“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?.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Raid on Patanowä-teri: He Borara Chapter 11

shabono
Many people are surprised to hear that some of the tallest trees in the rainforest are killers. To achieve their gargantuan height, Laura explained to Lac, they use other trees as stepping stones and nutrient sources. She’d learned about these cannibal trees from an ecologist on the IVIC campus. Their colloquial name, matapalo, translates roughly as tree-killer. Most Americans, if they can identify the trees at all, would call them strangler figs, cousins to the domestic ficus plant. Matapalos serve as stages for one of the most beautifully quintessential of rainforest dramas when their fruit comes into season, driving to mad revelries creatures ranging from parrots and macaws to monkeys and agoutis—odd rodent-like creatures whose jawbones the Yąnomamö fashion into the carving blades they use to shape their bows and arrows from palm wood.  

The seeds consumed at these eclectically cacophonous harvest feasts are borne away in the guts of all the creatures making up the riotous menagerie, until reemerging to be deposited with a protective film that only dissolves under the proper conditions. If by chance the seed comes to reside atop the joint of a bole and its bough, an elbow platform collecting decaying leaves, insects, and the right strain of bacteria, the protective film will melt away and the seed will start to sprout. It sends out a tendril, a green explorer setting off into the vast unknown. These vines dangle and descend until they encounter another source of nutrients, in another elbow, or eventually under the jungle floor, where they extend roots to join the sprouting treelet to the filigreed network of roots and fungal mycelia.

As the invading matapalo continues sending corded emissaries groundward to establish trading relations with the shallow bustling life of the rainforest soil, it’s simultaneously launching missions skyward, joining the race to the top of the canopy to secure a share of the sun’s golden largesse. The vines proliferate and thicken; the leaves climb and radiate outward. In time, the host tree that made possible this rapid rise is completely enveloped, consumed, locked away to rot slowly into nothing. All you see then is the matapalo. You’d never guess what it had done to achieve its monstrous stature. But if you examine the trunk, you can still see the fused tendrils. The central support is an enormous and intricate woody braid whose folds and crevices now house a menagerie on a smaller scale: ants, wasps, geckos, anoles.

Lac looks at the matapalo trunks he passes, searching out these tiny worlds within worlds. He remembers the dismemberment ceremony he witnessed among the ants that day while he was squatting in the forest to shit. The squadron of warriors, heavily armed and armored, returned from their heroic mission to the welcoming embrace of smaller, far less formidable nestmates, who promptly began scrapping their bodies for parts—one generation, tempered by battle, sacrificing itself to a weaker cohort, whose depredations could only be accomplished bureaucratically, with the consent of the depredated.

But the host tree that gets strangled and stepped over by the matapalos is sacrificed without any such consent. “The matapalos usually colonize older trees who’ve survived and thrived for many seasons, and they also deter loggers, since their wood is useless.” Laura saw her description of the strangler fig’s lifecycle was disconcerting him. “Often, when the loggers have come through, the matapalos are all that remains. And they give a boost to forest regeneration because their huge crowns of leaves can form a shady canopy that prevents a complete bleaching of the soil.”

Matapalo
Recent Research in Science
Lac quizzed some Yąnomamö men on the reproductive strategy of the trees after he returned to Bisaasi-teri; they knew almost as much about it as Laura, or as much as her ecologist friend had told her anyway. He next asked some of the children who are always forming a Lilliputian crowd around him what they knew of the trees. One boy surprised him by telling him the trees grew over other trees to reach into the sky and then going on to explain the lifecycle of several of the species that make a home of the thickened and fused vines of the trunk, including wasps and bees. The boy couldn’t have been more than nine, and Lac thought of how little chance there was anyone would ever encounter an American nine-year-old with anything like this depth of knowledge about the natural world and the creatures who inhabit the wilderness. Hell, the chances of finding an adult who knows this stuff aren’t much better.

Now he finds himself staring at the braided trunks whenever the party of raiders passes a matapalo. He finds several host trees enduring the early phases, imprisoned in the curtain of yellow-green vines, resigned to their fate. The progress to Patanowä-teri is leisurely enough to leave space for observation and rumination. The younger men in the group complain of bad dreams and sore feet. But mostly they walk in silence, swatting away bareto and stopping on occasion to sit and eat a few of the plantains they’re lugging through the jungle. Lac doesn’t ask many questions, but he feels his senses becoming keener by the hour. The men obviously care about their lives—especially the younger ones who are hoping their complaints and descriptions of dreamtime forebodings will persuade the group to turn around and go home—but there’s an insouciance to the way they carry on that’s incongruous to Lac. While he’s frantically scanning the trail for snakes, they walk as without a care, alert to goings-on in the understory, but vigilant in a way more like a factory overseer than a group of men traversing perilous terrain to attack a hostile, albeit unsuspecting, village. This insouciance is child-like to Lac in some instances, but more a type of mature stoicism in others.

He admires them for it.

Bahikoawa looks like he may fall to the ground any moment, writhing in pain. He walks with a sideways list to brace against the pain of each jolting step. How will he do any sprinting once the ambush has been sprung? Is he counting on feeling better by the time of the attack?

Rowahirawa says the trip to Patanowä-teri normally takes two sleeps—that’s how they reckon travel time, one sleep, two sleeps, this many fingers, this many toes. Or if it’s less than a full day’s walk, they point to where the sun is now and then point to where it will be when they arrive at their destination. They’re still more than a day’s journey to Patanowä-teri. With all the food they’re carrying, the men will probably need to add a day to their usual timetable. Once they’re in the vicinity of Patanowä-teri, they’ll take some time to reconnoiter, waiting for the ideal opportunity. All told, they could easily be gone a week, a week of uncertain weather, when they could be deluged and rendered immobile by a sudden downpour, or even by a not-so-sudden downpour. It’s not like there’d be a whole lot they could do even if they knew in advance a storm was coming—a storm the Yąnomamö will simply shout at and argue with once it arrives.

Lac thinks back to the storm he witnessed in his earliest days in the field, when he grasped for the first time where all those disaster myths emerging from diverse cultures came from. You could easily feel like a big storm was threatening to annihilate the whole world as it rips along your shabono’s thatched roof, especially when you know so little about the world beyond that shabono. Then there are the stories of great battles among nations, and the great odysseys spanning unbounded seas. Everyone alive today—at least in most parts of the world—knows that such cataclysms pale in comparison to the wars of this century, the ones between industrial nation-states, with their populations of millions shipped to opposite ends of the known world and ground to a pulp in merciless engines of mass slaughter, the likes of which were never dreamt of by any Homer, or by any other of the celebrated bards who bequeathed to future generations their superstition-soaked and delusion-drenched visions of the wars in their time.

Still, he thinks, it’s good to keep in mind that to individuals it’s individual lives that matter. The whole world comes to an end someday for each of us as individuals.

When the raiders next stop for a snack and a rest, the two younger men’s complaints annoy Bahikoawa so much he loses his patience and shouts at them to go back. When they stare back at him stupidly, he gets up, wincing, pulls them aside, and shames them by saying the Shamatari will take word of their cowardice back to their village, and after they hear how pathetic the men of Bisaasi-teri and Monou-teri are, it’ll only be a matter of time before they launch their own raid.

