Chapter two-2

1880 Words
Above the dove I saw another shape, more ominous, hawk-like, planing in hunting circles. I could see the second bird very clearly. It was immense, and it glowed and sparkled with a scarlet coat of feathers, golden feathers encircled its throat and eyes, its legs were black and extended, their claws rigidly outstretched. That bird flaunted a glorious spectacle of color and power. Although at the time it would have been impossible for me to have recalled the lines, now I can only leap to those magnificent words of Gerard Manley Hopkins as he reacts with all a man’s mind and body to the achievement of, the mastery of, the thing that is so essentially a bird in the air. And more particularly, knowing now what I could not know then, Hopkins’ words have a deeper meaning as he calls the windhover “Kingdom of Daylight’s Dauphin.” I shouted and waved my arms at the white dove. It merely circled a little way farther off and if it was aware of that blunt-headed, wing-extended shape above it gave no sign. The deadly hawk shape with its broad wings with their aerodynamic fingertip-like extensions, the wedge-shaped tail, the squat heavily-muscled head cried aloud their own warning. The nature of the hunting bird is to kill its prey; but I could at least warn the dove. A piece of reed tossed at the dove merely made it swerve gracefully in the air. The eagle or hawk — for that magnificent scarlet and golden bird was of no Earthly species — swooped down. It ignored the dove. It swooped straight for me. Instinctively I flung up my left arm; but my right thrust forward one of my spears. The bird in a great cup-shaped fluttering of its wings and a powerful down-draft effect of its tail, braked in the air above my head, hovered, emitted one single shrill squawk, and then zoomed upward with long massively powerful beats from its broad wings. In a moment it dwindled to a dot and then vanished in the heat haze. I looked for the dove only to discover that it had also vanished. A strong feeling came over me that the birds were no ordinary birds. The dove was of the size of Earthly doves; but the raptor was far larger even than an albatross whose shape in the sky above our sails had become familiar to me in many southerly voyages. I thought of Sinbad and his magical ride aboard a bird; but this bird was not large enough to carry a man, of that I was sure. As I had promised myself I caught my dinner and with some difficulty found enough dry wood. By using a reed bow I made fire by friction, and almost in no time at all I was reclining and eating beautifully-cooked fish. I hate fish. But I was hungry, and so I ate, and the meal compared very favorably with salt pork ten years in the barrel, and weevily biscuits. I did miss the pea soup; but one couldn’t have everything. I listened very carefully and for some considerable time. With no knowledge of what hostile creatures there might be in the vicinity I judged it advisable to sleep aboard the boat; my patient listening had not revealed the distant thunder of a falls which would bring to a premature end this river journey. For I was now convinced that I had been brought here for a purpose. What that purpose was I did not know and, truth to tell with a full belly and a pile of grasses for a bed, I did not much care. So I slept through the red and green and golden afternoon of this alien planet. When I awoke the green tinged crimson light still flowed from the sky, deeper now but the color values of objects still true. After a time I came to ignore the pervading redness of the light and could pick out whites and yellows as though beneath the old familiar sun that had shone on me all my life. The river wound on. I saw many strange creatures on that uncanny journey. One there was, a thin-legged animal with a globe-like body and a comical face set atop it, for all the world — this or the Earth — like that of Humpty Dumpty. But it walked on eight immensely long and thin legs — and it walked on the water. It skimmed by me, its legs pumping up and down in a confusing net-like motion. The thin webs on its feet must each have been three feet across, and there must have been some kind of valvular action to break the suction created as its weight came on each pad in turn. It skittered away from the leaf boat and I laughed — another strange and somewhat painful movement not only of my mouth but also of my abdomen — as it tiptoed over the river surface. One of the spears made an excellent paddle by which the boat could be steered. Counting days became meaningless. I did not care. For the first time in many weary years I felt free and relieved of burdens — of care, of fear, of frustration, of all the intangible horrors that beset a man struggling to find his way through a life that has become meaningless to him. If I were to die, either soon or at a more distant date, well — Death had become a companion all too familiar. Drifting thus in a mellow daze down the river, not bothering to count the turn of days, there occurred times of sudden emergency, of stress and of danger, like the occasion when a great barred water snake attempted to clamber with its stunted forelegs aboard the leaf boat. The battle was short and incredibly ferocious. The reptile