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

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

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

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

Monday, February 29, 2016

He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium

Yanomamö shabono (village enclosure)
(Read from the beginning, or follow this link to printable version, 6,695 words.)

Lac’s stomach rumbles ominously as he steps from the aluminum rowboat onto the muddy bank. Feet planted ashore, he has to fan the bareto away from his face before he can get a decent breath. It’s just after 2 o’clock; he hasn’t had a bite to eat since this morning, but in light of his other symptoms he can’t help letting this loud churning in his intestines add to his worry. They give you a whole slew of tests and shots for contagious bugs you’ve never heard of, he thinks, all to make sure you don’t start an epidemic when you meet these people whose white blood cells have heard of even fewer bugs than you have—and to make sure you don’t keel over dead yourself, or rot away from the inside out in some godforsaken hut no one will be able to find until the flies and ants have cleaned the last scrap of flesh from your bones. But everybody who goes into the jungle gets sick anyway. That’s what they say.

Trudging up the bank, he feels the tug of his pant legs clinging to the tops of his legs. His shirt is soaked through as well. Annoyed, he heaves that deep breath, vacuuming nary a gnat through the cautiously narrowed parting of his lips, and tells himself he’d better get used to being drenched in sweat, since he’ll be living in the most basic of lodgings for the next year and a half. He wonders how Laura and the kids will hold up in this heat. What will they think of this new odor of his? They’ll stink before long too. We’ll just have to get used to each other, he thinks, while we’re getting used to all the rest of it. Like the gnats. Good God, the gnats!

“The trail you’re standing on,” Chuck says, “is what the women take from the village every morning to fill their pots with water.”

Before going back to help Chuck haul the rowboat out of the water, Lac takes a long look up the darkly shaded trail—the trees towering to immense heights above, creating an illusion of compression in the shadows below, pressurizing the air, as if the space they’re about to wander into were a preheated oven. He then lowers his gaze to the area surrounding his feet, seeing if there are any telltale signs, any footprints or artifacts discernable in the mud or the moist dirt higher up the bank. I’m here, he marvels, moments away from meeting them. As the two men pull the rowboat onto dry land, he realizes that Chuck has just indicated it’s the women who fetch each day’s supply of water from the Orinoco. It must be part of their division of labor, perhaps a key social fact.

When he met Chuck in Chicago a few months back, he asked him hundreds of questions about where the Yanomamö live, how aware they are of the outside world, how many he estimates there are in the village, how many other villages might be in the region. But, just as Lac hates the idea of the Yanomamö’s culture being compromised by all the missionaries’ bribery and machinations, he’s also been loath to inquire after the details of that culture in his discussions with Chuck, keeping instead mostly to issues of logistics, a precaution intended to help him avoid unconsciously adopting any prejudices about what he’s eager to see with his own eyes and document with his own hands.

But that boy, that young man, standing on the rocks as they approached the Tama Tama mission outpost, an apparition hovering in the space over the river like some eternal feature of the landscape, his skinny arms dangling loosely, his posture lazily erect, his bearing unselfconsciously haughty, his belly rounded by the insouciant forward sway of his lower back, causing it to protrude proudly, like a Western man might thrust out his chest, but without any of the effort at affectation—the encounter has shocked the neophyte fieldworker into realizing it won’t be a hundred or so discrete but interdependent manifestations of a tribal culture he’ll be meeting, asking permission to live with, and conducting lengthy interviews with. It’s a village full of people, flesh and blood human beings. “I’ve never really asked you this before,” he says as he steps away from the rowboat, sweat falling in giant globules from his face. “What are they like? I mean, what was it like when you first made contact?”

“Well, honestly, it was pretty tense when I first met them,” Chuck says as he squats down to secure the edges of a tarp covering the boat. “But that was back in 1950. You have to keep in mind they’d never seen a white man before. People in a bunch of the more distant villages still haven’t seen any. They had no idea who I was. But I wouldn’t worry too much. I think as long as you’re with me they’ll be much more welcoming.”

After pausing to consider his broader question, Chuck continues, “They don’t have the same stops as we do. It’s jarring at first, but it doesn’t take long before you start to accept it’s just the way they are. I used to think the natives—not just the Yanomamö but people I met from all the tribes—I used to think they were like children; they hadn’t been brought up learning how adults have to control their impulses, how adults have to fulfill the expectations surrounding the roles they serve in society. You know, or there are consequences. Here, there aren’t the same kinds of consequences. Over time, I’ve come to see that I was mostly wrong. They aren’t like grownup children the way I thought they were. They don’t have the same checks on their impulses, they don’t try to fill the same roles of course, and the consequences for inappropriate behavior are much different. But what they do makes sense in their own context, if not so much in ours.”

“You said ‘mostly wrong’.”

“I do my best to understand them on their own terms, and the fact is in some ways it’s men from our society who are more like children. If we had to fend for ourselves out here, with nothing but the kinds of tools and resources they have on hand, we probably wouldn’t last a week. But when I’m interacting with them I often can’t help seeing them as—not uncultured exactly, but still somehow less cultured. Fewer checks, simpler roles, that kind of thing. ”

“That makes sense,” Lac allows, though he’s wondering if it’s possible to square this with his Boas. For the first time, the incongruity is becoming apparent to him between insisting on treating every culture as equal, as fully developed in its own right, and looking to native societies for clues about life before civilization. He thinks again of the wild young man standing in his tatters on the chain of rocks poking up in the river, and how stark the contrast was between him and the dozen or so much younger children sitting along the benches at a wooden table outside one of the buildings of the New Tribes Mission, kids from several tribes, all flipping through prayer books, receiving their Western-style schooling from a severe woman ruling over them with a voice of measured authority, the type borne of unquestioning certainty in the rightness of her lessons, the righteousness of her calling. Maybe the adults, fortunate enough to escape such indignities, really are unconstrained and impulsive and child-like, he thinks, but maybe those of us who pride ourselves on our control, our tameness—maybe we actually lost something more valuable than we can fully appreciate when we traded in our own wild ways for the sake of being civilized grownups.

Lac can’t really run this idea by Chuck, but something in his guide’s tone when he attempted to describe the Yanomamö suggested that he wouldn’t quite agree. Then again, Chuck has his own agenda for these people, so he may be biased toward thinking there’s something lacking in their way of life. When Lac asked Marie, the austere and remarkably nondescript woman attempting to teach the children to read from a bunch of prayer books, how the Yanomamö react to the idea that they need to supplant the gods they know for this new Christian God, she said, “The spirits they conjure are demons.” For her, it’s as simple as that, an entire pantheon redesignated in one Miltonic swoop.

“You’re looking a little better,” Chuck says, stepping close enough to touch the back of his hand to Lac’s forehead. “You’re still really swollen from the gnat venom, but you don’t seem to have a fever.” Removing his hand, he turns and strides along the trail a few paces before stopping to wait for Lac to fall in alongside him. Lac looks one last time at the rowboat perfunctorily hidden within a latticework of roots running along the bank just downstream from the confluence with the Mavaca. The plan is to make the proper introductions at the village, stay for the night among the Yanomamö, and then return to the mission in the morning to retrieve the rest of his supplies, which he’ll need to exchange the rowboat for a much larger dugout canoe to haul back up the river. The Indians, Chuck has assured him, won’t mind them staying the night; the hut he built beside the village, the one he’s lived out of for several month-long stretches, ought to still be there. 

