Winner 2019 - Lost by Helen Garton

Dearest Mama,

It is with great sorrow that I write with news that can only add to the grief and suffering already brought about by the loss of father. However, I pray that you will take some comfort, as I do, in at least being relieved of all hope.
Mama, please forgive me for leaving England’s friendly shores. I’m no adventurer and harboured no desire to follow in my father’s footsteps but after he and Mumford, his travelling companion, failed to return from their quest to find the lost tribe of Kihaquetl, I felt compelled to uncover the truth. Not knowing what had befallen the two intrepid Englishmen was driving me half mad. There were endless whisperings and speculations at the Club: fatal fever, starvation after wandering lost in the jungle, and the possibility that they had in fact succeeded in finding and making contact with the Kihaquetl. There were rumours of cannibalism and shrunken heads. Once, The Times was left at my table, folded open at a page on which there was a cartoon. It depicted two missionaries being boiled alive in a giant cooking pot in the midst of a crowd of wide-eyed, black-skinned primitives.
With the ever-loyal Pritchard by my side, I intended to ensure that what remained of father and Mumford was given a Christian burial.
It took me ten days to gain my sea legs. Pritchard apparently suffered no sea-sickness at all for which I was grateful as he was able to tend to me reliably. The weeks that followed were remarkable only for the remorseless monotony of the unbroken view from the flat ocean to the sky.
We disembarked at the port of Merida, a place where a few traces of civilization exist before the gaping maws of the jungle engulf all. The Spanish (debauched papists they may be, but at least they share our Christian heritage) are outnumbered by natives steeped in darkness of every kind: from the tone of their skin, hair and eyes to their very souls.
Pritchard was unloading our belongings when two native men emerged from a clamouring crowd speaking in broken English. After a while I understood that they were introducing themselves and their unpronounceable names. After a minute, when they still had not gone on their way, I asked what they wanted, fearing they were conmen, thieves or worse.
“It is we, Smith and Jones!” they said, and the fear that had oppressed me from the moment we had landed at Merida lifted. I knew from father’s letters how much he’d relied on and trusted these two guides and I’d prayed that we’d find them quickly. They’d be the source of the most reliable information about father and were the only men who could lead us to the Kihaquetl. I dropped to my knees in prayer, thanking God for leading them to us.
Smith’s Spanish was fluent, so Pritchard served as interpreter and we managed a conversation of sorts.
“My father – Mr Francis Crawford – did he make contact with the Kihaquetl?”
“Si – yes, yes,” Smith nodded and smiled.
“And did he die of fever or did they murder him?”
Smith rattled back a reply. Pritchard raised a hand: “Habla mas lento! – Speak slower!”
“Well?” I asked Pritchard after Smith had repeated his answer twice.
“He says your father and Mumford did contract a fever, but they pulled through. It didn’t kill them.” 
“My God! So, it was the Kihaquetl!” I said, my voice barely above a whisper. “Was it a human sacrifice? Did they… did they…?”
Pritchard shook his head.
“No, sir. The Kihaquetl are not cannibals and they didn’t kill anyone according to Smith here. He says they’re both perdio – lost.”
“No!” The thought of father dying lost and alone was unbearable.
“But he also says that they are still with the Kihaquetl.”
My heart thudded in my chest, its beat quickening.
“Pritchard,” I managed to say. “Ask him directly. Is my father still alive?”
But Pritchard had gone pale. His expression filled me with dread.
“What is it?”
“I think I know what he’s talking about, and I think we should leave right now and go home.”
For a second, the look on the man’s face made me want to say ‘yes, alright, Pritchard. Let us leave now.’
“Don’t be ridiculous, Pritchard,” I said. “My father’s alive! We have to find him and bring him home!”
“No, not alive,” Pritchard said, fixing his gaze on me. “He says muertos vivientes which means…”
“Stop jabbering, man. You’re beginning to…”
Which means,” Pritchard spoke over me, shocking me into silence. “Which means ‘they who walk as the dead.’”
“Good Lord, man! Whatever are you talking about? It must be this place. The heat. It’s getting to you…”
“No, no.”
Pritchard came up close to me. I’ve heard they do this sort of procedure. We have a more sophisticated version in England called a lobotomy, for curing mania…”
“Do shut up, Pritchard, please. I know what a lobotomy is!”
“But here it’s not done to cure anything. They cut out part of a man’s brain to create the perfect slave – one who causes his master no trouble. He can eat, drink, walk, and work. But he can’t talk, or think. A man without intellect, soul or will –  it’s inhumanly cruel. And I’m sorry,” he said as we realised at the same time that tears were coursing down my cheeks.
“He’s still my father,” I said. “We can’t leave him here.”
Pritchard held my gaze for a while then nodded.
“Okay,” he said and patted my shoulders. “Okay.”
The journey that followed was Hellish. Smith took the lead, scything a path into the jungle. Pritchard followed with the lamp and Jones, armed with a pistol, was behind me.
