An arrow pierced the villager’s chest almost to its goose feathers. He fell against the ox he had been goading, then sank to his knees, and toppled over. Viking warriors, some carrying burning torches, sprinted past him toward the Northumbrian village.
Men, women, and children screamed as they were cut down. Flames crackled above thirty-three thatched roofs, creating dark spires in the still air. But for the crackling and a few barking dogs, the village was stilled. The acrid smell of burning thatch quickly spread.
Aden, captain of the Vikings, and his second in command, Janborg, burst into the last cottage. Besotted with ale, its owner drew his sword, but the effort was futile. Aden looked at the dead man’s calf-high leather boots; they would probably fit. He loosened the thongs that bound his badly worn boots and pulled them off. The new ones fit well and were not even blood stained. A full wineskin hung from a peg, and Aden slung it over his shoulder. He saw nothing else of value.
“Kith and kin?” he asked.
“Under the hay or maybe with the hogs?” Janborg rubbed his eyes. Smoke from the burning cottages began to drift, choking the two Vikings as they thrust their swords into the nearest hay pile. A woman and two children rose up, looking like straw-filled scarecrows.
The woman glared at them, then arched her neck and drew a forefinger across her throat, eyes fixed on Aden.
“One of them has the walnuts, anyway.” Janborg grinned and raised his sword.
“Wait. I’ll take them,” Aden said. “Get some rope.”
“With all we took from the abbey and the village we have little room for— ”
“Get the rope!”
Janborg went back into the cottage. He returned with a length of barnacle-encrusted line and tied the woman’s hands, looping the rope around her throat.
Aden nodded toward the cottage. “Burn it.”
“Kill them. Tell Wulfken to sink the boats at the dock before we leave. Move. All this smoke will bring others.” Aden squinted at a mass of storm clouds that had cast a sudden darkness over the carnage. The wind stiffened, sweeping the smoke inland.
“Signal the recall.” Aden pointed at the roiling clouds, which were moving as if hurled by the gods. “I’ll start for the longships. If the children don’t keep up, you’ll find their bodies along the way.”
But Aden wouldn’t do that. Behind his back, his warriors called him the “children’s friend,” for he’d never been known to kill one, carrying many back to his estate near the port of Kaupang, in the Vestfold region of the Norseland, there to be raised as thralls. It made little sense to the other Vikings. The older thralls bred readily enough.
Aden yanked on the rope and started toward the longships. Buffeting winds, along with distant rumbling and muted flashes, heralded the coming storm. Huge waves crested far out upon the horizon. The rope bit into the woman’s neck, and she stumbled trying to keep up with him as he quickened his pace.
A pig squealed its death agony, answered by wailing from the older child.
Aden didn’t look back.
31 August 1967
God, I can’t even remember what my wife looks like. The Continental DC-8, Flight 317 out of Travis Air Force Base, lurched, and the LA Times, folded to show the headline: Twenty-three Marines Die in Vietcong Ambush, slipped to his feet. Lorring asked for his fourth cup of coffee from a smiling stewardess. His hands shook.
“I’m sorry. Did I overfill your cup?”
“No, no. Uh, just an article in the newspaper. No sweat.”
The ever-smiling stewardess moved to the next row. Lorring glanced at his watch and cinched his seatbelt tighter. He felt a lot older than thirty. His tanned arms and face were dark against his summer Air Force uniform—paper thin and bleached white from too much sun, monsoon rains, and the tender mercies of his beetlenut-chewing mamasan. He hadn’t worn his hours-old Bronze Star or any of his other ribbons. Officers only wore ribbons on the Class A uniform. He thought of the presentation at Headquarters, 7th Air Force, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, on the outskirts of Saigon. How many hours ago was that?
“Attention to orders. Citation to accompany the award of the Bronze Star: Captain Lorring Arthur Wilson, USAF, distinguished himself during the defense of the Headquarters 7th Air Force compound on the night of 5 December 1966. In the face of intense Vietcong mortar, machine gun, and small arms fire, he . . .”
