A letter describing the events of April, now that it is December
the 26th of April:
Cpl., I send this with sincere regrets for my silence, which I hope you do not interpret as a cooling of my sense of comradeship with you.
Circumstances kept me from writing Cpl., and my voyage to China was delayed by a day and then by months I care not to contemplate. Dissipation yet seeps from my skin but finally it was a mysterious telegram from Nwargo and thoughts of Cody that awakened me in Punta Alta. A crowd of football fans cheered down a street, above a dead and quiet sky, was it a Sunday? How is it that I lose months to these dreams of life?
I dread this final confrontation with Medicine Man. I sail today, unnoticed, I believe, working on a cattle ship. I go to Shanghai and from there I shall rendezvous with Nwargo and proceed from there into parts unknown. When I go there, I want my dog with me.
Yet I must write you and tell you what has happened, for we are father confessors and penitents both for each other, for even the confessional is compromised for us. I must tell you how it turned out with Panzito in Eldiente de Naga. Where was it I left off dear friend? How is it that this letter will find you? I scratch at my arm for minutes, my thoughts no longer my own, I think once again of the fogs in the mountain and my heart breaks.
The silence, I remember it and a dread overtakes me. Then I remember the sounds and for months I sought to quiet these with the needle. Night sweats and window ledges looking out to a squalid beach, far off the sound of the sea and a tiring moon. Let me tell you though, what it was.
Panzito and I approached cautiously, the other men running away, several of them even then, leaving us and giving up the mission as a cursed one, had died, but as cowards instead of men. It is the anchor of our sanity, you and I, I believe, that we have faith that this matters: how we die.
The oaks twisted and gnarled, seemed to appear out of the earth as an outgrowth of dreams from beneath, as if beneath us slept some dreaming god and as the fog rolled in they appeared almost by accident, swimming across our fields of vision, Panzito looked over at me and made a series of signals. He circled left behind a few rocks, covering my advance into the village itself. I signaled to the nearest hut, from that doorway I covered his approach. We seemed small against the mountain, now almost a shadow in which that which was solid and that which was imaginary seemed to meld.
I entered the village slowly, I thought of Tallinn and of Fu Shan, I thought of Cody: those who I wanted to live to remember, those who I wanted to live to protect. I loosed the loop over my knife, I felt the comforting weight of my MK1 in my right hand, knowing that it was a fool’s comfort. Somewhere far off I heard the cry of a bird.
I reached the first hut, it’s door hung from a hinge like a drunk at sunrise, keening for balance. I dared not touch it. I crouched under a window streaked with dust that had been undisturbed for decades and waited for Panzito.
Shots rang out. One shot ripped into Panzito’s right bicep. I wheeled around firing shots in the direction of a tree and a hut from which the shots seemed to come, Panzito with some luck ran for cover near me. Echoes of the shots reverberated and Panzito collapsed against me, breathing heavily. I held him and felt his blood warm against my neck.
“Panzito! Can you hear me?” His eyes stared blankly at me. “Your daughter, Panzito! She waits for you!”
“Yes,” he said. “Promise me she will be safe Bearded One.”
“You must make that promise Panzito! I can barely be responsible for a dog!”
He laughed weakly and I dug around in my pack, I stuck him with some morphine and wrapped his wound tightly. My eyes darted this way and that like a wild animal, wounded myself though it was only the sting of pride. How had I not seen signs of this mysterious sniper?
“Panzito, I must examine some of these huts. Can you protect yourself from a covered position?” He nodded weakly. Cautiously I pulled him into the hut. It was empty and full of dust, yet I knew it wasn’t that simple. I leaned him against a wall.
“Do not move without me, Panzito, unless I am dead or the sun rises and you do not know if I’m dead.” I looked at him in the eyes. He stared at me and nodded again.
“If you feel faint, you must think of your daughter. You must imagine her at a window…” My voice caught as I thought of Fu Shan again, the floating mountain and the house on stilts. “You must do this. It must be the most important thing.” He looked at me understanding then. He held his good arm up, hand on my shoulder.
“I promise you, Bearded One, that I will love my daughter more than the comfort of death.” I left him there then, not daring to look back. I did not want to abandon the quest now that I was here. The village again was filled with its awful silence. The fog covered everything in shadows and deeper shadows, and I felt perhaps I had an advantage against my adversary or adversaries, who were perhaps holed up in one place straining to see.
