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.
Links to chapters (Table of Contents)
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