The Brigadier’s Confession: Part 2

Being the full and frank confession of Brigadier Sir George A.M.F MacPhail: soldier, adventurer, impostor.

Read Part 1

-oOo-

I did not think at all. I ran after McTavish like the blind fool I was. The slope was exceeding steep, and I lost my footing, cannoning into him so that we both rolled over shrubs and rocks and scrub until we reached the bottom.

“God damn you!” he cried, hauling himself to his feet. “You stupid, impertinent young…” He broke off, staring around him. “What the devil?”

I rose gingerly, flinching before the blows I was sure would come. But he paid me no heed — he was looking up at the ridge, where not a soul was in sight. His face contorted and he ground his teeth.

“Run off, would you?” he bellowed, waving his fist. “Cowards! Traitors! Cockchafing bastard sons of two-shilling whores!” He went on for some time in this vein, but I shall not record it, for his language quickly became ungentlemanly. At length he dusted himself off, hoisted his elephant gun and walked away towards the forest, railing as he went. I hurried after him, for I was unarmed save for a small dagger I had stolen from one of the native guides. Had I a better weapon, I might have taken my chances with the beasts.

We made slow progress, for McTavish had clearly injured himself rolling down the hill—the further we walked, the more his left foot dragged and the more heartily he cursed. We did not meet a single creature, for which I was profoundly thankful — I know now, of course, that they had come to fear men, and McTavish’s cursing doubtless alerted them of our presence a clear mile away. Once we came to the forest, I grew bold and began to explore my surroundings, for McTavish was easy to track, and I was nimble enough in those days to shin up and down trees like a monkey. At first, this was all very harmless — I found fruit I dared not eat, and water I dared not drink, and woodland creatures that scuttled off before I could lay hold of a rock. I was casting about for one when I found the body.

The man — for what woman would enter this cursed place? — lay at the foot of a tree. The state he was in I dare not describe. I was an undertaker’s boy, and I puked three times before I could get a good look at him. He was decked in rusty black rags, and around the neck was a dull silver chain with a crucifix — a fine thing even to my eye, silver and ebony. One arm was outstretched, and at his chewed and fretted fingertips lay a drift of coarse paper, wrinkled by the damp and crossed over and over again in dense crooked writing.

I am not proud of what I did. I gathered up the pages and thrust them into my shirt, and then I lifted up his poor head — what was left of it — removed the chain from around his neck, and pocketed the crucifix. I suppose I thought I might sell it, should I survive to leave that place, and pay for my passage home — for if I was certain of one thing, it was that I wanted to go home. But I never did sell it. It stays in a locked drawer in my bedside table, and I never look at it, but neither will I let it go. For what happened in that valley will stay with me until I die, and no priest and no pardon could lift my burden from me.

© Alix Montague 2016

The Brigadier’s Confession: Part 1

Being the full and frank confession of Brigadier Sir George A.M.F MacPhail: soldier, adventurer, impostor.

-oOo-

I was born to a respectable family in the outskirts of Edinburgh. I wager that surprises you, for I have always let it be given out that I was a mad Highlander, the runaway child of moor-dwelling peasants. I have spent my military life around English officers and foreign soldiers: two very different classes of men, but united in their willingness to believe me a savage, especially on account of my hair and my temper. I did not disabuse them.

My people were undertakers, and so too would I be, had I not taken my fate into my own hands. And this I did when I was just fifteen. I had had quite enough of helping my father to sew up orifices and fend off stink. I was of the opinion that, if I must spend my life up to my elbows in foulness, I might as well be something more dashing: a surgeon, say, or a zoologist. The former profession was beyond my parents’ means, the latter beyond their imagining. And so we quarrelled – definitively quarrelled. I suppose we might have made it up in time, but I was a hot-headed creature and I did not wait to find out. I took the housekeeping money from my mother’s purse and myself to Leith docks, where I signed up as crew of the King Midas, bound for the New World. The captain was a raving monomaniac called McTavish, whose sole desire it was to find the conquistador treasure rumoured to be buried in a hidden valley of the Amazon.

But sir! I hear you protest. Did not the McTavish expedition fail, and the entire crew perish?

The answer, in short, is yes – and no.

The passage was the worst of my life. My father had been strict, but here I was treated like a galley slave; I had chafed at handling the effluences of the dead, but now I spent all my waking hours mopping up those of the living. Many a time I wished myself home again, but I could not turn back. Even if I could, I would not, for I had my pride – and just as well, or I might have given into melancholy and cast myself overboard.

