Enter the Dragon: He Borara Ch 17

            Getting the family in was about like I expected, Lac writes. It was taking care of them while they were here that presented the insurmountable difficulties. To make matters worse, Laura and I decided to let the kids foster parent some baby otters, at least for the duration of the flight out of the jungle and the car ride to the zoo in Caracas.

            I must warn you, Ken, there’s a lot to fieldwork our professors never told us about. Much of it is personal, so you can’t fault them. I suppose every researcher responds idiosyncratically. Maybe they didn’t tell us because there was nothing to tell. Maybe they were closer to civilization so conditions were more favorable. Anyway, I won’t bore you with my complaints. I’d much rather get to my plans for traveling to the headwaters of the Mavaca, which are said to be the dwelling place of enormous serpentine dragons called raharas. There I’ll find the legendary village of Mishimishimaböwei-teri.

            On the other matter, suffice to say, now that my family has been here and gone, I feel the ache of their absence—along with the guilt of my own—in the pulsing of every vein. But onward with the expedition, as one of my childhood heroes might say.

            Oh, one last thing before moving on to the topic of this village I’m setting out for, the largest any of my informants has ever heard of, home to close to three hundred Yąnomamö. Those otters—they died shortly after Laura and the kids delivered them to the Caracas zoo. Laura broke the news over the shortwave. Why the zookeeps couldn’t keep the deaths to themselves is a mystery to me. Apparently, there was also an incident with the landing gear as the cargo plane they were flying in approached the runway in Paulo Negro. The wheels were caked in mud from the airstrip in Esmeralda and wouldn’t go down on the first attempt at landing, so the pilot had to pull up and circle back around. Fortunately, these planes have hand cranks for lowering the wheels, but the crew wasn’t a hundred percent confident the struts would lock in place properly. Laura got a good scare when she saw the men in the cockpit repeatedly making the sign of the cross before they finally touched down. As they disembarked, they saw an emergency crew standing by. 

            I can’t begin to imagine what I would have done if my family had died in a plane crash while I was stuck in this damn hellhole.

            Lac crosses out the last sentence. Looking over what he’s written, he decides it’s pointless and tears out the entire page before wadding it up into a tight ball of forgotten sentiment. As if reading his mind, one of the boys sitting nearby laughs. He must have been watching Lac the whole time. Since the boy is sitting in a hammock in Mobaräkäwa’s yahi, Lac reasons he must be kin to the headman, though he could be anyone; kids are always following him around. I spend more time with Yąnomamö kids I don’t know, he thinks, than I ever have with my own.

            He ekes out a smile and tosses the wadded paper at the boy’s forehead, eliciting more laughter.

            “Shaki, you have struck me. Now I must take revenge.”

            “Shori, your smell is vengeance enough.”

            The boy looks back at him, confused—or unimpressed—leaving Lac to wonder whether his pronunciation was off or he simply hasn’t gotten the hang of Yąnomamö humor yet.        


            The verdict is village-wide. Mobaräkäwa is adamant. The headwaters of the Mavaca are too dangerous. It’s not in a headman’s power to forbid outright anyone serving as guide to the resident anthropologist on his expedition to Mishimishimaböwei-teri, but his word carries enough weight he doesn’t have to.

            “Aîwä, these creatures you describe can’t truly live,” Lac keeps repeating as they stand in the plaza debating amid a throng of men. An American would make a point of rebutting this charge of absurdity, saying he’d seen the beasts with his own eyes, or knew someone who had. But neither Mobaräkäwa nor any of the other men acknowledge the point at all.

            “Shaki, you and any Yąnomamö you take up the river will certainly be devoured. The raharas are enormous and they kill and eat everything that moves.”

            As they stand arguing, the danger the headman warns of grows ever more severe. First, it was “They’ll rise up out of the water and pluck you from the canoe.” Now it’s become “They’re so big and ferocious, they’ll come up from under the water and swallow the canoe whole, motor and all, with you and your foolish guides inside.” He pauses for effect before adding, “Even if by some impossible good fortune you make it to Mishimishimaböwei-teri, you’ll still be killed by the waiteri there, who hate outsiders and love to kill people. These are the same people who stooped to killing so many of our kin in that nomohori all that time ago. They killed my own father.”

            No one notices that Mobaräkäwa’s description of the creatures has grown more preposterous, and his second point produces some of its intended effect on Lac. Imagining the silly scene of a ponderous serpent swimming about in a shallow stream, he thinks, it’s as though only positive statements have any impact. Once a truth is asserted, there’s no undermining its validity, no way of diminishing the salience of facts conveniently conjured up and insisted on with vehemence. It would seem the Yąnomamö don’t reason like we do in the West—though their logic, when he thinks of it, isn’t so different from how people think and argue when you get some distance from U of M, up in the Northern sticks particularly.

            “You have to know you just made that up right now, aîwä,” he says, at wits end. “So you must know it can’t be true unless your words are magic. Your words aren’t magic, are they?”

            “You will see, Shaki. I possess the truth. You’ll see once you’ve made it too far up the river.”

            The headman’s words are met with a chorus of clicking tongues. I’ll never see anything up that damn river, Lac thinks, with you scaring the hell out of anyone I might have persuaded to come with me. Your screwball stories have everyone convinced that agreeing to serve as a guide would be suicide.

            Out of sheer frustration, Lac reaches for his shotgun, lifts it high, and barks, “I’ll shoot the damn things with both barrels!” sprinkling his Yąnomamö with English expletives. Seeing his outburst has garnered everyone’s rapt attention, he goes on, “Awei, I finally recognize the animal you’re describing. We have these raharas in Michigan-urhi-teri too. Mean sons of bitches, but I’ve killed lots of them. It takes special bullets, but it so happens I’ve brought plenty of them with me. I have them in my hut. Thank you for warning me about these raharas that live in Yąnomamöland, aîwä. They might have caught me off-guard, but now I’ll be ready.”

            For the first time, the clicks sound for Lac’s side of the argument—and all he had to do was lie through his teeth. I guess two can play at that game, he thinks, lifting a hand to cover his chortling grin.

            “Shaki, you may have run up against raharas in Michigan-urihi-teri, but I’m sure the ones we have here are much larger and more aggressive than the ones you’ve seen.”

