From Dog Soldiers, 1974
THERE WAS ONLY ONE BENCH IN THE SHADE AND CONVERSE went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the stone surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversized briefcase he had been carrying; its handle shone with the sweat of his palm. He sat facing Tu Do Street, resting one hand across the case and raising the other to his fore head to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse’s nature to worry about his health.
The other occupant of the bench was an American lady of middling age.
He had begun to sense a formidable strength in the lady’s bearing. She was quite literally keeping her chin up. Softness in the eyes, but what depths? What prairie fires?
“In what sense,” he asked, “was your husband taken?”
“In the sense that he’s dead.” Clear-voiced, dear-eyed.
“They’d left us pretty much alone. One night they came into our village and took Bill and a fine young fella named Jim Hatley and just tied their hands and took them away and killed them.”
“God. I’m sorry.”
Converse recalled a story he had been told about Ngoc Linh Province. They had come into a montagnard hootch one night and taken a missionary out and tied him up in a mountain shelter. To his head they fixed a cage in which a rat had been imprisoned. As the rat starved, it began to eat its way into the missionary’s brains.
“He was a happy man all his life. No matter how great your loss is, you have to accept God’s will with adoration.”
“God in the whirlwind,” Converse said.
She looked at him blankly for a moment, puzzled. Then her eyes came alight. “Land, yes,” she said. “God in the whirlwind. Job Thirty-seven. You know your Bible.”
“Not really,” Converse said.
“Time’s short.” The languor was leaving her voice and manner, but for all the rising animation no color came into her face. “We’re in the last days now. If you do know your Bible, you’ll realize that all the signs in Revelations have been fulfilled. The rise of Communism, the return of Israel…”
“I guess it looks like that sometimes.” He felt eager to please her.
“It’s now or never,” she said. “That’s why I hate to give up three weeks, even to Bill’s parents. God’s promised us deliverance from evil if we believe in His gospel. He wants us all to know His word.”
Converse discovered that he had moved toward her on the bench. A small rush of admiration, desire, and apocalyptic religion was subverting his common sense. He felt at the point of inviting her … inviting her for what? A gin and tonic? A joint? It must be partly the fever too, he thought, raising a hand to his forehead.
“Deliverance from evil would be nice.”
It seemed to Converse that she was leaning toward him.
“Yes,” she said smiling, “it certainly would. And we have God’s promise.” Converse took his handkerchief out and cleared his eyes again. “What sort of religion do they have up in Ngoc Linh? The tribespeople, I mean.”
She seemed angry.
“It’s not a religion,” she said. “They worship Satan.”
Converse smiled and shook his head.
“You don’t believe in Satan?” She did not seem surprised.
Converse, still eager to please, thought about it.
“It’s always surprised me,” she said softly, “things being what they are and all, that people find it so difficult to believe in Satan.”
“I suppose,” Converse said, “that people would rather not. I mean it’s so awful. It’s too spooky for people.”
“People are in for an unpleasant surprise.” She said it without spite as though she were really sorry.
A breeze came from the river carrying the smell of rain, stirring the fronds and blossoms and the dead air. Con verse and the lady beside him relaxed and received the wind like a cooling drink. Monsoon clouds closed off the sky. Converse looked at his watch and stood up.
“I’ve enjoyed talking to you,” he said. “I’ve got to move on now.”
The lady looked up at him, holding him with her will.
“God has told us,” she said evenly, “that if we believe in Him we can have life eternal.”
He felt himself shiver. His fever was a bit alarming. He was also aware of a throbbing under his right rib. There was a lot of hepatitis around. Several of his friends had come down with it.
“I wonder,” he said, clearing his throat, “if you’ll be in town tomorrow would you care to join me for dinner?”
Her astonishment was a bit unsettling. It would have been better, he considered, if she had blushed. Probably she couldn’t blush. Circulation.
“It’s tonight I’m leaving. And I really don’t think I’d be the sort of company you’d enjoy. I suppose you must be very lonely. But I think I’m really a lot older than you are.”
Converse blinked. A spark from the Wrath.
“It would be interesting, don’t you think?”
“We don’t need interesting things,” the lady said. “That’s not what we need.”
“Nice trip,” Converse said, and turned toward the street. Two moneychangers came out of Eden Passage and moved toward him. The lady was standing up. He saw her gesture with her hand toward the moneychangers and the arcade and the terrasse of the Continental Hotel. It was a Vietnamese gesture.
“Satan,” she called to him, “is very powerful here.”
“Yes,” Converse said. “He would be