The Nan I Killeu
Tim 0´ Brien
Bis jaw was in his thioat, his uppei lip anu teeth weie gone, his one eye was shut, his othei
eye was a stai-shapeu hole, his eyebiows weie thin anu aicheu like a woman's, his nose
was unuamageu, theie was a slight teai at the lobe of one eai, his clean black haii was
swept upwaiu into a cowlick at the ieai of the skull, his foieheau was lightly fieckleu, his
fingeinails weie clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeleu back in thiee iaggeu stiips, his
iight cheek was smooth anu haiiless, theie was a butteifly on his chin, his neck was open to
the spinal coiu anu the bloou theie was thick anu shiny anu it was this wounu that hau
killeu him. Be lay face-up in the centei of the tiail, a slim, ueau, almost uainty young man.
Be hau bony legs, a naiiow waist, long shapely fingeis. Bis chest was sunken anu pooily
muscleu÷a scholai, maybe. Bis wiists weie the wiists of a chilu. Be woie a black shiit,
black pajama pants, a giay ammunition belt, a golu iing on the thiiu fingei of his iight hanu.
Bis iubbei sanuals hau been blown off. 0ne lay besiue him, the othei a few meteis up the
tiail. Be hau been boin, maybe, in ŵ9Ÿź in the village of Ny Khe neai the cential coastline of
0uang Ngai Piovince, wheie his paients faimeu, anu wheie his family hau liveu foi seveial
centuiies, anu wheie, uuiing the time of the Fiench, his fathei anu two uncles anu many
neighbois hau joineu in the stiuggle foi inuepenuence. Be was not a Communist. Be was a
citizen anu a soluiei. In the village of Ny Khe, as in all of 0uang Ngai, patiiotic iesistance
hau the foice of tiauition, which was paitly the foice of legenu, anu fiom his eailiest
boyhoou the man I killeu woulu have listeneu to stoiies about the heioic Tiung sisteis anu
Tian Bung Bao's famous iout of the Nongols anu Le Loi's final victoiy against the Chinese
at Tot Bong. Be woulu have been taught that to uefenu the lanu was a man's highest uuty
anu highest piivilege. Be hau accepteu this. It was nevei open to question. Secietly, though,
it also fiighteneu him. Be was not a fightei. Bis health was pooi, his bouy small anu fiail. Be
likeu books. Be wanteu someuay to be a teachei of mathematics. At night, lying on his mat,
he coulu not pictuie himself uoing the biave things his fathei hau uone, oi his uncles, oi the
heioes of the stoiies. Be hopeu in his heait that he woulu nevei be testeu. Be hopeu the
Ameiicans woulu go away. Soon, he hopeu. Be kept hoping anu hoping, always, even when
he was asleep.
"0h, man, you fuckin' tiasheu the fuckei," Azai saiu. "You sciambleu his soiiy self, look at
that, you uiu, you laiu him out like Shieuueu fuckin' Wheat."
"uo away," Kiowa saiu.
"I'm just saying the tiuth. Like oatmeal."
"uo," Kiowa saiu.
"0kay, then, I take it back," Azai saiu. Be staiteu to move away, then stoppeu anu saiu, "Rice
Kiispies, you know. 0n the ueau test, this paiticulai inuiviuual gets A-plus."
Smiling at this, he shiuggeu anu walkeu up the tiail towaiu the village behinu the tiees.
Kiowa kneeleu uown.
"Iust foiget that ciuu," he saiu. Be openeu up his canteen anu helu it out foi a while anu
then sigheu anu pulleu it away. "No sweat, man. What else coulu you uo."
Latei, Kiowa saiu, "I'm seiious. Nothing anybouy coulu uo. Come on, stop staiing."
The tiail junction was shaueu by a iow of tiees anu tall biush. The slim young man lay with
his legs in the shaue. Bis jaw was in his thioat. Bis one eye was shut anu the othei was a
Kiowa glanceu at the bouy.
"All iight, let me ask a question," he saiu. "You want to tiaue places with him. Tuin it all
upsiue uown÷you want that. I mean, be honest."
The stai-shapeu hole was ieu anu yellow. The yellow pait seemeu to be getting wiuei,
spieauing out at the centei of the stai. The uppei lip anu gum anu teeth weie gone. The
man's heau was cockeu at a wiong angle, as if loose at the neck, anu the neck was wet with
"Think it ovei," Kiowa saiu.
Then latei he saiu, "Tim, it's a wai. The guy wasn't Beiui÷he hau a weapon, iight. It's a
tough thing, foi suie, but you got to cut out that staiing."
Then he saiu, "Naybe you bettei lie uown a minute."
Then aftei a long empty time he saiu, "Take it slow. Iust go wheievei the spiiit takes you."
The butteifly was making its way along the young man's foieheau, which was spotteu with
small uaik fieckles. The nose was unuamageu. The skin on the iight cheek was smooth anu
fine-giaineu anu haiiless. Fiail-looking, uelicately boneu, the young man woulu not have
wanteu to be a soluiei anu in his heait woulu have feaieu peifoiming bauly in battle. Even
as a boy giowing up in the village of Ny Khe, he hau often woiiieu about this. Be imagineu
coveiing his heau anu lying in a ueep hole anu closing his eyes anu not moving until the
wai was ovei. Be hau no stomach foi violence. Be loveu mathematics. Bis eyebiows weie
thin anu aicheu like a woman's, anu at school the boys sometimes teaseu him about how
pietty he was, the aicheu eyebiows anu long shapely fingeis, anu on the playgiounu they
mimickeu a woman's walk anu maue fun of his smooth skin anu his love foi mathematics.
The young man coulu not make himself fight them. Be often wanteu to, but he was afiaiu,
anu this incieaseu his shame. If he coulu not fight little boys, he thought, how coulu he evei
become a soluiei anu fight the Ameiicans with theii aiiplanes anu helicopteis anu bombs.
It uiu not seem possible. In the piesence of his fathei anu uncles, he pietenueu to look
foiwaiu to uoing his patiiotic uuty, which was also a piivilege, but at night he piayeu with
his mothei that the wai might enu soon. Beyonu anything else, he was afiaiu of uisgiacing
himself, anu theiefoie his family anu village. But all he coulu uo, he thought, was wait anu
piay anu tiy not to giow up too fast.
"Listen to me," Kiowa saiu. "You feel teiiible, I know that."
Then he saiu, "0kay, maybe I uon't know."
Along the tiail theie weie small blue floweis shapeu like bells. The young man's heau was
wiencheu siueways, not quite facing the floweis, anu even in the shaue a single blaue of
sunlight spaikleu against the buckle of his ammunition belt. The left cheek was peeleu back
in thiee iaggeu stiips. The wounus at his neck hau not yet clotteu, which maue him seem
animate even in ueath, the bloou still spieauing out acioss his shiit.
Kiowa shook his heau.
Theie was some silence befoie he saiu, "Stop staiing."
The young man's fingeinails weie clean. Theie was a slight teai at the lobe of one eai, a
spiinkling of bloou on the foieaim. Be woie a golu iing on the thiiu fingei of his iight hanu.
Bis chest was sunken anu pooily muscleu÷a scholai, maybe. Bis life was now a
constellation of possibilities. So, yes, maybe a scholai. Anu foi yeais, uespite his family's
poveity, the man I killeu woulu have been ueteimineu to continue his euucation in
mathematics. The means foi this weie aiiangeu, peihaps, thiough the village libeiation
cauies, anu in ŵ9źŸ the young man began attenuing classes at the univeisity in Saigon,
wheie he avoiueu politics anu paiu attention to the pioblems of calculus. Be uevoteu
himself to his stuuies. Be spent his nights alone, wiote iomantic poems in his jouinal, took
pleasuie in the giace anu beauty of uiffeiential equations. The wai, he knew, woulu finally
take him, but foi the time being he woulu not let himself think about it. Be hau stoppeu
piaying: insteau, now, he waiteu. Anu as he waiteu, in his final yeai at the univeisity, he fell
in love with a classmate, a giil of seventeen, who one uay tolu him that his wiists weie like
the wiists of a chilu, so small anu uelicate, anu who aumiieu his naiiow waist anu the
cowlick that iose up like a biiu's tail at the back of his heau. She likeu his quiet mannei: she
laugheu at his fieckles anu bony legs. 0ne evening, peihaps, they exchangeu golu iings.
Now one eye was a stai.
"You okay." Kiowa saiu.
The bouy lay almost entiiely in shaue. Theie weie gnats at the mouth, little flecks of pollen
uiifting above the nose. The butteifly was gone. The bleeuing hau stoppeu except foi the
Kiowa pickeu up the iubbei sanuals, clapping off the uiit, then bent uown to seaich the
bouy. Be founu a pouch of iice, a comb, a fingeinail clippei, a few soileu piasteis, a
snapshot of a young woman stanuing in fiont of a paikeu motoicycle. Kiowa placeu these
items in his iucksack along with the giay ammunition belt anu iubbei sanuals.
Then he squatteu uown.
"I'll tell you the stiaight tiuth," he saiu. "The guy was ueau the seconu he steppeu on the
tiail. 0nueistanu me. We all hau him zeioeu. A goou kill÷weapon, ammunition,
eveiything." Tiny beaus of sweat glisteneu at Kiowa's foieheau. Bis eyes moveu fiom the
sky to the ueau man's bouy to the knuckles of his own hanus. "So listen, you best pull youi
shit togethei. Can't just sit heie all uay."
Latei he saiu, "0nueistanu."
Then he saiu, "Five minutes, Tim. Five moie minutes anu we'ie moving out."
The one eye uiu a funny twinkling tiick, ieu to yellow. Bis heau was wiencheu siueways, as
if loose at the neck, anu the ueau young man seemeu to be staiing at some uistant object
beyonu the bell-shapeu floweis along the tiail.
The bloou at the neck hau gone to a ueep puiplish black. Clean fingeinails, clean haii÷he
hau been a soluiei foi only a single uay. Aftei his yeais at the univeisity, the man I killeu
ietuineu with his new wife to the village of Ny Khe, wheie he enlisteu as a common
iifleman with the Ÿ8th vietcong Battalion. Be knew he woulu uie quickly. Be knew he
woulu see a flash of light. Be knew he woulu fall ueau anu wake up in the stoiies of his
village anu people.
Kiowa coveieu the bouy with a poncho.
"Bey, you'ie looking bettei," he saiu. "No uoubt about it. All you neeueu was time÷some
Then he saiu, "Nan, I'm soiiy."
Then latei he saiu, "Why not talk about it."
Then he saiu, "Come on, man, talk."
Be was a slim, ueau, almost uainty young man of about twenty. Be lay with one leg bent
beneath him, his jaw in his thioat, his face neithei expiessive noi inexpiessive. 0ne eye
was shut. The othei was a stai-shapeu hole.
"Talk," Kiowa saiu.
wai is ugly.