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The third wall - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

By and by Cristo began finding his way about in the new strange world. It didn’t take him long to find out that the animal population of the orchard was quite tame. With some he was soon even on terms of friendship. The dogs with jaguar skins, the cause of such scare on his first day in the orchard, followed him about, licking his hands. The llamas ate out of his hand. The parrots perched on his shoulder.

The orchard and the animals were tended by twelve Blacks as dumb as Jim. At any rate Cristo never heard them speak. They all went silent about their business. Jim was a sort of superintendent over them. He gave them their work and saw that they did it. Cristo, much to his own surprise, had been appointed his deputy. His duties were not hard. There wasn’t too much work and the food was plentiful. But the oppressive silence of the Blacks soon began to get him down. Besides, he was convinced that they had all had their tongues cut out. And every time Salvator summoned him to the office-not that it was often-Cristo thought his turn had come. But then something happened to allay his fears.

One day he came across Jim lying fast asleep in the shade of an olive tree. The Black was lying on his back, his mouth hanging open. Cristo used the opportunity of looking for the Black’s tongue and, to his relief, found it there all right.

Dr. Salvator’s day was well-planned and busy. From seven to nine he received patients, from nine to eleven he operated upon those who required it. Then he went to his villa to do laboratory work. This involved operating on animals and studying them. An experiment over, the animals went back to the orchard. Cristo, who dusted the rooms in the villa, managed occasionally to slip into the laboratories. The things he saw there would haunt his imagination for long afterwards. Hearts and kidneys carved out of their bodies lived on in glass jars. Amputated limbs seemed to be waiting for their owner.

His skin crawling Cristo hurried out. He preferred to be among the live monsters of the orchard.

Salvator seemed to trust the old Indian, but not beyond the third wall. And it was just what was on the other side that Cristo was so eager to see. One midday, when everybody was having a siesta, he stole up to the wall. Children’s voices floated over to him. They spoke an Indian dialect he knew but intermingling with them, as if in a quarrel, there were other voices, thin and squeaky, speaking what seemed to Cristo a very peculiar brand of Indian.

Coming across Cristo in the orchard one day Salvator halted and, looking him straight in the eye as was his wont, he said:

“You’ve been with me a month now, Cristo, and I’m pleased with your work. One of the servants in the lower orchard has fallen ill. You will replace him. You will see many new things there. But mind that little conversation we had about your tongue unless you want to lose it.”

“I’ve almost forgotten the use of it with all your dumb Blacks around, Doctor,” said Cristo.

“Excellent. Silence pays, you know. Incidentally, do you know your way in the Andes?”

“I was born and bred in the mountains.”

“Splendid. I will soon want to replenish my zoo with a new batch of birds and animals. I’m going to take you with me. You may go now. Jim will take you to the lower orchard.”

Accustomed though he was to the wonders of the place, Cristo had more surprises coming.

In the spacious sunlit meadow naked children were playing with monkeys. Almost all Argentina’s Indian tribes seemed to be represented there by children ranging in age from about three to twelve years. All of them were patients of Salvator’s. Many had undergone complicated operations and owed their very lives to Salvator’s skill. Once round the corner the children recuperated playing in the orchard till they were strong enough to be taken home.

Tailless monkeys with not a tuft of hair on their bodies kept them company. But what really amazed Cristo was that all of them could speak some kind of Indian. They joined in the children’s games, quarrelling with them and shouting in thin high-pitched voices, though on the whole they were quite a friendly crowd.

Sometimes Cristo was inclined to think they were human beings after all.

The lower orchard, as Cristo soon found out, was smaller than the other one, sloped steeper seawards and ended in a big cliff rising sheer like a wall. Somewhere behind it was the invisible ocean, revealed by the roar of the surf.

A closer look showed that the cliff was man-made and, in fact, nothing more than another wall, a fourth one, for in it Cristo found an iron door, painted grey to blend with the cliff and furthermore screened by a thick growth of wistaria.

Cristo listened. The roar of the surf was the only sound. Where did the small door lead to? The seaside?

Suddenly there was a hubbub of children’s voices behind him. Cristo wheeled round and saw the children staring up into the sky. He also looked up and spotted a small red balloon slowly floating up and across the orchard. The wind was heading it seawards.

An ordinary children’s balloon, it seemed to stir Cristo deeply. As soon as the servant that had been ill reported for work, the old Indian went to see Salvator.

“Soon we’re leaving for the Andes, Doctor. It might be some time before we come back. May I go and see my daughter and her child?”

Salvator didn’t like his servants leaving the premises, and he didn’t speak at once. Cristo stood waiting, his eyes boldly meeting the cold stare of Salvator’s.

“Remember your pledge,” said Salvator. “I wouldn’t like you to lose your tongue. You may go, but see you’re back within three days. Wait! “

Salvator went into the other room and brought back with him a suede leather pouch.

“There’s something for your granddaughter — and for your silence too.”

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