By O. Victor Miller
“She loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them.”—Othello
Today is for being alive. Sprawled naked in a bright hammock strung between mast and mainstay, I’m rocked by northerly swells beneath Caribbean breezes that cool the sting and natural shocks the flesh inherits when dragged over coral and keelhauled by a man’s own dinghy.
I consider coaxing sore joints towards Marina’s thatch hut in the village, but my phobic aversion to the maverick inflatable and the 9.9 outboard remains traumatic. Reined to the fantail by its painter, it lies deceptively docile, chuckling in the light chop when only yesterday it whacked unmanned killer orbits through hissing surf in a premeditated attempt to run me down. Besides, I’m liable to find Marina’s hut latched and her off to the rain forest planting yucca or off somewhere else that’s none of my business.
Marina, the 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer I fell in love with 35 years too late, is younger than my children, but no child. She’s a botanist, born in Greece and educated in England. She is a full blown woman dedicated to improving farming practices of Kuna Indians in the jungle and rain forests of Kuna Yala, Panama.
Maybe all Greek women emerge full blown and voluptuous from scallop half shells, conceived in bloody concoctions that drip from Olympian castrations into briny foam. The scientific Marina doesn’t savor classical allusion from retired English professors turned outdoor writer. She parries courtship attempts with formality under the guise of respect for station and age, but with Marina I forget geriatrics and feel younger than my years. With Marina I forget a lot of things Marina doesn’t forget.
I was thunderstruck the first moment my CSY 44 entered Snug Harbor at Playon Chico. I spied her through my cockpit binoculars, head and lashing ponytail taller than the gaggle of Kuna she briefed for an expedition into the emerald mountains. She stood like Victory in classical contraposto with upraised machete, one golden thigh forward, shapely torso hanging on one Hellenistic hip, a statuesque Amazon guerrilla in cut-off jungle fatigues. That first magnified vision of Marina nearly scuttled Kestyll on the coral, but I wasn’t grounded and broken boneless until the German introduced us and Marina fixed me writhing on the pin of those bright eyes–eyes blanched blue by Caribbean suns and darkened by jungle green. Since that magic moment, my thoughts drift like lotos blossoms toward her island hut, timeless under sun, moon and star. I try to fish. I try to write. I plan expeditions I imagine will intrigue her. With love-fogged brains I stalk and chronicle fish. Like any thunder- struck kid a quarter my age, I lose perspective and purpose. To impress her, I risk my life and bust my ass.
I know for a fact that there are no trout in Panama. My courtship of Marina itself illustrates a quixotic affinity for impossible dreams, but the challenge of stalking fish in an area where there aren’t any hardly deters a real aficionado. It’s a short Kierkegaardian hop across the chasm of fishing sparsely populated trout streams to casting into a jungle pool where there are no trout at all. Indeed, the very absence itself of Salmonidae verifies the Darwinian deduction that some other wonderful fish inhabits that special environmental niche trout grace elsewhere. It stands to reason, I tell Marina, some undiscovered species, having evolved in the swirls and eddies of these magnificent mountains, lurks in the colorful jungle shadows innocent of artificial insects contrived of hair and feather– pristine and primal creatures never caught and released, never spooked upstream by hombres armed with fly rods.
“Good luck, professor,” she smiles.
Stephen, German yachtsman in his 50’s, and his Swiss girlfriend Erica inhabit the only other sailboat in my lagoon. Erika is 31. I’ve invited them over for rum punch in hopes that the evening will ease Marina’s prejudice against maturity. When invited, the object of my ill-fated romance lifts an unplucked eyebrow and politely declines. If Marina had come, the Kestyll would contain 100% of the non-indigenous population of Ukupseni, not counting two 18-year-old Mormon elders in white shirts and Disney ties, who are hacking an expanding ring in tropical foliage, nobody knows what for. The jungle triumphs, filling in with quick green. If Marina wanted a clearing, the Kuna would fall in behind her and I would too, but the Mormons lack Marina’s amazonian charisma. Marina could decree a nine-hole golf course and get it, but the lonely Mormons manage only a thin border of stubble that lets in just enough light to quadruple the fecundity at their heels.
I don’t invite the Mormons for rum punch. Nothing short of a spiritual rebirth could bring commonality. Although any fool could tell me that for a shot at winning Marina’s hardened heart, I’ll have to be born again physically around 1972. I’ve got a better chance with the Mormons.
