Somewhere Near the Zambezi
Late December, 187-
I do not know if this letter will ever reach you. I write it more as a way of cataloguing our current situation, dire as it is, than as a missive. Truth be told, I feel as if I need to record the recent events of the past to believe them myself, to try and make sense of what has happened to us.
It has been two days since we were wrecked. I do not know where we are, though there is some agreement that we are on that great river, the Zambezi, or in one of its branches as it drains into the Indian Ocean. But I get ahead of myself.
We were making good time, with a strong wind at our backs. Captain Ihsan, God rest his soul, thought we might make the Colonies a few days ahead of our anticipated arrival, even. Of a sudden, our benevolent weather turned against us. With nary a warning on the horizon at sundown, a storm struck us in the mid of the night. A storm, but no storm I’d ever yet experienced! It seemed as if the wind came from the four directions at once. Almost immediately, our sails were ripped from the dhow, so fierce were the gales. I think I shall remember the awful cracking of the timbers till my death day. The good Captain, and perhaps two or three of the crew, were caught in the ropes and rigging when the sails and masts fell overboard into the abyss of the sea. The hapless sailors, much as they had made their lives by the ocean, were in turn claimed by it. Do not think me a coward! There was no saving them – the sky was illuminated by a flash of lightning, the masts cracked, and, within 3 heartbeats, the men and the whole mess had been sucked down. I did see Ihsan, illuminated in a second flare of light, face shouting soundlessly, for but a moment. And then he and the rest were gone. The vision will haunt me. I but close my eyes and I am back there, deck bucking and rolling beneath me, lashed by wind and stung by rain, and the face of the doomed man, sinking beneath those malicious waves…
Our trials were not finished with the loss of the captain and the sails, though. No, the ship was driven inland at a frightful speed. In my foolishness, I saw this as a blessing, and cried out “We are saved!” Herr Anhalt, standing immediately next to me, for, in the din, my voice could not have carried further, shouted in my ears, pointing out the dark, tooth like shapes sometime-illumined in the stormy froth: “The rocks!” Whatever terror I had experienced before then, whatever sense of dread gripped me, was over-surpassed at once. As we were drawn down in a trough of a great wave, the rocky fangs rising up before us, my stomach also fell, far below me feet. I’m unashamed to say that I fainted in the face of it. It is not a small thing to be confronted with such a forceful testament of one’s own mortality.
I say I fainted, for that is what must have happened – the next situation I recall, chronologically, saw me bodily lashed to the rails of the ship, alongside all the remaining passengers of that ill-fated vessel. It was Mbubu, I was later to find out, who had saved my life, securing me with ropes to what little security availed him, preventing my unresisting body from being swept into the sea. He, Hans, and some of the more robust members of the crew saw to it that all remaining souls were secured, in hopes that, if the ship itself should break up, perhaps some would survive, attached to the flotsam rather than being lost singly, dashed against whatever the cruel stones had in store for us.
Alas, to be wrecked on those rocks, such was not our destiny that night. I know not how we avoided those great claws the mere sight of which had stolen my consciousness earlier, but we were thrust between so many crags and splinters of stone that, at each turn, it looked as if the ship would be claimed, punctured by talons sharpened by crashing waves. Nothing less than the Hand of Providence itself could have guided the ship safely through that maelstrom, and I daily thank Him for our deliverance.
Eventually, and it must have happened quickly enough from an outside perspective, though it seemed an eternity to us, we were through the chain of shoals. Still driven by wind and wave, our bark, rudderless, made for the river mouth. In a tidal bore that must have been one of the greatest known in these parts, certainly the largest I have heard tell of anywhere, we were thrust some distance upstream. For a time, the ship was sucked back down the river course, as the flood waters pulled back. However, soon enough a second great wave drove us inland once more, further than we had traveled initially. What followed sounds like something out of a tall tale, a fantasy, but, I assure you, it is nothing but the truth! I anticipate, if ever we make our way back to a civilized part of our world, that a delegation will be sent out from the Royal Society to study the phenomenon, it is so astounding. The process I have described, of being pulled back and thrust forward by the powerful sweeping of brackish waters, repeated itself, what must have been a dozen, sixteen times. There came a point where many of us, still lashed as we were to the ship, grew sick with the forwards and backwards motion we were subjected to and spilled the contents of our stomachs in a most unmanly way.
Suffice it to say, by the time the strengthy onslaught subsided, we found ourselves out of sight of the sea, well inland. The ship had come to rest on a sand bar to the side of the river, the early portion of what will one day become an oxbow lake, if my geographical training hasn’t failed me. Seeing that we were out of imminent danger, most of us dozed off where we were tied, uncaring for comfort or what the future might hold in store, only knowing in our exhausted state that we were out of immediate danger.
When morning broke, we arose to survey the wreckage. Of the storm, only its damage could be seen – the sky was open and cloudless, the serenity provided almost in a mockery of what it had unleashed upon us the night before. It was at that point we realized how far we had been pushed inland – what seemed an almost supernatural distance. Of the 28 who had been aboard not 18 hours before, only 20 were left. I had only witnessed the demise of the Captain, and thus can only assume that the others were swept to sea between my fainting and the securing of all remaining bodies. Of our stores, most of our food was lost or destroyed by the water. Fortunately, we have a good supply of shot, and Hans, as I have written previously, is an exceedingly quality sportsman. With a bit of luck, we should be able to live off the fruit of the country before long.
However, our current plight is akin to that of poor hapless Job – what the Lord provides with one hand, He takes away with the other. The very land that may provide us our life may in the end be the undoing of us. Our supply of quinine is nearly spent, and the vapours of the swamp, known to cause the Fever, already rise up about us. It is only exacerbated by this heat – we would, in fact, be better off with an overcast day.
To return to the sea, inadvisable. Even if we were able to shift our de-masted dhow, Captain Ihsan was our navigator. We would be hopelessly lost, even if the ship did prove sea-worthy. We Europeans have had to rely on Mbubu to communicate with the remaining members of the crew – Anhalt, learned as he is in the Antiquities, does not hold amongst his abilities conversational Arabic. And those crew that remain, speak nothing but. Once more I am rendered grateful for that timely choice of mine to recruit Mbubu to my side. If we are to come out of this alive, I suspect that I will grow to depend on him ever-more. As I was saying, none of the crew members, rude individuals that they are, could navigate the deep ocean or even the coast-lines themselves.
Thus, the only avenue that remains open to us is to carry on in the direction we were so mercilessly thrust – upriver. We do our best to remain optimistic about finding some community along the river’s shores. The alternative – hundreds of miles of trackless waste – is too grim to bear. The day has been taken up organizing what little remains to us of stores and equipment. Once it is divvied between each man, we will set out, and, with God smiling down on us, we shall reach Deliverance.
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
Though I try to keep my mind from it, if I should, over the course of our trek, perish, it buoys my spirit to think that, God willing, I will be able to make an account of myself to you, before I should render myself up to Providence.
I love you eternally,
Posted on November 10, 2014, in (Mis)Adventures in Matabeleland, Mauve Prose, Short(er) Stories and tagged Adventure, Africa, British Empire, Colonialism, Imperialism, Racism, Satire. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.