Chapter 1 – Transfigurations

Ulises Duque, a petty believer, asked God for succor in his lonesome calamity. Swiftly, he heard a flutter of angel wings over the skies above the jungle canopy of 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 old village forest. They sat there, transfixed.

“I did not pray for birds of prey,” Duque sobbed. Tears of contempt and anguish screamed out to a high heaven. A smaller flock of the bare-neck fowl also swept in from the northern rim of the 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, in disconsolation, Duque perceived how the new 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 right in front of 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 hard 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’ve just shit in my pants,” Duque said shamelessly.

Papio grunted. “Hell, it’s those cold C-rations we had for breakfast. Uuggg!  Mush of lima beans and cold franks. My stomach aches, too.”

“No. It’s fear, man. Steel cold, fucking fear,” Duque insisted.  He noticed that suddenly Papio fell into a trance. His voice became muffled and the eyes of the bulky negro took on a look of dread.

“Hey man, something bad is about to happen,”  Papio coughed out in a strained voice.

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

Suddenly, he caught Papio staring at him more intensely, a tear running down his buddy’s fatty cheek. The hefty warrior with the teenage face, a graft in Vietnam from Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem, began babbling out a loud an 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 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 Kuchen appeared to him in a soft burst of pure light. unrobed, surrounded by a billow of satin glow. Or was it simply a mirage of a Buddha statue?

Duque could see the specter inside a clean puff of crystal energy just above the forest canopy, in front of him and facing west. A diffuse 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. A simple, pure form of  light.

“Welcome to the universal web of souls,”  an oozy, melodic voice inside Duque’s head proclaimed.  “As you can see, upon death we go on to become a spirit spark. 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 shutting down. In seconds  his  anima  began slowly dislodging from each molecule, each cell of his body and surprisingly, it all turned out to be painless. At last, Ulises knew how physical life easily drains away from the human shell and into the ethereal dimensions, as 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, Duque surmised, he would be a different being, a flicker of starlight, as described by the gentle monk; soon to be fused with the rhythm of faraway cosmic pulses where there was no battle, no canister explosions, no wop-wop of flying war machines. A spirit silently sliding into a timeless bliss where colors and at last…  musicality become perfectly euphonic and alive; attuned to the arriving soul.  Exactly as Jampa Kuchen had proclaimed. A vibrational symphony to the real life forces and pure emotions of the afterlife.  Yes, true music…  the allure of Duque’s life. He so wished now to reach such a happy state immediately.

“How does one die quickly, monk?” Ulises queried in a low, trembling voice. His last tremolos of human voice.

But a deeper silence of the surrounding war set in. Duque heard only he distant screams of wild monkeys, a far warble of forest birds and the nearby sad, muffled whimpers of gunner, Papio Pina. Good old Pap Eye, the clairvoyant of death.

   

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Chapter 2 – Zinged

   

 

After the first sniper shot that took Duque down, the peculiar battle for the lonely, remote hamlet on the ridges of the Annamite Mountains took on an offensive intensity. He had swallowed the high-velocity AK-47 slug  –made in China–  taking it in the middle neck. Thus, Ulises garnered one glory as a Nam combatant, the first casualty of the assault on Bao Cat.

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.

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

“Free fire. Open fire. Move to the flanks,” Duque could gear Popper screaming orders.

Under the protective fire, Papio anxiously crawled back next to Duque and wrapped a sweat towel around his neck to hold the bleeding. He then moved back near 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 were 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 all over the hard ground in shatters.  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 dwellers, or their 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 a pang in his Adam’s Apple and his throat became incandescent. A drivel of blood burped out one side of his mouth.

In his death throe, the bridled poet in him sprang loose. Just his luck –Duque fancied– a young life oozing its vitality into the crystal brook that sprang out from the thick jungle, streaming in rivulets past gigantic boulders and cascaded to the river valley below. How he wished the waiting waterways beneath would carry his lifeblood eastward towards the China Sea, on to the oceanic currents.

Once in the Mekong Delta, Duque willed his sap would then retrace back north to taint crimson the River Sai-gon. The majestic Sai Gon Song. The waterway of his love days with Kikei Santos. Vietnam’s riverine artery,  boggy and clouded already with the blood of Vietnamese ancestral poets and ancient patriots by the unfinished struggle to liberate their land from foreign colonialists and native exploiters. It would be befitting, Duque fantasized, that his energies then be one with the spirit of the Sai Gon waters, in a grand fluid finale of warriors and poets. A paradoxical homage for him as the willing musician of war, yet reluctant warrior.

