Bartira’s favorite aspect of the increasingly rare feasts was the succession of fascinating vestments and adornments that the village women peeled off their foreign captives before gutting and roasting them. The male “long pigs”, dressed in the color of dried dirt to match their complexions, bawled and kicked, managing just shreds of incantations that might have started out as prayer. The women doled out their – no Tupi word for elegant – possessions, sternly helping the preppers as if they were inept servants packing the woven baskets with their, well, effects, stressing the safekeeping aspect as if they’d just be spending a season in a cedar chest.
Between capture and consumption, there was traditionally a period of pretty genial hospitality, its length determined by the supply of other foodstuffs, proximity of holy days, their quality as guests and various lesser factors. Not a resource you’d deplete lightly. While cordial, even affectionate as warranted, the hosts never, ever hinted that the foreigners were anything but pampered livestock. That would have been evil.
Very rarely, a guest who had made an extraordinary contribution such as introducing a new medicine or food source would be kept on indefinitely, even allowed to marry into the tribe. That had not happened during Bartira’s lifetime, in part because fewer outsiders were being culled. Chance encounters were now far more frequent and those who posed no threat and weren’t too irritating, rarely experienced more than a spookily innocuous contact with these shy, little forest people.
Batira’s family was hardly shy. They had a sense of entitlement beyond what was considered acceptable in the village of Pipoca, where no one is really off the food chain. She got to check out the curious trophies that her tribe has accrued from these outsiders and was fascinated by the beauty, dignity and trappings of city women. She appropriated, and was sometimes gifted, some of this gear, usually small, shiny things.
The captives related best to the children, likely factoring their relative inexperience in equating guests with supper. Bartira gravitated hard towards the tall, pale women with, god-like posture wavy blonde hair and eyes even lighter than her own hazel. The pororoca, a rare inland tidal wave, had flung her dugout canoe way over the riverbank, killing her Awa guide and knocking her out. Those who found her might well have shared their meal with her and brought her back to safety, but this missile deposited so far from the river was too much like divine providence to be dishonored by rejection.
The guide had to be cooked before he went bad and the whole elaborate process was conducted in the woman’s presence. Bartira was struck by her look of suppressed panic. Clearly, this person was someone very foreign and, whatever her fate, guests weren’t supposed to be treated so insensitively. Bartira wedged herself between captor and captive, clasping the woman’s manicured hand in both of hers. She soon coaxed a smile out of the stranger and her sponsorship role was cemented.
Earrings, finger rings, bangles, necklaces, nail polish and well-camouflaged daubs of face paint way outdazzled the thin rows of vertical black stripes adorning Bartira’s own cheeks and the geometric designs on her flanks. Clothing on the Amazon seemed quite odd but at least these outfits were brighter and more tailored than the drab sacks the karaiba men wore. She was particularly taken with the crisp permanent press, a whole other order of accomplishment.
Portuguese lessons from – she would later learn – noted Lisbon anthropologist and travel writer Isabel Vieira came early as did Bartira’s first Tupi/Portuguese dictionary. Gifts soon abounded. The guest understood that they amounted to bequeathals more than bribes. Isabel cautioned Bartira to find a safe place for her stash. She parted with her cell phone, charger, app-packed tablet and a fat wad of cash, all amply explained, with the devices almost totally wiped of her histories.
Isabel gradually convinced Bartira to “get the hell out of dodge”, explaining the arts and sciences, health care, architecture and the ready access to global cultures were all available just downriver. She and her allies shared a reverence for nature maybe wider and deeper than the Tupi perspective because it prohibited dining on one’s own species and half-heartedly discouraged eating fellow mammals. Powerful forces had set out to despoil the rainforest with the cooperation of corrupt indigenous leaders. Isabel had been fighting them and Bartira, once she was native to two worlds, may prove more effective. An early adolescent already predisposed to finding her society evil and antiquated, Bartira gorged on the revelations.