Nevertheless, the two double down on their complaints, insisting he’s right and they must go back, so painful are the sores on their feet, so vivid their nightmares. Lac shares Bahikoawa’s disgust for these men, not because they don’t want to fight, not even because they’re too weak-willed to overcome their fear, but because they were so perfectly willing to paint themselves black and join in the wayu itou, so eager to show off in front of all the young women, even though they must not have had any intention of following through. Because they’re just goddamned posers.

Bahikoawa’s eyes lock on Lac’s when he catches him sneering at the two men as they pass by on their way back to the trail to Bisaasi-teri. Lac freezes in fear, dropping his gaze. He snuck after the three men when they stepped away to speak separately, and he thinks the headman may be angry with him for snooping. Really though, Bahikoawa seems pleased as he walks in front of Lac to rejoin the group. He flashes a grin, so brief Lac will surely question later whether he really saw it, this first sign of favor from the Bisaasi-teri pata, though Lac has given him plenty of madohe to secure that favor.

More walking. Not marching. Not traveling with any real sense of purpose either. Just walking. Lac set out determined to attend closely to the landmarks and the turns and curves made by his Yąnomamö guides, if that’s the proper term for these men merely tolerating his tag-along presence. His objective is to remember the way back to Bisaasi-teri in the all-too-likely event that he falls behind. You’ve seen them run, he mutters to himself. How can you possibly think you’ll be able to keep up? How can you possibly think you’ll be able to outdistance the Patanowä-teri pursuers, who there’s no reason to believe aren’t just as fast? If Rowahirawa were to stay behind to help you escape, he’d be putting himself in danger. So how exactly are you expecting this to go down?

This last thought is the one that obsesses him over the coming hours. He’s been hoping that Rowahirawa would surprise him, showing up just when Lac began to despair of ever finding the rest of the raiding party again. But how would that help either of them if they’re surrounded by vengeful Patanowä-teri? Lac can scarcely imagine a scenario where he and the raiders make it to Patanowä-teri, achieve their objective, and make it back to Bisaasi-teri unscathed. And achieving their objective means killing someone. So no matter what this is going to end badly.

You have no business being here with these men, he tells himself. Your time in the jungle has made you insane, separated you from what little good sense you had going in. Really, though, if you’d had any sense, you’d be working in your brother’s factory in Detroit instead of ambling toward certain death, half-certainly your own.

He looks around, searching for distinctive features in the landscape. It’s hopeless. But he takes one step and then another, doomed he’s sure, but trapped by his earlier decision to go. Whatever happens, if you make it back in one piece, Laura is never to know how badly you messed up here. And whatever happens, you have to make it back in one piece for her and Kara and Dominic. He stops.

You idiot! Why didn’t you go back with those two men when they decided their feet hurt too bad or that their dreams foretold disaster?

That would have been the easiest way out of this predicament. But he knows he wouldn’t have been able to stomach returning with those cowards, and the idea hadn’t even occurred to him when they were leaving. Besides, he’s continuing not because he doesn’t know the way back to Bisaasi-teri. Thus far, he’s confident he does. He’s continuing because he could never live with the shame of having resolved to go and then faltering before making it halfway.

I’m here, he thinks, for the same damn reason the Yąnomamö are.
*****

When they make camp for the night, using the last spray of sunlight sprinkling in through the leaves to build their yanos, which are small lean-tos used as tents—miniature yahis really—they settle in and begin joking and gossiping and telling stories just like they normally would if they were out on a hunt far from home. Jungle nights are shockingly cold, and there’s some maneuvering for prime spots near the fire. If you listen carefully, Lac thinks, you can hear a nervy overemphasis to their words and a forced heartiness to their laughter, but besides that they could be men out enjoying the wilderness anywhere. They could be his own dad and uncles and brothers, only with less clothing, no alcohol, and with the added feature of their amazingly intricate and overpowering odors—though, come to think of it, Uncle Rob was pretty damn smelly.

Lac is happy to be out with these men. Since it’s nighttime, though, tomorrow’s dangers, and the next day’s, swarm his thoughts, stinging him into an incessant mild panic, making it impossible to calm down. I had to be here, he thinks again, as dangerous as it is. He could resign himself to the inexorability of whatever lies in store for him except for the part about what it would mean for his family. He tries to quell his worries by telling himself to quit being so dramatic. The Yąnomamö do this all the time; they must usually make it back without sustaining permanent damage to their persons; don’t do anything stupid and you’ll be fine.

Ah, but the universe doesn’t work like that, does it? Exercising precaution brings no guarantee of safety. And how far can you trust yourself not to do anything stupid anyway? When the shouting and chaos start, he thinks, I’ll either want to be as close as I can get, or I’ll panic and bolt into the forest. Either impulse will get me killed—only the latter will boil me in a vat of shame as I’m waiting to die.

“Shori,” one of the men says plaintively, “you should go back; you can’t run with the hekura biting into your buhii.” He’s talking to Bahikoawa, whose yano Lac made a point of staying close to.

The headman waves off the warning. “My own hekura are far stronger,” he says. “I will recover by tomorrow.”

Lac is skeptical. He listens while rubbing his thumb over the picture of Laura and the kids he pulled from the wall in his hut and slipped into his bag. He really should go back, Lac thinks. In his condition, he’s more liability than help. And imagine how a dead headman would escalate the rivalry between the villages. He tries to guess who would become pata if Bahikoawa were to be killed: one of his brothers or parallel cousins no doubt, since his is the village’s most dominant lineage. Whoever it would end up being, though, he probably won’t be as temperamentally suited to the role as Bahikoawa, who Lac has come to think of as the ideal leader for these people. Though maybe that’s only because his ailment has tamped down his usual levels of aggression. Lac chuckles silently at the thought. After all, it was the headman who insisted this raid must happen, for all their good.

 How similar is Bahikoawa to headmen in other Yąnomamö villages? They all must possess some degree of domineering aggression, Lac thinks; they all must be able to project strength, make credible threats. Lac would love to conduct a survey of the personalities of the headmen in a large sample of villages. Do the characters of the leaders correlate with some feature of the larger groups? He tries to perform a thought experiment by recalling all the leaders he knows from Ann Arbor and Port Austin.

The professors do seem to fit a mold—at least in the Anthropology department. Dr. Nelson and the other men Lac knows from the Genetics department are different. Lac remembers when he first realized that each department had its own relative standing vis a vis all the others, each enjoying—or suffering—its own amount of prestige. Anthropology is nowhere near as prestigious as Genetics, if only because the geneticists are all MDs. Doctors, Lac has noted, allow themselves to indulge in feelings and airs of superiority like men in no other profession. And why not? They’ve earned it with all that school. But anthropologists go to school for a long time too, the overlong education of PhDs of every stripe, culminating in some form of intensive fieldwork, as Lac is currently undertaking. Granted, few anthropologists complete their degrees under conditions as harrowing as these; they usually work out of some missionary outpost or on some government established reservation, generations on from the demise of their subjects’ true sovereignty. But still, they don’t give PhDs to just anyone.