As spirit and body wrestled to let each other go, Ulises composed in his brain what he imagined to be a sanguine song, in cadence with his wildly beating heart. A melodic throb seeking escape out the veins with the rhythm of a dying soldier’s thumping regret of going away without saying goodbye. He wanted to cry it all out load but only a muffled moan came out his broken voice box.

Amid the dead tree limbs dangling from escarpments at the Annamite Sierra and its fringes with the Laotian border, Duque readily knew that what he sensed was the agony of a death chant. The ancient requiem soldiers hear when fatally shot in battle. A croon to the futility of dying without a gallant fight. A dirge of farewell about the estrangement of war and of pointless death. Ungraciously accompanied by a chorus of vultures about to feast on the fresh remains of a fallen, guileless soldier-poet. Expiry birds sitting by the choir stalls and misericords of the jungle cathedral.

Bao Cat… Truly not a quaint place to die, Duque thought. A place with no strategic value, a spot not even found in ancient Chinese maps. Rigor mortis soon to set in by the foot of a dilapidated bamboo gate and a crumbling monkey bridge. To what purpose?  he cried.

To get to Bao Cat and capture the guerrilla commander Quyet Thang, Duque remembered how all summer long  –prodded by captain Rodolfo “Ruddy” Cardenas–  with extreme efforts he perused old Viet Minh chronicles from the  Nationalist rebellions predating the Indochina War. And from there, the captain moved on to forgotten French war annals and then to field testimonials from shady Viet Cong informants or insurgent deserters. All to no avail.

In despair, they turned to less worldly sources as they shifted the quest to the portals of the Vietnamese spirit world. The phantom chase led to Bao Cat. Cardenas expected to find Quyet Thang there alive or, at the extreme, buried in a rustic tomb seven feet under the village cemetery.

Duque remembered how In those days, the captain, as if an appendage to his anatomy carried everywhere a leather pouch filled with covert military intel charts that he figured had bearings for the location of the elusive guerrilla a chieftain and his remote hideout in the Annamite highlands.

Evoking such affairs, memories soon became a slop of withered events and feelings  swirling about in parallel threads.  Moribund chemicals began to react in his brain. As his body bled in cinematic slow motion, Ulises felt he had a front row seat to the drama of death and lost impressions.  The prior burial hymn in his soul now gave way to a syncopated, jazzy burst of webbed recollections and most surprisingly, it all felt natural and precise.   

All his life this was the way Duque knew to metabolize sentiment. In him, feelings always took the form of a melody, a mood and a tone. Simply, he inferred at Bao Cat, maybe the fibers of his soul were made out of musical strands and not sparks of radiation as Jampa Kuchen had pointed out. Each moment of his life was but a song sung to the ambiguity  of life. 

In present agony, Ulises evoked the very few lazy summer afternoons at Firebase Marshmallow when he shut down the grotesque roar of war and composed tunes to homesickness, love nostalgia, youthful escapades and even the perplexity of military disruption. He remembered the jocular calypso he strung together with his guitar for the Papa, Whiskey, Tango company troupe. One line for each of the troop’s three ragtag platoons.

Papa loves mambo  /  Our captain loves Whiskey   /  It takes two to Tango   /   Search and destroy too risky   /  Grab a grenade and a mango /  Make the VC scramble…   

The tune lacked no festivity. It reeked with tropical verve and an unstoppable conga beat. Under captain Cardena’s behest and Duque’s musical mentorship, the Tango platoon came together as a Latin pop band for the morale uplifting of Latino grunts in Nam’s precarious First Corps  tactical zone. For a short spell that summer of 1967, the ensemble did a string of tours along central Vietnam’s firebase and played twice to US military headquarters troops in Saigon. The allied Vietnamese military commanders at Tan Sun Nhut were mystified. This music was so far from the inelastic, traditional court music of emperor days or the sullen, high-pitched notes of the national folklore.  Yet, all took a liking to to the rhythm and to the vigorous swing.

Ulises baptized the ensemble Viet-Nam Son. Partly to respect the Vietnamese tradition of dividing names into syllables and also in homage to the pleasurable, the unholy sensuality of the Cuban montuno son

The Papa, Whiskey, Tango sextet included two guitars, trumpet, an old German accordion brought in Da Nang’s black market,  PX bongos made in Japan, a home-fashioned conga with water buffalo hide, a pair of cracked maracas and three voices. Some arrangements included a handheld marimba that staff sergeant Chuco Tabal fashioned out of  Vietnamese noble woods he found in the rural villages. The marimba gave the troupe a sugary, cinnamon sound straight out of Mexico’s Chiapaneca jungles. When coupled with bongos, sticks or clave, the band exuded out a fiery, flirtatious footwork that no sane, living thing could forsake at he dance floor.  As Viet-Nam Son’s sound spilled all over the forward artillery bases, even the grunt’s long-tailed macaque mascots twirled and twisted on their perches.

