Deep in the Jungle

Early January, 187-

Josephine

It’s only now that I realise that Christmas has passed, that it must be the New Year, now, born into such confused times as these. I suspect that, had we made our proper landfall, had we not met with disaster those precious few weeks ago, still my letters to you would not have arrived by now. I am gladdened by this – at least, at that time of the year so reserved for joy, my circumstances, the lack of any communication, will not have cast a pall over you.

Which makes the apprehension of the soon-to-be failure of arrival, the absent word, all the worse for me. What consternation it will be for you! What anxiety it will cause, the likes of which is only the worse for me, stranded here with no way of alleviating it for you. The thought of it, its imminence, has already began to cause palpitations in my own breast – or it would, if it was not already beset by the abominable climate, the constant danger, the stagnation that fills the nose with its jungle rot.

We’ve had to leave the shores of the river and make out across the uncharted wilderness these last few days. We had come to a cataract of great height, such that, burdened as we are, there was no hope of scaling it. Thus, our natural way forward blocked to us, we set about a discussion in many languages, to try to determine our next direction. The former crew of the ill-fated dhow were in favour, somewhat unanimously, of retracing our steps and, at great risk from the vapours of that swampy country, returning to the shores of the sea.

Against this position was stacked the wisdom of Herr Anhalt, who, it pleases me to say, has proved to be an excellent companion in the dire straits we’ve found ourselves in. He has proven to be one of the few things to buoy my spirit in the darkest hours, his ebullient outlook has rubbed off on all of us, I imagine.

Anhalt had argued that, especially given the growing signs of civilization we’ve stumbled across in our journey up-river, our best chances lay in finding the heart of this unknown society. Unlike the earlier vestiges I have recorded, the nearly over-taken embankments and the vegetation-choked edifices, the later examples look to have seen more modern maintenance – the aim of which remains a mystery to all of us. In one of his more fantastical moods, Herr Anhalt has theorised that we might be seeing the handiwork of a reduced caste of people, a degenerate group who, in veneration for a lost past, go through the motions of their ancestors, cleaning and repairing things that they have no use for nor understanding of, in a religious-like behaviour.

Thus, like the civilised, democratic men we all are, our future course was to be decided by vote. This was, of course, the only fair way of proceeding! We spent an afternoon rigging up a voting booth, of sorts, from a spare blanket and some stakes driven into the red, African earth. Given that we had two choices ahead of us, we set up two separate receptacles in the impromptu booth, using pots that we had carried with us from the marooned ship. The rightmost designated a return to the sea-shore, while the left spoke for continuing on into the bush. Stones were to be placed into each of the pots, one stone, one vote.

Upon making sure all of our polyglot group understood the process, we each dutifully filed in, one at a time, to cast our earthy ballot. As arguably the most dispassionate amongst us, it was decided that Mbubu would be the one to tally the votes, despite some reservations from the Arabs. Seven for the return to the ocean, and, winning by a wide margin, nine for Herr Anhalt’s plan!

Ah, yes. Looking over my notes, I see that I hadn’t yet treated upon the passing of Klaus, nor the demise of the three Arabs sailors. Much as I had expected, I regret to say, poor Klaus didn’t hold up much past the third day since my recounting his condition. By the time the Lord took him into His embrace, the blighted man was a shell of himself – if not for the morbidity of the subject, I would say that I was struck by how quickly the man shed his weight. I hadn’t dreamed it was possible to shrink so!

Alas, none of us being ordained in any denomination, we did what little we could to provide the poor man a proper, Christian burial. I can only pray that the Lord doesn’t look darkly upon us for delivering Klaus to Him unshriven.

Hafiz, the Arab I had mentioned before, recovered from his illness. The Lord works in mysterious ways. However, another of his brethren took ill just as he was on the upswing. It seemed as if, as Hafiz regained his strength, as he salvaged his colour, his comrade Amarion was struck, that he began to waste. A very queer affair, to be sure. When he eventually succumbed to whatever this strange affliction was, we, that is, we Europeans, left his last rites to his Mohammedan confederates. Their ways are not ours, and, who be we to intrude in their moment of solemn grief?

Whatever reason the Almighty had in sparing Hafiz from sickness, indiscernible to us, it did not keep Him from retrieving the man to His breast. The day after Amarion was laid to rest, Hafiz met his doom. We were walking along the river, just as we had for the previous days. Hafiz, I imagine he was unsteady on his feet, over-eager to show his vitality, keen to reassert himself in the land of the living, which he was so newly returned to. As I said, it is likely he shouldn’t yet have been left walking under his own power.

He was nearest the bank of the river, when, due perhaps to the general moistness of this clime, the earthen projection he was standing on collapsed beneath him, depositing him into the ostensibly calm waters. Several nearby logs, or, what we, in our naivety, had taken to be logs, came to life. Crocodiles! What then occurred is truly terrible to recount – the ill-fated man, already dazed by his fall, was set upon by the reptilian leviathans, with a great hue and cry. As he struggled with his scaly assailants, Hans and the other Germans in possession of guns strove to even the odds. Alas, despite their heroic efforts, it was too late for luckless Hafiz. He had already succumbed to the roiling, thrashing assault.

The strength of the Elephant guns, robust though they are, proved to be over-matched by the tough hide of those antediluvian beasts. One, it is true, was wounded severely, and would likely not live to see the end of that dark day. However, their numbers were so great, and the amount of ammunition left to us so precious, that it was quickly decided a full extermination of these devils was beyond our present abilities. Much to the dissatisfaction of the other Moslems, it was determined that we should leave the frame of poor Hafiz where it lay, in the clutches of the Crocodiles. He had already left it, and it would have been tempting fate to further try to retrieve it.

We carried on, all of us struggling to come to terms with what we had borne witness to. Unfortunately, it would be that event which proved to be the source of our next loss. Another of the Arabs, a man called Faisal, had always been close with Hafiz. It was he that had cared for Hafiz during the latter’s convalescence, he that had protested most stridently in his alien tongue at the abandonment of the dead man’s body.

The first day since Hafiz’s death, Faisal was seen to withdraw into himself. The man didn’t communicate with any of the other mariners, only took food when it was forced on him. Though I could not with honesty say, I do believe that he failed to sleep that night, nor any night thereafter. After three days of this behaviour, the man began to, well, to come apart. He would burst out laughing at inappropriate moments, would caper about as one mad, would carry on conversations with unknown, absent interlocutors. It was quite a disconcerting sight to see a man, erstwhile decidedly taciturn, so completely unhinged. This went on for some two more days. Come the dawn of the third, the soft-pated Faisal was no-where to be seen. After some deliberation, it was determined that no one had seen him since the night previous, and, we assumed, that he had slipped away at some point in the night. It is true, the benighted man may yet live, but I do not hold high hopes for him, given our wild and violent surroundings.

Thus, with their numbers so reduced, even voting as a bloc, the Arabians were unable to overturn the vote! These last days have been strenuous ones, as our going, away from the natural avenue of the river, is much belaboured and hindered. However, each mile seems to bring new wonders. When we crested that hill yesterday, we could see in front of us, at what precise distance it is difficult to fathom, great pyramidal edifices, climbing out of the jungle! It is likely there that we shall meet with whatever tribe or rabble call this hell home. I trust that Mbubu will be able to communicate with them, and that they will be able to direct us to more hospitable climes. Perhaps, they may even know a safe route back to civilisation!

H.O.P.

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Posted on December 13, 2014, in (Mis)Adventures in Matabeleland, Mauve Prose, Short(er) Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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