From the author: Rappaccini's Daughter meets orchid hunting meets weird adventure tales, with an epistolary flourish...
by Jessica Reisman
"The more I study nature, the more I become impressed with ever-increasing force, that the contrivances and beautiful adaptations slowly acquired through each part . . . transcend in an incomparable manner the contrivances and adaptations which the most fertile imagination of man could invent."
—Charles Darwin, Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects
The March Estate
1st May 1858
The inconsistencies in Stengott's story were clear to Ames, though not, apparently, to anyone else. He listened through the tigers, the cannibals, and an admittedly entertaining, if entirely fictitious, tribal ceremony, politely sipping his punch, until Alice Seagrove's large-brimmed hat, which she held in her hands, brushed against his thigh. By the tilt of her head, brown hair in its complex twist of chignon, and the occasional slant of her eyes, he knew she knew very well what she was about. He might not have minded, ordinarily, Alice Seagrove being the eldest and most intelligent of the Seagrove brood, with a good wit in her well-turned head. But her hat was brushing the thigh where he'd been skewered by a splintered plank in a pontoon wreck on his last expedition, and though it was finally healing cleanly, it was still sore and Miss Seagrove's attentions weren't quite as subtle as she might have believed.
". . . the situation was quite hopeless," Stengott said, and Alice Seagrove's hat brim brushed Ames's thigh again. He contained his wince, though the punch lapped perilously close to the gilt edge of the china cup. With a slight bow to Stengott and his circle of listeners, Ames excused himself.
He set the cup on a mahogany sideboard and threaded his way through the room, skirting overstuffed davenports and armchairs with embroidered antimacassars on them, a peacock screen, ornate side tables and knots of guests, morning-coated and full-skirted. Eventually he found himself in the arched entry to the sunroom. After the heavy woods and warring crimsons of the drawing room, it was a shock. White wicker with pale yellow cushions—the colour of butter fresh from the icebox—bamboo screens, warm sunlight on a giant birdcage aflutter with green canaries. Freshets and gouts of flora, silver green, bottle green, forest green, yellow green.
Over the wicker settee, a wide picture window looked out on the landscaped undulation of back garden. At the top of the garden, Ames knew, was the greenhouse where Quillon March kept his orchids—several of which Ames had found for him. In Brazil, Madagascar, New Guinea.
A step behind him and the rustle of skirts. He turned, somewhat afraid of finding Miss Seagrove, but someone quite otherwise met his gaze with calm, gingery-green eyes. A small young woman in a white dress with pearl-coloured hair.
She came to join him by the window. "Mr. Ames? How do you do. My name is Giacometta Cini."
Ames inclined his head, recognizing the family name. "The Lady Cini?"
"Is my aunt."
Her eyes, of that extraordinary green, appraised Ames, a gentle invasion, which he found engaging.
"I noticed you fled Mr. Stengott's adventures in Burma. Oh, don't worry, " she said to his look, "it wasn't obvious. Certainly not to Mr. Stengott. The cannibals were improbable, of course, and the pasha, but he did get the tigers right, I thought. Was it only wishful thinking?"
"Not at all. The tigers, he had right. Though I find the likelihood of such a plurality doubtful."
"Forgive me," Ames said, "but I didn't notice you in Mr. Stengott's circle of attendance."
"You wouldn't. I was sitting behind you, with my aunt and Mina Featherstone. Eavesdropping, I'm afraid." She smiled. "Miss Featherstone is a lovely woman, but I will admit to the occasional lapse of attention. My aunt despairs of me."
"I doubt it," he said.
She didn't blush, but she lowered her eyes a moment.
Then, "I understand you brought Mr. March a number of new orchids."
"And you were wounded? I noticed your limp, though it's slight. And I," here she did blush, "overheard Mr. March speaking to my aunt."
"It is healing well."
"Would you show me the orchids you brought back?"
"Certainly. Shall we find Quillon and ask him to accompany us down to the greenhouse?"
As was proper, they found Quillon March and, gratified to show off his prize possessions, he gladly led them down into the humid air of the orchid house. He was an excellent chaperone, in that he chattered endlessly about his orchids and paid little attention to either of his guests.
