By Ciro Alegria
From Duelo de Caballeros;
Cuentos y Relatos. Editorial Losada, Buenos Aires: 1965.
(unofficial translation by Kent
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 air 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
One afternoon when storm clouds gathered over the trees, shadows
quivered, and anxious birds took flight, Carpena and Jimenez arrived from a
small inlet in the river, served by two oar men. 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
recounting to him stories of feats and adventures, with the tone of
someone who boastfully spins 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
- 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
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
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 paths 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
And how do you plan on finding it? Carpena asked with a respectful naivete.
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 people
condemned . . . 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
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 kid 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
-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:
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
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. As it happened, the terrified baby
monkey clung to its mother’s lean breast and then brought the mother’s teat
to her mouth to suckle. Shaken by the throws of death, her only concern was
that the baby nurse, so that the baby could 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.