            Nice try, Chief Long Dong, but the tide has already turned. Not only are at least a couple of these men willing to go with me, but none of them can wait to see me shoot one of these monsters full of holes—too bad I’ll have to disappoint them. But suddenly Lac is struck with doubt about the raharas' nonexistence. Well, if Mobaräkäwa can blow them up in size, he thinks, I’ll just have to pop them with real slugs from my shotgun. “Back home, I was renowned for my skill at killing these beasts. I know exactly where to shoot them to make sure they die after one shot.” He points to the spot on his neck, right behind his ear. The Yąnomamö emit sounds of stupefied amazement. “The bullets I have—you Yąnomamö would say their name as rahara brahaishaömodimö”—something made for killing raharas at a distance.

            Lac tells the whole gathering to follow him to his hut so he can produce a clip of the slugs. Mobaräkäwa follows reluctantly along, takes a skeptical look at the bullets protruding from the plastic sleeve, and departs back to the shabono in a huff. Lac hears the headman's brother, charging off alongside him, saying under his breath, “The raharas here are much bigger and meaner, you’ll see.” And now it’s just Lac holding court, fielding questions about his past exploits with the monsters and about how he expects his future encounters with them to unfold.

            As confident as he is coming away victorious from his debate with the headman, he soon discovers that he hasn’t in fact succeeded in persuading anyone. Going from man to man, he still can’t manage to secure any recruits, aside from Warotobowä. Maybe that’ll be enough. Regardless, what Mobaräkäwa has done frustrates him to no end. How could any of these men believe such nonsense, especially when the changing details made it so plain that he was inventing them out of sheer expedience, so he could prevail upon Lac how important it was to stay—and keep his madohe flowing to its rightful destination.


            The machetes Lac has loaded into the canoe to trade with the Mishimishimaböwei-teri are cheap. Leaving his nicer one in the sheath strapped to his backpack, he grabs one of these cheaper ones to hack wantonly away at the branches of the small but maddeningly resilient tree that’s been bowled over by some deviant gale and now stretches like a net of thick-veined wicker across the river, which as he feared has narrowed to a stream not much wider than the dugout. Any sense of bodily cleanliness having seeped through his reeking pores months hence, he attends the cascading sweat, the droplets flung from his swinging arm, the squishy wetness of his socks, not as any failure of hygiene but as a purely practical issue of lost hydration. Every ounce lost to the jungle is another ounce that must be replenished.

            He’s been traveling upriver with his three guides a day and a half, during which time he’s already ruined two machetes. Every time they’re stopped by a damn of fallen branches along this stretch, they can already see the next blockage ahead, but the steep banks rule out portage as an option. The work of chopping through the mess of wiry and pulpy dead limbs is difficult enough, but it’s the insects ever set to avail themselves of the opportunity to feast on the travelers that makes every stop hellish. The Yąnomamö somehow seem not to mind. They slap themselves and curse the mosquitoes and bareto and biting flies just like him, but they laugh and tease as though they no had concern whatsoever for being devoured an infinitesimal piece at a time, as if it were solely a matter of incessant pricks and itching. Do they realize how likely it is we’ve all contracted malaria or some other blood-borne infection by now?

            He told his guides their destination would be within reach after three days of travel upstream. The first day seemed plenty promising. Late morning today they ran into the first knot of downed limbs, and it’s only gotten worse since. Now they’re stuck in this buggy tangled mess. “Owa,” he calls to Warotobowä, “is it like this the whole way to the headwaters?”

            “I don’t know, Shaki; we traveled from Mömariböwei-teri to the old Mishimishimaböwei-teri by foot.”

            “Do you think we’re close?”

            “Ma, the sun will have started to drop before we’d have any chance of finding footprints.”

            “But you’re sure the Mishimishimaböwei-teri come to the river for drinking water or to fish? So we can keep traveling upstream and eventually come across some sign of them?”

            “Awei, we’ll find them if we keep going.”

            Lac’s two other guides give each other mysterious looks when they hear this. Lac slaps the back of his neck and drags his wrist across his forehead before going back to work with the machete. His concern at the outset of their voyage was simply whether they’d find the legendary village; now he’s worried what condition they’ll be in if and when they arrive—or what condition they’ll be in when it finally comes time to fetch Laura and the kids, even if he never makes it to this place.

            “Shaki,” one of his new guides calls to him, “you must watch out for arowari in these downed trees.”

            Lac halts his arms mid-swing. Christ, he thinks, just what I need. He knows of snakes that drop from trees at any sign of motion beneath, a horrifying enough prospect. Hacking through all these limbs though, there’s no telling what you’re digging around in. He’s been lucky so far, only seen a handful of snakes since arriving in the jungle, and only had to dodge the one in his hut; he has yet to see an anaconda—or a rahara. In his pack is some antivenin, but if one of the bastards sinks its fangs into his face—hell, the thought alone is bad enough.

            “Shori, you’ll have to help me look out for them,” he shouts back. Running his eyes through the thickly leafed latticework, he knows it’s hopeless; one could be right next to him and he still wouldn’t catch sight of it in time. When he looks back at his guide, a boy slightly older than Warotobowä named Keborarawa, he sees that he appears sullen, disappointed. Did he think I’d have some special device for locating snakes in trees?

            Exasperated and resigned to the danger, Lac lifts his machete over his head again and continues hacking away. Every time he withdraws his wrist he half expects to see the scaly tube of a viper’s body trailing from it. His hand is numb and tingly enough he may not feel the bite, at least at first. Warotobowä holds several branches for him to chop, bends others back, and does what little he can to help them thread their way along the stream. After they’re through the patch of deadfall, they come to another fallen tree, but this one requires less work to blaze a passage through. Now they’re in an open, winding stretch and Lac walks the length of the canoe, stretching out his arms for balance like a tightrope walker and dancing awkwardly around the two indolent passengers in the middle of the craft.

            He’s wondering why he bothered recruiting these extra guides. He’ll need them to haul bags of food and the trade items he’ll offer the Mishimishimaböwei-teri headman. So far, they’ve done nothing of any use—aside from pointlessly warning him about snakes hiding in downed tree limbs.

            Squatting down, Lac grabs the T-shaped grip on the starter string and gives it a yank. The engine catches on the first pull, coughing out oily clouds of smoke. He shouts a command to Warotobowä to take up his gondolier’s pole and steer the prow away from the banks. Using the motor at all at this point probably isn’t the best idea, but bending down and navigating with a lever gives him a much-needed chance to cool off and catch his breath.

            They make it barely fifty yards before he has to cut the engine and wobble his way back to the bow to have another go with his machete. He’s budgeted four days for the voyage upriver, thinking if it takes longer he can cut his stay in the village short. He’s technically still on schedule, but the progress is so slow and grueling he’s weighing other options. What if they hide the canoe and try to travel the rest of the way on foot? The going couldn’t be much slower than it is now, no matter how dense the brush. Could it be any worse than having to hack through deadfall, with the attendant risk of snakebite? He’s about to broach the topic with Warotobowä when they finally manage to slip through the woody carnage and emerge onto a straight, unimpeded tract of stream, albeit one that’s still precariously narrow.

            “Shaki,” Warotobowä says excitedly, “go back and start the motor again.” As any decent guide would, he’s made Lac’s objective his own, taking pleasure in every breakthrough along the way. Leaning down as if to have a private heart-to-heart with the squat motor—an eager robot of sorts—Lac tries to connect the young man to some of the people in Mishimishimaböwei-teri whose names he helped fill the charts with as part of a preliminary census. The headman is his father’s brother, so there are all the relations that flow through that channel; his sons would be Warotobowä’s cousins; his siblings would be partial aunts and uncles. Still, it doesn’t seem like he has any close relatives there, and he’s spent little time there. Since they moved the shabono farther south, the Mishimishimaböwei-teri’s visits to the other Shamatari villages like Mömariböwei-teri, where Warotobowä would have encountered them, are less frequent. So why is he so excited to reach the place?

            Maybe, Lac thinks, it’s to break the monotony of life in Lower Bisaasi-teri. Maybe he’s more of a seeker, an adventurer, by temperament than most other Yąnomamö. Maybe there’s something special about Mishimishimaböwei-teri, something that makes it a unique place to sojourn. Probably, though, Lac smiles to think, the little shit loves the idea of brazenly entering a shabono all his Bisaasi-teri tormentors are terrified of. He’ll bring back stories of his exploits no doubt, replete with intimations of the Bisaasi-teri huyas’ cowardice. 

            And these other two? Not many Bisaasi-teri guys were eager to risk pissing off all the village bigwigs by helping to connect their conduit for madohe to another village. Now that they’re here on the river—dwindled to a stream—they look more bored than reluctant, more disappointed than scared. Were they hoping to see river dragons too? Not much room for beasts of such proportions along this stretch, but maybe in deeper eddies farther upstream.

            They continue motoring unhindered for several blessed minutes, Lac noticing that the banks on either side flatten out for easy portage: of course, it happens exactly when the absence of deadfalls makes it unnecessary. He imagines it won’t last long. As happy as he is to make progress without uninterrupted chopping and hacking, with incessant insect attacks, he knows the best they can hope for is a lot more stop-and-go, advance and halt, speed up and slow down, until the river has taken them as far as it can.

            As they carve their diminutive wake, sending it rolling up against the closed-in banks, Lac scans the area ahead for signs that it’s time to ease off the throttle. The breeze running its ghostly fingers through his thoroughly soaked hair raises gooseflesh across his shoulders. He breathes in the molten air and thinks: This is it, the life I envisioned for myself, sort of. I’m off the edge of the map, accompanied solely by native guides, en route to a legendary village of renowned warriors, a place that holds clues to solving the scientific mystery of how the earliest stratified societies emerged from more-or-less egalitarian bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers. Huffing out a laugh, he mumbles aloud, “Who knew it would be this much fun?”

            On cue, another massive knot of downed limbs peeks out from around the bend ahead. Lac twists the lever to let the engine idle as they glide in a tight curve, lurching to one side as Warotobowä thrusts his pole into the water, burying the tip into the streambed. The Yąnomamö are known as a foot people—as opposed to a river people like the Ye’kwana—for good reason. Most of them, if they’ve ever seen a boat, have barely touched it. They go rigid upon stepping in, and as often as not go tumbling overboard shortly thereafter. It took Lac the better part of an hour to get the two in the middle of the canoe to relax enough to keep from tipping the whole thing over. But Warotobowä had clearly been in a boat before, probably a dugout similar to this one. On top of that, he’s a sharp kid, quick on the uptake. He was awkward in his attempts to help Lac steer at first, but now he’s really getting the hang of it.

            The method they’ve settled on for getting through the worst of the deadfall consists of ramming the carved wood hull right into it and then moving to the front of the craft to begin chopping with the machetes. It would be easier to use axes really, but he’s only brought two along for the trip and he wants to keep them pristine for when he presents one to the headman and to some other muckety-muck.

            The tree before them now seems more a network of trees, each dragged down by the weight of the others, and the vibrating throb, the pinching strain in his forearm informs him that getting through this barrier will exact a steep toll. He still has the bandage on his hand from when he slid down the ladder in his hut to rescue Laura from the spider. He rubs the top of his wrist with his other hand, feels the gritty remnants of his earlier whittlings, inhales greedily, and then raises the machete. Warotobowä hasn’t stepped up to help him yet. It figures he’d bow out at the most difficult moment—the most difficult so far anyway. Who knows what’s ahead?

            Lac rocks the blade forward and back to dislodge it from the branch he’s sunk it into, and then he draws back his arm to deliver a second strike. But he finds himself frozen in place, seeing an image of the man on the bluff overlooking Patanowä-teri crouched down in place of the tree sprouting sideways over the stream. The man is holding up his hands to ward off the next swipe of the flat curved steel. Lac closes his eyes, lifts his face skyward and opens them again with a jagged exhale. The splotches of light oozing through the canopy remind him of grayish white glue, viscous, strangling.

            His thoughts turn unaccountably to his father, about how his experiences in the war somehow grew the man’s soul to gargantuan proportions, unmanageable, only to deposit him at home for a life he couldn’t begin to shrink it sufficiently to fit. He never took a factory job himself, Lac realizes, because he hated the thought of being in the same place, doing the same thing, day after day, for the rest of his life. It hobbled them as a family; that’s one of the reasons Connor couldn’t wait to get into manufacturing, couldn’t wait to begin his clockwork existence, producing and providing on a fixed timetable, the regimented mechanistic life that would have ground his father down into a pile of rust-flakes, like a corroded gear.

            Lifting his arm for that postponed second strike with his dulled and flecked blade, Lac feels a smile nudging its way into front edges of his cheeks. Me and Dad, he thinks, a couple of self-inventors, a pair of free spirits. No well-trod paths for us, none of the narrow corridors of convention, no predictable outcomes or fixed destinations. That had been the idea anyway. Scratching out a living in the Michigan sticks like some frontiersman of yore sounds ever so romantic, until you discover you can’t feed your kids, or take them to the hospital, or get them to school reliably. There were fourteen of us—well, twelve by the time I left home. Poor Mom had her last baby, our sister Deborah, when Dominic was already a year old.

