I sat on the Claiborne Pell Bridge waiting; I held the leaf up and looked around. I was sure it would show itself, eventually. This seems to be the only way out. I slipped back under the construction tarp; I was trying to look like a pissed off bridge worker if anyone saw me. That way no one would report me to authorities. The last thing I needed was the police pulling over and saying “hey, what are you doing.” Because the only honest answer I could have given them was,
“I'm about to jump off this fucking bridge." The police didn’t have a demon division, so they probably would not accept me as the savior of humanity.
When the bridge was clear, I hefted a square cement block onto the railing, it must have weighed 100 pounds, and it was hard to balance on the round railing.
"This will sink it and me," I thought. This will get my family and me free of the curse. At least, that was what I was praying.
Fuechy ran up the mountainside, the Pathet Lao had been chasing him all the way from Ban Non and had followed him up this dirt trail, past the rice terraces and up to the higher hills in the Luang Namtha Province.
They had good reason to chase him; he was “Txiv Neeb Yawg.” The oldest known shaman of the clan and a respected elder. Since the Hmong didn’t keep track of age, no one had any idea how old he was, He was older than anyone in the village, but he was young enough to stay ahead of a patrol of Pathet Lao. He understood the soldiers would kill him on site; he was considered a Chao Fa or at least a sympathizer. Their small clan was the last of the Black Hmong in Laos, and the Pathet Lao wanted them wiped out.
Fuechy climbed off the trail and headed into the brush. He was coming close to the mountain village, a refuge they had made when the army had begun to “purify” Laos. He began to circle to get to Nong Kham, it was a long trek, he would have to cross a river and two lower mountains, but it would drag the Pathet Lao away from his clan.
He got to the top of the hill and looked back at the trail. They were not following him! They were headed to the village. He screamed, and one of the soldiers saw him. He scrambled through the thickets toward Fuechy. Fuechy waited to see if the rest of the group followed, they did not, they continued to head for the village. He ducked back behind the hilltop and began working his way toward the village. He had to warn them, had to save his people. As he trampled the underbrush, running towards the makeshift village, he fell and rolled down the hillside and landed hard against a Mai Ko Mon tree. He felt his ribs crack and a sharp pain as he tried to breath. He sat up and felt a stabbing in his right side, which made him lean to the left and placed his hand on the tree. Suddenly he felt a sharp stab and then a burning pain in his left hand. He looked down; it was a blue krait, he looked at the two puncture wounds in his hand and felt the poison spreading down his arm. He knew this snake well; he had treated a dozen bites in his day, none had survived the night.
Fuechy got up; he could feel the broken ribs and venom already taking effect. He headed for the village, hoping he could survive long enough to save them. It took him an hour to scramble through the mountainous underbrush to the dirt path that leads to the village. He looked for signs of the Pathet Lao; the path seemed clear. As he stepped out onto the path, they came at him from every direction. The first one shot him in the leg, and he fell, as the next soldier reached him, he kicked him hard in the lower back, Fuechy cried out and dropped, lying prone on the ground, moaning. The leader pulled Fuechy’s head off the ground and pushed the blade of his knife into Fuechy’s ear until he screamed, then he dropped his head and laughed.
“Thank you, for leading us to your home, turn him over so he can hear me with his good ear! We will visit your clan after we finish with you.” He smiled, years of heavy smoking and bad food had turned this man's mouth into a black cave of horror. As he finished, a child scrambled out of the brush ahead of them and ran towards the village, the leader signaled to one of the men, and he shot the child dead before he got twenty yards. Fuechy saw this happen and remembered helping the boy’s mother when she was carrying him. A tear ran down his face. The leader walked over to the boy and cut his head off. He signaled to the man who had shot him, he cut a sapling down and handed it to the leader. He took the head and with an experienced hand, forced it onto the sapling and pushed the other end into the ground.
“A signpost, for your family! do you like it?” the soldiers laughed, and the leader signaled the soldier to cut another sapling, he did, and as he was sharpening the top and bottom, the leader turned to Fuechy. “Don’t worry, we are not going to leave your head on the trail for the bugs and birds, you are coming into the village with us!” he said, and then he lifted Fuechy’s head and as slowly as he could, began to cut Fuechy's head off. Fuechy screamed, but it turned to gurgling and then silence. His last sight was his body as his head was lifted away from it and the sounds of the men laughing.
There was no more life in Fuechy, no awareness; he was blessed with not being aware of the soldiers raping and killing all his clan. He did not see them burning the village and throwing the bodies in the unfinished rice terrace. He also missed the rest of the clan, scrambling away as they came to the head of the child on the path, he missed them traveling across the country and being crammed onto a boat full of refugees.
If I had realized when I met Choji what would come to pass, I think I probably would have punched him in the face right then and stormed off. But of course, he was a hell of a guy really, a good engineer, a great tutor, and a good friend. All of that changed when his father died. That had been nine months ago now, and it had been almost a month since what happened to Choji.
Hmong funerals were odd, they required a large group of people, all from the same clan preferably. Since such a small group had been relocated from Laos to Rhode Island, they tried to bolster the ranks at any funeral with anybody. I had known Choji since I was in my first year of college. I was struggling with precalculus and had pulled his number off of a bulletin board for tutoring. I suck at math, and I was about to suck bad enough to have to take the class over again. I was desperately looking for anybody that could explain to me the concept of f of x and functions. Choji was more than capable of doing that.
