Strange Tug: Threshold

old trawler2
The Dragon awakened deep within the jungle, where babbling brooks and trickling waterfalls wandered through miles of tangled dark green canopies; then merged to become raging streams and thundering rapids of fresh water, dodging ancient rocks and boulders green with moss, until the riverbed deepened to calm the charging waters. Where the calm waters joined the river that glistened from the persistent drizzle rippling its surface, was the Silence.
The Silence was a small wooden towboat built low to the water to skim along shallow jungle waterways. It was the last of a fleet of small but hearty towboats that hauled cargo deep into the jungle where larger towboats couldn’t go and roads had yet to be built. The Silence was a relic, an ode to the early settlers of the jungle who relied on the river and these small, but swift towboats for transportation and supplies. Supplies were now carried by truck, on roads that cut into once forbidden territory. The Silence survived by hauling into areas without the scars of modern man, where trucks couldn’t go, where roads were not laid.
Antonio stepped out of the pilot cabin and jumped down onto the slippery deck dressed in jeans, rubber boots, and a dirty yellow rain coat and hat. None of which kept out the damp cold. Daylight was gone. The cool mist caressed his face, and the chill sliced his bones raw. He walked forward to the bow and stood over the anchor hoist, looking ahead at the small wooden barge they were towing. His soft brown eyes were tired, filled with tears and rain. His muscles ached as much as they did after a night of losing boxing matches.
The bow fit into the wedge-shaped niche at the stern of the barge. The wood that had been used to build the barge was now blackened, soaked and worn from its travel through the muddy rivers. The cargo was covered by a tattered and stained canvas tarp; tied to iron hooks at several different points along the ledge and stretched skintight by the bulging heap of hidden cargo.
The damned thing looked like a giant coffin. Someone had said back at the docks where he had inspected and grew suspicious of the barge.
The little boat was at rest, its diesel engine rumbling on, tickling the dead air. The deck trembled under Antonio’s feet, paralyzing him for a moment. The vibration passed through him like an electric current, tickling him on its way up his chicken thin legs to his crotch, and then filling his stomach with nausea. Or was it fear? He reached down to pull the locking pin to the hoist, releasing the anchor. The chatter of the anchor chain ripped through the silence. Revealing the roar of the rapids that came from just beyond his sight in the darkness, filling the air around him.
Antonio walked aft deck to wake the Captain and Owner of the Silence, Louis Alvio. Antonio had always regretted working for Louis, and even more so now. Antonio was forced to work for Louis because he had trouble getting jobs on other boats.
Louis was a drunk. Always too drunk to safely operate the boat. A derelict renegade Captain whose only home was the Silence. Louis was fixed on anger and expressing his unspoken torment to all. His sudden tirades and false accusations often terrified Antonio enough for him to wish he had a killer instinct. An instinct that could drive him to kill Louis. Every day on the Silence was a risky adventure, not just a day of work. Louis would push him and the boat to its limits, no matter the cargo. No matter how many hauls they did in one day. Yet it still wasn’t enough for Louis. The day would not end until Louis was out cold from the Mescal he drank all day, and the last load had been delivered.
“That strange tug,” it was said in small towns along the river. “That strange tug with that strange captain.” Louis Alvio was the Rivers darkest legacy. No one ever went near the Silence that was always tied to the outermost dock in the marina. The Silence was his life. The river his blood. Louis never went too far beyond the river’s banks. He never needed to. Unlike other Captains, he had no family or friends waiting for him in any of the towns along the river. He was lonely and angry. He spent most of his time on the boat.
Louis would often be seen standing silent on the boat, rocking from side to side, swigging from a bottle of mescal. At other times, the boat would seem silent. Louis was nowhere to be seen, but crying could be heard from within the boat; like the howl of a deeply wounded animal.
Antonio walked up to the open mess room door, stood at its threshold and looked in. The stench of sweat and liquor rushed up his nostrils, dousing his senses for a moment. His eyes adjusted to the darkness cut by dim shafts of light that passed in through the soiled portholes. Louis lay on one bench beside the mess table. As always, Louis was drunk and unconscious. He snored, filling the air with his growl. Antonio stood still, looking in at Louis, who seemed so stoned, that if he could finally do it, Antonio would kill him. It could be so easy now, he thought. So easy to actually do it.
“Louis!” Antonio waited for a response. Louis shifted his massive body, the fat wallowing inside his sweat soaked clothes, then sat up on the bench. He kept his head bowed down over the mess table, hidden in shadow, his hands at his sides, holding onto the lip of the bench. His breathing hoarse and congested, he snorted to loosen the phlegm in his throat.
“What do you want?” Louis hissed his voice still weak and raw from alcohol. His lungs struggling to express a trickle of air through his constricted vocal cords.
“We’re here,” said Antonio. He stared at Louis, shaking his head. “I still have to lower the anchors on the barge. I’ll be right back.”
Antonio ran off as Louis stood up from the bench, using his hands to push himself straight up. He swayed from side to side, resting his hands on the mess tables’ surface. He looked out through the door to the stern of the boat. He could smell the clay in the air that boiled to the surface as the rapids tore the bottom of the river on it’s way here. As they approached the rapids from the south, the river became blood red in color. The blood of the Dragon spewing into the river.
Antonio stepped up onto the edge of the tugs’ hull, a lantern swinging in his hand, and stood there for a moment, looking at the barge. The lights from the boat reflected off the white fog, lighting the immediate darkness. “Damn rain!” Thought Antonio to himself. They would have to wait until morning to move on. By then the rain might stop and the rapids that rushed down just ahead will have slowed to let them pass.
Antonio and Louis had looked over the barge two days ago, taking note of its markings and age. The smell of the wood was still fresh. As if it had been built yesterday. But why? Though he had never seen a barge like this himself, he had heard of ritual vessels like it built by Indians in the jungle along the opening of the river to the sea. Antonio walked along its sides, pulling the tarp at its edges, trying to get a look at what it was they were hauling. What it carried, no one knew, but those who wrapped it so well for the violent journey; and those who would receive it.
They were to haul it to “El Sueño”, a sparsely inhabited area deep in the mountains at the river’s source. Legend had it that it was where men of the river and their boats went to die, until one day the river would dry up and they would rise again.
Few ever went that far upriver anymore. The river was too shallow most of the year, razor sharp rocks pierced the raging surface, tearing into anything that passed; swallowing it. And now, it was raining. Enough to flood the river and make the rapids torrential. Dragging the mightiest challenger into it’s jaws. Jaws that would turn the Silence into twigs.
Antonio stood on the ledge for a moment longer, facing the barge. He then jumped onto it, ran along its narrow ledge and disappeared behind the looming heap of cargo.
Louis wore an old rain soaked, grease stained Army jacket, over a mismatched layering of sweaters and shirts, and a pair of wasted blue jeans. He was a very heavy man, looking even heavier with all the clothing he wore. Only his scarred swollen hands and bloated face were bare. His eyes, dark slits recessed into the fat of his face, were a well of tears.
Louis wiped away the tears and the rain that settled on his swollen cheeks. He looked out passed the barge, into a black hole darker than the night, that only he could see. The gate guarding the entrance into the rapids; The Dragon. His heart was filled with a desire to go on and face the Dragon. To reach its heart. Desire drove him to press the river, making him legend in towns along it for going to places and hauling like no other but a mad man. What few knew was that his desire worked hand in hand with the constant anger and hate within him. A structure of misery, discontent and rage erupting from so far within him that so few could fathom. Built by him, to protect himself from others, to exile and imprison himself; to fuel his drive into the enigma of his desire. A desire he knew he had but could never define. A raging animal angered and pained by his own unrelenting thirst for an answer for which he didn’t have a question. Day after day he bore down on the river, and everyday it turned him back without an answer.
