by Mark Winson
coffee served only by one that knows it needs sugar
The paddy fields extended from the ramshackle farm out into the distance, until the dense barrier of the rain forest stopped them from reaching any further. Like the face of an uncluttered hairbrush, the rice that grew from their shallow waters surfaced as the seed had been scattered, devoid of any pattern, but for the arc of the arm that threw it.
It was early in the morning, the warmth in the ground held there overnight seemingly playing with the cool air, a sagging mist waiting to catch a low flyer or confuse the eyes of a wandering animal. Nonetheless, the way it clung to the legs of the workers, the way it rolled over their busy shoulders, was more than welcomed. Even those accustomed to the balmy temperatures of the day, struggled moreover as the sun climbed overhead. The water too, had something about it, an aroma that always seemed to be refreshed overnight before the inglorious mud was disturbed once again.
The crop had been fashioned into ordered blocks, each one the size of half a football pitch, each with well-designed borders allowing Pacon and his workers to travel between them. However, these throughfares were made as narrow as possible, every last fertile metre dedicated to the business of production.
‘Come on Ake. Put your back into it! Oh no, you can do better than that Mapi!’ It seemed from such words that a worker might resent Pacon, but as their boss he had an understanding and curl to the side of his mouth that gave his game away.
‘We don’t see your plantings thinning out any!’ Mapi threw his comments back at him like a ball from a bat, but banter was something that carried everyone through, the thing that bound them together as the extended family they had become.
The work was far from easy, Venezuelan farmers having their problems. Just to establish a decent area to farm, they cleared acres of twisted trees and large leaf plant life, but they couldn’t stop the bizarre Amazonia creatures from paying a visit. Especially the snakes. Their rolling backs and skipping elastics were plentiful. Most had become accustomed to them however, brushing them aside with an expert and practised stick, a sharp word and a bold step into a quickly fashioned lay-by.
Women were considered to be a part of the team, the right and proper thing being to support their husbands. Pacon’s wife, Francisca, would ordinarily have no hesitation in joining the fray, realising that more hands lightened the work. However, as soon as she became aware of the fact that she was pregnant, she flatly refused to venture into what was regarded by some as unnerving waters, a telling shiver running down her back at the mere suggestion.
‘What if I fall?’ she argued with both hands on her hips and a panicky tone to her voice.
‘Then you fall into the mud,” Pacon said simply. ‘We all fall into the mud from time to time. It’s not as if baby is even showing as yet. You have no bump to worry about.’
‘No, I’m sorry, but no!’ She was adamant, the mere thought of something going wrong outing itself as a weeping ribbon of sweat across her forehead. She held a hand to her belly protecting what she knew needed protecting, feeling little kicks of a contract even if there were none. ‘You men don’t understand. You can’t understand. You have to trust me when I say there is a something, a something that a mother inherits that will have her defend herself as such. All mothers for that matter.’
‘Come now, I can protect you. I have as much love for our child as you do. Depend on me, look to me for the arm to rest on… trust me!’
‘You can do all that and more my Pacon, but you don’t have the something to see what I can see.’ There was little point in arguing about what couldn’t be quantified, described or given a name. Pacon had to accept that his working day would start a little earlier and finish a little later.
Snakes were one thing, but the legendary Anaconda was another entirely and not even regarded as such. Pacon had grown up being fed by incredulous stories of the Anai-kondra, the name given to the snake by some, meaning ‘to kill an elephant.’ A Boa Constrictor, giving birth to its young without the alienating egg that severed the inherited links of criminality, it was regarded as a shape shifter, the original creator of the earth’s waters and a vicious threat to humanity. He had only ever seen what he thought were its periscopic eyes and flared nostrils peeking from below the water surface, perhaps an expanding wake from a powerful tail, and yet, he believed all the abounding stories. Twenty and thirty metres long the braggers suggested, an Anaconda would take some of the white-tailed deer from the edge of the forest and if that were the case, they would certainly have no problem seizing a small child. It was a fact that hadn’t escaped Pacon since his impending fathership was revealed. Nevertheless, he continued to trivialise all the excuses that Francisca put to him, all the reasons she gave for keeping out of the water.
It wasn’t long before the argument of there being no bump, was replaced by the fact that whenever Pacon placed his hand over it, the baby stopped kicking, whenever he placed his ear over it, it fell silent.
‘That’s because you haven’t the something I talk about,’ Francisca argued. ‘I know he’s there all the time, every last minute. I don’t forget, only then to be given a reminding kick.’
‘I don’t forget either. I always think about him, about her, I’m always considerate. I just think that a little exercise in the fields would be more than beneficial.’
As the season turned, the workers relaxed into a more comfortable climate. Only seventy-five degrees in May, it meant that the job of picking the crop was easier. There was a cleaner and fresher smell in the air, but for the rice as it was pulled from its moorings, musty bubbles from the mud bursting upon the surface. Standing in the shallows, Pacon’s dependable feet remained cool, the top water being easily palmed over his face to refresh it. The light of his character was seemingly shining through, whistling songs and part ditties that came to him on a whim, well into whatever blew from his lips. He was almost in a world of his own.
