The area to the north of the village was rugged and hilly, covered by dense jungle. The village itself was situated on a hill that rose over 1,000 feet above sea level. To the west was a relatively large natural savannah. The vista to the south offered a spectacular view of a lush valley and the Mavaca River.
A narrow trail led east from the village down to the Orinoco. Because of the thick rainforest canopy, the trail was typically gray and gloomy. The ground was sparsely covered by undergrowth. Along the river banks, where the sunlight could penetrate, heavy vegetation grew, including Amazon lilies.
Lisa handled her kayak ably on the one-mile trip upriver from the village landing to the Catholic mission late one afternoon.
“You know, the villagers have been talking about us,” Lisa remarked to Padre Higgins soon after arriving at the mission.
“Oh, really?” He was amused. “Well, let them enjoy themselves,” he laughed.
“Yes, let them.”
“They’re harmless,” Padre Higgins’s pet macaw added. The precocious bird, named Billy, sat on a perch on the veranda of the clapboard mission house. The padre pronounced his name “Bee-ly.”
“What would you know about it?” Lisa asked.
“I see, I observe,” Billy said.
Esteban Higgins had been at the mission for five years. He and Lisa had met a couple of years earlier on her first field trip to Venezuela. Almost immediately they had established a bond of friendship based on a shared appreciation of the majesty of the isolated region and the simple ways of the Yanomamö. He was kind and resourceful and had earned the respect of the villagers. Early in his tenure he had established himself as someone not to be trifled with. Since then, the villagers had been wary of crossing him, and he had largely been spared the abuse typically suffered by outsiders. The confidence and trust Padre Higgins placed in Lisa resulted in the villagers holding her in high regard as well.
The mission had a global positioning system, a satellite phone, an emergency generator and numerous other amenities, as well as generous stores and provisions, all of which Padre Higgins had wangled from the diocese in Caracas. A native of Chile, he had found that the missionary life suited his solitary, independent nature. His time was largely his own. He enjoyed taking walks along the river trail in the early morning or at dusk during the golden hour, as well as hikes along the jungle trails, listening to the cries of parrots and howler monkeys, alone with his thoughts. Sometimes he reflected on his home in Santiago or his time at seminary in Mexico City. He had enjoyed city life, for the most part. What had brought him to the middle of nowhere to live a simple life among the natives? He wasn’t sure.
The Yanomamö were, he found, childlike in many ways, though he knew they were also capable of great brutality. His official duties involved introducing Western ideas and ways to the village, including Catholicism. He was aware that Lisa, as a cultural anthropologist, did not approve of his efforts to “Westernize” the villagers, but when the subject came up, it was always in jest.
For dinner, he served Lisa a chicken fricassee accompanied by a bottle of a Chilean cabernet sauvignon.
“Billy loves Lisa,” Billy suddenly called out.
“I’m flattered,” Lisa chuckled. Then she added, “The feeling is mutual.”
Billy squawked with glee.
“That’s enough from you tonight, Billy,” Padre Higgins scolded. “I’ll speak to you later in private.” He turned back to Lisa. “He’s very forward. He gets it from the villagers. My apologies.”
“No need to apologize. I think he’s charming. Say, how’s the ‘Westernization’ going?”
“The electric toothbrushes aren’t working out. It was a mistake, I admit it.”
She nodded, trying to conceal a smile.
“But you know what is popular? The micro recorders.”
After dinner they adjourned to the veranda, and Lisa reported on the progress she’d made with her taxonomy of the village’s oral traditions and her analysis of their kinship system. He listened intently and occasionally offered an observation based on his experiences with the villagers. Then they took a walk along the river.
“You know who’s coming back? Caio,” Padre Higgins said.
“Oh, you never told me about his audience with the Pope.”
“Caio treated the Pope deferentially, giving him a Guacamaya parrot and calling him shorima. I remember he was impressed by the Roman ruins. He told me he approved of the high regard the present-day Romans have for the ruins—assurance that present, past and future are unchanging and indistinguishable.”
By the time they returned from their walk it was dusk, and Lisa was eager to make it back to the village before nightfall. She and Padre Higgins said goodbye. “So long!” Billy called as she walked down to the landing.
She switched on the kayak’s deck-mounted mini-lantern and in moments was paddling downriver. Crickets chirped in the shadows. What will I say to the village women if they voice their suspicions? she wondered. I will simply declare, Padre Higgins is a fantabulous lover and, no matter what happens, it was worth it! In fact, I can’t get him out of my head!
A few days later, several villagers carried one of the older men, Pablo, in on a litter. He was very weak, having fallen ill on a hunting expedition. A native taboo prevented Pablo from being given anything to drink, because the villagers believed he was being punished for having killed a jaguar. For several days and nights the shamans said prayers.
Manolo and Lisa called on Pablo in his hut. Pablo lay in his hammock, surrounded by his wife and family. Lisa could see he was suffering from dehydration. She felt his forehead: He was burning up with fever. Immediately, she went to her hut and made a pitcher of lemonade, then returned, waving off all protests, and explained that this was very powerful medicine.
“What kind?” Pablo whispered.
A knowing glance passed between them as he gulped down the first glass of lemonade.
Lisa strolled along the riverbank. It was a beautiful evening. She was getting used to Padre Higgins’s home cooking, she mused. The fare in the village was at best bland and at worst inedible: plantains, palm fruits, avocado, papaya, sweet potatoes, armadillo and grubs. Despite having her own hut, she hardly ever had a moment of privacy, as the villagers rarely left her alone. The bugs, heat and humidity were at times unbearable. And she slept fitfully in her hammock, which was far from comfortable.
Sometimes she felt lonely. She missed Thomas. Yet her trips to the Amazon fulfilled a profound need to get away from everything and everyone familiar to her. Thomas had never understood this. He was the quintessential urban dweller. What would it be like to “go native,” she wondered, and kiss her old life goodbye? Would she and Esteban set up house together in the mission with Billy? The idea amused her. And what of his vows of chastity? She sensed there was more to him than met the eye: He came across as urbane, even suave. She thought about a friend in New York who had become a Franciscan monk. The chastity vow appalled her, but he’d confided that, as a practical matter, it was left up to the individual to determine the appropriate interpretation of the vow. And wasn’t she always reading in the newspaper about small-town Catholic priests in Ireland with children and mistresses? The local parishioners simply looked the other way. She wondered if beneath Esteban’s unflappable exterior there was a sensual Latin lover experienced in the ways of the world. The thought excited her . . . It was as though she had been reading too many Barbara Cartland novels.
Lisa woke at dawn to a great commotion in the village and cries of “Whaaa! Whaaa!” Startled and still half-asleep, she peeked out the window. The shamans were inhaling ebene, a hallucinogen, and were leading the warriors in chants and songs. The men had painted their faces with charcoal and were brandishing spears and bows overhead. Then they stood in a row forming a wayu itou, the “warrior line-up.” The tension in the air was palpable. They began to shoot arrows into a no owä, a straw figure, at the far end of the gathering. The men boasted of what they would do to their enemies. The women wept or shouted encouragement. “You tell him!” “That’s right!”
Lisa approached Manolo to ask the reason for the raid on a neighboring village.
“Why are you launching this wayu huu?” she asked in a whisper. “Is it ‘women theft’?”
He shook his head and explained that the recent death of Alfredo, his brother-in-law, had been attributed to witchcraft: a spell cast by a shaman from another village. Suspicion had been building for some time. The casting of the spell that killed Alfredo was an outrage that demanded revenge.
“Sonia and I will hold the fort,” Lisa smiled.
Eight weeks after her arrival, Lisa made her farewells and prepared to return home. A day’s journey by a small launch brought her downriver from the mission through the jungle to a small airstrip at the edge of a frontier town. From there she took a puddle-jumper over the jungle and mountains to Caracas. As the plane touched down in Caracas, she sighed, both sorry to leave and excited to go home. The tires squealed and gave off puffs of blue smoke. When she stepped outside the tiny door, a blast of hot air swept over her, and the concrete runway disappeared in the heat waves on the horizon.