Louis saw a flock of seagulls swarming over the far side of the cargo heap.
“Antonio!”
Antonio appeared from behind the hump. He quickly made his way along the barge’s slippery ledge back to the tug, staring at the gulls swarming over the barge.
“Are the anchors secure?” Called Louis.
“Yeah,” said Antonio softly. He looked up at the birds.
“Don’t just stare at the damn things,” yelled Louis. “Get rid of them!”
Antonio sneered at Louis. He looked up along the spread tarpaulin, then climbed it.
Louis watched as Antonio struggled up the slippery tarp. He started hiring Antonio off local docks along the river a few month’s back. Antonio claimed to have worked most of the major rivers throughout the Caribbean and South America. He was as good as any deck hand working the river. Except he was a trouble maker. Nobody wanted him. He always had something to say, especially when he had no place saying it. Louis had to take him though. No one wanted to work for Louis. No one wanted to work for the captain of such a strange tug.
Antonio’s boots pressed down into the soft tarp as he reached the top of the cargo heap, facing the birds. The light of his lantern filled the darkness on the far side of the barge. He could see hundreds of seagulls swarming over the tarp, pecking at it frantically. Others attacked in short sorties. They flew a foot or so up from the tarp and cut sharply back down, stinging it. Antonio stepped down the side, swiping at them with the lantern, hitting them off into the water, before they began to attack him.
Their stabs were relentless. Blinding him. He covered his face with his arms and fell down on his back. The lantern fell from his hand and rolled off into the dark. They swarmed him. He closed his eyes and swung wildly, feeling the weight of several birds against his arm as he hit them away. He turned face down and tried to crawl up to the top of the heap. But their weight slowed him down. He stopped before reaching the top, and lay panting terrified and exhausted. The pecking went on like little nails falling from the sky. He felt helpless. Alone. He grew delirious. The attack seemed distant. His body grew numb. His face pressed against the canvas tarp, it’s damp scent creeping up his nostrils and deep into his mind, pulling memories out like file cards in a library directory. The smell of the canvas like the smell of the boxing ring in so many fights he’d lost.
Antonio was always paid to fight as the challenger, never the winner. He never did want to win, though. Just collect the money to survive. The distant pounding of the birds like the torrential assault of a bigger, better fighter he never faced head on. Always ducking and bowing to them as they used him like apunching bag. Then falling from the pain and nausea.
His son, Miguel, once asked, “Papa. What are all those marks you have on your face?”
“From work, Miguel,” he would say. He never told his son about the fights and the part he played in them. He wondered if he ever would . . . if he ever would. His mind rang like a bell, the words “if ever” ringing, filling the emptiness.
Antonio pushed himself up from the tarp, swinging wildly at the gulls. But there were none. The attack had suddenly stopped. He opened his eyes and saw the gulls soaring in and out of the darkness above him. “What the hell, are we hauling?” He said to himself. He dropped to his knees and put his nose to the tarp. He thought a scent would tell him what they were hauling. But nothing. Not a whiff.
He looked up at the few birds still hovering about and yelled, “What the hell do you think is in here?”
Antonio stood on the covered cargo for a moment. Shaking uncontrollably. Sweat and rain mingled to coat his face. He turned slowly to view the heap around him. He could see nothing clearly beyond ten feet. Fog and darkness caressed him. He looked back across the barge, the heap obscured his view of the tug. Rain filled his eyes. All he could see was the light from the pilot cabin, and the glow of the search lights in the fog. He pressed down on the heap with his foot, feeling the firm but soft load give under his boots. Rain dripped down from his clenched fists. Then he hastened along to the Silence.
Antonio jumped back onto the boat, and slipped as he touched the deck, landing hard on his ass. Not paying any attention to Louis, he looked back at the cargo as he stood up and wiped himself.
“Did you get rid of them?” Louis asked.
Antonio stared at the barge then looked at Louis confused.
“Yeah! They’re gone.” He said.
“What’s wrong!”
“Nothing.” He looked at Louis. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine.” He looked back at the barge.
Louis squealed as he laughed. “The damned thing has you spooked.” Louis jumped off the boat and up onto the barge heap, looking down on Antonio. “Afraid a hand’s going to reach up from under the tarp and pull you down Antonio?”
“You think it’s funny. Don’t you?” Said Antonio. “You don’t even know what you’re carrying.”
“Do you?” Louis asked.
“Don’t you know?” Antonio asked.
“No! I don’t!” Louis said, as he jumped back onto the towboat, glared at Antonio with his squinting wet eyes then said, “and I don’t care!”
Antonio stepped back along the deck, turned and walked aft, out of sight. Louis’s barrel chest heaved like giant sea waves in a storm. He sat back on the railing, trying to relax, but could not, because Antonio angered him. From the moment they took the barge on, Antonio complained about it. Antonio stood on its ledge for almost forty minutes, inspecting it, touching its side, pulling the tarp at its edges to try to see what it was they were going to haul. He was afraid of towing something he couldn’t identify. But Antonio’s fears weren’t his concern.
Louis stood up and walked aft to see where Antonio had gone. As he approached the aft deck, he could hear Antonio talking. “The idiot is talking to himself,” Louis said. He saw Antonio pacing across the deck. Antonio’s arms were raised, his hands squeezing his head tightly.
Antonio stopped pacing and turned to sit on the deck. His head still in his hands, he rocked back and forth in short abrupt lurches. He brought his hands down in front, pressing his palms together to pray. His head cocked back, he looked up into the darkness.
“Praying will give you a headache,” said Louis.
Antonio looked at Louis. Louis stood at the railing, the aft deck light reflected off the wet deck to fill his face with a soft murky light.
“I must have been crazy to take you on.” Said Louis.
“Must have ‑ “
“I told you where we were going.”
Antonio’s hands dropped down to his sides. His eyes glistening with tears. His face despondent, sunken, as if all the facial bone had been taken away and the skin hung loose from his skull.
“It’s not only where we’re going. But what we’re taking!” Antonio ran up to Louis, grabbed him by his jacket and tugged down. “Listen to me!” He said. “Listen to me. You have to turn around.”
Louis reached up from under Antonio’s arms and pushed him away.
“I knew as soon as I saw it, that it was bad,” said Antonio. “That it was trouble. I stood on deck looking at it. Wondering. That’s not a real barge. Not the kind we see moving up and down the river everyday.” He stopped talking and stood still, looking down at his shadow cast by the mast light flooding the aft deck. He looked to Louis. “It is a giant Indian ritual barge used by their magicians to call up the dead. They’ve hired you to go to your death. And I was stupid enough to go along!”
Louis’s chest heaved as he squealed like a pig and laughed. The congestion in his chest evident. He stepped back, and sat down on a large coil of hawser, laughing hysterically. Antonio stared at him with eyes opened wide. Louis’s body quivered in sync with his silent laughter. “Don’t get crazy on me now, Antonio. Cause I’ll throw you overboard.”
“We can’t move this thing up the rapids.”
“I don’t have to do anything!” Louis fired back. He winced in pain as he walked away from Antonio to the mess room facing the stern. “If you don’t want to go upriver with me, then do me a favor and toss yourself over the side. I’ll go it alone. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.”
Antonio watched from outside as Louis stepped into the mess room, then re‑appeared with a bottle of Mescal in his hand. Louis walked toward Antonio, his eyes like stingers.
“Louis.” Said Antonio. “The river is a living being. It does what it wants. It takes what it wants. Never challenge it when it is at it’s most powerful. Never when you are hauling a barge such as this one, with cargo you know nothing about. Never when you are going to a place as sacred as El Sueño. I’ve heard of this place. Of the few boats that have made it there, only two have ever come back. They passed the rapids going up, but never coming down. Even more were lost getting there. The rapids will eat the Silence. The river will swallow it.”
