How many times have I stood here? How many beautiful spring mornings, with gentle sunshine caressing my face? How many hot July nights, in the urgent embrace of a desirable young woman? Even in the icy depths of winter I have come to this place, cloak wrapped tightly about me, to ruminate on the silent falling snow. But now, as the chill of October in the year of Our Lord 1862 settles on this most magnificent of metropolises, I turn from the grandeur of Notre Dame, my soul finding there no solace in its vaulting spires illumined in the hour before dawn. No! My peace now lies only beneath this petit pont, in the swirling darkness of the Seine.
Away on the Rue de la Bucherie, I hear a horse’s insistent hooves and the clatter of a caleche over the cobblestones. Behind me, muffled laughter as a young couple, heady with wine and romance, moves with unsteady gait over the bridge. I am aware of these sounds, so familiar a part of life in the city, yet to me now alien, as if echoing from a distant land. The wind rises and moans fitfully. In my torment it mocks me — I know it!
Soon enough, I will end the taunting and its cruel power over me.
But first, I must recount what has brought me to this fateful moment, not as a memorial to myself but as a cautionary tale, a warning that in my hubris I took too cavalierly.
You ask, “Who is it who comes before me so deep in melancholia, pleading to be heeded?” My name is unimportant. It is the tale I tell that bears remembering.
I am two years past completing my studies at the Sorbonne. After initially enrolling in a progrsm that would have led to a medical degree, I changed my focus to literature. This was much to the dismay of my parents, who had taken the greatest pleasure in boasting that the family was to include a promising young physician. They spoke with no such pride about the prospect of counting their son a penniless writer. Yet, I knew I must chart my own course, and so I left the healing arts behind. Would that I could have foreseen the terrible path ahead!
In my early days at the university, I became fast friends with another medical student. I will call him Gerárd in order to spare him any taint from the story I am about to tell. He and I were opposites in many ways — he, outgoing and adventurous; I, more introspective and timid. His personality was such that it drew people to him, like moths to the flame. He was the center of gaiety, surrounded by friends, especially beautiful girls. Why he took such a liking to me I do not know, but by degrees he drew me out of my shell and into his world. Before long, I found myself reveling in the perquisites of being within his orbit. It was a time demarcated by nightlife, debauchery fueled by la fée verte in the bistros of the Rive Gauche. I should add that Gerárd was a brilliant student whose life of dissolution affected his academic achievements not in the slightest. I, on the other hand, struggled, barely completing the required courses of study to be granted a degree — a further failure in the eyes of my mother and father.
I will be the first to admit that fresh from academe my prospects were not good. But after several months of making inquiries all over the city, I was finally granted a position at small weekly paper devoted to the arts. My assignments were neither very exciting nor challenging — a gallery opening here, a chamber music recital there. Still, I did the best I could to put some zest into my prose. For a time, I was content to hone my skills with the pen; but sadly, the financial fortunes of the paper sank, and it shuttered its doors within six months of my being taken on. It was a truly a jarring development, leaving me with no steady income. I was in precarious straits; yet, though my parents were well enough off, the last thing I wished to do was to go to them hat in hand and plead for money.
That is the moment when Gerárd rode to my rescue. He came from an aristocratic line, a family of great means which he freely drew upon to support his lifestyle. And, when he saw my state of affairs, he immediately took it upon himself to become my benefactor.
“It is a trifling thing, mon ami. What’s important is to keep the wolf from your door,” he declared to me over coffees at Café Lutèce. Then, dropping his voice and smiling conspiritorially, he continued, leaning in. “And I have an ulterior motive.” I narrowed my eyes and looked at him intently.
“And dare I ask what it might be?”
“But of course! Let me explain. What I have is a proposition. You know I have long admired your writing. I believe you are destined for great things — perhaps to become the heir to Dumas, to Hugo.”
“Really, Gerárd!” I exclaimed, laughing.
“And why not?” he declared, genuinely shocked at my demurral. “What is required is a suitable subject for your talent, not recording the meaningless soirées of the sort hosted by my parents. That is where my proposition enters.”
“You know of my keen interest in the medicinal properties of certain exotic flora?
“Well, that interest extends to their hallucinogenic effects. My own modest experimentation in the laboratory has shown that they can be quite pronounced.” This was interesting enough, but I was in an impatient mood.
“But what has this to do with me?” I interjected.
