Good evening. I wish to bring an unusual tale to your attention to-night. It all began five months ago, when I received a letter from my colleague, Jefferson Alston. I shall read to you his letter by the light of this fire:
Hello, Weston, my dear friend! Strange news I bring to you, strange, great, tragic news! Don’t be alarmed: I am in need of a compulsory ear, a trustworthy ear, in case something should happen to me…But more on that later.
I know you are a busy man, and I suppose you presume me on a wild goose chase again, hunting after devils, or digging up unmarked graves. But this time is different! The college has fully funded my research, provided I emerge with irrefutable evidence. For now, though, I need someone I can trust to record my findings. So I ask, most humbly, you – my compatriot from days long past – to be the repository of my greatest work. And I thank you, Weston Price, with all my heart.
Three months ago I became the recipient of an urgent telegram from Mexico. The telegram was from Mr. Marco Toledo. Francisco Diaz gave my name to him – you remember Francisco, don’t you? You and I met him briefly during our European sojourn.
At any rate, the telegram from Marco insisted I come to Oaxaca at once. He said there was a matter of “principal interest” awaiting my analysis. He admitted the sparsity of this proposition, but maintained that, with revolution unfolding in Mexico, extreme secrecy was required.
Now, I am sure you can imagine my elation upon reading Marco’s telegram. And because Francisco had referred me, I knew the matter would involve the occult. Such a godsend in my field of study does not come along often.
I boarded a train leaving Arkham, setting out on a journey through the rolling plains and forests of the American South and Midwest. Thence to the savage deserts of Texas. Ah, those deserts: seized so tremendously by us not long ago. It took me five days to arrive at the Mexican border. There, after flashing my passport, I changed trains and headed into Mexico.
The train wound deeper, through Chihuahua, through Guadalajara, into that giant of romance, Mexico City. Breathtaking scenes surrounded me: jungles as wide and lush as any of Africa, snow-capped volcanoes, soaring mountains. Vestiges of the ancients loomed everywhere as pyramidal temples, bespeckling the land.
In Mexico City, I changed trains yet again and descended into the Valley of Oaxaca.
I met up with Marco at the instructed location: a small village in the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains. I will not impart the name of this village for reasons of confidentiality, but I’ve been staying here with Marco and his familia. They do support Zapata, as you might’ve guessed, yet I find nothing menacing about them. This is a community of farmers; all they demand is the right to sow their lands.
The quaintness of the village, as well as the rugged terrain surrounding it, is quite enjoyable. Densely wooded foothills fall away to every side, though much of the land has been tilled for the sake of agriculture. Dirt cart-tracks crisscross the village proper, lined by adobe houses and other shanty-like abodes. Rows of thatched roofs line the goat paths.
On the day of my arrival, I found Marco drinking in the cantina.
My boots were dusty, my bag heavy, as I stepped through the swinging brown doors. It was early in the morning, and I approached the only man wearing a suit, assuming he was Marco. He’d engaged the barkeeper in a conversation concerning Maximilian. I quietly allowed them to finish, then introduced myself. He brightened. He was a tall man with bronze skin, bushy eyebrows, and a straw sombrero on his head.
After a formal recount of my relationship to Francisco, I broached the subject of my visit. Marco smiled, sipping the tequila. “You want to see it?” he said.
“What am I to see?”
He downed his drink, standing up. “The tiny forest, mi amigo, and the tunnel inside the mountain.” He called to the small boy playing marbles outside the cantina. The boy was his son, Fernando.
Marco instructed him to take my bag to the house and bring the two mules. We waited in the sun for his return. When he arrived with the mules, I eagerly mounted one and declared my readiness to depart. Marco laughed, climbing aboard the other. We started into the mountains, Fernando plodding wistfully at our rear.
“I hope you are ready for a ride, señor,” Marco said.
“Indeed I am,” I replied.
We spent the next few hours following a crude path through the vegetation. Swathes of blond grass abutted harsh entanglements of branches, and Marco often alighted from his mule to hack free the passage. It was an odd conglomerate of nature: some trees were oak in appearance, while others were distinctly tropical. Great wooded ravines – barrancas, Marco called them – contrasted the periodic savannah-style flats. The whole mountainous region was a curious mosaic of conditions.
Coming into one of these tree-choked barrancas, a tempest of butterflies descended from the canopy. A kaleidoscopic display of colors whirled around us. Fernando laughed, chasing after the fluttering insects. Sparrows, thrushes, and other native birds flitted through the treetops. Lost in that spinning tableau of nature, a silent peace came over me; my senses intensified; my consciousness expanded.
“Here we are,” Marco said.
The wall of trees ended and we emerged into the sun. Awestruck, I dismounted the mule and took a few quiet steps into the clearing. But this was not a clearing, for there was no absence of trees. Sunlight shone heavily for one simple reason: the trees were dwarfed.
“Japanese black pine,” Marco said, sidestepping out of his mule. “They are bonsai trees. You know the ancient oriental practice of bonsai, no?”
“Well – yes of course I do.” I was half out of my wits. I couldn’t believe the magnificent sight before me. Small trees, hundreds of them, covered a square acre of land. Farther back, a traditional Mexican forest resumed. But here, in this concentrated area, the small bonsai grew in great numbers.
It was a paradox. The little I knew of bonsai art suggested it took a good deal of time and was easily botched. And I saw no sign of transplantation. These trees grew naturally out of the soil; some even clung precariously to rocks. Japanese black pine had no business surviving the fickle Mexican climate.
“How is this possible?” I asked as we waded into the trees, careful not to step on them. Fernando had taken his marbles out and was playing with them in the soil.
“Somehow the elements have sustained them,” Marco said. “There is no evidence of replanting or potted growth. And there is no evidence of pruning or clipping. It is a natural occurrence. Whatever her reasons, Mother Nature has selected the dwarfed trees to sprout up here…and to survive. I have refrained from contacting the university in Mexico City.”
“What the devil for?”
“Because of this, mi amigo.”
We came to a rising hill crowned with miniature pines. On the face of the hill, a large stone tablet, etched with hieroglyphs, stood out among the rocks. Marco informed me that the relief was Zapotec.
The Zapotec civilization, he said, dates back to the Olmecs, which meant the relief was very old. He was in the process of translating the inscription, but heretofore had deciphered only a single phrase: From the pierce of the flesh, the sorrow of transgression flows. A carving on the bottom of the stone depicted an Indian man slitting his own throat with a dagger. The image sent a queer chill up my spine.
“The slab opens on a tunnel into the mountain,” Marco said. “It leads to a chamber, Señor Alston, and in that chamber dwells something I cannot explain.”
“As if these were explicable!” I said, gesticulating at the tiny trees.
Marco smiled. “Come, mi amigo. I know you must be tired from your trip. We’ll return tomorrow when you are more rested. For now let us partake of the wonderful dinner mi esposa is preparing in your honor. Come.”
He turned, heading back through the knee-high trees, but I lingered a moment to study the stone slab. It filled me with uneasiness. I knew I would have to curb my apprehension when the time came, but for now I was glad to be on this side of the tablet.
Marco had been correct about my exhausted condition. I shambled after him, toward the mules, but not before twisting a handful of pine needles off of a bonsai tree. (I enclosed a portion of these needles with the letter.) It was dark by the time we got to the village, and after a fine meal, I succumbed to a much-needed sleep.
Well, dear Weston, that is all the strength I have this evening. I shall reveal more of my tale in a following letter. Again, I do appreciate this line of correspondence. You are the only one I can trust with such…crucial information. Keep the bonsai needles in a glass jar, and try not to smell them overmuch. They produce a certain…intoxicating effect. Goodbye for now. You shall hear from me soon!
Jefferson James Alston
Three days after receiving the first letter, I received a second. As Jefferson requested, I stowed the clump of semi-dried pine needles in a lidded glass jar. In fact, I shut the jar away in a cupboard. The needles have an otherworldly texture, and I felt nauseated after handling them. At any rate, here is Jefferson’s second, and final, letter:
Greetings from beyond the border! Have you heard the news of the goings-on in Mexico City? Situations are waxing dire. I should be leaving the country…
But perhaps I’ll simply stay in my newfound home. It is a beautiful village, and the people are very kind. Nothing of the sooty alleyways and sinister grimaces I have come to expect in Arkham. Besides, the flames of revolution burn brighter every day, and it would be difficult to get back across Mexico onto US soil.
