Monday, August 01, 2005

The Hidden Temple

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The sickness was upon him again. It penetrated his bones and made him shiver with a dread so intense it felt like a fever. It was not precisely physical, nor was it completely psychological. However, like malaria, it recurred whenever he felt the slightest weakness.

Captain Harville had achieved the rank of captain. With his new rank came orders to go to a place he could never divulge. Harville was required by law and by protocol to deny he had ever flown over this land. Needless to say, he was not able to mention that he had also landed his helicopter on an awkward strip of land next to a rice paddy, nor could he describe the small cluster of bamboo huts on stilts where monsoon rains rolled down the palm frond thatched roof. The flat leaves kept out the rain, for the most part, but not the small animals, and certainly not the brown snakes that dropped from trees and coiled themselves around the bamboo rafters, waiting for the Burmese mice, the gold and black-striped salamanders, or even a bat or two.

At first, Captain Harville was well. He thanked the skies above that he was able to land, despite taking fire, some of it undoubtedly friendly, thanks to the secrecy that shrouded what he understood to be his mission.

Laos was beautiful, even magical, thought Harville. He might even enjoy it here.

However, the day he took the boat down the dark green waters of a tributary of the Mekong River, he knew his mind and his body had come under the thrall of something terrible and inexplicable. The jungle changed hue from lime green to dark, shadowy brown and green, and a humid, dank canopy covered the entire river. The sense of foreboding was as clammy as the sweat on his arms. Monkeys chattered, birds sounded shrill alarms, and the unearthly sound of a woman’s scream, which he knew to be a tiger, not a woman, made him question the wisdom of taking the boat alone.

Waterfalls flowed from underground channels and conduits. Where they encountered escarpments, the water cascaded out like water shot from spigots or bizarre horizontal fountains. In the gloom, Harville made out the three mounds of vines he had been looking for. Tying the boat near a small path cut through the jungle, Harville made his way toward the largest of the three. As he approached, he could see that the vines had been chopped back, and three almost identical structures revealed. Carved of limestone, with intricate patterns, the largest of the three was a stupa, a Buddhist temple.

Slashing some of the vines out of his way, Harville bared a small expanse where he saw the outline of a door. There were no visible knobs, but his instructions were clear. Clear the vines. Push the limestone block to the side, pull the iron ring, push the wooden lever. He did so, and a section of the wall moved smoothly inward, revealing a dark passageway.

It was not a gratifying success, Harville noted. This was the Golden Triangle, after all. Whatever was hidden here was likely to have a host of interested parties. He dreaded what he would find. The most likely possibilities were opium, arms, ammunition.

He saw nothing, however. Instead, he saw white smoke and sensed an overpoweringly sweet smell that generated a bitter taste in his mouth. The limestone walls seemed to bend, waver, and melt, when the sight of a man made him catch his breath in surprise. An impossibly small Buddhist monk in a crimson robe appeared in front of him, and addressed him in an impeccable British English.

“You must respect the fact that I have no choice in this matter. I am one of the last remaining Guardians,” said the tiny Buddhist monk.

Back in his base camp, Captain Harville awakened with no recall how he got back, nor why he was here. He lay in bed, vaguely nauseous, and he looked above into the bamboo beams and palm fronds. There his eyes followed the actions of 6 brown snakes as they coil, turn, writhe in the rafters.

Clutched in his hand was a small carving of iridescent green jade that, when turned a certain direction, changed colors and turns as peach as transparent flesh. It was a coiled dragon. Its eyes were black garnets, and there was a blood-red droplet of something on its tongue. Upon close examination, one can see that it was a fiery red garnet.

The impossibly small Buddhist monk appeared in the room with Harville. Harville heard a voice, a monk’s voice, imagined the monk perching somewhere on a bamboo rafter. The monk’s dark red robes glowed, brightened, darkened, faded. He wavered, then faded.

“Be not deceived. You cannot enter the temple without becoming one of us. You will be forever bound to the Bao Luong Min Temple.” The voice seemed to come from three places at once.

“Bao Luong Min,” said Harville. “What does that mean?”

High-pitched laughter came from the rafters. Instead of six snakes, there are now at least two dozen. The are writhing and coiling frantically. More high-pitched, cackling, hysterical laughter.

“God’s Hostage.”

Harville closed his eyes. He felt the bitterness in his mouth turn to pepper, then to licorice.

The sickness rose in his brain like a fever. The dragon in his hand crackled with energy, glowed, burned, seared images into his mind.

Later, when he awoke, a full day and a half later, nothing remained to indicate that anything at all had happened, not even the trip down the river.

Then, Harville looked down upon his hand. The carving was gone, but what remained were blood-red lines – the tattoo of a dragon.