It was the new moon night; pitch dark and forlorn. The dark skies were sans stars and the unfortunate moon was devoid of any light.
Owls hooted and snakes hissed; crickets chirped and bats screeched.
I stood outside an obscure underground ‘rat tunnel’, crunching withered Autumn leaves under my foot inspecting the entry possibilities with my companion Benoit.
This tunnel had recently surfaced and the Viet Nam Cong San army had chosen us to explore the depths and perils that invaded the subterranean passage up North, West of Da Nang.
“Peter, you deem this possible?” Benoit quipped.
“It fu***n’ be, because we need to get back alive,” I shuddered in response.
At merely 5’3″ tall, I stood an inch taller than my mate Benoit. Just then, I wished upon the Almighty to never punish even my nemesis with such a sinful act of exploring grotesque underpasses.
Our height was the sole reason we were pushed into unascertained terrain that could probably, even compel us to encounter death.
With a modest Model39 each, we began crawling. The tunnel was a tight fit, which meant it was probably freshly dug.
The stench was exasperating and nauseous. It stank something foul; usually meaning either rotten food or some poor bastard’s dead body left to decay.
After what seemed eons of crawling in total silence, I saw the tunnel open into a room.
I tapped Benoit on the head with my foot and heard him ready his pistol. I climbed down into the open space, pointing my pistol at the shadows.
A dim oil lamp glowed uncannily illuminating the chamber. It was eerily deserted.
The longest single tunnel segment either of us had ever crawled through had no traps, which was unusual.
“Where was everyone who dug the damn thing?” I muttered.
Save for a canvas tarp on the opposite wall, the room was empty.
Approaching the tarp, I used my pistol to move it aside. I spotted a stone staircase leading down.
“A stone staircase, this far underground?” I whispered to Benoit.
“VC didn’t build this, this is old, very old, older than America old,” Benoit whispered back with trembling fear in his voice.
“We’ve come this far, let’s keep going”, I replied.
With our flashlights that shone red, I swear the illuminated staircase looked like descending into hell. The staircase was almost as deep as the tunnel.
Finally I saw the staircase blocked by another tarp, a sinister luminescence coming from the other side. Pushing aside the tarp with my pistol, my finger trembled on the trigger.
I almost pulled the trigger, startled at the scene; my heart pounding heavily… but I didn’t… something made me pause.
The room had at least ten people, none of them armed. I pointed my pistol at the group and illuminated them with my flashlight.
They just didn’t respond, but stood there rocking gently forward and backward.
“Benoit, don’t shoot, there’s people in here alright, but there’s… something wrong with them.”
As I shone my flashlight on their faces, their clothes revealed they were VC; three women and seven men, all gently rocking, not a care in the fu****g world.
Their eyes were a solid colour, which colour— I can’t really say as I could only illuminate them with my red flashlight. They stared back blank and pale without any irises or pupils. They looked stupefied. A hair-raising current passed through my senses.
Benoit motioned with his flashlight at the corner. Their rifles all sat in a pile… badly rusted.
“Jesus Christ, how long have these poor fu***rs been down here?”, I gasped.
“I don’t think Jesus Christ frequents this establishment,” came Benoit’s terrified response in his thick Cajun accent.
As I shone my light to the front of the room, I observed the VC were facing a small altar.
I walked towards it. A glistening glow emitted upon a simple stone plinth. An ornately crafted gold statue adorned the centre.
Several candles were emitting a halo surrounding it. It was the statue of a beautiful naked woman, the top half anyway. The bottom half was something like an octopus, dozens of tiny gold tentacles meticulously crafted to a woman’s torso instead of legs.
The statue had some strange inscriptions at its base, a writing I didn’t recognise.
As I approached the statue, a chilling breeze was sent down my spine.
I reached out to pick the statue up and take a better look but Benoit abruptly shouted, “Stop, don’t touch it”.
I retracted my hand merely an inch from the statue.
“We need to leave this place … quickly,” Benoit said, as he put his hand on my shoulder.
“Are we just gonna leave them like this?” I asked.
“We’ll plant C4 chargers and put them on a 90 minute timer,” Benoit responded, already removing the C4 from a pouch on his belt.
“They’re unarmed…” I implored turning to Benoit.
“These people are dead, maybe worse than dead. I’ve seen something like this once before, at home in Bayou.”
I knew instinctively that there was no point arguing any longer.
We planted C4 chargers in a rush, set the timers and ran up the stone staircase as fast as we could. It felt like a lifetime till we reached the small room with the lamp.
I climbed into the tunnel and Benoit followed, suddenly we could hear a woman’s voice faintly calling from far behind us,
“Come back, defilers… Come back…”
“Ignore it, keep moving!!!” Benoit shouted from behind me. I didn’t need to be told, I just wasn’t going back.
It felt like the longest crawl of our lives. I finally saw daylight at a distance and kept crawling; even though my hands were raw, hurt, bruised, blistered, bloodied.
We emerged into the light of day and gasped for fresh air and warned the others about the C4 chargers but told them nothing else.
Benoit and I sat in stunned silence away from the tunnel entrance… waiting…praying.
The ground shook, a dull thud was heard and a spray of dirt emerged from the tunnel. We both breathed a sigh of relief.
