Learn to Count With the Doomed Expedition
by T. B. Jeremiah
ONE is the number of clowns we brought on our journey; one was more than enough, said Owen, but one we must have by law. We were making a trip into the Dreaming Swamps, which the clowns own by ancient custom, and a representative was required in order to make our expedition official and legitimate.
TWO is the number of monsters we glimpsed in the distance on the third day; like massive misshapen alligators, tentacles extending and retracting, lumpy backs heaving above the undergrowth. The Sleepwalker and the Clown agree that there is great danger in them, but I hope that if we are respectful perhaps they will let us pass. Owen and I built a cairn and left offerings, as the swamp-dwellers back home do for the spirits.
THREE is the number of our party lost when we passed through the Oracular Cypress Stand. The cypress trees had of course had a vision of our arrival, and had attempted to warn the Sleepwalker to lead us elsewhere. I wanted to listen, but Owen and I had agreed before entering that we would be guided by the Sleepwalker but not controlled — and the cypress trees were on our list of known objectives. So we walked between their massive trunks, took their leaves and sap, and ran for our lives when the first of the tree-dwelling octopodes descended on Alasdair, Eloise, and Xian.
FOUR is the number of times Owen struck the Clown when we discovered him crouched beside our bag of samples, mouth red and sticky with sap. The Clown made no attempt to fight back, and Owen seemed to feel ashamed of himself even in the middle of his outrage.
“Is this required by ancient custom, too?” he asked the Clown with a bitter smile. It was rhetorical, of course; under the influence of pure oracular sap the Clown was incapable of human speech. That particular property of the Oracular Cypress had been well documented by our predecessors ten years ago.
We discussed going back for more. Our sample had been the largest ever obtained, and the cost had been high. But we couldn’t risk it. Instead, we collected up what sap remained and placed it in Owen’s personal bag.
When the Clown could speak, he told us: “Fear the monsters.” I do not understand why the trees would bring us such a useless revelation.
FIVE is the number of cards the Sleepwalker drew when Owen insisted she read for us. I told him that reading the cards was an occult business and that the Dreaming Swamps were no place for that kind of thing. He took that about as badly as I had expected.
“You shouldn’t have come if you wanted to practice your old-time religion,” he snapped.
“It’s not that,” I said, mostly honest. “Your sins are on your own head. But there are spirits here and we don’t know what they believe in, or revere. We should be careful which forces we invoke.”
The Sleepwalker gave me a look of relief, and I knew I had at least one ally. But in the end Owen pulled rank and we crouched around the cards, peering at them, as the Sleepwalker turned them over one by one. Her worried face grew more worried with each card. Her explanations were stumbling and stuttering, and in the end all she could say was that she thought we ought to go north.
That night, Owen sat next to the Clown for the first time in days. The rest of us sat together and watched their heads wagging, and listened to the low tattoo of their voices. That night, I dreamed of monsters moving like elephants through the brush.
SIX is the number of perfectly circular pools we found on the thirteenth day. The water in each — if water it was — fluctuated steadily but without sequence between fluorescent hues. We attempted to collect samples with three different vials — the glass, the iron, and the silver. The glass vial exploded upon contact with the surface, seriously injuring Joris. This was only in consequence of the glass shards, however; the liquid itself did not seem to affect his skin. We cleaned his wounds as well as possible and could only hope for the best. Both the iron and silver vials smoked alarmingly when filled, but once stoppered remained ominously inert.
SEVEN is the number of small antelope with jet-black hides and glittering eyes extending in a straight row down the side of the neck and along the body, which followed us in silence from the day we left the fluorescent pools.
Owen fetched out his rifle to take a shot at one.
“They might be spirits,” I objected. Owen did not look at me, but turned to the Clown.
“Shoot,” said the Clown with a smile. The report rang through the trees, and an antelope tumbled head over heels in a scuff of dirt and moss. The rest scattered, driven off by the shot, prevented from whatever errand had brought them close — to see us? Perhaps to warn us? When we reached the body, hacking through undergrowth to get there, we found that it wore Xian’s wan face.
