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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Mankowski

Writing Sample: Friends of the Kakamora

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

The following short story was originally published in the fantasy anthology, 'Grifty Shades of Fey'.


The Dead Man’s Chest opens at sunset.


No neon lights, velvet carpets, or roped lines draw attention to it. The bar’s entrance exists in a vacant alleyway between Kinzie and Grand. A rusty tin sign hangs above the door, displaying only the engraved icons of three skulls and an ’X’.


The dozens of pubs, restaurants, and cafes that surround the alleyway keep The Dead Man’s Chest from getting too much attention. The patrons who have found it say that it was by happenstance and the sweet aroma of tropical fruits. The nondescript door, the ominous tin sign, and the lack of windows, or insight into the establishment creates a sense of intrigue to all who find it.


But not all can enter when the bar is open.


For a limited time, a bamboo handle appears on the cast iron door. It isn’t by magic, but rather a series of well-crafted cogs and springs. The door itself, one might say, is a gateway with the humor of a cuckoo clock. Its intricacies are impressive and uncommon for a bar so close to downtown. Many people have found the door and its handle, but few have successfully pulled it open. Those denied entry argue that the door handle scans for fingerprints and allows entrance only to those on a private guest list. But those who enter steadfastly maintain that the door opens simply by luck.


And luck is only the first key to getting inside.


Once through the door, the Dead Man’s Chest greets its potential patrons by shepherding them through a dark and narrow hallway. The sound of waves, the string of sea salt, and the faint chirping of birds and insects occupy the empty hall. Guests walk through the dark in single file for seconds, minutes, and sometimes even hours. Not all of them make it to the bar. In the hallway, there are two possible endings: the first is another cast iron door with a bamboo handle. This door is the exit, and, without the option of turning back for a drink, the Dead Man’s Chest ushers the guest back out into the alleyway.


Turning left is the second key.


If luck should have it while walking through the dark, instead of the exit, guests then find a descending staircase illuminated in dark blue light. A towering wall of human skulls looms over the stairs as guests are beckoned into further darkness. Some joke that the skulls belong to those of patrons past, others raise their eyebrows in response and assert that the establishment used to be a Halloween shop. Glowing paint is childishly scrawled across the collection of skulls: Friends of the Kakamora. Once a guest comes to the top of the stairs, there’s no way of turning back. An unbearable sense of curiosity pulls them forward.


The descent toward the Dead Man’s Chest truly begins when the muffled claps of waves and the melody of birds dissipate into silence. The narrow walls gradually break free of lines and corners, undulating outwards and upwards into a cove. The staircase opens up on either side into an aquatic cove with bioluminescent fungus, pools of glowing blue water, and stardust gathered on stalagmites. The craftsmanship and engineering with the use of mirrors embedded between pillars of rock give the impression that the cavern stretches for miles in either direction. Smoke distorts the support beams and integral structures that support the city above. And just as quickly as the silent cave appears, it vanishes as brickwork and darkness again consume the staircase.


The long walk ends in a room with sand-covered floors.


A thunderous roar rumbles from above as a waterfall crashes against a glass-domed ceiling. The pouring water spills over to both the left and right sides of the room and adds itself to two floor-to-ceiling fish tanks. Only a few steps across the sand awaits the final door. It’s a large arched piece of driftwood, adorned with golden seashells and barnacles. This is the door that leads into the Dead Man’s Chest.


A sign reads, “Please empty your pockets and remove your shoes for the Kakamora.”


Only a few in the crowd smile knowingly as this is their first or second time returning. They take off their shoes and tuck them into bamboo cubbies mounted on either side of the door. Others whisper, disconcerted, to each other because not everyone from their party has made it into the room. They glance back at the staircase and check their cell phone which no longer has service. Most likely their friends or family have already been returned back into the alley and will not be allowed in tonight. Eventually, the guests give up waiting, and all the shoes in the room are removed and placed in bamboo boxes along with cell phones, jackets, and watches.


Then the door made of driftwood shudders and splits down the middle. Another masterpiece of cogs and springs operates silently into action. The two pieces of the door swing outwards, inviting the crowd inside.


Now they can enter. Now they can drink.

 

The Dead Man’s Chest is a beachfront paradise at night.


Once guests pass through the door, they find themselves on a narrow sand path between two large dunes. The air is thicker here. Their view of what’s ahead is obscured by a slow-bending curve of foliage and towering dunes. The door behind them dissolves into the fallen ruins of an island temple. Stones and toppled statues litter the pathway; the Kakamora’s great city is partially lost to nature’s own magnificent jungle. The crashing waves of the ocean call guests forward.


