The wiggling fingers

or the strange living dead

It was a typical Vietnam day. Very hot and sunshine. I don’t remember the date and it was a long time ago so when and where probably don’t matter. I know we were patrolling the lowlands instead of the mountain jungles for a change. Mainly flat rice paddy land with groves of vegetation here and there. Civilian populations were not far away and we had to be careful about what we were doing as far as shooting at people.

Our platoon was walking a trail we had not been on before but another platoon in the company had traveled the trail a couple of weeks before us and they informed us over the radio that they had shot and killed a lone Viet Cong when they were there.

As we walked along we kept an eye out for the dead enemy, not knowing if he was still there as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers collected and buried their dead. We continued to walk the trail and after a while we began to catch whiffs of the stench of death so we knew we were not far from the place where the other platoon had killed the VC they encountered. All of a sudden we came upon the scene. The enemy Viet Cong was still lying where he had died. After two weeks in the hot tropical sun the stench was unbearable.

The scene was also unbearable. I don’t think human beings are equipped to look upon the rotten remains of their own kind. It is like something out of a dream, or rather a nightmare. My eyes did not want to believe what I was seeing but reality was unavoidable.

As I stared at the man’s corpse, trying hard not to see but seeing anyway, I noticed something which at first I thought was a trick of the eye. The man was still moving. His fingers were wiggling. They appeared to be trembling ever so slightly. This didn’t compute for me. The man was obviously dead but seemed to be moving slightly. It was then that I finally realized what was the source of the motion I was seeing. The wiggling fingers were being made to wiggle by swarms of writhing maggots which had completely covered his hands and fingers. If fact, no skin was in evidence. Absolutely every place which used to be skin was covered in the masses of writhing maggots whose squirming motion as they fed made it appear that the fingers were moving up and down slightly. After some more staring in horror I realized it was just not his hands and fingers. His entire body was wiggling slightly. It was then that I finally understood. What I was seeing was a wiggling, squirming mass of very active maggots wearing a man’s black silk pajamas.

People weren’t meant to see such things. At least I know I wasn’t meant to see them but I found myself in the position of being forced to endure nightmare scenes like this one. This one bothered me for a long time as usually their dead were buried quickly as soon as American troops were out of the area but this one had escaped the enemy’s notice for whatever reason. It’s hard to get a scene of a stinking mass of maggots out of your mind. This one is still with me even forty years later.

Terry Coats

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