In the Yabebirí River, which is in Misiones, there are many rays. Yabebirí, in fact, means precisely ‘River of the Rays’. There are so many that at times it is dangerous to put even one foot in the water. I knew a man who received a bite from a ray on his heel and who had to limp the half-league to his house. He went crying and falling over with the pain, which is one of the strongest known to man.
Because there are many other kinds of fish in the Yabebirí, some men hunt them with dynamite. They toss a bomb into the river, killing millions of fish. All the fish nearby die, though they might be as large as a house. The little ones, no good for anything, also die.
Now, one time a man went to live there, with no wish to throw dynamite because he felt sorry for the little fish. He was not opposed to the idea of fishing in the water in order to eat. But he did not wish to uselessly kill millions of little fish.
The men who threw dynamite got angry at first, but because the man was of grave character though very good, the others went to hunt in another place and all the fish were happy. So happy and grateful to their friend who had saved the lives of the little fish, that they recognised him as soon as he neared the bank. And when he walked by the coast smoking, the rays dragged themselves through the mud after him, happy to accompany him. He knew nothing and lived happily in that place.
And it happened that once, one afternoon, a fox ran to the Yabebirí and put his feet in the water, crying out:
“Hey, rays! Quickly! Here comes your friend, wounded.”
The rays heard him and ran anxiously to the bank. And they asked the fox:
“What’s happened? Where is the man?”
“Here he comes!” cried the fox again. “He’s fought with the tiger! The tiger’s running this way. For sure he’s going to cross the island! Let him pass, because he’s a good man!”
“We know it already! Already we’ve decided to let him pass!” answered the rays. “As for the tiger, he’s not going to pass!”
“Careful with him!” cried the fox. “Don’t forget that he’s a tiger!”
And with a leap, the fox returned to the mountain.
Scarcely had this happened when the man parted the branches and appeared with blood all over him and his shirt torn. The blood ran down his face and chest to his pants and dropped from the fold of his pants to the sand. He staggered toward the bank, seriously injured, and entered the river. As soon as he put a foot in the water, the rays that had gathered moved out of his way, allowing him to arrive at the island in water up to his chest without a ray stinging him. When he arrived he fell unconscious in the same sand, owing to the fact that he had lost so much blood.
The rays had not even had time to demonstrate the full extent of their pity for their dying friend when a terrible roar made them jump in the water.
“The tiger! The tiger!” they all cried, hurling themselves like arrows onto the bank.
In fact, the tiger had fought with the man and had chased him as far as the Yabebirí. The animal too was badly wounded and blood ran from every part of its body. He saw the man lying as if dead on the island and roaring with rage threw himself in the water to finish him off.
But he had scarcely put a foot in the water when he felt as if eight or ten large nails had been driven into them and instantly leapt backwards: it was the rays who, defending the river pass, had nailed the stingers of their tails into him with all their force.
The tiger roared with pain, his feet in the air. Seeing the water by the bank, murky as though something had stirred up the mud at the bottom, he understood that the rays did not want him to pass. Then he cried out in a fury:
“Ah, now I know what it is! It’s you, damn rays! Get out of the way!”
“We’re not leaving!” replied the rays.
“We’re not leaving! He’s a good man! There’s no reason to kill him!”
“He wounded me!”
“Both of you are wounded! What you do in the mountains is your business! Here, we’re in charge … ! You’re not allowed through!”
“I’m coming through!” the tiger bellowed for the last time.
“No, never!” replied the rays.
(They said ‘no, never’ because that’s how those who speak the guaraní language say it, like in Misiones).
“We’ll see about that!” roared the tiger. And he went back so as to prepare himself for an enormous leap.
The tiger knew that the rays were almost always by the bank and believed that if he succeeded in making a very big leap into the middle of the river he would encounter no more rays and thus be able to eat the dying man.
But the rays had guessed it and all ran for the middle of the river, passing on the word.
“Away from the bank!” they cried beneath the water. “Go in! Toward the channel! Toward the channel!”
And in a second the army of rays hurled themselves inside to defend the pass, just as the tiger made a tremendous leap and fell in the middle of the water. He fell beside himself with happiness because in the first instant he felt no stings and believed that the rays had remained behind on the bank, tricked.
But he had scarcely taken a step when a rain of stings, like stabbing pain, stopped him dead; again, it was the rays that riddled his feet with bites.
Despite that, the tiger wanted to go on; but the pain was so awful that he emitted a shriek and ran back to the bank like one possessed. And he threw himself on his side on the sand because he could take no more suffering. His belly rose and fell as if he was exhausted.
In fact the tiger was poisoned with the rays’ venom.
But though they had defeated the tiger the rays were not calm because they were afraid that the tigress might come, as well as other tigers, and others … And they would no longer be able to defend the pass.
In fact, the mountain roared anew and when the tigress appeared and saw the tiger lying on his side on the sand she worked herself into a fury. She also noticed how the rays’ movement stirred up the water and drew near the river. With her tail almost touching the water, she cried out:
“Rays! I want to get through!”
“It’s not allowed!” replied the rays.
“Not one ray will be left with a tail, if you don’t let me pass!” roared the tigress.
“Even if we lose our tails, you’re not allowed through!” replied the rays.
“For the last time, let me through!”
“No, never!” cried the rays.
Furious, the tigress had put a foot in the water without meaning to and a ray, closing in slowly, nailed her whole stinger in her toes. Hearing the animal roar with pain, the rays responded, smiling:
“It seems that we still have our tails!”
But the tigress had an idea and with this idea in her head she left without a word, going upriver.
But this time too the rays understood what their enemy planned. Their enemy planned to do this: cross the river at another place, a place where the rays there did not know they needed to prevent the tigress from passing. Tremendous anxiety took possession of the rays.
“She’s going to cross upriver!” they cried. “We don’t want her to kill the man! We have to protect him!”
And they turned desperate circles among the mud until the river became cloudy.
“But what will we do!” they said. “We don’t know how to swim swiftly … The tigress will cross before the rays there know that they must stop her at all costs!”
And they did not know what to do until a very intelligent ray said suddenly:
“This is what we should do! The golden fish should go! The golden fish are our friends! They swim faster than anyone!”
“That’s right!” they all cried. “The golden ones should go!”
And word went round in an instant and in another instant there appeared eight or ten rows of golden fish, an army of golden fish that swam upriver at full speed and created furrows in the water, like the torpedoes.
Despite everything, they scarcely had time to give the order to close off the way to the tigers; the tiger had swum and was about to arrive at the island.
But the rays had run to the other shore and as soon as the tigress stood up the rays threw themselves at her feet, tearing them apart with their stingers. The animal, furious and beside herself with pain, roared, leapt out of the water, clouds of which smacked against the surface. But the rays continued throwing themselves against her feet, blocking the pass in such a way that the tigress turned about-face, swam again and threw herself in turn toward the bank, her feet monstrously swollen. She would not be able to get to the man from here either.
The rays too were tired. What was worse was that the tiger and the tigress both had picked themselves up and entered the mountain.
What were they going to do? The question left the rays uneasy and they conferred for a long time. At the end they said:
“Already we know what it is. They’re going to look for the other tigers and then they’ll all come here and cross the river!”
“No, never!” cried the youngest rays that did not have so much life experience.
“Yes, they’ll cross, little comrades!” the old ones replied sadly. “If there’re many of them they’ll cross … We’ve got to consult with our friend.”
And they all went to see the man. Busy defending the river, they had not yet had time to do it.
The man still lay flat because he had lost a lot of blood. But he could speak and move a little. Quickly, the rays told him what had happened and how they had prevented the tigers that wanted to eat him from crossing. The friendship of the rays that had saved his life touched the man and with great affection he gave his hand to the rays closest to him. And then he said:
“There’s nothing we can do! If there are many tigers and they want to cross, they’ll cross … ”
“They won’t cross!” said the youngest rays. “You’re our friend and they’re not going to cross!”
“Yes, they’ll cross, little comrades!” said the man. And he added in an undertone:
“The only way would be to send someone to the house to look for my Winchester rifle and many bullets … but I don’t have any friends living by the river, besides the fish … And none of you know how to walk on the ground.”
“What do we do then?” asked the rays anxiously.
“Let’s see, let’s see,” said the man, passing his hand in front of his brow, as though in an effort to remember something. I had a friend … A little rodent that was raised in a house and played with my children … One day he returned to the mountain and I believe he lived there, in the Yabebirí … But I don’t know where he would be … ”
The rays then cried out with joy.
“We know him! His den is at the tip of the island! He spoke of you to us once. We’ll go and look for him immediately!”
Thus agreed upon, a large golden fish flew upriver in search of the little rodent while the man moistened a drop of dried blood in the palm of his hand to make ink and using a fish bone like a pen wrote on a dry leaf, which served as paper. He wrote the following letter: With the little rodent send me the Winchester and a box of twenty-five bullets.
He had scarcely finished writing the letter when the entire mountain shook with a dull roar: it was the tigers coming close to strike up the fight. The rays carried the letter with their heads out of the water so that it would not get wet and gave it to the little rodent, who ran through the straw field and carried it to the man’s house.
Not before time, because the roars, although still far off, came nearer quickly. The rays then reunited with the golden fish, that were awaiting orders, and cried out to them:
“Quickly, comrades! Cover the whole river and raise the alarm! That all the rays should immediately gather in every part of the river! That they should gather all round the island! We’ll see if they’re going to cross!”
And the army of golden fish flew off at once, upriver and downriver, appearing like stripes in the water because of the speed with which they moved.
There was not a single ray in the entire Yabebirí that did not receive the order to gather at the riverbanks all around the island. They showed up from everywhere, from among the stones, from among the mud, from the mouths of the streams, from the entire Yabebirí, to defend the pass from the tigers. And the golden fish crossed and crossed a second time in front of the island at great speed.
Not before time, again; an immense roar shook the water at the bank and the tigers streamed toward the coast.
There were many. It seemed that all the tigers in Misiones were there. But the entire Yabebirí boiled with rays too. They threw themselves toward the bank, ready to defend the pass at all costs.
“Let the tigers cross!”
“There’s no way through!” replied the rays.
“Let us cross, again!”
“It’s not allowed!”
“If you don’t let us cross, there won’t be a ray left, or the child of a ray, or the grandchild of a ray!”
“It’s possible!” replied the rays. “But neither the tigers, nor the tigers’ children, nor the tigers’ grandchildren, nor all the tigers of the world are going to cross here!”
So responded the rays. Then the tigers roared for the last time:
“We’re asking to cross!”
The battle then commenced. With an enormous leap the tigers threw themselves into the water. And they landed upon a floor of rays. The rays riddled their feet with stingers and at every wound the tigers roared with pain. But they defended themselves with their claws, slapping the water like crazed creatures. And the rays flew through the air with their bellies opened by the tigers’ claws.
The Yabebirí resembled a river of blood. The rays died by the hundreds … but the tigers were also gravely wounded and retreated to the beach, where they lay down and bellowed, horribly swollen. The rays, trampled and smashed by the tiger’s feet, did not give up; they never ceased turning up to defend the pass. Some flew through the air, fell into the river, and attacked the tigers again.
This fierce battle lasted half an hour. At the end of this half hour all the tigers were again on the beach, sitting from fatigue and roaring with pain; not one had crossed.
But the rays were also dead tired. Many had died and those still living said:
“We can’t resist two attacks like that. Let’s hope the golden fish bring reinforcements! Let’s hope all the rays in the Yabebirí come at once!”
Again the golden fish flew upriver and downriver, moving so quickly that they left furrows in the water like torpedoes.
The rays then went to see the man.
“We can’t hold out any longer!” they told him sadly. Some of them even cried because they realised they would not be able to save their friend.
“Go, rays!” replied the wounded man. “Leave me alone! You’ve already done too much for me! Let the tigers through!”
“No never!” cried the rays as one. “While there’s one ray left alive in the Yabebirí, which is our river, we’ll defend the good man who defended us!”
Content, the wounded man then exclaimed:
“Rays! I’m close to death, scarcely able to speak, but I assure you that as soon as the Winchester arrives we’re going to have a long spree here. I assure you of that!’
“Yes, we know,” answered the rays enthusiastically.
But they were unable to go on speaking because the battle recommenced. Having rested, the tigers got to their feet suddenly and bending as if they were about to leap roared:
“For the last time, and once and for all, let us through!”
“No never!” replied the rays throwing themselves on the bank. But the tigers had leapt into the water in their turn and recommenced the terrible fight. The whole Yabebirí, from one bank to the other, turned red with blood, and the blood frothed on the beach sand. Smashed into bits, the rays flew through the air and the tigers bellowed with pain; but none backed off.
The tigers not only did not back off, they advanced. The army of golden fish went upriver and downriver at great speed, calling to the rays in vain; there were no more rays. All were fighting in front of the island and half had died already. Those that remained were wounded and losing strength.
They understood then that they would not be able to hold out another minute and that the tigers would cross. The poor rays, who preferred death to surrendering their friend, launched themselves against the tigers for the last time. But it was already a lost cause. Five tigers swam toward the island coast. The rays, in desperation, cried out:
“To the island! Everyone to the other shore!”
But this move also came too late. Two more tigers had begun swimming and in an instant all of them would be in the middle of the river, only their heads visible.
But in the same moment a little animal, a little hairy red animal swam across the Yabebirí at full strength. It was the little rodent, who arrived at the island carrying the Winchester and the bullets on his head so that they would not get wet.
The man gave a loud cry of happiness because there still remained time for him to come to the aid of the rays. He asked the little rodent to push him with its head so that he could balance on his side, something he could not accomplish by himself. On assuming this position he loaded the Winchester with the speed of a ray.
In the precise moment that the torn apart, squashed, bloodied rays realised with hopelessness that they had lost the battle and that the tigers were going to devour their poor wounded friend, in that moment they heard a bang, and saw the tiger at the front, which had already reached the sand, leap high and fall dead, its forehead pierced by a shot.
“Bravo, bravo!” cried out the rays, delirious with joy. “The man’s got the Winchester! We’re saved!”
They made the water cloudy in their delirium of happiness. But the man quietly continued firing and every shot killed another tiger. And whenever a tiger fell dead with a roar, the rays responded with prodigious shakes of their tails.
One after the other, as if lighting struck between their heads, the tigers died from the shots. That lasted only two minutes. One after the other they sank to the river bottom, where the palometa fish ate them. Some floated afterwards, and then the golden fish accompanied them to the Paraná, eating them, and making the water fly up with their contentment.
In little time the rays, which had many children, became as numerous as before. The man got better and felt such gratitude to the rays that had saved his life that he went to live on their island. There, on the summer nights, he liked to lie on the beach and smoke by the light of the moon, while the rays, speaking slowly, pointed him out to the fish, who did not know him, telling them about the great battle that, allied with this man, they once had with the tigers.