They had just crossed over the Madamas river, having paused for a breakfast of cool river water, bake and saltfish buljol, when one of the young men in the party cried out. He had stepped on a five foot long mapapire balsain (fer de lance) that had bitten him on the calf of the left leg.
In shock and no doubt amazement, the young man had fired several chops at the mapapire, chasing it into the bush. The next minute, he was rolling in the grass on the river bank, howling and crying out in pain. He grasped his leg, trying to squeeze out the venom from the two small bluish holes in his flesh.
Abject fear had already caught the others. They knew fully well the effects of a bite like this. So did the young man. They were experienced comperes and hikers and this was the ‘worst case scenario’ that had often been talked about. One of them, Peter, had a snake bite kit. They dug it out of a backpack, wrenching the small package open - it was empty. In the meantime, the young man was screaming in agony, attempting to pray incoherently.
They tried to lift him. Someone said: “Let’s make a stretcher - cut some branches.” Already, the throbbing leg was swelling and the pain had achieved a fresh velocity as waved of agony filled his entire being. It had occured to him that he was going to die.
In the midst of all this, an elderly man appeared. Quaint in appearance, he wore his hat upside down on his head. It was filled with mango dodots. His trousers, huge for him, were held up by a wide belt. The rubber boots he wore were up to his knees, the too big trousers stuffed into them.
“He get bite! Snake bite him!” they all shouted. “Help! For God’s sake - help!”
The young man was weeping and screaming. He was now attempting to plunge his knife into his calf. Other were trying to prevent him from doing that.
The old man knelt in the grass next to the youngster. He took from his too large pocket a small rusty tin, and forcing it open with his old, gnarled fingers, he took out a blackened stone-like thing. With the help of the others, he bound it to the boy’s calf. They still had to hold him down, as pain assailed him with great ferocity through his body, especially along the side that he had been bitten.
“What is that you put on him?” someone shouted. - “He knows what he is doing. He is a woods man.” answered another. “We have to take him out.” - “How we go take him out?” - ‘Leave the man!” They were almost to the point of quarreling. The young man was now lying still, breathing harshly, shallowly. He had peed himself.
The air was hot and still. “Let’s move him in the cool.” The bellbirds called. Midmorning turned to midday. Some who had gone in search of help had returned helpless. When the sun had crossed high noon and the sound of the bellbirds was replaced by the cackle of yellow tail birds in the immortelle trees, the old man unbound the calf. The black stone was still stuck fast to the leg, which was quite swollen. The youth lay weak, the pain still a vivid experience, though receding. He would sleep while the others made a camp and would hear the story of the Belgian Blackstone from Mr. Borde, the old man from Tacarib.
“This stone was given to me by a nun,” Mr. Borde said. He was sitting with his back against a tree, the young man asleep at his side. The black stone had fallen off on its own just before sunset. The forest was now quite dark, except for the blazing fire upon which a broth bubbled energetically. “It was the only thing she owned. It had been given to her by a Dutch monk from Mount St. Benedict when she came to Toco in 1937. I helped her to build the house. We got to know one another. She was from France, very kind, a nice person.”
He was old, older than he had appeared earlier in the day. Now his face was folded with age, his eyes very kind.
“What is the story of the Belgian Blackstone?” inquired the brother of the young man.
“Well, what I heard from the sister, was that the monk had given her the stone when she came up this way. Just in case. What she told me was that long ago there was a monastery in the forest up the Amazon in Brazil which was a Benedictine monastery. After many years, they had to find a new home. Before they left, an old Indian man of the region came to the abbot to thank him for his good works and his kindness to his people. He wanted to give him something precious, something worth more than gold, a thing that could save life. And so, wrapped in a rag, a small black object was put into the hands of the monk. The Indian explained to him the use of it, its strength against all sorts of venomous attacks. But most of all, he explained its manufacture, a secret held in trust from one generation to the next.”
The dark night drew its curtain and one by one the campers found their cold hard beds, and not without some trepidation one by one fell asleep.
The following morning, even before light, the young man stirred and rose, dizzy, his leg painful and still very swollen. but he was alive, thanks to the ‘Belgian Blackstone’. Old Mr. Borde had left the camp by the light of the freshly risen morning star.
To know more about the Belgian Blackstone, read Fr. A. de Verteuil’s ‘Scientific Sorties’.