A Novel of the Vietnam War
Marines from Fire Support Base Matterhorn had been on patrol in the
jungle between Laos and the Demilitarized Zone. A sergeant reports to
Lieutenant Mellas: "It's the damnedest thing I ever saw. Fisher's got a
leech right smack up the hole in his cock." In this excerpt, medical
corpsmen (squid) try to help him.
The entire hill was quiet, on the 100 percent alert that happened every
dusk and dawn. Mellas watched Fredrickson and Lindsey talking to Fisher
as they began to move him off the landing zone on a stretcher made by
wrapping a poncho between two tree limbs. Fisher suddenly cried out and
Lindsey cursed quietly. Hawke, who was walking alongside the stretcher,
quickly stifled Fisher’s cry by placing his hand over his mouth. Mellas
walked beside them, figuring it was better to say nothing.
When they reached the CP they pulled Fisher inside the small hooch.
Sheller was laying out his kit and lighting candles. Fredrickson removed
Fisher’s filthy trousers and folded them carefully. Outside the hooch the
two radio operators huddled next to their equipment while Fitch tried to
make the entrance lightproof. Hawke and Cassidy sat on the ground
Inside, Doc Fredrickson looked at Sheller, whose chin was trembling
slightly underneath the fat. Fisher was writhing in pain and trying not to
scream. Fredrickson crawled behind Fisher, putting his knees on each side
of Fisher’s head. He then leaned over and put his hands and full weight on
Fisher’s shoulders. The candles flickered in the draft, casting shadows
across the draped ponchos.
“It’s going to be OK, Fisher,” Fredrickson whispered, bending close
to Fisher’s face. “It’s going to be OK.”
“Oh, fuck, Doc, stop it. Stop it from hurting.”
“It’s going to be OK.”
Fredrickson was looking intensely at Sheller, willing him to do it. The
senior squid finished lubricating the IV tube, switched it to his left hand,
and looked back at Fredrickson across Fisher’s body. He picked up a
small knife in his right hand and, using his elbows, he spread Fisher’s legs
and crawled between them. He looked up at Fredrickson again. With
anguish on his face he silently mouthed, “I don’t know if I’m right.”
Fredrickson nodded his head in encouragement. “Do it,” he
mouthed silently. “Do it.”
Fisher started moaning again, arching his back, trying to get his bladder
and kidneys off the floor. The senior squid put the knife in the candle
flame. Then he poured alcohol on it. There was a slight hiss and the
alcohol smell filled the hooch. He lifted Fisher’s penis back, pushing it
firmly against his stomach. Even that pressure made Fisher scream.
Fredrickson leaned his whole body over Fisher’s face, muzzling him,
pressing down on his shoulders and upper arms.
Sheller pushed the blade into Fisher’s penis. Fisher screamed and
Fredrickson put all of his weight on him to keep him from rolling. Blood
and urine streamed over the knife blade, the initial burst spraying
Sheller’s hands and chest. Then Sheller pushed the makeshift catheter
up the smooth side of the knife into the incision and quickly slipped
the blade out. Urine coursed out of the catheter, flowing over Fisher’s
hips and crotch, filling the tent with its hot smell, running onto the mud,
soaking the nylon poncho liners under Fisher’s body.
“Goddamn. Goddamn. Oh, goddamn,” Fisher cried, but each “goddamn”
lessened in intensity with the lessening force of the coursing urine, until all
that could be heard was Fisher’s ragged panting and the deep breathing
of Fredrickson and Sheller.
Fisher broke the silence. “What would I say if this was a movie?”
Fredrickson shook his head back and forth and snorted a laugh. “Shit,
Fisher,” he said. Sheller, still breathing hard, merely nodded at
Fisher winced and took in a shaky breath. He held it, then let it out all at
once and turned his head to the side, looking at the floor of the hooch.
“Kind of a mess.”
Sheller nodded. “Yeah. Kind of a mess,” he said. He was covered in blood
and urine. He flicked a glance at Fredrickson, who nodded very slightly.
Then Fredrickson suddenly bore down on Fisher with his full weight.
Senior Squid took Fisher by surprise and quickly punctured his penis
again, this time to pierce the leech and kill it.
