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War and the Temple
By Peter S Gardner
Monday, July 18, 2005
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
A story based on Homer's Odyssey, of a man trying to return to some kind of peace after an experience in the Vietnam War
War and the Temple part 1
The wake flows like white wings from the bow of the open boat. The sea is rough, dark swells high on the wide plain, landless and producing the rush of good whiskey as I ply the waves, and as the fallen sky turns deep red like a wound on the horizon, the sun like a lithium flame, clouds streaming before the stars. I am wrapped closely in the heat of the tropical ocean, steaming in the light air of the Polynesian waters, between luminous islands of palm and sand. Celestial navigation has become a way of life. I feel free through diurnal awareness, the language of current, wind, and sky focusing into a unity of pleasure. Cool spray erupts into the boat and onto my body at every strike into an oncoming surge, and I tighten the sails in preparation for the approaching night storm. The sea is like rippling blown glass, but soon will be foam and flying froth, a conflict of waves and rain.
My voice burns in my throat as I speak to myself in this oceanic isolation.
The bush was heavy with the foreshadowing of blood. The members of the platoon swept the surrounding rainforest with their eyes. I felt relieved, less tense, that we were in daylight rather than on night patrol. We were out far beyond the wire, on the border of the conflict, near Cambodia, as far as we could tell. We had seen no action, yet, but knew a firefight was coming. The VC were dug in everywhere in this area, and death was common, its scent hanging in the air, infusing every breath and every step on eroded trails. This was emphatically not our territory, and walking point was a pure invitation to life’s end.
Out of the forest, we came to a clearing, bromeliads and orchids flaring in the sunlight. Leaves fragmented the sky around and above us. A temple appeared out of the riverine mist, foliage burned from the ground just recently, from the look of fresh ash covering the earth. The temple was pyramidal in shape, like a stepped ziggurat, with carved figures covering its mass, a Buddhist or Hindu masterpiece of the ancient past. It stood in the sun like an image of unrecoverable peace, angelic statuary of the Eastern kind and the faces of gods and saints flagrant throughout its surface. A visual, symbolic telling of the myth of creation, the light of the beginning, encrusted this eroding stonework with freeform divinities, an animist and angelic expression of eternity. The granite from which it was made was smooth and melting from the effects of rain and time. At first glance, it seemed to stand apart from the war, inhabiting a world out of violence and the temporal; the soul of human yearning for the sublime.
Approaching closer, we found shards of stone and a few empty shells lying in the ash. Then, visible in the leaves around the temple, the leavings of death. Bloodstains. McDonough, ahead of us, began to choke and retch. Formations of decaying corpses littered the statuary and arched entrance. Blind eyes, empty sockets, shredded skin and clothes, the presence of skeletal limbs, bone protruding through facial features, the reek of war’s detritus. Insects fled into the air as we came among them. McDonough confirmed South Vietnamese insignia. This, whatever its original intention, was a final resting place, an unequivocal killing zone. These bodies were the voice of suffering, left decorating a place of incense and serenity, a statement of subjugation to fate.
The mist burned rapidly away in the late light, and pale faces, both living and dead, stared in the divine haze. Silence passed among us, from mouth to mouth, an arabesque of horror. We had seen death.
The beginning of the time of equatorial red light came to this temple of loss; drained to exhaustion, the sun, like a blind, acute creature of the sky, contained in still fear, bleeding illumination, escaping.
The first shot hit with stunning rapidity. We were consumed by the awareness of panic, and stillness, like movement through water. The scene turned into a liquid cage, a cell of blindness, except for the flash of light in the distant underbrush. Three of us were killed, shot down in bone-splintering agony at the first round of fire. The temple distorted in empty twilight, the light-mottled evening an ecstasy of tracers and the yells of Vietnamese echoing through the trees and off of the shattered carvings. We ran through clinging tension to the trail we had taken to the clearing, some stumbling to the stone monument and dropping to the ash of the ground. A symphony of shadow and mist, parted by last light and the sound of gunfire. I thought of the waves I had seen on the South Vietnamese beach at the beginning of my tour, hot blue surf forever attending sand, tide intending conflict, a raging emptiness of change. At the time, I could feel an anesthetized terror, but now, no emotion, just solitude, loose immobility, and the sense of standing in flowing water, cold and held. My vision blurred, and the motion of bodies streamed around the clearing.