Lorring checked his right shoulder for body odor and wasn’t surprised. He smelled the fear. In less than an hour he would arrive at Baltimore Friendship Airport, and Ginger would be there. Waiting. Three hundred sixty-five and a wakeup; three hundred sixty-five and a bag drag. Lorring silently intoned the mantra all GIs used to track the time remaining on their tours, changing the number every day. He’d taken the last One-A-Day vitamin pill from a bottle of 365 just twenty-four hours earlier; the malaria pills had run out last week. His FIGMO chart was finished, each segment of the nude woman colored in one day at a time. Yesterday, it had been the right nipple. He was going home.
He’d spent a year wanting to get back; now he desperately wished he had two weeks— a month—left on his tour. He wasn’t ready. Lorring shook his head and rubbed his eyes. Ginger’s last few letters were full of repairs to the clothes dryer, the car, a broken window, but no mention of wanting him. His shoulders sagged as he pictured Mai Lee— without a photograph. Or clothes.
Tan Son Nhut Air Base was hot, humid, dirty, noisy, smelled bad—the GI food terrible. He’d lost ten pounds and looked like a POW. Traffic in the center of Saigon, where his “hooch” was, made Paris, Tokyo, and Istanbul combined look like a piece of cake. He’d worked long hours with little time off, but his job as an intelligence officer was interesting, sometimes exciting. Halfway through his tour the infidelity genie climbed out of its lamp, and he’d gone “broken arrow,” as the GIs called sleeping with the natives. He’d lasted a lot longer than most guys.
He rationalized: I’m in a war. Could get blown away tomorrow. This is an exception. Practically every guy in the outfit has a “Vee-na-mee” girlfriend, except maybe the chaplain. It’s not like I’m really cheating on my Ginger Cookie. A guy can’t go a whole year without getting his horns trimmed a few times, can he? I mean Cookie’s got air conditioning, good food, friends and family nearby, a baby to take care of. Besides, women are different; they don’t have the same needs as men. But the rationalizations didn’t really work—especially now.
Lorring had another dragon, too. All his life, until Nam, he had played by the rules. He married a virgin and considered himself almost one at the altar, having had sex with a co-ed three times his senior year—the sum total of his “all-the-way” experience.
“Ginger and I are a couple of cookie-cutter-kids. We’re prisoners of the morality of the uptight fifties,” he had moaned to Gil, a weather forecaster and foxhole buddy, as they ate lunch at the base officers’ club. “I can’t believe they threw the rule book out overnight. Flower power, pot, free love, Playboy clubs. Can you believe how much time I wasted? Man, was I stupid.”
“Yeah,” Gil said. “I sat in the same pew.”
Lorring would get even with “them,”—all those puritans. He had found a way to have his cake and eat it too, at least in Nam. It began with Mai Lee.
The Continental stretch eight lurched hard. They were in the clouds. He thought about Gil, who was already home. Forever. Arlington National Cemetery. I’ll go see him. Call Sherry. And say what? Sorry he was standing on the flight line when a mortar round splattered him all over it? The letter he wrote her had sounded so hollow. Why Gil and not me? Shit.
“This is Captain Everard. We should be on the ground at Baltimore Friendship in about thirty minutes. It’s seventy-four degrees and overcast with light winds. Thank you for flying Continental. We hope you fly with us again soon. And to all you vets returning from Southeast Asia, let me add my personal thanks for a job well done.”
Was it? Lorring shook his head, remembering the cold, drizzly evening in Zweibrucken, Germany when he’d told Ginger he had volunteered for Nam.
“You volunteered? Without even talking to me first? How could you do that, Lorring? Rachel is hardly out of diapers. Where will we live? For a whole year?” Tears shimmered in her eyes, and she jumped up from the dinner table and stood before the slider to a tiny balcony. The backs of grim concrete military quarters looked even bleaker in the rain.
Lorring tried to put his arms around her, but she shrugged him off.
“Cookie, I’m sorry. You’re right, I should have come to you first. But I’m a career officer. It’s my place to go.”
“Do you ever think of anyone else besides yourself? No, I don’t think you do. Well, when do you ship out? When do I start being a war widow?”
“I don’t know. Probably a couple months. I’ll get a delay-en-route leave to take you home and get you set up. We can find an apartment near your dad. You’d be close to your friends from the University of Delaware, too. And when I get back, we’ll buy a house. I’ll get my first choice of assignments, probably back to Fort Meade, and we can get a nice one.”
