by Randy Harritan
On Sunday morning First Lieutenant Hostetler, the Company Commander, came into the hooch and asked Harry if he'd ride shotgun with him to visit some nuns. Harry and the Lieutenant had gotten to know each other and spent time discussing the evils of the world. The Lieutenant was Catholic and seemed to know every nun in II Corps.
They loaded some supplies and, with the Lieutenant driving and Harry carrying his M-16, headed out to find the nuns. He had a map and, after an hour, they reached their destination.
This place was poor even by Vietnamese standards. A cinderblock building stood in need of repair in the middle of a fenced compound. A lecherous looking, bent over individual loped out, opened the gate and waved them in. He stared up at them with head cocked and drool running from the corner of his mouth. The man didn't speak but made slurping sounds when he breathed. He was ugly and odious.
What kind of place is this?
It's a leper colony. The sisters are friends of mine.
“What? You brought me here with no forewarning. Hadn't lepers died out? Aren't they biblical abominations? Can we catch this stuff?”
“Calm down, Harry. I wouldn't come here if it were contagious. They need our help.”
They needed help all right. The place was wretched. The people were gnarled, bent and obviously had an objection to water: a pig sty with no pigs. The Vietnamese shunned these folks and considered them cursed. Cast-offs. Not wanted in the cities or towns or villages. Even the place given them to live was third rate, a stinky bog. Jesus embraced the lepers, but Harry could not be so gracious. He, however, now understood the biblical symbolism. They did have a cow but she resembled the other inhabitants. A lanky thing with protruding ribs. She was a dowdy gray with long skinny legs, bulging eyes with no cud to chew. Her long sad face expressed indifference.
Harry didn't mingle. He stayed close to the lieutenant. The nuns were in full habit despite the heat. Those black and white outfits tugged up around their necks with hats pulled low made a stink sauna. They smelled no better than their charges. Surely God would have understood shorts and a tee-shirt in this circumstance. The sister superior must have been very devout.
Harry was relieved when it was time to go. The trip back was uneventful. The lieutenant told him that the sisters were from his hometown and he felt a need to help them. Harry admired both the sisters and the lieutenant for caring for these poor rejected souls. His mother used to say, "There's a lid for every pot," and he was glad these good souls existed but didn't want to be one of them.
A month went by and the lieutenant asked Harry to accompany him again to the leper colony. This time he said “leper colony” up front. Guess he didn't need to be so coy. Harry and the lieutenant loaded the supplies and headed out. This time Harry drove. The lieutenant found out that Harry had his military driver’s license and insisted on being chauffeured. Harry chuckled to himself that he had been driven around by an officer in the first place.
As soon as they arrived at the leper colony the hackles went up on both of them. Something was up. No one came to open the gate and Harry saw the cow lying on its side, tongue hanging from her mouth and touching the ground. Cautiously they opened the gate to enter the compound. The smell was still there but there was the added odor of blood and death. Stillness greeted them. Lifeless bodies arranged as only happenstance can do. God’s final fuck-you to these miserable souls.
The pale horse of death was traveling silently beside them as they made their way to the main building. Crouched and wary. Harry and the lieutenant worked their way through bodies not stopping to check them. Ugly in life, grotesque in death. Some staring at nothing and others hiding their faces as if ashamed to have existed. Fauna in the distance moving, shaking. Daring the two men to do something about the tragedy.
They made their way to the block building where they found the two nuns. The unblinking eye of the window saw everything but refused to comment. Executed. Shot at close range in the head. Some of the blood was still liquid. They had missed the murders by only a few minutes. The lieutenant, repining, needed time to gather himself. He had just lost a couple of close friends. Non-combatants. Ladies of God. A senseless deed committed in a pre-historic rage that led to the unthinkable. Harry stood guard at the door wondering why the flower of American youth was asked to fight and die for these people.
The trip back to base camp was long and quiet. Harry's heart ached for the lieutenant. He was hurting. They drove in the stillness of death. Harry's only thought was "Why did they have to kill the cow?"
For years, when this incident crept back into Harry's mind, he would lament the death of the cow. Oh, that poor creature, not hurting anyone, minding its own business. Killed for being. Not letting his mind wander from that iteration.
Then one day, nearly fourteen years later, reality wrapped its bony fingers around Harry's conscience and demanded he deal with the tragedy. All that senseless death. The Sisters, one with her head turned looking at her canonical sibling. The other, the first one executed, still on her knees with her head on the floor and most of her face missing. The poor afflicted men and women who were terrorized and shot for being sick. The nihilistic perpetrators who were undoubtedly South Vietnamese, not the enemy.
Was he sick? Insane? How could he grieve for the cow in the midst of all that horror? Why did he not care for the humans? His drinking increased. His sense of self-loathing reared, and the depression was ever present. He would close his office door near lunch time so no-one could invite him to lunch, then feel rejected because they didn't. He was spiraling into an abyss.
He was alone. Desperate. His wife allowed no talk about the war: Her position being she had it rough too while he was gone. He had two beautiful children, a great job, in-laws whom he loved. He had to figure out what was wrong.
Harry's Mother-in-Law was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1984 and died within six months. His nonchalant attitude surprised everyone, especially Harry. He knew help was needed and fast, but where?
Harry joined Alcoholics Anonymous, worked the program and, with the help of like afflicted men and women, worked his way back to sanity. Eventually Harry came to the realization of the symbolism of the cow. The coping mechanism it provided. The short-circuit it prevented. How it enabled him to continue, in a fashion, with his life. He was thankful for that cow and could finally replace its singularity with reality.