by Emilio Salgari (1862-1911)
The vast Amazon Valley, traversed by the largest river in South America, is covered from end to end by forests of spectacular beauty, and is without equal anywhere. However, these jungles have a terrible reputation due to the extraordinary abundance of reptiles hidden beneath those endless canopies of greenery.
The most colossal boas can be found there, either lurking below or suspended from the branches of the trees. They wait for unfortunate animals or people to pass by, then drop to coil around their prey. The thinnest and smallest snakes, only the length of a quill pen, are also found here, and these are perhaps even more deadly due to the potency of their poison.
Woe to any careless man venturing into these magnificent forests without a large knife or a good machete! He will not leave this place alive, and either die in the terrible coils of the boas or perish from the venom of coral snakes, for which there is no antidote.
Some years ago, a great unease spread among those who worked at the San Felipe plantation, which belonged to a Brazilian who had amassed a fortune from cultivating coffee.
Slaves who had ventured into the nearby forest for kindling spoke with terror of a serpent without equal in length or size.
When the owner of the plantation, Don Manuel Herrera, was told about this, he feared that his laborers, mostly Black slaves, would flee for their lives. So he summoned loggers to help him verify the tales – the stories seemed too fantastic even to Don Manuel Herrera.
Don Manuel had seen large snakes himself several times, and had even killed quite a few of them. He had also heard indigenous stories of an immense monster called “giloia,” native to the swamps and the marshes, and which was sometimes observed in certain caves along the banks of the Amazon.
The four loggers and their overseer, who was also happened to be the farm manager, returned from the jungle and reported to the owner. The poor souls were still trembling with fear.
“Tell me, Como,” he said to the oldest one. “Did you find any serpents?”
“A huge, horrible snake, sir,” the terrified slave replied. “I’ve never seen one like it, and I don’t think there is in all the forests of the Amazon.”
“We were cutting a dead tree when the ground began to rumble, and then suddenly long crack appeared, as if something was forcing its way from the bowels of the earth. It seemed so strange and inexplicable that we withdrew to a clearing.
“It was then that we saw the monster. The ground had split, overturning many plants growing on it, and from that enormous crack, a serpent emerged that must have been at least twenty-five meters long and thicker than a man’s body.”
“You saw this with your own eyes?”
“Yes, sir,” the four of them replied in unison.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a python?”
“It didn’t seem like one,” Como replied.
“What did it look like?”
“It was pitch black and covered in shiny scales.”
The planter turned to his overseer, a local man who was also well traveled.
“Do you think serpents so enormous can exist?” he asked.
“It could be a ‘giloia,’ sir,” the overseer replied. “A rare reptile whose existence was doubted for a long time, but it does live in certain Amazon forests.”
“How dangerous is this creature?”
“They say it can tear a man limb from limb.”
“I don’t believe in the existence of such prehistoric monsters at all,” the planter said. “However, I intend to seek out this reptile, determine its species and kill it.”
“Don’t expose yourself to such danger, sir.”
“Would you be afraid to accompany me?”
“I will follow my master anywhere,” the overseer replied. “If you are heading into danger, it’s my duty to accompany you.”
“Then we’ll go and look for this legendary “giloia,'” the planter said with a determined voice. “If it exists at all. Gather my weapons and prepare my dogs.”
Less than half an hour later Don Manuel Herrera left his house, followed by his overseer and four his enormous mastiffs, dogs used to chase off jaguars and cougars and for hunting runaway slaves.
They were fierce and hardened canines, each wearing an iron collar covered with sharp spikes to prevent them from being strangled by wild beasts.
The four slaves had proceeded in advance, and were waiting at the edge of the forest.
It was noon. The sun – now at its highest – scorched the backs of the poor laborers across the fields, and the valley seemed locked in an ominous silence. The birds, drowsy from the intense heat, no longer chirped. Even the parrots, those eternal chatterboxes, remained quiet, hidden beneath the enormous leaves of the jupati palms.
Don Manuel and the overseer hurried across the open fields. The heat in the Amazon valleys, especially between eleven in the morning until four in the afternoon, is extremely dangerous. Only indigenous tribes or Blacks may defy the mid-day sun with impunity, and work without woven head ware.
Fortunately, the protective roof of the forest was nearby.
It was more than a forest; it was an endless expanse of virgin wilderness, extending from the deserted banks of the Amazon – for leagues and leagues.
Plants of all species and sizes grew side by side wrapped in vines. Many of them were highly valuable. In such fertile regions, a person could find the necessities of life without farming or even work.
In the depths of the forest, there were trees that produce excellent milk not much different from what a cow might provide. A cut in a tree trunk would make the tasty liquid drip in abundance.
Other trees produce a kind of bread, or rather, certain fruits as large as a child’s head. These are filled with pulp that is sliced and toasted on charcoal, and which they say taste almost like artichoke.
And still others that produce excellent wax for the making of candles, and filaments for weaving very sturdy clothing, as well as delicious fruits like bananas, pineapples, and more.
When the planter and the overseer reached the first trees, they found the four Blacks crouched behind a coconut tree trunk, their faces pale.
“Master,” Como said, “please don’t force us to go any further. We are too afraid of the ‘giloia.'”
“I don’t know what to do with your help,” the planter replied. “Have you seen the serpent again?”
“Where did you see the crack?”
“You’ll find the fissure about five hundred paces from here.”
“Let’s go, overseer,” Herrera said. “And you cowards, may return to the plantation!”
He released the four mastiffs, loaded his rifle, and ventured into the forest.
“Always keep an eye on the treetops, master,” the overseer said. “Boas often hide among the leaves and drop from above as soon as they spot prey.”
“I’ll be cautious,” the planter replied.
The dogs began to show signs of unease. They stopped frequently, sniffing the air and the ground, and growled while looking at their owner.
They seemed frightened, yet they were fearless animals, that never shied away even from the fiercest jaguars, which are the tigers of America.
Five hundred paces into the forest, they found the huge fissure. The ground, which appeared to be made of dry mud, had been lifted along a vast stretch, and the force exerted by the monster had been such that it had overturned several plants.
“It was under here that the reptile was hiding,” said the planter, astonished that a serpent could develop such strength.
“You can still see scales and bits of skin scattered among the debris,” sighed the overseer.
“Do you really think it’s one of those infamous ‘giloias’?”
“They say that these monstrous reptiles, during the dry season, immerse themselves in swamps where they fall into a deep slumber or hide in caves, only to emerge two or three months later.”
“In which direction do you think the monster twisted?”
“It must have headed toward the river to seek refuge in caves. There are many of them in these parts, you know.”
“Let’s rely on the dogs,” the planter said. “I believe they are already on the right track.”
The four mastiffs, after sniffing along the entire crevice, had moved up to the opposite side, trotting among the dry leaves covering the forest floor. They had picked up the scent of the enormous reptile and were determening a direction.
Don Herrera and the overseer loaded their rifles and set off after the dogs, looking under the thick bushes and among the branches, although they were convinced that a creature of that size couldn’t climb those trees without breaking them.
They had discovered a passage among the plants, like an immense furrow, which must have been created by the monstrous reptile.
Many young plants had been flattened, and numerous shrubs were completely broken.
It now dawned on the planter that the indigenous legends of the ‘giloia,’ might be true, after all. The evidence was simply too strong.
They had been walking for half an hour, trailing the dogs, when barks and agitated growls were heard.
They were now near the river. The distant roars of the immense Amazon could already be heard, its waters smashing against protruding rocks.
“Master,” said the overseer with a pale and solemn face, “we must be near the serpent’s refuge.”
“Are there caves here?” the planter asked.
“Yes, there’s a huge one that no one has ever dared to explore, and it’s believed to lead into the heart of a mountain.”
“We’ll cut some resinous branches and go visit it.”
As they were about to move on, they heard screams from the river, shrill female cries:
“Jaco! Jaco!” with an indescribable tone of terror.
The howling dogs lead the planter and the overseer toward the river. At this point, the amazon streamed between tall and rocky banks, pierced by deep holes that might lead to the mysterious caves.
After passing the cliffs, the planter stopped, and overcome by a paralyzing fear, he was for a moment unable to lift his rifle.
An enormous serpent, over twenty-five meters long, all dark, with its body covered in very thick scales still encrusted with mud in their joints, emerged from one of those black crevices, sliding down the steep bank.
At the bottom, in a wooden canoe, a young woman from the tribes, desperately clasped her baby, shouting in desperation and despair:
It was probably her husband’s name.
The terrifying reptile had spotted her and was descending with its mouth wide open, flicking its forked tongue and hissing.
Paralyzed by fear, the woman -who belonged to a local tribe – was unable to push her canoe from the banks. She embraced her precious child in desperation, as if this would save it.
When she saw the two of them, her arms stretched towards them, holding up her baby. Her voice – almost choking with terror – screamed:
“Help, white man!”
Two gunshots rang out, one after the other. But it was too late.
The enormous reptile had snatched the woman and the child, and with incredible speed, it had slid into its black hole, vanishing from sight.
