ONE ROAD by William Weitzel
IT WAS LATE AND HE'D HAD a few beers when the truck rolled on him and he ended up nearly upside down with the wheels hung in the air. It was a big rig for such a road. And he was a little drunk. The truth was he’d been making up time after the river crossing and the long dinner he’d had at the rest house on the north bank of the Essequibo River, and now he’d come around a bend too quickly. For a long while, uninjured, Michael lay in the cab across the backrest of the passenger seat, his feet drawn forward to rest on the windshield. His lights were still on. In fact, the vehicle was still engaged in gear. But he was going nowhere.
The forest loomed closely on both sides. His engine had caught and shut off as the truck bellied over, and now the noise of the forest grew loud and insistent. The cry of the screaming piha, high in the overhanging canopy, began as a low whistle that got louder until it came in bursts at the end of each call. It was an astounding sound, one they tried to imitate in the mines. Some of the miners, from Brazil, from Boa Vista and farther to the south, had perfected it. They could arouse an entire tract of forest. At the same time, the bauxite mines that had begun in the northeast of Guyana, along the Berbice River, had spread their operations. And now small-time gold mining, with prices of gold on the rise, had proliferated. In places along river banks where land dredges and mechanized sluices had been set up, first the animals then even the birds had fled. The men, hungry and bored, would hunt out the capybara and the peccary and even shoot at harpy eagles if they found their roosts. After two weeks on site, in many places, you could make your call and nothing would answer.
But not here. Along the road you could still see anything, at any time, and the screaming pihas, though nearly invisible, were loud and abundant. Michael rose and felt his back which seemed fine, surprisingly intact. He climbed out of the passenger-side window, the glass long gone after so many years, up onto the side of the truck that now faced the sky. He climbed out onto the tire and hung down and dropped. He was strong and athletic. While the other men were often fighters at the mines, he was not. He could take punishment though. He prided himself on that. He had never started a fight in his life. But he’d lived through many.
The last pontoon ferry at Kurupukari had been 6pm. He’d made it north for that, coming up from Lethem with full cargo, and then, after the fish and the beers, there had been several hours in the dark without another vehicle the whole stretch. Then this. The bend in the dirt track had come just after a rise and he’d accelerated to make the grade. Now he was sunk in a low valley, where the track had been converted by recent rains into deep mud sloughs, and he walked beside the truck in bare feet through standing water up to his thighs.
Nonetheless it was warm. Even beforehand, he’d been sweating in the cab, negotiating long, deep potholes and getting out somewhere in the night to drag a heavy tree limb out of the road. Michael thought now to try his cell phone which he still had on him, despite everything. He had had service 10 hours south in Lethem but not here. He calculated he was still roughly five hours short of Georgetown. Here, in the deep forest, there was no connectivity. Best to wait it out. By no means could he leave his rig. It was chock full of a hodgepodge of things, a quarter shipment of orange juice in waxed paper containers from Bom Fin across the Takutu River in Brazil, suction hoses that were in need of repair before they went up for sale, sluice boxes, light blue and immoveable, and other gear from the mines that went back and forth from Lethem to Georgetown on the Caribbean Sea.
Michael dared not climb back into the cab. The overturned truck was situated half in and half out of the deep mud track of the road and anything coming from either direction would need to break sharply on soft loam to avoid colliding with it. He had no flares or cones, but he waded and then trudged up the near side of the valley, from which he’d come, and stationed himself there. From the other side, to the north, he reasoned, vehicles would have slightly more time to stop or evade. From this side, on the other hand, he would give them warning himself.
After much time, perhaps hours, a vehicle did come. Standing on the rise, he heard it first and then, after a time, glimpsed the lights flickering then disappearing as the vehicle dipped into the long, deep holes on the track. Finally it had climbed the hill and Michael hailed it, waving his arms and standing in the center of the road. It was a Toyota Hilux, he could see that by the lights and the roof of the single cab.
