From H.P. Lovecraft: Hero or Hack? by Martin Storch:
There are many who, even now, dismiss Howard Phillips Lovecraft as a mere “pulp” writer, a terrible stylist, a one-trick pony. This dismissal does no harm to Lovecraft—who of course is quite dead—but does a serious disservice to the readers of today and tomorrow, those who would gain a sense of his cosmic horror, of our complete insignificance to anyone or anything beyond ourselves. By reading Lovecraft, one gains a sublime realization of our tininess, of our utter vulnerability against the forces of nature and time, not to mention the losing end of the bargain we would be at should a powerful alien race ever encounter us. We would be, as H.G. Wells said, as ants beneath their shoes. They would not necessarily be malevolent, but that hardly matters—what matters is that they could crush us and destroy humankind without even noticing we were there. We are like gods to the animals of Earth; aliens with the technological ability and will to travel as far into space as required to visit our humble planet would make them like gods to us.
If we ever are to resist such a threat—or, if resistance be impossible, then at least understand our own demise—then we could do far worse than to drink deeply of the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu—or something indistinguishable from Lovecraft’s fictional überbeing, whether all-out nuclear war, or class riots, or a plague like no other—may very well rise to consume us one day. We may not be able to fight it, but at least we can spare ourselves the devastating surprise that would come with such a horrifying end …
At just before 1300 hours UTC on 23 March, every human being on Earth was struck by devastating headache. In some cases, the pain was so severe that eyes screwed shut, victims doubled over and sank to their knees, and any speech other than raw screams of agony was impossible. For others, the horror was less; for others, much more.
Fifteen seconds into the seizure, some lost sensation in every part of the body other than the area right behind the eyes, all consciousness focused involuntarily upon that locus of torment. That may be, strictly speaking, inaccurate: hands and feet might have still been relaying information to sufferers’ brains, but if so it went unprocessed. There was nothing in the mind or body of billions of people other than the piercing white-hot needles of pain.
Thirty seconds into the attack, some victims suffered spontaneous vomiting; others stripped off their clothing and ran naked in the streets; still others remained motionless except for rolling on the ground or floor, hands impotently pressed against their eyes as they screamed.
In slightly more than forty-five seconds, the assault relented and the pain ceased. In that time, however, the world was already a much different place.
Chapter 1: The Event
Palinurus, Southern Pacific Ocean
50°S 126°W, 20 meters from the Event
First Mate Constantine Costas wondered for the hundredth time how the air could be so cold and the sun still bake his skin. The ship chugged steadfastly through the water, which had to be just a chin hair under 0°C, the sunlight breaking down the smallest chunks of forming ice.
A few hundred miles south was the great white continent of Antarctica, which Costas had laid eyes on a few times as they tracked a whale pod as far as they could go. He found it more boring than staring out at the open sea, which he found extremely boring in the first place. But at least there was life in the sea. The frozen ass-end of the world didn’t offer anything but escape routes for whales trying to lose the Palinurus among the ice floes.
A few hundred miles to the east was the tip of South America, with Tierra del Fuego on the far side and nothing on the near side except, again, ice. A thousand miles to the north was nothing. Two thousand miles to the west was more nothing. Cigarettes were his best friend out here—better than anybody on the boat, that was for certain—but there had been so little whale activity that he’d kept himself entertained by smoking two packets a day instead of his usual half a packet enforced by his wife when he was home and when he packed his kit for this voyage.
He finished the last puff of his last cigarette from his last packet, flicked the butt over the starboard side and turned to go below and see if he could start up a poker game to win more smokes. He was just wondering what he could put up as ante when he saw out of the corner of his eye: The swell.
The swell portended that something huge was about to break the surface of the water. The only thing Costas had seen that created a swell this huge was a whale, or maybe two whales in unison for one of this size. The ocean itself seemed to heave like a mother’s belly as the baby shoved its way out for birth.
The swell grew in width as the sailor watched. He wondered why the bells hadn’t sounded and his mates weren’t shouting as they usually did when such a leviathan was within reach. They hadn’t seen a whale in two goddamn weeks—where was everybody?