To this day I still ask myself that silly question to which I get no answer, “Who the f**k was keeping the candles lit in that damn room?”
After that incident in the tunnels west of Da Nang, Benoit and I were a little messed up.
Eventually, we were deemed useless for tunnel work and were transferred into two separate regular platoons in the mechanised infantry.
A small claymore incident left me disabled and I was left to retire from the army.
The army hospital ward where I was being treated reminded me of the stench from the underground canal.
Every night, I was woken up to the sounds of faint callings, “Come back, defiler… Come to the Red House.”
I woke up each night with beads of perspiration trickling down my neck and a chilled breeze running through my spine.
One day, I received a package from an unidentified source and destination. I opened it and was terrorised to spot the content of the parcel.
It contained a carved golden miniature of the same statue that I had seen down the tunnel at Da Nang; that of the naked woman with the tentacled torso.
I tried to discard it but was constantly haunted by the figurine. It reappeared through I burnt it, smashed it, incinerated it and crushed in the mincing machine.
The figurine kept resurrecting. I decided to read up to know more about it.
After several months of research, I finally stumbled upon ‘The Silent Mother’ or ‘Dau Mau’ cult in Vietnam.
Believed to be a bestower of salvation, eternal bliss and tranquil peace, the existence of her temples had disappeared into oblivion about over a millennia ago.
There were no known existence of her temples since a really long time. All known evidences were destroyed long, long ago.
One night, I felt I had gathered enough information on the Red House temple, the place I was being constantly beckoned to.
That same night, a clear vision transported me to the Red House. It was a shocking revelation to find Benoit had reached there too.
“Have you been seeing things and hearing voices too?” I asked.
Benoit responded in the affirmative.
Together, we entered the Red House. It was exactly as was depicted in the texts— red, fiery and eerily deserted. The golden statue embellished the centre of the sanctum.
Her voice beckoned.
“Welcome to My last temple… lost souls. You defiled one of My shrines, a beacon to protect the weak and oppressed. Vulnerable souls will suffer because of your sacrilege.”
Her voice was warm.
“Fear not children, simply open the box at My feet and read the prayer within. My love will spread throughout the world, It will fill hungry stomachs, heal sick wounds, and pacify despaired minds,” the voice said in a soothing mother’s tone.
I felt convinced, approached the box at her feet. Benoit followed me. I reach out to open the lid with joy in my heart.
An explosion shook the chapel. A claymore at the foot of the staircase had clearly been detonated. I was disoriented, just long enough to see the world as it really was. I retracted my hand.
“This place… it’s not right…” Benoit’s stepped back, looking around the chapel, his voice filled with agonising terror.
“I know… plant the chargers” I responded. Fortunately, Benoit seemed to have carried a whole lot with him, as if on cue.
The chapel pews unexpectedly turned to stone and were no longer empty.
They were filled with the skeletal zombies of people sitting upright, staring at the statue in adoration. A foul stench of rusty blood filled my nostrils.
“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” I asked, barely containing horror.
“Yes, cover the door,” Benoit screamed as he began planting the C4 behind the pillars.
The Silent Mother promised different people different things. Two soldiers weary of war are shown a perfect peaceful world, while the power hungry were shown a temple of gold and promises of infinite power.
“This is the true gift of the ‘Silent Mother’. She grants infinite wealth and power to rule over the world… She even restores her followers to life if they sacrifice themselves in Her name,” a zombie spoke as his hollow eye sockets took on a fanatic rage.
“Yes Mother… not much time… I understand,” he mumbled seemingly to himself.
Then suddenly, screaming like a banshee, he rushed towards us in inhuman speed.
Other zombies, waiting in the stairwell flooded into the room and began spraying assault rifle fire. I spotted three women and seven men from the underground tunnel in the chaos.
We quickly cut the zombies down, but the others seemed to be imbued with the same fanaticism.
The Silent Mother was whispering to them all, promising them of unfulfilled desires.
We both sprinted toward the exit. The Silent Mother called to me while I ran. I assume she did the same to Benoit, too.
We ignored her, perhaps her power was more effective on those who were desperate enough to believe her lies.
We bounded up the stone staircase. As we reached the top, the steps and the hatch below had been blown away by the claymore.
I crawled out over the rubble, Benoit followed. Sprinting through the auditorium, the ground shook and a loud thud rattled the building.
It began to groan angrily, it’s foundations clearly shaken by the blast.
We burst out the front doors of the lobby, onto the lawn. From the safety of the lawn, we gaped at the ‘Red House’.
The chapel was sinking backward into the swamp. Suddenly, as if a support pillar had collapsed, the building broke in half vanishing into the swamp.
After that night, I never heard the whispers of the ‘Silent Mother’ again.
I often wondered of the desperation hovering those dead Souls. What promises she made to leech them on?
VC- Viet Nam Cong San (Vietnamese Congress – the body that ruled over Vietnam during war times)
Model 39- a small sized bullet gun
Claymore- a type of anti- personnel mine
C4 charger- powerful explosive used in war zones
The above story is based on an age old Vietnamese cult of ‘Dau Mao’ or Silent Mother religion. While there are several beliefs that are practised even to this day, this reading rendered me speechless and thus, I have attempted to portray this eerie version through my narration. Also, the use of swear words in the above story was to be as authentic as possible considering that the main protagonist belonged to the army.