            Lac thwacks away. And now here’s Warotobowä at last come to lend a hand. “Shaki,” he says, “I feel I know this place.” Lac tries to ask how the hell he could possibly tell, but as often happens when his mind travels back to Port Austin, he fumbles with the words in his mind for too long, letting his interlocutor take another turn at speaking. “We’ll need to keep going up the stream until the sun is there”—he points, signaling maybe a couple hours—“and then we can set up camp and start looking for signs.”

            The boat judders, even though neither Lac nor Warotobowä has moved. They turn simultaneously to the two huyas perched midship; they’ve turned excitedly toward each other to discuss something in urgent indecipherable murmurs. Lac can’t help imagining some elaborate conspiracy. Are they planning to mutiny so they can take his madohe to the Mishimishimaböwei-teri headman themselves? He knows the value of any one or two manufactured items pales beside a continual flow to the village; that’s why all the patas lobby him to transfer his base of operations to their own shabono, his peskiness in pursuing his ohodemou notwithstanding.

            But do these two useless idiots understand that?

            “Owa, why do they seem surprised that we’re getting close to our destination?” Lac whispers to Warotobowä.

            “I don’t think they expected for us to ever make it this far, Shaki—I think they’re frightened.”

            For Christ sake, Lac thinks, pivoting with the upraised machete to chop away at the branches. I’m paying them to help me get somewhere, but they’re scared we’ll actually make it? I never should have bothered recruiting them.

            The next hour is nothing but more thwacking and breaking and painstaking progress along the tree-strewn stream. By the time they reach the next open stretch, Lac is gasping and thirsty enough to risk drinking straight from the side of the boat. The Yąnomamö do it all the time. He’s done it himself plenty of times. So far, it’s led to nothing worse than severe diarrhea. Kneeling down by his robot friend at the back of the canoe, he bends over the gunnel with his overstrained arm to scoop water up to his mouth and over his face.

            Just as he’s giving the string a first tug to start the motor, he hears one of his new guides speaking, but the sputtering growl of the engine drowns out the words. Lac turns and shouts over the now steady hum for the young man to repeat himself. “Maybe we should turn back,” he shouts.

            “Why the hell would we do that now?” Lac shouts back. “Warotobowä says we may find footprints any time now.” The huya stares dumbly back at him, blinking at intervals as the wind pushes his lustrous black hair messily up from the back of his head. The Yąnomamö are good at giving you these looks, Lac thinks, like they think no one can see them, even though you’re looking right back at them. “We’re going to keep going until we find the trails, and then we’re going to follow them to Mishimishimaböwei-teri. That’s what I told you we were going to do when I asked you to come along. That’s what I’m paying you for.”

            The huya maintains his expression of profoundest oblivion for three more seconds before turning silently around, crouching low to grip the gunnels on either side, and shimmying back to his bench in the middle of the canoe.


            Lac is running his hammock strings under the shade of his newly built yano for the trip’s second night of camping when the three huyas return from scouting, excited, their eyes peeled open, their gaze darting about. He imagines them ashen-faced, though they remain as bronze complexioned as ever. “Shaki,” one gasps. “Footprints—the Shamatari are close.”

            “Awei?” Lac turns to Warotobowä.

            “Awei, it’s a footpath. We can follow it to Mishimishimaböwei-teri.” Warotobowä is alone among the three in not jumping out of his skin. He too looks excited, but not panicked.

            “How long will it take to walk the rest of the way to the shabono?”

            Lac’s heart sinks when Warotobowä indicates they still have several hours’ worth of traveling left. His back aches from bending over the motor while trying to watch for debris and submerged logs or rocks. He’s tired, thirsty, stiff. His right arm throbs and tingles. At least the loads they’ll have to haul won’t be horrifically heavy, what with there being four backs to spread them among and the Yąnomamö only having to carry their customary luggage consisting of next to nothing. Lac moves his gaze back toward where they hid the boat, but his eyes are arrested in their sweep when they light on the two huyas making up the other half of his crew. They’re standing shoulder to shoulder, either petrified or enraged—Lac cannot discern which.

            “Let’s get started first thing in the morning,” he says to all three.

            “Ma, ma, ma,” the huya beside Warotobowä says before the third says, “We must go back now! Shaki, we really must turn back immediately.”

            Lac groans, rolling his eyes dramatically. Do they know what eye-rolling means? “We’re not turning back. We’ve already hid the boat and set up camp. Tomorrow we’ll be traveling by foot the rest of the way to Mishimishimaböwei-teri, like we agreed.”

            “We will not go with you.”

            “You both old me you would help me get to the village. You haven’t done a damn thing for me on this trip except get in my way and nearly tip over the boat a dozen times.”

            “The Mishimishimaböwei-teri will kill you as soon as they see you, and then they’ll kill us next. This one is conspiring with them to set a trap,” the huya says, gesturing toward Warotobowä. “They’re not like the Bisaasi-teri. They’re much more waiteri.”

            “They told many Bisaasi-teri they wanted me to visit them and they wouldn’t harm me if I did.”

            “They’ll kill you, Shaki, and then they’ll kill us. They only want your madohe. It’s a nomohori, just like before.”

            “They can get more of my madohe if they treat us well, because I’ll keep coming back if they do, returning often with more. That’s why Mobaräkäwa tried to scare you; he wants to keep all my madohe coming to Bisaasi-teri.”

            The boys stare back at Lac with that look like no one else exists in the world. “We’re camping here tonight and continuing on foot tomorrow,” he repeats.

            “Ma, Shaki, we will not go. We will stay with the boat.”

            Lac turns to Warotobowä for help. Responding to the cue, he says, “Don’t leave them with the boat. They’ll try to steal it and sail back downriver. We’ll have to walk the whole way back.”

            “Can’t you explain to them they’ll be safe?”

            Warotobowä looks at the huyas and says, “You’ll be safe. They told me they want Shaki to visit.”

            Come on, Lac thinks. You can be more persuasive than that.

            “Ma, we will not go with you.”

            “Why the hell not?” Lac roars.

            “We’re frightened.”
            Lac picks up a machete and throws it on the ground before collapsing onto the nearest dry spot. “Shit!” No huya would accept the shame of admitting he’s scared if he could help it. These boys won’t be coming with him the rest of the way, and there’s nothing Lac can do to change their minds. What’s the next move then?

            “Shoris, if I go with my owa to Mishimishimaböwei-teri, will you stay with the boat? You could build a yano and camp while we’re away. It won’t take more than a few days.”

            “Don’t do it, Shaki,” Warotobowä says. “Don’t leave them with the boat.”

            The longer he considers it, the less he likes the idea himself. They may travel inland for days and not come across the village, which for all they know may no longer be in the same place Warotobowä remembers. When they find the village, they’ll be counting on their hosts to feed them. Yąnomamö hospitality is dependable for sure—assuming no one decides it would be better sport to kill the visitors. Nevertheless, Lac hates the thought of showing up emptyhanded, and he won’t be able to carry the food and madohe they need. He hired these extra guides for a reason.

            Swatting away the bareto, he drags out a grating sigh. Two days of travel got me this far, he thinks. Going back downstream will be easier, especially since we already cut through the deadfall. Maybe the best thing to do is go back and try again in a week. It’s only December. “You two are completely worthless,” he says in English, before switching back to Yąnomamö: “We’ll sleep here tonight, then head back to Bisaasi-teri in the morning.”

            “Ma, we must go down to the riverbank and camp by the boat. The Shamatari will find us here.”

            “Are you nuts? The mosquitoes will eat us alive!”

            “The mosquitoes won’t shoot us full of arrows.”


            As they’re docking the canoe two days later on the bank near his hut, Lac looks at the cowardly huyas who have thwarted his efforts to reach the legendary village. “Why did you agree to come with me if you never had any intention of reaching Mishimishimaböwei-teri?”

            “You promised us a machete, an ax, and a cooking pot,” one says with unperturbed honesty. “You also shoot monkeys and tapirs whenever you travel, Shaki. We thought we’d have lots of good meat if we came along, and maybe you’d give us some when we got back so we could share it with our families.”

            “I shouldn’t be giving you anything.” But he knows he can’t risk being saddled with a reputation for not delivering on his promised payments; the Yąnomamö won’t make fine distinctions about successful missions versus failed attempts. With all his bags and gear piled on the dock, he rummages to find the agreed-upon payment for each of them. Handing the items over, he says, “Make them last—this is the last time I hire you two to do anything.”


            Padre Morello greets him over the shortwave: “I hope your journey hasn’t ended in mishap. You’ve returned almost a week earlier than I expected.”

            “It turns out two of my guides were only going along because they thought I had no chance of making it to my destination. As soon as they discovered Shamatari footprints, after the second full day of traveling, they demanded we turn back. Since they were essentially holding our canoe hostage, I didn’t have much choice but to comply.”

            The padre’s belly laugh somehow makes Lac feel better. With this type of work, these setbacks are bound to happen. Really, it’s a miracle anything ever goes as planned. “I know that must be frustrating to you, Dr. Shackley. Forgive me. I’ve had my fair share of frustrations dealing with the Yąnomamö, believe me. You simply have to move on with the next endeavor. Oh, speaking of which, I have a letter here for you from a Dr. Nelson.”

            “That’s odd. Would you open it for me please? I don’t think it would be anything sensitive or overly personal.”

            “Of course. Give me a moment—ah, it seems he wishes to move up the date of his arrival to the middle of January.”

            “That’s only a few weeks from now!” So much for that second attempt at reaching Mishimishimaböwei-teri.

            “Your colleagues are welcome to use the new landing strip here at Ocamo if that would be more convenient for them,” the padre says, offering Lac a moment to recover. “I trust they can arrange their own flight into the territory.”

            “Thank you, Padre. I’ll let them know the next time I reach IVIC on the shortwave.” When he signs off, he begins listing what preparations remain undone. His charts and photo catalogues cover everyone living in both Upper and Lower Bisaasi-teri, so he will be able to identify all the village’s inhabitants by name while situating them in the wider kinship network. He has life history and demographic data going far beyond what Nelson requested. It seems he stands in good stead then, with only one major undertaking left to accomplish: getting everyone to agree to being jabbed with a needle so the researchers can take blood samples back to their labs.

            I’m sure that’ll be easy, Lac thinks, trying to force a laugh but making due with a faint grin.


            “You’ve done some good work here, Shackley,” Nelson says as he flips through Lac’s charts. “My goal was first to get a native baseline to compare to the samples we collected from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then to see if we can measure how each tribe differs genetically from its neighbors. But you’ve got entire genealogies and family histories going back a few generations—more, it looks like, in some cases. How confident are you in these data?”

            Nelson looks like what you’d get if you spliced the features and style of a physician with those of an aerospace engineer: gangly limbs, thick-framed glasses, short-buzzed thinning gray hair wrapping around a shiny sweat-beaded forehead, and a rapid-fire intensity to his speech. His comical khaki nod to colonial attire is offset by his height, which together with his soft-featured kind regard lends him an aspect of benign patrician authority, an effect that's heightened when he removes his simple hat to reveal his bald pate, which would make any other man look older but in his case is rather more suggestive of something timeless, like the dome of a high mountain. 

            The men are conversing outside the offices of the Ocamo outpost, and the more they discuss his work the harder it becomes for Lac to escape the sense of something odd about this man, a vague attribute that makes him kindred to, of all people, Padre Morello: both men exude an air of strictest propriety, to the point of awkward formality, but the way they carry the mantle of leadership intimates a readiness to break with stricture in pursuit of their lofty aims. Would either of them break with morality? He knows the padre would, or rather that he’d prod Lac to make such a break. These eccentrically courteous men who walk around as if it was their natural right to give orders, who seem to believe their higher calling obviates any need to adhere to protocol or bow to anyone else’s judgment or expertise—they remind him of his father. Only in his father’s case, authority couldn’t have been the issue, no matter how he would have wielded it. Yet the man was all the more intimidating for the enormity of the power he lacked.

            “Oh, you have no idea what I had to go through to get that information,” Lac answers. “As I said, the Yąnomamö have a taboo against divulging names, especially those of their direct forebears. But they have no qualms whatever about giving you fake names, or the names of people in some far-off village they deem it unlikely you’ll ever visit.”

            “So these charts are suspect?”

            “They would be if I hadn’t crosschecked every item with informants from multiple villages independently, especially members of rival villages, though even allied villages like to disparage and disrespect each other behind their backs.”

            “Sounds like they’re almost as bad as academics,” Nelson quips, prompting them both to laugh.

            “Getting these censuses and genealogies,” Lac goes on, “and then corroborating and correcting them is what’s taken up most of my time in the field so far. So I hope the information isn’t suspect anymore, but I can’t rule out the possibility that I’ll discover a few details here and there that need amending.”

            Nelson raises an eyebrow, either at a loss or at pains to appear underwhelmed. “Well, Shackley,” he says, “I couldn’t be more appreciative. With resources like this to supplement our genetic analyses, who knows what we might turn up?”
            “Happy to help, but I do plan on using these histories for my own work too, so you might say I have an ulterior motive.”

            “Certainly, and of course I’ll get these back to you after the scientific analysis is complete.”