At length we made port, and McTavish set about finding men to strengthen our expedition. This proved difficult, for every man knew where we were headed, but none seemed prepared to countenance it. But McTavish had considerable funds, and in a few days had assembled a company of madmen and mercenaries the likes of which I have never again seen. I almost wished the expedition cancelled, for I was well-entrenched in Manaus – the pleasures of a Brazilian port city need no enumeration. Were the prospect of gold less tantalising, I might have stayed where I was and let McTavish and co. go to their doom without me. How I wish I had!

We reached the valley after a long and gruelling hike through the rainforests, in the course of which a good three-quarters of our mercenaries changed their minds and fled. We arrived exhausted, much-bitten, and bruised in body and spirit. The scene that met us I need not describe – our anonymous priest did a better job of it than I could ever manage. Suffice it to say that the view was the same and so were the beasts, great lumbering things of a size I can hardly credit even now. Only the atmosphere was different: McTavish swore profusely, and the remainder of our native troops shrieked and ran back into the forest. I thought them cowards then, but have since come to regard them as extremely sensible men.

The rest of us had little time to think. “Ho!” cried McTavish, and he raised his elephant gun and went charging into the valley.

© Alix Montague 2015

Part 2

Sebastiano Spada: Episode 6

The tale of a solitary priest in the valley of death.

Read Episode 5

-oOo-

I have lived through many things, before and since. But if there was one truly significant, life-altering passage in the whole rotten ordeal, it was that day.

The sun came up and I stayed in my tree, transfixed by indecision. I wanted to follow the trail I had begun – to seek the source of my miraculous discovery. Of course, I could scarcely hope to find anyone alive. That rusty old mattock blade, abandoned and half-buried, spoke of death. Whoever used that tool, they had almost certainly been consumed by this dreadful maw of a valley. And yet, and yet … might there be life?

I wanted to know – wanted it desperately. But I had survived long enough in this foul place to be extremely averse to the idea of following a coffin-head’s hunting route, whatever the prize. It must have been noon before I finally made up my mind, and climbed cautiously down. If I was right, after all, the beasts would not start their hunting until near sundown. I only hoped I was right.

The blade lay where I had found it, driven into the ground by the pressure of a great foot. I scrabbled at it with trembling hands. One fretted edge nicked my thumb, and the wound in my toe gave an answering pang – I paid it no heed. Finally I unearthed the thing and, holding it ahead of me by way of self-defence, moved forward with my every sense on alert. I must have walked two hours before I reached that place, the one I now call my parish.

Now, I am not a man given to hysterics. But I am afraid to say that I made very slow progress, being prone to throwing myself up trees whenever I thought I felt some slight tremor. The ground I covered in two hours a stronger man might have managed in one. I was not strong. The pain in my foot beat time with my pounding heart, and I felt that every false alarm must be my final moment. I had not eaten or drunk – sickness came, and went, and came again – and then suddenly the trees opened before me, and there was space, endless space.

“Good Lord!” I cried, speaking aloud for the first time in weeks. “Good Lord, what is this?”

Before me was a great clearing of the sort only man could make. The ground was beaten flat, though the grass grew long and ragged over it – trees had been hewn down, and the trunks lay mouldering in orderly piles. Here and there a pole rose from the undergrowth, bound about by some parasitic creeper. There was more, and I shall tell of it presently, but at that moment I could not take it in. The main thing was that people had lived here – yes, lived, and built, and perhaps hoped to conquer.

And now – what? Green, green, savage green, and everywhere – o God! – the pallid gleam of bone.

© Alix Montague 2015

 

Sebastiano Spada: Episode 5

The tale of a solitary priest in the valley of death.

Read Episode 4

-oOo-

In the days that followed my encounter with the bird-lizard, two ideas came to me with terrible clarity: that I would not see my friends again, and that I would die in that valley.

Of course, I could hardly expect not to die. A missionary cannot hope to live. Death is more than a hazard of the journey – it is practically a sign of doing the d–n thing right. I had not set off to the New World in order to return from it. And I had tried to embrace death once already, when I believed it would save my brother Jesuits. But something had changed. Knowing I would die, I wanted – urgently, perversely – to survive.

Time passed. I became adept at climbing, and could soon cross from tree to tree, clambering hand-over-foot like a child or an animal. My shoes obstructed me – I shed them. My spear was lost – I did not mourn it. Rocks were plentiful, and just as handy. I stored them up in the crooks of my favourite trees, and stunned my prey from on high. I learned the habits of the great coffin-headed beasts, and to sense their presence by the vibration of the soil. The bird-lizards left me alone. I took a stout vine and hung the skull of their brother, my victim, from the tree where I best liked to sleep. In short, I was a savage. Only two things marked me out as human, and a priest: my cassock, which I retained only because it had saved my life, and the rosary around my neck, which I hoped might do something for my soul.

But I hardly remembered to pray any more. My whole preoccupation was with staying alive. I clung to what had proved safe, and clung with all my being – I would not have left my familiar patch of forest for anything, but that the little brown mammals who were my prey began to grow scarce. They, too, wanted to live, and so they left that place. So, then, must I. I untied my trophy, tied the vine around my waist, and began to walk.

I had not been walking an hour when I felt a sharp pain in my toe. My first instinct was to cry out to God, for I was sure it was a serpent’s bite. Now I would die – yes, and painfully – and after all my care! Fury overcame me, and I cast about for a rock – if I could do nothing else with the time left to me, I would bash my assassin’s brains in. But I had scarcely moved when I felt that same sharp biting pain, and I looked down and saw an object in the grass by my foot: an object of metal, manmade.

The world seemed to tilt on its axis. I crouched down and picked the thing up, turning it in my hands. It was a double-ended tool, like the head of a mattock – the handle long gone, perhaps rotted away. It was blunt and corroded, but the rough edges were still sharp enough to hurt. There was my blood on it, red upon rust. I was faintly aware that my toe was throbbing, and that the ground beneath it was wet.

For some time I stayed there, on my hunkers, and looked at this marvel: this product of civilisation, cast in the forge of some nameless smith. My mind had been too long focused on the sordid business of eating and not being eaten to grasp the repercussions of such a find. Only when the ground began to shudder did I come to my senses, dropped the thing, and shinned up the nearest trunk – and just in time, for a squealing plant-eater erupted through the trees with a pair of coffin-heads after it. I will not describe the poor creature’s sufferings. Suffice it to say that I clung to my branch with renewed fervour, and that I did not dare descend until the night had come and gone.

© Alix Montague 2015

Sebastiano Spada: Episode 4

The tale of a solitary priest in the valley of death.

Read Episode 3

-oOo-

It was easy to retrace my path, for I had fairly laid waste to the undergrowth. I walked until I reached my marker, but I was too restless to stop. And so I carried on walking, and carried on praying, until something lying at the foot of a nearby tree caught my eye – something pinkish and white. Something like bone.

I felt sick and afraid, but my need to know was stronger. I parted the grass and found a skeleton – of no man, thank God! but a beast, with long back legs, a curved claw on each hind foot, and a narrow skull grinning with sharp teeth. The very beast I had killed, stripped of its flesh in the space of a few days.

The skull had come loose and lay a few inches away from the shattered vertebrae of the neck. Possessed by curiosity, I reached down and picked it up. It was finely wrought, and light – so light that I felt a pang of pity. There was something almost beautiful in the delicate lines that extended from the cavernous eye sockets, with the two great chambers in front, to the muzzle with its arched nostrils. I became absorbed in studying it, and was turning it in my hands, the spear tucked under my arm, when I felt a gentle draught of warm air on the back of my neck.

I went cold. I heard the creature – whatever it was – draw a long slow breath, and then it exhaled again, tickling the back of my neck and setting my skin crawling. Summoning every nerve, I gripped the spear in one hand and the skull in the other, and turned to face my foe.

It was a bird-lizard – the first I had ever seen upright and at close quarters. He was smaller than I expected, his head no higher than my chest, but I knew too well – poor Olivero! – the dreadful damage his like could do. He looked up at me with a cold reptile stare, tilting his head first this way and then that, assessing me. His short forelimbs hung before him, digits drooping, like grotesque hands. I dared not look down any further, but I felt the presence of those wicked hind claws as if they already pierced my flesh.

The air seemed to thicken. His eyes flicked from my face to the spear – I fancied he knew what it was – and back again. He muttered softly, chuck-chuck-chuck, and cocked his head to look at the skull in my other hand. I scarcely knew what I was doing – to my own horror, I reached out and offered the thing for his inspection, as if he were a dog. He blinked, with that curious sideways blink snakes have, and extended his muzzle, nostrils flaring. For a long moment he examined the skull, while I gripped it with sweating hand, willing my nerve not to fail. And then I felt a tooth graze my skin – sharp it was, and horribly dry – and I gave a convulsive jerk and flung the skull from me, so that it landed in a clump of vegetation some six feet away.

