Hecho de Carne

I

Las gaviotas recogieron la comida desechada en la playa de North Sydney. Habia frío, nadie se había aventurado en la arena. La escasa comida que los pájaros escurrían era vieja y rancia, como el hombre cansado mirando el mar y las aves. Con la mente perdida en los ritmos de las olas, no observó que lo vigilaba un oficial del ejército, el único otro hombre afuera en el frío día de este invierno.

—¿Le gusta el océano, señor Griggs? —preguntó el Major Peel. El hombre más joven había usado su uniforme por respeto, complementado con una cara y un cuero cabelludo recién afeitado. Ahora lamentaba su elección, porque su cabeza estaba helada por la fresca brisa salada.

‘Call me a bloody Sergeant will you, nobody else does these days?’ He threw bread to the squabbling gulls, and Peel wondered if Griggs ever missed walking along the beach. But this was a stupid question, of course Griggs would miss a lot things; anyone with both legs amputated most certainly would. ‘And to answer your question: no not really. I used to, when I didn’t see gulls with sharp teeth attacking me.’

‘Sharp teeth?’

‘Oh yeah, they say it is all in my mind. But I’ve been on so much medication for so long, twenty different pills at five separate times of the day I just don’t know what’s real anymore. Still they say I’m calmer now. I suppose it keeps them happy.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Peel sounded sincere but smiled to himself nonetheless. The battle-scarred veteran was obviously starved for conversation, so Peel would let him rattle on.

‘Yeah well, war sucks.’

Peel pulled up a chair, sat down uninvited. ‘My name is Major Harrison Peel, from the Department of Defence.’ This wasn’t a complete lie, but more truthful than his previous statement. ‘Do you mind if I ask a few questions?’

‘You already have.’ He threw more bread. A fight broke as the birds exploded in a fury of white feathers.

Peel placed his brief case on the table between them. He was planning to show Griggs the file he’d brought with him from the archives, but the wild and whistling Pacific winds prevented that. He couldn’t risk it blowing away.

‘You’re in Intelligence aren’t you?’

Peel smiled, ‘Kind of.’

‘The Vietnam War’s over Major, it finished thirty years ago. What else do you spooks still think I’ve got left to tell?’

‘Sure the Vietnam War is over,’ Peel paused to create drama, gazing at the stumps wrapped in a blanket and wondered if the Sergeant still felt the cold in toes that were no longer real. ‘It’s the other war I’m talking about.’

Griggs looked Peel’s way for the first time, ‘Which war would that be?’

‘Cambodia, Eastern Highlands, August Eighteen 1968?’

Just as quickly Griggs looked away, his pale liver-spotted face lost even more colour than Peel would have thought possible. ‘Oh, that war?’

Peel nodded. ‘You do know what I mean, don’t you?’

Griggs vainly attempted to lure a seagull closer, holding out a strip of bread in his bony fingers. ‘They never come too close, no matter how many times I tell them I’m okay, that I won’t hurt them. But they stay away because they know I could turn on them at any moment, slaughter then. It would be so easy to wring their scrawny little necks and not care about it afterwards. It’s the same with them, and you obviously know what I’m talking about.’

Peel said nothing. Sure that Griggs was not yet finished, if he kept quiet the Sergeant would feel the need to speak further. His reward was only a few seconds in the waiting.

‘When I saw you, I thought you were different from the others who only very rarely visit. Now that we’ve talked, I haven’t changed my mind on that.’

It took Peel a moment to answer, ‘What makes you say that?’

‘It’s that look in your eyes, like you understand everything I’ve said and don’t dismiss me as an insane crank. You look scared, just like me. Not scared of something you can see, like the kind of scared you get facing the end of a gun barrel in an enemy combatant’s hand. That’s an easy scared, you can understand that. No, you’re scared of what you don’t know, what you can’t see. You’re scared like these seagulls.’

It was Peel’s turn to shudder. It was true then that old veteran shared similar experiences with unexplained phenomena. ‘Well Sergeant, I’ve just returned from South East Asia. Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to be precise, working hard against a new threat. Have you heard of the terrorist organization called the Death Herald Army?’

‘Can’t say I have?’ Griggs almost looked relieved.

