The rain fell in grey sheets that hid the forested slopes and hammered on their helmets. Mullins and Richardson tramped up the steep incline, their feet sticky and heavy with mud. Marching in this humidity was like being swathed in warm, wet blankets. They were glad when they came to a small temple, a squat Buddha cross-legged on its roof, defiant against the deluge. They ducked into the entrance. The door had been boarded up – probably by their own squad-mates, knowing that the enemy made lethal use of any hiding place they could get in the jungle – and contented themselves with sitting in the deep doorway, sheltered from the rain.
Richardson ripped a boot off, then a soggy sock, and squeezed it. Warm water splashed on the rock. He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. His face was pale and his uniform bright; he was young, on his first tour of duty.
Mullins removed his helmet; his hair was flattened and wet. Without thinking, he began to set his equipment on the rough-hewn floor, checking, counting. M16, twenty round clips, rations, smoke grenade. A wicked-looking bowie knife glittered on the stone, a first aid kit sat next to it, wet and dejected. This was his third tour of duty.
Mullins offered Richardson a cigarette and they both sat for a time and watched the rain. They were on their way back to camp after an early evening at the nearby native town; they were in no particular rush. Mullins’ eyes never left the grey peaks of the horizon.
‘Why are you so jittery?’ Richardson brushed a mosquito off his arm.
‘Why are you irritated by me being alert? Haven’t you seen enough in-country yet to make you jittery?’ He spoke slowly, with a slight Southern drawl.
Richardson sighed. ‘I know I’m green, you don’t have to give me a hard time about it. I just think you should relax. We’ve got this area covered, Charlie isn’t within an ass’ roar of us.’
‘It isn’t just Charlie I’m worried about.’ Mullins dropped his eyes.
They sat in silence for a moment. The wind carried a low hoot to them from somewhere across the jungle.
‘Have you ever heard of Vu Quang?’ said Mullins, his voice low.
Richardson found that something hard had formed in his throat; he swallowed. ‘No.’
The older man took a long drag of his cigarette. ‘It’s a remote region, far north of here. All jungle and mountain and disease; no sane man has been there since the anti-French revolutionaries packed up and left a hundred years ago. Not until ’69.’
‘What happened?’ Richardson breathed.
‘I’ll tell you.’
It was a hellish yomp, across some of the most awful territory I’ve ever clapped eyes on. There were ten of us, under the command of Colonel Hagar, marching into this hole, and all on account of some rumours HQ got a hold of that Penam Yong had holed himself up on a mountain in the area.
Yong, you’ll remember, damn-near routed us during the Tet offensive the year before. He was a mighty clever enemy, and had a network of spies in the north of the country so tight that not a mosquito got through his lines without old Yong knowing about it. He was public enemy number one around HQ in those days, and about the time I flew in on my first tour, our boys had destroyed one of his hidey-holes up in Ha Tinh province. The sonofabitch sure was crafty: we uncovered crates of AK47’s, frag grenades - all the usual Charlie crap - but beneath the floor, in a warren of caves, he had hidden seven Soviet scud missiles. The bastard was planning something big. There had been a firefight in the village where the cache was found, but Yong and his men fled west, towards the Vu Quang. Several weeks later, U2 photographs began circulating, showing the construction of some sort of Viet Cong base in the mountain of the Vu Quang. I guess the top brass puffed their cigars and rubbed their hands when they saw that, and thought, dollars to donuts that’s old Yong, let’s send a bunch of greenhorns in, and get rid of the bastard for good.
I didn’t give a fig about all that, though. I was new, and all I cared about was cards and the girls down at the native village. A week later I cared though, when I was marching with Hagar into one of the world’s terrible places, along with nine other souls.
Now I know you think you’ve seen jungle – it’s green and hot and smells like wet earth. Your clothes stick to you and mosquitos swarm on you like flies to whiskey. Well I’m telling you that the jungles they have here are barely worthy of the name. Less than two hundred years old, most of them are: secondary vegetation, regrown after people stopped farming, tangled and gnarled to be sure, but pockmarked and bullet-holed and already trampled by a thousand soldiers by the time we clap eyes on them.
