Family Time in Boca Mavaca: He Borara: Chapter 16

River by the Esmeralda airstrip
Such an obvious item to overlook: kids need someplace to play.

The oversight occurs to Lac while they’re on the river motoring up the Orinoco to the Mouth of the Mavaca. He did his best to prepare Dominic and Kara for the rude handling they’d be subjected to, and as expected the Iyäwei-teri surrounded the single-prop plane as soon as it came to a halt on the dirt runway alongside the Ocamo mission outpost. Here was Laura and the kids’ first encounter with the Yąnomamö. Laura struck the men as gawp-inducingly beautiful and her features cause for fervid scrutiny and animated discussion: those gleaming eyes, that soft fly-away hair, that ghostly complexion. Lac, despite himself, beamed with pride.

Even as he did his best to evince an air of calm, when the examinations commenced, his body went tense. Fortunately, it wasn’t the men but the women who felt the need to physically examine this nabä female, checking whether she had the same basic parts they do. Lac well remembered how it felt to suffer from the lack of concern Yąnomamö show for their specimens’ space and dignity as they satisfy their natural inquisitiveness with greedy disregard. Glimpsing Laura’s expression, he felt his anger surge. Hold off, he told himself. You talked to her about this. It’s uncomfortable but they aren’t hurting her.

Dominic sunk into a weirdly docile silence as his head was grabbed, his hair pinched and pulled—not roughly—by dozens of hands belonging to people who’d never seen a toe head before, or a bar of soap. Kara the whole time leaned against his leg, her hands gripping his trousers. Any untoward handling of her might have dashed his resolve, but the Iyäwei-teri were merely curious, as he can expect the Bisaasi-teri to be. One young man asked him what his children’s names are. Lac leaned in close to his ear and answered in a whisper, conveying to everyone how precious his family is to him, in case they couldn’t glean as much from his protective glare. The man responded by asking if he could have Kara, and Lac treated the question as a joke, though he couldn’t tell if it was intended as such.

After Laura and the kids had endured the interesting ordeal of first introductions, Lac brought them to the compound to meet Padre Morello, who welcomed them with his usual charm and eloquence. The kids took to him immediately, not least because he no sooner learned their names than offered them suckers—an indulgence he probably greets the Iyäwei-teri children with too. They spent the night at the Ocamo outpost, Laura staying up to hear the padre’s war stories as Lac nodded off in a musty but delightful old recliner.

Now it’s midmorning in the buzzing outboard on the glittering Orinoco, they’re maybe an hour from their destination, and legions of worrying details descend on his mind. The Malarialogìa men have confirmed his casual observation of an uptick in cases of the sickness: “Si, it’s a bad year, too many people living close to rivers.” On top of that, the dry season is beginning—and drying trails means increased risk of raids. Who knows how many villages he or his Bisaasi-teri friends have pissed off over the past few months? But it’s the play space oversight that bothers him most because, had he thought of it, he could have easily devised a solution. The kids can’t play in the tall grass between the hut and the Mavaca’s bank; that’s where all the snakes are hiding. He thinks of Horeshemowa hopping around the plaza like a man on a pogo stick, and of all the children in his files who died of snakebite, two since his arrival a year ago. Neither he nor their mother has any chance of spotting a snake approaching them if they’re playing in the grass. But they can’t stay in his moldy hut all day every day. So where are they to go?

Lac feels a prick from his still-active Boasian conscience as he dismisses out of hand the idea of letting his children play inside the shabono, where the Yąnomamö children play. They’d be harassed for one thing, as all outsiders are, but they may be in for still more severe mistreatment if the other kids get it in their heads that these miniature nabäs can be shaken down for their richer food or their manufactured toys. Who knows which of the grownups, for that matter, may decide to take one, or both, of Shaki’s children hostage, demanding shotguns or motorized canoes—or Laura—as ransom. No, he needs to keep them separate, the way Clemens and the other missionaries have. So where will they play?

He’s envisioning a new project of clearing a swath in the grass when it occurs to him he’s already participated in just such an enterprise. A few weeks ago, he helped Clemens scythe down a square area with machetes, a space they then covered in sand by the bucket-full hauled in from the river bottom by a bunch of Bisaasi-teri children and teenagers. It’s where the Clemens family is keeping its chickens now, a coup surrounded by a small wire fence. Dominic and Kara could use it as a big sandbox. No snake would dare expose itself by going after them there.

Lac smiles, not just for the eminently simple solution to the pending crisis, but because he’s remembering how nice it can be riding in the front of a dugout, away from the brain-scrambling hum of the motor, with the breeze on your face brushing away the bugs, and the penetrating beams of the sun punctuated in their deadly drubbing by the protective shade of the paternally looming trees leaning out over the banks. Combined flocks of macaws and parakeets race gracefully across the river ahead, a dance of brilliant color in the drab wash of green and brown. You can even see gatherings of flitting butterflies along the shore, celebrating their brief lives by breaking the bounds of gravity with the sheer lightness of their delicate and short-lived bodies.

Laura turns back to shout something to him he doesn’t hear, the words drowned out not so much by the motor as by the arresting loveliness of her exhilarated smile. The way her hair twists in the wind sends a shiver of startling gratitude down his spine. I’m motoring up the Orinoco with my children and my impossibly beautiful wife, he thinks, returning with them to the intriguing village I’m studying, peopled with fascinating individuals making up a society of immense scientific importance. This is what you dreamed of for yourself, everything you wanted.

Now you just need to make it work.

The kids have fevers. They have swollen welts on their arms and backs. Laura, on this day two in the field, looks like she hasn’t slept in a week. The bareto frenzied around his children the moment they docked. Lac had forgotten his own fever back when he first arrived; a reaction to the multitude of bites. For him, it was easy—or he doesn’t recall the difficulty anyway—to accept the discomfort while remaining confident his body would acclimate, as the Indians’ bodies must have. Seeing Dominic and Kara sick, though, is the purest agony. Laura, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to be reacting as badly to the bites. Her condition stems from nonstop worry.

“Did you manage to sleep at all last night?” Lac asks as he’s unpacking dishes and supplies to make oatmeal. He slept in twenty-minute intervals himself and doesn’t imagine he’ll leave the hut much today.
“Oh, I got some,” Laura lies.

“The bites,” Lac says, “they get inflamed at first—I don’t remember how long I was here before they stopped raising the welts. The fever I think only lasted a few days for me.” A few days, he repeats in his mind guiltily: that’s a long time for kids so young to be sick.

“Were you continually exposed to these gnat bites that whole time?”

“I must have been.” Already those earliest days are an incoherent smear of images he can only loosely arrange into chronological sequence. He’d have to consult his notebooks, as sketchy as they are on those kinds of details, to tell his own story.

“So if we keep them indoors and under the mosquito nets until their fevers break, will they get sick again as soon as they step outside and start getting bit again?”

“I don’t think so.” He should have a better answer for this. “I think the fever is an immune response to some mild toxin the bareto deliver with their bites. Whether you’re getting bitten continually or not, your body probably makes the same adjustment.”

With her bleary eyes, she signals the skepticism his improvised answer deserves. “I just hope they haven’t picked up anything more serious than the bites,” she says. Lac hears a rebuke: How could you let these people handle our children so aggressively? And me too? As anticipated, Dominic and Kara received the same hands-on examinations from the Bisaasi-teri as they had from the Iyäwei-teri the day before. He decides against telling her the inspections he underwent himself were more thorough; the Yąnomamö must be showing some restraint out of deference to him.

“What will you do today?” Laura asks.

“Today I’ll stick around and help you work out your routines for getting water and food and other necessities. Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll go back to the shabono and start doing more interviews with the headman.”

Laura keeps looking over at the ladder upstairs. Even though Dominic and Kara are safely tucked away in the troja, her uneasiness about their surroundings is making it hard for her to relax with them out of sight. “I’m going to wake the kids,” she says.

“Good, we can walk them through everything they need to know again—and we can show them the sandbox.” Clemens was here yesterday when they arrived, and he agreed letting the children play in his chicken coup was a good idea. His own daughter is older than Lac’s kids, and she travels with her father most of the time. Clemens is forever ferrying Yąnomamö kids about, mostly back and forth to Tama Tama. He says the New Tribes may be reassessing their plan to set up another school in Bisaasi-teri, now that the Salesians are working on a permanent presence here. Once again, the Catholics are forcing the Protestants to retreat. This disappoints Lac, though he’d just as soon have missionaries of every stripe expunged from the territory. Of course, if the missionaries weren’t around, he’d have a much harder time doing his own work, and he may not be able to do many parts of it at all. But there you go, he thinks; moral considerations get as tangled out here as the lianas.

Lac stands up from where he’s been squatting by the kerosene stove to help Laura descend the final steps of the ladder with Kara in her arms. She still has a fever, not high it seems, and lifting her shirt reveals welts that are still angry. Laura flashes him a look that has him quietly enumerating the necessary steps to get them back to Ocamo, and from there back to Caracas, on the shortest possible timescale. But that’s silly. The kids will be fine in a day or two; any long canoe journey could be a detriment to their convalescence.

Dominic climbs down on his own and glances groggily about the hut. “I can’t believe this is where you’ve been living,” he says sitting down at the table. Lac goes back to the stove and the complicated, multistage process of preparing a simple meal—this time for four instead of one. “Do you spend every night here?” Dominic asks.

Touching his forehead, Laura reports, “His fever already feels like it’s going down.”

“That’s good,” Lac says. “I did stay here almost every night for the first few months. Lately, though, I’ve been spending most nights in some pata’s—that’s what the Yąnomamö call an important man—some pata’s yahi. The yahis are the lean-to houses that form the circular shabono you saw yesterday. Lots of interesting stuff happens in the shabonos at night and in the early morning.” Lac has in mind couples stealing away in the predawn hours for illicit trysts in the gardens, so he’s hoping Dominic doesn’t ask what sort of things he means.

            “I would stay in the yahis too if I had to live here for a long time,” he responds instead.

This response isn’t to Lac’s liking either. He worries he may be setting a precedent by sticking around after breakfast. He’s also worried about spoiling his family with the canned soup he plans to make for lunch; he’s brought plenty of easily prepared meals—expensive, heavy to haul around—to help ease their transition to the more spartan diet he’s been living on. Already, though, he feels pressure from Laura, who has yet to say a word in complaint, pushing him in the direction of providing more, not fewer, creature comforts. Meanwhile, his work with Mobaräkäwa, while ostensibly on hold, remains at the forefront of his thoughts. Listening to Laura explain his work again to the kids, Lac lets his mind wander next to Mishimishimaböwei-teri, a place he’ll probably never reach—at least not on this stint in the field.

“Daddy,” Kara says, “why don’t you bring these people clothes and soap?”

Lac and Laura laugh together.

“You know, little bug, I often think about doing just that. Remember some of the people at Iyäwei-teri, the village by the Ocamo mission where you met that nice priest, some of the people there were wearing t-shirts and shorts. I’ve asked them why they like these clothes and they said it helps keep the gnats and mosquitoes off their skin.”

Kara wrinkles her brow in concentration before saying, “You should fill up your canoe with shirts for them.”

“You know, maybe someday I will.”

Dominic turns in his chair now to ask, “Why does that man we met yesterday only have one leg?”
“That’s Horeshemowa—but remember never to say his name aloud. He was bitten by a snake a long time ago, and they don’t have antivenin like we do, so his leg got really bad and eventually had to be amputated.” Lac doesn’t want to scare his kids by telling them the leg rotted off; amputation seems a nicely abstracted alternative.

“Antivenom saves you when you get bit by a snake, right?”

“Yes, it counteracts the venom”—no need to go into the proper pronunciation.

“You should bring a whole canoe-full of antivenom then, instead of t-shirts.”

“I have given some to a few Yąnomamö already, but it’s really expensive. And I’ve come out here to learn about their way of life, so I can’t interfere with how they would be living if I wasn’t here.”

“But you can’t let their legs get ampulated, Daddy,” Kara says.

“No, I can’t, and I’ll help anyone I can. But I’m an anthropologist, not a medical doctor.”

“You should bring a whole canoe-full of doctors sometime, Dad,” Dominic says.

Lac looks down at the mud floor. “There will be a team of doctors coming in the spring,” he says at last, thinking, yes, son, you’ve nailed it: these people don’t need anthropologists, and they certainly don’t need missionaries. Doctors are what they could use more than anything—doctors and medicine by the boatload. “What you have to understand is that the Yąnomamö have their own ways of curing sickness, ways that are based on their own beliefs. I’ll always try to help when I can, but what I’m out here to do is learn about their beliefs and their customs, not introduce ours to them.”

“I’m going to tell them the best way to get better when you’re sick is to go to a doctor,” Dominic says.

Lac smiles. “I’d be interested in how they respond to that—I bet they don’t believe you.”

Lac is watching the kids chase the chickens in the sandy coup. He’s sent Laura to the hut’s troja for a nap after making sure she doesn’t have a fever herself. Kara’s fever has gone down, but he notes her play is still subdued. Or does he? He’s barely seen her this past year, only for four weeks out of fifty-two. Now, after all that time away, he catches himself looking for patterns and meanings in his own children’s behavior, an ethnographer in the sandbox. Dominic swats at bugs, gets a twinkle—a glint?—in his eye before darting after a hen. He’s out of breath almost immediately. It’s the humidity. Plus he probably has a mild fever still. When he kneels and returns to his feet, the sand clings to his shins in wide flat clumps. The sand that seemed so fine when it was first spread a few weeks ago must have somehow become mingled with the surrounding dirt. How that could happen is beyond him, though, when the coup is surrounded by tall grass with what must be a vast root network anchoring the soil in place.

Kara sits and squeals, half in fright half in delight, as her brother drives a chicken to within a foot of where she sits before it veers away to evade its monstrous tormentor. The play stops when the chants start overflowing the walls of the shabono some thirty yards from the coup. Lac turns, his eyes picking out the passage into the plaza. His children turn to look as well. What would happen, he wonders, if I brought them into the courtyard right now? They’d get to see the shabori with the strings of green snot dangling from their noses. They’d get to see the dancing impersonations of the hekura, and I could explain the meanings behind all the strange behaviors on display.

He turns back toward the sandbox with a faint smile. The fact is, the men are too unpredictable when they’re bombed out of their minds on their ebene. It’s dangerous enough for him. He simply can’t take the chance with his children, which means his work will go undone until other arrangements can be made. Maybe if Clemens and his wife and daughter were here—

“Daddy, why do their songs sound like that?” Kara asks.

“Like what, honey?”

“They sound like they want to cry.”

“Their language is more nasal than ours—more of the sounds they make come from closer to their noses. To our ears, it sounds like they’re whining or complaining sometimes.” And sometimes, oftentimes, almost all the time, they really are complaining: about how desperately they need some item in your possession. But however whiny they sound, they still manage to be intimidating as hell, like petulant children with the strength of burly men.

Lac is sitting with his children on the springy palmwood floor of his troja when he hears his wife scream the type of scream that signals his worst fears being realized. She’s recently woken from her long nap and gone downstairs to use the shower for the first time. Lac scrambles to his feet and pushes his kids up against the wall by the ladder, saying, “Close this hatch after me, and don’t open it for anyone but me or mom.”

He grabs the ladder’s supports and slides down over the rungs, splinters biting into his palms, and lands on the mud floor with a jarring thud whose reverberations blend with a second scream. Scanning the shadowy room, he sees nothing but mud walls, a cluttered table, and rickety chairs. The shotgun still leans against the wall by the door where he left it when he came back inside with Dominic and Kara. Laura’s third shriek sounds from the shower as Lac takes up its steal and polished wood heft. Throwing back the door, he expects to find Laura grappling with a huya who considered it good fun hiding in wait for her at her most exposed. But all he sees is Laura, still dry but hugging herself, knees bent, hysterical.

“Baby, what is it?”

She points. Though he was on the cusp of releasing a torrent of castigations for scaring the hell out of him, he recoils when he sees the source of her fright. Quivering, Laura stammers, “It-it just crawled out from under the mat, right when I first stepped on it.”

Lac leans the shotgun against the wall outside the mud-closet shower then steps back in, unlacing his boot. The spider has made it two feet up the wall, its undulating legs covered with bristling black hairs and spanning an area the size of a woman’s hand. As he races to position the boot over the darting target and press down with lethal dispatch, he feels the give of the carapace through the sole near the toe. It splats with a squishy crunch, like the sound of a massive cockroach smashed underfoot, drawing another whimper from Laura.

Trying to scoop up the nightmarish brown and black hairy remains with the bottom of the boot, Lac quickly realizes his efforts are hopeless. At least the wall is made of mud, he thinks, or this would make for a gruesome stain. He steps out of the shower, past Laura, who has wrapped herself in a towel, and picks up a dirty rag from the table. As he scoops and dabs at the smear, he contemplates his approach to reassuring Laura of her safety. Should I tell her to go bathe in the river for now if she’s too scared to go back in? The whole point of the shower, he reminds himself, was to make it so she didn’t have to wash in the open. Plus, who knows what creatures are lurking beneath the surface of that damn river? The Bisaasi-teri tell of a child being suddenly pulled under by an anaconda the year before I arrived.

Lac goes outside to dispose of the spider’s splattered wreckage. “Thanks a lot,” he mutters as he flings it into the tall snake-infested grass. “You have no idea of the trouble you’ve caused me.” He can’t stop a smile from inching lopsidedly over his face. “I guess I caused you a bit of a problem too—though I also kind of solved every problem you ever had.”

Stepping back inside the hut, he sees, to his amazement, Laura has reentered the shower and unclamped the hose to release the stream of water from the tank. That’s my girl, he thinks, though he knows he hasn’t heard the last of the incident. Remembering how he left Dominic and Kara, he rushes back to the ladder to climb up and tell them everything’s okay. Because everything is okay. No need to explain the streaks of blood on the rails from the barely perceptible lacerations on his palms—they probably won’t notice.

“I hate to tell you, Shackley,” Clemens says, “but I don’t think that’s mud—I’m pretty sure that’s chicken droppings your kids have all over their hands and knees.”

It’s early evening and Lac has taken Dominic and Kara out to the sandbox—the shitbox—for one last half hour of play before trapping them indoors for the night. Lac does the calculation: four chickens over four weeks. Yes, Clemens is right; that’s not mud caking their skin. He wastes his next thought wishing Chuck hadn’t shared this revelation within earshot of Laura, who is standing on the adjacent side of the fence conversing with Judy.

“Good lord, Lachlan!” she cries. “We have to get them out of there and into the that shower of yours to wash them up.”

That shower of yours—apparently, it’s already become a joke between her and Judy.

            “Kara, come on,” Lac calls, “it’s time for your shower.” She turns reluctantly. “Dominic, you too, buddy.” Lac claps his hands to forestall any whining appeals for another few minutes of play. “Come on, we have to get inside before it gets dark.” He’s marching the kids back to the hut, steeling himself for the tirade his wife will unleash once they’re alone, yet he notes a pall of silence hanging over the shabono. What could be going on in there? He curses quietly. No matter, your biggest concern now is figuring out where your children can play tomorrow—without covering themselves in feces.

Lac lies awake in his hammock. Nothing is working the way it should, the way he needs it to, and every path he travels in his mind hoping to reach a solution runs into a dead end around its first bend. Tomorrow he’ll start clearing a space for another sandbox for the children, one they won’t have to share with chickens and their scat, but the coup he and Clemens and the huyas built took a couple weeks to finish. What are his kids supposed to do while construction is in the offing, stay in this moldy mud hut with its lone window all day, every day? And can he even count on more help from Clemens, who’s in Tama Tama more than half the time, or the huyas, who are as fickle as teenagers anywhere?

He rolls on his side, stifling a groan, folding his spine uncomfortably as one must when trying to sleep on his side in a hammock. Two weeks on a soft mattress atop box springs in Caracas has spoiled him, undone the progress he’d made getting accustomed to sleeping through the night contentedly on his mesh-cradled back. As he twists and stretches, he sees a light come on through his eyelids. Parting them, he picks out Laura’s silhouette; she’s holding up a flashlight. He can’t make out her expression for the contrast, but he intuits her worry. She’s pointing the beam toward the rafter supporting the wall, the same one holding up Dominic’s hammock. Lac squints, peering intently at the illuminated area, but can’t make anything out.

After training the light on the same vacant spot for a half minute, she clicks it off and lies back down. Without any possibility of glimpsing them in the blackened troja, Lac knows her eyes are still wide open. “Laura honey,” he whispers, “what are you looking for?”

“Oh, don’t worry. Go back to sleep.”

            “Did you hear something?”

“It’s nothing. We can talk about it in the morning.”

I can’t go back to sleep, he thinks, when I was never asleep in the first place—and if it’s nothing then how the hell are we going to talk about it in the morning? He closes his eyes, annoyance joining forces in his mind with the frenzy of hopeless problem-solving to ensure another night’s wakefulness. I should go easy on her, he tells himself; she’s trying to let me have some peace to work out one issue before dumping another on me. Plus, remember what it was like when you first came here? Sure, you’ve made it easier on her than you had it, but you still have to give her some time to adjust.

He rolls onto his back again and takes in a measured breath, trying to turn the heat down on the anxieties roiling his mind like a kettle of water set to boil. As he listens for the sounds of his kids breathing, he hears the skittering critters scraping their tiny appendages along the dried leaves rolled and interlaced into the thatch roofing. Then there’s another sound: the insect legs being supplanted by the grasping of clawed toes. He listens as he slips down through the first layer of sleep, blissfully, only to be plunged back into a world of pink and red—light penetrating his eyelids once again.

This time he has a hunch what Laura is up to. “Baby, they never come down from up there. I see them all the time, but they’ve never once bothered me.”

“But, Lachlan, I’ve heard stories of rats attacking children in their sleep. It happens all the time in big cities like New York.”

“So what are you going to do? Stay up all night and shine the light on them every time they get close to the ropes holding up the hammocks?”

She doesn’t answer. That’s precisely what she’s planning to do. That’s what she did last night as well, which is why she was exhausted all day.

Lac swings his legs out of the mesh and lifts the mosquito netting to duck under it. “Is it just Dominic? Or do you think they might go after Kara too?” Much as he hates to wake his soundly sleeping kids, ten minutes later they’re both contorting and writhing in a futile effort to create a comfortable space for their bodies, each alongside one their parents. Twenty minutes more and it’s clear none of them will be getting any sleep this night.

Morning: Lac tiptoes down the ladder after Laura, leaving Dominic and Kara sleeping in the protective rays of the morning sun issuing through the gable window, finally content not to have their parents’ bodies to contend with in the hammocks. Lac’s eyes ache and his limbs weigh heavy. It’s going to be a long day. After guiltily fantasizing for a moment about how splendid it would be if his family were back in Caracas, he wrestles his attention back onto his plans for the construction of a new sandbox. Then there’s this new matter of the rats. Not convinced the jungle rodents represent a true danger, he figures he should begin by visiting the shabono to ask the Bisaasi-teri if they know of any attacks and what they generally do to avoid them. He hasn’t come across any deaths by rat bite in his surveys, but it can be difficult getting information on dead infants. It’s like the Yąnomamö prefer to go on as though they never existed. He doesn’t blame them.

As he’s taking up his pants to step into them, he’s wondering who and how he might ask diplomatically after the fate of Rariwi’s vanished newborn. But in the next moment he’s jumping from one foot to the other and yanking his leg back out of his pants. He felt something moving in there, something hairy. Reviewing his recent memory, he confirms he did indeed give the pants his habitual two shakes to dislodge any uninvited occupants. Yet here he is looking down at not one but two spiders, of the same species as the one that menaced Laura in the shower yesterday, only slightly smaller. Panting, he bends down to take up his boot before whirling back around to dispatch them both, creating the familiar gooey popcorn crunch.

Laura is watching him with appropriate solicitousness, but making him feel as though he has stumblingly revealed some shameful secret. “I’ve never seen any spiders of this species the whole time I’ve been here,” he says, “not until yesterday.”

“Let’s check the kids’ clothes,” she says, her red-rimmed eyes eloquent of her exhaustion but otherwise inscrutable.

Lac searches for some words of comfort, but he suspects whatever he says will only reinforce her misgivings. After turning Dominic’s and Kara’s clothes inside out and inspecting their every fold and seam, Lac tells her he’s going to the shabono to inquire after their customary methods for warding off rats who target children.

With dark swollen eyelids and slowed steps, he enters the passageway and emerges into the plaza to a chorus of boisterous greetings. “Shaki, where have you been? Nobody’s been around to pester us and make us laugh at his stupidity.” He smiles, suffused by the relief of returning to his proper element.

Is this my proper element? God help me.

He asks Mobaräkäwa’s brother, who’s recovered nicely from his snakebite, about whether rats ever attack Yąnomamö children. “Ma, Shaki, infants sleep with their mothers close to the hearth, and young boys like to shoot at the rats with their tiny arrows, so they never hang around the yahis long.”

“Ma, Shori, you aren’t serious! Do the boys really help keep the rats away?” Children are already gathering, as is their wont whenever he steps into the plaza, and he searches for a boy he knows is always eager to participate. “Owa, would you like to stay in my hut over the next few nights? I’d have you bring your bow and arrows, and I’d give you an item from my store of madohe for every dead rat you give me in the morning.”

The boy leaps, overjoyed. “Will you give me a machete and an ax for two rats?”

“Ma, I’ll give you fishhooks and line.”

The boy ponders this before saying, “Awei, Shaki, I’ll tell my cousins as well.”

The boys used to get a kick out of calling him Shaki because it seemed like they were getting away with addressing an adult male by name. But now no one seems to think much of it—the name virtually stands in place of a kinship term. Lac laughs with the children who boast of how many rodents they’ll kill, how big they’ll be, how much blood will splash over the mud walls. He basks in their excitement over the promise of a new game, one with wonderful prizes, and then he continues dawdling to ask after the most recent gossip—lots of visitors from Shamatari, a couple who’ve even said they want to talk to him. It’ll have to wait, though.

Leaving the shabono, he feels a weight returning, one he hadn’t realized was pressing down on him until being relieved of it for a time. He’s learned how to live in the field. He can stay alive, sane, and relatively healthy while also getting his work done—most days. What he can’t do is work while simultaneously taking care of Laura and the kids. They’re soaking up all his time and mental resources, keeping him awake all night, and taxing his nerves with endless minor crises. How does Clemens manage it? Well, Lac thinks, for one, he’s seldom here in Bisaasi-teri for long. And, two, his work with the Yąnomamö is hardly as intensive as mine, consisting mainly in recruiting kids for trips to Tama Tama in his dugout. Plus, his daughter is older—and she’s an only child.

Approaching the door of his hut, he shakes his head, quietly grumbling. It’s hopeless, he thinks, but I need this to work. How can I map out an entire tribal history, putting in years of fieldwork, if all the while I’m abandoning my family, or marooning them in a foreign city? No, it’s just going to take some ingenuity. You’re just going to have to keep working at figuring out some solutions.

As he steps into the darkened space inside, he sees Laura quickly readjusting her posture at the table, giving every indication his entrance has just snapped her awake. He thinks, God, she’s a wreck. Whatever else I do, I have to make sure she gets a good night’s sleep tonight.

Lac takes Dominic and Laura for a boat ride on the Mavaca, out into the Orinoco, and back into the Mavaca. He looks upriver, wondering if the legendary Mishimishimaböwei-teri could really be reachable by simply traveling along this course for a few days. All day, he worked at scything the tall grass for the kids’ next play area and now it’s time to relax and get them out of that mildew-infested hut. The sky overhead virtually creaks with knobby gray clouds straining to maintain their cool but obviously set to burst their seams. Dominic and Kara will experience their first jungle storm. He wonders briefly if he should try to smuggle them into the shabono to see the shabori raging at the winds like so many black-capped naked Lears, but thinks better of it. Plenty of chances for that later. For now, it’ll be easiest on their mother if we keep them safe indoors.

Dominic leans his head out over the bow as Kara firmly grasps the gunnel beside him. Lac watches as his son cranes to shout something back to him, but the sound is drowned out by the motor’s gurgling drone. In the cooling air washing over the craft, Lac feels his body filling with a miraculous warmth. I’m so glad they’re finally here, he thinks, so glad I get to see them every day, and they get to see me. How did those explorers of the last century do it, jaunt off for years on end knowing their families were languishing at home?

He recalls his earliest days at Bisaasi-teri, when he used to launch the boat and motor out to the middle or the far side of the river to steal an hour’s reprieve from the Yąnomamö’s incessant hectoring. The memory makes him chuckle. You couldn’t have picked a more difficult group to study, he mutters. But how could you have known? Maybe that’s how all—or nearly all—tribal societies are: violent, status-obsessed, revenge-obsessed, misogynist. If you’d known beforehand, would you have chosen some other society to embed yourself in? What might you have thought of the Suya if the coup hadn’t broken out in Brazil and you’d ended up with them?

Dominic stands and waddles his way precariously back toward where his father leans down steering the boat. “Are there piranhas in these rivers?”

“Yes, but I haven’t see any. I hear there are electric eels too, but you don’t run into them much.” No point in telling him about the anacondas, one of which may have taken a child not much younger than him the year before last.

“Dad, how long are we going to stay here? It’s not like what I thought it would be.”

“Oh no, champ. You aren’t ready to leave already, are you?” Lac fells a subterranean grinding under his lungs—a buried genuine version of the hurt he’s feigning on the surface.

“No—I don’t know. I’m just wondering how long we’ll be in this place before it’s time to go home.”

Home, curious concept. Does he mean IVIC or Ann Arbor? “Well, it’s November now. I need to be here to help Dr. Nelson with his team’s genetics research in March, so count with me: December, January, February, March—about four months. Do you think you can handle living here with me that long?”

Dominic doesn’t answer; he looks ahead, past his sister, out over the prow. Lac looks up at the clouds. He thinks he heard rumbling in the sky, mirroring the tectonic grating under his heart, but the motor masked the sound. Time to pull back into the dock anyway.

The gales collide with the outer wall of the hut like men taking turns trying to shoulder the whole thing down. That would be perfect, that or the roof lifting off the damn place, he thinks as he watches the multiple streams of rainwater trickling through the thatch like the bejeweled strands of a beaded curtain in far-flung disarray. The kids are huddled together with their mom along the wall separating the main room from the storage area, with its reinforced supports, the safest spot in the hut. Neither Dominic nor Kara has ever been especially skittish before a storm, or has ever shuddered teary-eyed as it loosed its destructive potential. But this is different. It’s as though the cauldron heat of the jungle conduces to a deeper rage, in both the men inhabiting it and the storms they must endure, and the kids have yet to begin thinking of this mud-walled structure as any kind of sanctuary. They don’t know how sturdy it is—for all they know, it could be like the chairs he’s constantly breaking. Lac himself is confident the walls will withstand the onslaught of battering winds; he has only minor doubts about the roof staying put, remembering all too vividly the huge section of the shabono’s roofing he saw sucked into the air during that first storm he witnessed in Bisaasi-teri.

Wanting to talk, though he’d have to shout to be heard, he considers telling Laura and the kids about that incident but realizes it would only scare them. He glances over at his rucksack, where he’s stuffed the tape recorder, and wonders what he might be able to pick up on it were he to brave the thirty yards to the shabono and enter the plaza. He still hasn’t attempted to record the Yąnomamö’s arguments with the inclement weather. His job for now though is to comfort his children, and his wife. So he stands from the table, where he’s been ostensibly at work on his charts but in reality too preoccupied to do much of anything with them, and steps over to where they’re all three sitting together on a blanket, away from where the leaks have produced slick spots on the formerly dried mud floor.

“These storms whip up a frenzy,” he shouts, “but they usually peter out just about the time you’re convinced the whole forest is going to be uprooted.”

Laura locks eyes with him, giving him a look that sends his goofy smile into cardiac arrest, making it collapse in a rigid heap. His shoulders tingle and his chest feels bored out, like a damned log canoe. The jig is up. It’s time to start thinking about how to get them out of here. Maybe a visit to Padre Sanchez is in order, or a direct radio call from the shortwave Laura bought, to find out from Morello what arrangements can be made and how soon.

But no damn it!

He whips his chin to one side in his frustrated determination, trying to conceal the motion by turning to lean his back against the wall beside his family. He continues holding up pronouncements and stories in his mind, weighing them for their potential to sooth and distract, but none seems right so he remains sitting with them in silence, except for the maelstrom building to a crescendo and then almost hypnotically fizzling out. See, he wants to say, over before it gets too scary.

Just about the moment the clouds are releasing their final drops, three overexcited boys can be heard chatting through the door. They don’t knock. “Shaki,” they call through the curiously hinged wide wooden plank, “let us in so we can kill all your rats before they kill your children.”

Lac catches himself laughing at the joke. “What are they saying?” Laura asks.

“They’re telling me to let them in and they’re bragging about how they’ll kill so many rats they’ll drive them to extinction.” She flashes him that skeptical look that every time convinces him she can tell with certainty whenever he’s lying. He turns and unlatches the door.

“Shaki, that storm nearly ripped open my uncle’s yahi. His enemies’ hekura must be powerful and fierce, but Uncle called to his own hekura and they chased the enemies’ away. My uncle’s must be more powerful than any that ever existed.” Lac translates accurately and Laura’s expression softens. He tells the boys to go on up and get started clearing out the vermin.

“Dad,” Dominic says, “I want to shoot rats with a bow and arrow too.”

“Okay, buddy. Tomorrow we’ll see if we can’t find you a bow so you can start practicing, but it’s too late tonight. You and your sister need to go to bed.”

“But, Dad—how come those kids get to stay up?”

How to explain to him bedtime doesn’t work the same for the Yąnomamö? Lac thinks back to all the times someone from the shabono decided to visit him in the middle of the night—to beg for madohe, to tell him a joke, just to ease some boredom. He sees these same men the next day and marvels at how they manage to look completely fresh, as though they haven’t missed a wink. That the Yąnomamö laze and snooze throughout the afternoon must be part of the trick, though Lac can’t help surmising differences in their brains’ wiring to allow for such erratic schedules.

“Well, Nicky, those kids are a bit older, and if they’re here I imagine their parents gave them special permission”—more like their mothers simply made sure they hadn’t been carried off by jaguars before rolling into their hammocks. “But I’m the one who’s responsible for you—me and your mom—and we say it’s time for bed.” Dominic gives the impression he’s analyzing what his father has said, preparing a rebuttal. Heading it off, Lac says, “Tell you what: we’ll stay up for twenty more minutes so you can go ahead of us and see how those boys are doing. Maybe they’ll show you some archery tricks. Just remember they won’t understand your words, and you won’t understand theirs.” He almost warns him against giving them any pretext for taking revenge of any sort, but decides it’s probably not necessary.

When Lac carries Kara up the ladder twenty-two minutes later—does she still have a fever?—he sees Dominic hiding in the corner nearest the hatch. The other boys meanwhile are crouching in the other corners, peering into the shadows, watching for movement.

“Are they going to stay up here all night?” Laura asks as she climbs through the hatch. Her voice is barely audible, as if she doesn’t quite trust the soundness of the language barrier.

“For a few nights, until they’ve trained the rats to stay away. Then we’ll only have them back on occasion, when the little sons of guns need a reminder.”

She comes over to give him a perfunctory kiss before seeing to the children. Dominic has crawled under his netting and bounced into his hammock without prompting. Laura secures Kara in the wicker cage, close at hand, as she lies down in her own hammock.

“Dad,” Dominic’s voice calls from the freshly darkened troja.

“Yeah, what is it, buddy?”

Dominic lowers his voice to a murmur. “One of the boys said a bad word.”

“How could he have, buddy? They don’t speak our language.”

“It wasn’t in our language, just the bad word. He said something like, ‘Shit a day kew.’”

Lac, along with one of the boys, likely the culprit, breaks into laughter before checking himself. In whispers, he explains how he used to routinely set his hut on fire when trying to ignite his stove. The Yąnomamö picked up on how he blurted “Oh shit!” every time he made the blunder. Eventually, they started prompting him: “Say ‘Oh shit!’” or “Oh shit a da kuu!” whenever he did something clumsy, just to rub it in—also because they get a kick out of how the swearing sets off the missionaries.

“Okay,” Laura says, “that is pretty funny, but let’s lay off the swearing now ourselves, gentlemen.” Lac can hear the smile through the shape of her vowels, but he discerns the tension as well. It’s early days still, he reminds himself; give her some time to acclimate. He worries that his aching shoulder will keep him awake if the giggling boys don’t, but he’s not wondering long before he drifts off.

In the morning, Lac tries to tell whether Laura slept at all; she looks the same as she did yesterday, not good, but he reasons that since he slept as well as he did she must have had plenty of opportunity to do so herself. He only woke a handful of times himself. The boys from the shabono have nothing to show for their vigil, but he sends them home with line and hooks for their trouble anyway. He wants to ask Laura if their standing sentinel all night helped, but he’s reluctant to broach the topic either of rats or lost sleep.

“I’ll work at clearing the grass again today, and maybe as soon as tomorrow we can start hauling in some sand from the river. Chuck should be back again sometime today too.”

“Lachlan, you’re going to get bitten yourself if you keep tromping around in that grass.”

“I’m keeping an eye out, being as careful as I can. What alternative do we have?”

“Honey…” She takes a breath. “Maybe we should ask one of the priest to start arranging for us to go back to Caracas.” 

“Did you not sleep again?” Lac asks as his inner organs all sink in unison.

“I slept some this morning. But look at us; we’re booth a mess. Though, honestly, I didn’t know what was keeping you standing back when you landed in Caracas a few weeks ago. I know you have to stay here because you can’t abandon your work. But I need to do what’s best for the kids—we have to do what’s best for Dominic and Kara.”

“Honey, the only regular flights in and out of the territory are from the Esmeralda land strip, six hours downriver. We had to hire a pilot specifically to drop us off at Ocamo. It could be weeks before we can get someone to fly us out.”

“That’s why I’m saying it’s time to start making arrangements. The sooner we can get out the better.”

It’s all Lac can do not to wince. He wants to point out that by the time Laura and the kids are finally getting on the plane they may well be inured enough to the hardships of life in the field to wonder why they ever decided to leave. But he finds himself standing mute, no longer looking at her where she sits at the table, but at the streaked mud floor. She’s right. There’s nothing for her or the kids to do here but struggle to say decently fed, reasonably safe, and adequately rested. The kids will probably be upstairs sleeping for a couple hours more because they lay awake most of the night, as Laura must have. 

            “You can’t go on doing this to yourself,” she says when she realizes he’s unable to muster any further opposition. “It must be hard enough for you to handle taking care of yourself out here; you don’t need the added burden of worrying about us every minute of the day.”

            “You’re not a burden. You’re my family.”

Laura chuckles at this. He lifts his gaze to her fading halfhearted smile. “Come on, Lachlan, honestly, how much sleep have you gotten yourself the past few nights?”

“I’ve gotten some.” Again, a path to persuading her opens in his mind: emphasizing the earliest days are the hardest. He doesn’t step onto it.

“And how much work have you done while you’ve been overseeing this little family camping trip?”

There’s the rub. Clemens can live with his family out here because, when it comes down to it, his job is to lure the Yąnomamö away from their lives toward lives more like his. He lives close to them, but apart. Lac, if he’s to succeed at his own work, needs to move ever closer to the Yąnomamö, away from Western ways and civilized amenities—and he can’t bring his wife and kids into that world with him. Accepting this fact, acquiescing to its blunt reality, feels much worse than any mere failure, resounding though that failure is; it feels like a betrayal, like he’s executing on some judgement against the principle whereby all cultures are essentially compatible, equal, like he may as well be plunging a dagger into the heart of Frans Boas’ ghost. There it is, though. There’s no way he’s moving Laura and Dominic and Kara into the shabono—even if he could persuade Laura to do so. And, as long as he’s working to keep them alive and comfortable in the hut outside the shabono, well, he’s not learning any more about the Yąnomamö and their culture than the damn missionaries ever do.

No matter what he does he can’t live two separate lives at once. And one of those lives he has no business bringing his children into.

            The shortwave Laura bought him, the one that was supposed to help the family stay connected to civilization, only picks up a few nearby sources: the Salesian outpost across the Orinoco, the Salesian outpost at Ocamo, and occasionally a military channel, on which only once in several hours did he hear a flight mentioned. When he finally manages to reach someone in Esmeralda, the communication draws out for hours, proceeding in maddening fits and starts.

            Squawk… “a few weeks…” Hiss “…plenty of room… Paulo Negro.”

            So the next step consists of contacting Padre Morello. This turns out to be much easier, since he knows exactly what times to broadcast. The good padre says he’ll be glad to confirm the details of the flight and do what he can to help Lac and his family reach Esmeralda on the appointed day. When Lac signs off, he realizes this has been the longest he’s spent alone in weeks. He’s hunched over a bench he affixed to the outer wall of the hut, with a tarp awning to block out the searing rays. Sitting back, he waves a hand briskly in front of his face, fanning away the bareto. Ever since he returned to this place, the bugs have been getting worse and worse. The heat has been getting worse and worse. And the Yąnomamö, for the past day and a half, have been getting steadily more obnoxious. He’s tempted to return to Caracas with his family, accompanying them on the flight from Esmeralda to Paulo Negro, ride in the car with them back to the IVIC campus, and start writing up his thesis, leaving well enough alone. He savors every detail of the fantasy—ah, to be sitting on a couch in Ann Arbor with a cold beer in his hand.

            The children are not only confined to the hut now; they’re often confined to the inner room, behind the reinforced wall, because people from the shabono have started visiting, pushing their way in, demanding an audience with their great friend Shaki, the purveyor of all things manufactured, a source of comedy and entertainment. Lac normally wouldn’t mind; these visits are opportunities for him to get information, and he’s getting good at plying his subtle tricks for encouraging the visitors to gossip, and then gossip some more. But Laura, the first time the twelve-foot square main room was crowded with Yąnomamö, couldn’t help but notice the condition of their skin.

“They’re covered in sores,” she said horror-stricken. “What if those legions are from something contagious?”

            Not only can Lac not bring his family into the world of the shabono, but he can’t protect his family when the world of the shabono comes knocking at his door—or not knocking but rather shouting through to the inside. This is becoming a new source of guilt: each of these tribulations could have been anticipated. He should have expected it all. He should have known. How could he have brought them here, endangering them so unnecessarily? What would Laura say if he translated honestly the men’s requests to take Kara?

            Now, at last, their exposure to these dangers has an expiration date. “Three weeks,” Lac says stepping into the hut. “We need to make it three weeks, and then it’s three hours downstream to Ocamo, three more downstream to Esmeralda, and then you and the kids will board a cargo plane heading out of the territory.”

            “Three weeks,” she repeats. She looks down and then back up, as though she’s thinking of speaking further, but the words never come.

            He knows it’s longer than she hoped.

            Lac has his family out in his dugout canoe. He considered leaving Laura in the hut so she could have some time to herself, but he couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t have visitors demanding entry. So he’s rowed her and the kids midway across the Mavaca, rowed because they need to conserve fuel for the upcoming trip to Ocamo. The downside is he has to keep rowing at a grueling pace if he wants to keep the bareto off everybody in the boat. Every time he leans forward to spear at the water with the blade of the oar, cascading globules of sweat flash through the air in the overcast light before smacking onto the damp wood of the canoe’s flooring.

            He’s tired. Last night he gave the boys from the shabono flashlights to aid in their hunt, and they devoted most of their vigil to playing with these wondrously enchanted devices, waking either him or Laura too many times to count. The boys did however succeed at last in killing a single rat.

            From the river, the jungle is pretty, at points breathtakingly so. Lac can’t exactly paddle Laura and the kids to many such places, but coming out here is a good way to help them decompress and catch their breath. The hut is dank and stifling, the tall grass rife with peril. He’s taken them to the shabono three times now, but each visit has been a trying ordeal. The remaining time before their flight can’t elapse soon enough for Laura—or for him. They’ve decided to travel to Ocamo a few days early, stay on for a while at the compound, run up the balance of favors he owes the good padre.

            Winded, Lac tucks the oar inside the gunnel and sits back. Dominic has his own little oar and is trying to steer them by swiveling from one side to the other. He won’t be able to keep them ahead of the bugs for long. Lac drags a forearm across his brow. His profuse sweating bothers him more when his wife and kids are around to see it. He’d love to send them back to civilization with the impression that he is perfectly at home in the jungle, that he can handle whatever the wilderness throws at him—no sweat. But that’s not in his power, no more than it’s in his power to provide acceptable conditions for them to stay on with him over the coming months.

            He looks up to the gray sky. More rain during the wet season: they’ll have to hope no storm interferes with their travel plans. He’s wondering again whether he should stay here or leave on the flight from Esmeralda with his family. Laura hasn’t said anything to nudge him in this direction, but he knows how isolated she feels at IVIC. What more can he accomplish out here anyway? Mobaräkäwa has begun opening up. There’s still Mishimishimaböwei-teri to try and reach. And of course he’s promised Dr. Nelson to have everything ready for when his team arrives. If he’s to deliver on this promise, he really shouldn’t even fly to Paulo Negro, because who knows how long it will be before he can get a flight back?

            Who knows, for that matter, if he’ll be able to overcome his reluctance to return?

            He sighs, slaps a bug on his thigh, and takes up his oar again. Laura is looking forlornly at the shore. He should be talking this over with her. But he decides not to bother her with it now. There’ll be plenty of time for such discussions over the next few weeks.

            “I can’t thank you enough, Padre. I don’t know what I was thinking bringing them out here.”

            “Ah, my friend, I know exactly what you were thinking—that you didn’t want to be in one place for so long while your family was in another. You’re beating yourself up now for putting them in danger, am I right? But the danger you can see right in front of you is better than the array of dangers you can only imagine. As long as you’re facing your travails together—as long as you’re around to help them—it’s only natural for you to feel better than you would facing them apart.”

            Lac turns away to hide the water welling in his eyes. Both Dominic and Kara have fevers again. Laura is a wraith. And he hasn’t slept through the night since they last left this mission outpost weeks ago. He should be getting on the plane with them tomorrow—but he can’t. Oh, to have them back on the IVIC campus, safe and sound, what bliss that would be.

            Turning back, Lac wonders if the padre has finally stopped thinking of him as soulless and without conscience, someone capable of resorting to murder for the sake of currying favor with a man for his small measure of bureaucratic pull. He can’t help feeling honored by this elevation in his status, though he still struggles to square the padre’s depraved request with the esteem he’s come to hold him in. Mostly though, he just doesn’t want to think about any of that now.

            “You’re right, Padre, the thought that I was abandoning them as I threw myself into my work was eating me alive. I figured I could set them up here and keep them safe—that they’d be safer and better off in general with me watching over them than they would with me essentially lost to them in the godforsaken jungle. It makes no sense, I can admit now, but the intuition was awfully compelling.”

            Lac tries to force a laugh but it comes out more like he’s clearing his throat. Whenever he stays at Ocamo, he hangs his hammock in a lean-to close to where he ties his canoe to the dock. Tonight, he lets the padre lead him and his family to a small room with a line of bunk beds. The sheets and mattresses seem utterly divine in their luxuriousness. Somehow, it adds to the weight of his guilt—and then it induces in him a vertiginous sense of dropping away, like he’s in a tight spin, falling sideways, a figure skater on a rink toppling down a cliff.

            Collecting himself, he bids the padre goodnight, before turning and lifting an arm to brace himself against the bedpost. Dominic is crawling in the bunk above Laura. Kara is tucked in on the lower bunk he’s using to steady himself. Everyone’s going to bed in silence, as they would if they were in their own separate rooms. It’s only natural, exhausted as they are. Lac feels too dizzy to climb though, so he stands waiting for the vertigo to subside. Two feet solidly planted on the scrubbed concrete foundation, one hand on the post—he’s not falling, not spinning out of control.

            Out by the canoe are three baby otters his young Yąnomamö rat hunters discovered a few days ago. Likely, the Malarialogìa workers killed the mother for her pelt, which they would try to sell to Colombians passing through Puerto Ayacucho. His kids fell in love immediately. Lac wanted to strangle the boys for bringing the poor creatures to the hut. They’ll almost certainly be dead before the kids are boarding the plane, he thought.

            Miraculously, Laura managed to get all three of them slurping a formula she concocted from the powdered milk. Now here they are, flying out tomorrow, and all three otters are still alive. The plan is to take them aboard the plane in the same cage Kara used for her bed—good, he thinks, wouldn’t want that contraption around as a reminder—and with any luck deliver them safe and healthy to the zoo in Caracas. Lac now desperately wishes for this plan to succeed, for his kids’ sake and for his own. It might be the one fond memory they take through the better part of their lives from this period when their father abandoned them in a strange city so he could go off and live in a stinky hut made of mud while he hung out with a bunch of scary, pushy, whiny, naked people with thick black hair cut into the shape of a bowl. The mere thought of the otters nestling each other in the cage slows the spinning in his head.

            “Are you alright, honey?” Laura asks.

            “Yes, I’m sorry. I’m just working some things out in my mind. I wish I was going with you tomorrow.”

            “I do too. But we talked about this. You can’t afford to be away for long, and we have no way of knowing when you’d be able to get on a flight back into the territory. Plus, we’ve planned everything out to a t. There’ll be a driver waiting when we get to Paulo Negro. We’ll be back in our apartment on the IVIC campus this time tomorrow night—and then the next day we’ll take the otters to the zoo.”

            Hearing the familiar reassurances come from her mouth finally makes them sink in. As long as she doesn’t feel like I’m abandoning her again, he thinks, lifting his foot slowly onto the bottom rung of the ladder, then I can believe it when I tell myself I’m not. “You’re right,” he says, rolling onto his back in the top bunk. “But I still have this terrible sense I’m letting you and the kids down somehow. And the worst part is now that you’re not part of what I’m doing here, now that I’m doing it without you, I can’t rightly say I’m doing it for you—which makes me question what the point could be.”

            “Your work here was important enough for you to devote a year of your life just to the planning. It’s only to be expected you’d go through periods of doubting yourself when you’re out here for over a year. But think how much you’ve learned. Think of the impact your observations could have on your field. The kids and I have a few more months to get through. I have to say, I’m looking forward to going home, our real home I mean in Michigan. But you don’t want to quit before finishing what you set out to do. Not when you’re this close. And I couldn’t live with myself if I was the reason you cut your stay short. So buck up, honey. Finish your work. We’ll sort out whatever pieces we have to put back together when you’re finally done.”

            The otters look up at him with their sleek pointy faces, listless but clear-eyed, huddled together, the most affectionate of creatures, needy of contact with one another’s fur, threading their snouts through the space between one tubular body and the next. Latching the lid, he smiles and then hoists the cage up to hand it off to the uniformed man in the cargo hold.

“Take good care of them,” he says in Spanish; “my kids adore them.”

            Laura and Dominic and Kara are already on board, already lost to him, and Lac’s diaphragm has locked in place. As the man latches the door, Lac searches the outside of the plane for defects, as if he knew a damn thing about planes, dread pervading the air around him and seeping into the rigid cavity behind his ribs. They’ll die on this flight, he thinks. No, no, no. You’ve got to stop that. Planes like this fly all over Venezuela—all over the world—every day, and how many crashes do you hear about?

            A laugh bubbles up through the middle of a sob knocking loose a single tear that smacks against the crumbling edge of the tarmac. How the hell would you hear about plane crashes in your moldy mud hut on the Mavaca? Looking down at the rapidly vanishing snowflake of his splashed tear, he muses that life in the jungle is mostly about bodily fluids lost to the thirsting earth. He’s being waved away now so he steps mindlessly backward, and then steps again and again. His lungs seize up once more, the judder of cessation lodging in his throat.

            His pending solo canoe trip back to Ocamo suddenly seems painfully unfeasible. What will you do then, he poses as the plane lifts off, his heart sinking in time with its ascent, stay here in Esmeralda? One foot in front of the other, ashes to ashes, and all that. Be a man. Perform your duty. My duty? What about my duty to my family? Dust to dust—what you turn into when all your fluids are leeched away by the jungle.

            Climbing into the canoe and shoving off, he checks to see if anyone on the shore is watching him leave. Seeing no one, he yanks the string to start the engine, and releases a torrent of water from his eyes onto the already submerged wood between his boots. “Four months, Lac,” he says to himself, sniffling. “Four months and then you begin the process of making it up to them for the rest of your life.” 


Continue reading (check back the 1st of February)

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Also read some of my nonfiction:

Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

Napoleon Chagnon's Crucible and the Ongoing Epidemic of Moralizing Hysteria in Academia

 The World Until Yesterday and the Great Anthropology Divide: Wade Davis's and James C. Scott's Bizarre and Dishonest Reviews of Jared Diamond's Work   

The Reahu at Monou-teri: He Borara Chapter 15

Yanomamo Shabono
          Mobaräkäwa is giving Lac the names of his long-dead ancestors—knowing Rowahirawa has already provided the names of his more immediate ones—and telling him their stories, as good as his word. Lac is interviewing him in his hut, where aside from the headman’s voice it’s pleasantly quiet. Clemens has taken a half dozen Bisaasi-teri kids along with his family to Tama Tama for the day, hoping to get the children accustomed to the place, maybe encourage them to have a little fun, so they’ll want to return of their own accord.

Will Yąnomamö kids enjoy bible studies? If not, how long before the Protestants are handing out shotguns like the damn Salesians?

            Mobaräkäwa has exiguous graying whiskers around his mouth, peaked by a thin triangular mustache. His face in isolation calls to mind one of the Japanese wise men in those delicate and hyper-stylized paintings, the ones with inset letters composed of graceful strokes whose precise intricate beauty must carry a good portion of their meaning. But his nakedness glares, and though his hair is cut into the shape of an acorn cap, it’s missing the stem of a Samurai’s topknot. When you look close, you see his flesh is pocked and filmed over with re-dried sweat—just like Lac’s—which makes him reek in that way everyone out here eventually does.

He’s telling Lac these stories of great men, his own ancestors, who had dozens of brothers, untold numbers of sisters, entire villages’ worth of children. How am I supposed to confirm any of this, Lac wonders, when no record of a single one of these men’s lives ever existed? Ah, the same way you’ve been doing it for the names of living villagers. Start with an informant in Lower Bisaasi-teri, then find one in Patanowä-teri, the parent village, then one in Monou-teri, the fissioned off group trying to get a foothold amid so many other hostile villages. Finally, find an informant among one of those enemy villages, assuming Patanowä-teri no longer counts. Enemies speak the names of each other’s ancestors with spiteful abandon, as when Rowahirawa addressed his father-in-law by the name of his dead father.

            This is it, Lac realizes: the final piece of the puzzle, the part that pulls together all the other elements of my methodology. If I can get the names and details about the biographical milestones of key ancestors, I can recreate population movements and political histories; I can test theories about what determines village size and what accounts for differences in behavior from one group to the next; I can start to develop a larger paradigm for understanding how societies evolve from simple bands to larger tribes and chieftainships to primitive states and beyond.

            He looks over to make sure his tape is rolling, so distracted is he by the thrill attending all the possibilities. The typical model established by Margaret Mead has fieldworkers showing up among a group of indigenous people and staying for six months to a year, observing and participating in the culture; after leaving the field, the ethnographer wrote the ethnography, and seldom returned. This approach assumes a stasis that may obtain in groups living on remote islands in the South Pacific, but probably not for anyone else. The Yąnomamö live in a network of villages, an assemblage of competing yet interdependent cells. You cannot begin to understand what’s going on in one place without first learning how it’s impacted by what’s going on elsewhere in the network.

We need to think bigger, he thinks, so much bigger.

            It’s August already. He’s been in the territory for eight months, with only seven left to go. He still has to get his family set up here, and Dr. Nelson’s team will surely put serious demands on his time when it arrives. Mobaräkäwa finishes his story about a man whose name Lac translates as Shinbone, who had more sons than Lac has any chance of counting at a glance—maybe between fifty and a hundred.

When the headman reaches the end of his ancestor’s story, he looks intently at Lac, as if recognizing his oddness for the first time—or as if realizing he’s just revealed secrets meant to be kept off-limits forever. “Shaki,” he says, “show me what you’ve drawn on your white leaves.”

Lac stands up from his obnoxiously creaky chair and rounds the space separating them, pivoting around the center point of the notebook, until he’s side-by-side with the one who truly lives in Bisaasi-teri, each with a hand on an opposite edge of the pages. Mobaräkäwa runs his finger over the black squiggles contained within their faint blue corrals. What must they look like to him? Horizontal chains of swooping and zigzagging edges, columns of insects like a motley-shaped squadron of ants, the outlines of tracks made by some colonnade of reptiles? His fingers come to a halt atop a lone name. Lac scans the lines to come up with a way to refer to the individual using teknonymy: “That’s how I draw the name for your grandfather’s brother’s son.”

“Awei, I must have told you that name yesterday, along with many, many others. Can you still remember?”

Lac leans close enough to form a half tunnel with his hand from his mouth to Mobaräkäwa’s ear and whispers the name. Flabbergasted, the headman points to another name, which Lac whispers in turn. He’s done a similar version of this demonstration out in the plazas of many shabonos he’s visited of late, though only with the names of living people. The Yąnomamö invariably laugh with delight at the wizardry of the written word.

Mobaräkäwa moves away, a look of unreadable intensity etched into the contours of his sage visage. “Shaki, you white nabäs never stay long in our village. You must take these name drawings away with you when you go, and you must keep them safe.”

What’s data to Lac is to Mobaräkäwa the lifeblood of the Bisaasi-teri—though Lac has no problem with the injunction to treat the products of his work as sacred. Contained in the scribbles are details of the Bisaasi-teri’s past dealings with the Shamatari, including some of the people who would come to reside in Mishimishimaböwei-teri. If he’s lucky, he figures, he may still be able to reach the new garden site of Monou-teri before he has to embark for IVIC to see his family in a few weeks and return with them to Bisaasi-teri. But he’ll have to abandon his plan to get to Mishimishimaböwei-teri, at least for now. This is work he simply can’t interrupt. He hasn’t had any luck recruiting more guides anyway, thanks in no small part to the stories of raharas told by the man sitting next to him now, fondling his notebook. It wouldn’t be a good idea to set out without anyone besides Warotobowä—though he’s considered it.

 Rowahirawa, knowing him, will show up again right about the time Lac would have been launching his heavily laden canoe to travel up the Mavaca, unless he too can be frightened out of it by all the talk of river dragons.

Lac has other questions for Mobaräkäwa: What does living with multiple wives entail exactly? Does he know what happened to Rariwi’s baby? Does he prefer one of his wives over the other? Is it true husbands with multiple wives often share them with their brothers? Did he become headman ahead of other men in his lineage by sheer force of character or by dint of having killed more enemies? How does he see the Bisaasi-teri relations with the missionaries playing out in the future? Does he take any of what Clemens or the new Salesian across the Orinoco teaches them seriously?

If this patient headman keeps giving of his time like this, Lac will get a much better view of the hidden dynamics of village life than he has by skirting its edges with a notebook and a tape recorder, grilling anyone who stands still for it. There’s something else Lac finds appealing about these interviews, though, something he doesn’t want to admit to himself. He’s proud Mobaräkäwa is finally giving him the time of day. Of all the Yąnomamö men he’s met, this is the first one he can’t help seeking approval from, the only one he’s drawn to as a source not just of information but of wisdom, the only one who might teach him something essential, a lesson applicable both throughout Yąnomamöland and beyond.

Mobaräkäwa has plenty of questions for him too. He’s interested in what goes on in the cities Lac speaks of. He lights up in response to the idea of policemen, impartial third-parties who preempt disputes before they escalate into long-term feuds. The two men chat, not as messengers from different worlds but as human beings interested in what one another has to say, even after Lac spent the better part of two hours interrogating him about his ancestors.

This a truly remarkable Yąnomamö. A truly remarkable man.

Rowahirawa still hasn’t returned, and Lac has to work himself up to not taking this departure and prolonged absence personally. He reminds himself of the situation: Rowahirawa always planned to go back to Karohi-teri but was waiting to be given a second wife by his father-in-law. Have they maybe worked out another arrangement Lac doesn’t know about, or is that second daughter still with the other huya? In any case, Rowahirawa has little keeping him here—except for his nabä friend Shaki.

It’s time for another trip inland. Some of the men are going to visit family members in Monou-teri, and since that place can serve as a case study for how nascent villages become established, Lac feels he needs to go. He’s heard that Towahowä’s brother is planning another raid, this one without participation from members of allied villages, in an effort to redeem himself after acting so cowardly in the wake of the former headman’s murder.

One moment you’re looking up into the canopy, searching for a hive you can harvest for some honey, the next you’re looking down at a dozen arrow shafts sticking out from your body. Pain. Knowing you’re bleeding to death, that you’ll soon be dead.

Lac stands up with legs stiffened from long sitting and moves from the table where he’s been arranging the names he got from Mobaräkäwa into neater grids. He pulls his pack from a plastic tub where he’s been stashing it since realizing no matter where he leaves it, if it’s out in the open, some nasty critter—or several—will crawl inside to give him a fright, if not a bite. If Rowahirawa isn’t around when they leave for Monou-teri later, he’ll just have to go without him. There’s nothing too scary about that village anyway, which is why they need to start raiding soon if they want to keep from being absorbed into some larger village—which would entail handing over most of their moko dude—postpubescent girls.

Lac looks around his hut. He wonders if the true reason he hasn’t set out for Mishimishimaböwei-teri, apart from not wanting to go without Rowahirawa, is that he has a daunting list of preparations to make to this place before Laura and the kids come to take up residence for the remainder of his stay in the field. First, he wants to build a platform to create an attic where they can hang their hammocks high up off the ground, a space where it will be much cooler during the day, and safer from myriad pests at night. Then he has an idea for the true masterstroke: an indoor shower. He’s going to turn an empty fuel barrel into a water tank fixed to a frame over the outside wall, where the contents will warm in the tropical sun. He’s going to hoist it up over a corner of the hut he’ll fashion into a small closet of sorts, complete with a drain and a hose running from the tank to aim the stream of hot running water. Not bad for a Twentieth Century family thrust back into the Stone Age.

It’ll all have to wait about a week though, until he gets back from his trip. He starts packing his bag: peanut butter, crackers, sardines, change of socks and underwear, fishhooks, spools of line. He’ll carry some axes and machetes in a separate bag. He stuffs in his cameras and tape recorder, notebooks and pens. He toggles back from the thrill of potential discovery he had while talking to Mobaräkäwa yesterday to the tedium of daily life and traveling between villages: finding food, staying reasonably free of filth, walking, more walking, carrying heavy bags, prodding stubborn guides. None of this was covered in his anthropological training. But it all serves his larger vision, a survey and historical accounting of the development of the tribal network, pushed back as many generations as he can get accounts of, perhaps spanning more than a hundred years. A hundred years and a couple tens of thousands of Yąnomamö—that’s a pretty decent sample. That could be enough to form a solid understanding of how societies evolve.  

To even begin will be an enormous undertaking though. The money for this preliminary expedition came from the NIMH; maybe they’d fund a series of future visits to the field once Lac explains his plans—unlikely though. At some point, he thinks, I’ll have to settle in at a university and start teaching. Of course, the original plan was to get funding from Dr. Nelson’s department. Would Nelson be interested in research into cultural evolution—beyond its genealogical implications that is, the parts with a direct bearing on his own genetics studies?

Lifting his two bags, he lumbers to the door, which is now reinforced with extra hinges and latches. When the group is ready to leave, he’ll come back quickly to grab this gear. Stepping into the scorching rays that press down like spears of hot mist, he worries about the interviews—the chats—he’ll be missing with Mobaräkäwa over the coming days. He’s simultaneously worried that his information source will have dried up by the time he returns and that the headman will have forgotten about their talks, that he’ll have to begin building up a rapport again from zero.

Inside the shabono, he sees Towahowä’s brother preparing to leave. He’s here with some other Monou-teri discussing the raid he plans to lead, spreading the word in hopes of salvaging some of his battered reputation. Is he recruiting too? It doesn’t seem so. Most of the Bisaasi-teri making ready to depart are young teenagers or old women. But Towahowä’s brother appears determined, grave, more mature than when last Lac lay eyes on him—when they traveled together to Patanowä-teri back in April. He’s been shouldering the burden of authority, managing the reputation of his village, maintaining his own reputation as a means to securing the safety and cohesion of the men and women looking to him for guidance and protection. His is a primitive and—relativism be damned—barbaric species of leadership. But Towahowä’s brother is just a kid, a few years younger than Lac. He didn’t make the rules.

Lac asks when they’ll be setting out and finds they’re almost ready to go now. Walking back to his hut to collect his bags, he wonders how his own appearance has changed. In IVIC he saw in the mirror a face that was drawn and wizened, not gesturing toward any semblance of his forebears but rather emblematic of the generic look of an underfed man who’s been put through a trying ordeal—who’s put himself through a trying ordeal, or a series of them. How quickly will he recover his youthful ruddiness, assuming he ever does? Had he really looked as bad as he seems to remember now or is it a trick of the mind? No matter, there’s work to be done. It’s to be the better part of the day ahead putting one foot in front of the other, leaving a trail of sweat.

Lac knew they’d be holding another reahu ceremony in Monou-teri for Towahowä, but it still strikes him as bizarre, this second funeral for a man no one liked, a horrible bully whose impulsiveness and poor judgment nearly led to the village’s dissolution—and may still. The reahu he witnessed before was held in Bisaasi-teri, and he thinks now that maybe the first time was meant to serve more functional purposes: bringing the two groups together, reminding them of their shared history, working the men into their blustery frenzies in preparation for the impending raid. This afternoon in Monou-teri, more people seem genuinely mournful. Lac finds himself reluctant to walk around conducting interviews and taking notes in the open, so he skulks from yahi to yahi, listening, watching, pretending to be the invisible mist he knows he’s the opposite of.

The term the Yąnomamö use for their state of raw emotionality is hushuwo, which means deeply sad, but also volatile, liable to lash out violently. Not much in Yąnomamö life is free of violent of potential. Lac wishes Rowahirawa were here to whisper insights in his ear about what’s taking place before him. He wishes Mobaräkäwa were here to lay out the proper history of the precipitating occurrences that would give the necessary context for making sense of how everyone is behaving now. When the Yąnomamö cremate a warrior, they gather the ashes and the remaining charred bones and teeth into gourds. Some of these remains they sprinkle into plantain soup eaten by the women—only the women—during the reahu feast. Endocannibalism is what anthropologists call it.

