Источник Всех Солнц - Source of All Suns


Книга Флоринды Доннер - "ШАБОНО"  --  "SHABONO"book by FLORINDA DONNER




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Все Женщины - Dreamers, правда некоторые - более одарённые, чем другие ! Dreamer - это человек, который умеет себя гипнотизировать и поднимать себя на более высокую вибрацию, зная или не зная этого. Обычно среди мужчин это : Колдуны, первопроходцы Роберта Монро, маги, индийские гуру, некоторые монахи и т.д. У всех Женщин этот дар есть из-за того, что у них есть Матка (если она не вырезана), но этот дар иеется у очень малого количества мужчин и этот дар ещё должен быть развит огромным трудом. Dreaming-Awake - означает быть в самогипнозе, т.е. сознательно или бессознательно поднимать себя выше, на более высокую вибрацию, не теряя контроль над собой и исполняя поставленные задачи !

All Women are Dreamers, though among them there are more gifted, then others. Dreamer is a person, who can hypnotize herself and lift herself up, to a faster and higher vibrational level. All Women are Dreamers, but Dreamers among Men are usually: Sorcerers, Robert Monroe' s Institute explorers, some magicians, indian gurus, some buddists, some priests/cledgy and so on. All Women, because of their Womb (if it's still inside), have this gift, but Men have to work a great deal to develop this ability !
Dreaming-Awake is self-hypnosis, means consciously or subconsciously raise herself to a higher consciousness level (vibration), without loosing control and to perform certain tasks.



Shabono. A Visit to a Remote and Magical World in the South
American Rainforest.  1982 BY FLORINDA DONNER


"From across the river, out of the distant darkness, the wind carried the Iticoteri's laughter... The voice rustled through the ancient trees, then vanished, like the silvery ripples on the water."
So writes Florinda Donner in this truly remarkable book. Like "The Children of Sanchez" by Oscar Lewis, "Shabono" breaks new ground in revealing the life of another culture by drawing the reader into its strange and unique world. Ms. Donner, an anthropologist, traveled into the deep jungle between Venezuela and Brazil to study the "curing," or witchcraft practices, of certain Indian tribes. Shabono is the story of her total immersion in a primitive society and its exotic way of life. For days Florinda Donner follows an old Indian woman and her son into the steamy undergrowth to their village, or shabono. As day becomes night and night day, time loses all meaning, and her sojourn among the people she calls the Iticoteri extends to a year. Adopted by a native couple, she goes beyond observation; she begins to absorb their totems and taboos as her own. Behind the hardness of life in the jungle is an exquisite magic, a world in which the Iticoteri are born, undergo grueling rites of passage, marry, make war, and die. A world where they feast on ripe plantain and fresh fish. Where there are ceremonies in which men sniff epena and dance wildly in
costumes made from the feathers of exotic birds to become shapori, or witch doctors. Theirs is a civilization in which illness is cured by the rhythmic chanting of shapori, where fire releases the soul from the body, and the soul rises to the house of thunder. With amazing warmth the Iticoteri accept Florinda Donner as one of their own, gently teaching her their religion, their customs, even their language. Reluctantly they guide her to the edge of the jungle at the end of her year with them.
In prose that is enchanting, almost sensual, Florinda Donner combines the storytelling appeal of a novel with the very real facts of her stay in the shabono. The result is as unusual as it is irresistible, a book that will fascinate equally readers of fiction and nonfiction.
FLORINDA DONNER is an anthropologist whose specialty is the study of Indian tribes. 
"There is no doubt in my mindб that Shabonois a masterpiece. For me, it is at once art, magic, and social science, and so skillfully balanced that I cannot assess which takes the lead. "It is superb social science because with an unerring sense of choice in describing her experiences among the Indians of the Venezuelan jungle, Florinda Donner literally plummets the reader into an unknown but very real world. The ethnographic data are there but presented in a rich, alive, and functional way.
"At the same time the author's haunting arid utterly powerful narrative succeeds in communicating to the reader a most peculiar sense of awe. Thus, Shabono is sheer magic because it sustains, all the way through, the overpowering and forbidden aura of a mysterious and enchanting world.
"And finally Shabono is art because of a masterly arrangement of words and ideas. Florinda Donner's artistry is to strike with words; to create fleeting images of supreme poignancy and then string them and connect them until they achieve a final result: a catharsis of feeling." - by CARLOS CASTANEDA, author of "The Eagle's Gift" and "The Teachings of Don Juan"

Author's Note

The Yanomama Indians, also known in anthropological literature as the Waika, Shamatari, Barafiri, Shirishana, and Guaharibo, inhabit the most isolated portion of the border between southern Venezuela and northern Brazil. It has been roughly estimated that there are between ten and twenty thousand of them, occupying an area of approximately seven thousand square miles. This territory encompasses the headwaters of the Orinoco, Mavaca, Siapo, Ocamo, Padamo, and Ventuari rivers in Venezuela; and the Uraricoera, Catrimani, Dimini, and Araca rivers in Brazil. The Yanomama live in hamlets of palm-thatched dwellings called shabonos, which are
scattered throughout the forest. The number of individuals residing in each of these widely dispersed hamlets varies between sixty and a hundred people. Some of the shabonos are located close to Catholic or Protestant missions or in other areas accessible to the white man: Others have withdrawn deeper into the jungle. Hamlets still exist in remote parts of the forest that have not been contacted by outsiders. My experience with the Iticoteri, the inhabitants of one of these unknown shabonos, is what this book is about. It is a subjective account of the surplus data, so to speak, of anthropological field research I conducted on curing practices in Venezuela.
The most important part of my training as an anthropologist emphasized the fact that objectivity is what gives validity to anthropological work. It happened that throughout my stay with this Yanomama group I did not keep the distance and detachment required of objective research. Special links of gratitude and friendship with them made it impossible for me to interpret facts or draw conclusions from what I witnessed and learned. Because I am a woman; and because of my physical appearance, and a certain bent of character, I posed no threat to the Indians. They accepted me as an amenable oddity, and I was able to fit, if only for a moment in time, into the peculiar rhythm of their lives. In my account I have made two alterations of my original notes. The first has to do with names: The name Iticoteri as well as the names of the persons portrayed are imaginary. The second has to do with style: For dramatic effect I have altered the sequence of events, and for narrative purposes I have rendered conversations in the proper English syntax and grammatic structure. Had I literally translated their language, I could not have done justice
to its complexity, flexibility, and its highly poetic and metaphoric expressions. The versatility of suffixes and prefixes gives the Yanomama language delicate shades of meaning that have no real equivalent in English. Even though I was patiently drilled until I could differentiate and reproduce most of their words, I never became a fluent speaker. However, my inability to command their language was no obstacle in communicating with them. I learned to "talk" with them long before I had an adequate vocabulary. Talking was more of a bodily sensation than an actual interchange of words. How accurate our interchange was is another matter. For them and
for me it was effective. They made allowances when I could not explain myself, or when I could not understand the information they were conveying about their world: After all, they did not expect me to cope with the subtleties and intricacies of their language. The Yanomama, just like ourselves, have their own biases: They believe whites are infantile and thus less intelligent.

Characters

ANGELICA (An geh lee ca)
An old Indian woman at the Catholic mission who sets up the journey to the Iticoteri country
ARASUWE (Arah suh weh)
Milagros's brother-in-law, headman of the Iticoteri
ETEWA (Eh teh wuh)
Arasuwe's son-in-law
HAYAMA (Hah yah muh)
Angelica's oldest living sister, mother-in-law of Arasuwe, grand-mother of Ritimi
HOAXIWE (How bashee weh)
Tutemi's and Etewa's newborn son
IMAWAAMI ()
The legendary woman shapori.
IRAMAMOWE (Eerah mah moh weh)
Arasuwe's brother, a shaman at the Iticoteri settlement
KAMOSIWE (Kah moh see weh)
Angelica's father
MATUWE (Mah tuh weh)
Hayama's youngest son
MILAGROS (Mee la gros)
Angelica's son, a man who belongs to both worlds, the Indian's and the white man's
MOCOTOTERI (Moh coh toh teh ree)
The inhabitants of a nearby shabono
PURIWARIWE (Puh ree wahree weh)
Angelica's brother, an old shaman at the Iticoteri settlement
RITIMI (Ree tee mee)
Arasuwe's daughter, first wife of Etewa
SISIWE (See see weh)
Ritimi's and Etewa's six-year-old son
TEXOMA (Teh shomuh)
Ritimi's and Etewa's four-year-old daughter
TUTEMI (Tuh teh mee)
Etewa's young second wife
XOTOMI (Shoh toh mee)
Arasuwe's daughter, Ritimi's half-sister
XOROWE (Shoh roh weh)
Iramamowe's son

PART ONE - Chapter 1

I was half asleep. Yet I could sense people moving around me. As if from a great distance, I
heard the soft rustle of bare feet over the packed dirt of the hut; the coughing and clearing
of throats, and the faint voices of women. Leisurely I opened my eyes. It was not quite
dawn. In the semidarkness I could see Ritimi and Tutemi, their naked bodies bent over the
hearths where the embers of the night's fires still glowed. Tobacco leaves, water-filled
gourds, quivers with poisoned arrowheads, animal skulls, and bundles of green plantains
hung from the palm-frond ceiling, appearing to be suspended in the air below the rising
smoke.
Yawning, Tutemi stood up. She stretched, then bent over the hammock to lift Hoaxiwe into
her arms. Giggling softly, she nuzzled her face against the baby's stomach. She mumbled
something unintelligible as she pushed her nipple into the boy's mouth. Sighing, she eased
herself back into her hammock.
Ritimi pulled down some dried tobacco leaves. She soaked them in a calabash bowl filled
with water, then took one wet leaf and, before rolling it into a wad, sprinkled it with ashes.
Placing the quid between her gum and lower lip, she sucked at it noisily while preparing
two more. She gave one to Tutemi, then approached me. I closed my eyes, hoping to give
the impression that I was asleep. Squatting at the head of my hammock, Ritimi ran her
tobacco-soaked finger, wet with her saliva, between my gum and lower lip, but did not
leave a quid in my mouth. Chuckling, she edged toward Etewa, who had been watching
from his hammock. She spat her wad into her palm and handed it to him. A soft moan
escaped her lips as she placed the third quid in her mouth and lowered herself on top of
him.
The fire filled the hut with smoke, gradually warming the chilly damp air. Burning day and
night, the hearth fires were the center of each dwelling. The smoke stains they left on the
thatch ceiling set one household apart from the next, for there were no dividing walls
between the huts. They stood so close together that adjacent roofs overlapped each other,
giving the impression of one enormous circular dwelling. There was a large main entrance
to the entire compound with a few narrow openings between some huts. Each hut was
supported by two long and two shorter poles. The higher side of the hut was open and faced
a clearing in the middle of the circular structure, while the lower, exterior side of the hut
was closed with a wall of short poles wedged against the roof.
A heavy mist shrouded the surrounding trees. The palm fronds, hanging over the interior
edge of the hut, were silhouetted against the grayness of the sky. Etewa's hunting dog lifted
its head from under its curled-up body, and without quite waking, opened its mouth in a
wide yawn. I closed my eyes, dozing off to the smell of green plantains roasting in the fires.
My back was stiff, and my legs ached from having squatted for hours the day before,
digging weeds in the nearby gardens.
I opened my eyes abruptly as my hammock was vigorously rocked back and forth, and I
gasped as a small knee pressed into my stomach. Instinctively I pulled the hammock's sides
over me to protect myself from the cockroaches and spiders that invariably fell from the
thick palm-thatched roof whenever the poles holding up the huts were shaken.
Giggling, the children crawled on top and around me. Their brown naked bodies were soft
and warm against my skin. As they had done almost every morning since I had first arrived,
the children ran their chubby hands over my face, breasts, stomach, and legs, coaxing me to
identify each part of my anatomy. I pretended to sleep, snoring loudly. Two little boys
snuggled against my sides, and the little girl on top of me pressed her dark head under my
chin. They smelled of smoke and dirt.
I had not known a word of their language when I first arrived at their settlement deep in the
jungle between Venezuela and Brazil. Yet that had not been an obstacle to the eighty or so
people occupying the shabono in accepting me. For the Indians, not to understand their
language was tantamount to being aka boreki- dumb. As such, I was fed, loved, and
indulged: My mistakes were excused or overlooked as if I were a child. Mostly my
blunders were acknowledged by boisterous outbursts of laughter that shook their bodies
until they rolled on the ground, tears brimming in their eyes.
The pressure of a tiny hand against my cheek stopped my reveries. Texoma, Ritimi's and
Etewa's four-year-old daughter, lying on top of me, opened her eyes and, moving her face
closer, began to flutter her stubby eyelashes against mine. "Don't you want to get up?" the
little girl asked, running her fingers through my hair. "The plantains are ready."
I had no desire to abandon my warm hammock. "I wonder- how many months have I been
here?" I asked.
"Many," three voices answered in unison.
I could not help smiling. Anything beyond three was expressed as many, or more than three.
"Yes, many months," I said softly.
"Tutemi's baby was still sleeping inside her belly when you first arrived," Texoma
murmured, snuggling against me.
It was not that I had ceased being aware of time, but the days, weeks, and months had lost
their precise boundaries. Here only the present mattered. For these people only what
happened each day amidst the immense green shadows of the forest counted. Yesterday and
tomorrow, they said, were as undetermined as a vague dream; as fragile as a spider's web,
which was visible only when a streak of sunlight sears through the leaves.
Measuring time had been my obsession during the first few weeks. I wore my self-winding
watch day and night and recorded each sunrise in a diary as if my very existence depended
on it. I cannot pinpoint when I realized that a fundamental change had taken place within
me. I believe it all started in a small town in eastern Venezuela where I had been doing
research on healing practices even before I arrived at the Iticoteri settlement.
After transcribing, translating, and analyzing the numerous tapes and hundreds of pages of
notes gathered during months of field work among three curers in the Barlovento area, I
had seriously begun doubting the validity and purpose of my research. My endeavor to
organize the data into a meaningful theoretical framework proved to be futile, in that the
material was ridden with inconsistencies and contradictions.
The emphasis of my work had been directed toward discovering the meaning that curing
practices have for the healers and for their patients in the context of their everyday life
activities. My concern had been in discerning how social reality, in terms of health and
illness, was created out of their interlocked activity. I reasoned that I needed to master the
manner in which practitioners regard each other and their knowledge, for only then would I
be able to operate in their social setting and within their own system of interpretation. And
thus the analysis of my data would come from the system in which I had been operating
and would not be superimposed from my own cultural milieu.
While in the field I lived in the home of dona Mercedes, one of the three curers I was
working with. Not only did I record, observe, and interview the curers and their numerous
patients, but I also participated in the curing sessions, immersing myself totally in the new
situation.
Yet I was faced day to day with blatant inconsistencies in their curing practices and their
explanations of them. Dona Mercedes laughed at my bewilderment and what she
considered my lack of fluidity in accepting changes and innovations.
"Are you sure I said that?" she asked upon listening to one of the tapes I insisted on playing
for her.
"It's not me speaking," I said tartly, and began reading from my typed notes, hoping she
would become aware of the contradictory information she had given me.
"That sounds wonderful," dona Mercedes said, interrupting my reading. "Is that really me
you are talking about? You have converted me into a real genius. Read me your notes on
your sessions with Rafael and Serafino."
These were the other two curers I was working with.
I did as she asked, then turned on the tape recorder once more, hoping she would help me
with the conflicting information. However, dona Mercedes was not interested at all in what
she had said months earlier. To her that was something in the past and thus had no validity.
Boldly she gave me to understand that the tape recorder was at fault for having recorded
something she had no memory of having said. "If I really said these things, it's your doing.
Every time you ask me about curing I start talking without really knowing what I am
saying. You always put words into my mouth. If you knew how to cure, you wouldn't
bother writing or talking about it. You would just do it."
I was not willing to believe that my work was useless. I went to see the other two curers. To
my great chagrin they were not much help either. They acknowledged the inconsistencies
and explained them much as dona Mercedes had.
In retrospect my despair over this failure seems comical. In a fit of rage, I dared dona
Mercedes to burn my notes. She willingly complied, burning sheet after sheet over the
flame of one of the candles illuminating the statue of the Virgin Mary on the altar in her
curing room. "I really can't understand why you get so upset about what your machine says
and what I say," dona Mercedes observed, lighting another candle on the altar. "What
difference does it make about what I do now and what I did a few months ago? All that
matters is that the patients get well. Years ago, a psychologist and a sociologist came here
and recorded everything I said on a machine like yours. I believe it was a better machine: It
was much larger. They were only here for a week. With the information they got, they
wrote a book about curing."
"I know the book," I snapped. "I don't think it's an accurate study. It's simplistic, superficial,
and lacks a true understanding."
Dona Mercedes peered at me quizzically, her glance half pitying, half deprecatory. In
silence I watched the last page turn to ashes. I was not bothered by what she had done; I
still had the English translation of the tapes and notes. She got up from her chair and sat
next to me on the wooden bench. "Very soon you'll feel that a heavy load has been lifted off
your back," she consoled me.
I was compelled to go into a lengthy explanation concerning the importance of studying
non-Western healing practices. Dona Mercedes listened attentively, a mocking smile on her
face.
"If I were you," she suggested, "I would accept your friend's offer to go hunting up the
Orinoco River. It would be a good change for you."
Although I had intended to return to Los Angeles as soon as possible in order to conclude
my work, I had seriously considered accepting a friend's invitation for a two-week trip into
the jungle. I had no interest in hunting but believed I might have the opportunity of meeting
a shaman, or witnessing a curing ceremony, through one of the Indian guides he planned to
hire upon arriving at the Catholic mission, which was the last outpost of civilization.
"I think I should do that," I said to dona Mercedes. "Maybe I'll meet a great Indian curer
who will tell me things about healing that not even you know."
"I'm sure you'll hear all kinds of interesting things," dona Mercedes laughed. "But don't
bother to write them down- you won't do any kind of research."
"Oh, really. And how do you know that?"
"Remember I'm a bruja," she said, patting my cheek. There was an expression of ineffable
gentleness in her dark eyes. "And don't worry about your English notes safely tucked away
in your desk. By the time you return, you won't have any use for your notes."
Chapter 2
A week later I was on my way in a small plane to one of the Catholic missions on the upper
Orinoco with my friend. There we were to meet the other members of the party, who had
set out by boat a few days earlier with the hunting gear and the necessary provisions to last
us two weeks in the jungle.
My friend was eager to show me the wonders of the muddy, turbulent Orinoco River. He
maneuvered the small aircraft with daring and skill. At one moment we were so close to the
water's surface that we scared the alligators sunning themselves on the sandy bank. The
next instant we were up in the air, above the seemingly endless, impenetrable forest. No
sooner had I relaxed than he would dive once again- so low that we would see the turtles
basking on logs at the edge of the river.
I was shaking with dizziness and nausea when we finally landed on the small clearing near
the cultivated fields of the mission. We were welcomed by Father Coriolano, the priest in
charge of the mission, the rest of our party who had arrived the day before, and a group of
Indians who cried excitedly as they scrambled into the small plane.
Father Coriolano led us through the plots of maize, manioc, plantains, and sugar cane. He
was a thin man with long arms and short legs. Heavy eyebrows almost hid his deep-set eyes
and a mass of unruly beard covered the rest of his face. At odds with his black cassock was
his torn straw hat, which he kept pushing back so that the breeze could dry his sweatcovered
forehead.
My clothes clung damply to my body as we walked past a makeshift pier of piles driven
into the mud at the bank of the river where the boat was tied. We stopped and Father
Coriolano began discussing our departure the next day. I was encircled by a group of Indian
women who did not say a word, but only smiled shyly at me. Their ill-fitting dresses came
up in front and dipped in back, giving the impression that they were all pregnant.
Among them was an old woman so small and wrinkled she reminded me of an ancient
child. She did not smile like the others. There was a silent plea in the old woman's eyes as
she held her hand out to me. My feelings were strange as I watched her eyes fill with tears:
I did not want to see them roll down her clay-colored cheeks. I placed my hand in hers.
Smiling contentedly, she led me toward the fruit trees surrounding the long, one-story
mission.
In the shade, underneath the wide overhang of the building's asbestos roof, squatted a group
of old men holding enameled tin cups in their trembling hands. They were dressed in khaki
clothes, their faces partly covered by sweat-stained straw hats. They laughed and talked in
high-pitched voices, smacking their lips over their rum-laced coffee. A noisy pair of
macaws, their brightly colored wings clipped, perched on one of the men's shoulders.
I could not see the men's features, nor the color of their skin. They seemed to be Speaking
in Spanish, yet their words sounded unintelligible to me. "Are those men Indians?" I asked
the old woman as she led me into a small room at the back of one of the houses fringing the
mission.
The old woman laughed. Her eyes, scarcely visible between the slits of her lids, came to
rest on my face. "They are racionales. Those who are not Indians are called racionales,"
she repeated. "Those old men have been here for too long. They came to look for gold and
diamonds."
"Did they find any?"
"Many of them did."
"Why are they still here?"
"They are the ones who cannot return to where they came from," she said, resting her bony
hands on my shoulders. I was not surprised by her gesture. There was something cordial
and affectionate in her touch. I just thought she was a bit crazy. "They have lost their souls
in the forest." The old woman's eyes had grown wide; they were the color of dried tobacco
leaves.
Not knowing what to say, I averted my eyes from her penetrating gaze, and looked around
the room. The blue-painted walls were faded from the sun and peeling from the dampness.
Next to a narrow window stood a crudely constructed wooden bed. It looked like an
oversized crib on which mosquito wire had been nailed all around. The more I looked at it,
the more it reminded me of a cage that could be entered only by lifting the heavy mosquitoscreened
top.
"I am Angelica," the old woman said, peering at me. "Is this all you have brought with
you?" she asked, removing the orange knapsack from my back.
Speechless and with a look of complete astonishment, I watched her take out my
underwear, a pair of jeans, and a long T-shirt. "That's all I need for two weeks," I said,
pointing to my camera and the toilet kit at the bottom of the knapsack.
Carefully, she removed the camera and unzipped the plastic toilet kit and promptly emptied
its contents on the floor. It contained a comb, nail clipper, toothpaste and brush, a bottle of
shampoo, and a bar of soap. Shaking her head in disbelief, she turned the knapsack inside
out. Absentmindedly, she brushed away the dark hair sticking to her forehead. There was a
vague air of dreamy recollection in her eyes as her face wrinkled into a smile. She put
everything back into the knapsack and without a word led me back to my friends.
Long after the mission was dark and silent I was still awake, listening to the unfamiliar
sounds of the night coming through the opened window. I don't know whether it was
because of my fatigue or the relaxed atmosphere at the mission, but before retiring that
evening I had decided not to accompany my friends on their hunting expedition. Instead I
was going to stay the two weeks in the mission. Happily, no one minded. In fact, everybody
seemed relieved. Although they had not voiced it, some of my friends believed that a
person who did not know how to use a gun had no business going on a hunt.
Spellbound, I watched the blue transparency of the air dissolve the shadows of the night. A
softness spread over the sky, revealing the contours of the branches and leaves waving with
the breeze outside my window. The solitary cry of a howler monkey was the last thing I
heard before falling into a deep sleep.
"So you are an anthropologist," Father Coriolano said at lunch the next day. "The
anthropologists I have met were all loaded with recording and filming equipment, and who
knows what other gadgets." He offered me another serving of baked fish and corn on the
cob. "Are you interested in the Indians?"
I explained to him what I had been doing in Barlovento, touching upon the difficulties I had
encountered with the data. "I would like to see some curing sessions while I'm here."
"I'm afraid you won't see much of that around here,"
Father Coriolano said, picking out crumbs of cassava bread lodged in his beard. "We have a
well-equipped dispensary. Indians come from far away to bring their sick. But perhaps I can
arrange for you to visit one of the nearby settlements, where you could meet a shaman."
"I would be very grateful if that were possible," I said. "Not that I came to do field work,
but it would be interesting to see a shaman."
"You don't look like an anthropologist." Father Coriolano's heavy eyebrows arched and
met. "Of course most of the ones I have met were men; but there've been a few women." He
scratched his head. "Somehow you don't match my description of a woman anthropologist."
"You can't expect us to all look alike," I said lightly, wondering whom he had met.
"I suppose not," he said sheepishly. "What I mean is that you don't look fully grown. This
morning, after your friends left, I was asked by various people why the child was left with
me."
His eyes were lively as he joked about how the Indians expected a fully grown white adult
to tower over them. "Especially if they are blond and blue eyed," he said. "Those are
supposed to be veritable giants."
That night I had the most terrifying nightmare in my mosquito-netted crib. I dreamt that the
top had been nailed shut. All my efforts to extricate myself proved futile against the
pressure of the lid. Panic overtook me. I screamed and shook the frame until the whole
contraption tumbled over. I was still half asleep as I lay on the floor, my head resting
against the small bulge of the old woman's hanging breasts. For a moment I could not
remember where I was. A childish fear made me press closer to the old Indian, knowing
that I was safe.
The old woman rubbed the top of my head and whispered incomprehensible words into my
ear until I was fully awake. I felt reassured by her touch and the alien, nasal sound of her
voice. I was not able to rationalize this feeling, but there was something that made me cling
to her. She led me to her room, back of the kitchen. I lay next to her in a heavy hammock
fastened to two poles. Protected by the presence of the strange old woman, I closed my eyes
without fear. The faint beat of her heart and the drip of water filtering through an earthen
water jar put me to sleep.
"It will be much better if you sleep here," the old woman said the following morning as she
hung a cotton hammock next to hers.
From that day on Angelica hardly ever left my side. Most of the time we stayed by the
river, talking and bathing by its bank, where the gray-red sand was the color of ashes mixed
with blood. Completely at peace, I would sit for hours watching the Indian women wash
their garments, and listen to Angelica's tales of her past. Like clouds wandering about the
sky, her words intermingled with the images of women rinsing their clothes in the water
and spreading them out on the stones to dry.
Angelica was not a Maquiritare like most of the Indians at the mission. She had been given
to a Maquiritare man when she was very young. He had treated her well, she was fond of
saying. Quickly she had learned their way of life, which had not been so different from the
ways of her own people. She had also been to the city. She never told me which city.
Neither did she tell me her Indian name, which according to the customs of her tribe was
not to be said aloud.
Whenever she talked about her past, her voice sounded foreign to my ears. It became very
nasal and often she would switch from Spanish into her own language, mixing up time and
place. Frequently she stopped in the middle of a sentence: Hours later, or even the
following day, she would resume the conversation at the exact spot where she had left off,
as if it were the most natural thing in the world to converse in that fashion.
"I will take you to my people," Angelica said one afternoon. She looked at me, a flickering
smile on her lips. I had the feeling she had been about to say something else, and I
wondered if she knew about Father Coriolano's arrangement with Mr. Barth to take me to
the nearby Maquiritare settlement.
Mr. Barth was an American miner who had been in the Venezuelan jungle for over twenty
years. He lived down-river with an Indian woman, and many an evening he invited himself
to the mission for dinner. Although he had no desire to return to the States, he greatly
enjoyed hearing about them.
"I will take you to my people," Angelica said again. "It will take many days to get there.
Milagros will guide us through the jungle."
"Who is Milagros?"
"He's an Indian like me. He speaks Spanish well." Angelica rubbed her hands with glee.
"He was supposed to accompany your friends, but he decided to stay behind. Now I know
why."
Angelica spoke with an odd intensity; her eyes sparkled and I had the same feeling I had
had when I first arrived, that she was a bit crazy. "He knew all along that I would need him
to accompany us," the old woman said. Her lids closed as if she no longer had the strength
to lift them. Abruptly, as if fearing to fall asleep, she opened her eyes wide. "It doesn't
matter what you say to me now. I know that you will come with me."
That night I lay awake in my hammock. By the sound of Angelica's breathing I knew that
she was asleep. I prayed that she would not forget her offer to take me into the jungle. Dona
Mercedes's words ran through my head. "By the time you return you won't have any use for
your notes." Perhaps I would do some field work among the Indians. The thought amused
me. I had not brought a tape recorder; neither did I have paper and pencils- only a small
diary and a ball-point pen. I had brought my camera but only three rolls of film.
Restlessly I turned in my hammock. No, I had no intention of going into the jungle with an
old woman, whom I believed to be a bit mad, and an Indian whom I had never seen. Yet
there was something so tempting about a trip through the jungle. I could easily take some
time off. I had no deadlines to meet; there was no one waiting for me. I could leave a letter
for my friends explaining my sudden decision. They would not think much of it. The more I
thought about it, the more intrigued I became. Father Coriolano, no doubt, would be able to
supply me with enough paper and pencils. And yes, perhaps dona Mercedes had been right.
I would have no use for my old notes on curing when- and if, the thought intruded
ominously- I returned from such a journey.
I got out of my hammock and looked at the frail old woman while she slept. As if she were
sensing my presence, her lids fluttered, her lips began to move. "I will not die here but
among my own people. My body will be burned and my ashes will remain with them." Her
eyes slowly opened; they were dull, befogged by sleep, and they expressed nothing, but I
sensed a deep sadness in her voice. I touched her hollowed cheeks. She smiled at me, but
her mind was clearly elsewhere.
I awoke with the feeling I was being watched. Angelica told me that she had been waiting
for me to wake up. She motioned me to look at a box, the size of a vanity case, made out of
tree bark, standing next to her. She opened the tightly fitting lid and with great relish
proceeded to show me each item, breaking into loud exclamations of joy and surprise; as if
it were the first time she had seen each article. There was a mirror, a comb, a necklace
made out of plastic pearls, a few empty Pond's cold cream jars, a lipstick, a pair of rusted
scissors, a faded blouse and skirt.
"And what do you think this is?" she asked, holding something behind her back.
I confessed my ignorance and she laughed. "This is my writing book." She opened her
notebook, its pages yellow with age. On each page were rows of crooked letters. "Watch
me." Taking out a chewed-up pencil from the box, she began to print her name. "I learned
to do this at another mission. A much larger one than this one. It also had a school. That
was many years ago, but I haven't forgotten what I learned." Again and again she printed
her name on the faded pages. "Do you like it?"
"Very much." I was bewildered by the sight of the old woman squatting on the floor with
her body bent forward, her head almost touching the notebook on the ground. Yet she was
perfectly balanced as she painstakingly traced the letters of her name.
Suddenly she straightened up, closing her notebook. "I have been to the city," she said, her
eyes fixed on a spot beyond the window. "A city full of people that looked all the same. At
first I liked it, but I grew tired of it very fast. There was too much for me to watch. And it
was so noisy. Not only people talked, but things talked as well." She paused, scowling in a
tremendous effort to concentrate, all the lines in her face deepened. Finally she said, "I
didn't like the city at all."
I asked her which city she had been to, and at which mission she had learned to write her
name. She looked at me as if she had not heard what I asked, then continued with her tale.
As she had done before, she began to mix up time and place, relapsing into her own
language. At times she laughed, repeating over and over, "I will not go to Father
Coriolano's heaven."
"Are you really serious about going to see your people?" I asked. "Don't you think it's
dangerous for two women to go into the forest? Do you actually know the way?"
"Of course I know the way," she said, snapping out of her almost trancelike state. "An old
woman is always safe."
"I'm not old."
She stroked my hair. "You aren't old, but your hair is the color of palm fibers and your eyes
the color of the sky. You'll be safe too."
"I'm sure we'll get lost," I said softly. "You can't even remember how long ago it was you
last saw your people. You told me they always move farther into the forest."
"Milagros is going with us," Angelica said convincingly. "He knows the forest well. He
knows about all the people living in the jungle." Angelica began putting her belongings into
the bark box. "I better find him so we can leave as soon as possible. You'll have to give him
something."
"I haven't got anything he'd want," I said. "Maybe I can arrange for my friends to leave the
machetes they brought with them at the mission tor Milagros."
"Give him your camera," Angelica suggested. "I know he wants a camera as much as he
wants another machete."
"Does he know how to use a camera?"
"I don't know." She giggled, holding her hand over her mouth. "He told me once that he
wants to take pictures of the white people who come to the mission to look at the Indians."
I was not keen on parting with my camera. It was a good one and very expensive. I wished
I had brought a cheaper one with me. "I'll give him my camera," I said, hoping that once I
explained to Milagros how complicated it was to operate, he would prefer a machete.
"The less you have to carry, the better," Angelica said, closing the lid on her box with a
bang. "I'm going to give all this to one of the women here. I won't need it anymore. If you
go empty-handed, no one will expect a thing from you."
"I'd like to take the hammock you gave me," I said in jest.
"That might be a good idea." Angelica looked at me, nodding her head. "You're a fussy
sleeper and probably won't be able to rest in the fiber hammocks my people use." She
picked up her box and walked out of the room. "I'll be back when I find Milagros"
As Father Coriolano drank his coffee, he looked at me as though I were a stranger. With
great effort he got up, steadying himself against a chair. Seemingly disoriented, he gazed at
me without saying a word. It was the silence of an old man. As he ran his stiff, gnarled
fingers across his face, I realized for the first time how frail he was.
"You're crazy to go into the jungle with Angelica," he finally said. "She is very old; she
won't get very far. Walking through the forest is no excursion."
"Milagros will accompany us."
Father Coriolano turned toward the window, deep in thought. He kept pushing his beard
back and forth with his hand. "Milagros refused to go with your friends. I'm sure he will not
accompany Angelica into the jungle."
"He will." My certainty was incomprehensible. It was a feeling completely foreign to my
everyday reason.
"Although he is a trustworthy man, he is strange," Father Coriolano said thoughtfully. "He
has acted as a guide to various expeditions. Yet..." Father Coriolano returned to his chair
and, leaning toward me, continued. "You aren't prepared to go into the jungle. You cannot
begin to imagine the hardships and dangers entailed in such an adventure. You haven't even
got the proper shoes."
"I have been told by various people who have been in the jungle that tennis shoes are the
best thing to wear. They dry fast on your feet without getting tight and they don't cause
blisters."
Father Coriolano ignored my comment. "Why do you want to go?" he asked in an
exasperated tone. "Mr. Barth will take you to meet a Maquiritare shaman: You will get to
see a curing ceremony without having to go very far."
"I don't really know why I want to go." I looked at him helplessly. "Maybe I want to see
more than a curing ceremony. In fact, I wanted to ask you to let me have some writing
paper and pencils."
"What about your friends? What am I supposed to tell them? That you just disappeared
with a senile old woman?" he asked as he poured himself another cup of coffee. "I've been
here for over thirty years, and never have I heard of such a preposterous plan."
It was past siesta time, yet the mission was still quiet as I stretched in my hammock
hanging under the shade of the twisted branches and jagged leaves of two poma-rosa trees.
In the distance I saw the tall figure of Mr. Barth approaching the mission clearing. Strange,
I thought, for he usually came in the evening. Then I guessed why he was here.
Stopping by the steps leading up to the veranda, close to where I lay, he squatted on the
ground, and lit one of the cigarettes my friends had brought him.
Mr. Barth seemed uneasy. He stood up, and walked back and forth as if he were a sentry
guarding the building. I was about to call out to him when he began talking to himself, his
words pouring out with the smoke. He rubbed the white stubble on his chin, and scraped
one boot against the other in an effort to get rid of the mud. Squatting once more, he began
to shake his head as if in that way he could rid himself of what was going through his mind.
"You have come to tell me about the diamonds you have found in the Gran Sabana," I said
as a way of greeting, hoping to dispel the melancholy expression in his gentle brown eyes.
He drew on the cigarette, and blew the smoke out through his nose in short bursts. After
spitting out a few ¦ particles of tobacco that had stuck to the tip of his tongue, he asked,
"Why do you want to go with Angelica into the forest?"
"I already told Father Coriolano, I don't really know."
Mr. Barth softly repeated my words, making a question out of them. Lighting another
cigarette, he exhaled slowly, gazing at the spiral of tobacco smoke melting into the
transparent air. "Let's go for a walk," he suggested.
We strolled along the river's bank where vast, interwoven roots emerged from the earth like
sculptures of wood and mud. Quickly the warm, sticky dampness permeated my skin. From
under a layer of branches and leaves, Mr. Barth pulled out a canoe, pushed it into the water,
then motioned me to climb in. He steered the craft right across the river, making for the
shelter of the left-hand bank, which offered some protection from the full strength of the
current. With precise, strong movements, he guided the canoe upstream until we reached a
narrow tributary. The bamboo thicket yielded to a dark heavy growth, an endless wall of
trees standing trunk to trunk at the very edge of the river. Roots and branches overhung the
water; vines climbed down the trees, winding themselves around their trunks like snakes
crushing them in a tight embrace.
"Oh, there it is," Mr. Barth said, pointing to an opening in that seemingly impenetrable
wall.
We pulled the boat across the marshy bank and tied it securely around a tree trunk. The sun
hardly penetrated through the dense foliage; the light faded to a tenuous green as I followed
Mr. Barth through the thicket. Vines and branches brushed against me like things alive. The
heat was not so intense anymore, but the sticky dampness made my clothes cling to me like
slime. Soon my face was covered with grimy vegetable dust and spiderwebs that smelled of
decay.
"Is this a path?" I asked incredulously, almost stumbling into a greenish puddle of water. Its
surface quivered with hundreds of insects that were hardly more than pulsating dots in the
turbid liquid. Birds flew away and amidst the greenness I could not discern their color or
size but only heard their furious screeches, protesting our intrusion. I understood Mr. Barth
was trying to frighten me. The thought that he might be taking me to another Catholic
mission also crossed my mind. "Is this a path?" I asked again.
Abruptly Mr. Barth stopped in front of a tree, so tall its upper branches seemed to reach into
the sky. Climbing plants twisted and turned upward around the trunk and branches. "I
intended to give you a lecture and scare the devil out of you," Mr. Barth said with a sulky
expression. "But whatever I rehearsed to say seems foolish now. Let's rest for a moment
and then we'll go back."
Mr. Barth let the boat drift with the current, paddling only whenever we got too close to the
bank. "The jungle is a world you cannot possibly imagine," he said. "I can't describe it to
you even though I have experienced it so often. It's a personal affair- each person's
experience is different and unique."
Instead of returning to the mission, Mr. Barth invited me to his house. It was a large round
hut with a conical roof of palm leaves. It was quite dark inside, the only light coming from
a small entrance and the rectangular window in the palm-thatched roof, operated by means
of a rawhide pulley. Two hammocks hung in the middle of the hut. Baskets filled with
books and magazines stood against the whitewashed walls: Above them hung calabashes,
ladles, machetes, and a gun.
A naked young woman got up from one of the hammocks. She was tall, with large breasts
and broad hips, but her face was that of a child, round and smooth, with slanted dark eyes.
Smiling, she reached for her dress, hanging next to a woven fire fan. "Coffee?" she asked in
Spanish as she sat on the ground in front of the hearth next to the aluminum pots and pans.
"Do you know Milagros well?" I asked Mr. Barth after he had introduced me to his wife,
and we were all seated in the hammocks, the young woman and I sharing one.
"That's hard to say," he said, reaching for his coffee mug on the ground. "He comes and
goes: He's like the river. He never stops, never seems to rest. How far Milagros goes, how
long he stays anywhere, no one knows. All I've heard is that when he was young he was
taken from his people by white men. He is never consistent with his story. At one time he
says they were rubber collectors, at another time they were missionaries, the next time he
says they were miners, scientists. Regardless of who they were, he traveled with them for
many years."
"To which tribe does he belong? Where does he live?"
"He is a Maquiritare," Mr. Barth said. "But no one knows where he lives. Periodically he
returns to his people. To which settlement he belongs, I don't know."
"Angelica went to look for him. I wonder if she knows where to find him."
"I'm sure she does," Mr. Barth said. "They are very close. I wonder if they are related." He
deposited the mug on the ground, and got up from his hammock, momentarily disappearing
in the thick bush outside the hut. Mr. Barth reappeared seconds later with a small metal
box. "Open it," he said, handing me the box.
Inside was a brown leather pouch. "Diamonds?" I asked, feeling its contents.
Smiling, Mr. Barth nodded, then motioned me to sit down beside him on the dirt floor. He
took off his shirt, spread it on the ground, then asked me to empty the pouch on the cloth
surface. I could barely hide my disappointment. The stones did not sparkle; they rather
looked like opaque quartz.
"Are you sure these are diamonds?" I asked.
"Absolutely sure," Mr. Barth said, placing a stone the size of a cherry tomato in my palm.
"If it's cut properly, it'll make a most handsome ring."
"Did you find these diamonds here?"
"No," Mr. Barth laughed. "Near the Sierra Parima, years ago." Half closing his eyes, he
rocked back and forth. His cheeks were ruddy with little veins, and the stubble on his chin
was damp. "A long time ago my only interest in life was to find diamonds in order to return
home a wealthy man." Mr. Barth sighed heavily, his gaze lost on some place beyond the
hut. "Then one day I realized that my dream to become rich had dried out, so to speak: It no
longer obsessed me, and neither did I want to return to the world I had once known. I
remained here." Mr. Barth's eyes shone with unshed tears as he gestured to the diamonds.
"With them." He blinked repeatedly, then looked at me and smiled. "I like them as I like
this land."
I wanted to ask him so many questions, but was afraid to distress him. We remained silent,
listening to the steady, deep murmur of the river.
Mr. Barth spoke again. "You know, anthropologists and missionaries have a lot in common.
Both are bad for this land. Anthropologists are more hypocritical; they cheat and lie in order
to get the information they want. I suppose they believe that in the name of science all is
fair. No, no, don't interrupt me," Mr; Barth admonished, shaking his hand in front of my
face.
"Anthropologists," he continued in the same harsh tone, "have complained to me about the
arrogance of the missionaries, about their high-handedness and paternalistic attitude toward
the Indians. And look at them, the most arrogant of them all, prying into other people's lives
as if they had every right to do so." Mr. Barth sighed loudly as if exhausted by his outburst.
I decided not to defend anthropologists, for I feared another outburst, so I contented myself
with examining the diamond in my hand. "It's very beautiful," I said, handing him the
stone.
"Keep it," he said, then picked up the remaining stones. One by one he dropped them into
the leather pouch.
"I'm afraid I can't keep such a valuable gift." I began to giggle and added as an excuse, "I
never wear jewelry."
"Don't think of it as a valuable gift. Regard it as a talisman. [* talisman- a trinket or piece
of jewellery thought to be a protection against evil] Only people in the cities regard it as a
jewel," he said casually, closing my fingers over the stone. "It will bring you luck." He got
up, brushing the dampness off the seat of his pants with his hands, then stretched in his
hammock.
The young woman refilled our mugs. Sipping the heavily sweetened black coffee, we
watched the whitewashed walls turn purple with twilight. Shadows had no time to grow, for
in an instant it was dark.
I was awakened by Angelica whispering into my ear. "We're going in the morning."
"What?" I jumped out of my hammock fully awake. "I thought it would take you a couple
of days to find Milagros. I better get packed."
Angelica laughed. "Packed? You haven't got anything to pack. I gave your extra pair of
pants and a top to an Indian boy. You won't need two pairs. You better go back to sleep. It
will be a long day tomorrow. Milagros is a fast walker."
"I can't sleep," I said excitedly. "It'll be dawn soon. I'll write a note to my friends. I hope the
hammock and the thin blanket will fit in my knapsack. What about food?"
"Father Coriolano put sardines and cassava bread aside for us to pack in the morning. I will
carry it in a basket."
"Did you talk to him tonight? What did he say?"
"He said it's in the hands of God."
I was all packed when the chapel bell began to chime. For the first time since I had arrived
at the mission, I went to mass. Indians and racionales filled the wooden benches. They
laughed and talked as if they were at a social gathering. It took Father Coriolano a long
time to silence them before he could say mass.
The woman sitting next to me complained that Father Coriolano always managed to wake
her baby with his loud voice. The infant indeed began to cry, but before his first great shriek
was heard, the woman uncovered her breast and pressed it against the baby's mouth.
Kneeling down, I raised my eyes to the Virgin above the altar. She wore a blue cloak
embroidered in gold. Her face was tilted heavenward, her eyes were blue, her cheeks pale,
and her mouth a deep red. In one arm she held the infant Jesus: The other arm was
extended, its hand white and delicate, reaching out to the strange heathens at her feet.
Chapter 3
Machete in hand, Milagros led the way on the narrow path bordering the river. His
muscular back showed through his torn red shirt. The khaki pants, rolled halfway up his
calves and fastened above his waist with a cotton string, made him look shorter than his
medium height. He walked at a fast pace, supporting his weight on the outer edge of his
feet, which were narrow at the heel and spread like an open fan at the toes. His shorttrimmed
hair and the wide tonsure [* tonsure- the shaved crown of a monk's or priest's
head] on the crown of his head reminded me of a monk.
I stopped and turned around before following on the trail leading into the forest. Across the
river, almost hidden around a bend, lay the mission. Shrouded in the early morning
sunlight, it seemed like something already out of touch. I felt oddly removed, not only from
the place and the people I had been with for the past week, but from all familiar things. I
sensed some change within me, as if crossing the river marked the end of a phase, a turning
point. Something of this must have shown in my face for when I looked to my side and
caught Angelica's gaze there was understanding in it.
"Already far away," Milagros said, stopping next to us. Folding his arms across his chest,
he let his gaze wander along the river. The morning light dazzling over the water reflected
in his face, tinting it with a golden sheen. It was an angular, bony face in which the small
nose and full lower lip added an unexpected vulnerability that contrasted sharply with the
deep circles and wrinkles around his slanted brown eyes. They were uncannily similar to
Angelica's eyes, with that same timeless expression in them.
In absolute silence we walked beneath the towering trees, along trails hidden by massive
bushes entangled with vines, branches and leaves, creepers and roots. Spiderwebs clung to
my face like an invisible veil. Greenness was all I could see, and dampness all I could
smell. We went over and around logs, across streams and swamps shaded by immense
bamboo growths. Sometimes Milagros was in front of me; at other times Angelica was,
with her U-shaped basket on her back, held in place by a tumpline of bark that went around
her head. The basket was filled with gourds, cassava bread, and cans of sardines.
I had no sense of which direction we were going. I could not see the sun- only its light,
filtering through the dense foliage. Soon my neck was stiff from looking up at the
incredible height of the motionless trees. Only the straight palms, undefeated in their
vertical thrust toward the light, seemed to sweep the few visible patches of sky with their
silver-shaded fronds.
"I've got to rest," I said, sitting down heavily on a fallen tree trunk. By my watch it was
already after three in the afternoon. We had walked nonstop for over six hours. "I'm
famished."
Handing me a calabash from her basket, Angelica sat next to me. "Fill it," she said,
motioning with her chin to the nearby shallow stream.
Squatting in the river, with his legs apart, palms resting on his thighs, Milagros bent
forward until his lips touched the water. He drank without getting his nose wet. "Drink," he
said, straightening up. He must be nearly fifty, I thought. Yet the unexpected grace of his
flowing movements made him seem much younger. He smiled briefly, then waded
downstream.
"Watch out or you'll be taking a bath!" Angelica exclaimed, smiling mockingly.
Startled by her voice, I lost my balance and toppled over headfirst into the water; "I'm no
good at drinking water the way Milagros does," I said casually, handing her the filled
gourd. "I think I'll just stick to the calabash." Sitting next to her, I took off my soaked tennis
shoes. "Whoever said that sneakers were the best thing for the jungle never walked for six
hours in them." My feet were red and blistered, my ankles scratched and bleeding.
"It's not too bad," Angelica said, examining my feet. She ran her fingers gently over my
soles and the blistered toes. "You have pretty good calluses. Why don't you walk barefoot?
Wet shoes will only soften your feet more."
I looked at the bottoms of my feet; they were covered by thick calloused skin that I had
acquired from practicing karate tor years. "What if I step on a snake?" I asked. "Or on a
thorn?" Although I had not yet seen a single reptile, I had watched Milagros and Angelica
stop at various times to pull thorns out of their feet.
"One has to be pretty stupid to step on a snake," she said, pushing my feet off her lap.
"Compared to mosquitoes, thorns are not too bad. You are lucky the little devils don't bite
you the way they do the racionales." She rubbed my arms and hands as if expecting to find
a clue there. "I wonder why?"
Angelica had already marveled at the mission that I slept like the Indians, without mosquito
netting. "I've got evil blood," I said, grinning. Seeing her puzzled look, I explained that as a
child I had often gone with my father to the jungle to look for orchids. Invariably, he would
be stung by mosquitoes, flies, and whatever biting insects were around. Somehow they
never bothered me. Once my father had even been bitten by a snake.
"Did he die?" Angelica asked.
"No. It was a most curious incident. The same snake bit me too. I cried out right after my
father did. He thought I was making fun of him until I showed him the tiny red spots on my
foot. Only it didn't swell and turn purple the way his did. We were driven by friends to the
closest town, where my father was given antivenin serum. He was ill for days."
"And you?"
"Nothing happened to me," I said, and told her it was his friends who said half jokingly that
I had evil blood. They did not believe, as the doctor did, that the snake had exhausted its
supply of poison on the first bite and whatever it had left had been insufficient to have any
effect on me. I told Angelica that on one occasion I was bitten by seven wasps, the ones
they call mata caballo- horse killer. The doctor thought I was going to die. I only developed
a fever and in a few days I was fine.
I had never seen Angelica so attentive, listening with her head slightly bent as if afraid to
miss a single word. "I was also bitten by a snake once," she said. "People believed I was
going to die." She was quiet for a moment, deep in thought, then a timid smile creased her
face. "Do you think it spent its poison on someone else first?"
"I'm sure it did," I said, touching her withered hands.
"Maybe I have evil blood too," she said, smiling. She looked so frail and old. For an instant
I had the feeling she might disappear amidst the shadows.
"I'm ancient," Angelica said, looking at me as though I had expressed my thoughts out loud.
"I should have died a long time ago. I've kept death waiting." She turned to watch a row of
ants demolish a bush as they cut away squares of leaves and carried them off in their
mouths. "I knew it was you who would take me to my people- I knew it the moment I saw
you." There was a long pause. She either did not want to say anything else or was trying to
find the appropriate words. She was watching me, a vague smile on her lips. "You also
knew it- otherwise you wouldn't be here," she finally said with utter conviction.
I giggled nervously; she always succeeded in making me uneasy with that intense glint in
her eyes. "I'm not sure what I'm doing here," I said. "I don't know why I'm going with you."
"You knew you were meant to come here," Angelica insisted.
There was something about Angelica's sureness that made me feel argumentative. It would
have been so easy to agree with her, especially since I did not know myself why I was in
the jungle on my way to God knows where. "To tell you the truth, I had no intention of
going anyplace," I said. "Remember, I didn't even accompany my friends up-river to hunt
alligators as I had planned."
"But that's exactly what I'm saying," she assured me as if she were speaking to a stupid
child. "You found an excuse to cancel your trip so you could come with me." She laid her
bony hands on my head. "Believe me, I didn't have to think much about it. Neither did you.
The decision was made the moment I laid eyes on you."
I buried my head in the old woman's lap to hide my laughter. There was no way to argue
with her. Besides, she might be right, I thought. I had no explanation myself.
"I waited a long time," Angelica went on. "I had almost forgotten that you were supposed to
come to me. But when I saw you I knew that the man had been right. Not that I ever
doubted him, but he had told me so long ago that I believed I had missed my chance."
"What man?" I asked, lifting my head from her lap. "Who told you I was coming?"
"I'll tell you another time." Angelica pulled the basket closer and picked out a large piece of
cassava bread. "We better eat," she added, and opened a can of sardines.
There was no point in insisting. Once Angelica had decided not to talk, there was no way to
make her change her mind. My curiosity unsatisfied, I contented myself in examining the
neat row of fat sardines lying in the thick tomato sauce. I had seen that kind in the
supermarket in Los Angeles; a friend of mine used to buy them for her cat. I took one out
with my finger and spread it on the piece of flat white bread.
"I wonder where Milagros is," I said, biting into the sardine sandwich. It tasted quite good.
Angelica did not answer; neither did she eat. From time to time she sipped water from the
gourd. A faint smile lingered at the corners of her mouth and I wondered what it was that
the old woman was thinking about that created such a look of longing in her eyes. All of a
sudden she stared at me as if awakening from a dream. "Look," she said, nudging my arm.
In front of us stood a man, naked except for the red cotton strands around his upper arms
and a string around his waist that circled his foreskin, tying his penis against his abdomen.
His whole body was covered with brownish-red designs. In one hand he held a long bow
and arrows, in the other a machete.
"Milagros?" I finally managed to mumble, recovering from my initial shock. Still, I barely
recognized him. It was not only that he was naked; he seemed taller, more muscular. The
red zigzag lines running from his forehead down to his cheeks, across his nose, and around
his mouth sharpened the contours of his face, erasing its vulnerability. There was something
else besides the physical change, something I could not pinpoint. It was as though by
discarding the clothes of a racional, he had shed some invisible weight.
Milagros began to laugh in a loud, uproarious manner. A laughter that sprang from deep
inside him, it shook his whole body. Echoing and booming through the forest, it mingled
with the startled cries of a flock of parrots that had taken flight. Squatting before me, he
stopped abruptly and said, "You almost didn't recognize me." He thrust his face so close to
mine that our noses touched, then asked, "Do you want me to paint your face?"
"Yes," I said, taking the camera from my knapsack. "But can I take a picture of you first?"
"That's my camera," he said emphatically, reaching for it. "I thought you had left it at the
mission for me."
"I would like to use it while we're at the Indian settlement." I began demonstrating to him
how the camera worked by first putting in a roll of film. He was very attentive to my
explanation, nodding his head every time I asked if he understood. I hoped to confuse him
by pointing out all the intricacies of the gadget. "Now let me take a picture of you, so you
can see how the camera should be held."
"No, no." He was quick to stop me, taking the camera from my hands. Without any
difficulty he opened the back cover and lifted out the film, exposing it to the light. "It's
mine, you promised. Only I can take pictures with it."
Speechless, I watched him, hang the camera over his chest. It looked so incongruous
against his nakedness I was unable to repress my laughter. With exaggerated gestures he
began to focus, adjust, and point the camera all around him, talking to imaginary subjects,
telling them to smile, to stand closer or to move farther apart. I had the strong urge to pull
at the cotton string around his neck that held the arrow-point quiver and the fire drill
swinging from his back.
"You won't get any pictures without film," I said, handing him the third and last roll.
"I never said I wanted to take pictures." Gleefully he exposed the film to the light, then very
deliberately put the camera in its leather case. "Indians don't like to be photographed," he
said seriously, then turned toward Angelica's basket on the ground and searched through its
contents until he found a small gourd sealed with a piece of animal skin. "This is onoto," he
said, showing me a red paste. It was greasy and had a faint aromatic odor I was unable to
define. "This is the color of life and joy," he said.
"Where did you leave your clothes?" I asked him as he cut a piece of vine, the length of a
pencil, with his teeth. "Do you live nearby?"
Busying himself with chewing one end of the vine until it resembled a makeshift brush,
Milagros did not bother to answer. He spat on the onoto, then stirred the red paste with the
brush until it was soft. With a precise, even hand he drew wavy lines across my forehead,
down my cheeks, chin, and neck, circled my eyes, and decorated my arms with round spots.
"Is there an Indian settlement around here?"
"No."
"Do you live by yourself?"
"Why do you ask so many questions?" The expression of annoyance, heightened by the
sharp lines of his painted face, matched the irritated tone of his voice.
I opened my mouth, uttered a sound, then hesitated to say that it was important for me to
know about him and Angelica- that the more I knew, the better I would feel. "I was trained
to be curious," I said after a while, sensing he would not understand the fleeting anxiety
that I tried to alleviate by asking questions. Knowing about them, I thought, would give me
some sense of control.
Smiling, totally oblivious to what I had said, Milagros looked at me askance, examined my
painted face, then burst into loud guffaws. It was a cheerful, hilarious laugh, like that of a
child. "A blond Indian," he said, wiping tears from his eyes.
I laughed with him, all my momentary apprehension dispelled. Stopping abruptly, Milagros
leaned toward me, and whispered an incomprehensible word into my ear. "That's your new
name," he said seriously, putting his hand over my lips to prevent me from repeating it out
loud. Turning toward Angelica, he whispered the name into her ear.
As soon as Milagros had eaten, he motioned us to follow him. Disregarding my blisters I
quickly put on my shoes. I could discern nothing but green as we climbed up hills and
down plains- an unending green of vines, branches, leaves, and prickly thorns; where all the
hours were hours of twilight. I no longer lifted my head to catch glimpses of the sky
through patches of leaves but was content to see its reflection in puddles and streams.
Mr. Barth had been right when he told me that the jungle was a world impossible to
imagine. I could not believe it was I walking through this unending greenness on my way to
an unknown destination. My mind ran wild with anthropologists' descriptions of fierce and
belligerent Indians belonging to unacculturated tribes.
My parents had been acquainted with some German explorers and scientists who had been
in the Amazon jungle. As a child I had been bewildered by their tales of head-hunters and
cannibals: A all of them told of incidents where they had escaped a sure death by saving the
life of a sick Indian, usually a tribal chief or one of his relatives. A German couple and their
small daughter, who had returned from a two-year journey through the South American
jungle, made the deepest impression on me. I was seven when I saw the cultural artifacts
and life-size photographs they had collected during their travels.
Totally captivated by their eight-year-old daughter, I followed her through the palmdecorated
room in the foyer of the Sears building in Caracas. I hardly had a chance to look
at the assortment of bows and arrows, baskets, quivers, feathers, and masks hanging on the
walls as she hurried me into a darkened alcove. Squatting on the floor, she pulled out a reddyed
wooden box from under a pile of palm fronds, and opened it with a key hanging from
her neck. "This was given to me by one of my Indian friends," she said, taking out a small
wrinkled head. "It's a tsantsa, a shrunken enemy head," she added, caressing the long dark
hair as if it were a doll.
I was awed as she told me that she had not been frightened to be in the jungle, and that it
had not been at all the way her parents described it. "The Indians weren't horrifying or
fierce," she had said very earnestly. Not for an instant did I doubt her words as she looked
at me with her large serious eyes. "They were gentle and full of laughter- they were my
friends."
I could not remember the girl's name, who having lived through the same events as her
parents had not experienced them with the same prejudices and fears. I chuckled to myself,
almost falling over a gnarled root covered by slippery moss.
"Are you talking to yourself?" Angelica's voice cut into my reveries. "Or to the spirits of the
forest?"
"Are there any?"
"Yes. Spirits dwell in the midst of all this," she said softly, gesturing around her. "In the
thick of the creeping lianas, in company with the monkeys, snakes, spiders, and jaguars."
"No rain tonight," Milagros asserted, sniffing the air as we stopped by some boulders
bordering a shallow river. Its calm, clear waters were strewn with pink flowers from the
trees standing like sentries on the opposite bank. I took off my shoes, letting my sore feet
dangle in the soothing coolness, and watched the sky, a golden crimson, turn gradually to
orange, to vermilion, and finally into a deep purple. The dampness of the evening filled my
nose with the scent of the forest, a smell of earth, of life, of decay.
Before the shadows closed in around us completely, Milagros had made two hammocks
from strips of bark, knotted on either end to a suspension rope of vines. I could not disguise
my delight when he hung my cotton hammock between the two uncomfortable-looking
bark cradles.
Full of anticipation, I followed Milagros's movements as he loosened the quiver and fire
drill from his back. My disappointment was immense when, upon removing the piece of
monkey fur sealing the quiver, he took out a box of matches and lit the wood Angelica had
gathered.
"Cat food," I said peevishly as Milagros handed me an open can of sardines. I had
envisioned my first dinner in the jungle consisting of freshly hunted tapir or armadillo meat
roasted to perfection over a crackling fire. All the smoldering twigs did was to send a thin
line of smoke into the air, its low flames barely illuminating our surroundings.
The scant light of the fire dramatized Angelica's and Milagros's features, filling hollows
with shadows; adding a shine to their temples, above their protruding eyebrows, along their
short noses and their high cheekbones. I wondered why the fire made them look so much
alike.
"Are you related?" I finally asked, puzzled by the resemblance.
"Yes," Milagros said. "I'm her son."
"Her son!" I repeated in disbelief. I had expected him to be a younger brother or a cousin;
he looked as it he was in his fifties. "Then you are only half Maquiritare?"
They both began to giggle, as if enjoying a secret joke. "No, he isn't half Maquiritare,"
Angelica said in between fits of laughter. "He was born when I was still with my people."
She did not say another word, but moved her face close to mine with an expression at once
challenging and bemused.
I shifted nervously under her piercing gaze, wondering if my question had offended her.
Curiosity must be a learned trait, I decided. I was anxious to know everything about them,
yet they never asked me anything about myself. All that seemed to matter to them was that
we were together in the forest. At the mission Angelica had shown no interest in my
background. Neither was she willing to let me know about hers, except for the few stories
regarding her life at the mission.
Our hunger satisfied, we stretched in our hammocks.
Angelica's and mine hung close to the fire. She was soon asleep, her legs tucked under her
dress. The air felt chilly and I offered the thin blanket I had brought with me to Milagros,
which he gladly accepted.
Glowworms, like dots of fire, lit up the dense darkness. The night pulsated with the cries of
crickets and the croaking of frogs. I could not sleep: E-xhaustion and nervousness
prevented me from relaxing. I watched the hours move by on my illuminated wristwatch
and listened to the sounds in the jungle that I could no longer identify. There were creatures
that growled, whistled, creaked, and howled. Shadows slithered beneath my hammock,
moving soundlessly as time itself.
In an effort to see through the darkness I sat up, blinking, not sure if I was asleep or awake.
Monkeys with phosphorescent eyes darted from behind ferns. Beasts with snarling mouths
gaped at me from the branches overhead, and giant spiders crawling on legs as fine as hair
spun silver webs over my eyes.
The more I watched, the more frightened I became. A cold sweat trickled from my neck to
the base of my spine as I beheld a naked figure with bow drawn, aiming at the black sky.
When I clearly heard the hissing sound of the arrow I put my hand over my mouth to stifle
a scream.
"Don't be afraid of the night," Milagros said, laying his hand on my face. It was a fleshy,
calloused hand; it smelled of earth and roots. He fastened his hammock above mine, so
close I could feel the warmth of his body through the strips of bark. Softly he began to talk
in his own language, a procession of rhythmical, monotonous words that shut off all the
other sounds of the forest. A feeling of peace crept into me, and my eyes began to close.
Milagros's hammock no longer hung above mine when I awoke. The sounds of night, now
very faint, still lingered between the misty palms, the bamboo, the nameless vines, and
parasitic growths. There was no color in the sky yet- only a vague clarity, forecasting a
rainless day.
Crouching over the fire, Angelica stoked and blew on the embers, bringing them to life
again. Smiling, she motioned me to join her. "I heard you in my sleep," she said. "Were you
afraid?"
"The forest is so different at night," I said, a little embarrassed. "I must have been overly
tired."
Nodding her head, she said, "Watch the light- see how it reflects from leaf to leaf until it
descends to the ground, to the sleeping shadows. That's the way dawn puts to sleep the
spirits of the night." Angelica began to caress the leaves on the ground. "During the day the
shadows sleep. At night they dance in the darkness."
I smiled sheepishly, not quite knowing what to say. "Where did Milagros go?" I asked after
a while.
Angelica did not answer: She rose, looking around her. "Don't be afraid of the jungle," she
said. Lifting her arms above her head, she began to dance with little jerky steps and to chant
in a low monotonous tone that abruptly changed to a very high pitch. "Dance with the night
shadows and go to sleep lighthearted. If you let the shadows frighten you, they will destroy
you." Her voice faded to a murmur. She turned her back to me and slowly walked toward
the river.
The water was cold as I squatted naked in the middle of the stream: Its placid pools held the
first morning light. I watched Angelica collect wood, placing each branch in the crook of
her arm as if she were holding a child. She must be stronger then she looks, I thought,
rinsing the shampoo out of my hair. But then she might not be as old as she appeared either.
Father Coriolano had told me that by the time an Indian woman is thirty she is often a
grandmother. If they reach forty they have attained old age.
I washed the clothes I had worn, impaled them on a stick close to the fire, then put on a
long T-shirt that reached almost to my knees. It was much more comfortable than my tight
jeans.
"You smell good," Angelica said, running her fingers through my wet hair. "Does it come
from the bottle?"
I nodded. "Do you want me to wash your hair?"
She hesitated for a moment, then rapidly took off her dress. She was so wrinkled that not an
inch of smooth skin was left on her. She reminded me of one of the frail trees bordering the
path, with their thin gray trunks, almost withered, yet supporting branches with green
leaves. I had never seen Angelica naked before, for she wore her cotton dress day and night.
I was certain then that she was more than forty years old- ancient, in fact, as she had told
me.
Sitting in the water, Angelica shrieked and laughed with delight as she splashed around,
spreading the suds from her head all over her body. With a broken gourd I rinsed off the
soap, and after drying her with the thin blanket, I combed her dark short hair, shaping the
bangs at an angle. "Too bad we don't have a mirror," I said. "Do I still have the red paint
on?"
"Just a little bit," Angelica said, moving close to the fire. "Milagros will have to paint your
face again."
"In a moment we'll be smelling like smoke," I said, turning toward Angelica's bark
hammock. Easing myself inside, I wondered how she could have slept there without falling
out. It was barely long enough for me and so narrow that I could not turn to the side. Yet, in
spite of the itchy bark against my back and head, I found myself dozing off as I watched the
old woman break the gathered wood into even-sized twigs.
An odd heaviness kept me between that crack of consciousness that is neither wakefulness
nor sleep. I could feel the red of the sun through my closed lids. I was aware of Angelica to
my left, mumbling to herself as she fed the fire, and of the forest around me, pulling me
deeper and deeper into its green caverns. I called the old woman's name, but no sound
escaped my lips. I called again and again, but only soundless forms glided out of me, rising
and falling Tyith the breeze like dead butterflies. The words began to speak without lips,
mocking my desire to know, asking a thousand questions. They exploded in my ears, their
echoes reverberating around me like a flock of parrots crossing the sky.
I opened my eyes, aware of the smell of singed hair. On a crudely built roasting platform,
about a foot above the fire, lay a monkey, complete with tail, hands, and feet. Wistfully, I
eyed Angelica's basket, still replete with cans of sardines and cassava bread.
Milagros lay in my hammock asleep, his bow leaning against a tree trunk, his quiver and
machete on the ground, within reach.
"Is this all he killed?" I asked Angelica, getting out of the hammock. Hoping it would never
be ready, I added, "How long will it take until it's done?"
Angelica looked at me with a rapt smile of unmistakable glee. "A bit longer," she said.
"You'll like it better than sardines."
Milagros dismembered the monkey by hand, serving me the choicest part, the head,
considered a delicacy. Unable to bring myself to suck out the brain from the cracked skull, I
opted for a piece of the well-done thigh. It was stringy and tough and tasted like an old
gamy bird, slightly bitter. Finishing the monkey's brain with rather exaggerated relish,
Milagros and Angelica proceeded to eat the inner organs, which had been cooking in the
embers, each individually wrapped in strong, fan-shaped leaves. They dipped each morsel
in the ashes before they put them in their mouths. I did likewise with the pieces of thigh and
was surprised to notice the added saltiness of the meat. What we did not finish was
wrapped in leaves, tied securely with vines, and placed in Angelica's basket for our next
meal.
Chapter 4
The next four days and nights seemed to melt into each other as we walked, bathed, and
slept. They had a dream-like quality, in which oddly shaped trees and vines repeated
themselves like images endlessly reflected in invisible mirrors- images that vanished upon
emerging into a clearing of the forest or by a river beach where the sun shone fully on us.
By the fifth day my feet were no longer blistered. Milagros had cut up my sneakers,
attaching softened pieces of vegetable fiber to the soles. Each morning he tied the
makeshift sandals anew, and my feet, as if obeying an impulse of their own, would follow
Milagros and the old woman.
We walked always in silence, along trails bordered by leaves and ferns the size of a man.
We crawled beneath the underbrush or cut our way through the walls of creepers and
branches that left our faces dirty and scratched. There were times when I lost sight of my
companions, but easily followed the twigs Milagros was in the habit of breaking as he
walked. We crossed rivers and streams spanned by suspension bridges made out of vines
fastened to trees on either bank. They were so fragile-looking that each time we crossed one
I feared it would not support our weight.
Milagros laughed, assuring me that his people, although weak navigators, knew the art of
building bridges.
On some trails we discovered footprints in the mud, which according to Milagros indicated
we were in the vicinity of an Indian settlement. We never got close to one for he wanted us
to reach our destination without delay. "If I were on my own I would have arrived long
ago," Milagros said every time I inquired as to when we would reach Angelica's village.
Then, looking at us, he would shake his head, and add in a resigned tone, "Women slow
you down."
But Milagros did not mind our relaxed pace. Often he made camp in the early afternoon at
some wide river beach where we bathed in the sun-warmed pools, and dried ourselves on
enormous smooth rocks jutting out of the water. Drowsily we watched the motionless
clouds so slow to change their formations that it would be dusk before they disintegrated
into different configurations.
It was during these lazy afternoons that I pondered over my motives in joining this
bewildering venture. Was it to fulfill a fantasy of mine? Was I running away from some
responsibility I could no longer handle? I even considered the possibility that Angelica
might have cast a spell on me.
As the days passed my eyes became accustomed to the ever present greenness. Soon I
began to distinguish red and blue macaws, rare toucans with black and yellow beaks. Once
I even saw a tapir crashing through the undergrowth in search of water. It ended up as our
next meal.
Monkeys with reddish fur followed us from above only to disappear as we continued
through stretches of river between cascades, and by quiet channels reflecting the sky.
Buried deep in the underbrush, on moss-covered logs, red and yellow mushrooms grew, so
delicate that upon my touch they disintegrated as if made of colored dust.
I tried to orient myself by the large rivers we encountered, thinking they would correspond
to those I remembered in geography books. But each time I asked for their names, they
never coincided with mine, for Milagros only referred to them by their Indian designations.
At night under the light of the faint fire, when a white fog seemed to emanate from the
ground and I felt the dampness of the night dew on my face, Milagros would begin talking
in his low nasal voice about the myths of his people.
Angelica, with her eyes wide open, as if she were trying to keep awake rather than to pay
attention, would sit up straight for about ten minutes before she was fast asleep. Milagros
talked long into the night, bringing alive the time when beings who were part spirit, part
animal, part human, inhabited the forest- creatures who caused floods and disease,
replenished the forest with game and fruits, and taught mankind about hunting and planting.
Milagros's favorite myth was about Iwrame, an alligator, who before becoming an animal
of the river walked and talked like a man. Iwrame was the keeper of fire, which he hid in
his mouth, refusing to share it with others. The creatures of the forest decided to entertain
the alligator with a sumptuous feast, for they knew that only by making Iwrame laugh could
they steal the fire. Joke upon joke was told until finally, unable to contain himself any
longer, Iwrame burst into laughter. A small bird flew into the opened jaw, snatched the fire,
and flew high into a sacred tree.
Without changing the basic structure of the various myths he chose to tell, Milagros
modified and embellished them according to his mood. He added details that he had not
thought of before, interjecting personal views that seemed to come at the spur of the
moment.
"Dream, dream," Milagros said each night upon finishing his tales. "A person who dreams
lives long."
Was it real, was it a dream? Was I awake or asleep when I heard Angelica stirring? She
mumbled something unintelligible and sat up. Still befuddled, she pulled away the hair
sticking to her face, looked around, then approached my hammock. She gazed at me with a
strange intensity: Her eyes were enormous in her thin, wrinkled face.
She opened her mouth: Strange sounds came from her throat and her whole body began to
shake. I reached out my hand, but there was nothing- only a vague shadow receding into the
bushes. "Old woman, where are you going?" I heard myself ask. There was no reply- only
the sound of dripping mist from the leaves. For an instant I saw her once more, the way I
had seen her that same afternoon bathing in the river: Then she vanished in the thick night
fog.
Without being able to stop her, I saw how she disappeared into an invisible crevice of the
earth. No matter how much I searched I could not even find her dress. It's only a dream, I
repeated to myself, yet I continued looking for her among the shadows, amidst the leaves
shrouded in mist. But there was no vestige [* vestige- an indication that something has been
present] of her.
I awoke with a profound anxiety. I noticed the heavy palpitations of my heart. The sun was
already high above the treetops. I had never slept so late since starting our journey- not
because I had not wanted to, but because Milagros insisted we rise at dawn. Angelica was
not there; neither were her hammock or basket. Leaning against a tree trunk were
Milagros's bow and arrows. Strange, I thought. He had never left without them before. He
must have gone with the old woman to gather the fruits or nuts he discovered yesterday
afternoon, I kept repeating to myself, trying to appease my mounting distress.
I walked to the water's edge, not knowing what to do. They had never gone together before,
leaving me behind.
A tree, infinitely lonely, stood at the other bank of the river, its branches bowed over the
water, their weight supporting a network o£ creepers on which delicate red flowers
bloomed. They clung like trapped butterflies in a gigantic spider's web.
A flock of parrots noisily settled on some vines that appeared to be growing out of the
water without any visible support, for I could not distinguish the trees to which they
belonged. I began to imitate the parrot's shrieks, but they remained completely unaware of
my existence. Only when I walked into the water did they take flight, spanning a green arch
across the sky.
I waited until the sun disappeared beyond the trees, and the blood red sky tainted the river
with its fire. Listlessly I walked back to my hammock, poked the fire, and tried to revive
the ashes. I became numb with terror as a green snake with amber-colored eyes stared into
my face. With its head poised in midair, it seemed as startled as I. Afraid to breathe, I
listened to the rustling of leaves as it slowly disappeared among the gnarled roots.
With absolute certainty I knew that never again would I see Angelica. I did not want to
weep, but could not control my tears as I buried my face in the dead leaves on the ground.
"Old woman, where have you gone?" I whispered, as I had done in my dream. I called her
name across the immense green sea of growth. There was no answer from the ancient trees.
Mutely, they witnessed my sorrow.
I barely made out Milagros's figure in the thickening shadows. Rigid, he stood before me,
his face and body blackened by ashes. For an instant he held my gaze, then his eyes closed,
his legs bent beneath him, and, exhausted, he sank to the earth.
"Did you bury her?" I asked, draping his arm over my shoulders in order to drag him
toward my hammock. With great difficulty I lifted him inside- first his torso, then his legs.
He opened his eyes, stretching his hand toward the sky as if the distant clouds were within
his reach. "Her soul ascended to heaven, to the house of thunder," he said with great effort.
"The fire released her soul from her bones," he added, then fell into a deep sleep.
As I watched over his restless dreams, I saw the shadowy bulk of phantom trees grow
before my tired eyes. In the darkness of the night, these chimerical trees seemed more real
and taller than the palms. I was no longer sad. Angelica had disappeared in my dream; she
was part of the real and the fictitious trees. Forever she would roam among the spirits of
vanished animals and mythical beings.
It was almost dawn when Milagros reached for his machete and his bow and arrows lying
on the ground. Absentmindedly he hung his quiver on his back and without saying a word
he walked into the thicket. I followed, afraid to lose him among the shadows.
In silence we walked for about two hours, then Milagros abruptly stopped by the edge of a
cleared area in the forest. "The smoke of the dead is harmful to women and children," he
said, pointing to a log pyre. [* pyre- wood heaped for burning a dead body as a funeral rite]
It had partly collapsed, and in the midst of the ashes I could see darkened bones.
I sat on the ground and watched Milagros dry over a small fire a log mortar that he had
made from a tree trunk. Something between horror and fascination kept my eyes glued on
Milagros as he began sifting through the ashes for Angelica's bones. He crushed them with
a slender pole until they were reduced to a gray-black powder.
"Through the smoke of the fire, her soul reached the house of thunder," Milagros said. It
was already night when he filled our gourds with the powdered bones. He sealed them with
a sticky resin.
"If she could only have kept death waiting a little longer," I said wistfully.
"It makes no difference," Milagros said, looking up from the mortar. His face was without
expression yet his black eyes were bright with unshed tears. His lower lip trembled, then set
in a half smile. "All she wanted was for her life essence to be once again part of her
people."
"It's not the same," I said, without really understanding what Milagros was saying.
"Her life essence is in her bones," he said, as if excusing my ignorance. "Her ashes will be
among her people in the forest."
"She isn't alive," I insisted. "What good are her ashes when she had wanted to see her
people?" An uncontrollable sadness overcame me at the thought that never again would I
see the old woman's smile or hear her voice and laughter. "She never got to tell me why she
was so certain I would come with her."
Milagros began to cry, and picking up pieces of coal from the pyre, he rubbed them against
his tear-stained face. "One of our shamans told Angelica that although she would leave her
settlement, she would die among her own people, and her soul would remain a part of her
tribe." Milagros looked at me sharply as I was about to interrupt him. "The shaman assured
her that a girl with the color of your hair and eyes would make sure that she did."
"But I thought her people had no contact with whites," I said.
Tears still flowed from Milagros's eyes as he explained that there had been a time when his
people had lived closer to the big river. "Nowadays there are only some old people left who
still remember those days," he said softly. "For a long time we have been moving farther
and farther into the forest."
I saw no reason to continue the journey, I thought despondently. What would I do without
the old woman among her people. She had been my reason for being here. "What shall I do
now? Are you going to take me back to the mission?" I asked, then seeing Milagros's
puzzled expression, added, "It's not the same to take her ashes."
"It is the same," he murmured. "For her it was the most important part," he added, tying one
of the ash-filled gourds around my waist.
My body stiffened for an instant, then relaxed as I looked into Milagros's eyes. His
blackened face was awesome and sad at the same time. He pressed his tear-stained cheeks
against mine, then blackened them with coals. Timidly I touched the gourd around my
waist: It was light, like the old woman's laughter.
Chapter 5
For two days, at an ever accelerating pace, we walked up and down hills without rest.
Apprehensively, I watched Milagros's silent figure slip in and out of the shadows. The
urgency of his movements only intensified my feelings of uncertainty: There were moments
when I felt like screaming at him to take me back to the mission.
The afternoon closed over the forest as the clouds turned from white to gray to black.
Heavy and oppressive, they hovered over the treetops. A deafening roar of thunder broke
the stillness: Water came down in sheets, tearing at branches and leaves with relentless fury.
Motioning me to take cover under the gigantic leaves he had cut, Milagros squatted on the
ground. Instead of joining him, I took off my knapsack, untied the gourd filled with
Angelica's powdered bones from around my waist, and pulled off my T-shirt. Warm and
soothing, the water beat against my aching body. Lathering first my head, then my body
with shampoo, I washed away the ashes, the smell of death from my skin. I turned to look
at Milagros; his blackened face was drawn with fatigue, his eyes held such sadness that I
regretted having cleaned myself in such haste. Nervously I began to wash my T-shirt and
without looking at him asked, "Are we almost to the settlement?" I was certain we had
walked well over a hundred miles since leaving the mission.
"We will be there tomorrow," Milagros said, unwrapping a small bundle of roasted meat
held together with lianas and leaves. A peculiar smile lifted the corners of his mouth, and
deepened the wrinkles around his slanted eyes. "That is, if we walk at my pace."
The rain thinned. The clouds dispersed. I breathed deeply, filling my lungs with the clear,
fresh air. Drops continued to trickle from the leaves long after the rain abated. As they
caught the reflection of the sun they glittered with the dazzling intensity of bits of broken
glass.
"I hear someone coming," Milagros whispered. "Stay still."
I heard nothing- not even the call of a bird or the rustling of leaves. I was about to say so
when a branch cracked and a naked man appeared on the path in front of us. He was not
much taller than myself- perhaps five feet four. I wondered it it was his muscular chest or
his nakedness that made him seem so much bigger than me. He carried a long bow and
several arrows. His face and body were covered with red serpentine lines that extended all
the way down the sides of his legs, ending in dots around his ankles.
A short distance behind him, two naked young women stared at me. A frozen expression of
surprise held their dark eyes wide open. Tufts of fibers seemed to grow from their ears.
Matchlike sticks stuck out from the corners of their mouths and lower lips. Fastened about
their waists, upper arms, wrists, and below their knees were bands of red cotton string.
Their dark hair was cut short, and like the man, they had a clean, wide-shaven tonsure on
the crown.
No one said a word and out of sheer nervousness I shouted, "Shori noje, shori noje!"
Angelica had advised me that if I ever happened to meet Indians in the forest, I should greet
them by shouting: Good friend, good friend!
"A ia, aia, shori," the man answered, moving closer. Red feathers adorned his ears: They
were sticking out of two pieces of short cane, the size of my little finger, which were
inserted through each lobe. He began to speak to Milagros, gesticulating a great deal,
motioning with his hand or a nod of his head toward the path leading into the thicket.
Repeatedly he raised one of his arms straight above his head, his fingers extended as if
reaching for a ray of sunlight.
I beckoned the women to come closer. Giggling, they hid behind bushes. When I saw the
bananas in the baskets fastened to their backs I opened my mouth wide and gestured with
my hands that I wanted to eat one of them. Cautiously the older of the two women
approached, and without looking at me she unfastened her basket, then broke the softest,
yellowest banana from the bunch. In one swift motion she removed the slender sticks from
around her mouth, sank her teeth in the peel, bit along it, broke it open, then held the naked
fruit in front of my face. It had an oddly triangular shape and was certainly the thickest
banana I had ever seen.
"Delicious," I said in Spanish, rubbing my stomach. It tasted very much like an ordinary
banana but left a heavy coating in my mouth.
She gave me two more. As she was peeling the fourth I tried to make her understand that I
could not eat another. Grinning, she dropped the remaining fruit on the ground, then placed
her hands on my stomach. They were calloused hands, yet the delicate, slender fingers were
gentle as she hesitantly touched my breasts, shoulders, and face, as if she wanted to verify
that I was real. She began to talk in a high-pitched nasal tone that reminded me of
Angelica's voice. She pulled the elastic on my panties and called her companion to take a
look. It was only then that I felt embarrassed: I tried to pull away. Laughing and squealing
with delight, they embraced me, stroking the back and front of my body. Then they took my
hand and guided it over their own faces and bodies. They were slightly shorter than I, yet
they were massive: With their full breasts, protruding stomachs, and wide hips, they seemed
to dwarf me.
"They are from the Iticoteri village," Milagros said in Spanish, turning toward me. "Etewa
and his two wives, Ritimi and Tutemi, as well as other people from the settlement, have
made camp for a few days at an old abandoned garden nearby." He reached for his bow and
arrows, which he had left leaning against a tree trunk, and added, "We will travel with
them."
Meanwhile the women had discovered my wet T-shirt. Enthralled, they rubbed it against
their painted faces and bodies before I had a chance to slip it over my head. Stretched and
streaked with red onoto paste, it hung on me like a dirty oversized rice sack.
I put the ash-filled gourd in my knapsack, and as I lifted it on my back the women began to
giggle uncontrollably. Etewa came to stand next to me: He stared at me with his brown
eyes, then a wide grin lit his face as he ran his fingers through my hair. His finely chiseled
nose and the gentle curve of his lips gave his round face an almost girlish appearance.
"I will go with Etewa to track down a tapir he spotted a while ago," Milagros said. "You
walk with the women."
For an instant I could only stare at him in disbelief. "But..." I finally managed to utter, not
knowing what else to say. I must have looked comical for Milagros began to laugh: His
slanted eyes all but disappeared between his forehead and his high cheekbones. He put one
hand on my shoulder. He tried to look serious but a flickering smile remained on his lips.
"These are Angelica's and my people," he said, turning toward Etewa and his two wives.
"Ritimi is her grand-niece. Angelica never saw her."
I smiled at the two women: They nodded their heads as if they had understood Milagros's
words.
Milagros's and Etewa's laughter echoed through the lianas, then died away as they reached
the bamboo thicket bordering the path along the river. Ritimi took my hand and led me into
the thicket.
I walked between Ritimi and Tutemi. We moved silently in single file toward the
abandoned gardens of the Iticoteri. I wondered whether it was because of the heavy load on
their backs or whether it gave their feet a better grip on the ground that they walked with
their knees and toes pointing inward. Our shadows grew and diminished with the faint rays
of sunlight filtering through the treetops. My ankles were weak from exhaustion. I moved
clumsily, stumbling over branches and roots. Ritimi put her arm around my waist, but it
made walking on the narrow path even more awkward. She pulled the knapsack from my
back, and stuffed it in Tutemi's basket.
I was seized by an odd apprehension. I wanted to retrieve my knapsack, pull out the ashfilled
gourd, and tie it around my waist. I had the vague notion of having severed some kind
of a bond. Had I been asked to put my feelings into words I would not have been able to do
so. Yet I sensed that from that moment on some of the magic and enchantment Angelica had
transfused into me had vanished.
The sun was already below the horizon of trees as we reached a clearing in the forest.
Amidst all the other shades of green I clearly distinguished the lighter, almost translucent
green of the plantain fronds. Strung out on the edge of what once must have been a large
garden were low triangular-shaped huts arranged in a semicircle with their backs to the
forest. The dwellings were open on all sides except for the roofs, which were covered with
several layers of broad banana leaves.
As if someone had given a signal, we were instantly surrounded by open-mouthed, wideeyed
women and men. I held on to Ritimi's arm: Her having walked with me through the
forest made her different from these gaping figures. Encircling me by the waist, she drew
me close to her. The rapid, excited tone of her voice kept the crowd at bay for a moment
longer. Suddenly their faces were only inches away from mine. Saliva dribbled down their
chins, and their features were disfigured by the tobacco wads stuck between their gums and
lower lips. I forgot all about the objectivity with which an anthropologist is to regard
another culture. At the moment these Indians were nothing more than a group of ugly, dirty
people. I closed my eyes only to open them the next instant as an unsteady bony hand
touched my cheeks. It was an old man. Grinning, he began to shout: "Aia, aia, aiiiashori!"
Echoing his shouts, everyone at once tried to embrace me, almost crushing me with joy.
They managed to pull my T-shirt over my head. I felt their hands, lips, and tongues on my
face and body. They smelled of smoke and earth: Their saliva, which clung to my skin,
smelled of rotten tobacco leaves. Appalled, I burst into tears.
With apprehensive expressions on their faces, they pulled away. Although I could not
understand their words, their tone clearly revealed their bewilderment.
Later that night I learned from Milagros that Ritimi had explained to the group that she had
found me in the forest. At first she had believed I was a spirit, and she had been afraid to
come near me. Only after she had seen me devour the bananas was she convinced I was
human, for only humans eat that greedily.
Between my hammock and Milagros's burned a fire: Smoking and sputtering, it threw a
faint light over the open hut, leaving the trees outside in one solid mass of darkness. It was
a reddish light that, combined with the smoke, made my eyes water. People sat around the
fire so close to each other their shoulders touched. Their shadowed faces looked all the
same to me: The red and black designs on their bodies seemed to have a life of their own as
they moved and twisted with each gesture.
Ritimi sat on the ground, her legs fully extended, her left arm resting against my hammock.
Her skin was a soft deep yellow in the wavering light: The painted lines on her face ran
toward her temples, accentuating her Asiatic features. Clearly I could see the small holes,
free of the sticks, at the corners of her mouth, lower lip, and the septum of her wide nostrils.
Aware of my stare, she looked at me directly, her round face creasing into a smile. She had
square short teeth: They were strong and very white.
I began to doze off to the gentle murmur of their voices, yet slept fitfully, wondering what
Milagros was telling them as I kept waking to the sound of laughter.
PART TWO
Chapter 6
"When do you think you'll be back?" I asked Milagros six months later, handing him the
letter I had written to Father Coriolano at the mission. In it I briefly notified him that I
intended to stay for at least two more months with the Iticoteri. I asked him to inform my
friends in Caracas; and most important of all, I begged him to send with Milagros as many
writing pads and pencils as he could spare. "When will you be back?" I asked again.
"In two weeks or so," Milagros said casually, fitting the letter into his bamboo quiver. He
must have detected the anxiousness in my face for he added, "There is no way to tell, but
I'll be back."
I watched as he started down the path leading to the river. He adjusted the quiver on his
back, then turned to me briefly, his movements momentarily arrested as though there were
something he wished to say. Instead he lifted his hand to wave good-bye.
Slowly I headed back to the shabono, passing several men felling trees next to the gardens.
Carefully I stepped around the logs cluttered all over the cleared patch, making sure not to
cut my feet on the pieces of bark, chips, and slivers of wood buried amidst the dead leaves
on the ground.
"He'll be back as soon as the plantains are ripe," Etewa shouted, waving his hand the way
Milagros had just done. "He won't miss the feast."
Smiling, I waved back, wanting to ask when the feast would take place. I did not need to:
He had already given me the answer: When the plantains were ripe.
The brush and logs that were scattered each night in front of the main entrance of the
shabono to keep out intruders had already been moved aside. It was still early, yet the huts
facing the round, open clearing were mostly empty. Women and men were working in the
nearby gardens, or had gone into the forest to gather wild fruits, honey, and firewood.
Armed with miniature bows and arrows, a group of little boys gathered around me. "See the
lizard I killed," Sisiwe said, holding the dead animal by the tail.
"That's all he can do shoot lizards," a boy in the group said mockingly, scratching his ankle
with the toes of his other foot. "And most of the time he misses."
"I don't," Sisiwe shouted, his face turning red with rage.
I caressed the stubbles on the crown of his head. In the sunlight his hair was not black but a
reddish brown. Searching for the right words from my limited vocabulary, I hoped to assure
him that one day he would be the best hunter in the settlement.
Sisiwe, Ritimi's and Etewa's son, was six, or at the most seven, years old for he did not yet
wear a pubic waist string. Ritimi, believing that the sooner a boy tied his penis against his
abdomen the faster he would grow, had repeatedly forced the child to do so. But Sisiwe had
refused, arguing that it hurt. Etewa had not insisted. His son was growing healthy and
strong. Soon, the father had argued, Sisiwe would realize that it was improper for a man to
be seen without a waist string. Like most children, Sisiwe wore a piece of fragrant root tied
around his neck, a charm against disease, and as soon as the designs on his body faded, he
was painted anew with onoto.
Smiling, his anger forgotten, Sisiwe held on to my hand, and in one swift motion climbed
up on me as if I were a tree. He wrapped his legs around my waist. He swung backward
and, stretching his arms toward the sky, shouted, "Look how blue it is- the color of your
eyes."
From the middle of the clearing the sky seemed immense. There were no trees, lianas, or
leaves to mar its splendor. The dense vegetation loomed outside the shabono, beyond the
palisades [* palisades- fortifications consisting of a strong fence made of stakes driven into
the ground] of logs protecting the settlement. The trees appeared to bide their time, as if
they knew they were only provisionally held in check.
Tugging at my arm, the children pulled me together with Sisiwe to the ground. At first I had
not been able to associate them with any particular parent for they wandered in and out of
the huts, eating and sleeping wherever it was convenient. I only knew where the babies
belonged, for they were perennially hanging around their mother's bodies. Whether it was
day or night, the infants never seemed disturbed, regardless of what activity their mothers
were engaged in.
I wondered how I would do without Milagros. Each day he had spent several hours
teaching me the language, customs, and beliefs of his people, which I eagerly recorded in
my notepads.
Learning who was who among the Iticoteri proved to be most confusing. They never called
each other by name, except when someone was to be insulted. Ritimi and Etewa were
known as Mother and Father of Sisiwe and Texoma. (It was permissible to use children's
names, but as soon as they reached puberty everyone refrained from it.) Matters were
further complicated in that males and females from a given lineage called each other
brother and sister; males and females from another lineage were referred to as brother-inlaw
and sister-in-law. A male who married a woman from an eligible lineage called all the
women of that lineage wives, but did not have sexual contact with them.
Milagros often pointed out that it was not only I who had to adapt. The Iticoteri were just as
baffled by my odd behavior: To them I was neither woman, man, or child, and as such they
did not quite know what to think of me or where they could fit me in.
Old Hayama emerged from her hut. In a high-pitched voice she told the children to leave
me alone. "Her stomach is still empty," she said. Putting her arm around my waist, she led
me to the hearth in her hut.
Making sure not to step on or collide with any of the aluminum and enamel cooking pots
(acquired through trade with other settlements), the tortoise shells, gourds, and baskets
scattered on the ground, I sat across from Hayama. I extended my legs fully, in the way of
the Iticoteri women, and scratching the head of her pet parrot, I waited for the food.
"Eat," she said, handing me a baked plantain on a broken calabash. Attentively the old
woman watched as I chewed with my mouth open, smacking my lips repeatedly. She
smiled, content that I was fully appreciating the soft sweet plantain.
Hayama had been introduced to me by Milagros as Angelica's sister. Every time I looked at
her I tried to find some resemblance to the frail old woman I had lost in the forest. About
five feet four, Hayama was tall for an Iticoteri woman. Not only was she physically
different from Angelica, but she did not have her sister's lightness of spirit. There was a
harshness to Hayama's voice and manner that often made me feel uncomfortable. And her
heavy, drooping eyelids gave her face a peculiarly sinister expression.
"You stay here with me until Milagros returns," the old woman said, serving me another
baked plantain.
I stuffed the hot fruit in my mouth so I would not have to answer. Milagros had introduced
me to his brother-in-law Arasuwe who was the headman of the Iticoteri, as well as to the
other members of the settlement. However, it was Ritimi who, by hanging my hammock in
the hut she shared with Etewa and their two children, had made it known that I belonged to
her. "The white girl sleeps here," she had said to Milagros, explaining that little Texoma
and Sisiwe would have their hammocks hung around Tutemi's hearth in the adjoining hut.
No one had interfered with Ritimi's scheme. Silently, a smile of gentle mockery on his face,
Etewa had watched as Ritimi rushed between their hut and Tutemi's, rearranging the
hammocks in the customary triangle around the fire. On a small loft built between the back
poles supporting the dwelling, she placed my knapsack, amidst bark boxes, an assortment
of baskets, an ax, and gourds with onoto, seeds, and roots.
Ritimi's self-assuredness stemmed not only from the fact that she was the headman
Arasuwe's oldest daughter- by his first wife, a daughter of old Hayama, now dead- and that
she was Etewa's first and favorite wife; but also because Ritimi knew that in spite of her
quick temper everyone in the shabono respected and liked her.
"No more," I pleaded with Hayama as she took another plantain from the fire. "My belly is
full." Pulling up my T-shirt, I pushed out my stomach so she could see how filled it looked.
"You need to grow fat around your bones," the old woman said, mashing up the banana
with her fingers. "Your breasts are as small as a child's." Giggling, she pulled my T-shirt up
further. "No man will ever want you- he'll be afraid to hurt himself on the bones."
Opening my eyes wide in mock horror, I pretended to gobble down the mush. "I'll surely
get fat and beautiful eating your food," I said with my mouth full.
Still wet from her river bath, Ritimi came into the hut combing her hair with a densely
thistled pod. Sitting next to me, she put her arms around my neck, and planted resounding
kisses on my face. I had to restrain myself from laughing. The Iticoteri's kisses tickled me.
They kissed differently: Each time they put their mouth against my cheek and neck, they
vibrated their lips while sonorously ejecting air.
"You are not moving the white girl's hammock in here," Ritimi said, looking at her
grandmother. The certainty of her tone was not matched by the inquiring softness of her
dark eyes.
Not wanting to be the cause of an argument, I made it clear that it did not make much
difference where my hammock hung. Since there were no walls between the huts, we
practically lived together. Hayama's hut stood on Tutemi's left, and on our right was
Arasuwe the headman's, which he shared with his oldest wife and three of his smallest
children. His other two wives and their respective offspring occupied adjacent huts.
Ritimi fixed her gaze on me, a pleading expression in her eyes. "Milagros asked me to take
care of you," she said, running the thistled pod through my hair, softly, so as not to scratch
my scalp.
After what seemed an interminable silence, Hayama finally said, "You can leave your
hammock where it is, but you will eat here with me."
It was a good arrangement, I thought. Etewa already had four mouths to feed. Hayama, on
the other hand, was taken good care of by her youngest son. Judging by the amount of
animal skulls and plantains hanging from the thatched palm roof, her son was a good hunter
and cultivator. Other than the baked plantains eaten in the morning, there was only one
meal, in the late afternoon, when families gathered together to eat. People snacked
throughout the day on whatever was available- fruit, nuts, or such delicacies as roasted ants
and grubs.
Ritimi also seemed pleased with the eating arrangement. Smiling, she walked over to our
hut and pulled down the basket she had given me which was hanging above my hammock,
then took out my notepad and pencil. "Now let us work," she said in a commanding tone.
In the days that followed Ritimi taught me about her people as Milagros had done for the
past six months. He had set up a few hours each day for what I referred to as formal
instruction.
At first I had great difficulty in learning the language. Not only did I find it to be heavily
nasal, but it was extremely difficult to understand people when they talked with wads of
tobacco in their mouths. I tried to devise some sort of a comparative grammar, but gave it
up when I realized that not only did I not have the proper linguistic training, but the more I
tried to be rational about learning their language, the less I could speak.
My best teachers were the children. Although they pointed things out to me, and greatly
enjoyed giving me words to repeat, they made no conscious effort to explain anything. With
them I was able to rattle on, totally uninhibited about making mistakes. After Milagros's
departure, there was still much I did not comprehend, yet I was astonished by how well I
managed to communicate with others, reading correctly the inflection of their voices, the
expression on their faces, and the eloquent movements of their hands and bodies.
During those hours of formal instruction, Ritimi took me to visit the women in the different
huts, and I was allowed to ask questions to my heart's content. Baffled by my curiosity, the
women talked freely, as if they were playing a game. They patiently explained again and
again whatever I did not understand.
I was grateful Milagros had set that precedent. Not only was curiosity regarded as bad
manners, but it went against their will to be questioned. Yet Milagros had lavishly indulged
me in what he called my eccentric whim, stating that the more I knew about the language
and customs of the Iticoteri, the quicker I would feel at home with them.
It soon became apparent that I did not need to ask too many direct questions. Often the
most casual remark on my part was reciprocated by a flow of information I would not have
dreamed of eliciting.
Each day just before nightfall, aided by Ritimi and Tutemi, I would go over the data
gathered during the day, and try to order it under some kind of classificatory scheme such
as social structure, cultural values, subsistence techniques, and other universal categories of
human social behavior.
However, to my great disappointment, there was one subject Milagros had not touched
upon: shamanism. I had observed from my hammock two curing sessions, of which I had
written detailed accounts.
"Arasuwe is a great shapori," Milagros had said to me as I watched my first curing ritual.
"Does he invoke the help of the spirits when he chants?" I asked as I watched Milagros's
brother-in-law massage, suck, and rub the prostrate body of a child.
Milagros had given me an outraged look. "There are things one doesn't talk about." He had
gotten up abruptly, and before walking out of the hut had added, "Don't ask about these
things. If you do, you will run into serious trouble."
I had not been surprised by his response, but I had been unprepared for his outright anger. I
wondered if his refusal to talk about the subject was because I was a woman, or because
shamanism was a taboo topic. I did not dare to find out at the time. Being a woman, white,
and alone was precarious enough.
I was aware that in most societies knowledge regarding shamanistic and curing practices
are never revealed except to the initiates. During Milagros's absence I did not mention the
word shamanism once but spent hours deliberating over what would be the best way to
learn about it without arousing any anger and suspicion.
From my notes on the two sessions it became evident that the Iticoteri believed the
shapori's body underwent a change when under the influence of the hallucinogenic snuff
epena. That is, the shaman acted under the assumption that his human body transformed
itself into a super-natural body. Thus he made contact with the spirits in the forest. My
obvious approach would be to arrive at an understanding of shamanism via the body- not as
an object determined by psychochemical laws, holistic forces in nature, the environment, or
the psyche itself; but through an understanding of the body as lived experience, the body as
an expressive unity known through performance.
Most studies on shamanism, including mine, have focused on the psychotherapeutic and
social aspects of healing. I thought that my approach would not only provide a novel
explanation but would furnish me with a way of learning about curing without becoming
suspect. Questions concerning the body need not necessarily be associated with shamanism.
I had no doubt that little by little I would retrieve the necessary data without the Iticoteri
ever being aware of what I was really after.
Any pangs of conscience I felt regarding the dishonesty of my task were quickly stilled by
repeating to myself that my work was important for the understanding of non-Western
healing practices. The strange, often bizarre customs of shamanism would become
understandable in the light of a different interpretational context, thus furthering
anthropological knowledge in general.
"You haven't worked for two days," Ritimi<said to me one afternoon. "You haven't asked
about last night's songs and dances. Don't you know they are important? If we don't sing
and dance the hunters will return without meat for the feast." Scowling, she threw the
notepad into my lap. "You haven't even painted in your book."
"I'm resting for a few days," I said, clutching the notepad against my breast as if it were the
dearest thing I possessed. I had no intention of letting her know that every precious page
was to be filled exclusively with data on shamanism.
Ritimi took my hands in hers, examined them intently, then, assuming a very serious
expression, commented, "They look very tired- they need rest."
We burst out laughing. Ritimi had always been baffled that I considered decorating my
book to be work. To her work meant digging weeds in the garden, collecting firewood, and
repairing the roof of the shabono.
"I liked the dances and songs very much," I said. "I recognized your voice- it was
beautiful."
Ritimi beamed at me. "I sing very well." There was a charming candor and assurance in her
statement; she was not boasting but only stating a fact. "I'm sure the hunters will return
with plenty of game to feed the guests at the feast."
Nodding in agreement, I looked for a twig, then began to sketch a human figure on the soft
dirt. "This is the body of a white person," I said as I sketched the main organs and bones. "I
wonder how the body of an Iticoteri looks?"
"You must be very tired to ask such a stupid question," Ritimi said, staring at me as if I
were dim-witted. She stood up and began to dance, chanting in a loud melodious voice:
"This is my head, this is my arm, this is my breast, this is my stomach, this is my..."
In no time at all, attracted by Ritimi's antics, a group of women and men gathered around
us. Squealing and laughing, they made obscene remarks about each other's bodies. Some of
the adolescent boys were laughing so hard, they rolled on the ground, holding their penises.
"Can anyone draw a body the way I drew mine?" I asked.
Several responded to this challenge. Grabbing a piece of wood, a twig, or a broken bow,
they began to draw on the dirt. Their drawings differed markedly from each other's, not
only because of the obvious sexual differences, which they made sure to emphasize, but
because all the men's bodies were depicted with tiny figures inside the chest.
I could hardly hide my delight. I thought these must be the spirits I had heard Arasuwe
summon with his chant before he began the curing session. "What are these?" I asked
casually.
"The hekuras of the forest who live in a man's chest," one of the men said.
"Are all men shapori?"
"All men have hekuras in their chests," the man said. "But only a real shapori can make use
of them. Only a great shapori can command his hekuras to aid the sick and counteract the
spells of enemy shapori." Studying my sketch, he asked, "Why does your picture have
hekuras, even in the legs? Women don't have hekuras."
I explained that these were not spirits, but organs and bones, and they promptly added them
to their own drawings. Content with what I had learned, I willingly accompanied Ritimi to
gather firewood in the forest- the women's most arduous and unwelcome task. They could
never get enough wood, for the fires were never allowed to die.
That evening, as she had done every night since I arrived at the settlement, Ritimi examined
my feet for thorns and splinters. Satisfied that there were none, she rubbed them clean with
her hands.
"I wonder if the bodies of the shapori go through some kind of transformation when they
are under the influence of epena," I said. It was important to have it confirmed in their own
words since the original premise of my theoretical scheme was that the shaman operated
under certain assumptions concerning the body. I needed to know if these assumptions were
shared by the group, and if they were of a conscious or unconscious nature.
"Did you see Iramamowe yesterday?" Ritimi asked. "Did you see him walk? His feet didn't
touch the ground. He is a powerful shapori. He became the great jaguar."
"He didn't cure anyone," I said glumly. It disappointed me that Arasuwe's brother was
considered a great shaman. I had seen him beat his wife on two occasions.
No longer interested in pursuing the conversation, Ritimi turned away from me, and began
to get ready for our evening ritual. Lifting the basket that held my belongings from the
small loft at the back of the hut, she placed it on the ground. One by one she took out each
item and held it above her head, waiting for me to identify it. As soon as I did she repeated
the name in Spanish, then in English, starting a nocturnal chorus as the headman's wives,
and several other women who each night gathered in our hut, echoed the foreign words.
I relaxed in my hammock as Tutemi's fingers parted my hair searching for imaginary lice: I
was certain I did not have any- not yet. Tutemi appeared to be five or six years younger
than Ritimi, whom I believed to be twenty. She was taller and heavier, her stomach round
with her first pregnancy. She was shy and retiring. Often I had discovered a sad, faraway
look in her dark eyes, and at times she talked to herself as if she were thinking aloud.
"Lice! Lice!" Tutemi shouted, interrupting the women's Spanish-English chant.
"Let me see," I said, convinced that she was joking. "Are lice white?" I asked, examining
the tiny white bugs on her finger. I had always believed they were dark.
"White girl, white lice," Tutemi said mischievously. With gleeful delight she crunched them
one by one between her teeth and swallowed them. "All lice are white."
Chapter 7
It was the day of the feast. Since noon I had been under the ministrations of Ritimi and
Tutemi, who took great trouble to beautify me. With a sharpened piece of bamboo, Tutemi
cut my hair in the customary style, and with a knife-sharp grass blade she shaved the crown
of my head. The hair on my legs she removed with an abrasive paste made from ashes,
vegetable resin, and dirt.
Ritimi painted wavy lines across my face, and intricate geometric patterns over my entire
body with a piece of chewed-up twig. My legs, red and swollen from the depilation, were
left unpainted. On my looped earrings, which I claimed could not be removed, she tied a
pink flower together with tufts of white feathers. Around my upper arms, wrists, and ankles
she fastened red cotton strands.
"Oh no. You're not going to do that," I said, jumping out of Ritimi's reach.
"It won't hurt," she assured me, then asked in an exasperated manner, "Do you want to look
like an old woman? It won't hurt," Ritimi insisted, coming after me.
"Leave her alone," Etewa said, reaching for a bark box on the loft. He looked at me, then
burst into laughter. His big white teeth and his squinting eyes seemed to mock my
embarrassment. "She doesn't have much pubic hair."
Gratefully I tied the red cotton belt Ritimi had given me around my hips and laughed with
him. Making sure I fastened the wide flat belt in such a manner that the fringed ends
covered the offending hair, I said to Ritimi, "Now you can't see a thing."
Ritimi was not impressed, but gave an indifferent shrug, and continued examining her pubis
for any hair.
Dark circles and arabesques [* arabesques- ornaments that interlaces simulated foliage in
an intricate design] decorated Etewa's brown face and body. Over his waistband he tied a
thick round belt made of red cotton yarn: Around his upper arms he fastened narrow bands
of monkey fur to which Ritimi attached the black and white feathers Etewa had selected
from the bark box.
Dipping her fingers in the sticky resin paste one of Arasuwe's wives had prepared in the
morning, Ritimi wiped them over Etewa's hair. Immediately Tutemi took a handful of white
down feathers from another box and plastered them on his head until he looked as if he
were wearing a white fur cap.
"When will the feast start?" I asked, watching a group of men haul away enormous piles of
plantain skins from the already cleaned, weed-free clearing.
"When the plantain soup and all the meat is ready," Etewa said, strutting about, making sure
we could see him from every angle. His lips were twisted in a smile, and his humorous eyes
still squinted. He looked at me, then removed the wad of tobacco from his mouth. Placing it
on a piece of broken calabash on the ground, he spat over his hammock in a sharp, strong
arc. With the assurance of someone who feels pleased and delighted with his own looks, he
turned toward us once more, then walked out of the hut.
Little Texoma picked up the slimy quid. Stuffing it into her mouth she began to suck on it
with the same gratification I would have felt biting into a piece of chocolate. Her small
face, disfigured with half of the wad protruding from her mouth, looked grotesque.
Grinning, she climbed into my hammock, and promptly fell asleep.
In the next hut I could see the headman Arasuwe lying in his hammock. From there he
supervised the cooking of plantains and the roasting of the meat brought by the hunters who
had left a few days before. Like workers on an assembly line, several men had in record
time disposed of the numerous bundles of plantains. One sank his sharp teeth into the peel,
cutting it open: Another pried the hard skin away, then threw the fruit into the bark trough
Etewa had built early that morning: A third watched over the three small fires he had lit
underneath the trough.
"How come only men are cooking?" I asked Tutemi. I knew women never cooked large
game, but I was baffled that none of them had even gotten close to the plantains.
"Women are too careless," Arasuwe answered for Tutemi as he stepped into the hut. His
eyes seemed to challenge me to contradict his statement. Smiling, he added, "They get
distracted too easily, and let the fire burn through the bark."
Before I had a chance to say anything, he was back in his hammock. "Did he only come in
to say that?" I asked.
"No," Ritimi said. "He came to look you over."
I was reluctant to ask if I had passed Arasuwe's inspection lest I remind her of my
unplucked pubic hair. "Look," I said, "visitors are arriving."
"That's Puriwariwe, Angelica's oldest brother," Ritimi said, pointing to an old man among
the group of men. "He is a feared shapori. He was killed once but didn't die."
"Killed once but didn't die." I repeated this slowly, wondering if I was supposed to take it
literally, or if it was a figure of speech.
"Killed in a raid," Etewa said, walking into the hut. "Dead, dead, dead, but didn't die." He
spoke distinctly, moving his lips in an exaggerated manner as if he could thus make me
understand the true meaning of his words.
"Are there still raids taking place?"
No one answered my question. Etewa reached for a long hollow cane and a small gourd
hidden behind one of the rafters, then left us to greet the visitors who stood in the middle of
the clearing facing Arasuwe's hut.
More men walked into the compound and I wondered aloud if any women had been invited
to the feast.
"They are outside," Ritimi said. "With the rest of the guests, decorating themselves while
the men take epena."
The headman Arasuwe, his brother Iramamowe, Etewa, and six other Iticoteri men- all
decorated with feathers, fur, and red onoto paste- squatted face to face with the visitors who
were already on their haunches. They talked for a while, avoiding one another's eyes.
Arasuwe unfastened the small gourd hanging around his neck, poured some of the
brownish-green powder into one end of his hollow cane, then faced Angelica's brother.
Placing the end of the cane against the shaman's nose, Arasuwe blew the hallucinogenic
powder with great force into one of the old man's nostrils. The shaman did not flinch,
groan, or stagger off, as I had seen other men do. But his eyes did become bleary and soon
green slime dripped from his nose and mouth, which he flicked away with a twig. Slowly
he began to chant. I did not catch his words; they were spoken too softly, and the groans of
the others drowned them out.
Glassy-eyed, with mucus and saliva dripping down his chin and chest, Arasuwe jumped
into the air. The red macaw feathers hanging from his ears and arms fluttered around him.
He jumped repeatedly, touching the ground with a lightness that seemed incredible in
someone so stockily built. His face seemed to be carved in stone. Straight bangs hung over
a jutting brow. His wide, flaring nose and his snarling mouth reminded me of one of the
four guardian kings I had once seen in a temple in Japan.
A few of the men had staggered away from the rest of the group, holding their heads as they
vomited. The old man's chant became louder; one by one the men gathered once more
around him. Quietly they squatted, their folded arms over their knees, their eyes lost on
some invisible spot only they could see, until the shapori finished his song.
Each of the Iticoteri men returned to his hut accompanied by a guest. Arasuwe had invited
Puriwariwe. Etewa walked into his hut with one of the young men who had vomited.
Without glancing at us, the guest stretched in Etewa's hammock as if it were his own: He
did not look older than sixteen.
"Why didn't all the Iticoteri men take epena or decorate themselves?" I whispered to Ritimi,
who was busy cleaning and repainting Etewa's face with onoto.
"Tomorrow they will all be decorated. More guests will come in the next few days," she
said. "Today is for Angelica's relatives."
"But Milagros isn't here."
"He came this morning."
"This morning!" I repeated in disbelief. The young man lying in Etewa's hammock opened
his eyes wide, looked at me, then shut them again. Texoma awoke and began to wail. I tried
to calm her by pushing the tobacco quid, which had fallen to the ground, back into her
mouth. Refusing it, she began to cry even louder. I handed her to Tutemi, who rocked the
child back and forth until she was still.
Why had Milagros not let me know he was back? I wondered, feeling angry and hurt. Tears
of self-pity welled up in my eyes.
"Look. He's coming," Tutemi said, pointing toward the shabono's entrance.
Followed by a group of men, women, and children, Milagros walked directly toward
Arasuwe's hut. Red and black lines circled his eyes and mouth. Spellbound, I gaped at the
black monkey tail wrapped around his head, from which multicolored macaw feathers
dangled, matching the ones that hung from his fur armbands. Instead of the festive cotton
belt, he wore a bright red loincloth.
An inexplicable uneasiness overtook me as he approached my hammock. I felt my heart
pound with fear as I gazed up into his tense, strained face.
"Bring your gourd," he said in Spanish, then turned around, and walked toward the trough
filled with plantain soup.
Without paying the slightest attention to me, everyone followed Milagros into the clearing.
Speechless, I reached for my basket, set it on the ground before me, and took out all my
possessions. At the bottom, wrapped in my knapsack, was the smooth, ochre-colored
calabash with Angelica's ashes. I had often wondered what I was supposed to do with it.
Ritimi had never touched the knapsack when she went through my belongings.
The gourd felt heavy in my stiff, cold hands. It had been so light when I had carried it tied
around my waist in the forest.
"Empty it into the trough," Milagros said. Again he spoke in Spanish.
"It's filled with soup," I said stupidly. I felt my voice quiver, and my hands were so
unsteady I thought I would not be able to pull the resin plug from the calabash.
"Empty it," Milagros repeated, tilting my arm gently. I squatted awkwardly, and slowly
poured the burnt, finely powdered bones into the soup. I stared hypnotically at the dark
heap they formed on the thick yellow surface. The smell made me nauseous. The ashes did
not submerge. Milagros poured the contents of his own gourd on top of them. The women
began to wail and cry. Was I supposed to join them? I wondered. I felt certain no matter
how hard I tried not a single tear would come to my eyes.
Startled by sharp cracking sounds, I straightened up. With the handle of his machete,
Milagros had split the two gourds into perfect halves. Next he mixed the powder into the
soup, blending it so well that the yellow pap turned into a dirty gray.
I watched him bring the soup-filled gourd to his mouth, then empty it in one long gulp.
Wiping his chin with the back of his hand, he filled it once more, and handed the ladle to
me.
Horrified, I looked at the faces around me: Intently they watched every movement and
gesture I made, with eyes that no longer seemed human. The women had stopped wailing. I
could hear the accelerated beats of my heart. Swallowing repeatedly in an effort to
overcome the dryness in my mouth, I held out a shaking hand. Then I shut my eyes tightly,
and gulped down the heavy liquid. To my surprise the sweet, slightly salty soup glided
smoothly down my throat. A faint smile relaxed Milagros's tense face as he took the empty
gourd from me. I turned around, and slowly walked away as ripples of nausea tightened my
stomach.
High-pitched chatter and squeals of laughter issued from the hut. Sisiwe, surrounded by his
friends, sat on the ground, showing them each one of my personal belongings, which I had
left scattered around. My nausea dissolved into rage as I saw my notepads smoldering on
the hearth.
Startled, the children laughed at me as I burned my fingers trying to retrieve what was left
of the pads. Slowly the bemused expressions on their faces changed to amazement when
they realized I was crying.
I ran out of the shabono down the path toward the river, clutching the burnt pages to my
breast. "I'll ask Milagros to take me back to the mission," I mumbled, wiping the tears from
my face. The idea struck me as so absurd that I burst out laughing. How could I face Father
Coriolano with a shaven tonsure.
Squatting at the edge of the water, I stuck my finger in my throat and tried to vomit. It was
no use. Exhausted, I lay face up on a flat boulder jutting over the water and examined what
was left of my notes. A cool breeze blew my hair. I turned on my stomach. The warmth of
the stone filled me with a soft laziness that melted all my anger and weariness away.
I looked for my face in the clear water, but the wind ruffled away all reflection from the
surface. The river gave back nothing. Trapped in the dark pools along the bank, the brilliant
green of the vegetation was a cloudy mass.
"Let your notes drift with the river," Milagros said, sitting beside me on the rock. His
sudden presence did not startle me. I had been expecting him.
With a slight movement of my head I silently assented, and let my hand dangle over the
rock. My fingers unclasped. I heard a faint splash as the scorched pad fell into the water. I
felt as if a burden had been lifted off my back as I watched my notes drift downriver. "You
didn't go to the mission," I said. "Why didn't you tell me you had to bring Angelica's
relatives?"
Milagros did not answer but stared out across the river.
"Did you tell the children to burn my notes?" I asked.
He turned his face toward me but remained silent. The contraction of his mouth revealed a
vague disillusionment I failed to comprehend. When he spoke at last it was in a soft tone
that seemed forced from him against his will. "The Iticoteri as well as other settlements
have moved over the years deeper and deeper into the forest, away from the mission and
the big rivers where the white man passes by." He turned to look at a lizard crawling
uneasily over the stone. For an instant it stared at us with lidless eyes, then slithered off.
"Other settlements have chosen to do the opposite," Milagros continued. "They seek the
goods the racionales offer. They have failed to understand that only the forest can give
them security. Too late, they will discover that to the white man the Indian is no better than
a dog."
He knew, he said, having lived all his life between the two worlds, that the Indians did not
have a chance in the world of the white man, no matter what a few individuals of either
race did or believed to the contrary.
I talked about anthropologists and their work, the importance of recording customs and
beliefs, which as he had mentioned on a previous occasion were doomed to be forgotten.
The hint of a mocking smile twisted his lips. "I know about anthropologists; I once worked
for one of them as an informant," he said, and began to laugh: It was a high-pitched
laughter, but there was no emotion in his face. His eyes were not laughing but shone with
animosity.
I was taken aback because his anger seemed directed at me. "You knew I was an
anthropologist," I said hesitantly. "You yourself helped me fill part of my notebook with
information about the Iticoteri. It was you who took me from hut to hut, who encouraged
others to talk to me, to teach me your language and your customs."
Impassively Milagros sat there, his painted face an expressionless mask. I felt like shaking
him. It was as if he had not heard my words. Milagros stared at the trees, already black
against the fading sky: I looked up into his face. His head was silhouetted against the sky. I
saw the flaming macaw feathers and purple manes of monkey fur as if the sky were
streaked with them.
Milagros shook his head sadly. "You know you didn't come here to do your work. You
could've done that much better at one of the settlements close to the mission." Tears formed
at the edge of his eyelids: They clung to his stubby lashes, shining, trembling. "Knowledge
of our ways and beliefs was given to you so you would move with the rhythm of our lives;
so you would feel secure and protected. It was a gift, not to be used or to be given to
others."
I could not shift my gaze away from his bright moist eyes: There was no resentment in
them. I saw my face mirrored in his black pupils. Angelica's and Milagros's gift. I finally
understood. I had been guided through the forest, not to see their people with the eyes of an
anthropologist- sifting, judging, analyzing all I saw and heard- but to see them as Angelica
would have seen them, for one last time. She too had known that her time and the time of
her people was coming to an end.
I shifted my gaze to the water. I had not felt my watch falling in the river, but there it was
lying amidst the pebbles, an unstable vision of tiny illuminated spots coming together and
moving apart in the water. One of the metal links on the watchband must have broken, I
thought, but made no effort to retrieve the watch, my last link with the world beyond the
forest.
Milagros's voice broke into my reveries. "A long time ago at a settlement close to the big
river, I worked for an anthropologist. He didn't live with us in the shabono, but built
himself a hut outside the log palisade. It had walls and a door that locked from the inside
and the outside." Milagros paused for a moment, wiping the tears that had dried around his
wrinkled eyes, then asked me, "Do you want to know what I did to him?"
"Yes," I said hesitantly.
"I gave him epena." Milagros paused for a moment, and smiled as if he were enjoying my
apprehension. "This anthropologist acted like everyone else who inhaled the sacred powder.
He said he had the same visions as the shaman."
"There is nothing strange about that," I said, a little piqued by Milagros's smug tone.
"Yes, there is," he said, and laughed. "Because all I blew up his nostrils were ashes. All
ashes do is make your nose bleed."
"Is that what you are going to give me?" I asked, and flushed at the obvious self-pity that
permeated my voice.
"I gave you part of Angelica's soul," he said softly, helping me to my feet.
The shabono's boundaries seemed to dissolve against the darkness. I could see well in the
faint light. The people gathered around the trough reminded me of forest creatures, their
shining eyes smeared with the light from the fires.
I sat next to Hayama, and accepted the piece of meat she offered me. Ritimi rubbed her
head against my arm. Little Texoma sat in my lap. I felt content, protected by the familiar
odors and sounds. Intently I watched the faces around me, wondering how many of them
were related to Angelica. There was not a single face resembling hers. Even Milagros's
features, which had once seemed so much like Angelica's, looked different. Perhaps I had
already forgotten what she looked like, I thought sadly. Then on a beam of light extending
from the fire I saw her smiling face. I shook my head, trying to erase the vision, and found
myself staring at the old shaman Puriwariwe, squatting a bit apart from the group.
He was a small, thin, dried-up man with a brownish-yellow skin; the muscles of his arms
and legs were already shrunken. But his hair was still dark, curling slightly around his head.
He was not adorned: All he wore was a bowstring around his waist. Sparse hairs hung from
his chin, and the vestiges of a mustache shadowed the edges of his upper lip. Under heavy
wrinkled lids, his eyes were like tiny lights, reflecting the gleam of the fire.
Yawning, he opened a cavernous mouth where yellowed teeth hung like stalagmites.
Laughter and conversation ceased as he began to chant in a voice that gave the impression
of belonging to another time and place. He possessed two voices: The one coming from his
throat was high-pitched and wrathful; and the other, coming from his belly, was deep and
soothing.
Long after everyone had retired to their hammocks, and the fires had burned down,
Puriwariwe remained crouched in front of a small fire in the middle of the clearing. He
sang in a low-keyed voice.
I got up from my hammock, and squatted next to him, trying to bring my buttocks to touch
the earth. According to the Iticoteri it was the only way one could squat for hours, and be
totally relaxed. Puriwariwe looked at me, acknowledging my gaze, then stared into space as
though I had disturbed his train of thought. He did not move and I had the odd sensation he
had fallen asleep. Then he shifted his buttocks on the ground without relaxing his legs, and
gradually began to chant once more in a voice that was but a faint murmur. I was not able to
understand a single word.
It began to rain and I returned to my hammock. The drops pattered softly onto the thatched
palm roof, creating a strange, trancelike rhythm. When I looked again toward the center of
the clearing, the old man had disappeared; and as dawn lit up the forest, I felt myself slip
into a timeless sleep.
Chapter 8
The red sunset tinted the air with a fiery glow. The sky was aflame for a few minutes before
it dissolved rapidly into darkness. It was the third day of the feast. From my hammock,
together with Etewa's and Arasuwe's children, I watched the sixty or so men, Iticoteri as
well as their guests, who without food or rest had been dancing since noon in the middle of
the clearing. To the rhythm of their own shrill shouts, to the clacking of their bows and
arrows, they turned one way, then another, stepping backward and forward, a throbbing,
never-ending beat of sound and motion, an undulating array of feathers and bodies, a blur
of crimson and black designs.
A full moon rose above the treetops, casting a radiant light over the clearing. For a moment
there was a lull in the unceasing noise and movement. Then the dancers broke out in
savage, strangled cries that filled the air with an ear-piercing sound as they flung aside their
bows and arrows.
Running inside the huts, the dancers grabbed burning logs from the hearths, and with a
frenzied violence banged them against the poles holding up the shabono. All sorts of
crawling insects scurried for safety in the palm-thatch roof before they fell like a cascade to
the ground.
Terrified that the huts might come crashing down, or that the flying embers might set the
roofs on fire, I ran outside with the children. The earth trembled under the men's stomping
feet as they trampled out all the hearths in the huts. Brandishing the lighted logs high above
their heads, they ran out into the center of the clearing, and resumed their dance with
mounting frenzy. They circled the plaza, their heads wagging back and forth like
marionettes whose strings had broken. The soft white feathers in their hair fluttered onto
their sweat-glistening shoulders.
The moon moved behind a black cloud: Only the sparks of the fiery logs illuminated the
clearing. The men's shrill cries rose to a higher pitch. Wielding their clubs overhead, they
invited the women to join in the dance.
Shouting and laughing, the women darted back and forth, expertly dodging the swinging
logs. The frenzy of the dancers mounted to a compelling intensity, converging toward a
final climax as young girls, holding clusters of yellow palm fruit in their upraised arms,
joined the crowd, their bodies swaying with sensual abandon.
I was not sure if it was Ritimi who grabbed my hand and pulled me into the dance, for in
the next instant I stood alone among the ecstatic faces whirling around me. Caught between
shadows and bodies, I tried to reach old Hayama standing in the safety of a hut, but I did
not know in which direction to move. I did not recognize the man who, brandishing a log
above his head, pushed me back amidst the dancers.
I cried out. Terror-stricken, I realized it was as if my cries were mute, exhausted in
countless echoes reverberating inside me. I felt a sharp pain on the side of my head, right
behind my ear, as I fell face down on the ground. I opened my eyes, trying to see through
the shadows thickening about me, and wondered if those frenzied feet whirling and leaping
in the air realized I had fallen amidst them. Then there was darkness, punctuated by
pinpoints of light darting in and out of my head like glowworms in the night.
I was vaguely aware of someone dragging me away from the trampling dancers to a
hammock. I forced my eyes open, but the figure hovering above me remained blurred. I felt
a pair of gentle, slightly shaky hands touch my face, and the back of my head. For an
instant I thought it was Angelica. But upon hearing that unmistakable voice coming from
the depths of his stomach, I knew it was the old shaman Puriwariwe, chanting. I tried to
focus my eyes, but his face remained distorted, as if I were seeing it through layers of
water. I wanted to ask him where he had been, for I had not seen him since the first day of
the feast, but the words were nothing but visions in my head.
I don't know whether I had been unconscious or whether I had slept, but when I awoke
Puriwariwe was no longer there. Instead I saw Etewa's face bending over mine, so close I
could have touched the red circles on his cheeks, between his brows, and at the corners of
each eye. I stretched out my arm, but there was no one there. I shut my eyes; the circles
danced inside my head like a red veil in a dark void. I shut them tighter until the image
broke into a thousand fragments. The fire had been relit: It filled the hut with a cozy
warmth that made me feel as if I were wrapped in an opaque cocoon of smoke. Dancing
shadows silhouetted against the darkness were reflected on the golden patina of gourds
hanging from the rafters.
Laughing happily, old Hayama came into the hut, and sat on the ground beside me. "I
thought you would sleep till morning." Raising both hands to my head, her fingers probed
until she found the swollen lump behind my ear. "It's big," she said. Her weathered features
expressed a distant sorrow: Her eyes held a soft gentle light.
I sat up in the fiber hammock. Only then did I realize I was not in Etewa's hut.
"Iramamowe's," Hayama said before I had a chance to ask where I was. "His hut was the
closest for Puriwariwe to bring you in after you were pushed against one of the men's
clubs."
The moon had traveled high in the sky. Its pale shimmer spilled into the clearing. The
dancing had ceased, yet an inaudible vibration still hung in the air.
Shouting, clacking their bows and arrows, a group of men positioned themselves in a
semicircle in front of the hut. Iramamowe and one of the visitors stepped into the center of
the gesticulating men. I could not tell which settlement the guest was from: I had been
unable to distinguish the various groups who had come and gone since the beginning of the
feast.
Iramamowe spread his legs in a firm stance, and raised his left arm over his head, exposing
his chest fully. "Ha, ha, ahaha, aita, aita," he shouted, tapping his foot on the ground; a
fearless cry that was meant to dare his opponent to strike him.
The young visitor adjusted his distance by measuring his arm length to Iramamowe's body.
He took several dry runs, then with his closed fist delivered one powerful blow on the left
side of Iramamowe's chest.
My body recoiled in shock. I felt nauseous as though the pain had swept through my own
chest. "Why are they fighting?" I asked Hayama.
"They aren't fighting," she said, laughing. "They want to hear how their hekuras, the life
essence that dwells inside their chests, resound. They want to hear how the hokums vibrate
with each blow."
The crowd cheered enthusiastically. The young visitor stood back, his chest heaving with
excitement, and punched Iramamowe once more. Chin arrogantly raised, eyes perfectly
steady, body stiff in defiance, Iramamowe acknowledged the cheers of the men. It was only
after the third blow that he broke his stance. For an instant his lips parted in an appreciative
grin, then set once more in a snarl of indifference and contempt. The persistent tapping of
his foot, Hayama assured me, revealed nothing other than annoyance: His adversary had
not yet struck him hard enough.
With a morbid, righteous kind of satisfaction I hoped Iramamowe felt the pain of each
blow. He deserved it, I thought. Ever since I had seen him strike his wife, I had built up a
resentment against him. Yet, as I watched, I could not help but admire the gallant way he
stood in the middle of the crowd. There was something childishly defiant in the ramrod
straightness of his back, the manner in which his bruised chest was thrust forward. His
round, flat face with its narrow forehead and flared upper lip appeared so vulnerable as he
stared at the young man in front of him. I wondered if the slight flicker of his brown eyes
betrayed that he was shaken.
With a shattering force the fourth blow landed on Iramamowe's chest. It reverberated like
the rocks that tumbled down the river during a storm.
"I believe I heard his hekuras," I said, certain Iramamowe's rib had been broken.
"He's waiteri," the Iticoteri and their guests shouted in unison. With rapt expressions on
their faces they bounced up and down on their haunches, clacking their bows and arrows
over their heads.
"Yes. He is a brave one," Hayama repeated, her eyes fixed on Iramamowe, who, satisfied
that his hekuras had resounded potently, stood erect amidst the cheering men, his bruised
chest puffed up with pride.
Silencing the onlookers, the headman Arasuwe stepped toward his brother. "Now you take
Iramamowe's blow," he said to the young man who had delivered the four punches.
The visitor positioned himself in the same defiant stance in front of Iramamowe. Blood
spilled from the young man's mouth as he collapsed to the ground after receiving
Iramamowe's third blow.
Iramamowe jumped in the air, then began to dance around the fallen man. Sweat glistened
on his face, on the strained muscles of his neck and shoulders. But his voice sounded clear,
vibrant with joy, as he shouted, "Ai ai aiaiaiai, aiai!"
Two of the visiting women carried the injured man into the empty hammock next to where
Hayama and I sat. One of them cried: The other bent over the man and began to suck blood
and saliva from his mouth until his breath came in slow, measured gasps.
Iramamowe challenged another of the guests to strike him. After receiving the first punch
he knelt on the ground, from where he dared his opponent to hit him once more. He spat
blood after the next blow. The guest got down on his haunches facing Iramamowe.
Wrapping their arms around each other, they embraced.
"You hit well," Iramamowe said, his voice a barely audible whisper. "My hekuras are full
of life, potent and happy. Our blood has flown. This is good. Our sons will be strong. Our
gardens and the fruits in the forest will ripen to sweetness."
The guest voiced similar thoughts. Vowing eternal friendship, he promised Iramamowe a
machete he had acquired from a group of Indians who had settled near the big river.
"I have to watch this one more closely," Hayama said, walking out of the hut. Her youngest
son was one of the men who had stepped into the circle for the next round of ritual blows.
I did not want to remain with the injured visitor in Iramamowe's hut. The two women who
had brought him in had left to ask the shaman from their own group to prepare some
medicine that would ease the pain in the man's chest.
My head began to spin as I stood up. Slowly I walked through the empty huts until I
reached Etewa's. I stretched in my cotton hammock. An eerie silence closed in on me as if I
were falling into a light faint.
I was awakened by angry shouts. Someone said, "Etewa, you have slept with my woman
without my permission." The voice was so close it was as if he had spoken into my ear.
Startled, I sat up. A group of men and giggling women had gathered in front of the hut.
Etewa, standing perfectly still in the middle of the crowd, his face an unreadable mask, did
not deny the charge. Suddenly he shouted, "You and your family have eaten like hungry
dogs for the last three days." It was a deplorable accusation; visitors were given whatever
they asked; for during a feast the hosts' gardens and hunting territory were at their guests'
disposal. To be insulted in such a manner implied that the man had taken advantage of his
privileged status. "Ritimi, get me my nabrushi," Etewa shouted, scowling at the angry
young man in front of him.
Sobbing, Ritimi ran into the hut, picked up the club, and without looking at her husband
handed the four-foot-long stick to him. "I can't watch," she said, throwing herself into my
hammock. I put my arms around her, trying to comfort her. Had it not been that she was so
distressed I would have laughed. Not in the least concerned with Etewa's infidelity, Ritimi
was afraid the night might end with a serious fight. Watching the two angry men shout at
each other, and the crowd's excited reaction, I could not help but be alarmed in turn.
"Hit me on the head," the enraged visitor demanded. "Hit me, if you are a man. Let's see if
we can laugh together again. Let's see if my anger passes."
"We are both angry," Etewa shouted with insolent vigor, hefting the nabrushi in his hand.
"We must appease our wrath." Then, without further ado, he delivered a solid whack on the
man's shaven tonsure.
Blood gushed from the wound. Slowly it spread over the man's face until it was covered
like some grotesque red mask. His legs shook, almost buckling under him. But he did not
fall.
"Hit me and we'll be friends again," Etewa shouted belligerently, silencing the aroused
crowd. He leaned on his club, lowered his head, and waited. When the man struck him,
Etewa was momentarily dazed; blood flowed down his brow and lashes, forcing him to
close his eyes. The explosive yells of the men broke the silence, a chorus of approving
shouts demanding they hit each other again.
With a mixture of fascination and disgust I watched the two men facing each other. Their
muscles were drawn tightly, the veins in their necks distended, their eyes bright, as if
rejuvenated by the raging flow of blood. Their faces, set in contemptuous red masks,
betrayed no pain as they stepped around one another like two injured cocks.
With the back of his hand Etewa wiped the blood obstructing his vision, then spat. Lifting
his club, he let it fall on his opponent's head, who without uttering a sound collapsed on the
ground.
Clicking their tongues, their eyes a bit out of focus, the spectators emitted fearsome cries. I
was certain a fight would break out as the whole shabono filled with their earpiercing yells.
I held on to Ritimi's arm, and was surprised that her tear-stained face was set in a
complacent, almost cheerful expression. She explained that she could tell by the tone of the
men's shouts that they were no longer concerned with the initial insults. All they were
interested in was to witness the power of each man's hekuras. There were no winners or
losers. If a warrior fell, all it meant was that his hekuras were not strong enough at the
moment.
One of the onlookers emptied a water-filled calabash on the prostrate guest, pulled his ears,
wiped the blood from his face. Then, helping him up, he handed the half-dazed man his
club, and urged him to hit Etewa once more on the head. The man had barely enough
strength to lift the heavy stick; instead of landing on Etewa's skull, it struck him in the
middle of the chest.
Etewa fell to his knees; blood spilled from his mouth, over his lips, chin, and throat, down
his chest and thighs, a red trail seeping into the earth. "How well you hit," Etewa said in a
strangled voice. "Our blood has flown. We are no longer troubled. We have calmed our
wrath."
Ritimi went to Etewa. Sighing loudly, I lay back in my hammock and closed my eyes. I had
seen enough blood for the night. I probed the swollen area on my head, wondering if I had a
slight concussion.
I almost fell from my hammock as someone held on to the liana rope tying it to one of the
poles in the hut. Startled, I looked up into Etewa's bloodied face. Either he did not see me,
or was beyond caring where he rested, for he just slumped on top of me. The odor of blood,
warm and pungent, mingled with the acrid smell of his skin. Repelled and fascinated, I
could not help but stare at the open gash on his skull, still bleeding, and his swollen purple
chest.
I was wondering how I could extricate my legs from under his weight when Ritimi stepped
into the hut carrying a water-filled gourd, which she heated over the fire.
Expertly she lifted Etewa halfway up, and motioned me to slip behind him in the hammock
so that she could prop him against my raised knees. Gently, she washed his face and chest
clean.
Etewa was perhaps twenty-five, yet with his hair clinging damply to his forehead, and his
lips slightly parted, he looked as helpless as a child in sleep. It occurred to me that he might
die of internal injuries.
"He will be well tomorrow," Ritimi said as if she had guessed my thoughts. Softly she
began to laugh: Her laughter had a ring of childishly secret delight. "It's good for blood to
flow. His hekuras are strong. He is waiteri."
Etewa opened his eyes, pleased to hear Ritimi's praise. He mumbled something
unintelligible as he gazed into my face.
"Yes. He is waiteri," I agreed with Ritimi.
Tutemi arrived shortly with a dark hot brew.
"What is that?" I asked.
"Medicine," Tutemi said, smiling. She stuck her finger in the concoction, then put it against
my lips. "Puriwariwe made it from roots and magical plants." A gleam of contentment
shone in Tutemi's eyes as she forced Etewa to drink the bitter-tasting brew. Blood had
flown: She was convinced she would bear a strong, healthy son.
Ritimi examined my legs, which were cut and bruised from being dragged across the
clearing by Puriwariwe, and she washed them with the remaining warm water. I lay down
in Etewa's uncomfortable fiber hammock.
The moon, circled by a yellow haze, had moved until it was almost over the horizon of
trees. A few men were still dancing and singing in the clearing: Then a cloud hid the moon,
obscuring everything in sight. Only the sound of voices, no longer shrill but a gentle
murmur, told that the men were still there. The moon revealed itself once more, a pale light
illuminating the tops of the trees, and the brown-skinned figures materialized against the
darkness, shadows of long bodies giving substance to the soft clacking of bows and arrows,
Some of the men sang until a rim of light began to appear over the trees to the east. Dark
purple clouds the color of Etewa's bruised chest covered the sky. Dew shone on the leaves,
on the fringe of the palm fronds hanging around the huts. The voices began to fade, drifting
away on the chilly breeze of dawn.
PART THREE
Chapter 9
Planting and sowing was primarily a man's task, yet most women accompanied their
husbands, fathers, and brothers whenever they went to work in the gardens in the mornings.
Besides keeping them company, the women helped weed, or took the opportunity to collect
firewood if new trees had been felled.
For several weeks I had gone with Etewa, Ritimi, and Tutemi to their plots. The long,
arduous hours spent weeding seemed to be wasted, for there never was any improvement to
be seen. The sun and rain favored the growth of all species impartially, without recognizing
human preferences.
Every household had their own area of land separated by the trunks of felled trees. Etewa's
garden was next to Arasuwe's, who cultivated the largest area among the Iticoteri, for it was
from the headman's plot that guests were fed at a feast.
At first I had recognized nothing but plantains, several kinds of bananas, and various palm
trees scattered throughout the gardens. The palms were also purposely cultivated for their
fruit, each tree belonging to the individual who planted it. I had been surprised to discover
among the tangle of weeds an assortment of edible roots, such as manioc and sweet
potatoes, and a variety of gourd-bearing vines, cotton, tobacco, and magical plants. Also
growing in the gardens as well as around the shabono were the pink-flowered and redpodded
trees from which the onoto paste was made.
Clusters of the red spiny pods were cut down, shelled, and the bright crimson seeds,
together with the pulpy flesh surrounding them, were placed in a large water-filled
calabash. As it was stirred and crushed, the onoto was boiled for a whole afternoon. After it
had cooled during the night, the semi-solid mass was wrapped in perforated layers of
plantain leaves, then tied to one of the rafters in the hut to dry. A few days later the red
paste was transferred to small gourds, ready for use.
Ritimi, Tutemi, and Etewa each had their own patches of tobacco and magical plants in
Etewa's garden. Like everyone else's tobacco plots, they were fenced off with sticks and
sharpened bones to discourage intruders. Tobacco was never taken without permission;
quarrels ensued whenever it was. Ritimi had pointed out several of her magical plants to
me. Some were used as aphrodisiacs and protective agents: Others were employed for
malevolent purposes. Etewa never talked about his magical plants, and Ritimi and Tutemi
pretended they did not know anything about them.
Once I watched Etewa dig up a bulbous root. The following day, before leaving to hunt, he
rubbed his feet and legs with the mashed-up root. For our evening meal that day we had
armadillo meat. "What a powerful plant," I had commented. Puzzled, he had regarded me
for a long time, then, grinning, said, "Adoma roots protect one from snake bites."
On another occasion, as I was sitting in the garden with little Sisiwe, listening to his
detailed explanation concerning the variety of edible ants, we saw his father dig up another
of his roots. Etewa crushed the root, mixed its sap with onoto, then rubbed the substance
over his entire body. "A peccary [* peccary- nocturnal gregarious pig-like wild animals of
North America and South America] will cross my father's path," Sisiwe whispered. "I know
by the kind of root he used. For every animal there is a magical plant."
"Even for monkeys?" I asked.
"Monkeys are frightened by terrifying yells," Sisiwe said knowingly. "Paralyzed, the
monkeys can no longer run away and the men can shoot them."
One morning, almost hidden behind the tangled mass of calabash vines and weeds, I caught
sight of Ritimi. I could only see her head rising behind the woody stems, pointed leaves,
and clusters of white, bell-shaped flowers of the manioc plants. She seemed to be talking to
herself; I could not hear what she was saying, but her lips moved incessantly, as if she were
reciting some incantation. I wondered if she was charming her tobacco plants to grow taster
or whether she was actually intending to help herself to some from Etewa's patch, which
was next to hers.
Surreptitiously, Ritimi edged her way toward the middle of her own tobacco plot. Her air of
urgency was unmistakable as she snapped branches and leaves. Looking around, she stuffed
them into her basket, then covered them with banana fronds. Smiling, she rose, hesitated for
an instant, then walked toward me.
I looked up in feigned surprise as I felt her shadow above me.
Ritimi placed her basket on the ground and sat next to me. I was bursting with curiosity, yet
I knew it would be futile to ask what she had been doing.
"Don't touch the bundle in my basket," she said after a moment, unable to suppress her
laughter. "I know you were watching me."
I felt myself blushing and smiled. "Did you,snatch some of Etewa's tobacco?"
"No," she said in mock horror. "He knows his leaves so well he would notice if one were
missing."
"I thought I saw you in his plot," I said casually.
Lifting the banana fronds from the basket Ritimi said, "I was in my own patch. Look, I took
some branches of oko-shiki, a magical plant," she whispered. "I will make a powerful
concoction."
"Are you going to cure someone?"
"Cure! Don't you know that only the shapori cures?" Tilting her head slightly to one side,
she deliberated before she continued. "I'm going to bewitch that woman who had
intercourse with Etewa at the feast," she said, smiling broadly.
"Maybe you should also prepare a potion for Etewa," I said, looking into her face. Her
change of expression took me by surprise. Her mouth was set in a straight line; her eyes
were narrowly focused on me. "After all, he was as guilty as the woman," I mumbled
apologetically, feeling uneasy under her hard scrutiny.
"Didn't you see how shamelessly that woman taunted him?" Ritimi said reproachfully.
"Didn't you see how vulgarly all those visiting women behaved?" Ritimi sighed, almost
comically, then added with unconcealed disappointment, "Sometimes you are quite stupid."
I didn't know what to say. I was convinced that Etewa was as guilty as the woman. For
want of anything better, I smiled. The first time I discovered Etewa in a compromising
situation had been quite accidental. As everyone else did, I left the hut at dawn every day to
relieve myself. I always strayed a bit farther into the forest, beyond the area set aside for
human evacuation. One morning I was startled by a soft moan. Believing it was a wounded
animal, I crawled, as quietly as I could, toward the noise. Totally surprised, I could only
stare as I saw Etewa on top of Iramamowe's youngest wife. He looked into my face,
smiling sheepishly, but did not stop moving on top o£ the woman.
Later that day Etewa offered me some of the honey he had found in the forest. Honey was a
rare delicacy and was hardly ever shared with the same willingness as other foods were. In
fact, most of the time honey was consumed at the spot where it was found. I thanked Etewa
for the treat, assuming I was being bribed.
Sugars were something I constantly craved. I was no longer squeamish about consuming
the honey together with wax combs, bees, maggots, pupae, and pollen the way the Iticoteri
did. Whenever Etewa brought honey to the settlement, I would sit next to him and stare
longingly at the runny paste studded with bees in varying stages of the metamorphic
process until he offered me some. It never occured to me that he believed I had finally
learned that to eye something one desired, or to ask for it outright, was considered proper
behavior. Once, hoping to remind him that I knew of his philandering, I had asked him if he
was not afraid to get hit on the head again by some enraged husband.
Etewa had looked at me in absolute astonishment. "It's because you don't know betterotherwise
you wouldn't say such things." His tone was distant, the look in his eyes haughty
as he turned toward a group of young boys engaged in sharpening pieces of bamboo that
were to be used as arrowheads.
There were other occasions, not always accidental, when I encountered Etewa in similar
circumstances. It soon became obvious that dawn was not only a time for attending to the
baser bodily functions, but provided the safest opportunity for extramarital activity. I
became greatly interested in who was cuckolding whom. Cueing themselves the evening
before, the involved parties would disappear at dawn in the thicket. A few hours later, very
casually, they returned by different routes, often carrying nuts, fruits, honey, sometimes
even firewood. Some husbands reacted more violently than others upon finding out about
their women's doings- they beat them, as I had seen Iramamowe do. Others, besides beating
their wives, demanded a club duel with the male culprit, which sometimes ended in a larger
fight that others joined.
Ritimi's words cut into my reveries, "Why are you laughing?"
"Because you are right,"" I said. "Sometimes I'm quite stupid." It suddenly dawned on me
that Ritimi knew of Etewa's activities- probably everyone in the shabono was aware of
what was going on. No doubt it had been a coincidence when Etewa had offered me the
honey that first time. Only I had examined the event with suspicion, believing all the time I
was his accomplice.
Ritimi put her arms around my neck and planted smacking kisses on my cheek, assuring me
that I was not stupid- only very ignorant. She explained that as long as she knew with
whom Etewa was involved she was not greatly concerned about his amorous pursuits. She
was by no means pleased by it, but believed she had some kind of control if it was with
someone from the shabono. What distressed her was the possibility Etewa might take a
third wife from some other settlement.
"How are you going to bewitch that woman?" I asked. "Are you going to make the
concoction yourself?"
Standing up, Ritimi smiled with obvious satisfaction. "If I tell you now, the magic won't
work." She paused, a quizzical expression in her eyes. "I'll tell you about it when I have
bewitched the woman. Maybe someday you too will need to know how to bewitch
someone."
"Are you going to kill her?"
"No. I'm not that courageous," she said. "The woman will have pains in her back until she
has a miscarriage."
Ritimi slung the basket over her shoulders, then headed toward one of the few trees left
standing near her tobacco patch. "Come, I need to rest before bathing in the river."
I stood for a moment to ease my cramped muscles, then followed her. Ritimi sat on the
ground, resting her back against the massive tree trunk. Its leaves were like open hands
between us and the sun, providing a cool shade. The earth, padded with leaves, was soft. I
lay my head on Ritimi's thigh, and watched the sky- so blue, so pale, it seemed transparent.
The breeze rustled through the cane brush that grew behind us, gently, as if reluctant to
impose itself on the midmorning stillness.
"The bump is gone," Ritimi said, running her fingers through my hair. "And there are no
scars left on your legs," she added mockingly.
I agreed drowsily. Ritimi had laughed at my fear of getting sick from what she considered
an insignificant injury. Having been pulled to safety by Puriwariwe was insurance enough
that I would be well, she had assured me. However, I had been afraid that the cuts on my
legs would become infected and I had insisted she wash them with boiled water every day.
Old Hayama, as an added precaution, had rubbed the powder of burnt ants' nest on the
wounds, claiming that it was a natural disinfectant. I had no ill effects from the stinging
powder: The cuts healed quickly.
Through half-closed lids I gazed at the airy spaciousness of the gardens in front of me.
Startled by shouts coming from the far end of the gardens, I opened my eyes. Iramamowe
seemed to have materialized from beneath the banana fronds on his way toward the sky.
Spellbound, I followed his movements as he worked his way up the spiny trunk of a rasha
palm. So as not to hurt himself with the thorns, he worked with two pairs of crossed poles
tied together, which he placed on the trunk one at a time. Relaxed, one motion leading to
the next without a noticeable break, he alternated between standing on a pair of crossed
poles and lifting the other set to place it higher on the trunk, until he reached the yellow
clusters of rasha, at least sixty feet above the ground. For a moment he disappeared under
the palm fronds that made a silvery arc against the sky. Iramamowe cut the drupes, tied the
heavy clumps on a long vine, then eased them to the ground. Slowly, he worked his way
down, vanishing in the greenness of banana leaves.
"I like the boiled drupes; they taste like ..." I said, then realized I did not know the word for
potato. I sat up. With her head to the side, her mouth slightly open, Ritimi was sound
asleep. "Let's go bathe," I said, tickling her nose with a grass blade.
Ritimi stared at me; she had the disoriented look of someone just awakened from a dream.
Leisurely she rose to her feet, yawning and stretching like a cat. "Yes, let's go," she said,
fastening the basket on her back. "The water will wash my dream away."
"Did you have a bad one?"
She looked at me gravely, then brushed the hair off her forehead. "You were alone on a
mountain," she said vaguely, as if she were trying to recollect her dream. "You weren't
frightened, yet you were crying." Ritimi gazed at me intently, then added, "Then you woke
me."
As we turned into the path leading to the river, Etewa came running after us. "Get some
pishaansi leaves," he said to Ritimi. He turned to me. "You come with me."
I followed him through the newly cleared area of forest where fresh plantain suckers had
already been planted between the rubble of felled trees, the trimmed leaf sheaths exposed
above the ground. They were spaced from ten to twelve feet apart, allowing for the future
full-grown plants to overlap leaves, but not to shade one another. Only a few days ago,
Etewa, Iramamowe, and other close kin of the headman Arasuwe had helped him separate
the suckers from the large basal corm of the plantains. On a contraption made with vines
and thick leaves, fitted with a tumpline, they transported the heavy suckers to the new site.
"Did you find any honey?" I asked expectantly.
"No honey," Etewa said, "but something just as delicious." He pointed to where Arasuwe
and his two oldest sons stood. They were taking turns at kicking an old banana tree.
Hundreds of whitish, fat larvae fell out from between the multilayered green trunk.
As soon as Ritimi returned with the pishaansi leaves from the forest, the boys picked up the
wriggling worms and put them on the sturdy wide leaves. Arasuwe lit a small fire. One of
his sons held an elliptically-shaped piece of wood with his feet firmly planted on the
ground while Arasuwe twirled the drill between his palms with an astounding speed. The
ignited wood dust set fire to the termites' nest over which dry twigs and sticks were added.
Ritimi cooked the larvae for only a moment until the pishaansi leaves were black and
brittle. Opening one of the bundles, Etewa wet his forefinger with saliva, rolled it in the
roasted grub, then offered it to me. "It tastes good," he insisted as I turned my face away.
Shrugging, he sucked his own finger clean.
Mumbling between mouthfuls, Ritimi urged me to give them a try. "How can you say you
don't like them if you haven't even tasted them?"
With thumb and forefinger I placed one of the grayish, still soft grubs into my mouth. They
are no different from escargot, I told myself, or cooked oysters. But when I tried to swallow
the grub, it remained stuck to my tongue. I took it out again, waited till I had enough saliva,
then swallowed the worm as if it were a pill. "In the morning, all I can eat is plantain," I
said as Etewa pushed a bundle in front of me.
"You have worked in the garden," he said. "You have to eat. When there is no meat it is
good to eat these." He reminded me that I had liked the ants and centipedes he had offered
me on various occasions.
Looking into his expectant face, I could not bring myself to say that I had not liked them
one bit, even though the centipedes had tasted like deep-fried vegetable tidbits. Reluctantly
I forced myself to swallow a few more of the roasted grubs.
Ritimi and I followed behind the men on our way to the river. Children splashing in the
water sang about a fat tapir that had fallen into a deep pool and drowned. Men and women
were rubbing themselves with leaves; their bodies glistened in the sun, golden and smooth.
Sparkling droplets on the tips of their straight hair reflected the light like diamond beads.
Old Hayama beckoned me to sit next to her on a large boulder at the edge of the water. I
believe I had become Ritimi's grandmother's special charge, and she had taken it as a
personal challenge to fatten me up. Like the children in the shabono, who were well fed so
they would grow healthy and strong, old Hayama made sure I had plenty to snack on at all
hours of the day. She indulged my insatiable appetite for sugars. Whenever someone found
the sweet, thick, light-colored honey produced by nonstinging bees- the only kind given to
the children- old Hayama made sure I was given at least a taste. If honey of the stinging
black bees was brought to the shabono, Hayama also secured me some. Only adults partook
of this kind, for the Iticoteri believed it caused nausea and even death to children. The
Iticoteri were certain no harm would result if I ate both kinds, for they were unable to
decide whether I was an adult or a child.
"Eat these," old Hayama said, offering me a few sopaa fruit. Greenish yellow, they were the
size of lemons. I cracked them open with a stone (I had already broken a tooth trying to
open nuts and fruits as the Iticoteri did) and sucked the sweet white pulp: The small brown
seeds I spat out. The sticky juice gummed up my fingers and mouth.
Little Texoma climbed on my back, perching the small capuchin monkey she carried with
her day and night on my head. The pet wrapped its long tail around my neck, so tightly I
almost choked. One furry hand held on to my hair while the other swung in front of my
face, striving to snatch away my fruit. Afraid to swallow monkey hair and lice, I tried to
shake myself free. But Texoma and her pet shrieked with delight, believing I was playing a
game. Lowering my feet in the water, I tried to slip my T-shirt over my head. Caught
unawares, child and monkey jumped away.
The children pulled me down to the sand, tumbling beside me. Giggling, they began to
walk, one by one, on my back, and I gave myself up to the pleasure of their small, cool feet
on my aching muscles. In vain I had tried to convince the women to massage my shoulders,
neck, and back after I had weeded for hours in the gardens. Whenever I had tried to show
them how good it felt, they gave me to understand that although they liked being touched,
massaging was something only the shapori did when a person was ill or bewitched.
Fortunately they had no objections to letting the children walk on my back. To the Iticoteri
it was quite inconceivable that someone could actually derive pleasure from such a barbaric
act.
Tutemi sat next to me in the sand and began to unwrap the pishaansi bundle Ritimi had
given her. Her pregnant belly and swollen breasts seemed to be held in place by the taut
stretched skin. She never complained of aches or nausea; neither did she have any cravings.
In fact, there were so many food taboos a pregnant woman had to obey that I often
wondered how they bore healthy babies. They were not allowed to eat large game. Their
only source of protein were insects, nuts, larvae, fish, and certain kinds of small birds.
"When will you have the baby?" I asked, caressing the side of her stomach.
Knitting her brows in concentration, Tutemi deliberated for a while. "This moon comes and
goes; another comes and goes, then one more comes and before it disappears, I will bear a
healthy son."
I wondered if she was right. By her calculations that meant in three months. To me she
looked as though she were about to give birth any day now.
"There are fish upriver- the kind you like," Tutemi said, smiling at me.
"I will take a quick swim, then I'll go with you to catch them."
"Take me swimming with you," little Texoma pleaded.
"You have to leave your monkey behind," Tutemi said.
Texoma perched the capuchin on Tutemi's head and came running after me. Shrieking with
pleasure, she lay on my back in the water, her hands holding on to my shoulders. I stretched
my legs and arms slowly and fully with each stroke until we reached a pool at the opposite
bank.
"Do you want to dive to the bottom?" I asked her.
"I do, I do," she cried, nuzzling her small wet nose against my cheek. "I'll keep my eyes
open, I'll not breathe, I'll hold on tight without choking you."
The water was not very deep. The blurred grayish, vermilion, and white pebbles resting in
the amber sand shimmered brightly in spite of the trees shading the pool. I felt Texoma's
hands tugging at my neck; quickly I swam to the surface.
"Come out," Tutemi shouted as soon as she saw our heads. "We're waiting for you." She
pointed to the women next to her.
"I'll go back to the shabono now," Ritimi said. "If you see Kamosiwe give this to him." She
handed me the last of the larvae bundles.
I followed the women and several men on the well-trodden trail. Shortly we encountered
Kamosiwe, standing in the middle of the path. Reclining against his bow, he appeared to be
fast asleep. I placed the bundle at his feet. The old man opened his one good eye; the bright
sun made him squint, grotesquely disfiguring his scarred face. He picked up the larvae:
Slowly he began to eat, shifting from one foot to the other.
Following Kamosiwe as we climbed a small hill thick with growth, I marveled at the
uncanny agility with which he moved. He never looked where he walked, yet always
avoided the roots and thorns on the trail.
Slight, shrunken with age, he was the oldest-looking man I had ever seen. His hair was
neither black, gray, or white, but an indistinctly colored woolly mop that apparently had not
been combed for years. Yet it was short, as if cut periodically. It probably had stopped
growing, I decided, like the stubbles on his chin that were always the same length. The
scars on his wrinkled face were caused by a blow from a club that had taken out one of his
eyes. When he spoke his voice was but a murmur, the meaning of which I had to guess.
At night he would often stand in the middle of the clearing, speaking for hours on end.
Children crouched at his feet, feeding the fire that had been lit for him. His spent voice
carried a strength, a tenderness that seemed at odds with his looks. There was always a
feeling of urgent necessity in his words, a sense of warning, of enchantment as they
scattered into the night. "There are words of knowledge, of tradition, preserved in the
memory of this old man," Milagros had explained. It was only after the feast that he
mentioned that Kamosiwe was Angelica's father.
"You mean he is your grandfather?" I had asked in disbelief.
Nodding, Milagros had added, "When I was born, Kamosiwe was the headman of the
Iticoteri."
Kamosiwe lived by himself in one of the huts close to the entrance of the shabono. He
neither hunted nor worked in the gardens any longer; yet he was never without food or
firewood. He accompanied the women to the gardens or into the forest when they went to
collect nuts, berries, and wood. While the women worked, Kamosiwe stood watch, leaning
against his bow, a banana leaf stuck on the tip of his arrow to shade his face from the sun.
Sometimes he waved his hand in the air- perhaps at a bird, perhaps at a cloud, which he
believed was the soul of an Iticoteri. Sometimes he laughed to himself. But mostly he stood
still, either dreaming or listening to the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves.
Although he had never acknowledged my presence among his people, I often caught his
one eye on me. Sometimes I had the distinct feeling he purposely sought my presence, for
he always accompanied the group of women I was with. And at dusk, when I would seek
the solitude of the river, he would be there, squatting not too far from me.
We stopped at a point where the river widened between the banks. The dark rocks scattered
on the yellow sand appeared as if someone had purposely arranged them in a symmetrical
order. The shadowed still water was like a dark mirror reflecting the aerial roots of the giant
matapalos. Coming down from a height of ninety feet, they choked and constricted the tree.
It was on one of its branches, as a tiny seed dropped by a bird, that the deadly roots had first
germinated. I could not tell what kind of a ' tree it had been- perhaps a ceiba, for the
branches bending in tragic grandeur were full of thorns.
Equipped with branches from the arapuri tree growing nearby, some of the women waded
into the shallow river. Their piercing, shrill cries shattered the stillness as they beat the
water. The frightened fish took refuge under the rotten leaves on the opposite bank, where
the other women caught them with their bare hands. Biting off their heads, they flung the
still wriggling fish into the flat baskets on the sand.
"Come with me," one of the headman's wives said. Taking me by the hand, she led me
further upriver. "Let's try our luck with the men's arrows."
The men and young boys who had accompanied us were circled by a group of shrieking
women demanding they lend them their weapons. Fishing was considered a woman's
activity: Men only went to laugh and jeer. It was the only time they allowed the women to
use their bows and arrows. Some men handed their weapons to the women, then quickly
ran to the safety of the bank, afraid of getting hit accidentally. They were delighted that
none of them made a kill.
"Try," Arasuwe said, handing me his bow.
I had taken archery lessons at school and felt certain of my skill. However, as soon as I held
his bow I knew this was impossible. I could barely draw the bow; my arm shook
uncontrollably as I released the short arrow. I tried repeatedly, but not once did I hit a fish.
"What a bold way to shoot," old Kamosiwe said, handing me a smaller bow belonging to
one of Iramamowe's sons. The boy did not complain but glowered at me sullenly. At his age
no man would willingly hand his weapon to a woman.
"Try again," Kamosiwe urged. His one eye shone with a strange intensity.
Without the slightest hesitation I drew the bow once more, aiming the arrow at the
shimmering silvery body that for an instant seemed motionless under the surface. I felt the
tension of the drawn bow suddenly relax; the arrow released effortlessly. I distinctly heard
the sharp sound of the arrow hitting the water and then saw a trail of blood. Cheering, the
women retrieved the arrow-pierced fish. It was no bigger than a medium-sized trout. I
returned the weapon to the boy, who stared at me with astonished admiration.
I looked for old Kamosiwe, but he was gone.
"I will make you a small bow," Arasuwe said, "and slender arrows- the kind used for
shooting fish."
The men and women had gathered around me. "Did you really shoot the fish?" one of the
men asked. "Try it again. I didn't see it."
"She did, she did," Arasuwe's wife assured him, showing him the trophy.
"Ahahahaha," the men exclaimed.
"Where did you learn to shoot with a bow and arrow?" Arasuwe asked.
As best as I could, I attempted to explain what a school was. Watching Arasuwe's puzzled
eyes, I wished I had said that my father had taught me. Explaining something that required
more than a few sentences at a time could be a frustrating experience, not only for me, but
for my listeners as well. It was not always a matter of knowing the right words: Rather the
difficulty stemmed from the fact that certain words did not exist in their language. The
more I talked, the more troubled Arasuwe's expression became. Frowning with
disappointment, he insisted I explain why I knew how to use the bow and arrow. I wished
Milagros had not gone to visit another settlement.
"I know of whites who are good marksmen with a gun," Arasuwe said. "But I have never
seen a white use the bow and arrow skillfully."
I felt a need to belittle the fact that I had actually hit a fish, alleging that it was sheer luck,
which it was. However, Arasuwe kept insisting that I knew how to use the Indians'
weapons. Even Kamosiwe had noticed the way I held the bow, he said loudly.
I believe that somehow I got the idea of school across, for they insisted I tell them what else
I had been taught. The men laughed outrageously upon hearing that the way I had decorated
my notebook was something I had learned at school. "You haven't been taught properly,"
Arasuwe said with conviction. "Your designs were very poor."
"Do you know how to make machetes?" one of the men asked.
"You need hundreds of people for that," I said. "Machetes are made in a factory." The
harder I tried to make them understand, the more tongue-tied I became. "Only men make
machetes," I finally said, pleased to have found an explanation that satisfied them.
"What else did you learn?" Arasuwe asked.
I wished I had some gadget with me, such as a tape recorder, a flashlight, or some such
thing, to impress them with. Then I remembered the gymnastics I had practiced for several
years. "I can jump through the air," I said off-hand. Clearing off a square area of the sandy
beach, I placed four of the fish-filled baskets in each of its corners. "No one can step into
this space." Standing in the middle of my arena, I gazed at the curious faces around me.
They broke into hilarious guffaws as they watched me do a series of stretch exercises.
Although the sand did not have the springiness of a floor exercise mat, I was at least
comforted by the thought that I would not hurt myself if I missed my footing. I did a couple
of handstands, cartwheels, front and back walkovers, then a forward and backward
somersault. I did not land with the grace of an accomplished gymnast, but I was pleased by
the admiring faces around me.
"What strange things you were taught," Arasuwe said. "Do it again."
"One can only do it once." I sat on the sand to catch my breath. Even if I had wanted to I
could not repeat my performance.
The men and women came closer, their intent eyes fixed on me. "What else can you do?"
one of them asked.
For an instant I was at a loss; I thought I had done plenty. After a moment's consideration, I
said, "I can sit on my head."
Laughter shook their bodies until tears rolled down their cheeks. "Sit on the head," they
repeated, each time bursting into new peals of laughter.
I flattened my forearms on the ground, placed my forehead on my intertwined palms, and
slowly lifted my body upward. Sure of my balance, I crossed my upraised legs. The
laughter stopped. Arasuwe lay flat on the ground, his face close to mine. He smiled,
crinkling the corners of his eyes. "White girl, I don't know what to think of you, but I know
if I walk with you through the forest, the monkeys will stop to see you. Enchanted, they
will sit still to watch you, and I will shoot them." He touched my face with his large
calloused hand. "Sit on your buttocks again. Your face is red, as if it were painted with
onoto. I'm afraid your eyes will fall out of your head."
Back in the shabono, Tutemi placed one of the bundles of fish, cooked in pishaansi leaves,
in front of me on the ground. Fish was my favorite food. To everyone's surprise, I preferred
it to armadillo, peccary, or monkey meat. The pishaansi leaves and the salty solution
derived from the ashes of the kurori tree added a spiciness that greatly enhanced its natural
flavor.
"Did your father want you to learn to use the bow and arrow?" Arasuwe asked, squatting
next to me. Before I had a chance to answer, he continued, "Had he wanted a boy when you
were born?"
"I don't think so. He was very pleased when I was born. He already had two sons."
Arasuwe opened the bundle in front of him. Silently he shifted the fish toward the middle
of the leaves, as if he were pondering a mystery for which he had no adequate words. He
motioned me to take some of his food. With two fingers and a thumb, I lifted a large portion
of fish into my mouth. As was proper, I licked the juice dribbling down my arm and when I
ran into a spine I spat it on the ground, without spitting out any of the flaky meat.
"Why did you learn to shoot arrows?" Arasuwe asked in a compelling tone.
Without thinking I answered, "Maybe something in me knew I was to come here someday."
"You should have known that girls don't use the bow and arrow." He smiled at me briefly,
then began to eat.
Chapter 10
The soft patter of rain and the voices of men singing outside the hut woke me from my
afternoon nap. Shadows began to lengthen and the wind played with the palm fronds
hanging over the roofs. Sounds and presences filled the huts all at once. Fires were stoked.
Soon everything smelled of smoke, of dampness, of food and wet dogs. There were men
chanting outside, oblivious to the drops pecking at their backs and at their masklike faces.
Their eyes, watery from the epena, were fixed on the distant clouds, open wide to the spirits
of the forest.
I walked out into the rain to the river. The heavy drops drumming on the ceiba leaves
awakened the tiny frogs hiding under the tall grass blades that grew along the bank. I sat
down at the edge of the water. Unaware of time passing, I watched the concentric circles of
rain spreading over the river, pink flowers drifting by like forsaken dreams of another
place. The sky darkened; the outline of the clouds began to blur as they merged into each
other. The trees turned into a single mass. Leaves lost their distinctive shapes, becoming
indistinguishable from the evening sky.
I heard a whimpering sound behind me; I turned around but saw only the faintest gleam of
rain on the leaves. Seized by an inexplicable apprehension, I ascended the trail leading to
the shabono. At night I was never sure of anything; the river, the forest were like presences
I could only feel but never understand. I slipped on the muddy path, stubbing my toe on a
gnarled root.
Once more I heard a soft whimpering sound. It reminded me of the mournful cries of
Iramamowe's hunting dog, which he had shot in a fit of rage with a poisoned arrow during a
hunt when the animal had barked inopportunely. The injured dog had returned to the
settlement and hid outside the wooden palisade, where it had whined for hours until
Arasuwe put an end to its suffering with another arrow.
I called softly. The cries stopped and then I distinctly heard an agonized moan. Maybe it's
true that there are forest spirits, I thought, straightening up. The Iticoteri claimed that there
were beings who cross a tenuous boundary that separates animal from man. These creatures
call the Indians at night, luring them to their deaths. I stifled a cry. It seemed as if a shape
loomed from the dark- some concealed figure that moved among the trees only a pace from
where I stood. I sat down again in an effort to conceal myself. I heard a faint breathing: It
was more like a sighing, accompanied by a rattling, choking sound. Through my head
rushed the stories of revenge, of bloody raids the men were so fond of talking about at
night. In particular I remembered the story about Angelica's brother, the old shaman
Puriwariwe, who supposedly had been killed in a raid, yet had not died.
"He was shot in the stomach, where death hides," Arasuwe had said one evening. "He didn't
lie down in his hammock, but remained standing in the middle of the clearing, leaning on
his bow and arrow. He swayed but didn't fall.
"The raiders remained rooted on the spot, unable to shoot another arrow as the old man
chanted to the spirits.
With the arrow still stuck in the spot where death lies, he disappeared into the forest. He
was gone for many days and nights. He lived in the darkness of the forest without food or
drink. He chanted to the heknras of animals and trees, creatures that are harmless in the
clear light of the day, but in the shadows of the night they cause terror to the one who
cannot command them. From his hiding place, the old shapori lured his enemies: He killed
them one by one, with magical arrows."
Again I heard the whimpering sound, then a choking noise. I crawled, carefully feeling for
thorns in the undergrowth. I gasped in terror as I touched a hand; its fingers were curled
around a broken bow. I did not recognize the sprawled-out body until I touched Kamosiwe's
scarred face. "Old man," I called, afraid that he was dead.
He turned on his side, pulled his legs up with the ease of a child that seeks warmth and
comfort. He tried to focus with his single, deeply set eye as he looked at me helplessly. It
was as though he were returning from a great distance, from another world. Steadying
himself against the broken bow, he tried to get on his feet. He clutched my arm, then let out
an eerie sound as he sank to the ground. I could not hold him up. I shook him, but he lay
still.
I felt for his heartbeat to see if he was dead. Kamosiwe opened his one eye: His gaze
seemed to hold a silent plea. The dilated pupil reflected no light: Like a deep, dark tunnel, it
seemed to draw the strength out of my body. Afraid I would make a mistake, I talked to him
in Spanish, softly, as if he were a child. I hoped he would close that awesome eye and fall
asleep.
Lifting him by the armpits, I dragged him toward the shabono. Although he was only skin
and bones, his body seemed to weigh a ton. After a few minutes I had to sit and rest,
wondering if he was still alive. His lips trembled: He spat out his tobacco quid. The dark
saliva dribbled over my leg. His eye filled with tears. I put the wad back into his mouth, but
he refused it. I took his hands, rubbed them against my body so as to imbue them with
some warmth. He started to say something, but I heard only an unintelligible mutter.
One of the young boys who slept close to the entrance, next to the old man's hut, helped me
lift Kamosiwe into his hammock. "Put logs on the fire," I said to one of the gaping boys.
"And call Arasuwe, Etewa, or someone who can help the old man."
Kamosiwe opened his mouth to ease his breathing. The wavering light of the small fire
accentuated his ghostlike paleness. His face twisted into an odd smile, a grimace that
reassured me I had done the right thing.
The hut filled with people. Their eyes shone with tears: Their sorrowful wails spread
throughout the shabono.
"Death is not like the darkness of night," Kamosiwe said in a barely audible whisper. His
words fell into silence as the people, gathered around his hammock, momentarily stopped
their laments.
"Do not leave us alone," the men moaned as they burst into loud weeping. They began to
talk about the old man's courage, about the enemies he had killed, about his children, about
the days he was headman of the Iticoteri and the prosperity and glory he had brought to the
settlement.
"I will not die yet." The old man's words silenced them once again. "Your weeping makes
me too sad." He opened his eye and scanned the faces around him. "The hekuras are still in
my chest. Chant to them, for they are the ones who keep me alive."
Arasuwe, Iramamowe, and four other men blew epena into each other's nostrils. With
blurred eyes they began to sing to the spirits dwelling below and above the earth.
"What ails you?" Arasuwe asked after a while, bending over the old man. His strong hands
massaged the weak, withered chest; his lips blew warmth into the immobile form.
"I'm only sad," Kamosiwe whispered. "The hekuras will soon abandon my chest. It's my
sadness that makes me weak."
I returned with Ritimi to our hut. "He will not die," she said, wiping the tears from her face.
"I don't know why he wants to live so long. He is so old, he is no longer a man."
"What is he?"
"His face," she said, "has become so small, so thin..." Ritimi looked at me as if at a loss for
words to express her thoughts. She made a vague gesture with her hand, as if grasping for
something she did not know how to voice. Shrugging, she smiled. "The men will chant
throughout the night, and the hekuras will keep the old man alive."
A monotonous rain, warm and persistent, mingled with the men's songs. Whenever I sat up
in my hammock I could see them across the clearing in Kamosiwe's hut, crouched in front
of the fire. They chanted with a compelling force, convinced that their invocations could
preserve life, as the rest of the Iticoteri slept.
The voices faded with the rosy melancholy of dawn. I got up and walked across the
clearing. The air was chilly, the ground damp from the rain. The fire had died down, yet the
hut was warm from the misty smoke. The men huddled together still crouched around
Kamosiwe. Their faces were drawn; their eyes were hollowed by deep circles.
I returned to my hammock as Ritimi was getting up to rekindle the fire. "Kamosiwe seems
well," I said, lying down to sleep.
As I stood up from behind a bush I saw Arasuwe's youngest wife and her mother slowly
pushing their way through the thicket in the direction of the river. Quietly I followed the
two women. They had no baskets with them- only a piece of sharpened bamboo. The
pregnant woman held her hands to her belly as if supporting its heavy weight. They stopped
under an arapuri tree, where the undergrowth had been cleared and broad platanillo leaves
had been scattered on the ground. The pregnant woman knelt on the leaves, pressing her
abdomen with both hands. A soft moan escaped her lips, and she gave birth.
I held my hand over my mouth to stifle a giggle. I could not conceive that giving birth
could be so effortless, so fast. The two women talked in whispers, but neither one of them
looked at, or picked up, the shiny wet infant on the leaves.
With the bamboo knife, the old woman cut the umbilical cord, then looked around until she
found a straight branch. I watched her place the stick across the baby's neck, then step with
both feet at either end. There was a faint snapping sound. I was not sure if it was the baby's
neck or if it was the branch that had cracked.
The afterbirth they wrapped in one bundle of platanillo leaves, the small lifeless body into
another. They tied the bundles with vines, and placed them under the tree.
I tried to hide behind the bushes as the women got up to leave, but my legs would not obey
me. I felt drained of all emotion, as if the scene in front of me were some bizarre nightmare.
The women looked at me. A faint flicker of surprise registered on their faces, but I saw no
pain or regret in their eyes.
As soon as they were gone I untied the vines. The lifeless body of a baby girl lay on the
leaves as if in sleep. Long black hair, like silk strands, stuck to her slippery head. The
lashless lids were swollen, covering the closed eyes. The trickle of blood running from nose
and mouth had dried, like some macabre onoto design on the faint purplish skin. I pried
open the small fists. I checked the toes to see if they were complete: I found no visible
deformity.
The late afternoon had spent itself. The dried leaves made no rustling sound under my bare
feet: They were damp with the night. The wind parted the leafy branches of the ceibas.
Thousands of eyes seemed to be staring at me; indifferent eyes, veiled in green shadows. I
walked down the river, and sat on a fallen log that had not yet died. I touched the clusters of
new shoots that desperately wanted to see the light. The cricket's call seemed to mock my
tears.
I could smell the smoke from the huts and I resented those fires that burned day and night,
swallowing time and events. Black clouds hid the moon, cloaking the river in a veil of
mourning. I listened to the animals- those that wake from their day's sleep and roam the
forest at night. I was not afraid. A silence, like a soft dust from the stars, fell around me. I
wanted to fall asleep, and wake up knowing it had all been a dream.
Through a patch of clear sky I saw a shooting star. I could not help smiling. I had always
been fast to make a wish, but I could not think of any.
I felt Ritimi's arm around my neck. Like some forest spirit she had sat down noiselessly
beside me. The pale sticks at the corners of her mouth shone in the dark as if they were
made of gold. I was grateful she was near me, that she did not say a word.
The wind brushed away the clouds that obscured the moon: Its light covered us in a faint
blue. Only then did I notice old Kamosiwe squatting beside the log, his eye fixed on me. He
began to talk, slowly, enunciating each word. But I was not listening. Leaning heavily on
his bow, he motioned us to follow him to the shabono. He stopped by his hut: Ritimi and I
walked on to ours.
"Only a week ago, women and men cried," I said, sitting in my hammock. "They cried
believing Kamosiwe was going to die. Today I saw Arasuwe'swife kill her newborn child."
Ritimi handed me some water. "How could the woman feed a new baby at her breast when
she has a child that still suckles?" she said briskly. "A child who has lived this long."
Intellectually I grasped Ritimi's words. I was aware that infanticide was a common practice
among Amazonian Indians. Children were spaced approximately two to three years apart.
The mother lactated during this time, and refrained from bearing another child in order to
sustain an ample supply of milk. If a deformed or female child were born during this time,
it was killed, so as to give the nursing child a better chance of survival.
Emotionally, however, I was unable to accept it. Ritimi held my face, forcing me to look at
her. Her eyes shone, her lips trembled with feeling. "The one who has not yet glimpsed at
the sky has to return from where it came." She stretched her arm toward the immense black
shadows that began at our feet and ended in the sky. "To the house of thunder."
Chapter 11
Instead of the women's soft chattering, I was awakened one morning by Iramamowe's
shouts announcing that he would prepare curare that day.
I sat up in my hammock. Iramamowe stood in the middle of the clearing. Legs apart, arms
folded over his chest, he scrutinized the young men who had gathered around him. At the
top of his voice he warned them that if they planned to help him prepare the poison, they
were not to sleep with a woman that day. Iramamowe went on ranting as if the men had
already misbehaved, reminding them that he would know if they disobeyed him for he
would test the poison on a monkey. Should the animal survive he would never again ask the
men to assist him. He told them that if they wished to accompany him into the forest to
collect the various vines needed to make the mamucori, they had to refrain from eating and
drinking until the poison had been smeared on their arrowheads.
Calm returned to the shabono as soon as the men left. Tutemi, after stoking the fires, rolled
the tobacco quids for herself, Ritimi, and Etewa, then returned to her hammock. I thought
there was time to snatch a bit more sleep before the plantains buried under the embers were
done. I turned over in my hammock: The smoke warmed the chilly air. As they did every
morning after relieving themselves, little Texoma and Sisiwe, as well as Arasuwe's two
youngest children, climbed into my hammock and snuggled up to me.
Ritimi had been oblivious to the morning events. She was still sound asleep on the ground.
Sleep did not interfere with Ritimi's vanity. Her head, resting on her arm, was propped in
such a manner that it allowed her to wear her full beauty regalia: Slender polished rods
were stuck through the septum of her nose and the corners of her mouth. Her exposed
cheek revealed two brown lines, a sign recognizable by everyone in the shabono that she
was menstruating. For the last two nights Ritimi had not slept in her hammock, had not
eaten meat, had not cooked any of the meals, and had not touched Etewa or any of his
belongings.
Men feared menstruating women. Ritimi had told me that women were known not to have
hekuras in their chest but were linked to the life essence of the otter, the ancestor of the first
woman on earth. During their menses, women were thought to be imbued with the
supernatural powers of the otter. She did not seem to know what these powers were, but she
said that if a man saw an otter in the river he never killed it for fear that a woman in the
settlement would die that same instant.
The Iticoteri women had at first been puzzled as to why I had not menstruated since my
arrival. My explanation- loss of weight, change of diet, new surroundings- was not thought
to be the reason. Instead they believed that as a non-Indian, I was not fully human. I had no
link to the life essence of any animal, plant, or spirit.
It was only Ritimi who wanted to believe and prove to the other women that I was human.
"You have to tell me immediately when you are roo, as if I were your mother," Ritimi
would say to me every time she herself menstruated. "And I will make the proper
preparations so you will not be turned into a stone by the tiny creatures that live
underground."
Ritimi's insistence was probably another reason my body did not follow its normal cycles.
Since I have a tendency to suffer from claustrophobia, I had periodic attacks of anxiety
triggered by the possibility of having to endure the same restrictions that an Iticoteri girl
going through her first menses does.
Only a week before, Xotomi, one of the headman's daughters, had emerged from a threeweek
confinement. Her mother, upon learning that Xotomi had begun her first period, built
an enclosure made out of sticks, palm fronds, and vines in a corner of their hut. A narrow
space had been left open. It was barely large enough for her mother to slip in and out of
twice a day to feed the meager fire inside (which was never allowed to die) and remove the
soiled platanillo leaves covering the ground. The men, afraid of dying young or of
becoming ill, did not so much as glance toward that area in the hut.
For the first three days of her menstrual period Xotomi was only given water and had to
sleep on the ground. Thereafter she was given three small plantains a day and was
permitted to rest in the small bark hammock that was hung inside. She was not allowed to
speak or weep during her confinement. All I heard from behind the tied palm fronds was
the faint sound of Xotomi scratching herself with a stick, for she was not supposed to touch
her body.
By the end of the third week, Xotomi's mother dismantled the enclosure, tied the palm
leaves into a tight bundle, then asked some of her daughter's playmates to hide them in the
forest. Xotomi did not move, as if the palm fronds were still around her. She remained
crouched on the ground with downcast eyes. Her slightly hunched shoulders seemed so frail
that I was sure if someone grasped them the bones would give way with a hollow crack.
More than ever she looked like a frightened child, thin and dirty.
"Keep your eyes on the ground," her mother said, helping the twelve-, perhaps thirteenyear-
old girl to her feet. With her arms around her waist, she led Xotomi to the hearth.
"Don't rest your eyes on any of the men in the clearing," she admonished the girl, "lest you
want their legs to tremble when they have to climb trees."
Water had been heated. Lovingly, Ritimi washed her half-sister from head to foot, then
rubbed her body with onoto until it glowed uniformly red. Fresh banana leaves were placed
on the fire as Ritimi guided the girl around the hearth. Only after Xotomi's skin smelled of
nothing but burnt leaves was she allowed to look at us and speak.
She bit her lower lip as she slowly lifted her head. "Mother, I don't want to move out of my
father's hut," she finally said, then burst into tears.
"Ohoo, you silly child," the mother exclaimed, taking Xotomi's face into her hands.
Brushing aside the tears, the woman reminded the girl how lucky she was to become the
wife of Hayama's youngest son Matuwe, that she was fortunate to be so close to her
brothers, who would protect her should he mistreat her. The mother's dark eyes glittered,
blurred with tears. "I had reasons to be heavy-hearted when I first came to this shabono. I
had left my mother and brothers behind. I had no one to protect me."
Tutemi embraced the young girl. "Look at me. I also came from far away, but now I'm
happy. I will soon have a child."
"But I don't want a child," Xotomi sobbed. "I only want to hold my pet monkey."
In a swift impulse I reached for the monkey perched on a cluster of bananas and handed it
to Xotomi. The women burst into giggles. "If you treat your husband right, he'll be like
your pet monkey," one of them said in between fits of laughter.
"Don't say such things to the girl," old Hayama said reprovingly. Smiling, she faced
Xotomi. "My son is a good man," she said soothingly. "You'll have nothing to fear."
Hayama went on praising her son, stressing Matuwe's prowess as a hunter and provider.
The day of the wedding Xotomi sobbed quietly. Hayama came to her side. "Don't cry
anymore. We will adorn you. You'll be so beautiful today, everyone will gasp in wonder."
She took Xotomi's hand, then motioned the women to follow them through a side exit into
the forest.
Sitting on a tree stump, Xotomi wiped her tears with the back of her hand. A whimsical
smile appeared on her lips as she gazed into old Hayama's face, then she readily submitted
to the women's ministrations. Her hair was cut short, her tonsure shaven. Tufts of soft white
feathers were pushed through her perforated earlobes: They contrasted sharply with her
black hair, adding an ethereal beauty to her thin face. The holes at the corners of her mouth
and lower lip were decorated with red macaw feathers. Through the perforated septum in
her nose Ritimi inserted an almost white, very slender polished stick.
"How lovely you look," we exclaimed as Xotomi stood in front of us.
"Mother, I'm ready to go," she said solemnly. Her dark slanted eyes shone, her skin looked
flushed with the onoto. She smiled briefly, revealing strong, even white teeth, then led the
way back to the shabono. Only for an instant- just before entering the clearing- was there a
silent plea in her eyes as she turned to look at her mother.
Her head held high, her gaze focused on no one in particular, Xotomi slowly circled the
clearing, seemingly unperturbed by the admiring words and glances of the men. She
entered her father's hut and sat in front of the trough filled with plantain pap. First she
offered some of the soup to Arasuwe, then to her uncles, her brothers, and finally to each
man in the shabono. After she had served the women, she walked toward Hayama's hut, sat
down in one of the hammocks, and began to eat the game prepared by her husband, to
whom she had been promised before she had been born.
Tutemi's words cut into my reveries. "Are you going to eat your plantain here or at
Hayama's?"
"I'd better eat there," I said, grinning at Ritimi's grandmother, who was already waiting for
me in the hut next to Tutemi's.
Xotomi smiled at me as I came over. She had changed a great deal. It had nothing to do
with the weight she had gained back since emerging from her confinement. Rather it was
her mature behavior, the way she looked at me, the way she urged me to eat the plantain. I
wondered if it was because girls- as opposed to boys, who were able to prolong their
childhood into their teens- were encouraged by the time they were six or eight to help their
mothers with the domestic chores- gathering wood, weeding in the gardens, taking care of
their younger siblings. By the time a boy was considered an adult, a girl of the same age
was married and often the mother of a child or two.
After eating, Tutemi, Xotomi, and I worked for several hours in the gardens, then walked
into the shabono, refreshed from our bath in the river. A group of men, their faces and
bodies painted black, sat together in the clearing. Some were scraping the bark off thick
pieces of branches.
"Who are these people?" I asked.
"Don't you recognize them?" Tutemi laughed at me. "It's Iramamowe and the men who
went with him yesterday into the forest."
"Why are they painted black?"
"Iramamowe!" Tutemi shouted. "The white girl wants to know- why are your faces all
black?" she asked, then ran into her hut.
"It's good you are running," Iramamowe said, standing up. "The baby in your womb might
weaken the mamucori by adding water." Frowning, he turned to Xotomi and me; before he
had a chance to say anything else, Xotomi pulled me by the hand into Etewa's hut.
In between fits of laughter Xotomi explained that anyone who had been in the water that
day was not supposed to come close to the men preparing curare. Water was believed to
weaken the poison. "If the mamucori doesn't work right, he will blame you."
"I would have liked to watch them prepare the mamucori," I said disappointedly.
"Who would want to watch anything like that?" Ritimi said, sitting up. "I can tell you what
they are going to do." She yawned and stretched, then folded the platanillo leaves she had
been sleeping on and covered the ground with fresh ones. "The men are painted black
because mamucori is not only useful for hunting but also for making war," Ritimi said,
motioning me to sit next to her. She peeled a banana, then with a full mouth explained how
the men were boiling the mamucori vine until it turned into a dark liquid. Later the dried
ashukamaki vine would be added to thicken the poison. Once the mixture had been boiled
down, it would be ready to be brushed on the men's arrowheads.
Resignedly I helped Tutemi prepare the tobacco leaves for drying. Following her precise
instructions, I split each leaf along the nervation, pulling upward so they bundled up, then
tied them in bunches on the rafters. From where I sat I was unable to see what was going on
outside Iramamowe's hut. Children surrounded the working men, hoping to be asked to
help. No wonder I had not seen a single child that morning bathing in the river.
"Get some water from the stream," Iramamowe said to little Sisiwe. "But don't get your feet
wet. Step on trunks, roots, or stones. If you get wet, I'll have to send someone else."
It was late afternoon when Iramamowe was almost finished mixing and boiling the curare.
"Now the mamucori is becoming strong. I can feel my hands going to sleep." In a slow,
monotonous voice he began to chant to the spirits of the poison as he stirred the curare.
Around midmorning the following day Iramamowe came running into the shabono. "The
mamucori is useless. I shot a monkey but it didn't die. It walked away with the useless
arrow stuck in its leg." Iramamowe ran from hut to hut, insulting the men who had helped
him prepare the curare. "Didn't I warn you not to sleep with women. Now the mamucori is
worthless. If an enemy should attack us, you won't even be able to defend your women.
You think you are brave warriors. But you are as useless as your arrows. You should be
carrying baskets instead of weapons."
For a moment I thought Iramamowe was going to cry as he sat on the ground in the middle
of the clearing. "I'll make the poison by myself. You are all incompetent," he muttered over
and over until his anger was spent, until he was thoroughly exhausted.
A few days later at dawn, shortly before the monkey Iramamowe had shot with his newly
poisoned arrow was fully cooked, a stranger walked into the shabono carrying a large
bundle. His hair was still wet from a river bath; his face and body were extravagantly
painted with onoto. Placing his bundle, as well as his bow and arrows, on the ground, he
stood silently in the middle of the clearing for a few minutes before he approached
Arasuwe's hut.
"I've come to invite you to my people's feast," the man said in a loud singsong voice. "The
headman of the Mocototeri has sent me to tell you that we have many ripe plantains."
Arasuwe, without getting up from his hammock, told the man that he could not attend the
feast. "I cannot leave my gardens now. I've planted new banana saplings; they need my
care." Arasuwe made a sweeping gesture with his hand. "Look at all the fruit hanging from
the rafters; I don't want them to spoil."
The visitor walked over to our hut and addressed Etewa. "Your father-in-law doesn't wish to
come. I hope you will be able to visit my people who have sent me to invite you."
Etewa slapped his thighs with pleasure. "Yes. I'll come. I don't mind leaving my plantains
behind. I'll give others permission to eat them."
The visitor's dark lively eyes shone with delight as he went from hut to hut inviting the
Iticoteri to his settlement. The man was invited to rest in old Kamosiwe's hut. He was
offered plantain soup and monkey meat. Later in the evening he untied his bundle in the
middle of the clearing. "A hammock," the men who had gathered around him murmured
disappointedly. Even though the Iticoteri acknowledged the comfort and warmth of cotton
hammocks, only a few women owned one. The men preferred the bark or vine ones,
replacing them periodically. The visitor was eager to trade the cotton hammock for
poisoned arrowheads and epena powder made from seeds. Talking and exchanging news,
some Iticoteri men stayed up all night with the visitor.
Arasuwe was adamant that I should not be part of the group going to the Mocototeri feast.
"Milagros has entrusted you to me," the headman reminded me. "How can I protect you if
you are at another place?"
"What do I need to be protected for?" I asked. "Are the Mocototeri dangerous people?"
"The Mocototeri are not to be trusted," Arasuwe said after a long silence. "I can feel it in
my legs that it is not right for you to go."
"When I first met Angelica she told me that it was not dangerous for a woman to walk
through the forest."
Arasuwe did not bother to answer or comment on my statement but looked at me as if I had
become invisible. Obviously he considered the matter settled and did not intend to demean
himself by any further bantering with an ignorant girl.
"Maybe Milagros will be there," I said.
Arasuwe smiled. "Milagros will not be there. If he were I would have no reason to worry."
"Why are the Mocototeri not to be trusted?" I persisted.
"You ask too many questions," Arasuwe said. "We are not on friendly terms with them," he
added grudgingly.
I looked at him in disbelief. "Why then do they invite you to a feast?"
"You are ignorant," Arasuwe said, walking out of the hut.
It was not only I who was disillusioned by Arasuwe's decision. Ritimi was so disappointed
she could not show me off to the Mocototeri that she enlisted Etewa and Iramamowe, as
well as old Kamosiwe, to help convince her father to let me accompany them. Although old
people's advice was valued and respected, it was Iramamowe, known for his bravery, who
finally persuaded and assured his brother that no harm would befall me at the Mocototeri
settlement.
"You should take the bow and arrows I made for you," Arasuwe said to me later that
evening. He began to laugh uproariously. "that would certainly astonish the Mocototeri. It
would almost be worth it for me to go and witness their surprise." Seeing that I was
checking my arrows, Arasuwe added somberly, "You can not take them. It's not proper for a
woman to walk through the forest carrying a man's weapon."
"I will take care of her," Ritimi promised her father. "I'll make sure she never leaves my
side- not even when she has to go into the bush."
"I'm sure Milagros would have wanted me to go," I said, hoping to make Arasuwe feel
more at ease.
Eyeing me gloomily, he shrugged his shoulders. "I trust you will return safely."
Anticipation and apprehension kept me awake that night. The familiar noises of the
collapsing logs in the fire filled me with misgivings. Etewa stirred the embers with a stick
before lying down. Through the smoke and mist the distant crowns of trees looked like
ghosts. The spaces between the leaves were like hollow eyes accusing me of something I
did not understand. I was almost tempted to follow Arasuwe's advice, but the light of day
dispelled my apprension.
Chapter 12
The sun had barely taken the chill off the morning air when we set out with baskets stocked
with plantains, calabashes, hammocks, the paraphernalia for decorating ourselves, and the
items for trade: thick bundles of undyed cotton yarn, newly fashioned arrowheads, bamboo
containers filled with epena and onoto. With their own hammocks slung around their necks,
the older children walked close behind their mothers. The men, closing up the rear of each
family unit, carried nothing but their bows and arrows.
There were twenty-three of us. For four days we walked silently through the forest at a
relaxed pace set by the old people and children. Whenever they became aware of the
slightest movement or sound in the thicket, the women stood still, pointing with their chins
in the direction of the disturbance. Swiftly the men disappeared in the specified direction.
More often than not, they returned with an agouti- a rabbit-like rodent- or a peccary, or a
bird, which was cooked as soon as we made camp in the afternoon. The children were
forever on the lookout for wild fruit. Their keen eyes would follow the flight of bees until
they reached their hives in a hollow tree trunk. While the insects were still in flight, they
were able to accurately identify whether they belonged to the stinging or nonstinging
variety.
Hayama, Kamosiwe, and several of the old people wrapped strips of the fibrous bast of a
tree around their thorax and abdomen. They claimed it restored their energy and made
walking easier. I tried it too, but the tightly wrapped bast only gave me a rash.
As we climbed up and down hills, I wondered if it was a different route from the one I had
been on with Milagros. There was not a tree, rock, or stretch of river I could recall. Neither
did I remember having encountered mosquitoes and other insects hovering above the
marshes. Attracted by our sweaty bodies, they buzzed around us with a maddening
persistence. I, who had never been bothered by them, could not decide which part of my
body to scratch first. My torn T-shirt offered no protection. Even Iramamowe, who initially
had been oblivious to their unrelenting bites, occasionally acknowledged the inconvenience
by slapping his neck, his arm, or by lifting his leg to scratch his ankle.
Around noon of the fifth day we made camp at the edge of the Mocototeri's gardens. The
cleared-out undergrowth made the giant ceibas appear even more monumental than in the
forest. Shafts of sunlight filtered through the leaves, illuminating and shadowing the dark
ground.
We bathed in the nearby river, where red flowers, suspended from lianas overhanging the
water, swayed with sensuous grace to the rhythm of the breeze. Iramamowe and three other
young men were the first to don their festive attire and to paint themselves with onoto
before heading toward the host's shabono. Iramamowe returned shortly, carrying a basket
filled with roasted meat and baked plantains.
"Ohooo, the Mocototeri have so much more," he said, distributing the food among us.
Before the women began to beautify themselves they assisted their men with the pasting of
white down on their hair, and tying feathers and monkey fur around their arms and heads. I
was given the task of decorating the children's faces and bodies with the prescribed onoto
designs.
Our laughter and chatter were interrupted by the shouts of an approaching Mocototeri.
"He looks like a monkey," Ritimi whispered.
I nodded in agreement, barely able to conceal my giggles. The man's short bowed legs and
long disproportionate arms seemed even more pronounced as he stood next to Etewa and
Iramamowe, who looked imposing with their white down-covered heads, the long
multicolored macaw feathers streaming from their armbands, and their bright-red waist
belts.
"Our headman wants to start the feast. He wants you to come soon," the Mocototeri said in
the same formal high-pitched voice as the man who had come to the shabono to invite us to
the feast. "If you take too long to prepare yourselves, there will be no time to talk."
With their heads held high, their chins slightly pushed up, Etewa, Iramamowe, and three
young men, also properly painted and decorated, followed the Mocototeri. Although they
pretended indifference, the men were aware of the admiring glances of the rest of us as they
strutted toward the shabono.
Overcome by last-minute nervousness, the women hurried through the last touches of their
toilette, adding a flower or feather here, a dab of onoto there. How they looked was entirely
up to the judgment of the others, for there were no mirrors.
Ritimi fastened the waist belt around me, making sure the wide fringe was centered
properly. "You're still so thin," she said, touching my breasts, "even though you eat so
much. Don't eat today the way you eat at our shabono or the Mocototeri will think we don't
give you enough."
I promised to eat very sparingly, then burst into laughter as I remembered that this was the
same advice my mother used to give me as a child whenever I was invited to spend the
weekend with friends. She too had been embarrassed by my voracious appetite, thinking
that people might believe I was not properly fed at home or, worse yet, that they might
think I had a tapeworm.
Just before we set out toward the Mocototeri shabono, old Hayama admonished her greatgrandchildren,
Texoma and Sisiwe, to behave properly. Raising her voice so that the other
children who had come with us could also hear her, she stressed how important it was to
minimize any chance for the Mocototeri women to criticize them once they had departed.
Old Hayama insisted the children try to urinate and defecate for one last time behind the
bushes, for once inside the shabono no one would clean up after them or take them outside
if they had to go.
Upon reaching the Mocototeri clearing, the men formed a line, holding their weapons
vertically to their upraised haughty faces. We stood behind them with the children.
A group of shouting women ran out of the huts as soon as they saw me. I was neither afraid
nor repelled as they touched, kissed, and licked my face and body. But Ritimi seemed to
have forgotten how the Iticoteri had first greeted me when I arrived at their settlement, for
she kept mumbling under her breath that she would have to retrace the onoto designs on my
skin.
Holding my arm in a strong grip, one of the Mocototeri women pushed Ritimi aside. "Come
with me, white girl," she said.
"No," Ritimi shouted, pulling me closer to her. Her smile did not detract from the sharp
angry tone of her voice. "I've brought the white girl for you to look at. No one must take
her away from me. We are like each other's shadows. I go where she goes. She goes where I
go." Trying to outstare her opponent, Ritimi's eyes held the woman's fixed gaze, daring her
to challenge her words.
The woman opened her tobacco-filled mouth in gaping laughter. "If you have brought the
white girl to visit, you must let her come into my hut."
Someone from behind the group of women approached us. With arms crossed over his
chest, he pushed his hips forward with a little swagger as he came to stand beside me. "I'm
the headman of the Mocototeri," he said. As he smiled, his eyes were but two shining slits
amidst the red designs of his deeply wrinkled face. "Is the white girl your sister that you
protect her so?" he asked Ritimi.
"Yes," she said forcefully. "She is my sister." .
Shaking his head in disbelief, the headman studied me. He seemed totally unimpressed. "I
can see that she is white, but she doesn't look like a real white woman," he finally said.
"Her feet are bare like ours: She does not wear strange clothes on her body except for this."
He pulled at my torn, loose underpants. "Why does she wear this under an Indian waist
belt?"
"Pantiis," Ritimi said importantly: She liked the English word better than the Spanish,
which she had also learned. "That's what white people call it. She has two more of them.
She wears pantiis because she is afraid that spiders at night and centipedes during the day
might crawl inside her body."
Nodding as if he understood my fear, the headman touched my short hair, and rubbed his
fleshy palm over my shaven tonsure. "It's the color of the young assai palm fronds." He
moved his face close to mine until our noses touched. "What strange eyes- they are the
color of rain." His scowl disappeared in a smile of delight. "Yes, she must be white; and if
you call her sister, then no one will take her away from you," he said to Ritimi.
"How can you call her sister?" the woman who still held my arm asked. There was earnest
perplexity written all over her painted face as she gazed at me.
"I call her sister because she is like us," Ritimi said, putting her arm around my waist.
"I want her to come and stay in my hut," the woman said. "I want her to touch my
children."
We followed the woman into one of the huts. Bows and arrows were leaning against the
sloping roof. Bananas, gourds, and bundles of meat wrapped in leaves were strung from the
rafters. Machetes, axes, and an assortment of clubs lay in the corners. The ground was
littered with twigs, branches, fruit skins, and shards of earthenware vessels.
Ritimi sat with me in the same cotton hammock. As soon as I had finished the juice made
from soaked palm fruit the woman had given me, she placed a small baby in my lap.
"Caress him."
Turning and twisting in my arms, the infant almost fell to the ground. And when he stared
into my face he began to bawl.
"You better take him," I said, handing the woman the child. "Babies are afraid of me. They
first have to get to know me before I can touch them."
"Is that so?" the woman asked, eyeing Ritimi suspiciously as she rocked the baby in her
arms.
"Our babies don't scream." Ritimi cast contemptuous glances at the infant. "My own and
my father's children even sleep with her in the same hammock."
"I'll call the older children," the woman said, gesturing toward the little girls and boys
peeking from behind the bundles of plantains stacked against the sloping roof.
"Don't," I said. I knew that they would be frightened too. "If you force them to come, they
too will cry."
"Yes," said one of the women who had followed us into the hut. "The children will sit with
the white girl as soon as they see that their mothers are not afraid to touch her palm-fiber
hair and pale body."
Several women had gathered around us. Tentatively at first, their hands explored my face,
then my neck, arms, breasts, stomach, thighs, knees, calves, toes: There was not a part of
me they left unexamined. Whenever they discovered a mosquito bite or a scratch, they spat
on it, then rubbed the spot with their thumbs. If the bite was recent, they sucked out the
poison.
Although I had become accustomed to Ritimi's, Tutemi's, and the Iticoteri's children's lavish
shows of affection, which never lasted more than a moment, I felt uncomfortable under the
exploring touch of so many hands on my body. "What are they doing?" I asked, pointing to
a group of men squatting outside the hut next to us.
"They are preparing the assai leaves for the dance," said the woman who had placed the
baby in my lap. "Do you want to look at that?"
"Yes," I said emphatically, wanting to shift the attention away from myself.
"Does Ritimi have to accompany you everywhere you go?" the woman asked as Ritimi got
up from the hammock with me.
"Yes," I said. "Had it not been for her I would not be visiting your shabono. Ritimi has
taken care of me since I arrived in the forest."
Ritimi beamed at me. I wished I had expressed words to that effect sooner. Not once during
the rest of our stay did any of the Mocototeri women question Ritimi's proprietary manner
toward me.
The men outside the hut were separating the still closed, pale yellow leaves of the young
assai palm with sharp little sticks. One of the men rose from his squatting position as we
approached. Taking the tobacco wad from his mouth, he wiped the dribbling juice from his
chin with the back of his hand and held the palm frond over my head. Smiling, he pointed
to the fine gold veins in the leaf, barely visible against the light of the setting sun. He
touched my hair, replaced the wad in his mouth, and without saying a word, continued
separating the leaves.
Fires were lit in the middle of the clearing as soon as it was dark. The Iticoteri men touched
off an explosion of wild cheering from their hosts as they lined up, weapons in hand,
around the fires. Two at a time, the Iticoteri danced around the clearing, slowing down in
front of each hut, so all could admire their attire and their dancing steps.
Etewa and Iramamowe made up the last pair. Shouts reached a higher pitch as they moved
in perfectly matched steps. They did not dance around the huts but stayed close to the fires,
wheeling and spinning at an ever accelerating speed, their rhythm dictated by the leaping
flames. Etewa and Iramamowe stopped abruptly in their tracks, held their bows and arrows
vertically next to their faces, then aimed them at the Mocototeri men standing in front of
their huts. Laughing uproariously, the two men resumed their dance while the onlookers
broke out in exultant, approving shouts.
The Iticoteri men were invited by their hosts to rest in their hammocks. While food was
served, a group of Mocototeri burst into the clearing. "Hail, ham, haiiii," they shouted,
moving to the clacking of their bows and arrows, to the swishing sound of the fringed,
undulating assai palm fronds.
I could hardly make out the dancing figures. At times they seemed fused together, then they
leapt apart, fragments of dancing arms, legs, and feet visible from between the swaying
palm fronds- black, birdlike silhouettes with giant wings as they moved away from the light
of the fires, blazing copper figures, no longer man or bird, as their bodies glistening with
sweat glowed in the flames.
"We want to dance with your women," the Mocototeri demanded. When there was no
response from the Iticoteri, they jeered. "You are jealous of them. Why don't you let your
poor women dance? Don't you remember we let you dance with our women at your feast?"
"Whoever wants to dance with the Mocototeri, may do so," Iramamowe shouted, then
admonished the men, "But you will not force any of our women to dance if they don't wish
to do so."
"Haii, haiii, haiiii," the men yelled euphorically, welcoming the Iticoteri women as well as
their own.
"Don't you want to dance?" I asked Ritimi. "I will go with you."
"No. I don't want to lose you in the crowd," she said. "I don't want anyone to hit you on the
head."
"But that was an accident. Besides, the Mocototeri are not dancing with fire logs," I said.
"What could they possibly do with palm fronds?"
Ritimi shrugged her shoulders. "My father said the Mocototeri are not to be trusted."
"I thought one only invites one's friends to a feast."
"Enemies too," Ritimi said, giggling. "Feasts are a good time to find out what people are
planning to do."
"The Mocototeri are very friendly," I said. "They have fed us very well."
"They feed us well because they don't want anyone to say they are stingy," Ritimi said.
"But as my father has told you, you are still ignorant. You obviously don't know what's
going on if you think they are friendly." Ritimi patted my head as if I were a child, then
continued, "Didn't you notice that our men didn't take epena this afternoon? Haven't you
realized how watchful they are?"
I had not noticed, and was tempted to add that I thought the Iticoteri's behavior was not
very friendly but remained quiet. After all, as Ritimi had pointed out, I did not understand
what was going on. I observed the six Iticoteri men dancing around the fires. They were not
moving with their usual abandon and their eyes kept darting back and forth, keenly
watching all that went on around them. The rest of the Iticoteri men were not lounging in
their host's hammocks but were standing outside the huts.
The dance had lost its enchantment for me. Shadows and voices took on a different mood.
The night now seemed packed with an ominous darkness. I began to eat what had been
served to me earlier. "This meat tastes bitter," I said, wondering if it was poisoned.
"It's bitter because of the mamucori," Ritimi said casually. "The spot where the poisoned
arrow hit the monkey hasn't been washed properly."
I spat out the meat. Not only was I afraid of being poisoned, but I felt nauseous as I
remembered the sight of the monkey boiling in the tall aluminum pot, a layer of fat and
monkey hairs floating on the surface.
Ritimi put the piece of meat back on my calabash plate. "Eat it," she urged me. "It's goodeven
the bitter part. Your body will get used to the poison. Don't you know that fathers
always give their sons the part where the arrow hit? If they are shot in a raid by a poisoned
arrow they won't die because their bodies will be used to the mamucori."
"I'm afraid that before I get hit by a poisoned arrow, I will die from eating poisoned meat."
"No. One doesn't die from eating mamucori," Ritimi assured me. "It has to go through the
skin." She took the already chewed piece from my calabash, bit off a chunk, then pushed
the remaining half into my gaping mouth. Smiling mockingly, she exchanged her dish with
mine. "I don't want you to choke," she said, eating the rest of the cooked monkey breast
with exaggerated gusto. Still chewing, she pointed toward the clearing, and asked if I could
see the woman with the round face dancing by the fire.
I nodded, but I did not recognize which one she meant. There were about ten women
dancing close to the fire. They all had round faces, dark slanted eyes, voluptuous bodies the
color of honey in the light of the flames.
"She is the one who had intercourse with Etewa at our feast," Ritimi said. "I've bewitched
her already."
"When did you do that?"
"This afternoon," Ritimi said softly, and began to giggle. "I blew the oko-shiki I had
collected from my garden on her hammock," she added with satisfaction.
"What if someone else sits in her hammock?"
"It makes no difference. The magic is only meant to harm her," Ritimi assured me.
I had no chance to find out more about the bewitching for at that moment the dancing
ceased and the tired, smiling dancers returned to the various huts to rest and eat.
The women who joined us around the hearth were surprised Ritimi and I had not danced.
Dancing was as important as painting the body with onoto- it kept one young and happy.
Shortly the headman stepped into the clearing and announced in a thunderous voice, "I
want to hear the Iticoteri women sing. Their voices are pleasing to my ears. I want our
women to learn their songs."
Giggling, the women nudged each other. "You go, Ritimi," one of Iramamowe's wives said.
"Your voice is beautiful."
That was all the encouragement Ritimi needed. "Let's all go together," she said, standing
up.
Silence spread over the shabono as we walked out into the clearing with our arms around
each other's waists. Facing the headman's hut, Ritimi began to sing in a clear, melodious
voice. The songs were very short: The last two lines were repeated as a chorus by the rest of
us. The other women sang too, but it was Ritimi's songs, one in particular, that the
Mocototeri headman insisted she repeat until his women had learned it.
When the wind blows the palm leaves,
I listen to their melancholy sound with the silent frogs.
High in the sky, the stars are all laughing,
But cry tears of sadness as the clouds cover them.
The headman walked toward us and, addressing me, said, "Now you must sing for us."
"But I don't know any songs," I said, unable to repress my giggles.
"You must know some," the headman insisted. "I've heard stories of how much the whites
like to sing. They even have boxes that sing."
In the third grade in Caracas I had been told by the music teacher that besides having a
dreadful voice I was also tone deaf. However, Professor Hans, as he expected to be
addressed, was not insensitive to my desire to sing. He allowed me to remain in the class
provided I stayed in the last row and sang very softly. Professor Hans did not bother much
with the required religious and folk songs we were supposed to be learning, but taught us
Argentinian tangos from the thirties. I had not forgotten those songs.
Looking at the expectant faces around me, I stepped closer to the fire. I cleared my throat
and began to sing, oblivious to the jarring notes escaping my throat. For a moment I felt I
was faithfully reproducing the passionate manner in which Professor Hans had sung his
tangos. I clutched my hands to my breast, I closed my eyes as if transported with the
sadness and tragedy of each line.
My audience was spellbound. The Mocototeri and Iticoteri had come out of their huts to
watch my every gesture.
The headman stared at me for a long time, then finally said, "Our women cannot learn to
sing in this strange manner."
The men sang next. Each singer stood alone in the middle of the clearing, both hands
resting high on his upright bow. Sometimes a friend accompanied the performer: Then the
singer rested his arm over his companion's shoulder. One song in particular, sung by a
Mocototeri youth, was the favorite of the night.
When a monkey jumps from tree to tree
I shoot it with my arrow.
Only green leaves drop down.
Swirling around, they gather at my feet.
The Iticoteri men did not lie down in their hammocks but talked and sang with their hosts
throughout the night. I slept with the women and children in the empty huts around the
main entrance of the shabono.
In the morning I stuffed myself with the papayas and pineapples one of the Mocototeri girls
had brought for me from her father's garden. Ritimi and I had discovered them earlier on
our way into the bush. She had advised me not to ask for the fruit- not because it was not
proper, but because the fruit was unripe. But I did not mind their sour taste or even the
slight stomachache that followed. I had not eaten familiar fruits for months. Bananas and
palm fruit were like vegetables to me.
"You had a wretched voice when you sang," a young man said, squatting next to me.
"Ohoo, I didn't understand your song, but it sounded hideous."
Speechless, I glared at him. I did not know whether to laugh or insult him in turn.
Putting her arms around my neck, Ritimi burst into laughter. She looked at me askance,
then whispered in my ear, "When you sang I thought the monkey meat had given you a
bellyache."
Squatting on the same spot in the clearing where they had started out last night, a group of
Iticoteri and Mocototeri men were still talking in the formal, ritualized manner proper to the
wayamou. Bartering was a slow, involved affair during which equal importance was given
to the items for trading and the exchange of information and gossip.
Close to noon, some Mocototeri women began criticizing their husbands for the items they
had exchanged, stating that they needed the machetes, aluminum pots, and cotton
hammocks themselves. "Poisoned arrowheads," one of the women shouted angrily. "You
could make them yourself if you weren't so lazy." Without paying the slightest attention to
the women's remarks, the men continued their hagglings.
Chapter 13
It was past noon when we left the Mocototeri settlement, our baskets filled with the
accustomed plantains, palm fruits, and meat given to departing guests.
Shortly before nightfall, three Mocototeri men caught up with us. One of them raised his
bow as he spoke. "Our headman wants the white girl to stay with us." He stared at me down
the shaft of his drawn arrow.
"Only a coward points his arrow at a woman," Iramamowe said, stepping in front of me.
"Why don't you shoot, you useless Mocototeri?"
"We haven't come to fight," the man remarked, returning his bow and arrow to an upright
position. "We could have ambushed you some time ago. All we want is to frighten the white
girl so she'll come with us."
"She cannot stay with you," Iramamowe said. "Milagros brought her to our shabono. If he
had wanted her to stay with you, he would have taken her to your settlement."
"We want her to come with us," the man persisted. "We will bring her back before the rains
start."
"If you make me angry, I shall kill you on the spot." Iramamowe pounded his chest.
"Remember, you cowardly Mocototeri, that I'm a fierce warrior. The hekuras in my chest
are always at my command, even without epena." Iramamowe moved nearer to the three
men. "Don't you know that the white girl belongs to the Iticoteri?"
"Why don't you ask her where she wants to stay?" the man said. "She liked our people.
Maybe she wants to live with us."
Iramamowe began to laugh- a rumbling laughter that did not reveal whether he was amused
or outraged. He stopped abruptly. "The white girl does not like the way the Mocototeri
look. She said you all resemble monkeys." Iramamowe turned toward me. There was such a
pleading expression in his eyes that it was all I could do not to giggle.
I felt a tinge of remorse as I looked into the bewildered faces of the three Mocototeri. For
an instant I felt tempted to deny Iramainowe's words. But I could not ignore his anger, nor
had I forgotten Arasuwe's apprehension at my going to the feast. I crossed my arms over
my chest, lifted my chin, and without looking at them directly said, "I don't want to go to
your settlement. I don't want to eat and sleep with monkeys."
The Iticoteri burst into loud guffaws. The three men turned around abruptly, then
disappeared on the path leading into the thicket.
We made camp not too far from the river in a cleared area of the forest, where the remains
of temporary shelters still stood. We did not cover them with new leaves, for old Kamosiwe
assured us that it would not rain that night.
Iramamowe did not eat, but sat, glum and intense, in front of the fire. There was a tension
about him as if he were expecting the three men to reappear at any moment.
"Is there any danger the Mocototeri might come back?" I asked.
Iramamowe was some time before giving me an answer. "They are cowards. They know
that my arrows will kill them on the spot." He stared fixedly on the ground: His lips set in a
straight line. "I'm considering what would be the best way to return to our shabono."
"We should divide up our party," old Kamosiwe suggested, gazing at me with his one eye.
"There is no moon tonight; the Mocototeri will not return. Perhaps tomorrow they will ask
again for the white-girl. We can tell them that they frightened her away, that she asked to be
taken back to the mission."
"Are you sending her back?" Ritimi's voice hung in the darkness, charged with anxiety.
"No," the old man said cheerfully. The grayish bristles on his chin, his one eye that never
missed anything, his slight wrinkled body gave him the appearance of a wicked elf. "Etewa
should return to the shabono with Ritimi and the white girl by way of the mountains. It's a
longer route but they won't be slowed down by children and old people. They will reach our
settlement no later than a day or two after we do. It is a good route, not traveled much." Old
Kamosiwe got up and sniffed the air. "It will rain tomorrow. Build a shelter for the night,"
he said to Etewa, then squatted, a smile on his lips, his one sunken eye staring at me. "Are
you afraid to return to the shabono by way of the mountains?"
Smiling, I shook my head. Somehow I could not envision myself to be in real danger.
"Were you afraid when the Mocototeri aimed his arrow at you?" old Kamosiwe asked.
"No. I knew the Iticoteri would protect me." I had to refrain myself from adding that the
incident had seemed comical to me rather than dangerous. I did not fully realize at the time
that in spite of the obvious bluffing, characteristic of any critical circumstance, the
Mocototeri and Iticoteri were perfectly serious in their threats and demands.
Old Kamosiwe was delighted with my reply. I had the feeling his pleasure derived not so
much from the fact that I had not been frightened, but rather by my trust in his people. He
talked to Etewa long into the night. Ritimi fell asleep holding my hand in hers, a blissful
smile on her lips. Watching her dream, I knew why she looked so happy. For a few days she
would have Etewa practically to herself.
In the shabono men hardly ever showed any outward affection toward their wives. It was
considered a weakness. Only toward the children were the men openly tender and loving;
they indulged, kissed, and caressed them lavishly. I had seen Etewa and even the fierce
Iramamowe carry the heavy loads of wood for their women only to drop them as soon as
they approached the shabono. When there had been no other man near, I had seen Etewa
save a special piece of meat or fruit for Ritimi or Tutemi. Protected by the darkness, I had
seen him press his ear against Tutemi's womb to listen to the strong kicks of his unborn
child. In the presence of others he never mentioned that he was to be a father.
Ritimi and I were awakened by Etewa hours before dawn. Quietly we left the camp,
following the sandy bank of the river. Except for our hammocks, a few plantains, and the
three pineapples the Mocototeri girl had given me, our baskets were empty. Old Kamosiwe
had assured Etewa that he would find plenty of game. There was no moon, yet the water
shone black, reflecting the faint glow of the sky. At intervals the sound of a nocturnal bird
darted through the stillness, a faint cry heralding the oncoming dawn. One by one, the stars
faded: The contours of trees became distinct as the rosy light of dawn descended all the
way to the shadows at our feet. I was astonished at the width of the river, and at the silence
of its flowing waters so still they did not seem to move. Three macaws formed a triangle in
the sky, painting the stationary clouds with their red, blue, and yellow feathers as the orange
glowing sun rose over the treetops.
Etewa opened his mouth in a yawn that seemed to force its way up from the farthest depths
of his lungs. He squinted: The light of the sun was too bright for eyes that had not slept
enough.
We unfastened our baskets. Ritimi and I sat on a log from where we watched Etewa draw
his bow. Slowly, he raised his arms and arched his back, pointing his arrow high in the air.
Motionless, he stood for an interminable time, a stone figure, each taut muscle carefully
etched, his gaze attentive to the birds crossing the sky. I did not dare ask why he was
waiting so long to let his arrow go.
I did not hear the arrow travel through the air- only a flashing cry that dissoved into a
flapping of wings. For an instant the macaw, a mass of feathers held together by the redtinted
arrow, was suspended in the sky before it plunged downward, not too far from where
Etewa stood.
Etewa made a fire over which we roasted the plucked bird and some plantains. He ate only
a small portion, insisting that we finish the rest so we would have enough strength for the
arduous climb over the hills.
We did not miss the sunlight on the river path as we turned into the thicket. The penumbra
of vines and trees was soothing to our tired eyes. Decaying leaves looked like patches of
flowers against the background of greenness. Etewa cut branches from the dark, wild cocoa
trees. "With this wood one makes the best fire drills," he said, stripping the branches of
their bark with his sharp knife, which was made from the lower incisor of an agouti. Then
he cut the green, yellow, and purple pods individually attached to the stunted cacao trunks
by short leafless stems. He split the fruits open and we sucked the sweet gelatinous flesh
surrounding the seeds, which we wrapped in leaves. "Cooked," Ritimi explained, "the
pohoro seeds are delicious." I wondered if they would taste like chocolate.
"There must be monkeys and weasels nearby," Etewa explained, showing me the discarded,
chewed-up fruit skins on the ground. "They like the pohoro fruit as much as we do."
A bit further on Etewa stopped in front of a twisted vine, which he marked with his knife.
"Mamucori," he said. "I will return to this spot when I need to make fresh poison."
"Ashnkamaki?" I exclaimed as we stopped beneath a tree, its trunk encrusted with glossy,
waxlike leaves. But it was not the liana used to thicken curare. Etewa pointed out that those
leaves were long and jagged. He had stopped because of the various animal bones on the
ground.
"Harpy eagle," he said, gesturing to the nest at the top of the tree.
"Don't kill the bird," Ritimi pleaded. "Perhaps it's the spirit of a dead Iticoteri."
Ignoring his wife, Etewa climbed up the tree. Upon reaching the nest he lifted out a
shrieking white fluffy chick. We heard the loud cries of its mother as Etewa threw the chick
on the ground. He propped himself against the trunk and a branch, then aimed his arrow at
the circling bird.
"I'm glad I shot the bird," Etewa said, motioning us to follow him to the spot where the
dead eagle crashed through the trees. "It eats only meat." He turned toward Ritimi, then
added softly, "I listened to its cry before I aimed my arrow- it wasn't the voice of a spirit."
He plucked the soft white feathers from the bird's breast, the long gray ones from its wings,
then wrapped them in leaves.
The afternoon heat filtering through the leaves made me so drowsy that all I wanted to do
was sleep. Ritimi had dark smudges under her eyes, as if she had dabbed coal on the tender
skin. Etewa's pace slackened. Without saying a word, he headed toward the river. We stood
motionless in the wide, shallow waters, held in suspension by the heat and the glare. We
stared at the reflected clouds and trees, then lay down on a bank of ochre-colored sand in
the middle of the river. Blues faded into green and red from the tannin of the submerged
roots. Not a leaf stirred, not a cloud moved. Even the dragonflies hovering over the water
seemed motionless in their transparent vibrations. Turning on my stomach, I let my hands
lie flat on the river's surface as if I could hold the languid harmony reigning between the
reflection in the river and the glow in the sky. I slid on my stomach until my lips touched
the water, then drank the mirrored clouds.
Two herons that had taken flight at our arrival returned. Poised on their long legs, with
necks sunk between their feathers, they watched us through blinking, half-closed lids. I saw
silvery bodies jump up in the air, seeking the intoxicating heat shimmering over the water.
"Fish," I exclaimed, my lethargy momentarily gone.
Chuckling, Etewa pointed with his arrow to a flock of shrieking parrots crossing the sky.
"Birds," he shouted, then reached for the bamboo quiver on his back. He took out an
arrowhead, tasted it with the tip of his tongue to see if the poison was still good. Satisfied
by its bitter taste, he fastened the sharp point to one of his arrow shafts. Next he tested his
bow by letting go of the string. "It's not well stretched," he said, untying it at one end. He
twisted the string several times, then threaded it again. "We will stay here for the night," he
said, wading through the water. He climbed up on the opposite bank, disappearing behind
the trees.
Ritimi and I remained on the sandy bank. She unwrapped the feathers and spread them on a
stone for the sun to kill the lice. Excitedly she pointed to a tree on the bank on which
clusters of pale flowers hung like fruit. She cut whole branches, then offered me the flowers
to eat. "They are sweet," she pointed out upon noticing my reluctance to eat them.
Trying to explain that the flowers reminded me of strongly perfumed soap, I fell asleep. I
awoke with the sounds of dusk sweeping up the light of the day, the rustling of the breeze
cooling the trees, the calls of birds settling for the night.
Etewa had returned with two curassows and a bundle of palm fronds. I helped Ritimi
collect firewood along the riverbank. While she plucked the birds, I assisted Etewa with
building the shelter.
"Are you sure it's going to rain?" I asked him, looking at the clear, cloudless sky.
"If old Kamosiwe said it's going to rain, then it will," Etewa said. "He can smell rain the
way others can smell food."
It was a cozy little hut. The front pole was higher than the two in the back but not high
enough for us to stand up. The poles were connected with long sticks, giving the shelter a
triangular shape. Both the roof and the back were covered with palm fronds. We covered
the ground with platanillo leaves, for the poles were not strong enough to support three
hammocks.
Actually, Etewa did not build the shelter so much for Ritimi's and my comfort as for his. If
he got wet in the rain, he might cause the child in Tutemi's.womb to be born dead or
deformed.
Ritimi cooked the birds, several plantains, and the cacao seeds over the fire Etewa built
inside the hut. I mashed one of our pineapples. The mixture of flavors, textures, reminded
me of a Thanksgiving dinner.
"It must be like momo nuts," Ritimi said after I had explained about cranberry sauce.
"Momo is also red; it needs to be boiled for a long time until it's soft. It also has to soak in
water until all the poison is leached out."
"I don't think I'd like momo nuts."
"You will," Ritimi assured me. "See how much you like the pohoro seeds. Momo nuts are
even better."
Smiling, I nodded. Although the roasted cacao seeds did not taste like chocolate, they were
as delicious as fresh cashews.
Etewa and Ritimi were asleep the moment they lay back on the platanillo leaves. I stretched
out next to Ritimi. In her sleep she reached over, hugging me close to her. The warmth of
her body filled me with a soothing laziness; her rhythmic breathing lulled me into a
pleasant drowsiness. A succession of dreamlike images drifted through my mind,
sometimes slow, sometimes fast, as if someone were projecting them in front of me:
Mocototeri men brachiating from tree to tree glided past me, their cries indistinguishable
from the howler monkeys. Crocodiles with luminous eyes, barely above the surface of the
water, blinked sleepily, then suddenly opened their giant jaws ready to swallow me.
Anteaters with threadlike viscous tongues blew bubbles in which I saw myself captive
together with hundreds of ants.
I was awakened by a sudden gust of wind; it brought with it the smell of rain. I sat up and
listened to the heavy drops pattering on the palm fronds. The familiar sounds of crickets
and frogs provided a continuous pulsating background hum to the plaintive cries of
nocturnal monkeys, the flutelike calls of forest partridges. I was sure I heard steps and then
the snapping of twigs.
"There is someone out there," I said, reaching over to Etewa.
He moved to the front pole of the shelter. "It's a jaguar looking for frogs in the marshes."
Etewa turned my head slightly to the left. "You can smell him."
I sniffed the air repeatedly. "I can't smell a thing."
"It's the jaguar's breath that smells. It's strong because he eats everything raw." Etewa
turned my head once more, this time to the right. "Listen, he is returning to the forest."
I lay down again. Ritimi awoke, rubbed her eyes, and smiled. "I dreamt that I walked up in
the mountains and saw the waterfalls."
"We will go that way tomorrow," Etewa said, unfastening the epena pouch from around his
neck. He poured some of the powder in his palm, then with one deep breath drew it into his
nostrils.
"Are you going to chant to the hekuras now?" I asked.
"I will beg the spirits of the forest to protect us," Etewa said, then began to chant in a low
voice. His song, carried on the night breeze, seemed to traverse the darkness. I was certain
it reached the spirits dwelling in the four corners of the earth. The fire died down to a red
glimmer. I no longer heard Etewa's voice, but his lips were still moving as I fell into a
dreamless sleep.
I was awakened shortly by Ritimi's soft moans and touched her shoulder, thinking she was
having a nightmare.
"Do you want to try it?" she murmured.
Surprised, I opened my eyes and looked into Etewa's smiling face; he was making love to
her. I watched them for a while. The motion of their bodies was so closely adjusted they
barely moved.
Etewa, not in the least embarrassed, moved out of Ritimi and knelt in front of me. Lifting
my legs, he stretched them slightly. He pressed his cheeks against my calves; his touch was
like the playful caress of a child. There was no embrace; there were no words. Yet I was
filled with tenderness.
Etewa switched to Ritimi again, resting his head between her shoulder and mine.
"Now we truly are sisters," Ritimi said softly. "On the outside we don't look the same, but
our insides are the same now."
I snuggled against her. The river breeze brushing through the shelter was like a caress.
The rosy light of dawn descended gently over the treetops. Ritimi and Etewa headed toward
the river. I stepped outside the shelter and breathed in the new day. At dawn the darkness of
the forest is no longer black but a bluish green, like an underground cave that is illuminated
by a light filtering through some secret crack. A sprinkling of dew, like soft rain, wet my
face as I pushed leaves and vines out of my way. Little red spiders with hairy legs hastily
respun their silvery webs.
Etewa found a honeycomb inside a hollow trunk. After squeezing the last drop in our
mouths, he soaked the comb in a water-filled calabash and later we drank the sweet water.
We climbed overgrown paths bordering small cascades and stretches of river that swept by
at dizzying speeds, causing a breeze that blew our hair and swayed the bamboo on the
shore.
"This is the scene of my dream," Ritimi said, extending her arms as if to embrace the wide
expanse of water hurtling down before us into a deep wide pool.
I edged my way onto the dark basalt rocks protruding around the falls. For a long time I
stood beneath it, my hands raised to break the thunderous force of the water descending
from heights already warmed by the sun.
"Come out, white girl," Etewa shouted. "The spirits of the rushing water will make you ill."
Later in the afternoon we made camp by a grove of wild banana trees. Amidst them I
discovered an avocado tree. It had only one fruit; it was not pear shaped, but round, as big
as a cantaloupe, and shone as if it were made out of wax. Etewa lifted me so I could reach
the first branch, then slowly I climbed toward the fruit hanging at the tip of the highest
limb. My greed to reach the green ball was so great I ignored the brittle branches cracking
under my weight. As I pulled the fruit toward me the branch I was standing on gave way.
Etewa laughed till tears rolled down his cheeks. Ritimi, also laughing, scraped the mashed
avocado from my stomach and thigh.
"I could have hurt myself," I said, piqued by their indifference and mirth. "Maybe I broke a
leg."
"No, you didn't," Etewa assured me. "The ground is soft with dead leaves." He scooped
some mashed fruit in his hand and urged me to taste it. "I told you not to stay under the
falls," he added seriously. "The spirits of the rushing water made you ignore the danger of
dry branches."
By the time Etewa had built the shelter all trace of day had vanished. The forest was
clouded in a whitish mist. It did not rain, but the dew on the leaves fell in heavy drops at the
slightest touch.
We slept on the platanillo leaves, warmed by each other's bodies and by the low fire that
Etewa kept alive throughout the night by periodically pushing the burning logs closer to the
flame with his foot.
We left our camp before dawn. Thick mist still shrouded the trees and the cry of frogs
reached us as if from a great distance. The higher we climbed, the scantier the vegetation
became until at last there was nothing but grasses and rocks.
We reached the top of a plateau eroded by winds and rains, a relic from another age. Below,
the forest was still asleep under a blanket of fog. A mysterious, pathless world whose
vastness one could never guess from the outside. We sat on the ground and silently waited
for the sun to rise.
An overwhelming sense of awe brought me to my feet as the sky in the east glowed red and
purple along the horizon. The clouds, obedient to the wind, opened to let the rising disk
through. Pink mist rolled over the treetops, touching up shadows with deep blue, spreading
green and yellow all over the sky until it changed into a transparent blue.
I turned to look behind me, to the west, where clouds were changing shape, giving way to
the expanding light. To the south, the sky was tinted with fiery streaks and luminous clouds
piled up, pushed by the wind.
"Over there is our shabono," Etewa said, pointing into the distance. He grasped my arm and
turned me around, into a northerly direction. "And over there is the great river, where the
white man passes by."
The sun had lifted the blanket of tog. The river shone like a golden snake cutting through
the greenness until it lost itself in an immensity of space that seemed to be part of another
world.
I wanted to speak, to cry out loud, but I had no words with which to express my emotions.
Looking at Ritimi and Etewa, I knew they understood how deeply I felt. I held out my arms
as if to embrace this marvelous border of forest and sky. I felt I was at the edge of time and
space. I could hear the vibrations of the light, the whispering of trees, the cries of distant
birds carried by the wind.
I suddenly knew that it was out of choice and not out of lack of interest that the Iticoteri had
never been curious about my past. For them I had no personal history. Only thus could they
have accepted me as something other than an oddity. Events and relationships of my past
had begun to blur in my memory. It was not that I had forgotten them; I had simply stopped
thinking about them, for they had no meaning there in the forest. Like the Iticoteri, I had
learned to live in the present. Time was outside of me. It was something to be used only at
the moment. Once used, it sank back into itself and became an imperceptible part of my
inner being.
"You have been so quiet for so long," Ritimi said, sitting on the ground. Pulling her knees
up, she clasped them, then rested her chin on them and gazed at me.
"I've been thinking of how happy I am to be here," I said.
Smiling, Ritimi rocked herself gently to and fro. "One day I will collect wood and you will
no longer be at my side. But I will not be sad, because this afternoon, before we reach the
shabono, we will paint ourselves with onoto and we will be happy watching a flow of
macaws chase the setting sun."
PART FOUR
Chapter 14
Women, I had been told, were not to concern themselves with any aspect of the epena
ritual. They were not supposed to prepare it, nor were they allowed to take the
hallucinogenic snuff. It was not even proper for a woman to touch the cane tube through
which the powder was blown, unless a man specifically asked her to fetch it for him.
To my utter astonishment one morning, I saw Ritimi bent over the hearth, attentively
studying the dark reddish epena seeds drying over the embers. Without acknowledging my
presence, she proceeded to rub the dried seeds between her palms over a large leaf
containing a heap of bark ashes. With the same confidence and expertise I had seen in
Etewa, she periodically spat on the ashes and seeds as she kneaded them into a pliable
uniform mass.
As she transferred the doughy mixture onto a hot earthenware shard, Ritimi looked up at
me, her smile clearly revealing how delighted she was by my bafflement. "Ohooo, the
epena will be strong," she said, shifting her gaze back to the hallucinogenic dough bursting
with loud popping sounds on the piece of terra-cotta. With a smooth stone she ground the
fast-drying mass until it all blended into a very fine powder, which included a layer of dust
from the earthenware shard.
"I didn't know women knew how to prepare epena," I said.
"Women can do anything," Ritimi said, funneling the brownish powder into a slender
bamboo container.
Waiting in vain for her to satisfy my curiosity, I finally asked, "Why are you preparing the
snuff?"
"Etewa knows I prepare epena well," she said proudly. "He likes to have some ready
whenever he returns from a hunt."
For several days we had eaten nothing but fish. Not being in the mood for hunting, Etewa,
together with a group of men, had dammed a small stream, in which they placed crushed,
cut-up pieces of ayori-toto vine. The water had turned a whitish color, as if it were milk. All
the women had to do was to fill their baskets with the asphyxiated fish that rose to the
surface. But the Iticoteri were not too fond of fish and soon the women and children began
to complain about the lack of meat. Two days had passed since Etewa and his friends had
set out for the forest.
"How do you know Etewa is returning today?" I asked, and before Ritimi answered, hastily
added, "I know, you can feel it in your legs."
Smiling, Ritimi picked up the long narrow tube and blew through it repeatedly. "I'm
cleaning it," she said with a mischievous glint in her eyes.
"Have you ever taken epena?
Ritimi leaned closer to whisper in my ear, "Yes, but I did not like it. It gave me a
headache." She looked around furtively. "Would you like to try some?"
"I don't want a headache."
"Maybe it's different for you, "she said; Standing up, she casually put the bamboo container
and the three-foot-long cane into her basket. "Let's go to the river. I want to see if I mixed
the epena well."
We walked along the bank, quite a distance from where the Iticoteri usually came to bathe
or to draw water. I squatted on the ground in front of Ritimi, who meticulously began
introducing a small amount of epena into one end of the cane. Delicately, she flicked the
tube with her forefinger, scattering the powder along its length. I felt drops of sweat
running down my sides. The only time I had ever been drugged was when I had had three
wisdom teeth removed. At the time I had wondered if it would not have been wiser to bear
the pain instead of the gruesome hallucinations the drug had induced in me.
"Lift your head slightly," Ritimi said, holding the slender tube toward me. "See the little
rasha nut at the end? Press it against your nostril."
I nodded. I could see that the palm seed had been tightly attached to the end of the cane
with resin. I made sure the small hole that had been drilled into the hollowed-out fruit was
inside my nose. I ran my hand along the fragile length of the smooth cane. I heard the sharp
sound of compressed air shooting through the tube. I let go of it as a piercing pain seared
into my brain. "That feels terrible!" I groaned, pounding the top of my head with my palms.
"Now the other one," laughed Ritimi as she placed the cane against my left nostril.
I felt as if I were bleeding, but Ritimi assured me it was only mucus and saliva dribbling
uncontrollably from my nose and mouth. I tried to wipe myself clean but was unable to lift
my heavy hand.
"Why don't you enjoy it instead of being so fussy about a little slime running into your
belly button?" Ritimi said, grinning at my clumsy efforts. "I'll wash you later in the river."
"There is nothing to enjoy," I said, beginning to sweat profusely from every pore. I felt
nauseous and there was an odd heaviness in my limbs. I saw points of red and yellow light
everywhere. I wondered what Ritimi found so funny. Her laughter reverberated in my ears
as if it came from inside my head. "Let me blow some in your nose," I suggested.
"Oh, no. I have to watch over you," she said. "We cannot both end up with a headache."
"This epena has to give more than a headache," I said. "Blow some more into my nose. I
want to see a hekura."
"Hekuras don't come to women," Ritimi said between fits of laughter. She placed the cane
against my nose. "But perhaps if you chant they'll come to you."
I felt each grain travel up my nasal passage, exploding in the top of my skull. Slowly, a
delicious lassitude [* lassitude- a state of comatose; a feeling of lack of interest or energy]
spread through my body. I turned my gaze to the river, almost expecting a mythical creature
to emerge from its depths. Ripples of water began to grow into waves splashing back and
forth with such force that I scurried backward on my hands and knees. I was certain the
water was trying to trap me. Shifting my eyes to Ritimi's face, I was bewildered by her
alarmed expression.
"What is it?" I asked. My voice trailed off as I followed the direction of her gaze. Etewa
and Iramamowe stood in front of us. With great difficulty I stood up. I touched them to
make sure I was not hallucinating.
Unfastening the large bundles slung over their backs, they handed them to the other hunters
standing behind on the trail. "Take the meat to the shabono," Iramamowe said hoarsely.
The thought that Etewa and Iramamowe would eat so little of the meat filled me with such
sadness I began to cry. A hunter gives away most of the game he kills. He would rather go
hungry than risk the chance of being accused of stinginess. "I'll save you my portion," I said
to Etewa. "I prefer fish to meat."
"Why are you taking epena? Etewa's voice was stern, but his eyes were sparkling with
amusement.
"We had to check if Ritimi mixed the powder properly," I mumbled. "It's not strong enough.
Haven't seen a hekura yet."
"It's strong," Etewa retorted. Putting his hands on my shoulders, he made me squat on the
ground in front of him. "Epena made from seeds is stronger than the kind made from bark."
He filled the cane with the snuff. "Ritimi's breath does not have much strength." A devilish
grin creased his face as he placed the tube against my nostril and blew.
I fell backward, cradling my head, which reverberated with Iramamowe's and Etewa's
uproarious laughter. Slowly I stood up. My feet felt as though they were not touching the
ground.
"Dance, white girl," Iramamowe urged me. "See if you can lure the hekuras with your
chant."
Mesmerized by his words, I held out my arms and began to dance with small jerky steps,
the way I had seen the men dance when in an epena trance.
Through my head ran the melody and words of one of Iramamowe's hekura songs.
After days of calling the hekura of
the hummingbird,
she finally came to me.
Dazzled, I watched her dance.
I fainted on the ground,
and did not feel as she
pierced my throat
and tore out my tonsue.
I did not see how my blood
flowed into the river,
tinting the water red.
She filled the gap with precious feathers.
That is why I know the hekura songs.
That is why I sing so well.
Etewa guided me to the edge of the river, then splashed water on my face and chest. "Don't
repeat his song," he warned me. "Iramamowe will get angry. He will harm you with his
magic plants."
I wanted to do as he told me, yet I was compelled to repeat Iramamowe's hekurasong.
"Don't repeat his song," Etewa pleaded. "Iramamowe will make you deaf. He will make
your eyes bleed." Etewa turned toward Iramamowe. "Do not bewitch the white girl."
"I won't," Iramamowe assured him. "I'm not angry at her. I know she is still ignorant of our
ways." Framing my face with his hands, he forced me to look into his eyes. "I can see the
hekuras dancing in her pupils."
In the light of the sun Iramamowe's eyes were not dark, but light, the color of honey. "I can
also see the hekuras in your eyes," I said to him, studying the yellow specks on his iris. His
face radiated a gentleness that I had never seen before. As I tried to tell him that I finally
understood why his name was Jaguar's Eye, I collapsed against him. I was vaguely aware of
being carried in someone's arms. As soon as I was in my hammock, I fell into a deep sleep
from which I did not awaken until the following day.
Arasuwe, Iramamowe, and old Kamosiwe had gathered in Etewa's hut. Anxiously, I looked
from one to the other. They were painted with onoto; their perforated earlobes were
decorated with short, feather-ornamented pieces of cane. When Ritiroi sat next to me in my
hammock, I was certain she had come to protect me from their wrath. Before giving any of
the men a chance to speak, I began weaving excuses for having taken epenn. The faster I
talked, the safer I felt. A steady flow of words, I thought, was the surest way of dispelling
their anger.
Arasuwe finally cut into my incoherent chatter. "You talk too fast. I can't understand what
you are saying."
I was disconcerted at the friendliness of his tone. I was certain it was not a result of my
talking. I glanced at the others. Except for a vague curiosity, their faces revealed nothing. I
leaned against Ritimi and whispered, "If they aren't upset, why are they all in the hut?"
"I don't know," she said softly.
"White girl, have you ever seen a hekura before yesterday?" Arasuwe asked.
"I've never seen a hekura in my life," I rapidly assured him. "Not even yesterday."
"Iramamowe saw hekuras in your eyes," Arasuwe insisted. "He took epena last night. His
personal hekura told him she had taught you her song."
"I know Iramamowe's song because I've heard it so often," I almost shouted. "How could
his hekura have taught me? Spirits don't come to women."
"You don't look like an Iticoteri woman," old Kamosiwe said, gazing at me as if he were
seeing me for the first time. "The hekuras could easily be confused." He wiped the tobacco
juice dribbling down the side of his mouth. "There have been times when hekuras have
come to women."
"Believe me," I said to Iramamowe, "the reason I know your song is because I've heard you
sing it so many times."
"But I sing very softly," Iramamowe argued. "If you really know my song, why don't you
sing it now?"
Hoping this would bring the epena incident to an end, I began to hum the melody. To my
utter distress, I could not remember the words.
"You see," Iramamowe exclaimed triumphantly. "My hekura taught you my song. That's
why I didn't get angry at you yesterday, why I didn't blow into your eyes and ears, why I
didn't hit you with a burning log."
"It must be so," I said, forcing a smile. Inwardly I shuddered. Iramamowe was well known
for his quick temper, revengeful nature, and cruel punishments.
Old Kamosiwe spat his tobacco wad on the ground, then reached for a banana hanging
directly above him. Peeling it, he stuffed the fruit whole in his mouth. "A long time ago
there was a woman shapori," he mumbled, still chewing. "Her name was Imaawami. Her
skin was as white as yours. She was tall and very strong. When she took epena, she sang to
the hekuras. She knew how to massage away pain and how to suck out sickness. There was
no one like her to hunt for the lost souls of children, and to counteract the curses of enemy
shamans."
"Tell us, white girl," Arasuwe said, "have you known a shapori before you came here?
Have you ever been taught by one?"
"I've known shamans," I said. "But they have never taught me anything." In great detail I
described the kind of work I had been engaged in prior to my arrival at the mission. I talked
about dona Mercedes and how she had permitted me to watch and record the interaction
between herself and her patients. "Once dona Mercedes let me take part in a spiritual
seance," I said. "She believed that I might be a medium. Curers from various areas had
gathered at her house. We all sat in a circle chanting for the spirits to come. We chanted for
a very long time."
"Did you take epena?" Iramamowe asked.
"No. We smoked big, fat cigars," I said, and almost giggled at the memory. There had been
ten people in dona Mercedes's room. Rigidly we had all sat on stools covered with goat
skin. With obsessive concentration we had puffed at our cigars, filling the room with smoke
so thick we could hardly see each other. I was too busy getting sick to be transported into a
trance. "One of the curers asked me to leave, saying that the spirits would not come as long
as I stayed in the room."
"Did the hekuras come after you left?" Iramamowe asked.
"Yes," I said. "Dona Mercedes told me the following day how the spirits entered into the
head of each curer."
"Strange," Iramamowe murmured. "But you must have learned many things if you lived at
her house."
"I learned her prayers and incantations to the spirits, and also the types of plants and roots
she used for her patients," I said. "But I was never taught how to communicate with spirits
or how to cure people." I looked at each of the men. Etewa was the only one who smiled.
"According to her, the only way to learn about curing was to do it."
"Did you start curing?" old Kamosiwe asked.
"No. Dona Mercedes suggested I should go to the jungle."
The four men looked at one another, then slowly turned to me, and almost in a chorus
asked, "Did you come here to learn about shamans."
"No!" I shouted, then in a subdued tone added, "I came to bring Angelica's ashes."
Choosing my words very carefully, I explained how it was my profession to study people,
including shamans- not because I wanted to become one, but because I was interested in
learning about the similarities and differences between various shamanistic traditions.
"Have you been with other shapori besides dona Mercedes?" old Kamosiwe asked.
I told the men about Juan Caridad, an old man I had met years before. I got up and reached
for my knapsack, which I kept inside a basket tied to one of the rafters. From the zipped
side pocket, which because of the odd lock had escaped the women's curiosity, I pulled out
a small leather pouch. I emptied its contents into Arasuwe's hands. Suspiciously, he gazed
at a stone, a pearl, and the uncut diamond I had been given by Mr. Barth.
"This stone," I said, taking it from Arasuwe's hand, "was given to me by Juan Caridad. He
made it jump out of the water before my eyes." I caressed the smooth, deep golden-colored
stone. It fitted perfectly in my palm. It was oval-shaped, flat on one side, a round bulge on
the other.
"Did you stay with him the way you did with dona Mercedes?" Arasuwe asked.
"No. I didn't Stay with him for very long," I said. "I was afraid of him."
"Afraid? I thought you were never afraid," old Kamosiwe exclaimed.
"Juan Caridad was an awesome man," I said. "He made me have strange dreams in which
he would always appear. In the mornings he would give me a detailed account of what I had
dreamt."
The men nodded knowingly at each other. "What a powerful shapori," Kamosiwe said.
"What did he make you dream about?"
I told them that the dream that had frightened me the most had been, up to a point, an exact
sequential replica of an event that had taken place when I was five years old. Once, while I
was returning from the beach with my family, my father decided, instead of driving directly
home, to take a detour through the forest to look for orchids. We stopped by a shallow river.
My brothers went with my father into the bush. My mother, afraid of snakes and
mosquitoes, remained in the car. My sister dared me to wade with her along the shallow
riverbank. She was ten years older than I, tall and thin, with short curly hair so bleached by
the sun it appeared white. Her eyes were a deep velvety brown, not blue or green like most
blondes'. As she squatted in the middle o£ the stream, she told me to watch the water
between her feet, which to my utter bewilderment turned red with blood. "Are you hurt?" I
asked. She did not say a word as she stood up. Smiling, she beckoned me to follow her. I
remained in the water, petrified, as I watched her climb up the opposite bank.
In my dream I experienced the same fear, but I told myself that now that I was an adult
there was nothing to be afraid of. I was about to follow my sister up the steep bank when I
heard Juan Caridad's voice urging me to remain in the water. "She is calling you from the
land of the dead," he said. "Don't you remember that she is dead?"
No matter how much I begged him, Juan Caridad absolutely refused to discuss how he
succeeded in appearing in my dreams or how he knew that my sister had died in a plane
crash. I had never talked to him about my family. He knew nothing about me except that I
had come from Los Angeles to learn about curing practices.
Juan Caridad did not get angry when I suggested that he probably was familiar with
someone who knew me well. He assured me that no matter what I said or what I accused
him of, he would not discuss a subject he had sworn to remain silent about. He also urged
me to return home.
"Why did he give you the stone?" old Kamosiwe asked.
"Can you see these dark spots and the transparent veins crisscrossing the surface?" I said,
holding the stone close to his one eye. "Juan Caridad told me that they represent the trees
and the rivers of the forest. He said the stone revealed that I would spend a long time in the
jungle, that I should keep it as a talisman to protect me from harm."
The four men in the hut were silent for a long time. Arasuwe handed me the uncut diamond
and the pearl. "Tell us about these."
I talked about the diamond Mr. Earth had given me at the mission.
"And this?" old Kamosiwe asked, picking up the small pearl from my hand. "I've never
seen such a round stone."
"I've had it for a long time," I said.
"Longer than the stone Juan Caridad gave you?" Ritimi asked.
"Much longer," I said. "The pearl was also given to me by an old man when I arrived at
Margarita Island, where I had gone with some classmates for a holiday. As we disembarked
from the boat, an old fisherman came directly toward me. Placing the pearl in my hand, he
said, 'It was yours from the day you were born. You lost it, but I found it for you at the
bottom of the sea.' "
"What happened then?" Arasuwe asked impatiently.
"Nothing much," I said. "Before I recovered from my surprise, the old man was gone."
Kamosiwe held the pearl in his hand, letting it roll back and forth. It looked strangely
beautiful in his dark, calloused palm, as if it belonged there. "I would like you to have it," I
said to him.
Smiling, Kamosiwe looked at me. "I like it very much." He held the pearl against the
sunlight. "How beautiful it is. There are clouds inside the stone. Did the old man who gave
it to you look like me?" he asked as all four men were walking out of the hut.
"He was old like you," I said as he turned toward his hut. But the old man had not heard
me. Holding the pearl high above his head, he pranced around the clearing.
* * *
No one said a word about my having taken epena. On some evenings, however, when the
men gathered outside their huts to inhale the hallucinogenic powder, some youths would
jokingly cry out, "White girl, we want to see you dance. We want to hear you sing
Iramamowe's hekura song." But I did not try the powder again.
Chapter 15
I never found out where Puriwariwe, Angelica's brother, lived. I wondered if someone
actually called him when he was needed or if he intuited it. Whether he would stay in the
shabono for days or weeks, no one knew. There was something reassuring about his
presence, about the way he chanted to the hekuras at night, urging the spirits to protect his
people, especially the children, who were the most vulnerable of all, from the spells of an
evil shapori.
One morning the old shapori walked directly into Etewa's hut. Sitting in one of the empty
hammocks, he demanded I show him the treasures I kept hidden in my knapsack.
I was tempted to retort that I kept nothing hidden, but remained silent as I unfastened my
basket from the ratter. I knew he was going to ask me for one of the stones and fervently
wished it would not be the one Juan Caridad had given me. Somehow I was certain it was
the stone that had brought me to the jungle. I feared that if Puriwariwe were to take it from
me, Milagros would arrive and take me back to the mission. Or worse, something dreadful
might happen to me. I believed implicitly in the stone's protective powers.
Intently the old man studied both the diamond and the stone. He held the diamond against
the light. "I want this one," he said, smiling. "It holds the colors of the sky." Stretching in
the hammock, the old man placed the diamond and the other stone on his stomach. "Now, I
want you to tell me about the shapori Juan Caridad. I want to hear of all the dreams in
which this man appeared."
"I don't know if I can remember them all." Glancing at his thin, wrinkled face and
emaciated body, I had the vague feeling I had known him longer than I could remember.
There was a familiar, tender response in me as his smiling eyes held my gaze. Lying
comfortably in my hammock, I began to speak with an easy fluency. Whenever I did not
know the Iticoteri word, I filled in with a Spanish one. Puriwariwe did not seem to mind. I
had the impression he was more interested in the sound and rhythm of my words than in
their actual meaning.
When I finished with my narration, the old man spat out the wad of tobacco Ritimi had
prepared for him prior to leaving for work in the gardens. In a soft voice he spoke of the
woman shaman Kamosiwe had already told me about. Not only was Imaawami considered
a great shapori, but she was also believed to have been a superb hunter and warrior who
had raided enemy settlements together with the men.
"Did she have a gun?" I asked, hoping to learn more about her identity. Since I first heard
about her, I had been obsessed with the possibility that she might have been a captive white
woman. Maybe as far back as the time when the Spaniards first came looking for El
Dorado.
"She used a bow and arrows," the old shaman said. "Her mamucori poison was of the best
kind."
No matter how I phrased my question, I was unable to learn whether Imaawami was a real
person or a being that belonged to a mythological epoch. All the shapori was willing to say
was that Imaawami existed a long time ago. I was certain the old man was not being
evasive; it was common for the Iticoteri to be vague about past events.
On some evenings, after the women had cooked the last meal, Puriwariwe would sit by the
fire in the middle of the clearing. Both young and old gathered around him. I always looked
for a spot close to him, for I did not want to miss a word of what he said. In a low,
monotonous, nasal tone, he talked about the origin of man, of fire, of floods, of the moon
and the sun. Some of these myths I already knew. Yet each time they were recounted it was
as if I were listening to a different story. Each narrator embellished, improved upon it
according to his own vision.
"Which one is the real myth of creation?" I asked Puriwariwe one evening after he finished
the story of Waipilishoni, a woman shaman who had created blood by mixing onoto and
water. She had given life to the woodlike bodies of a brother and sister by making them
drink this substance. The evening before the shapori had told us that the first Indian was
born out of the leg of a manlike creature.
For an instant Puriwariwe regarded me with a perplexed expression. "They are all real," he
finally said. "Don't you know that man was created many times throughout the ages?"
I shook my head in amazement. He touched my face and laughed. "Ohoo, how ignorant you
still are. Listen carefully. I will tell you of all the times the world was destroyed by fires and
floods."
A few days later, Puriwariwe announced that Xorowe, Iramamowe's oldest son, was to be
initiated as a shapori. Xorowe was perhaps seventeen or eighteen years old. He had a slight,
agile body and a narrow, delicately featured face in which his deep brown eyes seemed
overly large and glowing. Taking only a hammock, he moved into the small hut that had
been built for him in the clearing. Since it was believed that hekuras fled from women, no
females were allowed near the dwelling- not even Xorowe's mother, grandmother, or his
sisters.
A youth who had never been with a woman was chosen to take care of the initiate. It was he
who blew epena into Xorowe's nostrils, who saw that the fire was never out, and made sure
each day that Xorowe had the proper amount of water and honey, the only food the initiate
was allowed. The women always left enough wood outside the shabono, so the boy did not
have to search too far. The men were responsible for finding honey. Each day the shapori
urged them to go farther into the forest for new sources.
Xorowe spent most of the time inside the hut lying in his hammock. Sometimes he sat on a
polished tree trunk Iramamowe had placed outside the dwelling, for he was not supposed to
sit on the ground. Within a week, Xorowe's face had darkened from the epena. His once
glowing eyes were dull and unfocused. His body, dirty and emaciated, moved with the
clumsiness of a drunkard.
Life went on as usual in the shabono, except for the families living closest to Xorowe's hut,
who were not allowed to cook meat on their hearths. According to Puriwariwe, hekuras
detested the smell of roasting meat, and if they so much as caught a whiff of the offensive
odor, they would flee back to the mountains.
Like his apprentice, Puriwariwe took epena day and night. Tirelessly, he chanted for hours,
coaxing the spirits into Xorowe's hut, begging the hekuras to cut open the young man's
chest. Some evenings Arasuwe, Iramamowe, and others accompanied the old man in his
chants.
During the second week, in an uncertain, quivering voice, Xorowe joined in the singing. At
first he only sang the hekura songs of the armadillo, tapir, jaguar, and other large animals,
which were believed to be masculine spirits. They were the easiest to entice. Next he sang
the hekura songs of plants and rocks. And last he sang the songs of the female spirits- the
spider, snake, and hummingbird. They were not only the most difficult to lure but, because
of their treacherous and jealous nature, were hard to control.
Late one night, when most of the shabono was asleep, I sat outside Etewa's hut, and
watched the men chant. Xorowe was so weak one of the men had to hold him up so
Puriwariwe could dance around him. "Xorowe, sing louder," the old man urged him. "Sing
as loud as the birds, as loud as the jaguars." Puriwariwe danced out of the shabono into the
forest. "Xorowe, sing louder," he shouted. "The hekuras dwelling in all the corners of the
world need to hear your song."
Three nights later, Xorowe's joyful cries echoed through the shabono: "Father, Father, the
hekuras are approaching. I can hear their humming and buzzing. They are dancing toward
me. They are opening my chest, my head. They are coming through my fingers and my
feet." Xorowe ran out of the hut. Squatting before the old man, he cried, "Father, Father,
help me, for they are coming through my eyes and nose."
Puriwariwe helped Xorowe to his feet. They began to dance in the clearing, their thin
emaciated shadows spilling across the moonlit ground. Hours later, a despairing scream, the
cry of a panic-stricken child, pierced the dawn. "Father, Father, from today on let no
woman come near my hut."
"That's what they all say," Ritimi mumbled, getting out of her hammock. She stocked the
fire, then buried several plantains under the hot embers. "When Etewa decided to be
initiated as a shapori, I had already gone to live with him," she said. "The night he begged
Puriwariwe to let no woman near him I went to his hut and drove the hekuras away."
"Why did you do that?"
"Etewa's mother urged me to do it," Ritimi said. "She was afraid he would die. She knew
Etewa liked women too much; she knew he would never become a great shapori." Ritimi
sat in my hammock. "I will tell you the whole story." She snuggled comfortably against me,
then began to speak in a low whisper.
"The night the hekuras entered Etewa's chest, he cried out just as Xorowe did tonight. It is
the female hekuras who make such a fuss. They want no woman in the hut. Etewa sobbed
bitterly that night, crying out that an evil woman had passed near his hut. I felt quite sad
when I heard him say that the hekuras had left him."
"Did Etewa know it was you who had been in his hut?"
"No," Ritimi said. "No one saw me. If Puriwariwe knew, he didn't say. He was aware Etewa
would never be a good shapori."
"Why did he get initiated in the first place?"
"There is always the possibility that a man may become a great shapori." Ritimi rested her
head against my arm. "That night many men stayed up chanting for the hekuras to return.
But the spirits had no desire to come back. They had left not only because Etewa had been
soiled by a woman, but because the hekuras were afraid he would never be a good father to
them."
"Why does a man get soiled when he goes with a woman?"
"Shapori do," Ritimi said. "I don't know why, because men as well as shapori enjoy it. I
believe it's the female hekuras who are jealous and afraid of a man who enjoys women too
often." Ritimi went on to explain how a sexually active man had little desire to take epena
and chant to the spirits. Male spirits, she explained, were not possessive. They were content
if a man took the hallucinogenic snuff before and after a hunt or a raid. "I'd rather have a
good hunter and warrior than a good shapori for a husband," she confessed. "Shapori don't
like women much."
"What about Iramamowe?" I asked. "He is considered a great shapori, yet he has two
wives."
"Ohoo, you are so ignorant. I have to explain everything to you." Ritimi giggled.
"Iramamowe does not sleep with his two wives often. His youngest brother, who has no
woman of his own, sleeps with one of them." Ritimi looked around to make sure no one
was overhearing us. "Have you noticed that Iramamowe often goes into the forest by
himself?"
I nodded. "But so do other men."
"And so do women," Ritimi aped me, mispronouncing the words the way I had. I had great
difficulty imitating the proper Iticoteri nasal tone, which probably was a result of their
usually having tobacco wads in their mouths. "That's not what I mean," she said.
"Iramamowe goes into the forest to find what great shapori seek."
"What is that?"
"The strength to travel to the house of thunder. The strength to travel to the sun and come
back alive."
"I've seen Iramamowe sleep in the forest with a woman," I confessed.
Ritimi laughed softly. "I will tell you a very important secret," she whispered. "Iramamowe
sleeps with a woman the way a shapori does. He takes a woman's energy away, but gives
nothing in return."
"Have you slept with him?"
Ritimi nodded. But no matter how much I coaxed and pleaded with her, she would not
elaborate any further.
A week later, Xorowe's mother, sisters, aunts, and cousins started to wail in their huts. "Old
man," the mother cried, "my son has no more strength. Do you want to kill him of hunger?
Do you want to kill him from lack of sleep? It is time you left him alone."
The old shapori paid no attention to their cries. The following evening Iramamowe took
epena and danced in front of his son's hut. He alternated between jumping high in the air
and crawling on all fours, imitating the fierce growls of a jaguar. He stopped abruptly. With
his eyes fixed on some point directly in front of him, he sat on the ground. "Women,
women, do not despair," he cried out in a loud, nasal voice. "For a few more days Xorowe
has to remain without food. Even though he appears weak, and his movements are clumsy,
and he moans in his sleep, he will not die." Standing up, Iramamowe walked toward
Puriwariwe and asked him to blow more epena into his head. Then he returned to the same
spot where he had been sitting.
"Listen carefully," Ritimi urged me. "Iramamowe is one of the few shapori who has
traveled to the sun during his initiation. He has guided others on their first journey. He has
two voices. The one you just heard was his own; the other one is that of his personal
hekura."
Now Iramamowe's words sprang from deep in his chest; like stones rumbling down a
ravine, the words tumbled into the silence of people gathered in their huts. Huddled
together in an atmosphere heavy with smoke and anticipation, they seemed to be barely
breathing. Their eyes glittered with longing for what the personal hekura of Iramamowe
had to say, for what was about to take place in the mysterious world of the initiate.
"My son has traveled into the depths of the earth, and has burned in the hot fires of their
silent caves," said Iramamowe's rumbling hekura voice. "Guided by the hekura eyes, he has
been led through cobwebs of darkness, across rivers and mountains. They have taught him
songs of birds, fishes, snakes, spiders, monkeys, and jaguars.
"Although his eyes and cheeks are sunken, he is strong. Those who have descended into the
silent burning caves; those who have traveled beyond the forest mist, will return with their
personal hekura in their chest. Those are the ones who will be guided to the sun, to the
luminous huts of my brothers and sisters, the hekuras of the sky.
"Women, women, do not cry out his name. Let him go on his journey. Let him depart from
his mother and sisters, so he can reach this world of light, which is more exhausting than
the world of darkness."
Spellbound, I listened to Iramamowe's voice. No one talked, no one moved, no one looked
anywhere but at his figure, sitting rigidly in front of his son's hut. After every pause, his
voice rose to a higher pitch of intensity.
"Women, women, do not despair. On his path he will meet those who have withstood the
long nights of mist. He will meet those who have not turned back. He will meet those who
have not trembled in fear by what they have witnessed during their journey. He will meet
those who had their bodies burned and cut up, those who had their bones removed and
dried in the sun. He will meet those who did not fall into the clouds on their way to the sun.
"Women, women, do not disturb his balance. My son is about to reach the end of his
journey. Do not watch his dark face. Do not look into his hollow eyes that shine with no
light, for he is destined to be a solitary man." Iramamowe stood up. Together with
Puriwariwe he entered Xorowe's hut, where they spent the rest of the night chanting softly
to the hekuras.
A few days later, the youth who had taken care of Xorowe during his long weeks of
initiation washed him with warm water and dried him with fragrant leaves. Then he painted
his body with a mixture of coals and onoto- wavy lines extending from his forehead down
his cheeks and shoulders. The rest of his body was marked with evenly distributed round
spots that reached to his ankles.
For a moment Xorowe stood in the middle of the clearing. His eyes shone sadly from their
hollow sockets, filled with an immense melancholy, as if he had just realized he was no
longer his former human self, but only a shadow. Yet there was an aura of strength about
him that had not been there before, as if the conviction of his newfound knowledge and
experience were more enduring than the memory of his past. Silently Puriwariwe led him
into the forest.
Chapter 16
"White girl!" Ritimi's six-year-old son shouted, running along the manioc rows. Out of
breath, he stopped in front of me, then cried out excitedly, "White girl, your brother..."
"My what?" Dropping my digging stick, I ran toward the shabono. I stopped at the edge of
the cleared strip of forest around the wooden palisade circling the shabono. Although it was
not considered a garden, gourds, cotton, and an assortment of medicinal plants grew there.
According to Etewa, the reason for this cleared strip was that enemies could not possibly
trespass silently through this kind of vegetation as they could a forest cover.
No unusual sounds came from the huts. Crossing the clearing toward the group of people
squatting outside Arasuwe's hut, I was not surprised to see Milagros.
"Blond Indian," he said in Spanish, motioning me to squat beside him. "You even smell like
one."
"I'm glad you are here," I said. "Little Sisiwe said you were my brother."
"I spoke to Father Coriolano at the mission." Milagros pointed to the writing pads, pencils,
sardine cans, boxes of crackers, and sweet biscuits the Iticoteri were passing around.
"Father Coriolano wants me to take you back to the mission," Milagros said, looking at me
thoughtfully.
I could think of nothing to say. Picking up a twig, I drew lines on the dirt. "I can't leave
yet."
"I know." Milagros smiled, but there was a trace of sadness about his lips. His voice was
quite gentle, ironic. "I told Father Coriolano you were doing much work. I convinced him
how important it is for you to finish this remarkable research you are conducting."
I could not repress my giggles. He sounded like a pompous anthropologist. "Did he believe
you?"
Milagros pushed the writing pads and pencils toward me. "I assured Father Coriolano that
you are well." From a small bundle Milagros pulled out a box containing three bars of
Camay soap. "He also gave me these for you."
"What am I to do with them?" I asked, sniffing the scented bars.
"Wash yourself!" Milagros said emphatically, as it he really believed I had forgotten what
soap was for.
"Let me smell it," Ritimi said, lifting a bar from the box. She held it against her nose,
closed her eyes and took one long breath. "Hum. What are you going to wash with it?"
"My hair!" I exclaimed. It occurred to me that perhaps the soap would kill the lice.
"I'll wash mine too," Ritimi said, rubbing the bar on her head.
"Soap only works with water," I explained. "We have to go to the river."
"To the river!" cried the women who had gathered around the men as they stood up.
Laughing, we ran down the path. Men returning from the gardens just gaped at us, whereas
the women accompanying them turned around and ran after us, toward Ritimi, who was
holding the precious soap in her upraised hand.
"You have to get your hair wet," I called out from the water. The women remained on the
bank, looking doubtfully at me. Grinning, Ritimi handed me the soap. Soon my head was
covered with a thick lather. I scrubbed hard, enjoying the dirty suds squishing through my
fingers, down my neck, back, and chest. With a halved calabash I rinsed my hair, using the
soapy water to wash my body. I began to sing an old Spanish commercial advertising
Camay soap- one I used to hear on the radio as a child. "For a heavenly array, there is
nothing like jabon Camay."
"Who wants to be next?" I asked, wading toward the bank where the women stood. I felt I
was glowing with cleanliness.
Stepping back, the women smiled, but none volunteered. "I will, I will," little Texoma
shouted, running into the water.
One by one, the women came closer. Awed, they watched attentively as the suds seemed to
grow out of the child's head. I worked up a stiff lather and shaped Texoma's hair until
spikes stuck out all around her head. Hesitantly, Ritimi touched her daughter's hair. A timid
smile crinkled the corners of her mouth. "Ohoo, what beauty!"
"Keep your eyes closed until I've rinsed out all the soap," I admonished Texoma. "Close
them tight. It hurts if the suds run into your eyes."
"For a heavenly array," Texoma cried out as the soapy water ran down her back. "There is
nothing like . . ." She looked at me and I filled in the rest. "Sing that song again. I want my
hair to turn the color of yours."
"It won't turn my color," I said. "But it will smell good."
"I want to be next!" the women began shouting.
Except for the pregnant ones, who were afraid that the magic soap might harm their unborn
children, I washed at least twenty-five heads. However, not wanting to be outdone, the
pregnant women decided to wash their hair in the accustomed manner- with leaves and mud
from the bottom of the river. To them too I had to sing the silly Camay soap commercial.
By the time we were all scrubbed, my voice was hoarse.
The men gathered around Arasuwe's hut were still listening to Milagros's account of his
visit to the outside world. They sniffed our hair as we squatted beside them. An old woman
crouching next to a youth, pushed his head between her legs. "Sniff this, I washed it with
Camay soap." She began to hum the melody of the commercial.
The men and women burst into guffaws. Still laughing, Etewa shouted, "Grandmother, no
one wants your vagina, even if you fill it with honey."
Cackling, the woman made an obscene gesture, then went inside her hut. "Etewa," she
shouted from her hammock, "I've seen you lying between the legs of even older hags than
myself."
After the laughter subsided, Milagros pointed to the four machetes placed on the ground in
front of him. "Your friends left these at the mission before departing for the city," he said.
"They are for you to give away."
I looked at him helplessly. "Why so few?"
"Because I couldn't carry more," Milagros said cheerfully. "Don't give them to the women."
"I will give them to the headman," I said, gazing at the expectant faces around me.
Grinning, I pushed the four machetes in front of Arasuwe. "My friends sent these for you."
"White girl, you are clever," he said, checking the sharp point of one of the machetes. "This
one I will keep for myself. One is for my brother Iramamowe, who has protected you from
the Mocototeri. One is for Hayama's son, from whose garden and game you eat the most."
Arasuwe looked at Etewa. "One should be for you, but since you were given a machete not
too long ago at one of our feasts I will give the machete to your wives, Ritimi and Tutemi.
They take care of the white girl as if she were their own sister."
For a moment there was absolute silence; then one of the men stood up and addressed
Ritimi. "Give me your machete so I can cut down trees. You don't need to do the work a
man does."
"Don't give it to him," Tutemi said. "It's easier to work in the gardens with a machete than
with a digging stick."
Ritimi looked at the machete, picked it up, then handed it to the man. "I will give it to you.
The worst sin of all is not to give away what others ask of you. I don't want to end up in
shopariwabe."
"Where is that?" I whispered to Milagros.
"Shopariwabe is a place like the missionaries' hell."
I opened one of the sardine cans. After popping one of the silvery oily fish into my mouth, I
offered the can to Ritimi. "Try one," I coaxed her.
She looked at me uncertainly. Between thumb and forefinger, she daintily lifted a piece of
sardine into her mouth. "Ugh, what an ugly taste," she cried, spitting it out.
Milagros took the can from my hand. "Save them. They are for the journey back to the
mission."
"But I'm not going back yet," I said. "They will spoil if we save them for long."
"You should return before the rains," Milagros said gravely. "Once they start, it will be
impossible to cross rivers or walk through the forest."
I could not help the smug grin. "I have to stay at least until Tutemi's child is born," I said. I
was sure the baby would arrive during the rains.
"What shall I tell Father Coriolano?"
"What you told him already," I said mockingly. "That I'm doing remarkable work."
"But he expects you to return before the rains," Milagros said. "It rains for months!"
Smiling, I took one of the boxes of crackers. "We better eat these- they will spoil with the
humidity."
"Don't open the other sardine cans," Milagros said in Spanish. "The Iticoteri won't like
them. I will eat them myself."
"Aren't you afraid to go to shopariwabe?"
Without answering, Milagros passed the already opened can around. Most of the men only
smelled the contents, then handed it to the next person. The ones who were daring enough
to taste the sardines, spit them out. The women did not bother either smelling or trying
them. Milagros smiled at me when the can was returned to him. "They don't like sardines. I
will not go to hell if I eat them all by myself."
The crackers were no success either, except with a few children, who licked off the salt. But
the sweet biscuits, even though they tasted rancid, were eaten with smacking sounds of
approval.
Ritimi appropriated the writing pads and pencils. She insisted I teach her the same kind of
designs with which I had decorated my burned notebook. Dutifully, she practiced writing
the Spanish and English words I had taught her. She was not interested in learning how to
write, even though she eventually learned to draw all the letters of the alphabet, including a
few Chinese ideograms I had once been taught in a calligraphy class. To Ritimi they
remained designs that she painted sometimes on her body, preferring the letters S and W.
Milagros stayed for a few weeks at the shabono. He went hunting with the men and helped
them in the gardens. Most of the time, however, he spent lounging in his hammock, doing
nothing but play with the children. At all hours one could hear their shrieks of delight as
Milagros balanced the younger ones high in the air on his upraised feet. In the evenings he
entertained us with stories about the nape- the white men he had met through the years; the
places he had visited; and the eccentric customs he had observed.
Nape was a term applied to all foreigners- that is, all who were not Yanomama. The Iticoteri
made no distinction between nationalities. To them a Venezuelan, Brazilian, Swede,
German, or American, regardless of their color, were nape.
Seen through Milagros's eyes, these white men appeared peculiar even to me. It was his
sense of humor, his knack for the absurd, and his dramatic rendition that transformed the
most mundane, insignificant event into an extraordinary happening. If ever anyone in the
audience dared to doubt the veracity of his account, Milagros, in a very dignified manner,
would turn to me. "White girl, tell them if I'm lying." No matter how much he had
exaggerated, I never contradicted him.
Chapter 17
Tutemi joined Ritimi and me in the gardens. "I think my time is coming," she said,
dropping her wood-filled basket on the ground. "My arms have no strength. My breathing
is not deep. I can no longer bend easily."
"Are you in pain?" I asked, seeing Tutemi's face twist into a grimace.
She nodded. "I'm also afraid."
Gently Ritimi probed the girl's stomach, first on the sides, then the front. "The baby is
kicking hard. It's time for it to come out." Ritimi turned to me. "Go get old Hayama. Tell
her that Tutemi is in pain. She will know what to do."
"Where will you be?"
Ritimi pointed straight ahead. I cut through the forest, jumping over fallen trunks, heedless
of thorns, roots, and stones. "Come quickly," I shouted, gasping for air, in front of
Hayama's hut. "Tutemi is having her child. She's in pain."
Picking up her bamboo knife, Ritimi's grandmother first went to see an old man living in a
hut across the clearing. "I'm sure you heard the white girl," Hayama said. Seeing the old
man nod, she added, "If we need you, I will send her to get you."
I walked in front of Hayama, impatiently waiting every fifty paces for her to catch up.
Leaning heavily on the piece of broken bow she used as a cane, she seemed to be moving
even more slowly then usual. "Is the old man a shapori?" I asked.
"He knows all there is to know about a child that does not want to be born."
"Tutemi has only pains."
"When there is pain," Hayama said deliberately, "it means that the child doesn't want to
leave the womb."
"I don't think it means that at all." I was unable to disguise the argumentative tone of my
voice. "It's normal for the first child to be difficult," I affirmed, as if I really knew. "White
women have pains with almost every child."
"It's not normal," Hayama affirmed. "Maybe white babies don't want to see the world."
Tutemi's moans came muffled through the underbrush. She was crouching on the platanillo
leaves Ritimi had spread on the ground. Dark shadows circled her feverish eyes. Minute
drops of perspiration shone above her brow and on her upper lip.
"The water has already broken," Ritimi said. "But the baby doesn't want to come."
"Let us go farther into the forest," Tutemi begged. "I don't want anyone at the shabono to
hear my screams."
Tenderly, old Hayama pushed the young woman's bangs back from her forehead, and wiped
the sweat from her face and neck. "It will be better in a moment," she said soothingly, as if
speaking to a child. Each time the contractions came, Hayama pressed hard on Tutemi's
stomach. After what I judged to be an interminably long time, Hayama told me to get the
old shapori.
He was prepared. He had taken epena, and over the fire a dark concoction was boiling.
With a stick he flicked the mucus from his nose, then poured the brew into a gourd.
"What is it made of?"
"Roots and leaves," he said, but did not mention the name of the plant. As soon as we
reached the three women, he urged Tutemi to empty the gourd to the last drop. While she
drank, he danced around her. In a high nasal voice, he pleaded with the hekura of the white
monkey to release the neck of the unborn child.
Slowly, Tutemi's face relaxed, and her eyes lost their frightened expression. "I think the
baby will come now," she said, smiling at the old man.
Hayama held her from behind, stretching Tutemi's arms over her head. While I was
wondering whether it was the concoction or the shaman's dance that had induced such a
state of relaxation, I missed the actual birth. I put my hand over my mouth to stifle a scream
as I saw the umbilical cord wrapped around the neck of the purple-skinned boy. Hayama
cut the cord, then put a leaf on the navel to absorb the blood. She rubbed her forefinger in
the afterbirth, then smeared the finger against the child's lips.
"What is she doing?" I asked Ritimi.
"She is making sure the boy will learn to speak properly."
Before I had a chance to blurt out that the child was dead, the most disconcerting human
cry I have ever heard echoed through the forest. Ritimi picked up the screaming infant, and
motioned me to follow her to the river. She filled her mouth with water, waited for a
moment for it to warm up, then squirted it over the baby. Imitating her, I helped her rinse
his little body clean of slime and blood.
"Now he has three mothers," Ritimi said, handing the baby to me. "Whoever washes a
newborn baby is responsible for it should something happen to the mother. Tutemi will be
happy that you have helped wash her child."
Ritimi filled a large platanillo leaf with mud, while I cradled the boy in uncertain arms. I
had never held a newborn baby before. Looking in awe at the purplish wrinkled face, at his
tiny fists, which he tried to push into his mouth, I wondered what miracle had made him
live.
Hayama wrapped the placenta into a tight bundle of leaves, and placed it under a small
elevated windscreen the old man had built under a tall ceiba. It was to be burned in a few
weeks. With the mud we covered all traces of blood on the ground to prevent wild animals
and dogs from sniffing around.
With the child safely in her arms, Tutemi led the way back to the shabono. Before entering
her hut, she placed him on the ground. We who had witnessed the birth had to step three
times over the baby, thus marking his acceptance into the settlement.
Etewa did not look up from his hammock: He had been resting there since learning that his
youngest wife was in labor. Tutemi entered the hut with their newborn son, and sat by the
hearth. After squeezing her nipple, she pushed it inside the baby's mouth. Avidly, the boy
began to suck, opening his still unfocused eyes from time to time as if imprinting on his
mind this source of food and comfort.
Neither parent ate anything that day. On the second and third day Etewa caught a basketful
of small fish which he cooked and fed to Tutemi. Thereafter both of them slowly resumed a
normal diet.
The day after giving birth, Tutemi returned to work in the gardens with the newborn baby
strapped on her back. Etewa, on the other hand, remained resting in his hammock for a
week. Any physical effort on his part was believed to be deleterious to the infant's health.
On the ninth day Milagros was asked to pierce the boy's earlobes with long rasha palm
thorns, which were kept in the holes. After cutting the sharp points close to the lobes,
Milagros coated each end with resin so the child would not pull the blunted thorns out. On
that same day, the infant was also given the name of Hoaxiwe, for it was a white monkey
that had wanted to keep the child in the womb. It was only a nickname. By the time the boy
started walking, he would be given his real name.
Chapter 18
It was not quite dawn when Milagros leaned over my hammock. I felt his calloused hand
brushing my forehead and cheeks. I could hardly see his features in the darkness. I knew he
was leaving. I waited for him to speak, but fell asleep without finding out whether he had
actually wanted to say something.
"The rains will come soon," old Kamosiwe announced that evening. "I've seen the size of
the young turtles. I've been listening to the croaking of the rain frogs."
Four days later, in the early afternoon, the wind blew with terrifying force through the trees
and the shabono. The empty hammocks swung back and forth like boats on a tempestuous
sea. The leaves on the ground swirled in spiralling dances that died as suddenly as they had
begun.
I stood in the middle of the clearing, watching the gusts of wind coming from every
direction. Pieces of bark flattened against my shins. Kicking my legs, I tried to shake the
bark off, but it stuck to me as if it had been glued on. Giant black clouds darkened the sky.
The steady far-off roar of approaching rain grew louder as it moved across the forest.
Thunder rumbled through the clouds, and the flickering of white lightning flashed through
the afternoon darkness. The groans of a falling tree, hit by lightning, echoed through the
forest with the mournful clamor of other uprooted trees crashing to the ground.
Shrieking, the women and children huddled together behind the plantains stacked against
the sloping roof. Seizing a log from the fire, old Hayama rushed into Iramamowe's hut.
Desperately, she began to beat one of the poles. "Wake up!" she screamed. "Your father is
not here. Wake up! Defend us from the hekuras." Hayama was addressing Iramamowe's
personal hekura, for he was out hunting with several other men.
Thunder and lightning receded into the distance as the clouds broke open above us. The
rain came in a solid sheet, so dense we could not see across the clearing. Moments later, the
sky was clear. I accompanied old Kamosiwe to look at the roaring river. Masses of earth
toppled from the banks, gouged out by the raging torrent. Each landslide was followed by
the tearing of vines, which snapped with sounds like breaking bowstrings.
A great stillness settled over the forest. Not a bird, insect, or frog could be heard. Suddenly,
without any warning, a growl of thunder seemed to come directly out of the sun, cracking
over our heads. "But there are no clouds," I shouted, falling on the ground as if struck.
"Don't defy the spirits," Kamosiwe warned me. Cutting two large leaves, he motioned me
to take cover. Squatting side by side, we watched the rain cascade down from a clear sky.
Gusts of wind shook the forest until the curtain of dark clouds hid the sun once more.
"Storms are caused by the dead whose bones have not been burned; whose ashes have not
been eaten," old Kamosiwe said. "It's these unfortunate spirits, longing to be cremated, who
heat up the clouds until fires light up the sky."
"Fires that will finally burn them," I completed his sentence.
"Ohoo, you are not so ignorant anymore," Kamosiwe said. "The rains have started. You will
be with us for many days- you will learn so much more."
Smiling, I nodded. "Do you think Milagros has reached the mission?"
Kamosiwe looked at me askance, then broke into a hoarse, raspy laughter, the laughter of a
very old man, resounding eerily in the noise of the rain. He still had most of his teeth.
Strong and yellowish, they stood out from his receding gums like pieces of aged ivory.
"Milagros did not go to the mission. He went to see his wife and children."
"At which settlement does Milagros live?"
"In many."
"Does he have a wife and children in all of them?"
"Milagros is a talented man," Kamosiwe said, his one dark eye shining with a devilish glint.
"He has a white woman somewhere."
Filled with anticipation, I looked at Kamosiwe. I was finally going to learn something about
Milagros. But the old man remained silent. When he put his hand in mine, I knew his mind
had wandered elsewhere. Slowly, I massaged his gnarled fingers.
"Old man, are you really Milagros's grandfather?" I asked, hoping to bring him back to the
subject of Milagros.
Startled, Kamosiwe looked into my face, his one eye scrutinizing me intently as if he had
thought of something. Mumbling, he gave me his other hand to massage.
Absentmindedly, I watched his one eye rolling into his socket as he drowsed. "I wonder
how old you really are?"
Kamosiwe's eye came to rest on my face, clouded with memories. "If you lay out the time
I've lived, it would reach all the way to the moon," Kamosiwe murmured. "That's how old I
am."
We stayed under the leaves, watching the dark clouds disperse across the sky. Mist drifted
through the trees, filtering the light to a ghostly gray.
"The rains have started," Kamosiwe repeated softly as we walked back to the shabono. The
fires in the huts produced more smoke than heat, but the rainy air created a misty warmth. I
stretched in my hammock, and fell asleep to the distant and confused sounds of the
storming forest.
The morning was cold and damp. Ritimi, Tutemi, and I stayed in our hammocks the whole
day, eating baked plantains, and listening to the rain pound on the palm-hatched roofs.
"I wish Etewa and the others had returned last night from the hunt," Ritimi mumbled from
time to time, looking at the sky, which changed only from a faint white to gray.
The hunters returned late in the afternoon of the following day. Iramamowe and Etewa
walked directly into old Hayama's hut carrying her youngest son Matuwe in a litter made
from bark strips. Matuwe had been injured by a falling branch. Carefully, the two men
transferred him to his own hammock. His leg hung limply down and his shinbone
threatened to pierce the swollen purple skin.
"It's broken," old Hayama said.
"It's broken," I repeated with the rest of the women in the hut. I had adopted the habit of
stating the obvious. It was a way of expressing concern, love, sympathy all at once.
Matuwe gasped in pain as Hayama set the leg straight. Ritimi held his foot outstretched
while the old woman made a splint with broken pieces of arrow shafts. Deftly, she arranged
them along each side of the leg, inserting cotton fibers in between the skin and cane.
Around the splint, extending all the way from the ankle to the middle of his thigh, Hayama
bound fresh strips of a thin, resistant bark.
Totemi and Xotomi, the man's young wife, giggled each time Matuwe moaned. They were
not amused, but were trying to cheer him up. "Oh, Matuwe, it doesn't hurt," Xotomi tried to
convince him. "Remember how glad you were when your head was bleeding after you had
been hit with a club at the last feast."
"Stay still," Hayama said to her son. Fastening a liana rope over one of the rafters, she tied
one end to his ankle, the other to his thigh. "Now you cannot move your leg," she said,
inspecting her work with satisfaction.
About two weeks later, Hayama removed the bark and cane splint. The purple bruised leg
had turned green and yellowish but was no longer swollen. She probed around the bone
lightly. "It's growing together," she announced, then proceeded to massage the leg with
warm water. Every day, for almost a month, she went through the same routine of
unfastening the cast, massaging the leg, then tying it back to the rafter.
"The bone is mended," Hayama affirmed one day, breaking the cane splint into small
pieces.
"But my leg is not healed!" Matuwe protested in alarm. "I cannot move it properly."
Hayama calmed him, explaining that his knee had become stiff from having had his leg
stretched out for so long. "I'll continue massaging your leg until you can walk as you did
before."
The rains brought with them a sense of tranquillity, of timelessness, as day and night
blurred into each other. No one worked much in the gardens. For endless hours we lay or
sat in our hammocks conversing in that odd way people do when it rains, with long pauses
and absentminded stares into the distance.
Ritimi tried to make a basket weaver out of me. I started out with what I thought was the
easiest kind- the large U-shaped basket used for carrying wood. The women had great fun
watching my awkward attempts at trying to master the simple twining technique. I then
concentrated my efforts on something I believed to be more manageable- the flat, disklike
baskets used for storing fruit or separating the ashes from the bones of the dead. Although I
was quite pleased with the finished product, I had to agree with old Hayama that the basket
did not look the way it was supposed to.
Grinning at her, I remembered the time a school friend had done her best to teach me how
to knit. In the most relaxed manner, while watching TV, talking, or waiting for an
appointment, she knitted beautiful sweaters, mittens, and skiing caps. I sat tensely beside
her, with tight shoulders, my stiff fingers holding the needles only inches away from my
face, cursing every time I dropped a stitch.
I was not ready to give up basketry. One had to try at least three times, I told myself, as I
began to make one of the flat fishing baskets.
"Ohoo, white girl." Xotomo giggled uncontrollably. "You didn't twine it tight enough." She
put her fingers through the loosely woven vine strips. "The fish will slip through the holes."
Finally I resigned myself to the simple task of splitting the bark and vines needed for
weaving into the most perfectly even strands, which were much in demand. Emboldened by
my success, I made a hammock. I cut strands about seven feet long, tied the ends firmly
together, reinforcing them with intertwined bark rope below the binding. I joined the liana
strands loosely with transverse cotton yarn, which I had dyed red with onoto. Ritimi was so
enchanted with the hammock, she replaced Etewa's old one with it.
"Etewa, I made a new hammock for you," I said as he came in from working in the gardens.
He looked at me skeptically. "You think it will hold me?"
I clicked my tongue in affirmation, showing him how well I had reinforced the ends.
Hesitantly he sat in the hammock. "It seems strong," he said, stretching fully. I heard the
rubbing of the vine rope against the pole, but before I could warn him Etewa and the
hammock were on the ground.
Ritimi, Tutemi, Arasuwe, and his wives, watching from the hut next to us, burst into
guffaws, immediately attracting a large crowd. Slapping each other on their thighs and
shoulders, they doubled up with laughter. Later I asked Ritimi if she had tied the hammock
loosely on purpose.
"Naturally," she said, her eyes shining with loving malice. She assured me that Etewa was
not in the least upset. "Men enjoy being outwitted by a woman."
Although I had my doubts as to whether Etewa had actually enjoyed the incident, he
certainly held no grudge against me. He advertised throughout the shabono how well he
was resting in his new hammock. I was besieged with requests. Sometimes I made as many
as three hammocks a day. Several men busied themselves supplying me with cotton, which
they separated by hand from the seeds. With a whorl stick they spun the fibers into thread,
and twisted them into the strong yarn which I loosely wove in between the strands.
With a finished hammock draped over my arm, I entered Iramamowe's hut one afternoon.
"Are you going to make arrows?" I asked him. He had climbed up a pole in his hut and was
reaching for cane stored under the rafters of the roof.
"Is this hammock for me?" he asked, handing me the cane. He took the hammock, fastened
it, then sat astride on it. "It's well made."
"I made it for your eldest wife," I said. "I'll make you one if you teach me how to make
arrows."
"It isn't time to make arrows," Iramamowe said. "I was only checking if the cane is still
dry." He regarded me mockingly, then burst into laughter. "The white girl wants to make
arrows," he shouted at the top of his voice. "I will teach her, and take her hunting with me."
Still laughing, he motioned me to sit beside him. He spread the cane on the ground, then
sorted the shafts according to size. "The long ones are best for hunting. Short ones are best
for fishing and killing the enemy. Only a good marksman will use long ones for whatever
he pleases. They are often flawed and their trajectory is imprecise."
Iramamowe selected a short and a long shaft. "In here I will fit the arrowhead," he said,
splitting one end of each cane. Firmly he tied them together with cotton thread. He cut a
few feathers in half, then attached them to the other end by means of resin and cotton
thread. "Some hunters decorate their shafts with their personal designs. I only do so when I
go raiding. I like my enemy to know who killed him."
Like most Iticoteri men, Iramamowe was a superb raconteur, animating his stories with
precise onomatopoeia, [* onomatopoeia- using words that imitate the sound they denote]
dramatic gestures, and pauses. Step by step, he took his listener through the hunt: how he
first spotted the animal; how before releasing his arrow he blew on it the powdered roots of
one of his magic plants to immobilize his victim, thus making sure his arrow would not fail
to hit its target; and how, once hit, the animal resisted dying.
With his eyes fixed on me, he emptied the contents of his quiver on the ground. In great
detail he explained about all the arrowheads he had. "This is one of the palmwood points,"
he said, handing me a sharp piece of wood. "It's made from splinters. The ringlike grooves
cut into the point are smeared with mamucori. They break inside the animal's body. It's the
best point for hunting monkeys." He smiled, then added, "And for killing the enemy."
Next he held up a long, wide point, sharpened along its edges and decorated with
meandering lines. "This one is good for hunting jaguars and tapirs."
The excited barking of dogs, mingled with the shouts of people, interrupted Iramamowe's
explanation. I followed him as he rushed toward the river. An anteater the size of a small
bear had taken refuge from the barking dogs in the water. Etewa and Arasuwe had wounded
the animal on the neck, stomach, and back. Raised on its hind legs, it pawed the air
desperately with its powerful front claws.
"Want to finish it off with my arrow?" Iramamowe asked.
Unable to avert my gaze from the animal's long tongue, I shook my head. I was not sure
whether he was serious or joking. The animal's tongue hung out of a narrow muzzle,
dripping a sticky liquid in which dead ants swam. Iramamowe's arrow hit the anteater's tiny
ear, and instantly the animal collapsed. The men tied ropes around the massive body, then
hoisted it up the bank, where Arasuwe quartered the animal so the men could carry the
heavy pieces to the shabono.
The men singed off the hair, then placed the various pieces on a wooden platform built over
the fire. As soon as Hayama wrapped the innards in pishaansi leaves, she buried them in the
embers.
"An anteater," the children cried out. Clapping their hands in delight, they danced around
the fire.
"Wait until it's cooked properly," old Hayama warned the children, whenever one poked at
the tightly wrapped bundles. "You will get sick if you eat meat that isn't well done. It has to
cook until no more juice drips from the leaves."
The liver was done first. Hayama cut me a piece before the children got to it. It was tender,
juicy, and unpleasantly sour, as if it had been marinated in rancid lemon juice.
Later Iramamowe brought me a piece of the roasted hind leg. "Why didn't you want to try
my arrow?" he asked.
"I might have hit one of the dogs," I said evasively, biting into the tough meat. It too tasted
sour. I looked up into Iramamowe's face, and wondered if he had been aware that I did not
want to be even vaguely compared to Imaawami, the woman shaman who knew how to call
the hekuras and hunted like a man.
On stormy afternoons the men took epena, and chanted to the hekura of the anaconda to
twist herself around the trees so as to prevent the wind from breaking their trunks. During
one particularly vicious storm, old Kamosiwe rubbed white ashes over his wrinkled body.
In a hoarse, raspy voice he called out to the spider, his personal hekura, to spin her
protective silvery threads around the plants in the gardens.
Suddenly his voice changed to a higher pitch, as shrill as the piercing shriek of a parakeet.
"I was once an old child who climbed to the tallest treetop. I fell, and was transformed into
a spider. Why do you disturb my peaceful sleep?"
Reverting again to his old man's voice, Ramosiwe rose from his squatting position. "Spider,
I want to blow your sting on those hekuras who break and tear the plants in our gardens."
With his epena cane, he blew all around the shabono, aiming the spider sting against the
destructive spirits.
The following morning I accompanied Kamosiwe into the gardens. Smiling, he pointed to
the small hairy spiders busily reweaving their webs. Minute drops of moisture clung to the
tenuous silvery threads. In the sunshine they glistened like jade pearls, reflecting the
greenness of leaves.
We walked through the steaming forest toward the river. Squatting next to each other we
silently watched the broken lianas, trees, and masses of leaves speeding by in the muddy
waters. Back in the shabono, Kamosiwe invited me into his hut to share with him his
specialty- roasted ants dipped in honey.
A favorite pastime during these rainy nights was for a woman to ridicule her husband for a
wrongdoing through a song. A quarrel ensued whenever the woman hinted that her man
was better fit to carry a basket than a bow. These disputes always ended up as public
arguments, in which others took an active part by expressing their own opinions.
Sometimes hours after the quarrel had ended someone would shout across the clearing with
a fresh insight into the particular problem, thus renewing the squabble.
PART FIVE
Chapter 19
Whenever the sun pierced through the clouds, I went with the women and men to work in
the gardens. The weeds were much easier to pull from the soaked ground, but I had little
energy. Like old Kamosiwe, I just stood amidst the high blades of the manioc plants, and
soaked up the light and warmth of the sun. Counting the birds, which had not appeared for
days, crossing the sky, I wished for the hot rainless days. After so many weeks of rain, I
longed for the sun to stay long enough to lift the mist.
One morning I felt so dizzy I could not get out of my hammock. I lowered my head toward
my knees, and waited for the spell to pass. I did not have the strength to lift my head and
answer Ritimi's anxious words which were lost in the loud persistent noise around me. It
must be the river, I thought: It was not too far away.
But then I realized the noise came from another direction. Desperately, as if my life
depended on it, I tried to think where the sound actually came from: It came from within
me.
For days I heard nothing but drumming in my head. I wanted to open my eyes. I could not.
Through my closed lids I saw the stars burn brighter instead of fading in the sky. Panic
seized me at the thought that it would be night forever, that I was descending deeper and
deeper into a world of shadows and disconnected dreams.
Waving from misty riverbanks, Ritimi, Tutemi, Etewa, Arasuwe, Iramamowe, Hayama, old
Kamosiwe drifted by me. Sometimes they jumped from cloud to cloud, sweeping the mist
with leafy brooms. Whenever I called them, they melted into the fog. Sometimes I could
see the light of the sun, shining red and yellow, between branches and leaves. I forced my
eyes to stay open, and realized it had only been the fire dancing on the palm-thatched roof.
"White people need food when they are sick," I distinctly heard Milagros's shouts. I felt his
lips on mine as he pushed masticated meat into my mouth.
Another time I recognized the shapori Puriwariwe's voice. "Clothes make people ill." I felt
him pull my blanket away. "I need to cool her down. Get me white mud from the river." I
felt his hands coil around my body, covering me with mud from the top of my head to the
tip of my toes. His lips left a trail of coldness on my skin as he sucked the evil spirits out of
me. My hours of wakefulness and sleep were filled with his voice.
Wherever I focused my eyes in the darkness, Puriwariwe's face appeared. I heard the song
of his hekura. I felt the sharp hummingbird's beak cut open my chest. The beak turned into
light. Not the light of the sun or the light of the moon, but the dazzling radiance of the old
shapori's eyes. He urged me to look into his deep pupils. His eyes appeared lidless,
extending toward his temples. They were filled with dancing birds.
The eyes of a madman, I thought.
I saw his hekuras suspended in dewdrops, dancing in the shiny eyes of a jaguar, and I drank
the watery tears of the epena. A violent tickling in my throat tightened my stomach until I
vomited water. It flowed out of the hut, out of the shabono, and down the path to the river,
melting with the night of smoke and chanting.
Opening my eyes, I sat up in my hammock. I distinctly saw Puriwariwe running outside the
hut. He stretched his arms to the night, his fingers spread wide as if summoning the energy
of the stars. Turning around, he looked at me. "You are going to live," he said. "The evil
spirits have left your body." Then he disappeared into the shadows of the night.
After weeks of violent storms, the rains abated to an even, almost predictable pattern.
Dawns would arrive opaque and misty, but by midmorning white fluffy clouds would drift
across the sky. Hours later the clouds would gather above the shabono. They would hang so
low that they appeared to be suspended from the trees, ominously darkening the afternoon
sky. A heavy downpour would follow, fading to a light drizzle that often continued far into
the night.
I did not work much in the gardens during those rainless mornings but usually accompanied
the children into the swamps that had formed around the river. There we would catch frogs
and pry out crabs from underneath stones.
The children, on all fours, eyes and ears alert to the slightest motion and sound, pounced
with uncanny agility. on the unsuspecting frogs. With eyes that looked almost transparent
because of the diffused light, the little girls and boys worked with the precision of evil
gnomes as they pulled the fiber loops around the frogs' necks until the last croak died down.
Smiling, with the candor only children have when unaware of their cruelty, they would cut
open the frogs' feet so that all the blood, which was believed to be poisonous, could flow
out. After the frogs had been skinned, each child would wrap his catch in pishaansi leaves
and cook them over the fire. With manioc gruel, they tasted delicious.
Mostly, I just sat on a rock in the tall bamboo grass and watched rows of shiny black and
yellow scarabs climb with careful, almost imperceptible slowness up and down the light
green stems. They looked like creatures of another world, protected by their brilliant armor
of obsidian and gold. On windless mornings it was so quiet in the bamboo grass that I could
hear the beetles sucking sap from the tender shoots.
Early one morning, Arasuwe sat at the head of my hammock. There was a cheerful glow on
his face, extending from his high cheekbones to his lower lip, where a wad of tobacco
protruded. The concentration of wrinkles around his eyes deepened as he grinned, adding a
reassuring warmth to his expression. I fixed my gaze on his thick, ribbed nails as he cupped
his brown hand to catch the last drops of honey from a calabash. He extended his hand
toward me and I dipped my finger in his palm. "This is the best honey I've had for a long
time," I said, licking my finger with relish.
"You can come with me downriver," Arasuwe said. He went on to explain that with two of
his wives and his two youngest sons-in-law, one of which was Matuwe, he was going to an
abandoned garden where months earlier they had felled several palm trees to harvest the
tasty palm hearts. "Do you remember how much you liked the crisp, crunchy shoots?" he
asked. "By now the decaying pith in the dead trunks must be filled with fat worms."
As I was pondering on how to express that I would not like the grubs as much as I had
enjoyed the palm hearts, Ritimi came to sit beside me. "I will also go to the gardens," she
said. "I have to watch over the white girl."
Arasuwe blew his nose, flicking the mucus away with his forefinger, then laughed. "My
daughter, we are going by canoe. I thought you didn't like traveling on water."
"It's better than walking through a swampy forest," Ritimi said flippantly.
Ritimi came instead of Arasuwe's youngest wife. For a short distance we walked along the
riverbank until we reached an embankment. Hidden underneath the thicket was a long
canoe.
"It looks like one of the large troughs you use for making soup," I said, eyeing the bark
contraption suspiciously.
Proudly, Arasuwe explained that both were made in exactly the same fashion. The bark of a
large tree was loosened in one piece by pounding the trunk with clubs. Then the ends were
heated over a fire to make them pliable enough to be folded back and pinched into a flatnosed
basin, and finally the ends were lashed together with vines. A crude framework of
sticks Was added to give the boat its stability.
The men pushed the canoe into the water. Giggling, Arasuwe's second wife, Ritimi, and I
climbed inside. Afraid to upset the tublike craft, I did not dare move from my crouching
position. Arasuwe maneuvered the canoe with a pole into the middle of the river.
With their backs turned to their mother-in-law, the two young men sat as far away from her
as they could. I wondered why Arasuwe had brought them at all. It was considered
incestuous for a man to be familiar with his wife's mother, especially if the woman was still
sexually active. Men usually avoided their mothers-in-law altogether, to the extent that they
did not even look at them. And under no circumstances did they say their names aloud.
The current seized us, carrying us swiftly down the gurgling, muddy river. There were
stretches when the waters were calm, reflecting the trees on either side of the bank with
exaggerated intensity. Gazing at the mirrored leaves, I had the feeling we were ripping
through an intricately laced veil. The forest was silent. From time to time we caught sight
of a bird gliding across the sky. Without flapping its wings, it seemed to be flying asleep.
The ride was over all too soon. Arasuwe beached the canoe in the sand amidst black basalt
rocks.
"Now we have to walk," he said, looking at the dark forest ascending in front of us.
"What about the canoe?" I asked. "We should turn it upside down so the afternoon rain
won't fill it with water."
Arasuwe scratched his head, then burst into laughter. He had mentioned on different
occasions that I was far too opinionated- not necessarily because I was a woman, but
because I was young. Old people, regardless of sex, were respected and held in esteem.
Their advice was sought and followed. It was the young ones who were discouraged from
voicing their judgments. "We will not use the boat to get back," Arasuwe said. "It's too hard
to pole upriver."
"Who is going to take it back to the shahonof" I could not help asking, afraid we would
have to carry it.
"No one," he assured me. "The boat is only good for going downstream." Grinning,
Arasuwe turned the canoe upside down. "Maybe someone else will need it to go farther
downriver."
It felt good to move my cramped legs. We walked silently through the wet, marshy forest.
Matuwe was in front of me. He was thin and long legged. His quiver hung so low on his
back that it bumped back and forth on his buttocks. I began to whistle a little tune. Matuwe
turned around. His scowling face made me giggle. I had the overwhelming temptation to
poke his buttocks with the quiver, but controlled my impulse. "Don't you like your motherin-
law?" I asked, unable to refrain myself from teasing him.
Grinning shyly, Matuwe blushed at my impudence for having spoken Arasuwe's wife's
name aloud in front of him. "Don't you know that a man cannot look at, talk to, or be near
his mother-in-law?"
His stricken tone made me feel guilty for having teased him. "I didn't know," I lied.
Upon arriving at the site, Ritimi assured me that it was the same abandoned garden she and
Tutemi had taken me to after our first encounter in the forest. I did not recognize the place.
It was so overgrown with weeds, I had a hard time finding the temporary shelters I knew to
stand around the plantain trees.
Slashing the weeds with their machetes, the men looked for the fallen palm tree trunks.
After uncovering them, they dug out the decaying pith, then broke it open with their bare
hands. Ritimi and Arasuwe's wife shrieked ecstatically as they saw the wriggling grubs,
some as big as Ping-Pong balls. Squatting beside the men, they helped bite off each larva's
head, pulling it away together with the intestines. The white torsos were collected in
pishaansi leaves. Whenever Ritimi damaged a grub, which she did quite often, she ate it
raw on the spot, smacking her lips in approval.
Despite their mocking pleas that I help them prepare the grubs, I could not bring myself to
touch the squirming blobs, let alone to bite off their heads. Borrowing Matuwe's machete, I
cut down banana fronds with which to cover the roofs of the badly weathered shelters.
Arasuwe called me as soon as some of the larvae were roasting on the fire. "Eat it," he
urged, pushing one of the bundles in front of me. "You need the fat- you haven't had enough
lately. That's why you have diarrhea," he added in a tone that begged no argument.
I grinned sheepishly. With a resoluteness I did not feel, I opened the tightly bound package.
The shrunken, whitish grubs were swimming in fat; they smelled like burnt bacon.
Watching the others, I first licked the pishaansi leaf, then carefully popped a grub into my
mouth. It tasted wonderfully similar to the burned gristly fat around a New York steak.
At dusk, soon after we had settled into one of the repaired huts, Arasuwe announced in a
solemn tone that we had to return to the shabono.
"You want to travel at night?" Matuwe asked incredulously. "What about the roots we
wanted to dig up in the morning?"
"We cannot stay here," Arasuwe reiterated. "I can feel it in my legs that something is about
to happen at the shabono." Closing his eyes, he swung his head to and fro as if the slow,
rhythmic movement could provide him with an answer as to what he should do. "We have
to reach the shabono by dawn," he said determinedly.
Ritimi distributed among our baskets the nearly forty pounds of grubs the men had
recovered from the decaying palm trunks, placing the smallest amount into mine. Arasuwe
and his two sons-in-law took the half-burned logs from the fire, then we set out in single
file. To keep the makeshift torches glowing, the men blew on them periodically, dispersing
a shower of sparks amidst the damp shadows.
At times the almost full moon cut through the leaves, casting an eerie, bluish-green light on
the path. The tall tree trunks stood like columns of smoke dissolving in the humid air, as if
intent on eluding the embrace of vines and parasitic growths hanging across space. Only the
trees' crowns were perfectly outlined against the moving clouds.
Arasuwe stopped often, cocking his ear to the slightest sound, his eyes darting back and
forth in the darkness. He breathed deeply, dilating his nostrils, as if he could detect
something besides the smell of wetness and decay. When he looked at us women, his eyes
appeared anxious. I wondered if the memories of raids, ambushes, and God knows what
other dangers rushed through his mind. But I did not dwell for too long on the headman's
worried expression. I was too concerned in making sure the exposed roots of the giant
ceibas were not bulging anacondas digesting a tapir or a peccary.
Arasuwe waded into a shallow river. He cupped his hand behind his ear as if trying to catch
the faintest sound. Ritimi whispered that her father was listening to the echoes of the
current, to the murmur of the spirits that knew of the dangers lying ahead. Arasuwe placed
his hands on the surface of the water, and for a moment held the reflected image of the
moon.
As we walked on, the moon faded into a misty, barely discernible image. I wondered if the
lonely clouds traversing the sky were trying to keep abreast of us in their journey toward
morning. Little by little, the calls of monkeys and birds faded, the night breeze ceased, and
I knew dawn was not far away.
We arrived at the shabono at that time of still indeterminate grayness when it is no longer
night and not yet morning. Many of the Iticoteri were still asleep. Those who were up
greeted us, surprised to see us back so soon.
Relieved that Arasuwe's fears had been unfounded, I lay down in my hammock.
I was awakened abruptly when Xotomi sat beside me. "Eat this quickly," she urged,
handing me a baked plantain. "Yesterday I saw the kind of fish you and I like best."
Without waiting to hear whether or not I was too tired to go, she handed me my small bow
and short arrows. The thought of eating fish instead of grubs quickly dispelled my fatigue.
"I want to come too," little Sisiwe said, following us. We headed upriver, where the waters
formed wide pools. Not a leaf stirred, not a bird or frog could be heard.
Squatting on a rock, we watched the early rays of the sun filter through the mist-enshrouded
canopy of leaves. As if strained through a gauzy veil, the faint rays lit the dark waters of the
pool.
"I heard something," little Sisiwe whispered, holding on to my arm. "I heard a branch
snap."
"I heard it too," Xotomi said softly.
I was sure it was not an animal but the unmistakable sound of a human who steps with
caution, then stops at the noise he has made.
"There he is," Sisiwe shouted, pointing across the river. "It's the enemy," he added, then
fled toward the shabono.
Grabbing my arm, Xotomi pulled me to the side. I turned around. All I saw were the dewy
ferns on the opposite bank. At that same instant Xotomi let out a piercing scream. An arrow
had hit her in the leg. I dragged her into the bushes by the side of the path, insisting we
crawl farther into the thicket until we were hidden completely.
"We will wait here until the Iticoteri come to rescue us," I said, examining her leg.
Xotomi wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. "If it's a raid, the men
will stay in the shabono to defend the women and children."
"They will come," I said with a confidence I was far from feeling. "Little Sisiwe went for
help." The barbed point had pierced through her calf. I broke the arrow, pulled the head
from the ghastly wound that was bleeding from both sides, then wrapped my torn
underpants around her leg. Blood soaked through the thin cotton instantly. Worried that the
arrow might have been poisoned, I carefully undid the makeshift bandage and examined the
wound once again to see if the flesh around it was getting dark. Iramamowe had explained
to me that a wound caused by a poisoned arrow invariably darkened. "I don't think the
arrowhead was smeared with mamiicori," I said.
"Yes. I also noticed," she said, smiling faintly. Leaning her head to one side, she motioned
me to be still.
"Do you think there is more than one man?" I whispered when I heard the sound of a twig
snapping.
Xotomi looked at me, her eyes wide with fear. "There usually are."
"We can't wait here like frogs," I said, taking my bow and arrows. Quietly, I crawled toward
the path. "Show your face, you coward, you monkey! You have shot at a woman!" I yelled
in a voice that did not sound like my own. For good measure I added the words I knew an
Iticoteri warrior would say: "I will kill you on the spot when I see you!"
No farther than twelve feet from where I stood a blackened face peeked from behind the
leaves. His hair was wet. I had an irrational desire to laugh. I was sure he had not taken a
bath, but had slipped crossing the river, for the water was only waist high.
I pointed my arrow at him. For an instant I was at a loss as to what to say next. "Drop your
weapons on the path," I finally shouted. Then for good measure I added, "My arrows are
poisoned with the best mamucori the Iticoteri make. Drop your weapons," I repeated. "I'm
aiming at your stomach, right where death lies."
Wide-eyed, as if he were apprehending an apparition, the man stepped out on the trail. He
was not much taller than I, but was powerfully built. His bow and arrows were clutched
tightly in his hands.
"Drop your weapons on the ground," I repeated, stomping my right foot for emphasis.
With careful slowness, the man placed his bow and arrows on the path in front of him.
"Why did you shoot at my friend?" I asked as I saw Xotomi crawling out to the path.
"I did not want to shoot at her," he said, his eyes fixed on the torn, bloodied makeshift
bandage wrapped around Xotomi's leg. "I wanted to shoot at you."
"At me!" I felt helpless in my anger. I opened and closed my mouth repeatedly, unable to
utter a single word. When I finally regained my speech, I stammered insult upon insult in
all the languages I knew, including Iticoteri, which had the most descriptive profanities of
all.
Transfixed, the man stood in front of me, seemingly more surprised by my foul language
than at the arrow I still held pointed at him. Neither one of us noticed Arasuwe and Etewa
approach.
"A Mocototeri coward," Arasuwe said. "I ought to kill you on the spot."
"He wanted to kill me," I said in a cracking voice. I felt all my courage melt away, leaving
me shaking. "He shot Xotomi in the leg."
"I didn't want to kill you," the Mocototeri said, eyeing me supplicantly. "I only wanted to
hit your leg so as to prevent you from running away." He turned to Arasuwe. "You can be
assured of my good intentions; my arrows are not poisoned." He looked at Xotomi. "I hit
you accidentally when you dragged the white girl away," he mumbled, as if not fully
accepting that he had missed.
"How many more of you are here?" Arasuwe asked, squatting beside his daughter. Not for a
moment did he take his eyes from the Mocototeri as he ran his fingers over the wound. "It's
not bad," he said, straightening up.
"There are two more." The Mocototeri imitated the call of a bird, and was immediately
answered by similar cries. "We wanted to take the white girl with us. Our people want her
to stay at our shabono."
"How do you think I could have walked if I was injured?" I asked.
"We would have carried you in a hammock," the man said promptly, smiling at me.
Shortly, two other Mocototeri emerged from the thicket. Grinning, they stared at me, not in
the least embarrassed or afraid for having been caught.
"How long have you been here?" Arasuwe asked.
"We have been watching the white girl for several days," one of the men said. "We know
she likes to catch frogs with the children." The man smiled broadly as he turned toward me.
"There are many frogs around our shabono."
"Why have you waited so long?" Arasuwe asked.
In the frankest manner the man observed that there had always been too many women and
children around me. He had hoped to capture me at dawn when I went to relieve myself, for
he had heard that I preferred going far into the forest by myself. "But we didn't see her go,
not even once."
Grinning, Arasuwe and Etewa looked at me, as if waiting for me to elaborate on the matter.
I stared back at them. Since the rains had started, I had noticed a lot more snakes around the
usual places set aside for bodily functions, but I was not going to discuss with them where I
went instead.
With the same enthusiasm as if he were telling a story, the Mocototeri went on to explain
that they had not come to kill any of the Iticoteri, or to abduct any of their women. "All we
wanted was to take the white girl with us." The man laughed, then uttered, "Wouldn't it
have surprised you and your people if suddenly the white girl had disappeared without
leaving a trace?"
Arasuwe conceded that indeed it would have been quite a feat. "But we would have known
it was the Mocototeri who had taken her. You were careless enough to leave footprints in
the mud. I saw plenty of evidence as I was scouting around the shabono that Mocototeri
had been here. Last night I had the certainty something was amiss- that's why I returned so
promptly from our trip to the old gardens." Arasuwe paused for a moment, as if giving the
three men time for his words to sink in, then declared, "Had you taken the white girl with
you, we would have raided your settlement and taken her back, as well as some of your
women."
The man who had shot Xotomi in the leg picked up his bow and arrows from the ground.
