Such an obvious item to overlook: kids need someplace to play.
The oversight occurs to Lac while they’re on the river motoring up the Orinoco to the Mouth of the Mavaca. He did his best to prepare Dominic and Kara for the rude handling they’d be subjected to, and as expected the Iyäwei-teri surrounded the single-prop plane as soon as it came to a halt on the dirt runway alongside the Ocamo mission outpost. Here was Laura and the kids’ first encounter with the Yąnomamö. Laura struck the men as gawp-inducingly beautiful and her features cause for fervid scrutiny and animated discussion: those gleaming eyes, that soft fly-away hair, that ghostly complexion. Lac, despite himself, beamed with pride.
Even as he did his best to evince an air of calm, when the examinations commenced, his body went tense. Fortunately, it wasn’t the men but the women who felt the need to physically examine this nabä female, checking whether she had the same basic parts they do. Lac well remembered how it felt to suffer from the lack of concern Yąnomamö show for their specimens’ space and dignity as they satisfy their natural inquisitiveness with greedy disregard. Glimpsing Laura’s expression, he felt his anger surge. Hold off, he told himself. You talked to her about this. It’s uncomfortable but they aren’t hurting her.
Dominic sunk into a weirdly docile silence as his head was grabbed, his hair pinched and pulled—not roughly—by dozens of hands belonging to people who’d never seen a toe head before, or a bar of soap. Kara the whole time leaned against his leg, her hands gripping his trousers. Any untoward handling of her might have dashed his resolve, but the Iyäwei-teri were merely curious, as he can expect the Bisaasi-teri to be. One young man asked him what his children’s names are. Lac leaned in close to his ear and answered in a whisper, conveying to everyone how precious his family is to him, in case they couldn’t glean as much from his protective glare. The man responded by asking if he could have Kara, and Lac treated the question as a joke, though he couldn’t tell if it was intended as such.
After Laura and the kids had endured the interesting ordeal of first introductions, Lac brought them to the compound to meet Padre Morello, who welcomed them with his usual charm and eloquence. The kids took to him immediately, not least because he no sooner learned their names than offered them suckers—an indulgence he probably greets the Iyäwei-teri children with too. They spent the night at the Ocamo outpost, Laura staying up to hear the padre’s war stories as Lac nodded off in a musty but delightful old recliner.
Now it’s midmorning in the buzzing outboard on the glittering Orinoco, they’re maybe an hour from their destination, and legions of worrying details descend on his mind. The Malarialogìa men have confirmed his casual observation of an uptick in cases of the sickness: “Si, it’s a bad year, too many people living close to rivers.” On top of that, the dry season is beginning—and drying trails means increased risk of raids. Who knows how many villages he or his Bisaasi-teri friends have pissed off over the past few months? But it’s the play space oversight that bothers him most because, had he thought of it, he could have easily devised a solution. The kids can’t play in the tall grass between the hut and the Mavaca’s bank; that’s where all the snakes are hiding. He thinks of Horeshemowa hopping around the plaza like a man on a pogo stick, and of all the children in his files who died of snakebite, two since his arrival a year ago. Neither he nor their mother has any chance of spotting a snake approaching them if they’re playing in the grass. But they can’t stay in his moldy hut all day every day. So where are they to go?
Lac feels a prick from his still-active Boasian conscience as he dismisses out of hand the idea of letting his children play inside the shabono, where the Yąnomamö children play. They’d be harassed for one thing, as all outsiders are, but they may be in for still more severe mistreatment if the other kids get it in their heads that these miniature nabäs can be shaken down for their richer food or their manufactured toys. Who knows which of the grownups, for that matter, may decide to take one, or both, of Shaki’s children hostage, demanding shotguns or motorized canoes—or Laura—as ransom. No, he needs to keep them separate, the way Clemens and the other missionaries have. So where will they play?
He’s envisioning a new project of clearing a swath in the grass when it occurs to him he’s already participated in just such an enterprise. A few weeks ago, he helped Clemens scythe down a square area with machetes, a space they then covered in sand by the bucket-full hauled in from the river bottom by a bunch of Bisaasi-teri children and teenagers. It’s where the Clemens family is keeping its chickens now, a coup surrounded by a small wire fence. Dominic and Kara could use it as a big sandbox. No snake would dare expose itself by going after them there.
Lac smiles, not just for the eminently simple solution to the pending crisis, but because he’s remembering how nice it can be riding in the front of a dugout, away from the brain-scrambling hum of the motor, with the breeze on your face brushing away the bugs, and the penetrating beams of the sun punctuated in their deadly drubbing by the protective shade of the paternally looming trees leaning out over the banks. Combined flocks of macaws and parakeets race gracefully across the river ahead, a dance of brilliant color in the drab wash of green and brown. You can even see gatherings of flitting butterflies along the shore, celebrating their brief lives by breaking the bounds of gravity with the sheer lightness of their delicate and short-lived bodies.
Laura turns back to shout something to him he doesn’t hear, the words drowned out not so much by the motor as by the arresting loveliness of her exhilarated smile. The way her hair twists in the wind sends a shiver of startling gratitude down his spine. I’m motoring up the Orinoco with my children and my impossibly beautiful wife, he thinks, returning with them to the intriguing village I’m studying, peopled with fascinating individuals making up a society of immense scientific importance. This is what you dreamed of for yourself, everything you wanted.
Now you just need to make it work.
The kids have fevers. They have swollen welts on their arms and backs. Laura, on this day two in the field, looks like she hasn’t slept in a week. The bareto frenzied around his children the moment they docked. Lac had forgotten his own fever back when he first arrived; a reaction to the multitude of bites. For him, it was easy—or he doesn’t recall the difficulty anyway—to accept the discomfort while remaining confident his body would acclimate, as the Indians’ bodies must have. Seeing Dominic and Kara sick, though, is the purest agony. Laura, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to be reacting as badly to the bites. Her condition stems from nonstop worry.
“Did you manage to sleep at all last night?” Lac asks as he’s unpacking dishes and supplies to make oatmeal. He slept in twenty-minute intervals himself and doesn’t imagine he’ll leave the hut much today.
“Oh, I got some,” Laura lies.
“The bites,” Lac says, “they get inflamed at first—I don’t remember how long I was here before they stopped raising the welts. The fever I think only lasted a few days for me.” A few days, he repeats in his mind guiltily: that’s a long time for kids so young to be sick.
“Were you continually exposed to these gnat bites that whole time?”
“I must have been.” Already those earliest days are an incoherent smear of images he can only loosely arrange into chronological sequence. He’d have to consult his notebooks, as sketchy as they are on those kinds of details, to tell his own story.
“So if we keep them indoors and under the mosquito nets until their fevers break, will they get sick again as soon as they step outside and start getting bit again?”
“I don’t think so.” He should have a better answer for this. “I think the fever is an immune response to some mild toxin the bareto deliver with their bites. Whether you’re getting bitten continually or not, your body probably makes the same adjustment.”
With her bleary eyes, she signals the skepticism his improvised answer deserves. “I just hope they haven’t picked up anything more serious than the bites,” she says. Lac hears a rebuke: How could you let these people handle our children so aggressively? And me too? As anticipated, Dominic and Kara received the same hands-on examinations from the Bisaasi-teri as they had from the Iyäwei-teri the day before. He decides against telling her the inspections he underwent himself were more thorough; the Yąnomamö must be showing some restraint out of deference to him.
“What will you do today?” Laura asks.
“Today I’ll stick around and help you work out your routines for getting water and food and other necessities. Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll go back to the shabono and start doing more interviews with the headman.”
Laura keeps looking over at the ladder upstairs. Even though Dominic and Kara are safely tucked away in the troja, her uneasiness about their surroundings is making it hard for her to relax with them out of sight. “I’m going to wake the kids,” she says.
“Good, we can walk them through everything they need to know again—and we can show them the sandbox.” Clemens was here yesterday when they arrived, and he agreed letting the children play in his chicken coup was a good idea. His own daughter is older than Lac’s kids, and she travels with her father most of the time. Clemens is forever ferrying Yąnomamö kids about, mostly back and forth to Tama Tama. He says the New Tribes may be reassessing their plan to set up another school in Bisaasi-teri, now that the Salesians are working on a permanent presence here. Once again, the Catholics are forcing the Protestants to retreat. This disappoints Lac, though he’d just as soon have missionaries of every stripe expunged from the territory. Of course, if the missionaries weren’t around, he’d have a much harder time doing his own work, and he may not be able to do many parts of it at all. But there you go, he thinks; moral considerations get as tangled out here as the lianas.
Lac stands up from where he’s been squatting by the kerosene stove to help Laura descend the final steps of the ladder with Kara in her arms. She still has a fever, not high it seems, and lifting her shirt reveals welts that are still angry. Laura flashes him a look that has him quietly enumerating the necessary steps to get them back to Ocamo, and from there back to Caracas, on the shortest possible timescale. But that’s silly. The kids will be fine in a day or two; any long canoe journey could be a detriment to their convalescence.
Dominic climbs down on his own and glances groggily about the hut. “I can’t believe this is where you’ve been living,” he says sitting down at the table. Lac goes back to the stove and the complicated, multistage process of preparing a simple meal—this time for four instead of one. “Do you spend every night here?” Dominic asks.
Touching his forehead, Laura reports, “His fever already feels like it’s going down.”
“That’s good,” Lac says. “I did stay here almost every night for the first few months. Lately, though, I’ve been spending most nights in some pata’s—that’s what the Yąnomamö call an important man—some pata’s yahi. The yahis are the lean-to houses that form the circular shabono you saw yesterday. Lots of interesting stuff happens in the shabonos at night and in the early morning.” Lac has in mind couples stealing away in the predawn hours for illicit trysts in the gardens, so he’s hoping Dominic doesn’t ask what sort of things he means.
“I would stay in the yahis too if I had to live here for a long time,” he responds instead.
This response isn’t to Lac’s liking either. He worries he may be setting a precedent by sticking around after breakfast. He’s also worried about spoiling his family with the canned soup he plans to make for lunch; he’s brought plenty of easily prepared meals—expensive, heavy to haul around—to help ease their transition to the more spartan diet he’s been living on. Already, though, he feels pressure from Laura, who has yet to say a word in complaint, pushing him in the direction of providing more, not fewer, creature comforts. Meanwhile, his work with Mobaräkäwa, while ostensibly on hold, remains at the forefront of his thoughts. Listening to Laura explain his work again to the kids, Lac lets his mind wander next to Mishimishimaböwei-teri, a place he’ll probably never reach—at least not on this stint in the field.
“Daddy,” Kara says, “why don’t you bring these people clothes and soap?”
Lac and Laura laugh together.
“You know, little bug, I often think about doing just that. Remember some of the people at Iyäwei-teri, the village by the Ocamo mission where you met that nice priest, some of the people there were wearing t-shirts and shorts. I’ve asked them why they like these clothes and they said it helps keep the gnats and mosquitoes off their skin.”
Kara wrinkles her brow in concentration before saying, “You should fill up your canoe with shirts for them.”
“You know, maybe someday I will.”
Dominic turns in his chair now to ask, “Why does that man we met yesterday only have one leg?”
“That’s Horeshemowa—but remember never to say his name aloud. He was bitten by a snake a long time ago, and they don’t have antivenin like we do, so his leg got really bad and eventually had to be amputated.” Lac doesn’t want to scare his kids by telling them the leg rotted off; amputation seems a nicely abstracted alternative.
“Antivenom saves you when you get bit by a snake, right?”
“Yes, it counteracts the venom”—no need to go into the proper pronunciation.
“You should bring a whole canoe-full of antivenom then, instead of t-shirts.”
“I have given some to a few Yąnomamö already, but it’s really expensive. And I’ve come out here to learn about their way of life, so I can’t interfere with how they would be living if I wasn’t here.”
“But you can’t let their legs get ampulated, Daddy,” Kara says.
“No, I can’t, and I’ll help anyone I can. But I’m an anthropologist, not a medical doctor.”
“You should bring a whole canoe-full of doctors sometime, Dad,” Dominic says.
Lac looks down at the mud floor. “There will be a team of doctors coming in the spring,” he says at last, thinking, yes, son, you’ve nailed it: these people don’t need anthropologists, and they certainly don’t need missionaries. Doctors are what they could use more than anything—doctors and medicine by the boatload. “What you have to understand is that the Yąnomamö have their own ways of curing sickness, ways that are based on their own beliefs. I’ll always try to help when I can, but what I’m out here to do is learn about their beliefs and their customs, not introduce ours to them.”
“I’m going to tell them the best way to get better when you’re sick is to go to a doctor,” Dominic says.
Lac smiles. “I’d be interested in how they respond to that—I bet they don’t believe you.”
Lac is watching the kids chase the chickens in the sandy coup. He’s sent Laura to the hut’s troja for a nap after making sure she doesn’t have a fever herself. Kara’s fever has gone down, but he notes her play is still subdued. Or does he? He’s barely seen her this past year, only for four weeks out of fifty-two. Now, after all that time away, he catches himself looking for patterns and meanings in his own children’s behavior, an ethnographer in the sandbox. Dominic swats at bugs, gets a twinkle—a glint?—in his eye before darting after a hen. He’s out of breath almost immediately. It’s the humidity. Plus he probably has a mild fever still. When he kneels and returns to his feet, the sand clings to his shins in wide flat clumps. The sand that seemed so fine when it was first spread a few weeks ago must have somehow become mingled with the surrounding dirt. How that could happen is beyond him, though, when the coup is surrounded by tall grass with what must be a vast root network anchoring the soil in place.
Kara sits and squeals, half in fright half in delight, as her brother drives a chicken to within a foot of where she sits before it veers away to evade its monstrous tormentor. The play stops when the chants start overflowing the walls of the shabono some thirty yards from the coup. Lac turns, his eyes picking out the passage into the plaza. His children turn to look as well. What would happen, he wonders, if I brought them into the courtyard right now? They’d get to see the shabori with the strings of green snot dangling from their noses. They’d get to see the dancing impersonations of the hekura, and I could explain the meanings behind all the strange behaviors on display.
He turns back toward the sandbox with a faint smile. The fact is, the men are too unpredictable when they’re bombed out of their minds on their ebene. It’s dangerous enough for him. He simply can’t take the chance with his children, which means his work will go undone until other arrangements can be made. Maybe if Clemens and his wife and daughter were here—
“Daddy, why do their songs sound like that?” Kara asks.
“Like what, honey?”
“They sound like they want to cry.”
“Their language is more nasal than ours—more of the sounds they make come from closer to their noses. To our ears, it sounds like they’re whining or complaining sometimes.” And sometimes, oftentimes, almost all the time, they really are complaining: about how desperately they need some item in your possession. But however whiny they sound, they still manage to be intimidating as hell, like petulant children with the strength of burly men.
Lac is sitting with his children on the springy palmwood floor of his troja when he hears his wife scream the type of scream that signals his worst fears being realized. She’s recently woken from her long nap and gone downstairs to use the shower for the first time. Lac scrambles to his feet and pushes his kids up against the wall by the ladder, saying, “Close this hatch after me, and don’t open it for anyone but me or mom.”
He grabs the ladder’s supports and slides down over the rungs, splinters biting into his palms, and lands on the mud floor with a jarring thud whose reverberations blend with a second scream. Scanning the shadowy room, he sees nothing but mud walls, a cluttered table, and rickety chairs. The shotgun still leans against the wall by the door where he left it when he came back inside with Dominic and Kara. Laura’s third shriek sounds from the shower as Lac takes up its steal and polished wood heft. Throwing back the door, he expects to find Laura grappling with a huya who considered it good fun hiding in wait for her at her most exposed. But all he sees is Laura, still dry but hugging herself, knees bent, hysterical.
“Baby, what is it?”
She points. Though he was on the cusp of releasing a torrent of castigations for scaring the hell out of him, he recoils when he sees the source of her fright. Quivering, Laura stammers, “It-it just crawled out from under the mat, right when I first stepped on it.”
Lac leans the shotgun against the wall outside the mud-closet shower then steps back in, unlacing his boot. The spider has made it two feet up the wall, its undulating legs covered with bristling black hairs and spanning an area the size of a woman’s hand. As he races to position the boot over the darting target and press down with lethal dispatch, he feels the give of the carapace through the sole near the toe. It splats with a squishy crunch, like the sound of a massive cockroach smashed underfoot, drawing another whimper from Laura.
Trying to scoop up the nightmarish brown and black hairy remains with the bottom of the boot, Lac quickly realizes his efforts are hopeless. At least the wall is made of mud, he thinks, or this would make for a gruesome stain. He steps out of the shower, past Laura, who has wrapped herself in a towel, and picks up a dirty rag from the table. As he scoops and dabs at the smear, he contemplates his approach to reassuring Laura of her safety. Should I tell her to go bathe in the river for now if she’s too scared to go back in? The whole point of the shower, he reminds himself, was to make it so she didn’t have to wash in the open. Plus, who knows what creatures are lurking beneath the surface of that damn river? The Bisaasi-teri tell of a child being suddenly pulled under by an anaconda the year before I arrived.
Lac goes outside to dispose of the spider’s splattered wreckage. “Thanks a lot,” he mutters as he flings it into the tall snake-infested grass. “You have no idea of the trouble you’ve caused me.” He can’t stop a smile from inching lopsidedly over his face. “I guess I caused you a bit of a problem too—though I also kind of solved every problem you ever had.”
Stepping back inside the hut, he sees, to his amazement, Laura has reentered the shower and unclamped the hose to release the stream of water from the tank. That’s my girl, he thinks, though he knows he hasn’t heard the last of the incident. Remembering how he left Dominic and Kara, he rushes back to the ladder to climb up and tell them everything’s okay. Because everything is okay. No need to explain the streaks of blood on the rails from the barely perceptible lacerations on his palms—they probably won’t notice.
“I hate to tell you, Shackley,” Clemens says, “but I don’t think that’s mud—I’m pretty sure that’s chicken droppings your kids have all over their hands and knees.”
It’s early evening and Lac has taken Dominic and Kara out to the sandbox—the shitbox—for one last half hour of play before trapping them indoors for the night. Lac does the calculation: four chickens over four weeks. Yes, Clemens is right; that’s not mud caking their skin. He wastes his next thought wishing Chuck hadn’t shared this revelation within earshot of Laura, who is standing on the adjacent side of the fence conversing with Judy.
“Good lord, Lachlan!” she cries. “We have to get them out of there and into the that shower of yours to wash them up.”
That shower of yours—apparently, it’s already become a joke between her and Judy.
“Kara, come on,” Lac calls, “it’s time for your shower.” She turns reluctantly. “Dominic, you too, buddy.” Lac claps his hands to forestall any whining appeals for another few minutes of play. “Come on, we have to get inside before it gets dark.” He’s marching the kids back to the hut, steeling himself for the tirade his wife will unleash once they’re alone, yet he notes a pall of silence hanging over the shabono. What could be going on in there? He curses quietly. No matter, your biggest concern now is figuring out where your children can play tomorrow—without covering themselves in feces.
Lac lies awake in his hammock. Nothing is working the way it should, the way he needs it to, and every path he travels in his mind hoping to reach a solution runs into a dead end around its first bend. Tomorrow he’ll start clearing a space for another sandbox for the children, one they won’t have to share with chickens and their scat, but the coup he and Clemens and the huyas built took a couple weeks to finish. What are his kids supposed to do while construction is in the offing, stay in this moldy mud hut with its lone window all day, every day? And can he even count on more help from Clemens, who’s in Tama Tama more than half the time, or the huyas, who are as fickle as teenagers anywhere?
He rolls on his side, stifling a groan, folding his spine uncomfortably as one must when trying to sleep on his side in a hammock. Two weeks on a soft mattress atop box springs in Caracas has spoiled him, undone the progress he’d made getting accustomed to sleeping through the night contentedly on his mesh-cradled back. As he twists and stretches, he sees a light come on through his eyelids. Parting them, he picks out Laura’s silhouette; she’s holding up a flashlight. He can’t make out her expression for the contrast, but he intuits her worry. She’s pointing the beam toward the rafter supporting the wall, the same one holding up Dominic’s hammock. Lac squints, peering intently at the illuminated area, but can’t make anything out.
After training the light on the same vacant spot for a half minute, she clicks it off and lies back down. Without any possibility of glimpsing them in the blackened troja, Lac knows her eyes are still wide open. “Laura honey,” he whispers, “what are you looking for?”
“Oh, don’t worry. Go back to sleep.”
“Did you hear something?”
“It’s nothing. We can talk about it in the morning.”
I can’t go back to sleep, he thinks, when I was never asleep in the first place—and if it’s nothing then how the hell are we going to talk about it in the morning? He closes his eyes, annoyance joining forces in his mind with the frenzy of hopeless problem-solving to ensure another night’s wakefulness. I should go easy on her, he tells himself; she’s trying to let me have some peace to work out one issue before dumping another on me. Plus, remember what it was like when you first came here? Sure, you’ve made it easier on her than you had it, but you still have to give her some time to adjust.
He rolls onto his back again and takes in a measured breath, trying to turn the heat down on the anxieties roiling his mind like a kettle of water set to boil. As he listens for the sounds of his kids breathing, he hears the skittering critters scraping their tiny appendages along the dried leaves rolled and interlaced into the thatch roofing. Then there’s another sound: the insect legs being supplanted by the grasping of clawed toes. He listens as he slips down through the first layer of sleep, blissfully, only to be plunged back into a world of pink and red—light penetrating his eyelids once again.
This time he has a hunch what Laura is up to. “Baby, they never come down from up there. I see them all the time, but they’ve never once bothered me.”
“But, Lachlan, I’ve heard stories of rats attacking children in their sleep. It happens all the time in big cities like New York.”
“So what are you going to do? Stay up all night and shine the light on them every time they get close to the ropes holding up the hammocks?”
She doesn’t answer. That’s precisely what she’s planning to do. That’s what she did last night as well, which is why she was exhausted all day.
Lac swings his legs out of the mesh and lifts the mosquito netting to duck under it. “Is it just Dominic? Or do you think they might go after Kara too?” Much as he hates to wake his soundly sleeping kids, ten minutes later they’re both contorting and writhing in a futile effort to create a comfortable space for their bodies, each alongside one their parents. Twenty minutes more and it’s clear none of them will be getting any sleep this night.
Morning: Lac tiptoes down the ladder after Laura, leaving Dominic and Kara sleeping in the protective rays of the morning sun issuing through the gable window, finally content not to have their parents’ bodies to contend with in the hammocks. Lac’s eyes ache and his limbs weigh heavy. It’s going to be a long day. After guiltily fantasizing for a moment about how splendid it would be if his family were back in Caracas, he wrestles his attention back onto his plans for the construction of a new sandbox. Then there’s this new matter of the rats. Not convinced the jungle rodents represent a true danger, he figures he should begin by visiting the shabono to ask the Bisaasi-teri if they know of any attacks and what they generally do to avoid them. He hasn’t come across any deaths by rat bite in his surveys, but it can be difficult getting information on dead infants. It’s like the Yąnomamö prefer to go on as though they never existed. He doesn’t blame them.
As he’s taking up his pants to step into them, he’s wondering who and how he might ask diplomatically after the fate of Rariwi’s vanished newborn. But in the next moment he’s jumping from one foot to the other and yanking his leg back out of his pants. He felt something moving in there, something hairy. Reviewing his recent memory, he confirms he did indeed give the pants his habitual two shakes to dislodge any uninvited occupants. Yet here he is looking down at not one but two spiders, of the same species as the one that menaced Laura in the shower yesterday, only slightly smaller. Panting, he bends down to take up his boot before whirling back around to dispatch them both, creating the familiar gooey popcorn crunch.
Laura is watching him with appropriate solicitousness, but making him feel as though he has stumblingly revealed some shameful secret. “I’ve never seen any spiders of this species the whole time I’ve been here,” he says, “not until yesterday.”
“Let’s check the kids’ clothes,” she says, her red-rimmed eyes eloquent of her exhaustion but otherwise inscrutable.
Lac searches for some words of comfort, but he suspects whatever he says will only reinforce her misgivings. After turning Dominic’s and Kara’s clothes inside out and inspecting their every fold and seam, Lac tells her he’s going to the shabono to inquire after their customary methods for warding off rats who target children.
With dark swollen eyelids and slowed steps, he enters the passageway and emerges into the plaza to a chorus of boisterous greetings. “Shaki, where have you been? Nobody’s been around to pester us and make us laugh at his stupidity.” He smiles, suffused by the relief of returning to his proper element.
Is this my proper element? God help me.
He asks Mobaräkäwa’s brother, who’s recovered nicely from his snakebite, about whether rats ever attack Yąnomamö children. “Ma, Shaki, infants sleep with their mothers close to the hearth, and young boys like to shoot at the rats with their tiny arrows, so they never hang around the yahis long.”
“Ma, Shori, you aren’t serious! Do the boys really help keep the rats away?” Children are already gathering, as is their wont whenever he steps into the plaza, and he searches for a boy he knows is always eager to participate. “Owa, would you like to stay in my hut over the next few nights? I’d have you bring your bow and arrows, and I’d give you an item from my store of madohe for every dead rat you give me in the morning.”
The boy leaps, overjoyed. “Will you give me a machete and an ax for two rats?”
“Ma, I’ll give you fishhooks and line.”
The boy ponders this before saying, “Awei, Shaki, I’ll tell my cousins as well.”
The boys used to get a kick out of calling him Shaki because it seemed like they were getting away with addressing an adult male by name. But now no one seems to think much of it—the name virtually stands in place of a kinship term. Lac laughs with the children who boast of how many rodents they’ll kill, how big they’ll be, how much blood will splash over the mud walls. He basks in their excitement over the promise of a new game, one with wonderful prizes, and then he continues dawdling to ask after the most recent gossip—lots of visitors from Shamatari, a couple who’ve even said they want to talk to him. It’ll have to wait, though.
Leaving the shabono, he feels a weight returning, one he hadn’t realized was pressing down on him until being relieved of it for a time. He’s learned how to live in the field. He can stay alive, sane, and relatively healthy while also getting his work done—most days. What he can’t do is work while simultaneously taking care of Laura and the kids. They’re soaking up all his time and mental resources, keeping him awake all night, and taxing his nerves with endless minor crises. How does Clemens manage it? Well, Lac thinks, for one, he’s seldom here in Bisaasi-teri for long. And, two, his work with the Yąnomamö is hardly as intensive as mine, consisting mainly in recruiting kids for trips to Tama Tama in his dugout. Plus, his daughter is older—and she’s an only child.
Approaching the door of his hut, he shakes his head, quietly grumbling. It’s hopeless, he thinks, but I need this to work. How can I map out an entire tribal history, putting in years of fieldwork, if all the while I’m abandoning my family, or marooning them in a foreign city? No, it’s just going to take some ingenuity. You’re just going to have to keep working at figuring out some solutions.
As he steps into the darkened space inside, he sees Laura quickly readjusting her posture at the table, giving every indication his entrance has just snapped her awake. He thinks, God, she’s a wreck. Whatever else I do, I have to make sure she gets a good night’s sleep tonight.
Lac takes Dominic and Laura for a boat ride on the Mavaca, out into the Orinoco, and back into the Mavaca. He looks upriver, wondering if the legendary Mishimishimaböwei-teri could really be reachable by simply traveling along this course for a few days. All day, he worked at scything the tall grass for the kids’ next play area and now it’s time to relax and get them out of that mildew-infested hut. The sky overhead virtually creaks with knobby gray clouds straining to maintain their cool but obviously set to burst their seams. Dominic and Kara will experience their first jungle storm. He wonders briefly if he should try to smuggle them into the shabono to see the shabori raging at the winds like so many black-capped naked Lears, but thinks better of it. Plenty of chances for that later. For now, it’ll be easiest on their mother if we keep them safe indoors.
Dominic leans his head out over the bow as Kara firmly grasps the gunnel beside him. Lac watches as his son cranes to shout something back to him, but the sound is drowned out by the motor’s gurgling drone. In the cooling air washing over the craft, Lac feels his body filling with a miraculous warmth. I’m so glad they’re finally here, he thinks, so glad I get to see them every day, and they get to see me. How did those explorers of the last century do it, jaunt off for years on end knowing their families were languishing at home?
He recalls his earliest days at Bisaasi-teri, when he used to launch the boat and motor out to the middle or the far side of the river to steal an hour’s reprieve from the Yąnomamö’s incessant hectoring. The memory makes him chuckle. You couldn’t have picked a more difficult group to study, he mutters. But how could you have known? Maybe that’s how all—or nearly all—tribal societies are: violent, status-obsessed, revenge-obsessed, misogynist. If you’d known beforehand, would you have chosen some other society to embed yourself in? What might you have thought of the Suya if the coup hadn’t broken out in Brazil and you’d ended up with them?
Dominic stands and waddles his way precariously back toward where his father leans down steering the boat. “Are there piranhas in these rivers?”
“Yes, but I haven’t see any. I hear there are electric eels too, but you don’t run into them much.” No point in telling him about the anacondas, one of which may have taken a child not much younger than him the year before last.
“Dad, how long are we going to stay here? It’s not like what I thought it would be.”
“Oh no, champ. You aren’t ready to leave already, are you?” Lac fells a subterranean grinding under his lungs—a buried genuine version of the hurt he’s feigning on the surface.
“No—I don’t know. I’m just wondering how long we’ll be in this place before it’s time to go home.”
Home, curious concept. Does he mean IVIC or Ann Arbor? “Well, it’s November now. I need to be here to help Dr. Nelson with his team’s genetics research in March, so count with me: December, January, February, March—about four months. Do you think you can handle living here with me that long?”
Dominic doesn’t answer; he looks ahead, past his sister, out over the prow. Lac looks up at the clouds. He thinks he heard rumbling in the sky, mirroring the tectonic grating under his heart, but the motor masked the sound. Time to pull back into the dock anyway.
The gales collide with the outer wall of the hut like men taking turns trying to shoulder the whole thing down. That would be perfect, that or the roof lifting off the damn place, he thinks as he watches the multiple streams of rainwater trickling through the thatch like the bejeweled strands of a beaded curtain in far-flung disarray. The kids are huddled together with their mom along the wall separating the main room from the storage area, with its reinforced supports, the safest spot in the hut. Neither Dominic nor Kara has ever been especially skittish before a storm, or has ever shuddered teary-eyed as it loosed its destructive potential. But this is different. It’s as though the cauldron heat of the jungle conduces to a deeper rage, in both the men inhabiting it and the storms they must endure, and the kids have yet to begin thinking of this mud-walled structure as any kind of sanctuary. They don’t know how sturdy it is—for all they know, it could be like the chairs he’s constantly breaking. Lac himself is confident the walls will withstand the onslaught of battering winds; he has only minor doubts about the roof staying put, remembering all too vividly the huge section of the shabono’s roofing he saw sucked into the air during that first storm he witnessed in Bisaasi-teri.
Wanting to talk, though he’d have to shout to be heard, he considers telling Laura and the kids about that incident but realizes it would only scare them. He glances over at his rucksack, where he’s stuffed the tape recorder, and wonders what he might be able to pick up on it were he to brave the thirty yards to the shabono and enter the plaza. He still hasn’t attempted to record the Yąnomamö’s arguments with the inclement weather. His job for now though is to comfort his children, and his wife. So he stands from the table, where he’s been ostensibly at work on his charts but in reality too preoccupied to do much of anything with them, and steps over to where they’re all three sitting together on a blanket, away from where the leaks have produced slick spots on the formerly dried mud floor.
“These storms whip up a frenzy,” he shouts, “but they usually peter out just about the time you’re convinced the whole forest is going to be uprooted.”
Laura locks eyes with him, giving him a look that sends his goofy smile into cardiac arrest, making it collapse in a rigid heap. His shoulders tingle and his chest feels bored out, like a damned log canoe. The jig is up. It’s time to start thinking about how to get them out of here. Maybe a visit to Padre Sanchez is in order, or a direct radio call from the shortwave Laura bought, to find out from Morello what arrangements can be made and how soon.
But no damn it!
He whips his chin to one side in his frustrated determination, trying to conceal the motion by turning to lean his back against the wall beside his family. He continues holding up pronouncements and stories in his mind, weighing them for their potential to sooth and distract, but none seems right so he remains sitting with them in silence, except for the maelstrom building to a crescendo and then almost hypnotically fizzling out. See, he wants to say, over before it gets too scary.
Just about the moment the clouds are releasing their final drops, three overexcited boys can be heard chatting through the door. They don’t knock. “Shaki,” they call through the curiously hinged wide wooden plank, “let us in so we can kill all your rats before they kill your children.”
Lac catches himself laughing at the joke. “What are they saying?” Laura asks.
“They’re telling me to let them in and they’re bragging about how they’ll kill so many rats they’ll drive them to extinction.” She flashes him that skeptical look that every time convinces him she can tell with certainty whenever he’s lying. He turns and unlatches the door.
“Shaki, that storm nearly ripped open my uncle’s yahi. His enemies’ hekura must be powerful and fierce, but Uncle called to his own hekura and they chased the enemies’ away. My uncle’s must be more powerful than any that ever existed.” Lac translates accurately and Laura’s expression softens. He tells the boys to go on up and get started clearing out the vermin.
“Dad,” Dominic says, “I want to shoot rats with a bow and arrow too.”
“Okay, buddy. Tomorrow we’ll see if we can’t find you a bow so you can start practicing, but it’s too late tonight. You and your sister need to go to bed.”
“But, Dad—how come those kids get to stay up?”
How to explain to him bedtime doesn’t work the same for the Yąnomamö? Lac thinks back to all the times someone from the shabono decided to visit him in the middle of the night—to beg for madohe, to tell him a joke, just to ease some boredom. He sees these same men the next day and marvels at how they manage to look completely fresh, as though they haven’t missed a wink. That the Yąnomamö laze and snooze throughout the afternoon must be part of the trick, though Lac can’t help surmising differences in their brains’ wiring to allow for such erratic schedules.
“Well, Nicky, those kids are a bit older, and if they’re here I imagine their parents gave them special permission”—more like their mothers simply made sure they hadn’t been carried off by jaguars before rolling into their hammocks. “But I’m the one who’s responsible for you—me and your mom—and we say it’s time for bed.” Dominic gives the impression he’s analyzing what his father has said, preparing a rebuttal. Heading it off, Lac says, “Tell you what: we’ll stay up for twenty more minutes so you can go ahead of us and see how those boys are doing. Maybe they’ll show you some archery tricks. Just remember they won’t understand your words, and you won’t understand theirs.” He almost warns him against giving them any pretext for taking revenge of any sort, but decides it’s probably not necessary.
When Lac carries Kara up the ladder twenty-two minutes later—does she still have a fever?—he sees Dominic hiding in the corner nearest the hatch. The other boys meanwhile are crouching in the other corners, peering into the shadows, watching for movement.
“Are they going to stay up here all night?” Laura asks as she climbs through the hatch. Her voice is barely audible, as if she doesn’t quite trust the soundness of the language barrier.
“For a few nights, until they’ve trained the rats to stay away. Then we’ll only have them back on occasion, when the little sons of guns need a reminder.”
She comes over to give him a perfunctory kiss before seeing to the children. Dominic has crawled under his netting and bounced into his hammock without prompting. Laura secures Kara in the wicker cage, close at hand, as she lies down in her own hammock.
“Dad,” Dominic’s voice calls from the freshly darkened troja.
“Yeah, what is it, buddy?”
Dominic lowers his voice to a murmur. “One of the boys said a bad word.”
“How could he have, buddy? They don’t speak our language.”
“It wasn’t in our language, just the bad word. He said something like, ‘Shit a day kew.’”
Lac, along with one of the boys, likely the culprit, breaks into laughter before checking himself. In whispers, he explains how he used to routinely set his hut on fire when trying to ignite his stove. The Yąnomamö picked up on how he blurted “Oh shit!” every time he made the blunder. Eventually, they started prompting him: “Say ‘Oh shit!’” or “Oh shit a da kuu!” whenever he did something clumsy, just to rub it in—also because they get a kick out of how the swearing sets off the missionaries.
“Okay,” Laura says, “that is pretty funny, but let’s lay off the swearing now ourselves, gentlemen.” Lac can hear the smile through the shape of her vowels, but he discerns the tension as well. It’s early days still, he reminds himself; give her some time to acclimate. He worries that his aching shoulder will keep him awake if the giggling boys don’t, but he’s not wondering long before he drifts off.
In the morning, Lac tries to tell whether Laura slept at all; she looks the same as she did yesterday, not good, but he reasons that since he slept as well as he did she must have had plenty of opportunity to do so herself. He only woke a handful of times himself. The boys from the shabono have nothing to show for their vigil, but he sends them home with line and hooks for their trouble anyway. He wants to ask Laura if their standing sentinel all night helped, but he’s reluctant to broach the topic either of rats or lost sleep.
“I’ll work at clearing the grass again today, and maybe as soon as tomorrow we can start hauling in some sand from the river. Chuck should be back again sometime today too.”
“Lachlan, you’re going to get bitten yourself if you keep tromping around in that grass.”
“I’m keeping an eye out, being as careful as I can. What alternative do we have?”
“Honey…” She takes a breath. “Maybe we should ask one of the priest to start arranging for us to go back to Caracas.”
“Did you not sleep again?” Lac asks as his inner organs all sink in unison.
“I slept some this morning. But look at us; we’re booth a mess. Though, honestly, I didn’t know what was keeping you standing back when you landed in Caracas a few weeks ago. I know you have to stay here because you can’t abandon your work. But I need to do what’s best for the kids—we have to do what’s best for Dominic and Kara.”
“Honey, the only regular flights in and out of the territory are from the Esmeralda land strip, six hours downriver. We had to hire a pilot specifically to drop us off at Ocamo. It could be weeks before we can get someone to fly us out.”
“That’s why I’m saying it’s time to start making arrangements. The sooner we can get out the better.”
It’s all Lac can do not to wince. He wants to point out that by the time Laura and the kids are finally getting on the plane they may well be inured enough to the hardships of life in the field to wonder why they ever decided to leave. But he finds himself standing mute, no longer looking at her where she sits at the table, but at the streaked mud floor. She’s right. There’s nothing for her or the kids to do here but struggle to say decently fed, reasonably safe, and adequately rested. The kids will probably be upstairs sleeping for a couple hours more because they lay awake most of the night, as Laura must have.
“You can’t go on doing this to yourself,” she says when she realizes he’s unable to muster any further opposition. “It must be hard enough for you to handle taking care of yourself out here; you don’t need the added burden of worrying about us every minute of the day.”
“You’re not a burden. You’re my family.”
Laura chuckles at this. He lifts his gaze to her fading halfhearted smile. “Come on, Lachlan, honestly, how much sleep have you gotten yourself the past few nights?”
“I’ve gotten some.” Again, a path to persuading her opens in his mind: emphasizing the earliest days are the hardest. He doesn’t step onto it.
“And how much work have you done while you’ve been overseeing this little family camping trip?”