            “I’m sorry, Dr. Nelson, but I’ll need these charts to complete my thesis. That’s what I proposed to do for my funding from the NIMH. I’ll be happy to furnish you with any data you find useful, after my own scientific analysis is complete.”

            “Shackley, you can’t possibly…” he catches himself before proceeding. But his contempt is manifest. Lac’s ears radiate heat to rival the drumming of the tropical sun, and he wonders if Nelson can see them turning red. “Okay, Shackley, your thesis comes first. I’ll have Bob copy as much of these charts as he can while taking the samples. But I’d appreciate having detailed and comprehensive data copied for our records as soon as you can manage.”

            “That was my plan. Let’s hope it’s just the beginning of a lasting and fruitful scientific collaboration.”

            “Yes, scientific. Indeed.”


            Mobaräkäwa and Rowahirawa are coming through for Lac in a big way. He went to the headman first, explaining that his doctor friends wanted to draw a small amount of blood from the wrist veins of all the Bisaasi-teri so they could do medical tests, possibly identifying disease susceptibilities and learning how best to guard against epidemics. Tragically, Mobaräkäwa understood what he was getting at perfectly well, his daily dabbling with the soul-eating hekura notwithstanding. How to explain the main research objective though, comparing indigenous genes to those of people from the industrialized world, with special emphasis on inhabitants of regions exposed to high levels of radiation?

            Lac told the headman the story of the cataclysmic firebombs dropped twenty years ago on the enemies of the America-teri, saying his doctor friends wanted to know how living in the aftermath affected people’s health in that country. Mobaräkäwa was more interested in it as a war story than as a rationale for jabbing the veins of villagers under his protection.

            “How do I get the Bisaasi-teri to agree to getting stabbed with a needle?” he finally asked directly.

            The headman grinned, saying, “Shaki, you get Bisaasi-teri to do everything you want the same way.”

            And here they are now, lined up like city folk at a post office—though more rowdy, giddier, perhaps more like school children lined up to take a physical—waiting to get pricked so they can return to their garden patches with sparkling new machetes. Every teenager and adult in the village will have one, some with a backup or two in case they want to trade. Lac radioed to IVIC to inform Nelson of the plan, and the team showed up at Ocamo in a Cessna laden with barrels full of madohe. In last night’s kąwa amou, Mobaräkäwa told the entire village what to expect and what they would receive as payment for their participation. Then earlier today he volunteered to be the first to submit to the doctor’s needle, showing everyone how safe and interesting the experience could be.

            Rowahirawa’s contribution is different. As a sioha, his prestige is limited—nonexistent really. But one hint of an intention to tell the Karohi-teri about any cowardly behavior he witnesses and the reluctant research participant suddenly grows eager to demonstrate his courage. The women, Lac is impressed to note, comply still more dutifully, requiring nothing by way of goading or coaxing. It saddens him to see how passively they accept their lot, though that derives mostly from his knowledge of what else their lot tends to entail.

            To get around the name taboo while recording everyone’s identity, Lac has assigned each villager a number code. After catching the first man getting back in line for another machete, he decided to write the numbers on everybody’s wrist. That way, he won’t have to stand by as Glen and Bob do all the needle work. No one seems to mind the strange drawings. Oddly, though, Lac doesn’t get the impression that the Yąnomamö’s tractability is owing to their desire for steel tools; if anything, they seem to simply be enjoying this intricate and bizarre game invented by their ridiculous-looking nabä visitors. Which is to say the blood sampling process is going much more smoothly than Lac could have hoped. The only one with a dour look on his face is Nelson, who seems irritated by the general atmosphere of goofing around. Wonderful, Lac thinks: this is the guy I’m counting on to fund future expeditions.

            In addition to taking blood samples, Nelson and the other members of his team are doing an assessment of the villagers’ general health, which entails asking after any pains or sores or aches or feelings of weakness or fatigue. The men show the doctors their teeth, pointing to where their gums hurt, or display rashes as they relay their suspicions about whose magic is responsible. Lac envisioned pandemonium like he experienced when he first arrived in Bisaasi-teri. But instead the villagers are as calm and orderly as he’s ever seen them. Maybe it’s that there are six nabäs, seven if you count Lac, instead of just him and Clemens. Maybe it was the fight that had occurred right before he showed up—but they stayed agitated and keyed up like that for most of the year. Maybe Dominic and Kara were right: these people don’t need missionaries and anthropologists harassing and bribing them; they need doctors, boatloads of doctors.

            Lac looks up after writing a number on a huya’s wrist with his felt-tip marker and sees Nelson holding a tiny inverted bottle of eye drops over an infant in its mother’s arms. He mentally situates her in his charts: name, lineage, husband’s name and lineage. He even recalls some of her life history from his interviews with her. None of that information, no matter how painstakingly recorded, holds any value next to this one-dose cure for a baby’s infected eyes. You come across kids with these infections in every village, Lac thinks; I’ll have to ask Nelson if he can get his hands on some extra bottles of medicine.

            In all his systematizing and objectivity, Lac has often worried that an opportunity for a more quintessentially human connection between the inhabitants of the two worlds is being squandered. Here they are now, though, going through this bureaucratic process, this conveyor belt of measuring, treating, sampling, and testing—and the starkest outcomes are smiles on the cooperating men’s faces, along with the rapid soothing of an infant’s tears.


            “Shackley, what the hell is this guy saying?” Glen shouts from a short distance away in the plaza. Lac ignores him a full three beats—these guys have been barking orders at him all day—and then tells the next man waiting in line for his number to wait.

            “Shori, this man asked me to talk to you and tell him what you’re saying.”

            “Tell him I want to know where he gets the spears he’s using to suck out our blood.”

            After Lac translates, Glen asks, “How do you answer them when they ask stuff like that?”

            “I guess I try to put it in terms they can understand. I’ve told them about the gargantuan villages us nabäs live in and that those places are where the steel goods I bring in my canoe come from. So I’ll tell him that’s also where you got the needles.”

            “Tell him whatever you think is best. I’m just trying to keep the line moving.”

            Responding to something in Glen’s tone, Lac turns and says to the man, “These nabäs come from villages like the one I come from—that’s where the needles come from—but they’re weaker than most men who live there. They need men like me to come prepare for them to do their ohodemou with people as fierce as the Yąnomamö. Now they’re frightened you will take revenge on them for stabbing your arms. That’s how I tricked them into giving you and the other Bisaasi-teri so much madohe.” He’s violating his commitment to strict transparency, he realizes too late.

            But a little joke won’t hurt anybody.

            The man looks at Glen, then turns back to Lac grinning. Barking out a laugh, he reaches for Glen’s arm to feel how skinny it is.

