The following chapters chronicle two different stories, one which leads up to the other. They take place between the months of June and August of 2014, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Some names have been changed for privacy reasons..
Sixty Days of Past and Present
Rain. Just like every other day. Today it comes from the west, like yesterday and the day before. The day before the day before yesterday it came from the northeast. Tomorrow maybe it will come from the north. Or the northwest. Or even the south. But it will come, sure as the sunrise and the squadrons of green parrots which go soaring over the river each evening, chattering to one another in gossipy undertones between their four-syllable, cranking default call. Formations of chortles. They flap their wings very fast, and you can hear an incoming parrot flying low from a long way off, the desperate huffing wing beats, like asthmatic wheezing sped up fifty times on an old tape cassette.
The first time I saw parrots I was charmed. I remember it plainly. Picture: an early evening, hitchhiking on the Trans-Amazonian Highway somewhere between Brasil Novo and Medecilândia. A long wait, destined to be in vain. A treefull of green parrots near the tired-looking dirt track, and they’re exchanging the day’s gossip with barely-subdued glee high above a misty evening scene. So many fat book club ladies. Nuts are munched without much ceremony. Toenails are trimmed by careful beaks. And the ever-present banter.
Three years later. Hungry eyes scan the monotonous green of the riverbank for movement. The rain has stopped and the sun beats down on our tired backs, drying our dirty shirts, and they become stiff and crackly like new rawhide. Salt from our dried sweat collects in the thick creases. We move in silence. Paddle strokes are taken carefully, and splashing is avoided and generally considered to be poor manners. A few sounds in the underbrush. The right kind of rustle-flap. I hold my hand up, and we drift slowly, silently.
“There,” I whisper, pointing.
“There. Dangling from a vine.”
“What is it?”
“Parrot. He’s trying to blend in. Don’t move or he’ll fly.”
I slowly move my hand to the ancient, well-oiled .20 gauge shotgun, which sits ready by my left side. There’s already a hand-loaded shell in the copper-reinforced chamber. The pockmarked steel is hot in my grip from the afternoon sun, and it feels like I’m gripping something living. Actually, I am gripping death.
The bird is absolutely motionless. With the bright wingtips folded away, the green body feathers blend in so effectively that I don’t dare blink for fear of losing the spot. My thumb eases back the hammer, and I swing the barrel skyward and shut my left eye, aiming with slow deliberation at the green that’s not quite like the rest of the green. Breathe deeply. I try to calm the flow of adrenaline which runs through every shooter’s veins in the crucial split-second before he pulls the trigger. The current begins to push us backward, then the air explodes as the trigger breaks and the powder ignites within the plastic shell, and there’s a hollow crack-boom of exploding smokeless powder as eighteen pieces of lead, half a sheet of notebook paper, and a small amount of dried candle wax sizzle out of the barrel at 1500 feet per second, decimating the target area. The parrot gives a low hiss and a gurgle, then one foot releases the vine and dangles pointlessly. The other holds fast. Another gurgle, and the dead foot releases the branch and sends the broken body crashing through the green. It lands in the river with a faint splash.
“Good shot,” she says.
“I didn’t think he would fall. I thought I was going to have to shoot him again.”
“You didn’t need to.”
“I thought I would.”
“But he fell.”
“Two shots is a lot for one little parrot,” she observes.
“It’s a good thing he fell.”
“Mmm.” I reach through the underbrush for the floating bird, the festive, colored wingtips all the more gaudy with the addition of the bright red blood. The eyes are still halfway open. I stow the parrot on the tarp behind me and push us back out into the river.
“They don’t always fall, you know,” I say, after minutes of silence.
“Well, what happens if they don’t fall?”
“Why, you shoot them again.”
“And what if they still don’t fall?”
“You cut the tree down.”
“What if the tree doesn’t fall?”
“The tree usually falls, Ellen.”
“But what if it doesn’t?”
“Then you shoot it again.”
“The tree, or the bird?”
“Then you’ll have used three shells for one little parrot.”
“That’s a lot of shells for one parrot.”
“Well, it’s less than four shells.”
“Have you ever used four shells for one parrot?”
“I don’t know. No. I probably wouldn’t even use three.”
“Then why did you say it was less than four shells?”
“Because three shells is less than four shells.”
“But why would you say it?”
“Because it is.”
“But you wouldn’t use three shells.”
“Not for a parrot.”
We splash more with the paddles, now that supper is in the bag. I don’t pay too much attention to the rustles on the riverbank. It usually looks the same everywhere and it hurts my neck to always be looking to one side. After a brief interlude:
“Would you use two shells for a parrot?”
“Yes. I would use two.”
“Well, would you use three shells for a bigger bird?”
“Yes. I think I would.”
“Or a monkey?”
“Yes. Definitely for a monkey.”
“But not for a parrot.”
“No. Not for a parrot.”
The parrot-like chatter ceases, and we paddle in silence for awhile. The dead bird lies on the tarp, and the water her paddle always throws onto the middle of the canoe when she switches from one side to another gets it steadily wetter. Blood collects in the creases of the tarp and mixes with the river water. Then it fills up and runs down the sides and spills under the floorboards of my canoe. We paddle in stony silence, like it’s a sentence. But there’s nowhere else we’d rather be.
Evening. The formations of parrots flock over the canoe, thousands-strong. One less today. We pass a lightly forested campo, still dry despite the fast-rising waters. Some low trees amongst the sharp, tan, savannah grass of the blighted-looking campinas of the Rio Aracá, which host no rainforest but only squatty trees, strange formations of rootless moss, and the tan savannah grass which roots itself stubbornly in the sandy soil, but whose seed perishes in the acrid leaf litter behind the wall of jungle a hundred yards away.
“Seems like as good a spot as any,” I say, ramming the nose of the canoe into the tiny beachhead and stretching.
“Camp?” she wants to know.
“Camp,” I confirm, stepping gingerly out of the canoe and beginning the process of building a home for the night. This process begins with urinating on a tree, bush, or clump of grass, and ends when the hammocks are tied, the tarps hung, and supper is on the fire. Ellen squats on the riverside and plucks the parrot as I tie the hammocks and hang the tarps. She holds up the half-naked parrot to the sky, its neck lolling, and I hear her say in a British accent, “That is one dead parrot! That parrot is no more!” The feathers float slowly downriver in a multicolored line of green, red, blue, yellow, and white. Small fish suck down the pinfeathers, but spit them back out again.
Later. The night sky is black. Clouds obscure the stars. I return to camp after a fruitless spearfishing trip to the other side of the river. Ellen, my hopelessly literate younger sister, writes in her journal and swats at the bugs that careen wildly into the alluring beacon of her LED headlight. A low mist of scented steam hangs over camp as the pressure cooker hisses and rattles, and I turn off the gas stove because its been long enough. We eat wordlessly, not even waiting for it to cool down. The sauteed parrot over rice – tough, red, and sinewy, like well-seasoned leather but not unpleasant, unchewable but wholly digestible – is just enough for both of us. Just enough to get us to tomorrow, which, like always, is another day.
The cool, sterile air of the Manaus International Airport runs through my nose and dries it. The plants in the forced garden behind me are fake. A middle-aged Brazilian woman sits next to me and picks sullenly at a healing sore on her leg. It looks like lechmaniosis to me.
“That looks like lechmaniosis to me,” I say in English to Christian, my old friend from the river days in Maués, back to haunt me years later in the Big Capital. He sits next to me on the edge of the forced garden, scratching his dark beard slowly as he stares intently at a blond-haired man with a felt cap speaking Portuguese to a group of domestic tourists.
“What’s lechmaniosis?” he says distractedly.
“It’s a skin condition. You get it from infected mosquito bites.”
We sit in silence for a moment. The blonde man continues to talk amiably with the domestic tourists. The fake plants rustle in the air conditioning.
“I think she definitly has it,” I say at last.
“I said I think she definitly has it.”
“Oh, yeah. Well how do you know?”
“Just look at that. It must be lechmaniosis. It’s not so uncommon, lechmaniosis.”
“How do you say lechmaniosis in Portuguese?” he wonders.
“Hey!” says Francesca, Christian’s sister. She’s sitting next to us, legs crossed. Her long black hair is tied up in some mysterious way that uses no hair ties or scrunchies. A black headband keeps bangs out of her dark eyes. “You think since it’s the same in Portuguese as in English, and since she’s sitting right next to us, then maybe she can understand that we’re talking about her?”
