“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Unokaimou and First Visit to the Shamatari: He Borara Chapter 12

Yanomamo names           Lac hasn’t thought much about the Yąnomamö’s tonsures lately, but now he’s wondering if their customary size varies among the villages. The Shamatari to the south of Bisaasi-teri have smaller ones, maybe three inches in diameter. The Bisaasi-teri and Monou-teri bald spots are almost twice that big. He looks at the top of the wounded Monou-teri man’s head, at the layered scar tissue from his life of club fighting, the creases highlighted with fading nara. Lac has seen the warriors wrapping a reed around their fingers and scraping the sharp edge over their scalps to remove the invariably thick black hair from the cap of their skulls. He tested the blade of one of these reeds himself. It was no straight razor, but it would do the trick—as tricky as navigating the landscape of lumpy scars must be.

            It’s not enough to be willing to fight, he thinks as he stares at the grotesque coils of mended and re-mended flesh; you must broadcast your willingness. Every man, and every village, occupies a position in a hierarchy of fierceness, a ranking based on how waiteri they are, how aggressively they defend their honor. Lac closes his eyes and sees the man they left on the bluff, his legs shaking, his brains spilling out onto the jungle floor, in almost the exact spot where the same man had recently been pressing Lac’s face into the dirt. He opens his eyes and there’s the top of the Monou-teri man’s head again, aboil with rolling folds of ruined flesh. The man survived all those club strikes only to be shot in the chest with a six-foot-long arrow, just above his heart, boring a tunnel straight through and out the back. His brothers and nephews keep asking Lac to heal him. Lac, they’ve come to believe, is good at treating wounds. How can he explain to them that coughing up blood means a damaged lung, or a damaged something else? Stitches are well and good, but you can’t go shooting holes through human bodies and expect to sew them up good as new.

Towahowä’s brother and another man, who Lac suspects may be another sibling, sleep some distance from the others, as does Rowahirawa. These are the members of the raiding party directly involved in killing a man from the enemy village. The two brothers hit the same Patanowä-teri man more or less simultaneously with their arrows. Lac presumes they’re going through, or at least preparing for, some ritual expiation or purification. If Rowahirawa wasn’t so inconveniently absent now, he could ask him. He might ask him too if he should participate in the ritual himself, seeing as how he played an active role in the fighting, far more active than he had any rightful business playing.

It’s late in the afternoon. They’ve been jogging or running all day, not, Lac is happy to note, along the same route that brought them to Patanowä-teri. Still, everyone is on edge, constantly alert, bordering on paranoid. What a way to live. He’s in pain. His ears ring and his head buzzes and throbs, not in the area where the ax struck, but across the crown and at the temples. Maybe that’s why the scars atop the wounded man’s head, almost as much as the newly opened tunnel from his chest to his back, are bothering me so much now, he thinks. His feet and ankles are festooned with a barbed wire tangle of lacerating pinches, enclosing a minefield of more diffuse aches. But the sad state of his body and the necessity of continued haste fail to interest him much.

A rattling apathy suffuses his thoughts and dampens his sensations. His pain feels distant, like the pain of a close friend—cause for urgency but not so consuming as to render him immobile. The men have rigged a stretcher for their wounded companion from two poles and a netting of vines. Without the burden borne by the men taking turns, one at each end of the poles, Lac would in all likelihood have much more of a struggle keeping up with the retreating warriors. But however much easier the slowed pace is making the journey for him, it’s also making it that much easier for their Patanowä-teri pursuers to catch up.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say Lac doesn’t care; he knows he needs to make it back to Bisaasi-teri, back to relative safety, if only for his family’s sake. But he has an abiding sense that whatever befalls him in the coming hours and days, he deserves far worse. When he was waiting on top of that bluff, he was sure that when the killing was finally accomplished it would signal the end of the prolonged punishment of his purgatorial suspense, but now the sense of every minute weighing down on him is even more oppressive. The passing time teems with dangers and indictments, his guilt dulling but in nowise canceling out his fears. He’s swimming in an ocean of self-loathing, doing his best to avoid being carried off by the many cross-currents of horror.

And every time he closes his eyes…. which means sleep is a tricky proposition.

It’s three nights now since the raid, and the darkly overcast skies have loosened their hold on the dankness they’ve slurped up throughout the day, releasing it back to the earth in gale-driven cascades. The Yąnomamö foresaw the shift in weather and set up their bivouac of yanos in two separate clusters—so they wouldn’t both be set upon simultaneously. Lac, with a little help from the boy, built one of the tiny lean-tos for himself. Now he’s thinking that may have been a bad idea, because for the first time since arriving in the territory he’d rather be sleeping in company. Rowahirawa has shunned him, or simply isolated himself—the effect is the same.

Lac occupies himself by picking hallucinated silhouettes of Patanowä-teri warriors out of the dark beaded curtain of the rain, all the while turning over in his mind a single question, one that leaves no room for other thoughts. When will I get back to caring about any of the things I’m supposed to be doing or learning about out here? I mean, what’s the point, when I’m obviously no scientist? No scientist would have done what I did on that bluff. Hell, by my own culture’s standards, I’m complicit in a crime—at least one.

Lac has no idea what happened to the man he shoulder-blasted over the cliff. He could have been killed by the raiders on the trail below, or he could have escaped. He may even have been killed in the fall, which would make Lac guilty of straight-up murder. Is there some exemption he’s supposed to enjoy, some special moral framework he behaved within, a category in which the severity of his transgression would somehow be mitigated? Was the deed carried out, for instance, under the sanction of war?

No, he thinks, there’s no way of reckoning my role among the Yąnomamö that excuses any act of war of on my part. And my work? I’ve interfered too much with the culture I’m studying to sustain any pretense of objectivity. Besides, I haven’t even come up with a reliable way to solicit the names I need for my genealogies, despite all the formality and pomp I’ve superimposed on my so-called methods.

Lac supposes he could write a book on what he’s experienced so far, about the shabori with their dangling strings of green snot dancing and chanting every afternoon, about the visitor’s poses, the warrior lineups, the feasting and trading, the consumption of human ashes, the abuse of women and dogs, the raids—one of which, oh by the way, he participated in. It makes for one hell of an adventure story, he thinks, but that’s the last thing these people need, a bunch of copycat adventurers striking out to do some sorry excuse for an anthropologist one better. I mean, if you thought the missionaries were bad… and are the missionaries really so bad? When you subtract your prejudices against superstition and cockamamie theology, you have to admit the Yąnomamö—especially the women—would benefit from adopting some Christian ways, or some of the ways of our post-Enlightenment Western society that are ascribed to our Christian heritage anyway.

