I am on an island, though it hardly seems right. Just a level patch of sand, encircled by a flat expanse of sea reaching out to calm horizon. I feel the desire to record my surroundings, but there is nothing here but three other men, and I cannot make my eye look at them for more than a brief glimpse. I feel I am waiting, but do not know for what-
-Movement! There – in the water, something approaches. I am frightened.
I remember being frightened, though now I am unsure why. The Indian has joined us, the Indian with a bandaged thigh, and he is surely nothing of great terror – at least not for me, or any of my compatriots.
Our motley crew I will now attempt to capture.
There is the ex-slave, Otta Benga. I feel that he is my friend, and though he wears the dried sweat and calluses of hard work in the fields, his skin radiates a pleasant chill whenever we stand near.
The latest to arrive is the Indian. Whenever we speak of Governor Odious he strokes his brow. He carries with him a familiar sense of home and the mysterious scent of oranges.
Luigi is large and foreign, the flames on his long coat almost shimmering into life as he stalks across the sand from one side of our tiny outdoor prison to the other.
There is myself, Charles Darwin. I feel restless, as we all do, listening to voices I cannot hear while trapped on this mere sketch of island.
And lastly there is the Masked Bandit, all at once familiar and at a distance, as though a ghost walking among us.
I know them now, and know too we are not as alone as it at first seemed. Wallace is here, my great friend and colleague, as well as a beetle, stowed away in my precious box. There are other items inside my box as well, which must bear some clue to where I was, and what I was doing, before I came to be here – that, at least, is still a mystery. I know I angered Governor Odious, and must have been conveyed under poison or spell.
If we were in waiting, now we have begun. We have traveled with an elephant, so large and majestic: to see her from beneath is to know that nature is great, beyond all imagining. Alongside her slow paddles, walking through water, I heard her joy, my own muscles following her grace, longing to become like her. I would that we could have swum forever.
But the sea, which once looked so endless, was smaller than even I had predicted, and we were soon to shore. There was a tree there to greet us, the one intruder in a scape of barren hills, and while I was sure it must contain life within it, this tree itself was black and dead. I was right, there is life everywhere, even in death, though not even Wallace could have known what we would meet. A man stepped out, not quite a man, send as aide to our quest by his Mystic Cult, whom had also be wronged by Governor Odious. He was not so strange to me, though my comrades, though from all corners, must have seen much less of the world, be less used to her wonders. They cannot even understand him, though he is quite clear to me, speaking in poetry richer than the language of those with whom I now journey.
When they sent him away, desiring only their weapons, I missed him greatly. Until he outfought even the Masked Bandit, the anger of his cult flying through dozens of soldiers, and he proved his worth even to Luigi.
Alas, our energies were for naught. The Masked Bandit's twin is dead, his blood now soaking into a mighty sail of cloth, a beacon of pain and loss.
There is life in death, here as well. For as the the brother of the dead crouches, it is as if the blood flows inside him as well. His look is queer, and when he rises it is as if I see him for the first time. When he speaks, it as if I am hearing him for the first time. The lines of his body are sharper and his eyes stare through me when he glances my way.
Our quest had been one of rescue, fueled by our shared sense of vengeance, but I had not felt the violence until this moment. The bitter drive of purpose had entered our leader, and in turn my mind clears and hardens. The ground is more solid beneath my own feet, and I can remember, at the edge of memory, my trips to an island called Galapagos. This adventure will beat even that.
The rhythm of hooves is a chant, the stomp of feet and sway of arms. The ride is lasting forever, the bound slaves await our rescue but I feel myself pulled backwards, to the ritual of the Mystic Cult.
They did not speak in English, or Spanish, or even Gibberish, but a more primal language common to all living things – though forgotten now by men. Like even Wallace, whom the others claim to not understand.
They speak in song and dance, calling forth the destroyed map, pulled through poison and skin, reborn whole like the man brought back alongside. I want to join in the dance but though I understand all they say and do I can but produce a pidgeon form of their language, only enough to be understood – they must look upon me as a man views a dog; one eager to please but so far beneath equality.
As I watch, I think of bees. Together more powerful than one alone, marking direction and distance with the pace and choreography of the steps, the rhythm of the buzz, the energy of their gyrations, all bodies performing in time for it is their nature to learn together and act as one. As one they draw forth the map, marking the way to desirable nectar – our destination – but half-men, they draw it onto skin, a translation even the rudest of our group can understand.
Language. Communication. I have long believed that all living things are part of one journey, but that man has stopped listening to any but himself. Even Wallace, so often ignored, is yet of a species already steps away from the natural order. His comprehension of that which we study is, I can admit to myself, far greater than my own, but yet not so far he is one of them, or I fear he would not be able to understand me at all.
The dance of the Mystic Cult is eternal, even as it slows and fades. There will be another day, another task, so long as we succeed in foiling the destruction that is Governor Odious. The chants sound as wind now in my ears, the sway of movements merely my horse, racing beneath me. The beats are the roll of hooves over sand. We are running without moving, as if in a dream, though I do not believe the dream is my own.
We are calm, at rest. I sketch Darwin, always a willing subject, and try to remember.
I know what happened; that is not the trouble. I remember the little boy left behind as we stole away his beautiful aunt – a woman like a butterfly, her mask a veil to the splendor which lay beneath. Her mask reminds me of my own cloak – itself a poor homage to the tiny lives I desire to reveal and understand.
But what of the slaves? Of our mission to defeat Governor Odious? We are rudderless, led on whim by a man who seems often to not even hear his love, but rather a voice beyond our reach. As if, like Wallace and the Mystics, he is a bridge between two worlds, though that to which he belongs is as far remote to man and mission as man has become to nature.
