Yes, he was there all right, leading the last of his children to good palm food and what danger now noisemaker was down the track, weak-odored white beings in front, fragile, old, standing high, looking. We went right through them what danger?
The band of peccaries walked right past them, each person becoming aware of the low hunched shapes at different moments. Robert just managed to say, look! in whispered tones to those around him. He saw Carol turn round in surprise, almost in slow motion before, for an uncertain period of time, everyone seemed to freeze as the troop walked calmly between them; hoary old sows, a couple of young bucks nuzzling the little ones through as they passed by, so close that Robert saw the yellowed projecting canines of a gray-snouted old male passing within a couple of paces of where he was, a musky smell filling the air. About forty five animals in all, stiff-haired, mud-spattered coats, walking delicately, as on tiptoe, standing still every now and then and stamping hind feet to displace flies, they came wandering through the undergrowth, led by the heavy old sow out in front.
Then someone must have moved, or maybe the pigs caught their scent. A bark went up from the lead sow and, just as they had been so unafraid a moment before, now they all bolted off in a second with a thundering of hooves and a clashing of teeth. When out of sight the barking and tooth clacking increased so that it sounded like the herd might be regrouping for a charge.
Should we get up a tree? Jimmy was standing quite close behind Robert. The sound of his voice, practical, concerned only to make the correct response in the situation, startled Robert out of the trance-like state he had been in.
No, it’s alright, they’ve gone, they won’t come back now, we’re safe. Robert did not know how he knew this, but he was sure they were in no danger. His voice carried a calming assurance that seemed to convince even Carol, who looked up and just said, Wow.
Oh my God, how fantastic, they were just here, walking so calmly around, right in front of us! I can’t believe it, enthused Janet who came up, whispering urgently, Tom close behind.
Wendy, who had been with Graeme and Lynne when the pigs arrived, walked carefully back. That was incredible! I feel so humbled, one brushed right past my leg, she whispered.
Doug had tried to get his camera out, then thought better of it, he recounted. He was still holding it in front of him now, and brought it up to focus on the place where one animal had been. That’s barely four feet away, he exclaimed as the autofocus whirred.
Another deep thundering sounded distantly in front and confirmed Robert’s hunch; the herd had stampeded again and gone further away. They would not come back now.
Thrilled, stilled, in awe of the forest, its ferns hanging in sun pools from high boughs, rustling illumined greens and a little butterfly, deep umber and rust, blown skipping down the road on a personal breeze, the group followed Robert’s lead and sat down in line on the hard mud verge. He opened the cooler and passed round lunch packs.
You can still really smell them, said Carol taking out a sandwich.
The scent, it seemed to Robert, hung especially over wet places, like that damp patch there on the road, seemingly the source of a particularly acrid overtone to the general pigsmell. There was something in the fermenting mud of puddle water that harmonised and combined damp earth and rainwet forest, carved up by sharp hooves, where the scent would stay for days.
But Robert, eating, was troubled by a thought, as if he imagined he half saw something he was looking for, or was striving to remember a morning dream that had escaped out of the window. What was it he had not seen?
Tadahuda, Tadahuda, the word bumped around in his head, where had he heard it? What did it mean?
It was almost late afternoon. The rays of the sun were at less than forty-five degrees, he was turning orange and visible through bare trunks, Cuco singing loudly from the trees, when the pick-up announced its returning presence.
Out on the grassland once more they stopped for a spectacular male Swallow-tailed Hummingbird close to the road and, by the time they got back to Louise’s trap and the junction, the sun was low above the horizon, blazing red, impaled on the top spike of a lone dead tree.
They got out one last time, cameras clicked pensively and Robert, with the aid of his recorder, enticed Collared Crescentchest, one of the grassland specialities, out of his low haunts in the grass clumps for long enough for all the group to see well. Shadows of far off bushes crept up and cooled the air.
Deep orange cloud hung in the south and an early moon, a thin silvery smile, revealed herself up above.
People, tired now after a full day in the field and thinking of hot showers and food, stretched and got back in for the last drive back to camp.
The pick-up would not start. Alex tried the ignition again and again but the engine would not fire, the contact just went click. Nothing.
Amid groans, Robert got out from the back and noticed that Alex the driver had opened his door but made no move to get down from the vehicle. Graeme was the first round to the front, his fingers quickly finding the latch that opened the bonnet. Robert came level with the driver’s door and asked Alex what was the matter.
One of the locally born guards working at Los Fierros as the result of a recent hiring spree on the part of the park administration, the young, broad-faced Alex pointed to his right foot.
I’m sorry, Don Roberr, I can put no weight on the foot, I stepped on spine of chonta palm last night.
Robert saw the foot was inflamed and heavily bandaged under the white football sock and he recalled that he had not seen Alex get out of the car all day. Robert went to the front as Alex, nobly hobbling up from behind, came up to the open engine housing bearing a flashlight.
Graeme, on the other side, brought his head up and indicated rapidly inside with a slim hand. In his English accent he said, it’s no good. Alternator belt’s gone.
Well, can’t we bump start it? there’s plenty of us.
That’s just it. The battery’s flat, and not charging off the alternator. There’s no current getting to the sparks, see, Graeme pointed briefly down to the top of the engine, no good pushing her. Have to tow her or fit a new belt.
Well at least we got through to here, Robert thought, imagining the scene if they had still been up in the forest now. Here, if they had no light, at least it was open and unthreatening country, they were on a good road, with plenty of water and even some sandwiches left. It was about a two and a half hour quick hike back to camp.
Meanwhile, inside the cabin, Lynne, with her square glasses and unlikely head shape, was explaining proudly to the others that Graeme’s job in Lockheed was something terribly hush-hush, her American accent using English phrases, and that he’s absolutely a wizard with all things mechanical.
Robert thought quickly, then explained to the group his intention to walk to camp and come back with the tractor. It would take him about four hours.
He’d be back by nine thirty, ten. It didn’t sound so bad. They would have the moon for another hour or so. Graeme at least, tinkering around under the bonnet, seemed happy enough with their situation. Robert was surprised to hear him speaking fluent Spanish to Alex, instructing him to bring something from the cabin. Alex limped back and started digging around under the driver’s seat.
I’d offer to come with you but, I don’t know, it must be the heat, I’m really whacked, said Carol from the front seat.
That’s alright, I’ll be fine. Look after yourselves while I’m gone, he said amid the waves. Seeing the group settle down to sit out an unplanned but manageable problem with staunch good humour, he took out his torch and started down the road at a good pace towards the distant forest treeline.
The evening was warm and beautiful, the late orange sunset had faded into deep cerulean and the young moon, near the heads of the Twins, began to show her old face. Sirius setting, Mars rising close by Antares behind. The clear evening sky was rimed only by the lowlit cloudbank to the south, almost a dark continuation of the luminous, ghostlike plateau to the north.
He made good time; nightjars called and, white tailsopts flashing, got up ahead of him on the road. He heard the pygmy owls starting up again in the closing forest line to his right and as he approached the bridge a large owl swooped across. The forest in front was a wall of hushed stridulant insect sound.
He crossed the bridge and pitched into a different atmosphere, a pulsating darkness, lit only by the last minutes of moonlight in the highest branches. The road sloped quite steeply up in front and round to the right. Leaning into the slope he went through a patch of warmer, damper air and Robert’s eyes went down. He heard the flutter of large wings just above and stopped, poised, moving his eyes only to look up.
There was, quite simply, the figure of a man standing in front of him on the road. A shape that had not been there a moment earlier.
A man? yes, but somehow undefined, with indefinite edges to his body, as if reflected in water, only he was at the same time brighter and more real, more clear than the surroundings. An Indian, naked, braid-haired, his shoulders and upper arms red, two black armbands on each biceps. Tucked in one band a small roll with a burnt end. His lower half, showing gray in the wan light of Robert’s torch, had been rubbed with ashes.
Robert just stood there as if suspended in time. He could still think clearly and continued to see and hear everything while the man, features somehow indistinct, about, how far away, difficult to tell, slightly above him on the road, stared at him intently, levelly, with a very slight smile.
Robert found he could not move.
The Indian stepped back slightly and moved his arm that he should follow, that they should go together, forward, off to the left. Robert discerned the route of a subtle path, no more than a trail of trodden leaves through yielding bushes weaving through dark trunks away from the road. The way through the undergrowth seemed to emanate a radiance that lit the close vegetation. The native in front of him shone with the same light. He motioned again.
Although Robert could not feel his body, he felt himself starting to move forward, not like walking, it was just his awareness moving forward, and a sudden calm, a lack of fear came over him, together with a sharp focusing of the mind, so that he had time to take in every detail in the veins and pattern of passing leaves. He felt warm and safe.
The Indian smiled, went on ahead of him a short distance till the scattered shimmering bushes gave way to a small clearing amongst giant buttress roots. The ground was hard-trodden earth. Towards one side a thread of smoke came from embers in a small depression beside a flat stone. Behind the hearth, a short, thick-woven hammock was saddled between two close trees, shadows jutting up suddenly into blackness. On the ground behind stood wide banana leaves giving a curving roof and back wall to the hammock. Robert sensed there was a stream, or water, nearby.
The Indian crouched by the fire and Robert’s vision moved down too. The Indian blew into the small red heart once, evenly, gently. He moved away and a single flame lit in the coals.
Then the Indian took the small roll from his armband, lit the end, and inhaled.
He looked closely at Robert across the fire as the whole place began to dance with an ethereal orange flickering light and he said two words, or perhaps just one. He said, in a flat, slightly nasal tone, Kurupi Vira.
Then, throwing back his head, he blew out the smoke in a thin plume which climbed and spread above them in the still air.
Robert saw the giant distant structures above and felt the pressing presence of living beings around. His vision moved, blown upwards, through the great, uniquely rough, reaching figures of the trees and he saw, after breaking through shining white-green leaves, from above, the forest, warm and peaceful, to every horizon. In the far distance the luminous cliffs of the plateau, below and behind him a silver-black water, a moving rippled swathe, white boles reflecting symmetrically on its far side. The light was moonlight but brighter, different. The time was not now.
He heard rhythmic music and saw the pulsing red of a great fire far below in a clearing, saw luminous animal shapes like neon figures, dancing, shouting and whooping, in time to the music. The whole world blazed with a light from within. And far away, somewhere beyond the horizon, shone a golden light divine which was their destination, to which they were all to go.
Robert suddenly became aware of a certainty within him. He knew this had been his home, that this was home, he belonged here somehow, in another time, another life.
An overwhelming sense of everything falling into place burst from his middle and a tide of emotion swept him as, with a flash of light, he found he was back down on the road and able to move again. The forest was again dark, but he still discerned the pleasant warm feeling around him that was almost touch, almost smell, almost taste.
Finding his balance with a couple of hesitant steps, a beam of light, a double beam, Robert now saw, was approaching him. He heard the engine sound slow for the bridge, headlights dipped and flashed up again.
Robert! Thank God you’re here. He’s brilliant! He mended the fanbelt thingy, and we pushed and it all just worked! enthused Janet from a nearside window.
The group was exhausted but triumphant thanks to the skills of Graeme, it seemed, who, armed with a well-stocked tool box and a spare fanbelt Alex had found behind the driver’s seat, had managed to tack things together and get the engine working again.
Jump on, yelled Alex cheerily from behind the wheel, we can’t stop!
