“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?.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Roof Leaf Village: He Borara Ch 4.2

Yanomami
(11,373 words. Or start with the first chapter.)

            Lac stands knee-deep in the river, watching smoke snake up over the trees on the far bank of the Orinoco. The hut he’s been paying the older boys, along with Waddu-ewantow, fish hooks and nylon line to help him build backs up to and shares a wall with Clemens’s hut. He’s abandoned the first building site, along with his first wall, because not only did he discover a colony of ants had lain claim to the spot already, but an inordinate number of snakes also liked to pass through the area. Plus, he’s fine admitting, it was a mediocre first attempt. The new hut, the extension to Clemens’s, will stretch toward the shore of the Mavaca, which is only a short stretch of tall sawgrass away, straight out from where the front door and the gabled roof will be.

But he still likes to walk through the tiny wedge of jungle separating Bisaasi-teri from the Orinoco; walking through this forest effects a change in his mental state, frightening him, but also connecting him to this main riverine conduit back to Puerto Ayacucho, back to Esmeralda, back to Caracas, back to Laura and Kara and Dominick. And he needs to watch for the return of the Malarialogìa men so he can hitch a ride with them to one of the towns or mission outposts, where he’ll buy a dugout with an outboard motor. Then he’ll be able to satisfy his urge to explore. He’ll be able to visit that priest living at the mission upstream at Ocamo, the one with the shortwave radio. He may even be able to use it to speak to Laura at IVIC.

The smoke twists up through the trees like a gnarled finger, pointing up into the blue tropical sky. It appears to be rising from a spot some distance from where he and Clemens found the Malarialogìa men’s hut that night, leaving him to wonder who else it may be camping in the wilderness across this unfordable river. Squatting down, he reaches for the water and nervously pulls scoops of it up over his arms, washing away the mud.

I could swim, he thinks. Once across, if I make it, I could hike along the trail we found leading back to the hut. From the hut, I could surveil the area, see what I can learn about these new guests in the region. Or I could just march up and announce myself. I don’t know if they’re Yąnomamö anyway. Even if they are, what do the Yąnomamö do to a man who walks brazenly into their camp? Porcupine him? I suppose, based on what I’ve seen, it would depend on the circumstances—had they just been in a club fight?—and the temperaments of the most influential individuals in the group.

He’s been told, however, that out toward the middle of the river the current is quite strong, and of course there are the caimans, anacondas, electric eels, and candiru to consider. And the piranha—who could forget those? He smiles. For the past two days, after a morning of mixing and stacking mud on a crude frame of wooden posts—sustained only by café con leche prepared the night before and stored in a thermos, along with a few crackers here and there—he’s been going into the shabono in the afternoon to attend the shamanic rituals, the hallucinogen trips, with all their green snot and noisy, only semi-rhythmic music. The children follow him wherever he goes, not always the same ones, but almost always numbering between six and a dozen or so. As he travels from section to section of the shabono, they tend to remove, by their mere presence, any element of threat he may pose, while the din engulfing them obviates any need for him to announce himself.

He’s working on his genealogies, trying to remain patient. Assigning fake names to a hundred plus unfamiliar faces—none of whose garb serves as a reliable cue to identity—and connecting them along gradients of relatedness is not something you accomplish successfully in a single pass along the rim of the plaza, poking your head into the shadowy gloom, each section a valve governing the flow of kinship, of genes copied, passed along, and shared. No, you don’t get it all on the first pass. Or the second. Or the third.

Lac has decided on a single complete pass a day, culminating in at least a handful of new names assigned to each area. But people move about, visiting. After seeing a few dozen nameless faces, they all start to blur. Meanwhile, some of the people can’t resist making demands for his belongings, or simply shouting at him, bullying him. They would take even his notebook and pen if he didn’t guard them doggedly. Waddu-ewantow in particular demands something new every time he sees him. Lac almost regrets giving him all the fishhooks and line—which he seems not at all inclined to use—as payment for helping him construct the walls and the palm-thatched roof for his hut. He definitely regrets that scoop of oatmeal, which marked the beginnings of his status as eminently bullyable.

“Leaf,” Lac kept saying yesterday as he held up the large flat unfolded thatching material. Waddu-ewantow finally became exasperated and proclaimed “bisaasi” as the proper term.

“Bisaasi? As in Bisaasi-teri?” Lac said, gesturing toward the shabono. Waddu-ewantow flashed him a look he couldn’t begin to read but that he nonetheless took a clear message from: “Yes, dumbass—how can you not know that?”

Bisaasi-teri. Roof Leaf Village.

It would be a couple of hours before Lac realized that if a village can be named for such an ubiquitous object, so too might the individual people—meaning his language lessons may come with the unavoidable risk of accidentally voicing someone’s name. Maybe whoever built the fire whose smoke he’s watching can help him sort out this name business. In the meantime, he has no choice but to wait, unless he wants to build a raft. No, that would take enough effort to suggest desperation, and the suggestion, once he let it take hold in his mind, would become a reality. Desperate to speak to outsiders, so desperate he’s taken hours away from his work to build a raft. And to what end? To book passage to a town where he can buy a boat. If you want to leave Bisaasi-teri so badly, have a firmly established mode of egress from the site of your work, as far as possible from the shabono, where everything is taut and vibrating and loud, the floor of the plaza like a drum skin pulled over some bottomless pit in the jungle, up through which rises—enough! Enough of your chasing down twisted metaphors. Enough of your suggestions and your desperation. You’re a Shackley. And you have work to do.

One last scooping of water up over his arms and splashed onto his face before he turns to the children on the bank, roaring playfully, brandishing his splayed fingers as make-believe claws. Stepping from the river, he climbs back up the bank to the trail, having decided to try something new. He’s brought two cameras with him to the field, both of which he’s been afraid to let the Yąnomamö get a look at. Today, he’ll use the faster-developing of them, the Polaroid, to document the day’s arguments with, and emulations of, the animal spirits. The Polaroids will be useful in their own right, allowing him to study the men’s faces in the porous pseudo-privacy of his hut, maybe helping him pick out details he has yet to notice. Beyond that, though, it’ll be an experiment; he’ll be able to test the Yąnomamö’s reaction to having their images reflected and fixed in yet another mysterious breed of straight-edged leafs.

Everyone knows the story—most likely apocryphal—of the natives becoming enraged when they see some hapless photographer-cum-ethnographer has stolen their souls. Likely apocryphal, but the images do need to be, if not explained—the Western notion of causal explanation is newer and less universal than one may assume—then at least incorporated into their belief system. They have to make sense of what they’re seeing, the same way we do back home. And however distorted the story of the Indians’ raging reception of this newly introduced technology, the Yąnomamö will probably make sense of what they see differently than many other natives would. They’ve already shown themselves to defy so much of what anthropologists think they know about primitive peoples. Lac can only hope to get a sense of the emotional aspects of the reception anyway, not knowing the words for spirit or ghost or soul, and Yąnomamö emotions are scary for more than just their exoticness.

Once he’s habituated the Yąnomamö to the camera—to seeing their own and each other’s images in small halide windows—he can begin the painstaking procedure of photographing them, first as families, then as individuals. It’s more than he can expect to accomplish in a day. Or a week. Or probably a month. Over that time, he’ll pick up how to ask for their cooperation, how to inquire as to which of his madohe they prefer as payment, how to label the Polaroids, perhaps with numbers at first, maybe later moving on to names. It’s not like any of them will be able to read what he writes anyway. Then again, he may have to give them some explanation of the felt-tipped scribbling underneath this two-dimensional rendering of their ghostly likenesses.

How comfortable are you lying to them?

If it’s just this one thing—but you’re going to be here a long time. Seventeen months. So much of this expedition, he thinks, this fieldwork, entails pushing ahead with tasks I’ll only acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to complete at some distant time. It requires a great deal of faith in my capacity to learn. A reader, a wanderer, a bit of a dreamer if I’m being honest, a seeker after truth, a lover of discovery—but am I smart? A good linguist? An observant reporter? A scholar with a gift for synthesizing diverse lines of reasoning and findings from multiple sources? What actual evidence do I have either way as I try to answer any of these questions?

As he enters the clearing, he has two contradictory reactions to seeing his hut: first, he’s proud of this growing structure, a shelter, solid and substantial, birthed into the world from the mud of the jungle, midwifed by his own hands, on its way to completion, exhilarating; second, it doesn’t look right, slopped up mud on a log frame, gooey and loose, not as sound as Clemens’s hut, the side wall of which it rests on for support. How had Clemens done it? Was his method somehow superior? He probably had access to techniques honed over generations by his Protestant forebears. Shouldn’t I have access to the hut-building lessons learned by generations of ethnographers? Alas, anthropologists avoid such topics in their studies, concentrating on their subjects instead, striving for objectivity. There’s something to be said for that. Or I used to think so anyway.

The children gather around him as he nears Clemens’s hut and its stunted conjoined twin. The din hovering over these boys keeps him from noticing the eerie silence that has overtaken the village. Lac goes inside the gloomy dwelling to find his barrels. As he cracks one open and rummages for his camera, the boys move in and out through the door as their game dictates. The constant bubbling up of laughter and lighthearted conversation will be my salvation, he thinks, but how can I know whether it’s worthwhile to pay closer attention at any given point? Kids are kids no matter what culture they grow up in. Just as he’s uncovering the box housing the Polaroid camera, one of the boys settles the issue by overtly endeavoring to capture his attention.

Lac looks over at the boy and simultaneously hears a cacophony of competing voices ringing out from the shabono. “Oh no,” he says aloud. “Not again. What the hell is wrong with you guys?” But he’s already on his way out of the hut, marching toward the outer wall of the village, fumbling with the box as he proceeds. The sidling duck-waddle, the pinched asshole, the brief wash of gratitude after standing up and not seeing war arrows aimed at his face—he goes through each stage of his daily initiation. Why, he wonders, do I never bring my shotgun?

Ah, but you know damn well why.

People are standing in front of their own sections of the shabono, shouting at each other across the plaza. Once again, Lac worries he’ll do something wrong, offend someone by walking or standing in the wrong place, or annoy everyone by showing up whenever there’s turmoil in the village. When he sees the gathering of bodies nearby, he moves, cautiously but unhesitatingly, toward the throng. Howls of pain and anger soar up over the courtyard, as women and men dance out their spiteful tirades. They’re all related, Lac thinks, but there’s so much bitterness, so much hate. Maybe that’s not so different from what you find in families anywhere though.

As he finds himself again trying to see over a rotating wall of backs, he braces himself for what he’s about to witness. How bad will the wound be this time? But if there was a club fight, it must not have lasted long. If it began around the time he heard the commotion, there would barely have been enough time for each of the two men to take a turn. Just as he’s wondering whether he may have overinterpreted the evidence from the one club fight he’s observed, he manages to spy the fallen man’s face through the press of bodies—only it isn’t a man. Lac first imagines two women squaring off in the center of the courtyard, their poles held vertically in grips toughened by years of chopping and hauling firewood.

But there wasn’t enough time for that, was there?

He circles around the group, taking a step back to see if he can get a read on what’s happening. Again, the shouts appear directed at a single focal point, but the factions aren’t the same as last time. “Damn it!” he curses aloud, his body suffused with the urge to grab someone by the lapels and demand to know what the hell is going on. He takes a breath and several more steps backward, then starts to chuckle silently. Lapels. Maybe grab him by the strings on his arms and wrists, try to shake the story out of him while his brothers and uncles reach for their clubs and nock their arrows.

Even as he muses, the details of the incident begin to resolve before him. It wasn’t a fight. It was an assault. This woman’s kin are raging at the man who attacked her, and at the man’s own kin. His family is in turn justifying the attack, perhaps with reference to her disobedience, her abiding disrespect, or her chronic infidelity. Her wound seems serious. The man must’ve struck her on the head. With his fist? A club?

Lac catches sight of his young translator and rushes to his side. Every cell of his body hums with the compulsion to pry the story out of someone by whatever means. The boy sees him and flashes a grin, somewhere between sly and demure. He’s guessed what Lac wants to know, and he seems to be working out how to tell him. Lac points at the injured woman amid the continuing uproar. The boy takes ahold of Lac’s arm and moves him toward one of the fires burning in the middle of the plaza. He points down at the log, the crime weapon.

“Ma,” Lac says, drawing out the vowel, doing his best to sound incredulous, remembering that this often prods Yąnomamö to expand.

“Awei,” the boy says, and proceeds to tell the story, incomprehensible. Lac in turn shakes his head meaninglessly. This is maddening, he thinks, grabbing the boy by his shoulders, directing his attention toward the log, and then sweeping his index finger in a wide arc implicating all the people of the shabono. The boy smiles, takes Lac by the arm again, and walks him to the other side of the plaza.

Men shout at them. The boy shouts back. Lac allows himself to be guided to the section occupied by whichever brutish man clubbed that poor woman over the head with a smoldering log from the fire. His intrepid translator marches them brashly up to the group—as if making a show of courage—and lifts his arm to point. Lac follows his finger and sees a woman, maybe a decade older than the injured one. She’s hurling insults back across the courtyard.

