Surreal encounter

Excerpt from: From the Rio de la Plata to the Cordilleras

Beneath a not-too-tall, but broad-branched tree stood a hut with walls made from turf. The roof consisted of reed. There were no windows, only a door, which was open. On a primitive hearth, also built from turf, burned the small fire that had shone towards us. Above the fire stood a steel pot, in which a thick, foul-smelling mass was boiling. Nobody was inside the hut.

“That’s where the Indian lives?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“In that case, he’s at home. Someone’s cooking, therefore, the people must be at home.”
“Most likely his wife. Let’s see what she’s brewing!”

We stepped inside the narrow room. The padre looked into the pot and said: “This pot contains death for several hundred creatures. It is arrow poison.”

“Truly? The famous or, rather, infamous poison of the Indians! Let me have a look!”

Naturally, I saw nothing more than the boiling mass, which had a greenish colour and nearly the consistency of syrup. A piece of wood that served as a stirrer was in the pot. The padre stirred and pulled out the piece of timber. Part of the molasses adhered to it, he dipped his fingertip into the thick liquid, tasted it, and then said:

“Yes, it is arrow poison. I know the taste.”

 

“You’re eating it?!”

“That’s not dangerous. The poison won’t do any damage in the stomach. It only develops its terrible effect when it gets into the bloodstream.”

“Do you know the recipe?”

“No. The Indian doesn’t divulge it even to his best friend. They take the sap and the green tendrils of several plants, the names of which I don’t know, and then boil them down to the consistency of a syrup, which forms a resin- or soap-like mass after cooling that is warmed up again before use.”

“Does it keep for a long time?”

“Up to one and a half years if it doesn’t go rotten or brittle. The arrow tips are poisoned with it. Here are some.”

The padre seemed to know his way around the hut well. He stepped into a corner, picked up a small reed bundle and opened it. We could see that the reed enclosed probably fifty arrows that were made from the hard, finger-long thorns of a climbing plant. Judging by the colour of the tips, they had been dunked into the arrow poison. The other ends were feathered with the wool of Bombax Ceiba. The small, cute weapons did not at all look as dangerous as they were in reality.

Three or four light, round poles with a length that reached from the ground to the tip of the funnel-shaped roof stood in the room. I couldn’t guess their purpose. The padre took one of them, showed it to me and said:

“It is hollow, isn’t it? These are the blowpipes, through which the poison arrows are shot. They’re made from either a smooth, straight palm shoot, or from colihue cane.”

“How far do Indians shoot with such a thing?”

“In excess of forty paces, completely silently and accurately.”

“How fast does it kill?”

“Monkeys and parrots die within seconds, jaguars and human beings within two to three minutes at the most.”

“What antidote is there?”

“None.”

“That’s a terrible weapon! Why is it tolerated that Indians use it?”

“Firstly, because nobody would have the power to enforce the prohibition of it and, secondly, because the Indians can only master their adversaries in the animal kingdom with the aid of this poison. Without it, the jungle would be uninhabitable. The predators, which he ambushes from a safe hiding place, would multiply to such an extent that the human population would have to flee. A jaguar, or puma, only has to sustain the smallest scratch; the tip of the arrow only has to hit the smallest hair follicle and the animal is doomed to die.”

“But it would be poisoned and useless!”

“You mean: inedible? Oh, no. The poison only works when it comes into contact with blood directly, that’s to say, through an injury. The meat of game that has been killed with such an arrow is completely edible. You can safely eat from it. I’ve done so hundreds of times and it hasn’t harmed me.”

He interrupted himself because, at that moment, a figure appeared among us that I hardly recognized as a human being at first glance. The person looked like a deformity from a sideshow alley. Almost as small as a child, it had the features of an old wench. The check bones were extremely elevated and the eyes were slanted. There was a dense, stroppy mess on her head, which I would have taken for dried broom twigs, but not hair. She was so skinny, it seemed there weren’t fifty grams of flesh on her.

“Daya, is that you?” the padre asked.

She nodded and made the sign of the cross.

 

“Is your husband here?”

She nodded again and made the sign of the cross again.

“Then, speak!” he encouraged her.

“Give me something!” It was the first thing she said.

“Afterwards, Daya! First, you must answer my questions.”

“I know nothing!”

“Don’t lie! You know I won’t forgive you for that!”

She looked up at him with a peculiar, monkey-like, insolent expression in her face and replied:
“You forgive everything, you are good!”

“You haven’t seen me getting angry, but might easily find out today what that’s like. Were there any men here today?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hm! I can see that I have to give you something. What do you want?”

“Daya needs a nice, shiny button for her dress.”

“You shall have one.”

He seemed to be prepared for the wishes of his acquaintances, because he pulled a pouch from his pocket, opened it, pulled out a shiny brass button and gave it to her. She immediately threaded it on a bit of yarn and attached it to her ‘dress’. Her eyes sparkled with delight and her face took on a child-like, merry expression, which almost moved me.

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