Enero Rey, standing firm on the boat, stocky and beardless, swollen-bellied, legs astride, stares hard at the surface of the river and waits, revolver in hand.
Tilo, the kid, aboard the same boat, leans back, the rod butt at his hip, turning the reel handle, tugging the line: a glittering thread in the waning sun. El Negro, fifty-something like Enero, alongside the boat, water up to his balls, leans back as well, red-faced from the sun and hard work, rod bent as he winds in and lets out the line. The spool spinning and his breath a kind of wheeze. The river pancake flat.
Pump and reel, pump and reel. She’s hugging the bottom. Get her up, get her up.
After two, three hours, tired and almost through, Enero repeats the instructions in a murmur, like a prayer.
He feels dizzy. Pickled by the wine and heat. He looks up and his red eyes, sunk deep in his puffy face, are blinded and everything goes white and he’s lost and reaches for his head and ends up firing into the air.
Without stopping what he’s doing, Tilo grimaces and yells.
What the hell, you moron! Enero comes to.
All good. You guys keep going. Pump and reel, pump and reel. She’s hugging the bottom. Get her up, get her up.
She’s coming! She’s coming up!
Enero leans over the side. Sees it draw closer. A stain beneath the surface of the river. He takes aim and fires. Once. Twice. Three times. The blood rises, gushing, washes away. He sits up. Puts back the gun. Tucks it in the waistband of his shorts.
Tilo from the boat and El Negro from the water lift the creature out. Grabbing it by the fleshy grey frills. Throwing it on board.
Watch the stinger! Says Tilo.
He takes the knife, cuts the barb from the body, sends it back to the depths of the river.
Enero sits down with a thud on the seat in the boat. Sweaty-faced, head buzzing. Drinks a little water from the bottle. It’s warm, he drinks anyway, long gulps, then tips the rest over his head.
El Negro climbs in. The ray takes up so much space there’s almost nowhere to put his feet without treading on it. Must be some two hundred pounds, maybe two hundred twenty.
Christ she’s ugly!
Says Enero, slapping his thigh and laughing. The others laugh as well.
Fought us pretty hard. Says El Negro.
Enero picks up the oars and rows into the middle of the river and then turns and carries on, following the shore around to where they’d set up camp.
They’d left town at dawn in El Negro’s pickup. Tilo in the middle brewing the mate. Enero with his arm resting on the open window. El Negro at the wheel. They watched how the sun slowly climbed above the asphalt. Felt how the heat began to burn from early on. They listened to the radio. Enero took a leak by the roadside. At a petrol station they bought pastries and filled up on hot water for the mate.
All three of them pleased to be hanging out together. They’d been planning the trip for a while now. With one thing and another it kept getting called off.
El Negro had bought a new boat and wanted to try it out.
While they were crossing to the island in the brand-new boat they remembered, as usual, the first time they’d brought Tilo, who was still only tiny then, barely even walking, and how they’d got caught in a storm, the tents blown to shit, and the kid, little pipsqueak that he was, wound up sheltering in the boat propped on its side among some trees.
Your old man had hell to pay when we got back. Said Enero.
Again they told the story Tilo knows off by heart. How Eusebio smuggled the kid along without a word to Diana Maciel. He and Diana’d been split up pretty much since Tilo was born. Eusebio had him at weekends. And of course, that would be the weekend she realizes she’s forgotten to pack, in the bag with his clean clothes, some medication Tilo was taking. Diana stops by the house and there’s no one there. A neighbour tells her they’ve gone to the island.
And then the storm that tore through the whole area. The town as well. Diana with her heart in her mouth.
We were lucky, all of us. Said Enero.
Diana Maciel had laid into the three of them hard and for weeks they were banned from seeing Tilo or setting foot in her house.
On reaching the camp, they unload the ray and run a rope through the slits behind its eyes and hang it from a tree. The three bullet holes merge with its mottled back. If their edges weren’t paler, kind of pinkish, they’d look like part of the pattern.
Reckon I’ve earned myself a beer. Says Enero.
He’s sitting on the ground, his back to the tree and the ray. The buzzing in his head has stopped, but there’s still a kind of knot there.
Tilo goes and opens the cooler and takes a bottle from the water, from among the last few floating ice cubes. He pops the cap with the lighter then passes it on, so that it’s him, Enero Rey, the one who’s earned it, who first brings the bottle to his lips. The beer hits his mouth, all foam that goes streaming over his lips, painting white lace on his jet-black moustache. Like rinsing his mouth out with cotton wool. Only with the second swig does the cool, bitter liquid come.
El Negro and Tilo sit down as well, all three in a row, the bottle moving from hand to hand.
Too bad we don’t have a camera. Says El Negro.
They all turn their heads to look at the creature. It’s like an old blanket hanging in the shade.
Midway through the second bottle, a gaggle of kids appear, dark and wiry as eels, their faces nothing but eyes. They crowd around the ray, jostling, shoving.
Wooooah. Check it out check it out. It’s ginormous!
One grabs a stick and pokes it through the bullet holes.
Hey, hands off!