Now Lac and his translator are accosted by four men who take turns yelling into their faces, who then begin to grab them and shove them around. For Lac, it’s even more frightening than the club fight last night. He fears he may be attacked, struck, clubbed, impaled by an arrow, or porcupined by an entire fusillade. The boy tugs at his arm and they beat a hasty retreat across the plaza.

So a woman hit another woman with a piece of firewood. As if anticipating his next question, Lac’s translator bumps his shoulder roughly to get his attention, and then points to a gathering of children, some looking worried and frightened, others thrilled—like it’s all magnificent entertainment. Lac is nonplussed. His translator strikes him again on the shoulder and points to a woman sitting some distance away from the kids. From what Lac can see, she looks to be braiding something, but she periodically glances over at the children. She’s watching them, babysitting. And she’s not alone. Another woman sitting in a hammock nearby is likewise occupied, kicking around logs to help along the fire in her hearth, but also flitting glances at the children. Suddenly Lac understands.

The injured woman shirked her babysitting responsibilities, and the other woman, perhaps the mother of the neglected child, flew into a rage and clubbed her with the only weapon near at hand.

Lac’s face must register his dawning construal; his translator smiles, hammers Lac’s chest playfully with his fist, and then saunters proudly off, disappearing into the chaos. Lac, once again, is left wondering where the safest place to stand might be. Then he wonders if he should perhaps examine the woman’s wound, see if she needs stitches, though he’s not too eager to needle around in another gruesomely battered scalp; the image of the last one remains as vivid in his mind as when it was still right in front of him. Still, he finds himself moving toward the small crowd of family members surrounding her, partly because, while he may not feel safe approaching her, he doesn’t exactly feel safe standing in the middle of the plaza either, conspicuously observing the shouting match, and also partly because if he’s going to stay inside the shabono—and he’s duty-bound to—he’d prefer to be performing some service, serving some function.

            Or as Laura might explain, he feels a profound desire to stay busy and prove his usefulness.

            No one bars his entry into the clutch of bodies, this subhuman, this clown—this purveyor of magic tools and exotic foods, this sometimes healer. What important words, he wonders, are going undocumented? How should I record this incident so I’ll be best positioned to note the frequency of similar occurrences? How will I corroborate the story? If it truly was about negligent babysitting, maybe there’s an injured child around here somewhere. Lac tries to scan the rim of the plaza, but he’s distracted by his obligation to dumbly greet everyone meeting his eyes with an appeasing smile. He gets close enough to see the woman’s still unfocused eyes, the nauseated look on her face. There’s no blood to be seen.

            Not much I can do for a concussion, he thinks. He’s already being jostled and grabbed and pushed, but then he feels a stiffer, more deliberate shove from his side. His body responds before he can reason out the proper course. Clutching the camera hanging from his neck while he recovers his balance, he steps back to reclaim his lost ground, and gives the culprit an equally rough retaliatory shove.

            Now the man is glaring at him, flailing his arms, and releasing a torrent of threats and insults. Don’t wait around for the clubs to come out, Lac thinks—a quick one-two then hightail it. Another man joins the first in his dance of indignation. Lac’s limbs go weightless, his chest filling with white fire. They’re not so big, he thinks, burly but short. And there’s no damn way I’m standing here taking turns in some stupid ritual duel. I’ll swing and kick and shove until I have a clear path to the passageway out. Then I’ll barricade myself in Clemens’s hut and ready the shotgun.

            Just as the kindling rage reaches the verge of igniting into violence, another man runs up to join the fray, his hands raised, placating. His words are hurried but not angry. Lac recognizes him. It’s his rescuer, the man who found him when he fell behind in the woods. He speaks, his tone emphatic, bordering on plaintive. Then the other man speaks, still angry. Lac rehearses his plan to escape even as he questions the ethical implications. They can hurt me, but I can’t hurt them. I’m the one who has no business here, the nabä, the nobody. How would Laura feel about that reasoning? Fortunately, Lac’s rescuer is prevailing on the man to back down.

            In two minutes, Lac thinks, they’ll be distracted, maybe just as angry but with their ire directed elsewhere. My advantage is in not having a lineage, not mattering—except for my madohe. For all I know, that’s what the two men are arguing about, who has dibs on my cache of trade goods after my inevitable meeting with tragedy. Lac inches backward. But the argument ends abruptly before he’s made it more than a couple feet away. The aggressor storms off while his rescuer—twice over now—slinks up to him, smiling, putting both hands on Lac’s chest.

“Thank you.”

The man talks over him in his whiny, nasalized syllables. As far as Lac can tell, the Yąnomamö have no words of their own for saying thanks. They let tongue clicks and aweis suffice. You don’t need to acknowledge any favors because in accepting one you enter into the system of reciprocity. Does talking down an enraged attacker constitute a favor for which payment must be tendered? What about returning for you when you’ve fallen behind on a hunt? This man hasn’t demanded anything for that earlier favor. Perhaps his motives aren’t as material as I’m assuming.

The man steps back, giving Lac a gentle shove and leaving him to stand there, amid the commotion, moving his gaze along the edges of the circular plaza, into the homes nestled beneath the huge palm-thatch roof. Then he turns his gaze upward, into the cloudless sky, tired of seeing it all, tired of the never-ending racket, tired of the shouting and the anger and the threats, tired of the god awful smells, tired of being covered in slimy half dried sweat and set upon by vicious biting insects, tired of being in this boiling cauldron of human slop.

He walks over to the woman, who’s recovered enough to struggle to her feet with the aid of her family. No blood, no wound to stitch, and anyway I won’t be able to stitch them all, not at this rate. They’ve made do their whole lives without my Western supplies and shaky hands. They’ll manage long after I’m gone. Unless the missionaries prevail on them to stop fighting. Wouldn’t that be something?

Lac avoids every man he sees on his way to the passage outside, hoping to sneak out with as little harassment as possible. As he nears the two sections bracketing the exit, though, he sees the headman’s wife leaning over by the hearth. It’s the older one. Neither Bahikoawa nor the younger wife is anywhere to be seen. As Lac squats down to enter the passage, he notices the swelling, a thickness about the aging woman’s belly. How had he not seen it before? So many naked bodies. So much going on. He stands there watching her for several moments. Then he reaches for his pocket, withdraws his notebook, turns, and wades back into the mess of humans.

And there he sees Bahikoawa, moving quietly—yes, quietly—from one of the woman’s family members to another. If I hadn’t known this was the village headman, Lac thinks, he’d be about the last person I’d guess. He’s not urging anyone to stop spewing vitriol; he appears to be comforting them, touching them on the shoulder or arm, whispering condolences and reassurances. If he’s like most headmen among tribal peoples, he doesn’t have much authority—one word from the headman and everyone goes on doing whatever they were doing before is the joke—but he wears the mantle of his stature with such grace; he stands apart from his covillagers by exuding calm and tending more toward tranquility and, if not reason, then reasonability. A powerful man with a light touch.

Lac observes admiringly as Bahikoawa quells the rancor by not too insistently or too directly trying to quell it. How different, he wonders, are each of the Yąnomamö men temperamentally? And how common is it for a man of Bahikoawa’s temperament to rise to the status of headman? The simplicity of the roles in a culture like this would suggest fewer dimensions of possible differentiation for their personalities—they all do the same work, know the same stories and songs, look forward to or dread the same upcoming events, insofar as looking forward is possible to a people without calendars or clocks. So where does a man like Bahikoawa come from? More importantly, how did a man with such a light touch come to have any authority at all among a people so pushy and demanding and prone to violent outbursts?

Stepping to avoid the men wandering away from the scene, Lac begins to answer his own question, thinking, Bahikoawa must be part of a more dominant lineage, have more brothers and uncles and male cousins. That has to be part of it. But is your reasoning about less differentiation or less individuation between personalities sound? Could this man have somehow developed qualities that truly set him apart? Don’t the Yąnomamö also have more freedom to develop into who they naturally are, fewer restraints on their expressions of uniqueness?

A glance around the shabono belies this idea. They could be clones of each other, at least when it comes to their appearance, their tools, their houses. But the fine distinctions, he thinks, will start to pop out for me as I stay here longer—assuming they don’t succeed in chasing me off. Assuming I don’t just get fed up and flee the territory.

As the hubbub peters out, more passing men make demands on him. He folds his arms and utters a firm ma, then the second time shouts it, then the third shouts it louder still. After twice going through this progression with different men, he starts to lead with the louder ma. He looks around. People are dispersing from the tight tense clumps they’d formed for solidarity. The men are dribbling out through the passages to go hunt, and the women are picking up their baskets for hauling firewood—what are they using to chop it? The scene Lac had rushed to witness is over, so he finally feels like leaving won’t amount to any dereliction.

He walks over to take one last look at the injured woman, who appears mostly recovered, though still indignant, before turning toward the passage alongside the headman’s section of the shabono. Before reaching it, he’s stopped by a man who seems to want his shirt.

“Ma!”

“Yababuji.”

“Ma!!”

Lac steps to one side and proceeds to the exit as the man berates him. It’s getting worse, he thinks as he bends down. You’re going to have to figure out a way to get them to back off. Or sooner or later… As he stands up outside the shabono, he sees from a distance the door to Clemens’s hut is hanging open. My shotgun, he thinks. My food. The trade goods I’m supposed to be using for payment.

Sprinting over the clearing, he has no thought of snakes or feces. Even before reaching the open door, he’s brimming with rage. Bracing his hands against the frame, he catapults his head inside, turning to one side then the other. The camera dangles from his neck, reminding him that before hearing the brouhaha he was rummaging through the barrel that now stands open, its lid tossed aside. “I’m going to beat the shit out of whoever did this,” he mutters. “And I’ll do it right in the middle of the damned courtyard for all to see. I’ll beat him to within an inch of his life—as a lesson. As a message.”

Lac peers down into the barrel. Most of the contents remain. Before doing a thorough inventory, he scans the hut for his shotgun, his throat gripped with panic, his heart a dense block of wood. It’s been moved. It lies flat on the clay floor when before it stood braced against the mud wall. Lac feels as though every bone of his skeleton has vanished as his flesh is turning to mist. Not satisfied to see that the gun remains in his possession, he steps over to make sure he can feel it in his hands. They don’t know how it works, he assures himself. Plus, if they took it for some other use, you’d probably have no trouble finding it.

He steps over to the door to investigate the lock. It wasn’t latched. He hurried off and left the hut unlocked. Way to go, Shackley. Now, back to the barrel to see what’s been taken. His eyes leap from point to point along the way, as though every square inch has been tainted by the burglar’s intrusion. Everything he sees speaks of discrepancies, clues, signs pointing to motives, nothing, nothing, blankness. The sardine can. It was on his makeshift table. Now it’s gone.

Lac laughs.

What else? The barrel had three of the cheap machetes he brought so many of, and now it has one. At this discovery, Lac breathes easier, thinking about how much grander the larceny could have been. He goes to the trunk and digs through the plastic totes. He can’t tell if anything else is missing, but he’s reasonably sure someone rifled through the contents. Casing the joint. Maybe they didn’t take much of value this time—but they’d made it in and out undetected. Now anytime I’m away for any length of time, I have to worry about them breaking in and getting their hands on something vital.

The feeling of violation sets in deeper with each passing minute. Someone entered his hut, his living space, and fondled all his belongings, his shotgun, his food containers. Nothing is safe out here. Nothing sacred. The Yąnomamö must have only the most rudimentary concept of property, and they have no law enforcement, no laws for that matter. He remembers his Uncle Rob’s warning all those years ago in the UP, “Men start to forget all about the rules when they’re a hundred miles from any police, a hundred miles from all the things that might remind them who they are. You gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest.” 

No, he thinks, the Yąnomamö don’t have laws; they have customs, weaker rules based on relationships and individual status—neither of which I have any to speak of. I’m nabä. A nobody. Scarcely human. I can’t even speak for Christ’s sake. He goes back over and clutches the latch on the door. Even if it was secured, a good strong kick would grant entry to anyone sufficiently motivated. If the latch held fast, staving in the door wouldn’t pose any great difficulty. He steps back and sits on his hammock, his thoughts whirling. The children are already starting to show up again, an occurrence he’s not entirely displeased with. As long as it’s not the men. Not now. As long as it’s not Waddu-ewantow—though come to think of it, I would like to ask that bastard a question or two about how familiar he is or isn’t with the interior of this hut.

Ha, he sputters, like you’re such an intimidating interrogator. If you’re going to question anyone, it should be about family trees anyway.

Sighing, he gets to his feet and goes outside to continue work on his shoddy mud hut.
***

Lac sits atop the log stool, writing at his table. Yesterday was an especially trying day. After witnessing the aftermath of an altercation—a woman beat another woman over the head with a piece of firewood, likely for negligent childcare—I returned to find my hut had been searched and a few items, most notably a couple of machetes, had been stolen. It turns out that was only the beginning of my difficulties. Up till then, I’d only given a machete to the headman, Bahikoawa. Apparently, these two newer machetes showing up in the village created quite a stir. I was working on the side wall of my new hut for maybe a half hour when Yąnomamö men started showing up, demanding they be given their own machetes.

After expending all the time and effort necessary to figure out what they wanted, my first inclination was to oblige. Then I reasoned it may be tough using trade goods as payment after setting a precedent of handing them over to anyone who asks not so nicely. So I refused, repeatedly, raising my voice and lowering my tone each time. But they wouldn’t be dissuaded. They harassed me, pleading, indignant, angry—walking manifestations of unchecked emotion.