But the Vu Quang, well, it was like entering another world. A pristine, prehistoric world. There are some places where man just doesn’t belong, and this was one of them. Hundreds of square miles of forest rose before us clinging to jagged peaks, none of it mapped, and every last square foot of it lousy with malaria and snakes and bugs the size of your fist.
The terrain was steep, and Hagar grew impatient at our slow pace. He was used to making progress faster than this, he barked at us, but he wasn’t used to the Vu Quang: this place had never been farmed, never been inhabited. There were no roads except dirt tracks that clung to the sides of mountains, and soldiers made slow progress on these.
On the fourth day we passed through an area that had been hit by Agent Orange. I knew about the chemical of course, I had seen the gaudy barrels being shipped to HQ from up-river, and I’d noted the acrid smell that clung to everything when the Hueys left base to spray it on Charlie. But this was the first time I had seen the effects of the poison. The living forest ceased abruptly, as though someone had drawn a line through the jungle. On our side, the greenery still hid the light from us, insects and birds still filled our ears with their racket. On the other side, stark, grey ghosts replaced the trees, not a bird sang. We walked through a land of the dead; spindly, leafless trunks grasped at the sky like writhing creatures frozen at the moment of death; a terrible silence burned in our ears, making the crunch of our footsteps seem as loud as hell. We were intruders – worse, we were perpetrators. We must have spent at least a couple of hours crossing the affected area, but I swear that it was trapped in a twilit haze the entire time we were there. It must have been a trick of the light coming through the bare trees, but I knew that I wanted to get out of there.
We said nothing during this hellish walk, until something snapped in Hagar’s mind. Perhaps he could sense what we were all thinking.
‘We had to use it,’ he said, sounding more defensive than he probably would have liked. ‘The chemical, I mean.’ Our gaunt faces, white as the dead trees, gave no reply.
‘Look, it was absolutely necessary. Charlie uses the forest for cover. He understands this country, he can use it to his advantage. He can hide anywhere, appear from nowhere, because he belongs here. And we’ll never beat him unless we destroy that advantage, because we don’t fit in, we’re not from here, we’re…’
What was he going to say? Intruders? Invaders? The unspoken word hung there in the little circle we had made. I could hear my own breathing, shallow and strained in the sticky heat. Hagar’s face crumpled and he swung about on his heel. The march continued.
Some time after the trees became green again, and the air filled with the sounds of every damned living thing there was in this jungle, we came across something strange. I remember that I was at the back of the group, telling jokes about home with Matheson, when Kravitz, who was on point, yelled something from the front.
‘Hagar! Come see this!
Hagar pushed his way through the men to get to the front. Even from where we were I could hear him gasp.
‘‘What the shit –’
I jostled to see. We had come to a glade, a clearing that was dominated by three tree trunks. They were wide enough that I’d have had a hard time wrapping my arms around them, and they were knotted and rotten. Parasitic plants strangled them like snakes, and each had at least a couple of holes that gaped like toothless mouths. The holes were big, too.
Hagar swaggered up to the nearest tree. He stood above one of the holes, pulled his cigar from his mouth and dropped his eye. Like I said, the holes were big; this one looked as if you could have dropped a small child into it. I swear that the sounds of the jungle, the constant chittering and squawking that drives you crazy, made way for a new sound just as he stood there, a kind of low buzzing. I got the willies pretty bad.
’Zip it, Mullins,’ he said. Real tough guy, you know the type. So he stuck his hand right into the hole.
I could see the eyes bug on every one of our boys as they watched. Crazy sonofabitch. The buzzing stepped up a notch, as if some giant grasshopper had just ramped his engine into top gear.
I held my breath.
Hagar pulled his hand out of the hole, clutching some kind of fruit. It was crimson, squashy. He stood there and grinned like an idiot, and plugged his big cigar into his mouth.
Something whistled past my head and struck him in the eye.
Instantly the men spun and opened fire. The glade filled with the rattle of the automatic weapons. Hagar bent and clutched his bleeding eye. The guys squeezed off burst after burst until Hagar yelled for them to stop.
We scanned the bamboo walls of the glade: there was no one there. Shredded palm leaves fell to the grassy floor, but otherwise there was no movement among the vegetation. The men began to yell.
’What the hell was that?’
‘Ain’t no sign of Charlie.’
‘Doesn’t have to be Charlie, does it? Charlie doesn’t throw stones.’
They were right: Charlie doesn’t throw stones. He knows better; if he’s close enough to you to do damage, he’s gonna throw something a lot worse. Something else was out there.
Matheson saw it move; he yelled and pointed – something short and reddish was moving through the shrubs with a shambling gait, but fast. We ran before Hagar even had a chance to order us. Somehow we all knew not to shoot.
The heat was much worse back in the jungle. My boots chafed and my uniform was drenched in sweat, but I kept up the chase. Somewhere up ahead Kravitz yelled and when I came upon the guys, they were clustered in a small circle. A minute later, Hagar came up behind me, panting, with a face like beetroot, his right eye a bloody mess. We peered down into the long grass to see what Matheson had caught.
It was like a man, but not. Though it was humanoid, there was no question of it being any of the regular monkeys that we’d grown used to around the base. It had no tail, for starters, which made it an ape, if anything. Now we were none of us zoologists, but I’ve looked this up since, and there are no known apes in this part of the world. I didn’t know this at the time, of course, but there were a few things about this animal that let us know that it was something out-of-the-ordinary.
It was big, for starters; somewhat larger than a child, though smaller than a man. It was covered in reddish hairs, and it stunk to high heaven. Its jaws didn’t stick out enough to be an orang-utan or any such thing, but that wasn’t the strangest thing about it.
Stuck in the middle of its forehead, the creature’s one eye glared balefully at us.
‘Shit,’ said Kravitz, which was the understatement of the century.
Matheson and Good were holding it down by its arms, and it had ceased to wriggle, as if accepting the situation. That freaky eye was rolling slowly from one of us to the next.
‘I don’t like this,’ I said to Hagar.
‘What’s to like?’ he spat. ‘Ugly little guy.’
‘In particular, I don’t like the way he’s looking at us. What’s the little bastard thinking?’
‘Thinking? An animal’s got no right to think, Mullins, you Irish simpleton.’
‘Look at his cranium, sir,’ said Kravitz to Hagar, who probably didn’t hear words like cranium too often. ‘It’s big. This is a smart animal.’
Hagar, still cradling his ruined eye, said, ‘He wasn’t smart enough not to get caught, was he?’ A shred of torn optic nerve slipped between his fingers and fell on the animal’s belly with a wet plop. To be honest, I don’t blame the guy for being pissed.
‘Apart from the eye, the face looks almost human,’ said Kravitz. ‘And humans are social animals. What if there’s more of them?’
‘How is it going to contact them?’ Good said thoughtfully. ‘It hasn’t made a sound since we caught it. Unless these animals are real good at finding each other through scent.’ It certainly didn’t seem like a remote possibility, given the stink coming from the beast.
Hagar bent down until he was almost face-to-face with the animal. Its eye fixed on him and its mouth stopped twitching. It began to gesture with one hand, but Good still gripped its wrist.
‘Loosen your hold, Good,’ said Hagar, and Good allowed the animal to slowly move its hand towards Hagar. It gently brushed his face with a grey, wrinkly finger.
Hagar stood up. He seemed to be waiting for something, but nothing happened. Without a word, he pulled out his pistol and pointed it at the animal. It looked at him dimly.
‘Hagar, what are you doing?’ I couldn’t stop myself.
The crack of the gun bounced off the trees and boomed in our ears. The ape slumped.
Hagar turned to look at me. There was a thick bloodstain on his shirt. In my heat-addled haze I though it looked like the outline of Vietnam. He growled something under his breath, wheeled around like he was gonna order us out of here and up the nearest mountain so we could do what we had come to do, and shove an M16 up Penam Yong’s ass.
Before he could, the jungle around us came alive with movement. Every tree rustled and shook. Bodies dropped from above, landed with a thump. THUMP, there was one next to Hagar. THUMP, there was one beside Matheson. THUMP, there was one right in front of me. A face much uglier than the one Hagar had wasted opened and bared teeth as crooked as old gravestones.