Oh please, he imagines a faceless geneticist retorting, doctors save lives. Genetics research saves lives. Medical science never needs to justify itself. However big the questions anthropologists put themselves to answering, they’re still little more than philosophers and lackeys—serving militaries and missionaries, trying their damnedest to come up with something useful.

The camp has gone silent. Lac listens to the pops and crinkles and hisses of the fire, wrapping his arms tightly around his torso, trying to squeeze out the cold. The fiery orange sparks lofting in swirling columns recall for him the cloud of tiny insects flitting about in a sunbeam that held him rapt for a long minute earlier today. He hears a sound he can’t identify, and he tries to snatch the mental echo by its tail. Within a few seconds, he comes to understand what he heard. Bahikoawa is whimpering in his sleep. Lac sits up to find out what he can see in the firelight. The headman has a fresh sheen of sweat. He should move away from the other men with a fever like that. He should quarantine himself. But it’s not like there are opportunities for that out here. At any rate, Lac is relieved. With their leader this sick, they’ll have to turn back in the morning. He only hopes Bahikoawa does eventually recover—just not before his own grasp of how stupid it was to accompany them on a raid in the first place has a chance to loosen.

Lac anticipates a sleepless night, but no sooner have his eyes fallen shut than he’s dreaming. Now he’s in charge of a squadron of Yąnomamö soldiers, one part of a much larger coordinated attack on the white missionaries. What he’s about to do, what he must do, horrifies him, but he persists nonetheless. Trudging through the jungle, he’s hoping desperately that he won’t encounter—and be forced to kill—Padre Morello, Chuck Clemens, or, of all people, his older brother Connor. Another strange dynamic takes over his thoughts: he knows he and his Yąnomamö comrades at arms will lose the war, regardless of any victory in this day’s battle; the Venezuelan army is practically an arm of the Church. His side will lose, but unless he dies in the fighting, he won’t be killed. Whatever bravery he shows is a sham. Sure, the attack is plenty dangerous for everybody, but the Yąnomamö are marching toward certain doom.

Lac’s conscience is abuzz with the stinging guilt of his competing crimes. He’s betraying his heritage, his national tribe, by siding with the Yąnomamö, but he’s betraying the Yąnomamö because they will undoubtedly be killed, while in the likely event of his capture he’ll be granted clemency. Meanwhile, he’s betraying Laura and the kids by fighting at all, putting his life at so much risk.

He wakes shivering in the silent dark. Looking over at Bahikoawa across the moldering embers of the fire, he sees nothing but the contours of a recumbent charcoal shadow. Staring intently, he thinks he sees the figure shivering, far more violently than Lac is himself, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean Bahikoawa’s fever has yet to break. Lac may be shivering more than he realizes.

Untangling the knotty detritus of his dream, Lac finds his mind occupied by thoughts of his father. He was thinking of the different types of leader earlier that day. His father was no type of leader. He cut an imposing figure, at least to his children, but he was more than anything a bitter man, obsessed with the virtue of work, carrying a conspicuous chip on his shoulder from the vast conspiracy to prevent recognition of his own profound virtue, that unconscionable and absolute ignoring of his deservingness. Work, manual work, is the root of all masculine worth, but Malcolm was forced to endure long stretches of unemployment, and even when he was working he barely scraped by. Meanwhile, people all around him were getting ahead with fake work. Sham work. It was an injustice and an indignity he suffered every day. That people like Lac’s professors made a living off tax dollars—a better living than his—was a form of societal corruption, a symbol of societal decadence and moral deterioration. He deserved more, so much more. But twelve kids is a lot of mouths to feed. That’s why Lachlan and Connor started feeling the pressure to leave home and start supporting themselves when they were barely teenagers.

 Lac drifts back to sleep, dreamless this time, despite the cold.

When he next opens his eyes, it’s on Rowahirawa’s face. “Shaki, the Bisaasi-teri pata has returned to his village. His brother went back too to help him travel.”

“Ma! Will we be going back then too?” Lac, groggy, surprised at how deeply he slept, sits up and let’s his eyes rove over the camp.

“Shaki, you idiot! We’re still going to Patanowä-teri. The pata was just beset by too many evil hekura to keep going.”

Lac wonders if there was a late-night discussion—or argument—between Bahikoawa and Towahowä’s brother about whether the mission should proceed as planned after the headman’s departure. Bahikoawa may have only come this far, now that Lac thinks about it, to make sure the younger man from Monou-teri went through with his commitment to restore the honor of his village.

“Come on, Shaki. We’re close enough that tonight we’ll sleep without fires.”

On the night before a raid, the men sleep shivering and scared to death of jaguars, because the enemy villagers would see the smoke from any warming fire. Lac, who shivered so much even with a fire, is bedeviled by the prospect. He’s bedeviled too by the thought that his best chance of getting out of this mess, Bahikoawa turning the whole party back because he’s too sick to lead it, has just fallen through spectacularly. He gets up and prepares to move on, upending his boots to clear them of any critters who may have made a home of one of them for the night.

The next thing for him is the long day of walking in the furnace heat of the jungle, one step, then another. Beyond that is a chaos of competing uncertainties. How can he even begin to predict the most likely outcome? He has no baseline to compare any of this to. One step, then another. One more day and one more freezing night before this insanity comes to whatever head fate has in store—except there really is no such thing as fate. Thinking in terms like those is a way of assuaging our anxieties about the world’s unfathomable unpredictability.

In the light of day, he notices again, his abstract debilitating fears dissolve into practical challenges. “Shori,” he calls to Rowahirawa, “tell me about the landscape surrounding Patanowä-teri.” He stops himself before saying, I want to know all the places where I might hide. Rowahirawa does his best to paint a picture in words, but he speaks too fast and the exercise leaves Lac feeling no better off. Something else occurs to him that makes him feel even more in limbo: whatever happens, he won’t be able to write about it. He won’t be able to tell anyone about it. The only one he’ll probably ever discuss it with is this man right here, a secret between two old war buddies.

“If we won’t have fires,” Lac asks, “then will we at least set up yanos?”

“Ma, Shaki, we only stay one night.”

“But we had yanos last night, and we only stayed there once.”

“The yanos only needed some new thatching; they were there from earlier hunting trips. We went that way so we could keep dry in the rain. Yanos are only for hunting trips when we’ll be in the area a while. Normally, you just hang your hammock and sleep looking up at the hedu layer.”

“It didn’t rain last night.”

“Yes, it did, Shaki. You were asleep. I heard you snoring.”

“But the ground isn’t even wet. It couldn’t have rained much.” Lac looks frantically for snakes along the edge of the trail for a long moment before adding, “I don’t snore.”

Rowahirawa appears to expand with delight. “Awei, Shaki, you snore really loud. I kept looking over at you thinking there was a jaguar under the little thatched roof where you slept.” He laughs and gives Lac a shove. Normally, Lac would enjoy the teasing. Being pushed from the trail after a night of rain, however, seems like pointless endangerment. He frowns and steps back in line.

“Ah, Shaki, don’t worry. Like I said, stick close to me and you’ll be as safe as you would be in Caracas-teri.” It’s the first time he’s mentioned Lac’s trip back into civilization. All he said when Lac first returned to Bisaasi-teri was, “Did you have fun with your wife? Is she angry at you for being away so long? Had any of the men abused her?”

Lac has never considered the implications of a notion like fate so fully. The role of heaven or Valhalla or hedu is simple enough; you fear your own demise, you abhor the loss of your loved ones, so you wish these tragedies away. You create a fantasy cosmos for yourself to occupy, and everyone who shares your fantasy bolsters the illusion of its reality. That’s why zealots proselytize so zealously; the mere existence of other fantasy afterlives undermines the credibility of your own. That’s why atheists are intolerable, and apostates even worse. Mission work is like burning a circle of brush around the forest fire of disbelief to prevent it from spreading. Although at one point in history the major faiths were the fire spreading wild more than they were the woodlands.

The men were already quieter than usual when they first set out, but the somberness of their march thickens as they approach their destination. If you believe in fate, you believe the time and means of your death are settled matters. There would be no point in worrying when and how you’ll die because there’s nothing you can do to alter any of it. Lac wagers most people fantasize of greater fates than dying of, say, a snakebite or a car crash, and so they’re able to carry on with their daily lives unafraid, for the most part.

He looks around, draws in the hot stale breath and vast green indifference of the jungle, notices the birds are extraordinarily chatty where they are, and looks up through an open patch in the trees to their left, wondering what trick of the atmosphere makes the dome of the sky appear so much higher over Amazonia than it does over Michigan. His clothes are heavy with sweat, clinging to his thighs. No one imagines for himself a fate as disappointingly banal as dying from a small cut that goes septic. But fate, however highfalutin, is sure to circle a battlefield like a starving vulture. Maybe that’s why the Yąnomamö symbolically transmogrify into vultures in the songs they sing at the reahu feast, after they’ve formed the wayu itou.

Lac wishes Rowahirawa would harass and tease him, anything to restore even the most tenuous semblance of normalcy. Maybe the man who turned back complaining of dark prophetic dreams was on to something. Maybe they really are fated for disaster. Lac keeps walking, the most outlandish act of courage reduced to the most mundane of deeds: the placing of one foot in front of the other, repeating itself ad infinitum. Only half a day’s sweaty march, and a freezing sleepless night without the warmth or light of a fire separates these men from their fates. Except that’s putting it backwards; the men in this raiding party, they’re the circling vultures; they’re the fate that lies in store for some poor bastard who lives in Patanowä-teri.  
******

The Yąnomamö like to make fun of Lac for his tender feet. He takes for granted that their own splayed and thick-calloused feet are effectively impervious, but here we are, he thinks, waiting alongside the trail because one of the men has stepped on a thorn, which drove itself deep into the flesh of his middle toe. The danger of such mishaps increases in step with the water content of the trail. Soaking softens callouses. The foot-sore man’s complaints join the chorus of nagging resistance Towahowä’s brother must overcome moment by moment to keep up their progress. Everyone’s feet are injured. Everyone’s sick, suffering from the same malady that sent the Bisaasi-teri headman back home hanging on his brother’s shoulder. Good, convincing excuses for why one can’t go on to Patanowä-teri are at a premium—all the more precious for their scarcity.

Lac is surprised by his own disgust. He finds the goldbricking more repugnant even than the prospect of carrying out the mission. Of course, he too would love if the group would turn back, abandon the raid until the next dry season, by which time he’ll be better prepared, understanding the language better, on more friendly terms with the men, better accustomed to the heat, and spritelier on his shod feet. He’d love to turn back. But he’d be loath to admit it, much less issue a torrent of patently bogus excuses.

Not everyone is so eager to give up on the mission, though, Lac corrects himself. The older men, for the most part, especially the ones from Bisaasi-teri, remain stoically determined, aiming sotto voce expressions of contempt at the would-be deserters. And no one actually is turning back; instead, the complainers and excuse-makers are trying to persuade Towahowä’s brother to call off the raid and turn the entire group around, so they can sidestep the shame of abandoning the mission before it achieves its objective. Their leader, the current primus inter pares, doesn’t seem to have any intention of turning them around. As Lac understands it, he can’t. That would be the end of his village, the end of Monou-teri, finished before it ever had a chance to get off to a proper start, a casualty of timid leadership.

How do you go from so many young men reluctant to fight, Lac wonders, to so many older men determined to kill someone? How do you go from a bunch of individuals with a healthy fear of violence to a culture that makes pacifism impossible? And how many hunter-horticulturalist societies are like the Yąnomamö? But try as he might to adopt an anthropological mindset, he’s preoccupied with thoughts probably more similar to the men’s around him than to any Western scientist’s. Out here, we’re all the same vincible flesh and blood, regardless of where we learned our human ways.

There’s an apocalyptic quality to the rapid setting of the sun. As the men hang their hammocks in silence, Lac fails to alarm himself with the thought of their being minutes away from where the Patanowä-teri routinely roam. Slipping about through the near dark, he silently rejoices at being closer to ghosthood, closer to a cloud or wisp of smoke, than he ever managed to feel back in Bisaasi-teri, where he’s excruciatingly conspicuous in his corporeality and forever bumbling from pratfall to faux pas. He feels like he’s already dead, even as the chill bites into his flesh, a huge beast gobbling him up, not out of malice but from a hunger bred of boredom.

He pulls a dry shirt, still crusted with sweat, from his bag, remembering that cedar-infused locker room tang that pierced his nostrils when Clemens pulled his hammock from the bag that night they stayed in the Malarialogìa hut across the river from Bisaasi-teri. Everything Lac owns smells that bad or worse now, but it will all soon be swallowed by the cold regardless, that yawning monster with its pinched nose and undiscerning palette, with its tastes for ghosts in fetid shirts, for men too exhausted to carry in their conscious minds anything of real substance.

“Shaki,” he hears Rowahirawa whisper. “The forest here is full of spirits at night, wandering buhii who got lost while seeking out the strands to the hedu layer.” Lac almost believes it. He peers intently into the distant forest as it fades from gray to fathomless black. Maybe I can join them, he thinks, just walk off with them and help find the web filaments one traverses to reach their heaven. Even wilder to consider, maybe tomorrow has already happened but my disembodied essence has no memory of what occurred. “And the jaguars hunt here, looking for humans they can outsmart. The fires keep them away—but the fires bring the Patanowä-teri.”

Why is he telling me this? To warn me? There aren’t a lot of precautions I can take, other than staying close to the group when I wander off to shit. To scare me? I’ve already heard all about the myriad dangers of sleeping in the jungle without fire. Somehow just now, he thinks, none of them scares me. Lac is frightened mostly of the cold, that it will prevent him from sleeping, which will make him unable to keep up tomorrow as the men flee from the site of their ambush. Mostly though he feels nothing, so subsumed is he in this purgatorial sense of punishingly pointless waiting. It’s as though, through exhaustion, he’s inching ever closer to achieving his sought-after resignation to the fate he doesn’t believe in.

Rowahirawa is just talking because he wants to. He’s making conversation. Despite the numbing apathetic cold of this limbo they find themselves suspended in together, Lac feels warmly honored that his informant, tormentor, guide, and protector recognizes him as substantive enough, human enough, to be spoken to so idly. The day’s warmth quickly creeps away as the chill rushes to impose itself on the evening. Lac wraps himself in his arms and submits to his first bout of shivering.

“There’s a promontory overlooking one of the trails to the Patanowä-teri’s water source,” Rowahirawa says. “If they are where we’re expecting to find them, you could stand up there and watch. You’d have to hide, though, because your skin gleams. Even arrows shot by a blind man would find you.” Lac likes the idea of being at a safe distance where he’s still able to witness the goings-on below. “The rise is right alongside the trail we use to approach the village. I’ll tap your shoulder when it’s time for you to climb.”

These men, including Rowahirawa, including Towahowä’s eleven or twelve-year-old son, will wait beside the trail for a victim. And then they’ll kill him. Lac is hoping to see it happen, if he’s not hoping it doesn’t happen at all. I should figure out that kid’s name, he thinks. It wouldn’t be too difficult yet; I’ve already got the names of much older men in my charts.

The retiring raiders fall silent, even Rowahirawa. Lac tries on irony and stoicism and youthful defiance in the face of death, draping each in turn over his thoughts and watching them slide one after the other onto the floor. He hopes he’s exhausted enough to sleep. He’s willing to risk sleeping through a jaguar or buhii attack. Did Dad ever have a night like this, he wonders, picturing some snow-covered field in the German hinterlands? Imagine going through all that only to return home and have your proud militarized manhood dismantled as you’re forced to scrounge for work, watching your kids grow up weak and entitled—and infuriatingly insolent in their spouting off of their precious government-subsidized learning, their so-called knowledge.

“We better hope the war with the Russians takes place on a chalkboard,” his father once quipped. Is that, Lac poses to himself, why you’re here now? He rolls onto his side in the hammock, forming a tighter press of arms enfolding his body as it’s being devoured by the cold.

Lac doesn’t see what the older men do to silence the younger men when they start complaining of the cold. In his dry shirt, Lac pities the Yąnomamö, who all sleep clothed in nothing but a few strings, their own dried, charcoal-infused saliva mixed with the salt of the day’s profusion of sweat. And is this night colder than average? Have they climbed to a higher elevation perhaps? Or maybe it’s the humidity? For all his mental preparation throughout the day, Lac is still overwhelmed by the stark reality of the cold. He wants to scream. Then he hears something strange. It’s Rowahirawa. He’s laughing.

“Shaki, if I shiver any harder, I’ll shake my cock right off my body. Then I’ll be even more like a woman than you.” Lac can’t help chuckling. “Quiet down over there, Shaki. Laughter attracts the jaguars. They’ll think you’re a giggling young girl and rush to mate with you.”

“Oh no, Shori, you look much more like a female jaguar than I do.”

“Awei, but you laugh like, awhoo-awhoo-awhoo,” he counters, imitating the sound in his highest falsetto.

“I do not! That sounds more like the woman whose father won’t give her to you.” He retorts, botching the phrasing. Rowahirawa loves it anyway.

“You two keep quiet!” someone hisses.

Lac can’t tell now if he’s just shivering convulsively or if it’s partly that he’s suffering from a fit of uncontrollable laughter, and then, miraculously, he’s asleep, dreaming of some terrible movie on the television, a white powdery flicker of exaggerated expressions and showy gestures. His father is being carried in, dangling by his bound wrists and ankles from a pole suspended between the shoulders of two ridiculously costumed natives, sporting fruity headdresses and slack-lipped expressionless faces. The natives are carrying Malcolm to an altar stone for his sacrificial dismemberment, of course. A line of pregnant women with bare protruding bellies waits to consume the disarticulated appendages. His father complains, not about his own treatment, but because his flesh will go to nourishing a bunch of namby-pamby pedagogues and paper pushers. If the scene wasn’t nauseating, it would be comical. Suddenly it’s not Malcolm swaying from the pole but Lac himself. He feels the ropes sawing into his wrists, the weightlessness of hanging and bouncing, and finally the fear of what awaits him. Bahikoawa directs the proceedings from the head of the altar rock—which Lac sees is overrun with ants—while Rowahirawa stands off to the side, shoulders juddering with laughter.

The scene blinks out, replaced by a rapid series of images—every wound he’s stitched since arriving in the field, including the nasty serrated tear on the foot of the headman’s brother. “Shaki,” he’d said, “I think there’s a caiman under the water here.” Explosive splashing, a scream of pain—it seems he was right about there being a caiman, but they never got a chance to eat it. Caimans are said to be tough and stringy anyway.

The wound required ten stitches to close. Lac was proud of himself; he’d shown his usefulness and Bahikoawa was grateful. Aside from the baskets, hammocks, and cotton waist bands for the women, the Yąnomamö do little weaving and no sewing. Lac may have dramatically altered their culture by introducing the practice, but their culture was about to be even more dramatically altered by the encroachment of much larger forces anyway. So he was proud of his stitch work, but went on over the next three days, as he always seems to, to see the wound in his mind whenever he closed his eyes. He never did like the sight of blood.

Now, he’s awake, still doing his involuntary dance deep in the belly of the beast, steeping in its heat-leaching juices. Someone’s moving about the camp in the dark—he’s as sure of it as he is of his own breath. Multiple someones.

He finds in himself the wherewithal to control his shivering, forces himself to lie still, listening to his jagged breaths. An odd clicking noise, impossible to locate, sounds from high in the trees, probably some kind of beetle. Aside from the men’s snores and nighttime murmurs, Lac hears no other sounds. But he’s sure someone is up and sneaking around, more than one. He searches his recent memory. How can you be sure? What did you hear? He risks lifting his head, but it’s too dark to see. His pack is hanging from a nearby tree, with his flashlight slid into the pocket on the side.

He takes a moment to listen, mustering the courage to sit up and reach for the bag. Could it have been the tail end of a dream? No, I remember exactly what I was dreaming. He lies frozen, his thoughts only half diverted from the cold sending its jolting waves through his body, dissolving the surface of his flesh, soaking into the meat. Every night sound takes its turn on the stage of his conscious awareness; none indicates any human presence beyond his sleeping co-travelers.

Finally, he lifts his shoulders from the netting of the hammock, losing control of his shaking as he does so, and reaches for the light, barely catching his balance before dumping himself on the ground. A glimpsed figure moving through some nearby undergrowth locks him in place. A man, stooped but upright, stepped behind a tree, casually, as if on a Sunday’s ramble through the forest. Lac stares. The tree isn’t big enough to hide the man from his view, unless he happens to be intent on hiding, and nothing in his manner suggested any urgent need to remain unseen.

The longer Lac stares, the less sure he is that he saw what he thinks he saw. He starts to reach again for the flashlight but sees movement in his periphery, bringing his eyes to another spot in the forest. There are more than one of them. A stick cracks apart behind him, sounding like nothing so much as a pull tab being peeled back from the lip of a beer can. He whips his head around, thinking, that’s three at least. His ears go tingling hot as every heartbeat surges through his temples.

