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.
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 And at that moment, even in this trance of death, the cadence of the jungle superseded the cacophony of war.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.
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