“She’s right,” I admit. “We shouldn’t be saying lechmaniosis so much. We could be making her uncomfortable about her lechmaniosis.” Christian nods in agreement. The woman is no longer picking at her lechmaniosis.
“That guy,” Christian says, looking towards the blonde man with the felt hat.
“What about him?” asks Francesca.
“Do you think he has lechmaniosis too?” I inquire. Francesca glares at me.
“Know who he looks like?”
I shrug. “Owen Wilson?”
“No. He looks like that guy from I Love You, Man.”
“The one with the masturbation corner?”
“Yeah. The one with the masturbation corner.”
We stare. The man keeps taking off his felt hat, brushing back his hair with his fingers, then replacing his hat.
“You think he has a masturbation corner?” I wonder.
Christian looks at me. “Well, wouldn’t you like to know.”
“It’s a perfectly regular question. There’s nothing wrong with a man wondering if another man has a masturbation corner.”
“Except that it’s really gay.”
“Do you have a masturbation corner?” I demand.
“Whoa dude, I love you, but not like that.”
“I just want to know if you have a corner. A corner just for masturbating.”
“I’m not telling you where I masturbate.”
“I don’t want to know where you masturbate,” I assert. “I just want to know if you have a special corner for it.”
“No,” he admits finally. “I don’t.”
“It’s okay,” I say consolingly. “Neither do I.”
“That’s great, man.”
“I can masturbate just about anywhere.”
“Hammocks, beds, patios…”
“…public restrooms, boats, the back of moving pickup trucks…”
“…gas stations, Port-a-Potties, rock concerts….swimming pools – ”
“Okay! Stop it!” shouts Francesca. “Stop talking about masturbating!”
“We’re not talking about masturbating,” I say.
“It’s true,” agrees Christian. “We’re talking about masturbation corners.”
“There’s a difference,” I add.
“I don’t care!” she says, throwing up her hands. “Just shut up, both of you!”
We sulk in silence for a few moments. A Japanese man with dark sunglasses, a fedora, and a ivory-white smoking jacket withdraws cash from the ATM, shoves it deep inside the recesses of some concealed pocket, and walks calmly off in the direction of the elevators. I look at Christian, point discreetly at the disappearing figure, and mouth the words definitely has a masturbation corner. He starts to giggle. Francesca rolls her eyes.
It’s a quarter to eleven, according to the digital clock hanging suspended over the arrival bay. Bright red numbers. Like the timers on bombs in Hollywood movies. They’ll be here in fifteen minutes. I haven’t seen them all together in three years.
“Are you nervous?” asks Francesca.
“No,” I say, choking back nervousness. “Damn! Still only 10:46. I looked at the clock one minute ago.”
“Stop looking at the clock,” suggests Christian.
“I can’t help it. It’s so bright and red and prominently placed.”
“It is a nice clock,” he admits.
“Nothing poor about it at all,” I agree.
“As far as clocks go, it’s a winner.”
“But it still says 10:46. It would be a better clock if it said 11:00.”
“What about after it says 11:00?” he prods.
“You mean when it says 11:01?”
“Then I could care less. Then they’ll be here and I could care less about the damned clock or what time it is.”
“It’ll say 11:00 soon,” says Christian reassuringly, patting me on the back. The guy from I Love You, Man puts on sunglasses and heads towards the taxis, tourists in tow. A wrinkled old man shuffles slowly by, pushing a luggage carousel loaded high with bags. The owners of the bags walk nonchalantly alongside, hands in their pockets. The back of the old man’s shirt says “Posso ajudar?” then below it, in smaller letters, “Can I help you?” His eyes are half-closed, his breathing shallow and regular.
“You really shouldn’t be so hard on it, you know,” says Christian, after he has gone. “It’s just doing its job.”
“Huh?” I’m still watching the old man as he nears the elevators.
“The clock. It’s just doing its job.”
I look back to the clock. “It still says 10:46.”
“I know. I see it.”
I sigh. “It is a nice clock.”
“Sure it is. It’ll say 11:00 soon enough.”
We wait some more, and the red numbers remain unchanged.
I snort. “Man, I hate clocks. Even nice ones.”
Christian nods. “Me too. Fuck clocks.”
“Fuck clocks,” I agree. We turn away to stare at the ATM.
“It’s 10:47,” announces Francesca.
When the next plume of new arrivals wafts out of the exit, I sit up straight and stare intently at each new face. I automatically disregard anyone either luggage-less or dark-skinned. I pay special attention to aircrew, but so far the only aircrew I can see use their hats. Dad stopped using his hat years ago because he was allowed to decide not to use it. When he was a First Officer, he wore his hat. He used to keep photos of us and Mom stuffed inside the top of it, like a little portable photo album. Dear Family, shoved up against his thinning hair and growing bald spot. He would show the photos to the other members of the flight crew, during those times when the plane flies itself. This is my son. He shot a deer last week. See? He runs marathons with me. This is my other sun. He can play the piano. He composed a song when he was five. And this is my daughter. I love my daughter.
Now he’s a Captain. He doesn’t wear his hat anymore and keeps the photos of us and Mom in his iPhone. He likes the iPhone because it can hold more photos than the hat and he doesn’t have to wear it on his head. He tells us the photos are because he misses us, but I think he also just likes to brag. This is my son. He paddles in the Amazon and hitchhikes around. I visited him in the jungle once. There were a lot of bugs. This is my other son. He’s a professional musician and music theorist. He can speak German. And this is my daughter. She can fly planes too. She’s dramatic. And I still love her.
The clock reads 10:58. The plume of exiting passengers thins. Old friends are reunited, embrace, and drift off. Soon there is no one. Then, all of a sudden, they’re here.
Ellen’s first, of course. She’s wearing a lime-green button-up shirt and converse All-Stars, and drags a rolling suitcase behind her. Her backpack is red and has several Southwest Airlines address tags on it. Her hair is wild and frizzy and there are circles under her green eyes, which match her shirt and scan the crowd nervously for my face. Her legs are long and white. Her nose is the same as mine. She is my little sister.
In close second are Dad and Mom. Dad pushes a baggage carousel loaded with bags, and wears the look of benign tolerance mixed with quiet ridicule that he uses while at all airports. He’s dressed in his full Southwest Airlines pilot uniform, complete with an unsmiling photo ID clipped to his shirt pocket and captain’s rank, the four bars perched ornamentally on each shoulder. His boots are black and polished. There is no hat because he was allowed to opt out of wearing a hat and the iPhone has more space.
Mom trails just behind him, wearing her glasses which are supposed to be just for reading. Her hair is longer than I remember. She wears a green cotton tank top covered by a shawl so thin it’s see through. Her skirts are long and flowing and patterned with leafy imagery. They don’t match the shawl. She carries a light jacket in her arms because she gets cold on the plane. Her nose is the same as mine and Ellen’s. Her earrings are dangly. She wears slip-on shoes. She is my mother.
David brings up the rear, towing a rolling suitcase and cradling a book. His glasses which are supposed to be for everything reflect the florescent lights and obscure his blue eyes which are the same as mine. His hair is dirty blonde and unkempt and his skin is a uniform, lightly-freckled white. He wears a green shirt that says “UNT MUSIC” and features an eagle graphic. His shorts are plaid and he wears running shoes because they’re comfortable, not because he runs. He squints slightly as he stands next to Ellen and scans the crowd for my face, his book under one arm. He is my little brother.
I shoot away from the forced garden and into the arms of my family for the first time in three years. We’re laughing constantly, not because there’s anything particularly funny but because we’re just giddy. Mom is teary-eyed and so is Ellen. Hey boy, Dad says. He always says hey boy when he sees me after a long time, or after he got home from a trip. Hey boy, how ya been? I missed ya.
We cluster together like newborn tadpoles and Dad envelopes all of us in a bear hug and squeezes until we’re all scrunched up together and laughing and telling him to stop but really we don’t want him to stop. Then I hug everyone individually. I hug Mom and she is still teary-eyed and I kiss her on the cheek and make fun of her glasses. I hug Ellen and she looks so different, even her voice is different. I can’t believe how much she’s changed. She is blabbering away about the flight and I hug her again and tell her I can’t believe she’s here, she’s actually here. I hug David around his book and squeeze him a little too hard as is customary between brothers. He smiles because it’s been a long time. David looks mostly the same. David’s a really steady guy. I missed David a lot. I missed them all a lot.
