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The Orchids

Thomas H. Cook

  The Orchids

  Thomas H. Cook


  Open Road Integrated Media ebook

  In particular,

  for Susan and Justine.

  In general, for all those

  who will not be


  Day’s Eden brightness still relieving

  The awful Night’s intense profound …

  — Goethe

  Part I

  YOU CANNOT LEARN the nature of man from the sunrise at El Caliz. It begins with the merest suggestion of light, then a shimmering incision slices along the ridges of the far mountains, outlining them in a thin, silver band. From this band, a wave of Prussian blue rises slowly, brightening the upper sky and yet allowing it to retain the muted impenetrability of porcelain. The urns of antiquity had this contradictory delicacy, an opaque flatness that was at the same time vivid, almost diaphanous, and as elusive as romance.

  When the first wave of heat strikes the earth, it sears the moisture still clinging to the palmetto leaves, and the river receives its cue to run. Throughout the night it has appeared motionless, a mute, dark pool, turbid as spilled blood. Now it seems to awaken, inhaling the first warm air, drawing in its sides, then releasing them, the waters lapping against the mud bank in small waves, rhythmic as a pulse. Mist rises from the water, leaching the darkness from its body and leaving the surface a cool, impenetrable green, smooth as polished marble. For a moment a curious stillness pervades as the mountain, river, and jungle harmonize in the primeval quiet. But this comforting natural camaraderie is all illusion, for by noon the sun will have turned the mountains a smoldering pumice and bleached the sky to the color of living bone.

  Gazing to the left from my verandah, I note that my companion, Dr. Ludtz, is again making his way down to the little sepulcher he has built for himself over the years. From the beginning, he has been continually altering its shape. Unsatisfied with the original, solidly medieval structure of gray stone and dark mortar, he has obsessively beautified and adorned it, hacking at the encroaching liana vine or adding some crude architectural refinement. The result of all his labor has been to transform its earlier modesty into a grotesque rococo hideousness, a monument made in the image of its maker. Perhaps Dr. Ludtz would have been better served to dedicate the whole of his life to this monotonous reshaping of inert matter. But as he did not do so, he can now relate with some detail the look of drowsy, childlike vacancy that rises in a man’s face after chloroform has been injected directly into his heart.

  The heat is building now, smothering El Caliz under a broadloom of sun. Dr. Ludtz moves slowly, ponderously, as though the very air were gelatin. The trees press against the sky, burnished to its surface. Even the river seems tamped down into its bed, and only the little family of capuchin monkeys cavorting mindlessly in the trees across the river appears to be unburdened. Though they live in the limbs, they do not choose to die in them. Instead, as death approaches, they climb down to earth and squat upon their haunches, bony knees hugged under their drooping chins, until they fall forward like toppled statues. We could have used monkeys, but we didn’t. There was no need; we had many creatures of our own design.

  Dr. Ludtz has reached his altar, where he kneels, his ankles half-buried in the grasses he periodically shovels under. His shirt billows out in a sudden breeze and he looks around fearfully, as if touched on the arm by a stranger. He still believes that someday they will come for him, that the indefatigable Arnstein will finally locate him and dispatch his commandos to take him back for trial.

  “They’ve gotten most of the leaders now,” he said to me frantically one night when he had mistaken the chattering of crickets for the sound of boots creeping through the undergrowth. “They’ll get down to people like us soon. They’ll never give up.” A few days later, he told me that if the commandos did come to El Caliz, he did not intend to use a gun on himself, like the Minister of Light, but cyanide, like the Minister of Air.

  My servant, Juan, passes Dr. Ludtz without looking at him. He has come from the mud-floored hovel he calls his home. Many years ago I offered to allow him and his family to take up residence in the main house, particularly during the rainy season. He refused, claiming that the incessant breeze of the ceiling fans inflamed his joints. That was a lie. Juan fears this house as an abode of devils. There is too much strangeness in it, too many eerie odors comprised of the reality of medical potions and the memory of edelweiss.

  Juan tips his ragged straw hat as he passes me. He has pulled most of the buttons from his shirt, and it parts loosely over his brown chest. His pants, rolled at the cuff, hang just above his ankles. His shoes are heavy with dried mud.

