“As mentioned, Rawlins had behaved quite odd for a while, but not as bizarre as now. As if voices from another world were screaming in his ears, announcing his doom. Disturbed, I examined him closer, thereby noticing his haggard face, flustered, puffed up peculiarly, and above all his bleary eyes. No, I mused, fear alone could not cause such devastation, the man suffers from physical ailments.
“As always he sat at the bow, opposite from me, shivering to an extent that no sensible word crossed his lips. Malaria! it raced through my head. That was it, nothing else could explain his eccentric behaviour. Therefore only one solution offered itself: to turn around without delay.
“At once I manoeuvred the boat till its bow pointed westward, back towards La Esmeralda. Rawlins required medical attention, nothing less would do. When I apprised him of my intention, he protested vociferously. Stuttering, his quivering hand pointed towards the northern shore. I barely understood a word, except ‘Indians, Yanomamoes, savages.’
“They stood there alright as expected, with spears, bows and arrows, or sturdy cudgels. But what of it? I said to myself, we knew beforehand of their presence, and that despite their ferocious deportment they are quite harmless if left in peace. So why this groundless behaviour? Oh well, I consoled myself, fear has gotten to him.
“But reason reared its head, it murmured into both my ears: Fever? Does it not relax a person rather than render him stung to the soul? Does it not make one more indifferent, to the point of frivolity?
“Truly, without the assurances from many quarters that he assiduously avoided alcohol, I would have thought him drunk; blind drunk that is. Then he started to curse, raising simultaneously the lid of a crate, which always stood by his side. I had wondered more than once what was in there. When he shouldered it for loading, I quipped: ‘What is in there? Gold to bribe the natives?’ ‘No, just books,’ Rawlins replied.
“Instinctively my eyebrows must have lifted. Taking books to the wilderness deemed me highly peculiar for a self-professed philistine, who considered literature bunkum. In the next instant the veils lifted. Rawlins removed not a book from the well-guarded crate, but a bottle filled with a white liquid. Tequila! it shot through my head. Shall I be hit by a thunderbolt if I exaggerate; the presumed sick man unscrewed the cap and poured half of the bottle’s contents gurglingly down his throat. Remember, it was still early morning, the sun had barely risen above the palm trees.
“The realisation hit me squarely: the man was a drunkard. He had emptied on the sly one bottle after the other in that crate. Thus his peculiar behaviour explained itself. He suffered not from malaria, but signs of delirium tremens. After several attempts to raise himself, he ultimately succeeded. Stumbling, swinging the half emptied bottle above his head, he came towards me.
“This could not continue; the situation had reached untenable proportions. With one movement I steered the boat towards the shore, all the while talking soothingly to the fuming, staggering Rawlins. Hardly had we moored when he turned from me and clambered on land, at the same time hurling vicious imprecations at the meanwhile gathered Yanomamoes. Then he plunged into them.”
Dudinka paused to catch his breath. Looking first significantly at Musil and then at Kreisel, he continued:
“You should have heard the noise, a tumult broke out like in old bedlam. At first the Yanomamoes were puzzled; they stared wide-eyed at this whooping, gesticulating attacker, obviously a maniac. Taken unawares they fell back, but they soon came up to expectation. Don’t forget, they were known as the Fierce People. Before Rawlins managed to crash the raised bottle over one of the black tousled heads, at least ten spears had pierced his body.
“Then the roused Indians turned to me. In no time I was encircled by at least thirty naked, growling warriors, who raised their spears menacingly. These grotesque figures alone could have instilled fear in the most intrepid heart. Add to it the murderous clamour, plus yapping curs fighting over my heels, and you get an idea what terror is. Making signs of friendship by folding my arms across my chest, and repeating the word friend, I tried to calm them down. Whether it had an effect I could not even guess, for surely none understood what I meant. They brandished their weapons menacingly around me, and one after the other sent ghastly shrieks towards the sky.”
On The Way
Excerpt from Twelve O’Clock Sharp