“Tropical animals know too well the taste of jungle sound,” sang Cuban grunt and the troupe’s  main vocalist, Mimas Bolanos. Born as Bolaños, Mimas got rid of the Castillian  “ñ”   motu propio  because when he migrated to Miami as a child, his gringo teachers got tongue-twisted when calling out his name.  He also dug up from a duffle bag an old girlfriend’s Spanish castanets and they were also thrown into the band’s instrumentations.

Laying still and almost exsanguinate, Duque evoke the bizarre joy the band’s music set off amidst the rancor of battle. The musical fare included Latino dance music of the late 50’s to early 60s. Viet-Nam Son cracked up mambo, boleros, three-step cha-cha-cha and the latest charanga styles from the streets of Upper Manhattan or the Bronx. Also, some mariachi euphoria for the chicano comrades in arms.

The almost Cuban national hymn, Guantanamera was a favorite of the crowds in their olive drab jungle fatigues as they sat under the dog days sun of the rustic, unshaded military bases below the Demilitarized Zone.  As impromptu dance partners, the nurse entourages and the Donut Dollies at the larger hospital bases gave the shows a perfumed, feminine touch. Atop the improvised bandstands, as he played the guitar, Ulises remembered looking into the crowd faces trying not to seep in how many of the spectators would not be there for the next performance. Tango platoon musicians, included.

Grunts at the firebases north, west and south of Da Nang and troops arriving at replacement depots in Saigon, fell for Cardena’s musical charade  The warriors reveled, stomped their feet, clapped and danced on the sands of China Beach to the polyphony of the impromptu troupe. For the emotionally mangled grunts, Sai-gon Son was but tuneful respite from the gruel and dread of the long-range patrols and the lethal ambushes.

The cherry soldiers not yet in battle, upon arriving to a Viet-Nam Son show, probably imagined their war tour was to be, in spite of it all, one big, sonorous wallop. An upbeat expedition under the pyrotechnics of luminescent flares, clouds of purple landing zone smoke, zinging tracer bullets with a soundtrack of battle drums and the sweet roll of thumping rhumba.

In late June, during a solstice day tour at the US Tan Son Nhut airport compound, Ulises recalled how a naval commander from  Pentagon East  who had recently deployed to Nam after a tense Missile Crisis tour at Cuba’s Guantanamo Base, ordered a name change. The officer insisted that a “G” be added at the end of the band’s name.  He figured that “Song” was to be more acceptable and inclusive of the American GIs that were not of Hispanic extraction. Thus, much to Duque’s chagrin, the troupe became Viet-Nam Song. Of course, Duque found out, no one cared about the sound of the name, except the sound of the band.

The sextet’s mission became a short-lived joy. It provided the foot soldiers with some soulful satisfaction and a sense of purpose amidst the folly of the surreal days of war. But, soon enough though, Ulises Duque toppled with a too unmusical truth. The band was but a ruse for a more deadly, shadowy military mission that was to bring peril, harm and moans of sorrow for all involved.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3 – Foetus

 

 

 

 

 

Barely half-conscious now, Duque surmised the loneliness of his death scenario. A tenebrous, distant place cleverly perched atop an isolated mountain ridge so that it hid from the air by the shadows of the jungle canopy and from the ground by boulders and tall grassy enclosures.

Had he not been lying there mortally wounded, Bao Cat might have only been a faded vignette in some Chinese postcard. A whimsical cardboard portrait as those bought by haphazard tourists in one of Hoi An’s dilapidated bookstores. Or perhaps, a dreamy watercolor fantasy evoked eons ago one monsoon evening by a forlorn Vietnamese brush maestro who had spent all his life stowed away at a court pavilion inside Hue’s Imperial Palace.

Yet, as war finally erupted upon the hamlet, the place suddenly became as real and lethal as Cardenas had figured out in spite of all the derision.  A veritable, clandestine rest spot for top Viet Cong cadre as one 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 was an old, terrified peasant defending his pigs and chicken coop from 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 target. Ordered the attack at an equivocal timing.. It may have even been a delusive military target, as lieutenant Jeremy Popper preached all along.

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

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 bullet bounce around with the rhythmic thump of a finely tuned Africanized water drum.  Pum, pam, pum.

His mind reeled again with the sounds resonating in his head from the belligerent world around him. Duque found out early in life he was clairaudient, capturing sound waves imprinted onto a spot.  Capable of hearing sounds others ever imagined, even in this trance of death.

He was always at loss to explain, but it consisted of  tiny sensations of melodic feeling. Here now, gone in an instant.  Not even his music professors could grasp it. So he kept it to himself,  tucked away in his soul as if it were a defect of character. Melodious sentimentality.

He was always searching for a certain cadence, a displaced upbeat or a percussive utterance. Thump, tap, tap, tum, tatat.  A Conga beat. A clave, cymbal or a bong flutter.  Sound clouds reverberated all day in his head.

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

Duque 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 cascading water at the hamlet ledge.  A new liquid song moving about in Duque’s head.

As the Tango troop  swiftly sought cover, concealment of an 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, 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. 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

“I’m dying, ma,” 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 ago, Duque wondered day and night about killing or being killed.  Was the monk Jampa Kuchen right?  Once killed, soldiers like him become a wispy sparkle of eternity.  A minutiae blast of life energy shooting out from a spent carapace to merge into the subtle tapestry of the cosmos. Or perchance, a tiny vibrational spasm radiance, beginning to pulsate forever among the vast concert of astral cacophony.

Or…  Tragically 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. Vulture carrion. 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. He struggled with the last gasps of life energy to envision a probable face for his unborn child.

Oh God! So badly he wanted to know if his offspring would take the smooth Polynesian visage of his estranged mother. Or maybe hints of his own suave, sambo demeanor.  Preferably his tallness 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.  Fatherly vanity.  A little notion of what was to be 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 his physical spiritual legacy.

Instead, what stirred up in Ulises’ mind were the contorted memories the amatory affair with quartermaster lieutenant Kikei Santos; a clandestine liaison that sunk him so deep into her alluring domains that it fast became impossible to find a way out.

Mortician Kikei Santos. Viet Nam’s  Lady of the Lamps 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 girlish raven black eyes; glistening lava bomb pupils that entranced him beyond any escape.  The bearer of his seed. The shooting star for his offspring.  So far away now both from his evanescent life.

   

CHAPTER 4 – Mortuary

They met in the most unsavory and 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 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 under 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 soldier died of natural causes. He cleared his throat emphatically to gain her attention.

“Fuck!” The lay officer jumped up startled. “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 cadaver and then at the technician in her mortuary robe. She was barely five foot 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. Five tiny, natural beauty marks were spread strategically all over her face, the largest one almost at the center of her forehead in  bindi  style.  He swiftly made a mental note of her form-fitting jungle fatigues. The drill material drew up with precision wide hips and rounded buttocks . The ripstop fatigue shirt with its slanted pockets full of pens and stainless steel scissors showcased her full brosom. Not large, but firm and pleasantly pointed.

She must be Latina, Ulises Duque remembered thinking. And she 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, searching chimerically for her sewing lady’s backroom.

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

“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 at Marshmellow 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 morgue 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 father passed away on the island. He left me a small endowment and I went on to do graduate work on musical anthropology. Syracuse University,” said Duque eagerly.

Her entire body suddenly relaxed. 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 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 as she toiled 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 musical scores,  anyway”  The lieutenant shrugged slightly and went on.

“He wasn’t supposed to be where was. Nor his troops.  Special operations they call it now. And you know, I’m not supposed to be telling you all these things,” Kikei expounded, facing Duque now straight on. “I don’t know why, but I can sense you’re a discreet gentleman and a mature one, too. Also, put that mouth mask on. In my morgue, you do as I say.”

Duque complied, holding the mask with two fingers, Taking it off to converse. “The guy’s a corpse,”  he sentenced. “Doesn’t matter anymore now where 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 cautiously hid from Ulises certain details of the grim episode as she diligently performed the final mask procedure.

In spite of it all, months later, during some aerial searches for Bao Cat with captain Cardenas, Duque found out from a helicopter pilot buddy of his other knotted facts about American clandestine border operations. His friend regularly did covert insertions of commando soldiers into Laos and Cambodia. The colonel had also been manically searching for Bao Cat for almost a year, in covert liaison with captain Ruddy Cardenas.

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, 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 Ulises Duque’s stifled sexual yearnings. Now he ached for this woman.

She began with the highest features. First, the jaw and nose, cheekbones and then spread out 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 told Ulises that her duties as the only officer in charge of the surreptitious morgue were to be hush-hush to all. Hermetical.

“Officially, at least.  But even the VC already knows about this place. We’ve been mortared twice. Most of the shadows we get here,” she casually added while placing both her hands lightly over the still bland mask, “usually die in places that the US military is not supposed to be and the insurgents aren’t supposed to go. Everyone illegally penetrates each other’s borders.”

