“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?.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Visitor's Pose: He Borara Chapter 5.1

Visitor's Pose in the Hammock
(11,081 words, or start from the beginning.)

Nakaweshimi has an infant child at her breast. Lac watches her stomach grow rounder every day and wonders how she’ll cope with the demands of two nursing babies, two tiny children who must be attended to around the clock—though she’s never seen a clock, unless you count the one on his wrist. Laura should have it easy by comparison. Western women don’t nurse infants as long, and alternative forms of sustenance are much more accessible. His family won’t go hungry, even with him away—not as long as the Hofstetters keep driving his wife into the city to get groceries, with stops along the way to help her feel less trapped at the scientific institute in the mountains overlooking Caracas.

He pushes it from his mind. Because there’s no need to worry. Because even if there were something wrong, there’d be nothing for him to do about it. Before now, it never occurred to him the explorers he was so fascinated with growing up must have worried about their wives’ fidelity while they were away from home during all those ridiculous stretches of time, off in one of the dwindling regions of the map with mystery still on offer. They must have directed their thoughts to maddeningly ambiguous details in letters, alert to clues of budding… Enough.

The success of this expedition hinges on his ability to observe, and subsequently on his ability to synthesize his observations—so for this trip to serve any purpose at all, for him to come through it with anything to show, he needs to concentrate on his work. He knows the end point of all this obsessing over what Laura may be doing with some notional scientist at IVIC, a married man himself—and is he even a scientist?—is nothing but deeper obsession, more troubled sleep. So, through an exertion of will, he calls his attention back to what’s going on in the shabono, as he’s done countless times since returning from Ocamo, corralling his thoughts back to the questions at hand.

There are a lot of sick kids. It seems there are always sick kids at Bisaasi-teri. The headman is sick as well, reduced to loafing around, swaying idly in his hammock for most of the day, clutching his side, hardly able to do his own gardening. Another man, Horeshemowa, pogo-sticks around on his one leg, the other having been ravaged by a snake’s venom. So many details and impressions: which to record and in what order? Children play. Children always play. Parents and other adults always shout at them to keep it down, to quit being so damned annoying.

The games consists of various elements of adult life they look forward to enjoying. If they don’t die. The boys recreate everything in miniature. They shoot miniature arrows from miniature bows. They blow dirt through miniature blowguns into each other’s faces, emulating the shabori’s delivery of ebene into one another’s nostrils. They even build miniature yanos, the simple shelters their fathers and brothers and uncles build to sleep in when they’re on long hunting trips. He’s seen the boys capture bees, holding them ever so delicately, so they could tie a string around their thorax. Thus hobbled, the hapless creatures are allowed to escape, but the added weight and drag slows their retreat across the central plaza of the shabono. The boys pursue, often firing their miniature arrows, though they have next to no chance of ever hitting the target. In Michigan, they’d be admonished; where will those wayward arrows land? Here, they’re free to flirt with myriad dangers. And they love it.

It’s not fair at all for the girls. They’re not just imitating the duties of adult women; they’re taking them on. They babysit, fetch water, tend to fires, and leave with the older women late every afternoon to collect wood, returning with heavy straps across their foreheads, leaning forward to balance their absurd loads. They don’t complain. They don’t seem to care much that the boys are granted far more freedom from responsibility. Really, they almost seem to relish the importance of their tasks, some of them anyway. Others take on the harried and longsuffering demeanor of the older women. So much to do. So much foolishness to deal with.

The more time Lac spends among the Yąnomamö, the less alien they seem. They’re just people, carving an existence out of their little corner of the jungle. They talk and laugh and eat. They joke about farts and tease each other for having saggy butt cheeks or filthy foreheads. They gossip while they’re stuffing roasted plantains in their mouths. Their mundane concerns are tied up with their spiritual beliefs and practices, with perhaps less of a divide separating the two realms than obtains in Western societies.

Tell that to Mom, he thinks, recalling his mother’s myriad prayers personalized for individual saints.

Their language is nasal. At first, they sound whiny, kind of the way French people always sound snooty. Over time, though, you begin to listen for cadences and subtle variations in tone. You hear the music instead of just the dominant key. Their hygiene and their manners—or lack thereof—are more difficult to adjust to. They’re just people, yes, but really gross people, often quite rude as well. But it’s your rules they’re violating, you have to remember, and as long as you’re out here it’s their rules you must adhere to.

Up to a point at least.

But they really are different. Some of the women you see were kidnapped, stolen away from their husbands and kinsfolk in some rival—perhaps by now some allied—village. Lac doesn’t see any of them resisting or protesting or behaving in any way as though they’re living in captivity; he’d have little to go on if put to the task of discerning between Bisaasi-teri natives and abductees from outside villages. What would Laura, with all her theories about the effects of psychological trauma, make of that? These women can’t simply accept being torn away from their families, can they? What if they have children when the raid occurs? Yet no one seems to be trying to escape.

He’ll have to get their stories, in time. He supposes if the village as a whole can turn on a dime with its attitude toward distant or neighboring villages as strategy or honor dictates, then perhaps it’s not such a stretch to believe individual women could adapt to their new circumstances after being forcibly relocated. Still, there must be a period of adjustment; there must be some individuals who handle the upheaval better than others.

Yes, they are different, markedly, from people you’d meet in the States. You take one of them off to the side and explain to him, as best you can, what your plans are regarding your genealogical research, and he seems fine with it, shows no anger, nary an indication of disapproval. Indeed, he seems curious about the process and the resulting pool of findings. It’s their own families whose histories I’m after; why shouldn’t they be interested? And the details should be still more interesting to a man with political ambitions, one who wishes to become a great shabori, a great waiteri, perhaps someday the headman, the pata, of his own village, all of which is true of his closest informant Rowahirawa.

So you tell him your plans and he seems sanguine. Then you start asking him for some names and he looks at you like you just groped his wife. When you repeat back to him some names he’s just whispered in your ear—whispering them into his own ear in deference to their sacredness—he proceeds to smash everything within reach, trashing your notes, knocking over your table, and then threatens to kill you, chasing you from your own hut. You may, at this point, suspect this is just Rowahirawa up to his pranks again, so you begin the process anew with another, more even-tempered informant, only to meet with essentially the same outcome.

Yes, they certainly are different in certain regards. Lac sits on a log at the edge of the plaza, observing, going back to basics. No one can say he hasn’t made progress; he’s got the families arranged in clusters in his notes, so he has a rough idea who’s related to whom. He has a bead on most of the children’s parentage, along with most of the kids’ names. But he’s reached a point where he has no idea how to proceed. So it’s back to watching and looking for details he has yet to notice, back to being a silent observer, for a while. Ethnography at its most basic: sitting here observing and recording your impressions. For many anthropologists, that’s about as far as it ever goes anyway.

I could have signed on for a short stay too, he thinks. Six months, from November to May, the jungle’s dry season—I’d already be a good chunk of the way through. The clock would be ticking on my projects, sure; as of now, I have little confidence I’ll have my genealogical charts filled in by the time I’d be preparing to leave. But I could come back. Yeah, the first trip could be six months, and I would come back for two or three subsequent two-month stints. That would give me plenty of material for my thesis, and then a book. I could build a teaching career on that. That’s how most anthropologists do it. Not Lachlan Shackley though. No, I had to arrange to stay in the field as long as possible; I had to seek out Dr. Nelson and set up a plan to squeeze in some more time out here—in exchange for me serving as a liaison with the villagers, and in exchange for the genealogical information I already planned collect anyway.

The Yąnomamö are largely unknown to anthropologists after all, and so many of their villages remain uncontacted. It’s a significant opportunity, both for him personally and for the science of anthropology—along with Nelson’s contribution to the science of genetics and any discoveries he may light on about the effects of radiation by comparing these so-called native soil populations to people exposed to the aftermath of the detonations in Japan. So here I am, self-marooned. If there’s good news, it’s that having angered the Yąnomamö so many times, each time having witnessed them return to an even keel, I find myself less frightened for my life at any given moment. That makes for a far less stressful existence. And it opens the way for me to test several plans for getting the information I need.

Lac has considered concocting some elaborate story about how his hut is a magical dwelling place for the buhii of the ancestors, where they not only tolerate but encourage the use of their names. What’s stopping him from tricking them like this? They play tricks on him all the time. Somehow though, the idea strikes him as a step too far. Trust may not be earned in the same ways among the Yąnomamö as it is in Northern Michigan, but such a scheme would set a bad tone for his project, establish a problematic theme in his research.

Such shenanigans would likely go over well enough with the fans of any books he writes for a popular audience, should he decide to write about them, but his fellow scientists wouldn’t be amused. Who’s to say the plan wouldn’t backfire anyway? Indeed, one of the likelier outcomes would be that his informants, given this sign of his desperation, would clam up, sealing their lips even tighter whenever he comes around quizzing them on the names of their family members. As it stands now, he manages to get a name here and there. They know he wants more, but so far they seem neither inclined to help nor especially determined to thwart his efforts. Really, they seem to think the whole thing is a joke.

One minute they’re mad, the next they’re trying to contain their laughter at his foolishness. Besides, the more he listens to their complaints, the less he thinks their concern is with angering the spirits of their ancestors; the dead are gone, living on hedu, the Sky Layer. They claim the reason hearing the names is unbearable to them is that they can’t stand being reminded of their lost family members. By using their names, you’re calling attention to their absence, to the fact of their being dead. That’s how they explain it anyway. According to Rowahirawa, there’s only one thing to be done to honor or memorialize the dead: avenge them.

Lac hopes to see the rituals associated with one of these revenge missions one day, but in the meantime he wants to know how the Yąnomamö’s aversion to being faced with reminders of dead family members squares with their mad obsession with their own honor, the demand for respect that drives their efforts to keep their own names off-limits. For my grandfather’s name, it’s about the painfulness of his memory, but for my own name it’s about being afforded the proper deference—it’s about status. Just as the only reasonable response to a death is revenge, the man whose name is spoken publicly likewise feels honor-bound to at the very least scare the living hell out of the person who spoke it. It’s amazing they don’t spend more time fighting than they do. Even the young children, barely walking, are pressed to repay insult for insult, blow for blow, in their dealings with other children. The child who turns to his mother for comfort after being struck by a playmate receives nothing but goads to retaliate. If you let offenses go unpunished, they seem to think, you’re inviting more. You can’t rise in status as long as you let people push you around.

And forbearance?

They recognize no such virtue. Which makes my position, Lac thinks, even more precarious. What choice do I have but to allow myself to be pushed around at certain points, to a certain degree? I can’t go around challenging men to boxing matches. I can’t start shooting people with my shotgun. Yet every insult I let stand, every act of bullying I stoically withstand, serves as an advertisement of my vulnerability—a giant “kick me” sign slapped on my back. And just as you must guard your own status by refusing to tolerate slights of any kind, you can also bolster your standing by disrespecting someone else and getting away with it. It’s a bully’s paradise. An arena for competitive posturing.  

Lac has even begun to suspect this urge to prove one’s ability to disrespect others with impunity is what lies behind the incessant demands for his madohe. It’s more than mere greed. They demand, he gives. Their status grows, his diminishes. In this light, his refusals no longer appear adequate; he’s still being seen getting harassed and threatened on a daily basis and doing nothing about it. He thinks back to those two machetes that were stolen from him the first week he was in the field. The man who’d rescued him when he fell behind the party of hunters that day ended up with one, so Lac assumed his brother had taken the other. It turned out he hadn’t.

The village is quiet today, save for some banter and the sounds of children at their games. Since arriving in Bisaasi-teri, Lac has stitched three large lacerations on villagers’ heads. Two of these injuries were sustained during club fights he witnessed, the scars from which the men display proudly by cutting their hair into tonsures which serve as windows onto the grotesque. The third was a woman. What he’s observed is that the injunction to respond violently to any offense forces some physically or politically weak men to displace their anger, striking their own wives instead of attacking the culprit. Or striking their dogs. In either case, Lac, to his stubborn chagrin, finds himself running headlong into another limitation to his cultural relativism.

When you lash out at someone weaker than you out of fear for your actual tormentor, what are you displaying besides your own inferiority, your own cowardice? Sure, you’re showing everyone you have a line that once crossed can’t be uncrossed. But how does turning your anger toward a bystander dissuade would-be bullies? Aren’t you signaling your impotence, your inability to retaliate properly? Aren’t you telling the offender he’s got nothing to worry about because you’ll find some other outlet for your rage? I mean, anyone can beat up a woman—unless, I suppose, she’s under the protection of a large contingent of her male kinsfolk. This is why, incidentally, women seem to prefer marrying men from their natal village; it means they don’t have to step out from under that protection.

And dogs? Really? You have to kick a dog to prove how tough you are?


You don’t see truly powerful men clubbing their wives over the head or throwing rocks at their dogs. Bahikoawa’s wives are all intact, no lopped-off fingers, no mutilated ears, both of which Lac surmises are common wages of infidelity. I guess you could say these men are expressing their anger through the only channels they have available to them—and express their anger they must, as their upbringing has inculcated in them since toddlerhood. One generation of women bequeathing to their boys the ethos that will result in the next generation’s abuse.

If I were a Yąnomamö, he thinks, I’d display my fierceness, my waiteri, by having a pretty wife with a smile on her face. And perfect ears. I’d only challenge the men who offended her, laughing off insults to myself.

But that’s not right. Because if you were a Yąnomamö, you’d be brought up the same way they are, and they aren’t raised to think very highly of women, or to value their happiness. Women, the men joke, are never happy. Putting any stock in their happiness would be a losing investment.

Lac stands and looks around the plaza, cognizant of the oddness of his behavior but past caring; by now, the Yąnomamö wouldn’t be surprised if he sprouted a third leg… or turned into a hummingbird and started buzzing and flitting about their heads. The men would watch it happen, then weeks later they’d be shooting ebene up each other’s noses and squatting down to tell the story of how the clownish nabä up and turned into a three-legged hummingbird. They’d waddle side-to-side in rhythm with their words, gesturing in pantomime of the arc of his flight. That nabä, the shabori would say, he darted right up in my face—POW—hovered around making a sound like, vvvrrrhhh, and then he flew off so fast, wwwaaayyy over there.

Lac laughs at the impression playing out his imagination, the storyteller like a roosting bird rousing itself to put on a preening display to dazzle a mate. He walks toward the shaded dwellings beneath the high roof, roughly in the direction of Bahikoawa’s yahi—his immediate family’s section of the shabono, his house—where he gravitates, not because he’s planning to leave the village and go back to his hut, nor to visit Nakaweshimi or the headman’s younger wife, but rather because he has a vague intuition it’s the best direction to amble if he wants to witness something interesting—even though the headman’s family life is remarkably free from drama, at least by Yąnomamö standards.

He could look at it as progress, his boredom. At least boredom presupposes a level of comfort, a lack of fear. Though it may rather be that he’s too spent to be scared of anything just now. If a giant serpent rose up out of the Mavaca and crashed through the shabono, he would probably just stand there watching the carnage unfold. Except he has to stay alive and in one piece for Laura and Dominic and Kara.

Unless—maybe they’d be better off without him.

Enough of that, he tells himself. By any outward measure, you’re doing well, considering the nature of the enterprise you’ve embarked upon. You’re going to keep moving forward with it because that’s all you can do, keep moving forward. Feeling low, wallowing in doubt, that helps nothing. If you start to feel low, that’s when moving is most imperative. Moving and working. Or else the lowness will lead to inactivity, which will in turn lead to you feeling even lower, and on and on in a downward spiral of pathetic passivity, a vortex which would also draw your family down into its gulping maw. So move your ass Shackley. Can’t figure out a way to make progress on your genealogies? Put them aside and get to work on something else. I mean, for Christ’s sake, it’s not like you’ve mastered the language yet. Rowahirawa says you sound like a besotted monkey eating a panicked toucan.

Ha ha. That son of a bitch.

So enough with these vague intuitions and all this waiting around. If you think you should track down Bahikoawa and see what he’s up to, then go find him.

Lac scans the plaza: children playing, men crossing from one side to the other to visit neighbors, and a group of three men—no, four—squatting for a confab. He turns and walks over to them, unsure as always whether his presence will be tolerated or whether he’ll be bullied and chased away. Bahikoawa is holding court. It looks as though he’s feeling better; he’s not wincing and grabbing at his side like he was before. He does still look sick though, tired and uncomfortable. Does that mean he believes some shabori from a rival village has sent a hekura to gnaw at his soul? Lac will try to ask him when next he has the chance.

Right now, the headman is talking about war strategy again. Lac approaches in an arc, listening in from afar to glean as much as he can before getting harassed or chased away, if that’s how the men are to react. Specifically, they’re discussing Karohi-teri and whether the people there will support Bisaasi-teri should they take up arms alongside Monou-teri against Patanowä-teri. Karohi-teri is the home village of Rowahirawa, and it seems he may have left on bad terms. Bahikoawa responds to another man’s voicing of this concern by pointing out that the insulted man isn’t a pata, isn’t influential enough to sway the village’s browähäwä.

Rowahirawa is still away on his hunting trip, but the men decide to put the question to him when he returns. Patanowä-teri is a massive village, the men there notoriously waiteri. If the Monou-teri headman attacks them, accompanied by a contingent of Bisaasi-teri raiders, there could be hell to pay. Once the decision is made to consult later with the sioha, the men stand and disperse, returning to their yahis, where they’ll laze until the sun swings low enough that its rays aren’t beaming directly onto the plaza. Then it will be time to set those hekura to work stealing and retrieving souls.

Lac is left standing alone, once again with no idea what to do with himself. At least he got some good information, but it was mostly stuff he already knew. He almost misses Rowahirawa—until he remembers how things turned out with his earlier translator and chief informant, the bright young man who had a better grasp than anyone else in the village of what Lac was after in any given situation and what he needed to know. Lac never learned this kid’s name, and at any rate he’s gone now, though where he went and for how long remain open questions. At the time of his leaving, Lac was beyond caring. Maybe he planned to leave all along, Lac thinks now; that’s why he didn’t bother trying to arrange a longer-term partnership with him—a mutually beneficial one. That could be why he chose instead to help himself to whatever he wanted from the hut.

Oh, he was tricky about it too. He had Lac’s number like Lac can barely imagine having any Yąnomamö’s after knowing them for so short a time. He always knew the perfect time to strike; he always knew the perfect face to show; he always knew how to be helpful to the point of indispensability. Two and a half weeks in, Lac was utterly dependent on him. All the while, he was secretly enriching himself with Lac’s madohe. The machetes—one of which he traded to another man Lac once thought he could safely depend on—were only the beginning. Wherever he is now, he has an axe for himself, one to trade, several empty cans for use as grinding surfaces to make ebene from hisiomo, which Lac would have gladly given him upon request, boxes of crackers, bags of oatmeal—does he know how to prepare it?—and the tarp Lac had been using as a poncho. Anything else? The young man had also taken with him any remaining openness or inclination on Lac’s part to seek friendship among the Yąnomamö.

He understands. He may as well have a Vegas-style neon marquee over his head: “I possess valuable goods but know nothing.” To them he’s a rich, ignorant nobody, ripe for a con. The troubling thing, the thing Lac doesn’t want to acknowledge, is that he was so confident in the young man’s good intentions; he liked him; they liked each other; there was no reason for them not to help each other out, no reason to deal double. All that time, though, while smiling to his face, while flashing his eyes in understanding, a look of friendship, the kid was robbing him blind.

Up till he discovered the full extent of the young man’s thievery, Lac had been taking some reassurance from his calculation that his food supplies may last him until Clemens’s return. He no longer has recourse to such calculations. He’ll need to hunt. He’ll need to rely on the Yąnomamö. Or else: he also has the option of turning to Padre Morello and the other Salesians at Ocamo. Of course, that line of dependency comes at a cost of its own—what might they ask for in return? But here in the jungle, you do what you must.

Really, though, Lac tells himself, it’s inexplicable why more of them aren’t stealing from you. They could rather easily. But theft, despite the padre’s pronouncements, really is discouraged; calling someone a thief is an insult among the Yąnomamö as well, though they think of it somewhat differently. Theft for them is ungenerous, stingy, demonstrating a lack of the compulsive charity they boast of engaging in. So it could be worse. Really, you’re lucky just to be breathing still. Healthy and in one piece.

Walking back to his hut, not dejected but in a funk, he’s chased and surrounded by children. Time for some language games. Doing something useful will make you feel better.

Last winter, as he was preparing to board a freighter in New York in the upcoming fall, bound for Venezuela,  Lac went to a theater with Ken Steel, one of his best friends at U of M, to watch the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston lose his title to Cassius Clay. The outcome of the fight incensed many people in Ann Arbor. Clay is boastful and disrespectful. Everyone was eager to see him take his long-overdue whooping. Even the way he moves is offensive, so cocksure, so provocative. But, for Lac, there was something there beyond the total disregard for proper form evinced by Clay’s antic style, which he found just as infuriating as everyone else, something mesmerizing. His movements are so graceful, fluid, precise. The enchantment of sport is borne of witnessing the superhuman interlocking of will to bodily action; the superior athlete is able to set his plans into perfect motion, manifesting desire as living deed, a feat all the more impressive for taking place against the efforts of an equally determined opponent; he moves and adjusts at the speed of thought—faster even—and spectators are captivated by the calculated blur, the flow of furiously choreographed execution, every twitch of tightly honed muscle engineered on the fly to fulfill a single objective: victory.

Lac thinks of this whenever he sees the Yąnomamö on the hunt. He was following the delegation from Bisaasi-teri on their way to Karohi-teri, but someone caught sight of game, sending everyone darting off into the gray shadows of the primeval forest. Lac doesn’t even know what they’re chasing exactly; there was a whisper, but he was too far from the whisperer to make it out. He clutches his shotgun as he runs to catch up, ready to avail himself of any opportunity to demonstrate his hunting prowess.

Should he fire his gun though?

The men have been making him feel like a kid riding in the back of his parents’ car, whining, “Are we there yet?” at intervals. They keep responding with the same phrase, “A brahawä shoawä,” which he takes to mean, “It’s still a long way off.” But by now they must be close. In earshot of a shotgun blast? He can’t know. He also can’t know how the Karohi-teri would react to hearing such a sound.

Weighing the risks against the benefits of helping the men in his party procure some meat, which they’ll grill or smoke until it has the look and taste of a charred hockey puck, he opts for shooting anything he sees. Peering into the profusion of shadowy wet leaves, the space around him throbbing with dense and buzzing life, clicking insects joined by a chorus of distant birds, he spies a blankness through the foliage, an absence, not just of game but of some natural element that rightly should be there in front of his eyes, some quality he believed this place, Amazonia, would possess. Instead—a mess of overgrown ferns, tangled lianas, tornadoes of gnats, all suspended in a sticky soup of heavy overheated air alive with ravenous biting insects.

A feeling grips him, a sensation of buoyancy, like a giant’s hand clasping his body, lifting him from the ground. He rises from his crouch to stand at his full height. Turning around, he sees a half circle of Yąnomamö men, their unfamiliar faces painted black, their bows stretched and creaking. A single word rings through his mind: ambush. The feeling is of being caught in the open, helpless, doomed.

Lac turns and dashes into the undergrowth, realizes the hopelessness of his flight, turns again, aims his rifle, and fires. He doesn’t know if he’s hit his target; he can’t make out any bodies through the acrid smoke. But he’s aware of the loosing arrows, hears the sound, hears them hiss through the air, their poison tips thudding into and burying themselves in flesh. He steps backward: one step, a stagger, another step, and now he’s falling back, back through thick clouds of sleep, falling and falling until he lands, startled, in his hammock, in his mud-and-thatch hut thirty yards from the main shabono at Bisaasi-teri, where the Mavaca empties into the Orinoco.

It’s morning. They leave for Karohi-teri today. He’ll see where that bastard Rowahirawa is from. He hopes they’re not all like that guy. He can be funny, sure. But one of him is more than enough.

The Yąnomamö travel single-file along their trails, if you can call them trails. You have to keep your eyes focused on a space maybe three feet from the ground, where someone might casually reach over and snap a twig, leaving the top segment dangling from the separated fibers of bark. I suppose, Lac thinks, if they can pick up enough detail from a footprint to recognize its maker, they should have no trouble finding signs like broken branches, bent leaves, and kinked stems. But there’s an insouciance about their trailblazing, as though they drift into a trance while walking. Lac takes to his notes whenever they stop and tries to map their progress against his best estimation of the layout of the landscape, but he didn’t need any map to discover that his traveling companions had taken him up a steep incline for hours, summiting a substantial hill or low mountain, adding an enormous amount of exertion to their trek—when it would have been much easier to go around the damn hill.

His frustration upon making this discovery must have been conspicuous enough, as the men were briefly stunned into silence, until they burst out laughing. Only a crazy nabä would get worked up about such silliness. As careless as their course strikes him at times, he can’t help being impressed by their familiarity with the vast terrain and with their uncanny sense of distance and direction. They know exactly where they are at any point in their progress, and that’s likely why their trails are so minimally developed.

The Yąnomamö know, or seem to, which direction every village and garden and major landmark is. No matter where you are, you can ask them and they’ll point, accurately as far as Lac has been able to ascertain. They’ll explain the distance by pointing to where the sun would be by the time you finished traveling there. Or if it’s more than a day’s walk away, they tell you how many “sleeps” before you arrive, having to rely on fingers and toes for numbers greater than two, because they lack words for them.

Maybe they enjoy cresting mountains; maybe the climbs afford chances to take in the beauty of rare vistas. If so, Lac wishes someone would have encouraged him to look up and enjoy them himself.

