Excerpt: Chapter 6, "Ill Winds"
“I’ve seen the Wild Man of the Forest. In the islands south of Nam Viet. He’s no different from you or me except that
he’s covered with long copper hair. He has no need of clothing. He speaks his own language, but he understands every other language spoken by men without even having to study. An educated man is like a child before him.
one of the islands there are little dragons, merely the size of two men, but faster than a man, and with an appetite for human flesh. If you climb a tree, and if the dragon pursuing you is young, he’ll follow you up the tree. You can’t escape him.
And he doesn’t care if you’re dead or alive; when he gets hold of you, he’ll just start eating. And if you’re eaten by such a dragon, part of your soul will be trapped in the creature forever. You’ll be looking out through its
eyes, going wherever it goes, but unable to exert your will, helplessly compelled to witness and experience everything the dragon sees or does, including its terrible hunting and eating. You’ll not be able to escape for a long, long time, because the
dragon lives for about a thousand years. It’s said that some men, dying of disease or old age, will purposely offer themselves to such a dragon, so desperate are they for life of any sort, even if it means dwelling within this brute, listening for hundreds
of years to the crunching of its victims’ bones and their dying shrieks, enduring its dreadful mating rituals and dozing in the dirt amidst flies and carrion.”
“Yes. Well.” Dee considered. “It certainly
speaks to us about the intensity of our desire for life, doesn’t it?”
The man telling Dee his tales of faraway places looked as though he had been gnawed on by a variety of beasts. He had almost as many stumps as he had
fingers, one leg below the knee missing entirely and in its stead a perfectly carved replica in wood complete with a foot and a hinged ankle joint, one glittering black eye and one milky white eye which gazed distractedly toward the horizon while the other
looked right at Dee, a couple of long yellow fangs, burns, scars and pock-marks everywhere on his leathery hide, and a chunk missing from his scalp on one side of his head.
“That it does. That it does. Truer words were never
spoken, master Dee. Me, I’d rather be good and dead. On the same island there’s a huge stinking flower, as big across as a lady’s bathing-tub, smells like an open grave, and if you step in it, your foot’s stuck in heavy glue and the
petals close around you and you’re done for.”
“Is that how you…?” Dee indicated the man’s carved leg.
“No, but it might have been! Might have been! No. You see this?”
He leaned over to where Dee sat on the deck of the man’s sailing vessel and offered his scalp for Dee’s closer inspection. The patch of purplish skin, as big as the palm of a man’s hand, was tight, shiny and hairless.
you sail south between the islands I told you about and then head toward the rising sun, you’ll come to a place where the men are blacker than the night sky. And they’ll greet you as if you’re their oldest friend, and invite you to dine,
and then when you’re good and full and about to fall asleep they’ll cut off your head and scrape out your brains and eat them like a dainty confection, then boil your head down so it’s the size of a cat’s head, and put it on a shelf
in their huts next to all the other heads. They do it so that your power becomes their power. Well, naturally, they wanted my head.”
“Naturally,” Dee agreed.
“My host, who’d just
fed me a fine meal of dog and monkey, tried to chop off my head with his stone ax when he thought I was asleep. I wasn’t, though. One thing I’ve learned in my travels is never go to sleep in the hut of a stranger who’d acted like your friend
from the first moment he saw you. Especially if he’s fed you a fine meal. So I was ready. I was lying there with my eyes closed when I heard him rustle about and then I heard the sound of his ax whooshing through the air. I rolled. He missed my neck
but he got a slice of my head, hair and all, and a little bit of bone as well. I was on my feet in the next moment. Yes, I said ‘feet.’ I had ‘em both then. See this?”
He pulled a long knife out of his belt,
slowly, his one good eye on Dee, and held the weapon flat on his hand. Handle and blade were one long piece of smooth, polished yellow bone.
“There’s not one man in a million has a knife like this one,” the seafarer
said with slow emphasis. “Here,” he said, and proffered it to Dee, who took it and looked at it.
Dee was not sure what he meant. The knife was crude, with no decorative carving of any sort. He waited, certain that something
portentous was coming. The seafarer leaned close and whispered.
“There’s not a man in a million has a knife made from his own leg bone.”
Dee gazed at the thing in his hand and then at the man’s
one black eye.
“It’s how I bought my life,” the man said. “I made an offer to my host. There I was, blood pouring off my head so I could hardly see. But I didn’t act afraid. I knew I had to scare him, so
I laughed. I acted like some other kind of creature—a creature that feels no pain. I made him a wager. I told him he could have my leg in exchange for my life, that he could cut it off right then and there and that I’d enjoy it. I’d prove
to him that I’d enjoy it. If I so much as grunted or grimaced while he was doing it, he could kill me on the spot. If I didn’t, he’d have to spare my life.