At first, it was the usual game, the one I’ve quickly become adept at, where one man makes a demand, I say no (ma), he repeats his demand, I say ma more forcefully, and so on. Then another man showed up and it was two against one. Soon, it was three against one. Then four. I was sure now I was in significant danger. If I allowed them to prevail on me to give everyone a machete, more men would arrive shortly afterward, demanding their own. That means between thirty and forty grown men total, among whom I’d have to divvy twenty—now eighteen—machetes. So I held my ground.

Then the sioha from Karohi-teri showed up, the man who bullied me out of my last bite of oatmeal on my first day alone in the field. The situation went from tense and frightening to desperately urgent. The man began his negotiations by putting both hands on my chest and giving me a stiff shove. It was time to flee. Only one problem: I’d left a machete on the ground inside the wall I was building. I was sure they’d find it if I left. It would be gone. But then if I picked it up before retreating inside the hut, they’d see it and never let me go through the door without handing it over.

I made a quick decision, a calamitous one. I allowed myself to be pushed in the direction of the wall, walked over, picked up the machete, and began walking back toward the sioha. Maybe it was the self-satisfied grin spreading across his face. Maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to give this man one of my possessions in response to his threats and harassment. I walked right past him, clutching the machete in a tight grip. I didn’t even look at him as I passed. It must have given him pause, my stubbornness, because I made it some way toward the front of Clemens’s hut unmolested—before the Karohi-teri man slammed into me with his shoulder and took up a position between me and the door.

Recovering my balance, I saw there was no clear route of escape from the growing crowd of men, and the only way into the hut was through my chief tormentor. I confess my strongest impulse was to lift the machete over my head and bring it down hard enough to bury it in his, splitting that ridiculous tonsure in half like a melon. The other men were frantic and whiny, but not nearly as angry and primed for fisticuffs as this one. Nevertheless, after I pressed the machete into his chest, making a single gesture of passing it to him and shoving him out of the way, the crowd roared, creating a deafening clamor. Several of them rushed the door behind me.

Two men were already inside when I turned around, but they halted in place when they saw what I was holding. They must have remembered my demonstration from a couple days ago. “Back up!” I shouted, lifting and shaking the gun, hoping it could be more of a talisman than a weapon. “That’s right, get out!” They couldn’t understand of course, but I had to yell something. They must have gotten the gist. They tried to back out of the hut but ran into more men trying to push their way inside. I held the gun up higher, still prepared to fire if necessary, but in ready view of this second row of intruders.

Word must’ve spread. The doorway cleared. My first thought was of how to reinforce the door. Before getting to that, though, I stepped outside and fired a round in the air. “That’s it!” I yelled. “If you want a damn machete, you have to earn it. And the next person I catch in my hut gets his ugly tobacco-stretched face blown off!”

What can I say? I needed to intimidate them.

Pressing the door closed, I saw my hands were shaking yet again. It was only a moment later that I heard the first pound on the door. I waited, terrified, ready to fire, but no one attempted to burst through. One of them must be testing it, I thought. I took a breath, swung open the door, stepped outside, and fired another shot in the air before stepping back in, securing the latch, and beginning the painfully long process of rolling and dragging one of the barrels to the doorway to use as a barricade.

I’ve been locked inside ever since, only squeezing out to piss after checking to see if all is quiet. The one good thing about these events is that I’ve had adequate time to prepare some decent meals for the first time in days. I’ve been starved to the point of lightheadedness ever since arriving in the territory. I’m still filthy, but I’m growing accustomed to that, as uncomfortable as it can be. The constant threats and bullying are really starting to take a toll on me though. I need to come up with a way to curtail the harassment before something truly tragic happens.

Lac looks up from the page, turning to glance into the corner behind him, the spot where he sat, huddled and shaking and weeping, clutching the shotgun for dear life, sinking to a depth of loneliness he’d never imagined could exist. I should write about that feeling of bottomless despair and impenetrable isolation, he thinks. None of the ethnographers you read talked much about the psychological toll of being far from home, far from loved ones, among bizarre people you struggle to communicate with—or if they did write about it, it was only in the abstract. Maybe you can help some young kid be better prepared in the future if you describe it in detail. At least they’ll know what they’ll be getting themselves into.

On the other hand, that could be precisely why past ethnographers kept mum; knowing how low you can sink doesn’t make the actual experience any easier, and if we knew how rough it could get beforehand it might discourage us from ever going into the field in the first place. If that’s the case, he thinks, then what else do I have to look forward to that my forebears opted against preparing me for?

It’s approaching noon. Lac hears the voices of children outside. Whatever threats from outsiders kept everyone on edge those first few days seem to have fizzled away. Not that anyone is gamboling freely about outside the shabono walls; people just seem less wary, less like they’re expecting an arrow flying at them from every direction. The downside is they now have more energy to devote to their mission of separating the resident nabä from his madohe.

The thought of Waddu-ewantow bullying him out of that third machete—after he’d already filched the two others—turns Lac inside-out with rage and embarrassment. I’m going to end up smashing that asshole’s head in before this trip is over, he thinks, God as my witness. He tries to laugh off the sick feeling of hopelessness. More likely he’ll end up smashing yours. And what does a vow before a god you don’t believe in amount to anyway?

Back to the practical matters at hand: making sure the shotgun is near at hand at all times from now on; bolting the door, sealing the barrels, locking the trunks, no exceptions; more than that—stand your ground. They usually respond when you shove and shout back, so do it as soon as you can, before the tension has a chance to escalate. Your willingness to start a fight will be your chief means of preventing a fight. Draw your line in the sand farther off so they don’t build momentum before reaching it. No is your automatic set-point. Ma. The response to any and every demand. No equivocation. No exceptions. As soon as you budge, as soon as you let them push you, they’ll push you right over—and they’ll know you as a push-over. You can’t afford that.

He stands, walks to the window, and lifts up on his toes to look outside, steeling himself against the anxiety attending his plan to go back to work, back into the Yąnomamö’s world, so he can continue building his new abode, cozy enough for his wife and kids. He thinks back to his sister’s ill-timed admonishment: “Oh my God, Lachlan, don’t get yourself killed in the jungle because you’re too damned stubborn to let anything go. Seriously, now would be a good time to learn how to recognize a lost cause when you see one.”

Well, Bess, if you don’t push up against your limits once in a while, how will you ever know where they are?

He laughs. That’s so perfectly what he’d say just because it seems like the thing to say. A platitude. Honestly, he thinks, I’d love nothing more than to stay in this hut until Clemens returns and then get the hell out of this awful place. But if Clemens doesn’t come back for three months—longer?—I’d starve. Whenever those European explorers lost their way in one of those blank spaces on the map, they had only two choices: they could either befriend the indigenous peoples, or they could die a slow, excruciating death. Humans are adapted to life with other humans, preferably ones who’ve developed traditions and industries that help them thrive in the local ecology, cultural adaptations that do the work of biological evolution in far fewer generations. Unless I get access to my own society’s products, I won’t last a month out here—not without the Yąnomamö. And if I want to catch wind of it if and when the Malarialogìa show up, I need to stay connected to the villagers socially.

Shit! I first need to get connected with them socially.

Lac woke up four times last night from dreams of Yąnomamö men rushing into his hut and binding his legs together with his hammock, pulling his arms out to the side, and lifting their clubs over their heads to bring them crashing down on his. In between the third and fourth repetition of the nightmare, though, he had another dream, a much more pleasant one. While watching the goings on inside one family’s section of the shabono and trying to write down every word he heard uttered, a Yąnomamö man, no different from any other, strolled up and said, “Good day, sir. How about this heat? I’ll tell you what, between the heat and the God damned bugs, I’m irritated enough to start a club fight. Care to join me?” Perfect English. A British accent even.

Lac, ecstatic, couldn’t restrain himself and immediately began peppering the man with questions. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember a single one of the answers by the time he finally got up from his hammock and started preparing his breakfast of heavily sugared oatmeal. Could he live off that, he wonders now, if he had to, for three months? How long would his coffee and crackers and sardines and peanut butter last? God, what I wouldn’t give for a nice cold, crisp salad. He squats down to push the barrel out from in front of the door. Before unlatching it, though, he lowers his head and sighs.

“I don’t know how much more of this shit I can take,” he says aloud to no one.

After finally unlatching the door, he reaches for his shotgun. He’ll be keeping it nearby as long as he’s outside. But am I going to take it into the shabono with me? With all those women and kids around? He steps out of the hut and walks over to where the first wall of the addition is taking shape.

He’s barely had a chance to get his hands muddy before a few of the older boys start showing up from the shabono. Lac pretends nothing has happened and carries on like before, offering them fishhooks and line in exchange for their labor, which really occupies a conceptual space between labor and play—goofing around. They are kids after all. When Waddu-ewantow ducks out from under the lowermost edge of the sloping shabono roof and saunters up to the building site, Lac eyes his shotgun, measuring the distance, estimating the time it would take to lift, aim, and fire.

If he starts acting threating, Lac thinks, I’ll give him a good shove, and by the time he recovers his balance he’ll have the barrel pointed in his face. Sure, I’ll take turns in your little dueling game—but you can be damn sure I’m going first. You can do whatever you feel like doing to me after that. I won’t even ask for a second turn. But Waddu-ewantow does something unexpected. He walks up, flashes his sly, mischievous grin, and then kneels down to reach into the mud. Work for fishhooks and line, just like before. And why should it be any different—even though the man basically mugged me last night, and that was after he’d already burglarized my hut?

Lac considers his next move. He could chase the man away with the shotgun. He could sneak up behind him and stove in his skull with the butt of his rifle. He could wait until the man demands his payment and pointedly refuse—communicating somehow that the machetes were all the payment he can expect to receive for a while. Or he could go along with pretending nothing happened. For the most disappointing of reasons, Lac finds himself settling on this latter course: he’s exhausted, mentally, emotionally, and physically. If Waddu-ewantow wants to work for fishhooks, Lac will let him build his portion of the wall—even though he fears every liberty he brooks being taken, every offense he lets go unpunished, confers on his tormentors a greater sense of impunity. Because how much choice does he really have? After all, who will he get to do the rest of the palm-leaf thatching for the roof if he chases this guy off?

They return to work, Lac keeping the shotgun at all times within the periphery of his view, within ready reach. A few more boys wander over to check on the progress of the nabä’s building project, mostly out of boredom Lac assumes. One even starts to help. Shared work, Lac muses again, a universal pastime among men. Just men? Or maybe men in particular? Good questions to keep in mind. Either way, building the hut now was a good idea; it’s about the only thing I know to do to relate to them, through collaboration, the only thing I know to do where I don’t have to worry about whether I’m welcome.

Lac has decided he wants to divide the main room in half with an interior wall he can reinforce and hide his madohe behind. He stands near the center of the first wall and measures it out mentally, working through the steps to make it a reality. And what about another room while we’re at it, he thinks, a bathroom maybe, so we don’t have to worry about the kids going outside to pee and getting bit by snakes?

It’s going to be a long time, he realizes, much longer than I thought, before I’m ready to bring them out here. So I may as well take my time and make the hut as homey as I can. He imagines Laura’s smile, her calmed worries evaporating into simple delight at her husband’s ingenuity. Sorry I made you wait so long, he might say; we hope you enjoy the accommodations. He can’t help smiling. For all the shocks and stresses of jungle life among these boisterous people, it’s amazing how much time I’ve spent brooding about Laura and her plight, trapped in a strange place with strange people, the wife of an anthropologist who disappears for months-long stretches into regions where there can be no word from him. And something else? Something more persistent. A busy mind. She’s told him about her disappointment upon discovering most of the women at U of M were there for the sole purpose of finding doctors or lawyers or high-rolling businessmen to marry. He always knew better than to blurt out his first thought at hearing this complaint—what else would they be there for? Other than maybe acquiring some final polish to their manners, some sharpening to their wit, an added spicing of intellectual sophistication to their repartee?

Both of them were part of the second wave of first-generation college students following the war, she pointed out to him, and yet women are still barred from attending Ivy League institutions. An injustice, to be sure, but Lac might have interjected that he himself had no idea what the words “Ivy League” even meant until he’d spent some time at two separate universities. You may as well be barred from any institution you’ve never heard of.

To aggravate the wound still further, it didn’t take Laura long at all to find out her own parents were waiting for news of a boyfriend—a budding romance, an impending engagement. Though she’s never said it explicitly, Lac knows his role in this narrative of intergenerational conflict. “You wanted me to go off to college to find a husband,” he imagines her saying, “and that’s what I did. Oh no, he’s not a doctor, not a medical doctor anyway. Not a lawyer either. Lachlan is going to be an anthropologist. You don’t know what an anthropologist is? Well…”

Thus, Nick and Judy got the shock Laura felt they had coming to them.

Lac laughs, but his feelings are layered and contradictory. He’s proud of his wife’s defiance, her spirit—but was marrying him just that? An act of defiance? A message? Maybe it was a luxury afforded to him as a man, but in his case falling in love was a straightforward matter: he saw her, felt a stirring inside, and soon came to realize he cherished every moment with her, in a way he hadn’t relished his time with any woman before her, in a way that made him want to do everything he could to join their two futures together into one.

Smoothing a layer of mud over the drying seams between the growing stacks of solidifying bricks, he shakes his head. Here you are, he thinks, striking out into the wilderness, building a home with your own two hands among the hostile natives, all the while brooding over your wife’s complicated motives for marrying you, like a figure right out of the nineteenth century—and yet you feel contempt for everyone else’s small-minded backwardness?

Big picture, as in putting our lives in an ethnological context, these women here seem to have it much worse than women in most hunter-gatherer bands—if what I’ve learned is valid—so there must not be any gene that makes men have to treat them roughly while dictating marriage choices and career paths. Our society affords women a great deal of freedom, more than it has in generations past. Still, Laura’s probably right to feel cheated; she gets to go to college, preparing to enter some discipline or occupation, only to have it snatched away from her at the last minute, to be told it isn’t real. All that studying was really just so you could mingle with men whose prospects are good, and so you can hold your own in conversations with people occupying society’s higher echelons. You wouldn’t want your husband and his friends to be bored by all your frivolous banter, would you? 

It’s the curse of living in a period of transition; you’re exposed to the promise of the future, but progress is too slow to deliver on it. And yet, he thinks, I seriously doubt ten or twenty years from now—even if the women’s campaign continues on pace—I’ll be hearing about the pioneering ethnographical work undertaken by a woman, not among tribes like the Yąnomamö anyway. We already have some giant female figures in anthropology, but it’s hard to imagine them doing work in conditions like this and having it turn out well at all.

Hell, it’s hard to imagine it turning out well even for me.

The thought aptly coincides with Lac catching sight of three men approaching the building site, by all appearances ready for trouble. For God’s sake, he thinks, I haven’t even been out here an hour. Am I going to have to fire off another shot every fifteen minutes? He sighs as he reaches for a rag to wipe his hands with before taking up the gun. But then Waddu-ewantow sees the approaching men—and guffaws. He turns to Lac and, pointing at the men, says, “Ew-afturn-it.” As Waddu-ewantow laughs again and gets to his feet, Lac feels tingles crawling over his shoulders and spine. The son of a bitch just spoke to me in English, he thinks, unprompted, sort of. Not exactly my dream come to life, but eerily similar. “You have to earn it,” I told this man about a box of matches. Now he’s saying—and it’s perfectly clear—make these clowns earn anything you might be wont to give them, i.e., “Don’t give these idiots any damned machetes.”

Lac can’t help smiling as he watches his tormentor walk up to the men and start tormenting them, and not for the first time judging by their reactions. Who is this guy, he wonders, this sioha from Karohi-teri, who now has three of my machetes, assuming he hasn’t traded any away? He doesn’t seem too happy with the men of Bisaasi-teri, nor does he respect their courage or fighting prowess. Maybe I should think of the machetes as payment for protection, like you’d give a crime boss like Al Capone.

The men exchange heated words, but the three are obviously afraid of Waddu-ewantow, and it’s not long before he’s sent them away, grumbling, probably making lame jokes to save face. Lac watches Waddu-ewantow walk back to where he was stacking mud bricks around the wood frame and take up working again. He may be guarding his source of madohe, Lac thinks, but shared work effects a kind of social alchemy, transmogrifying enemies into teammates. Collaborating to achieve common goals morphs rivals into allies, obstacles into assets. This might be one of the keys to making this whole project work—somehow create a shared sense, not so much of mission—nothing so lofty—but of joint effort and collective progress toward a worthy goal. Or Waddu-ewantow could just arbitrarily decide to split your skull with one of your own machetes. All he would have to conclude is that he can get more from killing you than from working for you. And that’s another reason it’ll be good to have a dugout: if the Yąnomamö know you make frequent trips to replenish your supplies, they’ll be less apt to estimate what’s stored here now at a higher value than what you could potentially bring in the future.
***

I didn’t enter the shabono today, Lac writes sitting at his table. I suppose I’m still decompressing after all that happened yesterday and the day before. Surprisingly enough, the Karohi-teri man showed up to work on the hut for fishing tackle again, as though nothing had happened. He even chased off three other men who seemed set on harassing me further. Later, both the men who returned for me when I fell behind during the hunt a few days ago also showed up to help. With all the young boys, we had a substantial workforce—not that we were especially coordinated in our efforts. (The boys may have started on an unnecessary wall or two.) We worked until the sun was lowering on the horizon, at which point I decided to turn to language lessons.

The two men from the hunting party weren’t much help, as they seemed to have no interest in what I was doing. But I managed to institute a dynamic with the Karohi-teri man: I’d communicate my confusion; he would in turn express incredulity at my ignorance (somewhat comically), his astonishment eliciting a desire on his part to remedy that ignorance. The chief difficulty I’ve been facing is in discerning where one word stops and another begins. I have page after page of unbroken chains of phonetically transcribed syllables: basically single words that run the length of a page. To illustrate to my informant what I needed, I wrote English phrases I knew him to be familiar with—“You have to earn it,” “What do you want now?”—and repeated them over and over, tracing a line under each syllable as I pronounced it. He gave no sign of understanding what I was doing.

Comparing the English phrases to the Yąnomamö syllable chains, I tried to stress the difference—no spaces demarking individual words. He tried helping me by directing my attention to small sections of the chain I had just passed over in my reading and pointing to the objects they correspond with, but he didn’t seem to grasp my larger problem. We’ll work at it again tomorrow. At least I’m learning the names of various common objects.
***

Lac awakes. Yesterday went by without crisis. So peaceful was it that he’s already back to wondering which activities he should direct his ethnographic gaze toward today. You can’t keep to yourself and your own projects forever, he thinks. Keep the shotgun with you, nip the begging in the bud before it builds momentum, and you should be alright. All the same, you may want to participate in and observe whatever Bahikoawa is doing, or your two rescuers—no reason to open yourself up to more opportunities for being bullied if you can avoid it.

After returning to his hut with the day’s first jug of water, he pours some of the café con leche he prepared last night from his thermos into a mug. It’s still plenty warm. That means he’s lighted on a new time-saving routine, a way to get started with his work earlier every day. He still plans on spending most of the daylight hours working on the hut, but he’ll at least check in with a few groups going through their own daily routines. First, he decides he’ll go to the gardens and see if he can’t pick up a few new vocabulary items for his growing stack of 3 by 5 notecards. Will he try to recruit Waddu-ewantow for another language lesson tonight? I guess I’ll wait and see how he’s behaving while we work on the hut, assuming he shows up for that. He must already have more hooks and line than he knows what to do with, unless the Yąnomamö are using them in some way other than what they were designed for.

Lac guesses he’ll come; he seems to be avoiding someone—his in-laws?—and he also seems bored with Bisaasi-teri in general. How long is he required to stay here? Maybe it’s time to start trying to get his personal story. If he shows up. Of course, with Waddu-ewantow, it’s just as likely he’ll show up and start getting pushy again. Lac takes solace in the presence of more peaceful, more reliable men like the headman and his rescuers. Who are these two men to each other, he wonders—brothers? What makes them so different from the others? Really, I should avoid the hot-headed tough guy from Karohi-teri and focus my efforts on these guys who’ll probably be much more compliant, much more cooperative, much less volatile. Because, let’s face it, you need more than information if you’re going to keep your sanity out here for a year and a half; you’re going to need something approaching friendship.

Finishing his coffee, he pours a dollop of water into the cup, sloshes it around a couple times, and casts it outside. That’s what doing the dishes amounts to now, since he’s decided to clean an item only if it’s truly dirty. The old trade-off: you can live comfortably with clean clothes, a reasonably full belly, and sanitary cooking, meanwhile getting no work done; or you can get lots of work done, but feel disgusting the whole time, light-headed with twisted guts, wrapped in a reeking film of old sweat oozing and congealing in layers, like sulfurous lava from an island volcano. He’s decided he’ll make do going on nearly empty, accept being repulsive—who does he have to impress who’s not at least as gross?—and prioritize vocabulary and hut-building, along with as much participant-observation as he can squeeze in, as long as he can stand it.

He grabs his notebook and pen, sliding them into the back pocket of his shorts. It’s early enough in the day that his skin and clothes are still dry—as crusted as they are with the vestiges of yesterday’s profusion of perspiration. When he steps outside, his eyes automatically scan the clearing, on the lookout for the next brigade of Yąnomamö charging toward him with spears and drawn bows. Instead, he sees people leaving the shabono to shit, some kids playing at archery with miniature bows—who’d have thought?—and a few women walking toward the gardens. That’s where he heads as well.

On the way, he stops and takes a breath, relishing what he knows will be a short-lived absence of children. They always find and surround him soon after he emerges from the hut, a good tradeoff really: some light babysitting in exchange for ongoing linguistic immersion. Their nasalized, whiny, but invariably lighthearted and playful words burbling up all around him, at once the source of his only inkling of belonging and a mild annoyance.

Lac continues to the garden and is examining the various species of plants growing in each of the sections—catching the brunt of his horticultural ignorance—when he sees one of his rescuers, the one who first happened on him after he’d been delayed by the fallen tree and couldn’t locate the rest of the hunting party. It takes a moment for Lac to register what he’s looking at. The man is squatting down in what must be his family’s plot, and he’s sweeping the ground as he waddles back and forth across it—sweeping the dirt with the blade of a machete held sideways between both hands. Lac is already rushing toward the man before he’s fully grasped the meaning of what he sees.

“Shori,” he says, but that’s the extent of his repertoire of Yąnomamö greetings. “What are you doing with that?” he asks stupidly, pointing at the machete. The man smiles and begins to speak, gesturing toward himself and then holding up the machete, obviously giving his justification for believing it rightly belongs to him.

Lac feels his chest engorging with a rage building toward immense proportions, puffing him out, whitening his lips, priming him for irrevocable action. I’d have expected this from Waddu-ewantow—hell, I already all but accused him, but… The thought of his earlier misdirected anger dampens his swelling fury before it’s reached its full intensity. He takes a step back just as the second of the pair steps out from behind some tall shoots. Lac’s gaze drops to this man’s hands, empty; he imagines him having overheard his brother’s hurried explanation and rushing to hide his own pilfered machete.

The man talks, taking turns with his brother—or whatever they are to each other—but language lessons and genealogies are the last thing on Lac’s mind. Remember this, he tells himself. It’s probably not so different from what you’d run up against in most professions back in the States. You’ve been sheltered from it on campus, probably one of the most civilized places on the planet. But in the real world, and probably still more so out here, nobody does anything for you unless they think there’s something in it for them. These people steal women from each other’s villages for Christ’s sake.

Lac is too dispirited to try wresting the machetes back from his whilom rescuers. They can’t all be bad, he recalls thinking. Maybe not, but just because someone smiles and helps you out a bit, that doesn’t mean you can suddenly count on him, pin your hopes of friendship on him, look to him for entrée into his entire society—there, see? It’s not like your own motives were so God damned pure.

Lac makes it all the way back to the hut, dodging some of the kids. He steps inside, turns around to latch the door, and leans his forehead against the flimsy wood. He tries to force a laugh but barely manages a smile. God, I haven’t even been out here a week; it’s not like they were the oldest and best friends I ever had. Still, who else do I have, as I steep in this buggy boiling stew of loneliness chockfull of the reeking bodies of hostile humans, like none others I’ve ever encountered. They seem so inhuman, bronze-wrapped, black-capped bundles of twitchy animal instincts, vicious and conniving. He knows this impression isn’t fair. He knows it’s horrible of him to think this way. What would Boas say? But there it is.

We all have our low moments.

He goes through what’s become a ritual checking of bolts, latches, and locks, waits a moment for his nerves to stop buzzing like so many maniac bees in a beleaguered hive, and then decides he needs to go back outside to work on the walls that will seal him off from the Yąnomamö—both the vilest among them and the most virtuous, the fiercest and the most friendly. 
***

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mending Roofs: He Borara Ch 4.1

shabono
(12,031 words. Or start with the first chapter.)

Lac wakes the next morning to the sound of rain and buffeting wind. Panic builds as he becomes aware of how much time he’s passed unconscious. Patting himself down, feeling around for the shotgun, sitting up to check if the door is still closed and locked, he hurriedly runs down the list of top worries. Nothing seems amiss. He gradually comes to realize his unsettledness, his sense of there being something terribly wrong, is coming from nothing other than the fact that he’s been left alone for longer than he has at any other time since arriving. The reason nobody’s bothered him, moreover, is that none of the Yąnomamö wants to leave the shabono when it’s raining this hard.

For now at least, all is well.

Sitting upright in his hammock, he lifts the mosquito net, ducks under it, and steps over to the window, which, despite being tucked under the eaves, is letting in a constant spray of mist and irregular spurts of larger droplets. The clay floor at his feet is cold and slimy. Outside, he sees the wind lashing the tops of the trees enwrapping the shabono and the surrounding gardens—some invisible winged monster charging through the branches and leaves with destructive abandon, hissing and howling in fury. The trees are so gargantuan, and the effect of the wind so violent, Lac feels exposed in a way unfamiliar to most people who grow up in a city—though he remembers storms coming in from over Lake Michigan that inspired in him a similar feeling of awe before the enormous power of nature.