“Vell, vell, vell. Vot haff vee here?” Stephen inquires of my latest creation, a may fly left in the vise to inspire conversation. His hands clasped behind him, he conducts a Germanic examination “Vector iss making whit zee baiters again.” His chin lifts as he sights down a thin nose through wire spectacles, scrutinizing suspect craftsmanship. By his standards, my attempt at entomological mimicry resembles something Marina might sweep from the floor under her bed. If Marina had a bed. Marina sleeps in a hammock over dirt floors swept spotless by a broom of lashed branches when she’s not in the monte.
To the Kuna, the hammock represents the heart of their traditional anthropomorphic hut, the nega. Hung from longbones of bamboo in the sweet jungle breath that enters the eaves and passes under purling ribs of thatch, Marina’s damn hammock holds in its crotch the whole of my heart’s longing.
Erika stirs punch with a thin finger, which she licks. “Ven vill you finish it, do you tink?”
“I’m deciding what patterns to take upriver.” I pass off my work as experimental. They know I have plans to enter the narrow cut to the Playon Chico River from the cove, to motor up river in my inflatable, wading shoals and shallows into the jungle to stalk wild trout, or to their Central American equivalent since everybody knows there are no trout in Panama.
“Make scorpions,” Stefan suggests. “Dare are plenty of tose arount here.” I picture myself blundering around an oxbow into a deadly hatch of scorpions, a vision that threatens to abort the expedition, but scorpions don’t have wings. I pass this observation on to Stefan, the world traveler, who shrugs. “Vell den, das iss von goot sing vee can say for zee scorpion.
“You can not enter the mouse of the river anyvay this time of year,” he adds. “Norse vends makes high vaves ofer der sharp coral dare.”
“Der mouse haas teeth,” Erika puns brightly.
“The Kuna go,” I protest. Dugout canoes, shallow as spoons, enter the river from the sea.
“Das iss der Kuna.”
I modestly refrain from pointing out that my ten-foot inflatable is a product of modern technological design, no dugout. It climbs high breakers and slides sure-footed down the other side. Even swamped, it won’t sink or capsize. Also, I know that only a bold heart can win Marina’s reluctant one. I’ve screwed my courage to the sticking place. Still, not to seem pigheaded, I postpone my trip until the wind is easterly. There’s no future arguing with Stefan.
“There are no trout in Panama,” Marina informs me when I stop by to invite her upriver. She doesn’t know much about trout fishing. “The actual trout is not the end of trouting,” I explain patiently, “any more than the production of precious metals from baser ones was the aim of the medieval alchemist. The ideas of trout and gold are the essentials. The alchemist transmuting lead into gold discovered a universal wealth of other important stuff. It’s the procedure, the refinement of potential towards perfection. The pursuit purifies; what ends up in the creel is incidental. The notion of trout is what we’re after.”
“I suspect that’s exactly what will end up in your creel, Professor Miller,” she teases. Her perfect blue eyes mist in memory. “But I love real trout. In Spain they are stuffed with a slice of cured ham and are delicious.”
“Trucha de Navarra!” I strut my cosmopolitan palate.
“Yes, I’d give anything for a plate of Trucha Navarra right now.”
“Thanks for the invitation, Professor, but I’m staying in today to tidy up my nega, keep hut, you know. I’ve got to get up at 04:00 to plant seedlings at the monte. Uh, didn’t anyone tell you you can’t enter the river mouth when there’s a north wind?”
I lick my finger and point toward the thatch. “East wind,” I joke. Enough breeze passes through Marina’s reed walls to snuff a candle. I can take you away from all this, I think.
“Winds are changeable,” Marina says.
“Yes.” And so too are the mechanics of a young girl’s fanciful heart. Between tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, human meat is subject to venereal caprice and lunar whimsy far beyond your charming juvenile comprehension. In the tropics, love bugs swarm with mosquitoes. Anything is possible, even vernal/autumnal love between wood nymphs and centaurs.
For me, rushing headlong into a frankly erotic relationship with Marina simply requires a moderate suspension of decorum. A plunge through a narrowing window of opportunity in a temporal world defined by mutability, where Beauty and new love can not keep their luster anyway, but Marina says, predictably, that I’m way too old. She’s amused by my bold declarations of affection without being tempted to swap out her thatch hut for a yacht built the year she was born. Even if I pre-nup the Kestyll and promise to die before next spring, she declines the offer to team up and save third world’s indigenous populations from a comfortable yacht and the vantage of snug harbors. I remind her that my meager pension and modest royalties, by Peace Corps standards, ain’t all that bad. Kestyll also comes with hot showers that shampoo hair. Luxury is beside the point, Marina insists. Thirty-five is the absolute limit she’ll stretch for amorous applicants, the incidental age of a handsome Kuna coconut grower who comes around, but I’m not ready to give up on Marina yet. There’s magnetism in polarity. What’s a few decades? We are two sides of the same doubloon.
Past the lacy breakers at the mouth of the river, two Indians struggle with a swamped canoe. Their situation can’t be serious; they’re laughing. They probably dumped it on purpose, just cutting up.
Busy with my own boat, I ignore what I’ve observed of basic Kuna nature, that life is a game to be enjoyed nonchalantly. Death’s inevitability, eminent or eventual, should never dampen fun. The Kuna laugh at everything. Some drown laughing.
There’s a sandbar where the breakers meet the cut, hardly wider than the inflatable. The wind is still easterly and the waves breaking over the coral perimeter seem manageable if I can thread the needle through the cut through brain coral, fire coral and staghorn. I tilt the motor to minimize drought.
The Kuna quit wrestling the canoe long enough to watch and grin. I idle in, cutting my engine when I pass the coral collar. The dinghy pauses in a trough, draws back for a penultimate moment, then surges forward as the cresting wave lifts me high upon its back. It breaks, flinging me—yippy-ki-yi-yeah–all the way to the sandbar. I plop down upon the grate of retreating water on pebbles and sand, hopping out to drag the dinghy through the cut. The Kuna cheer, pumping their fists. I take a bow, wishing Marina were watching.
Upriver my wake laps narrowing banks. Plantain and coconuts grow in soil made rich as fudge by alluvial floods. Exotic birds hop from limb to limb of gigantic mango trees. Hard green mangos—BLOOP– fall or are thrown by monkeys into the crystalline river. Jesus lizards are startled from midstream flotsam, their blurred feet and winding tails barely skimming the water as they scamper from to hideouts among the mangrove roots. Their appellation carries no sacrilegious connotation even to the most devout Indian converted by Mormon missionaries. It merely designates the reptile’s remarkable ability to propel itself like a buzz-bait across water without getting wet.
Soon wide banana leaves give way to high banks and impenetrable foliage with thick stands of bamboo and tangles of overhanging vine. I wade, dragging the dinghy across shoals of river rock. I trudge through still waters, where my footprints sink through rotten jungle mulch that farts bubbles of fetid gas. Up ahead the channel slices into a sharp bend below a riffle. Under low waxy boughs, a hatch of white insects swarms, way too small for scorpions. If there’s one trout in Panama, it’s under that bank. The sting of crotch-deep water assures me this mountain stream is cold enough for trout, or something comparably game.
As though conjured by mere thought, a fish the size of a 20-milimeter anti-aircraft round floats up to sip a floating insect. I cast to it with my saltwater Orvis. Fishing for trout with a No. 8 is like cutting weeds with an ax, but the big Orvis, stiff as a broomstick, is Kestyll’s only rod to survive previous misadventure.
The bullet-headed fish takes my mayfly, shaking its head like a bulldog. Feeling the hook, it makes an astonishing run downstream, bowing the sturdy rod. Hot damn! Here we go! With singing line I work the plucky fish to the middle of the stream; it’s not alone. Others follow and swarm belligerently. The supercharged runt finally plays out and I grab it. It’s unlike any trout I’ve ever seen. Of course, it’s not a trout.
But it acts more like a trout than a trout does. Its blunt head has an undercut mouth bristling with sharp teeth that have shredded my fly. And those eyes! Set above a baleful, toothy grin, they are surreal in their artificiality like dolls’ blue eyes, icy blue like Marina’s but absolutely unlovable. I slide my catch headfirst into the deep net-lined pocket of my bathing trunks. At the sound of clicking teeth, I remove it, break its spine, and string it on the lanyard of my cap, stuffing bill and crown into my waistband. Piranhas are flat fish, aren’t they? My mayfly looks now like something Marina swept up then shuffled into the dirt with her tire tread sandals. I reach for another mayfly, discovering that the plastic Baggie containing my fresh water assortment has floated out of my pocket and disappeared downstream.
I cast the shredded survivor, and the water boils before it lights. I land another blue-eyed fish that clacks razor-sharp incisors like castanets. Now at the end of my tippet the no.16 hook has been totally dipileated except for two hackle hairs and a single tail of whipping thread. I cast. The sparse fly sinks a few inches before snagging another Panamanian devil, which I judiciously kill before stringing.
For the hell of it, I cast the bare hook. A circle of jaws contracts around the bare hook as the Panamanian varmints rush in and pause; one nips the clench knot securing tippet to leader, shaking its head to cut the monofiliment as the others investigate the sinking hook with otherworldly blue eyes before melting back into shadow.
Time to go. No fun getting caught in a jungle after dark. Confirming my conviction, a husky roar, like a Nemian lion with lung cancer, erupts from the far edge of a plantain field reverberating through the trees. I step up my pace as the roar is answered by an asthmatic hoot from the other side of the river. Howler monkeys, I hope. But that first–and now that third—bellow issued from a rib cage the size of an oil barrel.
A quick mile downstream I come upon three Kuna shoving a dugout overloaded with bananas down shallow shoals. “Nuede!” I salute them. “How!”
They look at my dinghy and grin. “Nuede.” I help them push their uku off the rocks. Nuede, the elder nods as the boy mounts up. There isn’t freeboard for the third, so I offer him a ride. Nuede, he hops in grinning, and we idle down the widening river to the sea.
These Indians speak a language a terse as Tarzan’s or Buffalo Bob’s. Nuede, like Um-ghawa or Kowa-bonga, says it all.
“Nuede,” I answer.
At the mouth of the river the wind has switched northerly. High swells break over the coral necklace between the open inlet and the cut. Nuede, says the Kuna, throwing a thin leg off the inflated gunwale.
“Hey, I thought you wanted to go all the way to Playon Chico.”
“I wait here for amigos,” he says in broken Spanish, his second language. The toothy smile doesn’t reappear until he has both bare feet firmly planted on the hissing sandbar. Nuede.
Well, I was counting on the kid’s weight to hold down the bow. I’ll persuade him to push me out deep enough to crank up and throttle out fast enough to climb the waves. It’ll be rough crossing the breakers, but possible. I’ll lean forward and to hit them hard head on. Past the point where they crest, I’ll be home free, early enough to stop by Marina’s hut and gloat. She’ll be stirring a pot of gray soup of fish heads and bananas in coconut milk, maybe invite me to stay for tulumasi and relate the rich adventure she missed by staying home.
Here goes! The Indian shoves the inflatable into the surf. I rev the 9.9 and take off like a Jesus lizard, skimming the surface and leaping the first wave. The engine screams as the prop clears the surface. The hull smacks violently into the trough, driving stubbornly into the crest of the next wave. White spray explodes into my face, stinging my eyes. I regain top speed descending the backside of the wave, beholding in horror a monstrous breaker three times higher than its predecessors. I clench my jaws as wave and dinghy collide in a whitewater explosion. The bow heaves skyward, catapulting me into a back-somersault over the transom.
I sputter to the surface to watch my dinghy, throttle jammed wide open, sprinting merrily out to sea. How will I return to the safety of Kestyll before darkness falls on this jungle river full of Panamanian devilfish, lisa, according to the Kuna hitchhiker? My dinghy lost, what chance can I have of ever visiting Marina, even if I manage to hitch a dugout ride back to my yacht?
But wait! The inflatable is turning, making a wide circle. Maybe it will chance back this way. If it does? What then? It’ll shred like Cole slaw on the coral reef. Or running aground, the outboard will redline and burn, blowing its pistons before I can swim in to rescue it.
The runaway makes a full circle, still beyond the breakers. It circles again, closer still. The swells are pushing it steadily toward shore as the tiller works its way outward, guiding the boat in smaller and smaller orbits, like a high-speed reversed video of the Mormon’s attack on the jungle.
How lucky can you get! My dinghy is circling back, a falcon winding back to the falconer. Maybe it will pass close enough for me to grab the painter, stall it and scramble aboard.
The Indian is bent double in laughter, slapping his thighs. I face the beach, shaking a fist, damn Indian. But now he is waving both arms and pointing, behind me, it seems. I look back to see and my snarling dinghy, roaring louder than the surf, headed straight for me–Holy shit! It reaches me simultaneously with a towering wave that covers me and lifts inflatable and buzz-saw propeller barely over my head. I emerge sputtering into the path of the next orbit, only to dive beneath the angry boat again. This time the V hull strikes my back as it runs over me, the prop miraculously missing me again. Again, shark-like, the dinghy circles and attacks, the gray rubber bow plowing and leaping through the surf after me as I leap frantic slow motion strides to escape. It’s upon me again gnashing its teeth, the painter lashing like a stingray tail. The blunt gray nose tilts as if to bite with undercut maw, ramming me, glancing off, fishtailing a spray of bitter brine. The bullet shaped stern kicks me aside as it skids over me. Somehow the thrashing bowline ends up in my fist. I brace myself as the fleeing dinghy takes up slack.
I’ll rein it into smaller circles until I can tame the momentum into a close, harmless pivot, a matador working a bull off balance. What am I thinking? The painter snaps taut. I’m hanging on to the reins of a runaway ten-horse team. One side of my brain screams, hold on to that painter at all costs. A wiser lobe rasps like an Alpha-ape howler, “Turn that sumbitch aloose!”
The screaming maverick pauses briefly as the nylon painter stretches before snatching me brutally me into its churning, effervescent wake. Yanking shoulder balls from arthritic sockets, it plows my face through seawater, brutally irrigating the ports and sinuses of my nose, bulging my eyes.
The line falls slack–I’m turning her! The howling engine’s pitch heightens to a screech. I take up painter and get my head above the water just in time to see the dinghy, reversed by the combined force of a breaker and my drag, turn and run over me. This time the fiberglass keel cracks down on my skull, but the screaming prop miraculously misses me again.
Now, clinching the shortened painter, I’m under the speeding boat, holding my breath as the hull body-slams me brutally once, twice, three times. The zigzagging foot hits me each time the boat saws against the painter, but the foot rides over my back, but the propeller narrowly misses, snatching off my shirt.
Through the rushing water I climb hand over fist toward the bow. My closed eyes view Marina’s perfect cerulean gaze. I imagine the equally blue eyes of swarming Panamanian Devils—lisa! My biceps burn and my lungs cry out for air. My mouth is stretched wide by the rushing water, cheeks flapping. I fade, dimly aware that letting go of the painter means I’m lost, run over, chewed up, knocked out, drowned, and laughed at.
Marina, a mermaid now, glides beside me, fixing to sing a siren song. If I hear it, I’ll drown. She takes a deep breath that says listen up, infusing me with the instant wisdom that my anachronistic love is projected upon her through a thirty-year taboo against falling for the pretty coeds bestowed to my care. Hush, Marina. She licks her lips, warming up. Hush now, don’t sing, not yet. I flash back further, to the Western movies of my childhood. More than once I’ve seen protagonist cowpokes dragged on their backs as they held the axles of runaway stagecoaches. Somehow, with heroic agility he’d make his way up tongue, trace and singletree to scramble up and halt the horses. How’d he do that?
The wash of the prop spews silver bubbles like great schools of lisa. Their gnashing teeth emit the high neurotic whine of a redlined 9.9. I climb upstream like the cowboys, finally gaining the bow ring in one hand. I push my face to the surface, cheek to cheek with the prow, the back of my head spewing rooster tails. Remora-like my belly hugs the side of the bouncing dinghy. I take slam after slam to the groin as I throw one leg over the sausage-tight gunwale, my free hand spanking the water—yippie-ki-yi-yeah. The wake helps me, boosting me over the pontoon into the swamped dinghy. Coughing, gasping, and sloshing to the stern, I kill the engine, which backs down with a backfire and a puff of black smoke. The Indian has fallen upon the white sand, rolling in an epileptic fit of hilarity, icing his brown torso like a glazed donut.
As the waves nudge me back to the mouth of the river, the Kuna, still grinning widely, has managed to retrieve my oars. My Orvis is shattered, my shoes and my hard won lisa are gone. “Kowa-bonga, you bastard, Kawasaki,” I wheeze, “Um-gahwa, you son-of-a-bitch!” which the nodding Indian, grinning like a Buick, takes to mean, Sir, will you pretty please help me bail my boat and push me out past the breakers?
At dusk the sea settles down enough for the Kuna and me to swim the dinghy out past the coral. I scramble in and row out to navigable waters as the Indian companion waves happily.
I stop off at the island village and drag by Marina’s hut, still coughing seawater droplets from deep in my lungs, bowing my head as dollops break loose from impacted sinuses to drip from my nose. If I am looking for sympathy, I’ve come to the wrong place. Marina is bent over a cauldron of fish and banana gruel, Tulumasi, like a pretty witch brewing a healthy potion of bad luck. “Perhaps this will teach you to start acting your age and to listen to others who know,” she says. “You can’t enter the river when the wind is northerly.”