Costas’s eyes grew wide as he watched the mountain of water rise from the surface, its full size only now becoming apparent as it blocked the horizon along the entire starboard side.
This was no whale. This was … an island forming right in front of his eyes? A nuclear test beneath the waves that no one had warned shipping about displacing the water? Maybe that’s what it was, because now the mountain of water seemed illuminated from below by a sickly green light. Was that what nuclear bombs looked like going off underwater?
The mountain finally stopped growing and now the green light filled the swollen water, the surging water covering the green light going up and up until the swell broke and—
Every blood vessel in Constantine Costas’s brain aneurized and reduced the inside of his skull to boiling paste that spurted from his ears and his eyes and his mouth before he collapsed to the deck. Every member of the Palinurus, awake or asleep, suffered the same furious melting of their brains even before the ship capsized and sank to the depths of the icy ocean.
Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
54°S 68°W, 2200 km from the Event
There is nothing more boring than a café in a busy town, Marko Horvat thought as he idly tapped his wedding ring against the porcelain of his empty cup. The city of Rio Grande had swollen to 70,000 souls over the past few years, relocation driven by the industrial boom of factories making those laptop computers, Internet-books, whatever people called them. Marko did not own a computer and could not foresee ever needing such a machine. Over his fifty-three years at the bottom of the world, the son and grandson and great-grandson of sheep farmers turned businessmen turned investors, he had led a louche life of leisure that suited him perfectly, living off the sale of those farms to the computer factory people. Ironic, he thought for the thousandth time as he raised his cup for another cortado, the espresso keeping him warm as he sat outside on that chilly morning.
Marko had history on the archipelago. He never missed Croatia because he had never visited the place, had no interest in it. His father had visited once, he said, to find a Croat wife, this in order to please Marko’s grandfather, who had come to the southern tip of Argentina as a small boy with Marko’s great-grandfather. Marko’s grandfather had a few childhood memories of the homeland and wanted Marko’s father to see “where he came from.”
Marko’s father hadn’t been impressed by Croatia, and he disagreed with Marko’s grandfather that the local Fuegian women were degenerate in some unspecified manner. He did his duty and searched for a wife among the villages and cities of Croatia, but in the end came home alone and married a Fuegian girl, Marko’s mother.
Marko smiled at the thought of his mother as he gazed out upon the choppy waters of the southern Atlantic. Because of her, he was truly Fuegian. More than a hundred years of history tied him to this land, and his own wife—born in Rio Grande herself—had blessed him with two sons. He had said to his wife many times that he expected them to follow in his footsteps as gentlemen of leisure, idle investors in a town obsessed with business. The cafés would never be totally ignored as long as there were men singularly devoted to not going to work.
His sons would have sons and daughters, who would have children of their own, and so on, with the mercurial weather and soil of Tierra del Fuego defining their lives, they would embody the terroir in which they grew. Indeed, in another hundred years, Marko thought, his family line—
A wave of red-hot pressure suddenly built behind Marko’s eyes and before he could finish screaming “Jesucristo!” his eyes were blown out of their sockets by the sheer force of his brain bursting into liquid. He fell onto the cement outside the café, his jellied eyeballs lying where they had squirted across the little table.
Marko could not hear it, but all through Tierra del Fuego, every man, woman, and child, every human shrieked in agony as the interior of his or her head exploded against the skull. Those farther to the north and west of the country experienced the horror for a few seconds longer than those closer to the Event, but all died before they could even scream.
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica
90°S 0°E, 4500 km from the Event
There were forty-six winter-overs at Polheim this season, mostly support personnel to keep the station running through the six months of continuous darkness and deadly cold every year, but several geologists, meteorologists, and astronomers as well. As every year, the night shift watched the three movie versions of “Who Goes There?” from 1951, 1982, and 2011 once the last flight had taken the summer scientists and crew. Doctor Hillary Becker’s favorite was John Carpenter’s The Thing, the one from 1982, where Kurt Russell and company battled … well, a thing.
