Realization


*

As a boy I clambered and played

Angry funeral black North Sea

Wave upon uniform wave crashing

A violent, frothy attack on broken teeth rocks

*

Slipping, stumbling, and swaying – an old man grasped my arm

He said: “Careful son, you are too young to die

There is a light out there across the sea. A light that burns for you”

And vanished into the swirling mists before I could ask why

*

As a man I lost my way

Fell through a yawning darkness of moonless, starless night

Fell through ragged centuries of pain, loss, despair

No aegis; no mentor; no understanding of right

*

As I aged I remembered the mysterious old man by the sea

Where was this light that burned for me?

A shattered wreck on the shoreline, my bones were bare

The mossy, jagged cliffs stretched far away

*

About to give up, you picked me up

Took me to bed and woke me up

I murmured: “You are the one from across the sea

You are the light that burns for me”

*

And now it is like night lightning

Veiny maze across the starry sky

This love is mesmerizing

This love is spellbinding; and

*

Never take it away-

I give you my life until my dying day

*

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Finding Her


Tina and Jimmy picked their way down the shattered, long-abandoned railway line. It had become overgrown with sinewy red-veined, purple-leaved plants which coiled out from the mossy ground and feasted on the jumble of twisted iron and shards of old broken wood stretching out in front of them. It was oppressively hot, the air so thick with humidity it seemed to mute the buzzing chorus of the cicadas that drifted in from across the sub-tropical lushness of the surrounding wooded fields. The brown, hotdog-shaped heads of the tall bulrushes lining the track nodded gently as if fighting off the urge to sleep.

Tina eyed Jimmy, peripherally. It unnerved him when she stared at him, a habit which she had caught herself doing often. He was a pale, scrawny boy. At fifteen, he was two years younger than her. His head was crowned with a chaotic thicket of shoulder-length brown hair. His hands were shoved deep in the pockets of his shorts, his shoulders rounded from too much time hunched in front of his computers. Semi-autistic, he was silently mouthing numbers as he walked and concentrated on what, she could only guess, was another complex algorithm he was working out. Quiet and different, he was shunned, if not bullied, by the other boys in Outpost 68 who she, on the other hand, was extremely popular with.

“Why do you hate them so much?” Jimmy had once asked her. “It’s just because you’re so pretty.”

“All they want to do is get in my pants,” she had said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

That was a fairly accurate assessment. It also explained why a lot of the other girls mistrusted her or outright hated her. Jimmy and Tina were outcast by their peers for entirely different reasons. Ironically, disinterested Jimmy was the only one to have ever gotten into Tina’s pants and that was after weeks of her gently coaxing him into them. He had looked so frightened and vulnerable the first time and pleaded with her to help him because he did not know what to do. She had always adored him for his undiluted frankness. In fact, she had grown to adore most everything about him; her troubled, dark, fearsomely brilliant savant. The fact that his autism usually prevented him from expressing his own feelings did not bother her too much. Strangely, it almost made her love him even more.

Jimmy suddenly stopped jawing his formulations and cocked his head skyward. She had already heard the subtle sound of the cloaked bomber drones soaring overhead, high up in the stratosphere, but had not wanted to interrupt him. “Hear that?” he asked anxiously, more to himself than to her. A moment later, the bulrushes appeared to snap to attention as the ground shook through the muffled thudding sound of Peacemaker Plasma Missiles. They were targeting encroaching rebel positions in the distance and left a haze of greasy smoke smeared across the blue horizon. “PPMs. They’re closing in. The Kingdom may soon fall.”

“I don’t want your doom and gloom today, Jimmy,” she said hautily, taking his hand in hers and rubbing his forearm gently with the other. “We’re going to beat these fucking mutants in the end. The perimeter will hold. It has to. We’re all that’s left of what’s human.”

“Half the population is Symbots,” muttered Jimmy, wincing. He always winced when she swore which meant he was wincing most of the time he was with her.

“Sure, but they’re almost human compared to the fucking mutants,” she said.

“We’ve talked about this before,” he said grumpily. “They may have mostly human bodies that grow and age. Okay. Fine. But their brains are computers, Tina. They are awesome biocomputers but Symbots don’t feel anything. We can program them to talk to us like humans and make stupid jokes. But that’s it. The mutants are still human enough to hate us, to go to war… to… to feel pain.”

“Whatever. Some say Symbots could be programmed to feel one day.”

“Right,” snorted Jimmy derisively, “the algorithm for a basic thought vector is insanely complex. An emotion vector is impossible. The coding. It just can’t be done.”

“I guess you’re right,” sighed Tina absently. “Ah, here it is, finally” she said as she guided Jimmy over to a small opening to a mossy path that led down, through thick steaming forest, to an arterial web of bayous. As they trudged down the path, startled creatures chirped, sniffed, hissed, and scampered as if some horrific juggernaut was approaching. A two-headed hummingbird, blown in from The Wastes beyond the perimeter, hovered in front of Tina’s face as she walked and eyed her quizzically. Brushing it aside as they reached the water’s edge, she was relieved to see the rickety old boat still tethered a few meters downstream. “I always think some asshole might have found it and taken it when we come out here,” she said, happily. “Don’t look at me like that!” she laughed as she caught him casting her a withering sidelong glance.

A few minutes later, they were paddling down the snaking bayou. The crumbling gray trunks of sticky cypress trees jutted up all around them from deep within the riverbed. Damp, misshapen leaves drooped carelessly from the maze of dangling branches, close to their heads, as if surrendering to some deep, unknowable lament. The bow of the boat sloshed quietly through the stagnant water, its surface coated in a thick film of slimy, radioactive emerald-green algae. Although cancer, and virtually all other diseases, had been eradicated over the past decades, it would still be ill-advised to swim in this water given the nature of the creatures that lurked beneath its surface. “What’s that?” asked Jimmy, abruptly, pointing to a dark patch awkwardly splayed in the hectic vegetation of the shoreline.

“Let’s check it out,” said Tina, a slight waver of nervousness in her voice as she redirected the boat. “Holy fuck!” she said breathlessly as they jumped out of the boat and approached the dead body. “It’s a soldier who… who…”

“Shot himself in the head,” said Jimmy in rapt fascination as he examined the entry and exit wounds of the bullet. The latter had blown out a grapefruit-sized hole in the left side of the soldier’s cranium. The delicate white petals of the surrounding magnolias were decorated with flecks of blood, brain tissue, and crimson-stained skull and tooth fragments. The mouth yawned open in a mess of dried black blood. Clear, gray eyes reflected the lazy wisps of cloud overhead; the face a strained mask of yearning and hopelessness. “Check the leathers and insignia. This guy was a high-ranking officer.”

“Jesus Christ!”

“Wow!” exclaimed Jimmy suddenly.

“What?”

“I was wondering why they haven’t come to get him. Check it out. He’s got a really old EM Railgun that the Special Forces used to use. Look – he actually had the option to switch off the tracker. See? There’s the switch.”

“Cool!” said Tina, excitedly, wrenching the gun from the dead soldier’s hand, powering it on, and examining it intently.

“Hey!” cried Jimmy. “You can’t play with that! That’s the property of the Kingdom!?!”

“The tracker is off, Jimmy,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Just like you said. So, no one’s coming. Ah, fuck!”

“What?” asked Jimmy, craning his neck over Tina’s shoulder, his dark eyes a storm of apprehension and excitement.

“Look. There are only two bullets left. I was hoping we could blast away at some stuff but let’s just save them.”

“What? You… you’re not going to… you’re not actually going to take it are you?!”

“Fucking right I am. I’ve always wanted a gun. Just in case.”

“Just in case of what?”

“Just in case of anything, Jimmy,” she said in exasperation. “If you haven’t noticed, we don’t exactly live in a safe world.”

“Fine, but I still don’t think you can just steal the property of the Kingdom. You’re in so much trouble if you’re caught with that. You know that!”

“I’ll take my chances,” she said with determined finality as she shoved the gun down the back of her pants, and pulled her shirt over top of it. Now let’s get deeper into the woods. I want you to fuck me.”

“I don’t know if I can today,” he said, his words catching hoarsely in the back of his throat.

“What’s that matter?” she asked putting his arm around his waist.

“Ow!” he whimpered, pushing her hand away.

“Not again!” she cried as she pulled up his shirt. “Oh, my God!” she gasped as she examined the deep welts that crisscrossed his back. Oh, no! No! Fuck no! Fuck this! What did he hit you with, Jimmy“?

“I don’t know”, he said, embarrassed, large tears welling up in his eyes. “Something he pulled out of the engine of his Ranger. He couldn’t fix something that was wrong with it. I only asked him if he wanted a glass of water. He looked so hot and angry.”

“Oh, Jimmy!” She pulled his shirt up over his head, threw it to the ground, and started kissing the wounds gently, one-by-one. He moaned in pain when she tried to touch his penis through his shorts.

“What the fuck?!” she said frowning as she unbuttoned his shorts and pulled them and his underpants down. “Oh, my fucking God! What the hell did he do?!”

“He… he almost bit it off. He was just… so angry.”

“I can’t believe this shit!”

“Tina,” he said, as he focused intently on absolutely nothing over her shoulder, “he’s going to kill me. It’s just a matter of time. He said it right in front of my mother. She said nothing. I’m going to die soon.” She stared at him. Looked deep into his wild, haunted eyes and knew that this boy she loved so much truly felt he was imminently doomed. And then, as she pulled his shorts and underpants back up, she made a decision.

“Jimmy,” she said, as she placed his hand beneath her left breast. “Can you feel my heart beating?”

“Yes”.

“It beats for you. Can you feel me breathing?” she asked as she placed his other hand on her throat. “Can you feel my pulse?”

“Yes. What are you doing?”

“Can you feel this?” she asked as she moved his hand and shoved it up under her skirt where her vagina was damp.

“What are you doing? I can’t.”

“Do you believe that I love you?”

“Yes! Yes! But why are you asking me these things?!”

“I’m trying to make sure that you know that I can feel. I can feel everything. I love you and I hate your stepfather. I hate your mother even more. I feel sad. And I’m sad because you’re hurt.”

“Okay, okay,” he said, kicking grumpily at some imagined irritation on the ground.

“I’ve been lying to you.”

“What?”

“Look into my eyes,” she said taking his face in her hands. “This is who I am”.

Her eyes turned Symbot orange and glowed as numbers began racing across her suddenly dilated pupils.

Although he was shocked to the point that he felt like there were suddenly hundreds of tiny insects racing across the inside of his skull, he was not afraid and did not move. “Wow!” he almost shouted as he studied the combinations which integrated numeric values with symbols he had never seen before.

“You’re not mad at me?” she asked, tearily, her eyes blurring like amber traffic lights through the rain.

“No! No! Not at all!” he protested, clearly awestruck. “Don’t cry! I can’t see who you are if you start crying!” His dopey honesty made her cry even more and she threw her arms around him and sobbed into his shoulder “I thought you were going to hate me.”

“Why would I?” he asked. “But… I… That’s not code. It’s totally unbelievable. I mean… What is that?”

“I was part of a special project,” she said, as she pulled away to explain, her glistening eyes going back to normal.

“No! No! Don’t turn them off! I want to see! Please!” he pleaded.

“Don’t worry. I’m going to show you the whole sequence. I know your gift. I know you’ll be able to remember it. Then you’ll truly know me. Know exactly who I am on this day.”

“What do you mean, on this day?”

“The sequence is evolving every day. Growing almost organically. You don’t even remember how unemotional I was when we first met, do you? Mr. Head-in-the-Clouds!”

“Maybe a bit,” he said sullenly. “But how? Tell me how?”

“The Kingdom hadn’t authorized the project and didn’t know anything about it. It was me, two other girls and three boys. I don’t know what the science was, Jimmy. All I know is they used stem cells to stimulate thought vectors which would teach themselves more advanced vectors, including the emotion vectors you said were impossible. And, actually, you were kind of right. The experiment was mostly a failure. As we grew up, we weren’t that much different from any other Symbots. We had slightly higher functioning and our vectors did evolve a bit. But we could only copy some simple emotions – not actually feel them. Anyway, the chief engineer, his whole team, and the 6 of us kids were traveling to a faraway lab beyond Death River to try some radical treatment to jumpstart the process. Our ship never made it. We flew into a radioactive lightning shower and got hit many times. I don’t remember anything about going down or the crash. I just remember waking up, thrown from the wreck, and still strapped in my pod. When I found that everyone else was dead, something happened to me…”

“What? What?!” asked Jimmy riveted.

“I could feel my coding was changing fast. I sensed something that I didn’t understand at the time. I later learned it was sadness, pain… loss.”

“What did you do?”

“We had no tracker implants so I just walked for two days until I found a refugee camp in the Sandy Marshes. No Symbot child in rags would just show up at a refugee camp, dazed and confused, in the middle of nowhere. There was no question I was human. So, after a few months in the camp, I was adopted and ended up here.”

“Ended up here,” murmured Jimmy, his voice trailing off.

“Where I found you,” she said softly. “Do you want me to show you now? I want to.”

“Yes, I do,” he said with a tenderness in his voice that she had never heard before and, for the first time, he initiated physical contact by taking her hands in his. He stared into her eyes in anticipation as intense as raw sexual desire. And so they settled down into the dankness, oversized bullfrogs belching and splashing off out in the bayou. It took almost an hour for the entire sequence to run but it only needed four runs for Jimmy to have it fully committed to memory. “I got it,” he croaked, finally. “I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry,” he whimpered, as he buried his sweating forehead in the base of her throat.

“For what?” she asked quizzically, cupping his chin in her hand.

“I didn’t realize just how much you feel about me. I didn’t think anyone really loved me at all. What’s wrong with me, Tina?”

“You’re just different, Jimmy,” she said smiling, stroking the side of his face, and running her fingers through the mess of his hair. It was flecked with garishly colored seedpods that floated lazily through the wet air. She plucked a few of them out and flicked them away as she studied his bewildered face. “Just like me, my sweet savant.” Glancing over his shoulder, she frowned at the rapidly melting sun and the long fingers of black shadow cast by the spidery spines of the tree branches. “Fuck. We better get back. No moon tonight,” she muttered.

“I’m going to get it again,” said Jimmy bleakly. “Being this late with no Holochrome for them to reach me.”

“Fuck the Holochromes when we go out together,” she said fiercely. “Come on, let’s go.”

An hour later they were approaching Outpost 68. A kaleidoscope of flickering lights bounced off the bellies of low-lying cloud and distorted the outpost like some kind of shimmering mirage; a puddle of color splashed onto the heaving blackness of the surrounding countryside. She gripped his hand as he mouthed over and over again the code. Her code.

After clearing the checkpoint, they made their way to Jimmy’s place and stood in front in a wordless embrace. “It doesn’t bother you at all, does it?” asked Tina, breaking the silence. It was more of a statement than a question.