No, no, no. Lac throws himself back into the hammock strung between the two thin poles of his yano, covering his face with his hands. It’s only been three days since it happened, he tells himself, and the mind has a way of making the one bad thing that’s right in front of your face seem like the only true barometer on the nature of your entire existence. You feel terrible now, as well you should, but what happened back there is one thing in a multitude, one thread in a massive tapestry, one tile in an ever-expanding mosaic. Or whatever. The point is you’ll feel different, better, in a few days, or a few weeks. But that’s only if you can make it back to your hut outside Bisaasi-teri without getting killed by vengeful Patanowä-teri. Or by snakes, which seems just as likely with all this rain. That’s what you need to concentrate on now. The feeling for your work will come back to you.

He groans, rolls on his side and stares into the rain, avoiding the sight of the wounded Monou-teri man’s tonsure, that window onto his history of violence, that preview of his truncated future.
*****

            The two men he most wants to see are hidden away. Rowahirawa is undergoing the unokaimou, a ceremonial purification that has him blocked off from the village behind a curtain of giant palm leaves. He and Towahowä’s brothers, both of whom share responsibility for killing the same Patanowä-teri man, have to remain isolated. They have food brought to them every day, food they must not touch with their tainted hands. So they use sticks to lift food to their mouths. They also use the sticks, Lac has been told, to scratch themselves, because touching their own bodies is thought to spread the impurity, though Lac isn’t sure if he should credit this factoid, considering the Yąnomamö’s penchant for joking about stuff like this.

Normally, Rowahirawa would be the one to describe the ceremony to him, but as he’s currently busy undergoing the ceremony in question, Lac must wait for the answers he seeks. The unokaimou, he notes, bears a striking resemblance to the ceremony girls go through for menarche. They even use the tiny sticks they often have poking through the flesh between their lips and their chins—like an array of whiskers—as eating utensils. So maybe it’s true about the men not being permitted to scratch themselves. Maybe it’s not killing that brings on a taint but the spilling of blood. This is the kind of thing anthropologists use as a launchpad for grand overarching theories, a tendency among his mentors and colleagues that both excites and annoys him in equal measure, as he thrills to the notion of discovering some key that unlocks the mystery of human culture, but at the same time feels it betrays the scientific principle of parsimony—the heuristic that says the simplest theory that sufficiently explains the observed phenomenon should be treated as the leading contender.

But the anthropologists can’t help themselves; they’re supposed to start small and work their way up, showing the most disciplined adherence to the evidence, but they instead erect these towering edifices from the top-down, massive structures with beautifully elaborate architecture, all but completely lacking any foundation. That’s how he’s come to think of Levi-Strauss, whose approach to genealogy he’s currently implementing—or trying to anyway.

It’s going on six months and he’s still struggling for every new entry to his charts.

The other man he’d like to debrief is Bahikoawa, who returned only the day before the larger group of raiders Lac was accompanying. In an unthinkable reversal, Bahikoawa arrived carrying his brother instead of the other way around. His brother had been bitten by a snake before they’d made any significant progress on their way back home to Bisaasi-teri. The venom rendered him immobile the moment it was injected, which meant both brothers had an even greater ordeal ahead of them than they’d anticipated.

But, in a more auspicious reversal, on their third day of practically crawling through the jungle, Bahikoawa found a canoe hidden on the bank of the Orinoco. Someone had taken great care in concealing the craft, but Bahikoawa happened upon it as he was searching for materials to build a raft of his own. It was a stroke of luck that may have saved both their lives. Now they’re both hammock-ridden, only emerging from their yahis to void their bowels or be chanted over by the other shabori. Bahikoawa, Lac hears it said, must have incredibly powerful hekura serving him, so impossible was the feat of dragging his brother through the forest for three days in his afflicted condition. So, even though he technically abandoned the mission, his renown continues to grow, as does that of Towahowä’s brother.

Both men’s renown is contingent, however: Bahikoawa’s on his successful convalescence, and Towahowä’s brother’s on the convalescence of the man who had a hole shot through him above his heart. If the Monou-teri man dies, the death of the Patanowä-teri man is rendered void, and the raid will be considered a failure. Rowahirawa is a sioha from Karohi-teri, not related to any of the browähäwä of Monou-teri, so he can’t restore the balance with his kill. Whatever us outsiders do, Lac thinks, is immaterial, even when we do something as horrible as killing a man—or two.
            
Lac tries to imagine the fate of the man he knocked over the ridge. If he survived, he would certainly tell everyone in Patanowä-teri what happened, meaning Lac could never visit that village as a neutral observer. He’d be forever tied to Bisaasi-teri, which seriously limits the scope of his research, such as it is. Or maybe not. Maybe he went over the cliff before getting a good look at his attacker. Lac sits swaying in the hammock next to Rowahirawa’s, searching within himself for the drive to continue his work, coming up dry. Maybe I should pack my dugout and head downriver to Ocamo, ask Padre Morello to get me on a flight out of La Esmeralda. The jig is up anyway. Whatever happens when we get back to the States, one thing will be clear: I’m no anthropologist—no scientist.

Lac hasn’t been in contact with the padre since he motored upriver that day to make his awkward request, hinting that Lac may want to repay all the kindness he’d been shown by pilfering the Yąnomamö dictionary Clemens has supposedly been working on—if it’s true Chuck has such a dictionary, Lac thinks, that would have definitely come in handy a few months ago. But, no, there must have been a miscommunication. The padre must have simply been asking for some kind of general help, not encouraging me to resort to any specific underhanded measures. And who am I to judge anyone for his possibly unethical field tactics? I just interfered in a deadly conflict between two villages.

And got a man killed. At least one.

Lac plants his feet and steps out of the hammock next to the empty one where Rowahirawa usually sits and sleeps. If Clemens is back soon, as Padre Morello suggested he would be, then maybe Lac can arrange for transportation out of the region through the New Tribes Mission headquarters at Tama Tama. Or, hell, he could just head for Puerto Ayacucho himself and figure out a way to get to Caracas from there. He could go back to Michigan and get work at Connor’s factory. Tens of thousands of men all over the country do that kind of work. If it’s good enough for them, why hasn’t it ever been good enough for you?

He’s only taken a few steps through the plaza before the children spot him and start crowding around him, pestering him for details about the raid on Patanowä-teri. Lac forces a smile and says, “I’ll give you some stories about the raid if you tell me the name of that man there.” He points out someone at random. One of the older boys responds as if he’s been challenged to a game. A smile slowly spreads across his face, a smile brimming with mischief and self-satisfaction. He reaches for Lac’s arm, pulls him down to cup his hand over Lac’s ear, and whispers the name.

Lac, stunned, pulls back and stares at the boy. He reaches for his back pocket to pull out his notebook, but for the first time since arriving in Bisaasi-teri he’s not carrying it there. He asks the boy to repeat the name and this time he whispers it without pulling Lac down or cupping his mouth with his hand, loud enough for several of the closest kids to hear. They find it delightfully amusing, giggling with an odd form of restraint Lac is at a loss to interpret. He looks over at the man, wondering if he’s a sioha, an outsider, but he’s not. As far as Lac can tell, he’s somewhat prominent, descending from one of the main lineages in Bisaasi-teri. He asks for the name of another man, the boy gives it, and the other children laugh their restrained laughs.