So far, aside from his reaction to the gnat bites—and, he notices now, the persistent rattling vibration he’s still hearing long after the hum of the outboard motor has ceased—the expedition is progressing according to plan. As he takes some jogging steps to catch up to the missionary on the trail, though, he feels that invisible anchor pulling at his neck again, tightening around his throat, as if tethered by a noose. He cranes to look back at the boat yet again—such a flimsy thing, such a tenuous line stretching between this place and everything in the world he knows and loves. He thinks of Laura, of his sister Bess’s subtle intimation that he was deluding himself on the score that his wife actually wants to join him in the field, in the jungle, with a bunch of naked unwashed natives living in mud huts. Shooing away the bareto, he takes another deep breath, closer to a sigh, and continues in step with Chuck toward the village. One thing I did delude myself about, he thinks, is that this would be a good time to cut back on smoking.

Away from the river, in the jungle proper, the heavy wet air suffuses the dark understory, filling the space like its own separate medium, in between a gas and a liquid, through which they’re half walking, half wading. His mouth and nostrils fill with the dank loamy smell of moss and watery soil, tinged with the sickly sweet scent of rot, and he has a sensation of being borne forth on a surging tidal wave of living green, the leafy fibrous substance of the forest, a sensation of being pulled at, tossed about, fraying and melting and disintegrating in the swell’s all-consuming roiling progression—expunging him, casting him farther and farther away from the world of impossible comforts he’s spent his entire life up till now taking relentlessly for granted.

His one comfort is the increasing solidity of the ground rising up to greet his shoes. Sweating so heavily, withstanding the incessant assault of so many insects, in the green immensity of the jungle that thrusts and buzzes and stretches and strangles—whose thronging, thriving existence is alive at every moment with the urgency of its every living cell clamoring to consume, to connect, to continue living, he feels the edges of his personhood blur, evaporating into the soupy air, the contours of his identity devoured by the voracious bugs, shaken to pieces by the inhuman scale of this teeming verdant chaos engulfing him. But with every solid step it’s as if he’s being incrementally reconstituted, fortified in his resolve, his excitement gradually bringing him back to himself.

            Moving along the trail—which, considering the Yanomamö women use it every day, is remarkably hard to discern at many points—Lac feels the field notebook in the back pocket of his trousers, checking to make sure it’s still there, a ritual reassurance, much the way he would often brush the outside of his thumb against the same pocket in other trousers back home to make sure his wallet was securely in place. Each time he touches the notebook, he briefly foresees himself standing amid clusters of skittish Indians, slightly intimidated himself, but with a purpose that shields him, not unlike the way grasping his surveying tools buoyed him as he stood road-side all those long summers during his undergrad years, justifying his idle presence to the countless passing drivers. He feels the notebook and reminds himself of his goals, his research questions, the methodical steps he plans to follow so he can arrive at answers, good solid scientific answers.

Chuck suddenly puts out a halting hand. “Listen,” he says. “You can hear them chanting—they must be calling their spirits.” Straining his ears, Lac has to choke back a cough as something between a burst of exhilaration and a jolt of panic invades his chest, swelling his throat. Okay now, he says quietly to himself, okay easy does it—focus on your research objectives.

            The first task, he rehearses as they continue paddling their way through the undergrowth, is to put them at ease and earn their trust. Chuck will help with that. He can also help at least get you started with the second task, learning the language and developing a scheme for transcribing it. Everything else hinges on the success of these first two steps. It will take a few weeks for you to get established and work out an understanding with them, and you’ll have to acquire sufficient competency with the language to even begin conducting interviews. In the meantime, you’ll observe their daily routines and interactions: food, family, shelter, hygiene, politics, sex, technology, ritual, art. As you gain proficiency with the language, you’ll turn to collecting genealogies, looking for patterns, analyzing the social structure that determines how any one individual is to interact with any other, building up to what will be your own unique contribution to the field of anthropology, your incorporation of the latest evolutionary theories into Structuralist approaches to ethnographic analysis, your introduction, in other words, of Charles Darwin to Claude Levi-Strauss.

            You may already be well into the genealogy phase, he tells himself, by the time Laura and the kids arrive in the country. Eventually, you’ll start to learn about other villages, groups living far deeper in the jungle. You may even be able to travel to villages that have never been contacted before by the missionaries. Imagine it—you’ll be the first white person they’ve ever seen. Then you can start the process over, but this time with a head start because you’ll speak the language and know the rudiments of the culture. Think of all you can accomplish like this in seventeen months. You can have genealogies comprised of hundreds, or even thousands of individuals. You’ll be able to compare ideal family structures to statistical measures of relatedness like no one ever has before, and that’s how you’ll finally break down the wall separating anthropology from biology. That’s how you’ll solve the mystery of how moral systems governed by kinship give way to more abstract notions like citizenship in the formation of early states.

            Distinctly now he hears a loud high-pitched howl. It drags out and drops precipitously down the scale before being drowned out by a similar cry from what must be another man. His mind is frantically awhirl with eager anticipation over what he, and all Westerners, might learn from these wild Indians about what life is really all about, excitement that moment by moment vies with what he hopes is his budding professionalism, one part Boasian chastening about his conception of the natives’ wildness, one part pragmatic disdain for the Rousseauian fantasy of savage wisdom. 

            Chuck has told him about the circular enclosures the Yanomamö live in. They’re actually formed from a series of discrete houses belonging to individual men and their families, wrapping around into a mostly contiguous ring. The central courtyard is the site of various animistic rituals, like the ones they must be engaging in this very moment. Some distance from the enclosure will be the garden they clear by cutting down and burning all the local vegetation. As the two men continue along the trail, emerging into a large open meadow, the howls and cries growing louder all the while, more unmistakably human, Lac tries to imagine being born within a circular pavilion carved out of the jungle, returning to a nearby plot of cultivated land every day for food, knowing nothing of schools and newspapers and motorized vehicles—nothing, anyway, that can’t be gleaned from fantastical rumors delivered from the mouths of the most intrepid travelers.

            When he finally picks out the walls of the enclosure through the foliage, Lac has the sense that they’re negotiating their way stealthily through the brush toward a giant egg, nestled among the trees, as if in the untended lair of some mythical monster, the type you’d expect to find only in a place like this, a land of the lost: lost cities, lost tribes, legendary beasts. As they get closer, though, he realizes that as appropriate as the image of an egg may be, it wouldn’t be any monster inside. No, what’s inside this egg is humanity itself in its embryonic form. His thoughts momentarily whirl again with censures and qualifications, his knowledge of the impropriety of thinking that he’s about to step through a portal back in time to some lost Eden colliding with the thrill of being on the threshold of finally standing face-to-face with the mysterious figures that have so long occupied his thoughts, his studies, his dreams. Hadn’t Levi-Strauss himself made the case, he thinks as the village walls come full into view, that primitive minds hold the key to our natural patterns of logic and thought, their most basic of cultures serving as a sort of bedrock beneath the accumulated layers of institutional precepts, lessons, and ideologies, all our civilized training to live lives so dramatically removed from what was once considered human? Maybe he did, Lac answers himself quietly, but you don’t hear many anthropologists talking like that these days. 

            “There,” Chuck says, pointing to the spot where the trail runs directly into the wall. “That’s where the entrance is. Sometimes they cover the openings with brush like that.”

            The wall is close enough now for Lac to examine its composition. The structure has revealed itself to be far larger than he’d first estimated. These are not the Suyá, he reminds himself, surprised by how much his preparatory research into this other tribe has shaped his expectations. He’d been forced to abandon his plans to study the famously community-minded Suyá by the military coup in Brazil. Much less is known about the Yanomamö; Clemens has actually been the first Westerner to be in sustained contact with them for any length of time. Lac has the passing thought that, the lively ritual that’s audibly going on inside notwithstanding, the stacks of logs making up the lower walls of the enclosure, along with the massive thatched awning, however brittle and egg-like they’d appeared from a distance, must have required a colossal undertaking to build, especially for a group of peaceful horticulturalists. It looks, he reasons, more like a fortification than a simple brace against the weather, leaving him to wonder just how severe the storms in this jungle really are.

            Chuck walks up to the wall near a spot that as they approach resolves into a gap between two discrete sections in the roof of intricately interwoven leaves. He squats down, removes his hat, and drags his sleeve along his dripping forehead. Even amid all his excitement, Lac can’t help smiling at the shine reflecting off the missionary’s bald head through so many tiny beads of sweat. Still squatting as Lac walks up to the division at the back of the conjoined units, Chuck replaces his hat and reaches across the opening to draw away the bunched branches and leaves.

            “Well, Doctor Shackley, this is it,” he says. “You’re about to meet your first Yanomamö. Would you like to do the honors?” He gestures toward the low entrance, which Lac has to crouch down himself to pass through.

            “Actually,” Lac says, “it’s still just Mr. Shackley—at least until I defend the thesis I write based on what happens in here.” As he bounces and scoots sideways through the opening, his knees pulling at his sweat-soaked trousers, he hears Chuck mumble to himself, “The first thing I’ll have to do is find out who all has died since I left.” Lac scowls and starts to turn back to ask what he means, but then he notices a shift in the nature of the vocalizations inside the village. Still huddled uncomfortably in the dark, and leaning to recover his balance after an awkward step, he shuffles and waddles the rest of the way through the short tunnel.

            Before fully emerging back into the sunlight, he hears the stirring of an angry commotion. Just as he’s crawling out of the passage, he’s broadsided, almost knocked backward, by a volley of enraged voices. Before he can rise from his crouch, he squints up to see what are unmistakably the points of arrows, gleaming, dancing, unmistakably aimed at his face and chest. Afraid to move, he remains squatting in the entrance, his mouth gaping uselessly as he’s struck full force by the indecipherability of the men’s shouting. “Uh, Chuck,” he manages to call from the side of his mouth. “We may have a problem.” One of the men darts forward, bringing Lac fully upright as he retreats from the nocked arrow whose length he can all but feel vibrating with the taut creaking tension of the string. Now he sees them, ten or more thickly built men, their faces demoniacally contorted, their noses oozing long dangling strands of green snot, each of them barking meaningless words at him, glaring at him with the purest malice he’s ever been met with. From their eyes and the thick strings of snot, his gaze moves to the hands gripping the straining bows, and back to the arrow points a mere twitch away from impaling him. Mindlessly lifting his hands, he sees that he’s clutching his field notebook, holding it aloft, desperate to have something, anything between him and what he sees are the almost ridiculously long wooden shafts.

            Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the missionary emerge through the low entrance. Chuck is speaking frantically and gesturing toward him. The men’s heads start turning, one, then the others, as they look back and forth between Lac and Chuck, the green snot swinging from their chins. Lac catches sight of a single bow relaxing but simultaneously feels a sudden pull at his pant cuff, something latching onto it and jerking so violently that it sends him momentarily staggering to catch his balance. The sudden movement sets all the bows creaking to life again. He holds his breath, imagining first one, then the entire volley of arrow tips piercing his flesh, thudding into the wood piles behind him. A pack of tawny dogs, underfed to the point of starvation, is weaving in and out from between the men’s legs, taking turns circling toward him and biting at this calves. All he can do is keep trying to kick them away as he continues holding up his hands, the notebook still clutched in one of them, and do everything he can think of to signal his surrender.

            Chuck goes on excitedly jabbering, and as the encounter stretches on, Lac’s frustration at not being able to speak or comprehend builds to a near fury. What the hell is wrong with you people? he wants to shout. I come here to learn about your culture and this is the reception I get? Damn near getting killed? No sooner has the first of the men lowered his bow and stepped away from the group than Lac notices the medley of odors pervading the air. The men’s sweaty bodies, what he swears must be feces, maybe from the dogs, spoiled vegetables, rotting garbage, smoke from charred meat. He doesn’t see when the last of the men finally lower their bows and relax, because he’s turning his face away and covering his nose and mouth with the back of his hand, trying not to retch. 

