Essequibo Stories

An excerpt from an autobiography by Keith Jardim

In Guyana, Goldmine and Wolga were where I spent holidays as a boy with my grandfather and his life-long friend Joslin Matthews. Five miles apart and about sixty miles up the Essequibo river, Goldmine owned by my grandfather and Wolga by Joslin, this landscape of boyhood adventure was where I first experienced the idea of a kind of god: walking in the jungle, which was part of the Amazon Basin, I sensed, mostly in fear at first, the mysteries of nature: how did the jaguars, Amerindians, snakes, birds, trees, creeks, rivers and all the other living things come to be? Why were they here? They were beings that transcended human time. The bible had failed to adequately communicate any version of this wonder.

By the time I was thirteen, I had managed to persuade my father — who’d been to Goldmine and Wolga as a boy, too — soon after these experiences had settled, there was no need for me to continue attending the Roman Catholic Church. Since Wolga had a big house and Goldmine didn’t, we stayed at Wolga and Joslin would fish at night, sometimes accompanied by me, while my grandfather read up in the house, barely able to distinguish us on the beach.

The house at Wolga is still there, but we don’t go to it any more. The house is made of wood from the last century, is very high-ceilinged and, some have said, haunted by Joslin’s mother and grandfather.

The house seemed to know you — perhaps because of its age and stories — and I felt this when I was there and back in the city. The house and the feelings you had there remained in the part of your mind that mattered most, the part you didn’t use for day-to-day living. And at nights, you dreamed. You dreamed you were there, in the house, sleeping and waking as a storm began, the moon fresh in a swept sky, the air pulling for the storm, you sensing it and seeing the dark clouds appear and make the moon frazzled. Then the clouds gathering, like huge dragons wrestling in slow-motion. Then the lightning starting, silently at first.

At times like these, when you were awake and secure in bed watching the storm, you loved having a house a great deal, knew why the land was important, why the river was too, and why you were meant to be here and being in cities is largely folly. And when you woke in the morning, there would be a longing in your heart and head you could not understand because we often cannot remember enough of our dreams. You were back in the city; and until you returned to the house, there would be no remembering your dreams.

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In the mornings, before a hike into the jungle, or at nights, Joslin would tell me stories of his youth: about the time a caiman came at him from behind when he was waist deep in the river at Wolga and the old pipe-smoking Amerindian woman who used to watch him yelled and he turned in time to see the caiman opening its jaws; about the hunting trips with Amerindians decorated with paint and clad only in grass straps; about the jaguar who walked along the beach at Wolga and entered the house for tea one afternoon, his rosetted coat of black and gold lit in late afternoon sunlight, his hind legs stretched out behind him as he lapped the honey and milk on the table, his misplaced weight eventually upsetting the table and Joslin who was in a hammock nearby and seeing all this through half-closed eyes and thinking it was all a dream; about the bearded ghost who would arrive at three a.m. to read the abandoned agricultural magazines that belonged to Joslin’s father; about dolphins the colour of the full moon playing at midnight close to the beach and the old Amerindian caretaker Jobus thinking they were mermaids he fell in love with returned to claim him, he running naked into the river, thrashing around and mumbling in a dead language; about the thirty-three foot anaconda found coiled asleep and digesting a pig in the cook Susie’s bed and which required five athletic men to remove once killed; about the Englishman who played cards so well, Mr Driver (a close friend of my grandfather’s and Joslin’s) became annoyed and gave him wrong directions to the bathroom and he fell into the Essequibo at one a.m. from the third level of the house boat in which Joslin, my grandfather and Mr Driver used to drink late into the night; about the jaguar who came again, with his mate this time, for tea one afternoon after the rains, one jaguar on either side of the table, balancing it, both lapping milk and honey, the sunlight on them, Joslin again sleeping in the hammock and waking only when one of them licked his knee; about the canoe that floated hundreds of miles down the Essequibo, so it was said, containing a shrunken head whose lips were sewn together, a paddle and cassava; about airplanes that flew into mountains; about Amerindians who shot arrows at airplanes; about the manatee who came into the shallow of the beach at Wolga, made friends with my grandfather, and took him for a ride to mid-river; about the time Joslin and my grandfather drank so much lime juice when they were boys they couldn’t move and had to lie on the beach at Wolga all day looking at the sky.

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And others.

There were times when I doubted some of these stories; and one morning, washing up for breakfast, I suggested to Joslin he was a liar in front of my grandfather. I was wondering whether I was being lied to only for their amusement. My grandfather said I must never, under any circumstances, call Joslin a liar; use another word, like fibber, for instance, not liar. He said it firmly, and Joslin walked away feeling, I know, surprised, maybe even hurt. He knew I loved his stories, and my grandfather’s, but for some reason that day my attitude to the world, to life, was miserable. I was in the grip of puberty.

Most of the stories were true, I discovered much later. And I was not disappointed with the ones which were lies or warm-hearted exaggerations. For all the stories now, like their landscape and their tellers so many years later, have a kind of beauty, a kind of truth — to say nothing of wonder — I cannot ever forget. Until I see them breathe in language, I hope never to rest: they must, at least, transcend me.