Mystery of the Geej

Michael Jack Webb

Ethan cursed the dense, suffocating Lao humidity for the hundredth time this week. His lightweight shirt and pants were soaked. Rivulets of water ran down his forehead, stinging his eyes, then cascaded down his camouflaged, deeply tanned face. The fish-smelling rain that had pummeled him and Vang Lou Chang for over an hour had finally quit thirty minutes ago. But the ever-present humidity was unrelenting. Ethan didn’t mind the soaking downpours that were a part of daily life in the jungle. They brought a measure of relief from the sweltering weather, even if only for a short time. But the humidity that cocooned him like a wet blanket night and day was far worse than in Florida, where he’d grown up. It had made his life miserable since he arrived in Southeast Asia last fall.

It was early August and he and Vang were tracking a vicious group of Pathet Lao, the Lao version of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. The genocidal and highly trained fighters had slaughtered dozens of women, children, and old men in a small Hmong village five clicks from his and Vang’s current position. They’d cut off the ears of their victims and stuffed them in their mouths as a warning to any who gave information to the Americans, or the CIA.

Vang was a fierce Hmong warrior and his guide. The two of them had worked as an efficient and lethal team for the past twelve months. Most recently, in Operation About Face in the lower foothills of the central plain of the Xiangkhoang plateau . They fought side by side against the Pathet Lao in what those in-country referred to as the not-so-secret “secret war” being waged for the past seven years.

The Hmong was determined to find the group of men who tortured and killed for sport and prevent them from ever harming helpless and innocent people again. Moments ago, he’d motioned for Ethan to stay behind, and hidden, while he scouted the trail ahead. Vang had a sixth sense about danger and signaled their quarry was close.

While he waited for Vang to locate the callous murderers, Ethan reflected on the events that had brought him six thousand miles from home. A year ago, after enlisting in the Army fresh out of high school, he’d graduated at the top of his Special Forces class at Ranger School. The CIA had selected him for a covert mission because of his skill at learning foreign languages. They sent him here to train Hmong tribesman for the fight against the nationalist communist group. He’d trained the Hmong forces under the command of General Vang Pao and part of the SGU, the Special Guerilla Unit, to launch attacks, destroy supply routes the communists used, including the Ho Chi Minh trail, and collect intelligence. Occasionally, some guerilla fighters were used to find and rescue downed American flyers.

Founded twenty-three years ago, in 1950, as part of the Viet Minh’s revolt against colonial French authorities in Indochina during the First Indochina War, the Pathet Lao were on the verge of taking over the country. They’d gained control of the northern and eastern parts. Ethan believed if something drastic didn’t change the dynamics of the conflict, the communists would overrun the remaining pro-government strongholds by next spring.

Vang had turned out to be Ethan’s finest student, and a fearless fighter. Descended from a long line of fierce Hmong warriors, the diminutive, but stout, man excelled in every aspect of his military training. He mastered everything Ethan taught him, seemingly effortlessly. It was as if he’d been born to fight evil and push back the darkness descending on his beloved country. Before the war, Vang had been a teacher. Everything changed when the Pathet Lao butchered and slaughtered his parents and extended family, because they were Christians. Vang was also a Christian, which was unusual because most Hmong were animists, although some were Buddhists. But he, along with his wife and daughter, miraculously escaped the horrific fate suffered by the rest of those he loved.

Ethan asked his friend once why he so passionately fought to rid his country of the scourge sweeping Laos. “Running and dying are all the Hmong have ever known. Although we settled in China long before the Chinese they treated us as slaves. Because we did not assimilate into Han culture, the Chinese referred to us as Miao. The literal translation is ‘inhabitants of the wild grass,’ but the sons of dogs meant the term to be derogatory. They used Miao signifying we are barbarians. To escape, we made a big cloth and 3,800 Hmong stood on it. A good spirit made a big wind and blew us out of China into Laos.” When Ethan pressed him to clarify, the older man who looked much younger than his true age shrugged. “If you want to know the truth about our people, go ask the bear who is hurt why he defends himself. Ask the dog who is kicked why he barks. Ask the deer who is chased why he charges the mountains.”

Vang returned, and there was a determined look on his face. “There are twelve Pathet Lao led by the one with the vicious-looking scar running down his jawline from the top of his forehead to the top of his neck.”

“Butcher dai. The butcher,” muttered Ethan a scowl on his face.

Vang nodded. “They are setting up camp at the edge of the hǎj hǐn, the Plain of Jars. It will be dark in an hour. We will wait until the first stars appear, then do what we must.”

Ethan settled in for the wait, finding a comfortable place to sit. “I’ve heard about the Plain of Jars. We’ve been carpet bombing the heck out of the entire area for years. Rumor has it we’ve dropped more bombs there than in all of WWII.”

Vang squatted across from him, resting his arms on his knees. “Sadly, that’s true. Archaeologists have discovered ninety jar sites. Each site has from one to four hundred cylindrical jars with bottoms wider than the top dating back twenty-five hundred years. Most were hewn out of sandstone using iron chisels.”

“How were they used?”

Vang shrugged. “Many theories have been suggested from burial chambers to the storage of salt and minerals in the jars along ancient trade roots. There are even several Lao legends which tell of a race of giants inhabiting the area ruled by a king named Khun Cheung. He supposedly fought a long and ultimately victorious battle against an enemy and created the jars to brew and store huge amounts of lau hai to celebrate his victory.” In Lao lau means alcohol and hai means a jar, which translates “rice beer or rice wine in the jars.”

“Do you believed giants existed once?”

A thoughtful look settled over Vang’s face, but he didn’t answer right away. “There is a story in the Bible telling of a great warrior-king named David. When he was a young man, before he became a king, he slew a giant named Goliath with but one stone from his slingshot. It is said Goliath had four brothers. All of them were descended from a race of beings known as the fallen ones. The fallen ones were the giant offspring of angels and women. They had an insatiable lust for blood. Some say those giants still live. They are in hiding until their fathers are released from the prison known as The Abyss. They were imprisoned there at the command of God by the Archangel Michael. He wears the key to the lock of the angelic prison around his neck. One day, the demonic angels will be released for a short time and torment mankind.”

Ethan remained quiet for several minutes. He’d heard about the story of David and Goliath as a young boy, but not the rest. Normally, he’d make a snide remark about religious myths and fanciful stories designed to manipulate and control people. But the seriousness and sincerity with which Vang responded gave him pause. That and the sudden chill that had stolen over him while the Hmong talked.

Ethan had never given much thought about religion, especially after the sudden death of his parents in a fiery plane crash. He didn’t believe God paid much attention to what happened on Earth. But he had great respect for Vang and his unusual, uncanny, connection with the spirit realm. His friend never attempted to proselytize him. But neither did he miss an opportunity to share whatever wisdom he’d gleaned from reading his bible and spending time in prayer. Sometimes Ethan had the eerie feeling Vang could see the future, and that was why the two of them were successful at what they did. The Hmong always guided them both to the right place at the right time. There had been several occasions where Vang’s abilities had saved them, and others, from death.

Vang stood up and walked over to where he’d hidden his pack and the large canvas bag he’d brought with him on this mission, then returned to where Ethan was sitting. This was the first time his friend had brought anything other than his pack and weapons. Ethan was curious about what was in the bag but knew better than to ask. Vang had his own way of doing things. Over the past year Ethan had learned if the Hmong wanted him to know something, he’d tell him. If Ethan asked an untimely question, Vang gave him an inscrutable look and a cryptic response. Ethan couldn’t help himself. He had an overwhelming urge to find out what was in the canvas bag Vang guarded as if he’d filled it with gold.

He was about to ask, when the enigmatic man said, “You have learned well the lesson I have been teaching you these past months. I will show you what is in this canvas bag.”

Amazed once again by Vang’s incredible ability to know what he was thinking even before he’d expressed his thoughts, he gaped at his friend. “So, among your many talents you’re also a mind reader?”

Vang chuckled and reached into the canvas bag. “Not in the way you might think. I am simply a man who focuses his attention on whatever is

important. Then I ask the Father what He would have me know about the person, or situation. His Holy Spirit gives me insights, guidance, and wisdom beyond my natural abilities to comprehend. If I am faithful to follow His guidance and say and do only what He is speaking to me, my obedience allows me to reap the benefits of His omniscience and omnipotence.”

Ethan shook his head and grunted. “You’ve lost me, Vang. Again.”

“That is because you must meditate day and night upon what I share with you. Then understanding will come. In the meantime, I will show you my geej.” He pronounced the word kheng.

The Hmong pulled out a large instrument unlike Ethan had ever seen. The only way he could describe it was a bagpipe made from bamboo and no bag. He counted six pipes of varying lengths grouped together horizontally and one long pipe attached vertically at the base of the six-pipe grouping. It had a mouthpiece like on a trumpet. The overall length of the strange-looking instrument was over five feet. “I hope you’re not going to tell me that’s some new Lao weapon I’ve never heard of, because the way you’ve been handling it tells me it wouldn’t take much of a blow to break it into pieces.”

Vang glance over at him, a strange glint in his eyes. “You are most perceptive, my friend.”

Ethan stood and stretched. “I was kidding, Vang.”

The Hmong smiled. “I wasn’t. This instrument wielded in the right hands has tremendous power.”

“What kind of power?”

“Although this is a musical instrument, it is not designed to produce music. It is a bamboo ‘voice’ capable of speaking to the spirit world.”

“What! You’ve shared some strange things with me about your culture, but this—”

“Music and speech are inseparable, Ethan. Both are shadows of light. The spirit realm light, but within there is darkness. Evil. Only the true light pierces and pushes back darkness. Although evil has power, it cannot overcome light. I have been apprenticed to Xiang Xob Choj, one of only two Master geej players in the world, for twenty-five years. Since I was ten. His name translates the bridge to lightning and thunder. He is teaching me to use rhythm, tone, pattern repetition, and melody and scale, to explore the relationship between the natural and supernatural worlds.”

“Why is that important, and how does your geej help us tonight?”

Vang stared off into the deepening darkness in the Plain of Jars direction. “Many years ago, before I was a teacher, I traveled with my father to Luang Prabang. It is a small city in the northern part of our country where the Nam Khan and the Mekong rivers come together. The royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos. One thousand monks live in eighty temples and monasteries. One day my father sent me to the local market to buy tea. On my way back to our room, a monk called out my name. I was stunned, because I had never been to the city. The monk was old and blind. He came close and whispered a warning. ‘One day there will be a war where the demons come and blood will rise to the elephant’s stomach. Beware the one who bears the mark of Mara.’”

“Mara?”

Vang returned his gaze to Ethan. “In Buddhism Mara is evil incarnate. The demon’s attributes include blindness, murkiness, death, and darkness. Mara is known as the god of lightning. It is said that Butcher dai’s scar results from lightning striking him when he was a boy. You saw what Butcher dai and his men did yesterday to the people in the village. He was doing more than sending a message. He was sacrificing to the demon who possesses him.”

Ethan grew thoughtful, chilled to the bone. “I take it you intend to use your geejagainst him and his men if our AK’s and grenades don’t do the trick.”

The Hmong nodded as if his mind was a thousand miles away. “In days of old, grand master players were wizards. With the power of the qeej they flew, read other people's minds, and even became invisible. They had so much internal power they could cause an enemy to be consumed in fire. In those legendary times, only grand master players held such awesome power. Different masters wielded different powers. Wizardry was not available to every qeej player. The grand masters guarded it like a treasure. They exhibited the magical powers of the qeej in friendly public competitions. They demonstrated the power only to show how much each player had learned. Over time, the intensity and seriousness of the competition escalated. Good-natured challenges turned into fights. They killed people. The grand masters stopped teaching the magic to the student players fearful they would kill themselves or someone else.”

“What about Master Xang? Has he taught you how to wield the magical power of your geej?”

Vang stood and put his geej back in the canvas bag, then glanced up at the heavens as he slung both his pack and the canvas bag over his shoulder. He reached down and picked up his AK-47. “You ask too many questions, Ethan. Come, we have much to do before the sun rises.”

An hour later the two of them lay stretched out in the tall grass at the edge of the rolling Plain of Jars. The moon had risen and cast an eerie reddish glow over the ground ahead of them. In the distance, they saw a flickering firelight.

“Butcher dai and his evil disciples have made camp. They foolishly and arrogantly believe they are on protected ground.” Vang lowered his binoculars and put them into a side pocket. He glanced up at the moon and muttered, “Red moon—”

Ethan glanced sideways at his friend. “Why do you call them disciples? And why do they think they are safe from attack?”

“Butcher dai has been teaching the dark arts to his most trusted men. The eleven that travel with him now are the most vicious and fearless guerillas he has culled from among the many he commands. Together they are a formidable enemy, both in the natural and spiritual realms. Even the most hardened Pathet Lao soldiers fear them. They have seen the evil power Butcher dai wields and dare not incite his displeasure or anger. The twelve believe nothing can harm them, because Mara and her minions have deceived them.”

“You speak as if you have had first-hand experience with them.”

Vang shook his head. “This is my first natural encounter with Butcher dai and his evil warriors. But I have seen them in the spirit—and I know things about them. Before we left camp to come on this mission, I had a vivid dream in which we battled the demonic forces who possess the twelve.”

“Vang, you’re giving me the heebie-jeebies with all this talk of dark powers, demons, giants descended from angels, and prophetic dreams.”

“Heebie-jeebies? What is this word?”

“It’s from an American comic strip. It means anxiety, nervous fear, unease.”

“Good. You will be less likely to underestimate Butcher dai and his men.”

“Great. That helps a bunch. So, what is our plan?”

Vang motioned for the two of them to move back toward the cover of a small clump of pine trees that had escaped destruction during six years of incessant carpet bombing. “We must split up if we are to succeed.”

Ethan nodded agreement.

“You must approach from the right, and I will attack from the left. They are encamped with several large jars at their backs. If we are quick, and quiet, we may catch them by surprise, although I fear Mara will warn them of our approach.”

“You’re serious about this demonic power and dark forces stuff, aren’t you?”

“Deadly serious, Ethan. Whatever happens tonight, know that you have been a dear friend. I count it a blessing to have fought with you on behalf of my people and my country.”

Ethan stared at the Hmong. “Now you’re really making me nervous. I’ve never heard you speak that way. We’ve been in some tough situations, and we’ve always prevailed.”

Vang shrugged. “Tonight is different. We fight a dangerous, invisible enemy and one our natural eyes can see. I believe with God’s help we will defeat them. But the battle will be fierce. As of this moment, the outcome remains uncertain.”

Ethan checked his weapons, made certain he had extra rounds of ammunition, and applied camo face paint with practiced precision. “I’m ready when you are.”

“You are familiar with Sun Tzu, no?”

“The Chinese general and military strategist? We read him in Ranger school.”

“Excellent. Remember this. We must not repeat the tactics which have gained us earlier victories. We must let our method tonight be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances. Military tactics are like water. Water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So, in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows. The soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe he is facing. So, just as water retains no constant shape, in warfare there are no constant conditions.”

“You’re being inscrutable again, Vang. Just tell me how you want to do this.”

“We must make Butcher dai and his men believe they are being attacked from the sky.”

“Carpet bombing?”

“Even though we know there is no bombing scheduled for tonight, we will use our grenades and weapons to cause chaos among the enemy. We will also take out the weakest first, those men stationed on the periphery of the camp. Only by dividing them can we conquer them. If we can separate Butcher dai from his men, we might have a chance of killing him.”

“If he is as good as you say he is, that may be easier said than done.”

“I didn’t say it will be easy, but it is our only hope. Now, go. We must kill them all before the moon reaches its highest point in the sky. That is when Mara’s power will be the greatest. We will begin our attack in thirty minutes. God be with you, my friend.”

