Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Here After

by Doug Donnan


"Rain forest?" Brandon Penn called out from his position in the little winding parade of researchers, reporters, indigenous indigo-skinned porters and a loosely fettered string of pack mules. "This is no rain forest Mr. Coll --this God forsaken place makes Dr. Moreau's jungle island look like the Garden of Eden! Are we there yet?" he coughed.

Armand Coll, the leader of the hodge podge safari laughed quickly under the broken brim of his faded green bush hat, "You want to discover new species Mr. Penn?" he proclaimed as he severed a long, dangling concertina wire-like tree shoot with a whoosh of his razor machete. "You gotta' pay the price--follow me?"

"Yeh, sure, we all follow you," Penn snapped back with a disgusted spit at a scurrying orange and black spider of some genus or other, "but where in the hell are we going?"

"Out there," Coll pointed ahead into the triple canopy morass. "You'll see."

The mysterious island of Madagascar (one of the largest and poorest on the planet) is a biodiverse cornucopia of exotic, unimaginable and undiscovered species of flora and fauna. A vast assortment of lemurs, birds (such as the peculiar serpent eagle, the rare red owl, and the impossible helmet vanga,) not to leave out the ubiquitous hissing cockroach population, countless species of tropical butterflies and an array of color coordinated chameleons, are unique to this biological paradise just off the tip of Africa. This particular group of interlopers, lead by their steadfast guide (the aforementioned field expert Mr. Armand Coll,) had come as planned to take it all in. Audio, video, photo and even scent analysis--they had no intention of missing any trick or treat of Madagascar's wonders and ways. That was the plan, not to mention the signed agreement that they all had, and the intense and dogged Coll was resigned to give them their money's worth.

The little band trudged on mile after twisted mile through a lush sea of hanging vines, emerald elephant grass and dark, pudding-like mud until, at last, just as the burros were beginning to show obvious signs of lethargy and recalcitrance, they came to a clearing, of sorts. A vast circumference of giant whip grass was flattened down sporadically, like a failed crop circle attempt. They worked their way up somewhat, machetes at their sides, turning about in astonishment and disbelief .

"What in the world have we got here Mr. Coll?" Dottie Sandstone, the photographic emissary from National Geographic, chimed in as she let loose the neck strap of a mega-lensed Nikon and pushed her little hands up into her khaki, Banana Republic hips.

"Christ--what did happen here?" Penn joined in as he bumped into one of the now grazing pack mules.

Coll pulled up his binoculars and did a slow pan of the area, "Can't say for sure. A troupe of giant Tratratratra lemurs, wandering waterspout maybe, somethin' big though!"

As the group cautiously fanned out, snapping pictures, taking readings and zip locking tiny approved samples, the trudging equipment porters had gathered themselves into a tight huddle just at the periphery of the clearing.

Coll turned to the crew chief Aksenhamman an angular, shirtless fellow wearing but a stained red French foreign legion hat and cut-off Levi jeans. "What's eatin' them, Akkie?" he asked with a slight head feint in the porter's direction.

"They are veree fearing about thees place Mr. Coll," he replied in a kind of broken, thatch-hut classroom English.

Coll pulled lightly on the base of his lantern jaw, "Afraid? They look downright scared out of their mind--about what, Akkie?"

Aksenhamman swept the cap off his head and looked down at his tattered leather boots, "Well, to be honestly sir--the boys, they are terribly afraid of thees place we have come into, and are of one mind not to continue any further."

"But what on earth..." Coll stuttered.

"You know of the legendary elephant bird--yes?" he asked sheepishly.

"Why sure," Coll replied as he folded his sinewy, rust-colored arms across his chest. They say that big boy could average a dry weight of nearly half a ton. A member of the ostrich family. Eggs big as melons! Sinbad the Sailor's savior as the tale goes--right?"

"Yes--yes, that ees' the one, but there ees' another one, another bird and another older legend, that ees' little known by the visitor to Madagascar, the 'outsider'. A tale that ees kept close and not very often brought up."

"What other bird--what other legend?" Coll shook his head in frustration. "Get to the point, Akkie. What are you giving me here?"