But they don’t consume all of the ashes. Now a handful of Towahowä’s adult brothers retrieve the calabashes containing their allotted share from where they’ve stored them atop the rafters supporting the roofs of their families’ yahis. They bring them out to the area of the ovular plaza in front of the new headman’s yahi, where he has placed a shallow basket for them. A palpably heavy mood descends on the shabono as they each walk up and deposit their gourd in the basket, remaining nearby squatting low in a circle. Lac minces his way up to the huddle of crouching men, dropping into a duck waddle himself, trying to get a decent view of the basket, which looks to him like a flimsy nest of dragon eggs on the verge of hatching. Turning around, he sees women sobbing, slapping their forearms across their breasts, pulling at their hair, looking in every way like they’re trying to break the shells of these miserable bodies so their souls, their buhii, can escape and find whatever relief is to be had free in the ether—or rather on some other layer of their cosmos.

The brother has gone to his yahi and reached up into the rafters again, producing another item, a tora. Lac edges closer to see him remove an arrow tip, a rahaka. The remaining tips, also rahakas, implements fashioned for the killing of men, are passed around to the kinsmen circled around the basket, who fondle them solemnly, whispering about how they’ll fix them to the shafts they’ll launch at the Patanowä-teri. Lac, pushing his voice through what feels like dough in his throat, asks the man sitting on his haunches next to him, “Shori, are these rahaka points ones the fallen headman made himself?”

“Awei, awei.” Is the mindlessly muttered response he gets.

“Or are these the points that were removed from his body, the ones shot into him by the enemy raiders?”

“Awei,” he’s told again. “Awei.”

If he’s to get to the bottom of the mystery, he’ll have to do it some later day. The brother now goes to his yahi and returns this time with a snuff tube for delivering doses of ebene, which he squats down to load with a ready wad. He then aims the tube into the open gourds and fires a few blasts that dust over the gourds, giving Towahowä one last chance to commune with his hekura—or would it be to help him commune with these still-living people? Lac doesn’t ask. The headman then measures a length of the tube with the rahaka point in his hand, breaks the tube at the designated point, and tosses the broken pieces down beside the basket before walking over to the hearth in his yahi and returning with embers. He covers the tube and the tora, and leans down to blow on the embers until the flames leap up. He’s cremating the mementos, Lac thinks.

Lac’s been around for a handful of reahu feasts by now and none have included baskets or toras or shots of ebene like this. Are the Monou-teri, as a fledgling village, creating their own customs, or has some set of conditions called for these practices, some circumstances he’s either not privy to or doesn’t properly comprehend. Now the villagers are beginning to wail and whine their nasal dirges for their lost leader. For the first time, Lac doesn’t feel like he’s in the middle of an alien rite; the collective sadness washes over him and sinks deep into his flesh, penetrating to his bones, working its way to his heart. His arms go slack and heavy, his legs turning wooden, like that damn rickety chair in his hut back in Bisaasi-teri, only less noisy. He smiles at the ridiculousness of his own urge to cry. I only met the guy a couple times, he thinks, and he showed me nothing but disdain.

Lac doesn’t feel like wandering around the shabono, as he normally would. He carries his limp weight back to the new headman’s yahi and rolls himself into the hammock he strung up for himself upon arriving earlier in the day. It’s already getting dark. The children who always surround him start popping up to see what the strange nabä will do next.

            “Shaki,” a man reclining in a nearby hammock calls to him. “Why aren’t you making a nuisance of yourself like you usually do?”

Lac looks over at his pack, realizing his tape recorder is still stuffed in on top of everything, readily accessible but inert. I should be recording these songs of mourning, he tells himself. But he can’t bring himself to move. He’s even let his notebook fall beside him on the ground. “My innermost soul has gone cold,” he finally answers.

This is met with an abrupt silence.   

            The man, whose name Lac knows, rolls onto his side and reaches over to brush the arm that should be engaged in taking notes but instead dangles lifeless. At feeling this friendly touch, Lac breaks into quiet sobs, tears absurdly welling up and pouring down over his temples. Towahowä lived well by Yąnomamö lights, pressed Monou-teri’s advantage after the only fashion available, by being waiteri, taking whatever he and his kinsmen wanted, never backing down, fearless and defiant till his final breath. None of this endeared him to Lac, who knows too much about how the man treated women and girls. But somehow his death is still sad.

            The brother seems ill-suited for the role now thrust upon him; he’s been leading the Monou-teri from one Bisaasi-teri shabono to the other, and from the mouth of the Mavaca back to the villages of their Shamatari allies, losing more women and more respect at every stage. This raid tomorrow will be a step toward restoration, keeping the village intact and independent. But, if Towahowä’s plans had worked out, none of it would be necessary. The Patanowä-teri’s reprise attack was devastatingly effective, not only ridding them of their chief antagonist among the Monou-teri, but simultaneously exposing the brother’s cowardice, along with the village’s general weakness—a blow from which they’re still straining to recover.

            Lac rehearses these facts in his mind. The people here are no longer strangers; he’s traveled with the men on their way to raid their enemies; he’s interviewed the women and children and many of the men about their families, their customs, their life histories. But it’s not the predicament of the Monou-teri that’s foremost in his mind as he lies blubbering, just as it’s probably not any personal affection for Towahowä actuating the tears being shed all around him. He hears the man beside him murmuring to the children that they need to leave the nabä alone. “Shaki is hushuwo.” As the word spreads from child to child to adult, he feels pair after pair of sympathetic eyes turning on him. If they were Americans, they’d nod in recognition of his anguish, but they’re not, and he has no trouble anyway understanding what these looks convey, what these people are sharing with him.

            What Lac is thinking about as he shudders in his hammock with each convulsive sob is Laura: whether there’ll be anything left of him to drag back to her when his time in this place is up. He thinks of his German shepherd Josephine, about how he pleaded, sobbing and gushing worse than he is now, for his father to at least let a vet try to save her when her hip was smashed by a passing truck, which had nearly struck him too; about how Malcolm had said, “Vets costs money, and there’s no saving her anyway,” as he handed him the rifle to do what he insisted must be done; about how his brothers—but not Bess, never Bess—mocked his tears, infusing him with a hatred toward them that smolders to this day, ready to be kindled into rage at the meagerest provocation; about the day only a couple years later when he discovered his father’s cruelty was fueled by his own humiliation at not being able to support his family, hold a job, make anything of himself after determining the factory life was not for him, as Connor meanwhile was already working his ass off to help Mom and Dad make ends meet, which is why Lac was pressed to get his head out of the clouds and start supporting himself almost as soon as he finished grade school; about his mother’s straited existence, a baby every year and a half—making her a factory in her own right—and about his powerlessness to deliver her from it, or even persuade her there could be any other existence worth being delivered into. All of life, in and out of this blasted jungle, seems a never-ending struggle against chaos and misery and affliction and humiliation, until the pressure grinds you down to nothing. One foot in front of the other until you’re a walking statue of dust, an upright pile of ashes set to be used as seasoning in a trough of soup in yet another orgy of misery setting off the next whirlwind of destruction.

            He’s staring at the thatch roofing above his hammock now, listening to the whispers about how he’s finally acting like a Yąnomamö—finally acting like a damn human being. He feels his tears drying to a film in the cool breeze sneaking in between the orange pulses of warmth from the hearth. Looking at the rafters and the thatch in the lambent glow, he conjures the gilded tableau of the sky over Lake Michigan, ever inviting him into the open space overhead, the vast empty medium of the atmosphere with its promise of infinite escape, a ship of the mind floating over all the strife and suffering below, taking him wherever his boyish mind imagined it would be worth going. Which back then was everywhere.

            He wonders if, given the chance, he would travel back in time to tell himself his fantasies about the jungle are premised on naïve delusions. Strife and suffering happen to abound here, as they do everywhere else. But there’s hope. There must be. And maybe the best way to start moving forward is to first move back.   

            The next morning the waiteri of Monou-teri, such as they are, cover themselves in charcoal and perform the wayu itou in the center of the courtyard, shouting their three bursts of “Whaa, whaa, WHAA!” in the direction of Patanowä-teri and celebrating the confirming echoes. They bound through the passage out of the shabono single-file to the rhythmically rumbling sound of “Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu,” and, seeing them drain out of the plaza, Lac feels an urgent pull to jog after them. As absurd as it sounds, he acknowledges a desire in him to go with these men on their mission to restore the pride of their village.

            These are, after all, the men he traveled with to Patanowä-teri before, on the excursion that nearly got him killed. The people here are all familiar to him, not friends exactly, but individuals whose plights he knows well and can’t help sympathizing with. If he can help the Patanowä-teri ambassadors to Bisaasi-teri make it safely home, then why shouldn’t he lend a hand to the ten warriors embarking for that same village now? Or is this another attempt at evening things out that will only end up disrupting the balance still further?

            Lac runs after the line of raiders, calling out to Towahowä’s brother, whose name is Rorotoiwä, by the proper term of address. When he catches up, he says, “Shori, your trip will take weeks by foot. Let me take you as far as we can get on the river. I have room for all ten of you in my canoe.”

            Rorotoiwä’s expression hardens; he looks suddenly frightened, caught off guard. Turning to his brothers and uncles, he gauges the collective response to the nabä’s offer, and then turns back saying, “I suppose you’ll want more names for your leaves in return for this favor—you know I won’t tell you the names of my ancestors.” He forces a smile, the purpose of which is a mystery to Lac. He should be pouncing on this opportunity.

            You’d be amazed, Lac wants to say, how many of your ancestors’ names I already have recorded; instead, he says, “I only ask that you keep letting me visit and keep tolerating me as I go about making a nuisance of myself.”

            Rorotoiwä finally signals his acceptance of the offer, sending Lac running back into the shabono to grab his bags before leading the warriors to his dugout canoe, which he’s hidden on the bank of the Orinoco some miles away. As they march, he has ample time to contemplate the ramifications of his latest impulsive move. You understand, he thinks, they’re going to kill one or more of the people from the village you just brought those three men home to, don’t you?

            Somehow, though, this detail doesn’t seem real. Rorotoiwä has chosen to stage his highly publicized raid in the wet season so they’ll have an easier time evading pursuers after the attack. The Patanowä-teri could find their way around flooded trails to find their own village, but that doesn’t mean the Monou-teri will be successful. Plus, the Patanowä-teri are surrounded by enemies; they’ll have taken precautions; they may even be shifting residences sporadically, bouncing between their two highest-producing gardens so they’re never to be found where anyone might expect. Rorotoiwä’s chances of success on this raid are miniscule, even with Lac’s transportation services.

            As they saunter along the jungle trail, Lac considers that disrupted balance he feels duty-bound to restore. He arrived that first day with Clemens just as this very conflict between the Patanowä-teri and the Monou-teri was instigated. The fault was probably more Towahowä’s than anyone else’s, but things quickly started going poorly for the Monou-teri. Lac himself could have played little role in the unfolding tragedy, but he nonetheless feels he owes them something. Of course, his interference in the earlier raid with these men got a Patanowä-teri man killed, so he owes them too—and this help he’s giving their enemies will surely set him back even further with them.

            It’s all a mess. What he wants more than anything is time away from all these villages, time to gain some perspective on everything that’s happened. Everything he’s done. At bottom, ferrying Yąnomamö up and down the river is an easy way to curry favor with them, and Lac needs that favor to do his work. Whether it’s trading them madohe for information or transporting them from place to place, whatever he does for them amounts to some form of interference. Where should he draw the line? Is he really so certain these men won’t end up killing anyone from the rival village? Is he really any better than the damn Catholics handing out shotguns? There may be something else going on in his mind too; it may be he’s been compelled by the comradery of soldiers—once you’ve faced death alongside a man you can’t help but want to help him.

            Is he also trying to be an important person here in Yąnomamöland, the type of man you want on your side, and can he divorce this desire from the practical concerns it drags in tow? He’s essentially inventing a new field methodology, having already slipped beyond the boundaries of conventional participant-observation—already discovered things he wasn’t supposed to discover.

Ah, he thinks, I can work all that out later; for now, I need to stop second-guessing my decisions and keep moving forward.

            There’s no hiding his passengers on this trip, but none of the villages along the Orinoco is openly hostile to Monou-teri: this will most likely be good for Rorotoiwä, help him boost his reputation for being waiteri, as everyone sees him leading his village on a raid against a group who’s currently trading attacks with them all. But, Lac wonders, won’t that make me complicit in the eyes of the Patanowä-teri? Won’t it suggest to everyone that I’ve chosen a side, formed a stable alliance?

            Pulling on the tiller to swerve around a sandbar he’s learned to look out for, he leans to one side to see around the huddled charcoal-spackled bodies in the craft ahead of him. He’s already far too closely associated with the Bisaasi-teri, but word is probably spreading about how he snuck those Patanowä-teri men back downriver. All he can do is hope he gets a reputation as a mercenary—favors for names and biographical details of kinsfolk alive and dead, regardless of the village you represent.

            It’s a voyage of a few hours, and Lac soon wishes Rorotoiwä would jostle his way to the back of the canoe so he’d have someone close to important decisions to talk to. Instead, he makes suffice some conversation with the huyas nearest him. They’re young, shy of twenty, and hoping to find unguarded women, as they know their deceased headman did outside Bisaasi-teri the day before Lac showed up with Clemens, those seven Patanowä-teri women hidden away for their supposed protection. The mass abduction resulted first in a club fight, in which the Monou-teri lost five of the seven women, second in a raid that led to the killing of a Patanowä-teri man harvesting palm fruit high in a tree, and third to a counterraid that left the Monou-teri headman who’d discovered those unguarded women looking like a pincushion, though spitting defiance with his last breath. Lac forgoes recounting how the purported windfall panned out for all the men involved.

            The huyas admit they probably wouldn’t be able to cover the ground between Patanowä-teri and their own village with captured women slowing them down but say they’d be happy just to see some good-looking girls—maybe steal a quick fuck. A third huya has leaned back to join the conversation now, and he tells them what he’s seen happen to a particular few women—a few women whose identities Lac may be able to work out—after they were captured in a raid. The way it works, the boys explains, is they get passed around until all the participants in the raiding party have a chance to enjoy them. Lac grips the tiller with bulging knuckles, clenching his jaw. A screen unfurls before his mind’s eye emblazoned with the words “gang rape”.

For a while after they’ve been brought back to their enemy’s shabono, the boy continues, they’re fair game for just about any man of significant status. Stolen from their families, dragged from their homes, raped, raped again, raped repeatedly, likely beaten again and again, perhaps impregnated by a mystery assailant—how many of the women he knows in Bisaasi-teri and elsewhere have suffered this treatment? Eventually, the headman will tire of seeing the abductees tortured and hand them over to one of the men as a wife. She’ll start fetching his water in the morning, helping him clear the garden of weeds, chopping and hauling firewood for his family, tending his children by other women—and start having her own children with him. Could she possibly come to love him?

            The Yąnomamö don’t speak of love this way; Lac isn’t sure there’s a word for the romantic love Westerners believe is the foundation of a proper marriage. Their system, he thinks, is just so brutal, so wrapped up in animal logic, hopelessly entangled with violence and the basest reproductive urges.

            And you’re planning on bringing Laura and Kara to this place?

            Remember, though, these are teenaged boys, Lac reassures himself; they exaggerate; they put on airs of ruthless disregard, predatory nonchalance; they pretend to have no concern for any girls’ comfort or wellbeing or desires to make their imaginary sexual triumphs seem more heroic: “I don’t even try to treat them well,” they’re essentially boasting, “they just flock to me no matter how badly I treat them.” Put a flesh-and-blood girl in front of them, though, and they can’t wait to buy her flowers.

            Lac smiles, but he knows the charade he’s thinking of is played by boys back in Michigan, boys raised to afford women a modicum of respect, boys who will at least once in their lives come to adore some poor girl who’s at a loss what to do with this power granted her, other than hope the same power is granted to her over a more desirable boy. Here, though, things are different. Mobaräkäwa enjoys a unique rapport, a friendship with Rariwi—whom Lac suspects killed her infant child—and he’s conspicuously tender toward his younger wife, though he’s had, by Lac’s count, four previous wives.  

            With women being passed around like that, trading hands like currency, how is a boy supposed to learn to treat females with any dignity? And Mobaräkäwa, by Yąnomamö standards, is the gentlest and most patient of husbands. The Bisaasi-teri headman once intervened with Lac to put a stop to a domestic conflict, which wasn’t much of one. They each grabbed an arm of a man who’d knocked out his young wife with a log from the fire and then continued clubbing her unconscious head, making it bounce grotesquely off the ground each time he reared back. If they hadn’t dragged him away he would have surely killed her.

            The thumping sound still echoes in Lac’s mind.

            Then there are guys like Pärurätowa. God help the Bisaasi-teri if that asshole ever fulfills his ambition to be headman. Sure, these boys are exaggerating the aggressiveness of their lust and the likelihood of its gratification—they’ve said themselves they probably won’t come across any girls—but in their descriptions of what they’d do, of what they’ve seen others do, of what some of them will undoubtedly do themselves, if not on this raid then some later one, they’re stating plain facts.

            The huyas turn to face the front of the canoe as they continue their raucous and boastful banter. And Lac, watching the lushly overhung banks glide by, slips into a dangerous trance. He needs to be wary of sandbars and submerged tree limbs. It’s embarrassingly easy to get a dugout stuck in the middle of this damn river—though it can also be nice to have time alone out here. He tries to force his attention outward to the landmarks on either side of the river, but he remains stuck in his head. Cultural relativism, he thinks: good ole Boas and Benedict and Mead. What the hell did any of them know? Sure, they encountered some scary Indians; Mead was all over Papua New Guinea. But did they ever deal with guys casually bragging about their participation in kidnapping and group raping? Is it ethnocentric to say such behavior is just plain atrocious, that it’s wrong no matter what culture you grow up in? No, there can be no principle or special rule of moral accounting that can make what they do to girls out here justifiable. It’s wrong. It’s awful. End of moral analysis.

            Here I am nonetheless, he thinks, still in the field studying their way of life. Am I conscience-bound to leave? Should I join forces with the damn missionaries and try sermonizing the Yąnomamö out of their evil ways? Those courses lead to their own ethical knots, as I’ve borne ample witness to. So what am I doing here? How can I keep this up, pretending nothing’s wrong?

            They motor on and on, Lac navigating the familiar dangers and mired in tireless planning about how he’ll keep Laura and the kids safe and comfortable. He keeps having the thought that he needs to do something dramatic to make the Bisaasi-teri fear and respect him. He could kill someone who breaks into his hut or steals from him, but he won’t. He could bludgeon someone—Pärurätowa perhaps—with the butt of his shotgun, but that would lead to reprisals. Maybe he could go with the men on another raid, this time making his participation more conspicuous: cover himself in charcoal-infused saliva and sing along in the wayu itou. Of course, none of these are real options—but that’s the problem. The Yąnomamö know so well what to expect from him, what they can get away with—and it’s a lot.

            His mind channels through these thoughts over and over again, with only the subtlest of variations. Now he looks around and realizes they’re getting close to their destination. An hour ago, the boys were cavalier about the dangers lying ahead of them on this raid; all they could talk about was what they’d do to any women they came across. Now, the complaints of sore feet and aching stomachs begin. Apparently, Lac is learning what to expect from them too. He overhears one of the huyas whining, “Shaki said he would bring us anti-malaria pills, but he forgot them! Now I think I’ve got the parasites in my blood. We need to turn around and go back to Monou-teri until we’re better prepared.”

            Lac didn’t forget the pills; he stopped over at the Malarialogìa station before setting out from Monou-teri but the guys who operate out of the place weren’t there, as they’d told him they would be. They probably got word of an outbreak somewhere and left immediately to see if they could put a stop to it. Lac had stood debating whether to visit the new priest at the compound a short distance from the Malarialogìa’s hut. The last time he was there, he’d been told he could only use the mission’s shortwave to speak to his wife if he first provided the priest with any language teaching materials created by his Protestant friends he may have access to. Disgusted and exasperated, Lac returned to his hut across the river and then went the three hours downstream to Ocamo the next day, where Morello greeted him warmly and assured him the shortwave there was his to use whenever he wanted.

            Lac didn’t tell Morello of the proviso his colleague had placed on his use of the nearer radio because he wants to simply ignore the inappropriate actions encouraged by these men of God. Morello at least he likes, despite the death warrant he once hoped Lac would carry out on his behalf. Could that really have been the padre’s intention? Unfortunately, there’s no getting around what he said, what he repeated the next day.  

            Rorotoiwä starts in on the boys, chiding them for their cowardice. Lac remembers Mobaräkäwa—who at the time Lac referred to as Bahikowa—sending those two young men back to Bisaasi-teri when they complained of foreboding dreams and foot sores. He shared the headman’s disgust with them, but he can’t now recall their faces. The shock he went on to experience blotted them from his mind. Rorotoiwä lacks the older leader’s assurance and gravitas, the unshakable confidence in the raid’s ultimate success, regardless of who turned back. Of course, Mobaräkäwa would himself turn back, aided by his brother who soon afterward was bitten by a snake. Would snake venom leave your system more quickly than the mind poison of knowing you killed a man—or helped get him killed?

            There will be no turning back this time; the raiders are all quite literally in the same boat. Lac turns his eyes to the carved-out trough of the canoe; he’s seen women in Bisaasi-teri use old basins that once held soup by the gallon as crude canoes to travel short distances on the rivers. Now he sees tightly packed clusters of brightly sheathed plantains, comically bloated cartoon fingers resting plump one atop another. Rorotoiwä knows, this being the wet season, his men will have a difficult time locating their enemies’ camp. They could wander the flooded jungle for days without reaching Patanowä-teri. And Lac won’t be here to ferry them back across the Orinoco after they do—if they do.

            Looking at the mounded yellow tubes swallowing his passengers’ feet, hearing Rorotoiwä’s pep talk, in which he can’t conceal his own reluctance to push on with the raid, Lac relaxes his grip on the tiller. These men won’t find the shabono or the camp they’re seeking, he thinks; they’ll search for a while and then they’ll run out of food and march back home. He’s helped them advertise their eagerness to take revenge by transporting them so conspicuously down the river, but he doesn’t have to worry about being complicit in another killing. This thought brings to mind Morello’s response to the news about how the shotguns he handed out to the Iyäwei-teri had been put to use—indignant denial followed by overplayed outrage.

            The padre is a good, kind man, Lac thinks, yet he once asked me to kill one of his colleagues. Maybe he justified that request by emphasizing in his own mind how serious an offense it was for the wayward priest to have children by one of the women he was sent to missionize. Maybe he figured there was little chance Lac would go through with it, however urgently he pleaded, though that’s not how it seemed at the time. Lac remembers—still feels—the insult: you’re an atheist, he may as well have said, so what does it matter if you kill someone for me? And the people of Makorima-teri? Is Morello wracked with guilt about what happened there, as Lac is about what transpired on the earlier raid against Patanowä-teri?

            For whatever reason, Lac doubts that could be the case. How could a good, civilized man live with such deeds weighing on his conscience? Ah, Lachlan, he thinks, your time in the jungle has made you philosophical: why do good people do bad things? Maybe it’s the license granted by their religion; who cares about dead bodies piling up when souls are all that matter? Who cares about earthly suffering when it’s the fate of your incorporeal and eternal being that’s at stake? Still, Lac can’t imagine Chuck Clemens giving guns to the Yąnomamö. He definitely can’t imagine Chuck asking him to take a fellow missionary on a fishing trip he’d never return from.

            There’s a commotion at the front of the boat. They’re coming up on the stream the Monou-teri raiders plan to follow inland. Lac swerves the dugout away from the bank so he can turn back and approach the shore head on. As the canoe loses speed near the trees lining the water, the bareto swarm as though angry at the presumption. Lac has grown so accustomed to them by now, he merely notes their presence and ferocity before promptly managing to ignore them. A few men plunge needlessly overboard, splashing thigh-deep into the water while hanging onto the sides of the boat to guide it ashore. Lac figures their real purpose is to take a refreshing dip after being exposed for hours to the direct rays of the afternoon sun.

            For months now, he’s been aware to varying degrees of a steady pulsing at the back of his mind, which when he attends to it fully resolves into a question: what the hell am I doing out here? But now something else, a new impulse, is filling that old worn-out attic in his skull, this time in the shape of a disapproving tug. Turning his attention to it now, he’s able to translate it into another question: you’re not really going to turn your boat around and leave these men here, are you? He feels the canoe being dragged onto the mossy bank as the foremost passengers step onto land.

            Lac turns back to the motor and spends a few minutes checking the fuel and disentangling weeds wrapped around the rudder, listening to the men chat nervously. An eerie feeling of suspension fills the space around the raiders. Lac finally steps out of the canoe and walks over to Rorotoiwä as the other men load each other up with their heavy burdens of plantains and stand around futzing with their arrows.

            “How long before you reach Patanowä-teri?” Lac asks the young headman.

            “Ah, we may find them tomorrow, or it may take weeks. Rorotoiwä turns to stare into the jungle with what looks like an expression of the purest heartbreak. Lac wishes he could console him somehow, but then he turns back with his features readjusted into a look of steely determination. Imagine at twenty-two or thereabouts leading a group of teenage boys and a few of your older cousins, Lac thinks, on a search for members of a rival group—so you can kill one or more of them; I suppose it’s not so different from the experiences of kids in street gangs in the big cities back in the States.

            Rorotoiwä looks at Lac now, evincing a jumble of emotions he can’t begin to parse—until it dawns on him: Rorotoiwä wants him to leave, and the sooner the better. As long as he stays, the men won’t want to start marching inland; many of them would still much prefer to turn back and return upriver. Lac meanwhile, though he has no animosity for the Patanowä-teri, doesn’t feel right about depositing these men here, abandoning them to their fates. Reluctantly, he turns to grab the canoe so he can relaunch it. Rorotoiwä leans down to help.

            “Shaki,” he says, “you have done something big for me and for Monou-teri. We’ll remember it.” This is the first thanks Lac has ever received from the Yąnomamö, who have no word for it because they prize reciprocity over gratitude. Maybe this young headman is having doubts about whether he’ll be around to repay his nabä benefactor.

            Lac puts a hand on his shoulder before stepping back into the canoe and being pushed off the shore into the current. His heart weighs heavy as he starts the motor and brings the craft around to go back the way he came.

            He climbs the ladder in the corner of his hut. The lone window is in the gable, so light no longer reaches this lower level unfiltered. He had to experiment with the flooring for this troja, as this sort of upper-level space is called in Spanish. His children would need to be able to play on it, naturally; it shouldn’t be overly inviting to creepy-crawlies; and it should support the weight of at least a few adults. He chose to work with some long palm wood shafts, following a recommendation by Rowahirawa, but after splitting them lengthwise he was immediately faced with the problem of their razor-sharp edges. If you simply bind entire poles together, the flooring is too uneven, forming a series of crenelated ruts. So he settled on a compromise: with Clemens’s and Rowahirawa’s help, he splint the shafts in halves as originally planned but fixed them rounded-side-up to the rafters to keep the sharp edges facing downward. The resulting scalloped surface is much more even than if they’d used entire poles.

            He steps out onto the suspended floor now. The wood is brittle but extremely hard; bound together, the poles are plenty strong to bear the weight of several people. He looks at the support beams holding up the walls and the hammocks he’s already tied one to the other. Kara isn’t yet two, probably too young to trust to her own hammock. Clemens says he has a “kiddy cage” for her to sleep in which will keep her within arms’ reach of Laura without risk of tumbles. Lac has slept up here the past four nights; it’s cooler during the hottest hours but no chillier at night. He’s tried the shower twice as well; it’s crude for sure, but by stone-age standards it’s the height of luxury. It beats traveling three hours downstream to Ocamo anyway.

            Does Padre Sanchez have running water at his budding outpost across the Orinoco? No need to inquire now; who knows what Sanchez would ask in return for the use of his amenities?

            Lac doesn’t like the look of the walls, with their patchy carpeting of moss and redolence of mold and mildew, or the spill-slicked dried-mud floors of the downstairs area. The outhouse, now that he and Clemens have made some repairs and upgrades, is better than serviceable, but he can’t help wishing it were better somehow, more sanitary. Connor and Kevin never tired of poking fun at their one brother who couldn’t build or fix anything. “How can the son of a handyman be so unhandy?” Now Lac wants to take out his 35-millimeter camera and document his successful adventures in craftsmanship as evidence of the demise of these old prejudices’ applicability.

            Have any of my brothers ever built a house nearly from scratch in the middle of a damn jungle? How about one with a temperature-regulated sleeping space above the main room, one with a secured storage area, and a shower that delivers warm running water? On top of that, I’ve taken apart that damn motor on my canoe and put it back together so many times I could reengineer the whole apparatus in my sleep.

            Lac steps back onto the ladder to return to the ground level. The fact is, he lacks any confidence that he adequately comprehends the range of dangers and complications he’ll be introducing into his family by bringing them here. He can’t possibly comprehend it because there’s so much he doesn’t know. But he’s done his best to prepare. He’s been making a point of carrying his shotgun around, or at least keeping it in easy reach—letting the Yąnomamö see that it is—a habit he’d fallen out of some time ago. He’s covered all the bases as far as he’s able to stretch his accounting of those bases. He’s both excited and worried, cocky and insecure. Taking one last look around before leaving for Ocamo, where he’ll fly out from to reach Caracas, he has to stop himself from answering the question that pops into his head again.

            What’s the worst that could happen?

            “I have to come clean on something,” Lac says. “The Yąnomamö sometimes raid each other’s villages, and one or more people can get killed when they do.”

            Laura doesn’t flinch, but her expression becomes stern. “How likely is it,” she eventually asks, “that the village we’re staying in will be raided like this?”

            “The whole time I’ve been there, it’s never been raided once, and the people there have only gone on one raid themselves. But I’ve seen lots of fights. They have formalized duels where they slap each other on the side of the ribcage, or else they take turns hitting each other over the head with long clubs which look a little like pool cues, except longer.”

            “You didn’t tell me they were violent because you thought I would worry?”

            “Well, yes, but I have to tell you now because we need to be ready. I’ve worked out some contingency plans. Stage one will be retreat to the hut and secure all the latches on the door. Stage two will be go straight to the canoe and—”

            “Lachlan, I need you to tell me. How bad is it?”

            “It should be fine if we’re smart about it, if we’re prepared. Stage two is launch the canoe out to the center of the river. If the motor won’t start, it’s not too hard to row that far. Once you’re out there, you’ll catch the current. Stage three—”

            “Stop for a second. I need you to tell me, honestly, how bad is it?”

            “I told you we should be fine if we’re prepared.”

            “If it’s all fine and dandy then why did you feel like you needed to keep it from me? I’ve known from the beginning there were things you weren’t telling me—that something had rattled you and that you were still worried—and that’s what’s been worrying me more than anything else, that it was so bad you couldn’t tell me. So right now I need you to be honest, completely honest.  Lachlan, how bad is it?”

            Lac pauses for a rushed intake of air through his nostrils which culminates in an unplanned sigh. Not wanting her to think he’s angry or impatient with the questioning, he hurries to formulate a convincing response. “I can’t deny there have been a few scary moments—more than a few. Really scary.” He halts long enough for a path forward to appear in his mind. “But what you have to understand is that I never knew what to expect, so everything seemed like it would be worse than it ended up being. Whenever a club fight broke out, I thought the whole tribal network was going to erupt into a war of all against all. But it was just the two men most of the time. So, yes, I was worried, and I didn’t know what to tell you, because I didn’t know what anything meant. I’ve been there for almost a year now and it’s beginning to make sense, the whole culture, including what provokes them to violence”—disputes over women, he thinks—“and I know when to expect trouble”—unless it’s a raid, in which case you never know when it’s coming. What the hell are you doing bringing them to that place? “Laura, it’s true, there’s real danger. But I believe we can be safe if we just play it smart and have some contingencies planned out in advance.”

            He waits, holding his breath until she’s taken an eternal moment to scrutinize his face. At last, she stands up from the table, goes to a drawer in the kitchen, and returns with an open notebook and pen.

            “What’s stage three then?”

            The chambers of Lac’s heart expand, its walls thicken, and he has a sensation of his body evaporating, being swept upward and mingling with the air outside until it’s one with the gold dust light of the sun. He’s strapped in the back of the single-engine plane with Dominic and Kara beside him. They’re on their way to Padre Morello’s new airstrip at the Ocamo mission outpost. Laura is riding shotgun and keeping up a conversation with the pilot in impeccable Spanish. This feeling is an overwhelming relief for Lac, who’s spent the past two weeks ricocheting between a confused languid stupor and a state of panic.

            The disorientation he’d felt during his last departure from Yąnomamöland had mutated into an unbearably all-pervasive cynicism, as every encounter he witnessed seemed like the crudest playacting, as though the entire Venezuelan society was trapped in an earnest but incompetently produced high-school play. Affectation built atop a foundation of affectation, covering over the ruins of any capacity for self-awareness, a thoroughgoing obliviousness of the ceremonies being enacted in such lackadaisical and ham-fisted fashions.

            Do you even know why you’re smiling like that? he wanted to ask of a man in a hardware store. Hell, are you even aware you’re smiling?

            Nearly everyone he interacted with at any length he wanted to shake, shouting in their face, “Wake up!” But he knew they’d have no idea what he was talking about. They’d probably lock him away if he didn’t keep his thoughts and urges under wraps. A cab driver making the sign of the cross had him on the verge of hysterics.

            And you, Lachlan Shackley, where do your affectations stop and your true feelings begin? Lac was painfully aware over his two-week stay at the IVIC headquarters of having picked up from the Yąnomamö, not just individual mannerisms and habits—like rubbing the soles of his feet together to knock away any dust before lifting his legs onto the bed—but entire constellations of gestures and tones and expressions. He wondered whether he hadn’t developed a completely separate persona to inhabit whenever he’s with them, almost a separate personality. The worst part is, having returned to civilization, he couldn’t get his true persona, his old self, to fit properly. It’s like he’s outgrown it—as if he’d grown an extra appendage.

            “Where are you?” Laura said as they tried to make love the first time.

            “I don’t know dammit!” he huffed as he rolled out of bed and turned away from her, lest he break into tears.

            After four days, his sense of her and the kids, his feelings for them, returned. He could look at them, look into their eyes, and match his emotions to their expressions—though still sensing the chasm between feeling and appearance—and connect gestures and actions to his sense of his own affection. It wasn’t until day seven that he succeeded in making love to his wife. “You are still in there,” she said afterward, smiling, forcing him once more to squeeze shut his eyes to hold back the tears.

            So he woke up as himself after a week with his family; that’s when he could start worrying with the full force of his fatherly and husbandly prerogative—not that he hadn’t already begun fretting while in the fog of his discombobulated selfhood.

            Now, however, he’s soaring among the clouds and experiencing the full force of the forest’s breathtaking wonder, not through his own senses but through his children’s, and his wife’s as well, their connection reestablished, reaffirmed, and stronger than ever. When he first arrived in Yąnomamöland, it was utter ignorance colliding with a green tidal wave of dangerous mystery. Now he has the knowledge to guide Laura and the kids safely through the most frightening and deadly encounters in store for them in this filthy shimmering alien world, meaning they’ll be free to experience the sheer joy of discovery with only a tiny fraction of the fear. He envies them—but their bond is such as can allow for him to vicariously experience it all anew for himself, which makes him elated; he can’t remember a time when he felt such a surge of heart-swelling elevation before.

            You just need to keep them healthy and safe for a few months, he tells himself, and reasonably comfortable. This may transform them for the rest of their lives. How could it not, considering it’s transformed you so irreparably?

Let’s just hope their transformation is for the better. 

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The Hekura Healer of Inherited Wounds: He Borara Chapter 13

Teaching the Yanomamo about Jesus
            Bahikoawa’s real name is Mobaräkäwa. Nakaweshimi, she of the hirsute labia and the missing infant, is Rariwi. The boy who gave him his first glimpse of the Yąnomamö wild glint is Warotobowä, and he sits with Lac, along with a few Mömariböwei-teri men, going through the charts to see what can be salvaged. The relationships are diagrammed correctly in most cases; it’s only the names that are worthless. He has the names of many children and siohas right too. Warotobowä says he’ll help Lac redo the entire census for one of each of the main types of madohe: an aluminum pot, an ax, another machete, fishhooks, a loincloth—apparently the Yąnomamö find the foreskin string as uncomfortable as Lac did when he tried it—and a shotgun.

            “Ma, little brother,” Lac responded. “Pick one—and I’m not giving you a shotgun, you or any other Yąnomamö. You’re too waiteri.” Now the light is softly fading into night. Lac and the six young men from Bisaasi-teri will travel back tomorrow. He’s decided to abandon his work, try to cobble together a serviceable PhD thesis from what he’s already done, and inform Dr. Nelson that the task he set him to is impossible. The Yąnomamö are too violent and cunning in their enforcement of the name taboo.

            Lac knows he’s failed as an anthropologist, but this reality doesn’t cut as deep as it might because the failure is as much anthropology’s as it is his own. Most of the ethnographies produced by PhD candidates like him are based on stints in the field not much longer than he’s been living in Bisaasi-teri. If he hadn’t made it a point to travel to as many other villages as he could, he would never have discovered the hoax his hosts had played on him, which makes you wonder, he thinks, how much of that so-called data is total bunk.

            It would barely matter anyway. All these eager young white people set out quixotically trying to expand our knowledge about the range of human experiences, and they end up staying for six measly months with a long-conquered people, missionized and corralled onto a reservation of one type or another. What can we learn about human experience from that, other than that technologically advanced societies don’t afford their primitive cousins much regard?

            It’s already too dark to do much more with the census tables. He imagines he’ll have to toss the entire file for his genealogies into a fire and start from scratch—if he ever decides they’re worth another crack that is. He tells the boy they’re done for the night, gives him some fishhooks from the bottom of his backpack, and sits down on the hammock he’s tied in the headman’s yahi. He doesn’t want to close his eyes. Even though he’s given up on pretending to be an anthropologist—given up on believing an anthropologist is something worth pretending to be—he still feels the full weight of his guilt for interfering in the raid on Patanowä-teri. Except, maybe interfering isn’t what he feels guilty about; maybe it’s the brute fact that he got someone killed.

But that guy would’ve killed you, he reminds himself; his buddy would have killed Rowahirawa.

            So self-defense is your defense? Ah, but what were you doing there in the first place? That’s like saying you’re not responsible for wrecking a car because you were drunk; the fact is, you’re responsible for getting drunk when you knew you’d be climbing into the driver’s seat.  

Lac closes his eyes at last. Next he knows, he’s groping and flailing about in the mosquito netting to keep from tumbling out of the hammock. Those powerful arms, holding him down, rearing back to strike, and then…. The logic of him-or-me holds sway, the principle people who’ve never set foot in a jungle like to call the law of the jungle. All of civilization begins with an effort to change this fundamental equation. Kill your neighbor? Why, when his family will avenge him? Why, when you can profit from his labor, when you can make use of his products? Why, when some authority would surely drop the hammer, seeing to it that, as a consequence of your deed, you are somehow sanctioned, sacrificed, or elsewise compromised to make your victim’s family whole? Absent an economy, absent a protocol for meting out justice, absent an authority to execute on that protocol, and we’re doomed to repeat this cycle of endless reprisal—tit for tat in both gifts and offenses—unto eternity.

            He looks around the yahi. It’s silent and dark. It seems like he only nodded off for a minute, but it could have been hours. As he lies rocking, his ears slowly tune in to the skittering and scrapping of roaches and beetles in the roof thatching above him, a sign that the Mömariböwei-teri will soon need to burn this shabono and build a new one, either on this same spot or, if they wish to avoid hostile neighbors, in some other more strategic location. From what Lac has gleaned, shabonos grow too infested, their roofs too leaky, after a few years. Rebuilding is a time of great excitement.

            As the swaying of his roughly jarred hammock dwindles peacefully into soft juddering and then to stillness, Lac slides into an almost sublime state of emptiness. Emptied of ideas and beliefs, of conceits and agendas, just an intricate conglomerate of flesh sacks within flesh sacks, kept in business by a central pump encased in a bone cage, mindlessly thudding away. The gooey mess behind his eyes has been pushed beyond capacity, taken far outside the parameters of its normal operation. Now it’s seized up, congealed, its contents left to flake away, like dry leaves scattering in the breeze.

            Whether he’s here with the Yąnomamö or back home in Ann Arbor, it makes no difference. In either place, he’ll merely be thudding out his existence while being jostled and prodded about by other stuffed flesh dolls endowed with delusions of selfhood and significance. He should rightly be mortified on returning to Bisaasi-teri tomorrow evening, but he’s been the butt of their bullying jokes ever since he arrived in the territory back in November. What’s one more X-frame bridge, one more instance of failing to keep to a trail for more than five minutes at a time, one more day of having to insist on being told about topics even children are natural experts in?

Some of the elements of those fake names he should have recognized—but then again English-speakers hardly blink at the idea of a man named Dick. How could he have known?

No, he’ll go back. He’ll give Mobaräkäwa a piece of his mind. If Clemens is there, he’ll tell him about the Salesian plot to steal his dictionary. Then he’ll ask him to arrange passage out of the territory, back to Caracas, back to Laura and the kids. If Clemens isn’t there, then he’ll have to motor downstream to Ocamo, have the padre get him on a flight from the dirt landing strip in La Esmeralda, a request which will require a bit of lying if he hopes to have it granted: “It’s just for a couple weeks, like the last time, and when I get back I’ll pick up that dictionary you asked to borrow.” Then it’s back to the States, where he’ll eat lots of fresh salad, drink lots of cold beer, and take up showering every day again.

He falls asleep to the sputtering of embers in the hearth, a faint smile stretching his briefly contented lips.

Lac doesn’t trust Warotobowä any farther than he can throw him, not because he presents as especially shifty, but because Lac has accrued a history of being taken advantage of by supposed friends among the Yąnomamö. Plus, the duplicitousness, deception, and disrespect are exacerbated in the wake of incidents of public humiliation, of the sort he suffered a severe version of in Mömariböwei-teri. Every idiotic move sets you back, not only regarding your projects but also your reputation. Nevertheless, though Lac is wary of the young man, he decides to employ him as a temporary stand-in for Rowahirawa. The kid is sharp and curious, seems mostly genuine in his dealings with Lac so far, and he even speaks a little Spanish.

Lac finds no point in checking his impulse to interrogate his young informant as they make the march back to Bisaasi-teri. “Will Rowahirawa be finished with the unokaimou when we get back?”

“Ma, he’ll have this many days to go.” He holds up three fingers, meaning the ritual must last about a week. That’s a long time to be separated from everyone, Lac thinks; they must take the spilling of blood, the taking of life, seriously, their bombastic eagerness notwithstanding.

“Owa, where are you from? How did you come to be at the mission at Tama Tama?”

“I was born in Mömariböwei-teri. I’ve been doing siohamou in Ora-teri”—Lower Bisaasi-teri, Lac thinks, which is why I seldom cross paths with him. “The other white nabä took me to Tama Tama once long ago, and I go back on occasion to hunt and see if I can get any madohe. They gave me clothes but they were too big and I didn’t like them.”

“Did you learn to speak Spanish there?”

“Awei, they sat us on long flat logs and taught us to use white leaf bundles like the ones you’re always drawing in. They talked all the time about a nabä who lived at the time of Moonblood and was so good a healer that he was able to heal himself even after being killed by warriors. They said he’s still here in the forest today, but now he only heals souls. When I asked how he saves the souls from the hekura and returns them to sick people, they said that’s not how this nabä spirit heals their souls. Instead, he heals some wound we carry from one of our ancestors. They said the hekura aren’t real. That’s when I knew you nabä are crazy. We’ve all seen the hekura. The missionaries told me no one alive today has seen the healer spirit in this way. They only feel him. He’s probably just a hekura himself, tricking them into believing he’s the only one. It’s a ridiculous trick too; no man I know of passed his wounds on to his sons.”

“Are the names you gave me for the people of Mömariböwei-teri true? Or are they like the names I was given in Bisaasi-teri?”

“Ma, Shaki, we gave you the true names. I will only give you real names if you bring your madohe straight to me.”

“Why didn’t you tell me the Bisaasi-teri were playing a trick on me?”

            “Because if I had everyone would have been furious with me.”

            “The names of the Bisaasi-teri ancestors I showed you, you’re sure those are real names?”

            “Awei, Shaki. I don’t know those people, but the names are good. They’re not funny like the other names the Bisaasi-teri gave you.” But that doesn’t mean they’re the names of the ancestors I’m trying to learn, Lac thinks. These legit-sounding names mostly came from Kukumbrawa, the old man Lac interviewed all those times in private, the one who went in for all the drama and tall tales. Hard to imagine now, he thinks, that fellow has been my lone reliable informant.  

            “Owa, has the Christian brother been to Lower Bisaasi-teri many times lately?”

            “Ma, he sends his motorista to ferry kids across the river. He gives them sweet-tasting oatmeal, which they love, and he tells them to tell their fathers to come to him for madohe. He says he’ll give them what they want for a little help with his ohodemou—just like you, Shaki.”

            “Do the Bisaasi-teri go work for the brother then?”

            “Awei, some do. But they hate him, so the ones who go over there usually don’t go back. They tell the rest of us to stay away too.”

            “Why do they hate him?”

            “They say he gets angry and threatens them. They say he never hands over the madohe he promises because he’s always trying to get them to do one more thing.”

I know the type, Lac thinks, never satisfied, always suspecting everyone is out to screw them. “Have you gone to work for him?”

“Awei, I know the best ways to do everything. I know how to find everything you may need. I always go to find out about what new nabäs are doing. My uncles say there’s more of you showing up in villages all the time, bringing more madohe, telling the Yąnomamö they have to learn about their healer spirit who got killed but woke himself up.”

“Do many Yąnomamö want to learn about this spirit?”

“Ma, they only pretend to listen. The shabori say they’ve never encountered this spirit, so they wonder why the white nabäs think he’s so important. It’s probably because nabäs don’t know very many of the hekura.”

“I’ve never seen him either,” Lac says. “And I agree with the Yąnomamö that most white nabäs are wrong to assign him such importance. He’s one among many.”

“Shaki, why do you want to put everyone’s names into your white leaves? Why do you want to know so much about people’s lives and their ancestors?”

Lac explains that the way the Yąnomamö live and think is much different from the way the nabäs he knows live and think, and he’s fascinated with those differences. So he’s trying to find out as much as he can about how each society came to be where it is now, its people living the way they do. He hopes, he says, to one day be able to explain why the nabä live one way and the Yąnomamö live an entirely different way, thinking all the while it would be more accurate to say he’s hoping the Yąnomamö shed light on the white nabäs’ distant past but not motivated enough to go into such detail.

“Ah, Shaki,” Warotobowä says, “I would like to know the answer to this question too, but why don’t you take ebene and ask the hekura? They’ll tell you about the flood that washed your ancestors away from this region. They’ll tell you why you and the other nabäs are so strange, and then you’ll know how to live more like the Yąnomamö.”

Lac smiles. Anthropologists are admonished to avoid ethnocentrism, but nothing stops their subjects from believing their own culture superior, the norm from which any deviation means degradation. No matter where you go, you find that people are not so much interested in explaining what makes one society different from another; people just want to know what the hell is wrong with anybody who’s not like them. It must come natural to us humans. It’s only through disciplined effort that we see past the bias.

“Shaki, where do your supplies of madohe come from?”

“Owa, the villages where nabäs like me come from are full of them. We all have ohodemou, many of us building things to trade among ourselves, and since the villages are so big, there are many many varieties of madohe for everyone to exchange.” Lac glances over to see how the news affects his informant. How well does he understand the concept of cities, whether dirt-road towns like Puerto Ayacucho or bustling seedy metropolises like Caracas? What has he learned at the mission school, besides that Jesus healed his own fatal wounds after his death?

They walk on in silence along the elusive trail through the heavy dank air. Lac thinks of his censuses and genealogies, chuckling quietly at the preposterousness of his predicament. When he returns to Bisaasi-teri, he’ll seek out the old man who gave him all those valid names, continue pressing back in time—because what else is he going to do until Clemens comes back? Who knows if any of his charts are accurate, if there’s any chance of him forging ahead and meeting with any success? He dreads the conversation, or better yet the letter, in which he has to explain to Dr. Nelson, a real doctor, why he’s abandoned the project he agreed to undertake. He dreads the confirmation of his father’s and oldest brother’s dismissive characterization of his chosen discipline. Most of all, he dreads going back to the States, back to Ann Arbor, knowing he failed. So he determines to keep at his work, see what he can find out, at least until Clemens arrives.

And what, Lac wonders, will Clemens do to occupy his time in Bisaasi-teri? Does he walk around looking for people who will listen to his speeches about Jesus? Right now, the traditional myths remain dominant in the minds of young people like Warotobowä, but in ten years that tradition will be vitiated beyond recognition. The religion will be effectively lost—along with most of their other traditions. How can you just walk away now, he asks himself, and let this opportunity vanish? Ah, because the reality of learning about life in tribal society is far removed from the notions you brought to the field. Because there’s still enough time for someone else to do the work, to get the information, to make the discoveries. But won’t that someone else at some point find himself right where you are today? And won’t he be just as tempted to give up?

One foot in front of the other, one name in the ledger after another—until you find yourself off the trail, derided as a fool, and put back on course.

“Shaki,” one of the boys calls out. “Why don’t you take the lead again?” Lac steps to the front of the line amid their chortling, and his private thoughts are quickly subsumed by his efforts to discern and keep to the path.

Rowahirawa is in a rage.

Lac has been in his hut all morning working with Kukumbrawa on his genealogies. Now it seems Rowahirawa has completed the unokaimou. He’s returned to his father-in-law’s yahi. And he’s pissed.

“Shoabe, why is my owa, the sioha, so angry?” Lac asks Kukumbrawa as they jog alongside each other to the shabono, Lac with his census graphs still in hand. But the old man doesn’t seem to know; he says merely that the young man—the huya—is jealous. Upon ducking into the shabono and stepping out into the plaza, they see Rowahirawa, fresh from his week-long confinement with the two other unokais, facing off with an older man. Lac moves closer and sees that it’s Rowahirawa’s father-in-law he’s dressing down, the one trying to coax him into remaining with his daughter in Bisaasi-teri by dangling before him the promise of a second marriage to a younger daughter. As Lac listens to the tirade, he begins to piece together the story behind his informant’s anger—and he can’t escape the rush of relief from realizing it’s not him the rage is directed toward this time.

Now Rowahirawa turns toward another huya—a term Lac has been taking to mean something like hooligan but is beginning to think refers to any male in his late teens. This guy is trying his damnedest to appear unfazed by Rowahirawa’s insults and threats as he timidly protests.

Lac doesn’t have to listen long before he understands what’s set Rowahirawa off. “I was ready to plant my garden outside,” he’d said to his father-in-law, but now he’s calling this huya a coward for waiting until he was quarantined for the unokaimou before arranging a tryst—a series of trysts—in the gardens with his wife’s little sister. Lac has to resist openly chuckling. Everyone in the village has stepped into the courtyard to bear witness to this latest flare-up. Finally, someone else, Rowahirawa no less, is accepting his share of humiliation. He’s not accepting it quietly though, not meekly laughing at himself and, hangdog, saying, “Oh shucks, you guys, cut it out,” blotchy red from overheated blushing.

Thus Lac begins to understand how a Yąnomamö man secures his reputation as no one to be trifled with, the same way he may need to start doing it himself. Now the young lover’s father is running up to enter the fray, condemning Rowahirawa for his insults and threats, standing up for the honor of his lineage. Looking around to gauge to the level of concern on the villagers’ faces around him, Lac worries this row will combust into a full-blown family feud, more so because Rowahirawa has no family in Bisaasi-teri but is too incensed to back down. Instead, he challenges both father and son to a club fight.

“Get your himos!” he demands, referring to the longer clubs, the ones with an edge, the more dangerous ones. “You can each have a turn before I take mine.”

Not only does he show no fear; he seems desperate for them to strike the first blows as he chases them back, jutting his head out with his hands down at his sides, all but begging for a new set of perpetually livid scars he can display through his tonsure, that window onto the violence of his past which serves as a warning of his current propensity.

Lac grips his charts tight. He’d be more worried for his friend if the two men weren’t so patently intimidated; it’s as though Rowahirawa is transferring his humiliation onto them, with a vengeance. First the father and then the young lover—if such a term applies—hunches down and cants his body to avoid squaring shoulders, just perceptibly. You can see, even as they complain about their mistreatment, neither will step up to deliver the blow Rowahirawa is demanding. This will be to their lasting disgrace, proof in everyone’s mind of their cowardice. Lac will have to keep an eye out for how this diminishment affects their standing. For now, Rowahirawa is still full of rancor. Who will he direct it toward next? How will he sate his urge to violence? He turns from the two men, all contempt. As he steps away, the father shouts one last bit of defiant invective.

Rowahirawa whips back around. “Did you change your mind about fighting me, Makorowiwa? Then forget himos. I’ll bury an ax in your filthy forehead and then your son can screw my little sister-in-law all he wants while I go through the unokaimou again. When I’m done I’ll bury an ax in his head too.” The man goes rigid with impotent rage. Rowahirawa turns away again and starts huffing toward the passage out of the shabono as Lac, stunned, recovers his wits and riffles wildly through the pages in his hand. Rowahirawa just said the man’s name aloud, in the center of the courtyard, for nearly everyone in the village to hear. And it’s not the name Lac has in his charts.

The name Lac has came from Kukumbrawa. The old man is still giving him false names.

With both hands, Lac lifts the stack of pages over his head, making ready to throw them in the dirt, but a thought makes him hesitate. After holding the charts suspended for two beats, he comes to a decision and, pages still in hand, rushes off after Rowahirawa. He finds him pacing between the entrance passage and the edge of the garden. “Come inside my hut,” Lac says.

“Shaki, I’m leaving Bisaasi-teri first thing tomorrow. The people here, they’re all liars and cowards and weak and pathetic. The women all have saggy butt cheeks and pocked, greasy foreheads. And I barely learn anything about the hekura from these incompetent shaboris who let child after child die as their souls are dragged away and devoured.”

As they step indoors, Lac takes a moment to be grateful Rowahirawa hasn’t smashed anything in his hut yet. “Shori, you called that man by his name, the huya’s father. Why is it a different name than I got from the old man?”

“Shaki, you idiot. Will you never learn? Everyone knows the old man is giving you fake names—they’d be angry with him if he weren’t. And I didn’t call him by his name; that would be too nice. I called him by his dead father’s name. Come with me back to Karohi-teri and I’ll give you the real names of everyone here.”

“Ma, Shori, I’m waiting for the bald missionary to return so I can bring my family to live with me, but if you stay and give me the names I need, we can start traveling to every village you’ve ever heard of. You’ll surely find better wives and better shabori teachers in one of them. And one day you’ll surely be the one who truly lives here, wherever it is you decide to live.”

“I would have been back sooner,” Chuck says as they sit across from each other on nice wooden chairs outside the hut Lac has been helping to restore to habitability. “The Salesians have been dogging us at every turn. We had to pay up for enough licenses and permits and official letters to set us on course to burning through most of the funds we raised before I set foot in a single shabono.”

Lac wonders if he should tell Chuck about Padre Morello’s interest in his dictionary, but decides he lacks the certainty he’d need to make such an accusation. Chuck looks tired but hale, like he’s been absorbing some of the heartiness that’s been leaking out from Lac’s pores into rapidly evaporating puddles on the jungle floor.

“It seems the Catholics have talked to every pilot who flies in and out of Esmeralda,” Chuck goes on, “telling them about a host of favors they can count on if they help keep all the Protestant missionaries out of the region. We had to bring in some friends from Caracas to fly us in. And the priest who lives with the Ye’kwana near the airstrip was not at all happy to see us landing.”

Great, Lac thinks, that means I have to watch what I say so I can keep the padre and the other Salesians on my side. They can make life pretty damned difficult for a fieldworker if they decide to. Staying in the good graces of both missionary groups is going to take some finesse.

“The only good thing about it,” Chuck goes on, “is that the rivalry is energizing people at the church back in the States. After the newsletter went out and people read an article I wrote about our problems with the Caracas bureaucracy, we started receiving more donations than ever. The New Tribes is determined not to lose Bisaasi-teri the way they lost Mahekodo-teri and Iyäwei-teri.”

“I hate to tell you then that the Salesians have already started moving in across the river. So far, they’ve been concentrating their efforts on Lower Bisaasi-teri—maybe because they want to keep their methods secret from someone like me—and from what I hear they aren’t having much success getting people to come stay with them.”

“Yes, we found out about the new compound over by the old Malarialogìa hut.” He chuckles. “Your face that first day I brought you out here—I can’t imagine showing up for the first time right after a fight like that. Anyway, me and Judy are going to stay here as much as we can, and we have another couple coming from Canada in two weeks to stay at Lower Bisaasi-teri.” 

            Ah, Lac thinks, so I’ll have to relocate to another village if I want to study Yąnomamö with minimal contact to the outside world. But if I travel farther inland from the Orinoco, getting Laura and the kids in will be that much harder—impossible really.

You’re going to have to decide what your priority is.

“So you said you found a way to get the names you wanted—after your little setback.” Chuck shakes his head, unable to conceal his grin. “How did you do it?”

“It was staring me in the face,” Lac says, savoring the English words on his tongue, rolling them out with effortless precision, as though his mouth had a mind of its own, one in perfect sync with the mind hosting his consciousness of the world around him. “I was so dead-set on following the kinship gradient I’d discovered early in my stay, working from the assumption that relatives would know the most about their closest family members, and would therefore be able to give me the most accurate information. But that approach kept running headlong into the logic of their name-avoidance practices. Close kin, especially those who are recently deceased, are the people you refuse to name the most vehemently. What I realized—and it was just last week—is that the only way to get a bunch of good names is to start with the most distant relatives or people not related at all. Or better yet start with enemies. If you want the names of people in Iyäwei-teri, you ask someone from Mahekodo-teri. The best source of names in Bisaasi-teri is a man from Karohi-teri doing bride service for his father-in-law, a young man who happens to be disgruntled about not receiving a second wife he was promised. I still have a lot of cross-checking and corroboration to do before I can claim any success cleaning up the mess I discovered in Mömariböwei-teri, but I have names for everyone in Upper Bisaasi-teri, everyone in Mömariböwei-teri, and I have a good start on the census for Lower Bisaasi-teri. The genealogies are a trickier matter, but I’ll keep poking around. The longer I’m with the Yąnomamö, the more options and opportunities seem to pop up.”

“That’s truly remarkable,” Chuck says. “You sure set yourself a difficult task in collecting all their names. Honestly, I only know the names of a few of them who are close to the mission—thought I knew them anyway. Well, and a bunch of kids I suppose, but we often give the children biblical names so they can be entered into official records. We’re not nearly as proficient at it as the Salesians though.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed the priest at Ocamo calls the men he hires from Iyäwei-teri by Christian-sounding names. I called my main informant Pedro for a while, just because I had to call him something and I didn’t want to piss him off. It’s funny, now that he’s hanging his hammock in my hut because he’s too mad at his father-in-law to stay in his yahi, he’s started calling me aîwä—older brother. So I’m obliged to call him owa. As hard as it is for me to follow all the conventions, it must be even more delicate a balance for people in your and the padre’s positions to have to strike: showing respect for their culture while trying to pave their way into civilization.” Worried his attempt at sympathy may come across as a rebuke, Lac adds, “For me, it’s simpler, at least in that regard. I only care about their culture. Well—I should say I’m only interested in their culture for my work. I definitely worry about more than that though, as I see the outside world encroaching.”

Both men fall silent, pondering the potential fates they have some undetermined role in bringing about for the people whose disruptive existence was the cause of their separate voyages into this all-devouring jungle. What on earth are we doing here? Lac imagines Chuck must be consumed by that same mystery. Clemens is developing a program to help Yąnomamö children learn Spanish, not, as Morello seemed to think, composing a dictionary. As they discuss this project now, Lac thinks back to when Clemens gave him a single page of Yąnomamö terms and phrases, just before they left Tama Tama to motor up the final stretch of the Orinoco until reaching the mouth of the Mavaca. That was when he should have noted the first sign of trouble: a single Yąnomamö word translates as name, as in “to name someone,” and as insult. At the time, the implication that you can’t name someone without insulting him was lost on Lac.

“How long will you stay in Bisaasi-teri?” Lac asks.

Continuing their conversation about each other’s work, they’ve stepped inside the hut Lac built his own to share a wall with, forming a right-angled, thatched-roof duplex of sorts. “I’ll stay as long as I can,” Chuck says. “That’s why I’m having Judy and Tricia come to live here with me. The more of a presence we can sustain, the better chance we’ll have of preventing the Salesians from establishing a stronger foothold.”

“I think I’m going to bring my family here too; I’ll feel much better about them living in the territory knowing you’re here. But first I have some traveling to do. I want to see how well my name-collection system works on a larger scale, moving from village to village. If I could get village histories tracking their origins and migrations even back just a few generations, the scientific value….” He trails off. “But there are also some villages I just feel like I need to see. The people here talk of an immense village near the headwaters of the Mavaca. They call it Mishimishimaböwei-teri. But I have to go somewhere else first. I need to go to Patanowä-teri.”

“Where did the old man get all these names? They sound like true names.”

“Nobody in Bisaasi-teri would recognize these names, Aîwä. I alone possess true knowledge of the village where these people live. That’s why the old man used their names. No one here would know the man whose name was spoken and get angry.”

“What is this village? Can we travel there?”

“Awei, Shaki, it’s a long ways in that direction”—east—“but we could journey to Iyäwei-teri and stay there a night before heading to the Höräta River; that’s where we’ll find Makorima-teri. With your noisy boat, we may even be able to reach it in the wet season.”

“Owa, why do so many Yąnomamö fear that someone will get angry if it becomes known they are giving me names? You say the names I got from Mömariböwei-teri are true, but no one got angry about people sharing them.” 

            Rowahirawa sighs. It’s midday. The heat swaddles them in their hammocks as they sway and rock within the shadowy dank air of his hut, where they’ve come to escape it. “Each man has to make his own decision about whether he wants madohe more or if he wants to get angry more. If you say a man’s father’s name, he has no choice. But if you whisper the name of a neighbor, he may decide he likes his machete.”

“I don’t understand. The Mömariböwei-teri know I have all their names now, and no one got angry as far as I know. Do men get angry at each other for sharing their names a lot? Why are people so frightened?”

            “Each man decides what he wants, but you can never be sure what other men will decide. That’s why some are scared. In Mömariböwei-teri, the patas discussed the matter for the whole village when they heard you were trading tools for names. They consulted with their hekura. They agreed they wouldn’t get angry before you got there. Still, you have to be careful. Sometimes, men get angry and they can’t help it. Like me, when I get angry, I can’t decide not to be angry anymore. I’m just angry.”

Lac thinks he understands. He wonders whether he’ll get them all to be more forthcoming with time—all the ones who know him—or of him anyway. He may have to start all over again in more distant villages. Really though since his earliest days in Bisaasi-teri, it’s seemed as though people had already heard of him whenever he showed up at a new shabono. Tidings and gossip travel fast from village to village. “Owa,” he says, “I’m going to travel to many villages soon, and I want to go first to Patanowä-teri. Will it be safe for me to go to this village, or will they think I’m a Bisaasi-teri?”

Lac rolls on his side to see Rowahirawa smile his goofy, big-toothed smile. “Ma, Shaki, you are truly crazy. The Patanowä-teri will not think you’re a Bisaasi-teri, but you shouldn’t go there anyway. It will anger the patas here that you’re taking your madohe somewhere else. Plus, the trails will be flooded and your every step will land on a snake.”

“Awei, but I must go there. I must go to many villages. I’ll even go to Mishimishimaböwei-teri if I can. I hope you’ll come with me.”

“Maybe I will go with you to Mishimishimaböwei-teri. You will definitely need a lot of help to get there—and even more help once you’ve arrived.”
Sister feeds Yanomamo children

“Brother Marteens has done a… satisfactory job setting the groundwork for the outpost at Boca Mavaca,” Padre Morello says as they enter his office at Ocamo and find their respective chairs. Lac loves these chairs, and he still finds the padre’s voice a comfort. He has a series of evasions in mind should the topic of Clemens’s notional dictionary come up, but so far it seems Morello has returned to his usual, genial self, leaving Lac to wonder how trustworthy his recollection of the earlier encounter is. “It’s come along well, and now we’re ready for a priest to reside there. We’ll be having Brother Marteens apply his skills elsewhere, while Padre Sanchez takes over at Mavaca.”

Lac merely inquired after the mission’s progress, but from this reply he gets the impression Morello expects the news of Marteens departure to please him. What has Marteens told the padre, Lac wonders, and why should he think I have any animus toward this one Salesian, preferring any other missionary as a neighbor across the Orinoco? Or has Marteens been up to something Morello mistakenly assumes I’m aware of?

It’s a single suspicious moment in an otherwise fine conversation. Padre Morello, an amateur photographer, is planning a book about his time with the Yąnomamö, and he’s told Lac of his need for quality photos from “real life in the villages.” Lac has come downriver to offer him access to his haul of 35-millimeter pictures, not quid pro quo, but simply as a favor. Lac assures himself he’d proffer them regardless—but he does want something.

“We’ve got lots of company at Mavaca now already,” Lac says, silently warning himself to tread carefully—you don’t want either side to start thinking of you as their spy, and you definitely don’t want them to suspect you of spying for their rivals. “You’ve probably heard about the arrival of the Canadian husband-and-wife team taking up in Lower Bisaasi-teri?” Not waiting for a response, he interjects the crux: “So I figure conditions will be adequately safe for me to bring my own wife and children in to live with me outside the village. I’ve planned some river voyages that will keep me busy for much of the remaining wet season, and I’d like to visit Patanowä-teri if I can manage it—though my Yąnomamö friends warn me against any attempt. I’m thinking I’d like to fly my family in sometime in November, giving me plenty of time to look after them as I make my final preparations for my colleagues’ arrival in March. Dr. Nelson and his team will be doing medical tests and taking samples for genetics research. It should be an exciting project. But, Padre, I’m wondering if you could help me arrange a flight out of Esmeralda to Caracas, and then another flight back for me and my family, maybe a couple weeks later?”

The padre smiles. “Of course,” he says, genuinely delighted by the opportunity to be of assistance. Lac waits half a second for a counter-request, wondering if he should have offered the photos after asking for the favor instead of before. “She must miss you terribly, and I understand the loneliness one feels while living among a strange people, deep in the jungle, cut off from everything he knows. Having your wife with you will be so good for your spirits. Yes, I’ll set up the flights in and out. We’ll start working out the details in the morning.”

Same old Padre Morello, not angling for any favors, no dictionaries or kids’ language training materials, but simply glad to be of service to a fellow fieldworker, one of the few civilized men he has opportunity to converse with on this lonely frontier. The padre goes on to speak of past examples of missionaries who brought their families into Amazonia without catastrophe. None, Lac notes, were living among the Yąnomamö. “And then,” Morello says, “there are the young men”—white huyas, Lac thinks—“who come out here and completely lose their bearings.” His friendly eyes fold into a glower. “You can understand the temptation, I’m sure, Dr. Shackely. You know how it could separate a youth from his insufficiently steadfast resolve.”

Lac nearly interrupts to explain Yąnomamö women have never been an overly enticing lure to him, making the concealed hook of sin easy to evade, however many dreams he has in the early morning hours about liaisons with Laura, and others; it’s in fact this indifference that pricks his conscience, hinting as it does at a divide he’s still making in his mind between his own kind and theirs. But he intuits the padre must be referring to a specific man, someone causing him trouble, perhaps threatening the reputation of the Salesians in the territory more generally. So instead he says, “People do lose their minds out here, as you say because they’re cut off, surrounded by people who are wildly different from them. I hold out hope that those minds can be fully restored, but I admit that remains to be seen.” The padre’s fancy diction is having its usual effect on Lac’s own. “I only worry,” he goes on, “that it will be difficult to keep everyone safe.” Kara and Dominic could be bitten by poisonous snakes. Laura could be…

“You’ll be happy to hear then,” the padre says, “that the priest at Mavaca will be equipped with a shortwave radio like the one I have here. Which reminds me: you’ll be wanting to speak to your wife, perhaps share with her the good news about your visit in a few months. It’s almost time for my evening call to the main mission outpost; I’ll see if I can’t patch you through to your wife’s apartment at IVIC.”

“I’ll be able to help with your research,” Laura says through the static, her sentence like a hissing wick finally detonating in an explosive squawk from the speakers.

“It’s a strange place, Honey,” he responds, reaching for the dials, inexplicably taciturn. “I think you’ll probably have to spend most of your time watching the kids, making sure they don’t get lifted off into the sky by the bugs.” Suddenly, his English feels clumsy. Why downplay the risks at this point, he asks himself, when you’ll need to alert her to them all later anyway?

“Lachlan, you’re missing half the culture.”

“Ha! I bet at this point I’m still missing far more than that.”

“No, I’m talking about the women. I can spend time with them while you’re with the men, chanting and hunting and doing whatever else they do. Maybe they’ll be more open with me. Maybe they’ll even be easier to get some names from.” Like Mead and Bateson, Lac thinks, that ill-fated couple, but the Shackleys could be different.

“Well, that would be a welcome development,” he says. She’s antsy, he thinks, lonely and bored half out of her mind. It was a huge sacrifice on her part, agreeing to all this. You owe her your best effort at making the experience in some measure fulfilling. “I’ll show you the basics of how to fill in the charts. It would be good to have another source of corroboration for the names I have, but if you can help with the names of dead ancestors, well, then I just may have to figure out a way to bring you along to every village I travel to.”

Their time to luxuriate in each other’s airily mediated voices is ticking away, and Lac, at a loss, lingers longingly over this last point, listening for her response with the foreknowledge of the ache that will come as soon as he signs off. Some career you’ve chosen, he whispers to himself. Laura tells him about how the kids are healthy but in need of other children to play with. Will the Yąnomamö children make for good playmates? The thought of Dominic with a miniature bow, chasing a bee with a string trailing behind it, swells his heart. Then he thinks of Kara, of her tending to anyone younger than herself, and in turn being tended to by anyone older. Laura is right about him not being nearly as familiar with the distaff portion of the village; he has a much harder time envisioning what life will be like in Bisaasi-teri for his little girl.

And what will it be like for Laura?

She’ll have two English-speaking families to visit, along with a priest he hasn’t met, and she’ll be able to occupy herself by taking part in his work, collecting information from female sources. He’ll have to help her learn the language, even though he’s far from having mastered it himself. Indeed, there’s a gradient of linguistic aptitude among the Yąnomamö themselves. As of now, he’s much closer to the idiotically inarticulate end of the spectrum. Maybe Laura will quickly surpass him. Maybe she’ll be the one coaching him. If so, he would welcome the guidance. However much she thrives in the role of amateur anthropologist, she’ll never be able to travel to other villages without a well-armed male chaperone. She’ll still need him for that. Lac fantasizes about having her in the field, about them both fulfilling their complementary roles, her tending the hearth fire in Bisaasi-teri, acquiring deep knowledge of the cultural intricacies, him journeying from village to village, recording a more global history of intervillage politics and population dispersals.

“Laura, I know what you’re giving up for me now, what you must be going through. I know I’ve left you in circumstances that are… less than ideal. I just want you to know how much I appreciate it, and that I plan to devote much of my life in the coming years to making it up to you.”

“Lachlan, neither of us could have known what it would be like. I’m making do, me and the kids. Make it up to us by doing great work. Write the best damned ethnography that’s ever been written. Be the best damned anthropologist who’s ever lived.”

He lets her hear his forced laugh. “I’ll do my best,” he says, adding silently in his head—if I don’t get killed.

The thing about Patanowä-teri, he writes to Ken, is that while everyone on the outside is afraid of its inhabitants, telling stories of their unparalleled fierceness, people on the inside are scared to death of attacks from everyone on the outside. When I arrived (on my third attempt), the men were involved in a project to clear the area surrounding their immense shabono of any and all trees and brush, so raiders would have nowhere to conceal themselves if they attacked. They worked diligently—and I can tell you the Yąnomamö don’t work at all if they can avoid it—and the whole time they were on full alert.

As the handful of men cleared the brush and chopped down the trees, at least three others were standing guard with ready bows. When the women went out to the stream with their hollowed-out gourds, the men protecting them walked in a crouch, their arrows nocked and partly drawn back, their eyes open so big they looked like prowling bush babies.

Lac lifts his pen and marvels at how the Bisaasi-teri raiding party managed to ambush a man from such a vigilant group—even though one member of that party was shot through the chest, and at least one other would have been shot as well had it not been for Lac’s bumbling antics. Should he tell Ken how he got the wounded Monou-teri man to drink some water, and how it probably saved his life?

He sets his pen back down, writing, I was granted access to “the one who truly lives here,” and I presented him with both an ax and a machete, telling him I would bring much more on future visits. He has a big personality, this headman, loves to tell stories, acting them out with dramatic flourishes, and constantly pausing to ask, “Do you know what happened next?” or “Do you know what I did next?” But he too, truly living though he may be, was nervy as hell, barking orders at other men in a way I’ve never seen a Yąnomamö do.

The villagers seldom defer to their headman’s authority; any leading must be accomplished with the lightest of touches. The people in every village I’ve been to use the same phrase, “the one who truly lives here,” to refer to the headman, and they put special emphasis on the “truly” to stress the starkness of the distinction. But there’s no single word for a leader. I’ve been using pata to refer to them because it means something like “politically prominent man,” similar to the word browähäwä, but I’ve come to realize this latter connotes more of an ambition after prominence on the part of younger men, whereas patas are already established.

Rowahirawa tells me the best way to identify the headman of any village is to watch for which pata visitors go to when they arrive to trade. All the visitors to Bisaasi-teri, for instance, go straight to Mobaräkäwa (whom I’ve been calling Bahikoawa). And in Patanowä-teri I was brought first to Kreihisewa, after a tense approach and an even tenser entrance.

Lac pauses again in his writing, remembering how marching into the plaza and striking the visitor’s pose felt like turning himself in to the police. I’ve done something horrible, he may as well have said, or at least I think I may have. So I put myself in your hands, at your mercy. Let’s see if we can’t sort this whole thing out.

   Convention called for him to stare blankly over the top edge of the shabono’s thatching, into the billowing green conflagration of foliage festooned with daubed chains of cottony cloud. And stare he did, even though he wanted desperately to scan the plaza for the man he’d lunged at and sent over the edge of the bluff—the bluff he’d see now looming over the village if he turned and looked over his shoulder. He conjures an image of the man’s face in his mind. It seems so vivid, he thinks, but if I came face-to-face with him now, would I even recognize him?

It was the same deal as in the other villages he’s visited: he had a rough census with most of the people’s names before arriving; now he needed a Polaroid and a 35-millimeter photo of everyone. Patanowä-teri is home to over two hundred people though, so taking the time to get a census of any other village from them might have put him behind schedule. All he could think of as he stood in the pose, and later as he moved from yahi to yahi going over his list of names, was that one of those names belonged to the man who knows he was there the day the Bisaasi-teri and Monou-teri staged their joint raid, who knew that he’d not only been present but had participated—or rather, interfered. Yes, one of the names on his list must belong to this man—unless that man had been killed.

Lac had, after all, shoved him down a steep embankment, into the path of the band of retreating raiders. It’s entirely possible they killed him, meaning he wouldn’t be telling anyone what Lac had done, meaning Rowahirawa is the only one who knows. And does Rowahirawa even know about the tackle? Had he crossed paths with the doomed man on the cliff face? No, he couldn’t have. He only went through the unokaimou ceremony for a single killing, and then there’s the fact that no one else from the raiding party claimed to have killed anyone at the bluff. No, there were only the two killings, meaning the man who knows what he did is still here.

Every mock lunge Lac expected to be sincerely fatal. He stared out over the trees, thinking of the intricate abundance of life, the layered complexity and staggering copiousness of details and processes awaiting discovery, more than any one hundred minds could hold, however immanently graspable they individually seem. If the world can be seen in a grain of sand, think of the entire cosmos of interlocking cycles and nutrient chains and chemical bonds in every square inch of the forest canopy. Even the ants have stories to tell, and stories to be deduced, of how the species evolved, what its ancestors looked like, why it behaves the way it does, individual variation—do ants have personalities?—their roles within the group established through some basic biochemical mechanism. Never in his life had Lac looked so intently into a distant swatch of foliage, so doggedly brought to life in the theater of his mind the epic story of pismire prehistory alongside the smaller scale dramas of the workers’ daily lives.

Lac wasn’t attacked. He stood long enough for the entrance ceremony to come to its next stage, when Kreihisewa came to guide him to his family’s yahi, where an empty hammock awaited. He lay in the visitor’s repose, trying not to think of all the stories he’d heard of nomohori, dirty tricks, where hosts lulled their guests into dropping their guards and then hacked into their skulls with some worn-down nabä tool. Then came the sweet and chalky date—if there’s any difference in recipe from village to village, his palette lacks the refinement to discern it—and then it was time for him to present his gifts of madohe.

Getting back to Patanowä-teri hadn’t been easy. Rowahirawa balked at the idea of going with him, probably with good reason. Most of the other Bisaasi-teri insisted he was insane to travel over ground during the wet season, and he had indeed had to journey far out of his way to find a dry, relatively safe route. Now here he was, ready to do his work. The headman was helpful, but things didn’t go quite as smoothly as they had in Mömariböwei-teri, mostly because there were so many more people. But he proceeded. When you feel this alone and out-of-place, you latch on to anything that offers a clear sense of what you should do next. He proceeded, and all the while he had no plan for how he’d respond to coming across the man he sent tumbling down the cliff face.

Rowahirawa wasn’t there to guide him or watch out for him. Instead, he’d relied on two huyas with relatives in Patanowä-teri as guides. These two had sat out the raid, and unless Rowahirawa had told them, knew nothing of the inappropriately outsized role Lac had played. Still, lots could have gone wrong. An inwardly pulling throb of vibrating collapse took up residence in his chest and spread to his arms and to his head. His voice was brittle and creaky. His eyes were dry yet leaky, irritated by the softest breezes. He explained his goals and methods to Kreihisewa, who shouted a summary to everyone who had gathered to prod and pinch and gawp at the nabä with hair the “color of overripe bananas.” He insisted, in a way few headmen would insist for fear of embarrassing incidents of defiance, that they all cooperate.

Lac worried that the tension of anticipating enemy raids would conduce to shorter fuses. Only an insane person would go about asking after names at a time like this. Only an insane person, for that matter, would attempt to reach Patanowä-teri from Bisaasi-teri in the height of the wet season. The Bisaasi-teri had said as much. But he did both. A large contingent of one of the two main lineages refused to listen to Lac go down his list of names, and refused still more adamantly to give him any others. He considered petitioning the headman to exercise some authority on his behalf, but decided against it. This will only be a first pass, he figured; he’ll return to this village again, he’s sure. It stands as a unique sample, larger than any village he’s yet seen, and embattled like no other he’s heard of. Better for the people who opt out to witness their neighbors enjoying the fruits of their cooperation, later observing nary an evil consequence befalling those whose names he checks off. The objectors will come around. Trying to coerce them into providing information would likely redound to its own evil effect.

Lac wrapped up his first day sitting in a hammock, listening to Kreihisewa tell, or more precisely reenact his stories. He couldn’t help comparing this man’s charisma to, of all people’s, Padre Morello’s, who Lac supposes is a sort of big man in his own right. Kreihisewa is a kinetic dynamo of a raconteur, like someone hired to act out a one-man theatrical production for a class of kindergartners. At key points, he’d lean close to Lac’s ear, splashing tobacco-steeped spittle on his cheek. But there was something in his intensity, in the graceful occupation of the role he was making up for himself as he went, in the fine-grained nature of the attention he directed toward his audience—all of which reminded him of Morello. The only difference was that Morello would demur from self-aggrandizement, prizing humility after the Western fashion. Even the undercurrent of potential and thoroughgoing disreputability was there. It made Lac wonder if it might be possible to arrange a meeting.

Maybe, if Lac were to listen closely as such a meeting took place, he’d be able to channel some of those undercurrents to the surface. He’s stopped writing. Looking back at the page before him, he tries to work out the ramifications of complete forthrightness. Ken wouldn’t rat him out to anyone; they’re friends. Plus, if Lac simply explained the situation… But sending it in a letter would mean leaving a written record, physical evidence. Of what, though, he counters, considering I didn’t kill anyone? If the man he’d pushed down the cliff had met his demise, he would have come across this detail in his interviews—unless the man was from the faction that chose not to participate.

Lac sighs. The topic exhausts him, but his thoughts hoist it up and heave it to the front of his mind with the relentless fervor of hopeful determination, as if by thinking about it hard enough he just may be able to change what happened. Change what he did. He goes back to writing about the Patanowä-teri headman, leaving out any mention of his earlier visit to the village. Wrapping up his description, with an inch and a half left at the bottom of the page, Lac turns to the topic of his next trip.

I’m disappointed, he writes, to still be in Bisaasi-teri, a village that has been in sustained contact with the New Tribes for over a decade. The place is lousy with missionaries of every stripe: the Canadian counterparts to the Clemens family across the Mavaca in Lower Bisaasi-teri, the Catholic priest who’s recently arrived to replace the Dutch lay brother in the burgeoning compound across the Orinoco, and of course Clemens himself, who’s been coming and going between here and Tama Tama to prepare for the arrival of his wife and daughter. He’s got the outhouse working again. I helped him build a chicken coup. He’s basically setting up a one-family farm for their extended stays.
Already, young men from the village are showing up asking me to confirm—or more often to debunk—this or that element of the Jesus story. What the hell do you tell them? That nearly all your fellow white nabäs suffer from some bizarre delusion, one that piggybacks on their capacity for guilt as much as their paralyzing fear of death? “Us white nabäs have our own hekura we speak to and call to inhabit our chests. Their stories are much different, but they’re really the same kind of hekura the Yąnomamö know”—though the nabäs would be loath to admit any such thing.

My plan has always been to stay with the Bisaasi-teri long enough to learn the language and the basics of the culture and then relocate to a village farther removed, one whose contact with the missionaries has been minimal, one whose people have never heard of Jesus. Rowahirawa has been telling me about a place that sounds perfect, a village called Mishimishimaböwei-teri, which is located near the headwaters of the Mavaca. He says it’s much bigger than Patanowä-teri, which would make it the biggest I’ve heard anyone speak of. I want to reach it while the river is still high. I won’t be able to stay long on my first explorative mission, but I hope to make contact and lay the groundwork for future visits.

He’s on to the next page now, a whole series of lines to fill with his dashes of ink, with scribbled conjectures about this undiscovered group running wild in the wilderness. Ah, but it’s not the kind of wildness you might have hoped for, he resists writing to his friend, not the wildness conducive to adventure, but a wildness far more frightening. He leans back in his chair, already rickety—it’s the humidity that wrecks them—and looks around at the cluttered and moldy interior of his hut. Lately, despite all the villages he’s been traveling to, it seems like he’s always in this damned hut, or in some shabono’s plaza, or in some yahi trying to parse some overly exuberant man’s tobacco-distorted words, pen and paper in hand. Kennedy talked of going to the moon. Humans have spread from Africa to blanket the globe with their quickly tainted tabula rasa of colorless concrete, migrating farther than any other terrestrial species—except for the ones they brought with them. Yet individually we spend our lives occupying such small ranges, making the same routine circuits over and over: work, home, store, maybe a nice restaurant one night a week, blind to the seasons and the racing away of year after year, dumped unceremoniously into our futures, left to wonder: How did we get so old?

Here in the jungle it’s not so different. I’m always here, he thinks, writing or making food or cleaning up after making food or listening to some crazy old man prattle on endlessly about the huyas he’s killed or the wives he’s enjoyed and then passed along to his little brother—a kinship category which also includes cross-cousins, Lac has discovered. I’m always here, or else I’m in one of the shabono courtyards, variously avoiding beggars and badgering reluctant informants. Or else I’m walking, days on end, with an eye to the ground for snakes, trying to see the bent twigs signaling the arbitrary meanderings of the so-called trail.

Only so many hours fit into each day—staying productive and avoiding wasted time is a matter of prioritization at its most ruthless. When he was a kid in Port Austin, he would look at the sunrays streaming through high billowing clouds over Lake Michigan and bask in the radiance of his gilded future. Every shimmering promise and prisming dream awaiting its fruition somewhere along the infinite span of heartily bloated seasons stretching over the horizon. Now it’s this sweaty, gnat-bitten grind unto the end of his overstretched days, grueling journeys and tedious paperwork, minute by minute, for the rest of his life.

He needs to get out of the field. He needs to see his family, and the ocean, and the familiar landmarks, roadways, buildings, and sidewalks of Ann Arbor.

Before any of that, though, he needs to find this place called Mishimishimaböwei-teri. But first he has to check on something. He has to make sure Rowahirawa is the one telling him the truth about the names. So his next move will be to motor his dugout to Ocamo, and from there voyage to the Höräta River, where he’ll find Makorima-teri, the village where the people whose names Kukumbrawa has been giving him live, if the allegations are true. 

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The Unokaimou and First Visit to the Shamatari: He Borara Chapter 12

Yanomamo names           Lac hasn’t thought much about the Yąnomamö’s tonsures lately, but now he’s wondering if their customary size varies among the villages. The Shamatari to the south of Bisaasi-teri have smaller ones, maybe three inches in diameter. The Bisaasi-teri and Monou-teri bald spots are almost twice that big. He looks at the top of the wounded Monou-teri man’s head, at the layered scar tissue from his life of club fighting, the creases highlighted with fading nara. Lac has seen the warriors wrapping a reed around their fingers and scraping the sharp edge over their scalps to remove the invariably thick black hair from the cap of their skulls. He tested the blade of one of these reeds himself. It was no straight razor, but it would do the trick—as tricky as navigating the landscape of lumpy scars must be.

            It’s not enough to be willing to fight, he thinks as he stares at the grotesque coils of mended and re-mended flesh; you must broadcast your willingness. Every man, and every village, occupies a position in a hierarchy of fierceness, a ranking based on how waiteri they are, how aggressively they defend their honor. Lac closes his eyes and sees the man they left on the bluff, his legs shaking, his brains spilling out onto the jungle floor, in almost the exact spot where the same man had recently been pressing Lac’s face into the dirt. He opens his eyes and there’s the top of the Monou-teri man’s head again, aboil with rolling folds of ruined flesh. The man survived all those club strikes only to be shot in the chest with a six-foot-long arrow, just above his heart, boring a tunnel straight through and out the back. His brothers and nephews keep asking Lac to heal him. Lac, they’ve come to believe, is good at treating wounds. How can he explain to them that coughing up blood means a damaged lung, or a damaged something else? Stitches are well and good, but you can’t go shooting holes through human bodies and expect to sew them up good as new.

Towahowä’s brother and another man, who Lac suspects may be another sibling, sleep some distance from the others, as does Rowahirawa. These are the members of the raiding party directly involved in killing a man from the enemy village. The two brothers hit the same Patanowä-teri man more or less simultaneously with their arrows. Lac presumes they’re going through, or at least preparing for, some ritual expiation or purification. If Rowahirawa wasn’t so inconveniently absent now, he could ask him. He might ask him too if he should participate in the ritual himself, seeing as how he played an active role in the fighting, far more active than he had any rightful business playing.

It’s late in the afternoon. They’ve been jogging or running all day, not, Lac is happy to note, along the same route that brought them to Patanowä-teri. Still, everyone is on edge, constantly alert, bordering on paranoid. What a way to live. He’s in pain. His ears ring and his head buzzes and throbs, not in the area where the ax struck, but across the crown and at the temples. Maybe that’s why the scars atop the wounded man’s head, almost as much as the newly opened tunnel from his chest to his back, are bothering me so much now, he thinks. His feet and ankles are festooned with a barbed wire tangle of lacerating pinches, enclosing a minefield of more diffuse aches. But the sad state of his body and the necessity of continued haste fail to interest him much.

A rattling apathy suffuses his thoughts and dampens his sensations. His pain feels distant, like the pain of a close friend—cause for urgency but not so consuming as to render him immobile. The men have rigged a stretcher for their wounded companion from two poles and a netting of vines. Without the burden borne by the men taking turns, one at each end of the poles, Lac would in all likelihood have much more of a struggle keeping up with the retreating warriors. But however much easier the slowed pace is making the journey for him, it’s also making it that much easier for their Patanowä-teri pursuers to catch up.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say Lac doesn’t care; he knows he needs to make it back to Bisaasi-teri, back to relative safety, if only for his family’s sake. But he has an abiding sense that whatever befalls him in the coming hours and days, he deserves far worse. When he was waiting on top of that bluff, he was sure that when the killing was finally accomplished it would signal the end of the prolonged punishment of his purgatorial suspense, but now the sense of every minute weighing down on him is even more oppressive. The passing time teems with dangers and indictments, his guilt dulling but in nowise canceling out his fears. He’s swimming in an ocean of self-loathing, doing his best to avoid being carried off by the many cross-currents of horror.

And every time he closes his eyes…. which means sleep is a tricky proposition.

It’s three nights now since the raid, and the darkly overcast skies have loosened their hold on the dankness they’ve slurped up throughout the day, releasing it back to the earth in gale-driven cascades. The Yąnomamö foresaw the shift in weather and set up their bivouac of yanos in two separate clusters—so they wouldn’t both be set upon simultaneously. Lac, with a little help from the boy, built one of the tiny lean-tos for himself. Now he’s thinking that may have been a bad idea, because for the first time since arriving in the territory he’d rather be sleeping in company. Rowahirawa has shunned him, or simply isolated himself—the effect is the same.

Lac occupies himself by picking hallucinated silhouettes of Patanowä-teri warriors out of the dark beaded curtain of the rain, all the while turning over in his mind a single question, one that leaves no room for other thoughts. When will I get back to caring about any of the things I’m supposed to be doing or learning about out here? I mean, what’s the point, when I’m obviously no scientist? No scientist would have done what I did on that bluff. Hell, by my own culture’s standards, I’m complicit in a crime—at least one.

Lac has no idea what happened to the man he shoulder-blasted over the cliff. He could have been killed by the raiders on the trail below, or he could have escaped. He may even have been killed in the fall, which would make Lac guilty of straight-up murder. Is there some exemption he’s supposed to enjoy, some special moral framework he behaved within, a category in which the severity of his transgression would somehow be mitigated? Was the deed carried out, for instance, under the sanction of war?

No, he thinks, there’s no way of reckoning my role among the Yąnomamö that excuses any act of war of on my part. And my work? I’ve interfered too much with the culture I’m studying to sustain any pretense of objectivity. Besides, I haven’t even come up with a reliable way to solicit the names I need for my genealogies, despite all the formality and pomp I’ve superimposed on my so-called methods.

Lac supposes he could write a book on what he’s experienced so far, about the shabori with their dangling strings of green snot dancing and chanting every afternoon, about the visitor’s poses, the warrior lineups, the feasting and trading, the consumption of human ashes, the abuse of women and dogs, the raids—one of which, oh by the way, he participated in. It makes for one hell of an adventure story, he thinks, but that’s the last thing these people need, a bunch of copycat adventurers striking out to do some sorry excuse for an anthropologist one better. I mean, if you thought the missionaries were bad… and are the missionaries really so bad? When you subtract your prejudices against superstition and cockamamie theology, you have to admit the Yąnomamö—especially the women—would benefit from adopting some Christian ways, or some of the ways of our post-Enlightenment Western society that are ascribed to our Christian heritage anyway.

No, no, no. Lac throws himself back into the hammock strung between the two thin poles of his yano, covering his face with his hands. It’s only been three days since it happened, he tells himself, and the mind has a way of making the one bad thing that’s right in front of your face seem like the only true barometer on the nature of your entire existence. You feel terrible now, as well you should, but what happened back there is one thing in a multitude, one thread in a massive tapestry, one tile in an ever-expanding mosaic. Or whatever. The point is you’ll feel different, better, in a few days, or a few weeks. But that’s only if you can make it back to your hut outside Bisaasi-teri without getting killed by vengeful Patanowä-teri. Or by snakes, which seems just as likely with all this rain. That’s what you need to concentrate on now. The feeling for your work will come back to you.

He groans, rolls on his side and stares into the rain, avoiding the sight of the wounded Monou-teri man’s tonsure, that window onto his history of violence, that preview of his truncated future.

            The two men he most wants to see are hidden away. Rowahirawa is undergoing the unokaimou, a ceremonial purification that has him blocked off from the village behind a curtain of giant palm leaves. He and Towahowä’s brothers, both of whom share responsibility for killing the same Patanowä-teri man, have to remain isolated. They have food brought to them every day, food they must not touch with their tainted hands. So they use sticks to lift food to their mouths. They also use the sticks, Lac has been told, to scratch themselves, because touching their own bodies is thought to spread the impurity, though Lac isn’t sure if he should credit this factoid, considering the Yąnomamö’s penchant for joking about stuff like this.

Normally, Rowahirawa would be the one to describe the ceremony to him, but as he’s currently busy undergoing the ceremony in question, Lac must wait for the answers he seeks. The unokaimou, he notes, bears a striking resemblance to the ceremony girls go through for menarche. They even use the tiny sticks they often have poking through the flesh between their lips and their chins—like an array of whiskers—as eating utensils. So maybe it’s true about the men not being permitted to scratch themselves. Maybe it’s not killing that brings on a taint but the spilling of blood. This is the kind of thing anthropologists use as a launchpad for grand overarching theories, a tendency among his mentors and colleagues that both excites and annoys him in equal measure, as he thrills to the notion of discovering some key that unlocks the mystery of human culture, but at the same time feels it betrays the scientific principle of parsimony—the heuristic that says the simplest theory that sufficiently explains the observed phenomenon should be treated as the leading contender.

But the anthropologists can’t help themselves; they’re supposed to start small and work their way up, showing the most disciplined adherence to the evidence, but they instead erect these towering edifices from the top-down, massive structures with beautifully elaborate architecture, all but completely lacking any foundation. That’s how he’s come to think of Levi-Strauss, whose approach to genealogy he’s currently implementing—or trying to anyway.

It’s going on six months and he’s still struggling for every new entry to his charts.

The other man he’d like to debrief is Bahikoawa, who returned only the day before the larger group of raiders Lac was accompanying. In an unthinkable reversal, Bahikoawa arrived carrying his brother instead of the other way around. His brother had been bitten by a snake before they’d made any significant progress on their way back home to Bisaasi-teri. The venom rendered him immobile the moment it was injected, which meant both brothers had an even greater ordeal ahead of them than they’d anticipated.

But, in a more auspicious reversal, on their third day of practically crawling through the jungle, Bahikoawa found a canoe hidden on the bank of the Orinoco. Someone had taken great care in concealing the craft, but Bahikoawa happened upon it as he was searching for materials to build a raft of his own. It was a stroke of luck that may have saved both their lives. Now they’re both hammock-ridden, only emerging from their yahis to void their bowels or be chanted over by the other shabori. Bahikoawa, Lac hears it said, must have incredibly powerful hekura serving him, so impossible was the feat of dragging his brother through the forest for three days in his afflicted condition. So, even though he technically abandoned the mission, his renown continues to grow, as does that of Towahowä’s brother.

Both men’s renown is contingent, however: Bahikoawa’s on his successful convalescence, and Towahowä’s brother’s on the convalescence of the man who had a hole shot through him above his heart. If the Monou-teri man dies, the death of the Patanowä-teri man is rendered void, and the raid will be considered a failure. Rowahirawa is a sioha from Karohi-teri, not related to any of the browähäwä of Monou-teri, so he can’t restore the balance with his kill. Whatever us outsiders do, Lac thinks, is immaterial, even when we do something as horrible as killing a man—or two.
Lac tries to imagine the fate of the man he knocked over the ridge. If he survived, he would certainly tell everyone in Patanowä-teri what happened, meaning Lac could never visit that village as a neutral observer. He’d be forever tied to Bisaasi-teri, which seriously limits the scope of his research, such as it is. Or maybe not. Maybe he went over the cliff before getting a good look at his attacker. Lac sits swaying in the hammock next to Rowahirawa’s, searching within himself for the drive to continue his work, coming up dry. Maybe I should pack my dugout and head downriver to Ocamo, ask Padre Morello to get me on a flight out of La Esmeralda. The jig is up anyway. Whatever happens when we get back to the States, one thing will be clear: I’m no anthropologist—no scientist.

Lac hasn’t been in contact with the padre since he motored upriver that day to make his awkward request, hinting that Lac may want to repay all the kindness he’d been shown by pilfering the Yąnomamö dictionary Clemens has supposedly been working on—if it’s true Chuck has such a dictionary, Lac thinks, that would have definitely come in handy a few months ago. But, no, there must have been a miscommunication. The padre must have simply been asking for some kind of general help, not encouraging me to resort to any specific underhanded measures. And who am I to judge anyone for his possibly unethical field tactics? I just interfered in a deadly conflict between two villages.

And got a man killed. At least one.

Lac plants his feet and steps out of the hammock next to the empty one where Rowahirawa usually sits and sleeps. If Clemens is back soon, as Padre Morello suggested he would be, then maybe Lac can arrange for transportation out of the region through the New Tribes Mission headquarters at Tama Tama. Or, hell, he could just head for Puerto Ayacucho himself and figure out a way to get to Caracas from there. He could go back to Michigan and get work at Connor’s factory. Tens of thousands of men all over the country do that kind of work. If it’s good enough for them, why hasn’t it ever been good enough for you?

He’s only taken a few steps through the plaza before the children spot him and start crowding around him, pestering him for details about the raid on Patanowä-teri. Lac forces a smile and says, “I’ll give you some stories about the raid if you tell me the name of that man there.” He points out someone at random. One of the older boys responds as if he’s been challenged to a game. A smile slowly spreads across his face, a smile brimming with mischief and self-satisfaction. He reaches for Lac’s arm, pulls him down to cup his hand over Lac’s ear, and whispers the name.

Lac, stunned, pulls back and stares at the boy. He reaches for his back pocket to pull out his notebook, but for the first time since arriving in Bisaasi-teri he’s not carrying it there. He asks the boy to repeat the name and this time he whispers it without pulling Lac down or cupping his mouth with his hand, loud enough for several of the closest kids to hear. They find it delightfully amusing, giggling with an odd form of restraint Lac is at a loss to interpret. He looks over at the man, wondering if he’s a sioha, an outsider, but he’s not. As far as Lac can tell, he’s somewhat prominent, descending from one of the main lineages in Bisaasi-teri. He asks for the name of another man, the boy gives it, and the other children laugh their restrained laughs.

What the hell is happening here? Lac thinks maybe now that he’s gone on a raid with the village men his status has been altered; maybe now the rules of saying other people’s names aloud have subtly changed. The egg on the side of his head suggests otherwise, but Lac decides there’s nothing to lose at this point from testing the old boundaries anew.

That’s how it starts. By afternoon, as several of the men are dressing up and preparing to dose each other with ebene, Lac is reimplementing a version of his methods for genealogical interviews similar to those he did before moving them indoors, where they could be done in private. Now, he’s working back out in the open. A crowd sits, squats, and stands half inside the yahi, half in the plaza. Lac points out a villager whose name he needs and then he leans down so his now adult informant can whisper the name in his ear. What’s different this time, though, is that one of young men standing close by keeps asking Lac to whisper the name he’s just recorded to him. This boy then turns to whisper it to several others, who whisper it to still more others, until the name spreads around the crowd like a ripple rolling over the surface of a pond. Upon hearing the name, everyone smiles and chuckles—some of the younger children burst out laughing—while the individual whose name is making the rounds clenches his jaw and pouts.

It’s instant corroboration. The guy whose name is being spoken wouldn’t be so upset if it wasn’t his real name. Lac has finally found a way to collect dozens of names at a time without having to worry that a good portion of them are entirely made up. And it’s probably only possible now because the villagers have developed a modicum of respect for him. Lac still isn’t sure he’ll be able to complete his genealogical work like this, but there’s no denying it’s an important advance. He decides to stay and keep at it, at least until Rowahirawa completes the unokaimou, and maybe until Bahikoawa recovers—if Bahikoawa recovers.

“Shaki, come with us,” a man implores. It’s morning. Lac has just stepped into the shabono when the man approaches him and grabs his arm. They bring him to the wounded Monou-teri man, whose lips are peeling back from his teeth in a pre-skeletal way, his breaths coming in pathetic rasps. Lac steps closer to the hammock wondering if this is what it looks like to slowly bleed to death. It looks like the Monou-teri will soon have to start planning another raid on Patanowä-teri, as this man’s death cancels out whatever score-settling they accomplished on the last one, meaning Towahowä’s death remains unavenged. Of course, for the Patanowä-teri the killing of Towahowä was retaliation for the man shot out of the tree while he was collecting palm fruits, so the score should already be even. Each side’s reckoning of this score they’re both so eager to settle hits a temporal block as soon as they’ve gone far enough back to find an excuse for deeming the other as deserving of another attack.

Whether this man lives or dies, it probably won’t matter. The raiding will go on.

“Heal him,” the man’s son says, making Lac wish for the millionth time since arriving to live among these people that he was a doctor—a real doctor—instead of a feckless observer, scientific or otherwise. The dying man turns to look at him with bulging, red-rimmed eyes bespeaking the constant pain he’s been in for past five days, eyes that look artificial, not composed of anything as smooth and clear as glass, but not human: fake leathery orbs hastily crammed into their sockets after the living ones had dried up and fallen to the ground like weathered prunes.

Seeing Lac, he mutters something. Lac leans down to put his ear closer to the man’s lips. “Water, I need water.” He’s repeating it over and over again, like the prayer he doesn’t have.

Lac turns to the man’s son—he thinks it’s his son—and asks, “Why is he being made to go thirsty?”  As he listens to the young man explain the type of arrow tip that made the wound, a rahaka, calls for a healing ceremony that involves the avoidance of water, Lac unsubtly rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “This healing ceremony,” Lac interrupts him to say, “is probably what’s killing him.”

The wound itself looks horrific, but the shredded flesh, while cracking into chapped scales at the innermost edges, maintains its shades of red and pink. So far it hasn’t gone septic, which is a miracle. A drink of water now and again over the next few days might save his life. But Lac, despite his reputation for being good at healing nasty wounds, fails to persuade the young men petitioning him for his help of how silly their water taboo is. He makes a decision. He’s going to violate one of his own taboos by interfering in Yąnomamö lives. It’s not like he’s working from a clean slate with regard to this particular transgression anyway. He walks outside the shabono and goes to his hut. His legs still revolt against movement, but he barely remembers what it feels like to have muscles that aren’t exquisitely alive with multifarious aches.

Inside his hut, he rummages through his plastic totes until he finds a packet of instant lemonade and a bottle of aspirin. When he returns to the yahi where the Monou-teri man is wasting away, he fills a cup with the sugary yellow powder and then pores water into it from the family’s pot. When the man’s sons or nephews or younger brothers gather around him, Lac uncaps the aspirin bottle, taps three pills onto his palm, and then slides them onto a flat potsherd. Using the handle of a fishing knife as a pestle, he crushes the pills and grinds them into powder, extolling all the while the magnificent power of this “mönasönö”—their version of the Spanish word medicina—he’s busy preparing, and explaining that the wounded man will need three or four doses like this every day until he’s recovered.

You can do anything you want here, he thinks rising carefully to his feet with the brimming cup, feeling the stabs of his recent journey in his thighs, as long as you do it dramatically.

He scrapes the powder into the liquid, gives it a stir, and extends the cup out over the delirious man’s lips, cradling his head so he can reach the rim. The man slurps greedily, gulping the entire mix down and opening his already improving eyes. What passes between them is nothing so stark as a wink and a knowing smile, but after locking eyes briefly Lac steps away with a pronounced sense that the man knows exactly what he’s just done for him. Knowing the Yąnomamö well enough to trick them, and seeing that at least one of them can wordlessly express his gratitude—something they never do with words—returns something of his lost sense of grounding and purpose, diminishing his feeling of bottomless ineptitude.

He gives the likely son instructions on how to prepare the concoction and then goes to the yahi owned by Rowahirawa’s father-in-law, who still hasn’t offered Rowahirawa his youngest daughter as a second bride. A group of kids follows him and he removes the notebook and pen from his back pocket to play his public name-collection game again. Since last playing, he’s attempted to line up the new names he’s obtained with ones he gathered using the old technique. Most, by no means all, of the names check out. He’s actually getting somewhere. So he proceeds by the same method: have the informant whisper the name in his ear, share it with a member of the crowd, watch the ripple of amusement spread, check that the named individual fumes sufficiently while resisting the urge to violence—and who would he attack anyway?—and then start over with another name.

He seems to be progressing through the village more quickly this way, as he doesn’t have to wait while some old man interrupts his interviews to tell him his interminable tall tales. When he looks around, he can’t believe how much fun everyone is having. What is he doing that’s so different from before? Could going along on the raid with the men really have changed his status so drastically?

A realization brings the restoration of his spirits to a halt: Rowahirawa may have told everyone what Lac did on the bluff, told them about the warning cry and the lunging tackle. If the people here know, then it won’t be long before the people in surrounding villages know, and the Patanowä-teri will know impossibly soon thereafter—if they don’t already. But does Rowahirawa know the extent of what happened himself? He heard me call out obviously, Lac thinks, and he found me with a Patanowä-teri man holding me down, ready to smash my head—I don’t even know with what weapon. But he may not know about the man I pushed over the cliff.

Since there’s nothing he can do until Rowahirawa is around to talk to, he presses it from his mind, wondering if his concerns really hinge on practical matters, like whether he’ll be able to visit Bisaasi-teri’s rivals safely, or if it’s just straight-up guilt and him not wanting anyone to know what he’s done. He concentrates on his work—one foot in front of the other, one name in the ledger and then the next.

The names are all difficult to sound out from the murmurs, difficult to transcribe, remaining ambiguous in their ostensibly official written form. When he speaks them aloud, will anyone recognize them? I can go through most of the list again, he thinks, in a few days. Then maybe I’ll try yet another method and see how consistent each name remains. I’ll be able to hand over copies of the charts to Dr. Nelson when he arrives next year, and he’ll be able to use them for his genetics research, matching them to the blood samples he and his team collect—though how he’ll get them to agree to being poked with needles is another methodological issue that will need to be addressed.

Lac, sharing the villagers’ amusement with the poor guys whose names are being passed around, searches himself again for the feeling he once had for his work. Once again, he comes up dry. Yet he persists with the name-sharing game because he committed to doing this work beforehand. Recalling his agreement with Dr. Nelson provides a helpful nudge. Plus, he doesn’t know what else he would do in place of anthropology at this point; nothing sounds worse to him than the prospect of returning to Michigan and having no choice but to work for his brother.

He’s dreamily going through his list with his current young informant, his mind traveling to Connor’s factory and comparing its interior to the gnat-infested swap he’s working in now, when two young men approach. “Shaki, we are going Mömariböwei-teri to visit our brothers. You told us you too would like to visit the Shamatari. We’ll take you along if you give us each a machete.”

“Awei, Shori, when are you leaving?”

“We’re leaving now, Shaki. Grab your hammock.”

Now he’s back to walking, random needles of pain pricking into the balls and arches of his feet, the heel press of each footfall reminding him of the circuit of throbbing aches along the backs of his legs, above his knees, up to his lower back. Still, it feels good to be moving, not beset by fear this time, not desperate to cover ground, not as worried about snakes since this trail is part of an elevated region, just moving leisurely but purposefully over the landscape. Sweating through yesterday’s crust of sweat is like shedding his skin, stepping from one mode of mental and physical existence to another, waking to a new day.

The men play a game where they insist he lead the way along the trail, saying, “Kahä wa baröwo!” You lead, we’ll follow. He steps out in front, becomes lost in thought, and becomes lost with relation to the trail. After a minute or two, they’re doubled over with laughter at their helpless nabä friend. “Shaki, how do you even survive?” Lac smiles like the good sport he is. The answer is I wouldn’t for long, he thinks, if it weren’t for you guys tolerating my presence—for the price of a machete apiece. He wonders how many times he would have to make the journey before being able to find the way on his own. Then he wonders if there’s any chance in hell he’ll travel between the villages that many times.

He’ll do a census of Mömariböwei-teri as best he can while he’s there. It’s time to find out how well his methods travel. And from there he’ll go to the next Shamatari village. What he really wants is the history of occupation for all the villages in the region, the history of all their formations and fissionings, an accounting of the factors determining village size and degree of hostility toward neighbors.

“What’s the biggest village you guys have ever seen?” he asks his guides. One of them says Patanowä-teri and Lac, with a mild shudder, agrees that village is truly immense. The other cites Rowahirawa’s legendary village Mishimishimaböwei-teri, saying that this place is even larger than Patanowä-teri, its headman far more waiteri. Lac thinks this makes sense in the context of a society’s evolution. The role of the leader becomes more pronounced, the leaders themselves more despotic—or needing to be more despotic in the first place—before the villages can grow beyond a certain population density. This is the place he must see. And traveling to the Shamatari village closest to Bisaasi-teri is a good first step.

Are you getting your feeling back for the work? he poses to himself. Maybe, maybe. He still feels wildly out of place, in the midst of chaos swirling faster as he puts more effort into calming it down, irredeemably inept, his struggles comically futile. But he is excited to meet the people of Mömariböwei-teri. The people there have had sporadic interactions with Salesians and the Malarialogìa, and they’ll probably be using countless metal tools Lac himself has brought to the region. But they’ve had no sustained contact with missionaries like the people of Bisaasi-teri have. Will they use the word “almost” like the Yąnomamö he’s familiar with? Mostly, though, Lac is excited to meet a group of people who’ve never seen him before, a group he can start out with fresh. His relations with the people of Bisaasi-teri have gotten so fraught, the roles and feelings associated with them so tangled. He no longer knows who he is in relation to them. But with the people of Mömariböwei-teri, he can begin anew, be whoever he decides he needs to be, perhaps discover something of who he truly is.

When he arrived in Bisaasi-teri for the first time, he was a baby. He had no idea how to get by, where to assert himself, how to suss out the comedy from the seemingly literal statements. Remembering his early attempts at crossing those damned X-frame bridges, his ears burn as though he were still shimmying across amid the attendant peals of laughter. It took him all of a few days to get lost in the woods for the first time. And it’s amazing he made it through that first month with any of his belongings still in the hut, what with all the insistent begging, theft, duplicitousness, and bullying.

Ha, I actually prefer Rowahirawa’s honest bullying to the fake friendship, he thinks—which is why Rowahirawa has more of my madohe than any of the others today.

Lac is at once glad and disappointed Rowahirawa isn’t here with them: glad because he’s a direct conduit to Lac’s recent history, with all its shameful buffoonery and mortifying incompetence, not to mention the fact that Lac played a problematic role in the raid on Patanowä-teri; disappointed because, god damn it, he can’t help liking the guy. He’s pushy, for sure, has a mischievous streak that can get downright mean, and would probably kill Lac without much hesitation if he concluded it was to his advantage. But he’s also funny as hell, makes travel time pass faster, and even, bizarrely, makes Lac feel safer, like he’s got at least one person looking out for him—never mind that it’s because he wants to maintain access to his stream of trade goods.

Though come to think of it, how many manufactured goods can one Yąnomamö use? They trade them for other goods of course, but accumulating wealth isn’t among their main preoccupations by any means. And come to think of it, Rowahirawa has been asking far less of him by way of handing over steel tools, even as his sense of their budding friendship has deepened. Maybe the early attempts at friendship were bound to fail. But eventually he had to befriend someone—or someone had to befriend him. We’re all human after all. Lac just never would have guessed it would be the asshole who gave him the most trouble from the outset.

The men are letting him take the lead again, playing their joke. He obliges, figuring there’s no point in denying them their fun. He concentrates this time, channeling his thoughts toward the myriad clues he should be on the lookout for. He makes it a full ten minutes this time before hearing the laughter bubbling up behind him. His suspicion is that a large part of their facility at locating the trails comes from simple familiarity with them, not some uncanny perceptual feat. Still, it’s impressive.

Lac turns his mind back to the people he’s about to meet. After the dancing entrance procession and the visitor’s pose, he’ll be brought to the headman’s yahi where, after reclining impassive for some time in a hammock and then being treated to a gourd of plantain soup, he’ll present the headman himself with a gift of madohe, an expression of gratitude for not killing him and an advance payment on the time he’ll demand of the villagers as he peppers them with questions. This is in keeping with the protocol Clemens set for him when he first brought Lac to Bisaasi-teri.

The prospect of taking up the visitor’s pose and having all those Yąnomamö men he’s never met threaten and lunge at him gives him a twinge of apprehension. Maybe the people of Mömariböwei-teri have already heard enough about him to have decided he should die. The pose is like this insane demonstration of trust, but there are so many stories of Yąnomamö taking advantage of each other after they’ve let their guards down it seems a strikingly foolish thing to do. But I guess that’s why it’s a test, he thinks; if you were sure of the outcome, the gesture would be meaningless. And afterward? How will he address the headman? What questions will he ask him first? What will he talk about?

Lac thinks back to his first trip to Karohi-teri, Rowahirawa’s home village. Everyone pinched and poked and grabbed at him—god, if I could avoid even half of that nonsense this time around—but the headman kept his distance the whole time, playing it cool. When they did eventually converse, with a lot of help translating from Rowahirawa, it was about future visits, an ongoing trade relationship—madohe for lessons on how to be human—and how certain people, relatives and high-status notables, were faring in the allied village he’d come from. Not so much from the headman himself but from the people of Karohi-teri generally, he remembers noting, there was an odd openness when it came to using names, at least the names of people from Bisaasi-teri.

It makes sense, of course; you don’t have to worry about the person you name feeling disrespected and becoming enraged. Lac entertained the idea of making an intervillage cross-check of his genealogical charts part of his routine method. Maybe when he reaches Mömariböwei-teri, he can exploit a similar laxity in the enforcement of the name taboo. Even better, he can tell a story, a joke, about Bahikoawa and Nakaweshimi. That will show the headman that Lac isn’t just any nabä, clueless, imbecilic, and subhuman, ripe for robbing, ideal for bullying in pursuit of miniscule status boosts, or abusing for the fun of it. It’ll work the same way name-dropping works back in the States. Under the guise of telling an amusing story, you let on that you rub elbows with important people, people of stature, and some of that prestige brushes off on you.

Then maybe he’ll be able to leverage the progress he’s made with one village to get a head start with the other. There’s some risk of course, anytime you speak names out in the open. The Mömariböwei-teri headman may take Lac’s insufficiently reverential attitude toward Bahikoawa’s name as an indicator of how cavalierly he’ll treat his own—but the Yąnomamö don’t think like that. It’s always what’s right in front of them that’s foremost on their minds. The headman will find the joke funny. It’s so well attuned to the Yąnomamö sense of humor, as he understands it. Lac warms to the idea and imagines all the doors his deftness at navigating the social rules he’s been immersed in these past five months will open. But first he’ll have to make it through the excessively thorough physical examinations the villagers will undoubtedly subject him to.

The Yąnomamö cover so much ground without ever seeming to be in a rush, Lac wonders what their trick is. They stop often to rest, veer off-course to pursue monkeys—or honey, they can’t resist honey—and they walk as though they had nowhere they needed to be, in a way that recalls to him his own late childhood and early adolescence, when he went on all those dream-haunted walks with Josephine. With so many siblings, he seldom felt lonely and was never overly eager to seek out kids his own age to play with. I guess you could say I was aloof, he thinks, but it had nothing to do with any dearth of feeling for my fellow young people. It had everything to do with longing for the freedom to explore my own mind, my own fantasy worlds, at leisure, without having to induct anyone else into them who might not fully appreciate their splendors.

As he watches his jungle guides now, figuring they’re in their late teens, as they mosey along the trail to Mömariböwei-teri, where one of them, a sioha, is from and where the others have several relatives they want to visit, Lac tries to guess at the layout of their own private thoughtscapes. He was perfectly at ease in his youth assuming he was alone among his siblings in having as rich an inner life as he did, a richness he attributed to unique qualities in himself and to all the reading he did about grand explorations. But what do Yąnomamö daydreams consist of? Does communing with hekura occupy a central space in their individual fantasy lives? What else might there be, and how the hell would one even begin to inquire after it? They have stories, myths, and legends galore, Lac knows, but how does the individual Yąnomamö mind actuate them in the private theater of consciousness? What role does he imagine playing in them? Or what role do they play in him?

He knows it can’t be true, but it seems as though the Yąnomamö all live their lives completely on the surface, like the most gregarious and charismatic extraverts he knows back home: like Connor, unlike Bess. And maybe an inner life is something you have to take the time to cultivate, by reading, by fantasizing, through time spent alone. The Yąnomamö are never alone. Even when they’re sleeping, they’re surrounded by family members and in-laws. That’s in fact been the hardest thing for Lac to adapt to. This society hasn’t gotten around to inventing privacy yet. That’s maybe the aspect of the culture he finds most maddening. He’s forever tempted to flee the constant commotion of the shabono and its central plaza to lock himself away behind the reinforced door of his hut. They’d come get him though, the kids in particular. And Rowahirawa. 

As he was preparing for the journey this morning, and more during the first leg, Lac spent a lot of time with the two boys guiding him, and a couple of the four others in the caravan, collecting the names of everyone they could remember in Mömariböwei-teri. They gave him next to no resistance, revealing over a hundred names to him, from four main lineages. All that’s left for him to do is photograph everyone—one Polaroid for here, one 35-millimeter for the files back home—and guess at their ages, since Lac still can’t work out a viable way to categorize people beyond the Yąnomamö’s own scheme: crawling, pubescent, old. There may be new babies as well, along with a couple the boys know about but whose genders remain unannounced. Having filled out the charts in record time, with nary a major inconsistency, Lac starts to envision a staged approach of moving through the villages, getting the genealogical data from one about the next before moving on. Like he discovered in Karohi-teri, people are less cagy when it comes to naming the occupants of other villages.

One the other hand, the smoothness of the chart-filling exercise may have been owing to the small number of informants. Once he gets to Mömariböwei-teri and starts cross-checking the names, he may have another mess on his hands, like he has with the names and family histories of people from Bisaasi-teri. As he’s working out his plans and puzzling over their practical challenges—has your feeling for it all returned, he asks himself, or are you going through the motions?—he goes back to the question of the Yąnomamö’s inner lives. The whole time his gaze keeps returning to one of the boys.

This kid has a look that’s simultaneously dreamy and alert. Of them all, he looks like he would have the most going on behind the veils separating mind from mind. He also looks like—someone. Lac stops. “Little brother, when was the first time you saw me?”

“Shaki, I saw you come in a motorized canoe with two Malarialogìa men speaking Spanish.”
“Where did you see this?”

“Many sleeps that way, downriver, where you met the bald nabä.”

This was his first Yąnomamö, the one who gave him his initial glimpse of the wild glint almost all of them have in their eye. This is the boy he saw his first day in the territory. How had he come to Bisaasi-teri, as a sioha from Mömariböwei-teri? Lac has to resist smacking himself on the forehead. How could I not have recognized him? How could I have forgotten the details of an encounter so deeply etched in my memory?

Well, a lot has happened.

The boy looks different without the tattered clothes disintegrating right before his eyes. Still, it bothers him that he could go so long without realizing who this was. It’s of a piece with his trouble coming up with ways to describe individual faces. When he thinks about it, he’s made far more progress filling in his charts with names than he has in learning the contours of their faces. He has to brace himself against a wave of self-doubt that rises in the wake of this discovery—or rediscovery—by reminding himself there are a few Yąnomamö he’d recognize if you dressed them in suit and tie to slip casually past him on some sidewalk in Caracas.

The trip to Mömariböwei-teri, if the Yąnomamö’s sun-pointing estimates are on point, is about an eight-hour walk to the south. As they walk, Lac thinks about the other villages he’s visited and all the rough—albeit ultimately harmless—handling he was subjected to upon arriving. With the cameras and the food—sardines, peanut butter, crackers—and the extra machete in his pack, it’s easy for him to forget the shotgun he has strapped across his shoulders. He only thinks about it as he marvels at the fleet-footedness of his fellow travelers, noting that its poorly balanced weight slows him down. It’ll come in handy though if they catch sight of any monkeys. But it also poses a dilemma: what do you do with it when you first enter a new village?

Lac doesn’t worry as much anymore that he’ll mistake a mock lunge for a real attack, but there’s still all that manhandling he can count on. With people grabbing and squeezing things with such abandon... But if he leaves it outside, as he has been doing, well... Even if the Yąnomamö don’t know how to load and fire it, that’s not necessarily going to stop them from making off with it. And he could put it in a spot where he’s sure no one will find it, only to realize later he left it next to one of their main trails for fetching water or carting firewood.

This trip is somewhat different, though. He’s already met many people from Mömariböwei-teri during their visits to Bisaasi-teri. The two villages have a close trading alliance; people go back and forth all the time. He’s also traveling with just six men this time, a tiny contingent of teenage boys outfitted with little more than hammocks and machetes. It wouldn’t surprise Lac if they even forewent the standard entrance ceremony. Amid all these concerns, though, all his steeling himself against the anticipated abuse, against being treated as less than human, there’s still a part of him that thrills to the prospect of entering a village few if any white men have visited. He knows what to expect by now, for the most part; he knows the names of nearly all the inhabitants. But he maintains the sense that as he moves farther beyond the current reach of the missionaries, he’s stepping back in time to an ever-closer approximation of mankind’s infancy, before agriculture and population spikes set the species off on a breakneck trajectory into the unknowable terrain of technological and political advancement—this artificial life of factories and office buildings and automobiles, where we all chase after currency and objects serving as stand-ins for status, this complex dreamworld of scientific and sociologic wonders, one game layered on top of another as we race to establish our worth by outshining our neighbors, except those of us who’d rather get lost in the jungle. Though even that escape is really just a move from one game into another.

All day, whenever he asks, “How much farther?” they respond with “A brahawä shoawä,” it’s still a long way off. But Lac senses they’re getting close. The boys’ conversation gains in intensity as they’re excitement peaks. When he asks this time, the boy whispers, “Awei, Shaki, we’re almost there.” And suddenly they’re all being perfectly silent, creeping through the forest as if stalking some unseen game animal. 

With his own excitement comes something troubling: the sound of an ax thwacking into wood overlain with that of a shovel thrust into a pile of gravel. It’s only an echo reverberating from his memory, surfing this latest surge of adrenaline, but it makes him wince and squeeze shut his eyes. An image is projected into his consciousness, the man lying on his side atop the bluff, spilling the contents of his skull onto the jungle floor. The sensation of the man’s limbs going instantly from rigid and inescapable to limp and lifeless is what next returns to him. He opens his eyes, panting, whatever added perspiration lost in the usual cascade of sweat. If the Yąnomamö would turn and look at him, they may conclude he’s terrified to enter Mömariböwei-teri, but they’re too focused on their own excitement to notice anything awry with him.

He may never know what happened to the man he pushed over the cliff, but he knows with the utmost certainty what happened to the one who held him down, the one who wanted to hack a groove into his skull. The sound of that man’s own skull being chopped into sounded so irrevocably and resoundingly clear just a moment ago—so real—that he fears he’ll be hearing further echoes as long as he lives. Will going through the unokaimou ritual cleanse Rowahirawa’s memory? Does he need it to as much as me?

Through disciplined effort, he forces his mind to take up thoughts about the more pressing matter of his imminent arrival in a minimally contacted Yąnomamö village. Helpfully, his new friend, the first Yąnomamö he ever laid eyes on, calls him back to the present. “Shaki,” he whispers in a hiss, “you’re filthy.  Your legs are covered in mud. Come with us to the stream and clean yourself up so you don’t embarrass us.” He’s grandstanding. Of course Lac will go to the stream with them. The boy wants to be seen bossing around the big hairy nabä. Let him have it, Lac thinks. Concentrate on what you need to do over the coming hours.

“Little brother, I’ve lived in Bisaasi-teri for a long time. I know what to do.”

As he says it, he walks into a mass of mosquitoes dangling head-high in the dank air over the stream. He puffs his lips to clear them from his mouth and flails his arms around his head. The boy laughs. The other young men laugh. Lac can’t help but smile himself, his goal for the day rapidly diminishing in its ambitiousness: from getting corroboration for over a hundred names to surviving with his dignity intact. And his sanity.

He leans down to unlace his boots. His companions splash and scrub at themselves, washing away the stains of their recent pasts.

As they stand outside the shabono walls, the boys helping each other decorate their bodies, Lac flashes back to when Clemens first brought him to Bisaasi-teri, Clemens who will be returning any day to take up again in the hut adjoining Lac’s, if Padre Morello’s sources are to be credited. Mömariböwei-teri lacks a palisade, as Bisaasi-teri did back then, because the people here are not actively at war. But what the young men he’s accompanying decide to do—charge in through the entrance en masse, bursting into the plaza with only last-second whistles to announce their friendly standing and peaceful intentions—strikes Lac as emblematic of teenage boyishness at its most pointlessly reckless, no matter the society in which it finds expression. Having foregone their individual dancing entrances, they all run to the center of the plaza and take up the visitor’s pose together, forming a half-circle of haughtily erect warriors.

The villagers love it. Hoots and roars of excitement blast through the evening air as the men bolt up from their hammocks and subject their guests to the customary insincere threats and goads. Lac surprises himself by withstanding it with a measure of calm. He’s excited too, a little scared even, but he’s not second-guessing his decision to leave his gun outside, and he’s not feeling guilty about imperiling his life, a man with two young kids and a wife. He’s surprised as well by how many familiar faces he sees. As the visitors look out over the thatched roof with their vacant stares, most of the villagers who come out to playfully harass them have been to Bisaasi-teri over the past couple of months. Lac can’t yet match names to faces, but by the end of the day tomorrow that may no longer be the case.

He sees skittish kids scampering back to their mothers, older kids staring with their mouths agape, and men running into the courtyard to gawp. It’s different this time, though; so many of them have seen him before, meaning they’ve already satisfied their aggressively unselfconscious curiosity by poking and pinching his bizarre-looking skin, tugging at his copious arm and leg hair. They’re shocked to see him stampede into their shabono with these young men obviously, but it’s not like they’re only now learning of his existence.

The headman walks out to meet them with a pronounced swagger. Lac has to check his impulse to greet him by name. “Shori,” the headman says, simultaneously breeching etiquette and establishing for everyone where Lac will fit within their kinship system, “we’ve been hoping you would come. Did the people of Bisaasi-teri warn you that we may wish you harm?”

“Ma, Shori,” he says, though he’s sure he’s not supposed to speak. “The Bisaasi-teri are great allies to the Mömariböwei-teri.” The headman smirks cynically. In truth, some men, including Bahikoawa, have told him it would be best to steer clear of all the Shamatari villages, as those people are far more treacherous than the Yąnomamö Lac is used to dealing with. Lac had wondered briefly what this meant for his plans—Bisaasi-teri was only to be a staging ground for later expeditions into the interior—until it occurred to him these men simply wanted to keep all the madohe their resident nabä brings into the territory for themselves.

The headman has a remarkable look to him; his face appears fixed in an expression of surprise or eagerness. As he leads Lac to a hammock in his yahi, where he’ll take up the visitor’s repose until they bring him a calabash-full of plantain soup, he can’t help wondering how many men this pata has killed in working his way up to his current position. There are four major patrilineages in Mömariböwei-teri, twice as many as there are in Bisaasi-teri. Does that mean the competition for status is fiercer? Does this headman with the eager face possess some unique charisma, surpassing even Bahikoawa’s? So far, it doesn’t appear so.

As Lac climbs into the hammock, the braver children start showing up and surrounding him. They don’t ask him questions or molest him yet, because they’re waiting for the appropriate time. No, it’s not at all like the first time he entered other villages. Thank Christ, he thinks—or whoever. When the soup arrives—thickly sweet and chalky, apparently the same recipe—Lac does go in for some harsh contact, mostly from the kids. One man wants him to stand up so he can lift him and see how heavy he is. In turn, he wants Lac to lift him so he can estimate how strong the nabä is. Lac, despite the awkwardness, finds himself smiling. Another scientist, he thinks. The man asks him how he got so long—tall—and wonders aloud whether the process led to a lot of pain in his limbs and joints.

“Ha ha, ma, Shori, I just grew this way.”

Later, Lac goes outside the shabono to gather his pack and shotgun, which evokes a good deal of curiosity, but he decides against a demonstration this time, promising instead to go along with the men on a hunt sometime. He returns to the headman’s yahi and presents him with the machete. Then, with some help from his Bisaasi-teri friends, he explains the goals and methods of his ohodemou. The headman has heard about Lac’s work before. From his response, Lac gleans that he finds the idea of family histories appealing, as many Yąnomamö do—as most people anywhere do—but he’s nevertheless concerned about the potential for misunderstandings and flaring tempers.

To Lac’s delight, the headman steps into the now darkening plaza and begins a chanting speech, a kąwa amou, previewing what Lac will be asking all the villagers to do tomorrow morning. He asks them to stay home for the day and to be prepared to come out into the plaza to be photographed with their close kin. He then explains that Lac will be asking about their names, assuring everyone that he’ll be respectful and only address them in whispers. Lac looks across the courtyard, running his eyes along the shadowy, hearth-lit lean-tos, listening for grumbles or signs of protest. The village remains mostly silent, making him wonder if he should rethink his entire approach to the genealogies.

It’s taken him months to fill in his Bisaasi-teri charts. Sure, he’s going more deeply into the history of that village, asking after the names of long-deceased ancestors, but there are still names of living villagers he doesn’t have—or has half a dozen versions of. If he leaves Mömariböwei-teri after a few days’ work with everyone’s name and two photos, then he’ll know for sure how to proceed with other villages.

He checks his pack and positions it under the lower part of the eaves alongside a small cord of firewood, adding an extra barrier to anyone who may try to sneak into the yahi from outside. Then he checks his shotgun and leaves it leaning against a support post, not quite within reach, but accessible as soon as he stands up. When he finally lies down and closes his eyes, with a bevy of villagers still ogling him, he finds himself back on that bluff overlooking Patanowä-teri, and that’s where, in his dream, he spends the lion’s share of his first night in this other strange new village.

In the morning, despite his apathy and grumpiness, he meets with such success filling in his charts that he forgets his earlier frustrations and is able to let the tasks before him interrupt the guilt arising from his ethical breeches, almost. He proceeds by moving from the headman’s family, who sets the example, to the nearest yahis, where the pata’s closest relatives reside, and so on along the kinship gradient. Each family gathers along the edge of the plaza in front of one of their yahis, and Lac gets both group and individual pictures as he takes down names from his clutch of local informants—checking them against those he got from the sioha and the Bisaasi-teri visitors. It goes smoothly all morning and into the afternoon. Sure, he endures a lot of badgering and begging—but the villagers don’t chase him or throw rocks at him for pointing the cameras at them. No one threatens his life for inquiring after the names of his family members.

The people here, he thinks, are on their best behavior because they’re hoping to lure me away from Bisaasi-teri; they’d just as soon have me bring my madohe directly to them.

In the heat of the afternoon, he stops working and sits surrounded by villagers passing around his stacks of Polaroids, smearing them with green tobacco and red nara. The villagers smile and laugh and tease each other, insulting people from other villages, and reminiscing about past meetings and conflicts. There’s a type of harmful magic, oka, that the Bisaasi-teri accuse their southern neighbors of employing; the Mömariböwei-teri cry nonsense—it’s the Bisaasi-teri who use oka against their rivals. But that’s not a serious enough offense to disqualify them from feasts and trading.

Lac gets so absorbed in the gossip and activity that he barely notices the powerful body odors or the myriad signs of abysmal hygiene. It’s a family gathering of sorts; they’re enjoying themselves, sharing stories of close acquaintances and distant relatives. As evening approaches, Lac opens his pack and peels open a can of sardines, sharing some with the children gathered around him. The men, now that it’s cooling off, don their finest regalia and go out into the courtyard to shoot ebene into each other’s noses and call to their hekura. Lac listens for nuances in their chants and tries, only somewhat successfully, to note the identities of the hybrid supernatural beings they conjure through their impersonations.

