Portraits from the Shadow
by D. Thomas Minton
When Trung disembarked at LAX, the dead began whispering to him. In the underground tunnel
connecting the international terminal to the domestic one, the spirit of a young woman
whimpered from the murky shadows. He tried to console her, but only managed to attract the
attention of a uniformed man who told him to move along. In Denver, the ghost of an angry teen
hissed at him as he stepped off the rental car shuttle. All along the lonely road twisting up
through the forest of snow-capped pines, lost spirits glared at him from the edge of the blacktop.
America, like Vietnam, had a problem with ghosts.
Trung was thankful when he arrived at Hampton McElvy's cabin and found no spirits haunting
it. His fingers ached as he released the steering wheel and sat quietly, trying to collect himself.
He had traveled halfway around the world to speak with McElvy. What if the man couldn't help
him? Trung wasn't sure he could handle another disappointment.
He touched the pocket of his jacket. The crinkle of the paper within reassured him. Trung
dismissed thoughts of failure.
After several deep breaths, he climbed onto the porch and rapped quietly on the plank door. The
hinges creaked; an eye squinted out through the narrow crack.
"I don't give interviews anymore," McElvy said, his drawl sounding like John Wayne. To Trung,
every American sounded like John Wayne.
The door started to close.
"No interview," Trung said, putting his hand against the wood. He removed the yellowed
rectangle of newsprint from his pocket and held it up for McElvy to see.
"I don't talk about that anymore," McElvy said.
"Please, I came from Vietnam to speak to you."
The eye blinked at him.
"I am hopeful you can tell me about this man," Trung said. "He is my father."
Trung set the clipping on the table between them. Three weeks ago, he had found it among his
mother's things after her funeral. Trung had never seen a picture of his father before, but his
uncle had confirmed the identity of the man in the newspaper photo.
McElvy studied his knuckles as his knobby fingers worked them over. Life had taken a knife to
his face and carved fissures around his eyes and across his forehead. "Ask what you need to
ask," he said.
Even with the wood fire in the stove, a chill clung to the room.
"My name is Nguyen Hieu Trung. I am from Vietnam. For twenty years I have searched for my
father's spirit so I can bring it home, but I cannot find him. Do you remember this man?"
The way McElvy's mouth twitched, it looked to Trung like he was having a conversation with
Trung shifted in the wooden chair. He thought about the money he had spent to get there and was
starting to regret his decision. Impulsive and wasteful, he chided himself. Maybe his uncle had
been right after all. Why would an American remember a single North Vietnamese soldier he
had photographed over forty years ago?
"I remember 'em all," McElvy said, his voice barely audible. "They don't let me forget . . ."
In January of '68, I volunteered to go to Vietnam as a stringer for the Associated Press. If you
wanted to make a name for yourself, that's what you did. I was fresh off the tarmac when the
North launched the Tet Offensive. They took the ancient city of Hue, about fifteen miles north of
where I was housed with the 5th Marines.
Hue was crawling with NVA. Bullets and bombs. Booby traps everywhere, and not the kind that
killed you fast, but the kind that took off a foot or a hand or cut you deep enough that you'd
bleed to death 'cause they couldn't get choppers in with all the heat.
I spent two weeks thinking I'd never see another day. I slept next to bodies, with their stink for a
blanket. When I ate my rations, I ate death. At night, we'd hole-up in some dark building, and
we'd hear screaming and groaning outside. Sometimes in English, sometimes not. Nothing we
could do. We learned that lesson quick, when a marine tried to help a little boy burned by
napalm. He took a bullet in the neck and screamed until he finally died. Seemed like it took an
hour, but couldn't have been more than a minute. We couldn't get to him; all we could do was
watch and listen, listen to him gurgling and weeping, as he bled into his lungs.
Lance Corporal Stillman. Nineteen. He had a girl back in Omaha and a baby on the way who
would never see his daddy.
McElvy's Adam's apple slid up and down his long throat like a yoyo on a string. "You can't
learn to survive something like Hue," he said. "It was sheer dumb-ass luck who came home and
Outside, the day darkened as snow began to fall. The yellow light from the overhead bulb
huddled around the two men, as if it was afraid to venture into the room's darkening corners.
"We lost a lot of good people over there, but then, so did you."
Every person Trung knew had lost family members in the war: fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters,
millions of Vietnamese people. Many of them had never been found or properly buried, leaving
their ghosts trapped in the shadow between the pain of the living and the peace of the afterlife.
As long as their loved ones were lost, the living had failed their ancestors and would not prosper.
