Sitting on the rough-cut plank bench under the kitchen tarpaulin, I scratched the days' bug bites and listened to the rain slap down in torrents. Singerman was humming away by the fire, cleaning up the remains of our "special" dinner...stewed powice. It was indeed a welcome break from salt fish and salt beef, being at least fresh meat. However, this turkey-sized black jungle bird reminded me of an old native recipe I had heard of up in the Yukon, half a world away, for Raven Stew:
Take one mature raven, blanch in boiling water and remove feathers. Cut twenty very fine alder sprigs and throw in pot with Raven. Simmer at medium heat for six hours. Lay alder sprigs on a bed of wild rice and serve Raven to your dog!
Solid sheets of water cascaded off the tarps' edge into the moats we had dug to keep the earthen floor from turning into a sea of shoe sucking mud. We were only half-successful in that regard I thought, while picking the tenacious remains of powice from my teeth, yet it was more comfortable than outside.
The jungle canopy yawned and creaked, stretching tangled webs of vines, some as thick as my leg. A gust found our measly hole facing the black sky. FFFWHAPP! The tarp snapped up like a parachute, creating a chaos of flickering oil lamps and flying cups. I shivered, "man, I would not want to be a monkey tonight!"
Rasta dashed in, his thick matted hair sopped like a sponge, beat-up sneakers obscured by mud past his ankles. Only his gold toothy grin was clearly visible in the dim light.
"Hey Rasta, how goes it man?"
"Safe mon, safe mon." he said as he saddled up onto the bench across from me.
"It looks like the rainy season's upon us, The river has risen five feet since I crossed it this morning." I said, wondering whether it was becoming futile fighting the elements, only to get less and less accomplished each day.
"Yeah, it be rain for a month or so." Rasta replied in the obvious, seen-it-before, just-another-rainy-season way that most of the interior people spoke. Their lives were tuned to forces that, to me, were so new and dramatic.
Rain muffled laughter wafted from the crew tarp. Dim shadows danced amongst the hammocks and mosquito nets, as bits and pieces of tall tales and yarns spilled out into our small jungle clearing. Their stories had captured my curiosity and wonder. Sensing the right moment I asked Rasta about one of them.
"Rasta, you ever hear about the Water People?"
"Yeah, dey be people dat live in de rivers here." He said, and seeing the "carry on" look in my eyes, he told me their story.
The Water People live in the many rivers that drain the dense jungle of Guyana. (The word Guyana means "land of many waters" in a local Amerindian language.) They especially like the "black water" rivers that hide their secrets from human eyes. Mostly you hear of them being women with long beautiful hair.
Occasionally they come on land, shed their half-fishness and assume a human form. Still, you can tell when you pass one on the trail by their rank fishy smell that they cannot shed or disguise.
What gives them their dangerous quality is their bewitching powers and unpredictability. Even though they are usually skittish, one never knows. This worries many people, especially those born under a water sign. Even today, some folk will walk many extra miles to a bridge, rather than make a river crossing by boat.
A person may be lucky (or unlucky...depending) and see one when it comes up on shore to take the sun and comb their long hair. This is something they love to do, taking pride in the beauty of their flowing manes. If caught by surprise, they dive into the dark depths, often forgetting their combs on shore.
If this happens, take their comb. Take it home and hide it in the most clever place you can find. Barring a good hiding spot, place it on a wooden table and surround it with scaled fish. This acts as a charmed barrier to the Water People.
Oh, they lament the loss of their comb. Their beauty is at stake and can think of nothing else. So they will track you down and when they find you, come to you in your sleep.
"My comb, my comb," they will whisper softly and longingly into your dreaming ears.
"I can grant you great wishes for the return of my comb."
This they can do, being creatures of the gold and diamond rich rivers. So in your dream you will ask for the wealth you desire and come morning it will be there for your waking eyes to behold.
This will go on for as long as you keep their comb.
One thing, though, you must never do. You must never return their comb, because, if you do, they will take your life!
With that, Rasta flashed a golden grin and lit a smoke.
"That's it Rasta?"
"Well, that is some story. What do you make of it? Do you believe in the Water People?"
I don' know Mr. Chris, I don' know. A mon can' say wha he don' see. People, dey say dey see em...I don' know." He said with a shrug of his bare shoulders. I had the distinct feeling he wasn't about to discount them lest he find himself on the receiving end of their bewitching.
Outside the din of the driving rain had subsided. The air drank heavy with jungle tastes unleashed and stirred by the storm.
"Thanks for the story Rasta, catch you in the morning. Good night."
"In the morning Mr. Chris."
Off I slipped and slithered through the mud to my tarp. Peeling off my damp limp clothes and hanging them next to my hammock I knew full well that they'd be just as clammy in the morning. "This is not for everyone," I thought.
At last, my mosquito net securely sealed off, and comfortably swaying in my hammock, I began to drift. My crew were all quiet now. Only the odd solitary sound from the jungle rang clear against the black backdrop of silence.
A lone howler monkey wailed from high in the canopy...
Postscript to previous story:
Yes we did find gold, but, alas, the global markets for gold exploration have remained dismal and we will have to wait for a turnaround before we once again tromp through the swamps! As they say in Guyana; "If a man drinks black water and eats Labba (a rodent like an oversized hamster!) he will always feel the urge to return to Guyana." I guess I am hooked. — C. B.
Write "Ellavon" at email@example.com.
Released: June 12, 1998