I felt the strike of a bullet in my midsection. My legs became weak at the punch of the shell, and I fell to the ground at the edge of the clearing as I stumbled away. Sweat slicked my face and arms. The taste of blood filled my mouth, and I crawled into the covering leaves while the rage of fire from both sides continued. Within a minute, the platoon was devastated. Bodies in the last agonies of attempted escape lay around, small and ragged in the quiet after automatic fire. Smoke eclipsed the dissipating mist.
I felt the insistent grasp of a hand on my shoulder. McDonough had survived, and began to drag my weight further into the trees. We lay in palm fronds together as the North Vietnamese entered the clearing to survey the bodies. McDonough kept a hand over my mouth as we listened to the staccato sound of their voices. He drew me away from the atmosphere of strange attraction. All that was in this war, in my life, had come to be that temple, a bright worship of death and unbearable red light, in a thing from the beginning, from the hands of some lost architect, shivering to my sight.
We ran. There was no option. After a few miles, McDonough stopped to wrap my wound. Apparently, the bullet had not hit a vital organ, but I was losing blood until the bandaging. He partially carried me on the retreat south, toward the border, a blind move through night trails and days of delirium. I woke three days into the escape to a dawn of the feel of dry scales on my arm. A snake had slid into the shelter we had made of palm fronds and strangler fig leaves. The head of the constrictor and its searching tongue brushed my face. My throat closed, my back arched, and I whispered softly for McDonough, who had moved down the trail to find a path. I was already in shock and fever, and the colors and textures of things had begun to fade. The snake seemed to have enlarged, and the vines of the trees transformed into its brothers. The forest was moving, bending, breathing, alive with animals and a soft rain. I threw the snake off and collapsed onto the trail.
We continued to move south, coming to a river at what McDonough thought was close to the border between north and south. Flailing into the water, into the bright current, ruby-river monsoon wind striking my face, the rain in deluge, the tears of anguish on the edge of night. Suddenly, a heartbeat, in darkness, the pressure to emerge, constriction, unbreath, out of an encased, flushed womb, like the tight caverns of the earth. Eroded by streams like embered arteries, like embryonic, sunless oceans, leaving moments of consciousness with every slight rush of fluid. The geometry of emotion built to break at emergence, the temple in the eye of my mind – birth into the journey to dissolution, when my soul began to separate from its source. Shed, the stem, the beloved prison, the anatomy of rage. The burn and forest shadow shapes were forgotten, lost violence in a linear, leaved shattering of air. To a silence of flickering, ensphered images, surrounded by the brushing wings of spirits returning in patterns of paradisical flight. McDonough laved my head with the water, and drew me across.
We reached the roads in darkness. The wire had been overrun in what I later learned was the Tet Offensive. We slipped through the zone of combat, artillery firing, planes burning to crash in the wounded shadow, the sounds of screams echoing as children ran naked down the open roads, gasoline fires like primal flowers, stars appearing like nails in the night. We shot to get through, knowing nothing of position or the North Vietnamese lines. The stories of murdered Buddhist monks coalesced in my imagination with the scene at the temple and the journey back to the south. I felt like an ascetic visionary, as if I had been initiated into a mystery I could not name or place. Thousands of dead lost to desire. I could not comprehend. I heard the rustling of saffron robes, and remembered the altar of my boyhood, basilicas, and the crucifix I had once worn, replaced by dog tags. The chaos of flame, the arc of light, the broken stone.
Time has washed clear and slipped into a flow of fragmented images, falling out of its own passage. I grasp a pen to write, one of the few links between present and past:
Monarch of various fringed shadows,
Flare of guns in the darkness
Correlates time with a prophetic fear,
Empty of passage, ripped throughout
These sinews, winding, gripping in
Lotus agony the numb eternity,
The moment drawn to infinite by
Flowers of fire in a season of ash.
