by Harmony Byron
Monks singing the old Gregorian chants. Darkness pulsates like a giant heart with their
chanting. Angelic voices marching through silence.
Faint white light glimmers on the horizon, bursts into brilliance, turns night into day as
it arcs swiftly upward, then fades like a shooting star, and like a shooting star is swallowed again
into darkness. High up to the left a red flare whistles, glows briefly, splashes the silent hills red,
and dies in the sky.
The man trembles high in the branches of a tree. The chanting grows louder and screams
in his head, then retreats, like a rabid animal loping through the woods, foaming at the mouth,
unseen but heard. The chanting rises again, rampages through his head, and diminishes again.
Damn the priests.
A thundrous fiery explosion! Debris flies, the sky billows in rainbows, pastel pinks
yellows greens. Reeking of gunpowder and burning flesh. The chanting explodes! Monks
rending the skies with their ancient liturgies. A feeble effort to drown the gunfire and bombs
exploding, death exploding everywhere. The chanting, the explosions, gnash at each other.
On the high ridge, darkness growing blue in the mist of dawn, a handful of silhouettes.
They rise like puppets from behind a stage prop mountain. Ten, twelve, thirty-four, sixty, emerge
over the crest like so many ants. A line of them. More, more, hundreds, their numbers have no
end, popping up out of a bottomless hole in the earth. Pouring out.
The distant men on the ridge leap into the sky, one after the other, a strange ballet on
the ridge of the jungle mountain in early dawn. Each hangs there in the sky in joyous flight
for a brilliant moment, arms spread like wings, then they float to the ground like wounded
butterflies. And land bent down in prayer, one after the other. So graceful. So perfect. Toy
soldiers blown over by the wind.
And the chanting thunders! Hallelujah hallelujah, ha-lay-ay-lu-jah! Louder! Higher!
Hallelujah hallelujah, ha-lay-ay-lu-jah!
The man finds himself running, desperate, against the fiery sky, throws himself down,
paws frantically in the dirt and chemical fog that chokes him, blinds him. His hand finds dirt,
stones, earth. Cold skin, warm flesh, bare arm of a man. Blinding flashes alternating with
blinding darkness. His hand crawls up the arm, the arm muddied, flesh tattered, blood creeping
from gaping gashes clotted with dirt. He lifts the arm, blood warm, braces to help his brother up,
and is holding – a chewed off stump.
The howl of an animal slices knifelike through the chanting. Explosions burst one after
the other, pastel fireworks flashing on his brother’s sweat wet face that waits beside the arm.
Eyes wide, unblinking. Staring forever into empty dawn. Mouth wide open. The man answers his
brother’s final and silent howl with his own, strangled in his throat. Caught between night and
morning, the known and the unknown.
The girl Tuyet Linh looks up into his face, her face cradled in his hands, her features
washed over with a softness that breaks his heart, her dark eyes big and damp like the fawns’
he and his father used to shoot when he was a boy. Brimming now with tears that quiver on her
A chilling moan rises from a deep well inside him, a sudden braying of anguish ancient
as the rocks. The chanting erupts, swirling through him, pounding, pounding its damned
rhythms, its haunting harmonies, as moonlight glints off the knife blade that sweeps unwilling
across her neck, leaving a thin red trail that starts to bubble.
He enfolds her in his arms. Her head falls slowly and rests against his shoulder. He pets
her hair. Stares at his hands. Dipped in red paint, red clinging to him, like silk slipping through
his hands. The silk of her. Her sweet blood drawing between his fingers. He holds her soft
against him, and silent he weeps, pain rearranging his face. They told him this is necessary.
He didn’t believe it, though he knows better. Her head on his shoulder grows heavy. He closes
his eyes and a howl rises in him, louder, louder, as her frail and silken body slithers down him.
He sinks to his knees, embraces her body limp as a fallen leaf, and kisses her eyes closed.
A beautiful child, skin golden, black eyes gentle and moist between swollen lids, plays
with big red flowers beside the garden wall. He laughs musically, like a birdsong. The tall
bearded man in green jungle fatigues, unspeakable rage and anger flooding his being, howls
like an animal as his hands gripping the dagger let it fall, clattering on the garden stones.
The child looks up at him with big dark eyes. So like her.
The man’s howl, primitive, plaintive, could be the mournful call of a ship, or a wolf
crying in the night, the screams of someone burning alive, or the wail of sonless mothers. It
could be the cry of a man taught to kill.
* * *
A dizzying blur, downward momentum, crashes through branches of a tall spruce tree.
The bearded man lands hard on the frozen ground. The howling screeches to a halt, and the
The man’s eyes are wide like a dead man’s. Staring long at his hands. Painted red.
Indelible. His chest heaves with labored gasps. The air is chill but he’s drenched with sweat.
He looks around him. Shakes himself like a dog. His bones ache, skin leaking dark red blood.
He sees a new rip in his vest.
A distant howl. The man looks up to the high hills. It is the wolf who howls.
Spraddled on the ground at the foot of the tree he inspects his safari vest. Ragged tear,
hanging open. Like a rotten mouth shot through.
He smirks up at the tree, branches still trembling from his crashing through them. He
leans up on an elbow. Stops where pain stops him. Feels the elbow. Hurts like hell but he doesn’t
He pulls himself up to his feet, brushes himself off. He is called T-Bird for sleepwalking
and waking up in trees. Trees here are not the same as trees in Nam, but trees are trees and feel
safe to him. Like a bird. Tall man, slender, taut. Bearded, with hair that hangs to his shoulders
in matted hanks. His levis are old and crumpled, as if he’s slept in them for a week, which he
has. Grey t-shirt shapeless, vest torn. Combat boots weathered, he says experienced. Yeah,
experienced. He stands at the base of the tree looking up into it branches.
The howling again. From another distant hill.
The man gazes at the eastern ridge. The salmon sky is a sea of pink and gold and silver
waves rolling from an unknown beach to an unknown beach. He pans to the western range
where the sky is slate grey and morning stars linger at the craggy rim of the mountain where
snow glows coral, reflections of sunrise dusting the snowy peaks that encircle this arctic valley.
He breathes in deeply. The beauty of it, the silence. Peace. The crisp sting of the pristine air
of arctic morning renews him. For now.
Spruce and willows and alders shiver in the chill breeze that sweeps down from the
He listens for the hum of distant wind roaring through canyons, swirling around peaks
of faraway mountains. Between his teeth he feels the rage of the restless winds ripping through
mountain clefts. The girl with the eyes of a fawn drifts into his arms, slumps softly on his
shoulder, and is sweet one more time. He drinks it in like the heartbreaking song of a cello.
He forbids the tears that burn his eyes.
A scuffle of leaves, a squirrel or shrew skittering through low brush cranberries. White
crowned sparrow glides down from high branches of the spruce and is sucked into low branches
of another. The world around him stops. Not a tremble of a branch or a leaf crunching underfoot,
or the purr of wings. He waits.
A cry rises, reverberates through the trees, up the mountain, and ricochets off the brittle
sky. It could be the wolf’s cry answering the cry of the man. It could be the man’s cry answering
the cry of the wolf.