“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?.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Of Nabäs and Nobodies: He Borara Chapter 4

(Link to the first chapter. 11,291 words)

When he opens his eyes again, it’s still dark, and he knows, despite having woken without being roused by anyone, that he’s not alone. He swings his legs out of the hammock, disentangling them from the mosquito netting, and folds himself into a sitting position. “Hello,” he says, because he has no idea what else he might say. “Hello,” a man’s voice repeats back to him from the open window. Glad that man isn’t inside the hut, Lac thinks first of the flashlight, but instead reaches for a box of matches he knows is nearby, a move that allows him to gauge the distance between where he sits and where he groggily leaned the shotgun against the wall.

The man at the window utters something inscrutable when Lac strikes the match, the sound of thick paper being ripped lengthwise, the sharp smell of sulfur, a flame borne into this world through a tear in the fabric separating it from another, an infant fire straining to sound bigger than it is. I’ve never considered what a match tip catching fire must seem like to a man who’d never witnessed such an event, he thinks, and I’ve never noticed what it’s like in such minute detail before myself. Whatever I learn or fail to learn about the Yąnomamö culture, I’ll definitely come away from this experience with much deeper insight into my own.

Lac holds up the still burning match as he gets to his feet and moves toward the window, pinching the stem close enough to the descending flame to leave space for the man to grip it from the bottom. Lac doesn’t recognize the face until he’s reaching up for the handoff. It’s the man who cut short his breakfast yesterday.

“Oh, what do you want now?” Lac hears himself saying before deciding to say anything at all.

“Wuddu-ewantow,” the man repeats.

“Ha. Wuddu-ewantow,” Lac says pointing, attempting to christen the man with a new nickname, one that’s safe to use publically.

The man smiles at Lac’s silliness before scanning the ground beneath his hammock for something—for the matchbox. “Yababuji,” he says when he spots it, folding his brow in an ostensibly forced display of angry authority. Lac rolls his eyes with matching ostentation and laughs, rolling back into a recumbent posture.

“Yababuji,” the man repeats, sounding like a child who wants his parents to believe he’s on the verge of a tantrum.

Lac turns away from him, gesturing over his shoulder. “Sorry friend, if you want matches, you’ll have to earn them.”

“Yool-aft-ernahem,” the man echoes.

Lac rolls back to look at him, but the match has gone out, leaving its heavy sulfurous stench, strong enough to overwhelm the man’s body odor—and Lac’s as well. “You. Will. Have. To. Earn. Them,” Lac says, exaggerating the enunciation despite his mild impatience.

“Yoo hill aff do earn hem.”

Lac reaches down to fish around for the matchbox. He strikes a second match and hands it to the man. “You earned it.”


Lac smiles in the last seconds of light, pantomiming the flick one uses to extinguish matches and nodding to encourage his new friend, nudging him into action with his raised eyebrows. But the man waits too long, spending too much time trying to work out Lac’s strange gestures and expressions. His reaction to being burned is predictably over the top; Lac hears but doesn’t see him dancing around outside the hut, a stream of what must be expletives flowing from his mouth. Then the hut goes abruptly quiet as the man unceremoniously departs from the space outside the window.

“I’m not sure the lesson he’ll take from that exchange is the one I intended,” Lac says. But he can’t help wondering if he’s made a breakthrough. If they’re to help him learn their language, they need to understand that he speaks a different language. He’s not deaf or mute; he has his own names for things. Once again, this particular Yanomamö managed to learn more than he taught, but it could be a start.

Lac sighs at the realization that he’ll probably have to go through the same arduous process—and this was only the first, and simplest, stage—with every informant he works with for the next few months, until he has a workable grasp of the basics. “This is what you signed up for,” he reminds himself. “Now get some sleep so you can be a hundred percent tomorrow to get started.”

Before he can fall asleep, though, he has another disturbing thought: what if Wuddu-ewantow is angry about his mild burn and inclined to retaliate? He reaches over to wrap his fingers around the hard curves of the gunstock, hesitates, and then lifts the gun into the hammock so he can sleep with his hand already gripping it, ready to fire.

Instead of pushy men, his hut is filled with young boys as he primes the kerosene stove today, though a few men are about. When he starts a fire on the floor and walls again, he calmly gets to his feet to stamp it out. This must be disappointing to the Yanomamö men, who prod him, saying, “Oh shit a da kuu,” which Lac takes to mean, “Say ‘Oh shit!’” They had come hoping to be entertained again by his klutziness.

Today, it’s a couple of cups of extra strong coffee and a can of sardines, which is another indulgence Lac can’t afford except on rare occasions. He’s woken with a sense of mission, having resolved in his sleep somehow that he needs to be as pushy with the Yanomamö as they are with him. That’s how he’ll participate in their culture; that’s how he’ll get the answers he needs. Coffee mug in hand, Lac wanders out of his hut, stepping around the children, giving his trunks and barrels a quick glance to make sure they’re secure, and then he starts walking the thirty yards to the closest shabono. Some of the people stop and silently gawp at him as he returns to his full height after ducking through the low passageway between cords of firewood at the back of the main outer wall. It’s going to be a while, he thinks, before I can enter one of these villages without my asshole pinching tight. His mind has thrown up an image of the dozen burly men whose ugly faces stared at him down their arrow shafts as he blinked up in the sunlight, the dogs, starved and vicious, biting at his ankles.

The shabono looks very different today. A few people shout what he takes to be taunts, but really the place is astoundingly quiet. Men are scattered about, sitting lazily atop their hammocks, chatting with their neighbors in the next section over. Each twelve or fifteen-foot stretch of the immense thatched roof is occupied by what may be a nuclear family, with one adult male, whose hammock hangs higher than the woman’s and the children’s. But the children are everywhere, making up at least two-thirds of the total population, which Lac perceives to be significantly diminished from the numbers he saw yesterday. Have a bunch of people left the village? Or did they simply get an early start hunting?

How do you begin a conversation as a linguistically challenged nabä entering a shabono first thing in the morning? You wait for the kids to surround you and you listen. “Are your fathers and uncles already out hunting today?” The kids cease their lively chatter and turn toward him. Lac, in addition to deciding he needs to be pushier, has decided he needs to speak more of his own language. The idea is that the more the Yanomamö hear him speak, the more likely they’ll be to understand that he has his own language, and that if they can pick up his words—“Oh shit!”—they can help him pick up theirs.

As the children speak to him, he attempts to write down their words in his notebook using the phonetic alphabet he’s so arduously practiced using to transcribe unknown languages back at U of M. He quickly encounters the next foreseeable, but no less formidable, challenge—it’s impossible to tell where one word stops and another begins. All he hears is a constant stream of syllables. “Can you say that again?” he keeps asking to no avail.

But then a couple of the boys imitate this nabä expression uttered with such urgency. Naturally, none of them understands its meaning, but their efforts give him an idea. Remembering the phrase the men in his hut used earlier—“Oh shit a da kuu”—Lac starts to say, “a da kuu…,” but then has to revert back to English, “again.”

“Ageen,” two of the boys say.

Lac’s next idea is to perform both sides of a conversation, stepping from a position facing an interlocutor to one facing his own ghostly presence from the moment before. “It’s a really nice day today,” he says, and then steps, turns, and says, “Can you say that again?” Stepping back and turning again, he repeats, “It’s a really nice day today.”

Most of the kids laugh at this bit of nabä silliness, but two of them don puzzled expressions, as though they’re trying to work out the mystery of what he’s trying to convey to them. This is promising enough to motivate Lac to perform the exercise again, and then, after receiving a similar response, one more time.

“Cannoo ayt ageen,” one of the boys says.

Lac nods excitedly, lifting his eyebrows in encouragement. “It’s a really nice day today.”

The boy says something incomprehensible.

“Can you say that again?”

The boy repeats what he said while Lac scribbles furiously, a grin spreading across his face. “Yes, yes. Can you say that again?” He reaches up to clasp the boy’s shoulder.

The boy smiles in turn, so obviously having just figured out what he’s done, understanding at last what the nabä is up to, that Lac has to stifle an urge to guffaw in triumph. The boy repeats his statement, which is no less meaningless to Lac on the third hearing. He writes it down as best he can anyway. As he continues the process, though, he sees that it confuses matters as much as it clarifies them. Not knowing where to divide one word from the next, he has no alternative but to transcribe unbroken chains of consonants and vowels. Fortunately, the kids seem to think this is good fun, saying a thing over and over as the crazy nabä scribbles away like mad on his unnaturally gleaming white leaves. All the while, though, Lac sees an adult man, the man who bullied him out of his last bite of oatmeal yesterday, the man who visited his window last night for a discussion about matches and the transfer of ownership, pacing around in the section of the shabono adjacent to the one where he sits surrounded by all the boys in the courtyard.

What the hell does he want now?

Lac can’t help smiling when he recalls the nickname he came up with for the man. But his presence, his obvious interest in Lac’s activities, distracts him from his efforts at absorbing the sounds of the boys’ utterances and rolling them over and over in his mind until one of them snags on a meaningful concept. This is pointless, Lac finally concludes. Pointing at himself, he says, “Nabä.” A few of the boys click their tongues at this. Then he points at one of the boys, and another, and another, saying, “Yanomamö.” They all look at each other perplexed, but gradually their smiles return. When Lac points at a man he guesses to be in his forties, a couple of the boys say, “Yanomamö,” but one says something else.

Lac hurries over to this boy and asks him, “Can you say that again?”

“Waro pata.”

Lac writes it down, repeating it aloud. Next, he wanders away from where they all stand and finds an older woman sitting on her hammock, eating what looks like some type of palm fruit. When he points at her, the same boy says, “Suwa pata.” Lac writes it down, repeating, “Suwa pata,” in case his pronunciation needs correcting. Pata, he infers, must mean something like full-grown or mature.

Soon, the rest of the boys are catching on, and Lac is rushing from one part of the shabono to another, pointing at individuals of different ages and sexes. An infant is an ihirubö, or simply an ihiru—about equal numbers of the boys sound off with each variation. A young child is an oshe. An adolescent boy who’s old enough to tie his penis to his waist string is a yüwä. When Lac, after searching the shabono for a similarly aged female, finally finds one already returning from her first trip into the jungle to collect firewood. He points, but instead of hearing the children respond, he hears a man’s voice. “Modo dude,” it says.

It’s Wuddu-ewantow.

Lac watches him moving toward the girl with a look full of mischief. A feeling of apprehension takes him over, a sense that this man is about to do something awful to the girl—and that he’ll be partly to blame for it. “Wuddu-ewantow!” Lac shouts, fishing in his pocket for anything that may serve as an effective distraction. Already, the man has his hands on the girls’ shoulders and is turning her to face Lac. He begins issuing an excited stream of syllables.

At a loss, Lac lifts his right hand, touches his lips with his fingertips, and then points to his temple, shaking his head and donning an exaggerated expression of confusion. But Wuddu-ewantow doesn’t even bother to slow the stream. He runs his hands down the girls’ arms, reaches up to her chin to push her head up with his fingers, gives her achingly protuberant adolescent breasts a squeeze, and then turns her around by her shoulders to show off her backside. Lac has discarded the idea of removing the folding knife from his shorts pocket and showing it to the man, and he’s discarded the idea of pulling out his handkerchief, which is already horribly dirty, because he has a hunch that something is happening other than what he originally feared.

Indeed, many of the other villagers are laughing, but obviously trying not to do it too conspicuously. Lac takes a step back as Wuddu-ewantow removes his hands and steps away from the girl, whose expression is vacant—if she’s scared or embarrassed, she’s doing a good job of concealing it. “Wuddu-ewantow,” Lac says again to distract him. This time the man halts the flow of his syllables, looks at Lac, and then marches straight toward him, swaggering, intimidating, picking up his rapid speech again. Apparently, Lac has managed to insinuate himself into the performance of this joke, as now all the villagers within earshot are openly laughing, some even exaggerating their amusement—or so it seems to Lac—and now it’s his turn to be spun around by his shoulders.

He sees people doubled over with laughter and feels the warm blood rising up through his cheeks to his temples and ears. I’m probably displaying quite the resplendent blush, he thinks. What will the Yanomamö make of it? Have they ever seen a face do such a thing before? But aside from the nameless embarrassment, Lac is relieved that no harm has come to the girl—aside from a little rough handling—and so he decides that if he needs to play the clown to keep all the attention focused on him, play it he will.

Wuddu-ewantow takes his hands away so he can take up gesturing to add a touch melodrama to his words. He seems to be making a case for something—or rather a case against someone. These people are always pleading, Lac thinks, and apparently now I’m serving as Exhibit B in one of their cases. He scans the surrounding villagers’ faces for someone else who seems aggrieved or indignant.

Most of the people watching are children. Most of the villagers in general are children. Standing there silently, Lac looks at Wuddu-ewantow’s eyes to discern where his attention is directed. As he attempts to follow the man’s eyes, though, Lac realizes that he is addressing everybody except the man or men he’s angry with—perhaps openly slandering them to provoke a response. Meanwhile, the defendant, or defendants, must be going out of his way to give the appearance of not caring in the least what ridiculous accusations and insults are being leveled against him—perhaps because if he takes them seriously it would mean he’d have to fight Wuddu-ewantow, a strapping young man who looks like he could handily overpower pretty much any of the other men in the village.

