The jaguar in the cloud
Posted by Rich Magahiz Fri, 08 Mar 2013 13:00:00 GMT
We packed our instruments and our guns on the curious low canoes employed by the natives and made our way westward from Manaus, thinking only of the words of the spirit talker who refused to come with us. “It is not for mortal men,” we were told by our translator, “and to go there is to go to your deaths.”
It’s not as though we hadn’t heard that before. The Colonel, of course, was well accustomed to maintaining his wits when exposed to extreme danger of a violent sort. My own travels, while not quite so filled with strife, have seen me shaking of a pestilence or recovering from broken limbs or wild animal maulings more than I care to recount. We didn’t pass along this dire bit of augury to the savages who accompanied us in exchange for the white man’s gold, else we should have expected to have reduced the expedition from dozens to just the two of us, which would have been damn inconvenient. For if we had accomplished our goal of reaching the high seat of the cloud jaguar, with all the precious pieces of ancient starcraft our guides have indicated would be waiting there, we would properly need two or three times as many of us to bring back the precious artifacts to the outside world.
We did not really believe there was any great peril waiting for us there, isolated in the cloud forest away from all the known bands of cannibals, and high enough that we could begin to stop worrying about the anaconda and the panther. “Cloud jaguar” we believed to be a ceremonial title, perhaps mistranslated from some dead tongue employed by the original builders of the stronghold. The extreme remoteness of the place was its chief peril, but we were well stocked not only with medical supplies and ordinary provisions but also with several excellent examples of the gunsmith’s art, which rarely left our hands or those of our trusted foremen.
As we paddled up the tributaries of the Amazon, higher and higher, my concern began with the curious dreams that occupied my fitful sleep, in glimpses of half-remembered visions at first, but eventually drawn-out epics that would leave me thrashing and calling out in the night, according to my fellows. The predominate image was that of a great bird, green as a ripe melon and as large as a pony, which bore down on me from what seemed like many directions at once, its curved beak and slashing talons missing my skin by a mere hairsbreadth. To touch its gaudy feathered breast would mean certain destruction, for its feathers were tipped with a substance toxic even at a distance, transfixing those around it with a fainting numbness that soon led to coma. I was fleeing, on foot, on horseback, and finally at the last moment cast out in midair to escape this avenging spirit. As I fell from the jagged cliff I would see the seat of the cloud jaguar nestled among the spines of granite and it would suck the breath clear out of my lungs.
This was generally when the Colonel would be shaking me by the shoulder to awaken me. He was a gruff old gentleman at the best of times, but these outbursts of terror, two, three times a night would cause a look of concern to cross his face. I would be breathing heavily, trying to gulp down all the air I could, while he would be saying “There, there, Reverend, steady yourself now, there’s nothing here to trouble you, my lad.” By and by I would return to my senses and it was with immense gratitude that I would thank my traveling companion for his evident concern.
By this time the draft of the canoes would be too much for the little stream we were following, and we arranged to transfer the expedition’s supplies to a string of burros that will bring them and us up the steep mountains looming up into the perpetual tropical rainclouds.
As the thick South American air of the lowlands gave way to the bracingly cool temperatures of the mountain paths some of our bearers started to grow restless. Mind you, these men were chosen not only for their stout backs but also for the sturdiness of their temperaments in the face of an expedition few have ever contemplated, yet these native folk took on a wide-eyed, furtive look with much whispering after sunset when the tenuous shadows closed in. Some of it might be attributed to my own nightly distress, which had become common knowledge to all, but I could tell that it was not simply apprehension as to what evil spirits my own heart contained that weighed down the steps of our band. As for the Colonel, he never gave word nor sign that the approach towards the end of our journey was anything but an emergence into a blessed realm. I always considered that his spirit was forged in the same smithies that produced the heroes of the ancient epics, so pure was his focus upon the ultimate outcome.
One day we reached a rocky ledge that presented a splendid vista back over scores of leagues of country we have traversed by expending much sweat, and to a man we paused and looked back at the green immensity. The air was perceptibly thinner now, and we would often joke that the ideal traveling-companion now would be one that is half-angel. Our stopping place was by no means a summit, but merely a gentle undulation of the foothills of the steep escarpments of grey granite we could see before us. The head of our guides I could see now unwrapping one of the cheroots he habitually clasped between his jaws and allowing a few bits of tobacco to fall to the ground. I questioned the man, whose name was Quimeno, on this, and he demurred initially, but eventually confessed the need to make an offering to the cloud jaguar here in this place that gave him some ritual feeling. I was by no means put off by this heathen notion, seeing in Quimeno a fellow who recognizes the insuperable powers against which a man must strive in order to make sense of himself as a man, even though his structure of belief is not organized along Christian lines.
I smiled at Quimeno and said, “I do hope your token is accepted by the powers watching over this place and helps to preserve us.” I knew he understood by the gap-toothed grin he gave me in return and the way he clasped my hand then.
That night was the first night of the birds. Soot-black in the camplight and perilously close to our naked faces and hands, the multitude swooped down at us as we slept and startled the light sleepers with the sound of their wings through the mountain mist. As the Colonel and I were in a tent, we were among the last to be roused by the commotion, and yet we could hear the sound like scythes through high grain and the excited whispering of our guides. As usual, I was racked with my own personal woes, so the Colonel peeped out through the flap and witnessed the source of the wonder himself. He did not want to endanger either of us by opening the tent flap any wider, he explained to me later, but what he was able to see in the fitful illumination of the abandoned campfires was enough to corroborate the fragmentary testimony of our fellow expeditioners, what was left of them by morning.
