The Legendary River Monster
By Rosaliene Bacchus
Guyana JOurnal, November 2008
MUM barged into the bedroom where my brother and I were plotting a way to bust our cousin, Andrew. “I’ve had it up to here with all the complaints about you two,” she said, slitting her throat with her hand. “We’re moving to Providence.”
“Let’s go home, Mum,” said Mike.
“Your father and I worked too hard to pay for this trip to let them spoil our vacation. Pack your things. Your grandfather’s picking us up in the morning.”
“Mum, it ain’t like we did anything wrong,” I said. “Andrew set us up. He’s the one that switched Auntie Michelle’s shampoo with yours.”
“Andrew sucks,” said Mike.
“I know, sweetheart.” Mum slumped onto the bed beside us. “He’s just jealous. That’s all.”
“Why’s he jealous of us, Mum?” said Mike. “He’s got it made.”
“That’s the way life is, honey. The mangoes are always sweeter in the neighbor’s tree.”
When Mum had promised to take us to Guyana if I passed Middle School, I dreamed of an Indiana Jones, South American jungle adventure. A week had passed since we got here at the end of July. The nearest thing to a jungle adventure was our trip to the zoo and the Botanical Gardens. Oh yeah… We went to the Seawall: a long stonewall running along the coast to keep the sea out. Most of the time, we were trapped in Auntie Michelle’s house in Georgetown, the capital.
Auntie Michelle is Mum’s oldest sister. Her 101 rules of do’s and don’ts were a drag. Now I know why Mum’s mother prefers to live with us in our cramped duplex in Los Angeles.
Auntie Michelle’s fifteen-year-old baby son, Andrew, is a mama’s boy. He’s older than me by one year. Mike’s only 11. My younger brother and I were no match for his pranks. It was his home turf.
He called me ‘Fatty’ even after Mum objected. I know I’m on the big side. I’m not the sports type like Andrew. He and his friends played cricket every weekend at a sports club. Give me a good computer game, add a coke and chips, and I’m okay for the whole day. He’s a bully like the ones I’ve had to deal with at Middle School. I’m dreading going to High School in the fall.
Mike didn’t escape either. The day after we got here, he said to Mike: “Talkman, you not tired of hearing your own voice?” Mike likes to talk with people, to make new friends. So what’s the big deal?
It might not be so bad staying with dad’s parents. Dad had grown up in Providence, a town along the east bank of the Demerara River. Maybe we’d get a chance to check out the place and go bathing in the river. But it was a pity we were leaving Auntie Michelle’s house. We wouldn’t get a chance to get even with Andrew.
GRANDPA twittered non-stop during the entire half-hour crawl through the narrow streets of Georgetown to Providence. When we arrived at his house, Grandma couldn’t get over how big we’d grown. We were only toddlers when we first visited Guyana.
“I sorry you father couldn’t come too,” said Grandma.
“Daddy gotta work,” said Mike.
“He not due for vacation until November,” said Mum.
We met Rusty at lunchtime. A tall, thin man with hunched shoulders, burnt chocolate-brown by the sun. He’s Grandpa’s younger brother by six years but looked older. Mum said he used to drink a lot until rum almost killed him three years ago.
Mike and I followed Rusty around like fleas on the back of a dog. Early morning, we helped him collect eggs from the chicken coop in the back yard. Mike learned how to milk a cow. Looked like a messy deal to me.
During the day, we chased the chickens and ducks around the yard. We picked fruits from the mango, tamarind, and lime trees. We watched Rusty remove the husk of dried coconuts like it was gift-wrapping. Lying on the bridge over the trench in front of the house, we trapped baby fish in a plastic bowl.
After lunch, we swung in Rusty’s hammock in his downstairs room at the back of the house. Mike pumped him with all kinds of questions. He didn’t seem to mind. He enjoyed our company. He has two sons and a daughter. “Them in they twenties now. Them live with they mother in the States.”
“You don’t miss them?” said Mike.
“Yeah, but them get a better life over there.” I felt sad for Rusty. He was not a bad person.
