"I'm sorry I'm late," apologized Doctor Charles D. Winterbottom, The Third. As he knocked water off of his floppy brim hat, a puddle formed at his feet. "It's too darn hard to get a taxi in New York when its raining. So I decided to walk."
The man he came to see, the famous expert on lost lands, Doctor Quentin Love, rose to greet him. He was in his early sixties, a dust-covered academic with a full white beard and unruly long hair. He grinned. "You're forgiven. I've often run into the same problem. We're glad that you decided to accept our invitation. Before we get started, allow me to introduce the other two people involved with the proposed enterprise. This lovely young lady is my daughter, Ardent."
Ardent, an attractive, well-endowed brunette in her early thirties, held out her hand.
Winterbottom, who always had an eye for a well-turned ankle and other attributes on women, took it and gallantly kissed it. "Charmed to make your acquaintance, Miss Love."
She smiled pleasantly and winked at him. "You may call me Ardent. The pleasure is all mine. Your exploits are well known throughout the archeological community."
Winterbottom wondered whether she meant his exploits in field work or with the ladies.
A man with bushy eyebrows, a well-trimmed dark beard and thinning hair stepped forward. He was older than Ardent, but younger than Love. He didn't offer his hand, but merely said, "I'm Professor Boris Ambitchov, Doctor Love's assistant. It wasn't my idea to invite you here. I believe you'll simply laugh and call us mad when Love tells you about our discovery. Or perhaps you'll think us dupes of a confidence man."
"Now, now, Boris," said Ardent. "Doctor Winterbottom may be more open-minded than you give him credit for."
Boris simply glowered for a reply.
"Yes, I'm quite an open-minded person, especially after traveling back in time."
"It's the notoriety of that business that brought you to our attention," said Professor Love. "Please be seated, and I'll attempt to explain the reasons behind the expedition we've planned. You may make up your own mind as to whether we're onto something important or simply chasing a wild chicken."
"Goose, father," corrected Ardent.
This brought a smile to Winterbottom's lips as an obscene image came into his mind. He plumped into a chair and threw his hat at the hat rack. He missed. causing the hat to fall limply to the floor. He leaned back and put muddy boots on Love's desk. "I'm all ears." Actually, he was all eyes because Ardent had crossed her legs, flashing a goodly amount of thigh. Ambitchov noticed and glared at him.
Love folded his hands and began to speak in his professorial style that put his students to sleep. "Throughout the ages, every civilization has among its myths a mysterious land of milk and jam where everything is beautiful, peaceful and abundant, and everyone lives forever. This land has been variously called Paradise, Eden, Atlantis, Shangri La, Erewhon, Middle Earth and other names. Since this myth is so prevalent, it's my contention, that a land of milk and jam must exist somewhere. I've spent a lifetime researching these myths ..."
He was interrupted by Ardent, who winked at Winterbottom again. "Honey, not jam. My father is the foremost authority on the Paradise myth." As she leaned forward, Winterbottom stared into her cleavage and thought, Did she just call me honey? I wonder what the jam part meant.
Love gazed down modestly. "Perhaps I am, but only because others have not shown as much interest that I have. However, to go on ... While on a trip to Alexandria, in the crypts below what was once the ancient great library, in an odd niche in a wall our guide came across a papyrus document which must've been overlooked for centuries. It was in an obscure ancient language that took me months to decipher. When I did, I realized that it contained specific information on the location of Eden. He sold this valuable document to me for the measly sum of two thousand dollars American."
"More than interesting. It's what I've worked my whole life to find. Now, it's simply a matter of mounting an expedition to make the discovery of the millennium."
"And you need my field experience."
"Exactly. Are you game?"
"That depends. Whereabouts is this marvelous land?"
"Of course, a land that's quite primitive, rugged and mysterious. I've been there and found it quite exotic, with breathtaking scenery. Some people call it paradise. But Doctor, I don't understand. It's a well-known country. What's new there to discover?"
Ambitchov blurted, "See, I told you he'd be skeptical."
Love ignored his assistant. "The document that I've obtained talks about a hidden mountain valley in the Himalayas, so difficult to get to that no one has been there for centuries. This valley is the true Eden, Atlantis, Middle Earth, the mythic Paradise."