And then I saw the stone that was hovering in front of it. Just hanging there, in midair, turning slowly. Absurd. Impossible. The ape’s eyes were cloudy, far-off.
A primal fear was instantly birthed in the depths of my midriff, and shot upwards through my body, filling my veins with ice until I could barely move.
The ape screamed at me, unleashing a wave of fetid breath. I yelled back, and snapped out of my funk. The stone flew past my shoulder, missing my head by centimetres. My weapon was hanging from my belt; I gripped it and squeezed off a burst. The ape flew backwards with a splash of crimson. Shiny palm leaves dripped red where it had fallen.
What had I just seen? But there wasn’t any time to think.
I looked about me in desperation. The thick air filled with gunfire; we were beating them off, but in the distance I could see more of the little bodies bounding towards us. A hail of stones battered us; Good dropped to the ground, his knee a bloody mess.
‘‘This way!’ It was Hagar, his face lit up with unashamed glee as he pumped round after round into the animals. He gestured out of the thicket, away from the glade. We ran.
My legs pumped like crazy, my weapon heavy in my arms and the occasional rock grazing my leg. When we came out of the jungle, my lungs were burning so badly that I had to stop and catch my breath. We squinted in the harsh sunlight. There was no sign of the creatures, but none of us wanted to hang around.
Hagar appeared, his face (and his shredded eye) telling us that he knew the mission was no longer routine.
‘Up there,’ he said. We craned our necks, seeing a gentle slope above us that led to a beat-up old fort. Bamboo walls glared at us from above. Behind them, long wooden huts were silhouetted against the reddening sky.
‘That’s a Viet Cong fort,’ said Good, limping out of the bush. ‘Where exactly are we?’
‘Hagar spread a map out on a boulder. His finger hovered over the great green area of the Vu Quang, blank except for some roughly pencilled-in notes. He may have been an asshole, but he knew his soldiering.
‘This is where we are, Good. I’m gonna be straight up with you guys: there’s every reason to believe that that fort is the current residence of Penam Yong.’
‘That’s what we were sent here to take care of,’ said Matheson.
‘Yeah, but now the situation’s changed,’ said Hagar. I tried not to look at his bloody socket. ‘We’re now looking for a place to fortify ourselves from an unknown enemy, not looking to storm an encampment. As soon as we make our way up that hill, Yong’s men might just rain hell down upon us. So if anyone thinks it’s not a good idea to seek shelter there, I might be a little more willing to listen to them than usual.’
You can be sure that I had no wish to march right up to Charlie’s place and knock on the door, but right then a terrible scream rang out of the jungle behind us, and I joined in the chorus of soldiers nodding their acquiescence. The colonel seemed surprised and heartened by our willingness to stick to the original mission, but I guess most of us felt that we didn’t have any choice.
Nobody attacked. It was creepy as hell marching up that hill in silence, waiting for the yell and the patter of machine-gun fire that we felt sure was coming. It never did. Before we reached the top the sun had sunk to the hills below, burning the sky blood-red. The slope took us into the foothills of a mountain; below us the forest stretched out like a green carpet.
The bamboo walls were fifteen feet high and covered with palm leaves, but bare in patches. It was as if Charlie had begun to camouflage the place, but hadn’t had time to finish. I dropped my gun and plopped down beside the walls for a well-deserved rest before Hagar ordered us to find a way in. I had just pulled out a cigarette when Matheson yelled.
‘Sweet Jesus! Charlie sickens me! Look at this.’
He was pointing to a spot above my head; a human head was perched atop the razor-sharp spikes of the wall. Dead eyes looked out across the jungle to the surrounding mountains. The blood that dripped had not yet turned crusty.
‘It’s a recent kill.’ Hagar ambled into sight, offered me a light. His eye had started to scab over. ‘But based on how easy it was for us to get this close, I figured the camp was deserted.’
‘What’s going on here?’ Kravitz’ voice trembled.
‘We’re finding out,’ said Hagar. On his orders, we produced our knives and got to work on the thick jungle creepers that held the bamboo poles together. Within ten minutes a section of the wall fell to the orange soil. A dead arm tumbled with it.
After a moment of silence, Hagar peered into the camp, grabbed the arm. There was no body attached to it; it ended in a bloody stump. Also fresh.
We had our entrance, but nobody wanted to go in.
The camp was deserted. We crept around the long, low buildings, our guns cocked and our eyes darting, but nowhere was there anyone still alive. Bodies, on the other hand, littered the compound, in various states of destruction. Some had had their heads removed, their eyes poked out. Some had had their guts removed and strewn about them. All had been pummelled.
And bloody stones lay everywhere.
More than once I retched. We were all shaking by the time we met up again.
Hagar’s single eye gleamed in the darkness. ‘Anyone still alive?’ Nobody spoke a word, until a phrase came into my head.
‘That’s what happened here. Those creatures. Rock apes.’
‘You make that up, Mullins?’
‘No sir. I heard GI’s talking about them, round campfires on dark nights. Like little men, found only in the most remote parts of the country. They’re smart, they use tools, and they don’t like soldiers.’
‘Rock apes. Christ.’
‘Yeah. I never did believe it, before. Thought it was just a story.’
A bone-white moon rose above the slanted roofs. I could hardly believe it was the same moon that shone above the streets of my hometown, halfway across the world. I suddenly felt as if we were never going to get out of the Vu Quang. Not alive, anyway. The fear tasted metallic in my mouth.
‘Hagar! We’ve found someone!’ The shout snapped me out of my gloom; it was Aherne and Zitofsky, two quiet soldiers who I didn’t know well. Aherne was visibly pained by having to raise his voice. They carried a man between them: Vietnamese, dressed in filthy rags. ‘He was hiding in a tunnel, sir. Underneath one of the huts.’
Hagar had him hauled before us. ‘Who are you, soldier?’ Unlike other commanders you’ll meet, Hagar respected the Viet Cong.
The man didn’t struggle, held Hagar’s gaze, and spoke with quiet dignity. To my surprise, he spoke in English.
‘My name in Anh Dung,’ he said.
‘You are an educated man.’
‘I am a doctor.’ His words were soft but his eyes were defiant.
‘I see,’ said Hagar. ‘Come with us,’ and he gestured towards a nearby barracks. ‘Mullins, I want you in on this.’ Mystified, I followed them inside.
We sat down on rough, rattan-plant furniture. The air was thick and our brows were dotted with beads of perspiration. Hagar pulled a hip flask from his belt and began to fill three small earthen vessels.
‘Why were you here, Anh Dung?’ he said.
‘The rock apes. I believe that is what you call them.’
Hagar’s eye rolled in my direction. ‘My admiration for your spy network grows, Anh Dung. It seems that you are savvy even to our latest barrack-room legends.’
‘They are not legends, as I am sure you have gathered. Stories of these creatures have circulated in remote regions of the country for centuries, but since this war began, reports have been coming in more and more frequently. We now have intelligence agents operating in every valley, every mountain. It was inevitable that we would come into contact with them occasionally. And the reports have been consistent – even their more, ah, fantastical aspects.
‘Ho Chi Minh himself is obsessed with the mythical creatures, especially since they are alleged to have certain powers. I’m a scientist, a biologist. Hanoi sent me, as the head of an expedition, to find out the truth, and if possible, capture one of the creatures alive. I am now the sole survivor.’
‘What happened?’ Hagar leaned closer, practically frothing at the mouth over this glimpse of the world behind the bamboo curtain.
Anh’s face tightened. ‘The stories were true – but they didn’t go far enough. The creatures can communicate without sound, even over vast distances. I suspect that they may have some mental faculties of which we can only dream. They co-ordinate, attack in formation. They can move things without touching them. We came into their territory, not understanding, causing destruction.’ He hung his head. ‘It is no surprise that they acted as they did.’
I thought of the head on top of the bamboo wall, of the shards of men that clogged the compound’s buildings, and felt sick.
‘What about Penam Yong?’ Hagar’s eyes narrowed.
‘Yong… he had nothing to do with us. We came upon this base by accident after our initial encounter with the creatures. They attacked, killed all his men. They learned how to use knives… not with their hands, but with their minds. There was a score of them outside Yong’s hut; he killed himself rather than succumbing to them.’