Low hooting sounds twist and wriggle through my dream, more like smell than sound. I sit up in my hammock in my dream and listen again. There it is. Wha…wha-who-wha-whau…wha…wha…wha-who-wha-whau…I slip quietly to the ground and grab my shotgun from its place in the camp chair under my hammock. I walk stealthily down to the riverside to the canoe but the canoe is gone and in its place is a speedboat with the Federal Police in it and they’re saying I have to go with them – and then I realize that I’m still dreaming.
I sit up in my hammock in real life, eyes crusty with sleep. It’s still early. The morning sun is just peeking over the eastern trees. A heavy fog sits on the river, totally obscuring the other side. Ellen breathes deeply in sleep nearby beneath her mosquito netting. The black and yellowjapíms are swooping from branch to branch above camp, whistling and chattering amiably. I’m about to go back to sleep when I hear it again.
The notes are so low and heavy you can scarcely tell they’re there. They caress the bottom of your eardrums like tendrils of woodsmoke on a still morning. They seem to come from the mist itself and sound as if blown out of a large, hollow, resonating tube. The morning call of the black cussarow, or mutúm. The mutúm is a large bird similar to a turkey in size, stature, and behavior. It lives in the lowland areas of many Amazonian regions, feeding off leafy buds and seeds. It is a reluctant and awkward flier an prefers to run. It is also our favorite meal. I slide out of my hammock, scoop up my shotgun, and head for the canoe, which in real life has not been replaced by the Brazilian Federal Police.
I paddle into the mist, following the notes. Soon I can no longer see either shore, and the fog swirls around me. I can feel its moisture in my nostrils. The current pushes me sideways, and soon I reach the opposite shore. The notes are louder now. I can hear a faint rattle at the bottom of each tone that I could not hear before. There is a wall of greenery before me. I locate a tiny hole, moor the canoe to a tree, and slide into the jungle without looking back. Once in, the forest thins somewhat. There is a buffer of spiny-leaved plants but once cleared I crouch and advance with little difficulty. Every few seconds I stop, listening for the notes. When they come, I creep slowly in their direction, then stop, and listen again. Soon, I am right on top of them. I crouch, listen. The notes have stopped. Tiny frogs tweet lightly, mosquitoes buzz in my ears, and all manner of songbirds are joyously celebrating the onslaught of day. No more notes. I scan the underbrush slowly, steadily, and then the tops of the trees.
I see it. Perched high in the crook of a craggy dead limb, head bobbing, broad, brown-tipped tail feathers fanned out in irritation. A yellow, sharply hooked beak opens and closes rapidly as a series of barely-audible tweets issue out. Our eyes meet. There is no time. In the half a second it takes me to raise my gun the broad black wings have already spread and the long, scaly-looking yellow legs are bending. By the time I’ve thumbed back the hammer the bird has already leapt into space and flapped nosily off into the thick underbrush nearby. I curse, and creep after it through a stagnant puddle.
The underbrush is thick and thorny. Entry is impossible without a machete. Quiet entry is out of the question. The mutúm begins singing again, deep from within the tangles. It knows it has found safety, and so do I. A slow smile spreads across my face, and I shake my head and begin picking my way back to the canoe through the brambles.
Ellen has become, as she reminds me every morning, the Master of the Hard-Tack. This is fine with me because that means she has to make it. I refrain from noting that being Master of the Hard-Tack is akin to being Master of the Toaster Strudels or Master of the Hot Pockets, because all you’re really doing is frying dough. In any case, it’s less dough for me to fry. She seems very proud of her misshapen blobs, that only a Master could produce.
Coffee is a lifeline to sanity. No matter how miserable you find yourself, how wet and cold or sweaty and bug bitten you are, coffee smooths over the hardships like a thick, lovely curtain of creamy, sugary warmth. It’s vitality in a plastic cup. Liquid smiles, the wafting smell of joy, a shot of reason in an unreasonable world. Without coffee, we would both be dead. Yes. We would have killed each other by now.
As a family of five with enough combined brainpower to at least meet up in a foreign country, we are having trouble with the airport elevator. There is even less room for acceptable error because Dad makes his living in and around airports. After waiting in line for several minutes, our turn arrives and we step into the box. The doors whoosh close. We gaze at the buttons. There are three.
“Should we push G, or 1?” asks Ellen.
“Push 1. We’re already on G,” says Dad.
“No, we’re on B. That means basement,” says Mom.
“It’s clearly G,” notes David.
“I already pushed 1,” I say sheepishly.
The elevator zooms past G, and we arrive at 1. The doors open. There are people waiting to get in, but we’ve already packed the elevator. Ellen waves happily at them as the door closes. Then it opens again. Mom gives an embarrassed laugh, pulling her skirts in and leaning against the wall, pushing the B button.
Dad sighs. “Cindy. You pushed the B button.”
Mom looks around innocently. “I didn’t push anything.”
“Yeah you did Mom,” Ellen asserts.
“You leaned against it,” confirms David.
“Weren’t we supposed to go to B?” wonders Mom.
“We’re supposed to go to G,” I remind her. “We were already on B.”
“G means ground, probably,” says David with a slight nod.
“Hurry up and push G!” barks Dad, the airport professional. “It’ll stop there on the way down if you push G.” David pushes G. The elevator doesn’t stop. We go all the way back down to B. The doors slide open and the people next in line gaze upon us, the same people who got on the elevator three minutes ago. Mom smiles at their stony, unamused faces, and says “Sorry!” in English. Dad and I cover our faces with our hands as Ellen laughs loudly and the doors shut slowly, far too slowly.
We arrive an hour later to the hostel Christian and Francesca are working at. In addition to a hostel it is also a tattoo parlor. The name, unsurprisingly, is Hostel Tatú.
“Oh, Dad!” remarks Ellen. “This is the perfect chance for you to get the Fleur-du-Leix tattoo you swore you would get if the Saints ever won the Superbowl.” (the Saints won the Superbowl in 2009 for the first time. Dad still has not gotten the tattoo.)
“I did get the tattoo,” says Dad, ripping his uniform off with distaste and grappling for his old clothes and baseball cap.
“No you didn’t,” scoffs David. “If you got a tattoo we would know.”
“I got it on my ass,” says Dad.
I shake my head. “I saw your ass last year when you were parading around drunk and naked on the sandbar. There was no tattoo. It was just white and saggy.”
“That’s because I got it on my asshole.”
“No you didn’t,” says David, with a very good eye-roll.
“Yeah, sure Dad…” echos Ellen.
“Wanna see?” leers Dad with a lecherous grin.
“No!” we shout in unison – even Mom.
We crowd around in the kitchen later. Ellen is on vegetable-chopping duty, but is shirking it in favor of flirting with Israel, the brother of the hostel’s owner. Soon, Israel is chopping the vegetables while Ellen drinks his beer. Mom and I are preparing the rest of the soup. Dad provides moral support by sitting on a stool nearby, drinking beer, and talking loudly to everybody at the same time. David is engrossed in his book, which is one of those books that is incomprehensible to the majority of the general population. David, obviously, has never been part of the majority of anything. He makes complex notes and diagrams on a notepad as he reads.
“That won’t fit in one pot,” says Mom, looking at all of the fish that we have chopped.
“Sure it will,” I say dismissively. “I do this all the time, Ma.”
“It’s going to boil over,” she says, giving me that look.
“I’ll just keep the fire low. It’ll be fine.”
“It’s going to boil over, son.”
“I’ll just keep the fire low, Mom.”
We scrape the vegetables Israel chopped into the pot, then the fish, then add water. I light up the fire, and ten minutes later it boils over.
“Ha!” shouts Dad from across the kitchen. Nothing gets by him.
“I told you it would boil over.” That look is back.
“OK Mom. You were right.”
“Ha!” shouts Dad again.
I’m standing knee deep in the river, bent over the empty canoe as I scrub out a week’s worth of grime and expedition jetsam. One marvels at the crud that collects in the canoe after just a week of paddling. Algae forms between the struts and coats the bottom furry green. Empty bags of flour and rice slosh around, slimy and discolored. Lost objects are found, knives, spoons, toothbrushes that are darkening with mold but we don’t dare throw out, because we didn’t bring any extras. I scrub hard with the brush that I brought for washing our clothes which we never wash. The water turns a silty greenish-brown. I finish with the last strut, then sink the canoe, flip it over, rinse it out. Bail.
Ellen sits on the bank cursing at the bumblebees. They deftly avoid each irritated swipe and then buzz back for more. There’s twenty or more investigating a piece of salted fish on the bank, mixed with gnats and a few sweat bees. Ellen sighs dejectedly. No one told her about the bumblebees. Life is hard for the river-bound traveler, oh yes.
