Friday, May 20, 2011
Strange Adventures in the Amazon
Note to readers: In this, the first of three excerpts from Eugene Garber's new novel, "O Amazona Escuro", you will meet "K," an anthropologist working in the Amazon, trying his best to remain purely scientific in studying the people known as the Roirúa-peo. You will also meet Aloo -- an ex-Vietnam vet with a colorful mouth and a mission of his own. The name Aloo means, simply, "stranger."
By Eugene K. Garber
Just before dusk a large canoe with a man and a woman aboard comes into the slack water below the woshana. The cry of the watchman goes up immediately. “Alooyo! Alooyo!” Strangers!
Quickly the bank is lined with spearmen and bowmen. K is there. The warriors will not fire their missiles unless the strangers try to come ashore.
“Speak to them,” Bowakawo says to K.
K steps forward. “Do you speak English?”
“Yo, buddy!” calls the man in the front of the canoe.
“What do you want?”
“Just a place to crash for me and my woman.”
“They don’t want you in the woshana.”
“Wouldn’t think of it. The bank is fine.”
K reports the request to Bowakawo and gets the conditions. “I have to stay here with you.”
“Hate to put you to it, friend, but a little rest would sure be nice.”
K assures Bowakawo that he will stay with the stranger, but asks that Domatoa be sent out with his tape recorder, his blanket and a gourd of manioc soup. Bowakawo leads the warriors back to the woshana.
The stranger comes ashore and pulls the bow of the canoe up onto the muddy bank. He is wearing a tank top of ragged fabric and a loin cloth of jaguar skin. The crisp sheen of his curly black hair appears impervious to the tropical heat and moisture.
“Thanks,” he says smiling, his teeth making a mild glister in the gathering gloom. “My woman and me will not murder you. It’s a promise. Just one request.”
“If you had in mind to film us, don’t. Makes me think of a movie some asshole made about a cracked-up officer killing natives and reading mythology up the Mekong, a place I don’t like to remember.”
“You were there in the war?”
“Yep. Marines. Hunkered down behind brush or a berm like the one you’re standing on now, trying to keep my ass from getting shot off.”
K can’t place the stranger exactly. American, of course, speech tinged with a southern accent. But he seems to K essentially deracinated. And dangerous, though K couldn’t say why.
“Yep, me and a bunch of doomed grunts, and the VC, also doomed. Question came up, which I can see is on your mind right now, was I a honky or a bro? You an anthropologist. What do you think?”
“How do you know I’m an anthropologist?”
“Everybody on the river from here down to Belem knows the famous ethno man of the Negro. So, in your expert opinion what am I in the great spectrum of homo sapiens?”
K takes a few steps down the bank and looks into the face of the stranger. “Negroid maybe a third, Caucasian another third, Amerindian the rest maybe. No Asian.”
The man nods. “You’re as good as they say.”
At this point the woman comes forward in the canoe and steps out onto the bank, on her back a large duffle. She is slightly darker than the Roirúa-peo, age forty to fifty. She wears a short skirt made of hairless gray monkey skins, neatly stitched together and supple. She is wiry and muscular, her bare breasts smaller and firmer than K is accustomed to seeing on Amazonian women of comparable age. He thinks she has never borne children.
K nods to the woman. “And your name?”
“Just call me Aloo, a stranger. And you are Kuykendahl of course.”
“The people here call me K.”
“OK. K it is.” Aloo says something to the woman in a language unfamiliar to K.
The woman begins to unpack, laying out on the ground a rough skin coverlet and some bowls. She then disappears into the brush.
K says, “She might run into a scout from the Mureka-peo, a hostile people who live nearby.”
“They’ll never see her. We don’t go diddy-bopping around. Mines and pits in Nam taught me. The jungle taught her.”
“So what brought you from Vietnam to the Amazon?”
“Good question, K, to which there ain’t no short answer. But I will tell you the whole magilla for a small return.”
“A bad bargain for you. If it’s my story you want, it’s hardly worth listening to.”
“It ain’t your story I want, though I know it’s bound to be a corker.”
“Just a simple introduction to a personage you know. Deal?”
K hesitates. An insistence in Aloo’s voice makes him uneasy.
“Then ask me the question again.”
“What brought you to the Amazon?”
“First, a lot of reading. Thanks for not looking shocked, K. Fact is for more than a year I read all night or else I would dream.
And most of the day too. Because out on the streets were the liberal put-downs. Let’s sit.”