She was a quick read with a sweet smile and she would no doubt thrive in her new environment. Plus, she was young enough to work up a proper longevity, provided she got all the usual shots and a few that would have to be special order.
Isabel had to anticipate and cram a variety of social skills that are rudimentary for a three-year old, things like what’s kept in pockets and why. She had oopsied on having kids and Bartira’s delight over simple discoveries was thrilling in a vacuum, which this was, albeit a leaky one. She almost forgot to include shoe-tying. Rolling up sleeves and legs along with some astute cinching nearly tailored Isabel’s wardrobe to Bartira’s slighter figure.
Bartira, a favorite of the chieftain’s since she was a toddler, skirted affrontery with him twice by seeking reprieves for Isabel on grounds that she would be a more auspicious feast further down the calendar. The third time, she overstepped, earning herself the ostensible honor of a sous-chef role.
Isabel was warmly gracious about it all, particularly on her final day. Planning for Bartira’s transition had been increasingly more urgent and focused. Had circumstances been different, Isabel’s round of introductions would have networked her way beyond the scope of the state capital, Manaus, which seemed impossible enough at this point. Her final bequeathals were a handful of cooking tips and dibs on a nicely-marbled slab of thigh steak.
Isabel perished with aplomb, bringing her cycle with Bartira to completion by smiling at her until she smiled back. Bartira got all the credit for a splendid roast and a robust consensus that she was gifted, not quite the pun it is in English but enough to lodge a hot lump in her esophagus. Crying would have brought unwelcome scrutiny and betraying her lack of appetite would have dishonored Isabel, so she switched gears to voracious. She had done Isabel justice. When a second serving came her way, she had genuine momentum. The wailing came hours later at a safe distance.
Her dugout’s route to the city ultimately took her past the international airport where the steady hum of arrivals and departures, some directly overhead, revealed Manaus as fundamentally a way station for those headed elsewhere. She’d been warned against flinching at the tight landings as the boat traffic was thicker here and she was henceforth to be a sophisticate, surprised by nothing. Isabel had been her dear friend but she now performed a final inventory to ensure carrying no trace of her other than the concealed caches of material that her password would bring up on the cellphone and notebook.
As she approached the shore, a fishing boat drew closer but not near and the caboclo at the helm aimed three sharp finger whistles directly at her. She glanced in his direction and noticed that she’d wandered into a dense floating garbage patch of largely plastic debris. This was her first exposure to plastic and it looked like a swarm of tattooed jellyfish had molted their corporate logos, some familiar from frontier billboards. Revolted and confused, she broke clear and rowed hard until she found a mangrove where she could hide the boat.
Wary of the impenetrable, towering vertical villages, Bartira booked a room in the downtown YMCA, transient central, at the weekly rate but had a selection of jewelry, clothing, devices, make-up and reading material that she knew to keep well-stowed to dissuade the handsy. Anything non-essential stayed short-term in the gym locker. At the outset, she would have been hard-pressed to explain how she’d amassed this selection of high-end accessories before losing a thick Tupi accent and building up a fair Portuguese vocabulary.
It took a while for a truly viable backstory to gel. It was always going to involve missionary school but arriving alone and grubstaked for city life had to be explained. She had felt an urgency to playing dress-up and mastering Portuguese but what drove it? By her account, it turns out that particularly enlightened missionaries had a vision of steering the indigenous people away from genocide and servitude by combining strong urban ties and forest preserves where they would be safe to maintain their way of life if so inclined. Bartira, on a sort of scholarship, was the spear tip of establishing cultural bases, ethnic neighborhoods if you will, in key cities. Isabel’s studies had connected the dots for her narration of her people’s infant mortality rate, piss-poor tribal governance and diminishing resources.
Bartira soaked up Portuguese vocabulary like an endless wad of quilted paper towels. She had a fair grasp of the social dynamics that needed mastering but spent a good while harboring the delusion that city dwellers are matriarchal and color-blind. A few ugly lessons along, she understood that diversity and inclusion are aspirational at best and intrinsically patronizing.
