by Jack Ewing
The incident took place so long ago that Daniel Valverde doesn’t remember for sure if Alvaro Mesa was the one who actually felled the last manú negro tree on Hacienda Baru or not, but he was definitely the one who sent the workers up into the rainforest to cut it into logs and split the logs into posts. Some people say that what happened that day was Alvaro’s punishment for cutting down the last manú negro on Hacienda Barú. Others say it was the curse of an Indian shaman whose tomb Alvaro had opened. Regardless of why it happened, it was the worst experience of his entire life, and one that all the people who were with him that day will remember for the rest of their lives.
The year was 1971. Daniel Valverde, Nato and Challo Campos and Arcele Arroyo followed Alvaro Mesa to the fallen tree, deep in the rainforest of the upper portions of Hacienda Barú. On the hike up, Alvaro showed the men a pre-Colombian cemetery where he claimed to have found gold in one of the tombs. When they reached the fallen manú negro tree, Alvaro left instructions with Daniel and Arcele for splitting the tree into logs and took Nato and Challo with him to blaze the trail they would use to carry the posts out on their shoulders.
Daniel and Arcele got to work with axes. Chopping the large trunk into two meter long logs was their first task. Later they planned to split it into posts by driving iron wedges into the sturdy wood. The first time they stopped chopping to rest, they heard Challo´s faint yell in the distance. “Come! Hurry! Alvaro’s been bit by a terciopelo.” (An extremely poisonous pit viper sometimes called “fer de lance” in English – (Bothrops asper.))
“Ya vamos,” hollered Daniel, setting off on the same path they had used earlier.
They found Challo at the pre-Colombian cemetery, waiting, intently watching the snake. “She’s really pissed,” he warned. “Keep your distance. God, you should have seen it. Alvaro slipped and fell over by the tomb. The terciopelo must have been lying right there. At first he thought a wasp had got him or maybe a thorn, but then he saw it, and he knew. We all did. It bit him just above the elbow.”
The terciopelo held its head high, level with Daniel’s waist, looking from one side to the other, tongue flicking in and out, watching, waiting. It was the largest Daniel had ever seen, well over two meters (6½ feet) long. He cut a thin pole and held it out. The snake struck at the pole. Daniel swung and missed. The terciopelo advanced and struck again. Daniel’s second blow caught the enormous snake behind the head. He hit it again and again until it quit moving. Finally he chopped it to pieces with his machete. He was careful to cut the head in half. The head with a short piece of neck can still crawl and bite. “Let’s go,” urged Arcele. “We gotta find Alvaro.”
A half hour later they found him sitting at the edge of the road in front of the hacienda home, “La Casona.” Alvaro was dazed and completely disoriented. He didn’t know who they were until Daniel spoke, but seemed to recognize the voice. “Nato went to look for Don Marvin about the car,” he said hoarsely, holding up a badly swollen arm. “Hey, help me get this watch off.”
Daniel tried to unbuckle the watch. “I need a wire cutter to cut the band. I can’t get the buckle loose.” The swelling had engulfed the watch band in flesh. Finally, Daniel gave up trying to remove it, his hands were covered with blood. It was oozing from Alvaro’s pores. He sent Challo to find a pair of wire cutters.
Nato came running up, breathless. “Marvin said we can use the car, but Primo isn’t around and nobody else knows how to drive.”
“Daniel get the tractor keys outta my pocket. I can’t get my hand in it. You can drive the tractor, can’t you, at least to get to Dominical and get some snake bite serum from Don Celso?” The policeman in Dominical always kept a vial of antivenin for snake bite. But Alvaro’s entire body was swollen and Daniel couldn’t get the keys out of his pocket. He had to cut the pocket open with his machete.
Arcele’s wife, Doña Irma, five months pregnant, came walking down the road to see how Alvaro was doing. Challo, returning with the wire cutters, saw her first. “Here comes Doña Irma,” he warned.
“God no! Stop her! Don’t let her get near me! If she gets too close I’ll die on the spot.” Alvaro couldn’t see Arcele’s wife, but the thought of her pregnant form was terrifying. It was a common belief that the proximity of a pregnant woman would kill a snake bite victim. Daniel went out to meet Doña Irma on the road, blocked her path and explained that Alvaro didn’t want her to come any closer. Tears filled her eyes, but she backed away, torn between concern for Alvaro and the belief that her presence might cause him harm. She turned and trudged down the road back toward her house.
“Listen!” called Arcele excitedly. “Is that a car coming?” The distant sound of a motor was barely audible, but growing louder by the second. After a few minutes an orange Willis Jeep came into view. Arcele looked at Nato. “Of all the people to come along at a time like this, Alvaro’s worst enemy,” he lamented.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” insisted Daniel. “He can’t refuse to take Alvaro. He can’t just let him die. We’ve got to stop him.” He stepped out in the road and flagged the Jeep to stop. It hadn’t come to a complete stop when Daniel ran around to the driver’s side an blurted out. “Don Eliecer, Alvaro’s been snake bit. We gotta get him to the hospital.”
Eliecer Castro looked at the swollen form of Alvaro Mesa sitting at the edge of the road, blood dripping from his nose and dribbling down his shirt. “Come on boys, let’s get him in the car. We can’t leave him here. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything.” They loaded Alvaro, now completely incoherent, in the orange Jeep. He didn’t even know who was taking him to the hospital.
Four hours after he was bitten, Alvaro Mesa arrived at the emergency entrance of the San Isidro hospital, then located on the north side of the interamerican highway, near the river. Eliecer Castro found a phone and called Doña Ana María Acosta, owner of Hacienda Barú. He explained the seriousness of the situation to her and told her he didn’t think Alvaro was going to make it.
Arriving in San Isidro the following day, Doña Ana María decided that Alvaro had to be moved to San Jose. The doctors at the San Isidro Hospital insisted that he would be fine with them. “If he is fine with you, then why hasn’t he urinated since he’s been here,” she retorted. “Something is obviously wrong. I’m moving him to San Jose.” And so she did.
Two days later, Alvaro was still mostly incoherent, but he remembers the doctors taking him into the operating room. “What are you gonna do to me?” he asked.
“We’re going to fix you up,” they told him. “After we’re finished, you’ll get better.”
Alvaro did get better after the surgery, but he claims he never understood that they were going to amputate his arm. It had gotten infected, gangrene set in, and his life was at stake. It was quite a shock at first, but later he realized that the doctors had only done what they had to do to save his life.
(Author’s Note: The bulk of this story was recounted to me by Daniel Valverde who was present at the time of the accident. The basic facts are accurate, and the people are real, but a few of the details, such conversation, which were included for the purpose of making the story more readable, are products of my imagination.)