It wasn’t hard to locate them. I was on my hands and knees, but using a flashlight. I thought there might be some loose rats, too, and that I ought to look at least; and I’d also heard that there was an abandoned V.C. hospital in the tunnel that I was curious about. So I left the cages and poked around in the tunnels a bit; and when I’d had enough, I started back to get the rats, and I hit a water trap. There hadn’t been a water trap before, so I knew I must have taken a wrong turn. I went back a bit, took another turn, and then another, and hit the water trap again. By now I was starting to panic. I couldn’t find anything I’d ever seen before except the damn water. I went back again, farther without turning, took a turn, hit the trap.
I must have tried seven, eight times. I no longer thought the tunnel was cold. I thought the V.C. had closed the door on my original route so that I wouldn’t find it again. I thought they were watching every move I made, pretty easy with me waving my flashlight about. I switched it off. I could hear them in the dark, their eyelids closing and opening, their hands tightening on their knives. I was sweating, head to toe, like I was ill, like I had the mysterious English sweating sickness or the suette des Picards.
And I knew that to get back to the entrance I had to go into the water. I sat and thought that through, and when I finished I wasn’t the same man I’d been when I began the thought.
It would have been bad to have to crawl back through the tunnels with no light. To go into the water with no light, not knowing how much water there was, not knowing if one lungful of air would be enough or if there were underwater turns so you might get lost before you found air again, was something you’d have to be crazy to do. I had to do it, so I had to be crazy first. It wasn’t as hard as you might think. It took me only a minute.
I filled my lungs as full as I could. Emptied them once. Filled them again and dove in. Someone grabbed me by the ankle and hauled me back out. It frightened me so much I swallowed water, so I came up coughing and kicking. The hand released me at once, and I lay there for a bit, dripping water and still sweating, too, feeling the part of the tunnel that was directly below my body turn to mud, while I tried to convince myself that no one was touching me.
Then I was crazy enough to turn my light on. Far down the tunnel, just within range of the light, knelt a little kid dressed in the uniform of the rats. I tried to get closer to him. He moved away, just the same amount I had moved, always just in the light. I followed him down one tunnel, around a turn, down another. Outside, the sun rose and set. We crawled for days. My right knee began to bleed.
“Talk to me,” I asked him. He didn’t.
Finally he stood up ahead of me. I could see the rat cages, and I knew where the entrance was behind him. And then he was gone. I tried to follow with my flashlight, but he’d jumped or something. He was just gone.
“Victor,” Rat Six told me when I finally came out. “Goddamn Victor.”
Maybe so. If Victor was the same little boy I put a net over in the high country in Yosemite.
When I came out, they told me less than three hours had passed. I didn’t believe them. I told them about Victor. Most of them didn’t believe me. Nobody outside the tunnels believed in Victor. “We just sent home one of the rats,” a doctor told me. “He emptied his whole gun into a tunnel. Claimed there were V.C. all around him, but that he got them. He shot every one. Only, when we went down to clean it up, there were no bodies. All his bullets were found in the walls.
“Tunnel vision. Everyone sees things. It’s the dark. Your eyes no longer impose any limit on the things you can see.”
I didn’t listen. I made demands right up the chain of command for records: recruitment, AWOLs, special projects. I wanted to talk to everyone who’d ever seen Victor. I wrote Clint to see what he remembered of the drive back from Yosemite. I wrote a thousand letters to Mercy Hospital, telling them I’d uncovered their little game. I demanded to speak with the red-haired doctor with glasses whose name I never knew. I wrote the Curry Company and suggested they conduct a private investigation into the supposed suicide of Sergeant Redburn. I asked the CIA what they had done with Paul’s parents. That part was paranoid. I was so unstrung I thought they’d killed his parents and given him to the coyote to raise him up for the tunnel wars. When I calmed down, I knew the CIA would never be so farsighted. I knew they’d just gotten lucky. I didn’t know what happened to the parents; still don’t.
There were so many crazy people in Vietnam, it could take them a long time to notice a new one, but I made a lot of noise. A team of three doctors talked to me for a total of seven hours. Then they said I was suffering from delayed guilt over the death of my little dog-boy and that it surfaced, along with every other weak link in my personality, in the stress and the darkness of the tunnels. They sent me home. I missed the moon landing, because I was having a nice little time in a hospital of my own.
When I was finally and truly released, I went looking for Caroline Crosby. The Crosbys still lived in Palo Alto, but Caroline did not. She’d started college at Berkeley, but then she’d dropped out. Her parents hadn’t seen her for several months.
Her mother took me through their beautiful house and showed me Caroline’s old room. She had a canopy bed and her own bathroom. There was a mirror with old pictures of some boy on it. A throw rug with roses. There was a lot of pink. “We drive through the Haight every weekend,” Caroline’s mother said. “Just looking.” She was pale and controlled. “If you should see her, would you tell her to call?”
I would not. I made one attempt to return one little boy to his family, and look what happened. Either Sergeant Redburn jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle of his investigation or he didn’t. Either Paul Becker died in Mercy Hospital or he was picked up by the military to be their special weapon in a special war.
I’ve thought about it now for a couple of decades, and I’ve decided that, at least for Paul, once he’d escaped from the military, things didn’t work out so badly. He must have felt more at home in the tunnels under Cu Chi than he had under the bed in Mercy Hospital.
There is a darkness inside us all that is animal. Against some things — untreated or untreatable disease, for example, or old age — the darkness is all we are. Either we are strong enough animals or we are not. Such things pare everything that is not animal away from us. As animals we have a physical value, but in moral terms we are neither good nor bad. Morality begins on the way back from the darkness.
The first two plagues were largely believed to be a punishment for man’s sinfulness. “So many died,” wrote Agnolo di Tura the Fat, who buried all five of his own children himself, “that all believed that it was the end of the world.” This being the case, you’d imagine the cessation of the plague must have been accompanied by outbreaks of charity and godliness. The truth was just the opposite. In 1349, in Erfurt, Germany, of the three thousand Jewish residents there not one survived. This is a single instance of a barbarism so marked and so pervasive it can be understood only as a form of mass insanity.
Here is what Procopius said: And after the plague had ceased, there was so much depravity and general licentiousness that it seemed as though the disease had left only the most wicked.
When men are turned into animals, it’s hard for them to find their way back to themselves. When children are turned into animals, there’s no self to find. There’s never been a feral child who found his way out of the dark. Maybe there’s never been a feral child who wanted to.