He hasn’t yet picked up the trick of spotting game while focusing his gaze on the search for signs of the trail, a skill the Yąnomamö are exquisitely adept at. They must be lifting their gaze, he reasons, at frequent intervals, a feat they can pull off because they know the trail intimately. Lac on the other hand could rely completely on the man in front of him for his bearings and still seldom catch sight of anything worth hunting. Likewise, if he gave up entirely on spotting game he’d still have difficulty keeping to the trail; it wouldn’t take long for him to be lost—Rowahirawa likes to tell him to take the lead whenever they’re hunting or traveling in a group, so they all can laugh when he wanders off course almost immediately. He’s determined to develop both skills, one at a time if necessary, but eventually he’ll be able to exercise them simultaneously like the Yąnomamö.

The most important skill for to him acquire now though is getting the names they so steadfastly avoid divulging. When you’re watching them scold a storm, it’s easy to feel smug—though even that practice has an undeniable intuitive appeal. For Westerners too the gods dwell in the heavens; we’ve even had those who casts thunderbolts down to Earth. You feel smug, Lac thinks, whenever they do something you understand the goal of but know won’t work. Except for the healing rituals the shabori perform; those are just sad. The bullying for the sake of status is the big example, as so much of it involves harassing or assaulting those weaker than you, women or dogs, or ignorant nabäs. Such transparent efforts to win renown ought rightly to establish nothing other than the bully’s own weakness—but the Yąnomamö don’t think like that. For them anger and immediate retaliation, and even status, are mostly a means of deterrence. If you don’t get angry at someone, you’re inviting further abuse. Directing that anger at someone other than the actual offender, while not ideal, is better than not doing anything. It still tells covillagers how you have a line you can’t be pushed beyond without triggering violence, however pathetic its expression.

Some men lack any such line. They must not fare too well.

The single-file progression of the envoys isn’t the most conducive arrangement for easy conversation, so the Yąnomamö stick to one-liners. They shout jokes. Lac almost never gets them. He hears the Yąnomamö laughing, smiles dumbly, and looks down at the ground, seeing the scuffed and deeply wrinkled boots, caked in dried mud, pinching and chafing his aching feet.

Whenever the smugness evaporates, Lac is left with a feeling of dread and diminishment. Our cultures may have achieved starkly uneven levels of technological advancement, he thinks, but no single person carries the entirety of his culture—a fact which is especially true of people from more advanced societies. Think how little of your own world you could recreate from scratch—and then realize you’d die shortly after beginning the effort because you depend on that culture you can’t even begin to reproduce for survival.

He once stood outside his father’s house looking up into the autumn sky, searching for the tiny satellite the Russians named Sputnik. He remembers it now because it caused in him a similar feeling of diminishment. The soviets are our rivals; our society had been bested. Was the feeling his own, he wonders now, or had it crept in from that wider society? Couldn’t one forget the military ramifications for a moment and marvel at the collective ingenuity of his fellow humans, no matter how hostile to us some of them may be?

“It’ll be missiles next,” his father said, “and it only takes one.”

Malcolm Shackley had been serving in Germany at the tail end of the war. He has stories about the Russians he will never tell.

“If you want to do something worthwhile,” he said to Lac, “go to school to be an engineer or a physicist.”

Lac was coming inside after a fruitless search of the night sky over Port Austin when his father gave him this commission. He would have never admitted to anyone how much his heart swelled. He’d thought his dad was disappointed in him, his second-born son, because he hadn’t allowed himself to be pressed into joining the military. It had been good enough for the men of his generation, his father surely thought; what more did this new crop of starry-eyed young weaklings want, other than to work as little as possible? Lac would have expected any of his father’s recommendations regarding career choice to come with some reprising of this theme. Instead, he offered up this higher calling. Lac filled out the paperwork to apply for Physics and Engineering courses at Sault St. Marie the following summer. That would have been eight years ago now.

It wasn’t until he was allowed to transfer to U of M that he took his first anthropology class, with Dr. Service, to fulfill a prerequisite. That class inspired him to take the next one, this time with Dr. White, both courses together effecting a one-two combination that sealed his fate, bringing him to the present moment, in which he’s once again feeling the dreadful suspicion that his might not be the ascendant culture, or that his identity as a vessel of that culture can only fail to establish his personal authority—or for that matter his basic personal worth—so far removed from its natural parameters, in the absence of its most preciously impressive trappings and accoutrements.

The Yąnomamö never doubt the superiority of their own culture, of their very substance as humans. When two brothers loosed their arrows and the moon’s blood fell to the earth, it fell most thickly on the ground beneath whichever village you yourself happen to have been born in, or so everyone seems to believe. And all this madohe? Gifts from the hekura, given to the nabä, the degenerate subhumans from the outer rim of This Layer, solely out of mischief, as a colossal prank. That’s just like them. Really, it’s a wonder Lac isn’t having far more trouble than he is holding on to his metal tools. He thinks back to all the effort he put into securing the door of his hut, and then to secure the inner door into his storage area, the space separated from the main room by the extra mud and wood-frame wall he’d decided to build.

It wouldn’t keep them out, not if they were determined, not if they were shameless in their efforts and didn’t bother trying to be quiet and inconspicuous. He has grand plans to travel to every village he hears of, collecting census data and recording minor variations in their languages and customs, perhaps even stitching together some semblance of a transtribal history—or folk history anyway. How can I do that when traveling to a single nearby village causes me so much hand-wringing?

And fear for his madohe is only part of that worry; he has no idea how this new village is going to receive him—if they’re going to receive him. This is the place Rowahirawa hails from, his most aggressive and determined bully among the Bisaasi-teri. They could all be like him at Karohi-teri. He may be closer to the norm in most of the Yąnomamö villages.

This last thought has a peculiar effect on Lac, as it reminds him how many questions he could potentially answer merely by visiting more villages. He would be able to see how normal Rowahirawa really is. He could see how big the villages are on average. He could see how far manufactured goods have made it along the trade networks. Curiosity competes with caution. And aren’t the risks to his supplies just another practical hurdle he can apply some thought and ingenuity to addressing? And the risks associated with making first contact—a flash of remembering his arrival at the Bisaasi-teri shabono—he can probably learn to minimize those as well. Anyway, making first contact, availing yourself of the last remaining opportunities to record such experiences—that was one of your main motives for choosing the Yąnomamö in the first place.

But, oh, how little I knew.

As for Rowahirawa, he’s a pushy, disrespectful jerk, it’s true. He’s also currently my best informant. Anxiety and wounded pride aside, I could do worse than meet a village-full of men who turn out to be half as helpful.

Still… an entire village-full?

He steps over a low branch and feels a painful pinch in his foot when he returns it to the ground. Long periods of walking, followed by long periods of sitting, riding in a boat, lying in a hammock—his legs and feet are constantly stiff and sore. He envies the Yąnomamö their wide-splayed, never-shod feet, thickly calloused—though when they get wet they become vulnerable to thorns and sharp twigs. The whole group will halt in its progression as one of them stops to dig the barb out of his toe. And their legs—they have the most flexible knees Lac has ever seen on anyone in his life, squatting for hours at a time, bouncing and rocking as they give their nighttime speeches—a custom Lac has only recently witnessed since he usually goes back to his hut as soon as it looks like everyone is about to turn in—and bouncing and rocking and dancing as they recount their myths.

He does see them stiff and grunting once in a while, but not like him. His feet and legs join his acute anxiety and a host of other contributors to his insomnia, and his near-constant exhaustion has been the bane of his days in the jungle. If he could just get a few good nights’ sleep, well, then he’d be as sanguine as he should be about visiting all these villages.

At least the damned bareto aren’t making him feverish anymore, or leaving welts all over his skin, though they are still an incessant nuisance. Even the Yąnomamö suffer their unending attacks; the few who’ve managed to get their hands on shirts or dresses eagerly don them for the modicum of protection they offer from the insects—bareto during the day, mosquitoes at night. Lac watches the poor children, whose smiles and laughter and fun-loving acceptance are the only reason he’s still here and still sane, watches them twist and smack their shoulders, slap their arms and legs, the erratic dance you do when you’re besieged by tiny biting bloodsuckers. He’s thought of bringing repellent spray for them when he returns from his next visit to a town, but he knows it would be pointless.

He could never bring enough.

Rowahirawa walks up into a yahi and stands before a man lying in his hammock. “This is the man whose wife’s vagina I ate,” he says to Lac as he grabs the poor man by the ankles and dumps him on the ground. To eat a woman’s vagina, Lac has learned, is to have sex with her.  

The laughter hits Lac like a punch to the gut.

Partly from the pent-up tension, partly because it’s nice to see the unprovoked hostility directed at someone else for once, Lac takes a perverse delight in his informant’s attack on the man he’s made a cuckold. But the laughter catches him off guard. He tries to scan the vicinity for signs of trouble, afraid Rowahirawa’s lark might cause a melee, but he can’t see much because he’s doubled over with tears in his eyes.

Upon entering the shabono, Rowahirawa marched to the center of the plaza and struck the visitor’s pose, which consisted of him standing erect, his joints locked, his chin in the air, his weapons at the ready, all the while ostentatiously unmoved by the warriors celebrating his arrival by clacking their bows and arrows and clubs together, randomly lunging at him before pulling back, singing his praises, extolling his ostensible fierceness. But, despite this initial display, Rowahirawa is clearly not shying away from the trouble he left behind in Karohi-teri.

So this character I’ve been dealing with is a rare son of a bitch by Karohi-teri standards too—good to know. Lac recovers his equipoise and pricks his ears for danger. It seems no further fighting will ensue. The Karohi-teri are so cowed they’re leaving even him alone, though he sees their eyes flashing looks at him, the Drowned Man, the infamous nabä. You’re supposed to enter an allied shabono with fanfare, it turns out, as Rowahirawa did. The other men from Bisaasi-teri are outside washing the mud from their legs and painting their bodies with the red nara paint they use back home to make their bodies appealing to the hekura.

Rowahirawa explained that the Bisaasi-teri men will enter the village two at a time, dancing around the rim of the plaza in full regalia. Lac in turn said he really wasn’t up for any of that, so Rowahirawa let him tag along as he ducked into the shabono of his home village to present himself and announce the presence of his temporary covillagers outside. His first act of diplomacy was to dump this man from his hammock. Perhaps because the man suspects the delegation outside is actually a raiding party, neither he nor any of the men of his patrilineage responds to the offense with anything more provocative than a few lame insults and limp protests.

After recovering from his bout of laughter, Lac is immediately irritated with Rowahirawa for adding to the already excruciating tension. The Karohi-teri don’t know what to do about the presence of this frightened—hysterically laughing—nabä in their village. Since he’s a stranger who snuck in without invitation, they should probably kill him, but he’s accompanying one of their own on his embassy. Anyway, they’ve heard all about him; they know he behaves strangely, not following their customs, scarcely aware of how contrary his actions are to any viable prescription for proper behavior.

Lac was following close behind Rowahirawa until he walked into the man’s yahi and assaulted him. Having backed away, first as he was laughing, then from apprehension, Lac now finds himself standing alone in the midday sun, exposed, at the edge of the plaza. The villagers must be eager to examine me, he thinks. I’m only being left alone for the moment because etiquette prevents them from approaching me—or because they’re still afraid this could turn out to be a raid. Though if it were a raid, Rowahirawa marching right in to announce the presence of the others would be strange—at least according to what Lac has been told about how raids are usually conducted. Of course, they may be reasoning that Rowahirawa himself might not know what the other men from Bisaasi-teri are planning.

Lac keeps his hands straight down by his sides, moving as little and as slowly as possible, unsure where or how to stand, what expression to arrange his mouth and eyebrows into signaling. He tells himself it hardly matters; they don’t seem to notice stuff like that anyway. Rowahirawa, meanwhile, only stands over the cuckold long enough to get the better of him in an exchange of insults before continuing on to another yahi, presumably the headman’s. Lac follows.

The men greet each other as kin and Rowahirawa tells him about the Bisaasi-teri waiting outside. The headman orders some young men—sons, nephews—to prepare food for their guests, and they promptly, excitedly, run off to the gardens outside the shabono. The arrival of guests from a neighboring village is a big event for any Yąnomamö, a chance to meet new people and reconnect with long-lost family members. Now, Rowahirawa is telling the Karohi-teri headman about Lac, the Bisaasi-teri’s visiting nabä, the “ankrauhpowahist” who wants to learn how to be a true human, a Yąnomamö, descendant of Bloodmoon.

When Lac turns, he sees that nearly every pair of eyes in the village, from the young boys to the longsuffering mothers, to the wizened old men, are on him. Ah, he thinks, but how can I learn how to be a true human from these people if they’re so damned interested in learning about me and whether I’m made of enough human stuff myself to qualify for lessons? Rowahirawa is explaining to the headman that the nabä doesn’t even mind if you speak his name aloud. He comes over to nudge Lac, saying, “Shock-a-lee,” exaggerating the difficulty of the pronunciation to highlight its exoticness, its ridiculousness.

Lac smiles generically—any nuance to his expressions would be lost on them anyway, as those to theirs are to him—and corrects his guide: “Shackley.”

