[After Words]

From Canaima, a novel of Venezuela

The Orinoco Bar! The starboard lookout heaves the lead and begins to cry the soundings.

"Nine feet! Hard bottom!"

The many mouths of the Orinoco River: doors just barely opened to a region where adventure and violence reign ... A long brow of mangroves, black and floating, in the turbulent dawn. The waters of the river dragging silt to the sea and saturating the saline air with the odors of the earth.

"Eight feet! Soft bottom!"

Flights of sea birds appear from the south, rosary beads of the dawn in the distant stillness. The ocean resists the push of the river and a line of muddy waves runs along the bar.

"Eight feet! Hard bottom!"

The shimmerings of daybreak. Crimson clouds ... And the black mangroves are green!

"Nine feet! Soft bottom!"

From the still sleeping land to the wide-awake sea, its lifting eye perched brilliantly on the horizon, the flights of birds still coming. The early risers are circling already over the glittering water: the gray, insatiable pelicans; the brown, endlessly choking cormorants; the voracious white seagulls with their hoarse screams; the black scissortails, their eyes sharp down the arrow of their beaks.

"Nine feet! Hard bottom!"

Thousands of herons have arrived in the macareos now: scarlet ibises, and egrets, blue ones and white ones, snowy white ones, all of them brightening the marshy pools. It seems as if there is room for no more and yet they still keep arriving in great hocks in graceful flight.

"Ten feet! Hard bottom!"

Suddenly the rough chop of the opposing waters ceases. The stands of mangrove open into quiet mouths. The chant of the soundings stops and the wonderful spectacle of the caños of the delta begins.

The teeming end of a journey whose distant beginnings are still unknown: the river in its infancy, burbling its streams on the flanks of the Sierra Parima; the river in its youth, ostentatiously showing off its little rapids; the river full-grown and male with its furious roar at the rapids of the Maipures and Atures; and the river majestic and old, here, where the delta begins, fanning out its riches and sending its progeny off to their great adventure at sea, its thick arms breaking into a torrent of caños: some of them running decisive and fearless; some of them dreamy and youthful moving more slowly; and the little ones, settling in to sleep in the green mangrove stands.

Green and under the morning sun and floating on the waters thick with algaes and slime like the first earthly vegetation rising from the ocean of encircling waters; green, and new, and tender, like the most green of the most tender of the most tiny buds. Yet these islets of mangrove and water lilies create an unsettling landscape as well, when the primeval fear on the first morning of the world still rules.

For moments a motionless, solitary heron is seen, as though waiting for that long delayed world to finish making its appearance; and then, another moment, and through the silent labyrinths of sleepy canes the solitude of the plants in those cosmic waters again reigns supreme.

But the ship continues forward, and its motion is time and the ages are in the landscape.

The mangroves have become dense thickets of fully grown branches, wildly tangled, no longer with their green and youthful sheen, no longer nursing at the water but gnawing now at the muddy lifeblood of the earth. Now there are birds practicing their song with savage trills, the tracks of wild animals deep in the bush, the drag lines of alligators toward the warm inland shadows for the lethargy that follows the banquet that has bloodied the caño, the paths opened up by the bare feet of the Indians who live in the salt marshes, the houses--palm shelters--still built on poles buried in' the bajumbo marshes. Soon shouts are heard in a language just being born.

These are the Guaraúnos of the Lower Orinoco, degenerate descendants of the fierce, legendary Caribs, coming down a narrow caño in their slender canoes to meet the arriving ship, dodging the islets of flowering lilies, paddling through the wakes of submerging alligators to arrive alongside the moving ship and, in jabbering gerunds, making offers to trade.

"Cuñao! Me giving you Moriche bird, good singing. You giving me sugar jelly."

"Me giving you hammock-net. You giving me salt."

But sometimes the shouts are screams in the distance, their origins hard to ascertain, and not, perhaps, such friendly proposals, but angry protests of the unsubdued Indians, jealous of the solitude of their bajumbo marshes.

Caños! Caños! A fantastic labyrinth of hushed canals and stagnant waters, with the wreckage of the landscape beyond. Distant views down more solitary caños, their mysterious turnings, available for the sudden and unforgettable appearance --anticipated at any moment-- of some strange resident of that unfinished world. Islets of lilies. Crests of alligators. A loud splashing shakes the flowering archipelago and disturbs the peace of the fantastic, upside-down landscape that is reflected in the incredible mirror of the caño.