“The tug’s secure now.” Said Louis. “You have a decision to make. If you’re not going, then take the dinghy and row yourself down river. If you’re coming then you’d better get yourself some sleep. We have a river to wrestle in the morning.”
Louis turned away and walked forward. Antonio looked at the dinghy hanging from the starboard hooks. Nothing but a rowboat. He would get lost rowing down river in the dark with that thing.
“Promise me, Louis.” Antonio tugged at his back, keeping him from walking away. “That in the morning we’ll turn around and head back. Promise me?”
Louis swung around, his massive right arm stretched out, his fist clenched. His forearm hit Antonio’s face, crushing his nose and throwing him against the hull. Antonio’s head slapped against the wall like a wooden mallet.
“Don’t ever grab me like that again,” said Louis. “Don’t ever tell me what to do. On or off my boat.” Louis stood over Antonio, then crouched down and cast his shadow over him. Antonio’s eyes glistened in the darkness of Louis’s wake. “This is my boat. My home. When you’re on it, you do as you’re told. You do as I say.”
Louis stood up, backing away from Antonio. “I have to haul up and down this river twice what anybody else does, just to stay even. Just to stay alive,” said Louis. “Who the hell do you think you are? This is my boat. My boat! I take you aboard when no one else will and you pull this shit on me! What are you going to tell me? About all the wrecks we’ll find along the way. About all the houses up there that have been abandoned and sit dark, with ghosts and evil spirits whipping in and out of them as you pass. About the rocks that shoot up out of nowhere like the teeth of a Dragon biting down on it’s prey.”
Louis put the bottle to his lips, poured the warm mescal into his mouth. He pulled the bottle away desperate for air, as if he had been trying to drown himself with it. Gasping for air, he put his hand to his chest, shook his head violently, then looked at Antonio.
“Yes, the river has a life of it’s own, ” whispered Louis. “And it’s mine.”
Louis turned away to face the darkness hugging the stern of the boat, his back turned to Antonio. He rocked left to right with the rhythmic yaw of the tug.
“Despite any reservations I might have about doing anything. If I commit to it, I do it. No matter what.” Louis turned about to face Antonio, who still lay on deck against the hull.
“I had a long haul once. Every morning I tied to this barge filled with . . . “. Louis paused, cocking his head to the side, looking away from Antonio, then looking back at him and smiling. “You know. I don’t remember.” Louis laughed. “Anyway, everyday I tied to this thing, and hauled it up to the rivers end where it became a lagoon. There was nothing up there. The water was still. Like a mirror, reflecting nothing but the white fog that covered everything. But when you looked down, it was black. Solid black because of all the algae and grass growing from its bottom, right up to the shore. A thick, dark forest. So little sunlight passed through the canopy that it seemed it was almost black tinted with green.
“I was told that when I arrived, someone would be there to take the cargo from me. But no one showed up. I waited two hours, and then I turned around. When I got back to port, the Dispatcher told me he would call the customer. Next morning, I woke up, went out on deck and there it was. The barge. The Dispatcher came over to me and told me I should start upriver again. Take the barge to the same place and wait. Then he said I might have to do this everyday until someone picks it up. It didn’t matter to me, at first. I was getting paid for it. So I moved it. For the first 3 days I hauled it upriver, then I realized I might just as well carry some supplies and stay anchored there. I did that. For seven days I stayed anchored in the still water, doing nothing each day, watching the sun pass across the sky behind the fog. Not a sound came from the dark forest around me. I stayed on, though I knew that all I had to do was turn about and head down river.”
Louis turned to Antonio who lay on the floor, sitting up with his back against the hull.
“Not a sound came out of the forest, though I knew that something was there.” Said Louis. “Something.” He turned away, raised the bottle to his mouth and poured some more.
“I wondered about the forest.” Said Louis. “About who might live in there. Who might want this load, whatever it was. Whoever they were. There wasn’t even a road leading to shore, that I could see. So how were they going to take the load in that barge? It didn’t make any sense. I thought I’d take the dinghy out and row to shore, to see what was around, if anything. So I did that.
“Rowing was hard because of all the grass and algae. It took me longer to get to shore than I’d expected. I could barely see the tug and barge through the fog. The forest was as thick and black as the lagoon.”
Antonio lay against the hull, as he once lay against the ropes of a boxing ring. He listened to Louis babble, watching him sway from side to side, swigging from the bottle. Antonio didn’t understand it, or care to. All he thought of was how to kill the giant. Kill the giant! The crowd roared in his memory. But who for? He could never tell. “Stay down and you’ll get out alive. Stay down!” They said. But if he did, the giant would turn and kill him if he lay there.
An eight foot long grappling hook and rod lay just a few feet away. With Louis turned away, Antonio slowly crept the few feet across to the grappling hook. As Louis continued to bellow out his story, Antonio stood up with the hook in his hand, wondering if one shot would do it, if he could ever hit the giant hard enough to knock him out. Perhaps kill him. It didn’t matter. Louis turned. Antonio swung down on him. The rod slapped against Louis’ head and upper back. It snapped, the iron hook broke off and fell into the river. Louis stumbled forward. Then fell to his knees. Antonio hit him again with the broken end of the pole. Louis’ faced rushed down to meet the edge of the hull.
Louis lay still. Antonio stood over the giant for a moment. “Should he hit him again?” He thought. Isn’t one enough? Maybe not. So Antonio hit him again. His head bounced up from the hull’s edge then fell quickly to rest again.
Enough! He thought. He couldn’t do it again if he thought he should. He swung the stick out into the dark, and listened to it splash in the water.
Louis’ body lay awkward against the hull wall. Antonio looked down at it. Hesitantly he bent down and placed himself near Louis’ head. He wasn’t breathing. Antonio could always hear Louis breathing. Laboring like the sound of an industrial factory.
In contrast, Antonio’s breathing was rapid. Sweat and rain soaked his clothes. What to do with the body? Throw it overboard. The body would float back down river. No one would care if he was dead, because there was no one to care. Antonio struggled to lift the body over the edge of the hull and into the river. The body slipped down into the water barely making a sound. It sank immediately, never floating back to the surface. Louis was gone.
Antonio turned and ran forward. He jumped off the tug onto the barge. He struggled to raise each iron anchor, while looking about for an awakened and angry giant bearing down on him. Once hoisted he left the anchors loose on the ledge and raced back to the tug. At the bow he raised the anchor and left it lying. He jumped up into the small pilot cabin, locking the door behind him. Antonio took two steps across to the other door and locked it too. He stood at the wheel, reached down to the upright console and charged up the rumbling engine. Grasping the wheel with both hands, he whipped the boat round to port, shifting its great weight in one sudden motion.
Louis reached up from under the water and pulled himself up to the bow deck. He knelt down in pain, shocked that this little man would try to kill him. The pain Antonio inflicted on him though, could never overcome the constant pain Louis was always in. He stood slowly to face the cabin. Smoke from the roaring chimney stack clouded the ambient glow of the search lights that lit the barge. The engine roared. The tug shuttered, shifted forward and suddenly turned hard to port. He knew Antonio was turning the boat about, to go back down river.
Antonio lowered the throttle, firmly holding the wheel full to port, as the tug and barge swung around. He brought the wheel back to center, slowing the engine as it faced south, down river. He paused for a moment and gripped the throttle handle.
