Lac sneezes as he sits down at the table with paper and pen. I’ve got a beaut of a cold, he writes. He’s quarantined himself in his hut, so he figured he may as well catch up on his correspondence, beginning with the letter to Ken he’s been meaning to write. I went monkey hunting with the gang this week, he continues, in preparation for a big feast in honor of a visiting village’s slain headman.
The Monou-teri were only here a few days before the hanky-panky started. The buildup to the club fight that ensued was nothing like the tectonic force accumulating over the course of the Mahekodo-teri’s visit. For one, the Monou-teri don’t have a leg to stand on; they need the Bisaasi-teri far more than the Bisaasi-teri need them—which is probably why the local guy felt entitled to a romp with one of the visiting men’s wives. Plus this time around it was only two men facing off (though there were threats galore from each man’s male kin). These squabbles over women, while not a daily occurrence, are an ever-present source of testiness and suspicion, and the risk of violence seems to intensify whenever you have a mingling of groups like this.
I keep barely missing the club fights in the village, he goes on writing; this was the first one I witnessed directly, and I got some great photos. (I missed the last one by a couple of hours; another happened while I was here but I didn’t actually see any of it.) The good thing about the fights is they get people talking. I can just hover about the crowd and listen. Sometimes they’ll even let a name slip out of their tobacco-stretched mouths. I’d love nothing more right now than to be in the shabono collecting data—i.e. recording gossip—but I keep thinking I could end up killing some poor kid if my cold spreads.
It started after I nearly overheated trying to keep up with the hunting band. I can’t describe the sensation; I mean, I’ve hunted plenty before, but not like this. Hurtling yourself headlong through the underbrush and threading your way through the trees, always with your eyes darting about the canopy in search of your quarry. I had my shotgun at the ready, braced in front of me, getting frustrated because I didn’t think it should be slowing me down as much as it was. I manage to shoot a monkey or a tapir with it here and there, but this time it was an arrow that brought down our target. When we got back to the village and I kept walking back to my hut, I had sweat gushing from every pore on every part of my body and I felt lightheaded, so I sort of floated right past my door, wrestled off my clinging wet clothes, and jumped in the river to cool off.
That night I awoke around 2 in morning with a cough and a sore throat.
Lac doesn’t write that he heard—not imagined but heard—his mother’s voice ringing out in the darkened hut, chiding him for his ill-conceived efforts at returning his body to homeostasis. He writes instead of the Monou-teri headman’s death and of how the women are going to eat his ashes during the feast, and perhaps have a little reciprocal raid afterward. He’s not sure exactly why his impulse is to downplay the counterattack—counter-counterattack—other than that, after all, it’s murder they’re talking about, sort of.
He tells Ken to expect more arrows in a shipment to the museum, the first and far less impressive batch having arrived safely according to Ken’s last letter. He’ll also be sending some ebene tubes and pack baskets. Finally, he writes about the archeological site he discovered at what may have once been a village. He found scads of potsherds, most of which look like they would be from pots quite similar to the ones they use in Bisaasi-teri today, when they’re not using the aluminum pots traded in from the Ye’kwana or the missionaries (or now from him). But some of the fragments are much more delicate, as though they came from a more advanced ceramic tradition, making him wonder if the Yąnomamö might have regressed from some former higher level of technological and artistic sophistication. Such backward lurches must have happened to societies throughout history. Pick your catastrophe: plague, war, famine, environmental degradation. Guys like Percy Fawcett spent their whole lives searching Amazonia for these lost civilizations.
Lac writes about a stone ax he found, a relic of a time before madohe. The thought that neither he nor any other Westerner will ever see how the Yąnomamö made axes almost brings tears to his eyes. The Waica claim they find these ax heads all the time, he writes to Ken, but seeing is believing.
Lac, feeling better for the past two days, is in his hut collecting names from an older man—in his mid-forties maybe—one he’s been finding delightfully easy to work with, so much so that he’s moved this informant to the top of his pay scale and begun going over the charts for the entire village with him. Theoretically, Lac thinks, I could get the names of everyone in Bisaasi-teri from this one man, whose own name is Kukumbrawa—according to his neighbor in the adjoining yahi, who’s also a parallel cousin, his father’s brother’s son. Lac moves his finger over the diagram, tracking the connection along the lines running between the names.
He could fill in all the empty spaces with this one informant and then ask for the same information from some other similarly cooperative man, and then another, until it’s clear the names and relationships as diagrammed are consistent. The process shouldn’t take that long. He could collect all the preliminary data he needs—all the information Dr. Nelson has requested—and then move on to lineage histories. After that, he can start focusing on other villages. By mid-summer he could be ready to make an expedition inland from the Orinoco, maybe as far as the gigantic shabono near the headwaters of the Mavaca, the one Rowahirawa keeps telling him about.
He’s leaning down to let Kukumbrawa whisper in his ear when he hears the drone of an outboard on the river. His informant stands up from the chair and walks to the door with him. Lac’s heart thuds with reverberations of his panic on the night last month when he was sure his hut was about to be besieged by raiders from another village. But he’s able to calm himself. That night, the boatman turned out to be Padre Morello; that’s probably who it is now—or else it’s more men from the Malarialogìa. They’ve been visiting the hut across the Orinoco a lot lately, the one he and Clemens stayed in his first night in the field. It could also be some of the padre’s other Salesian friends, the ones building the missionary compound across the river; Lac never hears from these men, but, though he’s loath to admit it, he’s been comforted by their propinquity.
The boat appears to be on a course for the bank near his hut, and Lac sees just one man sitting with his hand on the lever steering the engine. “Dr. Shackley,” the padre’s voice shudders out over the water before brittlely echoing back from the trees on the far bank. “How are you this fine day? You’re looking hale and formidable.” After his brief sickness, Lac finds these words relieving, the dubiousness of the flattery notwithstanding.
Lac returns the greeting before telling Kukumbrawa they’ll have to continue the ohodemou later and giving him a portion of the standard payment he’s come to expect. Kukumbrawa is less disappointed with the payment than he is excited about the arrival of a visitor. Lac laughs silently. You wouldn’t be so excited, he thinks, if you knew even half of what this guy wants to persuade you of.
As he steps down to the water’s edge, Lac sees the padre isn’t his old ruddy and buoyant self. Instead, he looks like he’s been missing too much sleep of late, and maybe done a little too much drinking. “Padre, I still haven’t adequately expressed my gratitude for all you did to help me make it to Caracas and back to visit my family.” Lac chuckles furtively at his own words, not because he’s fumbling with his Spanish, but because even in his current ragged state, the good padre has a way of inspiring excessive formality.
“Now that you mention it,” Morello says as Lac reaches out for the canoe’s gunnel to pull it ashore, “there is something you can do for me.” He stands and wobbles his way along the length of the craft, where he grips Lac’s arm and steps onto dry land.
“Sure,” Lac says. “Anything.”
“Let’s discuss it inside,” the padre says, gesturing toward the hut. This gives Lac pause, not so much for the suggestion that they talk indoors—maybe he just wants to get out of the sun, away from the bugs—as for the reticence in his tone. He’s about to make an unpleasant request, Lac is sure.
Lac guides him along the path through the high grass, on the lookout for snakes, exercising his now ingrained vigilance, as the padre enquires into the progress of his work. Now it’s Lac’s turn to be cagey; he looks around to see who’s in earshot before saying, “It’s going fantastic.” He feels his own face light up and sees a feeble reflection of his excited smile on his friend’s face. “I’ve finally started to get the names I need for my genealogies. I’ve already got the names of most people currently living here.”
“That is fantastic! How did you get them to tell you their names?”
Before proceeding to explain his name-gathering protocol in detail, Lac reminds himself that the only Spanish words any of the Bisaasi-teri know are sí and no. But he relishes finally being able to tell someone about his success. His excitement is too weightily palpable to keep to himself. Many of the villagers have emerged from the shabono to get a look at the visitor, and Lac takes a moment to explain to them in Yąnomamö who this new nabä is. Before continuing his description of his interview methods though, he guides the padre into the hut and closes the door to any curious Indians straggling along behind them.
“Remarkable,” the padre says after hearing how Lac has accomplished the feat. “Ingenious.”
Lac is suddenly his twelve-year-old self again on the day he held up a medium-sized trout to show his dad; Morello may as well be patting him on the head, saying, “Way to go, slugger.” Embarrassed by his swelling pride, Lac hastens to divert his guest from offering further praise and congratulations: “Now tell me, Padre, what’s bothering you? Something’s obviously been keeping you awake at night. Tell me how I can help.”
Lac pulls a chair out for his guest, the same chair Kukumbrawa recently vacated. The padre puts both palms on the table and collapses onto the seat with a dignified grunt. “Hermano Marteens,” he says, “is having a great deal of difficulty with the Indians across the river.”
Lac pulls out the other chair for himself. As he lowers himself into it, he looks over to see beads of sweat trundling from the padre’s forehead all the way down his cheeks into his thick wiry mass of beard. It would be hard to imagine a man more out of place—unless, that is, the good padre were to strip down, don a loincloth, scatter some buzzard feathers over his bald head, and dance in the courtyard with the villagers. Lac chokes back a laugh and says, “I gather Hermano Marteens is concentrating his efforts on the people across the Mavaca at Lower Bisaasi-teri; I’ve never encountered him here. Now that I think about it, it’s strange that no one from the other shabono ever mentions him either.”
He’s speaking too fast, he realizes, because he’s uneasily anticipating that the padre is about to try to recruit him on behalf of the Salesians, to assist them in their efforts to accustom themselves to Yąnomamö ways. There’s no way I’m going to help them convert anyone, Lac thinks. I’ll agree to help with logistical stuff, sure, just as Morello has done for me. I don’t have anything against the padre personally of course, but the stark reality is that I’m completely opposed to the Salesians’ agenda for the Yąnomamö.
Completely opposed? Even if it means medicine and protection for the women and kids?
The padre says, “I’m afraid the good brother hasn’t been getting around to doing much mission work—which is the essence of the problem I’m currently working to remedy. When it was me first starting to build a mission compound, all those structures at Ocamo, I relied on many of the Ye’kwana from the area as a labor force. They have a long history with the Church and were accustomed to trading their work for things like tools, food, medicine.”
“The Yąnomamö aren’t exactly slow to catch on to the value of our manufactured goods, Padre. Though trading with them comes with some pretty thorny complications.”
“Yes, so I’ve been informed. The biggest challenge for Hermano Marteens—.” He breaks off midsentence, pauses for the span of a weighty thought, and begins again. “I’ve recently received word that your friend Mr. Clemens will soon be returning to the territory. He’s bringing his wife, and another couple will be accompanying them as well. It seems they plan to divide their time between the school at Tama Tama and the villages here at Bisaasi-teri, with each family taking up on its own side of the Mavaca.”
Lac’s first thought is, that’s a lot of goddamned nabä. But his next thought is of Laura and how the presence of the other couples will make getting her here far easier. It will also make it a great deal safer for her and the kids to stay here when he travels to other villages. “Chuck’s coming back?” he says. “That’s great. I hadn’t heard.” He stops himself from saying, “But how the hell did you find out about all this?”
“Dr. Shackley, do you know anything about a dictionary Mr. Clemens is working on?”
“A dictionary? Like a Yąnomamö dictionary, one for translating the words to English or Spanish?”
“Hermano Marteens, you see, he speaks both Spanish and English quite well.”
Bahikoawa looks fine one moment and then as if he’s in severe pain the next. With all the parties under the same roof—or sharing the same plaza and palisade anyway—the raid can be launched any day the headman chooses.
“The pata has sent word to the Shamatari,” Rowahirawa says. “The Bisaasi-teri are waiting for men from Mömariböwei-teri and Reyaboböwei-teri to accompany them on the raid. The people here have done much to cultivate the alliances; now it’s time to see if their efforts will pay dividends.”
Lac sits up in the hammock next to Rowarhirawa in his father-in-law’s yahi, where he’s been lazing away the day’s hottest hours and asks, “Will the men from those villages make that big of a difference to the raid’s chances of success?”
“Shaki, stop being such an imbecile. Ma, it won’t make any difference; it’s to solidify the alliance.” He repeats the last phrase, as Yąnomamö often do, all but dancing to the rhythm of his own words, so enthusiastic is he in his gesticulating. Lac decides his friend looks like a jaguar, because Yąnomamö faces remain shamefully indistinct in his mind and he’s determined to train his mind to zero in on subtle differentiating features. Unfortunately a lot of their faces could be said to resemble a jaguar's.
“But then why is Bahikoawa still waiting? They’re already two days late, and I hear the other men saying there’s a risk of big rainfall with the start of the wet season. You guys don’t want to get stuck having to march all the way back to Bisaasi-teri on muddy or flooded trails. Isn’t that what you’re counting on to slow the Patanowä-teri pursuit after you attack?”
“We can’t leave for a raid after announcing when we’ll be gone.”
“But you only announced it to the people you’re waiting on to go on the raid with you.”
“That’s why we’re waiting. If they’re not here yet, it’s probably because they’re planning something.”
“Aren’t they your allies?”
“Shaki, don’t be so naïve. Awei, they’re allies to the Bisaasi-teri. That doesn’t mean they won’t try to steal our women from us.”
“Ma! So that’s why you’re waiting.” The Yąnomamö aren’t very principled, he thinks; it’s always the thing that’s right in front of their nose. Or maybe, he tells himself, there’s some wisdom to it you simply don’t understand. Still, he can’t help being disgusted. “Shori, how often do villages go on raids that don’t result in anyone getting killed?”
“How often do the raiders themselves get killed?”
“It happens, but that means the raid wasn’t successful, even if the raiders kill someone else. You’ll have to go on another raid after that.”
“If I were to travel with you and the other men from Bisaasi-teri, would I get killed?”
“Shaki, are you hungry for the flesh of the Patanowä-teri?”
“Ma, Shori, I’m fascinated by the ways of the Yąnomamö, like I’ve told you, and I want to go with you so I can record what I see in my white leaves.”
“Will you bring your shotgun?”
Lac began this line of questioning on a whim; he hasn’t considered going along on the raid until now, at least not consciously. Would he bring the shotgun? “Ma.” Absolutely not. “I’ve made a promise not to kill any Yąnomamö—.”
Rowahirawa rolls out of his hammock and slams his fist into Lac’s shoulder. “Don’t say what you just said!”
“But it’s true.”
“If men know you’re a coward, they’ll treat you as they would a woman.”
Lac shakes his head pointlessly. “I understand.” So it’s true, he thinks; the only reason my hut ever goes a day unviolated is that the Yąnomamö are afraid of my shotgun.
Rowahirawa laughs and gives him a hard shove. “You’re hopeless without me, Shaki. You know that?”
Lac spends the latter half of the afternoon conducting an interview with a man whose behavior seems entirely choreographed, his answers entirely rehearsed. The earlier interviewees must have relayed to him in detail what he should expect—and maybe he caught on there’s an audition mentality to the proceedings. His every answer is a story, and Lac can’t decide whether to admire the man’s flare for drama or disdain him as a purveyor of compelling lies. The facts of his stories, the main characters, all check out with the picture that’s emerging of the village’s history and current composition through all his efforts at questioning and crosschecking. Something about the guy though—he seems fundamentally untrustworthy.
Not exactly an objective observation, Shackley, he says to himself.
“Towahowä, he was waiteri,” the man says. “He seduced his own brother’s wife in Monou-teri.”
True, Lac thinks. I’ve heard this before. “Ma!” he says, encouraging the man to continue.
“Awei, Towahowä had sex with her, and then the brother returned and became so angry he fired an arrow at her. He meant to shoot her in the thigh, because he wanted her to survive the wound. But he is sina, like Uhudima in the time of Moonblood, and the arrow implanted itself in her gut. She bled to death, leaving her husband inconsolable.”
Many of the women Lac sees in the village are missing parts of their ears, souvenirs of similar episodes of violent jealousy. He’s seen one woman hit another with a smoldering log from the hearth, seen the men do that too. It’s not the type of culture you’d want to raise your daughter in.
And, you, Lachlan Shackley, are not the type of scientist who lets himself get so loose with such value-laden sentiments.
As the man continues telling his stories about the separation of villages and their post-fissioning political histories, Lac’s mind wanders to Nakaweshimi. She must be close to term about now. But she’s nowhere to be seen lately. Lac assumes it’s Yąnomamö custom for a woman to seclude herself in the days leading up to childbirth. Those are details he could be investigating for his ethnography, but he doesn’t know where to begin enquiring after information that sensitive.
What he will be able to see is how the birth of the second baby impacts how Nakaweshimi cares for her other child, who’s still a tiny infant. The other thing that’s been preoccupying him is this silly idea of his about going along on the raid to Patanowä-teri. He and Rowahirawa agreed it would be possible for him to tag along on the journey but not participate in any killing. Still, the Patanowä-teri will probably pursue the raiders, and it’s not like he’ll have the time to explain to them that he’s only there in the capacity of neutral observer. If he’s not killed, he’ll likely still be forfeiting the reputation for impartiality he’s counting on to make travelling among villages relatively safe and easy.
You’ll be compromised, he thinks, too deeply enmeshed in the culture to observe its dynamic operations and ongoing development from a detached vantagepoint. But, then again, you’ll also be going along to witness a custom few ethnographers have ever witnessed. And this is the part, the coalitional killing, warfare at its most primitive, that your professors and colleagues will say you’ve misrepresented, or fabricated outright. “Did you actually see any Yąnomamö killing each other?” he imagines Dr. White asking him. “It’s quite possible the attacks you heard rumors of were purely ritualistic, and that the men your friends claimed to have killed are alive and well and boasting of their own ritual kills.”
Yes, my boastful friends.
Lac has seen enough to know that Yąnomamö violence, while steeped in ritual and embedded in an intricate web of superstition, is all too real in its impact. Whatever mysteries he uncovers through his genealogical efforts, it’ll be Yąnomamö warfare that gets people talking back home—just like it does here. As for being compromised, it doesn’t have to go down that way. I won’t follow the warriors when they make their final charge, he thinks. I’ll hold back, with any luck remaining in eyeshot of the incident without being seen by anyone inside the shabono.
So you’re just going along to watch some poor bastard get shot out of a tree?
You may have to, if only to bolster your conviction, give you the confidence to stick to your guns in the face of all the scrutiny your work is bound to attract.
He’s debating with himself as he’s half-heartedly attending to his informant’s performance with a healthy dollop of dismissive skepticism when the hut goes silent. Lac turns to see the man stand up and move to the door. He pricks his ears and picks out the sound of whistling in the distance—friendly visitors announcing their presence. The villagers raise their voices from within the shabono. Lac and his informant begin walking back to the opening in the palisade so they can see who the visitors are. It must be the men they’re expecting from Mömariböwei-teri and Reyaboböwei-teri at last; they weren’t waiting to steal women after all—or if they were, they realized the Bisaasi-teri and Monou-teri were wise to their treachery, and so their best bet for capturing women is to raid Patanowä-teri alongside their new allies.
Now the raid will take place. And Lac knows regardless of which decision he’s able to marshal the best arguments for, he’ll be traveling alongside the raiders as well—or following behind them anyway. “There may be no turning back after this,” he mumbles to himself. I’ll need to talk to Rowahirawa, he thinks, do a lot a planning.
The next day the overfull village is preparing for the feast, and Lac is looking right at Nakaweshimi, no longer pregnant, but not carrying a second infant. This could mean any number of things. He tries to think back to the two other births that have occurred since his arrival in Bisaasi-teri, but gets no useful insight from recalling them. Has she miscarried? Was the baby sick or deformed? He wants desperately to ask her, but she doesn’t look like she’s in any mood for questions. No one looks to be in the mood for questions today. Lac resigns himself to a full day of silent of observation, out of respect—and out of prudence.
He feels more unwelcome today than at any other time since his first entrance into the shabono. The Yąnomamö never hesitate to let him know how annoying they find him, but they usually also seem to find him amusing, or find it amusing to mess with him anyway. Today, though, people are preoccupied with their grieving, preoccupied with their efforts to keep the substrate of rage simmering beneath their sadness from boiling over. On any normal day, they’re not only short-tempered; they’re itching to show off how short their tempers are. His thumb still aches from the incident when Rowahirawa stubbed his toe and threw down the heavy log they were carrying together. That was probably getting off easy. But today he senses those tempers are even more raw.
The hours drag on as he either lies in a hammock next to Rowahirawa or minces from spot to spot around the plaza. Into the afternoon, the funereal mood hangs thicker and thicker in the air. There’s no laughter to be heard, no beaming expressions to behold. If I had just shown up from Caracas, Lac thinks, I might think there was tension mounting among the assembled villages—as when the Mahekodo-teri and Boreta-teri were here throwing their weight around—so nauseatingly palpable is this undercurrent of wrath to their mournfulness.
Moment by moment resisting his urge to ask questions, he instead wisps around with his cameras and tape recorder, doing his best impersonation of a cloud. He has to be subtle with his camera work, snapping photos only of incidents of highest import, because even on normal days the Yąnomamö sometimes get irritated with him for stealing their images, chasing him away with upraised clubs—or once, with flung rocks—but today the deterrents are bound to be more severe, the punishments more vicious.
The irritability isn’t the most ostensible of their emotional states though. He listens to the villagers’ tearful laments, as they call to the fallen headman with the most intimate of kinship terms, making pronouncements of never-ending sadness and forlorn longing to be reunited in hedu. This strikes Lac as strange because these same relatives of the Monou-teri headman have seemed emotionally even-keeled every time he’s seen them over the past few weeks. Towahowä was killed over a month ago, and yet it’s only now that the bereavement takes hold—or maybe it’s taking hold for the second time, the first having occurred when they learned of his death and cremated his body, producing the ashes the women are now consuming with their plantain soup.
It’s like they’ve all agreed now is the time to collectively wallow in grief, to sulk and cry out, so they’re deliberately concentrating on their loss, meanwhile reflecting each other’s sadness and anger, thus amplifying them both, the space of their passion spilling into an infinite regress of hitherto dormant devastation. Surprisingly, the spreading contagion of their emotions is affecting even him, a nabä who only encountered the deceased on a couple of occasions, never getting overly close.
What seems most bizarre to Lac however is that these people are so aggrieved about the death of a guy who treated many of them terribly. Towahowä was a total asshole. He seduced—or possibly raped—an untold number of these men’s wives, including his little brother’s. It was his stealing of another man’s wife that led to the fissioning of Monou-teri from Bisaasi-teri, which you could argue resulted in their present predicament. Then he further endangered the village by leaving them leaderless, because he was so reckless in his pursuit of women and greater renown. And who knows how many other women he’s abused, how many other men he’s intimated or assaulted or cuckolded—though none of these practices are exactly frowned upon by the Yąnomamö?
Lac tries to force himself to accept that they hold different virtues as praiseworthy, different vices as beneath contempt. That’s easy enough to understand in principle; it’s the liking part that confounds him. How could anyone have liked Towahowä? Or did they? Or is all this emotion on display separate from the discrete person of the former headman, more about his role than his individual identity? It’s a question he’ll have to return to when he’s attended more funeral feasts, more reahu, as the Yąnomamö call them.
Throughout the day, villagers take turns shouting out formal speeches, somewhat like they do in their kąwa amou chants before bed but more lachrymose, about how their kinsman’s death has pierced to the depths of their being. “Ya buhii ahi,” he keeps hearing. My innermost soul is cold. One man sounds off in one part of the shabono, then another man somewhere else riffs on the theme. Hushuwo is another term he keeps hearing: angry and sad and volatile—much more volatile than usual.
Lac wanders about the edge of the plaza, trying his hardest to be invisible, on the lookout for good spaces to tuck himself, vantages where he can witness the goings-on unseen. Late in the afternoon, the men, still in their yahis, all start doing something strange. Lac risks stepping closer to see a couple times. They’re biting into burnt logs, chewing the charcoal. Lac guesses it’s supposed to have some medicinal property at first, but then he sees them spitting it out and rubbing it between their hands. They’re mixing the masticated charcoal with their saliva to create a black sludge. He watches as they begin smearing it all over their arms and shoulders, going on to cover their entire bodies, painting them black.
Lac’s heart floats weightlessly, darting about like a hummingbird colliding with the bars of its cage. These sons of bitches are going to sneak up on another village, he thinks, and murder some poor bastard who doesn’t even know they’re coming. It hits him with all the absurd reality of a platypus waddling up to him with a stick of dynamite clamped in its bill.
Lac’s been told that the mechanics of the pre-raid feast, if not the mood, are similar to those of feasts prefiguring morning trading sessions. Aside from the large troughs of plantain soup, though, the activities seem far different. Some time has passed since the women finished drinking their soup from calabashes, and now the men are busy dressing up a stripped-down tree trunk, evidently to make it look like a Yąnomamö, complete with wavy red lines down his torso, monkey tail headband, and sprinkling of white feathers atop the crown; the wooden man has donned his finest regalia for the occasion. The men lift this pithy white effigy onto a hammock—at maybe five feet tall, it fits nicely—before dispersing and preparing to stage a mock ambush. One of the raiders is a roughly eleven-year-old boy, Towahowä’s youngest son, and many of the charcoal-painted men pull him aside to give him instructions and advice.
Now that the stage is set with the trunk swaying lazily in its hammock, a dozen warriors crouch down and make their way toward it from different parts of the plaza. Gesturing with weighty emphasis to each other, they waddle mostly in unison, deeply bent at the knees, coming from various angles—a band of hellfire-scorched demons capturing souls to build the ranks of their satanic subterranean army—until they’re close enough to make aiming all but moot. All at once, they leap up to their full height to draw and fire their arrows. The tips bury themselves in the pulpy wood with a sickeningly rapid series of thuds. The victim is a pincushion before he could have ever known an attack was underway. All the men scream as they retreat, running out of the shabono in a series of sprints and halts, the warriors in front stopping to turn and cover the escape of the ones bringing up the rear in a repeating pattern.
The mock raiders return one by one to their hammocks over time, but some of them remain in the plaza to practice and give the young boy plenty of coaching. Individually, no longer slithering toward their victim in a coiled mass of inhuman flesh, they’re less like demons than grown men playing dress-up. To Lac, all of these preparations and success rituals seem to be taking place at a distance, on the periphery of his sphere of concern. Yesterday, before deciding to travel along with the raiders, this same scene would have permeated his senses and thoughts with its dramatic implications: a young boy being taught to escape after being pressed to take lethal vengeance on his father’s killers.
As it is, he’s thinking more about the recent rains, how the rising waters will chase the poisonous snakes to higher ground, the same higher ground on which the Yąnomamö like to blaze their trails. The idea, if he understands Rowahirawa correctly, is to load up on plantains, walk slowly to the enemy’s village, deliberately pinpointing the ideal time to make the kill—likely when a suitable victim leaves the Patanowä-teri shabono to piss or fetch water—and, freshly unencumbered by the newly exhausted supply of food, run most of the way back, hastened by the knowledge that the people you just raided are fresh on your heels, eager to retaliate, desperate to avenge whoever just got killed. If the snakes don’t get you, he tells himself, the Patanowä-teri will.
But I need to be there, he thinks. I need to see it happen at least once with my own two eyes. Or else it’ll live on as mere rumor, even to me, apt to rise and twist and disappear like a wisp of smoke. This is the part they won’t believe back home, those professors whose field experience consisted of living among highly acculturated Indians or Bushmen, conquered peoples, domesticated peoples. I need to be sure if I’m going to be able to stick to my guns. I need to see it happen.
As his thoughts and fears jostle about in his mind like bees in an agitated hive, he finds his eyes have come to rest on the effigy, the no owä, as he’s heard the Yąnomamö call it, still swaying in its hammock as if by its own exsanguinated volition—any man would surely have bled to death by now. He imagines the pool of blood on the floor, spreading toward the hearth. What percentage of the men here, he wonders, will be killed in their hammocks like this, or while they’re up in a tree harvesting fruit, or out in the forest searching for honey? How many will be killed taking a piss? What percentage of the women will be kidnapped and dragged off to some rival village to be sex slaves who graduate to become wives and mothers as though the original crime had never been committed?
Those are empirical questions, he points out to himself, and it’s all information you can glean from exactly the kind of interviews you’re already conducting—if you could just find a more effective way to discuss people’s dead relatives. That’ll be my main focus when I get back. For now, I need to plan: what kind of food should I bring when I set out with the raiders tomorrow? How will I carry it? How am I going to keep up with them as they sprint home afterward? How am I going to avoid the snakes? How am I going to avoid impalement by half a dozen arrows, poison-tipped, all at once?
Jesus, Lachlan, you’re either on the cusp of becoming a great anthropologist or you’re out of your god damned mind.
It’s Bahikoawa, as racked with pain from his undiagnosed infection as he is, and Towahowä’s brother, as much as he’s struggling with a steady trickle of accusations of cowardice, who are directing the show today, and they’ll be the ones leading the raid tomorrow. It’ll be a miracle if they even manage to complete the two-day journey to Patanowä-teri, Lac thinks. He’s getting nervous. Rowahirawa has told him the Patanowä-teri are cultivating a new garden in some unknown spot, perhaps even returning to harvest the rasha from one of the Bisaasi-teri’s old sites. So once the raiding party has made it to the shabono they’ve set as a destination, they may have to do some tracking and searching before finding anyone to kill. That sounds to Lac like a greater chance they’ll be spotted and set upon by the rival village’s own waiteri, of whom there is a famously large number.
Rowahirawa tells him the retreat is the tricky part, and he describes the two-by-two progression away from the enemy village, where two men stand hidden while another two or four flee along a path running right between them. It’s a preset trap for the pursuers, who unwittingly step into a crossfire and have their pursuit brought to a sudden, unsatisfying halt. That’s what he saw them practicing after shooting the no owä full of arrows as it reclined peacefully in its hammock.
Somehow, his mind has connected the upcoming post-raid sprint back to the mouth of the Mavaca with his running through the forest in pursuit of monkeys last week, and to his subsequent illness. He was stuck in his hut for days, hoarsely yelling at Rowahirawa through the door to come back another day. “Shaki, why don’t you do your ohodemou?” Hearing the phlegm in Lac’s voice, Rowahirawa suggested through the door that he let the shaboris free his soul from the hekura devouring it. Lac would have loved to participate in the ritual, but he couldn’t risk spreading the cold; for all he knew, it was something he picked up in Caracas, a crowd disease only people long accustomed to civilization have developed any immunity to. There are stories of careless outsiders decimating whole villages by merely showing up with the wrong sniffle. Still, he’s sure it was the heat and exertion of the hunt, followed by his impetuous plunge into the cold waters of the Mavaca, that laid him low, not any potentially village-destroying bug.
His biggest apprehension now is that he won’t be able to keep up with the men—and he harbors no illusion that they’ll wait for him. It’s a bad idea to go with them, plain and simple. Falling behind is far from the only thing that can go wrong. But he has to go at least once. And it’s not just for the sake of his confidence in any controversial ethnographic verdicts he arrives at; he’s also hoping it’ll help him break through another layer of the ice still separating him from the Yąnomamö, like when he danced at one of the feasts for the first time. Maybe after tagging along for a raid he’ll finally be able to get past all this edgy weirdness that still surrounds his genealogical work.
On the other hand, maybe the effects he hopes to bring about will be nullified by his being unarmed and making no effort to kill anyone. He has a feeling, though, they’ll be less impressed by his pacifism than by his willingness to accompany them on a mission so fraught with peril, such missions being their own preferred passport to heightened prestige.
As the precipitous falling of night gets underway in earnest, all the men are back to laying around in their yahis, swinging in their hammocks with pained, unfocused eyes. Lac steps through the passage outside and farther past the palisade to piss. The air outside the shabono is lighter, the atmosphere refreshingly cool, in marked contrast to the overheated oven of the village. When he comes back, there’s a thick silence hanging over the plaza, making him pause before continuing the rest of the way in. He takes a breath before finally stepping in, then makes his way around the edge of the courtyard again, determined to move with the lightest of steps. The stillness unsettles him. He’s wondering if he may be offending them by not keeping still like everyone else, when the pall hanging over the courtyard is shredded by a freakish animal sound that sends him scampering to the nearest shelter.
The cry rattles through the gray evening light, a half human howl of outrage and pain. Lac at first can’t be sure whether it’s a human being making the sound, bowel-shaking and otherworldly. Then he understands: he’s imitating an animal’s growl, and now a bird’s shrieking, incorporating both sounds into his screams of anguish. The not-quite-human, not-quite-animal, not-quite-of-this-world nature of the sound brings to mind nothing so much as the no badabö, the original humans, the dead ancestors who lived in the time of Moonblood. Lac knows the Yąnomamö are human through and through, down to the follicles on their scalps, with their odiferous flesh and blood, but in the swiftly fading light, after a day of scurrying and feeling always underfoot no matter where he stood, a day of infectious mourning and belated fury, he’s tempted to accept the possibility of some genuine supernatural transformation, some peeling back of the curtain on the spiritual world, allowing for the transfusion of sound between the corporeal earth and the realm of essences, mixed and pure, transitory and eternal. His urge to hide, to be invisible, redoubles in intensity. He sees a space between two yahis, a space where no one will notice him crouching, and he situates himself there just as more cries, like the ragged squawking of some carrion bird, suffuse the sky over the plaza.
The man who’s marched to the center, Lac sees, is facing southeast, the direction of the enemy village, the village these united lineages will raid tomorrow—with him in tow—and it so happens southeast is also the direction of where Lac is crouching. The ceremony repeats the pattern: a man marches from whichever yahi he’s occupying to the center of the plaza—what determines the order?—clacking his bow and arrows intimidatingly, making the noises of various meat-eating creatures interspersed with shrieks intoning the burning, inhuman rage at the core of his soul. After each warrior positions himself next to the man who marched out before him, forming a line of dark gray figures, all anxious for battle, an eerie silence ensues.
Lac’s mind fills this silence, no more than seconds long, with every variety of self-doubt and dark imagining available to man, until he’s jolted by the next shriek, his anticipation of it notwithstanding. Now another man is clacking his weapons as he growls and gnashes his way out to the end of the growing line. After the third man has taken his place, Lac starts planning where he’ll situate himself to snap a photo of the lineup when it’s completed. His planning is interrupted by the cry of the fourth warrior, whose voice is startlingly different from those of the men who’ve proceeded him. It’s Towahowä’s son, the kid who’s maybe eleven years old. He sounds every bit the boy doing his best impression of the grown men’s formidably dramatic vocalizations. It’s enough to make you think him violently deranged.
Lac’s mind conjures up a foreboding of the boy’s death with such vivid force as to leave him believing it’s all but inevitable, but he tries to tell himself his misgivings are a mere outgrowth of how appalling it is for anyone so young to be participating in this celebration of human predation.
The other men will watch out for him—they have to.
The ceremony continues, and as it drags on and on, Lac ponders the symbolism of individual men subsuming themselves into the unitary formation; their lone and discrete minds becoming many and diffuse—diffuse in fear, diffuse in risk, diffuse in responsibility. What if war was the first driver of our evolution toward greater cooperativeness and organization? What if what I’m witnessing isn’t just a first step toward modern warfare but a vital stage in the advancement toward complex civilization? What if the anthropologists got it wrong and it’s not civilization that brings warfare, but warfare that brings civilization?
Each man must be taking less than a full minute to make his way from yahi to lineup; around fifty men join the ranks in under half an hour. Bahikoawa has been on the scene from the outset, but instead of taking up a position, he wanders along the formation, rearranging the men to make sure they’re perfectly positioned to form a straight line—a general inspecting his regiment. When everyone is in place, Towahowä’s brother begins singing, and all the men quickly join in. His tape still rolling to record the sounds of the event, Lac strains to parse the words of the song. Luck for him, the lyrics are simple:
“I am meat hungry.
“I am meat hungry!
“Like the carrion-eating vulture,
“I am hungry for flesh.”
The man leading the chant has a decent baritone.
The brother starts the song, then the others chime in. It’s not all disciplined and scripted though, as individual men take opportunities throughout the song to yell out what they intend to do to the enemy. Towahowä’s brother kicks this off too after finishing the verses to The Vulture Song, glaring to the southeast—all but looking directly at Lac through the settling darkness. When he shouts the gruesome details of what he plans to do with the enemy—“I will smash his head, splattering blood all over his wife’s possessions!”—Lac imagines the threats directed at him, envisioning his own blood being splattered all over the interior of the hut.
Then he imagines his blood splattering the faces of Laura and Dominic and Kara. He struggles for a breath, his chest cinched by the inevitability of his eventual failure as a protector, as a man.
Lac, shaken, looks up and down the line of ferocious men. Faced with the prospect of death in battle, the prospect of being made to kill, he thinks, all men must feel momentarily unmanned. But unmanned is no way to truly live here, no kind of life anywhere, so however dunderheaded you expect yourself to comport yourself, no matter how useless and inept your actions may prove, no matter how hollow and lacking in true courage your determination may feel, you put one marching foot in front of the other, bearing the burden of your secret cowardice—you hope secret—ever closer to your fate. You find yourself all but paralyzed with fear, but you go anyway. You do what you need to do anyway, hoping the courage you lack makes an appearance at the critical moment—or at least that there’s no one around to see when it doesn’t.
The Vulture Song ends with a deafening high-pitched shriek. Lac fights an urge to sneak out of the shabono so he can prepare himself in the peace of his sealed-off hut. But this ceremony too is part of what he came here to observe. The men begin another song, this one about the blood lust of some carnivorous wasp, as Lac marvels at what he’s just realized he’s witnessing. In all likelihood, he’s going to be one of the last Westerners to see a ceremony like this. Chills wash up his arms to his shoulders as he contemplates the antiquity of these traditions, knowing full well the modern world simply can’t accommodate a flourishing tribal society whose villages stage raids on one another, not for much longer. This is as close as he—or the anthropology profession more generally—will ever again get to witnessing these practices that have come down through countless generations as holdovers, albeit in inevitably transformed ways, from the end of the Stone Age.
At the end of The Wasp Song, the men shriek again before going on to repeat The Vulture Song, throwing in more promises of brutality. They shriek a third time, and now the line breaks apart and the men rush about before clustering together in the center of the plaza. There Bahikoawa and Towahowä’s brother hush them and lead them in shouting wordlessly in unison: “Whaa! Whaa! WHAA!” Silence. Back come the echoes. The men jump and cheer. Then they repeat the same shouts a second and a third time, becoming more excited with each answering echo. After the third burst of echoes, the cluster breaks raucously apart. As the men scatter and jog back to their yahis, they make another strange sound in rhythm with their steps: bububububububu.
A stage in the evolution of marching music.
After the men have dispersed, Lac stands, his knees still sore, his thighs aching and tingly. I got a few good photos, he thinks before patting his tape recorder, which he can feel is still rolling, commissioning its ghostly time capsule from this primordial world into the span of future from whence Lac has traveled and to which he will return—but not until after about another year. He’s walking to the passage out to his hut when he sees there’s one last part to the reahu ceremony. All the men have returned to their yahis and are pretending—yes, pretending he confirms—to vomit up the flesh and blood of the enemies they’ve just symbolically devoured.
Lac knows he should sleep in a hammock in one of the yahis, as he does on occasion lately, but he needs to prepare himself for tomorrow’s journey. Rowahirawa knows what I’m after, he thinks, and he’ll help me make my way to Patanowä-teri and back. Lac has promised him an ax as payment; he already has one, but he can trade it for something: probably well-crafted arrows.
Once inside his hut, he unlaces his boots and pulls off his socks to examine his feet, as if in their wrinkles and folds and callouses lies the clue to whether he’ll have the nimbleness and stamina to keep up with the retreating warriors. Rowahirawa will help, but can he be counted on to stay behind once the arrows start to fly? What if Rowahirawa himself gets killed by one of those arrows? Even if he wasn’t going on the raid himself, Lac would be a nervous wreck about his chief informant and sometimes protector. Lac senses the sioha is still withholding a great deal, not wanting to let it show that he’s on intimate terms with the white nabä, the only proper attitude toward whom is one of avariciousness and amused annoyance, as in we tolerate you because you bring manufactured goods, plus your buffoonery makes us laugh, but mostly you’re just a pest, one we may decide to kill on a whim, or perhaps it’ll be an accident, like when we try to shoot our unfaithful wives in a nonfatal part of their bodies but they bleed to death anyway.
The men are forever teasing him along these lines.
Still sitting up in his hammock, he moves from his feet to next examine his legs, hairy poles with diminished girth but with wiry muscles and tendons visible beneath the red-pocked skin, thin but sturdy, like those of a well-crafted, precisely manufactured chair, of a sort not easy to come by in Amazonia. These legs and these feet were never crafted or manufactured, though, he reminds himself. They were sculpted over eons by random variation in the legs and feet of his ancestors, acted on by systematic selection for maximal fitness. That’s why they’re sturdy—that and his lifetime of staying active. That’s why you’ll be able to keep up, he tells himself; your body evolved just like Yąnomamö bodies, for the chase, for the hunt—hell, possibly for the raid, or the escape afterward.
Anyway, if a boy who just started tying his penis to his waist string can keep up, there’s no reason you can’t.
Before turning off is flashlight, Lac points it at the shotgun leaning against the mud wall, within easy reach of the hammock. He’ll have to hide it before he leaves tomorrow. The Yąnomamö don’t know how to load and fire it, but they may steal it for other purposes undreamt of by the likes of him. And he needs it. He really needs it. He imagines returning to the hut in a week, after an exhausting ordeal; it’ll only be when he’s back in this hammock, rocking gently, clutching the shotgun over his chest, that he’ll know he’s finally safe.
The next morning, the women are in the gardens early. They’re harvesting huge clusters of plantains and carrying them to a spot near the passage in and out of the shabono and its surrounding palisade. The men meanwhile are reapplying the black charcoal paint to their bodies. Rowahirawa gestures for him to join them. As pleasing as the prospect of near invisibility is to him, he demurs, thinking it better not to show up in Patanowä-teri looking like anything other than a nabä fieldworker, certainly not a Yąnomamö warrior of any stripe.
If anything, he should reapply his nara letter.
Lac does an inventory of his gear as the raiders begin to march one by one from the yahis where they’re staying once more, making their buzzard and wasp sounds—far less frightening in the chill morning light. They form the warrior lineup once again, the wayu itou as they call it, and foregoing the singing of the songs about meat hunger, they release their three-shout burst, “Whaa! Whaa! WHAA!!” before falling abruptly silent to await the echoes’ reassuring return. The ritual seems to be a type of sounding, testing the location of the Patanowä-teri to make sure they are where the raiders hope to find them. There may be something of foretelling the mission’s success to the echoes’ return as well. The men obviously believe it augurs well.
Lac’s pack is filled mostly with food—peanut butter, heavy but filling, sardines, crackers—and first aid items like iodine, gauze, and water purification tablets. His hammock and a few pairs of socks are stuffed in as well. As the men disperse to the rhythm of their “bububububu,” the women meet up with them and accompany them outside the shabono. Each man is soon laden with plantains; they’re bundling them in their hammocks and hoisting them over their shoulders Santa Claus-style, making Lac pause to think of Padre Morello’s request.
Lac won’t do it. He won’t betray Clemens, not after everything the guy has done for him.
Hasn’t the padre done a lot for you too? Isn’t Morello the one most likely to get you out of whatever jam you’re about to get yourself in with these men?
Lac has been walking about in a cloud of amorphous guilt, a murky holdover of his childhood loyalty to the Church. Plus he’s sure the padre would disapprove of him going along on this excursion. But Morello is asking him to steal—to steal from a friend, one he’s indebted to—so refusing can’t have put him too far in the wrong. Not that Lac got around to voicing his refusal. It was such an absurd thing to ask, why should he pretend to take it seriously enough to warrant explicit demurral? The reality though is that the good padre, whether he’s strictly good or not, has a lot of influence in the territory. He can make life out here easier for Lac in myriad ways. He can also make it harder in at least as many.
The women, mothers and wives, are blubbering tearfully, enjoining their sons and husbands to be careful: “Don’t get yourself shot full of arrows!” It’s the timeless scene of women sending their men off to war.
Lac witnesses something else, a fear in the men’s eyes commensurate to the delight taken in yesterday’s boasting and issuance of threats. The youngest among them, Towahowä’s son, looks fearful but determined, on the angry edge of his stubbornly suppressed fear, his expression so easily readable that an upwelling of sympathy washes over the anthropologist from another world. I hope these men know that keeping this kid safe is their second highest priority, even though they’ve failed to recognize it as the first.
He knows bits and pieces of some of these men’s histories—what garden they were born close to, what lineage they belong to—even if he doesn’t yet know their names. One after another of them claps a hand on his shoulder and smirkingly attests that the safest place for him to be during the raid will be right next to him. “Ma!” their pet says, their nabä guest aspiring after friendship, aspiring to the status of real human. “You’d leave me to fend for myself as soon as the first arrow flew by.”
They laugh. It feels good to laugh, letting trapped air escape, refilling the lungs, loosening the diaphragm. Lac looks around him. So many of the black faces are strange to him. Five months in, he thinks, and you’ve met hundreds of people, all without being given a single name. No distinctive dress or hairstyle to pin an identity to. No personal disclosures. You’re far too separate from these people still, so it’s right that you’re going with them now.
Bahikoawa looks to be in agony over his inflamed lower abdomen. Towahowä’s brother looks terrified. Rowahirawa is ignoring him. None of these are promising signs, so Lac concludes he ought to take heed and forget this nonsense about going on a raid with the Yąnomamö. He already knows he won’t be able to let it go, though, just like he already knows Laura will get a handle on their finances—drinking be damned—if she hasn’t already. The older men are telling the younger ones there’s nothing to be afraid of. If they die, their ancestors will welcome them onto the hedu layer of the cosmos. Nothing to lose, but everything to gain: if they succeed in killing someone, they’ll be known far and wide as killers.
Lac has a quiet shameful hope: Bahikoawa’s affliction will force him to turn back before the raiding party reaches Patanowä-teri; Towahowä’s brother’s fear will overpower his resolve; the old men will have an increasingly difficult time persuading the young men to be brave. The killing will be postponed until the raiders can regroup. Since the wet season is already beginning, the next attempt may be months away. There’s still a chance then that the mission won’t result in bloodshed, a chance he’ll return to Bisaasi-teri without being morally or professionally compromised.
Yet if he returns under such circumstances, he’ll never know with enough certainty to satisfy himself.
Know what? That the Yąnomamö really do kill one another in revenge raids? Isn’t the testimony of the Monou-teri adequate—hell, the testimony of nearly every Yąnomamö he’s spoken to on the topic? Back home, they’ll say no—some of them at least. Do you need to know if you can stomach the killing yourself? Is this about a bunch of guys you’ve been staying with going off to battle and you not wanting to stay behind, with the women? Ah, he thinks, but even if that is the case—and I admit I have sick feelings when I imagine all the scenarios in which I humiliate myself from a failure of nerve—even if that is the case—and I don’t know the weight of that factor relative to my more rational considerations—proving my manhood to myself will simultaneously prove it to the Bisaasi-teri, and that can only help with my efforts to learn their secrets.
Or will it? Maybe they’ll think I’m even more of a coward for going all that way and not even bothering to shoot at anyone. Maybe word will spread that I raided with the Bisaasi-teri, and no other village will welcome me. Then my humiliation would be put off until Dr. Nelson arrives at the end of my stint in the jungle, when he shows up and asks me how successful I’ve been in arranging for him to take blood samples and conduct general assessments of Yąnomamö health across the villages. “One village?” he may complain, marveling at the waste of resources on my failed groundworks-laying mission.
So why am I going?
It’s not like he’s secured cooperation from all the villages and is now jeopardizing their agreements. He hasn’t gotten a single village to drop its seventh veil. And if he can’t break through with the Bisaasi-teri, what hope does he have with Patanowä-teri anyway, or Karohi-teri, or Mömariböwei-teri? Or Mishimishimaböwei-teri, the legendary group at the headwaters of the Mavaca he keeps hearing about from Rowahirawa?
The men step away from the women with flamboyant nonchalance. They walk off, leaning against the weight of the plantains, as if it were an ordinary trip, one to visit their kinsmen in some village a reasonable distance away. Ordinary but for the black paint and the freshly sharpened arrow tips concealed in their toras.
Lac closes his eyes, inhales as slowly as he can, and then reaches down on the exhale to pick up his back pack and sling it over both shoulders. Rowahirawa is already goading him onward. “Come on Shaki. You can’t fall behind before we’ve even left.” One foot in front of the other and he’s on his way.
Away from Bisaasi-teri and the protection of its palisade, the somberness of their mission sets in. The young men, realizing the full gravity of their predicament, huff along silently. Rowahirawa meanwhile won’t stop making jokes. “Shaki, are you beshi?” What? Is he asking if I have hair? Is it because he’s confused about Clemens’s baldness, thinking all white nabä are shiny-pated?
“Awei, I have lots of beshi.” But isn’t beshi pubic hair?
He knows his mistake before the men start laughing. Beshi is the word for horny or having horniness. The word for hair is weshi. That little shit. Rowahirawa knows he has trouble distinguishing the consonants. Lac has just been tricked into professing he’s randy as hell. He can’t help laughing along with them—it’s true after all. He hasn’t seen Laura in far too long.
The ensuing hour sees a return of the men’s mood of reticence. After marching only a small part of the morning, the younger men start to complain about lacerations in their feet, or flare ups of old wounds in their bellies.
They're going to turn back, Lac predicts, before the day is out.
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