  I rise and grasp the railing of the verandah. “Buenos días, Juan.”

  Juan stops and turns slowly to face me. “Buenos días, Don Pedro.”

  Casually, so as not to frighten him, I ask Juan what he intends to do today. He takes his hat from his head and holds it at his side. Flowing behind him, the river seems to pierce Juan’s body like an enormous shaft. In Spanish, he tells me that he is going down to the greenhouse to tend my orchids. Some must be trimmed. Some must be repotted. He fears that some evil force has fallen upon them. A dream has warned him of it during the night.

  The blight. Juan’s evil force. The fungal spores that consume the orchids, choking them in yellow powders. I tell Juan that if any flower has been attacked, then it must be cut and burned. If only the sheaths have been harmed, then they must be treated with sulfur or mercuric chloride.

  Juan nods, then says that the the orchids cannot breathe, that they need more air.

  I shake my head. “No.” Orchids may die of too much ventilation.

  Juan looks at me curiously and asks if perhaps they are thirsty.

  I tell him that the orchids should not go into the night with moisture on the petals or the sheaths.

  Juan stares at me evenly, and though he does not respond, I can hear the tumblers in his mind. He believes that it is all a plot, that I am lying to him, that my intention is to destroy the orchids. He suspects me of being a manifestation of the evil force. His wife has told him so.

  I dismiss Juan with a wave of the hand and watch him trudge down the small embankment toward the greenhouse. The orchids have become his passion, his religion. He sees angels in the Bow Bells and Miltonias and finds faith in transfiguration with the regal Dowiana. They are everything to him; and to me, nothing.

  When I first came to El Caliz, I tried to find beauty in the jungle’s splendor, hoping to discover in its natural majesty something that would whisper of its creator. I looked into the shimmering streams and the damp caverns. I sat on cliffs and dove to river bottoms. But in the end, all I found was mute existence, and one thing became for me no more beautiful than another. And so I decided to become a creator myself. I had Juan build the greenhouse, and for years I nurtured the orchids, massaged and syringed them, trimmed and repotted them, diagnosed their maladies and sat with them through the night, trying to lose myself in the luxury of their perfume. Now I have passed their care to Juan, who prays for their recovery and guards them against my malediction.

  In the distance I see Juan enter the greenhouse, glancing suspiciously in my direction. Amid the unquestioning silence and beauty of the orchids, amid the steamy, comforting clouds that enfold them, he is at home in paradise.

  I ease myself back into my chair. There is no dew left on the leaves now. I can see the rippling heat rise from the ground, then curl toward the river, sucking at it like a thirsty mouth. I shift slightly and feel the old pain in my legs. I do not want to dwell upon it, so I turn again to the left. Sweat is darkening the back of Dr. Ludtz’s shirt as he kneels beside his self-made monument. His hands are folded in prayer, hi
s head bowed, his lips moving slightly. After a moment he rises and crosses himself — an odd thing, since he is not a Catholic. And yet, of late Dr. Ludtz has become a man in love with gestures. The graceful bow, the courteous nod, the sign of the cross — with these things Dr. Ludtz affirms himself as a man of substance and experience, one who has seen misfortune and yet triumphed over it. With a single courtly affectation he has erased his past and rejoined the community of civilized mankind. Through the screen of smoke and blood that has besmirched his life, he sees only aging, crinkled snapshots of his long-lost portly wife.

  I turn away from him, then back again. Nothing should be avoided, not even Dr. Ludtz. He rises from his knees and slaps the dust from his trouser legs. When he catches me in his eye, he nods with an exaggerated grace, a gesture that might have found its proper place in some elaborately curtained Viennese ballroom, but which has no meaning here amid the chaotic chatter of the monkeys.

  I lift my hand in greeting as Dr. Ludtz makes his way up the narrow trail to the steps of my verandah.

  “May I join you?” Dr. Ludtz asks.

  “Please do.”

