Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Lotus (Part III)

This is the third and final part of a story draft. Part I, Part II

In a camp not far from the cursed second stream on the right I huddled over Rozanov's journal, trying to make sense of it. Rozanov's writing was terse and cryptic, and the book had been water-damaged to the point of being largely illegible in places. Nonetheless, some of it could still be made out. Easiest to make out were the drawings, each clearly done by someone with an eye simultaneously artistic and scientific. There was a sketch of one of the astonishingly vast spider-webs, stretching from tree to tree, from soil to canopy, that spun by astonishingly spiders near the rivers and streams. In another, a large black crocodile kept a wary eye on the explorations of her young. Others traced plants, insects, and snakes. Then, largest of all, taking up a full spread of the book, there was a beautiful flower, somewhat like an orchid. After that the journal itself, as a description of Rozanov's travels, stopped. There were many more pages, however, and every single one of them was covered with drawings of that same flower, obsessively done over and over again, two or three to a page. I could find nothing else, except a single word that was written here and there in a tremulous, excited hand: bessmertie. Immortality.

As I drifted to sleep, I turned over the events of the day in my head, and they blurred together in my dreams. I dreamed that I was back in the city, back in the room of the gray men, but instead of talking to them, I was talking to Rozanov. On the table lay the corpse of Rozanov's guide, covered with the strange flowers depicted in Rozanov's journal. I talked without interruption for what seemed forever, and then Rozanov opened his mouth and said one word: "Immortality."

Quin and I set out early in the morning, heartened by the sure signs that we were on the right trail, but made wary by the memory of the skeleton. At one point we were forced by a turn in the river to move west; shortly into this Quin stopped suddenly.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Trim, that is a path," he said pointing.

I looked to where he was pointing, and, sure enough, it was a path. Trails can quickly become overgrown in the jungle, and someone with eyes less sharp than Quin's could easily have missed it, but a straight trail had been cut through the underbrush recently enough that it had not been completely covered over. On closer inspection it was clear that someone had been through with a machete.

After ten minutes of following the trail we suddenly came into a large clearing.

If you have never been in the jungle, I cannot convey to you how startling this is. In a realm in which every plant, every animal, every insect is in a constant competition for survival, open spaces do not remain. These forests have been known to swallow entire cities; if a village neglects cutting and clearing, it can vanish completely in a matter of weeks. But here we were, in a large clearing, apparently consisting of nothing but rocky, sandy soil, sparse grass, and, in the center, a solitary flowering bush.

Quin hung back a bit, uncertain what to make of this, but I moved forward, rifle ready. A little way in I stumbled slightly on something sticking out of the earth. At first I thought it was a rock, but closer inspection showed it to be a bone, probably belonging to a great cat of some kind. A little further into the clearing it became clear that the bone was not the only one; they littered the ground everywhere: femurs and skulls half-covered with sand, tiny, indescript bones like pebbles, clearly from hundreds of different animals. They increased as I came closer to the plant in the middle, whose flowers were now recognizably the same as that in Rozanov's journal. They filled the air with an intense, drowsy sweetness, a sweetness partly like honeysuckle and jasmine and partly like rotting fruit. The bush had gray leaves that moved in the breeze like flickering fingers.

A sudden movement from the other side of the bush forced me back suddenly. A figure staggered up, as if from sleep, dirty and ape-like. It wore clothes, however. They hung as tattered rags from an emaciated frame.

"Rozanov!" I said softly. It was more of an exclamation than a greeting.

The figure came slowly, but with a nervous jitteriness, around the bush, without saying anything. It was a far cry from the suave, athletic person I remembered from the Embassy dinner in London years ago; but it was clearly Rozanov.

"Rozanov," I said again, "I have come to bring you back so that you may account for your absence. If you do not comply, I have been authorized to kill you. Let us sit and talk this out."

The figure showed no signs of comprehension. I could see its eyes now. They glimmered with anger and fear like a savage beast's, but they watered and the pupils were large.

"Rozanov!" I said again. "Do you understand me?"

What happened next took only a few moments, but it remains in my memory as if it had occurred with painstaking slowness. The thing-that-once-was-Rozanov stopped suddenly, gathered itself, and rushed at me. I shot it in the chest. Twice. It kept coming. As it knocked my rifle down and away I managed a third shot, to the stomach, which did not even slow it down. The gun flew far out of my reach, I was thrown back, and the beast was on top of me, grabbing at my throat.

I struggled, but to no avail. Emaciated the thing may have been, but it had a strength like I had never felt. I am sure it could have crushed my throat immediately, but before it squeezed, it bent down toward my face, its breath stinking of the rotten sweetness of the flowers. "Bessmertie," it hissed. I prepared my soul to die.

A shot rang out, and a puzzled look came over the thing's face. There was another shot and it fell over heavily. Panting, I pushed it off me and sat up, Quin was some distance away, rifle still up. The thing beside me lay dead with two shots in its head. Rozanov was no more.

Quin came over and helped me to my feet. "We should leave, Trim," he said. "This is a bad place." Still panting, I agreed.

I will not return to Europe. There is nowhere there I could go to elude the gray men in their immaculate suits, and I will not bring them back the information they wished me to bring back. I have suspicions about what it is they wanted with the flower that had so come to obsess Rozanov, filling him with sick dreams. That they wished to know if it existed and where it was - that much is clear. But no one can be allowed to know of it.

They will send others to find it. With Rozanov dead and myself out of their reach, there are few people who are likely to find it. But what if by some trick of the devil they do? I have arranged for a Portuguese trader to give this manuscript to a journalist I know in Lisbon, who will find a way to publish it as fiction under a pseudonym. No one can find the place based on the details I have allowed here; some of them are false or deliberately misleading. Few will even take the story as fact; but I hope that they will still learn the lesson of it.

As for me, I am going with Quin on his journey home. He has been mercy itself to me on many a quest, this one not the least; I owe it to him to try to return the favor. Rozanov and the lotus I have chosen to forget as best I may. When I put aside this manuscript, I will speak of it no more. It will not be so easy to get it out of my dreams.

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