My opponent turned his head and watched the dreadful parabola before turning his attention back to me. I might have taken that chance to flee, but I was powerless to move – and he knew it, I think. I stood with the spear useless in my hand and waited for him to act. I could not even pray.

I can hardly bring myself to set down what happened next. It astounded me then, and it astounds me still. He took a step forward and scented the breast of my cassock, delicately at first and then with concentration, as if he were reading it. I was covered in blood, of course, by now: the blood of countless prey, of the great beast that pursued me, of his own brother-lizard. He paused, his teeth inches from my heart – he let his jaw hang and his teeth chatter, as I have seen dogs do when they scent carrion – and then he raised his head and fixed me with such a look that I could no longer doubt his intelligence.

Something possessed me then – some reckless spirit. I hoisted the spear. “Away!” I cried. “Get away, foul thing! AWAY!”

The creature twitched in a way that gave the impression of shrugging, and then he turned tail and loped away into the trees.

© Alix Montague 2015

Sebastiano Spada: Episode 3

The tale of a solitary priest in the valley of death.

Read Episode 2

-oOo-

For several days I walked. I set out from “my” tree and walked briskly in as straight a line as I could muster, notching the bark of the trees as I went. Then, when I judged I had covered a fair distance, I returned and set out in a new direction. This I did over and over in the sunlit hours, stopping only out of bodily necessity. At every failed excursion, I told myself that the next one must bear fruit. I would see the cave with the rocks at its mouth, and smell the fire, and see my brothers.

The woods were strangely quiet. I met with no danger. The only beasts to cross my path were plant-eaters, those Father Bianchi called “giant cows”. They ran from me, bellowing. I did not fear them. I did not even fear the others, then. Only my conscience tore at me.

I had not prayed in many days, except to save my own skin. Deprived of my breviary, I had too quickly forgotten its duties. It pained me terribly that I could not confess, or receive communion, or say Mass. But that I had let slip even those small obligations I could keep – why, that was unbearable. I thought of Francis Xavier in Asia, and Brébeuf captured by the Iroquois, and those of my brothers who, long ago, had come to this very continent and worked and died for the sake of the natives, and I felt like no Jesuit at all.

I began to pray the rosary. I spoke out loud, slashing absently at the undergrowth with my spear as I walked. The rhythm of it carried me so that I no longer knew where I went, or much cared, until mid-way through the third decade I realised that I had attained a clearing: a broad and muddy clearing with a river through it, and ahead of me the cave.

My heart seized. I ran, calling for them – for all three of them, forgetting for an instant that they were but two – but when I got to the cave I found it empty, the stones not so much rolled aside as scattered, as if by force. The ashes of the fire we had made were cold, and the shrivelled remains of our meal lay where I had thrown it. But Bianchi’s cassock, which he had cast over the fire to extinguish it, was gone.

“Bianchi!” I cried. “Dalmasso!” I left the cave and began to search the ground for some trace of their footprints. But I could see none, only churned-up mud and the imprints of beasts. I searched and searched, and called and called, while dusk gathered and plant-eaters of all forms and sizes emerged from the trees – at a cautious distance, naturally – for their evening drink. It was quite dark before it came to me that I was cold and exhausted, and that, for all I did not fear the plant-eaters, I had no wish to meet my coffin-headed friend again.

The cave was the only safe choice, although my soul revolted at the idea of spending the night there. But spend the night I did, lying on cold stone, with tired bones and an aching heart. I slept in fits and starts, and was troubled with visions. It seemed to me that Our Lady reproached me for my lack of care, and that her infant son, clinging to her, watched me with big sorrowful eyes. Perhaps I was dreaming, but I dare not wager that I was. At length she seemed to soften, and lifted her hand in a gesture of benediction and forgiveness – I sank into sleep then, and did not wake until the sun was high.

When I emerged into the light, the clearing was empty. There was no sight or sound of life save the birds, who sang so gaily that it only threw my desolation into sharper relief. I felt alone then in a way I have never experienced before that moment, or since. Grief drove its thorns into my heart – grief for my missing brothers, for my mother and father, for all the people I would never see again. I am not a man for tears, but I d–n nearly sank to the ground and howled.

This would not do, of course. I squared my shoulders and brandished my spear and, for want of a better plan, began to march back in the direction from which I had come, praying as I went, like a soldier of the church militant.

© Alix Montague 2015

Sebastiano Spada: Episode 4