Short Stories

Under the Canopy 3

June 30, 2015

 

A Little Culture

 

Much revolves around two things in village life, hunting and children; there is little time to do much more. The men hunt for the band’s survival, a degree of camaraderie growing from that communal activity. Women go about their gathering fruits and vegetables and care for their children. The children wander about loved and attended by each woman whether it is their child or not. The men hunt or sleep, the latter apparently a popular hobby among the male population when one considers the physical exhaustion. It made total sense since it was too hot to do anything during the heat of the day. This was also a time when the hallucinogenic white power was taken. After the disgusting part of vomiting was over, the individual drifted into a sleepy, euphoric state. I was able able to ascertain the value of the exercise, whether recreational or spiritual. I’d been offered an opportunity to take part in it but declined, consistently.

The band had other entertainment activities where people would collect during storytelling. Their entire history was passed along verbally, they, having no way of recording stories. Nomami was our storyteller, his eldest son filling in when the father is too tired to partake. I had no idea how old the storyteller was; his pinched face and wrinkles not much different from the younger men, yet he had an air of wisdom about him that separated him from the young. I am not certain but most of these people lived short lives due to accidents, nutrition and disease.

Nomami told a story once which was about creation and the great flood. People were chasing the sun because it began to fall, which hadn’t happen before. It was said that the sun was always in the same place all the time never setting as it does now. When the sun left, the land was cold and people shivered and cried. The floods came and many people were drowned. The dead are said to be living in the great river not far from our village, forever lost never to return. Unlike those of today, people lived forever in the old time. The sun did battle with the moon, the gods giving the people a life span. That was the best I could make out from Charlie’s explanation.

The storyteller also told the story of the great boa that fought the great jaguar. They were gods on land ruling over all living beings. The discussion between them was to decide, which will govern the land; that was before people came on it. Boa was a powerful god able to crush his enemies, devouring them whole. Jaguar was another powerful god who was swift of foot and very strong. Boa wrapped himself around Jaguar to end the discussion but Jaguar was quick and agile grabbing the snake by the head, snapping Boa like a whip across the land. In it’s wake, a great river was made in the shape of a snake the many smaller snakes of the land bits of the Boa god. Soon, the great jaguar was too big for the land and had to become smaller to eat. Sometimes he had to battle all over with Boa though in a diminished sense now.

I’m not sure I understood all the stories but found a richness in their culture, I had not expected. Their daily life was simple and straightforward, religious beliefs so complex only Yanomi could sort them out, his followers relying on his ability to intercede with the gods. Their polytheistic beliefs gave them so many gods; only the shaman could recognize which god was unhappy and make an offering to appease the offended deity. Boa rated very high in the god department, dealing out punishment for transgressors.

Yanomi claimed this was not punishment but a lack of balance in nature; the gods didn’t punish they sought balance. Without balance people became sick or just had bad luck. An unmarried daughter of mating age may not find a mate until balance was restored to the band. A hunter who could not find game had to discover the imbalance through Yanomi. A woman who could not have a child may have angered a god or two. It was all so very complex and confusing to me.

 

In an effort to make friends with Yanomi, I decided to show him the secret of making people small and stand on their heads. By removing the lens cap on the camera he was able to perform the same magic with great satisfaction. I believe I had won him over. In turn he tried to teach me a bit of his secret craft, which was easier said than done.

Yanomi knew the herbs and plants used to cure different maladies and the plant that makes the white powder so the people could visit the gods. He showed me, which ones were helpful and which were dangerous. He spoke very rapidly, me not having a very firm grasp of the language yet. His hand signing helped me to understand him, however not enough to get all the fine details. He smiled at me explaining my first wife will have a boy child. I won’t bother to explain his sign for a boy but it requires little imagination or guesswork. I had to wonder if he was correct or taking a fifty-fifty chance he would be right. Even in the civilized world we could not tell what sex our children would be until they are born.

