George C. Chesbro

The Language Of Cannibals


In the purple distance neatly scripted alphabet vultures with Zs for eyes soared in the thermals swirling over and around an alphabet volcano spewing what appeared to be incomplete, fractured sentences and clustered gobs of words that were half submerged in a river of blood red lava. Block-letter trees formed an oppressive jungle that appeared like a great fungus growth that was an infection on, rather than a part of, the land. The exhausted, hapless soldier who had wandered into this eerie and alien landscape was hopelessly entangled in a web of punctuation-mark vines. His boyish features twisted in anguish and horror as crablike creatures- rendered, like everything else in the landscape except the soldier, of a profusion of single letters and half-formed words or sentences-dined on his left leg. The foot had already been consumed, and a gleaming white shaft of bone protruded from the ragged flesh of his ankle, which was spewing blood of red and blue. I looked for some pattern, complete sentences or phrases, in the maelstrom of letters and words but couldn't find any; in this haunted place, the twenty-six letters of the alphabet were just the skeletal matter of mindless creatures that existed to rend, consume, and infect, not make sense. The painting, titled The Language of Cannibals, was by a man named Jack Trex, and I rather liked it. I found the notion of these flesh-eating letter-creatures food for thought.

The hand-printed placard taped to the wall beneath the painting identified Trex as the commander of the Cairn chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, whose members were the sole contributors to the exhibit of art and crafts.

For some time, I'd been reading and hearing good things about Cairn, a small town on the banks of the Hudson River a few miles north of New York City. Noted for its many art galleries, antique shops, and fine restaurants, as well as its thriving community of artists, Cairn is a mixed society of very rich, some poor blue-collar families, and assorted celebrities who like their yachts close at hand but have tired of Connecticut and the Hamptons. Bed-and-board establishments, most of them operated by the blue-collar families who once supplied manpower for the now-defunct stone quarry on a mountain at the edge of town, have proliferated, and of late tour buses operating out of New York City bring weekend day-trippers to Cairn to enjoy street fairs, antiquing, or simply the bucolic atmosphere, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the occasional rock or movie stars who eat, shop, or stroll on the narrow streets of the small business district. For longer than a year I'd been meaning to spend a weekend checking out Cairn with some lady friend, or maybe my brother, but simply had never gotten around to it. Now I was in Cairn, but definitely not under circumstances I would have chosen.

Four days before, a troubled friend of mine died in this area. Certain specifics in the news reports of his death, most of which focused primarily on his notoriety and disgrace of the past year, did not square with the Michael Burana I had known. I was in Cairn to supply information and ask a few questions, not necessarily in that order.

It was a Friday evening in early August, and it had been oppressively hot for more than two weeks. Since March, Garth and I had been working on a particularly Byzantine case of industrial espionage, commuting at least once a week to Silicon Valley, and using our weekends to try to deal with Frederickson and Frederickson's mounting mass of paperwork, mostly detailed reports that had to be filed with our client. We were still at it, and I had no time for an outing, but I'd figured that the business I had to take care of in Cairn should take no more than one or two hours, a morning at most, and I'd planned to drive up early Saturday. But when the air conditioner in my apartment in our brownstone on West Fifty-sixth Street broke down in late afternoon, I'd decided to immediately head for cooler climes, namely someplace with air-conditioning in or near Cairn. I'd left a message for Garth, who was out meeting with our client's battalion of attorneys as they prepared for the impending court trial, had hopped into my modified Volkswagen Rabbit, Beloved Too, and headed for the George Washington Bridge. Assuming that all the bed-and-board places in town would be full, I'd checked into a motel on Route 9W, which forms the western boundary of Cairn. I'd immediately turned the air conditioner on full blast, showered and changed into fresh clothes, then gone out to get something to eat and poke around town.

I'd enjoyed a fine, inexpensive meal in an exquisite Thai restaurant housed in a converted diner next to an old-fashioned ice cream parlor that really is old, then gone out and started down Cairn's Main Street toward the river. I'd passed through the business district without attracting more than a moderate number of stares from people standing outside the various rock and jazz bars, then angled off onto a side street to investigate what appeared to be some fine old houses that probably date back to the turn of the century. I'd gone about a block and a half when I saw something across the street that caught my attention and brought me to a stop. A modest frame house that, according to the bronze sign planted in the front yard, had been the childhood home of one of America's finest artists had been converted into an art gallery, and the red, white, and blue banner hanging across the front rend Art of Vietnam Veterans. According to another sign on the lawn, this was the first day of the exhibition, and it looked to me like the doors had just opened. People were starting to go in, the majority of them pointedly ignoring the three young men who stood at the edge of the sidewalk in front of the gallery trying to pass out literature. The men, all of whom looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties, had longish hair and wore robin's-egg-blue T-shirts with the words COMMUNITY OF CONCILIATION: GIVE PEACE A CHANCE emblazoned in crimson across the front and back. Since the organization that called itself the Community of Conciliation was one of the reasons I was in Cairn, the presence of the three men on the sidewalk in front of the gallery had more than served to pique my curiosity.

I'd crossed the street, debating whether or not to try to engage the men in conversation. I'd taken a mimeographed flier from one of the men, then stepped back off the sidewalk to read it. The sheet, single-spaced, outlined the basic goals of the Community of Conciliation, a pacifist and environmental organization, and listed its activities, both worldwide and local. One of the local activities was crossed out, thus making it impossible for a reader's attention not to be drawn to it; a thin line had been drawn through the item, but the text beneath the ink was clearly visible. The deleted item, almost certainly meant to be noticed, read: 'Wednesday night fellowship and counseling sessions with Vietnam Veterans of America.'

It appeared that the Community of Conciliation was attempting to send a message to the people entering the exhibit, or the veterans themselves, but it hadn't seemed the proper time or place for me to try to pinpoint just what that message was. I'd folded the flier, put it in the back pocket of my jeans, and gone into the house-to almost immediately be confronted, surprised, and pleased by The Language of Cannibals.

I went looking for Jack Trex, to tell him how much I liked his painting. He wasn't hard to find. In the main viewing area, in what had been the house's living room, five men wearing flag-emblazoned name tags were standing in a tight circle near a fireplace filled with freshly cut flowers. The tallest of them was about Garth's size, six feet three or four, and solid. The man, dressed in khaki slacks, plaid shirt, and running shoes, seemed to be doing more listening than talking. When he stepped back to reach for his drink on a small table behind him he swung his left leg stiffly, moving in the slightly listing manner of someone who has either suffered a severe leg injury or is wearing an artificial limb. I walked closer, and a glimpse at the man's name tag confirmed that he was Jack Trex.

Standing near Trex's left elbow, just outside the circle, I waited patiently for someone to take polite notice of me. When nobody did I cleared my throat, twice. The second throat-clearing did the trick; the men stopped talking, loosened their circle slightly, and began looking around to see who was making all the guttural noises. I found myself looking up into five faces that reflected not so much hostility as irritation. Although the occasion was a celebration of their art and craft work, and thus they might be expected to act as unofficial hosts to the public, it was clear that they were not interested in talking to 'civilians.'

Jack Trex had thinning black hair that was graying at the temples, and a full mustache that was all gray. His pale green eyes shone with an intelligence and sensitivity that belied the rather vacant, remote expression on his face. Two of the other veterans wore camouflage vests over gray T-shirts; one of the men had hostile, mud-brown

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