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.