Suddenly, the background chorus that rose from the forestry, began to shout and bawl. Known as the ‘Bird Continent’, the rattling chainsaw song of the Capuchin, the chattering of the Macaws and the warbling finches seemed constant, but a fear of life now began climbing above the canopies. They had seen something disturbing. Upon the throughfare between the stems and panicles of rice, a submarine’s wayward torpedo glided through the water. A sleek green back rounded by black bands appeared and disappeared, its subterranean pattern of scales surfacing momentarily to slip through the air, leaving only little aquatic tornados to swirl on the surface. Two beady eyes and lazy but functional nostrils led the charge, but it was the wake from this that Pacon spotted first.
‘Anaconda!’ he yelled, for the benefit of the other workers, who were quick to check behind them and lift their legs as if both could be out of the water at the same time. He was equally quick to react, his stick held at the ready, parting the rice plants with less of an eye on any damage he might cause. ‘Get out of the water!’ he yelled to those close enough to the bank to do so.
The snake had probably seen him but was more intent on making for the bank and shallows at the foot of the farm. The children were playing there, unaware, darting runs in and out of the water, playing hands splashing their chasers. With a sudden realisation, there was a barrage of names then shouted by panicking parents.
‘Abiro, Estero! Get out of the water! Run! Run!’
‘Tacito, Tacito, quickly, quickly… the Anaconda!’ As if rehearsed, little feet ran without condition, no backward glances, no doubting their Father’s words. Their laughing and smiling faces had disappeared, tightened with an immediacy, as the men ran to put themselves between them and the snake. The fact that they were the men and that the men would always be called on for such things, was expected and accepted.
As the green back rose to the surface and the coils of the snake rolled in the water, Pacon slammed his stick down horizontally, the loud splashing a deliberate attempt to frighten. His face was rippling with worry lines, his body wet and quickly sweating, the bubbles from his racing feet breaking the surface as the smell of rotted encapsulation ran up his nose. Finally, as he intercepted the undulating body, he pinned its tail to the bottom with the stick held between his dutiful hands.
‘Quick, quick, help me, all of you!’ One by one the charging men, realising Pacon’s plan, did the same, working their way up the panicking animal metre by frightening metre. ‘You next, you and you, keep hold… don’t let go!’ Each had their part to play, each depending on the other, each with eyes waiting for the turning head and striking jaws that would dislocate as they bit. Each could see the rolling trunk displaying the massive girth around the snake, suggesting it must be at least eight metres long. It was obviously hungry, must have been, despite the apparent bulbous belly that probably contained another deer, or God forbid, a child from another village consumed as a starter to its main course.
The snake’s violent thrashing began to soak the men, the rising mud clinging to their clothes, their heartbeats faster and faster, whilst the children turned with trembling hands and terror in their eyes. A terrified shouting was coming from all directions.
‘Father, Father, kill it, kill it Father!’
‘Be careful Father… no… stay away from its head!’
Another stick across the Anaconda’s writhing back and its head turned and glared at Pacon, as if it knew he was the first to react, as if it knew he was the one that wanted it dead. Nevertheless, the noise of the screaming children was the only thing Pacon could hear.
Bravely, one of the men then dived upon the beast’s surfacing neck, but its massive muscles simply threw him off, his eyes wide, expectant of a following attack. He staggered backwards on all fours, before managing to stand and uncontrollably wield his stick in the air, crashing it down onto the animal’s head, again and again. As the example was seized upon, all the men together, thrashed the leathery body which shook almost comically as the painful signals from each blow travelled the route to its brain.
Pacon was sweltering in the heat of the moment, but within it, he began to sense a victory. The snake rolled over and over, until as it slowed, seemingly floating entirely to the surface, its white underbelly turned to the sun. This was more than any of the men had ever seen of an Anaconda. The children cheered, they could see the fight draining away from the animal, the men after standing for hours in the rice field finding a strength that they thought had been exhausted.
Suddenly, Francisca came running from the house, her pregnant belly bouncing side to side, no doubt angering the shaken baby.
‘Stop! Stop! You’re going to kill it! Stop, stop now!’ Pacon looked up. He thought she would be relieved, thought he was doing the right thing protecting the other children, protecting the inevitable arrival of his child.
‘What? What?’ He was confused, the fear for his wife travelling up through his body and tensioning his shoulders as she ran to the shoreline. He stopped, as did the men, looking at her quizzically, the great snake rolling over to show the dark of its back again and take in the air it needed to avoid drowning.
‘Can’t you see?’ Francisca was pointing. ‘Stop jumping to your fateful conclusions,’ she scolded. ‘The snake… it’s pregnant!’ She held her precious belly with two hands as the men in a timely realisation finally stopped their attack, the great animal taking in a saving breath. There it was again, the legitimacy that Francisca felt nullified the alleged risks, the insistence that they had to listen to before it was too late. The snake, so silent in the water, the black patterns reversed direction as it turned and slunk slowly away. It needed to look for another beach and shallow water to provide a sanctuary for its new-born… rescued by a motherly ‘something’.
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