Green waves beat over the dinghy's pointed prow.
Nils raised a hand for the sting of salt, hunched bobbing at the little boat's forward bench. Ahead, over a rolling field of choppy emerald, showed a stone-strewn shore; wet, black and shining under a diffuse and shrouded sun.
He turned about, clutched the dinghy gunwale. "That's it?" he shouted over the slap and crash of waves.
"Sip, that is the isle," called a sunbaked woman at the oars. She heaved, drew hard against the smash of surf, bare brown shoulders taut and rolling with sweat and beading spray. Between she and Nils, at the toe of her boot, there lay the shape on a man wrapped in a wet brown tarp. A pair of tattooed hands stuck out, bound with stout cord.
At that instance, they rose upon the back of a rolling breaker and came slamming down again. The tarp-covered man flopped, senseless. Nils bit his tongue, yelped, turned back ahead to grip both gunwales, white-knuckled. Behind, the woman grit her teeth. "This is a rough day for it," she growled. "We are lucky to have not capsized, yet."
Nils gulped. "Capsize?" he panicked. "What do we do if we capsize?"
"Look down," said the woman, nodding.
Gingerly, wobbling on his oscillating bench, Nils did. Below, under mere feet of black-green, writhing surf, there stuck from the reedy seabed great shattered basalt teeth. Pointed, wrapped with snapping pennants of weeds. He swallowed stiffly, looked away.
Behind him, the woman sneered, heaved her oars. "You avoid those. That's what you do." She grunted, heaved again, spoke. "Many a man's been dashed to tatters on those knives. Many a crew. And those who survive come to dwell upon the Isle."
"And they don't leave, do they?" said Nils.
"No. They do not leave," she concurred.
Between them, there was a groan. The tarp shifted. "He's coming round, Claudia," said Nils. "Stuff's wearing off." *
"Won't be long," said Claudia.
Puffing, she drew them close to the lowering isle, whereupon a breaker swelled and ferried them fast to the shore. Nils braced himself. They sped, keel grating on the harsh sand, meters up the beach. Nils leapt out over the prow, a stout cord in hand. Heels planted, he hauled them up the beach before the receding tongue of water could lick them back out to sea. Claudia jumped out, too, and they together dragged the dinghy to shore, ankle-deep in flowing slurry.
Nils stowed the rope, and, shading his eyes, looked out down the beach, both ways, and to the gravely, dunish rise that obscured their view of the isle's flat interior. "Don't see any of them," he said. Behind him, there was a grunt, a thump.
"Good," said Claudia, grunted again. She had the unconscious man, now unwrapped, hooked under the arms, half dragged off the dinghy. He was shirtless, painted all over in grey, rude tattoos. A greasy curtain of black hair obscured his eyes, and a conelike leather muzzle covered his mouth and nose. Breath, shallow, rasped wetly in the cone. "Mierda. Come help me," grumbled Claudia, as one of the man's tattoo-encrusted arms flopped free of the boat's wale.
Obliging, Nils leaned to take the man's legs, clad in striped prisoner's trousers. "Un, dos," counted Claudia, and on tres they lifted the stridulent body, carried him over the shore.
"Do keep an eye out for them, won't you?" grumbled Nils, with effort, backing awkwardly over the beach. His boots squelched, sunk into the coarse, bilgy sand.
"Be assured: I am," said Claudia.
Together, they manhandled their prisoner over the rise of the beach. Nils scrambled, awkwardly up, first, like climbing stairs backward. As he climbed, he twisted round to look, wideyed, at what lay beyond. He beheld a short expanse of dark-grey dunes; mounds of fine gravel and pebbles, and a pall of steam beyond them. Rocks stuck up amidst the dunes; rocks choked with slimy, sweet-smelling algaes and scraps of seaweed. Scraps of plants, and- Nil's pupil's shrank as he beheld these- the scraps of tattered, faded clothes. He shivered, turned back to aid Claudia with their bodily load.
