Second Dead

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Chapter 34: From the past

Mom had a look of abject fear when she set her eyes on the book. I flipped through the first several pages, located the passage and began to read aloud.

“And in those days Emperor Shen Nong sent his armies far and wide. He beseeched his princes to bring in followers for his unholy war. With the kiss of the flesh and the breath of command, his army swelled in number daily until such time as the Sống chết threatened to overwhelm the world.”

Mom’s head jerked when I mentioned the Sống chết. I looked up to see if they understood.

“Don’t you get it?” I demanded.

“Anna, you can’t take seriously all that’s written in the book,” Dad said.

“Dad, it’s so simple. The kiss of the flesh is a bite. And the breath of command is an airborne source of infection.”

“These things do not breathe,” Penri stressed.

“Yeah? Well the infected do.”

Penri thought for a moment. “That would explain a lot of things. What is this book?”

My mother answered. “It’s an account of a war we Vietnamese fought five thousand years ago against the Sống chết. Moaners.”

Penri scoffed. “That defies belief.”

“Really, that’s where you draw your line? How about this. A person dies, stands up and fucking walks,” I shouted. “Two years -- two years, before it began, my nana tried to warn us. Everyone thought she was raving. A lunatic. But look around you. She knew, and we failed to listen.”

“It’s true; all of it is true,” Mom cried.

“Now, Nancy, you know we couldn’t understand most of what Nana said there at the end,” Dad soothed.

I said, “It doesn’t change the fact she was right. Those monks, sisters, whatever they were, knew something, and we would be fools to discount them because we don’t want it to be true. The Xích Quý knew what we don’t.”

“She’s right. We already made that mistake once,” Mom said.

“What’s the Xích Quý?” Penri asked.

“They were the first kingdom of Vietnam,” Mom explained. “At the start of our history, they were a strong and prosperous people in the Red River Valley.”

“And Shen Nong?”

“I don’t know.” Mom sighed. “He came from up north. Might be China, but I’m not sure; it could also be Tibet.”

Comprehension flooded through me. So simple, so incredible, and so much the truth, I felt amazed we as a species had gotten it so wrong for so long. Everything taught about early prehistory and history was wrong, dead wrong as it were. In a sudden flash of insight, I understood what had puzzled historians for centuries.

I opened the notebook to page seven and thrust it in front of my mother’s face. “You have three thousand B.C. written down with a question mark. Why?”

“I’m not sure of the date. The book doesn’t track years like we do. It goes by dynasties and king’s reigns. I might be off a couple hundred years.”

“Doesn’t matter.” I snapped the book closed. “Three thousand B.C., a very interesting period in civilization’s development, don’t you think?”

Blank expressions greeted me. Theo moaned, “Oh man, I hate history.”

I ignored him and pressed on. “Major world civilizations and religions developed at the same time, out of nowhere and with no known precedent. Why did people band together and surrender their regional freedom to toil under kings who had no pedigree to base their authority on? And why did religions appear all over the world at the same time, all obsessed with dead bodies?”

Still with the blank expressions, so I continued, “Let me lay it out for you. Three thousand B.C., give or take, and this Shen Nong guy or people, whatever--”

“Shen Nong’s the mythical first emperor of China,” Theo said.

Blindsided, my train of thought failed. I stared at Theo. How could a man who could not find China on a freaking map if I pointed at it, know this? “Excuse me?”

“Oh, he’s in one of my video games. He lived hundreds of years ago and invented all kinds of medicine and stuff.”

“Do you mean thousands of years?”

“Err, yeah, I guess.”

“Now you reference video games?” Penri asked.

“It makes perfect sense,” I said. “The book recounts how Shen Nong sought immortality and performed medical experiments on himself in an attempt to ward off death. Everything we know about early civilization backs this book up. Every religion, every early society obsessed with dead bodies.”

“Well, sure, the ancients were concerned with the afterlife, that’s well understood,” Dad said.

“The afterlife, or keeping the dead, dead? Think about this.” I continued eager to press my point home. “What did the Egyptians do with their deceased? They sucked the brain and all the digestive organs from the corpses. Then they mummified the husk and wrapped it in linen to immobilize the body.

“Now, we are supposed to believe the Egyptians went through all this trouble to help a person to the afterlife? An eternity without your brain or digestive system does not seem to me to be conducive to a happy afterlife. In many instances, after the burial they piled mountains of stone on top of the bodies.

“I ask you, what kind of sane, rational society would do this? They didn’t prepare their dead for the afterlife. They prevented their dead from returning to this life!”

