Life Among the Savages, Part 18.
There was, due to my scientifical leanings, some corner or segment of my mind that was quite intrigued with the discovery of the femurs, and which could not help but puzzle over their presence and theorize on their origin. Why only femurs? And how had the femurs arrived here in their current condition, cleaned almost as if ready for a museum, yet not catalogued or organized in any way? The possibilities, though they could not help but maintain a frustrating vagueness given the paucity of available clews, were without exception unpleasant. However, it was only a small portion of my reason that concerned itself with the provenance of the bones, as the rest was engaged in a much more primal line of thought, namely removing myself from the vicinity of the bones, and anyone (or thing) that might be responsible for their condition.
Whatever small debate occurred between these two aspects of my judgment was quickly neutralized by the emergence of what I can only describe as a malevolent gurgling somewhere nearby, and then a handful of words uttered in a language which I did not recognize, but which was guttural and salivary in character and immediately filled me with both dread and nausea. After hearing that unrepeatable sentence, self-preservation won out against curiousity, and I fled with all due haste.
I am unsure as to how long I ran, considered either in time or distance. The nature of the cabinet’s interior confounded reliable estimates, and the natural fear I experienced near the entrance to the cabinet would have made any of my guesses equally faithless. Eventually I noticed that I was screaming, however, and wisely stopped once my rationality returned, as it could give away my position to whatever might be inside the cabinet with me. I continued running so as to maximize the distance between myself and whatever lurked near the entryway, though naturally, given the cabinet’s qualities, I could not determine a safe distance. I was about to slow to a walking pace, and see if I could detect any signs of a pursuer, when my progress through the darkness was abruptly halted, as a pale and ghostly face loomed with great suddenness out of the impenetrable black afore me.
Seized with fear, my actions governed only by the unthinking instincts that placed survival above all else, I swung my lanthorn at the spectral visage, propelling my arm through the darkness with every ounce of strength that I could muster. One might well imagine my shock when the lanthorn not only impacted upon some substantive object, but elicited a reaction from that object, in the form of an exuberant shriek.
I held my lanthorn up to gaze upon what I had presumed to be some supernatural entity, but which now – in the miraculously unextinguished flame of my trusty lanthorn – was clearly a man of normal corporeality. True, he was shaggy and unkempt, with sunken cheeks and a matted beard, and the combination of his disheveled appearance and his sudden and incongruous arrival directly in my path would have been a source of perturbation for anyone in a circumstance such as my own, but he was in the end, merely a man, with nothing of the eldritch about him.
I said, “I suppose some amount of explanation is in order, and perhaps some expression of my remorse as well, as I certainly did not intend to harm anyone who did not seek to inflict injury on me, though of course I could not have known whether or not you meant to harm me, as I did not know you were so close to me, or even nearby, or in fact anywhere inside this cabinet at all, as I believed I was alone inside this construction, except perhaps for a malevolent force which I believe is hunting me through this vast, dark expanse.”
The man regarded me sullenly, while massaging the side of his face which had absorbed the brunt of the blow.
“Perhaps you can see,” I continued, “how I may have arrived at my erroneous conclusions about you and not immediately recognized your inherent humanity, given the profound darkness of this space, and your remarkably quiet manner of walking, and of course your own lack of personal illumination. A lanthorn.”
The man persisted in his sullenness.
“Now, however,” I said, “it is clear you are a man, and not a dread apparition intent on malicious acts against my person, so I do apologize for accidentally striking you, though I must say that perhaps this situation could have been avoided, had you been carrying a lanthorn of your own or had you not been so inaudible when you approached.”
The man looked on, his expression unchanged.
Feeling that perhaps a return to more civilized comportment might brush aside any lingering ill feeling, I introduced myself to the man, and stretched out my hand to him in genial camaraderie. After some time, he clasped my proffered palm with his free hand in a firm but unenthusiastic manner. “You speak English,” he asked, and I said with pride that I was indeed fluent in the language, and spoke it with, dare I say, both skill and flourish, having even received awards in my youth for the precision and eloquence of my oratorical machinations from no less than two different educational establishments, but the man interjected before I could expound upon my accomplishments in greater detail.
