Her stories would continue to captivate me and would do so far into the open ocean. I was smack dab in the middle of an ocean I had never traversed and chose only to remain with her. I barely felt the waves beneath the decks as a storm swirled around us. One morning, the crewman told me of a great waterspout that nearly toppled the smoke stacks and yet I could hardly find cause for concern as Captain Jones had put a feeling in my heart that I had never had before.
When the steamer anchored in the port of Cayenne in June of 1862, I felt as though I would never love again as I walked almost somberly down the gang plank to dry land. I turned back to wave my goodbyes to Captain Jones in the hopes I would get to see her once more.
“I’ll be docked here for 5 days to resupply.” She called down from the bow of the ship. “If’in ya’ll ain’t back I can’t wait around.”
I had been hoping for a more intimate goodbye and as I turned to leave she called back to me.
“Know that I would be really saddened if’n you didn’t make it back.” She gave a quick wink before disappearing back into the Mary Queen of Scots.
The city of Cayenne appeared to be more welcoming to colored people than America so I prayed she would get to set foot on dry land at least for the duration of her stay. Selfishly I had hoped she would offer to join me on my adventure, but I couldn’t possibly impose. My only hope to see her again would be to get the book and back on the boat within those five days.
My journey continued at a bar known as Devile Du or a rough translation the Devil’s Due. An ominous name for a rather plain bar, the only thing unusual about it was the selection of spirits available which was limited to homemade rums, cheap wine and an ale that smelled of rotten hops. I choose to make myself comfortable as I waited for the man known as John Paul to seek me out as the Librarian suggested. After a few hours, my guide appeared from the back room. He was quite drunk. His shirt torn, his pants tattered and upon a second glance I noticed he was missing his left shoe.
“Are you the Librarian’s emissary?” He slurred in a mix of English and French. I could smell the brandy from a few feet away. He clearly had far too much to drink and now suffered from consumption. I could not explain the state of his clothing.
I nodded in understanding despite my knowledge of the French language being less than adequate. Suddenly, I was forced to catch him as he tumbled towards the bar floor. He staggered back trying to grab hold of anything to keep himself upright, but failed in his attempts causing him to finally collapse to the floor just out of the reach of my grasp. I placed his arm over my shoulder and amidst angry shots from the tavern owner, hoisted him out of the bar and into the street.
“Merci Ami.” He muttered. At this point he had taken a staggering position in the middle of the street.
“Eau? Eau?” He said, as I noted my understanding of the French language was far too limited when spoken normally. Coming from a drunk? Well, that’s just down right impossible.
“Anglais?” I requested hoping to get him to use English.
He shook his head and rolled his shoulders trying to regain his composure. He grabbed my remaining canteen and drank his fill before handing it back, a significant portion of its contents gone.
“Ok. You don’t speak French? The Librarian promised me a scribe that could speak the native tongue down here.”
“Cataloger.” I corrected but he paid no mind as he regained his balance.
He brushed himself off and started walking gesturing to me to follow. After walking a few blocks we stood outside a dilapidated apartment complex. There were no glass windows, just a series of nets that I could safely assume were to keep out the biting insects which the longer I stood outside became more and more of a nuisance.
“I’m changing and grabbing my pack.” John Paul slurred. “You look like you’re packed pretty light. Where’s your gear?”
“I’m afraid in the service of the Army of Northern Virginia. Save for a single canteen and my writings.”
He smirked and shook his head.
“Damn Americans fighting over something the rest of us already have.” He slurred “Liberte…err….Liberty. Fighting over slavery. Shouldn’t have slaves.” He scolded drunkenly.
“One can hope that’s one thing that the war ends.” I retorted.
He took out two packed canvas sacks and handed one to me.
“It will be and it will change everything. Trust me. Now, let’s get moving. Don’t want to be out there in the night.”
I had read much about the southern jungles, but never thought for a moment I’d be trudging through one. John Paul skillfully swung his machete hacking away brush and obstruction with ease. The heat soon caught up with us and after a few miles trek we took a seat in a small clearing. The canopy had drowned out most of the sunlight leaving us in a shade that did little to cool our skin, but it did keep us from burning up.