            Before he can right himself, one of the men steps up to him, smiling, his bottom lip hideously deformed, jutting out from his teeth. But these same lips manage to form words as the man reaches out, not to Lac’s hand but to his arm. He clutches it, as if to see if it’s actually real, to see if beneath the shirt this creature is a flesh and blood man like him. Just like that, they’re all walking up to him and clutching him and patting him, conducting a thorough examination, even sticking their hands into his pockets. “Chuck,” he calls. “Tell them…” he begins, before realizing there’s no sense to what he wants to say. “Tell them they’re hands are dirty.” His clothes are already splotched with green and streaked all over with what looks like red paint. And the smell—he can’t escape the smell.

            Chuck laughs. Laughs! Then he steps closer to Lac and, still smiling grandly, translates his complaint. The men step back, looking either confused or offended—Lac can’t tell which—and one after the other proceed to spit on their hands—slimy dark green saliva—rub them together rigorously, flick them several times in the air, and finally drag them through their hair, leaving gluey shimmering traces in clumped hanks of their thick black strands. This cleansing ritual complete, each in turn takes up his inspection of Lac’s person again, his arms, legs, hair, face, beard, ears. He sees a couple of the men extend the improvised baths to their faces, roughly swiping beneath their noses to remove the festoons of green snot swinging down as far as their chests. But, as the pack of men gradually loosens, Lac feels something like a bubble rising up in his chest, and before he knows it he’s laughing and smiling along with the missionary—and, he realizes, the Yanomamö men as well.

            Chuck begins holding court with three of the men. The others, having wrapped up their far-roaming examinations of his body, start to disperse, returning to the ceremony the two white men had interrupted with their arrival. His heart thumping away as his nervous laughter trails off, Lac is at last free to notice some of the details of his surroundings that fall short of being imminent threats to his life and health. He steps over to stand beside Chuck, who in turn directs his attention to two of the men squatting across from each other near the center of the courtyard. They’re each clutching opposite ends of a straight stick that’s about two or three feet long, one holding it to his nose and the other to his mouth. Lac flinches as a sudden puff of green powder shoots from the opposite nostril of the man holding the stick to his nose. The man winces, reels backward, stands to his full height before leaning forward to rest his hands on his knees and retch loudly. The stick the men were holding must actually be a tube, Lac realizes. They’re blowing drugs up each other’s noses. That’s why they all have the green snot oozing down their faces.

            Lac grins at the resolution of this minor mystery, quietly embarrassed by how quick his mind was to transform the oddity of the men’s appearance into something monstrous. Though it does seem a singularly harsh method of administering a dose, with each man responding as if in acute, if momentary, pain. Of course, that could be the point, he considers, since it’s possible that part of the desired effect comes from a kick of adrenaline. How different would that be from the way we consume a shot of tequila back home?

            The men take turns firing the blow-gun bullets of the drug along the length of each other’s sinuses before returning to their singing and chanting, which is mostly directed skyward, but is sometimes addressed to invisible beings occupying the center of the village with them. They proceed periodically performing dancing lunges at these entities, as if trying to rattle or intimidate them. Lac can only wonder at what the men must be seeing as he stands chagrined by how long it took him to note the dazed expressions signaling their entrancement. Now he takes a moment to look them over thoroughly. They all have some kind of plug pushing out their lower lips, not a plate like the Suyá have, but rather a cylindrical wad, which must be the source of the green in their saliva. Is it tobacco? Lac thinks back to Chuck’s suggestion that the Yanomamö have fewer checks on their impulses. Do they just snort green powder and suck on green tobacco all day?

            Around their foreheads, most of them are wearing a band of dark fur, which along with their jet black hair cut in the customary bowl shape—with circular tonsures shaved at the cap of the skull—make it look like they’re wearing padded helmets. As they rhythmically prance and skirmish with their imaginary adversaries, they appear to Lac like a team of short but burly football players dramatically taunting and goading their rivals. Each man’s face and torso is adorned with a unique pattern of red paint, the same paint that’s smeared all over him now too. But aside from some feathers poking out of bands tied around their upper arms, and some cords running across their backs and around their waists, they’re completely naked. Their penises seem to be fixed to their waist strings by the uncircumcised, stretched foreskin.
  
