My host dad walked barefoot beside me, stepping in cow pies, upon prickly things, walking, walking like it was no big deal. In my head I was imagining him getting little worms through the souls of his feet. That’s my habit now, thinking in English in my own head, having conversations up there with myself, speaking English in the one place that it’s understood.
We marched through a field, shimmied the barbed wire fences, bamboo fishing poles thrown over our shoulders Huck Finn style. My eyes scanned and scanned, where’s the water I wondered. Nothing more than a bone dry cow pasture in the midst of drought. Not a drop in sight. But gradually the ground began to give under my dad’s feet and I could see his prints in the dark soil ahead of me. As the ground ahead of us became more moist and the landscape changed into a halfhearted jungle, the mosquitoes crept up from the grasses and began to feed. Thick palm fronds sprouted from the wet earth and their razor edges had me cowering and cautioning myself silently in English.
“You better watch yourself Kylynn, I hear plants out here can eat whole monkeys, giant Venus Fly Trap type plants . . . but they are monkey eaters instead of fly eaters.”
By now the jungle had all but walled me into a maze of vegetation. I caught sight of my host dad parting a wall of grass, the blades as thick as my forearm, all but galloping through the jungle in his excitement to catch fish.
“What fish?!” My English shrieked at me. I repressed my native language and picked my way carefully through the black mud that had begun to swallow my Chaco’s with each step.
I was still thinking about carnivorous plants as I watched the wall of grass seal itself behind his back, he disappeared with little more than a rustle. I was imagining what it would feel like to have my head swallowed whole by a creature with a chlorophyll spine when the ground beneath my right foot suddenly dissolved. I pitched forward, my left foot automatically kicking forward to catch myself, it too was engulfed in black liquid. The ground came rushing up at me, a black hole consuming the length of my body inch by inch as I sank, sank to my death.
“IT’S THE ENNDDD!” My English wailed in my head, but the only real sound that came from my flailing figure was a loud BBRRAAHPSH, an exclamation of surprise and horror that gushed up my windpipe and trumpeted itself mainly out of my nose, ejecting with it several boogers and a small amount of spittle.
I had only sunk up to my waist and found myself unharmed and slightly embarrassed from my squawk as I wiped nasal residue from my upper lip. Wiggling my toes, my feet, twisting my ankles, bending my knees, I calculated that the mud, although thin, was quite suctiony. With my right leg a bit more aligned under the weight of my body, I buckled down, braced it, and slowly I began to pull my left from the soup. It came all the way out of the mud with my Chaco still dangling on the end of it. My English celebrated this small feat for me and slowly, like a deformed and dirty jewelry box ballerina, I began to pivot. My arms and left leg extended rigidly, in the shape of a rigor mortis Michael Jackson move, and I reached for the nearest clump of vegetation, a palm frond. It was all razor edges and Venus Fly Trap intentions, but I grasped it in desperation and triumph and clung to it with all three of my limbs. I had beaten the swamp.
My English chastised me (“I told you you would get eaten one way or another!”) as I worked my right leg from the muck and Paraguay released the last of me with a huge sucking sound, closing itself again without even a ripple creasing its surface.
My host dad was long gone. Like a frog on lily pads I aimed for the green stuff and bounced from clump to clump. He had apparently water-walked his way through the swamp.
“Carmensita, what happened? You’re all dirty!” He exclaimed in Spanish when I found my way to him. He examined my just-barely-escaped-death expression, mosquitoes clinging to every square inch of my body that wasn’t mud-caked and howled with laughter, slapping his knee with a hand that held the biggest worm I’ve ever laid eyes on. After he’d recovered he pointed me to a hole that appeared to be dangerously similar to the one I’d just discharged myself from, but smaller. It was no wider than my shoulders, looked to be about an inch deep. I couldn’t see how any fish would survive in such a setting.
My host dad prepared my pole for me, skewered a worm the size of a small steak onto my hook and threw it toward the mud hole. And what do you know, that sucker sank! I was in business. I stood very carefully, still and silent like I have always been taught, suppressing the impatience that always seems to itch worst when fishing. I was careful to not even slap at the mosquitoes that were feasting on me, but despite my focus, by and by, my attention became drawn to the measures in which my host dad was trying to catch fish.
After throwing his hook into the water he stood impatiently, one hand on his hip, the other casually gripping the pole, staring determinedly at the surface of the mud.
Several minutes passed. With the end of his bamboo pole he slapped the water impatiently. Shifted his weight.
A minute or so later: Slapped the water again, a bit more aggressively.
Thirty seconds later: Retrieved his hook from the water, examined the worm for malfunction, threw it back.
A minute later: Hawked, gathered tobacco juice and phlegm in his mouth, spit a gigantic mouthful into the mud hole.
Thirty seconds later: Cleared his throat loudly, shifted his weight.
Thirty seconds later: Marched over to my side, adjusted the tip of my hole to just about six inches above the surface of the water/mud and marched back.
Thirty seconds later: Retrieved his hook again, spit tobacco juice luxuriously onto the worm, threw it back with a strong whack to the water with his pole. Swished the water around a bit.
I could have watched for the rest of the night, so fascinated was I, but I was abruptly jerked from his antics when I felt a nibble and reflexively I jerked my pole upward with all my strength. A five inch fish came flying out of the water like a missile. I shrieked with joy and excitement, my host dad dropping his pole altogether with his own surprise. The fish fwapped and flopped, swinging at the end of my line until it finally became caught in the spiny embrace of a palm frond. My host dad grasped it firmly, pulled a knife twice the size of the fish out of the back of his pants, gave the creature a horrendous hack to the body with his blade and then resumed his fishing.
To my glee and surprise, I caught another fish seconds after the first, this one much larger and proving to me that fish can indeed live quite successfully in mud holes. The second fish followed with the same fate as the first and I rapidly caught seven more. My host dad glaring at my success and nonchalantly hacking his own two fish with great efficiency. The more fish I caught, the more drastic and ferocious his antics became, until finally, a final tug alighted itself on my line and when I jerked my pole upward, a long, slimy, wriggling eel whapped monstrously at the end of my line. While I ducked and screamed the two foot creature came alive in the air. It presented such a tremendous amount of slipperiness, speed and wriggle that my host dad succumbed to hacking wildly at the eel with his knife each time it flew past him in the air. As long as I live I will never forget the sight of him bent forward slightly at the waist and knee, wielding his knife in front of him like a sword, his grip deadly and two handed, whipping his head back and forth tracking the path of the eel, lashing at it viciously each time it writhed past him in the air. And finally he did conquer the foe. But not after shredding every plant within arm’s length and accidentally cutting the line above the eel after which it slipped to the ground and he finished it off with a great blow that nearly severed its body in half. Straightening up he looked at me, wiped his brow with the back of his wrist and stated, “close!” with raised eyebrows. Shifting his weight one last time, he pantsed his knife, spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the twitching carcass and declared it time to pack up and head home.