When first I sat down, it was with the intention of beginning an adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game.” The adapting was to be done from memory, my memory, which contains no trace of that story’s original form. I’ve never read it, never had occasion to, but I’ve had several discussions regarding its content. Moreover, I’ve seen it adapted into various forms, both with and without acknowledgment. Lacking the foundation for a legitimate homage, I thought it an ideal project. But then I got to looking at my hands.
These hands of mine contain no stories, I said to myself. They’ve never killed anything. Nor have they mastered a trade. Sure, they’ve clumsily handled the female form and efficiently performed basic maintenance of an automobile, but none of that really adds up to a body of material from which to draw. Still, being an imaginative sort, I figured there was more to them than what I could see.
I telephoned an old friend, Scrivnus Johns, a colleague of mine from my days at Arbor U. “Johns,” I said, “what, dear fellow, can you offer on the subject of these hands of mine?”
This was how we talked at Arbor U, and, sadly, though our modes of speech had evolved along contemporary lines since then, it had proven a difficult habit to break when engaging one another.
Johns gave pause. Was he thinking? If thinking, was his thought centered on answering the question or, rather, on cultivating an answer that befitted our learning and my sensitivity?
“Johns,” I said, “out with it boy. Don’t spare my feelings.”
“Tavin,” he said. “Tavin, it is so strange that you’ve telephoned tonight, so very strange. And that it is on the subject hands, very strange indeed. Something has happened, something we must discuss in person.”
I recall eyeing the sheaf of empty paper upon my desk and the unlifted pen at its side. I saw my fallow hands and replayed Johns’s request, so distant and odd. It was all in the space of an instant, and at that instant’s conclusion I heard myself say, “Of course, Johns, of course. When? Where?”
Since our days at Arbor U, the two of us had drifted to opposite hemispheres. It was I who’d undertaken the travel, a condition that suited me well. So seldom was there good cause for flight. I must admit that the troubles of my old friend were far from my mind as I telephoned the family pilot and made the necessary arrangements. Rather, it was adventure that filled my thoughts, if only the adventure of jetting off to another continent for lunch and conversation.
Johns had a driver waiting upon my arrival, a burly man who reeked of bourbon in a way that suggested not a state, but a lifestyle. The drive was pleasant enough once we’d departed the city and escaped the clamorings and processions of a people put upon by the demands of their industrial tenders.
“That tree,” I said to the driver as we passed a gated orchard, “what fruit does it grow?”
The driver shrugged and offered a dismissive grunt. Then, as if recognizing his reply’s unsatisfactory content, he added a limp wave of his hand, a passive curse to the entire countryside. I remained silent for the remaining miles, sometimes gazing off at the jungle and the side roads, sometimes narrowing upon my hands, soft and white and without a hint of passion or deed.
Johns greeted me at the approach to his château. “Tavin,” he said. “Tavin Wilkes, you look precisely as you did in our senior annual.”
“And you,” I said, searching for the words, “Scrivnus, you look as though you’ve grown into your money and name.”
“My name… yes. Well, I’ll not keep you from settling in. Isabelle will show you to your rooms. When you feel up to it, meet me in the garden. We’ve much to discuss, old friend.”
I followed the one called Isabelle, dreaming as I walked, taking in the refined sensuality of the place. I lazed along, such that she was forced at several turns to either slow her pace or stop altogether, that I might catch up. Scrivnus had done quite well for himself. This palace of his had been the fruit of new money, his family having lost its legacy wealth to a miserable streak of mismanaged investments. His father had been a joke among his peers, a failure in every way. It’s anyone’s guess what odd grace had found the boy a place at Arbor, but most laid wage on pity. In this wise, my compliment (no matter it having been a delicate means of avoiding the subject of the haggard shape now cut by the man) had been something of a misstatement. Whatever luxury Scrivnus enjoyed, he’d built it for himself.
My quarters were, as one might expect from such a place, substantial and well appointed. I wearied of them quickly and soon found myself wandering the halls without accompaniment. It would have been unseemly to approach the garden so soon after my arrival; so it was with a gait of leisure that I made my way, taking the time to admire rooms of interest. The games room was inviting enough, and it was there where I enjoyed my first drink since landing, a worthy single-malt. Then there was the library, well stocked and unused. Finally, I came upon the master’s spectacle of a trophy room, more a catalogue of all things toothy and legged than a collection of hunted beasts, within which, to my surprise, stood the master himself.
“So much for the garden,” I said.
As if speaking to himself or, perhaps, to the mounted jaguar before him, Johns said, “The dust of our decadence.” The cheer he’d forged upon my arrival had shrunken from his voice, and in its absence his words fell as if weighted by stones.
“How’s that?” I said uneasily.
Johns twitched with a start. “Tavin,” he said, false cheer spilling from the word. “My apologies. I was lost in a thought.”
“No doubt captivated,” I said, “by the eyes of that fearsome fellow, there.”
Johns regarded the jaguar, stuffed mid-prowl, and smiled as if seeing it for the first time. “She,” he said suddenly. “Yes, she was quite a challenge–nearly had me in her trophy room.” His words trailed off. He’d become, once more, engrossed in thought. I was prepared to prod him, but it was unnecessary. He was no stranger to propriety, no matter his state. “Drinks,” he said. “Drinks in the garden. What say you?”
