Short Stories

Under the Canopy (part 4 end)

November 2, 2016

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.

 

Home

Weeks passed before I was able to make my way out of the Amazon and to the coast, Brother Emanuel making every effort to make me comfortable. The steamboat flowed quickly downstream passing many places spoiled by man. I hadn’t noticed that initially when we traveled upstream the year before my eyes studying the wonders of a new and different place. My time spent with the Indians gave me a better perspective from which to view the violation of nature, beauty and the Amazon. It is no wonder the Indians worried about the intrusion from the outside world.

Boston seemed a million miles away; I had just enough money to board a ship heading up the Atlantic Coast. The days that followed were a blur of people, ocean and my thoughts. I laughed when we landed on the East Coast, the temperature well below freezing, nothing like the jungle heat of my past year. I’d lost weight and my clothes hung on me because of it; also because they weren’t my clothes; several of the seamen volunteered a few garments to replace my tattered ones. I wasn’t in a position to be too picky when the offer of clothing was presented. I shivered though someone gave me an extra heavy coat to wear, Boston colder than I remembered.

I had lived in Boston for a long time before going on the expedition but was seeing it for the first time, for what it was, buildings, streets, stores, cars all the things that require money. Without that you starve and lived in a cardboard box or worse. Civilization? The Indians were more civilized than that. Food and lodging was a matter of using what was handy, picking fruit off the trees and catching fish or animals to eat. Life wasn’t about what you had rather what you shared.

The money wired to me through the American Consulate was from the Boston World Adventurers Club barely enough to get me back with a few scant meals in the process. I didn’t have a lot of choice about where to spend the night when I set foot in the city. The YMCA would take me in for now but I wasn’t sure that was the best idea considering my former landlady’s generous and kind nature. She would be offended if I did not come by and tell her I’m safe. Maybe then I’ll find somewhere to roost for the night, laying in plans for a future residence. I couldn’t imagine she’d keep my room after all this time, let alone all my photographic equipment.

I wanted to see Sylvia, though I don’t know what I would say to her. My adventure was something I lived, not simply experienced; I lived a lifetime in less than one year, a hunter, builder and family man. I worried for my life, which was never in question in Boston. Telling her I had two wives could upset her sensibilities, a smudge on my character as a respectable man. It was best to say nothing of those times, opting instead for a light, simple exchange and then departing for the YMCA or where ever.

 

I knocked on the door unsure whether I should just step inside without an invitation. I waited several minutes before Mary came to the door her arms loaded with towels and bed sheets. She promptly dropped them clapping her hands to her mouth in fright, unable to say anything. She crossed herself several times before I could say a word.

“Hi Mary, is Mrs. Masterson in?”

Scooping up the fallen laundry she rushed off whimpering and mumbling something I couldn’t make out, God being one of the key words. It reminded me a little of the babble I experienced in the band. A flurry of excitement ensued; Sandy Nelson stormed up to me, grabbing my hand and shoulder tugging my body into the house.

“Why the hell are you standing out there my friend?” bellowed Sandy in his usual coarse manner. “The prodigal son shouldn’t have to knock, especially when he returns from the dead.”

“I was never dead, Sandy. I’m quite alive, though I wasn’t sure for awhile if that was going to happen.”

“Come on inside and take a load off of those feet. You can tell us all about it; I’m sure it was quite an adventure, wild Indians and such.”

I smiled weakly as I followed him into the parlor. I sat in the same chair I had many times before, remembering the comfortable familiarity of the room, the large painting of Alexander ‘The Great’ Masterson gone; it was replaced with a painting of a pastoral scene with trees and a gentle stream meandering through a lovely meadow, a small girl playing at the water’s edge. The imposing figure of Alexander was no longer looking down upon us prepared to smite us lest we get out of line.

I thought of what to say but could not come up with an easy account of my life, two wives controversial. Many things had to be edited because of what others might think. After several moments of thought, I decided to keep it very simple.

“I guess I just lived in the jungle like the Indians. They taught me a few things and treated me well. It was hard at times but they were patient with me. I’m afraid my hunting skills were pretty horrid.”

“Come now!” barked Sandy. “Did you shrink any heads or eat the hearts of any enemies?”

It was such a ridiculous question I could say nothing except, no. Sylvia Masterson stepped into the room just at that moment, saving me from further probing, inaccurate accusations I would have to dispute.

“Why Mr. Merrill what a wonderful surprise,” she said in perfect form and grace. “We had heard rumor.”

She hesitated, unsure what to say adding, “Are you here just this day?”

“Yes, Mrs. Masterson only a few hours ago, in fact.”

I do believe she would have cried had there been no others in the room. “I thought I should come by before finding a place to stay. I wouldn’t want you to think me rude.”

“A place to stay? You need look no further Mr. Merrill; your room is as you left it save a little cleaning here and there. You are very welcome to continue living here until you decide otherwise. The evening meal will be ready by the time you’ve settled in. I trust you will share our table as before.”

It felt odd to be called by my last name again. Even on the trip back the sailors called me James or Jimmy, the latter, not a name I generally use. Sylvia’s eyes danced as she spoke scanning the small group of men, folding her hands just at her waist trying to contain her excitement. The moisture in her eyes still remained, though controlled by her proper upbringing.

“Mary!” she said loudly. “Please attend to Mr. Merrill’s room immediately. Set an extra plate as well; he will be dining with us tonight.”

A bottle of sherry and several glasses were produced, Sylvia filling them all, passing them to each of her boarders. Her warm smile greeted me as they toasted my safe return. Several remarked on the trials I must have endured, voicing their concerns about my captivity by such a violent collection of primitives. I couldn’t confirm or deny this as I didn’t understand what they meant by violent. My experience with the Indians was anything but violent. But how could they know; how could they see these people and the life they led? You had to be there and even then it wasn’t easy to understand it all.

I knew some of these people in the parlor; but what did I really know about them? They lived behind closed doors when they were not in the parlor. In the Amazon we had no doors to hide behind, exposed to all who might pass our way. The boarders didn’t hunt or spend time together sharing their stories and food except for a prepared supper. They expected food to be brought to them regardless of their status in life. And what status would that be? Sylvia Masterson was the only person with status in the room, the chief of this band.

News in my absence was retold, bringing me up to date. They did share the looming of a war in Europe, Adolph Hitler emerging as the monster of Europe determined to rule all of it. I could feel the imbalance of a war, even as I sat in the safety. Maybe it was because I understood about balance and the gods. In the Amazon no one spoke of war, only ways to avoid wars. Was it primitive to wish for peace and avoid conflict?

Sylvia, bless her heart, could see I was becoming overwhelmed with the conversation; men being men, barked about America’s possible role in the European conflict.

“Isolationism is impossible today,” spouted Sandy pushing his sherry glass forward to make his point. “The Huns have risen once again. If we sit on our hands and wait, they’ll be at our doorstep within the year.”

“Gentlemen, you will have to excuse us,” interjected Sylvia. “I believe Mr. Merrill would like to be reacquainted with his room. I’m sure he is quite fatigued from his travels.”

My rescue from the boarders was greatly appreciated. I doubt I could have responded in a civil manner given my own opinions on war. Sylvia led the way down the hall to where my former room was, smelling clean and fresh, the linen just changed. The radiator groaned and hissed, Sylvia had fixed it during my absence. Tucked into a corner was all my photography equipment, neatly arranged and covered by a sheet to keep the dust off.

“I never gave up hope James,” she said watching me. “Those men came back saying you had to be dead, there was no other possibilities in their opinion. I couldn’t believe that; I didn’t want to. I prayed.”

“This is all so unbelievable,” I responded eager to show my gratitude. “This is more than a kindness, Mrs. Masterson, it truly is. Thank you.”

She put her fingers to my lips, wrinkling her brow. “Sylvia, please,” she requested. “And I shall call you James, unless…..” She trailed off.

We stood for a moment unable to speak. Tenderly she placed her hand on my arm. I couldn’t think of what to say; she was not at a loss in that respect.

“Do you know, I stood here in your room, often imagining you in it,” she spoke softly. “I touched the clothes in your closet feeling you in them, warm a smile on your face. The smell of you still clung to some of them, deliciously. It faded over time, much to my dismay. I sought you through my spirit guide, who said you had not passed to the other side yet. It is so hard to believe in something and still have doubt. While the spirit guides claimed one thing, the men of your expedition supported an unhappier end.”

I stood there speechless unable to tell her all that she should know, the truth of who I had become. I did feel something for Sylvia, something that was growing into what, I did not know.

“Sylvia, there are things I did that I have to tell you. I was not a prisoner of these people in the true sense of the word. They insisted I act like them as much as possible, which included affairs of the family.”

“Family?”

Carefully I recounted the story of my two wives unsure afraid what to expect as a reaction. I felt shame now; that was not something I felt when in the Amazon. I took the opportunity to tell her of my son and unborn child and my guilt and sadness at leaving them behind. I had to release Sylvia from any obligation she might have felt before this information, though I told her I did not love these women.

“I understand if my story alters your impression of me,” I continued. “I did not resist, as I should have, my moral conscience compromised by the situation at hand.”

One reflection was going to be hard to relate but I decided it was best to lay all the cards on the table.

“Frankly, these people did not strike me as immoral beings, their view on living quite simple and practical. Carnal exercises were viewed as pleasure and a way to perpetuate the population of the band. Whether it makes a difference or not, I did not feel love for either of my wives; I know that sounds terrible.”

Sylvia removed her hand from my arm. I expected her to turn away and leave with a disparaging comment or rebuke of some sort. She did not. Instead she opened the door to her room across the narrow hall turning back to me as the door swung open.

“James, you speak of practicality as if it were a bad thing. It is not very practical that I live in this large house with no company except my boarders. To the men living here, I am just a mother who attends to their comfort and care as would be expected. However, I am a woman with all that it involves being such. Sadly it involves nothing but the four walls of my room alone at night and a cold bed. I am not a wanton woman but I do have needs. If you are so inclined, I’d like to share my affections so that we may dispense with the loneliness we both must have in common.”

She reached across the hall taking my hand and moving me toward her room. I was taken aback by the passion I saw in her eyes, the overwhelming desire she felt. Unlike my wives of the Amazon I could see this woman wanted to love me; she needed me not because it was her duty. It was her choice. Love? That question could only be answered in time, my return to civilization needing more familiarization.

 

Club Visitation

A day or two later a caller came to the door seeking audience with me. Derek Clemens stood composed, erect, his neatly pressed suit almost too formal for a daytime visit; I shouldn’t be surprised since the wealthy tend to dress better. He smiled at me pleased to see I was alive and well. Removing ourselves to the parlor we sat unattended by any of the other boarders most of which were at their respective places of employment. Awkwardness existed between us, suggesting guilt on his part of the expeditionary plans gone afoul.

“James I am so glad to see you have suffered little,” he announced fiddling with a hankie tucked into one sleeve of his coat. “Of course that may not be entirely accurate since I was not there to witness the ordeals you must have endured. I read about the atrocities regarding the savages of the jungle, several men not returning from that ordeal.”

He removed the hankie dabbing it around his nose. “Blasted cold,” he remarked. “The weather brings it on every year without fail. With all the advances in medicine you’d think they would have found a remedy for this.”

He wrinkled his face as he wiped his nose adding, “But that is not the reason for my visit; it is two fold. I found the behavior of our expedition deplorable, inexcusable. Murray Feltsten, God rest his soul, should never have been allowed to participate in the expedition following his counterfeit pygmy; I had my reservation about the man years ago, when he bragged about his unsubstantiated claims as an adventurer. The point is, we put you in an impossible situation not acceptable to our organization or any other for that matter. The Boston World Adventure Club has decided to compensate you for your incarceration and commission you to write your account of the expedition following their hasty departure or should I say cowardly escape. You will be paid well for it and we can promise it will be published and made available to those of like interests.”

“I’m not sure what I can write about Mr. Clemens. The only complicated man in the group was the shaman and I’m not sure I understood much about him. The life of these people is quite simple by any standard.”

“Let us be the judge of that James. We will provide you with any professionals to assist you in the endeavor, editor and the such.” He paused for a moment mulling over another item of interest, reluctant to place it on the table for discussion. “By chance did you bring back the photographs of the expedition? They would be a generous contribution to the book.”

I grinned, saying nothing, the photographs a diary of sorts, an account of a year of my life in the jungle. How could I surrender the images I saw and lived with? My silence was enough to convince Clemens I did not have what he wanted.