“Patience,” he answered. “I come to that directly.” He paused long enough to relight his pipe before continuing. “I know a man, let us call him the associate of a friend of a friend, if you catch my meaning. This man deals with trade from Africa — curios, exotica of one sort or another. But he has also supplied me with samples of rare plants, some of them proscribed, that he has obtained from native tribes. Of late, he has returned from the Congo — you must consult your atlas to know its precise location — with word of what I believe to be a heretofore unknown species of fungus that has properties unlike any other in the world.”
“What properties?” I asked, my interest now piqued. Gerárd was finding it difficult to keep his enthusiasm in check.
“As it was told to me, ingesting this spore induced all manner of phenomena, including — and you may take this as you like — a complete unfolding of the very universe.” I was taken aback by such an outlandish claim.
“And you believe this?
“Naturally, I am skeptical, and that’s where you enter in, mon ami. I am making arrangements to travel to the region of Africa where this tribe exists and find out for myself. I propose that you accompany me, both to check the legitimacy of these claims and to document the journey in a book. Such a tale of mystery — from Paris to the heart of darkest Africa and back again. Think of it! I could establish my reputation as a pre-eminent ethnobotanist, and you would be hailed for your artistry with words. What do you say?”
“Well, I –“
“Just say yes.”
“But, Gerárd, such an undertaking — do you not fear the risk? In the journey? The drug?”
“There is risk, but of course. What in life that is worthwhile lacks some element of risk? The journey represents a challenge, but one that is manageable.” Here, he paused. I detected a hint of shadow that passed across his face.
“And the drug presents no peril?”
“My friend has recounted certain . . . anecdotes that have made their way out of the jungle.”
“Anecdotes? Of what sort”
“Well, like all the stories surrounding the effects of this plant, you may take these tales with a grain of salt.”
“Go on,” I pressed.
“They warn of grave consequences if the drug is misused.” I looked hard at my friend.
“Such admonitions should not be ignored, should they, Gerárd? Why pursue this quest?”
“Science, mon ami,” he answered swiftly. “Besides,” he continued, leaning across the table and effecting a jocular tone, “Dark sides are important. They should be nourished like nasty black orchids.”
“Not a flower for which I’ve had much affinity, I’m afraid,” I responded. He threw his head back and laughed.
“Now, let’s get down to the specifics,” he said. “The trip should consume no more than three months. You no longer have the ties of employment to bind you here.”
“And not a sou to my name.”
“I have already told you that you are not to worry about money. That is my concern. Your expenses for the journey will be covered, and I will pay you an ample stipend for your time. It is a fair proposition, impossible to reject, n’est-ce pas?” I cannot say that by nature I was an impulsive person, and I had given voice to my misgivings; but at that moment they were brushed aside. What had I to lose that would not be worth the enticing prospect of an exciting tale with which to display my talents as a writer?
“Alright, I shall do it — and damn the consequences!”
So, the die was cast; and, despite my initial apprehension, I found I was suffused with exhilaration. The quest before me, I reasoned, could be opening a fresh chapter in my life that I so desperately yearned for. But there was little time to lose, so I hastily packed a small trunk that evening and joined Gerárd the next morning at the Gare du Nord to board the early train to Le Havre.
By noon, we had arrived and were met at the quay by Gerárd’s trader, introduced to me as Raoul, who saw us to our cramped quarters aboard his two-masted coaster. My seagoing experience was effectively nil, but even to my unpracticed eye, neither the vessel nor her rough-looking crew inspired great confidence as we set off. But whatever their appearance, they seemed to know their business, and we made our way south, past Gibraltar and around the bulge of Africa, smoothly enough.
Gerárd and I kept to ourselves, and, at length, we arrived at the mouth of the great Congo River. Navigating a few miles upstream, we reached the first settlement of any consequence at Boma.
“We go our separate ways here,” Raoul said. “You are on your own. I have ventured where you are going but once; I doubt that any other white man has dared to follow.” He looked hard at Gerárd. “I have told you what the locals say. You have been warned, monsieur. I have made arrangements for a pirogue and a guide to take you upriver. I am assured he is a good man, one who expects a handsome payment for taking on the risk.”
“And he shall receive it,” insisted Gerárd. Raoul went on:
“Here is what you must remember if nothing else: I sail for home on the 17th whether you are on board or not. Do not mistake me. I will not wait.”
With that stark admonition, we parted company with Raoul. It was late in the day, so we secured lodging for the night at a ramshackle inn not far from the dock. We took supper in our room. It was a local dish comprised of what we could not precisely discern and thought best not to inquire about too deeply. And though fatigued from the trip, both of us smoked our pipes and talked long into the night, such was our heightened anticipation over what lay ahead of us.
Early the next morning, with the equatorial heat already throwing its oppressive blanket down upon us, we met our man squatting outside the inn. He introduced himself as Ingare, as angular as a heron and blacker than obsidian. He spoke in broken French, but it was passable enough to communicate. More importantly, he was fluent in the Bantu tongue that would be required once we reached our destination.
“We go soon,” Ingare announced after we had exchanged pleasantries. Raoul had seen to provisioning for our journey, so with the pirogue laden with supplies, we set out.
As foreign as the outpost at Boma was to me, I was hardly prepared for the vast and untamed world we confronted with each mile we progressed upriver. Any semblance of civilization soon enough receded into the distance, leaving us upon a ribbon of dark water, enveloped by jungle and suffocating heat. Ingare’s long, rhythmic strokes at the pole were accompanied by the shrieks of all manner of birds in the canopy above and the grunts and cries of wild things below. I felt as if we had entered a living organism that was defiled by our presence.
And something else, undefined, began to creep into my consciousness. Perhaps it was the completely alien environment, or my conversation with Gerard in Paris, or Raoul’s manner, but I could not banish the feeling.
My apprehensions grew with the setting of the sun. In the late afternoon, Ingare choose a suitable clearing on the river bank, and we made camp for the night. Ingare built a small fire, fed by the dead limbs he gathered at the jungle’s edge, and we ate a meager supper from our provisions. Afterward, Gerárd and I smoked and talked while Ingare sat apart, rocking to and fro while tightly gripping a small, carved figurine and chanting to himself.
“What the devil is he going on about? I asked Gerárd at length.
Que dites vous, Ingare? Gerárd called out. Our guide paused and gazed upon us with the most profound aspect of seriousness.
Protéger les mauvais esprits, bwana. He turned away and resumed his mournful droning.
“Evil spirits?” I said with a slight shudder. My companion laughed, drawing on his pipe.
“Superstition,” he said, “nothing more.” But there was something in his visage, illumined by the writhing firelight, that gave me reason to believe he harbored a flicker of doubt. My sleep that night was fitful.
Two-and-half days into our journey, Ingare poled toward the west bank of the river, to a spot that appeared no different from the rest of the jungle. In fact, after brushing through a curtain of thick, low-hanging branches, we found ourselves at the mouth of another stream. Ingare gesticulated excitedly and began chattering in his native tongue.
“It exists, just as Raoul promised!” exulted Gerárd. “We are nearly there, mon ami.” My response was more muted. I could not dispel the shadow of foreboding that had fallen across me and grown more pronounced the deeper our journey took us into the heart of the Congo.
Another day’s travel brought us to a collection of grass huts barely visible from the waters of the tributary. As our pirogue neared the bank, several men appeared from the jungle, each possessing a fierce countenance and brandishing a long spear. They said not a word, and the usual cacauphony of the jungle seemed to have completely fallen away, save for the piercing shriek of a single chimpanzee. It was odd, indeed, and, I could not help feeling, ominous.
“Inshuti. Turi inshuti,” Ingare called out and repeated.
“What’s he saying, Gerárd?” As if anticipating my query, Ingare turned to us.
“I tell them we friend.” Then he took up again with the natives. “Inshuti. Bwana Raoul inshuti.”
The invocation of Raoul’s name seemed to carry substational weight with the spearmen. Their posture relaxed, and two of them came to the river’s edge to help drag the pirogue up onto the bank. We disembarked, and were greeted by an imposing figure who had stepped from the background. Rather than the crude codpieces worn by our welcoming committee, this older man was attired in an elaborate loincloth, beaded breastplate and ornate headdress fashioned from the plumage of brightly colored birds. He was accorded great deference by the others, and moved with an air of hautiness befitting his station as the tribal monarch.
Ingare showed his respect — and we immediately followed — by bowing low. Wordlessly, the chieftain bade our guide to come forward, which Ingare did, and the two began a palaver. We understood none of what was said save an occasional mention of Raoul’s name.
But after a short time, Ingare broke off the conversation and went to the pirogue. He returned with a small wooden chest, set it before the king and drew open the lid. Inside, the box was filled to the brim with a gaudy array of beads and large faux gemstones, dazzling to the eye, but in point of fact little more than cheap trinkets. Their intrinsic value notwithstanding, the effect on the natives was immediate, generating excited chatter. The tribal elder’s reaction, while not so extreme, was nonetheless visible pleasure. He signaled one of his underlings to remove the chest. Then, with a slight nod to Ingare, the king and his retinue withdrew.
“Well, Ingare?” Gerárd asked with eagerness.
“It good, bwana. Chief, him say Raoul grand ami. Now, we big friends, too.”
“And what of the rest?”
“Him say you meet with tribe umuganga — special medicine priest — tonight.”
The sun was was well along on its transit to the western horizon, so we busied ourselves settling in to one of the huts that had been readied for us. Once completed, we were invited to take part in a feast in our honor prepared by the women of the tribe. There was plentiful food — fish roasted in palm leaves served with a vegetable root ground to the consistency of porridge — and, afterward, a great fire and much dancing and singing. I note these details but only in passing, for I found myself gripped by anxiety as the evening turned to night and we were ushered to a special hut reserved for the tribal shaman. Ingare agreed to accompany us to act as our interpreter but made it clear he would participate no further.
The interior of the hut was unremarkable, plain save for a small altar containing several clay figurines and a small fire at the center of the hut. Directly opposite the altar, the shaman sat in cross-legged fashion on a woven reed mat. To his right, there were three identical matts, and he bade us to join him.
Once seated, Ingare began an earnest conversation with the medicine man, whose mien was somber, made the more so by the whorls upon his face rendered in a chalky white paint. As I studied him, with the firelight dancing in the shadowy confines of the hut, his visage seemed to come alive in a way that set my nerves on edge. I could see that Gerárd had noticed as well, yet, as was his wont, he put on a brave front, no doubt the better to reassure me.
At length, the shaman ended his colloquy with Ingare, who shifted his attention to us.
“Him say big spirits in this place. Many bad. Very strong. Him say bwanas can go back now. After this, no go back.” Gerárd looked at me as if to ask whether my nerves would fail me at this moment. It was clear that the hunger was upon him, and I was not prepared to surrender to fear and cowardice. Gerárd nodded to Ingare.
With a few words to the medicine chief, the proceedings commenced. The shaman arose and began chanting and gesticulating, waving a feathered rattle in the air. He stepped to the fire and threw upon it a handful of granules which sent a burst of smoke and flame into the upper reaches of the hut. Whatever the substance, it gave off a heavy, sweet aroma not unlike that which I associated with frankincense. Next, he placed about the necks of each of us, a necklace of leather ending in a small rough-hewn clay disk. In the dim light I could see they were identically inscribed with the figure of a dancing man. The shaman muttered, and Ingare translated:
“He say these protect us from imyuka mibi — evil spirits.” It was clear that Ingare was becoming more troubled, but to the man’s credit, he did not desert us. “Medicine priest say he give you special powder. Very small powder. Under tongue,” Ingare said, demonstrating by squeezing his thumb and forefinger together. “Then you close eyes. Wait.”
Now the shaman drew close, first to Gerárd, increasing the pitch and pace of his incantations while shaking the rattle above my friend’s head. After a moment, he reached into a small leather pouch cinched about his waist and brought forth a tiny pinch of greyish powder, motioned for Gerárd to open his mouth and slipped the substance beneath his tongue. With a quick sidelong glance at me, Gerárd closed his eyes. The shaman repeated his ritual with me, depositing a bit of the powder in my mouth. I let my eyelids flutter down, noting the acrid taste, and I waited.
I cannot say how long it was before I experienced my first realization that space was shifting within me, becoming elastic, elongating, folding around on itself. And I . . . I became as a bead of mercury, vibrating and gliding over the surface of this shimmering indigo Möbius strip until I reached the place where I had begun and then began again.
