Down the River
Down the river, towards the boat, floated two corpses, one
pursuing the other. Aguirre watched them, sitting in the boat,
holding his oars still for a moment, motioning for K. Barbie to do
the same, listening to the sound that floating corpses make. Our
boat makes a sound near to that, thought Aguirre, perhaps the same
sound. Perhaps corpses in water and boats in water are the same.
He pointed the corpses out to the other eight in the boat.
Seven of the eight had black decaying flesh and were dead from
the fever. They said nothing. He pointed the floating corpses out
to K. Barbie. Barbie looked at the corpses, said nothing.
The boat had begun to point itself downstream. Aguirre
rowed it around with one oar. The first corpse slid through the
water, knocking its sodden head dumbly against the side of the
boat. Barbie shipped his oars and, reaching down with a pale
fishbelly hand grabbed the corpse by the hair, pulling the head free
of the water. The face was blanched, eyes wide, the mouth open
and thick with water. He let go.
The body slipped back into the water, continued
downstream. The second corpse passed, twisting slowly, face up,
face down, face up. The skin was pure as far as Aguirre could see,
without trace of fever. In one hand the corpse held something
which would glint each time he came face up. Before him in the
boat Aguirre could hear Barbie laughing softly. He did not ask
Barbie about it. He rowed on.
They had been rowing upriver for twelve days. First there
had been nine of them, nine men in the boat. Now there were two
men and seven corpses. Aguirre did not know where they were
going. All he knew is that they were going upriver. When they
reached their destination they would know. Perhaps before they
got there he would fever and die.
Or perhaps K. Barbie would fever and die and Aguirre
would be left alone in the boat, alone with eight corpses. He would
try to move the boat upstream alone, but the boat was perhaps too
large for a lone man to manage. He would sit in the boat, drawing
the oars day after day, rowing but moving neither forward nor
backward, remaining motionless until he too caught the fever and
died. Then the corpse-ridden boat would turn and float
downstream, spinning down the river, out to sea.
He could hear the sound of his oars in the water. Behind he
could hear K. Barbie's oars striking the water, pulling through it,
K. Barbie's voice singing a song in a language Aguirre did not
recognize. The sun was high and hot. To each side of the river
was the dark of the jungle, thick and total. Upstream all he could
see was river and jungle. He wondered if there was something
besides jungle farther upriver. He wondered when he would catch
This is how you can tell if you have the fever, thought
Aguirre. Your tongue is dry and you cannot feel your fingers.
Aguirre moved his fingers. He felt them rub along the rough wood
of the oars. His tongue in his mouth was dry but not dry enough
for it to be fever.
On the ninth day, when all the others were dead, Aguirre
and K. Barbie had made a bet on which of them would die first.
They bet twelve chickens. It was the twelfth day and neither had
won the bet.
At night, they would tie the boat to the trees on the side and
wait for the mosquitos to cover them. They burned green branches
on a tin plate in the bottom of the boat to try to keep the insects
away. The smoke made Aguirre cough. The insects came anyway.
K. Barbie told him that the mosquitos were the only thing saving
them from the fever: mosquitos, he said, sucked the fever from
their veins. Aguirre let them bite him. Sometimes he woke up in
the early light and saw them spread along the backs of his hands,
swollen with blood.
They moved upriver, a little farther each day. The
landscape did not change. Before them was the jungle, to the sides
thick vines, behind them was the jungle. "Where did we start?"
said Aguirre, "Where did we begin?" K. Barbie did not answer.
Aguirre tried to remember where he had been before the river but
remembered nothing distinct. He checked to see if his tongue was
dry. It was not. He and K. Barbie continued rowing.
He thought about the corpses they had seen floating down
the river, one after the other. It could as easily have been he and K.
Barbie. Or any two of the seven dead in the boat.
There was a smell to people who would die from the fever.
He did not have the smell himself. The fever made the flesh go
black. Aguirre looked at his own skin. It was not as pale as
Barbie's, but pale enough to make him believe that he did not have
the fever. He wondered if the fever indicated evil, if those who
died of it went to hell. Conversely, he thought, those who fevered
and died might go to heaven, while K. Barbie and I, without fever,
will go to hell. He wondered where they were going, what the
river led to. He and K. Barbie knew it was necessary to go upriver.
They did not know why. When it was time to know, they would
suddenly know. That was how it would be.
He had thought of throwing the corpses in the boat over the
side so as to escape their smell. But he knew it would not work.
The corpses would not, he believed, float downstream. They
would spin circles around the boat, refusing to leave it. They
would follow the boat upstream. "Never look the dead in the face,"
K. Barbie said, "Or you shall see your own death." Besides,
Aguirre did not dare touch them, for the fever. He and Barbie had
tried to use two oars to lever one of the bodies out of the boat. It
had been Sautero's body. They had stuck an oar under each of his
arms and had lifted him to his feet, trying to move him over the
side of the boat until Aguirre's oar had twisted in his hands and he
had let go. Sautero had fallen, sliding down K. Barbie's oar
towards his hands, slipping off the oar, his body falling between
two of the benches, his blackened hand at the end of the fall resting
on the tip of Barbie's dark boot. Barbie cried out and tore the boot
off, hurling it by the straps spinning over the water. The boot
struck with a splash (the same sound perhaps that a corpse makes
striking the water, thought Aguirre), floated a few feet, filled, sunk.
After that, they let the bodies lie where they had fallen, heaped in
the fore and aft of the boat, K. Barbie and Aguirre keeping to the
two clear benches between.
As they travelled they told each other stories, speaking
softly, Aguirre talking to the back of K. Barbie's head, K. Barbie
talking to the river in front of him. When K. Barbie told a story, it
was hard for Aguirre to understand him because his accent was
thick and he could not see his lips. He looked at the back of K.
Barbie's head, trying to hear the story over the sound of oars and
water. To each side was jungle, thick and dense, twisting upon
itself, seemingly impossible to penetrate. They rowed during the
day, at night tying the boat to the side and listening to the insects
creep across their faces, their closed eyes. They make a scrabbling
noise, Aguirre thought. Nothing like water. When am I going to
die of the fever? If I can hold out longer than K. Barbie, he
thought, I will win twelve chickens.
At night they slept each of them on their own bench.
Aguirre stared at Barbie's feet, one covered with a boot, the other
in a wet sock. One night, K. Barbie told a story about a man and
his travels. He made a journey into uncharted territory, took a bath
in a forbidden river and dissolved, his body spreading out over all
the river, his soul flowing out to sea.
"His name was Pizarro?" said Aguirre.
"No," said K. Barbie, "that was not his name."
Aguirre told a story about a woman named Wormenores
(she had passed through menopause, he explained) who was locked
in a room for ten years with a single blank diary and five hundred
pens. She wrote all her thoughts in the diary. When she was done
she started over again, writing new thoughts over the words she
had written, writing new thoughts over those, writing until the pens
were dry and the pages were a solid black of overlaid words.
"That is the mind," K. Barbie said when Aguirre finished,
"that is how the mind works."
Later, as they lay in the darkness, feeling the insects, Barbie
had asked, "If she was locked in how did she get food?"
"It is not important," Aguirre responded. "Saints live on
Aguirre was not sure where they had come from. From
downstream, was all he knew. They were travelling upstream, he
and Barbie and the corpses, rowing their way up as the river began
to narrow, the current increasing, the boat making less and less
headway. "What is at the top of the river?" Aguirre asked Barbie.
Barbie did not respond.
The river narrowed. The current increased. They rowed
until they were moving forward less than 100 meters a day. "We'll
have to turn back," said Aguirre, saying it loud enough that Barbie
could hear him through the sound of water. Barbie continued
rowing and together they continued, anchoring that night after
progressing 50 meters.
When they could only move forward 25 meters in a day,
they glimpsed a foot path on the east side of the jungle, barely
visible from the river. They did not stop when darkness fell but
continued rowing, trying to angle over to the east bank without
losing ground, gaining it finally as the moon set. They drove a
stake into the ground of the path, tethered the boat to it, lying down
on the benches to sleep fitfully.
When Aguirre awoke, K. Barbie was gone. Aguirre got out
of the boat, careful of the dead, and walked up the path. The path
was hardly wide enough for a single person. The jungle touched
him on both sides. The path slanted upwards slightly, razoring
through the forest. He met K. Barbie coming down the path,
limping in his single boot, carrying in his hands a square steel cage
containing chickens packed tightly against one other and unable to
"There are twelve," said K. Barbie. Aguirre counted them
carefully. There were indeed twelve. They followed the path
down to the boat.
They sat facing each other, letting the boat go, letting it
spin in idle circles, the chickens on the floor between them, bodies
fore and aft. They stared at each other, concentrating on not being
the first to catch the fever.
"Twelve chickens," said K. Barbie. "Twelve chickens,
used carefully, could make one a rich man."
They spun down the river, looking at each other, travelling
day and night, sleeping while sitting. Occasionally K. Barbie
opened his cracked lips to tell a story, but Aguirre could no longer
understand a word he said. Babble to babble, dust to dust, Aguirre
thought. Sometimes K. Barbie's hand would slip over the side of
the boat and trail pale in the water (still white, Aguirre thought, he
is still white, while I can feel the fever blackening me inside,
eating me hollow like a double handful of maggots). Barbie left
his hand there until the fish began to tug at it. Then he would pull
it free, laying it on the bench next to him. Aguirre watched it drip.
One day Barbie took a key from his pocket, unlocked the
cage, and slid the top off of it. The chickens burst free and were
everywhere in the boat. Soon they had discovered the dead bodies
and had migrated to them, pecking at them, slowly pecking the
flesh free from the bones. From then on K. Barbie freed them
during the day, gathering them at night to force them back into the
cage. Or rather forcing eleven of them back into the cage: he
could never make the final chicken fit. He held the twelfth chicken
in his arms, sleeping with it.
They were going down the river. During the day the
chickens pecked at the corpses, pecking them down to rough bone.
At night, K. Barbie and Aguirre stared at the caged chickens and
thought of what they would do if they had twelve chickens, and
then they would fall asleep. Sometimes Aguirre wanted to hold the
chicken that wouldn't fit, the twelfth chicken, but he never dared
ask K. Barbie if he could.
It was Aguirre who first saw the two corpses, bloated, half
eaten, the remaining skin still white, entangled in the bushes to one
side of the river. One was in front of the other, its eyes wide. The
other behind seemed to be staring at the first with its empty
sockets. It held in the remains of its hand a knife, the blade
disfigured with rust. He listened to hear if the corpses made a
sound. He heard nothing. He pointed them out to Barbie, pointed
out the knife. Barbie smiled, said nothing, simply nodded. The
boat drifted past.
Aguirre did not know where they were going. They were
going downriver, he knew, but that was all. When they reached
where they were going, he would know. He wondered if he or
Barbie would win the bet.
One day, when he awoke, he saw that the chickens in the
cage were not moving. The quills at the base of their feathers had
started turning black. The chicken in K. Barbie's arms was all
black. All the chickens were dead. Aguirre woke K. Barbie with
an oar, nudging him with it, careful not to touch him. K. Barbie
stared at the chickens in the cage, at the chicken in his arms. He
took from his pocket a pair of tiny scissors, a spool of thick black
thread, and a needle. He sewed the chickens together by their
wings, making a circle of chickens, enclosing himself in the circle.
Aguirre knew then that he would win the bet. But he would in
nothing: the chickens were dead. They would make no man rich.
The river grew wider. K. Barbie's skin blackened. One
night Aguirre awoke to find K. Barbie standing over him, staring at
him, his shadowy hands running over Aguirre's face, his nails
scrabbling like insects. Aguirre pushed him away, but it was too
late. He sat in the dark waiting for dawn, and felt his body slowly
give way to the fever, feeling the tactile sense run out of his
fingers, feeling his tongue dry out and stick to the roof of his
mouth. When morning came, he could see the darkness spreading
up his arms. He confessed his sins to K. Barbie, who said nothing.
They floated on. "It hasn't been a bad life," said Aguirre aloud,
"not bad at all." K. Barbie, resting in the circle of chickens, one
boot missing, stared out over the river.
The river opened up and they could see the end of the
jungle and the beginning of the sea. I have seen the sea, thought
Aguirre, now I can die. He imagined their boat of nine corpses
wandering the sea forever. This is just the beginning, he thought,
though he knew it was no such thing.
As they approached the mouth of the sea, Aguirre noticed
behind them, coming down the river, two shapes. They were
moving fast, cutting through the water as if propelled by a force.
He pointed them out to K. Barbie. They both watched as two
corpses, one pursuing the other, slid past, stripped of their flesh
now, nothing but yellowed bone. The knife of the second one was
gone but the bones of his hand remained clenched. Aguirre
listened to the sound they made. It was a rushing, gurgling sound.
The boat, thought Aguirre, makes a similar sound. I wonder, he
thought, if my corpse and K. Barbie's will make the same sound as
theirs. He looked over at Barbie. Barbie's eyes were closed. The
skeletons moved out of the river into the sea, sank beneath the
Aguirre shook K. Barbie. He did not move. He pushed K.
Barbie over the side. The body made a curious noise when it hit.
The sea swallowed it immediately. Aguirre sat down where Barbie
had been sitting, in the circle of chickens, corpses picked clean
both fore and aft. He felt his tongue cleave to the roof of his
mouth. The sea was all around him: in front of him, behind, to
both sides, deep, impenetrable. He stared out over the sea, and