Authors: Anne Enright
December 1854, Río Paraná
TODAY, I ASKED
the name of the bird again, but Miltón shrugged. The
I was told by Captain Thompson, one of the over-gallant English who has spent some time in the wilderness here or here about.
means a lost soul. There are sudden flurries in the branches, but when I look, nothing is there. In the forest, if you hear something, it is already gone. Still, we are followed everywhere by its liquid, ever-falling cry.
We are two days out of Buenos Aires, and no one knows how many days from Asunción. Such a mongrel ship, half-gunboat, half-packet, and massive – the
, it tossed us on its shallow draught across the ocean from Bordeaux, and is now too deep to find the river channel. Miltón stands in the bow as though it were a canoe. He slings his line into the water and draws it up again, turning now and then to whistle at the pilot. He knows the river, but who along these banks has ever seen a ship like ours? He must think he is guiding some kind of cathedral home.
Though, when I look into those mineral eyes, I do not know what these people might believe; whether they even have souls like ours – lost or otherwise. Everywhere, there is such growth. I think that if these people believe anything it
be that the Devil is a vegetable, and God a wonderful big tree.
The air is so thick and warm, I do not know if I am breathing or drowning. I lie and drink it in, in wonderful lassitude. The river is as broad as an open-ended lake. When we approach the bank, the trees crane towards us, madly still; all festooned and crawling: the immense, busy, shifting silence of the forest. I take in the smell of it and think I may well sprout, or rot: some plant will root in my brain. It will flower better than a hat.
My own smell too, has indelicately changed. It is light, and difficult to match; the smell of grass in the sun; of something green and growing, as my belly grows. And under my arms – because of the heat I think – a hint of mould.
My belly is huge. They have strung me up in the bow, like a giant tick. I am all caught up in the skeins of muslin they drape around me. The breeze is cooling when we move, which is not often. Miltón stands on one foot, leaning on a pole, his free hand lifted to shield his eyes from the glare. He ignores me well. The light plays with his bones, eats at his silhouette, until he is just some narrow lines, loosely jointed and standing against a sea of glitter.
One of the sailors is like to go blind from the light. The water, so cheap and nothing up close, is, from afar, a tangle of brilliants. A dangerous cloth. I can see it, even with my eyes closed. Miltón sits with the dazed sailor and tears some slits in the length of a broad reed, then he wraps the reed around the man’s eyes and ties it at the back of his head. The sailor peers through the slits. He cannot speak with the pain. Something about it pleases me. His homely, lewd face, his waxed tail of hair, and this blindfold of green. It seems he has become something else; a thing of random parts. Human, animal, vegetable.
Miltón smokes. And in the small rafts that float by they
up chickens and take tobacco. They stay to smoke; all of them, drifting in the shade of the
and rolling the leaves palm to palm. The women hand their impromptu cigarros to the children’s mouths, while the men stretch back, and leave them to it. All of them healthy and quiet, sometimes laughing in the shade.
This evening I have all the candles straightened in the candelabra. They have softened in the heat and bow slowly towards the floor, until the whole effect is of some kind of splayed flower. When they are lit, I try a little conversation. River manners; easy and unaffected. We sit as travellers anywhere – forgetful of our places in the world. Señor López has cognac. Mr Whytehead, the Scottish engineer, has taken to yerba maté, a foul brew they suck out from a gourd here, but which he says is quite as good as tea. Doctor Stewart, my physician-accoucheur, goes native with some rough alcohol. And because Mr Whytehead, from some religious scruple, will not play cards, the maid Francine makes up the numbers for some harmless rummy. She takes her chance and downs some of my champagne, river-cooled – which is to say, warm.
I ask Señor López about the natives, and what they believe. He says that he himself is a native, and, yes, it is true, he believes in nothing. At which, I feel obliged to laugh. He does not swallow his brandy tonight, but spits it into a bowl, which I have placed for him on a side table. For his teeth, he says. The small room is full of the fumes. ‘Nothing?’ I say. ‘Not even love?’ Gallantly, he takes my hand and kisses it. And suddenly Paris is a long, long way away.
Mr Whytehead tells a forest tale of a Frenchwoman who was miraculously found, after she and her companions got lost among the trees. A Mme Godin des Odonez, whose husband was engaged in a great measuring project somewhere to the north or the west of us. His wife set
to join him, along one of the tributaries of the mighty Amazon, in a company of eight, two of them also female. On the third day out, the natives deserted their canoe and left them to make their own way. They chanced upon another guide lying sick in a hovel on the bank, but he fell into the river and drowned while trying to retrieve a hat; after which the canoe quickly capsized, with the loss of all their provisions. Three of the men struck out for some place they thought to be nearby, and never returned. The rest: Mme Godin, her two brothers, and two female companions lashed together a raft, which broke up on the rocks and, when the tangled growth prevented them from walking along the bank, they struck off into the forest. Here they lost their way and became demented and one by one they died. Mme Godin, by some miracle waking out of a swoon, took the shoes off her dead brother’s feet and stumbled on, she knew not where. Her clothes in tatters, her body half-naked and lacerated (at this he can not help but glance at me) by creepers and thorns, she chanced upon a river – perhaps the same river – and two Divinely Providential Indians, with a canoe.
The candles droop as he speaks and lean slowly sideways. The flames keep their easy, hopeful stance – and then, the crisis – I watch them shrink to a point and then recover to lick back up the tallow, now upside down. The engineer sucks the dregs of his maté and we listen to the night.
Of course, it all happened years ago – he gives the date, being by temperament exact. I say that it is hard to imagine these great trees having weeks and fortnights, as we do: all they know is another day, and another day, and another day after that. Indeed, he says. For eight of these primeval days and nights, she wandered alone in the howling wilderness; surviving on berries and bird’s eggs; shouting and singing to keep the jaguar at bay. She went in a young woman
, when she came out again, her hair was turned quite, quite grey.
He pauses in some satisfaction, and surveys the room. I say that she probably ate the brother. She didn’t just take his shoes; she took a bit of leg as well. She lopped off a nice big ham and slung it over her shoulder, to help her along the way. Señor López gives a great shout of laughter, and hits the engineer between the shoulder blades, and we have another round of cards.
I like the way he glanced at me when he said the word ‘naked’. He is full of slips and blunders. He leaks. He cannot help it. He seems such an unbending, abstemious little man, but I sense the longing in him to give in and live as other people might. The doctor too, rolls his watery eye, and heaves, and sighs. He is very big, when we are so confined in the cabin. Still, in the middle of so much awkwardness – his mouth; small and nice.
Francine says, apropos of nothing, that a mother has only to look into the eyes of her newborn to believe – believe what she could not say. Only that we are ancient, that we come of an ancient race. Señor López looks down at the table and his eyes film over with tears. She lifts her face to the light and says that we spend our first weeks forgetting who we are, and then the rest of our lives trying to remember it again.
This is very pretty of her. Francine started this journey as a maid and will end it as a lady’s companion. And so we go. ‘And what would you know of newborn babies?’ I say, with a sporting glance at the assembled men. At which, quite wisely, she declares rummy, and we continue with the game.
So, she has had a child. It is surprising what a journey will throw up. Poor Francine.
But now, in the river dark, my mind turns to the luckless Indian dying in his hovel – only to be plucked out by these
(these angels of death) with their exotic clothes. And so he does die, but marvellously, for a hat.
Of course the hat was important – a white man would die without one. A white man did die without one.
This morning I do not move, and the boat does not move. I wake to a clanging sound, then the abrupt hiss of coals hitting the river as they clear the boilers out. Pht. Phht. Pht. I lie in the oven of the stateroom all morning. Through the open door, I see Señor López busy, frantic, intent. He does not notice me. He unrolls plans on the table and calls for his engineer, Mr Whytehead, so I must have the door closed and dress in the airless dark. Outside, the light hits like a brick. My dress instantly wilts. The starch gives way in the wet air and my skirts limp altogether along the floor. So I trail around the deck and look at no one, as no one looks at me; then I lie in my gauzy tent and swing.