‘What about the Tcho-Tcho then? Or perhaps you know them as the Chaucha?’

Griggs didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to for Peel to sense that the old man understood well enough.

‘Shugoran? Ahtu? Nyarlathotep? Shub-Niggurath?’

Finally Griggs nodded. ‘Okay, but don’t rattle on so much. Just speaking their names can be dangerous enough.’

Peel lent forward, looked into the old man’s sick yellow eyes. ‘I’d really like you to tell me what happened, all those years ago.’

The Sergeant shuddered, ‘Why?’

‘Because they’re back Griggs. The Tcho-Tcho, and we know you saw something. Something that didn’t make it into the official report the Americans gave us.’

Griggs stifled a sob, hid his face quickly with the arms he’d been using to scare away the seagulls. The birds were right to be terrified, but Peel wasn’t to be scared off as easily. Griggs at least was a known quantity.

‘They know we’re in there, in Asia, looking for them. Trouble is they also know all our intelligence and we don’t know how. They’re learning our language and our codes at phenomenal speeds, and they’re uncanny at guessing our movements almost all of the time. I think you know why this is happening. I think you can help, help me to stop more good Aussie men dying at their hands.’

The Sergeant spat yellow phlegm. A seagull investigated, sensibly deciding not to eat it. ‘You’ve read the report,’ said the old man, ‘the one I’m sure you’ve got in that briefcase.’ He stifled a sob. ‘Why should I be forced to relive this experience again? It was horrible enough recounting it the first time, and the second, and third, knowing that no one believed me anyway.’

Peel lent forward, his face red with anger. ‘Because you’re not the report Griggs, you were there. Just like I’m there now, and I want the best bloody intelligence you can give me. Otherwise one day soon we could end up as bunk mates in this old home, and I don’t want that.’

The Sergeant took a moment to chew his lips, considering his options. ‘It’s back you say?’

‘It, Griggs?’

Finally the old man held Peel’s stare, ‘You really want to know?’

Peel said nothing. He’d already answered that question.

The seagulls had also decided. It seemed they didn’t wish to be a part of this, and had flown off.

II
TOP SECRET
Australian Paranormal Intelligence Organisation (APIO)
Sydney Headquarters, New South Wales, Australia

INTERNAL REPORT, COPY 3 OF 5

10 July, 2005

SUBJECT: Statement by Sergeant James Donald Griggs, as recorded by Major Harrison Peel of APIO, Special Operations, 8 July 2005.

Transcript from the Audio Recording
Addendum to the 1968 Report

I was with the Australian military in Vietnam, assigned to a ‘special’ outfit and flown into Saigon in 1968. Our base was at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province. Three months we waited for the action, bored but also dreading the time when we’d have to fight. That’s because we’d all too often witnessed victims of landmines and M16s, and that was enough to scare even the most hardened of us. But our role was inevitable, we were soldiers here to fight, and we saw our first and only action on August Eighteen 1968.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, our mission was top secret, one that the Yanks pulled together. Of course they decided to use us as diversionary troops while their soldiers completed the real mission, or so we thought. We were helicopter-ed into Cambodia two years before we were officially at war with that country. Not that we could tell the difference between Khmer Rouge and the Vietcong, they were all Charlie to us. We were there to kill, that seemed simple enough.

Of course the mission was a disaster right from the start. But it wasn’t the VC or the Khmer this time, that day Charlie was the Tcho-Tcho. Savage little cannibals who did worse things than shoot you or take your legs off with a tripwire tied to a claymore mine.

They knew we were coming, those Tcho bastards. They were waiting for us; ambushed us while we were ass-deep wading in a bloody rice field. Well it was certainly very bloody a short time later. They massacred us quickly as it would take you to piss your pants when you’re really scared.

When all the shooting stopped, and I really had pissed my pants, I came round thinking I should be dead, but I wasn’t. I’d remember something hitting me in the head, but to this day don’t know what had. But whatever knocked me out cold, well it saved my life. Unconscious, to the Tcho I was just another dead body. I was half submerged in the muddy water, buried under three fallen mates, all bloody, broken and smelling of guts and shit. But my mates hid me from the Tcho soldiers. I was lucky all right, I thought, but I also new a poor bugger like me, his luck never lasts.

Somehow I retained sense enough not to move, still wondering how I’d survived, and if I would get out alive and in one piece. Then I heard them, the Tcho-Tcho, talking softly in their strange chattering high-pitched voices. Naturally I had no idea what they were saying. And then I heard this strong, pompous British accent. I looked, stupidly moved my head but thankfully no one saw, and there he was, one of the Tcho-Tchos, speaking the Queen’s English! Black leathery skin, loincloth and penis-sheath, oh, and a M16 slung over his shoulder thanks to Uncle Sam. It looked so odd, like a dream, him talking like that and looking like that.

He was telling someone to get up. I risked moving my head again, this time slightly and slowly until I saw young Corporal Stewart Monk, lying in the mud where he’d fallen. Another Tcho-Tcho directed by his command officer, was prodding Monk with a machete. Monk was sobbing and I knew why. You might think he was lucky to be alive, but he probably didn’t think so, and neither did I. We’d all heard tales of what the Vietcong did to prisoners, but we also knew that what the Tcho-Tcho did was far worse. Tortures included staking you in the mud then placing yellow snails on your bare flesh, specially bred to eat away your skin while laying their eggs in your wounds. Other tricks, they’d hang you up from your feet then cut away bits of your flesh, slowly eating these bits you were still alive. Eating your own flesh in front of you and laughing. No one ever wanted to get taken alive by the Tcho-Tcho.

Anyway they pulled Monk to his feet, bound his wrists in wire until they bled, and pushed him on, forcing him to march with them.

The whole time I just lay there. If I moved they’d see that I was no corpse and I’d be their prisoner too, good to no one and even more shit scared than I was now. But lying there wasn’t easy. You see I kept catching glimpses of what the other Tcho-Tcho soldiers were up to, cutting off the hands, arms, feet and legs of my fellow soldiers, carrying the meat away as food. It was all I could do not to scream and run, hoping that they would not cut the flesh from me, that my dead mates were more than enough.

I don’t know how long I lay like this, hours probably, but it felt like days, and the weight of my dead mates on top of me grew heavy. Thank god the Tcho-Tcho bastards eventually left without touching me, marching on, leaving me. I risked sitting up.

The battlefield was the worst kind of carnage. The smell was putrid, one I can’t even describe even though I’ve smelt it in my head every day since. The muddy waters washed with so much red it was the only colour I could see. Bodies were everywhere, and only a few fallen Tcho-Tcho amongst their number. All our guns and ammunition were gone, except one automatic I found still gripped in the hands of my Lieutenant, half his face missing where machinegun fire had torn apart his skull. He didn’t need it.

Not knowing where I was, or how to get out (I still had no idea I was in Cambodia) I decided to follow the Tcho soldiers, discrete like. See if I could save Monk, and if not that, at least put him out of his misery before he was tortured.

Trailing them was a breeze. I was without a pack, so marching seemed easy now, and it was simple to remain unheard. They chattered and talked so much in their high-pitched voices I could have followed them in the dark. But I don’t think they expected to be followed, not this far into their own territory.

But as I followed I became more and more uncomfortable, and I didn’t know why. There were no rice fields out here, no pig farms, and no Buddhist shrines or those villages you normal see. Perhaps it was that huge yellow snail I almost stepped on that first unsettled me, or the roots of a tree that I swore shrunk away as I approached. I swear at one point I thought an eye opened in one overhanging branch. It took a while, but finally I realised this was no jungle that I’d ever seen or knew about. I should have run, and if I had, I’d still have legs today I’m sure. But you stick with your mates, look after them whatever happens, and that’s what I did.

Finally the trail ended, and I saw the scariest slight I’ll ever see. This was a Tcho-Tcho village, but the huts and camp fires wasn’t what scared me. It was what the village was built around, a huge, pulsating tree that did it. The stench hit me first, horrific, like those rafflesia flowers that smell like rotting meat to attract flies, but so much worse, and sweet. The tree, well it wouldn’t fit in one of those Yankee air hangers it was so huge. Its branches were white and stringy, reminding me of body parts preserved too long in jars of formaldehyde. Its highest branches hung over the Tcho-Tcho village like some kind of roof, and it was dripping, black syrup that burnt like acid wherever it splashed. The Tcho-Tcho seemed to know how to avoid this, and didn’t seem to mind the obvious danger. But you’re probably guessing this tree wasn’t natural, could never be. You’re right, and I was starting to understand all the mutations in all the animals and plants around this place.

I should have run, like I said. But somehow I was drawn to this monstrosity. I saw Monk then, on his knees with an automatic at his head. The Tcho-Tcho who’d spoken Queen’s English was talking to him, all proper like, telling him he’d be one with Shub-Niggurath soon, the Mother of Speaking Children. That it wouldn’t matter that he refused to talk, or couldn’t remember details beyond his name, rank and serial number.

I thought about shooting Monk there and then, and then legging it. Trouble was I was too far away to mark him with my handgun. Any closer and I’d be spotted, and I couldn’t risk that. So I waited, bidding my time.

However I didn’t have to wait long. Descending from the white canopy appeared what I can only describe as a pseudopod shaped like a gigantic tadpole with its tail fused to the canopy. The end was a milky translucent skin over a black core. It fell upon Monk, absorbing him, eating him I thought. I think it was at this moment that I vomited.

When I looked back, whatever it was, it hadn’t killed Monk as I’d hoped doing my job for me. I saw Monk inside it now, thrashing and fighting, unable to escape his translucent prison. He was in agony – I was sure of that – watching as the pseudopod rose again back into the canopy.

But if you think things couldn’t get any worse, well they did. The milky prison seemed to squeeze itself, and black droplets fell from the pseudopod onto the English speaking Tcho-Tcho, now standing directly underneath. And then the Tcho-Tcho started talking Aussie-like, telling all his tribesmen our mission as if they were Monk’s words he was using, spilling our objectives, names and ranks of the unit, where we were based, who our commanding officers were, everything.

It was that moment that I ran. Not because I saw how the Tcho-Tcho were learning about us so quickly, not because I’d just seen poor Monk consumed by this monstrous tree, but because I’d just noticed that his wasn’t the only pseudopod prison. I’d looked up you see, between the branches, in the canopy and I saw them all, hundreds of the milky cells, and most of them encasing struggling humans.

I ran for as long as I can remember, then nothing. Somehow I’d ended up in a US MASH camp. The field surgeons told me I’d stepped on a mine and blown off both my legs above the knees. All I could think about was how lucky it was that I wasn’t poor old Monk right now, lucky that I’d only lost two legs. Only later when the drugs had been eased back and the depression set in, the American military intelligence officers found me. But they didn’t ask a lot of questions as I expected, they only wanted to know one thing; where the Tcho-Tcho tree could be found. Apparently their troops had failed to find this place; their target, while us Aussies were nothing more than a diversionary tactic.

I’m fairly certain they bombed it later, Napalm or Fuel Air Explosives probably. I don’t think they wanted me out alive either and able to talk, because later I spotted a body bag with my name on it! Luckily an Australian journalist interviewed me. The next day my name and my story were in the newspaper. They had to release me if they didn’t want an incident on their hands. It was only then that I discovered that my country had given up on me, for it had been reported to them by the Yanks that I was officially classified as missing in action, probably dead. I think those boys in MI would have liked it to stay that way.

After that I was flown home and ended up here, in this home for disabled veterans, no good to anyone. I’ve never left this place since, not once. Don’t want to, because I know what lies out there. The nurses are nice, when they’ve got time for you. Now all I do is feed the seagulls, read trashy novels, watch game shows and wait to die, hoping that my fears won’t join me when they finally lay me in the grave.

END REPORT

III
The march into the Eastern Highlands had not been without risk. Mosquitoes attacked relentless, sweat chaffed, and howling monkeys announced their presence everywhere they turned. But this was nothing. They were in enemy territory now, and Peel knew they had to get it right.

As a cover they were western tourists with nothing to identifying them as agents of the Australia government. The sniper who joined Peel had no name. So Peel called him Sergeant Joe, which was as fictional as his call sign. Peel didn’t reveal his real name either for the same reasons. Despite their weapons they weren’t here to kill anyone, just laser sight a target so a ballistic missile fired from the naval ship in the ocean could find it way.

