Short Stories are available for publication on request. Not to be reprinted without permission.
COPYRIGHT 2000/2001/2002 Robert Rootes
ABOUT THIS STORY: I think I borrowed this idea from a friend's dream in hgih school. He gave me permission to use it! Originally I had this story set in Egypt but found it boring, so I moved the whole set to South America. As a period piece I tried to be as vague as I could without looking foolish to the reader for the time frame. Redoing the story I still think it's a good read.
It was June 1953 and the expedition took us across the vast untapped jungles of the South American continent. As we tracked the legend, we glimpsed places only touched upon in archaeologist textbooks. I had no idea of the greatness and oddities the world held beyond the borders of my home state, or beyond the shores of America.
The myth of the Pool was just a hushed whisper in the university. At the time, my professor used it to tease our unkempt minds with tales handed down in the oral tradition of the ancient people of South America. The still waters glowed with unknown power from its depths. The very idea intrigued me and I often searched on my own for more information but like the professor, there was nothing more written on the subject.
My grades faltered and I was on the verge of losing the grant that put me in the prestigious university when all my sleepless, obsessed nights at the library paid off with flimsy proof of the Pool’s existence. I spent three weeks on an essay of all my findings after the discovery, which consisted of vague maps of references from the late 1800’s and 1900’s. My hypothesis of the Pool’s possible substance was haphazard at best. I’m not sure what I expected when I placed the report on the professor’s desk; I hoped it would allow some leeway with the grading curve. Proud of the work I’d done, I was confident of some knowledgeable extra credit.
Three months later, while the university was out for the summer and I worked a dull job at the grocery store, I received a telegram from the professor. It stated that I was requested to return to the university at once. The professor did not go into detail only that the university, looking for some publicity, granted an expedition and he wanted me to join them.
The youngest and least experienced on the expedition, the professor made sure I took the brunt of the loads when it came to the five of us that headed into the unknown. My professor and mentor, Doctor John Mason was a stout man with receding hair and a firm jaw. Setting high standards for those around him, his wrath was great if not met.
Peter Vable, one of the investors was a sickly man. I couldn’t understand how a hypochondriac could travel around the world with an attitude of doom and soothsaying. He was pallid, overweight and complained often. John explained quietly after seeing my frustration that men with money want every part of the world they can reach.
Adam Johnson was an interesting man with many tales that he entertained the crew at night, huddling by the campfires. The elderly man led more expeditions into places than I’d heard of. With his beard taking up most of his plump face, his thick glasses made up the rest. His wife, Marla accompanied him on most of the trips in his career. A sweet woman with a pleasant disposition and infinite patience, she’d be our interpreter. Still a beautiful woman, it was obvious her hair was once raven color, now turned as gray as her eyes.
Although nowhere near the political end of the conflict in Korea, it didn’t help our means and I thanked God I was passed the draft age. Most of our journey we traveled by boats down meandering tranquil rivers thick with mangroves, chattering birds and angry monkeys overhead. With the 20th Century no even a glimmer in the indigenous peoples’ eyes, our arrival in remote villages was cause for fear and apprehension. After fumbled greetings through Marla, and exchanging of gifts, our short stays were celebrated with dance and strange songs. Our loose fitted clothes were no protection from the humidity and sweltering nights or the feasting insects the setting sun unleashed. It surprised me that no one came down with malaria or another disease caused by insect bites.
Far from home and in the depth of the rainforest rarely visited by white people, our expedition brought us to a tiny village of sparsely clad natives where the chief of the village welcomed us as if expecting visitors. After feeding monkey meat, mangos and fruit fermented juice; Marla explained our reasons for the intrusion. While the old man puffed on a long reed pipe, he said he knew of the Pool and that we should leave before it called us to its depths. He went on to say that a village closer to its whereabouts had completely disappeared one by one when the shaman of the village used its waters to cure the ailing daughter of the village chief. The cursed waters devoured the people of the village.
Whether it was the retold tale from Marla’s interpreting or the intoxicating aroma of the old man’s pipe, the anecdote left me cold and a night filled with calling animals that sounded like drown villagers looking for more victims from the bottom of the Pool.
By morning, my fears left with first light and a jubilant professor woke me with news that a teenaged boy agreed to show us the rest of the way to the Pool for exchange of a rifle and a handful of ammo, plus a few melted candy bars from Vable’s secreted rations. By next morning light, we’d set off in the direction of my dream and the professor’s new obsession.
Another two-day boat trip took us to where the water was waist deep and hanging tendrils and moss tangled our oars. Kyha, the boy, fearlessly led our boats through the thick, black water that clung to his waiflike body. Our water rations were on the decline until Kyha taught us to cut vines to fill our canteens. The water from the vines was sweet and gritty.
Dusk brought us to the ant-infested shore. While Adam and Derek Marsh, an assistant paleontologist from the university who spent more time reading than communicating with the rest of the crew, pulled our boats ashore and set up camp, Kyha led the professor, Vable and myself to where the jungle became impenetrable. As night settled Kyha pulled on the tangle of leafy vines to show that it wasn’t a wall of trees and vegetation we were seeing but the façade of a massive manmade structure. The discovery of the ancient ruins alone was worth the entire trip, even without the prospect of the Pool waiting for us inside.
Nightfall amplified the voices of the jungle while John worked feverishly in his notebook, aided by Adam, I was left with my conscious and Vable’s nasally voice as he rambled about the money he’d receive for the inevitable cache of riches inside the temple. I wandered off to bed under the mosquito netting to stare up through the canopy of trees at the bright stars while I fought through the excitement in my limbs to find sleep.
Morning brought the chorus of laboring as everyone worked at the tangle of jungle encasing the tall pyramid style building. By one in the afternoon when we stopped for lunch, we gawked at the structure that emerged through the throng. Adam pointed out that it appeared the entrance had been covered by years of mud and rot. After an hour of relaxing in the shade, we began digging. I found I did most of the digging, although I didn’t complain. The Johnsons did what they could, while Adam and John worked to uncover more of the wall. Vable was assigned to gather any artifacts that may litter the forest floor.
As I dug through the gnarled roots and soggy earth I felt although we were on the verge of a great discovery, I didn’t believe we’d found the resting place of the Pool. I kept my pessimism to myself.
Another day brought goodbyes to Kyha as he took his handmade canoe back to his village. Secretly, I gave him what was left of Vable’s candy supply. By that evening, we’d uncovered thirty-two steps that led to a sealed stone door with an insignia that was foreign to everyone on the expedition. Derek pointed out the oddity of the steps leading down when most of the ancient people of the region normally worshipped the sun and the altars stood atop the pyramids. John reasoned that if this was the resting place of the Pool it quite possibly existed long before the indigenous people and they formed the temple around it.
When we stopped for the night, I was too exhausted to eat. After listening to the others joke about their new fame, I went to bed. Before I realized it, morning had come and I saw the others leered around the staircase I’d uncovered the day before. Quickly I dressed and went to meet with the rest.
Seeing the frustration on my face, Marla laid a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Riggs, we wouldn’t open it without you.” She gave me a smile, forcing me to smile back.
Mason and Johnson carefully broke through the sealed door. I watched Vable rubbing his hands together as if feeling the riches he’d soon hold in his grubby fat hands. No one knew how heavy the door was or if booby-trapped in any way. I wasn’t worried about myths.
At last, the moist earth and stone chipped gave way to a sound like the ancient temple sighing as air, sealed for possibly centuries, escaped the chamber when the entrance breached. I caught the scent of primeval stale air, which made my heart thump in my chest from anxiousness. I felt the beads of sweat prick my upper lip and felt the perspiration drip down my back. I felt Marla’s hand grip my forearm as the men grunted to get the door open more. Looking at her face, I saw the same nervous excitement that coursed through me.
Unexpectedly the door gave way. With a whoosh, it slipped inward and tilted, slamming hard on the stone floor inside the tomb, smashing with a thunderous explosion that rained bits of stone and dust.
Unable to move, in mute shock I stared into the blackness with the rest of the expedition team. John Mason dropped against the wall with a grunt then sighed as he pushed his dusty hands over his damp face. The growth on his chin and cheeks made a scratching sound. I heard him whisper, “Damn it!”
Marla went down the steps to her husband as I went back to the camp to retrieve the lanterns. By the time I returned to the temple, Vable was about to enter the tomb.
“Vable, you really want to go in there alone?” I suggested.
Vable, showing his British teeth and English venom snapped back, “Who man you leader of this expedition? I’ll do as I please.”
“Fine,” I said with a smile. “But unless you want to kill the scorpions and spiders with your boots I suggest you take a shovel.” I looked at the others. Of course, you should know which direction to run when you set off one of the booby-traps.”
Vable seemed to grow pale under his sun burnt face as realization bit him. His voice turned into a whimper. “There’re no traps in there, are there?”
John took over the conversation. “Vable, get away from the entrance.” Then he added, to my surprise, “And from now on, listen to Riggs, he knows what he’s talking about.” I handed him a lantern and he winked at me.
