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The Camoudie
By Richard Rupnaraine
Guyana Journal, 2006


Very few residents of Mahaicony Creek were aware of the existence of a quiet little settlement called Bhola’s Landing situated some ten miles in from the mouth of the creek. Their ignorance could be attributed partly to the fact that Bhola's Landing was not registered in the Land Registry and therefore could not be found on any geographical map. Another possibility is that the settlement had a population of one, Mr. Bhola Ram, who founded, developed and resided alone on the ten-acre clearance.

Years ago Bhola decided to abandon the hustle and bustle of city life and return to a quiet agrarian mode of existence. His father was a dairy farmer and he lived on a farm in Wakenaam until they sent him off to high school in the city. Many of the village people predicted that the city lights would blind him and that he would never return to the farm. On the contrary, the coldness, treachery and indifference that he experienced in the city gave him a renewed passion for farm life. When he was not preoccupied with studies his mind would drift back to the days when he played with frisky lambs, milked cows and rode the horses bareback through the open pastures while the grass was still moist from overnight dew. During his second year at Teacher's Training College he vowed to return to the farm and he kept his promise a year after he completed studies.

For a token sum of money he acquired from the government several acres of virgin forest about ten miles in from the East Coast public road. Perhaps hoping to encourage a like entrepreneurial spirit among its citizens the Ministry of Works and Hydraulics had also loaned Bhola a yellow TD24 bulldozer that he used to clear the land. He subsequently fenced the slightly excavated area with barbed wire and built a cozy 1500 hundred square-foot greenheart cabin with a thatched roof make of dried coconut palm branches. To support himself he purchased two dozens milking cows, reared a flock of creole fowls and planted a kitchen garden. He kept the fowls for their brown eggs and sold the cow milk and surplus eggs every Friday at the Mahaica market.

As there were no roads into the settlement Bhola was forced to buy a boat and build a huge landing from his front yard to about fifteen feet over the water's edge. The traders and hunters who plied the creek aptly named it Bhola's Landing. The teacher turned farmer used the 20-foot sloop that he named “The Mahaicony Queen” to ferry milk out to the markets on the mainland. Besides the sloop he had a few paddleboats that he used for leisurely evening rows along the waterways.

At first the work was more demanding than he had envisioned but his passion to succeed overcame the frequent bouts of frustration and the pain of loneliness. He tried to deal with the problem of loneliness with the acquisition of a macaw from a hunter who made a good living by exporting the birds to overseas buyers. But after spending many hours in unintentional monologues he realized the macaw had no interest in learning to speak English. Reluctantly he released the bird from its cage and after a few crash landings the bird eventually found its wings and soared upwards to join a flock of macaws headed south.

On his evening leisure trips along the smooth black creek Bhola was likely to pass Amerindians in their canoes en route to visit family or to buy supplies at the native market a mile upstream from the landing. They hardly said anything to him, either because they could not speak English or because they were wary of strangers. But as days turned to weeks the natives became more familiar with the presence of this solitary stranger in their midst and concluded he was not there to exploit them or to invade their privacy. Eventually they began to smile and wave and soon they no longer passed each other as paddleboats in the night.

In time, Bhola's Landing had evolved into a sanctuary for the weary laborers and both parties, Bhola and the natives, had picked up enough of each other's ways and vernacular to be able to converse about trivial matters such as the rainy weather and agricultural produce. After a hard day’s work the natives would pull their canoes ashore and take up seats along the landing, sometimes as many as a dozen of them in a row, chatting and laughing while their feet dangled playfully in the cool water. The men smoked or chewed tobacco leaves, hacked and spat continuously in the creek, their teeth so inveterately stained with tobacco juice that it blended in perfectly with their copper toned complexion. The women were scantily clothed and the married ones were naked to the waist. Bhola noticed that the Amerindians were not ashamed of their attire or lack of it and he made every effort not to show interest in their bodies. But Bhola experienced, like the great St. Augustine centuries before him, that some parts of the male anatomy appear to act at times independently of the will.

Nevertheless, he looked forward to Fridays when his native neighbors brought their products to barter for cow milk. His normal rate of exchange was five pints of casareep for a gallon of milk. For him it was a profitable exchange. Casareep was a popular additive to stews and pepper pot and because of its scarcity it fetched a better price than milk, especially at the Mahaica market where vendors often diluted the milk with creek water. Bhola on the other hand offered them the original, undiluted extract and never had enough inventory to meet demand.

As the months went by Bhola began to feel a lot more comfortable with the half nude women. He was fascinated with their simple life and especially with the respect and honor they commanded in the tribe. It came as no surprise to them when a year later he took an young Amerindian woman into common law marriage and when two months later he became the father of a baby boy. But for reasons only a trained psychotherapist might be able to determine Bhola started to drink heavily and in his drunken stupor he was extremely abusive to his wife and child. Many nights Shanuk, his wife, was forced to sleep on the doorstep, her eyes black and blue from punches to the face. Eventually the Amerindians heard of the abuse and came one night and took Shanuk and the baby away to the reservation. The inebriated Bhola put up little resistance other than to turn the night air blue with a string of expletives as they loaded his family in a canoe. Before shoving off from the landing the Chief paused and looked back at him and said something in his native tongue. Bhola's vocabulary in Amerindianese was not that extensive and he just slammed the door shut and staggered into his bed.

As it turned out, being spurned by the Amerindian community and not being able to visit his estranged wife and child were just the beginning of Bhola’s problems. Unable to trade with the natives and with a reputation that reached the mainland before he could get into his sloop he saw a sharp downturn in business and profits. To make matters worse, in less than two months after his wife was taken away from him he faced the threat of bankruptcy, and this time it was not from creditors or moneylenders, but from a least likely source. A native resident was getting ready to exact revenge for one of its own.

Bhola's Landing was home not only to Bhola Ram and the Amerindians but also to myriad of creatures. A wide variety of birds, including blue saki, yellow belly, house wren, fire reds and humming bird proliferated the forests. Below them roamed many species of beasts and reptiles, like the jaguar, alligators and caiman. The creatures, great and small, vicious and tame, harmless and dangerous, vegetarian and carnivores, all co-existed harmoniously in the Mahaica eco-system. Life in Bhola's Landing was like living in a zoo. Then one day a bored reptile decided to disrupt the order of things in the zoo when it chose to sample a different menu and made reservations for a table on Bhola's farm.

The full-grown camoudie, a boa constrictor, was about twenty-five feet long and about a foot thick in the belly section. Bhola had often seen it swimming in the creek and kept his distance. The Amerindians explained that if the snake were really hungry it would come after small canoes and crafts and wrap itself around the vessel and capsize its contents into the water. If ever such was his experience he must yell for help for only the expert blow piper could dispel the slithery foe with a well-placed dart.

The beast was a clever swimmer and had defied capture by several expeditions, including one led by Snake-eye, the famous snake handler at the city zoo. But Snake-eye failed in his quest because he tried to chase the snake down in the creek instead of waiting for it to emerge on dry land where it came out to dine on agouti, mongoose, wisi-wisi ducks and small rodents. Snake-eye, fearing a blow to his pride and reputation, fabricated the story that the snake was already dead. But the camoudie was about to expose the lie when it came out of temporary hibernation to sample the menu of the new restaurant in town.

Bhola's animal farm offered a sumptuous fare of creole fowls, Peking ducks, and beef and veal. He was fond of brown eggs and had three fried eggs for breakfast every morning since he moved into the Landing. White eggs were too full of chemicals, he told the vendors at the Mahaica market, as though he was an authority on the matter. But since his acts of abuse had disseminated to the mainland the vendors began to mock and laugh at him behind his back. In any event he noticed that egg production levels were dropping steadily with each passing day.

At first he dismissed the problem as something seasonal. After all the fowls looked healthy and they scavenged the yard with their usual exuberance, fearing only the auburn feathered rooster that attacked them from behind when they were distracted by a grain on the ground. The rooster was relentless in its pursuit of egg and chicken production. It never seemed to eat and yet was always robust, always flouncing around the chicks, and always energetic enough for one more conquest. Bhola envied him but loved him nonetheless. But when his sen-seh fowls ceased laying brown eggs he became noticeably worried. Thinking that the problem might be their diet he went out to the paddy farm at Black Bush Polder and purchased bags of paddy and rice bran, hoping to correct whatever deficiency might exist. But the situation continued to worsen. Every morning he shooed the fowls away to get a couple eggs for breakfast only to find the nesting area empty. Unknowing to him, the camoudie also had a forked tongue for eggs and at nights the huge reptile would slither into the yard, snake its way to the chicken run, stealthily enough as not to disturb the fowls, and gobble up the eggs.

To add to the mystery the fowls began to disappear one at a time. At first Bhola thought a fowl thief was at work so he acquired an Alsatian dog and chained it next to the pens to keep watch. To his amazement the dog never once roused him from sleep and by week's end his entire stock of fowls had disappeared. At first he pondered the thought that the natives who were well acquainted with his farm and who loved chicken might be exacting revenge for his mistreatment of their daughter. But deep down in his heart he knew it was not like them to steal. Besides, he would only make matters worse by bringing unfounded charges against them and forever forfeiting any hope of being reunited with his wife and child.

That afternoon he grabbed a bottle of Banks beer and took a seat on the landing. Canoes passed on the far side of the creek as if being warned to stay away from him. The women sped up their rowing when they were in proximity to his landing. The men exchanged glances with him and then, as the sun dropped beneath the jamoon tree, a native on his way back home looked at him and shouted two words and continued on his way. He didn't know what those words meant but he had heard them somewhere before. Then he remembered. The chief had said those words when they took his family away to the reservation. He reasoned that it must be an Amerindian curse of some sort. But Bhola did not believe in curses and so nothing they said to him bothered him in the least.

In the meanwhile the camoudie continued to wreck havoc on his life and business. Then as all thieves eventually do, the serpent made a fatal mistake. After engulfing the last clean-neck fowl the camoudie found itself having heartburn and indigestion. Maybe the fowl was much tougher that the beast expected. The snake recoiled in pain behind the chicken run and eventually fell asleep, the bulge from the undigested fowl still prominent five feet down from its jaws. Unfortunately for the snake Bhola was up early enough to catch him in deep slumber. Tiptoeing back to the shed Bhola grabbed his BB shot gun, took aim, and severed the head of the beast just below the bump in his belly. Bits of the fowl's legs and reddish brown feathers were still visible amid the gore and flesh. Bhola then dragged the snake into the bush and left it to rot. He breathed a sigh of relief and left the scene but had he looked back he would have seen the baby boas that crawled slowly out of their mother's severed torso and he might have been better prepared for round two of the serpentine onslaught.

Having lost their mother the baby boas roamed the area looking for food but they were too small to overpower agouti and bush rats. In desperation for life they found an unlikely replacement for their mother. At nights the baby boas came out of the bushes and headed for the cow pens. They slithered around until they were assured the cows had gone to sleep. Then they moved into the pens and suckled the cows, the bovine beasts cooperating by pushing back their legs supposing it was their calves that wanted milk. By morning the cows’ udders were deflated and their nipples were sore. Still, Bhola gently cleaned and applied soft grease to the nipples to facilitate milking. But alas, cow after cow failed to produce a squirt of milk. This continued for days and when he could no longer take it he finally sought counsel from a quack veterinarian out in Mahaica. The cow doctor’s erudite diagnosis was that someone or something was milking the cows at night. Bhola quickly understood why the man was a quack. Nevertheless he had little choice but to keep watch himself as his expensive Alsatian appeared to have been struck with sleeping sickness. With his luck he had to get the one lemon from the Alsatian production line. He never saw a dog sleep that much. Alsatians were supposed to be the nemesis of thieves but this one was a wimp. It had the fierce look and sometimes showed its teeth. Unfortunately it was only when it saw the food bowl. The only object the dog ever attacked was boiled rice and fish bone.

That night Bhola turned off the lights and perched himself safely on the stoop behind the pen armed only with a torchlight and his BB gun. But like his dog he too fell asleep when it happened. Six or seven baby camoudies, about five feet long, slithered furtively through the tall grass and into the cow pens. The cows never stirred and about fifteen minutes later the critters slid past the slumbering farmer and his dysfunctional best friend on their way back to the nest. This continued for weeks and eventually the frustrated farmer was forced to sell the cows for next to nothing to a dairy farmer in Black Bush Polder. Later he heard that the cows were milking again and their owner was turning a decent profit.

And so it was that in the space of less than three months he had lost his sobriety, his family, his fowls and eggs, his cows, and sadly, his mind. He was reduced to a mendicant who begged for food from the vendors at the Mahaica market and who was forced to endure the biting sarcasm that "when big tree fall down goat does bite he leaf."

Less than a year later the mentally deranged farmer died of cirrhosis of the liver from too much bush rum. The officiating Catholic priest, a wrinkled Portuguese who had been around the area for so long that the people referred to him as Methuselah, was a man renowned for preaching the same sermon at every funeral and for always blaming Satan, "that old serpent," for every conceivable problem on planet earth. If parishioners were late for church it was because the sly serpent made them sleep in. If they didn't give generously it was because the serpent had put the spirit of meanness on them. If they were sick it was because the serpent afflicted them with diseases like he did to the children of Israel when they sojourned in the wilderness. As far as he was concerned Satan was the sole cause of every evil in the world and naturally the cause of Bhola's misfortune and eventual demise. As he wrapped up his eulogy the old priest stayed true to his questionable theological conviction. "Well, my friends, today we say farewell to Bro. Bhola. He was a good man and a hard worker. But that old serpent was too much for him and has taken him away from us.” This time, however, the old priest was right.

– Rrupnarain@yahoo.ca

Note: This story contains names of people, places and events. Any resemblance to actual persons – living or dead – places, things or events is unintentional and purely coincidental, or intended as a parody.
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