There it goes again – a pulsating hum coming from the jungle. Sounds like a generator coming on, but Tambopata Research Center uses solar panels for energy. Is it aliens? One wall of my lodge is open to the black jungle; it’s like I’m camping right under the great kapoks and ironwoods. Is it the trees that sing at night? A series of discordant hoop-hoophoops, then the drawn-out purr. The sound pours through me, leaves the roof of my mouth tingling, like after stroking a cat. I switch my torch on, see a huge cockroach inside the mosquito nets. It’s 3am. I’m too excited to sleep now. I have to get up at four anyway, to be on the river just before dawn. It’s coming closer; I’ve never heard anything so strange. Yet I’m the stranger here.
Now there are strangled squeaks coming from above. Are the bats crashing into the antitarantula threads strung across the ceiling? And now the poison arrow frogs start their predawn chorus like manic phone alarms – toot-toottoot- toot. The first scarlet macaw lets out a dawn greeting from its hole high in an ironwood. Then the terrestrial and treefrogs join in. It’s the turn of the titi monkeys now – a crescendo of squabbles over fruit trees. At last the red howlers begin their hair-raising roars, the official jungle wake-up call.
I make my way to the tea station in the canteen, gulp some from the urn, then stumble along the raised wooden walkways, to the communal bathrooms. Even queuing for a free cubicle is thrilling because of the bird chorus accompaniment – the dwarf tyrant manikin’s chew-weep, then the slow descending scales of the grey potoo. The spectacled owl’s boomboom- boom, followed by the musician wren or uirapuru, whose melodious flute-like notes make every other bird stop to listen.
Dr Donald Brightsmith, research leader of the scarlet macaws project, is in the queue before me, so I ask him about the electronic night-hum and he tells me it’s the song of pale-winged trumpeters, black chicken-sized forest floor foragers with a white patch on their wings. On our way to the river, my guide Jungle Paul spots a flock, so I mention that I heard them. He opens his birdsong app and uses Bluetooth to amplify it into the understorey. And it gets them singing in daylight!
Here I go again, down the sheer bank, clinging to the rope handrail, as I make my way over rickety wooden steps. Once installed on the motorised canoe, I relax. There is nothing as thrilling as being on the river. The Tambopata is a tributary of the Madre de Dios – Mother of God – tributary of the Mamore, then Madeira, then the great Amazon herself, and it is here, not far from her source, that we are truly inside Mama Amazonica, sailing up her veins, past valves of rapids. Every uprooted tree which floats past is a mystery play, a stage for a creaturely theatre, as if these are dream-cells in her body. Dawn unveils vistas of trees punctuated by canopy giants and the occasional flare of a coral tree. The Puno Mountains are our backdrop for the day.
The breeze in the centre of the river freshens my head as we pass the branch-nerves of driftwood covered in sleeping night hawks. Maybe a roost of forty, most of them with their eyes closed, one or two prised open to watch us, eyelids drooping as we move on. Their cream breasts and dun backs and wings are what sleep might look like if the river wanted to paint it for us.
I think of my mother in the psychiatric ward, undergoing a month of deep sleep treatment, flanked by beds of snoring patients. I wish her this peace, want the lithium and anti-psychotics that circulated her bloodstream to be as harmless as these nightjars letting the current lap them on their log securely snagged on rocks.
On a rose sandbar a black caiman lies motionless, his scaly head haloed by butterflies – snowy-whites and flambeaux, their proboscises lowered into the corners of his eyes to suck the salt. Mania and depression – that double brute from the primordial hindbrain. But he’s inviolable in his armour-plating; only the jaguar can overpower him. And here he is, one of the gods of the depths, two rainbowed horseflies drinking from his snout.
My mother lay in a drug-induced stupor. Her voices lowered their suckers into the corners of her eyes and mouth. They fluttered against her cheeks and sucked her tears as they whispered to her, telling her to set the curtains around her bed on fire, to run around the ward naked, her red hair flaming. If she opened her eyes, she saw the fairies of her childhood jinking just below the ceiling, their wings flares that clustered like the forest canopy on fire, every tree a flame-of-the-forest or a kapok of flowering red sparks.
I entered the ward and found her awake. Only the scene that unfolds before me on the Río Tambopata conjures that encounter. She wore her turquoise see-through negligee as if her head was breaching from the river-surface. She leapt up demanding tea, to slop it over the bed as she staggered, her hyperactive eyes popping out of their sockets.
We round another bend in the river and Rambo, our motorista, spots a king vulture on a totem pole of driftwood. He cuts the engine and rows the boat forwards. The king vulture is looking down at the water, his white and black wings half raised, his immaculate white legs gripping the pole-top. I can see every colour on his face – his coral neck, purple head, the apricot wattle on his beak. He is flanked by a black vulture and five black hawks, all staring down into the water.
And now we see what they are watching so intently, because down in the water, wedged against the floating island of tree-trunks, is a giant golden catfish, belly up, its white eye open, its huge whiskers sticking up like arrows. Only it is not alone, for now we see the spectacled caiman whose snout is buried deep in the catfish’s belly. The caiman’s eye is also wide open. Jungle Paul, who is prone to childlike explosions whenever we see any spectacle, is beside himself, as he explains the full drama of what is happening. The vultures and hawks are waiting for the caiman to finish feeding, so they can swoop down and feast. The caiman is stalling, because he also wants to eat the hawks, because they eat his young.
I walked into the ward, the air turbulent with brackish currents, the patients adrift, dreaming on their hospital beds. I do not know if I was the catfish or the hawk. I do not know if my mother was the caiman or a queen vulture. What I do know is that the atmosphere on that sun-bleached islet was the same as in her ward, that a game was in stasis.
Did she remember when jungle rivers coursed through her veins – her pristine time, when she met Glyn on the train to Paris and they fell in love? Glyn who wanted to wait until they were married, who had to go back to Wales because his visa expired. Glyn whom she could not write to, once my father had raped her. I like to think that as she fell into her medicated sleep she returned to virgin rainforest, pungent with trees that know how to protect themselves from invaders, dressed in bark robes of thorns, smelling of repellent resins and poisons. The garlic tree, the camphor tree, the tree that will even wear a faecal perfume. My mother with her herd of peccaries clacking their teeth like machine-guns, tusked to the nines.
When the musician wren sings, all the animals listen. From her nest in the ant tree, her melody tells everyone that her guards the fire ants will cut anyone who touches her tree. The river relays the song through the understorey. Once, a young girl was tied naked to the ant tree trunk and a throng of fire ants plunged their stingers into her, setting her body alight. Only the wren of her spirit survived, to live with the fire ants for the rest of her life. My mother the nightclub singer, whose voice was nectar mixed with formic acid. My tree mother, with the slow breathing of a drugged tree, lullabied by the wren of her bedraggled spirit, whose vowels are attended by a choir of tiny red ants, the drum-patter of their feet whenever I approach.
We have landed, climb the bank of orange mud. Day-flying Urania moths are clustered on the sandy puddles, sucking minerals, the green bands on their large wings like flashes of emerald lightning. Paul leads me along a track to a clay-lick, stopping at the foot of a giant kapok, whose buttress flanges are high as roofless rooms. He says how king vultures once ate the dead and carried their spirits up to the sky, here at the foot of this sacred tree. I imagine my mother’s ghost laid across a rough table. Leafcutter ants march over her, carrying leaf fragments large as love-letters, but she keeps on sleeping. There are hoarse coughs from the pond border. We are on an island in a creek, and in the centre of the island is the fishpond. In the centre of the fishpond is brushwood and a nest with a hoatzin chick tottering about – my mother balancing awkwardly on her bed, threatening to tumble into the pond, where a spectacled caiman waits immobile, jaws agape.
We are going to the clay-lick, to wait for the macaws to arrive. The macaws, whose chicks sleep in holes high in ironwoods, praying the cockroaches won’t eat them alive. Parakeets and mealy parrots have already landed, pecking beakfuls of red clay inside the caves they have carved into the cliffs. One pair of blue-and yellow macaws perches on a nearby palm, hesitating to risk descent. Only yesterday, our motorista saw a jaguar prowling along the cliff top. And there are jaguars-of-the-skies – harpy eagles that can snatch a monkey from its branch. Red-and-green and scarlet macaws are arriving, and more blue-and-yellows. They come as couples or in threes, with a juvenile in tow. Their cries are what happiness sounds like. They wait for the parakeets to feed, and soon, all the surrounding treetops are weighed down with colour.
Once, the scarlet macaws almost vanished from the earth, and scientists at Tambopata Research Center revived their numbers, collecting the second, often neglected, chick from each nest, and hand-raising them.
Vanishment – that’s what I keep thinking about. I came to Tambopata again because I didn’t see a jaguar the first time. Yet the Ese-Eja people, who live in the buffer zone and who are our boatmen in the core, see them often, telling me tales of them eating their pet cats and even of a rare encounter of both a jaguar and a puma on the path to the river. What did they do? Look at each other and go their separate ways. Even now, Paul says, you are being watched, so don’t be disappointed not to see them, they have seen you. And as if this is the magic mantra he stands up in the boat and points at a far sandbank, whispering Gato! Gato! Ocelot? No! It’s a jaguar!
The engine stops abruptly and we drift soundlessly across. The jaguar is lying on top of a driftwood stage, drying his coat after swimming across the river. He watches us approach. It is always dawn when I remember this – steam rises from the river like mist from my mother’s flanks. The banks are orange as blood, roots trail out of them like exposed nerves. I am surveyed by gods – a king vulture, a harpy eagle, a scarlet macaw. I have to pass through the gates of the jaguar’s sparkling fangs, to imagine my birth. Then I must swim the length of the river, pushing through the corpses of dead animals. When I reach the sunlit oxbow lake where waterlilies grow among ribbed cradle-leaves, only then can I love my mother.
I lie on my leaf-cradle next to a baby caiman, and see the cockroaches scuttle into my mother’s flowering face. I see her close the petals of her eyelids, to keep them closed all her life, trapping the roaches in their love-bed, tunnelling through orgies of pollen grains. At twilight, the musician-wren sings a lullaby. In the deepest hour of the night, when people are born and die, when the sick cry themselves back to sleep, and the patients in their sleepward talk in strange languages, arguing and sobbing with angelic nurses, insisting that the world is on fire, only then do the pale-winged trumpeters run over the leaf litter, singing the song of rain and flight, their sooty shadows scratching the soil.
Pascale Petit’s seventh collection, Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017), won the 2018 Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, was shortlisted for the Roehampton Prize, and was a Poetry Book Society Choice. Her eighth collection Tiger Girl from Bloodaxe in 2020, won an RSL ‘Literature Matters’ award while in progress.