As Ethan headed off in the deepening darkness, he said over his shoulder, “See you on the other side—”

Ethan moved among the carved sandstone jars like a wraith, listening for anything that would tell him the enemy had discovered him. The cool night air refreshed him and the humidity had lessened. He and Vang shlould have been accompanied by at least half a dozen other Hmong guerilla fighters from the SGU. But Vang had been adamant about this mission. It must only be him and Ethan. Although Ethan trusted his friend, he was having second thoughts. Two against twelve hardened fighters in open territory wasn’t good odds. He kept his eyes on the flickering fire in the distance, careful not to look at it and ruin his night vision.

A moment later, Ethan froze and blinked several times. “What on Earth—” he muttered. Fifty feet in front of him there was a shimmering darkness darker than the night enveloping him. One moment it was there, the next it disappeared. He shook his head, wondering what he’d just seen. He waited in the tall grass for several minutes to make certain he hadn’t been discovered, then resumed his approach toward the Pathet Lao encampment.

Ethan checked his watch.

Twenty-five minutes had passed since he and Vang parted.

In five minutes, the two of them would unleash as much firepower as they could to disorient, scatter, and kill as many of the enemy as possible.

Ethan crawled another hundred feet before settling into his combat position behind one of the larger sandstone jars dotting the landscape in front of him.

He sighted his first three targets. Sentries. They were smoking and chatting among themselves. Assuming Vang had an equal number of targets and took them out in the first seconds of battle, it would cut the opposition in half. Three to one for each of them. If the Pathet Lao soldiers were as well-trained as Vang said, it would still be a fierce battle. He and Vang had the advantage of surprise, but the Pathet Lao were better positioned and had better cover.

One minute to unleash hell on Earth.

Ethan took several deep breaths, calming himself. He focused on his first target, a thin, scruffy guerilla with a half-smoked cigarette hanging in his mouth. He raised his AK-47 to the firing position, his finger on the trigger.

Thirty seconds.

An eerie wailing sound wafted over the plain and the hairs on the back of Ethan’s neck stood up. What the heck is that, and where did it originate?

Ethan scanned the area to his left and right, then swiveled his eyes back to his target.

Twenty-five seconds.

The undulating darkness he’d seen a few minutes ago reappeared. This time it hovered over the sentry Ethan had in his sights.

The cigarette fell from the sentry’s mouth as his entire body shuddered. He turned to face Ethan’s direction.

Five seconds.

The sentry raised his weapon, pointed it at where Ethan was hiding and fired a rapid burst of his weapon.

Dozens of bullets struck the jar in less than a second, sending lethal pieces of sandstone flying in every direction.

Ethan pulled his trigger. An instant later the sentry’s head exploded. Ethan took out the next two sentries. Simultaneously, a barrage of fire erupted from Ethan’s left. Vang hand started his attack right on time.

Ethan lobbed several grenades into the campsite.

Multiple explosions lit up the night as screams of agony, anger, and confusion pierced the semi-darkness.

More explosions followed as Vang used his grenades similarly.

Bullets whizzed around Ethan.

He needed to move.

And fast!

There was a momentary pause in the fighting. Ethan used the opportunity to move forward, crouching as he ran toward the Pathet Lao camp.

Suddenly, he was tackled from behind and went down hard. He pulled out his K-bar knife and rolled over on his back. His attacker was missing the left half his face. In the remaining half there was a smoky darkness flickering in the man’s disfigured right eye. There was no way the Pathet Lao soldier should be alive, let alone attacking him with the strength of five men. But he was.

The growling man grabbed Ethan’s neck with both hands in a vice grip and squeezed hard choking off his oxygen.

Ethan plunged his K-bar into the man’s chest, below his heart, and with a forceful upward motion split his chest open. The man collapsed like a pierced balloon as blood gushed over Ethan. He rolled the dead man off him, took several deep breaths, grabbed his AK, then stood and ran toward the firefight.

