First Published in Flyway Volume 1-1
? 1791Browne hesitated, licked the end of the nub of charcoal he was using as a stylus; he had picked out of a campfire and whittled it to a point. The words were smudgy, ashen on the page of the long ledger he'd somehow managed to preserve, and there was an ashy taste in his mouth from his instrument.
I know not the day, no more the month, though I think I have been in this place for something less than a week.... What does it matter? There is no period to my wretched misfortunes, they are become eternity itself. It is too long since I have written for there is only misery to write.
Yes, since I have been here I can count the days-- but of the time before I have no reckoning. I believe my wanderings have brought me nearer madness than ever I have been before if not into it altogether. These forests are a monstrous place, inhuman but not vacant, no. It is a land possessed by demons, a veritable Hell On Earth. Those devils the African savages worship are as real as Christ our King and they are numerous and very strong. I have seen them haunting these forests, driving every creature that moves to devour all the others if it can. This jungle is no more than a stewpot of rapacious appetites. As for the clearing where I now find myself it is no comfort it is all illusion the sun itself is an evil eye....But no, he wrote. I must possess myself. Away with my dark fantasies! What I imagine is no more than delusion of a fevered brain. Restored health must restore also my sense of the fitness of things. As for those black-skinned fiends who roughly simulate the human form-- where shall I find a reasoned explanation for the acts to which they've lent their bestial hands? Would that I might look on them no more...He stopped, and shut the book. He closed his eyes for a moment, massaging the lids with the fingertips. The rubbing brought red flashes to his brain. He opened his eyes and looked blearily about himself.
The camp was backed into a bluff, a wet gray face of stone, and more than sheer, it overreached them at an angle some twenty degrees off the perpendicular. Threads of liana hung plumb from the cliff edge, eighty or a hundred feet above. These vines formed a curtain, behind which Browne was crouching. He had gone there to escape the worst of the sticky heat, in the cool damp crevice of the rock behind the vines, but now he shivered with a fevered chill, and wished for the sun that shed its diffuse radiance through the skeins of cloud that circled the mountaintop.
Where the cliff descended to join a horizontal slab of stone, run-off rainwater pooled in a natural basin, some six or seven inches deep. Browne wet his fingers in the pool and dragged them along his temples. The water was only faintly cooler than his skin, but he seemed to feel his ague tighten. He parted the vines and stepped out into the stronger light. The little movement made him sweat, and his head pounded. He looked up mistrustfully. The lianas trembled, seemed to move, as his head craned back and wobbled. Now and now again he thought he saw dozens of enraged negros swarming down the vines, clamping bloody cutlasses in their teeth-- though this was nothing but his fevered imagination. And Moto had assured him that these frail lianas could bear no one's weight....
Below the bluff, the camp's line spread in a loose semicircle, bordered by a hummock of old earthwork, now overgrown. To this had been added, by the present garrison, a palisade of logs hacked to rough points at their tips, prickling out all around the perimeter, angled like cannon. But no cannon could be dragged to this difficult height, which horses could only attain with great difficulty. There were not quite horses enough for the thirty-odd men who occupied the place, all from the colonial militia-- no regular army troops among them. They were a mixed lot, most of them planters burnt out of the northern plain. Some wastrels, some grim and serious enough. A couple of fathers were there with their sons. In nominal command was a cousin of Colonel Cambefort. But there was little discipline. Fervor might replace it, if there were a fight, but this was a garrison ill-suited for watching and waiting.
There was a wooden blockhouse, built by slaves some time before the rising, for this had once been meant as a permanent post. But the blockhouse was dark and humid with the smell of rotting, beetle-chewed wood, and all the men bivouacked in the open, under sheets of rotten sailcloth supported on sticks, or in leaf-thatched ajoupas built by Moto, with the help of the gang of younger creoles which he led. In front of the decaying blockhouse, four of the older men were seated on the ground, playing cards with pasteboards so tattered and mold-spotted they might as well have been deliberately marked for cheating. And yet the stakes were high. They played for blocks of land and tons of sugar, for slaves who now most probably would be stalking the jungles, plotting against their masters' lives. The land might be burnt to ash, the sugar dumped out on the ground for the ants to devour its sweetness, but the tenders were taken very seriously, just the same. The game was institutional in the camp. There was a complex accounting system.