Still, I fear the nights in this paradisiacal village with all of my being. Howls in the woods, yellow eyes in the branches, shadowy predators in the undergrowth. I shiver in spite of myself.
But listen to me ramble! I do apologize! You are unaware of the thing I have discovered. And I need you to be aware, lest some terrible tragedy befall me. I fear the malice of my own hand. I dream extensively of suicide and self-mortification. Will I commit a malicious act against my person? I expect not…But after what happened to poor Jorge…
The bonsai needles, did you secure them in a jar? I should hope so. Now, where was I? Ah yes. My second trip into the mountains. It was two days before we headed out again. My journey from America had left me quite weak, and I spent the entire day in bed. That evening Marco and I went to the cantina, where we satisfied ourselves getting muy borracho. We were joined by one of Marco’s friends, a gaunt and stolid Indian named Jorge. (Gaunt and stolid, yes, but with the eyes of a patron saint. One thing I realised during my time in Oaxaca: Mexicans can seem formidable on the exterior, but possess the tenderest, most compassionate qualities underneath – and the most noble.)
After a long night of drinking, the three of us retired, planning to venture to the tiny forest the following day. Jorge would accompany us. His blood ran thickly Zapotec, and he was well-acquainted with the customs of his ancient ancestors. He had come from the neighbouring village at news of my arrival. I had a good sleep that night, the sleep of the agave worm.
Dawn. A gold and pink sun wove its light along the mountaintops, creating a tapestry of Heaven and Earth. I heard the orchestral movements of birds inside my head – which thrummed, an aftereffect of the alcohol. Marco seemed unaffected by the hangover. We steered the mules down the cart-track and found Jorge in front of the cantina, brushing down his horse. We greeted him, spoke briefly, then headed into the Sierra Madres.
Much toil brought us to the bonsai garden and we dismounted. There was real magic in the air; wading through those trees felt dreamlike and surreal. I know Jorge sensed it, despite his sober appearance. He, too, was untroubled by any hangover.
We reached the hill with the Zapotec relief and stood quietly admiring it. My vision swam and my head was pounding. I took a drink from the canteen, hoping to mitigate the discomfort.
“You do the honors,” Marco told Jorge. The tall Indian stepped forward and ran his hand along the inscription. A traditional Aztec-style sun dominated the upper half of the relief. Jorge gripped it, pushed…and the slab moved inward, disappearing.
“Good heavens,” I exclaimed. “Where has it gone? Into the mountain?”
“Si,” Marco said, indicating a narrow crevice into which the relief had slid. “The Zapotec learned this kind of engineering from the Olmecs; that can be certain. Let us go down to the chamber now. Jorge, light the lantern, por favor.”
The Indian produced a lantern from his pack, and, striking a piece of flint, got it to flame. The fire threw shadows down the tunnel. We followed him single file into the mountain, myself at the rear.
Maddening wings of light flew over the walls, as Jorge’s lantern bounced along. Large-scale Zapotec hieroglyphs leaped out of the darkness, then vanished; the tunnel was covered in them. The scent of soil penetrated my lungs, and I felt claustrophobic. Sounds echoed deep in the earth, sharp hisses and whispers, and a grinding noise like the planet rolling on its axis. I felt no stairs beneath me, only the hard weight of packed dirt. It was as if a broad pole had been driven into the mountain then yanked out, leaving behind this circular depression.
Finally I felt a cool breeze on my face. At length the hellish tunnel belched us out into a cavernous chamber of stonework and stalactites. Jorge busily rounded the area, lighting a multitude of torches. One by one the little blazes wrought a collective glow that illuminated the chamber. I found myself standing before a monstrous Zapotec temple.
“This is the Temple of Self-Sacrifice,” Marco said, his words bounding away in the dark. “That is only a working title, but I believe this temple was indeed dedicated to the act of suicide. And not any suicide: divine suicide. That may seem contradictory, but the Zapotec believed transgression could be purged through the spilling of one’s own blood. And they set up altars, like this one, where people could perform the sacred rite.”
