The Alligators’ War (Translation of Horacio Quiroga story La Guerra de los Yacares)

In a very large river, in a deserted country where man had never set foot, lived many alligators. There were more than a hundred, or perhaps even more than a thousand. They ate fish, wild animals that went to drink water from the river, but above all fish. They took their siesta in the sand at the riverbank and at times played about in the water on nights when there was a moon.

They lived quietly and contentedly. But one afternoon, while they took their siesta, an alligator woke all of a sudden and raised its head believing it had heard a noise. He cocked an ear and actually heard far off, very far off, a dull, deep sound. He then called to the alligator that slept at his side.

“Wake up!” he said. “We’re in danger.”

“What is it?” asked the other, alarmed.

“I don’t know,” replied the alligator that had awoken first. “There’s a strange noise.”

The second alligator heard the noise in his turn and moments later the others awoke. Frightened, they ran from side to side with their tails raised.

And their unease was not for nothing, because the sound became louder and louder. Soon they saw what looked like a cloud of smoke in the distance and heard a beating sound from the river as if the water very far off was being pounded.

The alligators exchanged looks all around: what could that be?

But an old, wise alligator, the oldest and wisest of them all, an alligator who retained only two healthy teeth in the sides of its snout, who at one time made a journey to the sea, said all of a sudden:

“I know what that is! It’s a whale! They’re huge and expel white water through their noses! The water falls behind them.”

Hearing this, the small alligators began crying out with fear, plunging their heads. And they cried out:

“It’s a whale! Here comes the whale!”

But the old alligator shook the little alligator nearest him by the tail.

“Don’t be afraid!” he cried out to them. “I know what a whale is! They’re frightened of us! They’re always frightened!”

With that, the young alligators quietened down. But they became frightened again at once because the grey smoke changed of a sudden into black smoke and all felt very strongly now the beating of the water. Scared, the alligators submerged themselves in the river, leaving only their eyes and the tips of their snouts visible. And they saw pass before them that immense thing, full of smoke and beating the water, a steamer that negotiated the river for the first time.

The steamer passed, moved on and disappeared. The alligators then left the water, very angry with the old alligator, because he had tricked them, saying that it was a whale.

“That was no whale!” they cried in his ear, because he was a little deaf. “What was it that passed us?”

The old alligator then explained to them that it was a steamer, full of fire, and that all of them would die if the vessel continued navigating the river.

But the alligators laughed, because they believed the old one had gone crazy. Why would they die if the steamer kept navigating the river? He was crazy enough, the poor old alligator!

And as they were all hungry, they went looking for fish.

But there were no fish. They found not a single one. They had all gone, frightened by the sound of the steamer. There were no more fish.

“Didn’t I tell you?” said the old alligator. “There’s nothing for us to eat. The fish have all gone. Let’s wait until tomorrow. Maybe the steamer won’t return and the fish will come back when they’re no longer afraid.”

But the next day they heard again the beating on the water and saw the steamer pass by again, making a great noise and throwing out so much smoke that the sky became obscured.

“All right,” the alligators then said. “The vessel passed by yesterday, today and it will pass tomorrow. Already there are no more fish or wild animals coming to drink and we’ll die of hunger. Then let’s make a dyke.”

‘Yes, a dyke! A dyke!” they all cried, swimming at great speed toward the shore. “Let’s make a dyke!”

At once they set to work on the dyke. They all went to the forest and felled more than 10,000 trees, above all lapachos and quebrachos, because their wood was very hard … They cut them with the sharp edges that alligators have above their tails; they pushed them into the water and nailed them together the entire width of the river, one metre apart. No vessel would be able to pass through there, neither large nor small. They were sure that no one would come to frighten the fish. And as they were very tired they lay down to sleep on the beach.

They were still sleeping the next day when they heard the beating sound of the steamer. All of them heard it, but none rose or opened their eyes even. What importance was the boat to them? It could make all the noise it wanted, but it would not be able to pass through there.