The shapes of forever wake in the death forest,
In the wire and soul-drinking bush,
In the chaos of the bone temples,
Baroque and sanguine vine clearings
Where the blind come to breathe.
There are hills of lost moments in the earth,
Eroded mountains where time goes to its end,
To sleep with the remains of memory
In a crowded nightmare of steel plumage,
And deep rainforest temples, out of entropy,
Lost to the transpositions of solitary avatars,
And serpentine draws of river and rain.
Angelically transfixed, pure, flowering lotus
Of temporal radiance arisen, collection
Of final death in one ivory soul.
I could not return to America, and so found my way out on the ocean from Hawaii. The sails are tight, the storm is coming. Night falls slowly and purls like liquid fire in the crevices left by my passage. At times, I drift in pain without place or form, at a point of meaning within the imagination that speaks of soul’s freedom. I struggle for life, expanding with time, seeking a true center that would create no need for flight. I wish to turn and transform, to pass to a living continuance, to see, once again, life beyond mourning.
I slip out of the boat, the way ancient Polynesian sailors once did, to feel the direction of the current. The fluid of oceanic grace folds out of the womb of pearl in blue peace. Water haunts my being, holds my soul in its palm, and consumes all pain. The water without calls to the water within, and I navigate by the feel of the flow against my skin.
War and the Temple part 2
The whorled, mottled shell lay in my hand as I sat on the Tahitian sand: a universe in miniature, turning back upon itself, returning to its center, its source; a dry intimation of an unrecoverable past; a story, in its shape, of mortality; in its emptiness, of lost purpose, of the remains of retreat from the constant waves of experience - a life left high beyond the rhythms of existence. Like the shell, I was tossed up on this island, curving into myself, spiraling toward an unexplored center, dissolving my past with opium, and unaware of the outside world.
The Pacific pounded around me while I contemplated escape. The pipe was no longer enough. The island was too limited. Spearfishing on the reef had lost its appeal. I might have reached full-blown addiction, as opium had become my only recourse. The smell and the taste were heavy and oppressive, but the dreams illuminated places of darkness, wheeling color in a grey world. My life was painless, ineffable, but rapidly sinking, as if adrift on the hot, blue sea. I gathered my equipment and entered the water.
The descent of the dive was like alighting gently through a vast and vaulted chamber, the vision of the sea floor appearing vaguely in watery mist, sand and coral alternating, a landscape of mesas, pinnacles, and canyons, painted formations containing jewel-hued life. The coral wall fell into a blind abyss below, as if the edge of the world spread above undiscovered depths, which produced the occasional bit of life: tuna, ray, and shark appearing from the fields of the open ocean to feed on the abundance of the reef, and hang like sculpture in the haze of distance.
I let air out of my buoyancy compensator and fell to the sea floor. I approached an opening in the reef, coral heads growing together over a dark tunnel to the outer wall. Angelfish gleamed in the diffuse light, like motive stained glass, colors lightly drifting just out of reach. I noticed conch shells lying on the sand between sea fans and tube sponges. Bone fish arched in those clearings, curved and unmoving, creatures out of a fossil reality, part of an ocean containing the artifacts of an unimaginable past. The warm seas of the torrid zone seemed the galleries of an azure museum, memory alive and visible out of dream, a visual history of lost continents and amniotic spaces. I swam into the opening, past spiny lobsters and puffer fish waiting for the night to emerge, and began breathing more rapidly in the shadow. The refracted light from above faded, lost like a vision of faith, a window to a golden paradise consumed by a gate to the underworld. I began to forget the high spray of the surface in the rising tension of the swim-through, but emerged, once again, into light, after a few moments. I forced through the opposing current, and passed the thermocline as I emerged on the outer ridge. Cold water coursed over my body, an awakening sensation of presence, the sharp awareness of place, of submarine location.
I approached a projection of coral at a distance from the tunnel. A green moray eel slid out of its hole in the outcropping, moving sinuously toward me, as if recognizing me as a thing benevolent, moving tentatively into my outstretched hand, and settling into my grip. The current pulled on my body. I kicked to remain in place.