“Indeed,” I said. “That sounds just the thing.”
And what a garden it was. Done up in the Spanish fashion and fully attended, it was the sort of place where a man could lose himself completely in thought, particularly if that man were in possession of a fine drink and an equally fine cigar. Johns and I were just such men, and I found it enough to enjoy the space and its delights for some time before my ruinous compulsion to speak became irresistible. “Out with it, man, what urgent business has you mumbling to expired animals and rousting friends from their native climes?”
“Yes,” he said. “I imagined I might delay it a bit longer, but…”
Here began his long, boring tale. I raced to the bottom of each glass handed me, but no amount of alcohol could have made Scrivnus Johns entertaining. For much of the time, I stared at my hands. I pictured them on the arms of historical figures, that I might find a match in both form and function. It was a fruitless bit of dreaming, I do confess.
“…orchard…” I heard, to which I replied, “Yes, I saw it on the drive in. Your man was none too helpful on the subject of its fruit.”
“Arrejo,” said Johns, “think nothing of it. He’s not one for words… cursed place, really… professional confidences… that place alone… a drug… I took some, curious, you see… seeing things, strange things… a tiger… spear through the chest… never believe… a boy, a little boy…”
I wanted to hear him, the earnest shame and fear on his face was enough to inspire as much, but there was no focusing.
“…and killed it,” he said, “I killed it because it simply could not be. But it screamed, old boy, and bled. It insisted on being real with every bit of itself.” This I heard. I looked up from my hands and searched the eyes before me. How lost they seemed. I thought of those things my father had said of Johns the elder, and I thought on adages of apples and trees. “What have you done?” I said, half hoping he’d flee, question unanswered.
He did not.
“Take this,” he said, offering a small handgun.
It looked fine against my hand, and in holding it I felt suddenly like a spy or one of those fabled Dangermen. But I was no spy. Nor was I in league with any band so daring as the latter. I was a writer with the hands of a dandy, that alone. I placed the pistol in my pocket and stood. “Johns,” I said, “you’ve neglected to give a single word on the subject of these hands of mine.”
“These hands,” I repeated. “What say you?”
“Tavin,” he said, perhaps confused, “I beg you, enter the suite opposite yours… do you remember the way?”
“Yes,” I said, borrowing the driver’s limp gesture of hand for effect.
“Go there. Go and see. If you find… dear God… the words. You’ll know, Tavin. If it is as I fear, return to this spot; end me with that gun. Unmake this broken mind, I beg you. Remember the Arbor Oath.”
“Suicide?” I said. “Good, Christian suicide? This is why you’ve asked me here?”
Johns looked down. “I cannot think on it,” he said. “Just do as I’ve requested. I beg–”
“Yes, yes,” I said, “Yes, yes. Look, confirm, shoot, et cetera.”
Ever the sport, I obliged my host. I was forced to call for Isabelle’s aid, however, as the drink had more solidly attached itself to me than I’d previously surmised. I kept fine pace with her on this go. No sooner had we begun to walk, it seemed, than we had arrived, whereupon she left me to myself, quickly returning from whence we’d come. I reckoned it a good sign.
The room was, as one might expect from such a place, substantial and well-appointed. Aside from the telephone on the bedside table (ivory to my black), it was indistinguishable from my quarters across the hall. At the foot of the bed lay a crumpled mess of meat and blood. A side of beef was the first thing that came to mind, but closer inspection revealed it to be a dead child, three or four years in age.
The body looked as though some wild creature–a tiger, perhaps–had chewed upon it. I searched the room for evidence of such a beast but found only fresh linens and house slippers.
It can safely be said that I know little of dead bodies. I do not thrill after the exploits of popular detectives or pathologists. Nor do I frequent crime scenes or mortuaries. Yet, as I gave that child a second and more detailed examination, I became convinced it had been a corpse for far too long a period to match the timeline supplied by my host. It was beyond stiff; the meat upon it sagged. In addition to the damage caused by the jaws earlier hypothesized, it appeared to have been stabbed a number of times. These wounds, however, had not bled as I imagine they might, had their victim been living. The poor bastard may as well have stabbed a foot stool or a rubber tree for all of the effect it had had.
Though Johns had surely lost his mind, and though the oath of our alma mater was nothing to take lightly, I chose to leave my old friend living. Perhaps, I thought, this whole business had been some exotic fugue. Regrettable, yes, but equally regrettable would be a solution so rash as a bullet to the brain. No harm had been done, after all, and the world was likely better with one crazed Scrivnus Johns than any number of the sane no-accounts to whom harm might come at his hands.
With Johns in the garden awaiting release from his guilt, I calmly gathered my things and charged Arrejo with my return to the city. The darkness of the jungle roads gave me space to think, and the weight of the Johns’s pistol in my coat pocket led me to thoughts of my hands. They seemed so simple, so very foolish, but I couldn’t help thinking there was more to them than what I could see.
I poured myself a drink from the car’s cabinet and raised the partition. Secure in my privacy, I telephoned an old friend, Robert Connell, a colleague of mine from my days at Garner PFG. “Bob,” I said, “what, kind sir, can you offer on the subject of these hands of mine?”