In effect, the steamer was still far off when it stopped. The men on board looked through binoculars at that thing lying across the river and sent out a boat to see what it was that prevented them from passing. Then the alligators rose and went to the dyke, looked among the trunks and laughed at the joke they had pulled on the steamer.

The boat drew near, saw the formidable dyke the alligators had erected and returned to the steamer.

Later, the boat reappeared at the dyke and the men on board cried out:

Hey, alligators!”

“What is it?” replied the alligators, lifting their heads among the dyke trunks.

“You’re obstructing us!” continued the men.

“We know!”

“We can’t get by!”

“That’s what we want!”

“Remove the dyke!”

“We’re not going to do that!”

The men on the boat spoke among themselves for a moment and then cried:

“Alligators!”

“What is it?” they answered.

“You’re not going to remove it?”

“No!”

“See you tomorrow then!”

“We’ll see you whenever you like!”

And the boat returned to the steamer, while the alligators, delirious with happiness, vigorously beat the water with their tails. No steamer would be able to pass through there and always, always, there would be fish.

But the steamer returned the next day, and when the alligators looked at the vessel they were speechless with surprise; it was not the same steamer. It was another, a vessel the colour of a mouse, much bigger than the other. What new steamer was that? Did that one too want to pass? No, it would not, no. Not that, not another, not any other!

“No, it’s not going to pass!” cried the alligators, throwing themselves at the dyke, every one at his place among the trunks.

The new vessel, like the other, stopped far off and also like the other dispatched a boat that drew near the dyke. On board were an officer and eight sailors. The officer cried out:

“Hey, alligators!”

“What is it?” they replied.

“Are you going to remove the dyke?”

“No.”

“No?”

“No!”

“Fine,” said the officer. “Then we’ll destroy it with cannons.”

“Sink it!”

Now, that vessel the colour of a mouse was a warship, a battleship with terrible cannons. The wise alligator that had once gone to the sea realised all of a sudden and scarcely had time to cry out to the other alligators:

“Hide beneath the water! Fast! It’s a warship! Careful! Hide!”

In an instant the alligators disappeared below the water and swam toward the riverbank, where they remained concealed, with only their noses and eyes visible. In the same moment, from the warship there emanated an enormous cloud of white smoke. There was a fearsome explosion and a huge cannon ball fell right in the middle of the dyke. Two or three trunks were blown to bits that went flying in the air and at once there followed another cannon ball, and another and another, and each one blew another section of the dyke into splinters, until there remained nothing of the dyke. Not a trunk, not a splinter, not a husk. The warship’s cannons had destroyed everything. And the alligators, concealed in the water except for their noses and eyes, watched the warship pass, whistling at full speed.

Then the alligators left the water and said:

“We’ll make another dyke much bigger than the other.”

That same afternoon and night they made another dyke, with immense trunks. Afterwards, they lay down to sleep, very tired, and they were still sleeping the next day when the warship returned and the boat drew near the dyke.

“Hey, alligators!” cried the officer.

“What is it?” responded the alligators.

“Remove this dyke!”

“No, we’re not going to remove it!”

“Then we’ll destroy it with cannons like the other…!”

“Destroy it…if you can!”

And they said this with pride because they were sure their new dyke would stand up to all the cannons in the world.

But a moment later the vessel filled with smoke and the cannon ball exploded with a horrible bang in the middle of the dyke, because this time they had launched it with shrapnel. The shrapnel exploded in contact with the trunks, tore them to pieces, and reduced to splinters the enormous beams. The second exploded at the side of the first and another section of dyke flew through the air. And so they continued destroying the dyke. And there was nothing left of it, nothing, nothing. The warship then passed in front of the alligators and the men made fun of them, covering their mouths.

“Well,” said the alligators, leaving the water. “All of us are going to die because the vessels will go on passing and the fish won’t return.”

And they were sad because the small alligators complained of hunger.

The wise alligator then said:

“We still have one chance of saving ourselves. We’ll go and see the surubí fish. I made the trip with him when I went to the sea and he has a torpedo. He witnessed a battle between two warships and brought an unexploded torpedo here. We’ll ask him for it and although he’s very angry with us, he has a good heart and doesn’t want us all to die.”

Before, many years before, the alligators had eaten the suburí’s little nephew, and he had then wanted nothing more to do with them. But despite everything they went running to see the surubí, which lived in a huge grotto on the banks of the Paraná River and always slept by the side of his torpedo. Some surubí fish grow two metres long; the master of the torpedo was one of them.

“Hey, surubí!” cried the alligators from the grotto entrance, without daring to enter on account of the matter of the nephew.

“Who’s calling me?” answered the surubí.

“It’s us, the alligators!”

“I neither have nor want anything to do with you,” replied the surubí, in a bad temper.

Then, the wise alligator stepped forward just a little and said:

“It’s me, surubí! Your friend the alligator that travelled to the sea with you!”

Hearing this familiar voice, the surubí left the grotto.

“Ah, I did not know it was you!” he said affectionately to his old friend. “What do you want?”

“We’ve come to ask you for the torpedo. A warship passes along our river and frightens the fish. It’s an armoured battleship. We made a dyke and they sunk it. We made another and they sunk that too. The fish have gone and we’ll die of hunger. If you give us the torpedo, we’ll sink their ship.”

Hearing this, the surubí thought long, afterwards saying:

“That’s fine. I will lend you the torpedo although I’ve never forgotten what you did to my brother’s son. Who knows how to detonate the torpedo?”

No one knew and all were quiet.

“That’s fine,” said the surubí, with pride. “I’ll detonate it. I know how to do that.”

Then they arranged the journey. The alligators attached themselves one to the other, from the tail of one to the neck of the other, from the tail of that one to the neck of the next in line, thus forming a long chain of alligators more than a block long. The huge surubí pushed the torpedo toward the current and positioned himself below it, maintaining it upon his back so that it would continue floating. Because all the reeds had been used to attach the alligators one to the other, the surubí grasped the teeth of the last alligator’s tail and thus the journey commenced. The surubí maintained the torpedo afloat and the alligators launched themselves, keeping to the coast. They surfaced, dived, jumped over the stones, always running and dragging the torpedo, which created waves like a ship owing to the speed of the passage. But early the next morning they arrived at the place where they had constructed their last dyke and at once began another, but much stronger than the last, because they followed the advice of the surubí and took special care in positioning the trunks one beside the other. It was a really formidable dyke.

Scarcely an hour had elapsed since they had positioned the last trunk of the dyke when the warship appeared again, and the boat with the officer and eight sailors drew near. The alligators then climbed the trunks and put their heads out the other side.

“Hey, alligators!” cried the officer.

“What is it?” replied the alligators. “Another dyke? Yes, another!”

“Remove that dyke!”

“Never!”

“You’re not going to remove it?”

“No!”

“In that case, listen,” said the officer. “We’re going to destroy this dyke and so that you don’t make another one, afterwards we’re going to destroy you too, with gunshot. Not one of you will remain alive, neither big ones, small ones, fat ones, skinny ones, young ones, nor old ones, like this old alligator that I see here, which has only two teeth in the sides of its snout.”

The old, wise alligator, seeing that the officer was speaking about him and making fun of him, said to the other:

“It’s true that I have very few teeth remaining, some broken. But do you know what these teeth are going to eat tomorrow morning?” he added, opening his enormous snout.

“What are they going to eat?” asked the sailors.

“That officer,” said the alligator, quickly disappearing beneath his trunk.

Meanwhile, the suburí had positioned his torpedo right in the middle of the dyke and ordered four alligators to hold it tight and keep it submerged in the water until he advised them. So they did. At once, the remaining alligators submerged themselves in turn near the riverbank, leaving only their noses and eyes open to view. The suburí submerged himself by the side of his torpedo.

Suddenly the warship filled with smoke and launched its first cannon at the dyke. It exploded right in the middle of the dyke and ten or twelve trunks broke into a thousand pieces.

But the surubí was alert and no sooner had the hole appeared in the dyke than he cried to the alligators that were beneath the surface holding the torpedo in place.

“Release the torpedo, fast. Release it!”

The alligators jumped and the torpedo rose to the surface of the water.

In less time than needed to relate the fact, the surubí positioned the torpedo in the very centre of the opening, aimed with one eye, engaged the mechanism, and launched it against the ship.

Not before time! In the same instant the battleship launched its second cannon, which exploded among the trunks, and another section of the dyke exploded into splinters.

But the torpedo drew near the boat and the men on board saw it; that is to say they saw the whirlpool that a torpedo makes in water. All gave an enormous cry of fear and wanted to move the battleship so that the torpedo would not harm it.

But it was too late. The torpedo struck the immense ship right in the middle and exploded.

It is impossible to describe the terrible noise the torpedo made when it exploded. It exploded and 15,000 pieces went flying in the air, at a vast distance, chimneys, engines, motorboats, everything.

The alligators gave a triumphant cry and ran like creatures possessed to the dyke. From there they saw dead and wounded men and some still living carried by the current through the opening left by the cannon.

They climbed the two trunks that remained either side of the opening and when the men passed through there they made fun of them, covering their mouths with their legs.

They had no wish to eat any man though they merited it. But when one with gold stripes on his uniform, who was still alive, passed, the old alligator launched himself into the water and ate him in two bites.

“Who was that?” asked an uninformed little alligator.

“The officer,” replied the surubí. “My old friend promised him he would eat him and he’s eaten him.”

The alligators removed the rest of the dyke, which no longer served any purpose, given that no boat would return that way. The surubí, who was dazzled by the officer’s belt and cordon, asked that they be given him as a gift, and had to extract them from the teeth of the old alligator, around which they had remained wrapped. The suburí put on the belt, fastening it beneath its fins and hung the cordon from the ends of its large moustache. As the suburí’s skin is very beautiful, and its dark stains are similar to those of a viper, the surubí swam back and forth for a whole hour in front of the other alligators, who admired him with wide open mouths.

The alligators later accompanied him to his grotto, thanking him countless times. They then returned to their place. The fish returned too. The alligators lived, and still live, very happily, because they have become accustomed to the sight of passing steamers and ships laden with oranges.

But they wish to know nothing of warships.

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About owenlindsayboyd

I am a follower of the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda - author of Autobiography of a Yogi. I begin and end each day with meditation, a spiritual base from which all else proceeds. I am a personal carer, writer and traveller, among other things, originally from just outside Melbourne in Australia. I lived in my hometown until 1984, obtaining a degree in Arts, with majors in sociology and communication studies, in 1980. I have spent a considerable amount of time since the late eighties living and working in a wide range of communities in many different parts of the world. I have lived and worked with homeless people, disabled people and refugees. As a writer, I am principally a novelist though I also write shorter pieces, both fiction and non-fiction and have published and self-published poetry, articles, short stories, memoirs and novels. In addition, I write screenplays and have made a number of low-budget film productions. In recent years I self-published a trilogy of novels dealing, principally, with the themes of healing and reconciliation. 'The Unintentional Healing of Soul' (Changeling / Trafford 2003) was followed by 'Proper Respect for a Wound' (Changeling / Trafford 2005) and 'Thanks Be to the World' (Changeling / Trafford 2009). 'Proper Respect for a Wound' was also published in e-book format by Jaffa Books, Brisbane, Australia in 2013. I self-published a two-book travel memoir, 'The Second of Three' and 'From a Caregiver's Point of View' early in 2014. It is distributed on smashwords. Later in 2014 I plan to publish a book of stories.
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