". . . this oncidium, of course, is one of my prizes," Quillon was saying as Gia followed him, Ames a step behind her. "And these are all varieties of phaleanopsis . . ."
They stopped before a large odontoglossum Ames had found for March on an earlier trip to Mexico. Six inches across, the flowers bore a deep, vivid gradation of colour, pale plum to eggplant dark, with a silvery green dusting of spots.
"This one is quite remarkable," Quillon said.
"A natural hybrid—with cochlioda?" Gia said.
"Yes." Quillon March gazed at his orchid, square, ruddy face intent; he stroked his mustache. "I've been trying your father's root theories out with it. I do wish he could have come with you. He's become so reclusive in the last few years. His health, of course, I know."
Ames studied the hybrid orchid, its strange shapes and rich colouration, fascinated anew. The endless permutations of orchidacea fascinated him. Hhe'd studied this one on the voyage home and, had, in fact, detailed drawings and descriptions in his field notes. "Your father is a botanist?" he asked Gia.
"Yes. Dr. Marcello Cini."
Ames nodded, having heard of him, vaguely. A university botanist with some odd ideas. Theories. And, years ago, he had been an orchid hunter himself, for the furtherance of his studies. He had found several noted orchids.
"There was one orchid," Quillon said musingly, as if hearing Ames's thoughts. "I remember, your father brought it back when you were what, ten? His last expedition."
"Twelve," Gia said softly.
"Before his health began to decline." Quillon didn't seem to have heard her. He had a somewhat abstracted expression, and had turned to lead the way further along the row. "It had exquisite sepals. And its scent—the most intoxicating thing. I—," he shook his head, as if just the memory of the orchid's scent dizzied him. "Put me in mind of a strange legend I heard. Let's see—yes, a small kingdom was overcome by an enemy once. The queen, a warrior-queen, escaped into the jungle with her two children. In the jungle, they encountered a small party of enemy soldiers. The queen fought a fierce battle—to protect her children. Defeated, of course."
"As her children lie bleeding on the forest floor," Gia's voice took up Quillon's tale, her shift of tense and low voice touching a shiver through Ames, "the queen is tied to the curupay tree under which the battle took place, and the soldiers leave them there to die, their blood soaking into the roots of the tree. The queen begins to pray to the spirits that her line might live on somehow, her children find new life. The old spirit of the curupay works a tree magic in answer to her prayer, her blood. The ropes that tie the queen become roots, and the queen herself becomes a flower that lives on rain and air and light, sheltered by the curupay, able to propagate herself by any method she desires."
"And she desired to propagate through humans, yes," Quillon's voice startled Ames, somewhat, "that's the tale. Remarkable, really. Of course you know it."
"Yes." Something in her tone, in the one word, had gone far away from them.
"There was something else about the tale," Quillon tapped his lips, then his gaze lit on Gia and a blush coloured his already ruddy cheeks.
"The queen was known among her people as The Pearl," Gia said. "Her hair, though she was not old, was white as pearls, or sea foam, they said." Then she laughed, gently, dispelling Quillon's embarrassment.
He turned back to his orchids.
"Here we are, now this lepanthis is from Coloumbia. See where the lip ruffles . . ."
Gia and Ames followed slowly, letting Quillon get some way ahead of them, his running monologue a gentle murmur. Watery light fell on the fantastic, deliriously coloured heads of orchids. Gia's white dress glowed in the heavy air. Ames heard his heart beating for a moment, felt it in the ache in his thigh. The sweat running down his sides under civilized layers recalled places far from there.
"Where will you go next, Mr. Ames? Do you have a commission?"
"There are offers."
She studied him a moment, his silence. "But you're going to stay home now?"
He smiled at her perception. "I have begun to think so, yes. For a time. My older brother has asked me to help with affairs at our family estate."
"You are not an orchid hunter by profession, are you?"
"No. I am in fact referred to among other orchid hunters as 'the dilettante.' Took a first at Oxford. Younger son, all that."
"Why do it?"
"Yes. Dysentery, drowning, fevers, accidental or violent death. You don't keep orchids yourself, do you? For study or," she lifted her chin toward Quillon, "passion?"
"No, though I find them fascinating. At first—adventure, I suppose. Which makes me deserving of my title among the men who hunt in all seriousness. It's a serious undertaking. Almost got myself and two men killed several times over on my first expedition. A fool."