As the tirade continues, Lac adjusts his strategy to begin searching for the man who seems to care the least about what Wuddu-ewantow is saying—the man who Wuddu-ewantow himself is most pointedly ignoring. But somehow in the process Lac’s own attention keeps being drawn back to the young girl who seems to be the cause, the object, of the dispute. She stands there staring blankly at nothing, not for lack of alertness or because she’s slow-witted, but because she’s deliberately trying to look like she doesn’t have an opinion in the matter one way or the other—like she doesn’t have a thought in her head. “A beautiful little fool,” Lac murmurs, low enough, he thinks, to go unheard. But Wuddu-ewantow halts in his declamations of his enemy’s venality, or whatever, for an instant after he says it, flashing him a look—with that wild glint overflowing with vitality and menace.

The girl has her lower lip and septum pierced with short thin sticks that poke out from her face like a cat’s whiskers. Among so many burly men, skinny-limbed children with round bellies, and saggy, pear-shaped older women, this girl’s shape—the conical breasts, the soft prominent cheeks, the curving hips—it all seems exaggerated, and Lac feels a pang of sympathy for her, as if all these outward signs of fertility and youthful health are as much a burden for her to bear as they are blessings to enjoy. Being in possession of anything as precious as reproductive potential out here makes you a target. And it’s not exactly in her power to divest herself of her own beauty whenever she pleases, any more than it’s in his power to cease being a nabä toting around a bunch of madohe.

Wuddu-ewantow has moved away but keeps up his harangue as Lac watches him pace across the open courtyard, like a pendulum oscillating its way toward some midpoint. Lac tries to narrow his list of the man’s possible targets while wondering whether he has any chance of ever getting to the bottom of the scene he’s witnessing, of ever finding out what Wuddu-ewantow is angry about. When he notices the boy who first began revealing the age and gender categories to him a while ago, Lac steps toward him as nonchalantly as he can, and when he’s closed the distance, he catches the boy’s eye before subtly pointing at the man.

“Sioha,” the boy whispers, before adding, “Karohi-teri.”

Lac doesn’t ask for a repetition. Instead, he repeats the words in his own mind until he can back away far enough to lift his notebook and write them down without drawing any attention to himself—though it seems the vitriol is waning, and with it the potential for violence.

“Karohi-teri,” Lac whispers to himself. Clemens had told him the name of this village is Bisaasi-teri; the suffix teri—if it’s not just a separate word—must mean village. What Lac takes from the boy’s two-word description is that Wuddu-ewantow is from another village, this Karohi-teri, and he’s here in the capacity of a sioha—whatever that is. Maybe he’s some sort of emissary or ambassador. Maybe he’s a prisoner, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case. A third possibility is that this man left his home village in search of a marriageable woman, and now he’s undertaking the customary bride service, working off the cost to the woman’s parents of losing their daughter: the drinking water, firewood, and childcare she provides. Could it be the same obscenely ripe young woman—his beautiful little fool—that has set off the whole angry production?

Lac is already writing notes in his head, despairing at his chances of ever answering his questions, wondering how often drama like this erupts in the village; maybe tomorrow, or even later today, someone else will be moved to air a grievance. Even the prospect of so much tension strikes him as exhausting. The girl takes advantage of her tormentor’s diminishing fury, and the fact that he’s currently distracted, to move back toward the shaded protection of the massive roofing structure. Wuddu-ewantow eventually walks over to a section near the one she disappeared under and lies in his hammock. He calls out intermittently, but everyone has gone back to their prior activities.

Lac, frustrated by his own thoroughgoing ignorance, curses himself for not picking Clemens’s brain, for not learning every last detail he could share with him about the language and the customs. It was his hubris that landed him here with no idea what the hell is going on. But he doesn’t have time to give himself a thorough drubbing; he sees a few men gathering their bows, arrows, and bamboo quivers, preparing for their daily hunting excursion.

Lac runs to his hut, stuffs some crackers, peanut butter, and sardine cans into a bag, along with his notebook, a tape recorder, a camera, and extra cartridges for his shotgun. He’s ready for a hunting trip. Ducking under the back part of the shabono roof again—his asshole pinching shut as he emerges—Lac hurries to find the group of men he saw preparing to depart so he can tag along with them for the day, or at least for the next few hours, until they return home for the daily hallucinogen party.

Remarkably enough, an older woman who sees him rushing across the courtyard is quickly able to surmise his intentions and directs him toward the passage the men recently exited through. She says something to him as he passes, he offers his thanks, neither of them with any idea what the other means, but both, perhaps, shocked at how little it seems to matter. Lac awkwardly jogs to the far side of the shabono, clutching his gun in front of him with both hands, his pack bouncing against his back. He ducks down again, taking a breath to fortify himself for whatever he encounters on the opposite side.

As he waddles through the passageway, he smells the old locker room stench of moldy jockstraps emanating from his own crotch, through his own shorts. The drops of sweat falling from his face crater the dirt in front of him, and he wonders whether he’ll have the stamina to keep up with the Yanomamö as they work their way through the jungle, whether he’ll be nimble enough, capable of withstanding whatever physical strain is demanded. But when he stands back up and sees the men he’ll be following, his only thought is about how to convey to them his intention of joining their group, following them around, and documenting their behaviors. A couple of stragglers hear his gear bouncing toward them, turn back, and seemingly share a joke and a couple of laughs at his expense. They turn back and follow the other men at a short distance before Lac can catch up, but when he does he’s surprised at how casually they regard his presence. Some excited words and gestures flow from one man to the next as each in turn learns of his presence at the back of the line, each contributing his own joke—but then they all fall silent as they pick their way through the trees, moving their eyes slowly through the canopy, over the ground, into the understory. 

Lac is disappointed by how quickly he finds himself out of breath, and his sweat pours in such profusion he worries about the adequacy of his water supply. The way the Yanomamö move through the forest impresses Lac more than any other attribute or ability he’s observed so far. What’s amazing is that, though he can cover the same distance they do at any given interval, they cover it like they’re strolling from their house to their neighbor’s house along an even sidewalk, whereas he, just to stay close enough to keep the hindmost of them within eyeshot, exerts his every muscle, launching his body through the dense tangled foliage at what feels like breakneck speed.

Fortunately, the Yanomamö take frequent breaks while hunting, during each of which they laugh and chat casually, while Lac doubles over, his chest heaving, a puddle of sweat forming under his face. He tries to imagine the sweat pooling in the dirt as it would appear in a glass alongside another glass holding the water in the canteen clipped to his belt so he can gauge the balance—or lack thereof. Standing up straight and finally catching his breath, he sees that the Yanomamö are readying themselves to take to the trail again, though the location of this supposed trail is a mystery to him. He has no idea what signs they’re following, and he knows if he falls behind now he’ll have almost no chance of finding the path back to the shabono, back to Clemens’s hut, back to his madohe.

They’re on the move again. If ever he wanted to see the Yanomamö in a mystical light, the activity in which they most closely resemble the mythical beings he dreamt of in the months leading up to his expedition must be their effortless sprints through the forest in search of game. You see them only in flashes through the leaves and branches and vines, that bronze skin pulled taut over dancing muscles actuating weightless limbs. And then they’re gone, an impossible distance away, smiling and joking among themselves, as though they’d appeared there without even expending the effort it would take a normal person to walk.

Lac begins to worry that he won’t be able to keep up a pace to match these damned gazelles for long—with all the hunger pangs and lost sleep—and he tries to recall how long it took for individual men to return to the shabono after leaving to hunt yesterday. Next, he starts trying to formulate a plan for asking them to slow down, but he gets nowhere with it before they spot their quarry some ways up in the canopy. All faces turn upward, fixed atop erect bodies, and Lac has to work hard to suppress the sound of his panting as he rejoins the group, inhaling a gnat—at least one—in the process. After the eternity it takes to catch his breath, he does his best to follow the men’s gazes, but for another long while he sees nothing.

He’s still staring into the empty canopy when he hears the snap of a bow loosing its arrow—with it comes an image in his mind of Malcolm’s belt, one half snapping against the other in a successful attempt at intimidation. Before he can stop himself, he’s leaping away from the archer in a release of pent-up anxiety. The Yąnomamö, even before they take the time to see if the hunter’s aim was true, turn to their skittish nabä tagalong and laugh. Lac smiles—because he can think of nothing else to do. They’re still joking about him some moments later when a couple of the men return with the large black-furred monkey they shot out of the tree. Lac pushes his way through the clutch of excited bodies and sees that the creature required no special poison to fell, as the archer pierced it through the neck with his overlong arrow. A moment before, he was annoyed by all the laughter, but now he feels a great weight building beneath his stomach. These men tracked down a creature less than a third the size of a man and far more sprightly, spotted it in the tree before he was aware of its existence, and put an arrow through its damn neck with so little fanfare that they had plenty of time to loiter and humiliate him before going to gather their catch.

The shotgun slung over his shoulder suddenly seems a much less impressive leveling mechanism than it had when he was struggling to keep up with the Yąnomamö’s miraculous dashing through the jungle. After the arrow is removed, what sounds like a debate ensues—over whether to return to the shabono now or to follow their earlier course and keep hunting? Lac swipes at his face, flings the sweat off his fingers, and slips the shotgun strap off his shoulder.

In his mind, he’s adding up the probabilities that he’ll come to one or another gruesome end before returning from this hunt: he could easily fall behind these men as they sprint through the wilderness with their preternatural agility and endurance; he could anger one of them and receive a dose of slow-acting poison delivered via barded arrow tip; he could, ultimately, prove too great a temptation as a target for bullying—one of them could crush his skull just to amuse his comrades. Lac hasn’t had time to pull his arm through the shotgun strap again before the men are off once more, hurdling through the thick undergrowth. I could catch my damn toe on a root, Lac continues, trip, and break my neck. I could step on a snake, or one could fall out of the trees and land on my head.

He comes to a large branch growing horizontally, about waist-high, and doesn’t immediately know whether he should duck under or climb over. What he ends up doing is slowing as he approaches until he’s standing next to it, leaning against it, laying his shotgun atop the bark and resting his hands on top of the shotgun. Before leaping over—the clear option now—he drags his sleeve over his forehead and takes in a draught of air. When he braces all his weight on his hands, which are still clutching the shotgun, pinching it against the trunk, he feels a strange prickle in his knuckles and has to force himself to avoid going farther down the route of worst possibilities in his mind. Then he hears himself emitting a loud grunt as he swings his knee up over the log—careful not to make contact with any other part of his skin.

Balancing his weight between his hand and his shod toes, Lac hoists himself up onto the branch and allows his momentum to carry him over. Catching himself with both feet planted solidly, he takes a second for another long breath and continues his bouncing strides, his gear clanging noisily at his back as his craving for a cigarette wells up with such rancor that he wants to scream. He stops. It seems he has bigger worries than his desperate need to smoke. The band of hunters he’s supposed to be following is nowhere to be seen. Lac closes his eyes and listens. Okay, he thinks, this is bad. Don’t make it worse. Since his days as a teenager pouring over adventure stories and tales of famous explorers, he’s known that most people, when they lose their bearings in the wilderness, turn their panic into kinetic energy, rushing back and forth in all directions until they’ve gotten themselves so turned around they can’t tell left from right. Then the screaming starts.

For the first time, Lac completely understands what makes people respond so stupidly. “Hey guys!” he calls out, cupping his mouth. “Hey, come back! I’ve fallen behind.” Admitting such a thing in the Michigan woods with his dad and his brothers would be so mortifying he might rather die. But the Yanomamö don’t know him, can’t make sense of his words, and should forget soon enough. Still, the embarrassment slices into him from all sides. He feels like peeling off his own skin and letting his viscera ooze into the forest floor.

When he hears nothing in response to his call, he takes several steps forward, along the trajectory that brought him to the tree trunk he had to climb over. He’s starting to gather momentum when it occurs to him that he’s already violating the rule he just recalled about what not to do when you’re lost in the wilderness. Don’t charge ahead blindly; doing so will more often than not result in you losing track of any landmarks that could help you regain your bearings. Don’t rush around in circles hoping to come across the trail, or hoping to catch sight of your companions; you’ll only get yourself more turned around. So what’s the proper way to respond?

Lac wills his feet to remain stationary while he closes his eyes and listens again. Aside from the accumulating nervous tension, the biggest challenge in his effort to stand still is the bugs, which seemingly recognize his desperate state and see in it an opportunity to more easily devour the blood pulsing so near the surface of his skin. He tries to breathe calmly as he brushes them away, only to watch—to feel—them return in greater numbers. Lac turns back to look at the tree he climbed over. The Yąnomamö hadn’t brought him to this spot along a direct route from the village; they’d weaved their way erratically through the brush in search of their quarry. So retracing his steps would get him nowhere, probably, but more lost.

He removes his backpack and finds the compass tucked in the side pocket. He reckons they left the shabono along a roughly southwesterly path. If worse comes to worst, which it probably already has, he can head northeast and eventually come to either the Mavaca or the Orinoco, either of which he’d be able to recognize by the direction of its flow. The Bisaasi-teri shabonos are built at the confluence, but it may still be difficult to find them unless he happens across the trail they use for access to the water. It’s early enough in the day, he thinks; chances are good I can make it back to Clemens’s hut well before nightfall. Assuming nothing horrible happens along the way.

Lac takes a few steps back to the tree and begins reaching out to brace his hands against it again before becoming aware of the itchiness on the front sides of his knuckles, which he posted his weight on the first time he hoisted himself over the trunk. He wipes his hands on his shorts instead, recalculating his odds of avoiding the jungle’s myriad dangers while traveling off the trail, such as it is, alone, with only the vaguest course to follow. Then he has another idea: why doesn’t he fire off a round from the shotgun?

“Hey guys!” he calls one more time. “Are you there?” One shot, he thinks, and then you listen and wait. You hear their voices, you call back, and then you find them. That’s how this is going to work.

For some reason, though, Lac is reluctant to fire the shot; it seems irresponsible somehow, wasteful. Or maybe it’s that he’s hoping to make an impression the first time he fires it in the Yanomamö’s presence—and he doesn’t want any nonsense about him being lost to diminish the impact. He’s been imagining himself shooting a monkey from a tree, or killing a capybara, or some other impressively large and savory fare. Not only would he be announcing his formidability; he’d be entering into the village economy with a more natural contribution than his damned madohe. No matter. Neither of these benefits will redound to a dead man. He’ll have to salvage what he can of this plan after he’s out of imminent danger.

Lac takes one more look around, sighs, and lifts the shotgun to his shoulder. He squeezes the stock, slowly tightening the grip of his finger around the trigger—until he hears a voice and immediately releases it. Frantically scanning the undergrowth, he’s startled by the appearance of a man’s smiling face. Whatever thoughts and intentions reside behind that smile, Lac decides as he glares at the man, they’re completely unreadable.

The man speaks as he moves toward Lac, threading his way through the branches and thick lianas, and for a second—just a second—Lac wonders if he should fire anyway, at this Yanomamö man effecting a rescue. But he discerns the irrationality in the impulse, a reaction to so passively being found as opposed to doing the finding on his own. There’s something of a sense of ambush to the experience. He feels a pool of shame forming high in his chest and rising up his neck to his cheeks and his temples. The man, when he reaches Lac, who has yet to budge from the spot where he was found, clutches him by the shoulders, turns him in the direction they need to travel, and gives him a tug of encouragement.

Lac shakes the confusion from his head so he can take a closer look at this man, who is by far the most solicitous of the Yąnomamö he’s interacted with up till now. After covering a short distance, Lac and his rescuer meet up with another man who seems equally concerned for his wellbeing. He speaks rapidly as he pats Lac down, ensuring the soundness of this nabä body before him. But midsentence—or what seems like midsentence—he turns and begins anew their march back to the main group, giving Lac a little wave to signal that he’s to come along.

Lac imagines the words he’s just heard to mean, “And keep up this time, you silly man.” He follows his two rescuers until they rejoin the main group of six, the other four of whom are already joking about him when they arrive. Feeling the full burn of humiliation, Lac smiles and nods to each of them in turn, as if in acknowledgement of his dunderheadedness. Mercifully, they don’t linger, and Lac has an opportunity to momentarily forget what’s just happened by being forced to concentrate on his efforts at keeping up, without letting what’s just happened happen again. Only this time it’s different; this time, the man who tracked him down—along with the one who helped him—they’re both going out of their way to check on him at intervals. Lac will be glancing ahead to watch the bounding Yanomamö bodies, looking down at the trail—insofar as there’s anything to see—to monitor his steps and choose his path, and then he’ll look up again to see one of the men’s smiling faces poking out in front of him, nodding to encourage him onward. Nearly every time, Lac is overwhelmed with gratitude. He could hug them, even though he’s now managing to keep up well enough on his own.

“I suppose they can’t all be obnoxious bullies,” he mutters to himself. These two must be among the kinder ones. Even as he’s thinking it, they both start slowing to a near stop ahead of him. The three stragglers, on the heels of the main group, approach what Lac sees is a vast ravine. For a moment, they all stand looking down at the charging waters of what must be one of the larger tributaries of the Orinoco. The trail that’s only visible to the Yanomamö takes them down a steep embankment toward the river, and Lac espies the bridge they’ll be using to cross—long poles lashed together in the middle to form giant X’s lined up in a sequence from the near bank to the far one. Resting atop the joints of all these structures, he sees as he gets closer, is a series of horizontally arranged poles, forming a straight line over the water from one side to the other. Save for a mere rope tied at either end, it’s about the simplest design for a bridge anyone could imagine. The support poles look as though they may wash away with the current any second.

Lac is too busy with the delicate task of clambering down the side of the ravine to notice whether the Indians bother testing the structure to gauge the likelihood of it bearing everybody’s weight. Rather than muse over the consequences should the bridge collapse, he tries to conjure images of all the maps he’s seen of this region, certain that not one shows a river at this location. These maps, it seems, in addition to their poor resolution, are also unreliable. Sliding down the last stretch of the embankment to the level ground alongside the river, he’s somewhat relieved by the sturdier look of the spine-like contraption spanning the distance to the far shore as he looks at it up close.

The purling wavelets sing their suggestions of the blood-lusting carnivorous killers inhabiting the depths. Okay, Shackley, he thinks, you dreamed of adventure—well, here it is. He feels energy surging through his chest, and though that sensation bespeaks impending laughter he simultaneously feels his eyes welling up. The Yanomamö must cross this bridge, and others like it, all the time, he assures himself, and if you fall you’ll probably be fine. Probably. Unless you land on some rocks you can’t see beneath the surface. Unless the current sweeps you along until you’re exhausted from trying to resist it. Unless… Enough.

Resolute, he approaches the first X. When he steps up onto the brace, hoisting himself with his arms, he has to silence any thought of the bridge being shakier than he anticipated. As he’s stepping onto the main connecting pole, he’s brought face-to-face with an oversight: the Yąnomamö skitter along these poles, but they’re all barefoot, their never-shod, widely splayed feet, with their thick-calloused toes, wrapping around the wooden cylinders with just the right amount of flexibility; while he, on the other hand, is wearing these damn jungle boots that don’t wrap at all, that provide no flex and no traction whatsoever.

He glances back to see the two men—his rescuers—still behind him on the bank while the rest are already waiting on the other side. Lac has by now waited an inordinately long time to cross, having climbed up the first X only after the man in front of him had climbed off the last one—so he could be sure no one would shake the thing too much. Now the pressure for him to move is mounting. Seeing no alternative, he crouches down, his shotgun and his backpack swinging awkwardly, and clutches the pole so he can shinny across as securely as possible. It takes a few seconds for the others to grasp what the nabä is doing. At first, Lac thinks the men are shouting at him, that they’re enraged at this waste of their precious time. He expects to look up to see them waving their arms, or worse, sighting him down the shafts of their drawn arrows. But the men, he slowly realizes as he inches farther out along the poles, are not shouting. They’re laughing. Laughing uproariously.

He’s sure he’s providing at least a few of these men their best entertainment in years. He forces himself not to pay them any mind, concentrating on his excruciating inch-by-inch progress across the bridge. At least it’s sturdier than he would have guessed from those first steps onto the brace; he feels it rocking subtly with his shifting weight and the surging current, but giving no indication of imminent collapse. Unfortunately, his squatting down to grab the central pole and sidle along in miniscule increments only partially mitigates his risk of falling, since his bent-kneed, sideways shimmy entails a lot of shifting and bobbing. His shotgun catches on one of the crossbeams, making him have to twist his body to free it. When that fails, he removes his hand from the foot pole to reach back and guide the barrel around the snag. This causes him to pitch backward, upsetting his balance and inducing a panicked scramble to restore it.

The total amount of time—Lac is trying to figure out how this fits into his risk factoring, as the sheer never-endingness of this awkward transit weighs against his decision not to make a mad dash to the other side. Does running through the rain reduce total wetness? Of course, because it reduces total time in the rain. But it’s not just the fixed threat of falling off the bridge at any given moment along the way—risk increases with speed, or so it seems. Probably, Lac concludes, my concern with the duration of my crossing has more to do with how long I can stand these men’s laughter than it does with the relative probabilities of tumbling into the water.

Reaching the midway point, he mutters, “You’d think they’d get bored after this long.” But the mirth has only intensified. Just concentrate on getting yourself across, he tells himself. You can worry about making the necessary repairs to your pride when you’re enjoying the relief of not needing any repairs to your body.

As he makes it to the two-thirds point, the sixth of the nine X’s, the tension from having to precisely measure each movement and the pressure to escape the spotlight begin to overwhelm him. The sweat cascades from his chin and temples and forehead into the current below. The heat presses in from all sides. The air is too dense, too heavy to hold in his lungs. He’s desperate to be done with this exercise, even to the point of having to resist the urge to plunge into the river and, if he can find some decent footing, wade the rest of the way across. The Yanomamö, meanwhile, far from growing impatient, display a superhuman ability to sustain their laughter in all its raucousness. The noise of their howls hasn’t diminished, and if anything has gotten louder, almost as if they’re purposely exaggerating for his sake. He reaches the seventh, and then the eighth X.

When he’s passing the ninth and wobbles off balance before catching himself, they go quiet long enough to see the outcome, only to return to laughing at full force once he’s righted himself again. By the time he’s finally climbing down from the bridge, they’re practically assaulting him with slaps on the shoulder and back, and shoves suggestive of brotherly bonhomie. He wants to slide his shotgun off his shoulder and shoot each of them in the face, one at a time. The last two men, his rescuers from earlier, skitter across the bridge just like the others had, in a tenth of the time it took him to cover the span of the river, further cementing his humiliation.

When they finally take to their invisible trail again, Lac is still stewing: What do I care what these men think? What, are they all psychopaths, pointing and laughing at someone who’s clearly in distress? Are they laughing at my cowardice? I’d like to see any of them do anything as crazy as stranding themselves in some foreign wilderness with a bunch of greedy bullies whose language they’ve never even heard. I’d like to see them all freeze to death their first fucking night in the Upper Peninsula.

Somehow, these men serve as stand-ins for his father and brothers, mercilessly teasing, goading, embarrassing—but not actually intending any real harm. Just psychological harm. He can’t remember the last time he felt so embarrassed. He has to go all the way back to sophomore year in high school when Chris Hendricks tripped him in the middle of an assembly, sending him crashing into and knocking over a half dozen folding chairs, for all the school to witness. Or the time in college when he couldn’t resist bragging about getting Crystal Andersen to agree to a date with him—only to find out everyone else knew her as a notorious hussy. Although—why be so embarrassed about that? Why does he even remember it still? Why, for that matter, should he be embarrassed about having to squat down and use his hands to guide himself along that tight rope of a bridge?

The answer: because he was made to feel that way. Because of the laughter. It’s like they’re saying, “Remember that you’re nobody here; you have zero standing with anybody; you wouldn’t even be standing here if it weren’t for your two rescuers.” Fueled now by the acid in his blood, he has little trouble keeping up with the men as they return to their dash through the jungle. You’re nabä, he thinks, nobody. If you want to cease being nobody, you’ll have to show them who you are. He follows along with the men for some distance before realizing he needs to correct his mindset: this is about who they are—the damned Yąnomamö—not who you are. You have work to do here. Concentrate on doing it.

The word work sets off a cascade of associations in his mind, letting him escape the added heat of his humiliation at long last, as the throbbing in his temples and the burning in his cheeks subside. When next the men stop, Lac darts a glance at each of their faces in turn, trying to ascertain where the game they’ve spotted may be located so he can take the first shot. But they’re mostly looking at each other, and when they’re not, they’re looking off in different directions. No one has spotted any game; they’re conferring on where next to take their hunt. So Lac takes the time to stretch his legs and take in as many breaths as he can. His recent reminder to himself that he’s here, not to prove anything to anybody, but to work has him wondering how he can use this break as an opportunity to learn.

Remembering the minor success of his pointing out people of various age and gender categories, he decides to try something similar. Walking up to one of the men who isn’t currently participating in the group conversation, he points at the section of bamboo dangling against his lower back. “Quiver,” he says. The man turns toward him with a quizzical expression. “Quiver,” Lac repeats, nodding. The man looks down, twisting to see his own back. Lac points to the bamboo section on another man’s back. The first man, still looking bewildered, says at last, “Tora.”

“Tora,” Lac repeats excitedly. “Yes, tora.” He reaches for the pocket of his backpack where he has his notebook and pen. As he writes “tora: bamboo quiver,” he sees that his two friends are watching him intently. Can they possibly understand what he’s doing? His next thought is that learning this language word-by-word like this is horrendously inefficient—it’s going to take him years at this rate to develop even a basic proficiency.

Before he can sink any further into despair though, the group is moving again—floating weightless—along the foliage-encumbered pseudo-trail, all of them except the equipment-laden, stone-footed, clumsy nabä who’s bouncing awkwardly along behind them. He could swear the sweat isn’t so much gushing from his face as it is shooting out in arcing jets, like some filthy jungle version of a Las Vegas fountain.

I’m going to be skin and bones after a week of this, he thinks. For a long while, they’re bounding through the forest at a clip, taking breaks in response to imperceptible cues, or perhaps at familiar sites, and Lac is competently following along behind. His stamina proves adequate to the challenge—until it doesn’t. Checking his watch, he sees they’ve been away from the shabono for going on two hours. We’ve been moving farther away from the village this whole time too, he thinks, which means if we turn back now, we’d still have about two more hours of these start and stop sprints through the thick undergrowth. Panic fixes itself in his throat as he gasps for air, doing his best to screen the gnats from his mouth. If the pinch I feel on his foot worsens, if my underfed body runs dry of energy, if I collapse from exhaustion, what will happen to me? Will my two new friends stick around long enough for me to recover? Or would they all leave me out here, alone, with almost no chance of finding my way back?

He takes the shotgun from his shoulder and scans the brush in the environs of their resting spot. Maybe if I can shoot something substantial enough, he thinks, they’ll be satisfied with the total haul and start heading back. And how did you end up out here so spent in the first place? What were you thinking running after these men? Well, I didn’t know their hunts entailed running at such a pace, he answers himself. Fortunately, the men are idling about now, seemingly with no intention of taking up their travels again any time soon. It could be that they’re feeling the strain as well. It could even be, he realizes, that they’re pushing his limits intentionally to see what he’s made of—or to show off what they are. No sooner does the thought occur to him than he spots movement in the underbrush some thirty feet away.

Lac steps toward the creature, away from the hunting party, leveling his shotgun with his line of sight. And there it is, a wild turkey, just standing there on the shaded forest floor. He takes a steadying breath before pulling the trigger. The shot fills the air and echoes off the underside of the canopy before being abruptly absorbed by the abounding leaves. Lac feels the pleasant ache in his shoulder from the recoil, smells the twisted wholesome bitterness of the spent powder. For some reason, it seems important that he not turn around to examine the effect of his noisy feat on his companions’ faces before having its intended product in hand to show them.

He rushes forth to gather up his kill, covering the distance in a few bounding strides. Reaching down and lifting the turkey by its neck, he turns, smiling proudly, as he would with any group of men he’d accompanied on an afternoon hunt, but the big self-satisfied grin quickly drops from his face. The six Yąnomamö men who led the way deep into the jungle, the men he depended on to see him safely back to the village and the hut he’s borrowing from his kindly missionary friend, the men whose culture he’s here to study are nowhere to be seen.

“Hey guys,” he calls for the second time today. “Are you still out there?”

Taking a rough census, he later writes in his notebook while sitting outside of Clemens’s hut, has solidified my sense that there has been a mass departure from Bisaasi-teri. There must have been close to two hundred people between the two shabonos when Clemens and I first arrived; now, I’d put the total number at a little over half that—no more than a maybe a hundred and thirty souls. Where did the others go? The most likely answer is that they were visiting from a neighboring village to which they’ve now returned. (Clemens might have pointed this out, but he was only inside the closest shabono so it’s possible he didn’t notice.) Some of the ritual pomp I witnessed that first day during their hallucinogen session, with all the shaman’s bodily adornment marking it as a special occasion, may have been part of the customary send-off for their neighboring allies. The taking of hallucinogens every afternoon continues, but they seem a less grand production than that first one I saw.

Lac flips back a few pages to see the hand-drawn tables he’s set up for his ongoing census. The population structure of this and surrounding groups—and especially of those he’ll visit later in the more remote inland villages, the uncontacted ones—will be an important part of his research. And it’s something he can begin work on now, even with the paltry count of random Yąnomamö words he’s learned. Lately, he keeps hearing the word “shori,” or “shoriwä”—variations of the same word?—coming prior to the reflexive demands for his possessions. They’re addressing him, he’s concluded, as something other than nabä. Does that mean they now recognize me as a fellow human being? That’s probably hoping for too much at this juncture.

As he looks at the tables, he feels his frustration building, making him want to get ahold of something solid and smash it. All the information he needs to do his work properly is right in front of him, surrounding him, suffusing the goddamned air. Yet it all comes to him garbled, distorted, inscrutable. He knew coming into the territory that he would need a good chunk of time to learn the language—which appears unrelated to any other recorded language—but he didn’t anticipate the dramatic shifts in group composition, the ongoing movements, and the conflicts. And he didn’t anticipate how tantalizing being a dumb mute right in the midst of it all would be.

My first hunt, he continues writing, hoping to calm himself, would have been comical had it not involved so many frightening moments. He halts his pen. He can’t help imagining his brothers getting ahold of his notebook and reading about the day’s misadventures. But they are all grown men now, he tells himself, and the Orinoco Basin is not the Upper Peninsula. Ultimately, his devotion to the anthropological tradition prevails, and that means he needs to maintain a consistent and accurate log of his experiences and the impressions they leave on him. Following at the rear of a group of six men, he writes, I for a time lost sight of the hindmost of them. It amounted to an unwelcome reminder of how deep I am in the jungle, how hopeless my situation would be should I lose the favor, such as it is, of my Yąnomamö hosts.

Now, as he continues writing about the day’s mishaps, it’s Laura he’s worried may find out. “We’ve got two children to raise,” he vividly hears her saying. “What makes you think you can just plop yourself down in the middle of some jungle and start wandering around with a bunch of guys who might kill you on a whim?” Honey, I didn’t know… He doesn’t know what he could say. And Laura isn’t here; she’s with the kids in Caracas, at the research compound at IVIC. He tries to imagine what it must be like for them, but it takes him a while to get past the bliss of being bathed in artificial light, the rapture of a steamy shower, the sheer joy of carpet underfoot, the ecstasy of a can of cold beer in his hand. And a cigarette. Oh God, a cigarette.

Meanwhile, Laura and the kids are actually there, and to them it must be far closer to limbo than to any paradise he can wish up. Waiting to hear if he’s successfully made contact with the Indians, waiting to see if he’s managed to procure steady access to all the creaturely amenities, waiting for him to build a shelter of some sort in the wilderness, within spitting distance of the mysterious jungle people he plans to make a career of studying. Bess was right, he thinks. I had the glamor of anthropology and the stories of all those famous explorers coloring my view of what this research expedition would be like, but already I’m starting to understand how silly terms like research expedition are when applied to the real experience of being out here. Laura must’ve had a clearer view of what he was getting into, what he was expecting her to get into right alongside him, her and the kids.

The scarlet heat of shame washes over the inner surface of his skin. By miscalculating so wildly, he’s let them down, abandoned them, exposed himself to severe dangers, and by extension exposed them as well. After the deeply embarrassing incidents at the log and at the bridge, he continues writing, I sought to redeem myself by shooting a wild turkey with my shotgun. My aim was true, and I soon had the bird in hand as an offer to my guides. But so eager was I to kill and deliver the game I didn’t notice that the Yąnomamö had fled from the report of the shotgun—though I have to expect my response, had I never witnessed such a thing before, would have been the same as theirs. I was so proud to have accomplished something requiring a modicum of competence, it took a while to sink in that I was now alone.

Lac had stood there for some time before a horrible suspicion lodged itself in his mind. The Yąnomamö are so quick and agile of movement, so sharp of eye, that he doubted they would have so easily overlooked the opportunity to put an arrow through the turkey he’d just shot. He’d already seen them spot monkeys and other birds while on the move, from impossible distances, producing the proper tip from their tora, affixing it to a shaft and drawing back the bow string, all before he’d even realized the whole group had come to a halt. So why would he be allowed to kill this turkey, unless…?

Lac’s knees bent automatically, dropping him into a crouching stance. He gripped his shotgun tighter. Unless the turkey wasn’t what they planned to kill. He remembered the constellation of men he’d run into the middle of, right before espying the shadowed brown feathers.

It was suddenly the easiest thing in the world to imagine that they had planned to take him out far into the woods and then turn him into a porcupine, leaving his madohe for them to divvy among their families. It was so easy to imagine this scenario playing out—interrupted by his cataclysmic introduction of a hitherto unknown technology—that it became impossible to imagine any alternative account of the men’s behavior. And so he was no longer sure calling out to announce his location was the best idea. He might have startled them, made them forget their plan momentarily, but they could even now be regrouping, or looking at him down the shafts of their arrows. He considered lunging behind a nearby tree, concealing himself as best he could in the brush—but then what? He had almost no chance of finding his way back along the invisible trail, back over that damned bridge. Even if he did manage to find the village again, what then? Either the men who wanted him dead would do it here and now, or they could wait to do it when he showed up again at Clemens’s hut. If he showed up again at Clemens’s hut.

His only other choice was to hide until he was sure they were gone and then try to make it to one of the mission outposts, probably the Catholic one at Platanal. But considering he’d run two hours in the opposite direction, and considering he had no idea where he stood with relation to any map of the region, he gauged his odds to be pretty dismal. Resigned to whatever fate his hunting guides had determined for him, Lac stood back up to his full height, took a breath, and called out again. “Where did you guys go?”

No arrows whistled through the air. But neither did any human souls appear. Lac continued walking toward the spot where he stood when he took the shot, the turkey still in hand. And just like that one of the two men who’d found him when he’d fallen behind earlier was standing right in front of him, having materialized out of thin air, as if he’d never bolted away in the first place.

When they met back up with the others, he saw that they were understandably wary and bewildered, but also, thankfully, ready to return to the village. By the time they were crossing back over the bridge though, everyone was sufficiently recovered from the shock to laugh at the ridiculous nabä just as hysterically as they had the first time, none of them the least bit concerned when the pain from the blisters on his feet caused him to wince and nearly lose his balance.

Lac looks up from his notebook and sees, of all people, Wuddu-ewantow squatting nearby and watching him write. As word spread among the Yąnomamö about the weapon the crazy nabä used to kill the turkey upon their return from the hunt, Lac felt increasing pressure to put on a demonstration of how the shotgun works, though he was careful not to reveal too much about loading and chambering the shells. Wuddu-ewantow elbowed his way to the front of the crowd of men and children gathered around to witness his feat of reducing a distant tree to splinters with the deafening crack of the rifle. From now on, he thought, I’m going to have to keep an even closer eye on the gun at all times.

Something about the way Wuddu-ewantow is eyeing him now makes him think he would like to talk to him, were it not for the language barrier. He doesn’t look menacing for once; he looks bored, this sioha from Karohi-teri. Somehow, he even looks lonely. “I need to finish writing my notes,” Lac says, as a friendly gesture. Looking back down, though, he feels the man’s eyes on him still, and he finds it mildly annoying. It reminds him of working late at home with Laura hovering in the periphery, unable to mask her abiding need for his company. She has this theory of his writing as a way of managing what he otherwise feels is the utter chaos of his relationships and all the emotions entangled therein. When things get too messy, she propounds, he abstracts himself, writing, taking notes, even if only in his head. Like her other theories about him and his work, this one is hard to discount outright, because it’s merely an alternative way of viewing habits he clearly clings to and has little choice but to repeatedly enact, but for reasons he’d say have little or nothing to do with managing the worrying disorder of his intimate relationships. Worse, he detects a flicker of accusation in her worried explications of these ideas, the subtext being that his work isn’t really about his work but rather about his need to keep her at arm’s length.

Maybe she’s hoping he’ll respond to this demotion of his studies in the rankings of his true priorities by devoting less time to them—and more to her. The thought always rankles him, but so far he’s managed to refrain from voicing his suspicion. Just now, though, he’s undeniably glad she’s a million miles from where he sits, working. He’s glad she has no idea how freaked out he’s been since returning from today’s hunt famished, bone tired, foot-sore, and dehydrated—freaked out by the thought that he’ll probably never know for sure whether his guides, before being scared shitless by the shot he fired, really had planned to kill him.


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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Notes from the Periphery: He Borara Chapter 3.4

Begin at the start. (11,996 words)

            The day starts early for the Yanomamö, though one should not presume just because it’s the middle of the night that all the activity of the village has ceased. The children, for instance, seem to have been curious last night about the sleeping habits of the nabä; at several points I awoke to find a clutch of them standing in the hut, silently watching me. Some men wandered in and out to check on me as well—or to check on my madohe. Now, it’s a little after dawn and several men are about the garden, clearing away brush, pulling up weeds, even sweeping the ground with dulled machetes and makeshift brooms. This is probably the best time of day for working in the garden; the chill is being driven away by the angling sun, with dew falling from the upper canopy like rain, but the heat has yet to descend and choke the air. It’s predominantly men in the garden, but there are a few women working alongside them. Others are making their way to and from the river to fill calabashes with the water that will be used throughout the day for drinking and washing.

