We look around our circle and see dolphins, dolphins, dolphins in our chairs.
Days go by in a blur of animals and fish and trees. With leather puttees in place to ward off snakes, we walk on shore beneath a canopy of wild banana, kapok and cocoa. Sousa slices into a rubber tree which cries white tears.
A wasp nest hangs like a bell. Aztec and bullet ants work on projects. Mosquitoes whine. We slap and scratch.
When we go out in the canoe at night our searchlight ignites animal eyes along the bank. See that? says Sosa. We see pinpricks of white, then shapes of wings. A bird. In another tree there’s something coiled. A hose. A boa. Fat and asleep on a branch.
Slash! Floosh! Edivam has jabbed his hand over the side.
Something’s got him.
No, that’s wrong. He’s picking up–wet in the light beam–a reptile prize. A yard-long caiman. Gripped behind its head it’s still, and we take turns touching the skin.
Catching caimans is a guide’s idea of fishing. For us, it’s paddling at dawn with hooks and wooden poles. We putter around, hunting and fearing piranha. Our bait is steak. Someone gets a strike. The line is bitten. No one is there.
Finally, we are finding fish. “I’ve got a big one,” shouts Zona Hoffman from Needham, MA. Her husband stares. She’s 68, has never fished before.
But Hoffman is right. She pulls up a black piranha. It thrashes. It’s maybe 10 inches long. Edivam grabs it, flattens its gums. We see the teeth of a saw.
Next day the Rio Negro has another challenge. Instead of dangling in bite-sized cubes of beef, we will be the bait. We land the canoe on a white sand beach. It is time for a swim.
The water is still India pale ale. And we are wary, at first, of what is hidden in the river. The guides are swimming too. They tell us piranha will not like our size, our splashing. And slowly, like a snake uncoiling, we relax, stretch out.
We dive. We dominate the water. We do our floats and strokes.
We are strong, we think. When sunset comes, we towel off, and have our dinner of fish. It is a night of river victory. Of confidence.
Once the stars come out on deck we sit in silence in a circle. The jungle seems asleep. There is almost no breeze.
I do not know when I drop off. But I am dreaming dolphins: gray and pink.
I am awakened by a splash. I run downstairs.
Around a corner, I almost catch him. It is a man we haven’t met. He is from the river. He is wearing white.
And–I can almost see it in the dark.
A wide straw hat.
Peter Mandel is an author of books for children including Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan) and Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House). He lives in Providence.