It was humid and sticky the day Dinh and Man found a pile of soldier�s boots in a ravine just outside of their village. Each step was like moving through molasses as the sun browned their bare backs. They were walking along a dirt path, eyeing the ground for evidence of war. Already in their worn, green rucksack they carried empty shell casings that still smelled of gunpowder, pieces of camouflage and shiny silver dog tags. All reminders of everything they had lost. Halfway through the walk, Dinh began to feel himself growing tired under the increasing heat. He stopped and began to sit but before he could make it to the ground, he felt a tug on his arm. Man was trying to pull him back up.
�No,� Dinh sighed, �I need to sit.�
Man tugged him harder and began pointing towards the ravine.
�What? What is it?� Dinh huffed, irritated with the younger boy.
Man continued to point and tug. Dinh tried to follow his outstretched arm but couldn�t see anything but trees and shrubbery. Man pulled Dinh and attempted to run forward but Dinh held his ground. A combination of the heat and Man�s muteness frustrated Dinh.
�I wish you would just say what you want!� he shouted and instantly regretted it.
The boy stopped pulling and looked up at Dinh. His good eye filled with tears while the other with the drooping lid, perpetually stared at the ground. Man�s mouth turned down at the corners and his lower lip began to quiver. Dinh�s anger quickly dissolved and was replaced by guilt. He hadn�t seen Man this upset since he had first met him all those months ago.
Dinh had been washing in a pond near a group of burned out huts. He had looked across the way and saw the boy standing at the edge of the water holding what looked to be a bundle of rags, watching him. The stranger�s gaze made him uncomfortable, so Dinh pulled on his billowing white t-shirt and began to leave the pond. As he walked he glanced over his shoulder to see if the boy was still watching him and found that he was now being followed. Dinh stopped and turned to face him. The boy stopped in his tracks not five feet away. Dinh began walking again, slower this time and when he heard the footfalls of the other boy he jumped around and almost knocked into him.
�Why are you following me?� Dinh demanded.
Now that the strange boy was closer, Dinh could see that he was crying. There was a putrid smell that Dinh noticed immediately. At first, he thought that the boy hadn�t had a bath in quite sometime. He crinkled his nose and exclaimed, �What is that smell?� The boy said nothing, only began crying harder. Feeling bad for the boy and unsure of what to do, he made an awkward attempt to hug the crying child. As embraced the boy he felt something hard push into his chest and realized there was something in the rags he was holding. Dinh pulled the rags away to discover a very badly decaying infant. He stepped back, startled and disgusted. The boy held out the dead baby, tears rolling down his face. The sight of the corpse churned Dinh�s stomach. The head of the baby looked sunken in and rotting, the flesh a sickly purplish brown. The nose was practically gone and small white maggots jerked around in what was left of it. Flies danced on the tiny body and crawled in the worn away ears.
Not wanting to see the sight anymore, Dinh regained his composure and calmly led the boy back towards the pond.
�You cannot keep this,� he said trying to sound both gentle and authoritative, �We�ll bury it, okay?�
The boy shook his head and drew the dead infant close to his chest.
�This baby is dead. Do you understand that?�
A whimper escaped his lips as he continued to clutch the baby. Dinh swallowed, trying not to look at the decaying child and plucked it from the boy�s arms. He let out a cry of protest but Dinh ignored him and laid the infant down by the edge of the pond while he dug into the moist dirt. Dinh was relieved that the boy made no attempt to retrieve the baby and when he was finished digging, he placed it in the hole and quickly covered it up.
�There, all finished,� he sighed and began to head back the way he came.
As before the sound of footsteps echoed his own. The boy was following him again.
�Go home,� he instructed, �I did all that I could for you.�
The boy solemnly shook his head and cast his glance downward. Dinh understood that like him, this boy no longer had a home.
�Do you have a name?� Dinh asked.
The boy looked up at him quizzically as if the idea was foreign to him.
�A name?� Dinh repeated this time a little louder and emphasizing �name� but the boy�s expression did not change.
�Well I have to call you something,� Ding paused for a moment, �I�ll call you Man, that was my father�s name.�
The boy seemed to be pleased by this as a smile spread across his face. From then on the boys were inseparable. They found half burned huts to take refuge in when it was dark and during the day they spent their time stealing food and looking for anything that had to do with the war that ravished their country.
Now, as Man was on the brink of tears, Dinh quickly encased the boy in his arms and hugged him.
�I�m sorry,� he whispered and felt Man nod his head against his chest.
He pulled away and held on to Man by his shoulders.
�Show me,� he said and the younger boy broke into a sprint towards the ravine.
They went over to what was surely their greatest find yet. They were hard leather combat boots piled in a haphazard heap. American boots most likely. Both boys began pulling boots from the mound and trying them on. Some had laces missing while others had the soles dangling off. All were too big for either boy.
That didn�t seem to matter to them as they marched off in their pair of choice. Dinh and Man looked like small children playing dress-up the way the boots flopped around their feet. They walked past the ravine pretending that they were soldiers.
�Watch out, � Dinh whispered in his gravest voice, �We could be ambushed at any moment.�
As they walked further, the ground beneath their feet began to feel soggy. They were getting closer to the marshlands. Each step resounded with a soft sucking plop. Further and further they went until Dinh felt an odd crunching under his oversized boot. He stopped and lifted his foot. There was a cluster of shattered white fragments now embedded in the mud. Man came over and picked one up. He looked at it quizzically before holding it out to the older boy. Dinh, however, was not paying attention. He was gazing forward along their route. Scattered down the trail were bits of human bones.
Not far from where they were standing, Dinh could see what looked to be a mostly intact skull.
�Look!� he said pointing it out for Man.
Man�s eyes grew wide with excitement and before Dinh could stop him, Man sprinted off towards the skull.
�Man! Wait!� he shouted trying his best to run after him.
The ground only became muddier the closer they came to the marsh. Dinh used a considerable amount of effort to take each step as the soggy mud sucked at his boots. Realizing that he could probably move faster if he removed the boots, Dinh bent down to do so. He pulled his bare feet out, leaving the leather footwear behind. When he looked up again he saw Man struggling to move through mud that was now up to his knees.
�Man!� he cried again, �Stop!�
Man was focused entirely on the skull. He didn�t seem to hear Dinh�s calls or even notice that he was slowly getting sucked into the mud. He was only a few feet from it before he realized that his was now knee deep in mud. Man let out a yelp of surprise.
Upon seeing Man get pulled further into the ground, Dinh tried to pick up speed.
�Stop moving!� he called, �I�m coming for you!�
Dinh tried to step gingerly so he wouldn�t meet the same fate as Man. He took long strides all the while reassuring the younger boy. He could hear Man whimpering, frightened.
�Just don�t move,� he whispered under his breath.
The mud underneath him began to give way and Dinh felt his foot sinking a little deeper. He leaned forward, stretching for the younger boy. Man managed to turn his body halfway around to meet Dinh. Dinh reached his arm out and grabbed onto Man�s hand. He pulled as hard as he could. Unable to lift his legs properly, Man only fell face down in the mud. He lifted his head sputtering up chunks of wet dirt. Dinh grabbed hold again and pulled. He ended up dragging the younger boy for a few feet until the mud wasn�t so moist.
Man got to his feet slowly, still coughing up mud.
�That was close,� Dinh sighed, �I guess that�s one treasure we won�t be collecting.�
Man was covered in mud and when it began to dry it looked like old scabs. When the two boys emerged from the ravine the villagers looked at them curiously. Dinh hardly noticed, he was still thinking about the skull. He pulled Man along by the hand until they reached a hut that was barely more than a pile of rubble.
When Dinh woke up the next morning, Man was not lying next to him. He called out for him, thinking that he was probably just outside, but he got no response. Dinh didn�t think Man would just wander off without him. He gave a long stretch and got to his feet. Suddenly, his eyes widened and his breath caught.
�The skull,� Dinh whispered to himself and sprinted out of the hut.
He ran towards the marshes, his heart thumping in rhythm with his footfalls. In his mind he hoped he was wrong, he hoped Man didn�t decide to come back here without him. When he arrived at the pile of boots he slowed down, taking each step carefully.
�Man!� he shouted but got no reply.
He kept calling but only received silence. Dinh kept walking, feeling that familiar sucking of the mud. He looked around, scouring the trees and the shrubbery, still calling his name. As he walked down the path and looked ahead, he noticed that the skull was gone. Man must have come back. He tried to walk faster as an uneasy feeling began to settle over him. When he got to the spot that he had rescued Man from yesterday, Dinh thrust his hand in the mud to see if the boy had sunk under. He tried to move his arm through the thick murk but it proved to be too difficult. Dinh called for Man again and again until the he broke down in tears. He stood in the marshy ground for a long while, sobbing into his hands and crying out desperately for the boy he had come to know as his brother.
Dinh was so wrapped up in his sorrow that he didn�t notice the rustling of bushes in front of him. He was startled when a skull was thrust in his face. Raising his head, he saw Man, caked in dirt and wading through the chest high mud. He was smiling broadly, his white teeth contrasting against his muddy body.
�Man!� Dinh shouted and wrapped his arms around the boy.
He embraced him, squeezing him tightly and feeling the hardness of the skull between them. When he let go, Man pointed in the direction of the village and looked at his brother quizzically.
�Yes, yes let�s go.�
The two boys waded through the mud holding hands. As they went, Man held out the skull in front of them as if it were guiding their way.
BIO: Sarah Van Den Bosch is currently a Fiction Writing undergrad at Columbia College, Chicago. �War Treasures� is her first publication.