Sunday, May 29, 2011

More Adventures in the Amazon -- On the Trail of the Petroglyphs

Note to readers: this is the second 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.

By Eugene K. Garber

In the last moments before K awakens, Ellie Manuta lies beside him in the gray light of dawn. She seems to be contemplating her cigarette smoke, which passes through a distinct plane of window light and disappears into the dark above the bed. Her hand is on his thigh, but there is no caress, not even much warmth. The hand seems only to be checking casually on whether or not K is there, his presence, once confirmed, inconsequential. K awakens to the smell of Guaynacha’s fire. The woman is stooping beside it turning small gobbets of meat on a stick in the hot updraft, but she is not looking at the meat, she is looking at something beyond K, higher up on the bank. Aloo, down by the water, stops laving his face and looks in the same direction.

K gets to his feet and follows the eyes of his companions. There above him stands a young spearman. He is statuesque, princely in fact, the butt of his spear resting easily on the ground. K recognizes him—Gyantúa, the most renown warrior of the Mureka-peo. For some moments the four of them are silent. Then Gyantúa speaks to K. “Tell the non-human I could have killed him. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, I understand you.” K turns to Aloo, who has quickly finished his washing and now stands up. “The warrior says that he could have killed you.”

Aloo says nothing to that.

Gyantúa says, “Only a stupid non-human wears the skin of Xo Moxo. It will not stop me from killing him.”

K relays this to Aloo, who says, “Tell the noble warrior that I lost my way in the forest. I thank him for not killing a stranger.”

To K’s report of that Gyantúa says, “Tell him if he comes again to our garden I will kill him.” Gyantúa lifts his spear, turns and walks away.

K says to Aloo, “You went to the Mureka-peo garden this morning?”

Aloo shakes water out of his hair. “Just a little reconnaissance, K.”

“You’re lucky to be alive.”

Aloo laughs abruptly. “Right, K. This time and how many times before? It’s a knack I have, staying alive. I told you.”

“What were you doing at the Mureka-peo garden?”

“Just checking to see if they had any specimens like your guy.”

“What do you mean specimens like our guy?”

Aloo motions the question off with a wave of his hand. “We’re coming to that later. But first you get the story. That’s the deal, right?”

For a while the three are silent eating the monkey meat that Guaynacha has cooked. K has never learned to like it. The bosky odor of the animal’s hair has invaded the flesh. After a while Aloo turns and speaks to Guaynacha, who goes down to the canoe and brings back to Aloo a leather folder. Before he opens it Aloo runs his finger over the tooled exterior. “See all them scrolls and fluty-dooties? You think they’re symbols? Nothing but doodledy shit. Some asshole in Belem making like he was a genuine tribal artist. But the leather itself ain’t bad.” Aloo unlaces the folder with great care, revealing an interior pouch of softer leather. Aloo lifts the flap, takes out a slip of worn yellowing paper and hands it to K. It bears a faded hand script.

This very fact of phonetic writing is ineluctable; it commands our entire culture and our entire science. Nevertheless it does not respond to any necessity of an absolute and universal essence.

K reads. When he looks up, Aloo takes the slip from him and hands him another.

The system of language based on phonetic-alphabetic writing underwrites logocentric metaphysics, which determines the sense of being as presence. This logocentrism has always suppressed all free reflection on the origin and status of writing.

“Are you following it, K?”

K nods. “I think so.” Aloo hands him another slip.

The very idea of the arbitrariness of the sign is unthinkable before the possibility of writing. The idea is outside of the world as space of inscription.

K is aware that certain kinds of postmodern cant have invaded contemporary disciplines, even anthropology, but he finds these slips disturbing.

“You get it, K? We are forced to know the whole fucking world as a writing tablet. So I was reading all those goddam books, but every one of them had pages with edges. What was outside the edges? How the fuck could I have known? I was in irons, inside them fucking words. Shit!” Aloo hands him another slip.

“Where did you get these?”

“Old dude on the Tapajós upstream from Santarem. But keep reading, K, or the story you been waiting to hear won’t make sense.”

“OK, but this is very complex stuff the old man wrote.”

“It wasn’t his. It was left him.”

“By whom?”

“Keep reading.” Aloo hands K another slip.

In other circumstances K would refuse to read any more of this garbled rambling. But it is obvious that Aloo has internalized these texts, so if he is to understand Aloo and his story he must try to understand them.

I have identified logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence as the exigent, powerful, systematic, and irrepressible desire for a transcendental signified.

Irrepressible desire for a transcendental signified. Fleetingly but with surprising clarity Dr. Seddun’s voice sounds in K’s memory. If one follows the tribe’s cultural chain from the most mundane object through its symbolic value on up to the level of ontology you vill find the ruling Geist, because tribal man cannot put away the desire for the ultimate essence of all. Even then, as a student, K was convinced that this ultimate essence was nothing more than emic yearning tricked out in philosophical language. As such it had no place in accurate ethnography. Nevertheless, the idea that the desire for transcendence is inescapable disturbs K greatly. “Do you know who wrote these things?”

“An Algerian maybe.”

“What makes you think an Algerian?”

“Maybe the old man said it. Anyway, it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it? Had to been somebody who got his ass kicked around by the hegemonics. Hegemonics. How you like them apples?” Aloo hands K another slip. “The last one, K.”

Après la mort de Divine, les obsèques sont donc réglées par l’abbé qui concentre sur lui tous les désirs. C’est un travesti qui s’y connaît en effractions et en éventrations. Tous les mots suivent en silence jusqu’á la dispersion complète de la théorie et du dit séminaire. Effritement, défroque, fards et fleurs.

K reads. Aloo laughs an acid laugh. “Fucking French. If I had learned French in Nam I could have gotten high class whores when I went on R and R to Saigon, but who knew? Here’s what I get out of the fucker. See if I’m on track. ‘After the death of God the funeral is arranged by the Abbey who concentrates on himself all desires. A transvestite versed in burglary and breaking and entering. All the words slip into silence even to the complete dispersion of theory and what you call school. Trash, disguises, and flowers.’ That’s about it, ain’t it?”

“I think you got it basically right.”

Aloo shakes his head in wonderment. “Any asshole could of told you God has been hiding out since the end of the Book of Job, when a bunch of Jew prophets started beating the drum for him to come back. Shit, even Jesus couldn’t get a rise out of the Father. But the idea that God is dead and buried by a fag priest who has now got all the action. That’s original, you got to admit.” Aloo looks sharply at K. “Bunch of priests working this territory right now, as you know. Selling the Indians a dead God.”

K is disturbed. He has allowed himself to get entangled in the irrational logic of these scraps. He wants out. “Does your mission here have to do with priests?”

“Forget the fucking priests, K. What we have to do is get out of the phonetic writing bag. See? I was reading all those fucking books. Phonetic writing. I was sub-vocalizing the fuckers, tittying around with my lips and glottis and tongue without knowing that I was trapped in the logocentricism bag, thinking I was going to follow the words to the transcendental Big Daddy in the sky. Logo phonetic bullshit, K. Scraps of history and lit and anthro bullshit and science for the common man crapola. You could figure how an ignorant fucker like me with all that print in front of him thought he was onto something big. Arbitrary signs. Bullshit. But you don’t believe that yet, K. You gotta learn it. That all that high-powered ethno shit you’re writing down about these doomed Indians is arbitrary.”

K is surprised to hear himself say, “Well, then, what should I do?”

“As they say, K, every man his own foxhole. But I can tell you what I’m going to do. That’s what you wanted to hear, wasn’t it?”

K nods.

“I’m going to tell you the story of what I’m doing here like I promised. Then you’re going to do me that little favor. OK? But don’t interrupt and ask questions because the story can get away from me. It’s inside this shit-ass phonetic language, zipped up like body bags. But not much longer. So listen up, ethno man.”

K nods.

“And don’t turn that fucking machine on. The whirring gets on my nerves. OK. The story. Landed in Belem, tramped around Marajo a few days, went upstream on a steamer slung in a hammock like a cocoon. Aloo the pupa, Aloo the chrysalis, Aloo the butterfly. Forget it. By the time we got to Santarem all I was was a stumble bum with a back ache and the squirts from the rotten chow. Fucked a moose in Santarem to make sure I exposed myself to all the local diseases, power up my antibodies. Also I had popped a million daily-dailies in Nam so malaria was out of the question. So was dengue and yellow fever. My sweat wasn’t even fucking human any more. Pills, shots, fear, hatred. Mosquitoes couldn’t stand to be near me. One sip of my nigger Indian blood and they would drop dead. They could smell it. What was left? Leptospirosis. Do I look stupid enough to swim or shower in animal piss? Flu? That’s what we kill the savages with, not them us. Right? Scourge of the earth, us Euros with our eons of infections and diseases, fucking walking death factories of viruses and bacteria and with antibodies to zap the whole soup. Macrophages, lymphocytes, antigens. All that shit. Armed to the balls. Killers. That’s us.”

Aloo lies back and looks at the underbellies of the leaves for a while, then sits back up. “The next thing to do was find the best dope in the Amazon. Shit. I had done every trip there was in Nam. How was the Nam substance, you wonder? Either you went into some black hole and forgot about dying for six minutes or the sun grew teeth and ate your ass, which was still better than the Cong. But I read they had the real thing here in the Amazon, ayauasca. Not escapist tripping but spiritual, right? Aloo the seeker after ultimate truth. Visitor to the Underworld.” Aloo pauses. “Now that was one book I really got into, K. The Odyssey. Not the high-powered sailor-boy shit but visiting the dead, all flitting around like mosquitoes. Fucker’s poor mother. Meanwhile back at the ranch all those fucking Jodies buzzing around his wife knitting her butt off and unraveling it at night. Hip broad. I wouldn’t mind visiting the dead myself, talking to my mother and father if they’re down there, whoever they are. But in Santarem I had something else in mind even if I didn’t know yet what the shit it was. So I drank ayauasca and managed to hold it down. Fruit of the vine they call it. Some joke.

“Anyway I took two trips. On one I saw the universe’s first woman get fucked in the eye by Father Sun and give birth to the vine, which turned into a pretty kid named Caapi, who kept pouring ayauasca in every hole in my bod—eyes, ears, nose, mouth, dick, ass—very hot stuff, cum it turned out. Ejaculatio somnium. Dreamfuck.

“On the other trip I saw a lady all in white. Veils, crown, tear dropping from one eye. Then I caught on. It was some kind of nutty-assed syncretic religion the drug was feeding me. Christianity and Amazon hocus-pocus. Later I found out I had stumbled into a fucking religion. Uniao do Vegetal. You ever been tricked into worshipping vegetables, K? It don’t make you feel good about yourself. Anyway, drugs was a dead end. I wasn’t too stupid to see that.

“Then I got word of this old dude up the Tapajós supposed to know Xo Moxo the Black Panther first hand. You got whispers about this fabulous fucker down in Belem and Macapa. Xo Moxo, Xo Moxo like some fucking password to another world. But all they could tell you was he was way up in the jungle. I figured it was just more hophead Amazon bullshit, but goddamit it sounded different. So I bought a ticket on the local motor launch and went up the Tapajós. Interesting stream. Pink dolphins, ex-mermaids and mermen of course. Devolution, K. Don’t ever believe that Darwinian shit about mutation, natural selection, and adaptation. Fucking animals of the Amazon don’t adapt to nothing. They do what the hell ever they want. Four million parrots, horniest bird in creation. Anteaters swimming the river in hordes. You tell me why the goddam hell an anteater would swim the river. There ain’t two square inches of the Amazon basin that ain’t infested with ants, big mothers that can bite your ass off. A couple of these critters would make a meal for any anteater.” Aloo laughs. “Naw. The fuckers swim the river exactly because it ain’t got no survival value. Fuck Darwin.

“OK, up the Tapajós to Itaituba, which is as far as you can go, rapids just upstream. Itaituba. One sick backwater burg, K. Gold all dug out. Fucking idiotic Transamazon highway running by, potholes, brush. So you got this burnt-out burg, mercury vapors poisoning the air and nothing much to do but get drunk and fuck somebody else’s woman and shoot somebody or get shot. Not a real good town for a Indio-quadroon like me. I took a few insults, spread a few cruzeiros around and got what I needed, the whereabouts of the old dude, name of Nuno Dioguo de Mata. Some monicker. Hired an Indian kid with a canoe had a motor looked like he took it out of a lawnmower. But this Indian was a beaut, K. Like your boy. Bowl-cut black hair shiny as high grade coal. Skin perfect as polished teak. Big muscles, little chocolate tits, hairless bod. Noble savage. About two miles upstream we put in at a little ramshackle dock with steps leading up the bank. Fall, low water. Made it clear to the Indian that if he wasn’t there when I got back he wouldn’t get paid.

“Just up the trail the old dude was sitting on the porch of his shack, which looked like he had built it himself. Had a tree growing up the middle like some fucking Frank Lloyd Wright pad. He looked like he was expecting me. Senhor de Mata? I said in my best Portuguese, which ain’t shit.

“Welcome, stranger, he said in English. French accent. Swallowed rs, snooty-assed vowels. So I figured his Portuguese name was a fake. So what? In the Amazon nobody but the Indians are who they say they are. I told him how thankful I was to be welcomed because I heard he was a private person. Shit, K. I can talk refined if I want to. I didn’t read all them books for nothing.