I swam on along the top of the wall, over the depths, in simulated flight. A spotted eagle ray drifted over the crest of the wall, and through line of sight, as if the sea had intensified into an alien and primal universe. It cruised through the thick atmosphere, like a rare bird of the desert, somewhat obscured by the bubbles escaping my regulator. Air was not enough to sustain at this sight in the cathartic blue. The embryonic warmth of the sea left me, and time became lost in the wings of the ray. Fear was not in question. The strangeness of this sight formed a radiating image of endless ages past within me. I wondered at the peace of this creature in its environment, at its slow fluctuation, wings beating as all things seemed to slow to motionless around it, an isolated fragment of a world lost to the sun-shot surface.
McDonough had died without purpose. Whatever was left of me had gone with him to the grave, or, more likely, some isolated place in the Vietnamese jungle. There seemed to be no return to peace: life dissolved into visions of violence and blood, savagery, the temple engraved forever on memory. My death is long, drawn out by recollections of those who died before; contained within the azure waves of voyaging, and the islands of drifting contemplation. The beaches stretched endlessly, vanishing, until returning to the place of beginning. The ocean erupted to foam at the outer reef, speaking, with the collapse of crests, of the fragility of time, the tropical signal of momentary reverse. I remained chained to the white sand, the green of palms, and the wound which had never quite healed. I fell into dreams from which I could not emerge:
My name is Gaugin. I am painting the people of Tahiti and the landscape in which they live. They are still mostly untouched by European incursion. Their gods are powerful, energizing existence on the volcanic island which splits the sea. Their reddish-gold skin and almond eyes evoke a sense of pleasure, of solace for the traveler. The burlap canvases I use will eventually crack the paints I apply. Nothing is permanent. I am recording this society so that, for a while, a way of life, some beauty, can be preserved. These people live within a balance of sea and land. They do not go to war.
I see a landscape which I will call “The Day of the God”, a picture in which the water touches the land, and the people give sacrifice to a wooden sculpture of Taaroa, the creator of the world. Like my lingering death, this god is still unexplored. Within this dream, I write.
Her hands are like tapering, folded, soft stars.
They turn under the dim colors of twilight
To scull the waves of the Pacific.
They turn at the sand-scarred border between water's life
And the dry palm floating flora that suggests long sleeping.
I ask her if she knows whether peace lives
Under the shift between sun and stars
On warm, coral encoded islands.
She looks to the horizon at the casual urging
Of my voice, and answers that the foam spray
Of the outer reef has always invoked enigma.
I left Tahiti with the dream in mind; artist of revelation in the soft world. My boat passed between the heads of crashing reefs, as I timed tide and waves. Intense fear found me forcing my ship through the huge swells, the teeth of the coral, and finally out onto the wine-dark sea. I was free of opium and the woman, who had kept me entranced for who knows how long. Summer was forever on the equatorial islands. This Kalypso had wielded the magic of love, but I had broken with her to sail onward – my interest had vanished – I desired home.
Dawn approached, rose-fingered, over the Pacific. The ocean current was leading me away from home, from peace and content. I could not really believe home would provide forgetting, but wished for an ending to this journey.
I was shocked by wave crests striking my boat. A typhoon was approaching rapidly from the east. Clouds streamed across the sky, dark with the heaviness of rain, crimson, like blood splashed across the sky, and warning of high seas. The boat clashed heavily with swells, and was driven away from my destination in Hawaii. I dropped over the side to feel the power of the west-driven current, and barely returned to the deck of my craft. The trades had turned into a nightmare of wind and sky, a tropical storm inevitable.
I turned away from the heavy gusts, setting sail to catch the direction of the air. Two days later, I found myself caught up on a grey reef surrounding a small uncharted island many miles west of Tahiti – possibly still in the archipelago, but I could not know. I was without opium, without companions. I had to spearfish for food and search the island for water.
I put on a diving mask, snorkel, and fins, grasped a spear, and went under from a place on the beach in from the coral castellations upon which my boat had found its rest.
A film of blue between formations of consciousness,
Between air and sea,
Folds slowly into the light rapture of wave upon wave.