For a math major, he was an exceptional partier, and we spent many weekends inebriated and wandering aimlessly around places like Weetamoo Woods. During the summer I had gotten him a crappy job with me at Roger Williams Park & Zoo. That's where our friendship had really ratcheted up. We both enjoyed being outside, hiking, exploring and we both enjoyed complaining about Roger Williams Park and how bad a job it was.
Choji graduated with honors and went on to work for one of the big 10 in Providence. He still lived with his parents out in Tiverton in a small mobile home. A home that I had actually found. I was thinking about buying that mobile home, but then decided against it and mentioned it to Choji. He immediately arranged it with his clan and his family, and it was bought for cash. He could have gotten an apartment and been much closer to work, but the Hmong people are very close-knit, and the family stays together and supports each other throughout everything.
About a year after college his mother died, that was really hard on everyone in the family, especially Choji’s father. The father was a traditional Hmong, he had very few homemaking skills and no job skills per se for the U.S. While his son was going to school, he had worked as a trashman, and a janitor and a dozen other menial jobs to pay for as much of Choji’s college has he could. Fortunately, refugee and relocation money had also helped.
About two years after his mother had died, his father started to get sick. It was an inexplicable disorder. He didn't sleep well; he didn't eat, he started to act very strangely, and got easily confused. Choji’s younger brother took care of him most of the time since he only worked at Starbucks part-time in Cranston and really didn't have much of a life. Basically, he worked for his parents and Starbucks, and that was his entire life. A very traditional Hmong sacrifice.
I would meet Choji and his brother to go out for a hike on the weekends. It gave Adji a break from both Starbucks and their dad. They would get in too long litanies in the Hmong language about the father and what was going on. I would then quiz Choji about what was going on and what his brother had said.
Once his brother was gone, Choji would say that it was just religious and spiritual nonsense. He’d go on about how his father had now infected his younger brother with this crazy jungle voodoo shit. There was no reality to any of it. It was just something that they had talked about, and he had to explain over and over again that, there was no truth to it. The illness his father had was probably because he had been exposed to something like agent orange that the CIA or some other group had poured on some part of Laos. The results were his disorder, what he was suffering from now.
Although Choji had excellent benefits, his parents only had Medicare, and of course, Medicare doctors are not the prime doctors of the country. I got the call about his dad when I was traveling to a new job interview in Boston. I'd been considering moving up there, and I'd interviewed for a few jobs already. I had moved out of my parent's house a little over a year before. Now that my lease was coming up, I was seriously considering taking a new position up in Boston. However, when Choji called that day, there was a break in his voice. Something in his tone said “I need my old buddy.” so I said I would be there right after my interview and I drove from the interview to my parents and from there to Choji’s.
Hmong funerals are long and boring, especially if you don’t speak any of the Hmong dialects. If you're a 27-year-old white male, who speaks only American English, the funerals are really boring. But Choji was my friend, and I had said I would be there. There was a smattering of other whites and various mixed races who spoke English. We sat in the corner and said, “I don't understand what any of them said, do you understand what any of them said?” a few times, and we all agreed that Mnong Daw was like Chinese and none of us understood Chinese, so we didn’t understand what anyone was saying.
About halfway through the 7 Day event Choji’s younger brother came into the room where the casket was, walked over to his father’s body and pulled something out from behind his father's neck. It was a small box, maybe an inch or so tall by two inches wide by 5 or 6 inches long. He walked over to Choji and said something in Hmong Daw and tried to hand the box to him.
Choji reacted poorly to the attempted handoff. He went off on a long spiel in Hmong, which apparently was something bad enough to upset everyone in the room who was older than him and spoke Hmong. At last, he looked around and realized that half of the room was staring at him in shock and rage. He dropped his head reached out and took the box from his brother, saying something under his breath.
The rest of the funeral was uneventful, and I spent a good part of it eating odd foods that I really didn't recognize. By the seventh day the crowd had thinned out considerably, and I was saying my goodbyes to Choji. As I was leaving the premise, his brother Adji came running out after me. He spoke perfect English and only spoke his native tongue around the clan.
“Timmy hold up wait a second,” Adji said, still running up to me. I waited for him, and as soon as he caught up, I turned to make direct face contact with him.
“What's up Adji, I said slightly nervous. Adji and I rarely really talked, even on hikes, he had no interest in me. I guess that there was enough of an age and culture difference for him to consider me an old man although 19 and 27 aren’t that far apart. Again, some Hmong cultural thing I guessed. But he was talking to me today.
“Some bad things are going to be happening over the next few months. Choji is going to need a friend. This is going to be a BIG friend necessity. Things are going to be happening that you are probably not going to believe. He's probably not going to believe at first either, but that will change. I need you to be there for my brother... Of course, I'm going to be here, but I am not going to be able to change anything, because I am part of the problem.” He said, then he dropped his head and looked dejectedly down at his feet.
“It's no problem Adji, I have always been his friend, and I always will be. I'm here for him when he needs me. But you know, you guys have been on the razor's edge for a month now. He won't tell me what's going on; he says that you and your father are just crazy and superstitious. Maybe that is true, maybe not, but it's obvious that you care about him and you care about your family. What the hell is this all about? “I looked at him right in the eyes, put my arm on his shoulder with my “I demand to know” kind of posture. I wasn't really that sort of guy, but this was a little outside of what I had expected, and seven days of funerals tend to get on anybody's nerves.
“Okay, this is going to be hard for you to understand. But it's not an illusion or superstition or some kind of weird cult thing. When we came over from Laos things were left undone. Things that our clan and our culture demand be done. Now, I didn't really believe in any of this at that time either. But I've watched this thing destroy my father. The only thing that keeps it at bay is that talisman that I gave Choji.” He looked at me as if trying to explain his spiritual beliefs and was ready to defend those beliefs. I was no one to judge, having still been caught between believing in the flying spaghetti monster and Jesus, I was no spirituality expert.
“So, this is some sort of Hmong Voodoo or something?” I was kind of lost here. I was out of my cultural safe zone, and I didn't know how to be polite, careful, and get the answers I needed all in the same sentence.
“We have rules about managing the dead. Some of them you saw over the last week, but the ones that you didn't see are the ones that are important. When we were relocated, the Pathet Lao did their level best to kill us off. By the time we were escaping from our village, thousands of our people had already been shot, tortured, killed, wounded, or captured. By the time we got to the port where we were to be relocated, everyone had lost family. Our family was included. My grandfather, who was our leader at the time was lost. We didn't know if he was dead or if he was captured, or if he was wounded and dying in the jungle somewhere. We just knew that we'd been separated. Before we even got to this country, the Txiv Neeb, our clan’s only surviving “shaman,” if you want to call him that, came to my father and said that the angry spirit of my grandfather had visited him. The shaman said that grandfather was demanding atonement. My father and the shaman and half a dozen other people in the tribe spent the entire week on the boat creating that talisman. Then in their atonement ritual, my view of everything changed. They brought forth the enraged spirit of our grandfather and captured him in the talisman. I saw it Timmy; the thing almost tipped the boat over before the ritual was done! The talisman was then entrusted to my father, and his job was to perform atonement rituals and to appease the spirit within the talisman. There are very specific rituals, rules, and things that have to be done. If they aren't done, the restless spirit, what the Chinese call the ‘Hungry Ghost,’ will be freed, and things will go badly for the family.”
He looked at me expecting me to laugh in his face or run away. Yelling “oh my God are you some kind of Southeast Asian Voodoo idiot” or something like that. I didn't do any of those things I just stood there.
“So, this talisman, it's a cage for your grandfather’s spirit. Who is enraged because he was not properly buried?” I had fed back my understanding to Adji, and even though I wasn't sold on the concept yet, I understood all the words he said, and I could see he was convinced.
“Some of it is because we didn't properly ensure his shift into the next life, some of it is because of the horrible things that were done to us. Yes, some of it is rage from an unknown source, I think it is the spirits of all the victims. It's not really relevant where it came from, what it is, who it is, what is relevant is that Choji now has a responsibility to atone. He is the next in the family’s lineage. And the only way that this thing can be kept contained is if he performs the rituals.” He looked at me, and I could tell he was dead serious.
“What does this atonement ritual entail?” I asked him, because if it was something simple, then our yearly ritual of going camping might have allowed us to hike and appease the ghost at the same time. Choji and I could have a weekend, go out and do something, then atone.
“Choji must build an altar in his home, he must place the talisman within the altar, and from there, every day he must speak to it. He must recite an incantation to the spirit. Once a week, he must give an offering of food or money, and once a year he must bring it to a gathering of the family.” He repeated this as if he had memorized it years before.
“What are the consequences if he doesn't do these things?” I asked because without a stick and a carrot I was never going to get Choji involved in this in any way.
“Here's the thing, this may look like the spirit of our grandfather, but I think it is more of a gateway for some kind of thing from the other side. Some hunger, some rage that can never be appeased. So, I really don't know what kind of powers this thing has. I know some elders have told me stories about people dying in their sleep and horrible things happening and, I just don't know. But I do know what I saw, and I know that whatever that thing is, it needs to be contained.” He was scared now, his posture and stance had taken on the appearance of a meth head, nervous, jumpy and out of control.
I agreed to help, and I hugged Adji. I said I was sorry about his father, and I would talk to Choji as soon as I could, but I was going to Boston for a second job interview. So, it would have to be after that. He nodded and thanked me again I got in my car and left.
I called Choji later that night and discussed what Adji and I had talked about. He was happy that I was willing to support him and help him in any way I could but vehemently opposed to any action that would bring about a change in his belief that this was all just nonsense. He was not going to perform any rituals; he was not going to produce an altar, he was not going to do any of these things, end of discussion. He would keep the talisman in his safe deposit box and if the family wanted to get together once a year, and they wanted him to bring it, he would. But that was the depth of his investment.
I reiterated some things that Adji had said and tried to rationalize them into modern logical thought, but Choji wouldn't have any of it. I said fine, and I would get together with him after this job interview, and maybe we could figure out something that would appease everybody. He thanked me for my involvement, apologized for his superstitious family and said: “yeah let's get together and head down to the park one of these weekends and go for a nice long hike.” I agreed and hung up.
Adji walked out of the back door of the house. He was repeating the ritual the Txiv Neeb has prescribed. He had various herbs and symbols, and he had built an altar outside, for just this purpose. He pulled the ax out of the wood cutting stump and used it to cut a piece of the rope. He mixed it with herbs, absent-mindedly tossed the ax back onto the stump, it stuck pointy head up, and he walked towards the altar. He began to do a kind of sing-song and went to the giant Ginko tree in the backyard which was why his mother had approved of the site. He pulled down a fresh leaf and tore a hole in it, creating a little-flapped window. He looked through the flap at the house and smiled, then he turned it to the altar and what he saw was so unsettling that he gasped and stepped backward. Then, the thing was aware of him. It knew he could see it. Adji was transfixed, he couldn’t look away from the leaf, or the little-flapped window. Then the thing jumped at him, he skittered back a few steps, dropping the leaf and tripping as he fell backward. He landed hard on the back of his head and just before he died, he saw the point of the ax sticking out of his forehead.
The second job interview went excellently; I was offered the position immediately. They said they were desperate for someone with my skills and offered me a large bonus to start as soon as possible. I agreed and called my parents and borrowed some money and arranged for an apartment in Boston. I sent a text to Choji, telling him what was going on. He said he was fine, and no ghost had attacked him, and nobody had been killed in the family, so he thought it was all bunk, and we can get together as soon as I got settled.
It took a good three months to get settled. In that time, I not heard from Choji once, which was odd. He would often contact me about something, trying to convince me to go on a hike or send me some amusing Facebook thing, but not a peep or poke for three whole months.
I finally got a weekend free and drove down and stayed in my old bedroom with my parents. The next morning I went over to see Choji. When I arrived, there were at least 20 cars parked up and down the little side road. I walked down from the top of the street and into his house. I saw Choji's face, he was a thin, gaunt, weak, and very frightened looking. I didn't see Adji anywhere, so I walked right up to the Choji, and I said: “Where's Adji, what's going on here?”
Choji said “oh, I forgot to tell you. I'm sorry. Adji died two weeks ago, it was a horrible accident, and nobody exactly could figure out what happened. I was at work, and I came home, and he’d been out in the backyard, I guess splitting wood, and he fell on the ax and split his head almost in half. He’d been laying out there for hours and was long dead when I arrived. There was nothing we could do.” I saw the loss and guilt in his face. Tears were streaming down his face before he finished the sentence. This news hit me like a ton of bricks, I had no idea, and I was not there for my best friend to support him in his time of need.
“Oh my God Choji, I am so sorry, you should have called me, I would have come down. I would have done something, whatever I could have done. You know that. I'm, I'm, so sorry. I don't even know what to say.” I couldn't believe this happened. I looked at the family, they looked sorrowful, but angry too and I could tell it was directed at Choji.
As we were talking, one of the women walked up to Choji and started speaking to him in Hmong. She had a brown leaf with a hole in it in her hand. In less than a minute, it had escalated to a shouting match, and people were coming to side with this woman. Whatever she may have been, I'm not really sure of the relationship structure among the Hmong. I think I was the only one in the room who didn't speak the language so this time I couldn't even lean on somebody else, and we could make jokes about what they were saying. All I know is it was an emotionally charged conversation, to say the least.
Eventually, Choji said something loudly. I assume, from the gaping mouths, it was a horrible swear, and then he stormed out of the house. I looked around and realized I had no one to talk to, so I followed him out. Choji was standing out in the front yard, looking at the backyard. It seemed to me that he couldn't bring himself to go back there again. Whether it was that he was afraid that he would find his brother back there with his head split in half, or that it would just make all the emotions rush back instantly. I don't know, but he was looking away from the backyard specifically, as if not to be able to see it made it not real.
“Well, what the hell was that all about?” I said trying to see if I was on the right side of the battle or not.
“Oh my fucking god, to me they are so backward and superstitious. This accident is now part of “the curse,” I wouldn't properly atone, and I wouldn't properly show respect to grandfather's demon ghost thing, and so now he has come back to kill the family. Everyone in the family blames me, and everyone in the family says they are on the list, and the closer they are to me, the more likely they are to die. It's ridiculous I can't believe that they would even consider it.” He walked to the edge of the grass and kicked a dandelion that was working its way into the lawn.
“Well, culture is tied with superstition and people will die for their beliefs. Unfortunately, superstitions are beliefs, so you gotta understand…” I was trying to get him to calm down in hopes that perhaps he and they could bond again. Because right now I was in Boston and he was down here in Tiverton, and there was nobody to support him.
“Listen, you don't happen to have a joint in your car do you?” Choji asked. I had always been the go-to man for entertainment supplies.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I do, and I would be more than happy to share it with you if it would help you get through this horrible situation,” I said putting my arm on his shoulder and walking him over towards my car. I popped the hatchback and pulled out my travel bag. I opened it up, there was a little container in the inside bottom pocket, and there was my emergency joint in the bottle. Something I kept for occasions, not usually like this, but it would do. I had passed my drug tests at my new company, and I didn't really smoke very often, but I considered it something that I had grown up with.
“We need to go for a ride,” Choji said, looking back at the house and seeing people looking out of the windows at him, judgingly. “Let's go down to the park, that's what 10 minutes, maybe 15 at most.” He headed for my passenger door.
“Probably 20 with traffic, have you noticed how bad traffic is getting,” I said going around unlocking the doors, closing the hatchback, and getting in the driver seat. He hopped into the passenger seat, and we pull down to the end of the road and turn towards the park.
We never made it to the park, we drove down the street for a little way, lit up, relaxed a bit, and he said: “you know I got to fix this.”
“I have no other family left. I have to figure out exactly what to say to these people, and what to do to make it right. Even if it means spending a bunch of time worshipping somebody that I don't understand and begging forgiveness to a piece of stone with a string tied around it.” The weed had helped, he had calmed down. We turned around and started to head back towards this house. Before we even got close to the house, we ran into a police car and two fire engines blocking his road. He jumped out and ran to the police officer, who did the standard “nothing to see here” hand gesture, at which point Choji identified who he was and the man walked him down the street.
I got out and walked down to the fireman; I said: “well I have no dog in this hunt, what's going on?” At that point, I looked to the right. Choji's parent's house looked like somebody had set off a 5-pound block of C4 in it. There wasn't a stick from the building standing, and all the cars were still there. The closest was damaged by the explosion, and a Tahoe a block away had three boards sticking out of its windshield.