Marco led me to a large dais ringed by four rearing statues. The torchlight threw a green sheen across the elevated stone. Bloodstains covered enough of the dais to tinge it a brownish-red.
The statues, meanwhile, depicted four lunging jaguars. They seemed animated, nearly moving in the wavering light.
I turned, hearing a shuffling behind me, and expected to find the Indian. I peered into the darkness, but saw no one. A shadow flitted beyond the torchlight – an enormous shadow, like a settling boulder. “Where is Jorge?” I asked, chilled.
Marco looked up from his examination of the altar. “These were Jorge’s ancestors, Señor Alston. You must understand: being here calls up the tragic past of his people. He tends to go off on his own, to meditate.”
“Ah,” I said.
Marco brightened. “Come, mi amigo. I must show you the most perplexing thing of all.”
I followed him up the steps into the temple. Monolithic pillars and great hewn walls of irregular stone formed a maze of rooms and corridors. Jorge’s presence remained apparent in the continuing strand of lit torches. We drifted through the silent rooms like specters in a forgotten city. The majestic hieroglyphs were everywhere, even on the floor. I felt a sense of desecration as I crunched over these grand inscriptions, but the vandalism seemed unavoidable. Even Marco manoeuvred unconcernedly.
We came to a triangular arch flanked by whipping torches. “Jorge has been here,” I said. Marco nodded. We entered the arch and passed down a corridor. The hieroglyphs grew stranger, more intricate; the prevailing theme was suicide observed by a watching jaguar.
“What does the jaguar signify?” I asked.
He grinned wryly. “Your Lucifer.”
I shivered at the remark. Presently the corridor flushed us into a domed room with a stone gazebo. On the surface of the dome, a carved jaguar head looked down as if from Heaven. Marco walked to the gazebo, commenting on the turret design:
“The tapering apex, like that of the pyramid, is done in an effort to reach the stars. By pointing skyward, the Zapotecs could garner the attention of the Gods and earn Their affections.”
The gazebo was ten feet in diameter, with four rounded columns supporting its top. A low rock wall encircled the base, while a ramp provided access to the circular slab. In the centre, a curious idol rested upon a pedestal. I was sure the idol dogged my every step. Its hollow eyes watched me from across the room. Braided lengths of rope fell from its head. A pair of gold sceptres penetrated its torso, symbolizing, I presumed, the act of suicide.
Suddenly Marco grabbed my wrist. “Now you must trust me, Señor Alston. Do exactly as I say and everything will be fine. You need to see this, mi amigo; you must experience it for yourself to understand.”
“What the devil are you talking about?” I demanded. “Let go of me!”
But it was too late. Marco pulled a knife from his pocket and with eerie swiftness cut a long gash across my hand. Stunned, I wrestled out of his grip, emitting a gasp. I clung to my forearm, the blood dripping.
“What have you done?” I panicked. “Are you mad?”
Marco took me by the shoulders. “Rápido, Señor Alston, go before the idol! There is no time, do it now!”
With a shove, I was propelled up the ramp into the gazebo. I lost all sense of reality. The sight of blood frightened me to the point of hysteria. In desperation, I knelt before the ghoulish idol and offered my throbbing hand. Its eyes came to life in the darkness. Its mouth widened, the lips parting with the elasticity of flesh. The twin gold sceptres jerked and spun. The idol’s body became liquid, not stone, a maelstrom of colors and suggestions, a portal to the cosmos and beyond. Its mouth stretched wider and a thunderous sound escaped into the chamber. The walls shook, letting loose a shower of pebbles. I thought I was going to die; my head swelled, my eyes watered. A strange vista of orange colors assailed my mind –
– And then it stopped. There was silence, shadows, guttering light. I looked to the idol, but it was just that: an idol. No longer did it writhe in animation; no longer did it roil with the colors of the cosmos. Its eyes, too, slept again.
I examined my hand. It felt itchy and cold, but the ragged wound was gone. Only a trace of blood remained as evidence of Marco’s cunning slash.
A scream bounded through the darkness above the temple. Thinking of Jorge, I turned in time to see Marco dash into the corridor. I rose from my spot in the gazebo and gave the idol a solemn nod of appreciation. Then I hurried after.
The complexity of the temple made navigation difficult, especially at this pace. I was not able to catch up with Marco. Jorge’s screams filled the air, chilling me as I groped along in the torchlight. I lost my way and had to retrace my steps. At last I barreled out of the stonework and sprinted down the front steps, and there was Marco, standing by the sacred altar. He had taken off his hat and was squeezing it in his hands.
“What happened?” I asked, the words wheezing out of my throat. Marco didn’t answer. Jorge’s corpse lay sprawled across the dais in mock crucifixion. An ivory handle protruded from his chest.
“Oh Lord,” I whispered. “Marco, who did this?”
Marco regarded me, his face blockish and pale. His eyes looked through me. “He did it to himself, in tribute to his ancestors.” He bent slightly, speaking to Jorge. “Aye, mi compeñero. You are free now. You are absolved. Go – be scattered, like las estrellas.”
“What if we brought him to the idol?” I exclaimed. “Won’t it heal him?”
“That would be muy disrespectful,” Marco said severely. “His wish was to die among the spirits of his people. It would be wrong to rob him of that.”
I nodded. Just then a crunching sound came from behind us. Turning, we saw a group of shadows swim into view: low, feline, predatory. Jaguars, translucent beasts of the night, with lethal glinting teeth. They circled around us, paws crunching the dirt.
“The spirits are awakening,” Marco said. “And they appear displeased. Come, Señor Alston, we must escape, rápido!”
We bolted towards the tunnel as another group of felines descended in uniform down the front steps. Their onrush was a black wave breaking across a subterranean shore. The shadows started after us, and beyond them, in the soaring darkness, lumbered a towering monstrosity (or at least the suggestion of one). Ribbons whipped through the emptiness; a flailing dark blob arced along the rocky ceiling.
Screaming, I applied the lot of my energy in a mad dash for the exit.
We toiled up the incline, lacking recourse of a lantern. I heard the swishing advance of our pursuers, and I shouted at Marco hysterically, urging him on. I couldn’t see the dirt walls or ancient hieroglyphs; the darkness was all-encompassing. Colliding with each other, we fell, and I looked back to see a flood of blackness rising up the tunnel. Paralysing terror rendered me inert, and Marco had to haul me upright to get me moving.
Then, mercifully, a pinpoint of light appeared in the distance. The point swelled into an aperture and at length we emerged into the sun.
“Quickly,” Marco said, “help me reposition the relief and seal the hole.” Together, we heaved the massive stone into place, ignoring the madness crawling upward through the tunnel. The sound of its ascent, however, could be heard within the mountain like an underground river.
No words were spoken as we mounted our mules and drove them viciously towards the village. We left Jorge’s horse alone, grazing among the bonsai.
Ah me. Weston, I can pen no more to-night. How absurd this tale seems when written down. But it is true, dear friend, every word of it. I fear the shadows even now, seated at my desk in Marco’s home, a little candle keeping the darkness at bay. Every trace of night becomes a demon to my eyes. And God only knows what manner of beast stalks the mountain at this very moment. The dreams, as I said, are worsening. There is no telling how long the ancient blackness will remain imprisoned in that wretched hole. I am certain it will free itself and descend upon the village. That is why I watch the wilderness with utmost care, and gaze out the window, waiting for it, scared to death.
I plan on going back down there, you know. The healing power I experienced at the idol is a phenomenon behoving further study. I tell you, Weston, it’s amazing: the most convincing evidence of the divine in the history of science. And imagine: we will break the story! I shall send more information as my research develops. Until then, I hope life finds you well at Miskatonic. Please do not let those scoundrels spoil my name overmuch. Goodbye friend, I will write again soon!
Jefferson James Alston
Five months since I last heard from Jefferson. I have begun to fear for his sanity…and his life. I received a crate today further hinting at his misfortune. It came from Oaxaca and was addressed to me, but no letter accompanied it. I pried the lid, and beneath a slew of corn husks uncovered a ghastly stone statue. It is the idol, I believe, a horrid thing, a menace to look at. Its mouth is wide and fish-like, its ears large and droopy. The braided rope extensions remind me of the dreaded voodoo shamans. I am, however, curious about the twin gold sceptres lodged in its chest. Perhaps they would fetch a small fortune down at the museum? I suppose I should do no inquiries into the matter until I hear from Jefferson…that is, if I hear from Jefferson.