K and Aloo sit on the skin coverlet. Beneath it the damp soil cushions them. “I read some of your guys’ things. Levi-Strauss playing everything out here on the orchestra of his fine Frenchie imagination, the whole world one big set of classical music numbers. Bullshit of course, but high-end bullshit. But you know what I dug most in your anthro stuff?”
“Malinowski and them loveable Polynesians. Remember the ghosts of the mila-mila that helped themselves to the taters? And the stinking witch that nobody would fuck but she got pregnant every year? And the magic of making outriggers. I thought of an outrigger for my canoe, but there’s too many deadheads in this river. And anacondas.”
“Anything else in the literature of anthropology?”
“Yeah. Kinship charts. All those circles and triangles and your matrilinears and patrilinears and wacko filiations and prescriptive cousin marriages and all that shit. Real scientific. Humans all lined up in formulas and symbols. We could’ve used you guys in Nam to chart it all out because to us grunts it was nothing but ape-shit mayhem.”
Guaynacha returns with sticks and larger pieces of wood, quickly makes a small pyramid with a bird’s nest of lint-like material at the bottom and starts a fire striking steel with flint. “Good, ain’t she?”
Domatoa now appears with K’s blanket, his tape recorder and a gourd of soup. He looks coldly at the stranger and Guaynacha. K thanks Domatoa and immediately excuses him.
“I should have introduced you but . . .”
Aloo laughs. “Don’t worry, K, he ain’t my type. Howsomever, women, boys. What’s the fucking difference? To each his own. Nam was no problem, long as you had a few bucks and some cigarettes and didn’t mind the smell of the local mooses, which was a combo of cheap perfume and BO.” Aloo looks at K setting up the tape recorder and laughs. “I ain’t exactly your typical field study, K.”
“If it’s not useful, I’ll erase it.”
“Yeah, but you’ll burn up your batteries recording my bullshit.”
“They’re rechargeable. I’ve got a hand crank generator.”
“Kiss my butt. You fucking ethnos got it all figured out.”
“Right. Now, about coming to the Amazon. I’m recording.”
“OK, say you was a half-breed mongrel drifter, so you signed up for Nam. Why the fuck not? You went off to war and then you came back home, hero to a grateful nation, right? Wrong. You were nothing but a lowlife grunt suckered into fighting a no-win war. I thought of wearing my medals like earrings and nose danglies, but what good would it have done? Anyway, I was busy having nightmares. And I didn’t know nothing, about nightmares or anything else. Nothing but a few four-letter words and some Nam lingo—spider holes and claymores and arc lights, the biggies that knocked the air out of you ten miles away. I knew the alphabet—alpha, bravo, charlie.” Aloo goes silent and looks out at the river.
“Would you like some manioc soup?” K finds this man and his story engrossing. But barely concealed behind the deliberately coarse and demotic speech is a tautness, a coiled menace.
“No thanks. My woman dried a fish.”
The three eat in silence for a while and then Aloo says with an earnestness almost fierce, “You got a treasure here, K.”
“You mean this wealth of cultural data?”
“That, sure. But you got pictographs here, originary.”
“Right. But lemme go on with my fascinating story. I couldn’t stand my sick head, so I decided to educate myself. Am I repeating myself? Books. Maybe they could keep the fucking death buzzard from breathing in my face every night. Shit. I had piles of books, piles. You would of thought I was back in Nam building a bunker surrounded by books instead of concertina wire. And what do you know. It worked. The dreams faded out. The snotty fucks of the great US of A didn’t bother me any more. OK, what do you think the logic of that was?”
“Displacement maybe. Trading the old bad dreams for new knowledge.”
“Not just trading, ethno man. Putting the old shit under erasure. What do you think of that?”
“It’s an interesting phrase.”
“Anyway, I did not care to reside further in the good ol’ US of A. I heard the Amazon was the biggest river in the world, probably once hooked up with the Congo before the dark continents busted up. I thought I would paddle around on the son of bitch for a while. Go for the biggest. What did I have to lose? Remember, the only thing I was ever good at so far was not getting killed. Which no doubt comes from not being anything definite—nigger, redskin, honky. The enemy can’t see you. Better camouflage than a tiger suit. Even an ethno genius like you can’t figure out exactly what the fuck I am. Just call me stranger.
Aloo yodels and laughs, but cuts himself short. “You know what, K? I would like to protect these fucking Indians, but it would be a waste of time. The whites and their ignorant caboclos are going to cut timber and graze cattle in this muck and blast the gold out with mercury and look for oil and shoot anybody that gets in the way, which ain’t me, babe.” Aloo shakes his head forcefully. “You run into any of them fucking pistoleiros and bandeirantes they brought up from the Mato Grasso? Might as well be back in Nam as fuck with those specimens. Worse off than I am—Portuguese, spic, Indian, nigger. They don’t know what the fuck they are. Might as well be back in the days of Fitzcarrald.”
