CHAPTER V. FLORESTA: LIFE AMONG THE RUBBER-WORKERS
Suddenly Joao jumped up, his black eyes glowing with excitement. He motioned me to keep quiet, but it was quiet superfluous for him to do this, as I was unable to talk, or even look around, for fear the canoe might upset. He seized the harpoon, and with a powerful swing sent it into the water ahead of us, at the same time grasping the line which was attached to the end. The spear sank deep into the water, and then by the vivacity with which it danced around I could tell there was something on the end of it. As he began to pull in the line, the struggle became so violent that I crept forward on my knees in the bottom of the canoe and helped him recover the spear. Only after some strenuous balancing feats and a stiff fight by both of us, did we land our game. It was a large flat fish at least four feet square, with a long whip-shaped tail, at the base of which were two barbed bones each about three and a half inches in length. Our first act was to sever this tail with a hatchet, as it was far too active to make the fish a pleasant neighbour in close quarters. When the sting-ray, or, as the Brazilians call it, the araya, was dead, I cut out the two barbed bones and no longer wondered why these fish are so dreaded by those who know them. Joao told me that they attack anyone who ventures into the water, and with their sharp, barbed bones inflict a wound that in most cases proves fatal, for the bones are brittle and break off in the flesh. Superstition and carelessness are the main factors that make the wound dangerous; the people believe too much in an ever-present evil spirit which abides in all the vicious and fiendish animals of the forest and swamp. Once wounded by any of these malignant creatures, they believe there is no hope of recovery and they hardly try to survive. Besides, lack of proper care and treatment of a wound generally results in its terminating in a case of septicaemia and ultimately gangrene.
I have mentioned the pirarucu several times as being the largest edible fish of the Amazon. When full grown, it attains a weight of two hundred and fifty pounds. In Lake Innocence we saw this remarkable fish feeding close to the shore in shallow water, surrounded by a school of young ones. The old one was about seven feet in length and the others but recently hatched, from nine to ten inches. The Indian who pointed them out to me stood up in the bow of the canoe and, fitting one of his five-foot arrows to the bow-string, sent it through the air and into the head of the big fellow.
The bow which he used was of his own manufacture. It was about seven and a half feet long, very tough and straight, and made of Caripari wood. The shafts of the arrows were made of long straight reeds, the stalks of a certain species of wild cane. The detachable part of the arrow is a short but extremely hard piece of wood upon which is fitted an iron head with two barbs. When the point pierces the flesh this hard piece comes off, but remains attached to the shaft by a short stout cord. This allows the shaft free play so that it will not break during the struggles of the victim. Then there is a line attached to the head itself so that the hunter can handle the struggling animal or fish by means of it and of the shaft of the arrow. The whole contrivance is a marvel of ingenuity in meeting the conditions the Amazon hunter is called on to face. When the arrow struck this particular pirarucu, at close range, he made straight for the shore, hauling the canoe and its contents after him at considerable speed. We got tangled among the low branches and fought the fish in considerable danger of being overturned - and I should not at all care to be capsized on Lake Innocence.
Finally, we got our prize ashore. I sent the Indian to headquarters, telling him to go, as fast as he could and bring assistance so that we could get the fish home. I myself mounted guard over the carcass to see that neither the turkey buzzards nor the carnivorous mammals should destroy it. If we had left it alone for even a short time, we would have found, on our return, little to remind us of its existence. The Indian returned shortly with two men. They stuck a pole through the great gills of the pirarucu and in this fashion carried it to the settlement.
These waters contain great quantities of another and smaller fish known as the piranha, scientifically termed Serraselmus piraya. This is quite as much dreaded by the natives as the alligator, or even as the shark along the coast. Its ferocity seems to know no bounds. It will attack other fish and bite large pieces out of their fins and tails. Although it is not much larger than the herring it can make fatal attacks on man when in large numbers.
Mr. C.B. Brown in his work on Guiana gives the following account of this fish: