Thursday, July 21, 2005

God's Hostage

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“You see, the term ‘God’s Hostage’ is a loose translation of the name of a hidden temple in the jungles of Laos,” said Stanton.

We were on the outskirts of Righteous City in the Rose Hill Cemetery, where we had decided to go on a “pequeno fandango” quest for my grandmother’s grave. I didn’t think we’d find it – after all, I was only 10 years old when she passed away. I loved her dearly, and wanted to pay my respects in whatever way I could.

We parked in an almost empty parking lot next to an old Nash Rambler sporting an “Oklahoma Is OK” license plate with the “vanity tag” number of “BEEHAPPY.” I suspected the owner had an apiary. This part of Oklahoma was famous for its clover honey.

Luck was with us, and now here we were, sweaty but successful, sitting respectfully at the edge of her tombstone. It was hot, but there was a breeze and mosquitoes had not yet appeared.

It seemed somehow awkward to speak of the dead, and I knew I would burst into tears if we spoke of my grandmother, the special plates she had for my brother and me – mine was of Jean Millet’s (1814-1875) “The Gleaners,” my brother’s plate was adorned with a replica of a painting of Christ.

Stanton looked across the cemetery into the pale blue-pink horizon where the sun was beginning to descend beneath the horizon. Scissor-tail flycatchers that had migrated north from Mexico sat wing to wing along the telephone wire, waiting for bugs to emerge at dusk. The familiar summer sound of locusts made a low accompaniment to our voices.

“I don’t think my dad really thinks he’s “God’s Hostage.” Or, if he does, it’s a matter of interpretation,” he said. He was wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. His ink-dark hair, dark eyes, and harsh features were tensed into what anyone else would call a scowl. I knew it to be intense concentration, mixed with sadness. Stanton’s dad had been a young boy’s idol with terrific feet of clay. A young Turk fighter pilot, a high-flying officer, a young wife’s dream, a shining soldier in the dark haze of Vietnam, Stanton’s dad was everything he dreamed himself to be, except he came back insane. At least, that’s how it looked on the surface.

“I hate to argue with you Stanton, but that’s what he said to me. I was there, dear,” I said, drawing out my vowels for emphasis. Unfortunately, the result was not emphatic but priggish. I glanced quickly at Stanton, hoping I had not offended him. Thankfully, he was evidently fixated on some inner conundrum.

“Dad talked all the time about the Pha That Luang,” he said. “It was the most famous Buddhist temple in Laos.”

Stanton paused as he pulled out the knife he carried strapped to his left boot. Idly he started to sharpen the blade with the thin whetstone he carried on his key ring.

Temples,” continued Stanton. “Dad said there were others. In fact, he had found one. It was somewhere north of Ventiane, and was even bigger than the great, sacred Stupa that was so revered by the Buddhists in Laos. He said that monks knew about it, but kept it secret because they knew that the treasure inside would be looted and sold on the black market.”

I looked down at my grandmother’s grave. It was uncanny. I could almost sense her presence. In the distance I heard a dog bark, leaves rustle in the breeze.

“I don’t want to rub salt in the wound, but your dad said very clearly that he was God’s Hostage, and that’s why he put aluminum foil in the motel windows and why he lived at there for 8 years, leaving only when absolutely necessary,” I said.

“God’s Hostage,” intoned Stanton. He looked at me.

“Don’t you get it at all?” he asked.

I looked back at him, surprised at the vehemence of his voice.

“Well, to tell the truth, no.” I did not like where this was going.

“God’s Hostage is not my dad. It is the name of the hidden temple. And – if my investigations mean anything at all, it’s also the name of the tiny, infinitely precious jade statue of the Green Tara. Legend has it that the jade is exceedingly rare, and when the light hits it a certain way, the green shifts and exudes a pink glow,” he said.

The light in the wide Oklahoma sky had assumed a delicate pink glow. I shivered lightly. The Kiowa Indians who had lived just north of here believed that when the sun set, a magical flash of gold would light the sky in the instant that it sank below the horizon. If you caught the flash, you should make a wish. It would come true within the year.

I concentrated on the setting sun. I wondered if I would be able to recognize the gold flash if and when it happened.

“Are you sure? Could it be referring to something else?” I asked.

“I’m certain of it. This statue is a figurine. It is only about 8 inches tall, but supposedly it has very intricate carvings in addition to the strange properties of the stone, which make it magically change colors at certain times. Supposedly, the statue of Tara comes with a base – a dozen jade elephants, each with star sapphire eyes.”

As Stanton proceeded to explain to me how and why he believed his dad was not insane at all, but under a very real curse for having smuggled precious antiquities from Laos, I found myself wondering if it could be true.

“It is my opinion that Dad’s been frantic because he lost the figurine,” Stanton announced.

That finally jolted me back into the conversation.

“What? He lost “God’s Hostage”? I thought you were saying that he is God’s Hostage,” I said.

“Yes and yes,” said Stanton. “I think that Dad found the statue in the God’s Hostage stupa. He brought it home. He hid it. Little did he know that Mom would divorce him and sell the house while he was flying missions in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.”

Stanton put the knife back into its sheath. He approached me and put his hand on my left thigh. The heat of his palm burned through the khaki pants I was wearing. The loyalty he felt for his father touched me. At the same time, I could feel the anger, the sense of family honor outraged. It horrified him to think the world considered his father insane, a hopelessly deranged victim of extreme post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The cemetery was very quiet, except for the breeze and the sound of a car leaving the parking lot. I put my hand on Stanton’s shoulder and looked deeply into his dark, brooding eyes.

It suddenly made sense. Someone was after Stanton’s dad because they knew that he had stolen the precious artifact.

The electricity between us could not be denied. Even here, even now, when topics of monumental gravity were being discussed, the chemistry wrought strange alchemical magic through our pores and our skin. I wanted to press his hips against mine and feel the violent arousal make my heart beat and my body burn.

“Are you with me on this?” he asked. I nodded wordlessly. I turned my face toward his and suddenly I felt his hard lips press against mine. Tears came to my eyes.

Whoever knew that Stanton’s Dad had taken God’s Hostage from the temple wanted it returned to its rightful place, I imagined. It could even have been a couple of Buddhist monks. They were non-violent, though, and Stanton’s dad seemed absolutely terrified.

“I knew I could trust you,” he said. He paused and looked at the sunset.

What did Stanton’s dad stumble upon in the hidden Buddhist stupa? Was there something besides a small figurine that Stanton had deduced was taken by his dad and smuggled into a house in rural Oklahoma. What did he find in the temple lost in jungles of Laos? What was so remarkable about it? Was it being used for other purposes? This was, after all, in the heart of the old “Golden Triangle” opium trade. Did he unearth something else?

Things were seeming very unrighteous somehow, here in Righteous City.

“Where was your parent’s house at that time?” I asked. “Did they live in Virginia back then?”

“No. Mom had moved back to Yahweh Springs,” he said. “We lived in a big country farmhouse. There was a barn, a boathouse, and a two-story house. It was a great place to live.”

“We should go to Yahweh Springs tomorrow, don’t you think?” I asked.

He held me tight to his chest, his thick, muscular arms smooth and hard. The sun was making its final descent for the night over the horizon. I followed Stanton’s gaze to the progress of the sun, slipping down. Suddenly, in a flash occurring so quickly I dared not trust my own perceptions, gold suffused the sky and the usually mute row of scissortail flycatchers burst into cacophonic squawking.

Stanton looked at me, drew his fingertip down the edge of my jaw and to the point of my chin.

“Golden child,” he said. “I adore you.”

As we kissed, tears slid down my cheeks. The granite of my grandmother’s tombstone flashed pink and gold in harmony with the light that promised to guide us to the knowledge we so desperately sought.

It would be a glorious journey. Of that, I was absolutely certain.