Browne walked by the players, toward the palisade. No one raised an eye to him. They were intent. A fever tremor shot up Browne's spine. Sometimes he'd been invited to join in the play, but had recoiled, remembering those gambling debts which first delivered him into the hands of Crozac.
The slope was clearcut a few dozen yards down from the palisade. Where the trees and jungle undergrowth resumed, a few bodies hung in the branches. Black prisoners who'd been dragged back here for a summary execution, or trophies killed on other battlefields and strung up here for mere display. Browne did not know for certain which were which. The dangling corpses were old and rotted to the bone; there'd been little activity in these parts since he had come, nor for some weeks before, as he'd been told.
Cambefort's cousin stood on the earthwork mound, one foot raised onto the bark-sheathed round of a pole that jutted from the palisade, raking the horizons with a shipmaster's brassbound spyglass. An end of his long mustache was tucked into the corner of his mouth; he chewed the hairs contemplatively. Browne tracked the same path as the spyglass. All around them the mountains lowered in intricate, lush green creases and folds. A jungle river cut through a gorge and dropped, miles below, onto a clear and partly cultivated valley, of which only the smallest patch could be seen from this vantage. Apart from that, everything was utmost wilderness. Above, the patches of sky that were exposed looked a slaty blue, while wraiths of thin gray cloud went drifting, trailing their hems over the rainforest cover.
There was a sound that seemed as if it might have come from human throats, well down the mountain. Cambefort's cousin froze and adjusted a ring on his spyglass. Horrified, Browne watched as a band of men came out on the edge of the river gorge, capering and jumping in the air. With his bare eyes, he could just make out their silhouettes, but their wild hallooing reached him clearly, over the sound of the tumbling water. He blanched, but Cambefort's cousin smiled at him and handed him the spyglass.
"T'inquiete pas," he said. "It's only our jovial huntsmen. And it looks as if they've been successful, too."
Brown peered into the telescope. The men encircled by the lens were white: Moto, skipping and prancing at the head of a gang of the young creoles, who carried a brace of wild pigs dangling upside down, their trotters lashed to a pole.
"We'll eat well tonight, for once," Cambefort's cousin said cheerfully, spitting out a few mustache hairs. Wordlessly, Brown returned him the glass. They would indeed be grateful for such a windfall of fresh meat, dependent as the whole camp was on foraging. There were no regular provisions but for some barrels of stony hardtack, dried peas and a little salt beef. Still, Browne was unnerved by the antics of Moto's band.
He turned and sat down despondently on the sodden earthwork, looking anxiously back at the curtain of vines depending from the overhang. Again he saw movement-- yes, certainly he did-- though surely it was nothing but the wind. Still he could not help himself from peopling the rim with a host of imaginary enemies. The blacks who'd lined the bluff edge when Maillart's column had been so badly ambushed, hurling down stones and screaming for blood.
A scene repeated all too often, both in dreams and daydreams. Browne sank into another fevered repetition. He had not even seen the smoke over Paparel himself but had only been drawn along, unwitting and unwilling, in the pellmell rush to return there. An indifferent horseman, he'd managed to sit his mount well enough during the first wild gallop down the gorge. But when they first came under heavy fire his instinct led him to flatten himself and bury his face in the horse's mane, and as he did so he dropped the reins and also lost his stirrups. From the corner of his eye he saw one of the mulattoes, who had dismounted and taken cover behind a rock to direct his shots at the troop of which he'd lately been a member. Browne was wondering if he'd have any chance of turning coat himself when his horse suddenly gathered itself and leaped as if bee-stung.
