Sweet and Sour Pork

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Sweet and Sour Pork

The man was old, on the wrong side of seventy, but he looked like he could still knock your head off if he wanted to.

His arms weren’t big, but knots of muscle ran up and down them, and his close-cropped hair actually made him look younger than he was. Everything about him said ex-military, and that included the ratty olive drab trousers he wore.

Despite his appearance, he was well-liked around the neighbourhood. He spoke to passers-by as he sat in a deckchair in front of his house on warm days. He was polite and courteous. He was friendly to children. The man kept himself to himself for the most part, but his neighbours knew that they could count on him in times of need — so they, in turn, kept an eye on him too, even though he never showed any signs of slowing down or becoming infirm.

The family four doors up had moved in only a year ago, and the fourteen-year-old boy came to his mother one afternoon and told her that his class had been given an assignment to speak to an older person in the community about their life, and then write a report for school. He wanted permission to go along to the older man, who was a subject of fascination for the boy, and see if he would participate. His mother considered it, and finally said it would be OK, as long as the boy understood that the old man might not want to take part. The boy understood.

And so a bright Saturday morning arrived — just the kind of day which would usually find the old man out in his chair — and thus the boy wandered along, notebook and pen in his hand, and butterflies in his stomach, hoping to ask his questions. Sure enough, the old man was there, and the boy summoned his courage and walked over to him.

“My teacher wants us to ask an older person about their life,” he said, without preamble, guileless in the way of the young. He held up the notebook as if it was a letter of safe passage from a king, and the old man reckoned that it really was, in a way.

“Alright then,” he said simply, indicating that the boy should sit down on the grass, which he did.

As he looked up at the lined face, the boy couldn’t help but see the tattoo which covered most of the top part of the man’s left arm. It was Chinese; he knew that much. Or maybe it was Japanese. But he had no idea what it said. It seemed as good a place to start as any. Before he could ask about it, the man spoke.

“That’s a big question for a young man like yourself,” he said, guessing the boy’s next word easily. “You sure you want to know? Won’t be anything you can tell your class at school, either. Think about it.”

The boy nodded immediately, not thinking about anything beyond his desire to know. This didn’t seem to surprise the old man at all, and he nodded.

“This would have been a clear forty-five years ago, before even your mother was born,” he said. “My unit was in a place you’ve never seen, I bet. Not widely talked about. We were stationed in the north — of Vietnam, right enough — moving at night, pushing east, trying to get to Móng Cái and the water. We lost our way a while before that. Went too far north. Ended up crossing the border.”

“Into China?” the boy asked, unsure of the geography. He didn’t really know where China was. He had absolutely no idea at all where Vietnam was, but he knew that people had fought in a war there a long time ago.

“That’s right,” the old man said, his eyes unfocused now, seeing not the boy but the past, as bright and warm and vivid as the summer day he was sitting out in. But he shivered. “Into Guangxi.”

The old man continued, speaking uninterrupted for twenty minutes, as the boy listened with rapt attention. As he spoke, his voice took on the cadences of his youth, and the hoarseness of age fell away. He was there again, reliving it as he retold it.

The jungle was thick, dripping with moisture, and everywhere. Deep emerald green, covering the landscape like moss. Hills and valleys, rivers slashing through, and the ceaseless chatter of every living thing under the sun. They pushed on for days, only once encountering another human being, who saw their rifles and their uniforms and vanished into the underbrush. They fired after him, but didn’t stop to check if the shots had found their mark. Their only real thought was of reaching the rendezvous point and getting back out.

The days were long and dreamlike, and the nights were longer and nightmarish, but at least they were cool. It was on the third night since they’d last seen a river that all the sounds stopped, a little after midnight, and they heard it. It was like a big cat, maybe a tiger, or even perhaps a bear, but there was something else to it. Something beneath the sound, yet still a part of it. They spread out and readied their weapons, getting low and behind cover. Usually it was the silent things that killed you, but every one of the seven men there sensed that this was something different.

The thing called out in the night on and off for an hour, and then it stopped. It was another hour before the captain gave the order to move out. The night ended, they rested by day, and the night came once more. They heard it again, and they knew it was following them. A little before dawn, it took Danny. Gone in a second. They found his arm later. Then they ran.

The next night, it took two more of them, and the other four didn’t see a damned thing. They were quicker to run this time, putting rounds into the leaves and the trees behind them, and somehow they stumbled straight into a village. The locals were shocked for a moment, but then they looked behind the soldiers and ran into their little shack houses, and brought something out.

“It stank to high heaven, son,” the old man said, his nose wrinkling as if he could smell it even now, decades later, on the other side of the world and on a beautiful day. “Stank like old vinegar and spoiled meat.”

He explained that the people of the village hung the little bowls from rope cages outside their doors, and from bamboo poles driven into the ground. Then they beckoned to the soldiers to get inside. It was too late for Mike, though, because the thing took him right off his feet, and left his lower legs behind. That was the closest they got to seeing it. It was black against the night, taller than every one of the little houses, and by god it was fast.

“Then it got one whiff of those damned bowls, and it turned and ran away. I never saw the like of it. Just couldn’t stand the stink.”

The old man rubbed his brow now, a bead of sweat there which the day wasn’t yet hot enough to explain. “They knew about it,” he said. “Had known about it for generations, probably. And they’d worked out how to keep it away.”

“So there were three of you who survived?” the boy asked, his eyes wide and his face a little flushed, notebook long forgotten on the grass beside him. The old man nodded.

“For a while, anyway,” he replied. “Those village people pointed us the way we needed to go. Gave us some of that stuff to take with us. I stopped even smelling it after another day or two, but I had to burn my clothes later. It really was ruined meat. And we made it to the port. The three of us got the tattoos there before we left the country. But only two made it home.”

He was silent for a minute, and the boy was smart enough to leave him be until he was ready to speak again. Eventually, he did.

“JC died in his sleep the night before we shipped out,” he said quietly. “We wondered if it was some kind of infection. Blood poisoning from the ink. But we knew it wasn’t. Fright killed him. There are nights when I wonder if it might still kill me too. But here I am. Nobody will ever believe that story if you tell it, but maybe you can try and believe it yourself.”

The boy considered this, and found that he didn’t doubt a word of it. He didn’t want to. But there was still one thing to ask.

“You didn’t tell me what it says,” he said, nodding towards the three dark, curving ideograms on the tanned and wrinkled skin. The old man made a sound that might have been a laugh.

“The villagers wrote it out for us,” he replied. “Insisted we take it along with the stuff itself. It’s what was in the bowls, just so we’d never forget.”

He tapped each of the shapes quickly in turn, with the forefinger of his other hand.

“Sweet and sour pork,” he said.

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