Whatever he hears, it is a sinister message. He seeks now to destroy that which he loves, that which is most precious among us: Evelyn.
I wish I knew the words to stop him.
It was words that saved the fair Evelyn, though they were not mine. They were locked in her heart, broken from their metal cocoon by the bullet sent flying to end her life. The last message from a father: the most noble charge.
And then the whirling, the dancing. All around us the magic of language calling truth into being, remaking the world in its own image. For what is marriage but a creation of words? The Priest charged by church and state to utter the right phrase at the right moment to bind two souls together.
But the words were not the Priest's, and the dancers echoed the Mystic, talking of madness, drugs and lies, and we were betrayed. I still see the whirling behind my lids, still feel the excitement of the air though the anticipation has soured and I am dizzy, the sun too bright the wind too harsh my mouth too dry from thirst to call out against the pain of limbs bound too tightly behind my back.
I dream of Wallace. Dead, perhaps, he has not moved from his comfortable sack in much too long. Wallace, my friend, who had no choice but to follow me as I followed the Masked Bandit. I dream of his small hands freeing me, chattering low reassurances in my ear, saying all is not lost.
It is not a dream! I see him now, hazy in my dazzled eyes, but this surely is not Wallace. This figure, creeping behind us, is much too large, though still quite small, her chatters a gentle accent which is recognizable not only to me.
A Little Masked Bandit, a Brave Little Girl. Was she here all along? Did I dream my friend? Was it I, all along, who could not hear properly, could not understand, hearing not the words for the chatter and thinking of her, in my hubris, as other than what she is, has the potential to be?
Our torturers are fleeing. Or are they merely flies, bees on the horizon? Are we still on the island, all our adventures merely delusions conjured by my sun-baked mind? The world is dimming, fading, there are words I cannot understand, which are perhaps just the waves, lapping...
The places our minds go when we let them wander! The spell a cigarette can put us under! I must have slipped back into a dream I had – for a moment it was so vivid, the sense of adventure, pounding of hooves and dry mouth – merely an artifact, I realize, of caffeinated heartbeat and ash on my tongue. I hardly remember how I came to be sitting here – a day like any other, just another Orderly in this quiet hospital. Life and death all around, the sounds of children trying to remember how to laugh and adults trying to remember how to forget. A place of rest and of waiting, except for Alexandria-
Alexandria. It was of her I remember dreaming. Poor child, it was of her I was trying to forget, as I sit vigil over her bed. I am watching her sleep, and that must be why I dreamt: from fear she won't wake. A death of a child is always a sadness, even for those so used to tragedy, but we all know this little girl, so full of life, and we all know, now, how she came to be in the medicine room at all, strange picture of a butterfly drawn in lipstick on her stomach.
Roy watches over her as well, and I wish I could hear what he murmurs, what stories he has been feeding her to make her take such risks, why he would injure a child and whether his remorse is truly for her – or for himself.
But the Doctor has said I must leave them in peace.
A breath in higher pitch comes to my ears, a whisper or a sigh. Alexandria. She has woken after all, and might yet recover. I ought to fetch the Doctor but instead lean closer to the window, ready to run in or away, I know not. She is crying, they both are, what could he possibly be saying to such a small child, why would he upset her when she is scared and hurt and alone? I want to get up but when I look down the floor is too far and I fall...
Strange dreams. Trapped by sterile walls and dim lighting, harsh astringent embalming me from the inside out.
We escaped the desert, we must have, as here we are, faces no longer raw as we scan the city.
I am better for my nap, my mind no longer cloudy. And Wallace, my friend, did I ever believe I had imagined you? So many hours we've spent together, so much history to just forget, to rewrite your existence with another's. But I am better now. Watching you scamper – but now is not the time, we can run and play once our quest is through-
I watch him disappear and I know he cannot fly, his nimble limbs would never have let him tumble unless the bullet had struck. I don't want to find him: let him be playing a joke, let him never to have existed – No. Not that. Never that. He was, he is, he must be.
I could never wish him not, just as he would never wish that of me, not even to spare pain. We lose too much when we try to forget, we lose the beauty with the pain, the joy with the sadness. He is still barely alive when we find him, gentle fingers cradling what we had always sought together: Americana Exotica, alive and free.
It survived, flies away even now and our eyes track it together, releasing breath as it flutters in perfect sweeping arcs, the majesty, the rare beauty of it brings tears to my eyes and when I look back down Wallace is gone. Our quest, our vengeance, is complete, and I no longer fear the end.
Shoot me, if you will. Send me to my friend, my companion. All life ends, and we, we have already won.
The crack of bullets is loud, and I fall.
The wetness is warm and I am floating. I feel myself fracturing into part: Charles Darwin, naturalist, orderly in a hospital, traveler on a quest, companion to dreams.
There is laughter and tears all around me.
One by one, my compatriots appear: The Mystic, Luigi, Otta Benga, similarly fracturing and eager to tell me who they were. I tell them about myself, in turn, and begin to lose track of what bits, what names and stories, belonged to whom.
Even Governor Odious appears, and in this world the evil sloughs from the man, and what is left of us hear him in turn. After him there are no more arrivals, merely shades of the Masked Bandit and his Little sidekick, called forth as memories mingle. At length there is quiet, the expectant hush of a full room room settled for common cause.
We are waiting.
And then it comes. Noises, movements, sounds. Someone is dreaming a new dream, in word or dance, asleep or awake, and we are becoming...