Lu [the Wanderer]
The alien’s dream came true. Seventy miles upstream on the Forcados River, four white men were boarding a rusty and filthy steam-powered river boat. Their plan was to explore the river to its muddy delta and salty mangrove swamps. As they labored to begin the last leg of their journey, deep inside the mind’s eye of each man, a disturbing image was growing clearer by the moment. Each man kept his vision a secret from his companions. Nobody in his right mind would mention daydreaming about an octopus resting on top of a house-sized puddle of jelly. Who would have thought that keeping these secrets would bring such tragedy?
The leader of the group was a bearded fellow, fifty years old, with graying hair and a gourmet’s belly. His name was Forrest Avery, PhD. An anthropologist and a botanist, his expressed goal in the mission was to make contact with the tribesmen of the Niger Delta and to enlist their assistance in securing some medicinal plants he had heard rumors of. A native Englishman who had studied the Nigerian culture most of his life, he could talk with the Africans in several local dialects. He wiped sweat from his broad forehead and leaned on a wooden barrel filled with drinking water.
Second in command was Dr. Matthew Charbonneau. He was an American medical doctor. His primary reason for being on the expedition was to tend to his companions’ health. He was thirty-two, an internist from Massachusetts General Hospital, fit as a steel beam, and on a two-month leave from his employment. He was working like a stevedore, loading supplies and medical equipment onto the primitive steamboat that was to take the four men nearly to the ocean.
Scott Chinaski, another American, was the third member of the team. Twenty-three years old and full of energy, he nearly slipped off the mossy dock as he raced with another case of provisions onto the shabby old boat. He stopped, shaded his eyes with a hand, and looked down the channel, hoping to see where this backwater swamp would join the flooding river. He wondered, as he wrestled the wooden crate into its place, how seaworthy the boat was.
Despite his misgivings, he had taken many photos of the old wooden boat as it bumped peacefully against the dock. Unless he was mistaken, one of those pictures would look fine on the cover of the book he was planning to write about the expedition. He had paid two hundred dollars to be a member of the crew. His investment paid for the food and the water needed, barrel after barrel of fresh water and dried food. In return for his money and his labor, he would come away with the exclusive rights to publish the story of the adventure, to interviews with the other members of the expedition and to the ownership of all the pictures he took. If the boat held together, he was looking forward to a generous payday.
Two sullen, half-naked savages completed the crew. These men were hunters. Heavily tattooed, black as night, sinewy and tall, they crouched by themselves, eyeing the white men.
Henry Dawson, an American expatriate born in New Jersey, owned the boat. An agent of the Royal Niger Company, he had lived in the jungle for nine years and had dozens of business partners between his trading post and the ocean. He had hired himself and his aging boat, the Forcados Princess, to ferry the five men down the river to their chosen destination. He was a crack shot and had three rifles and a pistol onboard. Following months of correspondence, he had promised that he could get the men to the malaria-wasted swamp they’d shown him on a map. He picked between his teeth with a small knife and wondered whether he could keep that promise. He had been a lucky man all of his life. He saw no reason for this to change. Still, his most recent trading adventure in that part of the river had left one Urhobo warrior dead and a second one swearing revenge; but that was the way things went in the jungle.
It took the men nearly two hours to transfer three weeks of provisions, medical supplies, and scientific testing equipment from atop the heads and from the carrying frames and carrying straps of the porters and onto the shabby boat. A feast of native delicacies had been prepared for them and the team choked most of it down before boarding the fragile-looking riverboat. By one o’clock in the afternoon, in hundred-degree heat and nearly a hundred percent humidity, the four were chugging down the river at a speed scarcely exceeding the current.
Henry Dawson manned the wheel. Chinaski and Charbonneau were up front with ten-foot staffs, testing the depth of the water and pushing logs out of the way. It was heavy work and the two men were sweaty. Several times in the first hour, the clutter in the stagnant channel turned into an unyielding barrier. When that happened, Dawson would stop the boat, put it in reverse, and aim for a safer passage. Scott Chinaski looked to his partner and laughed. He nodded his head, indicating Henry Dawson to their rear, calmly smoking a cigar and turning the wheel a bit to the left or to the right from time-to-time, straining to keep his boat from being grounded.
“I’d like to switch jobs with that guy,” Chinaski yelled.
Dr. Charbonneau didn’t respond. He couldn’t hear his partner’s voice over the sound of the engine, anyway, and he abruptly turned his attention back to his task of pushing debris out of the boat’s path. The water was thick and brown and it stunk. The MD was glad that he wasn’t steering and that his current responsibilities kept him moving and not thinking.
Professor Avery sat in the stern of the boat, watching the broad shoulders of Captain Dawson and the two other men as they struggled to keep the boat from getting stuck in the waterlogged clutter of the shallow stream. He had never been to Africa before. This all struck him as a magnificent adventure. He packed some tobacco into a pipe, spilling some of it on his lap when the boat crunched into a submerged boulder, and then spent several seconds trying to light the pipe. When he again looked up, the rock was behind them, the boat had left the channel and had entered a wider, deeper section of the river.
“Okay, men, you can take a break,” the captain hollered. Charbonneau and Chinaski cupped their ears and shook their heads to indicate they hadn’t heard. Avery picked up his battered walking stick and bobbed forward to tell them that they could put the poles down and rest. As soon as they got the news, the two exhausted men grinned at one another and tossed the poles noisily onto the deck. Dr. Charbonneau opted to stay at the bow, sitting and resting next to his work-station. Scott Chinaski staggered back to Captain Dawson and slapped him on the back.
“Nice job, Captain,” he said.
“We’re not out of it, yet,” responded Henry Dawson. “I’d say we’ve gotten past five percent of the junk. We have three more days to go.” When he saw the look on Chinaski’s face, he added, “You and Charbonneau did a fine job. We’ll make it.”
Chinaski joined Avery at the rear of the small vessel and worked at lighting a cigarette while Avery relit his pipe. Crazy sounds were coming out of the forest. The three men who didn’t live in the jungle wondered if they were hearing birds, monkeys, or something else, something they couldn’t imagine. The sun beat down. Clouds of gnats filled the men’s eyes and ears. Mosquitos buzzed and stung. The boat splashed through the water.