Duelo de Caballeros; Cuentos y Relatos
Editorial Losada, Buenos Aires:1965.
(trans. by Kent Slinker)
in a hut made of dark palm trunks, erected in a
clearing carved out of the jungle by force of hatchet, where the
stumps looked like wounds. The vastness of the jungle had been
mutilated just so the sun could shine over the hut and the men.
The men, at the moment not occupied with their chores,
dice on a rough table or slept in hammocks hung up in the hallway,
to firearms, and to hope itself. They were accustomed to going
to the clearing and stretching their arms under the sun, with the
of tired birds. They had come in search of rubber and riches. Sunk
the immense, inhospitable, and imprisoning vegetation, their
were as unassailable as the smoke from the bitter tobacco that
inhaled with slow deliberation. Every morning the jungle threw
challenge. Even the old timers feared the labyrinth created by the
embrace of its branches and the shadow of its dense boughs.
Near the hut ran a small river, channeled
between trees, lapping at trunks and twisted ancient roots. It
have been called Yavari or Ingaraparana, or Pora or Yaobe. It
have had any name extracted from the whispers of the flora, from
strange voices by which the vegetation, wildlife and savages make
themselves known. That river in turn fattens other rivers, forming
of the circulatory system of the jungle, blood-like branches that
ports only dreamed about in the jungle and whose names are made
mere desire to know them: Contamana, Nauta, Iquitos, Manaus, and
further still, where all of the watery pathways become one, where
great river, the Amazon, the most voluminous and wide of all
sinks into the Atlantic, and even further still, where the witch's
needle points, sparkles brilliantly the name: "New York". Its
glimpsed in dreams burning with the elation of high stock
prices, - there the men were, in the jungle night,
rubber in a willful struggle against the odds, hoping to come out
One afternoon when storm clouds gathered over the trees,
quivered, and anxious birds took flight, Carpena and Jimenez
from a small outlet in the river, served by two rowmen. They
canoed since early morning, and all day long they had listened to
monotonous sound of the rows set into action by the two oarsmen,
dark-skinned natives of savage birth. Carpena was the novice, and
joined up with Jimenez to complete the last stage of his journey.
Jimenez, meanwhile, took pleasure in telling him tales of feats
adventures, with the tone of someone who boastfully tells
Suddenly he changed the subject to anacondas. Careful, with just
swipe of their tail, they can capsize the entire canoe. And in the
water, there are crocodiles. "And over there, see?" "In that area
the Cashivo Indians. They resist any attempt at civilization and
kill outsiders, burn them and drink their ashes dissolved in mush"
Carpena tried to appear unimpressed. In the end Jimenez
- "Above all, my friend, here you have to forget that you have
feelings. Noble you say? You're going to meet Don Flores, and that
has no heart left"
When the canoe, with the glad push of having
arrived, struck the sand on the bank, Carpena relaxed, more from
released from Jimenez's conversation than from the cramped journey
canoe. The rubber tappers from the campground greeted them with
hollers and shoulder slaps. "So what's going on these days in
Iquitos?" "Did you bring bullets?" "Good, good" "And what about
food?" "No?" "Hell, we're so tired of monkeys" "Beating the
going to take time" "There will be a sure demand for our rubber"
"Canned peaches!" "At least one can!" "Are you new?" - "You can
in your face" "Come on, come on in, rest just a bit".
The night fell, and Carpena and Jimenez stayed in the twiney
answering whatever questions curiosity and nostalgia brought to
lips of their companions. Afterwards, they lit a lantern and
around a table made of rough planks. The meal was somber, it
of a fish called "paiche" with a plantain called "inguire", yucca
pasta called "farina", and to celebrate their arrival, a good
sugar cane rum. White moths fluttered around the lantern.
Outside the rowers and the natives spoke in a thunderous language.
sound of the rubber-tapper's voices pushed its way through
invaded by tangled whiskers.
-Carpena, don't ever shave buddy. Whiskers keep the
from eating you up.
Carpena, on the other hand, tried to ask everything he could. At
his ignorance produced laughter, but he learned at least the
information about his companions, and the idea that one had to be
in the jungle continued to strongly reaffirm itself in his mind.
When the lights were put out, and the group lay
to sleep there began a low howl of wind. A rubber-tapper told Don
-This breeze is good, it will keep away the mosquitoes. Tomorrow
Carpena into the jungle - he'll have time later on to learn how to
Carpena had seen in Iquitos the balls of rubber
the process of curing them. Thankfully he was destined to do
else. He even considered himself lucky. He would enjoy
Floro. According to what he had learned, Don Floro was a guide, a
who, in the middle of a maze of jungle overgrowth, always found
out. He had read a story once about a rubber-tapper guide who lost
his sense of direction while he was with a group of other
rubber-tappers - amongst the uncertainty of the jungle without
and with a mind driven nearly mad, he lost his anxious companions.
Floro seemed incapable of getting lost. He was a robust
with eyes of a jaguar and a wise, weathered, and dirty
white flesh had acquired a ochre-green tone, as if the jungle
had pasted the color on him, and his gray whiskers seemed more
handful of those spindly parasitic plants that hang from tree
After the wind had calmed down a bit, Don Floro muttered slowly
his booming voice, "It sounds to me like toward the south
there's a troop of monkeys. They're howling like the wind. I'd say
there's a baby monkey with them - Do ya hear it? Tomorrow I'm
to catch the baby by shooting it's mother."
And how do you plan on finding it? Carpena asked with a respectful
Laughter and guffaws leapt from hammock to hammock. Don Floro
extinguished his thunderous laugh and said:
Son, I know their ways! Those monkey will continue their foraging
until dawn. And you can just as well cut my throat if they don't
down in a
grove of palm trees that I saw that way. There's a lot of coconuts
there, you'll see, just wait.
-And can you really hear them? Carpena asked one last time.
-Of course I can hear them - Don Floro assured him -, when the
calms down you can hear them. They howl like a bunch of
condemmed guys. . . my
they're about twenty
blocks from here . . .
Sleep took over the men, and the barracks became dense with
Carpena searched for something else to say in the darkness. The
thing that occasionally spoke was the wind with a voice laden
with the jungle's mysteries and depths.
The novice was thirty years old and had merely a handful of
jungle experience consisted in the very trip through the jungle
landed him there in the hut. He came from a land with few trees,
the cost of Peru, where every valley was flanked by a desert of
and rock. He had been raised on motherly care, lectures by
and grandiose personal plans. Now this adventure was the real
and in confronting that reality he felt unarmed, and his grandiose
plans appeared to be lost in the night stars.
The night blinded his eyes. Carpena ended up feeling lonely and
desire for the security of his mother welled up inside his chest.
curled up in the hammock like it was his mother's womb, and a
of tenderness, both close by and distant, overcame him bringing
a sensation of timidity mixed with a growing sadness. In the
a jaguar howled and a fire-fly traced out a fleeting thread of
The young man was awakened to reality. He tried to get hold of
and to reaffirm his determination to be strong. He too - so he
- would know how to fight. After it was all over he would have
and the security of those who triumph in life. But he had to
strong. He would be stubborn like the rocks and the hard oak
too would become hardened . . . he had to become a real-life
tapper, a man of the jungle . He too . . .
Finally he fell asleep.
The next day, in spite of his attempts, he still had the feeling
insecurity that accompanies someone newly arrived, and he left
Floro, the guide, to hunt monkeys. Carpena hiked on looking from
to side, as if some imminent danger was threatening his back. It
be a boa, a jaguar, a crocodile, a savage Indian! Don Floro
ahead, intently scrutinizing with his fiery eyes what lay above
Both carried rifles on their backs and walked with a long gait.
fallen leaves, blackish-red and dark, covered the floor and
giving off an acrid smell. Moss and every kind of parasitic plant
covered the innumerable trees. This was an intestine-like
where the digestive process of the jungle laboriously broke down
Carpena kept very close to the guide, as if his life depended on
very proximity. He would learn from him. Don Floro would teach him
secrets of the jungle. The guide, in turn, had already performed
same task many times before, and took pleasure in it. He spoke,
about the pulse of the jungle while at the same time hacking away
branches which were always trying to close the path or impede the
-Young man, I'm an old-timer here. I arrived snot-nosed just like
when the first explorers searched for rubber trees. I wonder if
is still a patch of jungle that I haven't crossed. Well, that is
a lot, but let me tell you, I do know the jungle. You know the
your hand, don't you? That's how I know the jungle. A
half-fortune-teller type in the city read my palm once and said
here lay my destiny. And this jungle here has a palm of its own
to experience to know. Here too is destiny . . .
They ran upon a tree covered in slashes and cuts, a unfortunate
of the jungle made to suffer an unusual torment. The incisions and
carvings covered its beautiful trunk, and there still remained
of the white blood it had spilled.
-Exploited rubber - explained Don Floro. He continued: -Now days,
order to find it you have to walk a long way. The guys have worked
machete hard. Once, all you had to do is swing the machete in the
and out came rubber. Now you have to walk to where the leprechaun
his gold hidden, which is a long way, and you still don't find it.
A long machete in a leather sheath hung from Don Floro's belt.
-Oh well, everything is a long way. It will take some time to find
monkeys. Not a one is to be seen anywhere in the canopy. That's
reason I am talking so easily. Have you ever had monkey? Not yet?
you will. At first, seeing them cooking, they look like children
spit, and it takes away your appetite thinking about eating them.
necessity . .. it takes care of everything. You have to eat
monkey. You don't always get lucky enough to find a tapir or wild
turkey . . .
The path slowly faded away. Carpena had the feeling that the
the lord of them all. A confusing and constant rumor floated over
heads, but nothing could be seen besides the trunks, branches and
leaves. The guide turned toward the novice holding his rifle with
hands. Carpena imitated him mechanically.
-Shhhhh- whispered the experienced guide, he continued in a lower
voice: - Quiet…, so the monkeys don't scare off. They place one on
guard, and if it sees us, it lets out an alarm and the entire
escapes . . .
He crept on, carefully avoiding the leaves and stepping softly.
rifle, pointing upwards, seemed to be just as alert as the guide's
eyes. If Carpena made some sound with a careless move, Don Floro
turn toward him in a muted reproach. To make things worse, the
branches and trunks became thicker. The jungle became large and
to grow in front of the very eyes of the recently arrived. They
succeed in seeing anything in the canopy. Could Don Floro make out
prey? Occasionally the cry of some bird that fled in the
could be heard. The men, lightly crouched down, in the hunt,
on without pause toward their uncertain game. Progress like that
tiresome, and it was made more so by keeping so quiet. They left
a trace in the fallen leaves, but soon after other leaves fell on
erasing any remaining hint of passage. Crossing a swampy area, a
print appeared before the eyes of the novice, in the soft mud of a
puddle. Someone else had been there, as was attested by the
left behind, but despite that, nature, hostile and self-absorbed,
seemed to have always been unaware of that fact. The swampy area
larger, and they had to skirt around it. Dark and still waters
stagnated around the bases of peaceful, large trees. On the other
side of the swampy area, the bed of leaves began anew, together
the leaves, impeding branches and darkness below the trembling
On occasion the sun broke through clearings in the branches
one to see the crevices in the trunks and the tender but ancient
Against the smooth gray trunk of a tree an inscription could be
Pedro J. Ramirez.
The deep letters, carved out in knife, denoted a steady hand.
turned Don Floro around by touching his arm and showed him the
For sure it was nobody's name from the camp. There was the
Cortez, Segovia the Spaniard, Domingo the black man, and Jimenez
Diaz. There was no one with that name. The guide shrugged his
as if to say: "Why worry about such silly things when we are in
process of hunting important monkeys?" But, trying to get an
explanation out of him, he received only the cut off sign, so he
continued the march silently. Pedro J. Ramirez had died.
Without a doubt, he like Carpena, had left his home to set out
group of rubber tappers full of dreams. And now, there was nothing
of him left but a name carved on a tree trunk lost in the middle
jungle. From the heart of the jungle a dead man spoke from the
an impassable thicket. Nothing more. Carpena resisted lamenting
fact. Here, he already understood, compassion was unnecessary. He
be tough like Don Floro. Just like the guide, he would learn how
back and forth through the jungle, without getting lost or
Don Floro continued on with both his eyes and the rifle vigilant.
Suddenly he came to a halt, placing one hand behind his ear. A
could be heard in the distance. Where? The guide turned his head
directions and then took off one way. Carpena followed, all eyes
ears, but without knowing just exactly how his rifle was supposed
him any good. The foretold "grove of palm trees" made its presence
known by showing its light fronds against the gray jungle.
Floro stopped once again, and brought his rifle up to his face.
troop of monkeys was showing off pirouetting about and throwing
coconuts. The closest one to them, without a doubt the lookout,
distinguished the hunters below and let out an piercing yell, but
was too late. Don Floro fired. Carpena fired also toward some
writhing creature that convulsed in the branches. The monkeys fled
large leaps and bounds through the canopy, screaming and sounding
alarms. In a few moments, their echo was lost in the peaceful
of the jungle.
But one had remained behind. It tried to upright itself by
tail around a branch, but later fell onto the bed of leaves with a
bland sound. The hunters went to it. It was a female monkey that
small baby in its arms. The bullet had parted its chest. She
the men with hateful but panicked eyes, but then fixed them
her baby. She held onto her baby with all of her might. The
baby clung to the lean breast of its mother and later brought its
to her breast. Shaken by the throws of death, her only concern was
the baby nurse, that the baby survive. Neither of the men dared
again, witnessing the great maternal defense of one's offspring.
mother wanted at all cost to defend her young. Her eyes shined
baby monkey, full of tenderness, and holding the baby, she
stubbornly offered the baby her meager breasts. But the baby
monkey screamed upon seeing the men, more prone to flee in fear.
only she were able to flee. She looked one last time at the men
then at her baby. She persisted in trying to get the small monkey
suckle, now very weakly, since without doubt her strength was
her. Death arrived finally and she gave into it in the midst
agonizing convulsions. She became silent forever with her baby in
given over wholly to her offspring in a gesture of supreme
solicitude. In the vast silence that fell over the jungle, the
sound heard was the cries of the baby monkey, clutching to the
and bloody body of its mother. Clinging to it, the small monkey
to plead for its mother's protection.
Carpena could no longer contain himself, and leaning against the
of a tree he wept like a child. Don Floro tried to console him:
-Come on kid, it will be OK. You get used to it. And after all, it
wasn't your shot . . .
From the darkness of the jungle and from
the wide brim of his straw hat that pressed a shadow against his
the guide was glad in his heart. A stubborn tear had rolled down
cheek. Discretely off to one side he wiped it away with the