Fisher bucked his hips upward, screaming. “Jesus Christ, Squid. What the
fuck?” Fredrickson kept his full body weight on him, trying
to keep him still.
“Sorry,” Sheller said. Blood from the swollen leech was running along the
flat of the knife. He pulled it out and took a deep breath. Dark blood
oozed from the second cut, mixing with the redder blood and urine
from the first.
Sheller sat back on his haunches, his knees under him.
“You fucking done?” Fisher asked.
Sheller nodded yes.
The small hooch, filled with the three young men, the light from the
candles, and the warm smell of urine, was quiet.
From outside they could hear FAC-man, the forward air controller
shouting. “Get him up to the LZ. The bird’s coming in.”
“Now what?” Fisher asked.
“I don’t know,” Sheller answered. “They get you to Charlie Med. The
usual repair work. Infection’s the main problem around here. We don’t
know what got carried in by the leech or on the knife for that matter.”
“No, I mean . . .” Fisher hesitated. “You know, later. Back home.”
FAC-man poked his head through the ponchos. “I’ve got the fucking
chopper. Get him up on the LZ. What the fuck you waiting for?” He ran
off into the dark with his radio on his back, talking to the pilot.
Sheller rolled out of the way as Fitch and Hawke came through the
opening of the hooch and grabbed the stretcher. He didn’t answer Fisher,
using the interruption as an excuse. What would scar tissue do?
Infection? Had he cut tubes he didn’t even know about? He honestly
didn’t know what would happen and was fully aware he might have
doomed Fisher to be not only childless, but impotent.
Mellas watched the shadows moving back up the hill. The familiar
washboard thumping could be heard in the valley below them as the
chopper fought for altitude, skimming over the tops of trees beneath
the low cloud cover. Then the NVA .51 opened up. It was followed almost
immediately by the chopper’s two .50-caliber machine guns, firing
blindly into the dark jungle to try to suppress the fire. The chopper
loomed out of the darkness and slammed into the zone; its crew chief
immediately jumped out and yelled at the Marines to get the stretcher
Cassidy, Hawke, Fitch, and FAC-man ran across the LZ with the
stretcher and up the ramp of the chopper, the sound of the NVA .51’s
bullets cracking through the air. Mellas crouched to the ground, thankful
he was just below the lip of the LZ, defiladed from the fire. The chopper
was moving before the four stretcher bearers were even out of it. It
was already airborne as the last dark figure jumped for the ground and
ran for the lip of the LZ.
The shadowy bulk of the chopper merged into darkness, the faint glow of
its instrument panel disappearing with it into the night. The firing stopped.
Mellas rose to a half crouch and glanced back inside the CP hooch. The
senior squid was still kneeling over the now deserted space, the front of
his utility shirt soaked with urine and blood, his knife in his hand. He was
crying and praying at the same time.
This selection was taken from
MATTERHORN © 2010 by Karl
Marlantes, published by
Atlantic Monthly Press in
association with El Léon
Literary Arts, and is excerpted
Scheduled publication: April 2010
Photo by Devon Boswell
|Long Road to Publication
Karl Marlantes spent over
30 years writing and
revising "Matterhorn" in his
spare time while working as
a business consultant. The
original manuscript filled
1,600 pages and was initially
rejected by numerous
agents and editors. A
shorter version was
eventually accepted by El
León Literary Arts, a small,
non-profit publisher in
Prior to scheduled
publication, a buzz
developed about the book,
in part from enthusiastic
Barnes & Noble staffers who
had read it in a first novel
contest. Before long, large
New York publishers were
Atlantic Monthly Press and
El León agreed to co-publish
the novel. It has received
much advance praise, many
critics and writers putting it
up there with Norman
Mailer's "The Naked and the
Dead" and James Jones'
"The Thin Red Line" as one
of the best war novels ever.
Aside from category, it has
been lauded as simply great
writing. All this more than
three decades after the
project began. "Take heart,
writers," advises Leah
Garchik of the San
A graduate of Yale University and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University,
Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the
Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two
Purple Hearts, and 10 air medals. This is his first novel. He lives in rural
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