Chapter 1 – Transfiguration

Ulises Duque, a petty believer, called to God for succor in his lonesome calamity. Swiftly, he heard a flutter of angel wings over the skies above the jungle canopy at Bao Cat village. His sweaty eyes scanned the blue above and soon caught sight of the envoys from heaven.

A flock of vultures. Maybe a dozen.

The fowl lazily swept in from the west, perching atop the volcanic boulders that encircled the ancient village forest. They sat there, transfixed.

“I did not pray for birds of prey,” Duque sobbed. Tears of contempt and anguish screaming out to a high heaven. A smaller flock of the bare-neck fowl also swept in from the northern rim of the Laotian sierra. Younger ones. He surmised a grub quarrel was in the making.

One by one, the new birds perched on the deformed branches of dead trees still precariously hanging from the surrounding mountain cliffs. Trees splintered many years ago by the clumsy carpet bombings and toxic chemicals of the old French dirty war.

Duque lost hope. To while away the minutes towards his end, he began counting the birds as they fastidiously roosted nearer to him. Then the vision came.

Yet…

A few instants before, crushed by his battlefield luck, Duque saw how the American war had finally arrived at Bao Cat. A millennium of backwardness and distance from the political power centers had kept the hamlet lulled and forsaken inside the shrubby uterus of Vietnam’s central cordillera. Then, on that October day of 1967, all hell broke loose.

Rat-tat-tat-tat-rrraaaatttttt-tat, tat.

The bullets first hit the uphill path to the village, springing up tiny gusts of splintered rock, lead shrapnel and dust near Duque.

“The Vietcong is farting lead,” yelped Papio Pina, his husky voice strained with battlefield uncertainty. The machinegunner crouched a bit lower into the fern grass, squatting a mere spitting distance from the bamboo gate to the hamlet. Duque also crouched closer to the entrance, M-16 rifle in full automatic. Both were spearheading the assault on Bao Cat.

“Zone’s hot now,” whispered Duque

“Yeah, man. Them sneezin’ gunpowder and coughing bullets. Thirty calibers, too,” Papio muttered in a hushed tone. He moved his face about, nose to the air. “It stinks of caca. Maybe water buffalo dung?”

“No, man. It’s me. I may have just shitted in my pants,” Duque said shamelessly.

Papio grunted. “Hell, man. Stop farting. It’s those cold C-rations we had for breakfast. Uuggg!  A mush of Lima beans and cold franks. My stomach aches, too.”

“No. It’s fear, buddy. Steel cold, fucking fear. Think we can make it alive across the village?” Duque inquired. He feared that staying put would make them a easy target for the village guards. A mad dash to a boulder by the side of the hamlet plaza would better protect both.  Having no answer, he turned to Papio and noticed his buddy in a trance. The eyes of the bulky negro took on a look of dread and his voice became muffled.

“Hey man, something bad is about to happen. Quyet Thang is here and wants to kill us all,”  Papio coughed out with a strained tone.

A hot breeze wafted in from the South China Sea. It felt to Duque as if a Chinese dragon was breathing down his neck. Both soldiers moved lower now into the tall elephant grass that lined both sides of the path, up past the ferns.  A small ridge separated the hamlet from the entrance trail. Duque appraised the rustic wood bridge over a stream that connected the stone footpath to the bamboo gate. Was the gate bobby trapped?

Suddenly, he caught Papio staring at him more intensely, a tear running down his friend’s bubble cheek. The tough warrior with the teenage face, a graft in Vietnam from Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem, began babbling out a loud and unintelligible prayer.

“Shut up, man. We’re in hush mode. And besides, you’re scaring me shitless!,” Duque hissed. He looked up again. Faraway in the eastern horizon, a flight of helicopters scoured the Da Nang coastline at low altitude. A Cayuse broke off the left air flank, rose high and headed westward towards the Black Mountains, straight to Bao Cat.

Duque shifted his eyes back and forth. He gauged again the village gate and then observed his buddy gunner hunch lower and crawl closer towards Ulises. He had more tears in his eyes.

Adios amigo. You’re going to die now,” cried Papio softly.

Duque rubbed the sweat from his brow, his hand soiled with the red dust of the jungle trail.

Cállate negro. You’re seeing things again”. But, his combat comrade only stared at him even more entranced and cried silently some more.

“Shit!,” cursed Duque , “that’s what happens when you go to war with necromancers. Just shut up, man.”

A whistling bullet cleaved the air. Duque’s body hitched up violently as if a tense, metal spring uncoiled deep inside his spine. A high-speed AK-47 round had just pierced his throat. He rolled on his back in a spasm and saw the apparition.  Up in the clouds, the monk Jampa Kochi appeared to him in a soft burst of pure light, no flesh, only surrounded by a billow of satin glow. Or was it simply a mirage of a Buddha statue?

Duque could see the specter as if it were inside a clean puff of crystal energy just above the forest canopy. It appeared as a diffused figure devoid of any earthly trappings. No torn, dusty robe, no worn out leather sandals, nor the small tithe bag usually hanging from the monk’s shoulder. Merely a simple, pure shape of light.

“Welcome to the universal web of souls,” proclaimed an oozy, melodic voice inside Duque’s head.  “As you can see, upon death we go on to become a sparkle of spiritual light. We are not cinders, nor dust of the Earth. We become light of the stars. Remember what I told you… Stars are the neurons of God.”

The vision lasted a mere instant. Soon the holy man vanished into the refulgence of the early afternoon sun as it slowly sunk over the mountain range. After the initial defensive shots from inside the hamlet, all became still.