Later, as the women return from their late-afternoon trips into the forest to gather their ridiculously large loads of firewood—mostly without axes—Lac does his best to block out the noise and chatter of the children and the shabori so he can work on his charts. When most of the women have returned, he goes back to calling families out into the plaza to collect photos and names. He’s on schedule to finish a nicely comprehensive census before nightfall—and he feels like an actual human being for the first time in weeks. The next time he returns to Mömariböwei-teri, he’ll try to get the names and histories of their ancestors, along with the same kind of preliminary census for the next Shamatari village, Reyaboböwei-teri, as he got for this village before visiting it. That’s how he’ll finish collecting all his data for the remainder of his time in the field, data he’ll share with Dr. Nelson, securing their partnership, securing a source of funding for future expeditions. He’s so excited he considers prolonging this visit to start filling in the graphs for the next village, but he wants to be back in Bisaasi-teri when Clemens returns so they can discuss getting Laura and the kids into the field.

But will he decide, after his time in the field is up, to keep studying the Yąnomamö? As surly and volatile and pushy and whiny and intimidating as they so often are, what society could be more important to anthropology, more fascinating to learn about? His most fruitful workday in the field so far wraps up as he sits in the headman’s yahi filling in the last of his charts. He chats with the headman himself as he works in the rapidly fading light. Coming to the final name in his diagram, he remembers his plan to tell his funny story about the Bisaasi-teri headman and his senior wife. He’d meant to tell it earlier, but now seems as good a time as any.

He begins, “Shori, I have a story to tell you: over in Bisaasi-teri, the pata there, Bahikoawa, and his oldest wife, Nakaweshimi, started to argue one day about how little interest he shows in her, because he’s more interested in—.”

“—What did you say?” The Mömariböwei-teri headman cuts in to ask. When he sees that Lac is worried that he’s offended him, he clarifies, “What did you say their names are?” Lac repeats the names: Bahikoawa and Nakaweshimi. The headman leans back, looks up at the underside of the thatched roof, and releases an abrupt bark of laughter. Then he leans forward, flashing his tear-rimmed eyes, his once eager face now looking stricken. He’s laughing so hard he can’t take in enough air to laugh, making him look more like he’s had the wind knocked out of him than that he’s overcome with hilarity.

Lac steps back and attends the headman with a vertiginous coiling sensation in his gut, a feeling of spinning and rapid descent, as if he’s standing on a frisbee beginning the downslope of its parabolic flight. I haven’t even gotten to the punchline, he thinks; hell, I haven’t even finished the setup. The headman now stumbles out into the plaza, stopping once on the way to lean against a support post and laugh more of his gasping laughs, where he shouts for his uncles and brothers and nephews to come hear what Shaki is saying. Soon, the children crowding around him are pushed away and he’s surrounded by a group of excited men.

The headman tells him to say to all of them what he said before. Lac’s throat clenches. He swallows hard, at a complete loss as to what’s transpiring, and says again, “Over in Bisaasi-teri, the headman there, Bahikoawa, and his oldest wife, Nakaweshimi, started arguing one day over how little interest he shows in her…” He doesn’t finish the sentence because the whole group of men is in hysterics, the joke smashing into them like a wave crashing over a beach.

“Say the names again!” one of them shouts.

Suddenly, Lac has an idea what’s going on, and this idea keeps him floating in the whirling no-man’s land between fury and abjection. “Shori,” he calls out. “Why are the names of the Bisaasi-teri pata and his wife so funny?”

“Ah, Shaki”—gasp—“those aren’t their names.” More laughter.

“Whose names are they?” Lac presses. But the men can’t be bothered to interrupt their mirth. “Whose names are they?” he demands.

“Shaki,” the headman’s younger brother finally says, “Bahikoawa means ‘Long Dong’—that’s what you’ve been calling him.” His voice pinches in the leadup to another guffaw. “And Nakaweshimi—that means ‘Hairy Cunt.’” More howling and breathless glee. “Do you have any more names like these from Bisaasi-teri?”

Those god damned sons of bitches! They’ve been doing this the whole time I’ve been staying with them. That asshole even had Clemens calling him Long Dong.

The crimson warmth of embarrassment floods his temples, spreads over his face, and prickles the follicles atop his head. Alongside a feeling of deliquescence, Lac feels his rage set to boil. He wants to smash someone’s skull, anyone’s. He wants to break someone’s nose. He wants to bomb the whole damn village of Bisaasi-teri. But the welcome sense of melting, a granting of his unspoken wish to ooze away into the dirt, or elsewise disappear, never be seen by these people again—that’s the feeling that prevails. He doesn’t feel worthy of harboring any rage toward them. The best he can manage is spite, and even that won’t take proper hold in him. He can’t sustain bitterness because—damn it—it was a goddamn funny joke! They must’ve been comparing notes after every private interview, appointing gifted confabulators to volunteer for them. They’d planned and coordinated—conspired. They’d made a proper fool of him. That’s why they found the latest public version of the naming game so amusing. That’s why the named individual sulked but didn’t get angry.

They’ve been doing this the whole time, he thinks. Unbelievable.

He shows the crowd of men his charts and reads aloud the names. Long Dong’s son by Hairy Cunt is Asshole. Then there’s Harpy Eagle Feces and Filthy Rectum. As the waves of hilarity crash over the Mömariböwei-teri with each new name, both men and women now, Lac smiles timidly. Before long, he’s laughing along with them. It really is funny. But all the while he’s stuck with the thought: five months of work—almost six! You’ve been here for six months and all you’ve got is a list of naughty pseudo-names: Foreskin Face, Nipple Nose, Vagina Forehead. What is it with these people and their insults about foreheads?

Six months. Jesus.

He thinks back to the hours and hours of interviews he conducted, both out in the open and in his hut. It never occurred to him that they’d be playing such an elaborate hoax because where he comes from nobody would be willing to throw away that much time. Though a machete or an ax probably saves them hundreds of hours total—try clearing a garden of trees with a stone ax head. Add to that the fun they must have been having and it would have been well worth their while.

Six months. Jesus. What am I going to tell Dr. Nelson? What am I going to tell Laura? By the light of the hearth fire, he goes through the whole list of a hundred and twenty-some names for Upper Bisaasi-teri. The first adult name that seems to be real is Rowahirawa’s, a sioha whose name he learned separately.

Rowahirawa—I’m going to strangle that son of a bitch.

Six months! 

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The Raid on Patanowä-teri: He Borara Chapter 11

Many people are surprised to hear that some of the tallest trees in the rainforest are killers. To achieve their gargantuan height, Laura explained to Lac, they use other trees as stepping stones and nutrient sources. She’d learned about these cannibal trees from an ecologist on the IVIC campus. Their colloquial name, matapalo, translates roughly as tree-killer. Most Americans, if they can identify the trees at all, would call them strangler figs, cousins to the domestic ficus plant. Matapalos serve as stages for one of the most beautifully quintessential of rainforest dramas when their fruit comes into season, driving to mad revelries creatures ranging from parrots and macaws to monkeys and agoutis—odd rodent-like creatures whose jawbones the Yąnomamö fashion into the carving blades they use to shape their bows and arrows from palm wood.  

The seeds consumed at these eclectically cacophonous harvest feasts are borne away in the guts of all the creatures making up the riotous menagerie, until reemerging to be deposited with a protective film that only dissolves under the proper conditions. If by chance the seed comes to reside atop the joint of a bole and its bough, an elbow platform collecting decaying leaves, insects, and the right strain of bacteria, the protective film will melt away and the seed will start to sprout. It sends out a tendril, a green explorer setting off into the vast unknown. These vines dangle and descend until they encounter another source of nutrients, in another elbow, or eventually under the jungle floor, where they extend roots to join the sprouting treelet to the filigreed network of roots and fungal mycelia.

As the invading matapalo continues sending corded emissaries groundward to establish trading relations with the shallow bustling life of the rainforest soil, it’s simultaneously launching missions skyward, joining the race to the top of the canopy to secure a share of the sun’s golden largesse. The vines proliferate and thicken; the leaves climb and radiate outward. In time, the host tree that made possible this rapid rise is completely enveloped, consumed, locked away to rot slowly into nothing. All you see then is the matapalo. You’d never guess what it had done to achieve its monstrous stature. But if you examine the trunk, you can still see the fused tendrils. The central support is an enormous and intricate woody braid whose folds and crevices now house a menagerie on a smaller scale: ants, wasps, geckos, anoles.

Lac looks at the matapalo trunks he passes, searching out these tiny worlds within worlds. He remembers the dismemberment ceremony he witnessed among the ants that day while he was squatting in the forest to shit. The squadron of warriors, heavily armed and armored, returned from their heroic mission to the welcoming embrace of smaller, far less formidable nestmates, who promptly began scrapping their bodies for parts—one generation, tempered by battle, sacrificing itself to a weaker cohort, whose depredations could only be accomplished bureaucratically, with the consent of the depredated.

But the host tree that gets strangled and stepped over by the matapalos is sacrificed without any such consent. “The matapalos usually colonize older trees who’ve survived and thrived for many seasons, and they also deter loggers, since their wood is useless.” Laura saw her description of the strangler fig’s lifecycle was disconcerting him. “Often, when the loggers have come through, the matapalos are all that remains. And they give a boost to forest regeneration because their huge crowns of leaves can form a shady canopy that prevents a complete bleaching of the soil.”

Recent Research in Science
Lac quizzed some Yąnomamö men on the reproductive strategy of the trees after he returned to Bisaasi-teri; they knew almost as much about it as Laura, or as much as her ecologist friend had told her anyway. He next asked some of the children who are always forming a Lilliputian crowd around him what they knew of the trees. One boy surprised him by telling him the trees grew over other trees to reach into the sky and then going on to explain the lifecycle of several of the species that make a home of the thickened and fused vines of the trunk, including wasps and bees. The boy couldn’t have been more than nine, and Lac thought of how little chance there was anyone would ever encounter an American nine-year-old with anything like this depth of knowledge about the natural world and the creatures who inhabit the wilderness. Hell, the chances of finding an adult who knows this stuff aren’t much better.

Now he finds himself staring at the braided trunks whenever the party of raiders passes a matapalo. He finds several host trees enduring the early phases, imprisoned in the curtain of yellow-green vines, resigned to their fate. The progress to Patanowä-teri is leisurely enough to leave space for observation and rumination. The younger men in the group complain of bad dreams and sore feet. But mostly they walk in silence, swatting away bareto and stopping on occasion to sit and eat a few of the plantains they’re lugging through the jungle. Lac doesn’t ask many questions, but he feels his senses becoming keener by the hour. The men obviously care about their lives—especially the younger ones who are hoping their complaints and descriptions of dreamtime forebodings will persuade the group to turn around and go home—but there’s an insouciance to the way they carry on that’s incongruous to Lac. While he’s frantically scanning the trail for snakes, they walk as without a care, alert to goings-on in the understory, but vigilant in a way more like a factory overseer than a group of men traversing perilous terrain to attack a hostile, albeit unsuspecting, village. This insouciance is child-like to Lac in some instances, but more a type of mature stoicism in others.

He admires them for it.

Bahikoawa looks like he may fall to the ground any moment, writhing in pain. He walks with a sideways list to brace against the pain of each jolting step. How will he do any sprinting once the ambush has been sprung? Is he counting on feeling better by the time of the attack?

Rowahirawa says the trip to Patanowä-teri normally takes two sleeps—that’s how they reckon travel time, one sleep, two sleeps, this many fingers, this many toes. Or if it’s less than a full day’s walk, they point to where the sun is now and then point to where it will be when they arrive at their destination. They’re still more than a day’s journey to Patanowä-teri. With all the food they’re carrying, the men will probably need to add a day to their usual timetable. Once they’re in the vicinity of Patanowä-teri, they’ll take some time to reconnoiter, waiting for the ideal opportunity. All told, they could easily be gone a week, a week of uncertain weather, when they could be deluged and rendered immobile by a sudden downpour, or even by a not-so-sudden downpour. It’s not like there’d be a whole lot they could do even if they knew in advance a storm was coming—a storm the Yąnomamö will simply shout at and argue with once it arrives.

Lac thinks back to the storm he witnessed in his earliest days in the field, when he grasped for the first time where all those disaster myths emerging from diverse cultures came from. You could easily feel like a big storm was threatening to annihilate the whole world as it rips along your shabono’s thatched roof, especially when you know so little about the world beyond that shabono. Then there are the stories of great battles among nations, and the great odysseys spanning unbounded seas. Everyone alive today—at least in most parts of the world—knows that such cataclysms pale in comparison to the wars of this century, the ones between industrial nation-states, with their populations of millions shipped to opposite ends of the known world and ground to a pulp in merciless engines of mass slaughter, the likes of which were never dreamt of by any Homer, or by any other of the celebrated bards who bequeathed to future generations their superstition-soaked and delusion-drenched visions of the wars in their time.

Still, he thinks, it’s good to keep in mind that to individuals it’s individual lives that matter. The whole world comes to an end someday for each of us as individuals.

When the raiders next stop for a snack and a rest, the two younger men’s complaints annoy Bahikoawa so much he loses his patience and shouts at them to go back. When they stare back at him stupidly, he gets up, wincing, pulls them aside, and shames them by saying the Shamatari will take word of their cowardice back to their village, and after they hear how pathetic the men of Bisaasi-teri and Monou-teri are, it’ll only be a matter of time before they launch their own raid.

Nevertheless, the two double down on their complaints, insisting he’s right and they must go back, so painful are the sores on their feet, so vivid their nightmares. Lac shares Bahikoawa’s disgust for these men, not because they don’t want to fight, not even because they’re too weak-willed to overcome their fear, but because they were so perfectly willing to paint themselves black and join in the wayu itou, so eager to show off in front of all the young women, even though they must not have had any intention of following through. Because they’re just goddamned posers.

Bahikoawa’s eyes lock on Lac’s when he catches him sneering at the two men as they pass by on their way back to the trail to Bisaasi-teri. Lac freezes in fear, dropping his gaze. He snuck after the three men when they stepped away to speak separately, and he thinks the headman may be angry with him for snooping. Really though, Bahikoawa seems pleased as he walks in front of Lac to rejoin the group. He flashes a grin, so brief Lac will surely question later whether he really saw it, this first sign of favor from the Bisaasi-teri pata, though Lac has given him plenty of madohe to secure that favor.

More walking. Not marching. Not traveling with any real sense of purpose either. Just walking. Lac set out determined to attend closely to the landmarks and the turns and curves made by his Yąnomamö guides, if that’s the proper term for these men merely tolerating his tag-along presence. His objective is to remember the way back to Bisaasi-teri in the all-too-likely event that he falls behind. You’ve seen them run, he mutters to himself. How can you possibly think you’ll be able to keep up? How can you possibly think you’ll be able to outdistance the Patanowä-teri pursuers, who there’s no reason to believe aren’t just as fast? If Rowahirawa were to stay behind to help you escape, he’d be putting himself in danger. So how exactly are you expecting this to go down?

This last thought is the one that obsesses him over the coming hours. He’s been hoping that Rowahirawa would surprise him, showing up just when Lac began to despair of ever finding the rest of the raiding party again. But how would that help either of them if they’re surrounded by vengeful Patanowä-teri? Lac can scarcely imagine a scenario where he and the raiders make it to Patanowä-teri, achieve their objective, and make it back to Bisaasi-teri unscathed. And achieving their objective means killing someone. So no matter what this is going to end badly.

You have no business being here with these men, he tells himself. Your time in the jungle has made you insane, separated you from what little good sense you had going in. Really, though, if you’d had any sense, you’d be working in your brother’s factory in Detroit instead of ambling toward certain death, half-certainly your own.

He looks around, searching for distinctive features in the landscape. It’s hopeless. But he takes one step and then another, doomed he’s sure, but trapped by his earlier decision to go. Whatever happens, if you make it back in one piece, Laura is never to know how badly you messed up here. And whatever happens, you have to make it back in one piece for her and Kara and Dominic. He stops.

You idiot! Why didn’t you go back with those two men when they decided their feet hurt too bad or that their dreams foretold disaster?

That would have been the easiest way out of this predicament. But he knows he wouldn’t have been able to stomach returning with those cowards, and the idea hadn’t even occurred to him when they were leaving. Besides, he’s continuing not because he doesn’t know the way back to Bisaasi-teri. Thus far, he’s confident he does. He’s continuing because he could never live with the shame of having resolved to go and then faltering before making it halfway.

I’m here, he thinks, for the same damn reason the Yąnomamö are.

When they make camp for the night, using the last spray of sunlight sprinkling in through the leaves to build their yanos, which are small lean-tos used as tents—miniature yahis really—they settle in and begin joking and gossiping and telling stories just like they normally would if they were out on a hunt far from home. Jungle nights are shockingly cold, and there’s some maneuvering for prime spots near the fire. If you listen carefully, Lac thinks, you can hear a nervy overemphasis to their words and a forced heartiness to their laughter, but besides that they could be men out enjoying the wilderness anywhere. They could be his own dad and uncles and brothers, only with less clothing, no alcohol, and with the added feature of their amazingly intricate and overpowering odors—though, come to think of it, Uncle Rob was pretty damn smelly.

Lac is happy to be out with these men. Since it’s nighttime, though, tomorrow’s dangers, and the next day’s, swarm his thoughts, stinging him into an incessant mild panic, making it impossible to calm down. I had to be here, he thinks again, as dangerous as it is. He could resign himself to the inexorability of whatever lies in store for him except for the part about what it would mean for his family. He tries to quell his worries by telling himself to quit being so dramatic. The Yąnomamö do this all the time; they must usually make it back without sustaining permanent damage to their persons; don’t do anything stupid and you’ll be fine.

Ah, but the universe doesn’t work like that, does it? Exercising precaution brings no guarantee of safety. And how far can you trust yourself not to do anything stupid anyway? When the shouting and chaos start, he thinks, I’ll either want to be as close as I can get, or I’ll panic and bolt into the forest. Either impulse will get me killed—only the latter will boil me in a vat of shame as I’m waiting to die.

“Shori,” one of the men says plaintively, “you should go back; you can’t run with the hekura biting into your buhii.” He’s talking to Bahikoawa, whose yano Lac made a point of staying close to.

The headman waves off the warning. “My own hekura are far stronger,” he says. “I will recover by tomorrow.”

Lac is skeptical. He listens while rubbing his thumb over the picture of Laura and the kids he pulled from the wall in his hut and slipped into his bag. He really should go back, Lac thinks. In his condition, he’s more liability than help. And imagine how a dead headman would escalate the rivalry between the villages. He tries to guess who would become pata if Bahikoawa were to be killed: one of his brothers or parallel cousins no doubt, since his is the village’s most dominant lineage. Whoever it would end up being, though, he probably won’t be as temperamentally suited to the role as Bahikoawa, who Lac has come to think of as the ideal leader for these people. Though maybe that’s only because his ailment has tamped down his usual levels of aggression. Lac chuckles silently at the thought. After all, it was the headman who insisted this raid must happen, for all their good.

 How similar is Bahikoawa to headmen in other Yąnomamö villages? They all must possess some degree of domineering aggression, Lac thinks; they all must be able to project strength, make credible threats. Lac would love to conduct a survey of the personalities of the headmen in a large sample of villages. Do the characters of the leaders correlate with some feature of the larger groups? He tries to perform a thought experiment by recalling all the leaders he knows from Ann Arbor and Port Austin.

The professors do seem to fit a mold—at least in the Anthropology department. Dr. Nelson and the other men Lac knows from the Genetics department are different. Lac remembers when he first realized that each department had its own relative standing vis a vis all the others, each enjoying—or suffering—its own amount of prestige. Anthropology is nowhere near as prestigious as Genetics, if only because the geneticists are all MDs. Doctors, Lac has noted, allow themselves to indulge in feelings and airs of superiority like men in no other profession. And why not? They’ve earned it with all that school. But anthropologists go to school for a long time too, the overlong education of PhDs of every stripe, culminating in some form of intensive fieldwork, as Lac is currently undertaking. Granted, few anthropologists complete their degrees under conditions as harrowing as these; they usually work out of some missionary outpost or on some government established reservation, generations on from the demise of their subjects’ true sovereignty. But still, they don’t give PhDs to just anyone.

Oh please, he imagines a faceless geneticist retorting, doctors save lives. Genetics research saves lives. Medical science never needs to justify itself. However big the questions anthropologists put themselves to answering, they’re still little more than philosophers and lackeys—serving militaries and missionaries, trying their damnedest to come up with something useful.

The camp has gone silent. Lac listens to the pops and crinkles and hisses of the fire, wrapping his arms tightly around his torso, trying to squeeze out the cold. The fiery orange sparks lofting in swirling columns recall for him the cloud of tiny insects flitting about in a sunbeam that held him rapt for a long minute earlier today. He hears a sound he can’t identify, and he tries to snatch the mental echo by its tail. Within a few seconds, he comes to understand what he heard. Bahikoawa is whimpering in his sleep. Lac sits up to find out what he can see in the firelight. The headman has a fresh sheen of sweat. He should move away from the other men with a fever like that. He should quarantine himself. But it’s not like there are opportunities for that out here. At any rate, Lac is relieved. With their leader this sick, they’ll have to turn back in the morning. He only hopes Bahikoawa does eventually recover—just not before his own grasp of how stupid it was to accompany them on a raid in the first place has a chance to loosen.

Lac anticipates a sleepless night, but no sooner have his eyes fallen shut than he’s dreaming. Now he’s in charge of a squadron of Yąnomamö soldiers, one part of a much larger coordinated attack on the white missionaries. What he’s about to do, what he must do, horrifies him, but he persists nonetheless. Trudging through the jungle, he’s hoping desperately that he won’t encounter—and be forced to kill—Padre Morello, Chuck Clemens, or, of all people, his older brother Connor. Another strange dynamic takes over his thoughts: he knows he and his Yąnomamö comrades at arms will lose the war, regardless of any victory in this day’s battle; the Venezuelan army is practically an arm of the Church. His side will lose, but unless he dies in the fighting, he won’t be killed. Whatever bravery he shows is a sham. Sure, the attack is plenty dangerous for everybody, but the Yąnomamö are marching toward certain doom.

Lac’s conscience is abuzz with the stinging guilt of his competing crimes. He’s betraying his heritage, his national tribe, by siding with the Yąnomamö, but he’s betraying the Yąnomamö because they will undoubtedly be killed, while in the likely event of his capture he’ll be granted clemency. Meanwhile, he’s betraying Laura and the kids by fighting at all, putting his life at so much risk.

He wakes shivering in the silent dark. Looking over at Bahikoawa across the moldering embers of the fire, he sees nothing but the contours of a recumbent charcoal shadow. Staring intently, he thinks he sees the figure shivering, far more violently than Lac is himself, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean Bahikoawa’s fever has yet to break. Lac may be shivering more than he realizes.

Untangling the knotty detritus of his dream, Lac finds his mind occupied by thoughts of his father. He was thinking of the different types of leader earlier that day. His father was no type of leader. He cut an imposing figure, at least to his children, but he was more than anything a bitter man, obsessed with the virtue of work, carrying a conspicuous chip on his shoulder from the vast conspiracy to prevent recognition of his own profound virtue, that unconscionable and absolute ignoring of his deservingness. Work, manual work, is the root of all masculine worth, but Malcolm was forced to endure long stretches of unemployment, and even when he was working he barely scraped by. Meanwhile, people all around him were getting ahead with fake work. Sham work. It was an injustice and an indignity he suffered every day. That people like Lac’s professors made a living off tax dollars—a better living than his—was a form of societal corruption, a symbol of societal decadence and moral deterioration. He deserved more, so much more. But twelve kids is a lot of mouths to feed. That’s why Lachlan and Connor started feeling the pressure to leave home and start supporting themselves when they were barely teenagers.

 Lac drifts back to sleep, dreamless this time, despite the cold.

When he next opens his eyes, it’s on Rowahirawa’s face. “Shaki, the Bisaasi-teri pata has returned to his village. His brother went back too to help him travel.”

“Ma! Will we be going back then too?” Lac, groggy, surprised at how deeply he slept, sits up and let’s his eyes rove over the camp.

“Shaki, you idiot! We’re still going to Patanowä-teri. The pata was just beset by too many evil hekura to keep going.”

Lac wonders if there was a late-night discussion—or argument—between Bahikoawa and Towahowä’s brother about whether the mission should proceed as planned after the headman’s departure. Bahikoawa may have only come this far, now that Lac thinks about it, to make sure the younger man from Monou-teri went through with his commitment to restore the honor of his village.

“Come on, Shaki. We’re close enough that tonight we’ll sleep without fires.”

On the night before a raid, the men sleep shivering and scared to death of jaguars, because the enemy villagers would see the smoke from any warming fire. Lac, who shivered so much even with a fire, is bedeviled by the prospect. He’s bedeviled too by the thought that his best chance of getting out of this mess, Bahikoawa turning the whole party back because he’s too sick to lead it, has just fallen through spectacularly. He gets up and prepares to move on, upending his boots to clear them of any critters who may have made a home of one of them for the night.

The next thing for him is the long day of walking in the furnace heat of the jungle, one step, then another. Beyond that is a chaos of competing uncertainties. How can he even begin to predict the most likely outcome? He has no baseline to compare any of this to. One step, then another. One more day and one more freezing night before this insanity comes to whatever head fate has in store—except there really is no such thing as fate. Thinking in terms like those is a way of assuaging our anxieties about the world’s unfathomable unpredictability.

In the light of day, he notices again, his abstract debilitating fears dissolve into practical challenges. “Shori,” he calls to Rowahirawa, “tell me about the landscape surrounding Patanowä-teri.” He stops himself before saying, I want to know all the places where I might hide. Rowahirawa does his best to paint a picture in words, but he speaks too fast and the exercise leaves Lac feeling no better off. Something else occurs to him that makes him feel even more in limbo: whatever happens, he won’t be able to write about it. He won’t be able to tell anyone about it. The only one he’ll probably ever discuss it with is this man right here, a secret between two old war buddies.

“If we won’t have fires,” Lac asks, “then will we at least set up yanos?”

“Ma, Shaki, we only stay one night.”

“But we had yanos last night, and we only stayed there once.”

“The yanos only needed some new thatching; they were there from earlier hunting trips. We went that way so we could keep dry in the rain. Yanos are only for hunting trips when we’ll be in the area a while. Normally, you just hang your hammock and sleep looking up at the hedu layer.”

“It didn’t rain last night.”

“Yes, it did, Shaki. You were asleep. I heard you snoring.”

“But the ground isn’t even wet. It couldn’t have rained much.” Lac looks frantically for snakes along the edge of the trail for a long moment before adding, “I don’t snore.”

Rowahirawa appears to expand with delight. “Awei, Shaki, you snore really loud. I kept looking over at you thinking there was a jaguar under the little thatched roof where you slept.” He laughs and gives Lac a shove. Normally, Lac would enjoy the teasing. Being pushed from the trail after a night of rain, however, seems like pointless endangerment. He frowns and steps back in line.

“Ah, Shaki, don’t worry. Like I said, stick close to me and you’ll be as safe as you would be in Caracas-teri.” It’s the first time he’s mentioned Lac’s trip back into civilization. All he said when Lac first returned to Bisaasi-teri was, “Did you have fun with your wife? Is she angry at you for being away so long? Had any of the men abused her?”

Lac has never considered the implications of a notion like fate so fully. The role of heaven or Valhalla or hedu is simple enough; you fear your own demise, you abhor the loss of your loved ones, so you wish these tragedies away. You create a fantasy cosmos for yourself to occupy, and everyone who shares your fantasy bolsters the illusion of its reality. That’s why zealots proselytize so zealously; the mere existence of other fantasy afterlives undermines the credibility of your own. That’s why atheists are intolerable, and apostates even worse. Mission work is like burning a circle of brush around the forest fire of disbelief to prevent it from spreading. Although at one point in history the major faiths were the fire spreading wild more than they were the woodlands.

The men were already quieter than usual when they first set out, but the somberness of their march thickens as they approach their destination. If you believe in fate, you believe the time and means of your death are settled matters. There would be no point in worrying when and how you’ll die because there’s nothing you can do to alter any of it. Lac wagers most people fantasize of greater fates than dying of, say, a snakebite or a car crash, and so they’re able to carry on with their daily lives unafraid, for the most part.

He looks around, draws in the hot stale breath and vast green indifference of the jungle, notices the birds are extraordinarily chatty where they are, and looks up through an open patch in the trees to their left, wondering what trick of the atmosphere makes the dome of the sky appear so much higher over Amazonia than it does over Michigan. His clothes are heavy with sweat, clinging to his thighs. No one imagines for himself a fate as disappointingly banal as dying from a small cut that goes septic. But fate, however highfalutin, is sure to circle a battlefield like a starving vulture. Maybe that’s why the Yąnomamö symbolically transmogrify into vultures in the songs they sing at the reahu feast, after they’ve formed the wayu itou.

Lac wishes Rowahirawa would harass and tease him, anything to restore even the most tenuous semblance of normalcy. Maybe the man who turned back complaining of dark prophetic dreams was on to something. Maybe they really are fated for disaster. Lac keeps walking, the most outlandish act of courage reduced to the most mundane of deeds: the placing of one foot in front of the other, repeating itself ad infinitum. Only half a day’s sweaty march, and a freezing sleepless night without the warmth or light of a fire separates these men from their fates. Except that’s putting it backwards; the men in this raiding party, they’re the circling vultures; they’re the fate that lies in store for some poor bastard who lives in Patanowä-teri.  

The Yąnomamö like to make fun of Lac for his tender feet. He takes for granted that their own splayed and thick-calloused feet are effectively impervious, but here we are, he thinks, waiting alongside the trail because one of the men has stepped on a thorn, which drove itself deep into the flesh of his middle toe. The danger of such mishaps increases in step with the water content of the trail. Soaking softens callouses. The foot-sore man’s complaints join the chorus of nagging resistance Towahowä’s brother must overcome moment by moment to keep up their progress. Everyone’s feet are injured. Everyone’s sick, suffering from the same malady that sent the Bisaasi-teri headman back home hanging on his brother’s shoulder. Good, convincing excuses for why one can’t go on to Patanowä-teri are at a premium—all the more precious for their scarcity.

Lac is surprised by his own disgust. He finds the goldbricking more repugnant even than the prospect of carrying out the mission. Of course, he too would love if the group would turn back, abandon the raid until the next dry season, by which time he’ll be better prepared, understanding the language better, on more friendly terms with the men, better accustomed to the heat, and spritelier on his shod feet. He’d love to turn back. But he’d be loath to admit it, much less issue a torrent of patently bogus excuses.

Not everyone is so eager to give up on the mission, though, Lac corrects himself. The older men, for the most part, especially the ones from Bisaasi-teri, remain stoically determined, aiming sotto voce expressions of contempt at the would-be deserters. And no one actually is turning back; instead, the complainers and excuse-makers are trying to persuade Towahowä’s brother to call off the raid and turn the entire group around, so they can sidestep the shame of abandoning the mission before it achieves its objective. Their leader, the current primus inter pares, doesn’t seem to have any intention of turning them around. As Lac understands it, he can’t. That would be the end of his village, the end of Monou-teri, finished before it ever had a chance to get off to a proper start, a casualty of timid leadership.

How do you go from so many young men reluctant to fight, Lac wonders, to so many older men determined to kill someone? How do you go from a bunch of individuals with a healthy fear of violence to a culture that makes pacifism impossible? And how many hunter-horticulturalist societies are like the Yąnomamö? But try as he might to adopt an anthropological mindset, he’s preoccupied with thoughts probably more similar to the men’s around him than to any Western scientist’s. Out here, we’re all the same vincible flesh and blood, regardless of where we learned our human ways.

There’s an apocalyptic quality to the rapid setting of the sun. As the men hang their hammocks in silence, Lac fails to alarm himself with the thought of their being minutes away from where the Patanowä-teri routinely roam. Slipping about through the near dark, he silently rejoices at being closer to ghosthood, closer to a cloud or wisp of smoke, than he ever managed to feel back in Bisaasi-teri, where he’s excruciatingly conspicuous in his corporeality and forever bumbling from pratfall to faux pas. He feels like he’s already dead, even as the chill bites into his flesh, a huge beast gobbling him up, not out of malice but from a hunger bred of boredom.

He pulls a dry shirt, still crusted with sweat, from his bag, remembering that cedar-infused locker room tang that pierced his nostrils when Clemens pulled his hammock from the bag that night they stayed in the Malarialogìa hut across the river from Bisaasi-teri. Everything Lac owns smells that bad or worse now, but it will all soon be swallowed by the cold regardless, that yawning monster with its pinched nose and undiscerning palette, with its tastes for ghosts in fetid shirts, for men too exhausted to carry in their conscious minds anything of real substance.

“Shaki,” he hears Rowahirawa whisper. “The forest here is full of spirits at night, wandering buhii who got lost while seeking out the strands to the hedu layer.” Lac almost believes it. He peers intently into the distant forest as it fades from gray to fathomless black. Maybe I can join them, he thinks, just walk off with them and help find the web filaments one traverses to reach their heaven. Even wilder to consider, maybe tomorrow has already happened but my disembodied essence has no memory of what occurred. “And the jaguars hunt here, looking for humans they can outsmart. The fires keep them away—but the fires bring the Patanowä-teri.”

Why is he telling me this? To warn me? There aren’t a lot of precautions I can take, other than staying close to the group when I wander off to shit. To scare me? I’ve already heard all about the myriad dangers of sleeping in the jungle without fire. Somehow just now, he thinks, none of them scares me. Lac is frightened mostly of the cold, that it will prevent him from sleeping, which will make him unable to keep up tomorrow as the men flee from the site of their ambush. Mostly though he feels nothing, so subsumed is he in this purgatorial sense of punishingly pointless waiting. It’s as though, through exhaustion, he’s inching ever closer to achieving his sought-after resignation to the fate he doesn’t believe in.

Rowahirawa is just talking because he wants to. He’s making conversation. Despite the numbing apathetic cold of this limbo they find themselves suspended in together, Lac feels warmly honored that his informant, tormentor, guide, and protector recognizes him as substantive enough, human enough, to be spoken to so idly. The day’s warmth quickly creeps away as the chill rushes to impose itself on the evening. Lac wraps himself in his arms and submits to his first bout of shivering.

“There’s a promontory overlooking one of the trails to the Patanowä-teri’s water source,” Rowahirawa says. “If they are where we’re expecting to find them, you could stand up there and watch. You’d have to hide, though, because your skin gleams. Even arrows shot by a blind man would find you.” Lac likes the idea of being at a safe distance where he’s still able to witness the goings-on below. “The rise is right alongside the trail we use to approach the village. I’ll tap your shoulder when it’s time for you to climb.”

These men, including Rowahirawa, including Towahowä’s eleven or twelve-year-old son, will wait beside the trail for a victim. And then they’ll kill him. Lac is hoping to see it happen, if he’s not hoping it doesn’t happen at all. I should figure out that kid’s name, he thinks. It wouldn’t be too difficult yet; I’ve already got the names of much older men in my charts.

The retiring raiders fall silent, even Rowahirawa. Lac tries on irony and stoicism and youthful defiance in the face of death, draping each in turn over his thoughts and watching them slide one after the other onto the floor. He hopes he’s exhausted enough to sleep. He’s willing to risk sleeping through a jaguar or buhii attack. Did Dad ever have a night like this, he wonders, picturing some snow-covered field in the German hinterlands? Imagine going through all that only to return home and have your proud militarized manhood dismantled as you’re forced to scrounge for work, watching your kids grow up weak and entitled—and infuriatingly insolent in their spouting off of their precious government-subsidized learning, their so-called knowledge.

“We better hope the war with the Russians takes place on a chalkboard,” his father once quipped. Is that, Lac poses to himself, why you’re here now? He rolls onto his side in the hammock, forming a tighter press of arms enfolding his body as it’s being devoured by the cold.

Lac doesn’t see what the older men do to silence the younger men when they start complaining of the cold. In his dry shirt, Lac pities the Yąnomamö, who all sleep clothed in nothing but a few strings, their own dried, charcoal-infused saliva mixed with the salt of the day’s profusion of sweat. And is this night colder than average? Have they climbed to a higher elevation perhaps? Or maybe it’s the humidity? For all his mental preparation throughout the day, Lac is still overwhelmed by the stark reality of the cold. He wants to scream. Then he hears something strange. It’s Rowahirawa. He’s laughing.

“Shaki, if I shiver any harder, I’ll shake my cock right off my body. Then I’ll be even more like a woman than you.” Lac can’t help chuckling. “Quiet down over there, Shaki. Laughter attracts the jaguars. They’ll think you’re a giggling young girl and rush to mate with you.”

“Oh no, Shori, you look much more like a female jaguar than I do.”

“Awei, but you laugh like, awhoo-awhoo-awhoo,” he counters, imitating the sound in his highest falsetto.

“I do not! That sounds more like the woman whose father won’t give her to you.” He retorts, botching the phrasing. Rowahirawa loves it anyway.

“You two keep quiet!” someone hisses.

Lac can’t tell now if he’s just shivering convulsively or if it’s partly that he’s suffering from a fit of uncontrollable laughter, and then, miraculously, he’s asleep, dreaming of some terrible movie on the television, a white powdery flicker of exaggerated expressions and showy gestures. His father is being carried in, dangling by his bound wrists and ankles from a pole suspended between the shoulders of two ridiculously costumed natives, sporting fruity headdresses and slack-lipped expressionless faces. The natives are carrying Malcolm to an altar stone for his sacrificial dismemberment, of course. A line of pregnant women with bare protruding bellies waits to consume the disarticulated appendages. His father complains, not about his own treatment, but because his flesh will go to nourishing a bunch of namby-pamby pedagogues and paper pushers. If the scene wasn’t nauseating, it would be comical. Suddenly it’s not Malcolm swaying from the pole but Lac himself. He feels the ropes sawing into his wrists, the weightlessness of hanging and bouncing, and finally the fear of what awaits him. Bahikoawa directs the proceedings from the head of the altar rock—which Lac sees is overrun with ants—while Rowahirawa stands off to the side, shoulders juddering with laughter.

The scene blinks out, replaced by a rapid series of images—every wound he’s stitched since arriving in the field, including the nasty serrated tear on the foot of the headman’s brother. “Shaki,” he’d said, “I think there’s a caiman under the water here.” Explosive splashing, a scream of pain—it seems he was right about there being a caiman, but they never got a chance to eat it. Caimans are said to be tough and stringy anyway.

The wound required ten stitches to close. Lac was proud of himself; he’d shown his usefulness and Bahikoawa was grateful. Aside from the baskets, hammocks, and cotton waist bands for the women, the Yąnomamö do little weaving and no sewing. Lac may have dramatically altered their culture by introducing the practice, but their culture was about to be even more dramatically altered by the encroachment of much larger forces anyway. So he was proud of his stitch work, but went on over the next three days, as he always seems to, to see the wound in his mind whenever he closed his eyes. He never did like the sight of blood.

Now, he’s awake, still doing his involuntary dance deep in the belly of the beast, steeping in its heat-leaching juices. Someone’s moving about the camp in the dark—he’s as sure of it as he is of his own breath. Multiple someones.

He finds in himself the wherewithal to control his shivering, forces himself to lie still, listening to his jagged breaths. An odd clicking noise, impossible to locate, sounds from high in the trees, probably some kind of beetle. Aside from the men’s snores and nighttime murmurs, Lac hears no other sounds. But he’s sure someone is up and sneaking around, more than one. He searches his recent memory. How can you be sure? What did you hear? He risks lifting his head, but it’s too dark to see. His pack is hanging from a nearby tree, with his flashlight slid into the pocket on the side.

He takes a moment to listen, mustering the courage to sit up and reach for the bag. Could it have been the tail end of a dream? No, I remember exactly what I was dreaming. He lies frozen, his thoughts only half diverted from the cold sending its jolting waves through his body, dissolving the surface of his flesh, soaking into the meat. Every night sound takes its turn on the stage of his conscious awareness; none indicates any human presence beyond his sleeping co-travelers.

Finally, he lifts his shoulders from the netting of the hammock, losing control of his shaking as he does so, and reaches for the light, barely catching his balance before dumping himself on the ground. A glimpsed figure moving through some nearby undergrowth locks him in place. A man, stooped but upright, stepped behind a tree, casually, as if on a Sunday’s ramble through the forest. Lac stares. The tree isn’t big enough to hide the man from his view, unless he happens to be intent on hiding, and nothing in his manner suggested any urgent need to remain unseen.

The longer Lac stares, the less sure he is that he saw what he thinks he saw. He starts to reach again for the flashlight but sees movement in his periphery, bringing his eyes to another spot in the forest. There are more than one of them. A stick cracks apart behind him, sounding like nothing so much as a pull tab being peeled back from the lip of a beer can. He whips his head around, thinking, that’s three at least. His ears go tingling hot as every heartbeat surges through his temples.

“Shori,” he spits. “Wake up! Someone’s here.” He has his hand in the bag fishing out the flashlight before he realizes he said it in English. He stands and turns the light on the tree the first man slid behind. What he sees is a mossy trunk with its scaly bark cast into shadowy relief by the yellow beam, and nothing else. Aware of how easy he’s made himself to spot, he turns off the light and crouches low beside the tree bearing half the weight of his hammock.

“Shaki,” Rowahirawa calls with a groggy, shuddery voice. “What are you doing with your light. If you wake everyone up, they’ll kill you.”

“I saw someone,” he says in the proper language. Now that he’s told someone else, he worries that the ensuing search will turn up nothing, when he should be worried that it won’t.

Rowahirawa gets up, walks over to Lac and looks around to see what’s got him so spooked. He says, “It’s too dark, Shaki, you can’t have seen anything.”

“I saw… something.”

Rowahirawa turns to him, grabs him by the shoulders, and demands, “Was it a man you saw?”

“Yes, I saw a man—I think. He was stooping. He stepped behind that tree. I was sure I saw him, but now there’s no one there.”

“Shaki, you saw a lost buhii. Were there others? They often group together.”

“Two others I think—but, Shori, these were true.” He doesn’t know a Yąnomamö word for real.

Not picking up on Lac’s skepticism, Rowahirawa says, “They can be dangerous, but mostly they just wander through the forest looking for the remnants of their old lives.”

            Lac scans the tantalizing black of the jungle behind the nearest trees and brush, thinking, I know living people who devote their days to doing much the same thing. “What do we do?” he asks.

            “We go back to our hammocks and shiver our balls off until morning. What else can we do?”

            In the early dawn, before the day has fully cracked the seal of its eyelids, a bunch of the men work at staging practice raids on another no owä they’ve built, one that looks more like a scarecrow than a dressed-up log, honing their skill at coordinating their retreat in stepwise progression. They seem to be doing it mostly for the benefit of the boy. The older men must’ve performed the maneuvers thousands of times before. Another group of the men wandered off in the predawn, searching for tracks and signs of where the Patanowä-teri might be and what they might be doing.

            Everyone talks in whispers; they’re close enough they may stumble upon someone from the rival village at any moment—or be stumbled upon by them. Lac is glad to be up and moving, feeling the warmth from the exertion of his muscles spread through the coursing of his blood, a relief after a long night of insomnia, bad dreams, and involuntary shaking so intense it sapped his strength. He’s tired, his eyelids throbbing with an exquisite ache whenever he squeezes them shut. But he’s alert. He’s alert because he’s scared shitless, literally, though that may also be because he’s eaten so little over the past few days.

            He knows the scouts will return, the group will travel the rest of the way to Patanowä-teri, the brutal heat will return in the full glare of the sun, and someone will die. At least one.

            It’s only minutes after he has the thought that a scout returns by himself. The others are already waiting by one of the trails for an unsuspecting victim. The Patanowä-teri are right where the raiders hoped they’d be. Now it’s for the rest of the group to take up positions alongside each of the other trails in and out of the shabono. Other trails? How many are we talking? Won’t it just be the one he can see from the promontory Rowahirawa told him about? If not, doesn’t that mean even after traveling all this way he’s probably still going to miss what he came here to observe? He marches on with the men, all of them covered in the bright sheen of their freshly reapplied black paint. He sees no point in objecting or complaining or demanding further explanation. It’s gone beyond all that now. It’s time to keep your mouth shut, he thinks, and concentrate on not getting in the way, and on not getting yourself killed.

            Some of the men are doing last-minute preparations, testing their bows or applying agouti-jaw blades to their arrow tips to sharpen them. Lac wishes he’d brought his camera, but realizes he’ll soon be glad not to have it strapped around his neck, bouncing against his chest, or adding any extra weight to his pack. Besides, it’s not like he’ll ever confess to being where he is anyway. As the men form into their groups, Lac seeks out Rowahirawa, and is meanwhile struck full force by the indefensibility of his own planned secretiveness. He’s a scientist, isn’t he? And weren’t many of the troubles he experienced as a tyro in the field a result of misguided expectations about what studying among a tribal society would entail? How can he condone such subterfuge in anyone, himself in particular? 

Rather than work at an answer, a justification, he concentrates on formulating a list of precautions he must take over the next few hours: First, follow Rowahirawa’s instructions. “Good lord,” he mutters, “as if you can trust that fella—ha, as if you had any choice now.” Second, keep your boots laced tight, and keep your socks dry. Next, look where you step, as best you can. Finally, always be ready to run.

            The group sets out from the area that was their camp, leaving no ostensible sign of the cold, sleepless night they spent there, though Lac is sure the Patanowä-teri would know at a glance they were here. After a cursory investigation, they’d even be able to identify most of the individuals who’d passed the night in this spot.

            They begin their final march—more of a light-footed creep—to their rivals’ village. Lac draws in a heavy breath and attends once again to his task for the present moment: one step followed by another. They’ve been walking for what seems little more than five minutes when he feels Rowahirawa’s tap on his shoulder. Looking up from the trail, Lac aligns his gaze with his informant’s pointing finger and sees an incline in the forest floor. “Straight up that way,” Rowahirawa whispers. “You’ll see us coming back this way so you can meet up with us again right back here.”

            Lac wants to embrace him, so powerful is his intuition of settled fate, his sense of their prearranged mutual doom. “Don’t get yourself shot up with arrows,” he says instead, quoting the mothers and wives he heard when the men left Bisaasi-teri. Has he come all this way just to take on his womanly role in closer proximity to the real men’s business? Normally, he would laugh at this.

            “Don’t prick yourself on any thorns,” Rowahirawa teases, giving him a shove to encourage him on his way.

            Lac heaves and gulps down another breath before slogging up the incline, maintaining a minor bend in his knees and doing his best to keep silent. He walks a considerable distance through blessedly sparse scrub, much farther than he expected, before reaching the bluff where he is to position himself. Just as he arrives and starts looking for the shabono through the thick eye-level foliage, he sees the raiding party rounding the bottom of the cliff, some thirty feet down. Now he need only trail them to catch the action. He realizes too that as long as he moves at the same pace as the men when they return this way, he should intercept them exactly where they parted ways at the beginning of the incline.

Already, the day is an achingly bright gray rebuke to his sense of time. He’s begun to sweat. His breaths feel brittle somehow. He glimpses an inquisitive monkey looking down at him from the canopy, its features fixed in an expression of shock at the world’s absurd brutality. I’d shoot him myself under different circumstances, Lac thinks, and for no reason beyond the sport of it. So you see? You’re a killer and a brute like the Yąnomamö, casually blotting out the light of a sentience not your own, foreclosing any future chance it may yet have to savor the sheer creaturely ecstasy of waking to the world each day to weave about among the myriad joys and wonders on offer to every conscious being.

Of course, you’d be saving him the slings and arrows as well, keeping him from some still more savage end, along with all the inexorable panic and pain occupying the interim. Good and bad, you take it all away as if with the wave of a hand—the tug of a finger.

Lac hears the forest groaning awake, like a soon-to-be teeming and crowded city opening its shop doors as the thieves and hooligans retreat to their dens. You need to be ready to run, he tells himself. He checks his boots: laced tight. He tests his legs: tired and stiff from the days of walking and the grueling night of grappling with the cold. He’ll be sore after today. He laughs. Sore after today, he thinks, if I’m lucky. He turns his gaze back to the men slowly working their way toward the village he has yet to spot through the leaves—but there, is that roof thatching? Having seen the part, the whole emerges from the forest. The shabono wall is maybe fifty yards from where he stands. He’d already looked right at it. Now he thinks he sees a palisade.

His breath catches as he instinctively lowers his head, dropping his hips lower and lower until he’s sitting on his heels. Almost three hundred people live in Patanowä-teri. Three hundred people whose response to stumbling across him would be to shoot him full of arrows before bothering to inquire after any manufactured goods he may be willing to offer them. It seems impossible that a village of that many people can remain silent and inert, impossible that the dragon will rest unmoving inside its nest, while one or two of its inhabitants fall prey to an enemy force outside. It will be a melee, all-out chaos, with red decking the leaves and brush as if for some satanic Christmas feast. Except it’s April.

Stop thinking so much, Lachlan. You’re not any good at it just now.

As he follows the movements of the raiders through the latticework of branches and leaves, shifting to maintain his vantage, Lac is awakened to the universe of sound in the jungle behind him, a bustling cosmos of ambiguous motion and cryptic signals. He imagines he’s surrounded on three sides by a horde of scouting warriors, his only available escape route down the face of the cliff—a steep but not impossible descent—but then he turns around, scanning the forest around him, and all at once he’s startlingly alone.

He whips his head back around, afraid he’s already missed the event he’s risking so much to witness. It takes a few seconds to pick the men out from their hiding places. He waits, each bud of passing time unfolding until the space of every moment is crowded with impressions, making it hard to believe he’s ever been anywhere but on top of this bluff, and neither can a future be imagined that involves him being anywhere else. His whole life is concentrated in this one place and time, locked in this vegetable cell, as he endlessly awaits a verdict which in itself will be both pardon and benediction, however harsh the sentence.

Lac is bent over now, peering through a window formed in the trees onto the land below. Some poor man’s bladder is prodding him with its urgent fullness. Or his wife is prodding him to go down to the stream to get them some water, arguing that it’s too dangerous for a woman to wander around outside the shabono at a time of war. Or perhaps a group of women is gearing up to fetch water together under the protection of two or three sentinels with clenched bows and nocked arrows, like the groups he saw in his earliest days in the field.

The field. As if any other place could exist for him. As if his entire world hasn’t been reduced to this hilltop. He sees movement, the men shifting, and in a sudden burst they’re emerging from their blinds and running. Lac squints, trying to make out what he can of the spot the men are fleeing.

God damn it! I don’t see anything. I’ve missed it. I’ve come all this way and I’ve missed it.

He turns to make sure his path is clear before taking one last look at the site of the incident. Before his eyes have refocused he feels his diaphragm catch. He’s heard something, an airy sound, a breeze ruffling leaves, a whisper. He hears it again, this time as spoken words. Closing his eyes, he wishes the whisperer out of existence. Nothing can appear up on this hill, nothing can move, because time does not exist here, only this one fixed moment he’ll never escape. But here they are, as real as his own heartbeat. By a force of will, he overcomes his feeling of suspension to step around a tree, putting it between him and the source of the whispers. Leaning to the side to ascertain who it might be, desperately hoping it’s a raider rather than a local, he sees two Yąnomamö men he’s never seen before, their lower lips bulging with thick wads of tobacco, their skin a slick radiant bronze, with no messy coating of charcoal and spit. 

Lac is sure they’ll smell him. He can smell himself, feel today’s greasy slime of perspiration oozing through the crust of yesterday’s salt residue on his skin. His uncle’s words rustle through his skull like dried leaves. “You gotta be careful who you just walk up to when you’re this deep in the forest.”

The men are leaning over in the spot Lac has vacated, probably peering into the same window through the branches—probably looking at the party of raiders he was just watching, the party he’s waiting to join at the bottom of the rise. One of the two men slides an arrow from the tora hanging against his lower back, nocks it without taking his eyes off his target, and utters something in a strange dialect Lac can’t decipher. He draws back the arrow without making a sound. His companion whispers some advice as Lac squeezes shut his eyes, wondering which of the men he traveled here with is about to get impaled by this man’s arrow.

Lac forces his eyes unstuck, turning to look first at the space behind the two men, checking if they’re alone. Seeing no one, he turns toward the trail leading past the bottom of the bluff, trying to make out who the arrow tip is trained on. He’s a ways back from the edge of the slope, but the archer, not ten feet away, is aiming into the distance. Lac can glimpse nothing at first, but then a face flashes into view through a tiny aperture in the intervening foliage. His back goes rigidly straight. He has an instant to calculate but doesn’t use it.

“Rowahirawa!” he hears himself shout as if in a fury. The two men bounce in unison, simultaneously startled, but the turning at the waist of the man with the bow is one with his sudden jolt into alertness.

He’s going to launch that damned thing at me now!

Lac doesn’t even stand up before lunging at the archer. He’s afforded a single instant by the man having to locate him. By that time, he’s covered most of the distance, still crouched low, following some blind instinct to keep his head close to the ground. He collides, first with the outstretched bow, then with the man’s body, and fails to stay on his feet as he sends the sniper toppling back, one step, then another, until he’s disappearing over the cliff. Lac has time to think, I hope Rowahirawa heard my warning and is waiting ready down there.

While the archer hadn’t been able to turn, aim, and shoot in time, his companion has seen his approach from the second he called out. As Lac scrambles to regain an upright position, he feels this man’s weight crashing into him, pressing him face-down back into the dirt.

A hand clutches the back of his neck, pushing his face into the dried soil and leafy detritus making up the forest floor atop the bluff. He senses the upraised arm rearing back to swing a club down on the back of his head—or a machete. He flails his legs to one side, rolling onto his hip, and then twists with the full might of panic, forcing the man to cancel his blow and reach out to stabilize himself. But the grip, now on the front of his neck, remains firm. Lac tries to swallow, painfully aware of how long it’s been since the group last stopped at a stream to get a drink. He pictures his throat being smashed like a peeled avocado, the green mush oozing out between the man’s fingers.

He looks up to see his attacker lifting his other arm again and struggles to free his neck so he can dodge the coming blow. I’m going to be the next William Jones, he thinks, lifting his legs to stop the weapon from dropping on his face. Failing to free himself or to arrest the downward motion of the arm, he plants his feet and brings both of his own arms up to cover his head. That’s when he hears a sound like a shovel thrust into icy snow. The man grunts, his body going stiff for an instant, and then becoming limp and lolling to the side. Lac sees Rowahirawa’s face before seeing what he’s just done.

How the hell did he get up here so fast?

The hand ax Lac gave him in exchange for his service as a guide is buried in the side of the Patanowä-teri man’s skull. Lac emits a whimper as he scampers to untangle his own legs from the dead man’s legs, which have begun to quiver freakishly. Rowahirawa is laughing. “Shaki is waiteri,” he says, holding his belly. Still laughing, he reaches down to dislodge the ax from the man’s skull, producing a sickeningly wet sucking noise alongside the scrape of steel against skull bone. Lac looks away as he flicks off the gore.

 Finally getting his feet solidly planted under him, Lac stands and looks down at the man, legs still softly aquiver but otherwise as though he’s sleeping peacefully on his side—but for the red puddle spilling out from his head and rushing over the same ground Lac’s face had just been pressed into, like an uncapped ketchup bottle on its side. Next, he looks at Rowahirawa, who smiles at him almost warmly, but then moves as if to slap him in the face, only it’s no slap. It’s the flat side of the ax smashing into the side of his head.

The world vanishes behind a curtain of blinding white. Lac’s knees buckle and he wobbles toward the cliff edge, only stopping himself from going over by collapsing to his knees. “What do you think you’re doing,” Rowahirawa says, “shouting out my name like that?” He’s too dazed to answer. He lifts his hand to his already throbbing skull and wonders if his friend is going to step over and finish the job. Rowahirawa does indeed step over, but instead of lifting the ax to deliver another blow, he bends down and starts hoisting Lac to his feet by his arm. Ducking under the arm, Rowahirawa drapes it across his shoulders and begins half carrying him down the slope. Lac’s hand is wet from touching his head; either he’s bleeding from the blow or Rowahirawa has smeared his previous victim’s juicy brains across his ear and cheek.

All these people ever do is beg and threaten me and push me around. Now this guy repays me for saving his life by smashing a bloody sideways ax blade upside my head. I could swear him helping me down this damned incline now is just a way to mess with my mind, just another more insidious act of bullying. It’s so hard to imagine them doing anything helpful or kind to me that I have to assume even him saving my life must be for some devious purpose. I’m their sole source of madohe after all; they can’t just leave me to die on top of some hill.

Lac is mad, his thoughts cloudy, his equilibrium dashed, and soon all he can think is how horrible it is that they just left the Patanowä-teri man where he fell, left the spilling bottle on its side, left the scene of the crime. Leaning against Rowahirawa’s sweat-slicked shoulder, he says nonsensically, “Shori, we have to go back and bury that guy,” in perfect idiomatic Yąnomamö.

Lac doesn’t remember the hobbling descent to the bottom of the hill when they arrive at the trail. The edges of his consciousness are opaque yet full of tumultuous rolling and crashing, storm swells breaking on the friable shoals of his sinking awareness, roughly jouncing the ship of his perceptions. “Shori,” he says, “if you hadn’t hit me with your new ax, you wouldn’t have to carry me down the hill and away from Patanowä-teri.”

“Be quiet, Shaki, or I’ll get mad again. If you knew I would be stuck carrying you, then why did you infuriate me by shouting my name for everyone to hear?”

Unable to compose a cogent response, Lac concentrates on getting his legs to lock sturdy beneath him. Then a rebuttal comes to him: “Shori, why didn’t you hit me later, after we arrive safe back at Bisaasi-teri? You could have taken your revenge without having to carry me.”

“I didn’t get mad in Bisaasi-teri. I got mad at the top of the rise. You said my name at the top of the rise. If I waited until we got back, then I wouldn’t be mad anymore.”

His reasoning is unassailable, though Lac suspects there’s another point they’re both overlooking. As they take up their four-legged lope along the trail, none of the others from the raiding party are in view, but before long two of them come up behind them and pass at a clip. They’re implementing their two-by-two stepwise retreat. Till now, Lac assumed the precaution would only be necessary immediately after the killing arrow was loosed. He’d figured it wasn’t necessary for him to participate in any of the practice runs he watched them go through. Now, here he is, right in the middle of it, with no idea what to do, and anyway barely able to walk without Rowahirawa’s support.

“Are they following us, Shori?”

“Yes, Shaki, they must be.”

The simple task he calmed himself by focusing on the whole journey here, placing one foot in front of the other, is suddenly much more complicated. Rowahirawa readjusts his grip on Lac’s wrist and waist before accelerating his pace. Two men burst from the scrub ahead of them and dart away along the trail. Rowahirawa charges forward, and Lac senses his equilibrium begin to return.

“I think I can run,” he says, prompting Rowahirawa to release him.

Here it is, Lac thinks, the mad dash through the jungle you’ve been dreading, the sprint for dear life. Only you never anticipated having to contend with a throbbing skull and a pair of rubbery legs.

They come up on a spot where a group of raiders is waiting with ready bows. The patterned retreat is either finished or being paused for an accounting of the group members. At least, that’s what Lac assumes as they approach, but as soon as he and Rowahirawa get close the men turn and bolt into the undergrowth. Lac puts his head down and chugs on—until he hears men shouting ahead. He and Rowahirawa stop, duck down beside the trail, and scan the brush ahead. Lac sees a man—with clean bronze skin—clambering up a rise. By the time, he gets Rowahirawa’s attention, the man he saw has disappeared into the dense green. They stand and resume their retreat.

After less than a minute, they catch up with the men ahead of them. Only these men are no longer running. “One of them got ahead of us,” someone says. Two men are lifting a third by his arms. Lac recognizes the fallen raider, who has blood streaming down the middle of his torso from a puncture wound in his chest directly under his chin. He’s from Monou-teri. He was one of the older men who insisted on the raid and prodded the group onward when they complained and dragged their feet.

“He can’t walk.”

Towahowä’s brother steps up and says, “We’ll have to carry him until we can cover some distance, and then we’ll make a stretcher to get him the rest of the way home.”

Lac is sure the Monou-teri man will die. A wound like that, in a place like this—he’d probably die even if he’d been shot in Caracas. Lac considers voicing his doubts. Dragging the poor bastard along will slow them all down, and the Patanowä-teri may already be right behind them. But he keeps his misgivings to himself, maybe because he so recently benefitted from the Yąnomamö’s reluctance to leave men behind in the midst of a raid. Maybe it’s because he feels some of that same reluctance.

Two men sprint ahead on the trail. We may be slower than before, but we may as well do this right. The remaining cluster of six men jogs to meet the forward guard. Lac picks the young boy out of the grouping and looks him over. He’s wide-eyed, panting, and appears to be intact. Lac hopes they don’t return along exactly the same route they came by. He hopes there are many ways to get to Bisaasi-teri from Patanowä-teri, because it seems people from each village can easily recognize people from any other village. And the guy he glimpsed running up the hill must’ve been plenty close to the Monou-teri man when he fired that arrow at him, close enough to send the entire shaft of his six-foot arrow right through the top of the man’s sternum, clear through his body, all the way out his back. The archer must have seen the Monou-teri man’s face, must know who raided his village, who killed the man atop the bluff, and who killed the man Lac assumes was killed to initiate the original retreat.

It’s a good thing the rainy season is beginning. Because the Patanowä-teri are planning a visit, and it won’t be for trading dogs or hammocks.

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The Reahu and Wayu Itou: He Borara Chapter 10

Warrior Lineup
     Lac sneezes as he sits down at the table with paper and pen. I’ve got a beaut of a cold, he writes. He’s quarantined himself in his hut, so he figured he may as well catch up on his correspondence, beginning with the letter to Ken he’s been meaning to write. I went monkey hunting with the gang this week, he continues, in preparation for a big feast in honor of a visiting village’s slain headman.

The Monou-teri were only here a few days before the hanky-panky started. The buildup to the club fight that ensued was nothing like the tectonic force accumulating over the course of the Mahekodo-teri’s visit. For one, the Monou-teri don’t have a leg to stand on; they need the Bisaasi-teri far more than the Bisaasi-teri need them—which is probably why the local guy felt entitled to a romp with one of the visiting men’s wives. Plus this time around it was only two men facing off (though there were threats galore from each man’s male kin). These squabbles over women, while not a daily occurrence, are an ever-present source of testiness and suspicion, and the risk of violence seems to intensify whenever you have a mingling of groups like this.

I keep barely missing the club fights in the village, he goes on writing; this was the first one I witnessed directly, and I got some great photos. (I missed the last one by a couple of hours; another happened while I was here but I didn’t actually see any of it.) The good thing about the fights is they get people talking. I can just hover about the crowd and listen. Sometimes they’ll even let a name slip out of their tobacco-stretched mouths. I’d love nothing more right now than to be in the shabono collecting data—i.e. recording gossip—but I keep thinking I could end up killing some poor kid if my cold spreads.

It started after I nearly overheated trying to keep up with the hunting band. I can’t describe the sensation; I mean, I’ve hunted plenty before, but not like this. Hurtling yourself headlong through the underbrush and threading your way through the trees, always with your eyes darting about the canopy in search of your quarry. I had my shotgun at the ready, braced in front of me, getting frustrated because I didn’t think it should be slowing me down as much as it was. I manage to shoot a monkey or a tapir with it here and there, but this time it was an arrow that brought down our target. When we got back to the village and I kept walking back to my hut, I had sweat gushing from every pore on every part of my body and I felt lightheaded, so I sort of floated right past my door, wrestled off my clinging wet clothes, and jumped in the river to cool off.

That night I awoke around 2 in morning with a cough and a sore throat.

Lac doesn’t write that he heard—not imagined but heard—his mother’s voice ringing out in the darkened hut, chiding him for his ill-conceived efforts at returning his body to homeostasis. He writes instead of the Monou-teri headman’s death and of how the women are going to eat his ashes during the feast, and perhaps have a little reciprocal raid afterward. He’s not sure exactly why his impulse is to downplay the counterattack—counter-counterattack—other than that, after all, it’s murder they’re talking about, sort of.

He tells Ken to expect more arrows in a shipment to the museum, the first and far less impressive batch having arrived safely according to Ken’s last letter. He’ll also be sending some ebene tubes and pack baskets. Finally, he writes about the archeological site he discovered at what may have once been a village. He found scads of potsherds, most of which look like they would be from pots quite similar to the ones they use in Bisaasi-teri today, when they’re not using the aluminum pots traded in from the Ye’kwana or the missionaries (or now from him). But some of the fragments are much more delicate, as though they came from a more advanced ceramic tradition, making him wonder if the Yąnomamö might have regressed from some former higher level of technological and artistic sophistication. Such backward lurches must have happened to societies throughout history. Pick your catastrophe: plague, war, famine, environmental degradation. Guys like Percy Fawcett spent their whole lives searching Amazonia for these lost civilizations.   

Lac writes about a stone ax he found, a relic of a time before madohe. The thought that neither he nor any other Westerner will ever see how the Yąnomamö made axes almost brings tears to his eyes. The Waica claim they find these ax heads all the time, he writes to Ken, but seeing is believing.

Lac, feeling better for the past two days, is in his hut collecting names from an older man—in his mid-forties maybe—one he’s been finding delightfully easy to work with, so much so that he’s moved this informant to the top of his pay scale and begun going over the charts for the entire village with him. Theoretically, Lac thinks, I could get the names of everyone in Bisaasi-teri from this one man, whose own name is Kukumbrawa—according to his neighbor in the adjoining yahi, who’s also a parallel cousin, his father’s brother’s son. Lac moves his finger over the diagram, tracking the connection along the lines running between the names.

            He could fill in all the empty spaces with this one informant and then ask for the same information from some other similarly cooperative man, and then another, until it’s clear the names and relationships as diagrammed are consistent. The process shouldn’t take that long. He could collect all the preliminary data he needs—all the information Dr. Nelson has requested—and then move on to lineage histories. After that, he can start focusing on other villages. By mid-summer he could be ready to make an expedition inland from the Orinoco, maybe as far as the gigantic shabono near the headwaters of the Mavaca, the one Rowahirawa keeps telling him about.