Through Yanomi and Charlie I discovered another detail of village life. Contrary to everything I’d heard of these vicious, head shrinking, violent people, they cherish peace and balance because of their association with nature. To perpetuate violence upsets the balance of nature and was destructive to the peace of the jungle. No one says a cross word or argues with one another for fear of disturbing balance. Perhaps this was why the chief had not had me killed; I really don’t know.

Charlie’s wife Maria had given birth to a baby girl, which meant we’d been there for at least nine months; I lost count long before. Ahan was only a month behind. I was excited about the impending birth though distant in an emotional sense. Ahan was my wife according to jungle law, if there was such a thing, yet a stranger to me in every way. Was this the life I would have to live from now on? I was beginning to think I would never get back, the chief never deciding if my magic was too powerful to upset the balance. It was best not to press the issue.

It wasn’t as terrible as one might think; I had enough to eat, roof over my head and people who had become my friends, if I could count any of them as such. My wives were very attentive and I suspect they loved me in their own way. What else is there in life beyond that? However I was still the giant white stranger, not one of them.

There were no automobiles to foul the air, no money to fret over. We had no plumbing to stop up or electricity to repair at great cost. No one lied because they didn’t understand the concept of untruths. You said things as they were and suffered the consequences if they were not of a positive vane. Unfortunately, lying had become an art with many white people.

 

 

 father:son

 

Visitors

We had visitors from another band a few miles away some time after my stay. When challenged they laid their spears cross ways in front of them to show their peaceful intentions. Once welcome was extended they stepped over the spears and retrieved them toting them as before. It was their sign for leaving the weapon behind coming in peace, though they always carried them. Our visitors had heard about the white man in the village and were eager to meet me. Yes, the name ‘snake’ had been used on my behalf.

One of them stepped forward and rubbed my arm to see if the white came off, perhaps thinking it might be white ash or clay. Satisfied he smiled and nodded his acceptance of my color. There was an exchange between the man and the rest of the people standing nearby; the gist of the conversation involving my lack of color. He felt the gods had not finished me when he put me on the earth; the color must have been forgotten or perhaps it was my magic that bleached me to my pinkish white. Frankly I thought I was beginning to get a bit of a tan, not enough to suit the visitor.

We had a small feast with the men exchanging news from relatives in the other band. The rains had washed out a hillside killing two women and a child in their group. The sad news felt by everyone; one of the women was from our village. The bodies could not be recovered because of the volume of mud and trees. Their shaman had to perform a special ceremony to free the spirits of the victims, who would be buried for all eternity.

Our village was safe from mudslides. The worst that happened was minor flooding, forcing us to stay in our elevated platforms until it receded. The danger of the floods wasn’t the water itself but what the water brought in the way of snakes and such. The creatures that were in the water sought high ground and the trees we lived in sharing the safety. I was terrified by this, while Ahan and Caihe treated it with indifference flicking beetles, spiders and snakes off of the floor and roof of our hut, occasionally whacking a snake for supper.

The large lean-to below was washed away but quickly rebuilt after the floodwaters receded. Nothing was permanent in that place, huts and other structures destroyed by water, bugs or fire. For that reason cooking was often done in the open to avoid one of the damaging elements. The ants did as much damage as either of the above. Nothing was thought of this, the buildings repaired regularly, the jungle providing all that is needed.

Our visitors left two days later, two of our women accompanying them. They would be brides in the other band and bring balance back. Though the women went of their own choice, several tears were shed over their departure. They would find husbands and strengthen the ties between our bands, a way to preserve peace. We had too many women and the others did not have enough. Yanomi encouraged this move because it allowed for balance of men and women throughout the area, making the gods happy; apparently the gods preferred equal numbers.

 

Disposition

We had received reports of strange people downstream from us, Charlie claiming the men many days travel from our village but moving slowly towards us. The jungle grapevine passed along the information about the steamboat landing a large number of men looking for the yellow rock. Others were looking for slaves to tap the rubber trees and set up a forward camp. This is serious information concerning the safety and welfare of the band.

Inquires were made at the missionary station about the chances of moving men and equipment further upstream. Few bother to go further because of the difficulty by dugout canoe and the hostiles. Like my own earlier group our canoes had to be dragged up the minor streams, limiting the amount of supplies we could carry. During the rainy season the stream is quite full but calms down once the rains subside.

It’s odd; I felt anxious about the strangers, though there was a possibility I could be rescued from my gilded cage. I cannot say I suffered a good deal in captivity, quite the contrary. These people treated me like one of their own; so I also saw the dangers of encroachment from the outside. When we had begun our expedition I saw many examples of white men enslaving the Indians and stripping the land of its valuables. Lumber, rubber and gold lust devastated the landscape changing the natural beauty into a thing of ugliness, spoiled. The slave runners shot any of the Indians who tried to get away, surely an imbalance the gods would not favor.

Malapa also fretted over this potential intrusion, the reputation of the whites known even to this band. He ordered men to keep a watch on the white men, reporting back any significant movement toward their village. Charlie told me the leader considered moving the band to another location, farther from the infringing whites devils. Even though the village was in a remote location, Malapa felt it would be better to move than fight. The white men had the sticks that made loud noise, frightening the spirit from a man’s body. Men would be lost in a fight and create balance and trouble with the gods. Yanomi agreed with this move but felt it was too soon to leave.

I once was the enemy or so I felt; I was a white man, who took from the land and gave nothing in return, though personally never participating in such an activity. I suspected Malapa would finally come to a decision regarding my disposition in the village. I was correct in this when it was suggested I should return downstream. Charlie claimed Malapa felt I would be happier with my own kind instead of his people. But the strangers were not my own kind; I wanted them to know that. They were vile and disrespectful, nothing like me at all. How could I explain that to Malapa?

I was spared my life only because I had a child in the village with another one soon to arrive, unofficial status as a member in the band by providing an offspring. They would not harm one of their own even the white man. Yanomi was to supplement the decision based on what the gods had to say. I’m afraid I didn’t take any comfort in this since I’m wasn’t sure I trusted these gods of theirs. Resentment and jealousy could taint the decision of the gods, befriending the shaman not be enough.

Yanomi left the band for several days to a place unknown to all but the holy to confer with the gods. He brought with him a few of his ceremonial possessions, a lock of my hair and an offering of a slain monkey. Realistically, the gods didn’t eat, the offered food probably carried off by some other animal instead of a dining deity. I sat and waited, practicing my spearing, my fate in the hands of a man who wore feathers in his nose.

Caihe was getting very large in the belly, her baby preparing to meet the world Yanomi in attendance as with Ahan. My son was even named by the shaman, not me. As much intimacy as I had with my wives, there continued a detachment, making me feel like a piece of furniture to avoid bumping into rather than the man-of-the-hut. It wasn’t love between us but survival of the band, a duty I performed as well as they. Ahan was a good mother and made sure I did not want for basic needs, though intimacy was not forthcoming due to the child; a taboo existed with women who were nursing; Charlie explained that to me. That could be for a year and sometimes longer; and Caihe was too far along to feel comfortable with sex.

I was shocked when I was offered the services of another single woman of the band as replacement for sex. It was a practice of this band to allow this with other than their wives, when circumstances prevented otherwise. Having two wives was strange enough without a concubine on top of it. Malapa couldn’t understand why I did not wish the woman. He extended the offer of others I might wish instead. These people were so easy and comfortable with sexual matters; unfortunately, I was not.

After four days Yanomi came back looking tired and skinny, a fast necessary before the gods would speak to him. He did not question or complain this ritual but did as he had been taught. Compliance to the gods’ wishes was mandatory, no objections or questions allowed Yanomi’s face was devoid of life, beyond sleep deprivation. I could only guess it was bad news for me and was later confirmed after he visited the leader’s hut upon his return.

Malapa came to my hut saying, I had to leave. The gods claimed I was not one of them and did not belong, no matter how good a hunter I became, which might have never happened. The leader was not happy about it but had to abide by the decisions passed down from their deities; otherwise ill fortune could fall upon the band. Charlie helped to explain the further conditions for my departure, which were few but serious. My wives and son were not allowed to leave with me; Malapa agreed to take Ahan as a third minor wife while my pregnant Caihe would stay with Charlie’s family until a suitable husband was found for her. I wasn’t thrilled about the arrangements but had no choice; the gods’ word was law.

For days following the decree my wives acted no differently than before. I wondered if they hadn’t been apprised of my impending departure. That was highly unlikely since everyone in the village knew what was going to happen, nothing stayed a secret in the band. Several of my fellow hunters patted my shoulder wishing me a safe journey, real affection from them I did not expect; there was no humor or laughter from them.

Yanomi’s reaction fell along the lines of the other men; he did not find any joy in sending me away, the gods’ words weighing heavily on him. As a concession to him I gave him the magic box, my camera, which made people stand on their heads. Besides my equipment was too heavy and cumbersome to take along in the shallow dugout canoe I was suppose to be transported in. I took only the negatives and exposed film, a record of my life in the Amazon should I ever find the time to look at them. They took up little room and would remind me of the people I briefly became part of.

It was agreed that I should be returned downstream as far as the missionary station. Charlie told me warriors would bring me to a point several miles from the station and then let me take a canoe the rest of the way on my own. There, I could arrange for a steamboat to the coast,

eventually a ship heading back to America. I would have to wire Boston and get the funds required and procure a passport for the trip, though the authorities were rather lax in that regard.


Sad Parting with Surprise

The sun was still hiding behind the trees on the day of my departure, small rays cutting through the morning mist as the jungle was waking. Ahan and Caihe had packed the things I would need including food for my trip downriver. Both acted very business like until I loaded my things to leave. Caihe was the first to come to me holding me tight, murmuring sad words.

“Baby, remember,” she managed in English pointing to her belly. “You live inside. Good.”

Her tears came quickly and she did nothing to abate them, emotions out in the open. The avalanche of tears was joined by Ahan, who came to me with our baby boy held tight between us. She did not say anything except for what might be construed as love. For a few seconds I felt as if I should challenge the decision to leave; the reality of the gods’ decision overruled that irrational thought. I needed to respect the ways of my people, my people?

In Boston I was nobody, a face among thousands of faces one might pass on the street. There was the handful of friends, my existence to them bound by nothing except a nod and handshake. I wasn’t even sure if Sylvia Masterson kept my things or thought of me anymore. By all logic she should have assumed me dead; that’s what all the others must believe. And thinking of Sylvia, how could I explain the life I had with two wives? That sort of immorality flew in the face of polite society, their judgments about things they did not understand. Returning will not bring the joy I thought it would.

Charlie was one of the volunteers assisting me on my trip downriver. He was not leaving but staying with his wife and caring for Caihe in my absence. Several men stood in the center of the clearing with spears in hand, raised in a final salute, a muttered word or two in unison; I did not understand them. Yanomi met me at the edge of the assembly to present a small pouch of herbs and medicines he taught me to use. His face was expressionless save the hint of regret in his eyes. He had made several cuts in his skin to show his grief and to remind him of me: My enemy, my friend.

The small stream where I had originally set foot was swollen with several additional inches of water allowing the dugouts to move easily downstream. My shorts were ragged, providing little coverage. I felt obligated to wear them since I was slowly returning to a world that did not understand the beauty of the naked human body. The tribe I lived with was as natural as the trees or the streams that laced through the jungle. How odd it seems to see their nakedness as a bad thing, now. This day I viewed my own clothes as a violation against nature, a slap in the face to the innocence of a simple people.