Cautiously I stepped into a lane between two rows of huts. Shots rang out. I rolled, a piece of the earth fell into itself to my right and as I hit the opposite row of huts the shots stopped. I dared not look into the earth but instead made myself quiet, trying to feel if I had been hit. I had only been scraped, but blood and dirt made dark one sleeve. Out of anger I foolishly fired my gun into the fog twice. More echoes then nothing. I entered into a hut, empty again. I dared not touch anything. I entered another hut and another.
The fourth hut was different. A bureau, painted to match the earth outside jangled four drawers and tilted to the right. A kitchen table held an ancient wine bottle three fourths finished and a notebook. I knew that this was an offering of Medicine Man as soon as I saw it. Understood that he was offering some illusion of understanding in return for an attempt on his enemies’ lives. I had taken the bait. I knew he would leave nothing of consequence, only those things that could corrupt the souls of his pursuers. With more hatred? With the promise of shared knowledge and power? I had to know.
I found as I looked, that the notebook was a journal. I shall transcribe some of what was there for you in my next missive. It was hideous to behold.
There in what had perhaps been Medicine Man's home once, I knew that I did not have time, I went to the drawers and cautiously began to attempt to ascertain if the drawers were trapped. I felt no wires, cautiously ran a light where I could see under one of the drawers and saw nothing. I expected death for my curiosity but felt impelled to look. In the crevices I could see papers and bits of life pasted to papers diagrammed. Slowly, trying not to shake, I moved one of the drawers. Sirens burst to life around the hut and an explosion went off in front of the doorway, collapsing that half of the hut, I was exposed suddenly and took cover in the rubble trying to figure out some route back to Panzito. I felt the notebook would be enough, even if only to make Medicine Man more real to me.
As I tried to move back into the fog I saw running figures coming from a tree line. Like we had, they moved cautiously but unlike us they had no interest in being quiet. They yelled threats and fired blindly in my direction as the siren unceasingly called attention to the half destroyed hut. I had put the handgun back in its holster and cradled my rifle, firing at two shadows that fell into the earth. My reward for this was a rain of bullets through the fog. Three angry men yelling began running in my direction, two fell screaming into the earth and the other slowed down again still yelling curses. I felled him with another bullet. Still the shadows came.
They were closer now and I managed to extricate myself briefly into the open, drawing half-blinded fire and moving for cover into the rows of huts, trying to navigate my way without rushing into a trap. Sometimes from trees guns would blindly fire and I realized they were rigged to some kind of optics that only seemed to discriminate against Panzito and I.
I had to get back to Panzito! Now however the henchmen were amongst the village and as I crouched behind a hut I knew the odds were against me. It is pointless to discuss the blood I loosed from the bodies of men over the next several minutes, they were simple men, paying off debts, from nearby villages, given little choice but to work in the service of evil. I ended their lives with no joy, instead the cold blade of death did its work stoically amidst the fog as I made my way back to Panzito. I fought then so that his daughter could still dream of beautiful things, and not only of the dead. I fought so that I could see Cody again and so that I could revenge myself on the man who had made for himself a kind of palace of death in the neglected places of the world: Oh Medicine Man! I vowed then I would kill you as I have vowed many times. Even in the nights when I felt I could leave everything behind for the sweet solace of the junk, I knew the vow burned ever deeper in my soul.
I made it back to the hut where Panzito lay. And when I made my way into the hut I saw Panzito was gone, blood and two bodies in the doorway the only clue that he had not gone quietly.
They could not have gotten far.
I heard screams from near the river and without thinking began to run. The earth opened up then and I began to fall, but it was a stumbling fall and I caught myself against the edge of the cavernous trap and dug into the earth, letting myself lower slowly, for I could not fight the progress yet I heard the screaming continue. There was no silence to be had between the siren and the screaming. The siren would not stop, the screaming would not stop and I lowered myself down into a pit of knives.
Slowly so that I could arrange myself around the knives I felt myself impressed by the artistry of the trap, against my will: the knives arranged in such a way, running several feet up against the wall, as to rip the struggling life from one so unfortunate as to find himself in Eldeiente de Naga.
Deliberately, without hurry, I lifted myself out of the trap, every inch of my body screaming to rush, only my experience kept me alive. Only memories of Chimoio and Mount Bêngo slowed me. The screams were gone now, replaced by loud voices cursing and groans. I knew Panzito suffered, they would not kill him, he was the colorful lure bringing me to them.