I looked down as the police officer was walking Choji down the street and I saw Choji collapse as he reached his lawn, sobbing. As I watched him dropping to his knees on the lawn, screaming and crying in agony, pounding the ground, I saw him notice something. Something there on the ground and he picked it up and looked at it, and he held it to the sky, and he screamed.
I brought him up to my parent’s house, and he stayed there for a day or two, and then he hooked up with some of his Hmong clan and established a place to stay temporarily. Once he did, I went to see him. He had a bedroom, in a three-bedroom brick house. It was a very nice house, really close to Cranston. I went up to his room to see him, his closet was open, and he was standing in front of it talking to the talisman! Inside his closet, he had built an altar. The talisman was the only thing that had survived in the entire house. The inspector said the house had exploded because of a leak in the hot water heater’s propane connection. Choji was sure it was the talisman. Now he took the superstition seriously. I left shortly and headed back to Boston.
I didn't go back to see Choji for quite a while, close to another month. Things were just so busy, so crazy and he was spread so thin arranging funerals and connecting with the clan to get things about the family deaths straightened out. He called me one night, said he had to talk to me in person. Of course, I agreed. I had said, “that sounds like a good idea, and I will come down and visit you this weekend.” He grunted, then the phone went dead, he had hung up the phone without a goodbye, not like him at all.
Saturday, I arrived at his house at about 2 in the afternoon. The woman who answered the door was Hmong, from clothing to facial structure. I introduced myself, and she looked at me suspiciously and called Choji. He came down from his room and said something to her in what seems like a slightly different dialect from which Choji normally spoke.
She looked sternly at me, turned and disappeared back into the back of the house. “Choji, man what's going on,” I said smiling, putting my hand out and when he reached out to grasp my hand, I pulled him in and gave him a bro hug.
“I've been studying the Talisman. I've been researching what my father and the shaman did and what this situation is all about. I call it 'the science of superstition.” He looked at me as if he was inventing new science.
“I don't understand anything that happened in this sequences of events, using these spells and talismans seems magical. But I know empirically that something is happening. Come on up to my room and let's sit and talk.” He turned and bounded up the stairs. He was wearing his engineer hat now; he was engineering his religion.
We went up to his room, and instead of a closet as an altar, the entire room was an altar with the bed stuffed in the corner. The walls and ceilings were covered with some kind of runes or drawings or hieroglyphs, and there was data in printouts everywhere, and there were books, all written in what must have been the Hmong language.
“Choji, what the hell is all this.” He could see from my face that I was concerned.
“When this first happened, I got a call from a shaman out in Minnesota he had heard about what was going on, and he told me the story of the screaming nightmares. I thought he was insane at first, but then I looked it up, and one village lost more than 20 people in the space of a very few weeks, all in their sleep! He said that it was this screaming demon, which could reach into your dream and terrorize you to death. When I researched it, the CDC called it sudden unexpected nighttime death syndrome or 'SUNDS,' ha, killed by sunds. But there's no data; there's no information, there was no study. They sent in some medical people and some CDC people, and they didn't find any plague or any weird chemicals, nothing. These people just died, Timmy, and now...it's happening again."
He said that the people on the boat had done something wrong, he wasn't sure what. Choji wasn't there for the ritual and the only people who had seen that ritual are now dead. This shaman guy said that somehow the ritual failed. Instead of calling my grandfather’s spirit, it has called this screaming demon and now it was aware of my clan.
“After we lost three people in their sleep, everyone from the clan began to contact me. I told them what the shaman told me. I told them who this shaman was and how to get in contact with him. He's been here since then. But he's not a master; he's not a well-trained shaman, he's just a guy, like 34 and the next in line to qualify as a shaman. He was chosen, but then he was separated from the culture before he could learn a lot of what he needed to know.
He wasn't really part of our clan, and when the fourth and fifth person died, he simply packed up and went home. He said he didn't want to infect his clan or himself. I can't really say as I blame him. So I started researching, I combed the internet, I contacted everyone that was part of any Hmong tribe. Within days I was receiving packages and notes and superstitious rules and regulations.
And then I found this... in this book, that for the most part, I can't really read. But look at this symbol." I looked at the symbol an odd kind of circle square triangle with a squiggle configuration. Nothing I had ever seen before.
"Tim, look at this," and he showed me the Talisman and on the Talisman was the symbol that was close to that symbol, but not the same.
“Doesn't look the same though,” I said. “I mean I'm no symbology expert, but the squiggles are wrong, and the orientation seems different.”
“Exactly, that is exactly what I noticed. So I started to research that symbol. I found it in one of these books.” He began rummaging through the books and then abandoned the idea. See the Hmong have not really had written language for more than 100 years I think. But these symbols, they go back as far as I can find. The one that they drew is not the one that's needed for ancestral atonement. The nearest translation I can find is something like a dark portal or horrid door. No one can seem to really dig into the dialect that it's originally written in, so I'm not sure where it comes from or what it is. But it's not a talisman designed for funerary atonement."
At this point I was confused. On the one hand, Choji was an engineer, and he was logical and clinical and organized and focused. But on the other hand, this was cultural myth and superstition, and he was applying the same rules as if it was a science.
“Choji, listen man are you starting to scare me. You're talking like this is rocket science, and this is mythology.” I looked at him closely, and I saw all those dark emotions hiding behind his eyes; fear, anger, grief, loss and of course guilt.