There’s the rub. Clemens can live with his family out here because, when it comes down to it, his job is to lure the Yąnomamö away from their lives toward lives more like his. He lives close to them, but apart. Lac, if he’s to succeed at his own work, needs to move ever closer to the Yąnomamö, away from Western ways and civilized amenities—and he can’t bring his wife and kids into that world with him. Accepting this fact, acquiescing to its blunt reality, feels much worse than any mere failure, resounding though that failure is; it feels like a betrayal, like he’s executing on some judgement against the principle whereby all cultures are essentially compatible, equal, like he may as well be plunging a dagger into the heart of Frans Boas’ ghost. There it is, though. There’s no way he’s moving Laura and Dominic and Kara into the shabono—even if he could persuade Laura to do so. And, as long as he’s working to keep them alive and comfortable in the hut outside the shabono, well, he’s not learning any more about the Yąnomamö and their culture than the damn missionaries ever do.
No matter what he does he can’t live two separate lives at once. And one of those lives he has no business bringing his children into.
The shortwave Laura bought him, the one that was supposed to help the family stay connected to civilization, only picks up a few nearby sources: the Salesian outpost across the Orinoco, the Salesian outpost at Ocamo, and occasionally a military channel, on which only once in several hours did he hear a flight mentioned. When he finally manages to reach someone in Esmeralda, the communication draws out for hours, proceeding in maddening fits and starts.
Squawk… “a few weeks…” Hiss “…plenty of room… Paulo Negro.”
So the next step consists of contacting Padre Morello. This turns out to be much easier, since he knows exactly what times to broadcast. The good padre says he’ll be glad to confirm the details of the flight and do what he can to help Lac and his family reach Esmeralda on the appointed day. When Lac signs off, he realizes this has been the longest he’s spent alone in weeks. He’s hunched over a bench he affixed to the outer wall of the hut, with a tarp awning to block out the searing rays. Sitting back, he waves a hand briskly in front of his face, fanning away the bareto. Ever since he returned to this place, the bugs have been getting worse and worse. The heat has been getting worse and worse. And the Yąnomamö, for the past day and a half, have been getting steadily more obnoxious. He’s tempted to return to Caracas with his family, accompanying them on the flight from Esmeralda to Paulo Negro, ride in the car with them back to the IVIC campus, and start writing up his thesis, leaving well enough alone. He savors every detail of the fantasy—ah, to be sitting on a couch in Ann Arbor with a cold beer in his hand.
The children are not only confined to the hut now; they’re often confined to the inner room, behind the reinforced wall, because people from the shabono have started visiting, pushing their way in, demanding an audience with their great friend Shaki, the purveyor of all things manufactured, a source of comedy and entertainment. Lac normally wouldn’t mind; these visits are opportunities for him to get information, and he’s getting good at plying his subtle tricks for encouraging the visitors to gossip, and then gossip some more. But Laura, the first time the twelve-foot square main room was crowded with Yąnomamö, couldn’t help but notice the condition of their skin.
“They’re covered in sores,” she said horror-stricken. “What if those legions are from something contagious?”
Not only can Lac not bring his family into the world of the shabono, but he can’t protect his family when the world of the shabono comes knocking at his door—or not knocking but rather shouting through to the inside. This is becoming a new source of guilt: each of these tribulations could have been anticipated. He should have expected it all. He should have known. How could he have brought them here, endangering them so unnecessarily? What would Laura say if he translated honestly the men’s requests to take Kara?
Now, at last, their exposure to these dangers has an expiration date. “Three weeks,” Lac says stepping into the hut. “We need to make it three weeks, and then it’s three hours downstream to Ocamo, three more downstream to Esmeralda, and then you and the kids will board a cargo plane heading out of the territory.”
“Three weeks,” she repeats. She looks down and then back up, as though she’s thinking of speaking further, but the words never come.
He knows it’s longer than she hoped.
Lac has his family out in his dugout canoe. He considered leaving Laura in the hut so she could have some time to herself, but he couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t have visitors demanding entry. So he’s rowed her and the kids midway across the Mavaca, rowed because they need to conserve fuel for the upcoming trip to Ocamo. The downside is he has to keep rowing at a grueling pace if he wants to keep the bareto off everybody in the boat. Every time he leans forward to spear at the water with the blade of the oar, cascading globules of sweat flash through the air in the overcast light before smacking onto the damp wood of the canoe’s flooring.
He’s tired. Last night he gave the boys from the shabono flashlights to aid in their hunt, and they devoted most of their vigil to playing with these wondrously enchanted devices, waking either him or Laura too many times to count. The boys did however succeed at last in killing a single rat.
From the river, the jungle is pretty, at points breathtakingly so. Lac can’t exactly paddle Laura and the kids to many such places, but coming out here is a good way to help them decompress and catch their breath. The hut is dank and stifling, the tall grass rife with peril. He’s taken them to the shabono three times now, but each visit has been a trying ordeal. The remaining time before their flight can’t elapse soon enough for Laura—or for him. They’ve decided to travel to Ocamo a few days early, stay on for a while at the compound, run up the balance of favors he owes the good padre.
Winded, Lac tucks the oar inside the gunnel and sits back. Dominic has his own little oar and is trying to steer them by swiveling from one side to the other. He won’t be able to keep them ahead of the bugs for long. Lac drags a forearm across his brow. His profuse sweating bothers him more when his wife and kids are around to see it. He’d love to send them back to civilization with the impression that he is perfectly at home in the jungle, that he can handle whatever the wilderness throws at him—no sweat. But that’s not in his power, no more than it’s in his power to provide acceptable conditions for them to stay on with him over the coming months.
He looks up to the gray sky. More rain during the wet season: they’ll have to hope no storm interferes with their travel plans. He’s wondering again whether he should stay here or leave on the flight from Esmeralda with his family. Laura hasn’t said anything to nudge him in this direction, but he knows how isolated she feels at IVIC. What more can he accomplish out here anyway? Mobaräkäwa has begun opening up. There’s still Mishimishimaböwei-teri to try and reach. And of course he’s promised Dr. Nelson to have everything ready for when his team arrives. If he’s to deliver on this promise, he really shouldn’t even fly to Paulo Negro, because who knows how long it will be before he can get a flight back?
Who knows, for that matter, if he’ll be able to overcome his reluctance to return?
He sighs, slaps a bug on his thigh, and takes up his oar again. Laura is looking forlornly at the shore. He should be talking this over with her. But he decides not to bother her with it now. There’ll be plenty of time for such discussions over the next few weeks.
“I can’t thank you enough, Padre. I don’t know what I was thinking bringing them out here.”
“Ah, my friend, I know exactly what you were thinking—that you didn’t want to be in one place for so long while your family was in another. You’re beating yourself up now for putting them in danger, am I right? But the danger you can see right in front of you is better than the array of dangers you can only imagine. As long as you’re facing your travails together—as long as you’re around to help them—it’s only natural for you to feel better than you would facing them apart.”
Lac turns away to hide the water welling in his eyes. Both Dominic and Kara have fevers again. Laura is a wraith. And he hasn’t slept through the night since they last left this mission outpost weeks ago. He should be getting on the plane with them tomorrow—but he can’t. Oh, to have them back on the IVIC campus, safe and sound, what bliss that would be.
Turning back, Lac wonders if the padre has finally stopped thinking of him as soulless and without conscience, someone capable of resorting to murder for the sake of currying favor with a man for his small measure of bureaucratic pull. He can’t help feeling honored by this elevation in his status, though he still struggles to square the padre’s depraved request with the esteem he’s come to hold him in. Mostly though, he just doesn’t want to think about any of that now.
“You’re right, Padre, the thought that I was abandoning them as I threw myself into my work was eating me alive. I figured I could set them up here and keep them safe—that they’d be safer and better off in general with me watching over them than they would with me essentially lost to them in the godforsaken jungle. It makes no sense, I can admit now, but the intuition was awfully compelling.”
Lac tries to force a laugh but it comes out more like he’s clearing his throat. Whenever he stays at Ocamo, he hangs his hammock in a lean-to close to where he ties his canoe to the dock. Tonight, he lets the padre lead him and his family to a small room with a line of bunk beds. The sheets and mattresses seem utterly divine in their luxuriousness. Somehow, it adds to the weight of his guilt—and then it induces in him a vertiginous sense of dropping away, like he’s in a tight spin, falling sideways, a figure skater on a rink toppling down a cliff.
Collecting himself, he bids the padre goodnight, before turning and lifting an arm to brace himself against the bedpost. Dominic is crawling in the bunk above Laura. Kara is tucked in on the lower bunk he’s using to steady himself. Everyone’s going to bed in silence, as they would if they were in their own separate rooms. It’s only natural, exhausted as they are. Lac feels too dizzy to climb though, so he stands waiting for the vertigo to subside. Two feet solidly planted on the scrubbed concrete foundation, one hand on the post—he’s not falling, not spinning out of control.
Out by the canoe are three baby otters his young Yąnomamö rat hunters discovered a few days ago. Likely, the Malarialogìa workers killed the mother for her pelt, which they would try to sell to Colombians passing through Puerto Ayacucho. His kids fell in love immediately. Lac wanted to strangle the boys for bringing the poor creatures to the hut. They’ll almost certainly be dead before the kids are boarding the plane, he thought.
Miraculously, Laura managed to get all three of them slurping a formula she concocted from the powdered milk. Now here they are, flying out tomorrow, and all three otters are still alive. The plan is to take them aboard the plane in the same cage Kara used for her bed—good, he thinks, wouldn’t want that contraption around as a reminder—and with any luck deliver them safe and healthy to the zoo in Caracas. Lac now desperately wishes for this plan to succeed, for his kids’ sake and for his own. It might be the one fond memory they take through the better part of their lives from this period when their father abandoned them in a strange city so he could go off and live in a stinky hut made of mud while he hung out with a bunch of scary, pushy, whiny, naked people with thick black hair cut into the shape of a bowl. The mere thought of the otters nestling each other in the cage slows the spinning in his head.
“Are you alright, honey?” Laura asks.
“Yes, I’m sorry. I’m just working some things out in my mind. I wish I was going with you tomorrow.”
“I do too. But we talked about this. You can’t afford to be away for long, and we have no way of knowing when you’d be able to get on a flight back into the territory. Plus, we’ve planned everything out to a t. There’ll be a driver waiting when we get to Paulo Negro. We’ll be back in our apartment on the IVIC campus this time tomorrow night—and then the next day we’ll take the otters to the zoo.”
Hearing the familiar reassurances come from her mouth finally makes them sink in. As long as she doesn’t feel like I’m abandoning her again, he thinks, lifting his foot slowly onto the bottom rung of the ladder, then I can believe it when I tell myself I’m not. “You’re right,” he says, rolling onto his back in the top bunk. “But I still have this terrible sense I’m letting you and the kids down somehow. And the worst part is now that you’re not part of what I’m doing here, now that I’m doing it without you, I can’t rightly say I’m doing it for you—which makes me question what the point could be.”
“Your work here was important enough for you to devote a year of your life just to the planning. It’s only to be expected you’d go through periods of doubting yourself when you’re out here for over a year. But think how much you’ve learned. Think of the impact your observations could have on your field. The kids and I have a few more months to get through. I have to say, I’m looking forward to going home, our real home I mean in Michigan. But you don’t want to quit before finishing what you set out to do. Not when you’re this close. And I couldn’t live with myself if I was the reason you cut your stay short. So buck up, honey. Finish your work. We’ll sort out whatever pieces we have to put back together when you’re finally done.”
The otters look up at him with their sleek pointy faces, listless but clear-eyed, huddled together, the most affectionate of creatures, needy of contact with one another’s fur, threading their snouts through the space between one tubular body and the next. Latching the lid, he smiles and then hoists the cage up to hand it off to the uniformed man in the cargo hold.
“Take good care of them,” he says in Spanish; “my kids adore them.”
Laura and Dominic and Kara are already on board, already lost to him, and Lac’s diaphragm has locked in place. As the man latches the door, Lac searches the outside of the plane for defects, as if he knew a damn thing about planes, dread pervading the air around him and seeping into the rigid cavity behind his ribs. They’ll die on this flight, he thinks. No, no, no. You’ve got to stop that. Planes like this fly all over Venezuela—all over the world—every day, and how many crashes do you hear about?
A laugh bubbles up through the middle of a sob knocking loose a single tear that smacks against the crumbling edge of the tarmac. How the hell would you hear about plane crashes in your moldy mud hut on the Mavaca? Looking down at the rapidly vanishing snowflake of his splashed tear, he muses that life in the jungle is mostly about bodily fluids lost to the thirsting earth. He’s being waved away now so he steps mindlessly backward, and then steps again and again. His lungs seize up once more, the judder of cessation lodging in his throat.
His pending solo canoe trip back to Ocamo suddenly seems painfully unfeasible. What will you do then, he poses as the plane lifts off, his heart sinking in time with its ascent, stay here in Esmeralda? One foot in front of the other, ashes to ashes, and all that. Be a man. Perform your duty. My duty? What about my duty to my family? Dust to dust—what you turn into when all your fluids are leeched away by the jungle.
Climbing into the canoe and shoving off, he checks to see if anyone on the shore is watching him leave. Seeing no one, he yanks the string to start the engine, and releases a torrent of water from his eyes onto the already submerged wood between his boots. “Four months, Lac,” he says to himself, sniffling. “Four months and then you begin the process of making it up to them for the rest of your life.”
Continue reading (check back the 1st of February)
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