Authors: Jeff Long
Angels of Light
Empire of Bones
Outlaw: The Story of Claude Dallas
Duel of Eagles: The Mexican and U.S. Fight for the Alamo
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2004 by Jeff Long
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
For information address Atria Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Long, Jeff.
The reckoning / Jeff Long.â1st Atria Books hardcover ed.
Â p. cm.
813'.54âdc22 Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2004043657
First Atria Books hardcover edition July 2004
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For Emma, my wild love went ridingâ¦.
They fish him from the Mekong like a long, pale dragon, shouting and prodding him with bamboo poles, full of dread. He thinks his white skin scares them, or his loincloth made from the last strips of his American uniform.
Babies cry. A dog won't come close.
He laughs at his good fortune.
“Food,” he demands. “America.”
They scatter at his voice. Their fear gives him heart.
He is mostly blind by now. His legs are too heavy to move. He can barely lift his head. He lies there like Gulliver in the gray rain.
After a while some brave soul sneaks close enough to tie his ankle with a vine. They leave him in the mud on the bank above the flood, tethered like an animal. This sobers him. He must appear very weak or they would bind him properly. But he seems to have some value or they would kill him or feed him back into the river.
As a Boy Scout, he was taught when lost to follow water downstream. And so for over a week he has been on the move, fording creeks that became muscular tributaries, climbing down around waterfalls and rapids, swimming, and finally drifting on a huge gnarled ship of a tree down the river. Evading and escaping, he'd thought.
He remembers emerging from the forest and its dark shadows, and working through seas of grass, following the water. He expected to descend into light. But as the waters mounted, so did his darkness. When it wasn't raining, monsoon clouds covered the sun. Day by day, his eyesight has decayed. He blames the water. The river is filled with parasites. Or the rain is driving him blind.
Before losing his compass, his course was reliably west by southwest, away from the savage borderlands. Away from the lotus-eating madness infecting his comrades. Deeper into Cambodia.
But the farther he traveled, the more things seemed to melt from him. His paper map dissolved the first day. His clothing flowered with fungus and blue moss and fell apart. His web gear and rucksack vanished. Possibly animals stole his boots in his sleep. Thinking it was his rifle, he carried a tree limb for miles. The illusions nibbled him away. Now they have him.
The men sit at a distance, out of the rain, watching him. He can hear their whispers and smell their tobacco pipes. Raindrops patter on his eyeballs. He can't shut his lids anymore. It should hurt, but it doesn't. He stares into the rain drumming on the bones of his head.
Like every prisoner in a foreign land, he clings to his exceptional circumstances, his singularity. He is young, just nineteen. If he could stand, he would tower over his captors. He has a girlfriend waiting for him. He can throw a football, do algebra in his head, and play “House of the Rising Sun” on the guitar. His folks have the Chevy he rebuilt parked in their garage. If only he could explain. Coming here was not his doing. Somehow the currents brought him to this point in time. The war was somebody else's idea.
At last his captors feed him. Out of caution or because of the rain, they don't light a fire, so there is no rice or cooked food. They give him a little fruit, plus insects and water creatures. By this time, after so many weeks subsisting in the forest, he knows some of the tastes and textures. Crickets have a nutty flavor. The beetles crunch more. The shrimp still wiggle. He is so hungry.
They can't bring enough over the coming days. As his sight fails, he grows more ravenous. He chews grass, tree buds, even clay, anything to slake the hunger. While he can still crawl, they let him forage, moving his tether when he has consumed everything in a circle.
Floating on the great tree in the river, he dreamed of being carried out to sea. Peasant fishermen would find him, or sailors or pirates who would ransom him. Or the U.S. Navy would gather him in. He would be saved.
On the third day, guerrillas arrive. With the last of his vision, he realizes that he has traded one set of shadows for another, the shapes in the forest for these gray phantoms. The world has blurred, but he can still see that they wear black. He recognizes the banana clips in their rifles. The only mystery is their red-checkered scarves. They are a whole new species of enemy to him.
They speak in whispers above him. He can't understand a word. They seem afraid and uncertain of what to do with him. He lies among their legs, stranded in the tonnage of his body. He despises them. He despises himself. In their place, he'd waste him. But all they do is wait.
The men in black pants and red scarves are the last sight he sees. Soon after their arrival, his blindness completes itself. He can't tell day from night anymore. Time slows. The rain comes and goes, thick and warm as piss.
Maybe two more days go by. His limbs grow heavier, heavy like the earth. He listens to the river. Occasionally someone touches his eyes with a twig. That and the rain, like flies he can't kill. He is losing his mind.
