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'Because the truth is' Because the truth was what? It was obvious that he'd just written the words – the notebook was open on his lap, his pen poised over that final S – but Ben had no idea what he'd been about to say. And why was the sun suddenly shining? And what was that strange scent, like nothing he'd ever smelt before? Only seconds ago, or so it seemed, he'd been sitting here on deck in the warm darkness of a tropical night with green rain forest passing by in front of him, dimly illuminated by the deck lights of the boat. It had been seven days into the four-week river journey to the Submundo Delta, and his excitement and anxiety had been mounting as he approached that band of territory surrounding the Delta that was known as the Zona de Olvido.
The Zona de Olvido. The Zone of Forgetfulness. That, of course, was the explanation, but though he had known in advance of the Zona's unique quality and understood perfectly well that once you'd passed through it and come out again, no trace of your time there remained in memory, the actual experience was so sudden, so total, so shocking, that it took him several seconds to grasp what had happened. It was like a cut between two scenes on a cinema screen. He had been in that green forest at night but now the sun was shining and he was right in the middle of something else entirely. He looked up from his notebook and there it was, the Submundo Delta, the Delta Beneath the World.
The trees, if they could be called trees at all, came in shades of pinkish purple without the slightest trace of green, and grew in a mass of spirals and helices, constantly recurring at many different scales of magnitude. Huge, magenta leaf stems the size of arms uncoiled from the branches, and then themselves unfurled smaller spirals from bead-like nodes along their lengths, these spirals in turn releasing rows of still smaller ones. And the branches were spirals too, spirals branching out from spirals, giving the effect of some kind of ornate three-dimensional calligraphy in an unknown and untranslatable language. They hung over the water, these branches, their tips curling back on themselves in yet more spirals, and put out delicate, helical flowers – if flower was the right word – that were dazzlingly white except for their bright pink mouths. On a wooden hut that stood at the water's edge, a faded mural depicted grinning skeletons digging a grave, watched by a little group of living human beings confined inside a cage, while, beneath the grave, a many-armed creature waited, its round head covered in eyes. The air was thick and humid and that strange pervasive aroma wafted from the forest, a hint of burnt sugar in it, and honey, and bitter lilies, but something else there too so completely unfamiliar that Ben could find nothing to compare it with. The sky was covered in white, translucent cloud through which burnt a huge white sun, seemingly much larger than in the world outside, and with tiny flashes of pink and blue and green glinting around its edges, as if it was ringed with diamonds or splintered glass.
Spitting out fumes and bilge water, the boat chugged steadily onwards through all this strangeness, the river twisting and looping like the one viable path through some vast maze, with countless side channels to tempt it off its course. Some of these channels were navigable and marked with rusty signs bearing arrows, crosses, exclamation marks or the names of villages – Ca' do Santos, Bom Presago, Al' do Mortos – but most of them were clogged with purple water plants and one was blocked by the half-submerged wreckage of a Dakota plane, its exposed wing and fuselage covered with the twisted filigree pattern of some white and glistening growth.
Ben was entranced. The coils and spirals stirred something inside him that was close to nightmare, but that was part of the appeal. Half an hour had passed before he thought, with a tiny twinge of unease, about the vanished days in the Zona.
He had absolutely no memory of it, but he knew that, while still inside the Zona, the boat had stopped at the inland port of Nus at the confluence of the River Lethe with the River Rhee, and had remained there for several days while the captain negotiated the sale of part of his cargo, and the advance purchase, to be collected on his return, of a consignment of rubber from the surrounding rain forest.
And Ben knew that – odd as it might seem for a place that no one outside could remember – Nus had a bad reputation. At the beginning of the journey, a leaflet had been given to each of the boat's four passengers, with a small map showing the approximate position of the Zona, and the way this mysterious band of territory completely encircled the Delta. 'The Company respectfully reminds its passengers,' the leaflet read, 'that everything that happens to you within the Zona, including Nus, will no longer remain in your memory once you emerge from the Zona again, and continue on into the Submundo Delta. You should be aware that this creates many legal challenges. Crimes, which are likely to occur, may be impossible to investigate, and wrongs cannot easily be righted. You are strongly advised, therefore, to remain on board throughout our time at Nus, when there will be an armed guard on deck at all times.' A programme of movies would be provided, the leaflet said – they would be projected on to the wall of the boat's tiny dining room – meals would be served, and the bar would be open all day. It was up to each passenger to decide whether or not to accept the company's advice, but no liability whatsoever would be accepted for the safety of any passenger who chose to ignore it. The boat would continue its journey at the allotted time and any passenger not on board would have no choice but to wait for the next boat that had berths available.