As Isabel had advised, Bartira volunteered nothing about which tribe had raised her (All pre-European peoples here were some customized version of Tupi Guarani set on a path of solitary evolution after the European diseases hit.) A sharp dresser with a wide vulnerable face, Bartira cued goodwill despite her deeply indigenous features. She now splurged on a conditioning shampoo without the telltale benefits of washing her hair with urine – beats the mercury increasingly killing local rivers. As she dressed modestly, visible tattoos are limited to the columns of thin vertical lines on her cheeks and narrow rows of geometric designs peeking out at her wrists and collarbone. Her stone age past was evidently way, way behind her and details would be shared in due course.
Huge gaps in her knowledge of extremely basic matters were easily attributed to being raised in a sheltered environment. She feigned bashfulness so she could get by on her limited Portuguese. Easiest to follow were the conversations about the other tribes and how they had made an uneasy peace with the foreign encroachment. The heads of these generally rival tribes had negotiated accommodations – often self-sabotaging – with the forces of progress.
This traditionally entailed personal cuts for the key elders and the term “corruption” got bandied about but these were painstaking compromises skewing the definition of “corruption” in a more positive direction. Tributes to heads of rival tribes had long been a sign of good faith and did indeed engender reciprocity. Bartira held that, given the choices left, this practical approach was far healthier for all concerned that the intransigence, rather intransigencia (She’d learned this one early, correctly anticipating that she would get some mileage out of it), stunting some still – isolated societies
Some border area, better yet a disputed one, would be zoned for gold panning with a strictly observed quota and an obligation to teach tribesmen how it’s done. Meadows and other areas meeting a flexible definition of fallow, essentially anything not healthy jungle or someone’s personal garden or tapped out from gold panning, would sprout a small herd of hungry cattle and villagers would swoon over cheeseburgers with chocolate milk. Even with all dots firmly connected, Bartira could not abjure those treats.
The cannibalism was essentially unsustainable with multiple societies in easy range of each other. What might have passed for equilibrium a few generations ago would become a war of attrition or much worse if conducted this openly. Harvesting policy had already evolved to a point where all affiliates of cattle ranchers and miners were untouchable.
For stoners, inadequately affiliated political organizers and some of the flakier missionaries, the jungle could be unforgiving. Hadn’t quite run out of them yet but organized tourism, GPS, phone-locating apps and rapid shrinking of unmapped areas had all jacked up the risk. Even her own obtusely gourmand clan had concluded that luscious human brains were responsible for kuru, a cousin to bovine spongiform encephalitis. Also, there was a reward posted for information on Isabel’s disappearance and there would have to be retribution.
Thanks to Isabel’s gifts, Bartira was fundamentally spared the horrors of street life. She could carefully get her bearings before serious decisions about shelter and income sources. Her Tupi features could easily have cued lesser species to those karaiba she met but her height and grace blessed her with a beguiling exotic aura. She got considerable mileage out of a few Portuguese catchphrases; Peguei vocês (gotcha), Eu evito esse tópico (I stay off that topic) and Isso é necessitada de saber (That’s on a need to know basis). The beauty was that the latter two consistently elicied ‘peguei voces’.
She gravitated hard into political activism and community service because they were the most welcoming circles by far for her demographic. She was able to teach and assist folks from the jungle diaspora, with the construction of curricula doubling as a crash course for herself. She kept a low profile so she didn’t stand out as too potent a symbol. That was easy enough as basic orientation and mundane crises like backed up pipes (good crash course on plumbing) crammed her days.
She took a lover within a week of reaching town, one of those furry-faced boys on the social work circuit. Eduardo was a bit taller than her and had very kind eyes. And hair everywhere. He was as resourceful as she needed him to be and delighted in being helpful. Early in their first conversation, he had some really basic questions that she somehow hadn’t anticipate.
What was her age? The pubic hair yanked out during the Guarani female puberty ritual (“Rito da. Moça Nova”) had just started to grow back but the area was still sensitive when Isabel came into her life. She decided that she would be best off looking young for her age, so “20.”
She rattled off the beast’s whistle, its yowl and its purr before the prospect of TMI occurred to her, “My dad kept me out of the forest until I got good at this.”
“And what’s your zodiac sign?”
“I don’t really follow it. Let’s say cougar.”
“Well, what’s your birth date?”
“August 14th“, the day she paddled past the airport.
“Leo the lion. Close enough to cougar.”
Her hymen was already busted in the puberty ceremony that plucked her pubes, so Eduardo technically did not deflower her .
He soon made a soft pitch for his brand of Catholicism. She liked that his Jesus had such an extravagantly gracious death, like her Isabel, but was struck by Eduardo’s concession that a minority of the modern church adhered to anything Jesus would accept and the balance were brigands with bibles. She resisted loosing the thought bubble about her chief’s claims to divinity being genially tolerated by a bemused populace.
Eduardo lingered pointedly on the miracle of transubstantiation, the ‘Take this and eat it as this is my body, etc.’ Bartira averred that she couldn’t say how many generations her people were removed from chowing down on Portuguese but converting a god to flavorless wafers and sour wine seemed a pretty weak miracle. Eduardo noted that it’s customary to have some luscious slow roast underway in the oven while the obligatory god visit was underway. She leaned in and nipped his arm, pronouncing him “divine” and derailing the conversation.
Eduardo and friends also reinforced some observations that Isabel hadn’t had the time or inclination to preview with her. Class, race, kleptocracy, body shame et al. joined environmental degradation in her new culture’s minus column.
She carried a small knapsack of books and magazines everywhere. It first appeared that TV Mirror would have much to impart but she learned when she could translate adequately that it was a scattershot compendium of the seductive little snatches of vicarious living for a class that needed such placating to keep them from attacking those who extruded the bedazzlement. She viewed these as a refinement of the exaggerated folk tales and grandiose depictions of chiefs and deities that were common back home.
Thrumming through most all her waking hours was the ongoing conversation with her ‘woke’ associates, which hurtled from learning what a Jair Bolsonaro is to understanding what damage this president was causing the world in general and the Amazon in particular. Half their social life was preparing and carrying out demonstrations. Her friends warned her to give the protests a wide berth because anyone so startlingly indigenous would be targeted, ‘in fact nothing to panic over but the police are already keeping an eye on you.’ It was important to be involved and she made an invaluable contribution by designing posters and silk screening placards.
Lots of cartoonish atrocities to lampoon but she’s most drawn to restoring vividness to the innocuously branded “climate change”. The rain forest’s capacity to flip to a vastly different ecosystem when enough of its props are kicked away shared nothing with those nifty apps that forecast the weather for your zip code in 15-minute increments. She depicted deforestation of the Amazon as a gruesome lung disease with the tag, Try Living Without Them. The real keeper, for which she was able to finagle mass distribution, was a diptych – still popular – with an actual fish fossil from the Sahara Sea on the left and a robed Guarani woman on a camel representing the Amazon Desert.
All the activists could do was pump the brakes on this hurtling catastrophe. Generally, monitoring the infractions closely and raising hell as warranted. Something huge and awful creased the horizon. It would need finesse. Rather, there was nothing stronger in the activist arsenal. Bartira’s skillset was enlisted for this one. Optimism seemed feeble-minded but she could conceivably come up with the images to represent our era.
The first steering committee meeting was anything but routine. Bartira secured an invitation for Eduardo and they took a spot on the periphery. He was there to stanch her anxiety and explain anything unfamiliar that came up. His presence proved a liability when the first order of the day set her trembling. It had been divulged that the cattle and mining interests were banging heads with a certain chieftan who hadn’t gotten the memo on playing nice with his invaders and evidently still harbored an appetite for human flesh.