Immediately, Duque began bleeding to death, his vital pulses gently shutting down. In seconds he felt his anima slowly dislodging from each molecule, each cell inside his body and surprisingly, it all turned out to be painless. At last, Ulises knew how physical life drained away from the human shell when the stranglehold of mortality lets go.

“So this is death,” he mused, searching the sky again for the monk’s presence. Only the vultures were there and closer.

In minutes, inferred Duque, he would be a different being, a flicker of starlight, as described by the gentle monk; a sliver of vibrancy fused into the rhythms of faraway cosmic pulses where there was no battle, no canister explosions, or no wop-wop of flying war machines.  No prowling birds.  A spirit silently sliding into a timeless bliss where colors and at last…  musicality became perfectly euphoric and alive; splendidly tuned in to the arriving soul.  All exactly as Jampa Kochi had portrayed. A soul transfiguring into a fugue modulated by the new emotions of the afterlife.  His last song from Saigon.

“How does one die expeditiously, monk?” Ulises queried with the faint, last tremolos of his human voice.

But the tumult of war erupted again around him, shaking away Duque’s new essence.  A smoke grenade exploded loud near the hamlet gate and enveloped the scene in thick, white vapors.  Duque also heard the screams of wild monkeys, a far off warble of forest birds and the nearby sad, muffled whimpers of gunner Papio Pina. Good old Pap Eye. The now weeping killer soldier.

   

Chapter 2 – Zinged

   

After a sniper shot put Duque down, the peculiar battle of the remote hamlet on the ridges of the Annamite Mountains took on an offensive intensity.  Inside Duque’s throat, the made-in-China slug seemed alive and burning. 

Transfigured for a mere instant, he was now an injured body and it began to ache intensely. He gasped for air, yet with a certain sentiment of honor.  The annals of the war in Vietnam would jot him down in a footnote for being the first casualty of the assault on Bao Cat.

As he began to shake away such vain thoughts, three more shots hit the ground around him, no doubt aimed at the nearby machine gunner.  It was then that Charlemagne Papio Pina, nicknamed Pap Eye  –because soldiers usually baptize each other with suitable battlefield monikers– snapped out of his stupor. He moved forward towards the gate, knelt on one leg and let out a long blast of suppressive fire with the M-60.  He then hit the ground low again and reloaded another belt of ammo.

The platoon a few meters behind Duque and down the sloping path began to cautiously flank the hamlet through taller foliage. They also let go of a rapid rifle fire sequence and pistol volleys. Soon Ulises heard the double zoot-zoot of Jairo Jaramillo’s grenade launcher followed by explosions behind the village pig pen. The attack maneuver, led by the feisty lieutenant Jeremy Popper began at last to garner some operational unity.

“Free fire. Open fire. Move to the quarters,” Duque could hear Popper desperately screaming orders. Under the protective volley, Papio anxiously crawled back next to Duque and wrapped a sweat towel around his neck to hold the bleeding. He then moved nearer to the gate entrance and let out a few more bursts of machine gun fire.

Bullets zinged all around the hamlet, ricocheting off the volcanic boulders or swallowed swiftly by the thin, straw walls of the huts. Clay pottery atop rustic benches at the central plaza split up into fragments as straw baskets tumbled in shatters to the hard ground.  A hog, half his snout blown away by shrapnel, ran around crazily, squealing in pain. Chicken, geese, ducks and an old rooster sought refuge in the shrubs.

Ulises did another eye search for the sniper. No sight of villagers anywhere. He got the sense that the villagers and custodial guerrillas were now in deep trenches, in tunnels or sniping from atop the thicker trees above the ridge.

Immediately after the apparition vanished, Ulises felt another terrible pang in his Adam’s Apple and his throat became engorged with saliva. Drivels of blood burped out one side of his mouth.In this new death throe, the bridled poet in him sprang loose. Just his luck  –Duque fancied– a young life oozing vitality into the crystal brook that sprang out from the thick jungle, streaming down hamlet rivulets, past gigantic boulders and cascading to the river valley below. He imagined the waiting waterways beneath him carrying his lifeblood eastward towards the China Sea, on to oceanic currents, home to Caribbean waters.

Duque fantasized how once in the Mekong Delta, his life sap may retrace north and taint crimson the River Sai-Gon. The majestic Song Sai-Gon. Vietnam’s waterway of life. Just last summer the backdrop for his love days with Kikei Santos. The setting for his Saigon Song to her heart.

Murky, pongy Sai-Gon waters. Since time immemorial, Vietnam’s riverine artery  –always boggy and clouded with the blood of its ancestral poets and patriots.  A liquid potter’s field to now rest the vital fluids of Ulises Duque, the willing musician of war, the reluctant warrior. The puny soldier who in a downcast, gave up his soul to die as a scorned lover. Or was it for spite?  Effrontery?

Drowned in such thoughts, Duque began to shiver in pain. So little time left to figure it all out. He sighed deep and silent, seeking to calm his drumming heart.  As spirit and body wrestled to let each other go, Ulises yearned to compose what he expected to be his last sanguine song. A cadence to languishing anatomy. 

Instead, a big sob assembled in his throat, refusing to escape. Desperate, he searched once more in the sky for the monk’s spirit. He ferreted around his mind for a pitch, a few clefs. 

Amidst the dead tree limbs dangling from escarpments and ridges fringing the Laotian border, Duque heard instead only an ancient requiem for soldiers fatally shot in battle. The providential hymn to the futility of dying without a gallant fight. A dirge to the estrangements of war and the breaking of hearts.  All sung at Bao Cat by a choral of Cambodian vultures.