“If you get back.” Ginger’s head sagged against the cold glass.
“Hey, Cookie, I’ll be a headquarters weenie. They don’t send Signals Intel guys out in the field.” He knew that wasn’t true but hoped she didn’t. “It won’t be any different than when I visited all those bases in Turkey last year.”
“Lorring, they weren’t sending body bags back from Turkey.”
* * *
Ginger finished balancing the checkbook and looked up at the mantle clock. He’ll be home in four hours. Four hours! She’d forgotten to make Rachie’s lunch. Shit. She threw together yet another PB&J with Oreos and chips and waited for Rachie to emerge from the potty.
“Rachie, hurry up in there. Nana Wilson will be here any minute.”
“I’m tying my shoes, but the bow keeps slipping out.”
Ginger checked Rachie’s overnight bag. Her “horse statues,” as she called them, a yellow hairbrush, and two teddy bears spilled out of a Safeway grocery bag near the door.
Rachael skipped across the room. “Mommy, look. I got ‘em tied.”
“That’s just great, Rachie.” And on the right feet. “You are getting so grown up.”
Nana Wilson said the same thing as Rachie jumped into the backseat of her car.
Ginger poured another cup of coffee and sat at the desk. She was proud of having learned how to balance the checkbook. Not to mention the taxes. And she’d gotten the car fixed twice. And the dryer. Though her dad had helped her with buying the new house, it was a gutsy thing to have done on her own. The military might refer to her as a “dependent,” but she wasn’t. Not now. Not anymore.
Who needs a husband? I do. She clasped her hands behind her head, bent over, and pulled her arms over her ears, as if to prevent any other thoughts. It didn’t work.
Why did most of my old friends turn out to be raving, anti-war-demonstrating peaceniks? They stopped calling me. Except Greta. She called me a Fascist.
She glanced at Lorring’s last letter. He had berated her—again—for not writing with more passion. Why couldn’t he understand how hard it was for me to write like that? I’m the laundry and housecleaning lady, repairman, nanny, and checkbook balancer. Where’s the passion in that? Besides, why get my withers in an uproar when he isn’t here to take care of them? I’ll bet some Vietnamese girl took care of his, though. Her heart shrank, as it always did when she pictured her husband with some petite Asian woman. “Dammit,” she mumbled, suddenly feeling fat.
Someday she’d have to burn a lot of his letters, they were that torrid. But she could feel tingling down there, feelings she’d stuffed for a whole year, except when she’d read his letters. She had to get going, had to shower and dress before she left for Friendship. In less than four hours she and Lorring would be. . . . A flush crept up from “down there.”
A carry-on bag slung over one shoulder, Lorring hoisted his duffel bag and suitcase off the carousel and headed for the airport exit. But Ginger was right there, just outside the baggage claim area, wearing his favorite blue dress, her short, wavy hair perfect, eyes locked on his, her smile showing the dimples he loved. His gear dropped to the floor, and in a few strides he held her hard, kissed her hard, breathed her hard, and his throat closed up. She dabbed her eyes with a crushed tissue.
She told him he looked skinny. He told her she looked great. She promised to fatten him up. He said they would attend to first things first. She blushed. He was hardly aware of stowing his gear in their ’64 VW wagon or driving out of the airport parking lot. His heart raced and his face felt hot. He smiled till it hurt.
“Aren’t you going to shift into high, Lorring?” Ginger asked.
He looked down, saw he was still in third gear, and heard the engine winding up. He was in the wrong gear. He shifted into high. Shifting his emotions, his whole being, was going to be a lot harder. Where is my internal clutch? He wondered how his guys at Tan Son Nhut Air Base were doing without him. He hoped Charlie wouldn’t pay them any more visits.
Ginger had bought a three-bedroom colonial in Bowie, Maryland, about fifteen miles from the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, where Lorring was to report the following Monday. Lorring said the house looked great and insisted on a complete tour after dumping his gear inside the front door. But mostly he watched Ginger.
She looked different. He could see tension in her face, and her movements were awkward. She had always been so graceful and coordinated, could beat him at tennis two out of every three games. For an instant he saw Mai Lee in the shower, her body as fluid as the water that flowed through the silky black hair that almost reached her waist. It could have been a Renoir canvas.