The scale and size of the Dead Man’s Chest is unimaginable.


The starlit sky above appears distant, but the full white moon feels close. Its light bathes the pink-tinted sand and highlights the softly glowing blue and purple shells. At the end of the dunes, guests arrive at a lagoon. Tin drums and a gently strummed bass guitar play from hidden speakers.

Centered under the moon is an ocean, its waves are as real as the ocean spray it sends onto the shore. A long bamboo bar is also situated under the moon with twenty stools. A transparent wall filled with bottles of elixirs, messages, and ships stands behind it. A single bartender smiles in greeting; their arms are inked in the ancient tales of the Kakamora.


A group of guests sits at the bar. It is their first time in the Dead Man’s Chest, and they are overwhelmed by the experience. They gravitate towards what they understand; towards what they expected. The guests are given menus that have been tucked into worn leather tomes. They have come for drinks, but the menus themselves are derived from the history of the Kakamora. To order anything is to request a tale of the inhabitants.


The Bartender is swift in movement but graceful in tone.


Guests watch as their drinks are made right before their eyes; a dazzling spectacle of acrobatic tosses and turns. Bottles are pulled from the shelf and replaced twice as fast. There is no time to write down the contents or measurements of the drinks. Elixirs, spice blends, chunks of fresh fruit, and if watched closely, a scroll or ship might be added depending on the order.


For guests seeking seclusion, the Dead Man’s Chest suggests a quieter space.

To the far right of the bar, tucked behind low foliage and scattered torchlight, there are private palm leaf thatched bungalows for two. Luminous glass jellyfish chandeliers slowly twist in the island breeze. Their tentacles chime and ring quietly. Plush feather seats are split by tea tables made of coarse island wood. Guests are invited to sit on the ground and listen to the natural sounds enjoyed by the Kakamora until the servers come.


Unlike the Bartender, the servers will not tell stories, show off their tattoos, or amaze guests with a spectacle of circus mixology acts. These servers will come and go as silently as the Kakamora, dressed in dark floral bandeaus and skirts. The servers don’t provide menus. They simply read the guests, and return with what they know to be the best beverage for sharing.


The drinks come in many different styled basins intended for two. The Conch Shell is a guest favorite with its fruit punch and spice-blended flavor with sugar crystal straws. It bubbles and froths cold mist as it floats to them from the bar.


This is only the beginning.


It doesn’t matter where guests stand or sit, a view of the sand-centered stage between the dunes and the bar will always be available for the many acts displayed by the talent in the Dead Man’s Chest. All performances involve fire.


Two twin fire batons are the first to arrive. They’re agile tumblers with playful expressions. They make the crowd laugh as they pretend to be envious of the other’s favor and applause. The flames at the ends of their batons change from sea green to a cheerful yellow, but their act ends when a flame-juggling high-trampoline jumper appears.


From out of the dunes half a dozen more arrive. Some, guests recognize, are the silent servers from the bungalow. The performance starts with a literal bang, and the jumpers fly up into the air. The sand that all guests had first crossed to be at the bar now find it to be rubbery and flexible. Clouds of pink dust ripple outwards as the jumpers and jugglers bounce, flip, and toss flaming clubs. They shout toward the audience, and the audience echoes the words back. It’s gibberish but feels nevertheless right upon their tongues. Some of the spectators become so enamored with the show that they join the jumpers. All are invited to soar up toward the sky, and this alone brings more laughter throughout the room. The performance ends with music. The flaming clubs flash like bright flares. It forces the onlookers to blink, and by the time they’ve wiped spots from their eyes, the jumpers are gone, and the ground is solid once more.


Finally, a master of the flaming whip arrives. Guests are shown back to their seats. The master and the bartender are hard to distinguish. Some who have been served glance back at the bar to see if the master and bartender are one and the same, but this is not so. The master tells the history of the Kakamora, and his flaming whip swirls, spirals, and bends into shapes that complement the tale. There is the occasional ‘crack’ that commands the audience's attention. The master says the fire is humankind’s gift to the Kakamora, and that it would be dangerous to let the Kakamora dwell in the dark. The stage and room fall silent. The whip sizzles and hisses in the sand for a moment. The audience finally remembers to breathe as the moonlight dims behind a set of wispy clouds.


The night is coming to an end.


A symphonic spectacle of fireworks and rockets battle against the sky. Without clocks or phones to judge the time, it is only by this event that anyone knows their time at the Dead Man’s Chest has finally come to a close. The moon will always triumph despite the guests' wishful thoughts. It descends into the ocean and pulls with it the ocean tide. Servers usher first-time visitors out through the dunes. Each is given a token if they promise to return. They collect their belongings and climb the stairs, there is no hallway at the top, only a black cast iron door with a bamboo handle. It opens into the alleyway between Kinzie and Grand. The first rays of daylight fall upon the city streets beyond.