"You were young." She pursed her lips. "Younger, I should say." There was something in the way she said it that gave no offense, nor patronage. "Despite that, you continued?"
"Restlessness. Though the word doesn't really hold much meaning, does it?"
"I suppose it's the sort of word one tries to shore up with other words, to keep meaning from slipping out of it. It's shallow, when what we want to say feels to us deep as the unexplored abyssum of the ocean." She shook her head-- at her own words Ames could tell. Then she said, "Maybe the word holds all the meaning it needs to; you were itchy in the shallow currents of our society, and longed for the deeper water to be found in wilder places."
"Yes. Though my brother will tell you it's only to get away from our sister Gertrude, who is intent on seeing me married to a steadying influence."
". . . and here," Quillon was saying, "is my first hybrid. Had a correspondence with Dominy about it. Quite pleased." He rose on his toes and rocked back, beaming at the bloom. Then his gaze fell on the orchid next to it, a paphiopidelum, dying. He shook his head and fingered his mustache. "Very upsetting about this one. Haven't been able to work out what it needs. Orchids go extinct all over England this way, you know. And they're never found again. Distressing." He looked around as they caught up and stood surveying the successful hybrid and the dying paphiopidelum. "Did your father ever have any success with that one specimen? The one with the intoxicating scent?"
An expression washed briefly across her face, through her eyes. Just as quickly, she seemed to shut it away. "Limited." It seemed to Ames she shut some secret away. She stepped past Quillon and touched the paphiopidelum's roots lightly. " This one is from Africa? Try putting it nearer the ventilation."
"Oh? Alright. Try anything at this stage."
6th November 1858
My Dear Ames,
After your confession of a renewed "restlessness" on your last visit, I have been thinking. Do you remember that orchid of my father's Mr. March spoke of on our first meeting? I would like to ask you to find that orchid again for us. The expedition would be a limited one, in the event you were prepared to take it on. Only this one specimen, and I do have a narrow region of inquiry to recommend for the search, from my father's notes.
It is—Jonathan, I wish you would refuse this request. I would fear for you should you undertake this hunt. For my father's sake, I ask, and for my own—while a part of me begs you to refuse.
Our desire for this specimen is not an idle one. I think you know, having seen my father on your visit, that I am not at liberty to travel. His health has not improved, and I cannot bring myself to stray far from his side. If I could, I would take the journey myself. I am asking that you be more not only my agent in this, but my surrogate. Your step in the wild places as my step, the dangers, the wonders—soft, dark nights and tropical rains—experience these for me and write to me of them as you go. Though the letters would be unsure of passage, and possibly never leave your possession, the realities of such journeys being what they are, I would know that you spoke to me from those places where I cannot go. It seems to me that I would hear you, and from you, in your voice, this travelogue—insupportable from another, merely salt to a raw wound—from you it would be—well. And what will you think of this inarticulate affliction of my pen?
I know you may decline. You do not need the money, and there are other ways you might assuage restlessness—ways, which, in other circumstance, I would as your friend prefer for you. For I do see danger in this hunt—one need wars with the other in this request—friendship against filial love. If you cannot see your way to undertaking this quest, there is no remonstrance. I remain your affectionate friend,
20th November 1858
My Dear Gia,
There is that about your request which I would probably find alarming, if I was of a disposition to be alarmed, or if I trusted your own good sensibility any less than I do. Acknowledging that I had thoughts of concern at all is as much as I will burden you with, however.
As for your request. I accept the commission. I've had to promise my poor brother it will be the last, and we've agreed not to tell Gertrude. But I want one more expedition before I settle into this life irretrievably, as I foresee I am about to. A last dive into that deep place where the currents are not so predictable. And why? Well, because you ask me. But, as often is the case with you, it seems that you ask only what something in me, unvoiced, has called upon you to ask.
We are a pair. You with your talk of surrogacy and I with my unvoiced requests. I think perhaps all of our letters should be burned. Otherwise someone might use them sometime, to prove that our minds are fevered and our reason unsound.
I am intrigued, and appetent; where I am to go for this orchid?
3rd December, 1858
My Dear Ames,
My father found the orchid in the upper Pantanal region of the Paraguay, Brazil border.
