Monday, February 22, 2010

The Red Scorpion, Chapter 6b


At the beginning of the year Short Story Monday became Fiction Monday as I began parsing my novel in serial form here. Short Story Monday has a better ring to it, and when we get to the end of The Red Scorpion, we'll return to the short form. If you are following along, thanks.

The Red Scorpion
Chapter 6b

Most of the afternoon they hiked along footpaths that wound their way up toward higher ground. They passed no houses or towns or even roads, but Chuchui said the Nahuatl live in these hills.

By late afternoon the forest thinned and gave way to a rocky bowl shaped indentation that gave the impression of having been scooped out of the mountainside by a giant spoon. Chuchui stopped, stood very still, and scanned the perimeter of the bowl. Comstock tried to determine if they had further to go or whether they had arrived.

Chuchui's eyes became slits. He turned and peered into Comstock's face. "It is time for you to see and believe." Chuchui reached out and put his hand on the older man's shoulder. "Do you carry a knife?"

Comstock quickly scanned the area. He knew they were alone and it entered his mind to be afraid.

"Doctor Professor, you must trust me. Do you have a knife?"

Comstock stood there, breathing heavily, wiping the sweat off his face with the sleeve of his shirt.

Chuchui marched across the clearing toward two large columns of rock that were half concealed behind vines and trees. He gestured for Comstock to follow, which he did.

"Wait here," Chuchui said when the got up near the columns. Chuchui disappeared in the underbrush. The two large rocks were taller than they had at first appeared, and the space between them wider, perhaps six to eight feet Comstock guessed -- a little more than the height of a man.

The youth suddenly reemerged carrying an armload of gear. To Comstock it looked like some form of primitive climbing gear -- ropes, hooks and a strapped vestlike garment made of ram's hide. Chuchui indicated that Comstock must put on the vest if he was going to see the Cave of the Dead. The professor thought it strange, but Chuchui was so emphatic Comstock could not help but cooperate. The older man slipped his arms into the holes and Chuchui began lacing him up, binding his torso but leaving his arms and legs free.

The ropes, made of twined hemp, were secured to the back of the vest. Chuchui dragged the loose coils into the underbrush and secured the other end to the base of a tree. It appeared to be about thirty feet of rope.

"Give a man enough rope and he'll eventually hang himself," Comstock said, laughing to break the tension.

One more time Chuchui asked, "No knife? No cutting tools?"

Comstock reassured the boy that he carried nothing.

Chuchui grasped and held Comstock's arm a moment to get his attention. "When you walk between these pillars you will see the cave directly ahead of you, low to the ground. You will not be able to reach the cave, but you can lean toward it. The scorpions will torment you, but they cannot touch you. They must remain in the darkness. They cannot come out and the rope will hold you back. They will make you long to join them, to reach them, to touch them. Your head will spin with longing to be free of this rope. I tell you truthfully, you cannot, must not, remain long at the opening of the cave. Los Diablos, the scorpions, must not gain power over you."

Comstock turned and walked between the pillars toward a dark hole in the base of the cliff wall. The rope tightened and he fell forward to his knees, perhaps five feet from the mouth of the cave.
A cool, refreshing breeze blew forth from the opening out of the mountain. He leaned forward, testing the limits of his harness, peering into the darkness, into the depths of the mountain. Here and there in the darkness of the cave he could see a pulsing red glow, like half spent embers. As his eyes adjusted he saw perhaps a dozen, then two. Further back in the cave there were yet more lights gathering, a swell of scorpions moving toward the opening in a dull pulsing wave to gather at the rim of the cave's mouth.

The scorpions lined the floor and walls, their legs and tails twitching. Comstock looked, disbelieving. He was well acquainted with the strange, colorless creatures that normally inhabit the dark recesses of the earth, having seen white crayfish, white worms, albino slug-like things with caterpillar like legs. He had seen all this before, but had never seen what now confronted him: luminous scorpions.

They were perhaps six inches in length, no more than eight... but far larger than the tan colored scorpion he had encountered, and squashed, in the alley behind the hotel. No, he had never seen a scorpion of this size before, or such luminosity.

Comstock then began to imagine things. His thoughts became muddled. He began thinking strange thoughts as if his mind had become energized, his imagination a torrent overflowing its banks, dizzy with the possibilities of his life. He saw wealth, knowledge and immortality. He saw fame and the answer to a question he never asked. And he suddenly had an urge to free himself from his bindings that he might throw himself into the cave, to merge with the scorpions, to know their power. His arms stretched forward, he began to utter strange sounds, guttural sounds, believing that even if his fingertips could not reach, his words might reach and these groans might come to something.

The scorpions remained mute, even as the cave filled with the dull, pulsing light of their red iridescent bodies.

When Chuchui heard Comstock's cries and whispers, the youth began to reel him back in toward the clearing, away from the dark power. Comstock resisted at first, but in the end yielded. He was soon lying on the ground as far from the cave as the rope would allow. He lay on his side, his face flat against the earth, strangely still.

"This is the Cave of the Dead," Chuchui said. "Quetzlcoatl entered this cave and has promised one day to return."

Comstock thought of the River Styx and Greek mythology, of Orpheus, and of Hades, how the Christ had gone to that place of the dead and promised to return. "What is the meaning of such ideas? Have I become too educated to believe in miracles, in spirits, in supernatural worlds, in an afterlife?" he wondered.
The walk down the mountain was begun with haste. It would be dark soon and Chuchui knew they must find shelter. They could not make the journey at night. The boy rightfully believed it unsafe to remain too near the cave.

Atop the rim of the first plateau the path divided, but they did not descend the way they had come up. As dusk overtook them, a light fog began rising from the moist hills. They reached a point where the path dropped off in a steep descent, but Chuchui nudged Comstock to the right, to a narrow footpath that led into a dense forest. Hardly a hundred feet from the path they came to a small hut with a thatched roof. The hut vacant and dark.

"Here is where we will spend the night," the young Nahuatl said.

Comstock paused, then stooped to enter the low doorway. "I'm ready," the older man said. But all his thoughts were directed toward the cave, and though weary in body, his mind felt restless. He had never believed in the supernatural before. He did not expect that he ever would, though he had always been fascinated by others' beliefs. Now he had encountered a supernatural evil, something beyond the normal. He had been touched by it somehow, had responded to it.

At the same time his soul felt sullied by the encounter. Something within him resisted all this curious desire. There was a part of him that said leave this mountain, go home. Go far away from here.

But the other part was stronger, and made him feel important. His chest swelled as he thought of the recognition he would obtain. His career would be vindicated. He believed himself uniquely chosen, and uniquely suited for this discovery.

Chuchui said the hut was used by travelers to the Cave. They sat on the bed eating some kind of jerky made with goat meat and a small hard cracker made of corn meal. Chuchui offered Comstock the bed and he took it.

A fitful night's sleep followed with bad dreams. Upon awaking, he could not remember where he was. In the darkness he imagined strange noises. Outside the pad of footsteps caused his heart to race. Were there mountain cats in these parts? Puma? Panther? He didn't know. Snakes? He knew there were scorpions. He was relieved when morning broke with its arrows of light piercing the forest ceiling. Chuchui was already up, waiting outside, seated on the wide trunk of a fallen tree.

With few words they finished their descent. Comstock caught the bus back to Cuernavaca where he spent the afternoon considering the meaning of all these things.


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