"La miel silvestre” (Wild Honey)


Horacio Quiroga (translated by Mark Andrew Holmes)

I have in the Salto Oriental two cousins, already men right away, though they were twelve years old, who as a result of deep reading of Jules Verne, got the rich idea to run away from home to go live in the bush, two leagues from the city. There they would live in a primitive way, by hunting and fishing. It was true that the two boys were not accustomed to wielding shotguns or fishhooks, but anyway, the forest was there, with its freedom as a source of happiness and its dangers as charm.

Unfortunately, they were found on the second day by people who went looking for them. They were quite amazed, not even a little weakened, and to the astonishment of their younger brothers—also inspired by Jules Verne—they even knew how to walk erect and remembered how to speak.

The adventure of the two Robinsons, however, was perhaps more formal and less theatrical than a mere day trip to the forest. There have been no end of escapees coming here to Misiones, and to them Gabriel Benincasa was pride dragged along in stromboots.

Benincasa, having completed his studies in public accounting, felt a fulminating desire to experience jungle life. It was caused by temperament, as Benincasa was a rather peaceful boy, chubby and pink-faced, on account of his excellent health. Consequently, he was sufficiently sane to prefer his tea with milk and cookies and who knew what infernal food he would come across in the jungle. But just as the bachelor who was always judicious believes he ought to, on the eve of his wedding, say goodbye to the free life with an orgy together with his friends, so Benincasa wanted to honor his well-oiled life with two or three shocks of a life more intense. And for this reason he went up to Paraná to the mills, with its famous stromboot.

He had barely left Corrientes before he had to dump his heavy shoes, as alligators sunned themselves on the shore all over the landscape. But nevertheless this CPA took great care of his footwear, avoiding scratches and contact with the dirt.

In this manner he arrived at his godfather’s place of work, the place where he would take his ease as a godson.

“Where are you going now?” he would ask in surprise.

“To the mountain; I want to do some hiking,” said Benincasa, who had slung his Winchester over his shoulder.

“That’s too bad! You won’t be able to go anywhere. Go get yourself bitten, if you want, or leave that gun here and a peon can go with you tomorrow.”

Benincasa gave it up, only going as far as the edge of the jungle before stopping. Vaguely he took a step in, and stopped. Then he put his hands in his pockets and peered into that hopeless tangle, a faint whistling trailing off. After looking left and right checking out the forest, he returned, pretty disappointed.

The next day, however, he rode down the middle of it for about a league, and although his rifle stayed absolutely quiet, Benincasa wasn’t sorry he’d taken the trip. The beasts would come in time.

They came on the second night—but in a rather singular way.

Benincasa was sound asleep, when his godfather woke him up.

“Hey, sleepyhead! Get up or you’re going to get eaten alive.”

Benincasa sat up in his bed, dazzled by the light of three lanterns in the room that were moving back and forth in the wind. His godfather and two peons got up from the floor.

“What is it? What’s there?” he asked, leaning down.

“Nothing…Watch your feet…Watch it…”

Benincasa had been aware of the reason for that last statement: a curious ant. They are tiny, black, bright and march quickly in rivers that are more or less wide. They are essentially carnivorous. They advance devouring everything in their path; spiders, crickets, scorpions, toads, snakes are helpless to resist them. There is no animal, however big or strong, that can stand against them. If they enter a house one can expect absolute extermination of every living thing, because there is no corner or deep hole where this river of ants will not reach. Howling dogs, mooing oxen will be forced to abandon the house or else be gnawed to skeletons over a ten-hour period. They stay in one place one, two, up to five days, according to how many insects or how much meat or fat is there. Once everything is devoured, they leave.

However, there was creosote or a similar drug that abounded in the mill; within an hour the house was free of the infestation.

Benincasa watched nearby, imagining his feet a solid livid mass of ant bite.

“Those bites are very strong, really!” he said in surprise, raising his head to his godfather.

His godfather, for whom this observation no longer had any value, didn’t answer, but counted himself lucky, for a change, to have dealt successfully with this invasion. Benincasa went back to sleep, but all night his sleep was disturbed by tropical nightmares.

The next day he went back to the mountain, this time with a machete, having concluded that this would be a more useful took than the gun. His heart rate was not helped, and his luck at hunting was even worse. But he still managed to get his face slashed and boots cut forcing his way through the branches.

The twilit, silent hill soon wore on him. It gave him the impression—exact or not—of a scene seen during the day. The teeming tropical life had no time for the theater or ice cream; no animal, no bird, made a sound. Benincasa was about to go back again when a dull buzz caught his attention. Ten meters away, in a hollow tree, tiny bees flew thickly around an entrance hole. He approached cautiously and saw in the bottom of the opening ten or twelve dark balls the size of an egg.

“It’s honey,” the accountant said with quiet gluttony. “Those must be balls of wax, filled with honey…”

But between Benincasa and the balls were bees. After a moment's rest, he thought of the fire; it produces a good smoke. As luck would have it, as the thief approached cautiously, the litter underfoot was wet, and four or five bees landed on his hand without stinging. Benincasa grabbed one at once and squeezing the bee’s abdomen, he found there was no sting. His saliva, and his frivolity, was put on display in clear and mellifluous abundance. Wonderful and good little animals!

In an instant the accountant dug out the wax balls and took them a considerable disatnce away to avoid having to deal with pursuing bees, he sat on a stump. Of the twelve balls, seven contained pollen. But the rest were full of honey, a dark honey, darkly transparent, which Benincasa savored with relish. He was distinctly aware of something. What? The accountant could not describe it precisely. Perhaps resinous fruit or eucalyptus. And for that reason, such honey has a vague rough aftertaste. But what perfume instead!

Benincasa, who was quite sure that five bags would be useful, began. His idea was simple: he would hang the dripping honeycomb from his mouth. But as the honey was thick, he had to enlarge the hole, after spending about thirty seconds unnecessarily gaping, honeycomb dripping over his mouth. So honey protruded, tapering in a heavy thread from the accountant’s tongue.

Benincasa emptied the five honeycombs into his mouth one after another. There was no use holding back, and he would have plenty of time to examine the honeycombs later; he was resigned to his gluttony.

After a while, he realized that maintaining his head in one position made him dizzy. Feeling heavy with the honey, sitting still, his eyes wide open, Benincasa again regarded the twilit mountain. The trees and soil took turns tilting obliquely, and his head moved back and forth with the swinging of the landscape.

”How curious is this dizziness,” the accountant thought. “And the worst thing is…”

He got up and tried to take a step, and was forced to nearly fall back down on the log. His body felt like lead, especially his legs, as if they were vastly swollen. And his feet and hands tingled.

“It's very unusual, very unusual, very unusual!” he repeated stupidly Benincasa, however, had no frame of reference to undertand he reason for this unusualness. As if ants ...No, forget it.

And suddenly his breath stopped in horror.

“It’s got to be the honey! ... It's poison! ... I’m poisoned!”

Even another effort to get up made his hair stand up hedgehog-like in horror. He couldn’t even move now. Now the leaden feeling and the tingling was up to his waist. For a moment the horror of dying there, miserably alone, away from his mother and his friends, left him feeling totally helpless.

“I’m dying now!...In a while I’m going to die right here! I can’t move my hand anymore!...” In his panic he found, however, that he had no fever or sore throat; lungs and heart kept their normal pace. His anguish changed shape.

“I’m paralyzed, it is paralysis! And nobody will find me!...”

But a visible drowsiness began to seize him as his feeling of sickness accelerated. and he thought he noticed that the soil seemed to turn black and was stirring rapidly. He remembered the warning from the night before, and then came the crowning anguish: the possibility that invading black soil was...

He still had the strength left to suddenly scream, a real scream, that brings back the tone of the terrified child in the man’s voice, as up his legs climbed a precipitate torrent of black ants. Around him the devouring horde obscured the ground, and the accountant felt, beneath his underpants, the river of carnivorous ants climbing…

His godfather finally found him two days later, a skeleton covered in the clothes Benincasa had last been seen in, without a particle of meat on the bones. Ants were still prowling around, and along with the empty honeycombs on the ground were sufficient to tell the story.

It is common in those parts for wild honey to have these narcotic or paralyzing properties. Flowers with the same character abound in the tropics, and already the taste of honey from that región has tainted the reputation of all honey from the area. Benincasa’s godfather concluded that an overdose of eucalyptus resin had killed his godson.


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