"Today was a good time, I thought. There was only one woman and a child with the white
girl." He looked helplessly at me. "But I hit the wrong person. There must be powerful
hekuras in your settlement protecting the white girl." He shook his head, as if full of doubt,
then fixed his gaze on Arasuwe. "Why does she use a man's weapon? We saw her one
morning at the river with the women, shooting fish like a man. We did not know what to
think of her. That is why I failed to hit her. I no longer knew what she was."
Arasuwe commanded the three men to walk toward the shabono.
I was overwhelmed with the absurdity of the whole situation. Only the thought that Xotomi
had been hurt kept me from laughing, yet a convulsive smile kept rising to my lips. I tried
to keep a sober expression but I could feel my mouth twitching. I carried Xotomi
piggyback, but she laughed so hard her leg started to bleed again.
"It will be easier if I lean against you," she said. "My leg doesn't hurt too much."
"Are the Mocototeri prisoners?" I asked.
She looked at me uncomprehendingly for an instant, then finally said, "No. Only women
are taken captive."
"What will happen to them at the shabonof"
"They will be fed."
"But they are enemies," I said. "They shot you in the leg. They ought to be punished."
Xotomi looked at me, then shook her head as if knowing that it was beyond her to make me
understand. She asked me if I would have killed the Mocototeri if he had not dropped his
weapons on the ground.
"I would have shot him," I said loud enough for the men to hear. "I would have killed him
with my poisoned arrows."
Arasuwe and Etewa glanced back. The stern expression on their faces relaxed into a smile.
They knew my arrows were not poisoned. "Yes, she would have shot you," Arasuwe told
the Mocototeri. "The white girl is not like our women. Whites kill very fast."
I wondered if I actually would have shot my arrow at the Mocototeri. I certainly would
have kicked him in the groin or stomach had he not dropped his bow and arrows. I was
aware of the folly of trying to overpower a stronger opponent, but I saw no reason a small
person could not startle an unsuspecting assailant with a quick punch or kick. That, I was
sure, would have given me enough time to run away. A kick would certainly have shocked
the unaware Mocototeri even more than my bow and arrows. That thought gave me much
comfort.
Arriving at the shabono, we were met by the Iticoteri men staring at us down the shaft of
their drawn arrows. The women and children were hiding inside the huts. Ritimi came
running toward me. "I knew you would be fine," she said, helping me carry her half-sister
into old Hayama's hut.
Ritimi's grandmother washed Xotorni's leg with warm water, then poured epena powder
into the wound. "Don't get out of your hammock," she admonished the girl. "I will get some
leaves to wrap around your calf."
Exhausted, I went to rest in my hammock. Hoping to fall asleep, I pulled the sides over me.
But I was awakened shortly by Ritimi's laughter. Leaning over me, she covered my face
with resounding kisses. "I heard how you scared the Mocototeri."
"Why did only Arasuwe and Etewa come to rescue us?" I asked. "There might have been
many Mocototeri men."
"But my father and husband didn't come to rescue you," Ritimi informed me candidly. She
made herself comfortable in my hammock, then explained that no one in the shabono had
realized I had gone with Xotomi and little Sisiwe to catch fish. It was purely accidental that
Arasuwe and Etewa had found Xotomi and myself.
Arasuwe, following his premonitions, had gone to scout the shabono's surroundings upon
returning from our night-long trek. Although he suspected that something was amiss, he
had not actually known there were Mocototeri outside.
Her father, Ritimi declared, was only performing his headman's duty and checking to see if
there was evidence of intruders. It was a task a headman had to perform by himself, for
usually no one was willing to accompany him on such a dangerous mission. No one was
expected to.
Only lately had I come to realize that although Arasuwe had been introduced to me by
Milagros as the headman of the Iticoteri, it was an uncertain title. The powers of a headman
were limited. He wore no special insignia to distinguish him from the other men, and all
adult males were involved in important decisions. Even if a judgment had been reached,
each man was still free to do what he pleased.
Arasuwe's importance stemmed from his kinship following. His brothers, numerous sons,
and sons-in-law gave him power and support. As long as his decisions satisfied the people
of his shabono, there was little dispute as to his authority.
"How come Etewa was with him?"
"That was totally unforeseen," Ritimi said, laughing. "He was probably returning from a
clandestine rendezvous with one of the women of the shabono when he stumbled upon his
father-in-law."
"You mean no one would have come to rescue us?" I asked incredulously.
"Once the men know that the enemy is around, they will not purposely go outside. It's too
easy to be ambushed."
"But we could have been killed!"
"Women are hardly ever killed," Ritimi stated with utter conviction. "They would have
captured you. But our men would have raided the Mocototeri settlement and brought you
back," she argued with astounding simplicity, as if it were the most natural course of events.
"But they shot Xotomi's leg." I felt like crying. "They intended to maim me."
"That's only because they didn't know how to capture you," Ritimi said, putting her arms
around my neck. "They know how to deal with Indian women. We are easy to abduct. The
Mocototeri must have been at their wits' end with you. You should be happy. You are as
brave as a warrior. Iramamowe is certain you have special hekuras protecting you, so
powerful they even deviated the arrow intended for you into Xotomi's leg."
"What will happen to the Mocototeri?" I asked, looking into Arasuwe's hut. The three men
were sitting in hammocks, eating baked plantains as if they were guests. "It is strange how
you treat the enemy."
"Strange?" Ritimi looked at me, puzzled. "We treat them right. Didn't they reveal their
plan? Arasuwe is glad they didn't succeed." Ritimi mentioned that the three men would
probably stay with the Iticoteri for some time- especially if they suspected that there was a
good chance their settlement was to be raided by the Iticoteri. The two shabonos had been
raiding back and forth for many years- as far back as her grandfather's and greatgrandfather's
time, and even before.
Ritimi pulled my head toward her and whispered in my ear, "Etewa has been wishing to
take revenge on the Mocototeri for a long time."
"Etewa! But he was so happy to go to their feast," I said, bewildered. "I thought he liked
them. I know Arasuwe believes they are a treacherous lot- even Iramamowe. But Etewa! I
was sure he was delighted to dance and sing at their party."
"I told you once that one doesn't go to a feast only to dance and sing but to find out what
other people's plans are," Ritimi whispered. She looked at me anxiously. "Etewa wants his
enemy to think that he has no intention of avenging his father."
"Was his father killed by the Mocototeri?"
Ritimi put her hand to my lips. "Let us not talk about it. It's bad luck to mention a person
who has been killed in a raid."
"Is there going to be a raid?" I managed to ask before Ritimi pushed a piece of baked
plantain in my mouth.
She only smiled at me but did not answer. The thought of a raid made me feel extremely
uncomfortable. I had a hard time swallowing the plantain. Somehow I had associated raids
with the past. The few times I had asked Milagros about them, he had been vague with his
answers. Only now did I wonder if there had been regret in Milagros's voice when he stated
that the missionaries had been quite successful in their attempt to put an end to intervillage
feuding.
"Is there going to be a raid?" I asked Etewa as he entered the hut.
He looked at me, his face set in a scowl. "That's not a question for a woman to ask."
Chapter 20
It was dusk when Puriwariwe walked into the shabono. I had not seen him since my illness,
since the night he had stood in the middle of the clearing, arms outstretched as if pleading
with the darkness.
From Milagros I had learned that for six consecutive days and nights the old shapori had
taken epena. The old man had been on the verge of collapsing under the weight of the
spirits he had called into his chest. Yet perseveringly he had beseeched the hekuras to cure
me from the onslaught of a tropical fever.
Ritimi had also emphasized that it had been a particularly hard struggle to cure me in that
the hekuras resent being called in the rainy season. "It was the hekura of the hummingbird
that saved you," she had explained. "In spite of its small size, the hummingbird is a
powerful spirit. It's used by an accomplished shapori as a last resort."
I had not been comforted in the least when Ritimi had wrapped her arms around my neck,
assuring me that if I had died my soul would not have wandered aimlessly in the forest but
would have ascended peacefully to the house of thunder, for my body would have been
burned and my pulverized bones would have been eaten by her and her relatives.
I joined Puriwariwe in the clearing. "I'm well now," I said, squatting beside him.
He looked at me with veiled, almost dreamy eyes, then ran his hand over my head. It was a
small dark hand that moved rapidly, yet felt heavy and slow. A vague tenderness softened
his features, but he did not say a word. I wondered if he knew that I had felt the beak of a
hummingbird cutting into my chest during my illness. I had told no one.
A group of men, their faces and bodies painted black, gathered around Puriwariwe. They
blew epena into each other's noses, and listened to his chant, pleading with the hekuras to
come out of their hiding places in the mountains. The men's black figures were more like
shadows, barely illuminated by the fires of the huts. Softly, they repeated the shaman's
songs. I felt a chill run up my spine as the quickened pace of their unintelligible words
became more menacing and forceful.
Upon returning to the hut I asked Ritimi what the men were celebrating.
"They are sending hekuras to the Mocototeri settlement to kill the enemy."
"Will the enemy really die?"
Drawing up her knees, she looked pensively beyond the palm fringe of the hut into the
pitch-dark sky, bereft of moon and stars. "They will die," she said softly.
Convinced there was not going to be a real raid, I dozed off and on in my hammock,
listening to the chanting outside. More than hearing the men, I visualized the fragments of
sound, endlessly rising and falling, as being carried away by the smoke from the hearths.
Hours later I got up and sat outside the hut. Most of the men had retired to their hammocks.
Only ten remained in the clearing, Etewa among them. With closed eyes, they repeated
Puriwariwe's song. His words came to me clearly through the humid air:
Follow me, follow my vision.
Follow me over the treetops.
Look at the birds and butterflies; such colors you will never see on the ground.
I'm rising into heaven, toward the sun.
The shapori's song was interrupted abruptly by one of the men. "I've been struck by the
sun- my eyes are burning," he shouted as he stood up. He looked helplessly around in the
darkness. His legs gave way under him and, he collapsed with a thud on the ground. No one
took any notice.
Puriwariwe's voice became more insistent, as if he were trying to raise the men collectively
toward his vision. He repeated his song again and again to those still squatting around him.
Urging the men not to get sidetracked in the dew of their visions, he warned them of
spearlike bamboo leaves and poisonous snakes lurching from behind trees and roots on the
path to the sun.
Above all, he urged the men not to pass into human sleep, but to step from the darkness of
the night to the white darkness of the sun. He promised them that their bodies would be
soaked with the glow of the hekuras, that their eyes would shine with the sun's precious
light.
I remained outside the hut until the dawn erased the shadows on the ground. Expecting to
find some visible evidence of their journey to the sun, I walked from man to man, peering
intently into each face.
Puriwariwe watched me curiously, a mocking grin on his haggard face. "You'll find no
outward indication of their flight," he said as if he had read my thoughts. "Their eyes are
dull and red from the night's vigil," he added, pointing to the men who were staring
indifferently into the distance, totally unconcerned with my presence. "That precious light
you expect to see reflected in their pupils, only shines inside them. Only they can see it."
Before I had a chance to ask him about his journey to the sun, he had walked out of the
shabono into the forest.
In the days that followed, a gloomy oppressive mood enveloped the settlement. At first it
was only a vague feeling, but I finally became obsessed with the certainty I was being
purposely kept in the dark about some impending event. I became morose, distant, and
irritable. I struggled against my sensation of isolation. I tried to hide my ill-focused
apprehension, yet I felt as if I were being attacked by unidentifiable forces. Whenever I
asked Ritimi or any of the other women if there was some approaching change, they would
not even acknowledge my question. Instead they would comment on some silly incident,
hoping to make me laugh.
"Are we going to be raided?" I finally asked Arasuwe one day.
He turned his perplexed face toward me as if he were trying to untangle my words.
I felt confused, nervous, and close to tears. I told him that I was not stupid, that I had
noticed how the men were constantly on the alert and how the women were afraid to go by
themselves into the gardens or to fish in the river. "Why can't someone tell me what is
going on?" I yelled.
"There is nothing going on," Arasuwe said calmly. Folding his arms behind his neck, he
stretched comfortably in his hammock. He began to talk about something unrelated to my
question, chuckling frequently at his own tale.
But I was not to be soothed. I did not laugh with him. I did not even pay attention to his
words. He seemed totally bewildered as I stomped back to my hut.
I was miserable for days, feeling alternately resentful and sorry for myself. I did not sleep
well. I kept repeating to myself that I, who had so totally embraced this new life, was
suddenly treated like a stranger. I felt angry and betrayed.
I could not accept that Arasuwe had not taken me into his confidence. Not even Ritimi had
been willing to put me at ease. If only Milagros were here, I wished fervently. Surely he
would dispel my anxiety. He would tell me everything.
One night, when I could not quite lose myself in sleep, but hovered in a half-waking state, I
was suddenly hit by an insight. It did not come in words, but translated itself as a whole
process of thoughts and memories that flashed like pictures before me, and put everything
into a proper perspective.
I felt elated. I began to laugh with relief that turned into sheer joy. I could hear my laughter
echo through the huts. Sitting up in my hammock, I noticed that most of the Iticoteri were
laughing with me.
Arasuwe squatted by my hammock. "Have the spirits of the forest made you mad?" he
inquired, holding my head between his hands.
"Quite mad," I said, still laughing. I looked into his eyes; they shone in the darkness. I
gazed at Ritimi, Tutemi, and Etewa standing next to Arasuwe, their curious, sleepy faces
aglow with laughter. Words blurted out of me in an unending procession, piling onto one
another with astonishing velocity. I was speaking in Spanish, not because I wanted to
conceal anything, but because my explanation would not have made sense in their
language. Arasuwe and the others listened as if they understood, as if they sensed my need
to unburden myself of the turmoil within me.
I had realized that I was, after all, an outsider, and my demand to be informed of events not
even the Iticoteri talked about among themselves was due to my feelings of selfimportance.
What had turned me into an intolerable individual was the thought of being left
out- excluded from something I believed I had a right to know.
I had not questioned why I believed I had the right to know. It had made me miserable,
blinding me to all the joyful moments I had so much cherished before. The gloom and
oppressiveness I had felt was not outside, but within me; communicating itself to the
shabono and its people.
I felt Arasuwe's calloused hand on my shaven tonsure. I did not feel ashamed of my
feelings, but was glad to realize that it was up to me to restore the sense of magic and
wonder at being in a different world.
"Blow epena in my nose," Arasuwe said to Etewa. "I want to make sure the evil spirits stay
away from the white girl."
I heard murmuring, a rustling of voices, a soft laughter, then Arasuwe's monotonous chant.
I fell into a peaceful sleep, the best I had had for days.
Little Texoma, who had not come into my hammock for days, awoke me at dawn. "I heard
you laugh last night," she said, snuggling against me. "You had not laughed for so many
days, I was afraid you would not laugh ever again."
I gazed into her bright eyes as it I might find in them the answer that would enable me in
the future to laugh away all the anxiety and turmoils of my spirit.
An unusual stillness enshrouded the shabono as the shades of night closed in around us.
The lulling touch of Tutemi's fingers as she searched my head for lice almost put me to
sleep. The women's noisy chatter subsided to whispers as they went about preparing the
evening meals and nursing their babies.
As if obeying an unspoken command, the children forsook their vociferous evening games,
and gathered in Arasuwe's hut to listen to old Kamosiwe's tales. He seemed to be totally
engrossed in his own words, gesturing dramatically with his hands as he talked. Yet his own
eye was fixed intently on the long tubes of sweet potatoes sticking out from the embers. I
watched in awe as the old man picked the roots out of the fire with his bare hand. Not
waiting for the potatoes to cool, he crammed them into his mouth.
From where I sat I could see the waning moon appear over the treetops, obscured by the
traveling clouds that shone white against the dark sky. The night stillness was pierced by an
eerie sound- something between a scream and a growl. The next instant Etewa, his face and
body painted black, materialized out of the shadows. He stood in front of the fires that had
been lit in the clearing and clacked his bow and arrows high above his head. I did not see
from which hut the others appeared, but eleven more men, their faces and bodies equally
blackened, joined Etewa in the clearing.
Arasuwe pushed and pulled each of them until they all stood in a perfectly straight line,
then, after positioning the last man in place, he joined them. The headman began to sing in
a deep, nasal tone. The others repeated the last line of his song in a chorus. I could
distinguish each separate voice in the murmured harmony, though I understood none of the
words.
The longer they sang, the angrier the men seemed to become. At the end of each song, they
let out the most ferocious screams I had ever heard. Oddly, I had the feeling that the louder
they yelled, the more remote was their rage, as if it was no longer part of their blackpainted
bodies.
Abruptly they became silent. The faint light of the fires accentuated the wrathful expression
on their rigid, mask-like faces; and the feverish glow in their eyes. I could not see if
Arasuwe gave the command, but in unison they shouted, "How I will enjoy watching my
arrow hit the enemy. How I will enjoy seeing his blood splash all over the ground."
Holding their weapons above their heads, the warriors broke the line, and gathered into a
tight circle. They began to shout, first softly, then in such piercing voices that I felt a chill
run down my spine.
They were silent once more, and Ritimi whispered in my ear that the men were listening to
the echo of their screams so they could determine from which direction it came. The
echoes, she explained, carried the spirits of the enemy.
Groaning, clacking their weapons, the men began to prance about the clearing. Arasuwe
calmed them down. Two more times they gathered into a tight circle and shouted with all
their might. Instead of walking into the forest, as I had expected and feared, the men moved
toward the huts standing close to the entrance of the shabono. They lay down in the
hammocks, and forced themselves to vomit.
"While they chanted, they devoured their enemies," she said. "Now they have to get rid of
the rotten flesh."
I sighed with relief, yet I felt oddly disappointed that the raid had been acted out
symbolically.
Shortly before dawn, I was awakened by the wailing of women. I rubbed my eyes to make
sure I was not dreaming. As if no time had elapsed, the men stood outside in exactly the
same straight formation they had assumed earlier in the night. Their cries had lost their
fierceness, as if the wails of the women had dampened their wrath. They flung the plantain
bundles, which had been stacked at the shabono's entrance, over their shoulders, then
marched dramatically down the path leading to the river.
Old Kamosiwe and I followed the men at a distance. I thought it was raining, but it was
only dew dripping from leaf to leaf. For a moment the men stood still, their shadows
perfectly outlined against the light sand of the riverbank. The half-moon had traveled across
the sky, shimmering faintly through the misty air.
As if the sand had sucked in their shadows, the men vanished before my eyes. All I heard
was the sound of rustling leaves, of snapping branches receding into the forest. The mist
closed in on us like an impenetrable wall, as though nothing had happened, as if all I had
seen was only a dream.
Old Kamosiwe, sitting beside me on a rock, touched my arm lightly. "I no longer hear the
echoes of their steps," he said, then slowly walked into the water. I followed him. I shivered
with coldness. I felt the little fish that hide beneath the submerged roots brush against my
legs, but I could not see them in the dark waters.
Old Kamosiwe giggled as I rubbed him dry with leaves. "Look at the sikomasik," he said
rapturously, pointing to the white mushrooms growing on a rotten tree trunk.
I picked them up for him, wrapping them in leaves. When roasted over the fire, they were
considered a delicacy, particularly by the old people.
Kamosiwe held the end of his broken bow toward me;
I pulled him up the slippery path leading to the shabono. The mist did not rise the whole
day, as if the sun were afraid to witness the men's journey through the forest.
Chapter 21
Little Texoma sat next to me on the log in the bamboo grass. "Aren't you going to catch any
frogs?" I asked her.
She looked at me woefully. Her eyes, usually so bright, were dull. Slowly they filled with
tears.
"What makes you sad?" I asked, cradling her in my arms. Children were never left to cry
for fear that their soul might escape through their mouths. Lifting her on my back, I headed
toward the shabono. "You are as heavy as a basket full of ripe plantains," I said in an effort
to make her laugh.
But the little girl did not even smile. Her face remained pressed against my neck; her tears
rolled unchecked down my breasts. Carefully, I laid her down in her hammock. She clung
to me tenaciously, forcing me to lie beside her. Soon she was asleep. It was not a peaceful
sleep. From time to time her little body trembled as if she were in the throes of some
dreadful nightmare.
With Tutemi's baby strapped to her back, Ritimi entered the hut. She began to cry as she
looked at the sleeping child next to me. "I'm sure one of the evil Mocototeri shapori has
lured her soul away." Ritimi wept with such heartbreaking sobs, I left Texoma's hammock
and sat next to her.
I did not know quite what to say. I was sure Ritimi was not only crying for her little
daughter, but also for Etewa, who had been gone with the raiding party for almost a week.
Since her husband's departure, she had not been her usual self. She had not worked in the
gardens; neither had she accompanied any of the women to gather berries or wood in the
forest.
Listless and dejected, she moped around the shabono. Most of the time she lay in her
hammock, playing with Tutemi's baby. No matter what I did or said to cheer her up, I was
unable to erase the forlorn expression on her face. The rueful little smile with which Ritimi
responded to my efforts only made her look all the more despondent.
I put my arms around her neck and planted loud kisses on her cheek, reassuring her all the
time that Texoma had nothing but a cold. Ritimi was not to be consoled. Weeping did not
bring her any release or tire her out, but only intensified her distress.
"Maybe something has happened to Etewa," Ritimi said. "Maybe a Mocototeri has killed
him."
"Nothing has happened to Etewa," I stated. "I can feel it in my legs."
Ritimi smiled slightly, as if doubting my words."But why is my little daughter sick?" she
insisted.
"Texoma is sick because she got chilled playing in the swamps with the frogs," I stated
matter-of-factly. "Children get sick very fast, and recuperate just as speedily."
"Are you sure that's the way it is?"
"Absolutely sure," I said.
Ritimi looked at me doubtfully, then said, "But none of the other children are sick. I know
Texoma has been bewitched."
Not knowing how to answer, I suggested that it would be best to call Ritimi's uncle.
Moments later I returned with Iramamowe. During his brother Arasuwe's absence,
Iramamowe assumed the duties of a headman. His bravery made him the most qualified
man to defend the shabono from potential raiders. His reputation as a shaman insured the
settlement of protection against evil hekuras sent by enemy sorcerers.
Iramamowe looked at the child, then asked me to fetch his epena cane and the container
with the hallucinogenic powder. He had a young man blow the snuff into his nose, then
chanted to the hekuras, pacing up and down in front of the hut. From time to time he
jumped high in the air, yelling at the evil spirits- which he believed had lodged in the child's
body- to leave Texoma alone.
Gently Iramamowe massaged the child, starting with her head, down her chest, her
stomach, all the way to her feet. He flicked his hands repeatedly, shaking off the evil
hekuras he had drawn out of Texoma. Several other men took epena and chanted with
Iramamowe throughout the night. He alternately massaged and sucked the disease from her
little body.
However, the child was not any better the following day. Motionless, she lay in her
hammock. Her eyes were red and swollen. She refused all food, including the water and
honey I offered her.
Iramamowe diagnosed that her soul had wandered from her body and proceeded to build a
platform with poles and lianas in the middle of the clearing. He fastened assai palm leaves
in his hair: He drew circles around his eyes and mouth with a mixture of onoto and coals.
Prancing around the platform, he imitated the cries of the harpy eagle. With a branch from
one of the bushes growing around the shabono he swept the ground thoroughly in an effort
to locate the wandering soul of the child.
Unable to find the soul, he gathered several of Texoma's playmates around him. He
decorated their hair and faces the same as his, then lifted them onto the platform. "Examine
the ground from above," he told the children. "Find your sister's soul."
Imitating the cries of the harpy eagle, the children jumped up and down on the precariously
built structure. They swept the air with the branches the women had handed them; but they
too were unable to catch the lost soul.
Taking the branch Ritimi gave me, I joined the others in the quest. We swept the paths
leading to the river, to the gardens, and to the swamps, where Texoma had been catching
frogs. Iramamowe exchanged his branch for mine. "You carried her to the shabono," he
said. "Maybe you can find her soul."
Without any thoughts as to the futility of the task, I swept the ground with the same
eagerness as the others. "How does one know the soul is nearby?" I asked Iramamowe as
we retraced our steps back to the shabono.
"One just knows," he said.
We searched in every hut, sweeping under hammocks, around each hearth, and behind
stacks of plantains. We lifted baskets from the ground. We moved bows and arrows leaning
against the sloping roof. We scared spiders and scorpions out of their nests in the thatched
roof. I gave up the hunt when I saw a snake slithering from behind one of the rafters.
Laughing, old Hayama cut the reptile's head off with one swift blow of Iramamowe's
machete. She wrapped the still wriggling, headless snake in pishaansi leaves, then placed it
on the fire. Hayama also collected the spiders falling on the ground. These too were
wrapped in leaves and roasted. Old people were particularly fond of the soft bellies. The
legs Hayama saved, to be ground later. The powder was believed to heal cuts, bites, and
scratches.
By dusk little Texoma showed no signs of improvement. Motionless, she lay in her
hammock, her eyes staring vacantly at the thatched roof. I was filled with an indescribable
sense of helplessness as Iramamowe once again bent over the child to massage and suck out
the evil spirits.
"Let me try to cure the child," I said.
Iramamowe smiled almost imperceptibly, focusing his gaze alternately on me and Texoma.
"What makes you think you can cure my grand-niece?" he asked with deliberate
thoughtfulness. There was no mockery in his tone- only a vague curiosity. "We have not
found her soul. A powerful enemy shapori has lured it away. Do you think you can
counteract an evil sorcerer's curse?"
"No," I hastily assured him. "Only you can do that."
"What will you do then?" he asked. "You said once that you never cured anyone. What
makes you think you can now?"
"I will help Texoma with hot water," I said. "And you will cure her with your chants to the
hekuras."
Iramamowe deliberated for a moment: Gradually his thoughtful expression relaxed. He held
his hand over his mouth as if he were hiding an urge to giggle. "Did you learn much from
the shapori you knew?"
"I remember some of the ways they cured," I answered, but did not mention that the cure I
intended for Texoma was my grandmother's way of dealing with a fever that had not
broken. "You said you have seen hekuras in my eyes. If you chant to them, maybe they will
help me."
An easy smile came and lingered around Iramamowe's lips. He seemed almost convinced
by my reasoning. Yet he shook his head as if full of doubt. "Curing is not done this way.
How can I ask the hekuras to help you? Will you also want to take epena?"
"I won't need to take the snuff," I assured him, then remarked that if a powerful shapori
could command his hekuras to steal the soul of a child, then an accomplished sorcerer like
himself could certainly command his spirits, which according to him were already
acquainted with me, to come to my aid.
"I will call the hekuras to assist you," Iramamowe declared. "I will take epena for you."
While one of the men blew the hallucinogenic substance into Iramamowe's nostrils, Ritimi,
Tutemi, and Arasuwe's wives brought me calabashes filled with hot water that old Hayama
had heated in the large aluminum pots. I soaked my cut-up blanket in the hot water and,
using the legs of my jeans as gloves, I wrung each thin strip of cloth until not a drop of
moisture was to be squeezed out. Carefully, I wrapped them around Texoma's body, then
covered her with the heated palm fronds some of the older boys had cut for me.
I could hardly move among the crowd gathered in the hut. Silently they watched my every
motion, intent and alert, so as not to miss anything. Iramamowe squatted beside me,
chanting tirelessly into the night. As the hours passed, the people retired to their hammocks.
I was not put off by their show of disapproval, but kept changing the compresses as soon as
they cooled off. Ritimi sat silently in her hammock, her interlaced fingers resting limply on
her lap in an attitude of supreme hopelessness. Whenever she glanced at me she broke into
tears.
Texoma seemed oblivious to my ministrations. What if she had something other than a
cold? I thought. What if she got worse? My assurance faltered. I mumbled a prayer for her
with a fervor I had not had since I was a child. Looking up, I noticed Iramamowe gazing at
me. He seemed anxious, as if aware of the mixture of feelings- magic, religion, and fearfighting
inside me. Determinedly, he went on chanting.
Old Kamosiwe came and joined us. He squatted close to the hearth. The cold of dawn had
not yet crept into the hut, but the mere fact that there was a fire made him huddle over it
instinctively. Softly, he began to chant. His murmured song filled me with comfort: It
seemed to carry the voices of past generations. The rain prattled on the thatched roof with a
determined vigor, then relaxed into a light drizzle that plunged me into a kind of stupor.
It was almost dawn when Texoma began tossing in her hammock. Impatiently she tore at
the wet pieces of blanket, at the palm fronds wrapped around her. With eyes opened wide in
surprise, she sat up, then smiled at old Kamosiwe, Iramamowe, and myself crouching
beside her hammock. "I'm thirsty," she said, then gulped down the water and honey I gave
her.
"Will she be well?" Ritimi asked hesitantly.
"Iramamowe lured her soul back," I said. "The hot water has broken her fever. Now she
needs to be kept warm and sleep peacefully."
I walked into the clearing, and stretched my cramped legs. Old Kamosiwe, leaning against
a pole, looked like a child with his forearms tightly wrapped around his chest to keep warm.
Iramamowe stopped beside me on the way to his hut. We did not talk, but I was certain we
shared a moment of absolute understanding.
Chapter 22
At the sound of approaching steps, Tutemi motioned me to lower myself beside the moldy
leaves of the squash vines. "It's the raiding party," she whispered. "Women are not
supposed to see from which direction the warriors return."
Unable to curb my curiosity, I slowly stood up. There were three women with the men: one
of them was pregnant.
"Don't look," Tutemi pleaded, pulling me down. "If you see the path on which the raiders
return, the enemy will capture you."
"How beautiful the men look with the bright feathers streaming from their armbands, and
the onoto designs on their bodies," I said. "But Etewa is missing! Do you think he has been
killed?" I asked in dismay.
Tutemi looked at me, a dazed expression on her face. There was no nervousness in her
movements as she separated the large squash leaves to peek at the retreating figures. Her
anxious face beamed with a smile as she grabbed my arm. "Look, there is Etewa." She
pulled my head close to hers so I could see where she was pointing. "He is unucai."
Trailing a distance behind the others, Etewa walked slowly, with his shoulders hunched
forward as if he were burdened by a heavy weight on his back. He was not adorned with
feathers or paint. Only short little sticks of arrow cane were stuck through his pierced
earlobes and one arrow cane stick was tied to each wrist like a bracelet.
"Is he ill?"
"No! He is unucai," she said admiringly. "He has killed a Mocototeri."
Unable to share Tutemi's excitement, I could only stare at her in dumb incredulity. I felt my
eyes fill with tears, and turned my gaze away from her. We waited until Etewa was out of
sight, then slowly headed toward the shabono.
Tutemi quickened her pace upon hearing the welcoming shouts from the men and women
in the huts. Surrounded by the exultant Iticoteri, the raiders stood proudly in the clearing.
Turning away from her husband, Arasuwe's youngest wife approached the three captive
women, who had not been included in the jubilant greetings. Silently they stood apart, their
apprehensive gazes fixed on the approaching Iticoteri woman.
"Painted with onoto- how disgusting," Arasuwe's wife yelled. "What else can one expect
from a Mocototeri woman? Do you think you have been invited to a feast?" Glaring at the
three women, she picked up a stick. "I will beat you all. If I had been captured, I would
have run away," she shouted.
The three Mocototeri huddled closer to each other.
"At least I would have arrived crying pitifully," Arasuwe's wife hissed, pulling the hair of
one of the women.
Arasuwe stepped in between his wife and the Mocototeri. "Leave them alone. They have
cried so much they have soaked the path with their tears. We made them stop. We didn't
want to listen to their wails." Arasuwe took the stick away from his wife. "We demanded
they paint their faces and bodies with onoto. These women will be happy here. They will be
treated well!" He turned to the rest of the Iticoteri women who had gathered around his
wife. "Give them something to eat. They are hungry like us. We haven't eaten for two
days."
Arasuwe's wife was not intimidated. "Were your men killed?" she asked the three women.
"Did you burn them? Have you eaten their ashes?" She faced the pregnant woman. "Was
your husband also killed? Do you expect an Iticoteri man to become a father to your child?"
Pushing his wife roughly away, Arasuwe announced, "Only one man was killed. He was
shot by Etewa's arrow. He was the man who killed Etewa's father the last time the
Mocototeri raided us so treacherously." Arasuwe turned to the pregnant woman. There was
no sympathy in his eyes or in his voice as he continued, "You were captured by the
Mocototeri some time ago. You have no brothers among them who will rescue you. You are
now an Iticoteri. Do not cry any longer." Arasuwe went on to explain to the three captives
that they would be better off with his people. The Iticoteri, he stressed, had enjoyed meat
almost every day as well as plenty of roots and plantains throughout the rainy season. No
one had gone hungry.
One of the captives was only a young girl, perhaps ten or eleven years old. "What will
happen to her?" I asked Tutemi.
"Like the others, she will be taken as a wife," Tutemi said. "I was probably her age when I
was abducted by the Iticoteri." A wistful little smile curved her lips. "I was lucky Ritimi's
mother-in-law chose me as a second wife for Etewa. He has never beaten me. Ritimi treats
me like a sister. She does not quarrel with me, nor does she make me work too..." Tutemi
broke in midsentence as Arasuwe's youngest wife resumed her shouting at the Mocototeri
women.
"How disgusting to come all painted. All you need is to stick flowers in your ears and start
to dance." She followed the three women into her husband's hut. "Did the men rape you in
the forest? Is that why you stayed away so long? You must have enjoyed it." Pushing the
pregnant woman, she added, "Did they also sleep with you?"
"Shut up!" Arasuwe yelled, "or I'll beat you till I draw blood." Arasuwe turned to the
women who had followed behind. "You should rejoice that your men have returned
unharmed. You should be content that Etewa has killed a man, that we have brought three
captives. Go to your huts and prepare food for your men."
Grumbling, the women dispersed to their respective hearths.
"Why is only Arasuwe's wife so upset?" I asked Tutemi.
"Don't you know?" she asked, smiling maliciously. "She is afraid he will take one of the
women as his fourth wife."
"Why does he want so many?"
"He is powerful," Tutemi stated categorically. "He has many sons-in-law who bring plenty
of game and help him work in the gardens. Arasuwe can feed many women."
"Were the captives raped?" I asked.
"One was." Tutemi was momentarily puzzled by my shocked expression, then went on to
explain that a captured woman was usually raped by all the men in the raiding party. "It's
the custom."
"Did they also rape the young girl?"
"No," Tutemi said casually. "She is not yet a woman. Neither did they rape the pregnant
one- they are never touched."
Ritimi had remained in her hammock throughout the whole commotion. She told me she
had no reason to get worked up about the Mocototeri women, for she knew Etewa would
not take a third wife. I was happy to notice that her sadness and dejection, which had been
so much a part of her during the last few days, had vanished.
"Where is Etewa?" I asked. "Is he not coming to the shabono"
Ritimi's eyes appeared almost feverish with excitement as she explained that her husband,
since he had killed an enemy, was searching for a tree not too far from the settlement on
which he could hang his old hammock and quiver. However, before he could do so, he had
to strip the tree's trunk and branches of its bark.
Ritimi's eyes expressed a deep concern as she faced me. She warned me against gazing at
such a tree. She was certain I would not confuse it with the kind that is stripped of its bark
to make troughs and canoes. Those trees, she explained, still looked like trees. Whereas the
ones stripped by a man who has killed looked like a ghostly shadow, all white among the
greenness around them, with hammock and quiver, bow, and arrows dangling from the
peeled branches. Spirits- evil ones in particular- liked hiding in the vicinity of such places. I
had to promise Ritimi that if I ever found myself in the neighborhood of such a tree, I
would run from the spot as fast as possible.
In a voice so low I thought she was talking to herself, Ritimi confided her fears to me. She
hoped Etewa would not collapse under the weight of the man he had killed. The hekuras of
a slain man lodge themselves in the killer's chest, where they remain until the dead man's
relatives have burned the body and eaten the pulverized bones. The Mocototeri would
postpone for as long as possible the burning of the body in the hope that Etewa would die
from weakness.
"Will the men talk about the raid?" I asked.
"As soon as they have eaten," Ritimi said.
With his bow and arrows in hand, Etewa walked across the clearing toward the hut where
Iramamowe's son had been initiated as a shaman. The men who had been with Etewa on the
raid covered the sides of the hut with palm fronds. Only a small entrance was left open at
the front. They brought him a water-filled calabash and built a fire inside.
Etewa was to remain in the hut until Puriwariwe would announce that the dead Mocototeri
had been burned. Day and night Etewa had to be on the alert in case the dead man's spirit
came prowling about the hut in the form of a jaguar. Were Etewa to talk, touch a woman, or
eat during those days, he would die.
Old Hayama, accompanied by her daughter-in-law, came into our hut. "I want to find out
what's going on at Arasuwe's place," the old woman said, sitting beside me. Xotomi sat on
the ground, reclining her head against my legs, dangling from my hammock. A purple scara
reminder of the arrow wound- marred the smooth line of her calf. That did not worry
Xotomi: She was grateful the wound had not become infected.
"Matuwe caught one of the women," Hayama said proudly. "It's a good time for him to get
another wife. I'd better select the right one for him. I'm sure he will make a mistake if it's
left up to him to make the choice."
"But he has a wife," I stammered, looking at Xotomi.
"Yes," the old woman agreed. "But if he is to have a second wife, this is the best time.
Xotomi is young. It will be easy for her to be friends with another woman now. Matuwe
should take the youngest of the three captives." Hayama brushed her hand over Xotomi's
shaven tonsure. "The girl is younger than you. She will obey you. If you menstruate, she
can cook for us. She can help you in the gardens and with the gathering of wood. I'm
getting too old to work much."
Xotomi examined the three Mocototeri women in Arasuwe's hut. "If Matuwe is to take
another wife, I wish him to take the young girl. I will like her. She can warm his hammock
when I'm pregnant."
"Are you?" I asked.
"I'm not certain," she said, smiling smugly.
Hayama had told me some time ago that a pregnant woman usually waited three to four
months, sometimes even longer, before telling her husband of her state. The man was a tacit
accomplice in this deception, for he also dreaded the restrictive food and behavior taboos.
Whenever a woman suffered a miscarriage or gave birth to a deformed child, she was never
at fault. It was the husband who was always blamed. In fact, if a woman repeatedly bore a
sickly infant, she was encouraged to conceive by another man. Her own husband, however,
had to obey the taboos and raise the baby as his own.
Hayama went over to Arasuwe's hut. "I will take this Mocototeri girl with me. She will
make a fine wife for my son," she said, taking the girl by the hand. "She will live with me
in my hut."
"I captured a woman," Matuwe said. "I don't want this child. She is too thin. I want a strong
woman who will bear healthy sons."
"She will grow strong," Hayama said calmly. "She is still green, but soon she will be ripe.
Look at her breasts. They are already large. Besides," she added, "Xotomi will not mind it
you take her." Hayama faced the men gathered inside and outside Arasuwe's hut. "No one is
to touch her. I will take care of her until she becomes my Son's wife. From today on she is
my daughter-in-law."
No objections were raised by the men as Hayama took the girl into our hut. Shyly, the
Mocototeri sat on the ground, close to the hearth. "I will not beat you," Xotomi said, taking
the girl's hand in hers. "But you must do what I tell you."
Matuwe grinned sheepishly at us across the hut. I wondered if he was proud to have two
wives, or actually embarrassed to be forced into taking a child when he had captured a
woman.
"What will happen to the other captives?" I asked.
"Arasuwe will take the pregnant one," Hayama declared.
"How do you know?" Without waiting for her answer, I asked about the third one.
"She will be given to someone as a wife after she has been taken by any of the men in the
shabono who wish to do so," Hayama said.
"But she has already been raped by the raiders," I said indignantly.
Old Hayama burst into laughter. "But not by the men who didn't participate in the raid."
The old woman patted my head. "Don't look so stricken. It is the custom. I was captured
once. I was raped by many men. I was lucky and found a chance to escape. No, don't
interrupt me, white girl," Hayama said, putting her hand over my mouth. "I didn't run away
because I had been raped. I forgot that very fast. I escaped because I had to work too hard
and was not given enough food."
As the old woman had predicted, Arasuwe took the pregnant woman for himself.
"You have three wives already," the youngest one shouted, her face contorted in anger.
"Why do you want another one?"
Giggling nervously, Arasuwe's two other wives watched from their hammocks as the
youngest pushed the pregnant woman on the burning coals of the hearth. Arasuwe jumped
out of his hammock, took a burning log from the fire, and handed it to the fallen Mocototeri
woman. "Burn my wife's arm," he urged the Mocototeri woman as he held his youngest
wife pinned against one of the poles in the hut. Sobbing, the pregnant woman covered her
burned shoulder with her hand.
"Burn me!" Arasuwe's wife dared her, twisting away from her husband's grip. "If you do, I
will burn you alive- but no one will eat your bones. I shall scatter them in the forest, so we
can piss on them..." She stopped, her eyes widened in genuine astonishment as she
discovered the extent of the woman's injured shoulder. "You are really burnt! Does it hurt
much?"
Looking up, the Mocototeri wiped the tears from her face. "I'm in great pain."
"Oh, you poor woman." Solicitously, Arasuwe's wife helped her to stand up, guiding her
over to her own hammock. She took leaves from a calabash and gently placed them on the
woman's shoulder. "It will heal very fast. I will make sure of it."
"Don't weep any longer," Arasuwe's oldest wife said, sitting next to the Mocototeri woman.
She patted her leg affectionately. "Our husband is a good man. He will treat you well. I will
make sure no one in the shabono mistreats you."
"What will happen when the baby is born?" I asked Hayama.
"That's hard to say," the old woman conceded. She remained quiet for a moment as if deep
in thought. "She may kill it. Yet it it is a boy Arasuwe might ask his oldest wife to raise him
as if it were his own."
Hours later, Arasuwe began his tale about the events of the raid. He talked in a slow, nasal
tone. "We traveled slowly the first day and stopped to rest often. Our backs ached from the
heavy loads of plantains. That first night we hardly slept, for we didn't have enough
firewood to keep warm. The rain fell with such force the night sky seemed to melt with the
darkness around us. The following day we walked somewhat faster, arriving in the vicinity
of the Mocototeri settlement. We were still far enough away that the enemy hunters would
not discover our presence that night, yet close enough that we didn't dare light a fire in our
camp."
I could only see Arasuwe's face in profile. Fascinated, I watched the red and black designs
on his cheeks moving animatedly with the rhythm of his speech, as if they had a life of their
own. The feathers in his earlobes added a softness to his stern, tired face, a playfulness that
belied the horror of his tale.
"For a few days we carefully watched the comings and goings of our enemy. Our aim was
to kill a Mocototeri without alarming their shabono of our presence. One morning we saw
the man who had killed Etewa's father walk into the thicket after a woman. Etewa shot him
in the stomach with one of his poisoned arrows. The man was so dazed he did not even
shout. By the time he recovered from his surprise, Etewa had shot a second arrow in his
stomach and another in his neck, right behind his ear. He fell on the ground, dead.
"Walking like a stunned man, Etewa headed home, accompanied by my nephew.
Meanwhile Matuwe had found the woman hiding in the thicket. He threatened to kill her if
she so much as opened her mouth to cough. Matuwe, together with my youngest son-inlaw,
headed toward our settlement with the reluctant woman. We were all to meet later at a
predetermined location.
As the rest of us were deciding whether to split into even smaller groups, we saw a mother
with her little son, a pregnant woman, and a young girl, all heading into the forest. We
could not resist the temptation. Quietly, we followed them." Leaning back in his hammock,
hands locked behind his head, Arasuwe regarded his spellbound audience.
Taking advantage of the headman's pause, one of the men who had been on the raid stood
up. Motioning the people to make space for him to move, he opened his narration with
exactly the same words Arasuwe used. "We traveled slowly the first day."
But that was all his and the headman's narratives had in common. Gesticulating a great
deal, the man mimicked with exaggerated flare the moods and expressions of different
members of the raiding party, thus adding a touch of humor and melodrama to Arasuwe's
dry, matter-of-fact rendition.
Encouraged by his audience's laughter and cheers, the man told at great length about the
two youngest members of the raiding party. They were no older than sixteen or seventeen.
Not only had they complained of sore feet, the cold, and their aches and pains, but they had
been afraid of prowling jaguars and spirits on the second night when they had all slept
without lighting a fire. The man interspersed his account with detailed information on the
variety of game and ripening wild fruit- color, size, and shape- he had spotted on the way.
Arasuwe resumed his own report as soon as the man paused. "When the three women and
the girl were far enough from the shabono," the headman continued, "we threatened to
shoot them if they tried to run away or scream. The small boy managed to sneak into the
bushes. We did not pursue him, but retreated as fast as possible, making sure not to leave
footprints behind. We were sure that as soon as the Mocototeri discovered the dead man
they would follow us.
"Just before dusk, the mother of the boy who had sneaked away cried out in pain. Sitting on
the ground, she pressed her foot between her hands. She wept bitterly, complaining that a
poisonous snake had bitten her. Her heartbreaking wails saddened us so much we did not
even make sure there had been a snake. 'What good has it been,' she sobbed, 'for my little
son to run away if he no longer has a mother to take care of him?' Screaming that she could
not bear the pain any longer, the woman hobbled into the bushes. It took us a moment to
realize we had been tricked. We searched the forest thoroughly, but we couldn't discover in
which direction she had fled."
Old Kamosiwe laughed heartily. "It's good that she tricked you. It never pays to abduct a
woman who has left behind a small child. They cry until they become ill and, worse: They
almost always escape."
The men talked until the rainy dawn enshrouded the shabono. In the middle of the clearing
stood the solitary hut where Etewa was enclosed. It was so quiet and apart- so close, yet so
far removed from the voices and laughter.
A week later, Puriwariwe visited Etewa. As soon as he had eaten a baked plantain and
honey, the old man asked Iramamowe to blow epena into his head. Chanting, Puriwariwe
danced around Etewa's hut. "The dead man has not yet been burned," he announced. "His
body has been placed in a trough. It is rotting high up in a tree. Do not break your silence
yet. The hekuras of the dead man are still in your chest. Prepare your new arrows and bow.
Soon the Mocototeri will burn the rotting flesh for the worms are already crawling out of
the carcass." The old shapori circled Etewa's hut once more, then danced across the
clearing into the forest.
Three days later, Puriwariwe announced that the Mocototeri had burned the dead man.
"Take out the sticks from your earlobes, untie the ones from your wrists," he said, helping
Etewa stand up. "In a few days take your old bow and arrows to the same peeled tree on
which you hung your hammock and quiver."
Puriwariwe led Etewa into the forest. Arasuwe, together with some of the men who had
been on the raid, followed behind.
They returned in the late afternoon. Etewa's hair had been cut, his tonsure shaven. His body
had been washed and painted afresh with onoto. Cane rods, decorated with red macaw
feathers, had been inserted in his earlobes. He also wore the new fur armbands, adorned
with feathers, and the thick cotton waist belt Ritimi had made for him. Arasuwe offered
Etewa a basket full of tiny fish he had cooked for him in pishaansi leaves.
Three days later, Etewa ventured for the first time by himself into the forest. "I've shot a
monkey," he announced hours later, standing in the clearing. As soon as a group of men had
gathered around him, he gave them precise information as to where the animal could be
found.
To insure the aid and protection of the hekuras during future hunts, Etewa went two more
times by himself into the forest. On each occasion he returned without the kill, then
informed others where they could locate it. Etewa did not eat of the monkey and the two
peccaries he had shot.
One afternoon he returned with a curassow hung from his back. He scalped the bird, saving
the strip of skin where the curly black feathers were attached. It would serve as an armband.
The wing feathers he saved for feathering his arrows. He cooked the almost two-foot-long
bird on a wooden platform he had built over the fire. Tasting to see if the curassow was
done thoroughly, he then proceeded to divide it between his children and two wives.
"Is the white girl your child or your wife?" old Hayama shouted from her hut as Etewa
handed me a piece of the dark breast meat.
"She is my mother," Etewa said, joining the laughing Iticoteri.
Days later, Arasuwe supervised the cooking of plantain pap. Etewa emptied a small gourd
into the soup. Ritimi told me they were the last of the powdered bones of Etewa's father.
Tears rolled down the men's and women's cheeks as they swallowed the thick soup. I took
the calabash ladle Etewa offered me and cried for his dead father.
As soon as the trough was empty, Arasuwe shouted at the top of his voice, "What a waiter!
man we have amongst us. He has killed his enemy. He has carried the dead man's hekuras
in his chest without succumbing to hunger or loneliness during his confinment."
Etewa walked around the clearing. "Yes, I am waiteri," he sang. "The hekuras of a dead
man can kill the strongest warrior. It is a heavy burden to carry them for so many days. A
person can die of sorrow." Etewa began to dance. "I no longer think about the man I killed.
I dance with the shadows of the night, not with the shadows of death." The longer he
danced, the lighter and faster his steps became, as though through the movements he was
finally able to shake off the burden he had borne in his chest.
Many an evening the events of the raid were retold by the men. Even old Kamosiwe had a
version. All the stories had in common with the original one was that Etewa had killed a
man, that three women had been captured. In time only a vague memory of the actual facts
remained, and it became a tale of the distant past like all the other stories the Iticoteri were
so fond of telling.
PART SIX
Chapter 23
As if only a moment had passed, the memories of the bygone days, weeks, and months
drifted through my mind in vivid detail.
The pressure of tiny feet kneading on my stomach woke me from my reveries. Words of
protest died on my lips as Tutemi lowered Hoaxiwe on top of me. I cradled the baby in my
arms, lest he awaken little Texoma who had fallen asleep in my hammock while waiting for
me to get up. I reached for Hoaxiwe's frog skulls threaded on a liana string hanging at the
head of my hammock and rattled them in front of him. Gurgling with delight, the baby tried
to reach them.
"Are you awake?" Texoma mumbled, touching my cheek lightly. "I thought you were going
to sleep the whole day."
"I've been thinking about all I've seen and learned since I first came here," I said, taking her
small hand in mine: The narrow palm, the long, delicately shaped fingers were oddly
mature for a five-year-old child, and contrasted sharply with her dimpled face. "I didn't
realize the sun's already up."
"You didn't even notice my brother and cousins leaving your hammock as soon as the
plantains were baked," Texoma said. "Were you thinking very hard?"
"No," I laughed. "It was more like dreaming. It seems as if no time has passed since the day
I arrived at the shabono."
"To me it's like a long time," Texoma said seriously, caressing her half-brother's soft hair.
"When you first arrived, this tiny baby was still sleeping inside Tutemi's belly. I remember
well the day my mothers found you." Giggling, the little girl buried her face in my neck. "I
know why you wept that day. You were afraid of my great-uncle Iramamowe- he has an
ugly face."
"That day," I whispered conspiringly, "I was afraid of all the Iticoteri." Feeling a warm
wetness on my stomach, I held Hoaxiwe away from me. Etewa, sitting astride his
hammock, smiled in amusement as he watched the arc of his son's urine spanning over the
fire.
"Of all of us?" Texoma asked. "Even of my father and grandfather? Even of my mothers
and old Hayama?" Bending over my face, she gazed at me with an expression of
incredulity, almost of anguish, as if she were searching for something in my eyes. "Were
you also afraid of me?"
"No. I wasn't afraid of you," I assured her, bouncing the laughing Hoaxiwe on my thighs.
"I wasn't afraid of you either." Sighing with relief, Texoma lay back in the hammock. "I
didn't hide like most of the children did when you first walked into our hut. We had heard
that whites were tall and hairy like monkeys. But you looked so little, I knew you couldn't
be a real white."
As soon as her basket was securely fastened to her back, Tutemi lifted her baby from my
lap. Expertly she placed him in the wide, softened-bark sling she wore across her chest.
"Ready," she said, smiling, then looked questioningly at Etewa and Ritimi.
Grinning, Etewa picked up his machete and his bow and arrows.
"Will you come later?" Ritimi asked me as she adjusted the long, slender rod stuck through
the septum of her nose. The corners of her mouth, free of the usual smooth sticks, turned up
in a smile, dimpling her cheeks. As if sensing my indecision, Ritimi did not wait for my
reply but followed her husband and Tutemi to the gardens.
"Hayama is coming," Tutemi whispered. "She is wondering why you haven't come to eat
her baked plantain." The little girl slid from the hammock, and ran toward a group of
children playing outside.
Muttering, Hayama walked through Tutemi's hut. Her loose skin hung in long vertical
wrinkles down her thighs and belly. Her face was set in a stern mien as she handed me a
half-gourd filled with plantain mush. Sighing, she sat in Ritimi's hammock, letting her hand
trail along the ground as she rocked herself to and fro, apparently entranced by the rhythmic
squeaking of the liana knot against the pole. "It's too bad I've not been able to fatten you
up," the old woman said after a long silence.
I assured her that her plantains had worked wonders- that given a bit more time I might
even become fat.
"There isn't much time," Hayama said softly. "You are leaving for the mission."
"What?" I cried, struck by the definiteness of her tone. "Who says so?"
"Before he left, Milagros made Arasuwe promise that if we were to move to one of our old
gardens deeper in the forest, we were not to take you." The nostalgic, almost dreamy gaze
of her eyes softened Hayama's expression as she reminded me of the various families who
several weeks before had left for the old gardens. Believing they were to return soon, I had
not paid much attention to their departure at the time. Hayama went on to explain that
Arasuwe's household, as well as those of his brothers, cousins, sons, and daughters, had not
yet followed the others for the simple reason that the headman was waiting to hear from
Milagros.
"Is the shabono going to be abandoned?" I asked. "What about the gardens here? They were
only recently expanded. What will happen to all the new plantain shoots?" I said excitedly.
"They will grow." Hayama's face crinkled with cheerful amusement. "The old people and
many of the children will remain here. We will build temporary shelters close to the
plantain patches, for no one likes to live in ancillary shabono. We will take care of the
gardens until the others return. By then the bananas and rasha fruit will be ripe and once
again it will be time to feast."
"But why are so many Iticoteri leaving?" I asked. "Isn't there enough food here?"
Hayama did not actually say that there was a food shortage, yet she stressed the fact that old
gardens, which have not been visited for a long time, become a feeding ground for
monkeys, birds, agouti, peccary, and tapir. Men have an easy time hunting and the women
still find plenty of roots and fruits in such gardens to last until the game has been exhausted.
"Besides," Hayama went on, "a temporary move is always good, especially after a raid. If I
weren't too old, I would also go."
"Like a holiday," I said.
"Yes. A holiday!" Hayama laughed, once I explained what was meant by the word. "Oh,
how much I'd like to go and sit in the shade, stuffing myself with kafu fruit."
Kafu trees were prized for their bark and bast fibers. The clusters of fruit, each about ten
inches long, hang on a common stalk. The gelatinous, fleshy fruit is filled with tiny seeds
and tastes like an overripe fresh fig.
"If I can't move with Arasuwe and his family to the old gardens," I said, squatting at the
head of Hayama's hammock, "then I will stay here with you. There is no reason for me to
return to the mission. We'll await the return of the others together."
Hayama's eyes shone with an unnatural brightness as they rested on my face. In a slow,
deliberate tone, she made it clear that, although it was not customary to raid an empty
shabono or to kill old people and children, the Mocototeri would undoubtedly make trouble
if they were to learn, which the old woman assured me they would, that I had been left
behind in an unprotected settlement.
I shuddered, remembering how several weeks before a group of Mocototeri men, armed
with clubs, had arrived at the shabono demanding the return of their women. After both
groups had shouted threats and insults at each other, Arasuwe told the Mocototeri that he
had purposely freed one of the abducted women on his way home. He stressed the fact that
not for an instant had he been taken in by the woman's trick of having been bitten by a
snake. However, after more bickering on both sides, the headman reluctantly handed over
the girl old Hayama had chosen as a second wife for her youngest son. Threatening to
retaliate at a later date, the Mocototeri left.
It was Etewa who had explained to me that although the Mocototeri had had no intention of
starting a shooting war- they had left their bows and arrows hidden in the forest- the
headman had acted wisely in returning the girl so promptly. The Iticoteri were
outnumbered, as several men had already left for the abandoned gardens.
"When will Arasuwe join the others in the old gardens?" I asked Hayama.
"Very soon," she said. "Arasuwe has sent several men to find Milagros. Unfortunately, they
have been unable to get in touch with him so far."
I smiled to myself. "It seems that regardless of what Arasuwe promised, I'll end up going
with Ritimi and Etewa," I said smugly.
"You won't," Hayama assured me, then grinned maliciously. "It's not only from the
Mocototeri we have to protect you, but a shapori might abduct you on the way to the
gardens, and keep you as his woman in a faraway hut."
"I doubt it," I said, giggling. "You told me once that no man would want me this skinny." I
told the old woman about the incident in the mountains with Etewa.
Pressing her folded arms across her hanging bosom, Hayama laughed until tears rolled
down her wrinkled cheeks. "Etewa would take any woman that's available," she said. "But
he's afraid of you." Hayama leaned over her hammock, then whispered, "A shapori isn't an
ordinary man. He wouldn't want you for his pleasure. A shapori needs the femaleness in his
body." She lay back in the hammock. "Do you know where that femaleness is?"
"No."
The old woman looked at me as if she thought I was slow-witted. "In the vagina," she
finally said, almost choking on her laughter.
"Do you think that Puriwariwe might abduct me?" I asked mockingly. "I'm sure that he's
too old to care about women."
Genuine amazement widened her eyes. "Haven't you seen? Hasn't anyone told you that that
old shapori is stronger than any man in the shahono?" she asked. "There are nights when
that old man goes from hut to hut, sticking his cock inside every woman he can find. And
he doesn't get tired. At dawn, when he returns to the forest, he's as ready as ever." Hayama
assured me that Puriwariwe could not possibly abduct me, for he no longer needed
anything. She warned me, however, that there were other shamans, less powerful than the
old man, who might.
Closing her eyes, she sighed loudly. I thought she had fallen asleep, but, as if sensing my
motion to get up, the old woman turned to me abruptly. She placed both her hands on my
shoulders, then asked me in a voice that shook with emotion, "Do you know why you like
being with us?"
I looked at her uncomprehendingly, and as I opened my mouth to respond Hayama went on
to say, "You are happy here because you have no responsibilities. You live like us. You have
learned to speak quite well, and know many of our customs. To us you are neither child or
adult, man or woman. We make no demands on you. If we did, you would resent it."
Hayama's eyes were so dark as they held my gaze, they made me uncomfortable. In her
wrinkled face they seemed too large and bright, as if glowing with an inexhaustible inner
energy. After a long pause, she added provokingly, "Were you to become a woman shapori,
you would be very unhappy."
I felt threatened. Yet, as I stammered inanities to defend myself, I suddenly realized that she
was right and I was seized by a desperate desire to laugh.
Gently the old woman pressed her fingers over my lips. "There are powerful shapori living
in remote places where the hekuras of animals and plants dwell," Hayama said. "In the dark
of night, those men consort with beautiful female spirits."
"I'm glad I'm not a beautiful spirit," I said.
"No. You are not beautiful." Hayama with her cajoling laugh and mocking gaze made it
impossible for me to take offense at her uncomplimentary remark. "Yet to many of us you
are strange." There was great tenderness in her voice as she tried to make me understand
why the Mocototeri wanted to take me to their shabono. Their interest in me was not due to
the usual reasons Indians befriend whites- to get machetes, cooking pots, and clothes- but
because the Mocototeri believed I had powers. They had heard of how I had cured little
Texoma, about the epena incident, and how Iramamowe had seen hekuras reflected in my
eyes. They had even seen me use a bow and arrow.
All my endeavors to make the old woman realize that it required no special powers, only
common sense, to help a child with a cold were in vain. I argued that even she herself could
be considered to have healing powers- she set bones and smeared secret concoctions made
from animal parts, roots, and leaves on bites, scratches, and cuts. But my reasonings were
futile. To her there was a vast difference between setting a bone, and coaxing the lost soul
of a child back into its body. That, she stressed, only a shapori could do.
"But Iramamowe brought her soul back," I asserted. "I only cured her cold."
"He didn't," Hayama insisted. "He heard you chant."
"That was a prayer," I said feebly, realizing that a prayer was in no way different from
Iramamowe's hekura chants.
"I know whites are not like us," Hayama interrupted me, determined to prevent me from
arguing further. "I'm talking about something different altogether. Had you been born an
Iticoteri, you would still be different from Ritimi, Tutemi, or me." Hayama touched my
face, running her long, bony fingers over my forehead and cheeks. "My sister Angelica
would never have asked you to accompany her into the forest. Milagros would never have
brought you to stay with us if you were like the whites he knows." She regarded me
thoughtfully, then, as if struck with an afterthought, added, "I wonder if any other whites
would have been as happy as you have been with us."
"I'm sure they would have," I said softly. "There aren't many whites who have a chance to
come here."
Hayama shrugged her shoulders. "Do you remember the story about Imawaami, the woman
shapori?" she asked.
"That's a myth!" Afraid that the old woman was trying to make some connection between
Imawaami and myself, I hastily added, "It's like the story of the bird who stole the first fire
from the alligator's mouth."
"Maybe," Hayama said dreamily. "Lately, I have been thinking about the stories my father,
grandfather, and even my great-grandfather used to tell about the white men they had seen
traveling along the big rivers. There must have been whites journeying through the forest
long before my great-grandfather's time. Perhaps Imawaami was one of them." Hayama
moved her eager face close to mine, then continued in a whisper. "It must have been a
shapori who captured her, believing the white woman was a beautiful spirit. But she was
more powerful than the shapori. She stole his hekuras and became a sorceress herself."
Hayama looked at me provokingly, as if daring me to contradict her.
I was not surprised by the old woman's reasoning. The Iticoteri were in the habit of
bringing their mythology up to date, or of incorporating facts into their myths. "Do Indian
women ever become shapori?" I asked.
"Yes," Hayama said promptly. "Female shapori are strange creatures. Like men, they hunt
with bow and arrows. They decorate their bodies with the spots and broken circles of a
jaguar. They take epena, and lure the hekuras into their chests with their songs. Women
shapori have husbands who serve them. But if they have children, they once again become
ordinary women."
"Angelica was a shapori, wasn't she?" I was unaware I had thought out loud. The thought
came with the certainty of a revelation.
I recalled the time Angelica had awakened me from a nightmare at the mission, the way her
incomprehensible song had soothed me. It had not resembled the melodious song of the
Iticoteri women but the monotonous chant of the shamans. Like them, Angelica seemed to
possess two voices- one that orginated from somewhere deep inside her, the other from her
throat.
I remembered the days of walking with Milagros and Angelica through the forest and how
Angelica's remarks about the spirits of the forest lurking in the shadows- that I should
always dance with them, but never let them become a burden- had enchanted me. I clearly
visualized how Angelica had danced that morning- her arms raised above her head, her feet
moving with quick jerky steps in the same manner that the Iticoteri men danced when in an
epena trance.
Until now I had never thought it in the least odd that Angelica, as opposed to the other
Indian women at the mission, had considered it very natural for me to have come to hunt in
the jungle.
Hayama's words awoke me from my musings. "Did my sister tell you she was a shapori?"
A profound grief filled Hayama's eyes; tears gathered at their corners. The drops never
rolled down her cheeks but lost themselves in a network of wrinkles.
"She never told me," I murmured, then lay down in my hammock. With one leg on the
ground I pushed myself back and forth, adjusting the rhythm of my hammock to Hayama's
so that the vine knots would squeak in unison.
"My sister was a shapori," Hayama said after a long silence. "I don't know what happened
to her after she left our shabono. While she was with us, she was a respected shapori, but
she lost her powers when she had Milagros." Hayama sat up abruptly. "His father was a
white man."
Afraid that my curiosity might escape through my eyes, I closed them. I did not dare
breathe, lest the smallest sound put an end to the old woman's reveries. There was no way
of learning which country Milagros's father had come from. Regardless of their origins, any
non-Indian was considered a nape.
"Milagros's father was a white man," Hayama repeated. "A long time ago, when we lived
closer to the big river, a nape came to stay at our settlement. Angelica believed she could
get his power. Instead she got pregnant."
"Why didn't she abort?"
A broad grin crossed Hayama's lined face. "Perhaps Angelica was too confident," the old
woman murmured. "Maybe she believed she could still be a shdpori after having a child by
a white man." Hayama's mouth opened wide with laughter, revealing yellowish teeth.
"There is nothing white about Milagros," she said mischievously. "Even though my sister
took him away. In spite of all he learned from the white man, Milagros will always be an
Iticoteri." Hayama's eyes shone with a strong, unwavering stare, and her face revealed a
certain indefinable, pent-up triumph.
The thought that I would soon be returning to the mission filled me with apprehension. On
several occasions since my illness I had tried to imagine what it would be like to return to
Caracas or to Los Angeles. How would I react to seeing relatives and friends? During those
moments, I had known I would never leave of my own accord.
"When will Milagros take me back to the mission?" I asked.
"I don't think Arasuwe will wait for Milagros. The headman can no longer postpone his
departure," Hayama said. "Iramamowe will take you back."
"Iramamowe!" I exclaimed in disbelief. "Why not Etewa?"
Patiently, Hayama explained that Iramamowe had been near the mission on several
occasions: He knew the way better than any of the Iticoteri. There was also the possibility
of Etewa being discovered by Mocototeri hunters, in which case he would be killed and I
would be abducted. "Iramamowe, on the other hand," Hayama assured me, "can make
himself invisible in the forest."
"But I can't!" I protested.
"You will be guarded by Iramamowe's hekuras," Hayama said with utter conviction.
Cumbersomely, the old woman stood up, rested for a moment with her hands on her thighs,
then took my arm and slowly walked me over to her own hut. "Iramamowe has protected
you before," Hayama reminded me, then eased herself into her hammock.
"Yes," I agreed. "But I can't go to the mission without Milagros. I need sardines and
crackers."
"That stuff will only make you sick," she said contemptuously. Hayama assured me that I
would not suffer from hunger on the way, for Iramamowe's arrows would hit plenty of
game. Besides, she would give me a basketful of plantains.
"I'm too weak to carry such a heavy load," I objected, knowing that Iramamowe would
carry nothing besides his bow and arrows.
Hayama regarded me with gentle mockery. She stretched in her hammock, opened her
mouth in an interminable yawn, and promptly fell asleep.
I walked into the clearing. A group of children, mostly little girls, were playing with a
puppy. Each girl tried to make the animal suck from her flat nipples.
Except for a few old people resting in their hammocks, and several menstruating women
crouching near the hearths, most of the huts were deserted. I went from dwelling to
dwelling, wondering if they knew I was soon to leave. An old man offered me his tobacco
wad. Smiling, I declined. "How can anyone refuse such a treat?" his eyes seemed to say as
he reinserted the wad between his lower lip and gum.
Late in the afternoon I walked into Iramamowe's hut. His oldest wife, who had just returned
from the river, was hanging two water-filled gourds on the rafters. We had become good
friends since the time her son Xorowe had been initiated as a shapori, and we had spent
many afternoons talking about him. Occasionally Xorowe returned to the shabono to cure
people afflicted with colds, fevers, and diarrhea. He chanted to the hekuras' with the same
zeal and strength as the more experienced shamans did. Yet, according to Puriwariwe, it
would still be some time before Xorowe could send his own spirits to cause harm among an
enemy settlement. Only then would he be accepted as a full-fledged sorcerer.
Iramamowe's wife poured some water into a small calabash, then added some honey.
Greedily, I watched the runny paste, studded with bees in the various stages of their
metamorphic process. After stirring it thoroughly with her finger she offered me the gourd.
Smacking my lips between each sip, I finished the drink, and licked the bottom clean.
"What a delight," I exclaimed. "I'm sure it's from the amoshi bees." They were a stingless
variety, and greatly prized for their dark aromatic honey.
Smiling in agreement, Iramamowe's wife motioned me to sit beside her in her hammock.
She examined my back for flea and mosquito bites. Discovering two recent ones, she
sucked out the poison. The light entering the hut grew dimmer. It seemed that such a long
time had passed since I had talked with Hayama that morning. Drowsily, I closed my eyes.
I dreamt I was with the children by the river. Thousands of butterflies fluttered out of the
trees, swirling through the air like autumn leaves. They alighted on our hair, faces, and
bodies, covering us with the tenuous golden light of dusk. Despondently I gazed at their
wings, like delicate hands waving farewell. "You cannot be sad," the children were saying. I
looked into each face, and kissed the laughter on their lips.
Chapter 24
Instead of the bamboo knife she always used, Ritimi trimmed my hair with a sharp grass
blade. Frowning with concentration, she made sure the hair was cut evenly all around my
head.
"Not my tonsure," I said, covering the top of my head with my folded hands. "It hurts."
"Don't be so cowardly," Ritimi laughed. "You don't want to arrive at the mission looking
like a barbarian."
I could not make her understand that among whites I would be considered an oddity with a
bald spot on the top of my head. Ritimi insisted that it was not merely for aesthetic reasons
but practical ones as well that she needed to shave the crown of my head.
"Lice," she pointed out, "like that particular spot best. I'm certain Iramamowe will not
delouse you in the evenings."
"Maybe you should shave my hair completely," I suggested. "That's the best way to get rid
of them."
Horrified, Ritimi stared at me. "Only the very sick have their heads shaved. You would look
ugly."
Nodding in agreement, I submitted to her ministrations. Upon finishing, she rubbed the
bald spot with onoto. Then, she very carefully painted my face with the red paste. She drew
a wide straight line just below my bangs and wavy ones across my cheeks with dots
between each of the lines. "What a shame I did not pierce your nose and the corners of your
mouth when you first arrived," she said disappointedly. Removing the polished slender
stick from her septum, she held it under my nose. "How beautiful you would have looked,"
she sighed with comical resignation, and proceeded to paint my back with wide onoto lines
rounding toward my buttocks. On the front, starting below my breasts, she drew wavy lines
all the way to my thighs. Lastly she encircled my ankles with broad red bands. Looking
down my legs, I had the feeling I was wearing socks.
Tutemi tied a newly made cotton belt around my waist, the front fringe resting on my pubis.
Pleased at my appearance, she clapped her hands and jumped up and down excitedly. "Oh,
the ears!" she cried, motioning Ritimi to hand her the white feather tufts held together on a
thin string. Tutemi tied them on my earrings. Around my upper arms and below my knees
she fastened red-dyed cotton strands.
Encircling my waist with her arm, Ritimi took me from hut to hut, so I could be admired by
the Iticoteri. For one last time I saw myself reflected in the women's shiny eyes; and
delighted in the men's mocking smiles. Yawning, old Kamosiwe stretched his skinny arms
until they seemed about to be pulled from their sockets. He opened his one eye, studying
my face as if he were trying to memorize my features. With slow, deliberate movements, he
unfastened the small pouch he wore around his neck, and took out the pearl I had given
him. "Whenever I let this stone roll on my palm, I will think of you."
Unwilling to believe that never again would I stand there in the shabono, that never again
would I awake to the children's laughter as they climbed into my hammock at dawn, I wept.
There were no good-byes. I simply followed Iramamowe and Etewa into the forest. Ritimi
and Tutemi were behind me, as if we were going to collect firewood. Silently we walked
along the path the whole day, stopping only momentarily to snack.
The sun was setting behind the horizon of trees when we came to a halt beneath the dark
shadows of three giant ceibas. They had grown so close together that they appeared to be
one. Ritimi fastened the basket she had been carrying for me on my back. It was packed
with plantains, roasted monkey meat, a honey-filled calabash, several empty gourds, my
hammock, and my knapsack which contained my jeans and a torn shirt.
"You won't grow sad if you paint your body with onoto each time you bathe in the river,"
Ritimi said, tying a small gourd around my waist. It had been polished with abrasive leaves.
Smooth and white, it hung from my cotton belt like a giant teardrop.
The forest, the three smiling faces, blurred before me. Without another word, Ritimi led the
way into the thicket. Only Etewa turned around before melting into the shadows. A grin lit
his face as he waved the way he had so often seen Milagros do when he bid me farewell.
I gave free rein to the vast desolation inside me. It did not make me feel any better, but only
heightened my despondency. Yet, in spite of my wretchedness, I was strangely aware of the
three ceibas in front of me. As if in a dream, I recognized the trees. I had been on this very
spot before. Milagros had squatted in front of me. Impassively, he had watched the rain
wash my face and body of Angelica's ashes. Today it was Iramamowe squatting on the
same spot, gazing at the tears rolling uncontrollably down my cheeks.
"It was here that I first saw Ritimi, Tutemi, and Etewa," I said. Suddenly I realized it had
been Ritimi's deliberate choice to accompany me this far. I understood all she had left
unsaid, how deeply she felt. She had given me back a basket and a gourd, the two items I
was carrying that distant day. Only now the gourd was not filled with ashes, but with onoto,
a symbol of life and happiness. A quiet loneliness, humble and accepting, filled my heart. I
carefully dried my tears so as not to erase the onoto designs.
"Perhaps one day Ritimi will find you on this spot again," Iramamowe said, his habitually
stern face softened by a fleeting smile. "Let's walk a bit farther before we rest for the
night." Lifting the heavy bunch of plantains from my basket, he Hung it over his shoulder.
He was slightly swaybacked and his belly stuck out.
Iramamowe must have felt the same urge to walk as I did. My feet seemed to move of their
own accord, knowing exactly where to step in the darkness. I never lost sight of
Iramamowe's arrow quiver, immobilized under the load of plantains. Moving through the
darkness, I had the illusion that it was not I but the forest that was leaving.
"We'll sleep here," Iramamowe said, inspecting the weathered lean-to that stood away from
the path. He built a small fire inside, then hung his hammock next to mine.
I lay awake watching the stars and the faint moon through the opening of the hut. Mist
thickened the darkness until there was no light left. Trees and sky formed one mass through
which I imagined bows falling from the clouds like heavy rain; and hekuras rising from
invisible crevices in the earth: They danced to the sound of a shaman's song.
The sun was high over the treetops when Iramamowe woke me. After finishing a baked
plantain and a piece of monkey meat, I offered him my calabash with honey.
"You'll need it for the days of walking," he said. A friendly glance softened his words of
refusal. "We will find more on the way," he promised, reaching for his machete and his bow
and arrows.
We walked at a steady pace, much faster than I remember ever having walked in my life.
We crossed rivers, we moved up and down hills that bore no familiar landmark. Days spent
walking, nights spent sleeping chased each other with predictable swiftness. My thoughts
did not reach beyond each day or night. There was nothing between them but a short-lived
dawn and dusk during which we ate.
"I know this place!" I exclaimed one afternoon, breaking the long silence. I pointed to the
dark rocks jutting from the earth. They formed a perpendicular wall along the river's edge.
But the longer I gazed at the river and trees, already purple in the twilight, the less sure I
felt I had been there before. I climbed over a tree trunk that extended all the way into the
water. The day had been deadly still, but now the leaves began to stir gently, sending forth a
fresh whisper along the river. Arching branches and creepers brushed the water's surface,
burying themselves in the dark liquid that harbored no fish and discouraged mosquitoes.
"Are we close to the mission?" I asked, turning to Iramamowe.
He did not answer. After a moment, as if annoyed by the silence he was unwilling to break,
he motioned me to follow.
I felt tired- each step was an effort- yet I could not remember having gone very far that day.
I lifted my head as I heard the cry of a bird. A yellow leaf, like a giant butterfly, fluttered
from a branch. As if afraid to fall and rot on the ground, the leaf clung to my thigh.
Iramamowe held out his hand behind him, gesturing me to remain still. Stealthily he stalked
along the riverbank. "We will eat meat tonight," he whispered, then disappeared in the
uncertain light, his body but a line against the shimmering river's surface.
Lying down on the dark sand, I watched the sky ablaze for a moment as the earth
swallowed the sun. I drank the last of the honey Iramamowe had found that morning, then
fell asleep with its sweetness on my lips. Awakened by the sound of crackling flames, I
turned on my stomach. On a small platform built over the fire Iramamowe was roasting an
almost two-foot-long agouti.
"It's not good to sleep at night without the protection of a fire," he said, facing me. "The
spirits of the forest might bewitch you."
"I am so tired," I yawned, moving closer to the fire. "I could sleep for days."
"It will rain during the night," Iramamowe announced as he planted the three poles that
would make our shelter around the roasting meat. I helped him cover the roof and sides
with the wild banana fronds he had cut while I slept. He fastened the hammocks close to the
fire, so we could push the logs to the flames without having to get up.
The agouti tasted like roast pork, tender and juicy. What we did not finish Iramamowe tied
to a stick high above the fire. "We'll eat the rest in the morning." Grinning, as if pleased
with himself, he stretched fully in his hammock. "It will give us strength to climb the
mountains."
"Mountains?" I asked. "I only went over hills when I came with Angelica and Milagros." I
bent over Iramamowe. "The only time I climbed up a mountain was when I returned to the
shabono with Ritimi and Etewa from the Mocototeri feast. Those mountains were close to
the shabono." I touched his face. "Are you sure you know the way to the mission?"
"What a question to ask," he said, closing his eyes, and crossing his arms over his chest.
His bristly eyebrows slanted toward his temples. There were a few hairs at the edge of his
upper lip. The skin over his high cheekbones was stretched taut, only a faint trace of the
onoto designs still recognizable. As if annoyed by my scrutiny, he opened his eyes: They
reflected the light of the fire, but his gaze revealed nothing.
I lay down in my hammock. I ran my fingers along my forehead and cheeks, wondering if
the onoto lines and dots had also faded on my face. Tomorrow I'll bathe in the river, I
thought. And my uneasiness, which is probably nothing but exhaustion, will vanish as soon
as I paint myself anew with onoto. Yet, no matter how I tried to reassure myself, I was
unable to still my mounting distrust. My body and mind were tight with a vague
premonition I could not put into words. The air became chilly. Leaning over, I pushed one
of the logs closer to the flames.
"It will be even colder in the mountains," Iramamowe mumbled. "I will make us a drink
from plants that will keep us warm."
Reassured by his words, I began to inhale and exhale with exaggerated depth, deliberately
pushing all thoughts away, until I was aware of nothing but the sound of the rain, the
smoke-warmed air, the smell of damp earth. And I slept a calm, untroubled sleep that lasted
throughout the night.
In the morning we bathed in the river, then painted each other's faces and bodies with
onoto. Iramamowe was specific about the designs he desired: A serpentine line across his
forehead, extending down to his jaws, then around his mouth; a circle between his brow, at
the corners of his eyes, and two on each cheek. On his chest he wanted wavy lines, running
all the way to his navel, and on his back the lines had to be straight. A smile of gentle
mockery softened his face as he covered me from head to foot with uniform circles.
"What do they mean?" I asked eagerly. Ritimi had never decorated me thus.
"Nothing," he said, laughing. "This way you don't look so skinny."
At first the ascent up the narrow trail was easy. The undergrowth was free of serrated
grasses and thorny weeds. A warm mist enshrouded the forest, creating a diaphanous light
through which the crowns of the tall palm trees seemed to hang suspended from the sky.
The sound of waterfalls echoed eerily through the misty air, and each time I brushed against
a branch or leaf tiny drops of moisture clung to me. The afternoon rain, however, turned the
path into a muddy menace. I bruised my toes repeatedly on the roots and stones beneath the
slippery surface.
We made camp late in the afternoon, halfway up the summit. Exhausted, I sat on the ground
and watched Iramamowe pound three strong poles into the earth. I did not have the strength
to help him cover the triangular structure with palm fronds and giant leaves.
"Are you coming back this way on your return to the shabonof" I asked, wondering why he
was reinforcing the hut so well. It appeared altogether too sturdy for a one-night shelter.
Iramamowe gave me a sidelong glance but did not answer.
"Is there going to be a storm tonight?" I asked in an exasperated tone.
An irrepressible smile played around his lips, and his face looked uncannily childish as he
squatted beside me. A mischievous sparkle, as if he were planning some prank, shone in his
eyes. "Tonight you will sleep well," he finally said, then proceeded to build a fire inside the
cozy hut. He fastened my hammock in the back: His own he hung close to the narrow
entrance. "Tonight we will not feel the cold air," he said, looking for the gourd in which
were soaking the shredded leaves and pale yellow flowers of a plant he had found the
previous day, growing over some rocks in a sunny spot along the river's edge. He unsealed
the calabash, added more water, then placed it over the fire. Softly he began to chant, his
eyes fixed on the dark simmering liquid.
Trying to figure out the words of his song, I fell asleep. I was awakened shortly by him.
"Drink this," he urged, holding the gourd close to my lips. "It has been cooled by the
mountain dew."
I took a sip. It tasted like herb tea, bitter but not unpleasantly so. After a few more gulps, I
pushed the calabash toward him.
"Drink it all," Iramamowe said coaxingly. "It will keep you warm. You will sleep for days."
"Days?" I emptied the gourd, smiling at his remark as if it were a joke. A faint touch of
malice seemed to be lurking somewhere within him. By the time it fully dawned on me that
he was not being facetious, a pleasant numbness seeped through my body, melting my
anxiety into a comforting heaviness that made my head feel as if it were lead. I was sure it
would break off my neck. The image of my head rolling on the ground, a ball with two
glass eyes, threw me into spasms of laughter.
Crouching by the fire, Iramamowe watched me with growing curiosity. Slowly, I stood up.
I've lost my physicality, I thought. I had no control over my legs as I tried to place one foot
in front of the other. Dejected, I slumped on the ground, next to Iramamowe. "Why don't
you laugh?" I asked, surprised at my own words. What I really wanted to know was if the
sound of drops prattling on the thatched roof was a storm. I wondered if I had actually
spoken, for the words kept reverberating in my head like a distant echo. Afraid to miss his
answer, I moved closer to him.
Iramamowe's face became taut as the cry of a nocturnal monkey broke the night's stillness.
His nostrils flared, his full lips set in a straight line. His eyes, piercing into mine, grew
larger, shining with a deep loneliness, a gentleness that contrasted oddly with his severe
masklike face.
As if I were animated by a slow-motion mechanism, I crawled to the edge of the hut, each
of my movements a gigantic effort. I felt as if all my tendons had been replaced with elastic
strings. I relished the sensation of being able to stretch in any direction, into the most
absurd postures I could imagine.
From the pouch hanging around his neck, Iramamowe poured epena into his palm. He drew
the hallucinogenic powder deep into his nostrils, then began chanting. I felt his song inside
me, surrounding me, drawing me toward him. Without any hesitation I drank from the
gourd he once again held to my lips. The dark liquid no longer tasted bitter.
My sense of time and distance became distorted. Iramamowe and the fire were so far away,
I feared I had lost them across the wide expanse of the hut. Yet the next instant, his eyes
were so close to mine I saw myself reflected in their dark pupils. I was crushed by the
weight of his body, and my arms folded beneath his chest. He whispered words into my
ears that I could not hear. A breeze parted the leaves, revealing the shadowy night, the
treetops brushing the stars- countless stars, massed together as if in readiness to fall. I
reached out: My hand grasped leaves adorned with diamond drops. For an instant, they
clung to my fingers, then disintegrated like dew.
Iramamowe's heavy body held me: His eyes sowed seeds of light inside me: His gentle
voice urged me to follow him through dreams of day and night, dreams of rainwater and
bitter leaves. There was nothing violent about his body imprisoning mine. Waves of
pleasure mingled with visions of mountains and rivers, faraway places where hekuras
dwell. I danced with the spirits of animals and trees, gliding with them through mist,
through roots and trunks, through branches and leaves. I sang with the voices of birds and
spiders, jaguars and snakes. I shared the dreams of all those who feed on epena, on bitter
flowers and leaves.
I no longer knew if I was awake or dreaming. At moments I vaguely remembered old
Hayama's words about shamans needing the femaleness in their bodies. But those memories
were neither clear nor lasting: They remained dim, unexamined premonitions. Iramamowe
always knew whenever I was about to fall into real sleep, whenever my tongue was ready
to ask, whenever I was about to weep.
"If you can't dream, I'll make you," he said, taking me in his arms, and rubbing away my
tears against his cheek. And my desire to refuse the gourd sitting by the fire like a forest
spirit vanished. Greedily I drank the dark bearer of visions until once again I was suspended
in a timelessness that was neither day or night. I was one with the rhythm of Iramamowe's
breath, with the beat of his heart, as I merged with the light and the darkness inside him.
A time came when I felt I was moving through an undergrowth of trees, leaves, and
motionless vines. I knew I was not walking; yet I was descending from the cold forest, sunk
in mist. My feet were tied and my upside-down head shook as though it were being
emptied. Visions flowed from my ears, nostrils, and mouth, leaving a faint line on the steep
path. And for one last instant I glimpsed shabonos inhabited by men and women shamans
of another time.
When I awoke, Iramamowe was crouched by the fire, his face alight with the flames and a
faint streak of moon shining into the hut. I wondered how many days had elapsed since the
night he had first offered me the bitter-tasting brew. There was no gourd by the fire. I was
certain we were no longer in the mountains. The night was clear. The soft breeze stirring
the treetops disentangled my thoughts and I drifted into a dreamless sleep as I listened to
the monotonous sound of Iramamowe's hekura songs.
The persistent growling of my stomach awoke me. I felt dizzy as I stood on uncertain legs
in the empty hut. My body was painted with wavy lines. How strange it had all been, I
thought. I felt no regret: I was not filled with hate or repulsion. It was not that I was
numbed emotionally. Rather I felt the same indescribable sensation I experienced upon
awakening from a dream that I could not quite explain.
Near the fire lay a bundle containing roasted frogs. I sat on the ground and gnawed on the
tiny bones until they were clean. Iramamowe's machete reclining against one of the poles
reassured me that he was somewhere close by.
Following the sound of the river, I walked through the tangled growth. Startled to see
Iramamowe beaching a small canoe only a short distance away, I hid behind some bushes. I
recognized the craft as being one made by the Maquiritare Indians. I had seen that kind,
made from a hollowed tree trunk, at the mission. The thought that we might be close to one
of their settlements, or perhaps even to the mission, made my heart beat faster. Iramamowe
gave no indication of having heard or seen me approach. Furtively, I returned to the shelter,
wondering how he came into possession of the canoe.
Moments later, with a vine rope and a large bundle slung over his back, Iramamowe walked
into the hut. "Fish," he said, dropping the rope and bundle on the ground.
I blushed, and embarrassed at my blushing, laughed.
Unhurriedly, he balanced the wrapped fish between the logs, making sure enough heat but
no direct flames reached the platanillo leaves. Totally engrossed in the sound of the
simmering fish, he remained squatting by the fire. As soon as all the juices were cooked
away, he removed the bundle from the logs with a forked stick and opened it. "It's good," he
said, scooping a handful of white, flaky meat into his mouth, then pushed the bundle toward
me.
"What happened in the mountains?" I asked,
Startled by my belligerent tone, his mouth gaped open. A piece of unchewed fish fell into
the ashes. Automatically, without checking the dirt sticking to it, he put the morsel back
into his mouth, then reached for the liana rope on the ground.
An irrational fear seized me. I was convinced that Iramamowe was going to tie me up and
carry me farther into the forest. I was no longer aware that only a short while before I had
been certain we were near a Maquiritare settlement, or even the mission. All I could think
of was old Hayama's story about shamans who kept captive women hidden in faraway
places. I was convinced Iramamowe would never take me back to the mission. The thought
that had he wanted to keep me hidden in the forest he would not have brought me down
from the mountains did not cross my mind at that moment.
I did not trust his smile, nor the gentle glint in his eyes. I picked up the water-filled gourd
standing by the fire and offered it to him. Smiling, he dropped the rope. I moved closer as if
I intended to bring the calabash to his lips. Instead, I smashed it between his eyes with all
my strength. Caught totally unawares, he fell backward, staring at me in dumb incredulity
as the blood ran down on both sides of his nose.
Heedless of thorns, roots, and the sharp grass, I sped through the thicket toward the place
where I had seen the canoe. But I miscalculated where Iramamowe had anchored it, for
when I reached the river there was nothing but stones strewn along the bank: The craft was
farther upriver. With a swiftness I hardly believed myself capable of, I leaped from rock to
rock. Gasping for breath, I slumped beside the canoe, pushed halfway up the sandy bank. A
cry escaped my throat when I saw Iramamowe standing in front of me.
Squatting, he opened his mouth and laughed. His laughter came in bursts, extending from
his face to his feet with such force the ground shook beneath me. Tears ran down his
cheeks, mingling with the blood from the gash between his brows. "You forgot this," he
said, dangling my knapsack in front of me. He opened it, then handed me my jeans and
shirt. "Today you will reach the mission."
"Is this the river on which the mission stands?" I asked, staring at his bloodstained face. "I
don't recognize this place."
"You have been here with Angelica and Milagros," he assured me. "The rains change the
rivers and the forest the way the clouds change the sky."
I pulled up my jeans; loosely they hung from my waist, threatening to slide over my hips.
The damp moldy-smelling shirt made me sneeze. I felt awkward and turned uncertain eyes
to Iramamowe. "How do I look?"
He walked around me, examining me meticulously from every angle. Then, after a
moment's deliberation, he squatted once more and pronounced with a laugh, "You look
better painted with onoto."
I squatted beside him. The wind was still: There was no movement on the river. Shadows
from the tall trees reached across the water, darkening the sand at our feet. I wanted to
apologize for smashing the gourd in his face, and to explain my suspicions. I wanted him to
tell me of the days in the mountains, but was reluctant to break the silence.
As if cognizant and amused by my dilemma, Iramamowe lowered his face to his knees and
laughed softly, as if sharing his mirth with the drops of blood falling between his wide
spread toes. "I wanted to take the hekuras I once saw in your eyes," he murmured. He went
on to say that not only he but also Puriwariwe, the old shapori, had seen the hekuras within
me. "Every time I lay with you and felt the energy bursting inside you, I hoped to lure the
spirits into my chest," Iramamowe said. "But they didn't want to leave you." He turned his
eyes to me, intense with protest. "The hekuras would not answer my call; they would not
heed my songs. And then I became afraid that you might take the hekuras from my body."
Anger and an indescribable sadness rendered me speechless for a moment. "Did we stay
longer than a day and a night in the mountains?" I finally asked, my curiosity getting the
better of me.
Iramamowe nodded, but did not say for how long we had remained in the hut. "When I was
certain that I could not change your body; when I realized that the hekuras would not leave
you, I carried you in a sling to this place."
"Had you changed my body would you have kept me in the forest?"
Iramamowe looked at me sheepishly. A smile of relief parted his lips, yet his eyes were
veiled with a vague regret. "You have the soul and shadow of an Iticoteri," he murmured.
"You have eaten the ashes of our dead. But your body and head is that of a nape." A silence
punctuated his last sentence before he softly added, "There will be nights when the wind
will bring your voice mingled with the cries of monkeys and jaguars. And I will see your
shadow dancing on the ground, painted by the moonlight. On those nights I will think of
you." He stood up and pushed the canoe into the water. "Stay close to the bank- otherwise
the current will take you too swiftly," he said, motioning me to climb inside.
"Aren't you coming?" I asked, alarmed.
"It's a good canoe," he said, handing me a small paddle. It had a beautifully shaped handle,
a rounded shaft, and the oval blade was shaped like a pointed concave shield. "It will take
you safely to the mission."
"Wait!" I cried before he let go of the craft. My hands trembled as I fumbled with the
zippered side pocket of my knapsack. I took out the leather pouch, and handed it to him.
"Do you remember the stone the shaman Juan Caridad gave me?" I asked. "It's yours now."
Something between shock and surprise seemed to momentarily paralyze his face. Slowly
his fingers closed over the pouch, and his features relaxed into a smile. Without a word, he
pushed the canoe into the water. Folding his arms across his chest, he watched me drift
downriver. I turned my head often, until he was out of sight. There was a moment when I
thought I still saw his figure, but it was only the wind playing with the shadows that tricked
my eyes.
Chapter 25
The trees on either side of the banks, the clouds traveling across the sky shadowed the river.
Hoping to shorten the time between the world left behind and the one now awaiting me, I
paddled as fast as I could. But I soon got tired, and then only used the small paddle to push
myself free whenever I got too close to the bank.
At times the river was clear, reflecting the lush greenness with exaggerated intensity. There
was something peaceful about the darkness of the forest and the deep silence around me.
The trees seemed to be nodding in farewell as they bent slightly with the afternoon breeze;
or perhaps they were only lamenting the passing of day, of the sun's last rays fading in the
sky. Shortly before twilight deepened, I maneuvered the canoe toward the opposite bank,
where I had seen stretches of sand amidst the dark rocks.
As soon as the craft hit the sand, I jumped out and dragged the canoe farther up the bank,
close to the forest edge, where drooping vines and branches formed a safe, dark nook. I
turned around and gazed at the distant mountains, violet in the dusk, and I wondered if I
had been up there for more than a week before Iramamowe carried me to the hut where I
had awakened that morning. I climbed to the highest rock and scanned the landscape for the
lights of the mission. It had to be farther than Iramamowe estimated, I thought. Only
darkness crept from out of the river, crawling up the rocks as the last vestiges of sunlight
disappeared from the sky. I was hungry but did not dare explore the sandy river shore for
turtle eggs.
I could not decide whether I should place my knapsack under my head as a pillow or wrap
it around my cold feet as I lay inside the canoe. Through the tangled mass of branches
above me I saw the clear sky, filled with innumerable tiny stars shining like golden specks
of dust. As I drifted off to sleep, my feet tucked in my knapsack, I hoped that my feelings,
like the light of the stars spanning the sky, would reach those I had loved in the forest.
I awoke shortly. The air was filled with the sounds of crickets and frogs. I sat up, then
looked around me as if I could dispel the darkness. Shafts of moonlight spilled through the
branches, painting the sand with grotesque shadows that seemed to come alive with the
rustling of wind. Even with my eyes closed, I was painfully conscious of the shadows
brushing against the canoe. And each time a cricket interrupted its continuous chirping I
opened my eyes, waiting for the sound to resume. Dawn finally silenced the cries,
murmurs, and whistling of the forest. The mist-coated leaves looked as if they had been
sprinkled with fine silver dust.
The sun rose over the treetops, tinting the clouds orange, purple, and pink. I bathed, washed
my clothes with the fine river sand, spread them over the canoe to dry, then painted myself
with onoto.
I was glad I had not arrived at the mission the day before, as I had first hoped, but that I still
had time to watch the clouds change the sky. To the east, heavy clouds gathered, darkening
the horizon. Lightning flashed in the distance, thunder followed after long intervals, and
white lines of rain moved across the sky toward the north, keeping ahead of me. I wondered
if alligators were basking in the sun amid the driftwood scattered on the bank. I had not
floated downriver for long before the waters widened. The current became so strong I had a
hard time keeping from swirling around in the shallow waters along the bank beset with
rocks.
For an instant I thought I was hallucinating when I saw on the opposite bank a long dugout
slowly pushing its way upriver. I stood up, frantically waving my shirt in the air, then cried
with sheer happiness as the dugout crossed the wide expanse of water and headed toward
me. With calculated precision, the almost thirty-foot-long canoe beached just a few paces
away.
Smiling, twelve people climbed out of the canoe- four women, four men, and four children.
They looked odd in their Western clothes and the purple designs on their faces. Their hair
was cut like mine, but the crown of their head was not shaved.
"Maquiritare?" I asked.
Nodding, the women bit their lips as if trying to contain their giggles. Their chins quivered
until they burst into uncontrollable laughter that was echoed by the men. Hastily, I put on
my jeans and shirt. The oldest woman came closer. She was short and sturdy, her sleeveless
dress revealing round fat arms and long breasts, which hung to her waist. "You are the one
who went into the forest with the old Iticoteri woman," she said, as if it were the most
natural thing in the world to have found me paddling down-river in a dugout made by her
people. "We know about you from the father at the mission." After formally shaking my
hand, the old woman introduced me to her husband, their three daughters, their respective
husbands and children.
"We left early this morning," the old woman's husband said. "We have been visiting
relatives who live nearby."
"She has become a real savage," the youngest of the three daughters cried, pointing to my
cut feet with such an expression of outrage that it was all I could do not to giggle. She
searched my canoe and shook the empty knapsack. "She has no shoes," she said in
disbelief. "She is a real savage!"
I looked at her bare feet.
"Our shoes are in the canoe," she affirmed, and proceeded to bring an assortment of
footwear from the boat. "See? We all have shoes."
"Do you have any food with you?" I asked.
"We do," the old woman assured me, then asked her daughter to put the shoes back into the
canoe, and bring one of the bark boxes.
The box was lined with platanillo leaves and filled with cassava bread. I huddled over the
food, almost hugging it as I dunked piece after piece into a water-filled calabash before
popping it into my mouth. "My stomach is full and happy," I said after I had eaten halfway
down the box.
The Maquiritare regretted that they had no meat but only sugarcane with them. The old man
cut a foot-long piece, peeled the bamboolike bark with his machete, then handed it to me.
"It will give you strength," he said.
I chewed and sucked on the pale hard fibers until they were dry and tasteless. The
Maquiritare had heard about Milagros. One of the sons-in-law knew him personally, but
none of them knew where Milagros was.
"We will take you to the mission," the old man said.
I made a feeble attempt to convince him that it was not necessary for him to retrace his
steps, but my words lacked conviction. Eagerly I boarded the craft, sitting between the
women and children. To take advantage of the full speed of the current, the men steered the
canoe right into the middle of the river. They paddled without saying a word to each other,
yet each man was so attuned to the others' rhythm that they were able to anticipate each
other's precise needs in advance. I remembered Milagros had once mentioned to me that the
Maquiritare were not only the greatest boat builders of the Orinoco area, but also the best
navigators.
Exhaustion pressed heavily on my eyes. The rhythmic splashing of the paddles made me so
drowsy, my head kept lolling forward and sideways. The bygone days and nights drifted
through my mind like fragmented dreams of another time. It seemed all so vague, so far
away, as if it had all been an illusion.
It was noon when I was awakened by Father Coriolano, who had come into the room to
bring me a mug filled with coffee. "Eighteen hours of sleep is a good start," he said. His
smile held the same reassuring warmth with which he had greeted me the day before as I
stepped out of the Maquiritare's boat.
My eyes were still heavy with sleep as I sat on the canvas cot. My back was stiff from
resting in a flat position. Slowly, I sipped the hot black brew, so strong, and thickened with
sugar it made me nauseous.
"I also have chocolate," Father Coriolano said.
I straightened the calico shift I had been given to sleep in, and followed him into the
kitchen. With the flair of a chef preparing a fancy meal, he stirred two tablespoons of dried
milk powder, four of Nestle's chocolate powder, four of sugar, and a few grains of salt into
a pot of water boiling on a kerosene stove.
He drank my unfinished coffee while I spooned the delicious-tasting chocolate. "I can radio
your friends in Caracas to pick you up with their plane anytime you want."
"Oh, not yet," I said faintly.
The days passed slowly. In the mornings I wandered around the gardens along the
riverbank and at noon I sat under the large mango tree that bore no fruit outside the chapel.
Father Coriolano did not ask me what my plans were, or how long I intended to stay at the
mission. He seemed to have accepted my presence as something inevitable.
In the evenings I spent hours talking to Father Coriolano and to Mr. Barth, who often came
to visit. We chatted about the crops, the school, the dispensary- always impersonal subjects.
I was grateful that neither of them asked me where I had been for over a year, what I had
done, or what I had seen. I would not have been able to answer- not because I wanted to be
secretive, but because there was nothing to say. If we exhausted our conversation, Mr. Barth
would read us articles from newspapers and magazines, some over twenty years old.
Regardless of whether we were listening or not, he rattled on as he pleased, now and then
interrupting himself to roar with laughter.
In spite of their humor and affable nature, there were evenings when shadows of loneliness
crossed their faces as we sat in silence listening to the rain pattering on the corrugated roof;
or to the solitary cry of a howler monkey settling for the night. It was then that I wondered
if they too had learned the secrets of the forest: secrets of misty caves; of the sound of sap
running through branches and trunks; of spiders spinning their silvery webs. At those times
I wondered if that was what Father Coriolano had tried to warn me about when he had
talked of the dangers of the forest. And I wondered if it was this that kept them from
returning to the world they had left behind.
At night, enclosed in the four walls of my room, I felt a vast emptiness. I missed the
closeness of the huts, the smell of people and smoke. Carried by the sound of the river
flowing outside my window, I dreamt I was with the Iticoteri. I heard Ritimi's laughter, I
saw the children's smiling faces, and there was always Iramamowe, squatting outside his
hut calling to the hekuras that had eluded him.
Walking along the river's edge one afternoon, I was overcome by an uncontrollable sadness.
The noise of the river was loud, drowning out the voices of the people chatting nearby. It
had rained at noon and the sun peeked through the clouds without properly shining.
Aimlessly I walked up and down the sandy beach. Then in the distance I saw the lonely
figure of a man approaching. Dressed in khaki pants and a red checkered shirt, he looked
indistinguishable from any of the Westernized Indians around the mission. Yet there was
something familiar about the man's swaggering gait.
"Milagros!" I cried, then waited until he stood before me. His face looked unfamiliar under
the torn straw hat through which his hair stuck out like blackened palm fibers. "I'm so glad
you came."
Smiling, he motioned me to squat beside him. He brushed his hand over the top of my
head. "Your hair has grown," he said. "I knew you would not leave until you saw me."
"I'm going back to Los Angeles," I said. There had been so many things I wanted to ask
him, but now that he was beside me, I no longer saw the need to have anything explained.
We watched the twilight spread over the river and the forest. The darkness filled with the
sounds of frogs and crickets. A full moon ascended the sky. It grew smaller as it climbed
and covered the river with silver ripples. "Like a dream," I murmured.
"A dream," Milagros repeated. "A dream you will always dream. A dream of walking, of
laughter, of sadness." There was a long pause before he continued. "Even though your body
has lost our smell, a part of you will always keep a bit of our world," he said, gesturing
toward the distance. "You will never be free."
"I didn't even thank them," I said. "There is no thank you in your language."
"Neither is there good-bye," he added.
Something cold, like a drop of rain or dew, touched my forehead. When I turned to face
him, Milagros was no longer by my side. From across the river, out of the distant darkness,
the wind carried the Iticoteri's laughter. "Good-bye is said with the eyes." The voice rustled
through the ancient trees, then vanished, like the silvery ripples on the water.
Glossary
ASHUKAMAKI (Ah shuh kah mah kee)
A vine used to thicken the curare poison.
AYORI-TOTO (Ah yo ree toh toh)
A vine used to poison fish.
EPENA (Eh peh nah)
A hallucinatory snuff derived from either the bark of theepena tree or the seeds of the
hisioma tree. Both substances are prepared and taken in the same fashion.
HEKURAS (Heh kuh rahs)
Tiny humanoid spirits that dwell in rocks and mountains. Shamans contact the hekuras by
taking the hallucinatory snuff epena. Through chants the shamans lure the hekuras into
their chests. Successful shamans can control these spirits at will.
MAMUCORI (Mah muh ko ree)
A thick vine used to make the curare poison.
MOMO (Moh moh)
A nutlike edible seed.
NABRUSHI (Nah bru shee)
A six-foot-long club used for fighting.
NAPE (Nah peh)
A foreigner. Anyone who is not an Indian, regardless of color, race, or nationality.
OKO-SHIKI (Oh koh shee kee)
Magical plants used for malevolent purposes.
ONOTO (Oh no toh)
A red vegetable dye derived from the crushed, boiled seeds of the Bixa orellana. The dye is
used for decorating the face and body as well as baskets, arrowheads, and ornaments.
PISHAANSI (Pee sha han see)
A large leaf used for wrapping meat, for cooking, or as a receptacle.
PLATANILLO (Plah tah neeyo)
A large, broad, sturdy leaf used for wrapping and as ground cover.
POHORO (Ph oh roh)
Wild cacao.
RASHA (Rah sha)
The cultivated spiny-trunked peach palm. Highly valued for its fruit, which it produces for
fifty years and longer. After the plantain, it is probably the most important plant in the
gardens. These palms are owned individually by whoever planted them.
SHABONO (Sha boh noh)
A permanent Yanomama settlement consisting of a circle of huts around an open clearing.
SHAPORI (Sha poh ree)
A shaman, witch doctor, sorcerer.
SIKOMASIK (See kouw mah seek)
A whitish edible mushroom that grows on decaying tree trunks.
UNUCAI (Uh nuh kah ee)
A man who has killed an enemy.
WAITERI (Wah ee teh ree)
A brave, courageous warrior.
WAYAMOU (Wah yah mow)
The formal, ritualized ceremonial language used by the men when bartering. 




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