“What?” he asked, cocking his head.

“That you fucked a Symbot. You lost your virginity to a Symbot. That a Symbot loves you.”

“No! No… I’m… I can’t find my words,” he said in frustration, scratching the back of his neck. “I guess. I guess I’m just… I’m just lucky,” he blurted out with all of the sincere innocence of a young child.

“I am the lucky one, Jimmy,” she said, as she reached behind her, engaged the tracker on the Railgun, and scanned the doorbell. “Jimmy, look at me,” she said as the door silently slid open and Jimmy’s drunk stepfather appeared, a silhouette of twisted, seething rage. “Maybe someday, somehow, you can find a way back to me.”

“What?” he mumbled, confused, as Tina pulled out the Railgun and shot Jimmy’s stepfather clean in half, his torso flying into the vestibule in a bloody pulp, the legs left behind in the doorway twitching reflexively.

“No!” screamed Jimmy. “What are you doing?!”

“Saving you,” she said calmly as she turned the gun barrel around, put it in her mouth, and pulled the trigger.

*

12 years later

He had finally done it. She lay in front of him in the lab he had built in his apartment, her body exactly as he remembered it. The coding was done. He took her hand and held it tightly as he powered up the cells from the reactor. It took over 10 minutes but finally her eyes snapped open, at first Symbot orange and then the startling, sky-blue eyes she had been programmed with.

“What the FUCK?!” she shouted violently. “Where am I?! Who in the fuck are you?!”

“Take is easy, Tina,” he said gently. “It’s me.”

“What?!”

“It’s me. Jimmy.”

“Jimmy?” she croaked as she searched his face. “Oh, my God. It… It is you. But… but…”

“I’m twenty seven years old, Tina. It… well, it took a while.”

She sat upright on the stretcher. Lights blinked from the jumble of humming equipment crammed from floor to ceiling all around her. She held her trembling hands in front of her face. “You’re still seventeen,” he said, handing her a mirror. “I thought about aging you but I figured that would be more traumatizing than helpful for both of us.”

“God, you sound so… so grown up,” she said as she blinked at him and touched his cheek with the back of her hand. “You are all grown up. I can’t believe you found me. You found me!”

“I really wanted to see you before I go,” he said quietly.

“What do you mean, ‘go’?”

“I’m dying. No more than a month left.”

“What do you mean ‘dying’? That’s impossible!”

“To steal the technology I needed to make you, I joined a special weapons unit at the War Ministry. I was accidentally exposed to a lethal toxin. There’s no cure.”

“Oh, fuck. Oh, God. Why did you do that, Jimmy? Why did you risk your life for me?!”

“You sacrificed yours for mine,” he said matter-of-factly. “And I need to tell you something. It’s all I have thought about all these years”.

“What?” she asked, her voice quavering.

“You told me so many times that you loved me. I was so stuck in my autism and hormones and abuse. I didn’t know what I had. What was right there in front of me. I was so stupid. I never once told you but now I can. I love you, Tina. You can never understand just how much I have missed you. I was hoping you could maybe stay with me. Just until I go.”

She threw her arms around his neck exactly the way she had so many times before she died and whispered in his ear: “When you go, Jimmy, I’m coming with you.”

*

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Deep Freeze – Conclusion


Note: for readers of this blog, if any, the first 13 parts of this piece are available at https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/12/01/deep-freeze-consolidated-first-11-parts/.

From the leaded windows of the second floor, stiff drink in hand, I scanned the large gray-stone terrace out back of the house where the guests had been trickling in and milling around throughout the afternoon. Ben weaved nimbly through the crowd, eagerly hunting for dropped goodies. In years past, Leah had confined him to the house during the summer party but Marylyn let Ben do as he pleased and he adored her for it.

I saw Maeve Wheeler gesticulating excitedly at a platoon of over-weight, badly aging women fluttering around her as gracelessly as ostriches. Having recently undergone plastic surgery in the city, the skin of her face had been pulled back so tightly, her eyes were reduced to slits and her mouth, encircled by freshly botoxed lips, seemed permanently stretched into something in between an exaggerated smile and an agonized grimace. Behind her, it was fascinating to see Bob Darling chatting so merrily with his son, Joel, the author of the garish scar on the side of his head that the hair had never grown back over. As I stared at them, the early-evening sunlight softening like yolky dampness over the hills, a twisted overhanging branch from an injured tree began rhythmically and urgently tapping at the window. It seemed to be under the influence of some unknown force as there was not the slightest breeze. A blackbird alit at its end and, cocking its head, scrutinized me with eyes that had all the seeming of a demon’s and I felt a sudden chill.

My cell phone binged the sound of an incoming text message and I fumbled in my pocket.

Marylyn: Where are you?

Me: In the house

Marylyn: What are you doing in there?

Me: Just needed a minute

Marylyn: Well get out here – we need to start the bbq

Me: Coming – we got blackbirds

Marylyn: ???

Me: Never mind – coming out now

A little later, I was sweating like a marathon runner over the enormous barbeque with a long lineup in front of me. Rafts of sausages sizzled and crackled as I swept them back and forth across the grill, always stabbing at them, with serrated tongs. A churning plume of thick smoke belched upwards, snaking through the leaves and pine needles overhead as if desperately hunting for something unattainable before dissipating into the nothingness of air.

I had always happily hosted this party but, this year, through the inferno of heat and smoke, I could only think about hospital incinerators, receptacles for ruined and unwanted human tissue; amputated limbs and smashed foetuses. Still, I had taken immense satisfaction in serving Doug Black his fish guts sausages and watching him greedily devour them. Afterwards, he wiped his greasy hands across the faded, old denim shirt stretched across his ever-expanding pot belly and attempting to engage in conversation with a handsome young man who had recently arrived in Herring’s Jaw (for reasons unknown but I would not be at all surprised if he was running away from something like many of the rest of us who had ended up here later in life). I turned away in disgust. My attention was now focused on the prize: Claudia and Brody. They were at the back of the now-short line chatting with Marylyn who would, of course, never dream of eating before everyone else had been served.

“Hey there, doc!” Brody almost shouted, giving me an almost painful slap on the shoulder. “Awesome Q, man!”

After pondering my slapped shoulder for a moment, I looked into Brody’s eyes and smiled the most benevolent smile I could muster. “Hello, Brody,” I said, shallowly breathing to keep my voice steady and calm-sounding. “Hello there, Claudia,” I said with a nod to her, both she and Marylyn looking at me with mirth-filled eyes. “How are you both? Or should I say, ‘how are the three of you’?”

“Fantastic!” said Brody, grinning like an idiot and rubbing Claudia’s belly. “Damned hungry though! Still got any left for us there, doc?” he asked, slapping his hands and rubbing them together as Claudia giggled.

“You know what?” I said, through a tide of adrenalin. “I saved for you two, the happy couple, my latest creation. Here, try these babies and tell me they aren’t my very best yet!”

“Aw, thanks,” bleated Claudia. “That’s so sweet of you!”

“The pleasure is all mine,” I said with the deepest sincerity as I plunked two regular sausages on Marylyn’s plate.

I sank into a chair beside the barbeque, wiping my face with a napkin, as I watched the three of them wander off to a corner of the terrace which glowed blood-red under Japanese lanterns that cast dragon shadows. I was almost bored watching Brody wolf down his plate. What I was aching to see was Claudia ingest her own murdered baby and know that she was nourishing her new baby with it. However, she and Marylyn were engaged in such animated conversation, clearly about their pregnancies, as they kept pointing to and touching their bellies. Come on, come on, I thought as exasperation pricked at the inner lining of my skull. Eat!

