Ariion Kathleen Brindley

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A Novel by
Charley Brindley

Chapter 1

We heard a commotion up ahead, near the end of the dock where a truck was backed up to a huge shipping container. A strange animal squeezed through a narrow gap between truck and container and then bolted for freedom. Two men chased after the frightened creature.

             “Oxana will scalp our butts for this!” one of the men yelled in Portuguese.

             “The Ox,” shouted the second man as he ran, “will have YOUR pelt mounted on her wall, not mine.”

             The animal--some sort of antelope, having long curved horns with sharp tips pointing toward the back of his neck--was certainly not a native of South America. He galloped around the front of the truck and dashed out of sight.

             “Where is your pistol, Silveira?” the first man yelled. “Shoot that little bandit’s foot before he gets away!”

             “Rachel!” my sister Kaitlin shouted as she ran toward her daughter. The nine-year-old girl and her dog were several meters ahead of us and determined not to miss the excitement of two ruffians chasing down a wild animal.

             I caught up with Kaitlin just as she yanked the running child off her feet by the loop of her backpack. I tried to restrain Hero but he got away and ran barking toward the two men.

             The dog went beneath the truck just as a gunshot echoed from the other side.

             “Uncle Saxon!” Rachel cried to me as she struggled against her mother‘s ironclad grip, “they shot my dog.”

             Hero came running back from under the truck at top speed and leapt into Rachel’s arms. He was unharmed, but shivering with fright.

             “I’m going to put a stop to this nonsense,” I said. “This is no place to fire off a gun.” My sister or the girl could have been hit by a ricocheting bullet.

             “Saxon,” Kaitlin said to me as she glanced around the vacant dock, “let’s get out of here.”

             I held my hand out flat, waggling it back and forth as I went toward the front of the truck. “There’s only two of them,“ I said.

             Sunrise was only moments away from those docks where a jungle crossroads sprawls along a wide slash of carved-out forest on the banks of the Rio Negro. Eighteen kilometers downstream, the muddy waters pours into the deep green of the swirling Amazon. The remote trading center of Manaus, lying in the darkest heart of South America, was just waking up on that tropical summer morning.

             When I turned sideways to squeeze myself and my backpack between the truck’s nose and a stack of shipping crates, I heard a muffled growl coming from the back of the truck. The bed of the vehicle was covered by a camouflage tarp, so I couldn’t see what type of animal was inside.

             I heard a heavy splash just before stepping around the front of the truck. The two men stood on the edge of the dock, looking down at the water. One of them, Silveira I think, held a revolver.

             “I told you only to shoot the foot,” said the other man. His head was shiny bald with a ring of mouse-brown hair just over his ears. “Now we will have to make a story that he was never in the cargo container.” He looked up at his partner and I could see his bushy black mustache. Silveira-the man with the gun-had a heavy jaw shadowed by a thick two-day growth of beard and his greasy hair hung in clumps. He was much taller than the bald man and they looked like a pair of street toughs.

             “At least Oxana will not know how stupid you are,” said Silveira. “You let the thing escape, so I had to put a stop to him.”

             I decided to restrain my bravery as Hero had done, but before I could get away, a deep growl came from inside the truck and the men turned.

             When Silveira saw me, he quickly slipped the gun behind his back. His beady black eyes glared at me from under a thick caveman brow as he approached. The little man hesitated, then followed.

             “Bom dia,” I said in Portuguese, trying to act lost, stupid and completely ignorant of the event that had just occurred. “Do you know the way to Alichapon-tupec?”

             Silveira, the hulking caveman, stopped, apparently surprised at my use of his language. The second man halted at his comrade’s side.

             After a moment, the short one spoke to me, “He never sees that kind of talking to him.”

             English? But they were speaking Portuguese before. I didn’t want them to know I had heard or seen anything. The little man leaned close to Silveira and whispered something up to him while keeping his eyes on me. Just as Silveira nodded to his pal, someone called my name.

             “Saxon,” Kaitlin said from the other side of the truck, “some men are coming this way.” She also spoke in Portuguese.

             The short man quickly put his hand down from where it had been creeping toward his partner’s back, where the gun was.

             Kaitlin came around the front of the truck, followed by Rachel who still held Hero in her arms. The dog growled at the two men.

             “There’s about a dozen of them,” Kaitlin said as she hooked her thumbs in the straps of her backpack and nodded back in the direction the other men were coming from. “One of them looks like a policeman.” She was speaking to me, but looking at Silveira and his partner.

             Obviously the two men understood her. They exchanged glances and hurried toward the back of their truck, then disappeared into the cargo container, slamming the metal doors behind them.

             “Come on,” Kaitlin whispered to me, “we’ve got to go.”

             “It’s all right now,” I said, “the policeman will take care of them.”

             “You blockhead,” she hissed as she turned to hurry away. “There’s no one coming.”

             Rachel and I ran after her.

An hour later I walked out of the little café appropriately named Extremidade das Docas--The End of the Docks--to see if I could find a guide. I carried a hot cup of coffee and left my sister and niece to finish their breakfast while I explored the rickety piers beyond the commercial docks.

             I came to a wharf of timber and sand extending out into the river. It was deserted except for one person sitting at the end. I dropped my empty paper cup into a trash barrel and walked out along the dock. Perhaps I could ask about the fishing and get a little information.

             When I stopped beside the sitting figure, she took me in with a quick glance from my scuffed leather boots up my khaki trousers and shirt to my weathered Panama hat. Her eyes hesitated on my old Zippo cigarette lighter tucked into the sweatband of the hat. She turned her attention back to the water, obviously unimpressed.

             She was bare above the waist except for an amulet hanging from a leather string around her neck. I tilted my head for a better look.

             “Is that an IBM modem?“

             Her eyes narrowed on me as if I had said something improper. A length of damask cloth served as her skirt and she sat with one knee raised, resting her foot on the planks of the dock. Her other leg--roughly hewn from a length of wood--dangled in the muddy waters.

             She ignored me and took a struggling rat from a burlap bag, tossing it to the piranhas. Her expression was cold, as if she didn't care which creature ate the other, as long as one of them was devoured.

             Her modem was not the primitive sluggish type one would expect to find in the wilderness, but a modern device designed for rapid communications--the width of a pack of Lucky Strikes and as thin as a matchstick. “I B M” was printed on the side, followed by “56K”, identifying it as a modem. Probably from a notebook computer and of fairly recent manufacture. A length of braided leather ran through a hole punched in one corner of the modem and fleecy triangles padded the corners, protecting the softest part of her body.

             Too bad about the hole in the modem, I thought. It might have worked in the notebook computer I was planning to buy for Kaitlin after our voyage back to Lisbon. That computer was going to be a big help to my sister in organizing the data she collected.

             "Do you know the way to Alichapon-tupec?" I asked.

             The woman looked up at me for a long time without speaking. Her dark eyes held a soft intensity that was almost hypnotic. I felt the need to look away, but could not. Something splashed violently in the water below the end of the dock and then went silent. A parrot called to his mate as he flapped away to join her on the opposite side of the swirling river. The faint scent of jasmine came to me on a lazy breeze that touched the woman’s hair and ruffled the delicate red and yellow petals tucked over her left ear. A howler monkey’s territorial threat echoed through the forest. All these events only filled the space of a few seconds, but it seemed much longer as the young woman still gazed into my eyes as if she were seeing beyond my shallow thoughts.

             Finally she spoke to me in Yanomami and pointed toward some canoes tied up alongside the dock, dismissing me with the gesture. I didn’t understand her words but only recognized the Yanomami language because I had heard it spoken by many of the natives in that region of the Amazon. When I made signs as to my ignorance, she gave me a look that I can’t say was hostile, but neither was it amicable. Irritation was the feeling that came to mind. I glanced at the piranhas--they too seemed a bit annoyed by my intrusion. The rat was nowhere in sight.

             She took my hand to pull herself up and I was surprised by her lack of height. Her dark shiny hair was parted in the middle and the top of her head came only to the level of my chest. A moment before, as she sat glaring up at me, I thought she would be as tall as I, or perhaps taller. But it was only a projection of stature, an aura of mettle that was surprisingly strong. Now that she was standing, I looked down upon her, but the aura remained.

             She flipped her long hair over her shoulder and as she did so, the sun glinted off her amulet and caught my eye. Wondering what happened to the previous owner of the modem, I reached for it, but before my fingers could touch it, she slapped me--hard.

             I was so stunned that I couldn’t react for a moment. The impact of her hand on my face jarred loose a long-buried memory; the last time a woman had slapped me.

             It was perhaps five years before and the image became vividly clear. Rivadavia, Argentina. Mid-summer and so hot on the torrid veranda that nothing moved, not even the small green lizard who had crept up the branches of a palo borracho that morning for a tasty meal of flies and ants. Lauren slapped me in that broiling sub-tropical heat and on the same cheek, although not as hard as the one I had just received.

             Lauren was one of the few women--and the last one, in fact--I had been with. She taught me everything about love and making love, but then after only three months, she tired of me and my clingy ways. I was like an only-kitten, following her footsteps, nuzzling her legs, kissing every exposed square of skin--in all ways making myself totally dependent on her during every waking moment, and even while she slept. No wonder she got fed up with me; I was as stifling as the yellow heat of that Argentine summer, leaving her no space to be herself. I should have known she would explode someday.

             Lauren was years ago and thousands of miles away from that dock on the Rio Negro where I had just been slapped again. I rubbed my stinging cheek and when I looked at my fingertips there was a thin streak of blood, along with a flattened mosquito.

             “Bit of overkill, don’t you think?” I said, adjusting my hat back in place.

             She made no reply but only looked me over again with a quick brush of her eyes, as if daring me to take a swing at her.

             Whether the mosquito was an innocent bystander to a repulsed advance or the woman was saving me from a case of malaria, I was not sure. I did, however recognize the distinctive wing markings of an Anopheles Punctipennis, a female of course, and a known carrier of the dreaded disease.

             If the slap in the face was her primitive way of keeping me healthy, then to what purpose? I had not heard of any cannibalism in that part of the Amazon, but then neither had I ever seen a beautiful half-naked maiden feeding rats to piranhas.

             When she bent to pick up her bow and quiver of arrows, I felt some long-dormant impulse begin to bubble up within me. Before this feeling was fully formed, she straightened up and said something to me, nodding to the other bag.

             This I understood--some things need no translation. I took a deep breath to calm my racing heart and then picked up the bag of rats as she requested. I followed her along the dock, matching my step to hers. As we walked I noticed the rows of tiny teeth marks around the water-end of her wooden leg--made by rats or piranhas, I couldn't tell.

             We came to a small dugout canoe and she gestured toward it. I told her I was traveling with some other people. Using hand signs, she asked a question. I assumed it was about my companions.

             "Two," I replied, "one of them is this tall," I held my hand out flat, at shoulder height, to indicate how tall my sister Kaitlin was. “And one like this,” with my hand slightly lower for the height of my niece Rachel. “And,” I said, holding my hands apart by the length of a loaf of bread, “a stupid dog about this long.”

             She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders, but then led me to a larger canoe.

             I pulled a map from my backpack. It showed Manaus to be on the banks of the Madeira River, not at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon as it actually is. And Alichapon-tupec was marked twenty-five kilometers downstream from the junction of the two rivers. If that were true, we should have passed Alichapon-tupec on the previous day, which we hadn‘t, and hence my question to the young lady on the dock.

             I wanted to locate the village as soon as possible so Kaitlin could collect her plant specimens, learn the medicinal uses of the leaves and we could be on our way back to Rio. If we missed the Borboleta when she sailed for Lisbon, we might waste several weeks looking for new berths.

             I handed my map to the woman. She unrolled the chart and studied it with great interest for some time as I watched her face go through a progression of frowns, pouts and furrowed eyebrows.

             My eyes began to wander. National Geographic Magazine. When I was a kid, the only way I ever got to see a woman’s bare breasts was at the library, in the magazine archives section where years and years of those yellow-cover magazines were stored.

             “Well, Mister Saxon Lostasia,” the librarian would say as I tried to sneak past her on my way out of the library. “Been doing a bit of exploring today, have we?” And then she would smile and wink as I ran for the door. Miss Pentava seemed old to me then, but she couldn’t have been more than twenty-five.

             This woman standing before me now would make a terrific cover girl, but not a very good librarian.

             I jerked my eyes back to the map and then took it from her hands, turned it right side up and gave it back to her. Once again, after a sidewise glower at me, her face performed an almost identical exercise of expressions as before. Unbelievable, I thought. She must be memorizing the whole darn thing; first from the southern perspective and now from the northern! Photographic memory, probably.

             From behind me I heard a dog barking and looked up the dock to see Rachel and Hero running toward us. I was astonished by the change that came over the woman as the child and dog came up to her.

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