The Crystal World
By J.G. Ballard
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1966 J. G. Ballard
All rights reserved.
The dark river
Above all, the darkness of the river was what impressed Dr. Sanders as he looked out for the first time across the open mouth of the Matarre estuary. After many delays, the small passenger steamer was at last approaching the line of jetties, but although it was ten o'clock the surface of the water was still gray and sluggish, leaching away the somber tinctures of the collapsing vegetation along the banks.
At intervals, when the sky was overcast, the water was almost black, like putrescent dye. By contrast, the straggle of warehouses and small hotels that constituted Port Matarre gleamed across the dark swells with a spectral brightness, as if lit less by solar light than by some interior lantern, like the pavilions of an abandoned necropolis built out on a series of piers from the edges of the jungle.
This pervading auroral gloom, broken by sudden inward shifts of light, Dr. Sanders had noticed during his long wait at the rail of the passenger deck. For two hours the steamer had sat out in the center of the estuary, now and then blowing its whistle at the shore in a half-hearted way. But for the vague sense of uncertainty induced by the darkness over the river, the few passengers would have been driven mad with annoyance. Apart from a French military landing craft, there seemed to be no other vessels of any size berthed along the jetties. As he watched the shore, Dr. Sanders was almost certain that the steamer was being deliberately held off, though the reason was hard to see. The steamer was the regular packet boat from Libreville, with its weekly cargo of mail, brandy and automobile spare parts, not to be postponed for more than a moment by anything less than an outbreak of the plague.
Politically, this isolated corner of the Cameroon Republic was still recovering from an abortive coup ten years earlier, when a handful of rebels had seized the emerald and diamond mines at Mont Royal, fifty miles up the Matarre River. Despite the presence of the landing craft — a French military mission supervised the training of the local troops — life in the nondescript port at the river mouth seemed entirely normal. Watched by a group of children, a jeep was at that moment being unloaded. People wandered along the wharves and through the arcades in the main street, and a few outriggers loaded with jars of crude palm oil drifted past on the dark water toward the native market to the west of the port.
Nevertheless, the sense of unease persisted. Puzzled by the dim light, Dr. Sanders turned his attention to the inshore areas, following the river as it made a slow clockwise turn to the southeast. Here and there a break in the forest canopy marked the progress of a road, but otherwise the jungle stretched in a flat olive-green mantle toward the inland hills. Usually the forest roof would have been bleached to a pale yellow by the sun, but even five miles inland Dr. Sanders could see the dark green arbors towering into the dull air like immense cypresses, somber and motionless, touched only by faint gleams of light.
Someone drummed impatiently at the rail, sending a stir down its length, and the half-dozen passengers on either side of Dr. Sanders shuffled and muttered to one another, glancing up at the wheelhouse, where the captain gazed absently at the jetty, apparently unperturbed by the delay.
Dr. Sanders turned to Father Balthus, who was standing a few feet away on his left. "The light — have you noticed it? Is there an eclipse expected? The sun seems unable to make up its mind."
The priest was smoking steadily, his long fingers drawing the cigarette half an inch from his mouth after each inhalation. Like Sanders, he was gazing, not at the harbor, but at the forest slopes far inland. In the dull light his thin scholar's face seemed tired and fleshless. During the three-day journey from Libreville he had kept to himself, evidently distracted by some private matter, and only began to talk to his table companion when he learned of Dr. Sanders's post at the Fort Isabelle leper hospital. Sanders gathered that he was returning to his parish at Mont Royal after a sabbatical month, but there seemed something a little too plausible about this explanation, which he repeated several times in the same automatic phrasing, unlike his usual hesitant stutter. However, Sanders was well aware of the dangers of imputing his own ambiguous motives for coming to Port Matarre to those around him.
Even so, at first Dr. Sanders had suspected that Father Balthus might not be a priest at all. The self-immersed eyes and pale neurasthenic hands bore all the signatures of the impostor, perhaps an expelled novice still hoping to find some kind of salvation within a borrowed soutane. However, Father Balthus was entirely genuine, whatever that term meant and whatever its limits. The first officer, the steward and several of the passengers recognized him, complimented him on his return and generally seemed to accept his isolated manner.
"An eclipse?" Father Balthus flicked his cigarette stub into the dark water below. The steamer was now overrunning its own wake, and the veins of foam sank down through the deeps like threads of luminous spittle. "I think not, Doctor. Surely the maximum duration would be eight minutes?"
In the sudden flares of light over the water, reflected off the sharp points of his cheeks and jaw, a harder profile for a moment showed itself. Conscious of Sanders's critical eye, Father Balthus added as an afterthought, to reassure the doctor: "The light at Port Matarre is always like this, very heavy and penumbral — do you know Böcklin's painting, 'Island of the Dead,' where the cypresses stand guard above a cliff pierced by a hypogeum, while a storm hovers over the sea? It's in the Kunstmuseum in my native Basel —" He broke off as the steamer's engines drummed into life. "We're moving. At last."