Suddenly, to my abject horror, Leah materialized out of the crowd and walked slowly towards Claudia and Marylyn. Her skin was as white as snow and her eyes were closed as if she was gently sleeping. She wore a long yellow and red silk scarf loosely around her unnaturally bent neck. I rose to my feet and was about yell when Leah’s eyes snapped open and bored into mine. I was paralyzed where I stood, frozen and unable to speak as if I had been overcome by locked-in syndrome. She closed her eyes again and walked up behind Claudia and Marylyn. She started mouthing words into their ears. They continued talking, as if she was not there, and then, with a wave of her hand, they traded plates and started eating. Ravenously eating.

“No!!!” I screamed without a sound escaping. “Don’t Marylyn!!! Don’t!!!” Engulfed in despair, I watched aghast as Marylyn swallowed the last piece, licking her greasy lips. Leah opened her eyes once more, briefly, and released me. I ran over to Marylyn, sweat pouring down my face and took her hard by the shoulders.

“Hey! What’s the matter with you?! You’re hurting me!!!”

“Marylyn!” I shouted, shaking her. “Listen to me. Stick your fingers down your throat and throw up. Please. Do it right now. Trust me. You… you can’t eat that… our baby! Please, throw it up! Do it now! Please!”

“What the hell are you talking about?! Let go of me!!! What’s wrong with you?!”

As the guests gathered around us to see what all the commotion was about, I let go of Marylyn and I turned to Leah who was still standing there, the faintest of smiles curling at the corners of her dead mouth. “How could you?!” I screamed at her hysterically. “How could you?! I loved you but you left me!!! Why?! Why did you do that?! Why are you doing this?!” She did not answer. She just turned and, walking towards the lake, vanished into the mist.

“Who’s he talking to, I wonder?” asked Brody, nonchalantly, as if he was watching a movie.

“He’s sick,” said Marylyn, her voice thick with fear and anxiety. “Let’s try and get him inside and lie him down.”

Turning back to Marylyn, I grabbed her by the back of the neck, roughly, and bent her over. “Marylyn! You have to throw that up!” I cried as I tried to shove my own fingers down her throat. Screaming, she struggled against me for a few moments before I felt the tip of a gun barrel being pressed against my temple.

“Let her go, doc,” said the federal agent, cocking the gun, “and put your hands behind your head nice and slow.”

*

I am now confined indefinitely to a small room in a maximum-security psychiatric facility. The federal agent had, unbelievably, found the spot deep in the forest where I had cremated Claudia and Brody’s baby. He had managed to extract DNA samples, including mine from some hair follicles left behind. I was tried for first degree murder but found ‘not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder’. Most of the town had testified about me shouting incoherently at a hallucination prior to attacking Marylyn. It turned out that, just as I was being arrested, I had actually succeeded in making Marylyn throw up. Needless to say, the jurors at my trial were horrified when presented with the lab results of the contents of her stomach. Nobody believed me when I testified that Brody had drowned the baby in the Chattering Teeth under duress from Claudia. Psychiatric experts called by the prosecution all concurred that I am a narcissistic sociopath.

I have had only one visitor since I was taken into custody and she is sitting with me now, in the corner of my room, as I write this last piece of my story. Leah has been my constant companion ever since the evening of the party, watching me intently, like a wolf that has cornered its prey. This morning, after I woke up from sedation, she mouthed words into the ear of the burly orderly responsible for stripping down and removing my bedding for the day. She convinced him to leave behind a sheet. All day long, she has been staring at a ceiling fixture and whispering over and over Come out from the woods, my dearest. It is almost nighttime now and things weep in the dark; creatures that bite.

I am listening to her. Right now.

*

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Deep Freeze – Part XIII


Note: for readers of this blog, if any, the first 12 parts of this piece are available at https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/12/01/deep-freeze-consolidated-first-11-parts/. I will post the final installment over the next couple of weeks.

It was mid-May, almost 4 months after the crash, and I sat out at the end of the dock on the first truly warm day of spring. Watery, musical tones lapped at the shore through the reeds under a gentle breeze. Swirling the chipped ice at the bottom of my drained martini glass, I looked out across Ragged Lake to the opposite shore. The ice-fractured tree branches, tinged a mossy green with struggling leaf shoots, stabbed up starkly into the yawning blue sky. They seemed to tear the bellies of the low-lying, cotton ball clouds into thin, twisted, white ribbons that blew out over the scrubby hills behind the tree line. The blackened, angry scars from the train disaster carved what looked like bite marks; two giant fangs dragged across the landscape until ending abruptly where the molten wreckage plunged through the ice and drowned in cold water.

An unwelcome pricking sensation alerted me to a mosquito, the first I had seen since the spring thaw, thirstily sucking on one of the many thick veins that crisscross the back of my hands and forearms like chaotic train lines. Leah had been so fascinated by my veiny body, she had photographed me naked and pasted some prints into her journal to accompany a morbid piece on vampirism. I watched absently as the mosquito’s belly swelled and, just before it extracted its javelin-like proboscis, I swatted it loudly, the symmetry of the blood splatter slowly spreading out over my skin around its crushed body like a Rorschach inkblot. “What do you see in the pattern?” I imagined a psychiatrist asking me.

“A foetus,” I murmured.

“What?” asked Marylyn, making me jump as I had not heard her and Ben approaching down the dock.

“Ah, nothing,” I said, with a twitchy shake of my head, flicking away the sticky mess from my hand. “Damn mosquitoes.”

“Wow, that was a big one,” she said as I got up, bent over the edge of the dock, and washed my hands in the freezing lake water which Ben leapt into with carefree delight. She sat down in the deck chair beside mine and smiled. Wearing a light, colorful tank top, she clutched her bowling-ball belly with her left arm while the right, amputated just above the elbow, dangled uselessly at her side, the scarring at the end twisting the purple skin grotesquely like a balloon knot. It was quite miraculous that this was the only injury sustained in the crash. Despite us being knocked out and the car almost completely destroyed, the airbags had deployed perfectly and protected everything, including the foetus, with the exception of Marylyn’s arm. It had been crushed and almost torn off when it got pinched in the shearing metal of the passenger door.

I took the piece of arm in my hands and massaged it gently from the shoulder down. “How are you feeling?” I asked earnestly, excruciating guilt coursing through me for the millionth time. I had been arrested at the scene of the crash after I failed a breathalyzer test. A further test at the police station revealed that my blood-alcohol content was .083, a hair above the legal limit. Sheriff Jacobs interviewed me at the station, cheerfully informed me that in his view I was not intoxicated and that he would “bury” the test result. I was free to drive to the hospital and be with Marilyn and no charges would be filed. Yet again, I had dodged a bullet and would not have to take any responsibility for my negligence.

Or so I thought at the time. A couple of weeks later, I was revisited at my office by the federal agent. He had dug up the “buried” test result and bluntly told me that he too would let me off the hook if I leveled with him about what I had seen out in the woods. When I reiterated that I had not seen anything, his entire head slowly went tomato-red as if it were about to violently explode like the mosquitoes’ engorged body I had just swatted. Without a word, he stomped from my office and slammed the door so hard, the wood cracked around its hinges. He immediately saw to it that Sheriff Jacobs was placed on administrative leave and, after a brief preliminary hearing before a clearly cowed judge in the city, a trial date was set for me for later in the year to answer DUI charges.

