A CITY OF BICHOS
The excitement from the novelty of objects, and the chance of success, stimulate him to increased activity.
Ever since my arrival in Calilegua, Luna had been pestering me to accompany him to a town called Oran, which lay some fifty miles away, and where, he assured me, I would get plenty of bichos. I was a bit chary about this idea, for I knew how easy it is to rush frantically from one place to another on a collecting trip, and, though each place in itself might be a good centre, you achieve very little by virtue of your grasshopper-like activities. I decided to discuss it with Charles, and so, that evening, as we sat gently imbibing gin and watching a moon with a blue halo silvering the palm fronds, I put my problem to him.
"Why is Luna so keen on Oran?" I asked.
"Well," said Charles drily, "it's his home town, for one thing, but this might prove an advantage, for it means that he knows everyone. I think you could do worse than go and investigate, Gerry. It's got a much bigger population than Calilegua, and in view of what you've found here, I should think you'd get twice as much stuff there."
"Can Luna get the time off?" I asked.
Charles smiled his gentle smile.
"I don't think that we would notice his absence for three days," he said, "and that should give you time to denude Oran of whatever fauna is lurking there."
"Could we leave on Monday?" I inquired hopefully.
"Yes," said Charles, "that would be all right."
"Wonderful," I said, finishing my drink, "and now I must go across and see Edna."
"Well, someone's got to feed my animals, while I'm away, and I'm hoping Edna has a kind heart."
I found Helmuth, Edna and Luna arguing over the relative merits of two folk-songs which they kept playing over and over again on the gramophone. Edna pointed silently to the drinks and I helped myself, and then went and sat on the floor at her feet.
"Edna," I said, during a lull in the argument, "I love you."
She raised one eyebrow sardonically and regarded me.
"If Helmuth wasn't bigger than me I would suggest that we elope," I went on, "since the first day I saw you I have been mad about you, your eyes, your hair, the way you pour gin…"
"What do you want?" she inquired.
"You have no soul," I complained. "I was just getting into my stride. Well, if you must know, Charles says that Luna and I can go to Oran for three days. Will you look after my animals for me?"
"But, of course," she said, surprised that there should have been any doubt in my mind.
"But, of course," echoed Helmuth. "Gerry, you are very stupid. I tell you we will help all we can. You have only to ask. We will try and do anything for you."
He splashed more gin into my glass.
"Except," he added reluctantly, "let you elope with my wife."
So, early on Monday morning, Luna and I set out in a small station-wagon driven by a gay, semi-inebriated individual, sporting a moustache so large it looked like a Nature Reserve. We took with us only the bare essentials of travel: Luna's guitar, three bottles of wine, my wallet well stuffed with pesos, recording machine and cameras. We also had a clean shirt each, which our driver had placed reverently and tenderly in a pool of oil. All the previous night it had rained with a loudness and thoroughness that only the tropics can achieve; this now had thinned out to a fine grey drizzle, but the earth road had turned into something resembling the consistency of a badly-made blancmange. Luna, undeterred by the weather, the surface of the road and the doubtful driving capabilities of our driver, the fate of our clean shirts and the fact that the roof of the station-wagon leaked daintily but persistently, sang happily to himself as we slithered and swooped along the road to Oran.
We had been travelling some three-quarters of an hour when our driver, concentrating more on harmonising with Luna in a mournful song than on the car, rounded a corner on two wheels, and as we slithered miraculously on to the straight again I saw something ahead that made my heart sink. Before us lay a torrent of red, froth-flecked water some four hundred yards across. At the edge of this, like a line of depressed elephants, stood three lorries, while in mid-stream, twisted to one side by the force of the water, another lorry was being laboriously dragged across to the opposite bank by a thing like a gigantic tractor, fitted with a winch and steel cable. Our driver joined the line of waiting lorries, switched off his engine and beamed at us.
"Mucha agua" he pointed out to me, in case my eyesight should be defective and I had missed noticing the miniature Bay of Biscay we had to cross. I knew that the previous day this broad torrent had probably been a mere trickle of water, shallow and glinting over its bed of pebbles, but one night's rain had swollen it suddenly and out of all proportion. I knew, from experience, how a tiny stream can grow into a fierce full-sized river in next to no time, for once in West Africa I had had my camp almost washed away by a stream that started by being a mere three feet wide and four inches deep, and had, in the course of an hour or so, turned into something resembling the upper reaches of the Amazon. No one who has not seen this sudden transformation can believe it, but it can be one of the most irritating (and sometimes dangerous) aspects of travel in the tropics.