He stared in angst at the expiry birds, sitting there stoic and stern like as if on jade choir stalls and the greenish misericords of a jungle cathedral.

“God!  How long would it be to the end?  Rigor mortis will soon set in by this bamboo gate and crumbling monkey bridge and to what purpose?” he cried to himself.   

“Bao Cat… Truly not a quaint place to die,” Duque cursed under his breathe.  No strategic value.  A place not even found in ancient Chinese maps.

A futile war trophy for captain Ruddy Cardenas. A deathbed for the Tango troop emsemble. 

“My invisible God,” Duque mumbled on, “what disrtoted rules of military engaement? What coils of twisted intel brought me here to die?

To get to Bao Cat in search of the guerrilla commander Quyet Thang, Duque plied all summer through piles of tattered Viet Minh war chronicles. Most narrated chronologies about nationalist rebellions in colonial Vietnam. He also peered deep into piles of French annals postdating the Second Indochina War. On the behest of captain Ruddy Cardenas, Duque teamed up with lieutenant Boi Pham Nguyen to help expand the fields of scrutiny into Vietnamese rebellion history. 

The tall, boney South Vietnamese translator and Army of the Republic of Vietnam propaganda officer, diligently trained with the US Army to do profile intelligence on suspected Viet Cong partisans. Patriotic and pledged to fight Communism to death, Boi took to the task with fervor. In turn, Cardenas recruited Duque because besides musical skills, during his final college studies in antropology, he also specialized in paleography and monastic scriptoria. 

With Duque’s working knowledge of French and Boi’s polished translation skills, both did systematic content analysis on countless  captured rebel diaries and Viet Cong battle logs, put together by leather-tough rebel leaders who later the French Sureté decapitated; or, by Viet Minh cadre, still wasting away in military prison camps all over Saigon.  

At his deathbed at Bao Cat, Duque could no longer remember how many frayed maps, propaganda pamphlets, civil registries or arrest and interrogation records they examined, as the pair funneled their way into shuttered, dark and damp colonial Sûreté générale indochinoise police stations in Saigon. 

Quyet Thang, Cardenas knew, was a Nome de Guerre for the Viet Cong cadre.  Thus, the captain became frenetical about profiling the true identity and the elusive chieftain’s whereabouts. To Duque, it seemed the crafty guerrilla honcho had somehow designed the optimum hideout in the jungle and a unerring masque for his combatant persona.

Thang, as a teenage anticolonial radical in 1954 –Duque found out in the logs– escaped from the infamous penal colony of Paulo Condore disguised as a woman. He since had been on the run, in charge of underground political guerrilla cells and roaming assassination squads.

By the end of that 1967 summer, still clueless of his prey’s bearings, Cardenas  –by his own right a savvy US Army field intelligence officer– then ordered  Boi and Duque to visit remote battle sites wherever testimonials pertinent to Quyet Thang could be jerked out of shady  informants, or too eager Viet Cong deserters.  All to no avail.

Cardenas always carried a leather pouch filled with covert military intel charts that everyone in the troop figured had tacks for the location of elusive guerrilla bosses. All except Thang.  Duque knew the entire Tango company secretly hoped that all the haphazard intelligence would finally convince the captain that Thang was so invisible because, in fact, the rebel commander lay buried in an unmarked tomb, somewhere in a  remote communal cemetery behind a jungle hamlet. 

“No sense in hunting down a ghost, captain,” Duque heard the captain’s commanders tell him on a few occasions. Twice he was ordered to end his obscure mission, disband the Tango field company, return its soldiers to their original units and let them while away in garrison their few remaining weeks or months in Vietnam.  Except Duque, who was a new arrival.

Cardenas would not concede. Duque sensed in him a rage. An urge for reprisal. The captain continually proclaimed the cunning Viet Cong commander to be alive, needing prompt capture and humiliation. It all seemed to Duque a dark and personal foaming of the soul.

The annals described Quyet Thang as responsible for a rash of executions in early 1967 of top US and South Vietnamese military officers. No one in the troop knew it, but one of Thang’s targets had been Cardena’s uncle, a wily infantry top sergeant who wandered in Pleiku too close to one of Thang’s clandestine operational premises. 

Duque also knew the captain wanted eagerly to gain track as a apex field intelligence officer in Vietnam. He felt passed by or diverted from promotions by top brass on too many key occasions. To Duque’s surprise Cardenas was openly chagrined and vocal about it.

Crumpled but not beaten, an impatient Cardenas who also had honed himself in psychological warfare during his second tour of duty in Vietnam,  turned then  to less earthly intel sources. He shifted the quest for Thang towards the portals of the Vietnamese spirit world.  A phantom chase that eventually led to Bao Cat. 

   

 

Chapter 3 – Foetus

Barely half-conscious now, Duque surmised the loneliness of his sniper torment. There he lay, on a tenebrous, distant crag cleverly perched atop an isolated ridge, hid from the air by jungle canopy and by tall  boulders on the ground, all enveloped with grassy overgrowth.

Had he not been mortally wounded at the approach, Bao Cat might have only been to him a faded vignette in some old Chinese postcard. A whimsical cardboard portrait like those bought by stary tourists in one of Hoi An’s dilapidated bookstores. Or mayb, a dreamy watercolor fantasy evoked eons ago one monsoon evening by a forlorn Vietnamese brush maestro stowed away all his life in a court pavilion inside Hue’s Imperial Palace.