Trung had devoted his life to using his gift to reunite families with their lost dead, or just as
often, the dead with their lost families. Yet, after years of searching, he had never been able to
find the one ghost he truly needed to.
McElvy's bloodless-white knuckles gripped the edge of the table. "In Hue, I was sure death was
looking for me," he said. "I couldn't have been more right and more wrong."
The day after Stillman died, we got lit up by the NVA. In that craziness, I got separated, which is
not a good place to be with nothing but a Nikon F. Not knowing what else to do, I ran. No care
for how or where.
I ran until I got my wits back enough to realize running like that would do nothing but get me
killed. I ducked into a building that at least had walls and a roof. I found a dark corner and sat
there and shook and shook. Couldn't stop myself.
About that time is when I saw him. He came in through a doorway from another room. A marine,
young, face smeared with dirt and paint, all quiet like. He squatted next to me, leaned on his rifle
like it was a walking stick, and that's when I recognized him.
I thought I was hallucinating or maybe it was his brother. I didn't know. I said, "Is that you
Stillman? You okay?"
He had this look on his face, serene, like the world no longer mattered to him, like he was
beyond it all, aloof. Yet I could see a sadness in the tilt of his eyes and the way he looked past
me, like watching something faraway, something wonderful that he could never get to.
I touched his arm to get his attention. It was cold, unnaturally cold, and my stomach dropped out
of me like I fell out of an airplane.
I did then what I was trained to do. I took his picture. I shot his face wide open at a thousandth,
because of the light. Soft on the edges, but the eyes were sharp enough to see right into his soul.
Right in, like lookin' down a well. Then he stood up.
I hissed at him to stay down or Charlie might see him, but he didn't need to worry about that
anymore. He paused at the doorway he'd come out of, and motioned for me to come with him.
Then he was gone.
McElvy's mouth worked like he was chewing a piece of gristle. "I saw Stillman die, but there he
Realizing he hadn't been breathing, Trung drew a sharp breath. He couldn't decide if McElvy
was telling the truth or if the stress of combat had caused him to see things. Vietnam was full of
spirit mediums who claimed to have the gift to commune with the dead, but in Trung's
experience, few people had the true gift to do that. Most were charlatans taking advantage of
people's need for closure. "In Vietnam, we believe the dead can haunt the living. They can be
helpful or they can hurt you. Vietnam is a land of ghosts, many from the War with America, and
we cannot forget the lost ones. To do so dishonors them and dishonors us."
McElvy looked up from his hands with weary eyes.
The room seemed cold enough to crystallize the old man's breath, but only words came out of
After Stillman went through that door, I sat there for a long time trying to figure out if I was
hallucinating. It crossed my mind that maybe I was already dead, and to be honest, to this day I
don't know if I am or not.
But I was a photographer, a journalist, and my curiosity wouldn't let me be.
As I neared the doorway, I heard a droning sound. Some light came in through a hole on that side
of the building, so I could see into the other room. It was filled with flies, everywhere, like a
cloud of black pebbles. The biggest flies I've ever seen, but then, with all them bodies, what did
Must have been two, three hundred of 'em, laying on the ground like they were knocked over
bowling pins. Women still clutching little kids, old men with their hands tied behind their backs.
Many of them gaped up at me appalled, like I'd crashed some private party. They was all shot in
the back of the head, execution style.
I just stood there, looking, 'cause I didn't know what else to do, and that's when I saw her. A
young woman, movie-star beautiful. Sitting there with no expression I could read on her face,
sort of as if she had no opinion one way or the other about what had happened. She looked
through me, with eyes like Stillman's -- faraway. The pupils big, so I could see right into them.
I could see flashes of who she was, her life, like little vignettes played out with shadow puppets.
My hands were shaking so much, I could barely lift my camera, but when I got it up to my eye,
everything just changed. My hands went rock-steady. Without thought, they worked my Nikon's
settings: f/16 at a thirtieth, because I wanted to see every strand of dark hair as it framed her
face. I shot only one picture; then she got up and left. As she did, an old man sat down in her
place. I shot him from slightly above, f/4 at one-five-hundredth, so his face would rise up out of
the bodies beneath him.
More came. Kids with their mothers, men not fit to fight, more women, some beautiful, some
not. I never changed film; it never occurred to me. I just kept shooting and shooting and
shooting, picture after picture, and then they'd get up and leave and go someplace I-don't-know-where because someone else always sat down. I took pictures until it got too dark.
Then everything got quiet. No flies, no explosions, no screams. Just quiet.
For the first time since entering Hue, I felt at peace.
I sat in that room all night, so dark I could see nothing. The stink must have been incredible, but
the whole damn city stank, so I didn't notice.
I saw him with the first light. Where he came from, I don't know. He sat among the bodies, like a
heron in a rice paddy. Sat there, perfectly still. He wore a NVA uniform, and scared me so much
I nearly pissed myself. But then I saw his face, and I knew I had nothing to fear. I saw what
looked like regret, maybe for things done, or maybe not done.
We sat like that until the dawn moved across the floor and put light on him. Then I took his
picture. It was the last one I remember taking.
McElvy held the yellowed newsprint in his trembling hands. "I photographed your daddy wide
open at a thirtieth. It never should have come out," he said, "but he wouldn't be denied."
Trung's body thrummed. If he could find the building, maybe he could find his father's spirit,
not to mention the hundreds of others that likely still haunted that killing ground. "Where was
Trung's face flushed hot. How could McElvy dismiss his question? Trung restrained himself
from raising his voice. He was in McElvy's home, and as an American, McElvy could not
understand the importance of bringing lost spirits home. Trung lowered his eyes as he tried to
balance his challenge with a show of respect. "You must help me find that building."
"It wasn't far from the place they call the Citadel, but I can't say more. Getting there was crazy.
Getting out, I was crazy. A group from the 5th Marines found me seven days later, still sittin'
there. They heard my camera clicking, and pried it out of my hands, so I was told some days
later. I don't remember any of it after that first night. Finding that building doesn't matter,
though, because he ain't there. None of them are there anymore."
Trung exhaled a sharp breath. He closed his eyes and concentrated on slowing his pulse. What
did this American know? It didn't matter that the bodies were no longer there; the bodies were
McElvy grabbed Trung's wrist; his cold fingers sucked away any warmth remaining in Trung's
arm. "He ain't there." McElvy's eyes had a wild gleam to them.
Trung pulled his arm away. His chair scraped back several inches with the sudden motion. He
had seen that same glint in the eyes of some of the Vietnamese veterans, the ones who hadn't
been able to leave the war behind.
"There ain't no rhyme or reason," McElvy said. "Why does one man die when his buddy next to
him lives? What makes good men do bad things?" McElvy rose. In the sepia halo of light, he
seemed much taller than Trung remembered. "You came all this way to find your daddy, didn't
you?" He retreated into the shadows lingering at the room's perimeter. He stopped at a door that
Trung had not noticed before.
McElvy tugged at the bolt with his knobby fingers until it gave.
Trung rose and backed away. "What's in there?"
McElvy pulled the door aside. The opening was a black rectangle etched on the darkness.
Without answering, McElvy stepped through the doorway and was gone.
Silence settled on the room like a snowfall. Trung hugged his arms and shivered. Out the
window, snow collected on the windshield of his rental car. At the rate it was sticking, the road
would soon be impassible, and he would be trapped here. Trung became uncomfortably aware of
how little he knew about McElvy or his prejudices.
Trung picked up the newspaper clipping and stuffed it into his pocket. McElvy had admitted that
he had nothing else he could tell him about the whereabouts of his father. If he left now, he could
at least get back to a road that might still be clear of snow. Yet, Trung had crossed the world to
learn everything he could about his father. Was there anything else McElvy could tell him? If
there was anything more, no matter how small, he could not leave.
Trung stopped at the doorway through which McElvy had disappeared. Cold air, like that from a
meat locker, blew out the opening and sent a violent shiver through his entire body. After several
long seconds, his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the narrow room, its windows covered with
thick oil cloths to block out the light.
McElvy stood before a bank of file cabinets. The mist from his breath swirled around his head as
I spent a month in a hospital in Saigon; then I left Vietnam. I gave my film to the AP, and told
them I was done. When I got home, I put my camera in a box and tried to go about my life, but
you don't just go back to life after that. You don't just shower away that kind of filth.
I started hearing voices, soldiers, women, crying babies, English and Vietnamese and God knows
what else. I thought I was going crazy. They were coming from my closet. When I opened the
door, I would hear them like they were hiding in the pockets of my shirts. I pulled my closet
apart, looking everywhere for them. My shoes. The pockets of my pants. The boxes of junk.
Then I found my Nikon. The voices were coming out of it. I opened the back and inside was a
roll of film.