“Well really, it's closer to quantum physics. The belief systems are based on emotional energy, on focus, intent and power transfer. All of that speaks in the same language as quantum physics. I don't know what this energy is; I don't know what its frequency is or what its amplitude is or what the transmitter is or how the receiver works. What I understand is that this device, this thing that we’re calling a talisman, has some kind of mystical circuitry. I know that sounds crazy, I know it sounds like magic. But all the energy fields were magic until we recorded them and analyzed them.” He was almost manic at this point.
“The thing that makes this hard to swallow is how it kills. It's somehow attaches to the owner and then follows emotional connections and finds those who aren't prepared, who are vulnerable, and it attacks them, in their sleep.” He opened a book full of Hmong Daw writing and symbols as if I would understand them.
“Choji, Adji was an accident, he was wide awake, and the people in the house weren't dreaming of a propane explosion, they were eating and playing that weird game.” I tried to pull him back from the brink, but he was already over the edge.
“That’s the thing, see... those people knew, there were two shamans in the house, and Adji knew what they had done on the boat. They were the only ones who knew how we could beat this! So... it... KILLED THEM!” He grabbed me by the arms and shook me as he finished.
“You see what I am saying, this thing is smart.” He pointed to the altar. It only wasted people that had an understanding of it. This thing is not only a doorway it's a sapient doorway.
“A Sapient doorway?” I said. I was running through all of my vocabulary and trying to find the word sapient in hopes that it would clear this up. I remembered a professor using it and saying it meant “to act with knowledge of your actions and consequences.
“Yes, sapience, this thing knows and understands. It is aware and can use others and the universe to its ends. And those ends are some kind of life energy hunger.” He was wild-eyed and fighting to keep his sanity.
“Somehow this device... when attached to a person, can follow the energy conduits between that person and those connected to him or her. It needs this device and the human. So it won't kill me, because if it does then, it won't have a connection.” He looked at me like a trapped animal for a second.
“Choji, seriously this is so far above my pay grade. I can't even comprehend what you're talking about here; it doesn't make any sense to me.” I understood the words he was saying, I really did, but this shit just doesn't happen, there aren't zombies and werewolves and vampires and all that shit, that's all just made up TV crap, it doesn't really happen. Yet here I was, suddenly with Choji, doing this demon, portal, dimension, horror thing on me. He was acting like its everyday science that you learn in 3rd grade.
“I really don't know what to tell you,” he said to me, “I've been dreaming of my grandfather every night now. It always starts out the same way, there's his face, and I start to move out away from his face, and I see it is surrounded by hands and arms and bodies and legs and other faces peeking out and screeching. They seem horrid to me; they are monsters from the other side. Now you know me, I'm the math whiz, skeptical to the point where if you look up skeptical in the dictionary my picture is there. This shit is happening, and I have been watching it.” He went silent; I was aghast. I still couldn't even understand how this could be happening.
“I have to break the chain at me; I know what's happening now. I know how to stop it. I think that's what happened to Adji; I think he felt it taking over and wouldn't allow it... I can feel it now, Timmy, it's strong, it's dark, and it's insidious. It reaches inside you, in places you didn't know existed.” He was wringing his hands and twitching now.
“I want to show you something, he walked over to the corner of the room and opened a small refrigerator took out a ziplock bag and pulled out a leaf. He held it up in front of me and said “ginkgo biloba.”
I said, “is that something that's necessary for a particular ritual?” He looked at me with a kind of wry “you’re a dumbass," look.
“No dude, the tree grows in the backyard. Don't matter what kind of tree it is, or what kind of leave. I just want to show you something. Choji took the talisman out its holder and out of its black velvet case and laid it on the bed and then he walked over to me. He showed me the leaf; I guess he was trying to prove that it was a common leaf like a stage magician and then he tore a hole in the center of the leaf.
“Now, when you look through this... you're going to see something, but you can't react. If you react, it will see you back. So, look nonchalantly and then put the leaf down, and remember, don’t react. Do you understand?" He said looking into my eyes for some level of understanding.
“I took a deep breath, and I nodded. Then he held the leaf up so that I could see the talisman through the hole. But, it wasn't the talisman, it was something so horrific, so alien, that I started to panic. I put my hand up and pushed the leaf down. Choji let it fall to the floor. Then with his foot, he absent-mindedly ripped it into a few shreds, so there was no longer a hole to see through. I took another deep breath, this time I felt a fear shutter as I inhaled. I was truly unnerved. “Choji, what the fuck was that.”
He looked down at the floor and looked up at me. I made eye contact and then for a moment I looked to the Talisman. It was hard, it was so hard because I could still see that thing, that apparition, it was like a hundred people crammed to one being, eyes, and mouths, and hands, all misshapen and in the wrong places. It was horrid, more horror than I can explain.
“I haven't got a clue, to be honest with you,” Choji said, he picked the talisman up, put it in its case, and put it back on the altar. “I haven't got a clue what that is, but it's not my grandfather.”
“What if it is,” I said. I tried to get his attention; he was staring off and losing his focus in panic and fear. I snapped my fingers, “what if it is your grandfather, and someone else or something else? I mean we honestly don't know anything about where you go when you die, so what if “other things” live there? I mean I just think that maybe something on the other side is attracted here and maybe it's him joined to something. I don't... I don't know enough to even make a guess, but that thing was not human, or it was... too many humans. Right now the memories are flooding back; I still don't have words of how horrible that thing was.” I tried to force myself to look at the altar, but I just could not do it.
“I think... it was all of them... I think it was every one of those Hmong who was murdered, left in the jungle to die sliced and shot, tortured, and killed. I think it's all of them, Timmy. I think all of them are in that thing, and somewhere, buried in there is my grandfather.” His voice shifted, I could see he was trying to imagine what that would be like, trapped inside a monster.