Then one day, or night, a man speaks to him in English. “Are you awake or asleep?” he says. His voice is close to the soldier's ear.
The soldier thinks it must be a dream. He hears men murmuring nearby. “Hello?” he calls.
“Look at you,” the voice says, clearly shocked. “How has this happened?”
The young soldier fills with hope. “Thank God,” he says. He would reach for the man's hand, but can't lift his arms. “I prayed. Who are you?”
“A passenger, like you. They sent for me. I came to help.” He sounds like a Frenchman. He could be a colonial, maybe a doctor or a priest.
“Can you save me?”
“I will do what is possible. But time is short. You must tell me everything.”
Like holy confession. A priest, he decides. The soldier calms himself. He has to play this right. “Whatever you want, Father. I'm blind. My arms are like stone. I'm eating dirt. What's happening to me?”
There is a pause. “Let us talk.”
“Something's wrong with my eyes, Father.”
“Yes, your eyes. Can you see?”
“Nothing real. Only a dream, the same one. I'm in the forest again. There are giant heads, and spires with monkeys. I need medicine, Father. Can you get me to the Americans? They'll pay you.”
The stranger evades his plea. Not good. Whose side is he on? “Where did you come from?” the stranger asks.
“Chicago, Father. America.”
“Yes.” The man is patient with him. His voice is kind. “You mentioned a city, where this curse began.”
A curse, exactly. That's what this was. “You mean the ruins?”
A silence, then, “You found the city?” The ruins excite him. He seems to know them, or of them.
“On a mountain, Father. Right when we needed it. An old place surrounded by walls. Wild, you know, unreal.”
“The wars have not injured it?”
“It's untouched, like a thousand years ago. There was no sign of anybody. It was empty.”
More silence. The man asks, “Do you remember the way?”
What way? Water flowing into water? But this could be his ticket home. “Absolutely. I can show you once I'm better.”
“And the rest of your men?”
The soldier could deny their existence. He could hide them. But now he has mentioned “we,” and he is desperate. “They're still there, all of them. I told them to come with me. But they chose a fool over me. We followed him onto the mountain. He led us wrong, then told us to stay. So he died for his sins. And the rest of them will, too.”
His interrogator is quiet a minute. He doesn't ask how many Americans are left, nor their unit or any military information. His only interest seems to be the ruins.
the man finally murmurs.
The American has no idea what that means. “Yeah,” he says, “like that.”
“Fallen angels,” the priest says. “And yet you escaped.”
The soldier grows wary. “I warned them. We were coming apart at the seams. Everyone was afraid. We were lost. There were voices at night. No one knew who to trust or what to do. It was every man for himself. Finally, I left to get help. They won't last long up there. I followed the water. The water brought me here.”
“Are they fossilizing as well?”
The young soldier can't cut through the accent. “What?”
“Your eyes,” the priest says.
The soldier grows quiet. “What about them?”
“You have not touched them?”
A hand hoists his heavy wrist and guides his fingers to his face. He feels the familiar shape of his cheekbones and forehead, but avoids his eyes. He doesn't want to know.
“Touch them,” the voice says.
“I, too, am maimed,” the priest tells him.
it sounds. “There was a bomb. This was a year ago. For a time, I could not bear to see what was left of my body. But at last it was necessary. I had to touch the wounds. Do you understand? We must accept our fate.”
The soldier feels his dead eyes. “Oh lord, help me.” The lids are peeled back in wide round circles. His eyes are as hard as polished jade. He knows from the ruins what they look like, the green jade eyes. They don't belong in his face.
His hand is returned to his side. It settles upon the mud, like an anchor. His fingers sink into the earth.
“Father? Don't leave me.”
“What will happen to me?”
“The people are afraid. They want you to go away.”
“Put me on the river. I'll go. Far away.”
“I will put you on the river,” the man promises.
Relief floods the soldier. Even blind, he has a chance. “Thank you, Father. Tell them thank you.”
“Don't come back to their village, that's all they want. Put this place out of your mind.”
“But remember the city. It is punishing you. I think you must return to there someday.”
Not in a million years. “Yes, Father.”
Then the soldier hears a sound he knows too well, the drawing of a knife. It is done softly, but there is no mistaking the linear hiss. The murmurs stop in the distance. “What are you doing, Father?” he whispers.
“Releasing you,” the voice answers, “so that you can finish your journey.”
The soldier's heart thunders in his chest. He waits for a tug at his ankle, for the vine tether to be cut. Instead a hand grips his forehead. His throat is bared.
From the start, he knew this was no priest. But he couldn't help but hope. He still can't. “Forgive me, Father,” he says. “I was only trying to go home.”
“Be brave.” The voice is kind. “The dream goes on.”