Should I have begun by thanking you? I am of two minds about this hunt. I wish I had never asked you, for I will be deprived not only of your visits, but of regular correspondence. I do not want you to go.
However, my father is relieved, and thankful. He wouldn't consent to give his maps and journal notes to anyone else. It wasn't until he met you—as I knew would be the case—that he felt he could finally ask someone to search for this orchid again. The notes and maps, as you can see, are quite detailed, though the maps will now be twenty years out of date, and the Southern Americas are turbulent lands. Write me when you have engaged passage on a ship and know what will be your port of disembarkation.
I will not tire you with cautionary statements. Only find the orchid and come back.
Aboard the Martin
28th December, 1858
Ames trimmed the wick on the cabin's lantern as the flame began to stutter, throwing shadows over paper, pen nibs, the remains of supper in a metal plate, and the cabin's plain wooden fittings. He shifted the illustration of the orchid that had been slipped in among Dr. Cini's journal notes. A loose piece of paper, the orchid drawn in precise, coloured inks, by a different hand than that which had done the illustrations and maps in Marcello's book. Gia's work, he was sure.
It was a medium-sized telipogon orchid with a lyrate flower structure, the petals and lip of the perianth a roseately green-orange, while the sepals were a pearlescent, gold-tinged white. The leaves on the psuedobulb were net-veined a dark red.
Laughter reached him from the deck, deep male voices over the suspiration of the ocean. Through the slatted cabin door came cool sea air and the musk of tobacco smoke. The creak of the ship spoke through the chime of the watch bell.
28th December 1858
Father's health seems somewhat improved. He speaks of you, and of his own travels years ago. We sit in the garden drinking tea. The sunflowers have grown large and nod in the winter sunshine. Father has me read him all the new experiments and progress in botanical studies. He is hopeful that when you bring back the orchid, we will this time be successful with its pollination.
I dreamt the other morning that I was on a ship at sea. I sat on a pile of heavy rope on the deck. There was no one about. A new-minted light glittered and steamed over an endless horizon of sea, and the wind was full of joy. I heard the laughter of men, though there was no one, only a small martin, perched on the bow. So I understood it to be the ship you travel on, and that all is well thus far.
The Marches were in Italy and visited earlier this month. They are well, and much as ever, though Mr. March was distressed by my father's condition. He asked after you—Mr. March did.
I think of you, Jonathan.
16th March 1859
Salvador Da Bahia is a rich port city, made so by sugar trade and also by the fazendas, the coffee estates. I will be here only a few days, making preparations for the overland journey to the town of San Ignacio on the river Paraguay. From there I will hire a native Guarani guide and a boat to take us down the river into Paraguay.
Currently I am staying at the establishment of Albere Monand, whose name I gave you. He will keep your letters until I return this way. I imagine them following me, like little swallows, across the Atlantic.
As you see, here is a packet of letters included with this one, which I am sending to you by way of the Captain of the Coruscant, which is returning to England. The letters detail the voyage here, for I whiled away many shipboard hours speaking to you with pen and paper. As I recall them now, it seems to me those letters are filled with wonders—meteor showers on the dark, oceanic sky, dolphins, exotic ports, various characters whom it was my fortune to meet. However, as even hard tack and fish stew came to seem miraculous to me at times, so long were the days, the letters may be only tedious.
I am sitting now with Monand on his veranda. It is late, the sun setting slowly and with a luxuriant palette. Bahia has many opulent churches, and from this spot I can hear the bells of several. I should be daunted by the journey ahead, because it will be arduous, but, in part due to the spirits Albere has been good enough to share with me, I am uncommonly contented. Though I have heard rumour, through various sources, that another orchid hunter is interested in my activities. There are many orchids in Brazil, however, and perhaps that will occupy him.
Opportunities to send or receive further correspondence will be few if any after I leave the coast.
I wonder how you are. It has seemed to me at times that I have felt you close, the lift of warmth from your skin, that scent which is only your own—have I ever said, how intoxicating I find it? No, I am sure not, but the great physical distance between us, and this place, so full of colour and life after the long weeks on the ocean—and perhaps Monand's liquor—have left me feeling very little bound by the stays of propriety.
I will fold this away with the other letters now, and seal the package to be delivered to the Coruscant, lest I think better of my impropriety.
