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I read this short story maybe 10-12 years ago, about an explorer who discovers or goes looking for a mysterious tribe, I think in South America or possibly Africa. There might be something about shrunken heads or they know the secret of making them. He refers to their queen as a ‘Venus’ with dark skin but classic European features. The explorer and the queen fall in love and marry, but at the wedding feast, the witch doctor curses the explorer and tells him there was poison in the goblet he drank from. The queen immediately reaches for the same goblet and drinks from it too. They agree to part so as not to have to witness the suffering of the other, and also promise not to commit suicide to end their suffering.

The story is narrated by a friend, who had only recently met the explorer, already suffering and ill from the poison, and I think the story is told to him over several nights. The friend remains as witness as the illness progresses, the explorer suffers horribly as he is slowly deformed and shrunken down to about 2-3 feet tall. He dies in agony.

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This is The Venus of Azombeii by the incomparable Clark Ashton Smith.

The story starts with the narrator visiting his friend the explorer Marsden. As you say he finds that Marsden is shrinking:

It was obvious to me at a glance that he was very ill; his thinness and pallor had increased to a shocking degree in the few days since I had seen him last, and I was immediately impressed by the singular fact that he had even shrunken more in stature than could be explained by the crouch of his shoulders. Everything about him had shriveled, and actually withered as if a flame were consuming him, and the form on the couch was that of a smaller man than my friend.

Marsden had met the queen Mybaloë and fallen in love, and as you say they had been poisoned by the high priest Mergawe. Marsden bemoans the fate of his love:

"She is dying, too — as I am — even though she is a living goddess.... Mybaloë, why did you drink the palm-wine?... You, too, will shrivel up, and suffer these gnawing, clawing tortures... Your beautiful body... how perfect, how magnificent it was!... You shrivel up in a few weeks, like a little old woman ... you will suffer the torments of hell-fire... Mybaloë! Mybaloë!"

The story is available online on the Eldritch Dark web site (thanks to user14111 for the link).

  • That's the one! This story stuck with me after reading it in my Dad's collection years ago, thank you so much for tracking it down. :) – aprilr Apr 15 at 23:32

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