Our poor candlepower electric lamps showed a shallow path into the temple. With John leading the way, our steps were cautious, everyone looking for variations in the floor tiles. The air was damp and cool on my face. Every few feet mists of water rained down on us. The floor stones were clammy. Thinking I saw plants growing in the complete darkness, on closer inspection I saw thick patches of cobwebs from generations of spiders that I didn’t want to see living. There were no signs of hieroglyphics on the smooth walls, just loose crumbling stones where water eroded the primitive mortar.
“Wait a moment.” I removed the compass from my pocket, taking a reading as the others waited.
“What’s our direction?” Adam asked.
Utilizing as much light from the lantern as possible, I stared at the compass in my dirty palm not understanding what I saw. “The needle doesn’t want to stop spinning.”
“There’s a disruptive magnetic field in here,” John pointed out.
“I’m pretty sure we’re heading north.”
“Has anyone noticed we’re slanting downhill?” Martha pointed out.
Until then, I hadn’t noticed but it was a true statement. There didn’t seem an end or any other direction but straight to travel. We stood waiting for someone to venture a word as to what to do next.
“Well,” Derek started. “Let’s keep going.”
Although I was not wearing my watch, it felt as though we’d traveled an hour. The tunnel gradually turned from a manmade structure to something more cave-like, the walls and ceiling closing in on us. The traveling became more slanted downward. With the moist earth under our feet, several of the members, including myself, lost our footing along the way. When we had stopped, Adam passed around a canteen while we rested. As I sat, in the dim light I kept my eye on the slowly spinning needle of the compass. The rest of the lanterns were off to conserve battery power.
After pocketing the compass, I stretched and yawned then asked, “Does anyone know what time it is?”
John actually shrugged. “My watch stopped.”
“What about you, Vable?” I asked.
Vable sighed but reached into his pocket to retrieve the pocket watch. After looking at it, he tapped the glass, and then tucked the watch back into his pocket. “It seems we’re all in the same predicament.”
“It has something to do with the magnetic field we’re in,” John said, and then stood.
Taking his cue, the rest of us got ready for the continuing of our journey.
The end of the tunnel showed itself as another sealed door. With mute frustration, we began the labor to remove the seal. It took close to an hour and we weren’t as delicate as we once were when the jungle air was fresh and tempers weren’t weighed by stale air and humidity.
When the door gave way to the chamber beyond, we crowded the entrance without breeching the space.
The Pool was rectangle in shape, encased in perfectly shaped stones, measuring by sight at least thirty feet in length. Each of the four corners of the Pool was a column and to my surprise, they looked Roman in origin. Each of the twelve-foot high pillars had huge stone blocks balanced on top. Each side of the Pool had encased crude oil still burning in pits. I suspected the chamber was ventilated to supply the flames with enough oxygen to keep burning since they were lit, probably before the birth of Christ. At the other end of the Pool were steps leading into the still black water.
After our initial shock and joy of finding the fabled Pool, each of us had our own tasks: the professor was at the wall with his notebook, deciphering the hieroglyphics that peppered the walls. Vable was in charge of dating, categorizing and cataloging the litter of artifacts scattered around. The Johnsons headed back to the surface for more supplies. Derek joined them.
I was supposed to collect water samples, but instead found myself standing by the edge of the stone staring into the matter that reminded me of oil instead of water. The surface was impenetrable. I felt an uneasiness I never experienced before. I wouldn’t admit aloud that I thought something alive lurked the blackness but the crawling of my skin made me want to stay away from the Pool.
Knowing that I didn’t have the proper tools to take samples gave me an excuse to return to the surface, leaving Vable and John alone in the chamber. I met Derek and the Johnsons on their return trip in the tunnel.
“Has the professor found anything yet?” Adam asked, out of breath.
“If he has he’s keeping it a secret.”
“What about you? Have you tested the water?”
“Not yet. I didn’t have my sample vials.”
Marla smiled at me as I started on my way again, as if seeing the apprehension in my eyes.
Returning to the campsite, I sat on the jungle floor staring at the sample vials in the case of my rucksack. The sun reached the west side of the jungle it would be setting soon. I knew I should’ve returned to the chamber but I couldn’t get my aching legs to lift my wary body again.
Soon I heard footsteps behind me. When I turned, I saw John carrying his books to the campsite. He sat down heavily and reviewed the material he gathered. His brow was heavy with sweat.
“It’s going to be a long road to figure out what we’re seeing on the walls.” John rubbed his eyes. “The Roman style pillars were a surprise.”
“I’ll tell you this, you couldn’t pay me enough to drink that water.”
The thought of it gave me chills in the blistering heat.
Dusk found John and I talking about our find and fame it would bring.
We heard the screaming before we saw Vable stumbling up the steps from the tunnel. He felt at the top and crawled across the dirt trying to get away from the chamber.
Running toward him I yelled at him. “Vable, what happened?” I looked to the step expecting the worst. Vable sobbed into his hands.
John knelt beside him. “Get a hold of yourself.” He helped Vable sit up straight. “Calm down.” After a moment, “Now, tell us what happened.”
Vable cleared his throat. He was out of breath. Sweat dripped off his brow as his breathing slowed. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes. “They’re dead.”
John Mason, ever the strictly business person, never allowed for nonsense. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Still stammering out of breath, Vable said, “They’re dead. Adam. Marla, all of them, dead.”
“How?” John asked. I knew the answer before he said it.
“The Pool!” Vable announced. “The Pool got them!”
“Marla was standing next to the water. She reached to touch it then somehow went in. There was no splash, she went under and never came back up. Adam went in after her.”
“Make some sense man!”
However, Vable turned from us, scrambling further from the gaping mouth at the bottom of the steps as if it would devour him as well. He was blubbering wreck of a gelatinous man. John stood over him staring at me as if looking for direction. I couldn’t offer any. I wanted to run.
Before comprehension, John spun on his heels and ran down into the shaft. I didn’t want to follow but felt it was my duty because without me, no one would have found the danger that I brought to them.
There was no way to tell how far ahead John was in the tunnel. I was too exhausted to run but continued to follow at a trotting walk.
After what seemed an hour, I found John resting with his back against the stone wall near the chamber opening. He was sweaty and out of breath. When I approached him, he made a move to stand but found his legs didn’t want to respond. I offered a hand.
“Do you feel it?” he asked me in a pant.
I assumed he meant the persistent unseen pressure coming from the still chamber. The way it weighed against you from the opening, as if alive somehow. I nodded without words. Taking my hand, Mason stood up. He drew a breath, still holding my hand, looking for strength in my eyes. Then he broke free and wandered into the unknown. I stood by the chamber opening, searching the darkness for something other than human forms. I couldn’t bring myself to enter the main area of the chamber. Any courage I had was left along the way to the Pool.
I watched the shadows claw at John as he edged his way closer to the Pool’s edge. The still black water was unrelenting.
“Don’t get too close, John.” My voice was no more than a whisper and I didn’t think it could reach him at the distance.
John paused a moment, looking back to me, his hands clinched into fists, his jaw firm.
The professor turned from me and continued toward the water’s edge. As he reached the Pool, he peered down into its surface. He stooped closer as if watching something below, something beyond my sight, something more than his reflection.
“John,” I whispered again.
Irritated, he waved a hand to silence me.
The water exploded with a figure jutting upright from its depth. Although I wasn’t anywhere near it, I lost my footing trying to get away and fell to the dusty stone floor.
“It’s like nothing you’d ever imagined,” Marla said.
She was young again, restored to the beauty of her youth. With her arms out to John, she offered her nakedness as I looked on. I felt the pulling from the woman as she defied gravity, hovering from the Pool. She wasn’t looking directly at me, but I suspected that if she were, I would be hers. As I watch John gave in to his wife’s offered hands and with an intense face contorting as she grabbed her husband, I saw that it wasn’t Marla but something more sinister, more ancient and evil. John saw the change in his wife but it was too late as she gripped him and pulled him into the Pool.
There wasn’t even a ripple as the last of John disappeared below its surface.
I started to get up, crab walking away from the chamber. Once more Marla was out of the Pool, hovering above its unchanged surface. She wasn’t wet, her long and luxurious hair moved with and unfelt breeze. Her eyes searched the chamber as her body turned completely around, giving me a view of her perfect form, the faultless breasts and delicious bottom. Her eyes found me and when I saw them staring at me, beckoning me, I was frozen. Even at that distance, I felt as if I could feel her warm sweet breath on my face, her warm wet lips brushing my lips, tempting me.
“Believe me, it’s nothing like you imagined,” she said in a seductive voice that was more inside my head. She offered her arms to me. “Come to me.”
I was unable to resist her, unable to find the strength to tear myself away as Vable had. I needed to be with her, I needed to see for myself what my obsession had led us to find. The Pool was awaiting me.
Short Stories are available for publication on request. Not to be reprinted without permission.
COPYRIGHT 2000/2001/2002 Robert Rootes