What the hell is happening here? Lac thinks maybe now that he’s gone on a raid with the village men his status has been altered; maybe now the rules of saying other people’s names aloud have subtly changed. The egg on the side of his head suggests otherwise, but Lac decides there’s nothing to lose at this point from testing the old boundaries anew.

That’s how it starts. By afternoon, as several of the men are dressing up and preparing to dose each other with ebene, Lac is reimplementing a version of his methods for genealogical interviews similar to those he did before moving them indoors, where they could be done in private. Now, he’s working back out in the open. A crowd sits, squats, and stands half inside the yahi, half in the plaza. Lac points out a villager whose name he needs and then he leans down so his now adult informant can whisper the name in his ear. What’s different this time, though, is that one of young men standing close by keeps asking Lac to whisper the name he’s just recorded to him. This boy then turns to whisper it to several others, who whisper it to still more others, until the name spreads around the crowd like a ripple rolling over the surface of a pond. Upon hearing the name, everyone smiles and chuckles—some of the younger children burst out laughing—while the individual whose name is making the rounds clenches his jaw and pouts.

It’s instant corroboration. The guy whose name is being spoken wouldn’t be so upset if it wasn’t his real name. Lac has finally found a way to collect dozens of names at a time without having to worry that a good portion of them are entirely made up. And it’s probably only possible now because the villagers have developed a modicum of respect for him. Lac still isn’t sure he’ll be able to complete his genealogical work like this, but there’s no denying it’s an important advance. He decides to stay and keep at it, at least until Rowahirawa completes the unokaimou, and maybe until Bahikoawa recovers—if Bahikoawa recovers.
*****

“Shaki, come with us,” a man implores. It’s morning. Lac has just stepped into the shabono when the man approaches him and grabs his arm. They bring him to the wounded Monou-teri man, whose lips are peeling back from his teeth in a pre-skeletal way, his breaths coming in pathetic rasps. Lac steps closer to the hammock wondering if this is what it looks like to slowly bleed to death. It looks like the Monou-teri will soon have to start planning another raid on Patanowä-teri, as this man’s death cancels out whatever score-settling they accomplished on the last one, meaning Towahowä’s death remains unavenged. Of course, for the Patanowä-teri the killing of Towahowä was retaliation for the man shot out of the tree while he was collecting palm fruits, so the score should already be even. Each side’s reckoning of this score they’re both so eager to settle hits a temporal block as soon as they’ve gone far enough back to find an excuse for deeming the other as deserving of another attack.

Whether this man lives or dies, it probably won’t matter. The raiding will go on.

“Heal him,” the man’s son says, making Lac wish for the millionth time since arriving to live among these people that he was a doctor—a real doctor—instead of a feckless observer, scientific or otherwise. The dying man turns to look at him with bulging, red-rimmed eyes bespeaking the constant pain he’s been in for past five days, eyes that look artificial, not composed of anything as smooth and clear as glass, but not human: fake leathery orbs hastily crammed into their sockets after the living ones had dried up and fallen to the ground like weathered prunes.

Seeing Lac, he mutters something. Lac leans down to put his ear closer to the man’s lips. “Water, I need water.” He’s repeating it over and over again, like the prayer he doesn’t have.

Lac turns to the man’s son—he thinks it’s his son—and asks, “Why is he being made to go thirsty?”  As he listens to the young man explain the type of arrow tip that made the wound, a rahaka, calls for a healing ceremony that involves the avoidance of water, Lac unsubtly rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “This healing ceremony,” Lac interrupts him to say, “is probably what’s killing him.”

The wound itself looks horrific, but the shredded flesh, while cracking into chapped scales at the innermost edges, maintains its shades of red and pink. So far it hasn’t gone septic, which is a miracle. A drink of water now and again over the next few days might save his life. But Lac, despite his reputation for being good at healing nasty wounds, fails to persuade the young men petitioning him for his help of how silly their water taboo is. He makes a decision. He’s going to violate one of his own taboos by interfering in Yąnomamö lives. It’s not like he’s working from a clean slate with regard to this particular transgression anyway. He walks outside the shabono and goes to his hut. His legs still revolt against movement, but he barely remembers what it feels like to have muscles that aren’t exquisitely alive with multifarious aches.

Inside his hut, he rummages through his plastic totes until he finds a packet of instant lemonade and a bottle of aspirin. When he returns to the yahi where the Monou-teri man is wasting away, he fills a cup with the sugary yellow powder and then pores water into it from the family’s pot. When the man’s sons or nephews or younger brothers gather around him, Lac uncaps the aspirin bottle, taps three pills onto his palm, and then slides them onto a flat potsherd. Using the handle of a fishing knife as a pestle, he crushes the pills and grinds them into powder, extolling all the while the magnificent power of this “mönasönö”—their version of the Spanish word medicina—he’s busy preparing, and explaining that the wounded man will need three or four doses like this every day until he’s recovered.

You can do anything you want here, he thinks rising carefully to his feet with the brimming cup, feeling the stabs of his recent journey in his thighs, as long as you do it dramatically.

He scrapes the powder into the liquid, gives it a stir, and extends the cup out over the delirious man’s lips, cradling his head so he can reach the rim. The man slurps greedily, gulping the entire mix down and opening his already improving eyes. What passes between them is nothing so stark as a wink and a knowing smile, but after locking eyes briefly Lac steps away with a pronounced sense that the man knows exactly what he’s just done for him. Knowing the Yąnomamö well enough to trick them, and seeing that at least one of them can wordlessly express his gratitude—something they never do with words—returns something of his lost sense of grounding and purpose, diminishing his feeling of bottomless ineptitude.

He gives the likely son instructions on how to prepare the concoction and then goes to the yahi owned by Rowahirawa’s father-in-law, who still hasn’t offered Rowahirawa his youngest daughter as a second bride. A group of kids follows him and he removes the notebook and pen from his back pocket to play his public name-collection game again. Since last playing, he’s attempted to line up the new names he’s obtained with ones he gathered using the old technique. Most, by no means all, of the names check out. He’s actually getting somewhere. So he proceeds by the same method: have the informant whisper the name in his ear, share it with a member of the crowd, watch the ripple of amusement spread, check that the named individual fumes sufficiently while resisting the urge to violence—and who would he attack anyway?—and then start over with another name.

He seems to be progressing through the village more quickly this way, as he doesn’t have to wait while some old man interrupts his interviews to tell him his interminable tall tales. When he looks around, he can’t believe how much fun everyone is having. What is he doing that’s so different from before? Could going along on the raid with the men really have changed his status so drastically?