            He’s leaning down to let Kukumbrawa whisper in his ear when he hears the drone of an outboard on the river. His informant stands up from the chair and walks to the door with him. Lac’s heart thuds with reverberations of his panic on the night last month when he was sure his hut was about to be besieged by raiders from another village. But he’s able to calm himself. That night, the boatman turned out to be Padre Morello; that’s probably who it is now—or else it’s more men from the Malarialogìa. They’ve been visiting the hut across the Orinoco a lot lately, the one he and Clemens stayed in his first night in the field. It could also be some of the padre’s other Salesian friends, the ones building the missionary compound across the river; Lac never hears from these men, but, though he’s loath to admit it, he’s been comforted by their propinquity.  

            The boat appears to be on a course for the bank near his hut, and Lac sees just one man sitting with his hand on the lever steering the engine. “Dr. Shackley,” the padre’s voice shudders out over the water before brittlely echoing back from the trees on the far bank. “How are you this fine day? You’re looking hale and formidable.” After his brief sickness, Lac finds these words relieving, the dubiousness of the flattery notwithstanding.

            Lac returns the greeting before telling Kukumbrawa they’ll have to continue the ohodemou later and giving him a portion of the standard payment he’s come to expect. Kukumbrawa is less disappointed with the payment than he is excited about the arrival of a visitor. Lac laughs silently. You wouldn’t be so excited, he thinks, if you knew even half of what this guy wants to persuade you of.

            As he steps down to the water’s edge, Lac sees the padre isn’t his old ruddy and buoyant self. Instead, he looks like he’s been missing too much sleep of late, and maybe done a little too much drinking. “Padre, I still haven’t adequately expressed my gratitude for all you did to help me make it to Caracas and back to visit my family.” Lac chuckles furtively at his own words, not because he’s fumbling with his Spanish, but because even in his current ragged state, the good padre has a way of inspiring excessive formality.

            “Now that you mention it,” Morello says as Lac reaches out for the canoe’s gunnel to pull it ashore, “there is something you can do for me.” He stands and wobbles his way along the length of the craft, where he grips Lac’s arm and steps onto dry land.

            “Sure,” Lac says. “Anything.”

            “Let’s discuss it inside,” the padre says, gesturing toward the hut. This gives Lac pause, not so much for the suggestion that they talk indoors—maybe he just wants to get out of the sun, away from the bugs—as for the reticence in his tone. He’s about to make an unpleasant request, Lac is sure.

            Lac guides him along the path through the high grass, on the lookout for snakes, exercising his now ingrained vigilance, as the padre enquires into the progress of his work. Now it’s Lac’s turn to be cagey; he looks around to see who’s in earshot before saying, “It’s going fantastic.” He feels his own face light up and sees a feeble reflection of his excited smile on his friend’s face. “I’ve finally started to get the names I need for my genealogies. I’ve already got the names of most people currently living here.”

            “That is fantastic! How did you get them to tell you their names?”

            Before proceeding to explain his name-gathering protocol in detail, Lac reminds himself that the only Spanish words any of the Bisaasi-teri know are sí and no. But he relishes finally being able to tell someone about his success. His excitement is too weightily palpable to keep to himself. Many of the villagers have emerged from the shabono to get a look at the visitor, and Lac takes a moment to explain to them in Yąnomamö who this new nabä is. Before continuing his description of his interview methods though, he guides the padre into the hut and closes the door to any curious Indians straggling along behind them.

            “Remarkable,” the padre says after hearing how Lac has accomplished the feat. “Ingenious.”

            Lac is suddenly his twelve-year-old self again on the day he held up a medium-sized trout to show his dad; Morello may as well be patting him on the head, saying, “Way to go, slugger.” Embarrassed by his swelling pride, Lac hastens to divert his guest from offering further praise and congratulations: “Now tell me, Padre, what’s bothering you? Something’s obviously been keeping you awake at night. Tell me how I can help.”

            Lac pulls a chair out for his guest, the same chair Kukumbrawa recently vacated. The padre puts both palms on the table and collapses onto the seat with a dignified grunt. “Hermano Marteens,” he says, “is having a great deal of difficulty with the Indians across the river.”

            Lac pulls out the other chair for himself. As he lowers himself into it, he looks over to see beads of sweat trundling from the padre’s forehead all the way down his cheeks into his thick wiry mass of beard. It would be hard to imagine a man more out of place—unless, that is, the good padre were to strip down, don a loincloth, scatter some buzzard feathers over his bald head, and dance in the courtyard with the villagers. Lac chokes back a laugh and says, “I gather Hermano Marteens is concentrating his efforts on the people across the Mavaca at Lower Bisaasi-teri; I’ve never encountered him here. Now that I think about it, it’s strange that no one from the other shabono ever mentions him either.”

            He’s speaking too fast, he realizes, because he’s uneasily anticipating that the padre is about to try to recruit him on behalf of the Salesians, to assist them in their efforts to accustom themselves to Yąnomamö ways. There’s no way I’m going to help them convert anyone, Lac thinks. I’ll agree to help with logistical stuff, sure, just as Morello has done for me. I don’t have anything against the padre personally of course, but the stark reality is that I’m completely opposed to the Salesians’ agenda for the Yąnomamö.

            Completely opposed? Even if it means medicine and protection for the women and kids?

            The padre says, “I’m afraid the good brother hasn’t been getting around to doing much mission work—which is the essence of the problem I’m currently working to remedy. When it was me first starting to build a mission compound, all those structures at Ocamo, I relied on many of the Ye’kwana from the area as a labor force. They have a long history with the Church and were accustomed to trading their work for things like tools, food, medicine.”

            “The Yąnomamö aren’t exactly slow to catch on to the value of our manufactured goods, Padre. Though trading with them comes with some pretty thorny complications.”

            “Yes, so I’ve been informed. The biggest challenge for Hermano Marteens—.” He breaks off midsentence, pauses for the span of a weighty thought, and begins again. “I’ve recently received word that your friend Mr. Clemens will soon be returning to the territory. He’s bringing his wife, and another couple will be accompanying them as well. It seems they plan to divide their time between the school at Tama Tama and the villages here at Bisaasi-teri, with each family taking up on its own side of the Mavaca.”

            Lac’s first thought is, that’s a lot of goddamned nabä. But his next thought is of Laura and how the presence of the other couples will make getting her here far easier. It will also make it a great deal safer for her and the kids to stay here when he travels to other villages. “Chuck’s coming back?” he says. “That’s great. I hadn’t heard.” He stops himself from saying, “But how the hell did you find out about all this?”

            “Dr. Shackley, do you know anything about a dictionary Mr. Clemens is working on?”

            “A dictionary? Like a Yąnomamö dictionary, one for translating the words to English or Spanish?”

            “Hermano Marteens, you see, he speaks both Spanish and English quite well.”

            Bahikoawa looks fine one moment and then as if he’s in severe pain the next. With all the parties under the same roof—or sharing the same plaza and palisade anyway—the raid can be launched any day the headman chooses.

            “The pata has sent word to the Shamatari,” Rowahirawa says. “The Bisaasi-teri are waiting for men from Mömariböwei-teri and Reyaboböwei-teri to accompany them on the raid. The people here have done much to cultivate the alliances; now it’s time to see if their efforts will pay dividends.”

            Lac sits up in the hammock next to Rowarhirawa in his father-in-law’s yahi, where he’s been lazing away the day’s hottest hours and asks, “Will the men from those villages make that big of a difference to the raid’s chances of success?”

            “Shaki, stop being such an imbecile. Ma, it won’t make any difference; it’s to solidify the alliance.” He repeats the last phrase, as Yąnomamö often do, all but dancing to the rhythm of his own words, so enthusiastic is he in his gesticulating. Lac decides his friend looks like a jaguar, because Yąnomamö faces remain shamefully indistinct in his mind and he’s determined to train his mind to zero in on subtle differentiating features. Unfortunately a lot of their faces could be said to resemble a jaguar's.  

            “But then why is Bahikoawa still waiting? They’re already two days late, and I hear the other men saying there’s a risk of big rainfall with the start of the wet season. You guys don’t want to get stuck having to march all the way back to Bisaasi-teri on muddy or flooded trails. Isn’t that what you’re counting on to slow the Patanowä-teri pursuit after you attack?”

            “We can’t leave for a raid after announcing when we’ll be gone.”

            “But you only announced it to the people you’re waiting on to go on the raid with you.”

            “That’s why we’re waiting. If they’re not here yet, it’s probably because they’re planning something.”

            “Aren’t they your allies?”

            “Shaki, don’t be so naïve. Awei, they’re allies to the Bisaasi-teri. That doesn’t mean they won’t try to steal our women from us.”

            “Ma! So that’s why you’re waiting.” The Yąnomamö aren’t very principled, he thinks; it’s always the thing that’s right in front of their nose. Or maybe, he tells himself, there’s some wisdom to it you simply don’t understand. Still, he can’t help being disgusted. “Shori, how often do villages go on raids that don’t result in anyone getting killed?”

            “It happens.”

            “How often do the raiders themselves get killed?”

            “It happens, but that means the raid wasn’t successful, even if the raiders kill someone else. You’ll have to go on another raid after that.”

            “If I were to travel with you and the other men from Bisaasi-teri, would I get killed?”

            “Shaki, are you hungry for the flesh of the Patanowä-teri?”

            “Ma, Shori, I’m fascinated by the ways of the Yąnomamö, like I’ve told you, and I want to go with you so I can record what I see in my white leaves.”

            “Will you bring your shotgun?”

            Lac began this line of questioning on a whim; he hasn’t considered going along on the raid until now, at least not consciously. Would he bring the shotgun? “Ma.” Absolutely not. “I’ve made a promise not to kill any Yąnomamö—.”

Rowahirawa rolls out of his hammock and slams his fist into Lac’s shoulder. “Don’t say what you just said!”

            “But it’s true.”

            “If men know you’re a coward, they’ll treat you as they would a woman.”

            Lac shakes his head pointlessly. “I understand.” So it’s true, he thinks; the only reason my hut ever goes a day unviolated is that the Yąnomamö are afraid of my shotgun.

            Rowahirawa laughs and gives him a hard shove. “You’re hopeless without me, Shaki. You know that?”

            Lac spends the latter half of the afternoon conducting an interview with a man whose behavior seems entirely choreographed, his answers entirely rehearsed. The earlier interviewees must have relayed to him in detail what he should expect—and maybe he caught on there’s an audition mentality to the proceedings. His every answer is a story, and Lac can’t decide whether to admire the man’s flare for drama or disdain him as a purveyor of compelling lies. The facts of his stories, the main characters, all check out with the picture that’s emerging of the village’s history and current composition through all his efforts at questioning and crosschecking. Something about the guy though—he seems fundamentally untrustworthy.

            Not exactly an objective observation, Shackley, he says to himself.

            “Towahowä, he was waiteri,” the man says. “He seduced his own brother’s wife in Monou-teri.”

            True, Lac thinks. I’ve heard this before. “Ma!” he says, encouraging the man to continue.

            “Awei, Towahowä had sex with her, and then the brother returned and became so angry he fired an arrow at her. He meant to shoot her in the thigh, because he wanted her to survive the wound. But he is sina, like Uhudima in the time of Moonblood, and the arrow implanted itself in her gut. She bled to death, leaving her husband inconsolable.”

            Many of the women Lac sees in the village are missing parts of their ears, souvenirs of similar episodes of violent jealousy. He’s seen one woman hit another with a smoldering log from the hearth, seen the men do that too. It’s not the type of culture you’d want to raise your daughter in.

            And, you, Lachlan Shackley, are not the type of scientist who lets himself get so loose with such value-laden sentiments.

            As the man continues telling his stories about the separation of villages and their post-fissioning political histories, Lac’s mind wanders to Nakaweshimi. She must be close to term about now. But she’s nowhere to be seen lately. Lac assumes it’s Yąnomamö custom for a woman to seclude herself in the days leading up to childbirth. Those are details he could be investigating for his ethnography, but he doesn’t know where to begin enquiring after information that sensitive.

            What he will be able to see is how the birth of the second baby impacts how Nakaweshimi cares for her other child, who’s still a tiny infant. The other thing that’s been preoccupying him is this silly idea of his about going along on the raid to Patanowä-teri. He and Rowahirawa agreed it would be possible for him to tag along on the journey but not participate in any killing. Still, the Patanowä-teri will probably pursue the raiders, and it’s not like he’ll have the time to explain to them that he’s only there in the capacity of neutral observer. If he’s not killed, he’ll likely still be forfeiting the reputation for impartiality he’s counting on to make travelling among villages relatively safe and easy.

            You’ll be compromised, he thinks, too deeply enmeshed in the culture to observe its dynamic operations and ongoing development from a detached vantagepoint. But, then again, you’ll also be going along to witness a custom few ethnographers have ever witnessed. And this is the part, the coalitional killing, warfare at its most primitive, that your professors and colleagues will say you’ve misrepresented, or fabricated outright. “Did you actually see any Yąnomamö killing each other?” he imagines Dr. White asking him. “It’s quite possible the attacks you heard rumors of were purely ritualistic, and that the men your friends claimed to have killed are alive and well and boasting of their own ritual kills.”

            Yes, my boastful friends.

            Lac has seen enough to know that Yąnomamö violence, while steeped in ritual and embedded in an intricate web of superstition, is all too real in its impact. Whatever mysteries he uncovers through his genealogical efforts, it’ll be Yąnomamö warfare that gets people talking back home—just like it does here. As for being compromised, it doesn’t have to go down that way. I won’t follow the warriors when they make their final charge, he thinks. I’ll hold back, with any luck remaining in eyeshot of the incident without being seen by anyone inside the shabono.

            So you’re just going along to watch some poor bastard get shot out of a tree?

            You may have to, if only to bolster your conviction, give you the confidence to stick to your guns in the face of all the scrutiny your work is bound to attract.

            He’s debating with himself as he’s half-heartedly attending to his informant’s performance with a healthy dollop of dismissive skepticism when the hut goes silent. Lac turns to see the man stand up and move to the door. He pricks his ears and picks out the sound of whistling in the distance—friendly visitors announcing their presence. The villagers raise their voices from within the shabono. Lac and his informant begin walking back to the opening in the palisade so they can see who the visitors are. It must be the men they’re expecting from Mömariböwei-teri and Reyaboböwei-teri at last; they weren’t waiting to steal women after all—or if they were, they realized the Bisaasi-teri and Monou-teri were wise to their treachery, and so their best bet for capturing women is to raid Patanowä-teri alongside their new allies.

            Now the raid will take place. And Lac knows regardless of which decision he’s able to marshal the best arguments for, he’ll be traveling alongside the raiders as well—or following behind them anyway. “There may be no turning back after this,” he mumbles to himself. I’ll need to talk to Rowahirawa, he thinks, do a lot a planning.

            The next day the overfull village is preparing for the feast, and Lac is looking right at Nakaweshimi, no longer pregnant, but not carrying a second infant. This could mean any number of things. He tries to think back to the two other births that have occurred since his arrival in Bisaasi-teri, but gets no useful insight from recalling them. Has she miscarried? Was the baby sick or deformed? He wants desperately to ask her, but she doesn’t look like she’s in any mood for questions. No one looks to be in the mood for questions today. Lac resigns himself to a full day of silent of observation, out of respect—and out of prudence.

He feels more unwelcome today than at any other time since his first entrance into the shabono. The Yąnomamö never hesitate to let him know how annoying they find him, but they usually also seem to find him amusing, or find it amusing to mess with him anyway. Today, though, people are preoccupied with their grieving, preoccupied with their efforts to keep the substrate of rage simmering beneath their sadness from boiling over. On any normal day, they’re not only short-tempered; they’re itching to show off how short their tempers are. His thumb still aches from the incident when Rowahirawa stubbed his toe and threw down the heavy log they were carrying together. That was probably getting off easy. But today he senses those tempers are even more raw.

The hours drag on as he either lies in a hammock next to Rowahirawa or minces from spot to spot around the plaza. Into the afternoon, the funereal mood hangs thicker and thicker in the air. There’s no laughter to be heard, no beaming expressions to behold. If I had just shown up from Caracas, Lac thinks, I might think there was tension mounting among the assembled villages—as when the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri were here throwing their weight around—so nauseatingly palpable is this undercurrent of wrath to their mournfulness.

Moment by moment resisting his urge to ask questions, he instead wisps around with his cameras and tape recorder, doing his best impersonation of a cloud. He has to be subtle with his camera work, snapping photos only of incidents of highest import, because even on normal days the Yąnomamö sometimes get irritated with him for stealing their images, chasing him away with upraised clubs—or once, with flung rocks—but today the deterrents are bound to be more severe, the punishments more vicious.

The irritability isn’t the most ostensible of their emotional states though. He listens to the villagers’ tearful laments, as they call to the fallen headman with the most intimate of kinship terms, making pronouncements of never-ending sadness and forlorn longing to be reunited in hedu. This strikes Lac as strange because these same relatives of the Monou-teri headman have seemed emotionally even-keeled every time he’s seen them over the past few weeks. Towahowä was killed over a month ago, and yet it’s only now that the bereavement takes hold—or maybe it’s taking hold for the second time, the first having occurred when they learned of his death and cremated his body, producing the ashes the women are now consuming with their plantain soup.

It’s like they’ve all agreed now is the time to collectively wallow in grief, to sulk and cry out, so they’re deliberately concentrating on their loss, meanwhile reflecting each other’s sadness and anger, thus amplifying them both, the space of their passion spilling into an infinite regress of hitherto dormant devastation. Surprisingly, the spreading contagion of their emotions is affecting even him, a nabä who only encountered the deceased on a couple of occasions, never getting overly close.

What seems most bizarre to Lac however is that these people are so aggrieved about the death of a guy who treated many of them terribly. Towahowä was a total asshole. He seduced—or possibly raped—an untold number of these men’s wives, including his little brother’s. It was his stealing of another man’s wife that led to the fissioning of Monou-teri from Bisaasi-teri, which you could argue resulted in their present predicament. Then he further endangered the village by leaving them leaderless, because he was so reckless in his pursuit of women and greater renown. And who knows how many other women he’s abused, how many other men he’s intimated or assaulted or cuckolded—though none of these practices are exactly frowned upon by the Yąnomamö?

Lac tries to force himself to accept that they hold different virtues as praiseworthy, different vices as beneath contempt. That’s easy enough to understand in principle; it’s the liking part that confounds him. How could anyone have liked Towahowä? Or did they? Or is all this emotion on display separate from the discrete person of the former headman, more about his role than his individual identity? It’s a question he’ll have to return to when he’s attended more funeral feasts, more reahu, as the Yąnomamö call them.

            Throughout the day, villagers take turns shouting out formal speeches, somewhat like they do in their kąwa amou chants before bed but more lachrymose, about how their kinsman’s death has pierced to the depths of their being. “Ya buhii ahi,” he keeps hearing. My innermost soul is cold. One man sounds off in one part of the shabono, then another man somewhere else riffs on the theme. Hushuwo is another term he keeps hearing: angry and sad and volatile—much more volatile than usual.

            Lac wanders about the edge of the plaza, trying his hardest to be invisible, on the lookout for good spaces to tuck himself, vantages where he can witness the goings-on unseen. Late in the afternoon, the men, still in their yahis, all start doing something strange. Lac risks stepping closer to see a couple times. They’re biting into burnt logs, chewing the charcoal. Lac guesses it’s supposed to have some medicinal property at first, but then he sees them spitting it out and rubbing it between their hands. They’re mixing the masticated charcoal with their saliva to create a black sludge. He watches as they begin smearing it all over their arms and shoulders, going on to cover their entire bodies, painting them black.

Night camouflage.

Lac’s heart floats weightlessly, darting about like a hummingbird colliding with the bars of its cage. These sons of bitches are going to sneak up on another village, he thinks, and murder some poor bastard who doesn’t even know they’re coming. It hits him with all the absurd reality of a platypus waddling up to him with a stick of dynamite clamped in its bill. 

Lac’s been told that the mechanics of the pre-raid feast, if not the mood, are similar to those of feasts prefiguring morning trading sessions. Aside from the large troughs of plantain soup, though, the activities seem far different. Some time has passed since the women finished drinking their soup from calabashes, and now the men are busy dressing up a stripped-down tree trunk, evidently to make it look like a Yąnomamö, complete with wavy red lines down his torso, monkey tail headband, and sprinkling of white feathers atop the crown; the wooden man has donned his finest regalia for the occasion. The men lift this pithy white effigy onto a hammock—at maybe five feet tall, it fits nicely—before dispersing and preparing to stage a mock ambush. One of the raiders is a roughly eleven-year-old boy, Towahowä’s youngest son, and many of the charcoal-painted men pull him aside to give him instructions and advice.

             Now that the stage is set with the trunk swaying lazily in its hammock, a dozen warriors crouch down and make their way toward it from different parts of the plaza. Gesturing with weighty emphasis to each other, they waddle mostly in unison, deeply bent at the knees, coming from various angles—a band of hellfire-scorched demons capturing souls to build the ranks of their satanic subterranean army—until they’re close enough to make aiming all but moot.  All at once, they leap up to their full height to draw and fire their arrows. The tips bury themselves in the pulpy wood with a sickeningly rapid series of thuds. The victim is a pincushion before he could have ever known an attack was underway. All the men scream as they retreat, running out of the shabono in a series of sprints and halts, the warriors in front stopping to turn and cover the escape of the ones bringing up the rear in a repeating pattern.

            The mock raiders return one by one to their hammocks over time, but some of them remain in the plaza to practice and give the young boy plenty of coaching. Individually, no longer slithering toward their victim in a coiled mass of inhuman flesh, they’re less like demons than grown men playing dress-up. To Lac, all of these preparations and success rituals seem to be taking place at a distance, on the periphery of his sphere of concern. Yesterday, before deciding to travel along with the raiders, this same scene would have permeated his senses and thoughts with its dramatic implications: a young boy being taught to escape after being pressed to take lethal vengeance on his father’s killers.

As it is, he’s thinking more about the recent rains, how the rising waters will chase the poisonous snakes to higher ground, the same higher ground on which the Yąnomamö like to blaze their trails. The idea, if he understands Rowahirawa correctly, is to load up on plantains, walk slowly to the enemy’s village, deliberately pinpointing the ideal time to make the kill—likely when a suitable victim leaves the Patanowä-teri shabono to piss or fetch water—and, freshly unencumbered by the newly exhausted supply of food, run most of the way back, hastened by the knowledge that the people you just raided are fresh on your heels, eager to retaliate, desperate to avenge whoever just got killed. If the snakes don’t get you, he tells himself, the Patanowä-teri will.

            But I need to be there, he thinks. I need to see it happen at least once with my own two eyes. Or else it’ll live on as mere rumor, even to me, apt to rise and twist and disappear like a wisp of smoke. This is the part they won’t believe back home, those professors whose field experience consisted of living among highly acculturated Indians or Bushmen, conquered peoples, domesticated peoples. I need to be sure if I’m going to be able to stick to my guns. I need to see it happen.

As his thoughts and fears jostle about in his mind like bees in an agitated hive, he finds his eyes have come to rest on the effigy, the no owä, as he’s heard the Yąnomamö call it, still swaying in its hammock as if by its own exsanguinated volition—any man would surely have bled to death by now. He imagines the pool of blood on the floor, spreading toward the hearth. What percentage of the men here, he wonders, will be killed in their hammocks like this, or while they’re up in a tree harvesting fruit, or out in the forest searching for honey? How many will be killed taking a piss? What percentage of the women will be kidnapped and dragged off to some rival village to be sex slaves who graduate to become wives and mothers as though the original crime had never been committed?

            Those are empirical questions, he points out to himself, and it’s all information you can glean from exactly the kind of interviews you’re already conducting—if you could just find a more effective way to discuss people’s dead relatives. That’ll be my main focus when I get back. For now, I need to plan: what kind of food should I bring when I set out with the raiders tomorrow? How will I carry it? How am I going to keep up with them as they sprint home afterward? How am I going to avoid the snakes? How am I going to avoid impalement by half a dozen arrows, poison-tipped, all at once?

            Jesus, Lachlan, you’re either on the cusp of becoming a great anthropologist or you’re out of your god damned mind.

            It’s Bahikoawa, as racked with pain from his undiagnosed infection as he is, and Towahowä’s brother, as much as he’s struggling with a steady trickle of accusations of cowardice, who are directing the show today, and they’ll be the ones leading the raid tomorrow. It’ll be a miracle if they even manage to complete the two-day journey to Patanowä-teri, Lac thinks. He’s getting nervous. Rowahirawa has told him the Patanowä-teri are cultivating a new garden in some unknown spot, perhaps even returning to harvest the rasha from one of the Bisaasi-teri’s old sites. So once the raiding party has made it to the shabono they’ve set as a destination, they may have to do some tracking and searching before finding anyone to kill. That sounds to Lac like a greater chance they’ll be spotted and set upon by the rival village’s own waiteri, of whom there is a famously large number.

            Rowahirawa tells him the retreat is the tricky part, and he describes the two-by-two progression away from the enemy village, where two men stand hidden while another two or four flee along a path running right between them. It’s a preset trap for the pursuers, who unwittingly step into a crossfire and have their pursuit brought to a sudden, unsatisfying halt. That’s what he saw them practicing after shooting the no owä full of arrows as it reclined peacefully in its hammock.

Somehow, his mind has connected the upcoming post-raid sprint back to the mouth of the Mavaca with his running through the forest in pursuit of monkeys last week, and to his subsequent illness. He was stuck in his hut for days, hoarsely yelling at Rowahirawa through the door to come back another day. “Shaki, why don’t you do your ohodemou?” Hearing the phlegm in Lac’s voice, Rowahirawa suggested through the door that he let the shaboris free his soul from the hekura devouring it. Lac would have loved to participate in the ritual, but he couldn’t risk spreading the cold; for all he knew, it was something he picked up in Caracas, a crowd disease only people long accustomed to civilization have developed any immunity to. There are stories of careless outsiders decimating whole villages by merely showing up with the wrong sniffle. Still, he’s sure it was the heat and exertion of the hunt, followed by his impetuous plunge into the cold waters of the Mavaca, that laid him low, not any potentially village-destroying bug.

His biggest apprehension now is that he won’t be able to keep up with the men—and he harbors no illusion that they’ll wait for him. It’s a bad idea to go with them, plain and simple. Falling behind is far from the only thing that can go wrong. But he has to go at least once. And it’s not just for the sake of his confidence in any controversial ethnographic verdicts he arrives at; he’s also hoping it’ll help him break through another layer of the ice still separating him from the Yąnomamö, like when he danced at one of the feasts for the first time. Maybe after tagging along for a raid he’ll finally be able to get past all this edgy weirdness that still surrounds his genealogical work.

On the other hand, maybe the effects he hopes to bring about will be nullified by his being unarmed and making no effort to kill anyone. He has a feeling, though, they’ll be less impressed by his pacifism than by his willingness to accompany them on a mission so fraught with peril, such missions being their own preferred passport to heightened prestige.

As the precipitous falling of night gets underway in earnest, all the men are back to laying around in their yahis, swinging in their hammocks with pained, unfocused eyes. Lac steps through the passage outside and farther past the palisade to piss. The air outside the shabono is lighter, the atmosphere refreshingly cool, in marked contrast to the overheated oven of the village. When he comes back, there’s a thick silence hanging over the plaza, making him pause before continuing the rest of the way in. He takes a breath before finally stepping in, then makes his way around the edge of the courtyard again, determined to move with the lightest of steps. The stillness unsettles him. He’s wondering if he may be offending them by not keeping still like everyone else, when the pall hanging over the courtyard is shredded by a freakish animal sound that sends him scampering to the nearest shelter.

            The cry rattles through the gray evening light, a half human howl of outrage and pain. Lac at first can’t be sure whether it’s a human being making the sound, bowel-shaking and otherworldly. Then he understands: he’s imitating an animal’s growl, and now a bird’s shrieking, incorporating both sounds into his screams of anguish. The not-quite-human, not-quite-animal, not-quite-of-this-world nature of the sound brings to mind nothing so much as the no badabö, the original humans, the dead ancestors who lived in the time of Moonblood. Lac knows the Yąnomamö are human through and through, down to the follicles on their scalps, with their odiferous flesh and blood, but in the swiftly fading light, after a day of scurrying and feeling always underfoot no matter where he stood, a day of infectious mourning and belated fury, he’s tempted to accept the possibility of some genuine supernatural transformation, some peeling back of the curtain on the spiritual world, allowing for the transfusion of sound between the corporeal earth and the realm of essences, mixed and pure, transitory and eternal. His urge to hide, to be invisible, redoubles in intensity. He sees a space between two yahis, a space where no one will notice him crouching, and he situates himself there just as more cries, like the ragged squawking of some carrion bird, suffuse the sky over the plaza.

            The man who’s marched to the center, Lac sees, is facing southeast, the direction of the enemy village, the village these united lineages will raid tomorrow—with him in tow—and it so happens southeast is also the direction of where Lac is crouching. The ceremony repeats the pattern: a man marches from whichever yahi he’s occupying to the center of the plaza—what determines the order?—clacking his bow and arrows intimidatingly, making the noises of various meat-eating creatures interspersed with shrieks intoning the burning, inhuman rage at the core of his soul. After each warrior positions himself next to the man who marched out before him, forming a line of dark gray figures, all anxious for battle, an eerie silence ensues.

            Lac’s mind fills this silence, no more than seconds long, with every variety of self-doubt and dark imagining available to man, until he’s jolted by the next shriek, his anticipation of it notwithstanding. Now another man is clacking his weapons as he growls and gnashes his way out to the end of the growing line. After the third man has taken his place, Lac starts planning where he’ll situate himself to snap a photo of the lineup when it’s completed. His planning is interrupted by the cry of the fourth warrior, whose voice is startlingly different from those of the men who’ve proceeded him. It’s Towahowä’s son, the kid who’s maybe eleven years old. He sounds every bit the boy doing his best impression of the grown men’s formidably dramatic vocalizations. It’s enough to make you think him violently deranged.

            Lac’s mind conjures up a foreboding of the boy’s death with such vivid force as to leave him believing it’s all but inevitable, but he tries to tell himself his misgivings are a mere outgrowth of how appalling it is for anyone so young to be participating in this celebration of human predation.

The other men will watch out for him—they have to.

            The ceremony continues, and as it drags on and on, Lac ponders the symbolism of individual men subsuming themselves into the unitary formation; their lone and discrete minds becoming many and diffuse—diffuse in fear, diffuse in risk, diffuse in responsibility. What if war was the first driver of our evolution toward greater cooperativeness and organization? What if what I’m witnessing isn’t just a first step toward modern warfare but a vital stage in the advancement toward complex civilization? What if the anthropologists got it wrong and it’s not civilization that brings warfare, but warfare that brings civilization?

            Each man must be taking less than a full minute to make his way from yahi to lineup; around fifty men join the ranks in under half an hour. Bahikoawa has been on the scene from the outset, but instead of taking up a position, he wanders along the formation, rearranging the men to make sure they’re perfectly positioned to form a straight line—a general inspecting his regiment. When everyone is in place, Towahowä’s brother begins singing, and all the men quickly join in. His tape still rolling to record the sounds of the event, Lac strains to parse the words of the song. Luck for him, the lyrics are simple:
“I am meat hungry.
“I am meat hungry!
“Like the carrion-eating vulture,
“I am hungry for flesh.”
The man leading the chant has a decent baritone.   

            The brother starts the song, then the others chime in. It’s not all disciplined and scripted though, as individual men take opportunities throughout the song to yell out what they intend to do to the enemy. Towahowä’s brother kicks this off too after finishing the verses to The Vulture Song, glaring to the southeast—all but looking directly at Lac through the settling darkness. When he shouts the gruesome details of what he plans to do with the enemy—“I will smash his head, splattering blood all over his wife’s possessions!”—Lac imagines the threats directed at him, envisioning his own blood being splattered all over the interior of the hut.

Then he imagines his blood splattering the faces of Laura and Dominic and Kara. He struggles for a breath, his chest cinched by the inevitability of his eventual failure as a protector, as a man.

            Lac, shaken, looks up and down the line of ferocious men. Faced with the prospect of death in battle, the prospect of being made to kill, he thinks, all men must feel momentarily unmanned. But unmanned is no way to truly live here, no kind of life anywhere, so however dunderheaded you expect yourself to comport yourself, no matter how useless and inept your actions may prove, no matter how hollow and lacking in true courage your determination may feel, you put one marching foot in front of the other, bearing the burden of your secret cowardice—you hope secret—ever closer to your fate. You find yourself all but paralyzed with fear, but you go anyway. You do what you need to do anyway, hoping the courage you lack makes an appearance at the critical moment—or at least that there’s no one around to see when it doesn’t.

The Vulture Song ends with a deafening high-pitched shriek. Lac fights an urge to sneak out of the shabono so he can prepare himself in the peace of his sealed-off hut. But this ceremony too is part of what he came here to observe. The men begin another song, this one about the blood lust of some carnivorous wasp, as Lac marvels at what he’s just realized he’s witnessing. In all likelihood, he’s going to be one of the last Westerners to see a ceremony like this. Chills wash up his arms to his shoulders as he contemplates the antiquity of these traditions, knowing full well the modern world simply can’t accommodate a flourishing tribal society whose villages stage raids on one another, not for much longer. This is as close as he—or the anthropology profession more generally—will ever again get to witnessing these practices that have come down through countless generations as holdovers, albeit in inevitably transformed ways, from the end of the Stone Age.

At the end of The Wasp Song, the men shriek again before going on to repeat The Vulture Song, throwing in more promises of brutality. They shriek a third time, and now the line breaks apart and the men rush about before clustering together in the center of the plaza. There Bahikoawa and Towahowä’s brother hush them and lead them in shouting wordlessly in unison: “Whaa! Whaa! WHAA!” Silence. Back come the echoes. The men jump and cheer. Then they repeat the same shouts a second and a third time, becoming more excited with each answering echo. After the third burst of echoes, the cluster breaks raucously apart. As the men scatter and jog back to their yahis, they make another strange sound in rhythm with their steps: bububububububu.

A stage in the evolution of marching music.

After the men have dispersed, Lac stands, his knees still sore, his thighs aching and tingly. I got a few good photos, he thinks before patting his tape recorder, which he can feel is still rolling, commissioning its ghostly time capsule from this primordial world into the span of future from whence Lac has traveled and to which he will return—but not until after about another year. He’s walking to the passage out to his hut when he sees there’s one last part to the reahu ceremony. All the men have returned to their yahis and are pretending—yes, pretending he confirms—to vomit up the flesh and blood of the enemies they’ve just symbolically devoured.  

            Lac knows he should sleep in a hammock in one of the yahis, as he does on occasion lately, but he needs to prepare himself for tomorrow’s journey. Rowahirawa knows what I’m after, he thinks, and he’ll help me make my way to Patanowä-teri and back. Lac has promised him an ax as payment; he already has one, but he can trade it for something: probably well-crafted arrows.

            Once inside his hut, he unlaces his boots and pulls off his socks to examine his feet, as if in their wrinkles and folds and callouses lies the clue to whether he’ll have the nimbleness and stamina to keep up with the retreating warriors. Rowahirawa will help, but can he be counted on to stay behind once the arrows start to fly? What if Rowahirawa himself gets killed by one of those arrows? Even if he wasn’t going on the raid himself, Lac would be a nervous wreck about his chief informant and sometimes protector. Lac senses the sioha is still withholding a great deal, not wanting to let it show that he’s on intimate terms with the white nabä, the only proper attitude toward whom is one of avariciousness and amused annoyance, as in we tolerate you because you bring manufactured goods, plus your buffoonery makes us laugh, but mostly you’re just a pest, one we may decide to kill on a whim, or perhaps it’ll be an accident, like when we try to shoot our unfaithful wives in a nonfatal part of their bodies but they bleed to death anyway.

            The men are forever teasing him along these lines.

            Still sitting up in his hammock, he moves from his feet to next examine his legs, hairy poles with diminished girth but with wiry muscles and tendons visible beneath the red-pocked skin, thin but sturdy, like those of a well-crafted, precisely manufactured chair, of a sort not easy to come by in Amazonia. These legs and these feet were never crafted or manufactured, though, he reminds himself. They were sculpted over eons by random variation in the legs and feet of his ancestors, acted on by systematic selection for maximal fitness. That’s why they’re sturdy—that and his lifetime of staying active. That’s why you’ll be able to keep up, he tells himself; your body evolved just like Yąnomamö bodies, for the chase, for the hunt—hell, possibly for the raid, or the escape afterward.

            Anyway, if a boy who just started tying his penis to his waist string can keep up, there’s no reason you can’t.

            Before turning off is flashlight, Lac points it at the shotgun leaning against the mud wall, within easy reach of the hammock. He’ll have to hide it before he leaves tomorrow. The Yąnomamö don’t know how to load and fire it, but they may steal it for other purposes undreamt of by the likes of him. And he needs it. He really needs it. He imagines returning to the hut in a week, after an exhausting ordeal; it’ll only be when he’s back in this hammock, rocking gently, clutching the shotgun over his chest, that he’ll know he’s finally safe.

            The next morning, the women are in the gardens early. They’re harvesting huge clusters of plantains and carrying them to a spot near the passage in and out of the shabono and its surrounding palisade. The men meanwhile are reapplying the black charcoal paint to their bodies. Rowahirawa gestures for him to join them. As pleasing as the prospect of near invisibility is to him, he demurs, thinking it better not to show up in Patanowä-teri looking like anything other than a nabä fieldworker, certainly not a Yąnomamö warrior of any stripe. 

If anything, he should reapply his nara letter.

            Lac does an inventory of his gear as the raiders begin to march one by one from the yahis where they’re staying once more, making their buzzard and wasp sounds—far less frightening in the chill morning light. They form the warrior lineup once again, the wayu itou as they call it, and foregoing the singing of the songs about meat hunger, they release their three-shout burst, “Whaa! Whaa! WHAA!!” before falling abruptly silent to await the echoes’ reassuring return. The ritual seems to be a type of sounding, testing the location of the Patanowä-teri to make sure they are where the raiders hope to find them. There may be something of foretelling the mission’s success to the echoes’ return as well. The men obviously believe it augurs well.

Lac’s pack is filled mostly with food—peanut butter, heavy but filling, sardines, crackers—and first aid items like iodine, gauze, and water purification tablets. His hammock and a few pairs of socks are stuffed in as well. As the men disperse to the rhythm of their “bububububu,” the women meet up with them and accompany them outside the shabono. Each man is soon laden with plantains; they’re bundling them in their hammocks and hoisting them over their shoulders Santa Claus-style, making Lac pause to think of Padre Morello’s request.

Lac won’t do it. He won’t betray Clemens, not after everything the guy has done for him.

            Hasn’t the padre done a lot for you too? Isn’t Morello the one most likely to get you out of whatever jam you’re about to get yourself in with these men?

            Lac has been walking about in a cloud of amorphous guilt, a murky holdover of his childhood loyalty to the Church. Plus he’s sure the padre would disapprove of him going along on this excursion. But Morello is asking him to steal—to steal from a friend, one he’s indebted to—so refusing can’t have put him too far in the wrong. Not that Lac got around to voicing his refusal. It was such an absurd thing to ask, why should he pretend to take it seriously enough to warrant explicit demurral? The reality though is that the good padre, whether he’s strictly good or not, has a lot of influence in the territory. He can make life out here easier for Lac in myriad ways. He can also make it harder in at least as many.

            The women, mothers and wives, are blubbering tearfully, enjoining their sons and husbands to be careful: “Don’t get yourself shot full of arrows!” It’s the timeless scene of women sending their men off to war.

            Lac witnesses something else, a fear in the men’s eyes commensurate to the delight taken in yesterday’s boasting and issuance of threats. The youngest among them, Towahowä’s son, looks fearful but determined, on the angry edge of his stubbornly suppressed fear, his expression so easily readable that an upwelling of sympathy washes over the anthropologist from another world. I hope these men know that keeping this kid safe is their second highest priority, even though they’ve failed to recognize it as the first.

He knows bits and pieces of some of these men’s histories—what garden they were born close to, what lineage they belong to—even if he doesn’t yet know their names. One after another of them claps a hand on his shoulder and smirkingly attests that the safest place for him to be during the raid will be right next to him. “Ma!” their pet says, their nabä guest aspiring after friendship, aspiring to the status of real human. “You’d leave me to fend for myself as soon as the first arrow flew by.”

They laugh. It feels good to laugh, letting trapped air escape, refilling the lungs, loosening the diaphragm. Lac looks around him. So many of the black faces are strange to him. Five months in, he thinks, and you’ve met hundreds of people, all without being given a single name. No distinctive dress or hairstyle to pin an identity to. No personal disclosures. You’re far too separate from these people still, so it’s right that you’re going with them now.

Bahikoawa looks to be in agony over his inflamed lower abdomen. Towahowä’s brother looks terrified. Rowahirawa is ignoring him. None of these are promising signs, so Lac concludes he ought to take heed and forget this nonsense about going on a raid with the Yąnomamö. He already knows he won’t be able to let it go, though, just like he already knows Laura will get a handle on their finances—drinking be damned—if she hasn’t already. The older men are telling the younger ones there’s nothing to be afraid of. If they die, their ancestors will welcome them onto the hedu layer of the cosmos. Nothing to lose, but everything to gain: if they succeed in killing someone, they’ll be known far and wide as killers.  

            Lac has a quiet shameful hope: Bahikoawa’s affliction will force him to turn back before the raiding party reaches Patanowä-teri; Towahowä’s brother’s fear will overpower his resolve; the old men will have an increasingly difficult time persuading the young men to be brave. The killing will be postponed until the raiders can regroup. Since the wet season is already beginning, the next attempt may be months away. There’s still a chance then that the mission won’t result in bloodshed, a chance he’ll return to Bisaasi-teri without being morally or professionally compromised.

Yet if he returns under such circumstances, he’ll never know with enough certainty to satisfy himself. 

Know what? That the Yąnomamö really do kill one another in revenge raids? Isn’t the testimony of the Monou-teri adequate—hell, the testimony of nearly every Yąnomamö he’s spoken to on the topic? Back home, they’ll say no—some of them at least. Do you need to know if you can stomach the killing yourself? Is this about a bunch of guys you’ve been staying with going off to battle and you not wanting to stay behind, with the women? Ah, he thinks, but even if that is the case—and I admit I have sick feelings when I imagine all the scenarios in which I humiliate myself from a failure of nerve—even if that is the case—and I don’t know the weight of that factor relative to my more rational considerations—proving my manhood to myself will simultaneously prove it to the Bisaasi-teri, and that can only help with my efforts to learn their secrets.

Or will it? Maybe they’ll think I’m even more of a coward for going all that way and not even bothering to shoot at anyone. Maybe word will spread that I raided with the Bisaasi-teri, and no other village will welcome me. Then my humiliation would be put off until Dr. Nelson arrives at the end of my stint in the jungle, when he shows up and asks me how successful I’ve been in arranging for him to take blood samples and conduct general assessments of Yąnomamö health across the villages. “One village?” he may complain, marveling at the waste of resources on my failed groundworks-laying mission.

So why am I going?

It’s not like he’s secured cooperation from all the villages and is now jeopardizing their agreements. He hasn’t gotten a single village to drop its seventh veil. And if he can’t break through with the Bisaasi-teri, what hope does he have with Patanowä-teri anyway, or Karohi-teri, or Mömariböwei-teri? Or Mishimishimaböwei-teri, the legendary group at the headwaters of the Mavaca he keeps hearing about from Rowahirawa?

The men step away from the women with flamboyant nonchalance. They walk off, leaning against the weight of the plantains, as if it were an ordinary trip, one to visit their kinsmen in some village a reasonable distance away. Ordinary but for the black paint and the freshly sharpened arrow tips concealed in their toras.

Lac closes his eyes, inhales as slowly as he can, and then reaches down on the exhale to pick up his back pack and sling it over both shoulders. Rowahirawa is already goading him onward. “Come on Shaki. You can’t fall behind before we’ve even left.” One foot in front of the other and he’s on his way.

Away from Bisaasi-teri and the protection of its palisade, the somberness of their mission sets in. The young men, realizing the full gravity of their predicament, huff along silently. Rowahirawa meanwhile won’t stop making jokes. “Shaki, are you beshi?” What? Is he asking if I have hair? Is it because he’s confused about Clemens’s baldness, thinking all white nabä are shiny-pated?

“Awei, I have lots of beshi.” But isn’t beshi pubic hair?

He knows his mistake before the men start laughing. Beshi is the word for horny or having horniness. The word for hair is weshi. That little shit. Rowahirawa knows he has trouble distinguishing the consonants. Lac has just been tricked into professing he’s randy as hell. He can’t help laughing along with them—it’s true after all. He hasn’t seen Laura in far too long.

The ensuing hour sees a return of the men’s mood of reticence. After marching only a small part of the morning, the younger men start to complain about lacerations in their feet, or flare ups of old wounds in their bellies.

They're going to turn back, Lac predicts, before the day is out. 

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The Yąnomamö Name Game: He Borara Chapter 9

Yanomami name gameThe Yąnomamö word for poor, hǫri, translates literally to “out of tobacco.” Sometimes, when you insist you’re hǫri to discourage a beggar, they take you to be saying just that. A man who came looking for a machete once grew exasperated at Lac’s declarations of impoverishment, and, looking disgusted, turned away and exited the hut, leaving the tobacco wad from his own mouth on the table. The Yąnomamö share with each other direct from their own mouths like this all the time, out of one and right into another; it’s no wonder epidemics tear through villages as fast as they do.

Much of the Yąnomamö’s garden space is devoted to tobacco, and they start tucking the wads beneath their bottom lips the moment they roll out of their hammocks in the morning by age seven or eight—it’s hard to tell anyone’s precise age. Tobacco is also an important trade item whenever they travel to neighboring villages for feasts. Many a time, Lac has heard some Yąnomamö complaining about his cravings—because he was truly hǫri—and, knowing something about the struggle himself, laughed his most sympathetic laugh.

 But tobacco doesn’t qualify as a currency; they don’t trade it in place of other valuables. It’s merely a commodity. Still, Lac sees how, with a few adjustments, the culture could potentially evolve to use the crop as the basis for an abstract system of exchange, with people calculating the value of every purchase in the number of tobacco wads perhaps. This would be a clear instance of the larger society evolving. It’s like language: speaking is only adaptive if there are listeners, and using tobacco as money only works when everyone accepts it as such. Dr. White and Dr. Service insist this society-wide cultural evolution is the proper focus of anthropology. In this, they’re carrying on the traditional thinking that harks back to Emile Durkheim, the original sociologist. But doesn’t natural selection operate at the level of the individual organism, in this case the individual human? Cultures, to be sure, develop over the course of their histories and in response to shifting ecologies, but that type of change is quite distinct from the change wrought by the eternal struggle for survival and reproduction.

Quite distinct? Then why, he wonders, are you having so much trouble disentangling the two threads? For entire societies to evolve organically, wouldn’t there have to be entire populations of them competing with each other, some leaving more offspring than others? That’s clearly not what’s happening when a culture transitions from, say, consuming tobacco as a commodity to using it as a currency. But both sociologists and a seeming preponderance of cultural anthropologists discuss such phenomena in just these terms. If large groups compete to recreate themselves over the generations—but what constitutes a generation for a population of societies?—then what role does competition among individuals play? Or are individual minds the environment in which the competition of cultures takes place?

Lac smiles, giving his head a subtle shake. It was handing over the cash for a bundle of cheap machetes that instigated the train of thought. He’s come to this hardware store to get as many steel tools as he can get his hands on before packing everything up and starting the trip back into Yąnomamöland tomorrow. Manufactured goods also have obvious practical value to the Yąnomamö, and these tools are in fact passed along as items of general value among people who already possess one or two of the items in question; each individual knows that other individuals will find them valuable even when they themselves don’t currently need one. Might machetes become a currency?

Laura is waiting outside by the car with Dominic and Kara, the car they borrowed from the Hofstetters, whose patriarch in nowise resembles the Hollywood heart-breaker Lac has been living in dread of, but he and his wife are plenty charming and kind nonetheless. Still, Lac wishes their help wasn’t so indispensable to his family; he feels their kindness—irrationally, he knows—as a rebuke, evidencing his inability to provide for his own wife and his own children. The sense of powerlessness is made worse by Lac’s recent discovery that Laura is burning through his grant money from the National Institute of Mental Health like wildfire—they’ll be out of cash by August unless they start budgeting more prudently.

Laura, it turns out, has acquired a fondness for the wine on offer in the low-end grocery stores of Venezuela’s capital city. After piling the machetes in the trunk and sliding into the driver’s seat, he puts the key in the ignition, exhaling as he tries to think of the most delicate way to broach the topic again.

“When you said we’d be going to study some primitive culture in the Amazon jungle,” she says to preempt him, “I never imagined it would mean me waiting for you with the kids on the campus of a giant research institution.”

He knows she’s right. He’s marooned her here. The living quarters at IVIC are splendid though. Laura has admitted she loves the view of the mountains. It really is a beautiful facility. “Chuck will be back in the village soon,” he assures her, sounding more confident than he has any right to sound. “When he gets there, I’ll feel better about bringing you and the kids to the village.”

He tells her again about the myriad dangers—insect bites, snake bites, dysentery—and about how many sick children there always seem to be, but he hasn’t told her much about the risks posed by the people themselves. That, he doesn’t know how to explain to her. He doesn’t know how he’ll explain it to anyone. It sounds like a reprisal of the outdated, pre-Boaz colonial themes, meant to justify pacification, a euphemism for conquest. “You should see the hut I’m building,” he goes on as he pulls onto the main road. “There’ll be an attic so we can sleep where it’s cool and dry. There’ll even be an indoor shower if I get the damned thing to work.”

Do Yąnomamö raiders understand, he wonders, that white nabä women are off-limits? Clemens has brought his wife to the village before; he’ll have to sound him out on the topic of how safe he thinks it is for women and children.

Many of the roads in the outskirts of Caracas are barely worthy of the name, but at least, for all the compromised throughways and all the maniacs careening toward inevitable collision, they still drive on the right side. Lac has been enjoying his time behind the wheel of the Hofstetter car; most of his conversations with Laura occur with her in the passenger’s seat as he goes from store to store preparing for his return to the field. Whenever the topic is serious, her instinct is to look at him directly, open the sensory dimension of their eyes and expressions, intensify the sharing of the remaining time blocked off for them. She’ll put her hand on his knee when they’re stopped at an intersection, squeezing his leg, and he’ll look down, seeing the ring he slipped onto her finger in a church back in Michigan, back in that past life, back in that other world, the one that seems more fantastic by the day. His gaze moves from her hand up along the length of her arm, the texture of her skin causing a stir beneath his sternum, that radiant flesh with its whiff of all things properly feminine and familiar.

“Lac, is there something you’re not telling me,” she asks him, “something about the Indians?”
Looking her full in the eyes now, seeing in them a new set of clues in the case against his fitness as a husband, he says, “I don’t even know how to begin telling you about the Indians. I thought at first they were like overgrown children—and they still strike me like that sometimes, children with machetes and bows and arrows.” He catches the light changing from the corner of his eye and turns back to the road. “Sometimes, though, I think there’s something more authentic about the way they live, less constrained by all the affectation and propriety we labor under. Is it childish to throw a tantrum? Or is it, I don’t know, dishonest somehow not to throw a tantrum when you feel like it? Lately, I’ve been having this disturbing sense that they’re not really as different as I’ve been looking for them to be. They’re just people—people brought up in what to us are bizarre circumstances, but people nonetheless. It’s an unwelcome thought because it has me questioning my own responses to everything, making me realize there’s some belief or value driving them—beliefs or values that can’t be justified through any appeal to pragmatism or wisdom. I’m just a walking waste heap of arbitrary habits accumulated and passed down over generations.”

“It sounds like you feel your sense of self is unraveling.”

“The thing is, I can’t imagine a Yąnomamö ever saying anything like that—that their sense of self is being undermined, or anything about their sense of self at all for that matter—and it’s making me doubt that concepts like that could ever truly mean anything. Does that make any sense? It’s the first time I’m saying it out loud. It’s something I knew about before: this flimsiness, this historical contingency at the heart of all cultures, the fact that our cherished ideas and experiences aren’t as universal as we think, aren’t as natural. But it’s really hitting me now.”

“Lachlan, I can only relate as far as remembering what it was like finding out how provincial my life and my family’s thinking and traditions were after I went away to college, after I started at U of M. I guess it left me a little queasy and disoriented at times, but it was mostly thrilling. I’ll look back fondly on those days for the rest of my life.” She gazes out through the window, her nostalgia registering as another rebuke to him for not providing the makings of a more satisfying or exhilarating present for her to inhabit, for instead striking this hollow bargain with her, promising her adventure for the cost of hardship and instead locking her away in a sort of cloister—albeit one with a gorgeous view. Turning her eyes back onto him, she asks, “Isn’t there anyone you can talk to, anyone who’s been through a similar experience?”

She’s desperate for someone to talk to herself, he notes, but she thinks of me first.

“My professors back at U of M will be eager to hear about my experiences, I imagine. I can’t say for sure how many ethnographic fieldworkers are staying at IVIC right now, but I wouldn’t have time to talk to them anyway. I go back tomorrow, and I’d much rather spend my time with you and the kids”—the kids who one moment look at him like a total stranger and the next seem to forget that he ever left them to fend for themselves.

“Lachlan, when you said you felt like everything is arbitrary, does that include you and me? Do you mean marriage and family feel like arbitrary concepts too?”

I wish for right now, he nearly says aloud, you could be a little less canny. “The Yąnomamö have wives and families too,” he assures her instead. “Those practices actually are universals as far as I know.” Universal themes, maybe, but with tremendous variation. Yąnomamö men often have more than one wife, for instance. Do they feel love, romantic love, the way we do? If so, he’s yet to see any indication. Of course, that’s something a man would downplay, what with the lowly status of women and the contempt for all things feminine.

Looking over and seeing that his assurance has fallen flat, he says, “Honey, honestly, how much I love you and Dominic and Kara is about the only reality for me that feels grounded at all.” Though, even that reality, he refrains from adding, has been shaken up, just a bit, lately. At the beach yesterday, he watched his children playing in the surf and heard the chanting of shaboris trying to wrest children’s souls back from the clutches of malevolent hekura. The first time he saw them after arriving in Caracas, he noticed again they both have the same constellation of faint freckles across their noses and under their eyes as their mom, and he had a feeling like, these are real kids—this is the natural way for children to be. But spending time with them has eroded the wall dividing them from the other children he’s been surrounded by of late.          

So much of what we see in children—especially our own—is projected there from our own minds, but the kids themselves have a way of announcing their sovereignty; they have their own overriding temperaments, their stubbornly, frustratingly paltry grasp of cultural niceties and higher-order agendas. Kids are just kids. And if you’re not raising them the natural way, the best way, because all you have to go by are those same cultural niceties and abstract agendas, then you have to question your true role. Are you passing on the culture for the benefit of your children? Or have you been duped into passing it on for its own sake? Is culture more like a parasite, one that infects your thoughts and distorts your perceptions while trapping you in boxed spaces—or, in a starkly different setting, trapping you in a tradition of fighting to prove you’re waiteri?

Lac looked at his children, who’d grown quickly bored with sandcastles and were now arguing over which of them should rightly bury the other in the sand, and he thought: How can I teach you anything when everything I know is so—arbitrary, so disconnected from any but the most tenuous ties to the natural order. Everything I know is a belief that came about through some happenstance of history. He considers telling Laura about this moment of doubt at the beach. But his feelings of ineptitude as a parent leave plenty of room for guilt over missing so much of his kids’ lives while he’s off in the jungle listening to all those chants attending the deaths of other people’s children.

The villagers don’t need an anthropologist; they need a doctor. And I need to be with my own kids.

He continues driving silently while his thoughts churn, and he sees how much of a bind he’s in with Laura: he can’t remain silent without making her feel cut off and excluded, but he can’t tell her what he’s thinking because he doesn’t want to worry her. On top of that, he sees that wherever he goes now he’s going to feel the pull of the other place; he’s a cross-cultural being now, a hybrid, and he’ll never again know the peace of being at the center of the universe, a true heir to the truest and best, the pragmatically finest-tuned cultural traditions informed by the firmest grasp on what’s natural and what’s moral and what’s authentic. He won’t say any of this to Laura, not off the cuff, not till he’s wrapped his own mind around it, started to come to terms. If he’s in a tailspin himself, there’s no point dragging her into it. He’ll share when he’s got it all more under control. In the meantime, he’s got axes to buy and small talk to make.

Currency is the lifeblood whose circulation unites the disparate cells of the larger superorganism of the State. I hand you banknotes, you hand me tools. Even if I want to spend my money across the border in the U.S., I only have to exchange my bolívares and céntimos for dollars and cents. A Catholic can buy from a Protestant with the same money he uses to pay taxes to a secular government—nominally secular anyway. Currency cuts across nationalities and creeds, and its rudiments operate even among the most primitive peoples. I can trade these axes and machetes, which I paid for with cash, to the Yąnomamö for labor or information. They understand trade perfectly well, along with reciprocity more generally.

Out of this inchoate instinct for fair exchange emerges simple markets, and then complex economies. Suddenly I’m less tempted to kill you for some miniscule boost in status; instead I see you as a potential customer, partner, or employee. Maybe henceforward we’ll have rules, built from the raw materials of our kinship customs—themselves a mixture of instinctual bonds and conventional obligations—centered on roles governing how I treat people of various categories, and voilà: we have a society capable of cooperating on what was hitherto a superhuman scale. Even if we’ve never personally participated in such grand enterprises as the building of a miles-long suspension bridge or the carving of a canal connecting two of the seven seas, we still support the program at a cellular level, accepting the roles of employee, customer, or merchant, and thus powering the organs of commerce, government, and infrastructural development.

But what role do I play in this superorganism? What do I produce and sell?

Lac poses this question to himself as he stands before the mirror in the bathroom of their IVIC quarters after returning from his currency-armed foray to commandeer madohe. What do I build? If I don’t elevate my status through violence, and I don’t run up any profits through commerce, then where does my worth as a man come from? My wife unhappily waits for me, tending to our children while I follow Indians around their gnat-infested village, trying not to piss them off as I fill out charts and plead with them to forget their proscription against saying names aloud to strangers. She meanwhile seems to be spending us ever closer to penury. He hasn’t told Laura about the figurative and literal meanings of hǫri. You should, he tells himself; she’d be interested.

The bathroom is quiet and he cherishes the privacy, even as he distrusts it—someone must be about to burst in, or is already listening outside. He never feels comfortably alone anymore, so he’s reluctant to return even to the company of his own family.

I am a man with no name of my own, he murmurs to his reflection, just the one my father gave me. I have no status anywhere, having achieved nothing of note by any society’s standards. I can’t truly live here, whether here is IVIC or Ann Arbor.

Lac has a small square mirror in his hut outside Bisaasi-teri but he never uses it. Why would he? He was letting his beard grow until he got to IVIC and Laura requested he shave, and he doesn’t need to see his teeth to brush them. A toothbrush, he thinks: that’s what I forgot to get. In lieu of thorough brushings with toothpaste and multiple rinsings, Lac usually makes some swipes with a dry brush. It’s taking a toll on the bristles. Running his tongue over his tobacco-stained but healthy teeth, he leans over the sink to get a better look at himself. A twenty-six-year-old man with no name, borrowing his grandfather’s name for the time being. Five foot seven with alert, intentional eyes—rimmed with a familiar, comforting hint of mischief. Stepping away from the mirror, he sizes up his body; he may be a good fifteen pounds lighter than he was in November, and losing the weight so fast has left him looking drawn, his cheeks dry and inward draping, his flesh like the rind of a piece of fruit left on the counter for weeks.

“Jesus, I look ten years older.”

He was skinny before; now he’s boney and drooping, but he’s still—what? He still possesses something not apparent in his reflection: a springiness to his joints, a wiriness to his muscles. The last vestiges of the boy he’s grown up being have oozed out through his pores in the jungle heat, or got sucked out of him by gnats, or humiliated to death by the Yąnomamö. What’s left is at once sagging and emaciated, wizened and supple, toughened and enervated. He’ll need to build everything back up from this rubble, atop this pulverized foundation. But he possesses the vim and spirit and eagerness to get started. There just may be enough grit and stubborn drive left in him to make it happen.

There just may be enough mischief left in the corners of his eyes.

If Laura has trouble recognizing me, he thinks, she’ll just have to get to know me again—or we’ll have to get to know each other rather. Because the truth is I do have a name, one I’ve earned for myself. My name is Shaki. It’s not a big name, not one that comes with any warning of how waiteri I am. But I may be able to parlay whatever it does convey into a means for transforming all the other men of the village into named beings as well. When I’m finished with that, I’ll swap it out for my old name, my grandfather’s name, which will have new weight and new meaning.

He’s anxious to get back to work.

The latch on the door to his hut is dangling from screws loosely gripped by splintered wood. Someone has pried it apart from the frame, or just kicked in the door. Ordinarily he’d fume at the invasion, the disrespect for his property, the violation of his space, the thought of the bastards rifling his belongings. But he expected this. So he merely smiles and mutters, “I hope you found something you like, you little shits.” Sure enough, everything inside bears the signature of a frenzied search. Lac is gratified to find the lock on the inner door remains secure; it doesn’t even look like they tried breaking it. He made sure this second door and the separating wall were reinforced, and he half-heartedly concealed the latch by draping a towel over it. The men who helped him build the divider know about the extra space of course, but to thieves making a quick survey it wouldn’t advertise itself, and even if they discovered it, opening it would likely present a bigger challenge than they were prepared for. Still, it’s only a matter of time before a determined thief discovers and breaks through this barrier as well, so Lac determines to keep his valuables as secret as he can for as long as he can.

Is it fair though, he wonders, to call them thieves? Whenever he catches one of them with a stolen item, the culprit insists he’s only borrowing it, or that he plans to give Lac something in return later. And Shaki, the defendant further insists, is being stingy by demanding the item be returned anyway, stinginess being one of the cardinal sins among the Yąnomamö. Everyone in Bisaasi-teri knows everyone else, has known everyone else as long as they can remember, so there is some plausibility to the case for a different understanding of possession and the transfer thereof. It’s also quite plausible they’re just thieves playing their ignorant nabä visitor for a fool.

Maybe I could hire Rowahirawa to guard the place while I’m away, he thinks, but that guy is never where you’re counting on him to be, and it’s all too easy to imagine him smiling innocently as one thing after another goes mysteriously missing, and still smiling as he demands the agreed-upon payment. “And be quick about it or I’ll smash your head.”

Lac catches himself smiling at Rowahirawa’s antics, a frequent occurrence of late. He realizes he’s excited to see his chief informant and get the latest gossip. In his letter to Ken, Lac referred to Rowahirawa as his friend; then again, he also referred to him as Pedro, since he’s not yet sure Rowahirawa is his actual name—he’s only heard it said a couple times and never dares utter it himself. He’s also not sure how he’ll spell it when the time comes. But is this man—Pedro or Rowahirawa or whatever his name ends up being—his friend?

Clearing a space for the many bags he’s schlepped from his dugout, he thinks of how Rowahirawa showed up after the chest-pounding tournament to make sure he was in a safe place, or not in a horrendously unsafe place anyway. But, as he described to Ken, Rowahirawa had once “almost” gotten angry with him for trying to stop him, Rowahirawa, from chopping up poles Lac had just paid him to help collect—paid him with the machete he was now using to chop them up. “Almost”: Lac hadn’t realized the Yąnomamö were using the English word until he’d written about Rowahirawa’s anger to Ken, such is the linguistic muddle in his head.

Lac looks at his thumb, swollen to three times its proper size, and recalls another incident when his maybe friend almost got angry. They were carrying a heavy log when Rowahirawa stubbed his toe on the edge of the pile. Enraged—understandably so—he threw his side down, sending Lac lurching off balance, smashing his thumb between the log he was still trying to hold and the one on top of the pile it landed on. Murderously angry one moment but acting as if nothing had happened the next: it was the same as what happened after the chest-pounding tournament, just on a smaller scale. Flare up, then poof, onto the next thing. Lac’s thumbnail is still broken and the swollen joint aches when he flexes it.

Villagers are already showing up outside the hut. He has to hurry and secure anything that can be easily concealed and walked off with. Then he’ll negotiate to have some of them help him unload the heavier stuff from his dugout. They’re agreeable enough, he thinks, and easier to live with when you know what to expect—which is never—or rather when you know the range of what you might expect anyway. That curtain he spoke of to Laura, the one he has to drop to guard his sanity, his “sense of self,” isn’t the only one he’s contending with. The Yąnomamö have obscuring tactics of their own.

He thinks of the blandly friendly but casually impersonal, or the surly but impersonal, attitude of people in the city, contrasting it with his wife’s intense engagement and nuanced expressions of sympathy. To be seen and treated as a sentient and feeling creature, one whose thoughts and general state of mind matter for something—it was almost overwhelming. He wanted nothing more than to hide in the IVIC quarters, soaking in the pure silence until it percolated to his every cell.

He couldn’t share with Laura much of what preoccupied him for his two-week-long visit. “The Mahekodo-teri did plan to leave before instigating an all-out shooting battle,” Rowahirawa agreed when they discussed the tournament’s aftermath the day after the visitors departed. “But that last thrust they made was a provocation, one the Bisaasi-teri let stand. That was the face-saving move which allowed them to leave without a bunch of killing. It shifted the shame onto the Bisaasi-teri. The men here, in failing to retaliate, accepted that the Mahekodo-teri were the stronger force.”

“So they were humiliated, but tolerated it for the sake of peace?” That wasn’t the impression Lac had taken away, but he was in no fit state of mind to rely on his own assessments. Still, in the days following, the Bisaasi-teri never seemed crestfallen, which may be because their humiliation is like their anger: flare up, fade away, onto the next thing. Lac wonders though if their pique at having been intimidated accounts for some of the bravado on display as they spoke of their friends’ troubles with Patanowä-teri in the days before he left for Caracas.

He steps outside and sees that several men with unfamiliar faces are walking over from the shabono with the Bisaasi-teri men he recognizes. “The Monou-teri are moving back to Bisaasi-teri,” one of the younger men says when he sees Lac’s confused expression. “Towahowä has been killed.”

“Ah, I see, younger brother,” he responds. “So there’s to be more fighting with Patanowä-teri.”

After unloading his supplies and repairing the broken latch on the door of his hut, he ambles over to the shabono and sees a vast construction project underway. “Shaki,” he hears Rowahirawa’s voice calling before turning to see him approaching. Lac's heart gives a lurch, and he can’t tell if he’s overjoyed at seeing his friend or frightened by the wild Indian running up to him. “Why were you away so long? You’ve missed a lot of action for your white leaves.”

Lac smiles as Rowahirawa pushes and pats him like a kid brother—even though Lac is much taller and older. Not only are the Monou-teri moving in, with their sixty or so members, but the second Upper Bisaasi-teri shabono is being dismantled so the entire group can be consolidated within one structure. He looks around and sees only a few men from Lower Bisaasi-teri, so he figures they’ll probably be staying in their homes on the far side of the Mavaca.

It doesn’t take Lac long to observe that the men here are disdainful toward the visitors. Even Bahikoawa wears his disgust at the Monou-teri openly: they failed to avenge their headman’s death, his cousin, whom he called brother. The ambush occurred only a couple weeks after Towahowä had led his own raid on Patanowä-teri. The men there knew the smaller village was hoping to gain some notoriety, and they couldn’t afford to let the attack go and risk encouraging more. Patanowä-teri suffers from a sort of fastest-draw-in-the-west syndrome. Everyone knows theirs is the largest, most formidable village in the territory, so everyone knows attacking them is the ticket to greater renown. Most raiding villages assume that, as big as Patanowä-teri is, they won’t be able to retaliate against every last group who attacks them. But this time the Monou-teri miscalculated; the Patanowä-teri decided on a quick counterattack, going so far as to track the Monou-teri to where they’d recently relocated and planted a new garden, and specifically targeting the hotheaded headman who’d led the raid against them, the man responsible for the death of their covillager and kinsman, the poor bastard who got porcupined while stuck up in a tree harvesting rasha.

Lac wanders about, greeting people with smiles and getting smiles and mild harassment in return. He turns the conversations to the latest news at every opportunity. The Patanowä-teri crossed the river that was supposed to impede their pursuit and found Towahowä with his wives. The rapid response team was disciplined enough to leave the women behind after shooting him full of arrows, listening to him spout his defiance with his dying breath. Lac gets this from the wives themselves, and he searches their eyes for signs of the emotional trauma he knows they must have sustained. They whine and shed tears aplenty, but Lac can’t help wondering if Towahowä was rough with them, a man like that, so blustery and desperate for recognition and authority. He was Bahikoawa’s cousin, headman of a village allied to Bisaasi-teri, hence the headman of this village’s insistence on a counterraid—or counter-counterraid rather. It makes some sense, but so many people have relatives on both sides of the conflict.

After speaking with the women, at a loss how to console them, he steps away and has Rowahirawa explain how the Bisaasi-teri are reconstructing the shabono to accommodate the larger numbers, and how they’ll also be fortifying the place against attack. He describes what sounds like a palisade, a row of pikes surrounding the lean-to structure, which they’ll cover with dried brush so the dogs will hear the rustling if anyone tries to sneak over. In the cities, barking dogs are a nuisance, but here they’re serving their original purpose. Lac’s eyes wander the area, searching for the underfed but eager little servants. They circle the children, but no one could be said to be playing with them. They merge with the background, helping with hunts on occasion, and sounding the alarm if need be, but not on such friendly terms with their masters as they would be in most parts of the States.

“He was searching for honey,” Rowahirawa says, abruptly shifting topic. They’re standing side-by-side, watching the complex structure being raised one manageable piece at a time. Thatching the roof must be the most difficult part to get right, Lac thinks. “Two of his wives were there with him,” Rowahirawa continues, “holding his children’s wrists or carrying them on their backs. He stopped because he heard buzzing, looked up to find the hive—and that’s when the Patanowä-teri fire their arrows at him. The wives say they hit him all at once. He was standing there looking up into the branches, and then he was looking down to see a bunch of arrows sticking out of his torso. He would have died from that eventually. But he was still able to nock, draw, and fire an arrow back at the raiders. Who knows if he hit any of them? Then one of them fired a last arrow at him, its bamboo tip piercing the flesh beneath his ear and poking out through the other side of his neck. He staggered and swayed, trying not to die, and fell forward, his face landing in the dirt. He bled to death as his wives grabbed the kids and ran back to the shabono, and the raiders, not bothering to kidnap the women, ran to cross back to the other side of the river, fearing immediate retaliation. But Towahowä was the only waiteri in the village—I’ve told you this before. After hearing about what happened, the rest of the village fled and hid in the forest, thinking the Patanowä-teri would attack again. They fled and hid like a bunch of women.

“This is what the Bisaasi-teri pata can’t abide, this shameful cowardice and refusal to avenge his brother. The Monou-teri have been on the move ever since. You’ve seen them here. They stay with the Lower Bisaasi-teri too, eat all their food too, then they go visit our Shamatari allies to the south, the Mömariböwei-teri and the Reyaboböwei-teri. Then they go back to where they’re planting their new garden in a place the Patanowä-teri won’t know to look for them. But the Monou-teri are hopeless without waiteri. The Patanowä-teri are at war with many enemies now, but Monou-teri is weak. Attacking them, chasing them away for good, taking all their women—that would be an easy way to send a message to all their other enemies. Bahikoawa is saving their lives by insisting on this raid. He’s giving them a chance anyway, as sick as he is. Some of the Monou-teri will need to step up. Towahowä’s brother should be meat hungry.”

Rowahirawa has taken special interest in Towahowä’s story, a man always eager to fight, a man whose tendency to seduce or steal other men’s wives led to the fissioning of Monou-teri from Bisaasi-teri. One waiteri holding an entire small village together—but he pushed it too far. What lesson will Rowahirawa draw from it?

More importantly, Lac wonders, how can I exploit the upheaval to get some more names on my charts?

He’s formulated a plan to pull people aside, promising them some small payment—fishhooks or one of the red loincloths he’s bought—and he’ll whisper the questions in the informant’s ear, encouraging him or her to whisper the answers back into his. That’s the obvious part, but here’s where it gets ingenious: he’s going to follow the gradients of relatedness as they track from yahi to yahi around the shabono, asking each family about the ones nearest. That will bring two advantages: he won’t have to ask the informant for his own name or the names of close family members, and he can use their reactions as a gauge of their neighbors’ honesty as he crosschecks their answers with one another. What he’s counting on is that the Yąnomamö will be slightly miffed when he whispers their names to them—and Yąnomamö don’t exactly have good poker faces—helping to corroborate the identification. He’ll have to be delicate about it; some of the men are bound to get angry, especially when he asks about their deceased ancestors.

So he’s counting on them getting visibly angry but not violently so. He chuckles at the precariousness of the balance he’s hoping to strike. Yeah, totally ingenious. If you end up getting nowhere, you may at least still end up getting killed.

Wandering around the shabono, Lac sees Bahikoawa. It’s late in the afternoon. He’d normally be taking ebene and chanting with the other men but the construction project takes precedence today. Lac can tell from the way he’s moving that his affliction has returned and is causing him pain in his abdomen or lower back—or both. How will he fare in the upcoming battles and raids? Bahikoawa is the one really pushing for the raid against Patanowä-teri, which is difficult for Lac to square with his observations of the headman’s peacekeeping efforts. Really, it sounds like he’s appalled by Towahowä’s brother’s cowardice—as if it amounted to a black mark on the lineage they both represent. But he’s also exasperated with Monou-teri’s begging, not just here and in Lower Bisaasi-teri, but among the Shamatari as well; they start complaining about how much the moochers eat almost as soon as the Bisaasi-teri are done throwing them a feast to force them to leave.

Will Bahikoawa’s status be elevated by the raid if it’s successful? Or is he merely hoping to help Towahowä’s brother and the rest of the Monou-teri achieve a sustainable independence? Lac will have to watch and see how it plays out.

“The plan is to build and fortify the new shabono,” Rowahirawa says, “and then eat the ashes and conduct the raid just as the dry season comes to an end and the rains begin. If the rains flood the trails, the Patanowä-teri won’t be able to pursue us.”

“You’re going too?” Lac blurts. “And what are you talking about, eating ashes?” 

Lac has broken a self-imposed rule against asking more than one question before giving his interlocuter sufficient time to respond. One question, a pause to listen, one statement, then another question—that’s the formula he’s decided on. The Yąnomamö love to hold court and tell stories about how clever they are, how they prevailed over a less clever person in a series of encounters, or about how fierce they are, or how generous—they’re like people anywhere in this regard—and they even like to talk about their lineage’s history. You just have to treat the topic gingerly, and remember that the Yąnomamö, for all their wild hauteur, can be very skittish, or very easy to scare away in any case, though, if he thinks about it, that’s more from annoyance and not at all from fear.

In his most fantastic dreams, he either has a chance to speak with that English-accented Indian who can help him answer all his linguistic questions, or he’s lighted on the key to cracking the Yąnomamö cultural code, learned precisely how to speak and behave to conduce to the divulgence of their secrets—or the unremarkable minutiae of their days—in easily notable nuggets.

“Shaki, you moron. Of course I’m going. I’m waiteri.”

“And the ashes?” he can’t help prying.

Rowahirawa for once doesn’t seem to mind. He’s catching on bit by bit what it means to hail from a place where customs and beliefs and languages are far different. Lac has ceased being merely a defective human, improperly reared, with substandard intelligence and poor hearing. The transformation began some time ago when the two men shared the triumph of a perforated linguistic barrier. Lac had been running his finger along text written in English, emphasizing the gaps between the words, and then pointing to his Yąnomamö transcriptions with their unbroken chain of letters. As he encouraged Rowahirawa to slow down in repeating the phrase they were working on, the young warrior’s face went abruptly blank. He looked like a caricature of the guy with the lightbulb going on over his head. Rowahirawa had of course used words all his life, but he’d never pondered the concept of a word. This pale nabä he calls Shaki, it dawned on him, wants to know where one word starts and the other begins. They howled together with joy, slapping each other on the shoulder. Such a simple thing turns out to be far more complicated than you’ve ever allowed for in the past; you’ll never think of it the same again.

“Towahowä was cremated by the Monou-teri after he was shot to death by the Patanowä-teri. His ashes were gathered up and saved in a calabash—an empty gourd—so they can be eaten during the ceremony that will be held before the raid to avenge him. The women will mix the ashes in with date and drink it down.”

Just the women? Lac manages to refrain from asking.

Rowahirawa gives such a thoughtful answer that Lac suspects he may be starting to realize his foreign friend Shaki may even be an interesting character in his own right, perhaps with something to teach, something to contribute aside from his poorly guarded madohe.

“They won’t use all the ashes,” he continues. “Some they save, storing them above the joists in their yahi. If this raid is unsatisfying, they’ll have another feast, the women will eat more of the ashes, and then the men will go raiding again.”

Another form of currency, Lac thinks: a stored-up rationale for murdering neighboring villagers, thus establishing your waiteri credentials. Maybe the women are the ones who eat the ashes because they’re the ones who need the reminder of why the raid is supposedly necessary. Men are never free to forget the necessity of violence.

In his anthropology courses back at U of M, Lac learned that all hunter-gatherer bands are egalitarian—at least when it comes to the men. At most, a man will stand as primus inter pares, a first among equals, to deal with temporary exigencies, as when someone needs to serve as trade representative or lead everyone through a time of threat or drought or famine. It was treated as established fact that the importance of individual status only came about as differential access to strategic resources took hold, be it food or water or land, or possessions like building materials or drugs or steel tools. Or currency. So Lac came to Boca Mavaca expecting to find a tribe of egalitarians, the headman playing, if anything, a slightly more pronounced version of the primus inter pares role.

At some point in the development toward larger, more complex social organization, hierarchies invariably form, but since tribespeople like the Yąnomamö have so few possessions, and nothing by way of accumulated or transferable wealth, they ought to more closely resemble hunter-gatherers, with leveling mechanisms playing a prominent role in customary etiquette. When a !Kung hunter bags a huge gazelle, he has some other band member carve and divvy up the meat, all the while getting teased about the paltry size of the haul he’s brought home. He’ll as likely as not respond with his own self-effacing humor, because self-aggrandizement and superior airs will win you nothing but widespread ostracism and scorn. This is one element of that noble savage idea, the perfect possessionless peoples with nary a concern for their individual ranking. Without the corrupting influence of wealth and inequality, individuals act for the benefit of the larger group—and this is one of the principles underlying the view that societies function as superorganisms, and that cultural evolution operates at the level of the entire society.

But the prediction emerging from this theory—that a group with few possessions will have little concern for individual status—has failed spectacularly in this case. The Yąnomamö, while not rigidly hierarchical, are if anything more obsessed with their status than the average person you meet in the States. Around the time prepubescent boys start trying, unsuccessfully at first, to tie their foreskins to their waist strings, which Lac guesses occurs around age twelve, they also start complaining about other village members saying their names in public. True, there’s a spiritual aspect to the name taboo as well; Lac has learned that while it’s usually safe to utter the name of a child, doing so when that child is sick will get you chased away by outraged relatives. Names fall in with the general category of symbols for intimacy, trust, and liberty-taking—or liberty-allowing.

No one wants me to use his name, for instance, because I’m a nabä, and they’re afraid I’ll use their name to cast an evil spell against them.

All this sickness amid the thoroughgoing ignorance of germs and infections—they can’t be too careful, but at the same time men are far more vigilant when it comes to improper name usage. Lac has yet to see a young girl approaching menarche who throws a fit about someone addressing her by name. And he knows that when relying on teknonomy for circumlocutions—as the Yąnomamö do themselves—it’s safer to name a female child if you have the option. It’s as if layered on top of their concerns about spiritual attack is an entirely separate game of whose name is most important—and it all comes down to who’s better able to enforce the proscription against using his own and those of his kin, especially his recently deceased kin, as it falls on you to hold your father’s or your uncle’s name sacrosanct after he’s gone.

Can the hekura attack one’s ancestor’s bohii in hedu? That never seems to be a concern. The concern is rather that hearing your relative’s name reminds you of that person’s absence, and people are to know they can’t treat a man’s emotions in so trifling a manner—because this man is very important, very waiteri.

Lac has several times run into trouble with the men he interviews even after he’s explained to them what he’s planning to do. “I want to get the names of some of your family members,” he’ll say. The man will agree to provide the information in exchange for some specified item from Lac’s store of madohe, and then Lac will proceed with the questions, doing his level best to show deference by asking for the names in a whisper, cupping his mouth with his hand to the man’s ear. Yet when Lac gets the name and whispers it back for confirmation—or often after he merely asks for the name of, say, a grandfather—the man goes berserk, and Lac ends up fleeing to his hut. Lucky for him, the flare-ups are short-lived. This scenario has played out twice even when Lac tried withholding payment until after the interview was complete.

“I told you what I was going to do, what I was going to ask, and you agreed god damn it! How the hell can you get mad?” He keeps saying this, holding his head in his hands, while pacing his kitchen slash office after being chased to his hut.

When he was just weeks into his fieldwork, the Yąnomamö saw that he was beginning to pick up bits and pieces of their language. On occasion, a man would approach him and give him a message to relay to another man he pointed out. Lac, eager to be helpful, would deliver the message as close to verbatim as he could manage—unaware he was saying the man’s name aloud while insulting him with bitter succinctness. Then the recipient would blow a gasket and chase him with an upraised club or a machete, while the first man laughed uproariously. “But you just saw the other guy tell me what to say,” he once complained, stupidly, in English. “How can you be mad at me for telling you exactly what he said?”

Now Lac is beginning to understand. The point isn’t to dole out just deserts. In that case, they may take circumstances and intentions into account, as we would in the West. The point is to put on a display of sudden temper, advertise how easily angered you are. You weren’t being threatened or punished in way meant to correct your behavior, he tells himself. You were being used as a prop in a demonstration of fierceness.

For the rest of his first day back at Bisaasi-teri, Lac trades off between wandering around, helping the men with the building of their new lean-tos, mostly from parts of the old shabono, and sitting back to observe and take notes. He watches some women making thatch for the roof and thinks it funny that their role in lifting and tying together the supports and rafters is kept to a minimum because everyone knows how clumsy women are. They’re seldom allowed to use clay cooking pots for fear they’ll break them. But the way they chop and gather firewood demands a level of dexterity and strength and athleticism beyond anything he sees the men display. Even the men’s hunts are mostly walking and creeping through the forest, with a quick occasional sprint.

Early in the evening, Lac begins to have the pleasant sense once more that he’s doing good work, being a good fieldworker, contributing substantively to his discipline. He enjoys it. Aside from at IVIC with his family, he can’t think of anywhere he’d rather be. The Yąnomamö seem to have finally habituated to his presence; they no longer make it a point whenever he passes to jeer and demand machetes or pots, tossing in a threat or two to speed up the transfer. He’s becoming a fixture, though the children still flock around him wherever he goes. He entertains them in exchange for the freedom to ask of them the stupid questions he’s hesitant to ask their parents. Then he lies awake at night worrying about them catching upper respiratory infections. Most of his fishhooks and nylon line ends up going to them. Right now, though, he’s squatting next to a fire in the new plaza that’s taking shape, idly slapping mosquitoes, enjoying being left alone.

He pretends to jot down some notes, but he’s daydreaming. It’s getting dark and he’s thinking back to something Laura said while they were enjoying a rare block of quiet, sitting together on the balcony and taking in the vista of forested mountaintops: “The sunsets here are different. In Michigan, the sky turns orange and scarlet and puts on a display that lasts a long time. I guess it’s because we’re so close to the equator and the sun strikes the earth so directly; it takes a shorter route through the atmosphere, so the colors that come from the prisming beams aren’t as impressive and don’t last as long. It’s daylight one minute, and then you look up and it’s nightfall, and then it’s just dark.”

Lac hadn’t noticed it, not enough to remark on it anyway, but he knew immediately she was right. What else might she notice and remark upon that’s right under my nose, he thinks, or right over my head, in this place? Laughing quietly, he wonders if he should have been more stern with her about her spending, or if he should worry about her drinking. Instead, he stood there and let her chide him: “You need to let me know where our finances stand if you want me to budget more prudently.” So, in essence, his response to the discovery of her burning through his NIMH grant was to give her more responsibility over their funds. Yet he feels much better now, knowing he’s set her such a challenge, almost certain she’ll rise to it. That’s how Laura operates.

I also promised I’d get her and the kids into Bisaasi-teri as soon as I can, he thinks. But how can I do that when the villagers are building a palisade against attacks from the larger village they’re about to pick a fight with? How can I do that when my plan is to travel to villages farther inland, villages more removed from the influence of all the damned missionaries?

Will people there use the word “almost” like the ones here do?

He thinks of the giant Shamatari village way up the Mavaca Rowahirawa keeps talking about. He’ll have to travel there sometime before his seventeen months are up. Maybe Chuck will be back at some point soon and Lac will be able to count on him to keep everyone safe while he travels. Maybe Laura will take to the ethnography business and they’ll be like Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson—though, didn’t Bateson divorce Mead after some years? He gazes off into the rapidly dimming treetops beyond the upper edge of the shabono’s thatched roofing. “Mist-shrouded” is how the adventure stories would describe the forest as he views it now, but the white doesn’t form a shroud so much as a bunch of cottony strands, a ghostly substitute for the snow these leaves will never touch.

Before long, it’s dark, and he’s staring at the firelit notebook in his hands. A man is chanting, or orating really, about his plans for tomorrow, and about his grievances. The Yąnomamö do this all the time, making announcements like this as everyone is rubbing the bottoms of their feet together to dust them off before rolling into their hammocks. Lac stands up. He needs to get to his hut, but he’s fearful of what awaits him in the darkening space between here and there. Luckily, he’s too tired for the fear to consume him, or even to deter him.

He has the thought, as he has several times before, that the children who usually surround him a good portion of the day know most of the names he’s after. He’s offhandedly asked for one now and again to see what they’ll do. They refuse, sometimes playing at being violently angry, reminding him of his early days in the field when he was appalled to see mothers goading their sons to return tit for tat in teary-eyed disputes. But Lac senses that if he were to go deviously about his efforts, he’d achieve far easier success with villagers under twelve.

He won’t do it. As tempting as the idea is, he knows he wouldn’t feel the least bit proud later, knowing that he’d had to finagle his data out of small kids.

He wanders out of the shabono. The darkened clearing abounds with terrors just out of view. But he makes his way over the rise, one groggy but cautious step at a time. Rowahirawa sometimes hangs his hammock in Lac’s hut, but he’s nowhere to be seen now.

Late morning: Lac is systematically testing and rejecting different times of day to attempt his genealogical work. Now it’s when the men are returning from their gardening but have yet to take ebene, meaning they should be much less volatile. His time in Caracas has ruined his eating schedule, restoring his appetite to its Western cyclicality. His stomach twists and grates, no longer conditioned to the paltry breakfast of crackers and peanut butter and café con leche that needs to sate him until evening.

He’s also on edge because he woke up this morning in an achingly intense state of arousal. Upon arriving at his IVIC quarters, he was eager to avail himself of the luxury of cascading hot water, and he took the opportunity to release some of his pent-up tension, lest he end up failing in his husbandly duties when he and Laura found themselves alone together. After later accomplishing the deed in a modestly satisfactory manner, though, he still worried that his contribution was lackluster, worried so much in fact that since returning to the field he’s been kicking himself for not properly savoring the few times they had together, for not even coming close to achieving any level of gratification that would tide him over until the next visit.

He groans. Imagine how she feels. Or better yet, don’t. You have work to do.

He’s abandoned the idea of interviewing people separately in the open; if it’s in the open, he’s realized, it won’t be separate. Plus public interviews heighten the temptation for the men to show off their quickness to anger, a risk he’d like to minimize. Instead, he’ll interview them in his hut, making a show of his whispering deference. The key will lie in the crosschecking. He’s already caught them in what he suspects are fabrications on a few occasions. He won’t ask about the most recent among the dead, if he can help it, and he won’t ask informants about their own nearest kin. He’ll ask people from different but related lineages for information about each other, checking for accuracy with actual members later, even if checking amounts to little more than seeing if the latter informant gets angry about what the earlier one has divulged. And he’ll start with the older village members, since they seem calmer. Plus they’re bound to know more of the history he’s after.

A lot of this he’s tried before. He’s still expecting to be chased out of his hut once or twice, given a few false names it’ll be a pain in the ass for him to track down and correct, and robbed any chance he gives them. But this will be the first time he puts all the tactics together into a systematic strategy. He knows the outlines of the culture and the language; it’s time to start digging into the deeper organizational structures, time to see how the kinship system really works, time to start getting the data he promised Dr. Nelson so he can incorporate it into his genetics research.

Lac looks down at his charts. He’s got circles and squares—for women and men respectively—filled in willy-nilly; he doesn’t even know if the names and relationships as diagrammed are accurate. One of the goals of these early sessions will be to identify the most knowledgeable and most reliable informants. He’s essentially holding tryouts. He’s even got a plan for a graduated pay scale for those who keep making it to the next round. Will it work? He laughs. Probably not—at least not as I’m envisioning it now.

He’ll have to make adjustments to the system as he progresses and learns. He keeps telling himself that no matter how compelling what’s going on with Monou-teri and Patanowä-teri may be, he didn’t come here to study warfare. His main research focus requires that he first have comprehensive genealogies. Those should help him understand more about intervillage hostilities anyway. All of it will go into helping him understand how primitive societies evolve into more complex ones, how basic kinship rules get stretched to accommodate larger settlement sizes, how leadership roles emerge. He’ll learn about what drives village fissionings—and village fusionings, like the one taking place now.

But I already know what’s bringing these villages together, he thinks. The role of war is central. And is it societies that evolve, the way the early sociologists like Durkheim and the functionalist anthropologists like Radcliffe-Brown envisioned—along with Drs. White and Service? Or is it individual decent lines that evolve? This latter hypothesis seems far likelier based on what he learned from his genetics classes at U of M, which were taught by some of Dr. Nelson’s undergraduate aids. But biological evolution based in genes is distinct from cultural evolution based on—well, that’s one of the things he’s here to figure out.

Ah, Lachlan, one question at a time. And first things first.

He opens the door to his hut and heads to the shabono with its growing palisade to recruit his first informant of the day.

“Tell no one I told you these things.”

Lac hears this admonishment for the third time since this morning. On the boat ride up the Orinoco on his first day in the field, he’d worried about how his professors had all boasted with strained irony of being “adopted” into their research subjects’ society. Missionaries talk about being adopted in the same way. What would it mean if the Waica—whom he would come to know as the Yąnomamö—were to withhold such favor from him? Merely imagining it was devastating.

He needn’t have worried. What all the travelers and missionaries fail to understand—and his professors should have done a better job explaining—is that primitive peoples only know how to interact with a person according to kinship rules. There’s no category, as there must be in civilizations, for the random guy passing on the street, or the scientific researcher conducting a study, the outsider unrelated to anyone. So they confer on you what you mistake for honorary kinship status. The Yąnomamö started calling him shori—brother-in-law—from day one, if he can recall. They needed to do this to end their bewilderment about what rules should govern their dealings with him.

The practice says nothing about their personal feelings toward you, though you may perchance be relieved they’re addressing you at all and not unceremoniously impaling you with the six-foot arrows they have trained on your face. They would call someone shori even if they hated his guts and only tolerated his presence because of the madohe he promised them. Being called shori or any other kinship term doesn’t mean a damn thing.

But nothing signals acceptance—even liking—like the sharing of secrets. Every time one of Lac’s informants tells him not to tell anyone that he’s shared all these names and details of family histories with him, Lac flashes a grin, one he does his best to hide. He’s been in the field for over three months, and this is the first sign he’s received that the people of Bisaasi-teri may be willing to let their guard down with him. He hasn’t been aspiring to honorary group membership, but this small gesture of trust, their enveloping him within their minor conspiracies, feels to him like an ultimate verdict on the substance of his character. If acceptance can be extended across so wide a chasm, he must possess some trait whose appeal transcends language and history and culture. He must just be a solid guy, a good person, a worthy and respectable man. And likeable too.

It feels better than he would have anticipated, if he’d anticipated feeling it. He gives the man sitting on the chair in his office slash kitchen—the Yąnomamö appreciate a sturdy chair as much as anyone—a bundle of fishhooks and a spool of fishing line before walking him to the door. It’s early evening and he’s only conducted three interviews today. Once you get them to sit down and start answering questions, you can’t get them to shut up and leave. No matter. They’re giving him exactly the information he needs. He thinks he may look back on this day in the distant future and see it as the day he truly became an ethnographic fieldworker, an anthropologist—the day he became a scientist.  

With the advent of this process for collecting names, his true work begins, not just his work, his whole life. With the information he’s gathering, he’ll be able to crack the code of Yąnomamö settlement patterns, social organization, and intervillage conflict—with implications stretching back to a time before the earliest civilizations. A fantasy takes up residence in his mind: a year or so from now he’ll be known as the go-to guy for handling impossible field conditions, an indispensable aid to his anthropological colleagues. Need information on a group too warlike for a graduate student to study safely? Call Shackley. Need genealogical information on another group with a taboo against sharing names? Send in the guy who wrote the definitive (and virtuoso) ethnographic study of the Yąnomamö, the guy who demonstrated that violence in tribal societies is rampant, upending decades of previous theorizing about its causes.

And it all starts with the phrase, “Tell no one I told you these things.”

Lac gently, then not-so-gently shoves his still rambling informant out the door and sees more people gathered outside. They’ll debrief the guy, he thinks, which could pose a problem: he’ll have to come up with a lie or two to give them when they ask what we talked about. Lac has to piss. He often pisses right outside the door—though he’s considering repairing Clemens’s old outhouse—but not when there’s such a large audience. If he steps outside, he’ll be surrounded by people begging to be his next informant, or just begging. Not for the first time, he wishes he had a secret side door for sneaking out unnoticed.

For now, he has little choice but to jostle his way out among the crowd. “Ma, I’m done with my ohodemou for today,” he says, repeating himself twice and thrice before managing to thread through the people and make it to the edge of the clearing. He scans the ground before planting his foot for each step into the forest, and then, swatting away the bareto, opens his pants and lets loose the stream, doing an awkward amoebaesque shimmy all the while to avoid suffering more bites than necessary. All the old hardships bring an almost pleasant glow to the edges of his consciousness, now that he can see through to accomplishing his goals.

One detail troubles him. The first informant’s answers were wildly different from many of the second’s and the third’s. But those last two’s answers were in near complete agreement. His plan includes a contingency for this, so he simply determined the first guy, an older man, cousin to the headman, was unreliable, perhaps out of overprotectiveness toward their customs. But how can he be sure? How can he be sure of any of it?

For the moment, he acknowledges he can’t, but as he continues his work, interviewing more informants and crosschecking their accuracy, any discrepancies will be brought to light. He wanders over to the shabono, which is taking shape nicely. He wonders how long it takes them to build one from scratch. The palisade consists of logs, maybe eight feet long, lashed together with vines and buried in postholes about a foot deep. It almost looks like they’re making crude rafts. Building this barrier comprises the bulk of the work the three groups have undertaken.

Remembering Laura’s observation that evening turns to night more precipitously in the tropics, he moves about, taking in all the new construction before returning to his hut. But here’s Rowahirawa approaching. What’s this son-of-a-bitch been doing all day? “Shaki, you’ve started asking for names for your white leaves,” he says, “names of people here and their fathers and grandfathers in hedu.”

Ordinarily, Lac would be worried about Rowahirawa mentioning his work like this, expecting the comment to be followed by a warning that he must desist. But he sees in the waning light that his sioha friend is sporting a toothy grin, like he may at any moment erupt into laughter.

“What’s this joke I still don’t get, you little shit?” 

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The Man Who Truly Lives Here: He Borara Chapter 8

Yanomamo chest-pounding duel
Lac hasn’t been to the gardens to see how they’re holding up, but the Bisaasi-teri must be confident their bounty will still be sufficient to support a feast for the Karohi-teri. Or maybe they’ll get some extra produce from their neighbors across the Mavaca. Did Lower Bisaasi-teri contribute to the feast yesterday? He curses himself for not keeping closer tabs—but so much was happening.

By the time he started to crawl out of his hammock ten minutes ago, the Karohi-teri warriors were already entering the plaza in pairs to dance their circuits around the outside edge. He could hear the shouting and cheering from his hut. Deciding to lie back down, he envisions the day ahead with a heavy sense of tedium: they’ll dance, lie down, eat, chant, chant some more, chant through the night, trade, and go their separate ways—usually but not always having secured their alliance, if not their friendship.

What does friendship even mean to the Yąnomamö?

            Rowahirawa slept elsewhere last night, if he slept at all. Lac wonders how they’re doing it. There must be some chemical in the ebene that helps them stay awake—or they’re just tough as hell. He considers staying in bed. A look at his watch tells him he’s only been asleep a few hours; the shafts of gray light form angled bars from the eaves and the window to the partially wood-covered clay floor. He’s seen the Karohi-teri dance before. How nice would it be to lie there recuperating after such a harrowing night?

He gets up. There was really never any chance he wouldn’t. After lumbering to the door and unlatching it, he steps outside to piss off to the left side of the door, the lower-elevation side, as is his wont first thing in the morning, fantasizing all the while about sitting down in a sparkling, sunlit kitchen, wearing freshly laundered clothes, popping a newspaper open and laying it on the table next to his plate, and digging in with knife and fork, the downward pressure securely supported by the solid wood surface and tiled flooring beneath each leg. What would it be? French toast would be divine. Steak and eggs—the thought nearly doubles him over with the ache of longing. A bowl of cereal with fresh fruit from the refrigerator, and cold milk—enough.

He looks over his shoulder and sees the warriors waiting to enter the shabono. Among them are a half dozen or so women and a few straggling children, still busy decorating themselves. These women are the wives of men who don’t have large families back in Karohi-teri, and so their husbands weigh the risk of leaving them unprotected at home versus bringing them to a distant village. The Karohi-teri seem to be on such friendly terms with the Bisaasi-teri, Lac can see how it would be better to bring the women along. He’s wondering why there aren’t more of them. Maybe it’s because they couldn’t be sure the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri would be gone when they got here. When had they received the news that they’d be the honored guests at their own feast? Are there more Karohi-teri women hiding somewhere in the jungle between the two villages?

More good questions to keep in mind.

Lac goes through the arduous stages of unlocking his chest and opening the multiple layers of sealed containers to get to his crackers and peanut butter. He still has a jug-full of water, as he neglected his hydration throughout the night. Should he make coffee? It would wake him up, but it would also make him have to shit. Meanwhile, he’d be missing more of the feast for the Karohi-teri. He steps outside again.

Ducking into the shabono with the women would be the thing to do, though he’d get an earful about it from Rowahirawa. All he can do now though is stand there, staring at the women as they prepare to enter, frozen in indecision about whether to continue his morning routine and suffer the consequences or go back to work in the shabono, and suffer the consequences. He steps back inside the hut, realizing his dithering is a symptom of fatigue. He’s so tired still, wanting more than anything to be able to crawl back into his hammock for another couple of hours. But he opts for the coffee and the shit—unavoidable really—and sets to the preparations in a flustered daze. Even while he’s lighting the heating element on the stove, he hears cheering and shouting, and he curses himself for missing the action, for shirking his primary duty.

He tends to wander deeper into the woods to take his shits than the average Yąnomamö, enjoying his privacy and not wanting to walk through yesterday’s scat—his own or anyone else’s. Today, though, he squats in a new place, his carefully unpacked and unsealed toilet paper in hand. This is another of the challenges of living in mostly sedentary villages of a hundred-plus people; before long, the area surrounding your village is a fecal minefield—a retch-inducingly fetid one. Even in the dry season, though, nature goes to work on a man’s leavings, divvying up the bounty among all the creatures industrious enough to make of it their sustenance. Lac wishes again there were an entomologist on hand, so he could explain the effect all those human feces would have on the local insect life.

Everyone’s inside the shabono by the time Lac’s walking up to the entrance, the women having shuffled meekly in with their little ones. He has his notebook and pen—plus a backup pen so he can switch back and forth until one decides to work in spite of the damp paper. He has his camera straps around his neck, thinking this will be a prime opportunity to get some pictures, now that the tension has abated. He walks through the enlarged space made more passable for the occasion of the feasts and steps into the plaza, only to be struck by an abrupt silence. All eyes are on him.

Lac is sure he’s violated some taboo, sure that he’s finally crossed some line the Yąnomamö can’t abide anyone crossing, even a dumb nabä who promises to keep returning to the village with more madohe. Well, Lachlan, this is it. I wonder what it’ll feel like having a bunch of arrows hurtled into me, or a club brought down on my head. Not good. But with any luck, it’ll be over quick.

One of the men says something it takes Lac a moment to translate. The man is telling him to dance. Everyone is watching to see what he’ll do. He surprises himself by taking a few rhythmic bounding steps and adding an awkward spin, a passing impersonation of a Yąnomamö warrior at dance, topped with a signature move befitting a buffoonish nabä. The courtyard explodes with cheers and laughter, and men rush to surround and teasingly congratulate him on his fearsomeness. Lac feels the warmth spread over his crimson face as he nervously flashes his teeth. You said yourself you needed to participate more. He laughs with the men as they slap him on the shoulders and back. He waits it out, eager to find a place to obscure himself as best he can and continue his observations.

After the guests are finished with their dances, it’s the turn of the hosts to line up and perform their own ceremonial procession, dancing into their own village courtyard. Lac treats it as an exercise, trying to discern whether some logic governs the ordering beyond an ostensible prioritization by status. But then he has an idea: what if he were to go out with the Bisaasi-teri and reenter dancing?

The typical dance entails a lot of mock lunges and threats, the brandishing of bows and arrows and clubs, so Lac would have to improvise. But the quick steps and the turn he did earlier were a hit, and he doesn’t get the sense that these people gathered here now are in the mood for killing. When the time is right, Lac follows the Bisaasi-teri warriors outside. They give him bemused looks, probably afraid he’s going to ruin their fun by bombarding them with questions.

Bahikoawa, at the front of the line with his uncle, can’t spare a glance for him. At the back of the grouping, Lac finds Rowahirawa; it seems as a sioha, he has a choice whether to dance with his natal covillagers or with his wife’s covillagers. He whispers to Lac that he’s hoping to make his father-in-law happy, maybe even convince him he’s leaning toward a decision to stay in Bisaasi-teri, to expedite the offer of his second daughter to him—after which he’ll leave Bisaasi-teri and go back to Karohi-teri. He laughs and gives Lac a shove as he says this. Lac thinks, he’ll treat you as suspect until you start a garden here, but you’re too damned stubborn to do that, so good luck persuading him to give you the other daughter. That would be forfeiting his only leverage.

Lac considers speaking this point out loud, but he finds he’s too nervous to marshal the vocabulary. If he could simply dash into the plaza, dance, and be done with it, he wouldn’t be regretting his decision. Instead, he has to wait and visualize how it’s going to feel to be a dancing clown, a pet monkey doing tricks, the center of a vortex of derision. He’s sure they’re going to laugh at him, treat his gesture as a grand joke, but he also knows it will help them accept him. He can avoid a great deal of heckling and harassment by hiding, but getting heckled and harassed is how you initiate yourself; they want to lord over you with their superior status; they’ll never accept you as long as you deny them the opportunity. You start out at the back of the line, but that’s the only way to start your move to the front.

“Shaki, are you going to dance?”

“Yes, I’m going to teach you Yąnomamö how it’s done.”

Rowahirawa holds his belly and laughs. Soon word is traveling up the line; Shaki will be dancing after they’ve all entered. The big smiles of amused excitement embolden him. It’s true, he’s divesting himself of some share of his dignity, but he’ll be gaining a modicum of acceptance. Plus, he’s so tired he wouldn’t be able to stay awake through the entire entrance procession as a mere spectator anyway.

“Brother-in-law,” Lac says to Rowahirawa as they wait for their turns, “why did the Mahekodo-teri back down earlier?”

“The Bisaasi-teri men and boys have been bragging all morning about how they intimidated the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri with their obvious superiority.”

“But they had more adult men, more warriors.”

“It’s hard to know what they were thinking; they may still think they can call on Bisaasi-teri to help if they get attacked by another village. I doubt the men here would answer such a request though. They’re too indignant about being exploited all week, and robbed.”

The Yąnomamö are the same as people anywhere, Lac thinks: they have some high-drama encounter and then both sides come away with contradictory impressions of what went down, everyone irrevocably convinced he and his side were the reasonable ones acting in accordance with principled fairness. “So you think there will be an invitation to a reciprocal feast at Mahekodo-teri?”

“It’s hard to say, Shaki. If I were you, though, I’d be much more worried about something else.” Lac braces for some revelation about the toll the Yąnomamö exact for incompetent dancing. “The way the Mahekodo-teri left—something about their silence and abruptness—it makes me think they may come back, and if they do there will certainly be a fight. The only question is, how big?”

Lac turns and scans the area surrounding the shabono and stretching to the trees, exactly the frightened response, it dawns on him, that Rowahirawa was hoping for. He turns back to see him smiling, holding back his laughter. “Ah, it’s a funny joke, Brother-in-law, but how do you know you’re not right. I got a similar feeling from their manner upon leaving.” Lac trips over the foreign words.

“Oh, it’s not a joke, Shaki, though it is always funny to watch you squirm in fear. My guess is that the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri went off to hide their women in the jungle, maybe get some rest, and that they’ll return soon, probably about the time the Karohi-teri are leaving tomorrow.”

God damn it, Lac thinks, if they’d just have their fight, let me get some Polaroids, and be done with it, I could relax. Instead, they’re killing me an inch at a time with this endlessly drawn-out suspense.  

The men are all making adjustments and adding finishing touches to their bodily adornments. Lac looks down at himself: trousers, button-down shirt soaked with sweat, duel dangling cameras, clunky boots. He feels an urge to strip down, but he can’t toss his belongings aside and expect them to be there for him to retrieve later. If he can’t subtract any elements, maybe he can add one. He looks around for a decoration or a prop. It’s hopeless. Rowahirawa and his partner, another sioha, this one from Momaribowei-teri, are to be next to enter and dance for the visitors. The two before them will funnel out, these two will charge in, and Lac will be left alone, unprepared, the poorly trained pet monkey.

He wants to ask Rowahirawa if there are any rules or taboos he should be careful not to violate. It’s the kind of question he made a point of learning how to ask early on, but just now he can’t form the words. All he manages is, “Brother-in-law, how do you dance?”

Rowahirawa turns with a serious expression for once and says, “Shaki, watch me. You won’t be able to do anything nearly as well as I do, but at least you’ll get to witness a true master at work.”

Lac laughs a hearty, much-needed laugh. “Ah, Brother-in-law, whatever village you live in, you’ll be the man who truly lives there—I’m sure of it.” That’s the Yąnomamö expression to describe the headman, the man who truly lives here. Rolling that over in his mind somehow fortifies him. He shortens it to “Really live here,” and sets to repeating it in his mind as a silent mantra.

Rowahirawa is gone. Lac pokes his head into the enlarged passageway to watch. I’m no dance critic, he thinks, but this man is clearly displaying his disdain for the people here, athletic and formidable in his movements, sure, but also treating the performance, and especially the audience, as beneath him. He’s condescending to dance for us. It doesn’t bother his covillagers from Karohi-teri; indeed, it could be their feelings of superiority he’s pandering to.

As the two dancers are nearing the end of their circuit, Lac looks down to see a potsherd, one that was used as a solid surface for mixing nara. He bends down, touches it with two fingers, and brings them away covered in the red paint. Struck by an idea, he quickly goes to work.

His dance begins as a simple imitation before a dumbstruck audience. This is worrying enough; the Yąnomamö are almost never silent, especially at a feast. But it also means he’s dancing alone, with almost no sound at all. Stomping, he moves forward, halts, rushes back. Then he starts unbuttoning his shirt to show them how he’s applied the nara. He makes the motions of removing his shirt part of the dance and feels like he’s performing a burlesque. When he finally slips his arms through the sleeves and reveals the large letter A emblazoned over the length of his torso, the Yąnomamö are overcome with excitement and cease withholding their cheers—which come so loudly he worries the howls and whistles are on the verge of shifting into angry shouts about how their sacred ritual is being profaned by this alabaster outsider, this filthy oafish nabä.

The enthusiastic reception continues, though. You could even say he’s stealing the show—who among them will remember any of the other dancers more vividly? His cameras sway and clatter at his belly as he swings his arms, lifting his knees high and leaping forward. He lifts his shirt above his head and gives it a few helicopter twirls. This sends the Yąnomamö into a frenzied uproar of clicking and hooting and laughing. He picks out Rowahirawa’s voice from the cacophony: “Great move, Shaki—now they’ll all be swinging clothes over their heads when they dance.”

Lac can’t help it; he beams. The last thing he expected to do during his time in the jungle was invent a new dance move. The next moment, though, he’s returned to a near panic: what will he do after circling the plaza? He’ll have to follow through and go back outside to reenter with the Bisaasi-teri warriors, filing in and spreading out to all the yahis, making mock threats and last-second retreats, and then coming together again in the center of the courtyard for the visitor’s pose lineup. Since it’s their home village, it won’t be nearly as dramatic as when the visitors did it. They’ll gradually disperse and find their ways back to their own yahis to entertain their guests. That’s when he’ll be free.

But that’s deeper than he planned on getting involved. Maybe he should fade from sight after his lap is complete, slink back to one of his inconspicuous observation posts. Unlikely now. Apparently, there’s no dipping your toe in the water of Yąnomamö culture; once you get a little wet, you have no choice but to dive in—and hope you’re not in over your head. Well, I’ve taken the plunge now, he thinks; so far, they seem delighted with me for going to the trouble.

The idea of striking that visitor’s pose is especially frightening. They all have reason to want him out of the way, as his presence currently prevents any plundering of his hut. Still, something has kept them from killing him up till now, probably the calculation that they’ll acquire more madohe in the long-run with him alive. Again, he’s arrived at a reassuring conclusion he has no confidence in. The Yąnomamö live by an unknown set of rules, pursuing a puzzling set of values—rules and values it’s his job to learn and describe—and beyond that they’re individuals, more volatile and unpredictable than most, regardless of culture. He second-guesses every inference he makes about their motivations and reasoning. I’m right to do so, he thinks, however much stress it causes.

His worries prove unfounded over the next hour. Everyone takes centerstage in his own production, he thinks; I may be odd enough to merit some special attention, but this gathering isn’t about me. He does his best to blend in with the other bodies, impersonating the other characters around him, be as Yąnomamö as he can. He plays at raiding yahis, inciting raucous laughter and rapid clicks of approval. He does his best unarmed impression of the visitor’s pose. And then it’s time to get back to work—only people are already asking him to dance again.

“Ma, I don’t want to dance, Sister-in-law. I am tired. I have ohodemou to do.”

They engineer these high-drama occasions because they’re bored, he thinks. Imagine having no books or television or radio or movies. The closest thing they have to entertainment is the shaboris reenacting the stories of the no badabö while they’re tripping on their daily dose of ebene. That’s why they tolerate so much dangerous brinksmanship—welcome it even. They don’t have access to the kind of fictional drama we enjoy back in the States, so they arrange and act out their own dramas.

That may be another part of why they tolerate me.

Something he’s read in one of his anthropology texts comes to mind: groups of people don’t adapt so much to life in their local environment as they adapt to life with all the other members of their group. Our fellow humans are always critical elements of the evolutionary context. Another way of expressing this is to point out that any adaptation to the environment is collective, occurring at the level of the group. It doesn’t operate on an individual basis. No lone pre-human could develop a capacity for language through natural selection, for instance; language skills are only adaptive in the context of other people with similar skills.

So is there something adaptive about the Yąnomamö’s penchant for dramatic saber-rattling displays, or in their case bow-and-arrow rattling, along with some machete and ax-clanging? He tries to imagine how a laid-back and eminently peaceful village would fare if forced to compete with—or just live in vicinity of—a more bombastic and aggressive village like this.

The thought experiment does not produce a happy result.

But here he is being pressed to dance again. “Brother-in-law, I will dress up and dance the next time we visit another village, but now I have my ohodemou and I’m tired.” The Yąnomamö themselves are consummate excuse-makers when they don’t want to do something; they understand it signals a deep reluctance.

He’s now painfully visible, no longer an aspect of the stage design. Ha! Like you ever were, he thinks. The Yąnomamö were humoring you; they may have even sensed that you wanted to be left alone, understanding how overwhelmed you must feel. Plus, you were an annoyance. No longer. Now you’re an attraction. Have you heard? The strange white nabä, the pet monkey with the hairy arms and legs and face—he actually dances.

It’s hours before he locates a quiet spot on the edge of the plaza and starts taking notes—hours of cascading, half-heard, murkily comprehended words and phrases, churning clumps of reeking, sweat-slicked bodies, scary drugged-out shamans, faces of men whose names he’s forbidden to learn. Kneeling, breathing slowly, he feels a throb in his temples and can almost hear the hum of his vibrating skull. Deep breath. The marathon chanting is about to begin. He forms a plan to listen for an hour or two and then return to his hut, crawl into his hammock, and sink back down through the layers of buzzing consciousness to the quiet bedrock of oblivion. Just imagining it makes his eyes well up.

He shakes himself awake, wanting to get to work, at a loss once again as to what getting to work should entail. So much they don’t teach you in graduate training: like how to make sure you’re spending your time as productively as possible, how to work through fatigue and prolonged emotional tumult, how to deal with your constant self-doubt, your questioning over and over again of what you’re doing here, what you hope to accomplish by persevering through this long series of ordeals.

Participant-observation is what getting to work means, he tells himself; I can’t chant, so I need to observe, make a record, think about how my notes may prefigure a thesis, fantasize about sitting at a typewriter in a polished den with thick rugs, Laura’s voice murmuring in the next room, and above all else stay awake. Lac’s head comes to rest against a support pole at the front of the empty yahi where he sits, his eyes falling shut despite his efforts. He experiences no pleasure this time, but simply fades out.

A mad shriek snaps him to his feet, fully upright and alert.

Did he dream that sound?

Another scream, this time from the opposite side of the shabono, has him whipping his head from one side to the other to find the source. The Yąnomamö inside the shabono fall silent. Somebody is announcing his presence outside, more than one somebody, a crowd of somebodies; shouts are ringing out from the west, then the east. The village is surrounded. Lac looks toward the passage alongside Bahikoawa’s yahi, desperate to bolt outside, sprint to his hut, and lock himself in, clutching his shotgun tight to his chest.

Now a thick-throated chorus of inhuman war cries rises up like an acid mist, a sound like the sky being ripped open from pole to pole, ready to spill the guts of the world into the cosmic void. A primordial pulsing of fear and preparedness has every cell of his body humming like a hive of crazed bees, as his intestines writhe and sink, making him glad he took the time this morning to shit. Tingles ooze over his shoulders and down his back as his chest rises and inflates, a hot-air balloon lifting off in a monsoon, and his legs go liquid even as they’re jolted into flailing action.

One man inside the village, then another, then a full horde resounds with the outrage of being surrounded and intimidated. Several of them pound the dirt with thick logs. Lac clenches his teeth and resolves to keep his wits about him. He looks up into the night sky with its fine dusting of stars arranged in foreign constellations, watching for the hailstorm of curare-tipped arrows signaling the instigation of hostilities. It’ll be chaos and carnage in every direction, he thinks as he frantically sidles around the edge of the plaza, working his way toward the passage outside. Voices soaked with burning hatred fill the air on either side of the shabono walls. Just get to your hut and get your hands on the shotgun. Blow a hole through the chest of the first few men who push inside and the rest will get the message. Then you can wait it out, as long as you need to. Lac stops.

What about Rowahirawa?

What about Bahikoawa and Nakaweshimi? What will the raiders do with the headman’s pregnant wife?

He looks up again, waiting for the fusillade of falling arrows—but sees nothing. He’s almost to the passage when his thoughts catch up to him. He hears Rowahirawa in his mind repeating, “If they were attacking us, they wouldn’t send word of their arrival.” The fact that they’re shouting and trying to scare the hell out of us must mean they have some other plan besides sneaking up and killing as many people as they can.

Before he reaches Bahikoawa’s hut, he sees Nakaweshimi pulling one of her children by the arm as she retreats into the shadows at the back of the yahi. Lac closes his eyes and hears the whimpers and cries of countless unseen women and kids and babies. Now it dawns on him what’s happening, just as Rowahirawa predicted, only earlier than he thought. The Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri have returned, even as the Bisaasi-teri are still playing hosts to the Karohi-teri.

Lac steps back when he sees the warriors from the rival villages flooding back into the plaza. He nearly trips into a high-burning hearth, and as he rights himself gets tangled in the occupants’ hammocks. After maneuvering free, he watches the warriors spreading over the plaza, charging from person to person, brandishing their weapons and signaling their readiness, their scarcely containable eagerness, to attack, to kill and die, to wade in and be engulfed by this cyclone of flesh-mincing rage.

The rival villagers rush up to individual men, aim or wave their weapons menacingly, and then dash off. Lac is in the shadows cast by a hearth and a row of firewood, but he needs to move closer if he’s to make sense of what’s occurring. The Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri, having completed their truncated and more intense version of the entrance ceremony, form in a circle at the center of the courtyard—not a line-up but a clear clustering by group membership. The Bisaasi-teri and Karohi-teri men surround them, shouting insults. One side levels accusations of theft and gluttony and disrespect; the other complains of stinginess and ingratitude.

More shouts and hoots announce the arrival of more Yąnomamö men gushing in at a clip through the entrance. Lac can’t identify them from this distance in the dark, so he edges around the outside of the plaza to circle up to them and get a closer look. The new arrivals bound noisily in and around the courtyard, taking up positions alongside the Bisaasi-teri. Lac, still trying to keep some distance from the fray, recognizes some of their faces and voices. The warriors from Lower-Bisaasi-teri must have heard the commotion and set out in a tightly packed canoe across the river. Lac takes note of how quickly they covered the distance, whispering the phrase he borara to himself.

He looks around and sees that this isn’t the scene of deadly chaos he imagined. The two sides form a clear division, one surrounding the other, with long-established custom prevailing over the disorder that might otherwise arise from so much raw emotion—if that’s what’s fomenting all this furious noise and movement. The Lower-Bisaasi-teri men are still coming in when men on the host side begin wading into the mass at the center and designating specific men from the visitors’ side. The same men who threatened them upon entering?

The two men wander off a short distance—now Lac is standing amid the crowd, jostling for a better view—and a circular wall of onlookers forms around them. This then is the duel, but they aren’t wielding the long clubs. So the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri have returned to take the Bisaasi-teri up on their invitation to a chest-pounding duel. Lac can see over the heads and shoulders of the men in front of him to the combatants visible in the light of the fires burning all over the courtyard. He readies his cameras. He wishes he could record where everyone is standing, count the men on each side—an aerial photo would be ideal. But his view is limited and people are shuffling around from place to place. He can play spectator to the fight but not much else.

Another circle forms around another pair of combatants ten yards from the first. It’s to be a tournament then. Only minutes after he heard the first screams outside, the arena is established, and the two separate duels are about the commence. At least, Lac thinks, it’s shaping up to look more like a sporting event than a murderous free-for-all. 

Lac positions himself in the audience where he can take full advantage of his height. One fighter is standing with his arms behind his back, one hand clasping the opposite wrist, his tobacco-distended chin raised in defiance, his feet spread wide at an angle to his taut shoulders; his opponent is meanwhile taking practice runs, rearing back and stepping forward, swinging his arm over his head, preparing to hammer his fist down on his opponent’s chest, high on the left pectoral muscle. Then the true blow comes. Lac hears the thudding smack of fist against flesh. The recipient staggers back, wincing, arching his back with uplifted shoulders as he twists away, giving his head a shake to clear the fog. The pounding must have been as powerful as it sounded.

And it must hurt like hell.

Nevertheless, amid the raucous cheering, hooting, and clicking, the man recovers and takes up his receiving stance again, arms pulled tight behind his back, chest thrust forward, as though eagerly awaiting the second blow. His opponent measures a couple times again and then delivers another wallop. Lac winces. The hammer fist dropped as the culmination of what looks like the wind up for a pitch, only both the striker’s feet remain planted. He’s getting the full weight and the full leverage of his body behind the motion. Its effects are apparent; the recipient’s knees buckle as he steps away, nearly falling.

The Yąnomamö encircling the duelers raise their weapon-clasping hands over their heads and bounce from their knees as they call out goads and encouragements and instructions. The dazed man recovers again, and to Lac’s horror takes up his position a third time. Could he be exaggerating the effect of the poundings? Lac hopes he is, starts looking for signs, but can’t think of any sensible motive for playing up the pain. Why flatter your opponent? Unless it’s because the Yąnomamö like to play up everything?

The sound of the third blow startles Lac, even though he’s watched the buildup. The crowd is deliberately falling silent the moment fist bites into flesh, so they can hear the sound. Lac, pained to witness the recipient in so much pain, lifts up on his toes and cranes his neck to see the other arena, where a similar drubbing looks to be taking place, according to the same rules. When he turns back, the man is readying himself for a fourth blow. At least with the clubs, the two combatants take turns hitting each other. How long will this one-sided beating go on?

Lac is relieved when the landing of the fourth blow prompts the crowd to start clamoring for the two to switch roles. So the rules of the match seem simple. The number of blows they have to take each turn may vary—Lac will have to see—but the idea is that however many the challenger takes he gets to deliver to his opponent when his turn comes around. That’s why Rowahirawa juts his head forward, inviting a clubbing on his skull, whenever he wants to provoke and antagonize someone, like he’s saying, “Here, I’ll even let you take the first shot.”

            Lac has to force himself not to look away as the former recipient becomes the deliverer. His wind up and swing display a few nuances, but the effect is indistinguishable, with the man absorbing the blows buckling at the knees and staggering back before recovering and stepping up again. Lac hopes both men will be satisfied after the score has been evened at four hits apiece, but the first recipient takes up his position again with his arms behind his back; it appears they’ll continue until one of them quits. The men pound each other’s chest again and again, until Lac is able to hear the sound without wincing, but instead feels a more general horror pervading the damp night air blanketing the plaza.

            They deal each other two blows each this time. Is the initial challenger, who sets the number, faltering? Then they go on to a third round. Lac raises up on his toes again and sees the other two fighters are still at it too. It’s going to be a long night, though it’s still only been ten minutes since the visitors came pouring back into the shabono. Lac looks around at the crowd, wishing he knew names and relationships. The fighting itself is plenty fascinating, if disturbingly barbaric—but that’s ethnocentric—and yet it’s the larger, longer-term dynamics that would help to make sense of what he’s seeing.

            How many men here are related to people from Mahekodo-teri? If they lived together for a year all that time ago, there must be some kinship ties connecting them, though more likely through the female side, the side patrilineal societies don’t bother with. Kinship is insufficient to prevent the squabble, but within Bisaasi-teri, you see the most prominent members of the biggest patrilines stepping up to get their chests pounded first—or so it seems. Bahikoawa, Lac sees, is swerving around both fighting circles with Indowiwä, as though the two men are working together to ensure both sides adhere to the rules, and to ensure the onlookers don’t come to blows outside the circle, inciting a melee.

            One of the combatants attempts to leave the circle. The men from his opponents’ village are ecstatic; their man, the Mahekodo-teri man Lac thinks, though he only vaguely recognizes either of them—has forced the other to concede. He’s won. But the loser’s covillagers aren’t content to let the man bow out. Lac squeezes and nudges his way through the mass of bodies so he can hear what’s being said on either side.

            Apparently, the Bisaasi-teri warrior has sustained an injury and can’t go on taking hits. Lac gets close enough to see the frog protruding from his muscle. Seeing it induces a vicarious sampling of the pain, and Lac feels immense pity for all the men around him. He thinks of the braided coils of scar tissue atop so many of their heads—vestiges of club fights—which he’s begun ignoring now that the shock has worn off—despite their efforts to advertise the grotesqueries of their own scalps with carefully groomed tonsures and bright red paint, making the scars look like 3D topographical maps of roiling volcanic fields.

            The fight is declared a victory for the visitors and the first two men are replaced by two more. It looks as though the first combatants in the second arena have finished testing their relative standings as well, and thus there are four new individuals taking and delivering blows in turns.

As Lac stands by watching the men whack each other, listening to the thudding smacks come one after the other into the night, he slowly descends into a shallow mad delirium. Bahikoawa and Indowiwä, though not fighting themselves, are getting quite a workout. The pattern that seems to be emerging has the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri men, being more mature, and having a slight advantage in numbers, dominating the matches. Bahikoawa is having to help his covillagers drag reluctant younger men into the arena, where they give and take a few blows before feigning injury. The visitors get more cocky and boisterous every time, and the hosts in turn threaten to shoot them with arrows. Indowiwä and Bahikoawa watch for such flare ups and shout the men down each time, at least for the moment, and the tournament proceeds.

            Lac notices that when a man collapses beneath the force of a drubbing before delivering the return shots he’s earned, the fighter who replaces him gets to collect on the debt. The reward for winning then is having to take more pummeling from a fresher fighter. The best, strongest fighters get the crap beaten out of them more times, for far longer, and a few of them are already taking their second turns in the arena. Their true reward, though, Lac infers from the cheers. Whenever a man falls, his opponent lifts his arms, leans his head back, rolls his eyes up to flash the whites, and performs a shuffle, like a ruffled grouse trying to impress a mate. Lac can almost hear the voice of Cassius Clay shouting, “I shook up the world!”

            The triumphant fighter is hailed as a killer, a vulture, one who’s truly waiteri—that status most coveted among Yąnomamö men—leading Lac to wonder if their whole lives are traps pushing them again and again into the crucible of violence and pain and bloodshed and broken bones and pierced flesh and internal bleeding. He turns and sees a warrior no one is paying any attention to anymore cough up blood.

            It’s impossible to get a decent headcount with all the milling and maneuvering. Lac guesses there are over a hundred men in the courtyard, perhaps sixty to a side; his mind goes back to those textbook diagrams of dyads representing potential conflicts. But a tournament should be straightforward. Sixty men on either side, sixty fights, victorious village determined. Instead, the young men are cheering from the sidelines without taking their turns, and men with chests already swollen and screaming red step up to take extra turns.

            It’s comical how boastful some of the young men were—how aggressively they drive their comrades on even now—only to refuse to fight when they have the chance. Lac hears Bahikoawa chiding them, attempting to shame them into participating. One finally steps into the ring only to retire after a single blow, complaining of a cracked collar bone, an injury he’d sustained earlier while hunting. The visitors love it, and they tear into the hosts with insults and taunts, making them seethe with impotent rage.

            An hour goes by, then another. Lac doubts he’ll ever get the sound of hammer fist smacking into pectoral flesh out of his head until he dies an old man—assuming he survives this jungle sojourn. The Bisaasi-teri and Karohi-teri want to escalate the contest from chest-pounding to ax-swinging. To Lac’s horror, the visitors—some of them—are eager to oblige. The logic is clear: ax fighting is higher-stakes, but it involves enduring less punishment. The losing side would be more apt to propose it because it’ll allow them to save their chests more beatings—doubly, trebly painful. But the Yąnomamö can’t possibly conduct their ax fights in the same turn-taking manner, or else the fighters better hope they get to go first.

            No matter: here’s Bahikoawa shouting down the idea, viciously haranguing the men who proposed it. Lac is filled with gratitude, and he can almost feel his respect for the Bisaasi-teri headman swelling in his chest.

            “Axes mean dead Yąnomamö all over the plaza,” he yells.

            Now Indowiwä is stepping in to back him up, directing his containment efforts at his fellow Mahekodo-teri. But Lac senses a rising volatility. The headmen are engaged in a struggle they must ultimately lose. And where, Lac wonders, is Rowahirawa? There’s little chance of finding him in this frenzied mess of bodies, not unless he makes a concerted effort. For now, Lac is more concerned with seeing how the dynamics of the tournament function to contain the mounting strife.

            The impulse on the losing side is still to urge a transition to another mode of combat. Lac overhears the men talking about switching to some form of fighting he doesn’t understand—something about flanks, or sides. Is this another stage in a progression that culminates in a shooting war? The growing burden of keeping the peace falls to the headmen, or in Indowiwä’s case the man serving as headman for the occasion. Lac hears a blow landing and turns to see the victim collapse to the ground unconscious. He’s a prominent Bisaasi-teri warrior, one who’s already taken a number of turns in the arena. Bahikoawa is running out of older teenagers to dragoon into the ring to take their paltry one or two shots.

            Both sides erupt into a stupendous roar of triumph tinged with indignation when the man fails to return to his feet. Lac involuntarily shrinks away, sensing the groups have taken a step closer to resorting to violence on a larger, more deadly scale. A man Lac recognizes and believes to be either Bahikoawa’s brother or brother-in-law—they call everyone brother-in-law, including him—steps up to the arena and demands a shift to the other form of fighting. Lac steps back to see what this will entail, as the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri seem perfectly fine with the change.

            The two men square off as before, one taking up an exposed stance and the other measuring the distance with dry runs; only now instead of dropping a hammer fist onto the opponent’s chest, the object is to chop at your rival’s side, low on his torso, between the bottom rib and the top of the pelvis. A kidney shot, Lac thinks, just in time for the meaty slap to ring out through the firelit air. The recipient twists and recoils in pain, and Lac wonders how often the Yąnomamö damage each other’s organs in these contests. At least their blazing red and swollen chests will get a reprieve.

            Still, the side slapping looks much worse than the chest pounding somehow. Your chest is protected by bone and muscle. Stretching out your side to let a man hit you as hard as he can in such a vulnerable spot just seems perverse. Unnatural. The effects of each blow on the participants looks worse too. This really is an escalation more than a mere shift, Lac thinks, one that postpones the outcome perhaps—but probably won’t alter it. Maybe the Bisaasi-teri and Karohi-teri hope the stalling will wear down their rivals. But as far as Lac can tell, the potential for violence is growing if anything.

            The shift takes effect in the other arena as well, and the whole crowd boils up with excitement and raw nerves. The slaps are louder than the chest poundings, and Lac can’t help cringing and shrinking into his shoulders like a frightened turtle every time. The back-and-forths are briefer though, as few of the men are willing to take four hits in a row in such a delicate part of their bodies. How long can this go on, Lac wonders, and what is the next stage after this? Spear chucking from twenty paces? He’s at once appalled by the pointless brutality—what’s at stake aside from pride and village reputation?—and impressed by the weakened but enduring orderliness.

            It dawns on him he’s witnessing a primitive sporting event. Yet if Rowahirawa is to be credited, there is more on the line than bragging rights; villages known for being waiteri suffer fewer attacks, especially if their populations are low. Small villages must project an air of savageness to make up for the paucity of their fighting-age men. Is this the first stage in the evolution of the games played with rubber balls in the large ceremonial arenas built by Mesoamericans from the Olmecs to the Maya to the Aztecs? Archeologists believe these games served as an alternative to war, and at least from the time of the Maya they culminated in the sacrifice of the losing team members. One Aztec carving depicts the men playing with a human head in place of the ball. And how could they possibly know how the Europeans would react to discovering the trees that were the source of that rubber?

            Once more, the cringing and wincing at each blow morphs into a general queasiness and jittery unease. He’s running on straight adrenaline. When the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri returned, he recalls, I was nodding off, with a support post as a pillow. But the gathering is getting more unstable by the minute. The Bisaasi-teri warrior he’s watching is holding his own. What will his covillagers and their Karohi-teri allies do when they realize they’re still going to lose? Bahikoawa’s group looks to be on the verge of a small victory, and the visiting villages are responding too quietly for Lac’s taste. The man from the rival village delivers his blow before taking an inordinate amount of time to position himself to return the favor. The Bisaasi-teri lands his loud smack, and his opponent appears ready to succumb to the excruciating pain. But then he steps back up, and Lac’s gorge gives a lurch. It’s all he can do not to look away.

