by Daniel Wallace
You have arrived in Aristea.
The friendly natives of the small island republic welcome you as you step off the plane and into the sweltering midday heat. The sun is high and blinding in its brightness; it’s difficult to see anything at first. But you make them out soon enough, there, standing in a line along the edge of the tarmac: the Aristeans. They are small and the color ochre. Their native attire is an odd mixture of grass skirts and Polo shirts, and hats that once belonged to airline pilots and ocean cruiser tour guides, who came here years ago and never left. Many who come here fail to return to their points of origin – such is the magic of Aristea. It says so in the travel guide.
The welcoming ceremony, which begins immediately, is complex, bizarre and macabre. As you walk, suitcase in hand, toward the line of smiling men and women, diminutively precious, they begin to hop up and down to a syncopated beat. They clap their hands and sing a song whose lyrics are at once haunting and cheerful. Then, as if on a cue only they can hear, they disappear into the surrounding brush, all fifteen of them, and return, moments later, holding chickens – live chickens. Some have two. You had been told about this part of the ceremony, but somehow you thought your travel agent had been exaggerating. She wasn’t. If anything, she was trying to shield you from the gruesome reality of what is to follow.
They strangle the chickens with their bare hands. One by one the chickens cease their clucking, their wings stop flapping, and all is silence. The feathered corpses are held high in the air, triumphantly, for your inspection. The natives proudly display their handiwork. Some of the chicken’s heads have been taken right off. Blood drips over their fingers and wrists. You nod, smiling. What else can you do? Then the singing resumes. This ceremony continues for another fifteen minutes, there’s more dancing and singing, more hopping around, but after the chickens you don’t remember much. Your mind is in a kind of fog. You look around you, suddenly feeling lost, and you wish your wife were here to help, to guide you. You wonder what it was that made you come here, all by yourself, the first vacation you’ve taken apart from her in years.
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Daniel Wallace is the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he directs the creative writing program. He is the author of six novels, including Big Fish (Algonquin Books, 1998) and, most recently, Extraordinary Adventures (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).