Fiction Historical Fiction Funny

“So why did you ask me to come to Sawaki,” Rose asked, knowing he had tried to discourage her from coming. But she also knew he was too much of a coward to admit it out loud. 

“You were warned when you married me, Rose, that this is a man’s world,” he said, making a sweeping gesture that took in their luxurious hut and steaming windows, choked with vines and the impenetrable dark jungle beyond. 

James Lobb moved his considerable nose back to his work and the pile of charts and ledgers. He was twenty-three years her senior and finally understood that marrying a much younger woman only made him feel older than he already was. He smiled benignly as if to dismiss her, then spoke Sakili in a low voice to the young man who always seemed to be underfoot. 

The youth looked straight into Rose’s face as if curious: “bold as brass” is how Rose put it to James that night. “He acts like he’s my equal,” she said.

Rose leaned over the hand-carved mahogany desk to view detailed botanical drawings of the prized orchid he had discovered in the rainforest. Beside the image, James had penned “Oncidium James Lobbii,” in elaborate cursive script. His dream was to have an entire species named after him.

Without warning Rose felt a heavy slap on her bum. Outraged, she turned in fury to see the boy jump back. She slapped him in the face, hard and he let out a cry of hurt and surprise, dropping a large dead mosquito to the floor.

“For God’s sake Rose! Things are not always what they appear to be.” James moved toward the door, yelling the youth’s name. “Muktar, Muktar come back.…..” 

James had learned Sakili as a sign of respect to King Blahenunukomafep who allowed him into the nether regions of the rainforest in exchange for protection from the warlike tribe threatening to take over Sarawaki.

James got the better of the bargain directing the locals to fell enormous tracts of rainforest land in order to collect the tiny orchids, a miniature splotched and frilled specimen. “Best be good looking if you’re that hard to see,” was Rose’s only comment.

The boy was staring at her again, his nose, James’ nose in shadow.

“Shouldn’t he be with his own family?” Rose said, annoyed at how familiar he acted toward James. 

She could've sworn she had heard the two of them speaking English. 

That evening she quarrelled with James. 

“I know, what I’ll do,” she said, undressing. 

“I’ll wear my stays outside of my dress like those horrid aerial roots you are so enamoured of. Maybe you’ll mistake me for an orchid and throw yourself upon me, mad with passion and love.”

That night James woke in tears from a recurring nightmare about his prize orchids being tossed overboard the great ship. This time Muktar promised to accompany the shipment, guard the barrels, and air the plants out in the evening, while most of the crew slept.

The morning buzzed with the entire small village tucking dozens of tiny orchids into hollow coconut shells cushioned with coco mesh, before placing them inside airtight keg barrels.

Fearing theft from rival collectors, Lobb had sent out a series of articles to The Times of London announcing the arrival of various Odontoglossoms sometime late October when in actuality they should reach the West Indies dock September 8. To further guarantee his success, he mislabeled the crates. 

Rose understood that his dream of an “Oncidium James Lobbii” was slipping away, the world was learning how to hybridize and soon his quest for glory would be lost. 

His last shipment had met a terrible fate. Packed like herring in ale barrels, they were subjected to stifling conditions and the few that survived developed fungal conditions impossible to treat. Still, he said, a fever in his eye, “not even the crew knew,” so the barrel trick could be used again. 

But Rose was no longer listening. She had begun to pine for England. For home. 

Two evenings before the ship set sail, Rose walked out in the dark, miffed and unsatisfied with James' attitude. She stumbled over a felled section of palm trunk and saw a tiny polka dotted plant clinging to the stalk. Rose wondered how many species this brutal clearing had killed and imagined the tiny dotted leaves shuddering in the moonlight. When she returned to bed, the hut seemed choked and small and impossible.

Next evening Rose came upon a sailor’s outfit in the mending pile and stashed it under her cot. She thought she made out James’s shadow but it was only Muktar. They shared a remarkably similar profile, which confused Rose at first. 

Finally, Rose made up her mind. She mounded hacked palm fronds in the bedclothes that approximated her form and silently boarded the ship. 

Out at sea,Rose quickly discovered that Muktar shared her realist view of the world and kept her hidden. She was a natural sailor and the smells and confinement seemed to have a settling effect on her. Muktar was very knowledgable about orchids and by day four, Rose was peeking into the barrels, concerned for their welfare. Being the same age, Rose and Muktar communicated with gestures, smiles and touch and then something deeper developed.

A day from shore a terrible wave pushed past them and the boat began to creak and take on water. One by one the sailors jumped ship, many of them lost to the sea as the lifeboats were ill maintained and sprang leaks. Amongst the only survivors of the ill-fated voyage were a youth of unknown parentage and a young woman brought to shore on tightly sealed keg barrels that acted as life buoys. The ship and contents were never heard from again, all passengers marked for dead.

Years later James Lobb tossed out his copy of The London Times after reading the political news. It would have been beneath him to read the society pages with photos of a handsome figure “of exotic foreign demeanor escorted a woman dressed to the hilt in frills and splotches, looking much like the Oncidium Roseii, that bore her name.” 

February 13, 2023 12:30

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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