“I’ve heard of them but I haven’t had any run-ins with them fortunately.”
“Good. But speaking of Fitzcarrald, there was a crazy son of a bitch down in Santarem with a big crew to make a film about that fucking slaughterer. I heard he took his company up into the mountains. Tell your tribe buddies to get painted up real nice and practice catching arrows in midair so they’ll do good for their auditions with central casting when he gets here.”
“What makes you think he’ll come here?”
“Because your Indians are still wild, and he’s got you to translate for him.” Aloo goes down to the river, pisses, washes his hands almost daintily, and comes back.
K says, “How long have you been here in the Amazon?”
Aloo ignores K’s question. “So, why do you think this crazy fucking filmmaker wants to make a going-up-the-river movie? Shit, K. I didn’t do all that fucking reading for nothing. Going up the river is a myth. You keep going up until you come to the Mother, like sperm hell-bent on finding an egg. The Mother takes you in and you don’t have to put up with the world’s shit anymore.”
K nods. “That’s the white man’s myth. For the indigenous people the river brings everything—time, space, life.”
Aloo is silent. K turns his attention to Guaynacha, who is scooping up ashes from the spent fire and tossing them out toward the river ceremonially.
“Ash is a big fucking deal here in the Amazon.”
“Right. Life and death rolled up in one substance.” Aloo is silent. K goes on. “Take the manioc garden. It has to be burned to ash to be renewed, a recapitulation of chaos and creation.”
Aloo remains silent, but K senses that Aloo’s silences are only a kind of tense waiting. K lets his gaze wander to Guaynacha.
Aloo looks into K’s face. The moon has risen. “You think Guaynacha is my bed woman?”
“No, but I think she has a lot to do with why you’re in the Amazon. You were going to tell me about that.”
“I told you, to get out of the US of A and paddle around on the world’s greatest river.”
“That’s why you came, not what you’re doing now.”
“You’re a smart son of a bitch, K. Got me talking into your ethno machine. Hey, maybe I should clean up my language for posterity. Nah. Fuck it. I am what I am. Anyway, why don’t you tell me why you think I’m still here, seven years on this monster-assed river.”
“Maybe you want to be a myth. From your garb maybe royal consort of Rayomaka, the Jaguar Goddess.”
Aloo laughs. “Give me a fucking break, K. But this ain’t a fair exchange of goods, is it? You want to draw me out, but I don’t give a shit about drawing you out. What? To hear about mores and gender roles and return of the dead and spirits and cosmology with three, six, eight heavens, who knows? And the anaconda that gave birth to everything or the toucan or whatever. That ain’t where it’s at, K, though one time I thought it was. Folk wisdom, ayauasca tripping, visions, Carlos Castenada crapola.”
K shrugs. “OK, but you said you’d tell me the story of your being here in the Amazon.
“That’s right, then you’re going to introduce me and Guaynacha to a certain somebody. That’s the deal, right?”
K nods, but he is made uneasy again by the intensity of Aloo’s insistence.
Guaynacha goes down to the river, washes the bowls they’ve eaten from, returns, and looks out at the bright image of the moon on the surface of the dark water.
“You were going to tell me about Guaynacha’s role with you here in the Amazon.”
“No, I was going to tell you what her role is not—fire-maker or moose. But right now I’m turning in, K. I’m tired of talking, but we got a deal, so tomorrow I’ll finish the story and you will pay up.”
Aloo’s abrupt ending of the conversation takes K by surprise. “All right,” he says, clicks the machine off and rolls himself up in his blanket. But sleep does not come easily, the resonance of Aloo’s exorbitant talk burring in his ear, bringing with it the man’s restless searching, for what K does not know. Pictographs? K knows of no pictographs in these parts. The ground under him hardens and the air thickens with mist.
Writer Eugene K. Garber, a Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of English at the University at Albany, SUNY, is the recipient of numerous awards for his fiction. His 1981 collection, Metaphysical Tales received the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction. His collection, The Historian (1995), received the William Goyen Prize of the national literary magazine, TriQuarterly. Garber’s fiction has been anthologized in the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, Best American Short Stories, and the Paris Review Anthology, among other compilations. On June 15, 2011, at 7 p.m. at the Arts Center for the Capital Region in Troy, New York, Garber will be reading from his new book, O Amazona Escuro, from which this excerpt is taken. Stay tuned for parts two and three of this chapter.