Given that he was a very responsible and dutiful man, Ben assumed that he'd followed the company's advice. He had had no reason to go ashore in Nus and his professional insurance would not have covered it, for this was a business trip, after all, and his work lay not in the Zona but in the Delta itself. It was a little disappointing, admittedly, to come to the conclusion that he'd probably just stayed on board, but if he considered the alternative possibility that, freed from the fear of future scrutiny, he might have made the decision to ignore the company's advice, disregard the conditions of his insurance and go ashore, he experienced a twinge of something that felt like the tiny tip of a whole deep iceberg of dread.
But anyway, never mind all that. He was in the Delta now and in front of him were magenta trees with spiral leaves and flowers with bright pink mouths. This was where his work would be. This was the point of his journey.
He was sitting in a canvas chair on the starboard side of the small foredeck set aside for passengers. At the front of the deck, standing and leaning on the railings, was another passenger called Hyacinth who had told him, way back before the Zona, that she was an anthropologist, and that she'd made this journey several times already. She was in her middle thirties, roughly his own age, and he'd discovered that, though based in New York, she was, like him, a Londoner. She sometimes read interesting-looking novels by foreign authors, but she spent a lot of time just looking out at their surroundings with a quiet absorption he rather envied. From time to time she'd take out a sketchpad and make a drawing.
Right behind Ben, on the port side of the little deck, sat a middle-aged Dutch couple: Mr and Mrs de Groot. Both of them were plump and pink and usually glistening with sweat, him wearing pebble spectacles that enormously magnified his moist and weary eyes, her in very dark glasses for which, apparently, there was some medical necessity. Mr de Groot had told Ben he used to work for the United Nations in Geneva, and had learnt of the Delta there, the UN being responsible, of course, for the administration of the Delta Protectorate.
'We have so many hopes for this place,' Mr de Groot told him now, when Ben looked in their direction. His wife had some kind of chronic illness, and in the first part of the journey, back when the forest was green, she had often complained of headaches and nausea, and seemed to be constantly troubled by the weather, so that her husband was forever fetching aspirins and glasses of water, or helping her with cardigans or parasols. 'We have spent many years looking for something that might reduce her suffering. And I hope, I very much hope, that this place might possibly be the —'
But at this point his wife turned her blacked-out eyes towards him and spoke to him in Dutch, and he jumped up to fetch something for her from their cabin.
As he disappeared below, two strangers stepped out, a man and woman, walking over to lean on the railings to Ben's left. He had no recollection of ever seeing them before.
'Hi, I'm Jael,' the woman said, turning towards him. She was American and in her thirties. She wore dungarees without a T-shirt, and she was almost freakishly good-looking with a mass of wavy red hair.
'I'm Ben,' he told her. 'I guess you must have come on board at Nus?'
'I guess so,' she said, examining his face with slightly narrowed eyes.
'So, I suppose ...' He stumbled on his words slightly, unnerved not just by her piercing gaze, but by the reminder of those missing days inside the Zona. 'So I suppose we must have introduced ourselves before.'
'Yup,' she said, her gaze still unflinching. 'That's how it is with the Zona. You and I may have become bosom chums in there for all we know, or we might have been deadly enemies. We don't know.' She glanced down at the red notebook that was still on his lap. 'Or not unless one of us wrote it down. I never keep a diary in Nus myself. I think it defeats the point. But it looks like maybe you did?'
He stuffed the notebook into the satchel in which he carried things he might want on the deck. 'Just a few notes,' he said.
'Which may or may not be lies,' she observed, still studying his face in a way that made him feel that every word he spoke was being carefully weighed and classified. She smiled. 'That's the thing with Nus, isn't it? You can lie to your future self as easily as to anyone else.'
'I suppose so,' Ben said, trying to laugh, though it didn't seem much of a joke.
'And this is Rico,' she said.
Her companion turned towards Ben. He too was film-star good-looking with long slim limbs and a certain feline grace that Ben found instantly fascinating. But his beautiful face had a ravaged and weather-beaten look.
'Yeah, hi, Ben,' he said. He was also American. 'Crazy Rico at your service.' And he bowed extravagantly and completely unsmilingly, as if he was one of the Three Musketeers.
Ben didn't take to the two of them. He felt he knew their type and that he had encountered people like them all too often in the police: druggie, alternative types who tried to intimidate you with their weirdness and unpredictability.
At dinner that night, when all six passengers and the captain ate together, Jael made no secret of the fact if the conversation bored her, zoning out completely, or whispering and giggling with Rico. But when a topic interested her, she spoke with great enthusiasm and erudition, her sharp, always slightly narrowed eyes darting from one face to another as she made her points. And having spoken, she would listen, very intently, to anything that was said to her in reply. Rico was much quieter but would suddenly say odd things or laugh loudly at unexpected moments when no one had said anything funny.
Later, when Ben returned to his cabin, he found on his cot a carbon-copy of a disclaimer document that he'd been required to sign in Nus, absolving the shipping company of any responsibility for injuries or losses that he might suffer while visiting the town. Next to it lay a purple notebook on the cover of which was written, in his own hand, 'Time in Nus. June/July, 1990.'
In fact, there had never been any chance of his missing out on such a place, a place so hidden that he would be concealed there even from his own future self, but he didn't know that yet, and this unexpected evidence of his reckless choice was deeply disturbing. He didn't open the purple notebook, though he himself had presumably been the one who had laid it on the bed, but instead sealed it closed with two stout elastic bands and shoved it into the bottom of his suitcase along with another notebook – blue, and entitled 'Journey to Nus' – which he could remember beginning to write, but knew must also contain entries from days he had no recollection of, and the red one which he'd abandoned earlier that day. He didn't want to read words he could no longer remember writing, or hear in his head the voice of a self he had no knowledge of. For what might that other self say? What might he choose to hold back?
'Why are you going to the Delta anyway, Ben?' Rico asked Ben at breakfast. 'Have you told me already and I've forgotten, or are you keeping it a secret?' He gave a loud shout of laughter and then, before Ben could answer, held up his hand to stop him speaking. 'Don't worry, dude, I know! No need to tell me. You're going there for the same reason every fucker goes there. To fall apart.'
It wasn't just Ben that didn't like Rico and Jael. Hyacinth tensed whenever they were near and Mrs de Groot's level of agitation would rapidly increase. Sometimes in the dining room her husband would look at Ben or Hyacinth with his huge magnified eyes, as if appraising what support he would have if it ever became necessary to forcibly remove the two of them. But luckily for the peace of mind of the other passengers, for the rest of that tortuous journey through the coils of the Lethe, Jael and Rico invariably took themselves off after breakfast to the cargo hatch at the back of the boat. Only rarely visiting the deck, they'd lie around all day up there with their cigarettes and drugs, her in the bottom half of a faded yellow bikini, him in khaki shorts. Sometimes Rico would strum on a guitar, not very well and not even properly in tune.
The de Groots were often absent from the deck as well, for when Mrs de Groot had one of her many attacks, she had to retire to the darkness of her cabin with her husband in attendance, and this just left Ben and Hyacinth. Hyacinth was very self-contained, apparently happy to read, or draw, or lean on the railings and watch the forest going by in her calm, absorbed way. Sometimes, when she'd sketched a twisted tree or a channel choked with vegetation, Ben would ask to see the results and she'd pass them across with a shrug. The drawings were very good. They evoked a kind of nostalgia for this strange place: a curious thing when the boat was still in the midst of it, with scenes right there in front of them, hour after hour, that were just like the ones she drew.
'So this is it,' Ben said softly on the afternoon of the second day, trying to anchor himself in this place which still seemed too peculiar to fully believe in. 'The Submundo! The Submundo Delta.'
Hyacinth looked over at him and smiled. 'You have to remind yourself it's real, don't you? I've been to the Delta seven times now and I still have to.'
From the cargo hatch to the rear came the sound of Rico's unhinged laughter.
'Of course Delta is really a misnomer,' said Mr de Groot, who was just returning to the deck after settling his wife into one of her drugged sleeps. He was a man who took comfort in facts, and liked to recite them whenever a chance presented itself. 'The appearance is of solid ground with channels passing through it, but actually the water continues beneath the forest as well. It would be more accurate to call it an inland sea with trees growing up from the bottom of it. They put out side roots above its surface and these roots join together to create the dense mat that gives the impression of solid —'
He broke off, hearing a faint cry from his wife in their cabin below. With a sigh, he went back down to her.
There were just five crew on the boat. The captain, Korzeniowski, with his thick grey beard, dined with the passengers every night, and was courteous but completely unsmiling; Lessing, the engineer, never spoke to any of the passengers, and when they saw her at all she was usually fixing something or smoking by herself at the back of the boat in her blue overalls or making notes in a grimy little book; the cook and the two other hands were all Mundinos, local men from the Submundo itself, speaking to each other in their own idiosyncratic Portuguese Creole. (Hyacinth was fluent in this language and would sometimes chat to them but, though Ben had taken intensive Portuguese lessons before he set out, he quickly realized he was going to have to unlearn most of what he'd so laboriously acquired.) At night, when the boat was moored to one of the crumbling jetties that punctuated the banks of the Lethe, all five of the crew took turns to keep watch on deck, as they had apparently also done at Nus. But this time it wasn't to protect the passengers and cargo from criminals, but to fend off any duendes that might otherwise disturb everyone's sleep by climbing on board with their suckered hands and feet.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beneath The World, A Sea"
Copyright © 2019 Chris Beckett.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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