Barely half-conscious now, Duque surmised the loneliness of his death scenario. A tenebrous, distant place cleverly perched atop an isolated mountain ridge, well hid from the air by the shadows of the jungle canopy and from the ground by the tall boulders and thick 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 like 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 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 captian’s 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 sot Duque 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 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.
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 certain sound waves imprinted onto a spot. Capable of hearing sounds others ever imagined. Even in this trance of death, the cadence of the jungle superseded the cacophony of war. Bao Cat hummed with tremolo chants to loneliness and isolation, old Champa ritual songs 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 grasp it. So he kept it to himself, tucked away in his soul as if it were a defect of character. A freak melodious sentimentality.
All events around him contained 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 levee, half bent down 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 began moving about in his head.
As the Tango troop swiftly sought cover and in 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, back up the small coffee plantationof Puerto Rico’s central mountain range. So cool, so tropical a place even during summers. The front veranda always under the umbrella of a huge, flaming flower tree.
“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 Quchen right? Once killed, soldiers like him would 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 spasm of radiance, beginning to pulsate forever among the vast concert of the astral harmonics.
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. 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 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 and spiritual legacy if he were to die in the battlefield.
Instead, what stirred up in Ulises’ mind were some 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 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; those 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 from his evanescent life.
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