For we awoke to find that half of our native bearers had fled, many of them without what little belongings they owned. I could not for the life of me understand how any man could have run pell-mell down such a steep trail without risking a plunge down a fifty or hundred foot slope.
“Well, perhaps some of them did just that, Reverend,” said the Colonel, “not as though any of us will ever rightly know.”
I kept quiet about my own personal demons then, thinking of the broken bodies of men who had just the previous morning walked beside me. Even though my winged tormentors were five foot long and green as tree snakes instead of crow-sized and -hued but eerily silent I did not care to compare the capacity of each type to induce a panic. Besides, there was plenty of real work to do, to sort through our various burdens and leave behind what could be spared for lack of bearers to hoist them. Our scientific instruments and the journals in which recorded our experiences were sacrosanct, but everything else including the stores of food we had carried all this way at such great effort were no longer considered strictly essential on our final push.
As we built up heaps of our provisions by the side of the mountain path the topic of our conversation turned to the very raison d’etre of our expedition to the seat of the cloud jaguar itself. For me, even in my weakened and febrile state, it was really not a matter of debate, for I had announced my intention to bring the secrets of the builders of the mountain fastness to the Western world and I would do so or perish in the trying. Gradually, however, I came to understand that my fellow explorer saw things in quite a different fashion
“You understand, my dear boy, that I find myself weighing the benefits of attaining our goal, which I acknowledge freely to be monumental, against the laudable and entirely reasonable advantages of avoiding what appears to be a foul curse laid up against any who would take up this challenge.”
“Why no, Colonel, this is utterly the first time such a consideration has entered my mind. Because our wilderness camp was beset by sooty birds of some sort by nightfall, you conclude that we proceed in a godforsaken path now?”
“Not only that, but also the loss of the major part of our natives, and the repeated night terrors that visit you, which even you cannot deny smack of some spiritual warning, am I not correct? How much more misfortune is needed before a rational man must conclude that whatever vows he has taken to accomplish some deed must be withdrawn precisely to retain the honour one once had?”
I set down a cask of spirits overly forcefully then and saw a trickle leak out onto the granite. “Really, now, if you would have me think that continuing on to unlock the marvels we had sworn to free from thousands of years of silence is a matter that brings shame upon the two of us, I do not know that I very much like what is being insinuated.”
He took me by the shoulder then. “There now, perhaps I am expressing myself poorly. Nobody’s saying that it’s a matter of sin to reach the place, even despite all the warnings we’ve had. Just that after a certain amount of sacrifice may be called for, a sensible person may well decide to pick another battle, that’s all.”
I took him by the hand then. “Come, I do apologise. It is my weariness and the lack of air making me talk. Only say the word about our unsuitedness to do what others have tried and failed, and I’ll meekly follow you back down, I will. But make a compelling argument based in reason, that’s all I ask.”
The other man stood then for quite a long moment without reply. His eyes were twinkling when at last he looked back up at me and murmured, “Nay, vicar, it is my lot to follow and yours to lead. So lead on!” Gathering our sacks and the few guides we still had with us, we resumed our march up into the dazzling South American mist.
Some hours later we were interrupted in our climb by the fall of white flakes that eddied around our heads. Snow, virtually at the equator, no longer the far-off prominences we had glimpsed between the trunks of trees towering over us.
“We have now entered into the cloud,” said I, and as soon as I did so I wondered whether the Colonel would suspect me of having slipped into my delirium. But his look was kindly instead and seemed to acknowledge the same wonders that had arrested my steps.
He puffed his breath heavily as he started to say, “Aye, the true land of the cloud jaguar,” but then suddenly stopped. For mingled with the whiteness there came once again those shapes of blackness that had beset our party once before, birds by the hundred driving past us like a strong wind. We flattened ourselves against the bare rock now crusted with ice, as a mortal terror gripped all our hearts. From a corner of my vision I saw the things rising up out of a cleft in the mountain, whirling now round and round us, and it was as though my companion’s words had summoned them up by name.
Beside the two of us was a man with a look on his face I had never seen before, his eyes rolled up into their sockets and his mouth twisted into a rictus without sound. It was Quimeno who had not abandoned us when so many of his fellows had panicked. I was about to call up some words to steady his nerves when I suddenly came to think that his expression actually looked less of horror than of transcendence, with his arms outstretched toward the source of the dusky swarm. Dimly I understood that this man was here for his own reasons, and not because he had been bound to us white men.
Crawling now, with a rifle in his arms, the Colonel was creeping around the slope toward the fissure. The snow was adhering to the back of his uniform in patches. I gathered my courage and pulled myself over the broken ground in similar fashion, hoping that we would find shelter away from the weather and from the uncanny black birds in that outcropping. What we found instead was a marvel we never could have imagined before: nestled in the living rock was a sculpted form hewn from the basalt in the shape of a great cat of the mountain, great yellow cabochons the size of soup-bowls set for its eyes. Settling back on the stones surrounding this apparition was the host of thousands of birds our arrival had disturbed. Dropping off to either side was a sheer expanse of loose stone which induced the strong sense of vertigo in me, recalling as it did my fever dreams and the sensation of menace.
“Colonel Fenton!” I called, and the rock face echoed my voice back at me. “Stay where you are, for the love of God!”
But it was already too late, as I witnessed the icy slope beneath the man crumble into dust, and I saw him falling, falling through the air speckled with snowflakes and his khaki form disappearing from sight. I felt a hand at the back of my neck, Quimeno was clutching me as I fought with all my strength to reach my comrade, but I was too weak and filled with grief to resist him then.
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