Peruvian Amazon, 1936
The Indio has ducked behind a coil of milk vines about sixty paces ahead. Rogerio cannot see the little man, but he can shoot him through the foliage if he wants. The older Huitotos still do not realise that, to a bullet, a leaf is but a wisp of air.
Winston raises his rifle to take the shot.
“Put it down!” Rogerio says.
Winston cocks the weapon and lines up the sight with the leaves. “I’m tired, cara. I’m going to take him and we can go home and get some rest.” The Indio’s black-tufted crown pokes through a few feet to the left and he realigns the shot. “Get out your machete.”
Rogerio puts his hand on the hilt of the blade. With the rifle in one hand he is already exhausted and he does not want to carry more weight around all day. But that is the rule, whoever takes the shot does not have to do the cutting. Winston slides his black finger down the crest of the trigger and begins to pull it in.
“No, wait… Winston…” Rogerio begins.
And then, so quick that he cannot see it, a thin dart whizzes through the vines into Winston’s ankle. He drops the rifle.
“Aaaagh!” he squeals.
He rolls and screams in pain.
“Aaagh! Reconcha! The little animal shot me!”
Rogerio kneels down into the bush and steadies his partner, who continues to grimace. The dart has sailed straight through the overalls and into the mud-splattered skin at the ankle. He pulls it out and Winston screams some more. He swears viciously in four different languages. Rogerio holds the tip of the dart up close and smears the blood with his finger tip. The point is uniform in color.
“It’s okay,” Rogerio explains. “There’s no poison. Just a dart. You should be fine.”
Winston slowly stops squirming and peels up his trouser. A few drops of blood are trickling out. “You sure?”
“Yes, yes. It is not poison, you are fine, Winston.”
Winston rubs the blood off with his sleeve. “I bleed and you call me fine.”
But he is calmer now that he knows he hasn’t been poisoned. His severe face, with its scowl of a nose, manages to convey relief. Rogerio helps him to his feet and they both scan the coil of milk vines for any sign of the Indio. Rogerio can’t see his tuft of hair anywhere.
“See him?” Winston asks.
They walk over to where the Indio has been laying and find a set of footprints that run off deeper into the forest. The Indio has fled. Winston starts down along the Indio’s trail, but Rogerio stays where he is and rolls a cigarette. Winston looks back after a few paces.
“Hey, Rogerio, come on! Let’s get the little guy. He can’t be far off. He’s bleeding and he’s as easy to follow as a railroad track.”
Rogerio remains where he is and puffs away. He has learned that Winston says every trail is like a railroad track. Beneath the pin-up of a vermillion orchidea, Winston approaches and has himself a few drags. Rogerio drops the butt into a puddle and it sizzles out. The mosquitoes resume their biting as soon as the smoke clears, and Winston starts down the trail again.
“Aren’t you coming, cara?”
“Let’s let him go,” Rogerio suggests.
“Let him go?”
“Yes, let’s let him go. I do not want to catch him.”
Winston scowls. “We have to catch him.”
“Because if we don’t catch him then Arana will take our nuts off.”
“I don’t think he would do that.”
“Look, Rogerio. You are new to the Putumayo. You are not from this country. That brand on your arm is the Mark of Arana. He owns you.”
Rogerio rubs his arm. The flesh has not yet healed from the hot poker.
But he is impassive.
“I do not think he would hurt us.”
“You do not think he would…” Winston sighs. “Jesus, cara. I am from Barbados. You know how much farther away that is than your country? Think I want to be here?”
Rogerio isn’t sure.
“Don’t start asking questions, son. You’re only twenty. You signed up. Men who don’t do their job get killed… Had Neville stoned to death. Know what he did to his body?”
“Cut Neville up and fed ’em to the dogs. The dogs, cara. So quit playing around and let’s go find this little bugger. If we hurry we can be home for supper.”
Winston starts back down the trail, thinking he has settled the argument. Rogerio does not follow. Winston groans and returns and puts a hand on Rogerio’s shoulder. He looks into Rogerio’s box jawed, bull-leather face with paternal concern.
“Okay, fine, cara. You don’t have to cut ’em up. I’ll do it. It is tough at first but you get used to it. I will even shoot him. Just come along with me and I’ll show you how it’s done.”
Rogerio thinks that it is useless to try to argue and figures he can maybe do something when the time comes. Winston is growing suspicious, however, and makes him walk in front. They follow the Indio’s footprints for twenty minutes or so, weaving between a golden lattice of lianas and heliconia, and up some high-sloping hills so that they are breathing hard from the exertion. Winston decides to take a short cut and head the Indio off on the other side. They pass a rocky outcropping and then Rogerio sees a sight which makes him cough uncontrollably.
Hidden in a shroud of purple para-para blossoms. It is impossible to tell what race it is but it can be nothing other than Indio. The feet have been cut off, the skin flayed away, and the face has been mutilated. The eyes are gone. The vagina… a girl then… has been cleaved straight to the belly. The stench is unbearable and flocks of flies are buzzing up.
“See, cara,” Winston says. “Vasconcellos came through here. He is Arana’s best hunter. This one tried to get away. No one escapes Arana. We do the job.”
Rogerio can do nothing but stare. He cannot even make the sign of the cross.
Winston continues on past some more rocks and tries to find a fresh trial. He scans the ground while Rogerio tries to swallow down his nausea as the forest swells green around him. The body is a mass of flesh. Who can do such a thing? A girl, a little girl. What madman can do such a thing? He puts his hands on his knees and coughs more. There is something about the way the body is laying, as if the forest does not know what to do with it, and can only drop blossoms upon the shame. He did not come here for this.
“Damn it,” Winston says. “Can’t find anything, cara. Come on, get over here. You’re a tapper. Come and see if you can find it.”
The Beijan’s chatter actually makes Rogerio grateful for getting his mind off the mutilation. They turn the corner. He uses his machete to push aside twigs and vines and scans the bushes for broken branches.
“You should be happy, Rogerio. Took me two years to get hunting duty. You get peace and quiet and you can take your time. Back at town, man, all you do is cause misery. Lash ’n whip. Lash ’n whip. Wears a man down. Wore me down. We can be out here in the fresh air. Don’t have to kill nobody. You should be happy.”
“I came here to tap rubber,” Rogerio replies.
“That’s their job. Do yours.”
The sleepy drizzle of latex, the kerosene heat on his face from the head-lamp, the early-morning slog and cured-ham smell of the prancha balls on the spit: Rogerio misses these as he pokes among the fronds.
He starts to get the feeling that certain bushes are not exactly as they naturally are. Searching the ground, though, he finds no animal tracks. He plucks a fallen fern from the path and uncovers some toe prints. The prints go back high above the rocky outcropping. Before he can help himself he has looked in that direction and Winston picks up on his head movement.
There is no point in lying. Winston has seen him.
Winston comes and examines the print.
“Good,” he says. “Went back towards the camp. Why don’t we follow him until dusk? If we can’t find him we can get ourselves a cholito and a dog and come back tonight.”
The cholitos are children of Indios who have been raised by the Casa Arana to hunt their own parents. Rogerio met one the day prior. He tried to strike up a conversation because he was just a few years older than the boy. But as soon as he opened his mouth he knew there was something wrong with him. And when he tried to look into the boy’s eyes he saw a netherworldly play of shadows. To have a cholito catch the runaway would be worse than doing it himself.
“This way,” he advises Winston.
He makes a wide berth around the mutilated body of the girl. The Indio is bleeding but trying hard to disguise himself. They find him up in a tree a few hundred paces from where they lost him the first time. He has climbed way up high and shows no intention of coming down. He is brandishing a blowgun and sends a couple of darts bouncing harmlessly off the roots around their feet.
Winston pulls out his rifle and gets it ready to fire again.
“What are you doing?” Rogerio asks. “He is not going anywhere.”
“You want to go up there?”
Rogerio does not answer.
Winston takes a shot at the branch the Indio is sitting on, and half of it rushes down through the leaves. The Indio drops the blowgun and hugs the trunk and begins shouting down in a mix of Huitoto and Spanish.
“… trabajo… … … trabajo…”
“What does he say?” Rogerio asks.
“What the rest of them say. That they work too hard and need more food…” Then, to the Indio: “Come down or we’ll eat you!”
Winston fires another shot at the branch. The Indio remains hugging the tree, with a frightened look on his visage the color of river silt.
“Stop!” Rogerio says. “He cannot go anywhere. Let us wait until he comes down.”
But Winston is getting hungry and grumpy. He reloads the rifle and pulls the trigger. A splash of blood goes up from the Indio’s foot and, after clutching desperately at the trunk, he crashes through the branches with a heavy noise beside them. The Indio is on the ground and tears are streaming from his eyes but he does not cry out in pain. His wide, flat nostrils move in and out. He is holding his foot with an arm that has a compound fracture. Rogerio swallows.
Winston unsheathes his machete and raises it above the Indio’s leg.
“Stop!” Rogerio says. “He cannot run away.”
The Indio’s arm is broken and his foot is shot through.
Winston scowls. “If I don’t cut it off, he will die from the gangrene! Shut up and hold him!”
