I’ve never liked stories that have a message.
It always seemed to me that if the storyteller needed to finish with and the moral of the story is…then either it was probably a lousy tale to begin with or the audience is just a bit slow.
Sure, stories can be a great way to teach children what we consider to be right and wrong so that they might grow up sharing our values. But brainwashing aside, I cringe inside when, before the story is halfway through, I know in my stomach that the storyteller will end up saying and that’s why you should always blah blah blah.
This story, however, has a message. Not something you should do but something you must do. You have to save the world and I’m going to tell you how. Because I’m not going to do it.
I was travelling in the Brazilian Amazon some years ago and it was far from the romantic journey of adventure you might already be imagining. In fact, the first 6 days upstream from Belem were nothing short of a nightmare. Hammocks hung at every conceivable angle so that you were always getting someone’s foot or elbow or knee in your face.
The jungle heat left you sweating all the time but the boat’s shower was in the same room as the toilet and there was always 2cm of dirty brown water sloshing about. The food was the same beans rice and unidentified meat every day and the only way to create variety was to sprinkle manioc flour over the whole unappetising flour. Have you ever tasted manioc? I can’t say that I have either as there is no flavour to speak of beyond a crunchy staleness that leaves you worrying for the fillings in your teeth.
I always knew when it was mealtime as one of the other passengers would helpfully slap me awake in my hammock and point to his mouth. They might later slap my chest and point towards the shower if I was looking a bit hot. And when they weren’t slapping or poking me, they still made sleep impossible by jumping out of their hammocks at 4am with a big cry and declaring to their neighbour: well, i’m awake! Did you see the football last week?
And forget about seeing any nature. The river was so wide that for most of the journey the shore was a distant line of green and, naturally, all of the big trees had been cut down to produce coffee tables for suburban homes in America. The river was so wide that the captain drove the boat in darkness at night, shining the headlights on every few minutes just to check that there wasn’t a surprise island in our way. Once a day he would leave his cushy, air-conditioned cabin with movies and refrigerated beers, to stroll around the deck in an immaculate white officer’s suit, wishing everyone good day.
It was all I could do not to punch him.
Things didn’t improve much when we finally made it to Manaus: a sweaty, trustless place of conrete buildings that seemed to be rotting. I wasted no time in jumping on a motor boat to take me on a smaller tributary to a jungle village.There I hired an old toothless guide from some unpronouncable trible and we followed secret streams through the Amazon in an old canoe, each of us wielding a paddle. My guide never said a word though he seemed to understand Portuguese and this was fine with me as it allowed me to lose myself in a world of jungle! Cries, screams, howls and growls from animals and birds I never saw and wouldn’t even recognize. I was quite sure they saw us though.
We ate fish and fruits and drank fltered river water. From time to time we saw the famous pink river dolphins and I would nervously slip into the water to swim with them, afraid not so much of pirana but the razor fish that, if you forgot yourself and peed in the river, might swim up your urethea and never come out.
We paddled down the river for days and days until i lost track of time. It began to feel like we’d always been padding through a world of green; thick, pulsating green so ancient and overwhelming it felt like we were being swallowed up as we made our way boldly into the Heart of Darkness. Night would fall in a heartbeat and the orchestra of insects could be deafening. We smeared tobacco juice over our faces to keep the mosquitoes away and ate our simple meals covered in the inevitable manioc flour.
I trusted in my guide who must have known what he was doing as he had lived in the jungle his whole life, but there were times when I doubted we would ever come out again. The Amazon had become a living, breathing organism for me whose presence filled every insect, animal, plant and tree. The neverending mangroves, vines and reeds had parted for us once but would they ever let us out again?
Then one afternoon I noticed the water was changing and for the first time since I could remember I could see for more than 10 metres ahead. We emerged into a part of the river that resembled a lake and headed for a little island in the middle of it. We landed the canoe on the mud and jumped quickly ashore before the leeches could latch onto us. My guide led the way, as silent as always, and I noticed there were clear trails so that he hardly needed to use his machete at all.
I became aware we were passing through an orchard of banana and papaya trees and I stopped to harvest some but my guide turned around and told me ‘Vamos!’ – the first word I’d heard him say since I’d contracted him back on the port of Manaus. Intrigued, I followed him through to a clearing where the plants had been cleared by machete and fire; in the middle there were two trees and a hammock strung between them and in it sat a bearded white man in a pair of shorts and flipflops. His chest hair was white and his skin burned red and his eyes trembled with emotion as they saw me. My attention, however, was focused exclusively on his hand. His finger, to be precise. His index finger…disappeared in mid air! It wasn’t cut off or mutilated. It just vanished like he was pointing into oblivion.
‘Do not be afraid, my friend! My name is Dr Heinrich Heinrich Von Neumann. I am..an anthropologist. I have lived here for…years. Yes, you have noticed my finger..how to explain? I knew one day I should have to..I prayed that I would be able to…you are English? That is good, the English are an honourable people. You will listen to my story? You will give me your word, yes?
