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Thursday, June 09, 2011

On the Trail of the Petroglyphs, Look for the Man with the Tatoos!


Note to readers: this is the third in a series of three excerpts from award-winning author Eugene K. Garber's new novel, "O Amazonas Oscuro." Part one of this chapter, called "Freeplay," appeared May 20, 2011,and Part two appeared May 29, 2011. In this section, the visitor "Aloo" is telling anthropologist and ethnographer K a story about the mysterious petroglyphs -- it turns out that the trail to these signs leads to a man covered in tatoos!


“Go to Santarem and from there upriver to Nhamundá. Find a woman named Guaynacha."

“This is very generous and useful, sir. I will come back and tell you what happened."

“No, we will never see each other again. De Mata nodded slowly. I hope you may join him. That was what I wanted to do, but avarice clouded my mind and then a sickness befell me.”

Aloo throws himself aggressively back on the soil of the bank. “That’s it, K. I’m not going into all the shit it took to find Guaynacha or the fucking days and years we have spent climbing cliffs. OK? That’s the story.”

K allows for a suitable silence, then he says, “Have you and Guaynacha found any petroglyphs?”

“A few.”

“When you find one, can Guaynacha read it?”

“What I figured. You did not dig the slips, K. Or you would know you do not read the petroglyphs. They open your mind toward the space of Freeplay, where Xo Moxo operates. They lead on. Otherwise you get stuck in logocentric metaphysics all over again.”

Aloo emits an angry burst of laughter. “It ain’t in your anthropology, K, because you got this pattern-assed view. Everything fits into a fucking ethno system—little shit-bits of behavior, codes, value systems, myths, rituals, gods, totemic animals, cosmology, the whole fucking magilla tied up like a gook prisoner.” Aloo leans over, his face close to K’s. “But I can tell you this. Guaynacha can tell every fucking time if a petroglyph is of Freeplay or if it’s just little disguised pics—manioc ovens, arrows, spears, cunts. Guaynacha knows. Which brings me to our deal, K.”

K has forgotten that he promised Aloo a favor in return for his story. But he nods affably. “A deal is a deal, but I can’t help you with petroglyphs. There aren’t any here.”

“Technically right, K, about the petro part. But the glyphs are here.”

“Where?”

“You already know, K. You just ain’t said it to yourself. They’re on your tattooed man.”

K doesn’t stop to think about whether he has had some premonition of this. “You mean Korakama.”

“Guaynacha needs to get a closer look at him.”

“Korakama is a tough case.”

“Get this, K. From what we saw yesterday this guy’s bod is like a mother lode of Freeplay marks. Xo Moxo signed this son of a bitch and turned him loose for whoever could find him and follow.”

“What if Korakama knows nothing about this? What if he has gone in the wrong direction, away from Freeplay?”

“Focus your logocentric head on the slips, K. In Freeplay there ain’t no direction. For direction you gotta have points around a center. Logocentric. Like the logic of them dickybird compasses they strapped on our wrists in Nam so we could know if our asses were getting shot from the east or the west.” Aloo cocks his head thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, K, Nam was a kind of freeplay Hell. Like maybe war is the opposite face of Freeplay. Anyway, there ain’t no direction. Just bring on the man. That’s the deal.”

K temporizes. “Will you tell me how your reconnaissance in the garden of the Mureka-peo fits in?”

“Sure. I went to their garden and also your guys’ garden to spy out if there were others with the marks of Xo Moxo. There ain’t.”

“I could’ve told you Korakama is the only tattooed man.”

“And I would’ve known you weren’t lying, K, because you are a straight arrow, but I still would’ve had to see for myself.” Aloo pauses. “Now, you’re going fix it so Guaynacha and I get to see Korakama up close, right? Anywhere, any terms. We’re on.”

“I’ll try.”

“You’ll do it, K, because you know the way with these fucking Indians.”

As K walks slowly back to the woshana, he considers what to do. The logical thing would be to say nothing to Korakama, return to Aloo and report that Korakama refuses to be seen, that the request has made the headman very angry, and that Aloo and Guaynacha must leave immediately. But K resists. Why? His bargain with Aloo? Hardly. A pact with a nut. What then? K justifies going to Korakama on the grounds that the meeting with Aloo and Guaynacha offers an opportunity for unique observations.

K goes to Korakama’s hammock. Korakama is patiently sharpening his machete with a smooth river rock. K says, “The woman of the non-human wants to see you.”

“The woman of the non-human has already seen me.”

“She wants to see you again, closer.”

“I do not want to see her.”

“Are you afraid for her to see you?”

Korakama smiles. “No. Bring her here and I will put myself in her eyes. If I do not like it, I will cut her head off.”

“The non-human will come with the woman.”

“His head too. Then I will give the non-human’s rotten jaguar skin to Gyantúa and the Mureka-peo can dance with Xo Moxo.” Korakama makes a braying laugh. K has never before seen him so pleased with himself. An amused chattering passes down the long curving row of hammocks.

K returns to Aloo, who immediately smiles broadly. “I can see that you fixed it. I knew you could, good buddy.”

“Wait a minute,” says K. “Korakama didn’t say no, but I don’t think it’s safe for you and Guaynacha to go to him.”

“Safe! What kind of shit is that, K? You got any idea how long it’s been since I did anything safe except shit and piss in the river?”

“You sure you want to go to him? He’s unpredictable and can be violent.”

“Fucking A, I want to go to him. Listen, K. This is what Guaynacha knows. Near Freeplay the glyphs get thicker. There’s a last set, a tunnel like. Then Xo Moxo himself, Freeplay itself. You get it?”

“De Mata said you might never find him, because he has already passed into a condition you can’t achieve.”

“Might not, K. Might not. But listen. Where Xo Moxo is, is still the world. That’s the beauty of it, K. These ignorant fucking Indians keep thinking Xo Moxo is in some myth world, but he ain’t. The myth world is this fucker we’re all trapped in. Remember, K. The old god is dead. Oh sure, the fagotty priest is still pretending he’s God, still has his uniforms and his operations like the clowns I fought for in Nam with their comic book maps and diagrams of pincers and probes so us asshole grunts could dress up like soldiers and get killed.”

Aloo shakes his head sadly. “I know what you’re going to do, K. You’re going to write down this story like a trained ethno man. Which means you’re a dead man, K, because all stories lead to death.” Aloo laughs. “When you get to the gates of the Underworld, remember that Aloo offered you the petroglyphs of Freeplay and you decided in favor of death.” Aloo waves his hand. “Take us to your tattooed man.”


The moment the three of them set out for the woshana, K realizes he has made an error. He has talked to Korakama but not to Bowakawo. At the gate he says to Aloo, “Wait here a minute until I announce you.” He goes to Bowakawo. “Korakama has said that the woman and the non-human can see him.”

“I know it,” says Bowakawo, nothing more, his voice flat.

Korakama waits at ease by his hammock, his machete hanging from his hand by a thong attached to the handle. K goes to the gate and ushers Aloo and Guaynacha in. The hour approaches noon, the yard of the woshana shadowless. There has been no rain for three days. Everyone is dry, pale dust coating their skin, hair lusterless. In the shade of the overhang the people appear almost ghostly. Against this flat dullness, Aloo and Guaynacha appear vitally bronze, washed by the river, burnished by the sun.

They walk beside K toward Korakama’s hammock. No one speaks. The silence is disturbed only by distant sounds from the forest and by an almost inaudible rustle, insects gnawing the ragged thatching of the woshana.

K looks down the rank of hammocks and silent people. He is relieved to see that no men are high on ebene. None have taken up spears. At the edge of the shadow of the overhang K stops and says to Korakama, “Will you come out into the sun so that the woman can see you?”

Bowakawo steps nearer. Korakama comes forward. Just before reaching K and the visitors he stops and with the tip of his machete draws in the dirt a wide circle. He positions himself in the center. Aloo stands still. Guaynacha raises her hands to either side of her face, lifts her head, and moves her lips silently. K knows that in many cultures such a gesture would be interpreted as obeisance to a higher power, but he can’t be sure what it will mean here. He turns to tell Aloo to urge her to get on with her examination, but just then she opens her eyes and drops to her knees. She begins to crawl slowly around Korakama, her eyes always on the tattoos that are inscribed on his legs. Her intense examination causes K to register details of the marks he has not noticed before: the serpentine twisting of the black coils that run the length of each lower leg, the large ochre dots on the thighs, a color one might imagine compounded of earth and semen.

Aloo whispers to K, “Tattoos very similar to petroglyphs in Munuamas.”

“No tattoo,” says Korakama in a voice as hard as stone.