He noted as he drew near that there was a woman in the cab and an elderly driver, an African, grey-haired and spare, perhaps feeble. The women was white, relatively young, and she looked frightened, wary at the least.
“I’ve overturned,” shouted Michael into the open windows, sticking his head into the vehicle and staring first at the driver and then at the woman in the back who was upright and alert, lit in red by the vehicle’s faint interior glow. “You won’t pass tonight.”
The old man at the wheel gazed down away from Michael into the narrow valley at the truck on its side. When Michael turned his own head there was almost nothing else. A pitch blackness reigned down there. The forest canopy foreshortened the view and narrowed it to a tunnel, and the beams from the Hilux caught his sideways rig askant so the canvas tie-down over the long truck bed threw up a grey mass of light.
“Well there must be a way around,” said the woman from the back seat.
“Not tonight,” answered Michael. “They’ll need a full excavator, probably a fuel truck, and a work team from Linden.” He groaned inwardly. It had never happened before to him, though he’d seen it a hundred times on the road. What was worse for the other vehicles was that it was not a company truck. It was his own. He’d bought it in Bom Fin and begun a kind of transit business three years earlier to escape the malaria that was sweeping the small-time gold concessions. The mines deep in the forest were populated with workers from Brazil, themselves coming in by sea to Rio de Janeiro from Pakistan and the Philippines, and the foremen were mostly Creoles who spoke Portuguese. Michael was from Georgetown on the northern coast, his mother from Trinidad, and the rainforest famously spelled sickness, bred by sheer numbers of transients and poor conditions, to those like him come down into the interior from the capital to work in the gold and bauxite mines to the south. In any case, the truck was his and there was no company to send its men down from Linden into the interior to help him gather his cargo and haul out the vehicle if it was no longer road-worthy. They’d have to wait for the work crews.
“No phone,” whispered the driver, “or I’d give it to you.”
Michael looked at the old man and smiled.
“It’s alright, father,” he said. “We’ll get by.”
“What do you mean not tonight?” asked the woman after a long pause.
“One road,” answered Michael. “And it’s blocked.”
Michael looked at the woman in the back seat of the vehicle. For some reason, she was scarcely visible now. A voice with the dimmest of bodies. He waited for her to speak again. If nothing else, then the better to locate her.
“How long?” she asked.
Michael thought for a moment. It was already late, perhaps one in the morning.
“By the afternoon.”
He heard her sigh. “That’s too late.”
It turned out the woman had a plane to catch. Once she finally stepped out of the Hilux, as though reconciled at last to the possibility of delay, she began to speak freely, liberally, about all kinds of things. She was surprisingly open. Even trusting, Michael thought.
“There’s another way around,” he told her after a while. “But it’s not a road.”
The woman perked up, seemed interested, so he continued.
“It’s a hunter’s trail. You’d have to walk.”
“From here? Where will I get by walking from here?”
Indeed, they were over a hundred kilometers south of Linden and the Demerara River, then another hundred to Georgetown.
“Not far,” croaked the old driver. “You won’t get far.”
“You’ll get to a local village.” And the woman looked at Michael, her eyes coming over across the forest to his. She was staring at him now, measuring him perhaps. She’d come out into the headlights.
“Where’s that?” she asked quietly.
“It’s an Amerindian village. Macushi people,” Michael explained. And she was silent.
“You can get transport from there. There’ll be a truck. They’ve cut a track back to the road.”
The old man still had the engine running, because he’s an old man, thought Michael, and now he’s lost his sense. Then the woman had stepped back into the darkness.
“Save your gas,” whispered Michael to the driver, and the old man shut off his engine. It seemed he’d already been swallowed by the coming day of motionlessness. He’d slumped down in his chair. He was preparing to sleep. Apparently pretending to think through options to help the woman, but already falling asleep.
“If your driver stays with my rig, I can take you.”