            Lac is suffering under the burden of yet another night of frequently interrupted sleep. The crackers he’s been living on are no longer the least bit soothing to the churning in his stomach, but his options were limited by the darkness, and by his exhaustion. This morning, his plan is to boil some water for oatmeal and make himself a couple cups of coffee. Before standing up and taking to the trail to get the water, though, he must shake off the shattered remnants of the night’s shallow slumber. Despite the heaviness in his limbs and the sting in his eyes, Lac falls into the task of notetaking with calming ease. Describing what these people do throughout the day is his work, the one thing he knows he needs to be doing, and applying himself to such an involved and ongoing enterprise brings both succor and a sliver of gratification. How good an anthropologist you are, he tells himself, will ultimately be a matter of how much you notice that others would ignore, but for now keep in mind that no one from your world knows a damn thing about how the Yanomamö live. So noticing the most obvious behaviors will be of value—and a good start to the larger project.

            Lac is also relieved when he sees, and has no trouble recognizing, Bahikoawa, a man of medium height by Yanomamö standards, but with more distinctly Asiatic features. Lac estimates—or guesses really, since it seems all but impossible to tell—that the headman would be in his late thirties or early forties. The woman accompanying him in his work seems much younger. She could be his wife or his daughter; Lac is leaning toward wife. Looking up from the notebook and picking up his earlier thread, Lac thinks, ultimately your success will be a matter of how elegantly you sum up the big picture, but that all begins with building up a large stock of details.

            Before the gardening began this morning, Lac had already been woken by the sound of voices, as one after another of the Yanomamö ducked out from the shabono to relieve him or herself, chatting idly with each other as they passed. Bahikoawa was the first to remain outside the village for any length of time, as it seems he has a responsibility to scout the surrounding clearing for signs of raiders from enemy villages. This struck Lac as counterintuitive, and at first, as he squinted into the predawn light, he wondered if he was mistaking someone else for the headman Clemens had introduced him to. If a team of raiders were lying in ambush, wouldn’t the village headman make for a prime target? So why would he take it upon himself to conduct such a perilous investigation? Lac sighs, watching him as he crouches down to pull weeds, his young wife close at hand. I’ll have to ask him why the task falls to him, but that’s going to be at some distant time, as there’s no chance of communicating about such abstract points as things currently stand.

Lac stands up from his writing stump and stretches his arms over his head. A few men have wandered over already to check on him, and they find his grunts amusing. They speak to each other, smiling, animated, somehow managing to convey their sense that while this creature in their midst may look and act like a human being in certain superficial regards, he is, beneath the surface, something other than human, lesser. Smiling back at them dumbly, Lac ducks back into the hut to get a pot and a kettle for the morning’s victuals. He needs a bath, but he’s not sure if now is the best time of day for that. He’s not even sure whether it’s safe to bathe in this particular stretch of the Orinoco. Electric eels, anacondas, piranhas, the urethra-burrowing candiru—he wonders whether it may be best to see when and where the Yanomamö bathe before wading in himself. He’s also famished, having subsisted exclusively on those damn crackers since last leaving Tama Tama.

The plan is to carry some water from the river, fire up his kerosene stove, and make some oatmeal—along with some strong coffee. Before getting far along the trail, he turns back toward the entrance of the hut, wondering whether any of his supplies and equipment will be there when he returns. What’s stopping any of these men standing about, watching him, who all seem like jailers except for the patent lack of seriousness they demonstrate in their surveillance—more like an audience for a street performer, or a clown—what’s to stop any of them helping himself to the contents of his trunks or barrels?  

The air under the canopy is still chilly from the sun’s late arrival, but it offers a pleasantly unexpected gift of silence. Lac has already received a few requests for his pot and his kettle by the time he reaches the edge of the clearing, but as the trees shoot up on either side, the voices, for a precious moment, fade away before getting blotted out altogether by the dense jungle foliage, the endless living matter of the forest. Still, Lac only manages to savor the silence for a minute or two before old habits from his days in the Michigan woods take over, or perhaps it’s some primitive instinct, making him suspect something alarmingly amiss behind such a prolonged hush. He stops along the trail to listen, hearing little more than drops of dew colliding with leaves and far-away birds shrieking their bloodcurdling good-mornings to their neighbors. By the time he hears human voices again, those of the women and the few children who’ve proceeded him along the trail to the river, he’s at least as glad for the company as he is disappointed by the broken silence.

 In the States, when you see someone for the first time on a given day, you make eye contact from a distance of a few feet, smile, and say, “Good morning.” You may even enact this ritual greeting if the person you’re encountering is a stranger. When Lac sees the group of women scooping water into their halved gourds from the shore of the Orinoco, sees them halt in what must’ve been mid-sentence and drop their smiles as they turn to watch him—as if he were a predator who any instant may decide to plunge into the water and sink his teeth into their necks, he’s at a loss as to how to respond, so he finds himself gesturing toward his own chest with a splay-fingered grasping motion and saying, “Shackley,” smiling at his own goofy obliviousness. A couple of the women laugh, and as he makes his way down the muddy bank most of them pick up their conversation again, keeping watch on him with intermittent darting glances.

Shaking his head at his own stupidity, he wonders what they’re making of the idiot nabä who broadcasts his name so conspicuously in public while smiling like he doesn’t have a thought in his head. Then something else occurs to him: maybe it’s not the presence of the stupid nabä that’s making these women wary; maybe it’s that he also happens to be a man, one who by Western standards may be on the short side, but who compared with the Yanomamö is rather tall. Could these women, if sufficiently threatened, somehow kill me? Do any of them have some kind of deadly weapon tucked away, a dagger or a club they could pounce on me with, or a projectile they could shoot at me from a distance? 

Then there are the men. Hadn’t they recently had some kind of violent dispute over women—a club fight, according to Clemens? How can I possibly be sure I’m not in breach of some proscription no Yanomamö would even consider violating? And what if the customary sanction is a poison arrow in the back? He turns to scan the trail and the hushed forest swallowing it in shadow. Sure enough, he sees what at first appear to be irate men drawing bows behind him. But as he looks closer, he realizes that the two men are alert, not angry, and that while their arrows are nocked they’re not drawn. These men must be on guard duty, protecting the women from attack or abduction. Most importantly, they don’t seem to take him as much of a threat; they barely seem to notice him at all.

The women, their calabashes full, are already beginning their march back to the shabono. Lac checks his watch. The walk from the village to the river took him about eight minutes. Making good time, you could make it here and back, he thinks, in fifteen minutes. He waits until all the Yanomamö women are on their way up the bank or heading back along the trail before going down to the shore to fill his own pot and kettle.

The women keep up their lively banter all the while, carrying on in a plangent, almost whining tone that sounds like something in between pleading and accusing. As they disappear along the trail, the silence hums with the energy of their voices. Squatting down by the water, Lac experiences yet another moment of doubt. What the hell am I doing here with these people? When he stands up, he’s in a mood to chastise himself. What did you think? That the women would be the normal ones, that they’d mother you and help you figure out how to deal with the men? You’re not here to socialize and make friends. You’re here to learn about the culture and work out the implications of your findings for the history of the human race, if that’s not too grandiose a way of putting it.

Lac determines not to pursue any approach to his work that involves devoting any special effort or attention to the women, since, his safe passage to the river notwithstanding, the men seem aggressively protective, to put it diplomatically. Lac has another thought as he’s carrying the sloshing containers back to the hut: you’ll have to work out some kind of balance between watching and notetaking on the one hand, and engaging and building rapport on the other. For one, you’ll never learn the language if you’re sitting back and not participating in their conversations. Plus, you’ll be putting a serious limit on what you can learn from them if you haven’t established any trust or mutual understanding—if you don’t build any friendships.

Lac laughs. So forget what you just told yourself by the river. You really do need to socialize and make friends, but it’s probably best to befriend the men, at least at first.

Back at the hut, Lac begins arranging his tools and supplies to prepare his first official meal in the field. If he times everything correctly, he can make both the oatmeal and the coffee with reconstituted milk at the same time. The task begins with unpacking the actual oats, the instant coffee, and the powdered milk. Throughout the process, he feels the eyes of several Yanomamö on him. Lac had debarked with his family from New York on a freight ship because the five fifty-five gallon metal barrels containing his food and supplies for the next year and a half would have been prohibitively expensive to ship by air. Now he looks at the four barrels he’s brought to the hut and wonders how he’ll ever manage to keep them safe, these tokens of a past existence, magic vessels from a mythical advanced civilization, whose contents he’s been counting on—naïvely—to see him through his sojourn into the Stone Age. These four barrels, he thinks, contain all the civilization I’ll have access to for a very long time. And the troubling thing is, if a determined Yanomamö decides to requisition them, perhaps under the sanction of some obscure property custom unquestioningly adhered to by his people, I would have next to no recourse to any authority who could intervene to prevent the transfer of ownership.

What Lac does have, though, his one hugely reassuring piece of his own society, is his shotgun. And at least for now he also still has lots of food. He’s prudently sealed his store of oats in plastic, then sealed it again in another layer of plastic before sealing it a final time in metal, figuring these multiple layers of protection would render all of it moisture-proof, bug-proof, rodent-proof, and with any luck even Yanomamö-proof. What he discovers now, digging through one of the barrels to pull out his cup, his bowl, the sack of dried oats, the bag of coffee, the bag of milk powder, the kerosene stove, the alcohol primer, and the necessary utensils, is that his redundant seals come at a steep cost in accessibility. By the time he has the stove ready to light, with all the dishes and ingredients lined up, and is ready to cook, his belly is roaring, his head is light, and his hut is thronged with enthralled Yanomamö—with countless more looking in through the window and the open door. Lac shakes his head and laughs at the ridiculousness of the spectacle he must be creating for them. Right now, the basic premise of participant-observation, the method at the core of the ethnographic endeavor, is being radically overturned, as the Yanomamö are learning far more about the nabä living among them than he’s learning about them.

Lac sprays the element on the stove with the alcohol primer and strikes a match. When he sees the blue flame jump into life, loudly gulping down the ambient oxygen, he quickly reaches for the knob to dial up the jets of kerosene amid a cacophony of clicks and other sounds of astonishment from the men crowding around him. But turning the dial produces the most unexpected and puzzling effect: instead of igniting with contact, the kerosene smothers the burning primer, splashing unlit fuel in all directions. Only after a full second and a half of this dispersal does the kerosene at last decide to catch, setting alight the dirt floor and the mud wall.

“Oh shit!” Lac blurts, creating yet another unexpected reaction. The Yanomamö, who’ve been looking on amazed, collectively burst into uproarious laughter, as if they’d thought the casting of flames had been deliberate but now understand that this supposed wizard is actually a dunce. Lac shoots to his feet to stamp out the flames, only afterward sharing in the men’s mirth.

Maybe it’s like being the new kid at school, he thinks; no matter who you are you start out at the bottom of the totem pole, the butt of all the jokes, the source of all the vicious—if not malicious—hilarity, but from there you work your way up, with time earning a modicum of respect, and perhaps eventually achieving that longed-for status of cool. All of Lac’s professors who’d worked in the field spoke of how honored they were to have been adopted by the people they were studying, addressed and treated as kin. Lac had begun worrying on the boat ride up the Orinoco what it would mean if he failed to win this type of acceptance, how it would affect his work, what it would imply about him personally. But now, laughing and joining in with a couple of men reenacting his latest mishap, his worries are mollified. Even if he has the lowly status of village clown, at least he has some role to play in their society; and he can always work his way up to—something else. Lac goes through the process of priming the element with alcohol again, this time having scooped the coffee and the milk into their individual cups so he can concentrate more fully.

He still manages to create another small fire, but this time the stove remains lit as he extinguishes the unintended side flames. Putting the kettle on—really just a smaller pot—Lac considers whether all the people standing around the hut are breathing up too much oxygen for the stove to light properly. Or maybe it’s the humidity smothering the flame. Then something else occurs to him; he’s about to introduce these men to the phenomenon of boiling. Or is he? He’s already seen them using wooden racks as smokers. Clearly, they cook garden produce, like the large green plantains they harvest and store in the corners of the village structure. Have they ever boiled water? Do they eat soup? There are so many questions to answer about the daily habits and beliefs of these people, but all I’ve been able to observe so far has been their yen for bullying demands—that and their complete disregard for others’ personal space.

When steam billows from the smaller pot, the men point and discuss what they’re witnessing with some urgency. “Steam,” Lac says, moving his hand back and forth through the streaming clouds. He sees a couple of men make their way toward the door, and suddenly he’s fantasizing about a steam vigil kept up indefinitely, though he predicts they’ll habituate quickly enough. After pouring the hot water into the cups for his milk and coffee, he decants the one into the other. Then, as he turns to pour the last of the water onto his oats—which means he’ll have to return to the river for more if he’s to wash his dishes—he makes a disturbing discovery: despite all the containers and redundant sealing, a beetle of some sort has managed to find its way into the bowl. Lac picks it out, disgusted but unwilling to forego his breakfast on account of a single interloper—or even on account of its two companions that are revealed as he stirs.

He briefly wonders what the Yanomamö will think of him nonchalantly picking out the bugs and then proceeding to eat the infested food, but then, after stirring plenty of sugar into both his coffee and his oatmeal, he proceeds to do just that. No sooner does he spoon the first bite into his mouth than the men, realizing at last that this is food the nabä has been preparing, start making their demands again in earnest. A particular man, one whose presence and watchful eye have been especially dedicated, becomes indignant at Lac’s refusal to share, soon reaching the point of melodrama. Withholding food, Lac is made to understand, is such a great injustice that this man has been driven to a state of fury, a state in which he can’t help but make a spectacle of himself. Is this, Lac wonders, what that wildness I was so captivated by really amounts to?

Lac, whose steadfastness is crumbling, watches the man’s intimidating display as he rushes to finish his breakfast. “If you don’t give me some food,” Lac imagines him shouting, “I’ll smash your head in with this long pole I carry around for just such an occasion. I’ll wait until you turn around and loose one of these long arrows into your back, poisoning you, condemning you to a slow, excruciating, solitary death. I’ll wait until you’ve wandered off to the edge of the forest to squat down and shit and I’ll rifle through your trunk, stealing whatever I come across that may have some value to me. Then I’ll set the rest on fire.”

Lac shovels as much oatmeal into his mouth as he can before the intensity of the man’s threats prevails on him to scoop up the remnants from the bottom of the bowl and scrape them onto the open palm of the man’s hand. The offering produces the opposite of its intended effect. The other men instantly start shouting and protesting at the unfairness of his proffering food to one of them and not the others. Lac reflexively ducks his dead lower between his shoulders, as if hoping to muffle the ear-splitting clamor, feeling himself all the while poked and clutched and shoved.

“I don’t have any more!” he shouts back at last, leaning down to pick up his pots for an impromptu return to the river. He pushes his way through the wall of aggrieved bodies and out through the door into the already intense rays of the mid-morning sun. Making a beeline back into the trees, he mentally inventories all the supplies he’s left in plain view inside the hut, all the belongings he’s sure are about to belong to someone else. Stopping to turn back, he sees that four men are straggling behind him, amused by his abrupt departure, but also somewhat bored with his cowardly antics. Ignoring them, he proceeds, waving the bareto from his face to take in some calming breaths.

I’ve got to do something to establish some boundaries, he thinks, to earn some respect. I can’t let things go on like this or these men will ransack that hut, I’ll keel over from exhaustion, and I’ll quite possibly be dead before the week is out. And more than anything else I need to smoke a goddamned cigarette. This quitting business will have to wait. He forces a smile, but when he reaches the shore and squats down to dip his pot into the water his hands are trembling. How the hell did I get myself into this—No! Stop that! You’re here. Figure out a way to make it fucking work. You’re here because you chose to study the most remote tribe you could find on a map of the world. You’re here because this society is pristine, these villages remain sovereign, and most of these people have little or no inkling of the outside world, that a place called Venezuela even exists, much less that they’ve been occupying it their whole lives. You knew all your professors’ stories about how they sought out, lived among, and got adopted by some exotic group—well, to a one, all those professors had chosen groups who’d already been acculturated through contact with the surrounding state-level society that had absorbed their territory, leaving them with at best a mere semblance of their former sovereignty. You wanted to learn about man in a state of nature, humans whose lifestyles were uncorrupted by the grinding encroachment of civilization. Now here you are, for seventeen months, with Laura and the kids trapped in a giant research center, recognizing none of the faces they see looking back at them, with no car, no way to reach you, and no idea what you’re going through.

Lac stands and begins the awkward march back to the hut with his full jugs of water. A particular oversight is causing him more anxiety than all the others: he’s left his shotgun leaning against the inside wall, tucked behind one the barrels, but exposed nonetheless. He needs to make it back right away to make sure it’s still there. These men probably have no idea what it is or what it can do, but for all he knows they’d take it for some other use, as a club or a heavy walking stick. Who knows? What he does know is that his shotgun is the only thing keeping him from being truly and completely at the mercy of the Yanomamö. He’s even wondering now whether it may be a good idea to show them what he’s capable of while wielding it.

Resisting the urge to bolt through the forest to escape the men who trail behind him, bearing witness to his every blunder, he thinks, maybe I could circle around and approach the hut from the opposite direction, but only after I take some time alone in the forest to gather my wits. He knows the plan isn’t feasible though. Carving out such a path would probably take hours, and his hut would be thoroughly looted by the time he returned—he’s been away too long already. Instead, he picks up his pace, building up to a near jog.

The men seem to think this is good fun, or they’re amused by the nabä’s pathetic attempt at outpacing them. Coming up to the front of the hut through the garden clearing, Lac sees that the door is hanging ajar, just as he left it, but there’s no sign of bodies moving about inside, and no one loitering around outside. He sets down the pots and breaks into a full-out run to cover the remaining distance, every inch of his sweat-soaked, gnat-bitten flesh pricklingly alive with the chill of panic. Stepping into the shadowy structure, he sees two men squatting to examine his stove, holding it aloft to see what it looks like from underneath. Lac scans the site of his abbreviated breakfast with desperate eyes that are still adjusting to the absence of direct sunlight. Amazingly, the trunk with the container holding his oatmeal remains unplundered. The barrel containing all the machetes and axes he’s planning to exchange for information, and for help reaching other villages, looks as though it too has been the subject of a hands-on examination, but the seal hasn’t been breached. And there, in a position either unmoved or convincingly replaced, is his shotgun, braced against the wall behind his stacked trunks.

Lac collapses onto one of the trunks as the men pose questions he can neither answer nor comprehend about how his kerosene stove works. He could fire it up again to show them, but he figures they’ll have ample opportunity to witness his culinary blunders in the coming weeks and months—a thought that brings him to the brink of tears.

Rather than wallow, though, Lac gets to his feet and sets about washing the dishes he’s dirtied. He happily discovers his coffee cup is undisturbed and decides to pour himself another cup from the still-warm pot. As he’s scrubbing the bowl he abandoned when he so abruptly fled the hut, Lac realizes that he hasn’t escaped the negative consequences of his impulsive flight completely: one item is missing, the large wooden spoon he used to stir and scoop his oatmeal. Of all the things to steal.

With the dishes cleaned, Lac begins the dauntingly tedious process of resealing and repacking all his goods and equipment, appalled the whole time by his own stench, which intensifies with the day’s rising heat. He’s spent the entirety of each day since setting out for the Mavaca River covered in sweat. November is at the leading edge of the dry season, and he and the others on the motorized rowboat were blessed by a complete lack of rain, which also meant they were cursed by a complete lack of relief from the blazing heat of the sun. Already today, his shirt, his shorts, even his socks are soaked through. As the day goes on, the gallons of new sweat will wash away the residue of yesterday’s, and he’ll reach a point where he actually feels cleaner, but whenever he bends down, squats, or reaches for something overhead, he’ll be assailed by the reek wafting up to his nostrils from the most private of his body’s folding places. Just now, the odor is casting him back to the locker room of his high school back in Port Austin and the redolence of filthy teenage boys who have yet to master the finer points of daily hygiene. The memory makes him eager to glimpse something colorfully petalled the next time he enters the forest, so desperate is he to give his nostrils whatever reprieve is on offer from the fragrance of the local flora.

His next task then, now that he’s finished the arduous ritual of unpacking, cooking, eating, washing, and repacking—at least for the morning portion of what will be his daily sustenance routine—is to go back to the river to give the clothes he’s wearing a good scrubbing, to perform some cleansing ablutions on his own person, and to put on some clean clothes as the others dry. Even the thought of fresh clothes, worn atop freshly scoured skin, confers on him a bit of bliss.

The Yanomamö’s numbers have thinned, and as the sun lifts higher overhead, casting its more direct rays onto the earth, a collective torpor sets in, giving Lac a break from the incessant badgering, but leaving him no less irritable. None of them, he notices, seems to be going to the river to bathe just now; perhaps there’s a good reason for them not to. But do they ever bathe at all? They must. So is the water dangerous this time of day? Is it poisonous somehow? Will some goddamned monster, or some tiny parasite, bring my fieldwork to a premature and tragic end? Better now than six months into this fucking nightmare, he thinks, laughing quietly, at first releasing some of the nervous tension, but then gradually becoming more genuinely amused. Either way, I’m willing to risk it; I feel completely disgusting.

After locking away the last of his dishes, he fishes a bar of soap from the trunk and begins a leisurely stroll to the river, his third trip for the day. You expect the jungle to be lush, with exotic leaves and sparkling vines and vibrantly colored flowers everywhere you look. But the light is so dim beneath the canopy that the undergrowth isn’t really even green so much as gray. And it’s—what’s the word? Dirty. The plant life isn’t covered in some glowing sheen the way you imagine it would be. It’s dull, as if dried out and covered with dust. And it’s startlingly, even somewhat unnervingly, quiet, save for the raucous chattering and squawking of distant tropical birds.

The water, as he approaches unbuttoning his shirt, teems with unseen monsters. But something almost miraculous has happened: while a few small children attend to his comings and goings, there are currently no adult males watching him. The voices of the children—all boys—suffuse the air between the two muddy banks with a resounding lightness. Lac steps into the water, the tension and heat leaching away into the cooling current as he balances on a knife edge between terror and rapture. He wants nothing so much as to lie back and float down the river, away from this hellish village, and if some vampire fish digs its barbed prongs into the inside of his penis, or if a horde of frenzied piranha pick his bones clean a tiny razor pinch at a time, who’s to say that would be a worse fate than what’s in store for him in that fetid shabono, with all those nasty, obnoxious, blustery men?

He applies the soap to his chest and neck, soothed down to his soul by the coldness and the refreshing splash of each rinse. Some of the children enter the water with him, allaying his fears somewhat—though what if they’re assuming this white nabä knows how safe the water is, just as he in turn assumes they do? Standing thigh-deep as they wade in, he worries too that they may take interest in his uncircumcised but untied penis, but they maintain some distance as they squeal and splash and play, mostly ignoring the bizarre-looking grownup who sports a loose-hanging penis and can’t speak a word of the mother tongue.

The boys’ own penises hang free too, he notices, leaving him to wonder whether there may be some sort of elaborate ritual young men go through as a rite of passage, culminating in their first cock strings. Lac proceeds to soap and rinse his whole body, then he submerges, soaks, and wrings out his shirt, shorts, and underwear several times, then finally returns to the shore, seeing no way to avoid muddying his feet. After toweling off, he puts on a dry set of clothes before sitting down on a half toppled tree trunk to brush off his feet as best he can, enjoying limited success in suppressing his annoyance. By the time he’s gathering his wet clothes and the towel to head back to the hut, he’s already covered in sweat again, fresh though this new coat may be.

I suppose I’m still in the logistics stage of my fieldwork, Lac sits down outside his hut to write late that evening, and I suppose you could say I’ve run into a setback on that front: this morning, I set about preparing breakfast, which the Yanomamö turned into more of an adventure than I was prepared to embark on so early in the day. After fetching some water, cooking oatmeal and pouring coffee, eating, reluctantly relinquishing my last bite, and doing dishes, I decided a bath was in order. I also washed my filthy clothes. Returning to Clemens’s hut, ready to begin my observations at last, I saw that it was nearly noon. I’d somehow managed to burn up around six hours in tasks having nothing to do with ethnography or participant-observation. Noon—and my stomach was already growling again, hungry for lunch.

The unsettling conclusion I’ve reached is that I’m going to need to rough it a little more than I anticipated. You’re constantly sweating all day anyway, and you’d have to work at procuring and cooking and storing food pretty much all day to stave off hunger in anything like the fashion we’re accustomed to in industrialized cities. So I’m going to be spending much of my time among the Yanomamö filthy and famished. Maybe I’ll take their lead and let them show me how best to manage these things while living in the jungle.

Returning from the river, and prior to the dawning realization that he’d squandered half his day, Lac overheard some women arguing—though something in their voices makes them always seem like they’re arguing, or complaining—and it seemed the bone of contention was the smattering of boys who’d accompanied him to the river for his bathing and laundry. He’d wondered whether these kids might be orphans or latchkeys, what with all the apprehension surrounding the possibility of an attack from an enemy village. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one who thought it odd to see them roaming around unsupervised. The brute fact, however, is that Lac has no idea if his reading of the situation was at all accurate. The women could have been arguing about anything; they might not have been arguing at all.

Sitting outside the hut now, his notebook lying atop his knee, Lac quietly laughs as he imagines the women complimenting each other’s superb parenting, lustrous hair, and firm, smooth buttocks in those petulant voices, with all that over-the-top gesticulating. After trying to glean some useful observations from this memory of the quarrel, he decides to move on, writing simply that some women had a dispute, adding a parenthetical about the likely cause being differences about the supervision, or lack thereof, of children.

The need to reduce my diet and downgrade my standard of cleanliness looms, he writes, but my first day of real fieldwork wasn’t a complete bust; I wandered into the shabono at noon and found that it was nearly deserted. Walking around the perimeter, though, I saw that small gatherings of people remained. These mostly consisted of shapeless older women and countless children whose numbers swelled and diminished at intervals, raising the question of whether they’re free to go outside the village enclosure, perhaps under the protection of some taboo against killing children in a raid. But, honestly, they could simply have been disappearing into the shade beneath the thatched roofing and I would have had a difficult time spotting them.

Four men, probably in their twenties and thirties, remained inside the shabono as well. They were busy for some time rolling out tiny gumballs, which at first I thought might be a stage in the production of whatever poison Clemens had seen them applying to their arrow tips, but I later learned, as I watched them grind the balls into a green powder they mixed with sprinkled ashes from a burning log, that it was the drug they use to facilitate communion with their spirits. The image of a typical day that emerges from my casual observations of this one particular day begins with predawn visiting and chatting, along with anxious trips outside to void full bladders and bowels. With the light of day gaining strength, the headman scouts the environs for signs of enemy raiders. And then the gardening begins.

The garden appears to be sectioned, though in ways that aren’t obvious at first glance. Each man, or perhaps each family, works and harvests a particular area. A couple sections of what look like tobacco even have crude fences around them, about knee-high and consisting of nothing more than upright sticks tied to thin vines. They must be thoroughly ineffective as an impediment to theft—unless the true purpose is to signal the owner’s intention to defend his property. Everyone, woman and man alike, puts in a lip plug of tobacco first thing in the morning; they may even sleep with them tucked against their bottom teeth. And it seems the kids get an early start. I see boys as young as ten or twelve walking around with bulging bottom lips.

By far the most important cultigen, though, would have to be the bananas, or rather the cooking plantains. The Yanomamö keep hundreds of them hanging in bundles from the wooden supports of the shabono, taking some down to roast on a fire at several points throughout the day. Gardening mostly entails clearing away brush and pulling out weeds, but each section covers a large swath, so tending it thoroughly takes at least a couple hours. Bahikoawa, the headman, was the first to begin gardening this morning, and close to the last to finish, though I began my ill-fated efforts at preparing breakfast before they’d all left off for the morning, or for the early afternoon, as the case may be.

The humming knot of anxiety in Lac’s chest thickens as he recalls the morning’s proof of his ineptitude—and the dilemma it’s brought to light. He’s been reassuring himself that after today he’d be able to relax, knowing that he was capable of providing for his own basic needs here in the jungle, and indeed it turns out he is capable—just not if he’s determined to do some actual work at the same time. Even now, his stomach churns, foretelling of the hungry night ahead. He’s locked away his supply of what’s already become his favorite staple, his crackers and peanut butter, not wanting to deplete his store. Maybe I need to plant my own garden, he thinks, after the Yanomamö fashion. He smiles, shaking his head.

The sounds from the shabono fill the air over the clearing: what sounds like chanting from a handful of the men, dueling voices, with occasional interruptions blurted out by others. Lac looks from one to another of the men standing or squatting around him, suspecting they’ll wander off soon, as the evening chill sets in. He experiences a sense of warmth associated with old ideas in his head about what would go on within a communal dwelling carved out of the wilderness, the home everybody returns to after a day of wandering and toil. The women and nearly all of the older female children started disappearing into the forest even before the day’s gardening was finished. The remaining girls mostly looked after the youngest of the children, and a pretty consistent segregation by gender obtained. The men likewise disappeared into the forest but along separate routes. Lac would later learn that the women devoted most of the day to collecting and processing firewood, which they carried on their backs in impressively large baskets with straps running across their foreheads. It appears their role is to tend to the hearth, as it were, sustaining the cooking fires that burn at all times, the fires that keep everyone warm throughout the night. As for me, he stops to ponder, I have this hut to shield me from the cold, along with these clothes crusted over with my dried sweat, and a blanket.

The men, meanwhile, he writes, return at intervals with the game birds or monkeys they’ve hunted down with their bows and arrows. The tubes hanging against their lower backs are hollowed out bamboo shafts serving as quivers for their arrow tips, which come in several varieties, each one lending itself to the killing of a different kind of animal. The men also cook the meat—to excess, judging from the smell of charring, and without first skinning the animals—but there ensues a lot of enthusiastic sharing, though this takes places before the cooking as well as after. Meals are small, frequent, and spread out over the course of the day; what we’d call snacks take the place of the four squares.

As he writes, Lac is weighed down with the feeling, not so much of being exiled from the village, but of being condemned to this life on the periphery. He’s hungry, can’t talk to anyone, and remains restricted to his hut, for one because he needs to say close to his supplies, but for two because he has no place inside the shabono to hang his hammock, no allies or sponsors—no friends—to take him in and put him up for the night. Laura has this habit of tying all his scholarly and professional preoccupations to hidden themes she picks out of his personal history. As he was filling out genealogical charts representing various types of family organization in diverse cultures as part of his training, Laura suggested that what he was really doing was reenacting his earlier efforts to find a place for himself in his own family.

“You already had Connor as an older brother,” she said one night when he had the charts spread over the kitchen and living room of their campus apartment. “As a firstborn son, he casts a pretty big shadow. But then your parents just kept having more and more kids; you have eleven brothers and sisters, Lachlan. Any kid in your shoes would wonder about his ultimate value, try to find a role to play that makes him feel like he stands out in the midst of all that crowding.”

“My eleventh sibling wasn’t born until last year; it’s not like I spent my entire childhood feeling crowded out and anonymous to my whole family. I was a father myself by the time my youngest brother was born.”

“You still had more siblings than most people do, and you kept having to deal with a new one every couple of years.”

“That’s not unheard of for a family historically. My parents, what can I say, they’re very traditional.”

“It must have had an impact on you though. Why do you think you find Connor’s ‘smallminded provincialism’ so irritating—however successful he is? You could have carried on the family tradition right alongside him, but you chose not to.”

“It wasn’t much of a choice.”

“It wasn’t? Why not?”

“Well, you said Connor is successful. That kind of success doesn’t mean anything to me; it rings hollow. I can’t very well spend my whole life pursuing goals that mean nothing.”

“Those goals mean something to Connor: the career, the respectability, the big family.”

“Is that what this is about? Do you want to have more children? Laura, we’ve talked about this. Maybe after the initial phases of my fieldwork…”

“No, Lachlan, I’m not saying I want more children. Believe me, I’ve got my hands full with these too devils. For now. I’m just pointing out that your passion for this stuff”—she gestured around the room at all the charts lying about—“makes a certain kind of sense.”

Amused is the word he’d use now to describe her response to having lighted on the supposed insight; though there was an edge of triumph to it as well, as though piecing together what makes this decidedly unconventional man she’s married tick amounted to some sort of victory. As he gallivants off—both in his mind and in a real physical sense—to far-ranging points unknown, with her in tow, she delights in knowing more about him—more about the inner workings of his psyche—than he knows about himself. If her ideas derive a little too much from the Freudianism she picked up in her English classes (he’s informed her Freud is falling out of fashion in most other departments), Lac nonetheless finds them disturbingly plausible more often than he’s willing to let on.

It’s true, he thinks now, I do have this attitude, not so much of disdain, but of profound disappointment at the narrowness of people’s interest in the world, the shallowness of their understanding of our place in the cosmos. Church, marriage, kids, an office job, an occasional game on the radio, maybe some hunting and fishing on Sundays—and that’s the extent of it. They don’t have the vaguest inkling of how small we are as a species, how late on the scene; they don’t have the vaguest inkling of how preposterous our rise from the lowliest origins would’ve seemed at the outset, but how eminently comprehensible each stage in the process usually is, with just enough effortful thought, just enough focused study. People at school tend to appreciate all this; no one else, not Connor, not Malcolm, pretty much no one he knows outside of academia appreciates any of it. Yet they slog on in their little dream pockets an infinitesimal fraction of the size of the actual universe, imagining the most impossible of beings driving everything that occurs within their miniscule worlds, blind to the one true miracle—that it all works without anyone driving anything, without anyone turning the dials or pulling the levers, that we owe our existence to the glorious accident of nature. What success is there to be had amid such obliviousness?

“Of course you latched on to the idea that none of what Connor and your father know has any merit,” Laura said, “that you’re privy to some grand secret about life and the universe that they aren’t even equipped mentally to suspect.”

“I may have turned my attention to science and to all those bigger questions out of spite, or for some need to carve out a unique identity,” he allowed. “I may have been doing something like that at first, but once I was on the path I kept going for no other reason than because it was true—and there’s no more reliable set of methods for learning about what’s really true and what isn’t. Everybody else is either going with what they’ve been told or making stuff up. Do you disagree?”

She claimed she didn’t. But sometimes Lac wonders if her urge to connect intellectual pursuits to personal motives leaves any room for objectivity. Or is she replacing a healthy scientific skepticism with something closer to cynicism? For Laura, we must all seem like we’re living inside our own dream bubbles, trying to look out but only seeing mirrors and prisms reflecting back to us our own distorted selves, only catching the most fleeting and blurry glimpses of the world beyond the filmy membrane. There’s probably something to that view, he thinks, but you go too far along that line of thinking and you end up with solipsism—and from there you’ll find no reason to pursue the truth, no point in investigating the natural world, no point in doing much of anything.

And what about Laura’s own hidden motives? Might she be psychoanalyzing everyone because she too feels crowded into anonymity, because she too needs to feel like she’s contributing something no one else could, something somehow truer, more fundamental? I mean, it’s not like she could ever go out on her own and study a group like the Yanomamö. There are lots of successful women in anthropology—Benedict, Mead—but don’t they do their research among people who are much more…? He lets the thought trail off as he looks up at the sky, taking a moment to savor the relative quiet. He needs to finish his notes on the day’s observations before the light wanes much further, or else he could use a flashlight. He considers it, but he’s not prepared to deal with whatever reception the Yanomamö have in store for such a dazzlingly useful bit of nabä magic.

The women, Lac writes, were accompanied on their quest for firewood by armed guards, men nervously on the lookout for disturbances in the brush, fidgeting with their nocked arrows. The two men standing guard over the women filling their calabashes with water earlier today were more relaxed, perhaps because they were closer to the village, or perhaps because Bahikoawa had already investigated the area for signs of enemy villagers. I counted four men on firewood detail, and their level of alertness marked a stark contrast with the casual attitude toward guarding the children. Do raiders target women for killing? That would explain why Bahikoawa is willing to conduct his investigations first thing every morning. But no—Clemens said the fight we walked into yesterday had been over stolen women, seven taken from this village, five taken back in a retaliatory attack. The women aren’t targeted for killing by the raiders; they’re targeted for kidnapping. But for what purpose? Are they taken as wives by the men of the rival village? Kept as slaves? Or is it a symbolic move, the ultimate humiliation of a rival group?

The more serious question for now, he thinks as he lifts his pen, is what am I going to tell Laura? He’s supposed to be getting situated and then sending for her, but he knows he can’t bring her here, with or without the kids. He can’t guarantee his own safety at any given moment out here; how could he possibly guarantee theirs? Though the kids, it seems, would probably be fine, assuming the Yanomamö offered some help feeding, bathing, and babysitting them—making sure they weren’t bitten by snakes or attacked by ants. How could I have been so far off the mark, he wonders, about what coming here would be like? Obviously, you can’t bring your family here, at least not until you have a better sense of how to negotiate your way around all the dangers, not until you figure out a way to keep these people from bullying and harassing them—which means you first need to figure out a way to keep them from bullying and harassing you. But what can I tell her? I can’t very well say, “Sorry honey, it turns out these Indians are pushy and violent and like to steal women from each other’s villages.” Meanwhile, though, she and the kids are stuck at IVIC; I don’t want them to be trapped there for the next year and a half.

Gazing out over the twilit tree line, Lac tunes in to the conversation of the men standing off to the side of where he sits writing. Their speaking has been steady all throughout his writing and all throughout his many long thoughtful pauses, but even when they addressed him or tried to get his attention he’s remained walled off, sealed within his own bubble of inattention. Now he wonders if the reason for there always being somebody, or somebodies, watching him, mildly harassing him, is because they’re curious—he represents, after all, one of the only, and surely the most bizarre, forms of entertainment available out here—or if it’s really just because he’s the easiest target for their bullying. If that’s the case, he’s going to have to alter their perception of him somehow, and the sooner the better. He leans over his notebook again.

In the afternoon, six of the adult men (two of whom had recently returned from hunting) got together to decorate each other’s bodies using at least two different kinds of feathers and copious amounts of red pigment. The smaller white feathers they scattered throughout their tonsured hair (how they shave these spots on their heads I have yet to witness); the larger brown feathers they attached to bands on their upper arms, making them poke up and radiate outward. Once they finished decking out their own and each other’s bodies, they began taking turns squatting down in pairs and shooting the ground up green powder I’d seen four of them preparing earlier through a three-foot wooden tube, less than an inch in diameter, into one another’s nostrils. The force of the blast was such that it produced a puff of powder from the opposite nostril. The recipients winced, recoiled, stood up, whipped their faces from side to side, slapped the sides of their heads, and often leaned forward, resting their palms on their knees, as if waiting to vomit. This is no idle pastime. They take their drug-taking very seriously.

The strings of green mucous began to stretch from their noses almost immediately after they’d received the doses, and once more they showed no inclination to wipe them away. Once the drug began to take effect, the men took up a seemingly heated exchange—half-shouting, half-chanting—with a multitude of invisible beings who apparently reside in a space atop the distant tree line, though at several points it appeared the men were interacting with creatures who’d covered all that distance and actually entered the village. The ritual has elements of dance and mimicry as well, both of which gradually became more pronounced, perhaps as the drug took stronger hold over the men’s bodies. They variously strutted and bobbed their heads like birds, crouched low to stalk unseen prey across the courtyard, and waddled to and fro as if shifting the weight of a shell or carapace (in imitation of an armadillo?).

The spirits the men commune with are likely semi-bestial, akin to the animal-headed but otherwise human figures in Egyptian murals. At a few points, the men’s gestures seemed to indicate that the beings were close—within reach even—and I came away with the impression that they must be quite small and nimble. The men maintained an impressive energy level throughout the hours-long back-and-forth. I’d characterize the tone as near to that of a vitriolic argument, of a sort I’ve already seen groups of Yanomamö embroiled in on a handful of occasions in the past two days; there are also elements of pleading counterpoised with elements of boasting, urgent plaintiveness set against a spirit of play.  

Not all of the adult men participated by any means, possibly suggesting that these six men comprise something of a separate class of shamans, but all the Yanomamö seemed to be, if not watching intently, at least listening in as they halfheartedly went about their chores: processing their newly acquired game, tending their hearths, preparing late afternoon snacks.

Lac squints at his writing through the gloaming, worriedly turning over the proper position to take with regard to his own boundaries and how far he’s willing to go in participating in the Yanomamö culture. Would he even be allowed to join the shamans in their daily rituals? He knows plenty of anthropologists who are avid drug-takers: marijuana, peyote, ayahuasca—they all swear by the salubrious effects for one’s mental and spiritual well-being. But Lac would rather not bolster the popular image of anthropology as the last academic refuge for drug-addled hippies claiming to be at one with the universe when they’re really just incapable of getting a handle on their addictions.

Closing his notebook and standing up to go back inside the hut, Lac directs his thoughts to tomorrow, to mapping out his day to ensure he’s far more productive than he was today, but his mind turns elsewhere in spite of his efforts. Inside the hut, he performs a ritual double-check of his supplies, testing the latches on his trunks, making sure the barrels are sealed, and situating his loaded shotgun close at hand by his hammock. Once again, he’s exhausted. Though it would be more accurate to say I’m still exhausted, he thinks, than that I’m exhausted again.

As he twists down to roll onto his hammock, he takes a second to appreciate the absence of Yanomamö in his darkened hut—or actually in Clemens’s darkened hut, as one of his tasks for the coming days is to build his own mud-and-thatch hut, with the help, if he can arrange it, of a few Yanomamö. But my first order of business, he thinks, is still to work out a process for learning the language, which will most likely entail joining them in whatever activities they’ll tolerate me participating in. That means you need to be awake early enough tomorrow to finish whatever breakfast you can throw together before the gardening is done, and then you can accompany some of the men on their hunt. That way, you’ll have a chance to shoot some game yourself, which means you’ll have something to contribute other than your manufactured goods. With any luck, the report of the gun will induce some hesitation the next time one of them feels an urge to push you around.

These are all plans he’s already worked out and repeated to himself more than once. What’s really occupying his mind, albeit in the background, is that the one man he’s loath to have thinking of anthropologists as a bunch of drugged out hippies is his father; that’s why the prospect of taking hallucinogens with the Indians is filling him with dread. Malcolm, as all the Shackley children have been told, was a man who in his early adulthood loved a drink after work, after dinner, before bed, and at intervals of a couple of hours over the course of both weekend days. When the drinking led to problems, the nature of which remain a mystery to them—Connor has claimed it had something to do with a totaled Ford none of them remember—Malcolm turned first to God, but ultimately he turned to himself for redemption. He no sooner ran out of excuses and evasions and was forced to accept that he had a problem, a weakness, than he set out determinedly to overcome it. And overcome it he did, in very short order, though the details of how he achieved this victory over himself have been kept secret.

It was the legendary ease of Malcolm’s deliverance that made him so contemptuous of anyone who allows himself to be mastered by alcohol, or by any other intoxicant. Connor is no teetotaler, but he’s meticulous in his exercise of moderation—and Judy always has recourse to letting Malcolm know if her husband and his first-born son gets it in his head to overindulge.

To the second-born son, this intense wariness of drink is silly, little more than adult playacting, an overdramatizing of a common struggle against vice. This position comes with its own sort of dramatic tension though; Lac has to drink nonchalantly, prove that he can enjoy himself with little fear of going overboard, but on occasion, as he discovered late in his undergrad years, he could have quite a bit of fun going overboard. In any other family, Lac was sure, he could have gotten blotto once in a while and not made any kind of production out of it. As the son of an erstwhile pseudo-dunk and current paragon of sobriety, he has to justify every sip. No matter what happens, the idea is to show that, without putting any effort into managing his craving, he could partake of the devil’s drink without forfeiting an ounce of respectability, without calling forth the demons of consequence.

It shouldn’t be such a big deal, he’s often thought; they must be borderline insane to worry about it so much, not to mention self-righteous, self-dramatizing, and close-minded. Naturally enough, though, no matter how hard he tries to pretend it isn’t the case, his father’s disapproval affects him. Not knowing anything about drugs, and not really knowing anyone with much experience using them, he’s terrified that all it will take is one hit to send him spinning out of control—and that would set back his cause of setting back theirs.

As in this one area of dispute, so it is with his whole crazy anthropology thing, he thinks, sinking down through the depths of his sleeplessness. What they don’t appreciate is that I’m going to do it regardless—No, I’m going to do the hell out of it, and I won’t turn out to be some hippie loafer who winds up penniless, living in a tie-dyed van, abandoning my wife and kids. I’ll do my fieldwork, come home, finish my Ph.D., and live the life of a respectable scholar, a scientist. Because this is 1964 dammit. There are more ways to earn a living than farming, fishing, and factory work. Of course, the plan wasn’t to merely get by as an anthropologist, support my family, hold my head high, and all that. The plan was to go beyond making ends meet. The plan was to make a name for myself, not merely do well enough, but do so well as to set a new standard. Because maybe in my own way I really am carrying the family torch, working to honor the Shackley name, not by going the same route as the others, but by blazing a completely new trail, opening up a completely unknown world.

And here I am. The one thing left out of all these grandiose plans, he thinks, is that getting them to work will require the cooperation of the Yanomamö—and the Yanomamö, up to this point, have proven singularly uncooperative.


Sleep falls heavy upon him. He remains insensate, exquisitely absent from his troubles, for longer than he has since reaching Caracas with is family, so when he awakes a full four hours after rolling into the hammock, it takes him a minute to reorient himself, to land himself back in this self-sought hell. The emptiness of the lightless hut startles him to the point of suspicion. Reaching to grip the stock of his shotgun, he considers turning on the flashlight he’s likewise positioned close at hand. The door to the hut is solid—not strong enough to withstand a heavy kick or two from a determined Yanomamö, but enough of an impediment to provide plenty of warning that he has company. Nonetheless, he can’t bring himself to trust the darkness. Is it because of a dream he’s just awoken from but already forgotten? Or is he just that unaccustomed to being alone out here? The third possibility is that he heard something. Though he has no recollection of any sound, he soon convinces himself the mystery noise was the cause of his waking up at such a random point in the night, though it’s also the case that his bladder is full enough to warrant an interruption in his slumbers.

Not wanting to call attention to any new type of madohe, Lac switches on the flashlight for just long enough to scan the edges of the hut where the dirt floor meets the mud walls. Nothing. But even as he’s moving his thumb to switch off the light he hears, distinctly, the sound of scurrying in the vicinity of his stacked trunks. He waits a full two beats before re-aiming and turning the light back on. This time, instead of switching it back off right away as he’d intended, he leaves it on, leveling the beam on the spot where he glimpsed the pestilent black eyes. Taking another step down in the caliber of the company you keep, he whispers to himself, smiling, even as his heart races.

His only option, he figures, if he wants to rid himself of his guest, is to kill it, because by chasing it out of the hut, he’d merely be inviting it to return. But if he’s hunting rat, the shotgun will be overkill. Situating the flashlight on the ground pointing upward, illuminating the hut but casting shadows behind the trunks and barrels, Lac opts for an alternative approach, pulling out the machete he’s hidden between the trunks. Lifting it to a height even with his head, he wheels around into the shadows and sees—nothing. He goes back to retrieve the flashlight so he can rely on a direct beam to locate the intruder. Just as he’s stepping behind the trunks again, though, he hears scratching and shuffling by the window, and, quickly redirecting the flashlight, he’s able to watch the little bastard stealing off into the night.

Lac clicks off the light and rushes to the window, hoping to witness the rat’s flight across the clearing. Instead, he’s startled by the sight of a man’s silhouette, a man with an emaciated dog circling his feet. Reflexively moving his body out of the line of sight, Lac gazes out at him through the bottom corner of the window. The windows in the hut are supposed to be covered by hinged screens of thatch, but the screen in this window has long since disappeared, and Lac has yet to make any effort at replacing it, relying instead on his mosquito netting to protect him—the door stands open most of the day anyway. So he peers out through a completely open aperture high in the wall of the hut.

The man, though Lac can’t make out his features, appears to be looking straight back at him. Though this is hardly unusual by Yanomamö standards—standing outside in the middle of the night, staring at the dwelling place of the visiting nabä—Lac is shaken, his second jolt since waking up a couple minutes ago. His eyes roam the dark interior of the hut, searching for the spot where he leaned his gun against the wall, thumbing the switch on the flashlight. It’s the flashlight, he realizes, that gave the man cause to stop and stare. And wouldn’t you be amazed too, he thinks, if you saw artificial light for the first time fluttering around through the window of the white men’s house?

This explanation for the man’s vigil calms Lac somewhat, but he remains by the window, keeping an eye on this figure seemingly keeping an eye on him. When the man continues standing there immobile for several minutes, staring at the hut—in through the window?—Lac begins to panic. But his fear quickly plateaus. Something about the dog at the man’s feet reassures him. From what he’s observed so far, the Yanomamö’s relationships with their dogs are nowhere near warm enough to win the approval of most Americans. Their presence is barely tolerated. They’re left to eat scraps and garbage and whatever they can hunt or scavenge on their own, which is why they’re all so bony, with those prominent ribs and cinched bellies. What gets to Lac the most, though, is the ambivalent way the dogs approach Yanomamö men, excited to be close to their masters, but ostensibly frightened, as if expecting a swat courtesy of their beloved. And he’s seen some instances of that courtesy already, not cruel exactly, but conveying the severest impatience, disdain even. Why the hell keep them around, Lac wondered, if their presence annoys you so much?

But the dog circling this particular man isn’t the least bit fearful. She walks with her head low to track whatever scents she can pick up from the ground, but when she stops to look up at her master her ears stretch high and her hind legs remain springy, almost like she’s ready to dart after a stick—this in contrast to the usual ducking and slinking and ear-flattening of the other dogs. As Lac watches, the man at last starts walking along a route that leads in a circle to the front of Clemens’s hut, as though swinging around to a spot where he can approach the door unseen. Lac tries to imagine what the man has just witnessed, the crazy flashes bursting out into the night. What must he be thinking? Just as he moves into an area backgrounded by the jungle, where there’s no contrast to make his outline visible, Lac recognizes his gait, or thinks he does.

It’s Bahikoawa, the village headman, and he’s giving every indication that his is a soul tormented. Is it all this trouble with that neighboring village, Lac wonders, the one they had to steal their women back from—or five of the seven originally stolen anyway? If that’s what’s on his mind, then he must have stood there watching the light streak across the inside of the hut, wondering how he might put this new bit of nabä sorcery to use militarily. He could use it to guide a troop through the dark, maybe even launch a nighttime raid.

Lac’s next attempt to divine the headman’s thoughts sends him bolting away from the window, cowering like a typical village dog. Is Bahikowoa circling around to the front of his ramshackle dwelling so he can get a running start, burst through the flimsily locked door, subdue the pesky idiotic nabä, and claim all this madohe for the village?

Lac goes to the front wall and pushes the thatch screen up and out from the window frame so he can see what’s in front of the door. With Laura and the kids foremost in his mind, he marvels once again at his own foolishness in stranding himself out here with these inscrutably volatile people before moving back into the center of the room to find his shotgun. His next thought brings a modicum of reassurance, though, enough to allow him to roll back onto his hammock—albeit with his eyes and the barrel of his gun fixed on the entrance. The thought was that Bahikoawa, if that’s who was standing out there in the middle of the thirty-yard stretch between the hut and the closest wall of the shabono, communicated a distinct emotion through his bearing and his gait.

And if that emotion is one that lends itself to the incitement of violence, Lac thinks now, I will have to rethink everything I know about human nature.

It only takes a beat before this strikes him as funny—as hilarious—so much so that he has to cover his mouth with his hand, the same hand he would use to fire the shotgun, to keep from filling the hut and the surrounding night with his laughter. And just like that, despite never for a second forgetting that he has to pee or that he’s in desperate need of a cigarette, he’s asleep, snoring quietly and evenly. 

Continue reading

More stuff to read: 

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

Check out Napoleon Chagnon's original account of when he first met the Yanomamö (see particularly the section "The Longest Day: the First One" beginning on page 2).