Authors: Louis Bayard
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To Jill Hilliard, who thought I might make a go of this
This book is, by design, a psychological fantasy built out of historical events and should not be confused with actual history. For the true story of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition, the place to go is Candice Millard’s gripping and authoritative
The River of Doubt.
Thanks as always to my research angel, Abby Yochelson. Thanks to my agent, Christopher Schelling, and my wonderful tag-team of editors, Marjorie Braman and Sarah Bowlin. Thanks to Marcio and Luisa Duffles for backstopping my Portuguese. I’m grateful for the ongoing counsel and company of other writers, including (but certainly not limited to) Dennis Drabelle, Adam Goodheart, Jennifer Howard, Tim Krepp, Gary Krist, Thomas Mallon, Thomas Mullen, Bethanne Patrick, Robert Pohl, James Reese, Frederick Reuss, Daniel Stashower, Hank Stuever, and Mark Trainer. Grateful, too, for the kindness and encouragement of Kim Roosevelt, who will excuse (I hope) the liberties I’ve taken with his ancestors.
And thanks to Don.
Chapters or Parts
Roosevelt Family Tree
Also by Louis Bayard
About the Author
June 3, 1943
After all these years, his best friend is malaria.
Even on the brink of an Alaska summer, it comes calling: a bone-deep chill one night, a ministry of sweat the next. Calling him back to old battles. That afternoon he spent shivering in the Baghdad desert, say, while hundreds of Turkish camels and men rotted around him. Or those mornings on the Rio da Dúvida when old Dr. Cajazeira, like a miser with a golden hoard, would reach into his jaguar-skin pouch and dole out his drabs of quinine. Jesuit’s powder, they used to call it, and in memory it does sit like a Communion wafer on each man’s tongue. Never enough to keep the sickness at bay, but enough to keep it within bounds.
Vile stuff. The British had the right idea, stirring it into sugar water. In the old days, whenever Belle raised an eyebrow at one of his gin and tonics, Kermit would murmur, “Prophylaxis, sweetheart.”
Gin is lost to him now. Whiskey, too. Scotch and soda. His stomach sends it all back. Wine is the one drink he can hang on to: a glass upon rising, two more before lunch, and then punctually through the rest of the day and evening.
There are days he thinks he should give up even that. The problem, as always, is finding a replacement. Tobacco has lost its savor; sex is a memory. A year ago, there was some small hope of mortal peril. The Japanese still held a pair of Aleutian Islands, and any minute a fleet of Lilys and Bettys might come roaring out of the clouds, raining down fire.
But the skies have stayed silent, and the Japs have been blasted out of Attu, and word is they’ll soon be evacuating Kiska. The danger has passed, and Major Kermit Roosevelt—recipient of the Military Cross, veteran of campaigns in France and Norway and North Africa and Mesopotamia—is a toy soldier.
No one expects him to show up for reveille, drills, parades. His presence is no longer requested at officers’ mess. His pilot friends have long since shipped out. “We’re going where the action is,” they said.
Left to his own devices, he reads, a little. Plays poker if he can find anyone to play. Contract bridge, if he can snap his mind around it. When that fails, he strolls into town, although even this is not without its risks. He loses breath without warning and stumbles. He’s been known to tip over in the street. There are moments when he catches sight of himself in a shop window (tottering along like an ancient sexton, fleshy, freely sweating) or, worse still, finds a knot of young recruits studying him from a half-respectful distance. He shuts his eyes, but he can always hear someone whispering his name. And someone whispering back:
It takes work, he wants to tell them. To look like this.
* * *
E IS FIFTY-THREE.
was roughly the same age when he took a bullet to the chest. Scorned the doctors and strode straight to the lectern of Milwaukee Auditorium. Flung open his coat to reveal the blood blossoming across his white vest. “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!” he cried.
The doctors never did get the bullet out. He carried it, nestled against his rib cage, for the rest of his mortal coil.
Well, that’s how he was. Snubbed Death at every turn, wouldn’t give it the time of day. Kermit, being more hospitable, makes a point of greeting it each morning in the washstand mirror. Noting how much thinner the arms have grown since yesterday and, by contrast, how much more pronounced the bloat of his face and belly. Inch by inch, the finish line approaches, and all he can think is:
Get on with it.
No, that’s not quite true. Sometimes he thinks:
I have never looked more like Father.
* * *
NCHORAGE SHOULD HAVE BEEN
just the tonic for him. Wilderness on every side. Black and brown bear, moose, Dall sheep. Salmon and trout and grayling practically climbing up your fishing line. Unholy numbers of stars.
Father would have loved the place. At least until evening, when Anchorage casts off its virgin’s weeds, and the soldiers swarm into the bars and canteens and USO clubs, seeking liquor and women, both of which come easily but never cheaply.
Even tonight—nine p.m. on a Thursday—the town is bursting at every seam. Fights are breaking out, only half in earnest, and privates are howling to a moon that is still hours away from appearing. The air is thick with beer and vomit and rotting sheepskin.
No, the Colonel would not have approved of Anchorage at night, but for someone with no stake in things, the town has its uses. Not a soul stops him as he traces his usual path past the Anchorage Hotel and the Arctic Commercial Store. He follows the ruts in the streets, stepping over discarded gas masks and bomber boots and coming at last to an old passenger car, formerly affiliated with the Alaska Railroad and now refitted as Nellie’s Diner. His second home.
Leaning his bulk against the door, he catches the familiar sting of grease smoke billowing from the kitchen stoves, the scents of bourbon and beef juice. His eyes, ranging through the half-light, pick out an empty stool at the end of the counter. Then he hears a voice calling after him.
In the newly built dining room, a man rises from one of the booths. Jug ears and a sun-fissured face and a nonregulation muskrat coat. Major Marvin Marston.
“Come join me,” says Marston.
Kermit is conscious now of his own panting. He takes a dodgy step forward. Pauses, then finishes the rest of the distance at his own pace.
“Nice surprise,” he says, easing himself onto the leather banquette. “Running into you here.”
“No surprise at all,” says Marston with his grim smile. “I was hoping to find you.”
“Well. I am found. If you like, you can make the rounds with me tonight. I’m supposed to enforce the blackout.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
A blur of movement at their flanks. Nellie herself: moonfaced, barely as tall as the table.
“Hiya, boys! Lemme guess: Dry muscat for Major Roosevelt. Shot of Johnnie Walker Swing for the other major.”
“Make it a double,” says Marston.
“Special tonight is calves’ liver and bacon.”
Kermit’s stomach performs a slow revolution.
“Just the cold ham sandwich, Nellie.”
“Toast is five cents extra.”
“So be it.”
“Sirloin,” says Marston. As Nellie strides back to the counter, he calls after her, “Keep it bloody, huh?” With a dreamlike slowness, he folds and refolds the napkin in his lap. “Say now,” he says. “This is some Army we got ourselves mixed up in.”
“General Buckner, is it?”
“Naw, it’s everyone underneath. Toadies, desk jockeys. A fella comes along with an idea—an honest-to-God idea—they want to drown it in paper.”
Kermit is familiar with Major Marston’s idea: the Tundra Army. A guerrilla force to be composed entirely of Eskimos and Indians, patrolling the Alaskan coastline for enemy incursions. The first and last word in homeland defense.
“I don’t understand,” says Kermit. “The Army’s given you rifles, haven’t they?”
“Springfields and Enfields. Older than my granny. Even that was a struggle.
What if they turn around and use ’em on us?
Morons. Not one of our bright shining military lights has a clue what these people are like.”
Two glasses come sliding across the table. Marston seizes his and drains it.
“I’m telling you, Major, my boys need a champion.”
“Someone way over Buckner’s head. Someone who can rally public sentiment.”
Smiling softly, Kermit begins the slow decanting of wine into throat. Feels the old flush of warmth in his sternum. The warning shot from his belly.
“I can’t be sure,” he says. “To which of my cousins are you referring?”
“With all due respect, the First Lady’d be just the ticket. Give me two days with Mrs. Roosevelt, my little army would never want for anything again.”