The cabin door suddenly shook violently, then exploded off its hinges. Louis thrust himself inside. The giants face was mostly in shadow except for the part that Antonio could see was covered with fresh blood, glistening in the light that came from the search lights. Antonio backed away from the wheel and stood against the locked door on the other side of the pilot cabin. Louis stepped toward him, filling Antonio’s view of the small cabin space. Antonio was trapped. He drew a deep breath and jumped on the giant, hanging onto him like a small animal, clawing at his raw face. Louis grabbed and threw him toward the open door. Antonio slammed hard against the wall beside it, slid down to the floor, then stood to jump out the door. Louis grabbed Antonio’s shirt and held him over the deck like a freshly caught fish on a hook. Louis then swung Antonio against the wall below the cabin door, twice, before using the momentum to heave him up onto the roof of the pilot‑cabin.
Louis rushed to climb onto the roof of the cabin, and found Antonio bent over, gasping for air and trying to stand. Louis stomped on his back, flattening him. He reached down with one hand, grabbed Antonio’s shoulder and flipped him over. Then knelt down to straddle over him.
Louis looked down at Antonio. The blood, sweat and rain that covered his face dripped down onto Antonio. The white of his small sinister eyes shined from within. Tears trickled from them. Antonio gasped for air. He couldn’t move except for the subtle motion of his inhaling chest.
“I didn’t finish telling you my story,” said Louis. “The forest was dark. I tried to walk through it but couldn’t get far enough. There were voices and other sounds far off in the forest. Faint, but close enough for me to hear that they were familiar in some way. But I still couldn’t tell who they were. So I climbed back into the dinghy and rowed back to the tug. As I got closer to the tug I could see the load was gone. I thought, ‘What the hell!’. I reached the tug and ran onto the barge. It was empty, Antonio.”
Louis stood up, and faced the bow, looked at the barge, lit dimly by the search lights beside him.
“The barge was empty!” Said Louis. “As if nothing had ever been loaded in it. The tarp was neatly rolled up and tied to the aft ledge of the barge.”
Antonio watched the mad giant. Between Louis’ legs lay a tire‑iron. Antonio quickly reached to grab Louis’s ankle, then yanked and pulled him down. The giant twisted, lost his balance and slammed down onto the weak wooden slats of the cabin roof. Antonio stood up and grabbed the tire‑iron from under Louis as he squirmed to recover. He raised the rod then swung down on Louis’ head. Antonio caught a glint of metal in the corner of his eye.
Louis slipped the knife out from a sheath tied to his belt. He raised his arm, long enough to reach Antonio’s heart from a laying position, and strong enough to keep Antonio and the rod, at a distance. The knife slipped through the wool shirt Antonio wore, pierced the skin and slipped deep into his chest. The iron rod fell from his hand, the ping of it’s metal sounding out as it bounced to the deck below. Louis thrust his arm back, pulling the knife out. Blood spit down on him from the fresh wound. Antonio fell on Louis; face to face. Antonio was still alive. Louis pushed him away, turning him over onto his back. Louis stood up, then knelt down to straddle him again. Antonio gasped for air, the weasing sound of oxygen escaping from his chest wound.
Louis looked to the barge. “Damn you!” He looked down at Antonio and said, “I have to do this.”
Louis held the knife in his right hand, and pushed Antonio’s head back with the other. He placed the edge of the knife lightly on his neck near the ear, then pressed down, sliding the blade across Antonio’s neck. The skin split cleanly, blood poured out onto the deck. Louis watched it, and then stood up over the body. The hand that held the knife was dripping with blood.
Louis felt the rumble of the engine, the yaw and pitch of the vessel. He dropped the knife, climbed down into the cabin, grabbed the wheel and brought the rig about. Thick streaks of blood mixed with rain traced the windshield in front of Louis.
Once he had straightened the rig in the direction of the rapids, he stepped out and rushed onto the barge to lower the anchors at the corners. Then set the anchor at the bow of the tug.
Louis looked up to the pilot‑cabin. Antonio’s arm hung over the edge. Blood traced down along the front wall of the housing onto the deck in front of him. He climbed up to the roof, and lifted Antonio’s limp body. He swung it back and forth gaining momentum, then heaved it overboard. He listened for the sound of the water splash.
“I wish your life was more important to me,” said Louis. “I’m sorry it wasn’t.”
He knew the body would certainly drift down river into a town. Everyone would know who he was, and who he was with. It didn’t matter to Louis. He was sure his fate lay in the raging blood flow of the Dragon.
Louis stood on the roof of the pilot cabin for a moment, his chest flexing with each breath of air he took. Looking forward, passed the cargo heap and into the rambling fog, he could faintly see the outline of the old stone foot bridge that crossed over the gate into the rapids. The bridge was ancient beyond memory. Its stone work mutilated by time and age, the supporting arch still had a few blocks hanging in place that made them look like teeth in the gaping mouth of the Dragon it was guarding.
In the morning he would run the Silence down its throat, and challenge his own fate.
2.
Louis listened to the rain beat down on the worn skin of his tired boat. The sound was constant, deafening. Like a thousand wooden sticks beating a drum, sending a message. In his hand Louis held a hose from which he sprayed river water to cleanse the deck and walls of Antonio’s blood. The blood bubbled upon contact with the water, coalescing into pools all about the tarred deck, creating abstract patterns of color that seemed to twist into life as they drained off deck.
Louis flung the hose away and leaned against the hull railing. He peeled a sliver of green paint from it with his thumb and index finger, and flicked it into the bristling water. He looked back at his wooden boat, and the damage that rain, age and ill maintenance had done to it.
The Silence was his Father’s legacy. He would go anywhere, anytime, for almost anyone. Hauling barges deep into the mountains along shallow inland waterways. The river was an extension of himself. It seemed there was nothing he didn’t know about the river, yet he often would say how much more there was to learn from it.
Louis stumbled his way up to the pilot cabin. He leaned forward against the wheel. His legs weakened and he collapsed, falling backward against the back wall. He didn’t bother getting up. Instead, he tried to sleep.
Louis’ head suddenly roared with pain as he lay on the wooden floor of the pilot cabin. The light bothered him. He opened his eyes and the sun light cut into them like needles. He was a child again. He stood behind the pilot, who was his Father at first, but when he looked back at Louis and smiled, he saw the pilot was another man. A friend of his Father’s. Louis stood, rocking side to side from the force of the rapids, and looked out the window at the rushing waves. He looked forward at the pilots signal and saw the Silence was alone, trapped intact among some rock’s far upriver. Louis was on the tug in search of the Silence and his Father. His Father had left port two days ago and didn’t return when expected. Mother worried and so . . .
Louis looked about the tug for his Fathers pocket watch/compass, while his friend tied the The Silence. The watch/compass had been given to his Father by his Grandfather when he was a boy in Puerto Rico. Louis’ Grandfather also hauled goods, throughout the Antilles and Caribbean Sea. The last Louis ever saw of the watch was before his Father left to travel up river. Father never returned. And the watch was never found when he boarded the Silence and searched it.
As his friend searched the vessel and readied the Silence for towing, Louis looked into the forest and saw lights. As if a group of people were milling about with lanterns in their hands. The lights danced in the forest for a moment longer and then seemed to fade away. When he explained this to the Captain, they hurried their towing and moved on down river. The first, last and only time he’d ever been that far upriver, until now. Come morning, he would go it alone, as he had always wished, and always had.
3.
The fog plodded across the rivers bristling surface, opening and closing its mass to reveal dead trees, black with rot, trimming the river bank on either side. The fog thread through their gnarly limbs, like aged hands that had lost their strength and bowed down to reach for the river’s surface, but never touched it.
Louis throttled up the engines and moved forward against the steady down stream flow of the river. The river was red with the blood of the Dragon. The rapids were on fire with its breath. He approached the wall of fog at full throttle. For an instant the world was white. Then the fog drew back as he passed under the old stone bridge, through the gaping mouth of the Dragon, and the rush of the rapids was upon him, shallow and steeped with waves, revealing the sharp edged rocks underneath.
