Philip Tennant: The pursuit of dreams

Previous: Alexandra Tennant: Recovery and rifles.

Barnaby’s dream – A star to steer her by – A very complicated road to Hell – Going nowhere fast

Having ascertained from the less than enthusiastic reports of my
children Carl and Alexandra that what they were teaching them
at E___ would only rot their brains beyond repair, I took them
out of school and set about educating them myself. I heartily
recommend it. It does, of course, require that one has a circle
of friends that include the intellectual giants of our time,
and quite a lot of money, but the end result is well worth the
effort. While children at home were taught about the East-Indies
by a bored teacher rattling of the Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa,
Flores, Timor…
, my children were sailing past the places
that have brought the English Empire riches beyond the dreams of
avarice. It is one thing to be taught about the Golden Age, but
quite another to meet the people we stole all these things from,
and experience first-hand what their opinions are on the subject.

— Philip Tennant, “Parenting for explorers”

“They did it, Tennant. They did it, and they did it first!”

Those were the words that would govern my life for the next couple of decades or so. They were spoken by a dear old friend of mine, and quite a batty one. At the time, I was completely taken in by his words. I saw the African ships, sails aloft, plow the endless waves of the Atlantic ocean, until they struck land on the eastern shores of South America. And what could be easier to prove? Simply record all the anthropological data on the African mainland, then cross the Atlantic Ocean and find the matching architecture, religion, languages there. That would teach those smug Scandinavians who claimed that they discovered America long before the other Europeans did. Their most heroic deeds duplicated by mere savages. I found a scientific vessel bound for Africa, put wife and children on it, and began the adventure.

Helped by Iris’ meticulous record-keeping, we painstakingly documented each and every aspect of the life of the West-african tribes. We learnt how hides for their huts were cured and prepared. We learnt what knots were used to tie them together, how the Africans built boats, how they prepared food for long trips.

We learnt of a dozen religions practiced within the tribes, from the most basic ancestor worship to the most elaborate creation myths. We learnt how the Builder of the World made first the raffia for the skirts of the women, then the cloth for the loins of the men, then the huts. Which seems like the strangest of stories until one realises that a string of raffia is one-dimensional, cloth is two-dimensional, and the huts have length, height and width.

Unfortunately, we also learnt that the Africans, whatever religion they may follow, are also subject to greed, envy and wrath. Deep within the forests of what we now call Angola, we were attacked by bandits, and my dear wife Iris was fatally wounded. We were relentlessly pursued, almost up to the very shores. That I had to leave her, buried in a quickly dug grave, under the very eyes of my children, is still the greatest of my failures. By rights, it should have been me buried by the Kasai river, and not her. I could not bear to put my children at risk, and when we met a ship on its return trip to England, I put my children on it, with instructions to my friends to put them in a good boarding school. I still hold that educating one’s own children is the best thing to do, if one can manage it. On that occasion, I learnt that I, to my shame, could not.

Once I thought I had gathered enough data so that I could recognise even the slightest trace of African influence in any building, I set off for South America on board of a steam clipper. I spent most of my time in my cabin, collating my materials, writing, drawing, with a passion that I had never before shown. I did some of my best work trying with all my might to displace from my mind the one thought that I did not want to dwell on. We had a quick crossing, and we landed in the city of Macapá, known as the Capital of the Middle of the World. Since we were planning to sail up the Amazon river, we had to say goodbye to our steam vessel, and board a much smaller steamer.

As a warning to the reader, please note that I have changed the
location and name of the city of Anctapolepl in my descriptions. God
willing, by following the directions here, the traveller will
find no more than South-America’s stunningly beautiful jungles
that I sadly will never visit again. The actual location of
this cursed city has been added to Algernon University’s list
of places where it is inadvisable to go. — P.T.

The Amazon river is a wide, meandering body of water that connects untold numbers of civilisations. It is the artery of the South Americas, and has been ever since Man learnt to stay afloat on top of a tree trunk. Our little steamer lazily made its way upstream, till we came to the Rio Jari, which branches off to the North where the Amazon continues South. Personally, I would have much preferred to keep following the Amazon, being a larger body of water. Speculative African settlers would have been much more likely follow the larger river. However, we were not the only expedition on board, and we shared our vessel with a party of botanists who were looking for new and exotic species of plants, perhaps with medicinal applications.