At last, after an hour of waiting, the last of the lorries had been hauled over and it was our turn. The hawser was attached to our bumper and gingerly we were drawn into the flood. Slowly the water rose higher and higher, and became stronger, until it was rustling and lapping along one side of the station-wagon like a miniature tidal wave. The water spurted in through the cracks of the door and trickled across the floor under our feet. Gradually the water rose until it covered our shoes. We were now approximately halfway across, and the force of the water was kindly but firmly pushing us downstream so that, although to begin with we had been opposite the tractor and the winch, we were now some fifty yards downstream from them. The hawser was taut, and I felt as though we were some gigantic and misshapen fish that the two laconic-looking Indians on the tractor were playing. The water had now reached the level of the seats; here it paused for a moment and then overflowed generously under our behinds. At this crucial moment, sitting in half an inch of icy water, we heard the winch step.
"Arrrr!" roared the driver, sticking his head out of the window, his moustache quivering impressively, "que pasa?"
One of the Indians leapt off the tractor, and loped slowly off down the road; the other pushed his big straw hat on to the back of his head and slowly approached the bank of the river.
"Nafta no hay." he explained, scratching his stomach with every evidence of satisfaction.
"Fine bloody time for them to run out of petrol," I said irritably to Luna.
"Yes," said Luna despondently, "but the other Indian has gone for some. He will not be long."
Half an hour passed. Then an hour. By now our nether regions were so frozen that we were all shifting uneasily in our seats to try and get some feeling back, making noises like a troupe of hippopotami enjoying a wallow in a particularly succulent swamp. At last, to our relief, the Indian appeared loping down the road carrying a can of petrol. He and other Indian then had a long argument as to the best method of putting the life-giving fluid into the tractor, while our driver roared insults at them from between chattering teeth. But at last they had finished this highly complicated operation, the tractor sprang into life, the hawser tightened and we were drawn slowly but inexorably towards the bank, while the water-level in the wagon fell.
When we eventually reached dry land we all got out, removed our trousers and wrung them out, while our driver soundly berated the Indians for their attempted homicide, while they both grinned amiably at us. Then the driver, in his shirt-tails, opened the bonnet of the car and peered into the engine, his moustache twitching, muttering to himself. He had carefully wrapped in cotton waste certain vital parts of the internal organs of our vehicle before we entered the flood, and these he now unwrapped, and then proceeded to dry other parts of the engine. Eventually, he climbed in, pressed the starter, and with a wide grin of pride, heard the engine roar into life. We piled in and jolted off down the road, the Indians waving their straw hats in gay farewell.
We had travelled some five miles and were just beginning to dry out when we met our next water hazard. The road here ran along the lower slopes of the mountains, and the terrain was intersected at intervals by deep, narrow gorges through which the water from the mountains drained. Where the road crossed one of these narrow but powerful rivers one would have thought that the simplest engineering method would have been to throw a small bridge across from bank to bank. Apparently the vast numbers of these rivers made this too costly, and so another method was employed. A slightly concave apron of cement was laid across the river bed, which at least gave your wheels some purchase. In the dry season, of course, this looked merely like a continuation of the road, but when the waters from the mountains stormed down they roared over the apron, sometimes four feet deep, and then dropped into a graceful ten foot waterfall the other side to join the river lower down. A few days covered with water and the cement developed a surface like glass, owing to the algae that adhered to it, and so it was considerably more hazardous than the original riverbed would have been.
Here there was no winch to help us, and the driver nosed the station-wagon carefully into the red water, scowling fearfully behind his bristling moustache. We had got half-way across the invisible cement apron, when the engine stalled. We sat and looked at each other mutely, until suddenly the force of the water piling up against the side of the vehicle shifted it an inch or so in the direction of the waterfall on our right, and then we were all suddenly galvanised into activity. We none of us wanted to be sitting in the station-wagon if the torrent suddenly got a good grip on her and swept her over the edge and downstream among the tangle of rocks we could see. We left the vehicle as one man.
"Push… we must all push," said Luna, raising his voice above the noise of the falls. He was clinging to the side of the station-wagon with both hands, for the force of the water was considerable. He was so slight in build that I expected at any moment to see him plucked away by the current and swept over the waterfall like a feather.
"Go round the other side of the car," I shouted, "the water won't sweep you away there."