They crested the rise. "Heavy bastard," said Claudia. There was a crunch of gravel: She'd let go, let the prisoner's head and shoulders flop to the ground. She stretched her arms overhead. Nils frowned at her. "What?" said the dark woman. "I am stiff."
Nils scowled, and looked at the man.
"Listen," said Claudia, smirking. "Be relativistic: Compared to what we are sent to do to him, a kick to the teeth would hardly be worse than a bumped head."
"Fine, fine," said Nils. He looked out over the dunes, to scraps of cotton, flannel and lace amongst the wet weeds. Among them: The striped tatters of countless prison uniforms. Other debris lay there, too. Luggage, belongings. Bottles, rope, scraps of wood. A pair of broken spectacles. A comb. A stuffed, bedraggled teddy bear.
"Can we just leave him here?" he said, faster than usual.
"No," shook Claudia. She bent to take up the man, again. "It is required that we take him to them. Else he might choose the sea over the lotus."
"I had half hoped…" said Nils, looking out into the hot mist. There, in the white, stood twisted shapes of bare branches; gnarled like olive trees. "That I might not need to set eyes on them."
Claudia nodded at the prisoner's legs. "Vamanos. Pick him up. They will take him if he's just within the trees. You won't need to see them for long."
They set out over the dunes. As they did, the prisoner became more restive, like a sleeper disturbed by nightmares. At times, he'd yank an arm or a leg, moan, crack an unfocused eyelid. The pair struggled, nearly dropping him often.
In the distance, there loomed ever clearer gnarled knuckles of bare trees. Pale-barked, oily-yellow plants. Not dead, but merely bare, their glossy twigs beading with odd white nubs of waxy, thick, one-petaled fruit; like calla lily blooms. Ahead, there grew a smell of rotting fruit. And a sussurant, wet chorus. Not wind, but a draft like low breath in a hundred gummy throats.
Abruptly, the dunes gave way, and there stretched before the trio a wide, low vale. A bowl of soil grey as boiled meat, and upon it grew an unending swathe of those pale trees. And these trees were not bare, like the others. They were heavy with fruit. Fruits like great, thick petals of waxy white. Individual succulent pads sprouted from drooping stems.
Nils stepped over the lip, tripped down a ways, nearly dropping the legs. He looked back, first down at where he tripped, then out into the vale. His eyes tracked low, neath the petals, and he startled, for under the petals reclined bodies.
Hundreds of bodies, sprawled and lounging with ill repose neath trees' thick roots. Naked, waxy and sickly white as the petals they drew to their dripping mouths. They reclined, and they ate. Ate with a watery, drooling slothfulness, in orgy-esque piles, with dribbles of chewed, yellowed pulp spilled down their sweated fronts. Their wet, rapturous, whispering breath filled the place like low wind.
Nils staggered, stopped.
"Mierda," cursed Claudia behind. "Vamanos, Nils. You must keep going. Do not look at them. We should not wish to attract their notice." But Nils continued looking. His eyes tracked lower, to where the sleepers lay.
Sleeping, waxy people, piled like the dead under and around the fixated eaters. Deadly thin. Twisted and bent, trodden upon. Some with limbs snapped or bulging, bruised, out of joint, so careless were the gorging wretches dining atop. Nils mouthed a curse as he beheld the worst of them: Some, not sleeping, but reaching feebly for the petals above, too broken to ever reach. Some, rotting as they slept; grey-black, decaying, sprawled on flesh of sores half turned to maggoted dirt, breathing through bloated lungs. All sprawled on a soil of churned meat and rotted bones.
"Lord help us," whispered Nils, as he tightened his grip, kept on towards the trees; staggering, as if against his will.
Claudia shook her head. "She is not here," she said, lowly. She kept her eyes averted, kept her grip fast under the carried man's arms. "Theirs is not a blessed sleep. It is not hers to attend." **
Between them, the man moaned, cried out, muffled, and squirmed. Nils nearly lost hold of a leg. "Quickly," insisted Claudia. "He wakes."
Hurriedly, they neared the trees' edge. Here, there hung a foul odor; a cloy of sweat and putrescine mingled with rotting vegetable flesh. Within spare meters of one tree, they could hear the eaters' massed breath, loud, and the wet gnaw of their drooling jaws.
"Let him down," whispered Claudia.
Nils bent, but as he did so, the sleeping prisoner spasmed, groaned loud in his muzzle. He yanked a knee in towards his chest, and Nils lost hold. The man fell with a thump, bounced his head upon the ground.
"Mierda," whispered Claudia. "Nils!" She looked about in fear, for many drooling, hairless heads turned to eye them with clotted orbs.
"He kicked," moaned Nils, apologetically.
"Come, let us leave. Quickly. He is close enough," beckoned the woman.
They backpedaled, heels squishing over the soil and bonemeal. And as they did, several eaters came forth. Languorously forth, with petal pads in hand and thick, drippy mouths achew. They flocked slowly round the man, breathing wetly, ran slimy fingers over his binds, his buckled muzzle, his clothes, and, gently, prized them free.
Nils and Claudia had turned, retreated to the vale's edge. A coughing echoed from the mist, and Nils turned to see: The prisoners' muzzle was off, and he was spluttering, weak, now naked. Waxy limbs cradled his head, and, gently, eased the succulent edge of a petal between his lolling jaws. Confusedly, sensing the water, he bit, chewed, bit again. Ate. Nils shuddered, turned, looked no more.
At the boat, they did not meet eyes. They turned the dinghy round, shoved off, and Claudia heaved them hard over the breakers. Nils sat facing her, hands clasped. The scent of rot clung to his clothes.
"Did they tell you what he did?" asked Claudia, after a time. Behind her, the sun had slid from under the clouds, drifted, setting over the low isle; orange and cloudy white.
"No." Nils frowned, met her eyes briefly, looked away. "I do not know."
"Do you want to?"
Nils thought. "No," he said. His lips parted. He frowned. "Only… did he deserve it?"
Claudia shrugged. "This? Only the worst receive this sentence." She eyed him, expressionless, and eventually said: "Does that make you feel better?"
The sun burned low, shot the waves through with a slick of wavering, burning orange over oily black-green. Nils squinted, looked down at his soaked boots. He shook his head. "No," he said; tone high, laughing as if embarrassed. "I don't think anyone deserves this."
Claudia frowned, nodded. "I think so, too." She hung her head. "I don't think anyone deserves this, at all."
Close off the coast of subtropical Illa Araqua, there lies a small and forbidding isle. A dead atoll pushed from the seafloor by some volcanism, ringed by fierce tides eager to pull unwary ships to the daggers of rocks below.
Upon the isle grow lotus trees. *** Gnarled, knotty things. Fully ancient, with waxy pale bark, leafless boughs, and great knuckled fists of roots. They grow amply there, knead deep the nourishing volcanic soil. They have no need of the rich ash, however: The trees find far more nourishing fare.
The trees draw to their roots rotting harems. Disintegrating, drugged piles of living folk. Vital fertilizer. Creatures enchanted, driven out of their minds by sweet narcosis. Driven into soporific apathy by their consumption of the lotus trees' opulent fruit. They are lotophagi: Lotus eaters. The are the sole and woeful inhabitants of that enchanted isle.
It cannot be known precisely how many lotophagi lay upon the isle.
Those who have visited the place, though, will say there are many hundreds; with each tree commanding a harem of several score or more.
Most are shipwrecked: Passengers and sailors, their crafts drawn too close to the island's shallow rocks. Others are prisoners, delivered to their horrid sentence by unscrupulous cutters hired for judicial means. All become stranded, trapped upon the gravel shore. Unable to leave, to swim, for the breakers and cutting rocks below.