“I have an answer, something I found in the hundreds of Hmong sites on the web. YouTube's has casting rituals and dozens of Hmong ritual. I watched them all. I now know there is an ultimate risk and a great cost, it might not work. I'm not a shaman; I wasn't trained or raised or even considered worthy of taking on the spiritual powers. If I do this wrong, it could turn back on me..." His voice faded as he looked at the talisman.
“And just what the fuck does that mean! I mean Choji, come on, it could turn back on you? what are the consequences of this turnaround?” I could feel his fear infecting me.
“I think if the talisman shatters... I think it's free... I think it's on this side for good. It's not like us, Timmy, it's not like us in at all. I think it would kill this world.” He was dead serious, horrors that are set free and destroy the world.
“That is your theory, which could be too costly. What is this that will possibly shatter the talisman and free this monster into our world?” I realized I was sinking into his insanity.
“Well, I have to play the qeej. I have to play the passage song. It's a song that is meant to lead the dead to the other side. But I don't know if it's the pipe or the piper or the tune that makes them move on.” He was pulling this “instrument," out from under his bed. It looked like a bamboo plumbing job gone wrong. Colorful strings wrapped around bent bamboo tubes.
“What do you need me to do, I mean obviously you're going to play this qeej thing and do this song and either you're going to live or die and I assumed if you die, then we all die right! I had now followed him over the edge of sanity.
“Might not be as straightforward as that, it might be a matter of me dying to close the gate. And if that's the case, I'm ready.” He said it, but there was hesitation in his voice.
“Well, I'm not ready for you to go, so fuck that! There's got to be a way that you can make it through this. You can't be the sacrifice, you have already sacrificed most of your entire clan! The answer can’t be more sacrifice.
“I have no idea. I know the song, I know how to play it, I know the motions, but I don't know anything other than that. There is no one left to show me and no one to teach me. So if this thing kills me and it doesn't immediately pop out and destroy the world, I need you to get rid of it, don't touch it, don't get too close to it, put it in a box, protect it with some kind of shielding or whatever. But take it out and throw it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I don't know if that’s the right thing to do, but if you get rid of it where no one will ever find it again, at least we will have a reprieve.” He was playing with, what looked like beeswax on the mouthpiece on the qeej.
He began to play a tune, it made a sound like a water buffalo, being castrated. I could hear a pattern coming out, so I guess it was a song, but the music of the Hmong was also odd. Then the talisman fell out of the box, no one was near it, and it was firmly on the altar, but it just fell out and rolled, velvet case and all onto the table. Choji continued to play. The talisman screamed, not a human scream, a scream from some dying creature. This encouraged Choji, and he played on, the melody was noticeable now, above the water buffalo screeching.
At that point, I lost my grip on reality. The talisman began to appear as the velvet bag disintegrated around it and it gave out a battle cry. The noise of the qeej and the screaming beast merged. For a moment I thought Choji had it on the run, then it somehow flung itself across the room. Like a giant bullet, it hit Choji directly in the forehead. The momentum pushed it into his brain, and he stopped playing the qeej. Then he dropped to his knees.
I ran over, I grabbed the accursed thing and yanked it out of his head. His eyes looked at me, and then he dropped, face first onto the bedroom floor, dead. I screamed and flung the thing across the room. I ran out of the house with the Hmong woman running after me yelling something in Hmong. I continued to run until I reached my car and then I drove, I drove all the way back to my apartment in Boston. I locked the door, pulled the shades and sat crying.
The police never arrived, there was not a sound from the Hmong. I tried contacting them, but I was suddenly shut out of their world. Not that I could blame them, I had killed one of their own. Still, I tried social media, forums, visiting the house where he lived. No one would answer, I was locked out of their existence. So, I never got to see Choji buried or got to go to his funeral. I was alone. So, I went back to Boston and buried my head in work.
About two weeks after the worst event of my life, I was coming home from work. I arrived and was unlocking my mailbox when a Ford minivan drove up and stopped on the wrong side of the street. My side of the street. They were facing oncoming traffic on my side road, and I turned to see what was going on. The woman who had put Choji up after all the deaths got out of the van and walked straight up to me. She slapped me hard and then placed a box in my hand. I knew instantly what it was and tried to give it back; it was at that point that the slider on the van opened up and a Hmong man, with a very old deer rifle, raised the gun and pointed it at my head. He signed to the woman, who returned to the van and jumped into the passenger seat. The man with the gun said something in Hmong, it sounded like “nrog nyob ntxees,” and I looked at him confused, he looked to the other man beside him in the van who said, “You stay away from the Hmong!”
“No!” I screamed, “No!” I screamed again as they drove off. I threw the box at the van. It hit the back and bounced off, falling out of the box and tumbling back towards me on the road. I ran upstairs, locking every door I could lock on the way. As I finished dead bolting my door, I turned and there on my table was the talisman. No box, no velvet bag, just the talisman itself, somehow in my apartment. I ran, I unlocked the door and slammed it behind me. I ran downstairs and got in my car and drove away. I had my bug out bag in the back, and I just drove all the way back to Tiverton. I went to Choji’s old house, just a cleared lot now, all the debris had been removed, and it was an abandoned lot now.
I drove to the woman’s house who had left the talisman; it was empty! Not just nobody home, the furniture, and fixtures were gone, the garage door was left open, and the whole house was filled with Hmong symbols and ritualistic materials. there on the kitchen counter was a note, it said a lot in Hmong, and at the bottom, it said, “Stay Away from the Hmong people Timmy.” I decided to stay there overnight, seemed well defended against demons and I was exhausted. I drove into the garage and shut the door. I popped the hatchback and went to grab my bag; there was the talisman! In the front pocket of my bag was that accursed thing!