‘I came here as a young man, to make my doctorate field work here with the tribes in the deepest Amazon as my professors urged me to do, but what did I care for diplomas and academic research? To know the world with the mind is like to know the jungle from a canoe! I longed to know what lay at the very heart of existence – you are a traveller, you understand what it is to be curious, to discover…
‘My journey took me here to the shamans of the Yuoasi tribe. They need no jungle vines to navigate the world of the spirit..they simply part the veils of Reality with their hands until they see! For weeks, months – years! – I don’t know! I lived with them, learning to reach out and find the frontiers of this world, the curtains that separate our world from the others behind it…at first I mreely groped thin air but with time I began to feel a slight resistance, a gentle tugging feeling as though I was stretching the web of a spider. Then one day my fingers sank deeper into the fabrice of existence and I pulled back the veils of Reality and gazed upon the world of the spirits who live with us at all times!
‘But what did I care for spirits, ghosts and phantasms? I probed deeper, ignoring their threats and warnings until I felt another layer of resistance, an etheric strudel that I gently tore apart to reveal a plane of bright, white light! I had found God! The source of all life and spirit! My hands plunged into Heaven and I felt divine energy flow through my fingertips and flood into my body, heart and soul. All my questions were answered! My desires quenched!
‘And yet. And yet I am a seeker, as are you, do I not guess correctly, my English friend? Even as my hands massaged a realm of infinite truth and bliss, yet there was born a caprice, a curiosity to know if there might be something beyond. With the most soft movements of my fingertips I began to search for the frontiers of God itself! With gentle, caressing motions at last I began to feel the most subtle resistance. I probed! I palpitated! i stretched! Somewhere behind me I could hear voices of shamans and spirits shouting but it was too late – my fingertips had already begun to seperate the final curtain and my whole being trembled as I felt the pressure on the other side and then BOOM! An explosion to end explosions! My soul was knocked out of my body and I drifted in limbo for time uncounted. Floating through meaningless haze until I heard the distant beat of the shamans’ drums, their voices in song calling me back into this miserable old body you see before you; sat in this fucking hammock with my finger in the hole I had made. And I have been here for 20 years, damnit!’
‘So why don’t you just leave?’
‘Have you not understood a word I have said? What do they teach you in school these days? I am stuck here with my finger in this goddamn hole because on the other side lies the Void! Oblivion! If I walk away then everyone and everything in the world will leak out like water from a bath! The tribes believe it is destined for a white man to sit here plugging the hole until the end of the world and they bring me fruit to eat and make sure the jungle ants don’t eat me allive bite by bite!’
‘Couldn’t you just plug it up with, I don’t know, a pen or something?’ I asked doubtfully.
‘Idiot! You have a hole in Reality before you and you think it can be fixed with a piece of duct tape? A conscious being made it and a conscious being must hold it together.
‘You begin to understand? You agree it is better that a man should spend his life in this hammcok than that the world should be flushed out of the hole I had made like shit from a toilet?’
‘Well, yes, if you put it like that…’
‘I am glad you agree – good luck!’ he said, pulling his finger out and running past me for the canoe.
There was a terrible sucking sound as the hole he had left behind and all light and energy seemed to be sucked in; the jungle river and sky began to bend and dissolve as it was inexorably drawn in by the relentless pressure of the little black hole in the world. I couldn’t even look at it as my eyes began to pop out of their sockets and the only thing there seemed to do was to stick my finger in the hole.
‘Goodbye!’ |Dr Neumann shouted as he jumped into the canoe, ‘Look out for the ants – they are ferocious!’
I wanted to run after him but there was only one canoe and I never would have made it. And the hungry pressure on the other side assured me that if I left the hole unattended the jungle, the land, the seas and sky – the universe itself – woud all be sucked out and lost forever.
‘Dr Neuman!’ I shouted desperately, ‘I’m a diabetic! Please pass me my bag from th with my insulin inside – I must give myself my daily injections!’
‘It’s a trick!’ he snarled back, pointing at me with that finger of his that had spent so much time on the other side.
‘If I die here then who will there be to plug up the hole? I swear to you on my honour – the word of an Englishman – please, my insulin!’
I could read the doubt and hesitation on his face. Freedom was so close! Release after all these years of paying for his mistake! And yet…how could he leave the fate of the universe behind when then remained a doubt?
Finally he seemed to convince himself that the word of an Englishman coud be trusted and he hurried over to the hammock and began to rumage through my bag where it lay a couple of metres away.
‘But where is the medicine?’ he cried in frustration and looked up to see only the hole in the fabric of space and time, the hole I promised myself I woud never see again as I ran towards the canoe, grabbed a paddle, and sped off into the jungle waterways with my guide at the front, a furious tirade of German following me until it was again drowned out by the sounds of the birds and insects around us as we disappeared into a world of green.
Dr Von Neumann is still there to this day. I know because the world is still here. But he won;t live forever. And when he dies he’ll fall to the ground and all of existence will be dragged mercilessly out into the void.
Unless someone goes there to put their finger in the hole. Someone with the intention to save the world. Someone who has heard this story. Because I promise you one thing – it won’t be me.