Part 1: Chapter 1: A Strange Visit
We hacked through the
The still, smothering arms of the air gripped us in a choking embrace. Every pore was a fountain of sweat until our clothes and hair clung to us, and clouds of tiny bees found their way into every crevice, gorging on salt. But for the crash and ricochet of the lead porters' machetes, the creak of harness, and the gruff shouts of the overseers keeping the porters in line, the only sound was the unending idiot drone of locusts in the treetops above us. We were emaciated, we were hollow-eyed, we were covered in boils, reeking with dysentery, crawling with leeches and ticks and maggots. It was as if this poison-green festering malbolge were consuming us, rendering us back into atoms, disappearing us like ghost-exposures on a dagguerotype. We plowed on, quietly mad, lead eyeballs and parchment tongues floating on clouds of hot vapor.
Henry Paynton was in front of me in our little procession; I watched the sway of his pack, the leather straps tick-tocking back and forth in the still air. He was very pale, in spite of the months under the hot sun, and seemed chilled. If I didn’t know any better I’d have said he was malarial...but the source of Paynton’s disorder was much deeper than any tropical fever. He held a hand up near his throat, fingers clenched, a stained string emerging from his grasp and disappearing under his collar. The blasted amulet. My heat-addled mind directed a murky, black hatred toward the jewel that seemed to hold my friend’s mind in its grasp; if I had the courage, I would have ripped the thing from his neck long ago and cast it into the Amazon. But Henry ascribed such power to the amulet, and derived so much comfort from it...the relic was bound up in his complex derangement.
I weep for my friend now, remembering how he was on that journey. I’d known him long before, when we were both soldiers in the Royal Grenadiers, stationed in the Rhodesia; he’d been a strapping man, stalwart, quick to wrath and quicker to smile, his eyes full of the flash of life. Now he was wan and thin, eyes dull, staring at his feet with a look of such haunted torment that one was infected with despair merely to look at him.
Perhaps it was more than the offer of reward that kept me here, following Henry Paynton through this tropical purgatory. Part of it was fright at his condition, the desire to comfort, the loyalty I’d always felt for the man. But I know that, deep down, I was slowly contracting his madness. His errand of insanity had reached its tendril into my subconscious, like an evil jungle vine, and from that tiny shoot my mind was being choked with rustling, dripping foliage. This place, this continent, this South America...it possessed Henry, toyed with him like a demonic cat, drove him ever onward in his lovelorn pursuit. At the end of the world, where there was nowhere left to walk but the ocean, where the wind howled and the ice-filled waves towered like mountains, this great cat would crush him irrevocably.
And as for me...? I would remain in my mind. But I would never sleep soundly again. No, never again after this soul-grinding trek had crashed to its blood-drenched conclusion, would I experience a true moment’s peace or joy – all things were tainted by what I’d witnessed, there at the end of the world.
Those eyes...God, those eyes...!
But none of this was known to me as I trudged through the West Brazilian forest, swimming through heat and clouds of insects. All I knew at this point was the unbelievable purpose of our journey, and my half-mercenary dedication to the man called Henry Paynton.
Though disheartened, we were by no means lost; in fact, we had the best guides possible for this leg of our journey. Our psychopomps were five Tikuna Indians from the Solimoes River region, at the intersection of Columbia, Peru, and Brazil. Barefoot, wearing only a bit of bark here, a colored string there, bearing bows and braces of venom-darts, they stepped from root to root. Their mahogany bodies and slashes of red paint glowed in the dapples of sunlight occasionally slithering across them as they slipped between the densely-tangled thicket, barely making a ripple. They had ceased to be amazed at our blundering long ago. Now they looked merely bored.
Their leader was a Tikuna girl of indeterminate age – a profetisa, the guides called her: The Prophetess. She certainly bore herself as such, rarely deigning to speak to us, even through an interpretor, and her glance was contemptuous and direct. One couldn’t help but watch her. She tracked like a heron through a pond, head forward, step light. Every so often she would pause in a patch of sunlight, listening with a haunted, inward look, lips moving as if echoing words only she could hear. Even the other Indians kept a respectful distance from her. If she consulted with them, they would stand with their heads bowed, looking at the ground, as if trying to mask their fear of her gaze.
We came at last to a glade, where the brush thinned and gave way to a brackish pool choked with sedge and Victoria lily pads, leaves like huge cake-pans a yard across. Little birds flushed and darted at our approach. We allowed the horses to drink, scanning the water halfheartedly for caiman, although we’d yet to see a crocodilian big enough to worry our pack animals.
Henry’s attention was distracted by a strange consultation by the water’s edge. The Prophetess and the guide were bent near the grass of the pool, whispering and touching the ground. Suddenly the guide backed away, and with harsh tones and sweeps of his arm, ordered the pack horses back away from the water.
“What is it?” Henry said. He had his amulet out, eyes wide, shivering and pale. “Onca?”
This was his constant refrain: Onca, onca. El Tigre, to the local Spanish. Jaguar.
This time the guide didn’t dismiss him with an irritated head-shake. Instead he turned wide eyes to Henry, and whispered a different word: Jiboia. Big snake.
And then, before a rifle could be unshouldered or an arrow strung in a bow, there was a hiss of water and a cracking of branches, and a massive steam shovel-sized head launched itself out of the pool in a rush of knife-sized fangs and struck the lead packhorse.
I had known Henry in British East Africa, specifically from Rhodesia, where we had been stationed as adjutants to a certain now-disgraced Colonel. We fought together in several skirmishes, during one of which I was badly wounded, and packed off on a train to Cairo, and from their by steamship back to the home island. Before parting we promised to remain in touch, and we did maintain a lively correspondence for a few months; but as happens so often with such heartfelt oaths between soldiers, when one leaves the service and another remains, our contact soon fell into neglect, and eventually ceased altogether. I fell back into my old mundane habits, as if I had never stayed in the exotic colonies at all: nights at the club, amassing great debts and imbibing more than was conducive to a healthy mind; days in idleness, anxious over my misfortunes, bemoaning my weaknesses, formulating schemes to recoup my losses, and – of course – drinking myself stupid. There were times when I actually put my ventures into practice, often at the goading of certain shifty members of the club; but though we might realize some success in the initial flush, eventually our own stupidity or pure bad luck would steal back everything we’d earned.
I was becoming desperate – the more I lost, the more I gambled. I was no longer in command of myself. I’d begun taking laudanum to calm my nerves. My house was in a state of squalor, the servants unpaid and mutinous, creditors howling for my blood.
But then – a glimmer of hope! I had caught the eye of a certain well-apportioned young woman, whose father was embarking on a solid business venture, and already seeing large returns. Her position secure, she had begun casting about for a husband; somehow, she’d lit upon myself as a good prospect. In all honesty, I’m not sure what she could have seen. I certainly dressed expensively at the time, but hardly with taste, being an irredeemable dandy. Perhaps it was the devil-may-care attitude I affected in public, with some apparent success. Whatever the case, she was soon sending me tokens of her admiration, with various chaste excuses, being a well-bred if naive girl.
To my shame, I did everything in my power to encourage her affections – not out of love (though she was beautiful and charming in every way). I was after her money. I may have even fooled myself into believing I loved her, but beneath my eggshell-thin veneer of amorous feeling lay a rotten mass of avarice. I plied her with charm and wit, performing better than any actor of stage or street, and she fell completely for my ruse. We were soon engaged to be married, and I had already secured a position with her father’s new company, he being enamored of the idea of a decorated soldier for a son-in-law. My future seemed secure. At last, I felt, I could redeem myself from my former spendthrift ways, and leave my past behind me.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when one cold, clear October evening, four years after my return to England, the butler announced the arrival of one “Leftenant Henry Paynton”.
Henry entered rather oddly, not in the usual way of long-lost companions (invariably sheepish, before the general outburst of delight and questioning from former companions); he shuffled in with his head down, wearing his coat, still holding his hat. He seemed immensely preoccupied. His former ruddy complexion, baked brown by the African sun, was now almost gray, and the gleam was gone from his eye.
I shook off my initial dismay, thinking it only the glamour of time tricking me, and rushed forward to embrace my friend.
“You old bastard!” I said. “How long have you been back?”
“About a year and a half,” he said.
This gave me some pause. I was about to ask why he hadn’t called on me, but a look in his face forestalled all questioning. This was not the man I had known. True, his physical build was the same – still my height but with greater brawn; a high forehead with full, dark hair; a campaigner’s mustache curled like the horns of a buffalo, those same determined eyes and full cheeks. But now his hair, which had once earned him the monicker “Caliph” for its resemblance to an Arabian potentate’s, was flecked with dead white; his face was lined and drawn, and his mouth lowered at the corners. But his eyes were the worst. I had seen their lackluster appearance when he first entered; but now as I grasped his arms and stared smiling into his face, I saw that beyond their weariness there was a feverish glow. Henry was not just tired, he was ill – deeply ill, in such a way that his physiognomy had shifted completely. Looking at him, my smile of delight faltered, and at length I broke contact. Inviting him to sit down in one of my armchairs by the hearth, I hid my discomfiture in the shadow of the wet bar, pouring myself a claret and offering him one, which he refused.
I went through the various pleasantries required at such a time, to which he replied briefly but with warmth. I then distracted him for a time with a bit of chatter, mostly little witticisms from the club (the hijinks of which, I am ashamed to add, constituted the majority of my social and intellectual material). I soon enough steered the conversation around to the purpose of his visit, finding his visit at so late an hour vaguely ominous, and quietly disturbed by his most peculiar aspect. Of course in asking I played the cheek, which was my typical response whenever I found myself uncomfortable.
“I fear you’ve come to offer me back my post,” I said with a chortle. ““Up, Simba!” back to lion-tickling and demonstrating modern weaponry to the Mau Maus, what?”
He smiled at my inanities, though his eyes were far from mirthful. “Not quite,” he said. “I’ve come to enlist you on a much different campaign. A voyage into the heart of South America, to the Amazonian jungle.”
“I didn’t know you for a treasure-hunter,” I said.
He replied that it was a paleontological expedition for the Royal Geographic Society. At this I remarked that I hadn’t known him for a bone-digger, either.
To which he stated, “There will be no digging involved.”
I admitted my thorough confusion. At this he sighed heavily and ran his hand through his hair. “I’m going to come clean with you,” he said. “We’ve been through too much together for me to mislead you, and anyway this mission is far too dangerous. There is a tale behind all this, one of great woe and dark superstition, perhaps too fantastic to be believed.”
I pondered this. The old Henry was never one for carrying on so; he was always very direct, lacking that social imagination we politely call “tact”. Either my friend had fundamentally changed, or something about this tale produced a great reluctance in him. The very fact that he’d come so far (if he was to be believed, and I had no reason or inclination to doubt him), and arrived so late in the evening, attested to a great desperation, paved over for the sake of civility but nonetheless just below the surface.
I encouraged him, with many great assurances of my friendship and belief, to relate his tale to me. At first he cast a rheumy eye upon my face, wary in the extreme, but at last I broke through his wall of reticence. I leaned against the mantlepiece, perhaps a trifle too eagerly, while he gathered himself and prepared to speak.