"I see. And you're sure that your papyrus is authentic?"
"Well, I'm game. But there's a problem. The government of Bhutan has an extremely cautious approach regarding visitors to their country. Anyone entering Bhutan must be either guests of the government or tourists, who must travel on a preplanned, prepaid, guided package tour. Independent travel is not allowed."
"Not only that," remarked Ambitchov, "we made inquiries, and the area in which we wish to travel, is explicitly off limits to foreigners."
Ardent said, "We think they know what's hidden there and don't wish to share their prize with the world at large. That's precisely why we hired you. You have a reputation for getting into places that others cannot." She winked at him.
Ambitchov turned beet red for some reason, and Winterbottom wondered whether that last remark was meant to be flirtatious.
"I do. But I usually work alone." He winked back at Ardent. "What you have in mind will require a large and expensive expedition."
"Does that mean you're not up to the task?" asked Professor Love.
"Not at all. I love a challenge. I'm ready, willing and able." Winterbottom stared into Ardent's wide eyes as he said this.
She winked back at him and replied in sultry voice. "I'll bet you do. Let's hope that you've got the right stuff. We'd hate to be disappointed."
After Winterbottom studied Love's papyrus and Ardent's body for a while, he thought it best if they mounted their expedition from India. In Calcutta, he contacted people on the fringes of the underworld to obtain guides and porters who would go anywhere if the pay was right. He left it to the Loves and Ambitchov to obtain the necessary equipment. They rented a jeep and two trucks to haul the stuff to Assam in the far northeast corner of India. From there they sneaked into the Manas Tiger Preserve, which borders the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. The expedition entered it from the eastern region of wet alluvial grassland around the Benki and Hekua rivers. Even with four-wheel drive vehicles it was slow going through tall thickets of elephant grass and swamp.
In the middle of the night, they crossed the Manas River which demarcates the border between India and Bhutan. Once over the border, things started to go wrong. An elephant herd stampeded their tents. They were lucky that no one was in them at the time. A porter was seriously injured by a tiger, a charging rhino almost horned Ambitchov, and Ardent evaded Winterbottom's advances, although she winked at him from time to time. In another incident, a lammergeier vulture dropped a bone on Doctor Love's head, rendering him unconscious for an hour. They also lost a guide who was bitten by a pit viper.
When they reached thick forest, they abandoned the vehicles. All their supplies had to be hauled on the backs of porters. Above them flew numerous buzzard, kites and eagles. After many days, when they reached the sub-Himalayan deciduous forests of the highlands, the monsoon started, making them trudge through muddy ground and ford swollen rivers These forests were filled with the cries of talking mynas, lorikeet, rufous-bellied niltava, rubycheek, crossbill, malkoha, pheasant, and magpies
As they approached the foothills of the Himalayas, they traveled by night, slogging through rice paddies of Drukpa farmers in the area. After more day of trudging, they ventured into the higher altitudes where the chestnuts, oaks, and alder gave way to deciduous and evergreen hardwoods.
The most difficult part of their journey began in the Middle Himalayas, whose peaks varied from six thousand to fourteen thousand feet. They made their way through extensive forests of conifers, oaks, maples, laurels and magnolias. Then began the arduous and dangerous climb through the passes of the Inner Himalayas, the highest mountain chain in the world. As the travelers went above the permanent snow line, they donned parkas and got out their mountain climbing gear. After the temperature dropped to below freezing, snow squalls and blizzards halted their progress for days. For warmth, Winterbottom offered Ardent whiskey from his canteen, which she accepted, winking at him, but she refused to snuggle in his bedroll.
One day, as they trudged across a glacier, probing for hidden chasm, Ardent cried, "Look. What is that?"
In the distance shuffled a tiny manlike figure with extremely long arms, covered with white fur and carrying a spear.
"It's a Yeti," cried Professor Love. "Quick get out the camera with the telescopic lens."
"Uh, Professor," said Winterbottom, "I don't think we'll need the telephoto lens." He tapped Love on the back. In a semicircle surrounding them were the ape men brandishing spears and stone age axes.
