American Grave Digger
By Cathy Jo Beecher
I’m standing in brown rubber Xtratufs, ankle-deep in a soggy rice paddy. A rickety Soviet military helicopter set me down among verdant limestone karsts somewhere north of Luang Prabang. I’m miles of Mekong beyond where most Westerners venture. Shovels and buckets in hand, the Lao call me Lady Sikhav - White Lady. Reverently or irreverently, I wouldn't know. Maybe it’s just pragmatic. Suke, my interpreter, sticks to swapping Lao for English not context for meaning.
James is buried out here. He told me in a dream, wearing his green tattered flight suit and Vietnam War-era flat top. The Pathet Lao took him from the wreckage but it’s murky after that. My informant is an ancient man in threadbare shirtsleeves pinned for limbs lost to landmines. He knows where James is, but this soothsayer is coy. Local officials who arrange our meetings like Americans; like our capitalist dollars in their communist pockets. My informant is precariously directed to provide just enough information to keep us digging. Hoping Americans keep promises to their dead; hoping we keep coming back. We all know it’s macabre bartering, but we move the dirt anyway.
The Lao squat just above the mud, wearing bamboo hats and nibbling scraps of fish and rice. Meanwhile, I sit in an $80 REI camp chair munching an $8 chalky protein bar. These Lao trek a few miles from a nearby village to work. They earn a few dollars a day; the most they’ll make all year. They march from corrugated metal shanties wearing cheap rubber flip flops — the kind that rub wrong and break.
Margaret doesn’t want us here. She ardently believes James is 80-something, alive and well. We all tell ourselves better versions of history to keep the wounds of grief zipped up. Then again maybe she’s right. Governments lie and he’s living under a thatched roof speaking fluent Lao with his other wife of 50 years. You must love someone unconditionally to prefer that scenario.
I’m 120 cubic meters into this monsoon-season excavation: one morphine vial gone thick and brown; a weathered wooden cow pelvis; countless buckets of rusted bomb fragments; and so much plastic. If James is here, he’s buried under a meter of garbage. Suke teaches me to listen for the rain. The cicadas’ hum silences as the humidity thickens. This rain is otherworldly. Big, fat, drops pound with a sense of urgency, like the saffron-robed monks on temple drums. Cymatic vibrations reverberating in my chest as the open pits we dig become brown turbid pools. I don’t know what’s so unsettling out here, but the insides of my waterproof boots are soaked.
James’ grave remains surreptitiously out of reach on our last day. We bombed them for nine years, and the tiny Lao woman we call “Grandma” lifted buckets of heavy mud all summer, searching for the bomber. With leathery hands and wet eyelash shimmers, she hugs me goodbye. Maybe it’s the unfettered irony of it all, but how could I not weep too?
Author Bio: Cathy Jo is an anthropologist, writer, and RPA member (#17252) living in Montana. She received her Master’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Montana in 2015, and worked as an archaeologist for the University of Montana’s Center for Integrated Research on the Environment. She’s also served as a civilian anthropologist for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, and occasionally teaches as an adjunct instructor. Connect with her at linkedin.com/in/cathy-jo-beecher.