It was September when the men in neon vests came to town and asked us if we’d seen.
Seen what? we said. We had seen many things. We had already seen strangers arrive claiming to be friends only to reveal themselves as enemies in time. And we had seen from the riverbank how the water could be still and then suddenly swell, a churning below the surface. We’d also seen those impressions stamped deep in the earth, the shredded remains of grass. More often than not, it was what we didn’t see that kept us vigilant. We were fishing twice as long for half the catch. It had been weeks—months—since the last sighting of a bat. And where had the frogs gone? Night walks were silent, broken only by our uncomfortable small talk, our general sense of unease.
“There could be nearly fifty of them out here,” said one of the men, his neon vest the same blinding green worn by public officials, crossing guards, and police officers, a perpetually ill-fitting uniform with the state’s endorsement emblazoned on the chest.
This sounded dubious, but we did not say so. From what we’d seen, there were many more.
“That’s just an estimate, based on our models,” added the second, shorter vest. “But they’ll be hard to count anyway. They’re not exactly bovine.”
“No natural predators,” said the first. “Free to roam.”
The taller vest introduced himself, saying he was the Director of the Regional Corporation for the Ministry of Environment, and, on behalf of the People’s Republic, he wanted to apologize formally for the invasion in our municipality.
“In conclusion,” he continued, “it seems illustrative of how we as a people tend to wait until a problem is too big to address.”
We could take no offense to that.
The second vest—the Assistant Director—pulled up a YouTube video on his cell phone and insisted we watch it with him.
“This was uploaded last week. You haven’t seen it?”
We had. But again we watched the hardened flank charging down Popayán’s wide streets, dodging parked cars and screaming youths in the middle of the orange night. How could we have missed such news? Some of us had even gone through Popayán recently on our way to the capital for business. Surely we must have heard,
if not at least seen something?
But when was it ever the case, especially while hearing the national news programs, that we didn’t feel left behind? There were even some among us who refused to recognize that the war was over. Visitors expected our humble streets to be dead, to be filled with phantoms and relics of the past. And in spite of that, here we still remained, prey as always to time’s tricks. What could we possibly make of this latest calamity?
The Director brushed mud absentmindedly from his boots. “That’s not the first sighting, I’m afraid.”
“There have been reports across the region,” added the Assistant Director, who was swatting at a halo of insects above his head.
“That’s why we’re here.”
“To study them, he means.”
But we had stopped listening. In the video, the young man holding the camera turned it to his face, smiling awkwardly, the enormous brown figure just behind his shoulder, as though he were posing at a zoo or monument. Then a motorcycle rode by and illuminated the creature’s flaring nostrils, its pulverizing mandible, ivory teeth thick as forearms. A dangerous animal, in the purest sense, fighting its way through the city like a panicked stray.
“We have been pursuing that one for days now,” said the Director. “Popayán’s residents were not helpful. Curious—isn’t it? They act like it’s a game.”
“However the situation is very grave,” added the Assistant, tucking his phone back into the holster on his waist. “Life-threatening.”
“Akin to an infestation. Or a plague.”
“One assumes these matters would provoke a sense of urgency,” the Assistant scoffed, shaking his head, “but we had to beg for this funding.”
“Beg,” repeated the Director. “On our hands and knees.”
“‘Think of the ecosystem,’ we said. ‘Ours is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and must be protected,’ we said.”
“There could be permanent damage.”
“Irreparable,” echoed the Assistant. “And for what?” he said, while generously applying bug spray across his torso with a huff. “Only for this backwards populace to refer to these hippopotamuses as village pets?”
Whispers of the animal’s presence had spread faster than the ashes of the guerrilla encampments, the rumors as disruptive as the laughter of the paramilitaries who occupied cafés and homes in neighboring towns. For years, revolting acts committed across our countryside had been so common that we no longer bothered to condemn them in public, and we grew all the more bitter waiting for change to come. Although we never truly expected that the nation—always at the fringe of our lives—would remember we existed, would make the long journey from the North to our forgotten village. We kept to ourselves and for that we could not be blamed. Our tendency was to suffer in solitude rather than waste breath troubling the world about it. We had learned the hard way: our problems weren’t the government’s problems until they had the international eye—or were accumulating views on gringo YouTube.
For we had, in fact, seen them. And well before the Regional Corporation placed its attention upon us, at that. Maybe not when asked all at once in the open, but among ourselves many revealed they’d encountered hippos in their daily lives.
There was Doña Maria, the silver-haired widow who ran our only bodega and offered packaged goods to the poorest for free. She had been stocking the highest shelves one quiet evening when the stepladder beneath her succumbed to an unseen disturbance. The ghost of her late husband, she’d later speculate publicly. He’d always said that the coffee beans should be displayed on the counter, where customers could smell their freshness. But while Doña Maria was still recovering in bed, she revealed to those closest to her another version of the incident. After the fall, she had seen an enormous creature lumbering away from her shop.
“Four webbed toes,” she’d whisper, struggling to steady the mug of aguapanela in her hands. “With little nails. Just like ours.”
And there were the fishermen, often drunk and occasionally observed fishing, who swore that they had been on the water for hours—long hours—from before daylight until sunset, singing out of tune and playing their half-broken instruments; betting cards with bottle caps; smoking the cigarettes they rolled for one another; listening to radio broadcasts or crackling static, to distant artillery in the forest; and trimming their beards, and seeing who could throw empty beer bottles the farthest—
“And the fish?” we asked.
They were getting to that. None. Not a single catch that day. But that was irrelevant, they contended, still dripping wet and wringing out their clothes on the dock. They’d all seen it: the exposed muzzle gliding down the river, then submerging eerily without a sound. And then their boats began to capsize, pulled under by some monstrosity caught in their nets.
“It was a purple horse,” concluded one. “Or maybe it was Mohan floating in the backwaters, dressed as a man-crocodile and waiting for the laundry girls along the shore,” said another, hiccupping while he pried open his beer.
We rarely took anything that the fishermen told us seriously. However, as time went on stories of other such encounters increased, and we could no longer doubt their truthfulness. When Father Torres and Sister Elizabeth held their monthly service among the guerrillas, the young general, whose voice still cracked when he barked commands, presented them with an enormous skull belonging to a hippo that had stormed their camp a few days earlier. His guards had emptied their magazines for nearly a minute before the behemoth collapsed.
“It came charging at us, twenty, easily thirty kilometers per hour,” said the general, who had never been prone to exaggeration, even as a boy, even before the war.
Our mayor, a veteran of the old guard himself, had dismissed his informants’ claims about the hippos, not for lack of proof, but rather in the interest of maintaining social order. He had had a similar approach when the army began dressing casualties in rebel attire to reach their quotas, and when the paramilitaries had been seen piloting helicopters that bore the state’s endorsement. Better to feign ignorance and let a higher office be held accountable.
Hippo shapes had begun appearing in the handwoven textiles and wooden carvings that the indigenous women sold when they walked through town; the caravans of foreign hunters (whom we always misled, pointing them in the wrong directions) were now searching for big game found only in the lakes and swamps of Africa; and there were our children, who amid tickle fights or games of police versus narcos would abruptly stop and gasp.
“What is it?” we’d ask as they studied the tree line, their breathing uneven.
“Nothing,” they’d said, protecting us.
This was perhaps what we found most concerning. That it was the children who assumed responsibility for us rather than the other way around.
When the sightings did not decline but instead rose steadily, we compelled the mayor to call a plebiscite. One hot morning at the community garden, as loose chickens kicked dust and our elders sat in the shade of lime trees, each of us had the opportunity to cast their vote. We were of two clear opinions: those in favor of petitioning the government to intervene and those opposed. To some, the hippos were our fellow victims, taken hostage and forced to move forward in a world they neither regarded nor recognized. What was the harm in leaving them in peace—wasn’t that what we so desired for ourselves? But to others, the hippos were an obvious threat, posing a danger not just to our natural world, but also to our very populace, our way of life, even if only indirectly.
“Would no one think of the children?” cried a voice from the throng. If blood were spilled while we looked the other way then we were no better than the bastard politicians who had turned away from us.
Throughout history, we had paid a price for believing in the charming statements of senators and uniformed men. Time and time again, we had learned the cost of armed intervention in our village, whether it be endorsed, narcotic, insurgent, or a mix of all three. Survivors of La Violencia could end arguments just by evoking its peasantry death toll. More than once, we fell for revolution as guerrilla factions erupted across the countryside; many of our idealists seized arms, only to be burned alive by napalm. And who could forget the paramilitary massacres that followed, silencing towns like ours; or the congressional scandals that begot our current political landscape? Better to stay out of it, we countered.
Our one and only poet called for order by peppering us with limes she pulled from the branches surrounding her. Rarely did we see our poet writing, but she was often perched in a lime tree, her head as close to the clouds as possible.
“Compatriots,” she began. “These creatures run, they sweat blood as we do, just for a chance to live. What would we hope for, if the roles were reversed?”
The votes were tallied, and those against intervention won by a small margin. Skeptics demanded a recount which was not granted. We were nothing if not steadfast in our democratic process.
We hadn’t shared a word of our experiences with the Regional Corporation’s representatives, or any other representatives, for that matter, that had arrived before the Director and his Assistant. To anyone who asked, whether they held a rifle or a clipboard, we said the same thing: we had no knowledge of hippopotamuses, or of much at all, really. We were not impolite. We masked our wariness with kindness and intrigue, with bumbling questions we already knew the answers to, like how had the animals come here, where the gentlemen were from, what they hoped to ascertain in their studies. They responded eagerly in turn: the Naples Estate, far away, how the environment had endured these new inhabitants.
For days, the vests conducted interviews, canvassed the forest for evidence, and drafted reports of their findings for the government. Their results were: inconclusive. Then came an afternoon when one of us, a traitor, drew the men’s attention to the hippo droppings spattered about town—which we had been taking great pains to bury, decorating the fresh dirt with personal effects or folkloric imagery, things usually overlooked like tapestries, candles, statues, and, yes, even some of the carvings sold to us by the indigenous women. The Director and his assistant exchanged an indescribable look of joy when they first saw the excrement. Through pure facial expression, they told one another and us just how grateful they were to have been in fact pursuing the truth and not what others dismissed as
merely a tall tale.
“We appreciate your hospitality,” said the Director while rifling through unearthed shit piles and filling vials with stool. “You do the nation a great service with your cooperation.”
“An incredible service,” said the Assistant Director, plunging his arms into a different pile of dung with all too much enthusiasm. “Even if it was done anonymously,” he added, addressing the traitor among us, “it is a service all the same.”
Both men were smiling brightly despite the humidity, small beads of sweat forming above their lips. Poor Northerners. Accustomed to their altitude, to looking down upon the rest of us. We would continue to play the fool as long as we could.
We joined the vests as they traced the creature’s path, following its tracks from the dung heaps at our town perimeter, bending left at Doña Maria’s storefront, and then up the sloping road, which led us across the main square’s cobblestones and diagonally past the statue of the Liberator, then through the church with its solid wooden doors and white facade that had been under renovation for ages (“Miraculous,” commented the Director. “Not a single pew was disturbed.”), and ending at the river, right beside the docks, where, recalling the incident with the fishermen, we at last hesitated.
“Don’t worry,” said the Director, thinking us afraid of paramilitary and guerrilla zones on the other side of the river, which was considered forbidden territory by the state. “We have absolute authority to investigate.” For good measure, they flashed us their badges, as if symbols scratched in metal had any bearing on the law here.
“Yes, don’t fret,” added the Assistant Director. “Think of it as an opportunity.”
How so, we asked as we loaded them and their equipment into what remained of our boats.
“These are uncharted waters for the
international community,” said the Assistant. “If we can find a way to contain the herd, to neutralize their threat level, then we will not only have helped the nation propel forward but also science as a whole, meaning progress for mankind, for—”
“Wait,” interrupted the Director as he held the Assistant back. “Look!”
In the center of the river, two massive sets of jaws surged to the surface and opened slowly, exposing the cavernous holes of the hippos’ throats. Their pink mouths, packed with enormous crooked teeth, stretched a meter wide and toward the sky, as though yawning breathlessly.
“Magnificent,” the two men whispered in unison.
This was the beginning of a battle that only one would leave. Back and forth the beasts snapped and bellowed, blocking blows with their incisors, drawing blood as they punctured each other’s hide. Before long, the river water had turned a shade darker, the fresh air of the wet earth now redolent of metallic decay. And then the fight progressed upstream, where what had appeared to be giant river stones was actually a pod of hippos, hiding in plain sight.
“Oh god,” said the Director. “It’s worse than we believed.”
“Indeed,” chimed in the Assistant, shooing us away from the scene. “What could make them so aggressive?”
This as well, we knew the answer to. History had proven it to us. As time went on, we saw not an evolution, but instead watched our species regress to baser instincts. Realizing the matter was already out of hand, we exposed our knowledge to the neon vests. It’s their mating season, we said.
When the men in neon vests first arrived, touting the significance of their mission for the global stage, we knew more officials would eventually come join them. After their encounter with the dueling bulls, and an accounting of the pod
spanning upwards of one hundred animals, the Director and his assistant had no choice but to
call for reinforcements.
“Send everyone,” they broadcasted back to the capitol. “They are reproducing at an unprecedented rate.”
Suddenly, all the world had eyes on our nation again—more of the same violent imagery that had been perpetuated over the years. We recognized the routine: the dismissal of our everyday problems, attributing our plight to bad people, not bad government. Weeks in the media cycle drew attention to our troubles but, as always, fell off before solutions or assistance materialized. We had always preferred to go unnoticed, because it was while unnoticed—at least—that we could assert the most control in the ongoing narrative
of our own lives.
It became clear that the Regional Corporation for the Ministry of Environment had met its match with the hippopotamuses. The neon vests did not ask us for any more assistance and instead harnessed the iron fist of the state. We watched from the sidelines as they exhausted solutions. First they imported crocodiles from the Orinoco Basin, which were soon rendered nearly extinct as a result. Eventually, they called for healers in the forest, leaders of tribes that had never before been disturbed, in search of ancient or unknown remedies—by then, they had already determined that chemical agents, controlled fires, and electric shocks had no effect.
As the animals continued to breed, the two men grew more haggard, their eyes bloodshot from fatigue, their clothes unkempt and stained. Night after night they sought for a sympathetic ear over rounds of aguardiente, requesting that we toast to their latest failure in the field.
Then the inevitable day came when they began arming themselves, pistols glinting at their waists. The military operatives, who now escorted teams of scientists, had never encountered such an adversary and adapted accordingly, marching into the wilderness with all manner of defenses: rifles and riot shields, crucifixes and holy water. It was said that an adult male could consume up to fifty kilos of grass a day and bite with nearly two tons of force. One could feel the flora and fauna of our region disappearing by the hour. The village pets were resilient, tolerant of drought and famine, of any potential change in climate, and virtually indestructible.
The Director, in a fit of madness, called for an unusual apparatus, the likes of which we had only seen during broadcasts covering protests in the North. A sort of screeching speaker mounted atop an armored truck. An entire fleet of these vehicles were deployed in the forests and mountains bordering our village. The sound they made was so deafening its reverberations were felt in the scaffolding outside the church, in the planks of the dock, in our bones while we ate our lunch.
And then came a deeper murmur, like the early rumblings of an earthquake. We listened to the noise swelling slowly until its source dawned on us: the drumming of hooves. We ran from our houses—and not a moment too soon—as hundreds if not thousands of hippos flowed down towards our town from the sierra, glistening vibrantly as though they were molten rock. We watched as the hippos charged up the hills, toppling the colonial walls that had endured since our founding, leveling every structure in their path. The animals, coated in blood, crashed through brick, thatch, and metal, as though invincible, reducing all that had ever rooted here to dust. Everything we had once fought for was gone, hidden under clouds that the hippos kicked still higher and higher, covering the statues and the livestock, even blanketing our tallest palm leaves with fine white powder.
We stood there in the rubble, turning over stones before locking eyes with a gently grazing straggler, now about half a kilometer behind its pod.
One collective outburst would have sufficed, we told ourselves, but we didn’t bother urging the creature to flee. We knew, before the shots could ring out across the treetops, that the men in neon vests had already raised their pistols and cocked the hammers.