Soon, the landscape commenced melting, as if formed from the wax of candle, and the color, by degrees, metamorphosed through the hues of the rainbow to rise and fall in pulsating cascades of crimson. And I had undergone a transformation as well, no longer an object to be observed. Instead, I was the observed and observer alike, inseperable from the color flowing around and through me. At length, as I floated, mesmerized, there came to my ears the music of a dozen flutes, a melody indefinable yet wholly alluring combined with the murmur of mellifluous female voices, how many I could not say. And, as with the music of the flutes, I could not discern the language they spoke nor comprehend the meaning. But it was of little concern, for the import of their message came in the manner of their speech. Each susurration caressed me, seduced me, body and soul. It came in waves that lifted me up and caused my breath to catch in my breast so that I feared I would swoon, only to ebb and then be pushed to a fresh peak of ecstasy, again and again.
I returned to consciousness by degrees, fully regaining my senses to find myself lying upon my back. It must have been quite late, though from what illumination entered the hut from without, I knew dawn had not yet broken. As my senses came to their fullness, I pushed myself up onto an elbow and looked about me. The medicine priest was just as he had been before. My friend was sitting erect, head down as if studying the floor with great intensity. Nearby, Ingare squatted. All about, shadows from the flickering firelight darted across the walls of the hut.
When the shaman took note of my revival, he stirred and spoke a few words in a low tone.
“Him say we go now,” Ingare began. “Keep these,” he continued, lifting the amulet around his neck. “No evil spirit come.” Raising his head, Gerárd said to Ingare:
“Tell him we want powder to take with us.” This Ingare did, bringing an immediate protest..
“Him say no. Bad spirits, evil spirits go from this place.” Gerárd had prepared for this resistence. He had brought with him a small leather pouch. He reached inside of it and produced a diadem comprised of gold leaves surrounding a large opal in the center. I say “gold” and “opal” only as descriptives, for in truth they were of no more value than the trinkets showered on the tribal chieftain. However, the crown looked quite impressive in the dancing firelight. And the effect was just as Gerárd had intended. The shaman’s eyes widened as he gazed with open lust upon the diadem.
Ingare was instructed to tell the shaman that the crown was his in return for a measure of the powder. It took but a moment for the medicine priest to reconsider, and the transaction was complete.
Six weeks have passed since our return to Paris. We did not linger after that first night. In truth, Gerard seemed more eager to depart than he had been to arrive, so we returned to Boma with all due speed. It was not solely Gerárd’s desire to leave the village but the fear that we might somehow be delayed and Raoul would sail without us.
There was little discussion of our experience. Gerárd seemed quite reluctant to talk about it, a veil descending over his countenance whenever I raised the subject. I felt constrained to prod him on the matter, so I confined my ruminations to the journal I had been keeping since the beginning of our trip. The following passage is illustrative of the tenor of my thoughts:
As each day passes that we are upon the sea — nay, as every hour of the clock ticks by — I feel the urge to enter the realm of the mysterious drug again growing more insistent. It is a hunger that gnaws at my insides with no less ferocity than if I were starving for lack of nourishment. I yearn again for the surrender to an unparalleled sensuousness, pleasure unrivaled, made the more thrilling by its enwrapment in the gauze of the forbidden.
These feelings I kept to myself, asking Gerárd in a casual manner only once if he was prepared to grant me a small portion of the few grams of the powder given him by the shaman. His refusal was immediate.
“Certainly not,” he said casting me a look of near-disbelief. “This compound is far too potent for mere recreation. I am restricting it to my scientific research with the macaca mulatta.”
His manner was so brusque and carried such finality that I pursued my request no further. Yet, the desire for the powder did not abate but only grew, troubling my nights and preoccupying my days.
At length, I contrived a plan to obtain that which so obsessed me. On the pretext of completing my writing project about our Congo journey, Gerárd agreed to my request that I be allowed to observe his researches first-hand.
His laboratory was located in the basement of a building that was part of the Sorbonne medical college on Rue Santeuil. I arrived in the late afternoon to find Gerárd focused intently on his work. Our contact since returning had been limited, but he greeted me with a measure of his usual bonhommie.
“Ahh — come in, come in,” he said, inviting me into a sparsely furnished space containing little save a desk, bookshelf and cabinet. In a room beyond, I heard the hooting of one of the rhesus monkeys upon which he was performing his experimentation. “You’re well?”
“Indeed, yes,” I replied,”consumed with preparing the manuscript of our singular adventure.” In this I bent the truth, since I had been able to concentrate on little else save my hunger for the powder. “I am grateful you have spared time from your own work to permit my interruption.” At this his countenance took on a somber character.
“You have come at a most opportune moment, for I am preparing to administer the largest dose of the shaman’s powder yet to one of my primates. What my experiments have revealed thus far is of the gravest import.”
“That the old medicine priest was correct to warn us about the dangers of the drug, its power — if I may be so bold to say — power to seize the very souls of men, so that even while I conduct my researches here, I am never without this. ” He reached beneath the open collar of his shirt and drew forth the leather necklace to which was appended the amulet given us by the shaman. “You are wearing yours, as I instructed?”
“Yes, though I confess I find it a bit extreme”
“It is not, of that I can assure you.”
“May I ask a question, Gerárd?” He nodded his assent. “You and I — we have never spoken fully about our experiences that night in the hut, and — “
“And we never shall!” His retort was of such sharpness that my head recoiled as if I had been slapped across the face. With some effort, he tamped down his anger. “Forgive me. I — “
“Please,” I replied, “there is no need.” He responded with a tight smile and said:
“Now, you’re here to observe my resesrches, so come.” He turned and led me into the inner room of his laboratory.
Along a side wall there was a bench covered in an array of equipment — test tubes, beakers, microscopes and the like. At the back, stacked upon a wooden table were four cages, each containing a monkey. At the sight of us, they launched a chorus of screeching and leaped around inside the cages in a state of what I took to be profound agitation. I expected Gerárd to quiet them with a volley of curses and shouts, but instead spoke in the most soothing tone, going from one cage to the next until the cacauphony ceased.
Having subdued his charges, he lifted one of the cages and brought it to a work table in the center of the room.
“I will now carry out my experiment utilizing a full dose of the powder, and you may judge for yourself the appalling transformation it wreaks upon this creature.” From a cabinet above the laboratory bench, my friend retrieved a small clay container I instantly recognized as the very vessel the shaman had given to us containing the ground fungus. It was all I could do to tear my gaze away, such was my lust for the substance the jar held. Carefully, Gerárd removed the lid, which was secured by two short leather thongs. He next took up a thumb-sized piece of banana and, with a scalpel, made an incision in the fruit. Using a small spoon, with infinite care, he dipped up a tiny portion of the powder and deposited it within the incision, closing the slit with thumb and forefinger.
I had come prepared to implore Gerárd with the greatest urgency to give me a small amount of the powder, though I believed the odds were against me. I waited but a moment for Gerárd to slip the banana between the bars of the cage and into the paw of the monkey, who devoured the fruit without hesitation.
“While we wait for the drug’s fullest effects to manifest themselves,” he said,”I will let you review the notes of my early experimentation.” He began looking around him, growing increasingly agitated. “I was certain I brought the papers in here,” he said. “You’ll forgive me; it seems I’ve left them in my desk.” He moved quickly toward the door, and I seized my glimmer of a chance. From the pocket of my jacket, I removed a small phial, uncorked it —
“Ah, here they are,” I heard Gerárd exclaim.
— and spooned into it what I judged to be approximately one-half gram of the drug. I had barely enough time to return the spoon to its place and the phial to my pocket before Gerárd emerged from his office and placed before me a bound volume of foolscap. “You may peruse this while you are here. I believe you will find evidence that fully supports my belief, made the more fervent by my own encounter with the drug in the jungle and the shaman’s admonition, that this substance, for all of the efficaciousness it may possess, is never to be used without the protection of such as this,” he said solemnly, again touching the talisman he wore. “Behold!” he then declared, gesturing in the direction of the monkey.
Upon my initial glance, the animal appeared frozen, stiff, as if in a state of catatonia. Gradually, I discerned movement, slight at first, then more pronounced, as the monkey came fully to life, reeling about his cage drunkenly, swinging his arms to and fro. These gesticulations became more extreme as the creature staggered and fell repeatedly. After a time, the monkey began to emit a series of whining, chattering, grunt-like sounds and commenced to grabbing his head in both hands and banging it against the bars of the cage. It was quite a pitiable sight, and I implored Gerárd to halt the experiment.
“It cannot be stopped now,” he answered with finality. “There is but one outcome.” This I was soon to observe, as the poor creature suddenly seized up, cried out with a prolonged screech of what I can only describe as utter agony and collapsed, dead. Gerárd looked at me intently. “There, you have observed for yourself. I hope it has convinced you to abandon any thought of ingesting this fungus ever again.”
This scene had left me shaken, to be sure; but the horror of it all was swiftly superseded by an overwhelming desire to return to my lodgings and partake of the powder that was now mine. Nevertheless, for the sake of appearances, I took some time to page through Gerárd’s laboratory journal, going through the motions of jotting a few a notes of my own.
At length, I offered my thanks, explaining that it was necessary for me to take my leave for another engagement. He bade me Godspeed, and I departed.
By the time I had regained my rooms, the autumn evening shadows had begun to nestle upon the city, the descending sun slanting across the majesty of Notre Dame. I made haste to draw the thick drapery over my windows, barring all light from the outside. What illumination there was I provided with a single waxen taper.
Then, with trembling fingers, I removed from my jacket that which I had come to regard as my Holy Grail. I sought a comfortable posture upon the leather chaise longue near the fireplace, carefully removed the cork from the phial and tapped a tiny amount of the ground fungus onto the tip of my right forefinger. Without hesitation, I deposited the powder beneath my tongue, took pains to secure the cork in the phial and, as final preparatory step, touched the talisman, resting securely on my breast.
Next, I reclined my head and closed my eyes.
Again, as I had with my initial experience in the Congo, I sensed a cessation of the flow of time as a process apart from myself as an entity. From deep within me welled up the sensation of a surging torrent that rose with great speed and force to burst through the crown of my head in an exhilarating geyser of rainbow colors. My whole being was transformed into molten scarlet, flowing like thick rivulets of lava. And there came, very faintly at first but with increasing intensity, the thrum of female voices, whispering as if within me, repeating phrases in no language I had ever encountered. But upon these voices I was soothed, titillated and transported beyond my ability to describe in mere words.
I emerged from my altered state slowly.. I knew not what time had passed, though the new candle I had lit was guttering in its holder. And when I drew back the drapery from my window, I saw that dawn was in the first stages of breaking.
Now my tale accelerates.
Time began to collapse in on itself as the life I had led became inconsequential in the face of the fresh imperative I felt to consume more of the powder and with greater frequency. This I did, the experience heightened with every repetition.
Very little of the drug was required to produce its hallucinogenic effects, and I took great pains to apportion what I had purloined from Gerárd’s laboratory carefully. But each time I partook of the powder, I found myself, by increments, using a greater amount on subsequent occasions. This I accepted with a growing nonchalance, even eagerness, such were the effects it achieved.
After a time — I judged it to be approximately a fortnight — what remained of the drug was enough for but two more excursions. Yet by that juncture, I yearned for a more pronounced experience, so I resolved to take all of the powder at once. My judgment was clouded; I gave no thought either to what might be the consequence of such a step or how I would address exhausting my supply of the fungus.
The day I planned for my sojourn seemed well-suited to the occasion. Great banks of clouds had gathered as a shroud over the sprawling precincts of Paris. It was a match for my mood, which was tinged with an unexpected hint of anxiety; I knew not why. So, as daylight waned, I made ready, drawing the drapery, lighting a fresh candle and taking my place upon the chaise longue. Then, the final step before administering the drug, I placed my hand upon the talisman to make certain it was where it should be.
As I did, there came unbidden to my consciousness melodic female voices of unsurpassed gentleness and allure, the very same Sirens who so enthralled me, heightening my passion while under the drug’s influence. But unlike those encounters during which they spoke in a language unknown to me, now they communicated in French of the greatest clarity, bidding me to abandon the protective amulet and come unencumbered into their world. This I initially resisted as the inchoate unease that had hung about me through the day gave way to a more well-defined fear of inner darkness. But my resolve was tested with each reassuring caress and the hypnotic chorus —
“Dark sides are important . . . “
A chorus that kept repeating —
“They should be nourished like nasty black orchids.”
In the end, my resistence was futile, for I was like the man dangling by his fingertips from an escarpment, strength ebbing, until the instant when the inexorable force of gravity triumphs. And at that moment, I seized the talisman, violently ripped it from around my neck and hurled it across the room. That done, I immediately took up what remained of the gray powder and placed it beneath my tongue, closing my eyes and reclining upon the settee.
Swiftly, darkness descended, and the voices hitherto as mellifluous as a brook meandering through a forest glade, underwent a chilling metamorphosis, assuming the evil sibilance of the serpent. Their words again were unintelligible, but instead of the soothing quality they had possessed, now they assailed me as shards of glass needling at my skin, transforming into tiny thread-like worms, wriggling hideously as if dancing and mocking me before burrowing into my flesh. It was torment beyond comprehension! I tried to recoil but felt myself immobilized, frozen in place. I attempted in vain to cry out for help, yet when my lips parted their erupted from my mouth a torrent of black bile.