"Just thees' Mr. Coll," he replied, as though he were speaking to a small child. "There was a giant feathered creature, a greater bird than the elephant bird--much, much larger! Sometimes at night, by the fires, they whisper of the Mastodon Bird, or for the elders who tell thees' ancient tales; Oiseau de Sang--The Blood Bird! They say that--"

"Blood bird?'" Coll cut in. "Have you--or, I mean they lost their cotton-pickin' minds? Look, Akkie," Coll said evenly, with mock control. "I don't know, nor right now do I want to know, about any of this foolishness about Big Bird. What I do know is that the sun is leaving us rapidly. Up there," he swept his hand over his head in disgust. "We need to set up camp as soon as possible--okay? Now, I don't care what you have to do, just get those boys in the game here and square this area away for the tents--understand?"

"Yes Mr. Coll, but I theenk you should know that--"

"Aksenhamman, please!"

"Yes, Mr. Coll. I will do thees thing." he said with a slight, subservient bow and a quick about face.

Coll watched him for a moment as he walked off towards the knot of jabbering porters and then he trudged away to try and gather up the others in the party. He wasn't really sure how they would feel about making camp here either, but there were no gray times here in the rain forest of Madagascar. Night fell like a huge curtain at the end of some exotic, melodramatic play and, all of a sudden, it was pitch dark--period.

####

After a considerable amount of time everyone, and most things, were situated into a surprisingly comfortable little camp sight. The half dozen members of the reporter and research party were paired up (room mates were agreed upon in a short, but professional manner) and assigned a fair-sized nylon dome tent.

The tents were staked down securely in the packed earth beneath the surface bed of flattened grass in a semi-circle pattern that was suggested by both Coll and Aksenhamman. Everything was suspiciously peaceful as they sat there in the warmth and glow of the mini-bonfire. Each and all stirring and scraping voraciously at the army surplus Heater Meals prepared by a pleasant, but noticeably stoic Aksenhamman. There were even some wistful attempts at childhood ghost stories and an assortment of off-color jokes. However, there were < I>two large stone and stick campfires that night. The ever-wary porters were finally convinced by Aksenhamman, mostly by means of promises of extra compensation, to see things through until the end of the field trip, but they adamantly refused to make their overnight camp inside the open field with the others. They crouched by their crackling fire like a group of Tibetan monks, hands crossed over bony knees as if only impatiently waiting for the blackness of the jungle night to pass.

Coll had chosen to pitch his little nylon tent between the two camp locations.

Aksenhamman had suggested that this might show all concerned that Coll was playing no favorites. After a quick check on the porters and mules wellbeing, he went in to visit with the insiders at their fire-lit circle.

"Well, well--if it isn't the wise and wondrous Bwana Coll," Penn chuckled as he passed over a pint of Jack Daniels whisky to Kyle Lattimer, a decidedly rotund little zoologist from San Diego with multiple chins and a blue K-Mart bandana tied around his balding, Buddha-like head.

"How's everyone here at base camp?" he asked with a wry smile, choosing to ignore the ignorant, alcohol induced comments of the diminutive Penn.

"We're getting along famously skipper," Lattimer offered as he took a quick nip at the bottle. "Won't you pull up a stone and sit with us? These demonic mosquitoes aren't too thrilled about the flames of the fire and the cacophony of strange nocturnal callings from out there in the jungle offer one a kind of primeval solace," he laughed lightly as he swept out the bottle for dramatic effect.

"Yes, please won't you Armand? We'd feel better about things if you'd stop patrolling everywhere and join us for a while. Things are okay here--aren't they?" Dottie chirped, feeling rather childish having asked this in front of the others.

"You mean you'd feel better!" Penn guffawed.

"Give it a rest, Coll," Lattimer sighed.

Coll nodded towards Lattimer in appreciation, "Yes ma'am, I think we're just fine here. I see no reason to think otherwise. The bearers are just a little apprehensive about how this clearing in the jungle came to be. They have come to the crazy conclusion that this opening we're in is some kind of nest. Superstitions, old folk legends, something about a giant, ancient bird of the jungle that took a fancy to the bodies and blood of a few wayward villagers way back when--silly tales passed down over time, nothing to be concerned about I can assure you!"

"Jeez!" Dottie exclaimed as she hugged herself.

"Doesn't sprise' me none too much," Penn slurred as he fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette. "Madagascar--unique and many unlabeled species roaming and flying about all over the place. Hell, might as well throw in a big ass blood sucking bird! The more, the merrier--right Bwana?"

"Care for a lift in spirits Mr. Coll?" Lattimer quipped as he offered up the bottle.

"No, thank you," Coll answered with a big traffic-cop hand held out. "I think I'll turn in for the night, and might I suggest that you all do likewise. We'll try and get an early start tomorrow. That is if we're all up for it," he said with a dubious look at the tipsy Penn, "I'm quite sure the porters will be up with the first sign of daylight."

"Have patience with us won't you Mr. Coll," Lattimer tried. "We're only human. Just trying to do our job, not unlike yourself in fact. We all appreciate your efforts and professionalism on this outing, and we could never have gotten this far along without your and Aksenhamman's help. Just one more day or so and we'll be back on the plane with our samples, pictures and data. Back to the real world in the states--back to reality."

"Just for the record Mr. Lattimer, this is the real world," Coll declared, his eyes flashing red in the firelight. It would serve you all well to remember that fact while you are out here."

Lattimer's mouth puckered to form an open circle. His bloated face transformed into a bird house facade. He felt that Coll's next and final word might be… Boo! So he capped the bottle and handed it back to Penn, "Oh..." was all that came out as he stared up at the glaring Coll.

Just then, as if on cue, Aksenhamman entered into the dancing shadows of the ring of firelight. Le Blanc, Bellows and Carruthers (the threesome who rounded out the research team) were just behind him. "The toilet facility ees in readiness," he almost whispered. Fifty steps or so beyond the rear of the tents here. It ees by a small rivulet and a group of large rounded rocks."

"Yep, she's good to go all right," Bellows laughed. "Take this battery lantern with you," he said, setting down the aluminum Ray-O-Vac on a flat stone. "You'll need it-- 'cuz man it's as dark as a raven's ass out there."

"Jeezus," Dottie called out, as if something had pulled at her long, drooping ponytail.

"What'd I say?" Bellows threw up his hands in bewilderment.

"The wrong thing at the wrong time," Penn chortled.

"Fine, fine, Akkie" Coll said as he tried to suppress a contorting yawn, and swat at a persistent helicopter-size mosquito at the same time. "Good night."

As Coll and Aksenhamman retreated to their little pop-up tent, the whisky confidence that the group once felt was draining away with each step the twosome took into the thin shroud of darkness that surrounded them. Bellows cast some twisted sticks of wood that he had gathered at the licking fire, "Well, I feel like I tuned in at half-time and nobody will tell me the score of the game. Are we okay here? Penn--Anybody wanna fill us in?"

"Yeh--yeh we're just fine. Don't you worry your little scientific selves about it," Penn coughed as he blew out a thin plume of cigarette smoke. "Lemme see that magic lantern Bellows. I gotta go see a man about a lemur." Penn slowly raised himself up from his position on a flattened stump and, after almost doing a half-gainer into the waiting fire, made his way past the tents, in the general direction of the jungle privy. "Don't let the bed bugs git ya!" he called back over his shoulder as he disappeared into the night.

"Asshole Penn," Dottie shook her head in disgust. "Anybody wanna trade roommates?"

They all had a heartening laugh at this as they collected their things and made for their respective tents.

####

Penn swayed and swaggered this way and that as he made his way back to relieve himself of the aftermath of the warming Jack Daniels. He didn't feel that he was drunk, but in fact he was sadly mistaken. He stumbled and fell to the twisted reed-grass more than once as he went. Had he gone fifty paces, twenty, one thousand? He had no idea.

It was so dark that, eventually, even with the aid of the lantern, he began to doubt whether he was going in the right direction at all! One thing that he had come to realize was that the unnerving din of the jungle had all but ended--graveyard silence, all around!