When he reached the camp, there were six dead bodies around the dwindling fire and no sound at all. Vang was nowhere to be seen. The sudden, eerie silence sent a chill up and down Ethan’s back. He searched the area, looking for threats.

Where are the rest of the Pathet Lao?

As if in answer to his unspoken question the rat-a-tat-tat of enemy fire peppered the surrounding area. He dived for cover behind a medium-sized jar. Blood ran down his right arm from a wound on his bicep. It looked like only a graze, but there was a good amount of blood. There was no pain yet. That would come once his adrenalin stopped flowing.

He assessed his situation, looking for his attackers.

More gunfire pierced the night. Vang had targets in sight and was firing upon them. By Ethan’s count there were five Pathet Lao still alive, assuming Vang hadn’t killed any more of the enemy. Their odds of survival were better than when they started the fight, but they weren’t out of the woods yet.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement.

One of the Pathet Lao was running toward him, weapon blazing bullets, a crazed look in his dark, simmering eyes. When his weapon was empty, the man pulled out a large knife and screamed something unintelligible. It sounded like a cross between a wild animal bellowing in rage and an ancient language that hadn’t been spoken for millennia. Ethan wasn’t certain why the thought came to him, but knew it was accurate.

He didn’t have time to think about it because the man attacked him with an animal ferocity. He fought back as best he could but was losing the battle. Like the man Ethan encountered earlier with only half a face, his attacker exhibited the strength of five men and had the same smoky darkness flickering in his eyes. He also had a puckered scar marring the length of the right side of his face from his forehead to his throat.

Butcher dai!

Ethan remembered what Vang had said about Mara and evil spirits possessing the man feared by even his own men.

Ethan was no match for the superhuman strength of the possessed Pathet Lao Commander. If Vang doesn’t show up and do something quick, I’m a dead man.

The night sky exploded with light and a deafening sound that sounded like music.

The ground shook.

For an instant, Ethan thought they’d been wrong about the carpet bombing, or Command had ordered an unexpected attack.

Butcher dai screamed like a maddened animal and pressed his advantage. He struck Ethan with a devastating blow to the head.

Ethan saw stars and gasped in pain.

Butcher dai held his prey down by the throat with one hand, crushing Ethan’s windpipe. The Pathet Lao raised his knife high, intending to plunge it into Ethan’s chest.

Ethan’s eyes fluttered as consciousness faded. In the instant before he blacked out, a wave of intense heat hotter than anything he’d ever experienced cocooned Ethan. I hope you kill this bastard and the rest of his men, Vang . . .

“Wake up, Ethan!”

Ethan’s eyes fluttered open. He was dizzy, his arm hurt like hell, and it felt as if someone had used a baseball bat to beat him.

His friend’s hairless, tanned, oval face came into focus. “Vang?”

The Hmong smiled and nodded. “Who were you expecting?”

Ethan grunted. “I wasn’t expecting anyone. Thought I was a goner.”

Vang shook is head. “You’re too mean and stubborn to die.”

Ethan sat half-way up using his left arm to support himself as Vang handed him a canteen. He took several gulps of lukewarm water then handed the canteen back to the Hmong. He looked around, expecting to see charred, blackened earth. To his amazement, the ground around him and Vang was the same as when he’d blacked out. “What happened—” was all he managed, still dazed.

“We killed them all, my friend.”

Ethan stared at his friend. “Butcher dai as well?”

Vang nodded.

“There are no bodies.”

Vang stood and reached down to help him stand. “Come, it’s time for us to leave.”

Ethan stood and leaned on Vang for support, then looked up. The moon was at its zenith, and it was no longer red. He glanced at his watch. He’d been unconscious for twenty minutes. As they moved through what remained of the Pathet Lao camp, he scanned the area. It was as if the twelve guerillas had never been there. There was no sign of a fire. No sign of the fierce battle that had raged minutes ago. No sign of anything.Only a dozen jars of varying sizes and an eerie silence.

“Are you going to explain how all of this is possible?”

Vang looked at him and smiled. “One day, when you are ready, I will tell you how we battled the Rephaim and defeated them with the help of God and his angels.”