Wet Socks: He Borara Chapter 3.2

(2,252 words. Or start from the beginning.) 

He wakes, panicked and disoriented, to the sound of rapid shuffling. A light sleeper, he nearly always knows when someone enters the room in the middle of the night. Mom probably, he thinks, but why would she be moving so quickly, without so much as a murmur to announce her presence. Peering into the dark, he recognizes his brothers by their silhouetted outlines.

            “I can see you guys. What are you doing?”

            “He’s awake!” Connor. “Quick, grab his legs!”

            “I said, what are—”

            Lac’s face is covered, his head pushed back onto the mattress. Connor must’ve moved around to the head of his bed as he sat up to see who else had stirred from his bed or entered through the door to the hallway. Now his older brother is pressing a pillow down on his face. “I can’t breathe!” Lac shouts, the words formless and muffled. He reaches up to free himself but feels his wrists gripped and pulled away from his body. It won’t be any of these sensations that live on in his mind, for him to re-experience over and over in his dreams. In his panic, he relies on some instinct to tell him which way to writhe, first to his right, as he pulls with his bound arms to hoist himself up off of the mattress, and then to his left as he twists his neck backward, chin to the side, creating enough space for a single gasping breath.

            “Lordly Lachlan likes leaving the earth on his lengthy constitutionals,” Rachel taunts, half singing.

            How many of them are in here? Four at least. Not Bess. She wouldn’t be part of this. She must not even know it’s happening.

            “This should help you come back down to earth, your lofty Lordship.”

            It’s not the blows he’ll remember either, delivered by an attacker on either side, thudding loudly into his stomach and ribs. Lac grits his teeth, determined not to make a sound, not to cry. What feel like baseballs wrapped in slings he’ll later learn are bunches of socks soaked in water and stuffed into the ends of longer socks.

His mind brimful with rage, every corner of his awareness splashed with scalding pain, he still manages a thought, observing how the succession of blows, half a dozen landed in alternating turns from either side—loggers bringing down their axes in rhythmic chops—constitute neat bursts of fury, the exact rhythm, intensity, and duration you’d expect from an assailant provoked to sudden violence on the occasion of catching an antagonist at a stark disadvantage.

            What he’ll remember most, though, is the sensation of his legs, kicking wildly at first, thwarting any attempt at fixing a firm grasp, promising, for a thrilling moment, a mode of escape from all the other hands pinning and holding him in place; he could kick loose, plant his heels, and pivot his upper body free—until inspiration strikes one of his siblings. The sheet landing softly over his knees won’t limit the torque he can generate, he’s sure—until it pulls tight, folding into a rope. No, no, no. Hands on his ankles. The twisted sheet passing under his knees. Once around his shins then jerked roughly downward, lashing his bound legs to the bed, dashing his last desperate hope. The thwacking blows collide loudly, painfully, with his chest and abdomen, but his trapped feet are what lie in wait to haunt his nightmares, vivid replays of the sensation readily triggered by the slightest echo of immobility.

The lesson delivered, his teachers release him abruptly, but in his shaking frenzy it takes him several seconds to unbind his legs. His brothers and sisters had earlier that night found the notebook he’d been filling upon his return from each night’s walk with all the airy thoughts that occurred to him along the way. What fourteen-year-old doesn’t have grandiose fantasies? he would pose years later to reassure himself, still feeling the sting of exposure and shame.

His kicks having set the hammock to swaying dramatically once again, Lac opens his eyes to the full light of dawn issuing in through the netting at the door of the Malarialogìa men’s hut. Clemens’s hammock is empty. Lac swings his legs out over the floor as he runs his hand along the seam of his mosquito net. His back stiff, his legs above each knee alive with a pinching ache, he pauses to arrange his thoughts. It’s to be back to Tama Tama with Clemens today to gather his supplies for the next seventeen months into a larger dugout canoe. Then Clemens will motor back up the Orinoco with him before turning around and going back to the mission outpost, leaving Lac here alone, with the Yanomamö. The thought jolts him to his feet, flailing about in the netting. I’m supposed to get situated and then have Laura and the kids join me in the hut I’m to build outside the shabono, he thinks. But how can I bring them to this place? How can I be sure they won’t be killed? Or kidnapped? Or contract some fatal disease? What the hell was I thinking? So, what then? Is it back to Michigan? Back to all my benighted professors? Back to my family and—I’ll have to find some other type of work.