“I’m fine, baby. Please don’t look so tormented. I keep telling you everything is okay.” She meant it too, her spirit as ebullient as the snow trilliums defiantly popping out from the ice storm’s detritus strewn around the house. She held me blameless for the crash, insisting that, despite the failed breathalyzer, I was not intoxicated. It was simply an accident just like Sheriff Jacobs’ falsified report had concluded. Clueless that he was actually on to something, she contemptuously spat upon the federal agent’s harassment, declaring him a bullying thug who had only fallen on the right side of the law by happenstance.

“I know,” I said, smiling weakly. I marveled, as I scrutinized her contented face, that she was just as clueless that Leah had tried to kill her and the child growing inside her on that bleak, icy night in the dead of winter. Although Leah had not haunted me since, I felt a persistent, aching terror in the pit of my stomach that it was only a matter of time before she appeared again.

“You know”, she said, as I watched Ben splashing around and lunging at imaginary creatures conjured by the shadows of the waves he was creating, “I was wondering if we should have your barbecue a little earlier this year.”

“Um, sure. Why?”

“I don’t know. People still seem so down after all that’s happened – ”

“Ever since Leah died,” I interrupted, absently.

“Never mind Leah,” she snapped testily. “People are demoralized and they love your summer party. You know, Maeve Wheeler is putting ideas in peoples’ heads that Herring’s Jaw has fallen under a curse.”

“Oh, God. If only the next misfortune, conjured by this curse, could single out that old bat for something particularly unpleasant.”

See? Even YOU are doing it!”

“I’m just kidding. When are you thinking to have the party?”

“How about a month or so from now? It will be warm enough. I can take care of it. Put the lanterns out and everything. All you have to do is prepare your world-famous sausages.”

“Sure,” I said, thinking blankly.

“And besides,” she said, pointing to her belly, “there is no curse because this is coming! Oh, and I forgot to tell you after I got back from the Market this morning – Claudia is pregnant again! More good news!”

I tried to stifle the bizarre sound, something between a snort and a burp colliding in my trachea, which reflexively escaped me. “Sorry. Excuse me,” I muttered, avoiding Marylyn’s quizzical look. My head lolled back and I stared up at the long, thin clouds which had now stopped moving. They seemed as if they had been scratched out of the deep blueness by the sharp talons of some gigantic bird of prey from outer space. “That… is… amazing…” I said slowly, struggling to mask my voice choking down the revulsion.

Marylyn stood up abruptly and squatted in front of me. “What are you doing?” I asked, alarmed, as she pushed my legs apart.

“You are so damn anxious these days,” she said reproachfully, deftly opening my belt and unzipping my fly with her one hand. “And I am going to relax you.”

“You can’t do that out here!” I cried.

“Oh yes I can!” she laughed, taking me in her mouth. As her head bobbed up and down rhythmically, I could feel the endorphins racing from my pituitary gland, like horses out of the gate, invading and relieving every aching cell in my body. My mind drained itself of all its tormented thoughts and I no longer cared who might be watching us through a pair of binoculars.

“Oh, my God…” I groaned loudly as I released. I stared at the top of her head, my pelvis shuddering. Not for the first time I was struck by the perverse idea that my semen was now going to nourish my unborn child.

“You know what?” I said, my spirits suddenly buoyed.

“What, baby?” she asked, looking up with a wet, sugary smile.

“I think it’s a great idea to have the party earlier this year. You’re right. We could all do with some cheering up around here.”

“Yes!!!”

Much later on that night, I stood in the basement in front of a long counter adjacent to the deep freeze. On top of it, on an old, worn butcher’s block lay the well-preserved body of Claudia and Brody’s deformed baby. It had been defrosting since earlier in the evening (after I had drugged Marylyn at dinner and put her to bed). It was now fully thawed. The beam from my surgical headlamp threw a ghastly, enlarged shadow of the open-mouthed corpse across the wall. Its outstretched hands, locked in rigor mortis, seemed to grasp desperately for some invisible lifeline dangling from the well of darkness on the ceiling.

Clenching a long-handled scalpel, I cut open the torso from the sternum to the navel and gently removed the slippery pink liver and florid heart, careful to leave the other organs in tact and in place. I put them on a scale and was pleased to see that, together, they weighed almost exactly 250 grams. “Perfect,” I whispered. With a carving knife I cubed them, along with an additional 250 grams of skinless, boneless pork shoulder. I ground the mixture in a high-speed grinder, 3-4 pieces at a time into a chilled bowl. I added my “world-famous” concoction of spices and some Italian red wine and, not long after, I was setting out the newly made sausages, which I had labeled ‘C & B’ alongside the others I had made earlier, a mixture of fish guts and pork, labeled ‘DB’.

Turning back to the corpse, after carefully stapling the flaps of the long incision, I wrapped it up in plastic sheeting and placed it in a duffel bag along with a can of propane. I glanced at my watch. It was 2:30 AM. Plenty of time. Marylyn was out cold and would not begin to wake up until later on in the morning. Snapping off the headlamp, I grabbed a flashlight, slung the duffel bag over my shoulder and trudged out of the house. I did not have to worry about alarming Ben because I had drugged him too.

I marched with stony-faced determination deep into the woods, far away from any known paths, the shadows of the excoriated trees dancing like ungodly wraiths in front of the bobbing glare of the flashlight. I could hear the sounds of night creatures scuttling away from me as I approached. The light occasionally caught startled orange eyes, momentarily glowing like a jackals’, before disappearing into the chilly blackness. Along the way I collected some kindling and firewood and, after finding a small clearing, built a tiny pyre, placed the baby’s corpse on top of it, doused it in propane and set it ablaze. I watched grimly as the skin blackened and popped, the flesh underneath melting away like meat fat from the burning embers of twig-like bones.

Mesmerized, I whispered into the flames: “You shall have your vengeance…”

*

To be continued…

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Cuba, Vietnam, and Cambodia 2014


Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruelChe Guevara

Anyone who does not follow the line determined by me will be smashed Ho Chi Minh

*

It was mid-afternoon on the spectacular white-sand beach of the impossibly skinny peninsula that stretched out north-eastward over the Gulf of Mexico, straight as an arrow, until curving sharply at the end like the claw of a bird of prey. I was sitting in a deckchair under the shade cast by a canopy of dried palm thatch that rustled quietly under a soft breeze coming in from across the gently-cracked turquoise water. Examining the bottom of my cup, I poked at the last slushy bit of piña colada, a drink I had become hopelessly addicted to, with a lipstick-red straw, and gazed out at my girlfriend, Kris. She was shell-hunting on the beach with the rapt curiosity of a scientist on the verge of a Eureka moment. Almost as if she could sense I was watching her, she looked up, pushed her hair out of her face, and smiled broadly, her angular Germanic features highlighted by the sun bouncing off the sand. She pointed happily at a large pearl-white, disk-shaped shell in her other hand and mouthed the words: “this is the one”.

It was April 2014 and, although Kris and I had only discovered each other a couple of months prior, we decided to go on vacation together to Varadero, a resort town in the province of Matanzas, Cuba. I have always liked making the distinction between “vacationing” and “traveling” as the former is Dionysian relaxation while the latter, as fun and adventurous as it is, is a more onerous and taxing exercise in the exploration of another country’s geographical and cultural landscape.

