“Tapiama,” a surreal and abject short story by Paul Bowles

“Tapiama”

by

Paul Bowles


JUST BEHIND the hotel was the river. If it had come from very far inland it would have been wide and silent, but because it was really only a creek swollen by the rains, and its bed was full of boulders, it made a roaring noise which the photographer briefly mistook for more rain. The heat and the trip had tired him out; he had eaten the cold fried fish and the leathery omelet that oozed grease, the brown bean paste with rice and burned bananas, and had been overtaken suddenly by a sleepiness powerful as the effect of a drug. Staggering to his bed, he had ripped off his shirt and trousers, lifted the stiff mosquito-net that reeked of dust, and dropped like a stone onto the mattress, only distantly noticing its hardness before he lost himself in sleep.

But in the night when he awoke he realized he had been in the false sleep of indigestion; staring into the blackness over his head he told himself that it was going to be hard to find the way back into oblivion. It was then that he had become aware of the night’s changeless backdrop of sound, and had taken it for rain. Now and then, far above his head (how could the ceiling be that high?) a firefly’s nervous little light flashed its indecipherable code for an instant or two. He was lying on his back; something small was crawling down his chest. He put his hand there; it was a slowly moving drop of sweat. The rough sheet under him was wet. He wanted to move, but if he did there would be no end to the shifting, and each new position would be more uncomfortable than the last. In the anonymous darkness of a nearby room someone coughed from time to time; he could not tell whether it was a man or a woman. The meal he had eaten lay like ten meals in his stomach. Slowly the memory of it was suffused with a nebulous horror—particularly the heavy cold omelet shining with grease.

Lying there smelling the dust from the netting was like being tied up inside a burlap bag. To get out into the street and walk—that was what he wanted, but there were difficulties. The electricity went off at midnight; the old man who ran the hotel had told him that. Instead of putting the matches under his pillow he had left them in his trouser-pocket, and the idea of stepping out on to the floor barefoot without a light did not appeal to him. Besides, he reminded himself, listening again to the wide, strangely distant clamor out there, it was raining. But to move along the dead streets even under the invisible rain would be a pleasure.…If he lay quite still, sleep might return. Finally, in desperation he yanked the net aside and sprang out of bed, across the room in the direction of the chair over which he had thrown his clothes.

He managed to get into his shirt and trousers in the space of three matches; his shoes he pounded on the concrete floor in the dark, to tumble out a possible centipede or scorpion. Then he struck a fourth match and opened the door into the patio. Here it was no longer pitch-black. The huge potted plants were visible in the night’s lead-colored light, but the sky, stifled by a cloud that no starlight could pierce, seemed not to be there at all. It was not raining. “The river must be very close,” he thought.

He walked along the covered corredor, grazing the tentacles of orchids that hung in baskets and jars from the eaves, bumping into the pieces of wicker furniture, and found the entrance door, closed and doubly bolted. Carefully he slid back the metal bars and opened the door, pulling it shut after him. The gloom of the street was as profound as that of the patio and the air as still as it had been under the mosquito-net. But it had an indefinite vegetable scent—a sweet odor of both fulfillment and exhaustion.

He turned to the left: the long empty main street, lined with one-story buildings, led straight down to the paseo along the sea. As he walked, the unmoving hot-house air became veined with the fresher smell of seaweed on the beach. At each intersecting street he had to go down six steps to the road level, cross, and climb up again to the sidewalk. In the rainy season, the propietario of the hotel had told him, there was a rowboat at each corner to ferry the pedestrians across. Like the intermingling of the land and sea odors that he breathed, two opposing but entwined sensations took possession of him: a relief amounting almost to delight, and a faint feeling of nausea which he decided to combat because he felt that not to have been able to leave all suggestion of illness behind showed a lack of strength. He tried to put more springiness into his walk, but discovered almost immediately that it was too hot to make any more than a minimum of effort. He was sweating even more now than he had been in his bed. He lighted an Ovalado. The taste of the sweet tobacco was a part of the night.

The paseo bordering the sea-front was about half a mile long. He had imagined there would be some slight stirring of the air here, but he could detect no difference. Still, now and then there was the soft intimate sound of a small wave breaking gently on the sand just below. He sat down on the balustrade and rested, in the hope of cooling off a little. The sea was invisible. He could have been sitting on the peak of a cloud-covered mountain—the gloom in front of him would have been that formless and all-embracing. Yet the sea’s casual noises had no element of distance in them, as sea sounds have. It was as though they were taking place in a vast, closed courtyard. The concrete slabs on which he sat were damp, and a little cooler than his flesh. He smoked two cigarettes and strained his ears to hear some sound, made even indirectly, by human agency. But there was nothing more than the desultory slipping and sucking of the lazy water on the beach below. He glanced up and down the empty paseo. Far out along the shore to the west there was a light. It was orange, it flickered: a bonfire? He resumed walking, more slowly than before, ahead of him the distant blaze, the one point of light in the landscape.

A wide flight of steps led down onto the beach. Just beyond, he could see the flimsy structure of a pier that had been built out over the water. He stood still and listened. The fitful licking of small waves around the piles sounded as though it were happening in an echo-chamber.

He ran lightly down the steps and passed underneath the pier. It was definitely cooler walking along on the sand than it had been up on the paseo. He felt wide-awake now, and decided to see how much nearer to the light down the shore fifteen minutes would put him. Night-colored crabs hurried along the sand just ahead of his moving feet, completely soundless and almost invisible. A little beyond the end of the paseo the sand gave place to a hard coral surface which was easier to walk on. Out of prudence he kept as near to the water’s edge as possible.

There was a difference between this walk and innumerable other midnight jaunts he had made, and he was inclined to wonder what made it so pleasant. Perhaps he was enjoying it simply because the fabric here was of pure freedom. He was not looking for anything; all the cameras were back in the hotel room.

Occasionally he lifted his eyes from the dim brainlike configurations of coral beneath his feet and looked inland, to see whether he could make out any signs of habitation. It seemed to him that there might be sand dunes a few hundred feet back, but in the absence of light it was impossible to be certain of even that much. The sweat trickled down his spine and over his coccyx, sliding in between his buttocks. Maybe the best idea would be to undress completely. But then there would be the bother of carrying his clothing, and he wanted his hands free, even at the risk of chafing.

The question of freedom was governed by the law of diminishing returns, he said to himself, walking faster. If you went beyond a certain point of intensity in your consciousness of desiring it, you furnished yourself with a guarantee of not achieving it. In any case, he thought, what is freedom in the last analysis, other than the state of being totally, instead of only partially, subject to the tyranny of chance?

There was no doubt that this walk was dispelling the miasma of indigestion that had lain within him. Three minutes to go, said the bright minute-hand of his watch; the orange light ahead seemed smaller than it had from the town. Why an arbitrary fifteen minutes? He smiled at the precise urban pattern in which his mind had automatically moved. If he lifted his arm he could touch the sky, and it would be moist, tepid and voluptuously soft.

And now in the distance ahead, on the landward side, he heard sounds which he quickly identified as the voices of hundreds of young frogs. The light, now that he studied it, was moving in a strange fashion: slightly up and down, and sideways as well, but without appearing to alter its position. All at once it became a huge flame belching upward, an instant later scattering cascades of red sparks, and he understood that he had arrived. The bonfire burned on the floor of a gently swaying craft not a hundred feet ahead of him. A naked man stood above it, tossing it palm branches. The photographer stopped walking and listened for the sound of human voices, but the happy chorus of frogs filled the air.

He stepped ahead several paces and decided to call out. “Hola!” The man wheeled about, jumped over the nearer side of the boat (the water was extremely shallow) and came running up to him.

Without greeting him, taking him perhaps for someone else, the man said: “Tapiama? Vas a Tapiama?” The photographer, never having heard of Tapiama, stuttered a bit and finally said, “Sí,” whereupon the other seized his arm and pulled him along to the edge of the water. “The tide’s all the way out. We’ll start in a minute.”