After securing his research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Lac had worked out an arrangement with the head of the University of Michigan’s Department of Human Genetics. He’d heard that Dr. Nelson was looking for anthropologists to help him with a project to study isolated tribes in South America. The plan was to compare the Indian’s genetic material to that of a cohort of Japanese people who’d survived exposure to radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Seeing the project as an opportunity to get funding for future research, possibly even obviating the need to interrupt his fieldwork with long stints of teaching, Lac had agreed to serve as a guide and translator for a research team slated to arrive next year, near the end of his time with the Yanomamö. He’d undergone training back in Ann Arbor so he could help take blood samples and give general health assessments. How would he explain to Nelson his immediate retreat from the jungle, before learning a single word of the language?
Lac, ducking clear of the mosquito netting at last, but still struggling to shed the residue of his dream-saturated sleep, catches himself after several moments staring vacantly at the empty hammock between the door and where he now stands alongside his own. Clemens has told him about how he joined the New Tribes after leaving the army at the end of the war. He wanted to see more of the world. He wanted to do some good. He couldn’t, after all he’d seen, after all he’d done, simply go back home to his old life. Five years later, he and another missionary were making first contact with the people of Mahekodo-teri, a few hours further up the Orinoco from the confluence with the Mavaca. Clemens stayed on after the other missionary returned to the states—for his wedding in 1951. When Clemens did eventually leave Yanomamöland to recuperate and raise funds, the Salesians, who’d ignored the Yanomamö up till then because they were too difficult to reach, took the opportunity to start building the mission compound at Platanal, a short distance from Mahekodo-teri. So it was downriver to Iyäwei-teri for Clemens. He convinced the people there to move closer to the confluence of the Ocamo River with the Orinoco, where he set up another mission outpost, staying for a few years. When he left, however, the Catholics moved in again. Lac has in fact spoken over shortwave radio to the Italian priest who’s currently stationed at Ocamo. Now Clemens has his hut outside the Bisaasi-teri shabono near the Mavaca, and so far the Salesians have been content to leave him to his own brand of mission work there.

Lac can’t help but admire Clemens, who’d even mentioned on the way from Tama Tama that he was considering bringing his own wife and children to stay with him at Bisaasi-teri when he returns, around six months from now. I wonder if the incident with the kidnapped women will dampen his excitement about bringing his family out here, Lac thinks as he attempts to stretch out the kinks in his shoulders and lower back. Either way, Clemens will be returning to this place himself—despite having admitted to Lac that he can’t claim to have converted a single Yanomamö. “They listen to the stories,” Clemens said to him at Tama Tama, “but they expect their holy men to prove their magic somehow—by curing sick children or by making a charm that brings success in a hunt—and until they see the magic working they’re skeptical. The best I can hope for usually is that some of them will pick up elements of the gospel and incorporate them into their mythology. It’s a start anyway, a foundation.”

Lac hid his smile upon hearing this, thinking the prospect of the missionaries ever managing to build anything atop so flimsy a foundation far too miniscule to warrant taking on the risks. Now, though, he realizes that, regardless of who gets the best of the petty squabbles among the missionaries, the white people as a general block, with all their technology and medicine, along with the sheer inexhaustibility of their creeping presence, will soon enough be offering the Yanomamö all the proof anyone could possibly need of their magic’s deadly effectiveness. The proselytizing at this stage may be futile, but the unceasing migration of people is nonetheless a harbinger of much more far-reaching, much more cataclysmic, transformations to come. Clemens has told him of the Yanomamö at Bisaasi-teri’s stories of several other villages to the south, almost twice as large and as yet uncontacted. How long before someone from the New Tribes—maybe Clemens himself—or someone with the Salesians reaches these more remote groups? Or worse—how long before some mining outfit or some logging operation decides to move into the territory?

No one’s really had a chance to study a tribal society comprised of so many independent villages before, Lac reminds himself. Where else in the world is there enough unexplored territory to support such a society? New Guinea perhaps. The chance to learn what these cultures have to teach us isn’t going to remain in existence for long; the tribes themselves won’t exist for long. If so much of what my professors back home believe about people living in these societies is wrong, then that’s all the more reason to stay in this damn jungle and do some proper research. Plus, if Chuck has survived repeated expeditions to this place over the course of a decade, then I should be able to manage a year and half out here myself.

As if conjured by the thought, Clemens just then pokes his head into the hut, where Lac is still stretching and shaking his limbs, working to emerge from his early morning fog. “These damnable bareto,” he says, ducking inside, swatting frantically at the invisible tormentors swarming his face. “It looks like we may get some rain today. That could make traveling on the river a bit smoother, if the water level raises enough. And it’ll keep the gnats under control too if we’re lucky.”

Lac had been eager to step out of the hut into the leaf-filtered sunlight until the missionary’s reminder of what he’d inevitably have to suffer in the daytime forest. A solid globe of anxiety has begun forming beneath his sternum, impeding the downward expansion of his lungs, leaving him to gulp in the musty air in tiny gasps, a giant guppy trapped in a bowl of stagnant water. When he’d passed out last night with that cracker leaching the moisture from the corners of his mouth, he was determined to get out of this jungle as quickly as he could, leaving those wretched people he’d encountered yesterday to whatever fate had in store for them. Now he knows there’s no way he’ll be able to live with himself if he returns to Ann Arbor emptyhanded, defeated, having vindicated everyone at home who swore to his fecklessness. At least for the time being, he’ll be going through with the original plan. Back to Tama Tama for the rest of his supplies. Then back to the Mavaca in a dugout canoe. Back to Bisaasi-teri to live among the Yanomamö and see what he can find out about them and their battles over women.

“Let’s get a bite and then get moving,” Lac says, convinced the best way to break down that globe of tension growing under his heart is to start working. Laura and the kids? You’ll have to get a better sense of how safe it is, he tells himself. You don’t have to decide that now. It’s seventeen months. Take it one step at a time. You’ll still have chances to get out if you decide it’s necessary. For now, just get to work. Get your supplies up here. Get Chuck’s hut outside the shabono into livable condition. Get to work on your own hut, big enough for everyone in case they eventually do end up coming. Start writing down observations. Start doing your best to learn the language. And see if you can keep your damn self from getting killed. 
Continue reading: Confessions of Murder: He Borara Ch. 3.3

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