Says Enero, standing up suddenly, huge as a bear. And the little tykes scatter, vanishing back into the woods.
Since he’s on his feet now, since he’s made the effort to get up, Enero decides to go for a dip. The water clears his head.
He swims. Ducks under.
Floats on the surface.
The sun’s beginning to set and a slight breeze is creasing the river.
Just then he hears the engine and the lapping of waves. He moves aside, begins swimming to shore. The boat goes by, bounding over the water, ripping it in two like a rotten old rag. Attached to the back of the boat, a girl in a bikini is water-skiing. The boat swerves sharply and the girl is thrown in the water. From a distance, Enero sees her head emerge, her long hair plastered to her scalp.
He thinks of the Drowner. Gets out.
El Negro and Tilo are standing on the shore, arms folded, following the boat with their eyes.
Youngsters making a racket. Says El Negro.
It’s the same every weekend. They scare the fish. Ought to give them a scare ourselves one of these days.
The three of them turn and come face-to-face with the men. They hadn’t heard them approach. The islanders are light on their feet.
Says the one who just spoke.
We heard from the kids and came to see. Beautiful animal!
The others are looking at the ray. Standing beside it, to measure it.
My name’s Aguirre, says the only one who talks, and he holds out his hand, which they each shake.
Enero Rey, says Enero, joining the group and greeting them one by one. El Negro and Tilo follow, doing the same.
Pretty big, huh?
Says Enero and pats it on the flank, then recoils as if it had burnt him.
Aguirre, inspecting the holes from up close, says.
Three? You shot it three times. Once would’ve done.
Enero grins, showing the gap where he’s missing a front tooth.
Guess I got carried away.
You want to watch that . . . getting carried away. Says Aguirre.
Tilo, pour some wine for our pals here. Says El Negro, stepping in between.
The boy runs to the shore, where they’d buried the demijohn to keep it cool. He brings it over and fills a tin cup to the brim.
He hands it to Aguirre, who raises it.
Cheers, he says and takes a swig and passes it to Enero. He looks for a moment at Enero’s left hand, which is missing a finger, but doesn’t ask any questions. Enero sees, but keeps quiet as well. Let him wonder.
Cristo here caught one way bigger the other day, Aguirre brags. How long were you out there?
All afternoon, the guy replies, with a sideways glance.
And how many times you shoot it? Once. Once is enough.
See, my pal here’s a bit of a klutz. El Negro says and laughs.
The TV people came and all, says the guy who landed a bigger ray than this one. Put him on the evening news, says Aguirre. Last Saturday the place was teeming with folks from Santa Fe and Paraná. Thought it was rays galore here. Like it’s that easy. You guys had some luck.
Technique, says Enero. Luck and technique. Luck alone won’t get you far.
Aguirre takes a pouch of tobacco from the pocket of his shirt, which he wears unbuttoned, open over his bony chest, over his wine-swollen belly. He rolls in the blink of an eye. Lights up. Takes a puff as he wanders over to the shore and stands gazing out at the water. Then he looks back at them and says.
So how long you staying?
Two, three days, says El Negro. It’s a nice island. You’re right there.
El Negro steps into the woods. T-shirt slung over his shoulder, strides long but slow. Everything here in semi-darkness. Outside, the sun, a ball of fire half snuffed out by the river. He hears the soft sounds of birds and other small animals. A whisper of weeds.
Wild guinea pigs, weasels, viscachas scurrying through the tall grass. El Negro moves with care, with respect, as if entering a church. Dainty as a guazuncho deer. But of course he ends up treading on a twig, a bunch of curupí pods, and the result is deafening. The crackle of dry shells echoes through the alders and timbós, up and out of the dense circle of woodland. Announcing the presence of an intruder.
This man isn’t from these woods and the woods are well aware. But they leave him be. He can come in, he can stay for as long as it takes to gather kindling. Then the woods themselves will spit him out, his arms full of branches, back to the shore.
El Negro’s eyes begin to adjust and he makes out a camoati nest attached to a branch a bit farther on, like a head strung up by the hair. Around it the air quivers, thick with wasps.
He takes a deep breath and his chest fills with the scent of flowers, honey and the odd small dead animal. Everything smells sweet.
Distracted, he steps in a puddle and a cloud of mosquitoes fly up and surround him. Their high-pitched humming all he can hear. They prick at his back, his arms, his bare neck. He flaps his T-shirt, scaring them away. Then puts it on before they eat him alive.
Yeah, yeah, I’m going, I’m just getting some wood then I’m going.
He says aloud.
He collects a bundle of twigs to get the fire started. Knocks his head on a big hanging branch that’s still just about clinging to the tree. He puts down what he’s carrying. Tests the branch with his weight, pulls it free. The tearing wood makes a noise like the lightning that split it. He squats again, scoops up the twigs, tucks them under his arm. With his other hand he drags the heavy branch.
He emerges. The sky is orange, the air soupy and warm. A shiver runs down his spine to his backside. He turns, looks over his shoulder. He could swear the woods have closed up behind him.
Image © Tom Wachtel