he was as good as new. When he found the men who had done it, and confronted them with their sins one by one, the same could not be said for them. Two had been discharged from the Army due to their injuries. He would have his revenge, Molina thought.
The lieutenant screamed into Molina’s ear again. There was blood on his face, sprayed on. Molina’s.
“What do you want?” Molina screamed back in Spanish. The lieutenant was wide-eyed for a moment. He stepped back behind Molina and slammed down the baton into Molina’s hands. His fingers had been numb, but Molina felt this. The pain was white.
The lieutenant turned his attention to the new prisoner who had already wet himself from fear. More screaming. At one point, for a few seconds, the lieutenant spoke calmly. He pointed to his neck in speaking to the U.N. soldier. He seemed to be asking a question. This made the new prisoner even more nervous because, of course, if the lieutenant was willing to be reasonable then maybe the suffering could end if only the right words could be answered. The new prisoner just did not have the words. The lieutenant ended his calm phase with a hand gesture that seemed to beg the new prisoner to say something, anything that might shed light on the matter. The new prisoner was nearly in tears trying to think of a single sound in all his vocabulary that might help matters. Nothing came to mind.
The beating he received was as savage as the one given to Molina. The new prisoner, however, did not have Molina’s constitution, his layer of muscle to protect the bones. The man screamed and cried openly. The sounds made Molina wince. It made even the guard, standing at attention as he was supposed to be, look away. It was after the second prisoner had lost consciousness and slumped onto his face that Molina saw a movement from the guard that gave him an idea.
While the prisoner was on his face, breathing in dust if he breathed at all, the lieutenant spoke calmly again emphasizing to the knocked out man the importance of something, something to do with his neck as another gesture showed. The guard, standing behind the lieutenant, the butt end of his rifle cupped in the palm of one hand, moved his free hand to touch his coat pocket. Molina saw this motion, slight as it was, and understood everything. The mystery was solved for him. The officer was missing something, a necklace, dog-tags, something that hung around the neck, and the guard had it in his pocket. The U.N. soldier was going to die and maybe Molina would too, all for something the guard could pull out of his pocket and give back to the officer. But how to make all of this clear to the officer?
The lieutenant paced the tent. He was working up his fury again, and Molina was really the only target left. Molina searched his meager vocabulary for words that might help. “Guard” he knew. The word for necklace wouldn’t come to him – “neck” did. How to say “pocket,” he was sure had never been taught to him. Molina blinked blood out of his eye. He smiled at the guard who was looking off at a great distance though the back wall of the tent was only a few yards away.
The second prisoner moved. The twitch of his leg was the most unfortunate one of his life. The lieutenant, enraged, went back to screaming at the poor man, hit him on the offending leg a couple of times, then called to the guard. The guard moved over to his lieutenant’s side. He swallowed hard enough for Molina to see through the thickness of his coat. The officer said something and the guard fixed his bayonet onto the rifle in his hands. The U.N. soldier was about to die without even the waste of a bullet, and there was nothing Molina could do, tied as he was, beaten as he was, innocent of language – a language that could help here – as he was. With great show of anger, the guard steeled himself for the murder he was about to commit, yelling out some words in Korean, pulling back the rifle in order to better jam it into the prisoner, and all Molina could do was laugh. It was as hearty a laugh as his jaw and lips would allow.
The guard stopped before plunging the bayonet into the prisoner. Both guard and officer turned their attention to Molina. A laugh was low on the list of things they expected from him. The officer said something, moved to Molina’s side and stooped to look the kneeling man in the eye. He spoke calmly, but unintelligibly. Molina said only one word.
“Neck.” The pronunciation was the best he could muster. The officer looked confused. Molina repeated himself, even more clearly now.
“Necklace?” the officer asked; he pointed to his own neck. He also spoke as clearly as he could. Molina nodded though he wasn’t sure that he was agreeing to the right thing.
“Where?” the officer asked, and the word made sense to Molina. He pointed with his chin at the guard who was still ready with his bayonet.
“Guard,” he said. The officer stood and pointed at the guard, saying something in English. Molina nodded and tried to use his chin to point out the guard’s left pocket. The officer moved toward the guard, had him stand at attention, then searched his left coat pocket. He pulled out a necklace with a small locket. The guard’s eyes grew wide. The officer held the locket straight out in front of him, saying something in Korean. The guard had no answer. He looked to his boots instead.
Of a sudden, the officer pulled out his sidearm and began to yell. The guard, cornered like a rat, stepped back and aimed the rifle and its blade at his superior. From two feet away, the officer missed. The guard didn’t. He plunged the bayonet into his officer just as the tent flap went up allowing a burst of air to come in. There was another Korean soldier. His rifle was still slung onto his shoulder. When he saw the guard, the officer, and the bayonet that connected them, he yelled and brought the gun down to a usable level. The guard struggled to get the bayonet out of his lieutenant; just in time he wrenched the rifle free from the blade and swung it toward the other soldier, bringing him down with a short burst. By then, there were another two soldiers coming to the tent with weapons drawn. The guard fought valiantly, but Molina had no interest for the spectacle of his enemies killing each other.
He pulled the stake from the ground behind him, got into a crouch, went over to the lieutenant, and got the bayonet out from between two ribs. He would have loved to have sat to try to cut his hands free, but there was no time. He shoved the bayonet into his right boot, cutting himself in his rush. He squatted near the U.N. soldier, took hold of one of his hands and dragged him toward the back of the tent while the guard was shot in a thigh, then in a shoulder but still refused to abandon the tent flap post. On his belly, Molina worked his way under the back end of the tent. He took his comrade’s hand and dragged him out into the cold as well. In the brambles behind the tent, Molina cut himself free. He forced his hands to flex; it was then he saw that in grabbing the bayonet from the officer’s guts, he had taken also the locket. It was stuck to the blood on his hand.
A bullet came through the tent canvas and found a home somewhere near him. Molina dashed the locket aside; it opened and spilled a small clipping of hair that the wind cleaned away. Molina tried slapping his comrade’s cheek, but he wouldn’t revive though he was still breathing. There was an end to the shooting in and near the tent. A cry went up, and Molina calculated that his disappearance had been discovered. He mounted the U.N. soldier across his shoulders bringing himself warmth, and he started to move away from the camp in the direction he had been brought as quickly as he could. With one hand he held the unconscious soldier, with the other he gripped the bayonet. His plan was to plunge the blade into the throat of anyone who opposed his escape and to die fighting rather than return as a prisoner.
No one opposed him. The two North Korean soldiers he passed on the road were running back to camp with weapons drawn and gave him only a look as though the fact that he was out on the country road with a knife in his hand and an injured soldier across his shoulders could only be a sign that this was how things had been planned by someone higher up.
That evening, Molina followed the sound of small arms fire and walked into a platoon’s dug in position with his hands above his head. The U.N. soldier had expired some miles earlier after reviving for a few minutes to whisper pained and earnest gibberish. Molina carried the man’s dog tags with him, but never heard if the man’s body was looked for or found.
After the infirmary, when he told the story to men of his unit, some of them disbelieved him.
“Those Koreans wanted to play ‘cops and robbers’ with me. I was supposed to be the pillo, but it turned out I was the policia,” he told them.
They waved him off, and coached him not to tell that tall tale when the officers came asking. He could not bring himself to quarrel with them. How survival had come so easy was a mystery. As he said often, he had sometimes thought the cold alone would be enough to kill him.
Steven Torres ©2006
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