“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 task, gave her a longing for living 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,” Santos said without a single inflection in her voice. She was talkative, Duque remembered, but with a cold disposition, much like the skin temperature 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 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 bodies she inspected daily for a final disposition. He froze. He instantly sensed though, hers was a intense, bottomless and immense distance peering deep inside his soul with the magical sentimental x-ray of endearment only woman had. So intense was that he felt goose bumps all over his inner being. Her alchemy of Polynesian beauty and Caribbean firebrand worked his way into his life force.  All in a morgue and in front of a cadaver as main witness.

Ulises quickly acquiesced her with his eyes. Their gaze unwillingly interlaced with empathy, as if embracing a shared emotion that needed no words.  Yet, in an instant the quick-minded lieutenant Kikei Santos snapped out of it. She went about her routine chores in silence, shyly blushing at the soul. Inhuming her sudden sentiments.

Too late. Ulises Duque had already picked up on her secret song. He captured an inner hymn of tenderheartedness and delighted on it because it was in tune with what he also felt. Matching pulsations.

Thus it happened, as Duque recalled it so well. An incurable entanglement to a captivating woman in forensic lab tunics. Incurably affixed to a reluctant lover girl  inside her womanly casing so willing to come out. But…

Playing to that tune would require a relentless flow of tenderness; a gentle and unstoppable flow of seductions, albeit much wanton passion. All with so little time for each other and little more free rein.

Though a daring quest for a regimented foot soldiers at war, Ulises Duque remembered how he took it on with heroic sentiments, making the quest his unswerving purpose of life from that instance on at the morgue.

In spite of all the enemy bullets fired his way. In spite of any refusals his lover might aim at his heart.

   

 

Chapter 5 – Kismet

Half-conscious by the stony path, Ulises called it all back to mind and the anguish of recall hurt deeper than his bleeding wound. Was it that a dying soldier becomes all shrouded in memory?

His remembrance placed him in the somber morgue building as it sat all by itself in a corner at the northeast perimeter of Da Nang’s huge military compound. It lay by the shore, under the Monkey Mountain radar sites just north of the bay. A well guarded but secluded area.

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.

As fate determined it that day in late May, captain Ruddy Cardenas had 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 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 structure. Ironically. the Viet Cong cadre’s body laid till day of Dique’s in a refrigerated vault side by side with the commando colonel with the face mask.

Duque suspected it was the same officer who led the professor kidnapping at Hue before moving to his covert mission in Laos. Ulises did not tell 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 a 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 autopsy surgical instruments. The apparatus sat in the back of a tonneau covered Jeep that had been assigned to Ulises for such tasks. I

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, Duque conjecture, devised by spooks to interchange instruments instead of secret code words.

Duque remembered the final conversation that day.

“You get the much-needed autoclave. I get the documents,” Duque told the lady mortician soberly.  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 documents.

But, 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 over 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.  Every day in Nam, half a hundred good GIs either die in battle, in accidents, by self-inflicted wounds or by a varmint sting.  Do your best to stay out of that statistic,” the mortician said as she took off the rubber gloves and slowly rubbed hydration cream on her hands.

“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 protocols in Vietnam.  What did you say your name was?”

“Corporal Ulises Duque. Chief courier for the Papa, Whiskey, Tango platoons 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,” 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 it 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 with 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 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. Expertly, Santos 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. 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 life 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 my 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. This I cannot talk about.”

“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. She was so not tall, yet ported a sensually full, curvy figure.  She stared at him groveling over her and he detected a faint smirk form on her lips. Then, the air around him felt aromatized by mating hormones. Or was it that he had been without woman too long and by now, 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, spite of the refrigeration inside the morgue. In fact, it transmitted a sensual heat into Duque’s body as id she had just inoculated him with lava flow.

“I like you.” Kikei brashly said. “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. We can be tropical confidantes,” Duque said with a stumble of words.

Duque’s jungle fatigue sleeves were rolled as Kikei kept her hand on his arm, skin to skin.  It was then that he felt her full resonance.  An upswell of carnal stirrings, neatly pacified, yet silent, tremulous, beckoning. What the flesh safely stowed her away, her eyes revealed.

 

In Kikei’s now subdued gaze, he saw a host of amatory needs. A beckoning for intimate attachment, deceptively shrouded but perceivable. At the least amity, at most fiery passion. He felt it there pulsating in rhythmic cadence. In a silent turmoil, expecting someday to burst out like the hidden lava curls of the dormant Loihi seamount. Torrid, igneous. Ready to spurt out from within the under skins of her enkindled Hawaiian body.