Shortly thereafter, Penn started to labor with his footing as he advanced. He opted for a kind of sideways, sand crab approach in his forward progress, as though he were trying to slip through an invisible opening in a door that wasn't there. He giggled and cursed at himself all the while as his dubious determination to find the designated relief area over rode his basic feeling that this spot or that one was close enough. And, just at the peak of his frustration, he collided into one of the oval rocks that Aksenhamman had mentioned.

He staggered back a few steps and then gingerly advanced. A giddy sense of accomplishment passed through him as he carefully positioned himself atop the smooth boulder. "The eagle has landed!" he yelped stupidly as he fiddled with the zipper of his trousers. It was to be the last thing that Brandon Penn, little known head curator from a distinguished American museum of science and natural history, would ever say! As he tried to steady himself there in the darkness, the lantern noticeably dimming beneath him, he felt against the back of his sweat-stained shirt a series of rather unsettling gusts of wind. Surging in--pausing, surging in--pausing; not completely unpleasant he decided, but still very curious and totally out of place all the same.

Suddenly, as he was just about to end his flow of relief, something flopped to the ground just a yard or so off to his right, then, yet another one. After prematurely zipping up, and then cursing the residual stain, he rubbed his eyes. The objects were about the size of ordinary house brooms, and he could only deduce from his position on the 'stone', that the two things appeared to be-- gigantic feathers! He stepped down from his perch for a closer look, and as he ambled over with a growing feeling of apprehension now churning inside him, decided to look up--

Sssshluk, and the mammoth head with its chomping, steam-shovel beak swept down on him like a lightning bolt. He didn't even have a chance to cry out in terror. It was over and he was devoured, with only a few spurts of blood, just that quickly. And there, in the dying light of the lantern, the impossibly large creature spread down over its clutch of eggs and waited for digestion.

####

"Now, listen carefully to me, Akkie. Don't mention anything about this egg business or the tracks you found to anybody--understand? Those are just rocks out there," Coll exclaimed, pointing beyond the bearers as they dismantled the researcher's tents. "If the topic comes up, we moved the privy because we found a lot of poison ivy and sumac in the area--okay? I just want to get these people out of here and end this thing. I had and have no intention of letting this turn into some kind of cockamamie Easter egg hunt--no pun intended. We need their kind of money here in Madagascar, but we don't need this kind of goings on. They're on their way over here now. Do you have any questions?"

"Pun?" Aksenhamman's head tilted to the side slightly, like a curious puppy.

"It's a joke! That's all." Coll sighed.

"Yes, Meester Coll, I understand very well," Aksenhamman answered as he pulled on the brim of his hat in a half-hearted salute. "But, I must tell you truly that the boys are only wanting to leave thees place and I feel now much the same way. There ees something out there and if those eggs are what I think they are, then we had better--"

"Shh," Coll interrupted, "here they are now."

####

"Didn't anybody go with him?" Coll asked in a tone of disbelief.

They all shrugged and looked around at each other as if telepathically passing the guilt. At that point none of them knew what to say, so they opted for an awkward silence. That suited Coll just fine.

" Look, if he wandered off and got lost or, more likely, passed out somewhere, how was it that the lantern was still by the privy sight? Maybe, Mr. Penn had more to drink last night than we all thought. Maybe, he's out there curled up in the elephant grass or under a Ravenala tree sleeping it off. Maybe, a lot of things! Anyway, there is nothing to be done about that now." Coll pulled off his hat, and in a kind of subtle commemorative attempt, held it down in front of him with both hands on the brim. "Please, all of you, understand that I don't want to call in the authorities or radio up the Masoala National Park people for emergency assistance out here if I can avoid it--understand?"

Dottie took a step forward. "I think I can speak for the group Armand. None of us want this to develop into an incident either. We all feel a certain degree of responsibility about Penn. It is our consensus that we should press on with the enterprise for a few more hours and hope that either we find him, or he finds us. We'll call out to him at regular intervals as we make for Toliara and, hopefully, somehow we can link back up with him."

"That sounds like a good plan to me" Coll nodded as he searched their faces for any signs of doubt or disagreement. "Very well then, we'll press on for Toliara and soon after, make the necessary arrangements to get you all back to International Airport in Antananarivo. We'll leave Aksenhamman here with a few of the porters, the pack mules and the camping equipment. I'll stay in touch with him by radio. I'm certain Mr. Penn will show up sooner or later no worse for wear."