17th March 1859
My dear Jonathan,
I have sent many letters now, knowing that you won’t see any of them for months, that they will most likely not catch up with you up until you return to the coast. I try to picture your Mr. Monand, to whom I have sent all these letters. He is a large man, with skin the colour of almonds, dark, curling hair, a heavy mustache and large, dark eyes heavily lashed, beautiful eyes, in a rough, almost ugly face. A reliable man.
My father has declined. We no longer sit in the garden, but in his bedroom. But we have the windows open, so he can hear the birds, and smell things growing. Sometimes he lies for hours with his head towards the window, his eyes open, so that I can see the reflections of light on them. I read to him still, journals, and letters from various botanists and scientists with whom he has corresponded for years.
A while ago I brought his favorite orchids and plants to his room. They fill it with colour and scent such as I imagine surrounds you as you travel through Brazil, though I know it is, in reality, long days of sweat, dust and, alternately, mud and rain. I trace your journey on maps. Conquisto, Parazalu, San Ignacio. I have read a monograph on the Guarani people of Paraguay. The thrushes sing in the garden, and I hear macaws and cockatiels in the heated air of jungle, the deep wild places . . .
My mind wanders, I fear.
My Jonathan, I remain
San Ignacio, Brazil, by borders of Bolivia and Paraguay
5th May 1859
Rain fell heavily, curtains of water streaming over the thatch of the porch overhang. Ames pushed lank hair out of his eyes and studied Marcello Cini's map next to the map drawn for him by Yatai. He felt a prickle on the back of his neck and looked up to see Monteroso watching him from just within the door of the hut. Monteroso would not have been his choice of company, but there was little in the way of choice in San Ignacio, which was no more than a mission, rebuilt in the years since the Jesuits had been expelled, and some huts by the river. Monteroso was currently also a guest of Father Johannes and they were sharing the guest accommodations.
He moved out of the shadows. "So, Mr. Ames, you trust him, this Yatai?"
Monteroso snapped his fingers dismissively. "A Guarani. I could guide you; I know the river."
"I appreciate the offer, Señor Monteroso. But I have already made a commitment to Yatai."
Monteroso laughed. "A commitment, to a Guarani, that is good, Mr. Ames." He subsided after a moment and crouched down, back to the door frame. He looked out into the rain. "There will be war here, you know? If not soon, in a few years. The son of the great Carlos Antonio, the little Lopez," he spit to the side, "is crazy; he will make war."
"From what I understand of him, I believe you may be right," Ames said. Voices reached them through the rain, and he looked to see two men coming along the path from the mission. Father Johannes and another man, European, in travel-stained clothes much like Ames's own. Father Johannes held a large black umbrella over them both. They could hear the rain poppling on the fabric of the umbrella.
Ames slid both maps back into Marcello's journal, tied the cord which held the old book together, and stowed it back in his pack. He was waiting only for Yatai, who had gone off to gather some final supplies and to garner a protection for their skiff from his tribe's shaman.
The missionary and the other man reached the hut. They came up on the porch, Father Johannes shaking water from the umbrella and closing it.
"Mr. Ames, Señor Monteroso, good morning. May I introduce Mr. Vaughn."
Monteroso nodded, not rising from his crouch. Ames stood and held out his hand. "Mr. Vaughn."
Vaughn gripped his hand, shook.
"How do you do? Jonathan Ames, right? The dilettante. A pleasure." Vaughn grinned. He was a solid, square-shouldered man, balding and tanned, with a well-trimmed, thick gray mustache and light, shrewd blue eyes. He smelled of tobacco and unwashed flesh. He shifted a heavy pack off his shoulder and set it down.
"Since you will be leaving us today, Mr. Ames, I have offered Mr. Vaughn your place in the guest hut with Señor Monteroso."
"Very good," Ames said. His gut tightened, however, at the thought of Vaughn and Monteroso together, discussing what Monteroso knew of Ames's objective and route. Ames met Vaughn's light eyes. Uneasiness flickered through him, a chill frisson in the heat. There were countless undiscovered orchid species in Brazil's Amazon region, yet here was Vaughn in a relatively lightly speciated area. Because if Ames was going after it, there must be something worth having. Ames knew men who, rather than break their own trail in a hunt, followed another hunter and took that man’s discoveries as his own.