Later he supposed that a bullet must have creased his mount. At the time, panic erased all thought. He clung so fiercely that bunches of hair from the horse's mane were still in his fists when he was finally bucked off. He sailed backward over some rocks and upon landing was knocked senseless.
When he came to himself, someone was manhandling him, turning him over to strip off his brown jacket. His eyes slipped open long enough for him to see a bare black foot, horny yellow toenails... He closed them slackly, and went limp, willing his arm to remain lifeless as one of the looters dragged off his finger ring. Peeping through his eyelashes, he saw the other, spinning his watch at the end of its cheap brass chain. Hands broke open the buttons of his breeches, and as the humid air moved over his bare belly skin, his bowels released. He was dropped, and heard the looters laughing and cursing in creole. One claimed that he must still be alive, but the other maintained he'd often seen hanged men shit themselves just so, and after they were dead.
The looters went their way without touching him again. Browne lay for a long time, in the stench of his own ordure, the more distant smell of blood. The day passed over him. His head hurt him dreadfully. The sun bore down on him like white hot iron; he could feel the skin on his face and stomach burning, feel his parched lips begin to crack. In the distance he heard shots and shouting; immediately around him was a silence into which the regular jungle noises began to infiltrate by slow degrees. Those shadows that wheeled across the red glare of his inner eyelids were the carrion birds descending.
Toward dusk he raised himself, shook out the kinks in his stiff limbs. But for the dead, he was alone. The back of his head was badly bruised and caked with drying blood, but it seemed to him from his ginger manipulations that his skull itself was intact. He climbed over some rocks and came upon the corpse of one of the younger white militiamen, naked and spread-eagled on his back. With astonishment, Browne discovered that the youth had been a woman all along, masquerading as a soldier-- between the legs a bloody gaping slash, which fleetingly reminded him of the mulatto whore he'd seen raped in that courtyard in Le Cap. From this disguised woman's mouth there lolled a strange white wormy tongue, swollen round and thick as a sausage, and with a sort of mushroom cap. Browne looked a little longer, and came to recognize that this corpse had been a man after all, whose penis had been cut away and crammed into his mouth.
All the other bodies had been similarly used, except for those of two colored men, which were unmutilated. Browne picked his way among the carcasses and the feeding birds. A little further up the gorge, he came upon a horse with two legs broken, breathing wheezingly and unable even to try to rise. It raised its head as Browne came near, and he had a thought to put it out of his misery, but he carried no weapon, and the dead men around him had all been stripped of theirs.
He went on, climbing the gorge as the dark descended, following the troops' original route, for his sense of things was that the marauders had withdrawn in the opposite direction, on the other side of Paparel. A crescent moon hung in the sky and with the stars shed light enough for him to go by. He had progressed some way beyond where they'd first sighted smoke from the plantation when he discovered a small clear spring tumbling from under a shelf of rock, moonglow bright on the water. For hours his thirst had been appalling. He pressed his face into the runnel of water and drank until his stomach bulged. Then he removed his breeches and washed them out. The excrement did not disgust him; his incontinence had saved his genitals, and his life. He threw away his underlinen and continued, the wet trousers slung over one shoulder, his nether part bare. The balloon of water sloshed in his stomach like wine gurgling in a skin.
For the better part of a week he traveled, meaning or hoping to reach Ennery and Habitation Thibodet. He had not been willing to go there from Le Cap, but now he could conceive no better destination. The way was reasonably familiar to him, but so many bands of brigands crossed his path that he was forced to deviate from the road. Within three days he was lost and aimlessly running the bush. Sometimes he found fruit to eat, sometimes there was nothing. Often he tried to catch the quick brown lizards that scurried over the fallen leaves, but they were sly. Only once did he get a hand on one of them, and then the tail broke off in his fingers. He sucked the blood and ichor from it, gnawed morsels of the flesh from the string of linked bones.
He hoped for more, and was in hot pursuit of another lizard when he came upon the two black men, posed among a stand of thorn-boled trees and sharing their vegetable stillness.