Michael thought he’d salvage something that way. Maybe she’d pay him. And he could place some calls once they’d made it in the truck from the village out to the next gas depot. There at the depot, fifty kilometers north along the road, they had a phone and he could eat lunch and alert his buyers of the delay.
“In the dark?” the woman asked.
“I’ve got a light,” answered Michael, “and I know the route.”
He could not see if the woman was looking at him doubtfully or with interest. The forest cloaked her, reached forward to cover her body, and shut out all but a narrow stripe of the sky. She was tall, white, blonde. Her hair was long and tied back neatly. But these were things he’d noted before, first in the red glow of the Hilux and then again in the wash of its beams. Now he could see almost nothing. It was again a matter of her voice, of waiting to hear if it would speak again. And what it would say.
“So where is this path, and how long?”
It turned out she had an air of authority about her. She was important, experienced, Michael thought. He’d lived in America for seven years, just north of Miami, with an uncle who ran a cargo business. It was an import/export firm and Michael had given it seven years of his blood. Traveling all over the Caribbean, to Guatemala and Honduras, and back and forth to Caracas with shipping containers of kidney beans and coffee. Business people all over the world were the same, he thought. You knew one when you met one.
“It’s up ahead. Maybe five kilometers out. Then two hours in the forest to the village.”
“Why not just walk along the road to the truck path and follow it in to the village?”
Michael began to believe that she was intelligent, perhaps too intelligent either to trust or to fool, though he wasn’t ready to grant anything yet.
“I think I’ll wait,” she told the driver who had already closed his eyes and nodded off, his mouth spread open.
And she drifted away, as though they’d never been speaking. As though she and her driver, after the long slog together through the mud pits and the water holes, were still out on the road alone.
The mercury they used to break down the soil substratum before suctioning out the gold leached into stagnant pools created by mechanized sluices around the mines. Most of these mines were illegal and brought by the road. With the road came access, and when it first crossed the Demerara River at Linden in 1968, the old cattle trail all the way into the interior to Annai became a dirt track navigable by mechanized vehicles into the heart of the forest and down into sprawling savannah country. The illegal mines that sprang up now by the day were often far south, destroying rich habitats where Wapishana and Wai-Wai peoples fished and hunted, and while the stagnant pools within the streambeds brought hordes of mosquitoes and malaria to crowded workers, the mercury and the noise forced animal migrations and created temporary dead zones in the heart of the rainforest.
One result was that Amerindian villagers traveled farther into the forest for food. Hunters made longer trips, were gone for greater periods, and took higher risks to find sustenance. Some of them did not come back. A few lost their way. Others were killed or waylaid by temporary workers from Brazil who were frequently bitter or concealing illegal operations. There were feuds in the forest over land, over mine slurry and tailings that were bad for hunting and killed the fish. But not a few of these Macushi and Wapishana men who walked deep into the forest in search of bush pig and bush cow were killed by Lachesis, or the bushmaster, whom they called the silent bringer of death.
“That is not a safe track for walking,” Michael explained softly to the woman, so as not to wake the driver, after almost a half an hour had gone by. “There can be snakes.”
He had approached her warily, to explain himself. She was lying in the back of the Hilux and he pushed his face only a small distance in through the open window toward her feet. She was sprawled out lengthwise on the seats.
“It is safer to walk the other way if you would like to walk.” He waited for her to speak then added, “along the hunter’s trail.”
“I think I’ll wait,” she repeated.
Strangely, however, after several more minutes, Michael heard the door of the Hilux open and gently close, and she came out to him. She must have been thinking it over after all, he decided.
“You have a light?” she asked.
“Yes, I have a good light.”
“I have headlamps and batteries,” and she pointed toward the Hilux.
“Bring them if you would like to go, but they will be too small.” Michael got up and walked down into the low valley and into the water to where his rig lay. He climbed up the front grill then over to the window and located behind the passenger seat his handheld flashlight which was a large, industrial LED.
