Green Mansions, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 4

Perhaps I was not capable of thinking quite coherently on what had just happened until I was once more fairly outside of the forest shadows — out in that clear open daylight, where things seem what they are, and imagination, like a juggler detected and laughed at, hastily takes itself out of the way. As I walked homewards I paused midway on the barren ridge to gaze back on the scene I had left, and then the recent adventure began to take a semi-ludicrous aspect in my mind. All that circumstance of preparation, that mysterious prelude to something unheard of, unimaginable, surpassing all fables ancient and modern, and all tragedies — to end at last in a concert of howling monkeys! Certainly the concert was very grand — indeed, one of the most astounding in nature — -but still — I sat down on a stone and laughed freely.

The sun was sinking behind the forest, its broad red disk still showing through the topmost leaves, and the higher part of the foliage was of a luminous green, like green flame, throwing off flakes of quivering, fiery light, but lower down the trees were in profound shadow.

I felt very light-hearted while I gazed on this scene, for how pleasant it was just now to think of the strange experience I had passed through — to think that I had come safely out of it, that no human eye had witnessed my weakness, and that the mystery existed still to fascinate me! For, ludicrous as the denouement now looked, the cause of all, the voice itself, was a thing to marvel at more than ever. That it proceeded from an intelligent being I was firmly convinced; and although too materialistic in my way of thinking to admit for a moment that it was a supernatural being, I still felt that there was something more than I had at first imagined in Kua-ko’s speech about a daughter of the Didi. That the Indians knew a great deal about the mysterious voice, and had held it in great fear, seemed evident. But they were savages, with ways that were not mine; and however friendly they might be towards one of a superior race, there was always in their relations with him a low cunning, prompted partly by suspicion, underlying their words and actions. For the white man to put himself mentally on their level is not more impossible than for these aborigines to be perfectly open, as children are, towards the white. Whatever subject the stranger within their gates exhibits an interest in, that they will be reticent about; and their reticence, which conceals itself under easily invented lies or an affected stupidity, invariably increases with his desire for information. It was plain to them that some very unusual interest took me to the wood; consequently I could not expect that they would tell me anything they might know to enlighten me about the matter; and I concluded that Kua-ko’s words about the daughter of the Didi, and what she would do if he blew an arrow at a bird, had accidentally escaped him in a moment of excitement. Nothing, therefore, was to be gained by questioning them, or, at all events, by telling them how much the subject attracted me. And I had nothing to fear; my independent investigations had made this much clear to me; the voice might proceed from a very frolicsome and tricksy creature, full of wild fantastic humours, but nothing worse. It was friendly to me, I felt sure; at the same time it might not be friendly towards the Indians; for, on that day, it had made itself heard only after my companion had taken flight; and it had then seemed incensed against me, possibly because the savage had been in my company.

That was the result of my reflections on the day’s events when I returned to my entertainer’s roof and sat down among my friends to refresh myself with stewed fowl and fish from the household pot, into which a hospitable woman invited me with a gesture to dip my fingers.

Kua-ko was lying in his hammock, smoking, I think — certainly not reading. When I entered he lifted his head and stared at me, probably surprised to see me alive, unharmed, and in a placid temper. I laughed at the look, and, somewhat disconcerted, he dropped his head down again. After a minute or two I took the metal match-box and tossed it on to his breast. He clutched it and, starting up, stared at me in the utmost astonishment. He could scarcely believe his good fortune; for he had failed to carry out his part of the compact and had resigned himself to the loss of the coveted prize. Jumping down to the floor, he held up the box triumphantly, his joy overcoming the habitual stolid look; while all the others gathered about him, each trying to get the box into his own hands to admire it again, notwithstanding that they had all seen it a dozen times before. But it was Kua-ko’s now and not the stranger’s, and therefore more nearly their own than formerly, and must look different, more beautiful, with a brighter polish on the metal. And that wonderful enamelled cock on the lid — figured in Paris probably, but just like a cock in Guayana, the pet bird which they no more think of killing and eating than we do our purring pussies and lemon-coloured canaries — must now look more strikingly valiant and cock-like than ever, with its crimson comb and wattles, burnished red hackles, and dark green arching tail-plumes. But Kua-ko, while willing enough to have it admired and praised, would not let it out of his hands, and told them pompously that it was not theirs for them to handle, but his — Kua-ko’s — for all time; that he had won it by accompanying me — valorous man that he was! — to that evil wood into which they — timid, inferior creatures that they were! — would never have ventured to set foot. I am not translating his words, but that was what he gave them to understand pretty plainly, to my great amusement.

After the excitement was over, Runi, who had maintained a dignified calm, made some roundabout remarks, apparently with the object of eliciting an account of what I had seen and heard in the forest of evil fame. I replied carelessly that I had seen a great many birds and monkeys — monkeys so tame that I might have procured one if I had had a blow-pipe, in spite of my never having practiced shooting with that weapon.

It interested them to hear about the abundance and tameness of the monkeys, although it was scarcely news; but how tame they must have been when I, the stranger not to the manner born — not naked, brown-skinned, lynx-eyed, and noiseless as an owl in his movements — had yet been able to look closely at them! Runi only remarked, apropos of what I had told him, that they could not go there to hunt; then he asked me if I feared nothing.

“Nothing,” I replied carelessly. “The things you fear hurt not the white man and are no more than this to me,” saying which I took up a little white wood-ash in my hand and blew it away with my breath. “And against other enemies I have this,” I added, touching my revolver. A brave speech, just after that araguato episode; but I did not make it without blushing — mentally.

— He shook his head, and said it was a poor weapon against some enemies; also — truly enough — that it would procure no birds and monkeys for the stew-pot.

Next morning my friend Kua-ko, taking his zabatana, invited me to go out with him, and I consented with some misgivings, thinking he had overcome his superstitious fears and, inflamed by my account of the abundance of game in the forest, intended going there with me. The previous day’s experience had made me think that it would be better in the future to go there alone. But I was giving the poor youth more credit than he deserved: it was far from his intention to face the terrible unknown again. We went in a different direction, and tramped for hours through woods where birds were scarce and only of the smaller kinds. Then my guide surprised me a second time by offering to teach me to use the zabatana. This, then, was to be my reward for giving him the box! I readily consented, and with the long weapon, awkward to carry, in my hand, and imitating the noiseless movements and cautious, watchful manner of my companion, I tried to imagine myself a simple Guayana savage, with no knowledge of that artificial social state to which I had been born, dependent on my skill and little roll of poison-darts for a livelihood. By an effort of the will I emptied myself of my life experience and knowledge — or as much of it as possible — and thought only of the generations of my dead imaginary progenitors, who had ranged these woods back to the dim forgotten years before Columbus; and if the pleasure I had in the fancy was childish, it made the day pass quickly enough. Kua-ko was constantly at my elbow to assist and give advice; and many an arrow I blew from the long tube, and hit no bird. Heaven knows what I hit, for the arrows flew away on their wide and wild career to be seen no more, except a few which my keen-eyed comrade marked to their destination and managed to recover. The result of our day’s hunting was a couple of birds, which Kua-ko, not I, shot, and a small opossum his sharp eyes detected high up a tree lying coiled up on an old nest, over the side of which the animal had incautiously allowed his snaky tail to dangle. The number of darts I wasted must have been a rather serious loss to him, but he did not seem troubled at it, and made no remark.

Next day, to my surprise, he volunteered to give me a second lesson, and we went out again. On this occasion he had provided himself with a large bundle of darts, but — wise man! — they were not poisoned, and it therefore mattered little whether they were wasted or not. I believe that on this day I made some little progress; at all events, my teacher remarked that before long I would be able to hit a bird. This made me smile and answer that if he could place me within twenty yards of a bird not smaller than a small man I might manage to touch it with an arrow.

This speech had a very unexpected and remarkable effect. He stopped short in his walk, stared at me wildly, then grinned, and finally burst into a roar of laughter, which was no bad imitation of the howling monkey’s performance, and smote his naked thighs with tremendous energy. At length recovering himself, he asked whether a small woman was not the same as a small man, and being answered in the affirmative, went off into a second extravagant roar of laughter.

Thinking it was easy to tickle him while he continued in this mood, I began making any number of feeble jokes — feeble, but quite as good as the one which had provoked such outrageous merriment — for it amused me to see him acting in this unusual way. But they all failed of their effect — there was no hitting the bull’s-eye a second time; he would only stare vacantly at me, then grunt like a peccary — not appreciatively — and walk on. Still, at intervals he would go back to what I had said about hitting a very big bird, and roar again, as if this wonderful joke was not easily exhausted.

Again on the third day we were out together practicing at the birds — frightening if not killing them; but before noon, finding that it was his intention to go to a distant spot where he expected to meet with larger game, I left him and returned to the village. The blow-pipe practice had lost its novelty, and I did not care to go on all day and every day with it; more than that, I was anxious after so long an interval to pay a visit to my wood, as I began to call it, in the hope of hearing that mysterious melody which I had grown to love and to miss when even a single day passed without it.

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