During the late afternoons, he took us fishing down by the riverside. It was shallow near the bank for bathing. But Rusty said that rocks and fallen tree branches made it dangerous, especially at high tide. He stopped swimming in the river the day one of his friends drowned. “I woulda dead too, but Masacurraman save me.”
”What kind of man is that?” I said.
“Ma-sah-koo-rah-man. He live in the river. People say he do bad. Turn boats over, put holes in fishnets, eat people. But he save me that day.”
“What did he look like?” said Mike.
“I didn’t see he good. Me right foot get trap in a tree root in the river. I feel he hand free me foot. I only see a big, dark shape in the water.”
“Didn’t you see him when you came up to the surface?” I said.
“Nah, he musta swim out in the deep.”
“Ever see him again?” said Mike.
“Nah, but I know he out there.” We all looked out over the river.
THE news came that first Friday evening at grandfather’s house. Uncle Freddie, Auntie Michelle’s husband, had planned a weekend outing to an Amerindian village on a creek off the Demerara River. At last, an Indian jungle adventure! Boat trip and all! Only one problem: Andrew was coming along.
“They going meet us here around ten o’ clock,” said Grandpa. “Then we going drive to the Timehri stelling to catch the launch.”
“Is Uncle Rusty coming with us?” said Mike.
“He gotta look after the animals,” said Grandpa.
“It won’t be fun without Uncle,” said Mike.
Clanging pots and voices woke me around five o’ clock on Saturday morning. I stumbled out of bed and found my way to the kitchen. Mum, Grandma, and Chandra the housekeeper, were busy preparing food for our trip. Chandra prepared the roti. Mum chopped up the chicken. Grandma made mittai for us. The crusty, crunchy strips of deep-fried sweet dough were way better than Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
“Chris… You’re up early,” said Mum. “Go back to sleep. You’ve got a long day ahead. I’ll wake you when it’s time.”
When Mum came to our bedroom around eight thirty, Mike and I were already up and packing our back-packs.
“Don’t forget your sunscreen lotion and insect repellent.” She stopped in the doorway. “Oh… pack a sheet. We’ll be sleeping in hammocks. It’ll get pretty chilly at night.”
“I’ll pack my flashlight too,” said Mike. “We could ask Grandpa to take us on the river tonight for alligator spotting.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Rusty told me that at night you can spot the alligators cause their eyes shine in the light.”
“Sounds dangerous to me. I don’t know if Mum would let us go.”
We showered, dressed, ate breakfast, and were ready for our Indiana Jones adventure to find the hideout of Masacurraman. Mike and I did a high-five when we learned that Rusty was coming with us. Chandra and her husband agreed to take care of the house and farm while we were away.
Grandpa rented a mini-bus for the trip. We helped to load our picnic lunch, snacks, icebox with drinks, hammocks, mosquito nets, a two-burner gas stove and small gas bottle, our clothing, and other stuff. Uncle Freddie and his gang arrived with another car around ten thirty.
Our outing turned out to be a real expedition with twenty people. Our group had seven: Grandpa, Grandma, Mum, Rusty, Chandra’s sixteen-year-old sister, Mike, and me. Uncle Freddie’s group had another seven: Uncle Freddie, Auntie Michelle, Andrew his best friend, Andrew’s two older sisters and a girlfriend. Uncle Freddie’s younger brother drove the other car. His car had five more people: his wife, their four and six-year-old sons, and his wife’s niece and nephew, Andrew’s age-group.
THE drive to the Timehri stelling on the east bank of the Demerara River was an adventure of life-and-death proportions. Trenches squeezed in the East Bank Highway on both sides. Cows strolled across the highway. Mini-buses, carrying passengers from the airport in Timehri to the capital, approached us on a collision course. Guyanese drive on the left side of the road. The car’s steering wheel is on the right side. It was crazy! I was glad when we reached the stelling and could stand on safe ground.
The launch rocked on the river below the sturdy wooden docks. I felt dizzy just watching it roll in the brown waters. I helped load our stuff on the flat wooden roof. We packed our food baskets and iceboxes on the floor inside the launch. We donned bright orange life jackets and settled in. Mike wanted to stand near the pilot, but Mum didn’t let him. We sat with Rusty on the left side of the open-sided boat.
Our pilot steered towards the west bank and followed the bank upriver. “We’re heading now for the Kamuni River,” said Uncle Freddie. The river narrowed as we chugged through the black waters of the Kamuni River. Our pilot slowed each time we met Amerindians in canoes on their way to the Timehri stelling with farm produce. The canoes rocked in the wake of our launch.
“They got no roads here,” said Rusty. “They go everywhere by corial along the rivers and creeks.”
“Cool,” said Mike.
The forest soon closed in on us. Sunlight filtered through the dense canopy overhead. Were Indians following us as we plowed deeper into the rainforest? What about Masacurraman? Would he tip over our boat?
Someone screamed. I almost fell off my seat. One of the girls in the back of the boat jumped up from her seat. Something fell at her feet. The bottom half of a fish, about one foot long, its tail still moving. A clean chop. I eyed the dense forest. Would an arrow come next? Who had done this? Who had thrown it into our boat? Was Masacurraman mad at us?
“Must be Masacurraman,” said Rusty.
“You still with that sh*t?” said Grandpa.
“Is a load a bullshit,” said Uncle Freddie. “Is an Amerindian invention to stop us from fishing and prospecting in the rivers.”
“You all watch you language,” said Grandma. “We got lill children here.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Freddie! It’s just an Amerindian folktale, probably to explain why people drown in the rivers,” said Mum.
Rusty picked up the piece of fish and threw it into the river. A monkey howled from the trees on the opposite bank.
“There’s your culprit,” said Auntie Michelle. “It’s only a howler monkey playing with us.”
“Monkeys eat fish, Mum?” said Mike.
“Of course not, Stupid!” said Andrew.
“Andrew!” said Uncle Freddie. “That’s no way to talk to your cousin!”
Branches brushed against the launch and showered us with leaves. Then, when I least expected it, the forest fell away from the river banks. Grasslands and open sky spread out before us. The still black waters formed a giant mirror. “Welcome to Santa Mission,” said our pilot. “We now on the Pokerero Creek.”
“Santa Mission is an Amerindian Reservation,” said Uncle Freddie. “The Indians here are Arawaks.”
That didn’t mean a thing to me. My knowledge of native Indians was limited to what I had learned in elementary school. Pocahontas was the only Indian that came to mind.
THE village stood on the sand hills along the creek. Houses were scattered here and there. We approached a small dock with steps leading down to the water. Uncle Freddie pointed to a large, unpainted, wooden building with a thatched roof. “That’s where we’re going to stay.”
The building stood on stilts on the slope leading down to the creek. It looked more like the head of a giant creature with a wide gaping mouth than a house. No door or windows. No protection from howler monkeys or Masacurraman.
“Is called a benab,” said Rusty. “A Amerindian shelter. No furniture to dirty or break.”
Everyone pitched in to unload our food and stuff. The short trek uphill to the benab left me breathless. Heavy work was not my thing. A few village kids and adults looked on. They were dressed like us. No painted faces, no feathered headbands, no bows and arrows, no spears, no bare-breasted women.
The noonday sun was already burning us up. With all the palourie, channa, and soda pop during the boat-ride, no one was hungry. The women decided that we’d go swimming first and then have lunch. Mike and I, together with the other young people, changed into our swim gear, and bounded down to the waterside. The icy water shocked my system.
“What happen, Chris?” said Rusty. “Water too cold? Best thing is go under one time.”
We went under together. Mike joined us. In the black water, blurred shapes resembled the Dementors of Azkaban. It was best to keep my head above water. Out of nowhere, Andrew jumped into the water, blinding and stinging us with spray.
“Let’s race to the other side,” he said when he surfaced.
“Not safe,” said Rusty. “Some parts deep deep. And they got a strong undercurrent out in the middle.”
Andrew hopped around like an annoying fly. He showered us with water, and he tickled our legs. When he tried to pull Mike underwater, we decided it was time to leave the creek.
After stuffing ourselves with Grandma’s roti and chicken curry, Uncle Freddie’s barbecue chicken, and Auntie Michelle’s fried rice, Mike and I lay in the sand. We counted the noisy macaws flying overhead. Nearby, the men sat around a low table, playing dominos, and drinking rum with ice in clear plastic cups. Andrew and his gang had left to explore the village.
Rusty held a cup of Pepsi with ice when he joined us. “You all want to take a walk?”
“Sure.” Mike jumped up. “Let’s go, Chris.”
“Put on your sandals and shirts,” said Mum as we passed her, camped out with the women under a large red umbrella.
We stopped first at the tourist shop, filled with Amerindian handicraft. It would have been cool if we could buy a bow and arrow to take back to L.A. Instead, it was just stuff for girls and mothers. We stopped for a while to watch a woman weaving a basket from a huge bundle of dried strips of straw.
We walked along the white sand pathways, lined by tall grass. Children smiled shyly from doorways. We passed a guy carrying a large TV on his shoulder. We followed a trail to the back of the village. About ten minutes passed when Rusty stopped and looked back.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“Somebody following we. You all not hear the bush make noise?”
“No,” said Mike and I. “Maybe it’s a monkey,” added Mike.
“I get this creepy feeling somebody watching we.”
We pushed ahead on the trail. Trees rustled in the wind. Macaws squawked overhead. Rusty kept looking back but I heard no sound of a stalker. I relaxed when we arrived at a pineapple farm. I’d never seen pineapple plants. The owner cut a pineapple for us and offered us freshly cut slices. The juice trickled down my arms. It was real cool. I soon forgot about Rusty’s stalker.
The sun was still high in the sky when we returned to our camp. We gulped down ice-cold Pepsi from an icebox. We joined the adults in the water. The girls had returned and played around not far away.
“You boys having a good time?” said Uncle Freddie.
“Yeah, Uncle,” Mike said. “On the way back, we met a guy with a talking parrot. It was cool.”
“Where’re Andrew and the other boys?” I said, looking out across the creek.
“They’re bird watching in the bush,” said Mum. “The girls got bored and came back.”
“Come on, Mike!” I said, hopping through the water towards the girls. Mike followed. Rusty stayed behind.
Late afternoon, Andrew’s cousin and best friend returned from bird watching. We had all moved to the benab to set up the hammocks and mosquito nets before nightfall at six o’clock.
“Don’t forget, dinner at eight,” said Grandma.
“Where’s Andrew?” said Auntie Michelle.
“We thought he was with you all,” said Andrew’s best friend. “Andrew went after a macaw. He didn’t come back.”
“He must be waiting in a tree somewhere,” said Uncle Freddie. “Last time we were here, he didn’t show up ‘til around six o’ clock.”
I was with Mum when Rusty joined us. “Missus Angela, me got a bad feeling something happen. That boy wild. I going look for him before it get dark.”
“Mum, can me and Chris go with Uncle Rusty?”
“Yeah. Don’t forget to spray on insect repellent.”
“I’ll get my flashlight,” said Mike.
IT was already getting dark when we set out. The trail to the spot where Andrew’s best friend had last seen him led into the forest. In some places, the brush rubbed against our arms and legs. We called out his name but got no answer. We arrived at a small clearing in the bushes with a tall tree in the center. Two paths led from the clearing.
“Let we take the trail to the river,” said Rusty.
The trail to the creek went downhill. Many parts were uneven. We continued yelling Andrew’s name but only the macaws answered. We stood for a while at the waterside. A corial glided by with a boy and two girls. We waved at them. There was no beach in this area: just tall grass, trees, and shrubs.
“Do you think he went canoeing on the creek?” said Mike. “Androoooo!”
“Nah, he too smart for that. Let we go back to the silk cotton tree and try the next trail.”
The sun had sunk behind the trees, casting shadows across the forest. A loud humming pierced our ears. “What’s that?” I said.
“Six o’clock bee. Let we move faster. It going get dark soon.”
The six o’clock bees woke up the rest of the forest. Insects sure make a lot of noise! Tiny sand flies attacked our exposed head and limbs. I did a bad job of applying the insect repellent. Rusty just looked at me slapping myself and said: “Is a bad thing when you don’t listen to you mother."
”They must be eating Andrew alive.”
“You all hear that?”
I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the buzz.
“I hear it.”
“I hear it, too. Sounds like someone calling for help.”
“It coming from in the bush over there.”
Mike flicked on his flashlight and beamed it in the direction of the cry. “Andrew! Where are you?”
Again the cry. Rusty took the flashlight from Mike and led the way into the bushes. The twigs and leaves scraped me all over. “Andrew, we’re on our way!”
Rusty froze. He motioned us to remain still and quiet. He turned off the flashlight. The forest surrounded us like Dementors. I heard someone crying. Something was moving through the bushes from the direction of the creek. Someone must have heard our calls and was coming to help.
The noise of bushes parting and crushing underfoot grew louder. Someone or something big. Rusty grabbed my left arm. He pulled me and Mike to the ground. We crawled closer to the crying sound. We stopped about five feet away. The cries had changed to whimpers.
Rusty beamed the flashlight in the direction of the whimpers. Andrew sat near the base of a tree. He turned towards us, shielding his eyes from the light. A big black shape stooped over him. It turned towards us. Its eyes glowed in the dark, like cat eyes. My heart pounded. I dug my nails into the ground.
The creature stood upright to a height of six feet or so. It stood still. It made no sound. For a few seconds, its shiny eyes stared in our direction. Then it turned and ran away towards the creek. I peed myself.
We waited for an eternity before anyone moved or spoke. Even Andrew had gone silent. Then Rusty got to his feet and ran towards Andrew. A metal animal trap held Andrew’s right foot in its jagged teeth. It was bleeding and looked really nasty. Andrew was shaking. I knelt beside him, holding the flashlight while Rusty opened the trap.
“What was that thing?” said Mike. “Its eyes glowed in the light.”
“I…I…I d…d…don’t know,” said Andrew. “I ne…ne…never see any…t…t…thing like it be…be…before. It was all ha…ha…hairy and sm…sm…smelly.”
“Dude, seems like it left its smell on you,” I said
“I sh*t my…my…myself.”
“It freaked me out too, dude.”
“Is Masacurraman,” said Rusty. “You father think is just folk story. But the Amerindians know he for real.”
Rusty lifted Andrew off the ground and carried him back to the benab. Mike and I walked ahead with the flashlight.
“Why didn’t Masacurraman attack us?” I said.
“I think he came to help Andrew,” said Mike. “Like he saved Rusty when he was drowning.”
“Must be he like children,” said Rusty.
Back at our camp, Grandma cleaned and wrapped Andrew’s wound to reduce the bleeding. “This is what happen to children when they don’t listen to big people.”
Uncle Freddie went in search of a speedboat to take Andrew to the Timehri hospital. The questions about what had happened were endless.
On Sunday morning, Grandpa, Uncle Freddie, and his brother talked with the village leaders. Some villagers had reported seeing a strange manlike creature stalking the region.
“Dogs and chickens have mysteriously vanished,” one said.
“No one has seen him up close like your son,” said another.
They found no footprints in the area where we saw the monster. The broken branches along the trail to the creek verified our description of its size.
Rusty, Mike and I became celebrities. “You two got to spend some time with us before you leave,” said Uncle Freddie to me and Mike. We became Andrew’s new buddies. He told his friends in Georgetown about our encounter with Masacurraman in Santa Mission.
“Is just an Amerindian dressed up in a hairy suit to attract tourists,” one said. Others agreed.
“Who cares what other people think?” Mum said. “You believed your cousin faced real danger and you didn’t run away. Your father is proud of the two of you.”
Mike and I were sad to leave. We were going to miss Rusty. The night before we left Guyana, he came to Auntie Michelle’s house for a farewell barbecue. It was the first time that Dad’s parents had visited Auntie Michelle’s house.
“You must come and visit us in Los Angeles,” Mum told Rusty. “Then we can take you to New York to visit your children.”
“Thank you, Missus Angela. It going be good to see them.”
“Hey, dude,” Mike said to Andrew. “You could come and stay with us, too.”
“He gotta study and pass his exams first,” said Auntie Michelle.
Later that evening, I overheard Auntie Michelle saying to Mum: “Angela, you did a good job raising your sons. They’re fine boys.”
Somehow, starting High School in September was not so scary after all.