That movie night had been more than two months ago. Since then, it had been utter isolation at Polheim. This was Roald Amundsen’s name for his first camp at the South Pole, but Hillary liked to use it for its old-school appeal. Even though she was a respected astronomer studying gravity waves in the darkness and dryness of the antipodean winter, she still drank whiskey with the boys and could usually hustle a couple of matchsticks at the billiards table in the game area.
Hillary used to joke that universities could afford to hire a couple of extra theoretical physicists because their lab expenses consisted of pencil, paper, and a couple of boxes of chalk. Here at the bottom of the world, however, she had access to observational equipment and data analysis tools that any cosmologist would postpone tenure for. The reason there wasn’t a long line of the astrophysically minded trying to get access was that it required a six-month stay in the loneliest, most inhospitable place on Earth. (It was even worse than physics department yearly reviews.) Hillary had survived a battery of psychological tests and health evaluations before being allowed to sign on for the long winter’s night at the South Pole.
She could take it, though. She hadn’t married or birthed children, instead setting her brain as her most important organ, the functioning of which she supported with not only mathematical and scientific study but also literature, anthropology, music—anything she could get her hands on, she dedicated herself to making room for it in her beautiful mind. She was on a fast track to the Nobel Prize, one of the most brilliant women—people—on the planet.
In her wide reading, she had a soft spot for Weird fiction, especially that of one Howard Phillips Lovecraft. His tales of cosmic indifferentism and existential dread were the perfectly perverse companion to her attempts to learn just what was behind the veil of reality. Her gravitational wave work had pushed the theory of cosmic inflation—the most antithetical theory possible to ideas of a universe that would last—to the forefront, and she credited HPL with helping her get curious about it in the first place.
Hillary had just finished a game of chess, barely winning against the station’s hulking Russian electrical engineer who made sure the jet fuel kept Polheim’s generators running, when she felt something odd. Felt it and saw black stars shoot through her field of vision. She could see that Anatoly just across the table had been struck by something as well, getting a concerned yet distant look on his face.
“Nat, are you—”
Anatoly’s eyes went glassy, and he vomited blood down the front of his jumpsuit.
Hillary gasped at the sudden sensation swelling behind her eyes—
—and her head slammed against the bolted-down table as multiple aneurysms rocked her brain, paralyzing her but leaving her conscious even through the most shocking agony she had ever felt, like her eyes were going to be forced out of her head by hot pokers from the inside.
She couldn’t focus her eyes well and barely burbled when she tried to speak to get Anatoly’s attention, to beg for something to please God make the pain stop, but she could see blurrily that the Russian was slumped in his chair, his head back and mouth open, blood streaming from his nostrils. If he wasn’t dead, she hoped for his sake that he would die soon and be spared—
Aighhhhhh! Hillary absorbed another shock of pain, and another. She could feel her mind dissolving as her brain’s vessels split open in locus after locus, lokkiss aftr loaaaacus, plaaapbh affa nnnnng …
Always a scientist, even through the excruciation, Doctor Hillary Becker observed her own brain as it died, as every bit of learning she had ever done evaporated into the expanding aether, lost forever.
Mexico City, Mexico
19°N 99°W, 7717 km from the Event
Captain Arthur Green, captain of Qantas Flight 314, nodded at his copilot and spoke into his headset: “Mexico City, this is Qantas TREE WUN FOW-er requesting permission to land.”
“Roger, Qantas TREE WUN FOW-er, we’ll have the path for you in just a moment.”
Captain Green relaxed and stretched a little. It had been a long and uneventful flight from Sydney. No drunken passengers to be scolded by the flight attendants, not much in the way of turbulence at 40,000 feet, and his co-pilot not being overly chatty so he could do a little reading—how had he lived his entire adult life without ever reading Lovecraft? It was like taking a trip back in time, and to a much spookier age. But the book was put away as they prepared for landing at Benito Juárez International, checking the 777’s instrumentation one more time and giving one last weather update to the passengers.
“Qantas TREE WUN FOW-er, proceed to runway WUN FIFE.”
“Runway WUN FIFE, roger,” Green said, and adjusted the airliner’s heading. He had nineteen years of flight experience, but landings were the only part of the journey that ever bothered him. Taking off, as long as no one was taxiing onto the wrong runway, was no sweat. And nothing had ever happened in flight to Green except a blown engine one time and a fire that forced him to turn the plane around 200 miles from the departure airport. But he’d had a couple of landings that were pure terror. At twenty years he was going to retire, so he wouldn’t have to put up with landing protocol and the horror of landing in storms or on icy runways.
Computers did a lot of the work of flying now anyway, but both Captain and copilot always stayed alert to any sign of trouble in the process. Autopilot could land even a 777 in a dire emergency, but Green couldn’t think of a single case among his colleagues that this last resort was ever taken.
With that in mind, he made sure the autopilot was disengaged as they—
“Motherfucking Jesus Christ!” the copilot screamed even as Green could hear what sounded like all 416 passengers shrieking as well. An instant later, Green felt what had made them all cry out, and now he screamed, too. His head felt like something was trying to break out of his skull through his eyes. His hands jerked the wheel violently to the left, his brain unable to allow his eyes to open, the pain was so great. In fact, Green couldn’t feel his hands, so he was unaware that he had thrown the Boeing hard left with just 200 feet between them and the tarmac.
The plane barreled over onto its side and plunged earthward. By this time, Green, his copilot, his flight crew, and every passenger had already been struck with violent dizziness and vomiting, even unconsciousness; the plane’s spiral toward the ground wasn’t even noticed. Every person on Flight 314 was in too much agony to be conscious of anything but the tremendous, sharp pounding in their heads, in their eyes and ears. The world was shrunk down to three pounds of organ—the brain—which has no pain sensors. Instead, the brain relayed the excruciating signals coming from the eyes before it and the ears on either side, in the sledgehammer throbbing in the back of each person’s skull.
So no one on the plane realized or felt it when the left wingtip struck the ground and the 777 shattered into uncountable pieces, none larger than a dinner plate. The air traffic controllers didn’t notice either, since they had, to a person, collapsed in agony themselves.
In the forty-five seconds that it took the attack to relent, more than one hundred airplanes between Mexico City and the Event fell from the sky. Most passengers and pilots died on impact with the ocean or the ground. Those in planes just beginning their approach to the city—500 km or so closer to the Event—died instantly from single destructively painful aneurysms before they crashed. But thousands upon thousands died in the air, as well as millions south of Mexico City dying on the ground as their blood vessels first pulsed, then burst.
Planes landing in Guatemala, just 700 km farther from the Event than Mexico City, were able to do so despite their pilots’ sudden cluster-level headaches. This was because, although after a few seconds those men and women passed out from the erupting pain, they remained functional enough, long enough, to engage the very automated landing system that Captain Arthur Green had switched off just before the Event.
Those planes landed in Guatemala and in other nearby airports with the pilots, crew, and passengers all unconscious. The air traffic controllers, too, had been unable to endure the horrifying pain, and they passed out as well. But other than those souls on a couple of airliners that ran into others due to the sudden number of planes on the ground at La Aurora International, everyone lived. Inside the terminal, every human was on the floor or slumped in chairs for the five minutes or so it took for people to come back to consciousness. And, now, to fear.
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
9.5°S 147°E, 10780 km from 50°S 100°W
18 months before the Event
Against the advice of her dissertation committee, Kristen Frommer had devoted much of her doctoral research to tribes in the wilds of Papua New Guinea. Her advisors told her that those heady Margaret Mead days were long gone in this age of television and cheap air travel. With the outside world more of a factoring these people’s lives every year, they said, she had more chance of buying pot in Papua New Guinea than being cooked in one.
She had never needed to rely on funding to get her through graduate school—she got her trust fund when she turned 21 and promptly spent all of it on continuing her academic studies after getting her bachelor’s in anthropology. The money for the flight and stay in New Guinea ate up pretty much the last chunk of this money that was supposed to last her for several more years, so she had to make it count, prove her committee wrong, and get a good-paying academic job as a reward for finding something entirely new while she was down there.
