"Not to worry," Boudji said reassuringly when he saw my disappointment. He snatched the starter cord on his decrepit 40-horsepower motor. "We catch. It take two, maybe three more days, but we catch." The motor sputtered, ran a short while and then cut off again.
Griffis puffed a cigarette, the orange tip glowing brightly in the darkness. "Boudji, this has to be our last night," he said. "Tomorrow we have to start packing the fish to go back to New York. We don't have two or three more days."
Boudji scratched his bald head thoughtfully and said, "My cousin tell me dat he see beeg lumpoe at de old sugar plantation. Very far down de river, but we go tonight."
When we finally got the motor running, we sped down the main river channel, round the broad bends that led to the sea. We passed a 300-foot freighter at anchor in the deep channel, its lights ablaze. Soon the clutter of Paramaribo's docks and wharves and houses had disappeared behind us and were replaced by mangrove bushes that grew thick along the muddy shoreline.
At last we spotted the ruins of an abandoned sugar plantation. It was three o'clock in the morning, and the rubble of the broken concrete sluice gates and vine-covered crumbling buildings were silhouetted by the moonlight at the river's edge. Worm-eaten pilings rose ghost-like from the sluggish, dark river. The cabins of two sunken cruisers emerged from the thickly silted waters. The whole place had a feeling of decay, of jungle rot. "This looks like a good habitat for a giant toadfish," I remarked to Griffis. "It's the only fish I know of that thrives on man's turning of the ocean into a garbage dump."
Indeed, the toadfish tolerates low-oxygen and silted conditions. And almost no other fish can survive out of water as long as it can. An angler, having put out bait intended for other species, often will bring up a toadfish, see this creature of hell hanging from his line and simply cut the line and leave the fish on the dock to die. Along the coast of the southeastern U.S., I often see small toadfish stranded out of water, still alive hours after being caught, still ready to clamp their jaws on anything that comes within range. I always kick them back into the water, believing that anything that mean and ugly has character and a right to live.
Boudji cut the motor off a long way before we got to the plantation's dilapidated boathouse so we wouldn't scare the fish away. "O.K.," he said in a low voice, slipping overboard into waist-deep water, "now push."
Franz went in, too, and I started to follow, but Boudji shook his head. "No, no, Mr. Jack, you stay in de boat. Much sharp shell, glass, cut your feet."
Something was dark and ominous about this part of the river, something I hadn't felt before. I was just as glad to remain in the canoe. The empty shadows of the ruins stood cold and unfriendly. As Boudji and Franz pushed and pulled the dugout along, the river bottom periodically gave way beneath their feet. Once Franz had to be pulled out of the ooze.
My mind flashed back to the stories we'd heard of the voracious bull sharks that prowled the rivers at night. And then there was the lau-lau, the colossal catfish reputed to snatch little children from the riverbank. Two days ago I would have thought that story fiction; now it seemed all too possible.