Table of Content

On the way - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

Ichthyander’s preparations for the joitfney did not take long. He collected his town suit and shoes, strapped them to his body with the leather belt he carried his knife on, put on his goggles and gloves and set out.

In the Rio de la Plata numerous anchored craft lay in Ms path, pigmy steam tugs darting in and out. From below the tugs looked like so many water-bugs scuttling here and there. Round him a thin-trunked submarine forest of anchor chains and buoy-ropes stained up to the oil-filmed surface from a floor that was copiously littered with heaps of spilt coal and dumped slag, lengths of worn hose, pieces of sail, discarded tins, bricks, broken bottles, and — closer inshore — dead dogs and cats.

The sun was still up, but down here a grey-brown twilight reigned unchallenged. The River Parana discharged its waters into the gulf, heavily laden with sediment.

Ichthyander could easily have lost his way in the thicket of chains and ropes but for the guiding current of the inflowing river. It’s amazing how untidy people are, he thought, running a fastidious eye over the sea-floor, which looked like one huge rubbish-dump. As he swam towards the head of the gulf, just under the ships’ keels, breathing became gradually harder, as for a man in a sealed-up room.

On his way he saw a few corpses. One of them, which he passed quite close, had a smashed head and a length of rope weighted with a stone round the neck. Somebody’s crime was buried here. Ichthyander put on speed, wishing to leave the gruesome sight well behind.

But the higher up the gulf he penetrated the stronger was the oncoming current. There were currents in the ocean too, but he knew how to put them to use, much as the sailor puts to use a fair wind. Here there was only one current, and that was in the wrong direction. It couldn’t hold back an excellent swimmer like Ichthyander but it slowed down his progress enough to irritate him.

Suddenly something heavy hurtled down past him, almost brushing his side. A ship’s anchor had beed dropped. Oho, thought Ichthyander, this seems a dangerous place to swim in, and he looked round him. A big steamer was coming up from behind.

Ichthyander went lower and when the ship’s hull was passing above him he clutched at her keel. Colonies of barnacles had formed a rough layer on the steel plates, just allowing him to get a grip. Suspended from the ship’s keel in a way not exactly comfortable, he was at least out of danger, and being carried upstream at a reasonable speed.

The ship was now going up the river itself. Ichthyander breathed heavily in the water thick with silt. His arms were getting quite numb but he was loth to part with the ship. What a pity I couldn’t take Leading along, he thought, remembering the dolphin. He had been obliged to discard his original plan: Leading could not have made the whole trip underwater, while Ichthyander would have been afraid to surface in heavily navigated river.

Ichthyander was finding it increasingly hard to keep his hold, his arms were so numb. Besides he suffered pangs of hunger; he had had nothing to eat for hours. Deciding he should make a break he released his grip and sank onto the river-bed.

In the deepening twilight Ichthyander examined the silty bottom. But he could find neither flounder nor oyster shells. What fish darted about near him were of fresh-water species that he did not know. After several unsuccessful attempts to catch one he decided they were much more cunning than their sea-water kin. Only when night descended and the fish went to sleep did Ichthyander manage to catch a big pike. Its flesh was tough and tasted of silt but the famished amphibian ate with relish, swallowing it bones and all.

Then he thought he would rest a bit. The one advantage of being in a river was that he could at least snatch a few hours of quiet sleep, with no thought of prying sharks or octopuses. He only had to make sure the current did not drag him downstream in his sleep. Ichthyander piled up a few big stones into a rough groyne and settled down in the lee of it, his arm anchored round one of the stones.

However his sleep was short. He felt the approach of a vessel, opened his eyes and saw the signal lights. The vessel was coming upstream. The amphibian quickly went up and prepared to cling on. But this time it was a motor boat with a bottom as smooth as glass, so after a few attempts which nearly carried him against the screw, Ichthyander gave up.

And it wasn’t until a few boats had gone downstream that he at last managed to cling fast to a steamship going upriver.

In this way Ichthyander reached the town of Parana. The first lap of his journey was over. But the most difficult part of it-over land-was still ahead. Early the next morning Ichthyander swam away from the noisy harbour, found a stretch of river-bank with no sign of life in sight and scrambled ashore. He buried his goggles and gloves on the beach, then dried his suit in the sun and put it on. The crumpled suit made Mm look like a tramp. But that didn’t bother him.

Setting out along the right bank, as told by Olsen, Ichthyander kept asking the fishermen he met the way to the Hacienda Dolores owned by Perdo Zurita.

The fishermen eyed him suspiciously and shook their heads.

Hour after hour went by, the heat mounted but he was as uncertain of his way as when he had set out in the morning. On land Ichthyander had no way of finding his bearings in unknown surroundings. Besides his head swam with the heat and he was finding it more and more difficult to concentrate.

From time to time he took a dip in the river to refresh himself.

Finally, when it wanted only a few minutes to four in the afterrnoon, he happened upon an old peasant, a farm-labourer by his looks. After listening to Ichthyander he nodded.

“Go straight along that road, between the fields,” he told him. “When you reach a big pond, cross the bridge, top a little hill and there you are-therell be your Dona Dolores la Mostacha for you.”

“Why mostacha? Dolores is a hacienda, isn’t it?”

“That’s right. But the old mistress of the hacienda, is also called Dolores. Ped-ro’s her son. A fat old woman with a big moustache. But don’t you think of hiring yourself out to her. Shell eat you raw, suit and all. A regular virago, she is. Zurita’s brought home a young wife, they say. Her mother-in-law 11 make it hard for her,” the garrulous old man said.

That must be Gutierrez, thought Ichthyander.

“Is it far?” he asked.

“You’ll get there by the fall of evening,” the old man said, having consulted the sun.

Thanking him, Ichthyander hurried on along the road past the fields of wheat and maize, past lush pastures with flocks of grazing sheep. The many hours’ tramp had begun to tell on his strength. The road stretched ahead in an endless white ribbon.

His lips were parched but look as he would he could not see water anywhere round. He heartily wished he were in sight of that pond at last. He strained to go quicker, his face was drawn and his breathing laboured. Then that pain in his sides began. He was hungry, too. But there was nothing near the road he could dine off.
The sheep grazing on a pasture nearby, were guarded by a shepherd and his dogs. Branches of peach and orange trees laden with ripe fruit were just visible above a stone wall. This wasn’t the ocean. Here everything was somebody’s property, everything was divided, fenced off and guarded. The birds alone were nobody’s, flitting and trilling overhead. But try and catch them. And then, was he allowed to catch them? Perhaps they too belonged to somebody? Here on land one could die of hunger and thirst in the middle of orchards, ponds and herds.

A fat man in a white cap and a white tunic with bright buttons, a revolver holster at his belt, his hands clasped behind his back, was coming towards Ichthyander.

“Can you tell me how far it is to the Hacienda Dolores?” asked Ichthyander.

The fat man eyed him suspiciously.

“What d’you want there? Where’ve you come from?”

“Buenos Aires.”

The fat man’s eyes became alert.

“I must see someone there,” Ichthyander added.

“Hold out your hands,” said the man.

This request somewhat surprised Ichthyander but, unsuspectingly, he held out Ms hands.

The fat man quickly produced a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. The next Ichthyander knew they were clicked to round his wrists.

“There,” the fat man muttered, and, giving Ichthyander a push, rapped out. “Come along! I II take you to the Hacienda Dolores.”

“But what’ve you put these things on my hands for?” Ichthyander asked, staring in bewilderment at the handcuffs.

“None of your lip. Move on! “ snapped the man in the tunic.

Ichthyander hung his head and shuffled on. Well, at least he hadn’t been turned back, but he had no idea what was going to befall him. He did not know that the previous night a farm nearby had been burgled and a man murdered and that the police were looking for the criminals. Nor did he realize that in his crumpled suit he looked very suspicious. His vague answers clinched the case against him.

The policeman was taking Ichthyander to the nearest village to have him transported to the town of Parana.

One thing Ichthyander did realize: he was no longer free to go on with his journey. And he resolved to make a bid for freedom at the first chance that presented.

Hugely pleased with his good luck the fat policeman lighted up a long cigar and walking closely behind Ichthyander, started puffing out cloud after cloud of acrid smoke. Ichthyander was suffering torture.

“Would you mind not smoking, please, I find it difficult to breathe,” turning, he said to his escort.

“What? Stop smoking? That’s a good one! “ The policeman guffawed, hiswhole face gathering up in wrinkles. “Delicate, are you?” and, puffing out a cloud of smoke straight into Ichthyander’s face, he barked, “On with you! “

The amphibian did as he was told.

At last the pond with its narrow bridge came into view and Ichthyander involuntarily quickened pace.

“Not so fast, youll see your Dolores soon enough,” the fat man cried.

They stepped onto the bridge. When they were halfway across Ichthyander suddenly bent over the rail and threw himself into the water.

That was about the last thing the policeman could have expected from a man in manacles.

But what the policeman did next was a complete surprise for Ichthyander too: afraid his prisoner might drown, in hischarge, and manacled, with all sorts of possible unpleasant consequences, he jumped in after Mm. Indeed, he was so quick in doing this that he managed to get a grip on Ichthyander’s hair and hold it. Then, risking his scalp, Ichthyander dragged the policeman bottomwards. Presently his hair was released. Ichthyander swam to the side and popped his head above the surface to see whether the policeman had come up. He had and was treading water, looking round.

“Youll get drowned, damn you! Swim over here! “ the policeman yelled, spotting Us prisoner’s head.

Not a bad idea this, Ichthyander thought, and crying out. “Help! Help! “ he sank to the bottom.

From down there he watched the policeman dive for him several times. At last, having lost all hope, the policeman scrambled ashore.

“Hell go away now, thought Ichthyander. But the policeman didn’t. He seemed to have decided to wait by the corpse for the arrival of the investigating authourities. The fact that the corpse was lying somewhere on the bottom of the pond did not alter anything.

A peasant riding a mule laden with sacks appeared on the road. The policeman ordered the peasant to dump his sacks and take a note to the nearest police station. Things were taking a bad turn for Ichthyander. To top it all there were leeches in the pond. They stuck to his body in swarms and soon he was fighting a losing battle, tearing them desperately off as they came in ever-increasing numbers, yet anxious to limit movement lest a stir in the water should attract the policeman’s attention.

In half an hour the peasant was back. He waved hishand in the direction of the road, heaved his sacks and hurried on his way. In still another five minutes a trio of policemen put in an appearance, two of them carrying a light boat on their heads, while the third had the oars and a boat-hook.

The boat was lowered onto the water, two policemen got in and the dragging started. Not that that bothered Ichthyander much at first. It was child’s play for him, just keeping moving from one place to another. The dragging round the bridge was thorough but unsuccessful.

The policeman who had arrested Ichthyander was throwing his arms about in a gesture of surprise. That even provided a spot of fun for Ichthyander-but not for long. The policemen had stirred up clouds of silt with their boat-hook. The water thick with it, Ichthyander could not see anything at arm’s length and that was dangerous. And what was even worse-he could hardly breathe with all the silt raised.

With hisbreathing more and more laboured, and the irritation in his gills more and more acute, he felt he could not bear it any longer. He groaned; a few bubbles escaped his mouth. What could he do? He had to come up, there was nothing for it. He had to come up, whatever risk was involved. They would seize him, of course, perhaps beat him up. He didn’t care. Ichthyander staggered for the bank and put his head out of the water.

In the boat a policeman gave a hoarse yell, jumped overboard and made flat out for the bank. His companion had dropped down on his belly and was crying, “Jesus, Maria у Jose! “ over and over.

The two policemen on the bank were saying prayers, ashen with fright, trembling, trying to hide one behind the other.

Ichthyander had not expected anything like that and was quite taken aback for a moment. Then he remembered the proverbial superstitiousness of the Spaniard. So the policemen thought he was an apparition from the other world, did they! Well, he would scare them a little more. Baring his teeth and rolling his eyes, he howled horribly and slowly strode up the bank and to the road and away along it, walking at a deliberately measured pace.

None of the policemen made a move to stop him. Their sense of duty had battled with and lost to their superstitious awe.

 Table of Content