The headman responds with a look that’s both intense and bemused. He considers the sounds he’s heard, considers Lac’s person in full, and then says, “Shaki?” Rowahirawa erupts in laughter, startling Lac. The headman smiles as well, at the joke he’s apparently just made. Lac has to wait for Rowahirawa, doubled over now himself as he was moments before, to recover his composure before he can ask for an explanation.

“Shaki,” he repeats, holding up his hand as if pinching a bug between his forefinger and thumb, producing a buzzing sound by humming through his clenched teeth with parted lips. Another word for bareto? Mosquito? No—suddenly Lac understands, and the meaning weaves itself in and under and out between their two languages and cultures with such wanton disregard for the boundary separating them that it ties his mind in a messy knot. Shaki: a bee. A pesky bee. A busy bee. That’s me, he thinks, laughing along at last, me walking around with my notebook, ceaselessly barraging people with questions, a consummate worker, a pest. At once, he feels both embarrassed and proud at this solemnly facetious christening. He knows somehow his new nickname will stick.  

Children are rushing up and hiding in the shadows of their neighbors’ yahis to get a peek at him from a safe distance. His presence alongside the official emissary constitutes a breach of protocol—but then, so does screwing another man’s wife and then dragging him out of his hammock as a reminder. Lac was determined to see everything he could of the meeting from beginning to end; he’d wanted to see how Rowahirawa would announce the presence of the villagers he’s been living with as he completes his bride service. Lac looks around, wondering whether there might be a shortage of women at Karohi-teri, but it’s impossible to tell from what’s visible to him now. The women would be gathering firewood or tending to their hearths, corralling their children. Or they may be hiding, suspicious of the Bisaasi-teri men’s intentions, and those of their pet nabä.

When the boys the headman sent off to the garden return, they’re carrying enormous clusters of plantains. Courtesy demands the host feed his guests, apparently even before they enter the shabono. Lac watches as the headman uses strips of bark to seal a carrying package for the food, a large bundle comprised of the plantains, red palm fruits, big chunks of charred meat, and what looks like flat pieces of cassava bread, all wrapped in an impromptu spherical basket for Rowahirawa to hoist up on his back, brace by a strap across his forehead, and take to his friends outside.

Rowahirawa and the headman keep up a constant banter, but they mutter, as if in a hurry to share secrets at volume. A handful of other men pass through the yahi and engage in similar exchanges; Lac begins to suspect something underhanded may be in the works, but then he remembers the Yąnomamö’s penchant for rumormongering and their uncanny ability to know things long before they logically should. Is that what this is? Are they gossiping? Or is Rowahirawa divulging intelligence about how best to curry favor with the larger group? The small snippets he manages to pick up seem to be about developments in the lives of kin, but they could be talking about anything.

At last, the welcome basket is ready and Lac follows behind Rowahirawa as he heaves it up, arranges the strap, and lugs it outside, carrying a couple heavy clusters of plantains himself. Outside, the Bisaasi-teri men are busy decorating their bodies. In addition to the red paint in circle patterns or squiggly lines, they’re attaching long feathers to their armbands—from turkeys or parrots or whatever other birds whose plumage they admire. Most of them have on their monkey tail headbands. The final touch involves spreading tiny white feathers all over their hair—a symbol of their peaceful intentions. Pressing the plantains proffered by the Karohi-teri headman into their cheeks, the men help each other reach difficult stretches of their backs and ensure the paint and feathers are evenly distributed.

Lac takes a moment to look each man up and down. He can’t help comparing them in his mind to rambunctious young boys who’ve stolen their mom’s lipstick to draw on each other before burying a pair of scissors into a pillow. He grins. If they notice at all, the Yąnomamö see his mirth as further redounding to their pride in the impressive beauty of their regalia.

When at last they’re ready to enter, a signal is given and the air immediately thickens with anticipation. A near silence ensues and Lac, wondering why the event has suddenly become so tense, has an ominous feeling that violence may be imminent, despite the friendly initial greetings and gifts of food, despite the pillow feathers. Next, he has the disturbing idea that something he’s done or failed to do has offended the Karohi-teri—or maybe somehow by merely being present he’s raised the risk of tipping the already tense moment over, causing it to spill over into deadly conflict. There’s no denying he’s an object of fear and fascination; he saw it in their faces, saw it at a glance.

As efficiently as their rumor mills turn, the people here must have already heard all about him. That would mean they already associate him, as the Bisaasi-teri do, with the madohe he’s known to possess and to hand out in exchange for certain odd services of value to him. They may have heard as well that you can sometimes acquire these goods through simple bullying. Lac looks over at Rowahirawa, who’s responding to the tension by donning a devilish grin—devilish and what else? Not disdainful exactly, but light-heartedly supercilious. Playfully contemptuous. He’s amused by all this fuss, all these supposedly fierce warriors engaging in their silly rituals; he plays along himself but doesn’t take any of it seriously. And maybe he shouldn’t. He’s just walked into his home village, insulted and assaulted a man, a man who apparently already had plenty of reason to despise him, and walked back out with nary a consequence. Not the slightest rebuke from the headman. Maybe Karohi-teri’s waiteri—the fierce ones—aren’t that fierce. But Bahikoawa must have thought them competent enough warriors to recruit them into military service alongside his own village’s waiteri, so their collective potential for killing must be significant.

Maybe Rowahirawa has been bullying that man for years and the Karohi-teri have come to accept it. There were in fact shouts of disapproval and calls to desist before the squabble escalated. Maybe Rowahirawa enjoys the Yąnomamö version of diplomatic immunity, since he’s serving as something of an ambassador between villages. Maybe they all just know Rowahirawa is an asshole and they don’t bother trying to do anything about it.

Remember you don’t know, he tells himself; all you can do is keep the questions in mind and pay attention.

When the men are prepared, a loud whistle is sounded to make way for their procession into the plaza. “You wait outside and slink in after the waiteri are lined up,” Rowahirawa says, “like the women.” The sly grin makes Lac wonder if these are his honest instructions or if they’re part of some larger joke. Do the Yąnomamö use sarcasm? They definitely know how to say one thing to imply the opposite. With proper emphasis, for instance, ma, the word for no, actually means something like, “Hell yes!”

The uproar attending the entry of the first dignitaries dashes Lac’s original impression of the Karohi-teri as a more timid group. Voices take up the swooping howl he remembers so well, dipping and swelling alongside the furious clacking of bows and clubs and arrows. Lac begins to understand the tension rising in anticipation of the Bisaasi-teri’s entrance. Two men at a time—beginning with the most important and renowned—march dramatically, flamboyantly, around the edge of the shabono’s plaza, fully armed and highly decorated, incorporating props like large palm leaves or sections of thatching into their chargings forward and back. It’s a war dance. The Karohi-teri meanwhile stand in front of their yahis shouting and howling, brandishing and banging together their weapons, declaring these men are beautiful and impressively vigorous, real killers.

Lac leans his head in under the post running across the top of the gate and tries to witness as much of this ceremony of arrival as he can. Every pair of dancers reenacts the standard entrance and each circles in opposite directions; they dance for a few minutes and then depart once more from the shabono. One after another they half march, half gambol in, full of swagger and unfazed by the powder keg volatility of the horde, relishing it even, exhilarated by it, delighted to be at its center, to be its masters—however illusory and short-lived that mastery may be.

Once they’ve all taken a turn, they re-enter the shabono en masse and line up in the center of the plaza, each man gazing blankly into the distance above the thatched lean-to wall, effecting a heroic stillness in the face of the chaotic flattery engulfing him. There they stand as the local men dance around them in a mad frenzy of clacking wood. This is when Lac decides it’s safe to sneak in.

After some minutes, each man is singled out and led away to the yahi of one of the prominent local families. Lac shuffles unceremoniously around the edge of the plaza, hoping to avoid the spotlight of attention and thus the commotion he senses is in store for him. But, in trying to be inconspicuous, he couldn’t be more glaringly on display. Next time I visit another village, he thinks, I’m decking out and marching in with the rest of them. Two men take hold of his arms and drag him to the center of the courtyard, despite his feeble efforts to resist, and begin taking up the anticipated examination, pinching and pulling at his chest hair—“Like a monkey’s,” they proclaim—flashing disgusted or startled expressions, testing the hardness of the muscles on his arms, delighting in the pinkness of his pinched and squeezed and abraded flesh. I’m my own one-creature iterant petting zoo, he thinks, for groups of high-strung pre-adolescent boys with seven-foot bows and six-foot arrows.

To avoid being swallowed up by his claustrophobic panic, Lac casts his mind into the abstract realm of anthropological hypotheticals. If we were to welcome a Yąnomamö explorer into our midst in Ann Arbor or Port Austin, how would we receive him? How would his treatment differ from mine as I’m introduced to these villagers? We wouldn’t crowd around him so tightly, threaten to suffocate him, poke and prod and grab and pinch him, at least not with such abandon. We’d be curious, wildly so, but there’d be some check to our enthusiasm, some compunction preventing us from conducting so physical an examination—a being with his own mind, his own boundaries. A being with dignity.

Hands slip in and out of his pockets. He twists and blocks reaching hands from accessing his genitals. We do sometimes put exotic foreigners on display and gawp at them. If they’re Amerindians, they’ll be decked out in elaborate feather headdresses—a more advanced version of the pillow-down hair coverings on these men here? If they’re doing their war dances or rain dances to the beat of their ground-shaking drums, then young boys will admire them, want to live like them, imagining them freely roaming the vast grasslands aback their piebald horses, on the trail of buffalo herds vast enough to black out the plains all the way to the horizon. They’ll wonder if they could survive like that themselves, away from cities, away from the profusion of small-minded rubes populating their home towns, away from the demands of school and the soul-smothering weight of the adult lives in store for them—wonder too if living like that they might be happier, their spirits bound by fewer shackles, freer to soar.

Lac gasps for air and squirms to find his footing as he’s caught up in the surge of bodies. He clutches his notebook until his finger joints feel apt to burst, grateful he decided not to bring his voice recorder or either of his cameras, grateful most of all he decided to hide his shotgun in the jungle outside the village… mostly grateful. The Plains Indians you see back home in those demonstrations, those reenactments, those performances—those Indians are conquered people, desperately clinging to whatever semblance of dignity they retain as they dance for their conquerors and their conquerors’ children, children who don’t know how to feel about their vaguely traitorous wish that the outcome of the campaign of conquest had been otherwise, that at the very least the Indians had been left the space to carry on their ways as a sovereign people.

The scenarios are too different for any more fruitful comparison. In earlier centuries, European whites would capture natives and bring them home to display like zoo animals in cages. At least they’re not building a barred pen for me here, he thinks, though having some bars to separate us might not be so bad. At least they’re not setting a giant cauldron to boil, with me in it, like the cannibals in cartoons.

“Did you see Omawä when he brought you back to life?” one of them shouts.

How do you tell them there was no flood? That you never drowned? How do you tell them about the world outside the jungle, the civilization that within a few generations will have swallowed all the Yąnomamö culture whole? Is there a way to say it that will make them stop handling him so roughly, pulling the hairs from his chest? Is there a way to say it that will make them back off enough for him to catch his breath?

By the time Lac himself is brought to a hammock and forced to lie down, where he knows he’s supposed to don an impassive expression like the men from Bisaasi-teri, a sort of recumbent version of the visitor’s pose, with the men of Karohi-teri meanwhile running in a group from yahi to yahi as if to raid them individually, killing the visitors from their allied village, but not really killing anyone, only pretending, threatening—by this time Lac has sunk into a profound resignation. Some outer boundary separating him from the world, from other men, has been shattered and lies in pieces all over the courtyard. It happened when he stopped squirming, stopped trying to push away every reaching hand, stopped rambling nonstop, and all but went quietly limp.

The stench of body odor is seared into his nostrils; he’s smeared all over with red paint and black paint. The red is for the hekura, the black for battle. But this is supposed to be a visit to bolster an alliance. The Karohi-teri host a feast and regale their guests with poetry and song; the next day they show their generosity and loyalty through excessive giving or imbalanced trading—giving till it hurts and then some—secure in the knowledge that soon the visitors will throw their own feast where they’ll return favor for favor, gift for gift, thus cementing the alliance. So why all the black charcoal body paint and feinting lunges? The final step in the establishment of friendly relations is for the waiteri from each village to join forces and conduct a raid together, in this case probably against Patanowä-teri. And the Monou-teri will probably be coming along too, if they’re not leading the charge.

And me, Lac thinks: Where will I be when this raid occurs? What will I be doing? Staying at home with the women?


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Saturday, December 31, 2016

From the Blood of the Cannibal Moon: He Borara Chapter 5

Salesian Mission Outpost
(11,227  words. Or start with the first chapter.)

          The move into the mythic past encompasses a transition from existence to essence. When the events in these stories told by great shamans took place, the characters and places described in them had no beginnings and no ends. You must understand, if you want to appreciate the underlying truth of the stories, that the boundaries separating the mythic realm from the time-bound world are sometimes porous, but never more so than they were in the time of Moonblood. So there’s no contradiction when a shaman says, in a time before men, two men drew their bows and fired arrows at the moon.

            These two brothers, Uhudima and Suhirima, were not men as we know them today, men like you and me. They were no badabö, which means “those who are now dead,” but also means “the original humans,” and they were part human, part animal, and part spirit. The moon, Peribo, likewise partook of multiple essences, and he nightly stole away with members of the no badabö village to press them between two pieces of cassava bread and devour them, until the two brothers decided Peribo must be stopped. As the moon retreated toward the horizon, Uhudima aimed his bow and loosed an arrow. He missed. Then he missed again. The Yąnomamö say Uhudima was sina—a lousy shot.

            But his brother Suhirima was an excellent marksman. Even after Uhudima missed shot after shot, allowing Peribo to escape nearly all the way the horizon, Suhirima was able to take steady aim with his own bow and shoot an arrow that planted itself deep in Peribo’s belly. The wound disgorged great gouts of blood that fell to the earth as Peribo’s screams echoed across the sky. Wherever the blood landed sprang up a Yąnomamö—a true human being like the ones in these villages today. Something of the moon’s essence, his fury and bloodthirst, transferred to these newly born beings, making them waiteri, fearless and fiercely protective of their honor.

            The first Yąnomamö no sooner sprang forth from the blood of the cannibal moon than they set about fighting and killing each other. They may have gone on to wipe themselves entirely out of existence, but in some parts of the hei kä misi, the layer of the cosmos we’re standing on now, the blood of the moon was diluted by water from streams and ponds and swamps. The Yąnomamö who arose from this washed blood were less warlike, fighting fiercely but not as frequently. The purest moon blood landed near the center of the hei kä misi, and even today you notice that the Yąnomamö in this area are far fiercer than those you encounter as you move toward the edges of the layer, a peripheral region where the ground is friable and crumbling.

            Even the more peaceful Yąnomamö far from where the purest moon blood landed would have died out eventually because there were no women among them. But one day, the headman from one of the original villages was out with his men gathering vines for making hammocks and for lashing together support beams for their shabono. He was pulling a vine from the tree it clung to when he noticed an odd-looking fruit. Picking it from the tree and turning it in his hand, he saw that the fruit, which is called wabu, had a pair of eyes that were looking back at him.

            The headman wondered aloud, “Is this what a woman looks like?” He satisfied his curiosity, examining the fruit closely for several long moments, but he knew there was still work to be done, so he tossed the wabu on the ground and went back to pulling vines from trees.

            What he didn’t see was that upon hitting the ground the wabu transformed into a woman, like the ones we see today, only this one’s vagina was especially large and hairy, traits that fire Yąnomamö men’s lust. When the men finished pulling down their vines and began dragging the bundles back along the jungle trail to their shabono, this original woman succumbed to her mischievous streak. She followed behind the men, jumping behind trees whenever they turned back, which they did each time she ran up to the ends of the vines dragging behind them and stepped on them, causing the men to drop their entire bundle. They grew frustrated to the point of rage. Finally, when the men had nearly reached their shabono, the woman stepped on the end of a vine and remained standing there when the men turned around.

            Seeing this creature with strange curves and with her great, hairy vagina in place of an up-tied penis, the men felt their frustration commingle with their lust, whipping them into a frenzy. They surrounded her and took turns copulating with her. Once they’d each taken a turn, they brought her back to their shabono, where the rest of the men of the village were likewise overcome with lust and likewise took turns copulating with her. The woman stayed in the shabono for many months until her belly grew round and she eventually gave birth to a baby, a girl. As soon as this girl came of age, the men took turns copulating with her, just as they had with her mother. And so it went. Every daughter conceived through such mass couplings mothered her own girl, and the cycle continued.

            Now there are women in every shabono, and all Yąnomamö trace their ancestry back to both Moonblood and Wabu, though it’s the male line they favor.

            Around this time, back when time wasn’t fixed on its single-dimensional trajectory, a piece of the hedu kä misi—the sky layer, the underside of which we see whenever we look up—fell crashing into hei kä misi. The impact was so powerful that the shabono the piece of sky landed on, Amahiri-teri, was knocked all the way through and out the bottom of the layer, finally coming to form a subterranean layer of its own. Unfortunately, the part of hei kä misi that fell through the crater consisted only of the shabono and the surrounding gardens, so the Amahiri-teri have no jungles in which to hunt. Since these people are no badabö, they are able to send their spirits up through the layer separating us. And without jungles to hunt in, they’ve developed an insatiable craving for meat.

            Thus the Amahiri-teri routinely rise up from under the ground to snatch and devour the souls of children. Most of the spirits the shamans do battle with in their daily rituals are sent by shamans from rival villages to steal their children’s souls, but every once in a while they’re forced to contend with the cannibalistic Amahiri-teri.

            When Yąnomamö die, their buhii, their spirits, rise up through to the surface of the sky layer, hedu kä misi, to the bottom of which are fixed the daytime and nighttime skies as we see them, but the top surface of which mirrors the surface of this layer, with jungles, mountains, streams, and of course Yąnomamö, with their shabonos and gardens. Here too reside the no badabö, but since their essences are mixed they’re somewhat different. Their spirits, the hekura, regularly travel to this layer in forms part animal and part human. It is with the hekura that the shamans commune in their daily sessions with ebene, the green powder they shoot through blowguns into each other’s nostrils.

            The shamans imitate particular animals to call forth the corresponding hekura and make requests of them. They even invite the hekura to take up residence inside their bodies—as there seems to be an entirely separate cosmos within their chests and stomachs. This is possible because the hekura, who travel down to earth from high mountains on glittering hammock strings, are quite tiny. With the help of ebene, they appear as bright flashes flitting about like ecstatic butterflies over a summertime feast.

            “Sounds a bit like our old notion of fairies,” says the padre. “Fascinating. I’ve heard bits and pieces of this before, but it’s truly fantastic—and it’s quite impressive you were able to pick all of this up in just over a month.”

            “Oh, don’t write it down yet,” Lac says. “It’s only preliminary. Even within Bisaasi-teri, there’s all kinds of disagreement over the details. And I’m still struggling with the language—to put it mildly. Lucky for me, they do the rituals and reenact the myths every day when they take their hallucinogens. I think many of the details of the stories actually exists primarily because they’re fun to reenact, and fun to watch. You should see the shamans doing the bit about the first woman stepping on the ends of the vines. Or the brothers shooting their arrows at the moon.”

            “Sex and violence and cannibalism. The part about the woman and the fruit—wabu, did you call it?—is familiar-sounding to us Bible readers, no? But there’s no reference to, no awareness of sin or redemption. Sad really.”

            The two men sit in chairs, in an office with clean white walls, atop a finished wood floor.

            “They also have a story about a flood that rings a bell,” Lac says. “When they realized I was beginning to understand a lot of what they were saying, they started asking me if I had drowned and been reincarnated. They explained there was once a great flood that washed away entire villages. Some Yąnomamö survived by finding floating logs to cling to, but they were carried away to the edges of hei kä misi. When they didn’t return, everyone figured they must have drowned. But one of their main deities, Omawä, went to the edge and fished their bodies out of the water. He wrung them out, breathed life back into them, and sent them back home on their floating logs—which may be a reference to the canoes they see Ye’kwana traveling in. Of course, we come by canoe as well. They conclude we must be coming from regions farther from the center of this layer, because we’re even more degenerated from the original form they represent, and our speech is even more ‘crooked,’ as they call it.”

            The padre rolls his head back and laughs from his belly. Lac can’t help laughing along. Father Santa Claus here.

            “Their myths do seem to capture something of their character,” the padre says, “this theme of a free-for-all with regard to fighting and killing and sex, for instance.”

            Lac resists pointing out the ubiquity of this same theme throughout the Old Testament, which to him is evidence that both sources merely reflect the stage of their respective society’s evolution at the time of the stories’ conceptions. He says instead, “It’s not a total free-for-all. They find the Amahiri-teri truly frightening because they feel they’re always at risk of turning to cannibalism themselves—and they find the prospect absolutely loathsome and disgusting. I think that’s why they prefer their meat so well-done. I ate a bloody tenderloin I cut from a tapir I’d shot in front of some of the men. It was barely cooked—how I like it. The men were horrified, accusing me of wanting to become a jaguar, an eater of raw human flesh. So they do have their taboos.”

            Lac wishes he could add that the moral dimension of the story of Genesis is overstressed. By modern, civilized standards, the original sin stands out as a simple act of disobedience, defiance. You live in paradise, but a lordly presence commands you not to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: this sounds a bit like, “You have it made, just don’t ask questions.” Or else, “I’ve given you so much, don’t you dare question me!” One could argue you’d have a moral obligation to eat the fruit. Or you could even take morality out of the interpretation altogether and look at the story as an allegory of maturation from a stage of naïve innocence to one of more worldly cynicism, like when your parents can no longer protect you from the harsh realities of the world—in no small part because you insist on going forth to investigate them for yourself.

            Had Laura eaten from the Tree of Knowledge when she discovered the other women she encountered at U of M were only there to meet prize marriage prospects? Was that her banishment from paradise? Did I eat the same fruit by coming to Bisaasi-teri and witnessing firsthand how much of what I’d learned from my professors was in dire need of questioning and revision? Of course, I’d eaten that fruit before. We probably all have once or twice by the time we’re approaching our thirties.

            “Taboos and temptations, indeed,” says the padre. “I wonder,” he adds somberly, “what the final mix of beliefs will look like when my time in the territory has come to an end. Hermano Mertens says the Indians he speaks to across the river from you at Mavaca confuse the name Jesus with the name of one of the figures from their myths.”

            “Yes, Yoawä—he’s Omawä’s twin brother.” Lac forbears to add that Yoawä is usually the uglier, clumsier, and more foolish of the pair in the stories. But he does say, “Chuck Clemens did once tell me it was all but impossible to convince the Yąnomamö to reject their religion wholesale. The best he could hope for was to see them incorporate the Bible stories into their own stories about the no badabö.”

            The kindly padre chuckles. “Ah, that’s how it looks for the first generation. For the children, the balance will have shifted. For the grandchildren, the stories they tell now will be mere folktales—if they’re not entirely forgotten… I can tell that prospect disturbs you. You find fascination in their culture and their way of life. That’s only natural, you being an anthropologist. And your friend is a Protestant. Here we all are in the jungle, battling it out for the savages’ souls. It was ever thus.”

            It was not ever thus, Lac thinks. Those savages used to be exterminated by the hundreds for their land, and for their madohe if they had any. People like me were called heretics and burned at the stake. “One of my informants,” he says, “tells me the hekura find it repulsive when humans have sex. He says he’d like to become a shabori, a shaman, himself, but the initiation entails a year of fasting, which reduces the men to walking skeletons, and a year of sexual abstinence. See, to become hekura oneself, you must first invite the hekura spirits into your chest. And they won’t come if you’re fooling around in hammocks or in the back of the garden with women. The hekura believe sex is shami, filthy. You can’t help but heed the similarity with the English word shame.”

            The padre laughs and Lac laughs easily alongside him. There’s no tension between him and this priest, obviously a beneficent man. “I suspect,” Lac says, “the older shabori tell the initiates the hekura think sex is shami because they want to neutralize the competition for a year. So many of their disputes are over jealousy, liberties taken with wives, refusals to deliver promised brides.”

            “They receive no divine injunction to seek peace and love their fellow man?” the padre asks, though the utterance hovers in the space between question and statement.

            “That’s not entirely true. One of my informants tells me they face judgement when they die. A figure named Wadawadariwä asks if they’ve been generous in mortal life. If they say yes, they’re admitted into hedu, the higher layer. But if not they are sent to Shobari Waka, a place of fire.” Lac pauses to let his Spanish catch up with his thoughts. The Yąnomamö terms keep getting him tangled up, making him lose track of which word fits with which language. He imagines that, while in his mind he’s toggling back and forth between each tongue somewhat seamlessly, in reality he’s probably speaking a nearly incoherent jumble. “But when I asked the man how seriously the Yąnomamö take this threat of a fiery afterlife, he laughed. You see, Wadawadariwä is a moron, and everyone knows to tell him what he wants to hear. They lie. He has no way of knowing the truth.”

            Now the padre’s attention is piercing; he’s taking note. Lac half expects him to get up from his straight-backed wicker chair and find a notepad to jot down what he’s heard. Nice work, Shackley. You just helped the Church make inroads toward frightening the Yąnomamö into accepting a new set of doctrines.

            “Curious that they’d have such a belief,” the padre says. “I wonder if it’s not a vestige of some long-ago contact with Christians—or some rumor passed along from neighboring tribes that got incorporated into their mythology in a lukewarm fashion.”

            “I had the same thought. The biggest question I have now though is whether my one informant is giving me reliable information. You work with the Yąnomamö; you know how mischievous they are. They all want to stay close to me for the prime access to trade goods, but I can tell they don’t think much of me. Ha! I’m no better off than Wadawadariwä, an idiot they’ll say anything to to get what they want.”