You’re left wondering as you scramble about at the feet of such colossal forces clashing and colliding overhead, should we even be here? Do we have any business making homes in places where the weather can, with no warning, wipe the earth clean of us with but a swipe or two of its monstrous invisible tail?

In their cities, humans look up and marvel at all the monuments to their own species’ industry and ingenuity: the miles-long bridges over the churning seas, the endless vistas of spear-tipped, towering feats of engineering godhood, all these reminders, available at a glance, of what tiny insignificant specs each of us is, how inconsequential our individual contributions to the collective force that is humanity’s march through history, its tidal thrust over the surface of the globe, its suspension over the seas, its rise into the fathomless firmament, its travels through the clouds. And it all started here, in places like this, where people were made to feel just as tiny, just as vulnerable and insignificant before the forces of nature and the ceaseless unfolding of time. Perhaps the one grew out of a response to the other.

Such idle musings, and here I’m supposed to be a professional anthropologist.

The wind batters the sides of the hut, and Lac worries about the mud walls’ ability to withstand the assault. It’s been here for years, he thinks. What are the chances it would lift off the foundation, or be smashed to smithereens by flying branches, a few days after I arrive? His next thought is of how, since opening his eyes, he’s gone from panic, to relief, to transcendent entrancement, only to end up back at mild panic again as he listens to the walls of the hut strain and whistle. At least I finally got a good night’s sleep before getting tossed back into the wringer. He laughs, steps from the window over to his trunk, and starts the process, just complicated enough to be mildly irritating, of digging out some crackers and a jar of peanut butter. Then he checks his pots to see if he has enough water to make coffee.

Lac has heard these storms can last as little as ten minutes, but for all he knows it could go on all day. He claps his palms together to kill a mosquito, and then another, repeating the exercise until he’s cleared away most of the bugs hovering conspicuously about the hut as part of their ill-fated attempt at escaping from the heavy winds and rain. Lifting his pot, he’s sees there may be just enough water for a single cup of coffee; he considers drinking it straightaway to quench a night’s worth of thirst, but he keeps himself in check by thinking about how strong he’ll make the coffee, how good the jolt of energy will feel, how divine the blossoming of mental clarity.

He sets about firing up the stove, curious to see if he’ll have the same trouble with the primer now that he’s alone in the hut and the humidity is dropping from the air as actual water. Once the stove is lit—with nary a need for stamping out unintended flames—he places on the pot, and then he moves to the door to set the other, empty pot outside to gather rainwater, in case he’s trapped in the hut all day by the storm. I’ll probably have to pick a million bugs out of it, he thinks, and that’s before I boil it. Indeed, anytime he peers closely enough into the thatched roof overhead—or too closely rather—he’s able to see it come alive with the movements of cockroaches and centipedes and God knows what else.

As if on cue, the wind gives the walls another stiff shove, and a few roaches actually fall from the ceiling onto the floor nearby. I wonder if it would even do any good if I tried to clean them out, he thinks; probably not—it’d be about as effective as trying to kill all the mosquitoes in the hut before I go to sleep.

As he mixes his coffee and the powdered milk into a bitter café con leche, he wonders what he can do to make the most of this unexpected gift of privacy. It would be nice, he thinks, to lie back in my hammock and read for a couple of hours. He has yet to empty his bladder or void his bowels this morning, and the first sip of his coffee aggravates them both. Peeing is no issue, but I’d prefer being some distance away from the hut before I shit; this place smells bad enough as it is.

He breathes the air in slowly through his nostrils. Just now, the hut smells of coffee, his own body odor, to which he’s becoming acclimated, the fresh wetness of the rain, the loamy rich dirt of the earth and the floor, and the sickly putrescence of mold and rotting plant life. It’s such a lively, pungent mixture, he thinks, colorful even. Back home, an absence of any powerful smells is the norm; here, you’re incessantly awaft in competing odors, each one heavy enough on its own to demand attention. I’ve already habituated enough not to be constantly distracted, constantly nauseated, but I doubt they’ll ever fade from my attention completely. Smell is like an added dimension to every scene out here, one people in cities lose all but the vaguest awareness of through aggressively hygienic neglect.

He stands up, takes a long sip of coffee, sets down his cup, and moves to the door, planning to step outside, piss somewhere he’s unlikely to walk in the near future, and survey the scene for a safe place to jog off and take a shit. With the door open, though, he hears shouting. His knees pop forward, a reflex that drops him into a crouch. He ducks behind the doorframe. Since his arrival a few days ago with Clemens, he can’t help interpreting every unexpected sound, especially that of Yąnomamö men shouting, as a harbinger of attack. Still hiding behind the door, Lac pricks his ears, but the rain spattering against the ground and the leaves of the distant trees drones loudly on, overwhelmed only by brief insistent gusts of wind. The sounds and smells are as violent and impatient as the people, he thinks, maintaining their relentless assault on his sense of security and on his… what? On his own patience, his own forbearance.

And when they finally succeed—if you ever let them succeed—in toppling that forbearance, what then? Do you go berserk and start throwing haymakers? You’d be a walking pincushion before you could throw a second punch. Would you go on a shooting spree with your shotgun? Even then, you’d have to pick your targets carefully. You don’t have enough bullets, and anyway you wouldn’t be able to reload fast enough. Killing even one of them would almost certainly mean you getting killed in turn. And anyway, like it or not, you need these people, not just for your work but for your survival. So for now, probably for as long as you’re in the territory, you just have to accept you’re completely at their mercy. You need to keep in mind at all times that allowing your forbearance to be toppled is not an option—or if it is an option, it’s a deadly one.

Lac sees nothing but the water-laden trees, whose extra burden makes seem even more outsized and otherworldly, which in turn makes the wind seem even more absurdly powerful as it barrels through the branches, treating their solid mass to swirling liquid upheaval. He steps out beside the door to piss, sure that the downpour will effectively obliterate any trace. When he hears the shouting again, he turns toward the shabono, the obvious source of the sounds.

What are they up to now?

Lac steps back inside the hut, dripping wet already. They must have some ritual for greeting the storm, he thinks. I have to get over there. He goes to his trunk and sifts around until he finds a greenish gray tarp he plans to wrap around himself, using it as a poncho. His stomach churns; he still has to shit, but he’s determined to document whatever is going on in the village. Charging out into the storm, he wonders how safe it is to duck down and waddle through the passage into the enclosure now, when no one can hear him announcing himself, amid whatever commotion is taking place on the other side of the massive wall.

They’re obviously quick of eye, he reassures himself. Have you once seen them fire an arrow at something they didn’t intend to kill? No, but I’ve only been here a few days, participated in a single hunt. And anyway their having deadly intentions whenever they loose an arrow is hardly encouraging.

The stretch of soggy ground between Clemens’s hut and the outer wall of the shabono must be traversed cautiously, lest he slip or sink into the softer mud. He has one last moment of hesitation before ducking down between the piles of wood, thinking he should maybe free up the space in his bowels before committing to whatever it is he’s about to get himself into. But he’s heard the voices, shouting, chanting, grow louder as he approached, and his curiosity gets the better of him. Shuffling along sideways in his deep squat, Lac feels his butthole pinch tight again in commemoration of his first day in the field. Once again, he emerges inside the shabono safe and intact, without encountering any reception at all, violent or otherwise.

He stands up to see a mostly empty courtyard, the people for the most part having sought refuge under their family’s section of the huge circular roofing structure. Not everyone is hiding though. On the far end, Lac sees a smattering of men moving about, swift and aggressive. As he watches through the heavy rain, he comes to believe he’s witnessing a battle, one side rushing toward the other in a display of intimidation, rushing up to some unseen line of scrimmage only to come to an abrupt halt, loosing their spears to ride the forward momentum, spears and perhaps stones, along with a catapulting of invective.

Safe across the courtyard from the fighting, Lac eyes his surroundings for a place to hunker down, where he’ll be able to view the action and its consequences. He’s standing between two sections of the structure, so he reasons there’s probably a family occupying the section to either side. Somehow he never sees these families when he’s entering or leaving the shabono—though it’s not all that surprising considering most of the shabono seems empty throughout the day. Such is the footloose nature of the Yąnomamö. But just as he’s stepping into the section to his right, he sees a woman who’s not hiding at all. She’s tending a fire, doing her best to keep it alight and protected from the high winds. It’s the woman he saw with Bahikoawa, the one who was helping him with the gardening, the one Lac supposes is a young wife and not a daughter.

Have I been waddling in through the headman’s house this whole time?

Trying not to be rude, as difficult as it is to know what would constitute rudeness out here in the jungle, Lac scans the rest of the house, the hammocks, the plantains hanging in thick profusion from the rafters. Bahikoawa himself is nowhere to be seen, but there is another woman here, along with a bunch of scared kids. His sons and daughters? The other woman is older, having already lost her shape—all those pregnancies, all those heavy loads of firewood—but still what Lac considers young. Still pretty. Another of the headman’s wives? A sister? If she is another wife, is it only the headman who gets to have more than one?

Still on the edge of the house, still getting soaked beneath his tarp, Lac turns back to the battle taking place across the plaza. It’s not a real battle; that’s clear to him now. The men, at intervals, take turns getting a running start and launching invisible objects into the air, but Lac can’t see any way they’d be divided into teams. He can’t see their faces from where he stands either, but he’s reasonably sure he recognizes most of them; they’re all from this village—or at least they’ve been in this village as long as he has.

There’s an exaggerated quality to their movements, similar to the way they carry on during their hallucinogen-sharing sessions. Lac traverses the outermost rim of the courtyard, making his way to where the action is taking place. He sees all the frightened children, the mothers, some ignoring the kids, some trying to comfort them. What have they seen, Lac wonders, that’s making them so terrified of this storm? Or is it a more instinctive fear, deeper somehow, more primal than any conditioned response? He turns back to the half-fighting, half-dancing men and listens for any recognizable words in their chant-shouting.

I should be recording this, he thinks, but I couldn’t very well bring the tape recorder out in rain this heavy. Once he’s close enough to observe, but still distant enough not to interfere or draw attention, he squats down to watch the men rail at the storm clouds, and in the process is reminded he still has to shit. He’d like nothing better right now than to sit on a nice toilet in a clean bathroom, warm and dry, smoking a cigarette while attending to his business. But he shakes away the image and concentrates on the scene taking place in the shabono’s central courtyard.

The Yąnomamö exhibit a looseness in their joints, a mad excess of mobility and expression. As a kid, Lac was fascinated with the Plains Indians, the Cheyenne, the Blackfoot, the Comanche, proud atop their horses, upright, their dignity on casual display in their slow, deliberate movements and parsimonious expenditures of energy. That’s how Lac had thought of them anyway, an image pulled piecemeal from his explorer books and from movies, which portrayed them either as formidable threats—bloodthirsty savages—or as wise and stalwart companions, holders of forgotten keys to a more spiritual, fuller life.

Comparing the Yąnomamö to his old fantastical conception of the proud noble savage, Lac can’t help feeling cheated. Watching them hurl both imprecations and invisible projectiles at the storm, at the spirits they must believe are driving it—or do they think the winds actually are spirits?—he’s brought face to face with a quality of theirs he has no other word for than childishness. They puff out their chests and make unselfconsciously jerky and over-pronounced gestures with their gangly limbs, like little boys pridefully basking in their mothers’ adoring gaze, even though their emotional volatility is such that this proud, loose-limbed swagger could turn at any moment into a simple tantrum, or into a total breakdown.

Boas would be appalled by my thoughts right now, Lac thinks, quietly chastising himself. But here it is, right in front of me. It may merely be my own idiosyncratic impression, and it may say more about my own character and my own upbringing than theirs, but these Indians give every appearance, however physically mature, of a perpetually stunted mindset. I mean, they’re throwing a fit to protest a thunderstorm for Christ’s sake, as least as far as I can tell. Lac imagines one of the charging men calling out, “Look mom, I’m beating up the storm!” What is a mother to do but chuckle?

He cranes his neck to see if he can discern what the other villagers make of this production, sure that whatever secret wisdom he was hoping to discover out here—though he’d never have acknowledged hoping for any such thing—will remain forever out of reach, probably because it doesn’t exist. This is what lies beneath that promise you saw in the glint from that young man’s eye as he stood on a stone parting the currents of the Orinoco. This is that wildness that held you in such thrall. Were you somehow hoping to embody it? Are you still?

In a way, though, it makes sense that there would be a performative aspect to all the Yąnomamö’s behaviors. Everything they do is either in easy view of the hundred or so people living in the shabono with them or at most a few stages away in a game of telephone. You couldn’t take a runny shit outside Bisaasi-teri without everyone inside knowing within moments that you have diarrhea—a proposition he suspects he’s about to test himself. It would be like being hunkered down with your graduating class from high school your entire life. In fact, considering the Yąnomamö live much closer to how humans spent most of their evolutionary history than those of us from advanced nations do, you can see why embarrassing episodes from our adolescence—those damned folding chairs at the assembly—leave such indelible marks.