At noon they raise sail to catch a whisper, and so we veer from one side of the vast river to the other, at which point, the whisper dies.
Everyone sits about. The English – all sorts of railwaymen, fitters, miners – fill the boat with dull delirium. Their voices drift on the hot air, and then stop.
I ask Miltón for the name of a tree on the bank – a handsome tree with red and peeling bark. He laughs and gleefully rubs his forearm, saying, I think, ‘White Man’s Skin.’
In the afternoon, I have Francine put all my white veils away. They increase the power of the sun’s light and the danger of sunburn and freckles. They are also, I think, very injurious to the eyes. Green is the only colour that should be worn as a summer veil.
Freckle wash – take one dram of muriatic acid, half a
of rainwater, half a teaspoonful of spirits of lavender: mix, and apply it two or three times a day to the freckles with a camel’s-hair pencil.
When Doctor Stewart joins us after dinner, I take him aside to ask for muriatic acid. He says that my complexion is probably subject to my condition, but that lemons may do just as well. He has little French and no Spanish, and so I am forced to speak English to him. Mr Whytehead has everything, of course, up to and including Swedish.
And so we assemble – my little band. It is too hot for cards. It seems that, apart from my freckles, there is nothing to talk about. I try Sebastopol. I recall Buenos Aires. I wonder at the possibility of a garden in Asunción, and what might grow there. But Señor López turns always to the state of the unmoving boat, her inner workings, her boilers, vertical or horizontal, her trunnions, whatever they may be. I have no words for these things, and leave it all to Mr Whytehead.
I long for my piano, but it is deep in the hold. Sometimes, lurching across the Atlantic, I would hear a tinny discord; a distant twang that felt like one of my own heartstrings snapping.
But we must have music, the boat is so still now, and the night gathers about us as though there might never be another day. I have the captain order in a musical seaman, in order to push back the darkness. The man holds his cap in his hands and gives a humble, swelling account of ‘Barbara Allen’.
O mother, mother, make my bed
To lay me down in sorrow.
My Love has died for me to-day,
I’ll die for him to-morrow.
Señor López trumps him with something astonishing in
and Mr Whytehead, prevailed upon by myself, finally opens his mouth – out of which floats, to our amazement, an easy, soaring tenor. The room is all tenderness. He sings a carol, ‘
Quelle est cette odeur agréable, bergères, qui ravit tous nos sens?
’ and all uninvited,
, you might say, Francine supplies the descant.
After which, everything is easy. Señor López wants Whytehead to bet with him on our arrival date in Asunción, and he demurs. Everything he does makes us laugh, now. No one can pronounce his name, and this fusses him. Francine enquires, by way of general mirth, what his Christian name might be and, with some hesitation, he brings out the pearl, ‘Keld’.
Doctor Stewart clears his throat – to smother a laugh, I think; but then he fills our little cabin with his sudden baritone. Tuneless enough – but large, quite large.
The night has gathered in again.
This afternoon, Francine said that her mother has a friend – whose generous attention she still enjoys, at the age, she must be, of almost forty-five. A pleasant enough man, Francine says. He makes a visit every afternoon at five-thirty by the clock. Her mother calls him always ‘my dear friend’ – the use of his Christian name being less than respectable, and his patronymic an intimate, formal pleasure that must be reserved only for his wife.
‘But Señor López is not married,’ I say, quite pointedly, and Francine keeps her head down. Still, I find the conceit quite pretty. I tried it on Señor López, this evening, I said,
‘My dear friend.’ And he said,
What was that thing I wanted to say about butterflies? There was a group of them, anchored to the sand, their wings flicking this way and that in the heat and the breeze. One was the most astonishing blue. I have not seen such a
since leaving Paris. And with it, as though in colloquy, fifty more of every variety. They all sat and stirred like ladies in a garden, their skirts parting to show underskirts of more beautiful hue, a flash of violet, a swish of peony edged with black. They spread them to sit, and played with their fans, and flicked open their parasols in the sun.