Yet, as war finally erupted upon the hamlet, the place suddenly became real and lethal, just as Cardenas had figured out in spite of all the derision.  A veritable, clandestine rest spot for top Viet Cong cadre, just as the captain’s spiritual informants had snitched.

Duque looked around again and saw no one. Not one insurgent to shoot at, much less the prime target, the elusive Quyet Thang. Possibly the sniper that hit Duque was an elder, terrified peasant defending his pigs and chicken coop from the olive-garbed intruders, the likes of which had never before bothered to climb the rocky bluffs. Perhaps Cardenas had marked on his maps the wrong objective. Ordered the attack at an equivocal timing. It may have even been a delusive military target, just as lieutenant Jeremy Popper preached all along.

¡Mi Dios!  Perhaps all this for naught,” Ulises mumbled on and on.

BAO CAT-Cascade1_fixed

A few seconds after his divagation, another rifle crack broke the silence. Duque heard a slug hit the dirt in front of him with a dry thud. He felt the lead bounce around with the rhythmic thump of a finely tuned Africanized water drum. Pum, pam, pum.

His mind reeled again. Vegetable crepitations, tree barks moaned and water splashes bounced about his mind with brio.  Duque found out early in life he was clairaudient, capturing in the inner ear certain sound waves imprinted onto and bouncing off any mundane object. And at that moment, even in this trance of death, the cadence of the jungle superseded the cacophony of war.  To him, Bao Cat hummed with tremolo chants to loneliness and isolation,  Champa ritual songs of long ago calling for rain and trilled orations for a good harvest.

How could he explain it? It consisted of  tiny sensations of melodic feeling. Here now, gone in an instant.  Not even his best music professors  were able to grasp it. So he kept it to himself,  tucked away in his soul as if it were a defect of character. A freaky, melodious sentimentality.

In his senses, all events around him contained a certain cadence, a displaced upbeat or a percussive utterance. Thump, tap, tap, tum, ta-tat.  A Conga beat. A clave, cymbal or a bong flutter.  Chimes and soft clangs.  In his head, sound clouds reverberated all day.

Drowned in such vagaries, silence set in again at the Bao Cat battlefield. His sphincter muscle went into a spasm again, twisted, bent and then relaxed.  Duque lay face up, staring from an eye corner at the nearby crest of the dry paddy dike, diagonal to the village entrance. He saw two of his comrades trudge cautiously towards the levee, half bent down with M-16’s at the hip. It was Mimas and Tabal.

Duque next squinted and gazed hard at the midday sun. Though partly in shock, he felt no need to blink away the sunlight nor felt the heat of day. He merely craved for a drink of water. It was an urge inspired by the fluid tone of horizontally cascading water by the hamlet ledge.  A new liquid song began moving about in his head.

As the Tango troop swiftly sought cover and the concealment of an good attack position, the Viet Cong sharpshooter remained still, probably taking slowly aim again for the kill shot.  He had effectively hit Duque in the throat but since his victim still moved around a bit, he surely was pondering an angle for the final rub off. Or perhaps, Ulises figured,  simply preferring to lay hidden for a while. Noiseless. Invisible to the intruding force.

Though sweat-drenched, in effect Duque felt cold. New visions came in.  For a second, he thought he saw his mother Teodocia, hovering over the rice paddy in the white cotton gown with embroidered fuchsia flowers she wore on special occasions. It was the dress she sewed herself at age 17 for her funerary upon being diagnosed with tuberculosis before adulthood. Instead, she had to hide the gown in a trunk another 50 years.

Next he saw her playing the old wooden harmonium she kept at the foyer of her ancestral home, back up the small coffee plantation of Puerto Rico’s central mountain range. So shady, so tropical a place even during summers. The front veranda always under the umbrella of a huge, flaming flower tree.

“I’m dying, mother,” Ulises muttered.

“Not yet. No one dies on the eve of one’s last breath,” Duque heard the matriarch say in her soft, mellow voice. Curiously, she did not seem to be talking to Ulises, but to the spirit erupting from his broken body.  In a next instant, the maternal ghost dispersed itself into the horizon. No harps, no angelical chorus, no heavenly gates to escort it away.

“Death is no melodrama, madre,” Duque gasped out loud, talking to himself. He finally blinked and began to close both eyes in the slowest of motions.

Ever since his arrival in Vietnam six months before, Duque wondered hard day and night about killing or being killed. Was the monk Jampa Kochi right?  Once killed, soldiers like him would become a wispy sparkle of eternity.  A minutiae blast of  luminiscent energy shooting out from a spent carapace to merge into the subtle tapestry, the invisible spiritual chemistry of the cosmos. Or perchance, a tiny spasm of radiance, beginning to pulsate forever among the vast concert of astral harmonics. Or maybe tragically, merely sucked into a long night of being not. Of nothingness. A simple lump of flesh and bone rotting by the bamboo gate of Bao Cat. Rotting vulture carrion. Sadly just that, nil. Nada

An instant before his life unwound from his swollen brain, Ulises Duque strived with all remaining strength for just one more reverie. Seeking a new apparition, he struggled with the last gasps of life to envision a probable face for his yet to be born child.

“Agnus Dei!” he prayed in Latin. So badly he wanted to know if his offspring would take on the smooth Polynesian visage of his estranged mother. Or maybe hints of his own suave, sambo demeanor.  Preferably his tall stature and a reasonable facsimile of his hazel eyes. The features he was inwardly so vain about.

