Friday, June 22, 2018

The Reading Beast

The Reading Beast
Bobby Derie

It was one of the northern tributaries of the Nile. None of the explorers had named it. Where it met the mighty river the tributary flattened out into a weed-choked swamp. Pillars of stone jutted out of the great grey-green morass. Shaped by time and water. Baked by heat. Carved with innumerable lines in an unknown script. A lost remnant of some ancient empire. Sunk and forgotten by all.

Stanewell knew better.

He had studied the carvings. Taken photographs on his way up the Nile. Then again when the expedition came tumbling back. Slick with malaria-sweat he had compared the black-and-white images. Fresh-cut figures on the ancient stone. Some new hand had re-carved the faded sigils a little deeper. Keeping alive whatever story they told.

In Cairo he had asked the wrong questions. Looked amid dusty scrolls as grey heads spoke of King Solomon's apes. Bought coffee and brandy for toothless smugglers who spoke of fantastic beasts. Plied gin at last to the Explorer's Club. An old hunter of ivory looked up from his whisky. Eyes focused on something far away as he spoke.

"For every prey," his voice a broken whisper that spoke of long nights on the savannah and dark campfires amid the jungle. "There is a bait."

So Stanewell once more sailed up the Nile. Under a heavy tarp the artisans toiled. The linguist had gone over the photographs again and again. The stonecutter had striven to recreate the lines and dots, in the same hand. The pyramid of stone took shape. Incised with a story that only one creature in all the world could read.

Stanewell nursed his elephant gun with the same care he nursed the fevers that came to him at night. Lying in bed. Dreaming of terrible glories. A lost race!

The serpent-haunted swamp. This was not the true Sud. Only a little fragment, a delta where the water twisted and pooled. No boat could progress far without beaching itself on some hidden projection of sand or stone under the water. The workers constructed flat-bottomed rafts amid the buzzing of insects. Stanewell stood on the edge. Close enough to watch the work. The crane shook beneath the weight of the new story. If the raft capsized...all of it for nothing!

The timbers creaked and dipped low in the water. Yet it did not sink. Not even when Stanewell and his men climbed aboard and began to pole it deeper into the swamp. Closer to that unseen unbegotten source. The little tributary which spawned this bit of green hell. Which nourished whatever traced those strange letters over and over in the columns of stone.

Columns which Stanewell now saw were never raised by man. They were as the oyster's shell and river rock. Not stacked or joined by any science of humanity. Whoever had carved their stories here had done so only because it was here. A blank canvas. Yet when it was filled...some had returned. Did return. It had only been weeks between his visits. Some of the old carvings had been half-faded. Now they were freshly-hewn. Characters sharp. Surely that meant some tool of bronze or iron. Bespoke some civilization...

The tributary was little more than a mountain stream. It had cut through the rock on either side to form a small cataract. Every exposed surface was carved. Some higher than a tall man might reach. Some down to the water line.

Stanewell spied an islet. Beached the craft and removed the tarp. The fresh limestone of the pyramidion glinted in the sun. The story scrawled across its surface was as one with the walls of the cataract. It was the work of the afternoon to drag it on shore. Then the crew retreated. Minus one.

With shaking muscles Stanewell clambered up the bole of a tree whose low-hanging limbs almost touched the surface of the water. He lay on a long branch. Rifle at the ready. They would come with the moonlight. To read what was written.

The day died by hours and the night came on. Stanewell slept a little. Shivered with the malaria-chill despite the heat. Only now did he wonder at what he hunted. The stories had been fairy tales and contradictions. No-one knew what it was. He had supposed that it was human, some long-lost people of the Nile. Dwindled in numbers now, and hidden. As the moon rose, doubt ate at him. What else could it be? Man was the only creature that had yet mastered script! Only the intelligence of man could discern reading and writing. For it to be otherwise was impossible, unfathomable.

The moon sat high and shapes moved in the darkness. Along the dark shore, things moved quietly into the water. Ripples in the moonlight. Stanewell brought up his gun, sighting on the pyramidion. The first one. The very first one that came to run a hand or paw along a line of script. One would do it. One would make his reputation.

The tree rustled, but there was no wind. The water rippled around the pyramidion, but no shape climbed it. Stanewell shook with fever, then steadied himself. But the tree limb he was on continued to shake. His thighs clutched the rough branch and he struggled to hold the rifle. Then the words of the old hunter came back to him... For every prey, a bait.

The moon was eclipsed by a dark shape...and Stanewell now knew, at last, what was the reading beast.


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