It was against my better judgment, picking up that phone. I was in the office, and had drifted away in thought when the chatter on my desk radio caught my attention. It was a trivia question. They were looking for the solution to the question, "In what type of establishment was the first stock exchange founded?" I thought it was a silly question. Everybody knew that. I figured that the phone lines would probably be swamped by the time I finished dialing the number, anyway. That's when I heard my co-workers debating the topic. One said it was a restaurant. Another thought it was a bar or a pub. The third said it was a bank.
I picked up the phone and dialed. I got through the first time. I was the right caller. I had the answer: "It was a coffee house." They congratulated me. I had to ask what it was I had won. Two tickets to this weekend's showing of Gladiola Days at the Orpheum were mine.
I was going to give the tickets away. I should have. I told my wife I was going to. She convinced me otherwise. She said it would be good for me, that I could use a little culture. I asked her what kind of beneficial culture resides in a musical about singing plants. She said I obviously needed to exercise my imagination. Memos and contracts and letters were rotting my brain. I did not want my brain to rot.
The first half hour of the show was truly bizarre. I kept snickering, my wife kept jabbing me in the ribs. I couldn't understand why everybody thought it was so serious. At one point, I nudged the fellow to my left, hoping for some sort of acknowledgment that he, too found the whole thing preposterous. He turned to me and shook his head sternly, as if I were a child making armpit noises. So I hunkered down in my seat and focused on the lead character, a Mum of all things. She sang woefully about the evil that would visit the garden at night, a four legged beast that would crush and dig up and throw about poor, innocent, flower children.
"Never again will I stand by and allow a dog to uproot a flower garden!" I professed to my yawning wife as we drove home.
Honey, I think you missed the point." She responded with an air of concern.
"Did I? Did I miss the point?" I had never second guessed my wife before, and it felt good. "What, pray tell, was the point that I missed?"
"It was a story about what happened in the Nineteen-Thirties to a small band of natives in southern Mexico."
"It certainly was not! Did you see any natives in the play? Not that I recall! No ma'am, it was a story about the daily tragedies that occur in flower gardens."
"Flower gardens?" She seemed confused, and a little amused.
"Honey, there wasn't even a flower garden in the show."
"What? Gladiola Days? Did we see the same show?"
"Apparently not." She looked out the window, indicating the conversation was over. The rest of the drive home was silent.
I awoke to my alarm as usual at six o'clock. I wandered into the bathroom, and began brushing my teeth. My mind wandered away from the abstract images of my sleep to those of the performance the night before. Suddenly I was stricken with a coughing fit. I coughed, and I hacked, and I wheezed. When I finally regained my composure, I noticed there was something strange in my mouth. I spat it into the sink. At first I thought it was blood, and I panicked. My wife awoke to my shrieking and entered the bathroom. She found me huddled in the corner next to the toilet.
"What on earth is going on in here?"
"Ohhh, the sink! Look in the sink!"
She looked. She peered closer, and stuck her hand in. I was disgusted to find her picking my discharge up.
"See? It's blood!" I was petrified.
"It's not blood," she said with curiosity. "It's a rose petal."
Over the next week my fits became more and more severe. A visit to the doctor produced a big bill, but no results. My illness continued to develop.
Then came the dreams. In the first I was a Dandelion. I stood in a great field of green and grew towards the sky. Days and nights passed in short succession. I watched the sun move from horizon to horizon. I felt this great urge to repopulate the earth with my kind so that they, too, could see such beauty.
Time slowed to a crawl, and I witnessed the merciless destruction of millions of my kind. There were ghastly shrieks all around. The beast then began to bear down on me. I was enveloped by darkness, beaten by wind, and slaughtered by the great whirling, twirling death. I awoke sobbing, mumbling, blubbering that the lawnmowers must be stopped.
I made a visit to a Psychiatrist later that week. It was going well until I erupted into another coughing fit. It wouldn't have been so terrible if it had been as it was before. On the final wheeze, I was not left with one solitary petal; instead, it sent a cloud of them into the midst of the room. My shrink, I think, was wondering about his sanity at that point as well. He told me we should both go see a colleague of his. I told him I would think about it, and left.
I walked the seven blocks home, working over in my mind the recent happenings. I began to wonder if I didn't have some sort of virus. Perhaps there had been something in the air at the Orpheum. Perhaps I had contracted something from the tropical fruit arrangement perched atop the woman's head in front of me. And perhaps all of this had been a simple delusion, inspired by viral fever.
I paused at my front door, my attention drawn to the adjacent flower bed. Hands in pockets, I wandered onto the grass directly in front of it. I crouched down, and picked up a clump of dirt, crumbling it between my fingers.
"I don't know what it is you all want," I whispered, then paused for a moment to collect my thoughts. What does one say to a cluster of plants? "Uhm, pardon me." I cleared my throat. "If you wouldn't mind, I'd really like to be left alone."
"All right, I'll just leave the mail here then."
I startled and spun. Merve, the postman, took a step back.
"Lordy Merve!" I said with a gasp.
"You ok mister Leets?"
"Yes, fine. Fine, good. You?"
"Good." He looked at me suspiciously.
"Fine. Well. See you later." I quickly shuffled in the door and closed it behind me.
I found my wife folding clothes in our bedroom.
"What are you doing home?" She asked.
"The session was a bust."
"You aren't going back to work?"
"Not yet." I laid down on the bed, disrupting a tower of shirts. "Sorry."
"So what happened this morning?"
"I'd rather not talk about it."
She was silent for a few minutes. "Maybe you need some time off. You haven't taken a real vacation in years."
My mind wandered to the warm beaches of Acapulco. The sun, the sand, the endless expanse of blue waters.
"You could go see your sister in Iowa," she ventured. My daydream melted away.
"Iowa, yes." Hot, humid, green with fields of corn as far as the eye can see. "That would be nice."
"I'll give her a call and tell her you're coming."
"Good, good." I stared at the ceiling awhile, then closed my eyes.
I was startled from my dozing by a crash of breaking glass from downstairs.
"Bea?" There was no response. I sighed, stood up dizzily, and stumbled downstairs.
"Bea? You all right?" Silence. "Bea?"
I walked into the kitchen. The telephone hung at the end of a row of cupboards. Its receiver dangled. There was a plant lying on the floor below it, it's glass container in shards. A panic swept over me. I kneeled.
"Bea?" I said to it. It didn't respond. I picked it up and put it in a coffee cup, along with as much soil as I could fit. I put some water on it and sat at the table.
"Bea, Bea, Bea. What are we going to do?" I sat and stared at her for a good long time. She seemed relatively unhurt, considering the fall she had taken. I wondered how long she would live. I wondered how I was going to explain this to her siblings. I rubbed my eyes in frustration. Reality was becoming very confusing. I needed to escape.
Things went smoothly as I sloshed through the airport. In fact, as I huffed my way to my gate, a gentleman on an electric cart stopped to give me a ride. I expressed my gratitude.
"Think nothing of it," he said, "People like you and me have got to look out for each other." He was referring to his true, and my apparent, state of obesity: I was wearing a special suit I had created out of a kiddie swimming pool, a hula hoop, super glue, duct tape, a hair dryer, ten gallons of water, and an ensemble from a big-and-tall clothing store. Within it was a secret compartment, concealing Bea's fragile body. I took this precaution in the event there were regulations against bringing plants across borders. In retrospect, I suppose I could have called someone, but I was not exactly thinking clearly. At any rate, I agreed and thanked him again as I got off.
Seating aboard the plane proved to be rather uncomfortable. My hula hoop would catch the arm rests, and as I sat, would pull up the back of my underwear, giving me a terrific wedgie. My suit obviously could have stood some extra engineering, but it managed to serve its purpose.
Acapulco was beautiful. It was quite warm and humid as I stepped out of the airport, but it felt good. It seemed as if for the first time, hot and humid was what it was supposed to be, and there was nary a corn field to be seen.
I caught a bus to the ocean front, and wandered along a catwalk. To my right was the beach, my left rows of hotels and resorts. One in particular caught my eye. It was an old building, in a state of mild disrepair, huddled between two modern monstrosities. It seemed like my kind of place.
"Welcome sir! My name is Damu, how may I help you?" The man behind the counter was very pleased by my presence in his lobby.
"I'd like a room, please."
"Very good. You are alone?"
"How long will you be staying?"
"I'm not sure."
"Sign here please."
"Where can I buy some new clothes?" I asked while signing my name. I had packed nothing and brought nothing with me. If my suitcase had been searched by customs for one reason or another, I figured my regular-sized clothes would be cause for some suspicion among the inspectors. Instead, I brought only a briefcase, attempting to appear as if I were in the city for business purposes.
"There is a little store up the road. I- -I am not sure that they will have anything in your size, but they will know where to get it." He seemed a little embarrassed to mention my weight.
"I'm sure it won't be a problem."
He gave me a key and I went up to my room. It had a small patio, from which I took in the tropical spectacle, mesmerized. Then I remembered Bea. I dug her out of my false belly and put her upon the table. She look a little wilted. I gave her some water.
"Welcome to Acapulco, honey. What do you think of the view? Yes, it is beautiful."
We savored the fresh ocean breeze. Romance was in the air.
"I need a pair of shorts, 35 inch waist." I told the woman behind the counter. She looked at me oddly for a moment. She then led me to a stack of clothing in one corner of the store.
"These are our shorts here. They are not measured in inches. These are about the same size here. Perhaps your friend should come in and try them on before you buy?"
"Oh they're for me." I smiled in response to her confused look. "Don't worry, they'll fit." I grabbed an appropriate sized shirt and went into the fitting room. A few minutes later I emerged, a new man.
The woman behind the counter let out a little cry and whispered something under her breath.
"I have no use for these anymore, could I leave them with you?" I placed my hula hoop, shirt and pants on the counter. She stood a ways back, apparently trying to get a grasp on the situation. "How much is this? You take travelers checks, right?"
"Yes, right." She rang my things up and punched some numbers into a calculator. "Thirty five American."
"There you go. Have a nice day."
"Welcome sir! May I- -Mister Leets?" Damu turned very pale.
He came out from behind his counter to examine me. He appeared to be grasping for the proper words to say. "You have lost weight! How very good for you."
"Mind over matter," I said, and made my way to my room.
I stayed in my room just long enough to get Bea. I figured some time on the beach and then dinner would be a nice way to start off our time in paradise. When I returned downstairs, the manager seemed to have recovered.
"What's a good restaurant around here?" I asked him.
"Oh, The Palm is very good, very good. It is three blocks that way and two blocks that way." He said, pointing at the walls. He then caught sight of Bea. "What is that you are carrying?"
"My wife, Beautrice."
"You are married to a potted plant?"
"Well, she used to be a woman."
"That sounds like good story."
"I'll tell you sometime. Anyway, we're going to the beach. See you later."
"Take care mister Leets."
When Bea and I returned from out outing, Damu was still behind his counter. I smiled a hello and wandered back up to my room. It was still early enough that I didn't feel like I should go to bed. I turned on the television. After about twenty minutes there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find Damu, smiling his toothy grin.
"Is there something wrong?" I asked.
"No sir. I have come here not in business, but as friend. I may come in?"
I hadn't thought of Damu as a friend. I was curious to see what he had to say. I nodded, he entered.
"The restaurant was as good as I said, yes?"
"We enjoyed it immensely."
"Your wife, she liked the food too?" He raised an eyebrow.
"She had water."
"Ahh, very good. Water." He nodded.
"How are you liking Acapulco?" he asked.
"Beautiful. Everything I could have hoped for."
"And you?" He stood in front of Bea. "You are enjoying it as well?"
Bea remained silent. Damu looked at me with curiosity.
"She can't speak." I said.
"Ah yes. I should have guessed. How long has she been a plant?"
"Since the day before yesterday."
"She just turned into a plant?"
"As far as I can tell, yes."
"Hmmm." He said, looking at Bea and rubbing his chin.
"I might help you," he announced. "My brother is religious man. He knows much different magic. He might turn her back into woman."
I was a bit skeptical. This had all of the markings of a scam-in-progress. "How much will it cost me?"
"Oh nothing sir. As I say, I am here as a friend."
The next morning Damu left his son in his place at the front desk and took me to see his brother. It was about an hour drive that led us deep into the jungle, on roads that nothing other than Damu's jeep would have been able to traverse. As we ventured further and further from civilization, I began to wonder if I hadn't made a mistake. I had visions of Bea and myself sitting in a large pot over a fire, slowly simmering to culinary perfection.
Damu stopped the jeep and got out. He walked to the beginning of a footpath. "This way mister Leets. Not far now."
Fifteen minutes later, we stood in front of a small hut. Blue smoke drifted lazily from a hole in its roof.
"You wait here, I go talk to him."
I stood by the shack, holding Bea close to me, looking about my surroundings. The trail we followed seemed to go on, winding further into the mountains. The jungle was fairly thick, except for the clearing in which the hut was built. Beyond the low, dense, jungle, towering trees marked a similar clearing in the blue sky above. I smiled and looked at Bea. She smiled back.
Damu poked his head out of the hut. "Mister Leets, come now."
I cautiously entered. It was lit only by small smoldering fire in the center, which appeared to be the source of the thick smoke. The air was dense with spice.
Damu's brother, Baba, was dressed in a white gown that might have passed for a wedding dress in America. He was wearing a necklace composed of several white objects. They could have been teeth, or bones, or maybe even shells of some sort. He said something in his native dialect, to which Damu responded, and then said to me, "He would like see your wife." I looked at Bea and then Damu, who nodded encouragingly. I passed her to Baba.
He sprinkled a little powder over her, pressed one of her leaves between two fingers, and closed his eyes. He sat that way for several minutes, then set Bea on a small table next to him.
He said something to Damu.
"This good news, good news," said Damu. "He say he can change your wife back."
"Really." I said, still a bit skeptical.
"He need your help. You drink this. It put you into trance that help magic."
He handed me an "I (heart) New York" coffee cup that contained a dark brown liquid. I sniffed it. It smelled like epoxy. I looked at him, and he nodded encouragingly to me again. I swallowed it down, shuddering at the road-kill aftertaste.
The world rapidly became a very strange place. It seemed as if I had gained the benefit of "zoom" vision; objects and faces would distort, appearing very close at times, then moving back to their normal distances. This became quite disorienting when, say, Damu's face would be very close to me, but his body would stay the several feet away.
The magician in the wedding gown began reciting mysterious words and phrases, all the while orbiting his hands around Bea. He blew some powder off of his hand towards her, then me, then Damu, who had his eyes closed. I looked at Bea. At this point, she seemed unchanged, except for what my eyes caused her to do.
Baba blew something into the fire, a flame leapt up several feet. I gave it a round of applause.
Damu leaned in and whispered, "Look, your wife, she changes."
I looked at Bea. At first it appeared as if nothing were happening. Then, slowly, she began to metamorphose. Her leaves changed position and shape, turning into a hand. Bea was now a potted arm. Her fingers curled down and she made a fist, and then opened full palm again. "A palm tree" I thought to myself, entranced.
She began to grow again, this time straight up. Her elbow appeared, then her shoulder. I could see her neck appear, her head was down, near to her body. Damu began to chant with his brother; they increased in passion and intensity. I stared at Bea, wide eyed.
At this point everything below her bellybutton was still in the pot. I strained to see how in the world she managed to fit in there, but my eyes wouldn't focus.
She continued to grow, her head still down. With her head tilted forward, her hair was long enough to reach past her hips. It had been shoulder length before.
Now she was planted up to her knees, and still growing. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever witnessed, far more so than any childbirth I had seen. Images of the "Birth of Venus" sprang to mind. Tears pooled in my eyes.
At last she was completely free of the pot, except for the toes on her left foot. She stood there in that strange position for several moments before slumping down on to the floor, curling up. Damu and his brother broke the chant. The magician took out a blanket, covered Bea, and said something.
"Baba say she must sleep now. We go outside."
Damu went past me out of the hut. I looked at Bea momentarily. I could see her body rise and fall with each breath under the blanket.
I found Damu outside, whizzing in the bushes.
"That went very well," he said over his shoulder. "My brother is very good at what he does."
"Yup." I said.
I looked up. The sky was no longer blue, but rather a striking purple color.
"Look at that," I said to Damu, pointing up. He didn't look.
"It is the potion. It will soon wear off."
I was lying on my back, full of awe, watching animals float across the sky, when Baba emerged from the tent. He said something to Damu.
"Baba says she is awake."
I arose and shivered in anticipation. I was anxious to hear what Bea had to say about being a plant for three days.