The food saves Kermit from replying. Very studiously, he prizes the slab of ham from his sandwich. Pushes it around the plate with his fork and then, on further consideration, leaves it alone.
“Well, you see…” He gnaws off a corner of bread. “My standing, you see, within the larger family … I mean, the only reason I’m even here, the reason I’m able to share this delightful meal with you, is that neither the president nor the First Lady particularly wants me to come knocking. Any more than my brothers do.” He stares at the bun and returns it to its plate. “Now, the U.S. Army may be every bit as incompetent as you say, but they
found the one stage in the entire theater of war where I can’t embarrass anyone. All of this by way of explaining—I’m not sure I’m the man to woo Cousin Eleanor for you. As happy as I would be to…”
His voice is already flagging. With a grunt of despair, he adds, “How about that governor of yours? Gruening. He’s a presidential appointee, isn’t he? Just the man to make your case in Washington.”
“You’re probably right.”
Marston has few social graces, but he never sulks. Blocked in one direction, he simply fixes his sights on another.
Over, under, through,
thinks Kermit, recalling Father’s old directive.
But never around
Kermit waits quietly for Marston to finish his steak. Then he tosses down a ten-dollar bill and, steadying himself against the table, rises from the banquette.
“Let’s take a stroll, shall we?”
* * *
EN O’CLOCK, AND THE
sun has only begun to sink. It will be nearly midnight before it disappears altogether, and five hours later it will pop up again, taking with it the last promise of sleep. What a terror summer can be.
They walk past Providence Hospital, Marston’s loping stride held in check by Kermit’s shambling. The streets are thinning out, but at the boarded-up entrance to the Federal Building, they come across a young seaman earnestly negotiating with a woman. The sailor’s like something from a Maxfield Parrish print—ginger-bearded, with a gold earring—but it’s the woman who catches Kermit’s eyes. Anywhere from ten to twenty years older than her client. Rawboned, in a green silk dress, her face carved by cosmetics into a mask of scorn.
But that same mask, as Kermit passes, dissolves in the lamplight, and a new face flashes out at him. Dusky skin. Hair parted down the middle. Flecked hazel eyes. He stops.
“All right?” asks Marston.
The woman and her suitor are squinting at him now.
“Nothing here for you, sir,” says the sailor.
Kermit staggers away. Marston follows close behind.
“Friend of yours?” he asks.
Just an old relation,
he wants to say.
Someone I see now and again.
* * *
HE LAST TIME WAS
in a hospital room in Vancouver. He’d been peeing blood, and a Canadian doctor, not knowing what else to do, had kept him on a soft tide of morphine. It rolled him in and out of consciousness and then woke him for good late in the evening. She was there, standing in the room’s shadows.
I want you to take him with you.…
And then the room reconfigured itself, and it was Belle standing there. Belle. The mother of his children. Looking tinier than ever in an ermine coat he was fairly certain he’d never bought for her. He almost called her by name, but she put a finger to her lips. A minute later, she was gone.
Such a long way to come, he’d thought, for such a brief audience. He can only believe that, before severing the last cord, she had needed to see him in that bare unaccommodated state, without the distractions of the other women—the other
all those voices telling her what to do.
(Think of yourself, the children, your reputation.)
Here she could look at the man who was her husband, at this lowest of ebbs, could stare into his damp, bleary, blood-drained face and realize there was no reclaiming him. That to be unreclaimed was, in fact, his fondest wish.
She came, she saw, she left without a word. And now she is gone—gone for good. And he is here.
Here. Where is
In this exact moment, as he walks with Marston through the streets of Anchorage, nothing seems real. The fat cadences of “Cow Cow Boogie” on an out-of-tune piano. A pickup truck parked halfway up the curb. A hardware-store owner rolling down his blackout screen. (“Many thanks,” calls Kermit.)
Or this: The sign posted at the turn for Fort Richardson. A bucktoothed, bespectacled Jap with talons for fingers.
He likes your snapshots
, the sign warns.
Think before you snap.
Kermit has seen it any number of times, but tonight those talons are actually rising from the signboard, promoting themselves to the third dimension.
“Ha,” says Marston, scowling at the sign. “That’s the closest
ever get to the enemy.”
“Well, war is a … it’s…”
And now even Marston is changing. That pencil mustache, sidewinding like an eel.
Kermit jerks his head away. “War is a young man’s game.…”
“Are you sure you’re all right, Major?”
“I’m quite well, thank you.” He nods, several times in succession. “Another drink, that might be just the ticket.”
“Lights out for me, I’m afraid.”
“I’m happy to treat,” says Kermit, cringing at the hysteria in his voice. “I know how the local merchants gouge.”
“It’s very decent of you, Major, but I’m off to Seward tomorrow, 0600. Another time.”
Kermit gazes out at the jagged silhouette of the Chugach Mountains, marbling in the evening sun but holding their shape, too; that’s a relief. Maybe if he stands here long enough …
“I might write a letter or two,” he says. “If you think it would help. Naturally, I can’t promise anything.”
He hears Marston’s tiny grunt of satisfaction.
“You won’t regret it, Major. They’re good people, these Eskimos. Most self-reliant folks I’ve ever met. Loyal, dependable. Not an ounce of malice to ’em.”
Kermit grabs hold of the signpost, and it’s already too late. In the next instant, he’s borne away on a writhing, foaming river, black as tea. He stares at his feet, half expecting them to be submerged, but the river is inside him. And, somewhere in the canopy above, Marston is talking.
“The point is, these Eskimos are ready to serve Uncle Sam, and I mean to let ’em. Why, if you could have been with me last week in Ketchikan…”
Every joint, every fiber in Kermit’s body is blazing with ice.
“And do you know,” says Marston, “when I asked the local chief if he wanted to be compensated, he actually got steamed at me. ‘You give no money,’ he said. ‘We no want money.’”
A man doesn’t recoil from his friends.
That’s what Father would say.
He looks them dead in the eye.
And so, by agonizing degrees, Kermit turns toward the sound of Marston’s voice. Knowing what he will find there. Feeling once more the old tremble as he watches the skin and tissue peel in long serrated strips from Marston’s face.
And there stands the face’s owner, blathering in the twilight. His own skull grinning out of the depths.
INTO THE JUNGLE
He slept to it, and then he woke to it. Rain.
Steaming down the balloon-silk fly tent. Gushing through the trees. Pounding the river.
None of the fat greasy drops of last night but a hissing cataract of water, monotonous and unceasing. And then, from the buzz, a single silvery note emerged, followed by another, then another. And from Kermit’s brain, the first bubble of consciousness rose up.
The bugle’s notes fell away, and he would have followed them back into sleep if the tent hadn’t shaken. His eyelids squeezed apart. In the granular light of dawn, a heavily muscled black man was crawling toward him, smiling as he came.
It was Juan. Somehow managing to contain in one hand three aluminum cups and the handle of a steaming pot. He began to pour, and as the smell of the coffee came coiling through the damp air, Kermit felt reality settling in its hooks. He was here. The coffee was pouring. Juan was smiling his soft, abashed smile.
crawled back out. For another minute or two, Kermit lay in his cot—already half sopping, for the morning breezes were blowing the rain straight in. With his fingers, he interrogated the sores on each of his legs: all the garden-variety bruises that, through infection, had acquired ideas above their station. Then he mapped the scorch marks of last night’s mosquitoes—a cluster on the elbow, another on the ankle, a necklace around the collarbone. There was one particularly prominent ridge above his right eyebrow, as if a whole regiment of mosquitoes had stayed through the night, feasting.
I should have offered them brandy,
he thought dazedly.
“Is that coffee, Roosevelt?”
As usual, Dr. Cherrie had woken without a fuss, his eyes—dry and calm—swinging open to the light, his hands lacing together under his head. He lay in the next cot, gazing up at the bulge of water in the tent’s roof.
very like coffee,” said Kermit, handing Cherrie his cup.
“Well, that’s something.”
The two men were silent for a time, listening to the rain.
“Good weather for ducks,” said Kermit.
“And who knows what else?”
This was not idle bravado. Cherrie was the in-house naturalist and was always on the lookout for new species to catalog. With a light groan now, he swung his legs toward the ground. “Shall we wake him?”
“Seems a shame,” said Cherrie, studying the humped snoring figure in the third cot. “He needs his sleep.”
“We all do.”
“But when I think how he used to be when we started. Every morning, up before dawn.”
“Used to wake up the bugler.”
Kermit knelt by the sleeping figure. Touched the forehead and felt the current of heat rising through his fingertips.
“Still running high?” Cherrie asked.
Kermit leaned in to the sleeping man’s ear. Made at first to whisper and then simply spoke.
Gasping, clutching his blanket, Colonel Roosevelt wrenched toward the sound. His white lips slackened. His naked, mole-like eyes twitched in the dimness.
“It’s all right, Father. It’s Kermit.”
Several seconds passed before the intelligence seemed to break through.
“Of course you are,” said the old man. He raised himself onto his elbows. “You must … give me some time to … shake the cobwebs out.”
“Reveille has sounded.”
“Has it, now?”
“Your coffee’s here.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” With a coo of something like pleasure, he folded his hands around the cup. “Still hot. God bless you, Juan.”
He took two short sips, then another. Then, as he studied his two companions, the first smile of the day crawled through the brush of his mustache.
“Raining, is it? Well, never mind.”
Waving away his son’s proffered hand, the Colonel tipped himself out of the cot and spilled toward the ground like a pile of luggage, wincing a bit when his left leg landed. He reached into the damp sock he had wrapped around the tent pole and pulled out his spectacles. Wiped them on the sleeve of his pajamas and then, with great and painstaking care, slid the glasses up the bridge of his nose, waiting for the world’s edges to rush in.
“March,” he declared. “The fifteenth.”
“Year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and fourteen.”
“Third Sunday in Lent.”
“I officially declare it: As good a day as any!”
He said the same thing, of course, every morning. And every morning Kermit silently composed the same reply.
Another day in hell.
He used to reproach himself for his irreverence. But now it had become a form of survival. And a sign, too, a welcome sign that some aspect of him still remained apart.
The old man took a few more sips of coffee, waiting for the blossom of heat and acid. Then he raised his eyes toward the sky.
“I like a bit of rain first thing. Cools things off.”
“Certainly,” said Cherrie.
“And cooler oarsmen are happier oarsmen, are they not? Therefore more productive. I shouldn’t be surprised if we made twenty-five kilometers by day’s end.”
“Could be,” said Kermit.
“Thirty!” said the old man, rising to it. “Mark my words!”
Kermit and Cherrie made no reply. After all these weeks in the South American wilderness, they were able to indulge the Colonel so far and no further.
“Here,” said Kermit, reaching under the old man’s cot. “Your spare drawers, Father. And you might as well use this handkerchief; it looks a bit fresher than the others.…”
“I’m certainly capable of dressing myself. You needn’t—I’m not a—damn me, where have I put my specs?”
“On your face.”
“Ah!” He giggled. “So they are! Never mind, let’s be dressed and be off. Stiffen up the sinews, ha! Summon up the blood!”
* * *
HEY ATE IN A
full downpour. It was almost a blessing that breakfast was so sparse. A handful of rice, a handful of beans. Biscuits hard as gneiss.
To think—try as he might, Kermit couldn’t help it—to think how much food they had brought with them! Fresh ox meat and sliced bacon and sardines and chicken and pancake flour and potatoes and malted milk. An entire case just for spices and condiments. In the early days, if a curious native had happened to wander out of the forest with a request for olive zest or grapefruit marmalade, the members of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition would have been happy to oblige.
But after they passed Tapirapuã, the midday meal was excised from their schedule. Breakfast and dinner shrank down to rations. “All this life,” Cherrie said. “And nothing to live on.”
Even so experienced a hand as he had expected to find a horn of plenty waiting in the jungle. Fruit and nuts for every meal. Pigs and deer. Dolphins and otters and boatloads of fish. A groaning table, night after night. Instead, they had … moss and bromeliads and epiphytes and tree roots. Insects.