hissed and flicked its forked tongue at me and gaped its barn-door jaws open to reveal the long slimy cavity of its throat down which it intended to dispatch me. I balanced on the leaf, which danced and swayed and tipped in the water, and thrust my spears at the water snake’s hooded eyes. My first fierce thrusts were fortunate, for the thing let loose a squeal like swollen sheets shrieking through distorted blocks, and flicked its tongue about and threshed those stumpy forelegs. This creature emitted a smell, unlike that scorpion of my first day in this world. I stabbed and hacked and the thing, shrieking and squealing, slid back into the water. It made off, curving like a series of giant letter S’s laterally in the water. The encounter filled me only with a fuller awareness of my good fortune. When the first distant roars of the rapids whispered up the river I was ready. Here the banks rose to a height of between eighteen and twenty feet and were footed with black and red rocks against which the water broke and cascaded, spuming. Ahead the whole surface was broken. Standing braced against a thwart constructed from a number of reeds broken to length and thrust between the sides of the leaf which were amply strong enough, and with my body in a bracket of more reeds attached higher up, I was able to lean out and down and thus gain tremendous leverage with the spear-paddle. That swirling rush through the rapids exhilarated me. The spray lashed at me, water roared and leaped everywhere, the boat spun and was checked by a thrust of the paddle; the black and crimson rocks rushed past in a smother of foam and the lurching, dipping, twisting progress was like Phaëthon riding his chariot upon the high peaks of the Himalayas. When the boat reached the foot of the rapids and the river stretched ahead once more, placid and smoothly running, I was almost disappointed. But there were more rapids. Where a prudent man would have beached the boat and then made a porterage, I exulted in the combat between myself and the river; the louder the water roared and smashed against the rocks, the louder I shouted defiance. Having arrived in this world naked and carrying nothing with me I had no tie for my pigtail and water-drenched as my hair was it now hung freely down my back past my shoulder blades. I promised myself that I would have it cut to a slightly shorter length and never again adopt the required queue and its tie. Some of the men aboard ship had had pigtails that reached to their knees. These they kept coiled up most of the time, only letting them down on Sundays or other special occasions. I had put that life behind me now — along with the pigtail. Gradually from the horizon into which the great river vanished a range of mountains rose, growing higher day by day. I could see snow on their summits, gleaming cold and distant. The weather remained warm and glorious, the nights balmy, and the skies covered with stars whose constellations remained an enigmatic mystery. The river was now over three miles in width, as best I could judge. There had been no falls for a week — that is, seven appearances and disappearances of the sun — but the sound of thunder now reached my ears in a continuous diapason, swelling in volume perceptibly as the current of the river increased in velocity. The width of the river narrowed sharply; in a morning the banks closed in until they were no more than six cables’ length apart, and narrowing all the time. When the river was two cables’ wide I paddled furiously across to the nearer bank, almost deafened by the continuous roaring from ahead. There the river vanished between two vertical faces of rock, crimson as blood, streaked with ebony, harsh, and raking half a mile into the air. I pulled the boat out of the water and considered. By the smooth humped surface of the river I could tell the enormous power concentrated there. The river was now very deep, the water pent between those frowning precipices. The bank was a mere ledge of rock, above which the cliffs rose towering out of my sight. A bush grew there that I recognized, of a deep green with a profusion of brilliant yellow berries the size of cherries; it was a welcome sight. I picked the yellow cherries and ate them — they tasted like a full-bodied port — while I considered. After a time I took a spear and set off for the falls. The sight amazed me. By clinging to a rock at the extreme lip I could look over and down that majestic expanse of water as it slid out and over into nothingness and then arched down until far, far below it battered into the ground once again. A solid sheet of spray sleeted from the outward face of the waterfall and obscured what lay beyond. Below, the pool was like a great white lily spreading in widening circles of foam, with the roaring cataract toppling smoothly downward into its eye. There was no climbing down the rock. Again I considered. A force had brought me here. Had it brought me merely to stand and marvel at this waterfall? Must there not be something beyond to which I must go? And if I could not climb down the rock — was there no other way of descent? The sheer volume of noise fashioned itself into words: “You must! You must!”
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