He watched Vaughn walk off a ways with Monteroso, the men sharing a smoke, voices low. The uneasiness sifted in his blood.
11th May 1859
My Dear Jonathan,
It has been a year now since we first met. Only a year and all of a year with its many days and long hours, and the minutes like swarming bees. Time seems to me both the most inflexible and the most flexible of properties. Its inflexibilities are obvious. Its flexibilities, of course, subjective—how some moments seem to open down into measureless depths, of mind, thought, and possibility. Like microscopic tunnelings into that deeper, wilder place of which we have spoken. Other moments, strung together like the emptiest of landscapes, are nearly of one dimension, so flat and shallow and savorless. And the majority of moments are just time, passing.
The Marches, at the behest of my aunt I believe, have begged me to come for an extended visit. My aunt has come to stay with us, you see, and thinks I need to get away. But I will not leave my father, whether he knows I am here or not.
Each night this last week, I have dreamed of the same creature. An animal like an otter, brown with a white patch on its front, only it is quite large (I have studied father's bestiary and concluded that it is a giant river otter, or saro). In last night's dream, the otter sat on a rock in the middle of a slow, clear, brown-green river sheltered by dense foliage. The otter seems to look very intently into me, though I am not really there, not in body. Then it slaps the rock with large webbed feet and leaps into the river, where it dives, playful and gracile. It comes up with a fish in its mouth, the water streaming off sleek brown fur. With a toss of its head, the otter throws the fish up, gleaming silver, through the air. The fish comes down and disappears before it hits the rock.
I woke up, my heart pushing hard in my chest. To recount it, of course, there is nothing disturbing. Yet it was a terribly disturbing dream. I wish I had not asked to you take this journey.
Rio Paraguay, Paraguay
23rd May 1859
Yatai regards my letter writing as a beneficial magic, as near as I can tell—we speak a broken mix of Spanish, English and his native Guarani—so I will oblige you both by writing another letter to add to the impressive bundle of them in my pack. Perhaps we should have investigated carrier pigeons.
It is extraordinarily beautiful on the river. In the margins, as you see, I have drawn for you the abundance of tree and plant life which shades the banks and tangles into sun-shot depths all around us. I've labeled them to the best of my knowledge, using Yatai's names for them when I do not recognize something. And the fauna. An ornithologist's vividly coloured dream of birdlife. We have seen a jaguar in the early morning, through a mist rising from the river—crocodiles, several anteaters, deer, a large anaconda, and giant river otters, for which I will admit a partiality. I have attempted to draw one, which paced us for a long while yesterday, almost upsetting the skiff several times, so eager was he for play.
Yatai cooks on the skiff, over a small, portable firepot his people make. Sweet potatoes, maize, cassavas, and, of course, fish. Though coffee is grown here, the brew which the locals make is entirely undrinkable. They also drink a very strong thing called maté, brewed of a dark green leaf and, to my taste, foul. I still have a small supply of good pekoe, which Yatai is pleased to be offered, though his face betrays a certain disappointment every time he drinks it. We sit on the skiff like kings, drinking tea as we glide down the river.
I have some concern that an orchid hunter named Vaughn may be following us, with hopes of snatching your father's orchid from my grasp. I do not know Vaughn, except by reputation and rumour.
At night the stars quite fill the sky, and the water, by reflection. We sleep in turns, since there are many things which could happen; sometimes the trees close above and I glimpse the coils, in the branches we pass under, of a snake, moving like a muscular oil.
Yatai tells me we will reach the place your father's map indicates for leaving the river in two to three more days.
28th May 1859
Two days ago we left the river. Yatai went to some pains to conceal his skiff, and left the talisman his shaman gave him with it. Travel on foot is, of course, far more grueling. This is a mixed landscape, wetlands and swamp forest. I have begun to see some species of both epiphytic and terrestrial orchids. The bird life is clamorous.
A cougar yowled horribly last night; Yatai has a nervous look about his eyes. He believes the cougar is disturbed by something, but he doesn't know if it is us or something of which we should be afraid—he indicates some sort of maleficent spirit. I wonder if it is Vaughn and Monteroso.
I have been much bitten by bugs, and Yatai only just saved me from a snake bite. We are nearing the place which Yatai determined to be your father's hollow. I showed him your illustration of the telepogon orchid; he nodded, yes, such an orchid exists. Then he touched his own dark hair. He said a Guarani word I don't know, then perlino and clara, and something about his shaman and a legend. I think his tribe must know some version of your and Quillon's warrior-queen story. He admired your illustration greatly, so I am going to give it to him.
These last few nights I have dreamt of you so vividly. And of the green lawns of the March's, of white starched frocks, of roast duckling and baked raspberry pudding, of thrushes. Even of my sister Gertrude. But you are always there—here—you seem so close, somehow. This evening Yatai said that the cougar cannot be disturbed with us, because he (Yatai) sees that a fantasma beneficioso walks with me, a good spirit. He said the spirit is a woman with hair like cassava milk and eyes which see into the forest. What do you think of that?
9th June 1859
They moved through long grasses and scrub trees. The sky was a pure green-blue, late day, tropical sun heavy through the foliage as they entered the hollow. The land rose in mounds about it. Water seeped up at the center and wended away in a rivulet, a sun-gilded snake in the high, red-streaked grasses. Small birds chattered in the trees. Insects thrummed from all around, a ubiquitous under-sound of heat and life.
A small gathering of orchids, as Gia had drawn, but so much more alive. They hung in the low branches of several tall curupay trees. The strange colour glowed in the late light, both roseate orange and a gleaming, pale green, the pearlescent sepals nearly luminous against dark, red-veined leaves.
Yatai had followed him in and crouched down in the thick grass by the seep. He watched with interest, leaning on his Guarani bow, while Ames took out his netting and tools and set about collecting one of the orchids and several pseudobulbs with still-closed calyxes.
He had almost finished some while later when Yatai looked up sharply. The guide rose to his feet and gazed tensely toward the dense growth above them. Slinging the bow off his shoulder, Yatai slipped out of the hollow.
Ames stayed where he was, kneeling in the grass with the orchid cradled by the root system in his hands. He continued carefully stowing the orchid in its net and bamboo carry, looking up periodically.
The foliage rustled visibly, and Monteroso emerged, Vaughn just behind him. Monteroso smiled, then stepped further in to reveal that Vaughn held a pistol.
Ames's eyes narrowed. "Is that really necessary, Vaughn?"
"Well, Jonathan, how much is your patron willing to pay for that orchid?"
"I doubt very much she'd pay you anything."
"Ah. Well, somebody else will, won't they?"
"Well?" He gestured to the orchid still in Ames's arms.
Ames sighed. "You can put the pistol away, Vaughn. There's a healthy population here."
Vaughn looked at Monteroso; Monteroso took the orchid from Ames and stepped back from him.
"Thank you, Jonathan," Vaughn said. He raised the pistol and shot.
Because he flinched back when Vaughn raised the pistol, the shot took him in the left shoulder, rather than the heart. At the moment he felt the pain, searing into his muscle, he heard the deafening report and then a cacophony of birds, shrieking up from the foliage, explosion of colour and movement into the air. He found himself on his back with no memory of getting there.
The next events were confusing. He looked up to see Vaughn about to speak, already dismissing him; a hissing sound cut the air. Monteroso grunted and then fell forward, landing heavily on top of Ames's lower body. The orchid in Monteroso's hands landed on Ames's chest, the flower hanging over his face.
"What—" Vaughn said, the word echoing strangely in Ames's hearing. Vaughn whipped around, looking for the source of the arrow that felled Monteroso, but Yatai was nowhere to be seen.
Past the orchid flower, one of Monteroso's eyes looked at Ames. An arrow jutted from the man's neck. Ames watched his lips move, then watched death still his eye and stop his vision. He was a big man, his newly dead body heavy. Finding it hard to breathe, it took Ames a moment to realize that the difficulty he was having breathing had more to do with being shot than with Monteroso's weight on his stomach and legs.
He levered his right hand out from under Monteroso and touched his left shoulder. Wet and warm, his hand came away red. He tried to shift Monteroso, and pain nearly blacked him out.
He subsided back and looked up into the orchid's luminous petals. A scent of freshness, sweetness, vanilla, seawind. Life . . . it was, it reminded him of . . .
