On a very great river in a deserted country which had never seen a man lived a multitude of Yacarés, or what the outside world knows as Caimans, to wit, crocodilians. There were more than a hundred, or even more than a thousand. They ate fish and the small animals which went to the river to drink. But for the most part fish. They used to sleep on the sand of the riverbank and sometimes play in the water on moonlit nights.
They were all quite tranquil and content. But one afternoon while they were taking their siesta a Yacaré woke up with a start and raised his head, for he thought he had heard a loud noise of some sort. He listened carefully and in the distance—very far away--he did indeed hear a low and muffled noise of some kind. He at once called out to the Yacaré who was sleeping beside him.
“Wake up!” he said to him, “There is something dangerous afoot!”
“What is it?”, answered the other quite alarmed.
“I don't know,” responded the Yacaré who had first woken up, “I hear a strange and unfamiliar noise.”
In turn the second Yacaré heard the same noise and immediately woke up the others. All of them were terrified and were running about aimlessly with tails straight up in the air.
And that was not the least of the ruckus, for the noise grew and grew. Soon they saw what looked like a little cloud of smoke in the distance and heard clap-clap noises in the river as if something was slapping the water very far away.
The Yacarés were all looking at one another questioningly—whatever could that be?
But an old and wise Yacaré—the oldest and wisest of all, an old Yacaré who no longer had two sound teeth in his mouth and who at one time had made a voyage all the way to the sea, said suddenly:
“I know what it is! It's a whale! They are huge and spout white water out their nose! The water comes down behind them.”
On hearing this, the younger Yacarés began to howl and yelp unhinged and terrified, hiding their heads under the water--
“It's a whale! A whale is coming!”
But the old Yacaré shook his tail at the little Yacarecito who was closest to him.
“Don't be frightened!”, he shouted at them, “I know what a whale is. The whale is actually in fear of us! They are very fearful creatures always!”
With which the little Yacarecitos calmed down. But they immediately became frightened again, for the grey smoke had suddenly turned black and they all heard even stronger clap-clap-claps in the water. The terrified Yacarés plunged into the river, with only their eyes and the point of their noses above the waterline. And so they saw pass right in front of their eyes a huge object of some sort, full of smoke and slapping the water, which was the first paddle wheel steamboat ever to sail up that river.
The steamer passed by, grew fainter and disappeared. The Yacarés then came out of the water, all very annoyed with the old Yacaré because he had tricked them, telling them it was a whale.
“That is no whale!”, they shouted into his ears—for he was a little deaf—”What is it then, what just passed by?”
The old Yacaré then explained to them that it was a steamboat, full of fire and that all the Yacarés were going to die if it kept on passing by. But the Yacarés burst into laughter, for they thought that the old Yacaré had gone insane. Why were they going to die if the steamboat kept passing by? The poor old Yacaré was off his rocker!
And as they were hungry they went off in search of fish.
But there were no fish. They found not one little fish. All of them had fled, frightened by the noise of the steamboat. There were no more fish.
“What was I just telling you?” said the old Yacaré, “We already have nothing to eat. All the fish are gone. We will have to wait until tomorrow. It's possible the steamboat won't come back anymore and the fish will return when they are no longer fearful.”
But the next day they once again heard the racket in the water and saw the steamboat passing by, making a lot of noise and giving out so much smoke that it hid the sky.
“All right,” said the Yacarés, “the boat passed by yesterday, it passed by today, and it will pass by tomorrow. There will be no more fish and no more little animals coming to drink water from the river and we will die of starvation. All right then—let's build a dam.”
“Yes—a dam!--A dam!” all of them shouted swimming full force toward the riverbank, “Let's build a dam!”
They immediately set themselves to build a dam. They all went off to the jungle and felled more than ten thousand trees, for the most part lapachos and quebrachos because these species have very hard wood. They cut them down with a kind of little handsaw that the Yacarés had on the top of their tails, they pushed and shoved them toward the water and they fastened them together across the width of the river three feet or so from one another. No boat could pass through there, great or small. They were confident that no one would come by to frighten away the fish. And, since they were very tired, they bedded themselves down to sleep on the beach.
The next day they were still sleeping when they heard the clap-clap-claps of the steamboat. Everyone heard it but no one got up nor even opened their eyes. Of what importance was a boat to them? It could make all the racket it wanted but through there it was not going to pass.
In fact the steamboat was very far away when it stopped. The men inside saw with their spyglasses something across the river and sent a small boat to see what was impeding passing through. Then the Yacarés got up and went to the dam and were watching from between the piles, laughing to themselves about the trick the steamboat had been played.
The boat approached, saw the formidable dam that the Yacarés had raised and returned to the steamboat. But then it returned once more to the dam and the men on the boat shouted,
“What is it?”, answered the Yacarés, sticking their heads between the piles of the dam.
“This thing is in our way!”, the men went on.
“Don't we know it!”
“We are not able to get by!”
“That's exactly what we want!”
“Take out the dam!”
“We are not taking it out!”
The men on the boat talked in low voices among themselves for a bit and afterwards shouted:
“What is it?””
“You won't get rid of it?”
“Until tomorrow then.”
“Until whenever you wish!”
And the boat returned to the steamboat, while the Yacarés, deliriously happy, gave out tremendous tail slaps on the water. No steamboat was going to pass through there and forever and ever there would be fish.
But the next day the steamboat returned and the when the Yacarés saw the boat, they were struck dumb with wonder—it was not the same boat. It was another boat, a mouse-colored boat, much bigger than the other one. What new steamboat was this? Did it also want to pass through? It was not going to pass through, no. Neither this one, nor the other one or any other one.
“No—it is not passing through!”, shouted the Yacarés, throwing themselves on the dam, each of which took his position among the piles.
The new vessel, like the other, stopped far off and also like the other let down into the water a boat that approached the dam.
In it arrived an officer and eight sailors. The officer shouted:
“What is it?” they answered.
“You are not taking out the dam?”
“Okay,” said the officer, “then we are going to sink it by cannonade.”
“Fire away!”, answered the Yacarés.
And the boat returned to the steamboat.
Well, then, this mouse-colored steamship was a warship, an armored battleship with fearsome cannon. The wise old Yacaré who had one time gone downstream to the sea suddenly recalled what it was and scarcely had time to shout to the other Yacarés:
“Hide yourselves under water! Quick as a flash! It's a warship! Take care! Hit the deck!”
The Yacarés disappeared instantly underwater and swam toward the riverbank where they remained submerged, with only their nose and eyes above water. At this same moment, a great white cloud of smoke billowed out from the ship, there was a horrific bang, and an enormous cannonball hit the dam right in the middle. Two or three piles flew up in pieces, and then right afterward another cannonball hit and each one sent a piece of dam flying up through the air in splinters until nothing remained of the dam. Not a pile, not a splinter, not even a strip of bark.
Everything had been completely destroyed by the cannonading from the armored ship. And the Yacarés, submerged underwater, with their eyes and nose sticking out, now saw the warship pass through, its whistle tooting full blast.
At that point the Yacarés left the water and said:
“Let's make another dam much larger than that one.”
And that very afternoon and that same night they built another dam, with immense tree trunks. Afterward they went to bed, completely exhausted, and were still sleeping the next day when the warship arrived a second time and the boat approached the dam.
“Hey, Yacarés!” shouted the officer.
“What is it?” answered the Yacarés.
“Take out this other dam!”
“We will not take it out!”
“We are going to dismantle it with our cannonades just like the other one!...”
“Go ahead—dismantle it...if you can!”
And they said it very proudly, for they were sure that the new dam could not be destroyed—not even by all the cannons in the world.
But a moment later the ship returned covered in smoke and with a terrible bang blew out the middle of the dam, for this time they had fired artillery shells, not cannonballs. The artillery shells exploded against the piles, make them jump into the air, cut them to pieces, and reduced the enormous timbers to splinters. The second shot exploded right after the first and another section of the dam flew through the air.
And so they went on destroying the dam. And nothing remained of it—nothing. The warship passed by right in front of the Yacarés and the men made fun of them, covering their mouths to keep from laughing out loud.
“Okay,” said the Yacarés leaving the river, “We are all going to die because the ship will be passing by here forever and the fish will never return.”
And they were very sad, for the little Yacareritos were complaining they were hungry.
The old Yacaré then announced:
“We still have one hope of saving ourselves. We will go to the Surubí, the Tiger Catfish. I made the trip with him when I went to the sea and he has a torpedo. He saw a combat between two warships and he brought back an unexploded torpedo. We'll go ask him for it and although he is very annoyed with us Yacarés, he is good-hearted and he would not want us all to die.
The fact is that before—many years before—the Yacarés had made a meal out of a little nephew of the Surubí and he had not wanted to have any more relations with the Yacarés. But in spite of all that they went running to see the Surubí, who was living in a huge and grand grotto on the shore of the river Paraná, and he was sleeping beside his torpedo.
There are Surubíes—Tiger Catfish—up to six feet long and the torpedo's owner was one of them.
“Hey, Surubí”, all the Yacarés shouted at the entrance of the grotto, without daring to go inside because of the affair with his little nephew.
“Who's calling for me?”, answered the Surubí.
“It's us, the Yacarés!”
“I have nothing to do with you and don't want to have anything to do with you”, answered the Surubí in a very bad mood.
Then the old Yacaré stepped forward a little into the grotto and said:
“It's me, Surubí! I am your Yacaré friend who made the journey to the sea with you!
On hearing this familiar voice, the Surubí came out of the grotto.
“Ah! I didn't recognize you!” he said affectionately to his old friend, “What do you want?”
“We came to ask you for your torpedo. There is a boat that passes through our river and frightens off all the fish. It's an armored warship. We made a dam and the warship scuttled it. We made another dam and they also sank that. The fish have fled and we will die of starvation. Give us the torpedo and we will send the warship to Davy Jones' locker.”
The Surubí, on hearing this, thought for a long while and then said:
“All right—I will lend the torpedo to them, but I will always remember what the Yacarés did to the son of my brother. Who knows how to fire a torpedo?”
No one knew and they were all silent.
“Okay,” said the Surubí proudly, “I will fire it. I know how to do it.”
Then they organized the trip back. The Yacarés all fastened themselves together, from the tail of one to the neck of another, from the tail of this one to the neck of that one, forming a long chain of Yacarés which was more than a city block long. The huge Surubí pushed the torpedo into the current and put himself underneath it, holding it on his back so that it would float. And as the vines with which the Yacarés were strung together one behind the other finished being tied, the Suburí took hold of the tail of the last Yacaré with his teeth and they set out. The Surubí held up the torpedo, the Yacarés pulled, running along the shore. They climbed up and down, they hopped over stones, running every step of the way and dragging the torpedo, which raised waves like a ship due to its speed going through the water. But the following morning, very early, they arrived at the place where they had built the last dam, and they immediately began another, but much stronger than the previous ones, for, according to the advice of the Surubí, they placed the tree trunks that were the piles together, side by side. It was a really formidable dam.
It was about the hour that they had put in the last pile of the dam when the warship appeared again and the boat with the officer and the eight sailors approached the dam. The Yacarés then climbed up among the piles and poked their heads out the other side.
“Hey, Yacarés!” shouted the officer.
“What is it?” answered the Yacarés.
“Take out this dam!”
“You are not going to remove it?”
“Okay, then—listen”, said the officer, “We are going to disassemble this dam and so that you won't want to make another, afterwards we are going to disassemble you with cannon fire. Not one of you will remain alive, neither adults nor boys and girls, nor fat ones nor thin ones nor young ones nor old ones, like this ancient Yacaré I see there, and who doesn't have but two teeth in the sides of his jaw.”
The old and wise Yacaré, on seeing that the officer was talking about him and mocking him, said:
“It's a sure thing that I have left only a few teeth, and some of them broken. “But”, he added, opening his huge mouth, “do you know what these teeth are going to be eating tomorrow morning for breakfast?”
“What are they going to be eating? We'll see”, answered the sailors.
“This little officer here”, said the Yacaré and quickly dived under his pile.
Meanwhile the Surubí had well positioned his torpedo in the middle of the dam, ordering four Yacarés to hold it carefully and submerge it in the water until he told them what to do. So they did. Right afterwards the rest of the Yacarés submerged themselves in turn near the riverbank, leaving only their nose and eyes above the waterline. The Surubí submerged himself beside his torpedo.
Suddenly the warship filled with smoke and launched the first cannonade against the dam. The shell exploded right in the center of the dam and sent flying ten or twelve piles in a thousand pieces.
But the Surubí was on the alert and scarcely had the hole opened up in the dam, shouted to the Yacarés who were underwater holding the torpedo.
“Release the torpedo, quick—release it!”
The Yacarés let go and the torpedo went up flush with the waterline.
In less time than it takes to tell it, the Surubí positioned the torpedo right in the middle of the hole in the dam, aiming it with one eye, and, triggering the motor, launched it against the ship.
It was just in time! At that instant the armored ship was firing a second cannonade and the shell was on its way to blow up between the piles, causing another piece of the dam to explode in splinters.
But the torpedo had already arrived at the ship and the men who were on it saw it: that is to say, they saw the wake which the torpedo made in the water.
They all raised a fearful shout and tried to move the armored ship so that the torpedo would not hit it.
But it was too late. The torpedo arrived at its target and hit the huge vessel amidship and blew up.
It is not possible to describe the terrible noise when the torpedo blew up. It blew up and shattered the ship into fifteen thousand pieces—it sent through the air, over a distance of city block upom city block, smokestacks, machines, cannons, lifeboats and launches—everything.
The Yacarés gave out a shout of triumph and ran like crazy men to the dam. From there they saw pass through the breach opened by the shell dead and wounded men and some live ones who were carried off by the current.
Heaps of them climbed up on the piles which remained standing on both sides of the breach and when men were passing through, they made fun of them, covering their mouths with their paws.
They had no desire to eat any man, although the men well deserved it. Only when passed by somebody who had gold stripes on his uniform and who was still alive, did the old Yacaré throw himself with a bound into the water and—smack!--with two snaps of his jaw ate him up.
“Who is that?” asked an innocent Yacarecito.
“It's the officer”, the Surubí answered him, “My old friend promised him that he was going to eat him and he has been eaten.”
The Yacarés took down the rest of the dam, since it no longer served any purpose, having posited that no ship would be back to pass through their territory. The Surubí, who had become infatuated with the belts and braids of the officer, requested that they be given to him as gifts and had to snatch them up from between the teeth of the old Yacaré, since they were still entangled there. The Surubí put on the belt, cinching it under his fins and put the gold braid of the sword on the end of his huge barbels. Since the skin of the Surubí is very beautiful and the dark spots which it has look like those of a viper the Surubí swam for an hour passing and repassing in front of the Yacarés who admired him with dropped jaws.
The Yacarés accompanied him back to his grotto and thanked him a thousand times. Afterwards they returned to their own place. The fish also returned, the Yacarés lived on, and still live very happily, for they have become accustomed after all to see steamships passing by which carry oranges.
Still--they want to hear nothing of warships.
English Translation from the Spanish by E. A. Costa
Copyright—translation not to be copied or duplicated without written permission except for: (1) personal use; (2) educational purposes; (3) reviews, etc.
E. A. Costa July 19, 2016 Granada, Nicaragua