A faint puttering sound in the distance, coming from upriver. Ellen sits upright, squints, and shouts, “Hey! Hey, a boat! There’s a boat coming!” She forgets about the bees for awhile. This is interesting. Variables! Perhaps we will speak with them. We have seen no boats on the river for more than ten days. I slosh the last of the water out of my canoe, then sit on the bow dangling my feet in the water, gazing at the upriver bend with hooded eyes. It must be the Yanomami. They were due to head downriver days ago.
The mid-morning sun is heating up, and finally, the nose of a small canoe with a blue tarp over the middle of it eases around the bend. It’s not the Indians – too small. The form is blurred in the distance and the heat, but as it gets closer I recognize João Careca, the tantalite prospector. He has with him two of his peons, Jacaré and Negão. They grin toothless smiles at us as the rabeta motor coughs by. João Careca waves and toffs his straw hat at us, revealing the remarkably shiny bald head for which he is nicknamed.
A strong odor of gasoline wafts across the river as they pass. Their motor is old and leaky and Jacaré is known for drinking fuel and rubbing alcohol when they run out of cachaça. Their camp, illegal but impossible for the largely resource-less and apathetic federal government to stamp out, is concealed in the jungle far up the Rio Jauarí, past the mouth of the Preto – a miserable place where men toil and suffer under heavy loads as the merciless sun fries what’s left of their brains. They dump mercury byproducts into the river and kill themselves to fill sacks full of tantalite-laden sand. The cachaça is a way to dull the mind a bit more, to calm the muscle spasms and forget what they never cared to remember in the first place. In the garimpos, men live to die in the last forgotten corners of the world, and the filth runs almost as thick through their veins as it does through the water source they are poisoning. Dirty hands do dirty work pulling dirty metals out of the ground, making dirty money for greedy, dirty hearts. Mining has never been a gentleman’s business.
The sound of the motor fades away downriver, and only the bumblebees remain.
Conversation on the river ebbs and flows but mostly, we paddle in silence, each lost in the fertile realms of our respective imaginations. The Aracá at the height of the rainy season is a monotonous dark ribbon of flooded greenery, and we find no difficulty allowing our brains to imprint something interesting over the pulverizing sameness. However, the clouds – as Ellen the Pilot notices several times per day – are incredibly varied, with each patch of sky hosting a different type. “Anything could happen today!” notes the aviator with wonder. “In that patch of sky I would fly. But not in any other patch. There’s always a storm on one horizon and fair weather on the other. Then the storm hits us and passes by and the horizons switch. And then a storm comes from another direction, and it rains for two hours. Then the sky is clear again and there’s stratus clouds. Then it rains again.” This, I assure her, is business as usual in the Amazon. The nightly weather report should just place a series of large question marks over the entire northern half of the country. Or simply a block of text: “We literally have no idea. It could be anything.”
Ellen goes through chatty periods. Her voice floats up from the back of the canoe like the contented babbling of a woody brook, mostly stories of her life on the home front. She is an actress. She loves theater more than anything. She hates Killeen, the drab, olive-green Army town where she is living. She loves to fly the airplanes available for free use by students of aviation at her college. She roars off the airstrip early in the morning, alone and giddy in the bubble of her cockpit. She flies listlessly around the blue Texas sky, always away from Killeen. She refuels at tiny rural airports, then gets a sandwich at the airport café. The quality of the sandwiches at the airport cafés generally influence more than her fuel levels her decision on whether or not to land there. Belly full, she takes off again and deviates from her FAA-sanctioned flight plan to fly low over rivers and follow them for miles. She buzzes interesting-looking houses and harasses cattle. The skies are to her what the Great Plains were to the Comanche.
Ellen navigates based on local landmarks. One of particular prominence is two lines of thirty-foot letters, spelled out in the middle of a cow pasture with white rocks. “Once you reach OBAMA SUX,” she says knowledgeably, “you know you’re on the right heading for the Liberty airstrip.”
My little sister, age 19, makes jokes on the radio and flies with her knees while eating a ham sandwich and zooming through empty space 2,000 feet above Kerrville, Texas. Then she lands at the college, drives to Austin, and pretends to eat the same meal twenty times in a row, fulfilling the cinematic role that will surely catapult her to fame one day, “Restaurant Customer #17.” The meal, she reminds me, is free – but you have to make it last twenty takes.
Who is this bandy-legged, free-spirited woman with the shining green eyes that jab knowingly at you with laughing, conspiratorial sideways glances, like you’ve just shared some deeply hilarious inside joke? And where is the flat-chested fourteen-year-old girl I left in the swirling leaves of a cool Texas autumn five years ago?
There’s a T.S. Elliot quote about traveling the world, finally coming home after years of wandering, and knowing it for the first time. This, as much as places, must also apply to human beings.
Despite spending eighteen years of my life in necessarily close proximity with my family, I never really knew them – or perhaps a better word is appreciated them. I lived among them. I spent the majority of my time with them. In fact, my life depended on them. Yet they were always simply, “family.” I never had a reason to really take a moment, stand back, and think, “this is a member of society, with opinions and a life outside of their interactions with me” – instead of simply, for example, “this is Dad.”
The word “Dad” covered meanings ranging from an authority over myself, to love, to lessons to be learned. But it was always a specific set of feelings, mostly (but not exclusively) connected to the fact that he is my father – and never that he is simply Pat Falterman, age 50, aviator, fisherman, satirist, Saints fan, American citizen and Gulf War veteran. Now, these may seem like everyday facts that anyone who knows my father reasonably well must know – and of course, I was well aware of them before. Yet they were integrated together with the “Dad” persona. It is only now, after years of travel in which I have learned to look at everyone as just another human being, just another life amongst the billions, yet special in their own specific way, that I am able to see my father in the same light as, for example, I would see a 50-year-old Brazilian truck driver with three children. I learned, in essence, to see him as someone who is first meeting him must see him. I notice traits I never noticed before, both positive and negative – but most importantly, I can see him from an objective point of view.
As an adolescent, no matter how much fun I may have been having with Dad – and we had plenty of fun in those days – there was always his lurking authority shadowing over like a vague threat. I could never speak my mind completely for fear of punishment, since, like most teenagers, I was doing and thinking plenty of things he would not necessarily have approved of – at least in a fifteen-year-old with homework to do. Now, it must not be eschewed that his was an iron discipline, a heavy-handed, unforgiving, punishing force; on the contrary he was fairly lax and understanding, all things considered – and in hindsight I am certain I deserved the punishments which, in those days, seemed to me akin to utter persecution, tearfully unfair. But whether or not I had done something wrong, the fact remained that if I screwed up, I could rest assured that I would be punished, and that would be that.
Today, having more or less successfully established myself as independent from my father and his authority, the great wall of discipline that has always necessarily stood between us has fallen; and as I step tentatively over the rubble I find standing on the other side not just a father figure (for that, he will always remain), but a friend, someone to whom I can be perfectly honest without fear of retribution – and most importantly, someone who treats me as an equal. That, coupled with the respect I have always had for him, makes the bond we have always shared on a familiar lever twice as strong, as we cement alongside it the bond of friendship.
This applies equally to the rest of my family. Traveling, the independence it has granted me, and the period of years that go by between each visit, gives me a new appreciation for the family that I have always vaguely known to be a good one – even in the moments when I was cursing fascist policies such as grounding me for months and making me mow the grass without pay after being caught smoking weed in my closet, and subsequently punching a hole in the wall in a blind rage when confronted. Today, I can see why they are a good family; as soon as we were all together in Brazil, I realized quite suddenly what a fun, intelligent, exciting, and riotously hilarious group of human beings they have always been. I can see the ideas they stand for. I can relate to them like a fellow human being as much as I can like a son or a brother. And I can see the gaps their absence has left in my life.
Before I left home, it was hard to look at these people as something other than just family. Seeing who they were on a more profound level, or who they could become – except for in passing, superficial glances – was very hard to do. This was possibly because I was still too young and naturally rebellious to see my father and mother as anything other than a form of authority and a means of sustenance. More probably it was because I was much too busy trying to figure out who I was, kicking up such a cloud in the process that I could never be bothered to attempt to discern their true faces through the smokescreen of my own nebulous self-searching. But as my definition of self became more refined, the frantic cloud of Me began to settle like the red dust of a dry dirt highway, collecting here and there on the leaves and branches of the roadside of life. The pickup truck of adolescence has passed on down the track and into the past, and it’s taken a long time for the dust to settle. But today I can see quite clearly the faces of my family, the four people whom I care most about in this world – and I realize with a start that after nearly a quarter-century of existence, I know them for the first time.
After thirteen nights on the river, the fishing went completely to hell. Days passed, with nothing bigger than a bloody sardine to fill our tired bellies – even with liberal use of my deadly nets. The rising waters of the Aracá flooded the forest for miles. The fish largely abandoned the main river in favor of the sheltered, prey-rich environs of the igapó.
This, I must take the opportunity to reiterate, is the biggest problem with paddling blackwater. You trade a general lack of biting flies and mosquitoes for a lower concentration of fish – at least, during the monsoon season, which is the exact time of year this story is taking place. To digress briefly – whitewater rivers? Jesus. Ballads of bounty. It could be the worst of rainy seasons, with flooding up to the roofs of the poor caborclo riverside homes – but you’ll still snag schools of fish with a well-placed net. If it’s the drought season you’d be better off learning to throw a cast net, since gill nets leave you with hundreds of fish and not nearly enough time, stomach, or salt to do away with them all.
There comes a time in blackwater when the only way you’ll reliably catch anything edible is with a trot line: sixty hooks, stretched out across some quiet interminable igapó, baited with worms, grasshoppers, and the bandy-legged, water-skating spiders whose eyes shine like tiny diamonds in the night at the bases of water-bound trees and logs. And out of the sixty painstakingly baited hooks, you’ll be lucky to snag three nice pacú or flamingo aracú. Even the caborclos genuflect at something as trivial and common as the slimy, ornery little najaí catfish, which they gladly feed to the dogs during the fish-rich dry season.
One night, we set out three nets in a promising-looking shallow area along the edge of of one of those strange, out-of-place campos. Stiff savanna grass. Capybera shit everywhere. Minnows and the sort puttering around in the shallows and making tiny wakes, like miniscule submarines with a mission to fulfill. “This spot – this is a good spot,” I assured Ellen. “Just look at the bait fish. At least a pacú.” I hacked away at the underbrush to clear a space to tie the end of the net. “We’ll get at least a pacú.”
Hours later. The moonless black Amazon night engulfed everything but us. We sat at a distance around the glowing coals in the clay stove I brought along, reloading .20 gauge ammunition. Tap-tap. Seat a new primer into the blackened, battle-weary plastic shell, which has seen off a dozen or more shots. Pass to Ellen, and she measures out the gunpowder, dumps it into the hull, and slides in the wad. Rinse, repeat. Load the shot, eighteen double-aught lead balls. Seal the shell with notebook paper, secure it with bandage tape. Little explosive packets of death. Heavier than they look. Dinner, step 1.
We paddled back to the flooded savannah, our headlamps slicing through the inky blackness with the precision of a well-honed knife blade. Hopes high for fish. Shotgun with a freshly-loaded shell close at hand, to be used in the possible event of capybera sightings. We slid through the coarse grass, scattering minnows. The first net – the charuteiro, or hunger net, the net that can even catch fish the size of your finger – was unbelievably vacant. The second, a thin-lined 60mm mesh – the scourge of pacú schools – languished further in. It offered only a series of snags which took a quarter of an hour to work loose. Finally, the third. Thai-made, 40 mm mesh, .30mm line, robust orange buoys. At last – a pacú. Minuscule. Only a little bigger than the palm of my hand. But it was all we had. To the hungry traveler, the definition of a “keeper” becomes pretty loose. I brought all of the nets in, disappointed. Scanned the bank for the absent, shit-happy capybera, but saw only more lousy savannah grass and the shadows of the scrub-trees further in. Nets bundled in a mass at my feet, and we made for the river. I sliced my paddle into the shallows; suddenly, a splash, and something silvery rocketed out of the water and hit me square between the eyes!
“Fuck! Jesus!” I cried in surprise and alarm – then regained a hold of my senses and pawed frantically at the chomping, writhing form flopping mindlessly in the prow, trying to pin it down before it flung itself back into the water. Few things can surprise a man more than a sudden blow to the forehead from a crazed, flying pirandirá in the blackest depths of tropical darkness. These predatory fish are highly attracted to lights, and they often leap blindly towards headlamps when one paddles through the shallows on moonless nights.
The pirandirá, also known as the dogfish, is quite frightening – in appearance, at least. The head is accentuated by a trapdoor-like jaw which closes at an almost vertical angle, giving the fish a gulper-eel like appearance. This sinister-y is augmented by the presence of two long, vampyric fangs which protrude upward from the end of the lower jaw, and upon closing of the mouth, come to rest in two specially-made holes that must reach near to the eyes. The rest of the jaw is populated by tiny, needle-like teeth – much like the teeth of your harmless, garden-variety colubrid snake. However, while certainly capable of pricking your finger, these jaws are a far cry from the flesh-slicing, wide-toothed, beefy jaws of the common piranha. The pirandirá is fragile despite its predatory role in the aquatic ecosystem, and as a fish-out-of-water it rarely survives more than a few minutes once caught. To provide a basis for comparison, the tough-as-nails piranha can live for much longer than this in just the shallow, stagnant water that always exists in the bottom of the canoe. I once found a forgotten black piranha two days after I had caught it, flopping around in the netherlands below my ice chest. It was still very much alive and quite capable of biting. Even better, it was still fresh – no salting necessary.
We rejoyced at our good fortune – after all, it’s not every day Mother Nature hits you in the forehead with a piece of perfectly serviceable food. Back at camp, I prepared the rice while Ellen cleaned the fish. She took ten minutes to clean the pacú, and another excruciating fifteen to clean the pirandirá – which was no bigger than two hands. Incompetency was the last reason for the absurd delay – she’s been skinning catfish since she was six. I suspected a calculating, purposeful plot to shirk future fish-cleaning duties. Who raised that girl? But…she is a Falterman. Rather than fight it, I sighed and finished slicing the pirandirá myself, shaking my head because I knew I’d given in. Ellen stirred whimsically at cooked rice from her camp chair and stared at the stars. She’s going to give some poor moon-eyed bastard a real hard time someday.
At last, the fish were fried. Lightning on the horizon, and a low, ominous wind from the east. I ate fast, and quickly nestled myself into the dry, luxurious creases of my hammock like a fugitive field mouse. The first drops were beginning to pelt down onto my tarp half a minute later. Ellen was still spitting out pirindirá bones, swearing admirably at the onslaught of rain and hissing at the wetness like a cornered possum in the dog-food bin. Soon she retreated under her tarp to finish her meal, ghoul-like in the fading light of the dying coals. In accordance with the General Rules of Sibling Interaction, I laughed heartily at her misfortune from the folds of comfort. The rain fell heavily, and passed within ten minutes. Crickets sang with hearty gusto in the spent, post-storm atmosphere. Ellen was already asleep.
We caught no more fish for eighteen days. The logical substitute was, of course, bush meat.
After two years and thousands of miles of unarmed travel throughout the Amazon Basin, from Itaituba to Carvoeiro, I eventually came to the logical conclusion that my life in the bush would be made infinitely easier with the addition of a firearm to my expedition gear.
In the beginning I dismissed the idea as too risky – both in regards to authority figures and the population of native people – the latter of which I rely upon tremendously for trust, advice, and friendship. However, after so many incredulous queries from my smiling, dark-eyed amigos the caborclos (“You don’t have a gun….but why?”) – and so pathetically few searches of my luggage by the authorities (total: zero) – I eventually decided that the benefits of traveling armed throughout the jungles far outweighed the shaky, thinly-supported disadvantages – be that as it may.
I bought my first shotgun for 300 reais in Barcelos at the end of 2013. I lost it about two months later when my canoe was upset in the ornery Igarapé Preto, and she sank into the black depths – but any faithful readers of this site will know that. My second shotgun was bought on the way back downriver, en-route to the can’t-live-with-it, can’t-live-without-it clutches of modern civilization. And it ended up being much more effective than the first.
A true Old West gun! Not the faintest traces of a serial number on her; in fact, she’s probably older than serial numbers. Circa early-twentieth century, I reckon. Probably hand-made by a blacksmith. Endless refurbishings, of course. The engineering couldn’t be more simple: load a shell, fire, eject, reload. Ejecting of spent shells only possible with a ramrod, since the ejecting mechanism is either long gone or never was there in the first place. Reminds me of the old Tennessee rifles – okay, a little more sophisticated. Good old-fashioned break-action. Simplicity. Five moving parts: the hammer, the spring, the firing pin, the trigger, and the switch that opens the action. The lever-action Winchester .44 rifles Billy the Kid used were a sight more complicated. You could get off 50 shots per minute with one of those, if you really knew what you were doing. Mine? Six, maybe seven shots per minute – if you’re real fast.