“Hmm! Yes, I imagine getting away with your skin was enough,” he added without waiting for an answer. “Please come round to the club when you can. Several of the members are anxious to see you again. Reggie would enjoy an opportunity to jest at your expense, I imagine. He means well, you know, in spite of his brutal humor at times.”

Without ceremony Derek Clemens rose from his seat and out before I could bid him a polite farewell. His car and driver were waiting in front of the house the driver opening the door as Derek descended the porch. I scanned the compensation check, which Derek had handed to me before leaving, a significant amount, though no one can put a price on the anxiety of being left behind with one’s mortality dangling at the whim of a leader and shaman. I’ll never know if the shaman really did communicate with the gods or decided his magic position in the band was secure.

Thinking about it, in another way I felt guilty taking the money because I was not mistreated during my stay with these Indians. Playfully mocked for my inability as a hunter, yes, yet no one abused my person, my captors more amused than threatened. My guilt also extended to my denying possession of the photographs. Perhaps it was an omission rather than a lie, though it would be hard to confess it as a lie. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say, Derek taking my silence as a denial.

 

It took me awhile to sort out why I had not said anything about the photographs. By rights they belonged to the club that paid for them. Days later I processed the remaining undeveloped film, the likeness of Malapa, Yanomi, Nomami, Ahan, Caihe, my infant son and collection of others jumping out from the print paper. These were not just pictures of Indians and the jungle, me an objective observer. These faces and places were not unknown to me each stirring a memory not so removed from today.

I knew the names of those people and lived in the jungle among the animals I photographed. They weren’t items of scientific interest or anthropological study but my life for a year, a private record, an existence good and bad for whatever that was worth. How could I turn over a part of myself?

I studied the photographs of Yanomi, the shaman; I saw the changes in his face from our rough beginning to a later time when we had become friends, perhaps contemporaries in magic. His first picture was grim and foreboding; the later photos displayed a man, who cared about his people and the gods they believed in. By the end I was included in that mix or so it would seem. To the casual observer he did not look like the imposing figure he represented; short, skinny and old, Yanomi was second only to the leader and first when it came to matters of the spirits. In all instances his word carried the power of the gods; no one would challenge that. Whether it was the gods or the shaman who made the decision to send me home, I was glad to be back.

There were photos of Ahan naked as the day she was born, her belly large with my child, smiling, satisfied she was the wife of an important man. Even though there was no real love, I felt pride in my young wife and the child I would never know. I regret I ran out of film before I could capture Caihe’s blossoming belly. It was odd that I even cared whether my second child would be a boy or girl. Yanomi’s prophetic declarations had not extended to Caihe’s unborn child, the gods noncommittal according to the shaman. I suspected it was going to be a girl since his silence implied that. Their culture saw boys as valuable because it added another hunter/warrior to the band, girls taking their place as child bearers, Yanomi not wishing to disappoint me with the sad news of a girl. I felt that Caihe knew the truth and was afraid I would be angry with her. Whatever the sex of the child I hoped it looked like its mother with her round face and beautiful brown skin, preferable to the pale freckled body of mine.

I studied my feeling for these women, each possessing a spark unique to their people; life to them appeared to be an adventure everyday. I never felt like they needed me; rather I needed them. Perhaps love is overrated in our society; people do marry without love and managed to remain together for a lifetime. Some fall in love without plan for future, making the best of what they have together. Love does not have reason or logic, only an abstract feeling we have no control over. Yet to me love is something more than producing children or planned routine we need to follow. It is the confusing emotion illogical and joyful, the missing element from my jungle family.

It might appear that I am sad and lament about leaving the jungle; nothing can be further from the truth. I didn’t belong there; Yanomi saw that through the eyes of his gods. My place is here with Sylvia, a woman who loves me for who I am, not out of duty. We don’t need words to show it, our eyes consume each other, our hearts belonging to one another. That was the difference I felt, Sylvia stirred a love I did not know I possessed.

She and I never speak of the Amazon now that I am returned to civilization. Sometimes I take out the large cardboard box with my photographs of the jungle; I do this alone and reminisce about the images on the photo paper. In my head I hear their gibberish and watch as they make faces to one another joking about my spear throwing. I laugh along with them now, another time another life.

 

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