One glance of the unborn… that was all Ulises wanted at his imminent moment of death. A pithy glimpse of the yet to be born infant for dynastic hubris.  Fatherly vanity.  A little notion of what was to emerge out of his own blood and flesh.  It was only fitting, because, by the wizardry of passion, he had lovingly placed that tiny creature in Kikei Santos’ womb to carry on both their physical and spiritual legacy.

Instead, what stirred up in Ulises’ mind were contorted memories of the amatory affair with quartermaster lieutenant Kikei Santos; the clandestine liaison that sunk him so deep into her alluring domains that it soon became impossible to find a way out. Mortician Kikei Santos. Viet Nam’s  Lady of the Lamps. The dame of military corpses. The undertaker of his love and lust in Da Nang.  His once amorous Kikei  Cocoa”  Santos.

Older than him, yet a woman of youthful coppery skin, childish charms and girlie raven black eyes, her glistening lava bomb pupils entranced him beyond any escape.  The bearer of his seed. The shooting star for his offspring.  So far away now from his evanescent life.

   

CHAPTER 4 – Mortuary

They met in the most unsavory, unromantic place in the entirety of the Nam war theater. How well Ulises remembered it all.

By a fluke, that early May afternoon Ulises paid a visit to some hole-and-corner forensic laboratory at at the northend shore of Da Nang air base. In a refrigerated and dank room under a circular surgery lamp, Kikei Santos busily toiled on a death mask of a Special Forces colonel. Duque walked into the room silently and noticed the mortician was not aware of his presence.

The body lay on a gurney covered by a green, operating room sheet, legs out and arms tucked under. Lucas saw no blood stains on the cloth, nor a plastic bag enclosure, so he presumed the officer died of natural causes. Duque cleared his throat emphatically to gain her attention.

“Fuck!” The lady officer jumped up startled hard. “What are you doing in my morgue, soldier? How did you get in?”

“The door was open.”

“No, it wasn’t. That entryway has an external loaded spring to keep it closed and an interior latch to lock it.”

“The door was open. I mean, not locked,” Duque insisted. “I’m doing delivery of mortuary paperwork. It’s my first time here in this cadaver deposit. I may have strayed into the wrong opening. Is this your personal hole in the wall?”

She unwillingly smiled. “Oh, God, a standup comic in jungle fatigues. OK. you made me laugh a little. Leave the papers on that table and quietly slide away.”

Duque gazed at the body and then at the technician in her long mortuary robe. She was a bit over five feet tall with short, wavy hair. Since Duque did not move she glared at him with large, dark eyes in the shape of inverted almonds. Her eyebrows were a bit thicker than those of other nurses Ulises had met at the base. Three tiny, natural beauty marks were spread strategically all over her face, the largest almost at the center of her forehead in bindi  style. He swiftly made a mental note of her body-fit jungle fatigues. The drill material drew up with precision her wide hips and rounded buttocks. The rip stop fatigue shirt with its slanted pockets full of pens and stainless steel scissors showcased a full bosom. Not large, but firm and pleasantly pointed.

She must be Latina, Ulises Duque remembered thinking. A coquettish one, who probably had a Vietnamese seamstress in town to tailor the uniforms to her curviness. He tried to imagine her in undies while getting a fit. His mind rapidly wandered into every tailor shop he knew existed in Da Nang’s old town, poking around chimerically for her sewing lady’s backroom.

“Well?” the officer snapped as she noticed his drool. Ulises quickly jumped out of the illusory traipse.

“Uuuh, listen. Although I’m not in the Medical Corps, I’ve been put in charge on all the casualty reports, health records, sanitation procedures and medical supplies for our troop. We don’t have a medic yet. You’ll be seeing me around here frequently. Hi. I’m Ulises Duque, assigned to an expedition troop up at Rumba Hill, in Chu Lai.

He extended out his hand for a shake. She now stared at him impatiently. Both her gloved hands were smeared with mortuary mascara.

“Out” she added, this time with the overtones of a military order.

“OK, OK, mam. Just one more matter. Are you Hispanic? I’m from Puerto Rico. But, you know, raised in New York. Moved there after my mother and then my father passed away on the island. He left me a small endowment and I went on to do grad work on musical anthropology. Syracuse University,” Duque said eagerly.

Her entire body suddenly relaxed a bit. She turned around to the corpse and continued her work. Two more layers of the plaster went on and then she covered the masked face with a damp cloth napkin that she pulled out from a battered steam autoclave. Duque decided to stay put, stay quiet.

“Hang on while I finish this procedure,” she finally said.  Duque put the papers on the table and walked over closer to the grossing station.

“Don’t touch anything”, she ordered and then pointed over to a corner of the room for him to stay. “I’m Lieutenant Kikei Santos, the officer in charge at this shadow morgue. Put on a sterile mask. They’re over in that drawer.”  Duque took one but kept it in his hand.

She worked in silence for a few minutes, collecting forensic instruments, putting them in usage sequence inside a pan with sterile liquids, thoroughly washed another bowl with the leftover material under a tall faucet and large sink. Duque knew in an instant she was powered by a punctilious mind.

“I too am of Puerto Rican descent,” Santos said, her back to him. “But, born and raised in Hawaii. Never been to the land of my ancestors.” She spoke over her shoulder toiling over the cadaver in preparation for the final top layer. “It’s ironic. This US Army commando colonel was hit by bullets five times and badly wounded by fragmentation. He survived, yet died two days later of septicemia after stepping on a punji trap during an extraction attempt at the Plain of Jars.”

Ulises came closer, arms crossed over his chest to relay to her that he would not touch anything. “He’s got the body build of Charlton Heston.”

Santos gave Duque a sneer.

“Sorry,” he pleaded. “I’m a cinema fiend. Of film musical scores,  anyway”  The lieutenant shrugged slightly and went on.

“He wasn’t supposed to be where he was,” she went on. “Neither his troops.  They call this now special ops,” said Santos. She became suddenly engrossed in thought and added in a low voice:  “I’m not supposed to be telling you all these things.”

“It’s OK.” said Duque. “I’ve got security clearance.”

“I don’t know why, but I can sense you’re a discreet gentleman and  mature, too. Also, put that mouth mask on. In my morgue, you do as I say,” Kikei expounded, facing Duque now straight on.

Duque complied, holding the mask with two fingers, taking it off to converse. “Anyway, the guy’s a corpse,” he sentenced. “Doesn’t matter anymore now where or how he died.”

While she beat some more alginate into a puree inside a larger bowl for the new batch, Santos went into a low litany, as if dictating into a voice machine. She narrated how the officer was killed during a covert operation, deep in the Laotian side of the border where his team had a secret camp for sabotage operations. The Green Beret squad of six and three Montagnards fell during an upland valley ambush while trying to extract a downed Skyraider pilot who parachuted into the Jars plateau soon after strafing North Vietnamese infiltration routes.

On the spot, soon after hitting the ground, Pathet Lao insurgents shot the aviator dead, she explained in a monotone. The American commando team succumbed after a twelve-hour standoff defending the corpse of a fallen airman. Kikei Santos then went quiet, diligently performing the final mask procedure while cautiously hiding from Ulises certain details of the grim episode. 

At Bao Cat now, Duque remembered how months later after the morgue encounter, while doing some aerial searches for Bao Cat with captain Cardenas, he found out from a buddy helicopter pilot some more knotted facts about American clandestine operations. His friend regularly did covert insertions of commando soldiers into Laos and Cambodia. It turned out that the colonel had also been manically searching for Bao Cat for almost a year, in covert liaisons with captain Ruddy Cardenas himself.

But, that day at the morgue, Ulises was only interested in the lady mortician’s agile hands as she nimbly spread the final gel on the dead officer’s face.  Her lithe fingers danced about deftly over the tight skin as if playing an descending arpeggio on a piano keyboard, her unpainted lips puckering and pouting as she calibrated the depth of the mask. To his shame, Ulises felt a certain pubescent arousal.

Her entire demeanor, the graceful way she moved her limbs around the work table, her intensity, the wide curves under the jungle fatigues… All immediately latched unto his war-stifled sexual yearnings. Now he ached for this woman.

“Time now for the final impression.” she said softly and with a certain melancholy. Ulises reeled. He intuited a musicality of woe with angst in her voice.

She now put on a mouth cover and began with the highest features. First, the jaw and nose, cheekbones and then spreaded over to the entire countenance.  It turned out, this was an atypical day for lieutenant Santos. As Da Nang’s official base mortician, death masks were an anomaly. Her principal mission at the morgue was to clean up and prepare bodies of fallen commandos for quick, furtive shipment back home. The invisible dead of  Viet Nam’s secret wars.

Santos discretely instructed Ulises that her duties as the only officer in charge of the surreptitious morgue were to be hush-hush. No loose comments out of the morgue door. Hermetical. 

“Of course, mam,” confirmed Duque.

“Officially, anyway,” Kikei stated with a snide. “Because even the VC knows about this place. We’ve been mortared twice. Most of the shadows we get here usually die in places that the US military is not to be, nor the VC insurgents supposed to go. Everyone illegally penetrates each other’s domains,” she casually said while placing both her hands lightly over the still bland mask.

“That’s what wars do, mam. Break every rule of civilized order. What’s your charge? I mean, what do you do to wrap up  –no pun intended–  such cases?” asked Ulises, feigning utmost interest. Somehow he sensed this woman’s ghastly work and the loneliness of the tasks, gave her a longing for live conversation.

“These bodies, by the set protocol of cloak-and-dagger operations, are to be disposed of diligently and speedily. No traces of cause. No overt reports of time and place. It’s sad. So much heroics for so little glory,” said Santos, this time without a single inflection in her voice. She was talkative, Duque remembered, but usually with a cold disposition, much like the skin temperatures of her undercover stiffs.

Walking back his memory to that day, Ulises remembered that Kikei Santos did explain that the colonel’s very traditional and military family from Virginia knew well-placed politicos in Washington and key people at the Pentagon. Through the high command grapevine, the survivors requested a death mask before his metal casket was to be sealed.

“The mask is to be a family military heirloom,” the lieutenant said as she spread the final layer and covered her opus with a another cloth towel to let it all air dry.

Kikei Santos then took off her mouth cover and gave Ulises a hard, deep stare as if he were one of the newly arrived corpses she inspected daily for a final disposition. He froze. Yet, he also instantly sensed hers was a intense, bottomless stare, deep into his soul. A sentimental x-ray of  silent endearment as only woman were capable of.  Duque felt goosebumps somewhere in the inner linings of the flesh. The almondy eyes glared intently, blinked then lighted up with a gushed alchemy of Polynesian sesuality and Caribbean firebranding. The gaze unsettled him in ways he could not surmise. 

It was a bizarre stirring, rather an urge to commit to this newly found woman; an impetus to engage and protect. Strangely, a feeling also tainted with the impetus to give of himself fully to her. Spiritual nuptials, Kikei Santos later termed the moment.  All with a cadaver as a main witness.

Ulises quickly acquiesced her with his eyes. Their gazes morphed to empathy, mutually embracing a shared emotion. No words came out, but both grasped the same feeling, fully tuned into each other, as if playing a violin and viola concerto in duo. The melodics of awoken  love.  