With the welcome the natives gave her—wearing their sunglasses and Simpsons t-shirts—It took Kristen literally one minute to realize that her committee was right, that she was covering ground that had already been extremely well-trod. It was disappointing, especially since she had hoped to get some oral history of their cannibal cults from those who had seen it firsthand or even been a part of it. Cannibals were like catnip to anthropologists.
Not only had every native willing to talk to her already talked to a hundred other anthropologists, but they could in fact anticipate the questions she was going to ask, in some cases even seeming amused at her naïvete about how the world worked. It was humiliating.
Her second night there, watching from her hotel window an old—hell, almost mummified—beggar playing his two-string guitar and howling something vaguely melodic, she got an idea: Talk to the people nobody talks to.
So she got dressed and went down to the street where the ancient man sat leaning against a bank building’s wall. It was dark indeed except for the lights from her hotel and the streetlight that cast a yellow halogen haze over the beggar. He probably didn’t speak or understand English, but she had a $100 bill he would probably understand quite well and maybe take her somewhere she could find something worth researching.
“Skius,” she said in Tok Pisin, the official language of the country. “Yu save long tok Inglis, a?”
The old man looked at the slim blonde American in front of him, taking in all of her body. Fine, she thought, if letting a horny old guy stare at my susus makes him happy and willing to talk, stare away, pal.
“Ya or Nogat?” she said, slightly more emphatically. “Mi nidim halivim bilong yu.” (“I need your help.”)
He put the guitar aside. “I tok English at pretty girl.”
“What you want to tok?”
She sat down next to him and leaned on the wall, too, and tried to think of something to say that would convey both the gravity of her request as well as its unusual nature, but in simple English the old man would understand. “I want to know secrets.”
His mouth opened to let out a wheeze of a laugh. Not a lot of teeth in there. “What kind secrets you tok?”
“I want to meet a tribe—”
“Ha! You want cannibals, ya? Everybody want cannibals!” he said, and put a bony hand on her knee. “Mi sori, pretty girl, I give you truth. Nobody cannibals no more. Everybody American now!” And he laughed some more.
“Listen,” Kristen said, and threw ethics out the window by unrolling the $100 bill from her jeans. “I don’t care about cannibals, okay? I just want a tribe that’s different.”
The man’s eyes never left the money. “Different?”
“Yeah, some people that you maybe heard about in your many years. People who are weird, not like the other tribes. Take me to them and this is yours.”
His eyes now darted between her face and the money she held.
“Well?” she said, shaking the bill in front of his face. “You know these people?”
“Ya,” he said, “but you not want to meet them. Ol pis pipel. Ol longlong.”
“They’re ‘fish people’? Why are they all crazy?”
It was obvious that the old man didn’t want to say anything else, but he still stared at the $100 bill.
“Tell you what: you take me to them and I give this to you.”
“It is night!” he whined. “And they are far.”
“Okay, no problem.” She moved (slowly) to put the bill back in her pocket and stand up.
“No! No, I take you to them. But you hire car, not me.”
Quite satisfied, Kristen stood and helped the old man get up. “I’ll get my suitcase and gear, and you wait in the lobby until I come down, okay?”
“Okay,” he said. As they started toward to hotel, however, he called, “Wait! They no let people like me in the fancy.”
“They let you in if I tell them to let you in. I’m an American.”
The old man was as good as his word and earned his hundred dollars. The distant spot he directed the driver to was inhabited by a tribe of some sort, and indeed their skin looked like it was drying into fish scales, their odd faces like … well, fish.
They dropped her off with this strange new group, Kristen instructing the driver to come get her at noon three weeks hence. It wasn’t until the jeep was just out of hearing range that she spied the first Coke can.
Aw, goddamnit, she moaned to herself, but shook it off and approached the villagers with the humble Papuan greeting she had learned in her studies. To her surprise, they welcomed her even without advance warning that anyone was coming to see them. They didn’t speak English but they did know Tok Pisin, a stroke of luck this far into the jungle.
She had three weeks to spend rooting out some secret of their tribe and developing an understanding of their practically Stone Age ways to better shine a light on modern life, etc. and so on. Whatever the “weirdness” of these “fish people” was, she was determined to root it out, examine it, and publish, publish, publish. What strange rituals would she witness? What eldritch ways of their ancestors would they bring to their evenings?