In time, they all join the languishing eaters. They join, though they can full well see the wretches' drugged plight: their misery; their rotting bodies. There is no fresh water on the isle, though, and thirst is, with time, persuasive as a knife to the panicked throat. Those suggestible to its threat will eat quickly of the fruit; join the rotting masses. Those who resist simply starve. They join the soil all the same.
Those who do eat of the fruit are lost. The fruits– broad, waxy, juicy petals– are succulent and sugared. Redolent and ambrosial; pulpy and honeyed; dire and narcotizing. Mere bites remove all care from a fed mind, replace it with sloth and sleep interspersed with a need for lazy, continued feeding. Feeding, so long as further fruit is present, unto death. Unto living rot and further nourishment for the lotus tree.
Lotus fruits are a very rare and popular drug.
Removed as they are from the isle of the lotus tree, from an unending source of the fruit, recreational eaters need not fear a perennial stupor; though habitual users quickly develop a gnawing addiction. Nevertheless, mainly due to its scarcity and potency, there exists an unending demand for the fruit, which cannot be grown on the mainland. †
On days when the tides are easy, bands of cutters and pirates make their cautious way for the rocky isle. They go with trepidation over the dashing waves, fearful of becoming themselves trapped as enchanted eaters. Even still, on bad days, new seacraft take up shattered places on the toothy ocean floor; and countless eaters wash up, stranded, upon the isle.
Those who make it, usually and most reliably by small, maneuverable dinghy or canoo, are likewise careful on the isle. They circle the beaches, pick out a tree in the heady bowl of steam, and, fast and quiet, go to its roots. Some with baskets and secateurs, some with harpoons. In coordination, they snip dozens of heavy petals and spear the lotophagi who lie there. They spear the lotophagi, as they fear the tree's reprisal.
Undisturbed, a lotus tree is a relatively passive thing. The worst it will do is send inquisitive, waxy eaters, petals in hand, to lure nearby folk; albeit sometimes en masse and insistently. When disturbed, though, a lotus tree is a thing of fear. If, upon sensing attack or bulk harvest, as pirates and cutters are wont to do, it will incense its harem.
All sailors will in time hear tales of lotus harvests gone wrong. Of a horde of drowsy eaters, bloated, soft, and waxy, suddenly spurred as a wave of vicious, clutching rage. They do not claw, or bite. No. They surround, crush, and constrict as a single mass. They do so in a bid to force-feed whoever they ensnare, even if it means drowning them in the eaters' own narcotic blood.
Thus, the harpooners strike with early gusto, and the harvestmen do not clip too greedily or too long, lest all them of join the tree. They squirrel their goods in icebox holds, eager for the sale, for on the Coastal market, a kilogram of lotus fruit fetches upwards of 55 golden pounds. A fortune for men who often make a mere ten pounds a month.
Journeyers to the isle are almost solely lured by scarcity and continual demand. They go for the fruit, the dreadful, ensorcelling fruit, without ever a care for rescue.
Without ever a care for those who lie, still alive and not yet lost, neath the pale, devouring trees.
Ideas for expeditions to the isle of the lotus tree:
Alternatively, any sailing near on the stormy waters round the island of the lotus tree bears the risk of wayward boats wrecking on its shore. Fine, if unlucky, random encounter material.
* Chloroform gags are an established means of prisoner transport. They are composed of an inhalational facial cone filled with a chloroform/ether/alcohol mixture-soaked sponge surrounding a specialized bit-gag meant to keep the wearer's airway open. They must be refilled occasionally, or else the mixture dissipates, allowing consciousness to return.
** The faithful of Aveth, the human god, hold that their Lord visits them upon their rest, guards their minds against nightmares.
*** Neither the lotus tree nor its fruit bear any resemblance to actual the actual lotuses which grow in distant realms. Their etymological notion is unknown.
† Some presume that the island's soil is necessary for the growth of the lotus tree. Others suggest it is the fog-filtered sunlight. Others say the requirement is plentiful human flesh as fertilizer.
†† The secret is indeed probably human flesh as fertilizer.