"M.I.A." by Miriam Sagan

Categories: ISSUE 04: Eleanor

Mike Pulawsky was Army, but a consultant, not combatant, and he knew a lot about water. He’d been living in the village for ten days when it was attacked. Up until then, he’d been living with an old man who seemed to serve informally as a kind of mayor. Mike’s Vietnamese was good, and getting better, which endeared him to everyone. He was also focused on their floodplain and containment dams--and since that was what the village cared about, this also made them like him. He felt strangely at home on the straw mats and hammocks. The old man’s niece was named Liu and she was about seventeen and very pretty in a delicate brown-eyed way, but tough too, Oddly, she reminded him of women he’d grown up with, more the women than the girls--as capable as any farm woman in Iowa. She carried a baby on her back, but Mike soon learned it was the littlest of her brothers. He was vaguely pleased that it wasn’t hers.

The strafe hit unexpectedly, terrifyingly, and Mike figured it was a mistake--why bomb a peaceful village with no Viet Cong--but bomb they did--napalm raining down fire and he was sure he could smell defoliant, which as a farm boy he feared as much or more. There was a strike at the far end of the fields, across the river, and shouting and screaming and running and Liu pulling him--pulling hard--into a cave he hadn’t known was there--a little ways up the mountain. The cave was vast and cool after the humidity outside, and a cool breeze seemed to flow from the back. Mike didn’t know much about caves, but he could tell this had been carved by a long ago river. And it was big--the entire village, upwards of a hundred people, fit inside. And sat, stood, squatted silently. Even the babies didn’t cry.

The planes--or had they been helicopters--were gone as quickly as they had come. Smoke billowed from the fields and what could be seen of the village. After a while, three of the younger men went down to look. And came back within a quarter of an hour to say everything was gone--animals, houses, crops--and no, they didn’t think it was a good idea to go back and search the rubble for cooking pots. Besides, literally every person was accounted for--young and old. They were all together. And to Mike’s amazement they stood together in resolve and began to walk, not out of the cave but towards the back. At the far end there were bins of rice and fresh water and salted fish, and sacks fitted to be carried on the back. There was a pile of farm implements as well. Mike was given a moderately heavy pack and he followed along behind Liu, remembering how warm her hand had felt when she pulled him.

At the end of the cave there was a tunnel--mostly tall enough to stand in--and everyone walked in in an orderly fashion with the steady pace that implied they would be walking for quite some time. Mike had heard rumors of tunnels--everyone had--Viet Cong tunnels that honeycombed the hills--led to the north. Later, much later, it would occur to him that he had had a choice. There was no imperative for him to follow Liu into the tunnel. He could simply have walked out of the cave and down the road until he found the Army. But he hadn’t thought. He had followed her naturally.

They walked for a long time. At points the tunnel opened into small caves and they’d sit to rest, nurse the babies, sleep for what must have been a few hours. The tunnels were mostly dry, occasionally wet. Mike’s watch had stopped working. At what might have been a bit past the mid-way point of the trip, the tunnel opened into a cavern. People seemed to be living here permanently. There were actually holes open to the sky--nightsky at this point--and small ventilated cooking fires.

His village was served a hot meal, and tea. They slept for a while, and then were entertained by a troupe of actors--doing a propaganda skit and some first-rate juggling. Then more walking, but the tunnels were wider from this point on, and less inclined. And then they opened into Shangri-La.

The valley below was green and well watered. There was even a waterfall that fell from a craggy cliff. The place seemed to be theirs for the taking, and the villagers settled in. Mike was amazed at how quickly things developed--shelters built, then real houses, water buffalo acquired from neighboring hamlets, crops planted, harvested. Full moon followed full moon, and he married Liu and settled in. He apprenticed with a furniture maker and soon was able to build sturdy but light cabinets and chests. He advised on water. He planted. He was a farm boy and this was a farm. When Liu was pregnant with their first child he felt a moment of panic--no doctor, no hospital. But the midwife knew what she was doing--with this and all of his children--who totaled six. He and Liu had grandchildren too, a whole batch of them, and more on the way.

