The park was quiet save for sporadic canine yapping and the canned laughter accompanying the shifting glow of stolen cable programming. The insects inhabiting the grass alongside the asphalt no longer sang, quieted by the premature cold. To Trent, their silence was a deep relief, their shrilling recalling such kindred songs from distant lands as he did not care to remember. Despite their abeyance he had drifted into sleep amid visions of purpuric equatorial sunsets, in which the heads of forest palms thrashed in the draft of a descending helicopter as he leant out over its skids, staring downward into rippling, lukewarm darkness.
The water he was dropped into rose waist-high, thick with coffee-hued silt and jungle leaves, hemmed by rafts of water hyacinth. He lifted his rifle clear of the river and began to wade against the sluggish current, surrounded by the burps and growls of invisible amphibians. His captain was dropped into point upstream; he waited for him to turn and beckon before falling in at the designated distance. The monsoon had poured the river out over its banks into the forest beyond, creating a vast, serpentine marsh plumed with the twining dragon shapes of rattan, moonlight fractured on their drooping fronds. Long after dark the heat lay febrile over the water, heavy with the ferrous stink of living mud and fermenting leaves and choked with mosquitoes, whining in both his ears and blundering into every orifice. He shook them from his head and waded onward, ducking branches, marking the shaggy garland of foliage that decked his leader’s helmet.
Trent ran screeds of aerial photography through his head, dismayed to find no convincing correlations in his viscid surrounds; cutting across an oxbow in his haste, he stepped into a sinkhole, the water rising suddenly past his chin. The log spanning the channel offered no assistance, dead bark coming away in his hands like rotted flesh as he grasped it, seeking elusive purchase underfoot.
“Sounds like you’re giving it to a fucking buffalo back here.” his leader hissed, teeth gleaming in his darkly-greased face as he dragged Trent from the hollow.
“This’s bullshit... we got the wrong fuckin ditch.” the latter murmured, climbing up onto the spongy bank. “Nothin round here makes sense... we bug out now and go back d...”
“The intel’s the size of your mom's dick... sustained activity, one click north.”
“Who gives a fuck if someone’s bagging up old gook shit out there?”
“One click north, so find your balls and fall in, asshole.”
Allowing his leader to drift too far ahead seemed like a tiny, crippled victory while he shoved through a guard of olive bamboo. Looking back, he glimpsed an ordered shape amid the undergrowth, lifting the canes to reveal a carved stone block stained black by the water. The curling feet of some clawed, half-avian figure confirmed their entry into the decrepit temple precinct that had inspired the speculative deviation from their martial purpose; he shook his head again, spat on the toppled block and turned upstream.
A lone night heron voiced its croaking discontent. The loss of contact with his captain perturbed him until he discovered the latter’s garlanded silhouette poised on a fallen teak spanning the channel. He paused, awaiting instruction, and was rewarded with a manual direction; a ripple curved around his waist as he complied, moving further out into the river, his captain beckoning him toward himself and directly into another unseen hole. Trent gasped and thrust his rifle over his head as he went under, sleighed out into the depths by sucking, sloping mud. Through flooded eyes he saw his companion as a black blur upon the teak, overlaid again by shifting clouds of insects, relinquishing his rifle and coughing out a half-drowned call for help. Upon the distant tree the figure looked down into the water, inclining its head in a moment that slowed Trent’s struggle until only the sound of his own laboured breathing scored its fluid descent from the bole; it was eaten wholly by the river, garlanded helmet drifting slowly downstream toward him.
The river flattened out like silk, welling against his legs and torso while he wrenched his boots free and was swept under, only to rise again some distance from the immuring hole. He gasped, shadows lying heavy in his eyes, the river shaping his clothes against his body. His breath rattled in his chest as he rolled and stroked downstream, glancing over his shoulder; something brushed against his thigh and he cried out, whirling backward into the fallen log that had impeded him before. Bracing against it, his feet finding the bottom, he stood wide-eyed while in the silence the mosquitoes settled, blanketing the open stretch before him. The heron boomed again; he ran his hand down over his belt and service pistol but had not worked it free before his legs were seized and his head sucked down under the log.
He passed out of consciousness briefly, the water closing over his face and his skull struck by a branch stub on the underside of the decaying tree. The blow worked with the burning eternity of submersion to enfeeble him, so that he barely knew he had been dragged free of the river and thrown onto mud like a carp flung from a net. He groaned, and was dealt a blow that left him senseless.
Water lapped at his boots when he stirred, finding himself lying beside his commander’s body in time to watch white hands grasping its collar. They turned the blade of a hunting knife in a circumnavigation of its neck, a gesture of almost magical swiftness that robbed the corpse of its head and left it so diminished that it seemed smaller by half to Trent’s deranged perception. The stump slopped blood into the silt, trimmed with a thin stripe of nape and wet hair. Gleaming red, the curving blade returned, sliding low past Trent’s eyes while a creature slit the corpse's sleeveless khakis and stroked a hand down over them, fingers tuned to the shapes hidden in the sodden garments, glowing so coldly in the moonlight that Trent attributed their number to the damage he could feel at the back of his skull. His head lolled as his own body was treated in the same manner, every utile item stripped and pitched into the river. He lay waiting for the hands to find his collar, croaking as they did, gravity drawing bloodied bubbles from the corner of his mouth into his ear. The knife bit into his neck so easily that he lay still even as the blade was halted on his stiff thews.
He looked up at its face, at its slick black mane and the long, golden eyes that stared, not at him, but away to the south. Dropping him to the mud, it rose, taller than seemed possible, like something stepped down from the stones of the forgotten temple, symmetry surviving the hallucinatory embellishments imposed by his panic and loathing. Turned down river from the narrow bank, the creature stood as though it had been called from that direction. Trent screwed his eyes closed against the sight of the black shapes on its back; they moved, and yet did not, writhing like flames in negative with the water in his eyes. It gave a looping whistle that echoed across the river, then stepped back into the water, leaving the bodies where they had fallen. Trent lay with his blood oozing in a warm pool about his shoulders for twenty minutes before a murky noise, becoming percussive, then a slash of blinding light that jumped the river restlessly aroused him, thudding downdraft sweeping the floating vegetation against the shore and whipping at the palms.
The worst part of the dream, aside from its historical reality, was that it revolved instead of resolving in a cycle of unblinking renewal. Sweat soaked the back of Trent’s shirt while he saw the dusk once more, and the heads of the tall palms thrashed wildly as he gazed down from the skids of a helicopter until his plunge into the river was derailed by the sharp sound of a fist upon a door. With his dry tongue clicking against his mouth his hand came down on an attenuated shotgun, duct-taped to the wall beside his chair, and he rolled onto his feet.
Josephine glanced at the movement darkening the glass beside the trailer door and tipped back her trucker cap. She wore a coverall, her hair tucked into its collar; Trent scowled, glanced over his shoulder and swore to himself before admitting her.
She stood back from the doorway once inside, allowing him to press it closed behind her, sealing off the sound of barking dogs and cussing drunks. The dry stink of the trailer hit her hard but she put the blunt snout of her handgun to the back of his balding skull before he could read the silence. The shots flashed white and dropped him onto a stripe of plastic carpet protector.
Stepping over his trembling body, she held his lighter flame to the edge of the velour squab and turned the fan upon the hungry little ember, watching it eat busily into the foam. His skin was softer than she had imagined as she felt for a pulse beside the crescent scar on the side of his neck, scraped by some blunt razor and smelling faintly of laundry soap. His heart still throbbed chaotically; she stepped back and put another round between his shoulder blades.
In the bitter darkness outside she jerked her weight against the door handle, testing the lock, and stooped to pitch the pistol beneath the trailer.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce