He knew he should not return up the jade-green waters and into the tight, night-black passageway of the vine-covered Buddhist temple in the dark, throbbing Laotian jungle. The knowledge that his transgressions could destroy him only drove him further into his mind and out of his body, a sweating, irrelevant bundle of skin and tears that only got in the way these days.
Harville knew that at this point he had become a statistic. He was either a number on a long list entitled MIA, or a name engraved on a simple metal bracelet worn in solidarity or protest, however one chose to look at it, back in the land he was already beginning to consider as annoying and intractable as his body.
Shopping centers, paved roads, women with pink, polished nails and teased hair, men who smiled and plotted to steal his wife the moment he was out of sight: none of that perturbed him in the least. He was deep in the Laotian jungles, and for all the world knew or cared, he had perished like so many other pathetic true believers flying helicopters for the grand, timeless, clockwork machine called War.
The smooth skin of the jade statue of Tara he touched the last time he entered the cool stone recesses of the hidden temple glowed with an ethereal, unearthly light. Her tiny smile brought tears to his eyes, and he vowed to cradle her gently in his arms as he made her his. The small, exquisitely wrought statue was mounted on a small altar, and affixed to an inlaid platform. He could not pry her loose, so this time, he returned with what tools he could find or improvise.
The waters beneath the small, flat-bottomed boat propelled by an oversized but extremely inefficient outboard motor rippled behind him. The small engine smoked, occasionally sputtered. Fingering the string of black jade beads he had bought in the back of a small shop acrid with the smell of opium smoke, Harville let his eyes drift out of focus as he imagined his lovely Tara waiting for him to enter the dark passage, and tear her free from the frozen bliss she had found there.
A little more than 18 inches in length, the jade Tara was in her classic seated pose, one leg tucked under her, the other extended, a hand with fingers touching each other, ready to offer wholeness and healing. A rare pink jade, she was almost iridescent. In one light, she was the color of flesh begging to be touched. In another, she was the cool, ivory-toned green life on the verge of awakening.
Harville wanted her more than he had wanted anything in his life. He would make this journey to take her, bring her back.
The rare jade statue was had been carved with the finest of tools and details. Each toenail, each ankle bracelet, each small detail featured an inlaid gemstone in a graded transition of color from one end of the rainbow to the other. The jade Tara that Harville had found was priceless.
As he made his way up the river, the waters darkened. They transitioned slowly from green to dark emerald, to brown, and finally to the color of congealed blood. He held a small, carved sphere of jade in his right hand. It was one of dozens he had found, in all possible shades of jade. When placed in formation, they made soothing, soft-toned rainbow. He had gathered them in his first forays into the anterooms of the vine-encrusted carved stone temple.
This was his fourth or fifth trip up the river. The first ones did not bring him to the inner chambers of the Buddhist stupa, or temple, which lay in the dark jungle unperturbed for hundred years, except for a few mysterious "Keepers," which Harville saw flitting in his peripheral vision, like retinal flashes or silent bursts of fire from old automatic weapons.
They would destroy him. His urges were ugly and they infected him with their filthy shrapnel. His desires were maggots in his gut. They buzzed like the shiny black flies that feasted on carrion and innocence.
Nothing would purify him except his Tara, his beautiful Tara.
Sunlight, or something like it glittered and flashed across the raindrops that had begun to fall from a strip of darkness that hovered on the edge of his consciousness. The Keepers observed, followed, flickered as mental energy manifested in the form of glittering snowflakes, fog, fluid that oozed silvery like mercury.