In the beginning of life, she was a .16 gauge. God knows how many years ago that was. The decades went rolling by, and the chamber rusted away. Rain, humidity. Probably lack of proper care – since there’s damned few caborclos around here that take ten minutes to oil their guns after a hunt. Even worse, they use corrosive black powder to load their shells – not a problem unless you never swab out the barrel, which they never do. But some years ago an enterprising soul welded a copper skirt around the ruin of the old .16 chamber and viola – she became a perfectly serviceable .20 gauge, with what I’m sure is a long, illustrious history of use dating back to years before my eventual purchase for 200 reais and a case of Brahma beer in the village of Romão. The most history about the gun that I can accurately gleam is from Neguinho, the vender, who claims to have bought it from a Yanomami Indian a few years ago in their village on the rapids high in the uppermost reaches of the Aracá.
There is a big difference between Mrs. Robinson – the name with which I have lovingly dubbed my second gun, after the older woman who seduces a younger man in the classic movie The Graduate – and my first gun. The first gun had a serious issue with the chamber. In fact, it did not even have the original chamber. Her chamber came from some other broken-down gun, or appropriately-sized metal tube, and was welded onto the barrel of a sanded-down .20 – at the wrong angle. She was only accurate within 10 yards, a dubious honor that a 17th-century blunderbuss would have been able to claim. Her moving parts were fine, chamber pretty loose – you could even remove spent shells with your teeth instead of a ramrod. But the unforgivable crime of the crooked chamber made this irrelevant. A complete change of chamber and barrel was in order – but I never got a chance to do that, and today she languishes at the bottom of the Preto, perhaps providing shelter for small fish as the rust slowly eats her away to nothing.
Mrs. Robinson is older and pockmarked from ancient rust wounds, but her chamber and barrel are straight as an arrow. At 30 yards the shot grouping is more or less the size of a bus tire, which is about as good as you can hope for. The steel was blued at some point, unlike the first gun, which cultivated rust on especially humid afternoons. Mrs. Robinson is pretty resistant to moisture, especially if kept oiled down. The spring is strong, firing pin thick and powerful, stock free of rot and cracks. Pretty much everything you could ask for in a bush gun. Tough, simple, and effective.
After these months on the river with the additional resource of firepower, I can hardly picture undertaking a wilderness trip of more than four weeks unarmed. Wilderness meaning, to me, an area where you regularly spend seven to ten days without coming across another human being. The fact is, while it is possible to live off of only fish, the fact that you possess a means to shoot any game that may cross your path is an enormous advantage. Allow me to explain why…
For the paddler who lives off of only fish, time must be allotted for fishing. It doesn’t matter how you fish. Nets (gill or cast), rod and reel, trot line, set line, hand line, zagaia – whatever. These things require time. In addition, they must be executed during the right time of day. You are automatically obligated to sacrifice either your mornings, your evenings, or your nights to fishing. This, I must admit, is far from the worst thing you could be obliged to do. Still – you must, if you plan on filling your belly.
Taking a firearm along diversifies your options. Most of the time, you will end up spending the last two hours of daylight fishing, or else the first two hours of darkness. But if you have the option to shoot that jacú flapping around in that high canopy, or one of the twenty or thirty bigou monkeys that are swarming through the treetops fifteen yards away, that can only work to your advantage. Not only will it allow you to paddle longer, it also gives you the option to amass large amounts of meat for future use – hence, allowing you to advance even further towards your eventual goal without having to worry about what you’re going to eat on so-and-so bad fishing day. Reserves, i.e., if shit goes wrong, at least I’ve got this.
On a normal fishing day, the average size of the fish I catch is a few pounds – before I gut it. Three or four of these fellas, usually. Maybe 24 hours worth of food, and maybe a pound or two leftover for salting. But on my average hunting day, I may shoot ten to fifteen pounds of meat, which can last up to a week for one person. Harvested in one day. Hell, half an hour! The time it takes me to stalk, aim, and pull the trigger. That is the difference. That is the advantage. Yes – I knock the pretty parrots and macaws out of the sky, and fill the cute little monkeys with buckshot at every opportunity. But I do it to eat. I do it because I think it will give me a better shot at staying alive out there – pun definitely intended. I kill these animals, yes – these animals, that have done nothing to deserve it, and are mostly incapable of doing anything to harm me. Still – they are prey. And since I plan to eat them, I am predator. But that is far from meaning that I have no respect for these creatures.
In fact, I idolize them. I love them. I can just as easily marvel at their intrepid escape as I can revel in the adrenaline of a fresh kill. My life practically revolves around their movements. I spend an hour stalking a mutúm, only to end up with thorns in my feet, sixty mosquito bites, and still nothing for dinner. While I am out there, they are my society. The appearance of a cuxía at an early morning campsite is leaps and bounds more deeply significant to me than the doldrum afternoon of six million civilized human beings spent at Burger King, posting pictures of their food on Facebook, and later, utterly enraptured in latest version of Hollywood vomit. To be bluntly honest, I’ve got a lot more respect for the creatures I kill, and later consume, than for a whole hell of a lot of people that I’ve met in this world. The difference is, I peel the skin off of one – and would like to peel the skin off of the other.
And it ain’t easy, friends and neighbors – oh no, it ain’t easy at all. You ever try to hit a running monkey sixty feet up in a rainforest tree with a hundred-year-old shotgun? Well, I have. And I’ve missed a helluva lot more shots than I’ve hit, that’s for damn sure. It’s a fair fight, if I ever saw one.
I also feel like I should mention that I’ve never in my life killed or eaten anything endangered – and never plan to. Every species of animal and fish that I have used has been both abundant and in no risk of disappearing from the face of the earth. And yes, I am eternally aware that I am breaking several Brazilian laws by doing and admitting to the last chapter of this post – i.e., buying an unregistered firearm, twice, owning an unregistered firearm, buying explosives on the black market, hunting wild animals, etc. But I’ve yet to lose any sleep over that.
I hold the canoe still at the mouth of a heavily forested igarapé. My only movements are the tiny swishes of my paddle as I twist it around and around with slight movements of my wrist, holding us in position. My other hand is on Mrs. Robinson, thumb resting on the hammer. Behind me, Ellen sits statue-like, her paddle resting on the tops of her legs. I breath shallow breaths, and strain my ears. A few crickets, like always. Small splashes as dragonflies dip dainty sips of water from the river. The low, advancing growl of thunder in the distance. Frantic spurts of tiny wing beats, darting back and forth as a pair of flycatchers twitter around in some bushes nearby. A deep, guttural roar of a tribe of howler monkeys seeps in from distant equatorial depths, crescendoing and then fading away. A hollow plop as a jauarí seed tumbles into the river, and the wet swishes as curious bait fish crowd around it. But no spongy sounds of light steps on rotting leaf litter. No heavy wing beats.
The mutúm we’d spooked ten minutes earlier had been feeding high in the safety of a burutí palm. The brief, tumbling flaps of its flight led us straight to the mouth of this igarapé just around the next bend. Now it’s just a question of how patient we are – or how lucky. I gaze into the gloomy vegetation; there’s land there – no igapó. About twenty yards in, an ancient sepulchral log spans the breadth of the creek, green with moss, black with rot. Tendrils of ariel roots hang down and drift in the slight current, funneling water up to the parasitic epiphiates thriving high in the canopy, nestled in the crooks of the massive, centennial giants. The wall of a hundred thousand shades of green exhales the subtle, murmuring energy of a hundred thousand life forms. And still, we wait.
Today, our patience pays off. A bobbing black head, tipped with the distinctive, yellow hooked beak, materializes on the right bank. My heart rate skyrockets; slowly, carefully, I lay my paddle across my knees, ease back the hammer of my gun, and nestle the end of the stock against my right shoulder. The head vanishes, but I can still hear the rustling steps, heading in the direction of the old log. Suddenly the entire bird appears, utterly off-guard, pecking industriously at fresh leaf buds. A small jump, accompanied by a brief flap. The mutúm, in all of its sleek black glory, is standing on the middle of the log – completely exposed. This time, there is no escape.
The shotgun bucks with recoil, and the earsplitting explosion of the shot silences the voices of the rainforest for a second. The bird jerks, gives one helpless flap, and keels over into the water on the opposite side of the log. The jungle pauses, only out of curiosity, then resumes its ethereal murmur as the cussarow gives one last wet flap and dies in the shallows of the igarapé.
We, the victorious predators, rejoice at our good fortune and excellent luck. Such a clean shot is rarely offered in the thick tangles and underbrush. I fish the soggy mutúm from the water, the legs and wings still jerking as the lifeless nerves burn up the last of their death-shock energy. Three hits: one in the left wing, one in the breast, and the coup-d’grace, a direct hit to the back of the skull. We take turns hefting it, estimating its weight, and salivating at the prospect of hot, meaty soup for the next two days. We camp that evening on an inclined clearing near a massive otter-run. We both agree that the evenings’ soup, eaten in the silence of ecstasy, was one of the best meals either of us has ever tasted, anywhere.
The next day a heavy rain falls from six in the morning until well after dark. Bloated and dry, we elect to take the day off, huddled in the folds of our hammocks and reading Steinbeck. Our only company is an occasional giant otter, drifting past slowly and snorting in irritation at our intrusion before disappearing into some other concealed den entrance. We gorge ourselves on soup, can feel our bodies growing stronger by the hour. Tired backs and sore arms seep strength and wellness from the flavorful, creamy broth. We lick our wounds, dab at our scratches, and talk periodicaly about nothing in particular as the canoe floats quietly nearby, patiently awaiting the next day’s laborious upriver journey.
The rain lulls us to sleep, and our dreams are as rich as our meals. The dawn comes too soon. The minute we’re back on the river, the rain returns with a vengeance and a chilly west wind. We are cold, wet, and hungry again. We eat the last of the cold soup with wrinkled, numb fingers, juice running down our chins as we drink the broth straight from the charred metal pot, wrapped in rain gear, huddled together like a couple of wet mice with that long, resigned look of learned tolerance hanging over our hooded eyes and pasty faces. It must be about noon, but there’s no telling for sure. Too cloudy. Who gives a damn, anyway.
We sip lukewarm coffee afterward, not saying anything. And there’s nothing to do but keep going.
Barcelos. I and my happily-drunk family sit around the plastic Skol-marked table at the outdoor bar near the city port, diligently chipping away at our third case of beer. Star, the lithe, dark-skinned beauty I picked up on the boat from Manaus, sits in my lap dressed in a bikini covered barely by a white slip, thin and revealing. She laughs loudly as Dad dances to the forró, whistling and spilling beer on his shirt. Faltermans on vacation – always something to be laughed at.
The bar is actually a pizzaria. But mostly, it’s a bar. The owner, Senhor Barriga – literally translated, Mr. Belly – is tickled pink at our company. Sr. Barriga’s namesake bounces around jovially as he dances next to Dad, red-faced and issuing a laugh that could shake foundations. We whistle and clap, and Sr. Barriga brings more beer for everybody, on the house. Star gets up and kisses him on the cheek. She’s his daughter, and the general purpose of her trip to Barcelos was to kiss her father on the cheek and drink his beer. So far, things are going swimmingly.
We sit in the afternoon sun, talking, laughing, drinking, and occasionally making trips to the riverside to douse ourselves and then spend ten or fifteen minutes marinating in the shallows. The cathedral in Barcelos has an excellent cement stairway that descends into the river, and it’s here, just twenty yards from Sr. Barriga’s place, that we prefer to do our marinating. Soon the heat gets the better of everybody, and the party shifts to the riverside – along with a fresh surplus of cold beers, courtesy of Dad and Sr. Barriga.
There is a good-sized tree near the stairway that, when the waters are this high, offers excellent opportunities for to brave young boys to leap from the heights into the river. After witnessing several valiant jumps perpetuated by ballsy twelve-year-olds, Ellen and I resolve to take the plunge. A plank helps one reach the first boughs, and then it’s good old-fashioned tree climbing that takes the hopeful daredevil to the higher branches that hang over the riverside. I, drawing on countless hours of both childhood and adult experience, climb swiftly to the top and leap into the tepid waters of the Rio Negro with a yipping howl of ecstasy. Ellen, the pilot, is afraid of heights. She clings to the lower boughs like a koala bear as the family eggs her on from the stair steps. Soon, a crowd has formed. Dad, in his infinite wisdom, decides to film the ordeal.
“The whole town has gathered!” he belts out, referring to the gathered caborclos craning their necks skyward. “No turning back now!” Ellen continues to cling to the tree, probably wondering why the hell she climbed up there in the first place.
“Are you sure its deep enough?” wonders Mom, the only reasonable voice for miles around. “Patrick, is it deep enough there?”
“It’s deep enough,” I assure her, after coming up for air from the silky depths of Star‘s lips.
“Go Ellen!” shouts Dad. “Go Ellen!”
“Ele é teu marido?” a caborclo asks Mom hopefully, pointing dubiously at the lanky, burping man filming with obvious joy his only daughter jumping out of a tree.
“Marido?” wonders Mom, then her brain kicks in. “Yes, yes. Marido. He is my husband.” The caborclo seems highly disappointed.
Ellen unsticks herself from a branch, and manages to reach the next level.
“Are you sure it’s deep there?” wonders Mom again.
“It’s deep there, Cindy,” assures Dad. “It’s like twenty feet. Deep deep deep deep.”
“It’s deep,” I agree.
“Go Ellen!” bellows Dad.
“Awan! Too! Tree!” Star adds helpfully. Ellen is now gripping the next level with an even more determined death-grip.
“You should go too, Cindy,” Dad suggests to Mom. “Are you gonna go?”
“I’m not going.”
“Are you gonna go, Cindy? You’ve gotta climb up the plank.”
“We’ll see what happens to Ellen first.” She cranes her neck, shielding the sunlight with one hand. “Is it scary, Ellen?”
“Yes…” answers Ellen with obvious resign. Dad gives a belly laugh at this answer.
“Go Ellen!” he shouts again, in his own unique brand of encouragement. “No turning back now! The whole town is here!”
“Uwan! A-too! Tree!” shouts Star happily.
“You gotta jump out! Jump out!” I yell from the stairs.
“Um…dois…” begins Star again.
“Tres?” finishes Mom uncertainly.
“Tres!” nods Star with a smile. Mom beams, pleased with her successful termination of the phrase. She turns to me. “Are you sure it’s deep enough, Patrick?”
“Deep deep deep deep,” assures Dad, then notices again the gathering crowd. “Shit! We got the whole city here!” He pans to the onlookers. “Everybody wave!” He waves, and gives an attempt at Portuguese. “Hevessay! Hevessay!” Which means nothing in any language. They wave back because he is waving. He laughs again and says to the camera, “Lots of people here watching Ellen jump outta the tree!”
“Is it deep right there?” wonders Mom uncertainly. She doesn’t trust our judgment – with good reason.
“Patrick!” shouts Star. I’m in the water trying to talk my sister into jumping. “Já era. Não vai!”
“Vai sim!” I retort. “She’ll go!”
Star shrugs, grins, and shouts, “Go, go, go, go!”
“It’s scary,” says Mom sympathetically.
“Vai Ellen!” shouts Star.
“Go Ellen!” adds Dad.
By this time, Ellen has reached the jumping spot. “Just stand up on the branch and jump out!” I advise. “One!”
“Too!” chimes in Star. But Dad’s belly laugh envelops everything before three can be reached. “Ellen, the whole town is watching you!” he reasserts, in case she didn’t hear him the first three times.
“Go, dammit!” I shout. The water is getting cold, and I want to return to Star’s delicious array of smells. “Ey!” she shouts at somebody, raising up her arms, and I notice her thin, wet white slip is doing nothing to conceal her body. Suddenly Ellen jumps, careening with flailing arms, holding her nose, and landing safely in the deep water amidst cheers. The loudest is Dad’s long, drawn-out “Gooooooooooooooooooooooool!”
Ellen and I embrace, then return the the stairs to drink more beer and revel in the golden light of our daredevil achievements. Just another afternoon with the Faltermans. It’s a miracle no one was killed – but we always say that.
The small, rented boat chugs slowly upriver in search of the illusive rainy-season beach. The noise of the motor is barely discernible above the blasting forró music. Sr. Barriga, the renter of the boat, dances heavily for awhile, causing an augmented wake, then tires and retreats to his hammock with his wife. Mom and Dad sit on the roof, sipping beer and gazing at the scenery, as Dad says something like “this is completely different from when I was here in the dry season!” I doze in a hammock with Star nestled in the crook of my arm, a half-finished beer in my limp hand. David and Ellen put away four or five cans between them and play loud, cutthroat gin-rumi on the plastic table in the back. David is winning by hundreds of points, but Ellen refuses to give in – a familiar situation which has repeated itself time and time again for more than a decade. The mid-morning sun glares in, but nobody notices or cares. Finally, the captain finds a sliver of beach somewhere in a forgotten paraná, and we dock.
Howls of mirth as human bodies go flying off the top of the boat and into the river. Sizzling flesh as the tambaquí fish someone brought along is cooked for lunch. Dad’s belly laugh, permeating everything, is defeated only by the earth-shaking guffaw of Sr. Barriga. Seismic chuckles are registered by geologists as far away as the Ecuadorian Andes. The clicking of a camera shutter titters in the background as Mom registers everything. The fish is ready, as indicated by the heavenly smell permeating the area. The younger crowd eats first, then resumes jumping. The rest of us dig in later, sucking succulent meat off gargantuan rib bones. Half an hour later we marinate in the shallows, lying peacefully on the sandy bottom or lounging in beach chairs. After a few more beers Dad decides he wants to jump, too, and cons Mom into going with him. He’s just a ten-year-old at heart. He leaps and whoops and makes Mom feel like she’s twenty again. This is one of many reasons why today, after thirty years of marriage, she loves him more than ever.
Amidst the merriment, Star and I sneak away to the edge of the woods to smoke a joint. We lie entwined in the sand, high as the paper kites the kids are flying from the roof of the boat. Then David materializes out of nowhere. Come on, David! Sit down! I say, and he says sorry, he didn’t mean to interrupt. I say he’s not interrupting, sit down, for chrissake. He sits. I offer him the joint, and he politely refuses. I try to get him involved in the conversation we’re having about bongs, but this is one of the few topics David can’t debate. Soon he decides to go for a walk in the jungle. I tell him good luck, follow the lake and you can’t get lost.
“I try really hard to relate to him,” I confide to Star after he’s gone. “But if I try to get him interested in the things I like, he gives a valiant effort before his interest fizzles. And if I ask him to explain the importance of the influence eighteenth-century romantic composers had on contemporary twenty-first century composers, he goes off on long monologues that I can only pretend to follow. So it’s the same problem.” I sigh, hitting the joint sadly.
“He’s too smart for you,” observes Star, taking the spliff from me and laying her head down on a tuft of grass.
“It’s true,” I agree, laying down next to her and propping my head up with my hand. “I can’t follow him. You should see the diagrams he draws.”
“What diagrams?”she asks curiously.
“I dunno. Something about hexatonal pools? Ellen says they look like waterbugs skating around on the surface of a pond.”
“Waterbugs…” echos Star, gazing peacefully at the sky. We lie in silence for awhile, listening to the distant shrieks of laughter from the kids, and the two competing belly laughs. “Nobody really understands each other,” she decides whimsically after awhile. “It’s only us who understand ourselves.”
I sit up and take the smoldering joint from her. “You’re stoned,” I say accusingly. She smiles and pulls me down into her warm caramel neck – and I drop the joint.
David returns an hour later out of breath, with anxious news.
“I saw a tapir!” he exclaims excitedly. “It was just standing there, then it jumped into the lake and swam off!” I translate for Star, and she titters happily at his obvious pleasure. “That’s amazing!” she says, and hugs him around the neck.
I give my brother a comradely pat on the back. “I’ve only seen one tapir. That’s really cool, David!” He grins, and goes through the story again. We congratulate him on his luck, then he rushes down to the boat to break the news to the family. We follow in his wake, and for the next hour sit in the shallows next to Mom and Dad and Mr. Belly. David is still excited, and takes a few jumps off the roof of the boat to release the excess energy. I smile inwardly; I felt similarly after I saw my tapir.
The mid-morning has long since faded to high noon, and by now is rolling slowly into afternoon. The boat crew wants to go back to Barcelos, but Sr. Barriga objects vehemently on the grounds that he rented the boat for the entire day – and besides, there is still plenty of beer left. We agree heartily from our languishing horizontal positions in the warm, shallow water. As Mr. Belly said, there is still plenty of beer left indeed, so we begin to drink in earnest in order to make a dent in said stockpile.
When we left Barcelos I doubted our group would be able to finish the massive amounts of beer that was brought along. There were at least 200 cans, to be split between the ten or twelve drinking souls on board. By now, as the sun begins to sit low on the horizon, there are less than thirty left. The crew insists, so we begin making for Barcelos…
The motor chugs and we slide downriver at what seems like a breakneck pace, people shouting and laughing and dancing to the eternal forró issuing explosively from the speakers, dogs appearing from somewhere and there was a puppy. Star is cuddling with it and so is David, laughing as he lets it lick his face in the brand-new darkness, since the sun set at some point without anyone noticing, and now a brilliant tapestry of stars is reflecting on the river so perfectly that you can’t tell where the sky ends and the water begins. Mom finds it intensely beautiful and tries to take a picture but there’s too much movement, so she gives up and dances with Dad and then cuddles the puppy with David and Star, and it licks her face, too.
The electric generator kicks in, illuminating a bare light bulb that throbs with the music and casts shadows on Mr. Belly, who is passed out in his hammock smothering his very tolerant wife while the captain steers us into an unknown paraná where the black trees make sinister silhouettes, craggy hands and fingers clawing perversely at the innocent, cotton-white stars, and I feel terrified for a second because it doesn’t seem right, it just doesn’t seem right – but then I feel the sliding, slender fingers of Star snaking around my bare chest from behind me, tentatively at first, one finger at a time, then with both hands and all of a sudden I forget about the trees and we dance drunkenly to the music, laughing while somebody films and the throbbing of the diesel motor shakes the boat with regular, comforting thumps that mean everything is OK, everything is going fine.
We’re out on the roof, everybody is out on the roof under the stars and we lay on our backs to marvel at their beauty but we keep having to sit up again to take more sips of beer. David and Ellen veer off to the back of the boat and make vain attempts to speak with the children who just laugh and laugh, so Ellen laughs because she didn’t really have anything to say and she just likes to laugh, but David continues to doggedly attempt communication in an unknown language with ten-year-olds who wouldn’t understand him even if he spoke perfect Portuguese.
Star and I sit on the edge of the roof with our legs dangling off the side, giggling and blowing pot smoke into each others faces, swinging our feet back and forth like children, while Mom and Dad sit exactly similar on the opposite side, giggling and enjoying the marvelous black Amazon night, swinging their feet back and forth like children – and suddenly we round a bend, and the harsh, artificial lights of Barcelos are all around us. We’re docking at Mr. Belly’s bar in no time at all, stumbling perilously across a plank that someone put there to bridge the gap between boat and shore – then quite abruptly, after an undetermined amount of time, we’re all back around the plastic Skol-marked tables with more miraculous beers in front of us while we sit in plastic lawn chairs, swinging our feet back and forth like children. It seems like there is always somebody laughing at something. We dissolve helplessly in the juices of our own mirth. The world is one big, happy, laughing place and tonight, we all feel like a bunch of silly children and nothing in the world seems more desirable than this – until David pukes in the river and can’t find his shoes and we have to put him in Mr. Belly’s hammock for awhile.
Years later we are stumbling through the streets of Barcelos. It feels like four in the morning but everything is open and we realize it’s only seven pm. My shirt is torn in the back for some reason; Star notices this and slides her hands in through the hole and ends up ripping the whole thing off in mid-walk, presumably due to some wild shot of passion that came rocketing in from somewhere, possibly the sky. Dad roars with laughter. Encouraged, Star drapes the ruins of my shirt on her shoulders, kisses Dad on the cheek, then ambles off to link arms with Mom, who has long since reached her limit and is staggering somewhat. David and Ellen walk out ahead, even though they have no idea where they are going. David is barefoot because he was never able to find his shoes.
We reach home a decade later, and now Mom is wearing the ruins of my shirt around her neck like a scarf. Dad and Ellen quickly return to the streets to buy more beer, while Mom and David attempt to navigate to their rooms where they can pass luxuriously out. I waste no time in dragging a mattress into the spare room. Star slithers onto it like a sensual cobra, giving a warm smile and beckoning innocently with the look of simpering insipidity of a woman in heat. I slam the door shut with a flourish, dive headlong onto the mattress, and make passionate, carefree love to her for what seems like hours.
We lie cooling in the air of the fan afterward, chests heaving still, listening to the riotous noise of Dad and Ellen plowing through more beer in the kitchen. Star procures a lump of weed from somewhere and rolls a joint. “Your family’s a lot of fun,” she notes, sparking it up.
“We’re on vacation,” I explain.