by Horacio Quiroga
Here is the story of a jaguar who was raised and educated among humans, named Juan Darién. He attended four years of school dressed in trousers and shirt, reciting his lessons correctly, though he was a jaguar from the jungle; but this is because his figure was that of a man, as narrated in the following lines.
Once, at the beginning of autumn, smallpox visited a village from a distant country and killed many people. Brothers lost their little sisters, and children just beginning to walk were left without father or mother. Mothers in turn lost their children, and one poor young widowed mother took herself to bury her baby son, the only thing she had in this world. When she returned home, she sat thinking about her little child. And she murmured:
“God should have more compassion for me, and he has taken my son. In heaven there may be angels, but my son doesn’t know them. It’s me that he recognizes, my poor son!”
And she gazed out in the distance, as she was sitting at the back of her house, facing a small gate through which the jungle was visible.
Now then: in the jungle there were many ferocious animals that roared at nightfall and at dawn. And the poor woman, who remained sitting, could see in the darkness something small and unsteady that entered through the gate, like a kitten that hardly had the strength to walk. The woman bent down and raised in her hands a jaguar cub, only a few days old, for its eyes were still closed. And when the miserable cub felt the touch of her hands, it purred with contentment, because now it was no longer alone. The mother held for a long moment, suspended in the air, this little enemy of humanity, this defenseless wild creature that she could exterminate so easily. But she remained pensive before the helpless cub who had come from who knows where, and whose mother was surely dead. Without thinking much about what she was doing, she took the little cub to her breast and enveloped it in her hands. And the jaguar kitten, on feeling the heat of her bosom, found a comfortable position, purred peacefully and fell asleep with its throat against the maternal breast.
The woman, still pensive, entered the house. And for the rest of the night, on hearing moans of hunger from the little cub, and on seeing how it sought her breast with its eyes closed, felt in her wounded heart that, before the supreme law of the Universe, one life is equivalent to another…
And she nursed the little jaguar.
The cub was saved, and the mother had found immense consolation. So great a consolation that she saw with terror the moment when it would be snatched from her, because if it came to be known in the village that she was nursing a savage being, they would surely kill the little creature. What to do? The cub, soft and affectionate–for it played with her upon her breast–was now her own son.
In these circumstances, a man who one rainy night was hurrying past the woman’s house heard a raspy whine—the harsh whine of wild beasts that, even newly born, startle human beings. The man halted suddenly, and while groping for his revolver, knocked on the door. The mother, who had heard his footsteps, ran madly with anguish to hide the little jaguar in the garden. But such was her luck that on opening the back door she found herself before a calm, old and wise serpent who blocked the way. The unfortunate woman was about to scream in terror, when the serpent spoke:
“Have no fear, woman,” it said. “Your mother’s heart has allowed you to save a life from the Universe, where all lives have the same value. But men will not understand you, and they will want to kill your new son. Have no fear, go in peace. From this moment your son will have a human form; no one will recognize him. Shape his heart, teach him to be good, like you, and he will never know that he is not human. Unless…unless a mother of men accuses him; unless a mother demands that he repay with his blood what you have given for him, your son will always be worthy of you. Go in peace, mother, and hurry, for that man is going to kick down the door.”
And the mother believed the serpent, because in all the religions of humankind the serpent knows the mystery of the lives that populate the worlds. So she went running to open the door when the man, furious, entered with a revolver in his hand and searched everywhere, without finding anything. When he left, the woman, trembling, unwrapped the shawl under which she had hidden the little jaguar upon her breast, and in its place she saw a baby, sleeping peacefully. Transfixed with joy, she cried a long while in silence over her savage son made human; tears of gratitude that twelve years later this same son would be forced to repay with blood over her grave.
Time passed. The new baby needed a name: she named him Juan Darién. He needed food, clothing, shoes: he was provided with everything, for which the mother worked day and night. She was still very young, and could have married again, if she had wanted; but her son’s deep love sufficed, love that she returned with all of her heart.
Juan Darién was, indeed, worthy of being loved: noble, good, and generous like no one else. For his mother in particular he had a deep respect. He never lied. Was it because he was a wild being deep in his nature? It’s possible; for no one knows yet what influence the purity of a soul imbibed from the milk of a holy woman’s breast can have on a newborn animal.
Such was Juan Darién. And he went to school with the other children his age, who often made fun of him because of his coarse hair and his timidity. Juan Darién was not very intelligent, but he made up for this with his great love of studying.
Things were this way when, as the child was about to turn ten, his mother died. Juan Darién suffered undescribably, until time eased his sorrow. But from then on he was a sad boy, who only wanted to be educated.
Now there is something we must admit: Juan Darién was not loved in the village. The people of villages enclosed by the jungle don’t like boys who are too generous and who study with all their soul. Furthermore, he was the top student in the school. And this combination precipitated the end, with an event that proved the serpent’s prophesy to be correct.
The village was getting ready to celebrate a great festival, and had sent for fireworks from the distant city. The school was giving the students a general review, because an inspector had to come in to observe the classes. When the inspector arrived, the teacher assigned the lesson to the first of all: Juan Darién. Juan Darién was the most outstanding student; but the pressure of the situation caused him to stutter, and his tongue tangled up with a strange sound. The inspector observed the student for a long moment, and at once spoke with the teacher in a low voice.
“Who is that boy?” he asked. “Where is he from?”
“His name is Juan Darién,” the teacher answered, “and he was raised by a woman who is now dead; but no one knows where he’s from.”
“Strange, very strange…” murmured the inspector, observing the coarse hair and the green reflection that Juan Darién’s eyes had when he was in shadow.
The inspector knew that in the world there are things much stranger than anyone could invent, and he knew at the same time that even by questioning Juan Darién he could never verify if the student had previously been what he feared: that is, a wild animal. But just as there are people who in special states remember things that happened to their grandparents, so it was also possible that, under hypnotic suggestion, Juan Darién would remember his life as a wild beast. And the children who read this and don’t understand what it’s talking about can ask the grown-ups.
For this reason the inspector went up to the podium and spoke thus:
“Good, child. Now I want one of you to describe to us the jungle. You all have been raised here, almost within it, and know it well. What is the jungle like? What happens there? This is what I want to know. Let’s see, you—” he added, addressing a student at random. “Come up to the podium and tell us what you have seen.”
The child came up, and although frightened, spoke at length. He said that in the jungle were giant trees, creepers, and little flowers. When he finished, another child came to the podium, then another. And although they all knew the jungle well, they answered the same, because children and many adults don’t tell what they see, but what they have read about what they have just seen. And finally the inspector said:
“And now it’s Juan Darién’s turn.”
Juan Darién said more or less what the others had said. But the inspector, putting his hand on Juan’s shoulder, exclaimed:
“No, no. I want you to remember well what you have seen. Close your eyes.”
Juan Darién closed his eyes.
“Good,” the inspector proceeded. “Tell me what you see in the jungle.”
Juan Darién, always with his eyes shut, hesitated a moment in answering.
“I don’t see anything,” he finally said.
“Soon you will see. Imagine that it is three in the morning, a little before dawn. We have finished eating, for example… We are in the jungle, in darkness… In front of us is a stream. What do you see?”
Juan Darién passed another moment in silence. And in the classroom and in the nearby jungle there was also a great silence. Suddenly Juan Darién shuddered, and in a slow voice, as if dreaming, said:
“I see the stones that pass by and the branches that bend… And the ground… And I see the dry leaves that are crushed against the stones…”
“One moment!” the inspector interrupted him. “The stones and the leaves that pass by, from what height do you see them?”
The inspector asked this because if Juan Darién were really “seeing” what he did in the jungle when he was a wild animal going to drink after having eaten, he would also see the stones as a jaguar or panther would encounter them when it approaches the river crouched down: passing at eye level. And he repeated:
“At what height do you see the stones?”
And Juan Darién, always with his eyes closed, answered:
“They pass on the ground… they brush against my ears… And the loose leaves move with my breath… And I feel the dampness of the mud on…”
Juan Darién’s voice cut off.
“On where?” asked the inspector in a firm voice. “Where do you feel the dampness of the water?”
“On my whiskers!” said Juan Darién in a hoarse voice, opening his eyes, frightened.
It was twilight, and through the window could be seen the nearby jungle, already gloomy.
The students didn’t understand the terribleness of that recollection; but neither did they laugh at those extraordinary whiskers of Juan Darién, who had no whiskers or mustache whatsoever. And they didn’t laugh, because the child’s face was pale and anxious.
Class was over. The inspector was not a bad man; but like all people who live very near the jungle, he hated jaguars blindly, and for this reason he said in a low voice to the teacher:
“It’s necessary to kill Juan Darién. He is a beast of the jungle, possibly a jaguar. We must kill him, because if we don’t, sooner or later he will kill us all. Until now, his animal wickedness has not awakened, but it will explode one day or another, and then he will devour us all, since we let him live with us. So we must kill him. The difficulty is that we can’t do it while he has the human form, because we will not be able to prove to everyone that he is a jaguar. He appears to be human, and with humans you must proceed with care. I know that in the city there is a wild animal tamer. We will call him, and he will find a way for Juan Darién to return to his jaguar body. And even if he cannot turn him into a jaguar, the people will believe us and we can drive him into the jungle. We will call the animal tamer immediately, before Juan Darién escapes.”
But Juan Darién thought of everything except escaping, because he hadn’t realized what was happening. How could he believe that he wasn’t a person, when he had never felt anything except love for all, and didn’t even hate vermin?
But the whispers were running from mouth to mouth, and Juan Darién began to suffer the effects. No one spoke a word to him, they moved away hurriedly when he passed, and they followed him from afar at night.
“What did I do? Why are they this way with me?” Juan Darién asked himself.
And now they not only fled from him, but the children shouted at him:
“Away from here! Go back to where you came from! Go away!”
The grown-ups too, the older people, were not less infuriated than the children. Who knows what would have happened if the long-awaited wild animal tamer had not finally arrived, on the same afternoon as the festival. Juan Darién was in his house, preparing the humble soup that he dined on, when he heard the shouting of the people rushing towards his house. He barely had time to go out to see what it was: they seized him, dragging him towards the animal tamer’s dwelling.
“Here he is!” they shouted, shaking him. “It’s this one! He’s a jaguar! We want nothing to do with jaguars! Remove his human disguise, and we’ll kill him!”
And the children, his classmates whom he loved the most, and the same old people shouted:
“He’s a jaguar! Juan Darién is going to devour us! Die, Juan Darién!”
Juan Darién protested and cried, because the blows rained down on him, and he was a twelve year old child. But in that moment the people moved away, and the animal tamer, with great patent leather boots, a red frock coat and a whip in his hand, appeared before Juan Darién. The animal tamer stared at him, and squeezed the handle of the whip tightly.
“Ah!” he exclaimed. “I recognize you well! You could fool everyone, except me! I’m watching you, son of jaguars! Under your shirt I see the spots of a jaguar! Remove his shirt, and bring the hunting dogs! We’ll see now if the dogs recognize him as a man or a jaguar!”
In a second they tore off all Juan Darién’s clothers and threw him into a wild animal cage.
“Loose the dogs, quickly!” shouted the animal tamer. “And commend yourself to the gods of your jungle, Juan Darién!”
And four ferocious jaguar-hunting dogs were sent into the cage.
The trainer did this because dogs always recognize the jaguar’s scent; and as soon as they sniffed Juan Darién without his clothes, they would tear him to pieces, since they could see with their hunting-dog-eyes the spots of the jaguar hidden under the his human skin.
But the dogs didn’t see anything in Juan Darién but a good child who loved even vermin. And they peacefully wagged their tails on sniffing him.
“Devour him! He’s a jaguar! Get him! Get him!” they shouted at the dogs. And the dogs barked and jumped madly in the cage, without knowing whom to attack.
The test had not worked.
“Very well!” exclaimed the animal tamer. “Those are bastard dogs, of jaguar caste. They don’t recognize him. But I recognize you, Juan Darién, and now we are going to see for ourselves.”
And on saying this he entered the cage and raised the whip.
“Jaguar!” he shouted. “You are before a man, and you are a jaguar! Here I see, under your stolen human skin, the spots of a jaguar! Show your spots!”
And he crossed Juan Darién’s body with a fierce lash. The poor naked child gave a shriek of pain, while the people, infuriated, repeated:
“Show your jaguar spots!”
For a while the atrocious torment continued; and I don’t want the children who are listening to me to ever see any being martyred in this way.
“Please! I’m dying!” Juan Darién cried out.
“Show your spots!” the people responded.
Finally the torment ended. Abandoned at the back of the cage, annihilated in a corner, remained only the small bloody body of the little boy that had been Juan Darién. He still lived, and could still walk when they took him from the cage; but full of such suffering such as no one has ever felt.
They took him out of the cage, and pushing him down the middle of the street, they threw him out of the village. He went, falling down every moment, and behind him were the children, the women and old men, pushing him.
“Away from here, Juan Darién! Go back to the jungle, jaguar’s son and jaguar’s heart! Go away, Juan Darién!”
And those who were far away and couldn’t strike him, threw stones at him.
Juan Darién finally fell down, holding out his little boy’s hands, looking for support. And his cruel destiny was that a woman, who stood in the doorway of her house holding in her arms an innocent child, misinterpreted this gesture of supplication.
“He has tried to steal my son!” the woman shouted. “He held out his hands to kill him. He’s a jaguar! Kill him now, before he kills our children!”
This is what the woman said. And this is how the serpent’s prophesy came to be: Juan Darién would die when a mother of men demanded from him the human life and heart that another mother had given him at her breast.
No other accusation was needed to decide the infuriated people. And twenty arms with stones in hand were already rising to crush Juan Darién when the animal tamer ordered from behind in a hoarse voice:
“Let’s brand him with spots of fire! Let’s burn him in the fireworks!”
It was already getting dark, and when they reached the plaza night had closed in. In the plaza they had erected a castle of fireworks, with wheels, crowns, and flares. They tied Juan Darién high in the center, and lit the wick at one end. The thread of flame ran quickly up and down, and ignited the entire castle. And up there, between the fixed stars and the giant multicolored wheels, they sacrificed Juan Darién.
“It’s your last day as a man, Juan Darién!” they all clamored. “Show your spots!”
“Mercy! Mercy!” cried the child, struggling amidst the sparks and clouds of smoke. The yellow, red, and green wheels spun dizzily, some to the right and others to the left. The tangent jets of flame traced great circles, and in the middle, burnt from the trails of sparks that crossed his body, Juan Darién writhed.
“Show your spots!” they still roared from below.
“No, have mercy! I’m human!” the unhappy child still had time to cry. And after another ribbon of flame, his body could be seen shaking convulsively; his moans acquired a deep, hoarse timbre, and his body was changing form little by little. And the crowd, with a savage yell of triumph, could see finally emerging, under the human skin, the black, parallel, and fatal spots of the jaguar.
The atrocious act of cruelty had been completed; they had gotten what they wanted. In place of the innocent, guiltless child, there up above was the body of a jaguar dying in agony.
The flares were also going out. One last jet of sparks from a dying wheel reached the rope tied to the wrist (no: the paws of the jaguar, for Juan Darién was no more), and the body fell heavily to the ground. The people dragged it to the edge of the forest, abandoning it there for the jackals to devour the beast’s body and heart.
But the jaguar hadn’t died. With the nocturnal coolness he came to himself, and dragged himself away into the depths of the jungle, prey to horrible torments. For an entire month he didn’t leave his lair in the thickest part of the woods, waiting with the somber patience of a wild animal for his wounds to heal. Finally all the wounds healed, save one deep burn in the side that wouldn’t close, and that the jaguar bandaged with large leaves.
Because he had conserved from his recently lost form three things: the living memory of the past, the ability to manipulate with his hands like a human, and language. But for the rest, in absolutely everything, he was a beast, indistinguishable in the least detail from other jaguars.
When he finally felt healed, he passed the word to all the other jaguars in the jungle to meet that night in front of the great rushes that bordered the crops. And as night fell he walked silently to the village. He climbed a nearby tree and waited a long time, motionless. He saw pass below him, without concern, or even a glance, poor women and tired laborers, with miserable expressions; until finally he saw a man with red boots and a red frock-coat coming down the road.
The jaguar didn’t move a single twig on gathering himself to leap. He pounced on the animal trainer; knocked him unconscious, and taking the trainer by the waist between his teeth, carried him, without harming him, to the rushes.
There, at the feet of the immense reeds that rose up invisibly, were the jaguars of the jungle moving in the darkness, and their eyes shone like lights that went from one side to the other. The man was still unconscious. The jaguar then said:
“Brothers: I lived twelve years among humans, as a human myself. And I am a jaguar. Perhaps with my actions I can belatedly erase this stain. Brothers: tonight I break the last link that ties me to the past.”
And after saying this, he took the still unconscious man in his mouth, and climbed with him to the highest point of the cane field, where he left the man tied between two bamboos. Then he set fire to dry leaves on the ground, and soon a crackling blaze arose. The other jaguars backed away, frightened, before the fire. But the jaguar said to them: “Peace, brothers!” and they calmed down, seating themselves on their bellies with their paws crossed, to watch.
The rushes burned like an immense firework. The cane burst like bombs, and their gases crossed in sharp arrows of color. The flames ascended in sudden and muffled gusts, leaving pale hollows below themselves; and at the top, where the fire had not yet reached, the reeds swayed crackling in the heat.
But the man, touched by the flames, had come to himself. He saw there below him the jaguars with their violet eyes raised to him, and understood everything.
“Mercy, forgive me!” he howled, writhing. “I apologize for everything!”
No one answered. The man then felt abandoned by God, and cried with all his soul:
“Forgive me, Juan Darién!”
On hearing this, Juan Darién raised his head and said coldly:
“There is no one here called Juan Darién. I don’t know Juan Darién. That is a man’s name, and here we are jaguars.”
And turning to his companions, as if he didn’t understand, he asked:
“Is one of you named Juan Darién?”
But already the flames had burned the castle to the sky. And between the sharp flares that crossed the burning walls could be seen there above a black corpse that burned, smoking.
“I’ll be quick, brothers,” the jaguar said. “But there is still something left for me to do.”
And he went again to the village, followed by the other jaguars without him noticing. He paused before a poor, sad garden, jumped over the wall, and passing beside several crosses and headstones, stopped in front of an unadorned plot of earth, where lay buried the woman whom he had called mother for eight years. He knelt—he knelt like a man—and for a moment there was silence.
“Mother!” the jaguar finally murmured with deep tenderness. “You alone knew, among all humans, the sacred right to life of all the beings of the Universe. Only you understood that a human and a jaguar differ only in their hearts. And you taught me to love, to understand, to forgive. Mother! I am sure that you hear me. I am your son always, only yours, in spite of what happens from now on. Goodbye, mother mine!”
And on rising he saw the violet eyes of his brothers, who were watching him from behind the wall, and he joined them again.
At that moment the warm breeze brought to them, out of the depths of the night, the boom of a shot.
“It’s in the jungle,” the jaguar said. “It’s the humans. They are hunting, killing, slaughtering.”
Turning then towards the village, lit by the reflection of the burning jungle, he exclaimed:
“Race without redemption! Now it’s my turn!”
And returning to the tomb where he had been praying, with his large paw he pulled the bandage off his wound and wrote on the cross with his own blood, in large letters, below his mother’s name:
“Now we are at peace,” he said. And sending with his brothers a roar of defiance towards the terrified village, he concluded:
“Now, to the jungle. A jaguar forever!”
First published 1920, later included in the collection El desierto (The Desert), 1924.
Translated by Nina Zumel