Yet, in an instant, the quick-minded lieutenant snapped out of it. He  sensed immediately how she fought off the warmth and went about her routine chores in silence, hiding from him a shy blush of the soul.

Duque despaired as the enchanted moment puffed away so swiftly. Helplessly, noted how fast the mortician Kieki Santos inhumed her emotions. Felt the vibe of cold distance in the room. A mechanical rebuff. He wondered whether it was her military training as an officer, or a female’s instinct of self protection from sentimental depredation.

Too late, though. Ulises Duque had already picked up a stronger, deep vibe in her. A sensual   beat unwillingly humming out her her psyche. A one which she could not disguise.  Fast enough he attuned to the inner stirring of tenderheartedness and candid giving of herself. He delighted in it because it was at a tempo akin to his own. Matching pulsations. Raw, sudden ardent vibes dancing inside their souls and outside that tenebrous mortuary ward.

Thus it happened. Duque recalled it all so well. A forbidden serendipity. A sudden entanglement with a captivating woman garbed in a forensic tunic. And he quickly surmised for him a fresh, new destiny with all the complexitiesof entailed by the happy providence. The list in his mind included the tragedy of love amidst a war scenario. The certainty of death. Lack of free reign as a simple foot soldier. Restrictions put on any rank miscegenation. 

Yet, he would take it all on with a heroic heart.  Kikei Santos was his nw  purpose in life, a necesarry love quest because he had been loveless until now.

It didn’t matter many enemy bullets the adversary fired his way from a jungle tree line, a  canopy top, an ambush bunker. Love made him invincible and he would survive all for her. 

By sentiment and fate, Duque felt entangled to the lady in the mortician robe. It didn’t matter, likewise, how many refusals Kikei Santos would aim at his heart.

   

Chapter 5 – Kismet

Half-conscious by now at the stony path, Ulises called it all back to mind, those South China Sea days at Da Nang. Somehow, the anguish of recall hurt deeper than his bleeding wound. Was it that a dying soldier becomes crushed by memory?

The remembrance stream took him back again to the somber morgue building as it sat all by itself in a corner at the northeast perimeter of the huge military compound by the shore under the Monkey Mountain radar sites. It was a secluded but well guarded area north of the lunated bay.

The US Army Special Operations Command had quietly set up the mortuary Quonset in the isolated stretch of the coast, accessed only by a narrow, hard sand road.  Anyone who was to do business there required a special security clearance.

So as not to attract much attention –Ulises figured out– no checkpoint or fences surrounded the morgue. Only a rustic Off Limits sign on a fence pole near the entrance. But in Nam at such a time, no security was ever bullet-proof

Captain Ruddy Cardenas ordered Duque to visit the shut out morgue for a discreet pickup of documents. He was to collect maps and diaries found on the cadaver of an elderly Viet Minh cadre, kidnapped a month before from the Hue University campus where he disguised as a geography professor. A mixed team of US Army and South Vietnamese commandos abducted, interrogated and tortured the aging partisan to death.

The abductee’s body ended up at lieutenant Santos’ morgue for stealthy disposition. Such cases were disposed of even more expeditiously in a small crematorium behind the Quonset. Ironically, the Viet Cong cadre’s body laid in a refrigerated vault side by side with the face-masked commando colonel.

Duque suspected it was the colonel who led the professor’s kidnapping at Hue before moving to his covert mission in Laos. Ulises never told Kikei, but the colonel and captain Cardenas were secretly working together to capture Quyet Thang.

Cardenas, in turn, suspected Quyet Thang had personally executed the Skyraider pilot at his camp in Bao Cat and later riddled the colonel with bullets during the extraction encounter. It was the guerrilla chieftain’s trademark in dealing with American captives.

Duque, for whom Cardenas had already procured the security clearance for such intel errands, arrived at the morgue under the guise of a medical equipment run. He faked the delivery of a portable autoclave for surgical instruments used in autopsy. The apparatus sat in the back of a tonneau covered Jeep that had been assigned to Ulises for such tasks.

In a sealed envelope Duque carried the orders for lieutenant Santos to hand over the abductee’s documents. Only then would he deliver the autoclave.  It was a swap ritual, devised by the Da Nang spooks for the interchange of work instruments,  diminishing the need for secret code words.

Duque remembered the final conversation that day.

“You get the much-needed autoclave. I get the documents,” Duque said after he had unloaded the apparatus. The lieutenant hesitated a bit, stared at the brand new machine, went over to the refrigerated vault and handed him a weathered leather pouch with the insurgent’s documents.

“Mission accomplished”, Duque said.

“I’ll get back to you for this. I’ll extract something from you soon,” the mortician joked.

“My heart,” said Duque. Kikei feigned no to be playful and began unwrapping the machine

In those days Duque was not visiting the Da Nang military morgues by chance. As an added duty, Cardenas’ infantry company needed someone to formally identify casualties at the graves-registration detachment in Chu Lai, another large military compound the Army grunts baptized as Fat City.  The mission was now part of Duque’s weekly rounds as company clerk. He also frequently visited the other larger morgue at the Da Nang naval base where from afar he had once caught glimpses of Kikei Santos. He had not paid much attention to her presence then, nor knew of her duties. Yet, so soon were they to be face to face and their love lives braided.

As she cleaned up and put away the tools of the funerary mask,  Santos became more chatty.

