Authors: Peter Matthiessen
“Powerful, intricate, superbly constructed … a challenging and absorbing work.”
New York Post
“A brutal yet compassionate narrative … that will remain long in the reader’s mind.”
Minneapolis Star and Tribune
“Glorious … It calls forth every shred of the reader’s imagination, it enlists every emotion.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“There seems to be no limit to what Matthiessen can accomplish in this extraordinary story.… Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad would admire such a novel as this.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord
is, in all probability, a great novel which will be read a hundred years hence, and which would have been just as important had it been written a hundred years ago.”
Women’s Wear Daily
“Matthiessen has admirably fulfilled the goals of any serious novelist: not only to tell a gripping story with uncommon conviction, but to contrive a fictional world which seems utterly real and which, by extension, illuminates reality as we know it.”
“Its soul-searching note brings the searing pages of Conrad to mind.”
“An excellent novel and one that the reader will not soon forget.”
“The writing has the intensity of flame about it.… The story is powerful, the characterization is masterful; above all, the theme is unforgettably important.”
“Beautiful, hideous and haunting.”
Savannah Morning News
“Brilliantly and beautifully written.”
ALSO BY PETER MATTHIESSEN
On the River Styx (and Other Stories)
Killing Mister Watson
Wildlife in America
The Cloud Forest
Under the Mountain Wall
Sal Si Puedes
The Wind Birds
The Tree Where Man Was Born
The Snow Leopard
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse
Nine-Headed Dragon River
Vintage Books Edition, December 1991
Copyright © 1965 by Peter Matthiessen
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Originally published in hardcover by Random House, Inc., New York, in 1965.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Matthiessen, Peter.
At play in the fields of the Lord/Peter Matthiessen.
Luke and Carey
Rue and Alex
The way to innocence, to the uncreated and to God leads on, not back, not back to the wolf or to the child, but ever further into sin, ever deeper into human life.
N THE JUNGLE
DURING ONE NIGHT IN EACH MONTH
did not come to lanterns; through the black reaches of the outer night, so it was said, they flew toward the full moon.
So it was said.
He could not recall where he had heard it, or from whom; it had been somewhere on the rivers of Brazil.
He had never watched the lanterns at the time of the full moon; when he remembered it was always the dark of the moon or beyond the tropics.
Yet the idea of the moths in the high darkness, straining upward, filled him with longing, and at these times he would know that he had not found what he was looking for, nor come closer to discovering what it was.
Across the table the whore, uncomprehending, searched his face for a clue to something, anything at all.
the whore said, looking away; she expected and received no answer.
the whore sighed.
The taverna called La Concepción sat back from the mud street, behind a yard of beaten earth and mango trees; most of its
customers sat at wooden tables in the yard.
The loud radio competed with a dice game, in which the dice cups were banged down as violently as possible upon the table, accompanied by hoarse shouting from the player; this game was a constant from noon to dawn.
The radio, with the tumult of the gambling, was more than a match for the voices of men, dogs and roosters which, mixing freely in the yard, fought for a hearing.
Drinking in silence at his table, he felt cut off from all the rest, as they were cut off from one another.
Men moved like shadows in this cave of noise, while outside them, outside the glare, stirring the black leaves, hung the great hungry silence of the jungle.
The people clung like moths to the wan light.
the whore said again.
The alcohol, which at first had bathed his skin in a glow of peace, now made him restless, and his restlessness made her nervous.
He reached out and took her hand, and she subsided.
It was still early, and somehow he would have to pass the rest of the evening, for he had slept most of the day.
He had had this woman quietly and quickly, and because he made no more of it than it was, the woman liked him; she tried to communicate her own loneliness and even a haggard femininity.
He had listened politely, but now his silence had defeated her and she would go.
“Hasta luego, hombre,”
the woman murmured.
She was still searching his face, like someone awaiting word.
So long as he kept moving he would be all right.
For men like himself the ends of the earth had this great allure: that one was never asked about a past or future but could live as freely as an animal, close to the gut, and day by day by day.
T FOUR MILES ABOVE SEA LEVEL
wings, was pierced by celestial light: to fall from such a height, he thought, would be like entering Heaven from
The snow peaks of the Andes burst from clouds which hid the earth, sparkling in the sun like gates of Paradise, and the blue dome of the mountain sky was as pure as the Lord’s pain.
Where the clouds parted, it was true, dark lakes reflected wild demonic gleams, but the red roofs of the villages on the lone road traversing the sierra were signals of sane harmonies, good will to men.
Quarrier, at his window on the firmament, could barely restrain a warble of pure joy.
Instead he whistled tunelessly and hummed, until his wife, in the seat behind him, told him that he sounded like a kettle.
He stroked the head of his little boy, whose nose was pressed into the fog made by their breaths upon the glass.
The snow fields had scarcely passed from view when Billy Quarrier first thought he saw wild Indians and jaguars and anacondas.
“Look, look, Pa!
Right down there!”
“Where does he come by such outlandish notions?”
Martin turned around and gazed affectionately at his big wife; his wife amused him.
Her pale face looked lye-scrubbed, and a sour expression camouflaged native handsomeness, as if this character, like her humor, was something to be suppressed.
To cheer her, he made his joke about a heavenly descent, and laughed when she would not laugh.
He said, “Now sweetheart, there
jaguars and anacondas here, that’s all.”
Kneeling on his seat, hands resting on its top, he loomed above her, anxious to interest her in all the information with which he had prepared himself.
But she was not an easy person to reach out to, and he drew back a little when her hand dropped, out of habit, to tug down the hem of her dress.
“Many of these tribes consider the anaconda their ancestor,” he said.
“They think their shaman is a jaguar—I mean, that he can become a jaguar at night.”
Hazel shifted fretfully.
Look at him kneeling on his seat!
Why does he
“Shamans,” she said.
“That’s why the Lord has sent us here, to rescue these poor heathens from such darkness.”
When he smiled vaguely, turning away, she said, “You shouldn’t have filled your own head with such fiddle-faddle, let alone an innocent child.
All he can think about are savages and these awful snakes and jungle animals.”
She tried to smile at him, to show that she was not quite serious, but she could not; the airplane had made her feel much too upset.
Nevertheless, it seemed appropriate that they should undergo some sacrifice and even hardship in the performance of their Christian duty, and she was therefore content to enter a terrain so remote from the green bright plains of North Dakota, where Satan, as her father said, “had been run clean across the country.”
The high peaks of the cordillera fell away, marching down the southern sky toward Tierra del Fuego; the plane lost altitude.
Brown wastelands of the alpine tundra surged in the cloud plateaus, and far lone huts, untouched by sun, looked uninhabited.
The sky lakes of the glaciers turned dull-green, then black, and the white overcast turned gray; clouds gasped up out of sudden
chasms, swirled from the earth like vile subterranean vapors.
Tundra gave way to chaparral, and chaparral to the trees of the high forest.
The dark vapors forsook the trees and, drifting, touched the plane; a vulture tilted outward and away.
Now the airplane plummeted and slid down the east slope of the sierra.
Hazel Quarrier moaned, and her husband went back to her and took her hand.
The mists swarmed past the window and the cabin darkened; lights, flickering off and on, bounced and shuddered with the plane itself, which roared confusedly in its descent through the updrafts of the cloud forest.
Then the window cleared again.
They had forsaken the realm of sunlight for a nether world of dark enormous greens, wild strangled greens veined by brown rivers of hot rain, the Andean rain, implacable and mighty as the rain that fell on those sunless days when the earth cooled.
, already in view, formed a yellow scar in the green waste.
With its litter of rust and rotting thatch and mud, the capital of Oriente State resembled a great trash heap, smoking sullenly in the monotony of rivers.
The three Quarriers at their plane windows were taken aback by the grim prospect; even Billy could not mistake this devastation for an Indian village.
The DC-3 slid out into its turn, over the river front, where derelict craft, misshapen and unpainted, nuzzled the bare mud bank; the heat of the place rose to engulf the plane.
Now a few figures came in sight.
They stood like sentinels, as if transfixed by a sudden cataclysm.
The mud streets, of a yellow-orange color, deeply rutted, were barren of all life but pigs and vultures and a solitary dog.
Then these too disappeared, and the mud airstrip, parting a rank depressed savanna, swung into their view.
A light plane and an old Mustang fighter were parked at its edge; the fighter plane was belly-deep in weeds.
Quarrier rearranged his legs so that his knees, in the event of crash, would not bend in the wrong direction.
They were certainly
a long way from North Dakota, as Hazel had said.
Except for their term at Moody Bible in Chicago, they had scarcely set foot out of the Dakotas in all their lives until a month ago, when they had gone to Florida to catch the freighter.
And here they were, thousands of miles from the clean kitchens and church suppers of home, ending their second airplane ride, not at the county airport but in a steaming jungle town on the banks of the Río de las Animas—River of Souls!
Such names were common in these parts, and sooner or later Hazel would horrify herself with the translations.
The people and dogs of Madre de Dios awaited them.
There was no road into the jungle, and this plane, which crossed the Andes twice a week, was the sole evidence of an outer world.
Men and dogs in the foreground, women and children to the rear, they stared at the old machine as it lumbered to a halt.
The men looked of a size, and in some hangdog way identical: small brown mustachioed halfbreeds, barefoot, in pajama tops and ragged pants and floppy sisal hats.
The women, in gingham, were more various and more washed-out; the children were in rags.
All stood in ranks behind a large pale man with a pistol on his hip, a small pale man in the white cassock of a priest, and a blond man in a rich blond beard, shorts and short-sleeved flowered shirt; this man stood with feet apart, strong fists on hips, and a fine smile on his sunburned face.
All three wore shoes.
The Quarriers recognized the blond man, from his picture in
, as Leslie Huben.
Quarrier stared at Huben out of his small window.
When the man grinned lustily and waved at them, he grinned obediently and waved back.
Then he took off his glasses and wiped them with his handkerchief, wondering how much the other knew about him.
When the cargo door swung open and Huben strode forward on brown legs to pump their hands, Quarrier watched the awe appear on the faces of Billy and Hazel.
Huben introduced the “Mart Quarrier Family”—Hazel glanced sardonically at her husband and blinked her eyes—to El Comandante Rufino Guzmán, the prefect of Oriente State; this
imposing man, in a tieless white shirt buttoned to the throat, was the first prefect the Mart Quarrier Family had ever beheld.
He addressed them in a loud and worldly manner, responding to Martin’s
“Buenos días, señor”
with “We arr es-spik Ingliss here!”
To Hazel, bowing formally, he spoke Spanish in a courtly manner, in no way abashed by his unshaven face, his open fly and a strong breath of aguardiente.
“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure,” Hazel Quarrier said, her fingers fretting on her purse.
Then Martin Quarrier, last in line, took the official hand of welcome.
It felt like loose stones in a damp rubber bag.
The scene was observed with apparent approval by the small priest, who had not been introduced.
He stood at the right hand of the Comandante, and it was now clear to Quarrier that while Huben and the priest both accompanied the illustrious Guzmán, they were not themselves on speaking terms.
Quarrier wondered if this small man in his white cassock was the Black-robed Opposition whose fearful defeat at the hands of Huben had been recorded in
Under the keen eye of the Enemy he felt more and more uncomfortable—far more uncomfortable, it was plain, than the neglected party, who was, if anything, amused.
And his discomfort knew no bounds when the priest suddenly smiled at him, and extending his hand, said, “Xantes.”
Martin said, “Howdy.
This is Mrs.
Quarrier, and this here is my son, Billy.
Billy, this is Father Xantes.”
Because he was uneasy, his words sounded stiff and wooden to him, and he watched with relief as Hazel, carried away by all the protocol, accepted the Catholic hand.
Hazel said, “How do you do, I’m sure.”
Leslie Huben said, “Pardon me, folks.
I should have made the introduction.”
Billy Quarrier said, “Hiya, Father.
Ever seen a Niaruna Indian?”
And the Comandante said, “Ha, ha, ha, ha.”
He did not laugh these sounds but spoke them: “Niaruna!
Ha, ha, ha!”
The outburst seemed to Quarrier so arbitrary that he had to smile, but when he saw that the priest was smiling, too, and that Huben
watched them both, unsmiling, he turned his head away as if to cough.
Past Huben’s head, across the strip, he could read the lettering on the small planes.
The tail of the fighter was inscribed:
and on the pocked fuselage of the light plane was scrawled:
Wolfie & Moon, Inc
Small Wars & Demolition
The doors of this plane were both wide-open, as if its occupants had abandoned ship before it had stopped rolling, and rushed off into the jungle without even bothering to turn off the ignition.
He smiled again.
Huben was following his gaze; in the hot gusts, the hair at the crown of Leslie’s head rose like a crest.
Hazel wigwagged her husband in warning, hat feather trembling.
The world awaited him.
“Well, I mean, it’s all so strange,” Quarrier blurted; then the laughter came and he squawked hopelessly, like a chicken.
“That little plane … I mean, small wars!”
He struggled to compose his face.
“Are they Americans?
Is it a joke?”
He laughed again.
Quarrier glanced back at the tattered plane.
It was giving off troubling emanations—not the outlaw craft itself, but something wild and humorous and free that was suggested by that rough red lettering.
Suddenly he felt depressed, as if he had entered a cold air pocket, but the moment passed and he felt fine again.
you staring at?
She had not meant to sound so peevish.
His head half turned in the weak sun, he regarded her questioningly, a stumpy man in a baggy suit; his glasses, thick and rimless, blurred his gaze and made him appear irresolute.
Staring at his huge forehead and thin limp blond hair, at the red skin of his face and neck nicked by quiescent acne, Hazel was struck by his fierce ugliness, and wondered for the thousandth time how Billy could be so beautiful.
She inspected her son, who was loitering right next to the Comandante’s leg, admiring the pistol; to spare Billy that raw look his father had, she left his hair long on the forehead.
In his red tie and small white shirt he looked just like a choirboy on Christmas cards.