Short Story: Dien Bien Phu, 1954

So, I have this fascination with the Foreign Legion and I’ve wanted to do a major story about them for some time. Meanwhile, I needed a story for this year’s (and alas my final) contribution to Rivulets, the Naperville Writers Group’s annual collection. It will be published in October, 2018

 

Legionnaire officer at Dien Bien Phu

Camp Isabelle, Vietnam

 

Huong Lan was the Lieutenant’s one indulgence. Her name meant Fragrant Orchid, or Fragrance of the Orchid, he could never remember which. The chicken-clucking Vietnamese tongue was more than he could handle, despite her best efforts to teach him basic vocabulary and grammar. Still, she both cooked and spoke French well, so they got along just fine.

She strode slowly towards him, heel over toe, biting her crimson-painted lower lip in concentration.  She cupped the steaming bowl of pho like a temple offering, not spilling a drop despite wearing those ridiculous heels. Tonight, she wore her only nice pair of completely impractical but oh-so-becoming black stilettoes, the ones for “special nights” when she really wanted to please him.

Sometimes he questioned if—despite her adamant denials—she’d actually spent time in Saigon, not that it really mattered.  Most of the peasant girls who lived as congaises, or cos—rented wives—never mastered the art of walking in pretty shoes, sticking to the ugly but practical woven sandals and black slippers of their village childhoods. His Fragrant Orchid, though, knew it made her a little taller and her stick-thin legs shapelier, and that pleased her ersatz husband, which seemed to make her happy enough to endure the occasional blister just to make him happy.   He was a blessed man.

“My big brave soldier kept us safe again today?” She teased. Huong Lam placed the soup in front of him and took a timid step back. While he bowed to take a deep noseful of that spicy steam, she reached out tiny fingers, trailing short but unchipped nails through what little hair he had, stroking his scalp deliciously. Grinning, he rubbed against her strokes like a big tabby cat.

“Of course, ma petite chou. Do you think I’d let anything happen to you? I drove them off single-handed.” He chuckled and picked up his spoon. While he preferred good homey French cooking to the exotic, incomprehensible local fare—and anything in this country to the crap back in Algeria–pho was his favorite. The broth was the best part, and he always savored a couple of big spoonfuls before digging into the noodles and—was that tripe, tonight? She must have been preparing this all day. Whatever they were celebrating, he was going to enjoy himself.

It was a little spicier than usual and he quickly spit out a chili into his spoon, sucking a deep breath between pursed lips. She covered her mouth with her fingertips and tittered adorably. Her deep onyx eyes twinkled. “Weakling. Maybe I should go find a big strong sergeant who can handle my cooking.”

Ordinarily, he’d have said something stupid and jealous. But with her in a rare playful mood, it was wiser to chuckle to himself and eat. For weeks, there had been rumors of increased Viet Minh activity in the limestone hills above Beatrice, and the camp’s women had gossiped and worried themselves into a gaggle of honking geese. Even his sweet Huong Lan became something of a shrew, peppering him with naïve questions that he answered in just enough detail to stop the yammering. Not that he blamed her. Having cast her lot with the French, there was no going back to whatever dung heap village she’d left behind.  Every co knew that life would turn very dangerous, very quickly, if the Viet Minh got their hands on her.

He talked through loud slurps and happy, gluttonous groans. “There was a little activity up in the mountains. Christ only knows what Giap thinks he’s doing up there, but they scampered back up the hill like good little monkeys when we unloaded on them.”

She wrinkled her nose in that cute way she had when she was curious. “Activity? Were they firing on us again?”

“Don’t worry little one. Where are they going to get big guns up those mountains or through the jungle? They throw their little grenades and keep charging with pointy sticks.” Their weapons were a bit better than that, but not by much. And while setting the camp across the bottom of a valley seemed like poor tactics, as long as the airstrip was there and the valley to Laos controlled, everything would be fine. “You’re a Legionnaire’s woman. You do your job, I’ll do mine.”  The Lieutenant reached out a hand and slid it up the back of her thigh to the hem of her dress.

She playfully slapped the calloused palm away.

“Papa,” he always got a sinful rush of heat to his head when she called him that, and the little minx knew it, “you have to eat first. You’ll need your strength.”  With that, she picked up the chopsticks and offered him a dripping mouthful of scalding hot noodles.

He groaned again and allowed her to feed him. His stomach cramped momentarily but it passed as quickly as it came and he was fine again. The soup really was spicier than usual. Not that he’d complain to her, she’d worked hard to please him and a little heartburn wasn’t worth bitching about when he had so much to be satisfied with. He was never one of those “to serve is to complain” Legionnaires.

Her smile warmed him through and he thought again how wise it’d been to pay her price. Most of the men—even the officers—went without companionship, or settled for the dead-eyed Algerian or Thai whores in the BMC. He’d once stood in line at those trailers, seeking a moment’s relief and then suffering a long month praying to God he hadn’t caught anything. Giving up four hundred piastres a month—over half his paycheck—to this tiny, nut-brown beauty for her pleasures, plus a clean house and happy stomach was a sound investment. After all, what was he saving it for? He’d live and die a Legionnaire. There was no one to mourn him. No greedy, grasping heirs, so why leave anything behind at all?

She wore the lipstick he’d purchased in Hue—cheap stuff, but brought from France—and thought how grateful the women here were for even simple luxuries even if they usually had too much on their teeth. A rush of something like love came over him. He tried to kiss her but she teasingly turned her head at the last minute, offering only a soft powdered cheek. “Eat first. Then fun. You men are all alike.” He grinned. She wasn’t wrong. Another mouthful of this ambrosia wasn’t a bad consolation prize, though. The Lieutenant took a big, chin-soaking slurp.

Another cramp, stronger and longer than the first, wracked his body and he put a hand to his stomach. “What the hell…?” That’s when he heard a low rumble, like thunder only it went on too long. “That sounds like mortars. Over by Beatrice…” He dumped Huong Lan off his lap as he pushed himself away from the table.

“You said they wouldn’t attack.” The girl used the table to pick herself off the ground, then stood with her arms folded across her chest, wobbling in her heels.

He rubbed his abdomen and shook his head in confusion. “That’s awfully heavy artillery. They don’t have anything near that size.” He hoped the explanation would calm her, but another booming explosion, this time closer and even louder, shook the ground. Soup sloshed out of the bowl and a third, rolling cramp drove him to his knees.

What felt like a flamethrower exploded in his stomach and he fell face-first on the rug, gasping for air. Both the barrage of artillery shells and the smaller explosions in his gut came in wave after wave.

From the floor, he looked up at Huong Lan stretching out his hand.  Rather than offer assistance, or duck for cover, or scream, she stood over him doing absolutely nothing. The only thing she reached for was his napkin. Eyes locked on his, she spit into it and wiped her mouth, digging particularly hard to get everything out of the corners.  Streaks of crimson permanently marred the white linen as she methodically removed every particle of the waxy lipstick and dropped it onto his prostrate, writhing body.

His Fragrant Orchid calmly walked to the door. Without a single glance back, she used one shoe to scrape at the heel of the other until it fell off, then a bare, delicate foot removed the second. Kicking them aside, she slipped on a pair of cheap, woven sandals and stepped out into the fire-lit sunset.