Now I was slow and full of purpose, they called out. “Are you dead Canadian?”
“Canadian, your friend cries no more.” Laughter and his groaning.
I decided to cross the river and cross back again. Panzito would suffer, but if I could get in close enough before the fighting they would not have time to dispatch him. It was my only chance.
The water was cold and jarring, I had gone upriver so they could not hear me as I splashed, but I could hear them calling out.
“Canadian, we will rip your skin with the teeth of our knives when you are dead!”
All things I had heard before.
The birds songs were gone, the fog remained, less dense here among the trees than in the clearing and against the mountains face. Quieter now I crossed the river again, emerging against the river bed with only my knife, my pack further up along the river where I had left it.
There were four of them to begin with. I recognized two and felt genuine shock. Domanieu was there, one of Medicine Man’s top lieutenants, and LaStrue, he of the double cross. My hand tightened round my knife.
The other two were guards and I dispatched them as they tried to make a perimeter and suddenly I had a chance to free Panzito. I had to choose: the death of these evil men or the life of this good one?
I ran to Panzito.
Already I could see us floating down the river, perhaps a mile, from there I could get him on the riverbed and see how much he could do. Then it would be down the mountain and I would make for Caraz and then to the coast. These thoughts were flashes in my mind.
Panzito’s eyes were gauged out. His arms, cut off at the elbow were stuffed carelessly into a couple of shirts already filling with blood. Soon he would be dead, I picked him up as Domanieu appeared shouting and firing wildly. He always was kind of stupid. With one hand I supported Panzito who was groaning.
“Bearded One, that is you?”
“Yes, Panzito, you will love. Call on your daughter’s name.” I wheeled us behind a tree. I could hear LaStrue running down a forest trail laughing. Escaping again. The oak protecting us I lay Panzito down.
“I will be here,” I said, and wheeled to face Domanieu who appeared then.
“Canadian,” he said. “I will not spare you.”
“You can never let go of Morocco, can you Domanieu?” Truly I regretted Morocco at that moment. He raised his gun and I dove at him then with my knife, praying for its truth to be revealed in Domanieu’s death. I heard the shot and felt a tunnel dug into my shoulder, I do not remember in what I order I remember these things. My knife dug into his belly and I felt it unconsciously dig north for his heart. His surprise was his first profundity. I looked into his eyes then, Panzito, sightless groaning, the siren in the distance still wailing.
“Canada already forgets you,” I whispered into the man becoming corpse in front of me. His face stilled, uncomprehending.
I grabbed Panzito and he leaned against me.
“Can you walk?” I asked.
“I can walk,” he said. We descended the mountain. The village we stayed in was destroyed and the woman who had refused to cook for us was spilled in pieces near her home. The old woman watched Panzito and I through the village, she shook her head slowly.
“And what did you learn?” She called out in her rook's voice.
I could not answer. Panzito caught a sob in his throat and called his daughter’s name. I felt the tears then, and cried them for Panzito. Still we descended.
Three days later I walked into the convent school and pulled Panzito’s daughter from her catechism class.
“Your father is alive. But he is very hurt. Do you understand what I am saying?”
“Yes, my father needs me.”
“Yes. He has no arms. He has no eyes.”
“I will be his arms. I will be his eyes,” she said.
I held her. “He is still lucky. For you are his daughter,” I said.
She looked at me. I met her gaze. I owed that to her.
“We will still taste life together. We will still sing its songs. I will sing them first and he will remember the words. Sister Jerónima will let me study when I can. She understands. At night when he cannot sleep I will sing softly so that he dreams.”
“I must go. But I will remember you. Your father lived for you. He stayed with me when others ran away. He fought bravely. He fought because he didn’t want you to have to fight later. He will say he is not a hero. But a man who is loyal and does not leave the side of those he fights with, he is a hero.”
“I will be a hero.”
Her voice echoed in my head for weeks. I meant to write you so much earlier. But her voice, calm in the broken masts of her life’s journey, so young. I could not. What is it that we fight for? Is our fighting just a function, an illusion of trying to create peace when in fact we only incite the evil to violence? In the ports of South America I have found refuge again in the needle and again I have taken the cure to take up the fight. I grow weary though. If I don’t kill Medicine Man soon, I will go mad.
So I go to Shanghai to find Cody, and we will from there meet Nwargo. My friend I am broken in the strong places, but I trust in your wisdom and look forward to your words.