A realization brings the restoration of his spirits to a halt: Rowahirawa may have told everyone what Lac did on the bluff, told them about the warning cry and the lunging tackle. If the people here know, then it won’t be long before the people in surrounding villages know, and the Patanowä-teri will know impossibly soon thereafter—if they don’t already. But does Rowahirawa know the extent of what happened himself? He heard me call out obviously, Lac thinks, and he found me with a Patanowä-teri man holding me down, ready to smash my head—I don’t even know with what weapon. But he may not know about the man I pushed over the cliff.

Since there’s nothing he can do until Rowahirawa is around to talk to, he presses it from his mind, wondering if his concerns really hinge on practical matters, like whether he’ll be able to visit Bisaasi-teri’s rivals safely, or if it’s just straight-up guilt and him not wanting anyone to know what he’s done. He concentrates on his work—one foot in front of the other, one name in the ledger and then the next.

The names are all difficult to sound out from the murmurs, difficult to transcribe, remaining ambiguous in their ostensibly official written form. When he speaks them aloud, will anyone recognize them? I can go through most of the list again, he thinks, in a few days. Then maybe I’ll try yet another method and see how consistent each name remains. I’ll be able to hand over copies of the charts to Dr. Nelson when he arrives next year, and he’ll be able to use them for his genetics research, matching them to the blood samples he and his team collect—though how he’ll get them to agree to being poked with needles is another methodological issue that will need to be addressed.

Lac, sharing the villagers’ amusement with the poor guys whose names are being passed around, searches himself again for the feeling he once had for his work. Once again, he comes up dry. Yet he persists with the name-sharing game because he committed to doing this work beforehand. Recalling his agreement with Dr. Nelson provides a helpful nudge. Plus, he doesn’t know what else he would do in place of anthropology at this point; nothing sounds worse to him than the prospect of returning to Michigan and having no choice but to work for his brother.

He’s dreamily going through his list with his current young informant, his mind traveling to Connor’s factory and comparing its interior to the gnat-infested swap he’s working in now, when two young men approach. “Shaki, we are going Mömariböwei-teri to visit our brothers. You told us you too would like to visit the Shamatari. We’ll take you along if you give us each a machete.”

“Awei, Shori, when are you leaving?”

“We’re leaving now, Shaki. Grab your hammock.”
*****

Now he’s back to walking, random needles of pain pricking into the balls and arches of his feet, the heel press of each footfall reminding him of the circuit of throbbing aches along the backs of his legs, above his knees, up to his lower back. Still, it feels good to be moving, not beset by fear this time, not desperate to cover ground, not as worried about snakes since this trail is part of an elevated region, just moving leisurely but purposefully over the landscape. Sweating through yesterday’s crust of sweat is like shedding his skin, stepping from one mode of mental and physical existence to another, waking to a new day.

The men play a game where they insist he lead the way along the trail, saying, “Kahä wa baröwo!” You lead, we’ll follow. He steps out in front, becomes lost in thought, and becomes lost with relation to the trail. After a minute or two, they’re doubled over with laughter at their helpless nabä friend. “Shaki, how do you even survive?” Lac smiles like the good sport he is. The answer is I wouldn’t for long, he thinks, if it weren’t for you guys tolerating my presence—for the price of a machete apiece. He wonders how many times he would have to make the journey before being able to find the way on his own. Then he wonders if there’s any chance in hell he’ll travel between the villages that many times.

He’ll do a census of Mömariböwei-teri as best he can while he’s there. It’s time to find out how well his methods travel. And from there he’ll go to the next Shamatari village. What he really wants is the history of occupation for all the villages in the region, the history of all their formations and fissionings, an accounting of the factors determining village size and degree of hostility toward neighbors.

“What’s the biggest village you guys have ever seen?” he asks his guides. One of them says Patanowä-teri and Lac, with a mild shudder, agrees that village is truly immense. The other cites Rowahirawa’s legendary village Mishimishimaböwei-teri, saying that this place is even larger than Patanowä-teri, its headman far more waiteri. Lac thinks this makes sense in the context of a society’s evolution. The role of the leader becomes more pronounced, the leaders themselves more despotic—or needing to be more despotic in the first place—before the villages can grow beyond a certain population density. This is the place he must see. And traveling to the Shamatari village closest to Bisaasi-teri is a good first step.

Are you getting your feeling back for the work? he poses to himself. Maybe, maybe. He still feels wildly out of place, in the midst of chaos swirling faster as he puts more effort into calming it down, irredeemably inept, his struggles comically futile. But he is excited to meet the people of Mömariböwei-teri. The people there have had sporadic interactions with Salesians and the Malarialogìa, and they’ll probably be using countless metal tools Lac himself has brought to the region. But they’ve had no sustained contact with missionaries like the people of Bisaasi-teri have. Will they use the word “almost” like the Yąnomamö he’s familiar with? Mostly, though, Lac is excited to meet a group of people who’ve never seen him before, a group he can start out with fresh. His relations with the people of Bisaasi-teri have gotten so fraught, the roles and feelings associated with them so tangled. He no longer knows who he is in relation to them. But with the people of Mömariböwei-teri, he can begin anew, be whoever he decides he needs to be, perhaps discover something of who he truly is.

When he arrived in Bisaasi-teri for the first time, he was a baby. He had no idea how to get by, where to assert himself, how to suss out the comedy from the seemingly literal statements. Remembering his early attempts at crossing those damned X-frame bridges, his ears burn as though he were still shimmying across amid the attendant peals of laughter. It took him all of a few days to get lost in the woods for the first time. And it’s amazing he made it through that first month with any of his belongings still in the hut, what with all the insistent begging, theft, duplicitousness, and bullying.

Ha, I actually prefer Rowahirawa’s honest bullying to the fake friendship, he thinks—which is why Rowahirawa has more of my madohe than any of the others today.

Lac is at once glad and disappointed Rowahirawa isn’t here with them: glad because he’s a direct conduit to Lac’s recent history, with all its shameful buffoonery and mortifying incompetence, not to mention the fact that Lac played a problematic role in the raid on Patanowä-teri; disappointed because, god damn it, he can’t help liking the guy. He’s pushy, for sure, has a mischievous streak that can get downright mean, and would probably kill Lac without much hesitation if he concluded it was to his advantage. But he’s also funny as hell, makes travel time pass faster, and even, bizarrely, makes Lac feel safer, like he’s got at least one person looking out for him—never mind that it’s because he wants to maintain access to his stream of trade goods.

Though come to think of it, how many manufactured goods can one Yąnomamö use? They trade them for other goods of course, but accumulating wealth isn’t among their main preoccupations by any means. And come to think of it, Rowahirawa has been asking far less of him by way of handing over steel tools, even as his sense of their budding friendship has deepened. Maybe the early attempts at friendship were bound to fail. But eventually he had to befriend someone—or someone had to befriend him. We’re all human after all. Lac just never would have guessed it would be the asshole who gave him the most trouble from the outset.

The men are letting him take the lead again, playing their joke. He obliges, figuring there’s no point in denying them their fun. He concentrates this time, channeling his thoughts toward the myriad clues he should be on the lookout for. He makes it a full ten minutes this time before hearing the laughter bubbling up behind him. His suspicion is that a large part of their facility at locating the trails comes from simple familiarity with them, not some uncanny perceptual feat. Still, it’s impressive.

Lac turns his mind back to the people he’s about to meet. After the dancing entrance procession and the visitor’s pose, he’ll be brought to the headman’s yahi where, after reclining impassive for some time in a hammock and then being treated to a gourd of plantain soup, he’ll present the headman himself with a gift of madohe, an expression of gratitude for not killing him and an advance payment on the time he’ll demand of the villagers as he peppers them with questions. This is in keeping with the protocol Clemens set for him when he first brought Lac to Bisaasi-teri.

The prospect of taking up the visitor’s pose and having all those Yąnomamö men he’s never met threaten and lunge at him gives him a twinge of apprehension. Maybe the people of Mömariböwei-teri have already heard enough about him to have decided he should die. The pose is like this insane demonstration of trust, but there are so many stories of Yąnomamö taking advantage of each other after they’ve let their guards down it seems a strikingly foolish thing to do. But I guess that’s why it’s a test, he thinks; if you were sure of the outcome, the gesture would be meaningless. And afterward? How will he address the headman? What questions will he ask him first? What will he talk about?

Lac thinks back to his first trip to Karohi-teri, Rowahirawa’s home village. Everyone pinched and poked and grabbed at him—god, if I could avoid even half of that nonsense this time around—but the headman kept his distance the whole time, playing it cool. When they did eventually converse, with a lot of help translating from Rowahirawa, it was about future visits, an ongoing trade relationship—madohe for lessons on how to be human—and how certain people, relatives and high-status notables, were faring in the allied village he’d come from. Not so much from the headman himself but from the people of Karohi-teri generally, he remembers noting, there was an odd openness when it came to using names, at least the names of people from Bisaasi-teri.

It makes sense, of course; you don’t have to worry about the person you name feeling disrespected and becoming enraged. Lac entertained the idea of making an intervillage cross-check of his genealogical charts part of his routine method. Maybe when he reaches Mömariböwei-teri, he can exploit a similar laxity in the enforcement of the name taboo. Even better, he can tell a story, a joke, about Bahikoawa and Nakaweshimi. That will show the headman that Lac isn’t just any nabä, clueless, imbecilic, and subhuman, ripe for robbing, ideal for bullying in pursuit of miniscule status boosts, or abusing for the fun of it. It’ll work the same way name-dropping works back in the States. Under the guise of telling an amusing story, you let on that you rub elbows with important people, people of stature, and some of that prestige brushes off on you.

Then maybe he’ll be able to leverage the progress he’s made with one village to get a head start with the other. There’s some risk of course, anytime you speak names out in the open. The Mömariböwei-teri headman may take Lac’s insufficiently reverential attitude toward Bahikoawa’s name as an indicator of how cavalierly he’ll treat his own—but the Yąnomamö don’t think like that. It’s always what’s right in front of them that’s foremost on their minds. The headman will find the joke funny. It’s so well attuned to the Yąnomamö sense of humor, as he understands it. Lac warms to the idea and imagines all the doors his deftness at navigating the social rules he’s been immersed in these past five months will open. But first he’ll have to make it through the excessively thorough physical examinations the villagers will undoubtedly subject him to.

The Yąnomamö cover so much ground without ever seeming to be in a rush, Lac wonders what their trick is. They stop often to rest, veer off-course to pursue monkeys—or honey, they can’t resist honey—and they walk as though they had nowhere they needed to be, in a way that recalls to him his own late childhood and early adolescence, when he went on all those dream-haunted walks with Josephine. With so many siblings, he seldom felt lonely and was never overly eager to seek out kids his own age to play with. I guess you could say I was aloof, he thinks, but it had nothing to do with any dearth of feeling for my fellow young people. It had everything to do with longing for the freedom to explore my own mind, my own fantasy worlds, at leisure, without having to induct anyone else into them who might not fully appreciate their splendors.

As he watches his jungle guides now, figuring they’re in their late teens, as they mosey along the trail to Mömariböwei-teri, where one of them, a sioha, is from and where the others have several relatives they want to visit, Lac tries to guess at the layout of their own private thoughtscapes. He was perfectly at ease in his youth assuming he was alone among his siblings in having as rich an inner life as he did, a richness he attributed to unique qualities in himself and to all the reading he did about grand explorations. But what do Yąnomamö daydreams consist of? Does communing with hekura occupy a central space in their individual fantasy lives? What else might there be, and how the hell would one even begin to inquire after it? They have stories, myths, and legends galore, Lac knows, but how does the individual Yąnomamö mind actuate them in the private theater of consciousness? What role does he imagine playing in them? Or what role do they play in him?

He knows it can’t be true, but it seems as though the Yąnomamö all live their lives completely on the surface, like the most gregarious and charismatic extraverts he knows back home: like Connor, unlike Bess. And maybe an inner life is something you have to take the time to cultivate, by reading, by fantasizing, through time spent alone. The Yąnomamö are never alone. Even when they’re sleeping, they’re surrounded by family members and in-laws. That’s in fact been the hardest thing for Lac to adapt to. This society hasn’t gotten around to inventing privacy yet. That’s maybe the aspect of the culture he finds most maddening. He’s forever tempted to flee the constant commotion of the shabono and its central plaza to lock himself away behind the reinforced door of his hut. They’d come get him though, the kids in particular. And Rowahirawa. 

As he was preparing for the journey this morning, and more during the first leg, Lac spent a lot of time with the two boys guiding him, and a couple of the four others in the caravan, collecting the names of everyone they could remember in Mömariböwei-teri. They gave him next to no resistance, revealing over a hundred names to him, from four main lineages. All that’s left for him to do is photograph everyone—one Polaroid for here, one 35-millimeter for the files back home—and guess at their ages, since Lac still can’t work out a viable way to categorize people beyond the Yąnomamö’s own scheme: crawling, pubescent, old. There may be new babies as well, along with a couple the boys know about but whose genders remain unannounced. Having filled out the charts in record time, with nary a major inconsistency, Lac starts to envision a staged approach of moving through the villages, getting the genealogical data from one about the next before moving on. Like he discovered in Karohi-teri, people are less cagy when it comes to naming the occupants of other villages.

One the other hand, the smoothness of the chart-filling exercise may have been owing to the small number of informants. Once he gets to Mömariböwei-teri and starts cross-checking the names, he may have another mess on his hands, like he has with the names and family histories of people from Bisaasi-teri. As he’s working out his plans and puzzling over their practical challenges—has your feeling for it all returned, he asks himself, or are you going through the motions?—he goes back to the question of the Yąnomamö’s inner lives. The whole time his gaze keeps returning to one of the boys.