 

The token is a brass compass that always points back towards the door with a bamboo handle.


After visiting the bar for the first time, guests are eager to get back. The token, however, is not a free pass through the first door. The brass compass is nondescript as if purposefully ordinary. It does not capture the experience of the Dead Man’s Chest the way many guests wish it would. The inside of the compass has an ordinary face with black lettering to mark the cardinal directions. The inside of the compass’s cover has the icon of two skulls with the words, ‘Friend of the Kakamora’.


Should a guest be lucky in the days, weeks, months, or years to come, the arrowhead of their compass eventually turns blue. The token does not behave this way for all guests, nor does it happen for all the members of a group at once. Those who are impatient wait the longest.


The door in the alleyway lets any first-time-returning guest with a blue arrowhead enter. Those who stand in the alleyway after being rejected by the door say that the compass is the key, but all compass holders know that the real key is luck, and nothing more.


The same dark hallway welcomes the returning guests and new guests alike, but the blue compass arrow guides those who’ve been invited back to the stairs and antechamber below safely.


These guests wait the longest under the thunderous waterfall, but the disbelief of returning has them abuzz with excitement. They share stories in hushed voices about their first time at the Dead Man’s Chest. Some haven’t been back in decades, and a few guests have only waited a day or two, but the details of the Bartender's tales, the jumpers and tumblers, the ocean breeze, and the perfect drinks bring them together - they are instantaneous friends, and friends of the Kakamora. The rest of the guests file in. Those who have lost friends and family in the hallway above are slow to surrender their shoes, cell phones, and watches. Then the door made of driftwood shudders and splits down the middle. It slowly peels outward and invites the guests in.


Now the returners are welcome.


Now they can drink.


 

The compass hums gently in the palms of first-time returners.


As a first-time-returning guest walks through the valley of dunes, their compass begins to vibrate. The blue arrowhead glows and points to the left side of the bar. The token offers to guide these guests away from the lagoon, the Bartender, and Bungalows; though the choice ultimately remains with each guest. Some stay and follow newcomers to the bar, eager to learn more about their friends the Kakamora. A few couples race towards the bungalows, having missed the intimate space during their first visit.


The rest of the first-time-returning guests move together in a pack towards the ocean waves that crash loudly against the shore to the left of the bar. Through shadows cast by the jungle trees, a bed of towering dark sea rock breaks free above the ocean tide. Moonlight illuminates a small series of steps cut out of the stone to give guests safe passage up. Their compasses spin clockwise endlessly. This is where the Kakamora wants them to be.


Circular booths lined in silver are embedded in the crown of sea rock with tables made of coral.


The guests intermingle and seat themselves. The view from their castle-like structure looks out onto the sand stage below. The back of the lagoon bar twinkles and glitters through the glass bottles filled with elixirs and ships. The sweeter smells of the lagoon however are lost to the fresh ocean breeze. The air is refreshing to the point of invigorating here, and once again the guests are chattering excitedly amongst themselves.


As they sit around the three large coral tables, it takes time before any of them realizes there are carvings on the table’s surface. The ocean spray that fills the grooves slowly catches the moonlight until the various rune-like carvings glow in a similar shade of blue as their arrowheads.


The centers of all three tables dissolve to reveal deep luminous pools of bubbling water.


Mermaids swim up through the center of the tables with bright and welcoming smiles. Their skin is pearly white with gemstone scales adorning their arms and torso. Their eyes are turquoise like the water they swim in, and their voices carry a calming melody. The guests are astounded. It is hard to separate the costume from the person swimming before them. The mermaids are used to the surprise and showcase their fins, gills, and webbed hands. They seat themselves on the inner edge of their pool. None of the guests are quite sure what to believe, but their attention is quickly given to the mermaids. The list of drinks is suddenly displayed in puddles of water on the table.


No individual drinks are served here.


Each group must decide on one drink to share. They are all friends of the Kakamora, and every drink can be the right choice according to the mermaids. The menu displayed in the reflecting pools shows a large conch shell beverage akin to the one served at the lagoon below. Another is made in a vibrant waterlily, and the final drink offered is served in an old sunken treasure chest. As each table makes its choice that particular drink vanishes from the menu. The first group of guests chooses the conch shell, as many of them have already enjoyed it in the bungalows below. The second group selects the treasure chest based on its mystical appearance. The final table is left with the waterlily, but they agree that they would have been satisfied by any of the three.


