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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Roof Leaf Village: He Borara Ch 4.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bisaasi-teri. Roof Leaf Village.

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

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

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

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

How comfortable are you lying to them?

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

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

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

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

Ah, but you know damn well why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma!”

“Yababuji.”

“Ma!!”

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

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

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

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

Lac laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I say? I needed to intimidate them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all have our low moments.

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

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