The Death Hearld Army were everywhere in this jungle. This was their land. Peel and Joe avoided the Montagnard villages just to be sure, knowing that many were Tcho-Tcho’s, or if not, fearful of the cannibal terrorists who would quickly report to their violent oppressors the moments of strange westerners. Always keeping out of sight Peel and Joe slept in the jungles, ate only their issued rations and proceeded very, very slowly. They found the alien tree after five days.

Sergeant Joe wanted to get closer, to be sure. Peel outranked him and deferred. He’d read all the reports, including those from as far back as 1968 and some American Intel files that had come his way via various global contacts. When the valley shuddered, as if the tree had shaken itself like a dog thrashing its wet coat, they knew they were close enough. Knew that it would be suicide to get any closer.

‘Are you sighted?’ Peel asked.

The young sniper nodded, trembling now that they’d seen the whole jungle come alive and move, not like a plant in a strong wind, but like a wild angry animal. Who could blame him? Peel was terrified himself.

He called in the air strike. The exorbitant bribes paid to the Cambodian government not to report a strike on this terrorist heartland far more expensive than the hardware expended.

Only when the jungle was a burning inferno did the two men walk back into Laos, thankful that they had not been seen.

IV
The membrane split, milky liquid gushed and the naked shape of an ill-formed man spewed into green pools of fetid rice fields. He breathed, sucking air into lungs that had known only viscous liquids for so long. Arms and legs again under his own control, he stood, witnessed the carnage around him, and dripped milky fluids from his sheen.

The air was alive with heat and flames. Smoke made breathing difficult. When he could finally smell again, the scent of charred Tcho-Tcho insulted his nostrils.

More explosions, more flame. He fled into the jungle, away from the destruction. He knew not how he’d been freed, but he wasn’t waiting to find out why.

And as he fled he noticed he wasn’t the only survivor of this carnage. Other prisoners were dropping from the canopy, exploding out from their fallen pseudopods as they shattered on the black earth. Some of the men and women were quickly consumed in flames, while others were now so ill-formed they could no longer walk, because they barely resembled human beings. Only a few mustered his strength and courage, similarly fleeing this site of destruction.

He ran for hours, perhaps days. At some point he was no longer under a green canopy, and found himself standing on the edge of a remote Montagnard village. The barefooted dirty children shied away, mangy dogs ran, old men pretended he was invisible and none dared look him in the eye. When he spoke to them, they pretended not to understand, despite the dozens of languages he barked their way.

He walked through the village unmolested, up a muddy road, realised that he was still nude and that he didn’t care. For some reason he felt powerful, as if he could smite anyone. He knew that he’d once been made of meat, but not any more. Now he was something more durable. He was something as old as the universe itself.

The trouble was he had no idea where he was headed, why his feet kept walking, or who he was anymore. Then the answer came to him in the form of a diminutive stranger.

After the third village that he passed through with hindrance, an old wizened dwarf stepped into his path. No one had done that before, none had challenged him in this way. Intrigued the naked man decided to hear out the intruder out before he decimated him.

The dwarf’s skin was black, lined like old parchment. His legs little more than bony twigs, and his teeth were sharpened points stained red. He wore a faded Nike jacket and a loincloth. In one hand he carried staff with a wooden knot at the head, the sign of a Tcho-Tcho priest.

‘Welcome Mother of the Speaking Children,’ spoke the shaman. ‘You have saved us once again.’

He was speaking Tcho-Tcho, and the naked man knew he should have been surprised that he understood him so perfectly.

Bowing slightly the shaman led him off the road, down a trail to a field of coriander, and stood him next to a large tree on the edge of dense rainforest. A few minutes after that the naked man found could no longer move his legs. He stood like that for many days, growing and changing, becoming more and more rigid with each passing moment.

But he was never alone, the Tcho-Tcho young and old alike came to him. They watched him grow, worshipped him as they should. In a few years his branches were tall, and his roots went deep. Pseudopods were developing fast, and soon he would be ready to absorb more of his former kind, again stealing, sharing and imparting the stolen knowledge to his devoted flock.

In time all that had once been Corporal Monk was forgotten and changed, not that it mattered. Humans were nothing. Yet everything about Monk would live on, forever, inside the ever growing tree.

He was after all, as old as the universe itself.

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