Luna realized the force of this argument, and made his way round the wagon in a starfish-like manner, until it stood between him and the waterfall. Then we laid our shoulders to the wagon and started to push. It was quite one of the most unrewarding tasks I have ever undertaken, for not only were we trying to push the wagon up the opposite slope of the cement apron, but we were also pushing against the current which all the time was trying to twist the wagon round at an angle. After about ten minutes of struggling we had managed to shift our vehicle approximately three feet nearer the edge of the waterfall. I began to get really warned, for at this rate I could see the wagon plunging gracefully over the water-fall in a matter of another half-hour, for the three of us alone had not the strength to push her up the slope and against the current. We had a rope in the back of the wagon and, if it was long enough, the only thing I could suggest was that we tethered the wagon to a tree on the opposite bank, and just sat there until the waters subsided. I was just about to try and put this plan into Spanish, when round the corner of the road on the opposite bank appeared a Fairy Godmother, heavily disguised as a wheezing, snorting lorry, which in spite of its age and rust, looked powerful and phlegmatic. We greeted it with shouts of joy. The driver of the lorry took in our predicament in a glance, and slowing down, drove the vast bulk of his vehicle slowly into the red torrent until he was within a few feet of us. Hastily we got out our rope and shackled the two vehicles together; then the lorry went into reverse and gently drew our vehicle out of the flood and on to dry land. We thanked the lorry driver, gave him a cigarette, and watched enviously as he drove his mighty steed through the torrent as if it bad not been there. Then we turned our attention to the laborious and messy process of drying out our engine.
Eventually we reached Oran at two o'clock in the afternoon, having had to navigate three more water hazards, none of which, fortunately, was as bad as the first two. Nevertheless, we arrived at Luna's house all looking as though we had spent our entire day in the river, which was not so far from the truth. Luna's charming family greeted us with delight, whipped our clothes away to be dried, cooked us an enormous meal, and sat us down to eat it in an indoor courtyard, overflowing with flowers, where the frail sunlight was just starting to make its heat felt. While we ate and drank good, warming red wine, Luna sent an apparently endless stream of his smaller relatives on mysterious missions to different parts of the town, and they kept reappearing to whisper reports to him, whereupon he would nod his head portentously and smile, or else scowl ferociously, according to the news that was being vouchsafed to him. Everyone had an air of suppressed excitement, and stiffened expectantly if Luna so much as coughed or looked in their direction. I began to feel as though I was having lunch with the Duke of Wellington on the eve of Waterloo. At last he leant forward, poured us both out a last glass of wine, and then grinned at me, his big black eyes sparkling with suppressed excitement.
"Gerry," he said in Spanish, "I have found you some bichos."
"Already?" I asked. "But how?"
He waved a hand at his small army of relatives, standing in a grinning line.
"I have sent my family to make inquiries, and they have discovered a number of people who have bichos. Now it only remains for us to go and buy them if they are the bichos you want."
"Wonderful," I said enthusiastically, finishing my wine at a gulp, "let's go, shall we?"
So, in ten minutes' time, Luna and I set off to quarter Oran like huntsmen, preceded by our pack of Luna's young and excited relatives. The town was not really so large, but rather straggling, built on the typical Argentine chessboard pattern. Everywhere we went, as Charles had predicted, Luna was greeted with cries of joy, and we had to refuse many invitations of the more bibulous variety. But Luna, with a reluctant gleam in his eye, sternly turned his back on such frivolity, and we continued on our way. Eventually, one of the younger members of our retinue ran ahead and beat a loud tattoo on a most impressive-looking door of a large house. By the time we had reached it the door had been opened by an ancient woman dressed in black, which made her look like a somewhat dilapidated cockroach. Luna paused in front of her and gave her a grave good evening, to which she bowed slightly.
"I know that you have in your house a parrot," said Luna with the air of a policeman daring a criminal to deny the existence of a corpse, which he knows to be concealed beneath the sofa.
"That is so," said the woman, mildly surprised, "This English se~nor is collecting for his jardin zoologico in England," Luna went on, "and it is possible that he may wish to purchase this bird of yours."
The woman surveyed me from dark, dry eyes, without curiosity.
"You are welcome to him," she said at last, "for he is a dirty bird and he does not talk. My son brought him to me, but if I can sell him I will be only too glad. Come in, se~nores, and see him."