            This sets the padre to shuddering with laughter again. “Oh, my friend, what do you expect? You show up, build a mud hut, and start following them around all day, pestering them with questions. You can see why they’d be confused about your relative standing. But I understand you want to report on their culture and their way of life. Maybe you really are doing that the most effective way, but maybe you could learn just as much while being much more comfortable.” He stretches and swings his arm in a gesture encompassing his own living conditions. “It’s hard to say. But since the Church’s goal is different—our goal is first to persuade them—we feel it best to establish clear boundaries, clear signals of where we stand, how our societies would fare if forced to battle it out, in a manner of speaking. And battle it out we must, for the sake of their immortal souls.” He makes a face and wiggles his fingers in accompaniment to this last sentiment.

            Lac appreciates him making light of such a haughty declamation, but he’s at a loss how to interpret the general message. Does the padre not really believe he has to demonstrate the superiority of his culture if he hopes to save the Yąnomamö’s souls? Or does he simply recognize how grandiose this explanation of his mission must sound to a layman, a scientist no less—or a man aspiring to be one at any rate.

            “But naturally we’ve had our difficulties,” the padre continues, pausing to scowl over his interlaced fingers. “I hope however that once we’ve established a regular flight schedule, landing and taking off from Esmeralda, many of those difficulties will be resolved.”

            “A regular flight schedule?”

            “Yes, we’re negotiating with the Venezuelan Air Force to start making regular flights out here, maybe make some improvements to the air strip. Ha ha. I’m afraid I’m not the adventurer you are, Dr. Shackley. I like my creature comforts, and those comforts are often critical to bringing the natives to God. As Hermano Mertens is discovering now at Boca Mavaca.”

            Lac remembers standing knee-deep in the Orinoco, watching smoke twist up in its gnarled narrow column, wondering who it could be, wondering if whoever it was might have some salvation on offer. He’d only been in Bisaasi-teri a few days. It was a rough time. The padre, naturally enough, asked after the lay brother setting up a new mission outpost across the river from Bisaasi-teri soon after they’d introduced themselves. “Honestly,” Lac answered, “I just managed to get my hands on the dugout because the Malarialogìa are trying to get pills to all the villages. It’s a really bad year for malaria. Many of the children of Bisaasi-teri are afflicted. I did hear some rumors about a construction project of some sort going on across the river, but I have yet to visit and check it out for myself.”

            “Hermano Mertens had such high hopes for what he could accomplish there,” the padre says now. He pauses. One of the traits that Lac has quickly taken to in the padre is his allowance for periods of silence in conversation. Back in the States, people are so desperate to fill gaps in dialogue that they pounce whenever you stop to mull over a detail of what’s been said. The Yąnomamö are worse still. With them, you can forget the difficulty of getting a word in; every syllable you utter throughout the whole conversation will be edgewise, if not completely overlain. No one ever speaks without two or three other people speaking simultaneously.

            The padre is thoughtful, curious, so he offers any interlocutor opportunities for contemplation. Lac is relieved that the one shortwave radio in the region isn’t guarded by a man who’s succumbed to the madness of the jungle, a man who’s filled with delusions and completely unpredictable in his demands and threats, like the ones the Venezuelans downriver had described to him in warning—to encourage him to both watch out for it in others and to avoid succumbing to it himself—a reprising of the warning he originally received from his Uncle Rob when they were trekking across the UP. Lac is glad to have instead found in Padre Morello a man who’s warm, friendly, thoughtful—thoughtful enough to speak clearly and at a measured pace to help Lac keep up with the Spanish—and kind, a perspiring Santa of the tropics, with a round belly, scraggly white beard, and exiguous hair thinning to a blur of floating mist over the crown of his head. The figure he cuts is disarming in every aspect, except the incongruously dark and sharp-angled eyebrows, a touch of Mephistopheles to his otherwise jolly visage.

            Still—first Clemens, now Morello, both hard to dislike, both hard to wish away from the jungle, away from the Yąnomamö, whose way of life it is their mission to destroy. Yet how many nights over the past month have I, he thinks, lain awake in my hammock listening to the futile bellicose chants of the village shabori trying to wrest the soul of some child back from the hekura sent by the shabori of some rival village? Every illness is for the Yąnomamö the result of witchcraft. And there’s a reason the demographic age pyramid is so wide at the base and narrow at the top. There are kids everywhere you go, everywhere you look, but how many of them will live long enough to reach the next age block?

            As much as Lac abhors the image of so many Yąnomamö kids sitting at desks lined up in neat rows, wearing the modest garb of the mission Indian, he’s begun to see that those kids at least won’t have to worry about missing out on their entire adolescence and adulthood because they picked up a respiratory infection that could easily be cured with the medicine a not-too-distant neighbor has readily on hand.

            “You know, every president in the history of Venezuela has attended a Catholic Salesian school,” the padre says. “It shouldn’t be too difficult convincing the officials in Caracas how important it is that we are able to supply ourselves.” He’s talking about his airstrip in Esmeralda. The influx has begun; now it will want to gather momentum. How long before the region bears not even the slightest resemblance to what it is now? How long before Yąnomamöland is a theme park for eager and ingenuous young Jesus lovers?

            Soon after he’d docked the new dugout—newly purchased anyway—here at the mission, the padre led him to the office with the shortwave. As both men suspected would be the case, no one answered their calls. Regular check-ins are scheduled for 6 am every day. Outside of that, you’re unlikely to reach anyone. Lac had left Bisaasi-teri with the Malarialogìa men at first light. They said they were returning to Puerto Ayacucho, so Lac agreed to take them as far as Esmeralda after buying their motorized canoe. They passed Ocamo about halfway through the trip, but Lac pressed on to fulfill his promise. He was tempted to stay in Esmeralda, but instead turned around to make sure he could make it back to the mission outpost, with its large black cross prominent against the white gable you could see from the river, before it was too late in the day. He had doubts about his welcome among the Salesians. Had they heard of his dealings with the New Tribes missionaries? Would they somehow guess, perhaps tipped off by his profession, that he was an atheist?

            He was in the canoe all day, still feels swimmy in his neck and knees, still feels the vibrating drone of the motor over every inch of his skin, but nowhere so much as in his skull, like a thousand microscopic termites boring into the bone, searching out the pulpy knot behind his eyes. He’s a wraith, wrung of substance, a quivering unsubstantial husk, with heavy eyelids. But all his vitality would return in an instant were he to hear Laura’s voice—or any mere confirmation of her existence on the other side of these machines connecting them through their invisible web of pulsing energy. Just an acknowledgement that while she may not be available at that particular instant, she is still at the compound, clean and safe and well provided for, her and the kids; that would pull him back from what he fears is the brink of being lost to this hallowed out nonexistence forever. They’ll try the radio again before he retires to the hammock he’s hung in the shed where the good padre has let him store his canoe. Their best bet of reaching someone, though, will be in the morning. He can talk to Laura, say his goodbyes to the padre, perhaps set a time for his next visit, and be back to Bisaasi-teri well before noon, before the villagers are done with the day’s gardening, before it’s too sweltering to do anything but gossip and chat.

            He yawns. The padre is still talking about the airstrip, about how convenient it will be to them both, about how silly the persistent obstacles and objections are. They’re going to win, Lac thinks: the Catholics. A generation from now there will be but a few scattered villages in the remotest parts of the jungle. The rest of the Yąnomamö will be raised in or near mission schools, getting the same education as all the past presidents of Venezuela. Could I be doing more to stop this? Should I be? At least this man’s motives seem benign, and he’s offering so many children a better chance of reaching adulthood—maybe not the children of this generation but more surely those of the next.

            The padre has access to a small airstrip here at Ocamo too, and he’s always sending for more supplies to build up the compound, including the church, the school, the living quarters, and the comedor, which is like a cafeteria. You can’t really get much in, he complained, on the planes that can land here. But it’s the steady trickle that concerns Lac. Morello talks about his role here in the jungle as consisting mainly of helping to incorporate the Indian populations into the larger civilization. Not extermination, of course—we’re past that—but assimilation. It’s either that or they slowly die off as ranchers, loggers, and miners dispossess them of their territories, or poison their water, a piece at a time, introducing them all the while to diseases they have no antibodies to combat, and taking every act of self-defense as a provocation justifying mass slaughter.

            The padre wants the Indians to be treated the same as everyone else, afforded all the same rights: a tall order considering Venezuela as a country has a giant inferiority complex when it comes to its own general level of technological advancement. You take some amenity that’s totally lacking in whatever region you’re in, and that’s exactly what the officials, and even the poorest among the citizenry, will insist most vociferously they have on offer, more readily available than anywhere else you may visit in the world. Just say the word. The naked Indians running around in the forests are an embarrassment, so far beneath the lowermost rung on the social ladder they’d need another ladder to reach it, barely more than animals, more like overgrown, furless monkeys. That’s the joke you hear, according to the Malarialogìa men. The funny thing is, to the Yąnomamö, it’s us nabä who are subhuman. Look at all the hair we have on our arms and legs, our chests and backs. We’re the ones who look like monkeys—and feel like monkeys too after spending enough time in the company of these real humans.

            Without our dazzling and shiny, noisy and deadly technology, there’d be no way to settle the conflicting views. But we know it will be the nabä ways that spread unremittingly, steamrolling all of Yąnomamöland, not the other way around. Insofar as the padre and his friends are here to ease the transition, saving as many lives as possible from the merciless progress of civilization and all the attendant exploitation and blind destruction, who is Lac to fault him for being inspired by backward beliefs? Of course, it’s not the adoption of nabä ways in general the Salesians hope to facilitate; it’s the ways of the Catholic Church. The Salesians had no interest in the Indians’ plight—particularly not a foot people like the Yąnomamö, living far from the main waterways—until the New Tribes began proselytizing here. The Christians, Lac thinks, are plenty primitive in their own way; they’ve carried on their own internecine wars for centuries.

            “Don Pedro will be there when I check in at 6 tomorrow morning. I’ll have him try to reach the institute in Caracas by phone and then patch us through so you can talk to your wife.” The padre pauses thoughtfully, and then, donning a devilish grin, says, “I wonder: you said both you and your wife attended Catholic schools in Michigan. Did you also have a Catholic wedding ceremony?”

            Lac appreciates the teasing; the padre is charming enough to pass it off as part of a general spirit of play, one he infuses at well-timed points throughout the conversation. Ah, to speak to a civilized man, Lac savors, whose jokes are in nowise malicious. Smiling, he answers, “Oh, Laura’s mother would never have accepted anything else as binding.” The two men laugh together. “And you?” Lac counters. “How does the Church view your readiness to converse with people of other faiths?”

            “Other faiths?” the padre asks skeptically.

            So he has guessed I’m an atheist.

            “Miraculously enough,” the padre says without waiting for a response, “I’ve just read in our newsletter that the pope recently issued an edict declaring priests are free to pursue open dialogue with Protestants and nonbelievers, and that such exchanges may even bear spiritual fruit in our quest to become closer to God. What this means, my friend, is that I don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying this conversation so much.”

            “And many more thereafter I hope.”

            The padre smiles, his teeth flashing whiter than his scraggly beard. “You know,” he says, “throughout he war, I lived in the rectory of a church in my hometown near Turin. Now this was Northern Italy, so there were planes flying overhead all the time. We’d often their guns rattling like hellish thunder chains in the sky, and on many occasions we felt obliged to rush to the site of a crash. For years, the Germans had the upper hand, but if we found an Allied pilot at the crash site, we’d bring him back to the church, shelter him, and keep him hidden from any patrols. Had we been caught harboring these enemy pilots, feeding them, nursing their injuries, it would have meant the firing squad for us for sure. But what could we do?

            “When the tides shifted and it was the Allied forces who dominated the skies, we started finding Axis pilots at the crash sites, and now it was the Allied firing squads we feared.” The padre leans forward with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, holds a hand up to his mouth and whispers, “Here’s the best part: a couple years after the war, I started receiving a pension, an expression of gratitude from the military for what I’d done saving the lives of their pilots, in recognition of what I’d risked—first from the Axis side, then another one later from the Allied side.” He leans away, his head rolling back to release a booming peel of laughter. 

            Lac too laughs from deep in his belly, wondering, could this story be true? The doubt somehow makes it funnier. Does it even matter? He’s already regretting his plans to leave the mission outpost tomorrow after talking to Laura, already looking forward to his next visit to Ocamo.

The padre has told him he’s writing a book about his life in the jungle, prominently featuring his mission work among the Yąnomamö, and he’s interested in any photographs Lac may be able to provide from his own fieldwork. In exchange, Lac will be free to visit the outpost at Ocamo anytime and make use of the shortwave. He will also be free to store extra supplies and fuel for his dugout’s motor—which will make it easier for him to reach all the towns downstream.

You help me with my book; I’ll help you with yours. Sounds like an excellent bargain to me. But now that you have all these ways of reaching and communicating with the world outside the Yąnomamö’s, you really need to forget about them and get back to work.

            “—chlan –ell me –u’re alight.” Laura’s voice. English. Bliss.