The Big Feet, grunting and gesturing, herded them to an area between two steep cliffs and into a cave. In the back of the cave was a stone throne upon which sat a young woman Yeti. Although she was covered with fur and had long arms, her face was that of a beautiful Asian woman and the curves of her body were voluptuous. Their captors bowed to her and chattered in a strange grunting language. They made the adventurers kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground. When they were allowed to rise, the figure on the throne asked in Bhutanese, "Who are you people? You have such pale skin. I've never seen the like."
Ambitchov acted as spokesperson. "We're explorers from a land far to the west. We've heard of a hidden valley that is pleasant and beautiful. We wish to see it for ourselves."
"Yes, I know of the valley you speak of. But a great beast guards the entrance. You will not be able to enter. Go back where you came from."
"Oh great queen of the Yeti, cannot you please at least lead us there. If there is a beast, let us deal with it."
Her smile had a bit of mischief in it. "Perhaps. But there is a price."
"We will pay if it is within our means." Ambitchov's expression became one of greedy anticipation.
"One of you must stay behind as my prisoner." She pointed at Winterbottom. "The one with the funny thing on his head will do."
Ambitchov grinned. "Certainly, that will be no problem. His usefulness to this expedition has come to an end anyway."
Ardent protested angrily. "That's hardly fair after all his hard work and sacrifice getting us here. Why he must've saved your ass a dozen times." She turned and winked at Winterbottom. "Why don't you volunteer, Boris? Talk about useless people. All you've done is grumble on this whole trip."
To avoid further argument, they decided to draw straws to see who would remain with the Yetis. As luck would have it, Professor Love drew the short straw. "Aw nuts," he complained. "I was so hoping to see paradise before I died."
Ardent rubbed his back. "Maybe, it's for the best, Papa. You are old, and your heart is weak. The next part of our journey will be most arduous." She winked at Winterbottom.
Love sighed. "I'm sure you're right, Ardent. Please take many video and still pictures though."
"I will, Papa."
The Yeti queen appeared disgruntled that the old man remained instead of the young, strong one. Nonetheless, she assigned two Yeti ape men as guides.
Several days later, with the Yeti in the lead, the tiny expedition were in the highest part of the mountains. They moved slowly to conserve energy and avoid altitude sickness. After nearly two hours they came to the end of the rocky moraine and onto a glacier that consisted of pinnacles of ice. Since the ice was hard, they donned boots and crampons and followed the Yeti closely to ensure they stayed on the correct route. It was easy to get lost twisting through and over the pinnacles. Abruptly the fins ended, and the glacier was smoother. Nearby was an ice cataract, snow fields and steep faces that look ready to avalanche, but ahead was a gently rising plateau. One of the Yeti and Winterbottom went forward, anchoring rope over hidden crevasses. Winterbottom was able to communicate with the Yeti using sign language.
By the time they reached the edge of the plateau, the weather has worsened with a rough, snow-blowing wind. The weather was deteriorating, and Winterbottom feared avalanches. Finally, they approached a steeper section, where the snow has hardened in such a way that they could climb it without difficulty. As they rested to eat and drink in a sheltered spot, the Yeti and Winterbottom looked around for the easiest route up the mountain.
After while the angle eased slightly but became more exposed. One false move while climbing meant a thousand foot drop, so they moved cautiously testing every footstep. To their dismay, the top of the ridge was knife-edged. Although the Yeti kicked steps in it, every move was difficult. The climbers had to lean over and drive the shafts of their axes into the opposite side. They had only one tool each and had to rely on holding slippery snow with a mittened hands to move. So difficult and dangerous was this section that time slowed to a crawl for the climbers. It seemed like an eternity before they could climb onto a wider section of the ridge crest. Billowing cloud threatened to engulf the mountain and gusts started blowing. In the climbers precarious position, a big gust could easily throw them off.
Hurriedly they clawed to the summit, hanging to the side by driven in ice axes. Because of the knife-edge and the wind, they couldn't stand on top. Looking down they could see Yeti footprints in a steep gully.
Winterbottom gazed around and realized that they were headed toward the smaller of a double summit. Their position was precarious so they traversed back along to a small spot that caught less wind, where they could sit aside the ridge comfortably to rest. In the distance tremendous peaks poked through the clouds.