It seemed to him, though everything was fading, that the orchid dipped closer, closer, until the floral envelope shaded his face, silken and cool on his hot skin. The column, within its nest of petals, touched his lips, then pressed within them. A taste of fresh vanilla and rain, and the scent, intoxicating. Like Gia, the scent.
The orchid released a pollen into him, around him, a cloud of particles clinging to skin and breath. The pollen soaked into him, into blood and brain. Then the flower withdrew, and the world went gray.
There followed a confused beadwork of images, impressions that came to him through the distorted, yellowish lens of fever. Vaughn, dead with another of Yatai's arrows in him, the roots of an orchid somehow wrapped about his hand and the gun; Yatai and sunlight, Yatai and the sound of water in a long, endless darkness; another Guarani, wearing the marks of a shaman, his hair long and white, white as cassava milk, as sea foam, as pearls . . .he drifted into that whiteness and found himself traveling, far away. The white misted into fog, into cloud, and then into Gia, Gia's hair, and Gia's eyes as her hand took his, soft as petals.
Salvador Da Bahia, Brazil
30th July 1859
To Giacometta Cini,
Dear lady, I write to you about our mutual friend Jonathan Ames. He has only arrived here in Bahia a few days ago; he has been, and is still, very ill. He had a gunshot wound which has now healed, but contracted a terrible fever at some point in his journey and has been much weakened by it. I am unclear as to the particulars of events, but he was seen back this way by the unprecedented assistance of a member of the Guarani people of Paraguay.
Among Jonathan's things there is a large packet of letters for you, as there is just such a collection here for him from you. I am sending his letters to you with this one, by way of the Osprey. I cannot in conscience put my friend on a ship. The cause of his fever is puzzling to the doctor I have had to see him. He remains ill, though he should be regaining health.
17th September 1859
He woke that morning more rested than in many a night. Monand had put him in a small room at the back of the hacienda. Though still weak and often burning with the fever in the night, he was less fitful. Monand hoped the illness was at last relinquishing him, but feared it was only the cessation of Ames's struggle as death succeeded the illness in turn.
To Ames it seemed that a balm breathed into him, a premonition of succor. Soothing and kind, it drew his attention from the illness. As before, when fevered, he had been traveling far from his body, dreaming himself onto a ship where he found Gia, improbably,a small woman standing at the prow, her gaze out over the ocean.
He did not tell Monand, but he suspected this abstraction was, indeed, death.
A warm breeze flavored of the sea filled the room. He tasted again the scent of the telipogon orchid, felt the drift of its pollen in his blood. Some shift of the air prompted him to open his eyes.
Gia sat beside his bed. She wore light traveling clothes, open at the neck for the heat, her pearlescent hair braided up, but unraveling with moisture and sea wind. Her paleness was accentuated by an unhealthy pallor, though her cheeks were wind burnt, and a greyness darkened the skin about her eyes.
"You've been ill," he said.
"What ship?" He coughed. She poured water for him, from the pitcher on the bedside table.
"The Martin." She reached out and touched his hair, where it was coming in white, white as hers.
He smiled, looking at her, into her eyes, the gingery green that seemed to bring the heat and thrumming life of the jungle back around him. "Your father?"
She lowered her eyes, a brief shake of the head.
She took his hand where it lay on the bed.
"I failed," he said. "The orchid—Vaughn—" He frowned. "I don't know, really, what happened. I'm sorry." He gripped her hand.
Gia shook her head. A smile touched her lips as she returned the pressure of his grip and moved from the chair to sit on the bed, leaning close.
"When my father found the orchid," she said, "twenty years ago, and brought it home, I was twelve . . .it tried to cross-pollinate with me, also. I was fevered for weeks. My father found a . . . treatment, but not a cure." She leaned closer until her lips touched his. Ames brought his other hand up to her hair and pulled her in, mouth opening to hers. Scent of sea and vanilla, and the taste of the orchid, between their tongues. He couldn't tell if it was his saliva, or hers, or the exchange itself which produced it, but it was fresh and sweet. Intoxicating. It was lifeblood, healing.
Their fingers twined like roots; Ames wondered, were they children of the orchid—or merely its insects?
This story originally appeared in Farrago's Wainscott.