MARCH 16, 1973

The thumping wakes me. Small, dark shapes bump against the faded sheeting of the pink plastic tent on our balsa log raft. It’s the bees again. They want in.

It’s only about nine in the morning, but already our tent is sweltering. The tropical sun casts an intense circle of light halfway up the thin plastic. I want to open the flap for air, but when I do, hundreds of bees will swarm inside to cover our emaciated bodies like hot moving blankets. They will lap the sweat off our sunburned tissue-paper skin, stinging constantly at our slightest movement.

Slowly, the Bolivian jungle is swallowing us alive.

Struggling to sit up on the maroon nylon sleeping bag, I lean over Fitz. He lies on his side, his back to me. I touch him to see if he’s breathing. He does the same to me when he wakes first, I think, though I’ve never dared to ask.

Last night we held each other, as we do every night after the bees leave and the heat and humidity drop sufficiently for our sticky skin to dry. I listened to my husband’s soft breath as we slipped into unconsciousness, curled in each other’s arms, wondering if both of us would live to see morning.

Fitz’s gaunt face makes him look much older than his twenty-six years. Half hidden by a raggedy beard and mustache, bronzed matted curls spilling around his head, he is still beautiful to me. Whiskers hide his jaw, but I can feel bone, the cavernous hollow of his cheek. Once a stentorian-voiced, tall, and muscular man, Fitz has become a stooped skeleton with sagging skin and a whisper that I must lean in to hear. Not long ago, his walk was so striding I had to skip to keep up. Now we only crawl along our raft, for fear of falling and breaking a leg.

The raft we call the Pink Palace is perhaps eight feet by sixteen feet, hardly bigger than the Toyota we left on blocks in a garage back home. She has no motor. She barely bobs on the muddy water that floods deep into the jungle as far as we can see. Parrots cackle high in the canopy above us, like guests chatting over one another at a party. But Fitz and I are very much alone, trapped in a dead-end channel of the piranha-infested Rio Madre de Dios.

Spaced three to five inches apart, the balsa’s four logs are the only support we have in this landless place. When I sit on them—or the deck, as we call it—looking around me, I see only water rising high up tree trunks. It has spilled, perhaps for miles, in every direction. There is no land anywhere.

In my journal I record our constant ache for food. We have all but surrendered hope on this, our twenty-sixth day of starvation.

Tears well in my eyes. With no fleshy padding, my bones jar against the unforgiving floorboards. I stroke Fitz’s back, still silky under his blue T-shirt, down to his hip and buttock, where muscle used to be. Nothing is left but skin falling loosely over his pelvic bone; his vertebrae protrude like the spine of a gutted fish. Brushing my hand across his body I will him to stay alive.

Our time on Earth is flickering. When Fitz looks at me, he must feel as frightened as I do when I look at him. From what I can see of myself, my stick limbs and fingers, my concave stomach, I am excruciatingly thin.

“Please, Fitz, wake up.”

He doesn’t stir.

“Fitz.” I shake him gently, but there is no movement, and his arm flops when I let it go. A trickle of sweat slips down my back; my heart begins to race. Until this moment, I hadn’t dared imagine that Fitz might leave me here, alone. I thought if we died, we’d die together. I don’t want to face life without him, never again to feel his bear-hug embrace or hear his gravelly “I love you.” I want desperately to believe we have more time.

We’d been on our dream honeymoon in South Amer­ica months longer than expected. Mesmerized by all we’d encountered, we’d traveled through the Andes by buses, trucks, and trains. Then came the jungle.

“Fitz,” I whisper, watching for breath. “We’re going to make it out of here. I just know it.”

Hundreds of bees continue to knock against the tent, seeking a way in.

* * *

From Ruthless River by Holly FitzGerald. Copyright © 2017 by Margaret A. FitzGerald. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Holly FitzGerald

Holly FitzGerald was born in Seattle, Washington, and grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. She graduated from Lake Erie College and received a master’s degree in counseling from Suffolk University. Fitzgerald worked as a counselor with children and adults for many years before teaching and counseling at Bristol Community College, New Bedford, Massachusetts. She lives with her husband in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Holly’s memoir, Ruthless River, will be published by Vintage Departures on May 30, 2017.

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3 Comments on “Ruthless River: Lost on the Piranha-Infested Rio Madre de Dios

  1. Unbelievable adventure and fantastic writing! I’ve ordered the book and can’t wait to have it in my hands to read from beginning to end.

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