This kid has a look that’s simultaneously dreamy and alert. Of them all, he looks like he would have the most going on behind the veils separating mind from mind. He also looks like—someone. Lac stops. “Little brother, when was the first time you saw me?”

“Shaki, I saw you come in a motorized canoe with two Malarialogìa men speaking Spanish.”
            
“Where did you see this?”

“Many sleeps that way, downriver, where you met the bald nabä.”

This was his first Yąnomamö, the one who gave him his initial glimpse of the wild glint almost all of them have in their eye. This is the boy he saw his first day in the territory. How had he come to Bisaasi-teri, as a sioha from Mömariböwei-teri? Lac has to resist smacking himself on the forehead. How could I not have recognized him? How could I have forgotten the details of an encounter so deeply etched in my memory?

Well, a lot has happened.

The boy looks different without the tattered clothes disintegrating right before his eyes. Still, it bothers him that he could go so long without realizing who this was. It’s of a piece with his trouble coming up with ways to describe individual faces. When he thinks about it, he’s made far more progress filling in his charts with names than he has in learning the contours of their faces. He has to brace himself against a wave of self-doubt that rises in the wake of this discovery—or rediscovery—by reminding himself there are a few Yąnomamö he’d recognize if you dressed them in suit and tie to slip casually past him on some sidewalk in Caracas.

The trip to Mömariböwei-teri, if the Yąnomamö’s sun-pointing estimates are on point, is about an eight-hour walk to the south. As they walk, Lac thinks about the other villages he’s visited and all the rough—albeit ultimately harmless—handling he was subjected to upon arriving. With the cameras and the food—sardines, peanut butter, crackers—and the extra machete in his pack, it’s easy for him to forget the shotgun he has strapped across his shoulders. He only thinks about it as he marvels at the fleet-footedness of his fellow travelers, noting that its poorly balanced weight slows him down. It’ll come in handy though if they catch sight of any monkeys. But it also poses a dilemma: what do you do with it when you first enter a new village?

Lac doesn’t worry as much anymore that he’ll mistake a mock lunge for a real attack, but there’s still all that manhandling he can count on. With people grabbing and squeezing things with such abandon... But if he leaves it outside, as he has been doing, well... Even if the Yąnomamö don’t know how to load and fire it, that’s not necessarily going to stop them from making off with it. And he could put it in a spot where he’s sure no one will find it, only to realize later he left it next to one of their main trails for fetching water or carting firewood.

This trip is somewhat different, though. He’s already met many people from Mömariböwei-teri during their visits to Bisaasi-teri. The two villages have a close trading alliance; people go back and forth all the time. He’s also traveling with just six men this time, a tiny contingent of teenage boys outfitted with little more than hammocks and machetes. It wouldn’t surprise Lac if they even forewent the standard entrance ceremony. Amid all these concerns, though, all his steeling himself against the anticipated abuse, against being treated as less than human, there’s still a part of him that thrills to the prospect of entering a village few if any white men have visited. He knows what to expect by now, for the most part; he knows the names of nearly all the inhabitants. But he maintains the sense that as he moves farther beyond the current reach of the missionaries, he’s stepping back in time to an ever-closer approximation of mankind’s infancy, before agriculture and population spikes set the species off on a breakneck trajectory into the unknowable terrain of technological and political advancement—this artificial life of factories and office buildings and automobiles, where we all chase after currency and objects serving as stand-ins for status, this complex dreamworld of scientific and sociologic wonders, one game layered on top of another as we race to establish our worth by outshining our neighbors, except those of us who’d rather get lost in the jungle. Though even that escape is really just a move from one game into another.

All day, whenever he asks, “How much farther?” they respond with “A brahawä shoawä,” it’s still a long way off. But Lac senses they’re getting close. The boys’ conversation gains in intensity as they’re excitement peaks. When he asks this time, the boy whispers, “Awei, Shaki, we’re almost there.” And suddenly they’re all being perfectly silent, creeping through the forest as if stalking some unseen game animal. 

With his own excitement comes something troubling: the sound of an ax thwacking into wood overlain with that of a shovel thrust into a pile of gravel. It’s only an echo reverberating from his memory, surfing this latest surge of adrenaline, but it makes him wince and squeeze shut his eyes. An image is projected into his consciousness, the man lying on his side atop the bluff, spilling the contents of his skull onto the jungle floor. The sensation of the man’s limbs going instantly from rigid and inescapable to limp and lifeless is what next returns to him. He opens his eyes, panting, whatever added perspiration lost in the usual cascade of sweat. If the Yąnomamö would turn and look at him, they may conclude he’s terrified to enter Mömariböwei-teri, but they’re too focused on their own excitement to notice anything awry with him.

He may never know what happened to the man he pushed over the cliff, but he knows with the utmost certainty what happened to the one who held him down, the one who wanted to hack a groove into his skull. The sound of that man’s own skull being chopped into sounded so irrevocably and resoundingly clear just a moment ago—so real—that he fears he’ll be hearing further echoes as long as he lives. Will going through the unokaimou ritual cleanse Rowahirawa’s memory? Does he need it to as much as me?

Through disciplined effort, he forces his mind to take up thoughts about the more pressing matter of his imminent arrival in a minimally contacted Yąnomamö village. Helpfully, his new friend, the first Yąnomamö he ever laid eyes on, calls him back to the present. “Shaki,” he whispers in a hiss, “you’re filthy.  Your legs are covered in mud. Come with us to the stream and clean yourself up so you don’t embarrass us.” He’s grandstanding. Of course Lac will go to the stream with them. The boy wants to be seen bossing around the big hairy nabä. Let him have it, Lac thinks. Concentrate on what you need to do over the coming hours.

“Little brother, I’ve lived in Bisaasi-teri for a long time. I know what to do.”

As he says it, he walks into a mass of mosquitoes dangling head-high in the dank air over the stream. He puffs his lips to clear them from his mouth and flails his arms around his head. The boy laughs. The other young men laugh. Lac can’t help but smile himself, his goal for the day rapidly diminishing in its ambitiousness: from getting corroboration for over a hundred names to surviving with his dignity intact. And his sanity.

He leans down to unlace his boots. His companions splash and scrub at themselves, washing away the stains of their recent pasts.
*****

As they stand outside the shabono walls, the boys helping each other decorate their bodies, Lac flashes back to when Clemens first brought him to Bisaasi-teri, Clemens who will be returning any day to take up again in the hut adjoining Lac’s, if Padre Morello’s sources are to be credited. Mömariböwei-teri lacks a palisade, as Bisaasi-teri did back then, because the people here are not actively at war. But what the young men he’s accompanying decide to do—charge in through the entrance en masse, bursting into the plaza with only last-second whistles to announce their friendly standing and peaceful intentions—strikes Lac as emblematic of teenage boyishness at its most pointlessly reckless, no matter the society in which it finds expression. Having foregone their individual dancing entrances, they all run to the center of the plaza and take up the visitor’s pose together, forming a half-circle of haughtily erect warriors.

The villagers love it. Hoots and roars of excitement blast through the evening air as the men bolt up from their hammocks and subject their guests to the customary insincere threats and goads. Lac surprises himself by withstanding it with a measure of calm. He’s excited too, a little scared even, but he’s not second-guessing his decision to leave his gun outside, and he’s not feeling guilty about imperiling his life, a man with two young kids and a wife. He’s surprised as well by how many familiar faces he sees. As the visitors look out over the thatched roof with their vacant stares, most of the villagers who come out to playfully harass them have been to Bisaasi-teri over the past couple of months. Lac can’t yet match names to faces, but by the end of the day tomorrow that may no longer be the case.

He sees skittish kids scampering back to their mothers, older kids staring with their mouths agape, and men running into the courtyard to gawp. It’s different this time, though; so many of them have seen him before, meaning they’ve already satisfied their aggressively unselfconscious curiosity by poking and pinching his bizarre-looking skin, tugging at his copious arm and leg hair. They’re shocked to see him stampede into their shabono with these young men obviously, but it’s not like they’re only now learning of his existence.

The headman walks out to meet them with a pronounced swagger. Lac has to check his impulse to greet him by name. “Shori,” the headman says, simultaneously breeching etiquette and establishing for everyone where Lac will fit within their kinship system, “we’ve been hoping you would come. Did the people of Bisaasi-teri warn you that we may wish you harm?”

“Ma, Shori,” he says, though he’s sure he’s not supposed to speak. “The Bisaasi-teri are great allies to the Mömariböwei-teri.” The headman smirks cynically. In truth, some men, including Bahikoawa, have told him it would be best to steer clear of all the Shamatari villages, as those people are far more treacherous than the Yąnomamö Lac is used to dealing with. Lac had wondered briefly what this meant for his plans—Bisaasi-teri was only to be a staging ground for later expeditions into the interior—until it occurred to him these men simply wanted to keep all the madohe their resident nabä brings into the territory for themselves.

The headman has a remarkable look to him; his face appears fixed in an expression of surprise or eagerness. As he leads Lac to a hammock in his yahi, where he’ll take up the visitor’s repose until they bring him a calabash-full of plantain soup, he can’t help wondering how many men this pata has killed in working his way up to his current position. There are four major patrilineages in Mömariböwei-teri, twice as many as there are in Bisaasi-teri. Does that mean the competition for status is fiercer? Does this headman with the eager face possess some unique charisma, surpassing even Bahikoawa’s? So far, it doesn’t appear so.

As Lac climbs into the hammock, the braver children start showing up and surrounding him. They don’t ask him questions or molest him yet, because they’re waiting for the appropriate time. No, it’s not at all like the first time he entered other villages. Thank Christ, he thinks—or whoever. When the soup arrives—thickly sweet and chalky, apparently the same recipe—Lac does go in for some harsh contact, mostly from the kids. One man wants him to stand up so he can lift him and see how heavy he is. In turn, he wants Lac to lift him so he can estimate how strong the nabä is. Lac, despite the awkwardness, finds himself smiling. Another scientist, he thinks. The man asks him how he got so long—tall—and wonders aloud whether the process led to a lot of pain in his limbs and joints.

“Ha ha, ma, Shori, I just grew this way.”

Later, Lac goes outside the shabono to gather his pack and shotgun, which evokes a good deal of curiosity, but he decides against a demonstration this time, promising instead to go along with the men on a hunt sometime. He returns to the headman’s yahi and presents him with the machete. Then, with some help from his Bisaasi-teri friends, he explains the goals and methods of his ohodemou. The headman has heard about Lac’s work before. From his response, Lac gleans that he finds the idea of family histories appealing, as many Yąnomamö do—as most people anywhere do—but he’s nevertheless concerned about the potential for misunderstandings and flaring tempers.

To Lac’s delight, the headman steps into the now darkening plaza and begins a chanting speech, a kąwa amou, previewing what Lac will be asking all the villagers to do tomorrow morning. He asks them to stay home for the day and to be prepared to come out into the plaza to be photographed with their close kin. He then explains that Lac will be asking about their names, assuring everyone that he’ll be respectful and only address them in whispers. Lac looks across the courtyard, running his eyes along the shadowy, hearth-lit lean-tos, listening for grumbles or signs of protest. The village remains mostly silent, making him wonder if he should rethink his entire approach to the genealogies.

It’s taken him months to fill in his Bisaasi-teri charts. Sure, he’s going more deeply into the history of that village, asking after the names of long-deceased ancestors, but there are still names of living villagers he doesn’t have—or has half a dozen versions of. If he leaves Mömariböwei-teri after a few days’ work with everyone’s name and two photos, then he’ll know for sure how to proceed with other villages.

He checks his pack and positions it under the lower part of the eaves alongside a small cord of firewood, adding an extra barrier to anyone who may try to sneak into the yahi from outside. Then he checks his shotgun and leaves it leaning against a support post, not quite within reach, but accessible as soon as he stands up. When he finally lies down and closes his eyes, with a bevy of villagers still ogling him, he finds himself back on that bluff overlooking Patanowä-teri, and that’s where, in his dream, he spends the lion’s share of his first night in this other strange new village.
*****

In the morning, despite his apathy and grumpiness, he meets with such success filling in his charts that he forgets his earlier frustrations and is able to let the tasks before him interrupt the guilt arising from his ethical breeches, almost. He proceeds by moving from the headman’s family, who sets the example, to the nearest yahis, where the pata’s closest relatives reside, and so on along the kinship gradient. Each family gathers along the edge of the plaza in front of one of their yahis, and Lac gets both group and individual pictures as he takes down names from his clutch of local informants—checking them against those he got from the sioha and the Bisaasi-teri visitors. It goes smoothly all morning and into the afternoon. Sure, he endures a lot of badgering and begging—but the villagers don’t chase him or throw rocks at him for pointing the cameras at them. No one threatens his life for inquiring after the names of his family members.

The people here, he thinks, are on their best behavior because they’re hoping to lure me away from Bisaasi-teri; they’d just as soon have me bring my madohe directly to them.

In the heat of the afternoon, he stops working and sits surrounded by villagers passing around his stacks of Polaroids, smearing them with green tobacco and red nara. The villagers smile and laugh and tease each other, insulting people from other villages, and reminiscing about past meetings and conflicts. There’s a type of harmful magic, oka, that the Bisaasi-teri accuse their southern neighbors of employing; the Mömariböwei-teri cry nonsense—it’s the Bisaasi-teri who use oka against their rivals. But that’s not a serious enough offense to disqualify them from feasts and trading.

Lac gets so absorbed in the gossip and activity that he barely notices the powerful body odors or the myriad signs of abysmal hygiene. It’s a family gathering of sorts; they’re enjoying themselves, sharing stories of close acquaintances and distant relatives. As evening approaches, Lac opens his pack and peels open a can of sardines, sharing some with the children gathered around him. The men, now that it’s cooling off, don their finest regalia and go out into the courtyard to shoot ebene into each other’s noses and call to their hekura. Lac listens for nuances in their chants and tries, only somewhat successfully, to note the identities of the hybrid supernatural beings they conjure through their impersonations.

Later, as the women return from their late-afternoon trips into the forest to gather their ridiculously large loads of firewood—mostly without axes—Lac does his best to block out the noise and chatter of the children and the shabori so he can work on his charts. When most of the women have returned, he goes back to calling families out into the plaza to collect photos and names. He’s on schedule to finish a nicely comprehensive census before nightfall—and he feels like an actual human being for the first time in weeks. The next time he returns to Mömariböwei-teri, he’ll try to get the names and histories of their ancestors, along with the same kind of preliminary census for the next Shamatari village, Reyaboböwei-teri, as he got for this village before visiting it. That’s how he’ll finish collecting all his data for the remainder of his time in the field, data he’ll share with Dr. Nelson, securing their partnership, securing a source of funding for future expeditions. He’s so excited he considers prolonging this visit to start filling in the graphs for the next village, but he wants to be back in Bisaasi-teri when Clemens returns so they can discuss getting Laura and the kids into the field.

But will he decide, after his time in the field is up, to keep studying the Yąnomamö? As surly and volatile and pushy and whiny and intimidating as they so often are, what society could be more important to anthropology, more fascinating to learn about? His most fruitful workday in the field so far wraps up as he sits in the headman’s yahi filling in the last of his charts. He chats with the headman himself as he works in the rapidly fading light. Coming to the final name in his diagram, he remembers his plan to tell his funny story about the Bisaasi-teri headman and his senior wife. He’d meant to tell it earlier, but now seems as good a time as any.

He begins, “Shori, I have a story to tell you: over in Bisaasi-teri, the pata there, Bahikoawa, and his oldest wife, Nakaweshimi, started to argue one day about how little interest he shows in her, because he’s more interested in—.”

“—What did you say?” The Mömariböwei-teri headman cuts in to ask. When he sees that Lac is worried that he’s offended him, he clarifies, “What did you say their names are?” Lac repeats the names: Bahikoawa and Nakaweshimi. The headman leans back, looks up at the underside of the thatched roof, and releases an abrupt bark of laughter. Then he leans forward, flashing his tear-rimmed eyes, his once eager face now looking stricken. He’s laughing so hard he can’t take in enough air to laugh, making him look more like he’s had the wind knocked out of him than that he’s overcome with hilarity.

Lac steps back and attends the headman with a vertiginous coiling sensation in his gut, a feeling of spinning and rapid descent, as if he’s standing on a frisbee beginning the downslope of its parabolic flight. I haven’t even gotten to the punchline, he thinks; hell, I haven’t even finished the setup. The headman now stumbles out into the plaza, stopping once on the way to lean against a support post and laugh more of his gasping laughs, where he shouts for his uncles and brothers and nephews to come hear what Shaki is saying. Soon, the children crowding around him are pushed away and he’s surrounded by a group of excited men.

The headman tells him to say to all of them what he said before. Lac’s throat clenches. He swallows hard, at a complete loss as to what’s transpiring, and says again, “Over in Bisaasi-teri, the headman there, Bahikoawa, and his oldest wife, Nakaweshimi, started arguing one day over how little interest he shows in her…” He doesn’t finish the sentence because the whole group of men is in hysterics, the joke smashing into them like a wave crashing over a beach.

“Say the names again!” one of them shouts.

Suddenly, Lac has an idea what’s going on, and this idea keeps him floating in the whirling no-man’s land between fury and abjection. “Shori,” he calls out. “Why are the names of the Bisaasi-teri pata and his wife so funny?”

“Ah, Shaki”—gasp—“those aren’t their names.” More laughter.

“Whose names are they?” Lac presses. But the men can’t be bothered to interrupt their mirth. “Whose names are they?” he demands.

“Shaki,” the headman’s younger brother finally says, “Bahikoawa means ‘Long Dong’—that’s what you’ve been calling him.” His voice pinches in the leadup to another guffaw. “And Nakaweshimi—that means ‘Hairy Cunt.’” More howling and breathless glee. “Do you have any more names like these from Bisaasi-teri?”

Those god damned sons of bitches! They’ve been doing this the whole time I’ve been staying with them. That asshole even had Clemens calling him Long Dong.

The crimson warmth of embarrassment floods his temples, spreads over his face, and prickles the follicles atop his head. Alongside a feeling of deliquescence, Lac feels his rage set to boil. He wants to smash someone’s skull, anyone’s. He wants to break someone’s nose. He wants to bomb the whole damn village of Bisaasi-teri. But the welcome sense of melting, a granting of his unspoken wish to ooze away into the dirt, or elsewise disappear, never be seen by these people again—that’s the feeling that prevails. He doesn’t feel worthy of harboring any rage toward them. The best he can manage is spite, and even that won’t take proper hold in him. He can’t sustain bitterness because—damn it—it was a goddamn funny joke! They must’ve been comparing notes after every private interview, appointing gifted confabulators to volunteer for them. They’d planned and coordinated—conspired. They’d made a proper fool of him. That’s why they found the latest public version of the naming game so amusing. That’s why the named individual sulked but didn’t get angry.

They’ve been doing this the whole time, he thinks. Unbelievable.

He shows the crowd of men his charts and reads aloud the names. Long Dong’s son by Hairy Cunt is Asshole. Then there’s Harpy Eagle Feces and Filthy Rectum. As the waves of hilarity crash over the Mömariböwei-teri with each new name, both men and women now, Lac smiles timidly. Before long, he’s laughing along with them. It really is funny. But all the while he’s stuck with the thought: five months of work—almost six! You’ve been here for six months and all you’ve got is a list of naughty pseudo-names: Foreskin Face, Nipple Nose, Vagina Forehead. What is it with these people and their insults about foreheads?

Six months. Jesus.

He thinks back to the hours and hours of interviews he conducted, both out in the open and in his hut. It never occurred to him that they’d be playing such an elaborate hoax because where he comes from nobody would be willing to throw away that much time. Though a machete or an ax probably saves them hundreds of hours total—try clearing a garden of trees with a stone ax head. Add to that the fun they must have been having and it would have been well worth their while.

Six months. Jesus. What am I going to tell Dr. Nelson? What am I going to tell Laura? By the light of the hearth fire, he goes through the whole list of a hundred and twenty-some names for Upper Bisaasi-teri. The first adult name that seems to be real is Rowahirawa’s, a sioha whose name he learned separately.

Rowahirawa—I’m going to strangle that son of a bitch.

Six months! 
*****
Continue reading (check back the 1st of October)

Links to chapters (Table of Contents)

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