Juxtapositions of fluted, empty shells upon dark beaches,
Capture of island convolutions,
The dream slips, sensorial, between stark awakenings,
Through birds in flight, and winds of sentience,
Through scattered atolls, the crowns of reefs,
Which raise the cities of ocean,
Slow the rings of high clouds,
Hold the ships of lost mourning,
And shape storms, the theaters of swelling time.
The spray, the white foam,
Like shuttling words in air,
The space between truth and illusion,
Between essence and meaning,
Sounds the sky in sighing phrases,
And, luminous ivory, shifts under the sun,
Sinking to calm in the heart of the break,
Over the deep galleries of the tropical waters,
Which contain the presence of color and stroke,
Gardens of light, charged with radiance,
Like the undisturbed images
Of impressionist landscapes.
The corridors of coral spread lucid
In the equatorial underworld,
A museum of lost eras;
Hanging sculpture in the pure blue,
Silver tarpon and angelfish,
Like roaming, wrought jewels,
Shelter beneath the floating breath
Of current and tide,
The language of ocean.
I ate mahi-mahi, grilled over an open fire, later that night. The fish was good, but I could not enjoy it – desolate was I, washed up on nothingness. The island at night turned into a place of fear – I was sure a Polynesian god had cursed me with isolation for some transgression . Possibly, leaving my woman on Tahiti had invoked a kind of vengeance. In my mind, I wrote of her then.
Soft, her angelic avatar
Breathes small words.
I try to paint her,
Or brand that enigmatic
Smile to my closed eyes.
She rises in the dark,
Invoked by my fearful
Dreaming of long, black curls,
The kind that waits for
The blue sea to bring
Lost wanderers to
Her uninhabited island.
She speaks of the stars
With tightly wrapped legs,
As if constellations would
Shatter and reform at
Every moan from her lips.
I am alone on this island. Fish has become a tasteless, monotonous food. But it is the only thing to sustain me. I feel the loneliness has transformed my life. I am now one. McDonough fadces fro my memory, while dominating all of it – strange paradox. When I later learned of his fate – to be tortured to death in a POW camp in the jungle – I could barely feel any remorse, or any grief. Yet, there was no escape from the idea of his death until I could see him in monument, and return to my home on the east coast of America.
Eventually, some Polynesian fishermen came to my protean, isolated island. I woke at dawn to find them out beyond the reef, in a long canoe, fishing for anything they could find. I stoked the fire on the beach. They saw, and approached.
War and the Temple part 3
The osprey soars across the sky above the lines of the vaults of the church with small Celtic crosses encrusting its peaks. I sit with a cappucino and a cigarette, drifting lightly through the visions around and above me. The osprey returns from the other side of the church to fly over again, heading for the near western horizon, over the escarpment at the edge of town. I think of flight, its dream and actuality, a moving meditation on freedom, on the release of the spirit from the gravity of existence, a thing that pulls one toward a core of unbearable heat and pressure. Defy the ground and taste the currents of the upper air. Live within a fleet, blue cosmos of cold and wind. Never return to the world’s surface of pain.
The story comes back to me, different aspects emphasized after so many years. This often happens at crucial moments in the progression of my life. McDonough would understand, but he is dead. His tour of duty was endless. He had no opportunity to find the ocean.
The ocean consumes me. Twenty years later, I still return to the Pacific, sailing when I can. The inner pain of the war falls away on the long fields of sea and sky, moves away into the night stars, nailed hard into the revolving constellations. Spread of beauty in the wind’s warmth. I find the occasional islands, marks in time, the punctuation of years’ passage. On these places of stability, I remember for myself, and for McDonough, the wreckage of life that was Vietnam, and the loss of all peace that pertains to the past. Every landing on a beach is the first landing on the shores of South Vietnam, and I think that on the islands I will find the habitations of the dead, McDonough and all the others, shifting calmly through the small groves of palm and sand. Elysian fields. Gate of ivory, gate of horn. Ceremony of blood to invoke the souls long lost.
I see McDonough in the shadows of night, at times, but never clearly. He haunts my life, was my life. The waters speak of him with a soft sibilance of mourning. I could not have left the war without him, though I have never truly left the war. I sit and consider the bird in flight. It flees from my sight. I stand and walk toward the church, flooded with memories of conflict and resolution.
We were concealed in forest after the massacre. I bled heavily from my wound. The bullet remained in my gut, as McDonough had no way to remove it. We had been running day and night, and my hallucinations were becoming more intense. The trees seemed to be breathing, mist and steam streaming along the trails and through the clearings we passed. Light and dark were interminable and had lost all meaning. We waded and swam through swamp after three days of escape; through signs of old killings, through the skeletal remains of some mass execution. Skulls protruded from the mud, bony hands raised in final supplication. In the last light of day, these dead seemed to move in terror and resurrection, surrounded by clouds of biting insects and the red wound flush of sunset. I felt we would join these lost in a prayer of dying. We fled through the field of bones to the welcoming green of the other side, in fear of being revealed to the creators of this open grave. Hundreds of futile dead collected in my mind. I would carry them out and forever. I could not shake the haze of possession and confusion.
The forest melted at night, dissolving into a mass of bruised foliage and wood. At these times, we usually heard the distant sounds of voices and gunshots. I could not say whether they were real or effects of shock and delusion. We know we were being followed, knew the trail was a North Vietnamese highway, from the signs of their presence—pits with punji sticks and deserted underground shelters. We sped past, though the echoing calls of bird life and screaming monkeys. South Vietnamese bodies were hung form branches along the path, decomposing in silence but for the wildlife and wind.
The shots came as we passed through a deserted village of grass huts and surrounding rice paddies. We hit the ground as burning fire scored the grass walls and dirt around us. They came howling. We ran to the trees as bullets passed us. They had traced our path from the temple. Shattered stone returned to my mind as everything slowed around us as we ran. The temple was the motionless origin of terror. I will remember that temple for the rest of my life. It was the beginning of a cosmological transformation, beginning and end, creation and destruction.
The air shattered around us, sun skipping across the sky, through the foliant refuge. We lost the trial, slashing through the undergrowth, through thick leaves and the webs of spiders. McDonough yelled at me to follow, though my wound had begun to bleed again. I felt the warm wet of blood seeping out of my body and I cursed war, and the visions of statuary, stone encrustations of what I later learned were images of Krishna and Arjuna from the Indian epic the Mahabarata. Thousands of years ago Arjuna had questioned a war, a conflict of human families. He was told of necessity; of inescapable fate; of dharma; of divine determination of mortal life. I had shed any belief of the necessity of this conflict. Fear ruled my soul.
We came to another village, this one inhabited by a single woman, as if the rest of the villagers had fled. She spoke to us in Vietnamese as she moved baskets of rice into a storage hut. We had had no food for days, and attempted to acquire some from her, after we had checked the houses of the village for any other presence, as she yelled and tried to stop us. McDonough and I concealed ourselves in one of the huts and cooked rice from her baskets. He rewrapped my wound. She sat in the hut and watched, her eyes never leaving us. She held out a hand for food, to eat with us. Her hands shook as she took rice from me.
We spent the next day hidden with her. I began to understand that she held no loyalty to either side of this conflict. She was hiding for the sake of survival, having been abandoned by her family during the course of the war. She held to us, speaking Vietnamese rapidly with tears flowing from her eyes.
I found the memorial the first year after it had been completed. I had finally returned from the Pacific to the east coast of America, without contacting any of my family, who had pleaded for my return. The place was a Mycaenean monument, descending into the earth in engraved darkness, like a tomb of regret and memory, an entrance to the Underworld, seeking the rivers of darkness and the fields of lost souls, threnodies sung to those committed to eternity, to those perceived as divine. Mortality mourned, the hero dedicated to the heart of a culture and the transcendence of death through memory. I walked the declining ground through the crowds who made traces of engraved names from the black, stone wall. The dead, the missing, the unforgotten. Glory disregarded for stark eulogy.