As the hissing grew louder and I was on the verge of swooning, I became aware of a new and more horrible sensation. It came from below, from the viscous liquid in which I found myself. It was the distinct knowledge and unbearable agony of being eaten alive! By inches, jaws worked at my legs, at last emerging from the depths of the mire, a ghastly mouth ringed with jagged teeth that rent my muscle and bone. And it did not stop, grinding on — higher and higher! I was watching myself disappear into the maw, assailed by a stench indescribable. Again, I made to scream . . .
I sank beneath the cloak of unconsciousness.
Of when next light came into my eyes I cannot say. My rooms remained shrouded, the candle spent and cold upon the table. When I drew back the drapes, the autumn sunshine slanted in, causing me to raise a hand reflexively to shield my eyes. How long had I been absent the world of my fellow beings who crowded the street below me?
I shuddered at the recollection of the horrors I had endured, using the greatest force of will to push the memories from my mind. In the next moment, it occurred to me that I should — must! — find the talisman I had flung from me with such terrible consequence. Nevermore, I vowed, would I be without its protective power. I searched with great diligence, combing the shadowy recesses of the room until, at length, I found it. Or, more precisely, what there was of it. For what remained was the leather necklace that had held it and the clay amulet shattered beyond repair. It curdled my soul, for at that moment I felt entirely at the mercy of the forces unleashed by the fungus.
In a state of profound despair, I again darkened the room and took to the divan, hoping rest would bring surcease. I fell into a fitful sleep, clouded by the presence of formless phantoms in a hellish landscape choked with acrid smoke. I felt myself weighed down, unable to flee, to hide . . . and suffocating.
I awoke, my head pounding, my clothes soaked as if perspiration had sprung from every pore. Rather than the measure of peace I had hoped for, I found myself more fatigued and gripped by anxiety than ever. As I cast about for any alleviation of my circumstances, I decided to leave the oppressiveness of my rooms. But even after bathing and donning a fresh suit of clothes, I realized little relief as I ventured forth into the late Parisian afternoon. The air was bracing to be sure, but the gentle breeze and the quotidian bustle of the city could not dispel my gloom.
For two or three days my life continued in this manner — sleep impossible and wakefullness haunted by unending fatigue. I could find no oasis. I had long since withdrawn from regular intercourse with my family and friends. Gerárd remained immersed in his work and had not contacted me since my visit to his laboratory. In desperation, I weighed whether I should go to him seeking a way out of my purgatory but cast the notion from my mind at last, not wanting to reveal that my state was of my own doing, the result of stealing a quantity of the powder.
And then there opened a grotesque new chapter, the one that has led me to this, my last confession of the soul. As I have said, my nights were no longer hours of refuge. Instead, I fought sleep knowing the terrors it would bring. But three days ago, at first with brevity, then growing longer and more pronounced, there came fresh sensations and periods of hallucinatory delirium during my waking hours such that I can barely any longer distinguish dream from what passes for reality.
I sit alone, quaking upon the chaise longue, the slither and hissing as if from a hundred vipers assailing me. They swarm upon the floor as a roiling, hideous sea. The room itself distorts in dimension, the ceiling pressing down, down, down until I am forced to brace an arm against it. My flesh crawls — I see the hellish tracks of what wriggles beneath but can do nothing to relieve my suffering. And I can cry out to no one for help, for I am rendered devoid of the power of speech.
Oh, for the mercy of God!
And so I take these last, precious moments of lucidity to relate my tale, my cavalier and foolish choices, my abject ignorance and the price I have paid. It is a warning. I pray you do not let it go unheeded!
Now, I feel the awful terror rise within me anew — each sensation more horrifying than the last. A life of utter torment and madness is all that remains.
I cannot let it be so. I cannot!
Liberté . . . !
“Descent” was originally published by Little Death Lit.
Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in more than twenty publications including the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bookends Review, the Nonconformist Magazine, Backchannels Review, Sandpiper, the San Antonio Review, Flyover Magazine, Pigeon Review, The Best of CaféLit 11 and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies. His short story “Portrait” appeared in The Chamber Magazine last November. He lives outside Chicago.
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