            The Bisaasi-teri warrior clearly struggles to withstand the pain from the next blow too, but now that it’s his turn again Lac has to restrain himself from running up to insinuate himself between the two men, calling an end to the fight, waving his hand over his head like a referee at a boxing match. Each of the dry runs sends a shockwave of anticipated pain. Then the final wind up, the step, the swing, and the slap. Lac imagines the felt reality of the pain, as agonizing as it must be, comes as a minor relief as the sensation is manifest rather than mentally rehearsed—except he and his fellow onlookers enjoy no such release from their own vicarious pangs. Lac is the only one in the crowd who seems to mind; he lowers his head, hiding behind the hand he brings up to dab his sweat-slicked forehead. The visiting warrior lies on the ground, remaining there against the urgings of his kinsmen and comrades-at-arms. He can’t continue. The Bisaasi-teri have snatched a tiny victory on the road to their inevitable rout. The hatred on both sides is palpable. And Lac is looking for the nearest route out of the shabono so he’s ready when the cauldron finally boils over.

            The Bisaasi-teri do their knee-bouncing, weapon-clacking dance of triumph, but as the next fighter from the visiting side enters the arena, he finds no one there to challenge. Bahikoawa is busy pressing a young man into fighting in the second arena, and already the visitors are remarking on this show of cowardice. When a Bisaasi-teri man finally enters the opening at the center of the massed bodies, it’s a mature, burly warrior, but one whose chest is battered from his prior victories of the night.

            This man takes his first side slaps—wind, step, chop—stoically, but by the second round his visage registers the effect in way that couldn’t be exaggerated. His expression, like his body, is stricken, with the bulging eyes of a man who’s seen something horrific he knows he’ll never unsee. Lac has returned to the sideline, and it occurs to him how bizarre it is to be moving around the shabono without being barked at, harassed, or chased away. He turns from the fighters and tries to get a look at all the other men’s faces in the firelight. He sees an intense alertness, a readiness, an anticipating of some signal, or of some line being crossed. He’s never had such a visceral sense of someone else’s state of mind; there’s going to be a battle tonight.

            Lac steps back from the arena just as the Bisaasi-teri warrior falls, gasping for air, unable to continue. The visitors bounce and cheer and clack their bows and arrows overhead. Two more men square off inside the circle of spectators; once again, the Bisaasi-teri warrior is a man who has the livid left pec to prove he’s already withstood a multitude of blows over the previous three hours.

Lac glimpses a man turning abruptly away from the duel, marching purposefully to his yahi, and disappearing into the shadows. When he returns, gripping his bow, an arrow encircled by his index finger, ready to be nocked—nocked, drawn, and released—another man turns and marches to his own yahi. Lac turns back to the fighters and can tell at a glance it’s going to end badly for the Bisaasi-teri warrior.

Slap delivered, a disruption of postures and positions, then a reordering and fixing of stances, then another slap—it’s almost like a dance, a hellishly choreographed churning, a painful performance of pandemoniac sublimation, a dampening of murderous impulse, tragically temporary in its capacity to pacify. The Bisaasi-teri warrior falls. Lac sees another man returning from his yahi with a fire-ready arrow. He knows what they’re doing. They’re replacing their arrow tips with the lanceolate, curare-dipped barbs used for killing enemy warriors. 

An uproar ensues. Bahikoawa is back, encouraging a younger man to fight. It can only have been ten minutes maybe since the side-slapping began, and already the Bisaasi-teri are eager for another transition, another escalation. The visitors are winning—and they’re such assholes it’s outrageous. Intolerable. They’ve been stealing food all week. They’ve been disrespectful. There’s even something fishy about the way they’ve been conducting themselves in this tournament.

Bahikoawa succeeds and another fight begins, but whereas the earlier bouts had a distracting and mollifying effect, every blow landed in this one nudges the partisans closer to the brink. Lac thinks he should leave. He also thinks he would hate himself if he does, that what he really should do is stay and observe the outcome, keep trying to get some decent pictures—be an anthropologist, earn that damned A he painted on his chest before dancing into the plaza earlier.

Standing there, afraid for his life, Lac smirks, and then he throws his head back and barks with laughter. Only a few Yąnomamö turn to see what the crazy nabä finds so funny, because they all have more pressing matters.

Did I really paint a scarlet letter A on my chest?

He feels a hand clutching his arm. The combination of exhaustion and prolonged panic is making him slaphappy. “Shaki! You should move.” Rowahirawa turns him around by the arm and almost frogmarches him away from the arena. Lac glances over when they pass a fire and sees that Rowahirawa’s chest has an ugly raised swelling—a scarlet egg—bubbling out from his chest. He tries to see if there’s a welt on his flank too, but he’s on the wrong side and they’ve arrived at a yahi.

Rowahirawa shoves him toward a pile of firewood. “Watch from here,” he says before disappearing into the dusty orange glow amid the bronze shoulders and backs. When the bodies shift and adjust between each fighter’s turns, Lac can glimpse them dimly. But it’s when a warrior falls in the more distant arena that all semblance of order crumbles. Lac watches as men rush about, rearranging their groupings; the Bisaasi-teri and Karohi-teri coalescing on one side against the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri on the other. There are some women and children cowering behind the visitors.

So they aren’t all in hiding. Why the hell would the men risk bringing them?

He hears more women crying as the men continue running back and forth from their yahis to switch out their arrowheads. The moms are tearfully dragging their kids outside the shabono, where they’ll try to vanish together into the forest.  

Lac’s heart bangs against his sternum like a piston, but he doesn’t fully experience the horror of his predicament. The tension has been there for so long—overwhelming at first, then all but gone, then back at full tilt—he’s surfing atop it now, borne along on the surging immensity. He’s panting. He’s fumbling with the cameras. The chorus of inscrutable shouted threats and accusations startles him. He can’t see much beyond the line of backs formed by the Bisaasi-teri and Karohi-teri men some distance away from the yahi where he’s hiding. He hopes the shortage of mature men will have a diminished role in determining the outcome of a battle of bows and arrows.

Though, once the shooting starts, his best bet either way will be to sneak out and sprint to his hut. His eyes gravitate toward the passage outside. He has to resist an urge to run for it now; he thinks he’d likely make it. On the other hand, he could be turned into a human pincushion the moment the Yąnomamö see him running. He can’t even be sure it won’t be the Bisaasi-teri who do it, killing the cowardly nabä for a small bit of catharsis.

Feeling halfway protected by the distance and the dynamic mobile wall of men separating him from the enemy villagers, he stands and tries to move to a better vantagepoint. An arc of Bisaasi-teri and Karohi-teri warriors half surrounds the visitors; the men in front have their bows drawn. Everyone has his bow drawn. Bahikoawa and Indowiwä are in the no man’s land separating the two sides, urging them to lower their arrows and back down. He hears and half-heartedly translates phrases about future feasts and trading, endless raiding, many men killed, something about eating ashes. Ashes?

Indowiwä looks to be giving up, leaving Bahikoawa to continue making his case for peace alone. With a piercing collective growl, the enemy surges forward, arrows drawn, clubs raised. Lac swings around, dropping to a squat with his back to the firewood.

This is it. All hell breaking loose. You have one mission: stay alive to see Laura again.

Lac hears the line of Bisaasi-teri and Karohi-teri warriors moving closer—falling back toward his hiding spot. He can’t stand not being able to see, so he moves, still crouching, from the wood pile at the front of the yahi to one running along the back. The light is too dim here for anyone to see him, but he’s exposed to stray arrows. The move allows Lac to glimpse a man, he believes from Boreta-teri, wandering away from the fracas, though still alert and still holding an arrow in fire-ready position with his finger.

When this man nears a large fire at the edge of the plaza, he bends down to pick up a smoldering log. They’re going to burn the place down, Lac thinks, and they could easily set fire to my hut afterward. Lac is correcting and calming himself with the assurance that his moist and moldy mud-walled redoubt would not so easily catch fire when the men in front of him push forward with a resounding roar. Amid the screams and cries, he hears the clashing of wooden poles and expects to start seeing bodies falling in clusters, impaled with arrows, bludgeoned with clubs, hacked by axes and machetes. The wall of backs moves forward several steps, stops, and then presses forward again.

Lac realizes the arrows haven’t started flying. He plots the course he would take to get out, and, seeing it dark and unobstructed, proceeds to skip and sidle at a clip around through the series of yahis. He’s covered some distance—still has a long way to go—when the plaza goes quiet, not silent, but noticeably hushed. He moves from the shadows to the edge of the courtyard and sees that the man picking up the glowing firewood isn’t alone. Three other men are holding burning logs and sticks and together backing their way toward the passage out of the shabono.

That’s where I’m heading, assholes!

He notices something more. The Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri are giving ground, though you wouldn’t know it from their forward-facing, attack-ready positions. Lac has been thinking the battle is already joined. He saw men swinging clubs. But no one is fighting now. Once the torchbearers are in place to light the way out, a call is given and all the visiting villagers move, subtly at first, then all at once, toward the passage. They’re filing out, back into the dark clearing surrounding the shabono. They must know where they’re going—probably to the same camp they used last week. Or will they avoid that because it’s predictable? Either way, they must’ve had this retreat planned all along, or something like it anyway.

Lac rises to his full height and steps into the plaza to watch the visitors leave the Upper Bisaasi-teri shabono, still putting on their displays of ferocity.

So there isn’t going to be a battle after all? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Lac laughs loud enough for several of the warriors to be made aware of his location. He’s past caring. He falls to his knees and just laughs and laughs, as tears stream down his cheeks, until the last of the visiting warriors has disappeared through the passage out into the darkened jungle.   

            Lac wakes before Laura. The Yąnomamö start crawling from their hammocks before dawn so they can have their gardening done before the air grows ripe to bursting with the midday heat. Carpet underfoot. Tile. He’s had to swim up through layers of disorientation, disbelief, and outright shock before returning to wakefulness in this bizarre place, like a distantly remembered dream. How have these people managed this, he marvels: the ruler-straight edges and clean angles and soft smooth surfaces, the invisible unfelt air, the near complete absence of odors aside from pleasant dustings of can-sprayed flowery essences, or pine, or musk—or acerbic sterilizing chemicals?

            How have these people managed these forever expanding structures in endlessly proliferating numbers, the hard-paved, fleetingly immortal roads connecting giant clusters of blocky edifices in patterns you can only discern from altitude, as if they were lain out by some designer on high. Lac couldn’t see much through the small window of the cargo plane from La Esmeralda, but what he saw was enough to stupefy him. I can’t go into that, he thought. Where is there a place for humans—real humans—in all that? If I go in there, I’ll be lost and never find my way out. It’s a habitat for far more rational beings, mathematical beings. It’s a habitat for machines and buildings, parsed by asphalt trails for transporting lifeless materials, festooned with drooping parallel wires conveying meaningless information.

Only upon closer inspection do you see it’s infested with humans, lousy with them. It’s impossible to believe all this concrete and glass built into eternal geometric features of the landscape could be for the people, made by the people, extensions of their collective aspirations and daily strivings—and for most of them it really isn’t. Most of them have very little to do with it, other than having to habituate to its looming presence. What was the trick they lighted on to make it possible for so many to cooperate on this grand of a scale, on a project that would benefit so few?

            They live out their brief existences like ants wondering among enormous trees, dazzled all the while by this sturdy illusion of permanence and order. He leaves Laura to her sleeping, placing an open palm on the door to quiet its impossibly precise sealing. Everything here is perfectly measured and shaped. Nothing out of place. He goes back to Boca Mavaca, back to Bisaasi-teri, tomorrow, and he still needs to write a letter to send along to Ken Steele with the items destined for the museum—arrows, barbed tips, potsherds, a basket.  

            What will he write about? Better start with something lighthearted, like the dancing, like how he put on a loincloth, painted himself in red As, and danced into the Shamatari village he visited with a group from Bisaasi-teri days before motoring downriver to the airstrip in La Esmeralda, about how they not only notice him now as something other than a humanoid pest but have begun treating him like Elvis, trying to get him to dance all the damn time. Lac savors a fleeting smile. He’s in a carpeted hallway. Even a hundred years ago, this building’s amenities would have been the height of opulence. Now, it’s mundane. We treat the engineered indoor climate and the telephones and the cars as mainstays, even us commoners. The bathroom he steps into seems like pure overkill—the melodramatic fanfare of the flushing toilet. I just need to piss, he thinks. Is all this necessary?

            Stepping back into the hallway, he thinks, it’s 1965 and ours is the first generation to dream down toward the clouds, as he realized in the cargo plane that swooped down and plucked him up from the jungle—dreaming down on them instead of dreaming up to them, with no hope of seeing what lies on top. They really are their own layer, just as the Yąnomamö imagine, only not solid, and with no departed souls occupying their occluded surfaces.

No, no, be accurate, he thinks. What the Yąnomamö believe isn’t that their ancestors live atop clouds, but that the clouds are part of what makes up the bottom of the next layer up.

Lac thinks the dreaming down business too lofty an observation to share with Ken. What he’s really preoccupied with is the question of whether he should warn his friend about what it’s like seeing your wife after even a couple months in the field. Lac had conversations with Laura in his head throughout each day while he was in Bisaasi-teri. Seeing her at the entrance to the research facility, though, it was like they hadn’t seen each other in years. It’s true, he thinks, the man who went up the Orinoco, while still the same man, has undergone some changes, more than he would have if they’d stayed in Michigan the whole time for sure, more than he would have if he’d been doing pretty much anything else, anywhere else in the world.

He sits down at a desk in an office. The accommodations for visiting scientists and their families are impressive. He briefly wonders where the funding comes from, but now he’s got the paper loaded in the typewriter with his fingers on the keys. Ken still knows the Yąnomamö as the Waica, a name whose source Lac has yet to track down; he suspects it was imposed by outsiders, and probably has some disparaging connotation.  

The village I’m living in really thinks I am the be-all and end-all, he writes. He explains how he broke the final ice by participating in their dancing and singing. They want to take me all over Waicaland to show me off. He goes on to describe the tournament he witnessed, keeping to the dry details. Then he stops typing and sits back in the chair. How nice something as commonplace as a sturdy padded chair seems now.

He searches his mind for the imaginary Laura he had all those conversations with, reasoning that this purely mental version of her must have simply gone off on a slightly skewed trajectory through time—off by a few degrees but traveling long enough to put some significant distance between it and the flesh-and-blood version who stuck to her own timeline. But he can no longer find her where she was all those times when he was out in the field. The imaginary and the real versions have collapsed into one, as out of step as they were.

The worst was the half-suppressed panic in her eyes, the desperate searching for the man she knew in the visage of this figure being presented to her as her husband. However much the two versions of her had diverged—well, he can’t conceive what it must be like for her to confront this new version of him. Padre Morello was right. This reunion, however brief and logistically thorny, was eminently necessary. It’s also disturbingly difficult. He feels like as much of a stranger to himself in her presence as he must seem to her. When he finally finishes his year and a half of fieldwork, he’s going to have to learn how to be himself all over again—just as he’s currently learning to be, not a Yąnomamö version of himself exactly, but enough like one to live and do his work among them.

He sits forward to write about how Yąnomamö conflicts—if they don’t go straight to club fighting—escalate from chest-pounding to side-slapping to head-clubbing, then possibly onto deadlier and more indiscriminate modes of combat. He’s careful to emphasize the functionality of the practices.

“You’ve been off on cloud nine ever since you came back,” Laura said to him when they were finally alone in the bedroom. So strange to hear the woman you love speaking words you haven’t encountered in months, using a language so alive with subtle meanings, every phoneme a key on a grand piano.

“Honey, there’s going to be a period of adjustment, and I—.”

“—And what is this tongue-clicking business all about?”

Lac knows all about the Yąnomamö’s use of clicks; he just wasn’t aware he’d picked it up himself. “It’s one of the ways the Indians signal approval when someone’s speaking. I guess I’ve been imitating them without realizing it”—raising the question of how else he’s unwittingly come to resemble his subjects.

“I’m not one of your Indians, Lachlan”—his own name on her lips, like an effigy carved from wave-sculpted driftwood. “You understand the difference, right? I mean, you can still make the distinction?”

He sympathizes. She didn’t sign up for this. Go to Venezuela so your husband can wander through the jungle, sure. But this transformation, this deterioration, wasn’t part of the bargain. He tries to explain how when solitude is hard to come by you carve out your own private space in your mind, so even as your body is being harassed and abused, your thoughts carry on their own narratives and conversations. “I’ve been withdrawing into myself, I suppose. Laura, you have to understand—.”

“—You’ve always had that problem. I hate to see your time with the Indians making it worse.”

He ponders it, worrying all the while about his silence and the meaning it conveys. Think out loud, he tells himself. “You may have a point,” he says. “Maybe even as I’m working so hard to force my way into their culture, I’m simultaneously busy pulling back, dropping a curtain and peaking around it to make my observations while keeping safely hidden.”

“I appreciate that you may need to drop that curtain. Lachlan, just remember to come out once in a while. And don’t hide behind it when you’re with me.”

Lac writes a final paragraph covering all the concerns that are foremost on his mind: As pleased as I am to have an opportunity to do fieldwork among a truly primitive people, it affects you. Civilization looks different on reentry. He almost writes, It takes a toll on you, but decides against it. The thing that’s truly at the forefront of his thoughts is the list of all the events and ceremonies and rituals and journeys he’s missing, trapped in this infinite series of boxes within boxes. Sitting back, he thinks, it’s not just space we’re so desperate to partition into blocks; it’s time as well, every day like a row of twenty-four Russian dolls. Open an hour and you find a minute. Open a minute and you have a few moments, each with the potential to become a memory: a whole life segmented and lived as a steady accumulation, one small piece at a time. It doesn’t feel like that in Bisaasi-teri, although he’d be hard-pressed to figure out how it could possibly be otherwise. It just doesn’t feel the same when he’s there, among the Yąnomamö.

And he’s anxious to get back. 

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More anthropology and Chagnon stuff for the meantime:

Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

Napoleon Chagnon's Crucible and the Ongoing Epidemic of Moralizing Hysteria in Academia

The Feast: He Borara Chapter 7

masiri bark trough for date - plantain soup
(13,421 words. Or start from He Borara Chapter 1.)

        Monou-teri came into being when it fissioned off from Bisaasi-teri some years ago, after a conflict over a woman. Or maybe the village was just getting too big, too many people in one shabono for the rules governing interactions between individuals with various kinship ties to maintain the peace. In anthropology textbooks, there are these diagrams showing how the potential for conflicts—the number of dyads—grows exponentially as population increases. With two people, there can only be one set of combatants, but add a third group member and you have three potential fights. Add a fourth and you have six. Simple math and probability militate against high population density, unless the culture somehow adapts to accommodate the larger numbers peaceably.

Will one of the villages in this jungle master the trick?

Explorers like Hiram Bingham and Percy Fawcett came to the Amazon hoping to find lost civilizations, cities that would put Tenochtitlan and Chichén Itzá to shame. Bingham discovered an otherworldly temple complex high in the Peruvian Andes. Fawcett later found immortality by way of mysterious disappearance. But the civilizations of the Inca, the Maya, and the Aztecs arose mostly outside the jungle. The earliest explorers couldn’t fathom how the soil beneath a forest so lush could have such limited productive capacity. They considered the rise of a large and complex agricultural society all but inevitable. Early homesteaders quickly learned, however, that the soil underfoot was different from that supporting the flora of forests in temperate regions.

The jungle is divided between a wet season and a dry season: dry in summer—November to April—and wet in winter—May to October. The trees don’t follow the four-season cycle North Americans are familiar with: their leaves dying, falling to the ground, decomposing, and then re-sprouting and replenishing every spring—which eliminates one of the main sources of nutrients for the soil. What you have on the jungle floor instead is fungus living symbiotically with the surrounding trees, intermingling with their roots. And ants. Everywhere you look, more ants. Nothing that dies out here keeps its nutrients long; they’re quickly channeled away to some other living substance. The ground absorbs next to nothing, while every living thing strains upward, toward the sun. Whatever dies helps boost something still alive higher into the air.

The Yąnomamö rely on slash-and-burn techniques for their gardens, but they have to relocate them every few years when the soil becomes depleted. They have to build new curving lines of yahis into a circular shabono every few years as well, as the roofs of the old ones become thickly infested with cockroaches and other pests. For intensive agriculture, you’d have to burn down a swath of forest large enough for your entire plot, then you’d have to move on after one or two harvests, constructing new homes and communal building works every time. Plenty of people in Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia are busy mowing their way through the rain forest in this fashion even now, spot farming, bouncing from plot to plot, collapsing the ecosystem a piece at a time. Conservationists going all the way back to Lac’s beloved Humboldt have worried that if new methods aren’t found, the jungle may soon cease to exist. Then there are the loggers and cattle farmers using up their own share of the land—if you can say it’s their own.

It isn’t as though the Yąnomamö are driven by some inborn environmentalist instinct to “live in harmony with the land”—that hackneyed expression you so often come across while reading about Native Americans. That’s just more noble savage nonsense. Rather, they’ve never reached the numbers that would necessitate intensive farming of the sort we civilized people have come to depend on. Their modest gardens continue to grow once they’ve moved on, however transformed the flora, and Lac has traveled with the Bisaasi-teri on a few occasions to harvest rasha fruits from palm trees in abandoned gardens, a delicate, dangerous process that involves a pair of A-frame contraptions to help the climber avoid the spines sticking out from the trunk. It also involves watching your every step closely to avoid snakes.

It’s not the productive potential of the soil that limits the growth of Yąnomamö populations; it’s their ability, or lack thereof, to get along with each other. Bisaasi-teri is preparing to play host to two other groups, and tensions will most likely occur between families from the distant villages, but Lac can see how problematic it would be to sustain such a density of people for any length of time even without the outside groups temporarily residing here. Perhaps, were it not for their waiteri ethos, amity would be easier to maintain. But group cohesion is generally supported through kinship, and with this many people kinship ties inevitably attenuate. When the bonds of family are strained beyond their limit, a strong leader, a despot backed by a large and well-supplied lineage, must step in to hold the group together. Or else it breaks apart, fissions, as Upper Bisaasi-teri has from Lower Bisaasi-teri—though these two villages continue to live side-by-side, or he borara, as the Yąnomamö call it. Apparently, this is common for groups that fission owing to inner tensions—set off by conflicts over women—but that still rely on each other for a modicum of safety from attack by larger rival groups.

Like all families, they need each other, even if they can’t stand each other.

Thus, some years ago, a contingent that would call themselves Monou-teri severed off from the larger village of Bisaasi-teri. What group did Bisaasi-teri fission away from originally? If Rowahirawa can be believed, Bisaasi-teri was borne of Patanowä-teri. After the separation, the group moved south, and soon, out of necessity, began trading with their new neighbors, trying to make friends. One of the villages they began this process with was Konabuma-teri, and the alliance got off to a promising start.

Then Bisaasi-teri children started getting sick and dying in suspicious numbers. The shaboris, failing to save so many kids, knew there must be powerful magic involved. Suspicion fell on the village’s new allies, and soon it was a known fact that the Konabuma-teri shaboris were sending malevolent hekura to steal the children’s souls.

One day, a Konabuma-teri browähäwä, oblivious of the sickness and death, arrived alone outside the shabono to trade with his new partners. He was accepted into the courtyard, where he took up the rigidly erect and gaudily impassive visitor’s pose. Then he was taken to the yahi of one of the village’s own browähäwäs, where he lay in a hammock, one hand on his chin, one hand tucked behind his head, with his legs outstretched and his feet crossed one over the other, staring blankly off in the distance, a position Lac has taken to calling the visitor’s repose. It’s like they’re strutting even while they’re lying down.

Finally, as per custom, the visiting trader was offered a gourd filled with date—a sweet pudding made of mashed plantains. That’s when the attack came. A village man whose son had recently succumbed to the epidemic walked over to the visitor, lifted an old blunted ax head crudely hafted to a carved branch over his head, and brought it down, burying it, albeit shallowly, in the squatting man’s skull. The visitor stood and tried to nock an arrow, but staggered and fell, bleeding to death in the plaza outside his host’s yahi. Later, some old women from Konabuma-teri came to collect his body so it could be ritually cremated.

The Bisaasi-teri were savvy enough to avoid further dealings with this man’s village in the wake of the killing, but the men of Konabuma-teri were clever enough to recruit a third group to help them get revenge. This third group invited Bisaasi-teri to a feast: men, women, and children alike. No sooner had the entrance ceremony wrapped up, with the men entering and striking their visitors’ poses before being led to the hammocks of the local bigwigs, than they were fallen upon by men with arrows, machetes, and axes. It was a nomohori, an ambush, a dirty trick, and when the Bisaasi-teri men fled outside the shabono, they ran into a fusillade of arrows from the Konabuma-teri, who were hiding in the forest waiting for them to flee from the fracas. Had the attackers not been preoccupied with kidnapping as many women as they could, every last Bisaasi-teri man might have been killed. As it happened, over a dozen of them met their doom, including Bahikoawa’s father.

After the attack, the surviving Bisaasi-teri wandered the Mavaca Basin, knowing if they returned to their old shabono and garden they would be at risk of further attacks. Eventually, they wandered to a village on the Orinoco that had been named Platanal by the Catholic missionaries, an apt Spanish word meaning the place where plantains are harvested. The Mahekodo-teri took them in, demanding some of their greatly diminished number of women in return for their hospitality. It was a deal the Bisaasi-teri couldn’t afford to refuse. They stayed for close to a year, thoroughly wearing out their welcome, at which point a strange, very pale nabä encouraged them to move downriver to the region where the Mavaca empties into the Orinoco.

This pale man’s name was Chuck Clemens, Bahikoawa informed Lac, one of his few helpful contributions to Lac’s inquiries. He’ll have to ask Chuck about all this, about whether he has exact dates recorded somewhere. He guesses it would have been in the late 1940s, as Europe was recovering from its own much larger-scale war and America was entering a golden age of science and commerce.

Bisaasi-teri managed to not only set up camp and begin a new garden at the mouth of the Mavaca, the thick clouds of bareto and mosquitoes notwithstanding, but thrive and grow their numbers—perhaps partly owing to the many axes and machetes given to them by the missionaries. Lately, word has been spreading of how large the village has grown, of how it has split into two villages even, occupying both sides of the Mavaca, with the newer one spilling into a second shabono. And word has spread too of the Bisaasi-teri’s fierceness, the number of waiteri living among them, and how they’ve been throwing their political and military weight around, raiding and kidnapping on a regular and successful basis. Most recently, there are even rumors that Bisaasi-teri has ambitions to start raiding Patanowä-teri, the only village in the region bigger than Mahekodo-teri.

In the past decade, the Salesians have implanted themselves at Platanal, taking advantage of Clemens and his fellow protestants’ temporary absences, and Lac suspects the Mahekodo-teri may be benefitting substantially from the madohe the mission provides them access to. Now, as Rowahirawa explains to him, they hear about how Bisaasi-teri is getting big and earning a reputation for fierceness, so they feel compelled to test this fierceness for themselves, broadcast their disdain, do some bullying, let the villagers here know where they stand in the tribal pecking order.

“Why is Bahikoawa letting them come to the village, offering them so much food, eagerly preparing to trade with them, if their main purpose is to put all of you in your place?”

“Shaki, you idiot! What do you think the Patanowä-teri would do, or any of the Shamatari villages, if they heard Bisaasi-teri knew of the presence of their old friends but didn’t throw them a feast?”

It’s about projecting power, Lac thinks, the people here can’t afford to look weak, to give their rivals the impression that they’re incapable of producing enough food. As it is among individual men, so it is among families, so it is among villages. You cultivate a reputation for being waiteri because if you’re not fierce you’re vulnerable; if you’re not fierce, you become the prop in someone else’s story of dominance and impunity.

Lac and Rowahirawa are sitting on parallel hammocks in his father-in-law’s yahi. Rowahirawa doesn’t think much of Bisaasi-teri, or at least pretends not to. He’s eager to return to Karohi-teri at the first good opportunity. They treat him as an outsider here, wretched and inferior. Maybe he’s responding to this treatment when he acts like such a hothead; though it’s also possible he’s provoking the treatment by being a hothead. There is, Lac acknowledges to himself, something of the air of a rebellious teenager about the man, even though he must be in his early twenties. Lac watches him draw his lips in tightly, pulling the saliva from where the green tobacco has been steeping in front of his bottom teeth. He’s envious, still craving the lift and clarifying kick of a cigarette.

Rowahirawa’s father-in-law meanwhile doesn’t want him to leave; he’s grown accustomed to all the siohoawa, the bride service—mostly the basho meat—his son-in-law provides, and he doesn’t want his daughter to leave either, as she’ll be the one who cares for him as he gets older and less mobile, if Lac understands his concerns correctly. So he’s offered Rowahirawa another of his daughters, one he insists is too young just yet but who may be ready as early as the upcoming wet season. In the meantime, he keeps encouraging Rowahirawa to plant and start tending his own section of the garden, to lay down roots, as it were, in Bisaasi-teri. But Rowahirawa has confided to Lac he plans to leave with both women after the second comes of age. He wants to return to his home village, become a great shabori, and possibly one day headman, so he steadfastly refuses to plant anything.

Lac is keen on seeing how the battle of wills will play out. His money is on Rowahirawa taking both women back to Karohi-teri; whether he’ll become headman there, Lac has no knowledge on which to base a conjecture. But if Rowahirawa leaves Bisaasi-teri, he thinks, I’ll lose my best informant. He still harasses and humiliates me at every opportunity, but his outsider status makes him useful, at some points even congenial.

And the little shit makes me laugh.

The thought of waking up one morning and not finding him sleeping in the hut, and not finding him in his father-in-law’s yahi either, gives Lac a preview of how forlorn he’ll feel, which in turn forces him to recall his past experiences befriending Yąnomamö informants. Rowahirawa is exceptionally useful, though, because he has an intense interest in the people and politics of the various groups in the region, the competitive building of reputations for fierceness, the internecine contests between the lineages, the trading alliances and raiding wars between villages. Lac is keeping his eye open for opportunities to exploit that interest—from simply getting him to expound on intervillage politics and history at length, to perhaps eventually recruiting him as part of his expeditions to distant uncontacted villages, like those in the Shamatari region farther south than the one the Bisaasi-teri men just returned from.

How will his participation in Lac’s projects impact the execution of Rowahirawa’s own plans and ambitions? He’s just returned from Karohi-teri after delivering an invitation to the feast, which will take place in a little over a week. They should arrive about the same time as the Mahekodo-teri and the contingent from Boreta-teri that’s accompanying them. Tensions are high. Excitement is high. Lac doesn’t know how the Yąnomamö can live like this, in this constant state of alarm. It’s no wonder there are so few old men, no wonder the women so quickly lose their looks—well, that and all the dying children.

Lac would like most of all to interrogate Bahikoawa. Maybe his perspective on the upcoming feast, and his reasons for proposing it, are different from how Rowahirawa describes them. Bahikoawa should have all kinds of interesting things to say about Monou-teri and Patanowä-teri as well, but his attitude toward Lac is one of gruff indifference bordering on irritation. Plus, he’s always away from the village, or here but busy shouting at or trying to corral the men, or enjoying his time alone with Nakaweshimi, whose belly protrudes more visibly by the day, its weight sinking lower on her hips, producing the splay-footed duck waddle common to pregnant women everywhere, but with a sort of no-nonsense heedlessness that makes her unique.

Bahikoawa enjoys his younger wife even more, but you can tell he’s not as companionable with her as with his chief spouse. The older pair, while they may not spend as much time together in total, smile at each other and laugh, talking endlessly, bickering mildly. If that were the only relationship whose dynamics he witnessed out here, he’d take away a much different impression of Yąnomamö marriage and the way the men treat the women. As it is, Lac wonders if the headman’s tender feelings, displayed so wantonly, earn the village pata much ridicule or any loss of respect.

How does he manage it?

No one seems to be questioning his authority, such as it is—he’s headman after all, not chief. It’s not like he can go around barking orders anyway. Still, he must’ve earned, must somehow continue to earn, the respect of the browähäwäs. Maybe he killed a lot of people in past raids. Maybe everyone has learned to depend on his judgment. However he manages it, Bahikoawa is so far the only Yąnomamö Lac can say he truly admires—as impressed as he is with Rowahirawa—the only one who gives him hope for the entire tribe, really, as things stand now, for the entire human race.

That’s why it’s so troubling when Lac catches glimpses of him and sees the look of worry on his face. It’s going to be an interesting week.

Participant-observation is the basic method of ethnography. You live among your subjects and you participate in their cultural practices, reporting on the details and their meanings. Lac has built his hut outside Bisaasi-teri, thinking it would be more of a headquarters and warehouse than a home—at least until Laura and the kids arrive—but he’s ended up living out of it. He thought his stay among the people of this village would be temporary, as he learned the language and enough of the basics of the culture to get by. His plan was to concentrate on uncontacted villages, places where the impact of outside forces is minimal—though he anticipates even these remotest villages will have axes, machetes, loincloths, and aluminum pots traded in along the networks.

But here he is, still living with the people Clemens first introduced him to, and not even living with them so much as next to them, he borara.

He’s doing far more observing than participating. Not that he has much choice. The Yąnomamö harass him more when he’s not busy, so he can’t give the impression that he wants for something to do. Though that may just be an idiosyncratic take, he thinks, hearing Laura’s voice in his head. He does interviews. Rowahirawa is helping him learn the finer points of the language—really still helping with the rudiments. But Lac seldom participates in many of the activities he records.

The hunts are grueling. The trips to search out and lug back firewood: also grueling, and they earn him wary looks from some of the men. He sits out the ritual communion with the hekura because he’d rather not have his nostrils and sinuses ravaged by whatever toxins are in that green powder. He’s recently even sat out a trip to a neighboring village because he wasn’t mentally prepared for the standard Yąnomamö examination of his person. At least he’d thought that was why he stayed; now, he suspects it may have owed more to some subtle discouragement from his Bisaasi-teri friends, who were planning a nomohori, or a more standard raid.

So he sits in his hut, concentrates on keeping himself fed a more or less steady diet of peanut butter on crackers, oatmeal with mounds of sugar, augmented with occasional larger meals of rice and sardines—the menu of the modern explorer. But I’m not an explorer, he thinks; I’m an anthropologist. I can’t just sit around watching, interviewing, traveling, and writing about what I see.

The concern will be moot until the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri have come and gone. Then he’ll start looking out for opportunities to dig his hands deeper into more of the cultural substance, whatever that means. He finds himself, as he lies swaying silently in a hammock in the midday heat, thinking about what it would be like accompanying a band of Yąnomamö warriors on a raid. Of course he can’t ever actually do it. If he shows up at a village with a group of guys there to kill one or more people, they’d be perfectly within their rights to kill him in self-defense. So, if he goes, he’ll have to decide beforehand that he can’t fire any lethal shots—he can’t rightly even take his shotgun, or deal any deadly blows. He’d be there, but he’d really just be watching. Observing. Still not participating.

It’s a crazy thought, he knows; he can’t even tag along on such an expedition, no matter how useful the information he could glean. His thoughts next take him to a time yesterday when he went to the woods to shit and found himself watching an ant colony for what felt like hours, because he didn’t want to return to whoever would surely be waiting at his hut to annoy or harass him. What he saw he couldn’t make sense of. Members of a larger, more vicious-looking caste with prominent pinchers were returning single-file along a regular course, only to be killed, their bodies spread-eagled and dismantled section by section, reverse-manufactured, by their smaller, less well-armed brethren. Or were they two different species? The mystery was why the warrior ants let the tiny worker ants kill them without a fight. He wishes he could ask an entomologist about what he was witnessing.

As he squatted there watching, he wove a story in his mind about soldiers coming back from a great battle that ended the larger war for good. Now the colony has no further use for its heroes, so it’s essentially scrapping them for parts, absorbing their precious pismire nutrients back into efforts aimed more directly at reproduction. One generation sacrificing itself for the next, a type of peaceful—but no less deadly—revolution. The bulldog-headed soldiers with their massive jaws have become a liability under the new conditions of peace.

Did Malcolm ever feel like that, like we were disassembling him, stocking away his parts by the entrance of some citadel of sissies? That may be giving him too much credit, a man too practical to express, much less experience, his feelings as metaphors, a man who probably never for a second doubted his standing. Though maybe that’s not giving him enough credit. He comes from a different time, when men bottled their feelings and eschewed navel-gazing because that’s part of what it meant to be a man. Plus, every boy and young man probably believes his dad cuts a formidably impassive figure. He may not be nearly as bad—or as good—in anyone else’s mind as he is in his sons’.

And what, Lac wonders, will Dominic think of me when he’s my age? Maybe manhood will be still more watered down by then, and I’ll be the expressionless, cold-hearted toiler who haunts my oversensitive son’s tumultuous dreams as he goes about his career in some cozy office building.

Chuckling silently, Lac realizes this eventuality would barely bother him, as long as his boy picks up a handful of the manly basics, as long as he doesn’t let anyone push him around.

“Shaki, how many kids did you say you have?” Rowahirawa asks from his own lazily swaying hammock. Lac holds up two fingers. “Ah, don’t worry. You should have a lot more by now, but you said they are both strong. You have time. Not many nabä travel so far to learn how to be human. When you return, you’ll have true renown. You can take another wife.”

Where to even begin explaining my culture to him? Without experiencing it up close, he could never understand. That’s probably true to some degree of anthropology students in the States too; they’ll never fully grasp what it’s like to live among a society like the Yąnomamö. “Brother-in-law, you should come with me when I return to the city sometime—to Caracas-teri. I want to know what you think of it.”   

“A whole village of nabä like you? How do they survive without falling off bridges?” They both laugh. “How do so many sissies keep the women from getting stolen?”

Rowahirawa is obviously ribbing him, but Lac senses some genuine curiosity. They are two vastly different men adapted to life in vastly different cultures. Yet here they are, shooting the breeze, teasing each other, laughing. Lac wants to help him understand. He’s seen planes flying high overhead, vanishingly distant, mere glints in the fathomless blue. He wishes there was one now he could point to.

“Brother-in-law, you would be amazed. We have canoes that travel through the sky called airplanes. You’ll ride one yourself if you go to the city.” Lac wants to describe cars, but how to conjure them for someone who’s never seen a cart or a wagon? He’s seen the Yąnomamö fashion wheels for children’s toys, but they weren’t exactly sophisticated. Giving up on the idea, he says instead, “We have weapons far more deadly than shotguns too, some that you drop from the sky canoes. Men have used them to destroy whole villages.”

Rowahirawa sits up. “Why would you destroy a whole village? Had they staged a nomohori for your village, for Caracas-teri?”

“Caracas-teri isn’t my village. I came from waaay up north, a place called Michigan-teri.” No point in discerning between cities and states. “But, yes, our village, or big bunches of villages rather, stage nomohori on each other when they’re at war.”

“Do the sky canoes go all the way up to hedu kä misi?”

“Yes, they go right to the top of the sky, but there’s a point where you can’t go higher because the sky ends eventually.”

“Of course, you’d crash into the bottom of hedu. Ah, Shaki, I think what you’re saying is not true, but I’ll let you show me sometime.” Lac chuckles. I wouldn’t believe half of what I’m saying either, he thinks. “If you want to see big villages, though,” Rowahirawa adds, “I’ll take you to Patanowä-teri sometime, if we’re not at war. It’s the biggest village I’ve ever seen, double the size of this place, and the men there are waiteri enough to lay waste to whole villages even without your nabä sky canoes. Ha ha. They’re just not stupid enough to do it. They’d rather kill most of the men than all of them, as long as it means getting their hands on more women. Your nabä friends must not like women. Ah, and I’ve heard of a village even bigger than Patanowä-teri. It’s waaay upriver, near where the Mavaca starts, and the pata there is a real killer. He’s the man who truly lives there. He’s killed this many men”—all ten fingers—“and then more after that.”

“You’ve been to this village?”

“No, it’s many sleeps away, but I hear the shaboris there are really close to the most powerful hekura. I would like to go. Maybe you will come along with me. It’s called Mishimishimaböwei-teri.” Now Lac is the one sitting up. “They say the rahara live in the upper regions of the Mavaca, so maybe we can find trails on land.”

“What are rahara?”

“Shaki, you idiot. How do you even survive knowing so little?”

He’s about to tell Lac about the mysterious beasts guarding the Mavaca’s headwaters when they notice a stirring of bodies and a rising din of voices in the direction of Bahikoawa’s yahi. Both men stand up from their hammocks and start walking across the courtyard.

“I think we have visitors,” Rowahirawa says.

Lac freezes midstep, dropping into his customary shallow crouch with the attendant nervous swiveling of his head. “Is it an attack?”

Rowahirawa locks eyes with him, staring at him with intensity. After holding his gaze for two beats, he can no longer keep the smile from pulling the skin taut beneath his eyes. Once the smile fills his face to the brim, it overflows into laughter. “Shaki, how do you even make it through the day? How do you manage to hold onto all that madohe in your hut when you’re so easy to frighten? If they were attacking us, they wouldn’t send word of their arrival—that’s what the browähäwäs are discussing.”

“Maybe it’s a nomohori.”

“Shaki, you idiot. If they were staging a nomohori, then it would be planned for their own village. You get invited; they don’t bring it to you.”

“It could be a new kind.”

“Shut up, Shaki. Let’s go see who’s here. If it’s the Mahekodo-teri, they’re a week early. And the Bisaasi-teri will have to feed the greedy bastards. That’s not going to make the men here happy, and the Mahekodo-teri know it won’t.”

“So it’s intimidation? Why don’t the Bisaasi-teri refuse to play hosts then?”

“Don’t be such a moron. They can’t let it be known they couldn’t meet their obligation to offer food to their guests; that would tell other villages that Bisaasi-teri is weak and incapable of retaliating for raids.”

“So Bisaasi-teri has no choice but to tolerate their bullying?”

“There are ways to push back, if things get bad enough. We’ll see what happens.”

They’re close enough to the cluster of men to hear individual voices resolve out of the cacophony.

“They’ll leave us with nothing by the end of the week. Why would they, if they’re our friends, be so rude to us?”

“Our gardens are overgrown,” Bahikoawa says, “since we’ve been gone two weeks. We’ll be able to feed everyone. We need to begin the heniyomou quickly though. Who wants to go hunting? There’s a spot up the Mavaca where game abounds.”

“Brother, my feet are still in serious pain from the walk home from Reyaboböwei-teri.”

“Brother, I am sick. I must have a shabori rescue my möamo from the hekura.”

“Who then?” Bahikoawa turns his fiery gaze on each of the men in turn. Several agree to go on the hunt—the heniyomou. “Let’s get to the preparations then. I’ll take the Mahekodo-teri to the gardens and help them gather enough food for the camp. The pata says there are enough of them to count as a small village.”

“A whole village, Brother? How will we feed that many?”

“We’ll manage, Brother. Don’t worry.”

A group of men, mostly Bahikoawa’s brothers and nephews as far as Lac can tell, disperses to their yahis to prepare for another trip. The idea of several dozen stranger new faces and bodies raises a lump in Lac’s throat. He thinks back to those diagrams in the anthropology textbooks, weighing the skyrocketing potential for one dyad or another to strain its connecting line, resulting in a violent exchange that will ramify outward across the two-dimensional space of the graph, spreading like a ripple—or a shockwave—until it has disrupted every pairing along the clines of family relatedness.

When he arrived over a month ago, the Patanowä-teri were here visiting and trading with Bahikoawa and his covillagers; the Monou-teri were supposed to have joined in the feast and the trading as well, but, as fate would have it, they stumbled upon the Patanowä-teri women in hiding. They took advantage of the windfall. The more people, the greater the likelihood of conflict. But what Lac fears most are all the lines connecting back to him personally; every new arrival to Bisaasi-teri is another opportunity to be harassed and bullied—and potentially attacked. Another chance that his hut will be looted. His impulse is to lock himself away in there until the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri have become comfortably situated in the shabono and then start circling them from a distance, as inconspicuously as possible, to observe the outcome of this high-tension meeting from the safest possible vantage.

How inconspicuous do you think you can be, he asks himself, a white-skinned nabä wearing strange clothes and fumbling his words? No, you’ll be here in the middle of everything, or at least here on the margin of everything. There will be no hiding in your hut. Those seven Patanowä-teri women showed how effective hiding is. Besides, the lock on your door will pose no barrier to a determined intruder; hiding may provoke a search.

“Brother-in-law,” Lac says to Rowahirawa, who’s still standing beside him, “will the feast end in fighting? What do you think will happen?”

Rowahirawa turns briefly to show him another of his sly grins. Just then, Bahikoawa emerges from the shadow of his yahi with a machete. He stands at the edge of the courtyard and shouts to the rest of the village that the heniyomou is starting, so they’re to take up the amoamo to ensure success in the hunt. Meanwhile, he’ll be seeing to the provisioning of their guests with food from the gardens. Lac is close enough to see the headman’s expression in detail. He looks into it intently, doing his best to decipher its cascading signals; it’s like glimpsing fish as they flash beneath inches of ice.

“Shaki,” Rowahirawa says, “they came with the intention of abducting unguarded women, and now they have to settle for feasting and trading—this from a village they once saved from the brink of extinction. Believe me, whatever the customary formalities, they’re already feeling cheated. They’ll be looking for ways to leave with more than the Bisaasi-teri want to offer. And they won’t worry about being rude in their negotiations; truly, they’ll tell every village they pass on their way back to Mahekodo-teri about how rude they were to the people here.”

“But rude isn’t the same as violent.”

“Rude will be repaid with violence if a way to save face can’t be found. Shaki, much of what transpires during this feast will be determined by how good our pata turns out to be. He knows the visitors want to push his people as close to their limits as they can. He has to find a way to keep this from turning into an all-out battle. But I have a premonition there’ll be some tussles. And maybe the pata wants to show he’s waiteri—but I don’t get that impression.”

Lac walks casually around the courtyard’s periphery, listening to the villagers grumbling about the guests, who must be keen on testing their welcome to show up a week before the official invitation is to be delivered. Their garden is meanwhile being plied by Bahikoawa and the Mahekodo-teri who need food for the week’s camping, and by the men preparing for the heniyomou, the rules of which Rowahirawa explains to him. Certain game species are kosher, the high-quality ones. Again, it’s a give-until-it-hurts exercise. The expectation is that the guest village will host a feast to reciprocate the feast held for them, but the hosts want to make it near impossible for them to match the extravagance. It’s another, slightly more subtle form of intimidation.

Throughout the week of the heniyomou, the women and girls dance the amoamo every evening, giving a magical boost to the hunters. At the end of the week, the hunters return, handing their haul of smoked meats over to Bahikoawa, who will in turn deliver a portion of it to the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri. The rest of the ceremony Lac has seen a few times already, the marching and dancing entrance by twos into the plaza, the visitor’s pose lineup, the visitor’s repose, the offerings of date, the singing and storytelling late into the night, and the trading the next day. The only difference is that those visits were between genuine allies, while the visitors here are known to have been on a mission to kidnap this village’s women.

“Brother-in-law,” he says to Rowahirawa, “what can the Bisaasi-teri do to save face and forestall fighting if the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri keep behaving so terribly?”

“You’ve seen the club fights here.”

“I haven’t actually seen any, but almost.”

“That’s how you settle differences without killing. Before it gets that serious, though, you challenge them to a chest-pounding duel. If you can’t settle the matter with fists and clubs then the arrows will start to fly—or axes and machetes may take the place of clubs. Men will surely be gravely wounded and may die. Not you, though, Shaki. You’re too weak and cowardly to fight. You’ll be locked in your hut or hiding in the yahis, drawing on your white leaves. Maybe you should give me another machete to protect you, or an ax.”

“If anyone attacks me, and you step in to protect me, you can have an ax. How does that sound?”

“Shaki, something tells me I’m going to have a lot of axes before long.”

Bahikoawa returns laden with huge bundles of green plantains. He and some of his nephews start hanging them from the rafters of his and some of the adjacent yahis to ripen. Rowahirawa says this marks the beginning of the heniyomou. While the hunters are away acquiring game—it would be rude to offer vegetable foods without meat—the plantains will ripen until they’re ready to be made into the sweet pudding that will be prepared in troughs the size of canoes. The girls and women dance joyously, one of the few times, it seems to Lac, the distaff side of the village plays a crucial role in a ceremony. The whole week is to be given over to festive anticipation, as people hide their most prized possessions, lest they be pressed to trade them away, and discuss among themselves who they’re most excited to meet for the first time or see again after a span of many years.

Lac, despite his efforts at adjustment—his multiplying failures of relativism—finds himself staring at every dog that comes into view—skinny, tawny, submissive—wondering which of them might be traded to the Mahekodo-teri or the Boreta-teri for mediocre bows or clay pots or tobacco. Dogs among the Yąnomamö are mere possessions, an attitude not unlike the one pushed on him by his dad in his late pre-adolescence. “She’s just a dog, Lachlan. What are you so damned upset about?” As he looks from one to another now, he mutters, “Just a dog,” again and again.

As the morning’s preparations near an end, the Bisaasi-teri men gather to ingest their daily ebene: shot through the long tubes right into one nostril, bursting in a green cloud from the other. The mundanity of this effort to see through the mundane calms Lac; it’s been this way as long as anyone can remember, and how often do entire villages get eradicated? The nomohori that decimated the Bisaasi-teri was close to twenty years ago. It resulted in the deaths of only a couple dozen men—only—yet still, it’s legendary for the scale of its carnage. What are the chances he’d show up at the mouth of the Mavaca just in time to witness or be caught up in another massacre?

Of course, the visitors wouldn’t have to kill dozens to doom Lac personally. One poison arrow would do. One ax swing upside the head. One savage swipe of a machete. Will I, he wonders, be carrying my shotgun the whole time they’re here? I’d be overrun even if I fired and killed some of them. Then they’d have my shotgun. Imagine how that would disrupt the balance of power. It would essentially make whoever wielded it an instant headman. But they wouldn’t know how to load it. Would they figure it out, given enough time? Rowahirawa has certainly seen me do it enough times; he must at least have the basic idea.  

Anyway, he thinks, it’s only a matter of time before they start getting guns from the loggers and ranchers pushing into the territory. That’s if the Church doesn’t decide to start supplying them before that. This line of thinking brings a wave of nauseating despair. He looks over to see the men doubled over and wincing from the jolting delivery of their drug. A couple have already begun their chanting invocations, inviting the tiny hekura to descend from their mountain redoubts and enter their acolytes’ chests. They’ll need the hekuras’ help over the coming week. He wonders if any of the Bisaasi-teri will send their spirits after the visitors camped outside. Will the visitors send their own hekura back to retaliate? Or is some spiritual truce in effect for the duration of the heniyomou and feast?

That evening, several young women and men sing and dance the amoamo. Tomorrow the hunters will leave by canoe—on Lac’s suggestion, via Rowahirawa as intermediary—to travel upriver to their prime hunting location. Lac had thought in practical terms: if they can cross the rivers, they can travel on them too, and I may curry some good will by offering up such a helpful idea. Now he wonders if it was wise to encourage a more far-reaching use of the foreign technology, a use whose impact will be much more unpredictable.

They would have figured it out on their own eventually.

So he sits on a stump watching the dancers and reflects on the history and evolution of music. It strikes him as odd that the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri remain ensconced in their camp, its own village essentially: odd because dancing together could only foster greater harmony among the groups. And isn’t that the ultimate purpose of the feast? You establish and maintain trading to secure alliances, Rowahirawa’s cynicism notwithstanding.

The dance is a missed opportunity.

Lac listens, trying, with scant success, to parse the lyrics. The singing sounds to his ear like more of a rhythmic talking. It lacks many of the embellishments of Western song, the terms for which he has no knowledge of, even those of its less sophisticated genres. They have no instruments, other than their stamping feet. They’re singing words of encouragement, it becomes clear, and wishing the hunters good fortune. The sentiment is still competitive as opposed to harmonious. The optimal outcome will be for the Bisaasi-teri to procure enough meat and harvest enough bananas, palm fruits, and other plant foods to put on a feast the likes of which could never be adequately repaid, thus establishing the host group as the dominant partner in the alliance.

The back-and-forth, up-and-down cadence of the song takes some time to capture Lac, who tries to force himself not to experience it as irritating. The young villagers’ exuberance is on fine display, but there’s an undertone of plaintiveness that reminds him more of a recalcitrant child—“I don’t want to go to school”—than of the modern troubadours singing their songs of unrequited love over the radio back home. Before long, though, he’s unwittingly bobbing his head to the rhythm; it will be difficult to get the singing out of his head later.

These lyrics, he realizes, may be almost entirely improvised; it’s not like they’re written down anywhere. How well do the words scan with the simple alternating beat they’re keeping? One day, a graduate student, perhaps one of his own, will come to the field to focus solely on studying the tribe’s music—an ethnomusicologist.

That’s if the Indians are still here, still living their traditional lifestyles. He remembers his tape recorder, locked away in his trunk, and curses himself. But then he recalls the dance, the amoamo, will take place every night of the heniyomou, until the hunters return in about a week.

He thinks back to his observations about the men running like gazelles through the jungle understory, how every step and every swing of the arm, every adjustment of balance and trajectory appears deliberate, part of some larger choreographed expression of desire and deftly efficient execution. With Laura in Ann Arbor, he saw ballets and other exotic forms of dance that possessed a similar quality, though these were performed with far more abstract aims—the composition of some wordless multisensory artistic vision. This dance is like neither the hunt that reminded him so much of Cassius Clay’s light-footed fight style, nor the precisely synchronized feats of any prima ballerina. It appears rather more like a mere celebration of movement and youthful vigor. It’s running and stopping, marching forward and back, bouncing overly high on the balls of their feet, simple, extemporized, more fun than professional, nowhere near as serious as any hunger-fueled chase.

And now Lac, despite himself, is thinking of the word primitive and considering the propriety of its use. His mentors, the deliverers of the one-two punch that landed him squarely in the anthropology degree program, the culmination of which he’s now living out, Dr. White and Dr. Service, along with Dr. Carniero later—these men wouldn’t question the appropriateness of the word. They see societies as evolving through somewhat predictable stages of organizational and technological complexity. Lac has heard other scholars, though, even some at U of M like Dr. Sahlins, suggest referring to societies as primitive violates Boaz’s central dictum: aren’t we treating our own civilization as superior, more advanced, even if only by implication, the measuring stick against which other societies must be compared, the one whose accomplishments everyone else will inevitably fall short of? And isn’t this the essence of ethnocentrism?

There’s an inescapable logic to this point Lac finds both troubling and seductive. But it’s not a scientific point, he understands now. Cultural relativism is one of those first principles, a philosophical stance that, as helpful and admirable as it may seem, must be subordinated to observed reality—must be tested against the evidence to weigh its validity. But that raises another troubling question: observation forms the ground on which he’ll erect his theories, but how far can he trust his perceptions? How much of his response to this dance, for instance, is purely subjective? And what the hell does he know about dancing anyway?

He watches the young girls; they’re enjoying themselves, smiling with the vacant stare of immersion. He seldom sees the women enjoying themselves. But then it’s usually the men whose states of mind concern him, like the men from the rival villages outside, the ones who showed up early, violating the protocols, not waiting for the proper invitation. Why would they do that unless Rowahirawa is right and they’re irked about their former refugee charges becoming so politically important in the region. How has that rise come about? You’d think they would have been risking decimation from malaria, what with all the mosquitoes. But then the Malarialogìa regularly operate out of the hut across the river, so maybe that risk was mitigated.

Maybe the location of Bisaasi-teri, right in the middle of so much action—accessible for trading, tricky to surreptitiously attack—was what gave them a leg up over the past decade. Maybe Bahikoawa is an exceptionally good leader, he and his uncle, who’s in charge in Lower Bisaasi-teri. The presence of Clemens and the New Tribes Mission wouldn’t hurt either, as it means a supply, however irregular, of steel goods. Still, the Mahekodo-teri would benefit similarly from the Salesians at Platanal.

So who knows? It’s another question to add to his growing list of mysteries to be on the lookout for clues to solving.

It’s early evening at the mouth of the Mavaca. Even with the singing and dancing, there’s a peacefulness in the air, a stillness about the shabono. Lac decides to go back to his hut while there’s still light; he doesn’t want to risk an encounter with whoever or whatever lurks unseen in the shadows over the thirty or so yards separating his stronghold from the village entrance. How much, he wonders, do the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri know about my madohe? The six men who passed through, the ones who must’ve alerted their covillagers to the presence of unprotected women here—they certainly saw plenty of useful steel tools. He decides some extra fortification of his door is in order, and as usual he’ll be sleeping with his shotgun near at hand.

He sees Rowahirawa milling about and chatting with some other men. “Brother-in-law,” he says as he passes, “I’m going to my hut for the night. You’re welcome to hang your hammock there tonight too, but I’ll be barricading the door soon.”

Rowahirawa looks at him and smiles—he’s always ready with one of his damn grins—making Lac suspect he’s either already the butt of some joke or about to be. “Shaki, don’t worry. You’re so weak and pathetic the Mahekodo-teri are definitely planning to loot your hut. But I’ll protect you in exchange for a machete.” A couple of the men laugh.

“You’ll protect me”—Lac searches for the words to express his thought—“because if the Mahekodo-teri loot my hut, then I won’t keep returning with more machetes in the future.”

Rowahirawa clicks his tongue, chuckles, and says something like, “There may be hope for you yet, Shaki.”

So far, Lac’s only successes in turning away bullies like Rowahirawa demanding his possessions have come from shouting and yelling at least as loud and aggressively as the demands were delivered. Now he’s pulled off a far subtler deterrent, meaning he’s either learned some of the nuances of the language, or Rowahirawa has learned some of the nuances of his own character.

The hunters returned yesterday. Today is the day of the feast, and rumors are going around that the visitors have been sneaking into the gardens and helping themselves to the locals’ produce. First, there was a moment of panic earlier this week when one of the hunters returned midway through the heniyomou. The men had underestimated how much food they’d need for the week, so this one returned to replenish their supply. Everyone was relieved to hear, however, that the hunt was going well, and the men all returned yesterday with quite an impressive haul. Lots of the large black monkeys the Yąnomamö call basho, whose tails they turn into headbands, along with several armadillos and turkeys. They brought it all back smoked and wrapped in these basketball-sized wicker bundles, leaving them stacked up in front of Bahikoawa’s yahi.

He ignored the bundles at first—this strange reticence surrounding the giving and receiving of gifts, an awkward ambivalence that will spill into full-blown petulance tomorrow during the intervillage trading. Bahikoawa only gradually began directing more of his attention to the wicker balls, and eventually he got around to unwrapping some to prepare the meat inside for an offering to the guests, the delivery of which marks the official invitation to the day’s feast. The Karohi-teri have yet to arrive, but the men have decided to hold a separate feast for them tomorrow or the day after. As Rowahirawa explains, after the trading tomorrow, the visitors will be obliged to move on. It’s commonplace for host villages to get rid of guests who’ve overstayed their welcome and become moochers by throwing a feast in their honor, because custom dictates they leave afterward—feast, trade, then get the hell out.

The Bisaasi-teri can’t be rid of the two visiting villages camped together outside soon enough, as they’ve been making gluttons of themselves all week, ravaging the gardens in the process. The men don’t know how much longer their produce can support their open-ended generosity—especially since the visitors seem bent on stretching that capacity beyond its limits to humiliate them. Lac heard Bahikoawa lamenting the lost opportunity to build an alliance, one that could entail joint raids against enemies like the Patanowä-teri. The more likely outcome of this gathering is deepening animosity. Indeed, the headman is already trying to come up with ways to prevent violent conflicts should the intimidation tactics intensify.

Lac has wandered around the outskirts of the visitors’ camp; it’s impossible to count them precisely, but he sees a definite preponderance of mature adult men. Mahekodo-teri is a huge village, and with the Boreta-teri joining their ranks, it would be difficult for the two Bisaasi-teri villages to match them for sheer strength of numbers, even with the Karohi-teri at their side. It seems to Lac, who’s been busy with his best attempt at a thorough census as part of a drawn-out preparation for his genealogical project, that the villages on either side of the Mavaca have too many young men, adolescent boys who Rowahirawa insists have little or no experience fighting.

Lac has the sense from all the conversations he’s been circling that he’s not the only one sizing up the two sides of the larger grouping. He was rather one of the last to begin doing so, and were he not to have taken up the accounting of each side’s relative strength, that’s what he would have been alone in. So, if everyone is doing the same comparisons, and if they’re arriving at the same conclusions, should he expect the visitors to press the advantage both groups suspect they possess? Does the perceivable imbalance portend conflict?

Before he has time to work out an answer—and a plan for if the answer is yes—a great collective shout goes up, and all the villagers turn their attention to the passageway alongside Bahikoawa’s yahi, where the first of the Mahekodo-teri will enter to officially accept the invitation and bring the first offering of food outside to where his covillagers are decorating and preparing to enter. The man who enters is decked out in full regalia: his head rounded by the basho-tail headband and his thick shining sable hair dusted with small white feathers, his body painted with squiggly red lines the width of a couple fingers, wearing not a cotton belt with a string for tying up his penis by the foreskin, but a slightly faded red loincloth, an item Lac figures must have been given to him—or traded—by the Salesians at Platanal. The hoots and mad tongue-clicking and swooping howls ignite the swollen air over the shabono. Lac becomes hyperaware of his location in the plaza and desperately scans his surroundings for a safe place to stand and observe the visitors’ ritual procession into the village. He settles for the shadowed edge of a yahi close to a group of men making their cheering noises, like fans at a football game, and thus overhears a name: Indowiwä.

His mouth falls open. He’s noted before that men will let slip the names of people from rival villages, but he’s never heard anyone utter one as brazenly as this. He records the name in his notebook. Is Indowiwä the Mahekodo-teri headman? Lac has seen him before, on other, less formal embassies between the camp and the shabono. He was with Bahikoawa the first day the visitors arrived. He must be far too young to be headman, though, in his mid-twenties, tops. Lac searches for Rowahirawa so he can begin peppering him with questions—earning his sobriquet by being a pesky busybody—but the sioha is nowhere in sight, perhaps because he’s hoping to avoid such peppering.

The way Bahikoawa had encouraged his covillagers to clear away the weeds and other sundry debris from the courtyard this morning was instructive. He had to begin the task himself, wandering out into the middle of the plaza and squatting down with his machete to chop at the roots and then sweep away the vegetation. Alone, it would have taken him hours of exhausting work, but before long some of the older men caught on that it was time to clean up and prepare the shabono. They came out and joined the headman in his weeding and sweeping. Then some of the women joined in. Soon, a small crowd of workers was busy clearing the ground, preparing it for the dancing that will begin later this afternoon, while Bahikoawa returned to his hammock, having done relatively little work.

A headman in a tribal village like this can’t give direct orders to his covillagers, or rather he could, but it would deal a major blow to his reputation if those orders were ignored. He has little recourse to address such slights besides starting a fight, so it’s best to lead by example; they all know the plaza needs cleaning on the morning of a feast—they just need a nudge to get started. Smaller, more nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers are strictly egalitarian; all the men play an equal role in decision-making; leveling mechanisms like teasing exceptionally gifted hunters hold sway; and no man would dare bark orders at the others. You have to sleep near those men, who possess deadly hunting weapons, so you won’t be overly eager to boss them around by day. The authority of the headman is borne of need; arriving at a consensus decision on important matters in a village this size would take days, weeks, and as often as not lead to factioning. Since settling down into a semi-sedentary lifestyle means having more uncles and brothers around, a type of authority through relative size of kinship coalition takes hold.

Visitors come directly to Bahikoawa, knowing he speaks for all the Bisaasi-teri—the Upper Bisaasi-teri anyway. Though he also seems to take precedence over is uncle whenever the villages coalesce, as they are for today’s feast. The move from egalitarianism to headmanship, and then to chieftainship, is one of the predictable transitions that come along with increasing group size and organizational complexity, a recognizable stage in societal evolution of the sort noted by Dr. Service and Dr. White, a pattern that suggests not all societies follow their own unique historical trajectories, as some researchers would seem to want us to believe. Because it’s a short step from thinking in terms of predictable stages to thinking every society is progressing, albeit at different rates, toward becoming an advanced civilization like ours, which exists at a pinnacle overlooking all others, its members disparaging those others as primitives and savages.

But they are. They just are. From their lack of clothing to protect them from the bugs, to their emotional lability, to their basic technology and insane medical practices—their belief that sickness is caused by spirits sent by shaboris from enemy villages. They argue with storms. They steal women. Who among us Westerners would fail to recognize their primitiveness? The Yąnomamö are one stage beyond the simplest—the hunter-gatherers—but this is Hobbes’s Man in a State of Nature; in many regards it’s man at the mercy of nature. People may look at this and see a rudimentary conservationism—or even an advanced ethic of ecological balance—but it’s really only a matter of nature still having the upper hand. Lac remembers well Darwin’s infamous lines about his first meeting with the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego: “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.”

The Mahekodo-teri headman, if that’s who this is, is helped with a large pack basket filled with meats and boiled plantains, arranging the strap across his forehead, careful not to tussle the feathers or smear the painted designs. The weight is obviously substantial, but the man is determined to treat it as paltry, and he’s determined to swagger outside dramatically regardless of the impressive ponderousness of the offering. The awkwardness of his struggle must be a point of pride for Bahikoawa and his hunters, a small victory. Lac remembers the few times he was on the visitors’ side of this pre-feast exchange, and he gets excited about the chance to witness the preparations from this new angle. He’s also wondering if he should be doing more to prepare for the ceremonial entrance, trying to figure out who among the Bisaasi-teri would be most likely to let slide the names of the foreign dignitaries as they enter and dance around the plaza. How long will it be, though, before Lac can make it to Mahekodo-teri and finish any genealogy thus begun?

As he wanders around the margins of the courtyard, he sees everyone, man, woman, and child, decorating themselves, putting on their best cotton waist straps and shoulder strings, tucking parrot or turkey feathers into the bands on their upper arms and arranging them to sprout up theatrically, and applying the red nara paint in jaguar patterns or abstract designs. There’s no sense of marching toward doom. All these people are excited. One man, overcome with the thrill, hoots loudly, mildly startling Lac. A man outside the shabono hoots back, and then another. They’re playing a game. To demonstrate their superior numbers? Or merely to express and help each other nurture their collective exhilaration? The voices from outside the shabono raise the prickles on the back of Lac’s sweat-slicked neck.  

