ANGELS OF MERCY • by L. Mahayla Smith

My helicopter crashed into blackness somewhere south of the Imjin River. My whole life didn’t pass before my eyes. Just the scene most worth remembering: Giselle and me strolling through Paris six years ago, November 1945.

She wore a red coat with a floral scarf that accented her auburn hair and bronze eyes. We wandered La Rue des Rosiers in Les Puces, milling over tables of second-hand goods. Giselle bought me a Louis Vuitton belt with a checkerboard pattern and said, “Now a Yank pilot can dress like a Parisien.”

The German garrison surrendered three months earlier and I couldn’t believe I’d found her again. Couldn’t believe the love I felt for her — the most beautiful woman I’d ever kissed. And the only one who’d said, “I want to be the first voice you hear in the morning.” I promised that her name would be the last words crossing my lips in this life.

Back stateside, I’d had the shiny silver buckle engraved with Giselle’s initials: GAP. The “P” was for my last name, Perez. That dream never came true.

Then in ’51, the Army conscripted me to this hellhole people call Korea. I brought the belt with me. Brass reprimanded me about unofficial waist attire — until I started working MEDEVAC for the 8th Army. They could’ve cared less. All they wanted was for me to strap shot-up GIs onto the side of an H-13 Sioux helicopter and hurry back.

Tonight, I was flying search and rescue on a highly decorated, downed Douglas F-10 Skyknight pilot, Colonel Harold Kirkland. Headquarters would classify the cause of my current snafu as “pilot error.” Army regs strictly forbid use of helicopters at night. We did it anyway. I’d gotten away with it — until now. But this wasn’t my mistake. The chopper’s gearbox flat-out failed.

Whispering Giselle’s name, I touched my belt buckle. My whirlybird skirted the trees, then slammed onto the rocky hillside.

I pinched myself hard to be sure I was alive. It hurt. Death would’ve been less troublesome.

I tried the radio, but jarring had killed it. A warm, wet cloud covered my eyes. My forehead was a gash — highly inconvenient, but not life-threatening. The rest was unscathed. I took medic gauze, pressing it to my face. Then my training kicked in. I climbed out and away from the helicopter.

Boulders and conifers dotted the slope. I moved up the hillside. The enemy would likely be coming from downhill and a rescue chopper would have better luck from the top. I sat down a safe distance away beside a towering rock to consider my lousy options.

I had the advantage of nearby cover, although I couldn’t remain there during rescue. Still, if I heard a rotor, I’d come out. Maybe use the belt buckle like a mirror to get spotted come daylight. The night was moonless. That wasn’t much reassurance. North Korean guerrillas snuck into Army tents at night, stabbed sleepers and slipped away, leaving fellow soldiers to discover their dead compadres in the morning. Pitch darkness would be over in an hour. My greatest advantage was that the crash was mechanical. Guerrillas didn’t shoot me down. I wasn’t near a village, and they might not know I was here.

Unfortunately, neither did the US Army. But they’d resume the search for Colonel Kirkland at dawn. They’d eventually realize I hadn’t returned either. I allowed myself a shimmer of hope.

That’s when the helicopter broadcasted our location by exploding into a shower of noise and fireworks worthy of a Philadelphia 4th of July celebration.

“Jesus Christ, Giselle!” I said. I’d called Giselle’s name a thousand times in Korea when I was scared shitless. This time I heard her voice. “Move it, Sam!”

I ran further uphill, darting behind trees. I reached the top and that’s when I saw it. On the other side of the mountain, a hundred yards away was the F-10 Skynight. Displaced dirt into a pine canopy explained why it was never located from above. It lay in two parts. I bolted to the obliterated tail section.

“Must have skidded that first,” I muttered.

Further ahead, I spotted the crumpled but intact fuselage. Doors were closed. I should’ve hurried, but I slowed down, not wanting to face what might lie inside. The pilot’s door was unscathed. I had no problem opening it. Colonel Kirkland lay unmoving on the far side of the aircraft, his left leg trapped within intruded wreckage. I felt his carotid. A pulse drummed below my finger. I shook his shoulders. “Colonel! It’s Sam Perez.” He didn’t respond, but eyelids flickered, then grew wild and wide before shutting again.

I grabbed the radio’s handset and was astonished to hear it crackle. “Mayday! Mayday!” I shouted until I heard the familiar voice of 6038 MASH unit’s Lance Corporal Roger Bonner. I gave him our situation and approximate location. Then I returned to Kirkland — without any supplies.

The worst of it was the leg. The fuselage had surrounded it and I struggled to dislodge his torso, before observing everything below the left knee was missing. The pressure from surrounding metal had stemmed the hemorrhage, but now freed, blood squirted from the ragged stump. I took off my jacket and held pressure.

In the distance I heard footsteps, but no words. “I hope your luck’s better than mine, Colonel,” I murmured.

My heart raced. I wanted to draw my service revolver but didn’t have a spare hand. That’s when I thought about the belt. I took it off and used it as a tourniquet.

I stepped outside quietly, scanning the horizon. Eventually the enemy emerged from shadows — a deer with twin fawns.

I collapsed hard on the ground and reached for the belt buckle, finding it missing. Reminded of my duties, I dusted myself off and headed back to the Colonel, whispering the name Giselle.

As I made my way, I heard the thrumming of wings. Some might think it was another helicopter, but I knew who it was.

L. Mahayla Smith’s previous work has appeared in these anthologies: Women. Period, This Ain’t No Rodeo, Unbroken Circle, Jackson and Central, Three Bridges, and A Knoxville Christmas, and in the on-line publication Every Day Fiction. She lives in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, USA with her NPR jazz radio host husband and two very poorly behaved tuxedo cats. Most of the time, she masquerade as a trauma surgeon.

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