“Shori,” he spits. “Wake up! Someone’s here.” He has his hand in the bag fishing out the flashlight before he realizes he said it in English. He stands and turns the light on the tree the first man slid behind. What he sees is a mossy trunk with its scaly bark cast into shadowy relief by the yellow beam, and nothing else. Aware of how easy he’s made himself to spot, he turns off the light and crouches low beside the tree bearing half the weight of his hammock.

“Shaki,” Rowahirawa calls with a groggy, shuddery voice. “What are you doing with your light. If you wake everyone up, they’ll kill you.”

“I saw someone,” he says in the proper language. Now that he’s told someone else, he worries that the ensuing search will turn up nothing, when he should be worried that it won’t.

Rowahirawa gets up, walks over to Lac and looks around to see what’s got him so spooked. He says, “It’s too dark, Shaki, you can’t have seen anything.”

“I saw… something.”

Rowahirawa turns to him, grabs him by the shoulders, and demands, “Was it a man you saw?”

“Yes, I saw a man—I think. He was stooping. He stepped behind that tree. I was sure I saw him, but now there’s no one there.”

“Shaki, you saw a lost buhii. Were there others? They often group together.”


“Two others I think—but, Shori, these were true.” He doesn’t know a Yąnomamö word for real.

Not picking up on Lac’s skepticism, Rowahirawa says, “They can be dangerous, but mostly they just wander through the forest looking for the remnants of their old lives.”

            Lac scans the tantalizing black of the jungle behind the nearest trees and brush, thinking, I know living people who devote their days to doing much the same thing. “What do we do?” he asks.

            “We go back to our hammocks and shiver our balls off until morning. What else can we do?”
*****

            In the early dawn, before the day has fully cracked the seal of its eyelids, a bunch of the men work at staging practice raids on another no owä they’ve built, one that looks more like a scarecrow than a dressed-up log, honing their skill at coordinating their retreat in stepwise progression. They seem to be doing it mostly for the benefit of the boy. The older men must’ve performed the maneuvers thousands of times before. Another group of the men wandered off in the predawn, searching for tracks and signs of where the Patanowä-teri might be and what they might be doing.

            Everyone talks in whispers; they’re close enough they may stumble upon someone from the rival village at any moment—or be stumbled upon by them. Lac is glad to be up and moving, feeling the warmth from the exertion of his muscles spread through the coursing of his blood, a relief after a long night of insomnia, bad dreams, and involuntary shaking so intense it sapped his strength. He’s tired, his eyelids throbbing with an exquisite ache whenever he squeezes them shut. But he’s alert. He’s alert because he’s scared shitless, literally, though that may also be because he’s eaten so little over the past few days.

            He knows the scouts will return, the group will travel the rest of the way to Patanowä-teri, the brutal heat will return in the full glare of the sun, and someone will die. At least one.

            It’s only minutes after he has the thought that a scout returns by himself. The others are already waiting by one of the trails for an unsuspecting victim. The Patanowä-teri are right where the raiders hoped they’d be. Now it’s for the rest of the group to take up positions alongside each of the other trails in and out of the shabono. Other trails? How many are we talking? Won’t it just be the one he can see from the promontory Rowahirawa told him about? If not, doesn’t that mean even after traveling all this way he’s probably still going to miss what he came here to observe? He marches on with the men, all of them covered in the bright sheen of their freshly reapplied black paint. He sees no point in objecting or complaining or demanding further explanation. It’s gone beyond all that now. It’s time to keep your mouth shut, he thinks, and concentrate on not getting in the way, and on not getting yourself killed.

            Some of the men are doing last-minute preparations, testing their bows or applying agouti-jaw blades to their arrow tips to sharpen them. Lac wishes he’d brought his camera, but realizes he’ll soon be glad not to have it strapped around his neck, bouncing against his chest, or adding any extra weight to his pack. Besides, it’s not like he’ll ever confess to being where he is anyway. As the men form into their groups, Lac seeks out Rowahirawa, and is meanwhile struck full force by the indefensibility of his own planned secretiveness. He’s a scientist, isn’t he? And weren’t many of the troubles he experienced as a tyro in the field a result of misguided expectations about what studying among a tribal society would entail? How can he condone such subterfuge in anyone, himself in particular? 

Rather than work at an answer, a justification, he concentrates on formulating a list of precautions he must take over the next few hours: First, follow Rowahirawa’s instructions. “Good lord,” he mutters, “as if you can trust that fella—ha, as if you had any choice now.” Second, keep your boots laced tight, and keep your socks dry. Next, look where you step, as best you can. Finally, always be ready to run.

            The group sets out from the area that was their camp, leaving no ostensible sign of the cold, sleepless night they spent there, though Lac is sure the Patanowä-teri would know at a glance they were here. After a cursory investigation, they’d even be able to identify most of the individuals who’d passed the night in this spot.

            They begin their final march—more of a light-footed creep—to their rivals’ village. Lac draws in a heavy breath and attends once again to his task for the present moment: one step followed by another. They’ve been walking for what seems little more than five minutes when he feels Rowahirawa’s tap on his shoulder. Looking up from the trail, Lac aligns his gaze with his informant’s pointing finger and sees an incline in the forest floor. “Straight up that way,” Rowahirawa whispers. “You’ll see us coming back this way so you can meet up with us again right back here.”

            Lac wants to embrace him, so powerful is his intuition of settled fate, his sense of their prearranged mutual doom. “Don’t get yourself shot up with arrows,” he says instead, quoting the mothers and wives he heard when the men left Bisaasi-teri. Has he come all this way just to take on his womanly role in closer proximity to the real men’s business? Normally, he would laugh at this.

            “Don’t prick yourself on any thorns,” Rowahirawa teases, giving him a shove to encourage him on his way.

            Lac heaves and gulps down another breath before slogging up the incline, maintaining a minor bend in his knees and doing his best to keep silent. He walks a considerable distance through blessedly sparse scrub, much farther than he expected, before reaching the bluff where he is to position himself. Just as he arrives and starts looking for the shabono through the thick eye-level foliage, he sees the raiding party rounding the bottom of the cliff, some thirty feet down. Now he need only trail them to catch the action. He realizes too that as long as he moves at the same pace as the men when they return this way, he should intercept them exactly where they parted ways at the beginning of the incline.

Already, the day is an achingly bright gray rebuke to his sense of time. He’s begun to sweat. His breaths feel brittle somehow. He glimpses an inquisitive monkey looking down at him from the canopy, its features fixed in an expression of shock at the world’s absurd brutality. I’d shoot him myself under different circumstances, Lac thinks, and for no reason beyond the sport of it. So you see? You’re a killer and a brute like the Yąnomamö, casually blotting out the light of a sentience not your own, foreclosing any future chance it may yet have to savor the sheer creaturely ecstasy of waking to the world each day to weave about among the myriad joys and wonders on offer to every conscious being.

Of course, you’d be saving him the slings and arrows as well, keeping him from some still more savage end, along with all the inexorable panic and pain occupying the interim. Good and bad, you take it all away as if with the wave of a hand—the tug of a finger.