“You know… They don’t tell you these things at closed-door Command Center meetings, but a little math will.  Almost every day in Nam, half a hundred good GIs either die in battle, accidents, by self-inflicted wounds or by a varmint stings.  Do your best to stay out of statistics,” the mortician said as she slowly rubbed hydration cream on her hands. Coquettishly she had her short nails painted pearly white.

“I sure will. And now that we’ve met, more than ever,” said Duque.

Lieutenant Santos gave him a hard stare. “I don’t think we’ve met formally yet. But one cannot expect such formaities in Vietnam.  What did you say your name was?”

“Corporal Ulises Duque. Chief courier for the Papa, Whiskey, Tango companies at Fat City. I do all the paperwork for our executive officer captain Ruddy Cardenas,” Ulises briefly repeated.

Chief courier, huh?” the lieutenant said humorously. “Well I’m the Lady of the Lamps of the US Army stiffs. You know all that Florence Nightingale kinda crap.”

“Ah, I see you also read the Catcher in the Rye novel, too” Duque said triumphantly.

“Of course, at Honolulu High. Who hasn’t read it?  Anyway, hope you have a security pass. Otherwise you’re not supposed to be here.”

Duque was taken aback by the new attitude.  “I do. I am the captain’s special aide.”

“Yeah, yeah. Your the company mailman. Show the pass to me,” Santos said tersely, lips twisted to one side. Duque pulled out from his undershirt a hanging,  plastified ID card with the security pass.  She nodded and walked over back to the cart on which colonel’s body laid. She checked the mask for consistency.

“Am I supposed to call you mam?”  Duque inquired. His voice carried a tinge of sarcasm.

“Probably. But you don’t need to. Put on these gloves and help me remove the plaster cast. My two Vietnamese assistants are off today. Don’t pull back hard. Just follow my cue as I gently lift up the mask.”

She positioned Ulises across from her on the cart and bent down on the cadaver torso, placing all her fingers at the sides of the cast. The formaldehyde scent in her hair wafted up to Ulises’s nostrils. The sheet covering the body partially slipped off and he could see dry, crusted rings of blood around the bullet holes on the colonel’s chest. Caked hemorrhaging circled the abrasions of the shrapnel wounds. Duque could imagine the agony and trauma of the warrior’s last hours.

“Haven’t had time to cleanse the corpse yet,” said Santos as she expertly began lifting the mask from the top down.

“Very slowly lift up with me until we are in synch for a pullback,” she instructed. They hoisted together and in a few seconds, the mask was off.  To Duque’s surprise, the colonel wore a soft smile on his lips.  He had expected a grimace of torment. 

“He actually looks more like Jeff Chandler. You know, the smiling, silver-haired Chandler?” Ulises quipped. “But… that smile…”

Santos quickly detected his curiosity. 

“Out of compassion,” she said,” we fix up the faces. Only in certain cases, of course. It’s because some kin insists on an open casket. Or request a mask, as in this case. Both instances are rare but do occur. We’ve even had cases of kin who do not want their dead soldier back. Or, of GI’s put in plastic bag in the battlefield while in a catatonic shock. They later wake up in my morgue. That always scares the shit of me.””

“I wouldn’t want a faux happy face for my burial. Nor my family to stare at my last anguish,” Duque commented dryly.

“Not to worry. You said you’d be out of the casualties statistics.”

“True,” Duque shot back quickly.  He took a furtive glance at his watch. Captain Cardenas was probably wondering of his whereabouts.

“Ah. One more thing I need to do here today,” Santos said. “Bear with me a second.”  She took out a scalpel from a drawer, made a small cut of the colonel’s flesh on the chest area near the cross-chest autopsy incision.  She stored the tissue sample in a vial and into her pocket. “Some more shadowy stuff. I cannot talk about this.”

“Of course,” Ulises accepted. He was about to take leave when lieutenant Santos yawned hard, took off her lab rope and stretched out in a gymnastic-type maneuver.  “I’ve been up with this case since the first rooster crows this morning.”

Duque now got a full breadth of her. Indeed, she was not tall, yet ported a sensually full, curvy figure.  She stared at him groveling over her and he detected a faint smirk as it took shape on her lips. Then, the air around him felt aromatized by mating hormones. Or, at least he imagined so. It was so long now that he had been without a woman and felt drowning in wanton lust.

He shut his mind and was about to leave when she put her hand on his arm. It was not cold, in spite of the refrigeration inside the morgue. In fact, it transmitted a sensual heat into Duque’s body as if she had just inoculated him with strings of  lava flow.

“I like you your conversation,” Kikei said brashly. “It’s so lonely here. This work. You know, the dead and the clandestine. I think we can be friends.”

“Sure, sure enough. Of course,” Duque said with a stumble of words. “We can be tropical confidantes.”

Kikei moved her hand a bit up Duque’s arm, skin to skin almost to the sleeve roll of his jungle fatigue. It was then that he felt her full resonance.  He felt carnal stirrings upswell from her own flesh, somehow controlled yet tremulous, beckoning out from deep inside her body.  Kikei flushed at his realization but it was too late, what her demeanor safely hid, her eyes revealed.

Enclosed in Kikei’s now subdued gaze, Ulises sensed  a mosaic of ardent longing. A subdued but strong urge for attachment, deceptively shrouded yet perceivable by the primal instinct of a man on the prowl.

It seemed to him at least a call for intimate cordiality, or at most, a fiery passion. It pulsated under her skin in an invisible yet harmonic cadence. Perhaps somewaht like submerged lava curls trapped in the underwater caverns of the dormant Loihi seamount. Silently torrid, muffled but igneous, ready to eject from the core body of an aroused, enkindled Hawaiian goddess.