Frankly, I was bored with this part of the journey, and with boredom came the risk of dwelling too much on Iris’ death. More or less for that reason, I disembarked at the first likely town along the river, hired a band of bearers and two guides, and set off into the jungles to look for African influences in the language, culture, or architecture. I marvel now at the naive stupidity I displayed then, but truth be told, even if anyone had pointed this fact out to me, I very much doubt if I would have listened. A dangerous mood had come upon me. I no longer cared. If I found anything, good. If not, then the simple act of staying alive in the South American wilderness would be enough to distract me. An even more dangerous thought preyed on my mind. What if I did not survive? Suicide is a mortal sin, and I would be denied Heaven because of it, but surely, to sacrifice oneself in the cause of Science would be the noblest of acts? Would the Almighty be fooled by such a subterfuge?

I am ashamed to say that in that dark place, I never even thought of my children. They had been well provided for, and in my folly, I thought that would be enough. As I write these words, my son Carl is studying the ways of a certain tribe in Africa, in the most intimate way imaginable. My daughter Alexandra is teaching young girls how to fire rifles straight and true, and is nursing me back to such health as I can still achieve. Had the events developed differently, I would never have known about this.

I need not say much about our travels through the Amazonian jungle. We did not find any actual Amazons, for the sufficient reasons that first, they are said to have lived in the Middle East, and second, they sprung, bows raised in anger, from the fantasy of Herodotus. Our expedition consisted of five white men, and a contingent of a dozen or so of natives. They were a procrastinating, sullen lot of superstitious individuals, but they were the best we could find. With my mind troubled as it was, it was no surprise that our expedition fared badly. One of my companions was taken by a crocodile as he filled his water bottle in a stream. Another fell, broke his leg, and had to be transported back to civilisation by half of our bearers. I never saw or heard of him again, and it is likely that the scoundrels we had hired simply sliced his throat, threw his body to the crocodiles, and went their way. Of the three of us left, one took ill with a fever, and the other then decided he had had enough, and turned back carrying his stricken comrade. I should have gone with them. One can always mount another expedition, but not from beyond the grave. Foolishly, I decided to press on, with the last native guide and two bearers. My companions were giving me dark looks, and spoke among themselves in their native tongue of Nahuatl. I took to sleeping in the open, with a loaded revolver in my hand under the blanket, with one eye open.

But then, it seemed that my perseverance paid off. As we hacked our way out of a dense piece of jungle, we came upon pillars carved into the very mountainside, a cave entrance between them. With my machete, I cut off a tree branch, wrapped it with cloth, dipped it in oil, and set it aflame. I could see at a glance that this was no African architecture at all. From my studies of South and Meso American architecture, this could be Aztec. After all these months, the hunger for exploration struck me once more, and I and my reluctant companions walked slowly up the stairs. There were no traps, of course. I don’t know what ignorant person first infected his audience with the notion that elaborate mechanical traps will keep functioning after decades of neglect, and never run out of darts to shoot the unwary explorer. Even curare loses its potency after a few days in the open air. I suppose it lends a bit of drama to an otherwise quite boring discovery of Earth-shattering proportions. As we climbed the stairs into the mountain, we saw in the distance the gleam of daylight. Soon, we found ourselves in a large field, surrounded by high mountains, almost as if we were in the belly of a volcano. In the middle was a pyramid, not with flat sides like those of the Egyptians, but in stages, like a staircase built for giants. In the middle of the pyramid were steps of human size, leading all the way up to the top.

With eager steps, I climbed the stairs. At the top was a small square hut made of stone. I entered, torch held aloft, followed by my native guides. Inside, we found an altar. Carved into the wall opposite the entrance was an image of a man wearing a feathered headdress. The paint on this idol looked as fresh as the day it had been made. In his right hand was a staff or club with what I took to be a serpent’s head, in his left a shield. From behind a dark mask, a single eye looked at us. My guide took a deep breath, then pointed at the statue with a trembling finger, and shouted the name that I will forever remember with dread.