“Here’s about the half way point to the village. From there we’ll speak with the chief of the local Arawak. They speak their own tongue and judging by your French I’ll do the talking. They aren’t the friendliest bunch, but if you pay them right they’ll do anything you ask.” John Paul said washing his face with some of the water from the canteen.
“Where you a military man John Paul?” I asked hoping to spark conversation.
He nodded. “I was in a different time. No time for adventure, just need to find work. One job after another and the Librarian has been good to me.” He took another swig. “This continent has plenty of secrets that old curmudgeon would pay good money for.”
“I guess that’s why he sent me.” I jested.
“This book is something special. The Arawak natives tell me their ancestors spoke with the good doctor long ago and that all of his writings are their medical secrets given to them by their gods. A guardian under the command of their god Kururumany watches over the temple.”
“How did the doctor stash the books there if it is guarded by such a horrific creature?” I asked perplexed by the nature of the story. Native tribes in America also told fanciful tales of gods and animal heroes, but to date they were nothing more than legend.
“Listen, the French held that ruin as a barracks for quite some time and no such guardian ever emerged. It’s a folk story, an old wives tale so to speak. The problem is getting there. The charted maps were destroyed when they fled. Now, only the Arawak know the true location.”
We continued our journey until we approached the outskirts of what appeared to be a native village. Various pillars of smoke rose into the sky revealing its location to John Paul who seemed relieved that we were finally arriving.
As we strode into the village John Paul pulled me close. The stench of brandy still clinging to his breath.
“Keep quiet, let me do the talking and hang back. Do not look them in the eye they might see that as a sign of disrespect. I have a good report with this people so don’t ruin it for me.”
I took a step back and did as he asked. I couldn’t make out any of the words they used, but on numerous occasions both John Paul and the chief turned and looked in my direction neither smiling. I had become increasingly uncomfortable until John Paul returned.
“We’ll leave at first light. Tonight you’ll have to go through the initiation to be permitted to enter the ruins of the God City.”
“Initiation?” I asked concerned at what that mean.
“Just humor them.”
My initiation began around the time when the moon had reached its peak. I cursed myself since I had not wound my watch, but John Paul assured me that come tomorrow that won’t matter. The first step in the initiation was a moment of insecurity. I removed my shirt and watched as the village woman painted symbols with no discernible meaning across my chest. The paintings were followed with a sprinkling of, from what John Paul insisted, crushed rodent bones. Lastly, I placed two feathers behind my ears and danced to a surprisingly catchy tune in unison with the chief. Eventually the music ceased and John Paul guided me into a reed yurt at the edge of the village.
“The chief says that you’ll only be able to truly enter the realm of Kururumany you must take drink from his soul.”
John Paul handed me a small clay pot. I leaned in to see its contents and immediately recoiled at the overpowering stench.
“Dear God man, what the hell is this?” I demanded. “Are you trying to poison me?”
John Paul shoved the pot back into hands.
“Just drink it. It’s probably nothing more than rum and whatever other spices they dug up. Like I said before, humor them.” He said glaring at me.
I looked around the room. It was just the chief, myself and John Paul. The chief quietly motioned for me to drink from the pot and when I continued to hesitate he frowned. I could see John Paul’s mood sour as I delayed the process even further until finally succumbing to what I can only term as a rudimentary form of peer pressure. I felt like a school boy sneaking my first sip of ale with my boyhood friends in my father’s barn.
As I downed the first bit of liquid, the room began to spin. Had I truly been poisoned? I asked myself as I stumbled to my feet. I could hear voices, muffled voices, behind me as I forced myself to exit the tent and into the village. But my efforts were in vain as I succumbed to the intoxication and collapsed in the mud.
I awoke standing in the middle of an ancient ruin. As regained my bearings, I called out for John Paul and the chief, but only silence answered. The ruins, were not quite ruins, most of the structures appeared to be intact. I wondered if during my drunken state, John Paul had moved me from the tiny Arawak village. There were no people save for a single man, a white man, jabbing the air with the fierceness of a jungle cat.
“Sir?” I called out still regaining my balance.
“Who the hell are you?” he inquired still striking the air with his bare fists with remarkable speed.
It took me a moment to comprehend what I was looking at. Before me stood a white man, shirtless with a large crucifix tattoo across the expanse of his back and donning a pair of red boxing shorts and brown leather boxing shoes.
“I think that’s a question better addressed to a man wearing boxing shorts in the jungle.” I countered.
The man laughed.
“Maximillian Matheny, son of Ireland and world renowned boxer of New York!” He proclaimed holding his fists high into the air as if to the roaring cheers of crowd thousands.
Unexpectedly, the name sparked my memory. I could recall a few years ago the mysterious circumstances with which a great boxer disappeared after a match with his rival. The fight took place near the dockyards to great fanfare. Even I took part in the festivities. Trading my pen and paper for a beer and ringside seats. Days after the fight, he was gone.
“The Mad Max Matheny?” I asked. “My goodness man, what are you doing in the jungles of French Guiana?’
Max shuffled his feet, kicking up the dirt and mimicking the motions of his boxing style. I marveled at the lightning quick movements of his fists and immediately understood why he had been crowned world champion before his disappearance. A disappearance that occurred nearly a decade ago, but judging by his appearance he had barely aged a single day.
“How did you get here?”
“Same way you did I imagine, but I presume for different reasons.”
He continued his pre-fight routine, but who did he plan on fighting? Naturally, I did not come here to fight and even if I could, I doubt I’d fair well against a professional boxer. Less than two minutes I imagine, but as he stretched and moved I took interest in the fact he would not remove his gaze from the darkened tunnel at the base of the tallest temple.
“May I ask what you are looking at?”
“My opponent. The guardian of the God City.” He answered.
The boxer grinned.
“As I said, we are here for different reasons. After I defeated Alroy Malone, I was named champion of the world, I struggled to find a suitable challenger that could withstand my iron fists. I became mired in a deep depression until one day I heard of a legend in the French colonies about a creature, that was not man nor was it beast that was considered invincible. At first, I assumed it was a rumor, as I believe most would, but with the winnings I had earned I decided to take a chance. At worst, I got to travel the world, at best I would prove myself a true champion.”
“You’ve been gone nearly ten years!” I shouted. “Do you not realize this? How long have you been here waiting to box this….guardian?”
“I have not waited a single day to box. The guardian fights every day that I am here and since I have not left we are due to fight again. In the God City one does not age or at least that is what the Kururumany has told me.”
A moment of confusion put a stranglehold on my rational thoughts. How had the boxer been here every day for a decade and not succumb to hunger, thirst or even one of the many devil pricked bugs that bring decay and disease? How had a man, with no formal training in survival, managed to avoid catastrophe? Already I had begun to panic at the thought that I would not be found by John Paul or the Arawak. Did Kururumany truly exist? Is that how he had survived?
“Oh. You are in for quite a show! Front row seats! I haven’t had a fan watch my match in far too long!”
“Yes, ten years.” I mumbled.
A sudden burst of energy filled the boxer as he exclaimed. “Here comes the guardian now!”
I stood slack jawed in horror as this humanoid being walked with a sense of aggravated menace from a darkened tunnel. As it approached, I recoiled at what stood before me. A brutish figure, standing at no less than six feet tall its fists the size of small boulders, rumbled out into the courtyard. Its stone-like skin segmented as if it was a suit of armor and it’s eyes the color of midnight, but sunken far back into its overhanging brow.
A fighter’s face indeed. I thought taking a few paces back.
I looked over at the boxer who, much to my amazement, began taking position across from the guardian punching the air as he would have for the scores of fights he had before. It was at this point I had become thoroughly entrenched in the idea that I had gone mad. I began trying to recall the previous night’s events and what brought me here in the first place to watch as this nightmarish figure stood in position to box poor Maximillian Matheny whom I believed would have no chance. The problem was the evening’s events eluded my memory. I had no idea how I had gotten here.
Thus began the most bizarre display of bare-knuckled boxing I had ever seen. By no means am I a connoisseur of ring based fighting, but I could say with exceeding confidence that no one had ever witnessed such a spectacle. I winced with every strike the guardian made, but the boxer returned each blow in kind. I could barely watch as the guardian kept coming and decided to take my leave of the situation and slunk passed the two fighters and into the tunnel.
Entering the tunnel, it quickly became quite illuminated in stark contrast from the courtyard view. The walls were wonderfully adorned with native art, pottery and gold. Lots and lots of gold. A part of me wanted to reach out and take it, but I thought better of it. Who knew what might lie in wait for a greedy soul in this mystical place. I decided it was best to stay focused on finding the book.
The problem of course, was that I had no idea where to begin to look. The only indication I had of my position with the structure was the occasional sounds of the boxer and the guardian’s fighting echoing off the walls of the temple. Just when I had given up hope and made the decision to return to the courtyard, I felt the gentlest of taps, a rapping on my shoulder.
I turned to meet this new face and was met the bright green gaze from a cat. The cat’s eyes were lined with mystical purple that shimmered and pulsed as it moved. Its fur was a living celestial wonderment. Stars blinked, comets flew and even the moon waned upon its coat. It was perhaps the most remarkable thing I had ever seen.
Then it spoke.
“Welcome to the God City of Kururumany.” It purred as it gracefully navigated itself through the myriad of trinkets, artworks and mounds of gold.
“Greetings.” I offered hoping not to offend this god-like cat. “I am looking for a particular book. Do you think you can help me?”
It grinned bearing its ivory white fangs.
“No need for the formalities. I know exactly why you are here and what you seek. What you truly seek that is to say.”
The purple aura beneath its eyes beamed as I began to stammer nervously over my words.
“What…what is it I truly seek?” I mumbled. The curious nature of his cryptic words was as exciting as it was frightening.
Without a word the cat scampered down an adjacent tunnel. I decided to follow and became utterly disoriented as we moved effortlessly through the chambers. I tried in vain to mentally chart my location should the need arise for me to escape, but after a serious of dizzying turns I was forced to abandon my efforts.
I was at the mercy of this feline guide, but after what felt like an eternity we entered into a great chamber full of scrolls, tomes and books the likes of which had never been seen. My mind went to the Librarian. When I returned I would tell him of all this wonderful lost works. We could send an expedition to recover them.
“Your book, the one you call the Book of Life, is over there.” The cat gestured to a lectern near the back of the room. “You may take it if you wish.”'
Hurriedly I approached the lectern and just as I went to look at the book I stepped back as if I had been shocked.
“What’s wrong with the book?” I asked turning my attention to the celestial feline who by the time had taken a position on the nearest shelf.
“Nothing is wrong with the book, but as I said you are here to find what you want, not the Librarian.”
“I said not a single word about him.”
“Kururumany will only give you what you truly want. For you see, you cannot leave until you find out what you truly want in life.”
The cat waved its paw and the image of the boxer appeared. He was in the final stages of defeat as he staggered back into his corner and sat on a stone bench. The guardian turned and started its retreat into the tunnel.
“My God, it will surely kill me!” I turned to race to your door.
“Kururumany is not going to permit that because that is not what you want is it? You see, the boxer believed his greatest desire was to find an opponent worthy of his abilities. He thought he believed that once he defeated the guardian he would be satisfied.”
I rubbed my chin I could feel the sweat pouring from my face and onto the stone floor.
“But he cannot defeat it?” I asked.
The cat shook its head with a genial sway.
“He can, but does not. Because he subconsciously fears that by doing so he will have nothing to live for. The guardian would fall should the boxer want to defeat it. He could return home, but to what? A life of lowered expectations? That is he what he fears and therefore does not know if he truly wants to win.”
I looked at the book.
“Why did the French doctor leave it here? What did he want? Shouldn’t a doctor want to cure the ailments of all mankind?”
The cat leapt effortlessly over to the lectern and sat on the book. It was the first time I realized how beautiful the book cover truly was. The indigo dyed leather, the tree made of inlaid silver, gold for branches, amethysts, emeralds, and citrine hanging like fruit waiting to be plucked. The book cover itself was worth more than its weight in gold.
I turned the cover to the first page of the book were a note in French had been hastily scribbled. I may not have been able to speak the language, but a rough translation of the written word was within my skill set.
In this book contains the key to life and death. Mankind shall endure without it, but Kururumany’s children will not. –Dr. Bernard Laurent
I looked up at the cat.
“If I take this book, the Arawak people are done for? Is that why it is still here?”
The cat frowned in a way that I did not believe was possible for a cat to frown.
“To cure the ailments of men, the plants, the animals and the earth itself must be plundered. The Arawak people will not survive should this happen and the God City will collapse into oblivion. Yes, the ailments of men will be subdued, but death shall never been contained. The price of temporary sustainability of life is the death of an entire group of people.”
I closed the book holding back tears. My journey for the book had come to an abrupt and tragic end.
“I can see why the French doctor left it here. The difficulty of such a decision, even for a man that dealt in life and death for a living, would be far too much.” I sighed and sat clumsily on the floor. “My nation is fighting a war that cares not for life in the way you view it. In fact, an entire peoples are suffering under the yoke of slavery, families are fighting families and the very foundation of the American ideals are under siege. I wished the world could just love one another. Give each other the chance humans deserve.”
I stepped away from the book knowing that I could never saddle the burden of such devastation upon my shoulders.
“Although what do I know about love?”
The cat lept down from its perch and danced between my legs its tail caresses my calves as it looped between my pant legs.
“Love? Is that what you truly want?” The cat questioned. “Do you remember love from the last time you felt it? Was it a love for an object, an idea or rather was it for a person?”
My mind flashed back to Abigail and the love I had felt for her on the voyage. Her enchanting hazel eyes, the sweet smell of her skin and the love she exuded with every word she spoke. Never before had the grace of such a woman, a sea captain no less, ever been so obvious to me. I wanted to feel that love forever. I wanted the world to feel that love and see her for the way I did. When I was a child my mother would tell me stories about what it meant to be in love. What that first spark of interest in another felt like. Aboard the Mary Queen of Scots I had experienced precisely that emotion.
“It was for a person. For the captain, Abigail Jones.”
I took a deep breath realizing that once I spoke of my true desires, this place and the book would be gone forever.
“I want a chance to show her that I love her.”
The cat nodded its head in understanding. The purple beneath its eyes warmed and throbbed as the world around me began to melt away. The image of the boxer and the guardian fading into the dark. The walls around me, the gold, the art and the pottery evanescence from my mind. A euphoric sensation washed over me as the world turned black.
The cat’s cryptic voice the only thing I could hear in the distance.
“Kururumany thanks you for the love you have given the Arawak people. Now, close your eyes and let the world fly by you. It will be up to you to capture your greatest desires, but I wish you well. You are good soul and Kururumany never forgets a good soul.”
I awoke startled. Had I been dreaming? Was I still in the Arawak yurt in the jungle forests? I took a moment to survey my surroundings. The room bobbed up and down. I listened as the sounds of waves crashing against the boat reverberated throughout the cabin. I soon realized that I was back aboard the Mary Queen of Scots and I had no idea how that happened.
I knock came from the door and much to my delight Abagail crept into the room clearly expecting me to be asleep.
“Oh, ya’lls awake.” She said as she smiled and took her place next to me on the small cot. “When John Paul done brought you here I hadn’t expected ya’ll to make it. We’re half way to Louisiana by now. Been the clear sailing. Someone is watching over you that’s for certain.”
Her words made me think of the celestial cat in the temple. I could hardly remember what the temple itself looked like, but the image of the cat was burned into my memory.
“John Paul dragged me here?”
“Turns out he’s a nice man despite being a bit of a drunk. Said you were out from the minute you drank from the Arawak pot. Musta been a hella powerful spirit. Do you remember anything at all?”
I looked out the port and for a second I thought I saw the face of the cat staring back at me. I smiled.
“I do remember. I remember what’s important and I can’t wait to share it with you Abagail. You have no idea how happy I am to see you.”
She turned and handed me an object covered in a sheet.
“It’s the book ya’ll were writing. John Paul made sure to grab it before ya’ll left the city. What’s it about?’
“For most it is nothing more than a story of a man seeking an adventure, but for me, it’s the greatest story ever told.”
She flipped it to the last page.
“I always spoil the ending for myself.” She paused surprised. “Still needs an ending. How are you planning on finishing it?”
I grinned and embraced her.
“That’s the best part of being a writer. Discovering the true ending in a world without end.”