  Dr. Ludtz moves heavily up the stairs, then drops his body into one of the polished rattan chairs. He breathes with some effort, as if his bulk were pressing down upon his lungs. He smiles, pulls his pince-nez from his nose, and rubs the fog from the lenses. “Dr. Langhof, tell me, have you ever read any of the writings of Meister Eckhart?”


  “Extraordinary, don’t you think?”

  “Ja, aber ich habe viel vergessen.”

  Dr. Ludtz flinches. He does not wish me to speak in our native tongue. It is a method of identification, a verbal fingerprint, the abiding language of our crime.

  “Please, Dr. Langhof,” he whispers quickly. “Even here — silly as it seems — I would prefer English.”

  He has never learned Spanish, considering it a peasant tongue.

  “As you wish, Dr. Ludtz,” I tell him.

  He leans back, relaxing slightly. “Well, to the point. I am much taken with his — Eckhart’s — notion of transcendence, of triumphing over our creaturehood.”


  “Ourselves,” Dr. Ludtz explains, slapping at a mosquito.

  I nod. “Yes. Eckhart prefers the God-man.”

  Dr. Ludtz smiles delightedly. “Ah, you do remember. Yes, precisely. The God-man. What do you make of it?”


  Dr. Ludtz looks disappointed. “Nothing?”

  “What is one to make of such a notion?”

  Dr. Ludtz blinks quickly and replaces the pince-nez. He has adopted this style of eyeglasses because he thinks it makes him look scholarly. If it were that easy, we would all be wise.

  “Well,” Dr. Ludtz begins, somewhat taken aback, “it seemed quite interesting to me.” He does not wish to argue with me. He fears that I might take offense and refuse him the protection and permission to reside in the Republic I purchase for us both by giving El Presidente a diamond each year.

  “Many people find Eckhart’s writings interesting, Dr. Ludtz,” I tell him. “It is simply that I do not.”

  “Yes, of course,” Dr. Ludtz says. “Quite true.” He rises, wrenching his body forward, his belly drooping heavily over his belt.

  “Would you do me the honor of joining me for breakfast?” I ask with deliberate formality, an Old World ritual with which I expect Dr. Ludtz to be pleased.

  “With great thanks, no,” Dr. Ludtz replies. “With your permission, I must be about my chores.”

  “Of course.”

  He turns and walks uneasily down the short flight of wooden stairs. The sweat has oozed through his clothing, plastering his pants as tightly against the globes of his buttocks as the lid of an eye. Halfway up the path to his private quarters, he glances right and left over his shoulder, sensing abductors in the brush. He has denuded the area immediately surrounding his cabin of all vegetation, so that it sits forlornly on a great clay embankment, a monument to enforced aridity. I hope the Valkyries will bury him in his weedy sarcophagus, for I do not know if I can. I have so little taste for farce.

  Esperanza, Juan’s wife, brings out my breakfast and places it on the glass surface of the small oval table in front of me. A large woman whose skin is the color of gingerbread, she wears a bony amulet around her neck. It dangles from a small pouch that smells like red cabbage.

  “Buenos días, Don Pedro,” she says.

  “Buenos días.”

  “Tengo su desayuno.”


  She eases the rolls and butter closer to me, pours a cup of thick, pasty coffee, and then, from another pitcher, pours a strange lemon drink of her own design into the glass near my right hand. She claims this drink will drive the devils from my mind. Once, long ago, before I attained even the rudiments of grace, I threw this drink into her face. She stood watching me, not the slightest bit unnerved, as the greenish liquid dripped from her hair. At that moment, I believe, she began to hate me. She did not stop bringing the drink, but now she brings it not to drive evil from my brain, but to keep it there.

  “Gracias,” I tell her.

  “De nada.”

  Esperanza lumbers back toward the rear of the house. She is the spirit-woman of the small village that bakes alongside the river a few miles below the compound. She is Eckhart’s God-woman, to whom dusty peons come, bringing their insurmountable fear and grief. Over the years I have seen them come by the hundreds. They cradle dying children in their arms, or old men drooling papaya juice. For a time, I tried to intervene, to drive Esperanza back into the musty cave of her superstition. But the villagers would not come to me. Perhaps, like Juan, the ceiling fans inflamed their joints.

  The morning humidity has already done its work on the rolls, turning them soggy. I push them away and watch the butter liquefy in the hard, white light. Many years ago, on the train to this final home in El Caliz, I was stalled briefly on a rickety railway trestle. An odd, familiar smell wafted through the open window, and for a moment I knew that it reminded me in some strange way of home. I thought of street cafés in the capital, of old men in buckled shoes and lederhosen, of girls in pigtails singing lightly to the accompaniment of twin accordions. I turned to the man sitting next to me, smiled as best I could, and asked what the smell was. “Ugh,” he said, grimacing, “it’s that slaughterhouse upriver where they burn the animal remains.”

  It is time for my morning walk. I grasp the banister firmly and ease myself down the stairs. Old men must move slowly or they will hurt themselves.

  On the ground, I feel reasonably safe again and make my way down toward the greenhouse, which sits beside the river. Juan is inside, fingering the orchids, following instructions that come to him in dreams, hoping in this way to secure the orchids against the evil blight. The air is sweltering, but the orchids thrive. They have defeated heat. It is their nourishment. Their radiant petals open to it like the mouths of hungry children.

  I nod to Juan. “Juan. ¿Qué tal?”

  “Bien, Don Pedro.”

  He does not turn from the flowers. His fingers are half-hidden within the petals of one exquisite bloom.

  I compliment his handiwork, tell him the flowers are beautiful.

  Juan does not leave his work. “Sí, Don Pedro.”

  “Hermoso, muy hermoso,” I say insistently. Beautiful.


  Here in El Caliz, they are beautiful. But there are certain worlds where beauty itself may become transmuted into obscenity. I remember that day they lined the vermin up outside the great wall and made them undress under the square, smoking chimney. One of the guards noticed her, a naked woman who had been a famous dancer in her day. He walked over and began to taunt her. “Dance for us,” he said. “Dance for us. It’s your last chance.” She shrank back and tried to dissolve into the line, but he persisted, dragging her out, demanding a performance. Finally, she began to dance. She turned slowly at first, then her mo
vements gradually gained force and momentum. She raised her arms delicately over her head and, rising to her toes, kicked at the gray dust under her feet. She danced more and more powerfully, her legs soaring over her head, her eyes widening in the remembered splendor of her art. Crouched against the wall, the others watched her, and part of her strength seemed to flow invisibly into them. The guards saw that and quickly leveled their guns at the crowd. Then they shouted for the woman to stop dancing. She did not, and they shouted once again. She did not obey but instead kicked a spray of dust in their direction, then turned slowly in a magisterial pirouette. They fired, but in the unreal world of her turning, she had transformed everything, so that the gunfire sounded like an orchestra building to its height, the twitch and stumble of her body as it fell became the final bow of something great and free, the blood bursting from her body nothing more than orchids blooming on a pure white gown.

  WHEN RAIN COMES to the Kalahari it turns the desert lush, and seeds that have not sprouted for decades suddenly come alive, turning the desert radiant and bountiful. But here in El Caliz, the jungle foliage is so rich the rains cannot increase it. Here, we are strangled by our luxuriance, so that the rain only serves to make the landscape more torturous and malignant, only serves to accelerate the rot that — after fresh rain — fills the air with the odor of decay.

  El Presidente is the undisputed lord of this pullulating kingdom. He is due to visit me soon to collect his annual tribute. His silvery helicopter, festooned with the nation’s gaudy red and orange flag, will soar over the far ridges, then dip down toward the compound and hover over the river, whipping the water into a frenzy. It is El Presidente’s pride to come with the sound of locust and dive with the force of storm. He will be sitting in the red velvet throne-chair that he has had installed in his craft. The peasants will be swept up in his grandeur, for in his towering opulence and waste he uplifts their lives by permitting them to cast their eyes on something splendid and unrestrained. And after he has collected his diamond, he will rise again in his chariot of the air, the winds ripping through the trees, terrorizing the monkeys; and the peasants will gaze after him, stupefied, their eyes blinking against the harsh light. For El Presidente has a standing order that his craft must always rise toward the sun.