Lac hears the forest groaning awake, like a soon-to-be teeming and crowded city opening its shop doors as the thieves and hooligans retreat to their dens. You need to be ready to run, he tells himself. He checks his boots: laced tight. He tests his legs: tired and stiff from the days of walking and the grueling night of grappling with the cold. He’ll be sore after today. He laughs. Sore after today, he thinks, if I’m lucky. He turns his gaze back to the men slowly working their way toward the village he has yet to spot through the leaves—but there, is that roof thatching? Having seen the part, the whole emerges from the forest. The shabono wall is maybe fifty yards from where he stands. He’d already looked right at it. Now he thinks he sees a palisade.

His breath catches as he instinctively lowers his head, dropping his hips lower and lower until he’s sitting on his heels. Almost three hundred people live in Patanowä-teri. Three hundred people whose response to stumbling across him would be to shoot him full of arrows before bothering to inquire after any manufactured goods he may be willing to offer them. It seems impossible that a village of that many people can remain silent and inert, impossible that the dragon will rest unmoving inside its nest, while one or two of its inhabitants fall prey to an enemy force outside. It will be a melee, all-out chaos, with red decking the leaves and brush as if for some satanic Christmas feast. Except it’s April.

Stop thinking so much, Lachlan. You’re not any good at it just now.

As he follows the movements of the raiders through the latticework of branches and leaves, shifting to maintain his vantage, Lac is awakened to the universe of sound in the jungle behind him, a bustling cosmos of ambiguous motion and cryptic signals. He imagines he’s surrounded on three sides by a horde of scouting warriors, his only available escape route down the face of the cliff—a steep but not impossible descent—but then he turns around, scanning the forest around him, and all at once he’s startlingly alone.

He whips his head back around, afraid he’s already missed the event he’s risking so much to witness. It takes a few seconds to pick the men out from their hiding places. He waits, each bud of passing time unfolding until the space of every moment is crowded with impressions, making it hard to believe he’s ever been anywhere but on top of this bluff, and neither can a future be imagined that involves him being anywhere else. His whole life is concentrated in this one place and time, locked in this vegetable cell, as he endlessly awaits a verdict which in itself will be both pardon and benediction, however harsh the sentence.

Lac is bent over now, peering through a window formed in the trees onto the land below. Some poor man’s bladder is prodding him with its urgent fullness. Or his wife is prodding him to go down to the stream to get them some water, arguing that it’s too dangerous for a woman to wander around outside the shabono at a time of war. Or perhaps a group of women is gearing up to fetch water together under the protection of two or three sentinels with clenched bows and nocked arrows, like the groups he saw in his earliest days in the field.

The field. As if any other place could exist for him. As if his entire world hasn’t been reduced to this hilltop. He sees movement, the men shifting, and in a sudden burst they’re emerging from their blinds and running. Lac squints, trying to make out what he can of the spot the men are fleeing.

God damn it! I don’t see anything. I’ve missed it. I’ve come all this way and I’ve missed it.

He turns to make sure his path is clear before taking one last look at the site of the incident. Before his eyes have refocused he feels his diaphragm catch. He’s heard something, an airy sound, a breeze ruffling leaves, a whisper. He hears it again, this time as spoken words. Closing his eyes, he wishes the whisperer out of existence. Nothing can appear up on this hill, nothing can move, because time does not exist here, only this one fixed moment he’ll never escape. But here they are, as real as his own heartbeat. By a force of will, he overcomes his feeling of suspension to step around a tree, putting it between him and the source of the whispers. Leaning to the side to ascertain who it might be, desperately hoping it’s a raider rather than a local, he sees two Yąnomamö men he’s never seen before, their lower lips bulging with thick wads of tobacco, their skin a slick radiant bronze, with no messy coating of charcoal and spit. 

Lac is sure they’ll smell him. He can smell himself, feel today’s greasy slime of perspiration oozing through the crust of yesterday’s salt residue on his skin. His uncle’s words rustle through his skull like dried leaves. “You gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest.”

The men are leaning over in the spot Lac has vacated, probably peering into the same window through the branches—probably looking at the party of raiders he was just watching, the party he’s waiting to join at the bottom of the rise. One of the two men slides an arrow from the tora hanging against his lower back, nocks it without taking his eyes off his target, and utters something in a strange dialect Lac can’t decipher. He draws back the arrow without making a sound. His companion whispers some advice as Lac squeezes shut his eyes, wondering which of the men he traveled here with is about to get impaled by this man’s arrow.

Lac forces his eyes unstuck, turning to look first at the space behind the two men, checking if they’re alone. Seeing no one, he turns toward the trail leading past the bottom of the bluff, trying to make out who the arrow tip is trained on. He’s a ways back from the edge of the slope, but the archer, not ten feet away, is aiming into the distance. Lac can glimpse nothing at first, but then a face flashes into view through a tiny aperture in the intervening foliage. His back goes rigidly straight. He has an instant to calculate but doesn’t use it.

“Rowahirawa!” he hears himself shout as if in a fury. The two men bounce in unison, simultaneously startled, but the turning at the waist of the man with the bow is one with his sudden jolt into alertness.

He’s going to launch that damned thing at me now!

Lac doesn’t even stand up before lunging at the archer. He’s afforded a single instant by the man having to locate him. By that time, he’s covered most of the distance, still crouched low, following some blind instinct to keep his head close to the ground. He collides, first with the outstretched bow, then with the man’s body, and fails to stay on his feet as he sends the sniper toppling back, one step, then another, until he’s disappearing over the cliff. Lac has time to think, I hope Rowahirawa heard my warning and is waiting ready down there.

While the archer hadn’t been able to turn, aim, and shoot in time, his companion has seen his approach from the second he called out. As Lac scrambles to regain an upright position, he feels this man’s weight crashing into him, pressing him face-down back into the dirt.

A hand clutches the back of his neck, pushing his face into the dried soil and leafy detritus making up the forest floor atop the bluff. He senses the upraised arm rearing back to swing a club down on the back of his head—or a machete. He flails his legs to one side, rolling onto his hip, and then twists with the full might of panic, forcing the man to cancel his blow and reach out to stabilize himself. But the grip, now on the front of his neck, remains firm. Lac tries to swallow, painfully aware of how long it’s been since the group last stopped at a stream to get a drink. He pictures his throat being smashed like a peeled avocado, the green mush oozing out between the man’s fingers.

He looks up to see his attacker lifting his other arm again and struggles to free his neck so he can dodge the coming blow. I’m going to be the next William Jones, he thinks, lifting his legs to stop the weapon from dropping on his face. Failing to free himself or to arrest the downward motion of the arm, he plants his feet and brings both of his own arms up to cover his head. That’s when he hears a sound like a shovel thrust into icy snow. The man grunts, his body going stiff for an instant, and then becoming limp and lolling to the side. Lac sees Rowahirawa’s face before seeing what he’s just done.

How the hell did he get up here so fast?