He could see two other people in the craft, lying flat on the floor, one on each side of the fire, as far from its heat as possible. The photographer squatted down and removed his shoes and socks, then waded to the boat. When he stood in the center of it (the fire was still crackling brightly) he turned and watched the naked man loosening the rope that held the craft in place.

“The whole thing is absurd.” He could only distrust the very naturalness with which all this was coming about—the indifference to his unexpected arrival on the part of the two passengers, and perhaps even more, the highly suspect readiness of the boatmen to take off the moment he had appeared. He told himself, “Things don’t happen this way,” but since beyond a doubt they were doing so, any questioning of the process could lead only in the direction of paranoia. He dropped to the floor of the boat and pulled out his packet of Ovalados. The naked boatman, the coil of dripping rope around his black forearm like a bracelet, sprang aboard, and with his big toe nudged one of the supine passengers who stirred, rose to his knees, and glanced about with annoyance. “Where is it?” he demanded. Without replying, the boatman handed him the shorter of two poles that had lain along the gunwale. Together they began to propel the punt along the invisible surface of the water. The frogs’ canticle and the fire’s flare filled the night.

Having answered “Sí” to the Tapiama question, the photographer felt he could scarcely take the retrogressive step of asking “What is Tapiama?” or “Where is Tapiama?” And so, much as he would have liked to know, he decided to wait. This shallow body of water beneath them—estuary, lagoon? River more likely, since the boatman had said the tide was out. But not the stream whose troubled passage among the boulders he had heard from his bed.

They pushed on, now and then passing beneath clumps of high vegetation where the frogs’ song was briefly covered by another sound, inexplicable and brutal, like the sudden tearing of a vast sheet of strong linen. From time to time something solid and heavy splashed nearby, as if a man had fallen into the water. And occasionally the other passenger raised himself on one elbow and without too much effort managed to revive the dying fire with another dry palm-leaf.

Probably it was less than an hour before they came to a landing in the mud. The two passengers leapt out and hurried away into the darkness. The boatman, after carefully donning a pair of short underpants, tapped the photographer on the arm and asked him for sixty centavos. He gave him seventy-five and clambered out into the soft mud, his shoes in his hand.

“Wait a minute,” said the man. “I’ll go with you.” The photographer was pleased. When the boatman, looking blacker now in his white shorts, had secured the punt to an upright log driven into the mud, he led the way upward through a tangle of undergrowth, saying casually at one point: “Are you going across tomorrow?”

“Across? No.”

“Aren’t you here for the company?” The voice implied that to be here otherwise than for the company laid one open to unnameable suspicion.

The time had come to be truthful, he feared, although he did not relish the position he knew it would put him in. “I never heard of the company,” he said. “I just arrived in Rio Martillo tonight. What sort of company?”

“Sugar,” said the other. Then he stood still in the dark and spoke slowly: “Entonces—why have you come to Tapiama? They don’t like millonarios here, you know.” Understanding that this was the contemptuous coastal term for Americans, the photographer quickly lied. “I’m Danish,” he said, but feeling that his voice lacked conviction he immediately added: “Do we go through any more mud, or can I put my shoes on?”

The man had started up again. “Wash your feet at the cantina, if you like,” he told him over his shoulder. In another minute they were there: all in the dimness an open space, a dozen or so palm-leaf huts at one end of it, at the other a platform which must be a loading dock, the empty night and openness of water behind it; and half-way between the dock and the cluster of dwellings, the cantina, itself only a very large hut without a front wall.

A faint light came from within; there was no sound but the frogs on all sides, and the occasional tearing rasp in the branches high overhead. “Why is the place open at this hour?” demanded the photographer. The boatman stopped in the middle of the clearing and adjusted his shorts briefly. “Don Octavio runs it from six in the morning until six at night. His brother runs it from six at night until six in the morning. The company lets the men off from work at different hours. They come here with their pago and spend it. They like it better here than at home. Not so many mosquitoes.” It could have been the photographer’s imagination that made the man’s voice sound bitter as he spoke the last words. They continued across the clearing and stepped into the cantina.