Presently Guaynacha completes her circle and rises. K assumes that now she will make another circle, this time walking upright, but she takes no interest in the marks on the upper body—the sunbursts on his chest , the red spiral around his navel. Instead, she turns and walks rapidly across the yard to the gate, where she turns and calls to Aloo. Her calling is unmistakably urgent. Aloo nods but does not immediately follow. He continues to look at Korakama.

K can see Korakama’s body, which had been relatively relaxed during Guaynacha’s examination, tense.

Aloo says, “Some tattoos, K.”

“No tattoo,” says Korakama definitively and moves a step closer to K and Aloo.

K takes Aloo’s arm. “Let’s go now.”

Aloo does not move. “Your man wants us to believe it’s just doodles on his legs, K, but he knows what he is. Look at his eyes.”

Again Guaynacha calls urgently from the gate, but Aloo remains unmoving. “I seen plenty of doodles in Nam, K. Doodles on maps, doodles the VC left around. Hundreds doodled their fucking selves to death. But your man is the real thing and he knows it.”

Bowakawo comes closer. “What does the non-human say?”

“He says he was in a war, but there were no warriors like Korakama.” K sees that his translation is not convincing. He says to Aloo, “OK, Aloo. Move, goddamit.”

“Right.” Aloo looks at Korakama a moment longer and then turns away. Just as they reach the gate, where Guaynacha waits, Korakama, having taken a few steps toward them, shouts across the yard. “Tell the non-human and the woman that I did not make the dirt drink the blood of their heads. But if they find Xo Moxo, it will.” Korakama laughs raucously. Many join his laughter, the celebration of a bitter joke.

Aloo turns back toward Korakama, but K grabs his arm and pulls him away. “Go, now! Go, goddamit.”

Moments later, as they walk rapidly toward the river, Aloo says, “What was that last pleasantry your man gave us?”

“He said that if you and your woman find Xo Moxo your heads will be cut off, which is why he didn’t bother to do it himself.”

Aloo laughs and says, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given. Who said that, K?”

“Sounds biblical.”

“Right. Jesus hisself said it. Throwing dust in the eyes of the Pharisee assholes so they would doodle themselves to death. The sign was already given, but they couldn’t see it.”

“But you can.”

“No, but Guaynacha can. And there the sign was, right on your guy’s legs. I knew we’d find the son of a bitch sooner or later.”

“You knew there was a tattooed man?”

“Shit yes, K, we heard of this dude as far down as Marajo.” Aloo turns and speaks to Guaynacha, who answers briefly. “She says that it was all glyphs on his legs, but the stuff on his chest was just doodles.” Aloo laughs. “Clever, ain’t it, K—mixing the real and the unreal. Which is life.”

“I can tell you one thing that was real. You almost got your head cut off.”

Aloo nods seriously. “Probably not, K. I didn’t spend all them balmy days in Nam learning how to stay alive just to forget it here in the Amazon. But I admit he is one tough-looking specimen. I’m glad we didn’t have to go at it.” Aloo nods again, more emphatically. “But see, K, the dude knows he is marked. But denies it. However, some fine day somebody is going to get right up in his face and say Xo Moxo and he will have to decide whether to kill them or admit the marks. Which way would you bet, K?”

K shakes his head.

“You, on the other hand, K, will not face the same quandary.”

“Me?”

“You, K, with the little thingy on your forehead. Looks recent. Lemme guess. Gift of Korakama’s blade.”

K is taken back. Aloo laughs. “Relax, K. Nobody is going to Xo Moxo you, but I tell you, you hang around that fucking Korakama and you will see some action.”

“You didn’t tell me you’re a prophet.”

“Well, we were going over some other things, K, but in fact I am a fucking clairvoyant. And other identities. A colorful character all around. I could of made it big with the film fucker down in Santarem and not no bit part either, but I’m on a different trek, as I said.”

K starts to ask Aloo if he actually spoke to the filmmaker, but just then Bowakawo appears on the berm with a half dozen spearmen.

K calls to them, “The non-human and the woman are leaving.”

“Good. Non-humans bring bad things.”

The canoe is loaded. Aloo pushes off and jumps into the bow. Guaynacha back-paddles out from the bank. Aloo takes up his paddle. Slowly they make their way against the current, until they find some tail water that sweeps them upstream, out of sight.

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.

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