She shuffled ahead of us and led us into the inevitable courtyard of potted plants, forming the well of the house. When I saw the bird it was all I could do to stifle a yelp of delight, for the creature was a yellow-naped macaw, a rare member of the parrot family. It was sitting on the remains of a wooden perch, which it had obviously, over the past week, demolished slowly and systematically until scarcely anything remained. It glanced up at us as we gathered round it, a fine sliver of wood in its beak, uttered a short gurking noise, and returned to its work of demolition. Luna gave me a quick glance from his brilliant eyes, and I nodded my head vigorously. He took a deep breath, surveyed the macaw with loathing, and then turned to the woman.
"One of the commoner ones, I see," he said carelessly, "but even so the se~nor is interested in buying it. You realize, of course, that for such a common, destructive bird, and one, moreover, that does not talk, we cannot afford to be generous. The se~nor would not dream of considering paying anything more than, say, twenty-five pesos for such a creature."
Then he folded his arms and looked at the woman, waiting for her outburst of indignation at the mere mention of such a low price.
"All right," said the woman, "you can have him."
While Luna regarded her open-mouthed she picked up the macaw, plonked him unceremoniously on my shoulder, and held out her wrinkled palm for the notes which I was hastily counting out from my wallet before she changed her mind. We were back in the street again, with the macaw making surprised and pleased gurking noises in my ear, before Luna recovered the power of speech. Then he shook his head despondently.
"What's the matter, Luna?" I asked. "It's a wonderful bird, and to get it so cheap is incredible."
"For your sake," said Luna gloomily, "I am glad. But it makes me fear for the future of Argentina when I meet someone who will not bargain, but accepts the first price offered. Where would we all be if everyone did that?"
"Life would probably be a lot cheaper," I pointed out, but he refused to be comforted, and continued to grumble over the woman's behaviour for the rest of our tour of the town, though a brisk half-hour exchange with a man who drove a hard bargain over another parrot shortly restored his faith in humanity.
We continued on our way through the town until it grew dark, by which time all of us were carrying what amounted to a small zoo. There were five parrots (including, to my delight, another yellow-naped macaw), two pigmy Brazilian rabbits, with ginger paws and white spectacles of fur round their eyes, and an orange-rumped agouti, a large rodent with dark eyes, slender legs and the disposition of a racehorse suffering from an acute nervous breakdown. We carried this assortment of wild life back to Luna's house and let them all loose in the patio, while Luna organized his band of relatives once more and sent them scurrying in all directions to fetch empty boxes, wire-netting, saws, hammers, nails and other accoutrements of the carpenter's trade. Then, for the next two hours we were fully occupied building suitable habitations for my acquisitions. At length, when the last of the creatures had been placed in its cage, Luna and I sat at the table nearby and ate and drank heartily, while from the pile of wooden boxes came the faint scufflings and squawks which are such music to the animal-collector's ears. Presently, a large tumbler of good wine by my side, I sat down in front of the cages to examine my charges by lamplight, while Luna called for his guitar and sang the soft, mournful folk-songs of Argentina, occasionally, where the music required it, using the deep wooden belly of his guitar as a drum.
The parrots we had acquired were all blue-fronted Amazons, all rather scruffy because of bad feeding, but all reasonably tame and able to mutter the inevitable "Lorito" which is the Argentine equivalent of "Polly". As they were all much the same size and age we had caged them together, and now in the lamplight they sat in a row, like a highly coloured jury, regarding me with the ancient, reptilian and falsely-wise expressions that parrots are such masters at adopting. I was pleased with them in spite of their tattered appearance, for I knew that a few weeks of good feeding would make a world of difference, and that, at their next moult, their feather would glow with lemon-yellow, blue and a multitude of greens that would make a collection of emeralds look dowdy in comparison. Gently I lowered a piece of sacking over the front of their cage and heard them all fluff and rearrange their feathers (a sound like someone riffling through a pack of cards) preparatory to sleep. Next I turned my attention to the yellow-naped macaws, and gloated over them for some time. We had, experimentally, caged them together, and the way they had immediately taken to each other and started to bill and coo inclined me to think that they were a true pair. They sat on the perch now and regarded me solemnly, occasionally turning their heads on one side as if to see whether I looked any more attractive that way. Basically their colouring was a deep, rush green, only relieved on the neck where they had a broad half-moon-shaped patch of feathers which were bright canary-yellow. For macaws – which are as a rule the largest of the parrots – they were diminutive, being slightly smaller and more slender than the common Amazon parrots. They gurked gently to me and to each other, their pale eyelids drooping sleepily over their bright eyes, so I covered them up with sacking and left them.