All morning, Bahikoawa’s younger brothers have been preparing two kinds of plantains: the hard green-peeled plantains they need their teeth to crack open—these they toss into aluminum pots to boil, and they’re what went into filling the pack basket, along with all the smoked meat, Indowiwä just took outside to his covillagers; then there are the ripe yellow-peeled plantains the men are able to open easily by running their thumbs down the lengths—these they mash together in their pots to make the date, the thick soup whose redolence lends an element of festivity to the air, even for Lac, who’s found the dish slightly nauseating when he’s sampled it before. These young men—the headman’s brothers—have worked more assiduously for a longer duration than any other Yąnomamö Lac has seen. And they just returned from the heniyomou yesterday.

The Yąnomamö can sustain their focus on a hunt for hours on end, it’s true, but that’s not exactly work. He’s paid them to help him build his hut, but they only ever managed to toil in short bursts. What these young men are doing now must be gruelingly tedious by Yąnomamö standards. But their labors are about to pay off—for the group as a whole if not for the men individually. They have three large troughs the size of canoes made from the bark of a tree they call the masiri, where pot after pot has been emptied, so now each one contains, by Lac’s estimate, over thirty gallons of soup, making a total of somewhere between ninety and a hundred gallons.

Lac counted seventeen bashos, seven turkeys, three armadillos, and other sundry meats. Will it be enough to feed the Bisaasi-teri’s one hundred visitors? Having seen all the work that’s gone into preparing this feast, Lac is astonished the Bisaasi-teri are willing to do it all again tomorrow when the Karohi-teri arrive—just to be rid of the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri. Now, as the final preparations are made and random shouts spark bouts of competitive raucousness that subside quickly, only to be taken up again later, Lac is rehearsing the stages he remembers from past ceremonies, anticipating when the most danger will arise, planning where he’ll stand to inconspicuously observe—such a simple objective that gets complicated so quickly.

Bahikoawa and his uncle are resting in his yahi by the entrance. Lac looks toward them, wishing them success in keeping the peace, wondering what will happen to him if they fail. He thinks about his shotgun back in the hut, deciding for the umpteenth time it wouldn’t make a difference, that it would cause more problems than it would prevent. He wishes he had it anyway. He watches as the men prepare to take their ebene. So they’ll be tripping the whole time they’re welcoming the visitors. Great, he thinks, I’m sure that won’t make the situation any more volatile.

Lac has learned to give the shabori a wide berth when they’re in the throes of their communion with the hekura. They can get scary. Rowahirawa once chased him around the plaza with an upraised machete. They threw rocks at him as he tried to photograph them. So now he looks on from a distance, hoping the feast makes for a more tranquil trip for them.

A half hour later, when the visiting men are ready to begin their flamboyant entrances, Lac is satisfied with his position next to a support pole, but reluctant to make any large movements for fear of drawing attention. He feels the weight of his camera tugging at the back of his neck. Before any dancers enter, an old man ducks into the plaza. He’s not wearing any decorations, and the villagers barely respond to his presence. He walks across the courtyard in a dignified way, but with no effort to call attention to himself or to impress anyone. Lac surmises he’s a former headman, someone too respected to enter with the women and children after the ceremonial procession of the warriors, but too old to bother with all the frills and cavorting. The man disappears into the shadows of a yahi.

Then the dancers start coming in by twos and taking up their militant marching gambols in opposite directions around the outside rim of the plaza, charging, halting, retreating, and charging ahead again, throwing down their weapons, stepping away from them, then rushing back to retrieve them.

It’s Rowahirawa who finds Lac just after the entrance procession has begun. Is he drugged? Lac didn’t see him with the other men, but he wasn’t watching the whole time, and Rowahirawa’s eyes are ostensibly glazed. “Shaki, stop standing there looking so dumb. The Mahekodo-teri will think you’re an idiot, or an overgrown pet monkey. They may dart over here and club you over the head just to be funny.”

“Brother-in-law, you’re waiteri. You wouldn’t let them push me around. That’s only for you to do.” Lac is immediately filled with pride in his comeback, one more of his attempts at Yąnomamö humor. But it’s hard to tell what they’ll find funny. Their favorite jokes tend to involve some absurd act of violence. And they frequently burst into laughter at statements he would’ve never suspected were jokes.

Rowahirawa’s laugh now is little more than a patient—dazed?—smile and sudden emission of air from his puffed out lungs. Lac’s glad to have him nearby anyway; he resolves not to overwhelm him with questions. Indowiwä is the headman’s son, not the headman. It seems the roles in Yąnomamö feasts can be honorary assignments. Bahikoawa, for instance, has ceded his prestigious status as headman to his uncle, the Lower Bisaasi-teri headman, who’s now acting as leader of the conglomerated groups, even though by Lac’s estimation Bahikoawa has far more clout, since he oversees two shabonos.

The men dance their boisterous preening dances around to all the yahis, each pair demonstrating their trademark moves, prancing and strutting for a few minutes and then rushing back outside the shabono, only to be replaced by the next pair, some using props like giant palm branches or elaborately feathered disks, some concentrating on more acrobatically demanding steps and lunges. Once, when he and Laura were walking home from a campus production of Merchant of Venice, she confided to Lac that, for all the “psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo” she’d been imbued with—her embrace of his teasing word choice—whenever she first reads a novel or watches a performance, whether it be a play, a ballet, an opera, or a movie, she accepts the totality of her experience as a deliberate effect of the artist’s efforts.

Forget for a moment all that subconscious turmoil, she enjoined, and take in the creator’s vision, occupy it, not as a statement because art should never be reducible to allegory, but as a shared constellation of engineered encounters against a backdrop of carefully balanced tones, a holistic experience of transport to some third realm outside both of your minds, an imagined space you can occupy together, along with all the other people reading or watching along with you. If your mind gets too busy somewhere along the way, or starts to wander, she says, you should go beyond merely letting the sensations and emotions wash over you; you should ask yourself—for however long it takes to thrust yourself back into the experience—why the artist decided to place this particular element precisely when and where he placed it.

“That’s why big productions are better,” she said; “you don’t just have one person’s vision but several people’s. You can have a playwright, a composer, a choreographer, a set designer—all these people coming together to create a previously unimagined world, an entirely separate universe, a reality that has hints of our own, and overlaps, but is still different, enough to make us look at our own reality as if for the first time, with fresh, almost innocent eyes.”

Lac has replayed this conversation in his mind many times before. Until that night, he’d never been much for the more performative arts. He liked movies and novels. Mostly, he liked the tales of adventure and exploration he could most readily imagine himself taking the lead role in. His reading was nowhere near as sophisticated as Laura’s. Later, it would be the early icons of anthropology he loved most: Malinowsky, Mead, Radcliffe-Brown. He loved Malinowski’s way of telling the story of a few single incidents to convey a larger set of themes and general observations; his Coral Gardens and Their Magic ranks among the most riveting and enchanting books Lac has ever read. It’s this effect that he aspires to with his own ethnographies. Think of it, to be read by even half as many people as Malinowski or Mead. And with as crazy as things are going here now, as eventful and surprising—as shocking and at moments horrifying—as his time among the Yąnomamö is turning out to be, the prospect of the resulting book being wildly popular is hardly negligible.

And aren’t the projects the same at their core? Laura insists the deliberately designed worlds of art function as metaphors for our lived realities, highlighting certain features, minimizing and distorting others, training our eyes to see with a new focus. There is an allegorical element to be sure then; as with caricature, your perceptions can be bent toward one or another viewpoint. But the most basic underlying impulse is one of renewal. Look again. Look from an adjusted angle. Look deeper. Experience more profoundly.

Ethnography is much the same. You can’t know your own culture until you’ve worked to understand where it plays out on the landscape of human potential. You can’t know what it means to be human until you have a sense of all the diverse ways people cooperatively live out their humanity. You must stretch your imagination, refine your conceptions, build new highways for unthought ideas. You must broaden your intuition for what is possible to appreciate what is real. Of course, within the context of science, Lac’s goals are different; his purpose isn’t merely to seed people’s imaginations or hone their perceptions, nor is it to deepen their scope of thought, furnishing a more elaborate theater for the drama of consciousness—it’s to dig through all the layers of impression to reach bedrock truths about the Yąnomamö; so these truths can be collated as reliable data sets with the greater store of our knowledge about what humans are, what predictable patterns emerge in their behavior, and maybe what stages they evolved through to get to where they—where we, Western and non-Western, modern and traditional, advanced and primitive—are today.

Lac steers his mind back to his observations and notetaking, feeling something of the thrill of the occasion, an excitement heightened by the threat of largescale conflict. These bodies of ours, at once so vulnerable and so dangerous, so clumsy and so magnificently intentional, congregating in such inconceivable numbers—we strive to set ourselves apart, with adornments and distinctive dance steps, but only manage to lend further to the mass blurring of our multitude, so many flames of consciousness—memory, perception, longing—discrete from one another, but forever drawn compulsively together.

The last of the dancers departs through the passage; there’s a nearly imperceptible rumble of anticipation followed by a deafening explosion of cheers as the warriors surge back into the plaza en masse, flooding the shabono with their violent potential. They circle, threatening and withdrawing, and then they come together in the center of the courtyard to form the lineup, each of them striking the visitor’s pose, weapons held vertically beside their faces, daring with their locked limbs and absent expressions anyone to attack them, gazing off into space, rigidly upright and proud, flashing that wild glint that still fires Lac’s imagination.

He holds his breath. These are the people who gave Bahikoawa’s village safe harbor after they’d survived an attempted massacre. These are the people who planned to abduct dozens of unguarded women—unguarded except by him. These are the people who arrived a week early, demanding to be fed, as was their right by Yąnomamö custom, all hundred mouths. Lac turns to see the visiting women and children sneaking into the shabono without fanfare. These are the people rumored to have been raiding the gardens by night, eating even more of Bisaasi-teri’s food. Now it’s time to play friendly and nice—until it isn’t.

After all the shouting and challenging and cheering, the warriors are led to predetermined yahis to recline in their hosts’ hammocks, taking up the visitor’s repose. Soon, they’ll be offered date and the feasting proper will begin. Lac prepares for the long night ahead, when the headmen will sing and chant through the wee hours until sunrise, holding forth on the long history of friendship among the gathered villages. He feels safer now, thinking that if anything were going to happen, it would have happened by now. One of the purposes of the lineup and the visitor’s pose is to say something like, “If anyone has any grievances, let him strike now or forever hold his peace.” No strikes were dealt. So Lac starts moving freely about the plaza, noting the nuances in dialect between the villages.

The Mahekodo-teri’s words are for some time nearly unintelligible to him. But as evening fades into night, their meanings begin to resolve ever more clearly in his ears. He finds that he’s happy, busy doing work he enjoys, under conditions he can tolerate, building up his store of stories to share when he returns to civilization and reunites with his friends and loved ones. This is close to his idea of what working as an ethnographer is supposed to be like.

By the time the shouting begins the next morning, Lac is too exhausted to be scared. How could any of these men, he wonders, still have the energy to fight? They’ve been up all night. They just scraped the last of the date from the troughs as the sun was rising, and they’ve been haggling over trades for the past two hours. Lac walks about in a fog, hoping to happen across Rowahirawa, hoping he’ll be able to tell him what’s happening—and whether he should worry.

Not seeing his chief informant anywhere, Lac tries to edge silently up to the fracas so he can listen in. He doesn’t need to translate the words to know that the men on either side are furious. One of the Mahekodo-teri men complains about the trading being started early, as though the Bisaasi-teri were trying to get rid of them as soon as possible—this after all the Mahekodo-teri have done for them. Now they hear the Bisaasi-teri are holding another feast for the Karohi-teri—“Did you think we wouldn’t find out?”—and that makes it even more clear they’re trying to push the current visitors out. Lac can’t hear the complaints from the Bisaasi-teri side, but he doesn’t need to.

Finally, Bahikoawa walks into the space between the arguing sides and begins shouting for them all to shut up. “We have fed you all for a week, longer than we were obligated to, because we remember our debt to you. But the feast is over, the trading is complete, and you’re insulting us by not moving on. If you insist on staying, we’re going to start a chest-pounding contest.” Lac has watched Bahikoawa negotiating trades for the past two hours, mostly by urging his covillagers to give up items coveted by their guests. Before that, he’d been chanting through the night with the Mahekodo-teri headman. The man must be exhausted. 

Rowahirawa has told Lac that the guests will have sunk their most prized possessions in the river—somewhere they’ll be able to find them easily enough. The Bisaasi-teri have done likewise; when the hunters returned from the heniyomou, they stashed some turtle eggs, a delicacy, in Lac’s hunt so as not to be asked to share. Almost every exchange was attended by that reticence, like the recipient wasn’t sure the item was worth taking, and the giver was sure it was too valuable to give away. The whole process was replete with argument, but Bahikoawa managed to keep it progressing smoothly. When it was over, the visitors were given more pack baskets of food for the trip home—and it was time for them to leave. Still feeling cheated after the trade, though, and probably still feeling cheated out of some new women for their village, the visitors declared their intention to stay and participate in the feast planned for the Karohi-teri.

Lac is annoyed with the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri. He too wants desperately for them to be on their way, as their presence has set him on edge—set the entire village on edge—for too long. No one has slept. Everyone is whining and complaining and acting pathetic in every regard. The threats on either side ring hallow. Lac considers now may be a good time to steal away and lock himself in his hut, but he knows he’ll regret not staying to witness whatever duel or tournament ensues—or doesn’t ensue. So he reminds himself, practically shouting to himself in thought, that just because he’s so profoundly tired and irritated, that doesn’t mean he can ignore the danger surrounding him. A chest-pounding duel, Rowahirawa has explained, may not be sufficient for all of these waiteri. Things could escalate.

The shouting intensifies. Lac blinks his eyes and the brief taste of oblivion brings him a tiny bit of bliss. He needs to sleep. If there’s to be a melee, though, he needs first to wake up enough to be aware of the dangers. He tries to feel his heartbeat but fails. His body is failing to register the seriousness of the threat. Are you in more danger when you have some mysterious foreboding or when you know, logically, that the signs are ominous but you can’t trick yourself into a proper panic? It’s down to whether you trust your intuitions more than your conscious deductions. Lac just wants to find a hammock and drink in that blinking bliss again.

Just when Lac is sure the posturing and threatening are on the verge of igniting into a whirlwind of winging fists and swiping clubs, the warriors from the distant villages turn abruptly and head back to their camp in a huff. Bahikoawa turns to the men of his own village and gives them a look to convey the precariousness of this truce; now is no time to boast about backing down the rival waiteris. That will come later.

Lac steps away from the site of the dispute, following the visitors who’ve just departed through the passage out of the shabono. He walks far enough and watches long enough to see that the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri are indeed breaking camp and preparing for the long trip back to Platanal. Next, he floats over to his hut, half-submerged in sleep already, half-dreaming. He won’t remember unlocking the door later, won’t remember rolling into his hammock. He’s out before the swaying ceases, swimming down through the sensate layers to that blissful oblivion at last. 

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Indians with Outboards and the Scale of Deadly Occurrences: He Borara Chapter 6

outboard on the Orinoco
(11,305 words. Or start from the beginning.)

            When Lac wakes to the sound of an outboard motor approaching from downriver, his first thought is that it must be a raiding party from Mahekodo-teri. The Yąnomamö, a foot people coaxed to these riverine plots shrouded in clouds of pestilent insects, have quickly learned how to use to the canoes traded in from the Maquiritari Indians, a genuine river people. The Yąnomamö use the canoes to cross the Orinoco so they can visit the Dutch lay brother who offers them goods in exchange for manual labor. They use the boats to cross the Mavaca as well, so they can visit with the Lower Bisaasi-teri, the faction of the village the larger group fissioned away from after a fight over a woman. Bahikoawa’s father’s brother is pata there.

            So the Yąnomamö use canoes all the time, not that they’re especially good at it. What they lack in navigational skills, though, they compensate for with heedless determination to cross the hundred or so yards to the facing bank.

What they really lack, however, are outboard motors.

Since Lac returned from Ocamo with his own motorized dugout, the men here have been pressing him to ferry them across the river nearly every day, but many of them are even more eager to have him haul them to distant villages so they can visit relatives and engage in trade. He tries to oblige them whenever he can, but, as with every other type of favor, the requests are becoming more frequent and insistent. More like demands. And he’s only willing to be away from his hut and his supplies for so long.

            Twice, he’s also overheard men discussing what he hopes is merely a hypothetical scenario in which they’d use a motorized canoe to cover distance quickly so they can stage surprise attacks on enemy villages. The men of Bisaasi-teri haven’t asked Lac to transport raiding parties yet, but no one travels the rivers at night in the dry season; you’re too apt to run aground or collide with submerged deadfall. And then what do you do, beached in the dark in the middle of a river, deep in the primeval jungle?

At least you’d have some time to yourself.

So, when Lac hears the motor getting closer to his hut, closer to the two Upper Bisaasi-teri shabonos, he hopes it’s someone from the Malarialogìa but is almost certain it’s a party of raiders from the rival village upstream. Or maybe his ears deceive him and it’s really a low-flying plane.

His hut is full of women. He’s amazed at how easily he’s been able to get to sleep like this over the past couple weeks, with all these extra hammocks and cots, and the constant whiny murmuring. The more time he spends in the jungle, the better he gets at tamping down his anxieties and ignoring his myriad injuries and afflictions so he can slip blissfully into a near coma, waking up stiff and disoriented, but refreshed. It was one of the women, Bahikoawa’s younger wife, who woke him, alerting him to the strange noise coming from the river, which they pricked their ears together for some time before finally recognizing.

About ninety percent of the village’s men are inland trading with the Shamatari, which is their name for a bloc of villages to the south. So much for all those machetes and axes I’ve given the men here, he thinks. Only seven or eight men remain, guarding the women. Lac found two of them standing sentinel outside the hut when he woke yesterday. If they knew of some specific threat, he wishes they would have warned him. Later in the morning, six Mahekodo-teri men passed through Bisaasi-teri. They were more pushy and rude than you’d expect Yąnomamö to be outside their home village, where he’s noticed they’re usually somewhat skittish. Lac eventually agreed to ferry them across the river, sending them off with pills to prevent malaria along with medicine for their colds—so much sickness in the jungle. They were probably casing the joint, he thinks now, counting the meagerly protected women and sizing up the clownish nabä sorcerer they’d heard so much about.

He thought Mahekodo-teri was more than a day’s walk to the south, but there are other villages much closer, perhaps inhabited by friends of the men who passed through. Or maybe the men move much faster than he figured—a possibility not at all difficult to imagine given how spritely he sees the men here move through the forest understory. Lac still isn’t sure whether he should regret giving so many demonstrations of what his shotgun can do, though when he first decided to stage them he had few alternatives. Now he wonders if maybe he should have shown the six Mahekodo-teri men what it can do as well, show them what they’d be walking into if they raided Bisaasi-teri and tried to steal some women.

He looks around his hut and senses the many eyes on him. He’s not supposed to interfere in their lives like this; he’s an ethnographer, not a policeman. Normally, from what he understands, the women would scatter and hide in the surrounding forest. To any passers-through, it would appear the whole village was away traveling, or that they’d relocated to another garden and shabono. The women just wouldn’t be here for any raiders to abduct.

Living outside the shabono must not be easy, though, because none of them, as far as he can tell, have wandered off to hide in the jungle. Scared as they all are now, in the emboldening light of day, they all made the decision that it was better to stay, safer to stick close to Shaki, whom they’re counting on to protect them with his nabä fire magic. So here he is, up to his eyeballs in Indians, his hut crowded beyond capacity with women, two or three to each in the many layers and rows of cots and hammocks. At least the crush of bodies is keeping the rats from breaking into his food stores. Let’s hope, he thinks, the green mold covering everything doesn’t soften the semi-dried mud walls supporting all these hammocks. While we’re at it, let’s hope whoever’s approaching on the river decides to turn back when they hear a couple shotgun blasts echoing over the trees.

He climbs groggily from his own hammock. There’s barely room to take a step without bumping into the quivering recumbent bodies of the Yąnomamö women. He’s getting used to sleeping with one hand on the stock of his rifle. He carries the gun with him when he gets up to piss—you never know when there could be a jaguar outside your door. Or something else just as lethal.

He pauses when he reaches the door, lets his head droop between his shoulders. His situation is so absurd, his position so untenable, that his thoughts bunch up in a nerve-wracking tangle. His hand resting on the latch, he sighs deeply, lifting his head. The boats shouldn’t even be here: the Yąnomamö give the Maquiritari glass beads for them, glass beads they in turn get from the Salesians, who are trying to teach them the importance of industriousness by paying them beads for native foods, or for work on tasks like clearing air strips or helping to build churches. The motor on the boat shouldn’t be here either—if indeed that’s what they’re hearing. God knows where they got it; it must have cost a hell of a lot of beads. The women shouldn’t be here. More of them will arrive at first light, wandering over from the shabono—Bisaasi-teri’s entire population of women and children cramming in and around his and Clemens’s huts.

Here for the protection of my shotgun, he thinks as he opens the door and steps out into the dank night air. A breeze cleanses from his nostrils the multilayered stench of mold commingled with that of human bodies—pits and privates and feet and breath. He’s surprised the other women aren’t already rushing over from the shabono. Looking at the opening in the trees and tall grass to see the bank of the Mavaca, he thinks it possible his hut is ideally situated to catch sounds emanating from the Orinoco downstream of the confluence; it’s possible the sound hasn’t reached the women sleeping in their yahis through the crooked finger of forest separating them from the fabled river.

When they do finally hear, they’ll come running—or when someone runs from his hut to warn them. They’ll come to hide with the others behind him and his shotgun. The shotgun that shouldn’t be here either, though he’d be lost without it, but nor should he be here himself for that matter. But there it is, he thinks; nothing I can do about it now.

He walks toward the trail leading down to the Mavaca but hesitates. They probably won’t come up that way. They’ll dock on the bank of the Orinoco and sneak through the stretch of forest. That’s how he would do it. You’d have some cover that way. The sound of the engine would be muffled.

Though, come to think of it, why wouldn’t they cut the motor downstream and paddle the rest of the way? They’re obviously clever enough to think of that. He stands still, listening to the night sounds: the wind setting the leaves atremble by the million in a giant yawning sigh, a cool caress of branches.

He can no longer pick out the sound of the engine.

So it is to be a raid.

His knees pop forward reflexively, dropping him into a shallow crouch, and he swivels his eyes over the tall grass, the gardens, the shabono, and the gargantuan trees. Where will they be coming from? They know about the trail leading from the river to the village. If they assume everyone is still asleep, there’d be no reason for them not to follow it. Should I just fire off a couple shots in the air now? No, not without them seeing it, not without them witnessing the devastation it causes.

He squints into the darkness, looking for a good position where he can spring out and fire without risk of being impaled by one of their six-foot cane arrows—tipped with curare no doubt. Or maybe he should fire off the shot and then spring out. Or not spring out; maybe they don’t need to see him; maybe the crack of the rifle will be enough to scare them back to their boat. As he moves around the outer edge of the garden, circling back toward the trail to the river, the membrane on the surface of his throat abruptly swells and his outer layer of skin starts to feel as though freshly raised from a vat of ice water. He drops to his knees in the grass, holding his breath, squeezing the solid mass of his rifle stock and the cold barrel. The thought configures in his mind only after the physiological response to thinking it.

If they have a boat with an outboard, what’s to say they don’t also have guns?

As soon as the thought passes, fully articulated, through his mind, Lac springs back to his feet and sprints to the head of the trail, panting, feeling the assorted aches of his blistered feet and overexerted legs. His plan is to go most of the way to the river and then veer off the track, hiding in ambush. That way, even if they don’t come by the trail themselves, he may still be able to outflank them. As he nears the trees, he’s loath to stop pumping his knees, knowing the panic will hit as soon as he stops moving. But he’s not on the trail for long before he hears the droning, gurgling whine of the motor—or hears the hum anyway and imagines the rest. It’s behind him, in the direction of his hut, coming up the Mavaca.

He turns to rush back to the clearing but realizes he’ll be dashing about in the open. They wouldn’t even need guns to shoot him down as he’s bolting toward the bank in the waist-high grass. Arrows will suffice. But he can’t just let them invade his jungle home, the hut he built with his own hands, can’t just let them kidnap the women who’ve turned to him for protection.

Can he?

Wasn’t he just thinking that his intervening in their lives has already gone way too far?

Creeping along the line of trees back toward the Mavaca’s bank, he thinks, ah, but having gone this far, having let them gather in your hut, you can’t back out now. That would only be making the disruption to their lives all the more cataclysmic. He moves in a crouch back toward the hut. Just remember, he thinks, your first responsibility is to Laura and Dominic and Kara—don’t be an idiot and get yourself killed!

Amid the dry soughing of the grass along his pantlegs, and over the hum of the approaching motor, Lac hears something else: voices. He stops. They don’t seem to be speaking Yąnomamö. No, it sounds, from what he can make out, like Spanish. Of course. If they were staging a sneak attack, they wouldn’t have restarted the engine, if they’d ever turned it off in the first place—the boat may have simply passed a thicket of trees that blocked the sound.

This isn’t a raid; it’s a visit. But who would be on the river at night?

He moves cautiously toward the bank, thinking he would still like to get a peek at the visitors while they’re docking, without offering them a chance to spot him first. Before he’s moved far, though, he hears himself being hailed: “Lachlan Shackley!” Every muscle goes from achingly taut to liquidly relaxed. He shudders from the sudden chill of his nervous sweat, feeling as though his skin were turning itself inside-out, oozing its inner layer out through his pores. “Lachlan Shackley,” the voice booms once again, echoing off the trees that tower over the upstream bank. “It’s Padre Morello, your friend from the mission at the mouth of the Ocamo. We’re doing our best to avoid startling you and your friends here.”

Jesus, you botched that effort my friend.

“Dr. Shackley, we’re approaching your dock. Would you come out and let us know it’s safe?” So they’re frightened to move about the environs of Bisaasi-teri, not knowing for sure the place is currently occupied by friendly inhabitants. What do they know? And who is it traveling with the padre? Lac thinks he should call out in answer, but he’s inexplicably reluctant to do so. Sneaking down the bank and getting a look at the visitors before announcing himself still has some residual appeal, even though he knows at least one of them—and Padre Morello isn’t likely to be leading a party of Yąnomamö raiders. But could he be calling out under duress, perhaps with a bow drawn on him, or a machete to his throat?

More likely by far, Lac tells himself, you’re being paranoid.

It may simply be that he’s having trouble shifting down from full-alert mode, but he decides it will cost him little to indulge this urge to remain hidden and approach through the sawgrass under cover of darkness. Now appear the weightless beams of the boatmen’s flashlights, one running down into the water to search for shoals or deadfall before the prow, another scanning the bank and up to the wall of the hut. The women remain dead silent within; they’ve had to keep quiet in hiding before. But they must be scared.

Lac steps out of the grass onto the bank some ways downstream from where the boat is docking, marveling at his luck in not being bitten by any snakes during all that running around through their favorite haunts. He makes out three figures standing in the dugout, all of them wearing shirts and speaking Spanish. “I’m here, Padre,” he announces, setting the beams of yellow light swinging toward him. Both beams come to rest politely on the ground in front of his feet, or on his waist, sparing his dark-adjusted eyes. “You gave us quite a scare, Gentlemen. We thought you might be a raiding party.”

“It so happens,” the padre calls out, “there is indeed such a party heading this way, but they’ll most likely not arrive until tomorrow at the earliest.”

As the padre waits for him to respond to the warning, Lac takes the opportunity to shout to the women in Yąnomamö that they have nothing to fear from the men in the boat, that these are fellow nabä, people he knows. Stepping up to the water to help the men dock the canoe, he asks in Spanish, “How did you hear about this raid?”

“The missionaries at Platanal say a group of Mahekodo-teri men told some others there they were heading to the mouth of the Mavaca because the Bisaasi-teri men are away. The priests at Platanal informed me over the shortwave and I came right away to warn you and Hermano Mertens. We’ll cross to see him next.”

How could they possibly have heard about the absence of men so quickly? Those six Mahekodo-teri passed through just yesterday morning; they must’ve made it back, told the others, and turned around to come back with a group of warriors. The padre is right then: there’s a chance they’ll be here again, with their reinforcements, late tomorrow. From what he understands, he should expect the raid to occur in the predawn hours, while the villagers are in the deepest stages of sleep. So it’ll probably happen the day after tomorrow, early in the morning.

“I thought you might be a raiding party yourselves, Padre. That’s why I was running around in the grass trying to figure out where you were going to land.”

“I’m sure the Indians have boats at places along the Orinoco so they can cross it, but they’re still not comfortable on the water—not comfortable enough to launch an attack from a boat. Anyway, isn’t it unlikely they’d either have or want an outboard motor for such an attack.”

“Seems like a reasonable enough assumption—now that I know you’re not raiders.” Lac finally smiles. He doesn’t much appreciate the fright for the sake of having confirmed a threat he already suspected, but it’s always good to receive a visit out here from a civilized man, especially one as personable as the padre.

“Dr. Shackley”—Lac has given up trying to correct his misapplication of the title—“I trust by tomorrow you’ll have a better plan worked out than running around in the tall grass hoping to catch the attackers unawares. You’ll end up dead from snakebite if you keep that up, if you’ll forgive me for being morbid and paternal.”

“No, I think you’re right, Padre. I killed a coral snake in my hut two days ago. I’ve been straining my eyes every minute of the day since then, even inside my home—my temporary home anyway. I came across a Bothrops atrox before that, while I was walking with the Bisaasi-teri to one of their temporary hunting camps. It was right after we visited the Iyäwei-teri, your village. Man, they sure pulled out a lot of my chest hair in that village. They practically tore the clothes right off me. That’s why I didn’t go with the Bisaasi-teri this time—I felt like I needed a little break. Plus, they seemed of a mind to dissuade me, out of annoyance or solicitousness I can’t say. They’ve been going on all these trading visits because they’re preparing for a war with another village”—Lac refrains from saying which village—“and trading is how they shore up alliances.”

Lac is standing across from Morello, while another man squats with a hand on the canoe’s gunnel. The third man stands in between the padre and the boat, pointing a flashlight at their feet to unassumingly illuminate the meeting. The padre sees him looking at the other men and says, “These men are from Iyäwei-teri themselves. They’re learning Spanish. And I’m trying to teach them to navigate the rivers in these boats. Though I personally can’t claim any expertise in the practice.”

“You’re teaching Yąnomamö to use outboards? Now we really do have to worry about raids from the rivers.” Lac leans back to guffaw before doubling over and holding his stomach. The padre hesitates before joining in the mirth, and Lac realizes how oddly he’s behaving. He’s giddy, his speaking rapid and disjointed, with words sneaking in willy-nilly from the wrong language. The padre steps closer, puts a hand on his shoulder, and prepares to speak. Lac’s eyes move down to Morello’s beard and he has an all but irresistible urge to give it a good tug—the standard test to identify Santa impostors.

“Dr. Shackley, I imagine you’ll want to warn the women here at least. The people here should probably return to that temporary village inland where they can stay until the men return from their trading trip.”

His beard looks perfectly real in the angled yellow light, fading from gray to white, coarse in texture, tangled around each strand’s multifarious tiny kinks. It’s the eyebrows that lend to his aspect a touch of unreality: an actor’s eyebrows, far too dynamic and expressive, far too vivid. He smells of old sweat and sawdust. Lac could swear he’s also catching whiffs of vapors from digested wine as well—the Catholics and their vino.

“The women are already on lockdown, convinced a raid will be coming soon, either from upstream or down. But they’re confident I’ll be able to hold any attackers at bay with my shotgun. I’m afraid I’ve taken on far too influential a role in their intervillage politics—if you can call it that. I have the sense that many of my mentors and colleagues back home would be appalled by how disruptive a force I’ve become, however unwittingly.”

“I haven’t known all that many anthropologists, Dr. Shackley, but I gather your dealings with the Yąnomamö are quite a bit more… extensive, shall we say?—than anything most of them ever experienced. Your own exposure to the culture is more intensive, more immersive.”

The man knows how to tailor his flattery.

“It’s true, Padre: few of us get in this deep, with such a difficult group, this far away from civilization.” Lac looks toward the shabono as he forces another laugh. “I worry that when I get back to Michigan no one will believe half of what I describe. Raids to steal women? The Indians aren’t supposed to do that, not without first being corrupted by modern institutions somehow. In fact, my colleagues will probably accuse me of being in cahoots with you and the other missionaries, trying to paint the Yąnomamö as savages in dire need of salvation.” 

“Well, isn’t it just possible that over the centuries we nefarious missionaries have learned a thing or two about indigenous peoples that we could teach the anthropologists?”

Lac can see the satisfaction in his friend’s eyes; he truly believes the Indians are suffering for lack of the good religion he’s come to share with them. Why wouldn’t he be fond of the idea that they’re in need of moral guidance? It’s part of the reason he’s here. True though the idea may be in certain regards, Lac thinks, it misses so much—it must. The Yąnomamö aren’t just overgrown kids befeathered with pillow down playing at raiding and killing and kidnapping. It will be up to Lac to show this other side of them too—the side that’s silly and ingenious and familial and proud, recklessly brave one moment, pointlessly panicked the next. Always quick to smile. So devoted to having fun, but determined never to be knocked down from their self-built pedestals.

“The truth, Padre, is that they’re wearing me down. I feel myself blurring at the edges. Part of me hates them. But another part is protective of them. We’re losing something whose value we don’t properly appreciate. I thought I could come here and help preserve it, but now I worry I’m merely hastening its demise. What is that value? Where does it come from? Well, first, it lies in what they can teach us about ourselves and our own history. From an evolutionary perspective—Catholics accept evolution, right Padre? After Pius XII, is that right? From that perspective, the Yąnomamö are us, or as close to us as we can hope any people with their own separate history to be. That’s the value I’m supposed to see in them as an ethnographer, an anthropologist. But there’s something else beyond that, some exuberance I feel at simply knowing they continue to exist this way, with that wild glint in their eye, knowing that the world has pockets where they can still survive, and thrive. It’s more of a shock than I thought it would be—how different they are, how childlike and vicious. That’s pretty much the opposite of how I was taught to think of them. But it’s right there for anyone to see. And yet there’s more to it. There’s so much I still have to learn about them. I have dreams where they’re all locked in a single day’s routines, stuck endlessly repeating them, as if by some spell I accidentally cast with my mere presence. As soon as I step away or turn my back, the spell is broken and they break free of that one day and that one day’s patterns. They become who they truly are. But I’m only ever tantalizingly on the edge, too far distant to see and make any proper note.”

The padre laughs. “Now that’s a proper nightmare for an anthropologist!”

Lac doesn’t bother telling him that this dream isn’t the nightmare. The nightmares are much worse. That dream is stressful, frustrating. The nightmares will unravel the fabric of his soul if they keep recurring.

The padre, his eyebrows limpidly registering his concern, says, “I wonder if you might benefit from a short time away from the jungle, Dr. Shackley, away from your Yąnomamö friends here. Your family is in Caracas, no? I wonder if you’d allow me to make arrangements for you to travel there for a week or two—we’d get you back here of course then afterward. I think some time away would do you good. Plus, clearing your head would do wonders for your work.”

The padre has left with his river-faring Yąnomamö companions, crossing the Orinoco to deliver the warning of an impending raid to the workers at the mission outpost under construction there—though there never seems to be much construction going on. He said he would stop back tomorrow morning before returning downriver to Ocamo, offering to take any letters Lac wished to mail.

He’s already written a stack of letters to Laura. Now he’s thinking about Ken Steele. When Lac returned to the hut a few moments ago, all the women and kids were awake and talking softly to each other. Lac announced he was tired and needed to rest. All the lamps have been extinguished, and he lies swaying in his hammock, smelling the green mold proliferating through its every fiber and spreading promiscuously over every surface of the hut’s interior, listening to the women still chatting in low but excited registers, loud enough to keep him awake, despite his declaration that they are all safe for the time being.

Such is life in the jungle. No rest for the wicked nabä.

Lac had asked the padre on his first visit to Ocamo if he had access to any records on the manufactured goods the missionaries have been supplying to the Indians. “We’re the Catholic Church,” Morello responded, flashing a sly grin; “of course we have records.”

The padre remembered he’d brought the document along before climbing back in the dugout. He handed it over to Lac, saying he will need it back so he can return it to the file, but in the meantime he’s free to copy whichever figures he wants. Perusing the sheet by flashlight before climbing into his hammock, Lac saw that Morello and his fellow Salesians have given the Iyäwei-teri, a population of roughly a hundred people, three thousand machetes over the last eight years, only thirty or so of which remain in the village, by his own count. He then made sure to lock the papers away in his chest before lying down.

The Bisaasi-teri consider the Iyäwei-teri experts in clay pot-making, an industry or craft that’s on the wane as aluminum cooking vessels spread throughout the tribal region, following the vast trade network spanning hundreds of miles and dozens of villages. The Yąnomamö seem to assign each village a specialty. Bisaasi-teri is known for its hisiomö seeds; they’re asked about them by nearly every visitor, and they make sure to take a large supply along on every trading trip and diplomatic junket.

Ken would be interested in that. He’ll write to him about it at first light. What else should he tell him? Ken will probably have chosen a tribe for his own ethnographic work by now, his own first experience in the field. No point detailing the difficulties he’s facing with the Yąnomamö. It would only discourage him, and there’s no reason to think the people he ends up studying will present any of the same problems. There’s something else to Lac’s reluctance though; he doesn’t want to tell anyone in the anthropology or genetics department back home about the trouble he’s having collecting names for his genealogies—not until he’s figured out a way to crack the code. Part of it is embarrassment at not being able to do this, the first thing he set out to do for his research, but another part is fear that explaining his troubles will somehow make it easier for him to accept failing, justifying it, which will in turn make failure the more likely outcome to his struggle.

He decides to write to Ken about the crowd of Indians in his hut, the group of brazen men who passed through yesterday, the warning from the padre—the latest bulletin on the state of warfare at the mouth of the Mavaca. Ken will thrill to that. I’ll tell him about the mold, too, Lac thinks, and about how the damn jungle rats have devoured half my food. I’ll tell him about the coral snake and the Bothrops atrox, and about how lucky I’ve been not to get malaria or dysentery, yet.

He thinks back to his last months at U of M preparing for this trip, how frenzied he was, how excited. He may look back on that time for the rest of his life, when he was so busy wrapping himself in a cocoon of equipment and preparation, mentally playing out every contingency, attempting to anticipate every eventuality, every need. He thinks all the way back to the night last February, almost a year ago, when he and Ken went to see the Liston-Clay fight. Somehow Clay’s victory seemed part and parcel of the seismic shifts unsettling the larger society. The killing of Kennedy had rattled everyone to the marrow of their bones: if the president of the United States can be shot dead by a sniper in the middle of the day, in the middle of a crowd of well-wishers, then what in the entire world could possibly still be thought secure? Then the Civil Rights Act passed into law. College kids are protesting our military’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Add to it all the escalation of the Cold War and the ever-looming threat of nuclear annihilation—and Bob Dylan introducing the Beatles to reefer.

Lac remembers thinking at several points, as he caught snippets of Cronkite on campus TVs, or perused newspapers as he was waiting for meetings with professors, that he’s lucky to be young as all this upheaval occurs. People in America—hell, people anywhere—delight in their traditions, in the sense of timelessness they carry with them, the sense of connection to the past and hope for the future. We seem to have some instinct that floods our minds with joy at seeing our children partake in the same rituals we engaged in when we were their age: Christmas, summer camp, Halloween, birthdays.

Now the world is changing so fast you never know what tradition will be the next to fade. Worst of all, you don’t know how to prepare your children for a world you yourself strain to comprehend, moment-to-moment barely recognize, a world you can only expect will be still more radically transformed by the time they reach adulthood, as you yourself grow ever more fixed in your ways, trapped in your habits of thought, trapped by your own body’s creeping decrepitude.

The emerging trend when it comes to preparing your kids for adult life is to send them to college, a place where they can develop their minds and condition themselves for the destabilized, rapidly expanding world. Then they come home and repudiate every remaining stronghold of timelessness and sacred tradition you raised them to inhabit and embrace, repudiate even the religion you brought them up to respect and seek solace in. The men and women of our generation, he thinks, are not children of our parents anymore so much as children of the society at large, shaped by broader cultural forces, adapting to circumstances much farther-reaching than those obtaining in the tiny communities where we grew up. It’s a bigger world for us, sure, one full of untold promise. Yet there is an undeniable sense of loss accompanying this broadening of our collective horizons.

He thinks about all the mothers doubled or trebled up in the hammocks and cots all over the darkened hut, about how many of their children will die of respiratory infections or snakebites, about how many of them will be separated—what happens to the children when their mothers are dragged off to some foreign village? Or maybe the children will survive to adulthood but then completely abandon the village life for that of the mission, or for Puerto Ayacucho or Caracas. Lac and Laura have their two kids; that’s enough for them. Though it’s hard for him to believe sometimes when his instincts are in a mood to make him worry, their children’s chances of surviving to adulthood are excellent, unprecedented by evolutionary historical standards.

We’ve sacrificed the comforting warm embrace of our traditions, he thinks, for the sake of these wild miracles of medical science. We no longer get to take for granted that our children will pass the same milestones growing up as we did—but in return we’re virtually guaranteed a chance to watch them grow up. So we have fewer children, and we invest more in their upbringing and education. Imagine Mom, still having more babies when the oldest of them were already having babies of their own; Kara and Dominic will be older than their aunt. Out here among the Yąnomamö, that seems less strange. What did Malcolm make of this ever-growing brood of his? What did he make of the encounter, after all that time and effort devoted to protecting them and feeding them and teaching them right from wrong, with his second-oldest son, who came home from college one day to tell him he no longer wanted to be a physicist or an engineer but instead wanted to pursue some field of study he’d never heard of? What would Yąnomamö men make of their sons telling them they don’t believe in Omawä, or Moonblood, or the hekura?

The chance to witness many such encounters may be soon forthcoming. “Believe?” they’ll probably say, brooking no argument: “I’ll show you.” The grownup sons will be pressed to partake of the ebene. Maybe they’ll refuse. Maybe they’ll explain the effects of the drug and how the visions mean something other than what their fathers believe them to mean. The fathers will turn away in disgust from this insolent nonsense.

Malcolm likewise made no allowance for alternate points of view; he must’ve taken it as a betrayal, his son throwing all the time and energy he’d devoted to bringing him up back in his face, renouncing everything he’d taught him over the decades.

Kara on Halloween: Lac remembers how she was so excited at the prospect of scaring the other kids in her ghost costume. Her laughter filled him with a joy so intense it was almost painful—the light flowing warmth expanding until it nearly engulfed and burst through his straining ribs. My precious little ghost, he thinks now: I may as well be the ghost for all the good I’m doing her out here. I missed Christmas. She only has one third Christmas in her life, this one being perhaps the first she’ll remember into later years. Dominic only has one second Christmas.

And how would Lac take it if Kara came to him one day saying Halloween is stupid, that ghosts aren’t real and candy rots your teeth? He has to stifle a laugh, not wanting to wake the few women in his hut who’ve managed to fall asleep. If she came to him expressing that kind of skepticism, he would be so proud. He has his own tradition now—or rather he’s adopted, or been adopted by, an alternate set of traditions going all the way back to the Greeks, reborn in the Enlightenment, and, with the splitting of the atom, just now carrying with it the threat of mankind’s extinction.

If you want to do something worthwhile,” his father had told him, “go to school to be an engineer or a physicist.” It so happens Dr. Nelson’s work comparing the radiation-exposed DNA of the Japanese to the pristine genetics of the Indians of South America is being funded by the Atomic Energy Commission; maybe, he thinks, I haven’t ventured so far from the path lain out for me by my father after all.

What am I personally contributing to this so-called Enlightenment tradition? Hobbes asks us to imagine man in a state of nature as a thought experiment, a springboard launching philosophers into his defense of the Leviathan, which is supposedly necessary to help us nasty humans keep our brutish impulses in check for the sake of longer, more fulfilled lives. Rousseau reasoned in the opposite direction, taking us from the soul-smothering corruption of modern institutional bureaucracies back in time to the innocent purity of the noble savage—and of our own childhoods. Our modern political philosophies coopt elements from both of these frameworks, but ever since the atrocities of the Third Reich came to light over the last decade, there seems to be an emerging consensus among academics that modernity encompasses a tragic dark side for which the blessings it bestows can never adequately compensate—this attitude existing alongside a desperate embrace of science and technology as our only chance at deliverance from the threat of nuclear oblivion posed by our rivals.

The Marxist Soviets meanwhile are undoubtedly in the noble savage camp, while we Americans have a foot in both Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s territories. And me? Lac poses. I’m no Marxist. I’m no ideological capitalist either. I’m a pragmatic capitalist, if I’m anything; I accept the system because it works, not because it follows from any first principles. What I am really though is a scientist, an empiricist: man in a state of nature you say? Show me. If we’re to discuss such men in such a state—and we should be discussing women along with them—we must first observe them for ourselves.

So here I am.

Straightforward enough, but from Malcolm Shackley’s point of view, and from Mom’s probably even more so, merely investigating other traditions and cultures serves to contextualize our own traditions and our own culture. What was once something we’ve always done the way we’ve always done it becomes something only some of us do, and in our own unique way. What was once absolute is now all but completely arbitrary. Really, he thinks, that’s how I lost my faith. Learning about so many other gods and mythologies confronted me with the contingent nature of my own beliefs. We hear about Zeus or Vishnu—or Omawä—and we think it sounds patently absurd; then comes the realization that our beliefs must sound equally absurd to people of other faiths, and in that realization lies the germ of a doubt that proliferates out of control, infecting and rotting the entire superstructure of our religion like the green mold rotting this hut.

One day you look back on all the scriptures and songs and professions of faith and ritual reenactments, and you can’t help but feel the emptiness, the pulse of existential desperation, the overpowering need to hitch your horse to something permanent and undying, so you can be assured that you yourself are permanent and undying—or at least the most important parts of you anyway.

In how many homes across the U.S. are those encounters occurring between offspring newly returned from college and their parents, whose love and devotion and sacrifice on behalf of their precious darlings is set to be repaid with doubt and questioning and supercilious airs, toppling them from their positions as venerated elders, experts, and arbiters? The faster the culture and its dominant industries are displaced, the less value will be placed on the expertise of older generations, whose knowledge pertains now only to the passé and the obsolete.

Will it matter if I, Lac wonders, successfully position myself at the vanguard of my field? Or will I still someday be a useless old dinosaur, my contributions rendered moot by some new theory or advance in technology?

For ethnography, the innovation will likely center on film as a medium to record and convey various elements of the cultures we study; I’ll need to incorporate film into my studies sometime soon. Still, despite my efforts, given enough time, my contributions will be considered quaint and outdated. Irrelevant. There will be better statistics, generated with improved methods, crunched in more powerful machines; the students of the younger generations will laugh at my primitive charts and tables. Unless I manage to foment some Copernican-grade revolution, my work will be consigned to the dime rack of the bookstore.

Lac thinks of the explorers whose books so fascinated him as a kid and into his young adulthood. It may help, he thinks, if you write for the ages, but even then the academics of the future will look down their noses at you, find some reason to disparage and discredit you, say you were somehow bigoted or reckless with the lives of the Indians you studied. Gripping the stock of his shotgun as he finally starts drifting off to sleep, he thinks the case against him regarding this particular charge wouldn’t be too difficult to make persuasively. However reckless he’s being with Yąnomamö lives, though, he’s being far more rash with his own.   

            Word about the impending raid spreads quickly. Did they all know last night? Or was the news shared mostly this morning? Lac, still in a mindset to wonder about the future, tries to imagine a contraption that would track the flow of gossip, the spread and distortion of facts—though the Yąnomamö seem remarkably accurate in their information-sharing. He’d love to experimentally compare their performance in an extended game of telephone to that of a demographically similar cohort of Americans. Accuracy must be held at a higher premium in the jungle.

            Lac is sitting outside the hut, composing his letter to Ken, when Nakaweshimi seeks him out. “Shaki, how many men can you kill with your shotgun?”

            “Sister-in-law, it would be best to go to the camp the hunters made.”

            “How many?”

            Lac contemplates before saying, “I could scare the Mahekodo-teri out of their wits. But maybe they’ve seen shotguns before and wouldn’t feel the need to flee. I would maybe kill a few, but they might hit me with their arrows.”

            “The Mahekodo-teri don’t know about shotguns,” she says. “They will run.”

            Let’s hope your right, he thinks.

            She searches his face for whatever signs are on offer through the filter of his foreign expression. “The Mahekodo-teri don’t know shotguns,” she repeats, turning and walking back to the shabono.

She probably has a point. They may have been introduced to guns at Platanal, but such an introduction would make them more likely, not less, to run in fear. What they really have to worry about is the Yąnomamö obtaining guns of their own. We’ll just have to hope the Salesians aren’t stupid enough to bring shotguns into their bizarre incentive schemes.  

The women crowd in and around the huts, turning to Lac for reassurance, asking how many of the Mahekodo-teri he will kill. As it becomes clear he’s failing to assuage their fears, he starts occupying the role of blowhard protector more enthusiastically. “I am a nabä, but I too am waiteri,” he says, imitating the tone and gestures of the Bisaasi-teri warriors he’s seen boasting of their military prowess. “If the Mahekodo-teri are foolish enough to come here, I’ll kill this many”—he holds up all his fingers, inciting oohs and clicks and cheers—“and the rest will be so frightened they’ll run away, far away, all the way back to Platanal.”

He can’t tell whether they’re humoring him or just entertained enough to momentarily forget their worries, but he repeats the performance whenever asked. Each time he imagines the skirmish as it would actually play out. Arrows will be flying. No man who’s sina, a lousy shot, would have been allowed to join the raiding party; they could kill him before he knows they’re here. If it’s in the predawn hour, he’ll be asleep in his hut—except he won’t tomorrow morning because he’s been warned of their arrival time, roughly. He’ll fire at them from cover, killing one or two—except he won’t. He can’t. He’s an ethnographer; he didn’t come here to kill his subjects. He’ll only shoot to kill as a last resort, in self-defense.

But wait: he’ll shoot an Indian to save his own life but not to save a woman from being dragged off into the jungle? Because that’s just what the Yąnomamö do and it’s none of his business? Haven’t these women, he thinks, turned to me for protection? How can I even begin to explain to them my obligation not to harm any Yąnomamö—even if it’s to protect them from another Yąnomamö? Hell, how can I explain it to myself?

After four repetitions of his boastful performance—“I too am waiteri!”—knowing Padre Morello will be returning soon, he goes back to his letter to Ken, writing, I’m up to my eyeballs in Indians; they appear in larger numbers at the crack of dawn and make it difficult for me to get anything done.

Lac explains why the women are here. He tries to explain the men’s absence, segueing into a description of the trade networks. He wants to stop in the middle of the paragraph and begin again, confiding to his friend how much he feels himself changing into something he doesn’t recognize. But there’s no time. He wants to tell him about the erosion of physical boundaries, and mental boundaries as well, about how he’s afraid to be alone now because he’s worried he’ll discover the man he once was—that serene innermost body all his thoughts once orbited—is nowhere to be found, and how he’s also afraid if he finds that center and thinks like himself for any length of time he’ll have to suffer the adjustment all over again when he returns to the village, unless he decides instead his predicament is just too absurd and the only sane thing to do is get out post haste, for good.

Instead he writes about the three thousand machetes winnowed down to thirty. He writes about the axes and metal pots traded inland, the glass beads acquired though working for the Salesians and handed over to the Maquiritari, who are also known as Ye’kwana, the canoe people. He writes about the green mold covering everything, and the rats eating all his food. He writes about the priest’s warning and about the coral snake and the Bothrops atrox. He hears the outboard on Morello’s dugout motoring into the mouth of the Mavaca as he adds a couple lines about how lucky he is not to have contracted malaria or dysentery, yet. He doesn’t write that he’s afraid to take the padre up on his offer to get him out to Caracas to visit Laura and the kids for the same reasons he’s afraid to be alone for too long—and because he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to recall the part of him that knows how to be with her and how to love her.

Ken probably doesn’t need to know that stuff.

When Morello trudges up the bank wishing him good morning, Lac hands him the letters, which he’s kept hidden because, as he’s just explained in writing to Ken, the Yąnomamö have a way of making anything easily concealable disappear, especially if it’s edible. He hands over the file with the figures on trade goods as well.

“I’d like to take you up on your offer, Padre,” he says as Morello tucks the papers into a bag. “I’d like to travel to IVIC to see my wife and kids.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” he says, looking around at all the women spilling out of Lac’s jungle residence. 

            What must the good priest think of my current living conditions?

It occurs to Lac again how strange it is that he’s never sexually aroused by these women; it could be owing to their profusion, the lack of privacy, or, hell, the lack of physical space. He wakes up nearly every morning after murky dreams about Laura with a throbbing erection. He seldom had sex dreams about his wife while they were sharing a bed; apparently, the heart isn’t the only part made fonder by absence.

“Don’t worry about me too much, Padre,” he says, chuckling: “I come from good stock and received an excellent Catholic upbringing.”

            “Not too excellent,” Morello says with his sly sideways grin, “if you ended up leaving the Church in your young adulthood.” The men share a laugh. “And were your mother and father terribly upset with you when you broke the news that you’d no longer be attending mass on Sundays?”

“Upset? I suppose you could say that. The news that I wouldn’t be going to mass was part and parcel of a general abandonment of the values I was raised with, including my decision to be a scientist, an anthropologist, rather than an engineer. I did survey work during the summers to help pay my way through school. For a while, they must’ve thought I was on a path to contribute something useful to society, help us beat the Soviets and whatnot. But then I told them essentially that I’d been kidnapped and brainwashed by a bizarre academic cult that sends its acolytes all over the world to live with and learn the ways of primitives, of forest nomads or dirt-poor desert pastoralists. You can imagine their chagrin.”

Lac expects Morello to make some point about how it’s possible to be an anthropologist while continuing to attend mass regularly; he even readies a quip about his only interest in such ceremonial gatherings being purely ethnographic. But the padre surprises him: “So what did your father do to contribute to society so heroically? Was he an engineer?”

Lac smiles. “He was a bit of everything. His claim to heroism was that he was a veteran of the war, though he didn’t see much action first-hand. When we were growing up, he was a day laborer. I remember times when he was doing everything from construction to mortuary work—that funeral parlor scared the hell out of me. My wife has this theory that his erratic employment made him adopt an obsessive work ethic, one I could never live up to myself but will spend the rest of my life aspiring to.”

“Your wife—Laura?—seems like an astute woman. My own father was a medical man, and an aspiring cosmopolitan. When I went to seminary, I figured he should be happy enough that my brother, his eldest son, was following more closely in his footsteps, freeing me to choose this alternate path. I think the priesthood was perfectly respectable to him, but it still created a rift somehow. He started looking at me like a foreigner forever afterward, or like an alien from another planet. I’d never anticipated that. The look I got from my brother was similar, if a bit milder in its abrasive bemusement. I’m not sure I would have done anything different had I known they’d think me so strange—oh, they never outwardly suggested it—but the shock…”

Lac waits, astonished by how much he has in common with this man whose friendship he’d so eagerly sought, though more from desperation than natural affinity—or so he’d thought.

“No matter,” the padre says at last. “You’re not truly a man until you’ve stopped chasing your father’s ideal of manhood and started pursuing your own.”

Lac nods, wondering how the priest managed to be both so profound and so platitudinous with the same statement—striking that balance between timeless wisdom and eyerolling cliché.

Throughout the morning after the padre heads back to Ocamo, Lac imagines an alternate timeline for himself, one that delivers him to a present in which he’s the Catholic missionary lending a hand to a neophyte anthropologist. He’d be a younger, American version of his Italian friend. Everyone in the village meanwhile is on alert. A few families have fled to the jungle. Two of the men have run off to see if they can intercept the band of travelers and hasten their return. The women had mostly feared an attack from the north, from the Widokaiya-teri, who are nominally allies of the Bisaasi-teri but who, apparently, can’t be trusted to resist the temptation of so many unguarded women.

Now, thanks to Morello, they know the attack is coming from the south, launched in response to the news reported by those six assholes who passed through the day before yesterday. It doesn’t make much difference. The Widokaiya-teri may still attack; one group’s approach hardly obviates the threat of another’s. Still, it’s nice to know someone in this wilderness is looking out for him, someone willing to risk river travel at night in the dry season. He supposes, were he the missionary, he’d do the same for a friendly ethnographic fieldworker, especially one whose nerves are so visibly frayed.

The Salesians have centuries of practice warding off attacks from the indigenous peoples they’re hoping to bring into their god’s light. Building outposts in clusters—Platanal, Ocamo, and now Mavaca—and establishing channels for regular communication must be part of the strategy. But why would they help him? Lac surmises it’s because he’s not far from Hermano Mertens’s site. Plus, it never hurts to have one more friend, even among the savages and infidels. Plus, the padre is a kind man, an exemplary vessel of his religion.  

Lac has been surveying the landscape around Upper Bisaasi-teri all morning, formulating a plan for defending his research subjects while avoiding being forced to murder any subsection of their population. Stupid questions keep floating up in his mind: if a raider steps on a pit viper and dies from the venom, would I bear any responsibility? Meanwhile, women, sometimes the same ones over and over, keep stopping him to ask if they can see his shotgun. For a while, he was considering arming one or more of them, but he found it too easy to come up with too many scenarios for how that could go wrong.

Nakaweshimi, despite her airs of authority, doesn’t make decisions for the group. Yąnomamö men are consummate chauvinist; they’ll hear her out, sometimes, to glean whatever information she comes bearing, but they treat it as a given that taking direction from a female would be foolish. Too bad: Lac suspects he could prevail on her the wisdom of abandoning the village until the men return. 

One of the remaining men, whose name Lac has never learned, informs him that while Yąnomamö raids typically occur in the early morning, the Mahekodo-teri, knowing the village’s men are away, could easily conclude it would be best to attack at some other time of day, i.e. whenever they happen to reach Bisaasi-teri. When Lac ponders the raiders’ most likely strategies, they all involve removing him, the unknown variable, as quickly upon instigating hostilities as possible: Before you do anything else, put a few arrows through the white man, and then stave in his skull for good measure.

The attacks the men describe to him from experience were not conducted according to any principle of fairness, like the chest-pounding duels he’s heard about or the club fights he keeps almost witnessing. Raids usually entail ambush killing. No qualm on the Mahekodo-teri’s part will prevent him from being impaled by arrows from unannounced, unseen archers. Lac does silent calculations to estimate the time of their arrival, wondering if he could fashion armor of some sort to drape over his back and shoulders.

In the brief window of sleep he enjoyed in the wee hours, Lac dreamt he was reuniting with his family at a time of high alert for the entire civilized world: the Soviets had sent submarines with nuclear launch capabilities to the waters off the coast of Cuba, as they did in reality a few years ago, setting off two weeks of brinksmanship that etched the contours of its darkest forebodings into the psyches of millions of people in both nations. Lac was returning at a time of similar threat; only this time it was widely accepted that the channels our leaders had relied on to diffuse the earlier crisis were now closed. Hugging his daughter, his tiny budding skeptic, he sensed the imminence of their mutual doom, along with everyone else’s.

He awoke to the danger of a more circumscribed doom, setting him to contemplating the scale of deadly occurrences: how mindboggling it is that while he awaits an attack from a couple or a few dozen men bearing mostly stone-age weapons, the sky could at any moment catch fire, scorching the earth in a racing radius of violent devastation. The world wiped sterile, like an operating table rendered uninhabitable to the ecosystem of microbes living out their lives on its surface, but for no such noble purpose, nor for any other purpose at all except to celebrate the ultimate triumph of our Hobbesian nature.

“Shaki, show me your shotgun. How many men can you kill with it?”

Not enough.

Far too many.

Not enough to significantly alter the order of the universe, but more than enough to render my own inner cosmos unrecognizable.  

In your late twenties, you understand for the first time that the underlying order of things—the order you’ve always thought, but never in an explicit way, was protected by some coterie of grownups, the official order-keepers—isn’t really protected by anyone, and is anyway mostly illusory. Things fall into place, pieces of stars and planets fall together, fall into their orbits; organisms evolve and form their habits and relationships, and for a fleeting moment their patterns look to all the world like fixed features of existence. Benevolence in the form of fine-tuning. Then you find yourself waiting in anguished impotence as the official order-keepers square off in a competition of egos to determine the fate of the planet. Then you see the colored population rise up and demand their rights. Then a bullet fired from a book warehouse shatters the skull of the president of the United States. Then, maybe, your father dies. Suddenly the individual items composing the backdrop of our lives lift from the ground in unison, floating in a medium of distilled uncertainty. Everything you see comes emblazoned with an invisible advertisement of its own impermanence. You can hold your ear to anything and almost hear the grains falling in the hourglass measuring out its waning existence.

For Lac, this current of chaos flowing through all the world’s objects and inhabitants compromises the foundation of that stable choreographed benignity we wish we could count on, the one that was dashed into even tinier pieces by his first day in the field, his first visit to Bisaasi-teri. Was he shot through with one of those overlong poison-tipped arrows? No, but he easily could have been, still easily could be, at some point probably will be. The same logic applies to malaria, snakebite, jaguar attack. For his wife and kids, it could be car accidents, military coups, a seducer moving in. Every moment of infinite potential flows into the next until catastrophe becomes all but inexorable. It’s only a matter of time before entropy prevails.

Maybe, if this intuition into latent chaos and impermanence had been noisier in his mind at an earlier time in his life, he would have lacked the courage to relinquish his hold on religion—or to free himself from its hold on him—that bag of tricks that helps us persuade ourselves that the elements of the universe and the paths of our individual lives are arranged according to some principle, pointing to some ultimate purpose. Then maybe he’d be the Catholic missionary and someone else would be the imperiled anthropologist.

But probably not. He has trouble imagining it, though that too may be part of the illusion. Maybe there is a critical period in our development when we decide—or have it decided for us—what we’ll believe, who we’ll be. Later, we look back completely convinced it could’ve unfolded no other way; our course, our personality, was lain out and fixed from the beginning. Questioning this fact can make your sense of self go shaky, unpleasantly so, disturbingly so, as you’re flirting with the underlying arbitrariness of existence. If I’d been born in India, I might be a Hindu. In Israel, if Israel had existed when I was born, a Jew. In Egypt, a Muslim. In Amazonia, a member of any of countless animal-worshipping tribes.

Not many people can live with that; not many choose to anyway, if choice comes into it.

Lac is back in his hut, swaying in his hammock, wondering how he can sneak some food without revealing how to access his stores, when the alarm whistle sounds—visitors approaching. He wouldn’t know the signal is cause for relief as opposed to alarm were it not for the women’s response. They all but cheer as they disgorge from the moldy interior, stepping into the intense light of the afternoon.

The Bisaasi-teri men are back.

Lac sits up and swings his feet out over the ground. He’s decided to build a plank wood floor for the place, as soon as the alert level is lowered. The Yąnomamö have an endearing habit of rubbing the soles of their feet together before cantilevering their legs up onto the hammock’s supporting folds, knocking away all the dirt and mud. He’s done it too on a few occasions, but it would be nice to have real floors so he can go to bed with already clean feet.

He has his boots on now. He stands to observe the men’s return, wondering how effective their presence will prove in deterring the raiders en route to the village. He’s learned to attend closely to the rapid profusion of murmurs issued from travelers upon their return; that’s where the most important news must come from. The trading mission to Reyaboböwei-teri was both a failure and a success. The trading has indeed taken place, but some larger project—they keep using the word nomohori—fell through completely. The village it was planned for was warned and so never bothered showing up.

Lac is looking for someone to interrogate as to the meaning of nomohori when he hears the next bit of news: the Monou-teri headman, Towahowä, has led a raid on Patanowä-teri, successfully killing a man who’d climbed a palm tree to harvest the rasha fruits from its upper region. So the battle has been joined; everyone agrees the Patanowä-teri will be eager to retaliate. But before any discussion of the ramifications ensues, yet another piece of information is shared: the men have intercepted the raiders from Mahekodo-teri, who claimed to be on an innocent hunting jaunt in the area, and invited them to a feast at their shabono.

Lac seldom has moments anymore when he wants to grab someone by the lapels and demand some answers, but this invitation is just too outrageous. They were coming to raid your village, kill the half dozen men you left behind as guards, and make off with as many women as they could corral back to their own village. No one disputes this. Yet the first thing you do when you run into them is invite them all over for dinner?

Who’s to say they won’t wait until your guard is down and start the killing and kidnapping they were of a mind to engage in before you happened upon them? Apparently, the men are thinking along the same lines. The Mahekodo-teri dispatch, they’ve heard, has been joined by one from another upstream village, swelling their numbers to a sum they have no word to express. Bahikoawa is saying he can get the men from across the Mavaca, from what Lac’s been calling Lower Bisaasi-teri, to attend the feast, balancing the till somewhat. But someone needs to go recruit or invite more men, from Karohi-teri perhaps.

Stepping forward on cue, Rowahirawa calls everyone’s attention to Lac. “Shaki, you horny bastard! What the hell were you doing with all these women in your hut?”

The laughter comes swift and raucous as a shockwave. Lac flares with embarrassment. “They thought I could protect them with my shotgun,” he says, grinning toothily as he looks down at his boots.

“So that’s how you tricked them. Did you leave any of them unimpregnated?”

More laughter. They don’t get angry at the suggestion because they can’t imagine him having sex with their wives and sisters. Still burning red up to the follicles of his hair, Lac looks at Rowahirawa and wonders, why is it always us outsiders who are made to play the clowns? We’re only ever on the edge as these stories unfold, with the murkiest sense of the recent history that would give us the context necessary to understand.

So there’s to be a great feast. The gardens have been producing for the men for two weeks without anyone doing the regular harvesting. Preparations need to be made. After the feast, there will be more councils to discuss what’s to be done about the newly joined war between Monou-teri and Patanowä-teri. Lac knows the people of Bisaasi-teri have kin on both sides, though perhaps more who are more closely related in Monou-teri.

He thinks of the man in the tree, completely exposed. After the first arrow, he would have known he was doomed. Lac starts to think, I know how he feels, but stops himself. You don’t know. Anyway, you’re in far less danger now that these men are home than you were an hour ago. 


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