For a moment, they still heard the cries of the poor woman, then there was a profound silence.
Even the dogs no longer barked.
“She’s lost!” the planter exclaimed, throwing his arms in the air. “We arrived too late.”
At that moment, an tribesman armed with an axe hastily descended the riverbank.
“My wife! My son! The ‘giloia!'” he shouted, stopping in front of the planter.
“Accursed snake! I knew it had to be here. I will avenge my wife and my son, or I can no longer be a chief for my tribe.”
After the outburst, he composed himself with a sudden self-control unique to Red men.
Whether they belong to the warlike tribes of North America or to the indolent and wild ones of South America, emotions will never disfigure their faces long. Once the initial surprise or anger has passed, they vanish behind a mask of indifference – as if nothing had happened.
This came as no surprise to the planter, who had had frequent dealings with the indigenous tribes.
“What will you do now that the ‘giloia’ has destroyed your family?” he asked.
“I will avenge my wife and my son,” Jaco replied, his jet-black eyes sparkled and gleamed fiercely.
“Have you ever killed a ‘giloia’?”
“No, those snakes are rare. But I heard that my friend, the chief of the Ottomachi, found one near a cave last year and killed it. Why shouldn’t I, Jaco, neither a weakling nor a coward, be able to do the same?”
“The monster won’t be taken by surprise,” said the overseer. “It knows we’re here, it will be on guard. After devouring its prey, it will prepare for a fight.”
“At night, snakes sleep,” said the tribesman “and the sun is about to set.”
“Do you know that cave?” Don Herrera asked.
“I’ve visited it several times to find the green stones that we use as amulets against enemy arrows.”
“If you help us kill that monster, I’ll give you a rifle.”
That was all it took to win over a tribesman. Besides, the man wanted to avenge his wife and son, not because he was grieved by the loss of his companion and heir, as tribesmen are not overly attached to their families, but because of that primal instinct that dominates primitive peoples.
“I will kill the ‘giloia,” he said calmly. “Wait for me here.”
He climbed up the bank, and half an hour later, he returned with a bundle of resinous branches, which were to serve as torches, and his blowgun, a kind of wooden tube, slightly wider at the base and narrower toward the top, which they use to launch their arrows with tips dipped in the highly poisonous curare.
By blowing forcefully into it, they can send their darts a distance of up to fifty meters and are so skilled that they don’t miss even the smallest birds.
“When the white man is ready,” he said after distributing the branches.
The sun was about to disappear behind the thickets, and night was descending rapidly.
The birds were fleeing, and giant bats, ominous vampires that feed on blood, flapped over treetops. They feed on any man or animal that falls asleep in the forests or on the riverbanks.
The planter, the overseer, the tribesman, and the dogs climbed the bank and stopped in front of the crevice where the colossal reptile was last seen.
Fearing that it might be nearby, they first lit resinous branch and stretched it into the opening, shaking it in all directions.
Hearing no noise or hissing, the three men cautiously entered the cave, their rifles and blowgun ready.
“It must have withdrawn farther into cavern,” said the tribesman. “There’s a huge gallery there, where the ‘giloia’ will feel safe from being disturbed. There’s also a small lake that seemed deep to me, and those reptiles also love water.”
“This tribesman has courage,” the planter said to the overseer.
“I must admit, master, that I have an uneasy feeling about this.”
“We have the dogs in front of us, and they’ll warn us of danger.”
The mastiffs preceded the hunters, but they didn’t seem too eager to discover the terrible cave boa.
From time to time, they stopped and turned their heads toward their master, as if to ask if it wouldn’t be better to give up the expedition, which didn’t seem to be to their liking.
The cavern widened enormously. Huge rooms adorned with magnificent stalactites followed one another, with lateral cavities that it was impossible to know where they led. The monster could be lurking in any one of these.
The tribesman, appearing confident, never hesitated. He continued to advance under the dark vaults, holding the resinous branch high, its reddish flame sometimes flickering, as if strong air currents were entering from invisible cracks.
They had already crossed four caves when Jaco stopped, bending toward the ground and showing something that wavered in his hand.
“Do you see the ‘giloia’?” the planter asked.
The tribesman stood up, extending his hand.
“My wife’s hair,” he said in a hoarse voice. “The ‘giloia’ spat them out.”
Then he added with a certain satisfaction:
“They are black and long and will make a good impression on my war shield.”
“These tribesmen,” said the planter, disgusted. “They have not an ounce of heart!”
Jaco hung the hair, still smeared with blood and saliva, from his belt and resumed the march. He had abandoned his blowgun and was now wielding the war ax, a much better and safer weapon for facing such a reptile.
They crossed four more caves, each one longer than the previous. Then they entered a gallery and arrived on the banks of a large, almost circular, blackwater pond.
They were about to go around it when a gust of wind, coming from a lateral gallery, suddenly extinguished their torches, leaving them in utter darkness.
“Light the torches! Light the torches! the terrified planter yelled to the tribesman.
They heard Jaco rummaging in the bag hanging from his belt, then he exclaimed:
“I no longer have the flint!”
“Overseer, you do it!” Don Herrera whispered, as if afraid to draw the attention of the lurking boa.
“I’m not a smoker, master,” was the reply. “I never carry one with me.”
At that moment, they heard the dogs growling, and then the black waters of the pond began to roar and gurgle.
“Let’s flee!” the planter cried. “The ‘giloia’ is breaking the surface”
They rushed toward the gallery they had crossed shortly before, fumbling in the profound darkness. A few seconds later, they bumped into a wall, and all fell together.
“Where are we?” Herrera asked.
“We must have lost our way and entered a side gallery,” the tribesman said.
“Listen!” the overseer exclaimed, shivering.
From the depths of the cave, near the pond, they heard shrill hissing and furious barking.
“My dogs are attacking the reptile,” Herrera said.
“They’re lost,” the tribesman said.
The barking had turned into lamenting cries that lasted for a few moments, and then silence once again enveloped the cave.
“The serpent has killed my dogs!” the planter exclaimed, making an angry gesture.
“We’ll avenge them too,” the tribesman replied.
“You know what, let’s just get the hell out of here,” Herrera said, losing all confidence in the tribesman.
“We’ll find the exit,” Jaco said. “Stay close to me, or better yet, hold onto my belt.”
He detached from the wall and pushed forward, trying not to veer to the right or left, eventually finding a passage.
“We must be in one of the seven caves,” he said then. “Keep following me.”
He walked at a very fast pace. He, too, wanted to get out as soon as possible, afraid that the terrifying serpent might strike at them at any moment.
Suddenly, he stopped, leaning against a wall.
“Halt!” he said.
“Have we lost our way again?” the planter asked.
A rustling noise sounded nearby, the slither and rattle of the ‘giloia’s’ large scales, and it was approaching at some speed.
“Could the boa be heading for the exit?” Herrera whispered.
“Yes,” the tribesman replied. “Hold your breath and don’t move! If it senses our presence, it will come at us.”
They pressed up against the wall, their rifles and blowgun ready, fearing an attack at any moment.
The rustling drew nearer. But then there was a sudden silence. They thought had been discovered, but then the sounds resumed as it moved farther and farther from them.
“It has passed us,” the tribesman said. “Now we attack!”
“Perhaps we should let it go?” the overseer suggested.
“No,” Jaco replied. “We’ll wait until it is halfway out of the crevice, and then off its tail.”
They tiptoed after the rustles, until, finally, the mouth of the cave appeared before them – illuminated by the moon.
“The ‘giloia’ is about to leave,” Jaco said, holding the ax. “Wait until the head and half of its body is out!”
The attack from the dogs had disturbed it, it no longer felt safe and now it searched for another hiding place.
The enormous body slid into the crevice, almost blocking it entirely.
It was caught in a trap, unable to turn in its defense.
“Attack!” the tribesman yelled, his eyes had already adjusted to the darkness.
He leaped with the ax raised and began to strike the serpent’s tail vigorously, while the planter and the overseer, with their rifles unloaded, grabbed the cutlasses, which were no less sharp than the tribesman’s ax.
As the serpent felt pain it its tails, it hissed angrily and writhed, trying in vain to back up and confront its attackers.
The narrow opening held it in a lock.
Now, the two planters and the tribes stuck at it repeatedly, breaking its vertebrae and scales.
The serpent, mad with pain, then tried to escape. With one final effort, it withdrew the end of its body and slid down the slope into the river below, and vanished in the water.
“It’s gone!” the planter exclaimed with regret. “I wanted to preserve its skin.”
“It will be my gift to you,” the tribesman said.
His wife’s canoe still floated by the banks, and he stepped into it and paddled off.
Two days later, Jaco returned to the fazenda, followed by six tribesman carrying the skin of the enormous reptile.
He had found the monster on an islet, where it had gone to die.
The skin measured twenty-four meters and had a circumference of seventy centimeters.
Today that fearsome cave boa makes a fine display in the lounge of the San Felipe plantation, and naturalists flock to admire it.
translated by Michael Henrik Wynn