The Men Of The Arbor

I met that enigmatic man during an association of adventurers following my return from a gem hunting expedition in the southern islands of Indonesia, hoping to follow the excursion with a journey to the northern Angolan forests interspersed in valleys between mountains which supposedly held a wealth of natural resources. I noticed the man because of his appearance which was so hardened and gristles that I supposed he must have lived a life of exploration and adventure and so I approached him hesitantly, pressing a finger gingerly to his broad, disfigured shoulder. 

“May I help you?” came the gruff voice from the hulking figure upon the intricately carved chair. He nursed a glass of some elixir, which reeked semi-pleasantly of vermouth. 

“You seemed as though you might have some wisdom,” I stammered, “I’ve just recently returned from Indonesia and hope to penetrate the Egare Mountains in Angola, just south of the Congo region in Zaire.” His initial disinterest immediately shifted to conjure flames of a horrible sort in his milky grey eyes. 

“Do not go there, lest you hope to never return!” He barked the order so passionately that I shrunk back in alarm. The haze of the event fell backwards as I peered inquisitively into his horrid expression.

“Why not?” I ventured carefully. Have you been there yourself?” 

“Damn right,” came the reply, with an indignant force. “That’s why I’m retired now. I only come to these things as a remnant of an older era.” He seemed to pity me, a young explorer full of mirth and vigor. “Sit down, boy, I’ll tell you a story.” 

“I was a rare plant collector, by trade, and I foraged around for orchids and vines in the most exotic of locations. Of course, when I was alerted to the potentially isolated biodiversity of the general region which surrounds those Egare Mountains, especially their transient valleys, I became enamored. At once, I desired to venture there, capable of providing travel and the like. However, I was immediately faced with… numerous issues. Those mountains have a deeply hideous history of a powerful haunting within the native peoples, and it seemed initially impossible to force a handler out of any African. My associates told me it would be, indeed, impossible, though I pressed relentlessly until a contact in Zaire managed to convince a former handler, for a generous sum of money, that he should escort me into the valleys between the soaring peaks of the Egares. 

I eventually reached the Congo Basin, the largest forest in Africa, where I was acquainted with my reluctant guide. He was some sort of Khoisan tribesman, short and stark black with watery, globular eyes. He did not speak much English or French, far from it, but the mere discussion of the mountain range conjured a sort of subtle terror in his expression which I was both attuned enough to detect and brazenly foolish enough to ignore. It would be a journey of a couple days from the nearest accessible road before we would be able to reach even the outer lip of the peculiarly unique region which surrounded the massive mounds of jutting rock. 

We started off, I tell you, brazenly. I had stars in my eyes as I extended myself into that weird wilderness of African beasts and plants which conjured fancy in my collector’s heart of natural envy. The trees alone were awe-inspiring, great wavering palms swinging in the breeze, trees whose seed pods burst with the finest silk man could fancy, towering hardwoods whose imposition instilled an inherent respect in the puny men they gazed upon. I did not understand any of what my handler was saying about the region, but I was impressed by sight alone. Even the few orchids in the initial stretch of Congolese river-forest, which were of little visual appeal but priceless in their rarity, roused my admiration. 

Those first few days, though enamoring, were painfully long, and the pernicious aching of my legs was interrupted only by the fierce machete work of my handler and his urgent exclamations upon seeing some outstretched serpent in the bush. The air was hot, languid with humidity, and I was eternally drenched in the juices of my perspiration despite my seemingly appropriate garb. Though my fascination did not waver, the immense stress physically and psychologically made me weak and feeble and I prayed that I would soon reach the spacious stretches between Zaire and Angola where we would be able to camp more reliably. The diet of salted meat and desiccated fruit made me yearn for wild game, which my handler was supposedly able to provide. 

We moved through the thick, congealed air slowly and methodically, avoiding the various biological and meteorological threats to our safety, my handler saying little but proving rather competent in his abilities. The language barrier was, at the time, unimportant, for his utterances of disapproving cries and waving of an upset hand kept me carefully centered in our exploration. I was no stranger to the wilderness, I never have been, but the Congo is a place of intensely untamed nature, that which actively seeks to snuff out intruders. Many times I wondered if I would survive just that initial voyage, not even thinking about the unexplored mountains to the north. 

Eventually, we made it to a broader, open stretch which signified the zone split between the two regions, for I was nearing Angola increasingly. Vast stretches of flat land hung between the delta and the mountains, and I was able to watch the various fauna leap and dart through the sparse but soaring trees. I hoped to dine upon one of those loping animals for I had grown tired of the allotted explorer’s food, craving something fresh. The first day, however, I merely trudged on, following my skittish handler through the brush. At one point, an adder leapt from beneath a stone, but I stepped sideways and the serpent slithered back into its dwelling, not so bothered as to attack me with its venomous bite. I continued on, merely shaken by the sudden scare.

Eventually, we came to a place to camp as the moon began to rise and the final rays of the once-effulgent blaze of the sun fell beneath the horizon. I felt more comfortable camping on the flatter geography, for the close quarters of the dense forest I have but fleetingly described were so loathsome in their claustrophobia and surrounding horror of the unchecked trees. My handler slept contently, though I fought viciously then to merely close my eyes, constantly roused by the sudden sounds of the dense, vegetated expanse. Here, however, I was rather calm, for the entirety of my surroundings presented themselves in greater view. 

When night truly fell, I saw a most peculiar sight. On the horizon, towards the mountain, fluttered a thin lip of blue light, utterly unusual in remote wilderness, so much so I was unsure of what I was seeing. Merely a mirage, I told myself, for I did not want to frighten myself with imagined paranormal connections such a phenomenon might entail. I noticed, too, however, that when night fell the place fell silent, no creatures to be seen or heard. The explanation for such a disappearance of life may very well be rational, but I began to experience some anxiety of the mountains to the north. Being a bull-headed, brazen adventurer, however, a mere inkling of fear was entirely unable to drive me from my quest. 

I dozed off that night in the makeshift structure which my handler and I carried in parts, barely shelter but enough to create some semblance of security. My dreams were vivid, though I can no longer recount them, but my mind stayed haunted by that glimmer of bluish light. I squirmed in the night, I am sure, but I managed several hours of sleep. The last sound I could make out before I retired, however, was a sudden skittering on the surrounding soil. Then, before I could investigate, I drifted into the endless inkwell of oppressive sleep. 

The next day continued much like the previous, and we trekked across the open lowlands as we neared Egare Mountains. I saw a few antelope as we trudged along, though the area was far less populous in terms of wildlife than the dense thickness of the delta and I wondered if I would ever be able to taste wild game. The atmosphere was thick and soupy, and I stewed in my saline juices as we neared the border. I had collected a few more plant samples at the time, though there was less of significance in the lowlands, especially since I was in search of orchids and other peculiar blossoms that would be at home in a Wardian case. In the lowlands, however, I was met largely by soaring trees. 

It was that night at the border where this story truly begins, for I have previously mentioned the blue sliver of perplexing light. As we lay down there in the gloaming, however, I found the sky overtaken by the queer, otherworldly effulgence of sapphire, gleaming stars embedded in its whirlings. It would have been beautiful, had it not appeared so strangely. Thinking back to the apprehension of my handler, I wondered what I might be walking into, visiting this unhallowed place. I scrambled out of the shelter for a closer look at the transpiration before me. 

I sat upon a large stone, merely gazing intently at the blue blaze which had overtaken the sky, lightening the night as it shone upon those mountains to the north, their valleys obscured in shadows which contrasted with the aquamarine complexion of the twilight sky. Its appearance evoked something ghastly, supernatural, though I cannot say why, for it appeared no less beautiful a celestial aberration than those Aurora Borealis in the extreme north. It was, nonetheless, an unnerving sight, and it did not leave my mind as I disappeared into dreary rest, or as we hiked towards those accursed mountains the coming morning. 

We left early, just as the sun had come to erase the haunting glimmers of blue which stained the sky. The spidery arms of towering trees reached out in an ironic welcome as we turned our heads towards the mountains, dwarfed by their size. I was thankful we merely sought the densely forested valleys which ran between them, for I had no desire to summit such steep and rugged terrain. Illuminated from behind by a rising sun, their peaks cast dark shadows upon the lowlands, dwarfing my suddenly miniscule frame as my handler muttered nervously to himself. I began to brace for just what I might find in that place which had, for so long, deterred exploration in a consistent and mysterious manner. 

It was as if I was wandering the vacant mind of a sleeping giant, for there was no sound which rang out in that place, the entire landscape increasingly silent as a cemetery, and about as inviting. I reasoned that as my handler had yet to abandon me, and I had come so far in search of this rare vegetation, there should be no reason to give up, though something about the place tested my mental fortitude. I stopped only to dine briefly on our reserves, afraid of what might happen should I linger too long in that silent purgatory. We were nearing the mountains then, that first valley would be my earliest trial in my attempts to penetrate the lands. 

We did not see a soul, man, animal, or otherwise as we traveled north, edging nearer to the then imperceptible border between the lowlands and the mountain’s valley. It seemed about two days out, and that once we tired and found a place to wait out the encompassing grasp of the night, the next day would be our last outside of that valley which forms between the infamous Egare Mountains. The air in the lowlands was still and silent, though cloyingly humid, and it stained my skin as I pressed on avoiding the shadowed interiors of sudden holes in the earth and the spiny tendrils of lonesome thickets. The trees stood above, shading occasionally with their great majesty and turned-down gazes of disgust. 

There is little of significance to recount during the day in that loathsomely torrid valley of sweat, except for the constant aching of my legs and the nonsensical, peculiar cries from my handler. Even the vegetation was sparse, though I noted a single species of epiphytic plant which sprouted knifelike, greyish protrusions as leaves and mimicked the appearance of the neotropical bromeliads. I took note of the plant and sketched it in the pages of my explorer’s notebook which informs this account that I tell you. I bothered not to take a sample back to the West, however, for I did not deal in such extremophiles, rather preferring that which appears dainty and beautiful when it comes to blossoms and foliage. Nonetheless, I brought measured footsteps closer and closer to my unseen Eden on the horizon. 

That night, however, as the sun fell flat, I viewed the repulsively stunning transpiration of that blue blazing which overtook every star, leaving the night a palpable azure with a hideously unearthly luminescence. No longer were the lowlands dark, but rather obfuscated by an eerie blue which shone down on every facet of our camp. No area was free of this maddening cosmic phenomenon, all of it bathed in blue like some sort of phantasmagorical delirium. I could see fear reflected in the blue pupils of my handler, and as I ate, and rested, my mind was never free of that which, in a perverse manner, strengthened my resolve to reach the valley to the north, to rid myself of the cerulean possession. 

We returned to our feet that morning, and for hours I witnessed a repetition of the previous day’s voyage, the blueness having faded like a terrible dream. Once more the lowlands were illuminated by the aureate blaze of the sun, which beat down on my back so horribly that I feared I might succumb to a sickness as comparably hideous as those myriad jungle fevers. Nonetheless, I maintained my composure, and eventually reached the evident lip of the lowlands, fading into the valley before us. 

The Egare Valley itself was flushed with life, in direct opposition to the sparse lowlands, at least when it came to the presence of vegetation and lesser beasts such as insects and adders. If I were to imagine the ideal landscape for horticultural exploration, it would be that place, for those varieties of plants which sprung up from the char-black soil were unlike any I had seen. Of course, many bore resemblance to some other variety, but they were unmistakably unique. Most common, by far, was a heavy-trunked tree which branched off into winding appendages, more like vines than branches, which wove themselves together and created a canopy of a peculiar variety. I could hear the sounds of some various creatures moving upon those interwoven arms, but I could not see the beasts. 

After surveying the numerous geophytes, epiphytes, and the most peculiar mosses, I resolved to make camp for the night, near the valley’s mouth, at the aggressive assertion of my African handler. I was unsure of his reasoning, though I thought back to the claustrophobic camping in Zaire, and so I settled in that place alongside him, watching as the orange glare of the sun’s disappearance faded into the frigid blue of the night’s cruel spell. The color no longer evoked the same sense of fear within me, but I remained wary as I dined once more on a repulsive meal of dehydrated foodstuffs, craving a fresh cut of meat.

When I awoke, prepared to explore the surrounding region, my handler had disappeared. He had not taken any gear, but seemingly vanished into the night, perhaps finally succumbing to the welling fear which was palpable in his wide, trembling pupils. It seemed I was on my own, and utterly lost, but I figured it would be a worthless endeavor if I didn’t at least investigate the wealth of botanical diversity before me. I started hesitantly towards the valley, the blue glow of the night just barely leaving the sky as the sun poked out its dreary head. 

Immediately, I noticed that several of the trees in the valley were marked with some sort of apparently intentional scratchings, which must have been perpetrated by either humans or a population of apes. These trees, old as time itself it seemed, were host to numerous parasitic and mutualistic vines and blossoms, and I was able to collect several species of orchids which were unlike any I had ever seen, one of which sported hooked roots that seemed to tap into the very xylem of the tree itself. Shimmering beetles the size of silver dollars clamored up the aged bark of this ancient vegetation, and I soon realized that the crevices formed naturally were host to something else entirely. 

Within these tree-notches grew a putrescent mound of something fleshy, a former appendage, now decaying. However, around each of these developed a population of shimmering, barely-opaque larvae which seemed to gorge themselves on the banquet, as though they had been uniformly fed. With some deliberation, I realized there must be some unseen population cultivating these things! Perhaps as a food source, perhaps for reasons entirely unknown to my European mind. I shivered at the sight of those grubs, their shiny heads rearing up as metallic jaws came together upon scraps of decomposing flesh. They were unlike any insect I had seen, and conjured the same sort of peculiar otherworldliness presented by that very valley, as though I had crossed over an invisible barrier into some other place. 

I continued, repulsed by the farms of insect larvae, but still enamored with the wealth of undiscovered vegetation presented before me, much of which I hoped to return with once my voyage in the Egares had come to an end. I crept beneath the vegetation, avoiding the odd jet serpent or darting dragonfly, its red body piercing the air as it darted. Larger fauna were generally not present, though I assumed those creatures which clamored through the overgrowth must have been of some considerable size. 

It was not until later that evening that I saw one, a huddled, obscured form hidden among the leaves, tending to one of those repulsive farms carved out in selected trees. It looked to be apelike, though that was merely a conjecture, yet it seemed to have some sort of protrusions jutting from its back. I attempted to quietly obtain a closer view, but the thing had disappeared just as suddenly as I had seen it, and I wondered if it might not have been merely a mirage. I continued to hike among the thick, humid vegetation, gathering protrusions from the rootstock of all manner of attractive and plainly queer epiphytes and other plants which could be reasonably transported on foot. Should cultures prove viable, I planned to return to the Egares with more men and supplies in order to export a greater variety of their flora. 

I heard then, a horrid sound, a piercing shriek from above. I did not see the source, though I wondered if it was that ape-thing I had seen. I attempted to conceal myself beneath the lower boughs and branches, sheathed in a shawl of camouflaging vegetation. I stalked the noises beneath the plants, though I received no view of their source. It was only until I looked towards the branches of an oddly-angled tree that I noticed some primitive dwellings constructed upon it, reminding me of the arboreal termite mounds of which the Mesoamerican jungle is rife. However, these displayed a uniquely human craftsmanship, their geometric edges allowing for greater internal space, hide doors tanned and hung upon their unseen entrances. I began to wonder if that which I had seen was truly an ape after all. 

The night came quickly, but I did not lose my field of vision, for the great blueness came to light the black canvas once more. It was then, in this shimmering in the dark, that I began to see pitch figures descend from their perches in the trees, from the unseen dwellings which they had constructed. At first, I was unable to make out the appearance of the creatures, but as one neared, I saw at last its loathsome appearance. 

It was a man, but not like any I had ever seen. Its face was relatively androgynous, and though its skin was black as night, its features were not those of the Negroid. I would more liken them to something mongoloid, though I believe these beast-men were of an antediluvian origin, something else altogether, for I could not imagine such a thing existing after the dawn of the great flood. Its arms were impossibly long, and tipped with some unholy claws that seemed to aid in its arboreal lifestyle. Worst of all, however, more than any undescribed facet of its repulsive appearance, were the four additional appendages which protruded from its back, bent and tipped with claws, appearing like those of a human spider. I tried to cry out, but the man had already begun to pursue me. 

I sprinted forwards, attempting to lose my assailant while those ancient men above me scrambled among the branches, following in apparent intrigue as the one attempted to capture my fleeting form. That arboreal race was apparently capable of two manners of movement, for my assailant varied in his technique between crawling upon the earth like an insect and scrambling upon the trunks of bloated trees as if an ape. I managed to stay ahead of it, but as I rounded the corner, grabbing for the minute knife at my waist, I realized I had merely been led in a circle, towards those dwellings I had noticed previously, though there seemed to be another figure among them.

From a rope of sinews or twine hung a dark, bloated form which I initially believed to be one of those men of the arbor, though as it came into greater view my bloodshot eyes saw at last its face. It was my handler, slaughtered, eviscerated, hanging from the very trees which had consumed him. I was filled with rage, hatred at that tribe that had captured my handler and threatened the very same upon me. With a sudden burst of courage, I ran backwards upon that man which pursued me, my knife sheathed deep within it. 

However, the thing did not at first die, and rather emitted some shriek which brought blood upon my eardrums, utilizing one of its dorsal appendages, tearing across my own shoulder and leaving a carmine wound, dripping with warm, ferrous liquid. I gritted my teeth, but as I drove my blade endlessly within the man-creature, at last I watched the eyes of that hideous thing close before me. I had merely disposed of one, and I thought in horror as I realized the trees before me were truly filled with those beings, watching inquisitively as they prepared to descend. 

However, this descent was interrupted by a thundering in the distance, which drew nearer and nearer until I saw the many exoskeletal appendages of the massive thing which the men began to cling to, its upper side obscured by branches but its appendages apparently tethered to a shimmering, carapaced form which crept among the valley. For some reason, what can only be called the mother of that horrid race, had decided to leave me be, wounded, struggling upon the forest floor as its children clung to it like bats. Before long, much of that massive segment visible to me was coated in the population of that ancient tribe. I brought myself to my feet, tightened my shirt upon the wound, and sped with my last ounces of energy from the valley of those arboreal man spiders. 

I then made my way, delirious and wounded, towards Zaire and south out of Angola. I camped, feverish and weak, in those areas of the lowland which provided a total view of my surroundings, hideous nightmares taunted by the presence of those impossible beings, of massive legs brought down upon the blackened soil. I had long forsaken any floral possession, and knew I would have to return emptyhanded, if alive at all. I was eventually intercepted by a group of German explorers in Zaire and lifted back to an area where travel would be simple. I was barely  a man, but only half a shade, by the end of the harrowing voyage back.”

Hearing the man’s story, I scoffed, for I would not allow the ramblings of an obvious lunatic to detract from my exploration. I attempted to relay this thought to him as politely as possible, though I was met with immediate interjection.

“No, no! I don’t expect you to believe me! My story sounds as insane as it did to those who diagnosed me with an undetectable strain of African illness upon hearing it. It was what I found upon my return from that place, however, which should pique your interest, sir.”

The explorer removed a flap of fabric carefully from his shirt, cut in a peculiar manner which I had not seen in any practical garb. However, what was beneath that fabric elucidated its purpose. There, to my horror, were two stark black protrusions, emerging from a dark-veined carbuncle which had developed upon the old man’s shoulder. There, impossibly, were two curled appendages, semi-formed and as black as night, tipped with some rudimentary claw. Though unformed, I had never seen such a hideous affliction, one which has made me so certain of an otherworldly explanation. The man continued to speak once more.

“Here, seen upon my very shoulder, are the contorted limbs which have sprouted, though they were merely buds when I had returned. I fear that they will not stop their growth until I, too, carry a piece of the ancient curse bestowed upon the men of the arbor. I fear the day when I awake to find them mobile, grasping with claws in any which way. They cannot be removed, I have attempted, and so I must bear my burden for attempting to penetrate those Egare Mountains, the home of something ancient, unspeakable, of time not concerning the European, or any other man whose birth followed the tragic flood of antiquity.”

No story has haunted me as this man’s had, the proof so hideous that I seek to forget it. I did not attempt to enter the Egares, and relocated my exploration elsewhere. I still venture the more untamed areas of the Earth, but with a fear that I, too, may end up entangled in some ancient web, a prophetic unbecoming. I do not know what happened to that man, for he did not appear at any other meeting of the association, and all inquiries ended without any information of interest. I merely hope he was not consumed by that sickness, the parasite that grew upon him, for I wonder if, perhaps, that ancient being he described allowed for his survival as a means to extend the reach of its antiquarian offspring.

— Dylan Joaquin is a horror author from Northern California. He can be found on Twitter @archaeoflorist.