“I’ve no need for your curriculum vitae, your long-winded explanations have been proof enough. I was not asking so much as verifying aloud what I heard. It has been a long time since I heard another voice speaking English. A very long time…”
“How long have you been in this place?” I asked, and while the man attempted to calculate the length of his imprisonment, some of the hardness left his eyes, and indeed something close to melancholy appeared up in them, evidenced by tears which welled up upon their surfaces. However, almost as soon as his sadness revealed itself, he reached for his eyes and pushed the errant beads away while clearing his throat.
“I do not know how long I have been here. I am no longer sure this is even a place. I think that I might be dreaming, and trapped in sleep, so what might be a moment in the waking world is stretching out to eternity. Only in a dream would such a place make sense, with its unending darkness and limitless space. But does one grow a beard in a dream? Is one attacked by strangers with lanterns in a dream, who then apologize in the most roundabout language conceivable? Does one wander without food, or water, or sleep, for what seems to be weeks, months, perhaps even years and find no exit, no landmarks, no sign of any change in the realm in which he is trapped? The answer to all these questions is yes, or at least these things can happen. That you nearly broke my jaw is, ironically, a hopeful proof that this has not been a dream, or is no longer a dream, but it is not conclusive proof, and I am no longer certain that any proof could be conclusive. I have been here forever, or I have never truly been here at all.”
I was, for a moment, struck dumb. Such poetry lay in this man’s words, and such nobility! In a few moments he had laid out his sorry plight, wandering lost in a bewildering, unknown, unknowable place, without even a lanthorn to guide him, and described his very existence in words that not only evoked the very essence of that plight, but also could not fail to rouse the deepest sympathies within anyone who heard them. What an ordeal this man had suffered, and – I wagered – through no fault of his own, as had I suffered mine. I was overwhelmed with compassion for this man, and his suffering, so I pursued the only course of action that I felt might console him, given my own circumstances and limited resources: assuming an expression of benevolence and gratitude, I set down my lanthorn, stepped forward and grabbed the noble man’s shoulders, and began to shake him, with all the violence I could muster.
The man endured this treatment for some time, longer than I imagine I might, had our roles been reversed. He made no verbal or physical entreaty for me to stop, instead only staring at me, with eyes that in retrospect I realized were quite piercing and unwavering in their intensity. I returned his stare with a gracious smile, understanding that his capacity for expressing thankfulness or even comprehension of what I was doing might at the moment escape him, given his long period of solitude, and only explained myself when his faculties returned enough for him to phrase his inquiry as he felt best.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked, in a voice unusually calm for such invective.
“Worry not, my friend,” I said, “and I hope I can call you friend, as I feel a bond has grown between us in the brief time we have become acquaintanced. I am bestowing upon you the gift of certainty, which is unfortunately the only gift I can provide at the moment. Surely even the deepest of sleeps could not survive such an rousing onslaught of shaking! This is no dream, and I am no phantasm of that dream. However strange, this is your waking life.”
The man put his hands upon my own and pushed them from his arms, and I knew I had been successful. I took up my lanthorn once more. “I hope I was not unnecessarily brusque, interrupting your introduction as I did, but your state of mind seemed more urgent than the rote observance of propriety,” I said, and then chuckled a little. My new friend must have been collecting his thoughts, and adjusting to the revelation that he was in fact awake and in the real world (however unreal it might seem), for he made no immediate response, instead staring at me, or perhaps merely staring in my direction while choosing how best to proceed. I waited patiently for his response, feeling any additional requests on my part would be unseemly.
The man exhaled deeply and said, “My name is Volker Herman Spiegel, last survivor of the von Kant expedition.”