I'm sure I gave the AP all my film, every last bloody roll of it. Yet there it was, and as I held it in
my hands, I could hear the voices so loud in my head, all talking at me so I couldn't separate any
single one, like I was in a huge crowd, and all of them were clamoring for my attention.
I cleared off my dark room and developed the roll, but the film was blank, until I started making
prints. Then I saw the faces. The first one was Lance Corporal Stillman. When I touched his
print, I heard his voice in my head, clear as if he was standing next me and speaking into my ear.
He told me about how much he missed his wife, and how sorry he was that he would never see
his baby grow up. He begged me to find them and tell them that he loved them. He begged me to
take him home.
I promised him I would.
I printed photo after photo, hundreds of 'em, all from that blank roll of film. Each portrait spoke
to me as I printed it and hung it to dry. There were more faces than I remembered from that
room, there were soldiers, both American and Vietnamese, more civilians, more children, more
women and men. Hundreds upon hundreds like everyone who died at Hue had lined up for their
Sometimes they asked me to find their parents or husbands or wives. Sometimes they begged me
to tell their story. Sometimes they just cried, and I couldn't understand what they wanted. Most I
couldn't understand, 'cause I don't speak Vietnamese.
I kept my promise to Stillman. It took me months to find his widow. When I told her why I was
there, she slapped me across the face and slammed the door on me. I slipped the portrait
underneath. As I let it go, I felt Stillman's presence leave in peace. He was home, and he seemed
to know it.
As I walked away, the door opened, and she stood there, tears on her face, holding my picture in
one hand, Stillman's baby in the other. She didn't say anything to me, but I could see everything
I needed to see in her eyes.
McElvy pulled open a drawer of the file cabinet. Stuffed inside were old manila envelopes.
Trung came forward, as if reeled into the dark room by a string. He felt an energy emanating
from the drawer. At first it rose up from the tattered envelopes like a murmur, but as he drew
nearer, it grew louder, like a crowd awakening from a long sleep. In the noise, Trung heard
voices, jumbled together like noodles.
"I tried to find them all," McElvy said, "but I didn't even know where to start. In '76, I went
back to Saigon -- Ho Chí Mihn City -- not an easy thing to do at that time. With the help of a
Vietnamese art dealer, I hung pictures in some galleries, hoping someone would recognize them,
hoping someone would hear something and believe me. Your daddy's picture was one of them.
But I got nothing."
Trung's hand hovered over the envelopes. Goosebumps rose on the back. Without thought, he
reached into the drawer and pulled out an envelope. It took both hands to work it free.
"I took good care of them," McElvy said, "as well as I could, but they want to go home. They
need to go home."
Trung's fingers shook so much he had difficulty unwinding the thread that held the flap closed.
He slid a glossy print halfway out. His father's eyes, stared at him. He looked younger than he
"I --" Trung's voice cracked in his throat. He pressed the photograph against his cheek, unable
to speak. The picture smelled of mildew and age, but it was warm against his skin, like a parent's
comforting hand. Trung closed his eyes and imagined what his life would have been like with his
father. His uncle had done as well as he could, but sometimes a boy simply needed his father.
"It's me; it's Trung," he whispered in Vietnamese.
"I'm sorry," his father said gently into his ear.
Trung held the picture out and looked again into the eyes. They were crisp and clear, the edges
pulled with sadness.
"If only I had obeyed, I would have been there for you," his father said.
In his father's eyes, Trung saw the room in Hue, the hundreds of unarmed people kneeling with
their backs to a line of Vietnamese soldiers. Over the crying children and women, a Vietnamese
officer screamed at the soldiers to rid Vietnam of the imperialist sympathizers. When the soldiers
hesitated, the officer drew his pistol and shot the soldier nearest him who had lowered his rifle.
As he bullet ripped through his father's head, the line of rifles popped and rattled.
Trung screamed out, the picture crumpling in his hand. He pressed it to his forehead and wept.
The photo in Trung's shirt pocket warmed his chest as he loaded the last of the sealed boxes into
the back of the rental car. As he let go of it, the voices faded but did not go away.
Trung turned to McElvy standing in the snow to the side. He bowed to the old man. "I owe you
McElvy took his hand. "No," he said, and pressed a wad of green bills into Trung's palm. "To
Trung looked at the money. He had done nothing to deserve it, but to give it back would be an
insult. He would earn the money then, he decided. "I will find their families," Trung said,
knowing it was what McElvy needed to hear.
The lines around the old man's eyes softened.
As Trung pulled out onto the snowy road, the murmuring in the back of the car grew animated.
The dead knew their journey home had finally begun.