From around the bend comes a piragua, sailing close to the wind, loaded with bananas tumbled from the delta's horn of plenty; three men, Guayqueries with darkened faces, good skin for the bad weather of river and sea, and a dog on its hind legs at the rail -- the night watch for his floating home in the village of the anchored boats -- and a rooster, the conch horn for a maritime dawn. And now the landscape is no longer of such a distant time.

Palm trees: Monkey-cap palms, Sabal palms, Moriche palms ... The wind combs their Indian hair and the troupal fastens the flower of its song to them ... Forests of them. Enormous trees with their moss-shaggy trunks, trunks draped with flowering liana vines. Copaiba, naked Indian, tacamahaca trees with their basalmic resins, salve for the Indians' wounds and fire for their churuatas. The giant mora tree with its dark foliage hanging over the still waters of the caño, the araguaney tree with its flowers of gold, and the red Marias. The dense forest that braids the liana vines. Patches of garden. The little plots belonging to the Margarita Islanders, the shady cacao ranches, the drenched earth of the Lower Orinoco softening with the dampness of its fecund sap the hands of the man from the arid sea and the dry islands.

Now small groups of houses can be seen.

But here comes the rainstorm that never fails in this zone of sudden condensations of the atmosphere. The large, dark cloud is a threatening scowl; behind it the beams of the sun seen through the oncoming downpour are like another shower: of fire. The sea breezes and the cheerful riffles suddenly stop, frightened at this apparition come from land. The air is still for a moment, and then it suddenly vibrates like a hammered steel plate. Darkness gathers. The caño trembles, lashed by the hot, heavy drops of rain and the downpour passes through, erasing the landscape on its way.

Now it reappears, with all its prodigal richness of hues wrapped in the delicate tones of an incomparable light made up of the most vivid shimmerings of the afternoon sun and the most transparent stuff of the air. And in the air itself color astonishes and sings: the joyous jabber of the parakeets returning from their plunder of the cornfields; the gold and blue, and red and blue of the macaws as they fly in pairs, screaming the harsh final syllable of their name; the gold and the black of the moriche oriole, of the troupals with their fluted song, of the yellow-rumped caciques that hang their nests near the campate hives and the mingled arpeggios of the thronging docks of blue-gray and paradise and trinidad and hepatic tanagers, the blue-napped chlorophonias, the pale-breasted thrushes, the yellow orioles, the screamers, and the black-bellied tree ducks. Now the herons and the long-necked snakebirds, having left at dawn to fish, are coming back satiated and silent, and the return of the scarlet ibises is a rose-colored cloud.

Suddenly the banks that hold the caño disappear and the bolinas of the delta spread out to view, a wonder of serenity.

Water from near bush to far! Water for the insatiable thirst of mouths burning from salt and iodine! Water of a thousand and more rivers and caños into which an immense land drains itself so the mighty Orinoco can be!

The waters that flow from the foot of the Andean steppes and lose track of the days in crossing the plains; those that come from the remoteness of the Sierra Parima, from bursting rapids, from roaring falls into quiet pools, through the mysterious jungle, and those that end where they begin, still tender and smelling of springs. There they were, all of them, stretched out, and resting, and deep, and the landscape of Venezuela itself beneath a piece of its own sky.

Here at its peaceful ending, as at the end of all grandeur, and now nearing the inevitable sea, the Orinoco settles down in the wide pools of the bolinas of the delta to tally and sort through its confused accounts: mixed in with its own, and not so very clean in themselves, are those of the other rivers encountered along the way: the red accounts of the Atabapo, as though from the blood of the caucho workers murdered on its banks; the dark waters of the Caura, the accounts of the sarrapieros, so that the labor of the weak, who are poor and unprotected, can be turned into the wealth of the powerful; the black and ugly accounts of the Cunucunuma which is not the only one to add them in like that; the green ones of the Ventuari and the Inirida which the Guaviare has turned over to them; the mingled accounts of the Meta and the Apure, the color of lion skin; the blue of the Caroni, which has paid for its sins crashing over its high falls and ripping down its rapids ... All of them are there, in deep reflectiontion.

The afternoon is drawing to a close. Beyond the banks of the river the far distances of the plains, the endless perspectives of the mountain, with no sign of smoke from a house or mark of a road, only vast silences for the immeasurable murmurs of future villages; and high above everything is the magic ornamentation of the setting sun: the fleece of gold and lakes of blood and rain of fire in the great shadowed clouds, and beneath the dramatic pageantry of these splendors over those wastelands, wide and majestic and resplendent, the teeming Orinoco! The mighty Orinoco!

The opening chapter of Canaima,
by Rómulo Gallegos
English translation, Will Kirkland
Published in Canaima, Critical Edition,
University of Pittsburgh Press, © 1996


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