I now found myself in a terrible position. The operation is a very difficult one even in the hands of a skilful surgeon, and here I was called to perform it with hardly an elementary knowledge of the science and not even adequate instruments. At the same time, it seemed moral cowardice to avoid it, since evidently I was the one best qualified, and the woman would die in agony if not soon relieved. I trembled all over when I concluded that there was no escape. We went to the room and got the bistoury and the forceps given me by a medical friend before I left home. Besides these, I took some corrosive sublimate, intended for the preparation of animal skins, and some photographic clips. The secretary, after a search produced an old and rusty hacksaw as the only instrument the estate could furnish. This we cleaned as carefully as possible with cloths and then immersed it in a solution of sublimate. Before going to the patient's hut I asked the owner and the woman's husband if they were reconciled to my attempt and would not hold me responsible in case of her death. They answered that, as the woman was otherwise going to die, we were entirely right in doing whatever we could. I found the patient placidly smoking a pipe, her injured arm over the edge of the hammock. By this time she understood that she was to have her arm amputated by a surgical novice. She seemed not to be greatly concerned over the matter, and went on smoking her pipe while we made the arrangements. We placed her on the floor and told her to lie still. We adjusted some rubber cloth under the dead arm. Her husband and three children stood watching with expressionless faces. Two monkeys, tied to a board in a corner were playing and fighting together. A large parrot was making discursive comment on the whole affair, while a little lame dog seemed to be the most interested spectator. The secretary took the bistoury from the bowl containing the sublimate and handed it to me with a bow. With a piece of cotton I washed the intended spot of operation and traced a line with a pencil on the arm.
Imagine with what emotions I worked! After we had once started, however, we forgot everything except the success of our operation. I omit a description of the details, as they might prove too gruesome. The woman fainted from shock just before we touched the bone,--Nature thus supplying an effective, if rude, anaesthetic. We had forgotten about sewing together the flesh, and when we came to this a boy was dispatched to the owner's house for a package of stout needles. These were held in the fire for a few seconds, and then immersed when cold in the sublimate before they were used to join the flesh. By the time it was done, I was, myself, feeling very sick. Finally I could stand the little room of torture no longer, and left the secretary dressing the wound. Would she recover from the barbaric operation? This question kept coursing through my head as I vainly tried for a long time to go to sleep.
The next day, after an early observation of my patient, who seemed to have recovered from the shock and thus gave at least this hope of success, I spent my time going around to visit the homes of the _seringueiros_. They were all as polite as their chief, and after exchanging the salute of "Boa dia," they would invite me to climb up the ladder and enter the hut. Here they would invariably offer me a cup of strong coffee. There were always two or three hammocks, of which I was given the one I liked best. The huts generally consist of two rooms with a few biscuit-boxes as chairs, and Winchester rifles and some fancy-painted paddles to complete the furniture.
The following day I arose with the sun and, after some coffee, asked a huge small-pox-scarred fellow to accompany me on my first excursion into the real jungle. Up to this time I had only seen it from my back porch in Remate de Males and from the deck of the launch _Carolina_, but now I was in the heart of the forest and would indulge in jungle trips to my heart's content. We entered through a narrow pathway called an _estrada_, whose gateway was guarded by a splendid palm-tree, like a Cerberus at the gates of dark Hades. The _estrada_ led us past one hundred to one hundred and fifty rubber trees, as it wound its way over brooks and fallen trees. Each of the producing trees had its rough bark gashed with cuts to a height of ten to twelve feet all around its circ.u.mference. These marks were about an inch and a half in length. Alongside of the tree was always to be found a stick, on the end of which were a dozen or so of small tin-cups used in collecting the rubber-milk. Every worker has two _estradas_ to manage, and by tapping along each one alternately he obtains the maximum of the product. This particular _estrada_ was now deserted as the _seringueiro_ happened to be at work on the other one under his jurisdiction.
It was in a sense agreeable to work there as the sun could not penetrate the dense foliage and the air was therefore cool. After we had walked for about an hour, my big guide complained of being tired and of feeling unwell. I told him he could go back to the camp and leave me to find my way alone. Accordingly he left me and I now had the task of carrying without a.s.sistance my large 8 x 10 view-camera, a shotgun, a revolver, and a machete.
Gradually my ear caught a terrible sound which to the uninitiated would have seemed like the roaring of a dozen lions in combat, but the dreadful notes that vibrated through the forest were only those of the howling monkey. I always had a great desire to see one of this species in the act of performing this uncanny forest-concert, therefore I left the rubber pathway after placing my camera on the ground, up against a rubber tree, and commenced following the noise, cutting my way through the underbrush. I walked and walked, but the sound seemed to remain the same distance away, and I stopped to reconnoitre.
I hesitated whether to proceed or not, fearing I might lose the way and not be able to find my camera again. The monkey was not visible at all; it fact, it was not possible to see anything, unless it was very close by, so dense was the foliage. I laid my automatic pistol on a fallen tree-trunk, and was trying to figure out the chances of getting a look at my simian friend and at the same time not losing my valuable property on the pathway, when I heard another startling sound, this time near-by. I prepared myself for whatever species of animal was due, and could feel the excitement a hunter knows when he thinks he is about to get a sight of big game. Suddenly the undergrowth parted in front of me and a herd of wild boars came trotting out. I drew a bead on the biggest of the lot and fired, letting five soft-nose bullets go through his head to make sure; the others fled, and I hastened to the spot to examine my prize more closely. It was a boar of medium size, weighing in the neighbourhood of one hundred and twenty-five pounds, and he had a fine set of tusks. He was rather vicious-looking and was doing considerable kicking before he gave up the ghost. It was impossible for me to carry him through the bush owing to the fact that I had the valuable camera and apparatus to take care of, so I made a mental note of the spot, and cut his ears off. It took four hours'
search to find the camera, in spite of my belief that I had not gone far, and it was late in the afternoon when I arrived at headquarters.
The very next morning there was a good opportunity to see the smoking of rubber-milk. A _seringueiro_ had collected his product and when I went to the smoking-hut I found him busy turning over and over a big stick, resting on two horizontal guides, built on both sides of a funnel from which a dense smoke was issuing. On the middle of the stick was a huge ball of rubber. Over this he kept pouring the milk from a tin-basin. Gradually the substance lost its liquidity and coagulated into a beautiful yellow-brown ma.s.s which was rubber in its first crude shipping state.
The funnel from which the smoke issued was about three feet high and of a conical shape. At its base was a fire of small wooden chips, which when burning gave forth an acrid smoke containing a large percentage of creosote. It is this latter substance which has the coagulating effect upon the rubber-milk. When the supply of milk was exhausted, he lifted the ball and stick off the guides and rolled it on a smooth plank to drive the moisture out of the newly-smoked rubber. Then he was through for the day. He placed the stick on two forked branches and put some green leaves over the funnel to smother the fire. On top of the leaves he put a tin-can and a chunk of clay, then filled the hole in the ground with ashes. Under this arrangement the fire would keep smouldering for twenty-four hours, to be used anew for the next repet.i.tion of the smoking process.
In the afternoon we again went out to hunt. This time I took only a 12-gauge shotgun. As we travelled through the forest I was impressed once more by the fascination of the grandly extravagant vegetation.
But there is little charm about it, nothing of the tranquillity our idyllic Catskills or even the sterner Adirondacks, create. There is no invitation to repose, no stimulus to quiet enjoyment, for the myriad life of the Amazon's jungle forest never rests. There is always some sound or some movement which is bound to stir in one the instinct of self-preservation. You have to be constantly alive to the danger of disagreeable annoyance from the pests that abound, or of actual bodily harm from animals of the reptilian order.
Were I in possession of adequate descriptive power I could picture the impression that this jungle creates upon the mind of one from the North, but now, as I once more sit in a large city with sky-sc.r.a.pers towering about me, and hear the rattling noise of the elevated railway train as it rushes past, my pen fails me and I have to remove myself on the wings of thought to those remote forests, fully realising, "_Beatus ille, qui procul negotiis, ut_" etc., etc. Then I can feel again the silence and the gloom that pervade those immense and wonderful woods. The few sounds of birds and animals are, generally, of a pensive and mysterious character, and they intensify the feeling of solitude rather than impart to it a sense of life and cheerfulness. Sometimes in the midst of the noon-day stillness, a sudden yell or scream will startle one, coming from some minor fruit-eating animal, set upon by a carnivorous beast or serpent. Morning and evening, the forest resounds with the fearful roar of the howling monkeys, and it is hard, even for the stoutest heart, to maintain its buoyancy of spirit. The sense of inhospitable wilderness, which the jungle inspires, is increased tenfold by this monstrous uproar. Often in the still hours of night, a sudden crash will be heard, as some great branch or a dead tree falls to the ground. There are, besides, many sounds which are impossible to account for and which the natives are as much at a loss to explain as myself. Sometimes a strange sound is heard, like the clang of an iron bar against a hard, hollow tree; or a piercing cry rends the air. These are not repeated, and the succeeding stillness only tends to heighten the unpleasant impression which they produce on the mind.
The first thing that claimed our attention, shortly after we started, was a sound of breaking branches and falling leaves, somewhere in the distance. Through the trees I could perceive that it was a big dark-grey monkey, which we had alarmed. He was scrambling up a tall tree when I fired at him. I evidently missed, for I could see him prepare for a mighty jump to a lower tree where he would be out of sight. But in the jump he got another load of pellets, which struck him in the back. His leap fell short of the mark and he landed headlong among some bushes, kicking violently as I came up to him. As he seemed strongly built and had a rather savage expression, it did not seem wise to tackle him with bare hands, therefore, as I desired to get him alive, I ran back and procured my focussing cloth, which I tied around his head. Thus I got him safely back to the camp, where he was tied to a board and the bullets extracted from his flesh. Then his wounds, which were not serious, were bound up and he was put into a cage with a bunch of bananas and a saucer of goat's milk to cheer him up a bit.
The suddenness with which these monkey delicacies disappeared, convinced me that his complete recovery was a matter of only a short time, unless perchance some hungry rubber-worker, surrept.i.tiously, had removed these viands while n.o.body was looking, for bananas and milk are things which will tempt any Amazonian from the narrow path of rect.i.tude; but it was not so in this case. The conviction as to recovery proved right, and with the improvement of his health he displayed a cheerful and fond disposition that decided me to take him back with me to New York when I should go. I have since been informed that he belonged to the Humboldt Sika species. I watched him for several months and came to like him for the innocent tricks he never tired of playing. One night he managed to liberate himself from the tree near the hut where he was tied. He disappeared for two days, but on the third he returned, chains and all. He had doubtless found life in the jungle trees not altogether cheerful with a heavy chain secured to his waist, and he had returned reconciled to captivity and regular meals. There is at present one specimen of this kind of monkey at the Bronx Zoological Gardens in charge of the head keeper.
At the time of low water, the so-called _prayas_ appear at the bends of the river; they grow with the acc.u.mulation of sand and mud. They are wide and often of a considerable area, and on them the alligators like to bask in the sunshine of early morning and late afternoon, and the _tartarugas_, or fresh-water turtles, lay their eggs. These eggs are laid in the months of September and October on moon-lit nights and are somewhat smaller than the ordinary hen's egg, the yolk tasting very much the same, but they are covered with a tough parchment-like sh.e.l.l. Here on the upper Amazon the people prepare a favourite meal by collecting these eggs and storing them for two or three weeks, when they tear open the sh.e.l.l and squeeze out the yolks, mixing them all up into a mush with the inevitable farinha. Few people, except native Brazilians, ever acquire a relish for this remarkable dish.
I spent a whole day waiting for the elusive alligators on one of these sand-bars, but evidently they were too wise, for they never came within camera-range. I did, however, see some tapir-tracks, leading down to the water's edge. After the long wait I grew discouraged, and chose a camping place farther up the river, where I prepared a meal consisting of turtle eggs and river water. The meal was not absolutely undisturbed, as the air was full of a species of fly that derives its princ.i.p.al sustenance from the bodies of various dead animals always to be found through the jungle, whose teeming life crowds out all but those fittest to survive.
I had begun my vigil before sunrise, when there are two or three hours very cool and humid. In the dry season the dew which collects is of the greatest importance to animal and plant life. For the tired and thirsty wanderer, the calyx of the beautiful scarlet orchid, which grows abundantly in this region, contains the refreshment of two or three ounces of clear, cool water. But you must look carefully into this cup of nature to see that no insects lurk in its depths to spoil the draught.
I have previously described the breakfast table of the millionaire Coronel R. da Silva, with its black beans, the dreadful farinha, the black coffee, and the handful of mutilated _bolachas_ or biscuits. The only variable factor was the meat, sometimes wild hog, occasionally tapir, and very often the common green parrot or the howling monkey. At most meals the _pirarucu_ fish appears, especially on Mondays when the rubber-workers have had the whole of Sunday in which to indulge in the sport of shooting this gamy two-hundred-pound fish. They carry their _pirarucu_ to headquarters and courteously offer the best cuts to the Coronel, afterwards cutting the rest into long strips and leaving them to dry in the sun. Jerked beef was always to be relied upon when other supplies ran low.
There must have been some terrible mystery connected with the milk. There were twenty-one cows on the place, but never a drop of milk from them was to be had. I was always afraid to ask any questions about this deficiency for fear I might be treading on dangerous ground, but with the lack of any other explanation I ascribe it to continual sickness from which the cattle must probably suffer, in common with every other living thing here.
During the month of September, the number of patients from fever, pleurisy, and accidents, at Floresta headquarters, amounted to 82% of the population. A fever resembling typhoid resulted in several cases from drinking the river-water. The Coronel claimed that Mangeroma Indians living in the interior about 150 miles from Floresta had poisoned the creeks and affluents of the Itecoahy to take revenge upon the traders who brought the much dreaded Peruvian rubber-workers up to the Itecoahy River estates. These Peruvians are hated because they abduct the women of the indigenous tribes, when on their expeditions far into the forests where these tribes live, and consequently they are hunted down and their entrance to the region as far as possible prevented.
At this morning hour in New York (Floresta is on the same meridian as New York), thousands of toilers are entering the hot subways and legions of workers are filing into their offices and stuffy shops to take their places at the huge machinery which keeps the world in motion. At the very same hour a handful of rubber-workers are pa.s.sing my house, returning from their first trip in the _estradas_, where they have been tapping the trees, and on their way to the huts and a frugal breakfast. Here in the wilds of Brazil there are no subways, no worry about the "market," nor indeed any thought for the morrow. Nature supplies the rubber trees, and the "boss" the tools to work them with; the philosophy of the rubber-worker goes no farther. A shirt, trousers, and a hat are all the dress that fashion requires, and often the worker even finds the shirt superfluous. He wears a pair of overalls, and carries slung over his shoulder his rifle and the little hatchet for tapping the trees, besides a small rubber bag in which he keeps a supply of farinha and jerked beef, should he be prevented from reaching his hut in regulation time.
The _seringueiro_ is free in his movements and in his mind, he is a quick and keen observer of nature, and an expert in knowledge of the cries and calls of the animals of the forest. He knows their habits and hiding-places to perfection, and he could probably astonish the naturalist by informing him of many things he has observed that his brother scientist never has heard of. He knows the names of the trees and plants in the forest and what they can be used for, though his knowledge of them is often supplemented by superst.i.tious imaginings. He knows the mult.i.tudinous fish of the Amazon, whether they are to be caught with a net, speared, or shot with bow and arrows, or, if the hunter is of a progressive disposition, shot with rifle ball. There are varieties that have, as yet, not been seen, cla.s.sified, or identified by the scientist of to-day--I am positive of having seen several such.
The inhabitant of this region is clean in his habits and in his mind as soon as he gets away from the evil influence of civilisation--which for him is the town of Remate de Males or "Culmination of Evils." He takes a bath at least twice a day, and attends closely to the cleanliness of his wardrobe, which for that matter does not absorb any considerable amount of time. As a rule, he is industrious, but frequent attacks of fever, dysentery, liver and spleen complaints, or pneumonia make him in the end, like all living things here not native to the forests, sluggish in general, and irritable on occasion.
A little distance from the headquarters lies a beautiful lake. It is not wider than the Itecoahy itself, four hundred feet on an average, and is about five miles long. It runs parallel with the river, and has only one outlet. In the dry season this amounts to nothing more than a little rivulet across which a large fallen tree has formed a natural bridge, but in January, when the waters rise, the creek is so full that the servants of Coronel da Silva can wash the linen there. After some weeks of sojourn at Floresta, I found my way to this lake, and it was here that I was able to observe some of the largest specimens of Amazonian reptiles in their haunts, where the equatorial sun had full opportunity to develop an amazing growth of faunal and floral life.
It was a most enchanting stretch of water. I had heard of the dangers lurking beneath its surface long before I saw it, so when I arrived there one morning I was surprised to find a placid lake, set in picturesque and romantic surroundings. My first impulse was to exclaim, partly to myself, and partly to the Indian Joo who accompanied me, "Why, this is Lake Innocence," so peaceful did it appear. In fact, so much did it charm me that during the remainder of my stay at Floresta there was hardly a day some part of which I did not spend in the immediate vicinity of this lake. But it was treacherous. It was the home of six or seven old alligators and of young ones--too numerous to count; the oldest reaching a length of about seventeen feet. They would lie perfectly still under the banks, among the dead branches and snags, which made the sh.o.r.es generally inaccessible to boat or canoe, but when a person approached they would make their presence known by violent splashing in the water and repeated loud grunts, very much resembling those of a walrus. Then they would burrow under the soft mud and remain quiet for an hour or two. In the early forenoon, before the sun became too hot, they would sun themselves, but in the sweltering mid-day hours they remained buried in the mud, and were then very hard to rouse.
I found, on the sh.o.r.es of the lake, two alligator nests, formed of many twigs and branches stuck together, half in the water and half in the soft slimy mud. There they deposited their eggs, oblong tough ones; and one could always count on finding the female in the neighbourhood, should one desire to visit her. I came near stepping on one of these female alligators during a morning hunt with my camera. I was intently examining a group of eggs I found under a cl.u.s.ter of branches, when I was startled by a splash in the water and a loud grunt. As fast as the muddy ground would let me, I scrambled up the bank, and when I reached the top I saw the alligator swimming away from the very spot where I had been standing, its small close-set eyes fastened on me. Then it disappeared in the mud.
My next encounter occurred one forenoon, when I was sitting close to the dried-up ca.n.a.l which formed the outlet of the lake. It was almost mid-day. I was sitting in the shade, safe from the blazing sun, enjoying a peaceful smoke. The air was fairly vibrating with heat, causing the blood to surge through my veins. Not a sound was heard except the irritating buzz of the ever-present mosquitoes. For some time I had been aware of the slow, stealthy movement of a large body near-by, though only half consciously. The heat made me sluggish and sleepy, but suddenly I awoke to the fact that the moving thing, whatever it might be, was near me. Mechanically, I released the "safety" of my automatic pistol, and then realised that out of the reeds near me was creeping a medium-sized alligator. He was making straight for the water, and I do not know whether he was cognisant of my presence or not. He was moving steadily, advancing a few inches, stopping for a minute, then resuming the journey. I believe I was not more than five feet from the head as it emerged from the fringe of reeds. I raised my camera, secured a focus, and snapped the shutter. The click of the apparatus and perhaps my movement drew his attention. He stopped abruptly. The long jaws opened toward me, displaying an enormous expanse of pink flesh and two rows of shining teeth. I lost not a second in throwing aside the camera and jumping back to a position of relative safety, whence I fired into the open mouth of the beast. I killed him. On examining the carca.s.s, I noticed that he had unusually large eyes, indicating that he was a young specimen.
A few days later I again went to this lake--which, from my remarks, had now come to be generally called "Lago Innocencia"--to catch fish with my Indian friend Joo. He carried a bow, four arrows with detachable heads, and a harpoon six feet long. The little boat which we found close to the outlet of the lake was pushed away from the sh.o.r.e, we each seized one of the peculiarly decorated paddles, and were off, looking for finny game. We paddled quietly along near the sh.o.r.e, now and then receiving a b.u.mp from some concealed snag which nearly upset us. It requires considerable skill to navigate one of these poorly-made dugouts, the slightest move causing a disproportionate amount of disturbance of equilibrium.
Suddenly Joo jumped up, his black eyes glowing with excitement. He motioned me to keep quiet, but it was quiet superfluous for him to do this, as I was unable to talk, or even look around, for fear the canoe might upset. He seized the harpoon, and with a powerful swing sent it into the water ahead of us, at the same time grasping the line which was attached to the end. The spear sank deep into the water, and then by the vivacity with which it danced around I could tell there was something on the end of it. As he began to pull in the line, the struggle became so violent that I crept forward on my knees in the bottom of the canoe and helped him recover the spear. Only after some strenuous balancing feats and a stiff fight by both of us, did we land our game. It was a large flat fish at least four feet square, with a long whip-shaped tail, at the base of which were two barbed bones each about three and a half inches in length. Our first act was to sever this tail with a hatchet, as it was far too active to make the fish a pleasant neighbour in close quarters. When the sting-ray, or, as the Brazilians call it, the _araya_, was dead, I cut out the two barbed bones and no longer wondered why these fish are so dreaded by those who know them. Joo told me that they attack anyone who ventures into the water, and with their sharp, barbed bones inflict a wound that in most cases proves fatal, for the bones are brittle and break off in the flesh. Superst.i.tion and carelessness are the main factors that make the wound dangerous; the people believe too much in an ever-present evil spirit which abides in all the vicious and fiendish animals of the forest and swamp. Once wounded by any of these malignant creatures, they believe there is no hope of recovery and they hardly try to survive. Besides, lack of proper care and treatment of a wound generally results in its terminating in a case of septicaemia and ultimately gangrene.
I have mentioned the _pirarucu_ several times as being the largest edible fish of the Amazon. When full grown, it attains a weight of two hundred and fifty pounds. In Lake Innocence we saw this remarkable fish feeding close to the sh.o.r.e in shallow water, surrounded by a school of young ones. The old one was about seven feet in length and the others but recently hatched, from nine to ten inches. The Indian who pointed them out to me stood up in the bow of the canoe and, fitting one of his five-foot arrows to the bow-string, sent it through the air and into the head of the big fellow.
The bow which he used was of his own manufacture. It was about seven and a half feet long, very tough and straight, and made of Caripari wood. The shafts of the arrows were made of long straight reeds, the stalks of a certain species of wild cane. The detachable part of the arrow is a short but extremely hard piece of wood upon which is fitted an iron head with two barbs. When the point pierces the flesh this hard piece comes off, but remains attached to the shaft by a short stout cord. This allows the shaft free play so that it will not break during the struggles of the victim. Then there is a line attached to the head itself so that the hunter can handle the struggling animal or fish by means of it and of the shaft of the arrow. The whole contrivance is a marvel of ingenuity in meeting the conditions the Amazon hunter is called on to face. When the arrow struck this particular _pirarucu_, at close range, he made straight for the sh.o.r.e, hauling the canoe and its contents after him at considerable speed. We got tangled among the low branches and fought the fish in considerable danger of being overturned--and I should not at all care to be capsized on Lake Innocence.