Three weeks. Time to learn and understand.
“All in,” Kristen said two weeks and five days later at the makeshift poker table and well-worn playing cards. The tribe elder made a “Bah!” sound and threw in his hand.
“Winner winner, chicken dinner,” another of the elders said, in completely the wrong context. Kristen sighed.
She had been a sucker for the old beggar, reduced to spending her precious three weeks playing Texas Hold’em poker with the tribe’s elders and for the baubles she had brought to entice them into telling her the incredible secrets of their people. They put up coin money from all over the world, further depressing Kristen, but they had good sweet potato mash alcohol. It was fun, even if it had as much of a bearing on what she would write for her dissertation as staying home in Baton Rouge watching TV would have.
The tribe elder’s grown son joined the game. He looked strong but also resembled Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars, as so many of the tribe’s men did. Was that it? Was the fact that they had facial aberrations their “big secret”? She wasn’t studying physiognomy, for Christ’s sake.
They had all been drinking the mash alcohol and getting crazy with big bets with no cards to support them. Then, at what had to be after midnight judging by the placement of the full moon, right in the middle of a hand the son of the tribe’s elder said the word “Tulu.”
At first Kristen didn’t realize anything unusual had been said, since the tribe unavoidably used some Tok Pisin words she didn’t know. “Tulu” didn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary, especially as the son said it in anger folding what must have been a initially promising hand. The word, dropped in the middle of what was essentially “this sucks” must have been an expletive or interjection, not exactly the stuff of tenure-track research.
She didn’t notice anything about the word, but she sure as hell noticed how every one of the Papuans stiffened at its utterance. They all looked up from their cards simultaneously, fixing the chief’s son with a look first of surprise and then with annoyance and finally turning their eyes furtively as one to the anthropologist. She could see they were obviously trying to gauge if she had picked up on what the younger man had just blurted.
That was interesting. Was it some kind of taboo word? Maybe this was the kind of thing that could get her hired on at a Carnegie I institution. She said as casually as she could, using the slightly unethical trick of imitating the lilt of the Papuan tongue: “Tulu?”
There was no mistaking that the younger man had done something he shouldn’t have in saying this word in front of an outsider, because every man narrowed their eyes at him before they turned to Kristen with expressions that were patently opaque. The elder said in Tok Pisin with a dismissive gesture, “Tulu is a very inappropriate word to use among … guests. You are our guest for a few more days, so we do not to send you off with that. Apologize, Kip.”
“It was very rude of me,” Kip said in the pidgin with doleful eyes as he looked at Kristen. “I do apologize most contritely.”
“I thank you,” Kristen said to the young man, as not to accept an apology because “none was needed” was extraordinarily rude. “But since I’ve heard this word now, what does it mean?”
The elder paused, then spoke an outright lie: “It is just a word. An, ehhh … what is the English for it? Yes! An interjection, like your hey or fuck.”
She nodded, keeping her professional demeanor even though the excitement within her made her want to press the elders for more, for more, for more. This word Tulu was plainly something powerful, so powerful that they somehow forgot that Kristen knew their native language and knew its interjections. This may very well have been an “inappropriate word” to use with an “outsider” (surely the Tok Pisin word that the tribe elder thought to use but decided against before he used “guest”) but it seemed like it meant something more to the this “weird tribe” of Papua New Guinea, something they would not share with those outside their cultural circle of fish people.
Stop that, she admonished herself.
So Tulu wasn’t a curse word, wasn’t an interjection, and, judging by the furtive reactions of the elders to Kip’s utterance, wasn’t exactly a blasphemy or insult. A blasphemy would earn disapprobation, but not panicked expressions and narrowed, warning eyes at the one who had misspoken.
She didn’t know if this was a term from their native animism—or maybe fish worship, which she had never come across in her research—but it held all the signs of being a religious name spoken out of turn. Again, not a blasphemy, as the elders didn’t just wag their fingers at Kip. Tulu was an important, secret word in some hidden religion of these natives.