I wondered, then, about the monsters still bellowing faintly in the distance. If we could bring one of those behemoths down, whose face would it have?
EIGHT is the number of words Joris spoke when Owen and the Clown tried bathing his wounds with a few drops from the sap of the Oracular Cypress, diluted in water and holy oil. None of these words belonged to any language uttered by humans. The Sleepwalker believed them to be in the language of dragons or fairies; I hoped that they were words in the language of angels.
We had both tried hard to persuade them not to do it. The Sleepwalker said it was dangerous divination. I said we needed to conserve our samples (since, I did not add, the Clown had robbed us already). They heeded us as much as they ever did at that time.
“We’re lost,” Owen said crisply. “We need a guide. The Sleepwalker has nothing to add…?” He and the Clown glanced at our poor Sleepwalker, who twisted her fingers together and said nothing.
The dark, lichened trees around us seemed to frown at her — at me — at all of us. Little fishes flickered in the creeklet beside us, and a few through the flowers on the bank. Somewhere in the distance a monster bellowed faintly.
When Joris hissed and buzzed the last of his eight words, the whole party looked expectantly toward Owen and I. And I looked at Owen. Owen shrugged and looked at the Clown. The Sleepwalker cleared her throat, but no one looked at her.
“That way,” said the Clown without hesitating. “He has instructed us to go that way.” By the swiftness of his response, I knew that he was making it up. He had no more idea than any of the rest of us what was happening. But I noticed his relief when we followed his direction.
NINE is the number of saints’ icons I hung from the branches of the velvety thorn bush with its egg-shaped fruit, each fruit containing a shadowy fetal shape. We had just buried Joris alongside this bush, once the Clown felt sure he was dead. He had lingered for so long that it was hard to know when his soul had gone, and the Sleepwalker mumbled uneasily as we lowered him into the hurried grave. She was mumbling everything by then, whether because of her visions or for fear of the Clown. The icons were hers; I don’t venerate saints, but the air in that part of the swamp was to my mind thick with spirits and devils, and Joris deserved some attempt at protection.
The Clown stood with his arms folded, watching me. For the first time I thought what a very small man he was, how his tapered hands and feet gave him the manner of a mouse or hamster. Beside him, Owen’s broad shoulders seemed in poor taste.
“We should—” began the Clown, but I raised my hand and to my surprise he stopped speaking.
“I don’t know what your game is, or what your masters have told you to do,” I said. “I suppose you didn’t mean to get all of us lost, did you?”
“This is nonsense,” said Owen. “It’s a sanctioned expedition and the clowns are as eager to learn about the swamp as we are. You’re letting it get to you.” He waved a hand around as if to implicate the totality of the swamp, the trees, the magic, the monsters, anything but the Clown.
“It was when you drank the sap, wasn’t it?” I continued. “You joined the trees, didn’t you?” The Clown canted his head to one side, listening but not speaking. Owen spluttered but did not interrupt. “They’re not oracles, are they? They’re guardians.”
The Clown opened his eyes very wide, and then the whole world became jagged and full of flame as the gigantic, lumpish head of a monster parted the trees like so much grass.
TEN is the number of steps I took toward the monster. It is also the number of times the Clown cried to me to stop. It is, further, the number of tentacles that caught me.
I did not know what was going to happen when I walked into its embrace. I knew only that there was an inevitability to it, that the Clown had not planned for this and so perhaps the trees had not, either. I was right. I know I was right. We crashed through the trees, and I felt the power in its limbs — our limbs — and thrashing tentacles. Behind us the voices of people with names screamed. The thick silence of the swamp, nubbled with innumerable noises just below cognizance, resettled itself around us.
We are far from the others now. I think we will return someday. I do not know what is left of my body, what I am becoming, or what precisely is happening. But I am sure that this is not what the trees planned, and it is what the monsters planned. And perhaps what the Lord God planned. I think I must be right.
For the monster holds, clasped in one of its — our — more delicate tentacles, the stones of one of the little shrines.
I am sure I am right.
Copyright © 2019 by T. B. Jeremiah