Shocked expressions greeted me as the incontrovertible truth dawned on them.

“We bury our dead twice,” Mom said. “Three years after the first burial, we dig up the bones. We have a second burial and a successful death celebration.”

“What do you mean successful death?” Penri asked.

Mom looked down at the ground and whispered, “Ngạ Quý. The hungry ghost. We open the tomb and if the body has decayed and the bones are still there we know the spirit has moved on. Then we celebrate the release of the soul and the bones can be moved into the family shrine to join the ancestors.”

“It all hangs together,” Dad whispered.

“I’m willing, up to a point, to accept the validity of what you say. But what good does it do us?” Penri asked.

“I’ll let you have the book when I’m done. Maybe you can glean something I’ve missed.” I flipped through the book to the last few pages of the history. “This is the account of the final showdown, the battle which reclaimed the Earth for humanity.

“The day came when King Lục Dương Vương thought to make common cause with the unbound Kings of the north. Gathering throughout their lands all the heralds and musicians who assembled at his palace, the King tasked them to go forth and collect the adherents of Shen Nong, and bring them to the place of judgment.

“And so the heralds traveled far and wide. To the coldest regions of the north and to the kingdoms of the long rivers, even it is said, to the lands of the burnt ones they traveled. Gathering the entire Sống chết into the Red River Valley, King Lục Dương Vương called on the assembled Kings to pass judgment with him.

“The gods decreed the seat of glory for the King of the Xích Quý. King Lục Dương Vương had cause to place a great multitude of pennants in the valley. A pennant for every one of Shen Nong’s victims there stood. All the colors of the rains end to the count of seven were seen to blow in the wind. Testament to the evil Shen Nong caused the world.

“The gods exalted King Lục Dương Vương on high and his throne was as a cloud, and thunders and lightnings issued forth.

“From the heavens, the mountains, and the waters of the Earth, the gods came to exact retribution on the followers of Shen Nong who had dared to usurp the rights of the gods. Of just cause, the gods gathered the worms of the earth and the birds of the sky and joined them like one to make the music of the heavens.

“With the beat of drums and the clang of cymbals, the assembly gave praise to the gods. The gods caused sweet incense to rise from the earth. The pungent smoke filled the valley, everyone present refreshed with its heavenly scent. Passing among the Sống chết on their winged worms, the gods, by the power of their music and the flutter of pennants, caused Shen Nong to become dumbfounded.

“And so King Lục Dương Vương laughed with joy and with a great blast of his horn led the armies of the world into battle. All the musicians ranged along the mountains lifted their mighty horns, blew their summons of doom, and joined the great melody of the gods. In joy and praise of the gods, all the throats of the great army joined with the music as to make a chorus never before or after heard on this earth.

“The whole world obeyed the commands of King Lục Dương Vương that day. Yea, even the mountains threw themselves down at his mighty feet and the rivers changed course to be near the great King. For three days at the time of the new moon the battle raged. No man willed to put down his weapon. Fortified by the god’s presence they at last prevailed. On the third night the sun descended from heaven and consumed the usurpers, lighting the whole of the land as if night became day.”

Finished, I closed the book and waited for a reaction.

“Reminds me of New Years at Nana’s,” Laura said.

“Go back to sleep, Laura.” I smiled at her. “I wish I was talking about Tết.”

“She’s right though,” Theo said. “Maybe you don’t see it, too close to it. But I’ve only been to the festival once, and that’s exactly what I thought of, too.”

Out of the mouth of babes. “The feast of the dead.” I realized the truth of what Theo and Laura envisioned. The drums, horns and cymbals, the incense, and after all, what’s a dragon but a great worm with wings?

“Sounds like psy-ops,” Penri said.

“What, you mean like Panama?” Dad asked.

“Exactly like Panama. We went in there with loud music blasting and strobe lights all over the place. Scared the hell out of them. Made the job real easy. Sensory disruption. Smell, hearing, sight, they covered it all in your little story. Hell, there might even be something to it.”

“Major, what did your sergeant’s horn sound like?” I asked.

“Well, something like, oooooooohhhhhh,” Major Penri let out a low-pitched growl.

“Remind you of anything?” I asked my mother.

“Temple horns.”

“Yeah, doesn’t it though.”

The major was right; it just might work. We’d have to be careful. After all, five thousand years is a long time to pass along information. All sorts of distortions to the truth had probably slipped into the retelling. The trick would be to figure out what would work and what was pure fantasy.

I sighed; I had one more question to ask, this time of my mother.

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