The mermaids dive back into their pools of water, giving the guests one final wave with their iridescent fins. It is the last time they will see their servers. Minutes later, large sugar glass bubbles float up from the water below. Contained inside are the drink orders for each table; a larger-than-life red waterlily, a silver conch shell, and a treasure chest detailed like the driftwood door.


The first-time-returners drink merrily as the fire performance starts. The baton twirlers arrive and pay attention to only those in the lagoon. Then the tumblers and jumpers come with their flaming clubs, and all the returning guests agree that the sea rocks provide a much better. Then the highest jumper plucks a star out of the sky and throws it out to them. White fairy dust explodes above the crowd. The guests cheer and wave and the jumpers free of flaming clubs smile and wave back.


Finally, the master returns with his fiery whip and tale of the Kakamora. Again he warns them that the Kakamora love fire, and it must be gifted to them by friends. Despite their distance from the stage, the guests hear the master’s voice clearly even while competing with the ocean waves. As their drinks are emptied, the guests then turn in their seats to catch a view of the moon. The fireworks begin.

 

To visit the Dead Man’s Chest a third time, a guest must have partaken in drinking from the treasure chest.


In the days, weeks, months, or years to come, guests that drank from the chest receive a golden coin in the mail with a handwritten invitation. One side of the coin has an engraved icon of three human skulls. On the other side, the words ‘Friends of the Kakamora’ is written. The invitation is made of thick paper, and it smells gently like vanilla and sun-warmed sand. The ink itself is written in fluid cursive that transitions between black, blue, and green without pause like ocean ripples.


Dear Guest, the letter reads, You are cordially invited to join us at the Dead Man’s Chest, we thank you for your continued patronage, and eagerly await your arrival. Please bring this token as proof of invitation, and wait by the driftwood door until all other guests have ventured towards the lagoon. Please then proceed to our exclusive Bamboo Room located in the lost city. Torches are required. No date need be specified, please arrive at your own time.
Sincerely, The Kakamora

By now, the guest knows the way to the Dead Man’s Chest, and seldom do they wait longer than a day or two to return. A guest returning for the third time waits beneath the rusted tin sign before sunset or shows up after many eager patrons have been rejected by the door. It is easy to spot a first-time returning guest because they flaunt their blue arrowed compass around before passing on. Gold coin carriers, however, are more protective of their token. They are the real friends of the Kakamora, and do not seek the envy of others. More so, to protect the exclusivity of the Bamboo Room, third-time-returning guests keep their coins pocketed and away from prying eyes.


When the driftwood door opens and the evening begins, only a few guests hang back as the rest of the crowd moves towards the lagoon. Now, the invitees to the Bamboo Room reveal themselves. There are three or four at most. Together they talk about the Bamboo Room and are pleased to know that none of them actually know anything about it. There are chat rooms and threads online dedicated to the Dead Man’s Chest, but none of them mention the Bamboo Room. They imagine the grandeur and honor of being invited to this place. None of them know what they’ve done to deserve it.


Instead of going through the dunes like everyone else, the third time returning guests make a sharp ‘U’ turn and walk into the ancient ruins of the forgotten city. The guests are pleased to discover that this side of the Dead Man’s Chest is equally immeasurable in size. The jungle trees and broken pillars block most of the moonlight behind them. A small basin of fire rests on a pedestal. Three torches lay in the sand beside it; one for each guest. The excursion into the dark stirs intrigue and further excitement. The guests whisper to one another as the stories told by the bartender and whip master come to mind.


One by one the guests light their torches and march into the fallen city. Between the thick shadows, they see clay bowls, broken wicker baskets, and small polished bones. The walk would feel more unnerving if it wasn’t for the path laid out by dozens of silver-painted sand dollars.


A bamboo door made of gold shimmers at the far end of the city.


Old chunks of stone and tree trunks form a wall between the guests and the Bamboo Room beyond. A small treasure chest identical to the drink the guests have all sipped from sits on a little stage by the door. In the chest, there are hundreds of other gold coins. There are no signs or instructions beyond what was written on the mailed invitation. Eventually, the guests return their coins to the treasure chest. Some do so while feeling slighted; the coin had become their medal of significance and prestige. Others are willing to surrender whatever it takes to enter the Bamboo Room. The group then waits.


The golden door slowly opens with a heavily weighted groan. Blinding white light pours over the guests. They are confused, but one of them eventually steps through the door with their torch still in hand. Music begins to play from the other side. A melody of mermaid voices calls out to the other guests to come in. The Kakamora are waiting to meet them. The rest of the guests follow. The golden door closes.


Now the Kakamora have fire. Now the Kakamora can feast.

 


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