Lac stands up and steps sideways as the wind picks up, setting the edges of his tarp to flapping. Bracing against the driving rain, he seeks out a spot where he can enjoy a small bit of shelter under the roof while still keeping the embattled shamans—of whom he counts six—in view. He need only make sure no overprotective braves occupy the section he’s chosen. Braves? The word seems inappropriate enough on its own, but it also troubles Lac that it’s the first one his mind tossed up to him. As he stands beside a support post, watching the high drama of the ritual donnybrook, he hears the wind tearing at the thatching overhead, feels the force of the gales judder through the wood; he realizes that the massiveness of the shabono has lent to an unrealistic sense of its stability and resilience.

Peering through the gray light and the cataracts of rain, he now sees large sections of the roof lifting up off the support frame with each of the more powerful gusts. Jesus, he thinks, this whole thing is going to blow away. He finds himself clutching desperately onto the support post beside him. Turning back toward the shamans, he now looks on their efforts with a degree of sympathy approaching admiration. That feeling of being a tiny mote tossed mercilessly about by the unfathomable forces of the physical world returns, and instead of seeing the shamans’ struggle as a childish tantrum triggered by the storm’s affront to their sense of self-importance, he sees their crudely choreographed mock skirmish as more of an instance of self-sacrifice, emblematic of their willingness to stand up to the mightiest of enemies, to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of their fellow villagers, to take responsibility for the safety of the group before the most redoubtable and destructive blows thrown at them by nature, forces capable of eradicating their home, annihilating their community, erasing their lives from existence. He senses the sublime beauty behind this act of bravery, as melodramatic as it may be.

One of the combatants stands out from the rest for his—what’s the word for it?—for his naturalness, his lack of ostentation. He displays none of that child-like braggadocio; his deep concern for the village, and even a trace of fear, register plainly in his visage and his demeanor. He’s not putting on a show for the onlookers; he’s doing the deadly serious work of keeping the people of Bisaasi-teri safe. Lac watches this man gathering some chthonic energy into his hands and casting it into the roiling heavens. So natural and deep-seated is this man’s belief in his power to fend off the tumultuous wind and crashing thunder that for a moment Lac’s skepticism is shaken. Did he feel a shift in the air the instant the man shot forth the bolt from his hands?

Even as he asks the question in his mind, the identity of the man becomes clear. It’s the headman, Bahikoawa, the one person whose name he’s been able to glean, though how Clemens managed to get anyone to divulge it remains a mystery.

The storm gathers force. It’s hard to imagine how the shabono can withstand the onslaught. But the men keep up the fight, undaunted. And Lac, clinging for dear life to the support post, holding tight to his tattered tarp, curses himself for not having the forethought to stop before entering the enclosure to take a shit.

***
Once the storm has wreaked sufficient havoc, the turbulence in the sky quickly peters out, leaving everyone rattled, dazed, as they mill about, visiting, inspecting the damage, greeting each other with true gratitude for their continuing existence, true relief. The residue of their fear underscores Lac’s lateness in recognizing the severity of the danger. A couple of the women even greet him, patting down his nabä body to make sure it remains sound and intact, though most of them still seem determined to give him a wide berth.

Lac wonders how the disruption of the storm will impact the Yąnomamö’s daily routines. Already, many men are examining parts of the shabono roof, estimating the effort and resources required for repairs. From what Lac saw, a few large sections of the thatch were pulled free from the crossbeams supporting them. Maybe they’ll need to be bound back down; maybe the thatching will need replacing; maybe the frame will need to be reinforced. Not overly excited about running off into the jungle to accompany the men on another hunt, Lac cottons to the idea of working with them all day here, inside the shabono, to make repairs.

He can help, be of some value, pick up the language while being industrious at the same time. That scenario is infinitely more appealing than anything that involves running long distances, or even short distances, with the festering blisters on the balls of his feet. But the repairs may not amount to an all-day affair. Already, men are wandering outside for the day’s gardening—though the garden probably needs plenty of repairs itself. Women are strapping their large baskets across their foreheads and taking to the trails to chop and gather up firewood.

Lac looks around, at a loss as to whose activities to observe and participate in. In truth, that last burst from the storm has him a little rattled too. The wind scoured the plaza with such explosive violence it didn’t seem anything could possibly hold fast to the earth, that it would all be borne aloft and tossed about in the tumultuous heavens. When it was over, Lac all but sprinted outside for that shit he’d been putting off, and he was by no means alone in making the diarrheal dash. It would be impossible to remember all these people’s locations, Lac had thought while surveying the scene, all the places you need to avoid to keep from stepping in feces. You’ll just have to keep your eyes open, probably a good idea anyway, what with all the snakes and fire ants and thorns and everything else you need to avoid.

Lac has on a couple of occasions seen a man who moves about the village on a single leg. He has a walking stick he uses for added balance, but it’s not what any Westerner would consider a suitable crutch. He really just uses it to steady himself as he hops about, as if on a pogo stick. To which of the jungle’s myriad dangers, Lac wonders, did this man lose such a precious appendage? He decides to find his young translator friend, the one who first understood what he meant by pointing at various people, and see what information he can convey about the man’s disability.

It says something about these people that a man with such a serious injury or deformity can survive among them. He must benefit from their aid and their—forbearance, just as Lac has already benefited from them himself, though in his case it has more to do with avarice than true compassion or fellow-feeling. Lac considers the two men who came back for him yesterday when he was lost in the woods. Were they hoping to be rewarded with some items from his store of madohe? If they were, it’s odd they haven’t shown up at the door of Clemens’s hut demanding payment. Maybe I’ve misread them, he thinks. Maybe I’ve already begun to judge the entire tribe based on my encounters with the most aggressive few. If that’s the case, the remedy is to make a point of talking to more people, something I need to do anyway.

On the logistics side of his plans, he also wants to keep checking the hut across the river where he and Clemens hung their hammocks that first night to see if any representatives of the Malarialogìa have returned. He’s decided a dugout canoe with an outboard motor will be vital to his success, not to mention his sanity. With any luck, he’ll be able to use his Spanish, such as it is, to hitch a ride to some town where he can make the purchase. It’ll eat into his emergency funds, but at least he won’t be completely dependent on the comings and goings of his missionary friend, who said he could be back in as little as two weeks but was noncommittal. He said it could also be more like a few months. With his own mode of transportation, Lac could travel upriver to one of the Catholic mission compounds—a visit he’d have to avoid mentioning to Clemens.

The missionaries may be able to provide information about the Yąnomamö’s language, customs, and the whereabouts of their more remote villages. And Lac has lately been feeling like he could use whatever help he can get, whatever his philosophical differences with the man on the other side of the outstretched hand. A Catholic mission could likewise be helpful in arranging transportation in and out of the territory, so he’d have an easier time getting out to visit Laura and his kids, and they’d have an easier time getting in to visit him, assuming he can set up adequate protections and access to amenities—a shaky assumption as things currently stand. If nothing else, he could use the priests’ shortwave radio to call IVIC and talk to Laura.

Walking about the shabono, listening in to the Yąnomamö’s conversations about the damage, he melts at the thought of hearing his wife’s voice. So much I want to tell her, he thinks. But I’d probably better keep it to myself even if I do manage to reach her, until I can assure her I’m not in any danger, or at least convince her I can handle whatever dangers I’m likely to run up against. Approaching a repair site, Lac discovers once more how difficult it is to begin communicating with people when you lack any understanding of the rules governing their social interactions. What do you say? At what distance do you stand? What do you do while your interlocutor is speaking? How can you avoid offending him, making him angry, inciting him to violence?

Usually, Lac finds he has less need for the answers than he expects, because the demands of yababuji immediately take the place of any customary greeting. This time, though, the men carry on with their repairs and their banter as he nears. Has he picked up the standard greeting yet? Thinking back, he recalls several words that seem to come up close to the beginning of all the encounters he’s had, shori being the most familiar of them. Instead of hazarding any of the words now, he opts for walking up to the damaged area of the structure, touching it, with questioning looks directed at the individual members of the gathering, and listening, his notebook at the ready for new vocabulary.

The men take remarkably little notice of him; one is high on the roof, while several others toss him materials for, Lac guesses, re-securing the thatching to the frame. One of the most immediate and persistent differences in communication Lac is struggling with is that the Yąnomamö don’t nod to signal an affirmative or to encourage a speaker to continue. Since he can’t manage to stop nodding himself, he has to wonder what they make of it. For Americans, bobbing your forehead forward and back, moving your chin up and down, comes so naturally it never occurs to you people in other cultures might rely on alternative means to signal assent. Lac keeps trying to encourage the Yąnomamö to expand—or to merely continue speaking—by nodding like an idiot. One of the men has already started mocking him for the strange habit, followed by many of the children.

Try to suppress your urge to nod when talking with someone for even an hour—talk about feeling awkward and self-conscious—and you’ll have a sense of how ingrained the practice is, and you’ll have a sense of how many of these basic signs make up our common repertoire of communication tools. Take that and apply it to every aspect of living among and interacting with an unfamiliar group of people and you can begin to understand how disorienting and earthshaking the experience is.

Lac doesn’t know who he’s addressing with these thoughts—future students, Laura, perhaps his father to explain why he didn’t stick with his plans to stay for seventeen months. But however strange and out-of-place he feels now, the men are ignoring him. In place of nodding, they seem to use the word “awei,” which Clemens told him means “yes.” It must also mean something like “Go on,” or “Uh-huh.” The single-syllable ma is the word for no. Awei and ma. Yes and no. The binary foundation of all language.

A couple of the men are closely examining large, flat leaves with rounded edges. Lac watches as they stack them and hand them over to another who takes them along as he moves from the lower, outside edge of the roof, which is about four feet high, up the thirty or forty foot slope to the higher, inside edge, where it took the severest thrashing from the storm. The big leaves will then be rolled into thin cylinders and woven into a pattern of overlapping slats. “Leaf,” Lac says holding one up before it’s carted away. “Leaf,” he says again, shaking it and holding it up in front of his face. No one attempts to correct him.

The Yąnomamö go about their repairs, easily disregarding him. Lac tries to listen and look for chances to lend a hand. Many of the earliest ethnographers were lawyers, Lac recalls. Most people are born into societies with well-established laws governing their behavior with regard to all the major concerns: property, transactions, labor, the proper treatment of one another’s bodies and possessions. It’s natural to wonder where it all began. The answer those original anthropologists found was that it began with kinship rules. No laws as we understand them govern the lives and interactions of people in primitive societies. Not a single rule is written down. The rules that do exist aren’t blind to a person’s identity or status; though even in advanced civilizations it’s much harder to make high-status individuals pay for their transgressions.

No, people who live as hunter-gatherers, and probably tribesmen like the Yąnomamö as well, pick up rules by a sort of cultural osmosis. It’s not as though the rules are never discussed. They’ll be referenced in disputes should someone be perceived as failing to live up to his duties. But for the most part you learn them by seeing them enacted by your elders as you grow up and become socialized. We would call such rules customs, as opposed to laws. And in this sense, the native peoples truly are lawless. But sons have obligations to fathers. Husbands have obligations to fathers-in-law. Brothers to brothers. In such small bands—hunter-gatherers roam around in groups of at most a few dozen—you know everyone around you intimately, and chances are you’re related to any given individual you may interact with throughout the day in at least one way, often more.

So customs guiding how you choose to behave toward different types of kin are sufficient to maintain order and group cohesion. Things get more complicated as group size increases, though, and that’s one of the reasons unacculturated tribespeople like the Yąnomamö are so fascinating. Their gardening, their mostly sedentary lives, their villages of over a hundred, it all marks them as existing in a transitional stage from small nomadic bands to horticulturalists, a step along the way to agricultural, even more sedentary living, population explosion—the birth of the state-level society.

At some point along the way, the rules for interacting with a given individual became abstracted, so you’re no longer dealing with mere kinship rules anymore; you’re dealing with the rules of society. One of the ways societal complexity is allowed to develop is with support by a type of dynastic scaffolding. Before you can get to a culture governed by laws, you have to go through a phase in which it’s governed by powerful men—a family or an individual who’s acquired privileged access to some valuable resource.

That’s the going theory anyway. Lac has yet to figure out what resource Bahikoawa has access to that the other men don’t. And, if organized conflicts are only ever about strategic resources as well, why are they talking about fighting over women?

Lac continues to observe the men go about their repairs, looking for opportunities to make himself useful. He finds himself comparing this work he’s watching now to the type of manual labor he saw so much of at Connor’s factory in Detroit, or to teachers standing in front of students sitting in neat rows of desks, or to people working in restaurant kitchens. At this stage in their cultural evolution, the Yąnomamö don’t have trades or professions; there are tasks for men—hunting, gardening, liaising with deities, repairing the shabono—and tasks for women—childrearing, firewood collecting, water fetching, keeping the house warm and tidy. But there are no specialized roles like priest or soldier or baker.

Lac slips into his old habit of marveling at the average civilized adult’s obliviousness before the wonder of civilization. I guess it’s only natural, he thinks, for us to take for granted what’s been familiar to us our whole lives. What people fail to appreciate, though, is just because something seems completely natural, that doesn’t mean it requires no explanation. How did it become natural is the question. Before fifteen thousand years ago, even a society as complex as the Yąnomamö would have been an anomaly. For hundreds of thousands of years, going back to the origin of humankind as a species, the only people on earth would have been hunter-gatherers. That’s more time by at least an order of magnitude than has passed since the advent of agriculture. But somehow even reasonably well-educated people think of anthropology as an arcane subject, the last refuge of drugged up hippy professors and their wide-eyed, impressionable students, ripe for distraction from the more practical professions.