“What kind of snakes?” she asked when he was back up on the rise and squatting beside her. She’d sat down on the sideboard which was bent and pulling off the chassis of the Hilux, and her knees came up high. She was tall, Michael had noticed before.
And once again she was talking freely. She explained that she had been hiking with a group and they’d run into trouble in the Iwokrama rainforest farther to the south. Conservation land that, apart from official census gridding and an occasional scientific transect, mainly for poison dart frogs or butterflies, was scarcely explored. They’d seen no pit vipers but a woman in their party broke her leg on a river crossing beyond the Iwokrama range, on the far side of the mountains from the road. The rivers were swollen from heavy rains and chock full of boulders. Two local Amerindian men had built a body sling out of cecropia branches and a hammock and they and the four foreigners, alternating portage, had all made it out but it took them five days and now she had had to hire this old man and his Hilux, and even so she was likely to miss her flight. There were other things too. Promises to a friend. A surgery. But from what Michael could make out, the woman was not ill. The surgery was for someone else and it was pride or loyalty that told her she had to be home.
“That’s a good truck you’re in,” Michael said simply after all of it. “It’ll get you there. An old Hilux like this is stronger than the trucks they make today.”
But the woman decided she couldn’t wait after all. So Michael walked over to the driver and took his shoulder in his hand. He shook him gently. The man murmured in his sleep but was far away. When Michael shook him again, more vigorously, he awoke and shot his eyes into Michael’s, through the dimness, and flinched.
“It’s alright, father,” Michael purred to him. “I need you to watch my rig.”
And Michael arranged it all with the driver. If the old man continued on to Georgetown, once they’d cleared a lane around his rig for vehicles, Michael would pay for the gas and then hire the old man to drive him back down the road into the interior to his rig. There would be no difference in the pay, he assured him. He’d make sure the driver got the money that was coming to him.
Then he showed the woman his light.
“That is strong,” she agreed.
In the meantime, she’d put on her pack, which was large. When Michael offered to carry it for her she refused him. She was strong, he noticed. Tall and strong. And they walked down the road into the quagmire.
After they’d passed his rig and waded through the high water and out of the mud they started up the far slope and legged out several kilometers on the road. Still nothing came. There were no vehicles out here in the middle of the night. People waited for dawn to head into the interior, unless they were desperate or late.
The truth was it had been years since the last time Michael had been out into the forest to the village. He’d originally gone out there to make trouble. Not for bauxite mining, there was nothing of that sort. And not even the small gold concessions. He’d never intended to open a mine. He’d gone out there to log, to begin a timber operation without the permits, at least ten years before. And the villagers had said no. He had had ready money to offer, up front, and, after all, they’d already built the truck track, he’d cooed. But they’d said no. He’d walked the forest path before he even owned a vehicle several times. Each time they invited him to spend the night. They hadn’t laughed, or mistreated him, or threatened him. They’d never murdered him in his bed. They’d even warned him about the danger of the truck path. And always he’d felt like a dog, a black dog from the capital, and ridden in their vehicle back out to the road.
“Why should I trust you?” asked the woman when they were still walking on the road and there was no moon and there were already kilometers opened up between them and the Hilux and the sleeping old man.
But Michael ignored the question. Instead he told her about the problem with the truck track from the road out to the village, which was rough and narrow and consisted in two tire grooves in the red mud with heavy vegetation in the center that scraped the undercarriage and grew up above the hood level of a pick-up.
“The bushmaster hides in the center of the track, in the brush,” he told her.
“Anything that comes.”
They never found the forest path. Finding forest paths off the road on a moonless night was one of those things everyone believed they could do but almost no one could do. Even with a good light. Once in a while maybe, when you were fortunate. But few carried that kind of fortune inside them.
“We must have passed it,” Michael said at last. He expected the woman to be full of blame. To turn against him. But she was silent.
“Should we turn back and search?” she asked after they’d continued to walk.
“I don’t know. It may have grown over. They may not use it much anymore.”
He imagined she was considering. Thinking it all over as usual. That soon she’d suggest what he was bound to suggest, which was that they turn back.
But since she said nothing, for reasons Michael himself did not fully understand, they continued walking, with the canopy arched over the road and leering. With the screaming pihas high above them like high-pitched telephones searching for signals, seeking a bead on something far away and echoing.
They walked on for hours until, according to Michael’s estimates, they were beginning to approach the truck track to the village that left the road and wandered into the forest for six kilometers or so.
Once along the way a vehicle passed them which they hailed in order to warn the driver of the downed rig. But it was on the downslope of the hill, just after it had crested a rise, and it careened past them.
“He must have seen us waving,” said the woman.
“Yes,” said Michael. “They don’t always stop. Sometimes there are bad people out on the road.”
The woman appeared to be tireless. Michael himself carried only his truck keys and the heavy flashlight. The truth was he had a hunting knife strapped to the side of his leg between his calf and his shin and sheathed all in leather. But other than that he was walking freely. The woman, on the other hand, was loaded down. Her pack must have been 75 kilos and it was bulging full. Yet she strode onward, straight through the mud sloughs, lifting her feet powerfully, wading up to her waist in places, but moving fast and without hesitation.
Finally, when they came to the break in the forest edge that held Michael’s step, she halted with him and waited.
He shone the light, arced it across the track, pausing at each of the truck grooves then tracking the line of the canopy above.
“This is the truck track,” he said. “We can wait here and perhaps they will drive out after dawn.”
“What if they don’t?”
“Then we can catch a ride back to your driver and wait.”
Once again the woman seemed to be thinking.
“This goes straight in to the village?”
“Then if I can walk with your light, I think I’ll take the risk.”
“No,” said Michael. “Here it is not safe to walk.” And he moved over toward her and barred her way.
Yet she quickly stepped aside from him. It was still a ways short of dawn. Maybe an hour. Michael had glimpsed stars directly overhead in the darkness that, if anything, had been intensifying over the last part of their swift progress on the road.
“I’m sorry,” she said, very loudly he thought, and then, as she had done earlier in the night, she repeated herself. “But I think I’ll take the risk.”
Michael watched as the woman moved onto the truck track. He watched until she was no longer a form but only a light. In the meantime he called to her to stop. He yelled to her. He hollered out into the darkness toward her headlamp that in certain years the track had been a breeding sight. That you could not predict when. That the worst time to walk there was at night. He yelled out everything they had told him ten years earlier as the headlamp flickered, grew distant.
Then Michael unsheathed his long straight knife and for no reason he could follow, because he was suddenly in league with all the insanity of his life, he tore off with it stretched cross-wise in front of his throat down the truck track into the forest.
When he found the woman she was already on the ground. He rushed toward her, brandishing his knife, flashing the area with his light. Preparing to defend her. Yet already, she was beginning to rise.
“I just stumbled. I’m fine.”
She lifted herself and in one motion as he watched her, pivoting as he did so to turn his light into the understory, she was back on her feet and moving.
“Please wear your pack in the front.”
She paused and he waited as she removed her pack and awkwardly shouldered the harness so it fronted her.
“Please let me walk first with my light.”
And the woman said nothing but she slowed down and allowed Michael to lead her. He noted that she walked in the same tire track, behind him, and did not complain of his pace. As he scoured the vegetation at the center of the track, and poked his light among fallen limbs, across lianas, into the crannies of buttressed roots, he began to relax slightly. After a while, once again, she began talking. She was a doctor. She carried anti-venom wherever she went. She’d spent years in what she called “the tropics,” which was a term Michael seldom heard in Guyana.
“The bushmaster,” he told her in reply, “will coil in one place for two weeks. If you see him before he can strike, and you turn back the other way, he will wait for many days until you return.”
“Why would he do that?” asked the woman.
“We don’t know,” said Michael. “Because he is angry.”
Then Michael explained that many men when they were clearing for a mine were killed by bushmasters. That his father had once told him a bushmaster, with its broad head, its heavy body, with the tall ridge on its back and its long folded fangs, has the gift of being small and silent until the last moment before he stands up.
“Then before you see him he will strike down at your chest or your head. He waits in the dark. And if he can, he will strike at your eyes.”
The woman seemed unfazed by all of this. She said very little about this threat, as if the snake was of no concern.
“Yes,” she said, “they are two, maybe three meters long and very wide in the body. The venom is hemotoxic. But I’m told you rarely see them.”
Toward dawn an agouti crossed their path, a noisy, furred rodent ball, gorged on Brazil nuts.
“Only agouti,” said Michael and at last, as the light was growing, slanting through the trees, they reached the village. There was a truck there. Michael began to make inquiries, but soon the woman was speaking on her own behalf. Michael fell silent. When she mentioned the bushmaster and the truck track one of the older men laughed.
“Nothing like that around here anymore. Too many trucks,” and he laughed again. The woman laughed too, quietly, kindly, Michael thought. She seemed relieved to have found transport. There must be something serious that called her home, he decided. When the topic of the danger from snakes came up again they were making arrangements to depart. Again there was laughter. The villagers began talking about the bushmaster, how he could stay silent and survive by eating only ten times in a year. But that he must eat a brocket deer or a man one of those times or he will starve. Michael mentioned that more than once he’d seen two bites at the mines come from a single strike, one on the neck and one just above. And though he did not, the others all laughed very hard now.
“No, no,” said one of the Macushi men who was dressed in overalls, who had a wrench in his hand and who was preparing the truck, who was now the driver of a truck, “the bushmaster has gone far off into the forest.” He waved his hand in the air away from the road then let it drop to his side.
“Too many trucks,” repeated another and the woman smiled at Michael and offered again to take him first to his rig before they headed north to the capital.
“No,” he assured her, “you are late. I will walk on the forest path, the old hunter’s path back to the road.”
And as he walked back on the narrow forest trail without having made his calls to clients, without ever reaching the gas depot where there would be a phone, he was thinking that soon there would be many roads into the interior. And soon there would be many drivers just like him. But now, when there was just one road, it was still possible to see a jaguar drying its fur after the rains. She would come out, the jaguar, into a patch of sun in a clearing on the road where the canopy broke above her. Toucans were often there, like broken branches.
Everything had nearly changed, he was thinking, but not yet. And because he was still a young man, though not stupid or without memories, Michael moved with caution on the hunter’s path that had once been the old cattle trail to Annai and was now overgrown. He looked to the sides and far ahead. He used what little sunlight penetrated so far, past epiphytes and bromeliads, into the understory of the forest. After all, even in his time, he had known many men who had died of malaria and the bushmaster.
So that when he saw the snake and stepped back, then stepped back again, and marveled at it, at the rough scales on the dorsal ridge, the broad triangular head, at its height which came even with his eyes, he was still far enough off. Far enough to laugh softly and stand his ground. To stare back at this giant, this killer, so close to the village and the road, and witness his silent beauty. Then, after what seemed a long time, where nothing at all was moving in the world, Michael turned and walked off the other way.
WILLIAM WEITZEL teaches fiction and writing at Harvard University and has just completed his first novel—a coming-of-age narrative about risk and loss in the intertwined memories of four friends in the woods. Most recently, he was a finalist for the A.E. Coppard Prize for Fiction, and his work has been published in the White Whale Review and is forthcoming in the New Orleans Review and Southwest Review. He is currently at work on a series of short stories that showcase mountain ecologies and contemporary human relations to wilderness, along with a second novel based on his three months in the Hindu Kush mountains of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. In recent years, he has driven a 4X4 truck on a south-north transect of the Kalahari Desert, choppered into Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan range and hiked out, and dodged caiman in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve in Peru.