I slammed the hatchback and opened the garage door again, I drove to my parent's house and told them I had overdone it hiking and could I crash there. They said yes, and I left the bag and the “thing” in the car and went up to bed. When I awoke in the morning, it was on my nightstand! I screamed and jumped out of bed. My father came in asking what was going on; I said I rolled out of bed in my sleep. I knew he would never get it.
I wrapped the thing up in a towel, walked down to the trash bin and threw it towel and all in the trash. I told my parents I had overslept and had plans in Boston today, so I had to leave. They looked at me oddly, nodded, and I left.
When I arrived at my place, the talisman was sitting on my table, waiting for me. I went blind with rage and ran over and grabbed the talisman and was about to throw it out the window when I felt it grab my arm. I felt the hand of that creature I had seen through the torn leaf. It had me! I shook it off, dropping the talisman on the floor, I ran into the bathroom and locked the door.
It took a moment, but I realized I had acted like a fighting lover, running into the toilet! Where could I go from here? There were no windows, no exit. Except back out there. I opened the door and walked into the living room. It sat on the table where it had been initially, even though I threw the friggin thing across the floor.
I decided to leave it there, but I could not look at it. I dug my toolbox out of the closet, emptied the contents and picked the talisman up with a towel and work gloves and put it in the toolbox. I looked at the clock; it was 10:30 in the morning. I had not only missed work; I had not called in. I called and said my car broke down on the way from Cranston and I killed my phone calling for a tow. I would be in tomorrow.
I had fully intended to go in the next day until it started. I got the call at 5:00 am, it was my dad. The police and an ambulance were there; my mother had died unexpectedly in her sleep! I dropped the phone; I realized I had brought that thing into my family! I had introduced it to my parents! I picked up the phone; my dad was still talking about how mom had been complaining about headaches and if he had known… I cut him off and told him I would be there within a few hours. I grabbed the toolbox and bounded down the stairs to my car. I threw it in the back seat and called work. I told them my mom had died in the night and I was heading down to check on my dad.
When I got there, mom was gone, taken away by the officials. The conclusion was a brain aneurysm. I knew better. My dad was devastated, lost and confused. I stayed with him the rest of the day. As he started to come back from the shock, he began to talk about funeral arrangements, and as he was talking, I realized how many people I cared about. Aunts and cousins and my sister that thing would take them all. This had to stop. My dad was saying if I wanted to stay the night that would be great. I shuddered, how often did this thing eat? I knew it didn’t matter how far I went; it wasn’t about distance, it was about emotional proximity. I said I would stay the night, but I had some errands to take care of the first thing tomorrow. Dad was grateful, and we spent the rest of the day remembering mom.
I rose in the morning, and the talisman was beside my bed. I wrapped it up in a towel and walked directly to my car. I wondered if my dad was dead, but couldn’t look. I put the thing back in the toolkit and drove away.
I had read that the construction was delayed on the Claiborne Pell Bridge, I went to Harbor Freight and bought a construction helmet, standard bright yellow like every other worker I had seen on the bridge. I parked in the construction workers lot; it was all but empty since the delays had been announced. I walked out to the covered area, talisman in my toolbox. I found some cable, too thick for the job, but that was just more weight in my mind. I attached the toolbox to the cable and the cement I had found, wrapped it around my waist and here I sit, time to save the rest of my family and get rid of this fucking monster for good. I had read the water was extremely deep near the center of the bridge, so that was where I sat.
This was Mikes third scrap run this year. The pay was great, and the job was not that hard, but it did keep him away from home for weeks at a time. He walked the deck of the barge, looking out at the city, it was nice, but he wanted to be back home.
“Heading out towards Savannah next. Maybe pick up a few tons of scrap from Jersey if the call comes through before we pass them.” Wes said he was the scrap metal crew foreman, good guy with seven kids and a Sharpei.
“Yeah, I am looking forward to getting home. These New England trips are long and boring.” He starred out past the bridge and watched a sailboat, heading in their direction. The people were all pointing to the bridge, he tried to look up, but they were on the wrong side of the bridge to see what was happening. Then, just as they were passing under the bridge, a body came plummeting by. It caught the bow of the boat and Mike saw the guys face as the bow rail caught his chin and snapped his head back until the back of his head hit the middle of his back. Mike thought, "OK, that guys dead" as he rushed to the front of the boat with Wes. By the time they got there, Timmy was twenty feet down and lost in the murky depths.
“What ta fuck!” Wes said, looking over the bow.
“I know, right! What a shitty way to die.” Mike looked over and saw some bubbles rising around the bow. Then he turned and headed back for the cabin to call this in. As he did, he saw a toolbox, sitting in the frontmost pile of scrap metal. He walked over and opened the box. There was a towel inside. He pulled out the towel, and a small black crystal fell on the deck.
“What did you find?” Wes asked, coming back from calling the incident in and walking over to Mike.
“Toolbox and some new age hippy crystal with some logo on it. I am gonna give this to Kim when I get home; she loves this crap.” Mike stuck the talisman in his pocket.
“So, if we pick up in New Jersey, how long till we reach Jacksonville?” Mike juggled the crystal in his pocket to get it to settle in a comfortable spot.
“We should be back by Friday, and you will be home to Weirsdale by Saturday morning.” Wes grabbed the empty toolbox and tossed it onto the metal scrap pile.