            Just as Lac is about to interrupt Chuck’s conversation with the three men who have yet to return to the ceremonial dance with the spirits, everyone abruptly freezes and falls silent, turning their gaze toward the far end of the enclosure. Lac pricks his ears to listen for a repetition of whatever caused the sudden alarm, but the only sound now is from a couple of the men whispering to each other as they bound across the village to the far wall. For the first time, he notices some women and children as they retreat in either direction from the shaded spot under the pavilion where the noise emanated. His curiosity inches closer to fear as he catches sight of still more women nervously scurrying about in the shadowy edges of the enclosure. “What’s happening?” he whispers to the missionary.

            Chuck gestures for him to keep silent. As Lac turns his gaze back to the two men who rushed to investigate the sound, around whom several others are now converging, their bows at the ready, the starving dogs circling and agitated, he makes the connection with how he was greeted just minutes earlier. Holy shit, he mumbles to himself. They’re expecting an attack. They thought we were here to attack them. He looks back toward Chuck and sees that he’s as alarmed as the Yanomamö men. Lac grips the notebook tighter in his right hand as he reflexively scans the village for some missing element of the story they’ve walked into the middle of, some cache of food or weapons or riches, anything men from another village might risk life and limb to procure—might kill their neighbors in order to obtain. He sees huge bundles of bananas hanging from the crossbeams of several houses’ awnings. He sees smoke rising up through wooden racks holding small animals—the source of that charred meat smell. But there’s nothing he can imagine would be worth killing anyone over.

            After waiting by the far entrance to the enclosure for some moments, one of the men ducks through to investigate. Next comes laughter and more excited speaking. The men begin milling about, the alarm apparently having proved false. Lac feels a tug on his sleeve, Chuck getting his attention as one of the three men standing with him takes up the conversation again. The man tells the story while the missionary tries to keep up with a simultaneous translation for him. “Another group,” he says, “is visiting Bisaasi-teri, an allied group—this place is called Bisaasi-teri. The other village sought their help because...” The Yanomamö man is unmistakably using his fingers to indicate a number. So their terms for numbers are limited, Lac notes. “Because,” Chuck continues, “a third group, an enemy group, raided them and stole seven of their young women.”

            “What?” Lac says. “They stole women? Like slaves? Do they really do that?”

            But the man continues speaking, ignoring Lac’s befuddled incredulity. Chuck translates, “The men from the allied group petitioned this group to help them get their women back. So they teamed up, traveled to the enemy village, and challenged the men there to a fight—a sort of chest-punching duel.” The storyteller counts off with his fingers again. “They managed to get five of the women back—they’re here now. But the enemy villagers were furious. They vowed to raid Bisaasi-teri, take the girls back, and kill all the men in the process.”

            Lac, recovering briefly from his shock, feels his mouth gaping. To counteract his astonishment, he determines it’s time to start taking notes. Since the man won’t stop yammering on for even a second, Lac finally interrupts him to ask Chuck what his name is. He doesn’t see the blank look this question induces on Chuck’s face at first because he’s busy fussing with his pen, which is refusing to grip the humidity-softened notebook pages enough to issue any actual ink, leaving tracks but no marks. When he finally glances up and sees Chuck looking almost stricken, his frustration ticks up again. “What now?”

            “We can’t speak their names out loud.”

            “We can’t? Why not?”

“I told you, they have a strong taboo against speaking each other’s names, especially the names of dead relatives. They’ll get angry if you say them—violently angry.”

Lac remembers Chuck’s comment when he was first ducking down to enter the village, about having to find out who all had died since the last time he was here. Understanding now what he was getting at, he says, “I thought you meant they use titles—like sir or mister—and they’d get upset if you didn’t address them properly. For chrissakes, my main research objective is to draw up genealogies for everyone in the village—and whatever other villages I can make it to. How am I supposed to create family trees if they’re violently opposed to saying anyone’s name aloud?” The absurdity of his own phrase—research objective—is left hovering in the air.