Lac laughs at himself. Talk about oblivious—you just summed up a whole society’s view of an academic discipline with reference to your father and brothers alone. He makes a decision. Rather than follow a group of women along a trail he probably won’t be able to see so he can help them chop and cart firewood, he’ll begin work on his own mud-and-thatch hut. The thought alone brings a modicum of relief; he’ll be able to stop focusing so intently on the Yąnomamö; he’ll have a project all his own; maybe he won’t have to feel at such a disadvantage, so much at their mercy. 

Plus, if he can build a suitable shelter, he’ll be one step closer to getting Laura out here with the kids, like they’d originally planned, back when he was scrambling to find a suitable group to study, after the coup in Brazil took the Suyá off the table. Simply projecting his mind back to a time when his whole expedition was still in the planning phase bolsters him. I’ve only been here a few days, he reminds himself. I’ve got seventeen months to settle in and get in the swing of things. Stage one: build a hut, learn the language and the basic ins and outs of the culture (making this perhaps the most difficult of the stages). Stage two: bring in Laura and the kids, begin your systematic study of the Yąnomamö in earnest, and figure out which neighboring groups would be good candidates for conducting further research with. Stage three: lay the groundwork for Nelson and his team to come and collect the blood samples for their genetic studies. I should have plenty of genealogical data to hand over to them by then, which will, with any luck, secure their future collaboration—and funding. Stage four: we all return home, to Ann Arbor, where I write up my dissertation, defend it before my doctoral committee, prove I’m proficient in German and Spanish, and thus earn my doctorate, starting my career as a professional anthropologist.

So learning how to communicate with a few Indians, maybe making a friend or two—no big deal. Nothing but a minor hiccup in the larger plan.

One man remains on the roof, apparently still tying down the newly thatched sections, while the others gradually disperse. A swell of frustration rises up to wash over Lac’s momentary sense of mission. “For Christ sake,” he mumbles, “how am I supposed to learn anything about these people when I don’t even know any of their goddamned names?” But he’s able to calm himself straightaway. He moves from the site of the repairs, scanning the faces he sees as he walks to the opening in the shabono wall where he’ll exit, searching for his young translator, either of his two rescuers, Bahikoawa, or hell even Waddu-ewantow—anyone he feels confident he could persuade to help him choose a location, procure the materials, and set about building a mud-and-thatch hut, which will have to be sturdy enough, capacious enough, and cozy enough for him to bring his family to.

Unless, after spending more time among the Yąnomamö, he decides it’s not safe for his family here, in which case he’ll just have to tough out the loneliness.

After walking all the way back to the existing hut without seeing any of his friends, he decides to go to the river and check for signs of the Malarialogìa personnel’s return to their hut across the river and a ways into the jungle. Apprehension seizes him almost any time he nears the edge of the clearing where the gardens and the shabonos sit. The children, he’s noticed, are mostly kept inside the walls of the enclosure. That could be to protect them from any number of threats, but it reinforces Lac’s fear of attack by enemy raiders. The way Bahikoawa examines the trail each morning, looking for traces, as though the men from the enemy camp may be lurking just inside the brush, waiting in ambush for some foolhardy soul to wander out to the fringe—that’s what makes Lac so reticent.

A large branch felled by the storm lies blocking the trailhead, presenting myriad insects an irresistible invitation to coalesce in thick swirling clouds. Lac decides to run back to the hut to grab a machete so he can chop away the deadfall, thus performing a service the Yąnomamö may appreciate. A feeling of calm spreads through him as the plan forms in his mind. He needs to be careful, his professors admonished him, not to allow himself to gravitate away from social interaction with the people whose culture he’s there to study. There are plenty of shallow ethnographies already, written by frightened young anthropologists who shied away from delving into the culture at anywhere near the necessary depth. Because it’s naturally stressful. It can be overwhelming.

Lac already feels the temptation to take a break from all the insults to his person, his pride, his sensibilities. He could just stay in his hut, locked away from Waddu-ewantow, away from all the children, away from them all, maybe for a day or two. But he senses that would be the first step along the path to utter withdrawal, culminating in him rationalizing his way to an early departure from the territory under some reasonable-sounding pretext. Inside the hut, he lets his eyes linger on the shotgun leaning against the mud wall, even as he’s deciding not to take it with him as he works to clear the brush and storm detritus from the trail. It would get in the way as he worked. And if he set it down somewhere, it would be too much of a distraction.

He finds a machete in one of the barrels and then reseals it before heading back outside. A job he’s given himself to do alone is, strictly speaking, not furthering the objectives of his research. But it’s meeting himself halfway, giving him a break while not amounting to the vacation he envisioned, locked away indoors. Passing his new table on his way to the door, he finds a rag, which he plans to tie over his mouth to keep the bugs out. He whips it in the air to snap away the dirt and cobwebs, then heads back to the trailhead.

Maybe an hour has passed by the time the Yąnomamö men start showing up. Lac has been chopping away at the tangle of branches, his face and his body gushing torrents of sweat which fall in pools on the rain-soaked earth. The men saunter up, idly chatting, joking, but finally step in to haul away several of the branches Lac has severed with his machete, sweep away piles of leaves and wood chips, and help him pull away the central bough. Once the job is complete, Lac takes to the trail, eager to wade into the river and splash away the sweat-drowned gnats he feels sticking to his torso and limbs. He has a pleasing sense of accomplishment, even of comradery, as he walks with a couple of the men down to the river. A few women are on the trail already too, now in urgent need of the day’s supply of water for drinking and washing.

Lac feels less on-edge, less apprehensive of the people he sees, maybe because they’ve survived the ordeal of the storm together. But he suspects it’s his participation in the clean-up and repair stages that has brought him to this new state of acceptance. It makes him all the more anxious to set to work building his own hut: objective number two. Objective number one is still to figure out a way to get to one of the towns upriver so he can buy a dugout canoe and a motor.

The Malarialogìa hut is across the Orinoco, serving both the Upper and the Lower Bisaasi-teri villages, which are themselves separated by the Mavaca and by a distance of a few hundred yards. The thought of this third shabono he has yet to even lay eyes on bunches up the passages of his intestines, raising a bubble of mild nausea up through his stomach into his brain. I need genealogies for them all, he thinks, and I have to come up with a way to get them without using anyone’s name in public. I suppose I’ll just have them whisper each other’s names in my ear.

But that would require knowing the words for whisper and ear, wouldn’t it? He laughs quietly to himself.

Lac reflects on how thinking of the big picture makes it easier for him to get past his multitude of minor daily miseries, while it also puts into starker relief how large and elaborate a project he’s embarked upon. From the broader perspective, humiliations like he suffered on the bridge yesterday seem small and insignificant, but his overall list of tasks seems all the more overwhelming. The whole culture is based on kinship for Christ’s sake, he thinks. How am I supposed to understand any of it as long as I don’t know how any of the people here are related to each other? And how am I supposed to figure out who’s related to whom, in what way, if I can’t even get their names?

Incidentally, the genealogies are exactly what Nelson and his team are hoping I can supply as they conduct their medical and genetics research. So forget all of that bluster about reconciling Darwin with Levi-Strauss—it’s going to be a struggle to complete the most basic ethnography, to write and defend an adequate dissertation, to earn my PhD and become an anthropologist, an actual scientist.

Standing in the shallow current near the river bank, his feet sinking in the mud, Lac lifts the water he’s cupping between his hands up to his face while scanning the far bank, looking for any sign of the Malarialogìa men. They’d hide their boat, he thinks, just like Clemens and I did. I just have to hope that when they return—if they return—they’ll announce themselves somehow to the people here. And won’t they have to? After all, their job is to monitor the native population so they can contain outbreaks; they can’t very well do that without stopping for a visit, however brief. Of course, they could stop and consult with some villagers—or with the damned headman even—and there’s no guarantee I’d hear a word about it, especially since I could hear that word and not have any idea what the hell it means. Standing fully upright now, still ankle-deep in the water, Lac looks longingly at where he thinks the Malarialogìa men would beach their canoe.

He takes the rag he had wrapped around his mouth to keep the bugs out, soaks it in the river, wrings it gently, and then uses it to dab behind his neck and all over his chest. His other worry is that the Malarialogìa men may not really take their job seriously. Venezuela is not the United States. We complain about bureaucrats and their lazy functionaries back home, but here it’s so bad it’s hard to believe. Bribery isn’t only accepted—it’s expected. And just because it’s somebody’s job, nominally, to check on the Indians once in a while to see if any of them have contracted an infectious disease, you can’t assume he’s actually going to do anything but fish, visit people along the river, lord his slightly more civilized ways over the natives, and search for opportunities to profit from his position.

For now, Lac has no recourse to any other means of travel; he can’t even make it across the river to see if anyone’s staying in the hut. When he arrived at Bisaasi-teri that first day, he and Clemens pulled the rowboat up the muddy bank and tucked it between the roots of a giant kopek. Nobody leaves a boat docked in the open for all who pass to see, and Lac struggles to make peace with the thought that the men he seeks could be cooking outside their hut this very moment and he wouldn’t know. He lifts his gaze over the crowns of the immense trees lining the river, looking for smoke that could be from a campfire. He sees nothing but a smattering of resplendently green parakeets riding the currents of the wind up near the tops of the trees.

Standing there in the water, the mud pressing up between his toes, his body wet and dripping, Lac closes his eyes to bask in the sun, feel its warmth absorb into his skin, and savor another fleeting respite from his tasks, troubles, and torments. You’d have to be blind not to see how beautiful it is out here, he thinks. Even as he thinks it, a prickling at his neck triggers an automatic lift of his hand and smack against the back of his neck. He takes one last buoying breath before dislodging his feet from where they’ve sunk and sloshing to shore. As he climbs the bank, he has to ward off a surge of panic, a claustrophobic realization of how trapped he is, how hopeless any effort at escaping the jungle would be.

But this has been the plan all along.

Back at Clemens’s hut, he opens his barrels and gathers the tools he’ll need for the first stage of his construction project, which should entail prospecting a location, clearing the ground, establishing supply routes for deliveries of materials, and with any luck recruiting some Yąnomamö to help with the heavy-lifting. Lac understands the basics of building a mud-and-thatch hut well enough; he’s just never actually done it. The Yąnomamö, on the other hand, are at the very least expert roofers.

Already the children are starting to show up. In the daylight, some of them, some of the time, are allowed to wander away from the shabono, as long as it’s only as far as the visiting nabä’s living quarters. Stepping outside, Lac takes a moment to try and convey to them what his plans are; he gestures with both hands at the hut, shapes a square in the empty space before his body, framing the structure, and then mimes stacking mud bricks one atop the other to form the walls. The kids think it’s great fun watching the silly nabä dance around like this, but give no indication they understand any of what he’s attempting to communicate.

Lac has been working many hours by the time the commotion inside the shabono begins, early in the evening. The day is still hot, punishingly so, and as has become the norm Lac is surrounded by children, the oldest of whom are genuinely making themselves useful. They’d started pitching in spontaneously, but anticipating their later demands for payment, Lac has decided to offer them fishhooks and nylon fishing line, which in each case they’ve accepted eagerly, leading him to presume they know what these things are and how to use them, and setting him to pondering where they might have learned how to fish using Westerner’s tricks.

Two full-grown men—waro patas—have likewise been lending a hand, albeit less assiduously, one of whom is Waddu-ewantow, who himself has no problem working it seems, but can’t manage to leave well enough alone when it comes to his payment. Lac’s perception of his demandingness has shifted now that he’s been subjected to it over extended intervals. Whereas at first he saw it as a type of childish greed, he now senses a dynamic operating beneath the surface. He’s not really interested in getting twice as many hooks as the younger boys; he’s interested in the recognition of his special status, of which the extra hooks are merely a symbol. Not that an abiding sense of entitlement is such a redeeming quality, but there’s a playfulness blunting the edge of his mischief. Don’t be charmed by his smiles and his goofball antics, Lac keeps insisting to himself. Remember he may kill you if you uttered the wrong few words—or if you publically addressed him by name. Luckily, I don’t know his name, so that’s only going to be an issue if I stumble upon it accidently—a new hazard he hasn’t thought to worry about before.

Now that something is afoot inside the shabono, all his workers are rushing off, leaving him to stand, covered in mud, in front of a wall built up to the height of his waist, the thick posts sticking up from it with their skinny palm wood crossbeams looking naked and pathetic. He sighs. Then he runs back to Clemens’s hut, wets a towel, and wipes off his hands and arms as best he can before grabbing his notebook, passing on the idea of the camera because there won’t be sufficient light, and heading to the shabono.

The anger in the shouts he’s swallowed in as he waddles through the entrance renders him hollow, a shivering puddle of man barely capable moving forward, or of even holding a shape. Finally, Lac’s resolve falters, stopping him midway through the passage running between the cords of wood. To shore up his courage, or to distract himself as he presses on without it, he whispers a prayer to his wife—a prayer he doesn’t believe she can possibly hear.