At first, when he realized how irrevocable his flight had been, Mike was frightened. He didn’t think they Army would find him, but he feared the Viet Cong. Then, when the American war was won, he still laid low, out of habit. Downriver about fifty miles there was what passed for a city in these parts, a town really--a place to buy tools, and eventually even a truck for the village. Nowadays there was a coffee bar with satellite T.V. and a fabric store and sometimes a movie. But he and Liu still didn’t go in much.

One evening, Mike sat outside his house, long legs stretched out before him, watching his grandchildren flit and play by the irrigation ditch. Fireflies came out, and the moon. If one of the littlest toddled too near the ditch, an older child would swoop in and avert disaster. Mike had long ago stopped worrying that something bad was going to happen to him. Like the village he was part of--and despite the terrible war--his life was blessed, most of all by being with Liu. He was sixty-four years old. He was missing some teeth, had an arthritic left knee, and sometimes if he exerted he could feel his heart skip a beat and then race. By the standards of the village, he was an old man. His opinion was taken seriously.

One of his oldest grandsons came over and lingered, wanting to talk. He was all excited about something new in town. You could get on the internet. The village led a quiet life, but still Mike was vaguely aware of the world outside. He knew the Berlin Wall had come down, that the millennium was celebrated around the world. He knew who was president of the United States, who led China. The grand kids talked about computers. But Mike was content, and incurious. Still, he agreed to go.

They took the creaking bus--full of chickens and babies--to town. The streets were muddy after rain. Down a narrow alley, in back of a bakery, was a small windowless room, a closet really. The floor was sticky. For metal chairs sat in front of four computers. Two areas were crowded with boys clustered together, looking at screens. Mike took an empty chair--his grandson stood behind.

It came back to him, the way things will--the touch typing he’d learned in high school. His grandson coached him--on to the web, on to something called a search engine. And a blank space. What, in all the world, did he want to know about? Mike filled in his own name, hit enter, and to his shock, pulled up a page on the screen.

There he was: MIKE PULAWSKY. His birth date--and the darte he went missing in action. A high school photograph, draped in black ribbon and roses that had somehow been added graphically. His high school accomplishments. His survivors. He noted with a terrible shock--no surprise at all if he examined it, but shock nonetheless--that both his parents were dead. He was survived by his sister, her husband (a familiar name he couldn’t quite place), their three children, six grand kids. Someone in the family must have put up this memorial. It was like seeing his own funeral--the funeral of someone he had presumably once been, a man with the same past as his but a different future.

He pushed the chair back on the gritty floor and gestured to his grandson that it was all his. And walked out into the weak light of alley, shaking.

O Typekey Divider

MIKE PULAWSKY. That was the name engraved on the metal bracelet. Stephanie was surprised when she came upon it in her jewelry box. She’d worn the bracelet for years, as a teen-ager, but had forgotten all about it among the broken earrings and some rhinestone pins that had been her grandmother’s.

MIKE PULAWSKY. She felt she had known him. She’d bought the bracelet to support our M.I.A.s and P.O.W.s. At the time, when she was fourteen, she’d somehow felt he was alive, or that she was keeping him alive.

Now of course she knew better. He was a pile of bones somewhere in the jungle. Life hadn’t turned out the way she’d expected it either. She was a single mom, some chronic health problems--and she’d never gotten out of Cincinnati.

In a way, she’d been in love with Mike. Keeping him safe, tracing the letters of his name when she was bored in class. He’d been an imaginary boyfriend, better than the real ones that came later.

She sighed, and gently widened the metal band, slipped it over her left wrist. And felt the weight of all that was lost.

--Story by Miriam Sagan
--Foreground & Background photo by Doriana Maria