“Well, he liked the wager. And he did it. I held my
leg still for him while he hacked it off with his ax. And I smiled while he did it. He cauterized my stump, cooked the leg over the fire and ate it. I ate some, too. My own cooked flesh. Then he took the bone and carved me this knife, and set me free. I carry
it with me wherever I go. And I swear, Master Dee, that my story is the honest truth.”
“I have no doubt,” Dee said.
And in truth, he didn’t. He sat on a block of wood on the deck of the
man’s vessel. The boat rocked gently on waves made by ceaseless traffic passing on the wide river that led from Canton to the sea. A stiff breeze whipped along the water and the hot bright sun danced and glinted on the swells. The filthy, stinking river
was a sheet of rippling opaque silver. He squinted his eyes and imagined that a man could walk on it: Down the river to the South China Sea and west with the setting sun to Malaysia and India. And beyond India: Persia, Arabia, Africa. He only had to whisper
the names to almost smell the hot perfumed wind of a distant shore.
Timbers eased in their joists and the rigging ropes groaned gently with the motion of the boat and the sun was hot on Dee’s back. He closed his eyes and imagined
that they were out on the open sea, beyond the sight of land, on their way to Sri Lanka or Madras.
India was an ancient lure for him. His first woman had been an Indian, a courtesan bought for a night by his older cousin on the occasion
of his birthday. He could still recall minute, explicit details of that long feverish night of nearly thirty-five years ago. Many was the time he had been guiltily sure that his wives could read his thoughts when he recalled the exact way the Indian woman
had lifted her legs or placed her experienced hand on some secret part of his body. The memories were hot and fresh, and still had the power to cause him to stop and gaze into space in the middle of a day of ordinary business. He had been fifteen and had expended
himself six times that night, and he remembered each incident clearly and separately. A whiff of patchouli was sufficient to send him rummaging through his private treasure trove. Once he had been hearing a case involving an Indian trader whose person and
clothing exuded the scent, and Dee’s assistant had had to nudge the magistrate’s shoulder to bring him back to the present.
And there had been a night many years before when a murdered man’s collection of erotic Indian
temple art had distracted Dee to the point where he very nearly became the murderer’s next victim, attacked from behind in the midst of a trance. He had been gazing at a carved wooden apsaras, a divine courtesan in Hindu mythology, a female
creature of unearthly beauty who waits in paradise to reward the righteous dead. His imagination had easily transformed old, dry wood into smooth, sweet, living brown skin, and then a slip of paper had fallen out of the carving to the floor. He had been astonished
at the effect of mere written words, and could remember them still: her thighs form a sacrificial altar, the hairs between them the sacrificial grass where a man kneels, her skin the sacred liquor a man drinks to become intoxicated, the two lips between
her thighs the place where the rubbing-stick makes holy fire…
“The honest truth,” a voice repeated loudly.
Dee blinked. The divine apsaras and her black hair and eyes and gold
jewelry transmuted into a pock-marked one-legged leathery old seafarer.
“Oh, I believe you,” Dee said, exhaling. “I believe you. And what about Africa?”
“Some of the men there are
black and twice as tall as a normal man, but sweet and peaceful as little girls. There are others who are half as tall as you and me but deadly as little vipers. Horses with stripes. Antelopes as tall as a tree with spots and human eyes that weep perpetual
“And what’s beyond Africa?” Dee asked dreamily.
“I intend to find out,” his new friend said. “Some say if you sail far enough you’ll fall off the edge of
the world in a great roaring waterfall. But my father knew a man who sailed east and vanished. Everyone thought he was dead. Five years later he appeared again, approaching from the west. My plan is to sail west as far as I can go. If I fall off the edge of
the world, so be it. But I have to know. I have to see for myself.”
“I need to go to Hainan,” Dee said then. If ever there was someone who could give the eunuchs the slip, this was he. “I’ll pay you to
take me there.”
“Hainan?” the man said. “No, thank you. You don’t have enough money to tempt me to go there. You know what they say, don’t you?”
“What do they say?”
“That the island is the source of all pestilence in the world. Illness comes belching up out of the ground, pure and concentrated, then separates into the ten thousand different sicknesses that afflict mankind, and spreads from there over
the entire world. No, Master Dee. I don’t care to go there. I would prefer to sail off the edge of the world.”