"Sounds all right to me," Bellows said as he scratched at the back of his neck. I don't know about the rest of you, but I am dieing for a hot shower ASAP."

"I'm with you there," Le Blanc sighed, "I'm pretty sure we've all got a good share of samples, data and photographs to take back home for study and analysis. This island is truly amazing." The others shook their heads in concurrence. "Once others catch wind of all our findings out here, I'm certain there will be other field trips and research ventures coming your way Mr. Coll."

"Fine, that's just fine," Coll smiled broadly as he replaced his hat. "Well, what say we get started then. There should be plenty more to see on this last stretch--it's still a ways to go till we reach Toliara."

####

For the first mile or two they dutifully called out for Penn, but as the party got more involved in the stomping, and chopping, their efforts to find him, and ease their guilt about things, became perfunctory at best. Their interests were inevitably captured, once again, by the wonders of the rain forest.

"Listen here Bellows," Carruthers whispered as he and Bellows shouldered together beneath the twisted branches of a huge Ravenala. "That was a big part of the agreement in the contract we all signed, when it comes to the fauna around here, look--but don't touch, remember?"

Bellows slapped down the flap of his bulging rucksack, "Yeh, sure I remember, but my friend, I'm pretty certain that this thing is no stone. They said it was! And a stone is just a stone, no matter where you come from-- follow me? I'm taking this big baby back home, and nobody out here in the middle of nowhere will ever know or miss it!"

"I don't care how you try to justify it Bellows," Carruthers pointed down at the pack. "This is, one way or another, going to come back to haunt us. I can promise you that!"

"Better keep pace gentlemen," Coll called back from his position towards the front of the line. He almost made a crack about the AWOL Penn, but thought better of it. Instead, he decided to radio back to Aksenhamman to see how the rescue effort was going. After several tries with 'Akkie--Akkie are you there? Please respond--over.' All Coll managed to receive on his walkie-talkie were repeated blasts of nebulous squelch and unnerving electric static.

"How goes it back there with Aksenhamman?" Dottie asked matter-of-factly as she passed by Coll in the little brigade. Coll turned away from her slightly and raised his hand up, as if he were having a determined conversation; He didn't depress the transmit key this time, only pretending to be in dialogue: "Fine, that's good, Akkie. You just stay put and send some of the boys around to comb the area. I know he'll turn up sooner or later. We're not far from Toliara now. I'll check back with you when we arrive--over and out."

Coll turned about slowly, replacing the radio hand-set onto his belt. "Please excuse me Mrs. Sandstone, I didn't mean to be rude. They haven't located Mr. Penn as yet, but Aksenhamman just informed me they did find his hat and a set of singular boot tracks that could only be--"

"That's Miss Sandstone, Armand," she broke in. "Won't you please just call me Sandi? That's what all my friends back home call me."

"Very well," Coll answered, as he shifted his stance from side to side. "Sandi it is then! Well--I guess we had better catch up with the others. Toliara isn't far off and if--"

Sandi shrugged. "Yeh, sure. I understand, only in the movies right? But it would have been kinda fun. Oh well, you can't blame a photographer for tryin'. Right, Coll?"

Coll found himself studying the curvature of Sandi's pressed rear end as he followed her back to the others. Her long, auburn ponytail swayed pendulum-like from crescent khaki cheek to crescent khaki cheek as she hiked in rhythm...

BZZZZZZMMM--BZZZZZMM-- Coll skipped a step as his loin seemed to quiver lightly. It was the walkie-talkie, set on vibrate mode for receiving calls. He stopped dead in his tracks and drew it out quickly, like a six-shooter, from his belt clip:

"Akkie--Akkie--is that you?--go ahead--over."

In reply, amidst a chaotic sea of raucous squelch and radio static:

"Coll---There is no Penn---It ees alive---...was a nest--other ones all around us now--...---be careful Coll...--be very care...---..."

"Akkie--what the hell is going on?"--Are you all ri--"

"Oiseau de Sang---...Oiseau de Sang--Meester Coll...---eet ees...They are here!---

Just then, the communication was cut off. Dead.