He passed the remains of a large wreck. The gash at its bow yawned in ancient pain, crying out to fools who would challenge the rapids. He looked into the forest. There he saw a faint glow deep within the fog, that held his gaze. It then split up into many smaller, less brilliant floating pools of soft light dancing deep in the forest. They seemed to follow, as he struggled up the river.
The flow of the river quickened and swelled up from the rocks under water. Louis carefully guided the boat upriver at full throttle, avoiding large swells where there might be rocks, then snagging at others, backing up and slipping around them. But the swells grew larger and broader, forcing Louis to ride them.
Louis looked to the banks of the river on either side. He could see ancient wrecks rise up from the swelling water, like sea monsters rising up from the bottom, their mouths gaped open to swipe at their prey.
The water grew more turbulent around him, dragging harder against the boat. The engines were full. Valleys of depressed water rose up as giant waves broke against the boat, tossing it about. Each valley of water brought him closer to rocks deep in the water. The boat inched upriver at full throttle. Despite all the power Louis could get out of the engines the rushing water literally pushed the boat into a pile of rocks. Water rushed on from the aft deck. The boat slid down into the wake of a massive wave and dragged the fragile hull of the boat against the Dragon’s jagged teeth.
The boat reeled from side to side as if being rocked by a great hand underwater. Suddenly, the rotted wooden ribs of a large wreck reached up like the claws of a giant hand. The frame lifted up around the tug, squeezing and lifting it out of the water, tossing it side to side. The tugs’ propellers ripped at the air. The engine overheated and burned. The wrecks ribs gave way under the weight of the tug, snapping like twigs in a forest underfoot. The tug reared back, the stern deep in the water.
The boat dipped down and the barge lifted up over a wave. The Silence bottomed out. The hull split in half as the barge pressed against it and crushed the “Silence.” Louis was thrown back against the wall, smashing the cabin window. He stood up and struggled to get out of the pilot cabin. The tug dragged against the bottom, still tied to the barge as the raging water began to eat the boat. It’s fierce rush chopping pieces off. The innards of the tug suddenly exploded, flinging debris all over.
Louis struggled forward along a wrenching bow deck covered with rushing water. He grabbed the railing at the bow and looked toward the barge. It was still intact and above water. Louis jumped onto it.
The towboats remains shifted under the water. It pulled at the tie to the barge and dragged it under. The barge lifted up onto its end. The weight of the pile stretched the tarpaulin and the ties began to snap. The tarpaulin sailed back and covered him. As he maneuvered around it, the tarpaulin folded back like a stage curtain rising and revealing the cargo.
Bodies.
Human bodies.
Hundreds of human bodies. Naked and dead.
The tarpaulin lifted and sailed off into the fog. The barge pushed further onto its rear as the bodies began rolling over one another, piling high to one side and then falling one, two, three at a time into the boiling water. Louis rode the wave of bodies as they fell passed him. Their limp arms flailing like desperate passengers of a sunken boat grasping for help. One body fell against him. It’s eyes wide and glassy. Then fell away. Louis held tightly to the floor of the barge as it fell back onto the river. The barge was filling with water. It had been damaged by the rocks. Louis would have to let go and take his chances in the river.
He slid down into the water as the barge dipped under. The barge pushed up against him as it was pulled along by the current. The water wasn’t deep. He tried to out run the barge that was rushing down river with the current, but could not. The massive wooden scow smashed him against some large rocks in shallow water at the river’s edge, trapping him there.
Louis’ mind tread on the very edge of consciousness. Water rushed passed him, covering most of his body and occasionally washing over his face. He didn’t know how bad he was hurt, but the cold water that had numbed him was subsiding and pain surged back.
Turning over toward the river Louis saw the wreck of his tug hopelessly stuck in the rapids. Its bow was submerged except for the cab peeking out from under the froth. It’s stern raised on rocks, just a few feet back. Large chunks of wood from the barge were tossed about. Louis turned his head away from it and gazed into the forest.
Louis felt his head swell. His vision fogged. He knew that his sight was slipping away, perhaps consciousness, maybe his life. There was no definition to anything he saw. No edges. Everything began to merge softly into everything else.
Then, as if he had been looking through a foggy window pane, the glowing lights he had seen before appeared in the forest. They seemed to grow out of the diffused world he was seeing. They grew brighter and more defined until he could see they were people dressed in bright white rain gear. Their suits glowed, lighting their way through the darkness. The large rain hats they wore covered their faces. They walked along the shore collecting the bodies that had fallen off the barge.
Did they see him? He wondered. Louis was afraid they would come for him too. Why would they? What would they do with the bodies? With his? His body was broken. He couldn’t move. He looked up at the dark canopy of trees above him. The forest’s dark green canopy turned black, as if a hole had developed within it. It fell gently down upon him, wrapping around him, cold and wet. He shivered. Then a wall of light swept across his field of view destroying the black void around him and filling his heart with anxiety and hope.
4.
Louis gagged as cold water swept across his face. He reached up with his hand. Suddenly, he was wrenched from the water by a stronger hand, lifting him into the air. Water discharged from his lungs. He opened his eyes. His savior held him close. The hug was genuine, familiar. The person held him out by his sides. A layer of tears trickled from his eyes and he could see that it was his Father; his cheerful face up close to his, smiling. “Louis!” His Father called out. “You’re okay, Louis”. His Mother appeared from behind, looking over Fathers’ shoulder, and said. “You made it, Louis.” Father put him down then took Mother’s hand and walked away from him, toward the docks just ahead. They stopped and turned to him. “Venga se, Louis!” He stared at them. Mother in her sleeveless flowery house dress. Father in his work clothes; jeans, a cotton plaid shirt, boots and a black cap on his head. Louis looked down to his feet squishing in a large puddle of water. He ran to them, a child of ten, stood between them and held their hands. They walked to the docks, where he saw the Silence was restored. Unbroken as he had last seen.
They sat in metal folding chairs at the stern of the towboat. The silence of the river and the wild forest around them. Louis sat on his other’s lap. He saw his Father standing at the stern, with hands at his waist. Louis jumped from his Mothers’ lap, and ran to his Father. He said nothing. Then reached into his Fathers belt pocket, finding a gold plated pocket watch. He held it out in front of him, and popped the face open.
The watch had a white face. The numbers in Roman Numerals. The hands solid gold pins. He closed it. Turned it over and opened another little door. This side was a compass. The direction letters, N, S, E, W, were in gold, over a light green face, with degree markings trimming the perimeter. He closed that and then held the watch/compass to his heart. He looked to his Father, who looked back and smiled. Louis closed his eyes. There was peace for a moment. The silence continued.
Louis stood still as the sound of a light rain tapping at his face broke the silence. Yet no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t open his eyes. The trickle on his face was annoying. But the pain slowly coursing through his body, was unbearable. It saturated his whole body, every nerve, every muscle. He panted, heaving deep breaths. Then his eyes opened.
The sky was dark blue, dusk. The air was misty. All around, a blue overcast. Looking around, he saw the forest was now rusted metal wreckage, surrounding him and spiraling into a tunnel and falling away into darkness. Above the darkness, were mountains surrounding a valley of green rolling hills. Beyond them two shallow mountains stood closer together.
Trying to move, he saw that he was fused to the metal wreckage. Pain filled him like hot oil filling a plastic cup, as the metal cut through his skin. Was this hell?
Louis closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. Straddling over him, her face right up to his, was a woman. Her face was huge, distorted, as if he were looking through the bottom of a glass cup. Her eyes were like giant black holes, cold, dark and liquid.
“Do you want to go on living?” Whispered the woman.
“Yes.”
“Do you want to be free of the pain?”
“Who are you?” Asked Louis.