Next to the macaws the Brazilian rabbits were the creatures I was most delighted to have obtained, for they were animals I had long wanted to meet. The two we had got were only babies, and I lifted them out of their cage and they sat, one in each hand, comfortably filling my palms with the soft, fat warmth of their bodies, their noses wiffling with all the strange scents of food and flowers with which the patio was filled. At first glance you would have taken them for the young of the common European rabbit, but closer inspection soon showed the differences. To begin with their ears were very short for their size, and very neat and slender. The basic colouring on the back was a dark rich brown, flecked and patterned with rusty-coloured patches and blobs. Their feet and part of the leg was a bright, rich ginger, and, as I said before, they had a fine circle of white hair round each eye. Their nose and lips, I now noticed, were faintly outlined in white as well. When they were fully adult, I knew, they would still be among the dwarfs of their breed, being only half the size of the European wild rabbit. As far as I knew, no zoo in the world possessed these interesting little creatures, and I was delighted to have got them, though I had faint qualms about being successful in taking them back to Europe, for the rabbit and hare family do not, on the whole, take kindly to captivity, and are reputedly difficult. However, these were very young, and I had hopes that they would settle down satisfactorily.
When I lifted the sacking off the front of the agouti's cage she leapt straight up into the air, and landed with a crash in her straw bed, quivering in every limb, with the expression of an elderly virgin who, after years of looking under her bed, has at last found a man there. However, with the aid of a piece of apple I managed to soothe her into a fairly reasonable state, and she actually allowed me to stroke her.
Agoutis are, of course, rodents, members of that enormous and interesting family that includes creatures like the harvest mouse, which would hardly fill the bowl of a teaspoon, to capybaras that are the size of a large dog and in between these two extremes a great variety of squirrels, dormice, rats, porcupines and other unlikely beasts. Agoutis are not, let us admit at once, the most prepossessing of their family. To be perfectly frank, they look like a cross between one of the smaller forerunners of the horse, and a rather lugubrious rabbit. Their basic colouring is a rich, shining mahogany, fading to reddish-ginger on their rumps. Their legs are chocolate brown, very long and slender and racehorse-like, ending in a bunch of frail, artistic toes which give them the ancient-horse look. Their hind legs are powerful in order to support a backside that is out of all proportion to the forequarters, so that the creature looks, if I might put it like this, as though it had a hump-behind. The head is rabbit-like, but again slightly elongated so that there is still a faint suggestion of horse about it. They have large, fine eyes, neat rounded ears and a mass of black whiskers, which are in a constant state of agitation about everything. Combine all this with the beast's temperament, its constantly neurotic state, its wild leaps into the air at the slightest sound followed by a period of acute ague, and you begin to wonder how the species survives at all. I should imagine that a jaguar would only have to growl once and every agouti within a hundred yards radius would die of heart-failure immediately. Musing on this I lowered the sacking over the front of my agouti's cage, and she immediately leapt once more into the air and came down shaking in every limb. However, within a few minutes she had recovered from this terrible experience sufficiently to make an attack on the apple I had left in the cage for her. Luna had now, by the application of song and wine, worked himself into a pleasant state where he sat at the table, humming softly like a drowsy bee. We had a final glass of wine as a nightcap, and then, yawning prodigiously, stumbled off to bed.
I was awoken at what seemed to me to be a most uncivilized hour of the morning by a burst of song from Luna's bed, in the opposite corner of the room. Song and music ran through Luna's being as naturally as the blood flowed through his veins. When he was not talking he was singing or humming, and he is the only man I have ever met who can stay up until three in the morning and rise at five, bursting into song before he is even out of bed. But he sang so pleasantly and with such obvious pleasure that you forgave him, even at that hour of the morning, and, after knowing him some time, you took no more notice of it than you would have done of a dawn chorus of birds.
"The moon is like a little white drum in the sky," he sang from under a pile of bedclothes, "leading me to my love with the dark hair and the magic eyes, behind the mountains of Tucuman."
"If you sing to all your female acquaintances at this hour of the morning," I said drowsily, "I should think you lead a pretty lonely life in bed. These things get around, you know."
He chuckled and stretched luxuriously.
"Today is going to be a fine day, Gerry," he said. I wondered how he knew, for the shutters on the two windows were tightly closed. The night air, in which the Argentine will sit as late as he pleases without any harm to his being, becomes, as soon as he retires to bed, a deadly gas waiting to strangle him. So all shutters must be tightly closed to guard against such a dangerous experience. However, when we had dressed and gone out into the patio to breakfast, I found he was right, for it was flooded with sunshine.
