By Roy Kesey

Dzanc Books
February 2011, Hardcover
530 pages



It is time again. I stand across the street from the Sánchez Cerro bridgehead, waiting for the stoplight to turn. I will find my place, sit and watch and wait for the taxista to pass by. For the first time I will be waiting not alone but with Mariángel: Casualidad's son has bronchitis, and my attempt to find another babysitter failed wholly.

It is an unlikely way to find the taxista. All ways have always been unlikely. I have chosen the Sánchez Cerro not because it is the most heavily transited bridge but because it is next on my rotating list and Mariángel tugs sharply at my sideburns.

I have all the milk that she might require, and all the diapers, and as much of everything else as I can carry. The light turns and I walk to the apex of the bridge. There is a slight widening of the sidewalk here: this is my place. I lay down my piece of cardboard and sit. There is a weak breeze, so I pull a blanket from my knapsack, draw it over my shoulders and tuck Mariángel in beneath.

She will not lie still, twists and twists in my lap. I change her diaper and prepare a bottle of milk. She pushes the bottle away, then wants it intensely, grabs and pulls it to her. Pedestrians pass. I look only at the faces of the men, and they look back, stare, perhaps wonder. I open my thermos and pour some coffee, most of it in the cup and a bit on the sidewalk and a few drops on my trousers. A taxi, old and yellow but the wrong make of car.

I listen through the traffic for the sound of the river, but there is no such sound, no such river, hardly even a creek at this point. Ambient light leaves the stars invisible. The smells are of exhaust and sweat and a flower I do not recognize and sewage.

When the bottle is empty I put Mariángel beneath the blanket again, and again she struggles against it. I bring her back out. We play the blinking game, wherein we blink at one another and laugh. I scan traffic between blinks and gradually she tires.

Now I sing, Silvio Rodríguez, verse and chorus and verse and chorus about unicorns. It is a beautiful if stupid song and she closes her eyes, lies motionless but unsleeping, perhaps another game. A taxi, red. I draw the blanket up over her, bring out another and drape it as well, minimally better protection against the lights and noise.

An hour passes, and another. Then the sound of birds, a small flock low overhead and fast, by the time I look up they are gone and very near the beginning: ducks for Pizarro. The Inca noble sent by Atahualpa to gather information on the violent strangers meets Soto scouting at Cajas. Soto has seen the bodies hanging from trees, locals who hadn’t surrendered to Atahualpa during the civil war just now ended. The city in ruins but the sun temple on the outskirts inviolate. Five hundred holy women―young acllas at their looms and mamaconas practicing the rites, all of them virgins―and the Spaniards brought them out, enslaved some, raped others, many of them to death.

Soto leads the noble to Pizarro. The noble delivers his embassy, presents Pizarro with ducks, and also with ceramic castles. The ducks have been stuffed and skinned and some Spaniards think this is meant to symbolize what awaits them, the castles standing for the strength of Inca defenses, but they are only gifts, and not particularly precious. The stuffed ducks are meant to be ground into aromatic powder, and each castle is a sort of stein.

The noble wanders the Spanish camp as if it were his own. He inspects the armor and horses, asks to see the swords, takes one man roughly by the beard. The Spaniard beats him until Pizarro steps in. He tells the noble he accepts Atahualpa’s invitation to meet in Cajamarca, and sends gifts for the Inca in turn: a handsome Holland shirt and two goblets, Venetian glass.

The noble thanks him and at the far end of the bridge are ghosts or what appear to be, ten or twelve figures dressed in white, glowing under the streetlights. Together they float toward me. The cars on the bridge slow beside them, speed away. The wind brings odd bits of language, not Spanish or Quechua or English and now the figures are close enough to see. They are pale bearded men dressed in white robes and brown leather sandals.

They are arguing angrily in German and it is not the first time I have seen them. According to my friend Günther, they think the world is soon going to be destroyed, that every city on the planet except Piura will be devastated by a rain of sulfur and fire. They have come here to pay twice the market value for fine houses, to stock up on canned tuna and bottled water, to await the end of everywhere else.

No one knows why they think Piura of all places will be saved, and no one much likes these men. They do not bathe, and they do not tip, and they attempt to save pennies by arguing over the price of bread with bakers far poorer than they are. The Germans are convinced that the truth is something one can know, can be sure of, and this is a beautiful thought however false. They are also convinced that there is precisely one high truth in the world, and that it belongs to them alone.

The Germans reach the apex, and their leader―the tallest of them, the most beautiful―ignores me utterly. Of those who follow, a few do the same, and others look at me, nod gravely, as if they understand why I would choose to sit on a piece of cardboard in the middle of a bridge in the middle of the night, as if we are on the same team in some non-trivial sense. Then Mariángel twists under the blanket, flails, the lattermost men step away, her head comes out and she smiles at me, at them, and they smile too, slow their pace, step closer, reach out, and in English I suggest that if they like the number of fingers they currently possess, they had best keep their motherfucking distance.

They perhaps are not familiar with the phrase but recognize the tone, and hurry to catch up with their leader. Mariángel cries and I stand, bring her to my shoulder. I reorganize the blankets, make sure her head is covered. I pace up and back. There are shanties here too in the causeway, but it is too dark for me to identify the crops.

A pair of combis pass; another taxi, but the driver is too round in the face. The Germans step down off the bridge. From most distances they seem harmless, but that is proof of nothing. I was fifteen when my friend Joel told me that the truth could be found only twenty miles from Fallash. Come, he said, come listen to what Mr. Jones has to say, and the truth will be yours as well.

As he spoke it was clear to us both: this diction was not his own, was unconvincing and unconvinced. I did not know how to respond, attempted to commiserate, and he would not have it. We spoke little after that. The following month he and his family went to live in that community, and so did the brothers and sisters, the aunts and uncles of other people I knew. They were in general friendly and devout and none of them seemed insane. When I told my parents where Joel had gone they said they were sorry but would not elaborate. Years later I learned that there had been rumors of sex slaves and torture, but the newspapers were afraid of Jones’ lawyers, and the politicians wanted access to the clout of his flock. Nothing came to light in time, and Jones took his people to live the truth in Guyana.

I remember thinking, If things ever get really bad, I can always move to the jungle. I knew nothing of the jungle then, learned nothing until I went to Iquitos four years ago. I went not because of Joel or Jim Jones, but I thought of them as my plane dropped through dense clouds into bright green. Iquitos has 200,000 inhabitants but no roads leading in or out and I wished to know something about what the jungle meant for certain men as they lead certain expeditions east: Candia looking for Ambaya, Maldonado looking for Paititi, their failure and thousands dead but also and most importantly Orellana, his absurd and magnificent stretch, the Amazon from the Andes to the Atlantic.

Seventeen hours upriver in pacamari and peque-peque to the edge of Pacaya-Samiria. Two hours in a canoe, and then we walked four hours more. I had not understood that the base camp would be so distant. My guide’s name was Moisés. I did not believe in portents.

Smaller rivers and creeks encircled us. In Iquitos Moisés had asked me if I wanted him to bring regular food, or if we should let the jungle provide. I did not know what he meant, and guessed wrong.

Out hunting caimans that first night, Moisés walks a few steps ahead with his shotgun in one hand and his machete in the other. I am wearing a borrowed mining helmet to keep both hands free. Dragonflies the size of blackbirds crave the light, strike me in the face again and again, their bodies crackling as I crush them in my hands.

A line of taxis, six in a row, none of them correct. Most snakes also hunt at night, Moisés says, so you must never grab hold of anything as you walk beside the river, not even if you are about to fall: any given vine or root could suddenly writhe in your hand, could sink its fangs into you. Antivenins are available in the hospitals of Iquitos, he says, but no one envenomed here ever makes it that far. You might make it back to our base camp, if you are very lucky, but antivenins require refrigeration, and there are no refrigerators at base camp.

On the trails there are also scorpions, and ants, and tarantulas that move like severed hands. One ant leaves a welt on my arm that will last for weeks, yes. These ants wait until someone or something brushes against the thin white trunk of the tree in which they live, and then swarm out. They will even drop from the leaves and twigs above.

It is not easy to keep from slipping off the logs that hunters lay to form paths above the waist-deep mud of low jungle. Or to keep Moisés from cursing you for your clumsiness, your noise, for ruining the hunt again. Or to keep from falling into the water where the caimans wait, and the coral snakes.

The second night we go out in the canoe, drift, and Moisés did not want to bring me, is sure my weight will sink the craft at some point, and he is right, but it is included in the price of the tour so what can he do? There are torches fore and aft, Moisés in the bow with his three-pronged spear and his club, and me in the stern with my paddle. I ask him why we can’t leave the snakes alone and just canoe along, thick frog-song melting around us, the torchlight reflected and rippling in the wake. Moisés points to dark huts along the riverbank. There are children, he says. They come to fetch water, and to bathe, and their mothers bring laundry and soap. Some die each year of snakebite. So we visit when we can, and what we do, it is only a kind of cleaning.

Just then he sees one. The spear flashes. He pulls it back up and I see nothing but a thin twisting darkness held against the bow. The club slams down, the spear-tip flicks and the snake is gone.

Moisés kills four more that night, shows me the colored bands on two of them, and we do not sink until the very end: I reach to catch the edge of the makeshift pier and the canoe slips one way and another and Moisés and I are in the water. I hold to the gunwale until I find my footing. The water is shallow and warm there at the bank, and Moisés says he will never again take anyone so fat on any kind of tour.

My clothes slow to dry and two more taxis, both blue. There are also the mosquitoes that come in waves of thousands. I have repellent designed on behalf of the British Special Forces and even it is useless. Moisés laughs when he sees it. He says that there is no reason to waste so much money, that the jungle itself provides repellent of the highest quality. He leads me to a rotten stump, hacks at it with his machete, brings out a handful of termites.

- Nature’s repellent, he says.

He rubs the termites on his neck and arms, his face and back and chest. He rubs very lightly, not hard enough to kill or even injure the termites―just enough, he says, to irritate them into secreting the repellent. When he is done he smells of eucalyptus, and hands the termites to me.

- Does it really work?

I say this softly and with downward intonation to show that it is not really a question, that I am only making conversation, that I do not doubt his expertise. He answers anyway.

- No, he says, but at least it is free.

Joel never returned from Guyana. Another taxi, a yellow Tico but new, and Orellana leaves the Americas a hero, plans a new expedition, five ships and three hundred men and his new wife. He loses three ships in the course of the crossing, attempts to explore the Amazon upriver from the mouth but loses most of the rest of his crew to malaria and poisoned arrows. He falls ill himself, dies of fever but his wife survives, marries another survivor and there are things that must be seen, the whole of the sunset sky caught across the wide river, and the freshwater dolphins, said to be pink but in fact a fluid collage of purple and silver and orange. There are things that must be smelled, the sweat of the quivering shaman as the ayahuasca takes hold, and things that must be tasted, capybara roasted over wet wood, and the water that pours from the cut vine, it pours and pours from the three-foot length, more water than can be imagined. There are things that must be heard, the red howlers screaming at dawn, and things that must be felt, the cool smooth skin of the fer-de-lance that was waiting beside the path, waiting to be woken by footsteps, and Moisés saw it in time, held me silent, cut and limbed two branches, drove the forked one down across the snake’s spine and beat at the head with the other branch, a solid minute of beating, then the clear brown venom dripping from broken fangs into the palm of my hand. And there are things one must know from inside them. The rain, for example. Elsewhere one is told that rain is a temporal thing, that it started at twelve-thirty and ended at twenty past four. This is a sort of lie. Rain is spatial, and this will be known on the river: the rain comes, an opaque curtain, a line on the black water past which the surface roils, the front edge of the storm that is closer now and closer, and I duck as it moves over me, I am inside and it is a living thing, furious around me and beating warm, the great chaotic heart and at times it is hard to breathe, the water or the air is so thick.