Alex explained the details, shouted to Robert as he rode on the running board, holding on to the roof rack. The belt had not been the right size but they’d adapted it by cutting it down and had stitched it with wire, bump-started the car as a group effort and, hey presto, here they all were. By then it was only a few hundred yards more to the lodge.
The evening meal began as a joyful event. Showered and changed, the group enjoyed a plentiful meal of fried fish, except for Carol who had an omelette, fresh home-made bread, bean salad and rice with fruit for dessert, all sharing space with tales recalling the day’s events, from the potoo, Jaguarundi and iguana trap in the morning to the peccaries, the breakdown and its miraculous torchlight repair under the stars. They all agreed; it had been quite a remarkable day.
Robert let the others talk, answering mainly in smiles and nods to successive stories. Louise came and joined them and they told her how she had just missed a group of peccaries when she went off in the pick-up and told the best moments of the encounter all over again. Then Tom approached her with a question.
Yes, excuse me, well, we were wondering. If the forest’s encroaching on the grasslands because it hasn’t been burnt for, what, ten years is it now? He looked up at Robert who nodded, then, what was it that maintained it before the ranchers got there? Was it natural fires?
Well, partly yes, but the climate is changing, it would have been much wetter in the past. Louise put down her plate. That would have stopped the forest, and the grassland on top, on the meseta, seems pretty much unchanged, but the main reason…
The main reason, Robert continued for her, opening his hands on the table, is, people.
Having fielded the question, Robert now felt slightly dizzy and moved in his chair as Louise served herself from the side table.
To locate a new tribe in the forest the Jesuits used forest scouts, otherwise known as friendly Indians, who were told to look out for signs of burning-off, Robert started, slightly incongruously. Where they found cleared fields there were usually people around.
Everyone’s attention focused on Robert, perched at the end of the table, as they awaited his thoughts. But that’s is the least of it. We should consider as well, the results of community ecologists like Robin Foster, Robert looked to Louise for her nod, from satellite images, we see in this region large areas of vine forest, a tangled successional growth phase which seems to gradually replace long-abandoned fields. Many of the so-called vine forest patches, which go right up to the Amazon, are quite regular in shape. Then, a little further on, in the Beni, you have evidence of huge settlements and advanced cultures that simply disappeared when the Spanish arrived.
Robert could feel this becoming something of a tirade, but it was too late to stop now. He continued, struggling to pull the strands of his argument together.
There are estimates of a precolumbian population of up to one and a half million inhabitants from here to the Atlantic coast around the year fifteen hundred. Forest cover in South America two hundred years after Columbus was far more extensive than when he arrived. And Indian populations had by then, of course, been quite literally decimated.
Robert took a deep breath to get himself back to the main point he had started trying to make. Apart from these people undertaking large-scale agricultural projects, the implication is that the whole landscape was managed by the indigenous populace. The pampas grassland would have been burned seasonally to maintain it as a hunting ground; the word Chaco, for the large dry-scrub area just south of here, is a Quechua word meaning “to hunt in a circle,” which probably means that fire was used as a means of hunting in itself.
It’s impossible to reconstruct, Robert went on after taking a sip of water, or even really imagine what life was like before the Spanish arrived because they destroyed it all so completely either by main force or by way of the pandemic diseases that swept through populations well ahead of the main waves of soldiers and slavers and colonists. But we do know that there were certainly many different tribal groups living here. Some lived in the forest and some, like the Guarani, used ecological agricultural techniques on a scale and of kinds completely unknown to us today. Someone moved a fork on their plate.
The really sad thing, Robert concluded, is that what we generally think of as the Amazonian Indian way of life, small communities scratching out a subsistence as simple forest nomads, is not the original picture at all. It’s a lifestyle that was completely foreign to most of them. Bands of people, not always even of the same tribe, who survived the onslaught one way or another, got together and went off into the forest as the only way to escape and remain alive in the face of such impending terror.