After the Yeti pointed to a small valley between the double peaks and motioned the way to get there, they returned the way the group had come, leaving the trio to their own devices. To reach the path indicated by the Yeti, they had to each jump into steep snow. Luckily, their heels sunk in well. A few meters down they turned inwards and climbed down. Because they were roped together, if any one tripped, they would all slide to their death. Gradually the angle eased and the snow became softer. To their dismay, ahead was a huge step where an avalanche had recently broken away. The edge was loose and even worse, the layer they had jumped onto was soft and loose. All it needed was the weight of unsuspecting climbers to start an avalanche.
By this time, twilight had turned into night. The climbers broke out flashlights. Winterbottom turned to Ardent, "Be extremely cautious here." Ardent winked back at him. They gently, tiptoed along towards the ridge.
Once they reached the first summit early the next morning, it was an easy climb down to the tiny canyon-like crevice between the two peaks. "Where do we go now, Charley?" growled Ambitchov, who had slipped several times and had to rescued by either Winterbottom or Ardent. "I think those Yeti have put one over on us. Paradise couldn't be at this altitude. It's much too cold."
"If I read the Yeti signs correctly, it's up that way." Winterbottom pointed toward where the crevice curved so that whatever was beyond could not be seen. "Paradise should be just beyond that rock outcropping." He began to hum the tune of "Just a Stranger in Paradise" while gazing ardently at Ardent. She winked at him and giggled.
"Stop that," cried Ambitchov. "This is a scientific expedition, not a songfest." He tramped heavily toward the curve. Ardent and Winterbottom followed at a more leisurely pace. As a result, Ambitchov was out of their sight for a few moments after he went around the outcrop. Suddenly, there was a horrendous animal roar and a bright light. Ambitchov came flying back toward Ardent and Winterbottom as fast as his legs would carry him. "Dragon, dragon," he screamed. "That Yeti queen wasn't lying."
When the other two calmed him down, Winterbottom asked, "What happened?"
"After I rounded the curve, I saw a high wall with a golden gate. As I headed toward it, an enormous red dragon came flying out and spouted a huge flame right in front of me. I ran like the dickens back here. We'll have to kill it to get into paradise." Ambitchov reached back for his elephant gun, loaded it and strode forward again. This time Winterbottom and Ardent followed closely behind him.
When they came around the corner, the dragon was lying in front of the gate glaring at them. As it raised up on its front legs, its head was as high as a church steeple. Again it roared and spouted flame, missing frying the trio by less than a meter. Ambitchov raised the gun and fired two shots at the monster's chest. When the bullets struck, they bounced off the serpent's scales and ricocheted around on the rocks.
The dragon looked startled and laughed. It said in Bhutanese, "Did you think you could harm me with that peashooter? What are you people doing here? What lies behind this gate is forbidden to human beings. Go away."
Winterbottom asked it if it spoke any other language. It replied, "I speak every language known to man or beast. Parle vous Francese? Sprechen se Deutsche?"
"We speak English. Is there no way that we can persuade you to allow us in? We promise to obey any rules you set down. We just want to see what paradise is like."
The dragon rubbed its chin with its talons. Ardent winked at it. The dragon winked back. It said, "You're a very attractive young lady. You remind me of a former resident of this place. Only she usually ran around in the nude. Perhaps, I'll allow you in if you undress."
"How dare you? What do you take me for?" Nonetheless, she winked at him.
"You're a feisty one. Okay, here's the deal. All of you must remove your clothes and leave all your guns and supplies here. Once inside, you must not drink from the fountain, and you must not eat any of the fruit from the large tree in the center of the garden. I'll allow you the rest of the day to look around. Be back here by sunset."
Winterbottom was not paying much attention to these instructions as he was anticipating the sight of an Ardent nude. Ambitchov grumbled about having to leave his guns and cameras behind. Ardent said, "I'll turn my back while you two gentlemen undress and go into paradise. After you're out of sight, I'll remove my clothes and enter. This will save us a lot of embarrassment." She turned her back.
After a time, the dragon said, "Your two companions have gone into Eden and can longer be seen. You humans are really funny about this clothing bit. We dragons never wear anything."
Ardent winked at him. "That may be. But you also must turn your head while I undress."
"Then how will I know that you've actually done so."
"I'll allow you one quick peek."