            One candle bowing across the vast distance to light another. The hollowness inside him fills with the warm dancing glow.

Padre Morello discreetly backs out of the room upon hearing the voice come through, and Lac is grateful because he has to choke back a sob and draw in a deliberately measured breath before he can say, “I’m alright Laura. Healthy and in one piece. Though I’ve lost a bunch of weight. How are you and the kids?”

            “Healthy and in one piece. They miss you. I think we’re all feeling a little trapped here. There’s another family, though, the Hofstetters—they’ve been a godsend.”

            Lac’s mind seamlessly mends the lacunae in the transmission—one of the easier linguistic exercises he’s been put to lately—but every missing syllable elevates his heartrate. He leans forward until his cheek is almost touching the surface of the contraption. He asks, “Are you getting everything you need by way of supplies and groceries?” He feels a pang in recognition of his own pretense at having any influence whatsoever over his family’s provisioning; the question is really a plea for reassurance.

            “The Hofstetters have been taking us in their car every week to a grocery store down in the city.” Lac is already imagining a strapping husband, disenchanted with marriage, bored with his wife; he’d be some kind of prestigious scientist no doubt, handsome, over six feet. “Dominic had a fever last week, but it went down after we gave him some aspirin and put him to bed.” We? “He misses French fries, says the ones here aren’t right. He wants McDonalds.”

            Lac decides to break the news preemptively, before she has a chance to mention the plan for them to come live with him in the field. “Laura, I have some bad news. The conditions are more prim… it’s rougher than I anticipated.” He proceeds with a bowdlerized version of his misadventures among the Yąnomamö to date, adding that with time he should be able to learn the ropes of the culture and secure regular access to everything they need. “Don’t worry, honey, I’m through the most risky part myself, but even I have to be cautious at all times. I need to make absolutely sure you’ll all be safe before I bring you here.”

            “Are the Indians dangerous?” she asks innocently. “When they’re demanding your trade goods like you described, do they ever threaten you?”

“Oh yes.” She knows I’m holding back, he thinks. Am I just making her worry even more? He hurries to add, “They’re full of bluster and machismo. It was intimidating at first, but I picked up on the fact that they’re mostly bluffing.”


“You have to understand, all the men are really short. If they get too aggressive I can stand looking down at them. Ha. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been the tallest guy around. And the key I’ve found is to stand your ground, not budge, make sure it’s known to everyone that you’re no easy mark. Now I worry more about the kids making off with anything I leave out in the open.” He turns away and curses himself. Until that last sentence, he’d managed to stick to the technical truth, however misleading the delivery. But he intuited a need in Laura for him to segue onto a more trivial threat, so he brought up the kids, even though it’s the grown men who have the stickiest fingers.

So now I’m officially lying to my wife; I got carried away weaving true threads into a curtain of falsehood and I lost sight of which threads were which. Now I can’t pull out that last thread without the whole thing unraveling, revealing the stark reality. He foresees being haunted by the guilt from his little fib for weeks, or until he’s able to show her firsthand that he really is safe, safe enough to keep her and the kids safe too.

He’s got his work cut out.

Padre Morello sees at a glance that Lac has no wish to speak; he makes no effort to continue the conversation from the night before, though doing so would be in keeping with his natural disposition. The men exchange a few words as the padre guides him part of the way back to the shed, where Lac will repack his belongings, do some preventative maintenance on his motor—or pretend to, as he knows embarrassingly little about engines, for a Shackely—and drag the dugout down to the riverbank for the trip back to Bisaasi-teri, back to his hut, back to Rowahirawa and all the others. Rowahirawa, formerly Waddu-ewantow, has taken over the role of chief informant, even though Lac still reckons the chances that he’ll turn violent toward him someday rather high.

The padre never asked him questions like that, about how much danger he felt he was in. That’s the other reason for recreating your own cultural surroundings, or at least a simulacrum of them, when you come to live in this territory—the safety. The dogs living at the Ocamo outpost would alert the inhabitants of any unwanted guests, and the offer of rich food would make it relatively easy to demand visitors disarm themselves before entering the area. Morello had focused on the symbolism, the message sent to the natives about how much more advanced our ways are than theirs, but what if the real reason was more practical, myopic even? You’d have to be insane to come out here and live next to one of their shabonos in a dank and gloomy mud hut. By contrast, even the creak of the wood floor beneath his feet in this place speaks of deliverance.

If it ever gets too bad, he thinks, I’m not too proud to come back here and hole up with the padre. He’ll be able to arrange transportation out of the territory—if it comes to that. “The people of Bisaasi-teri are talking about some trouble brewing to the south of them,” Lac says without having decided to speak.

“Ah, I’ve heard that the Yąnomamö often attack one another’s villages.” Lac can tell the padre has more to add but decides against it, maybe to let Lac finish his thought.

“My first day in the village, I ducked under the outside edge of the wall and stood up to see a dozen arrows drawn back and aimed at my face. I learned later that the Patanowä-teri were visiting to try to form a trading partnership with Bisaasi-teri, and that’s when the men from a third village, Monou-teri, attacked and stole seven of the Patanowä-teri women. The Patanowä-teri in turn went to Monou-teri, less than a day’s walk, and challenged them to a chest-pounding tournament, which they must’ve won because they returned to Bisaasi-teri with five of the seven women.”  

The padre nods in thoughtful silence as he walks alongside Lac, who has an inchoate sense of remorse at relaying these most unsavory of his research subjects’ deeds to a representative of the Church. “When Clemens and I arrived, we spooked them. The headman of the Monou-teri had been incensed and swore he’d take vengeance, and the two groups at Bisaasi-teri feared he was making good on his vow. For days, I looked around and it was obvious that something had them on edge, but it wasn’t like I had a baseline to compare their moods against. When the Patanowä-teri left after two days, though, I noted the diminished numbers.”

“You know,” the padre says, “if things get too tense at the village, you’re always welcome to stay here for a while.” This echo of his own earlier thought floods Lac with gratitude. He remembers once silently declaring that he’d never say a word against Chuck Clemens; he now has the same conviction about Padre Morello, though in this case it’s more of the moment, whereas with Clemens, well, he’s still sure he’ll never have anything bad to say about the man.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that, Padre. I’m not expecting it to come to that, but it’s reassuring to know I have a friend to turn to if it does.”

The men shake hands. Lac continues on to the shed and his dugout canoe, while the padre goes back to his day, back to his routine as the head of the mission, directing the ghostly white-clad sisters, feeding and clothing the Indians, swaddled in his nimbus of mirth, like a saint from a bygone era. Isn’t everything out here from one bygone era or another, Lac thinks, including you? He chuckles at the thought, then comes abruptly to the verge of tears—because it’s a joke Laura would enjoy, but he’ll almost certainly have forgotten it by the time he talks to her again.

Lac returns in time for another commotion inside Bisaasi-teri’s main shabono. Until docking his canoe, he’d been considering landing on the far shore and journeying inland to introduce himself to the Dutch lay brother who’s building a comedor across the river to attract the Yąnomamö for food and proselytizing. It’ll have to wait for another day. Lac already feels guilty for having been away for so long, a day and a half, imagining the villagers to have engaged in myriad secret rites while he was downriver, or merely some magnificent ceremony no outsider had ever witnessed. Smiling bitterly, bracing himself for whatever chaos he’s about to thrust himself into, he thinks: every ceremony they perform has never been seen by outsiders; the big secret is that they’re not like you’d imagine; they’re like nothing so much as a bunch of overgrown boys getting high and playing an elaborate game of make-believe, boys who could throw a tantrum at random and end up maiming or killing someone, starting a war of axes and machetes, bows and arrows.

He squats under the outermost edge of the thatched roof, sidling and bobbing his way into the headman’s house, where he sees a very pregnant Nakaweshimi, the eldest wife. Since he’s begun addressing the headman with a term that means older brother, he’s obliged to likewise refer to Nakaweshimi as kin, as a sister. “Sister,” he calls to her. “I’ve returned to your shabono. I’m glad to see you. What is happening? What is causing excitement?” Not much like her fellow Yąnomamö speak to her, but they’ve learned to give him extra leeway in matters of speech and etiquette, like you would the village idiot. He’s even been trying to get everyone to tell him all their names, this addled-brained nabä.

Nakaweshimi nearly smiles upon seeing him—at least he thinks she does—but then waves him off. “Rowahirawa will tell you what Towahowä has done now,” she says. Her expression baffles him, showing an undercurrent of deep concern overlain with restrained merriment, like she may have almost laughed. Could she be that happy to see me, he wonders, maybe because she thinks I’ll ward off the raiders with my shotgun and other articles of nabä magic? Or maybe I’m such an object of derision the jokes following in my wake set people to laughing whenever they see me.

He continues through the house out into the plaza, sees the men, some squatting, others standing, pacing. High above them, he looks out to see the thick blur of white mist clinging to the nearly black leaves of the otherworldly canopy and is struck by the devastating beauty, feeling a pang he can’t immediately source and doesn’t have the time to track down. The syllables and words of the men he’s approaching rise up in a cloud around him, a blinding vortex that simultaneously sweeps up the identifiable scents of individual men, bearing aloft the broken debris of shattered meanings, all the pieces just beyond his reach. Straining, he lays a finger on one, then another. He envies these men, naked but for strings, arm bands, sticks driven through their ears, their faces demoniacally distorted by the thick wads of green tobacco tucked behind their bottom lips—envies them because the words swirling away from him flow into their ears in orderly streams.

He sees a squatting man scratch the bottom side of his up-tied penis; another spits, almost hitting a companion’s foot. They’re discussing war and strategy, but we’re a long way from the likes of Churchill and Roosevelt—and yet, probably not as far as us nabä might like to think. Bahikoawa is telling them about his relationship to some man from Monou-teri: he lives in a different village and yet descends from the same male progenitor, meaning they’re of the same lineage. Lac reaches for his back pocket but finds it empty, his notebook, he then recalls, still tucked in a backpack full of items he brought along for the trip to Ocamo.

When the men finally notice Lac’s presence—or finally let on that they’ve noticed him, some of them walk over with greetings of shori, brother-in-law, asking after his efforts to procure more of his splendid nabä trade goods, which they’re sure he’ll want to be generous in divvying out among them. He haltingly replies that he was merely visiting Iyäwei-teri and the other nabä who lives there and is building a great house. He adds that he asked this other nabä to bring him back some medicines—a word borrowed from Spanish, with some distorting effects—he can administer to the Yąnomamö, but it will be some time before they arrive. They respond with aweis and tongue clicks. One man, a young boy really, tells Lac to give him a machete in the meantime—“and be quick about it!”
Ma. Get your own machete.

Among the Yąnomamö, Lac has learned, it’s seen as stingy, almost intolerably so, not to give someone an item he requests. What they normally give each other, though, is tobacco—often handing over the rolled wads already in their own mouths—germ theory still being millennia in the future, or at least a few years of acculturation at the hands of the missionaries. Lac has to appreciate his madohe make him rich, after a fashion, but his refusal to give them away freely makes him a deviant, a sort of reprobate. They don’t exactly condemn him as such. They struggle to work out the proper attitude to have toward him, just as he does toward them. The culture has no categories to accommodate the bizarre scenario in which an outsider in possession of so many valuable goods comes to live among them.

For the most part, they make allowances; they’re flexible enough to recognize the special circumstance. They tolerate his egregious tight-fistedness—what do you expect from a subhuman? And this particular subhuman appears to be trying to learn what it means to be a real human, translated Yąnomamö. Why else would he be so determined to speak their language? Though they seem to think there’s only one language with varying degrees of crookedness. The Yąnomamö to the south speak a crooked dialect for instance, but at least it’s not so crooked as to be indecipherable. Lac must have traveled far beyond those southern villages when he was washed to the edge of the earth by the Great Flood. Really, though, Lac isn’t sure how to gauge what percentage of the villagers actually believes this story, or to what degree they believe it. He’s noted a few times that their beliefs in general seem to be malleable, changing according to the demands of the situation.

Their attitudes toward the Patanowä-teri, for example, have undergone a dramatic shift in the brief time he’s been among them. The Patanowä-teri had come to attend a feast at Bahikoawa’s invitation, hoping to establish regular trade in goods like bows, clay pots, dogs, tobacco, and ebene—or rather the hisiomo seeds used to make it. The Monou-teri, meanwhile, were invited to be fellow guests at the feast, but on their way to Bisaasi-teri they happened upon those seven Patanowä-teri women hiding in the forest, a common precaution, Lac’s been told, to keep them safe from the still suspect host villagers. The Monou-teri couldn’t resist. This led to the chest-pounding duel he’d heard about, though it must have been several separate duels, more like a tournament, the outcome of which was that the Patanowä-teri returned to Bisaasi-teri with five of the seven women, just before Lac and Clemens arrived. The Patanowä-teri then left the village early to avoid further trouble with the Monou-teri, who, if he’s hearing correctly, are now determined to raid the Patanowä-teri at their shabono on the Shanishani River. This despite their having come out ahead by two women.

Now, even though the Patanowä-teri have in no way wronged the people of Bisaasi-teri, Bahikoawa is considering whether he and some of the other men should accompany the Monou-teri on their raid. It seems Bahikoawa is related to the headman of Monou-teri, the one who’s causing all the trouble. This man is waiteri: angry or aggressive, eager to project an air of menace and invincibility, traits considered to be manly virtues rather than political liabilities.

Bahikoawa, it seems, is related to many of the Patanowä-teri as well, but more distantly. The men argue over whether Towahowä, the Monou-teri headman, is justified in launching the raid—not in the moral sense, but in a strategic one—and over whether they should send someone to participate. Bahikoawa, drawing on the juice from his tabacco, looks genuinely distraught, like he’s being forced to choose between two brothers, and Lac feels an upwelling of sympathy. He couldn’t speak for anyone else in any of these villages; he’d be loath to turn his back to any of them. Bahikoawa, on the other hand, is a good man; it’s plain for anyone to see. He also appears to be sick. He keeps clutching his side, as though he’s having sharp pains in his abdomen. Fortunately, the war counsel is breaking up, partly in response to Lac showing up to distract them.

The men have all kinds of questions about the villagers at Ocamo, the Iyäwei-teri, almost none of which Lac can answer: How are their gardens producing? Was everyone at the shabono, or were some of them off hunting? Did they appear well-supplied with tobacco? Lac, realizing he could have easily stopped to check in with the villagers—he’ll want their genealogical information too at some point—tries to explain that he merely went for a chance to speak with his wife and ask after his children. When they assume, naturally enough, his wife must be living at Iyäwei-teri, he’s at a loss as to how he can even begin to explain she’s somewhere else.

Lac asks where Rowahirawa is: out hunting for basho for his in-laws. So there’s little chance of clearing things up about where Laura is and why Lac could nonetheless speak to her from Ocamo. Lac decides to step away and go to his hut to relax for a bit before starting his interviews and surveys again. He’s shocked by his own oversight, not anticipating that the people of Bisaasi-teri would be eager to hear about what’s going on at Iyäwei-teri. Travelers are the Yąnomamö’s version of newspapers; it’s how they know what’s brewing at Monou-teri; it’s the only way for them to know what’s going on in the wider world—their own wider world anyway. But is what the Bisaasi-teri are after best characterized as news, gossip, or military intel?

At some point, it’s disturbingly easy to imagine, he could unwittingly instigate an intervillage attack simply by relaying the right information—or rather the wrong information. Lac is also amazed by the Yąnomamö’s agility in shifting alliances, and he can’t figure out how to square it with his knowledge about tribal societies vis-à-vis warfare, which is thought to begin when a society reaches a stage in its evolution when the people start to rely on certain types of key resources like cultivable land, potable water, or ready access to game. Intergroup conflicts then intensify when the key resources take on more symbolic than strategic meanings, as when they’re used as currency or as indicators of status. Think gold and diamonds. But Bisaasi-teri was working to establish trade relations with Patanowä-teri when the Monou-teri headman, in a brazen breach of diplomacy, instigated hostilities.  

What resources, he wonders as he steps into his hut, can they possibly be fighting over?

If anything, the fighting seems to be further limiting their access to the goods they may otherwise procure through trade. And why should the Bisaasi-teri men consider sending a contingent to represent their village in the raid? When the first offense occurred, the Bisaasi-teri were seeking to strengthen their ties to Patanowä-teri, and Bahikoawa’s lineage is present in both villages, so why bother picking a side? Why not sit out the fight? What do they hope to gain?

Lac lies back in his hammock, trying to make sense of it. He could easily fall asleep.

As he was preparing to board the ship in New York with Laura and the kids and all the supplies he was going to take with him into the field, he’d read in a newspaper about the U.S. sending military advisors to Southeast Asia, another jungle region, to support a group of people resisting the advance of communism. The Soviet Union apparently has already established a foothold in the country by supporting a rival group, the Vietcong. The threat of a proxy war between the great powers looms.

What resources are the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. fighting over? It seems to Lac to be much more about ideas: capitalism vs. communism. Is it only nations at the most advanced stages of technological advancement that battle over ideologies and economic systems? Dozing off, Lac’s last thought is that for the Bisaasi-teri men at least, the real motivation seems to be the opportunity to assert their own impunity alongside their readiness to punish rivals for any miniscule offense. It’s about projecting an air of superiority, acquiring prestige, for yourself, your village, your lineage, your tribe, your nation, your very way of life.

He dozes for maybe twenty minutes, his eagerness to work blunting the edge of his now-chronic exhaustion. Overnighting at the mission afforded him a superb night of sleep, comparatively. The Yąnomamö don’t keep to the strict schedules Westerners do; they have no qualms about late-night visits, even if those visits require rousing the visitee from a deep slumber. They do fortunately happen to be adept at midday dozes, a skill they like to practice during the day’s most oppressively hot stretches, when doing much of anything else is a loathsome prospect. Lac has adapted quickly, hence the short nap when he really felt like a longer sleep.

One good stretch of uninterrupted sleep, he thinks, hardly makes up for the weeks of erratic events, bizarre occurrences, and anxiety-fueled insomnia. When I finally leave this place, in just over a year from now, I may spend the first month home doing nothing but sleeping. What bliss. For now, though, he has work to do, and thanks to the encroachments into Yąnomamöland by the New Tribes and the Salesians, he’s on a diminishing timetable. Already, it will be difficult to tell how closely the population structures he uncovers reflect outside influences versus the true nature of tribal life in the jungle. He keeps hearing about more remote villages to the South, near the headwaters of the Mavaca, where there’s supposedly a single shabono housing over twice as many people as Bisaasi-teri. According to his main informant at least. According to his whilom persecutor, his bully, his now sometimes friend—as reticent as he’s learned to be in applying that term, and as wary as he’s become in allowing for that sentiment.

It’s still hot. The trip from Ocamo took a little over six hours, twice as long coming upriver than it was going downstream. He’s hungry, but the lackluster range of choices on offer dulls his appetite. He guesses that in the little over a month he’s been in the field, he’s lost between ten and fifteen pounds. He may never successfully remove the crusty, bug-bitten, sticky film clinging to his body; he imagines Laura catching a first whiff of him when they’re finally reunited and bursting into tears.

But I’m on to something, he thinks as he stands and moves to the table. From his discussions with Rowahirawa, he’s learned that the proscription against voicing names isn’t a taboo per se; saying someone’s name aloud is more like taking a great liberty with that person, much the way Westerners would think of being groped in public, an outrageous gesture of disrespect. But, while it may be grossly offensive to run your hands over a stranger, or even an intimate if it’s in a public setting, you can often get away with more subtle displays of affection; you can touch another person’s arm, say, or her shoulder; you could reach over and touch her hand.

Remembering a night with Laura, back before Dominic was born, Lac has one of his rare flickers of sexual arousal, a flash of a scene overflowing with the promise sensual indulgence. Lac looks around his hut; it’s only ever moments before someone arrives. He’s probably only been left alone this long because of the excitement in the shabono over the impending conflict to the east. He’s yet to see a single Yąnomamö man or woman masturbate, he notes, but the gardening time of day is when the jokes and all the innuendo he can’t decode suggest is the time for trysting. Someone’s always gone missing, and then it’s discovered someone else has gone missing at the same time. Lac’s never witnessed these paired abscondings. Sexuality is notoriously tricky for ethnographers to study, a certain degree of discretion being universal across cultures. People like to do it in private. It seems this is particularly true of the Yąnomamö, if for no other reason than that they fear detection by a jealous husband.

And Lac himself?

He’s awoken in his hammock from dreams of lying alongside Laura on the smoothest, cleanest sheets he’s ever felt—awoken in a compromised state his unannounced Yąnomamö visitor took no apparent notice of. He feels an ever-present pressure crying out for release, but the conditions could hardly be less conducive to the proper performance of such routine maintenance tasks. He’s never alone, never anything less than filthy—sticky, slimy, and moderately uncomfortable—and the forced press of Yąnomamö bodies he keeps being subjected to has an effect the opposite of sensual. So he feels the tension, physiologically, from having gone so long without release, but nothing in the field comes close to turning him on.

None of the Yąnomamö women? Not one?  

There’s something vaguely troubling to Lac about this, as it seems to have little to do with his devotion to Laura. His devotion to Laura manifests itself through his resistance to temptation, not its absence. So why is he, an aspirant acolyte of Boaz, not attracted to, not sexually aroused by any of the women among this unique group of his fellow humans?

Shunning the implications, his mind takes him back in time to some key moments in his budding intimacy with the woman he’d go on to marry. He would enjoy hanging out in his hut and reminiscing like this, but sensing its futility, he decides instead to get to work, get to making something worthwhile out of this expedition, this traumatizing debacle of a first crack at ethnographic fieldwork, get to securing his prospects for a decent career—oh, the bombshells he’ll be dropping on his colleagues—get to securing a living for his family and a valuable contribution to the discipline, his legacy. Maybe Bess and Laura are right, he thinks; maybe I’m incapable of accepting a cause as lost; maybe I have something to prove, a vestige of some unsettled conflict with my father and brothers. So be it. I may as well turn it into something worthwhile.

At last, he writes later that night, I’ve succeeded in getting some names, and I’ve begun to fill in some genealogical graphs. My work has begun, my real work. What I couldn’t have known when I decided to study the Yąnomamö was that I would be working with the most frustratingly recalcitrant people ever encountered by an anthropologist. My project of gathering names will be a complex and deeply fraught endeavor, and every mistake will put me in danger: my subjects getting angry with me at best, violent at worst. It doesn’t help that the Yąnomamö also happen to be consummate practical jokers, who see having an ignorant and dimwitted nabä around, someone who’s just learning the basics of their language, as an irresistible opportunity.

One man will casually point me toward another, instructing me to say, “Tokowanarawa, wa waridiwa no modohawa.” When I go to the second man and repeat the phrase, careful to get the diction right, he is furious and begins waving his arms and threatening me—and rightly so since I’ve just addressed him by name and told him he’s ugly. Here’s the peculiar thing: even though the man I’ve insulted witnessed the exchange with the first man—even though he knows I’m merely relaying a message—he directs his anger at me and not the actual source of the insult, a man who is by now in hysterics over the drama he’s instigated. (This prank, along with a few minor variations at other times, was pulled on me by one of my most reliable informants, Rowahirawa.)

The Yąnomamö love drama. They love trouble. And I have to be careful not to give in to my inclination to respond to angry subjects by offering them madohe to make amends, a response that would  make (and to some degree has already made) me appear cowed, and cowardly, encouraging and emboldening them to make more displays and more threats. But, as delicate as one must be in negotiating the intricacies of the name customs, I’ve managed to uncover some underlying threads of logic to them. The worst offense when it comes to names, for instance, is to publicly say those of recently deceased relatives. The second worst offense—which is probably just as dangerous to commit—is using the name of a browähäwä, a politically prominent man, most of whom (all?) are also waiteri, warriors.

What I’ve observed, however, is that when the Yąnomamö refer to one of these men, they usually do so through teknonymy: they imply his identity through his relationship to someone safe to name. They’d never say the headman Bahikoawa’s name out loud, but instead refer to him as “the father of Sarimi,” his daughter. I can therefore begin building out my genealogies in a similar fashion, starting with the names of children and working my way up. Over time, I may light on new methods that will bring me closer to the names of the browähäwä and the ancestors, but by then I hope to already have their relationships with all the other villagers mapped out using the same sort of teknonymy as the Yąnomamö use themselves.

My plan is to create a standard list of questions and then to interview as many of the villagers as possible, offering them fish hooks or nylon line or disinfectant eye drops as payment. I’ll interview them individually, so there will be no witnesses to any sharing of sensitive information, and I’ll encourage each interviewee to whisper the names in my ear, as a demonstration of how much I personally respect the individuals being named. Still, I don’t expect to be able to draw complete charts the first time around. This first round will be more like tryouts. I’ll be looking to identify the most helpful, articulate, and reliable informants, an exercise that will involve checking each candidate’s answers against the others’.

For round two, I’ll stick to the individuals who most readily provided me with the best information in round one. And I’ll offer them more valuable trade goods in exchange for their help: machetes, axes, game meat. Over time, as I build up some trust and establish rapport, I’ll start pressing them for the more sensitive names. I’m estimating that by mid-March I should have everyone’s name on record, along with a chart that fits each village member into the kinship network. I’ll be able to pass these charts along to Dr. Nelson when he and his team arrive for their genetic research next year. And the information will also form the basis of any theorizing on my own part about the nature and evolution of larger societal patterns. At the same time, it will give me a head start on the charts for neighboring villages, and subsequently for the more remote ones I hope to visit on future expeditions. 

Lac closes the notebook, leans his head back, and sighs. A lot of things that could very easily go wrong will need to go right for this plan to work. Thinking about all the variables is overwhelming. But what really scares him now is the thought of those future expeditions, of having to return to the jungle once he’s made it out.

If he makes it out. 

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