“—fenced in backyard. We could even get a puppy. Lorring?”
He blinked and shook his head. Ginger’s dress was short. Way short. But why not? She’s got great legs. He’d pictured her in high heels and stockings though, not loafers and white gym socks.
“Uh, sorry. What about the rest of the furniture?”
“It all comes Monday.”
Her little surprise was the master bedroom, which was fully furnished.
“We’ll have to spend from now through Sunday afternoon in bed,” Ginger said.
“Whoa, Cookie, I’m jet lagged up to here.” What if I can’t hack it? What if I think about Mai Lee at the worst possible time? What if I call Cookie Mai Lee? Lorring looked out the window at the row of Leavitt-built houses, all lined up like aircraft revetments on a flight line.
“Captain, I’ve never known jet lag to bother you before.” Ginger smiled and leaned against him, brushing his arm with her breasts.
Ginger had a more ample figure than Mai Lee, but she couldn’t ride him as he stood against the bedroom wall the way Mai Lee had. He wished Ginger had lost all of the weight she’d gained while pregnant. Cripes, I’ve got to get my head screwed on straight. Unconsciously, he wiped his hands on the sides of his uniform trousers.
“I lost you again. What were you thinking?”
“I, uh, was thinking about Rachael. When did you say we would see her?”
“Not till Sunday afternoon when we go over to your mom’s. Is everything all right?” She frowned, the tip of her tongue protruding just slightly.
“Sure. Well, yeah, mostly. It’s kind of a shock to the system, you know. A handful of hours ago I was in Nam, in a combat zone. All of a sudden I’m standing here, and, uh, the grass needs mowing.”
“No, my love, that is not what needs to be done.” She smiled, took his hand, and pulled him into the one furnished room in their new house.
His hands were sweating.
* * *
After the first two weeks the lust wore off and life wore on. They clashed over who was going to balance the checkbook. Lorring began to drink more; Ginger drank less. The joy and spontaneity drained from their lovemaking. Her ready smile faded, replaced by a pensive look, later sadness, and finally, anger.
Earlier he’d yelled at Rachie for watching TV cartoons with the volume up while he was trying to read and threatened to break her record of The Littlest Pony if he heard it one more time. Rachie cried, and Ginger had gone to bed angry.
Lorring stretched his right leg over and rubbed Ginger’s legs. It was one of their signals. No response. He began to massage her back. She stiffened. “Cookie? You okay?”
“No.” Her reply was muffled.
“You want to talk?”
“That’s all we’ve been doing since you got back. And it hasn’t helped very much.” She was still facing away from him.
He was silent for a few moments. “I guess I’m not all that good at talking, Cookie, but I’m trying. Maybe you could give me a little credit for that.”
She rolled over. “You want some real credit, Lorring? How about you agreeing to go to a marriage counselor?”
Lorring groaned and sat up. “Marriage counselors dispense a bunch of psychobabble and charge for the air you breathe.” It’s bad enough going through all the hostile interrogations with Ginger, he thought. I’m not about to volunteer to let a stranger crawl into our bed. Why does it feel like I left one battlefield to come back to another?
“Look, Cookie, we’ve been all through that. I’m not going to change my mind. This is personal between us. We are intelligent people, and we can work it out without resorting to some marriage shrink. No matter how hard this is or how long it takes, I love you. Always have and always will.” His voice sounded tired and resigned.
“I love you, too. I want to love you like I used to. Honest to God I do.” Her voice broke. “Do you really want us back, Lorring?”
“Hell, yes.” He was becoming angry, but fear tempered his anger, as it had of late. What if she left me? And took Rachie. My whole life. I’ve got to get my head screwed back on straight.
“Well, what are you willing to do to get us back?” Ginger asked.
“Oh, hell, anything but go to a damn mealy-mouthed shrink.”
“Okay. I’ll hold you to that.”
He stalked out of the bedroom headed for the liquor cabinet. She surely couldn’t come up with something worse than a damn shrink. Could she? Why can’t we just talk this out? His hands trembled. Life was so simple in Nam.
* * *