On this particular day, while Kris scanned for shells and I lazily quaffed piña coladas, we had just returned to our lovely beachside resort after having traveled for a couple of days to the capital, Havana, where the tarnished and crumbling buildings still emanate an ineffable, majestic beauty. Vintage American cars chug along, on Russian-supplied Lada engines, through the squalid streets where young kids in tattered clothes play baseball with tree branches and bottle caps. It harked back to ‘Hemingway’s Cuba’ in the years just prior to the 1959 communist revolution led by Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, and Che Guevara, that ousted Fulgencio Batista and brought capitalism in Cuba to a crashing end for decades.

I looked up and down the beach at the western tourists, slathered in suntan oil with waistlines bulging from the limitless avalanche of ridiculously cheap, pre-paid for food and booze – all served up by local staff who are paid so little that, by our standards, they work for free. I figured Che Guevara would spin to the core of the earth in his grave if he could see this sweaty mass of seething capitalism sprawled up and down Cuba’s beaches (and know that his Castro compadres, both now well into their 80s, are still in charge of the country and endorse it). The only thing he would approve of is the ongoing deadlock with the United States, a country that, over time, he grew to despise with about as much toxic venom as the radical Islamic militants wreaking havoc in the Middle East today.

Although I had heard about it before, I was still taken aback by just how much Cuba is still in the grips of the ‘Cult of Che’. Not only does an enormous sketch of the world-famous 1960 Alberto Korda photo-portrait of Guevara’s smoldering glare of militant rebellion take its place beside Fidel Castro’s in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, the image is ubiquitous throughout the city. He remains as worshipped there as, ironically, America’s national pastime – baseball. In fact, Guevara’s popularity extends and endures well beyond Cuba’s turquoise shores. Korda’s iconic picture is emblazoned on the walls of university dorms and the T-shirts of their inhabitants the world over especially, and again ironically, in America.

I have never understood this misguided idolatry for a man who was so well-read, so intelligent, and so gifted and yet so managed to let his anger, at the outset over the exploitation of South American farmers by an American fruit monopoly, convert to a hatred so bitter as to twist him into a ruthless, terrorist thug. This lionized hero of the Marxist-Leninist communist utopia was, despite their admiration for his courage in battle, feared and hated by many of his own men. He personally murdered his direct enemies and, after being appointed commander of the notorious La Cabaña Fortress prison by Fidel Castro in 1959, zealously oversaw the execution of countless “enemies of the revolution” (i.e. real or perceived Batista supporters) by firing squad after bogus collective trials. Death finally caught up with Guevara when, at the age of 39, he was captured by Bolivian troops, dragged through the mud, and summarily assassinated by an alcoholic Cuban exile working for the CIA. After the execution, Christ-like images of Guevara’s corpse circulated throughout the world and he was mourned as, of course, a martyr.

“What are you thinking about, baby?” asked Kris, plopping down in the deckchair beside me and taking my hand.

“Just about our trip to Havana,” I replied in that sort of half-truthful way when you do not want to subject a sunny disposition to dark thoughts. “Show me this shell of yours. The one. I couldn’t see it properly from here.”

“Sure,” she said, rummaging. “Here. Isn’t it cool?”

The shell nestled in her palm had about the same distorted dimensions as a large, hand-made hamburger patty. From its dotted centre bloomed, in relief, what looked like five perfectly symmetrical flower petals, all framed by scores of tiny, straight nicks with bulging heads at the ends, like an explosion of spermatozoa rigidly standing at attention. The base of one of the petals was damaged; smashed through with a hole about the size of a baby finger. “It’s perfect”, I said, touching it. “Nature’s art. Better than anything in our galleries.

“Except for that damn hole,” she said, frowning. “Looks like a bullet hole”.

“To me, that’s what makes it so perfect,” I murmured as Korda’s ‘perfect’ picture of Che Guevara flitted again through my mind. Kris gave me a sidelong glance as the wind, which had been gradually picking up, converted the rolling waves approaching the beach into breakers and my eyes widened. “I think I’m going to go…”

“…for a swim,” said Kris, remarkably reading my mind again, without even thinking about it, and completing my sentences for me.

“Piña coladas and ping pong when I get back?”

“Get out of my head,” she replied as a pelican wheeled through the sky above, plopped awkwardly in the receding surf, and vainly searched for the targeted meal now being tugged back out to sea, making an inglorious escape.

A few minutes later, as I romped around in the chaos of the heavy cresting waves crashing over me, I looked out to sea and thought about the thousands of Cubans who have, ever since the revolution, perished in attempting to flee to Florida, so tantalizingly close geographically, across these temperamental waters on all variety of flotsam, including the ripped off doors of vintage Cadillacs. Suddenly, I abandoned all thoughts of anything as I found myself under the dark shadow of a monster wave towering in front of me. “Awesome!” I gasped, turning my back to meet it as it broke, its force momentarily lifting me off my feet before sucking me under. Bending my knees when my feet touched the seabed, I pushed upwards and breached the surface of the water in an ecstatic panic. Shaking myself like a drenched dog, I saw Kris happily waving at me across the roiling foam. Under the increasing wind, her hair seemed to churn in time with the tall palm fronds behind her. With barbeque smoke coiling through the air, it was almost as if there was a helicopter landing nearby. I was reminded of actor Robert Duvall strutting along the beach in the epic movie Apocalypse Now and spitting out one of his many famous lines, “Charlie don’t surf,” as justification for a brutal attack on a Viet Cong-held village at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam…

*

It was mid-afternoon and Kris and I watched the monsoon rainclouds gathering and moving in fast towards another spectacular white-sand beach of another impossibly skinny peninsula, called Bãi tắm Thuận An, that stretched out north-eastward – this time over the South China Sea. My visons of Apocalypse Now in Cuba, 5 months earlier, had been prescient as Kris and I had landed in Vietnam after a stint working a meeting in Pyeongchang, Korea.

“Maybe we should get inside,” said Kris, touching my hand lightly and wiping a couple of raindrops from her cheek. “It’s starting.”

“You’re right,” I grunted, gripping her hand and lazily hauling us up from our deckchairs. ‘Inside’ was a ‘bar’ not far down the beach which was basically just a large tarp secured over bamboo posts that sheltered a few nylon chairs so threadbare that, much to Kris’s amusement, I went straight through the bottom of the first one I sat in. The “bathroom” out back was a rickety stall with a steel grate in the floor. In front was an over-sized basin of water with a bucket floating on top so that you could wash down the grate whatever it was that came out of you. After using the facilities, I endeavoured to order some beer. The problem was that, for reasons unknown, the door to the tiny fridge was blocked by a wretched-looking mattress with a hard-bitten gang of Vietnamese sprawled all over it playing cards. There was no identifiable bartender so, as the intensifying rain drummed noisily on the tarp overhead, I just hollered at the group for a couple of beers, a request that was greeted by all with vacant incomprehension. A while later, after some animated sign language and mattress moving, I sank into a chair beside Kris protectively clutching two cold beers.

“Not exactly Varadero,” I muttered.

“No,” said Kris dreamily, “but this is pretty damn fucking cool.”

She was right – it was pretty damn fucking cool. Still happily buzzing from the dizzying kaleidoscope of Hanoi’s assault on the senses, we had flown to Huế, a city that had marked, along with Đà Nẵng and Hội An (where we were also to travel to), the bisection of North and South Vietnam prior to reunification in 1976. Initially disappointed by Huế’s seeming featurelessness (a first impression that was soon dispelled) and abundance of tourists, we rented a motorbike and took off to Bãi tắm Thuận An. The ride was awesome, albeit a bit chaotic negotiating the traffic on the way out of the city. I remember Kris holding on to me from behind and audibly praying for her life. After that though, it was just countryside: little villages peddling their wares (mostly junk), muddy water buffalo lumbering through wet, sun-dappled rice paddies, and existential dogs skulking around, doe-eyed, wondering when, where, and how they were going to be eaten. Kris pulled close into me, banged her helmet against mine and shouted in my ear over the clamor: “THIS IS VIETNAM!”

