Second place winner in our 2022 flash fiction contest.
Every summer, we waged war on the bamboo.
Scientists say that taste is mostly smell, so maybe the smell of it crept into my father’s nose, slinking past his mustache, just as the roots snuck under the rusted, curling metal fence that separated us from our neighbor. Once it reached his nose, the only thing for it was to grab something sharp and begin to hack.
“Vietnam invades,” he said, standing in the doorway to the backyard, the scorching sun behind him.
The only story he told of his time in the army was about getting stranded on some misty mountaintop. Clouds and bullets crowded the skies, so the helicopters could not reach them. His platoon ate bamboo soup for a week, its weak broth dribbling down their throats and fatigues.
He was so tight-lipped about the war that I have little else to feed my imagination. His time there is a fog to me, and I envision it mostly as a crusade against the bamboo. A younger version of my father, eating his enemy in desperation.
“Go help your dad,” my mother hissed between clenched teeth.
Outside, his weapons were the machete, the saw, the trowel, and the shovel. Insects gathered on him and on me to watch, thirsty mosquitos with hungry suckers, long-legged spiders with shining eyes.
We beat back the bamboo’s yearly advance, but it had a hive mind. It was not concerned with losses. My father would stand among the carnage of shoots and leaves, filthy in his khaki shorts and white undershirt, the stains at the armpits crusted brown. A sweatband held the dripping black curls from his eyes.
His brother Lawrence had made it back alive too, but just barely.
He sometimes wound up on the streets. Then he would turn up here, or turn up there, and then disappear all over again, until he ended up in Florida, finally, unable to turn up or disappear anymore.
“You sound like Lawrence!” my mother would say when she had tried everything else, and my father’s eyes would go wide, and I never knew where he was in those moments, here or there, or out back with the bamboo and the spiders.
It always came back. But, then again, he knew it would. The only thing to do was to keep slashing. One year, he determined enough was enough. We would remove it all, root and branch.
“Containment has always been a failing strategy,” I said, looking up from my book. He stared back, silent. “Never mind,” I said.
I remember thinking, at what age do men become prone to declaring war on things like creeping bamboo? On loose doorknobs and wobbly tables? I did not yet understand this impulse to impose my will on something, on anything, to make up for all the other times.
“Bamboo roots can grow down two, maybe three feet,” he said. He surveyed the yard and gestured broadly. “We will have to dig deep.”
The work was backbreaking. Perspiration on our arms dribbled to our fingertips and collected there until gravity yanked it to the ground. The smell of sunscreen and mown grass gave each breath a flavor, and the rhythmic thwack of the machete beat like a drum.
We did not speak but instead hacked and dug. We cut and pulled and ripped and tugged, harvesting as much of the root as we could find, from as deep in the earth as we could reach, like demented treasure hunters. Our hands and faces and shirts were covered in dirt. Mud caked under our fingernails. The base of our thumbs blistered and tore. Casualties mounted by the hour, bamboo bodies accruing at our feet.
“When are we done?” I asked, breathless and exhausted, but he kept cutting and smiling. When easy victory did not come, and did not come, and still did not come, my attention began to wane. I joined him later each morning. My rest breaks stretched longer and longer.
He toiled alone after I abandoned him. When he came inside to gulp a glass of iced tea, I buried my face in a book until he marched back out again, alone in the jungle.
“Go help your dad,” my mother hissed, her apron smeared with flour, tears in her eyes.
In the end, a moat as deep as his thighs marked the perimeter of the backyard, directly inside the fence that separated us from the neighbors. Claiming victory, he retired from the field of battle, trudging into the house with bright eyes and ripped hands, smearing mud onto the kitchen tile. We welcomed him back, clapping and cheering in a mock parade, but our gazes fixed on the devastation that showed through the door he had left ajar.