"Thank God for that. You should have warned me, Balthus."
Dr. Sanders took his cigarette case from his pocket, but the priest had already palmed a fresh cigarette into his cupped hand with the deftness of a conjurer. Balthus pointed with it to the jetty, where a substantial reception committee of gendarmerie and customs officials was waiting for the steamer. "Now, what nonsense is this?"
Dr. Sanders watched the shore. Whatever Balthus's private difficulties, the priest's lack of charity irritated him. Half to himself, Sanders said dryly: "Perhaps there's a question of credentials."
"Not mine, Doctor." Father Balthus turned a sharp downward glance upon Sanders. "And I'm certain your own are in order."
The other passengers were leaving the rail and going below to collect their baggage. With a smile at Balthus, Dr. Sanders excused himself and began to make his way down to his cabin. Dismissing the priest from his mind — within half an hour they would have disappeared their separate ways into the forest and whatever awaited them there — Sanders felt in his pocket for his passport, reminding himself not to leave it in his cabin. The desire to travel incognito, with all its advantages, might well reveal itself in some unexpected way.
As Dr. Sanders reached the companionway behind the funnelhouse, he could see down into the afterdeck, where the steerage passengers were pulling together their bundles and cheap suitcases. In the center of the deck, partly swathed in a canvas awning, was a large red-and-yellow-hulled speedboat, part of the cargo consignment for Port Matarre.
Taking his ease on the wide bench seat behind the steering helm, one arm resting on the raked glass and chromium windshield, was a small, slimly built man of about forty, wearing a white tropical suit that emphasized the rim of dark beard which framed his face. His black hair was brushed down over his bony forehead, and with his small eyes gave him a taut and watchful appearance. This man, Ventress — his name was about all Dr. Sanders had managed to learn about him — was the doctor's cabinmate. During the journey from Libreville he had roamed about the steamer like an impatient tiger, arguing with the steerage passengers and crew, his moods switching from a kind of ironic humor to sullen disinterest, when he would sit alone in the cabin, gazing out through the porthole at the small disc of empty sky.
Dr. Sanders had made one or two attempts to talk to him, but most of the time Ventress ignored him, keeping to himself whatever reasons he had for coming to Port Matarre. However, the doctor was well inured by now to being avoided by those around him. Shortly before they embarked, a slight contretemps, more embarrassing to his fellow passengers than to himself, had arisen over the choice of a cabinmate for Dr. Sanders. His fame having preceded him (what was fame to the world at large still remained notoriety on the personal level, Sanders reflected, and no doubt the reverse was true), no one could be found to share a cabin with the assistant director of the Fort Isabelle leper hospital.
At this point Ventress had stepped forward. Knocking on Dr. Sanders's door, suitcase in hand, he had nodded at the doctor and asked simply:
"Is it contagious?"
After a pause to examine this white-suited figure with his bearded skull-like face — something about him reminded Sanders that the world was not without those who, for their own reasons, wished to catch the disease — Dr. Sanders said: "The disease is contagious, as you ask, yes, but years of exposure and contact are necessary for its transmission. The period of incubation may be twenty or thirty years."
"Like death. Good." With a gleam of a smile, Ventress stepped into the cabin. He extended a bony hand, and clasped Sanders's firmly, his strong fingers feeling for the doctor's grip. "What our timorous fellow passengers fail to realize, Doctor, is that outside your colony there is merely another larger one."
* * *
Later, as he looked down at Ventress lounging in the speedboat on the afterdeck, Dr. Sanders pondered on this cryptic introduction. The faltering light still hung over the estuary, but Ventress's white suit seemed to focus all its intense hidden brilliancy, just as Father Balthus's clerical garb had reflected the darker tones. The steerage passengers milled around the speedboat, but Ventress appeared to be uninterested in them, or in the approaching jetty with its waiting throng of customs and police. Instead, he was looking out across the deserted starboard rail into the mouth of the river, and at the distant forest stretching away into the haze. His small eyes were half-closed, as if he were deliberately merging the view in front of him with some inner landscape within his mind.
Sanders had seen little of Ventress during the voyage up-coast, but one evening in the cabin, searching through the wrong suitcase in the dark, he had felt the butt of a heavy-caliber automatic pistol wrapped in the harness of a shoulder holster. The presence of this weapon had immediately resolved some of the enigmas that surrounded Ventress's small brittle figure.
"Doctor ..." Ventress called up to him, waving one hand lightly, as if reminding Sanders that he was daydreaming. "A drink, Sanders, before the bar closes?" Dr. Sanders began to refuse but Ventress had half-turned his shoulder, veering off on another tack. "Look for the sun, Doctor, it's there. You can't walk through these forests with your head between your heels."
"I shan't try to. Are you going ashore?"
"Of course. There's no hurry here, Doctor. This is a landscape without time."
Leaving him, Dr. Sanders made his way to the cabin. The three suitcases, Ventress's expensive one in polished crocodile skin, and his own scuffed workaday bags, were already packed and waiting beside the door. Sanders took off his jacket, and then bathed his hands in the washbasin, drying them lightly in the hope that the soap's pungent scent might make him seem less of a pariah to the examining officials.
However, Sanders realized only too well that by now, after fifteen years in Africa, ten of them at the Fort Isabelle hospital, any chance he may once have had of altering the outward aspect of himself, his image to the world at large, had long since gone. The work-stained cotton suit, slightly too small for his broad shoulders, the striped blue shirt and black tie, the strong head with its gray uncut hair and trace of beard — all these were the involuntary signatures of the physician to the lepers, as unmistakable as Sanders's own scarred but firm mouth and critical eye.
Opening the passport, Sanders compared the photograph taken eight years earlier with the reflection in the mirror. At a glance, the two men seemed barely recognizable — the first, with his straight, earnest face, his patent moral commitment to the lepers, all too obviously on top of his work at the hospital, looked more like the dedicated younger brother of the other, some remote and rather idiosyncratic country doctor.
Sanders looked down at his faded jacket and calloused hands, knowing how misleading this impression was, and how much better he understood, if not his present motives, at least those of his younger self, and the real reasons that had sent him to Fort Isabelle. Reminded by the birth date in the passport that he had now reached the age of forty, Sanders tried to visualize himself ten years ahead, but already the latent elements that had emerged in his face during the previous years seemed to have lost momentum. Ventress had referred to the Matarre forests as a landscape without time, and perhaps part of its appeal for Sanders was that here at last he might be free from the questions of motive and identity that were bound up with his sense of time and the past.
* * *
The steamer was now barely twenty feet from the jetty, and through the porthole Dr. Sanders could see the khaki-clad legs of the reception party. From his pocket he took out a well-thumbed envelope and drew from it a letter written in pale-blue ink that had almost penetrated the soft tissue. Both envelope and letter were franked with a censor's stamp, and panels which Sanders assumed contained the address had been cut out.
As the steamer bumped against the jetty, Dr. Sanders read through the letter for the last time on board.
Thursday, January 5th
My dear Edward,
At last we are here. The forest is the most beautiful in Africa, a house of jewels. I can barely find words to describe our wonder each morning as we look out across the slopes, still half-hidden by the mist but glistening like St. Sophia, each bough a jeweled semi-dome. Indeed, Max says I am becoming excessively Byzantine — I wear my hair to my waist even at the clinic, and affect a melancholy expression, although in fact for the first time in many years my heart sings! Both of us wish you were here. The clinic is small, with about twenty patients. Fortunately the people of these forest slopes move through life with a kind of dreamlike patience, and regard our work for them as more social than therapeutic. They walk through the dark forest with crowns of light on their heads.
Max sends his best wishes to you, as I do. We remember you often.
The light touches everything with diamonds and sapphires.
As the metal heels of the boarding party rang out across the deck over his head, Dr. Sanders read again the last line of the letter. But for the unofficial but firm assurances he had been given by the prefecture in Libreville, he would not have believed that Suzanne Clair and her husband had come to Port Matarre, so unlike the somber light of the river and jungle were her descriptions of the forest near the clinic. Their exact whereabouts no one had been able to tell him, or for that matter why a sudden censorship should have been imposed on mail leaving the province. When Sanders became too persistent, he was reminded that the correspondence of people under a criminal charge was liable to censorship, but as far as Suzanne and Max Clair were concerned, the suggestion was grotesque.
Thinking of the small, intelligent microbiologist and his wife, tall and dark-haired, with her high forehead and calm eyes, Dr. Sanders remembered their sudden departure from Fort Isabelle three months earlier. Sanders's affair with Suzanne had lasted for two years, kept going only by his inability to resolve it in any way. His failure to commit himself fully to her made it plain that she had become the focus of all his uncertainties at Fort Isabelle. For some time he had suspected that his reasons for serving at the leper hospital were not altogether humanitarian, and that he might be more attracted by the idea of leprosy, and whatever it unconsciously represented, than he imagined. Suzanne's somber beauty had become identified in his mind with this dark side of the psyche, and their affair was an attempt to come to terms with himself and his own ambiguous motives. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard. Copyright © 1966 J. G. Ballard. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.