Two dugout canoes made up our small entourage, two men and Charlie, my companions back to near civilization. I vaguely remembered the trip upstream almost a year before, so intent on photographing the beauty. Going back I didn’t miss one thing, my eyes trained to see what might appear invisible to others. Turtles maneuvered in the deeper water. The white dolphins played near our boats bumping them in play. The monkeys and wild parrots zoomed in and out of the trees watching our progress through the waterways. I could name the trees and plants that decorated the shores, a different journey than before.

We camped a few times before reaching the drop off place, where I was to travel by myself. The men had speared fish and even found a turtle, which we feasted on over a small fire. On the final morning I was up before the others looking to where we had come and where I was going; a feeling inside of me pulling from one direction, my body transported to another. In the dim light I sat at the water’s edge contemplating my life so far, what I had learned and the many lessons facing me still.

I heard a noise to the left of me and turned my head to see who or what it might be. I expected one of the men to be standing there preparing to head home. Instead, in the shadows of the shoreline I saw a creature of enormous size lapping at the water careless of my presence. It turned its head toward me, studying my face as if it was going to say something, it’s gaze locked on me for several minutes, head moving out from beneath the branches. I had only seen glimpses of a jaguar before. This one was close enough to feel his hot breath against my skin.

I wasn’t afraid of him; rather I was curious what he wanted from me. I suppose I would make a decent meal for a jaguar this size but he had eaten already. I’m not even sure why I knew that, it was just so. He stepped closer to me sniffing the air with his mouth open. I saw myself as if I were looking through his eyes, a ragged man with a destiny beyond the Amazon. The jaguar’s large canine teeth looked quite imposing, though they were not going to do me any harm; I could see that as well as feel it. He pulled back breaking our trance and romped into the jungle, leaving me with my mouth open, not nearly as threatening as his.

I sat for many more minutes before Charlie walked up to me to ask if I was ready to go. I recounted my encounter with the jaguar; his eyes became large as he studied the paw prints in the soft mud, muttering something unintelligible. I watched him stagger in disbelief as he repeated the words. He beckoned the other men and pointed to the ground beside me. I asked him what it all meant.

The loose translation was probably not very accurate, the essence of it buried in words I could not fathom. What he did say, and I did understand that part, I was visited by a god; it was an important one acknowledging me as a notable being. Only a shaman could enter the spirit as one with the jaguar. A holy man such as that may live a lifetime before encountering a visitation from this noble beast and god. Charlie said it was my magic; my own interpretation was a little different. My jaguar represented the Amazon, the wildness of it all. It was saying goodbye and reminding me of the powerful domain of the gods, the people, the Amazon.

With reverence my caretakers sent me on a course downstream to where I would find the mission station, an extra spear in the event I wanted to hunt. Charlie warned me to stay close to the edge but not so close to tangle with the snakes in the tree branches and other troublesome creatures. Since the water was swift I had little to do but guide my canoe with the primitive paddle I was given. I would get to my destination before dark, a surprise to those at the mission, unaware I even existed.

My arrival was not only a surprise but a cause for celebration. Brother Emanuel had prayed I should come to no harm after it was discovered I had not returned with the others from the expedition. Michael McGhillis and Murray Feltsten had been killed during the expedition’s escape, close to a year ago, Reggie and Earl Tombs badly wounded but survived. Two more of the porters had been slain as they ran to the boats a sad loss to Brother Emanuel.

The account of the expedition was retold in detail by one of the Indians at the mission. He said the band could have killed all of them but wanted to chase them off as a warning. It made more sense to show your strength, letting others retell the story than kill everyone and provoke others to return. As primitive as the band seemed they had wisdom beyond what white men possessed, war was not a vocation they wish to perpetuate.

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1 Comment

  • Reply TenaAPushard March 8, 2016 at 12:51 am

    I couldn’t resist commenting. Perfectly written!

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