THE MOTHER
by Ciro Alegria
From Duelo de Caballeros; Cuentos y Relatos. Editorial Losada, Buenos Aires:1965.
(trans. by Kent Slinker)




    The jungle hemmed in a hut made of dark palm trunks, erected in a clearing carved out of the jungle by force of hatchet, where the red 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, played dice on a rough table or slept in hammocks hung up in the hallway, next to firearms, and to hope itself. They were accustomed to going outside to the clearing and stretching their arms under the sun, with the aire of tired birds. They had come in search of rubber and riches. Sunk in the immense, inhospitable, and imprisoning vegetation, their dreams were as unassailable as the smoke from the bitter tobacco that they inhaled with slow deliberation. Every morning the jungle threw them its challenge. Even the old timers feared the labyrinth created by the tight 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 could have been called Yavari or Ingaraparana, or Pora or Yaobe. It could have had any name extracted from the whispers of the flora, from the strange voices by which the vegetation, wildlife and savages make themselves known. That river in turn fattens other rivers, forming part of the circulatory system of the jungle, blood-like branches that water ports only dreamed about in the jungle and whose names are made greater by the mere desire to know them: Contamana, Nauta, Iquitos, Manaus, and even further still, where all of the watery pathways become one, where the great river, the Amazon, the most voluminous and wide of all rivers, sinks into the Atlantic, and even further still, where the witch's needle points, sparkles brilliantly the name: "New York". Its splendor glimpsed in dreams burning with the elation of high stock  prices, - there the men were,  in the jungle night, extracting rubber in a willful struggle against the odds, hoping to come out a winner.

One afternoon when storm clouds gathered over the trees,  shadows quivered, and anxious birds took flight, Carpena and Jimenez arrived from a small outlet in the river, served by  two rowmen. They had canoed since early morning, and all day long they had listened to the monotonous sound of the rows set into action by the two oarsmen, dark-skinned natives of savage birth. Carpena was the novice, and had joined up with Jimenez to complete the last stage of his journey. Jimenez, meanwhile, took pleasure in telling him tales of feats and adventures, with the tone of someone who boastfully tells tall-tales. Suddenly he changed the subject to anacondas. Careful, with just one swipe of their tail, they can capsize the entire canoe. And in the water, there are crocodiles. "And over there, see?" "In that area live the Cashivo Indians. They resist any attempt at civilization and they kill outsiders, burn them and drink their ashes dissolved in mush" Carpena tried to appear unimpressed. In the end Jimenez recommended:
- "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 one has no heart left"
    When the canoe, with the glad push of having arrived, struck the sand on the bank, Carpena relaxed, more from being released from Jimenez's conversation than from the cramped journey in canoe. The rubber tappers from the campground greeted them with loud hollers and shoulder slaps. "So what's going on these days in Iquitos?" "Did you bring bullets?" "Good, good" "And what about canned food?" "No?" "Hell, we're so tired of monkeys" "Beating the Japanese is going to take time" "There will be a sure demand for our rubber" "Canned peaches!" "At least one can!" "Are you new?" - "You can see it in your face" "Come on, come on in, rest just a bit".

The night fell, and Carpena and Jimenez stayed in the twiney hammocks, answering whatever questions curiosity and nostalgia brought to the lips of their companions. Afterwards, they lit a lantern and gathered around a table made of rough planks. The meal was somber, it consisted of a fish called "paiche" with a plantain called "inguire", yucca root pasta called "farina", and to celebrate their arrival, a good drought of sugar cane rum. White moths fluttered around the lantern. Outside the rowers and the natives spoke in a thunderous language. The sound of the rubber-tapper's voices pushed its way  through faces invaded by tangled whiskers.
-Carpena, don't  ever shave buddy. Whiskers keep the mosquitoes from eating you up.
Carpena, on the other hand, tried to ask everything he could. At times his ignorance produced laughter, but he learned at least the necessary information about his companions, and the idea that one had to be tough in the jungle continued to strongly reaffirm itself in his mind.
    When the lights were put out, and the group lay down to sleep there began a low howl of wind. A rubber-tapper told Don Floro:
-This breeze is good, it will keep away the mosquitoes. Tomorrow take Carpena into the jungle - he'll have time later on to learn how to cure rubber.
    Carpena had seen in Iquitos the balls of rubber and the process of curing them. Thankfully he was destined to do something else. He even considered himself lucky. He would enjoy accompanying Don Floro. According to what he had learned, Don Floro was a guide, a man who, in the middle of a maze of jungle overgrowth, always found the way 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 pathways and with a mind driven nearly mad, he lost his anxious companions. But Don Floro seemed incapable of getting lost. He was a robust sexagenarian with eyes of a jaguar and a wise, weathered, and dirty beard.  His white flesh had acquired a ochre-green tone, as if the jungle itself had pasted the color on him, and his gray whiskers seemed more like a handful of those spindly parasitic plants that hang from tree trunks.
After the wind had calmed down a bit, Don Floro muttered slowly with 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 going to catch the baby by shooting it's mother."
And how do you plan on finding it? Carpena asked with a respectful naiveté.
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 settle 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 wind calms down you can hear them. They howl like a bunch of  condemmed guys.
. . my guess is they're about twenty blocks from here . . .
Sleep took over the men, and the barracks became dense with silence.
Carpena searched for something else to say in the darkness. The only 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 memories. His jungle experience consisted in the very trip through the jungle that landed him there in the hut. He came from a land with few trees, from the cost of Peru, where every valley was flanked by a desert of sand and rock. He had been raised on motherly care, lectures by Salagari, and grandiose personal plans. Now this adventure was the real thing, 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 the desire for the security of his mother welled up inside his chest. He curled up in the hammock like it was his mother's womb, and a feeling of tenderness, both close by and distant, overcame him bringing with it a sensation of timidity mixed with a growing sadness. In the distance, a jaguar howled and a fire-fly traced out a fleeting thread of light. The young man was awakened to reality. He tried to get hold of himself, and to reaffirm his determination to be strong. He too - so he thought - would know how to fight. After it was all over he would have money and the security of those who triumph in life. But he had to remain strong. He would be stubborn like the rocks and the hard oak stick. He too would become hardened . . . he had to become a real-life rubber 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 of insecurity that accompanies someone newly arrived, and he left with Don Floro, the guide, to hunt monkeys. Carpena hiked on looking from side to side, as if some imminent danger was threatening his back. It could be a boa, a jaguar, a crocodile, a savage Indian! Don Floro marched ahead, intently scrutinizing with his fiery eyes what lay above them.
Both carried rifles on their backs and walked with a long gait. The fallen leaves, blackish-red and dark, covered the floor and rotted, giving off an acrid smell. Moss and every kind of parasitic plant covered the innumerable trees. This was  an intestine-like world where the digestive process of the jungle laboriously broke down the very trees.
Carpena kept very close to the guide, as if his life depended on that very proximity. He would learn from him. Don Floro would teach him the secrets of the jungle. The guide, in turn, had already performed that same task many times before, and took pleasure in it. He spoke, telling about the pulse of the jungle while at the same time hacking away the branches which were always trying to close the path or impede the way.
-Young man, I'm an old-timer here. I arrived snot-nosed just like you, when the first explorers searched for rubber trees. I wonder if there is still a patch of jungle that I haven't crossed. Well, that is saying a lot, but let me tell you, I do know the jungle. You know the palm of 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 that here lay my destiny. And this jungle here has a palm of its own that you have to experience to know. Here too is destiny . . .
They ran upon a tree covered in slashes and cuts, a unfortunate dweller of the jungle made to suffer an unusual torment. The incisions and carvings covered its beautiful trunk, and there still remained traces of the white blood it had spilled.
-Exploited rubber - explained Don Floro. He continued: -Now days, in order to find it you have to walk a long way. The guys have worked the machete hard. Once, all you had to do is swing the machete in the air, and out came rubber. Now you have to walk to where the leprechaun has 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 the monkeys. Not a one is to be seen anywhere in the canopy. That's the reason I am talking so easily. Have you ever had monkey? Not yet? Well you will. At first, seeing them cooking, they look like children on a spit, and it takes away your appetite thinking about eating them. But 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 jungle was the lord of them all. A confusing and constant rumor floated over their heads, but nothing could be seen besides the trunks, branches and leaves. The guide turned toward the novice holding his rifle with both 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 troop escapes . . .
He crept on, carefully avoiding the leaves and stepping softly. The 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 would turn toward him in a muted reproach. To make things worse, the leaves, branches and trunks became thicker. The jungle became large and seemed to grow in front of the very eyes of the recently arrived. They didn't succeed in seeing anything in the canopy. Could Don Floro make out the prey?  Occasionally the cry of some bird that fled in the foliage could be heard. The men, lightly crouched down, in the hunt, continued on without pause toward their uncertain game. Progress like that was tiresome, and it was made more so by keeping so quiet. They left barely a trace in the fallen leaves, but soon after other leaves fell on top erasing any remaining hint of passage. Crossing a swampy area, a heel 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 footprint left behind, but despite that, nature, hostile and self-absorbed, seemed to have always been unaware of that fact. The swampy area became 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 with the leaves, impeding branches and darkness below the trembling boughs. On occasion the sun broke through clearings in the branches allowing one to see the crevices in the trunks and the tender but ancient moss. Against the smooth gray trunk of a tree an inscription could be made out:

In memory of Pedro J. Ramirez.

The deep letters, carved out in knife, denoted a steady hand. Carpena turned Don Floro around by touching his arm and showed him the name. For sure it was nobody's name from the camp. There was the "Chinese" Cortez, Segovia the Spaniard, Domingo the black man, and Jimenez and Diaz. There was no one with that name. The guide shrugged his shoulders as if to say: "Why worry about such silly things when we are in the 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 with a 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 of the jungle. From the heart of the jungle a dead man spoke from the grave of an impassable thicket. Nothing more. Carpena resisted lamenting the fact. Here, he already understood, compassion was unnecessary. He would be tough like Don Floro. Just like the guide, he would learn how to go back and forth through the jungle, without getting lost or lamenting the unchangeable.
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 soft cry could be heard in the distance. Where? The guide turned his head in all directions and then took off one way. Carpena followed, all eyes and ears, but without knowing just exactly how his rifle was supposed to do him any good. The foretold "grove of palm trees" made its presence known  by showing its light fronds against the gray jungle. Don Floro stopped once again, and brought his rifle up to his face. The 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 it was too late. Don Floro fired. Carpena fired also toward some small writhing creature that convulsed in the branches. The monkeys fled in large leaps and bounds through the canopy, screaming and sounding out alarms. In a few moments, their echo was lost in the peaceful enormity of the jungle.
But one had remained behind. It tried to upright itself by wrapping its 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 held a small baby in its arms. The bullet had parted its chest. She looked at the men with hateful but panicked eyes, but then fixed them lovingly on her baby. She held onto her baby with all of her might. The terrorized baby clung to the lean breast of its mother and later brought its mouth to her breast. Shaken by the throws of death, her only concern was that the baby nurse, that the baby survive. Neither of the men dared shoot again, witnessing the great maternal defense of one's offspring. The mother wanted at all cost to defend her young. Her eyes shined over the 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. If only she were able to flee. She looked one last time at the men and then at her baby. She persisted in trying to get the small monkey to suckle, now very weakly, since without doubt her strength was leaving her. Death arrived finally and she gave into it in the midst of  agonizing convulsions. She became silent forever with her baby in her arms, given over wholly to her offspring  in a gesture of supreme solicitude. In the vast silence that fell over the jungle, the only sound heard was the cries of the baby monkey, clutching to the still and bloody body of its mother. Clinging to it, the small monkey seemed to plead for its mother's protection.
Carpena could no longer contain himself, and leaning against the trunk 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 face, the guide was glad in his heart. A stubborn tear had rolled down his cheek. Discretely off to one side he wiped it away with the sleeve of his shirt.