Hagar looked at me as though expecting me to join him in disbelief, but the image of the stone hanging in midair would not leave me, and I nodded solemnly.
‘Are these the powers that Hanoi wants to harness?’ he said, after a lengthy silence.
‘There is another ability that concerns my government. Your eye, if I may ask – when was it damaged?’
‘Only a matter of hours ago.’
‘And yet it has not only scabbed over, but has also begun to heal.’
The Vietnamese rummaged around in the room and gave Hagar a shard of mirror. The American gasped.
‘Good lord… at this rate the goddam thing’ll be good as new within the week!’
The darkness had hidden it, but now that I looked, I saw that beneath the scab, soft new flesh was just about visible. I swear I could see white cornea where before there had been a bloody void.
‘You have been touched by one of them.’ Anh stated it flatly, as a fact.
Hagar’s eye met mine; we thought back to the incident in the forest, and nodded our agreement.
A burst of machine gun fire tore open the night and strobe-like light filled the room with jerky shadows.
‘It is them,’ Anh said.
I grabbed my gun and ran to the door. My eyes widened: the creatures were everywhere. The moon lit up little bodies that scurried amongst the soldiers. I saw one man stagger as a grisly ape clung to his head, pressing its thumbs into his eye sockets. His scream died in my ears only to be replaced by the hammering of my gun. The loathsome beast’s body popped like an overripe fruit, splattering entrails all over the dry earth.
For several minutes the camp was a riot of shouting, screaming and gunfire. Hagar seemed to be everywhere, yelling orders that became more and more frantic and disjointed. And then the sounds diminished; men were left shaking and sobbing in the darkness as blessed silence finally descended. Torn brown bodies lay everywhere.
And I wish to god that the night had had no more horrors for us. But in that ghostly silence, with my heart pumping so goddam hard that I felt as though it were trying to escape from my chest, things just beyond our line of sight were stirring.
Silhouettes appeared above the walls of the camp: more apes. They moved slowly, standing almost upright. When they got near enough, we saw that their fur was a kind of blueish colour, quite different from the animals we had fought before, and their faces were uglier than you could possibly imagine. There was something wrong about the way they moved towards us too; it was too measured, too deliberate. An animal’s got no right to think, Hagar had said, but these bastards looked like they knew exactly what they were doing.
From the shadows, Anh appeared and grabbed my arm. ‘We must leave now. If you have any respect for my judgment, you will do as I ask.’
The old soldier took one look at those creepy bastards padding towards us in that unreal silence, and said, ‘Everyone follow me, quiet as you can.’
I followed Hagar and Anh past the long wooden huts towards the rear of the camp. The others were starting to follow us when things got weird; I recall Good and Matheson stopping to pick up their packs, and then being transfixed by something the apes were doing.
Aherne was the only one who survived out of those who stayed. I didn’t meet him again until many months later, at a bar in Hue, and he told me stories that damn-near turned my hair white. He said that the apes had all lined up across the courtyard from the soldiers; everyone was just too spooked to even fire a shot, or maybe it was something else, he didn’t know for sure. Then the stones started to rise, levitate in the air: the apes were picking them up with their minds, he said. They flung them at the men with incredible speed, just like I’d seen in the clearing, but this time it was more like a military operation. They flung volley after volley, pummelling the men until they dropped to their knees, using everything they could find against them. And when they were done with the stones, they started with knives.
I didn’t know this at the time of course; all I knew was that we were getting the hell out of that camp. The three of us stumbled down the slopes of the mountain until the jungle grew thick and suffocating around us. A feeling of despair washed over me; every fall and mosquito bite seemed to me to be an unendurable trial. It was Anh who got us through that hellish nightwalk. The man somehow remained together just as Hagar and I were starting to go to pieces. I saw the eyes of the apes everywhere. Now that reality itself had become so dream-like, I could no longer tell the two apart. I would have accepted any development at that point, which was lucky, considering what was ahead of us.