The dragon turned away, and Ardent quickly undressed. "You may peek now." When the serpent turned back, she ran through the gate. The dragon smiled as it watched her jiggling fanny. As soon as she was out of the dragon's sight, she found a fig tree and made a bikini out of the leaves.
Winterbottom and Ambitchov strolled along the path admiring all the beautiful flowers and friendly animals. The weather was superb, seventy-two degrees Farenheit and bright sunshine. Winterbottom said, "It certainly is a wonderful place. It really is a paradise."
"Do you really think so? Personally, I don't see anything so great about it. It reminds me of the rain forests in South America."
"Um. You're probably right. I saw something back aways that I'd like to investigate."
"Go right ahead. I'll meander a bit further."
Winterbottom turned around and headed back the way they had come. Ambitchov continued on. He thought, That fool doesn't realize what treasure lies ahead. If this is really is Eden, the tree of knowledge is here somewhere. If I can find it, I'll be the smartest person of earth and will become rich and famous.
The path circled and meandered around like a corkscrew. Finally Ambitchov came to a clearing in which a great tree grew. Its branches were laden with a golden fruit of a type he had never seen before. He drew closer to examine it. A sign was posted. It read in Bhutanese: The Tree of Knowledge. It is forbidden to eat the fruit. Dire consequences will result for anyone who disobeys this commandment. By order of The Creator.
Ambitchov gazed all around. There was no one in sight, neither man nor beast. He gazed upward and laughed. Creator, my butt. That dragon or some official from Bhutan probably wrote this. I don't believe in any creator. He took another look around and quickly snatched a low-hanging fruit. He waited a few moments. Since he wasn't struck by lightning and no voice came from the sky, he took a large bite of the fruit. It was delicious, better even than the food in his favorite French restaurant. As he swallowed, he felt all sorts of odd facts enter mind.
As Winterbottom strolled back towards the entrance, he thought, Yes, this place is really nice. There is one thing missing though, and that's the lovely curves of a pretty woman. In his mind's eye, he brought up an image of Ardent Love in the nude. He hurried, anxious to catch a glimpse of her flesh. Nonetheless, he came all the way to the gate without seeing her. The dragon was still lying there, with one eye open. Winterbottom addressed the dragon, "Sorry to disturb your rest, old chap, but did you happen to see which way the young lady that was with us went."
The dragon pointed with a talon and drawled, "She went that-away, pardner."
Winterbottom saluted the dragon. "Thank you, you're a real gentledragon." He followed the indicated path. After walking a long way through a winding path, he spotted her sitting on the edge of a lovely fountain whose center contained marble statues of a group of mermaids and fishes. To his disappointment, the portions of Ardent's anatomy that he most wanted to see were covered with fig leaves.
As he approached, she winked at him, but then turned away. "Mister Winterbottom! Please have the decency to cover your private parts with something."
"Uh ... oh ... sorry." He hurriedly ripped some large leaves off a bush and some vines to make a loincloth. "Uh, Ardent. You may look now."
She turned toward him and winked. "So. Did you or Boris find anything interesting in this so-called Eden?"
Winterbottom grinned. "Not yet. But, my dear, you and I could make this place a real Paradise." He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"Are you trying to come on to me, Mister Winterbottom? I don't really appreciate advances of that nature from a colleague during a scientific endeavor. It smacks of sexual harassment."
"But it's you who have been coming on to me this whole trip. Every chance you get, you wink at me."
"Oh you fool. Don't you realize ..." But before she could finish that sentence, Winterbottom grabbed her and kissed her full on the mouth, his tongue darting between her open lips.
She pushed him away and gave him such a hard slap that he stumbled into the fountain head first. "Oh my," she cried. "Are you all right?" She reached in to help him, only to find that he had shrunk to half his original size. She pulled him out and realized that he had turned into a seven-year-old boy. She laughed. "It serves you right, you womanizer. This must be the Fountain of Youth. Now you'll have to wait until you grow up a little to start messing around." She dipped her hand in the water and took a sip. Using the water as a mirror, she was gratified to see that her laugh lines were gone. She went to search for something to carry some of the magical water home. "Stay right here, little boy. I'll be right back."
