Jeff VanderMeer


"We are not going around looking for
opportunities to prove our manhood."
-- Kissinger, 1975, after the last
bombing of the Cambodian mainland

     Henry has always anticipated the dream which embraces him in his twilight years, these faded years when the diplomacies of Geneva and Paris have become unraveled like an old man's signature. Years of being trotted out on talk shows as an expert, while the bald spot on the north pole of his head spreads into the tropics.
     Before, in the white-hot adrenalin of negotiation, sleepless in the sweat of foreign hotels, Henry had a premonition of the dream: a space at the foot of the bed, occupied by an emaciated Cambodian woman, her side charred by napalm. Staring at him.
     "What do you want?" he would ask, groping for his glasses. "Who are you?"
     At the sound of his voice, the woman would disintegrate into orange dust motes. Only the eyes remained, a greater darkness in the dark of the night. Staring at him.
     "What do you want?"
     No answer.
     He would realize that he had been awake the entire time.
     To the air, to no one: "Dick. It was always Dick's fault. Dick drove me to it."

     Always, the bombs fall at the beginning of his dream. They fall like marzipan, like truffles, like chocolate eclairs. Sweets made of steel, humming and whistling as they tumble through the heat-charged air. Images that remind him of the warmth of candy shops in his youth, bakeries and confectioneries. "Please, Momma, a B-52, please, please, please!"
     The hum is unfathomable, a sound with such incarnations of power, hidden one within the other, that he shivers, almost cries out against the goosepimpling of his flesh.
     And, more unbearable, more magical, the humming of the bombs is locked inside his head, ready to be released whenever he can gather his nerve.

     Henry, dreaming, lost in the Cambodian jungles, dressed in a tux and tails.
     At first, the ruins ahead, Angkor Wat, seem a mirage caused by too much humidity, too much heat. Ferns and creepers clutch at him as he approaches along a trail that bleeds moonlight. Prickles of unease stir the hairs on his arms. Crumbling buddha heads stare at him. The vines crack the solemn features of kings into caricatures of statehood: a nose sliding off here, there a mouth defenseless, disembodied from its host.
     Henry climbs among the ruins, his face flushed; he savors his breathing: even and hale, as if he is a much younger man. He hears echoes of marzipan/truffles/eclairs...
     Blocking out the snarl of civet, the scratchy speech of insects, Henry kneels beside a wall that is dark with moss. He carves his name into the porous material: H____ K_______. Just a suggestion of the initials, followed by a straight line, as if his heart had stopped on an EKG. H____ K_______ over and over, until his fingers bleed. There is a bitterness on his tongue that tastes like penance.
     Henry wonders when he will wake up. Henry wonders if he has already awakened.

     Beneath a lithe and many-limbed banyan tree, he rediscovers her. Naked, she is thin as before, her left side dark against the brown of her skin.
     Henry wants to hide from her, but the wound stops him. It glints in the moonlight like black glass, as if it were a part of her and added to her symmetry. The thought, the possibility, excites him. The sweets keep tumbling through his head.
     Unsmiling, she opens her arms to him.
     "Who are you?" he asks.
     She motions him closer, her breasts pale and touched by beads of sweat. He becomes hard. He awkwardly accepts her embrace. His lips meet hers. The kiss stings. It stings, but the shock arouses him further. She tastes of blood and dust and gunpowder. She tastes of death. Marzipan/truffles/eclairs; the litany marks his heartbeat, faster, faster still.
     She responds to his ever-widening reconnaissance with awful, wet sobs, deepening to an "Ohhh" (of pain? of pleasure?) as he runs his fingers along the wound's outline. It feels crinkly-smooth, like tin foil, or the inside of a sea turtle's cured shell. He leans forward, mouth encompassing one pale breast. His right hand moves to her thighs. He slides his trousers down with his left hand. Henry enters her as monkeys howl. They brace themselves against the tree trunk, move rhythmically. Oh, marzipan, truffles, eclairs. Oh.
     As Henry thrusts, he looks into her eyes, grunts in surprise. Orange. Her eyes are orange dust motes. And old, old like the faces that surround them in the ruins. So old that he wonders again, Who are you?
     But (thrusting, deeper) does not ask. The wound on her side bleeds. She writhes beneath him. The eyes dead. Henry whimpers, half-naked in his tails and shirt. His whimpering begs for a reply, but she gives him none.
     Henry cries out. Henry shudders. Henry grows limp. Trying to pull himself together. Stumbling away from the woman.
     The woman follows, ghostly now, an orange outline which the wind breaks apart, the specks floating like fireflies in the sky.
     He cannot find his signature anywhere in the ruins. He cannot remember his name. He feels the presence of the woman at his back.
     "What do you want?"
     No answer.
     He grows hard again, thinking of bombs falling on Cambodia, the B-52s dark castles that cut the sky, the jungles red with their fury.
     When he looks over his shoulder, the woman is gone.
     When he wakes up, she stands at the foot of the bed.

     Later, on a Sunday talk show, Henry is asked if the U.S. should step up aerial bombardments against the country of X__________. The hosts cannot understand his reluctance to answer, the quaver in his voice.
     The way he stares past them to the monitor, as if he sees something there more hideous than his own image.

"Henry Dreams of Angkor Wat" appeared in THE SILVER WEB #7.