Kristen bet Tulu was a god or perhaps demon. Letting her enthusiasm get the best of her, she asked, “Do you worship this Tulu? Or fear it, maybe?”
The elders’ eyes opened wide, as did Kip’s, who had an added fear as he quickly inventoried the openly horrified expressions of his father and the rest of the elders. Each of the older men rose, turned, and went back to their huts, Kip following them but looking back at Kristen and shaking his head, whether at her or at himself, she couldn’t tell.
Not one member of the tribe spoke a word to her the rest of her visit.
But Kristen didn’t care. She was onto something. Tulu clearly meant something that they didn’t want anyone outside to know about. She got picked up right on time by the jeep, flew fourteen hours back to New Orleans and blew forty dollars on a taxi to her apartment near LSU. The first thing she did, even before unpacking, was hit the Internet and got every bit of information on Tulu that existed.
Which was nothing.
The word was mentioned in certain databases as existing in various old science fiction and pulp magazines and novels, but there wasn’t a single mention of the word (a name?) in any academic journals, popular science sources, or even field notes of any anthropologist anywhere, at any time.
It took Kristen two weeks before she gave up. There was nothing to be learned about this word—this devil or god or sacred ancestor or whatever it could represent—and the only way she could ever find out anything more about Tulu would be to travel again to visit those fishy natives again. Those same Papuans who sealed themselves away from her, not even holding the feast in her honor that researchers always enjoyed their last night with them, and refused to speak a word to her ever again.
She filed Tulu away in her brain and knew she would never hear the word again, let alone learn what it meant.
Kristen Frommer, PhD but ABD, could not have been more wrong.
Louisiana Bayou, USA
30°N 92°W, 9000 km from the Event
Following the debacle of Papua New Guinea a year and a half earlier, when Kristen hadn’t found a damned thing that could be considered publishable information. Thus she had languished under a two-year contract as an adjunct at her alma mater, at the lowest rung of the academic ladder, the ninth level of career hell. She taught a 5/5 load, no allowance being made for research, teaching next to retired high school teachers who had gotten bored not being in a classroom as well as current grad students trying to supplement their meager funding.
She taught from the LSU-approved textbooks, using scanned and uploaded materials of her own to inject a little bit of her personal research and experience (ha!) into the classes. Most of the students in the cavernous lecture halls paid her little attention, texting or surfing the Web while she lectured, perking up only when they heard something about an upcoming test. It was disheartening, to say the least, but she was proud she hadn’t given up on her research program, such as it was.
Not having the backing to fly halfway across the world and spend months imitating Levi-Strauss among the inhabitants of islands dotting the Southern Pacific, Kristen had taken up a much less expensive—not to mention less exhausting—research agenda in order to make her mark, to get noticed at long last and pull herself out of the career cellar that the trapdoor of Papua New Guinea had dropped her into. Her research aim, though relatively local, was almost completely untouched by academic investigation: the very strange “Negro voodoo cannibal cults” of the nearly inaccessible Louisiana swamps. (She would never use either term, of course—they were “African–Pacific Islander animist fusion worship groups” and “the bayou,” respectively.)
The few academic papers she had read about these people described them as the product of 150 years of degeneracy, the descendants of cross-breeding escaped slaves, shunned Cajun miscegenists, and (her point of entry) South Pacific native fishermen pressed into service by ships sailing from Australia to New Orleans, from where the men ran north into the mires to avoid more forced service.
She had no baubles with which she could bribe them. No alcohol or less-legal mood enhancers to convince them she was some kind of white angel. No technology to amaze them into telling her their stories. All of that was unethical as hell, anyway. This was America, these people were Americans, and this mucky hellhole was less than 300 miles from one of the biggest cities in the Southeast. They weren’t going to cook her in a pot and eat her.
At least, she hoped not. These were people whose great-grandparents had all thrown off their shackles. Certainly they would not imprison a well-meaning college professor (don’t you mean adjunct instructor?) and kill her and devour her. People knew she was coming there. Well, not exactly there, but the swamplands. The bayou. These degenerates of strong genetic lines wouldn’t be able to make her disappear, not like the few studies on these people—some dating back to the 1920s—claimed. The newspapers of those days still used the word “Negro” and “mulatto,” for Christ’s sake.