Winding through the darkness,
As if enclosed in the womb of the earth,
Shattered shades fold inward, colorless, foaming,
Soft with aureoles of sound, a music,
Rustling, fathomless, the night of tomb
Like an ocean of near silence,
In its long emptiness of sanguine separation.
A tyranny of the grave,
The last of life’s freedom drawn to motionless.
The gestures of ceremony, fragile;
Stone enclosing tracing fingers,
A finality of the poem, within,
Leaving transparent eulogies on walls of innocence.
I found McDonough’s name carved into the wall, listed like every other. I lifted a lily frrom the ground, placed it below his name, and photographed. I could not weep.
After the Tet Offensive, McDonough had been reassigned to another platoon. They were sent into the northern jungle. The nature of memory weaves within the monuments of our lives, in the things that we hold, such that there is always a present existence in what is past. Things are made to remember, to explore what is gone.
McDonough was killed north of the border. His platoon had been sent out to recconoiter and call in bombing sites. They were crossing a river when the Viet Cong opened fire from the far shore. McDonough was shot, wounded, and died in a prison camp with other members of the platoon He lost his life in a bamboo cage, shot in the head by a North Vietnamese fanatic when he refused to go in the hole with the rest of the survivors. Some had survived the firefight at the river, and had brought the story of McDonough’s capture back to American command. Some of the MIA’s at the prison camp had escaped and brought back the story of his death. The prison camp – guns to the head and scheduled executions. Time up to the neck in swamp. Starvation. Insanity and hallucination. Time impossible to perceive. McDonough had taken most of the torture for the rest: knife cuts, bamboo slivers underneath the fingernails, demands for confession of war crimes.
The senior North Vietnamese officer had held the gun to McDonough’s head, coercing him into the hole, into the swamp. McDonough refused for the final time. And the end. His blood covered the rest of the prisoners. Resistance was pointless, but they would remember him.
I heard the story in Hawaii, before I left to sail. I immediately found a boat and set out on the water, moving west. The Hawaiians I had met had taught me to sail in the way of ancient Polynesians. Going back to America was impossible after McDonough’s death. I forgot my family and everything that was America and sailed for any deserted island I could find. I planned to spend years in the Pacific, out on the water, until I could bear to find home.
After months at sea, I came across French Polynesia, inhabited islands resonant with the colors of the tropics. I met a woman there, and stayed for awhile. I took up smoking opium to pass the time, taking the drug in the old way, as a connection with a non-technological past. It had been offered to me in a bar in Tahiti. The woman had taken me there, introducing me to the drug. We smoked together. I lived in a comfortable captivity. She would not let me leave. We made love on the beach, her siren song impossible to ignore. Finally, after a time of ruminating on the war, I closed my ears and set out, stocked with opium and a pipe.
The sea called to me, haunting me with its sibilant voice. The water was the only thing which truly soothed my pain. I heard it speak on the open ocean, directing me onward with divine suggestion. Smooth stained glass on good days, the floor of a vast , open cathedral. I could worship out on the ocean. I could slip silently into the flowing, and feel the sea road moving with the wind, and the isolated islands on which I stayed were occasional moments of reminiscence and descents into nothingness.
I came back to the east coast, eventually. I had traveled through the Pacific and Indonesia. And there was no where else to forget the past. I could not forget. The memorial gave me some distance. It could take some of the burden of memory.
Today, the war floods back to me, and I envy the osprey. Clear flight from the surface of suffering. He lives with no boundaries, no weight, no temple to tie him to the earth.
I enter the church, kneel before the altar, and say a prayer for McDonough.
This story has its base in Homer’s Odyssey, the story of a man who cannot return home after the experience of war, but who finally does, to put his anguish to rest. The temple, in one sense, represents Vietnam as it was before the conflict, a homogenous, elegant civilization, deeply rooted in Buddhist and Hindu cosmology, and the massacre at the temple becomes the impetus for the narrator’s spiritual transformation, rebirth at the river, and rejection of war. He is seeking the Greek concept of noos, spiritual and philosophical returning, in his memories of war and travels afterward, seeking a recompletion of self. This story is, as well, about the unavoidable presence of memory in life, and how it shapes present consciousness.
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