We were finishing our last cup of coffee when our troupe of spies appeared to report. Apparently they had been out and about at the crack of dawn, and they made their reports to Luna as he sat there, sipping his coffee, and occasionally giving a lordly nod. Then one of the younger of the spies was dispatched with money to purchase provisions for my specimens, and, on his return, the spies stood wide-eyed and watched me while I chopped up food and vegetables, filled bowls with milk or water, and generally ministered to my animals. When the last one had been fed, we filed out into the sunlit street and started once more on our search of the town. This time Luna used our retinue slightly differently. While we made our way to a house which he knew contained some wild pet, our young helpers fanned out and explored every alley and street in the immediate vicinity, clapping their hands outside people's doors and, questioning complete strangers as to what pets they kept. Everyone was most good-humoured about this intrusion on their privacy and, even if they had no creatures themselves, would sometimes direct us to another house in which lurked some member of the local fauna. By this means, during the morning, we ran to earth three more pigmy rabbits, another parrot, two seriemas, a strange, leggy type of bird, and two coatimundis, the odd little raccoon-like predator of South America. We took them back to Luna's house, caged them, ate a hearty lunch and then, exhilarated by our morning's success, set out to explore the outer limits of Oran, with the aid of an ancient car, let to us by one of Luna's friends.
Luna had learnt, by some M.I.5 methods of his own, that in one of the more far-flung portions of the town was a man who possessed a wild cat of some sort, but no one was quite sure who it was or the exact location of his house. Eventually, however, we narrowed our search down to one rambling street, and by the simple process of knocking or clapping outside every house we eventually found the man we were looking for. He was a large, dark, sweating and unclean-looking man of about forty, with an unhealthy paunch and beady black eyes that were alternately cringing or cunning. Yes, he admitted, he had got a wild cat, an ocelot; and then, with all the fiery eloquence of a pre-election politician, he proceeded to tell us about the animal's beauty, grace, tameness, value, coloration, size, appetite, until I began to feel that he was trying to sell me an entire zoo instead of one animal. Breaking in on his asthmatic eulogy on the fine feline tribe in general and his specimen in particular, we asked to see it. He led us round into one of the filthiest backyards I had been in to date, for in Oran and in Calilegua, however poor and tiny the house, the backyard was always neat and full of flowers. This looked like a council rubbish dump, with old broken barrels, rusty tin cans, piles of old wire-netting, bicycle wheels and other flotsam and jetsam. Our host lumbered over to a rough wooden cage in one corner which would have been small for the average rabbit. He opened the door, caught hold of a chain inside and hauled out on to the ground one of most pathetic sights I have seen. It was a half-grown ocelot, and how it managed to fit in such a small cage was a mystery. But it was its condition that was so appalling. Its coat was so matted with its own filth that you could only just discern the natural pattern of the skin. It had a large, running sore on one flank, and it was so thin that you could, under its matted coat, see its ribs and backbone clearly. Indeed, it was so weak that it wavered from side to side, like a drunk, when it was dropped on to the ground, and eventually gave up the attempt to stay upright, and sank dejectedly down on to its dirty belly.
"You see how tame it is?" inquired the man, giving us a display of tattered yellow teeth in an ingratiating grin. "She is very tame with everybody. Never has she been known to bite." He was patting the cat as he spoke, with one great sweaty palm. I could see that it was not tameness that stopped the animal from turning on him, but sheer inertia due to lack of food. She had almost reached the point of no return, where she felt so weak that she just did not care.
"Luna," I said, making a valiant attempt to keep my temper, "I will pay fifty pesos for this cat. No more. Even that is too much, for she will probably die. I won't bargain, so you can tell this bloated illegitimate son of an inadequate whore that he can take it or leave it."
Luna translated my message, tactfully leaving out my character rendering. The man clasped his hands in horror. Surely we were joking? He giggled feebly. For such a magnificent animal three hundred pesos would be a beggarly sum to pay. Surely the se~nor could see what a wonderful creature… and so on. But the se~nor had seen enough. I spat loudly and accurately into the remains of a barrel, lovingly entwined with a bicycle-wheel, gave the man the dirtiest look I could achieve, turned on my heel and walked back to the road. I got into our ancient car and slammed the door with such violence that, for a moment, I thought the whole thing was going to fall to pieces in the road. I could hear Luna and the man arguing, and presently, when I detected a weakening note in the repulsive man's voice, I leant out of the window and roared at Luna to come on and not waste time. Within thirty seconds he appeared .
"Give me the money, Gerry," he said. I gave him the fifty pesos, and presently he appeared with the box and put it in the back seat. We drove off in silence. Presently when I had finished mentally working out what I would like to have done to the cat's late owner, which would not only have been painful but have made his marital state, if any, difficult in the extreme, I sighed and lit a cigarette.
"We must get home quickly, Luna. That animal's got to have a decent cage and some food or she's going to die," I said. "Also I shall want some sawdust."
"Si, si" said Luna, his dark eyes worried. "I have never seen anyone keep an animal like that. She is half dead."
"I think I can save her," I said. "At least, I think we've got a fifty-fifty chance."
We drove in silence along the rutted road for some way before Luna spoke.
"Gerry, you do not mind stopping once more, only for a minute!" he inquired anxiously. "It is on our way. I hear of someone else that has a cat they might sell."
"Yes, all right, if it's on the way. But I hope to God it's in better condition than the one we've got."
Presently Luna ran the car off the road on to a sizable stretch of greensward. On one corner of this stood a dilapidated-looking marquee, and near it a small, battered-looking merry-go-round and a couple of small booths made of striped canvas now so faded as to be almost white. Three fat, glossy horses, one a bright piebald, grazed near by, and around the marquee and the booths trotted a number of well-fed-looking dogs, who had the air of professionals.
"What is this? It looks like a circus," I said to Luna.
"It is a circus," said Luna, grinning, "only a very small one."
I was amazed that any circus, even a small one, could make a living in a place as remote and small as Oran, but this one appeared to be doing all right for, although the props were somewhat decrepit, the animals looked in good condition. As we left the car a large ginger-haired man appeared, ducking out from under the flap of the marquee. He was a muscular individual with shrewd green eyes and powerful, well-kept hands, who looked as though he would be capable of doing a trapeze act or a lion act with equal skill. We shook bands, and Luna explained our business.
"Ah, you want my puma," he grinned. "But I warn you I want a lot of money for her… she's a beauty. But she eats too much, and I can't afford to keep her. Come and see her, she's over here. A real devil, I pan tell you. We can't do a thing with her."
He led us to a large cage in one corner of which crouched a beautiful young puma, about the size of a large dog. She was fat and glossy, and still had her baby paws, which, as in all young cats, look about three times too big for the body. Her coat was a rich amber colour, and her piercing, moody eyes a lovely leaf green. As we approached the cage she lifted one lip and showed her well-developed baby teeth in a scornful snarl. She was simply heavenly, and a joy to look at after the half-starved creature we had just bought, but I knew, fingering my wallet, that I should have to pay a lot for her.
The bargaining lasted for half an hour and was conducted over a glass of very good wine, which the circus proprietor insisted we drank with him. At length I agreed to a price, which, though high, seemed to me to be fair. Then I asked the man if he would keep her until the following day for me, if I paid for her evening meal, for I knew that she would be in good hands, and I had no cage ready for her reception. This our amiable ginger friend agreed to and the bargain was sealed with another glass of wine, and then Luna and I drove back home to try and resurrect the unfortunate ocelot.
When I had built a cage for her, and one of Luna's lesser relatives had appeared with a large sackful of sweet-smelling sawdust, I got the poor creature out of her evil-smelling box and dressed the wound on her thigh. She just lay on the ground apathetically, though the washing of the wound must have hurt considerably. Then I gave her a large shot of penicillin, which again she took no notice of. The third operation was to try and dry her coat out a bit, for she was drenched with her own urine, and already the skin of her belly and paws was fiery red, burnt by the acid. All I could do was literally to cover her in sawdust, rubbing it well into the fur to absorb the moisture, and then gently dusting it out again.
Then I unpicked the more vicious tangles in her fur, and by the time I had finished she had begun to look faintly like an ocelot. But she still lay on the floor, uncaring. I cut the filthy collar away from her neck, and put her in her new cage on a bed of sawdust and straw. Then I placed in front of her a bowl containing one raw egg and a small quantity of finely-minced fresh steak. At first she displayed no interest in this, and my heart sank, for I thought she might well have reached the stage of starvation where no amount of tempting offerings would induce her to eat. In sheer desperation I seized her head and ducked her face into the raw egg, so that she would be forced to lick it off her whiskers. Even this indignity she suffered without complaint, but she sat back and licked the dripping egg off her lips, slowly, carefully, like someone sampling a new, foreign and probably dangerous dish. Then she eyed the dish with a disbelieving look in her eye. I honestly think that the animal, through ill-treatment and starvation, had got into a trance-like state, where she disbelieved the evidence of her own senses. Then, while I held my breath, she leant forward and lapped experimentally at the raw egg. Within thirty seconds the plate was clean, and Luna and I were dancing a complicated tango of delight round the patio, to the joy of his younger relatives.
"Give her some more, Gerry," panted Luna, grinning from ear to ear.
"No, I daren't," I said. "When a creature's that bad, you can kill it from overfeeding. She can have a bowl of milk later on, and then tomorrow she can have four small meals during the day. But I think she'll be all right now."
'That man was a devil," said Luna shaking his head.
I drew a deep breath and, in Spanish, gave him my views on the cat's late owner.
"I never-knew you knew so many bad things in Spanish, Gerry," said Luna admiringly. "There was one word you used I have never heard before."
"I've had some good teachers," I explained.
"Well, I hope you say nothing like that tonight," said Luna, his eyes gleaming.
"Why? What's happening tonight?"
"Because we are leaving tomorrow for Calilegua my friends have made an asado in your honour, Gerry. They will play and sing only very old Argentine folk-songs so that you may record them on your machine. You like this idea?" he asked anxiously.
"There is nothing I like better than an asado," I said, "and an asado with folk-songs is my idea of Heaven."
So, at about ten o'clock that evening, a friend of Luna's picked us up in his car and drove us out to the estate, some distance outside Oran, where the asado had been organised. The asado ground was a grove near the estancia, an area of bare earth that told of many past dances, surrounded by whispering eucalyptus trees and massive oleander bushes. The long wooden benches and trestle-tables were lit with the soft yellow glow of half a dozen oil-lamps, and outside this buttercup circle of light the moonlight was silver brilliant. There were about fifty people there, many of whom I had never met, and few of them over the age of twenty. They greeted us uproariously, almost dragged us to the trestle-tables which were groaning under the weight of food, and placed great hunks of steak, crisp and sizzling from the open fires, in front of us. The wine-bottles passed with monotonous regularity, and within half-an-hour Luna and I were thoroughly in the party spirit, full of good food, warmed with red wine. Then these gay, pleasant young people gathered round while I got the recorder ready, watching with absorbed attention the mysteries of threading tape and getting levels. When, at last, I told them I was ready, guitars, drums and flutes appeared as if by magic, and the entire crowd burst into song. They sang and sang, and each time they came to the end of a song, someone would think of a new one, and they would start again. Sometimes a shy, grinning youth would be pushed to the front of the circle as the only person there capable of rendering a certain number, and after much encouragement and shouts of acclamation he would sing. Then it would be a girl's turn to sing the solo refrain in a sweet-sour voice, while the lamps glinted on her dark hair, and the guitars shuddered and trembled under the swiftly-moving brown fingers of their owners. They danced in a row on a flagstoned path, their spurs ringing sparks from the stone, so that I could record the heel-taps which are such an intricate part of the rhythm of some of their songs; they danced the delightful handkerchief dance with its pleasant lilting tune, and they danced tangos that made you wonder if the stiff, sexless dance called by that name in Europe was a member of the same family. Then, shouting with laughter because my tapes had run out and I was in despair, they rushed me to the table, plied me with more food and wine, and sitting round me sang more sweetly than ever. These, I say again, were mostly teenagers, revelling in the old and beautiful songs of their country, and the old and beautiful dances, their faces flushed with delight at my delight, honouring a stranger they had never seen before and would probably never see again.
By now they had reached the peak. Slowly they started to relax, the songs getting softer and softer, more and more plaintive, until we all reached the moment when we knew the party was over, and that to continue it longer would be a mistake. They had sung themselves from the heavens back to earth, like a flock of descending larks. Flushed, bright-eyed, happy, our young hosts insisted that we travelled back to Oran with them in the big open back of the lorry in which they had come. We piled in, our tightly-packed bodies creating a warmth for which we were grateful, for the night air was now chilly. Then as the lorry roared off down the road to Oran, bottles of red wine were passed carefully from hand to hand, and the guitarists started strumming. Everybody, revived by the cool night air, took up the refrain, and we roared along through the velvet night like a heavenly choir. I looked up and saw the giant bamboos that curved over the road, now illuminated by the lorry's headlights. They looked like the talons of some immense green dragon, curved over the road, ready to pounce if we stopped singing for an instant. Then a bottle of wine was thrust into my hand, and as I tipped my head back to drink I saw that the dragon had passed, and the moon stared down at me, white as a mushroom-top against the dark sky.