Rogerio does as he is told. The machete rises up and swings down upon the Indio’s ankle down with a crunch. The Indian does not make a sound. It takes two more chops to slice through the bone and the tendons. Dark, black blood splatters the leaves and their trousers. The foot comes off into the ferns, nails and all, and Winston wraps it up in fronds and puts it in his rucksack. He ties a tourniquet around the amputated leg with a leather cord, then palpates the arm with both hands and sets the broken bone back with a snap. The Indio has passed out from the pain and his head has slung back over a root.
“Come on,” Winston says. “Get him up!”
Rogerio bends and picks up the little man. He is not heavy and slumps obediently over on his shoulders. Rogerio feels sick. He feels like the severing of the foot should have been followed by thunderclaps. That the blood should have eaten through their skin like acid. But the foot has come off and is wrapped in leaves and they are walking back now for dinner.
Winston whistles his favorite tune as they wind over desiccated roots and leguminous trees, occasionally chatting about a new recipe of manioc and beans and some starfruit that he has found, and then breaks into a full-throated song. He belts the verses out in a high and sweet tenor:
If you do not have a ticket,
Jesus will buy it for you,
The train is leaving
And Jesus will buy it for you
Do not worry, my comrade
He will buy it for you
On the refrain, the Indio grunts and wakes up and squirms rapidly. The Indio bites Rogerio and then kicks so hard that Rogerio’s legs get tripped up and they both spill into a thicket. The Indio starts hopping away on his one leg and quickly falls over again. Winston pads over to him and gives him a hard kick in the belly, and the Indio doubles up and remains still.
“Come on, pick him up, Rogerio. You’ve got to stop thinking about all this family shit. You cannot do this job when you think about family. Son animales, no son gentes. They are animals, not people. The sooner you get it, the longer you’ll live.”
And Rogerio sees the Indio, curled up like a mutt, and he feels the burn of the bite on his neck, and he does see it with Winston’s eyes. An animal. He kicks the Indio again, feeling the hallow echo of the man’s chest. He draws up his heel and boots the Indio in his ribs, all of it silent, the Indio saying nothing, until, finally he emits a sound.
“No, no… … trabajo… hija…”
“What did he say?” he asks Winston.
“Don’t think about it, cara. Just pick him up and let’s go home.”
“I thought he said ‘daughter.’”
Winston is lighting himself a cigarette and mumbles something back.
“I thought he said ‘daughter,’” Rogerio repeats.
“Then he said daughter. So what?”
The Huitoto jabbers a long stream of his language and some Spanish.
“What did he say?” Rogerio asks.
“Forget about it, cara.”
“Tell me what he said, dammit!”
“He said he’s looking for his daughter.” Winston snubs out the cigarette. “You happy?”
Rogerio is not happy. He knows they have just seen his daughter. What is left of his blossom-shrouded kin.
“Go on, pick him up,” Winston orders.
Rogerio plucks out his machete instead.
“Good. You see it now. No point in waiting to learn it. Thought you were going to get sentimental. They always say shit like that.” Winston pats Rogerio on the back. “Go ahead, take the hands. He deserves it.”
“I’m sorry,” Rogerio says.
He runs his fingers along the blade, gauging the sharpness, and turns and swings it with all his force into Winston’s neck. Winston collapses into the leaves and onto his face. He gasps and tries to stand and Rogerio tackles him and smothers his face into the mud. His body gives a few nervous convulsions and then stops kicking.
The mosquitoes hum and hum.
Dew begins its soft fall upon the grass.
Rogerio grabs Winston’s rifle and gives it to the Indio. He rummages through his rucksack and also finds him water and some canned beans. The Indio points at the sack with his good hand.
“What?” Rogerio asks.
The Indio indicates his stub leg.
Rogerio reaches into the rucksack and removes the foot in its wrap of fronds. The Indio’s eyes are oil-black with water.
“I’m sorry,” Rogerio says, and hands it to him.
Dusk courses through the leaves and blues everything into shadow.
The hounds bray in the distance. Rogerio’s skin is raw from thorn-scrapes and he is ill and shivering. He climbs a steep bluff to get some perspective and, guiding himself by the slope of the hill, scrambles through the bush to the water’s edge. He can hear the clank of canteens and the cholitos calling in their pidgin. He can see the gleam of Vasconcellos’ white face pushing through the foliage with a clutch of hounds, but shoots his last cartridge at him and misses.
Beneath winks of lightning and thunder-rolls, the river swells passionately like a breast.
Tree trunks smash whole against the rocks.
And the bullets cut the leaves of the water hyacinth as the cholitos begin to fire.
Deji Bryce Olukotun