Finally, we got our prize ash.o.r.e. I sent the Indian to headquarters, telling him to go, as fast as he could and bring a.s.sistance so that we could get the fish home. I myself mounted guard over the carca.s.s to see that neither the turkey buzzards nor the carnivorous mammals should destroy it. If we had left it alone for even a short time, we would have found, on our return, little to remind us of its existence. The Indian returned shortly with two men. They stuck a pole through the great gills of the _pirarucu_ and in this fashion carried it to the settlement.
These waters contain great quant.i.ties of another and smaller fish known as the _piranha_, scientifically termed _Serraselmus piraya_. This is quite as much dreaded by the natives as the alligator, or even as the shark along the coast. Its ferocity seems to know no bounds. It will attack other fish and bite large pieces out of their fins and tails. Although it is not much larger than the herring it can make fatal attacks on man when in large numbers.
Mr. C.B. Brown in his work on Guiana gives the following account of this fish:
The _piranhas_ in the Corentins were so abundant and were so ferocious that at times it was dangerous to go into the water to a greater depth than the knees. Even then small bodies of these hungry creatures would swim in and make a dash close to our legs, and then retreat to a short distance. They actually bit the steering paddles as they were drawn through the water astern of the boat. A tapir which I shot as it swam across the water had his nose bitten off by them whilst we were towing it to the sh.o.r.e. The men used to catch some of them for the sport of it, and in taking the hook from the mouth produced a wound from which the blood ran freely. On throwing them back into the water in this injured condition, they were immediately set upon and devoured by their companions. Even as one was being hauled in on the line, its comrades, seeing that it was in difficulties, attacked it at once.
I heard about these fiends but had no opportunity to witness their ferocity until one day, in crossing the river in a dugout, we wounded a wild hog that had also decided to cross at the same time and at the same place. The man with the stern paddle seized his machete as he saw the hog swimming close by the port-side of the canoe and stabbed it in the shoulder, intending to tow it ash.o.r.e and have a luxurious dinner of roast hog. But his dream was never realised, for the _piranhas_ which had tasted the blood, I suppose, came in large numbers and set upon the unfortunate hog. In a minute the water seemed to be boiling, so great was the activity of the little demons as they tore away pieces of the flesh until it was vanishing by inches. When we reached the other sh.o.r.e there was not enough left of the hog to furnish a single meal.
Later I learned that certain Indian tribes leave their dead in the river for the _piranhas_ to strip the flesh from the bones. It is then customary to take the remaining skeleton and let it dry in the sun, after which it is rubbed with the juice of the _urucu_ plant (the _Bixa orellana_), which produces a bright scarlet colour. Then it is hung up in the hut and the Indians consider that a token of great reverence has been thus bestowed on the deceased.
Before leaving the subject of fish, I will mention another species, smaller than the _piranha_, yet, although not as ferocious, the cause of much dread and annoyance to the natives living near the banks of the rivers. In fact, throughout the Amazon this little worm-like creature, called the _kandiroo_, is so omnipresent that a bath-house of a particular construction is necessary. The kandiroo is usually three to four inches long and one sixteenth in thickness. It belongs to the lampreys, and its particular group is the Myxinos or slime-fish. Its body is coated with a peculiar mucus. It is dangerous to human beings, because when they are taking a bath in the river it will approach and with a swift powerful movement penetrate one of the natural openings of the body whence it can be removed only by a difficult and dangerous operation.
A small but hard and pointed dorsal fin acts as a barb and prevents the fish from being drawn back. While I was in Remate de Males the local doctor was called upon to remove a _kandiroo_ from the urethra of a man. The man subsequently died from the hemorrhage following the operation.
Largely through the danger of the attack from this scourge, though perhaps not entirely, the natives have adopted the method of bathing in use. A plunge into the river is unheard of, and bath-houses are constructed so as to make this unnecessary. A hole about eighteen inches square is cut in the middle of the floor--built immediately above the water--through which the bather, provided with a calabash or gourd of the bread-fruit tree, dips water up and pours it over himself after he has first examined it carefully. The indigenous Indians, living in the remote parts of the forest, do not use this mode of protection, but cover the vulnerable portions of the body carefully with strips of bark, which render complete immersion less dangerous.