Since Winterbottom had always been a naughty boy, he ignored her orders and wandered away. After a long time, he came upon Ambitchov, who was sitting under a fruit tree muttering to himself. "There are infinite universes ... time travel is possible ... there are particles smaller than mesons ... our galaxy is being sucked into a black hole ... angels and demons exist ..." and on and on. He looked as though his head would explode.
"Boris, what's the matter with you?"
Ambitchov gazed at him in a dazed manner. "Huh? Who are you, little boy?"
"Charley Winterbottom. I accidentally fell into the Fountain of Youth."
"Oh yes. I know exactly where that is now."
"It's getting late. We must leave now, or the dragon will come after us."
"Yes. Where is Miss Love?"
"She went to look for something to carry water in."
They strolled back toward the gate. Ardent was waiting there. She had half of a coconut shell in one hand. "Charley, you naughty boy, you disobeyed me," she scolded. "What should I do with you?" She winked at him.
Now, although Winterbottom had the body of a seven-year-old, he had the mind of an adult. "How about a good spanking?"
She ignored him and headed for the gate. The dragon was waiting for the trio as they exited. "You people have sinned. You disobeyed orders." He gazed skyward suggestively. "As punishment, one of you will have to stay and keep me company." It pointed a talon at Ardent. "I choose you."
"Me," she cried and burst into tears. "Why me? I only took a little bit of water from the Fountain of Youth. I'll put it back."
"That won't be necessary. Besides, you may like it here. You can live in Eden and partake of the fountain anytime you like. And besides, over the centuries I've accumulated a vast treasury of jeweled necklaces, diamond rings, gold bracelets, garment of the finest silk, furs, and so forth. You may wear any of it while you stay with me."
Ardent winked at the dragon. "Really? And what would I have to do for you to gain those riches?"
"Simply converse with me once in a while. I'm a very lonely dragon. Since I've been assigned here thousands of years ago, I seldom get to talk to anyone."
"Oh, you poor thing. Of course, I'll stay." She shook hands with her two former comrades and winked at each one. "Good-bye. When you see my father, tell him where I am. I'm sure he'll find a way to visit me."
After the two men departed, the dragon asked Ardent, "I noticed that you always wink at people. Why is that?"
"Oh that. It's a tic. I've had it since childhood. I hate it. It's always getting me into trouble."
"Well, my dear, perhaps I can cure you of it by magic."
"Oh would you? I'd be ever so grateful."
After several weeks of hair-raising mountain climbing, the two men made it back to the Yeti camp. When they were brought before the queen, Doctor Love was sitting in a throne that was slightly lower than the queen's. After the usual bowing and scraping, Ambitchov told Love and the queen all about their adventures in Eden. "And how have you been, Quentin?"
"Very well. The Queen of the Yeti's and I are married according to their custom. So I am her consort. I'm sure she'll allow me to visit my daughter in Eden fairly often. In fact we may go there soon, so that Ardent can meet her new stepmother. When you fellows are ready to leave, Queen Grgstymkl and I will send a couple of Yeti guides to escort you back to civilization."
After Winterbottom and Ambitchov returned to New York, Winterbottom was sent to a fondling home, and Ambitchov made the rounds of TV quiz shows, winning millions of dollars, most of which he spent on doctors in an attempt to find a cure for his awful headaches.
Bio: I am a retired technical writer who used to work for a major computer company. I am a voracious reader of all kinds of books, but am especially fond of science fiction and fantasy. I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, but have been living in a small town in upstate New York for many years. I am married with four children, ten grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. My hobbies, other than writing, are computer games and do-it-yourself projects. I have had the following short stories published or about to be published in internet E-zines: "The Sands of Time," Black Moon Rising, January, 2001 issue; "Empty Planet," Aphelion, Feb. 2002 issue; "Cosmoergy," Martian Wave, Mar. 2002 issue; "The Key," Black Moon Rising, Apr 2002 issue; "Shadow in the Sky," Aphelion, Apr 2002 issue; "Pop-Art Nightmare," Nocturne Horizons, Jan 2002 issue. I have also written several novels of which are yet to be published. To see more of my writing, visit my website at www.geocities.com/papajoev. It is called "The Fantastic World of Papa Joe."
URL: The Fantastic World of Papa Joe
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