“I’m here to give you a choice. Answer the question.”
“Yes.”
“There are conditions.”
“I don’t care. Just help me. Stop the pain. Stop the pain!”
She stood up, like a giant, reaching into the sky with her right hand; touching the clouds. She looked down on him. Then walked away through the wreckage.
Rain fell lightly, cooling and soothing the wounds where the metal fused with him. Louis could move his arms, slowly, painfully, literally tearing himself from the metal, as the water seemed to soften the bond. He stood up. Blood flowed from the fresh wounds all over his body.
His muscles were numb from the pain. His bones still tender.
Louis looked at the field of metal all around him. Like a pile of junk rusted and crumbling, he saw the wreckage was the remnants of his life. Fused together as one giant abstract monument, he saw The Silence, rusted and molded into a giant heap of metal. From it grew the skeleton of the apartment he had shared with his wife. Wrapped in with the wreck a child’s tricycle, the wheel still turning. And a wedding dress was scorched and seared into the metal. And within a few feet of him, he saw one corner of the room he kept as a child in his Mother’s house. A little desk occupied the corner. On it, his toys . . . Among the toys, a small object twinkled. He reached for it. Toys fell away as he picked the object up. It was his Fathers pocket watch/compass. He held it up, letting the misty blue light touch it. He popped the watch side open. It had stopped working. Then he turned it, opening the other side for the compass. The needle spun continuously in a counter‑clockwise direction.
The rain was suddenly torrential, flooding the area. It flowed like a river, rushing through the twisted wreckage that had held him down. The ground was soft from the rain. Slippery. Louis looked up at the cloud quilted sky dancing violently. He reached down and held onto a piece of the wreckage. Looking back, he saw the water was rushing down the spiral toward the hole he saw before. A giant funnel developed, just a few feet from him. The rushing water pounded the rocks around the hole, erupting into a white foam, then rushed to slip into it. Louis held the watch to his heart, and closed his eyes as his feet slipped out from under him. The water’s strength pulled him down. The wreckage he held onto tore away with him. As he fell in to the spiral he whisked passed more scenes molded in metal, melted, worn and rusted . . .
Water streamed down into his mouth, into his stomach and lungs, filling his body, bloating him. He pushed it back out with a deep exhalation. He began to breathe water. He reached out in the darkness for something solid to hold onto. He tried opening his eyes, but it was too dark to see, so dark that he wasn’t sure he was really opening them.
So dark, yet there was mass. There was the sense of motion in the abyss. First of falling endlessly, passively, with fear, but without panic or worry. Hurtling into the nothingness that seemed to fill his senses throughout. The abyss then darkened unimaginably, the silent mass undulating all about him and coalescing to rush toward him. Darkness shifted about restlessly, rubbing against him like Jell‑O trickling down ones’ arm, burning cold. It wrapped around him tightly, filling his senses. Its thickness pressed upon him and grew heavy. He pressed against the abysmal Jell‑O darkness. It yielded then rushed to wrap around his extremity. It’s cold was searing. It’s pressure suffocating.
The pressure suddenly relaxed at the top of his head, and then was completely gone. Louis reached up passed the pressing darkness, to grasp the edge of an opening. He gripped it and allowed the pressure all around him to push him out from the darkness.
There was light. His eyes were closed. Water rushed up from within him, his lungs purged of a bitter fluid. A breath of air gagged him, then filled his lungs. They responded with an exhalation. The surface he knelt on was slippery, covered in the same gelatin he had just come from. He turned over and lay down on his back. He opened his eyes. The light seemed to come from everywhere. A fog softened his vision. He saw shapes, heard voices, felt a touch to his eyes. Then darkness fell as he sensed his eyes closing.
Louis slept.
5.
Louis’ hand hung to the side of the bed. The watch/compass fell from it and shattered on the smooth wood floor. Louis awakened, sitting up to see that he was in a small room made of giant bamboo rods with a tan fabric wrapped around and stretched between them.
The bamboo rods were of varying size, rising perhaps twenty feet above and arching across to meet other rods, creating a web of bamboo buttresses. Wrapped around the bamboo rods and stretching between them to form walls were fabric sheets that seamlessly evolved from the bare ground floor, giving the room an organic feel.
The air was warm and moist. The room was bright. Sunlight filled the room with a glow. He stood up from the bed and collapsed upon touching his feet to the ground. His strength seemed nonexistent. His body trembled. Frail and seemingly useless. He saw the watch on the floor and bent over to examine it. The glass was broken. The watch face damaged. The hands’ missing. He scooped up the damaged clock and glass, then carefully stood up using the bed to lean on. He looked about for a waste basket, and found one below the mirror across the room on the other side of the bed. He walked toward it, tossed the broken watch in it, then stood up straight and looked in the mirror. There he saw someone else.
Louis reached to touch his cheek and so did the other man. He was as tall as Louis, but thinner, better built. His skin darker, almost reddish. The hair was full and black. His eyes were very light brown, his lashes long, his eyebrows dark and fuller. The cheekbones higher and more pronounced. This was not the man he once was. Though, the man in the mirror was him.
Louis touched his chest with both hands, massaging the firm muscles, the skin ultra‑sensitive. Strong, restored and reconditioned; like new, feeling that it was truly wrapped around him. He looked down the length of his body. His stomach and abdomen almost flat. The legs were barely hairy, full and muscular.
How had this happened to him? It seemed to Louis that, moments ago he was dying, in the rushing water of the river, where strange people in their bright white rain gear, collected the bodies that had fallen from the barge. Did they collect him too? Did they bring him back to life in someone else’s body?
Louis stood silent, listening for a moment when it suddenly occurred to him he could hear voices coming from the hallway outside his room.. The soft murmur of dozens of people milling about somewhere nearby.
He moved across the room to the window and looked out across the jungle. The bright green moist leaves glistened in the hot sun. He looked down through the trees. His room was perhaps one hundred feet above ground. The forest floor merged with the base of the bamboo and tan fabric walls and disappeared downhill into the forest. There were more voices in the forest, but he couldn’t locate them.
Back in the room he could find nothing to wear and so without so much as a clue to where he was going, Louis walked the halls naked, and upon touching the walls they recoiled, as if he were touching living tissue. He passed his hand lightly on the tissue following it’s grain down to the ground. Where wall and floor should have met there was no seam; the wall seemed to grow out of he ground. He looked up in amazement, spinning about on his heels, noting that if he looked carefully at the structure all around him, it breathed; gently stretching and contracting.
However, the walls were deceiving. Again he heard voices. They seemed to be ringing with the sound of the voices. Every wall he put his ear to, he heard the same voices. As if they were being carried throughout the castle working as a phone would, transmitting sound throughout. The voices could be coming from a room farther beyond the walls would reveal to him. He wandered longer, eager to see the faces to these voices.
“Hello,” said a sweet female voice.
Louis looked to see a middle aged woman standing at the end of the hall. Unlike Louis, she was dressed in a knee length sheer red sari.
“I have something for you to wear,” she said as she presented him with the clothes thay lay in her arms.
Louis walked to her, took the clothing and dressed himself in a soft blue colored tunic and shorts the felt warm and moist, but not wet. The fabric touched his skin, caressing it.
“Are you hungry?” She asked.
“Yes.” Said Louis.
“Follow me.”
Louis could hear music in the distance, that grew louder as he followed the woman through the castle. The music was the sound of drums beating a relentless mambo rhythm.
“Where are we?”
“You’ll see,” said the woman. She seemed, at first sense, to be in her fifties, but her body was that of a mid‑twenty year old. Louis followed from behind, watching and admiring her gait; the muscles in her legs rippling, wiggling her buns as each leg pressed down on the firm soil floor.
