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 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 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 and crushed by his battlefield luck, Duque realized 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 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 shitted in my pants,” Duque said shamelessly.

Papio grunted. “Hell, 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, 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 moved lower now into 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 to the bamboo gate. Was the gate 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 bubble 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 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 Quchen appeared to him in a soft burst of pure light. no flesh, 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. 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 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 spiritual 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 gently shutting down. In seconds his anima slowly dislodged from each molecule, each cell and surprisingly, it all turned out to be painless. At last, Ulises knew how physical life easily drained away from the human shell into 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; a being 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 became perfectly euphoric and alive; attuned to the arriving soul.  Exactly as Jampa Quchen had proclaimed. A vibrational symphony to the purest 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. The faint, last tremolos of his human voice.

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