Chapter 4 - The King of the Islets
As was tradition, at Christmas time, me, my wife and my daughter spent a week's vacation at my grandparents' house in Viana do Castelo. Some of the entries in the diary I had found occurred in or near this town, so I took the opportunity to investigate them.
One evening, after dinner, with the excuse that I was going to see an old friend, I left and headed for the Lima riverbank. That excuse wasn't even an absolute lie. In the afternoon, I had phoned a childhood friend and asked him to lend me his boat, and when I went to get it, we talked for half an hour before I got on board and started rowing.
I was there to investigate peculiar shadows and silhouettes and strange movements in the reeds that the author of the diary found in the islets near the mouth of the river. As usual, my predecessor hadn't investigated the matter in depth, hadn't even left the river bank, but I was determined to find out what was happening.
So, I rowed to the largest of the islets, popularly known as Camalhão, which was situated just over a hundred meters from the anchorage where my friend had his boat.
As soon as I got to the islet, I disembarked, attached the anchor to one of the huge clods, and entered a nearby gully. As the tide was very low, the banks of this gully, plus the long reeds, rose above my head so I couldn't see anything around me. But having spent a part of my childhood in those islets, I knew that gully would lead me to the heart of the Camalhão more quickly than crossing through the reeds.
Just beyond the first turn, I came upon a bad omen. From a puddle in the almost dry gully, the severed head of a man looked at me. It was swollen and showed signs of putrefaction and animal attacks. In fact, the part still submerged was, at that moment, serving as food for several river prawns.
After the initial shock, I came to the conclusion that I didn't have any reason to worry. It was not uncommon to find bodies and body parts in the river, victims of shipwrecks brought in and left behind by the tide. That head probably had nothing to do with the silhouettes I had gone there to investigate.
I kept advancing, taking a mental note to later warn the authorities about that head.
I had walked a few tens of meters when a tiny black figure jumped over the gully right in front of me. I immediately climbed the bank. When I reached the top, I couldn't see the figure, but the movements of the reeds denounced it, and I was able to follow.
I ran after it for several hundred yards, the reeds' tips piercing my pants and injuring my legs.
Finally, we reached a clearer area, covered only by low grass, located under the so-called New Bridge. It was only then that I saw what I was following: a small humanoid being, a little more than ten centimeters high. He disappeared behind a huge pile of tree branches and plastic containers, flotsam brought by the current and tides.
I kept following him, however, as soon as I reached the trash heap, I heard a low, slow voice coming from a nearby gully.
"Who are you? What are you doing in my kingdom, and why were you chasing one of my subjects?"
I was going to reply, but the creature who had spoken rose and left me speechless. It was a huge being almost twice my size. He couldn't be called fat, though he was anything but skinny, and in the moonlight, he looked as pale as ivory. He wore a crown made of interwoven reeds, which, coupled with the fact that he had mentioned his subjects seconds before, led me to conclude that he was the king of the creatures whose silhouettes my predecessor had seen.
The huge being came out of the gully and approached the pile of garbage. I stepped aside to give him passage, but I didn't dare try to run away. To my surprise, he sat on the flotsam, and only then did I realize that it was a rough throne.
"Tell me what you're doing here," the creature insisted.
I told him about the silhouettes and how I went there to find out what they were.
"It seems that some of my subjects need to be more careful," he said at last. "Especially now.
"Why especially now?"
"My subjects are disappearing. We don't know how or why. Which makes me distrust you. How do I know that you aren't a kidnapper? I saw you chase one of us."
I tried to justify my curiosity. I even told him about my trips to the city of the dead and to the fairy bar.
As I spoke, a bizarre creature emerged from the reeds. He walked on all fours, though his body was slender and contorted like a serpent's, and it had a vaguely human face. He approached the king, stood up on his back legs and whispered something in the king's ear. Then he disappeared again into the reeds.
The king let me finish my explanation.
"I think I believe you," he said at last. "If you were responsible for the disappearances, you wouldn't have let my sentries see you."
He nodded toward the place where the serpentine creature had disappeared.
Now that I was calmer, it occurred to me that the disappearances in the islets could be related to those of the dead, and I told the King what I had discovered in Gerês.
"Curious," he replied. "You need to go now. I'm gathering my people here and talk to them.
I didn't wait for him to tell me a second time. I went into the reeds and headed for my boat. As I traversed the Camalhão, I saw several small shadows in the river, in the space between the islets. After looking more closely, I realized that they were trunks and even small leaves carrying several of the creatures that I now knew to live there.
I saw the first land on the Camalhão but soon resumed the walk back to my boat, fearing that the king of the islets would expel me. Or worse.
I rowed back to shore and, after returning the boat, returned to my grandparents' house. As I drove, I couldn't stop thinking about the disappearances. Was there really a collection between those of the islets and those of the dead? I still didn't know enough about that parallel world to answer those questions, but I would keep to investigating. My curiosity would never let me stop.