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Wild Honey

Horacio Quiroga | from: Spanish

Translated by : Kit Maude

Introduction by Ruth Fine

“Wild Honey” is part of the story collection "Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte" (Stories of Madness and Death) by the Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), which was first published in Buenos Aires in 1917.
Horacio Quiroga, whose life was marked by tragedy and would end with his suicide, could be described as the father of the contemporary Latin American story, a precursor to the great Latin American story writers of the 20th Century, such as Borges, Cortázar and Monterroso. Although Quiroga began as a modernist author, he quickly abandoned the style in favour of mystery, irrationality, decadence and realist psychological explorations. He is thus a paradigmatic representative of a style known American regionalism, which avoids a focus on local colour and customs as well as the excesses of modernism to integrate the individual with the American landscape without succumbing to sentimentalism or didacticism. Quiroga establishes a relationship between man and nature on precise, American terms, capturing the blind force of nature and the desperate plight of man defeated by an overwhelming environment. However, he does not lack in sympathy or compassion toward this human struggle, which is only capable of ephemeral victories against the greater power of nature.
In addition to his masterfully succinct, straightforward prose, often told from the perspective of one of the characters, his stories stand out for their careful management of inner time, as can be seen in the climax to “Wild Honey”. Quiroga does not embellish his characters or their existence. To the contrary, he is expressively reticent, with no hint of flowery description or sentimentalism, suggesting the horror rather than making it explicit. He thus presents a death free of taboos, myths and beliefs. Death is, to Quiroga, an allegory for the uncertainty of life, the perpetual struggle of man against his fate.
Like many of his stories, “Wild Honey” tells the tale of a tragic, accidental death that catches the protagonist unawares – in this case the victim is a man from the city, arrogantly ignorant of the hidden danger of the jungles of Misiones. As in all his fiction, in this story the remote territory of the Misiones jungle and the Chaco wilderness represent deadly threats that the protagonist is unable to perceive.
“Wild Honey”, like many of his other stories, jumps almost immediately from humour to horror and death. This is the key to the great irony of much of his writing: within something apparently familiar and innocent, even banal – such as a greedy man gorging himself – an unexpected element lurks to remind us with masterful skill of our fragility: we are creatures doomed to die.

 

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I have two cousins who live to the east of Salto, Uruguay. They’re grown men now, but when they were twelve years old, after enthusiastic readings of Jules Verne, they decided to embark upon the great adventure of leaving home to live in the woods. The woods in question were two leagues from town and they would live primarily on what they could hunt and fish. That the two boys didn’t think to bring shotguns or fishing rods was a minor detail: the forest was there and the freedom it offered was a source of joy while its dangers were the stuff of wonderment.

Unfortunately, the search party found them just two days after they had set out. They were still pretty shocked, somewhat weak and, to the great amazement of their younger siblings – who were also Jules Verne aficionados – they still remembered how to speak and walk on two feet.

Perhaps the pair of aspiring Robinsons’ expedition would have been more fruitful if it had taken place in a slightly wilder landscape. Here, in the province of Misiones, such enterprises can run to surprising extremes, and it was just such a fate that befell Gabriel Benincasa and his beloved strom-boots.

Benincasa, having completed his studies as a chartered accountant, felt a burning desire to experience life in the jungle. This was not at all due to his temperament, because he was in fact a somewhat passive, chubby young man whose face was always uniformly pink with wellbeing. He was certainly sensible enough to prefer a cup of tea and a slice of cake to whatever meagre sustenance one might find in the jungle. But just as the strait-laced bachelor suddenly believes it is his duty to spend the night before his wedding saying farewell to the single life with a night of orgiastic excess in the company of his friends, Benincasa wanted to honour his comfortable existence with a taste or two of a more invigorating life. And so he set out down in the Paraná river to a timberyard, wearing his famous strom-boots.

He had put the thick, sturdy boots on as soon as he got out of Corrientes: the caimans sunning themselves on the shore made the going treacherous. Nonetheless the chartered accountant took great care of his footwear, trying hard to protect them from getting scratched or dirty.

And so he arrived at his godfather’s timberyard. His godfather immediately set about trying to temper his godson’s zeal.

“Where are you going now?”

“Into the jungle. I want to wander around a little,” answered Benincasa, slinging his Winchester rifle on his shoulder.

“Don’t be so foolish! You won’t make it a single step. Follow the path if you want… Or even better, put down that gun and tomorrow I’ll get a man to go with you.”

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Benincasa relinquished the gun but still went to the edge of the jungle. There he stopped. He tried half-heartedly to make his way inside but didn’t get anywhere. He put his hands in his pockets and stared into the impenetrable undergrowth, quietly whistling snatches of tunes. After regarding the jungle from all sides, he returned, quite disappointed.

The next day, however, he walked down the central path for about a league and, although his rifle remained stubbornly unused, Benincasa enjoyed the stroll. Sooner or later, the beasts would come.

And come they did; on the second night – but in rather an unusual manner.

He was sound asleep when he was woken by his godfather.

“Hey, sleepyhead! Get up, or they’ll eat you alive.”

Benincasa quickly sat up in bed, blinking in the light of the three storm lamps that swung from the bedroom ceiling.

“What is it? What is it?” he asked, getting out of bed.

“Nothing… careful with your feet: it’s the Correction.”

Benincasa had heard about the strange species of ant we call the Correction. They’re small, black, shiny and march at a rapid pace in sizeable streams. They’re basically carnivorous and devour everything in their path: spiders, crickets, scorpions, toads, snakes and anything else that doesn’t have the strength to resist them. There is no animal in the jungle, as big and strong as it might be, that does not flee from them. Their entry into a house means the definitive extermination of every living creature inside; no corner or hideaway is safe from the ravenous stream. The dogs howl, the oxen moan and one must get out quick if they don’t want to be reduced to a skeleton within a ten hour period. They stay in a given location for as long as five days, depending on the availability of insects, flesh and fat. Once everything has been devoured, they leave.

However, they are vulnerable to creosote and similar chemicals and as it was abundant at the timberyard, within an hour the grounds were free of the Correction.

Benincasa looked closely at the lurid bite-mark on his foot.

“They really do bite hard,” he said in surprise, looking up at his godfather.

The latter, who was well aware of this fact, offered no answer. He was pleased with himself at having been able to contain the invasion in time. Benincasa got back to sleep but was haunted all night by tropical nightmares.

The next day he went back to the jungle, this time carrying a machete because he had decided that it would be far more useful than the rifle. Truth be told, he wasn’t particularly strong and his aim was worse but he did manage to cut down some branches, slash his face and cut his boots, all at the same time.

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The dim, silent jungle soon tired him. It gave the – accurate – impression of a stage during the day. Instead of a place bustling with tropical life, all he could see was a lifeless theatre. There wasn’t an animal, bird or even a sound to be heard or seen. Benincasa was on his way back when he heard a muffled buzzing sound. About fifteen feet away, small bees hovered around a hole in a hollow tree trunk. He approached cautiously and saw that at the back were about a dozen dark balls the size of eggs.

“That’s honey,” the chartered accountant said to himself hungrily. “They must be wax sacks full of honey…”

But between Benincasa and the honey sacks were the bees. After a moment’s disillusionment, he thought of fire: he’d smoke them off. As fate would have it, while the prospective thief was carefully gathering wet leaves, a few bees came and landed on his hand without stinging him. Benincasa immediately picked one up and, squeezing its abdomen, saw that it didn’t have a stinger. Its already light saliva clarified into mellifluous abundance. Good, wonderful little creatures!

In a flash, the accountant had made off with the little wax sacks and, going a fair distance to escape sticky contact with the bees, sat down on a thick tree trunk. Of the twelve sacks, seven contained pollen, but the rest were full of honey, a darkly transparent honey that Benincasa greedily savoured. It tasted of something, but what? The accountant couldn’t put his finger on it. Maybe sap from fruit trees or eucalyptus, but it left a bitter aftertaste. Even more so than perfume!

Benincasa, once he was sure that only five sacks were of use to him, began. His plan was simple: he would dangle the dripping sack over his mouth. However, the honey was thick and after spending thirty seconds with his mouth gaping in vain, he had to widen the hole. Then the honey fell, stretching into a thin thread as it plunged towards the accountant’s tongue.

One after another, the five sacks emptied themselves into Benincasa’s mouth. The honey stopped flowing, not a drop more could be squeezed from the sacks and he had to accept his lot.

Meanwhile, tilting back his head for so long had made him feel slightly dizzy. Weighed down with honey, he sat still and, his eyes wide open, surveyed the shadowy forest. The trees and ground grew blurry and his head swayed along with the landscape.

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“What a strange, dizzy feeling…” the accountant thought to himself. “The worst part is…”

When he got up and tried to walk, he found himself forced to stumble back down onto the trunk. His body felt as though it had been filled with lead, especially his legs, which seemed incredibly swollen. He had a prickling sensation in his feet and hands.

“This is very strange. Very, very strange!” Benincasa said to himself stupidly, without considering the cause of the strangeness. “It’s as though I had ants… the Correction all over me,” he went on.

And suddenly he caught his breath in fright.

“It must be the honey! It’s poisonous! I’ve poisoned myself!”

And as he made a second effort to get up, his hair stood on end in terror. He hadn’t been able to move an inch. Now the leaden sensation and prickly feeling rose up to his waist. For a while the horror of dying there, miserably alone, far from his mother and friends, left him completely bereft.

“I’m going to die here and now! I’ll be dead in a little while! Now I can’t move my hand!”

Through his panic he noticed that he nonetheless had no fever or sore throat and his heart and lungs were working normally. His anguish took on a new form.

“I’m paralysed, this is paralysis! They’ll never find me!”

He started to feel overwhelmingly drowsy but amid the dizziness his mental faculties remained alert. He thought he saw the spinning ground turn black and begin to writhe. Once again he remembered the Correction and an acute anguish took hold at the prospect…

He still had strength enough to jolt himself out of that final fright and suddenly let out a scream, a veritable howl in which his adult voice assumed the timbre of a frightened child: a surging stream of black ants was climbing up his legs. Around him the ravenous Correction darkened the ground and the accountant felt the carnivorous ants slip into his underwear.

Eventually, two days later, his godfather found a skeleton dressed in Benincasa’s clothes with not an ounce of flesh left on it. The Correction was still wandering nearby and the discarded wax sacks told him all he needed to know.

Wild honey doesn’t generally have narcotic or paralysing properties but it has been known to. Flowers with these traits abound in the tropics and one can generally tell which honeys have been made from them by the taste – such as the aftertaste of eucalyptus resin that Benincasa thought he had detected.


*Featured image Simon Prades

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