Lying in the spongy moss on the bank of the Amazon River, Cristiano stared up at the branches of the kapok trees and watched squirrel monkeys leaping from branch to branch beneath the thick canopy of leaves that blocked out a great deal of the late morning sunlight. From not far away howler monkeys shrieked, their cries reverberating through the rainforest. His legs hung over the bank with his feet in the cool water where minnows nibbled on the dry, calloused skin on the soles of his feet. He held his bamboo fishing pole in one hand and ignored the slight tugs on the string, awaiting something bigger to swallow the hook made from one of his baby brother’s diaper pins. Gnats and mosquitoes buzzed around his head as he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. When he awoke, his fishing rod was gone and dark clouds filled what had been a bright blue sky. He sat up and stared out at the water, knowing that his fishing rod was gone forever, pulled from his hand by the strong river currents and carried away along with all the vegetation and debris scoured from the river banks. Replacing the rod would be easy – bamboo grew in abundance in the forest – but finding string and stealing another pin wouldn’t be so simple. He pulled his feet out of the water and crossed his legs. On the other bank a large jaguar sat on its haunches, staring at him, too far away and separated by the river to pose a threat, but goosebumps raised on Cristiano’s arms nevertheless. Jaguars were strong swimmers but it had to be something more tempting than a boy to make one cross the river.
He started to stand but as he placed his hand on the ground to push himself up, he felt something hard just beneath the surface of the moss. He reached in and pulled out a panflute, a siku, made with six lacquered tubes and bound together by reeds. Standing, he put the flute to his mouth and blew into two of the tubes at the same time. The notes emitted from the flute were clear and sonorous, a sound so satisfying to his ears, that he pulled the flute away from his mouth and stared at it in wonder. Many men in his village owned and played the siku, but none that he had heard, including the one his father possessed, produced such a deep and gratifying sound. He put his mouth back on the flute and moving his lips up and down the tubes, he played the instrument’s scale. The beauty of the notes, from the lowest to highest, brought tears to his eyes. It then occurred to him that the flute belonged to someone. From the sheen on the tubes, and the tautness of the reed, it was obvious it had only been recently lost. He looked around, expecting the flute’s owner to suddenly appear from the depths of the forest, drawn to the sound of the flute. When thunder rolled across the late afternoon sky, he knelt down and buried the flute in the spot where he found it. It started to rain just as he reached the dirt path that wound through the forest all the way to his village. The echo of his bare feet slapping the earth joined the myriad of bird calls and screeching of monkeys as he ran home.
The whir of the blades of the helicopter as it sat down in the mud on the outskirts of the village was accompanied by the shouts of the villagers calling out “aquí está” as they left their huts and climbed down the ladders to the ground ten feet below. In the purple haze of twilight, the lights from the helicopter shone brightly against the backdrop of the dark forest.
“May I come and see what the helicopter has brought with it?” Cristiano asked his parents from the straw mat he was sitting on, dangling a bird carved from wood in front of Luis, who grabbed at the object and giggled loudly when Cristiano quickly pulled it away.
“Stay here and take care of your brother,” his father replied as he followed Cristiano’s mother out the door. “I’ll bring some candy back for you.”
“Candy!” Cristiano grumbled aloud. “You think I’m still a child.”
As soon as they were gone, he reached over and took three diaper pins from the small box his mother kept the infant’s supplies in and shoved them into his britches pocket. He stood up, lifted Luis up to his shoulder and went to the door. As always, whenever a helicopter arrived bringing packages, supplies or medical personnel if needed, the rain forest was silent until the hum of he helicopter blades ceased. Children and mothers with babies stood on the narrow ledges of the row of huts across the unpaved, muddy street, all with their eyes turned to where the helicopter had landed. Except for a crying baby, they too were silent, like the forest, anxiously awaiting to see what the helicopter had brought with it.
From the base of the ladder to the hut where Cristiano lived, his friend Edmundo called up to him. “You catch any fish today?” he asked.
Cristiano leaned over and peered into the shadows near the stilts that held the hut up, keeping it from being flooded during rainy season and preventing the wild animals and snakes from getting in.
“Come out where I can see you, Edmundo,” Cristiano said to his friend.
Moments later Edmundo stood a few feet in front of the hut. He looked up at Cristiano. In the ambient light of fading twilight the dark bruise around the boy’s eye stood out like a circle on a target.
“Who hit you?” Cristiano asked.
“My father. He said I stole something of great value from Pedro Rega.”
Pedro Rega was the wealthiest man in the village, the only villager with a real bank account in the city. His wife wore new dresses and high heeled shoes shipped from stores in Lima. He was a brutish man with a mean temper who frequently beat his wife.
“Was it a flute you took?”
“A flute?” Edmundo said. “I took nothing, but my father hit me before it was discovered that what Pedro had thought was taken had been misplaced. Why did you ask if it was a flute?”
“While fishing I found a flute buried in a bed of moss on the riverbank. It’s the most beautiful flute I have ever seen or heard,” he said. “It seems like it was hidden there for a reason.”
“Can I see it?” Edmundo said as he lifted his foot and shook off a clump of mud.
“Yes, tomorrow. It’s hidden in the moss where we always fish from. I’ll show it to you, but you must say nothing to anyone about it.”
“Do you promise?”
The next morning, a small stack of boxes sat against one wall of the hut. While his parents and Luis still slept, Cristiano climbed out of his hammock and tip-toed over to them. The evening before, his parents told him the long narrow, unmarked box contained his gift for his upcoming thirteenth birthday but that he couldn’t open it until then. He put his ear against it and quietly shook it, trying to discern the box’s contents. He had asked for nothing, and hadn’t expected to get a gift brought from the city by the helicopter since his parents had no extra money to buy anything that wasn’t essential. It was just past sunrise when he slipped on his pants and shirt, placed his straw hat on his head, and went out the door. He collected his remaining fishing rod from its place on the ledge beside the door, and climbed down the ladder. Humidity washed over him, wringing sweat from his body, soaking his shirt even before he placed his food on the damp earth. The rain that had fallen the night before had mostly been absorbed into the dry earth. During the rainy season the area around the base of the hut he lived in, around the base of every hut, and the entire street, would be like a pond. Hornbills in the nearby kapok trees emitted their raspy calls and brightly colored macaws perched on the branches squawked incessantly. A few minutes later he stood in front of Edmundo’s hut and whistled three times.
Edmundo stuck his head out the door of his hut. “I can’t come now,” he said in a hushed tone.
“You didn’t tell anyone about the flute, did you?” Cristiano said.
“No.” From inside the hut, Edmundo’s father shouted at him.
“I’ll come later,” Edmundo said and then went back inside.
Cristiano turned and with the fishing rod resting on his shoulder he entered the forest and followed the path to the mound of moss on the riverbank where he had fished from the day before, where he always fished from. He laid the rod down, reached into the moss and pulled out the flute. Tentatively, he placed his lips on three of the tubes and blew into them. The notes that arose from the flute took his breath away. It was how he imagined honey would sound like if it could make a noise. It was like listening to an orchid sing.
“What you got there?”
Startled, Cristiano turned to see the helicopter pilot, Dario, standing on the path at the entrance to the forest. He quickly shoved the flute under the moss. “Nothing,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
Dario smiled, that smile that hinted at him hiding something. It was like a smile from a crocodile just before it struck.
“I just wanted to see one last time this place you fish from,” Dario said.
“I’m moving to Lima to be a pilot there,” he said. “This is my last trip to this village.”
Cristiano had known Dario for several years, when younger often following him around like a puppy, enthralled by being near a helicopter pilot. Dario once let him sit on his lap in the pilot’s seat and explained how the helicopter was able to fly. It was the smell of Dario’s leather jacket that Cristiano mostly remembered from that experience. But other than a rare display of kindness toward the kids, and allowing the boys and girls of the village to follow him around, Dario remained aloof. During the delivery layovers, he slept in the helicopter, drinking bottles of rum, instead of sleeping in one of the village huts with a family as the co-pilots did.
Cristiano cut his friendship off with Dario during the the pilot’s last visit when he saw him and Pedro Rega’s wife having sex in the back of the helicopter. Cristiano didn’t like Pedro, but he knew what he had seen was a wrong thing for the pilot and a married woman to do. He told no one what he had seen, but Dario was no longer a man who made the air above the village come alive.
As Dario took a cigarette from a pack, put it in his mouth and lit it, Cristiano faced the river. On the other bank the jaguar had returned and stood watching him. He took a diaper pin from his pocket and bent it into the shape of a hook and tied it to the string on the fishing pole. He dug into the dirt with his fingers, found a grub, and put it on the hook. He cast the line into the water and jiggled the hook several times before turning to see that Dario was gone.
From the time that Dario left until Edmundo arrived a couple of hours later, Cristiano practiced on the flute, running scales and attempting rudimentary tunes. Several times there were hard tugs on the fishing line but he mostly ignored them, reluctant to set the flute aside. In the sweltering heat and humidity he removed his shirt and britches and wearing only his underwear and hat he played the flute and watched hatchet fish jump from beneath the surface of the water and fall back into the river making loud splashes. The jaguar came and went, laying on its stomach and watching Cristiano for brief periods of time before returning to the forest brush.
When Edmundo arrived, Cristiano held the flute up and showed it to his friend. “Is it not the most beautiful flute you have ever seen?”
Edmundo stripped off his outer clothing and lay down in the moss. “Play me something that will make me dream,” he said as he closed his eyes.
“Tomorrow is your birthday. Are you excited?” Cristiano’s father asked him as they stood in the doorway of their hut and watched sheets of rain fall.
“I already received a most wonderful birthday present,” Cristiano said.
“You did? Who gave you such a gift?”
“Maybe God himself,” Cristiano replied.
Cristiano glimpsed a small troop of capuchin monkeys huddled in the branches of the trees behind the huts across the street. They sat absolutely still, allowing the rain to drench them as if they knew it was useless to try to escape their fate.
Called to eat, the father and son turned from the door and went inside, sat on the mats around the small table and began to eat.
“I’m sorry I caught no fish today for our meal,” Cristiano said. “The fish were not biting,” he lied.
His mother scooped rice and beans onto his plate. “Tomorrow Dario leaves for the last time not to return,” she said to him. “Are you going to miss your friend?”
“He’s no longer my friend,” Cristiano said as he shoveled a spoonful of beans into his mouth.
His parents glanced at each other. “What happened?” they said in unison.
“He’s not to be trusted,” Cristiano replied.
The next morning Cristiano left his hut just past sunrise, grabbed his fishing pole, and slogged through the muddy street to the path leading to where he fished. Water dripped from the forest canopy, soaking him before he arrived at the river bank. He took off his hat, shook water from it and then tossed it onto the carpet of moss. It was then that he noticed that there was a hole where he had hidden the flute and the moss around it strewn about. He fell to his knees and dug down, searching for the instrument, finding it gone. With tears streaming down his face he at last gave up and sat back. His stomach ached from the loss of the flute. His heart was broken. He thought, but who would take what didn’t belong to them? “Dario!” he said with the same venom found in poison dart frogs.
He leapt to his feet, and leaving his fishing pole and hat behind, he ran through the forest back to the village. The mud caked around his ankles and legs as he made his way to the base of the ladder leading up to the hut of Pedro Rega and yelled. “Seňior Rega, tengo algo que decirte.”
Pedro came out of his hut and standing on the ledge around the hut, looked down at Cristiano. “What do you have to tell me so early in the morning?”
In the hours after the helicopter rose in the air and flew off, the entire village was abuzz with the retelling of how Pedro Rega dragged Dario from the helicopter and nearly beat him to death. It was only by the intervention by Pedro’s wife who begged for mercy for both Dario and herself, that Dario escaped with his life.
It was that evening as a howler monkey filled the air with its loud cries, that Cristiano’s father handed him the long box that had sat untouched against the wall. “This is from Dario who asked me to wish you a happy birthday,” he said.
“I want nothing from Dario,” Cristiano said.
“Open it, Cristiano, and be grateful to have such a good friend.”
Cristiano opened the box and pulled out a brand new store-bought fishing rod with a packet of hooks and extra fishing line. “This doesn’t make up for the theft of my flute,” he muttered under his breath. He returned the fishing rod to the box, set it aside, and opened the few smaller gifts his parents gave him.
The next morning, Cristiano carried the box with the fishing rod in it to his fishing spot and tossed it in the river. From the opposite bank the jaguar joined Cristiano in watching the box float down the river atop swift and turbulent currents.
Cristiano whirled about to see Edmundo standing at the pathway holding an object wrapped in bright blue tissue paper.
“My birthday was yesterday,” Cristiano said.
“I know,” Edmundo said, “but it took me all day to find this paper to wrap your gift in. I had to trade three of my comic books with that snake Carlos to get it. He stole it from his mother.” He tossed it to Cristiano.
Cristiano slowly peeled away the paper, revealing the pan flute.
“Now it’s a proper gift,” Edmundo said, smiling from ear to ear.
Cristiano turned back to face the river and watched as the box disappeared in a cloud of mist and spray. He then looked across the river and saw the jaguar was gone, and then looked up at the sky, thinking he heard the whirling of helicopter blades.
ABOUT STEVE CARR
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 450 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories,Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr,and LGBTQ: 33 Stories,and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories,published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. He is the founder of Sweetycat Press. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website ishttps://www.stevecarr960.com /He is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977