They turned corner after corner winding their way through organic halls. The walls seemed to ripple in excitement, that increased as they came closer to the source of the music.
They came to stand at the landing of a stairwell that led down to a large room opening out to a garden. There was a party going on with fifty or more people.
A few of them looked to him, then turned away and continued with what they were doing. Some were in conversation with others. Some sat alone with a large ledger style book. Others stood about eating food from a buffet near the giant open double doors leading to the garden. Some people were dancing to the mambo music coming from the band just below the steps.
“Come down, ” said the woman.
She led him down into the crowded room, passed mingling groups of people, to the buffet table.
“Eat what you like, ” she said to him.
“Everyone. This is . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t ask you you’re name.”
“Louis.”
“Louis? Everyone, this is Louis.”
They all looked confused at first, then greeted and thanked him.
Another woman rushed up to him, a drink in her hand for him and asked, “How do you like it? Does it feel as good as you expected. I personally feel better. Far beyond what I expected to.”
Louis stared at her unsure of what she meant and answered. “Wonderful.” Then he realised that she was asking about his new body! She meant the body! But how did she know? How did any of them know?
He stood near the garden doors to eat and watched them all in the room, wandering in and out of the garden. He studied their faces, wondering who they were. They seemed familiar to him. They knew who he was, but he had no idea who they were. He took note of a young girl sitting at the far corner of the room. She was the only one who wasn’t smiling and wasn’t taking part in the party. She played with her food for a moment, then put the plate down, stood up and rushed out into the garden. Few of the others noticed her go.
Their rapid fire conversations continued as if they hadn’t talked in years. They talked of their past, the families they left behind. How most of their family didn’t care about them. They talked like old people. As if they had lived long lives. They talked of things their youthful bodies could never allow them to tell.
“Welcome, Louis.”
Louis turned to see a man about his age standing next to him, but looking up to the sky.
“The colors of the sky should be wonderful tonight,” he said.
“Should they?” Asked Louis.
“They always are! Well, since I’ve been here.”
“What is here?”
“The rest of your life, Louis. The castle is your servant. Your guide and protector. What ever you need, ask and it will be brought to you. Whatever you wish to learn of or about, you will find in the hypertext journals.”
“Hypertext journals?”
“Yes,” said the man. “Those large books some of the residents have on their laps.”
Louis had seen the large red leather bound books when he first entered.
“They hold a great amount of knowledge. The trick is to know what question to ask.”
“Tell me about the forest,” asked Louis.
“Fascinating, to say the least. Animals and fauna, trees and earth that you’ve never seen before. It’s ecology is as vast as the journals. The wood from it’s trees lives on after you have cut from it. Such as all the instruments on stage.”
Louis admired the music. The solid driving rhythm mesmerized him. Though he couldn’t remember where he had seen him before, the violinist looked very familiar to him. The violinist performed a solo. The sound haunting and attractive. The violin, made from wood of the forest, was alive and quivering. He looked at a woman, then another man, finding them all familiar. The excitement of the music and their chatter, the rush of their faces as he looked back and forth between them all made him dizzy. The image continued to unreel in his mind. Faces rushing past, without life, blank strares from empty cadavers as they rolled off the deck of a damaged barge.
All at once he realized who they were. The dead man who rolled down the barge and fell on him before falling off into the water. The woman who fell passed him, her hand catching his thigh as if she were still alive and grasping for life as the rush of bodies pulled her away.
All these people were the dead people he had towed upriver in the barge. These people were once dead! Which meant, he too was dead! Was his new body one of those on the barge?
There was a sudden rush of anxiety, fear and amazement. Louis placed his plate of food on the table before he dropped it, then rushed into the garden.
He came upon the same young girl he saw leave the room earlier. She was sitting on a small white towel on the ground, in front of a tombstone.
She turned to him. “Hello Louis,” she said.
Louis looked at the stone and read the name, “Maria Correa.”
“Was that you?” He asked.
“I am me!” She said. “It is my body that is buried.”
“Am I dead?”
“No Louis. You are alive. Your body is gone, though.”
“And whose body is this?”
“Yours now.”
“Before it was mine?”
“I don’t know. Someone who passed on of course.” She looked at him as he stared off.
“How did you get here?”
“This was offered to me in a dream. As it was to everyone else. Including you.”
“What was?”
“A second life. In a new body before the old one died. It came to me in a series of dreams. She sat with me.”
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know. She offered a life beyond death at the time of my death, if I wished. But there were terms that I would have to live by. At the time I thought those terms were acceptable. I was alone. My family had virtually abandoned me for most of my elderly life, except for when I was dying. That was when the dreams began. Perhaps it was when I needed them most.”
She smiled as a wise old woman would smile.
“What were those terms?” Asked Louis.
“To live here. Immortal. With a new body. I was told that to go beyond a certain point outside of the castle, I would suffer, grow old and eventually die. That can’t happen here.”
She looked down at the grave stone.
“The others didn’t want to keep their bodies. But I kept mine. And buried it here. I lived in it for 92 years. I couldn’t just get rid of something that had carried me for so long. I wanted a place for it. Like an old suit. Now I have a 92 year old self inside of a 22 year old body. And for what? To spend eternity in this new suit. In this place. And never experience in all that time, what I had experienced in 92 years. We are fools to think one could escape the pain of a miserable life by just replacing your body and going on with no strings attached.”
“Then why are you here?” Asked Louis. “If with a new body you can start over again, then do it.”
“It isn’t that easy, Louis. We all agreed to the conditions. No one is forcing you, but the alternative is no different than before.” She stood up and turned to face him, revealing the beauty of her body.
“I’m going in to sit with the others. Will you join me?”
“You’re mad!” Louis turned from her and ran into the room where all were dancing feverishly to the music.
“Are you all mad?” The music stopped. The dancing stopped. His cry chilled the room. The membrane walls seemed to quiver. The group looked at him in amazement.
“You are! Aren’t you? To be given the chance to go on living in new bodies, then stay here and vegetate!”
Maria walks into the room behind him and says, “Weren’t you ever told. Wasn’t this chance offered to you ‑ “
“Yes. It was. But are we prisoners?”
“You can leave if you want to. But you will die. You will suffer.” Said Maria.
“You are supposed to live here forever,” said a woman who sounded old. “That is part of the agreement. You can leave but the sphere of influence that keeps our bodies alive is limited. To go beyond that limit is certain death. All who go through this understand that they must stay here, and never leave.”
“I do not want to be here. With a new body I could start over. We all could.”
“And suffer as we had before? Do you really want to risk immortality for the same choices you had before?”
“Oh Maria! You just told me how you feel about staying here and learning less throughout infinity than you did in the 92 years you lived before.”
“But I can find other ways to learn. Other things. It’s certainly better than going back out there and growing old and miserable again. Elderly men and women, the sick and the dying, were given the chance to live longer in reconditioned bodies. These are people who seek to have new bodies, who want to continue their lives. And they don’t care where. Just as long as they can. Is that worth nothing to you, Louis?”
“You all talk of your pasts’, as if you mourned them.”
Louis rushed over to a man sitting at the far end of the room.
“You! I heard you say how much you loved your daughter. Enjoyed being a Father . . .”
“But she is old,” said the man. “I could never have that back.”
“Like childhood Louis,” said Maria. “You recall all the innocent memories of your youth and long to have them but never really want them back. That’s all that was.”
They all stood in silence, looking at Louis who turned away to look into the garden.
“Louis. Let your past die with the body you left behind.”
“No. What I need to do with my new body, I need to do outside. It can’t be done here.”
“Louis,” pleaded Maria.
“I can’t be kept here. Is that correct?”
“Yes.”
“Then I will leave.”
“But that isn’t the question, Louis. The question is, do you want to go back to what you had? Is it us? Or something you left undone in your past? This isn’t a time machine. You will encounter a whole new set of problems out there. But it will always be you trying to solve them.”
Louis ran up the stairs and out into the hall, losing himself in the labyrinth. His new body weakened, collapsing against a wall that seemed to caress his back, trying to soothe him. Tears filled his eyes. His head reared back and from deep within erupted a cry filled with so much sorrow, that the walls cried with him.
6.
Louis lay in bed, his eyes wide open, reaching into the darkness of the arched ceiling above him. He studied the intricate design of living tissue as it changed from one design into another; like watching clouds against a blue sky coalescing then separating in moments.
Darkness reached in from the damp forest outside to fill the room and blind him.
The bed suddenly became cold and hard. His legs and arms stiffened, then became paralyzed.
His eyes opened to the darkness. Grotesque faces, like giant bodiless mardi gras masks, appeared from the darkness all around him. They jutted swiftly in and out of the darkness, taking turns at berating him as he lay helpless.
“You were offered a new life,” said one with a yellow mop for hair dangling over its elephant face.
“And now you condemn the favor,” said the next with eyes that filled its face, and tiny puckered lips that didn’t move.
“There were terms.”
“I didn’t understand,” said Louis.
“Does that mean you might have decided differently?”
“Maybe.”
“Maybe, he says.”
“We should have let you die”
“We saved you”
“From that miserable existence you called a life”
“Ingrate”
“We thought this offering was ideal. You make it seem less so.”
“The others’ are satisfied”
“Why aren’t you?”
“Ingrate”
They suddenly stopped. In the darkness around him he could see these hideous shapes moving about, mumbling.
Then a voice said, “relax. Do not move.”
He felt a strap rest on his forehead, then tighten.
“What is that? that hurts. What’s happening?”
“Nothing you could ever understand.”
All at once the top of his head ached. First at the center, then quickly spreading to the sides of his head. The pain swelled like a metal balloon expanding inside his head. He winced from a pain so sharply focused, that he was unable to scream.
All at once, it stopped.
Louis sat naked against a slimy cold stone wall. His head and all the hair on his body were shaven. The cell was dark. The walls once clean stone now covered in moss. A thin sheet of slimy water coated the floor. Water fell down on him from the darkness above. The rapping of the water drops aggravating the pain in his head. He lay crouched in a fetal position, with his knees and elbows resting on the floor, the water pounding his back. For as long as he could remember, water always fell from above. He could remember nothing else. As if there were nothing else to remember. The water fell on his shaven body, flowing over him, channeling itself into his cupped hands. He breathed into the water, gasping for what little air he could get in between the drops.
Louis kneeled from his fetal position, looked up and saw a forest canopy overhead. The sky was dark. Storm clouds rushed by, releasing water that crashed through the leaves and into the forest. He was dressed in his blue sleeveless tunic and shorts, a wide brimmed hat, and moccasin boots. A large satchel lay on the ground beside him.
Louis stood up. The drenching rain cut through the damp, hot jungle air. It settled on the brim of his hat, then trickled down like clear string unraveling down to the ground. His clothes were soaked and heavy. He looked around through the curtain of rain pouring from his hat and saw,
He came upon a mass of roots that had grown as thick as the trees, reaching across to other trees, joining limbs to intertwine and create a wall. He walked along its perimeter until he came upon a thin lattice of roots. He looked through them to the other side and saw nothing different. Nothing to keep him from crossing over.
Louis reached down for the satchel and climbed the root wall to its top and stood there for moment thinking of the new life he had to start over with. Just a jump from this wall and he was free again. Free to experience what he hadn’t before. Free to live his life as it should have been. He looked down to the forest floor, and there, halfway up the wall, lay a human skeleton. Pieces were missing; a forearm, a foot. But the skull was there. The skeleton lay on its side, as if it had struggled to climb the wall back from the other side and never made it, then fell over and lay down to die. It’s head was reared back, looking up at him. The eye sockets wide black holes like stunned eyes in revelation of what was happening. Its bottom jaw hung open, as if it had let out a final cry for help.
Louis stared at the skeleton for a while, never moving from his perch atop the wall. He looked farther into the forest ahead. Scattered all about were other skeletons, hidden behind trees. Others lay on the ground covered in foliage. He looked harder and could see bones scattered all about. Animals had gotten to them.
Were they like him, given immortality, disdaining it to go on with a life outside. Or were they travelers who had heard of the castle and it’s enchanted forest.How long had this gone on? How long did they lie there dying? Too weak to return. How long was their struggle to come back. And why? Why come back? What had they seen outside that made them return? If any, how many had left and survived without coming back?
Louis relaxed, then turned around and jumped from the top of the wall to the ground. He peeked through the web of roots and saw the skeleton that had reached the wall. The wind whistled through it’s skull.
Louis turned away and walked back into the forest.
He could tell he was in a valley; the forest rising up away from him in all directions, though the dense canopy didn’t reveal how far up it all went. There were no paths that he could see leading anywhere through the forest. The forest was dense around him and seemed to grow denser in every direction.
Louis then stepped over to a large tree and squat down next to it, letting the branches and giant leaves near the trunk relieve the pounding of the rain. He looked inside the satchel and found nothing in it. He closed it then tied it around his waist. He sat down on the ground and leaned against the tree. The roots were like giant tethers reaching out from the tree base and the ground around it, then winding through the forest floor, mingling with any and all the trees nearby. The intertwining roots formed layers all around him, like stairways and pathways . . . pathways! Pathways!
Louis stood up and looked around at the forest and suddenly realised the roots were rippling by‑ways winding under the suffocating growth of fauna on the forest floor. The root‑paths traveled in all directions away from and passed him. He was reminded of cobblestone streets. Though these living root‑paths seemed chaotic. Many of them crisscrossed like intricate weaves, while others doubled back and wound around on themselves, so that if someone were not careful to pay attention to their direction, one would get lost and end up going around in circles.
Louis had no idea what he was to do next. At first there was no path to walk and now there were too many paths to chose from. Logic pointed him toward the nearest hill which he imagined would inevitably become a mountain and allow him a view of the landscape he was to traverse.
The trail of tree roots led Louis along a myriad of twist and turns, up and down hills, and thin paths along cliff edges, until he came upon a stretch of root path that gently wound uphill along the outside of a mountain. The trees that had manufactured the path had grown close together and leaned away from the face of the mountain, forcing Louis to walk slanted to his left. As he walked he used vines that grew everywhere and in every direction, as hand rails that were conveniently within reach; as if they had been grown to be hand rails and help the weary climber.
From there he looked all around. The storm clouds rushed by in a stampede. He turned slowly around, taking the view in one grand panoramic sweep, until he came upon the sight of the castle sitting on a low mountain, miles away. All he could see, though were the warm colored towers reaching up through the canopy. He wondered of every one else and their perpetual party.
He sees a mighty waterfall filling a gorge situated between to mountains. The water then rushed away into the forest.
He crossed the summit, walking away from the castle, deeper into the forest. Until
He walked for hours near to nightfall and came upon a mountain that looked over the wall into the forest on the other side. He set his satchel down and started a small fire.
That night he sat up and made a small ax from stones he found in the area. He used several stones before he was able to fashion one sharp enough to cut wood. He then slept until the sun was up again and began to build a lean‑to. He gnawed at the fresh moist wood with the small inadequate stone tool he had made the night before.
By the end of the day he finished the lean‑to. The open side faced the root wall. The skeletons were all in full view from there. He would live here to ponder his questions. At the edge of the forest. Forever indecisive. Unable to look forward to death to end his misery. For Louis was immortal. His destiny and fate were still the same. It was set long before he was born.
The skeletons would forever say this to him.
copyright

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