A commando team had been sent in to take him out last month. A few days later, one turned up in a drifting speedboat with a poisoned dart lodged in his throat. This tribe did not appear on maps but it occupied a Bermuda triangle for heedless explorers. Plans had been drafted for a larger team in body armor carrying out a strike at night, but logistics were a little tricky and the task force tasked with removing this human speed bump was readily convinced that no more decent Christians should be put at risk for a pack of sub humans who didn’t really exist in any official capacity
A drone couldn’t reasonably be spared without wetting a few beaks. There was that dam near completion upriver, the one the “chickenshits” (activists) were always whining about (Diverting a major tributary for “mixed use”, pastures and mining, was allegedly a tipping point in rain forest mutilation, a lobectomy). Flex the floodgates for a brief while, find some illiterate to take the fall for the terrible mishap (not a tragedy if no bodies surface) and you’re left with not even much of a debris field.
An alpha activist noted that this would warrant a strongly-worded press release with “genocide!” featured in the all-caps title. “That’s what we always do! Anything stronger to prevent a massacre?”
“We’re already devoting most all our resources to blocking the dam.”
“What else can we do?”
“Get dam construction paused while we assess reports of a stone-age tribe living in the affected area.”
“Those poison darts induce cardiac arrest in under 10 minutes. Not to put too sharp a point on it, but those savages ate Isabel Vieria.”
“So we register an objection just to show that we were on the ball in case the massacre is ever actually reported?”
“Pretty harsh way to put it.”
“Harsh as an inland tsunami?”
“Fine. Create your own movement. We won’t tarnish our brand.”
Bartira’s cue to bolt. Eduardo caught up with her a block away, “I’m so sorry”
“So, this is you ‘woke’ culture?”
“We are a malfunctioning, sorry broken, species and we’re hurtling too fast to pull over for repairs.”
“So, the dam opens and the village goes and Maunas is in danger of recession and the damage to the Amazon rainforest accelerates global climate change then how far do we have to go to be safe?”
“Uruguay is great but too close to sea level.”
“Any mountains you like?”
“Not really. Not yet.”
“We may need to stand our ground. Whatever that means. Mind if I just go home tonight. My head’s swimming.”
No way to stave off small and large calamities but to go home to Pipoca and give the chief an extensive, no doubt unwelcome, debriefing on how he’d need to smarten up and blend in with the dominant culture.
She stashed the canoe, her clothes and a single knapsack in the boughs of a tree near the shore but off the main path. When she slipped into the village, the few people she saw were unfamiliar and no one really registered her presence. Keeping the traditional tattoos uncovered and reverting to a crude bowl cut that Eduardo would hate provided anonymity. Can’t deny it was a stretch after her months so smartly turned out and carefully coiffed, but she was sticking to the shadows and didn’t plan to linger.
The chief welcomed her with a warm but ceremonial embrace. He knew where she had been and wanted to know all she had seen and learned. Ample segue for her delicate message. She stressed that it was not her place to tell him how to deal with the outside world but noted that this is way beyond their firearms advantage, even the strafing from crop dusters.
“A dam beyond the territory we normally care about could open for just a couple of hours and flush our people away.”
“Dams, like beavers build?”
“This took hundreds of slaves many months to make. Many, many hectares of forest are already lost there.”
“They could do that or just send a girl to say that it happened.”
“I told no one I was coming here.”
“They’ve decided that they can’t bargain with you and they fear our taste for human flesh.”
“They don’t fear you?”
“My Portuguese is so good that I can get away with not remembering my tribe and… I’ve become a vegan.”
“No meat, fish, eggs or milk”
“We are losing the forest to grazing land for the cattle that people in the towns feel they must have every day. For the sake of our land, I have evolved.”
His kind eyes narrowed as if malnourished, “So, tell me about this corruption of yours. “
“They don’t attack us if they know we can be bought. It’s just bargaining over small things until we find a compromise that ends the danger without totally losing our identity. Invite them to set up a chapel with the understanding that we will be gentle but skeptical hosts. Why not? ”
“You know better than I do?”
“Just telling you what I’ve seen and heard. Ubirajara has made a very fine arrangement for his people.”
“He was buried yesterday.”
“Good choice. There is another new karaiba disease that we can get from breathing on each other. I’m surprised you don’t know about this.”
“My friends go out into the streets to shout at the government for harming the forest. The stories of a disease caught by standing close together are suspected of being made up so we’ll stay home. We still get the vaccine, wear masks and keep a safe distance when marching.”
“Are you out there shouting?”
“I write the messages they carry. As a Tupi, I would be singled out for police beatings.”
“This doesn’t help your case for integrating with them.”
“There are ways to prevent this disease. If you grant them safe passage, volunteers who will inoculate our people against this virus and the other karaiba diseases plus instruct us on how to avoid this one until there is a cure.”
“Every community that has been cooperating with the karaiba is suffering. Grieving families, too heartbroken to do otherwise, embrace the dying, trying to restart their hearts. Then they get sick and the small planes can’t carry them safely and the ferries for workers and timbers are too crowded to transport the sick. The Karaiba with their Bolsonaro ridiculing both the disease and the Tupi have no interest in keeping us safe.”
“Some do. The medical care and the instructions must come immediately before we can start a dialogue with them and that must come before the dams are opened up.”
The chief shrugs and hesitates before volunteering, “The solstice summits of regional chieftains have rarely strayed from this topic. There would be the odd intervillage grievance calling for a consensus of the council but the whole purpose for the summits has been preparation for when the trap bringing end times gets sprung. We’re a few meetings behind being able to block this. As this wasn’t going to not come, best that it comes from you. Despite being a girl, you were the future of our tribe. When you left us, the inevitable was bound to follow.”
“I did the reconnaissance that the council could never have done. Isabelle’s kindness made me a bridge between cultures. I suppose she didn’t have to warn me that I was bound to end up as a go-between.”
“Do you regret returning/”
“No, but we must start planning without delay.”
“There is much to discuss. I’ve prepared some ayahuasca tea. We will need it for what’s ahead.”
This was sacred ayahuasca, not that tourist soul chow Eduardo loves. As a female child, she’d never warranted more than a sip. More than anything else, the potion was disorienting so she prayed (to whom these days?) that it would also bring the wisdom and generosity of spirit attributed to it. He gently proffered a brimming coconut shell that would have set the elders atwitter over squandering the magical concoction. Deep gulp, deep breath and she’s off.
Before he could break in on her cataract of emphatic warnings and meandering explanations, Bartira woke to succulent aromas, sense memories of childhood feasts. Her shoulders were pinned back just a bit past comfortable. It took a moment to understand that her limbs were lashed to a wooden frame and that part of the olfactory treat was an acai and peppers paste being brushed on her as a marinade. Ticklish.
Stoked on the sacred ayahuasca, she had the ecstatic revelation that she would be the main ingredient of a sumptuous repast that was bound to be her people’s final feast. This came to her despite being fully trussed with a mouthful of herbs because their spirits would embark on their journeys to heaven nourished by her. That was no longer in doubt. Part of her epiphany was the joyous understanding of how happily her beloved guest had expired and recognizing that Isabel’s recipe was again in use. Her family gazed warmly at her, close enough to touch if her hands were free.
She was lifted over the smaller of two huge stockpots and tilted at a 45-degree angle. A crescent incision the length of her abdomen loosed a tangle of viscera and she started to bleed out with a whooshing sound and the sensation of dropping from the apex of a carnival ride. She wasn’t too high to understand that she would miss out on the grand adventure of being Eduardo’s fake cougar and would never explore her first mountain with him, but they would be reunited soon and, for this 13-year-old, the exhilaration of disgorging her essence elicited a muffled gasp of, “Oh, cool!”
Patrick Sweeney lives in lower Manhattan where he has produced an international employee benefits law digest for a couple of decades. His fiction and CNF work have appeared in several publications including Animal Review, ASP Literary Journal, CC&D, Datura Literary Journal, Literary Yard and Piker Press.