There was no floor; the ground was covered with white sand. A counter of boards had been built diagonally across a far corner. Here an oil lamp smoldered and two men stood drinking. Wooden packing-cases were scattered here and there, some standing on end with empty beer bottles on them, and others on their sides, to be used as seats. “Muy triste,” commented the boatman, glancing around. Then he went behind the bar and disappeared through a small door in the wall there. Apart from the two at the bar, who had ceased their conversation and now stood staring at the photographer, there was no one else in the place. “When in doubt, speak,” he told himself, advancing toward them, although it occurred to him that he might just as well have made it, “When in doubt, keep quiet,” even as he opened his mouth to say, “Buenas noches,” for their expressions did not alter in any manner that he could detect. For a full three seconds they continued to gaze at him before they replied, which they then did more or less simultaneously. These two had nothing in common, he noted: one was a soldier in uniform, an Indian boy of perhaps eighteen, the other a tired-looking mulatto civilian of indeterminate age. Or perhaps—the idea came to him as he put his elbow on the bar with a show of casualness—they did have at least a common antagonism, now that he had entered the cantina. “Oh, well, I’m barefoot and my shoes are covered with mud,” he thought.

“Hay alguien?” he said aloud to the palm-leaf wall behind the bar. The two neither resumed their conversation nor spoke further with him, and he did not turn his head again toward them. Presently the small door opened and a fat man pushed through. He stood with his hands outspread on the bar, his eyebrows raised in anticipation. “I’ll have a cumbiamba,” said the photographer, remembering the name of the coastal region’s favorite drink, a herbal concoction famous for its treacherous effects.

It was foul-tasting but strong. The second one seemed less objectionable. He walked across to the open side of the cantina and sat down on a packing-case, looking out at the formless night. The two at the bar were talking again in low tones. It was not long before five men appeared from the platform end of the clearing; they straggled in and stood at the bar, laughing as they waited for their drinks. All of them were black, and wore only underpants, like the boatman. Now a mulatto girl with gold teeth came through the little door behind the bar and joined them. Almost immediately, however, she became aware of the photographer sitting by himself, and with her hands on her hips, half dancing, she made her way across the open space toward him. When she arrived, she squatted down beside him grinning and with one thin yellow hand reached out to unfasten his fly. His reaction was instantaneous and automatic: he drew back his leg and kicked her full in the breast, so that she toppled over backward in silence onto the sand. The noise of the resulting laughter at the bar was not sufficient to cover her thin voice, made sharp by rage: “Qué bruto, tú! Pendejo!” Hands on hips again, she retreated to the bar and was given a beer by one of the workmen. Although the photographer had not meant to kick her, he felt no regret at the turn the incident had taken. The cumbiambas seemed to be having their effect; he was beginning to feel very well. He sat still a while, tapping rhythms on the side of his empty glass. Soon more Negro workmen came in and joined the others at the bar. One carried a guitar on which he set to work strumming a syncopated chordal accompaniment for a melody which failed to appear. However, it was music of a sort, and everyone was pleased with it. Perhaps awakened by the sound, the dogs of the village had now started an angry chorus of barking; this was particularly audible to the photographer who sat at the entrance, and it bothered him. He rose and moved over to an empty crate alongside the opposite wall, resting his head against a rough-hewn pole that was one of the supports of the roof. A foot or so above his head there was a strange object dangling from a nail. Now and then he rolled his eyes upward and studied it.

All at once he jumped up and began violently to brush the back of his neck and head. The pole behind him was swarming with tiny ants, thousands upon thousands of them: someone had hung a small crushed coral snake over the nail, and they had come to eat the flesh. It took him a good while not to feel any more of the insects running over his back; during that time two other individuals had come into the cantina (whether from the outside or through the door behind the counter, he had not noticed), and now sat between him and the bar in such a fashion that both of them faced him. The old man looked Nordic, the innocent-looking one-legged boy with him could be Spanish; the old man was telling the boy a humorous story, leaning toward him with great interest, occasionally poking his arm with a forefinger to drive home a point, but the boy was distraughtly making designs in the sand with the tip of his crutch.

The photographer stood up; he had never before had such an effect from two drinks. “A very peculiar sensation,” he said to himself. “Very peculiar,” he repeated aloud under his breath as he started toward the bar to order another. It was not that he felt drunk so much as that he had become someone who was not he, someone for whom the act of living was a thing so different from what he had imagined it could be, that he was left stranded in a region of sensation far from any he had heretofore known. It was not unpleasant: it was merely indefinable. “Dispénseme,” he said to a tall Negro in pink and white striped BVD’s and he handed his empty glass to the fat man. He wanted to see what went into a cumbiamba, but the barman did everything quickly beneath the counter and handed him back the glass, brimming with the slightly frothy mixture. He took a good swallow of it and set it down, turning a little to his right as he did so. Standing beside him was the Indian soldier, his cap at an angle atop a pre-Columbian face. “Why does the army put such big visors on them?” he wondered.

He saw that the soldier was about to speak. “Whatever he says is going to turn out to be an insult,” he warned himself, in the hope that this would help him to avoid possible anger later.

“Do you like this place?” the soldier said; his voice was silken.

“Es simpático. Yes, I like it.”

“Why?” The dogs outside had come nearer; he could hear their yapping now above the laughter.

“Can you tell me why they hung that dead snake on the wall there?” he found himself asking, and supposed it was to change the subject. But the soldier was going to be even more boring than he had feared. “I asked you why you like this cantina,” he insisted.

“And I told you it was simpático. Isn’t that enough?”

The soldier tilted his head back and looked down his nose.

“Far from being enough,” he replied, his manner pedantic, his expression infuriating.

The photographer returned to his drink, picked it up, slowly finished it off. Then he pulled out his cigarettes and offered one to the other. With exaggerated deliberateness the soldier reached for the cigarette, took it, and began to tap it on the counter. The man playing the guitar at last had started to sing in a small falsetto voice along with it, but most of the words were in a dialect the photographer could not understand. When the cigarettes were lighted, he found himself wondering who had lighted them—he or the soldier.

“Just where did you come from?” asked the soldier.

He was not bothering to answer, but the soldier misunderstood even this. “I can see you’re inventing something,” he said, “and I don’t want to hear it.”

The photographer, disgusted, exclaimed, “Aaah!” and ordered another cumbiamba. This most recent one had done something extraordinary to him: he felt that he had become very precise, thin and hard, an object made of enamel or some similar material, something other than a living being, but intensely conscious all the same. “Four ought to do the trick,” he thought.

The empty glass was in his hand, the fat barman was staring at him, and at that point he had not the slightest idea whether he had already drunk the fourth one or whether it was still the moment just after he had ordered it. He felt himself laughing, but he could not hear whether any sound was coming out or not. The mangled snake, seething with ants, had upset him a little; recognizing it, he had then been made aware of its smell, which he was not sure he had escaped even now. Here at the bar the kerosene lamp smoked heavily; its strong fumes choked him. “Gracias a Dios,” he confided to the barman, handing him the glass.

The old man who had been sitting on the crate behind them rose and came vaguely toward the bar. “Where did this come from?” said the photographer, laughing apologetically, looking at the full glass in his hand. The frenzied dogs out in the clearing yapped and howled, an exasperating sound. “Qué tienen esos perros?” he demanded of the soldier.

The old man had stopped beside them. “Say, Jack, I don’t mean to butt in or anything,” he began. He was bald, sunburned; he wore a fishnet shirt. The furrows between his ribs showed as parallel shadows, and irregular tufts of gray hair waved out from his chest between the meshes of the shirt. He stretched his lips in a smile, showing naked white gums. The soldier’s stance became over-nonchalant; he stared at the newcomer, open hatred suddenly in his eyes, and gently blew the smoke from his cigarette into the old man’s face.

“You from Milwaukee? Siddown.”

“In a little while, thanks,” said the photographer.

“A little while?” the old man echoed incredulously, running his hand over the top of his head. Then he called out in Spanish to the one-legged boy. The photographer was thinking: “This is not going to work out right, at all. It’s just not going to work out.” He wished the Negro would stop singing and the dogs would stop barking. He looked at the glass in his hand, full of what looked like soapsuds. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. “Say, bud, lemme give you a little advice.” The old man again. “There’s money in this country if you know where to look. But the guy that finds it is the guy that sticks to his own kind, if you know what I mean.” He put his face nearer and lowered his voice. Three skeletal fingers touched the photographer’s arm. “You take it from me, from one white man to another. I’m tellin’ you!” The three fingers, dark with tobacco stain, lifted themselves, trembled, and dropped back. “These guys all mean trouble from the word go.”

The boy having both gathered up his crutch and managed to rise from where he had been sitting, had now arrived at the bar. “Take a look at this, Jack,” the old man said. “Show him,” he told the boy in Spanish, and the boy, leaning on his crutch, bent over and rolled up the right leg of his ragged khaki shorts until he had exposed the stump of his amputated leg. It was not far below the groin; the scar tissue had puckered and wrinkled curiously in countless tiny convolutions. “See?” cried the old man. “Two hundred and sixty tons of bananas went over that. Feel it.”

“You feel it,” said the photographer, wondering how it was possible for him to go on standing and talking exactly as if he were a person like the rest of them. (Could it be that what had happened to him did not show?) He turned his head and looked towards the entrance. The mulatto girl was vomiting just outside. With a cry the barman rushed across and furiously pushed her farther away, out into the clearing. When he came back in he was theatrically holding his nose. “That prostitute ape!” he yelled. “In another minute we’d have had the dogs inside here.”

The boy was still looking expectantly at the old man, to see if it was time to lower his trouser leg. “You think he got a centavo from them?” said the old man sadly. “Hah!”

The photographer had begun to suspect that something had gone very wrong inside him. He felt sick, but since he was no longer a living creature he could not conceive it in those terms. He had shut his eyes and put his hand over his face. “It’s going around backward,” he said. The undrunk cumbiamba was in his other hand.

Saying the sentence had made it more true. It was definitely going around backward. The important thing was to remember that he was alone here and that this was a real place with real people in it. He could feel how dangerously easy it would be to go along with the messages given him by his senses, and dismiss the whole thing as a nightmare in the secret belief that when the breaking-point came he could somehow manage to escape by waking himself up. A little unsteadily he set his drink down on the counter. An argument which had arisen a while ago between the Indian soldier and his sad companion had now reached its noisy stage, with the companion attempting to drag the soldier away from the bar against his will, and the soldier, his two booted legs firmly apart, breathing rapidly, noisily in his resistance. Suddenly there was a small, shining knife in his right hand, and his face assumed the look of a little boy about to burst into tears. The old man quickly moved around to the photographer’s other side. “That guy’s bad news in any language,” he muttered, gesturing nervously to the boy with the crutch as he bade him move out of the way.

The photographer was saying to himself: “If I can hold out. If I can only hold out.” The whole place was slipping away from him, downward and outward; the guitar strummed and the dogs barked, the soldier flashed his knife and pouted, the old American talked about caves with buried emeralds only six days up the Tupurú, the lamp grew redder and more smoke came out of it. He understood nothing except that he must stay there and suffer; to try to escape would be fatal. The soldier’s face was very near his own now, breathing black tobacco smoke at him. Languorously, with an insane natural coquetry, he made his long lashes trembles as he asked: “Why have you not offered me a copita? All night I have been waiting for you to invite me.” The hand holding the knife hung listlessly at his side; the photographer thought of a sleeping baby still clutching its rattle.

“Sí quieres… Qué tomas?” he murmured, reflecting that his shoes should be in his hand and were not; then where were they? Someone had brought a large spider monkey into the cantina and was forcing it to dance to the guitar’s syncopations, making it stand upright by holding its two front paws. With an air of distraught gravity it stepped about, peering this way and that, grimacing nervously at the loud peals of laughter that came from those at the bar watching its antics. The dogs, having noticed its arrival, had rushed to the very entrance of the cantina, where they braced themselves to shriek and snap with determined fury.

The soldier’s drink had been bought and paid for, but he was not drinking it. He was leaning far back against the bar, reclining on his elbow almost as though he were in bed, his eyes simple black slits, whispering: “You don’t like it here. You want to go, verdad? But you are afraid to go.”

In spite of the constant sliding away, everything had remained just as it was. It would have been better if he could have sat down. “Oh, God,” he asked himself. “Am I going to be able to stand this?”

“Why are you afraid to go?” pursued the other tenderly, smiling so that the photographer could admire his small, perfect teeth. The photographer laughed silently, did not reply.

The face of the soldier, ovoid, honey-colored, so near to his, moved now with consummate smoothness into another face, that of a general. (“Sí, mi general,” with stiff bigotes sprouting from beneath the nostrils, almond eyes, black, deadly with a delicate lust, the uniform svelte, plaited steel riding crop in hand, sharpened spurs shining by the anklebone. “Bien, mi general.” Lying on the hot barrack mattress, tarde tras tarde, the soldier had dreamed of being the general. Which mountain village had he said he was from? How long had he been talking?)

“…and that day alone they killed forty-one pigs before my eyes. There in the corral. Me bizo algo; no sé…” His smile was apologetic, intimate; he lowered his eyes imperceptibly, made the effort and raised them again to look at the photographer in such a way that, since they were wider than before, they glistened. “I never forgot it; I don’t know why.”

Between them the gold-toothed girl came sliding, her hands wriggling over her head, her hips circling, her thin voice shouting: “Ahii! Ahii! El fandango de la Guajira.” The soldier must have pushed her, for all at once she slapped him. But it was happening very slowly. How could it take the soldier so long to bring up his knife, and as he raised his hand, how could the stupid girl wait that way before screaming and ducking aside? Even so, the blade caught her only on the arm; she was in the middle of the floor, kneeling on the sand, moaning: “He cut me! Oh God! He cut me!” And because the man who had been dancing with the spider monkey let go of it to get as quickly as all the others to the bar, the beast toddled over to the girl and distractedly wrapped one long hairy arm around her neck. But then the photographer was being roughly jostled, his bare feet were being stepped on as everyone tried to get at the soldier and disarm him. (A demon mask shiny with venom, a voice of barbed wire that rasped: “Os mato a todos! A todos!”)

It was exactly nineteen steps from the place where he had stood to the trunk of a small papaya tree in front of the entrance. The tree was not very strong; it swayed slightly as he leaned against it. The dogs were yelping now from inside the cantina. Here the air was sweet and almost cool; the faintest glimmer of morning was in the sky and water behind the landing. “I must start to walk,” he told himself; it seemed important to believe it. The shouts and screams inside the cantina were growing in volume, and people were beginning to call to one another from the doors of their huts. The landing platform was empty—just boards and no railing. Shuffling along with great care because he was not used to going barefoot, he followed what he thought was the path he had taken earlier, through the undergrowth back down to the river’s edge, and there was the punt, mud-beached in the mangroves.

It was easy to get in, easy to untie the rope, and easy (for the level of the water had risen considerably since the craft had been left) to pry it loose from the shelf of mud where it rested. But once he was floating among the now nearly visible trunks and branches, bumping against them and being spun to face first the dark chaotic riverbank and then the wide whitening emptiness of open sky and water, he understood dimly that it was not going to be possible to pole his way back to the beach whence he had come, since the tide was still coming in. It was a comforting thought, he decided, because it meant that everything was going ahead instead of backward. A minute later he was floating quietly by the base of the landing: people were running around the clearing. Quickly he lay down flat on the bottom of the punt, and there he stayed, looking straight up at the gray sky, hoping in this way to remain invisible until he had been carried out of sight, beyond Tapiama.

It was going to be one of those stillborn tropical days, when there would be no sun, no wind, no clouds—because the entire sky was enfolded in one vast suffocating blanket of cloud—when nothing at all would happen save that hourly it would grow hotter until an approximate dusk came along. Already the eastern side of the sky was the hot side, arching above the flatness of the swampland. The punt scarcely moved now, the channel having broadened into this wide marshy lake. The photographer lay still and groaned. Little by little the fear that someone might see him gave way to the hope that what current there was would propel the craft in the direction of the shore rather than out toward the wilderness of water and tiny islands; sometimes, even though suffering be implicit in it, contact with others is preferable to the terror of solitude and the unknown. He laid an arm over his eyes to shield them from the corrosive gray light that beat down upon him from the spaces above. The other hand lay in the ashes of last night’s fire. And he floated in utter silence on the calm bosom of the lagoon, not stirring as the morning hours moved along, but growing increasingly conscious of the infernal seething of the cumbiambas in his brain, a seething which expressed itself as a senseless nightmare imposed from without, in the face of which he could only be totally passive. It was an invisible spectacle whose painful logic he followed with the entire fiber of his being, without, however, once being given a clear vision of what agonizing destinies were at stake.

Some time toward mid-morning the punt grazed a submerged root and was swung into an eddyless pool in the shelter of the vegetation near the shore. Here fierce flies stung him, and from among the leaves high above, a talking bird remarked casually, over and over again: “Idigaraga. Idigaraga. Idigaraga.”

It was no particular consolation to him, so intent was he on the obscure drama being enacted within him, to hear human voices presently, or to feel the craft seized by the hands of someone splashing in the water alongside. Only when several people had climbed in and crouched chattering around him did he move his arm and squint up at them. Five young men, all of whom looked remarkably alike, surrounded him. Water dripped down upon him from their naked bodies. He shut his eyes again: it was too unlikely a scene. During this time one of them dived overboard, was gone a short while, and returned with a green coconut whose top he had sliced off. He began to let the water dribble into the photographer’s face, whereupon the photographer partially sat up and drank the rest of it. In minute he looked around at them again, and said: “Are you brothers?”

“Sí sí,” they chorused. This was for some reason a consolation. “Hermanos,” he sighed, sliding down into the ashes again. Then he added desperately, hoping they could still hear him: “Please take me to Rio Martillo.”

It had been a brief interlude of clarity. Now they poled the punt back out under the hot sky, letting him lie there and moan as he liked. At one point he felt he must try to explain that he would give them each seventy-five centavos for their trouble, but they giggled and pushed him back down.

“My shoes!” he cried. “There are no shoes,” they told him. “Lie still.”

“And when we get to the beach,” he panted, seizing a brown ankle beside his face, “how will you get me to Rio Martillo?” “We are not going to any beach,” they replied. “We go through the swamp and the canal.”

He lay still a while, trying to disassociate himself from the irrational ideas boiling up in his head. “Is this the way to Rio Martillo?” he demanded, thrusting himself up a little and gasping, trying to see beyond the enclosing thicket of brown legs and arms, and feeling a deep unreasoned shame at having once again accepted defeat. They laughed, pushed him gently down to the floor, and went on rhythmically poling the craft eastward. “The factory chimney,” they said to one another, pointing into the distance. His mind took him back to the quiet region by the riverbank where the small bird had spoken, high up in the trees, and he heard again the conversational tone. “Idigaraga,” he said aloud, imitating perfectly its voice and intonation. There was an explosion of mirth around him. One of the youths took his arm, shook it lightly. “You know that bird?” he said. “It is a very comic bird. It goes to the nests of other birds and wants to sit there, and when the other birds fight with it and drive it away, it sits down in the same tree there and says: ‘Idigaraga.’ That means: ‘Iri garagua, nadie me quiere, nobody likes me.’ And it says it over and over, until they make it go farther away so they can’t hear it any more. You said it just right. Say it again.” “Sí, sí,” the others agreed, “otra vez!”

The photographer had no intention of saying it again. His shame at having accepted defeat already troubled him less. It was hard in his present condition to fit the bird correctly into the pattern, but he knew it had to be done.

When the Compañia Azucarera Riomartillense blew a long blast on its whistle to announce the advent of noon, the sound hovered for an instant over the empty swampland like an invisible trail of smoke. “Las doce,” said one of the brothers. A great black and gold dragonfly came skimming across the water and lighted on the photographer’s bare foot. After raising and lowering its wings twice, it was again on its crooked course, curving and swooping over the lagoon toward Tapiama. “Say it again,” the brothers begged him.

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