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a tributary of the Madre de Dios – Mother of God – tributary of the Mamore, then Madeira, then the great Amazon herself, and it is here, not far from her source, that we are truly inside Mama Amazonica, sailing up her veins, past valves of rapids. Every uprooted tree which floats past is a mystery play, a stage for a creaturely theatre, as if these are dream-cells in her body. Dawn unveils vistas of trees punctuated by canopy giants and the occasional flare of a coral tree. The Puno Mountains are our backdrop for the day.

The breeze in the centre of the river freshens my head as we pass the branch-nerves of driftwood covered in sleeping night hawks. Maybe a roost of forty, most of them with their eyes closed, one or two prised open to watch us, eyelids drooping as we move on. Their cream breasts and dun backs and wings are what sleep might look like if the river wanted to paint it for us.

I think of my mother in the psychiatric ward, undergoing a month of deep sleep treatment, flanked by beds of snoring patients. I wish her this peace, want the lithium and anti-psychotics that circulated her bloodstream to be as harmless as these nightjars letting the current lap them on their log securely snagged on rocks.

On a rose sandbar a black caiman lies motionless, his scaly head haloed by butterflies – snowy-whites and flambeaux, their proboscises lowered into the corners of his eyes to suck the salt. Mania and depression – that double brute from the primordial hindbrain. But he’s inviolable in his armour-plating; only the jaguar can overpower him. And here he is, one of the gods of the depths, two rainbowed horseflies drinking from his snout.

My mother lay in a drug-induced stupor. Her voices lowered their suckers into the corners of

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her eyes and mouth. They fluttered against her cheeks and sucked her tears as they whispered to her, telling her to set the curtains around her bed on fire, to run around the ward naked, her red hair flaming. If she opened her eyes, she saw the fairies of her childhood jinking just below the ceiling, their wings flares that clustered like the forest canopy on fire, every tree a flame-of-the-forest or a kapok of flowering red sparks.

I entered the ward and found her awake. Only the scene that unfolds before me on the Río Tambopata conjures that encounter. She wore her turquoise see-through negligee as if her head was breaching from the river-surface. She leapt up demanding tea, to slop it over the bed as she staggered, her hyperactive eyes popping out of their sockets.

We round another bend in the river and Rambo, our motorista, spots a king vulture on a totem pole of driftwood. He cuts the engine and rows the boat forwards. The king vulture is looking down at the water, his white and black wings half raised, his immaculate white legs gripping the pole-top. I can see every colour on his face – his coral neck, purple head, the apricot wattle on his beak. He is flanked by a black vulture and five black hawks, all staring down into the water.

And now we see what they are watching so intently, because down in the water, wedged against the floating island of tree-trunks, is a giant golden catfish, belly up, its white eye open, its huge whiskers sticking up like arrows. Only it is not alone, for now we see the spectacled caiman whose snout is buried deep in the catfish’s belly. The caiman’s eye is also wide open. Jungle Paul, who is prone to childlike explosions whenever we see any spectacle, is beside himself, as he explains the full drama of what is happening. The vultures

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