Life Among The Savages, Part 2.
Often in the days before I began my travels to the earth’s most distant and often inhospitable regions, I had heard preposterous tales of the remote and mysterious Land of R______, and could not determine if the nation was the victim of serial embellishment by scores of seafaring glory-hounds, or merely the product of drunkards’ fancy. And later, once my wandering had started in earnest and my own home was a distant hazy memory, the tale of R_______ grew no more consistent. The stories were sensational, hyperbolic, and seemed to describe forty different countries rather than one. The people of R_______ had eyes on the back of their heads, or nestled in the palms of their left hands, or they each carried lizards on their shoulders that saw for them. They were nine feet tall with blue skin, or four feet tall with silver skin, or of exactly average height with skin of beige or taupe, depending on the quality of light at the time.
They used giant carved stones for money, and spendthrifts who were unable to pay their creditors were literally crushed beneath their debt. Their eyes discerned subtleties of color that no other culture could perceive, but they were all painfully tone deaf, and their singing perforated eardrums. An ageless king ruled them, or a child queen, or a council of learned men, or a talking bird, or a giant clockwork mountain. They smelled of orange blossom honey, especially when they perspired. They could hear the private thoughts of others, and transmit their own thoughts through the aether. They drank fermented blood. They were cannibals. They were vegetarians. They ate lightning. They had gills like fish. They were born of angels. They could not be killed. They allowed their women to vote. From Cathay to Cardiff, from Moscow to Macondo, the stories were nigh-infinite in their variety and inventiveness, and not a single person who could relate his own amazing account of the Land of R________ had any facts to verify even the smallest detail of their tales. No one could even agree on the spelling of the name of the country, whether it was R_____ or R________ or R______ or R___________, (though to be fair, even my own homeland, the most civilized nation in the history of the world, has trouble with standardized (sic) spelling).
Nonetheless, no matter where ship or carriage comported me, there were always stories of R______, compelling and exotic, told by broken men and women whose eyes, as they related their experiences in that most mysterious land, took on a wistful, glittering aspect, as though they were remembering a time or place both precious and beloved, but also irretrievably lost to them. The consistency of these reactions, coupled with the inconsistency of the content of their stories, stoked a fire in my breast, a desire to discover the truth about R_______, whatever the cost, and whatever the peril to myself. I considered myself a man of science, or at least of learning, and wished not to traffic in the dreamy fairy stories that encircled the land, but instead to edify both myself and the world with a detailed record of all I discovered, hopefully with samples of the local flora, fauna, and precious elements, if such things could be acquired and preserved. The monetary gain that could be derived from such an undertaking, and from the potential trade agreements that could result and help to secure my passage home, also occurred to me, but always remained secondary to my desire for illumination.
It was in this state, inflamed by the spirit of discovery, that I set forth from my rented room in Kolkata to procure the services of a ship’s captain, and the best intelligence on the Land of R______ that I could afford. Given certain financial reversals which need not be detailed here, my resources were not quite as limitless as I hoped they might be, but soon enough I had retained both means of travel (commanded by one Captain Stagg, a seasoned mariner who had remarkably shiny teeth) and one highly reliable map, on which was recorded the most likely whereabouts of the Land of R________. Stagg would detour slightly to the north from his usual route, to deposit me on a Pacific isle from whence I could move into territory less known but more mystical, while he proceeded on to the Americas. “It’ll be no trouble at all,” he said, and squeezed my right shoulder. As we stood in the street finishing our business, it began to rain. Captain Stagg smiled, and I smiled politely in return. After a few minutes, I inquired if we might enter a nearby tavern, if he had more questions, as my hat was becoming soaked.
“Oh yes. Quite right,” he said, and continued to grip my arm in silence. He appeared to be enduring some kind of palsy, and I was uncertain how to extract myself from his hold. Sensing some other impetus must be applied to break the stalemate, I mentioned a nonexistent appointment that I was in danger of missing, and Stagg said “Almost done,” and a few moments later released my arm.
“We sail tomorrow. I’ll see you at the ship at dawn.” Stagg saluted and walked off.
It is perhaps easy, in hindsight, to view the captain’s peculiar behavior as a portent of future misadventure, but as I have learned repeatedly during my travels, such perspective exists only afterward, when reflection lends its more perceptive eye to past events. Further, I had seen (and would see) more peculiar ailments as I journeyed, especially in ship’s captains. And nothing could prepare me for the the true Land of R________, once it was revealed, for it made all so-called accounts of its existence seem flimsy and childish in comparison, and even the story of my journey to R_________ beggars the imagination. Regardless, in this brief encounter with the afflicted captain Stagg, my journey was begun, and would thereafter teem with wonders both beautiful and terrifying. No, the people of R_______ had no eyes in their palms or taste for human flesh, but (at the risk of spoiling later suspense), they did have a giant clockwork mountain, though it did not rule them. At least not in the conventional sense.
To be continued…