Thanks to Easter, Kristen had three days away from her own captors at the university during which she could drive up from campus to penetrate as far as she could into the swamps, then use a collapsible canoe and finally hip waders to access the last place the (cult) worship group was believed to have gathered.
It was Monday morning by the time she reached the geocached coordinates noted in her iPhone (a signal even out here!), but she found nothing but the usual blackened tree stumps, aggressive insects, and slimy, muddy water.
You’d have to be degenerate to live here, she thought with an ironic smile that was wiped off her face the instant she heard the ululations of some excited revelers coming from just around a cluster of mossy, spider-infested upgrowths. There must have been some kind of dry ground there, and she ran—if it could be called running, trying to move in her hip waders through the muck and mire—to catch a glimpse of what was going on.
As she swished her legs through the green water, she saw something familiar indeed, here in the last place she would have expected it: a circle of loinclothed old men around an altar of some kind (made of out what? There’s no stone around here), and around that circle a wider circle of women, old and young, holding hands, and around them still another, bigger circle with children of all ages, also with hands interlocked.
It is a cult! she thought, completely without evidence, and mentally slapped herself back to her senses. An anthropologist does not use that word. They were a worship group, certainly, but they could be Christian for all she knew at that moment. Pentecostal crazies over from northern Florida. Maybe Santeria practitioners from—
“Tulu!” one of the elders cried from the innermost circle.
Kristen stopped dead in her watery tracks. She could not have just heard that word.
“Tulu!” the second circle called in response.
Then the children sang out the strange word: “Tulu!”
Tears almost came to Kristen Frommer’s eyes. This was it. This was it! Her gratitude for a saved career and emotion at hearing that word again, that word that had shut her down, was so great that she abandoned all ethics and cried to them as well, in a voice heartier even than those of the children.
Every face gathered around that altar—now she could see that it was something that must have been carried here from a church washed out by Katrina—turned as one to face her.
Icy fear grabbed her by the throat. She was a dead woman. They were obviously going to rush her and kill her for seeing their secret rites—
“Welcome!” a man in the inner circle shouted with happiness.
Every face that turned to her was bearing a smile. They were odd, fishy-looking faces with severe deformities in some cases, but all with some kind of abnormality from advanced skin disease to bowlegs to webbed fingers. Except for the one who had spoken, who now was coming through the circles to greet her. He seemed to be the one non-afflicted person there, one with European features, although his face was darkly tanned.
“Welcome!” the man said again with a huge smile.
“Welcome!” the congregation echoed, with the same ebullient expression.
“Y-You speak English?” she stammered.
“Yes, of course we do. Well, I do,” the apparent leader said in his Noo Yawk honk, and the gathering giggled, not unkindly. They at least understood some English. “I am Howard, the tribe elder. But who are you?”
Tell the truth. Ethical anthropologists tell the truth. “I’m, um, I’m Kristen. I teach (freshmen and athletes) at Louisiana State University. I’ve come here to learn about your … worship group.” She decided to go for broke and added with much more confidence than she felt, “The Tribe of Tulu.”
Now the faces turned from surprised happiness to open astonishment.
Goodbye, cruel world, she said inside her head. Nice knowin’ ya.
But then they laughed. It started in that inner circle of old men, a new giggle that turned into a hearty laugh, and then into a veritable roar of hilarity. It took almost no time for the rest of the (cultists) worshipers to join them, and before Kristen knew it, she was smiling at them, almost laughing herself. Why, she had no idea, for these people were certainly about to slit her throat for finding their secret location.
“I’m sorry if I interrupted,” she said and waded one step closer to gauge their reaction. “If this is the wrong time—”
“Not at all, Kristen,” Howard said. “In fact, you’ve come at just the right time. It’s an amazing coincidence, in fact, or perhaps not a coincidence at all. Something entirely unprecedented is about to happen, and you’re here to see it. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if your arrival wasn’t the final signal that, truly, Tulu is rising. We felt it, and now that you’re here, the prophecy has been confirmed.”
That’s the end of the sample,