“Goddamn right!” I shouted back. For a while we rode in vain looking for the beach because, as it turned out, the road we were on snaked straight down the middle of the peninsula and did not lead to the beach at all. We were glad for our navigational error though as we enjoyed stopping to take pictures and shelter from the rain, which came as quickly as it went, under the ramshackle awnings of customerless cafés. I felt the thrill of being so far away from home, the gas in the bike running a bit low, and not another foreigner in sight in case something went wrong. Of course, nothing did go wrong, we found the beach in the end and, sitting under the giant tarp mesmerized by the rainy wind lashing the waves, I turned to Kris and put her cheek in the palm of my hand. “There’s nowhere else on earth I’d rather be right now.”

Her blue eyes, as passionately stormy as the sea in front of us, bore into mine and then flickered golden under the sun as the clouds began to break up. “Hey,” she said brightly, “it’s passing over again.”

Not long after, we were back on the beach in a familiar pattern: Kris wandering around hunting for shells and me crashed out in a deckchair, drinking, and letting my mind wander. I looked up and down the beach. In stark contrast to the Varadero resort, there were so few people – a couple of fishermen tending to their traditional Vietnamese fishing skiffs – it almost had the air of abandonment. I had ordered more beers from the mattress people. They were very poor, of course, with their broken-toothed smiles and tatty clothes, but we had been expecting the kind of abject, heart-wrenching poverty of the kind that I had witnessed in India and Nepal a couple of years earlier. We had seen very little of it, so far, and the traffic, although pretty anarchic and spewing staggering amounts of diesel fuel exhaust into the air, actually stopped and waited at red lights. Remarkably, crossing the street was not a death wish. We would continue to be surprised by this for the rest of our travels in both Vietnam and Cambodia.

It turned out that there was a fairly simple explanation for the relative prosperity we were observing. After 20 long years of relentless blood-letting during Vietnam’s Civil War, a Cold War proxy tilt between the communist North, supported by Russia and China, and the anti-communist South, supported by the United States (and France before them), Vietnam underwent reunification in 1976. Saigon had fallen to the North’s Việt Cộng forces in 1975 and, for the next 10 years, the country suffered from the same kind of impoverishment and political isolation as Cuba as a result of unbending Marxist-Leninist communist rule. Then, in 1986, with the Soviet Union in the early stages of its death throes and China no longer caring about anything but itself, Vietnam just made a bonfire of all the decades-long political dogma and threw open its doors to any country, including the United States, interested in investing in it.

Of course, America led the charge and today Vietnam’s cities are hives of buzzing capitalism where anyone can, if they wish, wash down a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with a gallon of Coca Cola. This was very different from our experience in Cuba where, outside of the gated resorts, the Castro brothers still keep up the façade of their ‘victorious’ revolution (i.e. no advertising beyond government propaganda, no western products, etc.) I figured Ho Chi Minh would whirl even faster in his grave than Che Guevara if he could see his country now, especially considering he died 6 years before the Fall of Saigon and 7 years before Vietnam was officially reunified as a communist state. His lifelong dream, the exact same as Guevara’s, lasted a mere 10 years before the country voluntarily surrendered to, in fact tenderly embraced, the capitalist economic system that millions had died for to resist. Still, despite the cold, dead ashes of their political aspirations, both men forged undeniably romantic cults of personality that endure to this day – ones that were infinitely more successful than any North Korean ‘leadership’, past and present, could ever hope to dream of. We don’t see too many western university students loafing around campuses wearing T-shirts adorned with the image of Kim Jong-un or any of the rest of the deranged Kim family.

“Ahhhhh,” sighed Kris contentedly, collapsing beside me and kneading the moist sand, like bread dough, between the balls of her feet and her long toes.

“Do you still want to go on that trip to States with me?” I blurted out, my mind back flipping.

“What?”

“You know when I mentioned in a few years I want to get my license, buy a motorbike, and us doing a long tour of the US?”

“Yeah, for sure! Why are you thinking about that?”

“Ah, just because we’re on the bike today and it’s so cool. You just see things…” I said as I imagined bombing along some lonely single-lane highway, just after sundown, through the “big-sky” emptiness of America’s Mid-west. I can see us stopping at a brightly lit dot of a roadside and wondering whether the gruff, bearded trucker sitting in the corner eating an impossible amount of ribs is an affable family man or a heavily armed killer roaming the Interstates that vein the haunted landscapes swinging between the big and dangerous sky-scraped cities. I have so wanted to explore better, and see for myself, the heartland of the US. It is a country I have always loved despite its deep and endemic problems (out-of-control gun violence, deep racial tensions, rampant drugs, staggering wealth inequality, waistlines shamelessly boasting outrageous consumerism, etc.) I have loved pretty much every American I have ever met but I really understand little about this colossus of a country which so many, including its allies, view as a juggernaut. It has literally saved the world repeatedly over the past century and yet has antagonized so many Che Guevearas and Ho Chi Minhs to such an aggravated extent that they abandon their incredible intellectual power, creativity, and good intentions in favor of violent revolution which terrorizes, tortures, and murders more people (their own people) than any American company or bomb dropped from a B-52 could ever hope to accomplish. I am thinking about the current “Vietnamization” of Afghanistan and Iraq (i.e. transferring the combat missions to unprepared locals and bailing out) and shudder at the image of the death cult, ISIS, running amok under its ominous black flag throughout the Middle East, poaching the young and impoverished, this time to fight and kill for a cause so completely and utterly devoid of any political or religious acumen.

An airplane’s exhaust vapor silently tore a slithering white scar out of the turquoise sky overhead. No fiery payload to unleash. I suddenly felt eternally grateful that I am too old now to ever have to worry about fighting in any war. “Thank God,” I murmured as the sand crabs flitted back and forth across the beach, their little sand castles rising and falling like the tide of human history. “You want to head back?” I asked Kris, cupping her cheek in my hand. “Bike’s dry now.”

A little later, we were riding through the crumpled road back to Huế. With Kris holding me tight, rice paddies flitting by, I knew I was happy and all the depression and anxiety that has plagued and crippled my whole life had, in that moment, been washed away with the rain in the dirge of the surf singing behind us.