            “What did you tell him?”

            “I told him you were worried he would hold up your work. He thinks you’re silly to worry because he really wants the machete. He only asked about the needles because he’s curious. I mean, wouldn’t you be?”

            The man presents his wrist for Glen to sample his blood, and Lac goes back to the line of villagers waiting to have their numbers written on their arms. These guys act like I’m their damn secretary, Lac thinks, as if their fancy degrees make them better, as if nothing anybody else researches holds a candle to what they’re doing. Well, I would love to see how any of them fared out here by himself for a year, with no one to translate and no one to explain the ins and outs of the culture. My guess is they wouldn’t last a week before hightailing it to the nearest mission outpost—and they’d probably wind up getting lost somewhere along the way.

            The team is here for two weeks; at their current pace, Lac calculates, they’ll have collected samples from everyone in Upper Bisaasi-teri, perhaps with enough time left over to get a nice start on the village living he borara across the Mavaca. As happy as he is to be working with U of M’s august Department of Human Genetics, he finds he’s already wishing the team away. The only one he likes, a doctor named Miguel, is a Venezuelan who works for IVIC. Mostly, Lac is just eager to get back to interviewing Mobaräkäwa. He would also like to make another attempt at reaching Mishimishimaböwei-teri. He has plenty of genealogical work left to do for closer villages as well. Should I stay until March, he wonders, now that my commitment to Nelson is fulfilled? I have the budget to stay for that long, but now there’ll be nothing keeping me; it comes down to whether I’m satisfied with my research so far.

            He looks around the plaza, marveling again at how willingly the Yąnomamö are submitting to the nabä doctors’ bizarre rituals. Would Americans be any different? A bunch of guys show up with uniforms and an air of importance saying they need to do something for the sake of everyone’s health. And in exchange for their cooperation they promise to hand over valuable goods. People anywhere would probably participate. Humans enjoy taking part in group projects it seems—most humans anyway.


            “Listen Lac—it okay if I call you Lac? The biggest challenge we face in getting these samples back to the lab and analyzing them expeditiously is finding ready transportation. It’s crucial for us to keep every communication channel open and every waystation accessible. In this region, that means staying on good terms with the missionaries, both the New Tribes and the Salesians.”

            “True enough. But don’t worry. I have friends in both camps, and neither of them seems to mind.”

            Nelson has come to his hut with a criticism he's careful to level with the utmost diplomacy. Now Lac knows where the good doctor’s dissatisfaction with his efforts lies. They stand discussing it on opposite sides of his table.

            “Yes, well, I’m glad to hear it. So you won’t object to joining me and my team when we visit Tama Tama to sing some hymns with the missionaries tomorrow night; they were delighted when we accepted their invitation, mentioning you specifically—something about how you never participate in their services.”

            “Listen, Doug”—Lac halts, seeing a shift in his interlocutor’s demeanor—“Dr. Nelson, what you have to understand is that I’m walking a fine line in my dealings with these people. The Salesians don’t mind me fraternizing with the Protestants because they know it’s a partnership borne of convenience. It’s the same for the New Tribes. Neither one of them is opposed to me accepting help from the other because they know I haven’t picked a side in their battle for native souls. But if reports start spreading of me singing with the congregation in some mission church—well, you see how that could upset the balance.”

            “What I recommend in that case is that you restore the balance by attending a prayer service or a mass once in a while with the Catholics. As you’ve told me before, you’re not on especially good terms with all the Salesians—the fellow on the opposite bank of the Orinoco being one priest you say isn’t too sympathetic to your plight.”

            “Yes, well, I doubt Padre Sanchez can be won over to my cause as easily as that, especially if he catches wind of me singing songs with the Protestants.”

            “I don’t know, Lac. I think it may be worth a try, for the sake of the research. That’s why I insist all the members of my team attend any such services we’re invited to.”

            All the members of my team? “Look, I understand the challenges you face, believe me. And I’m committed to helping you and the team overcome them. But the fact is, it isn’t just the missionaries. I need to stay neutral in the eyes of the Yąnomamö as well. If they start to associate me with the missionaries, they’ll immediately start to get cagy. They’ll lie to me more, only telling me what they think I want to hear. You should hear how these villagers talk about the missionaries. They don’t take them seriously at all. If they think I’m connected to the Christians, then the focus of my interest will have shifted in their eyes from their way of life to the mission of trying to sway them toward adopting mine. It’s a matter of trust, and I can’t have them suspecting I have some sinister motive.”

            “Oh, come now, Shackley! You know as well as I do the missionaries are the best hope these people have. And this medical team, apart from doing its research, will have done more to help them in a few days than any missionary has in years—or any anthropologist for that matter. I don’t see any reason you can’t spell things out for them like that.”

            “What am I supposed to spell out for them exactly? That the missionaries want to replace their spiritual practices with their own? That they believe the Yąnomamö are going to burn in hell for eternity if they’re not saved, meaning they can’t be convinced to accept some poor bastard was tortured and executed two thousand years ago to somehow deliver them from that same fate? That our nabä ways are superior because they allow us to live safer, longer lives—oh, but for a few generations your people will be a bunch of dirt-poor drunken peasants?”

            “—Would that be such a terrible thing to say?” Nelson shouts over him, missing the final barb. “For Christ’s sake, I was up the better part of the night listening to some poor woman shriek as her husband beat her to within an inch of her life—at least that’s how it sounded.”

            “You’re a scientist, Nelson. Tell me about the evidence that led you to believe Christian men never beat their wives.”

            “Now, Shackley, there’s no need for us to get testy with each other,” he responds, visibly straining to calm himself. “I maintain it’s a good idea to accept these invitations whenever we receive them, but I understand you’ll make your own decision.”

            “That’s good to hear, Dr. Nelson.” Lac watches him as he looks on in silent anticipation. No, my friend, he thinks, I won’t be changing my tune on the spot, much as I appreciate you backing off a bit. The facts of this matter are pretty stark from where I’m standing. Why should I defer to your judgement when you just got here and aren’t staying past next week?

            Still, I need to come up with a way to keep this guy happy.


            The team’s flight out of Esmeralda is already arranged. Leaving the territory, Nelson’s guys will be minus the barrels of madohe but plus many cases of blood samples. They’ll be taking biometric and general health data, but they distributed ointments for rashes, drops for eye infections, antimalarial pills, aspirin. All in all, it’s shaping up to be a decent bargain for the Bisaasi-teri.

            In the evening, Lac goes to bathe in the river with Glen and Bob and one other man. Rowahirawa stands on the shore, being a chatterbox as is his wont, and the children are in the water splashing and harassing one another.

            Lac had looked forward to hosting the genetics team. It seemed it would be nice to have people to speak English to, people familiar with life in America and who use recognizably American references. But it’s almost as if these men can’t figure out where he stands in relation to them, making them default to an attitude of supercilious presumption. Have I gone native, as the colonialists used to say? Do Americans see me as a hybrid, someone who doesn’t belong comfortably on either side of the divide?

            The boys wade over to Lac with looks of concern. “Shaki, why do those other nabäs’ penises look so strange?” This doubles Rowahirawa over with laughter.

            Lac, though born to a Catholic family, came into the world in a place nowhere near a hospital, and nowhere near anyone his parents could trust with a scalpel, so his foreskin remains intact. The other white men are all circumcised. “The part you tie to your waist strings was cut off of these men,” he says.         

            “What were they cut off?”

            “Well, in our village we punish people who commit incest by cutting off their foreskins.”

            “Ma! That’s horrible!” the boy says, giggling nervously. 

            “Don’t worry. This is only the custom in Michigan-urihi-teri.”

            “Can those men still fuck?”

            “What do you know about fucking? You’re too young for that.”

            “Oh, not me, I fuck all the time.”

            The boys erupt with glee.

            “Isn't Michigan-urihi-teri where you shot all those raharas?”

            His lie coming back to haunt him, though it still seems mostly harmless. He silently recommits himself to honesty and transparency across every cultural divide. And foreskin-cutting punishments for incest? That’s just a joke—or would be if all the kids didn’t believe it.

            The rumor spreads quickly. Even before Lac is finished bathing, more children and some adults are lined up on the shore gawping at the wages of the researchers' sin. 


            Departure day comes quickly. The team has gotten through all of Upper Bisaasi-teri and Nelson seems satisfied, if not exactly happy. Will he want to continue the collaboration? That may depend on how long it takes to get the samples to a lab where they’ll be properly preserved. Lac isn’t completely sure he cares. Do I really want to keep coming back to this damn jungle anyway?


            Nelson pulls him aside as they’re transferring equipment and sample cases from the dugout to the dock at Esmeralda. “Your work here has been indispensable, Lac. All in all, I’d say our work together so far is extremely promising—any minor differences aside. I’m looking forward to several more journeys to this region in the future so I can collect samples from a wide array of villages. And I’m hoping you’ll be around to help me. I think you appreciate how profoundly important this type of work could be.”

            “I was hoping you’d say something along those lines, but that was even better than I imagined,” Lac says, smiling.

            “Get a hold of me when you get back to Ann Arbor,” Nelson says.

            “If I make it back to Ann Arbor.” The joke falls flat because Nelson and his team had such an easy time, nothing like Lac’s early experiences in Bisaasi-teri. But the two grin at each other, basking in their brief bonhomie. Nelson claps Lac on the shoulder as they shake hands and head back to the dock to start carrying the gear up to the landing strip before loading it in the cargo plane.

            Now Lac is thinking of those damn otters, of all things, the ones he sent off with Laura and the kids the last time he was here in Esmeralda. Looking back, he has the sense that he knew they were doomed the moment his team of young rat hunters showed up at the door with them. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to know infant mammals of any species won’t fare well after being deprived of their mother. But that wasn’t what he based the prediction on.

            Instead, it was a pervasive dread about efforts going wrong, a conviction borne of disaster that the best attitude to adopt is one of pessimism and near helplessness. You can travel, write things down, stay alive and healthy, mostly, but trying to do anything as elaborate as keeping baby animals alive amounts to a kind of hubris. The endeavor was bound to fail. Yet he’s just helped the genetics team line up the villagers for orderly examinations—and it worked. More than that, his genealogical charts have been more than adequate, as limited as they still are. They were exactly what Nelson was after. It’s not that the good doctor likes Lac in spite of his recalcitrance; rather he recognizes him as useful because of his abilities. This amounts to a major success, but he can’t square it with the lesson of the otters, the lesson that had, when he considers it, sunk in long before he’d lain eyes on those pointy faces, before his family had arrived even.

            So somehow he’s both a failure and a success, a bungler and an adept. Really, though, his ineptitude is so real to him, it’s the success that seems like it merely happened on its own, almost incidental to his plans and efforts, certainly not because of any skills or qualities belonging to him. But now he’s rethinking his whole time here. Had he really done so terribly? He’s spent much of his time over the past year wondering if it was he who failed the discipline of anthropology or if it was the discipline of anthropology that had failed him. But will the output from his fieldwork be so different from that of other ethnographers?

            Obviously, the Yąnomamö are a difficult people to live with, much less study, but he seems to be making much more headway with them than many of the missionaries. And who else would have persevered like he has when it came to tracking down the names of so many informants and their ancestors? He’s failing big because his project is big. Maybe given the conditions on the ground, he’s doing more and getting farther than anyone else ever could have. Nelson, the smooth sailing his team enjoyed notwithstanding, must recognize the significance of his accomplishments. What will his professors and colleagues in the anthropology department make of them?

            Maybe he only feels like a failure because he’s focused solely on what he has yet to do. And, looking back, it’s the setbacks that stand out most in his mind. The reality is, he could write up an impressive, impressively compelling, ethnography based on what he’s discovered and recorded up till now. But with this elevation in his self-perceived competence comes a couple troubling implications. If he’s good at what he does, how can he account for his inability to provide suitable conditions in the field for his family, especially in light of the missionaries’ seeming lack of difficulty with keeping their own families around? Might he have not really wanted them here? He remembers he did fantasize they were gone one morning while they were staying in his hut.

            And if he’s not the bumbler he thinks himself, doesn’t he bear more responsibility for what happened outside Patanowä-teri back in April?

            Ah, Lac, he says quietly to himself, don’t be an idiot. Some things you can control, some things you can’t. Accomplishments that build on steady progress—one foot in front of the other—those you’re good at. But you can’t control what happens when one Yąnomamö village raids another. And you can’t magically transform your mud hut in the jungle into a four-star hotel, or even an American-style house, not while you’re busy with the work that brought you to that jungle in the first place anyway.


Continue reading

Links to chapters (Table of Contents)

Also read some of my nonfiction:

The Self-Righteousness Instinct: Steven Pinker on the Better Angels of Modernity and the Evils of Morality

Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

Napoleon Chagnon's Crucible and the Ongoing Epidemic of Moralizing Hysteria in Academia

 The World Until Yesterday and the Great Anthropology Divide: Wade Davis's and James C. Scott's Bizarre and Dishonest Reviews of Jared Diamond's Work   

Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game