More men are standing around now, all talking at once, all standing too close, all showing no compunctions about poking or pushing or grabbing him, all seemingly trying to demand something of him. Without realizing it, Lac is being moved in an arc around the edge of the courtyard, as he unconsciously retreats, and retreats again, from the pushy Indians. “Chuck, what do they want?” he finally shouts, his irritation getting the better of him. Before anyone can respond, the whole village falls silent again, all eyes turning toward yet another mysterious sound heard in the vicinity of yet another brush-covered entrance to the enclosure.

            As a group of men rushes over to investigate—or to greet the raiders with a volley of six-foot long arrows—Lac forces himself to take some breaths. In doing so, he ends up taking a massive whiff of burnt meat. Turning, he spots, about thirty feet from where he’s standing, the simple smoker fashioned from what looks like little more than a bunch of long, straight sticks. They must like their meat well-done, he thinks, because they’re burning the hell out of whatever it is. Chuck follows as he quietly approaches the fire, ready to take advantage of the Yanomamö men’s distraction to exchange a few words—assuming they don’t find themselves under attack, forced to seek cover from an enemy camp’s arrows. But, despite the men’s obvious anxiety, Lac can still barely bring himself to believe such a thing is possible.

            He keeps moving toward the smoker, pulled along by a tiny detail he’s noticed about the animals on the crude rack. He advances slowly, as though reluctant to identify the object he’s observing so intently from his safe distance, as though he’s harboring an unwelcome suspicion he’d rather not have confirmed. Just as he’s closing the distance sufficiently, though, he’s startled by a pair of shouts from the men over by the entrance. He gasps, automatically dropping into a crouch. But he quickly sees that the men are smiling, and then laughing. Another false alarm. He turns back to Chuck in time to hear him say, “We sure picked a great time to stop by, huh?” Lac flashes a tense grin before glancing back at the wooden frame. Squinting through the smoke, he sees what are undeniably tiny fingers curling in the shimmers of heat.

            All the queasy vertigo he felt on the boat taking him up the Orinoco over the previous three days returns in an instant. Squeezing his eyes shut, he feels his hand rise of its own accord to cover his mouth. If I thought I was heading for Eden, he thinks, I took one hell of a wrong turn somewhere. Chuck, witnessing his response, looks at the contents of the smoking rack himself. “Looks like they’ll be having smoked monkey meat for supper,” he says, guessing at Lac’s mistake. Lac looks back and plainly sees for himself that the creatures aren’t babies that have been killed by the Yanomamö, however human-like their cooked hands appear. It’s the first moment of genuine relief he’s felt since first squatting down to go through the entrance to the village. He shakes his head, grinning, and even lets loose a few halfhearted chuckles.

            “We may be in some real danger here, Shackley,” Chuck says as he scans the edges of the enclosure. “It would probably be a good idea for us to go back to the boat and sleep on the other side of the river tonight.”

            As much as I hate what this man is trying to do here, Lac thinks, as much as I hate everything he and his friends stand for, no one will ever hear a word against him coming from my mouth. “That sounds like a spectacular idea to me,” he says. Both men laugh now. But Lac’s next thought is of his wife and their two small kids. How can I bring them here and keep them safe if I’m not even safe myself? His next thought is still more troubling. Do I even want to stay here myself? How can I possibly live with these people for any length of time? He remembers his sister Bess’s admonition after they’d both said their farewells to each other: “Don’t get yourself killed in the jungle because you’re too damned stubborn to let anything go.” He’d turned to see the look of worry on Laura’s face as she climbed into his truck. “Seriously,” Bess went on, “now would be a good time to learn how to recognize a lost cause when you see one.” 

Continue reading: The Land of the Lost Ironies: He Borara: Chapter 3
Also 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).

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