Barbara McKeon, a Dubliner living in Galway since ’98, was for many years a journalist with the Irish Press Group, at which time she had many short stories and plays broadcast on RTE Radio, as well as many more published in newspapers and magazines. She now teaches TEFL English, proofreads at the Galway Advertiser and continues to write fiction at her home in Kinvara, which she shares with her husband and two cats.
By Barbara McKeon
The canoe lay on the sandy shore of the river bank. The water was perfectly still, not a breeze ruffled its skin; the humid air seemed to be holding its breath. The perfect summer day was swathed in silence as if an artist had painted the scene on canvas.
I had never canoed alone before but how difficult can it be, I reasoned and waded into the shallows to climb into the small wooden craft. I knew to sit in the middle to paddle but the canoe just veered in circles so I shifted to the back and found it easier to manoeuvre the canoe in that position. And so I set off alone, out onto the sheath of water that lay like a silk scarf shimmering in the hazy sunlight.
As I moved away from the shore, the jungle rose up around me; the beguiling stillness punctured by the screech of moneys half hidden in the dense foliage or the sudden flash of colour as a flock of parrots swept by. Not only had I never canoed alone before but this solo expedition was taking place on a tributary of the mighty Amazon river in the heart of Brazil’s rain forest.
All around me stretched thousands of miles of silence. My canoe glided around trees growing out of the river, the lethargic dip, dip of the paddle momentarily disturbing the dark green waters. Overhead trees formed a parasol of branches obliterating the sun; while beneath the surface unseen aquatic creatures swam around roots of trees encased in water, feeding off plants that reached blindly towards the promise of sunlight.
Every so often, emerging from the canopy of foliage, the canoe glided into open space where a solitary tree rose out of the water, its reflection against the muted sky perfectly mirrored in the placid water; so perfectly reflected that the image would be identical were it turned upside down.
I was enthralled as I drifted through this other world; a world of transcendental beauty where the river is master and all life subservient to its dominion. Time has no meaning here, just the rhythm of the seasons when the river floods and subsides, the forest breathing life into the lungs of the planet.
This was the last of three days spent in the Amazon. On the previous two days I had been taken on expeditions, first trekking through the jungle on the trail of invisible jaguars, poking into the nests of tarantulas, and then off down river where alligators basked in the undergrowth and myopic pink dolphins navigated the murky depths. But best of all was a trip some hours downriver to fish for piranha which we later cooked in coconut leaves over a camp fire. Those adventures took place in the company of others. This little voyage I was now undertaking entirely on my own.
So captivated was I by my surroundings that I failed to notice water seeping into the canoe. By sitting at the back weight was unevenly distributed and the canoe was filling with water. I was a good distance from the shore in a sinking canoe, and I was a very poor swimmer. No-one knew I had taken the canoe out so even if I clambered on to a tree, who would know where to look for me?
Amazingly I didn’t panic. I slipped out of the canoe into the river and by doing so it stopped taking on water and remained buoyant. Holding onto the side of the canoe with one hand, I was able slowly to swim back the way I had come.
When I got ashore, I emptied the water out of the canoe. Then I got back in, and sitting in the middle, paddled back out onto the river for several more hours.
I knew this time would stay with me forever. I would never pass this way again but I would take the spirit of the rain forest away with me. The Amazon had leaked into the very fibre of my being, filling me up as its waters had filled the canoe.