“Do you bring me news from the outside? he wanted to know.

“I laughed that off. Nossir, I told him. I lost contact with the outside several years ago pretty much on purpose.

“Why is that, Mister . . . ? May I know your name?

“Now it goes against me, K, to lie to a distinguished old dude, but I always hated my name, Roosevelt Thorp. My mother pulled it out of her ass and disappeared. You remember ol’ Franklin Delano, K, with his nigger-loving wife and Thorpe the great Injun runner. That’s me. What the name gets you is a few thousand fist fights in your life so you ain’t called Rosie. Sir, I told him, I have taken an Indian name, Aloo.

“Well then, Aloo, why have you denied the outside?

“I was in a war on the outside, sir. It seemed to me like a good place to get out of.

“Your leaders foolishly inherited the war from us. We have fought very foolish wars in my time, Algeria and Egypt and Indochina, which we managed to leave to you Americans.

“I nodded. I wish I could say I’m grateful to you, sir, I said. But I didn’t want to fiddle fuck around with history, K, so I cut to the chase. I’m surprised to find you here, sir. I understand you know Xo Moxo and I would think you would want to be in his land.

“For a long time he didn’t say nothing. It was hard to see into his face because he had a big shadowy straw hat and a full white beard. But delicate, K, neatly trimmed as a rich man’s lawn. Nails manicured, light-colored linen breeches and a Madras shirt and Gucci-looking sandals.

“OK I figured maybe I had to come at Xo Moxo roundabout. I said, I was wondering, sir, if you got in on the gold rush in the early days when there was still plenty.

“Yes, I did, Aloo, for which I took this absurd Portuguese name you use.

“Then we are even, sir. Neither of us has a real name, I said. Just then a stray breeze came up and lifted his beard and waved it around like some fucking Hollywood trick. I’m telling you, K, this dude was delicate. Well, I asked, was Xo Moxo here for the gold rush too?

“De Mata or whoever he was laughed a gentle laugh like he could tolerate any asshole question I asked. Xo Moxo was far beyond gold the first time I encountered him.

“What was he into, I mean interested in?

“He was interested in signs. He was following the trail of the petroglyphs west and north. De Mata must of seen I was fugazi. He said, there are stones in the Amazon basin high above flood stage that bear inscriptions.

“What do they say?

“De Mata gave me his gentle laugh again. They are not of a spoken alphabet. Yet they are not ideograms or hieroglyphs or pictographs.

“Sounds like they are just doodles.

“Only the super-civilized, like us westerners, doodle, Aloo. Everybody else tries to make meaning.

“I decided to take a plunge, K. Sir, I would like to follow Xo Moxo to the place where the meaning of the petroglyphs comes clear.

“De Mata lifted his head thoughtfully.

“Look, Senhor De Mata, I said, you would not guess it by looking at me because I’m a half breed, but here is the truth. I came home from the war, which we agree was très mal. Back home I educated myself. I read hundreds of books. But there has to be something beyond slaughter and words. If Xo Moxo has found it, I want to find him.

“De Mata looked hard at me. I must tell you, Aloo, that we French are strange. We have to have a theory before we can grasp any individual thing. De Mata held his hand out toward me. It was small and delicate but talon-like.

“I said, is that why you didn’t go with him? You didn’t have the theory?

“No, I have his theory. He got up from his chair real slow. Sick. Unbalanced. MS, cancer? Whatever it was, he was busted, doomed. He was gone a while. When he came back he handed me a leather case. You may open it, Aloo, he said. Inside was the little pouch with the slips like you saw. I read a couple of the slips. I said I would have to study these. If you have some paper and a pen I could copy them.

“No. Take them.

“When do you want them back?

“I will not need them.

“That was a true statement, K, because you can’t pay off the keepers of the Underworld with faded papers.

“I said, this is good of you, Senhor de Mata, too good. But tell me. Will these slips get me on the trail of the petroglyphs that lead to Xo Moxo?

“Maybe. But perhaps you will never find him.

“If you hear the Indians talk about him, he is always alive, way up in the jungle.

“De Mata made a wiping motion with his hands. I said nothing about death, Monsieur Aloo. I mean he may have entered a condition inaccessible to you. Read, he said, pointing to the leather case.

“I nodded. I will read. But just one last thing, Senhor De Mata. The trail of the petroglyphs. How do I get on it?

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 part three of this chapter.

No comments: