Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
Swollen from torrential rain, the river near the narrator’s village has been rising for three days. Everything is going from bad to worse. The rain has ruined the harvest, and the narrator’s aunt has died. Moreover, La Serpentina, the cow belonging to his twelve-year-old sister, has been swept away by the river and drowned.
The noise of the river awakens the narrator. It is so loud that he thinks the roof of his house is collapsing. As he gets up, the noise grows louder and closer. The river has a rotted odor, and there is no sign that the rain will let up. When the narrator looks toward the village, he finds that the river has jumped its banks and is slowly rising along the main street. The water rushes into the house of a neighbor woman named Tambora. On the far banks of the river, a large tree in the dead aunt’s yard—the only tamarind tree in the village—has been uprooted and swept away, dramatically proving that this flood is the largest in many years.
In the afternoon the narrator and his sister Tacha climb a ravine above the river, which they watch in fascination for hours. The river’s roaring is so loud that it drowns out the voices of people near it.
From other people discussing the river’s damage, they learn of La Serpentina’s demise. A man has seen her washed away, although just why the cow drowned cannot be determined. Perhaps she tried to cross the river; more probably the water reached her while she slept, and the frightened animal cramped up in the water. She must have bellowed for help, but help had not come. She had a calf, but the narrator cannot tell if it survived. Tacha’s father intended the cow to play a key role in his daughter’s life; it was to be her dowry. While she was growing up, she could rely on the cow to attract a good husband who would always love her. Without a cow, finding a good man will be difficult.
Tacha’s father is upset because the cow was intended to save her from the fate of her two older sisters. The sisters were reared to be God-fearing, obedient, and respectful, but they went astray. Their mother, who cries and prays for them, has racked her memory in vain trying to understand what misled them. Their father thinks they went bad because they were wild by nature and were poor. While adolescents, they started meeting men at the river at all hours of the night—and day. The men taught them bad things. The narrator saw his sisters rolling naked on the ground, each with a man on top of her. When their father could no longer tolerate his daughters’ behavior, he ran them off, and they went to a nearby town to be prostitutes.
Now it appears that the same fate awaits Tacha, unless the calf is found. Any day now her pubescent breasts will attract a man. She stands on the ravine in her pink dress beside the narrator and cries. The water streaming from her eyes is dirty, as if the river has gotten inside her. The noise from her mouth sounds like the river. The rising river splashes its stinking water on her face. As she cries, her little breasts ceaselessly bounce up and down, as if they are suddenly beginning to swell, and she has started on the road to ruin. Whether the calf, now her only hope, will be found is unknown.