Monday, 13 August 2012


The forest was deep and green and silent, save for the croaking of frogs and the occasional call of a brightly coloured bird.

Then, so distant at first that even the tiny lizard sitting on the bark of a tree did not turn its head, came another noise. It was so soft and indistinct that even when it came closer it was difficult to tell what it was. And then it came closer still, and now there was no doubt, and with a quick motion the lizard scuttled away.

The girl was running.

She came panting through the jungle, her lungs gasping desperately for air, sweat streaming down her face. As she went, she threw quick glances back over her shoulder, and although there was no sign of pursuit she kept running as fast as she could. Occasionally, she stopped, looked around quickly, and changed direction.

She was about fifteen years old, tall for her people, with a round open face and lank black hair. All she wore was a loincloth tied around her waist, and a small leather pouch hanging on a beaded string round her neck. She held her small breasts with her hands to stop them from bouncing as she ran. Blood trickled from a gaping wound at her shoulder.

Her name – the name she went by – was Belita.

It was not her real name, of course, nor was it her secret name; that was known to her, and to her alone. Her real name was hardly used anymore. Even her parents called her Belita, just as the parents of the other youngsters called their children by the Portuguese names. They had thought this a way of opening themselves up to the Portuguese, who had the power of guns and medicines and everything else they needed. By teaching their children the language of the Portuguese, by trying to adopt their ways, the parents had thought they had made a future for themselves and their children.

It had not been enough.

Belita paused once again. In her panicked flight from the village, she had lost sense of direction, and now she tried again to orient herself. The river, she reminded herself, she had to find the river. She fingered the leather pouch at her neck as she tried to catch her breath.

Behind her, she knew, the village burned, and the Portuguese trampled over the corpses of those who had not been able to get away or had been captured alive. She remembered her mother pushing her away as the shooting started, asking her to run, gasping already as blood poured from a bullet wound in her breast. Her mother had told her to run for the river, and to call to the encantado; to call to him with her secret name.

She had always been terrified of the Portuguese, even though she had learned their language and some of their ways. She had been terrified of the trader, Agostinho, and his men, who had leered at her openly as they came to offer their wares. She had listened with rising fear to the Portuguese jabbering about their need for the tribe’s lands and how they would take them by force if they couldn’t get them any other way; they had not considered that she might be listening or be able to understand. Ah yes, she had told her father, and her father, who had believed the Portuguese, had laughed and said she must have misunderstood.

Misunderstood! The proof of her understanding lay in the burning ruins of the village.

Belita was too frightened for tears, and aware, too, that there would be a pursuit. Most especially she feared Agostinho’s agent, Camilo. Camilo, thin and long-faced and with a short beard, had always looked at her as if, she thought, she had been a piece of meat for the taking. And she had seen him, too, at the time of the attack, shouting and firing in the air. Yes, Camilo would be after her, just as soon as he knew she was not among the dead or captured. He would probably be after her with dogs, and her blood would tell him just where she was going. That thought spurred her on; taking a deep gulp of air in her starved lungs, she began running again.

In the leather pouch was her juju, made of sticks and cloth, but full of ancient power and magic. A long time ago, when she was a baby, the shaman had made his spells over her and had declared her totem. It was in search of the protection of that totem that she ran now.

Far in the distance, she thought she could hear the baying of the big Portuguese dogs. The sound, if she had not imagined it, terrified her more than anything else had done so far. If she had run desperately before, she was utterly reckless now. Turning to the right, where the land dropped in a gentle slope, she plunged into the jungle.


In the rainy season, the great river overflows its banks, and floods the forest on either side for far beyond its own limits. In the rainy season, fishes swim among the branches of submerged trees and crabs dig holes among their roots. And in the rainy season, the season of flood, they come too, the kings of the river, the encantado, curling among the trees and seeking their own inscrutable purposes.

When the waters recede again, when the river shrinks back to the dry-seasonal limits of its banks, the banks lie muddy and desolate, marked with driftwood, rotting vegetation, and the corpses of stranded fishes. In the dry season, the river seems shrunken and pacified, and the encantado have returned to their river, awaiting the moment of their next coming.

Belita was a girl of one of the peoples of the river. She knew the river, knew its rise and fall, knew its moods and its dangers. More than most, she had an organic link with the river, because of who she was and because of what her totem was. Even now, lost in the forest, she had a sense of where the river lay, and it was this sense that she used when – slipping in the leaf mould of the forest floor, covered from head to toe in sweat and dirt, and panting with the last of her energy – she arrived at the riverside.

By then she had heard the baying of dogs again, and she had heard, too, in her spirit-mind the admonitions of her mother; proof, indeed, that her mother was dead, translated into the spirit-form, and strangely enough this was a comfort to her, because she knew her mother was with her as she ran. And so she paid no heed to the cough of a jaguar or the snorting of peccaries. They had nothing to do with her totem, it was stronger than they were, and it would keep her from harm.

But the totem would not protect her from the Portuguese bullets, nor from the fangs of their dogs.

Thinking this, she scrambled round the trunk of an immense tree and stopped. She had found the river.

Here, among the forested banks, in this the dry season, the river looked a puny thing in the last of the day’s light, slow and turbid and bordered by reeking belts of mud. It looked forbidding and full of dull menace, and she hesitated, suddenly unsure, unwilling to trust her life to its sluggish flow. It flowed by, parting where a low humped island broke its flow, and joining again, looking inimical suddenly, full of ancient hostility and magic.

Then, suddenly, the dogs bayed right behind her.

They were fearsome, those dogs, long-legged and frightening with their wrinkled muzzles and huge yellow teeth. And they were fast, darting silently through the forest, finding their way from the least trace of blood on leaf or twig, from the impress of a bare foot on leaf mould. They had tracked her down more swiftly than she could ever have imagined.

In the very last light of the day, she saw them on the slope above her, three of them, their ears erect and muzzles wrinkled back. And – behind them – there were Portuguese hats and the sudden excited shouting of Portuguese voices.

With a quick breathed invocation of the spirit of her totem, the encantado, calling to it with her secret name, Belita plunged into the river.

The water closed over her head, plunging her instantly into blackness, and the current pressed on her body, pushing her away to the side. She raised her head, gasping for breath, and again heard the excited Portuguese shouting. Something large plunged into the water behind her, swimming strongly; whether dog or man she could not tell. It was swimming faster than she, with her wounded shoulder, and it would have her in a moment.

Then the water around her seemed to explode.

She felt it like a wave, a great powerful wave that swept by under her, raising her on the crest of it, a wave that erupted behind her in a detonation of spray and violence. Whatever was following her cried out, turning desperately for the shore, and again the wave flowed by under her, bearing her along for a moment, and she felt something else, a suggestion of smooth skin and immense power. It was only for a moment, and she could not be certain she had felt it, but it was enough. With the last of her flagging strength, she struck out, and her toes found the soft mud of the river bottom. A few moments later she stood on the island.

Staggering away from the water, she collapsed at the bottom of a tree, trying to catch her breath, knowing she had to keep going, because the Portuguese would not give up now.

Little by little, her exhausted breathing deepened, and she went to sleep.


When Belita came awake, the darkness was profound. The night was like a blanket round her; it flowed like the river, curling around her, almost tangible. She sat up, turning her head side to side, positive that she had heard something. Thinking it was the Portuguese and they had crossed the river somehow in the dark, she tried to crawl between the roots of the tree, seeking a place to hide. Then she felt the unmistakable touch of a hand on her shoulder.

Rolling over convulsively, terror searing through her being at the touch, she looked up.

He stood above her, looking down with a slight smile on his face. Despite the darkness, she could see him clearly, could see his stern handsome face and his lithe muscular body. He bent, reaching down, and gently pulled her up by the hand. Wordlessly, he drew her with him, until they were on the other side of the island, and she went with him, unable to turn away.

There on the other side of the island, he took her to him, and removed her loincloth and made love to her in the night, and the cry of her ecstasy reverberated in the forest canopy and set the Portuguese dogs to barking; and the new moon seemed to grow full a moment in her course to illuminate the scene.

Afterwards, the darkness cloaked the night again.


Camilo, those who knew him had often said, had many faults, but more than them all he had a stubborn determination to have his way, a determination that often led him to take stupid risks for quite minor gains. He knew that they said this, but he thought this was one of his strengths, and he thought anyone who disagreed with him as being beneath contempt anyway.

Since the first time he had seen the native girl, with her pretty face and long limbs and small high pert breasts, he had wanted her; wanted her body to ravage as he wanted and wanted her soul, to make her tremble at his whims, wanted her, this illiterate chit of a savage, more than he had ever wanted a woman before. Something in her excited him, lit a fire in his brain, and made him want her with a desperation that grew more intense every time he had seen her, walking around her village, naked like the savage she was. That she was obviously frightened of him and looked away if he even glanced at her excited him even further. Yes, he had long since decided, he would have her. The time would surely come.

And when the time had come, when the decision had been made to clear the savages off their land, he had reacted with energy and foresight. They could do what they wanted to the rest of the village, he had told the members of his band, but there was a girl that he wanted, the daughter of the chief of the tribe, and he, and he alone would have her.

He had all but had her, too, in those first moments of the attack, when the savages had been milling, confused, and his men had shot them down like target practice. He had seen her, and shouted at the others to leave her for him. But one of them – the idiot – had fired, and she had fallen. He had thought she was dead then, but she had risen, blood flowing from her shoulder, and run off through the trees. Pausing long enough to make sure the operation was going according to plan, Camilo had taken the dogs and followed with a couple of the men.

She had led him a hard chase, that savage, despite her shoulder wound, made him run after her for hours. Anyone else would have given up long ago, but not he, and he had the dogs, and the other men, for all they grumbled. And in the last light of the evening they had found her, trapped her on the riverbank, and Camilo was sure that he had her; but the savage had jumped into the water and tried to swim away.

What had happened after that was a mystery to Camilo. He had seen the girl’s slow, exhausted splashing, and known that he could easily catch her, known that he had to catch her before she drowned and foiled him utterly and finally. So he had jumped into the water, still dressed, and swum after her, and come close enough that he could feel the water displaced by her weakly kicking feet.

But then something had come in the water, something unseen, and had smashed into him with appalling force, had sent him scrambling back to the shore, doubled over with pain. The thing, whatever it was, had struck him so hard that he had lain, shuddering with agony, the entire night. Only the knowledge that his quarry was on the small island a short way across the river had kept him going, and now, in the first light of the morning, the pain had receded, and he could go on again.

“Keep the dogs with you,” he ordered his men. “I’m going to fetch this little savage back alone.” He stripped to his shorts and slipped into the river, swimming easily in the morning light, seeing with satisfaction that the savage could never have made the far bank in her exhausted and wounded state. No, she was certainly on the island, and trapped beyond all chance of escape, and in daylight nothing would be able to get at him. He grinned fiercely with pleasure and trod water a moment, feeling with his hand to ensure the big knife was still in the waistband of his shorts. A few moments later he was on the island. Drawing the knife, the grin still on his face, he went looking for her.

A quarter of an hour later, baffled and incredulous, he was back where he started. She had certainly been on the island – he had found traces of blood, and her loincloth, and the prints of her small feet – but she was no longer there. He went back again, over the same ground, raging, but there was no sign of her, nor any place where she could be hiding. Furiously, he screamed imprecations across the water.

In the distance, something breached the surface, a humped back, bright pink in colour. A long beak rose, and plunged under again, and a flat tail slapped the surface. A moment later, another river dolphin came up to breathe, this one a female, a delicate pearly shade of grey. It must have been a trick of the light that made it seem as though she had a leather purse round her neck on a string.

And then the dolphins were gone, back in the world where they dwelt, and the river rolled on, in its journey down to the distant sea.

Note to reader: The encantado, according to Amazonian mythology, is a male Amazonian river dolphin, Inia geoffrensis, which at night assumes human form, seduces and impregnates human women, and at daybreak goes back to his dolphin shape and returns to the river, to his golden underwater world.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2010/12



  1. Pretty enhancing....:)

    I want to be the ghost of ENCANTADO Dolphin.
    You should know by now why, at my age,I wish to seduce and impregnate as many women as I can

  2. This is one of those stories that keep my attention, I loved it.

  3. I had never expected to read my nickname in one of your beautiful writes. Going through the lines, sometimes I smiled with the behaviour and profile of that Belita named girl. Ah the Portuguese...

  4. Good story, well written. Only one detail is not compatible with Brazilian legend: there is no totemism among Brazilian Indians. Fábio de Oliveira Ribeiro


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