As Tom brought his hand forward and was about to ask something Robert cut him short with one last thought, his voice by now high and trembling. It’s like, it’s like an anthropologist who goes to Dresden or Hiroshima just after the Second World War and concludes that the residents have always lived in the basements of fallen-down, broken buildings, eating rats and dogs to stay alive.
Yes, I see, quite. Tom’s voice emanated calm. So you mean the pampas grassland was originally maintained as a hunting area by the indigenous people here?
Robert excused himself soon after. Breathing in the cool night air he walked past his tent down the airstrip a way. The moon had long ago set leaving the big rectangular cavity in the forest only barely discernible in the starlight. Robert sensed he felt the open space with the skin of his face rather than seeing it with his eyes. He walked slowly, feeling the path as a line of bare ground with his feet until his eyes grew accustomed to the dark. He stopped and looked up. The stars shone bright in the blackness. Kalahari Bushmen said that, on a quiet night, it was possible to hear the hissing sound stars made. There was another group that disappeared thanks to the Whiteman's invasion. Could stars really make a noise?
What had happened out there in the forest this evening? Did he faint, had it all been some kind of dream? Robert traced the feeling back to the peccaries, there was something weird going on even then, he felt. With the vision of the Indian he’d had the same feeling again, only much more intensely.
It was a brightening of everything, of the senses, and a feeling of deep understanding, but on such a different level than normal he was not sure he could trust it. Did he really go up in the air when he thought he did, or was it only his imagination?
Trying to recall if he had seen the truck’s headlights from above, he suddenly remembered the music again, the dancing figures in the clearing, the singing and the chanting. Or had it only been ringing in his ears and firelight in the night? If so, firelight from where?
The dark silhouettes of the trees around him were so black they pulsed in time to his heartbeat.
Once or twice Robert, trying to avoid thinking about his unexpected outburst just now at the table, reconciled himself with the idea that it must have all been some kind of hallucination; he had breathed in the sugary night nectar of some forest Datura, or had somehow touched some unknown wood-fungal spores. He then realised that what disturbed him most was the sensation that it had all been very real, too real, and nothing like a hallucination. But it had also been completely beyond his control.
The cool air quietened his mood somewhat and, feeling he needed to lie down, went back to his tent but, stretched out on his sleeping bag, he found he could not sleep. He kept getting caught up again and again by some kind of worried nervous energy that would not let him rest.
He dozed off eventually but some part of him stayed awake. Something happened then that he had never before experienced. With a kind of amazement, and without being able to do anything to stop it, he felt his whole body going stiff, first his feet, his legs, then upwards until he was completely unable to move. Now he was frightened.
In a moment of unexplainable movement Robert got onto his knees beside his sleeping bag, no, beside his prone body which was still on the bag, his vision somehow seeing both forms, but being more a part of the one that bent his head to the floor and banged his fists on the ground. He didn’t care if anyone heard; he beat his hands on the nylon floor of the tent, screaming and feeling the tears run down his face.
Such anger, such despair, what do I hate so much? I really am beside myself with rage, Robert realised then, in a moment of revelation and almost with an inward smile: it was so different from the normal sense of the words, but they made perfect sense. In fact, they only made sense now that he had seen and felt himself in such a position.
With this thought, half humour, half rationalization, he found himself once more inside his body which then gradually began to unlock from its cramp. Robert moved his legs and jaw again and knew he was lying in his sleeping bag and had not physically moved. Just now, he recalled with a shock, he had felt himself crouching, his head wrapped in his arms, beyond crying, feeling the cold ground on his knees and forehead, smelling the earth through the floor of the tent.
Once again he had the same feeling; what had just happened to him was as real and tangible as any experience he could remember - the smell of the damp ground through the plastic of the tent was with him still. And the strange thing was that he felt outwardly quite normal, he wasn’t angry at anything he could readily identify. Why had he let himself get so worked up about Indians and the Spanish invasion at the dinner table?
Relaxing finally, Robert slipped into sleep and Guajojó sang her nightly lament from the treetops.