A heavy mist dropped upon us, shrouding the trees until they loomed like ghostly sentinels around us. The Vu Quang is famous for its mists; they can be so heavy that they obscure the nose in front of your face, and stay for weeks on end without shifting. In the midst of this obscuring fog, I was surprised to feel my foot plunge into warm water. We had come to a river. The way across was not far. On the other bank something enormous crouched in wait for us. As we splashed across the shallow stream, the mists parted and I saw that it was an ancient temple.
Now I lost my nerve altogether. My sense of unreality heightened; Anh had to hold me up as my vision swam before me. The temple was like something out of a fever dream: its winged roofs, in the Chinese style, jutted from every angle and multiple floors, Pagoda-like, leaned from impossible angles. The whole thing was perched on an ancient warren of mangrove roots, where the red clay of the bank had been slowly eroding over countless years. The roots curled like fingers around the base of the building. Creepers and lianas pierced the bricks where the jungle had begun reclaiming its own.
‘Sweet Jesus,’ breathed Hagar.
‘I don’t like this one bit,’ I said, ‘let’s turn back.’
At this, Anh gestured silently, pointing behind us. I looked back, and my fear intensified.
The apes had formed a cordon behind us.
I had not even noticed they were there, but now I saw eyes gleaming in the gloom, bodies shuffling silently on the bank behind us. There was nowhere to go but forward.
‘They’re herding us,’ said Hagar under his breath, but he trudged on towards the temple all the same.
Roots hugged the stonework above our heads as we entered the building. I had expected darkness, but a weird blue haze coloured the mud walls inside. The path sloped downwards.
What happened next remains fragmentary in my memory. I recall Hagar screaming as his composure finally broke down; it happened in some kind of vast chamber beneath the temple. Anh remained stone-faced as we were surrounded by the bastard apes, each one of them a single eye gleaming in the unreal light. Parts of it come back to me in dreams sometimes, but it’s confused now, confused with the other horrors that I’ve seen since. I’ll dream of Sullivan being blown limb from limb at Hanoi, and then I’ll dream of those monsters with their wrinkled fingers pawing us and grabbing us as if they wanted to get inside our skulls, and if I’m to be honest, I no longer know which was the worse.
They did get inside our skulls, I think. There was a damn strange prickling feeling that built up in my head just behind the eyes, as though some incredible pressure was forcing its way in. I know the others felt it too. And there was that old bastard, the big ape, the one that had a great mane of silver running all down his back. Something about the way he was looking at us made me damn sure that it was him who was getting inside our thoughts and rooting around. He sat on a throne carved out of the rock itself; God knows how old the place was, or how long the apes had ruled there.
When he released us, it was like waking out of a dream. I felt cast away, as though in me the monster had not found what he was looking for. I was only a grunt, of course. I guess this identity had so ingrained itself in me that even a beast like him could sense it. But Hagar and Anh, they carried their sense of importance in their skulls. When Hagar was released, he lay sweating in that cave, his face as pale as a white-washed fence.
Visions flashed before him. He croaked a single word. ‘Washington…’
I thought of the apes’ ability with knives and other weapons. They were smart. They could plan. What else did they know? Did they know of motor vehicles? Tanks? Helicopters?
Anh babbled in Vietnamese before turning to me, his eyes bulging with the seeds of some future terror. ‘Hanoi!’
The rain had stopped. Mullins had killed three cigars during his story; they lay crushed and defeated at his feet. His watery eyes looked out across a valley freshly painted with greens and browns.
Mullins stretched, grabbed his rifle. He too gazed into the countryside. Terraced paddyfields snaking their way around the hills just beyond the jungle scrub were now visible. Smoke began to meander into the purple sky, probably from some charcoal-burner’s hut. This land was strange indeed, but it was not wild. It was not the Vu Quang.
The younger man supposed that he would hear a lot of strange stories in Vietnam, and reminded himself not to take all of them too seriously. The old hands liked to impress the greenhorns, he told himself. Not that Mullins’ story had made him think more of the old soldier. If I had lived through that, would I be quick to tell anyone about it? To his irritation, he found that he was shaking slightly at the thought of heading back into the bush.
‘Come on,’ said Mullins, ‘let’s get back to camp before it gets dark.’