And this strange lightness that followed them wherever they went. As though their bones were being hollowed into bamboo.
Kermit peeled away the fringe of mold from his biscuit. Began to toss it away, then caught his hand in the act of throwing and shoveled the whole thing into his mouth. He chewed and gummed it down until it was just a dry paste, then let it slide down his throat and drop, plashing, into his stomach.
Through the falling rain, he heard Colonel Rondon’s cry:
“Iniciar as Ordens do Dia!”
The Orders of the Day. No different, Kermit knew, from the Orders of the Day Before. Row until something stops you. (Something will.)
Even as the
rose from their Japanese-wrestler crouches and stood in respectful silence, Kermit yawned and turned toward the jungle. The morning fog was melting from below, and the dark base of the forest came blurring out of the vapor like a section of old oil painting bleeding through the new.
“It’s time,” said Cherrie.
Kermit nodded, and together the two men helped the
drag the canoes toward the water. Cursing, as they did every morning, the sheer crazy heft of the things, each weighing more than a ton, and first thing in the morning or last at night, it felt like two.
It would have been easier to bear if the beasts were seaworthy, but they sank nearly to the waterline. They were impossible to steer. They leaked water. The seats were hard and rough and wet. The more Kermit reflected on these massive hollowed-out tree trunks, the more they seemed to epitomize the whole misbegotten adventure.
The sand slipped beneath him, and as he struggled to keep his balance, the dugout crashed into him, touching off a prairie fire of pain that blazed up and down his shin. Biting down on his own cry, he soldiered on—and became, for the first time, aware of the two figures standing by the river’s edge.
The Colonel and Colonel Rondon, gesticulating in the falling rain—their private conference made public by the Colonel’s high squeaking roar.
“Plus vite! Plus vite!
We must go
Even if the Colonel’s voice hadn’t carried, his French would have. A bizarre non-Aryan sort of French, no tense or gender. But it was the one tongue he shared with Rondon, and when an expedition has two leaders, they must find common ground somewhere.
The Colonel’s tone at once grew more civil but no less urgent.
“Je m’incline, il faut dire, à votre connaissance supérieur, mais les observations
Peut-être ils prennent trop de temps?”
replied Rondon, more quietly but every bit as distinctly.
“On doit examiner la question.…”
We must consider the question. Which, as the Colonel well knew, was Rondon’s way of discarding the question. Rondon would no more dispense with his hourly sightings than with the daily ritual of hammering a painted hardwood signpost into the forest floor. He may have stood only five feet and three, but to his men—in his own mind—he was geological and eternal, and the main reason he and the Colonel remained cordial after all these weeks was simply this: The Colonel still considered himself Rondon’s guest.
“Merci pour votre considération,”
said the Colonel. He nodded pleasantly and squared his shoulders and made as if to walk away but stopped and lowered himself, by stages, toward the earth, where even now a felled section of couratari tree was rising to greet him.
“Father?” called Kermit.
The Colonel was already waving him away.
“Not to worry! Doing a spot of surveying!”
So he sat there. Sat for long minutes, studying the river. The river that was killing them.
* * *
HE RAIN HAD STOPPED
by the time they got on the water, and as soon as the
drove their oars in, the first shard of sunlight broke through the clouds. A small swell of laughter and applause rose up from the men—until Colonel Rondon frowned them into silence.
As usual, Kermit took the head canoe. Right behind him, Colonel Rondon and Lieutenant Lyra. Then the two baggage balsas and, bringing up the rear, Colonel Roosevelt, Dr. Cherrie, and the expedition’s physician, Dr. Cajazeira.
In the early-morning hours, the sun didn’t have the brassy glare of midday but a softer, silvering touch. It drove the chill from Kermit’s skin, steamed his clothes to something approaching dryness, and when he looked at the jungle front, the gloom and opacity seemed to boil off. He saw rolling clouds of leaves, and palm trees flinging out their plumes, and vines hooped like ship’s rigging from one mast to the next, and even a dome of lilac near the jungle’s crown. So rare to see any blossoms in this sheer, shadowless front, and yet there they were, stained-glass pebbles of light in a silent ocean of green.
Maybe Father’s right,
Maybe we’ll make thirty kilometers today.
Normally he would never have dared such a hope, but the current was strong beneath them, and his oarsmen, João and Simplício, were rowing freely and sweetly. Trigueiro, Kermit’s yellow mongrel, was crouched alongside him in the front of the canoe. The river breeze was blowing the dog’s mouth open, and the saliva that dripped from its black gums registered as the perfect antidote to despair.
A further blessing: Rondon stopped only twice that morning for sextant sightings. The work was quickly done—horizon captured in one glass, sun in the other, latitude and longitude jotted down in Rondon’s journal—and they were back in their boats, and the breeze came full behind him, and the river, for once, forbore to wind. Slowly, the forest drew back as if to consider them, and the land on either side erupted into bouldered hills and hissing green mountains.
Kermit felt his eyes traveling up the battlement of cliffs and trees, resting at last on a high promontory—halfway to the sun, or so it appeared. Fastening his eyes there, he wondered—idly at first and then with a mounting intensity—if someone at this very moment was looking down, watching him pass. Watching the whole expedition. What a strange sight they must have been! A small band of bedraggled white men, outnumbered by both their porters and their trunks, hustling northward down a twisting ribbon of black water, with an air of deep intention.
for something, but what?
Even if Kermit could have communed with that distant observer, how could he have begun to explain? They weren’t looking for anything or anyone in particular. They were merely attempting to see where this river would take them.
On each side, the canyon walls continued to surge up, and for a minute or two Kermit had the impression that the river was decanting in response, that they were traveling down a chute, not a river, and it would speed them farther along than they could ever have imagined. Twenty-five kilometers, just as the Colonel had said. Thirty.
He did then what he always did when hopeful. He pressed the packet of letters against his sternum. He closed his eyes and thought of Belle. “Not long,” he whispered.
And then, from a hundred yards off, came the old roar.
In later life, he would find it impossible to explain just how dismal that sound was. How it shrank the soul. It was only water, after all. Water rushing down a terrace of rocks. But to the men of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition, that sound was the death of all hope, because it meant rapids.
Rapids that were, ninety times out of a hundred, too steep—too treacherous, too violent—for their unwieldy dugouts. Rapids that would force them to put down their paddles and haul all the canoes to shore.
work would begin.
Fourteen men would ply themselves against the jungle’s densest thickets, using their machetes to hack out a primitive road along the riverbank. They would corrugate it with a couple of hundred logs. They would twine rope around their waists. Then, with the aid of a block and tackle, they would portage every last one of those 2,500-pound canoes around the rapids and then winch them back down, inch by inch, to the water.
In theory, it was an irritation, an obstacle. In practice, it was spine-cracking, muscle-rending, life-draining work, conducted under the probing stinger of every insect in the Amazonian jungle.
The dangers were great. One misstep, and a man could crush a toe or a hand or tumble into the river—or disturb a coral snake from its slumbers. Beneath their feet, the makeshift paths wore down into ledges of sandstone that gouged wood from the canoes’ keels, and if the lesions grew deep enough, they would have to set the boats down and caulk the cracks and let them dry and then hoist them up once more. This was not a labor of minutes. It was a labor of hours—of hours upon hours. It could take them three days just to travel seven hundred fifty yards.
And so this sound—the mere sound of rushing water—was more than Kermit could bear on this particular March morning. He closed his eyes. He waited for Colonel Rondon’s stentorian cry.
“Barcos para a beira mar!”
Boats to shore.
Not even staying to see if his command was followed, the little autocrat had already leaped onto the first square of dry land, and he was striding down the shoreline, looking to see exactly how steep the rapids were and how far they stretched. But as far as Kermit was concerned, this was a mere formality. He knew what Rondon would conclude: The canoes couldn’t be risked. The nightmare would begin again.
From behind, Kermit could hear the Colonel calling after him.
“Didn’t you hear? Come to shore.”
He looked at João and Simplício. They had lifted their paddles from the water; they were just awaiting the word. As Kermit listened to the roar of the water and the roar of the Colonel, another sound rose up inside him. A pair of words.
I … won’t.…
He wouldn’t lose the rest of the day to portaging. He wouldn’t go to sleep tonight knowing they were no closer to their final destination. Knowing that Belle and the rest of the world were as far away as ever.
With a violent twitch, he cast his eyes toward the fall line. He peered through the shroud of mist, seeking … a harbor … a counterargument—something to prove Rondon wrong.
The seconds ticked away, the water began to slap and churn against the canoe’s keel, the
shifted uneasily on their benches, and Kermit was on the very verge of giving up, when something hard and fixed and tangible rose from the mist. He blinked, refocused. Land. A tiny island, surging up from the teeming water. Splitting the river in half.
The calculations sped through his brain. What if this island gave them a vantage point for riding the rapids? What if it actually diverted the falls to one side and left an easier passage on the other? Wasn’t it worth at least exploring?
But he knew what Rondon would say. And he knew what his father would say. And he heard
“Nós não vamos a beira mar.”
We’re not going to shore.
Simplício was staring at him with a mask of bafflement, and in his brown eyes was an expression so thick and bovine and unyielding that it became in that instant a symbol of everything Kermit was contending against. With a flash of teeth, Kermit pointed to the island that was now rushing toward them. He shouted,
“Lá! Vá lá!”
The paddlers gave each other the briefest of looks. Kermit knew what they were thinking. The island was at the very brink of the falls. If they missed it, the whole canoe would go right over. But when Kermit repeated the order, they dropped their heads and dug in their oars and steered as straight a course as they could, and such was their skill that, within seconds, the boat was lodged on the island’s southernmost margin.
“Ha!” cried Kermit.
He left Trigueiro in the boat and clambered over the side, grinning at the feeling of sand and wet rock beneath his boots. He crept forward, waiting at every moment for his instincts to be confirmed.
And then he stopped.
He was staring down a fifteen-foot drop. Below him lay only howling water and bubbling heaves of foam.
His error was now blindingly apparent. The rapids would be no easier to breach here. The island hadn’t altered the river’s direction or force at all, just bisected it. On either side of him, the falls raged with equal ferocity.
“Damn,” he muttered. “Utter damnation.”
It wasn’t just the shame of guessing wrong, of having to weather Rondon’s frown. It was something worse. He had, to all intents and purposes, stranded his boat. There was no way forward, no way back. Their only hope was to guide the canoe back to shore and hope they weren’t swept over the edge.
This was the hope he clung to now as he darted back to the canoe and leaped in.
he shouted, pointing to the margin of sand where the Colonel and the rest of the expedition were even now standing, gazing at the boat’s plight in a helpless spectatorial thrall.
“Dois … três…”
Their doom was sure from the moment they pushed off. João and Simplício plunged in their paddles and beat as hard as they could against the current, but before they had made it halfway to shore, the boat began to whirl like the hands of a clock. Then, with a shudder, it jerked back into axis and headed straight for the falls.
In the midst of the spray and roar, Kermit dimly perceived that João was no longer rowing. He was hurling himself into the teeming water. Only now did his purpose become clear. He had grabbed the hawser rope and was trying to drag the boat to shore. But the riverbed was too slippery beneath his bare feet. Struggle as he might, he couldn’t keep his balance, and the current tore the rope from his bleeding hands, and the dugout, relieved of any further obligation, streaked downstream.
Trigueiro barked. Kermit and Simplício exchanged the briefest of looks. Then the river took them all.
Never in Kermit’s memory had water been such a punishment. It slammed his sun helmet over his face. It grabbed him by his jacket and dragged him to the river’s bottom and, every time he found a crevice of light, it snuffed the light out.
His eyes swelled against their sockets, and the cold crawled into his bones as the black water swept him downstream, as easily as if he were a bird’s nest.
He could actually taste the bubbles of his own breath. Somewhere, though, in his extinguishing brain, he sensed that the river was growing calmer, that the eddies and whirlpools were giving way once more to a single straight current. This current was now, in a spirit of chivalry, bearing him up—so that, with just a slight effort, he could lift his head above the river’s surface.