The Collector

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Osborne was an explorer and collector of natural curiosities. He'd never wanted to do anything else. The third son of a gambling father, who had laid waste to the family fortune, he knew he must make his own way. So he devoted every spare hour of his childhood and early youth to learning and honing the skills he would need to survive and pay his way as an intrepid explorer. Fortunately, the maternal grandfather ensured that he got a decent education. There was a good library at home and good teachers at school. He learned such diverse subjects as navigation and taxidermy. Being strong, healthy, eager, energetic, intelligent - all the qualities necessary for his chosen life - he soon became independent. By the age of 19 Richard Osborne was navigating a merchant ship in the south China seas. The adventure had begun.

The ship's captain found Osborne a fine navigator and good company. It didn't take long for a friendship to form between the two men. They worked hard. The whole crew worked hard but they also enjoyed periods of recreation in busy trading ports and beautiful, tropical bays and lagoons. At such times the captain was very indulgent with Osborne, allowing him to go off with a handful of men in search of exotic animals. A section in the stern of the ship was rented to him, where he could store the specimens. Most of the larger animals floated in kegs of preserving fluid but insects and other arthropods were dried. He never had time in those early days, to stuff any of them and in any case, the heat and humidity were far from ideal conditions for taxidermy. It was profitable and fascinating - precisely the adventure he'd fantasised about as a boy. There were certain species that were in great demand: the rarer and more colourful, the better price they fetched. From time to time he caught species that had never been seen before and some of these could be sold to true enthusiasts for a small fortune. Consignments of little corpses were sent back to an agent in Plymouth whenever the ship docked in a trading port. Osborne made a good living from this trade and by the age of 25 was able to give up navigation and take off wherever he fancied.

During the next 20 nomadic years the man Osborne, tough to begin with, hardened and coarsened out of all recognition. The novelty of travel and adventure wore thin. By the age of 45 he was just in it for the money and because he could imagine no other way of life for himself. At about this time he and his party came upon a village about a mile inland from the coast of east Africa. They had followed a fabulous looking bird with iridescent plumage and scarlet wattles. It was magnificent and would fetch a magnificent price. The bird flew to the centre of the village and landed on a perch beside the largest and most opulent looking hut, squawking in alarm. An ancient looking relic of a man stepped out of the hut and fixed Osborne with a jaundiced eye. He rattled off an angry volley of sounds that Osborne took to be a strong rebuke. There was a local interpreter in the hunting party who came forward and gave his boss a rough translation of the old fellow's speech. The bird was sacred and the shaman threatened blood chilling curses on anyone who harmed it. Osborne was unimpressed. The villagers were poorly armed and his party had guns. It would be no contest. He meant to have the bird. Stepping forward he raised his rifle. The old man stepped in front of the gun and spoke again. The interpreter informed Osborne that the man, seeing that his threats were futile, was negotiating for the bird's life. He could offer the great hunter something priceless, if only he would spare the bird. Osborne was interested. The man beckoned him and his interpreter in to the hut. The interpreter was reluctant to go. He was frightened by the curses even if the boss was not. At length he was persuaded.

The gist of the negotiation was this. The old shaman demonstrated some of his powers to Osborne - not an easy man to convince, but he was convinced. He was startled by the inexplicable things he saw in there. It was explained to Osborne that the old man was really very ancient. He claimed to be hundreds of years old. He claimed to have the secret of eternal life. This was not easy to demonstrate, but he managed to satisfy the interpreter and the interpreter must have persuaded Osborne because he got him to agree to spare the bird's life in exchange for the gift of unending life. The old man duly performed a ceremony that Osborne found ridiculous and humiliating, in which he was required to drink some vile concoction and do some other undignified things. At the end of it Osborne felt no different and concluded the old man had made an ass of him, so he killed the bird anyway and took it back to the ship. The enraged shaman, with tears of grief and frustration streaming down his cheeks, hurled curses at Osborne's back as he left.

Osborne passed away in his 50th year, racked by fever, but his life continues. A diabolical curse was fixed upon his very soul. Now his tormented mind is cycled through the dried and pickled corpses of the Specimens he collected, one by one. He slowly awakens to consciousness, in this pickled fish, that stuffed bird or yet another pinned butterfly or beetle. It always starts with gradually increasing anguish as the dead nervous system comes to life - or at least a sort of living death - and delivers impossible messages of awful, unremitting pain. Memories and the powers of reason return drip by drip until they reach a critical point of recognition, then panic sets in. The panic is overcome and the drip drip of returning memories resumes. It takes years. Eventually the accumulation of memories reaches a critical mass and understanding hits him like a bolt of lightening and the shock blasts him into merciful oblivion. Then it all starts again, in another wretched Specimen. There are thousands of them.

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