During my walks in the forest I often came across snakes of considerable length, but never found any difficulty in killing them, as they were sluggish in their movements and seemed to be inoffensive. The rubber-workers, who had no doubt had many encounters with reptiles, told me about large _sucurujus_ or boa-constrictors, which had their homes in the river not many miles from headquarters. They told me that these snakes were in possession of hypnotic powers, but this, like many other a.s.sertions, should be taken with a large grain of salt. However, I will relate an incident which occurred while I lived at Floresta, and in which I have absolute faith, as I had the opportunity of talking to the persons involved in the affair.
Jose Perreira. a rubber-worker, had left headquarters after having delivered his weekly report on the rubber extracted, and was paddling his canoe at a good rate down the stream, expecting to reach his hut before midnight. Arriving at a recess in the banks formed by the confluence of a small creek called Igarape do Inferno, or the Creek of h.e.l.l, he thought that he heard the noise of some game, probably a deer or tapir, drinking, and he silently ran his canoe to the sh.o.r.e, where he fastened it to a branch, at the same time holding his rifle in readiness. Finally, as he saw nothing, he returned to the canoe and continued his way down-stream.
Hardly more than ten yards from the spot, he stopped again and listened. He heard only the distant howling of a monkey. This he was used to on his nightly trips. No! there was something else! He could not say it was a sound. It was a strange something that called him back to the bank that he had left but a few minutes before. He fastened his canoe again to the same branch and crept up to the same place, feeling very uneasy and uncomfortable, but seeing nothing that could alarm him--nothing that he could draw the bead of his rifle on. Yet, something there was! For the second time he left, without being able to account for the mysterious force that lured him to this gloomy, moon-lit place on the dark, treacherous bank. In setting out in the stream again he decided to fight off the uncanny, unexplainable feeling that had called him back, but scarcely a stone's throw from the bank he had the same desire to return,--a desire that he had never before experienced. He went again, and looked, and meditated over the thing that he did not understand.
He had not drunk _cacha.s.sa_ that day and was consequently quite sober; he had not had fever for two weeks and was in good health physically as well as mentally; he had never so much indulged in the dissipations of civilisation that his nerves had been affected; he had lived all his life in these surroundings and knew no fear of man or beast. And now, this splendid type of manhood, free and unbound in his thoughts and unprejudiced by superst.i.tion, broke down completely and hid his face in his hands, sobbing like a child in a dark room afraid of ghosts. He had been called to this spot three times without knowing the cause, and now, the mysterious force attracting him, as a magnet does a piece of iron, he was unable to move. Helpless as a child he awaited his fate.
Luckily three workers from headquarters happened to pa.s.s on their way to their homes, which lay not far above the "Creek of h.e.l.l,"
and when they heard sobbing from the bank they called out.
The hypnotised _seringueiro_ managed to state that he had three times been forced, by some strange power, to the spot where he now was, unable to get away, and that he was deadly frightened. The rubber-workers, with rifles c.o.c.ked, approached in their canoe, fully prepared to meet a jaguar, but when only a few yards from their comrade they saw directly under the root where the man was sitting the head of a monstrous boa-constrictor, its eyes fastened on its prey. Though it was only a few feet from him, he had been unable to see it.
One of the men took good aim and fired, crushing the head of the snake, and breaking the spell, but the intended victim was completely played out and had to lie down in the bottom of the canoe, shivering as if with ague.
The others took pains to measure the length of the snake before leaving. It was 79 palmas or 52 feet 8 inches. In circ.u.mference it measured 11 palmas, corresponding to a diameter of 28 inches. Its mouth, they said, was two palmas or sixteen inches, but how they mean this to be understood I do not know.
This event happened while I was living at headquarters. I had a long talk with Perreira, but could not shake his statement, nor that of the three others; nevertheless, I remained a sceptic as to this alleged charming or mesmeric power of the snakes, at least so far as man is concerned.
« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»