Curse of the Black Buddha
by Chauncey Haworth
The winter night was cold as the men trudged through the dense forest behind enemy lines. The trees were tall and dark, their branches barren and twisted, casting deep shadows on the snow covered forest floor. They moved with caution, with purpose, their boots sinking into the thick layer of snow with muffled crackling sounds. The only light came from the moon, partially obscured by the clouds, casting a pale glow over everything.
There were four of them in this detached fireteam from the 38th Infantry. Lancelot the rifleman, Buffalo Joe the grenadier, Batshit the machine gunner, and team leader Mamma.
Mamma led the way, a stoic, brick of a man with few words, but every word he ever uttered was important, and every man knew to follow. Mamma was just a Corporal, just the leader of this fireteam, yet every man knew he was destined to be a leader long before the war. They could see it in his cold, focused eyes.
Batshit flanked Mamma as they crept along the barely visible path. Batshit was the team’s automatic rifleman. His name, an accurate representation of how he handled his weapon and how he lived his life. No rules except one, do as Mamma says, otherwise, it’s all fair game.
Behind was Buffalo Joe, the grenadier. Buffalo’s focus was immense, a combination of an acute mind and deep traumatic fear. For many, the paranoia that fear and intellect creates is their downfall, for Buffalo Joe, it was an asset. Joe’s paranoia had been focused, honed into an almost supernatural situational awareness.
At the end was Lancelot, the rifleman. Lancelot didn’t have not had the broad awareness of Joe, what he had was laser focus. This focus gave him the ability to watch the rear, and nothing else, to trust his team to handle the path while he watched the path just traveled, peering into the darkness, seeing all, and ready for it.
They weren’t supposed to be here. They were supposed to be back up for the squad, but the squad was gone and they were all that was left. The bitter cold sliced through their wool fatigues, their breath visible in the frigid air, fingers and toes numb with cold, but still they continued.
The plan was that the squad would hunker in at the base of Mt. Jŏngbang as the main fireteam went up the mountain to Jŏngbang Castle, a hundreds-of-years-old fortress located outside Sariwŏn. Inside the castle they were to locate Sŏngbul-sa, some Buddhist temple, and inside the temple they were to recover the Bucheonim Beullaeg, a statue of a black Buddha. None of the men in the squad knew why, least of all the remaining fireteam, but they had been told to acquire the statue at all costs, and that was what they were going to do.
They each had their own distinct reasons for following through. Some patriotism, some fear, some a longing to drink, for all it was a desire to leave this place, and the only way out was through. They would acquire the statue and they would go home.
Mamma’s fist went up and the men stopped. Ahead, barely discernible from the black, a man-made shadow casting a straight line in the darkness. They had arrived at the south entrance to Jŏngbang Castle.
The men creaked and crushed their way to the south gate of the castle. All was quiet. Batshit and Buffalo Joe both watched Mamma as they approached, Lancelot listening for cues from their feet as they stepped more into the open, his eyes staring through the dark treeline they were leaving.
The intel had said there were no enemy soldiers in the area. So far the intel was right. But still, they were out in the open, they quickly leap-frogged through the temple compound, Mamma first, then Batshit, then Joe, then Lancelot always looking back. The did it over and over again, balancing speed and awareness as they moved closer to the temple at the middle of the castle, the temple of Sŏngbul-sa.
As the four men approached the temple, they saw the silhouette of the ancient structures against the night sky. The temple was a complex of six buildings, some of which dated back six-hundred years. The men saw the tall, tiled roofs of the main hall, the pagoda, and the smaller buildings all around.
The men advanced towards one of the buildings on the north side of the temple. The building was humble, nothing more than some stones and logs. Mamma pointed at Batshit. Batshit stood back and pointed his Browning at the sliding doors at the entrance. Mamma, back against the wall, slowly slid the door open. Nothing but more blackness.
Entering the building, they encountered darkness and silence. They walked in their formation, Mamma and Batshit, followed by Joe and Lancelot, toward the back of the building, slinking along the ancient logs, with soft pads of boots followed by slowly released creaks. Mamma clicked on his moonbeam. He passed the flashlight’s beam around the area. The log building was about forty-by-forty, and mostly empty, except for an altar at the opposite end from the door.
They cautiously approached the simple wooden altar. On the altar stood a statue. A statue of a black Buddha.
Their formation dropped as the four of them stood, almost in a circle around the altar and the statue. The statue was a fat Buddha sitting in Buddha’s familiar pose, but its face was lost in folds of jagged wrinkles.
They looked at each other in the halo of the flashlight, each not wanting to be the one to touch it, to take it. Was it in deference? Was it in fear? Six of the eyes fell on Mamma. He reached out toward the statue, using every bit of strength he had to keep his hand from shaking. His hand hovered over the statue for a moment, then he grabbed it and shoved it into his rucksack, which he immediately strapped back to his back, a mechanical motion not driven by thought or order, just driven by the desire to go home, and the only way home was through.
Mamma led the way as they started to move out of the building with the same care that they entered. As they hit the door they reversed the steps, Batshit standing back in the darkness with the browning as Mamma looked out into the opening. Again, they were alone.
They creaked along the wood, down to the stone and crunched into the snow once again, trying to walk back in their preceding footprints.
At first none of the men heard anything, then just Lancelot heard it, an almost inaudibly high pitched whine coming from the trees. At first he thought it must be a radio, or some sort of signal, but before he could call its attention to Mamma, the pitch slowly lowered to a panting wheeze, something almost alive. At the lower pitch all the men could hear it, a tinny wheeze coming from the trees and temples behind them.
At Mamma’s signal they all started to double time backwards, an intricate movement of stepping in previous footprints in one direction while armed and alert in another.
Again, Lancelot saw it first, stepping from the treeline into the moonlight. He didn’t have time to say anything before the other men saw it too. A large form crawled from the woods, its long narrow clawed fingers reaching out into the show to drag its massive, folded, leathery body along behind it.
Mamma pointed as they all raised their rifles and fired. Three shots, one each with Batshit holding back. All was still, then the long, sinus arm of the creature reached forward dragging it’s bloated skin body forward again.
Mamma gave Batshit a nod and Batshit did what he does, went Batshit. He let the browning rip, repeated shots echoing through the temple, and castle, and mountains beyond. The creatures arm came up again.
“Hit it!” Mamma yelled to Joe as Joe pulled the pin on an M26 grenade and let it fly.
“Frag out!” Joe yelled as all the men, Batshit included, hit the deck, dropping as low down as they could into the snow and rocks.
The explosion was deafening, the high pitched streams of shrapnel whipping by mixed with the ear splitting scream from the creature. The men rolled over, not to see the creature blown to bits, but jumping into the air, its sinuous arms reaching out pulling its leather folds along with it. The massive, fat leather body was not a body at all, but wings, and the creature’s leap did not end, it was starting to fly.
The men watched paralyzed as they saw the stretched out silhouette of the creature sail into the moonlit sky.
Finally, Mamma spoke. “…withdraw” he said, the word quietly croaking out. He tried again. “Withdraw!” he yelled, pulling the men from their shock as they all crawled to their feet, starting their way to the trees they had come by.
They started to move faster, their boots sinking into the thick layer of snow that covered the ground. Again the radio-signal-like sound came again, imperceptibly high and bending down to a banshee shriek, a horrific scream, like that of a woman being tortured. Just as they cut into the trees, behind them there was a large swoop noise and a spray of powdered snow shot into the trees with them. They looked back but there was nothing but silence, darkness, and settling powder.
Mamma took command again. “Go, go go!”
The four men ran through the woods, their hearts pounding with fear as they heard crashing noises and the terrifying screams of the unknown creature. They could hear the sound of branches breaking and the crunching underfoot. High breaking branches far in the distance and fast swoops right over their heads as it circled, circled over head like a hungry screaming harpy. Their descent down the mountain was aided by the snow as the slipped and tumbled through, abruptly stopping when hitting trees to just mindlessly get up and attempt to run again, again tumbling into the sloping snow.
Just as they thought they couldn’t run any longer, a bright spotlight shone on them through the cold night air. The men stumbled and fell, their hands shielding their eyes from the bright light. But as they looked up, they could see that the spotlight was coming from another squad of soldiers. A squad of U.S. soldiers. The screams were gone. They were safe.