The sound of a twig snapping underfoot focused my attention upon the entry. Slowly, carefully, Bea emerged from the tent. The door was low, and she was bent at the waist. Her hair hung nearly to the ground in front of her. She emerged completely , then stood up straight, and looked at me.
I let out a sharp cry.
"What is it?" asked Damu.
"That's not my wife!"
"She is, yes."
"No, she isn't." I retrieved my wallet and produced a picture of Bea. The woman standing before me was younger, thinner, and darker skinned. In fact, it didn't seem at all unlikely that she shared Damu and Baba's ethnic background.
Baba spoke. Damu spoke. Baba spoke again. Damu took the photo of my wife and gave it to Baba. He looked carefully at the picture, then the woman, and then the picture again. He spoke again, handing the picture back to Damu.
"Baba says she is your wife. He says she looks different now because of the plant she became."
"What about the age? My wife was much older."
Damu said something to Baba, who provided a quick response.
"Baba says it is again because of the plant she became. It has youthful properties."
The woman and I exchanged glances. She smiled.
"Bea?" I said to her. She nodded. I gave her a hug. "Are you all right?"
She spoke to me, but not in english. I took a step back and looked at Damu.
"She says she does not understand."
"You understand her?"
"Yes, she speak my language."
I was at a loss for words. This woman, for all intents and purposes, was not Beautrice Leets. I turned towards the jungle and voiced my frustrations.
Damu approached me and put his hand on my shoulder. "Mister Leets. It was not difficult for you to accept your wife as a plant. Why is it so difficult for you to accept her as woman again?"
I looked at Bea. She smiled again. "Bring us back to town."
Bea and I sat together in the back seat of Damu's jeep on the way back. Despite the poor conditions of the road, Bea, her head on my shoulder, slept soundly.
We arrived back at the hotel in the early evening. I carried her up to our room, a feat that wouldn't have been possible a week before. It wasn't something I cherished. I missed the old Bea. This new, younger, version would take some time to grow accustomed to.
I kicked off my shoes, then stood next to the bed, watching Bea sleep, wondering who she was. Somehow she sensed my presence and awoke. She said something to me in whatever language Damu spoke.
"Hmmm? I don't understand." I shrugged and shook my head. She sat up and pulled me on to the bed. I laid down next to her nervously. She curled up next to me, half on me, and let loose a comfortable sigh. She promptly went back to sleep.
The next week made me feel twenty-five again. It was as though Bea and I had stepped into a time machine. The courting process had been reinitiated and we were freshly in love all over again. Flatulence was once again a thing of embarrassment. Strolls on the beach were once again magical, as well as desirable. Everything was perfect.
"Mister Leets! I must speak with you." Damu stopped me in the lobby one afternoon. "It is important, cannot wait."
I gave Bea the key to our room. "Go ahead, I'll be right up." She smiled and went upstairs.
"Tomorrow, you must come with me."
"There is a man who want to meet you."
"My brother tell him about you and your wife. He is very interested."
"I'm sure there would be a lot of people interested in my story. Tabloid magazines, for one. He's not from the tabloids is he?"
"No, he is not. He is a powerful man in a village to the north and east of here."
I thought about it for a few moments. "Gee, I don't think so. Bea and I have some plans."
Damu became very desperate. "Mister Leets, please! It is very important you meet him. Do this favor for me. Then we are even, yes?"
He was right, it did seem that I owed him a favor. "Ok, then we'll be even. When do you want to do this?"
"Good! Tomorrow we will go. I give you call."
I nodded and began up the stairs.
Damu called at eight the next morning. He seemed very excited to get going. Bea didn't want to go anywhere. Her morning crankiness was something that hadn't changed. I managed to get across how important to me it ws that she came, even with our language barrier. She had learned some english, and I some Punji (as Damu told me it was called), but it was not enough for us to hold a conversation. A lot of pointing and enunciating occurred.
We were on the road by a quarter to nine. Damu said the drive was quite a bit longer than the one to Baba's. He said it would be at least a few hours, up to five. Five hours in a jeep, on roads that would make a monster truck driver faint, was not my idea of a good time.
Bea and I tried to make the best of it; we began a game of "name that thing". I actually learned a lot of basic Punji terms that trip: Lahs, tree; munja, bird; dal, green; ihnaputi, spider. The spider reference was a particularly memorable one. At one point in our mountain drive, we bumped a tree, and an enormous black spider fell out. I was wearing a tourist-type straw hat and failed to notice its impact on my head.
Bea pointed and shouted, "Ihnaputi!", followed by a horrific scream. I thought she was referring to my hat. I pointed to it.
"Ihnaputi!", I shouted and replicated her scream to the best of my abilities.
Damu, disturbed by our shouting, swiveled his head to get a look at what we were talking about. He immediately spotted the spider on my hat.
"Ihnaputi! Ihnaputi!" he shrieked and jerked the wheel. The jeep's tire caught a rock, we spun 180 degrees, and drove up the shallow hill into the jungle. I noticed Damu was no longer in the vehicle. Afraid of what might happen to Bea and I in the back seat, I shoved her out and leapt after her. We rolled a few feet, then got up and brushed ourselves off. I made sure Bea was ok, then made for my hat, which lay a short ways away. As I reached for it, Damu sprinted up, stomped it furiously, then continued in the direction of his lumbering jeep.
As we waited for Damu, I had Bea try and explain to me what it was that had just happened. I learned that djasa was hat, not ihnaputi yaaaah!, and that the latter was spider. I too had somewhat of a distaste for the eight legged critters. I was glad I had not been aware of its presence.
Several minutes passed before Damu returned with his jeep. He was covered from head to toe with mud, sticks, leaves, and a good smattering of white feathers.
"What happened to you?" I asked, in awe of his appearance.
"I will not talk about it." As we got in the back seat again, he turned towards us. "No more games!" he said, shaking his finger. For the most part, save several minutes of laughter over our recent experience, we remained silent the rest of the trip.
When we reached the village, were greeted by a fascinating group of people. About eight of them approached us as we pulled into the edge of the village. They appeared to be wearing diapers, which turned out to be large pieces of cloth delicately twisted, knotted, and wrapped into a fair representation of a pair of skivvies. It appeared that Bea, Damu, and I had arrived far overdressed for the occasion.
They approached Damu and exchanged greetings. They were quite curious about his state of dress. One of the natives wiped some mud off Damu's face, sniffed it, and then seemed to ask, "what's this all about?" Damu didn't give a very long answer. He turned to me.
"I go to wash up, will be back," he said and wandered off.
Bea and I were left with the eight villagers. She did all of the talking. As she spoke to the men, I looked about the camp. It was curious to see what kind of conditions these people lived in. It is not very often average American citizens are granted access to obscure, isolated, villages.
The housing of the village was much like Baba's domicile. They were small huts made out of drain-pipe sized sticks, covered with leaves of some sort. I imagined this covering would have to be replaced on a regular basis. Otherwise, sleeping in a rainstorm would end up being a very wet affair.
The village was laid out in an open square. The little shacks were positioned on the perimeter, and the center was open, save one single, large tree. Around the tree was a flower garden, measuring about twenty feet to a side. I wandered up to it. The flowers planted in the garden were of the same variety as Bea had been. Electricity surged through my body for a moment, as if I had been struck by lightning.
"Oy!" shouted a voice from my left. I turned to find a sandy-haired gentleman sitting in the shade of one of the huts. He was dressed as the villagers, but was obviously not one of them. "Don't get too close old chap, they'll cut off your hands."
"Those are Manjaya plants, sacred.?
"You're a Brit?" I asked, walking towards him.
"Byron George, at your service. People 'round here call me Dwaba."
"Dwaba?" I asked.
"Roughly translates to 'Whitey'" he laughed. "What brings you here?"
"Well, apparently there is someone here who wanted to meet me. Is it you?"
"Not me. It must be the chief. No one from the outside comes up here to see anyone but the chief."
"I wonder what he wants with me."
Bea wandered over, smiling.
"This is my wife, Beautrice."
"Pleasure to meet you." he said to her. She didn't respond.
"Try Punji" I said.
He repeated his greeting in the local language. She acknowleged and responded.
"She's Punja?" He asked, surprised.
"No, she's from somewhere in Asia or Australia, India maybe. I'm not sure."
He appeared very confused. "Where did you meet her?"
"Fargo, North Dakota."
His confusion continued. I decided the best course of action at this point would be to explain the entire story to him. I began by telling him how it all started with an opera I saw at home.
"Gladiola Days?" he inquired.
"Yes, how did you know?"
"Extrordinary! Continue, please."
I continued the story, telling him about the coughing fits, the flower petals, the dreams. He became more and more excited the more I spoke.
"And there she was, turned into a plant, lying on the floor below the phone."
He nodded and cackled gleefully, as if it were the most wonderful story he'd ever heard. I told him about smuggling her with me to Acapulco.
"Why Acapulco?" he asked.
"Yes, why not Barbados, or Jamaica, or Hawaii?"
"I don't know. It was the first place that sprang to mind."
"Wonderful! Absolutely wonderful! Continue!"
I explained my meeting Damu and then the experience in Baba's hut. Byron was beside himself with enjoyment.
"And that brings us up to today. Here we are."
"Smashing! You're in for a surprise, let me tell you!"
"Why, what..." I was interrupted by Damu, who had appeared by my side.
"Mister Leets, it is time now. Come with me."
I looked to Byron uncomfortably.
"Don't worry old chap, I wouldn't miss this for anything."
We sat in a circle inside the largest hut on in the village. It belonged to the Chief, a heavy set fellow who, in local dress, looked like a middleweight sumo wrestler. He said something to Damu.
"He says it is an honor to meet you and that his people have been waiting for a long time."
"Tell him it is an honor to meet him as well," I returned respectfully.
Damu translated my words. The Chief entered into a conversation, which turned into a debate, with the man to his left. He was dressed much like Baba had been, only with far more lavish and intricate jewelry.
"Who's that?" I whispered to Damu.
"He is like priest. Highest religious person in village."
"If you don't mind me asking, what's this all about?"
Damu motioned to me to wait patiently. The other people in the tent, including Byron, sat quietly, watching each other expectantly. I noticed that Damu's brother Baba was present.
The conversation between the two leaders ceased, and the Chief began to speak to me. Damu interrupted him, and made some odd gestures, such as pointing at me then circling his head with his finger. The Chief nodded and began to speak.
"Chief says long ago, a boat left a land far away. That land was in trouble and its people were restless. The boat carried many of these people, who looked for a better land. The voyage was long and painful. Many people died from sicknesses that had never been seen. Still, they pressed on. After much time, and with no sight of land in much time, the people in the boat feared it was the end. They all prayed to their god to save them, to help them find land. It appeared hopeless.
"Their leader locked himself away in his room one day. He went saying he would not come out until god brought them to land. He went inside and began to pray. He prayed many weeks, with no food, no water. Many people believed he died."
The chief paused for a drink of water, then continued.
"Chief says, one month after he locked himself away, leader emerged from his room. He told his people that god had come to him in vision. God had said they must travel with sun in particular place in sky as it rose. God said that would lead them to land.
"The people took this good news, but had bad news to tell leader. Almost all food was gone, and worse, last three women aboard were close to death. The leader was sad by the news, but told his people that god would take care of them.
"They traveled two more days. On morning of third, a great commotion arose aboard ship. Land was in sight. The people celebrated survival and thanked god for bringing them to safety. But terrible thing happened as they reached the land they had so long waited for. The three remaining women died."
The chief paused again for a drink of water. I think he was doing this simply for effect. He continued:
"The people became unhappy again. They were angry with god for such an end to their existence. Why had he let them find land, only to destroy possibility of making new life there? Their leader spoke angrily and scorned them for having little faith in god. He told them god took care of them before, and would take care of them again.
"They tried to start a new life for themselves. They planted seeds that were found on ship, hoping would grow food to eat. The seeds only grew fruitless flowering plants. They forced to discover foods in their new land. Life began to go on normally. But still, there no women to bear children.
"A year passed and restlessness grew. They were saddened to know they would die and would be nothing of them left behind. The leader was sad as well, and again decided lock himself away until he had answer.
"He was alone in hut for month, did not emerge. This time, people sure he was dead. Then, two weeks later, leader emerged from hut with something special. He emerged with woman, pregnant with child! The people were thrilled and amazed and asked how feat was possible. He told them god had grown her from Manjaya plant. The seeds from ship were salvation.
"All other men went and prayed to god and each was given wife, grown from Manjaya plant. That is the story of Punja."
Many whisperings erupted from the members of the tent. They were pleased with the story, and nodded and smiled at me.
"What's this got to do with me?" I asked.
"Chief says you be Djumba, leader of Punja, returned from afterlife. He says it prophecy. Djumba say on death bed he return again."
I was dumbfounded.
"Congratulations old chap" Byron said with a chuckle and a slap on the back.
"This is preposterous."
"There is one test," said Damu.
He pointed to the head priest, who was ready to administer the test before I even was able to get my eyes on him. He blew some powder off of his hand into my face. In my surprise, I drew a sharp breath. The powder settled lazily into my nasal cavity. It seemed to have the properties of itching powder. I huffed, and I huffed, and I let loose the most enormous sneeze I had ever let in my life. I opened my eyes to see a flurry of flower petals floating down in the air of the hut. The Chief spoke low and earnestly:
"Djumba! Sik manna Djumba!"
I sat on the precipice of the cliff, looking over the valley of the Punja. The noises of the jungle around me made me nervous. I wasn't yet ready to go back to the village. Everything was jumbled in my head. None of this seemed to be right. Rational evidence, pointing to the current circumstances, would have made me feel much better. So much for a nice, relaxing, vacation.
There was a snap and a rustling in the bushes behind me. I grabbed a stone, raising it to defend myself against the local wildlife.
"Hello?" I peeped, just in case.
"Leets! Where the bloody hell are you?" It was Byron.
I put down my stone. "Over here."
He emerged from the jungle, excitedly brushing himself of. "Blasted bugs!" He sat down next to me.
"Hell of a view," he said.
We sat quietly, staring over the valley.
"So how does it feel to be Djumba, incarnate?" Byron asked, breaking the silence.
"I have a headache."
"Sorry about that." He was quiet again for a while. "The villagers are all very excited." More silence. "You know I hope you're not planning on shipping out. I don't think they'll allow that."
"They think you're their savior."
"Well, quite honestly, I think they could be right."
"Don't tell me you're falling for this bit, too?"
He was quiet again for a while. I assumed he was collecting his thoughts, searching for justification.
"The chief and the priest wrote Gladiola Days."
"Well you see, all of the children born in the last fifteen years had all been males. As things were, the Punja were facing another crisis."
"Why didn't they just grow more women from plants?"
"They tried. It hasn't worked since Djumba died."
"And Gladiola Days?"
"The Chief and the Priest lcked themselves away in a hut vowing not to emerge until they had a solution. That solution was the manuscript for Gladiola Days."
"How did it get from here to the Orpheum?"
"My predecessor here brought it to England with him when his term was up. He showed it to some friends in the drama department and it took off."
"So, really, its all a bizarre coincidence that I managed to end up here."
"Well the Chief maintains that their god told them if they wrote the manuscript and released it to the masses, Djumba would return."
"And here I am."
"And here you are," he said.
There was another rustling in the bushes behind us.
"Oy!" shouted Byron into the jungle. There was silence, then rustling, then silence. Then there erupted a hideous scream. The sound of an elephant thrashing around in pile of brittle leaves filled the air. Damu erupted from the foliage in full sprint, his hands in his hair, rubbing furiously as if to dislodge some unseen invader.
At our panicked urgings, he stopped dead in his tracks, teetering at the edge of the precipice. Byron and I grabbed the waistband of his pants, preventing him from plunging over.
He muttered something, then sat between us, breathing heavily. "Now I remember why I move to city," he panted, shaking his head.
We three sat silently, looking over the valley.
"Beautiful view," said Damu.
"Mmmmhmmm" Byron and I returned simultaneously. The silence continued.
I chuckled. Byron and Damu looked at me.
"I was just thinking about my wife."
"She is very special." said Damu.
"No, I mean the way she was before" I felt a twinge of sadness. "I kind of miss her, really."
Byron and Damu partook in respectful silence.
I continued somberly, "Strange how one day you're just another nameless, faceless, corporate accountant, the next you're king of a small tribe in southern Mexico."
I sighed and tossed a rock over the edge. We listened for its impact below.
"It's a strange world," ventured Byron solemnly.
"Indeed it is," I said. "Indeed it is."
We sighed in unison and resumed our observation of the valley in silence.