“Huitzilopochtli! Huitzilopochtli! Huitzilopochtli!

With that, he turned round, and would have stormed out if I had not grabbed him by his neck and dragged him back.

“You idiot! Where do you think you are going?”

Moving fast as a cat, the guide pulled himself free from my grasp. He screamed at me in Nahuatl, repeating the name of Huitzilopochtli several times. Little did I know then what terror that name still held. I could see the guide shake uncontrollably as he searched his mind for what little English he had.

Blood!” he yelled.

“There is nobody here!” I yelled back. “All gone! All dead!”

“We leave! We leave now!”

He turned round to run away, but I leapt upon the altar in the middle and fired my revolver into the air. A rage of madness had taken me. I would not let these foolish superstitions stand in the way of a historical discovery that would set me among the great. I pointed it at my native helpers.

“You leave, you die!”

You should not fire weapons into the air. People may think that bullets disappear after firing unless you aim them at something, but of course they don’t, and will usually end up hitting something or someone you did not want to hit. There was a cracking sound above me, and rocks came tumbling down, hitting me on the head. If I had not been wearing my pith helmet, I would not be here today. As it was, I was knocked off my feet, and down the stairs. Down and down I fell, until I landed on a terrace at the base of the temple. I would later learn that this was called the apetlatl. A heavy rock came rolling down the stairs after me and landed on my leg, crushing it and pinning me to the floor. I screamed. Obscenities, curses, pleas. Nobody answered. As I lay in the dark, I saw a light come towards me. For a moment I thought it was my guide, coming to help me. But I soon saw the light was moving too fast for that. It was only the torch that he had thrown after me. It landed on its hot end and went out. I tried to pull myself out from under the rock, but the pain almost made me faint. In the distance, I could hear the natives’ disappearing steps. Somehow, during my tumble down the stairs, I had managed to hold on to my revolver. I considered putting it to my temple and firing to stop the pain. But that would be to falter at the very last moment. With a snarl, I threw the revolver away. I closed my eyes.

“Iris,” I whispered, once. Then, I lost consciousness.

I woke up. That in itself was unexpected. To wake up in a bed was even stranger. To wake up while a beautiful woman, dressed in rich garments, with gold in her ears and round her neck, was changing the bandage on my leg, was beyond belief. Though having my leg seen to was very welcome, because it hurt, especially my foot. The woman saw I was awake, spoke a few kind words in Nahuatl, and offered me a cup with a cool bitter drink. As I sipped it, I felt a numbness spread through my body and I sank back into a vague slumber. The pain in my foot lessened. The woman smiled, took the cup from me and put it on a side table. She looked into my eyes, spoke a few more words and returned to her work on my knee. Curious to see what she was doing, I looked up. My breath stuck in my throat. I had felt the pain in my foot, but that could not be. I had no right foot. I had no lower right leg. My leg ended at my knee. The woman heard me gasp. She put her hand on my shoulder, and pressed me back down onto the bed, speaking softly. She continued removing the bandage from the stump of my leg. I steeled myself, and looked at it. As far as I could tell, it had been tended to with all the needed skill. I could see about a dozen stitches made from some sort of plant fiber. I noted precise details such as the specific knots used to tie the stitches, the way the ends had been cut off, the way the skin had been folded under my knee… I realise now that I was cataloguing these things simply to distract myself from the fact that I no longer had a lower leg. I started laughing at the notion that I would save money on shoes. I watched the woman’s necklace and gold earrings so intently that even now I could close my eyes and see them before me, draw them in every detail. The woman wound a fresh bandage round my knee, in precise tight windings, four layers of a coarse linen cloth soaked in an antiseptic mixture of herbs that I could smell, a curious combination of silt and bitter. She finished her work, then pulled a blanket over me. Then, she put her hand under my head and gave me more medicine to drink. I remember smiling at her, and her smiling back. She picked up her things, and left. Just before sleep took me, I started to shake as distractions failed.

I no longer had a right leg.

God help me, my leg is gone.

Next: Carl Tennant: On the horns of the Gods