For now the hellish thing is locked in a cupboard with the glass jar of pine needles. And there it shall remain, for I have no desire to look at it. What has become of poor Jefferson? And why did he send me these vile things? Can you not see how much it troubles me? I could keep these letters secret no longer. You do believe me, don’t you? Oh blast, the devil take it. It is time for someone else to tell a tale…
Aaron J. French, also writing as A.J. French, has appeared in many publications, including D. Harlan Wilson’s The Dream People, issue #7of Black Ink Horror, the Potter’s Field 4 anthology from Sam’s Dot Publishing, and Something Wicked magazine. He also has stories in the following anthologies: Zombie Zak’s House of Pain Anthology; Ruthless: An Extreme Horror Anthology with introduction by Bentley Little; Pellucid Lunacy edited by Michael Bailey; M is for Monster compiled by John Prescott; and 2013: The Aftermath by Pill Hill Press. He recently edited Monk Punk, an anthology of monk-themed speculative fiction with introduction by D. Harlan Wilson, and The Shadow of the Unknown, an anthology of nü-Lovecraftian fiction with stories from Gary A. Braunbeck and Gene O’Neill.
If you enjoyed this story, let A.J. French know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
Illustration by Stjepan Lukac.
This is an amazing tale! Definitely needs to have some of the questions answered. Very descriptive, a great Show Don’t Tell, which is something I am learning to do with my stories. The artwork for this piece is likewise; just as great.
Look forward to reading further pieces as I read through the Lovecraft eZine.
Wow. So very cool to get comments on the artwork 🙂 AJFrench provided me with a brilliant story, so I really tried to create something that would fit.
It’s true that I went for Mignolas style (huge fan of his art), but I really wasn’t sure whether this would fit the timbre of the story (or the magazine for that matter) or meet the readers approval. But I’m really glad and relieved that it seems to have worked out fine. Thank you for your kind words and AJ French for being able to illustrate such a great and eerie tale.
Thanks guys, glad people are enjoying it, and yes the art is very cool, almost like an Allan Quatermain vibe, great images!
Great setting and definitely want to know more about the bonsai and it’s purpose. Nice piece of accompanying artwork as well, very Mignola influenced which is never a bad thing.
Thanks, guys! And Adam, I personally recommended your Time Eater story to Mike when I first read it in the slush bin. I thought the mood/atmosphere and writing of it was really striking, which made it stand out over the other dozens of stories in there. Great stuff!
I enjoyed your story! You did a good job of marrying beauty with terror. Mexico makes a excellent setting for Lovecraftian tales–so many layers of ancient secrets hidden beneath such a thin patina. You should definitely write a follow-up.
Great story, plain and simple. I really enjoyed the command of voice here and the characters felt real. I think the end kinda resonates, too.
Good one! Thanks for the read.
Thanks for the comments, guys This is an older story of mine, which I originally intended as a series, which accounts for the open-ending. However I never quite returned to the narrative in earnest. A semi-sequel to the piece, entitled REBIRTH IN DREAMS, which expands upon the seem theme, will be published in the anthology TALES OF DARK CIVILIZATIONS next spring, alongside such greats as Joe R. Lansdale and Jonathan Vos Post http://ericjguignard.blogspot.com/ But who knows, perhaps a direct follow-up story to this particular piece will be published by the Lovecraft eZine sometime in the future. Thanks for reading!
Enjoyable tale with a touch of history and horror added. The bonsai forest was a tad out of place and I am not sure how it tied into the story. I also appreciated the fact that the Zapata’s were referenced. It seems that the author should follow up this little expedition by a second led by his friend and partner. \
I hope AJ completes the questions asked…….. “For now the hellish thing is locked in a cupboard with the glass jar of pine needles. And there it shall remain, for I have no desire to look at it. What has become of poor Jefferson? And why did he send me these vile things? Can you not see how much it troubles me?”
Cool to see something cosmic and creepy and otherworldly used for healing, even if it was in the middle of creepy underground temple with hallucinatory bonsai. Wonder how deep those roots go, anyways…