The damp heat is difficult to describe, Mama, but imagine having to stand inside the laundry room on wash day without a candle during a heatwave. The forest canopy shields you from the light of the sun yet offers no cooling shade. Instead the heat is intensified. Water drips everywhere constantly, even when it isn’t raining, and streams along the tangled mass of vines that strangle most tree trunks, almost indistinguishable from the serpents who lie in wait for the unobservant to walk right into them.  
We made slow progress despite the path having been forged before by Smith and Jones; the vegetation here grows back fast and with more density as though furious at having been mutilated. I was attacked by gigantic insects and suffered proportionately from their monstrous bites and stings. Pritchard appeared again to be the more fortunate man than I, his blood being not as much to the liking of the foreign beasts.
There were no clearings where we could set up camp overnight. We had no choice but to keep going, resting only for an hour at a time, leaning against bark that had to be checked first for deadly creatures.  
We were about to set off again after a brief respite when Smith signalled us to stop. We stood still and silent. I was about to ask what was afoot when I felt the whoosh of an arrow as it passed by my ear, smacking into the tree behind me.
Smith called out in a strange tongue – guttural sounds the like of which I’d never heard. Rustling sounds all around us signified not one but many.
“All okay,” Jones whispered tapping the weapon on his hip. “But no move.”
After an interminable exchange with the voice in the darkness, Smith waved us on. We made the rest of the journey under escort, emerging into glorious daylight at the riverside hub of activity that was home to the Kihaquetl.
Smith went ahead, leaving Pritchard, Jones and I huddled together at the edge of the clearing.
“Heccate. Chief,” said Jones nodding in the direction of the squat tribesman whom Smith had approached. The rest of the tribe gathered around us chattering, laughing, poking at our flesh, stroking our hair.
As we stood suffering such ignominy, I felt Pritchard tense and followed his stricken gaze.
Walking towards us from the river, hunched over by the weight of two wooden buckets strung from each end of a long rod across his neck and shoulders, was a man as tall as us, dressed in clothes like ours though faded and shredded in places. The sun had darkened his skin, but his features were unmistakeably European. After a while, I recognised him.
“Mumford!” I shouted, breaking free from Pritchard’s grasp as he attempted to hold me back. I’d got to within a few feet of the man before coming to an abrupt halt. Mumford was staring right at me but without a trace of recognition in his eyes, nor any hint of consciousness at all. It was then I saw the silvery scars all along one side of his hairless scalp and remembered what Pritchard had said about the muertos viviendes. The Mumford I’d known – a person of faith, renowned man of letters, keen poet, the brave, faithful companion of my father and beloved by many at home – was gone.
Without thinking, I turned towards Heccate and ran at him, screaming: “In God’s name, what have you done?”
Before getting anywhere near him I was felled and pinned down by half a dozen men. One pushed my face into the dusty earth until I choked. Smith was talking quickly, loudly. Finally, two men dragged me to my feet, pulled me across to the chief and held me there.
“You look nothing like your father,” he said in accent-heavy yet perfect English.
“What have you done to him?” I asked, hoarse after swallowing dirt. “For so many years he searched for you, the lost tribe of Kihaquetl, only to find a bunch of monsters!”
The man threw back his head and roared with laughter. Then he said, “The Kihaquetl are never lost, and we are not the monsters! All we want is peace. It is your kind who bring only fighting, death and sickness.”
“My father wanted only to bring knowledge of the Lord, that you might enter Heaven.”
A voice came from behind: “Instead I found Heaven right here, right now.”
It was a voice I knew.
Somewhere Pritchard cried: “No. No. Oh God, no!”
I turned and sank to my knees at the sight before me.
If he’d not spoken, I wouldn’t have known my own father. Gone was the rotund, pale-skinned, elderly English gentleman. Now his body was lean, muscular and tanned. The single clue to his true age was the silver of his flowing hair and beard. In his left hand was a long staff, ornate with carvings depicting the creature gods worshipped by the Kihaquetl. He walked tall without any shame at having cast off every item of civilized dress. He was accompanied by a group of singularly beautiful young women, all completely naked but for the long tresses of raven-black hair that only partly covered their breasts. They emitted a peculiar yet tuneful trilling sound as they went.
“Mr Crawford, sir?” Pritchard shouted as he ran over to us. “By Jove, it really is you! I thought we’d lost you forever.”
“I am Macazui, now, beloved High Priest of the Kihaquetl people,” said father, his blue eyes blazing against the chestnut brown of his face.
“But why did they have to do that to Mumford?”
“He refused to accept the true gods of Kihaquetl but wouldn’t leave without me. Then he never let up, preaching out loud, trying to save us when we just wanted him to shut up. Now it’s your turn, son. You must make your choice.”

Mama, if you are reading this, Pritchard has kept his promise to deliver this letter.
Forgive father, forgive me, and forget us. For we are lost.

Your loving son,
Francis Jr.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Great story! Shades of Heart of Darkness while still being totslly original. I like the way the plot led the reader on further and further into the jungle alonmg with the narrator,