Coll dropped the walkie-talkie to the ground and trounced ahead to the front of the group. He was all business now.

"Okay people let's get a move on! Aksenhamman has informed me that there's a storm front headin' our way. So, let's quick-step it outa' here for Toliara. We should be safe there. Please, no more specimens or pictures."

"Safe?" Lattimer called out, "sounds pretty serious Coll. What kind of storm?"

"That's not for him, or me, to say Mr. Lattimer," Coll snapped back, "But, I'm quite sure it'll be something tropical that isn't to be taken lightly--okay?"

"Oh, well, I see," Lattimer responded, not really understanding, or entirely believing, Coll's curt directive. "Perhaps we should radio ahead and--"

"Let's move it!" Coll cut him off as he jogged to the head of the line. "All Hell's after us now!"

####

Before too long it became apparent that Coll had misjudged the actual distance to the town of Toliara. And, the developing lethargy of his guests' pace didn't help to stimulate progress. Dusk was now approaching, and as it did the triple canopy forest only seemed to grow more dense and foreboding. Gradually, an unusual breeze began to waft over them, and although it did provide some welcome relief from the sapping heat and humidity, it carried with it a decidedly rancid odor.

"Jeezo!" Dottie exclaimed, "We must be getting close. I can smell the city dump."

"Yeh, I hear ya," Bellows coughed through a mask of fingers. "Whatever it is, is dead ahead--no pun intended."

"Hey you all," Lattimer joined in, "what's that just beyond that stand of Ravenalas? Looks like some big buildings or towers. What do you make of all that, Mr. Coll?"

"Toliara!" Carruthers yelped, as if he had just discovered gold.

"We're here," Bellows mocked the old line from the Poltergeist movie.

The little band of stalwart porters stopped dead in their tracks as they stared off into the distance. And, before anyone had time to call after them, like startled animals they darted off and disappeared into the periphery of the forest.

"What the hell's gotten into them?" Bellows asked.

Up front, Coll wavered somewhat as he pulled his binoculars up. After studying the 'structures' off in the distance he let go the glasses and stood there motionless, frozen and ashen like some ancient Roman statue. His eyes, now wildly fixed and dilated, drew over at Bellows: "What the hell have you got there, there in that back pack mister?"

"Here?" Bellows asked as he thumbed up at the bulging bag. "Just a soft-stone sample I picked up back there," he replied matter-of-factly, thumbing again.

"YOU STUPID BASTARD!" Coll yelled out.

"What's the problem?" Bellows asked as he threw out his arms.

"The problem? I'll tell you what the Goddamn problem is. That's no stone and you know it! Would be a little bit heavier, don't you think? Now, because of your freakin' stupidity, we all are going to have hell to pay. Here, take a look for yourself," Coll shouted in disgust as he held out the binoculars to Bellows. Then pass them around to our other distinguished guests. I'm sure they would like to see what this discovery of yours has brought. It will probably cost them their very lives! Here, have yourselves a close look at Toliara, at those 'buildings'!"

Bellows reached out and accepted the glasses. After adjusting the focus some, he looked off in the distance just beyond the huge, blowing stand of Ravenala trees.

"Oh My God! What the hell--"

"Yeh, that's right--they're what you heard the porters whispering about. Oiseau de Sang. The Great Blood Bird! That's them out there, all of them I expect, bigger than shit, just waitin' for us--get it?"

"But, it's impossible. They're---enormous!-- I, I mean...what do they want with us? I don't understa--" Bellows stammered hysterically as he wormed his way free from his backpack and dropped both it, and the field glasses to the ground.

"You took one of 'theirs', I suspect they're here after it!" Coll determined gloomily.

Within a matter of seconds, the pack of mammoth birds had bent away the trees and pressed forward towards them in long, determined strides. They were on them shortly thereafter, chasing them down with a vengeance as the defenseless group scattered, in vain, for their lives.

THE END


© 2011 Doug Donnan

Bio: Doug Donnan is a part-time cook and beach bum down on the Florida Panhandle. He has been writing for well over thirty years.

E-mail: Doug Donnan

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