The Reahu at Monou-teri: He Borara Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This a truly remarkable Yąnomamö. A truly remarkable man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Awei,” he’s told again. “Awei.”

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

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

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

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

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

This is met with an abrupt silence.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The thumping sound still echoes in Lac’s mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            What’s the worst that could happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “What’s stage three then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links to chapters (Table of Contents)

You can send any comments or questions about the novel to (Spammers will be executed.)

Also read some of my nonfiction: