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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