When he stands up, blinking and holding his hand up to block the last of the day’s light, he immediately sees the fracas is taking place some distance away, at the center of a crowd of Yąnomamö men. He releases the air from his lungs, feels something loosening between his diaphragm and his stomach—he’d thought perhaps the shouting was about him, the village collectively working toward a decision on whether to porcupine him and disperse his madohe among the prominent patriarchs. There are your strategic resources, ha! But no one seems concerned with him at all. If only that were the case more often, he thinks before steeling himself for whatever he’s about to witness and moving toward the crowd near the center of the plaza. The noise and the odor of bodies assault him anew. Every time I think I’m finally getting used to it, he thinks, I run smack dab into an entirely new level.

Young boys scramble around a densely packed circle of jumpy, volatile men, trying to gain a vantage on what’s happening at the center. It’s a fight, Lac realizes, just like we used to have after school back home. He searches for familiar faces, thinking stupidly that one of them may provide answers. The crowd suddenly surges as all the bodies lurch in unison. Lac, circling everyone at a short distance, feels the boys’ frustration, alongside their exhilaration. It’s hopeless. He turns around to see if there’s any type of raised platform he can climb atop to get a view onto the action, and he sees instead a number of women, many holding babies at their hips, a few unleashing violent torrents of invective, the vehemence of their words setting their bodies into a jerky face-lashing dance.

Lac’s not sure how many combatants have taken the center, but whatever they’re fighting about must have ramifications for the whole village. He turns back as the men take up a collective howl that rises in intensity and pitch along an upward swoop, until—a sound, an awful gut-twisting sound sends him reeling back as everything is drowned in the men’s roaring and cheering and laughter. The crowd now loosens as the bodies sway and surge forward and then back again. Lac rushes in to claim a space but runs into a wall of sweaty backs as the men close ranks and begin their ascending howl again, with that sickening sound punctuating the crescendo. Like the end of a thick wooden dowel colliding with a pile of uncooked meat. More cheers and laughter. More angry shouts. More shuffling. Then the howling buildup again.

Lac steps back and tries to lift himself beyond his full height by raising up on his toes and stepping onto any higher ground he can find. He can’t see anything through the press of shoulders and backs with their taut bronze skin, but he glimpses a flash over everyone’s heads. He knows what’s happening now. With those things, he thinks, it would be more like getting whipped than clubbed—or like getting clubbed with a pool cue that’s half again the normal length and has some bend to it. That was the whacking sound he heard, the end of one of these poles smacking against human flesh.

With no warning, the crush of bodies stumbles to the left in unison; Lac, close enough to get caught in the jostling, struggles to stay on his feet and hold his ground. Suddenly, he’s looking straight at the man, one of them anyway, who’s been receiving and delivering the blows. He’s standing there, leaning on his pole for balance but swaying, with blood streaming down the side of his face onto his shoulder and chest. Lac looks him over as quickly as he can, detecting no other welts or wounds, before having his view blocked by the waves of Yąnomamö men with heads sprouting globes of thick shimmering black hair.

Stepping away now, or trying to, Lac thinks, imagine getting beat over the head with the heavy end of a pool cue, over and over again. Later, he’ll shudder at the idea. For now, he returns to his plan of climbing atop some elevated surface to get a direct vantage on the fight. The howling build-up begins again. Then comes the thwack against the combatant’s head. Lac sees none of it. He considers climbing on someone’s shoulders, but how could he possibly do that without seeming to attack the person? The shouts building in intensity again, another thwack, and then—a fraught silence falls over the crowd. Lac can hear individual voices now—enjoining their kinsman to recover and persevere? He listens closely, looking at all the men around him to gauge their reactions.

The packing of bodies loosens again; Lac can feel the tension still throbbing, leaving him to wonder if the two sides will be satisfied with the fight’s outcome or whether another fight—perhaps a melee—will ensue. And me? he wonders. Which side would I be on? His question is more practical than philosophical; he wants to know where he should stand, when he should flee, to whom he might turn for protection. With no answers, he edges toward the side of the plaza, toward the living spaces beneath the vast circular roof. As he did during the storm this morning, he seeks out a support post to hold onto for some balance and a sense of fixity. The crowd surrounding the combatants is dispersing meanwhile, and shouting matches are breaking out all over the shabono. Lac eyes the passage he’ll eventually exit through, but he’s determined to first get a good enough look at the combatants’ faces to make sure he’ll be able to recognize them later, as he’s puzzling out the story. Does this have anything to do with the fight over those stolen women?

So he waits, eying the crowd, taking notes to appear busy—even though he suspects it matters naught—and watching for signs of easing tension. After some time, he believes he can discern the supporters of one side of the dispute from those of the other. Indeed, insofar as he can recognize the men’s faces and connect them to their various sections of the shabono, he’s certain it’s those from one area who are pitted against those of another area. Of course, he thinks, you’d want to live close to your closest kin. What you’re seeing here is probably a feud between two lineages as much as a disagreement between two individuals that escalated into violence.

With this simple organizing principle—closer kin closer together in the shabono—Lac suddenly feels less hopeless about his prospects for successfully collecting genealogies. You can get a start even without the names, he assures himself. And maybe you can make up names, or hell numerical sequences, to use as placeholders until you figure out what their actual names are.

After some further shifting of bodies, Lac has a clear line of sight across a short stretch of the plaza on a man being lowered by his arm to a sitting position, by a man who’s probably a brother. The side of the wounded man’s face is entirely slicked over now with the blood issuing from high on his scalp. Without having witnessed the fight directly, Lac now begins to understand how it must have transpired. The howls were signs of turn-taking: one man gets to deliver a blow with his club, and then the other gets to return the favor. Lac quietly resolves to avoid, however long he ends up residing among the Yąnomamö, however immersed he becomes in their culture, ever having to participate in one of these duels.

Imagine just standing there, he thinks. I mean, can they try to parry?

When Lac sees the headman in the vicinity of the injured man, he feels safe enough to approach. A few men speak to him as he passes but don’t wait around for a response. One man grabs him by the shoulders, issuing a fusillade of frantic words, and then turns to point at the bleeding man. Good, Lac thinks when he’s released, they want me to examine him—but why? Maybe Clemens has acquired a reputation for treating wounds, aided by his meager supply of Western medical technologies, and the Yąnomamö now assume it’s a skill possessed by all nabäs, in which case they’ll be expecting me to do something for this poor man. 

            Lac, affecting savoir faire, walks up to the group gathered around the injured man. Already, he’s wondering what he could possibly do for a skull fracture, assuming that’s what he’ll be dealing with. The men passively watch as he approaches, squeezing in among them, taking advantage of the nonexistence of rules governing personal space. They let him get close, not exactly encouraging him, but not stopping him. Maybe they don’t expect anything from me after all, he thinks. Everyone seems to be taking turns looking closely and fondling the wound. Lac watches their faces intently, trying to piece together the story. One man looks concerned. One looks shocked and incredulous. One appears as though he’s concealing a grin. They all look excited, winding down after the recent frenzy, amid the aftermath of an event both worrying and—what? Fun?

It occurs to Lac that however closely he tracks the subtle dynamics of the Yąnomamö’s expressions and demeanors, he can’t be sure his instincts for deciphering them are properly calibrated; the ways they express various emotions may be foreign to him. They may even have expressions and labels for—and hence experience—feelings Westerners are entirely unfamiliar with. But so far at least, he thinks, I’d say my instincts have proved mostly on the mark, and that’s lucky considering I’ve had to rely on them like never before in my life, not knowing more than a handful of the words used here.

When his turn to check out the man’s head wound comes, Lac sees that a rather large flap of skin hangs loose from where it should be pulled tight over his skull—sees it courtesy of another man who fingers it, seemingly to demonstrate some point in the argument he’s making. Lac lifts a hand to his mouth as his gorge gives a threatening leap. This man is going to bleed to death, he thinks, stepping away. And who even knows if that’s the full extent of the damage? He could easily have a skull fracture as well.

Once again, Lac finds himself standing amid a thick crowd of Yąnomamö—this time comprised of both men and women—drowned in the deafening din of their unmodulated voices and the nauseating odor of their bodies, grateful not to be the focus of their collective attention, all but glorying in the moment’s absence of menacing demands.

***
The Yąnomamö club fight, Lac writes by flashlight, serves a function similar to that of a release valve. That is to say there seems to be a good deal of tension built up between the two factions—likely two rival lineages—represented by the two individual fighters. With every uptick in the tension, the threat of a wider conflict increases. Rather than allow their grievances to multiply, and their animosity to intensify, they let some disputes boil over, dousing the flames underneath the pot, as it were, but not thoroughly soaking the embers, meaning the strife can be rekindled with enough further provocation, leading to yet another flare-up. This is of course speculation, since I have no way of knowing what caused the dispute; I never even figured out a way to ask any of the Yąnomamö what happened.

How does one work into pantomime the question, “What incited this club fight?”

Lac vacillates between hardnosed determination and frustrated despair as he ponders the abounding mysteries of village life. Not knowing the language, he’s stuck doing little more than going through the motions—and that makes him sick. In keeping with what he’s aware is becoming a nightly ritual, he finds much of the space of his thoughts taken up by Laura. He can’t quite work out the niceties of how the argument occurring in his mind would unfold, but he has the complicated sense of unwittingly proving her side, or giving the impression of doing so anyway. Hasn’t she implied that going through the motions is all this anthropology fieldwork business has ever been about for him—as though staying in motion is the important part, not whatever goals he claims, or wants to believe, he’s trying to achieve?

Has she ever actually said anything like that?

The closest she’s come would’ve been during one of her bouts of theorizing about how he’s replaying old family struggles. At no point has she contended that he’s not really interested in learning about primitive societies, contributing to our own society’s understanding of how cultures evolve, the paths along which they advance, how we’ve come from living in small nomadic bands to the crowded, hectic, staggeringly complex existence we take for granted today. And she’s willing to come live out here with me, he thinks, bringing the kids along with her. She must not think my endeavors too misguided, my efforts too misdirected, my beliefs about my own desires and motivations too mistaken.

All of this untangling of knotted thoughts and feelings makes him all the more desperate to talk to her. But there’s no way to bring any of this up over shortwave radio, even if he manages to get access to one. Could he explain it in a letter perhaps? That would mean diverting a lot of his time and concentration from his work, his pointless work, further demonstrating its pointlessness, proving her even more right.

Lac rearranges the flashlight as he returns to his writing, now lower on the notebook page. After the fight, he writes, I was allowed to examine the loser’s head wound, and seeing it set in motion a response I’m only now questioning the ethics of. The man had a three-inch flap of skin dangling by a small patch still attached to his scalp. Concerned about the bleeding, I immediately set about trying to stop it. Lac looks up from his writing, wondering if he should include a line about how anxious he was to show his value, to contribute something of use to the Yąnomamö. He decides against it—not really relevant, scientifically speaking.

My first instinct was to get the man to Clemens’s hut, where I could sit him under a flashlight and minister to the wound without jostling or distraction. But I was at a loss as to how to get him to move, so I went to the hut alone to dig out my first aid supplies. I knew I would have to stitch the wound if I was to have any hope of stanching the blood, something I’d never done before and, frankly, wasn’t sure I had the stomach for. The immediate obstacle, though, was the seeming impossibility of explaining the procedure to the man’s rather protective male relatives.

Before leaving the hut, I picked up a rag I’d left on the makeshift table I made yesterday (which I’ve only set on fire three times so far). Back in the shabono, I demonstrated what I intended to do by sewing one end of the rag to the other, all the while keeping a wary eye on the family’s rivals across the plaza. The Yąnomamö responded by clicking their tongues in what I’ve come to interpret as approval. A few of them even volunteered, unprompted, to hold the injured man in place as I first cleaned and then stitched the wound. The task was made much more difficult, I have to confess, by the tremble in my hands.

Lac looks up again, his mind awash in the remembered details he must choose among to string together a clear narrative. Should I write about how afraid I was that my poor diet of late, my lack of sleep, and my constant state of stress were making me reckless, heedless of my safety, as I moved about the village in a near trace—days on end incessantly molested by bareto and mosquitoes, never free of spiders, cockroaches, and rodents? Should I write about how the Yąnomamö’s cooperation with my treatment efforts made me wonder whether Clemens had stitched wounds for them before? Or whether they’re simply smart enough to grasp what I was doing? Should I write about how, despite my fear and repulsion, I worked like a man possessed by some mad demon because it felt so good to demonstrate some form of competence before the Yąnomamö, before Bahikoawa and Waddu-ewantow, before my rescuers—who weren’t around but would surely hear of the feat—and all the men who’d laughed at me crossing the bridge? How I felt like I may be earning my first dollop of respect? Or how I can’t close my eyes now without seeing the wound vividly in my mind’s eye, that mangled scalp oozing blood from under the shreds of skin?

He sighs before going back to writing. After tending to the man’s wound, I made a startling discovery: I had already noticed a significant number of the men shave circular patches on the crowns of their heads—a sort of tonsure. Despite their diminutive statures, though, I hadn’t seen that these men were sporting these bald spots, not as part of some symbolic communication with the deities, but to expose the scars they retain from past club fighting wounds. It’s a warning, I believe, like saying, “Don’t trifle with me, I’ve fought valiantly before, as you can clearly see for yourself, and I’m perfectly willing to do so again.”  

***


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