The hand ax Lac gave him in exchange for his service as a guide is buried in the side of the Patanowä-teri man’s skull. Lac emits a whimper as he scampers to untangle his own legs from the dead man’s legs, which have begun to quiver freakishly. Rowahirawa is laughing. “Shaki is waiteri,” he says, holding his belly. Still laughing, he reaches down to dislodge the ax from the man’s skull, producing a sickeningly wet sucking noise alongside the scrape of steel against skull bone. Lac looks away as he flicks off the gore.

 Finally getting his feet solidly planted under him, Lac stands and looks down at the man, legs still softly aquiver but otherwise as though he’s sleeping peacefully on his side—but for the red puddle spilling out from his head and rushing over the same ground Lac’s face had just been pressed into, like an uncapped ketchup bottle on its side. Next, he looks at Rowahirawa, who smiles at him almost warmly, but then moves as if to slap him in the face, only it’s no slap. It’s the flat side of the ax smashing into the side of his head.

The world vanishes behind a curtain of blinding white. Lac’s knees buckle and he wobbles toward the cliff edge, only stopping himself from going over by collapsing to his knees. “What do you think you’re doing,” Rowahirawa says, “shouting out my name like that?” He’s too dazed to answer. He lifts his hand to his already throbbing skull and wonders if his friend is going to step over and finish the job. Rowahirawa does indeed step over, but instead of lifting the ax to deliver another blow, he bends down and starts hoisting Lac to his feet by his arm. Ducking under the arm, Rowahirawa drapes it across his shoulders and begins half carrying him down the slope. Lac’s hand is wet from touching his head; either he’s bleeding from the blow or Rowahirawa has smeared his previous victim’s juicy brains across his ear and cheek.

All these people ever do is beg and threaten me and push me around. Now this guy repays me for saving his life by smashing a bloody sideways ax blade upside my head. I could swear him helping me down this damned incline now is just a way to mess with my mind, just another more insidious act of bullying. It’s so hard to imagine them doing anything helpful or kind to me that I have to assume even him saving my life must be for some devious purpose. I’m their sole source of madohe after all; they can’t just leave me to die on top of some hill.

Lac is mad, his thoughts cloudy, his equilibrium dashed, and soon all he can think is how horrible it is that they just left the Patanowä-teri man where he fell, left the spilling bottle on its side, left the scene of the crime. Leaning against Rowahirawa’s sweat-slicked shoulder, he says nonsensically, “Shori, we have to go back and bury that guy,” in perfect idiomatic Yąnomamö.
*****

Lac doesn’t remember the hobbling descent to the bottom of the hill when they arrive at the trail. The edges of his consciousness are opaque yet full of tumultuous rolling and crashing, storm swells breaking on the friable shoals of his sinking awareness, roughly jouncing the ship of his perceptions. “Shori,” he says, “if you hadn’t hit me with your new ax, you wouldn’t have to carry me down the hill and away from Patanowä-teri.”

“Be quiet, Shaki, or I’ll get mad again. If you knew I would be stuck carrying you, then why did you infuriate me by shouting my name for everyone to hear?”

Unable to compose a cogent response, Lac concentrates on getting his legs to lock sturdy beneath him. Then a rebuttal comes to him: “Shori, why didn’t you hit me later, after we arrive safe back at Bisaasi-teri? You could have taken your revenge without having to carry me.”

“I didn’t get mad in Bisaasi-teri. I got mad at the top of the rise. You said my name at the top of the rise. If I waited until we got back, then I wouldn’t be mad anymore.”

His reasoning is unassailable, though Lac suspects there’s another point they’re both overlooking. As they take up their four-legged lope along the trail, none of the others from the raiding party are in view, but before long two of them come up behind them and pass at a clip. They’re implementing their two-by-two stepwise retreat. Till now, Lac assumed the precaution would only be necessary immediately after the killing arrow was loosed. He’d figured it wasn’t necessary for him to participate in any of the practice runs he watched them go through. Now, here he is, right in the middle of it, with no idea what to do, and anyway barely able to walk without Rowahirawa’s support.

“Are they following us, Shori?”

“Yes, Shaki, they must be.”

The simple task he calmed himself by focusing on the whole journey here, placing one foot in front of the other, is suddenly much more complicated. Rowahirawa readjusts his grip on Lac’s wrist and waist before accelerating his pace. Two men burst from the scrub ahead of them and dart away along the trail. Rowahirawa charges forward, and Lac senses his equilibrium begin to return.

“I think I can run,” he says, prompting Rowahirawa to release him.

Here it is, Lac thinks, the mad dash through the jungle you’ve been dreading, the sprint for dear life. Only you never anticipated having to contend with a throbbing skull and a pair of rubbery legs.

They come up on a spot where a group of raiders is waiting with ready bows. The patterned retreat is either finished or being paused for an accounting of the group members. At least, that’s what Lac assumes as they approach, but as soon as he and Rowahirawa get close the men turn and bolt into the undergrowth. Lac puts his head down and chugs on—until he hears men shouting ahead. He and Rowahirawa stop, duck down beside the trail, and scan the brush ahead. Lac sees a man—with clean bronze skin—clambering up a rise. By the time, he gets Rowahirawa’s attention, the man he saw has disappeared into the dense green. They stand and resume their retreat.

After less than a minute, they catch up with the men ahead of them. Only these men are no longer running. “One of them got ahead of us,” someone says. Two men are lifting a third by his arms. Lac recognizes the fallen raider, who has blood streaming down the middle of his torso from a puncture wound in his chest directly under his chin. He’s from Monou-teri. He was one of the older men who insisted on the raid and prodded the group onward when they complained and dragged their feet.

“He can’t walk.”

Towahowä’s brother steps up and says, “We’ll have to carry him until we can cover some distance, and then we’ll make a stretcher to get him the rest of the way home.”

Lac is sure the Monou-teri man will die. A wound like that, in a place like this—he’d probably die even if he’d been shot in Caracas. Lac considers voicing his doubts. Dragging the poor bastard along will slow them all down, and the Patanowä-teri may already be right behind them. But he keeps his misgivings to himself, maybe because he so recently benefitted from the Yąnomamö’s reluctance to leave men behind in the midst of a raid. Maybe it’s because he feels some of that same reluctance.

Two men sprint ahead on the trail. We may be slower than before, but we may as well do this right. The remaining cluster of six men jogs to meet the forward guard. Lac picks the young boy out of the grouping and looks him over. He’s wide-eyed, panting, and appears to be intact. Lac hopes they don’t return along exactly the same route they came by. He hopes there are many ways to get to Bisaasi-teri from Patanowä-teri, because it seems people from each village can easily recognize people from any other village. And the guy he glimpsed running up the hill must’ve been plenty close to the Monou-teri man when he fired that arrow at him, close enough to send the entire shaft of his six-foot arrow right through the top of the man’s sternum, clear through his body, all the way out his back. The archer must have seen the Monou-teri man’s face, must know who raided his village, who killed the man atop the bluff, and who killed the man Lac assumes was killed to initiate the original retreat.

It’s a good thing the rainy season is beginning. Because the Patanowä-teri are planning a visit, and it won’t be for trading dogs or hammocks.
*****


Links to chapters (Table of Contents)

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