*

One month later, back at our home in Montreal, Kris and I were lying in stunned silence on the couch. We had just finished watching Apocalypse Now with its toe-curling last line, “the horror… the horror…” uttered by a hoarse Marlon Brando (she had never seen it before and, after our travels, we had resolved to watch that and 3 other classics: Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and The Killing Fields). I stared at the ceiling as she lay in my arms and thought about the rest of our trip. After Huế, we:

  • Biked through the breathtaking countryside and “conquered” Hải Vân Pass which straddles Huế and Đà Nẵng en route to Hội An where, according to our guide (who boasted about eating dogs and rats and whose father had apparently cut off his right finger in the 1960s to avoid killing his own people during the Civil War), “there are no beautiful women.” It was lovely though even if the unattractive women did literally try to spank me into getting Kris to buy something from their shops. The red lanterns, festooning the streets at night, burned softly there like drips of blood fallen from the moon and cradled in a moment of breeze.
  • Flew to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh), Vietnam’s New York where we blistered our feet going on epic walks through the maze of streets, some of them “theme streets” as we called them (e.g. dedicated almost entirely to peddling one product – tobacco, fabrics, appliances, booze, etc.,) everything overhead a crazy jumble of miles of electrical wire, so tangled it looked the work of a grumpy toddler. We had a really good time there together but I honestly cannot put my finger on why it was cool. It was a huge, Asian city that, unlike others I have traveled to, failed to distinguish itself while still remaining cool. Basically, I just cannot explain Saigon.
  • Toured “Coconut Land” in the Mekong delta, by boat, bike, and sampan, at one point eating whole ‘Elephant Ear’ fish as fighting cocks irritably clucked “this is illegal” in cramped wire cages nearby. We visited by boat the bustling Cai Rang floating market – the largest and most colorful in the Mekong delta – where the pineapple melted in your mouth. Even more fascinating than that though was an onshore stop at a bloody local market. Here, frogs (or “jumping chicken”, as our guide described them) were skinned-alive, decapitated and somehow still reflexively breathing. Tied up ducks were crammed into baskets, staring unhappily out through filthy twine. Shellfish were getting their claws and legs hacked off and left to haplessly flip around at the bottom of metal basins. Fish were writhing around in buckets in a milliliter of water on the verge of suffocation. It was a completely mesmerizing orgy of cruelty that no one, except for shocked foreigners, gave a damn about.
  • Took a speed boat up the delta and through a sketchy border crossing into Cambodia where you immediately knew you were in a different country. The river widened to the size of a small lake and the wobbly stilt fisher houses that line the shores in Vietnam disappeared in favor of large tracts of farmland where a variety of livestock roamed around munching and defecating. The pagodas were different too to the extent that the ones in Vietnam have curved roofs while the ones in Cambodia are straight with eye-lash shaped curlicues decorating the ends. We learned a couple of other interesting religious things. First, unlike temples, which are dedicated to the Gods, pagodas are solely dedicated to Buddha and serve as homes to Buddhist monks. Second, Vietnam is unique in Southeast Asia in that it adopts Chinese Buddhism where 3 different Buddhas are worshipped (the fat one you see dangling from the rearview mirrors of taxis is “happy Buddha”) whereas the other countries, including Cambodia, adopt Indian Buddhism where only one Buddha is worshipped, his image being neither fat nor jolly.
  • Spent a couple of days exploring the capital, Phnom Penh, especially the markets. The one we liked best was the ‘Russian Market’ (Psah Toul Tom Poung in Cambodian), named so because during the 1980s, after the 1979 Vietnamese invasion to topple the Khmer Rouge, this market became the foreigner’s market when most of the foreigners in Cambodia were Russians. It carries a wide variety of curios, especially silks, carvings and, bizarrely, a number of stalls selling very old parts for vintage motorbikes. Apparently though, you have to beware the carvings because many are illegal black market items made from stones robbed from temples and pagodas out in the countryside. Still, we left the place happy having made 3 purchases: a wildly colorful oil painting of the Buddha which now adorns our living room wall, a rectangular lacquerware plate for Kris which she keeps some of her jewellery on and a silver ring for me which is embossed with a bunch of elephants. In any event, overall we found Phnom Penh, although somewhat poorer than Vietnam, a lively, bustling and thoroughly pleasant place to be. We loved having evening cocktails at the rooftop bar of our hotel which has a panoramic view of the light-studded skyline.
  • Flew to Siem Reap in order to see the spectacular temple complex of Angkor Wat, a sprawling centuries-old moraine of Khmer civilization and the largest religious monument in the world. In fact, Siem Reap is nicknamed the ‘Great Gate to Angkor’ which kind of gives it short shrift as it is a lovely city in its own right with a great central Old Market (although it is hotter than Hades) and surrounded by a warren of streets crammed with shops, cafés, bars, and restaurants. That said, Angkor Wat is definitely astonishing. I will not attempt to describe these colossal structures except to say that Kris and I, probably like most tourists, were particularly struck and moved by the enormous faces that rise high into the sky and, through the crumbling mossy stone, gaze out across the world from centuries past, the serenity of their smiles far more enigmatic than Mona Lisa’s. Since our arrival in Cambodia, I had sensed a pervasive air of peace and cheerfulness, even in the chaotic cities. Just like in Vietnam, it was hard to believe that less than 40 years earlier, between 1975 and 1979, as many as 2 million Cambodians perished in the horrific brutality of the ‘killing fields’ under the Khmer Rouge, led by another ‘communist revolutionary’ – Pol Pot. This barking lunatic was so deranged he makes Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh look like good little boy Scouts who simply lost their way in the forest after dark. I imagine Kim Jong-un is the only human being on earth who schleps around in a commemorative Pol Pot T-shirt.
  • Took a long night-flight from Siem Reap to Seoul for a couple of days to conclude our travels before flying back to Montreal. We were exhausted and Seoul is MASSIVE, second only to Tokyo as the world’s largest metropolitan area. Still, given our travel-weariness and limited time, we did not do too badly, exploring the city centre especially around the City Hall area and Namdaemun Market, the largest in Korea, where we wandered around eating street meat and feeling almost like we were already back in the West. The next day we checked out the popular Isadong Street, a funky hangout to shop, eat and drink en route to Bukchon Hanok Village, packed with over 900 traditional Korean houses and a popular filming location for movies and TV dramas. Kris and I had very pleasant afternoon drinks on a terrace overlooking the rooftops, which looked like they were made from pottery that could disintegrate if it rained, Seoul’s towers rising up to the south and formidable mountains rising up just to the north. Later, it being the final night of our trip, he just had to go Gangnam for Korean barbeque. Knowing what a tourist trap Gangnam is, we appealed to a guy working at our hotel to suggest a cool place. We are very happy we did too because, thanks to his advice, we enjoyed an awesome authentic Korean barbecue in a packed and lively restaurant where there was not a single other tourist in sight. I sucked back a bottle of Soju (basically Korean vodka but not nearly as strong) which, remarkably, I had not even tried while working in Pyeongchang. It was the perfect end to a really fucking awesome trip.

The long credits of the movie were almost finished. I looked at Kris and thought of the bullet-hole shell she had found in Cuba, which was now out on display in our living room. Younger than me and smarter than me on many levels, sometimes I feel I do not deserve her. But now, searching her face, I saw that it was as serene and happy as the soaring Angkor Wat faces, our bodies fitting together perfectly. I knew that, like the shell arbitrarily washed up on that Varadero shore, I had finally found “the one” to treasure and keep. I realized that, like the history-wounded countries we had visited together, I too might be saved…

*

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Spinning


You carved your name upon me

Up on that stony ground

Where the waves crashed around us

On that wind-washed sound.

 

You are now on my body

And I will never let you down

 

When you cry

The world just spins around and around.

 

I will take you to the top

And I will never let you drop

All those nightmares you had before;

I am going to make them stop.

 

Do not try to fix your sad, wet eyes

I will kiss them until they are dry

 

There is no clock ticking-

Just wrap your arms around me

 

The tickets are booked and we will fly.

 

Devotion is a curious thing

As we walk on that stony ground

Laughing, playing, fighting…

 

As the world just spins around and around and around…

 

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Broken


When I was a child

When the world shattered

You were just a piece of it.

 

If I glue it back together

It is only glass

If it gets dropped again

I will not be able to fix it

 

If I stitch up the wounds with needle and thread

Will the scar tissue be strong?

Or will will the glass punch up through the middle of it?

Will it hurt?

Will it bleed?

Will you still be a piece of it?

 

I know it is not all your fault

You are just a piece of it

 

Baby-

You are just a piece of it.

 

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